Japan

Winter holiday in Japan

Now that I’m back in Mongolia, I’m still in disbelief that I’ve set foot in Japan. Kyoto nonetheless. It doesn’t feel as if the trip happened. I undertook a solo trip to Japan for 9 days. Some people weren’t surprised and others said: “Alone?!?!” “Aren’t you scared?!!?!”

No.

Before my departure, I experienced a hiccup with my flights. The glee I woke up with on Christmas morning evaporated when I checked my emails and saw one from Expedia stating one of my flights had been canceled. I had to restrain myself as I spoke with someone from Expedia (unsuccessful) and a copious amount of phone calls to Mongolian Airlines (unsuccessful; numbers weren’t working). I finally had to call our Peace Corps Director who patched me over to our administrative assistant. She knew a number and had my itinerary changed, confirmed, and sent to me. A great wave of relief. I was finally flying to Japan.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I knew since middle school I wanted to go to Japan. Flash forward 13 years later. It’s 7 AM and I find myself lounging on the second floor in a near-empty Chinggis Khan Airport with my backpack. I flew UB – Seoul – Osaka. I felt buoyant as the plane was flying over the ocean and islands. From Osaka, I had to take a 90-minute train ride from Kansai Airport to Kyoto Station and then the subway. My airbnb was in a neighborhood off of the Kitauji stop.

Kita Ku

Kyoto is unbelievable. Houses are a combination of modern and traditional. They are narrow at the front and sit so close to each other to almost be touching. The streets are clean and taper down in residential areas.

My airbnb was in Kita Ku. It was a beautiful district of Kyoto! It’s not a crowded area and I gained a great perception of a Japanese locality and every-day local life. My airbnb was tiny but a comfortable apartment. My bed was incredibly soft. Not like my bed in Mongolia where I sleep on top of a piece of concrete and a sleeping bag. There was also a kitchen, bathroom, a washing machine, and a balcony.  I was also provided with a pocket wifi. It was a lifesaver. 

At the first restaurant I went to for lunch called Kyoto Kairikiya, I was the only obvious foreigner sitting at a long counter; looking at a ramen menu as the sounds of slurps, clicking chopsticks, and the host calling out “Arigatou gozaimasu,” every time someone left, filled my ears.

In order to visit main sites, I rode the subway back and forth from Kyoto Station.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Arashiyama

From Kyoto Station, I rode bus 28 to Arashiyama where the Bamboo Grove, a monkey park, Jojakko-Ji and more shrines are. If you walk the main street further up, you’ll arrive at the residential areas with innumerous hidden gems separated from the main tourist area. I had the most fun strolling these streets. Lots of small shrines, cafes, and cute houses.

IMG_7207

Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove was a lot smaller than I thought. It’s just a short path that takes you in a circle around the bamboo grove. Afterwards, I found Jojakko-Ji shrine where the trees and the moss were a heavenly shade of bright green. Autumn colors were also still prevalent despite it being January. I’ve been deprived of so much color in my Mongolian town that it was illuminating. Climbing the stone steps took me to the monk’s quarters and the Tahoto Pagoda where there’s a panorama view of all of Arashiyama.  I did try to visit the monkey park but was an hour to late. Instead, I walked a road with the mountains on my right and the river stretching alongside my left.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fishimi Inari-taisha and Gion

Unintentionally, I ended up visiting two of the most famous sites from one of my favorite movies and books, “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Upon arrival at Fishimi Inari-taisha, the sky was gray and cloudy with the occasional sprinkle but this type of weather only enhanced the bright red tori path weaving up Mount Inari.

There are a total of 10,000 tori gates. The path is crowded with people at the beginning but thins out the farther up the mountain you walk. There are more trails that divert from the main one leading to smaller shrines and fox statues draped in red. The foxes are the messangers for the God Inari.

After sampling some of the street food – rice cakes followed by a nice and salty fish on a stick – I took the train to Gion, the once-famed Geisha district. It’s extraordinary rare to spot a geisha but you will see plenty of young men and women wearing rented kimonos. A historic tradition that continues today due to young Japanese girls continuing to take interest in all that entails in being a geisha: art, dancing, the clothing and makeup, hosting, maintaining poise, tea pouring, and music. However, some will quit because of separation from family and having to abstain from much of modern life and technology.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I walked up and down narrow roads passing by what were once geisha establishments. Untouched and preserved from the wear of time. As the pavement sloped upwards, I came across a black pagoda where girls holding their selfie sticks and wearing kimonos took selfies together. There were many tourist shops and eateries but they were all replicas of each other, selling the same products and food.

It got dark in Japan by 5:30. As the bus back to Kita-Ku crossed the bridge away from Gion district you will come across the shopping district. A brightly lit H&M sign illuminating red next to a Zara was a sight for sore eyes.

Shrines, shrines, shrines

Kyoto has thousands of temples and shrines with over a million throughout the rest of Japan. I visited Rokuon-Ji and Kiyomizu-dera Temple.  Rojuon-ji, notably known as the Golden Pavillion, sits in the middle of a small lake. The temple is gilded in gold-leaf with a phoenix statue perched on top. The gold and surrounding greenery reflected into the lake creating a mirage of blue, black, yellow, and green. Past the temple is a trail taking you to more sacred spots.

IMG_7629

At Kiyomizu-dera the veranda is under renovation but you can still take some good shots alongside the trails without construction interfering.

At these temples and shrines people will wait in long lines to ladle up sacred water to wash their hands in or to swill in their mouths. There are also many tokens to buy for yourself, family, or friends. Tokens symbolizing love, happiness, good luck, having an easy childbirth, plus more.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An unexpected hike

It took a long time but I finally found the bus to Daigoji Temple. I had to find Keihan Hotel where the Yamashina Express stops. I was the only one on this bus.

There are three parts to the temple grounds. First, there’s Sanboin Garden. You can walk around inside an old home. Simplistic and airy with open windows with views of the gardens and ponds.

Next is the main temple complex area where Daigoji Temple sits perched on the edge of a pond with an orange bridge arching over the water. Tranquil, calm, pleasant, soothing, and harmonious. There were scarcely any other people to disrupt my view.

IMG_7631OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When I walked past the temple, I unexpectedly found myself climbing a steep rocky trail snaking up the mountain. No reasons whatsoever and grateful I was wearing the right shoes, I found myself half way up a forested mountain. My body gets affected by the poor air quality in Mongolia but I felt so sprightly as I trekked upwards. Finally there’s a museum but when I came back down the mountain I was too tired to see it.

Himeji Castle

It decided to rain when I boarded the train to Himeji and it didn’t stop. Of course I didn’t have an umbrella and had to buy one at Himeji’s train station. The owner of my airbnb will appreciate a second umbrella after I leave.

It takes 90 minutes by train from Kyoto to Himeji.

The main attraction at Himeji is Himeji Castle, one of Japan’s three premier castles and the largest. Five-floors with a white façade, the castle survived the bombings of World War II,  while the rest of Himeji was flattened, and an earthquake in 1995.

IMG_7600

I was able to explore inside the castle keep, the west bailey, and the castle grounds.

Himeji also has a large thrift-shop mall.

As a day trip, I highly recommend visiting Himeji.

Walking Kyoto

The food I ate in Japan ranged from ramen, rice cakes, sushi, sashimi (cheap if bought from a supermarket), Italian food at Saizeriya Kyoto Shichiku, matcha ice cream, and even crepes from Creperie Garcon near Gion.

Shirakawa-minami Dori is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets. Most of the buildings have been preserved with bridges draping over the canal. What I really appreciate about Kyoto are its quiet spots amidst the hustle and bustle of city life, like little pockets you can hide inside for a moment before stepping back in to the real world.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the middle of Kyoto Imperial Park is the Imperial Palace. Once the residence of Japan’s imperial family before the capital was moved to Tokyo. Admittance is free but unfortunately two of the buildings were closed due to renovations.

Osaka and Nara

Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, is an hours train ride from Kyoto.

First, I have to mention how often I got lost in train stations. Train stations are huge, clean, and have countless restaurants and cafes, massive shopping malls (Kyoto Station’s shopping mall is calling The Cube), and different sections for what kind of train you need – local, subway, or national. I spent a large chunk of time wandering around aimlessly. It was easy to get distracted. Now back to Osaka…

I took a train to Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, a shopping area in the Minami (Namba) neighborhood. It’s a massive shopping spot with a combination of small stores and prominent, international stores intermingled together.  I didn’t have anything in mind to buy but stopped occasionally when a store looked intriguing. It’s easy to spend a fortune in Japan.

IMG_7616

Osaka has one of the largest aquariums in the world, Osaka castle, and a Universal Studios but I left the bustling crowd of shoppers behind for the roads selling street food and the solitary, quiet streets. So many nice houses and apartments!

I spent my last day in Japan hanging with the deer in Nara. Nara is famous for its deer. At Nara Park, they approach people hoping to be fed. They are curious, cute, and docile animals. Yet I passed by people screaming as they were feeding the deer. You would think they were feeding lions. Nara Park is home not only to the deer but also temples and shrines, most notably Todaji Temple where there’s a giant Buddha. Just like the fox statues at Fishimi Inari-taisha, the deer are considered in Shinto to be messengers for the gods. Consequently, Nara’s 1,200 deer have become a national treasure.

Back to Mongolia

A cab to take me to Kyoto Station arrived at 5 AM.

I woke up at 5:10.

I was out the door in two minutes.

I had to make the 5:45 train to Kansai Airport and was on it two-minutes before departure. 5,000 yen was enough to pay for the cab and my train tickets. I spent the 90 minute train ride rearranging my bag and brushing my teeth, washing my face, and applying makeup  in a small alcove covered by a curtain.

Even in winter, Japan is beautiful. Japan is an efficient and organized country with polite people at every corner. People were always saying thank you and bowing. Language was never a problem. Everyone I met spoke English or understood English. I would go back to Japan in a heartbeat.

A video I made of my trip:

 

Advertisements

Mongolia in December

Smiles are the best. With Christmas and New Years swiftly approaching, I miss my home. But seeing students smile at school – (and not immediately bursting into giggles which usually happens after just saying hi) – is a small thing I greatly appreciate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A 9th grade classroom.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A 12th grade student smiles for the camera.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
6th graders were taught how to talk about what makes them happy.

I will continue my service in Mongolia during my favorite holidays. While family and friends in Chicago are visiting Christkindlmarkt, decorating Christmas trees, and walking along streets illuminated by Christmas lights…I’m on the prowl for bags of frozen strawberries, wearing my mask every evening to ward off air pollution, and googling how to make cinnamon rolls from scratch.

IMG_6723
The brick building is my home.

I have done my best to make my home festive. My Christmas stocking is hanging on the door; I have snowflakes and a reindeer dangling from the ceiling; the small doors in my advent calendar are faithfully opened up every morning; lights have been hung over my window; my tiny Swedish tomte sits upon my dresser. It’s the best I can do. A large number of restaurants and stores have also been decorated for Christmas and New Years. When I was in UB earlier for a Peace Corps PAC meeting, I saw the giant Christmas tree in the Shangri La Mall.

IMG_6726

What has December been like?

As my bus pulled into my town’s bus station at 2 in the morning, someone had taken one of my bags from above the seats. I was very frustrated as I walked home. Later, I told a friend about my missing bag and she made a post on Facebook about it. That post was shared and read by so many people! Three-hours later, my bag was returned with everything in tact. Then for the next week, I had people asking me at school or sending me text messages: “I’m sorry about your bag.” “Did you get your bag?” and my favorite, “I can’t sleep until your bag is back with you!”

Blistering cold weather but only a little bit of snow.

I finished reading The Mistress of the Art of Death series and have begun reading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” I couldn’t finish “Anna Karenina” so lets see how long I can last with the “masterpiece of world literature.”

I traveled to UB for a Peace Corps PAC meeting. A few volunteers were asked to discuss about the TEFL (Teach English as a foreign language) program and offered suggestions on how to improve the future of the program. Buses are extremely hot. UB’s temperatures can plummet down to -20 Fahrenheit so you’ve got to dress warmly. However, after just two hours on a bus, I’ve stripped down to my t-shirt.

My friend returned from study abroad in Europe. She had a wistful and dreamy gaze as she recalled her stories about her stay in Luxembourg and her trips to Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. She has taken a piece of the cake and now she wants the whole cake. What’s her next plan? To go to Australia!

Me and another PCV had lunch with someone who served with Peace Corps in Paraguay during the ’90s. It’s fascinating to hear how different Peace Corps was prior to laptops, kindles, and hard drives that we use now.

My door had been receiving a lot of attention from the children in my building. Knocking once a day turned into knocking five-times a day. They always want help with English homework or want to play. I actually began to flinch every time I heard the pounding of tiny fists on my door accompanied by the yells of “Anna teacher! Anna teacher!”  Unfortunately, it became a problem and they were told by their grandmother and my counterpart to stop.

I am still lesson planning and team teaching when opportunity presents itself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
6th, 7th, and 8th graders waiting outside to enter the building for afternoon classes.

I attended a dance performance at the theater with my counterpart’s family. Her daughter was dancing. The theater was packed with people. Children were sitting on top of each other. People were standing in the aisles against the walls. I’m amazed I was saved a seat. The ride home was the best part. 10 people were smushed into a small car. I sat on an 80-year-old woman’s lap with a small child on my lap as my head was crushed against the roof thinking, “This would be an awful time to hit potholes.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
My counterpart’s daughter dancing a solo.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Those kids sitting in the corner upon the stage is how close they can get without being shooed or ushered away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Nevertheless, good things are happening. I will soon take the GRE. My birthday is approaching and I’m going on an exciting vacation in three-weeks.

A frosty January

1 January 2016:

I spent 8 hours standing on my feet as a hostess at Shaw’s Crab House counting down the hours while listening to Michael Buble Christmas music on loop.

1 January 2017:

I had a winter picnic out in the Mongolian countryside.

img_3238

Blue and white were the only colors I could see for miles across the Mongolian steppe, speckled occasionally with brown and black horses. It was refreshing to not see telephone wires marring the view, to be free of constant pollution, and to not hear the sound of traffic.

With Adiya, one of my counterparts, and her family, we first visited a horse monument. Enclosed within a square of stupas are 10 large horse statues. All are in memory of my aimag’s best race horses.

kidshorses

After our walk around, we got back into the car and drove on. We drove straight up the main – and only paved road – for 20 minutes when suddenly, the car took an immediate left off of the road and onto a trail that is only visible to the Mongolian eye. We bumped our way over the steppe closer toward the hills until the car finally came to a halt in the middle of the snowy field. It was here on untouched snow where we had our picnic.

Blankets were laid out, milk tea was poured, and soup was prepared on a little traveling stove. We stayed out there until our fingers and toes lost all feeling.

img_3228

img_3229

In addition to this month, I turned 24. I spent the day time at an English teacher’s seminar hosted by the State Department. Peace Corps Volunteers were there as a formality but otherwise sat in the back with our computers. In the evening, I had dinner and cake with my site mates and two counterparts. But the best part of the day was having my family, including my two grandmothers in Sweden and Scotland, calling my phone with birthday messages.

More January highlights:

  • Our aimag had a two-week winter break. At first I wondered what I would do during that time and regretting not booking a flight to a beach somewhere but I had a comfortable and lazy break. I read “Me Before You,” (book is way better than the movie) and “After You,” (super depressing), and I bought an oven.
  • I’m creating a video for a Peace Corps challenge. The theme is hospitality. Adiya took me to her sister’s ger to shoot video and I was invited over to my neighbor’s apartment. True to their hospitable nature, I have been eating so much buuz and drinking an incredible amount of milk tea for this video.
img_3518
Gers are bigger than they look. With a stove in the middle, this ger has a TV, two beds, a wardrobe, and a washing machine.
img_3535
When I met my friend Zulka, sitting on my right, she said that her dream was to become fluent in English and to study in Australia. After helping her with her student exchange essay and preparing her for her speech, she has been accepted to study abroad in  Luxembourg. She makes her family proud by being the first person from her family to travel abroad.
img_3530
A plate of buuz, steamed dumplings.
  • To make lesson planning more efficient, I create a monthly sign up sheet. Teachers are accountable for showing up after signing their name and available time for all to see. Now I’m teaching more classes except when something silly happens. The door to class 10A was jammed shut and nobody could open it. The students were inside while I was in the hallway. Eventually, the door had to be splintered and ripped off its hinges.
  • January was one of the coldest months. For one week we had a Siberian winter. I thought my face was going to crack. I stayed inside as much as humanly possible watching Brooklyn 99, the Gilmore Girls revival, and a very long movie, “Palm Trees in the Snow.”
  • Mongolia’s biggest holiday is swiftly approaching – Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s lunar New Year celebration. The market is crowded with people shopping for presents, food, and new deels. Homes are being scrubbed clean for families and friends who will invade. My counterparts have contributed to buying a winter deel for me. I’m building the anticpation by waiting until the holiday to post a picture of my deel in all its glory.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Winter is coming

On 25 September, the first snow flurries fell from the sky. Never have I seen snow fall this early in the year.

The hills and steppe were covered in a white powder of snow. I was in a car coming back from Kharkhorin when the sky began to piss down with rain. The rain then transformed into snow.

 Luckily, I had forced my winter gear into my suitcase. I have with me my… 

  • Layers of under armor
  • Warm leggings
  • Thick socks
  • Two hats
  • Winter boots
  • Patagonia sweater and jacket

In Mongolia, I have bought warm and comfortable camel socks and two camel blankets for my bed. Camel socks are great because they aren’t itchy. In the future, I hope to obtain a winter deel. Chicago is a cold and windy city. I survived the storm of “Chiberia” in January 2014 and many blizzards. The only difference with Mongolia is how early winter arrives and I still don’t have hot water and heating.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The sun begins its asscent into the sky at 7:30 am. This picture was taken from my window.

My fridge door is finely decorated with long strips of duct tape. It is the only way to keep my fridge door closed – (If you are a future Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia, pack your duct tape!!!) Sometimes my toilet doesn’t fill back up with water so I give it a few slaps and hits. I won’t get hot water and heat until 1 October – a day I have been eagerly awaiting. I also have no internet and must rely on my school’s internet and free Wi-Fi at many hotel restaurants.

Despite my minor problems, my apartment if feeling more like home. When I first arrived, I had nothing. I had two chairs, a small coffee table, and a bed frame. I have slowly been accumulating everything to make my home comfortable and livable. Now all I need is a toaster oven!

So what do I do in my free time? I switch back and forth between watching Law and Order and The Office depending on my mood. I finished reading all eight books in the “Outlander” series. My Kindle has 80 books waiting to be read. I walk around my aimag with my site mates: climbing hills, going on long walks, and meeting new people.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
When traveling through Mongolia, you will very rarely travel by road. You will find youself hoping you don’t break down as your car or bus drives through rivers, navigates around deep holes, slowly groans up hills, and travels over dirt roads or over grass.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I enjoy teaching at my school. Grade levels range from A to G and I co-teach in a lot of classes. My goal is to help with creative thinking. What can we do to make learning grammar and book work more interactive, engaging, and will allow students to work together as a group? This is what I tackle while lesson planning with my counterparts. Students love playing competitive games, using music as a learning tool, and are obsessed with stickers.

my-students
My 11A class wearing their deels while performing in a play.