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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Away on an Adventure: Bound for Middle Earth

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

I’ve loved the Lord of the Rings ever since I was a child. I remember sneaking a very worn copy of the Hobbit into middle school assemblies and re-reading it during the school orchestra concerts. By 8th grade, I had finished the trilogy, and I was caught up in the magic of the movies. Perhaps I will never win an LOTR trivia contest, nor do I speak Elvish, but something about Tolkien’s masterpiece has stayed with me, has grown up with me. And something about Howard Shore’s “Concerning Hobbits” will always bring me home.

So I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I am currently in Narita Airport, headed to Middle Earth (also known as New Zealand) with my fearless fellow adventurer, J.

Yes, yes, I know New Zealand isn’t actually Middle Earth. But a girl can dream.

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
― J.R.R. Tolkien

So after two months of intense planning, J and I are going to be spending the next week and a half road-tripping around New Zealand’s North Island. We’ll be hiking, caving, eating, exploring, and of course, visiting the Shire.

This trip is honestly a dream come true for me. It’s a true bucket-list adventure. I haven’t even gone yet, and already I want to go back! But before I can start planning the next adventure, our airplane is calling. And the road is calling~ you know where I’m going with this  😉

“The Road goes ever on and on,                                                                                                                          Down from the door where it began.                                                                                                                    Now far ahead the Road has gone,                                                                                                                      And I must follow, if I can…. ”                                                                                                                                         ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings 

(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.

(Friday) Thoughts from Places: Flashback to a Year in France

Today I was overwhelmed by memories of Strasbourg.

Summer.

Hot sticky sweltering summer nights spent rolling wineglasses on uneven picnic benches under la Guinguette’s magnificent willow tree strung up with fairy lights and dwarfing all the internationalities who sipped wine and chugged beer and discussed French literature and dared each other to dance with the hot stranger over there, all to the strange wails and guitars of live foreign bands, all by the banks of the Loire.

The greying old man with deep laughter wrinkles smiles warmly at you and begins to sing as he whips up your daily crepe, lathering generous spoonfuls of Nutella and sliced banana onto the crisp, lacy crust and handing it to you, hot and fresh and sweet, with a final hum as you slide two new coins across the glass countertop.

In the lofty white stone halls of the castle-school that you liked to pretend was marble, under brassy chandeliers and around the corner from your gold-embossed classroom with creaking wooden floors, you sit playing chess with Bridget, glass pawns fighting and flickering in the sunlight that pours through the French windows with peeling white paint as your classmates on the balcony call out to friends—in English, in French, in Italian—in the courtyard below.

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Traveling in Tohoku Part 3: Kanto Festival, Akita

This is the last of my three-part summer series, which is still more of a photoblog than anything else. For Part III’s mood music, I recommend “Changeling (New Beginnings)” by Zack Hemsey. So without further ado, on to our final destination!

AKITA CITY — AKITA

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There are three extremely famous summer festivals held in the Tohoku Region of Japan every year — collectively known as the Tohoku Sandai Matsuri, they are Akita’s Kanto Festival, Aomori’s Nebuta Festival, and Miyagi’s Sendai Tanabata Festival.

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My family only had time to experience one of these festivals, so I chose the one I was most anxious to see — the Akita Kanto Festival.

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Held in Akita City every year from August 3rd through August 6th, this festival features performers who show off their skills of balancing tall bamboo poles (called kanto) heavy with paper lanterns. These kanto poles can reach up to 12 meters in height and 50 kg (110 pounds) in weight! At night, the paper lanterns are lit by candles, and it’s a wonder that none of them catch fire.

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My parents and I arrived early and grabbed front-row seats on the sidewalk for the festival. For the first few minutes, the performers simply walked around carrying the kanto poles to the beat of the drums, relighting the lanterns whenever a candle would blow out.

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But suddenly, a cry was heard, and all the performers stopped to reorganize. In the darkness, glowing lanterns were hoisted up in every direction — up and down the street, onlookers could see hundreds of lantern-ladden poles rise up into the air. In that moment, on that warm summer night, shivers ran down my spine.

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And the festival had truly begun.

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The performers were absolutely incredible. Men would balance the heavy poles on their palms, on their hips, on their foreheads, or, as the man above is doing, on their shoulders.

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Some of the more practiced performers even showed off their skills by balancing the poles while simultaneously doing a little dance with a handheld fan.

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And even children were encouraged to try their hand! We watched in amusement and subsequent delight as this little boy tried valiantly to balance his “starter kanto pole” while his father looked on. The lanterns on the boy’s kanto pole were not lit, though — and with good reason. Although the father stepped in whenever the pole was teetering, he was not always fast enough. This set of poles crashed to the ground (and onto the audience) more than once!

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In fact, by the third and final round of the festival, even some of the adult performers were losing control over their kanto poles. You could pick these teams out by how many of their lanterns had gone dark, and by how the once-perfect lanterns seemed a little… shredded… by the falls.

There was a particularly… unpracticed… team of performers whose kanto pole went crashing down numerous times. During the second round, they were across the street from us, and we witnessed the falling lanterns with surprised amusement. During the third and final round, however, they were one of the teams performing right in front of us, and it was a little more real.

Of course, there are wires set up above the audience members, so the falling lanterns will be caught by the wires and not do any harm… but I must say that there is something quite exhilarating about watching a 110-pound bamboo pole of candle-lit lanterns falling towards you, and being stopped only seconds before crushing you!

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It was our final night in Tohoku, and I couldn’t have asked for a better ending. Akita’s Kanto Festival exceeded my expectations in every way, and my shoddy pictures don’t do the night justice. Being there was absolutely incredible, and I only I hope to return again someday to experience it all again.

To anyone visiting Japan, especially in the beginning of August, I highly recommend taking a trip up to Tohoku. Tokyo isn’t the only amazing place in Japan! Take the path a little less traveled and see for yourself.

 

Travelling in Tohoku Part 2: Dewa Sanzan, Yamagata

I had an amazing summer holiday with my parents, and although not everything went according to plan, I still have a lot of places to recommend for future explorations!

This three part series will definitely be more of a photoblog than anything else, but I’ll try to add stories or commentary where needed. For Part II’s mood music, I recommend “Walking With Happiness” by The Best Pessimist. So without further ado, on to our second destination:

YAMAGATA — DEWA SANZAN

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For Part II of our Tohoku Adventure, I had planned for us to hike the Three Mountains of Dewa (more commonly known as Dewa Sanzan). In order, they are: Mt. Haguro (the mountain of Birth), Mt. Gassan (the mountain of Death), and Mt. Yudono (the mountain of Rebirth). Haven’t you ever heard of them? Admittedly even my coworkers gave me weird looks when I announced this part of our trip — they all wanted to know how in the world I had learned about Dewa Sanzan at all.

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We took a succession of tiny trains from Ginzan Onsen to Tsuruoka (the closest big town to the Dewa mountains), switching at tiny stations that lacked, to my shock, Suica card machines, and waiting hours for the next train to arrive.  We rumbled past endless green rice paddies and distant mountain silhouettes under bright blue skies. And our foreignness attracted quite a few stares. It was true inaka life in every sense of the word. And it was beautiful.

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After finally dropping off our bags at our hotel, we caught the first bus out of Tsuruoka and on to Mt. Haguro, the first of the three mountains, the mountain of Birth. Mt. Haguro is the lowest (414m) and easiest of the three mountains, and possibly the most famous just because everyone has climbed it.

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This ancient wooden pagoda is the highlight of Mt. Haguro. It was built in 937 without any nails holding it together, and has stood there ever since. It’s actually quite a sight to behold.

Aside from the pagoda, Mt. Haguro is also famous for its 2,446 stone steps that lead up to its summit. We climbed the mountain on a sticky, muggy, sweltering August afternoon, and we all were drenched in sweat by the time we arrived at the summit. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a view from the top… Mt. Haguro is almost completely forested, although the tall cedars do keep the trail nice and shady while you are hiking!

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Originally, our plan was to spend the whole next day hiking up Mt. Gassan and down Mt. Yudono (the two mountains I was really looking forward to)… but unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate. We woke up and it was bucketing rain. We checked the weather and there were thunderstorms predicted to hover over Dewa Sanzan all day. A grim look out our hotel window confirmed that the weather apps had finally gotten it right for a change… dark clouds rolled over the far away mountains.

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So, to my disappointment, our plans changed. No Mt. Gassan or Mt. Yudono for me. Perhaps I wasn’t quite ready for the mountains of Death and Rebirth. Instead, scrambling for a plan, we headed for the slightly less cloudy shoreline, to wander around Atsumi Onsen.

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It wasn’t the active day I had intended it to be, but it was peaceful. We strolled along the Sea of Japan for a little while before walking along the river to the main town. Atsumi Onsen is a strange mixture of run-down and lived-in. It’s a quiet place, snuggled in the mountains, dotted with towering, half-empty ryokan, cheerful ice cream cafes, and small public foot baths.

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We stumbled across some hidden little places during our day in Atsumi Onsen, before heading back for our final night in Tsuruoka (we decided to forgo visiting the self-mummified monks, but they are in the area if you are interested).

All plans hit snags, and the weather was a major one in Part II of our Tohoku Adventure, but hopefully someday in the not-so-distant future, I’ll be back to climb Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono.

Traveling in Tohoku Part 1: Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata

I had an amazing summer holiday with my parents, and although not everything went according to plan, I still have a lot of places to recommend for future explorations!

This three part series will definitely be more of a photoblog than anything else, but I’ll try to add stories or commentary where needed. If you need mood music, I recommend “The Name Of Life” (Instrumental) by Joe Hisaishi. So without further ado, on to our first destination:

YAMAGATA — GINZAN ONSEN

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Ginzan Onsen is a small (emphasis on the small) hot spring resort town in Yamagata Prefecture. Despite it’s size, the onsen town is quite famous here in Japan, owing to it being a filming location for the popular 1980s drama Oshin.

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I was hoping to visit in the winter, which is the town’s peak season. (Look up the photos… it’s gorgeous!!) But summer turned out to be a more opportune (and just as lovely) time of year!

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Even in the rain, the town was absolutely stunning. Although Oshin ended years ago, I felt as if we were still on a movie set.

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Sadly, we weren’t able to stay in one of the beautiful old ryokan in the center of town. However, I did manage to book the slightly more modern ryokan that is set on a hill above the town. And our room came with our own private onsen!

One of the highlights of the whole experience for us was the food. Our ryokan stay included breakfasts and dinners, and no guest was left hungry. Crab legs, wagyu beef, sashimi, escargot, fish eggs, fish cooked 100 different ways, three kinds of soups, lotus root salad, sake, plum wine, watermelon, and of course… rice. We were so full by the end of every meal that my parents began refusing the rice — to the horror of the waitstaff!

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Ginzan Onsen itself is really tiny. If you are a normal person, strolling from one end to the other should only take about 15 minutes at a leisurely pace. And that’s being generous. If you’re a speedy walker, it’ll take you 5 minutes.  If you are, however, a photographer (or a wannabe) like me, then it could take over an hour to cover the whole town. The first time we walked the town, my parents actually considered stopping by a cafe for coffee (without me) because I was taking my sweet time snapping away with my camera.

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We could, however, follow the river to the back of the town. Here, we strolled by a beautiful waterfall before willingly entangling ourselves in the maze of hiking trails in the forest beyond.

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Ginzan Onsen originally developed around a silver mine. The mine itself is now defunct, but you can still enter a small part of it and look around. It was a pretty hot day, but the mine (and all the little tunnels that we passed on our hike that led into the mine) were cool — natural air conditioning! This little hike is definitely a perk of coming to Ginzan Onsen during the summer, because in the town’s peak season, all the trails are made impassable due to heavy snowfall.

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Overall, it’s a sleepy little historic town. Visitors take pictures, relax in the onsens, and get stuffed with all the delicious kaiseki (multi-course) meals.

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The rather sleepy town comes alive at night, however. After dining, guests emerge in their respective ryokans’ yukatas for an evening stroll along the river. The ryokan are lit up beautifully, and sometimes the town plays music to set the scene even further.

Imagine walking along this little street and hearing One Summer’s Day — from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away — filling the sweet summer night. Because that’s exactly what happened while I was there. All I can say is, that was perfection. Rumor has it that the ryokan pictured above served as inspiration for the famous bathhouse in the film… however, I’ve also heard that inspiration is shared with at least three other ryokan, one of which is located in Taiwan.

Of course, my parents and I joined in on the after-dinner stroll, decked out in our yukata. My mother and I went one step further, having fun stumbling around in geta — traditional woodblock sandals worn with yukata and kimono — although my dad vetoed the geta, deciding  that his sandals were the safer option.

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We ended up staying at Ginzan Onsen for two nights. It was a perfect amount of time — quiet and relaxing after all the sightseeing and train hopping my parents had done before — although the whole experience could have easily been summed up in one night as well.

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I know I’ll probably never get back to Ginzan Onsen, but I’m immensely glad that I had the opportunity to go even once. It was a little taste of traditional Japan… a little step back in time.

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.

Hiking Bukhansan: Golden Week, Abroad

Our day at Bukhansan National Park, just north of Seoul, deserves a post of its own, if only for the pictures.  The main event of the day was climbing Baegundae, the tallest of the park’s peaks at 836 meters. The name of the peak is one of the only concrete scraps of information I can actually give about this hike, though, as I pretty much winged it for much of our journey.

Sometimes, winging it in a foreign country is disastrous, but in this case, I think it turned out pretty okay.

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Because hiking is always on my agenda, I took over all the planning for this particular activity on our Korea itinerary. Because precise planning isn’t my strongest skill, this means that I scoured the internet and wrote down a rough idea of  how to get there. And at a very early hour on Thursday morning, my trusting friends followed me onto the subway (orange line) to Gupabal station, exit 1, then we followed everyone in hiking gear onto a bus (possibly bus #34). We got off at the entrance to the park, exactly where everyone else in brightly colored hiking gear got off.

And our adventure began. Continue reading

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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