Of Rosaries and Intramuros – Manila (Part 1)

You can often tell a lot about a country by the first thing you notice once you step out of the air side of an airport and into the nearest taxi, train, bus, or transit vehicle. For me, I instantly noticed something that would set the tone for the rest of my trip last weekend in Manila: a rosary hanging on the rearview mirror inside the vehicle I took from the airport to my hotel.

After meeting my friend and tour guide at the airport, we were quickly on our way to check in at my hotel to change and head off to Intramuros, the historical walled city within the metropolis that is urban Manila. As soon as we stepped into this car, I realized that we were in Asia, but the Philippines were going to be a completely different experience. The rosary would be a mere precursor for how much Catholicism and the Spanish influenced this island nation during its growth and colonial period.

Aside from the rosary, the radio stations were broadcast in English, but with a heavy American accent. It was very nice and actually made me feel like I was back at home for the hour or so ride to the hotel. Given that the Philippines were American territory from the conclusion of the Spanish-American War until 1946, I expected to see a lot of American influence on the islands, especially by means of the English language, but there were more subtle influences waiting around every corner. Streets named Taft (after President Taft, who was once Governor-General of the Philippines), fast food chains, clothing brands, snacks and candies in the convenience store, and even television channels (imagine having Lifetime, Fox News, and HBO in your room) all added American flavor to a city with hundreds of years of Spanish colonial rule.

Light Morning Traffic in Manila

Our first stop of the day was the famed Intramuros section of Manila. Everything online about this historical neighborhood in the city said it was a sight to behold and the most important thing to see in the city. After stopping by the neighborhood for a few hours, I conclude that all reviews and assessments were completely accurate.

As I have continued to travel in Asia, I’ve noticed that my interests and the things for which I look on my trips continues to evolve and change. Ever since I visited Macau in November 2013, my eyes in all new destinations have turned towards architecture. For architectural features and uniqueness alone, Intramuros is worth your visit. The sites therein hold so much history and the moss-covered walls surrounding these sites surely have countless stories to tell of Spanish and American rule and of bombing and warfare to retake Manila from the Imperial Japanese in World War II.

In the plaza portion of Intramuros, many military relics remain as a reminder of the history and military roots within this walled city. Here is an anchor and cannon which are predominately displayed.

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As I turned to the right before we passed through the famed Santa Lucia Gate, I marveled at the pure beauty of the palm trees and plants surrounding two ornate fountains. These images and gardens are unlike anything else I had seen in Asia, except for Macau, which was Portuguese-controlled for several centuries. The Spanish style and influence certainly made Intramuros very special for me from a cultural trace and architectural perspective.

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Behind this fountain, the Catholic influence and tout in Manila reared its head again in the most interesting of ways with this statue on the law of Intramuros.

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As the sweat continued to roll down my face and soak through my shirt, we pressed onward to Santa Lucia Gate and Fort Santiago. As we passed horse-drawn carriages in the street, I took a second to rest and chat with General MacArthur’s statue in the shade before pressing onward.

In the distance, you can see the spectacular Santa Lucai Gate. As soon as I lain eyes on this gate, my mind tried to imagine what types of people and objects had based through it over the past few centuries. From iconic images like American tanks during the Battle of Manila to regular merchants, what kind of stories could these walls share? The walls and gate show their character and age as they are in the process of erosion and destruction, certainly sped up by Japanese assault on the city in the 1940s.  Take a look at the ornate gate and craftsmanship within the stone structure.

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They say, “dead men tell no tales,” but for some reason, I think these disheveled walls have many stories to tell.

After passing through the two-tiered walls into Fort Santiago, more history was upon us in this part of historic Manila. As you can see below, gravestones and monuments overlooked a more desolate part of the sprawling and polluted city. DSC07413 DSC07418 DSC07420

Inside Intramuros near Fort Santiago helps anyone gain a perspective on Manila’s rich history and also helps the traveler realize how war torn the city has been in the past, as well. Inside of this part of the city the sites and sounds are great, but even more elegance, beauty, and history  awaits in other parts of Intramuros, namely in the Catholic churches and sites which are extremely prevalent in this part of the city.

To make it to the Catholic sites, one can take a cab or walk the streets. We decided to walk and had the chance to see many historic and Western-style buildings like nowhere else I have seen in Asia outside of Macau and perhaps Malaysia.

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Bright colors, ornate woodwork, black fencing, and stuccoed exteriors are all indicative of something you would see in Spain or other European settlements in Asia. I even felt like I was in New Orleans as I walked through some of the narrow alleyways atop cobblestone streets.

Architecturally and culturally speaking, Manila is a place like nowhere else I have visited to date. American and Spanish influence looms large in many ways of life, but inside Intramuros, Spanish architecture is King (Philip). After speaking with some locals and seeing photos, I only wish I could have seen Manila before the Battle of Manila in 1945. The colonial buildings would be a world treasure if they still existed and were not bombed out during the war.

I will devote my next post almost entirely to some of the cathedrals I saw in metro Manila last Friday.

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Tantalizing Taipei (Day 1)

I have just returned to Japan from a grueling, three-day tour of Taipei with my good friends from college, and there is only one word that can describe the experience as I think about it in retrospect: tantalizing. Eating the delicious street food in Taipei’s famous night markets, traveling through the city with my friends on motorcycles, and making new friends are the experiences that make this trip unforgettable in every sense of the word. Taiwan will always have a special place in my travel heart. My parents always talked about “doing what the locals do” on vacations to the American South, and I was finally able to experience “doing what the locals do” and “eating what the locals eat” while in Asia and I will not forget it anytime soon.

Following months of discussion with my Taiwanese friends about when I would make the short journey from Osaka, Japan, to Taipei to see their country, I was off on a Saturday morning flight to begin a nonstop weekend of sightseeing and indulging in local style. Things started off rather uneventfully in Japan as I took in a remarkable sunrise at the airport.

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Sunrise at Kansai International Airport Terminal 2. (c) Erik Jacobs, erikabroad.com

Following the short flight and about an hour long bus ride from Taoyuan International Airport to the Far Eastern Hotel, the trip was set to begin and I could not have been any happier. Meeting my friend, David, from college in Taiwan was something that I had always planned to do but never knew exactly if or when it would happen. To make a long story short, I joined the International Students Association at my university following my return from Japan in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011. My friend and I joined because we wanted to return the favor that Tokyo residents had given us during our time there. Showing them around America and helping them come to love the United States seemed like second nature to us. I made some great friends in this organization, and it is always a real pleasure when they host me and how me the ropes of their homeland much like we showed them America.

After a few minutes of waiting outside the hotel in the sweltering Taiwanese heat, David showed up on his motorbike and we were off to his university to drop off my bags and head to our first stop of the day, a pool party in the heart of Taiwan!  Along the way, I was quite nervous because it was my first time riding on a motorbike. Aside from worrying about falling off of the bike as we weaved in and out of traffic, I had to contend with my concerns that other bikes would hit us. Add my insatiable desire to take photos into the mix, and it was a stressful and enjoyable ride to the university.

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Riding through Taipei.
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First time on a motorbike, Top Gun style.

 

After we made it to the university, we met with one of David’s Taiwanese friends, Eric, and continued onward to the pool party. Along the way, we passed Freedom Plaza, which is a gargantuan monument and plaza in honor of Chiang Kai-shek, the founder of Taiwan. It was cool to drive by here given how many lectures and discussions we had in my AP American History course with Mr. McKenrick about the Red Chinese and Nationalist Chinese, but more to come on this landmark in my post about my second day in Taipei. Here is how the main gate looked from the road.

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Our marathon day then continued as we traversed some shopping areas in Taiwan, as my gracious hosts wanted to make sure I had some famous Taiwanese bubble tea and chicken cutlets the size of your face. I didn’t believe them, but I sure did when they arrived a few minutes after our order was placed.

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After some more bites to eat and a stop at Starbucks so I could use the wi-fi, we checked into my hotel and were off to more famous Taipei attractions, on motorcycles, of course.

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First up on the list of things to do on Saturday night was a stop at the world-famous Shinlin Night Market, located in northern Taipei. I first heard about this location on the Travel Channel and was tying to see if it would live up to the muster. Fortunately, the bustling corridors of tourists and locals, vendors and peddlers lived up to all of my expectations. I told my friends that I wanted to try “all of the foods the Taiwanese eat at these places,” and we sure did. First up on the list was a food I saw on one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows, the oyster omelette. I love oysters and eggs, so what’s not to like about this option? It was delicious and hit the spot! The coolest part about this market is that there is also an underground section!

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Market

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Next up were two more famous Taiwanese dishes, stinky tofu and fried crabs. I also head about both of these on the Travel Channel and I can confirm their deliciousness. I am always skeptical about eating new foods, but for some reason I was a little more willing than usual on this trip. The tofu tasted delicious for something that smelled as putrid as it did and the crabs were just as I had hoped: crunchy, salty, and delicious.

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After these foods, we passed by some delicious fruits and tried some more great street food, papaya milkshakes! They were tantalizing. On the way out of the crowded market, the sounds of Chinese merchants, Japanese tourists, and the pattering of feet created a harmonious sound that somehow brought calm and order to the chaos. Shinlin Night Market was one for the ages as far as I am concerned. The only downside to it all was the cockroaches infesting the parking garage. No more commentary on that!

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Those of you that read this website that I fixate on a few things when I travel. First and foremost, I try to capture the energy and excitement of the moment in which I am by taking candid photography. After that, there is nothing more interesting than architectural photography. In Asia, the unique blend of Western influences (Macau, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia) and Eastern style make for some exciting photographic canvasses. The modern cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore also offer spectacular nighttime skylines and viewing opportunities. Few things compare to shooting Shanghai from across the Bund or Hong Kong from Victoria Harbor. Taiwan also offers a spectacular night view, but the trek to get there made it all the more worthwhile.

Once we were done at the night market, David, Eric, and I hopped on our motorcycles and headed to a more secluded, “locals-only” location to view Taipei 101 and Taipei’s Ferris wheel all at once. My friends said this site was relatively unknown until more recently, and for good reason. We turned up an unpaved roadway and ascended a large hill for nearly ten minutes over bumps, potholes, and ruts to make it to our final destination. With little surprise, we were greeted by dirt on our clothes from the kicked up dust, and a lot of Taiwanese locals posing for photos with and taking photos of the city skyline. It was remarkable. Unlike other cities i have seen in Asia, Taipei is dominated by Taipei 101. There are few other buildings in the city which stand out or even rival its height. Other cities I have seen usually have a “high-rise district,” much like Shinjuku in Tokyo, but that is not the case in Taipei. As we stood there, I thought about where I was and with whom I was.  Looking out over a vivid green Ferris wheel, the world’s second tallest building with one of my good friends in college was a beautiful sight. After a while at this spot, we headed out for some more late night food before splitting our ways, only to rendezvous the following morning for my Taipei exploration.

Night View

My first day in Taipei was fantastic, but I had no idea how much better things would get as the weekend progressed!

Rendezvous Week – Old Friends in New Places

I have enjoyed the bulk of my time liven gin Japan and Asia since I arrived in Kobe this August. I’ve made some new friends, experienced some great things, and gone to tons of new places. Most of this journey has been fun, but this week has been the most enjoyable week yet.  This week has been “rendezvous week” for me, as I have met two friends from Philadelphia in Kobe throughout the course of the week. 

The three of us have had delicious meals sampled amazing Japanese food, and enjoyed our fair share of conversations and hot sake. I am very glad we were able to rekindle our friendship a half a world away from where it started. 

Today marked another kind of rendezvous which I enjoyed very much. Two summers ago, I attended a language school in Calfironia which was one of the most demanding and rewarding experiences of my educational life. For eight weeks, I used zero English. Throughout those trials and tribulations, amazing, new, friendships were made as we all struggled to make it through the grueling coursework and language study. Ever since that school and my study abroad experience in 2011, I have been amazed by how “small” the Japanese-speaking foreigner community is in terms of running into each other all around the country and the world. It seems like I always have a friend from language school either visiting Japan or coming here to study abroad. 

Today, I met up with one of my best friends from language school in Osaka. He is in Japan for the week visiting some friends and doing sightseeing and we were fortunate to have free time to meet in Osaka this afternoon. It was so great to see him and speak about where our lives are going, rekindle lost memories from language school and chat about the past. As I said, “it was a long way from Lancaster,” the place where we last met while he was still in school. 

We enjoyed some delicious ramen in the heart of Osaka and also had a photograph taken in front of the famous Glico advertisement in one of the busiest parts of the city. It was great to explore the city I know rather well with an old friend from so far away. 

I’ve said it a million times, but I will say it once again: going to language school was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done on so many levels. I am sure we will meet in Japan again this summer when he returns. There is nothing like having old memories come to life when you speak about such formative and transformative experiences like language school. 

The lesson of the story here is that you never know when you will run into people whom you’ve met over the years and your certainly don’t know when you will rekindle old friendships and relationships. Always keep an open schedule and be flexible. These moments are often fleeting, but I am enjoying this week. 

 

Off to Southeast Asia on Saturday, but I have one more rendezvous in store tomorrow!

More posts to come as time allows!

Sights and Sounds from Elementary School Sports Day

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in my Japanese junior high school’s sports day, or in Japanese, 体育会 (taiikukai). It was an unforgettable experience where I took part in the teachers relay against the ninth grade students, joined the teachers for a game of tug of war, and even participated in the traditional Japanese game called kibasen (騎馬戦) where four three people hoist another person above them and engage in mock horse battles. The sights and sounds from this day were remarkable, but my elementary school sports day was even more remarkable. 

On Satuday, I arrived at my school around 9:00AM for the start of my elementary school’s undokai (運動会)and quickly realized how it would be a much different affair than the junior high school sports day in several ways. First and foremost, the size of the crowd was much larger and the sports yard was much smaller than at the junior high school. The subsequent effect was a feeling of more energy and excitement packed into the school yard for all of the day’s festivities. The other main difference was that boys and girls participated in the same events and there was less of the segregation that was present in the junior high sports day. I observed this almost immediately when the elementary sports day started. 

Following an interesting and memorable march into the athletic field under different Western marching songs and the presentation of colors to the head principle at the school, the students took charge and the sports festival was underway. 

Each grade participated in different games and dances/activities that were highly scripted and extensively practiced for the last several weeks. For those of you that went to school in America, you know how lackadaisical people were about field day (if your school even had one), so I was so impressed by the intricacies of the dances and the techniques therein. The second graders did dances and all had different colored gloves. The third graders did a special set of paired dances with hoola-hoops. Fourth graders did synchronized dances with jump ropes and the fifth graders had an amazing synchronized dance to traditional Japanese music. The whole spectacle, much like the junior high school day, was very impressive. After watching both sports days, I wish we had a similar day in the United States. The kids took such great pride in their school, themselves, and their class. 

Sixth graders took part in kumitaiso (組体操), which consists of several calisthenic  exercises which eventually build up to human pyramids and human towers at the end of the event. It was impressive to watch sixth grade boys and girls form pyramids that were six or seven rows high! 

From there, several competitions amongst the students took place. Relay races, games played with throwing balls through hoops, and knocking over targets all were featured prominently. During this time of the day, I mingled with some of my junior high students who have siblings at the elementary school and also chatted with some of my coworkers. It was a great bonding and relationship building experience. 

The final event, and most memorable one for me, was a game in which the students rushed to pass a massive ball over their heads around the 200-meter track with the goal of seeing which team could rest it in place first at the end. Following several failed attempts (and one that almost led to one of the tents being flipped), the white team was able to put their ball into the final position and win the day’s last event. All of the kids were so excited; their screaming, yelling, and frantic jumping to make sure the ball never hit the ground was the highlight of elementary sports day for me. The below photo captures the excitement of the final game. 

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 Next on the horizon for both junior high and elementary school is the culture festival, happening towards the end of November. 

Please leave your comments below the article! 

The Itch to Learn Another Language

The one thing I feared most about traveling to Korea this weekend has begun to manifest itself in my thoughts this evening: I think I want to learn some Korean. While, on the surface, this may not seem like a bad thing, or even a worrisome point, it is very dangerous for me given all of the hard work I have put towards learning Japanese over the past two years. 

When I first came to Japan and started learning it two years ago, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to formal language study. I studied Spanish in high school, was good at it, but dif not find it challenging enough so I ceased studying it when I was in college. On study abroad, we were required to take a language class so I took Japanese with the intention of only studying it for one semester and calling it a day at my university because I had met the language requirement. Two years, a summer language school, and a return trip to Japan later, I think there is no doubt that I fell in love with studying Japanese and the nuances that accompany learning a new language so radical and different than Western languages, let alone English. The instant feeling of helplessness and being lost I experienced in Japan back in January, 2011, re-emerged as I stepped onto the bus which would take us from the plane to the airport in Busan, South Korea. 

There I sat on the bus in Korea, speaking Japanese with some new friends I made on the plane, staring at a sign with no idea how to read it. I even had less of an idea of what the sign meant aside from having what appeared to be a singing group pictured on it. From that moment on, I tried to absorb as much of the Korean I saw on the train as quickly as possible. The same goes for common words or phrases I heard inside of stores or in the open air markets which are sprinkled all throughout Busan and Seoul. What is this Hangul? How is it read? What does the ad mean? – Those were very common questions I asked my Korean friends. 

It was so frustrating for me to be silent when ordering something at the convenience store, but it was even more frustrating to not have the ability to read a sign. That is what frustrated me the most. 

And so the desire to learn a third language begun. 

Following lunch with my friend, I said a few words in Korean and even read some Romanized names on the train as we headed back to Seoul Station. She said my pronunciation was very good, which encouraged me to study some more Korean hen I returned to Japan. 

 

This poses two obvious problems for me.

Firstly, where will I get the time to dedicate myself towards another language, especially when I have devoted so much time and energy to Japanese. 

Secondly, I am very afraid that if I start learning another language, I will lose much of my Japanese ability and Japanese skills that I have developed over the last two years in very intensive studies. 

Many of My Korean and Japanese friends say that the grammar is similar between the two languages. They also say that some vocabulary is shared, too. I just worry about forcing out the Japanese I have learned in lieu of a rudimentary level of Korean studies. 

Have you studied a third language? If so,  how was your experience? 

 

The Glory of Kansaiben (関西弁)

Hello, everyone! I hope all is well with you, wherever you are and wherever you may be reading this! So far, my life in Japan has been marvelous in Kobe, even though it has had its ups and downs during my first five weeks abroad.

This weekend is NFL kickoff weekend, so I know I will be starving for some football action that will almost certainly not be on television in Japan. My favorite time of year in the United States is October; when the leaves begin to change colors and fall, when the nights are cool and crisp, and when the aroma of the fall season comes to you with every passing second. I love autumn. Unfortunately, it is still around 85 degrees on almost a daily basis in Kansai.

Today, I want to talk about something that has captivated me: Kansaiben, or 関西弁, in Japanese. For those of you who have never been to Japan or those of you who have never studied the Japanese language, Japanese has many different dialects and regional variations in the language, its structure, and some vocabulary. In Kansai (Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto area), some people use the Kansai dialect, which has some very fun components when comparing it to Tokyo Japanese (which is what I studied in school, bot in Tokyo and Philadelphia).

Kansai people are much more direct and often louder than those people I met in Tokyo, and their dialect certainly represents that. Different phrases for “how are you,” different ways of conjugating some verbs, and different inflection and volume levels in every day conversation and in my office really make learning this dialect so interesting. As a foreigner, it has many, many benefits.

Last week, one of my coworkers gave me a book (in Japanese) with useful Kansai dialect phrases and sayings, and my boss has started to teach me a phrase or two each day before I head home for the evening. Subsequently, I use Kansaiben as much as possible when I interact with Japanese anywhere in Kobe. From the bar to the market, to the coffee-shop and the street corner, these conversations have been priceless for me.

Japanese people who would not reguarly speak with me for a litany of reasons are more than surprised when I respond to their inquiry about whether I can speak Japanese in their dialect. I have made many new friends and contacts by taking some extra time to study the Kansai dialect.

If anyone is living in Kansai or going to visit, I recommend you take a few hours and learn some of the commonly used Kansai phrases and words. It will pay dividends!

The Kansai dialect is just another interesting component of Japanese language study that I never would have though I could have done just two years ago when I virtually knew no Japanese.

The concept of dialects is so foreign to me as an English speaker in the United States, so I have taken great joy in the Kansai Japanese dialect.

Until next time!