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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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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Experience American History Abroad: Incheon, South Korea

As readers of this site know, I love to see Western history and architecture when I travel abroad. In Asia, the strong influence of the British and French Empires cannot be denied. Beautiful buildings in places like Burma, Malaysia, and Vietnam are prominent in many places. Lesser, yet visible vestiges of the Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish Empires also remain in various places across the region. However interesting, they lack the personal connection that accompanies American History around the globe for me.
Many Americans know of the breadth of American history in the Philippines. Famous quotes about the Philippines from Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt and their long status as an American commonwealth following the Spanish-American War make the Philippines a particuarly interesting place. it is fascinating to walk around Manila and hear American accents on the radio and on the streets, to see streets named after American icons like Taft, and then to watch the weekend’s NFL games at the local bar. American cultural influence still holds power in Manila.
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General MacArthur is revered here after he returned to the islands to liberate them from the Hhorrendous Japanese occupation. While the Philippines may be the most well known example this, General MacArthur is revered in a more unlikely and unkown place to the casual observer: Incheon, South Korea. There, a park boasts a large statue of the Genral and a park dedicated to freedom and a battle which eventually liberated the South Koreans from the Communist North.
Sadly the Kroean War is the United State’s “Forgotten War”, and Incheon is never truly recognized in textbooks for its importance in turning the tide of this war in 1950.
With American forces surrounded and relegated to the Busan Perimiter in Southeast Korea in September 1950, the tide of the war was in favor of the Communist North Koreans. On September 15, 1950, General MacArthur launched a daring amphibious assault on Incheon (in the northwestern-most corner of present-day South Korea) to turn the tide of the war and eventually retake Seoul.
The massive American-led contingency outumbered and crushed their North Korean opposition in mere days in the begenning of a long and arduous camapign to retake Seoul. Today in Incheon, these events are not forgotten.
The landing is commemorated at Jayu Park (Freedom Park) very near the beaches at Pohang where MacArthur’s forces first landed. A large statue of MacArthur wearing his signature hat overlooks a plaza lined with flowers while plaques adorn the area near the statue. These statues capture iconic MacArthur moments and also tell the general’s story in both English and Korean.
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When I arrived, many Koreans were eager to have their photo taken with General MacArthur and many more wanted to talk to my friend and I once they found out we were Americans. They thanked us for our country’s sacrifice in broken English and said that without us they would not have been there today. People of all ages shared this sentiment  at the base of General MacArthur’s statue. It was an inspiring interaction, to say the least.
From the reception I received there, I got the feeling that many Americans do not take the chance to get out of Seoul for a few hours and visit this beautiful part of American history on foreign soil.
Easily accessible from Seoul on South Korea’s comprehensive metro system, you can get to Jayu Park (and Incheon) in about an hour and spend a few hours there before returning to Seoul. I think it is important for American tourists to see this piece of history, even if it is a brief stop. Many of our soldiers died there and it is a good way to pay our respects.
Next time you are in Seoul, be sure to take a day trip to Incheon to see Jayu Park and the statue of General MacArthur. You will not regret it.

At Incheon Int’l Airport, Take a Stopover Tour!

Many travelers dread the thought of a layover or stopover on their impending trip. Nothing is worse than five or six hours in a place where you have visa-free entrance but don’t want to risk missing your connecting flight. If you have a long layover in Incheon, South Korea, fear not. Incheon International Airport offers fantastic– AND FREE– stopover tour options which I highly recommend for a layover as short as even three hours.

En route to China in April, my friend and I decided to take the two hour tour option and we had a great time. here is what you can expect on one of these tours.

As soon as we got off of our plane and neared the security checkpoint, a woman speaking perfect English asked us if we were planning on staying in Korea or if we had a transit. Once she heard the word “transit”, she pitched the Incheon Airport’s transit tour to us and we happily took the bait. Our tour would be leaving the airport at 1:00PM and returning around 3:00, so we had time to grab some lunch and meet the rest of the group at the front of the terminal.

As soon as we passed through security, it was obvious as to why Incheon Airport is constantly ranked as the best or one of the best airports in the world. Dazzling light displays, beautiful open terminal buildings, and FREE showers are just a few of the things you will see past security.

A girl plays in front of one of Incheon International Airport's interactive light displays.
A girl plays in front of one of Incheon International Airport’s interactive light displays.

We met our tour guide near one of the airport exits and headed off on our tour with a small group of Americans, Canadians, and Germans. If you have bags, fear not. The tour will store your bags in a secure location while you are in the city, free of charge.

After passing over the bridge connecting Incheon Airport to the rest of the city, we made our way to Heungryunsa Temple, located atop a hill in Incheon. We first noticed the great views of the city skyline and bridge from near where our bus stopped.

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The cherry blossoms near the temple entrance were also in full bloom.

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We walked up over 107 steps at this temple which featured some gold-clad Buddhas, nice elephants, and some small gardens. It was nice to get a feel for some of the local Korean Buddhist culture while only being here for such a short time.

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Next stop on the tour was the Memorial Hall for the Incheon Landing Operation. This place was a fantastic location to learn about the Korean War and the immensity of the Battle of Incheon, a daring tactical maneuver and amphibious landing spearheaded by General Douglas MacArthur. The surprise landing and attack was the beginning of the offensive which eventually pressed MacArthur’s troops far into North Korea.

The park features some great period artillery pieces, statues, monuments, and a nice display of flags from the countries which participated in the Korean War.

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After our brief stop here, we were back to the airport where we thought our tour would finish, but there was one last surprise in store for us.

After passing through immigration, we went towards our gate and passed by one of the Korean cultural exhibitions where staff help explain Korean culture and assist you in creating a piece of Korean artwork (again, for free) to take back with you as a way to remember Korea.

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The two young women working at the store spoke flawless English and we had some great conversations! For about an hour, we talked about travel, Korea, and shared interesting stories about life in Japan and being an expat in Asia. They helped make our experience in Incheon a memorable and unforgettable one. As a matter of fact, they will be my two of my tour guides in Seoul next month with my friends from the United States.

To make a long story short, make sure you go on one of Incheon International Airport’s free stopover tours next time you are in South Korea. Also make sure to stop by one of the cultural workshops before you depart. You never know who you will meet. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire you to go to Korea for longer than a few hours!

Sumida Park – Tokyo Sky Tree and Sakura

One of Japan’s most famous symbols around the world is the cherry blossom. Between the end of March and the beginning of April each year, many varieties of trees open up their blossoms and reach full bloom. These cherry blossom trees are popular all throughout Japan and Tokyo is no exception. With many famous gardens and parks boasting wide varieties of flowering plants, there is no better place to check out the yearly sakura blossoms.

Let’s take a walk together to see Sumida Park, a good site to see Tokyo’s cherry blossoms. Nestled up against the Sumida River, there are many scenic photographic opportunities.

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After waking up early on Saturday, I was off to Kuritsu Sumida Park in the heart of Tokyo, right across the river from the famed Sky Tree. At this park, some varieties of trees were in full bloom while others were just beginning to bloom. I was not alone as many tourists and Japanese alike came to the park to check out the blossoms on this warm late March morning.  Sky Tree and hoards of Japanese enjoying their annual hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties made for an interesting start to the day.

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Above the walkway, many lanterns hung from wires and the trees. These pink and yellow lanterns sponsored by Asahi Beer were an interesting site and similar to the lanterns I observed last year in Nakameguro during night time cherry blossom viewing.

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Other lamps also were on the site, this one from Asakusa Station. DSC02058

As I continued down the walkway, many people gathered around (and under) a tree which was nearing full bloom.

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Albeit cloudy, there were ample opportunities to frame Sky Tree with the season’s blossoms.

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After walking for a few more minutes, I reached the north side of the park where a weeping cherry tree was already in full bloom. Surrounded at its base by some yellow flowers, this tree stood out from the rest in the park.

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After backtracking to the train station, the next stop along the way was Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens (小石川後楽園), right across the street from Tokyo Dome. Many beautiful sites were waiting for me. As I write the article, it is still hard for me to believe how this garden exists in the middle of Tokyo right next to such a huge sports complex.

The weeping cherry trees were already in full bloom compared to the trees at Sumida Park.

Sumida Park is one of many good places to see Tokyo’s cherry trees come to full bloom each March/April. More info coming on other places I visited in Tokyo last weekend.

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.

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.