South Korea (1) – Rainy Days in Daegu

It’s the third day since we’ve been in Daegu and it’s been raining almost constantly, making it impossible to do any activities.

Not that Daegu has much to offer anyway. Apart from some hikes in the mountains that are close by but unreachable under the pouring rain, Daegu is the the city where nothing really happens. There are a couple of temples (but out of the city), some small museums whose explanations are only in Korean, some parks and a lot of restaurants, pubs and cafes. There’s even a street that’s called “Cafe Street” where coffee shops and Western-style restaurants line up.

But I did discover a fascinating place for spending these rainy days: the markets.

Seomun Market is one of them. One of Korea’s three largest markets, Seomun has been famous for its textile and sewn items (Daegu being known as the ‘Textile City” , though in the past years the textile industry shrank). But actually I’ve been more fascinated with the food you can find here.

The food stalls crammed in the narrow alleys display anything from seeds and colorful fruit and vegetables , delicious mochi sweets to more heavy things such as pork intestines or cooked silk worms (Beondegil).IMG_20140806_142112IMG_20140806_150418IMG_20140806_150509IMG_20140806_144929

The mochi sweets have various color in Korea, unlike Japan where they are usually white, brown or green. While also filled with red bean pasta, they are sweeter than in Japan and less soft.

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The cooked silk worms are a really popular snack in Korea (they are high in protein and low in fat :)). You can find them even at convenience stores or buy them live and prepare them yourself. I consider myself quite adventurous when it comes to trying new food but I admit that worms or other insects are a really big barrier. So far.

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But a delicious and safe thing is the ‘hotteok’ – a very popular street food. It is a deep-fried pancake filled with brown sugar, honey, cinnamon and nuts. It just tastes divine!

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We still have two more (and looong) days to spend in Daegu….with the rain and no attractions around I might be reconsidering trying the silk worms. At least it’s something exciting :).

Sayonara, Kyoto!

I still can’t believe that the time passed so quickly and that tomorrow is our last day in Kyoto.

I’ve been very nostalgic these past days, taking long walks and late-afternoon rides with my bike, trying to keep every detail in mind. It still feels strange to think that so soon we’ll no longer eat ramen and sushi, hear the chicken waking us up at 7 am, take the bike for every visit in the city or any hike, being greeted with the ubiquitous “Irashaimasse!” (Welcome!) whenever entering a store, a restaurant, a bar.

So, dear Kyoto I write this to you to say that I’ll miss every part of you and every single day spent here, but mostly I’ll miss:

– your calmness and your 2,000 temples full of history and tradition

– your lush green hills and mountains, so close to the city and with some of the most lovely hikes 

– go running in the evening by the river banks and take a glimpse of the beautiful geishas, sitting graciously in the fancy restaurants that line the river

– being surprised at the sight of the deers that would sometimes appear in the evening in the middle of the river

– riding my bike home from an evening in the city and having to stop suddenly to let a snake cross the narrow path along the river

– the hundreds of public workers that just stand near the crossroads or construction sites to show you the way, with a deep bow

– the ceaseless afflux of traditional greetings that you hear when entering every store or restaurant

– your always on-time buses and their drivers wearing white gloves

– your quiet streets and quiet people; I’ve never heard any car honks or people quarelling or shouting to each other. Never.

– the beautiful Japanese girls, stunning and elegant sometimes, cute and childish at times,  loud and colorful some other times, always wearing  their high heels proudly

– the arts and crafts stores where you can spend your entire day

– the beautiful and elegant kimono’s and yukata’s that color every corner of the street

– exploring your narrow, quiet stone streets with Minty ( my bike:))

– savouring your delicious sweets, bizarre at first but so good after you get used to the red beans taste, matcha or mochi texture

– admiring your stunning crafts and beautiful patterns  in any form (from pottery, to paper objects and delicate artifacts such as fans, textures, or adorable chopsticks rest).

Until we meet again, I take a deep bow and I whisper ‘Sayonara, Kyoto’.

A Second Trip to Tokyo

Last week we went to Tokyo for a second time.

The first time we were a bit in a rush to get the most out of the city, in three days.  The second time, however we had time to discover a  city where I’d love to live for a couple of years, full of happenings and events that I overlooked the first time I visited.   A city whose vibrant atmosphere, funky people, eclectic neighboorhoods and huge neon-lights make you want to come back again and again and again.

There are a couple of things that I loved this time in Tokyo:

1. Relaxing at Cafe Ki

I found out about Ki Cafe from an article in Bored Panda where the place was featured among the 20 of the world’s best restaurant and bar interior designs. Ki means ‘tree’ in Japanese and the design of the place is built around the idea of a forest. But a very abstract, minimalist one.

The table legs go up to look like tree trunks and branches. The whole space is painted in white, which makes a beautiful contrast against the blackness of the branches. Their coffee is really good, I had a hazelnut latte. So are the cakes….but I’ll let the pictures talk.

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2. Shimokitazawa neighbourhood

It is nicknamed ‘the younger cousin of Harajuku’ because of its equally funky atmosphere and small eclectic streets that you’d usually find in Harajuku. But if Harajuku has the popularity, Shimokita has the cool kids and the indie vibe. You can spend an entire afternoon here, wandering through the music shops that line the street, the popular eateries and vintage clothing stores.

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3. Walking on Rainbow Bridge

Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge which spans Tokyo Bay offers a  great view of the city, especially at night, with the dozens of lighted sky-scrapers. The walk is not long, around 1km and there are two routes: the South and the North route. We took the North route, with views on Tokyo harbour and Tokyo Tower. The South side offers views of Tokyo Bay and, if you’re lucky and it’s daytime, Mount Fuji.

To get on the bridge the easiest and nicest way is to take the Yurikamome line, a driverless elevated train that has some great views on Tokyo bay.

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(Oh, and it seems that the rainbow colour lights are only during the Christmas period, and the bridge looks like that):

Rainbow bridge Tokyo

Photo credits: Wikipedia

 4. A stop at the Toilet Exhibition in Miraikan Museum

It’s been everywhere in the news lately, and words like looney and weird would often describe it. So, I had to go and see for myself.

The exhibition is clearly targeted to kids , trying to teach them about the human waste and its impact on the environment. I found it creative and funny, mostly the part where you get flushed down a huge porcelain toilet, wearing …a poop hat :).

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In case you forgot the different shapes the human feces can have, here’s a reminder:):

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The exhibition features also different toilets around the globe and from the Japanese Edo period, as well as some innovative systems, like the pants that collect the urine:

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If you had enough of the scatological atmosphere, go on the 5th floor of the museum and have a chat with the lifelike robot Otonaroid or listen to the news read by Kodomoroid. It’s a bit spooky, but amazing in the same time!

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5. The Art Aquarium Exhibition by the artist Hidetomo Kimura

The Art Aquarium exhibition is a stunning form of art, combining about 5,000 goldfish in aquariums with colourful lightning, music, futuristic designs and traditional Japanese motifs (lanterns, folding screens, kimonos).

It’s really one of the most fantastic things I’ve seen so far, so anyone who’s in Tokyo shouldn’t miss it. The exhibition is open to public until 23 September 2014.

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One of Japan’s Three Most Beautiful Gardens

There are still a lot of things still clinging on my must-see list in Japan. The three most famous gardens in Japan, Kenroku-en (Kanzawa), Koraku-en (Okayama) and Kairaku-en (Mito), are some of them.

We visited the garden in Okayama during the cherry blossom and it was indeed beautiful. We were impressed by its open space, the perfect alignment of plants, trees, hills, streams and ponds.

One of Japan's Three Most Beautiful Gardens

Koraku-en garden in Okayama

So, this weekend Kenroku-en in Kanazwa was the next victim on the list. Kenroku-en means “the garden combining six characteristics for an ideal garden: spaciousness, serenity, venerability, scenic views, subtle design, and coolness”. It’s kind of difficult for a garden to have all these six attributes altogether, but somehow Kanazawa has all of them.

With clear ponds, beautiful flowers (I adore irises), hills and bridges dotting the green space, Kenroku-en looks indeed like a fairy tale, something not to be missed if you are in Japan. It’s a bit far and expensive to get there (3 hours train ride from Kyoto ~about $70 one way; or the cheaper option is the bus for half the price, 4 hours ride), but it’s worth the effort.

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One of Japan's Three Most Beautiful Gardens, Koraku-en garden, must see gardens Japan, best gardens Japan

Kotoji lantern, the symbol of Kanazawa

Besides the beautiful garden, Kanazawa has other interesting spots as well:

  • The city’s personalized manhole cover – I was very happy to find it! Since I found out about the existence of such art pieces in Japan, I’ve been a bit obsessed with spotting them :).

One of Japan's Three Most Beautiful Gardens, Koraku-en garden, must see gardens Japan, best gardens Japan

  • Cute houses next to some interesting Gaudi style buildings

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  • Some modern art pieces

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  • One of the most beautiful train stations I’ve seen

One of Japan's Three Most Beautiful Gard

  • Delicious orange juice, straight from the orange itself :) ( found at the Omicho market, Kanazawa’s largest fresh fruit market)

One of Japan's Three Most Beautiful Gard

  • Traditional houses in the Samurai district and the Geisha district, and of course traditional weddings in the temples;

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  • And the most delicious udon I ate so far in Japan, with home made noodles, small mushrooms and….edible gold leafs sprinkled on top. Amazing taste, I’m sure the tiny gold leafs played their role in that :).  (These gold leafs are an important part of Kanazawa’s arts and crafts, the city being the main producer. The gold that covers Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto comes from Kanazawa. People usethe gold flakes in food because of their belief that is good for health and vitality). 

One of Japan's Three Most Beautiful Gardens, Koraku-en garden, must see gardens Japan, best gardens Japan

 

There are 2,000 Temples and Shrines in Kyoto

Yep, that’s true and that’s also a bit discouraging, as I realize I can’t possibly visit each and every one while I’m here. Tough life :).

In Japan, the two religions, Buddhism and Shintoism coexist happily. Usually, the temples are Buddhist, and the shrines are Shintoist, with their architecture being quite similar.  There are a few elements that distinguishes them: at a Shinto shrine you enter through a torii gate (it’s often painted in bright orange) which marks the transition from the profane to the sacred, a pair of guardian dogs, or lions, or foxes sit at the entrance and there’s a purification stream near the entrance where people cleanse their mouth and hands before prayer. The Buddhist temples display images with Buddha, in their main hall there is always a huge incense burner whose smoke is believed to be healing and you can often see a pagoda close to the temple.

Up to now, I managed to visit around twenty something of them, so I have so far a list of my favorites. But I’m sure my preferences will evolve by the time we leave Kyoto.

Kinkakuji (The Golden Temple) 

The golden image of the temple reflected in the serene pond is one of the famous images from Kyoto. The temple displays three distinct styles of architecture: palace style (first floor), samurai house (second floor) and zen (the third floor). The peaceful gardens are also a delight.

Temples and shrines of Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera

Is one of the most touristy temple in Kyoto, always packed with tour groups and school children. But it’s beautiful and you can have a peaceful walk down the  forest and just enjoy the silence. An incredible thing about this temple is that it was built without any nail, everything being held in place through impressive tall wood pillars.

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Fushimi-Inari

When I learned we’d gonna move to Japan, the image of Fushimi-Inari was the first thing I came across when I googled Kyoto. It was impressive in the pictures and it remains impressive in reality. There are thousands of bright orange torii gates that keep going up through the forest, into the mountain. For about one hour they keep you company on the quite steep way, until you reach the top of the mountain. During the night it gets even more beautiful, with the tourists gone and the gently lit torii gates, reflecting in the forest.

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Nanzen-ji

What I love about this Buddhist temple is the surroundings. It’s a good place to get away from the noise of the more touristic places and take a walk on the 19th century aqueduct you find within the temple complex.

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Shimogamo Shrine

Much like Nanzen-ji, Shimogamo is surrounded by a peaceful forest and it’s one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan. When I first discovered it, I fell in love with the leafy road that leads to the shrine. Perfect for biking, running, reading, dreaming.

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Yoshida Shrine

Though probably this is not on the must-do list of the tourists, let’s say it’s my guilty pleasure :).Yoshida is a complex of small shrines that you discover one by one on the small hike that gets you on the top, oferring a nice view of Kyoto. Or you can just linger in the woods, with a book.

Temples and shrines of Kyoto,what temples to see in Kyoto, must see KyotoTemples and shrines of Kyoto,what temples to see in Kyoto, must see Kyoto Temples and shrines of Kyoto,what temples to see in Kyoto, must see Kyoto