Happy New Year!

Trip Start Mar 15, 2004
Trip End Apr 16, 2005

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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Hello and Happy New Year! I hope you enjoyed the holiday and aren't suffering from too much frostbite! We get frequent reports about unbelievably cold temperatures and crazy snowstorms. We're still waiting for some snow to fall in Nagoya, but we're told not to hold our breathe. The temperature has only fallen below zero a couple of times - generally daytime highs are around 10. It's great! However, even despite the reasonably warm temperature, buildings are freezing thanks to non-existent insulation and central heating (individual rooms have heaters). It makes for very cool nights.

We've been having a great time doing a bit of sightseeing around Nagoya and Korea. Early in December we went to Inuyama to visit Jakkoin Temple. It's situated in the mountains next to Nagoya, and is remarkably not a tourist trap. Perhaps getting to the temple is the fun part - all around the hundreds of steps leading to the top are statues and other religious offerings, as well as impressive views to the infamous 'fall colours'. Although we didn't make it there for the peak fall-colour viewing period, we were still blown away by what we did see. All around us elderly people were busy snapping and posing for photos in between prayers and bell ringing. It was a great day. This was the first temple I've been to that doesn't have a gift shop perched awkwardly around the temple property. In fact, there were no staff whatsoever to take money from people. A few tasteful trinkets and religious items were available to buy, but shoppers are simply to leave their money in a box and carry on.

Christmas was a bit of a weird event here. After hours of begging Kyle to wake up, we were finally off and running opening gifts and eating Christmas chocolates. It was great fun, but maybe a bit lonely, since we are used to lots of activity on Christmas day. It was also the first time that we didn't have our parents and siblings around. A few tears later and we were laughing at Christmas Vacation (never get tired of that movie) and preparing for Korea. During the day we ventured to the grocery store/mall down the street. It was funny to see everyone carrying about with their lives, not realizing the significance of the day. We bought a Christmas chicken for Kyle and that was about it for the festivities. A big thanks to everyone for sending thoughtful cards and emails!

We left for Korea on December 26, me a big ball of anxiety, not knowing what to expect from my family who I hadn't seen in nearly 25 years. Did they want us there or are we a nuisance? Am I going to recognize them, or are they going to recognize me? How are we going to communicate! But, as soon as we arrived at the airport my aunt spotted me immediately and gave me a hug and took my hand to lead me to the car. It was great. The entire time we were there we were treated like royalty - from my cousin flying in from Seoul to show us around Busan and escort us back to Seoul and then back to Busan again, to my aunt cooking huge meals, to ... everything - they were unbelievably kind. If not for my cousin, communication would have been much more limited, but we managed just fine (except for a bizarre incident on the first night, when I swear I was told to put on my pajamas during dinner, but after changing into my plaid flannels realized that I was the only one who got that message ... still don't understand where the breakdown occurred, but I endured endless chuckles from around the table for the rest of dinner). It's surprising how much can be accomplished with smiles and body language.

Heated floors are standard equipment in Korean buildings. They are truly fantastic, but can turn homes into a bit of a hot box after a few hours. I'd been sick for about a month, and, unbeknownst to me, my aunt thought she'd sweat it out of me on our first night. They pumped me full of all kinds of drugs and powders and then set me up for sleep - on a heated futon on the heated floor with a heated blanket on top. I thought I was going to die. I was concerned that if I actually was able to fall asleep I'd lapse into a coma and never wake up. My aunt has some kind of uncanny sleep-hearing ability, so every time I threw the blanket off to try and escape the fire sandwich which was my bed she would roll over and re-tuck me in, mummy-style. It was unbearable, and there was no "cold side" to roll onto to escape the heat. At one point I tried sleeping directly on the floor, but the heat of my body seemed to create a super hot-spot when it came into direct contact with the floor. I was sweating and hyperventilating the entire night (meanwhile Kyle was enjoying his own room where he had opened the window to cool things down). The next morning I found out from my mom (who called about 500 times while we were there) that they were trying to sweat me to health.

Since the diary-approach may be a bit long winded, here are some Korea highlights. Once again, I posted a bunch of pictures which may be more interesting than me blabbering on.

For me it was really cool to meet my family, for what kind of felt like the first time. Since only my sister, brother-in-law, mom and dad live in Canada I've never really felt like I have a family network, but now that feeling is starting to change. I'm now more jealous than ever of all my friends who have their extended family around whenever they want - I'm sure you already know how lucky you are. Leaving Korea was pretty hard for me because I have no idea when I will get to see them again, and how much we will have changed between now and the next visit - maybe it will feel like the first time again next time, but I hope not.

Compared with the atmosphere in Nagoya, where most people appear to be busy or want to be left alone, Korean's seem much louder and friendlier. The lifestyle seems to have less social pressures and people generally appear to be more relaxed and outgoing emotionally. While in Seoul, we stumbled on a large student protest (they want more government money for university), where people were singing and waving flags and laughing. They were surrounded on all sides by hundreds of fully adorned riot police who were also sitting in rows chatting and smoking and giving us the peace sign as we took millions of pictures of them. As another example, when we were waiting for our plane to take off from Seoul to Busan, not once but twice an announcement was made telling us that they were sorry for the delay but we were waiting for a few more passengers to make their way through security checks and so on. We ended up taking off about 10 minutes late - something that is unheard of in Japan. This is what is called 'Korean time', and it was great fun.

The architecture of traditional Korean buildings is really nice. Intricate wood work and painting, curvy rooftops, private locations, and amazing preservation make visiting them a real break from the hustle and bustle of the cities. From what we could see Koreans take their traditional buildings very seriously, and do not let modern temptations, like gift shops and parking lots infringe. Reenactments occur regularly, so people can take pictures with traditionally dressed people, try the costumes on themselves, and play traditional games.

On our first day around Busan we visited my aunt's (eek - fur) store in Gukje International Market. Market life is pretty standard in Korea - women can be seen all over setting up dining areas in the street complete with never-ending bags of every kind of gimche'ed food you can imagine, and food delivery people running around with trays of food on their heads, as well as food served from carts and booth upon booth of knock off name brand shoes, handbags, watches, movies, socks, scarves, and sweaters. It's great. And everything is so cheap! On our first night in Seoul we visited Dong Dae Mon market, which opens at 8pm and closes at 5am!

One day in Seoul we visited Noryangin Fish Market. Oh my - all kinds of fresh-from-the-boat aquatic creatures. A massive gathering of fishermen and fish vendors bartering and butchering. People running the stalls were generally really friendly and let us take pictures of their goods - like shark, squid, and countless unidentifiable stuff. More blood and guts than I've ever been exposed to before. Which leads me to ...

After such a long stint with Japanese food, Korean food was a culinary delight - like a flavour explosion! The way it's served also makes it easy for a vegetarian, with many different foods served up in their own dishes. My aunt is a fantastic cook and prepared some superb food every night we stayed with her. It must be said, though, that we did see (and Kyle experienced) several very questionable seafood items, and dog is on the menu at many local shops. All-in-all, I can say that any place that serves roasted chestnuts on every street is ok by me.

Although I firmly believe that Japan has the best transportation system in the world, Korea deserves a mention for the affordability of theirs. A three hour bullet train ride from Busan to Seoul cost about $40 (a similar ride on Japan's bullet train would have cost at least $200). The subway network is vast and ridiculously cheap ($1 max), and taxis are so cheap they can compete directly with the subway. In Japan we can count on one hand the number of taxi rides we've taken - it's so expensive we never consider it. Although traffic jams are excruciating and constant, people deal with it with minimal road rage.

While in Seoul we participated in a tour of the DMZ (civilians can only visit with a tour company). It wasn't exactly 'fun', but it was really interesting and very sad. To get into the general area we had to have our passports checked and wear badges. We visited the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel (built by North Korea, headed directly towards Seoul), Dora Observatory (where we could see North Korea under heavy military supervision), Dorason Train Station (the last stop before North Korea, when the line resumes), and Freedom Bridge (the closest point civilians can get to North Korea, a place where many Korean's go to leave messages for their lost family members). Although hopes run high that one day the North and South will work things out, this remains one of the most sensitive cold war areas in the world. There is huge anxiety about South Korea's future after the US leaves in 2007.

Because Korea is dotted with small mountains, the urban sprawl has evolved in a way I've never seen before - with huge apartment complexes sprouting up everywhere (there's just no room for everyone to live in houses). There must be laws regulating colour and design because the buildings all look very similar. From the sky cities look like lego boards - with groups of 20 or more identical apartment units chunked together in a block. I'm not sure how nice it would be to live in one, but to me it looked very organized and clean. We also were able to see Busan Port - supporting a huge congregation of shipping vessels of all shapes and sizes.

Well that's it for Korea. We do have some really exciting news. We've made the final decision to leave Japan in April this year. We're going to take some time to travel around a bit before we land back in Canada (so far it looks like India, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand), but we should be back in August. We're super excited to see you all again and catch up.

We have another guest from Canada coming in February (can't wait!) so we'll be doing a bit more wandering around Japan in the next few months ... expect to hear from me again!

Take care and bundle up!

Joanne and Kyle

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