Category Archives: Japan

My Head’s in the Clouds

I should probably be writing about life in Korea at this point, having lived here for four months at this point. And I will, sooner rather than later. Today, though, my head is firmly in the clouds.

Or at least the memories I made above them. Before I left Japan, there were a few places that I was bound and determined to see. Unkai Terrace in Tomamu in Hokkaido was at the very top of that list.  In the winter months, Tomamu is a well-known and popular ski resort, but in the summer, the attraction is all about the clouds. Unkai (雲海) is a nifty Japanese word that translates to “sea of clouds, and it’s a phenomenon best seen from mountaintops, where you’re above the cloud cover. The most famous example of unkai in Japan is most certainly the sunrise view from Mt. Fuji…which I had already sought out and then spectacularly failed at seeing a few years prior.

 

Unkai Terrace, for all its glory, is not a destination for those who like to sleep in. During the summer months, when the terrace is open to the public (and not, you know, covered with several meters of fine Hokkaido powder), the gondola’s first ride departs at four or five in the morning, with the final ride to the top leaving at seven or eight, depending on the month. There’s a reason for that ungodly hour; once the sun rises, that bright summer light burns off the damp, chilly cloud cover. It’s not exactly the best activity if you’re planning on hitting the snooze alarm a few times, but for the early birds, Unkai Terrace is wonderful, and it remains as one of my favorite spots in Hokkaido. Continue reading My Head’s in the Clouds

It’s Alive!!

I never meant to stop writing this blog. I’ve always loved writing – and I do mean always, even back in second grade when I’d write a short story a dozen pages long when Mrs. Stenner only asked for three – and when I started it nearly four years ago, The Globetrotting Geek was one of the best ways I found to catalogue and share my experiences living in Aomori.

But life, as it often seems to do, got in the way. I started my Master degree in TESOL at the University College London’s Institute of Education, and that pretty much killed any enthusiasm or energy I had for writing that didn’t have to do with prescribed grammar rules, the phonetic alphabet, or the sociolinguistic implications of narratives in ESL/EFL textbooks. In short, I got tired, and writing for this blog turned into an “oh, I’ll write a post tomorrow…or maybe next week” affair that dwindled and shriveled until it died an unceremonious, neglected death. Insert Pac-man womp womp death noise here.

But even the most dehydrated plants can be revived with enough water and care if you catch them in time, so that’s the plan for The Globetrotting Geek. (That name…oh, that name, as apt as it may be; why did I think alliteration was the way to go?!) With my IOE dissertation turned in and awaiting a grade, I suddenly find myself with oodles and oodles of spare time, and a girl can only look at so many pictures of food online before she starts to go a little crazy. As I said, writing is something that I’ve always loved and taken pride in, and the things we love often have a habit of settling themselves in our blood and bones and brains to wait; even if we don’t use them, they’re still always there, ready and willing.

In the two (!) years since I’ve written, some things have stayed startlingly the same. I still run. I still do yoga. I still love photography. I still love to cook (and eat and eat and eat and eat). I still teach English abroad. I’m still bitter about the times that Buzzfeed said my Parks & Rec soulmate was Jean Ralphio and that my potato counterpart was potato salad. I still like pineapple on my pizza and pretzels in my ice cream.

And then there’s what has changed, for sure the larger part of this pie chart. I no longer live in Aomori – or even Japan –  for starters. Nope, I finished my five-year tenure on the JET Programme at the end of July and then hopped over to South Korea to teach English at the end of September. Now I live in Gangneung, a small coastal city in the northeastern part of Korea that pretty much no one has heard of and likely won’t, until the 2018 Winter Olympics roll into town, that is. Every time I tell someone where I live, they reply, “Ohhh, Gangnam?! I know where that is!”, and I have to explain that actually, no, I don’t live in one of Seoul’s most famous and popular districts.

In the two years since I’ve put digital pen to paper, it’s not just my surroundings that have changed, either. I’m better-traveled, with a trip to Thailand, two to Taiwan, and a repeat visit to New Zealand under my belt. I’ve got a bevy of new, almost useful skills in my arsenal now. The last few years I lived in Aomori, I joined a curling team. Yes, as in with the brooms and the sweeping and the walking on ice with Teflon-covered shoes. For a year, I served as the food co-editor on JET’s online magazine. And most significantly, two years ago, I picked up snowboarding and absolutely fell head over heels (sometimes literally) in love with it, a fact that an unofficial poll of my friends and family, who very sarcastically called me “Grace” throughout the first quarter-century of my life, would for sure declare the top “Wait…what?” moment of my past few years. Now it’s one of the most important parts of my life; I honestly don’t know what else makes me happier.

I’m a different person than when I last wrote here, better in most ways, perhaps worse in some. The past few years have been filled with travels, love, heartbreak, new experiences, surprises, victories, and pitfalls; I expect I’ll write about a lot of them in the next few months. George Santayana had it right when he said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but my own personal version reads “those who do not record the past are condemned to forget it.” And there are so many parts of my own history that I never want to forget.

The Cliffs of Hotokegaura

The craggy white cliffs of Hotokegaura in Aomori
The craggy white cliffs of Hotokegaura in Aomori

Even though I’ve lived here for nearly three full years now, Aomori still manages to surprise me in the best possible ways. There’s always some naturally gorgeous spot to stumble upon for the first time and make me fall in love with Aomori all over again.

See Exhibit A: the cliffs of Hotokegaura (仏ヶ浦), which now reign supreme as my absolute favorite place in Aomori.

Sapphire water, white stone, and verdant trees set the scene.
Sapphire water, white stone, and verdant trees set the scene.

Continue reading The Cliffs of Hotokegaura

The Best View in Tokyo

Sunset over Shinjuku
Sunset over Shinjuku

Okay, maybe it’s not the best, seeing as how every time you turn down a new street in Tokyo, you’re presented with something surprising and/or beautiful…but it’s definitely a top contender.

In late afternoon, the view's pretty nice...
In late afternoon, the view’s pretty nice…
...but when the sun starts to set, it gets downright gorgeous.
…but when the sun starts to set, it gets downright gorgeous.

Tokyo’s got its fair share of gorgeous views, but in my book, this one – from the Tokyo Metropolitan Building in Shinjuku (AKA, the skyscraper district of Tokyo) – reigns supreme. Each of the towers houses an observatory at 202 meters, and on clear days, you can catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the distance. And the capper? Admission is totally free!

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Continue reading The Best View in Tokyo

Kappabashi-dori’s Kitchen Mecca

Kappabashi-dori
Kappabashi-dori

The longer I live in Japan, the more convinced I become that there’s nothing you can’t get in Tokyo. Need anything electronic? Akihabara is your haven. Want some cool, counterculture hippie clothes? Kichijoji’s your best bet. Just want to goggle at some of the trendiest (and sometimes most bizarre) street fashion in the world? Go to Harajuku and prepare to feel like you’re ten years and twenty trends behind.

And if you’re looking to stock your kitchen? Look no further than Kappabashi-dori (合羽橋鶏) near Ueno and Asakusa. If you’re looking for some obscure kitchen tool and can’t find it in Tokyo’s Kitchen Town, then, frankly, you’re probably just not looking hard enough.

Need any bowls? Kappbashi-dori has you covered, whether you just need one...or you're feeding an army.
Need any bowls? Kappbashi-dori has you covered, whether you just need one…or you’re feeding an army.

合羽橋 (kappabashi) means “kappa bridge” in English, and there are a few theories as to the origin of the name, both of which deal with the history of the local area. One of them comes from fisherman drying their raincoats (or kappa) off of a nearby bridge when the weather allowed it. Alternatively, the name could have come from a merchant named Kihachi Kappaya, who started a ditch-building project to divert water from the flooding Mikane River. (At least, that’s what I think that’s what this site says. No promises regarding the accuracy of my translation.)

A kappa peeking out from one of the shops.
A kappa peeking out from one of the shops.

Now, though, the official mascot of the street is a different sort of kappa: the Japanese water demon that’s like a long-legged turtle with a bowl on its head. Naturally, the ones adorning Kappbashi-dori are adorable, but the kappa in Japanese legend are decidedly less so.

Keep your eyes peeled, and you'll see kappa everywhere.
Keep your eyes peeled, and you’ll see kappa everywhere.

Continue reading Kappabashi-dori’s Kitchen Mecca

2014 Sapporo Snow Festival (AKA, “The Weekend My Feet Turned to Blocks of Ice”)

All’s been quiet on the blogging front these past few weeks. Blame it on end-of-term craziness, blame it on the three-day junior high English camp that ran me into the ground, blame it on sheer laziness/lethargy, or blame it on the massive head cold that has my nasal cavities producing approximately two gallons of mucus a day…whatever the case, I’ve been slacking immensely in regards to writing posts lately. I’ve still got loads of posts about the latter half of my India/Nepal trip, but before I forge ahead into Nepalese territory, I thought I’d insert a brief interlude about my trip up to the northern island of Hokkaido in early February.

A giant ice sculpture in Odori Park.
A giant ice sculpture in Odori Park, by day…
...and by night.
…and by night.

The annual 雪祭り (Yuki Matsuri, snow festival) in Sapporo is without a doubt one of the most famous annual events in all of Japan. When it comes to winter festivals, it undoubtedly takes the top spot. Every year, thousand of visitors, Japanese and foreign alike, flock to Sapporo to marvel at the huge snow sculptures that take over the narrow stretch of Ōdōri Park for a week in early February.

Another apparent draw is this "CURRY CURRY So good you can't stop" snack.
Another apparent draw is this “CURRY CURRY So good you can’t stop” snack.

Given the proximity of Aomori to Sapporo, I was determined to make it up to the snow festival at least once while living here. Yet every year when the time came around to book hotel and train tickets, one thing or another would cause me to balk and reason, “I’ll just go next year.” This year, finally, I made it up for the festival and enjoyed two days of beautiful snow sculptures, delicious food, and temperatures so cold that I rocked the “ninja-lite” look the entire weekend.

I wasn't kidding.
I wasn’t kidding.

Continue reading 2014 Sapporo Snow Festival (AKA, “The Weekend My Feet Turned to Blocks of Ice”)

Throwback Thursday: Coming of Age Day in Samukawa

January in Samukawa
January in Samukawa

As is the case with the vast majority of tourists who come to Japan, my first taste of the Land of the Rising Sun was Tokyo. It’s a dizzying city that’s full of enticing ramen shops, soaring skyscrapers, and gaudily vibrant neon lights, depending on which metro station you pop out of. After a few days in the big city, the second impression I got of Japan during my first trip here was of 寒川 (Samukawa), a small town in Kanagawa Prefecture, which neighbors Tokyo. The few days I spent in Samukawa were the homestay portion of a two-week Washington & Jefferson study abroad course mentioned in these posts, and it was a welcome contrast to the other guided parts of our trip, as well as an awesome chance to experience Coming of Age Day, a Japanese holiday that’s held on the second Monday every January.

Only one of many, many failed attempts to get a good group shot.
Only one of many, many failed attempts to get a good group shot.

Continue reading Throwback Thursday: Coming of Age Day in Samukawa