Checking out the Neighborhood – The PreMove Day 2

I do enjoy taking pictures, and I even have a nice Canon camera that I pull out for time to time when I know I am going to experience some opportunities for great pictures. Most of the time though, I just take my phone around and I feel like I can take some pretty nice pictures that I can use while working on this blog. While I am traveling, I usually take anywhere for ten to fifty pictures a day, and I can sort through them to bring you the best of what I have experienced.

This was not the case this time around.

I know why I didn’t take as many pictures. I was pretty busy looking at different houses that I could possibly move into, meeting new colleagues that I will be working with next year, and getting a tour of the school. All of these were great reasons to pull out the phone and take some pictures. I could look at the different houses, and compare them to others I would see tomorrow. I can take picture of the people I will be working with and show them to my family to let them know that I would be working with sane people. I could have taken pictures of the school to show others the beautiful campus that I will get to work on next year. Instead, the only time I pulled out the phone to take a picture was to snap a shot of a cock fighting ring and two run down houses on a river that is pretty close to the school.

I know that these pictures are a piece of Thailand, and there are many places like this all over the town, but this is not a complete picture of what is happening out in Bangkok. The houses that I got to look at were all two story with three bedrooms and two full bathrooms. They were full furnished and even came with a small lawn that I had not been able to experience in a long time. They sat next to neighborhoods with large mansions and houses so big that I did not believe that they could exist in any culture. The strange thing about all of them was that they all existed so close to each other that it seemed as if there was no line between social classes in Bangkok. I know that they exist and it is sad to see, but at the same time, it did not seem to disturb any of the people that were living in the neighborhood. It was just a part of what made it the neighborhood.

I wish I had more pictures to show you because it is truly a beautiful place, and the visit out made me excited for the change I am making in my life. We were not able to find a new place this first day out here, but the school is really amazing, and the neighborhood that it is in will make a wonderful diverse home for next year. I am glad I came out to prepare for this big leap and I do think it will make things easier in the coming months.

Basketball at Airports – The PreMove Day 1

I have known for quite some time that I would be making a big change in my life. I have been living in Seoul for the last four years and teaching at a great international school there, Korea International School, but it was time for me to move on as a person and as a teacher. I was in fear of growing complacent at the school I was working in because the years were starting to become routine, and I needed to find a new challenge so I could remain relevant as a teacher. I also needed a new adventure, so I looked into new jobs last October and found a new position in Bangkok in December. I did not want to say anything about it until the school year started to wind down because that knowledge compromises what I can do in the classroom, so this is the first time I have made the information public.

I am pretty excited about the move, but it does cause some stress in my life as I try to get everything together for my new job while wrapping up the school year at my old school. Luckily for me, KIS has three day weekend in May and I took the opportunity to move a lot of my stuff to my new school to make the transition a little easier. So I loaded up way too much stuff for a weekend trip on a budget airline and flew down to Thailand to look at my new school, my new neighborhood, and meet some new colleagues and get some paperwork taken care of. It will make for a busy weekend, but it will make things easier in the future.

I left Friday night to get the most of the weekend, but before I left, I had a couple of hours to kill in an airport. Most of you know that I come from Denver, Colorado originally and love the sports teams out there. And if you are following the NBA and the NHL, you know that Colorado is having a year that they have not experienced in a long time. The Nuggets look like serious contenders for the first time ever, and I wanted to watch the game. So I pulled out my tablet, found a place near my gate, and started watching the game.

It seems like a boring story I know, but it was the reaction of the Koreans that made my evening complete. The NBA is huge in Korea and there are many times that I have to tell my students to turn the game off and focus on the work of the classroom. The adults always love the opportunity to watch a game, so when they saw that some random waegookan was watching the Nuggets/Portland matchup from earlier that day, they started to gather around me to watch a play or two. I didn’t get to finish the game before my fight left, but I did have a couple of people peer over my shoulder to pass the time they were forced at an airport.

It is those small things that I am going to miss when I make the move to Bangkok. South Korea has been frustrating at times, but that is true for a lot of places in the world. But I found that I need to ignore those things that frustrate me, and focus on the moments that make me smile. If I do that in Thailand, it will be an experience like no other over the next couple of years.

I am excited to see where this weekend will take me, and I am excited to take that first step towards a new adventure. The weekend will probably fly by really quick, but I should take the time to pause and watch what life presents me. I will find those small moments that make life worth treasuring.

Cherry Blossoms – Day to Japan Day 8

Seeing the cherry blossoms in Japan is on a lot of people’s bucket list and I always wondered what made them so special. They happen in other places in the world around the same time. In fact, I have seen them pop out every Spring that I have lived in Korea, and yes, they are pretty, but to put it on my bucket list of things to do before I die seemed a little absurd. But to the Japanese people, this annual event is something to get excited about.

It is a completely different feeling being in Tokyo during Sakura, or the cherry blossoming season. It only lasts for a couple of weeks, but people make the most out of it while they can, and they are also so happy throughout the course of this natural event. You will see people walking around with cameras all over the city, getting ready to take that perfect shot of the tress exploding in pink and white. They also gather in the parks during the night to celebrate with each other with picnics and the sharing of drinks.

I think the best way to describe it is by talking about this older couple I witnessed at one of the parks during my stay in Japan. They did not move quickly, and they were bent over from years of hard work. The man held his cane in one hand, and his wife grabbed his other arm as the walked among the lanterns that Tokyo had put out to highlight the blooming of the Sakura. I like to think that they did not make it out of the house very much, but this was an event that they would not miss ever. As they shuffled down the park’s path, they had huge smiles on their faces as they peered this way and that to take in the beauty that was before them. The moment was truly magical for them, and I am sure that they had seen it every year of their lives, and every year, it was just as spectacular.

This is like Japan’s Christmas season, except the nature that they witness marks the coming of Spring and warmer weather. It does have that feeling of going out and looking at the Christmas lights during a snowstorm, except that it is not as cold outside, and I was a lot more comfortable taking in the views.

The whole city is not covered in Sakura, and I did come across the occasional lone tree making its mark. There are many places where the blooms really hit, and these are the places where people come together every night. Each one of the locations has its own charm and its own excitement, but there are tons of people gathered at each spot to enjoy the mark of this celebration before it disappears for another year.

The ancient architecture adds to the excitement, as I was able to see the cherry blossoms frame some of the bigger shrines and extend out over some of there gates. I have not seen this same appeal in Korea even though I bet there are places where it does exist. They just seemed to go hand in hand in Tokyo.

They are not only fun at night, but it is still quite the sight to see during the day. I think I was out there during the height of the bloom as I was able to travel down one of the streets and see the trees line the canals of Tokyo.

One of the best ways to enjoy them is to go out on the canals in a kayak, and get up close to them hanging out over the water. It was a great way to spend the morning while getting a little exercise. There are also a lot of tour boats that travel up and down these canals, and many of the guests would wave at us as they traveled on by. But it was the pre-school children that were my favorite. The path that we took went by many of the schools, and the teachers took the time to take the kids out on walks to enjoy the Sakura as well. Any time they saw us, they would wave at us and say the only two English words that they knew, “Hi” and “Goodbye” when we drifted away. It just added to the joy of the moment.

So I knew that by coming out to Japan with the goal of seeing the cherry blossoms, I would be something really pretty. What I did not know was I would be caught up in the excitement of the city celebrating one of their favorite times of the year. I learned why many people put this on their bucket list, and I am glad I got to experience it once in my lifetime. It has made this trip to Japan probably my favorite one that I have been on so far, and it is going to be hard to beat the calling of Spring with the Sakura if I ever get the chance to come back again.

Goodbye, Japan, and thank you for the wonderful trip.

 

Let’s Talk About Food – Back to Japan Day 7

 

There are certain places in the world that people think of when they think of food, Italy, France, Thailand, and most definitely Japan. The culinary delights that can be explored in this country seems to be unlimited, and it would take a lifetime to explore them all. Each of them offer new tantalizing tastes that will make your bud sing, and a blog itself would have to be dedicated to the many ways food is offered in this country.

Of course, when the common man thinks about Japanese food, the first thing that comes to mind is sushi. It is an exotic dish in the United States, but it is not as big of a deal in Japan. Even though there are many fancy restaurants that can be found that serve this dish, it is considered more something that a person can grab for a quick lunch or even breakfast. My favorite way to eat sushi out here is to find the places that sit everybody around the cooks who constantly place various plates on a conveyor belt. You just pull off what looks good, and then the add up the plates, you pay and you go. It keeps everybody happy, and it is a fun way to eat sushi.

Another fun dish to have is okonomiyaki. This is kind of like a pancake made with dry rice as the main ingredient, but there are many other things that they throw into them. You mix them up in a bowl, and the cook them at your table. You can get healthy choices with fish and vegetables, or you can go the route that I went and load it up with a bunch of different meats. There is a really good restaurant that serves this in Harajuku called Sakura Tei. It is a little hard to find because it is hidden well among art galleries, but it might be one of my favorite restaurants in the world because of the food, atmosphere, and fun of making my own savory pancake.

I was also able to experience a lot of street food on this trip to Japan. Anywhere the cherry blossoms come out, they set up a festival for the two weeks that it happens. The booths come out and a variety of food is offered. You can find anything from ramen to fried potato swirls. It is also a fun way to dine because you get to jump into the festivities going on around you, and everybody can find something that they will enjoy.

Speaking of noodles, Japan offers many different types of them from cold buckwheat noodles to think steaming bowls of udon noodles. During the summer months, the colder options are great, but on this trip there was a little bit of winter still in the air, and I enjoyed the hot udon noodles. Many times they are served with some tempura to make a great meal anytime of the day.

Japan is also well known for its Kobe beef. This might be the most tender steak that I have ever had. It just melts in your mouth, and it is worth every penny I spent on it. The rumor behind why this beef is so tender is because the ranchers who raise these cows will feed them beer and massage them while they are alive. It makes the beef tender, and it makes me happy that at least the cow had a happy drunken life while still alive.

Basically, it does not matter where you go in Japan; there is going to be something amazing waiting for you. You just need to be a little adventuresome because you might not always know what it is you will be getting. There are many traditional Japanese dishes out there, but this a very creative country, and I always come across something new that quickly becomes my favorite new dish. The food alone makes coming out here worth it.

They Can’t Shut Us Down – Back to Japan Day 6

Early shoppers at Tsujuki Fish Market

One of the most memorable experiences of my first visit to Japan was visiting the fish market in Tsujuki. It was a big warehouse where all the day’s catch would be brought in to be chopped up and sold to the local markets and restaurants. It was a crazy experience of fishermen and butchers working in harmony with buyers who were looking for the perfect fillet of spicy tuna. It smelled a little of fish, but it was an experience that always stuck with me. Recently, this old market shut down and moved off to a new location. It was a big event that was talked about in all of the newspapers around the world because Tsujuki was one of the oldest and largest fish markets in the world. It could be destructive to this iconic part of Tokyo, but the restaurants and shops that established themselves over the years were not going to let the place shut down that quietly.

Namiyoke Inari Shrine on the edge of the Tsujuki Fish Market.

There are still three blocks of merchants that get up early every morning to open up their shops and welcome the crowds that make their way down there. The shrine on the corner of the market is still visited by these same people to give out a quick prayer before they set off for the day. And more importantly the crowds of people still come down to this place to snap pictures and enjoy the food that is here.

A crab kissing a fish.

The smell of fresh fish still lingers in this corner of the city even though the buyers have left it behind, but there are still numerous sushi restaurants that open their doors at 5:00 in the morning to serve breakfast, and the old statues are still hanging from the buildings. It is not only fish that they sell here either. There are many stores that offer fresh coffee, tea or ice cream. Vendors also bring in fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as all of the appliances needed in order to make the meals you want with all the fresh food that you just bought. Of course, there are the shops that sell the silly tourist things like t-shirts and trinkets, but that is not the main focus of this place.

Snow crab being prepared for me on the street of the Tsujuki Fish Market.

It is all about the food, and some of the best bites that this place has to offer are prepared on the street. They will make egg on a stick, thin slices of Kobe beef, and various types of fish of course. My favorite was the fresh snow crab that was fried in oil, and then put on a big pat of butter before smothered in soy sauce before it was all glazed right in front of me. It was served with a little bit of Dijon mustard, and would have been considered gourmet anywhere else in the world. But here it is just street food. It is this grounded feeling that this neighborhood has that makes sure that it will always last even though the fish market has moved to another part of the city.

A Change of Pace – Back to Japan Day 4

Statue outside of Futarasan Shrine in Nikko National Park.

If I haven’t said it before, I will say again right now. I really enjoyed Nikko, Japan. It is a beautiful town set in a beautiful part of Japan with friendly people and great food. There is enough culture here to make my time that I spent there not only rewarding but fun at the same time. There are many places that I would go back to if I ever find myself in Japan again, but Nikko would have to be the top of my list. I could have spent more time among the cedar trees and just soaking in the mountain air, but this is not the reason I came out to Japan in the first place. I was here to see the cherry blossoms, and I had yet to really experience this on this trip and I wasn’t going to find it in Nikko.

A path through the cedar trees in Nikko National Park.

So I said goodbye to this wonderful small town, got on the train and headed off to Tokyo to where I knew the cherry blossoms would be. Now, I have been to Tokyo on a couple of other occasions, and it seems to get better every time I head back there, so even though I was leaving behind Nikko, I was excited to see what adventure awaited me this time.

The view from my place in Tsukiji.

First off, getting to Tokyo is a big change from the quiet atmosphere of the mountain town I was just in. Depending on what source you look at, Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, if not the biggest. So the tall cedars and wide open spaces were replaced by tall buildings, and big crowds. I have found that the best way to explore this city is to find one little neighborhood to go to and see what it has to offer. This time I am going to stay in Tsukiji next to the old fish market, and close to Ginza, one of the bigger shopping centers in town. I am close to the subways, but I know that I will not be able to see all of this town, so I will just have to pick and choose what to do while I am here.

Stairs outside of a shop in the neighborhood of Harajuku.

But I do not think that it really matters where I stay because the one thing I know about this town is that the people are individuals and like to think of new and exciting ways to express themselves. Every corner I turn I know I will see something that will make me smile and make me laugh. There are surprises that I will find here. I have been here for only a couple of hours, and I have already had some great food, seen some strange sights, and have even run into one of my students. It is a great way to start this part of my adventure.

The Happiest Place on Earth – Back to Japan Day 5

I am told that when I was really young, my parents took me to Disneyland with my siblings. I don’t remember anything from this event, and I believed that this would always be my experience with the collection of theme parks around the world. It always looms in the background every time I travel to Tokyo or Hong Kong. Posters are plastered in the airport and many of the bigger subway stops that I should go out and enjoy a day out there, but I always heard that it was something more for small children and there were other places that I wanted to go and see. Well, yesterday, I finally bit the bullet and went out to see what this place was all about by going to the Tokyo version of this theme park.

First of all, know that if you want to go to the Tokyo Disneyland, it gets really busy, and if you do not have tickets, you may want to get them before you arrive. You can still go up to the ticket counter and buy them the day of, but I would suggest that you get there at 8:00 in the morning because I have heard that they quit selling tickets when the park reaches capacity.

Otherwise, I can see why kids want to come to this place. I could see it on the subway train that I took out to the park. As soon as we reached the stop, the kids on the train started to get really excited and could barely wait for the train doors to open. As soon as we got off, a line of palm trees guided the way to the front door, and the blue skies made it feel like I was in southern California and not Japan. But then the Japanese love of Disney took over.

Groups of kids come to this park and they all dress alike so everybody knows that they are together. There were many times I saw groups of Japanese teenagers all dressed in school uniforms and all this the same hats on walking around together. It was a weird little touch, and I do not think that I would have seen the same thing if I was in the one in California.

For awhile, I thought it was Disney law that everybody wear some kind of hat gear. There were many headbands with various ears on them, or hats that showed the heads of various Disney characters, but then when you looked at the back of them, they would have little stuffed doll bodies of the heads that they wore. I refrained from buying one because I could not see myself wearing it anywhere but the park that we already were in.

I didn’t really know how the park worked, but I dreaded the long lines for the rides. I was introduced to the fast track program that was out there soon though. Basically, you can take your ticket and get a pass for a ride at a certain time so you don’t have to wait in line as long. The only problem is that you can only do it once every couple of hours, so the rest of the time you have to spend you time standing in line. It is great when you get to use them because then it makes you feel as if you are special and you can just walk right in, but standing in the standby line really stinks. They will give you an estimate for how long it will take, but it is always longer than the time that they give. I stood in one line for the Thunder Mountain Train for three hours. This is not the best way to spend your time at the Happiest Place on Earth.

The problem with the fast track tickets at Tokyo Disneyland is that they run out of them around noon because the places are already booked, so they close up the stands where you can pick them up. It meant that I got to spend most of the night and the afternoon standing in line. It seems like this is the major theme of this theme park. You have to stand in line for the rides, food, and even the bathroom. It makes the day exhausting and my feet are really feeling it today.

For the most part, I am glad that I got to experience a Disneyland at least once in my life. I do not know when I will be back again, but at least I can now know what it means to be at one of these iconic parks.