Saturday, September 20, 2014

Summer travels: Yamaga.

Legend has it that one night long ago, the Emperor of Japan stopped in the town of Yamaga in modern-day Kumamoto Prefecture. A thick fog rose from the Kikuchi River, blocking his vision, so the villagers emerged with lamps to guide him. Today the city commemorates this every year with the Yamaga Tourou Matsuri, or Lantern Festival. Women come together with paper lanterns carefully balanced on their heads and dance in a procession reminiscent of the one that welcomed the Emperor almost 2,000 years ago. The lanterns themselves are beautiful pieces of art, made only of paper and glue. Caroline and I took the 90-minute bus ride to Yamaga with a Japanese friend to enjoy this festival last month.

The festival is such an integral part of the local culture that even the street lights in Yamaga are shaped like lanterns.

We still had an hour or two before the dance procession would begin when we arrived, so we headed over to see another piece of Yamaga history: the Yachiyoza kabuki theater.

Yachiyoza, built 1910.

Yachiyoza was an entertainment hub in the '20s and '30s, but as television emerged in the mid-20th century its patronage began to dwindle and it was finally closed in the late '70s. The building was in such disrepair by the late '80s that it would have collapsed had the denizens of Yamaga not started a movement to repair the place. The building underwent extensive reconstruction and finally reopened in 2001 to much fanfare. Even today it's used for for kabuki plays, concerts, and school recitals.

Inside Yachiyoza.

The ceiling of the theater, covered in vintage advertisements.

Rotation mechanism under the stage.

The day we visited was a bit drizzly, so the taiko (Japanese drumming) performance that was set to be held outdoors was moved into Yachiyoza. If you've never heard taiko, I highly recommend it--just maybe not if you have a headache. The drums are massive; put six or seven on a stage and they could give a Midwestern thunderstorm a run for its money. It's an adrenaline rush and the agile performances are amazing to watch. The drummers were of all ages; my favorite was watching an older gentleman and a probably high-school-aged girl next to each other, both drumming their hearts out. Oh, and every time a piece of dust or debris was dislodged from the ceiling, which was often.


By the time the performance was over it was time for the dance to begin. We were able to catch some of the youngest dancers on their way in to the big shrine at the center of town.

Dancers in procession.

Here's a short video of the dancers in action:

After the dance the fireworks show was set to begin, so we bought some matcha (green tea)-flavored shaved ice and moseyed on down close to the river to watch.

They lasted for a whole hour.

The fireworks were splendid to watch, but by the end of the show we were all pretty exhausted. We worked our way through the crowds back to our bus stop and nearly fell asleep on our way back to Kumamoto City.

Heading home.

It had been a wonderful evening of cultural experience, fascinating history, and delicious festival food. What a blessing to have such things so close to home, and to share them with friends.

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.
Psalm 119:105 (NIV)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Summer travels: Seoul.

I'm not used to going places unprepared. Even before I came to Japan for the very first time in high school I was ready. I'd sold cheesecakes, washed cars, and recycled electronics for over a year to make sure I could pay for it. I'd taken a couple semesters of Japanese at a community college so I could be at least somewhat communicative. I'd read the Wikitravel article about Japan over and over again, and even printed out the phrasebook.

So for the past couple of years, whenever the possibility of international travel while in Japan came up among the J-3s, I would sort of hang back, nod, and silently hope it wouldn't actually happen. Not that I didn't want the others to go abroad; I just didn't really want me to go with them. I didn't have time to adequately prepare for the risks, the language barrier, and the finances required to do such a thing.

And just like that high school trip seven years ago, boy am I glad my friends convinced me to go with them. I spent five days last month in Seoul, South Korea, with Brent, Caroline, and some Korean friends of Brent's from his college who were home for the summer, only knowing how to say three things in Korean ("Hello," "Thank you," and "It's not like that") and having a stomach that was pretty weak to spice. Bring on the discomfort!

And yet, the discomfort didn't come, not really. Our new (Brent's old) friends Grace and Inhyuk were excellent hosts, informative tour guides, and most of all, really really fun to hang out with. The food was delicious (it was worth eating through the pain), the sights were incredible, and the experience was all-around unforgettable. Korea is so full of history and culture! I was glad to be able to enjoy it with some great friends.

Brent is SO EXCITED to go to Korea.

So how would I describe Seoul? Very different from the cities in Japan, for one thing. The roads are much wider and the terrain much hillier than what I'm used to. Seoul still rocks the whole "old traditional mixed in with new" dynamic in much the same way as Tokyo, though.

An intersection near Anguk Station.

Traditional Korean houses, Seoul cityscape in the background.

One thing we had to learn pretty quickly is that Seoul seems to operate on a much later schedule than we're used to. As a teacher, I'm used to being up no later than 6:30, out of the house by 7:30. But in Seoul, nothing (save coffee shops) was open until 10 or 11. Caroline and I had to learn to cool our heels in the morning and save our energy for adventures that would continue into the late night.

Taken on our first evening.

The day after we arrived was Sunday, and having heard so much about the recent explosive church growth in Korea, we thought we'd like to experience a Korean church service ourselves. We met up with Grace who, after taking us to a delicious Chinese restaurant for lunch, took us to Jubilee Church, and interdenominational English church whose motto is based on Luke 1:18-19 ("The Spirit of the Lord is upon me... to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor"), whose mission statement is "to make disciples of all nations," and whose vision is "to be a hub for missions from South Korea to all nations." The spirit of missions was palpable as we watched presentations about their recent service trip to Cambodia and read announcements in the bulletin about things like conferences on God's work in North Korea. The service was contemporary American-style, and packed wall-to-wall with young twenty- and thirty-somethings. After almost two years in liturgy-led, organ-accompanied, gray-haired Japanese Lutheran churches, I felt almost culture-shocked. I have to admit, I was almost suspicious of the emotional energy in that room. Leave it to God to smash my preconceived notions of what a church service should be like: the sermon, on the story of the Prodigal Son and our (wrong) ideas about needing to suffer "enough" for God, was something I'd been needing to hear. (You think no one has anything new to say about that story and then suddenly...)

As we were also hoping to catch a glimpse of a Korean-language service, Grace took us to the gigantic campus of Onnuri Church, motto "Grace and Truth," which according to its own website has 60,000 members across its nine Korean churches and 27 international ones. There were easily over 2,000 people at the service we peeked in on, again, mostly people who looked to be in their twenties or thirties. Mind you, this was the fifth service that day. Fifth. Out of seven. A megachurch, indeed.

We rounded out our Sunday with a visit to the Coex Aquarium, where we saw not only fish but also bats, prairie dogs, and an otter! A fascinating and oftentimes adorable afternoon.

At the beginning of our aquatic adventure.

These fish are the same species! One of them (can't remember which) is actually just the juvenile version.

The bright orange coloring on the bottom of this frog startled me a bit.

A bit of an unusual place for fish, ne?


Can you see the otter? I have decided that I want one.

I kept having flashbacks to Finding Nemo for some reason.

Garden eels. A wee bit creepy?

This is very appropriately called a unicornfish.

In the shark tunnel! (Not pictured: the Jaws soundtrack that was playing at the time.)

We also found a lot of amusing fish names. Here are some of my favorites:
  • stumpy bullhead
  • dark sleeper
  • oily bitterling
  • slender bitterling
  • oily shiner
  • false dace
  • dark chub
  • pale chub
  • spotted barbel, and
  • Kumgang fatminnow.
In the following couple of days, we visited the National Folk Museum of Korea...

Carved in the olden days to ward off evil spirits, but I thought they were kind of cute.

Memorial statues.

Memorial statues of civil officials.

Streetcar in the open-air museum.

Waterwheel in the open-air museum.

Old-style house in the open-air museum.

Interior of an early- to mid-20th-century Korean house. Note the traditional hats sitting on the chest of drawers. well as the just plain old National Museum of Korea, which was also fascinating, but kind of overwhelming, as well. Museums! So much information, so little time.

Scale model of the historical royal throne of Korea. The folding screen, called Irworobongdo, is painted with a scene of royal authority: five peaks, the sun, and the moon.

Outside the National Museum of Korea

No trip is complete without a little shopping, and so on our last day we all went out to Insadong, one of the most famous shopping districts in Seoul. While we were picking up a few souvenirs, we were approached by some enthusiastic but shy kids who had some homework for English class.

Caroline explains what she has for breakfast in her country.

When the interview was over, the kids handed her an adorable thank-you card.

We were just about to be on our way when Brent was stopped by another group of kids. I guess if you're gonna find native English speakers, a souvenir shopping district is probably a good place to look.

"Dear handsome man," Brent's card read. "Thank you for interview."

We hadn't gotten far before it was my turn.

"God bless you!!" my card read. "Dear handsome man."

Later we headed out to the trendy Myeongdong shopping area, which, with its crowds, neon lights, and music, gave me some pretty intense Tokyo flashbacks.

And this was on a Monday!

Guess what weeee foooound!

Hotteok! Blurry photographic proof that we were able to obtain this dearly-missed ooey-gooey fried doughy honey-filled cinnamony pancake of deliciousness. (For more on hotteok, including the Hotteok Incident of 2012, see this 2013 entry.)

We also stopped by (and washed the honey off our hands at) the historic Myeongdong Cathedral, which was festooned with posters featuring the face of Pope Francis, who was due to visit Korea in a couple of days. We'd just miss him!

Myeongdong Cathedral.

A close-up shot of the doors: two men in traditional Korean dress taking Commmunion.

After dinner we just barely made it out to the last Han River cruise of the night. By this time it was after 10:00, and we were tired and consequently pretty giggly. All the more fun!

Laughing too hard.

Half the fun was watching these two.

All together now!

On the Han River. Churches are often lit up like this in Seoul, I hear.

On our final day, we only had an hour to explore Gyeongbokgung Palace, a short distance from the B&B we stayed at, before meeting Grance and Inhyuk at The Coffee Bean for farewell cake and coffee. Commence a flurry of power-walking and photo-taking!

A pretty neat drum in the courtyard.

Gyeongbokgung Palace was a little crowded that morning.

The for-reals throne, twice the size of the one at the National Museum of Korea.

Beautiful architecture.

Leisure house, perhaps?

Inside one of the many halls.


Then it was time for coffee, cake, and farewells before we boarded a bus for Incheon International Airport, completing our five-day journey. By that time I knew how to say two more things in Korean ("Let's go!" and "poop") and that my stomach is still weak to spice, but it's nothing a cup of hot maesilcha can't fix.

There were three things I have to give credit to for making the trip so great. First, the food. Korea is a delicious country, and we ate well. Every meal was like a feast... and included kimchi, even breakfast. Here's a sampling of the delicacies we enjoyed during our time there.

Bulgogi (a beef dish). Our first foray into the wonderful world of Korean cuisine.

Pig's trotters. Much more delicious than they sound!

Home-cooked Korean-style breakfast at 126 Mansion. Nutritious, delicious, and definitely not what I'm used to.

Got these at a food stall in Insadong. Yes, they're supposed to be shaped like... something you wouldn't normally find appetizing. (The filling was sweet red bean paste.)

Among other tasty things, jeon (Korean savory pancake, upper center).

Leave the barbecuing to these master chefs.

Inhyuk grilling up some pork belly.

Tteokbokki (rice cakes and fish cakes in chili sauce) with Grace. Aprons required!

The second thing is the B&B we lodged at, 126 Mansion. It's a family-run place with delicious home-cooked meals and the coziest atmosphere I've ever experienced away from home. We had some great late-night conversations with the owners, and one night when I had a stomachache (the spiciness of everything caught up with me) they even brewed me some traditional Korean plum tea that did the trick right away. This place is highly recommended if you're ever in Seoul!

The front of the building.

Ground-floor restaurant.

Hallway upstairs.

Caroline's and my room. Cozy and cool.

This little guy faithfully guarded the entrance (as well as the restaurant floor for any errant table scraps!)

And the last thing that made this trip so wonderful is simply... the people. Brent and Caroline, thanks for being great companions. (We're really getting the hang of this "traveling" thing now, aren't we, Caroline?) Inhyuk and Grace, thank you both for being our guides, interpreters, and, above all, friends. It was amazing to be able to hang out with you and talk about life and God and faith--and also laugh so hard we cried! Thanks for making Korea feel so much like home. May our paths cross again soon!

One last photo in The Coffee Bean before saying goodbye.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
2 Corinthians 13:14 (NIV)