With Backpack

One World in One Lifetime

Biking Around Tombs

Posted by Heliocentrism on September 26, 2014

November 16, 2013

All Pictures

Japan
(日本)
(Nippon)

How to get there:

You can enter Japan by plane or boat. Though, the number of boats going to Japan from other countries has gone down significantly.

Americans get 90-day visas to Japan at the port of entry. Check with your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for visa information.

Phone:

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books:

Notes:

  • Be careful what over the counter drugs you bring into Japan.  Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers, and Codeine are prohibited.
  • InternationalATMs are really hard to find; more so if you aren’t in a big city. Many places in Japan do not use credit cards. Take cash and call your bank to ask whatATMs or banks in Japan will work with your cash card.
    • ATMs have opening hours. Usually 9:00-18:00 (They have better work hours than most business men and women here.)
    • The Post Office bank seems to work with the most international cards.
  • You can get a Japan Railway, pass which saves you a lot of money on the trains, but you can only buy it before you get to Japan and you cannot be a resident of Japan. (I don’t have more information about it because I’ve only ever lived in Japan; I’ve never been a tourist here.)

Kibi Plain
(吉備郡)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 34°40’22.1″N 133°44’18.0″E

Websites:

Cost:

  • There are two places to rent bikes. near Soja station or near Bizen-Ichinomiya station.
    • It’s 1,000 yen for one day, if you rent the bike from one place and return it to the other rental place.
    • 200 yen an hour with a minimum charge of 400 yen if you return the bike to the place where you got it.

Hours:

  • 9:00 ~ 18:00

Notes:

  • This is a self guided bike tour.
  • The rental place is called:
    • Uedo Rent-a-cycle (ウエドレンタサイクル) near Bizen-Ichinomiya station
    • Araki Rent-a-Cycle (荒木レンタサイクル) near Soja station
  • The bike route is about 17 kilometer long.
  • You’ll be given a free map when you rent the bike.

Map:


 

Let’s get some exercise! 

We live in Okayama, or at least we did at the time of this trip. The best things to do when you live in Okayama is to go to Kobe, Osaka, or fly to Korea. There is not that much to do in Okayama.

Okayama is where most of the non-descript factories of Japan are. There are about 8 factories right outside our apartment, but other than noise, I have no idea what they produce.

pyramids

We saw online that there was a bike trail we could take that was not too far from our town. Even though Mark hates exercise, we went and had fun. Well, fun is too strong a word. We… passed some time.

Let see a pagoda!

The bikes were a bit overpriced. They were old and not very well taken care of. There is nothing here that cannot be seen in other more exciting places in Japan. If you are nearby and have nothing better to do, this is great. I would not come all the way to Okayama to see this though.

All Pictures

Posted in Chūgoku, Honshū, Japan, Kibi 郡, Okayama 県 | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Rope Bridge

Posted by Heliocentrism on September 19, 2014

September 21-23, 2012

All Pictures

Japan
(日本)
(Nippon)

How to get there:

You can enter Japan by plane or boat. Though, the number of boats going to Japan from other countries has gone down significantly.   Americans get 90-day visas to Japan at the port of entry. Check with your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for visa information.

Phone:

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books:

Notes:

  • Be careful what over the counter drugs you bring into Japan.  Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers, and Codeine are prohibited.
  • InternationalATMs are really hard to find; more so if you aren’t in a big city. Many places in Japan do not use credit cards. Take cash and call your bank toaskwhatATMs or banks in Japan will work with your cash card.
    • ATMs have opening hours. Usually 9:00-18:00 (They have better work hours than most business men and women here.)
    • The Post Office bank seems to work with most cards.
  • You can get a Japan Railway, pass which saves you a lot of money on the trains, but you can only buy it before you get to Japan and you cannot be a resident of Japan. (I don’t have more information about it because I’ve only ever lived in Japan. I’ve never been a tourist.)

Kazurabashi Camp Village
(かずら橋キャンプ村)
(Kazurabashi kyampu-mura)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 33°52’47.0″N 133°50’27.3″E

Address:

〒778-0102
徳島県三好市西祖谷山村閑定

Phone:

  • 090-1571-5258

Websites:

Cost:

  • bungalows – ¥5,200
  • Bring your own tent –  ¥1,000/ per tent
  • There is also a general park admission:
    • adult – ¥200
    • kids – ¥100

Hours:

  • The campsite is close in the winter.

Notes:

  • There is a coin shower, but I don’t remember how much it costs.
  • There is a scary rope bridge near by. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you get on the bridge and feel how shaky it is.
    • Don’t wear shoes that slip off your feet easily.

Map:


Waiting for our turn to pose in front of the waterfall

Back in Japan with Friends

When I got back to Japan, Mark had a new job further up north. We were living on the island of Honshu on a region called Chugoku in a city called Okayama. We would stay there for 7 months and then move again. But, at the time of this trip we were far away from all our friends who live in Oita.

I don’t remember who picked this camping spot. Mark and I were excited for this trip to see our South African friends again. The trip itself was quiet and uneventful. This is the type of trip that makes life great, but blog posts boring. Since I know there are way more exciting post to come, as a person who is writing about these event that happen in the distant past, I don’t mind a few boring posts.

Don’t look down.

Hitchhiking in Japan

We did meet another camper. He was an English speaker from… oh lets say, England. He was hitchhiking across Japan. He traveled light. He had with him a few changes of clothes, a few meals, and some cash.

In the evening on our second day at the camp, the caretaker came to us and asked if another camper could camp near our site. We were a bit confused. No one ever makes that type of request. It would be like getting a knock on your hotel door and having the manager of the hotel ask if it was okay for him to rent out the room next to yours.

grilling up some fresh sand

We told him it was okay and waited to see what would happen next. A tent went up beside our tents and a few hours later a guy showed up. He was alone, not Japanese, and he seemed friendly.

His name was Jack or John or Chris. I don’t remember now. He was spending 3 months in Japan and hitchhiking through the country. “Hitchhiking!?” I asked him, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll be chopped up into tiny bits and end up in someone’s freezer?” “No,” he said, “that particular thought has never crossed my mind.”

“Do you stand on the side of the road with a sign saying, ‘Tokyo or Bust’?”

“Sometimes. But mostly I just go in a general direction, like north. Once in a while I have a specific destination, like coming here.” I don’t remember what it was in this area he came to see, but he only spent one night. He was gone the next day before most of us woke up.

making dinner

“How do you get people to stop for you?” This seemed like the biggest hurdle in Japan.  How does a non-Japanese hitchhiker, hitchhike?

“Well, I dress nicely. It’s easier when I’m clean-shaven. It helps that I speak enough Japanese to explain where I’m going, what I do for a living, and that I can keep a conversation going. Also, I heard somewhere that carrying a guitar helps, though I don’t have one. Women driving alone usually don’t stop to pick me up. It’s mostly groups of younger men like college students. Sometimes solo drivers who are going a very long distance will pick up a hitchhiker for company.”

He also explain that sometimes the ride would last an hour or two, sometimes a whole day. A few times he was invited to someone’s home for dinner, but mostly he asks to be dropped off in a town or a city where he can spend the night.

After he left, Freda and I commented about how nice he seemed. We hoped that his trip went well and that he stayed un-murdered.

All Pictures

Posted in Japan, Miyoshi 郡, Shikoku | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Accidental Trip to Hawaii

Posted by Heliocentrism on September 12, 2014

August 31 – September 2, 2013
(In crossing the International date line I lost a day.)

All Pictures

The United States of America

How to get there:

You can enter my country by land, air, or sea. But I think flight would be your transportation method of choice.

I have no clue how to get a visa to the US or who needs one. Just assume that you need one if you are not American or Canadian and check with your local US embassy.

Phone:

  • Use 911 for the police, fire department, or to get an ambulance
  • Use 411 for information (This might cost money.)

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books: 

Notes:

  • It’s a big country. You’re going to need a car.

Waikīkī Beach

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 21°16’34.5″N 157°49’38.1″W

Address:

Waikīkī Beach
Honolulu, HI 96815
USA

Websites:

Cost:

  • The beach is free
  • There are several foot washing stations that are free to use.
  • The hotels on the beach are quite expensive.
  • Parking might not be free.

Hours:

  • always available

Videos:

Notes:

  • NTT DoCoMo users from Japan can use their phones in Hawaii.

Map:


My Mom having Fun on Stilts

First World Problems

I was sitting in the living room at my mom’s house. We were talking about how much she is enjoying her retirement. My mom worked as a comptroller for a non-profit organization. My mom speaks both English and Spanish fluently so throughout her life she has been asked to doing some translations.

My mom was born in Belize, an English-speaking country. (In fact, when my mom was born she was a British citizen.) But as a teenager, my mom joined the Adventist church and wanted to go to an Adventist college to study. The closest one to Belize was in Costa Rica. So at 18 my mother, who spoke no Spanish up to that point, moved to Costa Rica for school.

My mother told me that her first semester was tough, but she quickly picked up the new language. By the time she graduated, she spoke Spanish fairly well. Then she married a Panamanian and moved to Colón and eventually Panama City. After several years of living in Panama, her Spanish improved even more.

She moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands after living in Jamaica and Grand Cayman. She worked mostly in accounting and used her Spanish-speaking skills whenever needed. At first she just translated for visitors in church. Then she started to translate the sermons from Spanish into English while on the pulpit. Then she was asked to translate meetings at work at first from Spanish into English, then from English into Spanish.

By the time she moved to Miami, she was well-known for her translating skills. She can translate, rehearsed, as the person is a translating for is speaking. But as head comptroller she didn’t have time to do as much translating as she does now. These days she is retired and is the go-to Spanish-English/ English-Spanish translator. Every time I call her she is in the Bahamas, Cayman, Venezuela, Australia, or somewhere else translating meeting or seminars, either from a booth or on stage.

She was telling me all about the upcoming translating assignments she had for the next few months. For a retired person, my mom is quite busy. Then she said the most first-world-problems thing I have ever heard. “I travel a lot and I’ve accumulated all these frequent flyer miles. But, I never get to use them because every time I fly someone else pays for my flight!”

That sucks!

Being the dutiful daughter that I am, I offered to help. “You can use them on me, mom. I promise to not let anyone pay for my ticket.” …And then she said, “Okay.”

I went online to look for a flight back to Japan. I chose a flight and was ready to get the ticket. My mom came by and ask if she had enough miles to get me all the way to Japan. “Mom, you have more than enough miles. You could even send me first class if you wanted to.” …And then she said, “Okay.”

me – “Okay, what?”

mom – “Get a first class ticket. Why not, I’m never going to use the miles.”

So that’s what I did. I got first class tickets from Columbus, Ohio to Fukuoka, Japan. Since this ticket was bought with mileage points I could not get a direct flight. But I didn’t care. It was free and in first class.

I had to choose between a Columbus, LAX, Seattle, Fukuoka route or a Columbus, LAX, Honolulu, Fukuoka. I chose Honolulu. Even though I would not be leaving the airport, I thought that Honolulu just sounded like a better place to wait for a flight from.

That’s me; first class all the way!

Columbus to LAX

I left Ohio in the evening on Friday. I would spend the night in LA and fly to Hawaii early the next morning. My plan was to either sleep at the international terminal or find a cheap hotel. When I got to LAX I was very hungry. Online, the consensus was that the international terminal was a better place to eat, use the internet, and even to sleep, so I went there.

After eating way too much Chinese food, I found some wi-fi and started looking at hotel options. When evaluating the price of accommodations from an airport, one must factor in the cost of the taxi ride to and from the airport. Taxis charge extra when there is an airport involved and this can make the cost of one night’s stay much more expensive. In fact, it might even be cheaper to stay at an expensive hotel that offers a free airport shuttle than a cheap hotel where you have to pay for your own taxi.

There were many great hotels with free shuttles to choose from, but when I tried to make reservations online, I would get a message that the room I wanted was just taken. After an hour of this I looked at a clock. It was almost midnight and my flight was for 7:30 the next morning. I would have to be back at LAX by 5:30. I gave up on finding a hotel and went to nice waiting area, found a sofa, and fell asleep.

Goodbye

Flying first class was nice. The food was great, the extra space was great. It was nice being one of the first on the plane. But what I really liked about first class was the little things. The flight attendants learn your name and calls you by your name, or nickname if you prefer, for the whole flight. They also make small talk with you. They take the time to explain the menu, “The salmon come from Alaska and it is served in a white wine sauce…” Something like that. It was not like a servant\ boss relationship type of thing that I had imaged, but more like a friend who is having you over at his or her house.

I LOVED it. It didn’t make me feel rich; it make me feel like a person. It’s not like back in coach you’re treated like cattle. But there a huge difference between having someone say, “Here’s your coffee ma’am,” and, “Here’s your coffee, Josie. Have you been to Honolulu before? You mentioned earlier that you love goofy tourist sights; you should visit…”

The middle of the airport in Honolulu — Yup they put a garden in their airport, because… Hawaii!

Once in Honolulu

I landed in Honolulu and the first thing I did was to find the gate for my next flight. Once that was sorted out I headed to a restaurant to spend the rest of my US dollars and eat the last plate of buffalo wings I would have for a long time. I also bought an overpriced drink and give a heavy tip, — ’cause what am I going to do with a 20 dollar bill in Japan?

Just before it was time for my flight, I made my way to the gate and I heard my name being called. I got to the counter and the lady there asked me to see my ticket out of Japan. I didn’t have one. I explained to her that my husband works in Japan and once in the country I would apply for a dependent visa. She said that that might be okay for Japan, but for the airline, they cannot take me to Japan unless I have an outbound ticket.

She recommended buying a ticket and then cancelling it later. I thought that was a good idea. But I didn’t have time to buy the ticket and make the flight. “No worries,” she said, “tomorrow’s flight is practically empty. You can have the same seat on that flight. Just come back the same time tomorrow with the outbound ticket.”

Waiting for my hotel shuttle

The lady apologized over and over and explained that it was the airlines policy. She and her co-workers kept going on and on about how well I was taking not getting on the flight. I accepted her apology trying to not look so damn delighted that I was spending a day in Honolulu. I walked over the passenger pickup area and found an inexpensive hotel near the airport that also had a free shuttle.

I got to the hotel and asked about an atm. I needed cash. (Why did I give such a big tip!?) I could pay for hotel and even meals with my credit card, but if I wanted to explore I would need to take the bus and the bus takes only cash.

Kitty doesn’t care about gas prices.

I walked several blocks to a Safeway where I could buy some water and get cash back. It was an hour of walking there and another hour of walking back. That’s when I noticed that normal people in America do not walk anywhere. Walking is just for the crazies. Non-crazy people drive or take the bus or at the very least use a bicycle. After I got back from the store I vowed to never walk in America again.

at the beach!

The next day I got up early in the morning and caught the first bus to Waikiki Beach.  I walked along the beach and wading in the water. I could have visited Pearl Harbor if I planned everything right, but I decided not to take a chance. I relaxed at the beach a bit before going back to my hotel showering and making it in time for my flight to Japan.

The next flight was first class on Hawaiian Airlines to Fukuoka. It was another great flight. The only question is how am I ever going to fly coach again?

All Pictures

Posted in Hawaii, United States, The | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Buckeye State

Posted by Heliocentrism on September 5, 2014

August 3, – September 1, 2013

All Pictures

The United States of America

How to get there:

You can enter my country by land, air, or sea. But I think flight would be your transportation method of choice.

I have no clue how to get a visa to the US or who needs one. Just assume that you need one if you are not American or Canadian and check with your local US embassy.

Phone:

  • Use 911 for the police, fire department, or to get an ambulance
  • Use 411 for information (This might cost money.)

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books: 

Notes:

  • It’s a big country. You’re going to need a car.

Slate Run Living Historical Farm

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°44’57.4″N 82°49’51.4″W

Address:

1375 State Route 674 N.
Canal Winchester, OH 43110

Phone:

  • InfoLine 614.508.8000
  • +1 614-833-1880

Websites:

Cost:

  • Free
  • You can buy products made here like jams or heirloom seeds.

Hours:

  • April and May: Tue-Sat 9am-4pm, Sun 11am-4pm(Memorial Day, noon-6pm)
  • June to Aug: Tue-Thu 9am-4pm, Fri-Sat 9am-6pm, Sun 11am-6pm  (July 4, 9am-6pm)
  • Sept to Oct: Tue-Sat 9am-4pm, Sun 11am-4pm (Labor Day, noon-6pm)
  • Nov to March: Wed-Sat 9am-4pm, Sun 11am-4pm

 

  • The Farm is closed:
    • on Mondays
    • closed on Tuesdays from November to March
    • Thanksgiving Day,
    • Christmas Day
    • New Year’s Day

Map:


Love the legroom on JAL!

One way ticket back home

After finishing my 3 years of working at 2 high schools in Japan for the Jet Programme, the Japanese government bought me a flight back home. My mom moved from Miami to Columbus, so I headed to Ohio, the Buckeye state. (I’m not sure what a buckeye is. I think it’s a type of fruit that is poisonous to Wolverines…)

Malcolm and me

The first thing I noticed was how big everything was. The streets are wide even though there wasn’t much traffic. (My flight landed at 20:00 on a Saturday evening.) The median, well… there was a median! There are very few medians in Japan and when there is it’s either on a toll-pike or you get those dinky little poles that won’t give any protection from someone crossing over to the wrong side of the road.

My mom passed a bank on our way home. It had a huge lawn for no reason. It wasn’t a park. No one ever walks on the lawn or even by it. Someone just thought, “Hey, a lawn would be nice here,” and they put a lawn there. They have space like that. I wasn’t in Japan anymore.

Stilt walking

I didn’t travel much when I was in the US. I mostly spent time with my family and did lots of shopping. I dumped all the clothes I had for the past 3 years in Japan, and bought all new stuff, in my size! I bought sun block (it’s cheaper in the states), deodorant, my favorite lotions, medicine (there is not throat antiseptic spray or neosporin in Japan), and chocolate bars.

My nephew always finds a reason to take his shirt off.

We did take a trip to Kentucky to drop off an exchange student to college. She had been living with my family for the past year and got into an American college. This lend to an unexpected visit to the home of some friends of my sister-in-law. They asked if we wanted to ride on their ATVs for a bit. Well, why not!?

Later comers to dinner

My family ate dinner together while everyone talked about their day. I felt like I was in the Waltons. I made dinner for everyone one night. It was cold noodles with ginger and soy sauce for dipping. They seemed to like it. But, my brother liked it more after he microwaved his for a couple minutes. He likes his food hot and his drinks cold.

Saturday night jam session

My brother and his kids played music. I listen and wondered where all this talent came from. The last time I saw most of them they were snot-nose kids who asked a lot of questions and were also hurting themselves roughhousing. Now they were grown men who drove me around until I got a new American driver’s license. They took me shopping and waited patiently while I tried things on.

I remember arguing with these kids about bedtime. Every night’s argument ended with a, “Okay one more story, but then you have to go to bed.” Now even the youngest one, my niece was a person I could talk to about books and other interesting topics and not just about why she should finish her broccoli and brush her teeth.

My niece proving to her brothers that she is just as strong as strong as any of them.

Kids huh… One day they’re little brats, the next they are fine upstanding adults. Crazy!

All Pictures

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The ¥1,000 Burger

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 29, 2014

Saturday, July  20, 2013

All Pictures

Japan
(日本)
(Nippon)

How to get there:

You can enter Japan by plane or boat. Though, the number of boats going to Japan from other countries has gone down significantly.   Americans get 90-day visas to Japan at the port of entry. Check with your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for visa information.

Phone:

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books:

Notes:

  • Be careful what over the counter drugs you bring into Japan.  Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers, and Codeine are prohibited.
  • InternationalATMs are really hard to find; more so if you aren’t in a big city. Many places in Japan do not use credit cards. Take cash and call your bank toaskwhatATMs or banks in Japan will work with your cash card.
    • ATMs have opening hours. Usually 9:00-18:00 (They have better work hours than most business men and women here.)
    • The Post Office bank seems to work with most cards.
  • You can get a Japan Railway, pass which saves you a lot of money on the trains, but you can only buy it before you get to Japan and you cannot be a resident of Japan. (I don’t have more information about it because I’ve only ever lived in Japan. I’ve never been a tourist.)

McDonald’s
(マクドナルド)

How to get there:

Address:

Everywhere!

Websites:

Cost:

  • McDonald’s is a little more pricy in Japan, but so is everything else.

Hours:

  • Most are open 24/7.

Notes:

Map:


Clearly what would make the burger better is if it were more expensive!

Someone sent me a link to this ad online for the ¥1,000 Burgers at McDonald’s. (¥1,000 ≈ $10) I’m not a big McDonald’s fan. I love the milk shakes, apple pie, and the fries. But everything at McDonald’s tastes like it comes from McDonald’s. Someone could blindfold you. They could place in your mouth a new dish from McDonald’s you have never had before, lets say a McSpaghetti Burger. You would just have to take one bite before you could identify where the burger came from.

I occasionally eat McDonald’s, but it’s usually under protest or after defeat. “I wanted to go Sushi Meijin, but everyone else wanted to go to McDonald’s.” I think of McDonald’s a step above starving. It’s not because it’s fast food. I love Subway and Burger King. It’s really just the McDonaldsy taste everything on its menu has.

“Is this a good idea?”

But when I saw the ad for the more expensive one-time-only gourmet burgers, I had to have one. If only to say that I had one. I chose the Black Diamond. It had some fancy bun and was smothered in truffle sauce. Truffles at McDonald’s!? Now, that’s just redunk!

The Black Diamond came out on July 13. If you faithfully follow this blog, which I’m sure you do, you will notice that July 13 was the start of our Itchy Island camping trip. The plan was to drive down to Miyazaki and stop at a McDonald’s for lunch. We were all looking forward to our overpriced meal.

We stopped in some town in the sticks and found a McDonald’s. We walked in only to be greeted by every man, woman, and child who lived in that town. We were about to stand in the long line when Billy noticed a sign by the counter.

“Guys,” he said, “It says here that the burger is sold out.” It was not yet noon. Not only did they run out of the overpriced burger, they ran out of burgers in general. Only chicken sandwiches were available but it didn’t seem that they would last too long either. Did I mention that it was not yet noon? …at McDonald’s? Whatever the burger tasted like, it was a huge money-maker for McDonald’s!

But that wasn’t just this little dinky town’s McDonald’s. Billy asked someone at the counter if there was another McDonald’s nearby that would still have the burger. The lady at the counter told him that they are sold out there too. In fact last week, when they served the Gold Ring Burger, they sold out by 11:30 on average nationwide.

First in line!

10:00 Rush

This would not happen to us again. The only thing worse than a crappy overpriced burger is a crappy overpriced burger that I can’t have. We woke up early the next Saturday morning and went to the least frequented McDonald’s in town.

This place usually has like 2 or 3 cars parked in its lot. In fact it has so little traffic at any given time it shares its parking lot with the convenience store next door.

That day’s burger was the Ruby Spark. It wasn’t the burger I wanted, but it was our last chance for a ¥1,000 burger. It had Chorizo, Monterey jack cheese, and avocado “filling” all on special bun. There was no truffle sauce, but hey, real cheese!

We knew that the breakfast menu ended at 10:00 so we showed up around 9:45. At 9:55 they started to change the menu board and Mark walked over to the counter. Within a few minutes, before staff was ready to take the first non-breakfast order the line was out the door. By the time we started eating the line was wrapped around the McDonald’s.

How do I open this?

The burger, we only got one, came in a special box referred to by McDonald’s as a “Jewel Case”. The box, once you slid off its sleeve, had a top that came off presenting the burger on display in a gold ring. There was also a pamphlet telling you all about the burger and everything came in a bag with a gold ribbon on the handle. Obviously McDonald’s thought very highly of this burger. “You might want to tell your grandkids about this someday, so hold on to that pamphlet!”

well…

We tasted it.

The bun was nice. It wasn’t the usually sesame bun McDonald’s usually uses. This was really nice.

The cheese was fantastic.

The onions were nicely grilled.

The Chorizo was nice and spicy, yet not overpowering. Great!

The avocado sauce was creamy and delicious. You can really taste the expensive!

The burger… It was the same old burger used in all McDonald’s burgers. It tasted McDonaldsy and cheap. When the flavors of all the other fixing elevated you to the land of quality gourmet burgers, the taste of the beef patty pulled you right back down again onto your McDonald’s chair. They spent all this time and money into making a great burger, but they didn’t bother to get a better beef patty.

Boo McDonald’s! Boooooooo!

… I was really hoping I would have this reaction to the burger, but no.

All Pictures

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Itchy Island

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 22, 2014

July 13-15, 2013

All Pictures

Japan
(日本)
(Nippon)

How to get there:

You can enter Japan by plane or boat. Though, the number of boats going to Japan from other countries has gone down significantly.   Americans get 90-day visas to Japan at the port of entry. Check with your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for visa information.

Phone:

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books:

Notes:

  • Be careful what over the counter drugs you bring into Japan.  Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers, and Codeine are prohibited.
  • InternationalATMs are really hard to find; more so if you aren’t in a big city. Many places in Japan do not use credit cards. Take cash and call your bank toaskwhatATMs or banks in Japan will work with your cash card.
    • ATMs have opening hours. Usually 9:00-18:00 (They have better work hours than most business men and women here.)
    • The Post Office bank seems to work with most cards.
  • You can get a Japan Railway, pass which saves you a lot of money on the trains, but you can only buy it before you get to Japan and you cannot be a resident of Japan. (I don’t have more information about it because I’ve only ever lived in Japan. I’ve never been a tourist.)

Otojima Survival Island
(夢人島サバイバルアイランドキャンプ場
)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 32°28’06.2″N 131°40’08.8″E

Address:

〒889-0611 宮崎県東臼杵郡門川町大字門川尾末字乙島9100
0982-63-1140

Phone:

  • 0982-63-1140

Websites:

Cost:

  • Bungalow – ¥3,500
  • Tent – ¥1,500
  • There are things for rent like blankets, dishes, and BBQ equipment
  • Round Trip Ferry Ride
    • ¥1,500 adults
    • ¥1,000 kids

Hours:

  • Check in – 15:00
  • Check out – 10:00

Notes:

  • You must have reservations ahead of time to stay here.
  • You also need reservations for the ferry to the island.
    • The ferry is run by an older couple and it runs only when needed.
    • You must tell them when to come back to pick you up.
    • You can park your car in the couple’s parking lot for free.
  • Pack light. You will have to carry all your stuff up to the cabins if you are not using your tent.
  • Bring lots of bug spray!

Map:


Roland’s post after this camping trip

Attacked!

We had lots of fun on this trip. We did have a close call when a tree fell on the path to the cabins we used often. Luckily no one was on the path at that particular moment. We were also constantly being attacked by every mosquito this side of the Mississippi. We were expecting the weekend to be quiet, but for the first 20 hours of the trip there was an army of jr. high kids running around and screaming at every bug and bat they saw.

The person hit the hardest by the bugs was Mark. His blood is delicious to them. On this trip he lived with a thick coating of bug spray on his skin and they still bit him. Even I got bit, and bugs hardly ever bother me.

But we did have fun!

All our stuff

Don’t bring too much stuff

We tried to bring everything we needed and packed light at the same time. The campsite was on an island and we had to haul all our stuff ourselves on our backs. We could not drive to the campsite, unload, and then park. But since it was on an island there was no going to a 7eleven to pick up an extra bottle of water or a toothbrush.

We decided to leave the tents at home and instead fill our backpack with food and supplies. We got one cabin for the 5 of us. There was not an extra inch of cabin space left when we were all lying down. It was a good thing there wasn’t a 6th person.

Up-the-Butt Chicken

Pinterest Meals

To keep the weight of our luggage down we assigned meals, instead of having a free-for-all cook out. Usually everyone would make a dish for every meal. But this usually caused overeating, lots of leftovers, and a lot of dishes. This time we planned ahead of time who would make which meal. There were 5 meals and 5 campers, so we each prepared one meal.

I picked drunk chicken, a recipe I found on Pinterest. This involves seasoning a chicken, placing a half empty can of beer inside the chicken, and putting it on a grill. This is what I wanted to make even though in my 4 years of living in Japan I had never seen a whole chicken for sale at the grocery store, ever.

5 little hens sitting nicely on the grill

I was talking to someone about how I wanted to make this meal for my camping trip, but alas I could not, when he or she mentioned seeing game hens at a store called A-Price. A-Price is a grocery store that caters more to restaurants than individuals, but regular non-restaurant owning people  shop there too. A-Price is also notorious for having a particular item in stock one week and not the next. So, I ran down there and bought up 5 little hens.

But wait… I have whole chickens, but they are too small for a beer can to be shoved inside. “You live in Japan,” Mark reminded me, “the land where someone always says, ‘This is too big. Can you make a smaller one?’ I’m sure you can find a small beer can to fit into your tiny chickens.

Mark selflessly volunteering to make my beer cans half empty

He was right. At the convenience store nearest to our apartment they sold tiny cans of Asahi beer. They looked like they were made for kids. I bought 5 of them. They weren’t that much cheaper than the regularly sized beer.

I was told that these were made for people to be able to drink and later drive home. Japan has a 0 alcohol level tolerance. If you drink even a little you cannot legally drink a car. But these were designed to be just enough beer for you to enjoy one and still have a 0 blood alcohol level in about 3 hours. (Maybe not 3 hours exactly, but some number of hours.) Take this information with a grain of salt. I don’t remember who told me this and I cannot find conformation of it online anywhere.

perfect!

It took several hours of grilling to completely cook the birds. There was a bunch of schoolkids standing by making their forgettable dinner. They watch intently as we seasoned the chicken, added spices to the beer, placed the beer in the bird, wrapped the birds in foil, and placed them on the grill. I didn’t have to worry that the chicken would burn without anyone noticing. Those kids were fixated on the meat. They kept commenting about how delicious it smelled. If anything started to burn they would notice.

Not only did the chicken smell good, they tasted great too. And the boys loved the seasoned beer. I took the beer can out of my chicken and did not touch it, but the guys poured their spicy beer over their chicken like is was gravy.

Playing nerd games

Our days were spent swimming but the evening were meant for board game. We played a few rounds of Citadels and Zombies!!! on this trip. I always come close to winning, but I have only won once. It was Zombies!!!. I was so tired I wanted my character to die and be out of the game, so I kept taking risks. Apparently that is a good strategy, because I won and ended the game sooner than usual.

Getting Billy drunk so he won’t win

Grill Master Billy

Billy can grill. When we go camping with Billy we always hand him the tongs and step back. But when Freda and I looked into his bag in hopes of figuring out what he would make for his meal, we had our doubts about his cooking abilities. Left alone in the cabin with Billy’s grocery bag we just could not help ourselves. We had to look in. We found a can of mangos, a knife, and a bottle of ketchup.

“What do you think he’ll make with that?” we asked each other. We didn’t want to say anything to hurt his feelings, but we didn’t think we would enjoy his meal. “I know he’s single and sometimes single guys will eat odd combinations of things.” We even started thinking about a back-up plan. “I still have vegetables left over from my meal. Do you still have eggs and bread? We could so something with that…”

umm, Billy…

When it was Billy’s turn to make dinner we were all scared, but we didn’t say anything. He started by grilling some bread. “Yup, he’s lost his mind!” we thought. Then he took the bread off and put on some hotdogs.

“Wait, you had hot dogs!?” we asked him. “Yes,” he said not noticing our anxiety.

“Were they in your backpack this whole time?” We thought about the hot dogs sitting in the hot cabin for two days. They can’t possibly be good to eat now.

“No, I kept them in my cooler.”

“You have a cooler!? We didn’t see it in the cabin.” I thought back to morning we first arrive. Mark and I had a cooler. The South Africans had a cooler and a Costco bag. Was that cooler actually Billy’s?

Not bad Billy

“I didn’t put it in the cabin. I didn’t want to carry up the hill. I kept it under the table in the kitchen area.”

We looked on and he continued to grill. When the hot dogs where done, we put them on the bread and smothered the whole thing with ketchup. Then Billy started grilling vegetables… then beef… then pork… then fish. For dessert he opened the can of mangos. It was a very good meal! We started to sing the praises of Grill Master Billy.

We told him about looking into his grocery bag and how we thought the meal would end up. “Oh, if I had know that’s what you guys expected I would have done something like grill the mangos put ketchup on them and see if you would eat it.”

our weekend island home

When it was time to leave we were packed and ready to go on time. We climbed aboard the boat. But instead of taking us back to the main island of Kyushu, the ferry couple took us around the island on a short tour.

Goodbye!

This might be our last camping trip together ever. Billy would be going back to New Zealand in a few weeks. Mark and I would be leaving Oita and heading to some other town in Japan. We didn’t know where we would be going at the time. Only the South Africans were staying where they were.

All Pictures

Posted in Japan, Kadogawa 町, Kyūshū, Miyazaki 県 | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Surf City, Japan

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 15, 2014

Saturday, June 8-10, 2013

All Pictures

Japan
(日本)
(Nippon)

How to get there:

You can enter Japan by plane or boat. Though, the number of boats going to Japan from other countries has gone down significantly.   Americans get 90-day visas to Japan at the port of entry. Check with your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for visa information.

Phone:

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books:

Notes:

  • Be careful what over the counter drugs you bring into Japan.  Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers, and Codeine are prohibited.
  • InternationalATMs are really hard to find; more so if you aren’t in a big city. Many places in Japan do not use credit cards. Take cash and call your bank to ask whatATMs or banks in Japan will work with your cash card.
    • ATMs have opening hours. Usually 9:00-18:00 (They have better work hours than most business men and women here.)
    • The Post Office bank seems to work with most cards.
  • You can get a Japan Railway, pass which saves you a lot of money on the trains, but you can only buy it before you get to Japan and you cannot be a resident of Japan. (I don’t have more information about it because I’ve only ever lived in Japan. I’ve never been a tourist.)

Hyuga Sun Park Auto Camping Ground
(日向サンパークオートキャンプ場)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 32°20’34.1″N 131°37’36.8″E

Address:

Japan, Miyazaki Prefecture, Hyuga, Saiwaki, 303−5

Phone:

  • 0982-58 -0636

Websites:

Cost:

  • For tent camping (you bring your own tent) – ¥3,780

Hours:

  • Check in 14:00
  • Check out 11:00

Notes:

  • Campsite Facilities
    • Hot Showers (Coin Operated)
    • Electric outlets at each camp spot
    • Charcoal for sale and grills for hire
    • There are cabins too.
    • You can leave your trash at this campsite. Just separate burnable from non-burnables.
  • There is a nearby onsen
    • ¥500

On the Beach
(オン ザ ビーチ)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 32°21’27.7″N 131°37’18.6″E

Address:

〒883-0022 宮崎県日向市平岩金ヶ浜2220

Phone:

  • 0982 57 2548

Websites:

Cost:

  • Surfboard Rental – ¥3,000
  • Wet Suit Rental – ¥2,000
  • Lessons ~ ¥6,000 per lesson
    • When you rent equipment you can get a free 10 minute lesson covering the general how-to’s of surfing.

Hours:

  • 9:00 ~ 17:00

Notes:

  • This is a surf shop and their stuff is name brand surfing gear. If you need things like sunscreen, a towel, or flip-flops you don’t have buy them at this shop. There is a convenience across the street that sells this things for a fraction of the price.

Map:


Mark on his (card)board

Moondoggie Mark

Ever since Mark got his PADI license in Thailand, he has wanted to learn how to surf. He had never surfed before so he wasn’t going to buy all the gear and equipment or take on a goofy surfer nickname right waway. He just wanted to try it out first. If he liked it, then he would sign up for a class or buy a used surfboard.

Mark found out that Miyazaki, one of the prefectures next to ours, was a big surfer hangout. He had been trying for years to talk some guys into driving down there and spending a whole weekend surfing. At first he wanted to find some people who were surfer and had their own gear that he could borrow. But he never found such people.

Surfing gear is very expensive. Even renting is quite pricy. So when Mark finally got a bunch of guys together to try this whole surfing thing out, they came up with the plan of just renting 2 boards and 2 wet suits and taking turns surfing. And to save more money, they would camp instead of staying in a hotel.

Swifty is tired of camping

Once camping became part of this little adventure, the wives refused to stay home. We had no interest in surfing, but we’d watch and take photos. This would be a great 3-day weekend.

Double your grilling pleasure

Dueling Grills

I discovered some pinterest camp cooking boards. They inspired me. I spent months drooling over photos of campfire-cooked foods until I found the one I like. Freda also discovered the pinterest camp cooking boards. We were going to have a friendly little cook off. Everyone else seemed quite happy with our new-found hobby, camp chefery.

Bombs Away!

I made onion bombs. They are pretty much like meatloaf stuffed in onion. Freda enjoyed them because, as she said, “They look like Poké Balls. You just want to catch them all!” They tasted great too.

Master Grill Baker Roland

Roland did some grill top baking. It was a South African recipe. It never occurred to me that one could bake bread outside an oven, much less on a grill. They were delicious. We ate the bread with butter, honey, and cheese.

The boys look scared

Hanging 10 is hard

The boys initially were going to rent two boards and two wet suits and then shared them. The surf shop owner, after seeing that they were trying to save money, worked out a group discount where they got 2 boards but everyone got their own suit. It was more expensive than what they were planning to do, but it was still a lot cheaper than it would have normally cost. And, the owner threw in a free 20 minute surf lesson.

on the practice board

They paid close attention to the instructions and did exactly what the owner said to do. Everyone started to relax. They actually felt like this was quite doable. They would be surfer dudes in no time. There was even talk of another surf weekend.

Huzzah!

No one’s breaking out the sex wax any time soon.

Unfortunately, the photo above was the only moment of surfing any of the boys had. And this one only lasted for a few seconds. Again and again the boys fell of the boards. Eventually they stopped trying to stand up, preferring to stay on their bellies.

The women wading in the water cheering the guys on. The sea was too rough for swimming. We chatted about who we thought would be to first to hang 10. Some said that Mark would the first. I thought Billy might pull it off. We were all wrong. None of them managed the maneuver. Just standing up was a task and as soon as they kind of got off their bellies, they would fall off.

They turned in the board earlier than was necessary. It was cold and surfing, when you don’t know how, is very tiring. Mark said that when he had the board the wetsuit kept him warm. But, when he was waiting to use the board, he was too cold. The guys in the full suit felt opposite. It was fine when waiting, but when they had the board they were too hot.

Billy spying some fish

They turned in the boards, but kept the suits until the end of the day. Mark and some of the boys brought snorkeling gear, so the guys took the suits to another beach to look at fish and other marine life. The guys had fun doing this. Well, they did until Swifty remembered that after turning in the surf boards his wife gave him her phone to hold. Not wanting to hold the phone in his hand, he put it in the pocket of his shorts. He was not in a wetsuit; the phone was dead.

Ready to ride the waves?

Over all did the boys have fun?

They sure did!

Will they go surfing again.

Hell no!

All Pictures

Posted in Hyūga 市, Japan, Kyūshū, Miyazaki 県 | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Back Home in Japan

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 8, 2014

Sunday May 5, 2013

This time I knew I was not in Japan!

Late (for reals this time!)

Vera and I both had morning flights about half an hour apart. She was heading to South Korea and I to Japan. We got on an airport limousine and were zooming down the highway. Then we hit traffic. There was nothing we could do.

I made it just in time to catch my flight. They let me jump the line at the security check and I ran to my gate. I was the last person to get on the plane. I took my seat and caught my breath.

This time when we stopped in Qingdao I was aware of it. There was no mistaking any city in China for any city in Japan.

This is all I have.

Are you sure you don’t mean South Korea?

When I got to the airport in Fukuoka there was a blue bin with my name on it going around the carousel. I knew that it meant that my bag was lost. Although I made the flight from China, my bag did not. I took the bin over to a counter and started filing a report. The airline officials asked me to describe my bag and its contents.

It was a new bag and I could not quite remember what it looked like. It was blue and it was a backpack… “Where did you come from?” the uniformed man asked me. “China,” I said. “You were in China the whole time?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. “I was in China for about 3 days total. The rest of the time I was in North Korea.”

“You were in South Korea,” he corrected me.

“No sir. I was in North Korea.”

“Are you American?” he asked looking at my passport.

“I am.”

“Then you can’t go to North Korea. Are you sure you weren’t in Seoul?”

“I lived in Seoul for 2 years. If I were there just now, I would not have mistaken it for anywhere else. I was in Pyongyang, North Korea. The bag should have a sticker on it saying as much.” Then I pulled out a copy of the Pyongyang Times I had on me and handed it to the official. I might not know the Qingdao airport from the Beijing airport, but I know the difference between Seoul and Pyongyang.

I don’t think Seoul is spelled with a P.

He took the newspaper and said the Japanese equivalent to “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! This is North Korea!”

“I know.”

“It’s dangerous!”

“I know.”

“You were there!?”

“I was.”

He turned to a colleague and told her what was going on in Japanese. She shook her head in disbelief. He handed her the newspaper. She took the paper and looked at the photos. She asked him something and he then asked me, “Why is the newspaper in English?”

“For westerners to read and see how wonderful North Korea is,” I responded.

“Is it really wonderful?” Both he and the lady seemed to have stopped breathing waiting for my response. Maybe they thought I was brainwashed or something.

“No. It’s a crazy place where nothing normal happens. It’s a lot of things, but wonderful is not one of them.”

They seemed satisfied with that answer and finished filling out the form for my bag. It was still in China and would be delivered to my apartment in a few days.

That was great for me since I had to take public transportation from Fukuoka to Oita. Not having a big bag to carry made my life easier and China Eastern paid the delivery charges.

An anonymous co-worker and me

You’re back, wow!

The reactions from my co-workers when I got back was a little surprising. Before I left I found several treats left on my desk while I was in class. It was a bit more than the usually amount of surprise candy one can expect to find on one’s desk if one works in Japan. It was around the end of May when the big teacher mix-up happens so, I figured that was the reason.

At the end of the school year, which in Japan is around May, teachers get reassigned schools. A teacher can expect to work about 3 years at any given school and after the 3 years, the teacher can be moved to any other school in the prefecture. People get weepy and nostalgic and they tend to give each other gifts to say goodbye and thanks.

I did get more stuff than the other teachers, but it was my last year so I didn’t give it anymore thought. When I entered the teachers’ office on my first day back I heard a sigh of relief from some of my co-workers. One even came up to me and said, “Oh you’re back, wow! We were worried about your trip.”

Some of them thought I was not coming back!?

In China Vera and I found a shop that sold the same fruit candy stuff the twins had. We bought some for our co-workers. They were a big hit with the teachers. They would take one and walk over to my desk and ask questions about my trip and thank me for the candy. The treats I brought them from North Korea did not get eaten so quickly. I teach at two school and the Chinese candies disappeared quickly at both schools, but the North Korean candy just sat there.

Sweets from a tea ceremony done at one of my schools.

I had one more meeting with the principal. He wanted to hear all about my trip. He remembered the questions I had about North Korea when I spoke in previous meetings. “So, what is North Korea like?” he asked through a translator.

“It’s a weird place filled with contractions and propaganda. People have to appear to hold facts in their hearts that do not stand up to any scrutiny. Some of them seem very curious about the world outside North Korea.”

“What do North Koreans look like?”

“They are very slim. The only non-skinny person I saw there was the Dear Guide. He was quite an anomaly. Other than that, they look just like South Koreans or the Chinese only slimmer and shorter.”

“What do they eat?”

“North Korea food is like South Korean food, only not as spicy or flavorful. I much rather the food in South Korea, China, or Japan to the food in North Korea. Their pizza, however, is great!”

“Do they have chocolate over there?”

“No! That stuff is not chocolate!”

“Do they have Chinese or Russian friends?”

“Unlikely.”

“What kind of music do they listen to?”

“State sanctioned music. But, if they are giving tours to westerners one may belt out a verse of Edelweiss.”

 

 

Posted in Beijing, China, Japan | Leave a Comment »

Back in China, Again

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 1, 2014

Saturday May 4, 2013 

All Pictures (North Korea)
All Pictures (China)

North Korea
(조선민주주의인민공화국)
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk) 

How to get there:

The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.

Phone:

You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books:

If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)

Notes:

NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!


The Yanggakdo International Hotel
(양각도국제호텔)
(Yanggakdo gookchea hotel)

How to get there:

  • 38°59’57.3″N 125°45’05.9″E

Don’t you worry about directions here or any other place in North Korea. Someone will also be around to show you where to go.

Address:

Yanggakdo International Hotel
Pyongyang, North Korea

Phone:

There are phones in the hotel, but I never used it. So, I don’t know whom you can call.

Website:

e-mail:

You can send emails from the lobby of the hotel. You can also mail letters.

Cost:

Your tour will take care of this.

Hours:

  • Breakfast starts at 7:00

Videos:

Notes:

  • The Yanggakdo Hotel is not the only hotel in town. Neither is it the only functioning hotel in town. But it is the one in which any tourist in Pyongyang will most like be staying.
  • This hotel is where many American prisoners get to talk to the Swedish ambassador. Some have actually held prisoner here.
  • You cannot go to the 5th floor!
  • You cannot go to any floor where the lights are turned off. If you try to, an official will escort you back to the elevator.
  • You can walk around the grounds but you cannot leave Yanggakdo (Yanggak island) on your own.
  • Be careful when using the elevator. The doors will slam shut even when you are in the way.

China 
(中国)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to China.
  • Visas to China are expensive for people of some nationalities.
  • Getting a Chinese visa is not a quick process. Apply as soon as you can.

Phone:

Website:

There is a long list of websites that cannot be accessed while in China. Facebook and parts of Wikipedia are just two of them. As with everything, there are ways around it. There are sites that will let you get to Facebook and other sites for free for about 15 minutes, then you will have to pay.

My advice is to find a few of them and use them for free. Then use them again on a different computer. If you are in China for a long time, then you might want to invest in paying for the service. Ask friends living in China for the best deals.

Videos:

Books:

*These books by Jung Chang are banned in China. But I highly recommend reading Mao: The Unknown Story before going to Beijing.

Notes:

  • If you want an internet cafe look for this (网吧) on a sign.

photo from their websiteSitting on the City Walls

How to get there:

Address:

城墙旅舍
57 Nianzi Hutong
Dongcheng, Beijing
China, 100009

Phone: +86 10 6402 7805

Websites:

e-mail: beijingcitywalls@163.com

Cost:

  • Website
  • 100 Yuan/ bed (dorm)
  • 260 Yuan for single en suite
  • 480 Yuan for double bed or 2 twin beds en suite

Notes:

  • You can book tours of Beijing through this hostel.
  • Remember that in China you pay a refundable cash deposit when you check into a hotel or hostel.

Hooters Beijing

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°55’58.9″N 116°27’02.4″E

Address:

201, China View Building No.1, East Worker’s Stadium Rd,Chaoyang District,Beijing

Phone: (86-010)65858787

Websites:

Cost:

a bit pricier than most Chinese restaurants

Hours:

  • 11:00-01:00 Sun-Sat

Map:


Last night in Pyongyang

Is this room bugged?

Our last night in North Korea Vera and I stayed up a little talking about the day’s events. We talked about the famine and the ludicrous government. I started naming many of the inadequacies of DPRK when Vera said that maybe we should wait until we got to China before we took this conversation any further. “I mean,” she whispered, “what if this room is bugged?”

“Vera,” I said, “have you not noticed how nothing in this country works properly? First of all, if they are going to bug someone, why would they pick backpackers with a budget tour company? I don’t know any secrets. I don’t even know people who know people who know secrets. Besides, even if the room were bugged, the bugs probably stopped working like the lock to the door of our first hotel room.”

DPRK cleaned!

Let’s blow this popsicle stand!

By Saturday morning I was ready to leave North Korea. It was a timely departure; not too soon and not too late. I had spent just enough time in the DPRK. Some on our tour would stay and travel north to see other DPRK sights, but I was not jealous of any of them. My only regret was that I had to go back to China instead of going straight home to Japan.

I packed my bag with my freshly laundered clothes and Vera and I made our way to the basement for breakfast. It was the first calm breakfast I had in days. In the restaurant, were only the people from my tour. All other tourists were rushed out hours earlier being told that their schedules were changed and that they were now running late on their new itineraries.

After eating we slowly made our way to the buses. We were now split into 3 new groups; the train group which had no Americans, the plane group which had the Americans leaving the DPRK today, and the staying group made up mostly of an Australian couple, a Hong Kongese couple, and one American.

public transit bus in Pyongyang

I got on the bus and sat in my seat thinking over everything I had seen in the DPRK. Then I heard something strangely familiar, yet out of context. I sat there thinking about it. It was music, a song, a pop song… A K-POP SONG! It was Gangnam Style by Psy!

I stood up to look around the bus. Where was that coming from. I wasn’t the only one; five other people were asking each other where the music was coming from. Then we saw a guy in the back with his index finger over his lips asking us to keep this secret. Next to him was a North Korean guide. The guide was staring intently at the guys phone with wide eyes and making cooing noises in amazement. When he noticed that more people were looking his way, he put the phone in his pocket.

Ms. Lee entered the bus and gave everyone back their passports. I had forgotten that I given it away. “What do you think they were doing with all the passports?” Phone guy asked. “Making copies to improve their spy program,” on another guy answered.

Ms. Lee asked for our attention. “We are running late. There are two problems. One, there is a towel missing. If you have taken a towel from the hotel by accident, please return it.” She paused to see if anyone would admit to taking the towel. When no one responded she continued. “The second thing is… has anyone seen Steve?”

The Kims haven’t seen Steve.

Steve was not in Group A and I did not know what he looked like. Most of the people on the bus were from Group A and also didn’t know which guy from Group B Steve was. Phone guy took out his phone to show everyone a picture of Steve from the night before. There were about 6 photos of Steve. In all of them Steve was drinking heavily and as Phone guy scrolled through his pictures you could see Steve getting more and more drunk. The last photo of Steve was in the bowling alley. “That’s the last I saw of him,” Phone guy said, “around 2:00 this morning.”

The western guide for Group B ran onto the bus and asked if anyone knew who was Steve’s roommate. “Steve didn’t have a roommate,” Phone guy told him. “Crikey,” the guide said. “We’ve been calling his room and no one is answering.” “If we don’t find him soon we’ll be late for our flight,” one worried tourists said. “I’m sure they’ll hold the flight for us,” another tourist said, “What else do they have to do today?”

To the airport posthaste!

The towel thing was never resolved. There were threats to search everyone’s bags, but it was never carried out. Someone suggested that maybe Steve stole it in a drunken rage and ran away in shame, but the Koreans were in no mood for jocularity.

Eventually a maid, in search of the missing towel, opened Steve’s room to find him passed out on the floor. The two western guides were called up to his room to get his stuff packed and deliver him to the door of the bus going to the airport. Steve walked down the aisle of the bus beet red, unshaven, unwashed, still smelling of booze, and still in the clothes from yesterday as shown by Phone guy’s phone photos.

Waiting to leave

We were taken to the airport. We all stood by the luggage carousel waiting for our plane to start boarding. It felt a little odd. Usually you check in, go through security check, and then wait for the plane to start boarding. But here, it did not happen in that order.

We walked through security check first; everyone did. Our Korean guides who were not leaving the country went in first. Our western guide were both taking the train back to Beijing, so we on our own once we passed the gate.

a bus to the plane

Once our passports were checked and not stamped, we walked out the door and onto a bus. We stood on the bus and wondered which plane we would be taking. “As long as it’s not the plane that was smoking when we landed here,” someone said. Then the bus drove us right over to that very plane, or at least one that looked just like it and was parked in the very spot the smoking plane was a few days ago.

“Another photo for the Leader!”

There were these really tall and thin North Korean guys posing for photo after photo in front of the plane. I thought they were part of a DPRK basketball team at first since they wore running shoes with their suits. But, then I noticed one of them writing that he was a diplomat on his landing card. Their clothes were too big and too small for them at the same time. They were swimming in their suits, but ankles and wrists were inelegantly exposed.

Ready for freedom in China

I sat next to one of the lanky guys on the plane. His knees jolted out so far that he was practically wedged in between his seats and the guy’s in front of him. He squealed a little when the guy in front of him reclined his chair. I asked him if he spoken any English and he said, “Nu aye dun’t.” I think this was his first plane ride because he kept watching me and followed what I did, like when I pulled the tray table down for lunch.

When we were given landing cards I filled mine out. He pulled out a piece of  paper with the responses he was to give written in Roman script, but he did not have a pen. I asked him if he wanted to borrow my pen, but he didn’t understand me. I handed him the pen. It was a small pen I got when I signed up for internet service back home and it said “Yahoo BB Japan” in friendly letters. He thanked me in English and took one suspicious look at the pen before filling out his card and handing the pen back to me.

Shortly after we were airborne it was lunch time. This time when we were served “hamburgers” I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t so bad this time. My lanky row mate seemed completely indifferent to the food. He was more interested in the movements his chair could make and all the buttons around him.

What did you guys really think?

Once we were safely landed in China a bunch of us from both Group A and Group B sat at a Starbucks in one of the terminals and talked about the trip. There was a lot of, “Do you know what Mr. Park told me?” and “Do you know what Intern Kim asked me?”

It was cathartic. For the most part we all held back on expressing our opinions and views during the trip. Most of us never corrected anything we were told and went along with whatever crazy story with nothing more that a slight whisper to one or two other people. At the airport we let it all out. Then we all went our separate ways.

That’s not what the sky in Beijing looks like at all!

Let’s Eat!

I had reservations to return to the hostel we stayed in before we went to North Korea, but I did not want to go back there. Vera booked one night at a placed called Sitting on the City Walls. I thought that anything would be better than the dump we were in before so I followed her hoping to get a room for the night.

Vera would be leaving for South Korea the next day and I would head back to Japan. We had a whole afternoon in China and felt like we should do something interesting after we dropped off our stuff at the hostel.

my bed that sits on a city wall

After checking into Facebook and emailing family and friends to tell them that we were safely back in China, we searched the internet for something to do. There was nothing we could think of. I’m sure that Beijing has lots of things to do, but we wanted something hassle-free transportation-wise that we had not seen or done before.

The suggestion of just going to a nice restaurant somehow turned into going to Hooters. I had never been to Hooters before, mainly because of my lack of enthusiasm for either football or boobs, but a greasy and highly caloric American meal seemed the fitting end to my journey into the DPRK.

2 appetizers = 1 meal

The food was good. It was the best thing we had tasted in days! I don’t remember if I was able to finish all my food, but I do remember feeling a little sick afterwards. “And we were in North Korea for just 5 days; imagine being stuck there for months,” I told Vera as we dived into the buffalo wings.

“I just wish I could get Ms. Lee and Intern Kim out to show them China,” Vera said. “If they could only see China and how great it is over here compared to the DPRK. I’m not even talking about America or Japan; just China.” “I think they know, Vera. They must know that life is better almost anywhere other than North Korea coming into contact with so many tourists. But knowing the truth and being able to do anything about it are two different things.”

All Pictures (North Korea)
All Pictures (China)

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Monuments of Pyongyang

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 25, 2014

Friday, May 3, 2013

All Pictures

North Korea
(조선민주주의인민공화국)
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk) 

How to get there:

The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.

Phone:

You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books:

If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)

Notes:

NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!


The Yanggakdo International Hotel
(양각도국제호텔)
(Yanggakdo gookchea hotel)

How to get there:

  • 38°59’57.3″N 125°45’05.9″E

Don’t you worry about directions here or any other place in North Korea. Someone will also be around to show you where to go.

Address:

Yanggakdo International Hotel
Pyongyang, North Korea

Phone:

There are phones in the hotel, but I never used it. So, I don’t know whom you can call.

Website:

e-mail:

You can send emails from the lobby of the hotel. You can also mail letters.

Cost:

Your tour will take care of this.

Hours:

  • Breakfast starts at 7:00

Videos:

Notes:

  • The Yanggakdo Hotel is not the only hotel in town. Neither is it the only functioning hotel in town. But it is the one in which any tourist in Pyongyang will most like be staying.
  • This hotel is where many American prisoners get to talk to the Swedish ambassador. Some have actually held prisoner here.
  • You cannot go to the 5th floor!
  • You cannot go to any floor where the lights are turned off. If you try to, an official will escort you back to the elevator.
  • You can walk around the grounds but you cannot leave Yanggakdo (Yanggak island) on your own.
  • Be careful when using the elevator. The doors will slam shut even when you are in the way.

The International Friendship Exhibition 
(국제우의전람관)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’47.3″N 125°38’00.8″E

Websites:

Videos:

Notes:

  • It opened on 26 August 1978.
  • It was moved from MyohyangsanNorth Pyongan province.
  • It contains gifts presented to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il from various foreign dignitaries along with gifts from North Koreans living abroad.
  • You will have to wear booties.
  • You are not allowed to bring your camera in because it houses all sort of crazy stuff and the lies here are so thick they are delicious!
    • Kim Jong-il built the International Friendship Exhibition in three days!

Kim Il-Sung’s Birth Place

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 38°59’34″N   125°39’24″E

Websites:

Video:

Notes:

  • He might not have been born here at all. No one really knows.
  • This is where you get to see “how Kim Il-Sung grew up”.

Facts about Kim Il-Sung

  • Kim Il-Sung was born Kim Song-Ju on April 15, 1912 somewhere in Pyongyang.
  • At this site he is shown as being poor in his early years but he probably grew up in a middle-class family and not a peasant one.

The Pyongyang Metro
(평양 지하철)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°00’38.6″N 125°43’03.3″E (Puhung Station)
  • Coordinates 39°00’28.4″N 125°44’04.7″E (Yonggwang Station)
  • Coordinates 39°02’35.5″N 125°45’14.6″E  (Kaeson Station)

Websites:

Cost:

  •  5 KP₩/ticket (For Koreans only)

Video:

Notes:

  • There are 2 subway lines; the Ch’ŏllima line and the Hyŏksin line.
  • Constructions started in 1965 and the subway stations opened in 1969 ~ 1972.
  • The stations can also be used as bomb shelters.

The Arch of Triumph
(개선문)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°02’40.8″N 125°45’11.6″E
  • Just take the metro to Kaesong station.

Websites:

Notes:

  • It was modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but it’s taller.
  • It was built in 1982 to commemorate Korean resistance to Japan.

Some Hotpot Restaurant
(청류관광기녕품상점*)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°02’06.1″N 125°47’02.3″E
  • It is somewhere near the Swiss Embassy.

Websites:

Video:

Notes:

  • *청류관광기녕품상점 is the name on the building. I don’t know if that is the name of the restaurant.
  • The restaurant is on the 2nd floor and there is a little shop on the first floor.

Ms. Lee told us how hot pot became popular in North Korea. She said that when soldiers had a break from fighting during the war and they were hungry they had to be very creative. They did not have many supplies. So they would build a fire and use their helmets as pots. Then they would put water to boil and add whatever vegetable or meat, if they were lucky, they could find.


The Juche Tower
(주체사상탑)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’34.1″N 125°46’02.4″E

Websites:

Cost:

  • It costs €5 to go to the top of the tower. This is not included in your tour.

Videos:

Notes:

  • It was finished in 1982.
  • The plaques on the tower (like the one in the photo above) were given to the Korean people by North Koreans living abroad. There are no Americans studying the Juche idea in the US.
  • It is slightly taller than the Washington Monument.

Monument to the Korean Workers Party

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’40.2″N 125°46’36.4″E

Websites:

Videos:

Notes:

  • It was completed in 1995 during North Korea’s famine.

Grand People’s study House
(인민대학습당)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’12.8″N 125°44’57.0″E

Websites:

Videos:

Notes:

  • If you go there, you’ll talk to some professor and walk into some “random” English class.

Foreign Language Bookshop

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’18.8″N 125°45’15.4″E

Websites:

Downloads:

Notes:

  • You can buy books and newspapers here. All the books about North Korea, the Kims, or Juche.

 Kim Il Sung Square
(김일성광장)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’10.6″N 125°45’09.6″E

Websites:

Videos:

Notes:

  • This is where all the parades and marching takes place.

Pyongyang Film Studio

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°04’17.4″N 125°42’40.7″E

Websites:

Cost:

  • €2 to dress up and play with fake swords.

Videos:


Pyongyang No. 1 Pizza Shop

How to get there:

  • I have no idea!
  • There is no information online.

Websites:

Notes:

  • There is a Pyongyang No. 2 Pizza Shop, but according to our western guide, it’s not as good.
  • They also serve pasta.
  • Do not confuse this place with Pyulmori.
  • Some tours make this an official attraction.

Pyongyang Cold Noodle Restaurant 

How to get there:

  • I have no idea!
  • There is no information online.

Websites:

Notes:

  • There is a very popular cold noodle restaurant called, “Okryugwan“. That is not the restaurant we went to.
  • This restaurant had a shop on the first floor where you could buy DPRK won.
  • For the main course there was the option of having either cold noodles or bibimbap.
  • I guess Pyongyang is famous for these cold noodles.

Map:


A hotel with a plan

Thankful to be back at the Yanggakdo

Vera and I were so grateful to be back at the Yanggakdo with its fully functioning hot showers and other amenities. It’s a generally okay hotel. You can tell it’s old but still, it’s alright. In our room everything worked fine. We did heard of others whose drains were clogged, or whose hot water didn’t work, or whose toilet kept running.

Before we went out for our day’s tour of Pyongyang, I filled out a laundry request form. I was running low on clean clothes and since the Yanggakdo had a laundry service (for a fee) I thought, “Why not?” When else will I have a chance to get laundry done in the DPRK?

“Do you want some Chinese fruit candy?”

Wikipedia

By now I had stopped asking about the day’s plans and only focused on where we were going next.  We were heading to the International Friendship Exhibition. As we drove along Ms. Lee decided to quiz us on what we knew about North Korea. She stood up and asked everyone on the bus when Kim Il-Sung was born.

I shouted, “Juche 1!” The Koreans found this to be very amusing. Later Intern Kim asked me how I knew about the Juche years. “Oh, I read about Kim Il-Sung on Wikipedia,” I said not remembering where I was and that this would bring on more questions.

Intern Kim – “What is that?”

Me – “It’s an online encyclopedia… Do you know what the internet is?”

Intern Kim – “I know the intranet…”

Me – “Okay, it’s kind of like that… On the intranet you can communicate with other people in North Korea. They write things and then you can read what they write. But, with the internet you can communicate with other people anywhere in the world.” I had no idea whether or not she had access to the DPRK’s intranet. From what I know only an elite few get to use the intranet and fewer still get access to the internet and they are mostly hackers.

Intern Kim – “And wik… wiki…”

Me – “Wikipedia. It’s a place online with lots of information. People who know things, write about what they know so that other people can know it too.”

Intern Kim – “And they write about Kim Il-Sung and Juche?”

Me – “Not just about Kim Il-Sung and Juche; about everything that people know. How pineapples grow. The history of noodles. The best ways to run away from a bear. Think about anything you want to know, if someone in the world knows it, you can probably find information about it online. Wikipedia is just one of the many places online with information.”

Pyongyang’s No. 1 Pizza Restaurant

On the way we passed the pizza place again. I reminded the guides of my request to order pizza. People on the bus also chimed in. Everyone was willing to pay for a slice or two just so they could have some North Korean pizza. “Okay,” the western guide said, “Tonight, when we get back to the hotel we’ll order a pizza.”

My heart sank. I knew that was never going to happen. We usually get back to the hotel way too late. Everyone will just head off to bed. Even I, who wants this pizza so much, will be too tired to care by the time we get back. I took of a photo of the restaurant so that I could at least have that…

We have our booties ready. Now bring on the craziness!

All Tack, no Taste

When they took away our cameras we knew we were in for something good. We all speculated about what we would see on the ride over. We all knew that a basketball signed by Michael Jordan would be there. But what else would we see and what stories would be told?

When our bus pulled up there were rows and columns of people dressed in their finest suits and chosonots. They all stood patiently in front of the main gate. We walked right past them. “Weren’t they here first?” someone asked a guide. “It’s okay, they will go in later.” They were still standing out there when we left.

I think I have two lefts.

They made us wear booties over our shoes. The ones who got in first stood in an empty white room waiting for the others to turn in their cameras and put on their booties. Eventually everyone was waiting in the white room, but there were no guides. We stood there wondering what to do next.

I needed to use the bathroom. There were many halls that lead away from the white room. I picked one at random and started to walk. I got almost to the end of the hall when a soldier stepped out to ask me what I was doing. “Is there a toilet somewhere? toilet?” I tried speaking more slowly, “toiiillllleeeetttt?” He indicated that I should follow him and he took me back to the white room and down another hall.

As we passed the white room some people from my group asked what was going on. “He’s showing me the way to the bathroom,” I said as I marched along. When we arrived at the bathroom there was a parade of women behind the soldier.

These are the only photos I have of the inside of the International Friendship Exhibition. Sorry.

Our guides eventually came to get us and we began the tour. We started by bowing to a statue of Kim Il-Sung on the seconds floor. Then we entered a room with gifts from dignitaries from other countries to Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il. The museum’s guide told us all about the fabulousness of each gift. Everything was the best top-quality thing given to Kim Il-Sung or his son and the Korean people with the utmost respect and admiration by some person held in high esteem from some country somewhere.

Everyone stopped at a large embroidered picture of Kim Jong-Il riding a tiger Putin-style in what looked like full traditional Korean Military dress. The tiger was wearing some sort of armor and bearing his teeth. It was so grandiose and gaudy. It was the tackiest thing I’ve ever seen. (…and I used to live in Florida!) “Wow, this is amazing,” was all we could safely say while trying not to giggle. The curator stood there proudly. “Foreigners like that one very much,” he told us. If only he knew why.

There were plastic baubles past off as gems and meaning given to things that had no meaning, or had meaning that the Koreans did not fully understand. In the corner of the room sat a giant rock; a boulder. It was given to North Korea by Russia. The curator told us how heavy it was. According to the museum guy, it was the biggest rock of this type in the world. “It took hundreds of Korean soldiers months to get it here from Moscow (or wherever).”

Wait! Russia gave you a giant stupid rock and you have to haul it back to Pyongyang yourselves? With friends like the Russians…

There was a giant clam shell given by some country, I think East Germany. I looked at that thing and imaged a bunch of diplomats at a seafood restaurant somewhere complaining about an upcoming trip to Pyongyang. “I have to get this Kim guy something and give some BS speech about the inspiration of Juches ideals.”  “You know what you could do, Ambassador Schmidt?” a subordinates says. He scoops up a large piece of clam onto his plate. “You could just give him this normally large clam shell from our meal and tell him that this, largest clam shell in the world, is just like Juche, the biggest idea in the world…”

We left this room and walked around the rest of the building. Once again I lagged behind. I took my time to look at the things that interested me and ignored the things that didn’t. It was just a matter of time before I was on my own. This didn’t last long though; maybe 5 or so minutes. Intern Kim found me and we looked at stuff together.

I read the label of one item, it was a sewing machine given by some Chinese guy. I asked Kim what it meant. She was surprised that I could read Hangul. “Did you learn Hangul in school?” I giggled and said, “No, I learned it in Seoul.” I asked her why the Chinese guy had such a Korean sounding name. She read the label again. After reading several other labels she said, “The people might be Koreans living in other countries not Chinese or British people.” So the gifts not in the first room are from North Korean diplomats living abroad.

We took our time going through each room. The group was several rooms ahead. A guard came in and reprimanded Intern Kim for moving too slowly. I didn’t want her to get in trouble, so I started to go to the next room. Then Kim told me that it was okay. As long as we stayed together we were fine.

We passed some furniture. It was a whole living room set, but it looked like it had been dipped in gold. Intern Kim asked me if I liked it. I thought it was god-awful like most of the trite in the exhibit, but I wasn’t going to just come out and say that. “You don’t like it?” she asked. I think she could tell from the look on my face. “I looks very expensive,” I said, “but not very comfortable.”  “You can’t sit on a gold sofa,” she sighed and we both giggled.

We moved to the South Korean electronics room. It had, among other gadgets, flat screen TVs made by LG and Samsung. Kim asked me which company was better.

Me – “They’re both pretty good.”

Kim – “Which one is more famous?”

Me – “They are both are very famous.”

Kim – “…outside of South Korea?”

Me – “My first computer was a Samsung. My refrigerator in my apartment in Japan is made by LG.”

Kim – “Are they rich?”

Me – “The people who run those companies could buy several of those golden living room sets, though they would probably buy something… softer.”

That was amazing!

Intern Kim seemed to be taking it all in as we trailed several rooms behind the group. We looked at things and talked about life in South Korea and Japan. She didn’t seem at all interested in the US. Instead she wanted me to compare life in South Korea and Japan to what I could saw in Pyongyang and even to compare South Korea to Japan.

We could not see all the rooms because when the group was finished we had to go. A uniformed museum worker came to tell us that our group was leaving. The Koreans lined up outside were waiting for us to go so that they could come in and enjoy the exhibits.

We got our cameras backs and returned the booties. Then waited for everyone else by the bus. We gathered in little groups to quietly discuss the madness we had just seen.

Vera – “Did you see that tiger? The curator said it had rubies and sapphires on it. It looked like plastic!”

Me – “No I missed that one. I was too busy staring at the awesomeness that was the giant Russian rock.”

Flip-flips – “How about the stuffed alligator?”

French Guy – “Did you see the collection of rotary phones? Do you think that China just polishes their old things and sends them to North Korea?”

 

Is it a holiday or something?

When we got to the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Museum I saw more people there than I had the entire trip. Everyone was dressed up. Several people asked the guides why so many people were there that day. They wanted to know if it was a holiday. The guides said it was not a holiday, but maybe these people took a personal day to come here. “It is a great honor to come here, so people gladly use their time off for a visit.”

But that did not explain the herds of schoolkids. Were they all playing hookie from school to visit this museum? It just doesn’t sound like the kind of thing kids get up too. But what do I know; I’m a capitalist. I only care about money and stopping North Koreans from getting electricity.

Kim Hyŏng-jik and Kang Pan-sŏk, Kim Il-Sung’s mom and dad

Just like at the International Friendship Exhibition, we cut the line even though the people had been clearly waiting a very long time to see the house. Not only did we skip them, but they were made to stand back and they had to wait until we were done to continue with their pilgrimage.

We’re just a bunch of line-skippers.

The place was re-created to look like it did when Kim Il-Sung was a boy. Supposedly he grow up as a peasant, but there is very little proof of that. Revolutionaries generally don’t come from peasant backgrounds. Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Lenin, George Washington, Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King jr. were all at the very least middle class.

One of the twins is starting to look very North Korean.

We had some of the Kim Il-Sung well water. This is supposed to be the well that the Great Leader drank from growing up. The guides told us that many people believe the water has healing properties. “School children drink the water before taking exams.” We all tried some.

Generally you should not drink the water in North Korea unless it is boiled first. (Instead, drink bottled water.) Plus, everyone drinks from the same set of cups that never get washed. It was gross. I thought it was icky. But everyone else in my groups was doing it, so I drank the water too. (No, I did not get sick, but for the next couple weeks I had a burning desire to wear some Juche pants.)

Puhung Station

Ticket to Ride

Actually, we did not get tickets to ride. We hopped the turnstiles. Okay, we didn’t literally hop them. The guard made us walk around them. I was a little disappointed because I wanted a subway ticket for a souvenir.

Are we there yet?

We took the long escalator down to where the trains were. I think the escalator ride was just a little shorter than the subway ride. The Pyongyang metro is one of the deepest metro systems in the world. It also serves as a bomb shelter.

Is that the midtown express?

The station below smelled like an old basement. It had a very Russian or Moscowian feel. It most definitely was not boring. With murals, chandeliers, and statues to look at. It makes you want to say, “So this is what it would be like if Liberace were communist!”

commuters

We got on the train and several Koreans got up to give us their seats. Most of us refused the seats and asked them to sit back down. Some Koreans returned to their seats, others moved to another car. It was an awkward ride.

One couple said that the guy sitting next to them struck up a conversation. They said he was a lovely man, but when they asked him where he learned English he changed the subject. “He was still very nice,” they said, “odd, but nice. And we could tell he was well educated.”

I don’t know why we stopped here.

We stopped at a subway station. We did not change lines. We just stood on the platform to take photos. Then we got on the next train.

A shop with stuff in it!

When we got to Kaesong station we got off the train again. This time we headed for the exit. On our way out we past this shop in the subway. Look at all that stuff! It was colorful, pointless, decadent, and kitchy. It looked like stuff you find at a carnival. This was the last thing I would expect to find in a North Korean subway shop.

I wasn’t the only one. Almost everyone in my group turned to snap a photo of this shop. And then… “STOP, STOP, STOP!” This time both Ms. Lee and Mr. Park were shouting at us. Even the cameraman nodded at us disapprovingly.

I really have no idea why this photo would cause such a reaction. Here is proof that North Korea has stuff for sale and it looks like they also have people buying the stuff. Whether they are actually buying things or not I can’t tell. But I don’t know why they didn’t want anyone taking this picture.

Ms. Less explaining why we could not take a photo of the shop.

I don’t remember exactly what reason was given. It might have had something to do with the people at the shop being ordinary citizens. But, that makes no sense. We had just taken many photos of similar people on the metro…

Ms. Lee made everyone delete their photos, but once again she see did not see me. I don’t know why. I was standing right there too. The only thing I can think of is that I have my camera on silent. It makes very little noise. I also almost never use my flash. Or maybe she just liked me…

My very own ticket!

Ms. Lee didn’t stay mad at us for too long. As soon as we got to the exit she went to the ticket booth and bought us all subway tickets from her own money.

“This is the Arch of Triumph.”

Intern Kim Shines

When we got to the Arch of Triumph, Intern Kim asked if she could try leading the tour. So, instead of Ms. Lee doing the talking, Kim did. She was a little nervous, but she did a fine job. We asked her a few questions which she answered and then we clapped and cheered for her. She blushed.

Lunch is next!

Him Again!?

We were told that our next stop would be for lunch so we all got on the bus. Once I was in my seat I heard some altercation going on outside, but I could not see what it was. I wanted to get off the bus to see what was going on, but there were too many people standing in the aisle of the bus and in line outside waiting to get on. I heard yelling in Russian.

“What’s going on out there”, I asked someone standing by the door of the bus. “It looks like some Russians arguing.” “Is one of them wearing a pink polo shirt,” someone in the bus asked. The guy at the door stuck his head out. “Yes. Do you know him?”

“Pinky!!!!!”

“My stew is not cooking fast enough!”

Lunch and Races

Our next meal was stew that we could cook to our liking. We could make is as spicy or as bland as we liked. We could use some or all of the ingredients placed at our table.

The guy in front of me didn’t like spicy food or eggs, so I took his egg. By this time in the trip I have become less picky and more hungry between meals. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast around 6:00 and we were late for lunch at around 14:00. We would also probably eat a late dinner around 21:00 or 22:00. Being picky with food was a fool’s game!

dessert to be shared among 4 people

This meal was, like most North Korean meals, okay. It was not overly delicious, but adequate. You ate and when you were no longer hungry you had no desire to keep eating. I still tried to eat all my food because I knew that we would be running late again and dinner time would get pushed back.

I had just gotten to the point where I was tired of the food when they brought out dessert. I knew that bananas were a rarity in the DPRK and was amazed that we were given a banana. We had to split the banana among 4 people but still. It’s the thought that counts.

I left the table to use the bathroom and noticed some smokers sitting outside, without any Korean guides. I got my bag and sat with them. We stared across the street at the Iranian embassy. One of the smokers asked, “What do you think would happen if we ran over there and told them that our North Korean handlers were being mean to us?” “We want sanctuary in Iran,” the other one said as he put up his hands and playfully pretended to run across the street.

One by one people who finished eating came outside. One guy challenged a western guides to a race. We relaxed and hung out on the sidewalk like this is what one does everyday in Pyongyang.

The Juche Tower

Juche Idea

The Juche Idea is that of self reliance. A person is in charge of his or her own destiny if he or she is reliant only on his or herself. This is what North Korea is founded on. Or rather, this is what its propaganda claims North Korea is founded on. But it’s all nonsense.

North Korea started out propped up by Russia. It relied heavily on Russia and China to support it in the past. Then it got handouts from South Korea, Japan, The US, Canada, and the European Union. When there is any lack in the country like a power outage or a shortage of rice, they blame America. So much for being in charge of your own destiny.

Cameraman Choi and Intern Kim telling jokes while we wait for the elevator

Some of us took the elevator to the top of the Juche tower. It was overpriced for an elevator ride, but I’m never going go get a chance to do this again so I went for it.

While we waited for the elevator some people browsed in the gift shop, others wrote in the Juche Tower guest book, and still others sat on the sofas and relaxed. This was the first time I saw Cameraman Choi speaking. He only speaks Korean, so I could not talk to him directly. I asked Intern Kim to translate for me.

I asked him if he gets tired of visiting the same monuments over and over again. He said that he quite enjoyed visiting the monuments because he gets to work with his camera. He loves making the videos.

As I looked over the city of Pyongyang I told Ms. Lee that I thought the city was beautiful. It was. It’s a tourist paradise with a monument on every corner and over the top crazy stories of impossible feats at every turn. I asked Ms. Lee if there were foreigners living in Pyongyang who weren’t diplomats. “Sure there are,” she said. “Do you want to live in Pyongyang?” she asked. “I can’t; I’m American.” “That is a problem,” she replied.

To be honest I wouldn’t mind working in Pyongyang for a few months for an NGO or something. I could not work for the North Korean government like I did in South Korea or Japan. I know of one person hired by the DPRK government to do some translating and when it was time to leave, the North Korean government refused to let her go. She eventually got out and, I think, wrote a book.

Needless to say, I shall not be living or working in North Korea any time soon.

It’s not what the people wanted, but it’s what they got instead of food.

The Famine and the Monument

North Korea’s famine started about 1994. Russia gave up trying to get any payment for goods already given to North Korea. Trade, if you can call it that, stopped between the two countries. North Korea has never actually produced enough food for itself, relying on outside help to make up the difference.

I’ve noticed that regimes never refer to their famines as famines. Cuba called theirs the Special Period. China called theirs the Difficult Three Year Period. Russia never talks about theirs. North Korea refers to theirs as the Arduous March. According to Wikipedia, the famine was not a result of bad weather or a season of bad crops, but of a lot of bad decisions made by the government over decades. One of those being to stop farmers from growing food, and forcing them to grow plants used to make heroin and cocaine.

In 1995 North Korea built this thing; a monument for the working people, the people who were starving to death.

selling pins

Pinning

The pins in the DPRK work like this. Anyone can buy a pin with a North Korean flag or map on it. But, the pins with the leader’s face on them are only worn by Party members. Not every Korean is in the Party, but every Korean must wear a pin.

Our tour guides all had pins with Kim Jong-Il on them. There were no Kim Jong-Eun pins when I was there. The pins we were allowed to buy were only of the Korean flag. But I’m sure if you really wanted one, you could get a face pin or several in China.

“Man, this homepage sure is interesting!”

They’re using the internet? Those guys!?

We went to Grand People’s study House. We were met at the door by a guide; let’s call him Mr. Bak. There was a Russian tour group that got there right before we did so we had to wait for them for a few minutes as Mr. Bak made small talk. He wanted us to know that he wasn’t some nobody who has never been any where. So, he told us that he has travelled a lot.

“Where did you go?” we asked him.

“Well let me see… Germany… Russia… China… I can’t remember all now.”

Well Russia and China was nothing special. But we wanted to hear about his trip to Germany. (We wondered if he meant Germany or East Germany.) We begged him to tell us what he thought about Germany or even why he was there.

He said he was there for some conference to learn about German policies or something. He couldn’t remember now because he skipped out of the meeting and went to the pub instead. He doesn’t remember what he thought about Germany since he was blazing drunk the whole time. “The beer was very good!”

Once inside the building he showed us some guys on computers. “They are using the internet,” Mr. Bak bragged. The men were standing in front of the computers with their hands behind their backs. I’m no expert on using the internet, well actually I am. One does not use the internet for that long without typing something.

Vera said she watched one guy closely. “He stood there staring at the brower. It was just some sort of homepage; nothing to occupy one’s mind that long. After a few minutes he scrolled down then stared some more. Then he scrolled back up and stared, then back down again. He just kept doing this over and over again. But there was nothing there for all that reading and rereading.”

“What are we supposed to be studying?”

We saw the famous Kim Jong-Il invented adjustable tables. There were actually really nice. I wonder if I can get one at Ikea?

“uhgg… More tourists?”

Mr. Bak then took us to an office where a professor was doing some research. Unlike everyone else in the building, he actually seemed like he was in the middle of doing something. I felt like we were barging in. He spoke English and answered our questions, but in a curt manner. I felt bad for the guy and wanted to leave. I know what it’s like to have a silly boss who gets on you for not working efficiently, but won’t leave you alone so you can actually get some work done.

“ZZZzzzz ZZZZzzzzz ZZZZzzzzz”

The tours were long. We started very early in the morning and we got back to the hotel very late at night. We always seemed to be late for the next thing no matter how much we hurried along. So much stuff was packed into our days. Going to North Korea is a once of a life-time thing for most visitors so, the guides do their best to keep you occupied. By this day, day 4 we were all pretty tired.

Ask for any book you want.

You want science? I got your science right here!

Next Mr. Bak wanted to show us something amazing. He made us stand by this counter where a lady was looking bored and staring at her computer screen. “Wow, another internet user,” I thought.

“What kind of book would you like?” Mr. Bak asked giving a proud smile. “A book about food,” someone in the group replied. “Ask this librarian for any book and she will give it to you.” Mr. Bak then said something to the bored lady and she pressed a few buttons on her keyboard.

Out came a metal box from the wall. The bored librarian reached in and pulled out Discovering Food and Nutrition. “What other book would you like,” ask Mr. Bak. He seemed to be challenging us. There was no way he could possibly win this sort of challenge.

“Do you have Fifty Shades of Grey?” someone asked. The group giggled like it was an inside joke. “Is that a good book?” Ms. Lee asked. “No,” someone else said, “It’s a very bad book.” Then he gave the fifty-shades guy an ironic chastising look.

“What about Mark Twain?” Vera asked.

“What about a science book?” Flip-flops challenged.

The bored librarian did not acknowledge any of our suggestions. She did not even glance our way. We looked at Mr. Bak. He said something in Korean, but the bored lady gave no response. There was only the sound of typing. “She’s tired of us already, I think,” joked one of the guys. Then another metal box appearing.

The lady pulled two books out of the metal box and set them on the table. Then she went back to looking at her computer screen and ignoring us. Mr. Bak nodding at us self satisfied. “Any book you want!” he beamed.

“Can anyone asked for any book?” someone asked. “This is the people’s study house. It is for the people.” Mr. Bak said solemnly.

He lead us away. “Let me show you all the books…”

“They’re coming! Everyone look intently at your screens.”

He took us into a room with many computers and many people staring zombie-like at their screens. “More internet users?” someone asked. “No, these people are using the intranet,” he explained. “From the intranet, these people can see what books we have at the library. They can also read speeches of the great leaders or read a newspaper.”

There was a computer not being used. He asked for a volunteer to sit at the computer. “Type in the name of any book or author you like,” Mr. Bak dared. The volunteer typed, “O-R-W-E-L-L.” Everyone in our tour group looked anxiously at the screen. The computer took a while to process the information.

In the meantime Mr. Bak yakked on about how the operating system was Korean made. The computer was made with the best DPRK technology to be fast. It was just looking through all the books in the library, and there were so many books. That’s why it took so long.

Orwell search result

Finally a result came back. One entree: Animal Farm. Someone asked Mr. Bak where the book was. “It’s in the library or maybe someone has borrowed it.” We asked if we could go see the book. Mr. Bak said that we would have to go back to the bored librarian and ask her for the book, but we had no time.

No one asked about why the best of Korean technology was a Chinese computer or why the Korean operating system used Internet Explorer. There are just certain topics that one does not discuss with an Internet Explorer user.

I teach English… in Japan.

What do you have in England?

Next we walked into an English class. The teacher was not there yet, but the students were in their seats. Some of us took the remaining seats and the rest stood at the back of the class. One of the guys on our tour (Mr. Hoodie) was also a JET like Vera and me. (We might have mentioned to the guides that the three of us worked for the same “company”, but we did not mention that the “company” was the Japanese government.) Since he was an English teacher, Ms. Lee asked him if he would like to say a few words to the class.

The teacher walked in and did a double take. She was not expecting us and was a little put out. But, she went with it. She greeted her class and engaged them in light conversation. Then she asked for someone in our group to speak.

The guy in the photo above got up and introduced himself and our group. Then he got the class to ask him some questions. They wanted to know where all of us were from. Mr. Hoodie never told the students who was from what county. Instead he said, “Some of them are from England, like me. Some are from France. There are some Australians. There is a guy from Switzerland and a couple Fins. …and we even have some… Americans.” At this some of the people in our group oooooed, making the students laugh.

“Tell me everything all about your country.”

One of the students wanted to know about England. “What do you want me to tell you about England?” “I don’t know,” the student said, “I’ve never been to England. What is England famous for?”

The guy thought about it for a bit and decided to tell them about Stonehenge. “Do you know about Stonehenge?” he asked the class. All he got were blank stares. The teacher stepped in and reminded the class to speak. “I don’t know what that is,” said one brave students. So Mr. Hoodie tried to explain, but couldn’t. He also tried to draw a picture of Stonehenge, but it did not help either. “How could I explain England to North Koreans when they haven’t ever heard of Stonehenge?” he later asked me. “You can’t; you just can’t.”

Just enjoy the view for as long as you like.

Non-constant time flow

After the class, we went to the roof of the People’s Study House and watched the citizens practice their marching in Kim Il-Sung square. I think we were there for a good 20~30 minutes. We had plenty of time to go back to the bored librarian to find the Orwell book, but we didn’t. But I was sure that if I had asked right then to go back, suddenly there would be no time.

Next we walked to the Foreign Language Bookshop. Of course all the books there were either written by one of the Kims or about one of the Kims. The shop also sold newspapers and magazines. I was quite bored by all of it and was about to stand outside on the sidewalk to watch people walking by, when I heard some of the guys giggling in the corner.

“What’s that?” I asked. The guys showed me the cover of their book and then where I could get a copy. I picked it up and started to read at a random page. The story was called A Puzzle Solved and was about how clever Kim Jong-Il was and how impressed Madeleine Albright was by him. There was so much nonsense in the book; I had to buy it!

It turns out that Kim Jong Il is North Korea’s very own Chuck Norris! The book has a number 1 on the cover. I hope that implies a couple of sequels…

Who knows more about making films that the Great Leader?

At the Movies

Although it’s Kim Il-Sung in the statue above it was Kim Jong-Il who revolutionized North Korean cinema. With Kim Jong-Il’s guidance the film industry of Pyongyang improved with techniques like, using multiple cameras, using foreigners as baddies, and kidnapping a good director from South Korea and having him make movies.

Once again we were lined up in front of a bronze Kim Il-Sung and made to bow. Then we were introduced to the studio guide who was dressed very much like the Dear Leader.

Mr. Park and the Dear Guide

The Dear guide gave a very forgettable speech about Kim Jong-Il’s greatness in film and of all his accomplishments in film production. I really don’t care that much about films, even Hollywood films. I tried hard to pay attention to see if he would at any time mention Shin Sang-ok, but he did not. Rather, he focussed on talking about the progressions and improvements of North Korean films as if we were all familiar with these movies. <“Oh, ‘Unsung Heroes,‘ why that’s some of Ryu Ho-son best work!”>

Coming Soon…

We were then taken to a cold room where a very old man was working on a film. Well, I don’t know if he was really working on a film. There was a film being played and an old man in the room pushing blinking buttons.

I think the old man had a hearing problem. The volume of the film was very, very loud and the sound was out of sync. I sat on the floor in the cold room holding my head in my hands trying to will my impending headache away.

The old man talked over the loud film and Mr. Park translated. We were meant to ask questions during this cacophony. Someone asked him exactly what it was that he was doing. He responded that he was fixing the sound and adding extra noises to the film. To demonstrate this, he played some noises for us. A track of someone knocking on a door, footsteps, a dog barking were played for us and full blast.

I noticed that the people closest to the door were walking out. I needed to get out too. As I left someone was asking what the example film was. “Oh, it’s a real film,” Mr. Park assured her. “It will be in theater by this summer.” “Yeah right,” Vera whispered to me, “That thing looks like it was filmed in the 70’s and it’s nowhere near finished!”

Clearly, the DPRK lost out on some talent when they let us leave.

After that we played dress-up then took a few photos. There were no chosonot long enough for me so I was given a man’s robe with a lady’s hat.

Then we walked around the movie lot. I think we were supposed to be impressed by the many sets they had, which were South Korea in 60’s, Japan in the 50’s, China, and Europe. Europe was done in such a way that gave the impression that the builders thought of Europe as one country and that they had only read about Europe and had never seen it.

Europe!

When we passed the “Europe” section, everyone thought that the tour was over and that we were now just walking back to the bus. The Dear Guide asked us if we knew what type of house this was, as he pointed to the house in the photo above. Someone asked if that his house. He was not expecting a question like that and thought he should give us a clue.

He said something like, “This is a very famous place.” But that left us even more confused. “Is this a reconstructions of a famous house?” another person asked. “No, not the house. The style. Where would you find this type of house?” The Dear Guide still held out hopes for his big reveal.

“Is this a traditional North Korean house?” someone asked ironically. We had no idea where this conversation was going and since irony is lost here in the DPRK we thought we might as well have some fun. “No. Do you have houses like this in America?” the Dear Guide asked.

“No,” Vera said, “but it’s kinda shaped like a barn.” “A barn?” the Dear Guide sounded a little shocked. “It’s not a barn, it’s Europe.” The Dear Guide turned to a few of the Europeans in the group and asked, “Don’t you have houses like this in your country?” “No,” one of them said, “I also thought it looked similar to a barn.”

Japan!

We had clearly offended the Dear Guide, but not too much. He was still happy to take photos with us at the end of the tour and he even told one of the tourists from our group where he gets all this suits made. “I was wondering about that because it looks like a suit that Kim Jong-Il would wear,” the tourist told him. With that he beamed with pride and all other offences were forgotten.

Are we walking in the street?

Dinner!

Our bus pulled off on the side of the road. We all wondered what was going on. The western guide on our bus told us that since we were running late, they decided to order pizzas now. Camera man Choi was going to get the pizza and bring them back.

“Does this pizza place have a restroom?” someone asked. It did. We were told that if we needed the bathroom we could follow Camera man Choi into the pizza shop. Of course, everyone had to “use the bathroom”. Whose would choose to wait on the bus?

I don’t remember why the bus parked so far away from the restaurant, but it was a 10 minute walk from the bus. We weren’t walking on the sidewalk. I didn’t realize that we were in the road, since there were virtually no cars. When a tram came close to hitting one of our bunch who was not paying attention, I got myself onto the sidewalk by walking over some plastic sheeting that was on the ground. We were told not to walk on it, but I had to.

Pizza Man

I really did need to use the facilities. There was a long line for the women. By the time I finished and got to the counter everyone was asking the pizza guy lots of questions. I looked around the shop and noticed some people sitting at a table eating pizza.

They were staring at us longingly. “Real Koreans!” I thought and several of our group moved over to them. “Where are you guys from?” one of the people asked. My heart sank; they were not North Koreans at all. “I’m from New York,” Vera said. “Oh, I’m from New York too!” one of the people said. “I’m from Toronto…” one of the people said looking for a fellow Torontonian in our group.

We sort of paired up and we were all talking at once. “What are you guys doing here?” we asked each other. “We’re here on a group tour of North Korea, you?” “We’re a medical team…” one of the people answered.

“Okay, time to go,” Ms. Lee called. No one responded. We kept asking the people questions and they kept asking us questions. “What kind of medical team? Do you guys work in a hospital in Pyongyang?” Ms. Lee and Mr. Park held on to a couple arms and started to drag us out of the shop. “We are late. We really need to go.”

“Maybe we’ll see you guys around later,” one of the people said as we were exiting the shop. “I don’t think so, most of us are leaving tomorrow. Well, anyway, goodbye! Goodbye!” They seemed sad to see us go. We didn’t want to go. We wanted to stay and talk with the medical team and ask more questions.

Camera man Choi holds all the pizzas.

We got back on the bus and tried to assess the situation. Everyone retold what little information they got from the people in the pizza shop. But, already the stories were being distorted. “They were doctors.” “No, they said they were a medical team. No one there claimed to be a doctor.” “I thought they were medical administrators.” “They were South Koreans.” “No, they were Korean-Americans.” “No they were Korean-Canadians” “The lady I talked to was Korean-British.” It was the most exciting thing to happen to us all day.

not as good as pizza

We have to share?

We went to a restaurant for our last meal of either bibimbap or Pyongyang cold noodles. I have had both these dishes before in Seoul and to be honest, I hate them both. I ordered the cold noodle because they were a specialty in Pyongyang, but I was not expecting much.

cheese melted like hopes and dreams…

Luckily for me the meal started off with 2 slices of pizza. We had to share the pizzas with group B, but they didn’t get to go to the pizza shop. I’m glad we got the pizza because I downright hated the food at this meal.

Up until this point the food had been okay, passable, not delicious but not bad either. This time it was bad. I gave up all attempts at trying to clean my plate. I tried everything that was given to me, but I only like the pizza. We were going back to China the next day; I could eat then.

Group B’s Video

Next we watched the first 10 minutes of tour videos. Group B’s video was played first. When their video was done they left. The next thing on the schedule was a trip to the night amusement park.

They tried to rush us along so that we too could make it to the park, but we asked to stay, drink tea, and watch our video instead of going to the night amusement park. We were all tired and just wanted to relax. The guides seemed okay with that, so they put on our video.

blackout

…Then the lights went out. I took a little while for the people at the restaurants to get flashlights and then get a generator going. For us it was funny, but it was not so funny for the people in Group B.

“When the light went out we were in complete darkness. Our guides gave us flashlights and at first we were waiting for the lights to come back on. But after 15 minutes they did not. So we went back to the hotel. We were only there for half an hour.”

On our way back to the Yanggakdo for the last time Mr. Park asked if we wanted to hear a folk song. We all said, “yes.” A couple days before Ms. Lee sang Arirang for us and we loved it. So he took the mic and started to sing what we thought was going to be another Korean folk song.

All Pictures

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