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March 29, 2007

Sayonnara Japan

Golden PavillionOSAKA, JAPAN - Kyoto is a must see for anybody travelling to Japan. It`s the cultural centre of all that is Japanese. I took heed and made sure to include it on my whirlwind tour of Japan and now I can safely offer my opinion - and my photos. 

It`s this way during most of my travels; the places I think will inspire me never do, and the places I don`t expect anything from end up blowing my mind. Kyoto will live in my memory as a classic example of this phenomenon. It`s sort of like fast food tourism.

I thought I was in a prime spot to feel inspired with Zen Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and all the mystique of the Samurai. Instead what I ended up doing was peeking around tourist buses and jockeying for position at the designated photo spots.

Don`t get me wrong, it`s beautiful and the history is astounding. It seemed that everybody (including myself) was there because the guide books said we needed to be. We all spent more time bumping into tourists, than soaking in the sights.

At each attraction it was the same; pay the admission, snap the photo and buy the knick-knack before rushing off to the next world heritage temple. Almost without exception, I felt cheated each time I lined up to pay admission. In the end I went my own way and surely missed some incredible temples. The truth is though, that I already only vaguely remember the ones I did see.

I`m in the giant port city of Osaka tonight and will be boarding a ferry bound for Shanghai, China tomorrow morning. The trip is meant to take 48 hours.

I`ve been amazed with what I`ve seen here in Japan. It will stand out in my mind for years to come.

March 27, 2007

Sleepless in Tokyo

View From the Park HyattKYOTO, JAPAN - A weekend in Tokyo is like a weekend trip to the future. Like some ultra cool sci-fi vacation. The fashions, the lights, the gadgets and the controlled chaos of it all blew me away. I`d known going in, that it was the biggest city in the entire world. What I didn`t imagine was how apparent it would seem.

After travelling North from Hiroshima I stopped in Nagoya to meet up with Caroline before zooming into the city, on the Shinkansen at 300km/hr, for a Saturday night out in Tokyo. I didn`t realize it then then but it was to be the start of my first ever full weekend without sleep. Tokyo truly is a city that doesn`t sleep - It does, however take an occasional nap at MacDonalds (see here, here and here).

The neon nights blend in seamlessly, almost imperceptibly with daylight hours. It seemed perfectly natural to party all night before stopping in at in Tsujiki to witness the dawn auctions in a fish market more bustling than most cities in the world. After the freshest possible sushi meal, it`s only natural to want to take advantage of the sunny spring weather and wander some of the cities parks, and shopping districts taking in the blossoming cherry trees and the chaotic daily life of Tokyo-ites. Of course a day of exploring the city it perfectly topped off with a drink or two on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt with the galaxy of lights shining below.

After our first all nighter, we were so completely blown away by it all that there was no choice but to keep going. At every hour of the day and night, there was something fantastic for us to be doing. With so little time, we were forced to catch our zzzzz`s for a couple hours each morning at our hostel and sometimes on the Metro as we missed our stops.

For the next several months, I`m sure I`ll be starting a lot of my stories with: "This one time in Tokyo..." I don`t know what I was expecting, but It`s a futuristic metropolis that has something for everyone. I will definitely travel back later in life.

I`m currently in the old Capitol of Kyoto for a dose of traditional Japanese culture. The extreme opposite of the lights chaos of Tokyo. There are 17 world heritage sites and more than 2000 temples and Shinto shrines to see. I suspect that the two days I`ve allowed myself won`t be nearly enough.

Also, I got a few emails asking about the earthquake. It was off the Northwest coast. We didn`t feel anything in Tokyo.


**If you measure cities by their actual municipal boundaries Tokyo isn`t the biggest. The municipal boundaries don`t mean much for me though, Tokyo feels like the biggest of all the places I`ve been.

March 23, 2007

Hiroshima

A-Dome BuildingHIROSHIMA, JAPAN - On August 6th, 1945 at 8:15am, the city of Hiroshima was waking up to what most expected would be another day of business as usual. It's citizens could not have imagined that less than a minute later the city would be 90% destroyed and in flames. 70,000 people would be dead, some of them completely vaporized; literally just a shadow on a doorstep. By december of that year the death toll would stand at 140,000. Up until that point the citizenry had been spared the Allied bombing that the rest of Japan had recently suffered. They couldn't know that this omission was intentional so as to ensure that the effects of the bomb could be accurately observed.

In the centre of the city of Hiroshima stands this building (pictured). It is the only ruin left it stood 160m away from the hypocentre and was 'spared' mostly because the bomb exploded almost directly above it. Aside from the Memorial Park nearby there is almost no physical evidence of the destruction that occurred here more than 50 years ago. It's a bustling, modern, Japanese city that is completely devoted to peace and the the destruction of all the worlds nuclear arms. The A-bomb museum here drives this concept home with sledgehammer force.

I've been in Japan now for a few days, I've spent most of my time wandering and exploring the cities of Fukuoka and Hiroshima, both modern marvels. Tonight I'll be getting on another bullet train to the city of Nagoya to meet up with Caroline before heading into Tokyo for what I hope to be an exciting Saturday night. Though the trains are fast, I'd better get going if I want to arrive in the city with enough time...

March 21, 2007

A New Direction

GIMHAE, SOUTH KOREA - I've been waiting all this time for a new passport so that I could go back to China; Beijing specifically, in order to get on the Trans-Siberian train to Moscow. Now that everything is in order and I'm once again free to travel wherever I like. I've set my eyes on a different destination.

The lure of Japan is proving too strong for me to resist. It started a few weeks ago when I watched, and supremely enjoyed the film, Lost In Translation. The other big pull is that it's only a three hour ferry ride from where I am now - I know, Japan is technically in the wrong direction, but I'll probably never be this close again.

So tomorrow morning I'll be shouldering my packs once again for a week (or two) exploring Japan. My plans beyond Japan involve me catching the two-day ferry from Osaka to Shanghai in China - Giant city I missed on my first trip North through China from Vietnam. A Russian tourist visa is meant to be easiest get in Shanghai than in Beijing. From Shanghai it's a short 12-hour train ride back to Beijing where I should be able to finally board the Trans-Siberian train; the one that will propel me across the rest of Asia to the doorstep of Europe.

These plans, of course, are fragile at best. For now I'll find comfort in the fact that I have a passport, I have a ferry ticket and I have a 7-day rail pass good for anywhere in Japan.

Near Tokyo, I plan to also meet up with Caroline, a travelling buddy from my Central American days, and one time guest writer on this very website is living in Nagoya.

I leave tomorrow morning. First stop the Southern city of Fukuoka on the island of Kyūshū. My mind is already filled with Bullet Trains, Sushi, Cellphones and Samarai.

I'll miss Korea. I was very lucky to have a brother here to stay with while I waited out the entire passport bit. I'm headed out in a few minutes for my last night out. I'll have to buy him a drink.

March 16, 2007

Happy St. Patricks Day

St. Patricks Day in PanamaGIMHAE, SOUTH KOREA - Over on this side of the planet, in the future, it's already St. Patricks day. For reasons that I can't even explain myself, I've been hording this ratty old green t-shirt (pictured) for a full year now. I'm pretty sure I bought this gem at a thrift store in Guatemala for less than $1USD.

Usually anything that isn't in my regular rotation gets the axe, often without hesitation. This strategy has allowed me to keep my backpack as a relative featherweight (12-13kgs). This shirt however, is a survivor. The last time I wore it out in public was 365 days ago in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. Even while I was tossing perfectly good jeans, sweaters and better shirts, it hung on.

Apparently the U.S. Military base in the next town over is catering an all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet at a nearby Irish Pub. It will of course be attended by mostly Canadian expat teachers. The funny thing is that this doesn't seem that strange in Korea.

5 Nationalities. I mentioned 5 in the last paragraph and I'm proud of it. A truly international St. Pats day awaits...

March 15, 2007

My New Passport

PassportGIMHAE, SOUTH KOREA - My new passport arrived at the door unexpectedly early. The shackles are off. I'm once again free to travel wherever I like (pending visas). I've emerged from my slumber and the last 48 hours have been a flurry of activity. Suddenly there's so much to do. I've now got China, Mongolia, Russia and even Japan on my radar. The next couple days will we be consumed with a balanced mix of daydreaming, logistics and green beer. I expect to have a firm plan and to be back on the road within the week.

I don't know who exactly to thank for this early and completely unexpected gift. It may have been, Brent St. Denis, the Federal MP of my home riding who was eager to try to help, it could have been the friendly staff at the Consulate here in Pusan, or maybe it was that receptionist I kept phoning at the embassy in Seoul. Whoever it was, thank-you, you've added to my karma debt.

March 13, 2007

Boredom

GIMHAE, SOUTH KOREA -

Your true traveller finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty - his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure.

-Aldous Huxley

March 09, 2007

Home Sweet Home - For The Time Being

GimhaeGIMHAE, SOUTH KOREA - Took an hour or so to hike up to this vantage point. Can you guess which one I'm living in?

March 02, 2007

A Day in the Life of a Teacher Clown

Put him in the oven!GIMHAE, SOUTH KOREA - I always knew a trip around the world would place me in situations I never would have dreamed up. It's all part of the game; the chance for new life experiences, both good and bad. Korea hasn't been a derailment of my goal so much as a hiccup along the road. I must say though, I never would have imagined my life would take this turn.

Not in my wildest dreams, would I have imagined that I'd be lying on a floor in Korea, while a small but aggressive gang of children try to force me into an imaginary oven after making me into a human pizza. (pictured)

It's all part of an elaborate game where I give up every shred of dignity and trade torture for 30,000 Won twice a week. It's not all bad The other 10 or so hours I spend teaching each week are far more civilized and actually quite enjoyable.

English is the holy grail of languages for Koreans. They'll fork out twice what they pay regular qualified local teachers to foreign strangers with no training whatsoever and I'm not one to complain.

On the ever-so-exciting passport front; I've now managed to round up all the necessary documentation and have actually applied for the passport. This is the latest from Passport Canada:

Passport Canada is experiencing a sharp volume increase in passport applications in all of its offices, by mail and through its receiving agents. Due to this increase in volume, it may take up to 45 business days [9 weeks] before you receive your new passport.

I've done my best to be proactive about it all. I've used all conventional means to have it expedited short of lying about a dying family member. I've even been in contact with my local federal MP back home. The waiting continues...