The Start of a Lifelong Love Affair – Japan

Oh Wow. Japan. What an amazing country. It has always been a place that I wanted to visit but little did I realise how much I NEEDED to visit the country. The history, the culture, the sights, the food, the Shinkansen.. everything has just worked its way into my heart and I have a feeling will be staying put for a long time to come.

Anyhow, we planned to spend a week in Japan – leaving Songdo late on a Wednesday night and returning first thing the following Thursday and we packed in a lot, so Japan is going to be the subject of my next few posts, starting with pre-departure.

Planning the trip started off pretty easily – we wanted to visit our friends in Tokyo before they moved back to The States and to minimise the days off that Raj needed, we decided to go over the long Children’s Day weekend in Korea – but this did mean that flights were slightly more expensive than usual for this 2.5 hour flight. We later realised that our trip also coincided with the tail end of ‘Golden Week’ in Japan. It worked out great for us, as it meant that Tokyo was nice and quiet (although restaurants had a habit of closing early on us) and when we moved onto Kyoto, it was a teeny-tiny bit quieter.

We made the decision to pack in some travel and so, I ordered JR Passes from http://www.jrpass.com on Friday morning. By Monday lunchtime (for an additional fee of $19) FedEx had dropped the exchange vouchers into my hands. You need to make sure that you get the ‘temporary visitor’ stamp in your passport upon entering Japan and then take your passport with you when you go to exchange the voucher for the actual pass. You have to choose the day your pass starts and for us, we started it immediately as we had exactly 7 days to use it in. This meant that we could use it on the Yamanote Line within Tokyo as well, which definitely saved us $$$.

We also got Suica cards (The Japanese T-Money Card equivalent) for all the inbetween journies and although you can return them to get your deposit back (500 JPY) we kept ours for future visits.

IMG_5564Once in Japan, unlike in Korea, Google Maps is your friend. If you aren’t using roaming on your cellphone (we had Raj’s work phone for that) then I’d say it is helpful to invest in a pre-paid sim card / hire a phone at the airport for the duration of your stay. We also made good use of our battery pack – a must on any day trip with an iPhone.

Our friend’s in Tokyo had prepared some useful information for any travellers to have and you can access it via this link:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=193Fu1dfQwLEGz260cla0ReWeC2CwaHvFSJG30X-axDo

Anyways, as I said, we packed in a lot during our week in Japan and below is the itinerary we ended up following (we started with a slightly different one, but adapted as needed). I’ll be writing a few posts about the trip, but combining the days so that they make more sense, not to mention limiting my ability to waffle on…

Thursday 5th May & Friday 6th May: Exploring Tokyo

Saturday 7th May: Day Trip to Nikko (and my first Shinkansen)

Sunday 8th May: Kyoto

Monday 9th May: Miyajima Island & Hiroshima

Tuesday 10th May: Yamazaki Distillery & Nara

Wednesday 11th May: Kyoto and return to Tokyo for our flight the next morning

For fear of boring the reader with too long a post, I’ll continue with Tales of Tokyo soon…

 

 

 

 

 

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Top 5 Things About (my) Life in Korea

So to continue the series mentioned in my last post, I’m going to write about my favourite 5 things about being in South Korea. The 5 things are going to be particular to my life in part due to the fact that the first few months of our time here were too cold to really get to grips with the country and what it has to offer. I’m slowly discovering more and more but there is a way to go yet, so I’m keeping it ego-centric for now…

(1) Not Working

Yes, I know – this was one of the things that I miss about home but the other side of the coin is that I am really enjoying having this slightly extended break from pre-production/production matters. I have had a chance to explore some old hobbies – knitting, writing (both electronically and in my diary) and every day I come up with a new career plan that Raj, wearily, voices his support for – knowing that I will have a new plan the next day. I’ve had the time to meditate at least once a day – I would like to increase this to twice daily but Raj isn’t the meditating type and I have a tendency to fall asleep post meditating so in the evenings, I choose to hang out with him instead. (*Pats self on back for being a good wife*). I’m learning how to cook – and how to adapt a recipe to what is available in the local market, without compromising on taste. I would like to say that I have added working out to the list of things that I do now, but I’m not there yet. I bought a skipping rope and my sister-in-law has a bunch of at home work out videos on her website (www.rocofit.com) that I need to get to grips with. All in good time. I am sure that eventually I will want some kind of work to keep me occupied but for the moment, not having to work rocks.

(2) Learning a New Language

I like learning languages. I like writing and learning lists of vocabulary. I like the new grammar rules. I like trying o start a conversation and working those grammar rules in as I go. I’ve never learnt a language which doesn’t have a Roman alphabet (my mother tongue isn’t written, only spoken) so it is a first for me and I’m enjoying it. I know my Hanguel alphabet and I have lots of words that I am trying to learn. I am in the second semester of my class and sentences are making an appearance. I have class twice weekly and I try to be conscientious about doing my homework but it is definitely the toughest language I have ever tried to learn. Hopefully I will be someway towards proficient by the end of our tenure here!

(3) Making a House our Home

Here in Songdo, Raj and I have had the opportunity to make our very first home together and fill it with the things we like in a way that suits us. A lot of our furniture is from IKEA but we have all our trinkets and souvenirs from our lives separately, and our lives together filling the nooks and crannies. The coffee table in our lounge is perfectly suited to how to spend our time – a hidden section under the table where we can hide our laptops when dual screening is not an option (House of Cards requires concentration!) My little OCD mind has filled cupboards and drawers in particular orders and Raj is learning to follow the rules for putting things away – or leaving things out for me to do, which to my mind is better than it being done wrong. Although we’ve only lived in this apartment for 2 months it feels like a perfect little home and I’m already attached to it.

(4) Being a Tourist on my doorstep

I love wandering around my local area and actually looking at everything and taking it in, rather than the head-down-earphones-in-fast-paced-trot that was my go to walking style in London. I like taking pictures and using them on social media/my blog/just for me to look at. I like being a tourist and going on hop on hop off buses without having to travel for the pleasure of it. South Korea is never a country that I have known a lot about and I’ve learnt so much already and am looking forward to what there is to come!

(5) New People

So I know I wrote about missing having independent friends of my own age but I have met several of really nice and interesting people here and the hope is that as more people are hired, more families will be arriving here to increase our social circle. Little things make you bond (BACON! One of the local stores had a huge bacon delivery on Friday so Saturday saw a Bacon party at someone’s apartment. Amazing!) I’ve made random friends on various Facebook groups that I am now a member of, and, something that I never did at home, I interact with people on these various Facebook groups. I have a little community of people who offer tips and advice or just share in the my pleasure of having achieved something new, even if it is just a little win. I’m still in touch with my friends back home (thank you internet!) but there is something nice about a new bunch of people from different walks of life that I can now call friends.

Et voila. My top 5 things about living in Korea so far.

5 Things I Miss From London

I’ve been reading a lot of expat blogs – not just expats in Korea, but worldwide and there are a couple of posts that everyone seems to have in common:

  • Five things I miss from X (also known as least favourite things in X) [insert country here]
  • Top five things about X [insert country here]

So I decided to take a leaf out of their pages and today I will write about the things that I miss from London. There are the obvious things, that I knew I would need to have (TEA! English Breakfast Tea!) but as I had planned for those, they didn’t make the list..

(1) Ease of doing things

OK, so this isn’t a physical thing but at home, in pretty much any situation, I know where to go or who to contact for a quick fix. A current example is that my allergies are playing up, which means the corners of my eyes are super itchy which means a nasal spray is needed. At home, I would stroll into Boots, pick up my choice of spray and 2 squirts later, problem solved. In Songdo, I know which pharmacy I can go to (the one which involves the least amount of sign language) but I’ve had to prepare for the outing by looking up the active ingredients in the spray I would use, taking screenshots and Google Translating “Allergies” into Korean in advance. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider that I have to do this every single time I need to do something ‘new’ it adds up . Hopefully tomorrow won’t bring the news that I need a prescription – otherwise 3 phone-calls later (me to the hotline, hotline to the hospital, hotline to me to confirm appointment) I might, if I’m lucky, be able to control my allergies in a weeks time…

(2) My own girl friends my own age

I know I am lucky to be living in an age replete with technology so I can email/WhatsApp/skype/Facetime my friends and family pretty much on demand – time differences are my only obstacle, but even then, if I want to chat to my mum, she’ll pick up anytime. And yes, there is a really nice group of girls here to hang out with (wine and dessert is universal after all) but the reason that they are within my orbit is Raj’s job. They are either his colleagues or his colleagues’ spouses (and typically, the latter tends to be older than me). But what I do miss is having pals of my own that I can call on for a night in or out or a good old gossip as need dictates. I am pretty sure my incessant rambling and heightened levels of crazy is going to be too much for Raj at some point or another… so all I can hope is that more families like us rock up in Songdo soon!

(3) The BBC

Or ITV, or Channel 4 or any Sky channels. I basically miss the kind of TV that is background noise whilst you get on with other things. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that we get Netflix here is a total lifesaver, but when I just want background noise, unless I play a series or a film that I have seen a million times, there isn’t a lot. Also, all the English is American English. I miss hearing a British voice or two – yesterday in Seoul, I almost gave myself whiplash when I heard a British accent on the metro. I was never an avid news watcher, but I always knew what was going on, simply through flicking through the free papers on the tube or having the news on in the background. Yes the internet is a great source of information but I spend a lot of my time on a computer as it is and I would enjoy taking my time offline wherever possible.

(4) Working

OK, this one is a double edged sword and will almost certainly be making an appearance in my top 5 things about Korea post, as it has been amazing having a long break (and as a freelancer, knowing that it is OK for me to do so) from the world of work and I am in a very fortunate position to be able to take the break. I’ve spent the time learning a lot of things that women of my mother’s generation would have learnt as a matter of course but was always too ‘unfeminist’ for today’s girl to want to spend her time doing. I’m teaching myself to cook and keep house and my limited sewing abilities are increasing which has all been quite enjoyable. I’ve also been able to indulge in my hobbies – knitting, writing, readingand general trial and error. Nonetheless, I do miss having a purpose outside of the house, where I can see an end result and know that my hard work created it. For the last three years, around this time of year, I’ve been gearing up to produce a Festival on London’s South Bank. Yes, the work was intense and hard and I invariably cried one day and fell sick immediately afterwards but when I look back at the pictures and feedback, I feel extremly lucky and proud that I was a part of it. My former colleagues are currently setting up this year’s event and I miss being there – including the hateful ‘profit and loss’ spreadsheets.

(5) Potato Waffles

Ok, a frivolous one to end the list – of course there are other things that I miss more but I have to say, I’m quite looking forward to having some Bird’s Eye Potato Waffles (they’re waffley versatile) when we go home over summer. Despite the fact that I am trying to be on a pre-London diet,  I’m looking forward to a Roast Lunch, Potato Waffles, breaded fish (or any kind of fish) and all sorts of other foods and food combinations that a peculiar Indian-English creature like me would enjoy.

So that’s that. I know most, or all, of these will be resolved given time but that’s where we stand for the moment! Here’s my parting photo.. a view of my old event from Millenium Bridge in London

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Tourists for a day or two (part 2) 

Day two started with a wander down to the Yeouido Spring Festival (Subway: National Assembly and follow the crowds. The festical consists of a street market – a variety of food to eat, food to take away, live music, crafting and the ever-present technology under a canopy of cherry blossom.  The weather wasn’t perfect when we went, but it was still beautiful to stroll through. The festival is in a U shape so starting at one end, you can walk right back round to the subway.

One of the nicest touches that I have seen at any festival was a stall where you could hire strollers, trikes for toddlers and women’s trainers – for those ladies who picked style over function and then realised that tottering around in those 3-inch heels was not conducive to a good time!

Next stop was Itaewon, again, mostly to do a bit of grocery shopping and we unwisely took a taxi from the festival to Itaewon. Traffic was horrendous and it took a lot longer than the subway, however I used the time to have a little nap and rest my feet given that we had more walking around to come later in the day.

Circumstance today meant that I was in a really bad mood post-Itaewon, which meant no notes or pictures taken at Deoksugung Palace, or as we wandered through Insadong, but I promise I will go back to both and make up for it another day!

Travel Racism

A more random set of musings for today. Recently, I left a group on Facebook that was dedicated to women who love to travel. There were women from all over the world who shared pictures of their travel with one another, asked for travel advice and it was also a safe space to ask for help or advice – one girl’s story was that she had travelled far from home to see a guy that she had started seeing on a previous trip. Once she arrived, he was cold and distant and basically ditched her in a country where she didn’t speak the language and had nowhere to stay. Through the group, she met some other female travellers who took her in and gave her a shoulder to cry to get over the shock and from then on, she had a great trip.

So it couldn’t get better than a group that allows you to take a risk and share your passions in a non-judgemental way, right? Well that was my initial reaction.

In the last few weeks however, things took a turn for the nasty. It began with a self-proclaimed “Woman of Colour” (aka WOC)  posting a question about some prejudice that they had encountered on a recent trip and asking for advice and support. All fine. But then she post-fixed the comment saying that she didn’t want any responses from any non WOCs – i.e. white women. And understandably there was some backlash against this – at least, I found it understandable (and I fall into the WOC category.) If a Caucasian women had written about any prejudice, or how stares in certain countries made her uncomfortable (and I have seen this myself with blonde friends in the Middle East for example)  and said that WOC need not respond, everyone would have been up in arms.

All of a sudden, this group became a forum about whether it is OK to preclude one group of people (for any reason – hair colour, height etc) from answering a comment, if the poster of the question didn’t feel that they would have the relevant experience. From my point of view, it is never ok to categorically exclude someone. Even if their experience isn’t identical (and which two people’s are) it remains valuable. My mother taught me that if I don’t have anything nice or useful to say, then to shut up. So when someone asked where the best area to buy shampoo for afro hair in London was, despite being a through and through Londoner, I kept shtum. Likewise, when another girl asked about facing prejudice when travelling in certain countries, I responded that I didn’t feel that the prejudice was due to my being brown, but more just the view of women that was taken there – my brown male pals got things done easily without getting ripped off simply due to the luck that gave gave them a ‘y’ chromosome instead of a second ‘x’. This continues to be the case in certain aspects of my life in Korea. All I have to do is utter the magic words “I have to ask my husband” and anybody trying to sell me something backs deferentially away until the higher power in the house has spoken (little do they know that I have totally manipulated the stereotype to suit my needs and Raj would be perplexed if I started asking permission for, well, anything.. but that is a different story.)

It was a shame to leave the group but there was talk of a women of colour sub-group which I felt was even more divisive and against the spirit of the group as it was intended. Gone was the safe space, as well as the source of valuable travel information, but perhaps my newsfeed just needed a springtime de-clutter too…

Tourists for a day or two (part 1) 

Now that the weather is improving (slowly.. the nights are still jacket-worthy) we thought it would be a nice plan to spend a night in Seoul so that two full days of touristy activities could be completed.

Staying in one of the two business districts of Seoul meant that we were walking distance from the first point of interest – Gyeongbokung Palace (in Korean, the ‘kung’ at the end actually means Palace, so calling it Gyeongbokung Palace is somewhat redundant but anything else sounds strange in English). One of the two largest Palaces in Seoul, Gyeongbokung is a must-see on your to-do list.

Tickets to enter the palace are 3,000 KWR per adult – there is a combination ticket as well, 10,000 KWR for four palaces and a shrine. I’m not sure which shrine and they wouldn’t let me buy this ticket at the Gyeongbokung ticket counter. I was in a bit of a hurry so didn’t push the matter. The combo ticket only permits entry once into each of the palaces, so do your research and figure out how to buy it! It is also worth visiting the websites of all the palaces at least a couple of days prior to your visit, as you can book access to some of the restricted areas of the palaces as well.

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There are English language tours taking place throughout the day too, so it is worth timing your visit according to the season – there aren’t tons of explanation boards around, so having someone share  history definitely adds something. You’ll see a lot of people in local dress (Hanbok) in the Palaces – these will just be visitors to the Palace like you or me. Wearing local dress gains you free entry to the Palace, so don’t make the mistake of some tourists of stopping these people for a photo – imagine how you would feel. However, the tourguides are happy to stop for a photo if you ask nicely!

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Here are a couple of interesting tidbits learnt on the tour – one reason that you will see so much Chinese Writing on all the old Palaces is that prior to 1443, Korean was only a spoken language and any writing was done using Chinese characters. The King developed the Hangeul characters to consist of 10 vowels and 14 consonants in the grounds of Gyeonbokung, to ensure that “even a stupid person could learn them in 10 days.”

Also, the Palace was entirely rebuilt in 1867 and with the rebuilding, came under floor heating – keeping Royal toes toasty for over a century!

If you leave the Palace through the North Gate, you can pop outside the grounds and see The Blue House – where the current President of South Korea lives. Re-entry into Palace grounds is possible as long as you’ve kept hold of your ticket.

Your palace ticket also gives you admittance to the Folklore museum, which we didn’t have time to visit this time.

Leaving the Palace through the main gate leads you directly onto Gwanghwamun Square, displaying a glorious statue of the King of Signs. The square symbolises the new direction of the country, towards humanity, openness and mutual  ticket you can gain admittance to the folklore museum as well (we didn’t have time)

When you come out of the main entrance you’ll immediately find Gwanghwamun square, with a glorious statue of the King of Signs -the square symbolising  the new direction of the country – towards humanity, openess and mutual respect 💖

Gwanghwamun is also the start of the hop on hop off city bus tour – we didn’t do it this weekend, but I have done it previously. It isn’t like the tours that you would go on in other cities – there are headsets on the bus and you get a brief history of the sights, but to actually catch a glimpse of the various sights, you have to get off the bus and continue on foot.

After a visit to the D-Tower and the BEST pizza we’ve eaten in Seoul (Big up Paulies…) we made our way over to Namsan for a cable car trip up the mountain.

The cable car costs 8,500 KWR for a round trip. It was super foggy, so the views weren’t great and in the tower, the ticket clerks (going up to the observation tower is a separate ticket) advised us not to go to the tower. Instead, we wandered around the Gift Shop – which was awesome. Nice qualtiy and interesting items – I’ll definitely be going back before I make a trip back to London! The queues to get down the by cable car were pretty long and we just made it onto one of the last cars. Getting a taxi from the cable car station back to the hotel was easy enough, but the non-metered taxis wanted to charge a huge mark up on the metered taxis, so be careful!

All in all, a successful day one in Seoul!

 

Busan

We spent the first weekend in April in Busan which I would highly recommend. Korea’s second largest city (and largest port) is buzzing with loads to see and do. Being the beginning of April, the weather literally ran hot and cold so I’d advise being prepared for everything.

There are a few options for getting to Busan – you can get a flight from Gimpo, but that is a bit awkward from Songdo. The morning train from Incheon Airport was booked up so we took the bus from Incheon Bus Terminal. Whilst the bus was super comfortable (foot reclininers and ample space) it took a really long time, meaning that we spent most of the only hot day of the weekend travelling. The bus arrives in the North of the city which is kinda far from most places, especially when you have bags to consider.

You can also take the train from Incheon Airport – its about 3 hours and 40 minutes, not including the travel time to the airport. Now, here is the sneaky tip that we discovered on our way back. The trains to and from Gwangmyeong (where IKEA is) are plentiful, slightly cheaper and quicker – even when you add in the travel time to and from Gwangmyeong by taxi.

There is SO much to do and see in Busan… and we started with the pretty Cherry Blossom lined trees on the taxi ride from the bus terminal (see header).

 

We stayed in Haeundae Beach – a beautiful, wide beach which I am told gets rammed in the summer. The area is vibey with lots of bright lights, food and drink options and transport links are great. On Sunday morning, there was a Holi celebration on the beach (actually, that was the reason we chose Busan this weekend). There were options to pre-register, in which case, along with the colour cap and a packet of coloured chalk powder, you were given samosas to snack on but if you signed up on the spot, you just got the colour. There were speeches, dances and general merriment. I’d recommend going with a group of friends to make the most out of it.

After a quick shower, we jumped in a taxi back towards Beomosa Temple, which is located near the bus station. The weather was slightly grey but the temple itself was beautiful and there are a number of hikes in surrounding area, so wear appropriate shoes.. Converse, wet leaves and slippery rocks on an uphill slant are not a good combination.

Gwangalli Beach is a less impressive beach than Haeundae, but it does have some great views of the Gwangan Bridge – especially in the evening when it is all lit up!

[Picture to follow on the next trip – rainy weather meant the views weren’t great!)

Given the cold and wet weather, we sought refuge in Centum City Mall – the world’s largest shopping mall. Honestly, it was overwhelming but there was a food court which catered to all diets and a lovely cinema. The cinema is one of 3 with a GINORMOUS screen – called ‘The Starrium’. Inside the mall, I even found  John Lewis section which put a smile on my face!

On Monday morning, we checkout out of our hotel and left our bags in the lockers at Busan Station – the lockers are large enough to fit small carryon size suitcases and are operated by fingerprint! You have to be on your platform 15 minutes before a train departs, so we had plenty of time to do a little bit more exploring before heading home.

Having been to the War museum in Seoul, the UN Memorial Cemetery was top of our list to see. Despite the bleak weather it was a moving experience with photographs and videos to bring the sacrifice of so many to life. It didn’t feel right to take many pictures here, but definitely worth a visit when you go to Busan.

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Our last stop before taking the train home was Gamcheon Cultural Village. It is a quaint village on a mountain. There is a trail that is said to take 2 hours, but can be done in about an hour or so. There is a great deal of walking (uphill) and stairs though so be prepared!

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