Friday, September 24, 2010

Jirisan: A Chuseok Holiday Adventure

I wipe the rain from my brow and take tentative step onto what looks like the outline of a stable rock on the pitch-black mountain trail. While the sun set around an hour ago, the rain clouds and tree cover had made our path dark well before that. Only three of the six of us have flashlights and I am one of those without. I try to see by staying in someone's light, but as we make our way up and down the winding trails, it's almost impossible. Be it fact or myth, I tell myself that the carrots I've been eating regularly make the situation manageable. My unpreparedness only begins with lighting; my non-waterproof jacket soaked through long ago and without a backpack cover, my provisions and extra clothes are suffering a similar fate. Many day-hikes around the neighborhood mountain range where I would rock nothing more than a tank top, swim trunks and Crocs with a water bottle and encounter silly Koreans with full hiking-suits, cleated hiking boots and hiking poles with packs for a day hike made think I could get away with minimalism. This was a different ballgame.

We start to think we should have planned this better.

Our arrival at Jirisan National Park had gone smoothly. A series of bus connections took us from Daegu to Seong-sam-jae, a peak at the beginning of the range we planned to cross in a 3-day excursion over 30kilometers (~20 miles) that would culminate with a 1,905M summit at Cheon-wang-bong:
Here's the crew at Seong-sam-jae before we set off:
Jen, Harry, Kaitlin, Caitlin, and I (our sixth member, Robbie is missing). Not as much confusion over C(K)aitlins as one might expect.
Following the funny pictures of the Korean man, Caitlin gets her stretch on. Hoo-rah!
While the Koreans picnicking in the parking lot had their typical 10-course meal, we fueled up on peanut butter sandwiches.
To start, the fog was thick and the views were nil. Robbie commented that it was like a scene out of a war film. I have to agree.
5.5km ahead: Banyabong. Who in the world would want to ban ya' bong? The DEA, that's who. On the state level, it turns out Florida already has. But really, drugs are bad and bong just means "peak" in Korean. I'll let you fashion your own joke playing on the fact that peaks are naturally high.

Caitlin and Harry each brought their tents to camp, but we hadn't planned where. Strict park regulations prohibited camping outside of designated areas (enforced with a hefty fine of 500,000Won), and since all park information was in Korean, we had no idea where these places were. We thought maybe we could camp outside a shelter up on the mountain range, but by the time darkness crept up on us, we had passed one 5km back and the next was about 5km ahead. The rain began in spurts but was soon coming down full. This was where I found myself thinking about carrots.

When dread really started to set in, we found signs pointing towards an information shack. We arrived to find Koreans, decked out in their typical hike-Everest gear huddled under a tarp strung lean-to style to the shack. Down the hill, there was a creek and a bridge with another tarp shelter fashioned over the rails.

In a mix of very limited English and Korean, we worked out that they'd let us pitch tents next to them. We happily did so. With a setup complete, I went down to the creek for some water. When I got there, I met two Korean guys camping it on the bridge. They offered me sam-yeop-sal (strips of pork meat, usually barbecued) and I was excited and expecting to have a bite of leftovers. They gave me an entire unopened package of meat and two bags of kimchi. "Chin-cha?" (really?) I asked. "Nay, chin-cha," (yes, really) they responded. I thanked them profusely with the widest of grins. Could our circumstances have turned around any faster? God bless the hospitality of the Korean people.

We ate heartily, at times using an umbrella to shield our tiny portable gas burner. Harry and I retired last to the 2-man tent. Unfortunately, it wasn't completely waterproof, so we slept on and off through the night between torrential downpours and corresponding bouts of Chinese water torture from water condensation inside.

The next morning, we saw that we had apparently broken 3 out of 4 campsite rules by pitching tents, cooking food, and smoking cigarettes. We were considerate enough not to "throw."
After a breakfast of baked beans and hot dogs (anything edible is delicious when your burning 4,000 calories a day) we gathered up our gear and tread into the rain.
A thick fog continued to spoil any views. I show off my green plastic bottle of delicious spring water.
Having accomplished nothing, I pose like a gold-medalist skier. Most Koreans on the trail had hiking poles, and to support her knees, Caitlin got outfitted with a pair. They made for fun props.
The fog showed signs of breaking that afternoon. Like magic, mountains began to appear.

Looking around, it was something out of a movie. We were up close and personal with the clouds as they slid up and over the mountain curves.
Emma described this one as a "cloud beach." I like it.
Though we were rain-drenched, the landscape went a long way to lift spirits. We were even happier to be sleeping in a warm, dry shelter. At an earlier stop, a friendly Korean man called one ahead for us and made sure they had space. Score another for the compassion of this nation...

The shelter reminded me of a lodge somewhere out in the western United States. The landscape around it added to the effect. Nestled at the sloping base of one of the open ranges, it was like a mirage rising out of the rugged, remote terrain. There were had huge rooms that probably could have slept over 100 people if full (side by side with only a blanket on the wood floor - yeah Korean style!). It was at about 70% so it wasn't so bad.
Here, Harry, Robbie and I try unsuccessfully to dry something from our bags. Oh the wetness.

At dinner, I ate what I estimate were five helpings of ramen. I was starving. Later on, Harry and I befriended a trio of middle-aged Korean guys on a serious night-cap. One of them offered me to try a drink of something he made himself. It was brown in color. It tasted...unique. With a mix of English, Korean and body language he explained that it was made from oak trees, but he kept making this gesture where he wrapped one hand around the other I think to indicate what part of the tree it came from. Neither Harry nor I knew what this meant, but we just pretended we did. I now think he meant oak tree bark. A combination of soju and extreme altitude really put a damper on the mime-guessing skills. In any event, this drink, like the fabled eel, provided stamina. That's all we needed to know.

It came out that one of guys had studied in Guatemala years ago, so he spoke some Spanish. Thus, we communicated with a mix of English, Korean, body language, AND Spanish. For the record, not one of these methods was working well, but using bits of each usually got the point across. Harry has some extensive South American traveling under his belt so he knows some Spanish. The Korean Spanish speaker's companions were confused as hell when we would switch from English to Spanish and back again. Cool stuff. Yeah language.
Dawn. At last we saw the sun shine. Was the effect ever appreciated.
A steady relationship with the clouds, now complemented by blue skies.
Our shelter from afar. What an outpost.
Look at the distance to the town below! Caitlin takes it all in.
Harry, Kaitlin and Robbie. Robbie had a beautiful Canon lens camera, so I will be after him for the shots I could never hope to get on my little point-and-shoot.
The trail marches on. We are well within range of the summit, and you can feel it in our pace.
Between peaks, stretches often opened up the way to stellar views. For those tallying, this was Caitlin teacher's favorite.

After a series of stair sets and treacherous inclines where we passed Koreans coming down and belted a hearty "an-yeong-ha-sae-yo!" to each one, we finally made it:
The summit of Cheonwangbong, with plenty of company.

The cloud cover up there was intense so the views weren't quite as clear as those before. It didn't take anything away from our sense of accomplishment and awe at the fact we were 6,282 feet in the air.
Harry strikes a pose with the summit marker. A Korean girl with a funky Asian cartoon backpack looks on in curiosity. An actual interaction that happened shortly before we reached the summit:

Korean Man: "I like your beard."

General laughter amongst our group.

Harry: "Oh, why thank y..."
Korean Man: "Just kidding!"
Much contemplation. In their grand proportions and natural beauty, mountains sure make ya' think.
We had lunch, again marveling at how many side dishes Koreans actually toted up the damn mountain. We finished off the bread for the last peanut butter sandwiches. Final tally on peanut butter damage: 2.5 jars. Consider the fun fueled, Skippy people.
A little ways down, we took in my favorite spot on the whole hike. We all lay out on a rock face listening to music, catching some rays, and taking in the impossible distances we could see.
Why leave?
On our way down, we stopped in to check out a small temple. While several women chanted a Buddhist prayer in the main hall, Harry, Robbie and I wandered around the grounds. It was a fitting and peaceful end to our journey.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Japan, There I was: Kyoto Part Two

After taking in the sights all day, James and I doubled back to A-Yado to regroup. Though it had dormitory-style beds, I liked it better than J-Hoppers for three reasons: 1. awesome location (right in the Gion district) 2. nice, new, and well kept (just opened last year), and 3. the perks included computers with free internet in the room, blasting air conditioning, and bread for breakfast.

Grabbing a sampling of Japanese beers that included different varieties of Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi, James and I went up to the common room/kitchen area to poke through the travel guide library to find a good place to eat. Many other guests were hanging out up there and we got talking to some Dutch dudes (a big perk of the hostel scene - you inevitably meet other people). We decided to tag along with them for another helping of ramen. This time, I went with a red bean paste variety. While it was a bit on the salty side, it was lovely and worth the second go.

Furthest down the table to nearest: Ruben, Lars and Rob. The boys were on a month-long vacation around Japan during their summer break from school. I was surprised to learn they were only around 19 years old.

They represented another example of a phenomenon that struck me: there are a whole lot of Europeans traveling around Japan. At J-Hoppers, James and I had had a lovely conversation with a French lady named Julie (she helped raise our consciousness of the many French words used in English language, such as enclave that James used to describe how wae-gooks cluster in Korea). While hostels like the ones we were staying at are generally full of people from all corners of the globe, we saw many more Europeans out and about than you would expect to find even in Seoul.

After the meal, we wandered to the Kamo river (Kamo-gawa) to find hundreds of Japanese youth having an epic riverside hang-session. Thinking it wise not to shell out seven bucks a pint at a pub, we joined.
It was cool to talk to the Dutch guys more and get their impressions of Japan. They also seemed interested to hear about Korea.

In something straight of of the movie "Lost in Translation," Rob's mother kept sending him picture texts on his iPhone of wallpaper samples for his bedroom. Soon after, we acquired a small bottle of Suntory whiskey to more fully capture the despair felt by Bill Murray's character Bob Harris. For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
Later on, two Japanese girls sat down next to James and I. It was a little obvious they'd indulged. One of them almost immediately passed out. James and I tried to strike up conversation with the other, but she didn't speak a word of English. We got off on the wrong foot by saying "hi," (how would you react if without warning, a foreigner said nothing but "yes" to you?) but recovered once we realized she wasn't paying much attention to what we were saying so much as how we were saying it. She couldn't speak English and we didn't know any Japanese, but we carried on something of a conversation. There are fewer barriers to a chat than you think. When she spoke with a tone that hinted she was asking a question, we gave an answer. When we asked her questions, she did the same (I remember asking if she knew Bob Harris). Was anything communicated? Nope. Did we feel like we kind of got to know each other? Sure. Cool indeed.

To cap the night, James and I bravely removed our shoes and waded ankle-deep to the other side of the Kamo-gawa and back hand-in-hand. We'd like to take credit for the idea, but we watched a Japanese couple do it earlier and decided it safe enough to attempt:


Renting bikes in Kyoto was one of the best things we did. There really is no better means of fitting in all the sights in a country as bike-friendly as Japan. Without straining ourselves, we made the most of our day, taking in each site we visited to contentment, and making it full across town and back with time to spare before our rentals were due. Some highlights:
Nijo Castle, constructed in 1603. One of the many UNESCO World heritage sites in Kyoto. The interior was very dimly lit and featured original decorative paintings. It also felt kind of homey to walk through because you had to take your shoes off.

With a quick Google search, I discovered there's also a Nijo Castle in Newark. I was immensely disappointed to learn that it was neither a castle (it's a restaurant) nor in New Jersey (in Newark, California).
The castle grounds.
Yet another kimono on the street! The aesthetic! It's everywhere! People are living it! It's alive! It's a damn shame James and I didn't attempt to ride our bikes wearing one.
One of the most famous sites in all of Japan - The Golden Pavilion. It certainly stood out for me, and not because it was completely covered IN PURE GOLD. In the midst of hundreds of other tourists noisily elbowing and rushing around I felt a profound sense of peace and calm. I also decided it has the potential to be the site of the coolest pool party in human history.
Leaving the Golden Pavilion, we had our longest stretch of open road. It took us through some beautiful sleepy suburban neighborhoods, rice farms, and lakes. The downhills were liberating. There's something about biking stretches of open road in foreign countries. I was filled with same sense of adventure I felt with Domhnall in the Czech countryside.
Tenryu-ji Temple, home of this awesome zen rock garden and bonzai tree:
Walking through the beautiful gardens of Tenryu-ji temple, we finally reached the Bamboo Forest, a symbol of Kyoto's mystical landscape:
It was very quiet, perhaps too quiet in the Bamboo Forest. The stalks were impressive in size; I'd never seen bamboo that thick. Had I made a comment to that effect while we were there, James no doubt would have been quick with a dirty joke.
Our last stop included a few temples we hadn't planned to visit well off to the northeast of Kyoto. We found them while searching for a sake brewery. After 45 minutes of walking around the neighborhood, we found it, only to discover it was nothing more than a dusty museum exhibit with no sake whatsoever. Blast.
On our ride back across town, James stopped in front of a suspiciously pink-orange building covered with flashing neon lights and anime cartoons. After all the historic sightseeing of the day, we found the Kyoto too has its modern side. Feeling curious, we went inside.
The place turned out to be a pachinko joint. Pachinko is something like pinball meets slots with an enhanced Asian arcade twist. James and I entered to the deafening roar of thousands of metal balls moving through the machines and the haze of cigarette smoke hanging above rows upon rows of machines. I couldn't hear a word James said to me the whole time we were there. We opted not to play.

After a rigorous day of cycling, we were starving. Following a tip, we went for some impossibly light tempura, fried to perfection. Still recovering from our earlier defeat at the "museum," we fit in a large order of sake.
That last night was a relaxed one. We took a bit of sake down to the Kamo Gawa so that we could admire the beautifully lit buildings and hanging lanterns. It was the perfect setting for a relaxed chat.

Walking back to A-Yado, we witnessed something quite unexpected. As we rounded a corner, I saw a white kimono-clad figure shuffle out of sight a block up. I pointed, and James and I started to run.

A geisha! A geisha!

Gion is known for sightings; it's one of the few reliable places in Japan you can hope to spot one by chance. Until now, we'd made no special effort. But now, with a little sake courage, I demanded the camera from James to attempt a picture. We eased our pace into a jog and soon caught up.

We felt both fascinated and immensely shy - this figure we chased looked like more of a doll than a human. Completely covered in ghost-white makeup and elegantly dressed, she was like an apparition.

She was also either in one hell of rush to get somewhere or she wanted nothing to do with us. Both possibilities rendered a "hey do you mind if we take photos with you?" style photo-op unlikely. Thus, I present my best shot, something I can't help but compare to photographic evidence of a Big Foot sighting (just do a Google search if you want to see a geisha, I promise, they're real).
Peace out, Kyoto.