My #nuclearholiday #YVR

Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve come a long way mentally from the last stream-of -consciousness-post that I sent your way and I can now make fun of myself and my mini (ed. Ahem) panic attack. As you know, I decided that while Raj was travelling, I would travel too, and booked a trip to Vancouver to see my brother, Kesh, and sister-in-law, Rosa. Sidebar: have I mentioned recently how lucky I am that Raj is SO indulgent of me and my over-active imagination? I don’t think many people would have accepted my need (and my mother’s need!) to not be in Korea at that time and gone along with plans which were a complete over-reaction, but he did and, with regards to this, will, I believe, continue to do so. Definitely a lucky girl.

Anyway, once I landed in Vancouver, it only took a few minutes with my joker of a brother – I call him this to his face, it’s ok and truly, Kesh is the funniest person in the world – for me to accept that my panic was probably uncalled for and for him to coin the phrases, subsequently developed into hashtags for my social media needs obvs, #nuclearholiday and #falloutfun. Some might consider these in bad taste, but I defy those who say that to experience my levels of panic and then avoid attempts at humour to make yourself feel better about it.

I was spoilt in Vancouver. Rosa and Kesh live super centrally to everything – all my needs were met within a 15-minute walking radius of the house, and #keshcooks became an oft-used hashtag on Instagram. Kesh has always enjoyed cooking (you know my feelings on that already) and Rosa and I are more than happy to clean up, which he hates. The sun made an extended appearance during my stay and long walks to see the surrounding area, excellent food and copious amounts of salted caramel ice-cream were the order of the week. I was able to do the usual ‘buy-things-that-I-don’t-get-in-Korea’ easily and catch up on a couple of zombie/sci-fi films that haven’t made it out here too. I finished reading my current collection of psychological thrillers – Mr. B is SO thankful for that, as it is helping to temper my ‘what if’ scenarios that I wake him up with – and I learnt a couple of things as well.

(1) My brother and I are more alike than I realised – I have emergency plans in place, he walks a different route every day so that in the event of the Zombie Apocalypse he has escape options. I look at buildings and wonder how easy, or otherwise, they would be to scale (up or down, need-based) and he always sits facing the room in a restaurant so that he can deal with potential assassination attempts more easily.

(2) I talk A LOT. Rosa was away for the first two days of my trip, and I talked my, somewhat quiet, brother’s ear off non-stop. When Rosa returned, she and I jabbered on endlessly. Kesh said that the word count of the apartment had increased by 5,000 words a minute and he really couldn’t get a word in edgeways even if he wanted to.

One pretty important thing that came out of my trip is that I finally know what I want to do with my time here in Songdo. Apart from the obvious perks of being an expat-wife, Kesh suggested that I should put my crazy imagination* to use and do a creative writing course. I mean, it’s so simple but SO GENIUS I am surprised that none of us thought of it earlier. I’m on the hunt now for a suitable online creative writing course that I can do from Korea so that I can embrace my future career as a writer. It might even mean that some of my previous, as yet unseen by the world, musings and writings might make it into the public eye. Who knows. At the very least its a fabulous way to keep busy. So, readers, if you have any hints for any courses that I could look into, please do leave a comment with the details and I’ll get searching. This might mean that my somewhat-erratic blogging habits become even more erratic, but I will try not to let the one affect the other. Here’s a couple of pictures of beautiful Vancouver as an ending….

*Here’s another example of the way my mind works, just in case you hadn’t figured it out already: The return to Songdo has been hectic. Landing on Sunday, one overnight guest on Monday and then Raj’s cousin, wife and six month old arriving on Tuesday for a visit. We have a few fun things planned so I hope to share a bit more about the local area and things to do in the next couple of posts, but all this is by way of setting the scene for an amusing anecdote. On Monday, we borrowed a travel crib and car seat from a colleague of Raj’s for the aforementioned six-month-old. I made our overnight guest (who reads this blog – Hello!!) fix the car seat into the car on Monday night- having two children of his own, I determined that he possessed the appropriate skills to do this correctly. On Tuesday morning, I get into the car and get the fright of my life – I forgot the car seat was there and all I saw was a big red blob behind me, which became a serial-killer who snuck into the car during the night and was going to stab me and leave my decimated remains in the car park. Well, I quickly realised that wasn’t the case, and whilst waiting for my heart-rate to come down, I texted Raj. He laughed. I moved on with my day, but I will always remember the time that I was nearly a goner.

Nikko, Yamazaki & Nara

Following last night’s little rant about a mere handful of things going on in the world which all leave me indescribably sad, I thought I would lift the tone by returning to my current favourite topic. Japan.

This blog seems to have taken a turn for the travel-blog, rather than one of my musings but I suspect that as I end my missive to Japan, things will return to normal, so bear with me dear folks.

Right, so, I’m combining a few of the day and half-day trips that we did (using our trusty JR Passes) – I could quite easily wax lyrical about each place in a post of its own, but your comfort and interest is at the forefront of my mind (somewhat) and so brevity is the order of the day.

On Saturday, the sun was shining and we planned to take our first Shinkansen. Now, as much as I love Japan, I super-super love the Shinkansen. Granted I only managed to stay awake on one of the Shinkansen (I even love to say the word..) trips we did but wowowowowow. Anyhow, my first Shinkansen experience was to Nikko. We’d heard many good things about the place and it didn’t disappoint. The initial sunshine of the day waned a little, so we didn’t spend the whole day there, but we did visit the Shrines Tosho-gu and Futarasan. I can imagine that when the weather is more consistent, Nikko would be a glorious place to spend a couple of nights.. and that is on the agenda for my next trip. The evening consisted of dinner with friends in Shibuya and the all important viewing of Captain America: Civil War, followed by a little stroll and the easy-peasy reservation of our seats on the Shinkansen (there is that word again) to Kyoto from Shinigawa station.

Jumping forward a few days, we spent Tuesday visiting the Yamazaki (or Kamikaze, as i kept, rather Freudian-ly kept saying) distillery and the temples of Nara. As we only realised the distillery was so close to Kyoto rather late in the day, we were unable to get a space on the tour – this books out months in advance, so plan ahead and make the most of it. We were however able to wander through the museum and try a few of the more choice whiskeys, which made for a most pleasant morning! A word to the wise for you whiskey aficionados out there: Yamazaki 18 is near impossible to buy. A bartender in Kyoto told us that most bars send their staff out to remote countryside liquor stores on the off-chance that there is a bottle in stock and nobody has realised it’s worth. The distillery had none left to sell and nor did any of the stores or bars we went to. I believe that a few years ago there was a dramatization of the Whiskey Industry in Japan, which increased popularity and led to ginormous sales and the current low stock situation. So enjoy the drink when you find it in bars but set your sights a little lower when planning which bottle to take home!

From Yamazaki, we went back to Kyoto and took a local train (no Shinkansen today, sigh) to Nara. If you head to bus stop 2, you’ll get to the Todaiji Temple Complex. The main sight, the Todaiji Temple itself is of huge historical significance in Japan. Constructed in 752, it was the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples. At the time, Nara was considered the capital of Japan but the growth of the Todaiji temple meant that the capital was moved to Nagaoka in 784, to reduce the influence of the temple of the governmental affairs.

We then wandered uphill to Kasuga Taisha – unfortunately slightly too late to go inside, but we hung around the front and snapped a few pictures nonetheless, and I met one of my favourite trees of Japan.

Dinner was Ramen at Ippudo (more about this in the Kyoto post) and a little wander through the streets of Gion, which evoke all the traditional feelings that one associates with Kyoto. Tonight was the night of drinks at the wonderful Finlandia, but I’ll tell you more about that next time..

 

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…

 

 

 

 

 

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!

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.

IMG_4963

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!

IMG_4937

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!

 

GCF Spouses.. the activities

As a GCF spouse, there are gatherings and get-togethers that are centrally organised and that give you an insight into some aspects of Korean Culture. The activities take place on the last Thursday of each month and this year have included: Rice cake making (I missed this class) Lamp making and calligraphy.

Various experts in their fields are brought to the G-Tower (23rd floor no less) and spend their morning teaching as many family members as can attend.

Lamp Making

The lamp making class was made idiot proof for all of us – the actual structure of the lamp was already made and wired, so all we had to do was decorate it.

The process involved pasting the lamp with an eco-friendly glue, which was made of flour and water and then covering it in the various layers of printed paper. Whilst it looks messy as you go through the layers, the order of doing meant that you get to cover any mistakes or unevenly applied paper with the next layer. Two hours later, voila – one home-made lamp.

Now all that remains is to get Raj to bring my lamp back from the office…

Calligraphy

The Calligraphy class was hard. In Korea, Calligraphy means “beautiful writing” and when the experts do it, beauty abounds.

The problem arises when someone such as myself, i.e. not a single artistic bone in my body, takes up a brush. First, you have to keep your arm parallel to the ground and your brush needs to be vertical. You have to get just the right amount of ink on the brush, or the lines will be too thick, as the paper acts like blotting paper and suck in all the extra ink.

I practised for ages on the paper and once I got the hang of it, I tried on the fan and any ‘skill’ I had gained were quickly lost. Still, I ended up with a workable fan and two usable bookmarks, and a whole host of Korean vocabulary to add to my notebook!

Now to wait for April’s class…