10 Days in New Zealand: Our North Island NZ Road Trip Itinerary

New Zealand is the PERFECT place for a road trip. As promised, here is our itinerary, finally!

Due to budget and time restrictions, J and I only hit the North Island, but it was enough to sate our thirst for mountains and adventure… at least for a little while! We spent hours researching our trip (we have a 30-page google doc of notes and itineraries to prove it), and due to all of our research, we managed to see everything on our list.

I know I looked at plenty of online itineraries while planning our own, so if you are New Zealand dreaming on a bit of a budget and love mountains and adventure like we do, here is an idea of a successful road trip! Although I’m no expert, I included  few tips for budgeting in NZ at the end.

Day One:  Auckland – Hamilton

The Plan: This was our arrival day. We landed in Auckland at 9:55 AM, and spent a few hours going through immigration / picking up our rental car. By 12:30 PM, we wanted to be on the road, heading to Hamilton. We didn’t plan to do anything else on this day (after 17 hours of flying, we assumed we’d need a break) aside from shower and sleep.

What Happened: Our AirBnB hosts actually invited us to their granddaughter’s birthday party that evening, just hours after meeting them. Our hosts kindly drove us an hour further south to their son’s home, and we spent the evening with their family, enjoying a lamb roast, drinking wine, and playing games with the four grandchildren. It was an unexpectedly lovely first day.

Driving Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes. Accommodation: our Hamilton AirBnB.

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Thoughts from Places: On Stage for the 2017 World Kimono Competition

Written (mentally) on April 9, 2017;  written (actually) a week or so later. My parents finally sent me pictures, so now I can share! Enjoy a collection of my thoughts as I went on stage to dress myself in kimono in front of about 800 people.

Act I: In the Wings, Waiting to Compete

Okay, Karen, you got this.

Don’t trip in your zori, stop shaking, all you have to do is put on clothes.

…Put on clothes in front of an audience…while they judge you.

Let’s not think about this. Let’s look at the adorable kids who are competing right now.

Kawaii! Kawaii, ne? This is about as deep of an exchange as I can get in Japanese right now. Luckily, this is a totally appropriate thing to repeat endlessly to the foreign women around me.

Yep, those kids are pretty damn kawaii. Especially that serious little boy with the samurai sword!

How long has it been now? Four minutes? Five? These kids are fast…

That tiny little girl there made such a complicated obi! And she’s only maybe 7 years old… I was not that disciplined at 7 years old. I would have frozen on stage at 7 years old. Well, I never would have gotten on stage at 7 years old.

They’re almost done, only two kids left!

My palms are sweating.

Glancing right and left, the other foreign women are nervous too.

Let’s shoot another panicked smile at the girl from Bangladesh. Kinchou shimasu!  That’s probably not perfect but she understands. Yep, she’s just as nervous. We’re all in this together. Ganbatte!

The curtain is falling, we’re being ushered on stage!

It’s showtime!

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A “Love Letter” from Kimono-Sensei

My February Blog Challenge has finally wrapped up, with 18 out of the 20 posts actually published in February! Honestly, those are better odds than I was expecting, so I feel rather accomplished… but the challenge was also more stressful than imagined. I definitely could not post something every Monday-through-Friday for an entire year, especially with a full-time job. Plus, after-school extracurriculars like 2-hour jiu-jitusu lessons and Japanese classes eat up my after-work blogging time.

Aside from that, there is one thing that I haven’t shared because of the blog challenge:

At the very beginning of February, during a normal Thursday afternoon kimono class, my Kimono-sensei spoke the very first English words that I’ve ever heard her utter. She sang to me, “Karen-chan! Love letter!” and waved around a huge envelope with a knowing smile.

I’d advanced from the regional Kanto competition in November to the All-Japan Kimono Competition, taking place in Tokyo in April! 

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(Wednesday) Photo of the Week: Gunma

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Last September, J and I booked an AirBnB in Gunma Prefecture for the three-day Silver Week holiday. This particular AirBnB was a private room (several rooms, actually) in the house of a chatty elderly couple who lived in the countryside and were honestly amazed that anyone wanted to visit the middle of nowhere, Gunma.

One of the reasons I haven’t written about this trip before is because I couldn’t find the right words, even after weeks of reflection. They still aren’t right, but I’ll do my best. That three-day weekend was so unbelievably peaceful, and it was all due to the fact that, for those days, the couple’s historic home — over 100 years old — became our own as well.

We would wake up, roll out of our futons, and the wife would come in with our breakfasts: hot coffee, homemade bread with Hokkaido butter, and a bowl of fresh fruit; grapes from the local orchards and Japanese pear. We would go out for the day — hiking and onsening and exploring — and we’d come back in the evening, returning to this beautiful old house and our cheerful hosts for cups of hot tea and conversation.

On the last morning, we woke up to rain. We sat in the chairs that looked out beyond the sliding glass-and-paper doors and into the garden. For hours, we read our books and sipped our coffee in absolute companionable silence. It was the most tranquil I’ve ever felt.

I think many people visit Japan looking for exactly this. The smell of fresh tatami; the sliding doors and earthen floors of a traditional house; the simple, delicious homemade food; the warm souls; the mountains and the orchards; the quiet beauty of such a place. Something almost out of a Miyazaki film. There’s a magic there. At least, perhaps I came to Japan looking for this, not knowing if it existed.

And I found it in Gunma.

(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Yesterday was my 18th Jiu-Jitsu class. I choked a few guys, I was squashed by other guys, and I managed surprise a blue belt with the only combination move that I can actually complete without thinking for too long.

What in the world motivated me to start Jiu-Jitsu? Some background:

I’ve been curious about martial arts for a quite a few years now.

I almost started Judo at l’Université when I was living in Strasbourg, France—I filled out the registration forms and paid my sports fee and everything—but unfortunately the school’s beginner class filled up before I had the chance to join. When I was applying for the JET Program a year later, my heart was still set on learning Judo… I hoped there would be a beginner-friendly dojo near my future apartment in Japan.

However, when I found out months later that I was placed in Ibaraki, the home of Aikido, I decided that maybe I would learn Aikido instead. A quick internet search informed me that Aikido was a little less… intense compared to Judo, so it would probably more my speed anyway. (I’m not a badass person, as much as I’d like to be). Then I arrived in Japan to find that Aikido was born in the middle of Ibaraki (that’s where most of the Aikido gyms are) whereas I was living an hour and a half to the west…

Well, all good plans go awry.

So my first year on JET was spent wishing I could start some martial art—any martial art at this point—but doing nothing to accomplish it.

Luckily, back in October (2016), J and I decided to finally do something. One day, after lunch, we poked our heads into the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym near her house and asked a few questions. Basically, it went down like this—“We’ve never done jiu-jitsu before and we are both foreign, so our Japanese isn’t great. Would that cause any issues? Oh, and how expensive is it per month?”

We watched a few classes at the end of October, and by November, we had both bought gi (white judo gi, actually) and had started rolling with all the others.

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Chicken Hearts and Yuzu; First-time Foods in Japan

I wasn’t an especially picky eater before arriving in Japan… although, nor was I a particularly adventurous eater. But when you move to a new country, being even slightly picky goes out the window. Whether you want to or not, you’ll face some very new foods. They’ll become foes, or new favorites — the choice is yours.

Just for fun, here’s a list of foods that I’ve eaten for the first time while living in Japan, most of which I really like, and three of which I really…don’t…

Raw fish – I don’t go out of my way to eat sashimi or sushi, but I also don’t have to. Because of drinking parties with coworkers or cheap conveyor-belt sushi dinners with friends, I seem to eat raw fish about once a week, whether I want it or not. After all these months, though, I can finally face raw fish without dread! Tuna and Yellowtail are my favorites.

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Raw fish, raw shrimp, fish eggs…. facing all my previous fears at once!

Raw shrimp – I try to avoid raw shrimp. It tastes so much better cooked!

Raw squid – Personally, I think that raw squid is probably the worst thing on this list. The texture of raw squid is awful, and I have a really difficult time even forcing myself to eat it.

Fish eggs – I dreaded fish eggs until I actually tried them… they’re good, but interesting.

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Learning How to Put On Clothes: the Art of Kimono

There’s been a lot of radio silence on my end recently, and I apologize for that. As my old cross country coach used to say, sometimes life gets in the way.

I wanted to break the silence for a rather important reason: some good, old-fashioned exposition. I mentioned in an earlier post that I will be competing in a kimono competition this November… well, the day is almost here! The competition is IN TWO DAYS, and I’m freaking out a bit, to be honest.

But what exactly is a kimono competition? I thought it was important to explain that little detail, especially before the next blog post, which will inevitably be about the competition itself. After all, putting on clothes isn’t typically a competition, is it?

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Actually, let’s start with the most obvious question: how did I start learning kimono?

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The Three Stages of Climbing Mount Fuji

Thousands of climbers summit Fuji every summer, which has led to numerous accounts of the adventure, both online and in print. While the experience was quite new to me, I’m sure that nothing I write about the climb will be novel.

Hence, I will endeavor to be brief, at least here in summary: the experience of climbing Mount Fuji was absolutely incredible — we were incredibly lucky — I’ll (probably) never do it again.

The Beginning — From the 5th Station to the 8th Station

Alternate Title: “This isn’t so bad!”

To elaborate a little more:

We started our hike decked out in fancy rental equipment, hiking up through intense fog. About halfway to the 7th station, the fog was burned off by the sun, and from that point forwards, we were hiking above the clouds. Our group moved quite slowly up the mountain, sandwiched between guides who mercifully allowed short breaks every half hour or so. S, J, and I used our breaks to breathe deeply, snack on the trail mix we had bought, and shell out a few hundred yen to get our hiking sticks stamped at many of the mountain huts we passed. At our humble pace, it took nearly seven hours to reach our 3,400+ meter 8th-station mountain hut for the night, where we chowed down on hot curry-rice and tea. Honestly, up until darkness fell about an hour before we reached the 8th station, I kept thinking, “This really isn’t so bad!” But by the time we sat down for dinner at our night’s mountain hut, I was suffering a little from altitude sickness alongside my two friends — we all had headaches, a little nausea, and a general feeling of malaise. We unpacked our bottled oxygen, chugged water and Pocari Sweat, and settled down in our sleeping bags for what turned out to be a rather cold, uneasy two hours of sleep.

What I learned from this part of the hike:

  1. “Regular breathing won’t get you to the top of the mountain.” To combat altitude sickness, our guides stressed the importance of breathing deeply every step of the way. I found out that I don’t breathe very deeply to begin with, and I had to remind myself every few minutes to really fill my lungs with oxygen.
  2. Being on Fuji feels like walking on another planet. With the clouds obscuring the Earthlings and their earthly cities below, we were walking on Mars up above. The surface of this Fuji planet was sharp red-brown volcanic rock and shrubbery… the moon seemed closer than ever before… the stars, once night fell, seemed to shout that we were in their universe now… the air thinned until a simple 8th station staircase left you winded and wondering how ill-suited you were for this new, beautiful, dangerous planet.
  3. Altitude sickness sucks. Canned oxygen is absolutely worth it.

Summiting Fuji — From the 8th Station to the Top for Sunrise

Alternate Title: 100% Worth It

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To elaborate a little more:

We woke up a little less miserable and a little more adjusted to the altitude, ready to make it to the top. It was bitterly cold, and I didn’t envy the poor hikers who, without beds booked for the night, had curled up against the howling wind on the wood benches outside the mountain huts — I had seen a few such wretched souls when I woke up around midnight and took a trip to the outside toilet. Our group assembled outside the hut at 2:00 a.m., and I was amazed by the steady stream of dancing headlamps that climbed past us, into the glow of the mountain hut for a few seconds, then disappeared around the corner and back into the darkness. Hundreds of people passed by as we did a headcount — a never-ending line of hikers who materialized and vanished.

The last stretch of our hike (which lasted from 2:00 to 3:45 a.m.) was a blur of darkness, headlamps, and the reminder to keep breathing deeply. Reaching the summit was a bit anti-climatic. Our guide suddenly stopped us and said, “We are at the top!” and all of us looked at him with bleary, confused eyes. We really were at the summit, though, and we hurried to buy hot chocolates and worm our way into a front-row seat for the sunrise. It was a brilliant moment, as the sun rose molten, golden, above the clouds. All assembled were excited and awed, and the summit was at once hushed and boisterous in celebration. Cameras clicked incessantly. S, J, and I had just enough time to satisfy ourselves with photography and add a final two stamps to our hiking sticks before meeting with our group for the descent.

What I learned from this part of the hike:

  1. Not everyone makes it to the top in time. One of my favorite parts of being at the summit was looking down below, minutes before the sunrise, and seeing the glowing stream of thousands of headlamps as late hikers tried to arrive  at the summit for the sunrise. Many did not succeed, but all were above the clouds, and the moment the sun rose, the stream of lights stood still to take in the majesty.
  2. The post office at the summit of Mount Fuji is not close by. But as long as you buy stamps in advance, you can leave your postcards with the people who run the mountain huts, and they’ll mail all your postcards for you.
  3. It’s freaking freezing at the top of Fuji. Bring all the kairo (hand warmers).

The Descent 

Alternate Title:   I’ll Never Climb Fuji Again

To elaborate a little:

Going down Fuji was both beautiful and awful. You are basically zig-zagging down the entire mountain, on a path consisting of loose volcanic gravel-rock. I felt like I was constantly about to fall (many people did wipe out pretty spectacularly) and my body was tense the whole time, which really wore me out. I’ll admit that even in my darkest moment in the mountain hut the night before, queasy with altitude sickness, I had not entirely crossed out the idea of summiting Fuji again at a later date. The descent pretty much killed that idea for me. My friends and I fantasized about a summit-to-5th-station teleportation platform, or — better yet — a giant slide to the bottom of the mountain. When we eventually did make it to the bottom, we rewarded ourselves with ice creams and a trip to an onsen.

What I learned from this part of the hike:

  1. “…even dragons have their endings.” To quote Tolkien a little bit, the bad things will end. I complained viciously (mostly internally, I hope) about the descent because it hurt my feet so badly that I half-expected my toes to be bruised and bleeding when I finally wrenched my hiking boots off (spoiler: they weren’t) but I also was comforted by the knowledge that we would reach the end eventually. And I would make it out alive. Fuji is no dragon.
  2. Walking across Tokyo with a Mt. Fuji hiking stick branded with mountain hut stamps is a very unique experience. People were staring at us apologetically, and I, at least, was so tired that I didn’t even care.
  3. Taking the Tokyo subway with a Mt. Fuji hiking stick is even better. Several people approached us curiously and asked us friendly questions about our hike. Since it’s quite rare for strangers in Japan to strike up conversation, it was a bit of a groundbreaking moment for us — made sweeter by the fact that they used easy Japanese that we could understand and reply to!

So, in the end, was the famed tourist adventure of climbing Fuji worth it? For me, 100% yes. I recommend it without hesitation. That said, would I do it a second time? …Nope. There are many more mountains in the world waiting to be discovered.

Good for the Seoul: Golden Week, Abroad

Tuesday, May 3rd — in the air

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At least we were flying with Song Joong Ki ? 🙂

An adventurous little anecdote: Golden Week in Korea started out a little shaky with a #NotSeoulFunny windstorm that caused our plane to get within 100 meters of the runway of Incheon Airport, shaking violently, and then suddenly reascend to full cruising altitude…. twice.

After two dangerous near-landings, the pilot decided to forget flying into Seoul, and instead announced that the plane was headed for Cheongju International Airport… which, by the way, is TWO HOURS south of Seoul. We landed at 10:30 PM, were allowed off the plane by 11:30, meandered through immigration, and finally boarded buses around 1 AM, bound for Seoul. The buses dropped us off at Seoul Station, but surprisingly the subway wasn’t running at 3 AM. So, imagine 70 people politely fighting over taxis on a near-deserted street at 3 in the morning. Yeah. My friends and I arrived at our AirBnB, exhausted, around 4 AM. Shout out to Jeremy, our awesome host, who stayed up all night to greet us and show us around!

Wednesday, May 4th — DMZ tour & Korean BBQ

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After a brief hour or two of shut-eye, my friends and I conquered the Korean subway and found our way to the start of our Koridoor DMZ Tour. A trip to the Demilitarized Zone was at the top of our list, and we had our passports prepped.

It’s not necessarily a “fun” tour, but it was extremely interesting to be so close to North Korea and to learn about the sometimes bloody (and always rather tense) history of the site. Our guides inside the fence were American soldiers stationed at the DMZ, and at each stop, they would warn us of exactly where we could point our cameras, exactly where we could stand. No waving or pointing in the general direction of North Korea was allowed. We passed through checkpoints ringed in barbed wire and we drove between fields full of buried land mines. From the base of a hilltop guard tower, we gazed at Propaganda Village, a North Korean ghost town with a loudspeaker that blares Kim Jong-un propaganda for hours each day.

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A fun fact: Propaganda Village’s huge flag is the result of a childish competition with the only other village allowed within the DMZ — the (populated) South Korean village of Daeseong-dong. In the 1980s, South Korea built a 98-meter flagpole in Daeseong-dong to proudly fly the South Korean flag… so North Korea retaliated by building this bigger flagpole, which stands at 160 meters. The flag itself weighs nearly 600 pounds!

Another fun fact: time in North Korea runs a half hour behind South Korea. So midnight in South Korea is still only 11:30 PM in North Korea!

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My phone on the left was put in airplane mode when we were still in South Korea, so it’s showing South Korea time, while my friend’s phone on the right is picking up North Korea time!

One of the final stops of our tour was a quick look around the train station built inside the DMZ in the hopes of a united Korea. For me, this was one of the most striking parts of the tour because of the genuine hope that seemed to radiate from the place and from the people. Even our tour guide, a bubbly young South Korean woman, was optimistic that the Koreas would someday be united. The train (which only goes as far north as the DMZ at the moment) was parked silently, patiently, at the platform, and nearby was a huge chunk of the Berlin Wall — a reminder that eventually, some walls do get torn down.

Our Koridoor Tour brought us safely back to Seoul in the late afternoon, and we spent a few hours shopping and cafe-hopping around Myeongdong before ending the evening with some friends (old and new) gathered for classic Korean Barbecue!

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Delicious grilled pork and beef, fried eggs, hot kimchi soup, spicy bean sprouts, sauteed spinach, roasted garlic, bottles of soju, and even a plate of Yukhoe (raw ground beef topped with raw egg). Believe it or not, the raw beef wasn’t so bad… I went back for a small second helping!

Thursday, May 5th — Hiking Bukhansan & a Jimjilbang

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Personally, this was probably my favorite day of the whole trip (as well as my only contribution to our itinerary). Due to the sheer amount of photos I have from this day, I’ve decided to write an entirely separate post about hiking Bukhansan, so look forward to that!

Friday, May 6th — Palaces, Night Markets, and… Acupuncture?

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I love seeing cities in the rain. They say that Paris is most beautiful in the rain (and I can personally vouch for that), but in gloomy weather, Paris may have found a rival in Seoul…

Our first stop of the day was Changdeokgung Palace, which is known for it’s Secret Garden. It’s not the most famous palace in Seoul, but it’s less crowded and perhaps a little more special. We wandered around the grounds for a few hours, waiting for the English tour of the Secret Garden to begin, and we stumbled upon a special event: inside one of the buildings, you could meet with a palace doctor for a quick appointment, all for free!

We thought, “Why not?” and so we signed up. I honestly thought it was a joke until I was seated on a sheltered porch, across the table from a nurse dressed in traditional Korean hanbok, and was asked about my symptoms. I’ve always had back pain, so I mentioned that, and she scribbled down my age and my aches and ushered me inside to wait for the doctor.

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Which is how I found myself having an actual check-up from a random Korean doctor, who (after a few more questions and a quick check of my pulse) wrote me a prescription for acupuncture, effective immediately! I was led into the next room, told to lay down on a little mattress, and a nurse stuck four needles into my legs!

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Yeah, so my first foray with acupuncture was in a Korean palace! It was actually quite lovely, lying there chatting with the nurse and staring up at the intricately painted ceiling, the smell of rain and time and history surrounding me. I did feel more relaxed when it was all done, too.

One of my friends, J, was also prescribed acupuncture, while S opted out of her treatment (and instead got the royal photographer to snap photos of her meeting with the doctor!).

A quick tea break later, it was time for the Secret Garden tour. It’s basically a 2-hour walking tour of the royal gardens, with quite a bit of history thrown in. Generally the gardens are not open to visitors aside from guided tours (which are rather strict in moving along as a group) but that Friday was a rare occasion where they allowed anyone to wander away from the guide and just relax in one of the numerous pavilions. I saw visitors lounging on cushions on the covered porches with books in their laps, lazily glancing up to gaze across the rain-rippled lakes, and I imagined princes from long ago doing the same, waiting for someone to bring them a pot of steaming tea before diving back into their books on rainy days. If we hadn’t had such a crammed itinerary, I would’ve begged my friends an hour to do the same, it was such a peaceful scene.

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After Changdeokgung, we made a quick detour over to Gyeongbokgung, the largest and most famous of Seoul’s five palaces. While admittedly impressive due to its sheer size, I honestly didn’t think Gyeongbokgung was any more ornate than Changeokgung. It was just… bigger. It was also much more crowded. Despite all of this, I do think it was worth the visit, and I wish we could’ve seen the changing of the guards at the main palace gate (which was cancelled that day due to poor weather). If I ever visit Seoul again, I’ll definitely spend more time at Gyeongbokgung.

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We spent our late afternoon shopping (because by that point, we were rather tired of dodging raindrops… and of course, Seoul is famous for its shopping). And in the evening, we decided to check out the night markets.

Seoul’s street food is scene is rather insane, and Seoul’s night markets are just a huge collection of home-cooked street food at crowded little booths. In our experience, the women who run the little stalls will squeeze as many customers as possible onto their benches and they might chide you a little if you aren’t eating fast enough… don’t go expecting a relaxing dining environment. But it was fast-paced and alive with all the new foods and the spices, and I loved it.

My friends and I feasted on kimbap (korean sushi minus the fish), tteokbokki (rice cakes smothered in spicy red pepper sauce), and japchae (glass noodles). We finished it all off with some fresh strawberry smoothies to help with all the spiciness!

Saturday, May 7th — War Museums and River Nights

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For our last full day, we headed to the War Memorial (and Museum) of Korea for a little history. While I could claim that everything we did in Seoul was a highlight, this museum stood apart from the rest. It’s by far one of the best museums I’ve ever been to — high-tech, interactive, with a staggering amount of information and a very chilling memorial hall.

If anyone is ever planning on visiting Seoul, I can’t recommend this museum enough. While it’s fun to do all the touristy stuff, I think it’s equally important to learn at least a little about the country you are visiting. In South Korea’s case, it has a very sad, bloody history and an amazing amount of hope for the future. I could’ve spent the whole day here and not seen everything.

Outside the museum, there are huge statues and memorials along with some tanks and fighter jets. The one that caused me to tear up, though, was this one:

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It’s two brothers — a South Korean general, and his younger brother, a North Korean soldier, meeting and embracing on the battlefield.

We eventually tore ourselves away the museum, and we hit up the neighborhood of Gangnam ,  for some snacks (including Milk Cow’s honeycomb ice cream!) and some serious skincare shopping. Although we poked our heads into all the famous skincare stores, sampling and comparing, I ended up walking away with a bag full of Nature Republic products.

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And for our final night in Seoul, we bought some delicious fried chicken and headed to the banks of the Han river. Just like in the K-dramas. We sat and we ate and we talked… then we dragged our tired legs back to our AirBnB for the last time.

Serious props to anyone who made it to the end of this recounting! Goodnight!

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A Sunrise Hike of Mount Tsukuba

One Sunday back in February, a few of us decided to wake up at 3 in the morning, drive to our local mountain, and summit it in time to see the sunrise. This is what happened:

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Mt. Tsukuba is a little over an hour’s drive from any of our apartments, so we set out around 3:30 in the morning, stopped at 7/11 for breakfast… and arrived a bit later than expected, unfortunately. Although 4:50 a.m. is still a pretty impressive hour of day to be awake and standing at the base of a mountain.

The lower half of Mount Tsukuba is pretty densely forested. When you are hiking up in hopes of seeing the sunrise (aka in pitch-black darkness),  everything is so secret, and so quiet, and just a little lonely. You only hear the wind rippling through the trees, your own panting breath, and smatterings of birdsong that rise and fade in the darkness. You only see the small circle of light cast by your headlamp — all the rest is shadow, and the tree trunks look the slightest bit ghostly in the darkness. It depends on the person, but this could either be the setting for moments of inner peace….

or moments of foreboding where you start remembering all the horror movies you’ve ever watched…

Anyways, it was a fun opportunity to try out our fancy new headlamps, at least until the sky brightened. We ended up missing the sunrise by about an hour, but we still had magnificent views from the top.

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We even made a friend at the very top of the mountain!

As we were huddled up against the wind, waiting for the cable car to open for the day so we could quickly descend (spoiler: the cable car on Tsukuba only opens at 9:20 a.m.) we were joined by a ginger cat who was also a little chilly. He snuggled right up to us and started purring away. We all bought hot teas from the vending machines at the top of the mountain (because Japan is awesome like that) and every so often, when the cat began to shiver, we pressed a hot tea bottle against his fur to warm him up again.

He stayed with us until the cable car whirred into operation, bringing shop ladies up to open the summit’s ice cream stores, and bringing us down the mountain for a long drive home.

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It was an incredibly different experience to hike up Tsukuba without the jostle of other hikers. Mount Tsukuba is a very popular (very easy) mountain, so it is always crawling with people of all levels of fitness — even the occasional toddler. Especially near the top, it is easy to get stuck behind a bunch of other people. Caught in the swarm of hikers, you don’t feel very connected to nature.

In contrast,  for most of our sunrise hike, we felt like we were the only ones on the mountain. It was so quiet, so unbelievably peaceful. It was just us, and the trees, and the rocks, and the clouds, and the crisp cold morning air.

And it felt wonderful to be alive.

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