#15: Days that Try a Man’s Soul

Since I last wrote in my blog I had a lot of deep thought about what brought me to Taiwan. Yes, I’m here for the experience in and of itself and to work as an English teacher, but why am I really here? Simple, I’m here to travel and gain firsthand experience of a culture much different from my own. Such a simple missive can and was initially forgotten.

When I first arrived I spent a lot of time touring the city and then travelling throughout Japan. Then I got burnt out from constantly pushing myself to explore for 12-16 hours a day and lost sight of things. I settled into a seemingly cozy and secure job and got used to everyday life.

Days became weeks and weeks became months, and soon I found myself questioning why I came here and wondering whether I had made a terrible mistake. Thoughts of returning to Canada to continue my education or to work (under the jurisdiction of Canadian labour laws) flooded my mind and I spent several nights unable to sleep.

Without getting into too much detail (out of respect for some of the people it involves): I was in a bad situation, through little fault of my own, and needed to get out.

Every nerve in my body pushed me toward the exit sign.

In the daze of everything I reached out to some close friends and family and was given guidance. The biggest question of all became “Is it sustainable?”. A few questionable encounters followed by one final “boulder that broke the camel’s back” later, I had my answer.

Now days are much less stressful. Though I currently lack a certain measure of security, the feeling of liberation from a horrible situation is immense. I find renewed purpose in my presence here and have my eye keenly focused on why I’m really here.

Tomorrow I’m off to Hong Kong for five days for a visa run and to get some much needed R&R. The trip is mostly free thanks to AsiaMiles and credit, so I’ll be able to enjoy myself despite the city’s high costs.

Bon Voyage!

Be sure to check out my Instagram for more frequent posts and pictures.

Travel Blog #12: Lifting the Veil

I haven’t been able to bring myself to write in this blog for over a month. I keep wanting to, but ever present is the desire to keep my travel blog a tale of great adventures – one that reflects everything I had hoped this trip would be. When things no longer fit that fairy tale illusion it became difficult to bring myself to write.

People back home like to remind me that I can always return. This is a reality that I am very grateful for. I know how fortunate I am for having a home to go back to filled with loving family and friends.

That reminder stays in the back of my mind always, but the reality is I need to face these issues here, head on, before they follow me back home. There are lessons in these tough experiences that I need to learn; hard lessons I’ve avoided for years, always being far too used to having a safety net to rely on.

So, without further ado, here is what has been going on since I returned from Japan. No filtering the gory details or embellishing for matters of a fairy tale illusion.

Week 1 ~Sept. 9-16

I slept.

Japan took a lot out of me – financially, emotionally and physically.

For the most part, the trip was amazing. I truly did love seeing the sights and exploring nature.

What I didn’t love was the occasional foreigner price discrimination and complete lack of English/Chinese/Korean-friendliness. Hardly anything was in any language but Japanese. Even people working at the airport didn’t speak more than a few words of English. For parts of my trip I didn’t feel welcomed by the locals, which didn’t help the loneliness and depression that was creeping up on me at that point in time.

Japan was also more expensive than I had anticipated. A word of warning to those planning to travel there, consider bringing twice your budget. Thankfully by staying at cheap accommodation I ended up not too far in the red.

Week 2 ~Sept 17-24

After my week of sleep I met up with someone who would go on to become one of few friends I currently have in Asia. It was a great change of pace and really helped me break through my cyclical depression and emotional drainage.

Soon thereafter I decided it was time to actually get a job teaching English at a bushiban (Taiwanese cram school); you know, the thing I came overseas to do. One late night of many applications later I woke up to the sound of my phone ringing. Then ringing again and again. Followed by buzzing with emails throughout the day. Immediately I had interviews lined up and people asking me to demo. A few days later I signed the contract for my first teaching job and had some very fast paced training.

Week 3 ~Sept 25-Oct 2

The school I’m working at has a few weeks all year with work on Saturday. Naturally, my first week had one of them. So my life went from 0 to 100 real fast. If you noticed me completely drop off the social media planet, this is when it started. And I’ve basically been off-planet since.

I don’t exactly remember when it was, but I went to a language exchange that my Texan friend told me about.  Despite being privy to the terrible watered down frat house beer served at the foreigner hub of a bar, I did enjoy the night quite a lot. I basically sat down with a beer and was bombarded with conversations. There were other foreigners who’ve come here for the same reason as me and a plethora of local Taiwanese girls and guys who wanted to practice their English and make friends. Though I haven’t yet returned, I have made some friends from the experience.

October

One thing I never appreciated as a student: Teaching is hard.

It takes planning, organization, planning, scheduling, and more planning. And once you have your plan all hammered out, you have to deal with problems on the fly. Every day as I teach I am learning more and more. I am growing as an instructor and being tested against expectations from all sides. Some days go great and other days make me want to give up. But it’s a test of perseverance and the show must go on.

So here I am, writing these words, with several big successes and failures under my belt and a path in front of me with many hurdles. Each day gets easier but the road is a long one and I’ve only just begun.

Travel Blog #11: Hiking in Hakone/Making Memories

September 2: I arrived in Yugawara at about 1 p.m. The AirBnB’s host, Masato, picked me up from the train station and drove me up to the guest house. It was on this drive that I realize just how much hiking I would be doing in the coming days. A hint of dread washed over me; the route was along a very steep hill.

Upon arrival at the AirBnB Masato let me drop my things in my (then empty) room then showed me around. He showed me all the anemities including the rooftop terrace which boasted an incredible view. I soon found myself unable to keep my eyes open, so Masato brought in a small lounge chair of sorts that I could sleep on until the staff member returned to prepard my room.


I awoke fully rested, albeit slightly disoriented from the journey. A knock at the door soon after indicated the return of the aforementioned staff member, with whom I would become good friends during my stay.

For dinner I had my first home cooked meal in weeks. The three of us ate and spoke for about an hour before supper came to an end and I was informed that it was time for karaoke. Having never participated in karaoke (save for one near delirious rendition whilst in Beijing a number of years ago), I was terrified. An hour later I was loving it (a sentence I never thought I would say in reference to karaoke). This routine would continue for the following two nights.


September 3: I woke up bright and early and set out for the hot spring town of Hakone. Following the advice of my host and his staff, I purchased the two-day Hakone free pass for ¥4,000 (it may sound expensive, but trust me, it will save you a ton of money). The trip was longer than expected, mostly due to the slowest tram ever, so I arrived at around noon. 


A short bus ride from the station later I was walking along Old Tokaido Cedar Avenue (or at least something that looked just like it) – a forested area with a beautiful path through the trees. The path ended up leading me to the shore near Motohakone port, where many tourists were soaking up the sun.



Rather than join the multitude of tourists at a restaurant by the shore I chose to walk to Amazake Chaya tea house. After about 20 minutes of “hiking” along the road, I noticed on my map that I was adjacent to the route, not on it; I figured this explained the lack of other travellers despite the busy train ride over. I reoriented myself and soon joined up with the intended hiking path.

While much more sceneic, this route was almost entirely composed of large slippery cobblestones, occasionally covered in moss, that wound up and down hills.


Still, there was no one else so I wondered if I was indeed in the correct place… That is until I saw a sign pointing toward my destination and was passed by two old Japanese ladies who put my usually quick-paced walking to shame. Nearly an hour of hiking later I arrived at Amazake Chaya tea house. 

It was packed.


Turns out quite a few Japanese people (and a few foreigners) do know about this famous tea house and the route to it. However, due to the difficult path and the fact that it is hidden by woods, most choose to take the bus or drive right over.

Feeling rather accomplished, i strutted to the front of the line and claimed (bought) my reward. I ordered a perfectly reasonable and not unhealthy at all amount of freshly baked(?) mochi and amasake.

Oh, and of course I enjoyed some free tea… It was a tea house after all.


No longer famished nor willing to repeat the same journey as the way over, I took the bus to Motohakone port. Upon arrival I quickly boarded the pirate ship (yes you read that right). I initially tried to enter the first class lounge, not realizing you needed to pay extra, and was laughed at for my mistake by a wealthy family. Sulking, I walked up to the highest deck to begin my sightseeing tour of Lake Ashi.


The pirate ship let off at Togendai station, where I lined up for the ropeway. I’m told the ropeway was actually closed for a couple years due to the amount of volcanic ash. Had I known this beforehand, I probably would have been a bit nervous. Instead, the only negative thought on my mind was annoyance at the dirty windows, which made picture-taking and scenery-enjoying difficult.


Upon reaching the next pit stop, I pried myself away from the café boasting a scenic view (reminding myself of the perfectly healthy and not unreasonable at all amount of mochi I had eaten for lunch earlier). The cable car leaving from this area travelled the rest of the way up the mountain, passing the hot springs (not to be confused with their associated baths), and then finally descended to the tram station.

And of course, this was all followed by a home cooked meal and karaoke.

September 4: I woke up at 12 p.m. to an overcast sky and quickly ditched my plans for the day. Having already seen most of the major tourist spots in Hakone the previous day, I took the day to relax. I had some lunch with the AirBnB staff and then the three of us (myself and two staff) headed to the beach. When we arrived the tide had gone pretty high, so the “beach” was non-existent.
Instead, we walked around the area hoping to find another beach-y area, but to no avail. Before giving up, we watched a young Japanese guy fish for about 15 minutes (I imagine it was pretty creepy from his perspective). Then we headed to a field to show off our utter lack of volleyball skills to each other.


When the rain grew too heavy we began our long walk back to the AirBnB, stopping for ice cream along the way. We didn’t know this at the time, but apparently aside from having lots of cow decorations, this ice cream shop also has udders out front that you can milk for water. Anyway, the ice cream was fantastic; I had soda flavour because it was blue (I’m dead serious). Luckily, the steep hill back to the AirBnB wasn’t slippery when wet, so we got back with relatively little difficulty.


Another home cooked dinner and two hours of karaoke marked my final night at Masato’s spectacular AirBnB in Yugawara.

Travel Blog #10: Travelling Alone

The last few days have by far been the best of my trip.

A lot of people ask me how it is travelling alone. Is it fun? Lonely? Scary?

Yes to all.

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to find friends who will 1) want to travel to all the destinations on your list and 2) have all the same interests as you when it comes to those destinations. Travelling with people can be fun, but there’s often lots of compromise. This might be fine when you’re spending $200 on a trip to Montreal, but when it’s $2,000+ on a trip to the other side of the world, the compromises will add up fast.

With independence comes making your own decisions and having control over everything you do. That said, you also get lonely – even if, like me, you’re used to keeping in touch with friends every day through various social networking sites.

Guesthouses are a MUST. You need to make sure you’re staying in one that has common areas and is known for having lots of friendly people visit. English-friendliness always help too; sure, you’re visitng another country and want to immerse yourself, but when you just want to relax, it’s great to have that familiarity.

The guesthouse I stayed at in Osaka was secluded, dirty, and without a common room. It made me feel secluded and doubt my conviction, even causing me to be homesick(?) for Taipei.

On the other hand, the place I stayed in near Hakone (in a town called Yugawara) was spectacular. It had a very friendly host who treated me like family and made home cooked dinners (which I joined every night for ¥500), English-speaking staff (with whom I quickly became friends), the nearby availability of snacks and booze, and a gorgeous view. Here, I wished the trip would never end.

And finally yes, travelling alone can be absolutely terrifying at times. You can get lost and have to ask several locals for directions, you can get delayed for hours due to poor signage, you can be overcharged, scammed, and more. Even if you’re in a safe country like Japan, you need to be careful (i.e. no getting blackout drunk alone at a bar). In time you learn not to panic and how to work yourself out of different situations. Oh, and always buy a local SIM card with Internet (it can be a literal life saver).

Travel Blog #9: Storming the Castle

Following my day trip to Hiroshima I decided to take some time off for R&R. Contrary to what I had thought, Osaka wasn’t the best hub city. Since the AirBnB I picked for $21 a night didn’t have a great location, I was facing 40 minute trips to Osaka station every time I did a day trip. On evenings when I returned from a day trip, most of the city (save for arcades, bars, and hostess clubs) were closed by 8 p.m. In short, I was pretty ready to move on.

August 31: Once I regained my mental and emotional strength, I set out for Himeji to see the castle. Known for being one of the “finest surving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture” (Wikipedia), Himeji stands tall upon a hill.

I passed through a market street… 


…and arrived at Kokkoen garden. Here I purchased a combined garden and castle pass for ¥1,040. Since I have no idea what most (any) of the plants were, I’ll just leave the pictures below.




About midway through my journey in the garden I came upon a tea house. Here I took part in my own personal traditional Japanese tea ceremony. For ¥500 I got excellent tea and some type of sweet (tasted like marzapan with red bean).




From the garden you can either walk about 10 minutes one way and get right to the castle gate, or walk in a big spiral for about an hour to get to there. I decided on the latter. Seeing the castle after that walk was well worth it.



For dinner I went to a local all you can eat Japanese barbeque place. While the agreed upon price was ¥3,500 (and I asked multiple times to make sure I was ordering off the correct menu), the manager attempted to charge me for everyting – which amounted to about ¥8,600. After about ten minutes of him giving me a ton of attitude and us arguing back and forth (with help from Google Translate), he threw his arms up in the air in frustration and gave me the correct price. Did I mention this happened while the last train back to Osaka was leaving in less than 20 minutes? (Don’t worry, I just barely made it).


September 1: After the frustration of the previous evening I had another stressful day of travel to Kyoto. Due to a combination of terrible directions, an utter lack of English signs anywhere, and generally rude customer service, it took me an extra four hours to arrive. Fun fact: while the ATMs at convenience stores offer 20 different languages, those at BANKS (or at least the one I went to) only offer Japanese (and are only for Japanese people).

My luck seemed to turn up when I arrived at my AirBnB. It was absolutely gorgeous! A semi-modernized traditional Japanese home turned into a guest house. After a week of not-so-great conditions in Osaka I was so thankful. I took off my huge backpack, settled in, and then immediately set out for Nijo Castle.


While Nijo Castle is regarded as the most popular tourist destination in Kyoto, it closes its gates to new visitors at 4 p.m. – even in peak tourist season. Myself and a crowd of about 50 tourists from all over the world discovered this at about 4:05 p.m. They made no exceptions. (I also spent about 10 minutes considering scaling the wall of the castle)

Finally burnt out, I decided to take the rest of the day to relax. A quick Google search helped me find a great café for reading, where I spent the next five hours drinking tea and, well, reading.

Travel Blog #8: Hiroshima in Photos

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – J. Robert Oppenheimer
View from Hiroshima station, modern day.
A tricycle hit by the nuclear blast.
A plaque urges “No more Hiroshimas”.
A map shows the aftereffects of nuclear testing in the USA.
Cenotaph for the atomic bomb victims.
Monument to the Korean victims of the bomb.
Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound – herein lay the ashes of tens of thousands of the bomb’s victims.
Bell of Peace – ringing to call an end to nuclear war.
Atomic Bomb Dome – formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Hundreds of people within were instantly killed by the nuclear blast.
Now listed as a World Heritage Site, the dome was once called for removal due to the sad reminder it brings.
The world’s first atomic bomb was detonated 600m above this spot.
The view straight up from the former hypocenter of the nuclear blast.
Shukkeien garden – originally constructed in 1620, rebuilt in 1951 after the war.
A view of the garden’s rainbow bridge.
The beautiful garden attracts many tourists.
Much of the garden can be seen from this spot.
A tea garden – restored in 1963.
Several small islands can be found in the main pond.
Thin stone bridges help with crossing from one area to the next.
Today, skyscrapers dot the backdrop of the Shukkeien garden.

Travel Blog #7: Hopping Around

August 26: Osaka Castle was my first and only stop for the day. I wasted no time getting there since the journey by foot was about two hours.

The majority of the area that houses the castle is a huge park, filled with plum trees, peach trees, and gardens.

However, the castle itself is rather small and is on its third iteration after burning down twice over the years. The most recent construction happened in 1583, so things are looking up. Speaking of looking up…

Inside the castle was a very cramped eight floor museum wherein you aren’t allowed to eat or drink (even water as far as I’m aware). It didn’t take long until I was bored so I quickly climbed to the top floor to snag some photos before descending.

On the way home I stopped at Shinseki – an area renowned for its food – and got an okonomiyaki (japanese style pancake) for dinner. In addition, I discovered a 24-hour grocery store called Super Tamade where the selection is fantastic and you can buy delicious ready-made food for ¥100.

I chose to end the day early and spent the evening watching Netflix and writing.
August 27: Five hours is how long it took me to finally arrive at my destination; on paper, it was two and a half. I’ll spare the details, but let’s just say everything is slow and infrequent in rural Japan.

Where was I headed that made this journey worth it? Rabbit Island.

Rabbit Island (AKA Okunomashima) is located about an hour outside of Hiroshima and, much like the name suggests, is an island filled with thousands of bunnies.

That’s a big pile of rabbit food

While no one knows for sure how the bunnies got there, two prevailing theories do exist:
1) During WWII the Japanese were using the island to develop poisonous gas. They used bunnies as test subjects. After the war, locals set the survivors free. Today’s population is the result of the remaining rabbits’ breeding over the years.

2) In 1971 a group of school children were taken on a trip to the island. With them, they brought a bunch of rabbits which were left there to be free in a safe haven. Again, today’s population came from years of breeding.

No matter which theory is the correct one, something is for certain: the rabbits LOVE the island. It has been set up as a sanctuary for them, with plenty of tourists and locals feeding them every day (with fresh veggies and rabbit food) and water set out every ten metres or so.