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August 22, 2016

This is a blog combining all of my travel-related posts from my personal blog when I was in college. I attended North Central College in Naperville, IL, from 2005 to 2009, receiving a Bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies & Japanese with a minor in Chinese. Now I’m married, have a dog, own a house and have a full-time job, but we still make time to leave the country at least once a year (most recently in 2016 we’re heading to Italy & Morocco).

I studied abroad three times at North Central (hey guys don’t fund your study abroad with student loans trust me):

2006: NCC in China/Japan – Beijing Foreign Studies University & Kyoto Gakuen University
2007: Beijing Foreign Studies University (Direct Enrollment)
2008-2009: Aoyama Gakuin University (Exchange)

I’ve also done plenty of non-study abroad international traveling with no plans to stop:

2006: Mongolia
2007: South Korea
2008: Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia & China
2009: UK & Sweden
2011: Peru
2012: Honeymoon in Ireland & France
2013: Germany, Netherlands & Belgium
2014: Bahamas
2015: Australia & New Zealand
2016: Italy & Morocco (upcoming)

Use the Categories on the right side to find blog posts related for the various trips & studies abroad, although I don’t quite have everything post-college up yet.

If you have any questions about studying abroad or would like to chat feel free to shoot me an email at ethajek@gmail.com.

Instagram & Youtube

Enjoy!

Friday, June 5, 2015

June 5, 2015

Friday, May 22, 2015: We left the hotel at 8am – quite sad to leave its rich environs and feelings of sleek superiority – and took a cab to the airport, getting stuck in a bit of traffic on the way. Overall the flight was on time, short and uneventful, and I read a bit of A Memory of Light, the last book in the Wheel of Time, having finished Towers of Midnight in Sydney. We landed around 11am and were met by my cousin K. in the luggage area! It’s been, what, almost 20 years since I saw him last? We chatted a bit but mostly we were focused on getting our luggage. When we finally got it he took us outside to the car where D. was waiting. D.! My grandma’s sister’s daughter! Note that they both highly value their privacy so at their request I will not post photos of them or use their full names. Now that I’m not a child anymore I got to understand more of who D. and K. are over the following two days. Both in their 70s, they live a comfortable upper middle class life in a century-old house in Burwood, a suburb of Melbourne. D. has two children – the father is not K. – and she has been with K. for around 30 years now (I’m not sure if they’re married though). She is outgoing and opinionated, gives off an air of not being able to read a room but actually can, catches onto our jokes fast, a bad driver, helpful to everyone she meets (the next day she struck up a conversation with an old woman from Sydney who had trouble walking and gave her the number of people she knew there who could help her with a landlord situation), and unabashedly vegetarian, liberal and feminist. K. – born in Malaysia, left to avoid government persecution of his outspoken views, went to college in India but was expelled for protesting plagiarism, then came to Australia – is something of an old-guard radical. We discussed Australian, American and world politics every place we went, he gave money to every homeless person he saw, and we once passed a group of seemingly low-income men sitting outside and he pointed to them and said “Put these men in Parliament and all our problems will be solved.” He would make small, subtle jabs disguised as jokes, or perhaps vice versa, and would lie about things constantly in order to gauge our reaction (perhaps those were also jokes). For example, his right hand is missing most of his fingers; he wouldn’t give us a straight answer on what happened, smiling the whole time, until D. told us it was a lawn accident (some sort of wood chipper or something) 20 years ago. They were strange, almost difficult people to be around, and yet they were warm, funny, fascinating – and family. It was a fun two days. So when they picked us up they brought us to a Middle Eastern area in the northern suburb of Brunswick where we had lunch at a place called Alasya Turkish Restaurant and we caught up on our lives before quickly moving to politics and economics. Tasty doner kebab! After that they drove us to St. Kilda where we got cake & coffee at one of the many Jewish bakeries in the area, and then we walked along the beach there for an hour or so as it grew dark. When we returned to the car they drove us to their home in Burwood where we finally got to meet their attention-hungry, sad-eyed dog Benn (originally named Ben when they adopted him, then changed to Benn after British Prime Minister Tony Benn). We sat around the beautiful dinner table – custom-made with 2000 year old trees from Tasmania – talking about this, that and everything before having a delicious dinner around 9pm of homemade curry and paratha. K. then retired to work on a talk about co-ops he was giving the next day at a university, so D., Amanda and I hung out in the living room talking and watching Eurovision – it’s the first time Australia’s been in the contest! Although they didn’t play that night. We went to bed in their guest room around 10:30 or 11pm and had a very cold, but restful, night.

Saturday, May 23, 2015: K. was gone this day to give his talk so we said our goodbyes the night before. We woke up on Saturday around 8am and had a leisurely morning of showers and pancakes and eggs for breakfast before loading up the car with our luggage and heading out with D. into the beautiful, 65 degree sunny day. She drove us east to Mt. Dandenong and took us first to the mysterious, ethereal William Ricketts Sanctuary, a small park of sorts near the top of the mountain where in the 1940s and 1950s a man – one William Ricketts – carved all sorts of sculptures and fitted them into the stones to make them look part of the mountain. These were everywhere and were hauntingly beautiful, many of them of aboriginal people and a very distinct Mother Earth feel. We wandered through the forested mountainside park together at first, and then we all ended up separating, taking our time in the maze of paths as sunlight fell through the trees onto the sculptures. It was stunning.

When we left around noon D. drove us around the mountain a bit, taking us to a national park down the road that had a lot of parrots near the entrance. We picked some popcorn off the ground that they were eating and held it up and they would jump on your hand to eat it. Parrots! Green, red, brightly colored parrots. Not to mention being surrounded by the ridiculously tall ash trees, it was quite a sight. From there we left Mt. Dandenong and drove south to Rickett’s Point Beachside Café in Beaumaris, but our hour journey turned into a two hour journey because D. kept getting lost. Regardless, we made it with some time left over to spend with D.’s 49 year old daughter C. and her two children L. and (I can’t remember his name! The other son, H., wasn’t there, but the quirky blonde kid that was I can’t remember! I think his name was T.) let’s say T. We talked with C. about travel, work, personal lives, Chicago, Melbourne and Europe, and watched her kids collect seashells and do somersaults on the beach. It’s really quite interesting to meet distant family, and as D. put it now that we’ve met we’ve forged a new connection that will last the rest of our lives, since we’re family.

When we left C. and the café D. drove us to our hotel in Melbourne where we’d spent that night and the next one, the Radisson on Flagstaff Gardens. She got a bit lost and I had to use my GPS to help her get there, but we made it around 5:30pm and said our final goodbyes to D. I do really miss her and K. and Amanda and I plan to write a letter to send them soon, which we’ll mail with some photos of our time there (she didn’t want any posted on Facebook or anything). We checked in and refreshed ourselves for 30 minutes or so but eventually had to make our way through the Korean area of the city to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building where The Great Australasian Beer SpecTapular (GABS) was occurring! It’s Australia’s largest craft beer festival and just happened to be going on the same weekend we were in Melbourne so of course I bought tickets. As Amanda and I mused 4 hours later, it ended up being the best craft beer festival we had ever been to. The building was gorgeous, it was decorated classily (lots of Christmas lights and red Chinese lanterns), there was a lot of room, the beer was plentiful, well-organized and tasty (they had around 60 beers brewed by Australian & NZ breweries just for the event as well, another perk of attending) and the people, while getting progressively drunker, remained a lot nicer and a lot less bro-ish than their American counterparts. I made sure to continually drink water as well, so I didn’t get too drunk (not even regular drunk until near the end) and remained lucid the whole night. Importantly, I got to dive into the Australian and New Zealand craft beer scene in a way I hadn’t been able to before this and try a variety of styles, breweries and rare beers. They have an enormous craft beer scene down there that only makes its way to the U.S. in a gasping trickle (Japanese craft beers are better represented in America than Australian or New Zealand!). With too many to try I focused my time on sour beers, and I have to admit that four hours of acidic sour beers did a number on my stomach. Secondarily I focused on high ABV styles – a couple barleywines, a couple barrel-aged stouts and some unique style blends. Those were near the end of the night and that’s when I started to get drunk. As the festival wound down we finished our last ticket and began our walk back to the hotel, stopping at a Korean liquor store along the way to pick up soju for Amanda and chatting in Spanish with some rowdy Columbian kids. When we returned to the hotel we put on some FOTC and I fell asleep pretty quickly while Amanda stayed up a bit longer.

Sunday, May 24, 2015: This was our last day in Melbourne and our last full day in Australia. We woke up around 9am and I was, honestly, somewhat hung over the entire day, with the feeling only dulling near the end of the day. To rejuvenate ourselves from the night before we walked a couple blocks north to the enormous Queen Victoria market where I got some “American-style” donuts and a Cypriot sausage called sheftalia for breakfast (Amanda got a chorizo omelet from the Spanish food stand). I could’ve spent all day at the market though – they had a farmers market-style vegetable area, a huge indoor meat market, plenty more food stands from around the world (I saw two more donut places!), and an almost Chinese-style vendor market filled with normal items (shoes, bags, pet food, antiques, everything) and souvenirs. I had no real plan for the day except to make our way down to Flinders Street Station, the symbol of Melbourne, so we leisurely strolled through the stalls before leaving. We walked south to the downtown area and eventually ended up on Elizabeth Street, the main pedestrian corridor filled with shops, restaurants, buskers and people, people everywhere. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect of Melbourne, but by the end of our three days there (and particularly our last day in the city proper) I could tell it was a vibrant, cosmopolitan, laidback and truly comfortable city, a pleasure to be in. I know a lot of people prefer Melbourne to Sydney and I could see why.

After walking down the street a bit Amanda wanted to check out clothes at Uniqlo and H&M, so I left her for an hour promising to meet up in front of Uniqlo at 1:00. I walked around the area, checking out other pedestrian areas, a couple malls, and Chinatown, before meeting back up with Amanda. We continued south along Elizabeth Street until we arrived at Flinders Street Station and quirky Federation Square. We didn’t go in the station, just taking photos of the famous outside, but did wander around the square, seeing some performances and political protests, watching kids chase birds and eventually going into the ACMI (Australian Center for the Moving Image), a large, free and fascinating museum. We spent around 2 hours there in their large, interactive exhibit that traced the history of the moving image (you could watch old movies in Edison-style viewers, you could choose old Australian TV shows and commercials to watch [“Skippy the Bush Kangaroo”!], you could even play video games) and then had individual exhibits on things as diverse as Australian accents, the future of cinema, digital shadow puppets, “Mad Max” and Australian actors, filmmakers, writers and documentarians. It was one of the best museums I’ve been to, honestly – they should all be so interactive. We walked back to our hotel after that, stopping for hot dogs and fries along the way (a “Melbourne-style” hot dog has shredded mozzarella cheese, onions, ketchup and mustard – when I asked the girl at the counter if a Melbourne-style hot dog was an actual thing she said it wasn’t but that Melburnians did like to eat sausages with onions and shredded cheese) and getting back to our hotel around 4:30pm.

Amanda made plans to talk with her sister Nichole on Skype for an hour since they’re finally around the same time zone (she lives in Japan), so from 5-6 she did that while I made plans for dinner and the rest of the night. When she hung up we left to get dinner at, perhaps ironically, an American restaurant called Nieuw Amsterdam. I say American in the sense that it is an ethnic food in Australia much like Chinese, Indian or Mexican would be, not in the sense that it’s owned by Americans or an American company. Particularly in Melbourne, from what I’ve read, contemporary American restaurants have become popular recently. They had a lot of takes on classic cocktails, particularly the Negroni, and Amanda ordered a sour gin cocktail while I got a pear cider. For dinner I got lamb ribs with a spicy BBQ sauce and roasted “capsicum” (what they call red bell peppers) while Amanda got yam gnocchi with goat cheese – all of it fantastic. The waiters were very friendly as well, and we chatted a bit about Chicago and our time in Melbourne. When we left we were happy but also tired, sore, hung over and just done – not from the restaurant, but from the day, the weekend, and the trip in general. So we returned to the hotel, packed, watched an hour of the “Return of the King” Rifftrax, and then went to bed.

Monday, May 25, 2015: Memorial Day! After the singularly dreadful set of flights that was our trip to Australia & New Zealand from the U.S. I was certainly anxious for our three flights, 30+ hour day to get home, and I wasn’t let down. Our first flight, 14 hours from Melbourne to L.A., left at 9:50am, and of course we took advantage of our lounge pass for the umpteenth time to get breakfast at the Melbourne Airport lounge first. This flight was much more packed than the one from L.A. to Sydney and we had to sit in a full row of three, with me in the middle about 2/3 of the time and in the window seat the other 1/3, Amanda the opposite of course. I read quite a bit of A Memory of Light and ended up watching four movies: Unforgiven, Brave, The Departed and Big Hero 6. When we finally arrived in L.A. that old familiar combination of thickheadedness, mild nausea, gassiness and fatigue kicked in, but of course it was 7am there (nearly midnight for our bodies) and we had a 4 hour layover. Our next flight was to Indianapolis, then from there to Chicago, which was stupid, so we made several attempts to get a straight L.A.-Chicago flight with no luck. Finally we touched down in Chicago at 8:45pm Central Time. Home! A very sick (from allergies) Dad picked us up and took us to Grandma’s house so we could grab our dog and car. I almost forgot what Archer looked like! We finally made it home around 10:15pm or so. And my last worry, the same as every trip – that we were robbed while we were out – didn’t come true, the same as every trip. We spent that night, then, unpacking and resting in front of the TV before having a long-but-not-long-enough night of sleep. Finally home.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

May 31, 2015

Aaaaaand we’re back home! And I have quite a bit to write about.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015: After writing the last journal entry we went to get breakfast at a place called Pancakes on the Rocks near the hotel where we split an order of chocolate cherry pancakes and eggs. After that we decided to stick around The Rocks (the area of Sydney our hotel was in) in the morning since there was a possibility of rain all day – although, it was pleasant and sunny and didn’t end up raining (more drizzling) until that night. So first we went to the Rocks Discovery Museum where we learned about aboriginal people and the history of Sydney. From there we passed an underground mall with some souvenir stores and ended up buying a handcrafted boomerang (there were souvenir boomerangs in every store but this was the only one we found not mass produced) on our way to the free Museum of Contemporary Art. Admittedly, Australian contemporary art is not much different from other western contemporary art, but they did do some interesting stuff with neon that I liked – including a view of the southern hemisphere night sky as the earth turned. After that we returned to our hotel around 2pm for a couple hours, skipping lunch due to our enormous breakfast.

At 4pm we went back out, walking slowly south with our bad knees to the Sydney Tower Eye to get a 360 degree panoramic view of the city at sunset, a beautiful sight. After that we walked 5 minutes to our dinner destination, Redoak Boutique Beer Café (boutique beer is what they sometimes call craft beer) where we had lots of good Australian craft beer & a delicious burger. From there we crossed the street, went into an alley, found a bunch of smokers and were let in a grungy door that led to a basement containing the seventh best bar in the world, The Baxter Inn, according to “The World’s 50 Best Bars,” generally considered the top bar-ranking catalogue. It had a very suave, laidback, jazzy vibe, and they were particularly known for their whiskies, having so many that they have a library-style sliding ladder to reach half of them. I asked for a good Australian whiskey under $20 and was rewarded with a glass of Sullivans Cove Single Malt Tasmanian whiskey, one for me and one for Amanda, that was quite tasty. We drank that slowly and watched as the place filled up quickly (it was 7pm on a Tuesday and nearly packed) and left once we finished our glasses. We left and walked south to the 19th century Queen Victoria Building containing a closed mall, then west to the colorful and energetic Darling Harbour. Our final destination was the movie theater there containing the world’s largest IMAX screen in order to see “Mad Max: Fury Road” at 8:45pm. And holy shit, that movie was amazing and watching it in 3D on the world’s largest IMAX screen (right in the middle back, seats we got because we booked early and it was a Tuesday night, not a weekend) was truly a treat. When the movie got out at 11pm we took a taxi back to the hotel, ending our night.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015: Ah, the fateful day. It actually started out perfectly: bright and sunny and 70 degrees, it was a wonderful day for walking. We got breakfast at The Sydney Cove Oyster Bar right on the water of Circular Quay, enjoying a view of the Harbor Bridge. After breakfast we walked to the Sydney Opera House in order to get up-close views of the surprisingly 70s building, noting that it was actually a couple separate buildings, surprisingly. The Opera House is at the head of the Royal Botanic Gardens so we trekked into there and strolled past beautiful trees, wild cockatiels, Asian gardens, ibises hunting in ponds and schoolchildren wearing hats.

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We came out by Hyde Park, the large park right downtown, and hung out there for a while on a bench watching the fountain and listening to the buskers. From there we walked to the enormous ANZAC war memorial, had a moment of silence there, and then went to the nearby Australian Museum, Australia’s first museum, and a natural history museum to boot. That damn museum. First we looked at some aboriginal artifacts before moving onto a large room of taxidermied animals that you could touch, so I got to touch kangaroos, koalas and other strange creatures. It was in the bathroom of that room, however, where Amanda dropped her iPhone into the toilet. Indeed, into the toilet. And it shorted out, never to come back on. She lost all of her trip photos and videos (she had problems connecting to iCloud so they weren’t saved there), not to mention breaking a $700 phone. It was a pretty monumental tragedy and we were stressed and depressed afterwards, especially after walking to the Sydney Apple Store and hearing there was nothing to be done but replace it (for half price, at least), but by the time we got lunch at a Korean BBQ place we could morbidly laugh about it, and feelings about it got lighter as the trip went on – she used my iPhone 5, which I thankfully brought with as a backup, for the rest of the trip, as well as her camera, which at least had some photos of New Zealand before she switched to only using her iPhone. After lunch we stopped at a craft beer store where I found pretty much everything I was looking for, then we took a taxi back to the hotel. When we got back it was getting dark (it got dark early down there since it was almost winter) and we decided to go for a night swim in the pool on the roof. We were the only people there other than a couple in the hot tub (we shared it with them for a bit) and we had gorgeous views of the lit-up city – which was particularly bright since they were getting ready for an annual event known as “Vivid Sydney” of light shows and lit-up art everywhere that started, of course, the day after we left, but we got to see much of their practice lights and demonstrations. After leaving the pool we cleaned up and went to dinner at 7pm at The Australian Hotel, which had a large restaurant known for their pizza. I had made a reservation, though, because they were having trivia that night! So we enjoyed our pizza and pitcher of Australian craft beer as we attempted to answer Australian-specific trivia questions (Australian football player names, which Australian state grows the most avocados, Australian movie award winners, etc.); the host and bartender, thankfully, took pity on us and helped us with a couple, so we ended up coming in around 10th place out of 14 or so. One question was to name all U.S. states with more than two S’s in the name (we got all 7) and another was about a comedian from Chicago who was in The Second City that we guessed was Bill Murray but ended up being John Belushi. Once back at the hotel, then, we watched the “Jaws” Rifftrax with a couple beers and went to sleep.

Thursday, May 21, 2015: Our last day in Sydney. I had originally had several plans for this day; first, a walkabout in the Blue Mountains with an aboriginal guide, but with our aching knees that wasn’t possible anymore; then, a highly regarded cruise in Sydney Harbor with an aboriginal guide with stories, performances and lunch, but that was sold out; and finally, wanting to leave the city and do something with the water, I ended up booking us a 2-3 hour whale watching boat trip for 2:30pm that afternoon. So with those tickets in hand we first got breakfast at a place in The Rocks called The Fine Food Store, and my eggs benedict on rye toast with pesto and spicy salami and cold-brewed coffee was perhaps the weirdest breakfast of the trip (and not my favorite – the salami was much too spicy). After that we walked to the Sydney Observatory, taking in the musty presentations, beautiful views and surprising information that Captain Cook’s voyage to Australia (the one that jumpstarted colonization) was due to the fact that he was chasing Venus across the sky to view an event that only happens once every few decades or so (I forget exactly what it was he was looking for). When we left the observatory we walked south through the business district and eventually returned to beautiful sunny Darling Harbour where we got gelato and then had lunch at a food court (yum dumplings) before taking a taxi back to our hotel.

After resting up a bit we walked to the dock on Circular Quay where our boat was and, at 2:30, took off through the harbor to the open ocean! The boat was not full at all, and we spent most of our time in the front with a group of Asian people and the perky assistant who made announcements and helped us find the whales. After bouncing and getting splashed by the strong waves we arrived somewhere near Bondi Beach, along with a few other boats, and started looking for spouts. Throughout the next couple hours we actually saw dozens of spouts, managed to see a tail twice (I missed one) and saw a whale breach a couple times. It was really cool, and it was nice to feel the ocean breeze, even if I felt like I bathed in salt by the time we got back around 5pm. That night after a shower we had our last dinner in Sydney, a very sleek sushi restaurant called Sake known as one of the best Japanese restaurants in the city. I got the chef’s choice nigiri platter with one of the best pieces of sushi I’ve ever had (the fatty salmon) and without a doubt the best miso soup I’ve ever had. It was quite expensive but definitely worth it. We got back to the hotel and finished the “Jaws” Rifftrax and an episode of FOTC, going to bed not too late because we had an early flight to Melbourne the next morning.

Tuesday, May 19, 2016

May 19, 2015

Continuing on! Also, we’re in Australia now!

Friday, May 15: This was supposed to be our big Milford Sound day. I had chartered a private roundtrip flight there from Queenstown for $600, which sounds like a lot but when compared to the costs of driving there was only about $200 more. The flight was not originally for our last day in Queenstown when I first booked it but, since we reversed our New Zealand route, it ended up being that way, and by the time we decided to reverse the route I couldn’t book it on an earlier day. It actually seemed to work out for the best at first, as Friday ended up being the nicest day in Queenstown, no rain and sun poking through the clouds here and there. However, they called to inform us that it was too windy to fly the small plane and they would have to cancel the flight. It is, of course, disappointing to not get to see one of the natural wonders in the world that is Milford Sound; at the same time, however, since we didn’t drive there (in order to drive we would’ve had to leave very early that morning – well before they called us to cancel the flight – or, preferably, the night before) and didn’t take the flight we had $600 back in our pockets. So instead we turned it into a relaxing day. First we went to Vudu Café in downtown Queenstown where I got salmon hash with eggs and green onion cream cheese (and red onions of course, they put red onions in everything in New Zealand) and Amanda had the world’s fluffiest pancakes.

Then we checked out of the Crowne Plaza and drove 25 minutes north to the small town of Arrowtown to bask in the hills and mountains covered in fall colors and cut through with a winding, picturesque stream. We took our time there, just enjoying being outside, and stopped in the outdoor Chinese Settlement museum to learn a bit about 19th century Chinese gold rush settlers. Leaving there we drove to our next hotel that we would have for our last day in Queenstown, Villa del Lago, a bit outside of downtown but right on the lake with gorgeous views. It was a full-service apartment-style place, so we stopped at the grocery store to pick up supplies and then came back and cooked lamb burgers with Havarti and kumara soup with a side of golden kiwifruits and some Central Otago pinot noir, the most New Zealand meal ever, which we ate while enjoying the beautiful blue lake and mountains. After lunch I stepped on the balcony to read a bit and have a NZ beer from 8 Wired Brewing  Company before coming back in and watching a few episodes of “Flight of the Conchords,” getting to season 2. As it started getting dark out we decided to grab some dinner, so we walked the 20 minute path down the lake to get to downtown and grabbed food at Pog Mahone’s, the Irish pub-style place. I’ll admit I’ve had better fish and chips and Amanda’s Caesar salad with anchovies, a runny egg and way too much dressing was possibly the worst meal of the trip so far, although it was still plenty fun. Afterwards we popped into the Minus 5 Ice Bar for a drink in ice cups surrounded by ice blocks and ice statues as the bartenders told us stories of people who got drunk and broke the walls and statues. From there we walked back to our hotel and watched the “The Atomic Brain” Season 5 episode of MST3K.

Saturday, May 16: See ya Queenstown! After breakfast (some egg and bacon pies we bought at the grocery store the day before) we packed up and left around 10am. Our destination was the West Coast glaciers, a 5+ hour drive through meandering, winding mountain and ocean scenery. Nearly every minute of the drive was incredible, from the view of Lake Wanaka from the town of Wanaka to the mountains ringing Lake Hawea to the sheer cliffs of Mt. Aspiring National Park to the Cliffs of Moher-like views of the Pacific Ocean at Knight’s Point to the temperate rainforests near the glaciers. It’s all just such a dream. We stopped for lunch at The Hard Antler in tiny Haast, where I had the much-loved West Coast fish whitebait (in the form of a patty) and some beer while laughing at a bird stuck in the restaurant. Amanda and I also split a surprisingly good apple crumble with ice cream there. We got to Fox Glacier around 4pm and hiked up through the rocky, gravely terrain to see our first glacier first-hand. It was quite a sight, and honestly surprising to see how far it receded according to some photos the park service had put up. From there we drove through the setting sun to Franz Josef town where we had our motel for the night, the nicely white and modern Aspen Court Franz Josef. Amanda and I got dinner next door at King Tiger – she had chicken tikka masala, I had Hong Kong-style noodles – and then she went back while I walked past hordes of chain-smoking Chinese tourists and drunk Kiwis to the grocery store only to find that it had closed 20 minutes earlier. It was at least a pretty pleasant walk, though, and I tried to find the Southern Cross in the beautifully starry sky but failed. When I got back we watched the Season 5 MST3K episode “Outlaw” (or “Outlaw of Gor”), one of the season’s best, before going to bed around 11pm surprisingly exhausted.

Sunday, May 17: This was our last full day in New Zealand. I woke up early and finished Come on Shore and we will Kill and Eat you all before we checked out of our hotel at 8am.  We got a breakfast of eggs benedict on sourdough with English-style chewy bacon at a nearby café then stopped at a grocery store to pick up something for lunch before departing the town. Our first stop was nearby Franz Josef Glacier, and to get to it it was about a 45 minute walk through rainforest, waterfalls and rocky, gravely streams. Once we got to the viewing point there seemed to have been some sort of rockslide as the air was filled with dust and grit and was getting in our eyes and mouth, so we didn’t spend much time viewing the glacier before heading back. All told it was an hour and a half of walking, nothing abnormal, but something to do with the terrain really messed up both mine and Amanda’s knees for the rest of the day and the following one as well. From the glacier we drove north along the coast, listening to the 2½ hour Comedy Bang! Bang! 6th year anniversary podcast and worrying that we would run out of gas until finding some in the town of Hokitika at the last minute. Where do the people who live along this highway get gas?? From Hokitika we turned east and drove through Arthur’s Pass National Park where we had a late picnic lunch in the cold mountain air. The views were pretty lame from our picnic spot (railway tracks, power lines, toilets and just a few mountains, but it was an official picnic spot) only to find that if we had driving 15 minutes further they became sweeping and beautiful and, in fact, reminded me somewhat of Mongolia, except with more mountains. Eventually we arrived in Christchurch around 4:30pm and, to come full circle, we stayed at the Sudima Christchurch Hotel near the airport, the same one we stayed at when we arrived. After unpacking and going on the internet for a bit we headed out into Christchurch proper with the falling sun, getting to Cathedral Square by the time night fell. The city was still recovering from the earthquake that hit it in 2011 and it was fascinating to see the cathedral’s front face still blasted open and covered in rubble. I’ve managed to avoid natural disasters my whole life so seeing the damage they can do up close is something of a surreal experience. From the square, then, we drove a bit northwest to our final destination: Pomeroy’s Old Brewery Inn, an old pub turned into a craft beer bar, music venue and restaurant. It was really cool and pretty hopping for what seemed a bit like a dead city. We had some beers while we waited for a table and eventually sat down around 7pm, where I ordered beer-battered fish with fries (amazing, so much better than the fish & chips in Queenstown) and Amanda had pulled pork. After dinner we went back to the hotel where I shaved and showered, and then we went to bed around 10pm as we had an early day the next morning.

Monday, May 18: We woke up at 4:15am and were out the door by 5:15 for our 6:30am flight to Sydney. The entire process was pretty uneventful – we got there on time, checked in without issue, grabbed breakfast at the lounge (thanks Admirals Club pass!), and then I read Wheel of Time #13 Towers of Midnight during the entirety of the three hour flight. We touched down at 8am Sydney time, had them check our shoes and boots for any dangerous New Zealand soil, and then grabbed a taxi (oops, rush hour traffic, but I got to read some more) to our hotel, the stunning Park Hyatt Sydney. It’s right on the bay, with the lobby and restaurant having a perfect view of the opera house and our room having a beautiful view of the city (and a perfect view of the opera house from the balcony), and of course the modern furnishing and designs, the attentive staff and all the other little touches that make it a Park Hyatt are really going to make our 4 days here enjoyable. Indeed, 4 days in Sydney may seem like a lot (I could’ve used another month in New Zealand, if not at least an extra day), but this is the truly vacation part of our vacation, as staying in the Park Hyatt can attest. So after arriving to the hotel around 9am I spent the next 3ish hours reading (the second half of the book is some nonstop action!), first in the lobby while we waited for our room to be ready and then in our room while we had some coffee and enjoyed the views.

Around noon we left, taking photos of the Opera House along the way and walking through The Rocks and Circular Quay (very slowly, with our hurting knees) before getting to the southern portion of the Royal Botanical Gardens and the free Art Gallery of New South Wales. We had lunch in the museum’s cafe, outside – salmon and horseradish mayo bagel with capers for me, roasted squash soup for Amanda – while watching the menagerie of local birds (pigeons, seagulls, colorful parrot-like things, black birds with awkward walks and giant Australian white ibises) annoy other diners and pick at their leftovers. After that we wandered slowly through the museum, seeing 15th-19th century European art, 19th and 20th century Australian art and, my favorite, contemporary aboriginal art. I know so little about the aboriginal people here – I’ve got to learn more! After the museum we walked back to the hotel going through a slightly different part of the downtown area and stopped at a pharmacy (for Amanda’s cough) and a liquor store along the way, getting back around 5pm as the sun began to set. The rest of our night was spent in our hotel because it was amazing and because we were in pain – as night fell and the city lit up we watched the two newest episodes of “Game of Thrones” while I had one a sour beers from California that I traded for – and brought all the way to the Southern Hemisphere with me. We also ordered Indian food to be delivered, which was quite good. And we ended the night with an episode of FOTC and a Rifftrax short.

 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

May 16, 2015

I’m writing from the Southern Hemisphere for the second time in my life, although halfway around the world from the first time in South America. Indeed, we’re in New Zealand! I waited too long to write because I’m having too much fun so I’m going to break it down into bullets.

Saturday, May 9: We had to leave our house by 3pm, so our day was spent packing, going to stores and going to the library. Amanda and I each brought a check-in luggage so that we could bring more to Australasia with us and bring more stuff back. So, we left around 3pm, got to my grandma’s house around 3:30, dropped Archer off, and then Dad drove us to the airport. Of course we had our traditional pre-trip dinner of Tortas Frontera before our 6:20pm flight to Los Angeles took off. That flight was fine; I spent most of the time reading Towers of Midnight and Come on Shore and we will Kill and Eat you all, a nonfiction novel about an American woman who married a Maori man, and it also delves into the history of New Zealand and Polynesian people in general. We landed at 9pm Los Angeles time only to find that our midnight flight to Sydney was delayed until 3:30am, giving us around 6 hours in the airport. Screw that, we paid $99 for a 30-day Admirals Club (airline lounge) pass and it was the best investment.

Sunday, May 10: At a certain point it changed to Sunday. Anyways, this was my first time in a lounge and it was just tops. Free food, free alcohol, spacious seating, calm, cool, collected. I could see why people would pay to have access to these lounges regularly. After indulging in some late night food and alcohol we attempted to sleep for 2-3 hours, mostly unsuccessfully; the crying baby didn’t help. Finally, though, feeling tired and gassy and bloated, our 3:30am flight boarded and was off to Sydney! It was a 14 hour flight so I immediately attempted to sleep and over the next 6-7 hours managed to get 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there. There was enough room on the plane for no one to have to be next to each other, so Amanda was in a 3-seat row with a guy and I was in a 4-seat row with a guy, except that my guy decided that three of the seats were his and laid down for half the flight with, most oddly, his head on my side for some reason. I don’t want your head by me, guy! After attempting to sleep I watched two movies: “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Boyhood,” and that plus some reading got me to the blessed end.

Monday, May 11: We landed in Sydney on Monday morning but we still had a 6 hour layover before our flight to Christchurch. Ugh. That was actually part of our decision to buy the $99 lounge pass – originally we were going to head into Sydney proper and just wander around, but when the flight was delayed 3½ hours it just wasn’t enough time in Sydney to deal with the hassle. With the lounge pass we could just chill for 6 hours, and that’s exactly what we did. This time with sunny, morning views of the Sydney skyline and of course more free food and alcohol. I had a second wind of sorts when we first arrived, but by the end I was tired and nauseous and out of it – it felt like someone had put a balloon in my head and then blown it up until it was pushing against my skull. Finally it was time for our 5:30pm flight to Christchurch, New Zealand though. The 3 hour flight was fine – Amanda and I both watched “Selma” – although they gave us way more food than I would have thought for a 3 hour flight, to the point where I was refusing stuff because I was so full. We eventually touched down in Christchurch at 10:30pm local time, chatted with the too-friendly immigration lady (a theme we would notice later, that every single person was friendly, cheerful and willing to go out of their way to help even if you didn’t ask), picked up our bags (they made it!), went through their notoriously strict customs, and then walked 5 minutes outside of the airport to our hotel, Sudima Christchurch Hotel. We peeled off our stinky clothes and got amazing, beautiful, wonderful, real sleep.

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Our hotel, and my first picture in New Zealand. Fall colors in May!

Tuesday, May 12: Our adventure begins! We woke up around 8am and watched the surprisingly funny morning news people before heading to the nearby McDonald’s for breakfast (our options were that or a very expensive hotel buffet) where the friendly cashier cheerfully explained that they always check our credit card for a signature and leant me her pen to sign mine. After breakfast we grabbed our bags, checked out and were about to walk back to the airport to pick up our rental car when the hotel van driver caught us and offered us a ride, explaining along the way on how to pick up our car and where to drive to head towards Queenstown. He also mentioned that Prince Harry was in town on his way to the airport and was snarling up traffic a bit; thankfully we missed the traffic, but we also didn’t get to see Prince Harry. We picked up our white Toyota Corolla and we were off, with my wonderful wife doing the entirety of the driving because driving on the left side of the road in cities and through mountains would give me a panic attack. First we stopped at a mall to pick up some snacks and a hair straightener before really hitting the road, heading south towards Queenstown. I originally had us going west to Arthur’s Pass, but looking at the weather before leaving showed us basically following storms for 6 days, so I reversed our New Zealand itinerary, which caused us some headaches but gave us sunlight for the first day and what should be sunlight, according to the forecast, for our last couple days.  So, driving. Their “highways” are two lane roads which often merge into a single lane to cross bridges (helpful signs point out which traffic has the right of way); the max speed is 100 km/hr (around 62 mph) and going even 1 km/hr over will get you a ticket; there is a lot of twisting and turning through mountains; and of course the cities are packed with roundabouts and we still don’t quite know all the rules for those, making them mildly dangerous, although Amanda’s done great so far.

We drove for around 3 hours, listening to Comedy Bang! Bang! and Judge John Hodgman podcasts, until we got to Lake Tekapo. There we drove up nearby Mt. John to have lunch at the Astro Café overlooking the absurdly turquoise lake, the mountains, and the plains, just a stunning view. I mean, they’re the Misty Mountains! Good enough to be the main scenery for the greatest fantasy epic of all time! I’m looking at mountains right now, from the room of our hotel! I can’t get enough of mountains. So, lunch was pretty good (I had a ham sandwich made with local ingredients and an Americano, because 5 days in I haven’t seen just a cup of normal coffee on any menu. I either have to order an Americano or a Long Black, and I’m not sure what the difference is) and I even found an old lady’s purse in the bathroom and brought it back to her and she was overly grateful. After lunch we drove 20 minutes to nearby Lake Pukaki, another vividly blue lake, this one with views of Mt. Cook (the tallest mountain in New Zealand and Australia), not to mention the place where they filmed Lake Town in the “The Hobbit.” From there it was another 3 hours to Queenstown through much more twisting, turning mountainous terrain, and we had to keep stopping for photos of the mountains, animals and trees – because oh yeah it’s fall here in the southern hemisphere and the trees are red and gold and the temperature is crisp and cool and we get two falls this year! We made it to Queenstown after nightfall and parked at our hotel, the Crowne Plaza, which was downtown. After checking into our mountain-view room we headed out to get dinner at the world-famous Fergburger, considered one of the best burger restaurants on earth. It was just a little hole in the wall but my brie cheeseburger really packed a punch, as did Amanda’s with bacon and avocado. I’m salivating just thinking of it. When we got back to our room we watched the hilarious movie “What We Do in the Shadows” about vampires in New Zealand, as well as an episode of “Flight of the Conchords.” Then sleep.

Wednesday, May 13: The clear skies filled with clouds and on-and-off rain, weather that would continue our entire time in Queenstown. We leisurely woke up and got breakfast at Fergbaker, the sister restaurant to Fergburger, before walking around town and heading to the gorgeous Queenstown Gardens for fall colors and views of the city, mountains and lake (Lake Wakatipu is the second purest lake in the world, purer than bottled water). We then walked back to our hotel in the rain to hang out for a bit before heading 30 minutes west to Central Otago wine country, known for their pinot noirs. We stopped first at Amisfield Winery and Bistro and had a lunch of charcuterie and local wine with a view of the cool, misty rolling hills before heading to Chard Farms winery and going through a personal tasting of all their wines with the attendant; I eventually bought a bottle of wine that can be aged several years with plans to open it up on our 5 year anniversary. Chard Farms Winery was also over a river filmed as the Anduin River in LOTR, so we took some photos of that and also saw the bungee jumping bridge that was the first commercial bungee jumping place in the world. From there we went to the final winery, Gibbston Valley, known for their cheese. We got a cheese plate sampler and did a pinot noir wine tasting and everything was just tops, except maybe the rain. The eating and drinking went on well into the afternoon so weren’t that hungry for dinner – we decided on a craft beer bar across from the hotel and had tapas while playing “What am I thinking,” a game from Comedy Bang! Bang! Then that night was New Zealand craft beer and some more“Flight of the Conchords.”

Thursday, May 14: We woke up early with plans to go hiking on the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks.” It’s actually a several-day hike if you do the whole thing but you can, of course, make a day trip of it. We left around 8am, had another breakfast at Fergbaker and then stopped first at Twelve Mile Delta, where they filmed the Ithilien Camp scenes in LOTR (“Oliphaunts!”). It was beautiful and sunny and we assumed that’s how the rest of the day would be but this is seriously the most unpredictable weather I’ve ever encountered.

By the time we drove up the shores of Lake Wakatipu to the little village of Glenorchy it was raining, and by the time we got to the Routeburn Track entrance at 10:30am it was pouring. We waited a half hour to see if it would let up but it didn’t, so we just went in. It was actually pretty nice at first – not much rain got through the canopy and the amount that did was refreshing. The rain also seemed to be causing a whole bunch of tiny waterfalls everywhere, which was pretty. The entire route was, in fact, beautiful, with unearthly green plants growing up and down the sides of the mountain, and a periodic rushing river that we crossed several times.

We got to the Routeburn Flats around two hours in and had lunch at the hut there (meat pies, a Kiwi specialty, that we purchased at Fergbaker). That’s when the rain changed to snow and the temperature dropped and everything got miserable. My inner thigh hurt, Amanda’s ankle hurt, we were both soaked to the bone (even Amanda, despite her having an umbrella), and we had a two hour walk back. So we started our trek back with a single-minded purpose – getting back as soon as possible. We only stopped once so I could take photos of the falling snow. We  ended up shaving about 20 minutes off our time, getting back to our car by 3pm. As we began to drive out an older gentleman in a rain poncho stopped us and said his car had died and asked if he and his wife could get a ride to their hotel, on the way back to Queenstown. We said sure and that’s how we had the former CEO of the city of Melbourne, Kathy Alexander, and her husband James, a lawyer and huge Lord of the Rings nerd, in our car for 20 minutes. They were very interesting people (I mean, former CEO of Melbourne! Basically the Australian equivalent of a city manager), having traveled all over, and we talked about driving in Europe and trekking in Cambodia. Eventually we dropped them off at their lodge and then got back to our hotel around 4:30pm and I took a hot shower with a glass of wine and it was one of the best showers of my life. Amanda was feeling sick, unfortunately (and still is, two days later), so instead of going out we ordered Hawaiian pizza, had some local beer and wine and watched “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” Rifftrax, excitedly pointing out the things we had seen so far in New Zealand. We went to bed a bit earlier than usual, around 10pm, but we were absolutely exhausted (and a bit drunk).

Mackies for Breakfast

March 22, 2009

Amanda and I are in Birmingham now, visiting James. We actually leave his house quite soon, in about 20 minutes, but we got to spend most of yesterday with him and his family and friends. James picked us up in downtown Birmingham and took us to a pub for fish & chips for lunch, then to the art museum and the fantastical Bullring shopping center (centre) before going back to his house. When we got back we watched some comedians and then went out with his sister and friends for a night of curry and pubs. It was lots of fun, even moreso because we got to meet a bunch of cool English people with crazy accents (Birmingham’s accent is “consistently voted the worst in the country”).

Before Birmingham we were in London for 2 days, and that was, well, Londony. I don’t have much more time to type, but suffice it to say we saw all the highlights, and many of them were way more interesting than I thought they would be. Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Picadilly Circus and Chinatown, the Tower of London (no way did we pay the 17 pounds to get in that though), St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Globe Theater, Greenwich. There were two highlights for me: kissing Amanda between the hemispheres in Greenwich was fantastic (I was in the western hemisphere and she was in the eastern), as well as just being awed by the historical splendor of Westminster Abbey.. the coronation chair of kings, the burial place of queens, the epic monuments to great poets, the very floor where every sovereign is crowned; it was breathtaking.

We also spent a day in countryside England. We went to the town of Battle, where the pivotal 1066 Battle of Hastings took place. 1066 is the 4-digit number I chose for my phone number because I love the history behind this battle so much, and I actually got to go! We got a tour of the entire battlefield, as well as “Battle Abbey” which was built by William the Conqueror on the site of the battle as penance for the dead. Everything was surprisingly easy to understand, and by the end I knew exactly how the battle had played out, as well as where everything happeend. I even stood on the spot where King Harold, the last king of pre-Norman England, was shot through the eye with an arrow. Then after that we took a bus through even more nothingness to Bodiam Castle, the most perfect medieval castle there has ever been. Do a google image search and you’ll see what I mean; a moat, towers with those castley bumps on top.. how stereotypical castle can you get? And it’s real too, about 700 years old.

Ok, we can’t miss our train to Liverpool, so Beehns and I are off.

Flygbussarnen

March 15, 2009

That’s the Swedish name for the airport bus. Pretty much everything in Sweden is fun to read.

Oh, yeah! So I’m in Europe. Thursday was long hours and long flights from Osaka to Tokyo to London. Though the view out the window was sunny, cloudless, and crystal clear panoramas of Siberian mountains and Arctic Russian tundras. Then at London Heathrow, worst airport ever, we were grilled onto why we were entering the UK and then our baggage was checked not once, but twice, even though we just had a layover. It all took way too long, but Amanda and I managed to make it onto the plane to Glasgow, the last 2 people, sweaty and out of breath. We finally got to Glasgow pretty late and grabbed a shuttle bus to the city center. So my first step into Europe was in Scotland, which I find silly. We got to our hostel and basically crashed, as our body was running on some crazy times.

Glasgow was a really nice city, actually. I didn’t really know what to expect out of European cities, but it seems they have a sort of medeival, old town core full of pretty but ostentatious old stone buildings and then spread out from there, compared to the high-rise centers and modern planned American cities and the ancient centerless sprawl of Asian cities. The first place we went was St. George’s Square, and as I looked at the statues of famous Scotsmen and listened to the accents of the white people and soaked in the Europy ambiance of the gothic designs that surrounded me, that’s when it really hit: I’m in Europe! What am I doing here? It was just, never really on my list of places to go, and now all of a sudden I’m here, straight from Japan. It felt weird. It still does. I’m sitting on Europe right now, typing this.

So yeah, after the square we wandered around the city center taking in the old buildings that were occupied by modern stores and restaurants (including an Apple store in this 18th century building, which looked really strange), and then we walked past the University of Strathclyde to Glasgow Cathedral. My first European cathedral, it was incredibly beautiful and also quite old, being from the middle ages. Yeah medeival times! It was even apparently a famous medeival pilgrimmage site, as the tomb of St. Mungo is supposedly there. After that we walked behind it to the crumbling tombs of the Necropolis to get nice views of the city, and then went to the nearby St. Mungo’s Museum to see their interpretation of the similarities between the world’s faiths. Britain’s first Zen garden was there too, actually. After lunch at the cafe there we went across the street to “Provand’s Lordship”, Glasgow’s oldest house; it was interesting seeing how (rich) people lived in the late medeival ages. It was free too, like the Cathedral and St. Mungo’s Museum and the Gallery of Modern Art back in the city center, which we went to next. After getting our fill of mostly Scottish modern art we walked around the area and checked out some stores and stuff. Night soon fell, and we went back tot he hostel to pick up our luggage and then went back to the city and dropped it off at the Central Train Station, to be picked up in 10 days. I’m really happy they had that service, because otherwise we’d be dragging that crap all over the continent. We got dinner at a Chinese place and then went to the bus station and got on a Megabus to Edinburgh.

The Edinburgh hostel was okay, but a bit far from the center of the city, and we had to take a shuttle bus to get there and back. The next day we started an early day after the hostel’s free breakfast of toast and cereal. As we walked down Princes St. we could really see the European beauty of the city, the capital of Scotland. There were old buildings of course, but also soaring Victorian spires, 16th century mansions, cathedrals, and a medeival castle on a volcano. It was quite the sight. We walked up to the castle, paid the 10 pounds ($15), and went in. Despite the hefty price, though, it was definitely worth it, and I got more and more excited with every medeival thing I saw. I didn’t know this before coming here, but I guess I have a thing for the medeival ages. We saw the free war museum, a 12th century chapel, the remains of a 14th century tower, cannons, 16th century halls and palaces for Scottish royalty, and even the Scottish crown jewels and the “Stone of Destiny” (a huge and apparently royal sandstone block from around 800 AD the kings all carried with them). I was happy for Amanda too, because she had always wanted to see a real European castle. And on our one year one month anniversary at that!

Done with that we left and had lunch at a nice Italian place, then left and walked down the Royal Mile, which has to be one of the most beautiful urban walks in the world. It’s touristy, yes, but even so it’s amazing. Stone streets were flanked by tall, ornamented stone buildings and churches going down a long hill, culminating in the very regal Holyrood Palace. While walking down the Mile we stopped in the beautiful St. Gile’s Cathedral, a fudge shop, and the free People’s Museum. At the end of the mile, across from the palace, was the modern and out-of-place Scottish Parliament building. I didn’t even know they had a parliament, but apparently they got one a little over 10 years ago. We went into it and saw the neat looking debate chamber, then left and walked towards the National Museum of Scotland, also free. It was cool but not well laid out; my favorite part was that I could touch all the medeival things they had. It closed at 5 pm and, when it did, we left and walked up the street, taking pictures of the Elephant House where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book. We ended the night going to a couple malls, having dinner at Pizza Hut, and returning to the hostel.

Which brings us to today. We had a 10:55 am Ryanair flight from Edinburgh to Stockholm, and really the only reasons we came to Sweden are that (1) Ryanair has cheap flights and (2) Sweden is probably ridiculous. And it is. We took the 80 minute airport bus to the city terminal, excuse me, Cityterminalem, and then walked to our hostel which is actually really nice. We’re in an 11-bed dorm but it’s fine. After checking in we decided to walk around, but it was already almost 5 pm and apparently everything in Sweden closes at 5 pm on a Sunday. We tried going to H&M (of which we saw 6 of them all within a 5 minute walk of each other. 6! Some were across the street from each other) and a few other stores, but everything was closed. So we grabbed dinner at a middle eastern fast food place and then walked along the river in the cold night air, then through Gamla Stan (Old Town), soaking in the European ambiance of it all. It was nighttime and really cold (this is the most north I’ve ever been), so there weren’t many people there, and it was really nice. I really like Stockholm; it’s quirky, like I expected. In fact, Sweden itself is exactly how I expected it: cool designs and architecture, H&M and Ikea everywhere (I already saw 1 Ikea), techno music playing in the background (even in the middle eastern restaurant), and silly words. It’s great. Now we’re back in the hostel resting, and tomorrow is a full day exploring this interesting city.

Oh Kyoto

March 8, 2009

I’ve been a lazy bum, haven’t I? I’ve been in Kyoto for over a month now, doing absolutely nothing, and haven’t written in this. Oh well, I wrote in my real journal, so you lose.

Kyoto’s nice, as always. I like the history and the wooden buildings and the mountains a lot, not to mention the company. It’s kind of dead though, like if you take a big, interesting city and then at 6 pm suck all life out of it, that’s Kyoto. But Amanda and I can work around this. Between pizza parties and renting movies with Ashley, daily walks through the mountains and fields, lots of Bomberman and DragonBall Z, making dinner every night, and frequent excursions into Kyoto proper, it’s been a lot of fun. Not to mention all the visitors we’ve had.. first James visited Ashley (her boyfriend from England) at the beginning of February, then my friend Nadav from Tokyo stayed with us the past week, and now Amanda’s sister Nichole and Nichole’s boyfriend Patrick are staying with us until we leave Japan, on March 12.

So Amanda and I downloaded the Buu Saga of DragonBall Z, considering it’s the one we’ve watched the least amount of times (1/2 for Amanda, 1 time for me). At the end of the last episode we watched, Vegeta is dead, everyone thinks Gohan is dead, Buu is killing everyone, and Goku is being brought back to the land of the dead, and as he leaves the world in the hands of two 8 year old boys he smiles and waves to everyone that’s gathered and says “Good luck fighting Majin Buu! Bye!”. Ok Goku.

The plum blossoms are blooming right now, kind of a prelude to the sakura (cherry blossoms) that we won’t get to see. They’re really pretty, but they give this faux air of a spring that doesn’t quite exist yet. “Wow, plum blossom, you are very nice! But I am cold.”

Oh and Amanda and I are going to Europe. It was cheapest for some reason to fly from Osaka to Glasgow than to just fly straight home or through any other major city (??). So we’re making an 11-day stop there when we leave Japan on the 12th, and won’t be back to America until the 23rd. We’ve already bought train, bus, and plane tickets to take us to Edinburgh, Stockholm, London, Birmingham, and Liverpool. The hostel in Stockholm we’re staying at provides a free sauna, free ice skate rentals, and free pasta without sauce; will Sweden be ridiculous?

Sakura House Drama

January 11, 2009

Ah yes well, the rest of Kyushu was a fantastic time. Amanda and I met Midori in Nagasaki and she showed us around the Peace Park and the Wharf and stuff. Midori was one of my exchange student friends when I was studying in Beijing last year, and it was great to see her again. Then Amanda and I went to Kagoshima and spent our time there at an active volcano and walking around a lava park. A great way to end a trip to Japan’s extremely interesing, and surprisingly cold, southern island. Then Amanda and I came back to Tokyo, celebrated the New Year with Ashley with spicy Chinese noodles, karaoke at midnight, and going to Meiji Shrine at 1 am for our fortunes. And other fun things in Tokyo!

So, we have a TV in our lounge, at my guesthouse. I use it here and there; it’s got nice things like Cartoon Network, and I watch anime and the Chinese channel sometimes. MTV Japan, too. It’s a way to relax, practice Japanese, and have background noise while I’m eating. And recently I got a Super Famicon (the Japanese Super Nintendo.. another life goal down!), so I’ve been playing that a lot. All in all, I’m not like a TV junkie, but I use it often enough.

When I got back from Kyushu the TV seemed different, and at times wouldn’t turn on. Just wouldn’t. For hours. Later I found out that it was actually Jong’s TV. Jong is my fluent English-speaking Korean neighbor at Sakura House, the only one who’s been there longer than me, and probably my best friend there. He’s also in his late 30’s haha. Apparently he did some fancy footwork and, although I don’t really understand it, basically he’s going to have the Sakura House people fix his tv, which was broken. Broken in the sense that sometimes it wouldn’t turn on for hours. So now it’s in the common room.

I used it for a while in that state, but recently I’ve been kind of stressed and really just wanting to rest and watch TV or play Zelda on the Super Famicon. But about half the time the TV didn’t even turn on, and I started to get angry. I called Sakura House HQ myself to have them come fix it, but by the time they came it had already started working. So they didn’t do anything. Then today I saw Jong and I was like “Look, Jong. Either put the old TV back” (the unbroken TV is in his room, by the way), “or call Sakura House right now.” He got really defensive, since I probably didn’t use the best of tones to ask him, and called me selfish for complaining and stuff. I was like “What?! Come on. Why did you even put the broken TV down here in the first place? If you’re going to have Sakura House fix it, call them right away. Don’t wait for weeks.” Eventually he was like “Ok, I’m the selfish one. I’ll switch them tomorrow.” It was one of those, giving up and taking the blame on yourself to make the other person feel bad kind of things, I think. I apologized for getting mad, but at least the unbroken TV will be back. A TV should NOT ruin relationships, that’s just silly. Especially since I only have 2 and a 1/2 weeks left here in Tokyo before moving to Kyoto.

Oh, and more dumb stuff happened. Every week it’s someone’s responsibility for garbage duty; for 7 days we have to check the garbage cans and take them out whenever they get full. It’s kind of a sucky job, because you’re in charge of the garbage for like, 15 people. But it’s not terrible. Well, it was my turn last week. I took the garbage out and everything, but the last couple days it was raining and I got lazy and removed the bags and put new ones in, and just stuck the dirty bags next to the garbage cans. Which isn’t as dirty as it sounds, because there’s a big spot where old alcohol bottles and boxes and bags and stuff just collect. So I put the garbage bags there. I can guarantee that no one in the house would care, as long as there were new garbage bags. Well, Saturday was my last day and, as such, I was planning on taking the bags out to the trash outside before going out. As I’m getting dressed, literally with one sock on, I hear a knock at my door and it’s a guy from Sakura House headquarters. He happened to be there that day giving a tour for someone – and let me tell you, that never happens. Sakura House HQ guys are never, ever in our guesthouse. Our exchange went something like this:

Him: “Um, did you know that it’s your turn for garbage duty this week.”
Me: “Yep.”
Him: “Well, why didn’t you take out the garbage?”
Me: “Sorry, I was actually just about to do that.”
Him: “Well, today I was giving a tour. It’s bad for people to see that.”
Me: “Oh ok, I’m really sorry. I’ll get to it as soon as I get dressed.”
Him: “Did you forget to do it?”
Me: (just wanting him to go away) “Uh, yeah.”
Him: “Ok, well I’m giving you a penalty. You have to do garbage next week too.”
Me: “…”

Really? I think he thought I forgot to do the garbage for the whole week maybe, but that didn’t occur to me until later. In any case, I was literally minutes away from taking out the garbage for the last time that week, and that happens. Granted, I kind of shirked my responsibilities a little bit, but it’s not like I’m getting paid. I did what the other tenants expected me to do: provide a clean bag to throw garbage in so it doesn’t all pile up. Plus it was raining the night before. Ugh. He came by today with a new garbage sheet (the list that says who’s week is who’s), and my name is up for this week now, and it’s in RED, instead of the usual black. As if he has to emphasize the fact that it’s a “penalty”.

…………

Man, I can’t believe I move out in 2 and a half weeks. It’s been, let me check… a little over 4 months since I moved in! I feel like I really took advantage of Tokyo though; I went all over the city, from the well-known places like Shibuya to tiny out of the way places like Kami-Isuga. Since I live in between Shinjuku, Harajuku, and Shibuya, I went to all of them on a regular basis and got to know them quite well. I saw every major thing thing there is to see in Tokyo, and more. I went to obscure places like the Communications Museum, the spaceship-looking Soka Gakkai Temple, and where the Prime Minister holds Cabinet meetings. I walked halfway across the city, I bought video games in Akihabara like a true geek, I ate at over half of the restaurants around where I live (which is a lot, trust me), I saw the emperor himself, I celebrated the New Year at Tokyo’s largest shrine, I got sweets from Toraya (Tokyo’s most famous sweets shop), and I got point cards at a bunch of stores because I shopped there so often. Tokyo’s been good to me, and I’ve been good to it.

On multiple occasions I went to Yokohama, Chiba, and Kamakura, and I still plan on going to Nikko before I leave. I relived “Lost in Translation” by having a drink in the bar, eating at the sushi place, and singing in the exact room that they karaoked in. Went to my school festival, walked down nearly every major street within 2 miles of me, ate ethnic food (Sri Lanka, Thai, etc. And soon Ainu!), gave tours of Tokyo to friends, went up in the government buildings in Shinjuku for their free view about 5 times, saw headquarters of companies that shaped my childhood (Bandai, Sunrise, Square Enix, etc.), went to the Tokyo Game Show, and found little stores and restaurants and backstreets that only Tokyo natives know about. I saw all the random amazing architectural wonders that are the buildings of Tokyo; seriously, there’s soooo many interesting ones that you’ll never see in a book or on the internet. I saw a Russian Orthodox churce, Asia’s top university (the aptly named Tokyo University), the largest fish market in the world, and so many ridiculously beautiful gardens. I suppose that I took a different approach to the city than others would have; I didn’t get into Tokyo’s bar or club scene, didn’t go to any concerts, didn’t waste my life away at pachinko (Japanese gambling) or arcades or clothes stores or maid cafes. But I lived here exactly how I wanted to live here, taking advantage of the opportunities I wanted to take advantage of, and in that I was successful.

A Mongol Christmas Eve, A Japanese/English/Scottish/American Christmas Day

December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas! It’s Christmas now in America too, right? Let me check the time.. yeah, it’s 11 pm here, so it should be like 8 am in Chicago. So Merry Christmas to everyone!

Yesterday – Christmas Eve – Amanda, Sarajane, and I went to Fukuoka City to see some cool things. All the cool things ended up being Mongol related, though, which made me really happy. First we went to Higashi Koen, where the Battle of Bun’ei took place in 1274, when the Mongols first attempted to invade Japan. They lost the battle, not because of the Japanese beating them, but because a huge storm came and blew their ships away; that was the original “kamikaze”, which is Japanese for “divine wind”. I stood where Mongols fought the Japanese! Yes. There were some statues devoted to Nichiren (a famous Buddhist monk) and the Japanese Emperor at the time, and a nicely manicured park, and lots of pidgeons that landed on us, and a museum devoted to the battle (that was closed. Grr).

After that we took a train to the coast to see a famous wall that the Japanese built to fight the Mongols during their second invasion of Japan (which was, incidentally, also stopped by a huge storm). After our Mongol-filled day, we met SJ’s friend Aoi again in Tenjin, which is downtown Fukuoka, and we walked around some neat stores and bought some bus tickets for our Kyushu adventure. Then we went to a really neat bilingual Christmas Eve church service in Tenjin, which was all candle-lit and Christmasy. And Aoi came! Thank you God, for sending your Son to earth for our sake :) . We had a dinner of Tonkotsu Ramen at an apparently famous restaurant called Hakata Ippudo after that, and then walked around Christmas-light-lit Tenjin at night before coming back to SJ’s apartment and going to bed.

And then today is Christmas! Amanda, Sarajane, and I got up and opened our Christmas gifts to each other at like, 9 am. We’re so cool. Then we played Wii Mario Kart and made some food for later. At around 3 pm we went to SJ’s Scottish neighbor’s apartment (Charlotte) and met up with her other friends Eden (from England) and Rick and Rick’s Japanese girlfriend, and chowed down on a huge Christmas feast. Mashed potatoes with gravy, lots of vegetables, salad, chicken rice, and chicken and biscuits from KFC (yay weird Japanese traditions!). Then Rick and his girlfriend left and us remaining five took a cold Christmas walk to the beach while it was still light out (Christmas ocean!) in our Santa hats, then came back. We had dessert (chocolate cake! apple crumble!) and watched “Home Alone”, and then the laughably horrible “A Very Merry Muppet Christmas”, or whatever it was called (not to be confused with “A Muppet Christmas Carol”). Then we came back around 10 pm, and now we’re here, about to finish off the night with Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I wish I were with my family, and I miss them a lot, but God blessed me with a wonderful Christmas with my girlfriend and good friends, and I really couldn’t be happier. So Merry Christmas to everyone, and I hope it was/will be great!

Karatsu Shmaratsu

December 24, 2008

I’m in Fukuoka! Well, actually, a suburb of Fukuoka called Karatsu. Although I’m not sure how much of a suburb it is, because it’s pretty big and in Saga prefecture instead of Fukuoka prefecture. Either way, I’m in Kyushu (the Southern Island of Japan)! And I’m typing on Sarajane’s (also known as SJ) sticky keyboard right now.

Amanda and I left Tokyo on Sunday and got to Fukuoka on Sunday afternoon. We had some Italian food for lunch and then met up with SJ and her friends PJ (where there’s an SJ there’s a PJ, right?), Aoi, and Sayaka. It was raining so we walked around an enormous twisty-turny mall complex called Canal City, eating at Cold Stone and a garlic restaurant for dinner and just browsing stores and talking. After dinner we went to the craziest karaoke place ever, where we had to ring a bell a bunch of times before someone came to the front desk and then unlocked the doors to go into the building, and when we went in it was this weird pipe/cave/haunted motif, but after that hallway it turned into a mini-town and our karaoke rooms were all different shops! Like, what? So cool though.

On Monday Amanda and I went to Karatsu, SJ’s town where we’ll be staying until the 27th (when we go to Nagasaki). Sarajane and Aoi picked us up and took us to her apartment, then to Pizza Milano for homemade pizza lunch. Then we walked to the beach as SJ pointed out Karatsu things, but when we finally got to the beach it was just really cool. Sand and ocean and islands and crazy forests and winter; it was a fun mixture. We walked through gangly pine trees to Karatsu Castle and went up in that, where we saw old Japanese prints of whale and dolphin killing. Then we came back and chilled in her room watching cable (she has Nickelodeon! And Cartoon Network! And Sci Fi!) until her friend Ian came home from work with the car; once he brought the car back she drove us to an even bigger and crazier gangly pine forest, and we had Karatsu Burgers for dinner there. Then we came back, Aoi left, and we watched “Tokyo Godfathers” and Japanese game shows until we got sleepy.

Yesterday SJ had the car all day, so we went to a place called Jammin Seaside Cafe for lunch; we ate Jamaican food while watching surfers on the beach, and yes, it was as great as it sounds. Although it was still pretty cold outside. Then she took us to Tategami, where we climbed around rocky beach formations and watched even more surfers. After that we drove north to Nanatsugama, which has crazy cliffs that look like they were pressed through a playdough spaghetti-maker. And also lots of hawks and a really ugly statue (“the cross-eyed goddess of the caves”). Finally we drove all the way to the other side of Karatsu and scaled Kagami Mountain (ok, in a car) to get sweet views of Karatsu and the bay. I love sweet views. Coming down we stopped at some shops (“Gifts & Presents”, KFC to see if we can reserve Christmas lunch, and “Bulldog” for cooler gifts), then Amanda and I just hung out while Sara had her guitar lesson. When that was over, we went out for a long and fun dinner at a yakitori place with SJ and her friends Ian, Eden, and Charlotte (coolest Scottish accent ever). Then we came back and watched Pirates 2 until we were tired.

Now today is Christmas Eve and we’re going into Fukuoka City for a Christmas Eve service and to see Mongol-invasion related stuff (since the Mongols, you know, invaded Fukuoka, 800 years ago).

Today is my 101st day in Japan

December 18, 2008

Ha I’m terrible at posting entries. Ok well, I’ve gone to Kyoto a few times to see Amanda and she’s come to Tokyo once since we went to Nagoya a month ago. The first time, I spent Thanksgiving with her and some good friends (Ashley, Vicky, Eri, and I finally got to meet Amanda’s friend Naoto!). We also saw amazing red leaves and ate strange Kyoto-style burgers and made our own sushi and watched Vicky’s Chinese horror film and everything was great.

The second time, last weekend, we went to a mock old-style village where they used to film samurai movies, and went to a couple parties involving China/Japan (who left a few days ago, on Monday). It was great to see them all again before they left, because now it’ll be another 3 months. Grr. At least Naoto, Kan, and Liu Min will still be here :)

On weekends when I wasn’t in Kyoto or Amanda wasn’t in Tokyo, I tried to explore my city a bit. I went to some obscure museums with Sam when he came here (the Communications Museum and the Criminal Museum) as well as the Imperial Palace, and I went to Shinjuku Gyoen (Shinjuku Park) another day, spending 2 hours in awe of how they managed to merge garden styles from across the world into one stunning force of nature in the middle of skyscrapers.

Other than weekends, life has been pretty standard. School is still going, although after tomorrow I’m on Christmas break for 2 and a half weeks. Classes aren’t too difficult, but not easy either. Vocab is always being thrown at me left and right and I have to make sure to study it all to retain it, and grammar is still weird and hard to click in my head. But overall I feel like I’m improving a lot, and I understand a lot more than I used to. I think that what needs work the most, for me, is grammar and speaking. Grammar is essential, because sometimes it affects whether or not I can even understand the person I’m talking to, let alone respond. My speaking is.. eh. Could be better. I’m hoping that I’ll have a lot more chances this upcoming January, February, and March to practice with friends like Naoto, Kan, Paku, Ryo, and Liu Min in Kyoto (score, Liu Min speaks Chinese too!). I made plenty of friends here in Tokyo, like Ayano, Yuri, Atsu, Zoro, Timing, Nozomi, etc., but they’re always so busy and I see them so little that it’s hard to hang out with them on a regular basis. Things have to be planned far in advance, and I’ve refused to go to the $30 drinking parties that they so love to throw. But Kyoto friends seem different, less busy. Maybe because it’s a suburb in a mountain rather than the middle of the biggest city in the world? Maybe.

Tomorrow morning Amanda arrives in Tokyo! I don’t really have anything planned for the weekend, so let’s have impromptu fun, ok? And then on Sunday the adventure starts; at 11 am we take a plane from Tokyo to Fukuoka (a city in southern Japan). From the 21st to the 26th we’ll be staying with Sarajane, eating Karatsu Burgers and going to Christmas Eve church services and baking cookies (right? right?) and feeling the Christmasness of it all. Then from the 27th to the 30th we’ll be exploring the rest of southern Japan (well, Nagasaki and Kagoshima) and hopefully be seeing Midori, from my days in China last year. Then we come back to Tokyo, spend New Years Eve karaoke-ing with Ashley and New Years Day traditional Japan-style, going to a temple with Eri and Casey (hopefully). And still more time after that until school starts on January 7th. I’m pretty damn excited!

ミニストップ物語 [The Tale of Mini Stop]

December 8, 2008

I stopped at a Mini-Stop (a convenience store) for dinner today. Got a ham and egg sandwich, some fried chicken from their heated up thing at the counter, and a frozen yogurt (which was a delicious find!).

While I was in line some old lady cut in front of the middle-aged lady in front of me, and it was quite a long line. She wasn’t one of those frail old ladies, but rather one of the more assertive kind with too much lipstick and a long red coat and dyed hair.

So anyways, the middle-aged lady in front of me says “the line is back here”, which really makes the old lady angry, who then gets all in the other woman’s face and spits out “uruseei!” (shut up!) and then back-cuts me, still cutting most of the rest of the line.

When the old lady got to the register, the middle-aged woman had finished paying but was still putting her money away or something, and the old lady was overly cheerful at the register, in that I’m-actually-mad-but-pretending-to-be-cheerful-to-make-you-angry kind of way. Then, when the middle-aged lady finally leaves, she yells “baaaaka!” (idiot!) back into the store.

For most of the time I was between them, and the tension was weird. I think she wanted to cut me too, but decided against it and kind of grumbled some stuff instead.

Nags

November 20, 2008

Went to Nagoya over the weekend! Haha what an obscure city. Even when I was in Japan in 2006 I didn’t know what was there. Well, I finally discovered the answer, and apparently it’s a cool downtown, delicious food, and old friends.

Just how I imagined it.

I met Amanda at Nagoya station on Friday after a night bus ride. Ugh, those night buses. The only enjoyable part is the rest stop, because you get to walk around and see Japanese car and truck culture in action. But I take them because they’re super cheap, and it’s the only way I can travel. Anyways, met Amanda and went to Atsuta Shrine on our own. I found out later that one of the three Imperial treasures of Japan is enshrined there (the sword), which is beyond cool (The Imperial Treasures are like the Crown Jewels of Japan). Thanks for letting me know, Amanda. Psh. Then we went back and met up with Chris Kridakorn, and went to the Science Museum. It’s 9 floors devoted to kids, which meant that we could touch everything which meant that it was really fun. Except for the boring planetarium, which I don’t know how you can make an hour show in a planetarium boring, but good job museum. We left, got pizza for lunch, and went to Nagoya Castle. It’s like all the other castles, really. I want to see a real one now. Shoulda went to Inuyasha umimean Inuyama.

After that we walked to Sakae, the downtown area with their own weird version of Tokyo Tower. It was actually really pretty, and they have this crazy cool building called Spaceship Aqua or something that’s just.. futuristic and fun. It gives off a good vibe. From there we took the train to Nagoya Airport and waited there for a while until Hiro was done working (Hiro studied abroad at NCC 2 years ago). We got lost, but found him, and he drove us to a curry restaurant for dinner and then to his apartment. Ugh I miss that apartment; it just felt so homey and perfect and full of video games and computers and couches and I want to live in one now. A nice break from guesthouses and videogame-less apartments.

The next day we went back to Sakae and met up with Chika, another friend who studied at NCC 2 years ago. Together we galloped to a Miso Katsu restaurant and I finally had some of the fabled Nagoya food. Holy cow that was good. It’s such a weird taste, but somehow works, and you just want more. When that was over we wandered some stores downtown and had Cold Stone (apple pie!), then went to Denny’s for dinner and then to a nearby purikura place (purikura is little pictures you take with your friends in a booth that become stickers). But hey, I guess purikura has some new rules, in that there can’t be more guys than girls. It was me, Chris, and Hiro with Amanda and Chika, and no not allowed. An employee actually stopped us from taking pictures. Ok. So we went to another one, took pictures, and then went back to Hiro’s apartment while Chika went home. More Rock Band and Halo and other video games happened that night, as well as some “Naruto” that Chris and Hiro wanted to watch. Ugh so fun.

We woke up to our final day on Sunday. Hiro drove us around for lunch until we decided on Yoshinoya for cheap gyudon (sweet thinly beef over rice), and then we took the train back to the city. We met up with some of Hiro’s white friends and went to the Nagoya Art Museum, which was actually ridiculously small, but it had some cool art. My favorite was “The absurd god” by a Japanese artist from the 70s of a god that was, well, absurd looking. Then Chika, Chris, Amanda, and I broke off as Hiro and his friends went to see a special exhibit, and we took the train south to a disaster museum. It’s got all these neat things you can do, like experience an earthquake (ok, they’re scarier than I thought, but I still want to be in a real one) and go through dark, smoky rooms trying to find the exit. So cool.

Then we went to Nagoya Port which, like other touristy ports and piers (Navy Pier, Odaiba, Coney Island, etc.) is gaudy and silly, but fun to wander around and just soak up the atmosphere. Finally around 6 pm we went back to the center of the city, met up with Hiro and his friends, and went to Yama-chan. I had never heard of it before that day (I’m sure friends mentioned it, but it was hard to remember), but oh man, I won’t forget it. Those chicken wings! Those miso katsu on a stick! Those fried cheese things! It’s right below Portillo’s, Grand Stand Pizza, Beijing dumplings, and all Mexican food as some of the best food ever. We left after that, but even though it was short, it was just such a.. good weekend. So good.

The Seat of Power

November 9, 2008

Tokyo is the capital of Japan, but it never quite feels like a capital. Just a monstrous metropolis. So today I decided to walk to Akasaka, where the Japanese government resides. Within a small square area is the Prime Minister’s Residence, his office, the Diet (Hall of Representatives), the Supreme Court, the Imperial Palace, and a little further away is the Crown Prince’s Palace. I enjoyed walking around the area where decisions are made in one of the more important and powerful countries in the world. Then after that I walked to Tokyo Dome.

I would just like to state the significance of this. I walked from Harajuku to the Imperial Palace, and then north to Tokyo Dome. 20 minutes later I would’ve been in Ueno, meaning that I walked from the extreme west of the Yamanote Line to the east. Half of Tokyo.

It took over 4 hours.

Anyways, here are some pictures that aren’t on Facebook:


A rusty sign nearish the Crown Prince’s palace


The National Diet Library (the Japanese equivalent of the Library of Congress)


That glass building is the Prime Minister’s office, where he meets with his cabinet.


やった!I finally made it to my destination, after getting a bit lost near the end.

有人当选,有人落选

November 6, 2008

发生了!欧巴马竞选了总统,才当选了。作为总统,我不知道他怎么治美国的病,因为他没
说具体的细节。他不仅仅不得不改革健康保险的问题,也必须让伊拉克的军人回国,还得改善经济。无论如何民主党当选了议会的多数。不过现在没关系。他是第一个当选总统的黑人,就载入史册。关于这个情况,我想注重美国的开放化,因为四十年前黑人连白人的几所大学也不可以上。而且,他是个以利诺人,跟林肯一样。林肯的遗产是欧巴马。

今天,黑人击败了仇恨。今天,白人击败了偏见。今天,美国击败了过去。

And with that being said, here are some photos from the weekend:


My school festival


The sushi place from “Lost in Translation”! That is the chef from the movie, so now I have officially met someone who met Bill Murray, and I got his opinion of Bill on camera. Moving up in the world! We sat right next to where Bob and Charlotte did.


We are better than you because we made our own gyudon.

The Next President

November 4, 2008

Amanda came for the weekend, and we had a blast! Shinjuku, my school festival, lots of sushi (we met the sushi guy from “Lost in Translation!”. You know, “Black Toe.”), making gyudon, Daikanyama, Halloween candy on Halloween, a 50s style diner, and Powerpuff Girls! There are some weekends you want to relive all over again, and that is one. Fo sho.

Then from Monday to Tuesday was my school trip to Shizuoka, and we stayed at a ryokan under the watchful protection of Mt. Fuji. It was a gorgeous place, and I had a lot of fun picking grapes and making soba and making new friends and all that. A bit lonely at times, too, because I realized how many aquaintances I had made here in Tokyo but not as many good friends, but it was still a good time.

And now it’s election day in the U.S.
And I’m wondering, who will be running the country when I get back? It’s hard to think of someone besides Bush in the White House, considering he’s been there since I was 13. You know, the age when you first start thinking about politics and the greater picture. So my entire political life has been dominated by George W. Bush. Time for a change, I say.

Of Friends and Coffee. Although There Was No Coffee.

October 29, 2008

3 a day


Aoyama’s main street (looking outwards), with lights strung up for the upcoming festival this weekend


Today I went to a school-sponsored even called the “Coffee Meeting”, where people just got together and had fun. I met some Japanese people and played Bingo (I won a pumpkin coin bank!). Taka, in the awesome hat, is giving out the final prize. Oh – and there was no coffee?


Karaoke after the Coffee Meeting. Hawk and Seaweed can really sing! Oh, I mean Taka and Nori.

She’s even wearing a beret

October 27, 2008

3 a day

So this will be 1 picture from each of the three days I didn’t post any: Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.


Alice is so French today! Notice the pastry.


Tokyo Union Church


World’s biggest dork?

Of Course

October 25, 2008

So, of course, this is probably the worst time for Americans to go abroad in years, maybe decades, as the dollar fell to record lows over the past 8 years. But now the dollar, considered a “safe haven” in times of crisis, is actually starting to rise. It’s about $1.25 for 1 British pound, the best rate in 2 years. Well for us American travelers at least, things are starting to look up!

Wait, what’s this? The yen is also a “safe haven” and is the only other currency to rise during financial crisis? It’s currently 94 point fricking 2 yen to the dollar?/p>

DAMMIT

Thank you, Japan, for being the only place in the world where the dollar is losing ground.

Hong Ping Kong King Pong Kong

October 24, 2008

3 a day


Which one is which? Anthony’s twin brother visits


It was an American and a Korean vs an Australian and a French kid


Chinese style

Rakugo

October 23, 2008

3 a day


This guy managed to be impressive with two balls and a fan. Well played.


And then we had a famous rakugo comedian come into our class and do a dialogue! Rakugo is traditional Japanese comic storytelling, and when I understood him, it was actually pretty funny. Where does Aoyama keep getting all these famous and important guest speakers? (For last week’s class we had the president of an anime company speak to us)


From the subway map in my station (Kitasando)

Three a Day

October 22, 2008

Alright, I’m gonna try the three photos a day thing again. Wish me luck!



I pass by the Turkish embassy every day on my walk to school.



Today I went to chapel, which my school does every day from 10:30 am – 11:00. This was my first time, as it’s hard for me to fit it in. It ended up being completely worth it, though, and they even had a guest speaker from Finland who played the cello! This photo is everyone filing out at the end.



Ok, seriously, anyone know what this is? I’ve seen it graffitied and stickered all over Shibuya. Any combination of Lushy, Shark, and DNA King, actually. A google search only leads me to some Flickr photos from Hawaii.

Ainu Woes

October 10, 2008

On Friday I showed her my school and the area where I live and we ate huge Hawaiian hamburgers, and that night went to a small cafe that looked like someone’s dining room owned by an old lady.  Saturday was huge.  We went to Ueno Park, seeing the Tokugawa family shrine and laughing at animals in the zoo.  Then we walked to Asakusa, which is quite the walk, and saw Senso-ji.  From there I surprised her and took her on a sunset boat ride down the river to Odaiba, where we had amazing Italian food with a view of the bay and then rode the ferris wheel.  Romantic, ne?  On Sunday we watched movies and such, and at night met Nina for some karaoke and dinner.

So, I’m getting together some people to go to an Ainu restaurant.  There’s only one outside of Hokkaido, and I guess it’s this one.  On separate occasions I invited some Japanese people to go, and it was actually a bit strange, because it took them a long time to remember what an Ainu was.  It pretty much went something like this, every time.
Me: “Hey, I heard that there’s an Ainu restaurant in Tokyo!  Do you want to go?  It sounds really interesting.”
Ja: “What kind of restaurant?”
Me: “Ainu.”
Ja: “Ai.. nu… ?”
Me: “You know, like from Hokkaido?  Ainu?  The native people of Japan?”
Ja: *turns to friend. “What’s Ainu?”
*whispers with friend for a while
Ja: “Oh!  Ainu!  Uh, yeah.  Really, they have a restaurant here?”

Really, Japan?  You only have one native people to remember.  Just one.  Anyways, we’re going this Monday.  I guess Ainu food involves a lot of deer meat, potatoes, garlic, and salmon.

I wonder how long it takes to get to the point where まさか and まぁ and 詰まり and just throwing out causative-passive like it’s nobody’s business all come quickly and naturally.

Update: the restaurant was amazing!

Tokyo Handbook

September 27, 2008

This will be long, but don’t worry, a good chunk of it is photography.

Some things have happened in the past two weeks.  Orientation is over, as is my first week of classes.  I’ve got a healthy mix of foreigner-only classes (Japanese language every day, “Japanology”, Japanese Culture and Society, and Asian Politics) as well as classes that normal Japanese people take and are quite hard because, well, it’s in fluent Japanese (Korean movies and dramas, Ethnic groups in Russia, and the Society and Culture of the Spanish Speaking World).  I have no days off outside of weekends, but on Fridays and Mondays I only have one class, so they are considered skippable for the sake of a 3-day weekend here and there.

This is what school is like:

1 Ayano, Yuri, and Atsu in the Spanish culture class
2 View from one of my Japanese classrooms

I’ve hung out with a lot of NCCers, you know, the ones studying abroad here and the ones that used to study abroad there.  Some Kanda kids came over, I visited Yokohama with Eri, gone out for dinner, stuff of that nature.


1 At an Asian Fusion Restaurant
2 Figuring out how to get Vicky home.. it involved like, 2 transfers and was crazy complicated.  Later I found out that there’s a subway by my apartment that goes directly to her stop


1 At Ousanbashi
2 Yokohamaaa~

Besides NCCers, I’ve been attempting to make new friends.  It was a pain in the *** at first, because I was without phone.  But I got one yesterday, and the world is right again.  I’ve seen Ayano a bit outside of class, as well as her friends, and I’ve been talking to the other international students more (some of them, like the Chinese ones, are so good at Japanese that hanging out with them gets me the same practice as hanging out with a Japanese person), plus some of the Australians and French and Korean guys in my guesthouse.

Last weekend I went to Kyoto!  It was an Amanda adventure, a Saga-Arashiyama adventure, and a natsukashii adventure.  I spent the weekend with Beehn, and she showed me around the area she lives in (Umahori) as well as where she used to live last year (Chiyokawa).  The day after that was Saga-Arashiyama and Monkey Mountain with Amanda, Ashley, and Jackie, and I’m sure many of you have seen the pictures on the internets and read all the other blogs.  It was a good time, and I even got to show Amanda where I lived 2 years ago (Nishioji)!  Man, where I live right now is so much better than Nishioji haha.  Our final day was spent eating out, getting ice cream, and watching movies and crazy Japanese TV.  She comes to Tokyo next weekend, and yeah, I can’t wait.


1 Come on, she’s the cutest
2 Listening to Kyoto musics


1 Arashiyama Bridge
2 What’s she doing in Nishioji?

So yeah, then this past week was classes.  And since Wednesday, Pixie-face has been visiting our city, so I’ve spent the past few nights with her and others.  We walked from Shibuya to Shinjuku (the long route.. paaaaainful legs by the end of the day), ate at Shakey’s, did Purikura, went to a restaurant owned by the parents of one of the members of Arashi (Pixie’s idea, of course), and karaoked last night.


1 What’s she doing here?
2 Shakey’s crazy pizza


1 Pixie and Aiba, together at last
2 Everyone’s here just to see Pixie.  Even Tsuyoshi – he was taking the picture

And then, finally, today I explored more of Tokyo.  I went to a bunch of out-of-the-way places, and it was completely worth it.  First I went to a crazy Soka Gakkai temple that was either a spaceship, a castle, or a samurai helmet.  Yay vaguely Buddhist cults!  Right by that was the headquarters of the Freemasons in Japan, which I wasn’t expecting, and as a fun bonus Tokyo Tower was right there too.  Then I went to Hama-Rikyu Park, maybe the most beautiful park I’ve ever been in.  Seriously.  Then I ended my day in Ginza: playing with the toys at the Sony Building, seeing the Toei Headquarters (the company that brought you Dragonball in all its incarnations, Sailor Moon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Digimon, among others), and eating at the Wendys that I ate at 2 years ago where I first found out I loved Melon Soda.


1 Ahhh the crazy Soka Gakkai building
2 Only 2 minutes away.  Creepy?  You tell me


1 The Tokyo Tower peeking out from the Masonic Lodge
2 Hama-Rikyu Park

Settling In – Part 2

September 15, 2008

(Continuing from the last entry)

Here’s a creepy/cool face statue near the entrance to my school.

That night I chatted up one of the Australians in my building (Matt – he’s living here in Tokyo for 3 months.  Why?  Tourism, he said.  He pretty much sleeps all day and then goes out at nights), and he took me around the area and showed me all the little holes in the wall, like the other grocery store and the hidden kaitenzushi place and his favorite ramen restaurant.

Yesterday I found a pretty large English bookstore and bought the Tokyo Lonely Planet guide, a collection of short Sci Fi stories, and two Japanese cookbooks, so that I can finally learn how to make Japanese food.  It will be hard, though – the ingredients are many, the preparation is difficult, and the kitchen in my guesthouse is gross.  But I’ll start off simple and work my way up.  Did you know that pretty much all Japanese food is cooked with Sake, Mirin, or Dashi?  Mirin is this stuff made from rice and shochu (a kind of alcohol), while Dashi is sort of a of fish stock.

Today I decided to walk around Ikebukuro, in the northern area of Tokyo.  I really liked it, because it was interesting and exciting and full of cool places and people, but it seemed a lot more down to earth.  Instead of being solely inhabited by the most fashionable youths in the world (like Harajuku or Shibuya) or yuppie businessmen (like Shinjuku), it’s a mix of all those people plus families and normal people.

Oh, and I caught a matsuri (festival) while I was there!

And yeah.  I have another day off tomorrow, but I really want to spend it with someone other than myself.  I’m emailing Ayano and this other girl that I met, along with some of the NCC Japanese students, but it’s hard without a cell phone because apparently it takes all Japanese people 2 DAYS to reply to messages.  I thought they were punctual?

Settling In – Part 1

September 14, 2008

I live in Sendagaya, which is technically Shibuya-ku, but it’s right by Yoyogi Koen and Harajuku.  For many of you that may be complete nonsense, so let me find a map.

Here we go:

I’m in a pretty neat neighborhood.  It’s an 8 minute walk to Yoyogi JR Station, which is surrounded by interesting stores and restaurants, and it’s a 60 second walk to the subway that I use (Kitasando Station), which goes to Shibuya (where my school is).  Around my guesthouse there’s bundles of convenience stores, a Subway (like, the restaurant), a Starbucks and other coffee shops, a little street full of shops (like a stationary store and a 99 yen grocery store and ramen restaurants), a Mos Burger, and a bunch more places I haven’t looked in yet.  And it’s interesting because business mix with the houses, so there will be an apartment, then a cement shop, then a house, then a fill-bags-with-rice place, then a book printing place, etc.

My guesthouse is pink and full of Australians, Koreans, and French people.  Here’s the guesthouse, and here’s the street it’s on.  The pink SAKURA HOUSE sign helps you if you’re lost.  Fill-bags-with-rice place is on the right there, with the red roof.

I live on the 4th floor, and have a small room (1st picture – it’s better decorated now) but a sweet view (2nd picture).

I went to orientation at school on Friday.  There’s 40 new international students this year, from places as different as Mongolia, Jordan, and Venezuela.  We met the International Programs Lady, Aya, who’s actually a foreigner because she was born in Canada.  But she grew up in Japan and speaks perfect Japanese and looks Japanese, so it’s gotta suck a little bit.  She lives here on a Canadian passport.  Then we met our tutor Ayano and she gave us a tour of campus.  It’s actually a really beautiful campus, full of tree-lined boulevards and old stone buildings and gardens, surrounded by the artsy skyscrapers of Aoyama and Shibuya.  Ayano’s pretty cool, and she’s even at the same level of Chinese as me, so we could theoretically speak in 3 languages, although Japanese dominated.  I used Chinese when I couldn’t remember something.

Good Times and Bad Times

September 10, 2008

Wow.

Malaysia was a relaxing time, a Suntory time.  We spent three days in Kuala Lumpur, one of which was actually Malaysia’s Independence Day.  We just kind of wandered around the city, taking it all in instead of trying to go see the “sights”, of which there were few anyways.  The highlight of Malaysia was the food; I had Malaysian, American, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Japanese, and it was all fantastic (although I think it was the food that made me sick the third day and prevented our day trip to Malacca).  Oh, that and the Brazilian-Chinese band that played in a cozy little club one of the nights, which was incredible.

After that Amanda and I flew to Guangzhou, China.  Air Asia is old school; it’s a budget airlines, and they get their own stupid budget terminal, and then we actually have to go outside to board the plane.  But it’s cheap.  So Guangzhou.  Maybe you know it as Canton?  (Cantonese language, and Chinatown-style food).  We went to a nice park and saw one of the most famous symbols of Guangzhou, a silly statue of 5 rams.  And the Guangzhou City Museum.  Then we saw a beautiful orchid garden, made better because it was devoid of people.  The highlight of this city was, again, the food; we had Cantonese style honey pork and fried rice, and also yum cha (where you sip tea and eat food) and dim sum (little bamboo baskets filled with food, like dumplings).  And I didn’t get sick!

Only a day and a half in Guangzhou, and then it was off to Beijing for 5 days.  It wasn’t even strange to be back anymore, it was just normal.  As if I had been expected back.  Of course, there were a million changes since even last year, let alone 2006.  The dumpling place is gone, there’s a karaoke place on campus, they’re tearing down the classrooms attached to the dorms, and the price of everything – EVERYTHING, no exceptions – has gone up, from taxis to food to clubs.  Stupid Olympics.  We did a lot of hanging out with China/Japan, going to karaoke and bars and whatnot, and mooching off a few of their trips – the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall.  We also went to see Ditan Park (the Temple of Earth) and the Drum & Bell Towers, where we met an Israeli physician working for the Paralympics.  He gave us (which we then gave to Mayumi) a ticket to see Wheelchair Basketball!  Actually, on our last day, Amanda and I did manage to see the Paralympics – track and field events in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, where an American won a 100 meter dash and a Belgian Princess put the medals on the winners.  It was pretty epic, and I’m glad I got to experience such a part of history.

While in Beijing, I got some sucky news; my dog Sheeba of 10 years had died.  She had some crazy internal diseases and tumors that just started manifesting over the past month or so.  I said a goodbye to her when I left for Asia knowing there was a good chance she wouldn’t make it until I got back, and unfortunately I was right.  She was an amazing dog, mostly because she was so cute and silly and ridiculous, as dogs tend to be.  I’ll miss her a lot, and it actually made me feel kind of lonely, knowing she was gone.  Partly because she was gone, and partly because it hurt my family so much; I wish I could have been there to say a real goodbye, and to share in my family’s pain.

I had a great time in Beijing, but to make things worse, Amanda and I had to go in different directions when it came time to go to Japan.  She flew to Kyoto while I went to Tokyo.  So now my dog is dead, my family is depressed, I had to leave my girlfriend, and I’m in a huge unforgiving city.  It kind of sobered me, and the loneliness just kind of piled on.  Not to be emo, but yeah, it’s just what happened.  I had to drag 80 fricking billion pounds of luggage all over Tokyo too, as I met Kensuke at Tamachi Station to stay the night at his apartment.  That made me feel better, though, because I realized that I had friends in this city.  I took a shower, we got some drinks (Chu-Hi) and snacks, and just talked, and by the end of the night I wasn’t so depressed.

The next day was today, and I lugged my fricking luggage all over Tokyo again, first to go to the Sakura House headquarters in Shinjuku to sign the lease and get my keys, then to Yoyogi (the Kitasando Station) to finally put my stuff down in my salmon-pink apartment, the stuff I had been dragging around Asia for almost 3 weeks.  That cheered me up too, to finally settle down and be in the place that I’ll be spending the next 6 months in.  It’s tiny, but there’s a big common room and kitchen and I’m looking forward to meeting lots of people; plus it’s got a pretty sweet view, and I’m literally only 60 seconds from the subway station that takes me to Shibuya (where my school is) in 6 minutes.  So it’s a pretty good commute!  I met Nina, Eri, and Yusuke at night for dinner at a French/Italian place and drinks at this pretty hip bar.  I forgot how cool and trendy Tokyo is.. ganbarimasu, me! Ha

Oh, and I lost my journal and one of my books.  I think I may have left it on the airplane, or in the Tokyo airport?  I don’t know, but I’m really missing them.

Tomorrow is orientation at Aoyama, and meeting my tutor (who may or may not have made sarcastic fun of me in an email, but maybe whatever they said just got lost in translation), and a campus tour, and my placement test.  I hope I do well.. business Japanese spring term was a joke, and I didn’t practice over the summer, but I’m not feeling too bad about it surprisingly.

I want to see Amanda.

Angkor

August 31, 2008

240

240

240

Impressions of Cambodia

August 27, 2008

Cambodia is a surprisingly charming place. After disembarking from the mostly empty plane on Monday, we met our driver who would pick us up and take us to our room for the night in Phnom Penh, the capital.

And I thought that Chinese people were terrible drivers.

Cambodia puts all other drivers to shame. As we weaved in and out of motorcycles and tuk-tuks (the motorcycle taxis with a carriage on the back), we would periodically drive in the lane of oncoming traffic, sneak through red lights, and go into turn lanes just to pass people. Despite that jolt to the senses, though, Phnom Penh was a fascinating place. Little shops lined French Colonial buildings with sidewalks made of tile and dusty streets as spires of twisted, curly Buddhist architecture waved to us from a distance. It was enthralling.

We arrived at our hotel on the riverside in between bars, restaurants, and internet cafes. We were given over to extravagance a bit, due to the low prices of Cambodia, and booked a room with a river view. We settled in, unloaded, and began our day at 9 am. Immediately as we walked outside a group of tuk-tuk drivers clustered around us and asked if we wanted a ride, a phenomenon that was not to abate. Amanda and I walked through the pounding heat, past vendors selling Lychee Fanta and Lonely Planet guide books, and quickly arrived at our first destination: the National Museum. It was a beautiful old building filled with centuries-old artifacts, but our visit there revealed just how poor this country was; floors were broken, walls were unstained, exhibits were poorly lit (if at all), there was no A/C, and it only took 30-40 minutes to view everything. That was their National Museum.

We explored the surrounding area after that, taking in the sounds and smells and wondering what the various rooftops and golden monuments signified. Cambodia’s architecture is different from that of other Asian cities I’ve been to, and I think it must be due to the French colonial influence. The buildings had Chinese-style bathroom tiles everywhere, but their ugliness was offset by the beautiful flowing balconies and colored walls.

Eventually we decided to move on and got the attention of a sleepy tuk-tuk driver (named Mr. Ny, we found out later) who was alone, away from the groups of others all clamoring for our attention. I only asked him to take us to Tuol Sleng Prison, but he offered to drive us to the killing fields of Cheong Ek as well, and to wait for us as we explored the prison. We didn’t expect that, but later learned (through 3 days of experience now) that you stick with a tuk-tuk driver all day.

So off we went to the prison, which was once a primary school, and soon the grim realities of the Khmer Rouge regime began to sink in. Run by the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge had evacuated Phnom Penh, destroyed an entire country’s way of life, and killed hundreds of thousands of their own people, all within a period of 4 years in the 1970s. I had heard of Pol Pot, but the torture beds and black and white photographs of beaten victims brought his regime to life; and isn’t that why I travel, to learn about the world first-hand? I guess so.

After that we had lunch at a restaurant across the street that obviously catered to tourists, but was still good, and Amanda and I had our first taste of Cambodian food – noodles with vegetables and two eggs in a mild vaguely-coconut sauce, with a slightly spicier dipping sauce. We finished, paid, and met Mr. Ny to take us to the Cheong Ek killing fields in the jungle, where prisoners were killed en masse. It took a half hour through dusty rural roads as we passed chickens and, strangely, exactly the same shops we saw in the middle of the city, selling everything from bottled coke to tiles to incense burners. It’s fascinating how their way of life remained unchanged, no matter where they were. A large city like Phnom Penh is nothing different from the countryside.

Once at the killing fields we gazed somberly at the tower of skulls and the swampy, unearthed death pits. It was a sad but necessary trip, as it put Cambodian history into perspective for us. From there Mr. Ny took us to the “Russian Market” for souvenirs (hello bootleg DVDs) and then to monkey-infested Wat Phnom temple, on top of a large hill. The oddest part of that visit occurred when I passed into the traditional heart of the temple – full of incense, bowing worshipers, and ancient wooden beams – only to see a silly flashing LED behind the statue of the Buddha, as if he were supposed to give off an aura of unexplainable mystery, and aura that can only be conveyed through swirling blue and pink lights.

Once we left there we asked Mr. Ny to take us back to the hotel. On the way back we started talking, and he eventually stopped driving as we ended up discussing life, love, work, and politics for a half hour. He had broken his arm in a scuffle with other tuk-tuk drivers in an attempt to get passengers, and that’s why we found him alone and not as pushy as the others. We learned that a tuk-tuk costs about $900, his wife works in a European clothes factory, Thailand stole Cambodia’s land, and he worked for himself. We had to part ways, though, so he dropped Amanda and I off and admonished us “Don’t separate!”.

Amanda and I finished off the night in style, with a dinner where the proceeds went to help Cambodian street children and a few drinks at a clever nearby bar. My day in Phnom Penh was unexpected and exhilarating, sad and gratifying, and full of interesting people, and I can honestly say that Cambodia has charmed me. This was a sentiment that would be challenged the next day – as our bus broke down for an hour and a half – and reinforced the day after, as I saw one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind deep in the jungle. And now it’s a sentiment that has lasted.

Singapore

August 24, 2008

I’m at City Backpacker’s Hostel north of downtown Singapore right now. Amanda and I have already spent a day here, and the day before yesterday we were in Seoul. We managed to see downtown, eat food that we missed, and see Meehyun and Hyuein again. Even though it was crazy rainy, I think our layover in Korea was quite successful.

As for Singapore, well, it’s very Chinese. More than I expected. There’s still crazy Chinese smells and skyscrapers made of tiles. But it’s different here; for one, we’re almost next to the equator, so the weather is perpetually hot and rainy all year round, and that affects the psyche, I’m sure. Also, besides Chinese people, there’s a very large percentage of Malays, Indians, and white expats that live here, and it makes for a fun mix. Everywhere we go are signs in English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil (from southern India). The food is fantastic, the city is clean, and there’s a surprising amount of history.

So yesterday Beehn and I basically spent our time downtown. We took pictures of the large and weird Merlion, went to the Asian Civilizations Museum, had Indian food for lunch, drank a Singapore Sling in the bar where it was invented (it was so British! and ot to throw peanut shells on the floor), spent a lot of time in a huge mall and bought a cool new wallet, saw a free concert by a Singaporean cover band that was amazing with a view of the skyline from where we were sitting, saw a 20 minute fireworks show with seriously the biggest fireworks I’ve ever seen (they filled the whole sky! and I could feel the aftershocks in my bones. it was crazy), and went to the super futuristic and hip Clarke Quay area for Cuban food and drinks.

Today will be cheaper, with Chinatown and Little India on the list, and tomorrow we head off to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I like this place.

Sometimes I feel really lucky that I get to do this kind of stuff..

Brookfield, Toronto, Niagara Falls, Monroe, and Tokyo

March 21, 2008

Going back to the beginning of March, I went to the Brookfield Zoo with Will and Amanda. It was the first time I had been there since I was a kid. Animals are so ridiculous; the only thing I could do there was laugh. Also – the zoo is right in the middle of suburbville, suburbia. It felt weird.


1 Stupid dolphins
2 Stupid dinosaurs

Then right before spring break started, I found out that Kyoto Gakuen University is only going to take 2 people instead of 3, like they had originally said. According to Matsubara, since I like big cities, she thought that Aoyama Gakuin University (in downtown Tokyo) would be better for me. After finding out that there is full immersion available (I can take normal classes with Japanese students), and the fact that my only other choice was Iwate, I decided to go with Aoyama. On the plus side, I’ll be in downtown Tokyo and I’ll be able to live in a guesthouse anywhere in Tokyo that I choose (skyscrapers right outside my window?). And Matsubara was right – I do prefer big cities. Also, Aoyama has a very good reputation in Japan, while most Japanese people have never heard of Kyoto Gakuen. On the downside, I will now be half a country away from Amanda, so poo on that. And the China/Japan group and Valeria and Ashley too. And while Aoyama is the 2nd or 3rd most rigorous program NCC offers, it’s not 1st. And it’s super expensive, although more scholarships and free money are available this year than in previous years.

Then spring break started, and Amanda and I went to Toronto. Which was pretty much cool as hell. It was big and skyscrapery and fun and colorful and artsy and unique and everything I like in a huge city. After the first day we went to Toronto’s first post office (where I wrote a letter to my parents with a quill pen and sealed it with wax!), saw the Stanley Cup at the Hockey Hall of Fame, went to a micronation (http://www.baronyofcaux.com/), went out for sushi and udon to celebrate one month together, saw a movie at a crazy movie theater, ate poutine, scaled the tallest building in the world, pet stupid dogs and cats, went to islands on Lake Ontario, and saw a show at The Second City (which was just as funny as the one in Chicago). In other words: go to Toronto! A world-class city that’s only an 8 hour drive from Chicago.

Here are some pictures that aren’t on facebook:


1 A store selling construction clothes in Kensington (the “hip” area of Toronto)
2 On a garbage can


1 The shadow of the CN Tower… from the CN Tower!
2 Friends in Toronto

After that we drove an hour and a half to Niagara Falls. It was beautiful, and the ice and green water made it almost surreal. Unfortunately after watching the falls and eating lunch we didn’t have much else to do, so we walked 30 minutes along the river to a random Buddhist Temple, the 10,000 Buddhas Temple or something like that. It was strange seeing a huge Asian complex peppered with Canadian flags among motels and suburban houses. After a nap on a Buddha statue, we walked back and I drove most of the 5 hours to Amanda’s mom’s house in Monroe, Michigan.

Some more non-facebook pictures:


1 A rainbow at the American Falls
2 Part of the Buddhist Temple

We spent the next 3 and a half days doing exactly what one should during spring break – relaxing and being lazy. I saw a lot of movies I had been wanting to see (including “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” and “Team America”), watched a lot of cartoons and kid shows (Yo Gabba Gabba!), ate a lot of good food, and played with two ridiculous dogs. Her mom and stepdad were really nice, which made the time even better. Eventually we had to leave, and so on Thursday afternoon Amanda drove us back to Chicago.

And that’s that

Toronto

March 14, 2008

Wow, somehow everything worked out! I guess I don’t know what I expected.

The border:
[Give the guard our passports]
Guard – “Where are you going? How long will you be here? For what purpose? Where are you staying?”
Us –


Guard – “Ok”

And we were in Canada! The land that looks just like America, except for fun little differences. Like people have a vague Minnesota/Irish accent sometimes, the highway numbers are inside of crowns, and the nickels and quarters look the freaking same. We look just like Canadians until we attempt to buy something, rummaging around through our coins like foreigners.

So after walking around Chinatown and Kensington Market (the hip area where Amanda bought me a scarf) and the University of Toronto and walking down Yonge St. through all the skyscrapers, we went to Tim Horton’s for dinner (a fast food chain we felt obligated to eat at since they’re everywhere) and then to a bar called C’est What? for some odd tasting beers. A pint!

Also, Toronto is very colorful, artsy, Asian, and at times gay. I don’t know why Zachary Johnson doesn’t live here.

Found in Beijing

January 18, 2008

I made a video of Beijing that I put together from clips around the city. I think it’s pretty good:

Found in Beijing

A Third of a Year

December 21, 2007

Hey look at that! I leave tomorrow. That was fast.

My last week was filled with lastweek-esque stuff. Getting little details worked out, seeing friends as often as possible, doing things for the “last time in China” (last dinner in China, last homework in China, last poop in China, etc.). Things of that nature. Had a last fun hangout in my room on Wednesday night, and saw friends for the very last time today. I’m gonna miss them; now I know what it feels like to be a foreigner coming to North Central and bonding with the other foreigners.

And I got my grades back:
口语 (speaking): 85
汉语 (general): 82
阅读 (reading): 70
That reading class was the ridiculous one, the one that had no plan or direction and just threw characters at me left and right. We had an evaluation form to fill out at the end of that class, and one of the questions was “What percentage of characters in an essay should be new, or more difficult?” (we read about one or two essays a week, and analyzed them). The lowest available multiple choice answer was 10%. 10%! Most essays were 500-1000 words, meaning that 50-100 were going to be ones I didn’t recognize. What? That’s how it was for me at the beginning of the term at least, and I’m proud to say that I’ve improved a lot since then. That 70 was damn hard to get. It is the first C I have ever gotten for a class though…

I don’t really want to do an over-arching summary of my time here. It was great, China’s weird, I learned a lot, and I know that I love both China and the U.S. more after this. I made new friends and ate a lot of dumplings. I went to church and explored Beijing. Overall, a very worthwhile experience.

Hey, flight tomorrow! Man. I decided to go with Air China, just to see what it’s like. My hope is that it’ll exude the professionalism of JAL, but I’m sure that in reality there will be people smoking in the cabins and bored, uninterested flight attendants. I bought an 800 page Dune prequel to pass the time (“The Machine Crusade”).

Some last pics from 中华人民共和国:


Taisi (my Cuban friend) at karaoke last Friday night


Rongmei (a Chinese friend) and me in my room on Wednesday


My last dinner in Beijing – Dumplings and Won Jiye. Wait.

一会儿见


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