Monday, January 30, 2012

Lunar New Year in Korea

Chinese New Year isn't only for the Chinese. Koreans celebrate the New Year during the same time but it's referred to as Lunar New Year. 

It's usually celebrated on the second new moon after winter solstice and sometimes it's on the third new moon, but that's rare. Lunar New Year in Korea is a time to spend with family and honor your elders. Traditional Korean clothing, called hanbok, is usually worn and children bow to their elders wishing them a blessed New Year. In return, the children are given money. It's also a tradition to eat rice cake soup.

I talked to all of my classes about what they did for the New Year celebrations to get a sense of what really goes on. Everyone said they went to visit their grandparents. One even said he went to his grandmother's grave to bow in the snow before it. Most of the younger kids (under 10) said they wore a hanbok and most of the older kids said they didn't. All kids got money from their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other elder family members after they bowed. Also, playing with cousins is a big part of the New Year celebrations for a kid.  :)

All the pictures are from a pre-New Year's celebration we had for the kindergarteners the Friday before the holiday weekend. They are taught how to bow correctly and given 1,000Won (about $1) if they do it right for the superintendent. They all looked so cute dressed up! The girls especially loved the long pretty skirts. 

I'm so happy I get to experience Korean culture in this way. The kids are teaching me about their lives and ways and I'm getting paid for it because they're explaining it to me in English! :) It's pretty cool.

Here's a short video of the bowing and money giving in action.

Lunar New Year in Korea from destination exploration on Vimeo.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Travel Photo: Tokyo Street Art

Taken near Ryogoku station on the way to the Sumo museum in Tokyo, Japan.

See all of our pictures from Japan on Flickr.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Visiting a Temple in Japan

 You can't visit Japan and not visit at least one temple or shrine.

Welllll, you could, but you definitely shouldn't.

Temples and shrines are some of Japan's greatest national treasures and historical monuments. They are found in every Japanese city and are often a quiet place to relax, reflect, and make wishes to the gods or Buddha. In the concrete jungles of the larger cities, temples are some of the only places with flowers, plants, and large trees. They're a peaceful little escape from the crowded city streets.   

It is important to remember upon visiting a temple to be respectful. A temple or shrine should be treated with the same respect you would give to any church, synagogue, mosque, or temple in your home country. That being said, don't avoid visiting temples out of fear that you might make a blunder. As you enter the temple, look around you. What are other people doing? Are there any signs indicating what you should or should not be doing?

In particular, look for shoe cubbies, "no photographs" signs, and ticket booths. If there are shoe cubbies and you notice people inside wearing only socks, remove your shoes. All of the temples we visited in Kyoto and Tokyo did not require us to remove our shoes but I know there are some that do.

You will see a small fountain with a pool of water near the entrance with some long handled ladles. This water is for cleansing yourself before addressing the gods or Buddha. You can wash your hands with the water and even rinse your mouth with a little if you feel up to it. Make sure to drink from the cup of your hand and not the ladle. If people are around, watch what they do and mimic them. If people aren't around, you won't offend anyone if you mess up a little, so just rinse your hands and be off! Please note that it's not required to rinse your hands or mouth so if you don't feel comfortable doing it, then don't.

Temples and shrines are a place to make wishes and say prayers and there are a few ways you can do this. You can buy a small piece of wood to write your wish/prayer on, buy a candle or incense to burn, or simply toss money into an offering box and pray. Look around for a booth or nearby shop that sells the wooden boards, candles, and/or incense. Sometimes, payment is on the honor system and remember, you are at a holy site; don't get bad karma by stiffing the temple a couple of yen. If you can't understand the price, put in what you think is reasonable or, as always, watch someone else first.

When burning incense, light the end and wave out the flames. Stick it in the pot with the other incense and then wave some of the smoke onto yourself. Incense is thought to have healing powers so wave it towards any spot that's aching or needs special attention.

The simplest way to make a wish at a temple is to just throw some coins into the collection box, say a prayer with your hands together directly in front of your chest, and then put your arms straight by your sides and bow by bending at the waist.

If there is a bell with a rope attached (like the picture above) you can ring it! :) Throw your money in the box, ring the bell, make your wish, and then bow.

As you walk around the temple grounds admiring the gorgeous, maticulous gardens, the historic buildings, incense pots, prayer boards, and other awesome holy stuff remember to keep your voice down and respect those around you. Don't walk between someone praying and the shrine, effigy, or monument they are praying to as it's considered breaking their connection to the gods/Buddha.

The most important thing is to be respectful, humble, and polite. If you think you've done something wrong, no worries, just bow, look apologetic, and say sorry. Japanese people are very kind and will probably be willing to forgive you. Then maybe throw a couple more coins in the offering box for good measure. :)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Be Inspired: Time is Nothing

When I posted the Oh, the Places You'll Go video at Burning Man, I thought maybe I could inspire some of you to travel. I don't really know who is reading this blog but I'd like to hope that some of my family and friends back home check it out every once in a while, along with the sporadic travel blogger I meet on Twitter. Whoever you are, I hope that you leave this place happy and at least thinking about expanding your mind and seeing more of the world.

With that said, here's a great video by Kien Lam of his 2010-2011 around the world trip. I love that he shows the name of each place and I think the music is absolutely perfect. I hope you can find some inspiration in these 6,237 pictures. I know I did.

Time is Nothing // Around The World Time Lapse from Kien Lam on Vimeo.

First seen on Prêt à Voyager.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Travel Photo: Kyoto by Night

Spencer taking a break from our all day walking adventures in Kyoto.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tokyo Tower

At night, the Tokyo Tower glows orange like a beacon. We used it at such and started walking towards it when we saw it from near the Imperial Palace. Standing at 1,091 feet (332.5m) it looked a lot closer than it actually was! As we got closer and closer and it got bigger and bigger, it just made us all the more excited to get to the top of it.

the last full night of 2011

The Eiffel Tower inspired tower was built in 1958 and claims to be the symbol of Tokyo. It's painted white and international orange, the same orange used to paint the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. We visited it at night, which was great because we could see all the sparkling city lights stretching on and on and on! The view was incredible from every angle. The city is a massive expanse of lights and activity. The Rainbow Bridge (pictured below) was brilliant with all the little ant-sized cars scooting across it.

Rainbow Bridge
Practical Information

There are two levels to the tower, the Main Observatory (¥820) and the Special Observatory (an additional ¥600), both with 360 degree views of the city. The Main Observatory is comprised of two stories where there are interactive touch screen computers along each wall showing the view you are seeing with the names of the buildings. It was interesting to see the areas we had already visited and the area where we were staying from that angle. Shibuya was lit up like a torch and you could even see some of the advertisements that were placed high up. On the touch screens, you can toggle languages and see a 24 hour time lapse video of the view. 

In the Main Observatory there is also a coffee shop, flat screen TVs with additional information, a club named 333, windows in the floor to see how far up you really are, a gift shop, and a Shinto shrine. The elevators to the Special Observatory are also located here. Since there isn't one elevator that will take you from the ground to the top, you will first have to go up to the Main Observatory and then get on another elevator that will take you up to the Special Observatory.

Underneath the tower at ground level, there is a shopping area, two wax museums, restaurants, an aquarium, a kids play area, a "magical dungeon,"  and a gallery that can be used for multiple different purposes.

Tokyo Tower is open from 9:00am-10:00pm with the last elevator heading up to the main observatory at around 9:45pm. If you want to go to the Special Observatory, the last elevator up leaves at 9:30pm from the Main Observatory. If the Tower is particularly busy the last elevator ride up could be sooner so make sure to give yourself plenty of time. Here's a link to the Tokyo Tower official website for further info.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Maggie's ABC's of Travel

The ABC's of travel is a fun little questionnaire going around the blogosphere. We were nominated by Arienne and Tristan from See You Soon (thanks, guys! :) I had a great time thinking back on all my travels and looking through my passport and old photos. I hope you enjoy learning a little more about me and the travels I've been on.

A: Age you went on your first international trip: 

Nineteen. I studied abroad with the Semester at Sea program and it was preparing for that trip that I got my first passport. I was so excited for the trip and planned sooo much! I also brought everything but the kitchen sink with me. It's funny to look back on now. :)

B: Best (foreign) beer you’ve had and where:

I had the most delicious fruity Belgian beer while in London. I can't tell you what it was called but it tasted like candy! Yummm

C: Cuisine (favorite):

Mexican food is definitely my favorite. I can't think about it too much now that we live in Korea because we never eat any good Mexican food. It will be the first thing I eat when I get back to California.

D: Destinations, favorite, least favorite and why:

Monet's Garden
My favorite place in the whole world is Monet's gardens in the spring or summer. It's a beautiful place filled with rainbows upon rainbows of every flower that will grow there. It's like a dream.

My least favorite place is....can't really think of anywhere...hmmm

E: Event you experienced abroad that made you say “wow”:   

The entire 100 days on Semester at Sea was like one huge, "WOW, this is awesome! This is so awesome. I can't believe I'm actually here!" The community was so loving and open minded. I loved the way we learned about each country before we arrived. We learned about history, culture, language, local holidays/festivals, things to do, and current events. I was saying "wow" every day as I looked out my classroom window at the endless ocean or watched as we pulled into a new port catching our first glimpses of yet another country we were set to explore.

F: Favorite mode of transportation:

For getting around cities, walking is the best. You can discover so many things by getting wonderfully lost. I always carry a business card or a piece of paper with the name and address of the place we are staying at just in case we get really lost.

For longer distance traveling, I prefer trains to airplanes. Airplanes are quick but trains are much cooler. I love seeing the country pass before my eyes. I like the subtle rocking and the superb people watching.

G: Greatest feeling while traveling:

Meeting people who can change your life with their outlooks on life and their enthusiasm to live. I also love meeting people who ensure my faith in humanity as being inherently good.

On our most recent trip to Japan, we met an 81 year old Japanese man who was studying English via a radio program so he could talk to foreigners who come to visit. He stopped us on the street and we talked for about 20 minutes about English, his family, his cancer, his opinions on Japanese people vs other Asian cultures, and our marriage. He told us he wishes we would stay in Japan forever and that we should have 5 or 6 babies as soon as possible. I told him our mothers would like that and we all laughed. His English was excellent and his willingness to share his stories and chat with us was so touching. We left him with our spirits lifted and our hearts glowing with love for him. He told us "this day is the best day" because he got to meet us. I've never felt so lucky to meet someone in my entire life. It was the greatest experience of our whole trip. 

We had another great experience with a man in Hong Kong.

H: Hottest place you’ve traveled to:

Vietnam. It was so hot and humid when I went to see the tunnels in Cu Chi. I've never sweated so much in my entire life! I don't like humidity much. I grew up where it could reach as high as 110F/43C but it's always a dry heat.   

I: Incredible service you’ve experienced and where:

My best friend and I had about 4 days left in India and for some reason we decided to visit a little town in the middle of no where called Hampi. We were getting to Hampi from Chennai and it took an overnight train and 3 different public buses to get there. The round trip journey took much longer than the time we actually got to spend in the tiny, one street town but I've never felt so free in my life. We were exploring!
Hampi, India

We couldn't be sure if we were ever on the right bus. After we got off each bus, a huge crowd would gather around us asking where we were going. We'd say "Hampi" and we'd get ushered to the next unmarked bus. It wasn't the best service in the world, as personal space was very limited in the mob of men asking where we wanted to go, but it sure was incredible.

J: Journey that took the longest:

I once took a 26 hour train ride from Hong Kong to Beijing. My friends and I drank all the alcohol on the whole train. It was super fun!

K: Keepsake from your travels:

I like buying local art the best. My favorite piece is from a Brazilian man who lives in the state of Bahia. It's of ladies dancing a traditional Afro-Brazilian dance. I had seen some women perform the dance the night before and thought he captured their movements perfectly.

Buying art isn't an option when we're backpacking, unless I really love it and am willing to send it home. That hasn't happened yet so I usually stick to buying smaller stuff like jewelry or postcards to send home to family/friends. Also, I always have pictures!

L: Let-down sight, why and where:

You know how upon looking back at the past, you usually only remember the good parts?? Well, yeah, that's happening right now! I can't think of anything. 

M: Moment where you fell in love with travel:

During Semester at Sea when I realized how easy it was to travel and that I could go anywhere in the world. It was like my eyes were finally open and the whole world was waiting for me to explore it. I could go anywhere!! Just the thought was staggering. 

N: Nicest hotel you’ve stayed in:

My brother, Bo, was physically disabled and he got to meet Garth Brooks backstage at the Jay Leno show. Bo got to do cool stuff due to his disability and general awesomeness, which Bo always called "The Aura of Bo." As soon as people met him they wanted to do something nice for him. When Garth met Bo and realized how intelligent and full of life and hope he was, he offered to treat our family to a trip to Atlanta to see the first concert of his world tour.

My brother had a brittle bone disease called ostegenesis imperfecta and couldn't fly commercial. If he was going to fly, he needed to do it in his wheelchair while laying down so the force of taking off wouldn't hurt him. He was extremely fragile. He once broke his arm holding a corn dog--no joke.

Since he couldn't fly commercial, Garth chartered a private jet for us. He paid for our stay in the Ritz Carlton, gave my parents spending money to do stuff in Atlanta, and invited us to the sound check where we got to spend nearly three hours with him, meeting his family, getting autographs, and having dinner backstage. It was an amazing trip and one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for my family.

The Ritz Carlton was the nicest hotel I have ever been in. Being in the fourth grade, the part I noticed the most was the huge flower arrangements everywhere. I've always loved flowers and was totally mesmerized by the gigantic arrangements that were so much bigger than me.  

As far as hostel's go, K's Hostel in Kyoto, Japan is hands down, the BEST hostel I have ever stayed in. It had everything you could ever want in a hostel and was super clean. 

O: Obsession—what are you obsessed with taking pictures of while traveling?:

Flowers and doors. I also really like taking pictures of random stuff that catches my eye. I think that when I look back at my photos, it's the little stuff about a city or destination that really make it come to life. 

P: Passport stamps, how many and from where?

I have 46 stamps. The stamps are too many to go through and write down. Plus, that would be boring. Instead, here's a list of countries I've been to: Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Brazil, South Africa, Mauritius, India, Burma, Vietnam, China, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy, England, Scotland, Ireland, Ecuador, Belize, Guatemala, and South Korea.

I have to get a new passport soon since I'm taking my husband's last name. I'm kind of sad to see my old passport go but I know I will fill the next one up, too!

Q: Quirkiest attraction you’ve visited and where:

I'm going to say Harajuku, Tokyo. The fashion there is very quirky!

R: Recommended sight, event or experience:

Semester at Sea - You can get college credit for this!!
If you're in college/university, do Semester at Sea. No excuses, go send in your application right now.

If you have a college degree, move to another country to teach English. It's so rewarding to really get to know a culture by living in for an extended period of time.

If you don't want to make that kind of commitment, then go somewhere that scares you. Somewhere that will challenge you and make you think about the way you live your life. It could be leaving your home country for the first time or taking a trip to a rural village in India. Do what you want. It's your trip. 

S: Splurge; something you have no problem forking over money for while traveling:

A meal in a nice restaurant every now and again. I love going out to eat. 

T: Touristy thing you’ve done:

I went on a walking tour in France with a study abroad program. Getting carted around all together was sooo touristy but informative. I love learning about destinations and their history and listening is the easiest way. That being said, I would much rather listen to a podcast while walking or read a book and then go. I don't see myself going on many more walking tours in my lifetime.

U: Unforgettable travel memory:

The friendships made. The life long friendships and the 20 minute single-serving friendships (see G). They are all great. Also, that feeling of excitement I get when planning a trip. It makes me feel alive. 

V: Visas, how many and for where?

 I have 4 full page visa stickers and they're from China, Korea (where I'm living now), India, and Vietnam.

W: Wine, best glass of wine while traveling and where?

I'm not a wine expert by any means but I do love wine! I think the best would be drinking wine at lunch in France. I love drinking wine with lunch. It's one of my favorite parts about French culture. 

X: eXcellent view and from where?:

It's a tie between the view of Hong Kong from Victoria's Peak on a clear, sunny day and the view from the Great Wall of China when you can see the wall dipping over the mountains and stretching out across the sky for miles.

Y: Years spent traveling?:

Six years, on and off.

Z: Zealous sports fans and where?:                    
French fans celebrating

I was in Paris when they made it to the final of the World Cup. When they won the semi-final match, it was incredible!! People were dancing in fountains, lighting fireworks, jumping, and yelling chants, all with huge smiles on their faces. The police were there in case anything got out of hand but they never had to intervene. Everyone was just so happy for France.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Exploring Kyoto

My favorite part about exploring a new city is just walking around. I love feeling like I'm actually exploring a place. If I follow the guidebook to the hotspots, I feel like I didn't really see anything. I miss out on the journey, and we all know, it's the journey that really matters!
When we got to Kyoto, I knew Gion was the neighborhood to explore. Kyoto is known as the cultural capital of Japan and Gion is the geisha district filled with temples and tiny alleyways to discover. What is more Japanese-y than that??

We only had one full day in Kyoto so in the morning we woke up, ate breakfast, looked at the map in the lobby of the hostel and took off in the general direction on Gion.

There are maps posted throughout the city which helped us stay in the general area we wanted to be in. If we saw something cool we stopped. If we saw a temple we went in, walked around, made an offering, and bowed. When we hit a major intersection we would look both ways and go where it looked the most promising. We ended up finding tons of great stuff, including a few things I'm sure were not in the guidebook.

fire station


sticker street art

It's always good to look around carefully. You never know when a little treasure is hiding down a side street, like this little temple. 

construction bunnies

Japan is a beautiful blend of tradition and innovation. There are modern conveniences next door to temples that are hundreds of years old. It's amazing to me that a country so steeped in tradition can also be modern and fresh. It would be great to live here one day and explore their culture even more.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Back in the Swing of Things

If you read Destination Exploration last month, you know I was having a rough time. I was missing home and all the lovely things I was so accustomed to always having. When I asked my Aunt Deb, who is long-time expat, what the hardest part about living abroad is, she told me it was spending the holidays so far from family. She was right.

So, I brooded for a while. I let myself be sad, wrote those two posts, and then I decided to get over it.

I started by turning our apartment into a winter wonderland complete with paper snowflakes, a homemade Christmas tree made from cardboard, colorful paper chains, paper cranes, homemade stockings, a single strand of hand-me-down twinkle lights, and presents. It was nice to do some crafting. Creating things combined with all the bright colors and numerous holiday songs really lifted my spirits.

Then, Spencer's little sister, Katie came to visit us for Christmas and it was great to spend the holiday with family. We had a great time chatting about life in Korea and the similarities and differences between our jobs. She moved to Seoul in late November and we are happy to have her so near to us.

Next, we went to Japan for a week where we had a really great whirlwind of a time. We explored Kyoto first and then met up with Katie and her friend Jeremy in Tokyo for four days. We brought in the New Year at Zojoji Temple with the famous Tokyo Tower glittering in the background. It was a wonderful vacation and was exactly what I needed.

It rejuvenated me. 

Now, I really feel back on track. I made some resolutions and a plan to accomplish them. I'm feeling very happy to be here in Korea and living the life of my dreams. I know things can be hard to handle sometimes but it's all part of the experience. I've had way more good experiences than bad and I'm looking forward to all that 2012 will bring.  

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Oh, the Places You'll Go! - Burning Man Edition

While traveling with the Semester at Sea Program, Oh, the Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss was kind of a big deal. Many people got the book as departure gifts. We talked about in class. We discussed how the words connect to our very own "voyage of discovery" on the mighty vessel, the MV Explorer. It was a time of great wonder. A time for exploration of not only the world, but ourselves as well.

The words still have meaning for me. They touch my heart and inspire me to live the life of my dreams. Nearly six years after my Semester at Sea voyage, here I am living in South Korea. :) This life is magical and I could not be more happy with the path I've chosen.

Now for the video, enjoy!