Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tokyo: Lost in Transition


The jet lagged couple emerges from their budget hotel.

Wide-eyed and conscious of their new tourist status, they fall into the nightly Tokyo pedestrian traffic - men in suits, women in dresses, teenage girls in school uniforms. 

The night glows in neon life. Zen went to war with capitalism and lost in this corner of Japan. Everything but the people are big and loud.

(sleepy and enchanted)
I love it!

I felt in every way that we were there, really there, and I loved it.

We had arrived just a few hours earlier after a marathon of activity. The week before my entire family had come to LA, my brother had gotten married, Kip's parents had stayed with us and then we had hopped a plane to Tokyo.
It wasn't quite hopped, but we had barely taken time to pack our clothes or read the travel guides I had gotten at the library. And we were surviving on very little sleep.

But we were thrilled to be spending a 24-hour layover in the world's biggest city, so when we arrived in Tokyo we immediately found our hotel, a little dive with tiny hotel rooms in the heart of Shinjuku, the "Time Square" of Tokyo, and fell asleep.

The 5-minute power nap turned into a couple hours and it was dark when we woke up.  But not wanting to miss a single minute of our Tokyo adventure, we headed out to find some Sushi.

Believe it or not, we couldn't.

We walked around for hours until I literally threw my heels at Kip and refused to go any further until he stopped following the GPS around in circles.

It's then that we discovered two things about restaurants in Tokyo.

One, they are multilevel, so the electronic sign and plastic food display for one restaurant outside a building might just as well be for any one of the six stacked up on top of each other.

And secondly, restaurants in Tokyo close relatively early. As soon as we found one place that had been recommended in our tourist guide, it turned out to be closed.

It was approaching midnight. And I was very hungry.

So we eventually gave in to one of the many Japanese guys trying to hustle us inside. We picked what looked like a nice teriyaki barbecue joint. Unfortunately it turned out to be a smoky basement restaurant with mystery meat on the menu, something like chicken hearts on a skewer. So much for fresh sushi in Japan.
I was tired and disappointed. But we struck up a conversation with a kid from Denmark and a couple of his Japanese friends who gave us better advice on where to go and what to see.

Eating red bean pastry -- after the mystery meat disappointment
The next morning we checked out of our tiny hotel room and started walking around our neighborhood. We walked through a Buddhist temple area, several Western/Asian coffee shops, arcades with "doll eyes" photo booths and shops with overpriced cute stuff like sushi shaped candles for $20.

plastic food advertising the menu

You can buy almost anything in a Tokyo vending machine. Cigarettes here.

We made a pilgrimage to the Toto showroom in search of the world famous electronic toilets, only to find that it was closed. The public bathrooms, however, were open, and not disappointing.

Which button to simply flush?

With a little trepidation we took on the world's most complicated metro system, a myriad of train stops with unfamiliar names. We got turned around a few times, but it made it to Asakusa, not to be confused with Akasaka (which is also a stop), to see a famous Shinto temple and walk around the more tourist appropriate neighborhoods.
 Here is a funny story. This poor kid obviously thought Kip was a movie star/rock star of some kind. He came running up to Kip, ecstatic, and said alot of something in Japanese. Then he insisted on me taking his picture with Kip with his camera. He seemed confused when we also wanted to get a picture of him.

It was Saturday and the streets were packed, although the tourists were mostly Asians, so I still felt like we were in Asia. And we resumed our search for authentic sushi.

We wandered around again for a long time and were just about to join a long line snaking around a very touristy joint when we saw a wooden door slide open next to the tourist line. A Japanese woman said in broken English, "good sushi here...." She pointed to the line of tourists and shook her head. Then she pointed to the closed door on the restaurant with almost no sign.

We trusted her.

And we hit jackpot.

It was a real sushi place, the kind where you take your shoes off and sit at low tables. The kind with absolutely no English on the menu and a boisterous sushi chief shouting hello to patrons as they entered. Even the prices were printed in Japanese characters.

Thankfully Kip had taken karate as a kid and knew Japanese numbers, as well as "thank you." And we somehow ordered a tray of fresh sushi, the best I have ever had, and a plate of tempura. It was the best lunch ever.

 Bride and groom at Shinto temple

 Serious about recycling here
From there we headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags, explore that part of the city a bit more and then ride the complicated metro back to the airport. Kip was transporting the poster he was presenting at his conference, so while we were squeezing into the subway with our suitcases, I was guarding the poster, the reason we were even in Asia.

And then we were eating kimchi on an Asiana flight to Korea. It all happened so quickly.

It was amazing, overwhelming in a good way. If I could return to Tokyo, I'd go back in a heartbeat.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Summer Finally

Summer is finally here.
When I was a kid growing up in the South and the Midwest and everywhere in between, summer started in May. By June it was hot.
Southern California, especially the coastal area, seems to wait for the summer equinox, as if waiting for permission to distribute the summer weather.
But it is here.
Most of the neighborhood kids are out of school. Our homeschooling friends have begun their weekly meet up at the beach and the days are long enough to enjoy almost warm afternoon sails.

 Kip gave our son a surfing lesson Saturday afternoon.

Almost up

After taking several weeks off of "school" work for the weddings, family visits and travel, I decided it was in the kids' best interest to do a little summer school. If we don't do school for several weeks the kids actually seem a little bored.
So this past week we started having our two-hour summer school days. The kids spend an hour each on reading and/or writing and math.
I am picking our daughter's summer reading because I want to challenger her with reading and I'm hoping she will learn a little American history in the process. She just finished Hero Over Here and we had an interesting discussion about the Spanish Flu of 1918.
Our son is making slow, steady process with the reading. He still laboriously sounds out every word, and a single worksheet of 8 or 10 simple sentences takes him an exhausting 20 minutes with my help. I am walking the tight rope of gently pushing and helping, and backing off. If his brain is not ready to absorb the mechanics of reading yet, I don't want to push him. Reading is not the only way to learn about the world around you.

During our math time I played Countdown with our son. The game of dice involves basic operations -- adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. It's a good warm up for math time, and I kind of tricked him into doing double the work by letting him roll for Doug the dog.
Our daughter picked up where we left off in her Singapore curriculum and discovered the fun of solving for the unknown angle using basic rules of geometry. She needed lots of help, but often figured out the answers before I did when she called me over to help her.
So far it has been a good start to summer.

Back Blogged

When I get back blogged, or back logged in blogs, it is usually because I'm too busy living things to blog. Or just as likely, my perfectionism is holding my writing hostage, waiting for the ransom of just the write combination of words to accurately express the imaginations of my heart.
uhhh ... like that one
(My 11-year-old daughter, reading over my shoulder just said, "No offense, Mom, but that is really cheesy." Poor kid, she says that alot these days.)
I have posts in process on my brother's wedding, which was absolutely beautiful, the 24-hour Tokyo adventure and even our trip to Zion National park in late May. But this time the blog updates are being held hostage by my computer which ate all the pictures.
I downloaded pictures from our better camera onto our desk computer, and then the power supply died. So, I am waiting on a new power supply. In the meantime, I will try to update with thoughts from the last few days ... if I can find the write poetry to put it all in motion.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Heart and Seoul

When Kip heard he was going to Korea for a work conference, I was not particularly excited.

Korean food is ok.

I have been through Korea Town in LA a thousand times, and one of my friends who had recently been to Seoul described it as “Korea Town – just bigger.”

So I thought I would let Kip go alone, save our travel savings for a trip to Europe or South America.

Then we realized the conference Kip was invited to present a poster at was only a few days after my brother’s wedding in LA. If we worked it just right, we might be able to convince Kip’s mom to stay in LA with our kids while we were in Asia. And with a little more research we realized we would be able to work a 24-hour layover in Tokyo.

With Kip’s expenses paid for it became a half-price, international vacation. So in the midst of getting ready for my brother’s wedding and hosting extended family here in LA, we bought our plane tickets and decided to go.

I was thrilled to see Tokyo, but I wasn’t expecting a lot out of Korea.

I was so wrong.

I completely fell in love with Seoul in every way.

 Seoul's history and future at an intersection.  Dongdaemun gate at night.

 I loved the city itself with its new high rises and old palaces, the quirky combination of ancient and trendy, the big-hearted Korean people with their infectious smiles and gentle laughter, the way Korean couples walk hand-in-hand down the lit riverside in the evening. I even liked the food.

We only knew how to say two things in Korean, “hello,” and “thank you,” and we managed to make our way all over the city, pointing, smiling and accepting the help of strangers who seemed to enjoy practicing their English skills.

But it wasn’t just the place. Seoul seems to be enjoying its moment too. The last decade of economic growth has redefined the city. New construction is everywhere. Shopping malls the size of Vegas hotels stay open 19 hours a day to handle the flood of young workers with expendable income. A municipal sewer that was once an ancient stream through the heart of Seoul has been redeemed -- restored into an open river with miles of protected walkways that stay lit for romantic evening strollers.

 Cheonggye Stream -- an inspiring example of urban renewal

Even as we were in Seoul, workers were unveiling a multi-story banner sign welcoming the G20 Summit that will be held there in November. No longer a city devastated by civil war, it is a modern, clean, wealthy city in the heart of the Asian economy and it is ready to host the word.

And yet Seoul blooms precariously under the threat of Kim Jong-il 37 miles to the North. While we were in Seoul, the entire country shut down for a 20 minute military drill. Sirens wailed. Traffic stopped dead in the street. People rushed inside. All over Seoul. Apparently all over Korea.

Kip and I attended a Korean church Sunday afternoon. Years ago I had heard about Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest church in the world, and since we were in Korea on a Sunday I wanted to see it myself.

When we arrived by taxi, we were a little overwhelmed by the strange curbside food stands selling stewed silk worm cocoons and the crowd of Koreans filing into the mega church. So when I spotted the only other American walking into the church, a crew-cut soldier in tie-dye, we followed him inside. He and his friendly Korean girlfriend took us to the “foreigner,” section where the church provided translation headsets in several languages.
 Not exactly coffee and doughnuts for worshipers walking out of this 800,000 member Korean mega church.

It was a little difficult to follow at first, but when I got the hang of listening to the Korean and the halting translation, it was really amazing to be immersed into a completely different place with such familiarity. At the end of the service, when the entire congregation prayed out loud, I took my headset off. It sounded wonderful. Asian churches in places like Seoul have a growing reputation within Evangelical Christian communities for being places of prayer. I understood why. This particular church hosts all night prayer meetings six nights a week. They are serious about praying for their world. You can sense the presence of God there.

Sneaking in a picture from the balcony at Yoido Full Gospel Church. Familiar worship choruses lyrics are projected in English, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. 

Over the next few days, Kip attended the conference while I took it easy. Both days I made it by myself across Seoul by metro, wandering through neighborhoods in the city center, drinking green tea, taking pictures and scoping out places to go with Kip.

When Kip was done with his conference, the real fun began in exploring. One night we must have walked for 8 hours. After wandering into a traditional Korean restaurant with absolutely no English on the menu, we managed to order something that was not what we were hoping for, but yummy still, and then set out to find Dongdaemun which we had been told was a great shopping area.
Kip is trying to get Korean barbecue. He points to a word in our Lonely Planet Korea guide.
 The Bulgogi that arrived was more like stewed meat and mushrooms, but it came with the obligatory kimchi and we made the best of it.

We rode the metro a few stops and found a few narrow backstreets that felt like a very Asian market corner with traditional restaurants and street vendors. We turned down another road and wound up in a residential neighborhood with crowded narrow streets filled with pedestrians, motorcycles and occasional trucks precariously squeezing through. In stead of high rise condos here there were three-story apartment buildings with street level restaurants, the kind where patrons leave their shoes at the door and sit on the floor at low-level tables. Fish tanks outside the restaurant promised fresh octopus and squid. Tired shopkeepers kept the corner grocery stores open for the many Koreans walking home from work. It was a busy neighborhood street with real people, working, living, laughing, eating. It felt like the real Korea.

When we stopped to discuss what kind of meat was grilling on a giant grill, a flattered storekeeper tore off a piece and handed it to Kip. We were afraid it was dog, so we refused at first, but through a game of charades we realized it was pig feet and ate it. It was pretty darn good, for barbecued pig.

  Getting lost in back street markets at dusk.
She will catch you dinner if you dare.
Kip checking out the freshest of the fresh sea food kept outside these very authentic, off the tourist map Korean restaurants. Does anyone know what the pink squiggly things are? They were alive. We don't know.
Flower store
 We can't decide what the mystery meat is....
 It looks pretty disgusting, but we a very amused Korean woman tore some off the grill and gave it to us to try. She told us it was pig feet. It was actually pretty good.
Neighborhood restaurant
Woman selling kimchi and other traditional Korean foods in her store on this narrow neighborhood alley just blocks fromthe modern high rise shopping centers.
Kip "talking" to a store clerk.

The neighborhood gets crowded as people come home from work. Pedestrians watch out for delivery motorcycles zipping through the crowd. Occasional trucks squeeze through slowly, barely clearing the store fronts that spill into the street.
Just blocks from the crowded neighborhood alley street is the ancient Dongdeumun gate towering over this very modern city street. Rapidly expanding high rise construction in the distance suggest that that Korea's place in the world is certainly not history.

Eventually we wondered out of the neighborhood and found the shopping district we had been told about. But we were not prepared for the size of this new consumerism Mecca. It was overwhelming, like stumbling into the Las Vegas Strip, only to find the hotel sized buildings were shopping malls, many of them filled with high-end designer clothing. I was too exhausted to enjoy much shopping by this point, but I convinced Kip to get a $20 T-shirt designed by a young Korean to represent his country’s war and rebirth of peace.

As we were leaving we asked how long the seven-story mall would be open and discovered it was open until 5 a.m. Like many other businesses catering to the massive 20-something population in Seoul, it was open all night.

One of Seoul's new fashion districts open for all night shopping.

We decided to walk back to the city center by way of the new Cheonggye Stream, the stream that had been covered with concrete 60 years ago after the war and had recently opened. It was past midnight by this time, and we were not alone on the walk. Couples holding hands and chatting were out, so were groups of women and groups of men. There was a profound innocence about the place. No graffiti. No hint of violence. Just people enjoying each other’s company. We later learned that the crime rate in Seoul is incredibly low.
Cheonggye Stream at night.
Refreshing cool water after spending a night walking Seoul.

We walked under an overpass. It was lit in gentle colored lights and with special lights illuminating children’s artwork. I wondered what Los Angeles would be like if we light up the underpasses at night and decorated them with children’s art.

The next day we explored Insadong, a traditional tourist area with plenty of souvenir shops with cheap and expensive artwork, pottery, handmade paper and the best tea I have ever tasted. We found an upstairs tea house and indulged in drinking tea and watching people walk past. It was mostly Korean couples, walking arm in arm. Often the men carried the women’s purses. I thought that was sweet.
Tea time
Artist shop in Insadong

 After a heavy doses of people watching we decided we wanted Korean barbeque, after all, we were in Korea and we had been trying to get it all week. We asked our tea waitress who sent us in one direction and we wondered around trying to match her Korean pictorial writing with the lit signs on the street.

A semi-drunk man in a business suit stopped us and tried to help us. His English was questionable, but he was fun and we were not in a hurry, so we followed through blocks of restaurants with Korean-only signs. Finally, with much excitement he delivered us to a back alley restaurant with several friendly Korean grandma types who immediately made us sit down and began pouring us water.

It would have been an interesting experience, but Kip was really hoping for Korean barbeque, so we found a way to politely slip out. I think they understood.

We wandered around until we found a restaurant that had a curious hearth outside. A young man with tongs was transporting heavy round charcoals through the front door. We followed him inside.

Once again there was no English on the wall, door or menu. But the place was full of young Koreans watching the World Cup on the big screen TV and to Kip’s delight, tables of grilling meat.

Someone motioned for us to sit down and the charcoal guy gingerly dumped the burning coal into a pit in the center of our table. The delighted manager pointed to one of the Korean words and said, “Cow!” We ordered that, plus two beers. Within minutes we were sipping Hite, eating bean sprout kimchi with metal chopsticks and grilling our own meat. We felt completely immersed in Korea.

 Korean barbecue in Korea.
Yes, I am really eating kimchi with metal chopsticks -- clearly not the same girl who moved to LA seven years ago.
Kip posing with the restaurant manager. It was awesome. We have no idea what the name of this restaurant is or where to find it. Many of the streets in Korea actually have no name, so directions get a little confusing unless you have GPS coordinates.

Back at the hotel we fell exhausted into our American beds at the Marriot. It was kind of like cheating, to stay at an American hotel on our Korean adventure, but sleeping well made our daily adventures possible.
In the morning we discovered the hotel’s sauna was actually a Korean bath -- a segregated mens’ and womens’ all-natural spa with hot tubs, cold tubs, sudsy showering areas and dry sauna.

When I got over the awkwardness of being naked in a room full of women who don’t speak my language, it was actually incredibly relaxing. Once again I appreciated the innocence of Korean culture that allows people to enjoy something as basic as public nudity without shame or fear of predators. I wondered how it would change American culture for girls to be exposed to a wide variety of naked female bodies instead of the few they see air brushed in our media.

The last day we were in Korea we made our way to the Changdeok Palace, arrived in time to hear one of the only two daily English tours.

 Kip bows to enter through the small door. Only the king was allowed to walk through the gate upright.

When it ended we piggy backed on a Korean tour of the palace garden and made friends with a few other English speakers on the tour, two Irish kids and a girl from Ohio. We exchanged stories and ended up hanging out for several hours, wandering through another touristy shopping area with them and finding dinner at a very authentic, back-alley, Korean-only restaurant where Kip finally got his authentic bibimbap.  It felt like a chance meeting that was meant to be. We exchanged e-mail addresses and wished them the best in their studies.
 In the secret garden

 Kip with new Irish and American friends.

We made our way to Seoul Tower, a relatively new tourist attraction, an old television tower a top a mountain overlooking Seoul. By this time it was a cloudy night with a disappointing view of the city and once again it was nearing midnight and we were exhausted.
 Seoul Tower at night.
Laser show with fountains and light at Seoul Tower

 A slice of Seoul from the tower ... more than 10 million people out there.
Kip took this picture of the inside of the men's restroom. No reason to let the need to pee interrupt the view.

We saw an artist making sketches for 10,000 Won, about $8, and Kip convinced me to sit for a portrait. The artist, who spoke no English, motioned for me to look in one direction and then studied my face for the next 15 minutes. It was a strange experience for me to be so carefully studied.

Kip loved the portrait and carefully carried it home on the plane the next day, wrapped between two pieces of cardboard. I didn’t think it was an amazing picture. But I have difficulty really liking any pictures of me. I appreciated how much Kip liked it. It made me realize again that he loves me.

Later that night, realizing that it was now after midnight and our last evening in Seoul, we decided to do the last thing on our wish list – visit the Foot Shop so Kip could experience the fabled foot message and nibbling fish that literally eat away the dead skin on your feet.

I was planning to watch and take pictures, but when we arrived at the massage parlor, a fancy little Korean/Japanese place hidden away on the sixth floor of a building two blocks off the main road, I decided to try having a massage too.

I have never had a massage before.

Kip has always wanted to have a couple’s massage. He has suggested it for an anniversary present, but we have never gotten around to trying it. So at 1 a.m. in Seoul, in a massage parlor with an English name but not an employee that spoke more than a handful of words in English, we decided to get a couples’ massage.

Upside down with a masseuse squeezing the tension out of my shoulders I desperately wondered how to say, “OUCH! STOP!” in Korean.

I was a little intimidated and willed myself to relax. I survived, and by the end it was even relaxing. I might try to get a massage after my next marathon.

Kip enjoyed it immensely. He got a 40 minute massage on his back and then another 20 minutes on his feet, before he tried the fish pond. In all it was near 2 a.m. when we caught a taxi back to the hotel.

We got in a quick night’s sleep, enjoyed the hotels luxurious breakfast buffet one last time and reluctantly left our hotel for our 18-hour journey back to Los Angeles. As we left I found myself hoping, even planning how we could come back. Like a new relationship brimming with possibility, I had fallen in love with Korea.