What I Learned Traveling Off the Grid

“Travel is the only expense that makes you richer,” but at what point do we miss out on the richness of travel because of our mobile devices, our cameras, and a desire to share the our travels with the outside world? Between trying to take the perfect shot of the exotic plate of food in front of you and the urge to get wifi to check in at a far-flung destination, we often miss out on the true essence of travel: being out of our element in foreign lands.

As an avid traveler and photographer, I will admit that I, too, had fallen victim to this cycle of travel. I was constantly looking for wifi to stay in touch with people or trying to get the perfect photo of the back alleys in Burma, the cafe in Vientiane, or the mosaics in Macau instead of living in the moment. The worst part of this is that I did not even realize what I was doing. It had become second nature to me after traveling in Asia for several years. Unless I was writing in my travel journal and thinking about my trip, I was more worried about getting the perfect photo than stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.

All of that changed when I shared e-mail correspondence with a friend of mine who had just gotten back from a fourteen day trip to South Africa where he did not use his phone and did not take a camera with him.

He urged me to try traveling without a camera because, with Google Earth and Google Images, you can find any photo that will remind you of where you have been while you also retain the memory of actually being there in the first place. This e-mail came on the heels of me reading an article  about how taking photos of things harms your memory of those things. I wanted to see if there was any merit to this method of travel.

With this in mind, I went to Taipei with the intention living in the moment during my visit with old friends. Other than using wifi for directions and snapping a few photos with my phone (on airplane mode), I was going off the grid. Almost as soon as I arrived in Taiwan, I knew this was going to be a special trip.

The stairs leading to the peak of Elephant Mountain (像山) in Taipei

I even left my headphones at home and I immediately noticed things about Taiwan that I had never seen before once I got on the bus to Taipei from the airport. Posted signage banning live birds from being brought onto the bus and some of the Japanese-language signage near a shipping facility were two of the highlights of this ride, but more insight was yet to come.

With my friends for the next few days I was able to notice simple things that I had not noticed in the past because of my preoccupation with my camera and my desire to share my travel experiences with others in my photos.

The sounds of hustlers in the streets hawking their goods and the sizzling of saucepans at the night market I experienced last week would have certainly gone unnoticed had I been trying to get the perfect ISO or white balance setting for a photo. With my electronics tucked away, all of my senses were heightened and I was able to capture my trip using all of my senses.

As I stood next to a putrid tofu stand in the light rain, everything about the city seemed to come alive- shopkeepers scrambled to clean up their stands while bikers raced to the nearest overhang. All the while, Chinese-language neon signage glistened in the street gutter as the rain subsided a few minutes later. This kind of experience is what I had been missing while staying connected on my trips.

I had these kind of experiences during the entirety of my stay in Taiwan. I visited beautiful cliffs in Keelung and, instead of trying to get the best photo, I spoke with my friends about them and we took time to hike cliffside trails and breathe in and think about the fresh Pacific Ocean air.

While climbing Elephant Mountain, I noticed etched stairs which denoted the mountain’s name and the distance to various points on the mountain. They had certainly been there prior to that day, but I never noticed because I was too worried about getting the perfect photo of Taipei 101 from the stairs.

These were certainly good experiences, but nothing prepared me for what I saw during my last night in Taipei at the city’s oldest jazz club/bar.

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Elephant Mountain’s staircase. 

 

Ever since my last visit to Taipei in 2015, my friends had wanted to take me to this jazz club called Blue Note. Luckily for us, our schedules aligned and we made a reservation for the bar on a Saturday night to catch an incredible four piece band that would end up playing for two hours or so.

About halfway through the evening, I took my eyes off of the band and realized that, while the saxophone and piano players were in a deep musical conversation, half of the bar was either in deep conversation with another person or a game application on their cell phones.

Instead of living in the moment and feeling the joy of the music, all they were doing was living inside of their cell phones.

Once I arrived at the airport on Sunday night, I found it incredibly easy to write an in-depth journal entry about each day of my trip through Taiwan. That would not have been possible had I had my camera with me for the duration of the trip or had I been searching for wifi at every moment.

It might seem like blasphemy to even suggest, but try traveling without your camera and your wifi the next time you travel. You might get a more wholesome experience. It helped me live in the moment instead of being captured inside my devices.

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A Night in Hairtail Alley

One of Seoul’s busiest and most popular tourist destinations is Namdaemun Market. The massive open-air marketplace is filled with street vendors selling the newest shirts for tourists, the newest knockoff electronic devices, and some very interesting street food. The market comes alive in the late afternoon and early evening as tourists and locals descend on the market.

After dark, however, the mood is quite different. Shops close for the night while restaurants keep cooking or prepare for the next day. One of the most interesting parts of Namdaemun market for me was Hairtail Alley, famous for various types of seafood.

I showed up after closing and encountered some interesting scenes. The first person who greeted me was a shopkeeper enjoying an evening cigarette as others passed by his shop. IMG_3220 copy

If you look down Hairtail Alley from one end, you can see that all of the storefronts share similar signs. IMG_3233 copy

A few blocks away, some more stores appeared. Upon closer inspection, these stores were actually second-floor restaurants, but they lacked exterior signage. Instead, they used the stairs to showcase their menu items. I had never seen anything like this.

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I encountered some other pretty cool things as I wrapped up my journey through Hairtail Alley and the surrounding streets in the late hours of the night. A woman had left some pink gloves in a pot alongside some green vegetables. The bright colors and their contrast with the dark floor made for a nice photo subject. IMG_3250 copy

The coolest spot of the night, however, was a family-run fish stand that was closing up shop for the night. A rusted out scale that had to be twenty years old and a dirty cutting board were all that remained outside after a long day’s work. IMG_3260 copyIMG_3265 copy

As the shopkeeper turned in for the night, so did I. Hairtail Alley and Namdaemun Market are certainly different places at night than they are during the busy day. I’m glad I took a short detour here during my trip to Seoul a few weeks ago.

Rainy Myeongdong Nights

Weathermen are the only people on the planet who can be wrong every single day of their life and still have people hanging on their every word. During my last night in Seoul, I learned that Korean weathermen are no different than American weatherman- their forecasts are meaningless. IMG_3788For my trip to the DMZ earlier in the day, the weather forecast called for an 80 percent chance of driving winds and rain. Luckily for my friend and I there was nothing more than drizzle and some low-lying, eerie, clouds. That evening promised to be clear and cool, but we would have no such luck this February night in Seoul. As we walked out of the hotel with our polka-dotted umbrellas, unexpected raindrops fell and peppered our shoulders. Mother Nature wanted to rain on our parade through Seoul, but we would not allow it.

Tonight’s sudden rain rain mixed with Myeongdong’s bustling streets and provided a window into how the city shifts gears from dry to wet in a matter of moments. There were also some great photographic opportunities.

Myeongdong’s side streets turned into glistening gates into the city’s heart. IMG_3798

Umbrellas filled the streets and shielded shoppers from the unexpected evening showers. IMG_3828 copyIMG_3847 copy

Hoards of shoppers, locals, and tourists alike flowed effortlessly through the narrow streets much like the way the ocean shifts around barriers as the tide comes in and out. Shopkeepers and stands became obstacles to the crowd, but they were not barriers. IMG_3947 copy

Passersby listened to shopkeepers peddling their products and continued into the bright Myeongdong night. IMG_3868 copy

Somehow even this woman maintained some sort of order in front of her store. IMG_3973

As the masses crammed into narrow alleys and pranced down the glistening Myeongdong streets through this rain shower, other characters of the night also emerged. A woman accosted foreign tourists into her massage parlor. A man tried to sell us selfie sticks for our cell phones, but a cool cat was also on the prowl. A local cat cafe mascot was wandering the streets, looking for customers. Much like his feline cousins, he wanted nothing to do with the rain. IMG_3903.JPG

And then it was over. As quickly as the rain started, it tapered off and stopped. Bustling life in Myeongdong returned to normal and the memories of glistening Myeongdong were gone as quickly as they started.

Every dog, and cat, as the adage goes, has his day. As the rain stopped, he could return to normal work. IMG_4020 copy

With each passing hour and new experience in Seoul, the city’s mystique and charm grows on me. As readers here know, I fell in love with Seoul many months ago, but its alluring ambiance is quickly making it as appealing as Tokyo for me. You never know what you will see or get on any given night in one of the busiest parts of one of the world’s most bustling metropolises.

Visiting the DMZ After a Missile Launch

The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea which hugs the 38th parallel is a place which former President Bill Clinton called the “most dangerous place on Earth.” Created as a part of armistice negotiations in 1953, the two-kilometer wide DMZ is a stern reminder that North and South Korea are still technically at war and that the United States paid a heavy price to protect South Korea during the “Forgotten War” from 1950 until 1953.

In spite of all of this, there is one place where tourists can visit the DMZ and enter North Korea by crossing the Military Demarcation Line between North and South Korea: the UN-controlled Panmunjom complex, set up inside of the Joint Security Area. Straddling the 38th Parallel, this is the only chance most people will ever get to see North Korea from the free world.

I joined a USO-sponsored tour to the JSA five days after North Korea conducted their most recent missile launch (February, 2016) and present you this photo essay about the experience. USO runs the best tours and I highly recommend booking with them several weeks in advance if you are looking for a day trip during your next stay in Seoul. You can click here for more information.

After meeting our tour group a few minutes before 7:00AM at USO HQ, Camp Kim, in downtown Seoul, we hopped on a bus began the 90 minute bus ride to Camp Bonifas, located just inside the South Korean side of the DMZ. We were quickly asked to sign some paperwork that said we were entering an active war zone and were putting our lives at risk by continuing on the tour. After handing in those papers, our tour continued on a long stretch of highway towards the DMZ.

As we approached the checkpoint to enter the United Nations-controlled segment of the border, or bus swerved back and forth to avoid several barricades as raindrops slid down the bus windows. Once the bus came to a stop at a border checkpoint, an American soldier, Private Kennedy, boarded the bus and checked all of our passports before we could proceed to Camp Bonifas and UN Central Command inside of the DMZ. He would be our tour guide for the rest of the trip.

IMG_3491After we arrived at Camp Bonifas inside of the DMZ, Private Kennedy ushered the tour group into an auditorium to deliver a briefing about what we were going to see on today’s tour. Aside from simple instructions about what to do and what not to do on the border (pointing, gesturing, taunting, and yelling were strictly prohibited), we were informed that  because of escalated tensions on the border we would be unable to visit Dorason Observatory, a location which provides one of the best views of North Korea from South Korea.

We boarded our bus and began one of the most interesting rides of my life, down a narrow road towards our next location: Panmunjom, the famous blue buildings which straddle the 38th parallel and are in both North and South Korea. We were prohibited from taking photos on this stretch of the tour, but the wildlife and scenery inside the DMZ were out of this world.

White cranes, massive buzzards, and other rare birds were numerous in the rice paddies and barren hills and parched landscape which set between North and South Korea. The restricted nature of the DMZ has, ironically, turned it into one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth. Along with the wildlife, barbed wire fences, mine fields, and military outposts sat on top of various hills as clouds and mist obscured the distant landscape. Rice paddies and rusting vehicles were also visible off in the distance.

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After a short briefing, Private Kennedy informed us that the Korean soldiers were real and we were not to touch them or get within six inches of them. He then let us know that anyone who stood to the soldier’s right was in South Korea and anyone who stood to the soldier’s left was in North Korea, just past the 38th parallel. The picture that follows was taken from the North Korean side and shows the 38th parallel in the middle. The sand is North Korea and the gravel is South Korea.

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Inside of the conference room, a soldier stands at the ready with his back to North Korea, preventing any tourists from either being abducted or choosing to defect to the Communist North.

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Outside, things were just as tense but in a more visible way. A North Korean soldier appeared several moments after our group re-emerged from the conference rooms. As we positioned our cameras, he played a game with us, ducking in front of and behind the pillars on the North Korean border facility. He kept a vigilant watch during this act.

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His appearance stood in stark contrast to the South Korean guards on our side of the border. The imposing concrete facade of the North Korean side provided a backdrop which perfectly illustrates the differences which keep Korea divided to this day. IMG_3548 copy

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Our tour then continued to some other spots inside of the JSA. We stopped by JSA tower to take in another stunning view of North Korea from a military observation point very near the location of the famous axe murders and the Bridge of No Return. As the weather began to clear, more of North Korea’s bare hills were visible, but we could not see the famous flagpole bearing a 600 pound North Korean flag. Because the North cleared out all trees to prevent defections several years ago, it is very easy to see where the border lies in the distance. The clouds were eerily representative of the mysterious nature of North Korea to the outside world.

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The Bridge of No Return was a location where POWs chose between the North and South following the armistice and where several prisoner exchanges have taken place since 1953. President Clinton visited the bridge and attempted to walk on it, resulting in its subsequent closure to tourist groups.

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North Korea beckons across the Bridge of No Return. IMG_3608IMG_3599 copy

The Bridge of no return is seen in the last part of the photo, with North Korea in the background. The foreground is part of a footpath to our outlook point. IMG_3588 copy

After a few more minutes on the bus and a stop at the JSA gift shop, our tour with Pvt. Kennedy was over and we were on our way out of the DMZ to stop at one of the famed infiltration tunnels leading from North to South Korea. I could not take any photos there because of the nature of that tour, but some Korean soldiers left their helmets on a table during our lunch break to close out the tour. IMG_3688 copy

As an American with an interest in the Korean War and military history, the DMZ was always one of my top travel goals when I moved to Japan several years ago. I am very happy I got to visit during a time with such high tension and recommend everyone visit before the DMZ is either closed to tourists or ceases to exist. This is truly the last vestige of the Cold War left on earth.

2015 Great Wall Marathon in Photos

As my friend and I climbed up the set of stairs leading to the Jinshaling stretch of the Great Wall of China, we encountered some interesting individuals both descending and ascending the steep and ragged stairs.

One would expect large groups of tourists, photographers, or even vendors on a warm (and clear) April afternoon, but these people were unique and special— they were runners.

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As a runner from Hong Kong told me, this was no average run. They were near the finish line for the 2015 Great Wall Marathon. You read that right- the Great Wall Marathon. I didn’t believe it at first, but there were hundreds of people running 26.2 miles on one of the world’s most famous landmarks. At this point we still had not seen the wall ourselves, but once we arrived the immensity of the challenge was soon very apparent.

The Jinshaling section of the wall is the most-photographed section of the Great Wall. As it serpentines the ridges and mountaintops, it creates a breathtaking scene. This scenery coupled with weathered barriers was interesting when juxtaposed against marathoners.

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Once we reached the Wall, we our exciting 4 hour walk alongside marathoners led to new friendships and some unforgettable scenery.

I have never run a marathon, but I can say with a great deal of certainty that it is one of the most challenging and physically demanding athletic pursuits out there even if it is on flat ground or a paved roadway. The Great Wall Marathon was neither on flat ground nor was it on a paved roadway. Runners were met with steep slopes, ragged staircases, and eroding pathways as they carried on towards the finish line.

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As my friend and I struggled down these staircases, we could only imagine the difficulty and cramping runners faced as they reached mile 20 running on this wall. There was a real possibility for serious injury but they all pressed onward towards the finish line.

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In the face of this daunting challenge, many runners were cheerful and could not wait say hello during the marathon. IMG_4414

Runners of all ages with walking sticks stopped to say hello or wave as they continued towards the finish. IMG_4416

Other runners wearing nothing more than a tank top and shorts pressed toward the finish. 

Crossing through the watch posts was another interesting part of navigating the Great Wall and finishing the marathon. There were often bottlenecks inside as groups of runners jockeyed for position to keep up their pace.

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Our fantastic guide, Jack, was all smiles as he explained the Wall’s history and its importance throughout the duration of our tour. Anyone interested in doing a tour of the wall should definitely stop by the Wild Great Wall Adventure Tours website and book with them (http://www.wildgreatwall.com). The experience was world class and Rick and his team did a great job making sure everything was arranged for us weeks in advance.

Once we passed through the first watch tower, a young couple was giggling at the bottom and eventually ended up talking with my friend and I. Since they were staff for the marathon, they joined us for part of the walk to make nice conversation and talk about some of the race’s details. While there were some communication gaps, they helped make the whole tour memorable. It’s another example of meeting interesting people along the way when you travel.

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As the day grew older, we split ways and continued towards the terminus of the tour but encountered even more runners as they braved the Great Wall. About midway through our tour, the Chinese flag provided a great opportunity to see runners hustling down one of the smoother portions of the Jinshaling Wall.

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Several hundred yards later, an ominous watch tower was a preview of some of the difficulties runners would face later on in the course.

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From this point onward, the climb became even more difficult. Steep inclines and declines made some joggers take pause but they kept going against all odds.

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As we continued towards our tour’s terminus, there were beautiful scenes around every corner. Looking back at the wall as the sun began to set, we thought about the runners and finally making it to one of the world’s most famous landmarks.

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The runners and the marathon were an interesting distraction during the day, but the moment for which we had waited all day finally arrived– sunset. Words cannot describe how beautiful this sight was.

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Kimono in Tokyo: A Photographic Account

This weekend I trekked to Tokyo to see the gorgeous cherry blossoms open throughout the city. The opening of the blossoms and the changing of the seasons are very symbolic in Japan.

During this time of year, there are many special ceremonies and cultural events. One of them is called ohanami (お花見), where friends, family, or groups of people will lie out a tarp and enjoy food and drinks under the blossoming cherry trees. While most people will wear normal clothes, some Japanese wear traditional clothing for this traditional event.

It was interesting to see traditional Japanese clothing and traditional Japanese events happen in one of the world’s most modern cities this weekend. Here is a photographic essay documenting what I saw this weekend at various parks and shrines across the city.

Saturday started off at the famous Asakusa Shrine where hoards of Japanese and tourists alike assembled to take in one of Japan’s most famous sites. While incense burned, two women walked through the crowd on their way to pray at the shrine. Their brightly colored kimono stood out from the rest of the crowd.

Asakusa

From here, I continued onward to another famous park in Tokyo, Kuritsu Sumida Park, directly across the river from Tokyo Sky Tree, Japan’s tallest building. Along the river, children played, families took a stroll in the warm morning and afternoon breeze, and many people enjoyed hanami. Amongst the mayhem there were many kimono and many beautiful cherry blossoms. Almost as soon as I arrived, this image of a woman and her daughter caught my eye. Their kimono were beautiful!

Kimono Best

As I continued down the walkway, more Kimono were visible. Friends and family alike were dressed up for this special occasion.

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Some younger girls in kimono were even interviewed for a television program.

Interview

From here, I went to a few more parks and gardens, namely Shinjuku Gardens and Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, but there were no kimono, just countless beautiful flowers. After these stops I stopped at Kita no Maru Park and encountered a few more women wearing kimono.

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The day was waining but spirits were high. One more stop remained on my itinerary.  The last stop of the day proved to have the day’s best imagery.

One of Japan’s most famous and most controversial sites is Yusukuni Shrine, which is the shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead. The shrine in the heart of the Chiyoda Ward offers some of Tokyo’s best cherry blossom viewing opportunities. After a long walk through a massive festival with live bands and street food, I arrived at the shrine to see some of the flowers. On the right, something special caught my eye.

Japanese men and women were dressed in traditional clothing performing a special dance inside the shrine grounds. I stood there and watched it for over 20 minutes. Here is what I saw.

Shrine Dance 1 Shrine Dance 2

Shrine Dance 3

Three women were dressed in beautiful kimono and performed synchronized dances while a traditional Japanese band strummed shamisen and beat taiko drums. It was an interesting sight to behold and I will be uploading a video at a later point.

Shrine 2

As the performance closed and daylight wained, I had one more chance encounter with a kimono. Through the sunset and the cherry trees, this woman’s kimono stuck out from the rest of the crowd.

Sunset

Inside Shinjuku’s Secret, Silent, Alleys

Shinjuku is the place where many Japanese dreams are born: bustling city streets, crowded train stations, and exciting nightclubs make this a destination neighborhood for Tokyo tourists with a wide array of interests. The crowded intersections and busy streets offer a portal into the world of what many Westerners think Tokyo is when they arrive in Japan for the first time. While the glitz and glam of glittering storefronts and bright lights has an allure all its own, inside this lively neighborhood is one of my favorite places in all of Tokyo, called Omoideyokochou (思いで横丁).

Venturing down “memory lane” or “memory alley” (as the Japanese translates directly to English), these quiet alleys reveal a different, more traditional look into Japan, mere paces from JR Shinjuku Station. The average tourist walks right by these alleys and misses out on a chance to experience a different Japan. This is a place where neon lights are replaced by glowing lanterns and where loudspeakers are replaced by shopkeepers enticing passersby to sit down for a beer and some yakitori at their shop.

When I lived in Tokyo four years ago, even I never heard of this place. I was turned onto it two years ago when I read an article (in Japanese) about the hidden spots and destinations inside Tokyo. It boasted of the “retro feel” of the “Showa-era streets”. Once I read about Omoideyokocho, I knew I had to check it out.

That was two years ago and now I always make this place my first stop when I get off the airplane or the Shinkansen in Tokyo. It always sets the tone for my weekend in the city. Join me for a journey into Shinjuku’s secret alleys.

After exiting JR Shinjuku Station (Yamanote Line) and walking down the main road for a bit, be sure to look for the bright green signs and the yellow script which say 思いで横丁. They are very easy to miss in the confusion that is Shinjuku, but you should be looking to your left.

If you are taking another train, be sure to cross under the Yamanote tracks. After that, you will make a hard left turn and the west entrance (西口) will be in front of you. In the springtime, look for the cherry blossoms hanging underneath the sign. In the fall, there will be autumnal leaves draped from the same area.

Omoide

As soon as you start your journey down these alleys, you will realize how different it is compared to the rest of Shinjuku. First and foremost, it is relatively quiet. Aside from the occasional conversation, rumblings of a passing train, or shopkeepers calling would-be passengers, the other sounds of Tokyo are nonexistent.

One of my favorite parts of Omoideyokocho is the lack of neon lights. They are replaced with glowing, traditional Japanese lanterns which spell out what each shop offers: yakitori, kushikatsu, izakaya-style fare, etc. On the typical evening, these streets will be filled with Japanese salarymen and Tokyo residents heading to their favorite watering hall after a hard day’s work. This photo perfectly captures the atmosphere in Omoideyokocho on a typical evening.

Walkway

Incandescent bulbs and lanterns illuminate the narrow alleys where you will definitely bump shoulders with Japanese of all stripes as you look for your preferred dining location. Men standing and waiting for their favorite hot bowl of ramen, the smell of grilling meat, Japanese oden, and the city streets will trigger your appetite, so be ready. Somehow full stomachs become empty as you pass down these streets.

I recommend walking through the alleys a few times to get a glimpse at all the restaurants and bars here so you know where you want to start your evening. Most likely, you will hit a few different izakaya on this street before moving on to the lively Shinjuku streets. It seems like each place offers the same food, but they are different! Trust me!

Once you choose your favorite izakaya, it is time to sit down and start chatting up the locals as you wait for your order. Don’t be intimidated if you cannot speak Japanese or read the menu.

Menu

Many of the Japanese people in these shops will help you order or offer their suggestions for what you should get. I speak Japanese so it isn’t a problem for me, but do not be afraid. Lots of times, Japanese patrons will try to speak with you and ask you what you think about Japan. Just step into the shop with a smile. Going to a place like this gives you a great opportunity to meet locals and maybe learn a Japanese phrase or two as you start your journey here.

On Friday night, I spoke with a man who studied for a semester at Penn State (Pennsylvania, USA) and another man who had been to the Grand Canyon two different times. You never know who you are going to meet. After the chatting and self-introductions finish, it is time to eat.

While you may be use to wide and spacious restaurants in your home country, do not expect that type of an environment on this street. Expect small places (often only room for ten to fifteen people) and expect to be seated shoulder-to-shoulder with other patrons, often bumping shoulders and exchanging pleasantries. The narrow counters offer an interesting atmosphere where the store owners make your food right in front of you.

Izakaya

Be sure to order a few different items on the menu so you have a continuous stream of food coming your way. Couple that with an Asahi beer and you are set for at least thirty minutes of excitement and fun inside of Shinjuku’s secret and silent alleys.

Once you are finished, you can go out into the madness that is the nearby Kabuki-cho, or you can head off to another secluded part of Tokyo like Golden Gai, where hundreds of bars await both locals and tourists alike.

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While most people come to Tokyo to experience the world’s largest city and some of the world’s finest gardens and parks, it would behoove you to stop by Omoideyokocho and enjoy a glimpse into a quieter, more traditional Tokyo.

The 66th Sapporo Snow Festival – A Photographic Essay

The first evening in Sapporo was very memorable as my friend and I had our first glimpse into Sapporo cuisine while also sampling some of the local specialty Sapporo beers and checking out the ice sculptures at the Susukino ice sculpture site very near our hotel. Our second day in Sapporo was a much longer affair filled with more sightseeing and encounters with spectacular snow sculptures at the main Odori Park staging grounds.

When it comes to booking hotels when I am on vacation, it is all about location, location, location. The capsule hotel for the Snow Festival did not disappoint. We were equidistant between both of these sites and within eyeshot of one of my favorite components of the snow festival: the freestyle snowboard and ski ramps. I certainly expected to see many elegant snow sculptures in Sapporo, but not ski jumpers showing off their aerial skills each morning, afternoon, and night. My friend and I trekked over to the ramp to watch a few rounds of jumps before moving onward. It was my first time watching snowboarding like this in person and it was very impressive.

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The snowboarders during the morning session got some serious air as American rock music and some sort of Russian electronic music played in the background. It was certainly an interesting sight to behold. After watching this for almost an hour, we headed off, through Odori Park to take in the most spectacular snow sculptures I have ever seen.

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First up for the morning was this stunning Star Wars sculpture. Even if the Sith theme song was not playing in the background, you could hear Darth Vader’s voice, the lasers firing out the Tie Fighters, and even the humming of a lighsaber as you walked past this masterpiece. The details on all of the figures were so intricate. Everything from grooves on the Death Star to the visors on the Storm Troopers was taken into account for this one. In all honesty, a photo does not give this sculpture justice.

Next up was a trip down memory lane from some of my prior Asian adventures. I certainly did not expect to see my favorite temple from Taipei or the Manila Cathedral in all their splendor, but I sure did. First up was the Taiwanese temple: DSC01595

Further down the street past an assortment of food stalls and smaller sculptures, the Manila Cathedral stood. I had heard through some posts on twitter that the cathedral was here, but I was not expecting to see a sculpture as large, detailed and beautiful as this one. I was taken back to my time in Manila back in October by this beauty. All that was missing were the fountains, the statue of King Phillip, and a few palm trees.

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There were even salmon waiting for us at this juncture in the trip.

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From there, we continued onward passing more, smaller, sculptures and the international submissions to the sculpture competition going on at the far end of Odori Park. We turned around and headed back towards the Television Tower to see if anything else was happening at the snowboarding area and to grab some lunch. A few very nice ice sculptures were waiting for us.

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As night began to fall, we quickly headed off for some more of Sapporo’s famous miso ramen and decided to go to a place where “Anthony Bordain had come to the here.” For some reason, we thought this would be the best establishment at Ramen Alley, but we were mistaken. I still took a photo of the sign, for good measure.

Bourdain

With our guts filled with some savory ramen and Sapporo beer, we walked back to Odori Park to see the sculptures in all of their nighttime splendor. All of this took place on beaten, worn, and treacherous snow-covered sidewalks. My friend and I slipped and fell countless times throughout the weekend. After a ten minute walk, we were back at the snow park and watched some great nighttime snowboarding. Believe it or not, children as young as nine and ten years old were jumping off this ramp!

Jump Ramp Snowboard 1

We continued down the street and words could not describe how cool the Star Wars display looked in the midst of its light show. With music blaring and lights flashing to a synchronized rhythm, this was one of the more memorable moments of the festival for me.

Star Wars I Star Wars II

After a few more near falls, slips, and a king crab leg on a stick, we encountered what was the most spectacular component of the whole festival: the projection mapping display on a temple facade. Watch as one of Japan’s most famous temples comes alive:

Temple

After seeing these magnificent light displays, we continued onward to see the Taiwanese temple yet again before checking out some of the submissions into the international snow sculpture design contest. While Malaysia isn’t exactly known for its show, they even had a team there! I took a photo of their sculpture following an interesting chat with the person in charge of the design and carving.

Even the USS Constitution was here! This was my favorite small-scale sculpture at the whole festival, for obvious reasons.

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Even Cup Noodles had a sculpture at this festival!

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As we continued tripping, slipping, and nearly falling back toward our hotel, we decided to change course and go to the Sapporo TV tower to get the best view of the whole festival– from the tower’s observation deck. On the way there, we saw some of our favorite ice sculptures from the day turned into true masterpieces at night. The royal couple, an eagle, and the Shinkansen were a few of many. The ice sculptures, much like the snow sculptures, looked much better at night than they did during the day.

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Our final view of the night was the most breathtaking of all.

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As someone living and working in Japan, I constantly heard suggestions about traveling to Sapporo to see the snow festival over the course of the past two years. While I will admit that it was not high on my list when I first arrived in Japan in July, 2013, I crust say that I am very happy that I cam dot see it this year. The sheer number of tourists in Sapporo help give the festival a unique vibe. Couple that with the never-ending array of delicious Japanese street food and the beautiful snow and ice artwork and all the ingredients for a memorable weekend were in place. Things would get even more interesting the next day as my friend and I headed to the famous Sapporo brewery and to a few other places around town.

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Snow in Manila? Check out this Manila Cathedral snow sculpture!

There were a lot of amazing snow sculptures at the 66th Annual Sapporo Snow Festival, but the most intricate and artistic of them all was the replica of the Manila Cathedral. How would you rate the resemblance? I was brought back to a much warmer place when I first saw this sculpture a few days ago. Everything from the cross to the stained glass windows to the figurines and Latin script on the front was dead on. I was very impressed. Here is a comparative photo.

Manila Cathedral

Star Wars Light Show at the Sapporo Snow Festival

This was my favorite snow sculpture at the 2015 Sapporo Snow Festival. Darth Vader and company stood over 30 feet high and were truly remarkable works of art. Each evening at regular intervals, they came alive with light and sound, making a very interesting and memorable light show. Enjoy!