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Seoul

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Seoul:

Bitterly cold, dropping below zero when the sun set.

Buying a $9 scarf in a train station and waddling around in three sweaters and a headband all the time.

Visiting the shopping district at night, filled with giant department store-sized buildings whose halls were lined with stalls selling clothing ranging in price from $15-$90. Some of the buildings wouldn’t let me in, and the other buildings I went in were mostly empty and the stall vendors were preoccupied with sorting through giant trash bags filled with clothing.

Drinking mochas and editing Japan photos in Coffee Smith, located on a really nice shopping street, shades of Robson in Vancouver.

The countless ads for plastic surgery lining the walls of metro stations in wealthier areas. I heard that 1 in 5 women in Seoul has had some form of plastic surgery.

Walking for hours along the “urban stream” that runs through the city. Originally used by women to do washing, and then lined with shanties in the 1960s, the stream was covered with a highway and then uncovered and turned into a park.

Stopping at a little grocery store every night and buying two pomegranates.

Meeting up with Alex and talking about nothing but Japan.

Eating grilled meat and kimchi stew with Alex. At that place my phone fell out of backpack (not even that far!) and the screen cracked. I became just like the girls on Gallery Girls.

Learning Alex knew a lot about K-Pop so every time I saw an ad I would yell WHO IS THAT and she would tell me all about them. Her favourite boy group is Super Junior.

The strange weather where the clouds were flat and heavy and the air had that strange dense quality to it. Later that evening I told some South African girls that it had been “trying to snow” and they thought that was the funniest phrase ever. “How can it be trying?!”

Watching the MNET Asian Music Awards with Mr. Lee, the guy who ran the hostel I was staying at, and another girl that also worked there. Mr. Lee’s funny dog snuggling up to me and I getting to see all the music stars Alex had taught me about that day. The girl watching with me loved Super Junior too, and Mr. Lee teased her about how her favourite member had to join the army (because of Korea’s mandatory service) and there was a “comedy fat option” member, who they had eating a basket of bread.

I liked Seoul a lot but I was really antsy to get to Vietnam.

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Alex in Seoul

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Alex is a model/writer/photographer/fashion icon from Seattle who was working in Seoul while I was there. I met her through Anja, who took some pretty amazing portraits of Alex in Portland. Anja insisted that Alex and I would get along and she was absolutely correct. After we had established that I liked taking photos of people and that she liked to pose, our day was pretty much set. We visited some tourist sites, green and red and cream wooden palaces, ate BBQ sitting on the floor around a charcoal grill, and Alex demonstrated her love for K-Pop during a visit to a neighbourhood idol shop. Girl is legit– back in Seattle she hosted JK POP, a Japanese and Korean pop music dance night.

We ended the day at dusk in the presence of a monument dedicated to the man who created hangul, the Korean alphabet. The air was still and heavy and hinted at snow. I believe it actually did snow, a few days later, and that strange tense feeling of the impending weather revisited me while reading Alex’s blog entries about the frigid Seoul temperatures.

Alex writes about her life in Japan and posts her lovely photography on her blog. I’m crossing my fingers that Alex and I will cross paths on the streets of Tokyo sometime in the near future– the dream!

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Busan, Korea

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Spending time with Nina and her crew in Busan, basically pretending I lived there, eating poms and mikans in my little apartment at night and watching Laguna Beach and hearing the rooster crow from the courtyard.

Eating BBQ at the place across the street and flicking the tab off the soju lid.

Drinking soju and wanting to die from the brutal hangover the next day.

Making fun of everything and making Danielle crack up in her cute way.

Going out with all the expats and wearing fake glasses, because why not?

Dancing to ABBA in every single cab we took.

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Jagalchi Market (part 3)

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Jagalchi Market (part 2)

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From my journal:

On the other side of the hostel is an absolutely incredible fish market, with pretty much everything you can imagine in it. It’s alternately disgusting, fascinating and totally engrossing. The worst thing I saw was a lady with a nail on a stick exploding fish eyeballs, that was about the only thing that really made me gag. I feel bad for the live octopus in the buckets, you know those guys are super smart and they are probably just running math equations in their heads to pass the time. Most of the stalls are run by really old ladies in kerchiefs, bundled up in many layers. They’re cute but look like they’ve had a hard life. I couldn’t imagine being up to my elbows in fish juice every day. 

The other day I was determined to eat at one of the little stalls in the market. I marched up to the first lady that gave me a warm smile and talked $10 off an already expensive meal. I sat down and watched as she grabbed wriggling snake-like fish that looked like eels but seemed closer to lampreys and skinned and filleted them right then and there. Then she tossed them in a skillet, added onions and scallions, and fried it up with a fiery red sauce. She placed this on a heater on the table in front of me and added a few plates of raw vegetables and lettuce leaves. It was tasty but boiling hot and quite spicy, so I could hardly get a feel for the flavour of the fish. An interesting experience to be sure, but my last, I think.

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Jagalchi Market, Busan, Korea

 

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Japan Round Up

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I feel so lucky I had so much time to see Japan. I explored all four major islands. I went to 20 out of the 47 prefectures. Of course, there are still many places I missed out on, like the rainforests of Yakushima and the sand dunes of Tottori and the tropics of Okinawa and countless beautiful but utterly unaffordable onsens and ryokans, but I recognize I saw more of Japan in a few months than many of her residents see in their lifetimes.

I traveled throughout Kansai, to Kobe and Kyoto and Osaka, feeling the excitement of being somewhere different and exotic with friends old and new, then wandered the endless streets of Tokyo feeling alone and sort of sad and totally overwhelmed. I stayed in a crumbling old onsen set in the autumn foliage of the Tochigi mountains, toured the quaint thatched homes of Shirakawago and crept up to furry Macaques relaxing in hot springs near Nagano. I traversed bridges and islands on a bicycle to Shikoku and later returned to take in the art of Naoshima. I traveled north all the way to Hokkaido, where I staved off the chill of the impending winter at ramen joints with names like “Snow Wind”, and south, down to Kagoshima, where I watched thousands of revellers dance in the shadow of an active volcano, and to Beppu, where steam venting from the earth whirls in the streets.

After the cut is my humble attempt to sum up Japan, including the places I stayed, the karaoke I sang, the onsens in which I reclined, and unedited (possibly) never before published excerpts from my journal. Also, perhaps best of all, the collection of purikura (Japanese photo booths) I did with my new friends all over Japan! Continue Reading →

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Nagawa Fish Market

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One of the last things I did in Fukuoka was visit the Nagawa fish market. This is a once a month market that the Tabicolle hostel suggested I check out. I thought it might be super touristy but everyone else seemed to be there for the fish. There’s a similar market in Tokyo called Tsukiji, which comes highly recommended, but everything I read about it lamented the presence of gawking tourists getting in the way of the actual buying and selling, so when I was in the city I took a pass.

I was told to go early, so I arrived around 7:30am, and there was already a decent sized line waiting to enter the still-closed market. I finished reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover until the place opened a few hours later (seriously, my e-reader was the best thing I brought traveling) and everyone rushed inside, presumably to get the best deals. Nagawa Market was pretty great, with lots of weird sea creatures and some gigantic fish: I saw a guy smash an enormous (like, German Shepard-sized) fish in the head with a spiked club, then kick it, heft it onto a board and just start sawing into it. It was PRIMAL. I saw silvery eels, giant tunas, clams and cockles and oysters, red rubbery octopus and slender slimy squid, jostling elbow to elbow with obaachans and ojisans alike.

Everyone was really friendly, even as I crashed through the crowd with my giant backpack. I had planned on going in and just staying out of the way, but the fishermen were posing with their fish for me and the girls were making peace signs and everyone but one shy guy said yes to having their photo taken.

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Camp Chuby [film]

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Camp Chuby (choo-bee, meaning cute) is a little pre-War cabin perched on the southern shores of Alta Lake in Whistler. While most of the wood cabins of bygone days have been replaced by modern multi-million dollar structures with gleaming glass and pristine decks, our chuby cabin has been in the same family for generations, retaining a rustic charm elevated by a quirky collection of furniture, linens, art and dishware lovingly gathered throughout the years.

We spent the weekend sunbathing, sipping Ginny Craigs (gin and sodas) and Micheladas, BBQing, hanging out with Tora, the gentle giant dog from next door, and paddling around the lake, blissfully unaware of the bustle of Whistler village just across the highway. I picked up an Olympus Stylus Epic point-and-shoot at Value Village the week before and Camp Chuby was the perfect place to shoot a test roll. The camera passed with flying colours—I think I will be keeping it in my purse for the rest of the summer.

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The Sumo Beya

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Mary, the girl I with whom I had traveled from Kagoshima, read there was a sumo tournament in Fukuoka but discovered it started after she left, so I suggested we look into going to a practice. I had read about visiting a sumo beya (stable) and the guy at our hostel was nice enough to call, confirm that we were able to visit and even arranged a cab for us the next morning.

The taxi picked us up at 6:30am. We had been told practice was from 5:30am to 8:00am and I was worried if we went any later we might have trouble finding the stable and get lost or show up really late. However, it was relatively easy to find, as I spotted the flag for it flying above the street right away. We walked up a small path, and on one side was an absolutely bare bones building and on the other was a shrine with a walled-in compound alongside it. There was no one else around.

I thought maybe there would be a reception area or something but there wasn’t even an obvious entry, just a sliding door and some windows on the side of the plain building. I crept up the steps and peered inside and to my surprise, saw an enormous man sprawled on the floor, stretching it out in a robe.

I ran back down to Mary.

“They’re all lying on the floor, stretching. I don’t want to interrupt. I’m not sure what to do.”

She shrugged so I went up the stairs again. A sumo inside looked me in the eye, didn’t blink and turned away. Not good. I went back down the stairs again.

“I really don’t know what to do.” I said.

Suddenly we heard someone approaching from the shrine. An extremely rotund young man with his hair in the sumo knot wearing a robe was coming from the shrine to the stable. I approached him gently, pointing at the stable and myself, and tried to ask him, “Is it okay?” in Japanese.

He laughed softly and replied in Japanese.

Gomen nasai… wakarimasen.” I said, smiling. I don’t understand!

He lifted seven fingers. “Seven!” He said and then went inside.

So, we were just a bit early was all. We wandered off to find a conbini and some snacks.

When we returned there was a man in a track suit sitting inside and another sumo outside who happily let us in and even placed my shoes in the proper spot for me. The sumos all had cute surprised looks on their faces at the sight of us. The beya was very simple inside: a rectangular area with a dirt floor, a sumo ring in the centre, and on our side of the room was a raised platform covered in tatami. We grabbed some pillows from the corner and sat down to watch. My plan for watching was to sit as quietly and motionless as possible, not really having a clue what the standard behaviour was for attending such an event.

The sumos were very close to us. Their practice was quite self run, the coach sitting on the tatami platform in his track suit, taking notes, occasionally shouting instructions, but otherwise simply observing. There was some sumos who were obviously higher ranking and when they walked into the room everyone bowed and greeted them respectfully.

They did a variety of exercises. Some of them squatted low, then charged foreward, slapping the air. Others did intense amounts of squats. One sumo stood near the platform and raised his leg to the side, as high as his head, over and over and over. Keep in mind everyone was wearing those tiny loincloths (called a mawashi) and nothing else. When this guy lifted his leg up all that separated his worldly goods from our eyes was a tiny strip of white cloth. Scandalous.

They started doing some sparring, which was interesting. I didn’t realize grabbing the mawashi was a legit move. One guy got a nasty scratch down his side during a grapple. The fights were over fast, but you could see incredible muscles straining in their legs. That was another surprising thing, the guys had girth, to be sure, but when they squatted you could see tons of muscle in their lower half. The biggest sumo there was huge, more than 6ft and with at least three sizable rolls down his front but he also had the sweetest smile and rushed over after practice to ask where we were from.

Maybe a half hour in, a mother came in with two young daughters and they watched the practice for maybe 20 minutes. The coach was very friendly to them, so I think it was more of a relaxed atmosphere after all, but I didn’t want to take any chances in being that tourist. I didn’t even take any photos, aside from a few discreet cell phone pics at the very end, as there was never an opportunity to ask if it was okay.

Near the end another mom came in with a toddler and little guy who was maybe in grade 2 or 3. The coach gave him a big smile and slid his pillow over for the kid to sit on. The sumos were winding down their practice, and were in the midst of some intense push ups. The coach started chatting with the little boy, asking him, I’m assuming, if he liked sumo and what not. The sumos got up and started doing what I can only describe as “ground pounds”, where they lift their legs to the side and then pound the ground with their feet, and the coach encouraged the little boy to try it out too. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the cutest thing I’ve ever seen, the skinniest shrimp of a boy in his school outfit squatting down and smashing the floor as hard as he can while facing down a dozen enormous men in loincloths who can barely contain their delighted laughter at the sight of him. Probably one of my favourite moments in Japan, without a doubt.

Here’s another crazy thing: sumos can DO THE SPLITS. Completely! They are so flexible. The coach got the little boy to do the splits too, you could tell the kid was LOVING it. The mom came back in and was cracking up watching it all. It was so sweet.

The practice ended and a few sumos came over and started asking us questions, though unfortunately my comprehension ended at “Where are you from?” They were just as excited as any other Japanese person. “CANADA!” The coach tried talking to me too, but all I could manage was to tell him it was interesting. Certainly an understatement!

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