The Beginning of the Second Semester & Loi Krathong

The second semester is already more than a third over with, and is going by faster every day. After returning from Japan, I only had a day to settle in back home before starting classes again and time has gone by quickly ever since.

That Sunday night, before the start of the semester, Ben and I received over schedules via email. To our surprise, they were nothing like what we had expected, which to be fair was what we had been explicitly told our schedules would be. We were both very angry as we had had a meeting the end of last semester where we supposedly planned our schedules for this semester, and voiced our concerns over which classes we did and did not want to teach.

Long story short, while last semester I taught seventh and eighth graders, this semester half of my schedule was switched with Ben’s, so I now teach seventh and ninth graders (and Ben teaches the eighth graders). While I was not a huge fan of all the eighth grade classes I taught last semester, I felt like I was finally getting a rapport with all of my classes and understanding their strengths and weaknesses in English.

However, all that time spent getting to know and understand those students was basically thrown out the window, and instead I had to relearn names, and start anew with seven classes of students that I had never taught before. On top of that, I wasn’t sure what material Ben had taught the ninth graders last semester, so I had no idea where I should start and what material to avoid.

Still, while the semester got off to a rocky start because of the schedule change, it actually ended up working out fine, and I am enjoying my schedule this semester more than my old schedule. I still don’t know the ninth grade students that well, but as a whole they seem much more respectful and obedient than eighth graders. I am also a lot more confident leading a class, and a lot more used to how the students behave (and misbehave) in class.

Although my co-teachers said that would help plan much more this semester, they have taken the same backseat and been pretty much as useless as last semester. It would be nice to have more help but frankly I didn’t believe they would step up anyway, so it hasn’t been too frustrating or surprising.

The first two weeks actually went by quickly anyway because we had shortened classes due to preparation for sports day. Since I had heard Sports day was the biggest event of the year at the school, I was expecting a fun day of sporting competitions and interesting events. However, it was somewhat disappointing as it really only consisted of track and field events, ninety percent of which were just running.

It was still entertaining to see and the students were certainly passionate about training for it by running and preparing special cheers. All of the students and teachers were also divided into colored teams (orange, yellow, red, green, blue, purple), and I was on the orange team. At the end of the day, there was a relay race between all of the teachers which Ben’s team dominated (my team got second-to-last).

On a different note, last Thursday was Loi Krathong. Loi Krathong, meaning ‘floating lotus’, is a holiday that pays tribute to the rivers of Thailand. On this day, people all over Thailand make krathongs out of banana leaves, and then light candles in them and float them down rivers. People also light lanterns that are then floated up into the sky.

At school, each class made their own lanterns which were basically giant cubes made of pieces of tissue paper taped or glued together. Some of the more talented classes made designs on their lanterns or beautiful patterns using the tissue paper. At the end of the school day, everyone gathered on the field as each class first filled their lantern with air, and then lit some kind of burning fuse before floating the lantern away.

The students with their lanterns for Loi Krathong
The students with their lanterns for Loi Krathong

It was somewhat terrifying to see some of the students wielding the large torches, but surprisingly nothing went wrong and no one was burned or harassed by the torch-wielders. It was actually very cool to see the giant lanterns float up into the sky; some of the lanterns floated up a few hundred feet before tumbling back down, but others rose up to great heights and continued floating upwards off into the distance (where I’m sure they landed in rice fields and started small fires).

Lighting the lanterns
Lighting the lanterns

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That night there was also a large celebration by the river. Ben and I went and met our friends Nam and Tham at the festival. We first watched from a bridge above the river as people lit the candles on their krathongs and floated them down the river. Although it was peaceful to watch the candle-lit krathongs float down the river, the serenity was somewhat ruined by loud bangs and flashes of people lighting and throwing fireworks everywhere. At one point, someone put a firework on the other side of the bridge which shot out rockets in every direction. One of the rockets literally flew at Ben and I, and we had to duck in order to narrowly dodge being hit by the rocket. After that encounter, we decided to retreat towards the festival grounds.

Our friend Tham was selling food from a stand, so we went and hung out at his stand for a while. He was nice enough to give us free food; he was serving yam moo yor, or pork sausage salad. It was pretty good, and spicy, although I am not a huge fan of that style of dish (cold pork sausage with tomatoes and lettuce and spicy dressing).

After eating, we watched part of a krathong competition in which judges were picking the best krathong out of several beautiful constructions. Ben and I thought the clear winner was a krathong shaped like a dragon’s head, which showed originality and creativity, and was flawlessly executed, but the judges ended up picking a different one that I found rather unimpressive.

The Dragon-shaped krathong
The Dragon-shaped krathong

After the competition, I ran into several of my students who wanted to float a krathong down the river with Ben and I. The students were very nice and bought each of us a krathong, so we went down to the river and floated our first krathongs. Floating the krathongs symbolizes two different things. It symbolizes freeing yourself of negative energies and bad feelings, as well as a wish for your future. I wished for a pleasant second semester in Thailand as I placed the krathong in the river and watched it float away.

About to float our krathongs with students, low quality iphone pic
About to float our krathongs with students, low quality iphone pic

After that, the students also bought a lantern which we lit together before letting it float upwards. It was awesome to have that experience with the students, and I wish that I was able to spend more time with students outside of school. Although most days many of the bad students I teach leave me frustrated and tired, it is the experiences with the good students that really stick with me and will be the experiences I remember. Already, experiencing Loi Krathong with my students has made up for any negative feelings I had about my schedule or bad students starting the semester, and I really feel like this semester will be much better and less stressful.

Students lighting the lantern
Students lighting the lantern

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Releasing the lantern
Releasing the lantern

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After saying goodbye to the students, we went back to Tham’s food stand, where we hung out for a while. Before we went home, we floated another krathong with Nam and Tham, and then released several more lanterns into the night sky. I really enjoyed Loi Krathong overall. I respect the purpose of the holiday, and found it very peaceful and spiritual, the fireworks notwithstanding.

Lighting Lanterns with Belle, Tham, Nam, and Ben.
Lighting Lanterns with Belle, Tham, Nam, and Ben.
Nam, Belle and I about to release our lantern
Nam, Belle and I about to release our lantern

On a random note, last Monday I helped with an event near Tha Wang Pha for a group of visiting diplomats. For some reason unknown to me, a large group of diplomats from a bunch of different countries (including Russia, Vietnam, Israel, Bhutan, Cuba, Germany, etc.), had a multi-day trip in the Nan Province through the Diplomatic Corps.

For part of their trip, they came and saw a nearby temple, Wat Nong Bua. Ben and I, along with several teachers and students, were guides at the temple, where we talked about aspects of the Thai Lue culture (the local Northern culture), as well as local crafts and customs. There were five different stations: about Pandan juice, fresh water seaweed, rattan crafts and furniture, silver jewelry, and local fabrics. I was at the rattan crafts and furniture station along with several students. It turned out to be somewhat pointless for me to be there, as no one wanted information about rattan crafts but it was interesting to see the diplomats and ask them about their perceptions about Nan. I still don’t understand why their trip was just in Nan but I found it interesting nonetheless.

Japanese Cuisine – A Taste of Heaven

I decided to make a post dedicated solely to the food I ate in Japan for several reasons. I found myself trying to remember in detail, the flavors and textures of the food I ate, and as I wrote more and more, it became a little much to add to my other posts about my trip. I also really enjoy reading others’ blog posts about food they eat in other countries. It seems to be one of the most interesting ways to gain insights and knowledge into another culture.

I definitely plan on posting about Thai food eventually as well, although I am currently accumulating more pictures and still finding my favorite foods, so that is still a work in progress. Still, Japanese food has always held a special place in my belly, from it’s fresh and delicious sushi to its fried tempura, cucumber salads, and rice bowls. It is simply amazing.

One interesting thing about Japanese restaurants is that many have displays of fake food outside their restaurants to show potential patrons what dishes are available to order. While at first this was a bizarre oddity to me, I eventually  grew to appreciate it as I couldn’t read their Japanese menus, so it allowed me to figure out what types of food each restaurant served.

Fake food
Fake food display

I ordered my first meal in Osaka from a vending machine. Outside of a small restaurant, several vending machines displayed pictures among a multitude of Japanese characters apparently explaining what the dishes were.

Ordering my first meal from a vending machine
Ordering my first meal from a vending machine

Fortunately, William and Thomas were able to read many Japanese characters (because they have the same meaning as Chinese characters although they are pronounced differently), so we knew vaguely what each dish entailed. I ordered a tofu dish which was surprisingly cheap (about $5), and grabbed my ticket before going inside. It was my first experience of Japanese dining, which although at first was different and almost bizarre, but soon became normal and had me wondering why we don’t have similar efficiencies in American restaurants (there were jugs of water on every table, chopsticks and other eating accessories already arranged and ready, and machines of every shape and size cooking and preparing food in the kitchen next to us). Everything was so systemized and orderly that it seemed more like a small food factory churning out rice bowls than a restaurant.

The meal was also very good – tofu with a rich brown sauce over rice upon which I heaped piles of pickled ginger (a common condiment in Japan) until I felt satisfied.

First meal
First meal

My meal that night was also a form of Japanese fast food at the chain restaurant Yoshinoya. Yoshinoya serves fairly typical Japanese fast food, mostly rice bowls and other basic dishes. I ordered a dish of beef simmering over vegetables with sides of rice (of course) and miso soup. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the pitchers at the table contained chilled green tea rather than water (another commonality of many Japanese restaurants), something that I found very refreshing and different. My meal was good, and although not spectacular, markedly better than American fast food (and again not that expensive either at around $5).

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The next day we ate lunch at another Japanese fast food restaurant called Sukiya. I ordered a rice bowl with beef, slathered with some sort of mayonnaise and roe sauce. Although maybe not the most appetizing looking bowl of food, the rich sauce was delicious and contrasted well with the mounds of pickled ginger I heaped into the bowl.

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That night, I tried my first bowl of ramen. Having wanted ramen from the start, I was surprised at how hard it was to find a ramen restaurant. I had assumed that ramen shops would be as plentiful as Starbucks are in the U.S., but they turned out to be much more elusive.

After talking to a helpful man on the street, we were directed to our first ramen place. I ordered ramen with seaweed and an egg. While it was a tasty bowl of soup, I was somewhat nonplussed and had the feeling that there was better ramen to be found (and I was right)

First bowl of ramen
First bowl of ramen

The next day, we spontaneously decided to eat lunch while in an underground mall. At first, we passed an okonomiyaki place that looked interesting but after walking around we found a ramen place that had a line out the door (always a good sign). We decided to wait in line for ramen, and as an old man left the restaurant he told us “Oishi” (delicious) and pointed at the restaurant. The smells started drifting out of the restaurant and my mouth started watering uncontrollably.

All of the ramen dishes could either be ordered with a soy-based broth or a miso-based broth. I decided to order the ‘hat-trick’ ramen with a miso broth (ramen with pork, gyoza, and kimchi). The ramen was absolutely phenomenal. I took a sip of the broth and felt the rich, silky miso flavor flow over my tongue. As I mixed the soup together, the kimchi added a little bit of spicy tartness which added more layers to the miso broth. The gyoza were amazing; they were easily the best gyoza I have ever had. There were cooked to a crisp without tasting overly-fried, and had a smoky taste from the sesame oil. The hard-boiled egg was my favorite part of the soup. It was also cooked in sesame oil and tasted smoky and smooth; it was easily the best hard-boiled egg I have ever had. As I finished licking out every crevice of my bowl, I decided to make note of the place so that we could come back again. The restaurant was a chain within Osaka, so I noted that there were several other locations to go to in the future.

My favorite bowl of ramen
My favorite bowl of ramen

That night we decided to eat in the neighborhood by our hotel (Shinsekai). After exploring the options, we settled upon a place largely because it was crowded with people. This restaurant sold kushikatsu, which basically means things fried on a stick and dipped in sauce. What we realized after entering the shop and ordering, what that this type of food (like a lot of food in Osaka), was mainly meant to be eaten while drinking, and was not typical dinner fare. We ordered pints of the delicious Asahi lager, and waited for our food to come.

Although the food was not bad, it basically just tasted like the sauce that we dipped it in. Wisely, we had only ordered a small platter of fried things to share, so we decided that we would head somewhere else afterwards to finish up our meal.

Kushikatsu
Kushikatsu

After leaving the kushikatsu place, we walked to a nearby place serving takoyaki, or little dumplings traditionally filled with octopus batter. We ordered two different types of takoyaki (traditional, and takoyaki with scallions and citrus sauce) from a vending machine, before showing our tickets to the chef. I watched in fascination as the chef twirled and spun the takoyaki balls in their grill plate, until they were cooked to perfection. They were then drenched in condiments and sauces before served to us.

Making takoyaki
Making takoyaki

Careful not to burn myself, I let the takoyaki cool before trying them. While saucy and zesty on the outside, the interior was gooey and rich, with bits of octopus. I particularly enjoyed the traditional takoyaki, which were covered with the classic sauce which is kind of like a thicker and sweeter version of Worcestershire sauce. Overall, I enjoyed the takoyaki much more than the kushikatsu, and was pleased with our meal for the night.

Traditional Takoyaki
Traditional Takoyaki
Takoyaki with citrus sauce and onions next to the traditional version
Takoyaki with citrus sauce and scallions next to the traditional version

The next day in Nara, we went to a restaurant recommended by a woman near the train station. The restaurant turned out to serve sushi made with only preserved fish that was wrapped in persimmon leaves (known as Kakinohasushi, a Nara specialty). Not knowing what to expect, I was astounded by how delicious the sushi was.

We shared a large platter of several vegetable sushi’s as well as mackerel, trout, and salmon. Each piece of sushi was perfectly prepared, and the wasabi accompanying the sushi was also very pungent and delicious (perhaps the first real wasabi I had ever tasted). The sushi was so flawless that I did not dip any of it in soy sauce, as it seemed to have enough flavor to stand on its own (with a touch of wasabi that is). This was easily my favorite meal of the whole trip, maybe in part because I had no idea what to expect of sushi with preserved fish.

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Kakinohasushi

That night, back in Osaka, we decided to have okonomiyaki for dinner. Okonomiyaki is similar to a savory pancake made with flour, shredded yam, eggs, cabbage as well as other ingredients of your choosing. I ordered mine with octopus and sweet potato.

The okonomiyaki was prepared on a grill in the middle of the table, so it was interesting to see the waitress whisk together the dough, before laying it on the grill and flipping it until it was seared to perfection. Our okonomiyaki were then slathered with mustard, mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce.

Making our okonomiyaki
Making our okonomiyaki

Although they looked huge and filling, it was actually a lot lighter than I was expecting. I really enjoyed the sweet potato in mine, although would probably get it with pork instead of octopus as the octopus added nothing expect a chewy texture. Overall it was fairly delicious, although a bit weird and not quite as filling or as satisfying of a dinner as I was expecting.

finished okonomiyaki
finished okonomiyaki

The next day for lunch we headed to the ramen place that Taka had recommended. This place was special in that it made its own unique broths (different than the soy and miso broths that we had tried before). I got a bowl with a mix of the two broths (one was light and creamy, the other darker and more potent) as well as marbled pork. The broth was very good, and the pork was amazing. Although the pork was more marbled with fat than I was used to, it melted in my mouth and was delicious. While not as delicious as the ramen in the subway station, this ended up being my second favorite bowl of ramen.

My second favorite bowl of ramen
My second favorite bowl of ramen

After meeting Natsu in Kyoto the following day, we had ozobonsai for lunch. Ozobonsai means “little dishes made by Mom”, and thus is a platter of many small dishes as well as one entrée. I got pork katsu on my platter. Although the meal was good, I had no idea what many of the small dishes were, although they all resembled vegetables and starches of some kind.

Ozobonsai - Something on this platter gave me an allergic reaction
Ozobonsai – Something on this platter gave me an allergic reaction

Strangely enough, after the meal I felt a lot of heat rushing to my face and had a minor allergic reaction to the food. My face turned red, as well as my arms and legs, and I felt sort of feverish for the next couple hours. While I felt better by the evening, it was somewhat unsettling, as I have never had an allergic reaction to anything I have eaten, and I am not sure what it was in the meal that gave me the reaction. I decided to avoid eating ozobonsai for the rest of the trip, and fortunately never had another allergic reaction to anything I ate.

For dinner that night, Natsu took us to a popular ramen place in Kyoto. Ironically, this ramen place was next to another popular ramen place, and both restaurants had lines out the door.

This place only served ramen in a soy sauce broth, which sounded good to me since I had yet to try that type of broth. The ramen was also normally served with a raw egg, which I contemplated trying but then declined. The bowl was filled to the brim with noodles and pork, and consequently was the only bowl of ramen on the trip that I was unable to finish. Although it was delicious, it was simply a huge amount of food and after eating a considerable amount, I accepted defeat and laid down my chopsticks.

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The only bowl of ramen I was unable to finish

By this point, having tried many different types of ramen, I was beginning to feel like a ramen connoisseur, and was able to determine which flavors I preferred in my ramen (miso broth rather than soy broth, extra kim-chi to add spicy and tangy flavor, and pork with some glistening, marbled fat).

After meeting Natsu and Taka the next day, we decided to try soba (wheat noodles). The restaurant even served a soba tea, which tasted of wheat and was delicious. I got a large platter with sushi, hot soba noodles in soup, eggplant with miso sauce (light and dark misos), and mochi dessert. My favorite part was actually probably the eggplant with miso sauce which was rich and tangy, although the sushi was good and the soba was good as well. While I have had mochi in the U.S., the mochi dessert here was much softer and covered in some sort of powdered sugar. I actually did not really enjoy the mochi, as I just found the texture too bizarre and it had little flavor other than a slight sweetness.

Hot soba soup with nabasushi
Hot soba soup with nabasushi

That night we ate yakitori, which consists of lots of little grilled dishes. At the beginning of the meal, we also all ordered pints of Asahi lager ‘superchilled’ (served at -2 celsius). The beer was incredibly refreshing, and went down quick as a result.

The restaurant was mainly known for it’s homemade sake. I had only had sake once before in Davis, and I did not particularly enjoy it. However, I dutifully agreed to try it again here since it was their specialty and was pleasantly surprised. Served cold, it had a delicate tart, rice flavor that was actually very refreshing. I enjoyed it very much, and ended up having several glasses throughout the night.

The food was also great too. We began ordering grilled dishes of meats such as pork, chicken livers, chicken breasts, chicken hearts, as well as scallops covered in bacon, and eggplant slathered with miso. I particularly enjoyed the scallops covered in bacon, which were absolutely exquisite. We kept eating and eating, little bites of fried dumplings with potatoes, salads with chicken, and finally a rice soup with pickled plums (which was tart, delicate, and phenomenal). Overall, the meal was fantastic, and I probably could have continued drinking the sweet glasses of sake for several more hours, but we decided to head back.

Yakitori with superchilled beer
Yakitori with superchilled beer

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Me, William, Thomas, Taka, and Natsu eating yakitori
Me, William, Thomas, Taka, and Natsu eating yakitori

Our final day in Kyoto, we settled on sashimi for lunch. We again went to a place recommended by Taka, and were not disappointed. I ordered a platter of nigiri with the usual delights (eel, salmon, tuna, tofu, squid, shrimp and salmon roe), as well as a bowl of hot soba noodles. The nigiri was very good, although I have had better nigiri in the U.S.

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That night we again decided to have ramen. The place we went to had a fascinating atmosphere; it had individual stalls for each patron, and small windows into the kitchen partially covered by bamboo screens, so that you could not see the cooks and they could not see you. After delivering your ramen, the cooks would lower your screen for your privacy, and if you wanted something else such as extra noodles, you could simply write that on a slip before pressing a button to get their attention.

In short, it was a very efficient enterprise where one could enjoy themselves in individualized privacy, without really interacting with anyone, including the employees (a very Japanese experience). The ramen itself was good too. To order, I filled out a card where I indicated how strong I wanted the broth to be, how soft or firm I wanted my noodles, how spicy I wanted the broth to be as well as additional items I wished to add to the ramen.

The ramen I got was sufficiently spicy, and the broth strong like I requested, but after having tasted many bowls of ramen I didn’t think it was fabulous. It was certainly an experience eating at the restaurant though, and while I am not obsessed with privacy, I certainly was fascinated with the idea behind giving individual’s a way to order food without having to have any interactions with people whatsoever.

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Being my final day in Japan, the next day I again decided to have ramen for lunch (notice a pattern?). We went to another place recommended by Taka. Again at this place we ordered and paid at a vending machine, before handing our tickets to the chef. This place also had free kim-chi and rice, so I loaded a bowl with a large bundle of kim-chi and sat down.

After receiving my ramen, I mixed in the kim-chi and chowed down. The ramen was good, although nowhere near as good as some of the others I had tasted. Still, it was nice to wash it down with the potent, free kim-chi which was definitely a nice touch.

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That night was my final meal in Japan. Taka and Natsu agreed to meet us in Osaka, and we decided to have sashimi for dinner. After running into Taka, we headed to the restaurant where Natsu and Taka’s wife were meeting us later. We began with a pint of Asahi (of course), before ordering some sashimi. The sashimi was amazingly beautiful, and delicious as well. I particularly enjoyed the bonito on our first platter. Eventually Natsu and Taka’s wife arrived, and we began ordering more courses of food. I finally tried uni (sea urchin) which was very interesting, with a shellfish like flavor, and toro (fatty tuna) which was wonderful and very delicate. We also had waygu beef, which we seared ourselves at our table, and sukiyaki, in which I found myself dipping thin slices of beef in raw egg (very delicious although very different than the sukiyaki I had eaten in Thailand). To wash down the bounty of delicious food, I had several glasses of sake, including a small bottle sparkling sake.

Sashimi platter
Sashimi platter
Salmon roe and uni
Salmon roe and uni
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The waiter told us all to awkwardly hunch over, not sure why

It was a fantastic meal to finish the trip, with so many exquisite delights that I had never eaten packed into several short hours.

I miss the food in Japan already (especially the ramen), as good food is easy to find wherever you are, and delicious food is also often not as expensive as I had expected (for example, the sushi I had in Nara only was about $10). While I have not been able to give Thai food as fair of a shake as Japanese food (since I have not been able to explore all of the food options of a city like Bangkok or Chiang Mai), I believe that I prefer Japanese food overall, for all of its varied dishes, clean flavors, and exquisite preparations.

Nara & Kyoto

Nara

After spending several days in Osaka, we decided to go to the nearby city of Nara. Nara was the capital of Japan for a brief period (710-784), and is full of ancient temples and shrines. I had also heard that it was a very walkable city, and that it could be seen in one or two days.

We took the JR train to Nara, which only took about forty-five minutes. After arriving in Nara, we headed to Nara Park, which is where most of the main temples and attractions of the city are. As we began walking through the city I liked it immediately; it was very clean and chic, full of interesting stores and restaurants. Just before entering the park we passed by a serene pond with views of several temples in the distance, it was very peaceful.

Immediately upon entering the park I began to see deer. One of the ‘attractions’ of Nara are the deer, which I had heard were plentiful in the park. Although I have obviously seen deer before, I have never been somewhere where they are so unfazed, and unintimidated by people. Of course, this could be because of the numerous stands selling deer cookies to feed the deer with, but it was still surprising to see deer calmly walking around and harassing people for food. Some of the smarter deer just waited right next the vendors selling deer cookies, although others were content surrounding and head-butting people with cookies until they were fed.

Deer everywhere
Deer everywhere

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Deer waiting by the deer cookie stall
Deer waiting by the deer cookie stall

On our way to Todaji Temple (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), William decided to buy some cookies and feed the deer which was an amusing sight. He gave me a cookie to feed them with which I quickly surrendered before the small gathering of deer grew impatient.

William feeding the deer
William feeding the deer

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The first temple we saw, Todaji Temple, was also the most impressive and probably my favorite temple I saw in Japan. It is actually the largest wooden building in the world, although it is much smaller than it was originally. On the roof it is decorated with two fish tails to prevent it from burning down, although it actually suffered that fate twice.

Todaji Temple
Todaji Temple

Inside there was a large Buddha, as well as several other statues of what I assumed were important figures. One of the most interesting parts of the temple was a wooden column with a small hole through its base. Apparently if children climb through the hole they gain intelligence from Buddha, and so there was a long line of children waiting to go through the column.

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Children being pushed through the column to gain intelligence
Children being pushed through the column to gain intelligence

After seeing Todaji Temple, we continued on through the park where we saw several more Buddhist temples and a Shinto shrine. Towards the end of the day we decided to relax next to a pond in the park, where occasional cranes floated on the otherwise unmolested waters.

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Overall, Nara was my favorite city we visited in Japan because it was full of temples that were within walking distance of each other. It was also very clean and beautifully laid out, a complete contrast from the cities and towns of Thailand.

Kyoto

That weekend, we headed to Kyoto to meet Natsu and explore the city. Again, we took the JR train to Kyoto, which only took about an hour. The Kyoto train station was incredibly immense and busy, and also interestingly enough, one of the most modern train stations I had been in. Walking out of the station we were greeted by the Kyoto Tower, another large modern architectural structure that I later decided was a bizarre outlier to overall historical atmosphere of the city.

Kyoto Train Station
Kyoto Train Station

Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera, another World Heritage Site and perhaps the most famous temple in Kyoto. As we were taking the bus to the temple, it was immediate how large and spread out Kyoto was. Unlike Nara, which is easily walkable, Kyoto has an incredibly complex bus and subway system that one has to use to efficiently explore the city. As it was, it took us about forty minutes to take the bus from the station to the temple on the eastern side of the city.

Kiyomizu-dera
Kiyomizu-dera

Unfortunately, one of the main halls of the temple was being renovated, so we were somewhat limited in what we could see. However, we were still able to see the view of the city, as the temple is built on one of the hillsides that surround the valley the city is in. The temple was also very crowded, as it was approaching the peak tourist season of fall (probably in November sometime when the leaves are changing colors).

After Kiyomizu-dera, we headed to the Ginkakuji Temple, also known as the silver pavilion. Although the temple is not actually covered in silver, or silver in any way really, it was still beautiful. The temple was surrounded by a very beautiful garden with miniature streams and islands as well as moss and zen gardens combed to perfection. The temple was built by a shogun as his personal villa, and the main pavilion is actually the tea house where he had tea.

Silver Pavilion
Silver Pavilion
Zen garden at the Silver Pavilion
Zen garden at the Silver Pavilion

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Behind the temple was a path leading up the hill which offered a nice view of the temple, before we headed back down and out of the grounds.

After the silver pavilion, we headed to a nearby shrine. Although in my head I had pictured temples as being large buildings and shrines as smaller buildings, this was not the case. While some of the temples were indeed large, the shrines were often just as large if not larger making me somewhat confused as to what created the distinctions between temples and shrines.

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Nearby shrine

The next day we headed back to Kyoto to again meet Natsu as well as Taka. We started the day off by heading to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, the most visited attraction in Kyoto. When I googled pictures of Kyoto before visiting, many of the pictures that came up were the numerous, orange arches that line the path of the Fushimi Inari shrine.

Fushimi Inari
Fushimi Inari

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Consequently, the main sight at the shrine is the long path lined with orange arches, which only lead to small pavilions. Interestingly enough, each of the arches bore the name of a company or benefactor to the shrine. However, the path was furiously lined with the arches, so any new companies or individuals looking to donate and put their name on an arch would not have an easy time finding an open spot.

The path up the mountain continued for several kilometers, so after walking through many of the arches, we decided we had seen enough and headed back down.

We next went to the Kinkakuji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion. This temple is actually covered in gold, so the name actually does apply to the structure. This temple was also the retirement villa of a shogun, and is also surrounded with beautiful gardens like the silver temple. It was very beautiful, although I preferred the restrained elegance of the silver pavilion over the somewhat gaudy exterior of the golden pavilion.

Golden Pavilion
Golden Pavilion

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On our last day in Kyoto we decided to see some of the lesser known temples, and explore more of the city. The first temple we saw, the Nanzenji temple, turned out to be my favorite temple in Kyoto. While the other temples were certainly impressive, they were also overcrowded with tourists. By contrast, the Nanzenji temple had almost no tourists, giving it a very relaxed vibe. The grounds were also immense, and as we explored them I was surprised to see a large aqueduct spanning the grounds.

Nanzenji Temple
Nanzenji Temple
Aqueduct at Nanzenji Temple
Aqueduct at Nanzenji Temple

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As we walked to the aqueduct, we found a path on top of it, where we were able to ascend the mountain to a small park that overlooked the city. On the way back down, we found a few smaller temples free of tourists that we explored before leaving the temple grounds.

Path on top of the aqueduct
Path on top of the aqueduct
Park near Nanzenji Temple
Park near Nanzenji Temple

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Our final stop in Kyoto was Nijo-jo Castle. Although not much of a castle compared to the one in Osaka, Nijo-jo was interesting nonetheless. The main wooden building had a nightingale floor, meaning that there was a constant stream of squeaks and chirps erupting from all angles of the building as we and other tourists walked through the building. Although this was designed to prevent assassins (as one cannot walk through the building silently), I could not imagine having to hear the constant high-pitched noises all day.

Nijo-jo Castle
Nijo-jo Castle
Gate at Nijo-jo Castle
Gate at Nijo-jo Castle

The castle also had a large expanse of grounds, with several ponds and gardens.

Gardens at Nijo-jo Castle
Gardens around Nijo-jo Castle

Overall, Kyoto was a very beautiful city with dozens of temples and historical sites that we only saw a fraction of. I enjoyed the city immensely, although it took very long to explore with the bus system (especially compared to the expedient metro system in Osaka).

Osaka – “Japan’s Kitchen”

Osaka was my hub during my two-week trip to Japan. Rather than staying in multiple cities, William, Thomas, and I decided to just stay in Osaka and travel to other places by train.

My flight to Osaka from Bangkok was scheduled to arrive at 11:50 PM, but because public transportation at that hour was closed for the night, I had just planned to spend the night at the airport and then take the train to my hotel in the morning.

As I laid down on a row of seats in the entrance area, it appeared that many other people had the same idea as me, as several other businessman were stretched out on nearby benches next to piles of luggage. Fortunately, the night went by fairly quickly, and before I knew it, the morning rolled around. I first decided to exchange my money at the airport as I had heard that Japan was a mostly cash-based country, and I had no yen.  Exchanging all of my baht to yen at the airport turned out to be a bad decision, as the exchange rate was so bad that I probably lost about $80 in the transaction. I was pretty angry at myself, but being early in the morning without having had a proper night’s sleep, I was sort of delirious and unable to weight my options critically. Nonetheless, I gathered my money and made for the train station.

The train station was very conveniently connected to the airport, and I knew that there were several different lines I could take to my hotel, one of the reasons I had decided to stay there. I ended up taking the JR line, as I thought it would be the fastest and easiest to figure out. After finally figuring out where to catch the right train, I piled my stuff onto the train and sat down.

Almost immediately, it became apparent to me how different Japan would be from Thailand. Every time we came to a stop, a bunch of well-dressed businessmen and women got on the train quickly, and sat down. Although that may not sound unusual, the speed and efficiency from their movements was quite different from anything I had seen in Thailand, where people operate at their own relaxed pace and the concept of efficiency has no meaning.

As more and more people piled onto the train, it dawned on me that I was becoming more and more trapped away from the exit door. I realized that if I did not take action soon, I might not be able to maneuver my massive backpacks through the mass of people and exit in the short time of the stop. Fortunately, at the stop before mine, a lot of people exited the train and I took the opportunity to get up and place myself by the door. I managed to escape without incident, and after exiting the station took a few moments to take in the neighborhood where I would be staying.

I had been warned by my friend Taka that the neighborhood around the hotel wasn’t the greatest, although it turned out to be fine (to the south the neighborhood got somewhat sketchy but the area I was in was fine). I walked a short distance before finding my hotel, which was only about a three minute walk from the station.

The hotel also exceeded my expectations. Being a very modern, advanced country, I had expected things in Japan to be similar prices to the United States. However, I was able to find a hotel for only $24 a night, ludicrously cheap by American standards. The hotel was actually pretty decent too. I had my own room with A/C, the staff had both a fluent English speaker and a fluent Mandarin speaker (convenient for my friends from Taiwan), and even had a Japanese style spa (a hot tub and sauna) for the guests. Admittedly, my room was very small and there were only shared bathrooms and showers, but for the price I was paying it was certainly better than I was expecting. The area around the hotel was surprisingly nice too. I had picked the hotel because it was located near several major subway and JR stops, although I expected it to be a somewhat sketchy area after talking to Taka. It turned out to be fine though, and I was actually within a one minute walk of the Shinsekai neighborhood (meaning ‘New World’), which had walking streets filled with restaurants and bars. I was also located very close to the massive Spa World, which was a behemoth sized building filled with different style onsens (spas), water slides, pools and a gym – although I never ventured inside.

Shinsekai, the neighborhood near my hotel
Shinsekai, the neighborhood near my hotel

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Shinsekai at night
Shinsekai at night

The first few days in the city, William, Thomas, and I walked around and explored various neighborhoods. Shinsekai was full of interesting small restaurants selling foods like takoyaki, okonomiyaki, kushikatsu and of course, sashimi, as well as small bars in which patrons drank while standing, starting at early hours of the day.

Near Shinsekai was the neighborhood Nipponbashi, or Den-Den Town. I had read that Den-Den Town was a great place to find otaku items (manga, toys, video games), and it did not disappoint. There was an insane amount of toy stores, manga shops, and video game parlors along the streets. Every store seemed to have multiple floors stocked with every sort of toy, manga, or video game imaginable. After coming from Northern Thailand, where it is nearly impossible to find anything I need, it was overwhelming to be shopping in these massive stores that had endless supplies of things I didn’t need or even know existed. I also was excited to find the first of many music stores with a large amount of pianos that I could actually play (in Thailand, it is hard enough to find a piano store and harder still to find one where they actually let you play their pianos).

So many vending machines everywhere
So many vending machines everywhere

The next place we explored was the neighborhood of Dotonburi, which was located near the city center and was supposedly the foodie district of Osaka. Dotonburi also flanks the river, and contains the glico sign, which for some unknown reason is one of the most famous attractions in Osaka. The sign was also comically enough being renovated during our trip, so we were instead treated to the image of a woman posed in the same fashion.

The famous Glico sign under construction
The famous Glico sign under construction
Dotonburi at night
Dotonburi at night

Dotonburi was also located near some of the biggest shopping streets in Osaka. I was unprepared for the massive, pedestrian walking streets that stretch on endlessly and branch off in multiple directions. However, as massive as the walking streets were, they all seemed to be overcrowded with masses of people walking, shopping, or just exploring as we were. We seemed to find continuous amounts of massive malls, multiple storied department stores (often as large as eight floors), huge clothing stores, and other shops that catered to every shopping need possible. It was almost disbelieving to me that as many shops and stores as they were, there were even more people and customers to fill them. As much of a consumer culture as we have in America, I have never seen such a large area devoted to and filled with shoppers.

Shopping Street in Dotonburi
Shopping Street in Dotonburi

As I alluded to earlier, there were also music shops, a lot of music shops. I was stunned to find beautiful piano shops and guitar shops with endless selections of instruments. I even found a Yamaha store with multiple floors including a floor for digital pianos and a separate floor for acoustic pianos. After going roughly five months without being able to find or play a piano in Thailand, I was now finding about three to four piano stores a day in Osaka and endless amounts of pianos that I could actually play. I regretted that I had not brought any music on my trip, as I soon found myself unable to remember many of the piano pieces that had once come easily to my fingertips.

I was also amused by the sight of the massive, neon pachinko parlors that flashed their presence every several hundred meters on the walking streets. Having never seen pachinko machines before, it was bizarre to see the parlors packed with usually old Japanese people chain-smoking cigarettes and maneuvering their pachinko balls with nonplussed expressions on their faces. While I became more used to these establishments’ presence all over the city, it became somewhat depressing to see people playing the machines at all hours of the day, whittling their money away on what seemed to me like a nonsensical, boring game.

Pachinko
Pachinko

Later on in the week, we decided to go see Osaka Castle. Although located near the middle of the city, the castle is in a large park filled with Japanese Maples, Gingko, and Cherry trees that gave it a very serene and escapist feel. Some people were jogging or exercising in the park, while many others were drawing and painting the castle from the different angles we were walking around among.

Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle

The castle was quite picturesque, peeking through the trees and towering over a large moat, but I had a feeling that it would look that much more beautiful as the leaves turned yellow and copper in the coming weeks and the cherry trees bloomed their pink flowers of winter.

the front of the castle
the front of the castle

Part of the reason the castle was so beautiful was actually because it had been rebuilt and renovated fairly recently. Having burned down several times over the several hundred years of its existence, the Osaka Castle we saw and toured was not exactly an ancient monument. However, it was still cool to see, and the view from the top was great.

After seeing Osaka Castle, we decided to head over to the Umeda Sky Building to get a good view of Osaka at night. The sky building is one of the coolest skyscapers I have seen, architecturally speaking. It consists of two skyscrapers with a ‘floating’ observatory and gardens connecting the buildings at the top floors.

Umeda Sky Building
Umeda Sky Building

We took the elevator to near the top and then rode an escalator before entering the observatory. The observatory consists of two floors. The first floor has floor-to-ceiling glass windows on all of the walls as well as a bar with seats overlooking the city. The second floor was open to the elements, and had black lights everywhere that lit up planetary shapes on the walkways and around the top. The view from the top was amazing; I was very glad we came at night as I could see Osaka’s expanse stretch out in all directions, with lights illuminating and intensifying every detail.

View from the Umeda Sky Building at night
View from the Umeda Sky Building at night

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After walking around the top, Thomas suggested that we grab a beer at the bar below which I readily agreed to. The bar had a surprisingly good selection of beers from around the world, and after buying a stout from Sri Lanka, I settled down next to one of the glass walls and relaxed as I enjoyed the view. It was a great end to the day and the beer wasn’t too bad either.

The next day we decided to see a couple temples and shrines in Osaka. After eating breakfast and drinking some instant coffee at the hotel, we headed out to see the nearby Shitennoji Temple, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan. On the way there we walked by another temple so we decided to check it out. It was pretty crowded with people praying and burning incense, as well as camera crews and security for some kind of religious event. There was also a Buddha that was apparently made from the ashes of dead people, although it looked fairly unimpressive to me.

Entrance to the temple
Entrance to the temple
Temple near my hotel
Temple near my hotel

After making our way out of that temple we walked to Shitennoji temple. While it was still within the metropolitan of Osaka, as soon as we entered the temple complex it seemed to be a lot more quiet and serene than in the surrounding city streets. As you enter most Japanese temples, there are wells with large dipping spoons that you are supposed to use to wash your hands and face. We walked towards the temple but decided not to go in after we realized there was a 300 yen entrance fee (about three dollars), so we just strolled around the complex and took pictures from afar.

Entrance to Shitennoji Temple
Entrance to Shitennoji Temple
Place to wash your hands and face before entering the temple
Place to wash your hands and face before entering the temple

Later that day we headed towards Sumiyoshi Taisha, a Shinto shrine. One of the best sites at the shrine was the Sorihashi Bridge, which arched gracefully across a small canal. We wandered around the grounds of the shrine for a bit before heading to our next destination, the tower of the sun.

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Sorihashi Bridge at Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine

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The tower of the sun is part of Expo Park which was built for the Expo of 1970, the first World’s fair in Japan. The sun tower is right at the entrance to the park and visible from the highway because it is so massive. I found it somewhat unsightly and ugly, although that was what I was expecting after seeing it in pictures. After checking it out, we walked through the rest of the park which was pretty, although mainly known as a place to see cherry blossoms during the winter season.

Tower of the Sun
Tower of the Sun

Having seen most all of the city in several days, we decided to go to Universal Studios Osaka for a day. Although I figured most of the rides and attractions would be in Japanese, I was still curious to see Harry Potter Land and Universal Studios itself (I have never been to Universal Studios in the U.S.).

We arrived early to the park, as we had heard that they opened it early and to get the most we could out of the day there. Unfortunately, several other thousand people had the same idea as us, so when they opened the gates early, we still had to enter behind masses of people. We decided to head for Harry Potter Land first, as it was the area we all really wanted to see.

Although it was labeled as ‘Hogsmeade’, it was really more of a mix between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley because it had stores and shops from both areas. Although overrun by people, it was pretty cool, and I really enjoyed the butterbeer (I got the frozen kind which was kind of like a butterscotch slushie with butterscotch foam).

Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade
Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade

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Hogwarts
Hogwarts
Frozen Butterbeer
Frozen Butterbeer

The rest of the park was interesting; there was an area designed like Hollywood, an area like San Francisco, as well as a Jurassic Park area and a Jaws area. Many of the rides were only in Japanese so I had no idea what was going on, but it was fun nonetheless.

Leaving Osaka and Japan was bittersweet. I was sad to part from William and Thomas, my companions for the whole trip, as well as Natsu and Taka, who managed to meet us even on their busy schedules. I knew I would also miss Japanese food, and the incredible organization and efficiency of the Japanese society and culture. However, I was also excited to start the second semester and return to Thailand. While there were certainly aspects of Japan I preferred, I was excited to get back to Thailand’s relaxed vibe and enjoy more four-dollar massages.

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Abeno Harukas, the tallest building in Japan
Abeno Harukas, the tallest building in Japan

Bangkok – The Beginning & End of my Semester Break

For my two week holiday break between semesters, I decided to go to Japan. Before I left for Thailand, I made several friends at the International House in Davis, William and Thomas (brothers from Taiwan), and Natsu and Taka (two lawyers from Japan). I decided to visit Osaka, Japan to see Natsu and Taka (who both live near/in Osaka) and travel with William and Thomas. Also near Osaka are Kyoto and Nara, two ancient cities (both formerly having been capitals of Japan) full of UNESCO world heritage sites, so I figured that I would have plenty to see without going to Tokyo (which is somewhat far away from Osaka and also more expensive).

To save money while travelling, I thus decided to take the bus to Bangkok and then fly from there to Osaka. While Ben decided to go to Indonesia for his vacation, we both made the bus trip down to Bangkok together so we could start our journeys together on a more familiar path.

The bus to Bangkok left at 6 PM, so Ben and I hastily ate an early, light meal so that we would not be so hungry on the bus (although I did bring a lot of snacks). We got driven to the bus station by Kru Kai (the head of the English department), and although she had to leave, two of the students stayed with us to help us find which bus was ours and see us off. It was pretty hilarious as the students explained to us in detail everything we needed to know about the bus trip. Finally, they helped us find the correct bus (about four buses bound for Bangkok arrived at once), and we boarded the bus.

On the longer bus rides through Thailand, there is always a steward/stewardess that passes out refreshments. On this trip, we received a free bottle of water, juice box of green tea, and a box of sweets (two pieces of cake and cookies). Around midnight, the bus stopped for twenty minutes in Phitsanulok (a province in central Thailand), and we were able to help ourselves to a free, buffet style meal of rice and assorted dishes that all tasted like bland forms of starch. I filled myself up nonetheless, and then put on my eyeshade and attempted to pass out for the rest of the ride.

Upon arriving in Bangkok at 4 AM, we found ourselves outside in pouring rain in the hazy darkness of the outskirts of the city. Tired and flustered, we let ourselves get talked into a taxi ride by a nearby man which turned out to be a mistake as we got absurdly ripped off, but at least we arrived at the city center intact.

I was staying at a hostel along Sukhumvit Road, a popular destination for expats and tourists. By the time we arrived at my hostel, it was still early in the morning, so we found a coffee shop to relax in for a while. Still having more time to kill after rejuvenating ourselves with muffins and caffeine, we decided to go see Wat Arun.

I had heard that Wat Arun was one of the most impressive temples in Bangkok, arguably more impressive than the overcrowded Royal Palace. To get there, we took the BTS (a skytrain – kind of like a monorail), and then a river ferry. As we approached the wat from across the river it did look beautiful and impressive.

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Wat Arun

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The wat is covered with broken pieces of pottery and glass and seemed to shimmer in the sun as we approached. As we got off the ferry however, the heat permeating from the asphalt made me start sweating profusely, and made the area around the temple feel like a boiling mess of tourists. The wat was still interesting to see up close, although not as impressive as it had seemed from afar. I was able to climb the steep steps up to the top of the temple, from which I had a decent view of the river and the city.

The view from Wat Arun
The view from Wat Arun
Wat Arun up close
Wat Arun up close

After seeing the temple, we decided to see Wat Pho which was right across the river. Wat Pho is home to a giant reclining Buddha, one of the only poses I had yet to see a Buddha formed in. I was immediately skeptical of the temple as we were forced to pay a high entrance fee (also the foreigners have to pay in different lines than Thai citizens, and I’m guessing are charged higher prices), and as we entered we literally joined a giant mass of tourists swarming to get inside the temple. I did not enjoy Wat Pho at all, as there were so many people in the temple that it was like being a salmon forced upstream. Every time I tried to stop for a picture people would get in the way or step in front of me without any courtesy for picture space, but I still managed to snap some pictures in the elusive seconds in which no one was in front of me. After getting out of the wat I immediately was relieved, and was glad that I had already seen the other notable temples in Bangkok.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Buddha's perfectly symmetrical feet
Buddha’s perfectly symmetrical feet

The rest of the day, Ben and I just walked around and explored the area of our hotel, before we parted ways (Ben was going to the airport and I was staying the night in Bangkok).

After parting, I relaxed in my hostel for a while before setting out to find dinner. I had heard that one of the streets off of Sukhumvit was known for street food, so I decided to walk there from my hostel. It turned out to be a very long walk, but I was able to see a lot more of the Sukhumvit area as a result. Although the area is busy and congested with cars during the day, it seemed to just get crazier at night. Street vendors set up stands all over the sidewalks selling food and fruit, and others even set up sidewalk bars where one could find all sorts of alcohol to drink in the congested atmosphere of the street.

There were also less savory sights, including multitudes of beggars and street children, and prostitutes plying their wares in a less-than-subtle manner. Nonetheless, the city was alive and seemed to resemble the Bangkok that I had read about online and in books.

I finally arrived at Soi 38, and was disappointed to see less food stalls than I was expecting (although still a good amount). I had planned on finding a stall with a long line, and trying it out but none of the stalls seemed to be more popular than the others, and many just had a few customers. I finally picked one, and ordered a familiar dish (guay tiao tom yum – noodle soup with a spicy broth), to see how it compared to the dishes in Nan. The dish was very disappointing; it was just okay and twice the price that I pay in Tha Wang Pha. After finishing it, I retired early to the hostel to sleep and prepare myself for the flight the next day to Osaka.

After arriving back in Bangkok (after my trip to Japan), via Osaka and Kuala Lumpur, I met Ben at a hostel we were both staying at on Sukhumvit Road. We shared stories of our trips (Ben went to Indonesia), and went to a bar to play pool.

The next morning, we decided to get bagels at a nearby shop. Although maybe not the most exotic sounding breakfast, bagels sounded heavenly to us after not having seen them since we left the U.S. The place we found was great; it had tons of different types of shmears and bagel sandwiches. I got an onion bagel with a lox and chives shmear that was absolutely amazing. Bagels are easily one of the foods I miss the most from home.

Our bus wasn’t leaving until the evening, so we had plenty of time to kill. Fortunately, the staff at our hostel let us leave our bags there after we had checked out, so we were free to roam the city unencumbered. We decided to go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, which is the largest market in Thailand (it covers about thirty-five acres). We were able to take the metro directly there, and stepped out into the blistering sun in the market.

The stalls at the market primarily sold touristy trinkets like t-shirts, carvings, and clothes but there were also tons of food vendors as well. While the main part of the market was composed of stalls along an outdoor street, there were also indoor streets and stalls selling higher priced goods. We mainly explored the stalls on the open street, which still took us several hours to browse through. After we were tired of the market, we headed back to the hostel where we relaxed until going to the bus station and heading home.

Overall it was a great break and vacation in Japan. I really enjoyed seeing a vastly different country in Asia, and trying authentic Japanese food. The only thing I may have done differently in retrospect was plan the trip so that it ended with a few days of beach time, as I did not have that much time to just kick back and relax. Nonetheless, it was a great two weeks and full of experiences I will never forget.