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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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:

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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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Taipei in Photos (Day 2)

Following a jam-packed first day in Taipei and a long night’s sleep, I was ready to go for another grueling day eating the best street food and seeing the best sites Taiwan had to offer. It’s a good thing, too, because this day was even more grueling than the first day. First up on the schedule was a rendezvous with one of my friends from college, both in Japan and the United States. David and I were off to Taipei Station. Stepping into the main atrium at the station, I felt like I was back in Japan, with high ceilings and shops in every corner at the station.

Taipei Station

Once we arrived, we found Karina in a Taiwan-style restaurant and recounted and rehashed our stores from college and talked about what we have been doing since we last saw ourselves in Philadelphia nearly two years ago. I often echo this sentiment on many of my posts on here, but I am always grateful when I meet my friends from college at different locales in Asia. Many people lose touch with their friends from college, but I am very fortunate to have been able to keep in touch with so many people given how busy all of us are.

After downing some delicious fried pork, some noodles, and some other Taiwanese delicacies, we were off to our first stop of the day, Freedom Plaza.

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After a short trip on Taipei’s subway system, dubbed the MRT, we were greeted by the sweltering humidity that had built as the day progressed. A quick stroll and turn to the right led us through the gates in this photo and into Freedom Plaza. I was very impressed with the size of the plaza in the middle of a bustling metropolis like Taipei. Traditional buildings flanked the plaza, with its focus on the Taiwanese national flag situated in the middle of the plaza. We were on our way to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall at the other end of the plaza. As soon as I saw it, images of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., filled my mind. The similarities between the two memorials are striking: a hike up several levels of white stairs led into a large, high-ceilinged rom with one main focus: a gargantuan statue of a national leader. Once you first see the statue, it would be almost impossible not to think about the Lincoln Memorial. While the materials are different, the exuding feeling is similar. The statue of Chiang Kaishek dominates the massive room.

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Following some perusing in the museum area of the memorial, we returned to the statue area to watch the changing of the guard ceremony. That, too, was exciting and very interesting to watch.

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Once the ceremony was over, we returned to the MRT to go to a different part of the city with another food in mind: mango-flavored ice cream. Following a short ride on the MRT, we arrived at the ice cream parlor and sat down to have more conversation and discuss my thoughts on Taipei before Karina had to go to work for the rest of the afternoon. Although we had planned to speak about Taipei, I noticed something interesting about the people who sat down next to us: they were speaking Japanese!

Quickly I was in the midst of a conversation with these three Japanese tourists about life in Japan. This was a very interesting conversation and my friends did their best to communicate with them even though they did not understand our Japanese conversation. Little encounters and conversations like this make learning and speaking another language very enjoyable for me. No matter where I go, I usually run into Japanese tourists at famous landmarks in Asia. The Japanese tourists were on their way and we lingered for a while longer to reminisce. It was a great morning with Karina.

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The three of us took a bus to Taipei 101and split ways, with Karina going to work and David and I continuing on to hike up Elephant Mountain, the most famous viewing point for Taipei 101. We saw the night view yesterday, so naturally we were headed up in the afternoon for a daytime view of the world’s second-tallest building. On the way to the mountain, I noticed Taipei copied another famous Philadelphia landmark, the LOVE statue.

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The humidity continued to increase and by the time we made it to the base of Elephant Mountain, my shirt was completely soiled with sweat and so was David’s. The sweat was dripping off the faces of everyone descending Elephant Mountain following the climb, so it was obvious that we would suffer the same fate following the twenty minute hike to the outlook point at the top. Scenery at the start reminded me of Macau, which was also unexpected.

As the hike up the narrow stairs began, I could not wait to see the spectacular views of Taipei 101!

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David and I passed some children and elderly visitors making the hike and finally made it to the first landing, and, oh, was it a sight to behold! Taipei 101 cut through the sky and was spectacular. I posed for a photo with the world’s second-tallest building even though I was soaked with sweat.

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Ten minutes later, David and I made it to the top and climbed up some large boulders to take in the skyline and snap some photos. the cameramen already atop these boulders made for an interesting foreground.

Taipei Rocks

As the sun began to set, David and I moved in unison with it, descending Elephant Mountain’s steep stairs.

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Then, in the middle of our descent, I encountered one of the most beautiful views of a skyline I have ever seen: the setting sun illuminated the humidity and smog which engulfed Taipei on that Sunday afternoon. The resulting view was fantastic. I will never forget this scene as long as I live. Taipei101

David and I stopped at the base of Taipei 101 for some photos and then were off to see more of the city before it was too late in the night. This evening’s purple lights were fantastic.

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First up on the night’s agenda was another night view of Taipei from a different location. Following a long motorcycle ride, we found out that location was closed due to road construction, so we quickly changed plans and decided to go to Taipei’s second most famous night market and included a stop at one of the city’s most famous temples, too.

Much like the previous night, David and I indulged on many foods and drinks as we walked through the narrow stalls and dogged the rain drops that intermittently spritzed throughout the night. Milkshakes, hot meat sandwiches, finger food, and pork ribs were all on the menu tonight. I am always impressed with the intricate nature of the woodwork that always adorns the temples in Asia.

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Temple

After a few hours enjoying the food (and wi-fi) in the market, my time with David in Taipei was essentially over. It was amazing to get a tour of one of Asia’s most bustling cities from a local perspective while also rekindling a lost friendship. Seeing Taipei from atop a motorcycle, in its back alleys, and from its most famous lookout points helped me appreciate one of Asia’s most underrated destinations. While I fully admit my feelings for Taipei over the first two days are largely dependent on the willingness and eagerness of my friends to be fantastic hosts, I recommend Taipei to anyone whom is seeking adventure and i unique mix of Eastern and Western history.

Aside from a random traffic stop at 2:30 AM following a very late dinner, this trip was stress-free and amazing. To this point, Taipei is certainly my favorite destination in Asia, alongside Macau and Seoul. Only one more day remained in my Taiwanese adventure and the next post here will certainly provide insight into my third and final day in Taiwan.