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.

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The Automotive Boneyard in Yangon

Southeast Asian megacities are known around the world for their snarled streets, daring drivers, and smog-tinged skies. Saying Bangkok, Hanoi, or Saigon may invoke images of motorcycles and swerving taxi drivers, but one Southeast Asian city stands out from the rest for its interesting array of vehicles and how they drive: Rangoon (Yangon), Burma (Myanmar).

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One thing that makes Rangoon unique among Southeast Asian cities is the lack of motorcycles and motorbikes. They were banned from Rangoon several years ago when a motorcyclist struck a vehicle driven by a military official.

While Rangoon certainly does not have as much traffic, congestion, or pollution as the aforementioned cities, it makes up for it by being a literal boneyard for a hodgepodge of right and left-side drive second-hand imports from Japan and South Korea that all drive on the right side of the road! I first noticed this when my driver picked me up at the airport. He was seated on the right in a vehicle with a Japanese language navigation system, yet we were driving on the right side of the road! Below is a right-side drive Japanese bus in the heart of Rangoon.

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Car enthusiasts should check out the interesting traffic situation in Burma before it is too late and the all the clunkers on the road are replaced with new busses and cars with left-side steering wheels. There are even traffic cops who direct traffic at a few major intersections in the city.

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Following the end of British rule in 1948, Burma fell under authoritarian rule for nearly six decades. With limits of free speech, a police state, and a government-run economy under a military dictatorship, Burma’s economy suffered mightily. Today’s bustling shops and streets are in sharp contrast to what the country faced several decades ago. The lack of economic activity with the rest of the world left behind two very visible legacies: beautiful, yet crumbling, Victorian-style British colonial architecture and old, rusting, imported cars with right and left-side steering wheels all driving on the right side of the road.

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I was prepared to see old vehicles on the streets of Rangoon when I arrived last year, but I certainly did not expect to see the wide array of Japanese and Korean imports that I did. As a Japanese speaker, it was fascinating to encounter decades-old Japanese tour busses and refurbished kindergarten (幼稚園) busses on the streets taking Burmese from point A to point B in Rangoon. About seventy percent of the public transportation busses I saw on the streets were second-hand Japanese imports, which still bore the Japanese characters denoting their former purpose and destinations in many parts of Japan.

Tour busses served different purposes in Rangoon.

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Kindergarten busses transported passengers in Rangoon and Bago.DSC08320

Even old metro busses were refurbished and turned into Rangoon’s public bus system.

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To the untrained eye, this may seem interesting, but because the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, many of these busses were retrofitted with cargo airplane-style netting to seal off the Japanese doors. These doors were replaced with cutout doors to ensure passengers did not get off the bus into oncoming traffic. It was quite fascinating to see these old vehicles still going around Burma. Their bright colors, faded façdes, and dirty windows would tell many stories if they could talk .

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Another interesting aspect of the traffic in Burma was the presence of old Korean public transportation busses that served the same purpose as the Japanese busses on the streets. The only difference between the two is that the Korean busses have left-side steering wheels, making it easier for them to maneuver through the right-side drive Rangoon streets. Much like their Japanese counterparts, the Korean busses were very visible as Burmese script covered up or surrounded Hangul as if it was not even there.

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Without money to repaint or strip advertising off of these busses and cars, Rangoon’s streets offer the chance to see a virtual boneyard of Japanese and Korean public transportation vehicles on their last legs.

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Away from Rangoon’s city center and in other, more rural parts, like Bago, you can also encounter Soviet and Chinese-issued military vehicles that have been retrofitted and refurbished for both civilian and military purposes.

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While many tourists come to Burma to enjoy the famous Buddhist sites like Shwedagon Pagoda and other towns like Bago and Pagan, there is much to see in Rangoon. Aside from the fantastic British architecture, car enthusiasts should set aside some time to see the boneyard that exists on Burma’s streets and alleyways.

This “Good By” bus is a fitting end to this article.

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Tokyo’s Koishikawa Gardens – Blossoms in Full Bloom

Even though Tokyo is the world’s largest city, it is famous for immense green spaces and lush parks and gardens. Shinjuku Park, Ueno Park, and Yoyogi Park may be some of the most famous for viewing cherry blossoms, but my favorite spot in the city to see the cherry blossoms in Tokyo is a mere stone’s throw away from Tokyo Dome.

Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens (小石川後楽園) may be relatively small in size, but it packs a major punch both in two key aspects of the cherry blossoms: different types of landscapes for shooting and floral diversity. Inside these gardens not just cherry blossoms await. A wide array of other flowering bushes and plants line the pathways and trails to create a scene unlike any other green space in Tokyo.

After passing through the gates (there is a nominal entrance fee, so come prepared), one is quickly greeted by a weeping cherry in full bloom and a park sign. Unlike other parks and gardens in Tokyo last weekend, Koishikawa Gardens already had many trees in full bloom.

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Tokyo Dome is in the background of this shot so you can see how close these two places really are.

Famous for its ponds, I started off walking around one of the park’s smaller ponds and took some photos of trees quickly reaching full bloom.

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Juxtaposed against Tokyo’s modern skyline, traditional Japanese garden design and old footbridges create a nice contrast between perceived images of old and new Japan.

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As you can see below, people were not the only ones out taking in the cherry blossoms: a pair of turtles were also checking out the scenery.

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A few more paces and a few more ponds later, I encountered a different species of tree which boasted pink blossoms. Rock gardens and formations in the middle of this lake provided a nice change of scenery.

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Once I was finished walking around this pond, I turned to the right and walked directly under a path which was blanked in stunning white blossoms, all in full bloom. Their rich smell provided a nice accent to the incessant sound of camera shutters clicking and children playing with their siblings.

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On the other side of this walkway, more images of a stereotypical Japan waited.

On my left side was a perfectly straight walkway through another large pond.

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On the right side was a traditional orange footbridge behind a stone walkway which crossed through the same body of water. I feel as if both of these images are symbolic of Japan.

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After walking a bit further to the right and climbing some steep, rocky, stairs, Koishikawa Gardens’ most beautiful image became visible. Scrunched between a teeming footpath, a stagnant pond, and leaves in the foreground, a vibrantly blooming tree filled a magnificent scene. This was the image everyone at the park hoped to capture. In the midday sunlight, everything seemed perfect.

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Deeper into the garden, more kinds of trees were in full bloom, this time in pink.

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The final park of my stroll through Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens is what makes this garden my favorite place in all of Tokyo for blossom viewing: it is an ecologically diverse environment! While the cherry blossoms may be the most famous flowering plant in all of Japan, some marvelous other plants were in full bloom near the park’s exit.

Red and white bushes lined one walkway in the park.

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Another pathway even had a yellow flowering bush! Even though these flowers were not quite ready to bloom their color added even more to a beautiful scene inside the park.

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The final plant waiting at the garden’s exit was one of the most interesting plants of the day. Even though it boasted no flowers, this bush had some marvelous red leaves which were changing color for the season as well.

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While there are many more famous and more well known spots inside of Tokyo to see cherry blossoms and other flowering plants, Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens is my favorite. The diverse scenery and the diverse ecology make it a must-visit location whether you are checking out the flowers next year or the plants at any time of year. I will be sure to come back here during the fall to see how the park looks during the peak fall colors period.

Being a Conservative Traveler

Politics is an issue from which I have promised to steer clear on this website and an issue I will continue to avoid on this website, as it is my travel website. Those of you that know me in real life, on twitter, or via other channels know that politics is one of the most important facets of my life, alongside my family, my friends, travel, Japanese language, and a few other interests. During my life in Japan and my travels through Asia over the past five months, I have met some interesting people both on and off the travel circuit. My fellow travelers are often cordial. They are often nice. Many times, we share great experiences and memories on the road and at home. There is, however, one thing that I notice what is often different when I am on the road and meeting people, choosing what I will do, where I will go, etc. during my trips: politics. 

Do not worry. I am not going to discuss my views on Obamacare, gun rights, or any other political issue on this website because it is my travel website. However, today I am going to discuss what it is like to be a (politically) conservative traveler and how my experiences may differ from liberals who travel or even from other people I meet on the road who do not disclose their political affiliation. I have not seen any other articles on this topic, so I hope it is interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking. 

Let’s start. 

During the last two weeks in Southeast Asia, a common theme of discussion in hostel common rooms, at the bar, or just with other random people has often risen: travel motivation. This discussion has often led to contentious discussions and is one of the issues I would like to discuss in this post. Many of the young backpackers I met on the road often had similar answers to the question: “Why are you traveling?”

The common theme amongst many of these answers had to do with a dislike of their home country (usually the United States), hatred of their country’s own culture and customs, a desire to leave home and their family forever, and a desire to see cultures that are “better” than their own culture. These answers were quite different than some of the standard answers I expected to hear on the road: “to take some time away from my life at home,” “to experience and immerse myself in another culture,” etc.

The latter, while I consider them liberal, are totally reasonable and acceptable. After all, I have done road trips in the United States and I am living (for the second time) in a country and culture that is very different than the United States. I have immersed myself in the Japanese language and culture, but there are some things I will not do. For example, Wearing a kimono (traditional Japanese clothes) is one of the cultural elements I do not feel comfortable embracing as a Westerner and choose not to do when I have the opportunity to do so.

It was extremely hard for me to bite my tongue when I heard the former answers to this question, but I did so because my trip was not about engaging in political arguments. It was about travel, photography, eating local fare, and meeting people along the way. 

When I travel, I do not travel out of dislike of my home country’s culture, a desire to never return home, or see “better” cultures than Western culture. As a matter of fact, when I travel, my motivations are completely different. I tell everyone that I am proud to be an American and that I am proud of Western values and do not subscribe to cultural relativism. I travel to see the sights of the world, see locals interact and live in their own environment, to try local food, and then recount and share these experiences with my family, friends, and others whom have never been to these locations. Not once have I considered another culture to be “better” than mine, nor have I wished never to return home while on the road. I would not know what to do without my family and friends back at home. 

Critiquing and criticizing one’s own country while on the road has never been high on my to-do list as I have traveled, but I ran into some in Malaysia who were eager to discuss nothing but how awful the United States is. It all started with a  discussion about how superior the Malaysian medical system is to the American system because of how cheap some prescriptions are. The discussion devolved into how they were a superior nation because their monarchy could suppress dissenters and force legislation through their government even if members did not want it to happen. Others quipped about how more taxes needed to be paid, yet either did not pay their own taxes or did not have an answer when I asked if they enjoyed paying taxes. 

I think these viewpoints also help determine where we go on the road, as well. Some of my fellow travelers had a field day talking about economic inequality out on the road and used their experiences living and backpacking in squalor in some corners as a great way to criticize capitalism and the free market.

I don’t know about you, but when I travel, I usually do not go out on the streets looking for a political agenda or trying to find and explain “economic inequality.” I would much rather walk down the back alley, say hello the the local merchant, and buy as much food as I can at his stand to help his family and his business! I never thought anything of those people with less except marvel about how hard they were working to better themselves and their family.

I had a great time in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Macau, and Singapore because these cities offered great historical lessons on a subject in which I have great interest (European influence in Asia as well as 19th Century history as a whole). Some other travelers did not know how I went to these cities because they were “too developed to gain a perspective” or because they were “ruined by European influence.” If anything, the European influence in these cities makes for an even more interesting and fascinating journey. The aforementioned cities have such an interesting array of architecture, street names, food, etc. because of their time as European colonies. I certainly recommend trying some of the Macanese food in Taipa, Macau. You will be in for a real treat with the Cantonese take on Portuguese food!

It was too bad to find out that some people were so jaded by their economic and political beliefs that they would not go to some of the “Asian Tiger” economies or couldn’t fully enjoy destinations because of British influence.

Travel motivations seem to be one of the main differences between conservative and liberal-minded backpackers I have met while out on the road over the past five months. 

Most of the conservative travelers I have met on the road also had a strong connection with their families and their homes as opposed to the more liberal travelers I have met. Answers ranging from “never wanting to come home again” to “at least five months so I can forget about home, return to renew a visa, and then get back on the road” to “I don’t know; I’ll go home when I run out of money,” were prevalent when I spoke with many of the liberal backpackers out there. The conservatives I met always had a goal of returning home once their trip was over, either to be with their family, to plan their next trip, or to enjoy being back in a familiar place even if for a short period of time. 

I don’t know how some of the backpackers are out on the road for months at a time without contacting their loved ones or longing for one of their mother’s home-cooked meals. I always send postcards to my family and friends when I am on the road to help share the experience with them and explain what it is like in a far off land. Even though I have been away from home for more than five months, I cannot wait to have the next home-cooked meal when I get home, and I look forward to seeing all of my family and friends at all times. Maybe we are just wired differently. 

A fellow traveler I met from Scotland said it well last week in Hong Kong when he basically said that we were able to separate our cultures from others while out on the road and see what parts of other cultures were good and which other elements were bad. Instead of coming with a completely open mind without a sense of norms and values, we come with a perspective- a perspective that has guided us through our lives and will continue to guide us until we die. I don’t think I could have said it much better than he did.

It is always hard for me to relate with other travelers on the road when they do not have a respect for their own culture and their own nation and when they lack a basis with their family and their homeland. Certainly, this is a conservative perspective. 

All hope for friendship out on the road is not lost, though. I made some truly amazing friends in Singapore last week as we discussed our previous travels and our desires for future travels. I met with these people in different locations later on in my trip and we had a great time sharing new experiences and making new memories. I do not know their political orientation, nor do I care what it is. 

Even though I vehemently disagree with some of the motives behind these travelers I met during my trip, I will continue to provoke discussion and find out why people travel. It always ends with interesting and fascinating answers. You never know which traveler will be fascinating and which traveler will take you on an amazing trip through a city they know like the back of their hand. 

At the end of the day, perspective makes a big difference when it comes to traveling. As you know from my previous posts, I bring a unique perspective to each city I visit, the people I meet, and the foods I try. I hope you appreciate my perspective and I look forward to sharing posts about my destinations this week as time allows. 

Look at my tagline, it tells the whole story: “Travel is the only expense that makes you richer.”

Have you ever met a conservative on the road? What is your travel perspective? Please share and add your comments in the box below: