Close of Service and Back to America

Wow, time flies when you’re having fun (and busy)! I know I haven’t updated this blog in a couple months, but I’ve been a little wrapped up with COSing, another trip to Japan, and returning home to America!

First up: Close of Service (COS)

Saying goodbye to my coworkers, khashaa family, friends, and sitemates was obviously difficult. Anywhere you live for 2 years will start to feel like home to you, but I can say I felt like it was time to get back to my American home. I really did enjoy my time in the Peace Corps and in Mongolia, and I definitely grew as a person through all the adventures and struggles I experienced, but I was ready to see my family and friends stateside again.

I could go into all the details of my last few weeks in Mongolia, but with all the other things that have already happened since then, this post would never end. I can, however, attest that things stayed interesting up to the very end. The health department had to take down my ger 2 weeks before I was to head to UB to COS (long story), so I ended up living in the health department (again) for my last bit of time.

Apparently it's easier to dismantle a ger and then take the furniture and everything else out afterwards

Apparently it’s easier to dismantle a ger and then take the furniture and everything else out afterwards

Then, after packing up my bags and saying my goodbyes, it was off to UB for all the fun paperwork, medical stuff, and exit interviews you have to complete before you can leave the country. This takes 3 days, and at the end you “ring out your service,” literally.

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After that, you’re free to leave the country, which for me meant going off to Japan once more for my COS trip (many PCVs travel after they COS before returning home to take advantage of being relatively close to travel destinations). I had really enjoyed the Japan trip my sitemate and I went on back in March and wanted to see more of the country. Plus, I could justify it by the fact that it was technically on the way home, whereas if I ever wanted to go back to Japan in the future, I’d be shelling out close to $2000 to get there and back from the US east coast. I made it slightly less “on the way home” by staying there for almost an entire month, which my family did not exactly appreciate.

Since I'd already been to the big cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) on my first trip, I decided to explore southern Japan, including Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Takachiho, Kagoshima, Yakushima, and Okinawa

Since I’d already been to the big cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) on my first trip, I decided to explore southern Japan, including Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Takachiho, Kagoshima, Yakushima, and Okinawa

It took me until just over a week ago to finally finish uploading all the numerous photos I took during my trip, so I couldn’t even begin to try to select a few to post here, but I can say it was an amazing trip, and everywhere I visited was absolutely beautiful. After 2 years in frigid, landlocked Mongolia, I really appreciated the ocean and beaches like never before.

Returning to America

Finally, it was time to head home. I flew from Okinawa to Shanghai, then to Los Angeles. But while I was at LAX waiting for the final leg of my flight to Atlanta, I got a great welcome back to America. An armed airport guard came up to our gate and demanded that everyone get up and go back out past the security check. Well, when a guard carrying a rifle tells you to get the heck out of there, you tend to do as they say. Our gate was at the end of the terminal so we had to walk past all the other gates on the way out, which had already been emptied. At the end of the terminal and spilling out of the exit were the hundreds and hundreds of passengers who had been in the terminal before being evacuated. I won’t lie: the first thoughts running through my head at the time were that there was a bomb or a gunman on the loose and that I didn’t want to die when I was so close to finally getting home. No airport officials were telling us anything, so obviously people started taking out their smartphones and looking to see if there was any news about what was going on. We heard reports of an “unconfirmed shooting” that had taken place at the airport, but as we continued to wait around for almost an hour, the news updated to reveal that the whole shooting thing had been a false alarm. Apparently people in another terminal had heard a “loud noise” and thought it was gunfire, leading to panic and people calling 911 to report a shooting at the airport. So obviously the police had to respond to the 911 calls and they ended up searching all the terminals. Oh, and a guy dressed up as Zorro with a plastic sword was involved somehow. The whole fiasco delayed my flight two hours (and all the other flights as well), which caused a lot of people to miss their connections in Atlanta, but all I cared about was that I was home!

My parents were there to pick me up, there may have been tears shed upon seeing them for the first time in over 2 years, and then we went off for breakfast at IHOP (it was early in the morning and I wanted me some stuffed French toast). When I finally got home, I slept for most of the day before we went back out for dinner to eat more food I hadn’t been able to enjoy in Mongolia.

I feel like I had an easier time adjusting to life back in America because I had spent so much time traveling around Japan, which served as a buffer between my vastly different lives in rural Mongolia and suburban America. I was very jet-lagged for quite a few days, it did take some practice to get used to driving again, and all the options available in grocery stores and restaurants was a little overwhelming, but I don’t think I’ve experienced as severe reverse culture shock as many other RPCVs. I’ve spent most of my time so far visiting with family and friends and researching and applying for public health jobs, so it’s been a bit more chill than a lot of my RPCV friends who went straight into grad school or a job as soon as they got home.

I wish I had something more poignant to add about my COS and readjustment. I don’t think this will be my last blog post, but considering how long it took me to get this one out, I can’t say for sure.¬†At any rate, I figured I should get this one posted before another 2 months post-COS have passed me by! And then maybe I’ll be able to collect my thoughts and add a new post later about my reflections on my Peace Corps service!

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!

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.