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.

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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.

Final Center Days and Site Announcements

Sunday, August 10 was the beginning of Final Center Days, our last group training before becoming official Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). It was very sad to pack up everything in my room and leave my host family, and it was made worse when I got really sick the night before and barely got any sleep because I had to keep getting out of bed to barf my guts out. I was still sick in the morning, so my goodbyes to my host family were quite interesting. All of us in Dereven were supposed to meet at the school with all our luggage and take meekers over to the good old Darkhan Hotel, but because the Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) had told me she wanted me to lay down and get some rest as quickly as possible and not wait around for the bumpy meeker ride, my host mom just drove me over to the hotel herself (granted, it’s only like a 10-minute drive, unlike the other groups of PCTs who were coming from much farther away). So I checked into the hotel while one of the current PCVs in charge of Final Center Days recruited some big strapping guys to help my mom carry all my luggage upstairs (of course my room was on the fourth floor of a hotel whose elevator doesn’t work). Then I took a much-needed nap, missing the first day’s sessions (which I was told were absolutely riveting).

I did want to go to Site Announcements though, where they would finally reveal where we would each be living and working for the next two years. It was later that afternoon, and since I was feeling a little better, the PCMO said I could go. But she didn’t want me walking all the way to the park where it was being held, so I got a ride in one of the Peace Corps cars with one of their drivers. At the park, we all gathered around a giant map of Mongolia, going insane with anticipation.

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Aimag by aimag, current PCVs announced the PCTs who had been placed in the aimag center and soums. As names were announced, each person received a packet of information about their site, host country agency (HCA), and housing. Then they went over to an even bigger “map” of Mongolia that was made out of concrete lines representing the aimag borders and statues representing each aimag center.

You can't really tell, but we're standing in a giant map of Mongolia

You can’t really tell, but we’re standing in a giant map of Mongolia

As I briefly mentioned in an earlier post, I was placed at the Health Department in Uliastai, the aimag center of Zavkhan province. I am the first Health PCV to be placed in Zavkhan, and apparently the Health Department has been hoping to have a Volunteer for a while now. There are already three M24s in Zavkhan, two of which are also in Uliastai. In addition to myself, four other M25s were placed in Zavkhan (all TEFL Volunteers), three of which are joining me in Uliastai.

I will talk more about Uliastai and Zavkhan in an upcoming post, so for now, back to Final Center Days.

The next two days consisted of more sessions and trainings. But on Wednesday, we got to meet our supervisors from our HCAs (or some other representative of our HCA), who had come in for a Supervisors Conference to learn how to work with PCVs/Americans.

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We all gathered in the gym of a local school, and PC staff one by one announced our names and our HCA, at which point we had to go forward and meet our supervisor for the first time. The director of my health department had come, even though he is not my actual “supervisor” and I won’t be working with him directly very much. Then we had an extremely awkward hour to talk with our supervisors, but luckily my director speaks a fair amount of English. The directors of the schools where the other Zavkhan PCTs will be working also all know each other, so at least we could all awkwardly stand in a circle together. For the rest of that day and the next day, we had some sessions with our supervisors and had to eat lunch with them at the Darkhan Hotel.

Then on Friday, all of us PCTs, our supervisors, and PC staff got onto buses to head to Ulaanbaatar for the Swearing-In Ceremony (to be discussed in the next post).

Final Day with My Host Family (and Fun Trip!)

On Friday evening (the same day my host family came back from their long trip) they told me that the next day (the last full day with them) we would be going on a trip up to the Russian border. So the next morning at 9:30 all 7 of us (baby included) crammed into the car to head out. We first stopped at the market to pick up food for the picnics they had planned, and then we proceeded to go back home (apparently they had forgot some things). So around 10:30 we finally left Darkhan and headed north up to Sukhbaatar City. Shortly after leaving we passed Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake), and there were camels! I didn’t think there were camels in Mongolia outside the Gobi Desert, but my host mom told me that at one point there were only 7 camels in the Darkhan-Uul aimag, but since then the population has grown to a few hundred. Of course we passed by before I could snap a photo, and they were gone by the time we came back that evening, but I saw camels!

Like this, but with dozens more camels

Like this, but with dozens more camels

Right before we got into Sukhbaatar, we took a detour to Eej Mod (Mother Tree), which is an important spot among adherents of Shamanism. The large tree was struck by lightning a few years ago, but it is still believed to grant wishes to those who visit it. The tree (and many around it) are covered in tons and tons of khadags (silk scarves), and there are a wide variety of offerings placed around the tree (including bricks of tea, matches and incense, cakes, cartons of milk, and bottles of vodka). There were tons of Mongolians there, and I felt very awkward not knowing what to do. So I followed my host family around while they walked in circles and threw rice and spoonfuls of milk all over the place (which turned out to be what they had forgotten at the house and had to come back for). Unfortunately I didn’t get any good photos because I wasn’t sure if it would be disrespectful to be snapping pictures while people were bowing and praying to the sacred tree, but I later found this post by another blogger who did manage to get some nice pictures if you want to check it out.

Then we got back in the car and headed into Sukhbaatar, where we stopped at a shop to get some special bread that’s apparently only available there. We then drove out of the city and even further north up to the Mongolian-Russian border, to a place called Saikhani Khutul.

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It’s basically a park up on a mountain overlooking the border into Siberia.

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The river down there is

The river down there is Selenge Gol, one of the longest rivers in Mongolia, which eventually flows into a lake in Russia.

We ate lunch at one of the pavilions then went around to the many animal statues at the park.

Boloroo, Suuna, and Ochralaa

Boloroo, Suuna, and Ochralaa on a horse

Ochralaa and me

Ochralaa and me on a leopard

Boloroo, Bakana, Suuna, and Ochralaa (hiding behind the reindeer's leg)

Boloroo, Bakana, Suuna, and Ochralaa (hiding behind the reindeer’s leg)

My host siblings and I even ventured over to an eagle statue that required some treacherous climbing to get to:

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Then we went over to the main viewing area for more photo ops:

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As we headed back to the car, we stopped by one more statue, which I think is supposed to symbolize the friendship between Mongolia and Russia:

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On the way back to Darkhan, we stopped at the Orkhon Gol, the longest river in Mongolia, for another picnic and some card games.

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Some horses even stopped by

Some horses even stopped by

We finally had to head back home so I could finish packing, but it was really amazing to get to spend so much quality time with my amazing host family and to see some great sites!