Tuesday, April 28, 2015

School lunch

Dear Mom and Dad,

     I'm sure you've heard in the news about the whole national school lunch debate etc, etc.  Well, I thought I'd add my 2 cents and show some pictures of my school lunches here.  I eat my lunch at school and I will say it is quite good.  At least, if you like Korean food or trying new things, which I do.  Maybe it's not for everyone and that's fine, but the lunches here are filling and satisfying.  You don't go hungry, if you eat.  And, at least in elementary school, you can get seconds.  In middle school you serve yourself most things and so you take what you want the first time.  Although there are some who definitely head back when their favorites are served.  ^^

     That being said, there is this one observation.  The amount of food that is thrown away really is staggering.  Students, usually in the middle school, (and teachers) who take (or are served) massive amounts of food and can't finish it, or (because of certain expectations) take food that they really don't want just to avoid comment, cause an enormous amount of waste.  However, there is never any complaint about not getting enough to eat.  And the majority of the food is cooked on site, or purchased fresh/freshly made.  Also, most of the rice is not just plain rice but often has other grains mixed in.  Black or brown rice, beans, barley and other grains are most common.

   All lunches consist of rice, soup, and kimchi of some kind, plus three or four 반찬- banchan, or side dishes.    Delish!!  Ok, here goes some pictures!

top left clw: spicy pork, spinach with seaweed, kimchi, apple,samgyetang (chicken and ginger soup) and rice

top left clw: samgyup (pork belly) spicy eggplant, kimchi, soy sauce boiled potatoes, spicy radish and bean sprout soup, rice

top left clw: spicy stewed fish with radish, smoked duck, kimchi, sugared tomato, squash leaf and tofu soup, rice

top left clw: galbi (pork rib) spicy steamed broccoli, kimchi, boiled potato, spicy nakji (octopus) and radish soup, rice

Spring and Cherry blossoms!

Dear Mom and Dad!

Spring is here!  At last!  It's been a cold winter here, although I know it doesn't compare to the winter that you guys had.  But still, cold is cold and I'm not a fan!  So when the cherry blossoms (벚꽃 ~ bot kote) and  and plum flowers (매화 ~ maehwa), pears (배 ~ bae)  and apples (사과 ~ sagwa)  start blooming, I'm a happy camper.  And I have a wonderful Korean friend who feels the same way.  She visits my city on the weekends and we'll jump in her car and go for a drive through the country side to check out the flowers in spring time.  When we started it was a little too early, but we've gone every week since and have gotten to see some really fantastic views all over the south western half of Korea.  It even seemed that on some days we could actually see the flowers blooming throughout the day!
    And pictures too!  Lots and lots of pictures.  It seems that all of Korea comes out to see the flowers at their height and impromptu festivals pop up in towns all over the country following the blooming season as it creeps north.  Traffic jams for flowers!  I can think of no better reason for a traffic jam! We had great times; some days overcast, some sunny, some cool and windy, some rather warm, but they were all fun!  And even better with great company along the way.  We would pack a picnic lunch and stop along the way, enjoying the fresh air and chatting about anything and everything.  And as the plums faded, then came the cherries; and as the cherries faded then came the azaleas.  This time of year for a little over a month, Korea is splashed with color from delicate white and pink, to vibrant rose and fuchsia, with dots of yellow forsythia all over.  I love spring!  It's almost as if Mother Nature is apologizing for her bad behavior and promising she'll behave for a while.  At least until summertime!!  Here are some of the pictures we've taken this spring!  Enjoy!

Flower traffic jam!



picnic watching the para-gliders
forsythia and cherry blossoms

and the trees are leafing too!
white azalea
fuchsia azaleas

pear blossoms

Azaleas outside my school
outside my school
impromptu cherry blossom festival

Good friends!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Hello Japan!

Dear Mom and Dad,

Shinjuku Koen
Hello Kitty!
In December we had two weeks of vacation time over Christmas and New Years.  So my friend Olivia and I decided (way back in September) that we wanted to go to Japan.  We definitely both wanted a travel companion as we were a little nervous just travelling on our own.  (Crazy, right?  We both made it to Korea, and LIVE here, all on our own)   But a week vacation needed a travel companion, lol!  Anyway, that makes trips that much more fun, so we planned.  We decided that it would be fun to visit Disneyland while we were in Tokyo.  Olivia had been to the one in CA, but I have never been at all.  So Disney from a Japanese perspective might be kinda interesting!
We were only going for 5 days (4.5 really), so we just wanted to relax for most of our trip, and since we were both sick with head colds that was a good idea.  Our flight from Incheon to Tokyo was shorter than our bus ride from our town to Incheon.  But it still strangely took us all day to get to Japan.  Nine hours of travelling and waiting for a 2 hour flight...  it was a snowing quite a bit when we left, but our bus driver was steady and we made good time.
We flew into Narita airport in the evening and we knew from talking with our hotel that we would have to take the shuttle to the neighborhood next to our hotel’s neighbor hood then take the subway one stop.  It sounds easy enough, but we were both nervous and tired.  In Korea we are usually okay (now) to get where we need to go since we are familiar with the system and can speak a little Korean to get by.  Japan, no.  Not so much.  And it is really intimidating. 
We finally found the counter for the shuttle tickets and discovered (much to our joy) that we could purchase 3 day subway passes for half price!  One worry down.  Our bus didn’t leave for almost an hour so we sat and tried to figure out our pocket wi-fi. 
Japan has pretty decent wi-fi and it is everywhere.  But it’s not free public wi-fi.  You need to sign in.  Which typically requires a Japanese ID number.  Tourists are generally out of luck.  Hotels will sometimes have free wi-fi for their guests but if you are wandering around, and get lost, good luck accessing online maps or translators.
We sorta figured it out before the bus came.  While we were waiting, (we discovered the Japanese love to queue) we met a Japanese man returning for a home visit from the States and chatted for a while.  Later I realized that was a little unusual, but he had been in the States for some time, and recognized that we were Americans. 
We got on the bus and knew that we would be first off, but that the ride would be about 45 minutes. I tried to stay awake to see the sites, and I did see some, but it was dark by then and not much showed beyond the headlights.  So we ended up dozing, until our stop.  We got off and promptly headed to the subway station.
Odaiba at sunset
Gundam- Odaiba
Or so we thought…!  We found the covered stairway near a sign that said subway and we walked down the stairs, thinking that the automatic rail ramp thingy in the ground along the side was a little odd.  We saw one or two people coming up the other side and realized that it was an escalator for bikes.  There weren’t a whole lot of people which seemed strange for a subway station but we got to the bottom, struggling with our luggage the whole way (stairs remember) and realized… it was an underground bicycle garage.  (later we learned they are called bicycle forests).  Up we went, thoroughly confused, but we finally found the subway, which in our neighborhood wasn’t actually a subway but an elevated rail. 
We finally got to our neighborhood and proceeded to look for our hotel.  Apparently neither of us were very good at reading maps in Japanese because it seemed every turn we took, took us in a different direction according to our map tracker.  We thought we were heading in the correct direction, but we were heading in somewhere else.  Not even in circles; that we could have fixed.  Eventually we found the hotel and checked in (turns out we came from the totally opposite direction that we started from.  How, we still haven’t figured out.) 
By then it was after 9PM and we were hungry so we left the hotel to a mart we remembered passing around the corner from the hotel. 
Tokyo skyline from Odaiba-  yes, I got on a ferris wheel!
Oh. Yuuu~umm! 
Christmas lights in Odaiba
Grocery shopping is tons of fun in another country.  It’s one of the funnest (is that even a word?) things you can do actually, to learn about your new location.  On our flight we had both watched a documentary on the Japanese entrepreneur who developed instant ramen and cup noodles.  So we snagged ourselves some cup noodles and some other snacks and some soft drinks and headed back to the hotel.  Where we were in heaven taking a REAL bath!  With super hot water.  The tub was almost full size (I was not expecting that considering the size of the room) and DEEP.  So sweet.   This became our routine almost every night we were there.  Cup noodles, snacks and a hot, hot bath!

Ferris wheel Odaiba
The next day we decided we wanted to go on the Ferris Wheel we had seen on the bus. So we pulled out our subway map and figured out how to get there .  We were heading to Odaiba, with the highest ferris wheel with a view of Mount Fuji (which I had a fantastic sunset view of on the plane!), the rainbow bridge, fantastic shopping and other fun things.  But first we had to get there.

Rainbow bridge -Odaiba
The Tokyo subway is interesting.  And a little complex at first.  It goes from subway in the city center to elevated rail in the outlying neighborhoods.  We also learned that the Tokyo subway system does not just look like a bowl of ramen on a map, but it’s convoluted like one too.  There are actually three companies (and the 3 corresponding rail lines) running the subway systems in Tokyo.  The Tokyo Metro, the Toei Line and the JR lines.  Some of these lines shared stations but not all.  And if you only had a Metro card you could only ride the Metro and not the Toei or JR lines.  All a little confusing.  And it means that the subways are a jumble of swiping cards in and out.  Transferring lines gets a little rough with all the card swiping.  Swipe to enter, swipe to leave, swipe to enter again, and swipe again to leave.  But our card was good for Tokyo Metro and Toei, which were the main lines within the city.  JR lines were mostly just outside the city.

Odaiba at night
Which we promptly needed to use on Tuesday, our first full day in the city.  We were heading to Odaiba and to get there we had to take both the Tokyo Metro line and the Toei line.  Then transfer to the JR line.  Metro and Toei ~ fine, no problem our card took care of that.  JR line we had to get new one time tickets for.  After much much confusion and not much help from the information folks, we finally realized that we had to use the vending machine (that are everywhere, for everything).  We just had to figure out which one and how far we were going etc. etc.  Luckily we had made a promise to each other, that we had no time schedule and therefore we were not in any hurry.  We could take our time to figure things out without getting too frustrated.  Otherwise that could have been pretty panic inducing.  We got our tickets (the machine spit out 2).  I went through the gate, Olivia went through the gate.  We got on our train and got off our train at the correct stop.  Did a little shopping then left the station.  As we went out, I went through first, and the Olivia went through directly after me.  The machine door levers slammed shut behind her.  We had no idea what happened, but it kept her ticket.  It hadn’t kept mine  We were confused but the station people seemed more amused that irritated so we left, not really understanding what had happened.  (Can you tell we aren’t used to subway systems?)
We had a fantastic day in Odaiba.  We walked through the shopping center, which was more like a shopping mall in the States, than the shopping centers in Korea.  Everything was decorated for Christmas, which seemed strange for a Country that is less than 1% Christian.  But they love Christmas (it’s a dating holiday, although not a day off) even more than in Korea, which is almost 50% Christian.  Neither is bad, certainly not the materialistic commercialism in the West (another story, not for here, lol). 
cosplay at Don Quixote-these are for men
In the meantime, one of the first stores we saw was guess what?  Hello Kitty!  Lots of cool stores, were we found green tea Kitkats (and bought some!)  We then gathered up the courage to stop for lunch at a restaurant in the mall (which was PACKED) with people.  It was delicious but we had to eat quickly as there was not much room in the restaurant and people were moving through quickly.
Then.  We headed to the Ferris Wheel called Daikanransha.  Wandered along the way trying to find it, and discovered a Toyota Car Museum attached to the Ferris Wheel.  We got in line and although I was nervous (terrified more like) I got on.  It was supposed to be 15 minutes around, but I think it was more like 7 or 8.  It felt like forever though.  There were fantastic views of the city and Tokyo Bay.  We could see Mount Fuji also,  but just barely through the clouds and it just doesn’t appear in photos at all (bummer)
We watched the sunset from across the water along the Bridge of Dreams and then headed toward the Rainbow Bridge for night viewing.  Along the way we wanted to stop at the Cup Noodle museum (because, you know, cup noodles!)  But for some reason we couldn’t find it.  So we stopped for dinner.  Sushi! 
Wooa..ahh!  No comparison and it wasn't even high end
It wasn’t high quality sushi, at least not for Japan.  And I know we are not sushi connoisseurs, and have no idea of the appropriate culture and habits for sushi, but we didn’t really care.  It was still the best sushi we ever had.  Not too cheap, not too expensive and oh so delicious.  Except for the most expensive piece on the plate…  Neither of us really liked that one, but I suppose we aren’t “sushi cultured” enough to understand its qualities.  We wandered along to the Rainbow Bridge and enjoyed the light shows on the buildings. 
Coming back was when we learned what had happened to Olivia’s train ticket.  When we went to exit the JR line Olivia went first and I followed.  Olivia got through but I was just too slow.  The machine kept my ticket but I was stuck on the other side of the machine.  The station guy came over to retrieve my ticket and was trying to tell me that it wasn’t the right ticket.  Neither of us understood and I felt very foolish and a little panicky.  But eventually, we understood that what I had just put through and what Olivia had put through (but the machine was too slow to catch) was the ticket information stub, not the actual ticket  (wow, real 바보 moment there).  Luckily I still had the actual ticket in my purse and I didn’t even have to fumble for it.  The front of the ticket stub and the information stub were identical except that the back of one was black!

Wednesday we had a quieter day, since we were both feeling a little rough from our colds. So we ate lunch in the neighborhood at a small udon restaurant and explored the area before heading to the other side of the city for the Wednesday night meeting at the Ohmoris.  We had bdinner before hand with one of the workers and then walked to the meeting home.  It was about a 15 minute walk and we never would have found it by ourselves.  I discovered quite a few common connections with the family, as they have a son in Pittsburgh and have visited there frequently!  Small world!

Disney at night
          Thursday, we went to Disney.  We almost didn’t get a ride on the free hotel shuttle as we didn’t reserve until Wednesday.  But we got on the last shuttle at 9:30Am coming back at 11PM, which worked out great for us.  Disney was awesome!  Even though everything was in Japanese, it was a blast!   It was a little weird to see the America flag flying in the wild west park, though.  Because it was Christmas day (=dating day) there were couples everywhere besides the usual families, so it was really crowded.  Couples in Asia like to wear matching clothes, so everywhere you looked there were matching outfits.  We of course had to buy Minnie Ears, because, you know, it’s Disney!  We had a problem though because we both liked the same Minnie Ears, lol!  So we at least bought different colors! 
Disney twins!
Mickey!  At Disney Tokyo
At the end of the day we still hadn’t ridden Space Mountain and we made a mistake getting fast passes for that ride so we ended up waiting almost 2 hours to get on.  By then it was freezing so we broke out our hot hand packs.  But it was so cold that all the heat wicked away unless it was in our pockets, but then it would get so hot that it burned!  It even snowed a little bit!  The only time we were there that it snowed!
Disney Tokyo- Christmas Day
Shinjuku at night
Friday we were tired, and maybe a little cranky from walking all day the day before, so we decided to have a lie in that morning then head out for Shinjuku and Ginza.  We thought about Roppongi but we didn’t think we’d have enough time.  We were also concerned about subway rush hour in Shinjuku, the most massive of subway station in Tokyo.  Neither of really wanted to see, let alone meet a subway pusher.  (and judging by the subway crowds on a Friday night they would have been in force.)  The masses of people between at rush hour were incredible above ground.  So we had a leisurely afternoon, but we didn’t really have much of a goal other than to explore the area.  We started by heading to Shinjuku Koen, an amazing garden park that had been at one time part of the imperial properties.  Stopping at Don Quixote which I had heard of before but didn’t really know what it was.  Apparently it is primarily a cosplay store… 
 We had a late lunch in the park, ordered by vending machine and delivered by a very sweet elderly woman who helped us figure out the vending machine.  It was cold and bare, but the park was beautiful even in winter.  There were even paperwhites blooming!
Later we found a coffee shop, which was difficult to come across in Japan.  We’ve been used to Korea which has coffee shops on every corner.  (My small neighborhood alone probably has 15 or 20)  rested as we had had some trouble getting out of Shinjuku station and headed in the direction we wanted to go.  Why was it so difficult?  We couldn’t figure it out either.  The station was massive and connected to a shopping center with rail lines in every direction
   We wanted to head to the skyscraper district thinking that we might see some good street lights along the way and find some dinner, but we lucked out.  Eventually we were getting tired and not really seeing anything interesting anymore (although we did do some shopping!!)  So we looked for a place to eat.  We wanted to sit down and rest, but Shinjuku is not really the area for that, but we did find a little curry restaurant that was quite good and cozy.
Then we headed to Ginza
You can find everything in a vending machine.  This was for ordering lunch.
Ginza at night
    Our idea was to see Ginza at night.  We knew it was a shopping center but we thought it would be more interesting to see at night with all the lights.  But by the time we got there, everything was closing down and we discovered it was mostly all high end shopping.  Armani Gucci, that sort of thing.  It was pretty, with some street lights but not much happening.  But we wandered through the streets and came to some kind of massive convention center and museum that looked like it might have been cool (if it was open, lol)  but they were having some street performances that looked and sounded pretty awesome, so we stayed and watched for a while before heading back to the station.  
   Our next stop was Tokyo station.  We decided that while we were in Tokyo, we should go to “Tokyo” and do something like have coffee to say “We were in Tokyo”.  Silly, but fun.  So we wandered back to the station and found ourselves on our way to Tokyo station.  It was only one stop, but it felt like a fairly good distance.  So we came out of the station into this amazing and beautiful old 1920’s style brick building that housed not just the subway but the Shinkansen trains as well.  There were some tall buildings around but not much else so we wandered down the street.  We hadn’t seen anything that remotely looked like a cafe and everything was shutting down.  So we were strolling along casually for about a kilometer before we came to this intersection. It looked vaguely familiar but I didn’t pick up on it until Olivia stopped and looked at me. 
Lolita goth in a Shinjuku store window
“We’ve been here before.”
“This is the building we just left.  With the dancers?”
 Yep, we had just done a circle from Ginza to Tokyo and back to Ginza. 
It was to be the story of our day!  At the station in the morning, where we couldn’t figure out how to leave, to wandering around after leaving the garden to Ginza and Tokyo, and even later when we got back to our hotel that evening. 
Meanwhile we looked for a café in a promising building but everything was closed and so we headed to the basement to the station there and headed back to the hotel.
We got to our station headed straight out from the entrance and made a left…and there was our hotel.  All week, we had taken a different route each time we left or came back… and it was so close the whole time!
Tempura~  again, sooo yummy.
Soba!  Yuu~uum.  juapanese food is sooo good!
Year of the sheep
Shinjuku Park
The next day was our last day.  We had an easy morning and then about 10:30 or 11:00 we decided that we would go check out the bus to the airport and get tickets, then do some shopping if there was time.  We got to the next station over and realized that there is no bus station. No person to buy tickets from, just two men who were loading and unloading the airport busses when they came.  We asked them for some help.  Eventually we determined that there were two ways of doing things.  We could reserve a bus ticket at the convenience store (which for the life of us we could not find), but only the day before we wanted to leave (which was no good, we were leaving that day).  The other was to wait and hope there was space on the bus we wanted.  Well there were only two more busses leaving before we absolutely HAD to be at the airport.  We had time so we went back to get our things and wait for the first bus.  The weather was fine so waiting wasn’t a problem.  We made it onto the bus and got to the airport, checked in returned our wi-fi, then palled around the airport.  We did some shopping.  Since we both had checked in our luggage and we had no carry on bags we both bought a Tokyo bag and did some more shopping to fill up our new carry on.  We found the wasabi kitkats Olivia had been looking for all week as well as a few more unusual flavor.  I bought some too.  We had a leisurely dinner or soba noodles and tempura before making our way to the gate and back home!
   Other than being sick for the whole trip, our Japan trip was a success!  And now that we understand the subway system, (lol) there are dreams of going back again someday!