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Archive for August, 2014

The ¥1,000 Burger

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 29, 2014

Saturday, July  20, 2013

All Pictures

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 Burger 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 at McDonald’s, but it’s usually under protest or after defeat. “I wanted to goto  Sushi Meijin, but everyone else wanted to go to McDonald’s.” I think of McDonald’s as 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 “fillings” all on a 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 the 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!”


We tasted it.

The bun was nice. It wasn’t the usual sesame bun McDonald’s 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 could 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


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.







  • 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.)


How to get there:





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


  • Most are open 24/7.



Posted in Japan | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Itchy Island

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 22, 2014

July 13-15, 2013

All Pictures

Roland’s post after this camping trip


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 was bitten, 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 backpacks 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 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. Then 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 any beer cans 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 small beer cans 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 drive. 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.


It took several hours of grilling to completely cook the birds. There was a bunch of schoolkids standing by making their forgettable dinner. They watched 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 it was gravy.

Playing nerd games while we waited for the chicken

Our days were spent swimming but the evening were meant for board games. 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 do 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 the 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 it the hill. I kept it under the table in the kitchen area.”

We looked on as 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 known 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 took us around the island on a short tour.


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



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.







  • 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
(Mujintō Sabaibaruairandokyanpu-ba)

How to get there:

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


〒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



  • 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


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


  • 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!


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

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 away. 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 surfers 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 ’em 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.


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 their boards. Eventually they stopped trying to stand up, preferring to stay on their bellies.

The women, wading in the water, cheered 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 be 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



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.







  • 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 askwhatATMs 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
(Hinata Sanpākuōtokyanpu-ba)

How to get there:

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


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


  • 0982-58 -0636



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


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


  • 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


〒883-0022 宮崎県日向市平岩金ヶ浜2220


  • 0982 57 2548



  • 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.


  • 9:00 ~ 17:00


  • 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 to buy them at this shop. There is a convenience store across the street that sells these things for a fraction of the price.


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 usual 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 schools 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 contradictions 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’s 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?”


“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)

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 had just started naming many of the inadequacies of the 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 had given it away. “What do you think they were doing with all the passports?” Phone guy asked. “Making copies to improve their spy program,” 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 tourist said. “I’m sure they’ll hold the flight for us,” another person replied, “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 guides were both taking the train back to Beijing, so we were 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 jotted 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 handed 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)

North Korea
(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.


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





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


NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!

The Yanggakdo International Hotel
(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.


Yanggakdo International Hotel
Pyongyang, North Korea


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



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


Your tour will take care of this.


  • Breakfast starts at 7:00



  • 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 likely be staying.
  • This hotel is where many American prisoners get to talk to the Swedish ambassador. Some have actually been 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 elevators. The doors will slam shut even when you are in the way.


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.



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.



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


  • 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:


57 Nianzi Hutong
Dongcheng, Beijing
China, 100009

Phone: +86 10 6402 7805


e-mail: beijingcitywalls@163.com


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


  • 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


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

Phone: (86-010)65858787



a bit pricier than most Chinese restaurants


  • 11:00-01:00 Sun-Sat


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