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Bus Trip to Shikoku, Day Two: Stepping Back in Time in Tokushima

12 August 2017

After an early Japanese buffet breakfast (think rice, miso soup, and fish, among other things), it was back on the bus for a full day of sightseeing in Tokushima, one of the four prefectures on Shikoku island.

Our first stop was seeing the vine bridges in Iya Valley, over the stunning Iya river. These bridges are famous in the area, but remote and take a while to get to. The journey there was long and twisting, but we passed beautiful stretches of forest, idyllic hidden villages, and various groups of other holiday-makers setting out for kayaking trips on the river.

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Kayakers on the Iya River. Shot on iphone.

There are a few different vine bridges in this valley, but their origins are mysterious. What we do know is that to create the bridges, wisteria vines are grown so that they can span the width of the gorge and be woven into bridges with wooden planking. It’s speculated that the bridges originally date to the 1100s, and are currently maintained by local artisans. Some of them (including the one we crossed) are reinforced by wire and side rails, but that doesn’t make them any less thrilling to cross! The wooden planking is set 7 inches apart, so you can clearly see the river rushing four and a half stories below you. I thought it was pretty neat, but this tourist attraction is definitely not for those with a fear of heights.

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The vine bridge. Shot on iphone.

Our lunch that day was at a famous hotel near the river, and was a simple forest feast with various mushroom salads, grilled and fried root vegetables, and hearty soba noodles. The most delicious culinary surprise was shioyaki, a famous local delicacy. Shioyaki is a small fish that has been threaded on a skewer to look like it is swimming. It is then salted and grilled over charcoal. Squirt a bit of lemon on that bad boy and eat it off the stick like Golem in Lord of the Rings. Eating a whole fish feels a bit odd, and the bones are pretty crunchy, but it was pretty delicious!

 

After more time on the bus, in the afternoon we stopped in Mima for a stroll on Udatsu street, a historic street lined with Edo and Showa era buildings, some dating from the 1700s. It’s a quaint street that truly feels like stepping back in time, with some grand old houses and old-timey shops. I loved photographing the various vintage touches on these shop facades, like old postboxes and signs. It’s a pretty small street, so my friends and I also wandered off the main path to an idyllic stream and fantasized about which of the lofty old houses we would like to live in.

That evening we arrived in Tokushima for another dance festival, Awa Odori, the largest dance festival in Japan. Unlike the festival in Kochi, we had official seats in bleachers lining the street. You could tell this was a really big deal: everywhere we looked there were dance teams gathering, eating snacks and practicing steps, fanning themselves in the sweltering August heat to keep their makeup from running. We hastily bought some festival food and beer and found our seats.

The dancing at Awa Odori was a little different than what we had seen the previous night in Kochi. The Kochi festival felt more like a party, with more freedom given to the dance teams with regards to music and dance steps. In contrast, Awa Odori felt more official and organized, more like a parade, and surprisingly all of the teams did more or less the same steps to the same music. It is thought that this particular dance stems from a famous drunken party held in 1586 at the opening of Tokushima castle, and we know that by the 17th century the 3-day festival had been established. Nowadays, it’s quite a spectacle, attracting well over a million tourists each year with countless dance teams representing everything from theater groups to hospitals to cosmetic companies. It was fascinating to watch, but I admit I enjoyed the raucous atmosphere in Kochi more.

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A great example of some amazing hats and costumes at Awa Odori. Shot on iphone.

That night, we checked into another standard no-frills Japanese business hotel, and my coworkers and I went to a local izakaya together. Izakayas are traditional Japanese pubs, usually serving a wide menu of skewered meats, fried chicken, sashimi, and veggie sides like edamame and pickled cucumbers with a good selection of alcohol. The best izakayas are no-frills establishments that are open late with friendly servers and chatty locals. I love izakayas. They are simple, everyone can get what they want, and they are a great glimpse into Japanese culture.

It had been a truly remarkable day in Tokushima. While I’m not usually a tour bus person, and Japanese tour buses do come with their own unique set of annoyances (like the hostess who rambles on the microphone forever), I admit it was a great way to see many of the various delights that Tokushima had to offer. We had one day left, and thankfully there was still more magic to come.

Happy Travels,

Mo

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*The photos in this post, as in all my posts lately, are a mix of film and iphone photography. Click on the the thumbnails for more information and to see the photos enlarged.

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Gyeongbokgung Palace and Gwanghwamun Square: Seoul’s Backbone and Mainstream

6 August 2018

I found the prospect of planning my time in Seoul to be pretty daunting. At about 600 square kilometers, it’s a massive city, housing almost 10,000,000 people and having the 4th largest economy of any city worldwide. Add to these statistics a booming tourism industry, and you have an incredibly modern, worldly city with no shortage of diversions for tourists. While I wanted to experience the Seoul of today, I also wanted to dig a little deeper and see more than just K-pop and commerce, but I wasn’t quite sure how.

Lucky for me, I had an insider, my friend Sun-ah, who, after a childhood in the rural Korean countryside, spent the years of her young adulthood in Seoul. While Sun-ah has a complicated relationship with her homeland, it’s clear that she remains nostalgic for its special city, and advised a route that would allow me to experience Seoul’s “backbone, mainstream, and geeky minor tradition” (her words). I was hooked.

Gyeongbokgung Palace: The Backbone

While Seoul houses 5 palaces, the quintessential one to visit is Gyeongbokdung Palace. Besides being considered the biggest, grandest, and most beautiful of the five, this palace was also the seat of the Joseon dynasty, housing the government as well as the royal family and court. Koreans are an ancient people, and the Joseons were the last ruling dynasty before the country modernized, and many of the laws and practices implemented during that time continue to influence Korean culture and society, which is why Sun-ah refers to this place as the “backbone” of modern Korea.

Describing the palace as “impressive” may almost be an understatement. After passing through the front gate, guarded by severely-countenanced men dressed as imperial guards (“A fun experience to see what it was like in Joseon,” says Sun-ah), you enter a vast courtyard paved in gravel and lined with massive circular drums that would require several men to carry. A central path leads through a second gate, to an inner courtyard, where it continues straight to the main palace building, a riot of color and ornate decoration where the king would have looked out upon his court and subjects during important affairs of state. Clearly, this was the place to be during the Joseon dynasty, and its legacy continues, as it is a top tourist draw in Seoul.

A popular tourist pastime in Seoul, primarily among Chinese tourists, is to rent hanbok, traditional Korean clothing, to wear while visiting historical sites. Surrounding the palaces are numerous rental outfitters cashing in on this trend, and the palace grounds are filled with historically-dressed visitors posing for pictures. While this is certainly cheesy, it creates a surprisingly pleasant atmosphere, and gives a glimpse at to what the palace may have felt like during its heyday.

 

 

This nostalgic ambiance is also helped by the popular changing of the guard ceremony, occurring every hour on the hour. As the time drew near, I scurried out to the main gate and waited with the other tourists, poised with cameras in hand. We watched as the guards raised their flags and staffs, and marched away. We waited for the new guards to come take their place, but were met with silence. After about five minutes, it was clear that no new guards were coming, and the crowd disappointedly put their cameras away and dispersed. Fearing for the “guards” health in the scorching heat, the changing ceremonies had been cancelled for the rest of the day. Often when we travel, things do not go according to plan, especially when the weather is involved.

Gwanghamun Square: The Mainstream

Opposite of the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace lies long and wide Gwanghamun Square. According to Sun-ah, this plaza is home to “the modern social and political landscape. . . the place where you get to see what is the ongoing social issue in Korea.” It can be no accident in civic planning that the backbone and symbol of old Korea leads straight to the government of today. While waiting to cross the street and enter the square, I watched as a motorcade passed, the dark cars bearing blue European Union flags. This is the mainstream, the place where things are currently happening.

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The modern buildings of Gwanghamun Square looming above the palace gates. Shot on iphone.

I strolled along the center median, passing government offices, the national TV station, newspaper headquarters, performance halls, and statutes of heroes of the past. I paused at a newer memorial, commemorating the Sewol Ferry Disaster of 2014, an incident in which 304 passengers and crew members died when their ferry sank, most of them students. The memorial shows photos of every victim of the disaster, and has a small shrine where passersby can pay their respects. During this incident, the Korean government was criticized for its response, and this still weighs heavily on the minds of many. As Sun-ah had stated, Gwanghamun Square is not only the home of the government, but the place where people go to make their voices heard in reaction to to its actions, and I saw plenty of police milling about, dressed in full riot gear. I nervously looked around, but could find no sign of a protest. On this hot day, the policemen’s main objective seemed to be finding patches of shade to stand in on the open square.

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Memorial to the Sewol Ferry disaster. Image courtesy of Google Images.

In addition to observing the current political and social hub of Seoul, Sun-ah recommended that I stop by Kyobo Books, a landmark bookstore that has been the “center of all bookstores in Korea for decades, and [which] continues to be so.” Kyobo Books is the biggest chain bookstore in Korea, but its original location is on Gwanghwamuhn Square, where it occupies the basement of the Kyobo building. A bored and tired-looking security guard pointed the way, and I descended the elevator to see what all the fuss was about.

The elevator doors opened onto what I can only describe as book Mecca, with a labryinth of bookshelves spreading out in all directions. Most of the sections are in Korean of course, but there is also a sizeable international section with probably the most extensive variety of titles that I’ve seen in any international bookstore in Asia. Sleek, modern, and impeccibly organized, Kyobo Books reminded me of the American chain bookstores of my youth that have since closed their doors because of competition from online retailers. I don’t think the same fate is in store for Kyobo Books, however. Every available seat, as well as most corners and many spots on the floor, was occupied by people reading- and this was early afternoon on a Monday. In addition to books, there’s also a stationary store, music store, character store, and a variety of cafes to choose from, and it’s easy to happily lose oneself amidst the throngs of shoppers. I came in just for a peek and ended up staying for a couple hours, before finally setting out for my real adventure of the day. . .

. . . which will be continued next time.

Happy Travels,

Mo

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The stunning interior of Kyobo Books. Shot on iphone.