Min (Temporarily) in Japan, Part 2

Onto the second half of our trip to Japan!

Day 6

We spent this day exploring more of Kyoto, starting with Kinkaku-ji, aka the “Golden Pavilion.”

Ooooooh! Aaaaaah!

Ooooooh! Aaaaaah!

Then it was off to Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is famous for its thousands of bright orange torii gates which form tunnels along the trails up the mountain.

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You could easily spend hours exploring the entire shrine and all the hiking trails, but we had an appointment set up to get rental kimono! Kyoto is one of the places in Japan where it is still extremely common to see people dressed in traditional kimono (mostly groups of young women and couples where it’s clear the woman pestered her boyfriend into dressing up with her), and as such it has hundreds of rental shops where people (both Japanese and foreigners) can change into kimono and have their hair done and go out to explore the town, all for a pretty reasonable price (the place we went to ending up being 3000 yen, or a little less than $30, because we made appointments ahead of time). Basically you go in, pick out a kimono, obi (belt), and bag, grab a pair of tabi (socks) and sandals, have the workers dress you up, and then get your hair done. You leave your original clothes and anything else you don’t want to drag around with you at the shop, go off to explore, and then come back to the shop at the end of the day.

After getting dolled up, we visited Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park and basically did photo shoots for each other. It did feel a little weird at first, since most of the other foreigners who dress up in kimono (at least according to the lady at the rental shop we went to) are Koreans, who don’t stick out quite as much as a couple of blonde white girls. (Luckily being two of only a handful of foreigners in an entire province of Mongolia for two years had already given us more than enough experience with being stared at.) But it ended up being a fun experience and we got some great photos!

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We also walked through the Higashiyama District and saw Yasaka Pagoda.

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There were a few other places we had planned to visit, including Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kodai-ji Temple, Chion-in Temple, and Ginkaku-ji (the “Silver Pavilion”), but most temples tend to close by 4 or 5pm so we ran out of time. Needless to say, Kyoto has more than enough things to see and really is a beautiful place!

That evening we went to a public bathhouse called Funaoka Onsen, which is one of the oldest still-functioning sento in Kyoto and is quite famous, with a variety of indoor and outdoor baths and a sauna. So relaxing!

Day 7

We left Kyoto in the morning and took the bullet train again, stopping for a day in Nagoya on the way back to Tokyo. First we spent a couple hours at the Nagoya City Science Museum. Then it was off to Atsuta Shrine, which has a restaurant on its grounds where we ate kishimen noodles, a Nagoya specialty.

In the evening, we went to a cat cafe. Animal cafes (specializing in cats, rabbits, birds, etc.) are really common in Japan. They let people spend time with animals that they might not be able to own, and enjoy a drink and snack as well.

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Our hostel in Nagoya was extremely nice, with a luxurious bathroom and cute little “pods” for each guest.

Ok, so it looked like a mess after I laid out the bedding and threw all my crap in there, but it was comfy as hell!

Ok, so it looked like a mess after I laid out the bedding and threw all my crap in there, but it was comfy as hell!

Day 8

Before leaving the city, we stopped by Nagoya Castle (my sitemate really wanted to see castles). Then it was back on the bullet train to Tokyo.

Near Tokyo Station is a shop called Kyoto-kan, which (as you might have guessed) specializes in all things Kyoto. I was interested in seeing a tea ceremony while we were in Japan, but in general they’re not exactly cheap to attend, so my research led me to Kyoto-kan, which has a teishu (ceremony host) who offers 20-minute tea ceremonies for only 500 yen (a little less than $5). Because there was just the two of us, the teishu even let us try whisking the matcha (powdered green tea) ourselves.

My sitemate whisking match, but not like an egg, because (as we both learned) that's the wrong way

My sitemate whisking matcha, but not like an egg, because (as we both learned) that’s the wrong way

We had originally intended to visit the Tokyo Imperial Palace on this day, but as I found out the week before our trip, you can only visit by applying for a guided tour, which they apparently don’t do on the weekends (and all the tours on the other days we were in Tokyo were already booked). So instead we just wandered along the moat that surrounds the palace and the large garden to the north of it.

Then we walked through Kitanomaru Park, famous for its Chidorigafuchi Moat lined with cherry trees.

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We spent the evening in the Akihabara district, aka “Electric Town,” known for its many electronics stores and anime/manga shops. Needless to say, it was very bright and colorful!

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In Akihabara we had dinner at a “maid cafe,” possibly the most Japanese thing I’ve ever heard of; the servers dress and act like maids and all the food is super cutesy.

FotorCreated

Yes, that is pink curry in the top left corner

It was an interesting experience, and the food was really good!

Day 9

This was our last full day in Japan. In the morning, while walking to our first destination, we stopped by Senso-ji Temple again (this time in the daylight), as well as the Nakamise shopping street in front of the temple, got some photos of the Tokyo Skytree, walked along the Sumida River, and stumbled upon Yokoamicho Park, which houses several memorials and museums dedicated to the victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Tokyo air raids of WWII, and other disasters.

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Then we arrived at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which has many interactive exhibits, English on most of the displays, and various performances if you happen to be there at the right time. I highly recommend it!

Later in the day we went to Ueno Park. As it was the beginning of the cherry blossom season (and the weekend), the park was packed with tons of people holding hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties.

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While at the park we visited Toshogu Shrine, Hanazonoinari Shrine, and Shinobazu Pond.

For our last dinner in Japan, we went to a nice Japanese BBQ restaurant (one where you cook your own meat and vegetables on the grill built into your table) and tried some sake. All very yummy!

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Day 10

We left Japan early in the afternoon, had another long layover at the Incheon International Airport in Seoul, and arrived back in Mongolia late that evening. Like before the trip, we spent a couple days in UB to relax before taking the long bus ride back to site and back to the daily grind.

It was an amazing trip and I really do hope to get a chance to go to Japan again some day! There are just so many things to see that one relatively short trip doesn’t cut it, but it was a very much needed trip. I hadn’t left Mongolia in almost 2 years, so it was nice to get out for a bit and experience a (very) different culture, eat amazing food, and have regular access to running water!

Now there’s less than 4 months left of my Peace Corps service, and my next post will be about my cohort’s COS (Close of Service) Conference coming up soon!

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Min (Temporarily) in Japan, Part 1

I mentioned in my last post (which was, yes, quite a while ago) that I would be going on vacation to Japan with one of my sitemates. It was a very much needed break, and after having been back in Mongolia for a couple weeks and (finally) finished uploading a good chunk of the 2000+ photos I took to Facebook, I thought I would share a little about the trip. In order to keep this from becoming a miniature version of my Facebook photo albums, I’ll try to limit the photos but include hyperlinks to information and photos about the places and attractions we visited if you want to learn more.

Pre-Japan

My two sitemates and I (the other was going on a trip to Bali) took the long bus ride from Uliastai to UB a few days before our flight, because no one wants to go from a 20-hour bus ride straight to a red-eye international flight.

Day 1

Our flight from UB to Seoul left just before midnight. All 4 of our flights were on Korean Air, which has the nice personal screens on the back of the seat in front of you, so of course I took advantage of this and watched a movie on every single flight instead of doing something sensible like sleep at 1 o’clock in the morning.

We had a 5-hour layover at the Incheon International Airport, which we mostly spent eating Dunkin’ Donuts and sleeping on the seats at the gate of our next flight. I also bought a new camera at one of their duty free shops once they opened (reminder: I broke the camera I had specifically bought for Japan a week earlier at the Ice Festival). I’ve so far managed to not break this camera, and hopefully it will survive my last few months in Mongolia.

Then we had our flight to Tokyo, arriving at about 11:30am to find it raining. Yay! As the first item on our agenda* was to visit a temple close to the airport, and we didn’t feel like carrying around all our luggage through the rain with just my one umbrella, we decided to skip that and go straight to the National Museum of Japanese History. By the time we got off the train for the museum, it was only barely drizzling, which was nice since we still had to walk a bit to get to the museum.

After the museum, we took the train into Tokyo to check into our hostel. But we were both so tired that we fell asleep and missed our stop. Once we turned around and did get off at the right station, we had trouble actually finding the hostel, until a series of extremely helpful people managed to get the confused tourists to the right place.

*The agenda was my 14-page, extremely detailed schedule of our trip, including a daily itinerary and how to get from place to place. My sitemate got a kick out of it, but I was extremely intimidated by Japan’s massive public transportation system and knew that if we didn’t know where we were going ahead of time and which trains/subways/buses to take and stations to get off at, we would have spent half our time in the country staring confusedly at maps and having the old, “So, what do you want to do now?”, “Eh, I don’t know. Whatever,” conversation 5 times a day. So we figured out which cities we wanted to visit ahead of time and what sites we wanted to see at each place. Then I spent my time at work when I wasn’t actually working on anything mapping out the sites in each city and figuring out the most time-conducive route to seeing as many of them as possible. We obviously (and expectedly) didn’t get around to everything on the list, but I like to think having it helped us see as much as possible.

Day 2

We went to Hakone, a resort town near Mt. Fuji famous for its hot springs and other attractions.

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As it is a resort town, our lodging for the one night we stayed was our splurge and slice of luxury for the trip. We stayed at what is supposedly the only hostel in Japan with an outdoor onsen, or hot spring bath, or this:

Photo credit to K's House Hakone, as I wasn't about to bring my camera into the bath area

Photo credit to K’s House Hakone, as I wasn’t about to bring my camera into the bath area to snap a photo

We had a private Japanese-style tatami room and slept on traditional futons.

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Sleeping on the floor's actually pretty comfy if you do it right

Sleeping on the floor’s actually pretty comfy if you do it right

But before all that, we went on the standard tour of Hakone that is covered by the Hakone Freepass, which included bus rides, crossing Lake Ashi on a sightseeing cruise, taking the ropeway for an aerial view, the cable car, and the local train. Along the way, we visited Hakone Shrine, ate some fried calamari-on-a-stick, walked along “Ancient Cedar Avenue,” and visited Gora Park.

Hakone has tons of places where you can get views of Mt. Fuji, but of course the day we were there it was cloudy and drizzling, so no Mt. Fuji sightings for us! Here’s what it’s supposed to look like though:

Photo credit: JTB Global Marketing & Travel

Featuring the ship that we rode on the sightseeing cruise and part of Hakone Shrine on the right (photo credit: JTB Global Marketing & Travel)

Then we spent the evening relaxing at the hostel and enjoying the hot springs.

Day 3

In the morning we walked to a couple waterfalls nearby (Hien Falls and Tamadare Falls), as well as a shrine between the 2 waterfalls.

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Hakone was one of my favorite parts of the trip, and I definitely recommend visiting (it’s conveniently only 1.5 hours from Tokyo by train).

Then we headed back to Tokyo. In lieu of going to the fairly expensive Tokyo Skytree or Tokyo Tower for views of the city, we went to the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which was a much more agreeable FREE!

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That big patch of green in the above photo was the location of our next stops: Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine. There just happened to be a wedding at the shrine while we were there, so we got to see a traditional Japanese wedding procession:

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Then we went on to Shibuya Station. Right outside the station is an intersection called Shibuya Crossing, which is supposedly the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. We got to experience the bustling crowds firsthand and then from above at a cafe.

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For dinner we had an amazing meal at a kaiten, or conveyor belt sushi restaurant, where you grab whichever sushi catches your fancy off the moving conveyor belt, and your bill is calculated based on the stack of color-coded-by-price plates you have left at the end. If you’re into sushi, I definitely recommend one of these restaurants!

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As you can see, the two of us are very much into sushi

As you can see, the two of us are very much into sushi

After dinner we visited the nearby Senso-ji Temple and Asakusa Shrine to see them lit up on the way back to our hostel.

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Day 4

We took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto. We had bought Japan Rail Passes, which are pretty expensive but certainly worth it if you’re going to multiple cities. The JR Pass covers all but the fastest of the Shinkansen trains, and with the time that you save getting to your destination so much quicker (as opposed to taking the regular train or a bus), you get much more time for sightseeing.

After arriving in Kyoto and dropping off our bags, we rented bikes from the hostel and visited Nijo Castle. Then we headed to the Arashiyama area in the western part of the city, which is beautiful and well worth a visit (you could easily spend a whole day just in this area and not run out of things to see). We crossed the Togetsukyo Bridge and hiked up a hill to Monkey Park Iwatayama, where over a hundred Japanese macaques roam freely.

And get nice views of the city!

And get nice views of the city!

There’s also a famous bamboo grove you can wander through, and after all our wandering, we had a nice relaxing foot bath at Randen Arashiyama Station, which is decorated with hundreds of beautiful light poles:

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Then it was back to the “hostel,” which was a preserved 70-year-old Japanese house, so we got to experience some traditional living as well.

Day 5

Day trip to Osaka, which is just a 30-minute train ride from Kyoto. Our first stop was Osaka Castle (ok, our first first stop was Nisinomaru Garden located on the castle grounds).

Where we borrowed traditional umbrellas for photo ops (and because I had forgotten my sunglasses and have very sensitive eyes)

Where we borrowed traditional umbrellas for photo ops (and because I had forgotten my sunglasses and have very sensitive eyes)

We noticed that there were what looked like news crews gathered around a patch of trees and were told by an English-speaking volunteer guide that they were reporting on the opening of the first cherry blossoms on Osaka’s official cherry tree. There are many different kinds of cherry trees that start blooming at different times, but apparently each city in Japan has a couple “official” trees that they base the beginning of cherry blossom season on. Osaka’s trees were in this garden, and the first blooms just happened to open on the day we were visiting.

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The volunteer guide ushered us closer, and then the news crew started sticking a microphone and video camera in our faces and interviewing us about what we thought of Japan and the cherry blossoms. So for all we know there was a blurb of us on the Osaka local news later in the day (we’re…famous?)

After exploring the castle, we (intended) to go on to Shitennoji Temple, but all my careful planning failed me and we ended up walking in the opposite direction and visiting Ikukunitama Shrine instead. I didn’t actually realize we had gone to a different place until we got back to Mongolia and I was uploading my photos to Facebook and labeling where they had been taken. Something did seem off at the time, since most (Buddhist) temples in Japan have an entrance fee (and I knew Shitennoji Temple would have one), but we didn’t have to pay to enter the place we were visiting (most [Shinto] shrines in Japan don’t have entrance fees). So it was a matter of looking at a map after the fact and comparing my photos to photos online of the temples/shrines in the area we had been in.

Then it was on to the bustling Shinsekai district to visit Tsutenkaku Tower and get views of the city.

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Our last stop in Osaka was the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, which is one of the largest aquariums in the world and was well worth a visit.

That evening we headed back to Kyoto, and our trip was half-way over! I’ll cover the rest of the trip in the next post.

Project Design & Management Seminar

Back in February, the PC/Mongolia training team told all of us PCVs about an upcoming Project Design & Management (PDM) seminar for PCVs and one of their HCA or community counterparts to work on the design and planning of a specific project. In order to be invited to the seminar, we first had to conduct a needs assessment in our community to determine the most pressing issues and then come up with a project idea to address those issues.

So my supervisor and I (who really wanted an excuse to travel out of Zavkhan on Peace Corps’ dime) worked hard to complete a needs assessment before the deadline, which was right after Tsagaan Sar of all times. We reviewed statistics and health indicator reports from the Ministry of Health, along with hospital records and health department reports from here in Zavkhan. We also conducted key informant interviews with the director of the Public Development Division at the Zavkhan Governor’s Office, the treatment director at the Central Hospital, the head doctor and advisor of the Children’s Division at the Central Hospital, and the director of the Children’s Hospital. We conducted informal interviews and discussions with staff members and parents of patients at the Children’s Hospital, and we examined what medical equipment was available both in the Central Hospital and the Children’s Hospital.

Our needs assessment revealed that the infant and under-5 mortality rates are significantly higher in Zavkhan aimag than both the country average (all of Mongolia) and the aimag average (all the aimags minus UB). So basically, lots of babies and little kids die in this part of the country.

Sorry, that was depressing. Please look at this cute Mongolian puppy playing in the snow

Sorry, that was depressing. Please look at this cute Mongolian puppy playing in the snow

This is believed to be due to the fact that there are no emergency facilities for infants and children in Zavkhan. The Central Hospital has an emergency department, but it is not equipped to treat infants and children and is not staffed with pediatricians. So if a parent comes to the ER with a very sick child, they will either have to wait for a busy pediatrician to come there from another part of the hospital (and even then, there will likely not be the necessary medical equipment) or they will be sent to the Children’s Hospital, which is a few blocks away. But the Children’s Hospital does not have an emergency department at all, so even if the parent was able to finally get a pediatrician to look at their child, they wouldn’t have a monitor to see what was wrong with the child, or a respirator to hook the child up to, etc.

Our main project idea is to develop a children’s emergency department at the Children’s Hospital. We have identified 3 rooms on the first floor of the Children’s Hospital that could be converted into a 5-bed ER, and there are 6 doctors and 8 nurses from the Central Hospital that could be transferred to the new department so that it could be staffed 24 hours a day by at least 1 doctor and 1 nurse at all times. There is even a medical engineer at the Central Hospital that could train the staff on how to use the emergency medical equipment.

But what we need is—you know—the actual medical equipment. The Ministry of Health has a list of “hospital standards” that specify what equipment and supplies are deemed necessary for each ward/department of the hospitals. There are sections of that standard for infants and children and for emergency facilities, but of course our facilities don’t have most of that equipment, or the money to get it. I’ve looked into some of the numerous NGOs that collect used hospital equipment from developed nations and donate them to clinics and hospitals in developing nations, but those organizations generally send the medical equipment in those big 40-foot shipping containers to the nearest sea port, and the receiving organization is responsible for getting it the rest of the way. You may recall that Mongolia is a land-locked country, so going through one of those programs would require us to have the container shipped to a port in China, then put on a train on the railroad that comes up to UB, and finally put on a giant truck coming out here to Uliastai. So, just a bit of customs and legal paperwork and crossing our fingers that it wouldn’t just disappear somewhere along the way (as so many care packages do when they’re sent to Mongolia through China). Oh, and somehow paying for the shipping container’s long land-bound journey. So only slightly more complicated than finding a pot of gold to just pay for new medical equipment directly.

Anyway, there’s your background for our project. We and 20 other PCV/counterpart pairs were selected to attend the 3-day PDM seminar, which took place last week. It was held at a “resort” about 30km outside of UB, in a quaint little mountain area that had plenty of what looked like summer vacation homes nearby.

The resort

The resort

The lobby

The lobby

The view

The view

Yeah, Mongolian homes do not look like that

Yeah, Mongolian homes do not look like that

The seminar consisted of sessions on writing goals and objectives, creating a logic model and action plan, identifying resources, monitoring and evaluation, budgeting, and proposal writing. There was also a session on Peace Corps funding resources, which wasn’t as helpful for me and my supervisor because our (admittedly large-scale) project is not eligible for those smaller grants. So my one qualm with the seminar was that they didn’t cover other funding sources. If we do end up going the route of having an NGO ship us a bunch of medical supplies overseas, most of those programs do require a sponsorship fee of up to $25,000. Obviously our hospital does not have that money, so I’m looking into other entities that could help fund the project, but I have no experience with waltzing up to a company and asking them for money, and my counterparts didn’t even think about that as an option, so I’m assuming they don’t have much experience either. But outside of that, the seminar was extremely helpful. There was plenty of time for us to work in our pairs to apply what we learned in the sessions to our own projects. But now there is a lot of work to do to move forward.

According to the seminar schedule, we would be heading back into the city on Saturday morning. But since our flight back to Uliastai was at the ungodly time of 6:50am on Saturday, me, my sitemate, and our counterparts were supposed to be taken back on Friday evening after the last sessions. But then, during the closing session, we were informed that our flight had been delayed until Sunday morning (on account of a snowstorm that had gone through Zavkhan on Friday and was heading toward UB). So we hung around at the resort for another night and left with everyone else Saturday morning, with the snow already coming down.

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But having our flight delayed meant an entire free day to spend in UB! It would have been nicer if that day hadn’t been marred by a snowstorm that I did not have the appropriate clothes for (It’s supposed to be spring! It was in the upper 40s when I left to come to UB!). Nevertheless, I managed to trek to several places, including a yummy café for brunch:

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French toast and a chocolate milkshake (with a shot of espresso)

And several stores that sell stuff you can’t find out in Zavkhan, like cheddar cheese, popcorn, peanut butter, Vanilla Coke, etc., along with American goodies that can only be found in a select few places in UB, like cereal and Kraft mac & cheese. Yes, I managed to find what I’m pretty sure was the last box of mac & cheese in the entire country. I didn’t even know they sold it in UB, and I always get tons of it sent in care packages because I could probably live off the stuff. Then I saw one lone box on a shelf in one of the stores and asked a worker if there were any more. She informed me that there was a currently a shortage of the stuff.

Seriously, a shortage of Kraft mac & cheese in Mongolia.

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I’m not sure if it had something to do with the recent recall by Kraft, though I can’t imagine Mongolia being a place that pays too much attention to things like recalls due to tiny pieces of metal possibly being in processed foods. But I also can’t think of any other reason for the shortage. When I tell Mongolians about macaroni & cheese, they seem to be unfamiliar with the stuff. And I know there are a fair share of expats who live in UB, but unless they’re all my clones, I can’t imagine them eating enough of it to cause a shortage. Anyway, while visiting a few other stores I looked for any more of the blue boxes, with no luck. I was either told about the shortage again or ensured they would be getting more in next week. Thus, I may have gotten the last box of Kraft mac & cheese in Mongolia, and definitely ate it for dinner the day I got back to Uliastai.

After shopping, I headed back to one of the city’s hostels that at any given time are likely to be filled with PCVs.

...and their stuff

…and their stuff

I paid for my bed (the equivalent of about $4) and took advantage of the free wifi until dinner. A group of us went out to a really nice bar & grill, where I got an actual Caesar salad (in a lot of restaurants, even if they have “Caesar salad” on the menu with a picture next to it looking all appetizing, you’ll get…something else…that should be illegal to call a Caesar salad), shared a pizza, and had a tequila sunrise and a B-52 that I didn’t know was really a Flaming B-52 until the waiter came with a lighter to set my shot on fire.

I somehow managed to not catch my face on fire (yeah, I don't drink flaming drinks very often...or any kind of drink...)

I somehow managed to not catch my face on fire (yeah, I don’t drink flaming drinks very often…or any kind of drink…)

After dinner, we went back to the hostel. While others were being sociable, I went to bed to try to get at least a few hours of sleep before I had to wake up to catch my stupidly early flight. But I did spend most of the flight sleeping, and then proceeded to spend a large portion of the rest of the day napping, waking up to get groceries and to eat my mac & cheese dinner. Then it was straight back to a regular ol’ work week.