Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In the Time of Sakura

When I came to Japan, I made a list of things I would need to do while I'm here. Some are location-specific activities like go scuba diving in Okinawa, or visit the Sapporo factory in Hokkaido. A few aren't travel related at all and can be done anywhere (like finish the One Piece series in Japanese). I have others, though, that can be done only during certain times of year, such as visiting a shrine in Japan on New Year’s. However, there is one activity that I've wanted to do well before I made this list: "Drink underneath the cherry blossoms."

I can't remember where I read about it, but I do remember what it described. Every year, the blooming sakura represents the first sign of spring. Japan's cherry blossoms starts in the south and work their way northward as the weather gets warmer. When it reaches an area, everyone goes outside to celebrate the end of winter. It includes picnics, parties, BBQ's, games, singing, and drinking. The article continued to mention that this is the one chance a year for the usually reserved Japanese to completely relax and have a good time. People can drop all pretexts and fronts, and a sort of "anything goes" mentality takes over.

At the time I read about it, I was hooked. I knew then that I had to do this. It became one of the reasons why I came to Japan.

Lunch break outside Kokura Castle

I wasn't disappointed. It was everything that I had hoped it would be. But as cliché as sounds, it's hard to describe in words. (In my defense, many Japanese poets spend years trying to describe the beauty of 桜.) What I can say is that I was stunned by the sheer number of blossoms. At its peak, it was spectacular. It was simply an unparalleled experience.

To be honest, I actually missed the start of the cherry blossoms because I was in Taipei. That's not to say I didn't make up for it later... I think I did 花見 around 5 or 6 times. (Notice it isn’t an exact number. That week was kind of a blur.) We sat under the trees during our lunch break when we were at the office. (Just bento... I mean, drinking would have been irresponsible.) At night, I went with a few others for a cheeky チューハイ after Japanese class. The day before school, we had a proper picnic as we fired up the grill and celebrated our last day of Spring Vacation.
 Yaki Niku
Notice the limited-edition 花見 can

Each time was different too. As I mentioned before, anything goes. Things that wouldn't be necessarily appropriate normally was now perfectly acceptable (or at least, overlooked). Japanese men passed out under trees… before noon? Sure, it’s hanami. A grandpa drunkenly making out with his wife… in front of children? Meh, the kids are playing anyway... maybe they won't notice. Calling over and sharing food and drinks with strangers… just because you notice they are foreigners?

New Friends?
Yeah... don't really remember taking this picture...

Good food, good company, good times, and all it all, it was just good fun. I can understand why it's such a longstanding tradition--what better way to celebrate the coming of spring than 花見? So even though I had, "Drink underneath the cherry blossoms," only once on my list, you'll definitely see me out there again next year.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Budget Travel - The World on a Shoestring

So I’m giving a guest lecture for Seinan Jo Gakuin’s English Department. At first, I couldn’t decide what to talk about. I thought about it for a bit, and instead of choosing something more… academic, I decided to do something more fun.

Besides… did I mention that it’s 西南学院?

I've found that many people in Japan use travel agents to book trips. I'm sure you've seen them--bus loads of Japanese tourists visiting sights throughout the world. But even though many Japanese love traveling, it seems that the backpacking culture so prevalent amongst other nationalities is not as popular. So while I’m by no means an expert, I can share tips and stories from my travels. I can talk about my favorite hobby and promote what I think is a better way to travel.

Or at least show there are ways to travel that don't involve following a tour guide with a brightly colored umbrella.

If you have any tips of your own, please comment and let me know.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Signs, Snakes, and 7-Elevens

Taiwan was not what I had expected. I was expecting it to be stimulation overload mixed with heaps of culture shock. And though it was different than Japan, I think I had more culture shock going to Korea, or even Hawaii, than I did in Taipei. 

This seemed strange to me at the time. Why did I feel so at ease in Taipei? So after finishing my trip and looking through my photos, I came up with 3 possible reasons as to why this was.

1) Writing:

I know I said Korea felt like Japan, and I know Korean is gramatically similar to Japanese. And even though the Korean alphabet reminded me of katakana, it didn't look like Japanese. Chinese, however... it is Japanese (or rather, Japanese kanji comes from Chinese characters). This by itself made Taipei feel like Japan. I can't understand everything (I'd say it's well less than half). Yet there is comfort in being able to read the same signs I do in Japan. Even knowing where to find an exit, 出口, makes traveling in a foreign country a lot less intimidating.

This proved to be particularly helpful in restaurants. Granted we couldn't read what was said (though sometimes our guess in Japanese was similar minus the intonations). However, when we saw something on a menu, we could break it down. “Hmmm... 牛肉 something... 油 with something... something else... and 麺. That sounds good. Let's get this oily beef noodles dish.” 

This leads into the next topic...

Sometimes being able to read it made it worse...

2) Weird food:

I wouldn't say I go out of my way to eat weird stuff. However, if the opportunity presents itself, it is a good cultural experience. In Taipei, these opportunities were plentiful. In order of weirdness factor from least to most, I ate chicken feet (semi-normal), stinky tofu (no joke, it was really stinky), ostrich yakitori, various snake parts in liquid form, and a bug jello-like concoction. 

I can't seem to keep away from snake...

So Taipei has its weird food. But what about Japan? Many cultures find the idea of raw fish repulsive. That may not be strange for you (or me), but I've also had both chicken and beef prepared as sashimi. And basashi... well, not many other cultures eat horse meat cooked, much less raw. I still think the best/craziest culinary experience for me is when I had squid so fresh, the tentacles were still writhing about and sticking to the roof of my mouth as I ate it.

In other words, Japan has its weird moments too. So although the food culture is vastly different in Taiwan (night markets are awesome), the weirdness factor of its dishes didn't faze me... well, at least no more than Japan.

3) Convenience:

Taipei reminded me of Japan in terms of convenience. First of all, much like Japan, the public transportation is excellent. We never waited longer than 4 minutes for a train and most of the time, we would board well within a minute. We even went to Beitou, the once difficult to reach, northernmost district, now just an easy MRT ride away.

I can't talk about convenience without at least mentioning convenience stores. Japan has a コンビニ every block. This may be a slight exaggeration (very slight), but you never have to walk very far to get a drink, grab a snack, or find an ATM. 

As for Taipei...

Yes this is a picture of a 7-Eleven from inside another 7-Eleven.

Seems the same to me...