Thursday, January 29, 2009
Jennifer and I ventured to Osaka and Kyoto, Japan, for the Korean/Chinese New Year. It was a nice break from routine, and I know Jen needed the time off from work--she's been doing more work than I with Intensives, and was getting tired, understandably. We set off on the morning of Saturday the 24th of January, taking the bus to Incheon International.
With the snow being so heavy, it took us nearly two and a half hours to get there, when normally it takes an hour to an hour and a half. Thank goodness we left early!
We arrived at Kanzai Airport, about forty-five minutes outside of Osaka, and after a few minutes deciphering the Kanji of the train station schedule, slapped our foreheads when we realized that it was also in English on another board. Easy as cake. We got on the train, snapping pictures as we went of the countryside.
We arrived in Osaka, dropped our stuff at the hotel, snapped more pictures as we walked towards Osaka castle, our first stop on the "tour" I had mapped out in my head. Well, that's like suggesting we had a plan, here, which we didn't. We decided to do what we had become comfortable with after five months in Korea: to throw ourselves into a foreign culture and just see what we could find.
The results were well worth it--open air markets, temples everywhere, shrines, castles, and incredibly friendly people. The only "planned" portion of the visit were our hotels, trains, and the visit to Kyoto's Imperial Palace, which has to be booked in advance.
Anyway, we got to Osaka Castle, and wandered around the grounds. Built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the tail end of what's called the Sengoku Jidai (the age of the country at war) from about 1500-1620 or so (yes, over a hundred years of civil war), it was a massive series of fortifications meant to ensure control over access to Kyoto and Osaka's own shipping.
The building has been burnt down on several occasions, so the version we saw was a rebuilt one, but entirely worth coming to see. Lots of history on display inside the Castle too, and seeing dozens of sets of samurai armor was probably the best part.
We continued to tour around downtown Osaka, going to Tenjinbashisuji (I think) District, which is a 2.5 km long shopping arcade. We got dinner, which was, of course, overpriced (everything in Japan, food-wise, is expensive due to it being an island), but yummy, and met a very nice restaurant owner who helped us figure out how to get food in very good English.
Wandering around for another hour or two, we finally headed back to our hotel, with tatami mat floors, futons, and a communal bath house for washing. It was an interesting experience, especially being the only foreigner in the latter (I got a few stares). A nice hotel, however (Hotel Taiyo, if you're planning a visit), especially given the owners speak English pretty well.
One thing that is fundamentally different from Korea in the tourist aspect: the English on major sights' signage is damn-near perfect. I found one or two grammar goofs, but only in the subway, or on out of the way spots.
Anyway, the next morning, Jennifer wrote her GRE examination (they don't do that in Korea except twice a year, and she needed to finish it for PhD applications) in Osaka in the morning, while I checked out Shitennoji temple.
One of the oldest operational Buddhist temples (possibly the oldest extant one) in Japan, built to honor one of the founders of the Buddhist tradition in the country. One thing that is also neat to note about this place is that, en route, I found about a half-dozen smaller Shinto shrines scattered around Tennoji station. This was to become a bit of a fun footnote to our entire tour: we would walk past about five shops, find a shrine, pass a cemetery, another five to ten shops, then another shrine or temple, and so on. Japan, especially Kyoto, is literally history central, in a good way. There are so many sites to see that it is hard for me to describe them all!
Anyway, once Jen finished, we hopped aboard a commuter train to Kyoto, checking out the mountains on the way.
Kyoto is a smaller city than Osaka, not that that is necessarily good or bad, but it has a very different, more slow-paced, feel to it.
We dropped our stuff off at the hostel (BJ Family House), the finding of which should provide a warning to tourists in Japan: city streets are not always clearly marked, or if so, are marked in Kanji (Japanese characters). When they are marked, as in Kyoto, they are often named as a combination of the two streets (so Shijo-dori and Kawaramachi-dori become Shijokawaramachi on the signs). We figured it out quickly, but it's something to be aware of. Streets are often labelled, but when outside the main 'tourist spots' it can be a little confusing.
Anyway, then we were off to check out some of the sights. We first visited two massive temples, Higashi- and Nishi-Honganji Temples, near Kyoto Station. The entire district is labelled as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, due to the sheer size of the temples and how gorgeous they are. It's interesting, again, to note the differences between the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese architectural styles we've seen so far. China tends to build large, with massive stone and jade and gold structures, Korea tends for more simple stone and tile buildings, while Japan emphasizes wood and bark (especially in the Torii or spirit gates of temples).
We then went to Gion District, the old geisha area, to see if we could catch a show at Minamiza Theater--no luck, but we'll try again next time we're in Japan. I really want to see a Noh play or a Kabuki production.
The next morning, we were off to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which you have to get permission to visit beforehand. The Palace is interesting, and the former seat of the Imperial Family of Japan. It, and nearby Nijo-jo (castle) were where the Tokugawa Shogunate surrendered power back to the Emperor Meiji.
Nijo, meanwhile, was our personal favorites. Check this place out if you're in Kyoto--it has the world's only remaining nightingale floor. Jen has a link to it on her blog, here. The sound it makes is amazing: it sounds like birds chirping whenever you try to walk on it. No ninja getting in here, sorry to say!
The fortification was used by the Tokugawa Shoguns whenever they visited Kyoto (to meet the Emperor) and was quite impressive. What astounds me the most is how in tune Japanese buildings like this are with nature. In China, Tienanmen Square and most of Beijing is a concrete block. Beautiful and stark, yes, but very much man-made. Nijo and the temples are literally enmeshed in trees. Especially our favorite example, from the next day: Kiyomizu-deru.
I'll leave off at Kiyomizu, since it was the last big thing we saw: a Buddhist temple built into the side of a mountain, literally overhanging over the valley and forest, with a magnificent view of Kyoto beyond.
I also have to admit, while I have included pictures of the Buddhist temples (they are massive, after all), I tend to prefer the Shinto shrines: they are simple, peaceful, and almost understated in their intentions to honor the kami, or spirit, of the area they are built in. They are ubiquitous in Japan, and represent a polite quality to spirituality: instead of building up, the Shinto tradition seems to be to build in, that is, to create a space within an area, and allow people to simply become part of that space as well.
While both are not my tradition, I do have a great deal of respect for Shinto and Buddhism.
We got a few stares walking around the shrines of the former, as Shinto is an inherently Japanese tradition, but still, we never once felt unwelcome in any place we visited.
A wonderful trip, to be sure, and one I would recommend to anyone else.
Best regards, all,
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Congratulations, President Obama.
It's 21:33 hours on Tuesday, January the 20th. As of this moment, it is Inauguration Day in the United States, about 0933 in the United States, in Washington DC.
At 1200, President-Elect Barack Obama will become the next President of the United States, and the first African American to do so. I wish him the very best, and hope he will succeed in turning things around in the United States.
I am enough of a cynic to worry this will not be possible, but enough of an optimist to continue to hope, and to be willing to help in my own ways--if you are interested in doing so, and live in the United States, facebook is a great place to start, as is http://change.gov, which is the website Obama's team has set up so you can link volunteer groups and other organizations together with volunteers. In short, Obama has tried to start putting his words in action. On this front, I can salute him quite happily.
Anyway, it's a new day, and I'm hopeful it will be a new era for the US. I may disagree with the actions of their government, and I don't doubt I shall continue to do so. However, I still very much admire the potential that they represent, as embodied in the argument of their declaration that all men and women, are created free and equal.
It's interesting to note that it was forty years ago, yesterday, that Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered. President Obama's inauguration cannot atone for that death. It does, however, represent the beginning of the realization of the goals Dr King once had: to see all people united in the realization of their common humanity, hopes, and dreams.
Here's to the end of the beginning of that dream. And here's to the hope that, in four or eight years' time, we can look back on this day and say that good things began here, and now.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Well, Jen had her birthday on Thursday, January the 8th. We celebrated with a bottle of wine at home and watching some videos from www.ted.com, which was nice since we were both exhausted. While it may not sound like the most romantic of evenings, considering that we both had had an extra 9-15 hours of work this week (before factoring in our presence at the office yesterday--Saturday) we felt a large party that evening before having to get up for another 12 hour day was out of the question.
Why so much work? Well, we just finished week one of our Intensives, which is when all the Korean kids come into the Academy for more studying when they're on winter holiday. I have one poor kid who is also in my wife's class. She is in 6 Academies, including two classes at our school--mine and Jen's. Both of those classes are 3 hours a-piece, and she goes five days a week. Now imagine how much more work she has on top of this from her other Academies, and homework and... well, I don't blame her for being less exuberant than Jen describes her as being normally.
I can also understand how Korean kids hate vacation. I asked all of my kids what they planned to do for the January break, and the answer was, universally, study. The one or two who were going on trips were also, unsurprisingly, studying on the plane flight.
So, we took a break from that on Friday night for Chicken, Beer, and Noraebang. Exactly like it sounds, we went out to a Hof, which is basically a fried chicken and beer bar, and ate some stuff that will probably contribute to health issues in later life if I ate it everyday. It was, of course, utterly delicious.
The Noraebang was awesome, and we spent a good hour and a half belting out songs completely off-key, before heading to Pavox, a local bar, to have a few late night drinks. I think we've adapted well to the Korean style of partying: basically, all bloody night. While my headache the next morning was nothing to sneeze at, it was well worth it for bonding with our two new teachers, Paulina and Sionna, both from Bermuda, and for helping everybody unwind after a very long week.
Well, back at it in another twelve to sixteen hours.
Monday, January 5, 2009
Suitably ominous, I hope? Like the rumblings of some distant twister or hurricane, bearing down on my thatch-roofed house in the tropics?
Well, sort of. We're starting Intensives this month, which basically translates into working from 9AM to 8PM every night. The reason for this switch is that Korean schools are out in January and August. The extra time away from Korean school translates into an opportunity to make our kids do *more* studying in the Hagwon system. Result: some of my kids are in a Monday-Wednesday-Friday 9AM course for three hours, and then in my Tuesday-Thursday class at 5PM for another 3 hours. I am lucky, in that I only have the tykes for the extra classes on Monday-Wednesday, but I can imagine this is a stresser on the kids.
It certainly leaves us exhausted.
We went to Seoul to meet Wong, a former ESL student of my wife, Jennifer, in Kingston, Ontario, at the Queen's University School of English. It was nice to meet him, in my case, and a great chance for Jen to see an old friend and student. He was a bit too generous, as he paid for drinks and dinner, but I hope to make up for this by buying the next round.
This may be a bit of a symptom of a Korean tendency to make friends with English teachers to improve their skills in the language, but even so, it provides a great opportunity to connect in this country. Especially if it can be parlayed into learning, in turn, about Korean culture!
We drank far too much, and then relaxed on Sunday with our colleauge, Oliver, before starting to roll with Intensives on Monday.
Yeagh! Talk about a lot of work. It's worth it, in the end, for overtime pay, but it'll be a long month!