Jackhammers rattling. Car horns blaring. Dogs yipping. These are the noises that await us as we open our eyes to start our day. Back home in small town Tiffin or Marshalltown, one of these sounds alone would be enough to drive us mad, but, after nearly three years of living in Shanghai, they’ve become white noise, hardly distinguishable from the sound of the breeze rustling through the trees, a testament to our time served in one of the biggest cities in the world.
After rolling out of bed and opening the windows to gaze out at the scenery for a minute or two, the rest of our morning plays out rather predictably with plates of toast eaten and cups of coffee sipped in front of the computer as we check in on the world, scrolling through news stories and baby photos so as not to grow too distant from the home we’ll inevitably return to.
As the morning slips away our agenda becomes more lively. Pajamas get replaced by exercise clothes and we head across the street to the neighborhood park where we get in our daily dose of exercise alongside the community’s most senior of citizens. Because the equipment there is rarely graced by anyone born after World War II, our presence is usually met with some level of bewilderment made evident by long and confused stares shot in our direction as we sit down at our first machine. Their interest though, however intense it may initially be, is almost always short lived and we spend the rest of our half hour in the park relatively unnoticed. After finishing our workout, we go pick up a few groceries at various shops around our neighborhood before heading back to our apartment to shower and have lunch.
At about noon, we get ready for work, throwing pants and shirts and ties on in a flurry before rushing out the door. To get to our schools we take the subway and, depending on how much energy and time our morning left us, our options of how to get there vary. The quickest route is a five minute walk along the street, an option that’s rarely resorted to as it sends our hearts racing and elbows flailing as we push and weave through cell phone zombies and motorbikes and dogs in a mad dash towards the station.
Our other options, while more time consuming, are immensely more enjoyable. One route takes us along the river that runs next to our apartment. There are seldom any people on the path and the ones we do pass are usually stationary, sitting on benches or along the river doing any number of odd things whether it be knitting a sweater or fishing. Outside of the people there is a pleasant array of trees and flower bushes to keep our eyes busy and, if our steps are light enough, we can even see the big water fowl that perch themselves on the path railing scoping out their next meal.
The longest route, and least taken for that reason, winds through a park that sits on the other side of the river. In the twenty minutes we spend walking through it, there’s no telling what we’re going to see on any given day though the typical sights usually consist of old men playing instruments or Chinese chess on the park benches, people doing tai chi, a person walking backwards, badminton matches and the occasional person rubbing themselves up against a tree (supposedly a circulation exercise, but we have yet to try it).
Whichever route we take though, our destination is always the Zhongtan Road subway station where we crowd onto a train car bound for our our schools: Wall Street English for Ryan and Disney English for Kate. Like the park, you can’t really predict what you will see on the train. During our time here we’ve seen, to name a few, men shaving their face with an electric shaver, plenty of adult nose picking (and flicking), a man wiping his snot on a pole, children licking those same poles, children peeing in plastic bottles and, the granddaddy of them all, a grandmother holding her grandson over a plastic bag while he relieved himself over top of it, after which they both left the train leaving the plastic bag behind.
In fact, about the only thing we can predict upon getting on the train is the thick wall of warm, moist air that will undoubtedly welcome us and that our presence on the train will draw at least one gap-mouthed stare from one of the passengers, who are seemingly astonished by our existence. We’ve learned to ignore the latter unless, as it occasionally does, leads to a picture of us being taken, which usually leads to an exchange of words to express our annoyance and a nervous giggle to express their shame.
Despite its hodgepodge of people and cringeworthy moments though, the subway is incredibly convenient and, at times, even enjoyable. The train we take to work is one of the few in the city that runs above ground, so, about halfway through our ride, we get a beautiful view of the Shanghai skyline, something that, in 2 1/2 years, hasn’t grown old once.
After about 15 minutes on the train, we arrive at Ryan’s station and Kate gets off at the one after. Most days we teach from one to nine, unless it’s the weekend when our schedules, especially Kate’s, get exponentially busier. At work Ryan teaches adults (his oldest is 74 years old) and Kate children (her youngest is 3) and our days are exhausting in different ways. Teaching adults drains the mind of energy while children drain the body. In any case, after a long day of teaching, we return home and, despite our tiredness, walk back along the river to take in the beautiful nighttime scenery.
Along the way we sometimes pick up a fried scallion pancake or barbecue skewer at the corner street food stand. With a snack in hand, we walk back past dancing women, couples sitting along the river taking in the beautifully-lit park across the water, chirping insects, and high-rise after high-rise, whose sporadically lit rooms look like stars in the night sky. However long of a day we have had, that walk always allows us to clear our minds and lighten our hearts before getting back to our apartment.
Once back, we heat up dinner, watch a TV show and call it a night. We can be sure that the next day will follow a similar trajectory. What we don’t know is what things we will see or people we will come across or cultural or linguistic difficulties we will encounter. While at times this can be frustrating, it is always exciting and new. Even doing the most mundane of things, there’s never a dull moment. In a city of 25 million, how could there be?
When in a coastal town, the ocean, whether seen or not, can be felt. From the smell of the breeze coming in off the water to the rows of inner tubes and goggles stacked outside convenience stores to the lightness of the people ambling about, you’re always reminded that water is near. It’s a feeling we often crave, but hardly get to experience living in Shanghai, which, despite being a subway ride away from the Pacific, feels about as landlocked as Marshalltown, Iowa. So, with summer dwindling and with it our chances to enjoy the beach, we headed north to the city of Qingdao, which, we were pleased to find, was practically overflowing with the feeling of being on the ocean.
Wanting to make the most of the two days we had there, we booked the earliest flight we could find which served our itinerary well but required us to wake up at the unamusing time of 3:30 a.m. After sleepily staggering out of our apartment, we climbed into a miraculously free and waiting taxi, drove to the airport, boarded our plane, and were soon being greeted by our friends, Emmett and Olga at the arrivals gate. Unlike other trips of ours in the past, the purpose of this one wasn’t just to see the place, but also the people who lived there.
After saying our hellos, the first thing on the agenda, naturally, was breakfast. We went to a place near Emmett’s school and loaded up on the aptly named full English breakfast. Delicious as it was, the meal would have been best followed by a trip to the sofa, not to the beach as we had intended. In no mood to take our shirts off any time soon though, we decided to head to Qingdao’s Germantown instead to get a taste of the city’s historic side and walk off the gargantuan portion of food we had just devoured.
Like other coastal cities in China, Qingdao was the recipient of heavy Western influence at the turn of the 20th Century. While other ports like Shanghai or Hong Kong are best remembered for their French or British ties, Qingdao is remembered for its German ones. This influence has mostly disappeared over the course of the last hundred years but can still be seen today in the handful of centuries-old buildings scattered around the hillsides of the city, each one serving as a remnant of a bygone era.
As we began walking the streets of the Germantown, we found the most interesting thing to be not the buildings themselves, but rather the setting they were in. The two and three story structures would have looked perfectly normal lining the lanes of a European town, but they sat along the streets of a Chinese city which meant that the scenery and atmosphere that existed around them was a far cry from what one would expect to find in Europe. Shiny skyscrapers jutted up from behind their roofs, Chinese characters hung from their exteriors and souvenir shops selling stuffed anime dolls filled their interiors. Like an abandoned house reclaimed by the nature around it, so had the Germantown been overtaken by China.
All of this made the town rather enjoyable to walk through, which we did until our stroll carried us to within sight and smell of the ocean and we promptly left the curiously contrasting Germantown and headed towards the water.
With no beach in sight, we decided instead to explore the boardwalk and take in the scenery that accompanied it. There were pavilions and lighthouses poking up from the outcrops of land that dotted the water, the Qingdao skyline stretching out to sea until there was no more land left to accommodate it, amateur fisherman searching for clams and crabs in the crevasses left exposed by the low tide, and, of course, the people, who all seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly.
While the sights were enticing, the thought of the beach loomed in our minds and we slowly made our way along the coast, winding through parks, both natural and industrial, before coming across the unimaginatively named “No. 2 Bathing Beach.” After arriving we filled up on ice-cold Tsingtao beer, our first of the trip, before tiptoeing out into the frigid water. If the beers had for some reason affected our ability to stay afloat, there was plenty of debris to grab onto whether it be the occasional bobbing chicken drumstick or the more unsettling unidentifiable floating objects that blocked our path to the open water straight ahead. After making it past the fleet of garbage, the ocean became much more enjoyable and we swam around in it for the rest of the afternoon.
As the sun began to set, we were reminded of just how quickly the day had passed and decided to leave the comfort of the ocean and begin looking for a place for dinner. Our search took us back to Emmett and Olga’s apartment where we settled on a barbecue joint along the street. Instead of a menu, they had all of their dishes on display inside of a glass box. All we had to do was tell the waiter which things we wanted and they would gather it all up and cook it on the grill behind them. Worried that we might miss something delicious, we pointed to nearly everything behind the glass like eager children in a candy shop. If ever the phrase “eyes bigger than your stomach” was appropriate, it was here, a fact we soon realized as the slew of dishes that we had ordered began to be brought out to our table and, in a matter of minutes, there was no longer any room left to put things.
Bit by bit, we picked away at the mound of food before us, but our efforts were futile as more and more skewers of meat or tofu or dishes of fried eggplant were piled on top. By the end of the meal, we looked at the unfinished dishes before us not with delight but with disdain and the process of eating, a normally enjoyable endeavor, became a chore. As we picked away, we slowly began to realize that finishing the meal would be physically impossible so we hung up our chopsticks and called it a night.
Our agenda for our second day in Qingdao was beer-centric since the city is home to China’s oldest and most recognized beer brand, Tsingtao, as well as Asia’s biggest beer festival, which happened to be taking place during our visit. The night before we had excitedly looked up information about the festival in anticipation of going and were met with photos of packed beer gardens filled with smiling faces holding giant mugs of beer and testimonies of gleeful foreigners whose beer tabs had been covered by drunk Chinese businessmen. Eager to get in on the action, we hailed a taxi after eating breakfast, leaned in the window and told the driver the only word necessary to get us to where we were going: pijiu (Chinese for beer). To our delight, it was enough and we arrived at the festival without a hitch.
As we got out of the taxi, the scene before us was vastly different from the one we had seen in the pictures the night before. The shots of happy drunkards clinking their mugs together all had one thing in common: they were taken at night, which is usually when people go out for a beer. We were at the festival at 11:00 a.m., which is precisely not the time that people go out for a beer. After entering the festival grounds, we were met with the sight of endless rows of wooden tables sitting completely empty and, even though the festival opened at the alcoholic hour of 8:30, the workers seemed shocked and perhaps a bit judgmental as they watched us stroll through. The thought of getting a 1.5 liter mug of beer and sitting alone amidst the apocalyptic spread of empty tables was pondered briefly before being quickly abandoned and replaced instead with a trip to the beach. Beer festivals, as we now know, are not happening places before noon.
The beach, on the other hand, was much more populated. As we were in a different part of Qingdao than the day before, we decided to skip the numbered bathing beaches that lied on the other side of the city for the more creatively dubbed Stone Man Beach, whose name came from the large rock sitting on the horizon which is said to look like a fisherman at sea. We didn’t see the resemblance, but then, at times, it seems that the entire creative capacity of the Chinese mind is spent on deciding what rocks look like, kind of like China’s version of cloud watching.
Confusing stone comparisons aside, the beach itself was great. The water, cool and refreshing, was much cleaner than the beach we had gone to the day before and the views, temple-dotted hillsides and an expansive beach that beautifully reflected the sky and people standing above it, much more accommodating. As we waded out into the water the afternoon slipped away and we soon found ourselves up at the boardwalk, snacking on some fried squid to keep our grumbling stomachs at bay.
After finishing our squid, we had a choice to make: return to the beer festival to see if it had livened up or go to the Qingdao Beer Museum. With a bad taste in our mouths from our first experience with the festival (or was it the squid?), we decided to go to the brewery for a tour and what we hoped would be a thorough sampling of the beer that they made there.
We were not disappointed on either front as both the tour and the hour-long free beer binge at the end were equally enjoyable. Perhaps the coolest part about the brewery were the buildings that contained it. Like the parts of Qingdao we had seen the day before, the architecture was uniquely Western. Big brick buildings draped in ivy with currents of wind running through them stretched up several floors, with some being capped by what appeared to be giant beer cans.
The first building we went into introduced us to the brewery’s history which dated back to its founding in 1903 by homesick Germans stuck in Qingdao. As we entered, we passed giant vats and machinery that had been used by the brewery during its infancy at the turn of the 20th Century. As we wandered further inward, black and white and then colored photos filled us in on everything that had happened since and we even got a brief glimpse into the beer making process, which, to our surprise, dated all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia where the drink was discovered by accident.
While the tour was interesting, it was noticeably lacking in the important category of actual beer. All the pictures and information about Tsingtao without the real thing had made us thirsty so we began making our way through the museum at a more ambitious pace, passing through various rooms and exhibits before finally making it to the end of the tour where we descended a staircase into a huge, wooden-clad room and began our one hour of limitless beer.
The idea of all-you-can-eat or, in this case, drink, is always a tempting offer, but the reality of it is that, in one hour, you can’t really eat or drink all that much. This was true for everyone except Emmett, who, in the one hour allotted to him, managed to fill and finish four mugs of beer, prompting the bartender to declare that his fourth would be his last. Apparently the title of all you can drink is a courtesy and no one expects you to actually follow through with the offer.
After sitting and chatting for a couple of hours in the brewery, we headed across the street to grab a bite to eat. With bellies full of beer and feet wary of walking, we chose the nearest restaurant and ordered a spread of food in a similar fashion as the night before, though this tIme we were a bit more cautious as to how much we ordered. The warm atmosphere of the brewery carried over to the restaurant as did the conversation and, for the next couple of hours we sat and ate and talked until our plates and mugs were empty, upon which we hailed a taxi to take us back to their apartment.
After getting back, we said our goodbyes and retired for the night. The next morning, we tiptoed out of the apartment to catch our 6 a.m. flight back to Shanghai, leaving our friends and Qingdao’s wonderful ocean vibe behind us.
As we dipped our feet into the warm ocean waters, taking in the last remaining traces of sunset, the sky before us caught fire. Deep oranges and reds sat hovering over the mountain-lined horizon, contained by a thick plume of dark and smoky clouds. We were barely two hours into our time in Hoi An, an ancient trading town along the coast of Central Vietnam, and were already beginning to discover the many charms it had to offer, chief among them beautiful scenery. To our delight, the fiery sky remained unchanged for the entirety of our time on the beach, but this didn’t stop us from looking up every few minutes to remind ourselves of where we were or what surrounded us. And so began the theme of our six days in Vietnam. It was never a matter of seeking out new things but rather making sure not to miss them. The sights and tastes and experiences were there, all we had to do was just walk out the door.
Long before coming on the trip we had designated our first full day in Hoi An as an unequivocal beach day. While we were aware of the abundance of cultural activities to do around the town and the limited nature of our itinerary, we were also aware of the novelty of being on the tropical shores of Vietnam and that, we deemed, deserved spending at least one day entirely sea or sand bound.
Our day, like all the rest, began with a free breakfast at our guesthouse, Loc Phat Hoi An Homestay, one of the most accommodating places we’ve ever had the fortune of staying at. Pho, a spicy beef noodle soup, was the dish of choice on the menu and we slurped up two delicious bowls of it before renting a couple of bikes and peddling off towards An Bang Beach, our first and only destination for the day.
I’m not sure how one could feel eager to do absolutely nothing for an entire day, but that’s exactly how we felt as we parked our bikes at An Bang and began the short walk to the beach. As we approached it, we weren’t met with the view of an expansive blue ocean as we had expected but instead with a canopy of grass umbrellas, each with a pair of cushioned loungers neatly situated underneath, stretching across the sand as far as the eye could see. The umbrellas, we had read, belonged to one of the many restaurants looming overhead and we braced ourselves for what would surely be an onslaught of sales pitches to choose one over the other. Before our feet even touched the sand, shouts of “free chairs” filled the air, serving as lures meant to startle us into unwittingly committing to a certain set of loungers and therefore into getting all of our food and drinks from that particular restaurant for the rest of the day. However annoying the attention being thrust on us was, it seemed like a small price to pay for the comfort of cushioned seats and shade on an already hot day and we chose two loungers at random, thus beginning our day of nothingness.
As we sat in our loungers, the pleasant but unfamiliar feeling that comes with having no agenda or real sense of time in a place where the feeling is mutual overcame us. Our obliviousness to the rate at which the day was passing first became evident as we ordered two beers only later to find out that it was barely 10:00 a.m. For some reason, perhaps due to the fact that the sun was more overhead than before, we had assumed it was closer to noon. In any case, we savored the beers, especially the first few sips, knowing that the cold and refreshing nature of them would be quickly erased by the now sweltering midday heat.
As the beers warmed, our pace of drinking them quickened and, by the time we had finished, our appetites had grown and we abandoned our comfortable seats to fulfill the oath that had secured them for us in the first place. After painstakingly climbing the six stairs to take us from the beach to the restaurant, we sat down and rewarded our effort with an assortment of dishes, one of which was Vietnamese spring rolls, kicking off a six-day love affair with the crispy treat that was a far cry from any version we had had before.
The trajectory of our day after lunch stayed pretty much aligned with our pre-lunch activities of either sitting or swimming. By this point in the day, the latter of the two became more difficult as any trip to the bath-like waters of the ocean required a frantic sprint across the now scorching beach, igniting a series of “oohs” and “aahs” until our feet finally hit the refreshingly cool touch of the wet sand. In spite of this, we still went often and had even purchased some goggles to explore whatever life existed under the surface.
To our delight, there was plenty, most notably the scattered legions of jellyfish that had somehow managed to slip through the fleet of fishing boats sitting off in the distance. Unsure of whether they stung or not, we kept our distance aside from the occasional poke of their squishy caps with our fingers. It wasn’t until later when we unknowingly swam into a small crowd of them (they were sneakily transparent) that we realized they were, in fact, not the stinging type. Apart from the jellyfish, we also saw starfish, rainbow shrimp and even small colonies of hermit crabs, who, in this particular case, failed to live up to their name as there were hundreds of them clustered together on the sea floor.
The longer we were in the ocean, the more tempting it became to return to the shade of our loungers. And, usually after a half hour or so, we did exactly that, plopping our bodies down on their cushioned surface. While we sat, the rest of the afternoon slipped away as we took in the scenery around us. Looking out, our gaze couldn’t help but be drawn first to the mountains and islands in the distance, jutting out from the perfectly straight line separating sea from sky. A bit further in, boats bobbed on the otherwise open sea and heads and bodies eventually joined them, black silhouettes evenly spaced from one another so as to create the illusion that the ocean was theirs. Waves would move around them, washing ashore in their mesmerizingly endless fashion. On the beach, between the sea and the shade of umbrellas, not a soul was to be found, only fisherman’s boats which resembled a giant overturned tortoise shells or the occasional sandal or T-shirt that was thrust aside as its owner madly dashed from one heat haven to the other.
For most of the day, this view remained relatively unchanged until the late afternoon when local Hoi Aners began arriving to the beach and the quiet wash of the waves became inaudible under the shouts and shrieks of children celebrating the end of another school day. It was strange for us to think of it being a normal day for them as well as imagine their lifestyle, a full day of work or school followed by a quick dip in the ocean.
That night, the sun set in as equally a spectacular fashion as the night before and we sat and watched as the sky was transformed into a canvas of colors. Wisps of clouds, which ran across it like brushstrokes, seemed to change color by the minute as the sun crept further into the horizon. As beautiful as it was, the colors, like the crowds, didn’t last long and began to fade as darkness set in and, with our enjoyably long day coming to an end as well, we grabbed a bite to eat before biking back to our guesthouse.
With our beach day now behind us and eager for a taste of Hoi An’s historic side, we decided to spend our third day exploring its old town, a cluster of centuries-old buildings sitting along the banks of the Thu Bon River. After a pleasant 30-minute walk from our guesthouse, we arrived at the outskirts of the town and entered it through the “new market,” which, like most other parts of the town, resembled nothing close to what you would describe as new, starting with the people who occupied it.
Old women, crouching under the shadow of their pyramid hats, lined the outer edges of the market, a rainbow of vegetables neatly contained in baskets spread out before them. Overhead, tourists and locals shuffled through each other in a manner that suggested that they were either unaware of the other’s existence or else didn’t care to acknowledge it. Baskets of chickens and ducks, slabs of meat, and even the occasional bucket of fish filled the spaces in between, leaving a hodgepodge of odors, none of which were in the least bit pleasant, lingering in the air. All of this, along with a temperature rapidly approaching 100 degrees, made for quite an uncomfortable atmosphere for 8:30 in the morning and we pushed through the market rather quickly, emerging into the immensely more charming lanes of the old town.
As we began exploring the town, the views stayed delightfully consistent. Two-storied houses and shops, stained in a mustard yellow, lined the lanes, their exteriors showing the effects of time with worn wooden panels hanging from their windows and long, streaky water marks running through their paint like age lines on a tree trunk. From their roofs, long locks of disheveled plants hung down, a mangled mane of vines and flowers exploding out of the clay tiles. Above the street, a web of wires and cables, from which dangled a colorful assortment of lanterns, stretched from one building to the next. The town looked every bit its age, but that was the point. When you stepped into it, you stepped back in time. Sure the interiors of the different buildings were redecorated and filled with souvenir trinkets and tailor shops, but if you could look past that, it wasn’t hard to imagine what life was like there centuries ago.
As we wandered further into the town, we began to notice one of the few unpleasant things about it: a complete lack of shade. This was particularly problematic because, at 9:00 in the morning, we were barely into our day and already the fully harnessed power of the sun was beating down on our heads. At first we tried to beat the heat, slogging through the streets like a couple of snails with a trail of sweat in our wake, but, after about a half hour of this, we decided there was no beating it and opted instead to go inside one of the many buildings bookending the lanes to escape the sun. Among the abundance of options, we chose the Fujian Assembly Hall to serve as our oasis and happily entered into its moderately cooler, but abundantly less sunny interior.
All around Hoi An, there were assembly halls like the one we were entering, all of which were dedicated to different nationalities. Like the town itself, they were remnants of the bygone trading days, when merchants from all corners of the globe would set their sails for Hoi An to do business with the Vietnamese. As we stood in the same halls that a Chinese person undoubtedly stood in centuries ago, we couldn’t help but think just how different our journeys had been to get there. What would they have thought of us getting into a big, metal tube thousands of miles away, shooting off into the sky, and landing safely near the town just a few hours later?
After touring the hall, we ventured back out into the streets refreshed and ready to continue our exploration of the town. For the rest of the day, we made sure to take frequent breaks in the shady interior of a shop, and, when we did happen to be out in the sun and feeling sorry for ourselves, we would just have to look around at the local women to instantly feel better about our circumstances.
Most of them, to our shock, looked dressed for a blizzard, wearing jeans, two or sometimes three sweaters zipped up to their necks, gloves, big hats, and even face masks. We had also seen it on the beach the day before and, curious as to why someone would put themselves through that, we inquired about it and were told that Vietnamese society prefers women to have light skin, which we thought was a rather ambitious beauty standard for a tropical country. In any sense, it put into perspective any sort of misery we were feeling due to the heat and kept our complaining to a minimum.
As the afternoon rolled around, we finally hit the edge of the town, marked by a 16th-century Japanese bridge, which looked in every sense the way a centuries-old structure should. The wood of its handrails, cracked and bare, had long since seen the refurbishing touch of a paintbrush, the porcelain that decorated its roof was either chipped or missing entirely, and the red paint covering its exterior was faded. But, like everything else in the town we had seen up to that point, it worked, which was the allure of Hoi An.
Despite being a very old place, it was neither in disrepair nor did you get the feeling of over-preservation as you walked through it. Everything fit so well together, even the different influences in architecture didn’t seem to clash. The faded red of the Japanese bridge didn’t look at all out of place in between the mustard yellow buildings, whose endless run along the lanes would be broken up by an occasional sky blue or teal storefront. It all worked, the age, the colors and we enjoyed every bit of it. As the day wore on though, we decided to leave the town for another day and head to the beach to take in another sunset.
We would pick up our fourth day in Hoi An where the third one had left off, near the ocean. For a majority of the day, we passed the time either in, around, or on the ocean. Our first stop of the day was Cham Island, which we would have to take a speedboat to get to. The ride there, while bumpy, was enjoyable and, after about twenty minutes, our feet were back on solid ground and our tour guide, who vastly overestimated his own English skills, began taking us around the island that he called home.
One of the consequences of going on a tour, and the reason why we don’t take them unless we absolutely have to, is that the guide decides what you see and how long you see it. Often times, their ideas about these two things are vastly different from our own and this time was no exception. We were there for beaches and snorkeling, but upon arriving we were instead paraded around the island’s interior, making a stop at the village temple, going by the schoolhouse and eventually going through the village itself, which had long known the advantages of tourism as the streets were practically lined with vendors selling treats and trinkets. We appreciated the tour for what it was though, being grateful for the small pieces of information we were able to gather about the island we were inhabiting for the day.
As we began walking back to the boat, our tour guide sought us out (we were the only English speakers on the tour) to tell us a joke he seemed particularly proud of. As we mentioned earlier, his English was elementary at best and, because of this, we were only able to understand a few words of it. We gathered that it had something to do with two chickens comparing their breasts with those of humans with the punchline having something to do with claws. Confused, we asked him to repeat it again and, after the third time, we nervously laughed in a manner that wasn’t fooling anyone. That was the last time he talked with us for the rest of the tour.
After getting back to the boat, our next stop was to go snorkeling, the thing we had been most looking forward to on the tour. Ever since we had gone Boracay two years earlier, we had been anticipating doing it again and were giddy to finally be doing so. As we pulled up to the snorkeling area, our tour guide plopped a bag of goggles and breathing tubes on the back of the boat and set us free to explore. As we dug through the bag of snorkeling gear we were appalled by the fact everything had some degree of mold growing on it and we pulled out the least affected pieces we could find and wearily strapped them on.
Our worries about the mold were soon forgotten though as we jumped into the water and peered beneath the surface of the ocean. Fish of all sizes and colors swam around each other, dipping in and out of the numerous holes and crevasses strewn across the sea floor. Coral stretched up towards the surface like mountains to the sky, swaying in the currents in a similar fashion as trees in the wind. Slivers of light shone down through the water, running over the entire scene like a system of veins. It was like dipping our faces into an entirely different world. Every now and then we would poke our heads out of the water and were amazed each time at how normal the surface looked, giving no hint at the entire ecosystem that existed just a few feet below it.
After about thirty minutes we were summoned back to the boat where we boarded and promptly set off towards the island’s main beach to have lunch, which consisted of a wildly inappropriate amount of food. Plate after plate after plate of meat and vegetables and fried snacks were laid out before us and, not wanting to waste any of it, we shamefully emptied the contents of each plate into our stomachs until there was nothing left. Uncomfortably full, we lumbered to the beach where we wasted away our bloated misery on a couple of shade-covered loungers until we were called to the boat to head back to Hoi An.
We got back to our guesthouse around 2:00 and immediately grabbed a couple of bikes to head to the beach to spend the rest of our day. We decided this time to try a less touristy beach than the others we had been to and were pleasantly surprised that the perks (a lounger and umbrella in exchange for ordering food or drinks) remained the same along with the added bonus of relative seclusion.
After arriving we noticed the sky darkening around us and became worried that an ensuing thunderstorm would force us back to the guesthouse earlier than we had wanted to. We expressed this concern to the woman working at the bar and were assured that the storm would only last a few moments. This would have been believable had the crisp blue skies stretching across the horizon not been overtaken by an expanse of dark, gray clouds stretching as far as the eye could see in a matter of minutes. Nonetheless, we decided to wait around and see what would happen, retreating to our loungers as the sky opened up. Sure enough, after about a ten minute wait the rain stopped and our view once again consisted of sunny blue skies. We should have known better given our experience with thunderstorms in the tropics: intense but short-lived.
The rest of the afternoon and evening was perfect with a mixture of cocktails, dips in the ocean, and lazing around on the beach. As the sun began to set, we hopped back on our bikes and began to look for a good restaurant along the beach, of which there were many. We chose one at random and spent the rest of the night picking at seafood and watching as the last remaining light was sucked under the mountains and the sky and ocean became synonymous in the black of night. With one more full day ahead of us, we headed back to our guesthouse to get some rest before our early rise the next day.
The agenda for our last full day in Hoi An was a long one and like most other days we had spent there, aimed to be a blend of both cultural and coastal activities, the first of which was a trip to the ancient Cham ruins of My Son (pronounced “mee-sohn”). We had read that walking around the ruins was akin to exploring the inside of an oven, which after 4 days in Vietnam was entirely believable. We also read that the sight is swarmed with people around midday once all of the tourist buses roll in. So, wanting to avoid both of these as much as possible, we woke up at 5 a.m., started up our motorbike and were on our way.
To find our way there we followed a surprisingly clear hand-drawn map from one of the workers at our guesthouse. Despite its clarity, the simplicity of it made us constantly question if we were going in the right direction or had missed our road. So, every few miles, we would stop and ask a local shopkeeper or passerby, who were always friendly even at 6:00 in the morning, how to get to My Son. At one point we were sure we had gotten ourselves completely lost and pulled over to ask a fruit vendor for directions and our gazes were shamefully guided to the giant sign right above our heads that read “My Son” with a big yellow arrow pointing us in the right direction. The motorbike couldn’t have taken us away faster.
You would think that feeling completely lost in the Vietnamese countryside while cruising around at 40 m.p.h. on a vehicle that you’ve only driven once before in your life in a country that has no observable traffic laws would be a bad thing, but it really wasn’t. In fact, it was one of our favorite things we did in Vietnam. The sense of adventure we got riding around and taking in vistas of expansive fields, mountainous skylines and small villages just beginning their day all while other motorists and even a truck with pig feet hanging out of it whizzed by us was incomparable to any other experience we’ve had in our travels. It was uniquely enjoyable and, after 35 miles and nearly an hour and a half on the road, it was almost disappointing as we rolled up to the gates of My Son and parked our bike.
At this point, it was still only 6:30 in the morning and the park had just opened. No other motorbikes were parked in the garage nor cars or buses in the parking lot. We seemingly were the first ones there, other than the workers who sleepily greeted us as we bought our tickets and made our way towards the ruins.
We entered the grounds through a dense expanse of trees, whose browns and greens dominated the scenery as far as the eye could see. After about ten minutes of meandering through this, we spotted a speck of orange off in the distance and began walking towards it. As we did, a half-standing tower slowly materialized before us and we soon found ourselves at the first of what would be eight different sights of ruins. Some were small, consisting of just one or two buildings like the one we were at now, others were sprawling, but each deserved at least some degree of contemplation of their role in the society that built them and what the lives of those people were like.
As we bounced around from sight to sight, we began to notice the relationship My Son had with the jungle around it. After centuries of existing side by side, it was almost as if the jungle had decided to reclaim what was once it’s own. Hills of grassy earth climbed up the walls of the different structures, almost making it look like they hadn’t been built but rather grew out of the earth like the trees around them. It was difficult to imagine one without the other.
Of the many incredible things we saw at My Son though, there was one unsettling one that was present in almost every sight that we visited. Giant craters, so big that one could easily confuse them for small hills, littered the landscape, remnants of the Vietnam War when the ruins were used as a hideout for the Viet Cong. Because of this, the sight was heavily bombed and many of the buildings that once stood were lost forever. It wasn’t until a My Son historian wrote a letter to the US President at the time, urging him to stop the attack, that the bombs finally ceased falling, but the damage had already been done and it was still very much visible fifty years later as we walked through the ruins. Maps and signs pointed to piles of bricks that were identified as once towering buildings and the ones that were still standing were often half-reduced to rubble. It was the first time we felt truly ashamed to be Americans.
Even with the bomb craters, it was very difficult to imagine a war taking place there or anywhere else in Vietnam for that matter. And this is for two people with admittedly very large imaginations. We would see black and white photos hung in shops of helicopters on the horizon and soldiers on the ground, but the Vietnam we saw and experienced was a world apart from this. We didn’t think about this too often though as there were many other things demanding our attention, all of which were much more pleasant than the thought of war.
After wandering around the ruins until about eleven o’clock, the valley they sat in began to fill with heat and tour groups and we decided that it was a good time to leave. So, we made our way back to our motorbike, hopped on, and began the return journey to Hoi An.
Apparently following a map backwards is much more difficult than forwards because the frequency with which we got completely lost (not just thinking we were lost) was exponentially higher than the journey to My Son. During one of these times, while we were knowingly driving in circles waiting for some familiar landmark to reveal itself, we noticed that our ride was getting increasingly bumpier despite the smooth road we were riding on. Panicked and determined to ignore the obvious, which was that we had a flat tire, we slowly crept along the road in hopes that the problem would fix itself (it didn’t). Just before losing all hope, we heard a shout from the opposite side of the road and looked over to find, to our relief, a man waving us in the direction of his home which doubled as a garage. After pulling up, he pointed us in the direction of some chairs, and, several minutes and $2.50 later, we were back on the road. Cheap and friendly are two things you can always count on in Southeast Asia.
After getting back, we made a quick run to the beach before hanging up our motorbike keys for good and heading into the old town on foot to catch their monthly celebration of the full moon. The town, like most everything else experienced in both the light of day and dark of night, took on an entirely different form. The yellows that dominated the city during the day now gave way to the red and white glow of lanterns hanging along and above the lanes which were significantly more crowded and filled with life now that the sun was no longer looming overhead.
As the sun slipped completely under the horizon, the moon, which oddly enough wasn’t full, showed up for its own party and we headed to the riverside where everyone in the town had begun to gravitate towards. After arriving, it didn’t take long for us to figure out how exactly they celebrated the festival.
All along the river, little girls and old women carrying lit candles in paper lanterns impressively maneuvered their way through the crowds asking people if they’d like to buy one. If you did, you were given a big hook that you could use to place the lantern in the river and make a wish. We bought two, happily placed them in the river and excitedly watched as they floated into a pile of other lanterns and were then rowed over by a boat. We weren’t sure how the rules applied, but we imagined that meant that our wishes would go unanswered. Destruction by boat wasn’t the worst fate though as some, after being placed in the water, proceeded to catch on fire and become reduced to smoldering piles of ashes. Hopefully no one wished for world peace.
Most of the lanterns did what they were meant to though and floated along the river unobstructed, illuminating the water in the same way as the stars do the sky. Despite the bustling crowds around us, it was an incredibly peaceful experience as we watched the different-colored lanterns slowly float off into the distance. It was so peaceful in fact, that, as we watched them, we were reminded of how tired we had grown and began the long walk back to our guesthouse.
Our last day in Hoi An wasn’t as much a day as it was a morning. We had an early flight leaving at 9:00 so, wanting to make the most of what little time we had left, we decided to get up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the sunrise. After rolling out of bed and suppressing the protests from our bodies about being up at such a time, we grabbed our bikes and cruised through the eerily quiet streets towards the beach. As we pulled up to it, we found a seat and watched the scenery unfold around us. If some pictures are worth a thousand words than this was a moment worth a thousand pictures. Hopefully three will do.
Once the sun had fully come up and the yellows and pinks and oranges that had occupied the sky just moments before turned to a uniform blue, we hopped back on our bikes to head back to the guesthouse in hopes of catching one last breakfast before our taxi arrived. To our delight, we made it back in plenty of time and, with a full belly of beef noodles, we sadly got into the taxi and bid farewell to Hoi An.
Our experience of Tokyo was probably different from most others’. There were no trips up towering skyscrapers, walks through busy shopping districts, or even a viewing of sumo wrestling for that matter. In fact, before we had even come on the trip, we knew the bustling metropolis would be serving more as a base for us than a destination. Having just come from Shanghai, another one of the biggest cities in the world, we were more interested in the charms of a smaller city like Kyoto or the natural beauty of a place like Mt. Fuji. However, as we found out in our brief time there, Tokyo had a lot to offer outside of the typical sights of a city.
We technically had four days in the capital, but three of those consisted of trips to the train station in the morning and from it at night with an occasional meal thrown in. The only real time we had in the city was our last day there, a full one that ended with a train ride back to Osaka to catch our flight. Wanting to make the most of it, we got up early and set off to see the Tsukiji fish market, the largest in the world.
When we got to the market, the condition of the morning–cold and early–gave us and the other tourists a zombie-like pace. Bundled bodies shuffling around each other in the maze of walkways inside the market gates. Our sluggish state was by no means shared by the workers though for, while our day was just beginning, theirs was coming to an end. They zoomed around us from every direction, weaving in and out of each other like a school of fish. Perhaps the ocean wasn’t the only thing they shared with their product.
The drastic difference in pace, to our surprise, never seemed to bother the workers outside of an occasional eye roll or deep sigh. Even when we would do foolish things like stop in inconvenient locations to look at a map, pausing for long moments to try and decode the nearly illegible mixture of lines and symbols, the bodies, forklifts and trolleys would just move around us. This held true for other tourists too, but it didn’t mean that we had a happy coexistence with the market for, while it allowed us into it, it in no way changed itself to become a tourist attraction other than the slew of sushi shops sitting at its gates. Because of this, the market’s relationship with us was more of toleration than accommodation, which made the experience all the more unique and exciting.
Little by little, our bodies thawed and we migrated towards the back of the market to see where the actual fish were sold. As we made our way out of the crowds and down a dark hallway littered with dusty machinery, bright lights in the distance assured us that we were going in the right direction and, when we reached them, we entered into a world of styrofoam and ice on which laid fish of every size and color. We had read before coming that the fish were for sale only to restaurants and bulk buyers so we were largely ignored during our time there which worked to our advantage as we were able to work our way through the labyrinthine market without being pounced on by eager vendors.
Among the bountiful variety of fish and seafood we saw lining the aisles of the market, some of the more interesting ones were: sea cucumbers, blowfish, octopi of every size (and sometimes just their tentacles), sea urchins, and tangles of crabs, most of which were still alive. Occasionally we would even come across remnants of the 4 a.m. tuna auction, giant fish heads laying on the ground whose bodies were most likely in the back of some van heading to a restaurant. Seeing all of this seafood, even the tuna heads strangely enough, reminded us of the other reason we had come to the market: to try the sushi, which we heard would be the freshest we would ever have.
Finding a restaurant to satisfy our appetite for sushi proved easy enough, the tricky part came in choosing which one to go to as each that we passed had a line snaking out of it so long it would make an anaconda blush. This, we figured, meant that they were all equally good and we randomly chose a restaurant with a green awning that sat at the market’s entrance. After getting in line we began to creep forward little by little but our steps were too infrequent for our liking. Nonetheless, we waited, our appetites borderline ravenous as we watched satisfied face after satisfied face leave the restaurant. After over an hour, we stood at the front door, next in line to go in and hardly able to contain ourselves as we peered through the steamy windows at the people enjoying their sushi inside.
Finally, our names were called and we smugly entered, abandoning the rest of the line-dwellers to their fate in the cold. As we sat down and took in our surroundings, we found out why our wait had been so long. The interior sat fewer than a dozen and the staff consisted of one waitress, who doubled as the cashier, and two sushi chefs. After settling in, the waitress brought us a mug of oolong tea and laid out a banana leaf before us which we knew would soon be decorated with the colorful variety of sushi we had just ordered. A bowl of shrimp head soup was added later and we filled up a dish of soy sauce in preparation. Now fully ready, we watched the chefs artistically prepare each of our rolls, slicing slivers of fish and adding pinches of wasabi to the balls of rice in their hands.
We had heard that the process of becoming a sushi chef was an arduous one, requiring years and years of training and experience before getting certified. While we initially questioned the necessity of this, as we slid the first salmon-capped roll into our mouths, we realized it was a process we were extremely grateful for. Eel, shrimp, squid, and tuna followed along with rolls of sea urchin and fish eggs. We meticulously chewed each bite, wanting to savor each new flavor and texture we were experiencing. As we did this, the sushi, so carefully prepared, practically melted in our mouths. We’d had sushi many times before, but this felt like we were trying it for the first time–a kind of born again sushi enthusiast.
After savoring our last piece and knowing that there were people waiting anxiously outside, we paid our bill and left the restaurant to a barrage of jealous stares from the faces in line. After the fish market, we debated where to go next. We had wanted to see a few more places before leaving, but after pulling out our map, we realized how poor our planning had been and just how drastically we had underestimated the size of Tokyo. For some reason we expected temples, museums, gardens, and shopping districts all to be clumped together conveniently in one place. Apparently, the zoning commissioners of the ancient city didn’t have tourism in mind when they laid it out.
With the sights we wanted to see in different corners of the city, we realized that we would only have time to visit one and decided on the oldest temple in Tokyo: Sensoji. As we got off the subway and walked up to it’s iconic front gate, we wondered if we were going to see a temple at all. Crowds and noise exploded out of the entrance, making for a very un-templelike atmosphere, but exciting nonetheless. Eager to see what the commotion was about, we maneuvered through the people and entered the gate, passing under the giant red lantern that hung from its ceiling. As we did this, the path we were walking on became lined with rows of souvenir shops and food vendors which both eventually led to the temple itself. Looking off into the distance was like looking down a hallway with the mass of heads serving as the floor, the store fronts as the walls and the sky as the ceiling.
Wanting to reach a less claustrophobic space, we made our way down the path to the second gate, which looked strikingly similar to the first, and passed through it into an open plaza. The smell of incense filled the air and we gazed around, taking in the different features of the temple. A pagoda jutting out from the landscape, the main temple with a mob of people filing in and out, the Tokyo Sky Tree off in the distance, and, one of the more unique features, giant sandals mounted on the wall of the gate.
It was bittersweet walking around the grounds knowing that this would be our last experience of Japan outside of the interior of train cars and airports. With this in mind, we made sure to enjoy the temple to its fullest, which reduced our pace to a slow contemplative meander. Minutes turned into hours and, as the lights and lamps slowly started to flicker on around the temple, we knew the moment we had dreaded had finally come. Despite only spending a week in the country, we had grown attached to it. We were aware of course that we were experiencing everything through the all-too biased tourist goggles, where everything is new and wonderful, but we’ve been many places before and this one felt different.
Perhaps the feeling could best be summed up in one of our very last experiences in Japan. After getting a train back to Osaka late that night, we discovered that the subway trains and city buses going to the airport were no longer running. So, with no place to stay and both of us being too stubborn to pay for a taxi, we decided to just wander around the city. At about 3 a.m., after getting some coffee at a gas station, we went back to the bus stop to sit and wait for the 3:30 bus. As we sat and sipped our coffees, an old street sweeper came by and began making his rounds. After sweeping for a short while, he saw us sitting there, came over, and proceeded to carry out a conversation with the handful of English he knew. After a few minutes of exhausting his arsenal, he gave a friendly wave and went on sweeping down the street. Even at 3 a.m., in an unfamiliar city outside in the cold, we still felt comfortable. For us, more than the sights and tastes, this was Japan.
The lines leading up to the opening subway doors were neat and orderly and, after all the departing passengers had left, we patiently filed into the car, making our way to one of the many plush red velvet seats available to us. As we nestled ourselves in to the seats, which also happened to be heated, and lazily gazed around the car, it became very clear that we weren’t in China anymore. Sure the faces looked the same and the buzz of a big city was still ringing in our ears, but there were also sounds of birds and wildlife being played over the subway speaker system. This was Kyoto, it was different, and we liked it.
Our home base for the trip was Khaosan Kyoto Guesthouse, which was tucked away in an alley just off of one of the main shopping streets in the city. We arrived late in the afternoon so, wanting to make the most of the little time we had in a city of 2,000 temples, we made a brief stop to drop off our bags before heading off to the Arashiyama district in the outskirts of the city.
After arriving in the district, we wondered if we had gone to the right place. Temples, bamboo forests and monkeys were the attraction, but as we exited the subway station, our eyes were met instead with a surrounding of tree-blanketed hills roller-coastering their way around the skyline and a clear, gentle river running in between. Unsure of where to go, we decided to follow the scattered clusters of people meandering towards a bridge that crossed to a small town just over the river. As we crossed the bridge, the tranquil atmosphere that accompanied the walk up to it soon disappeared into a bustling one as we entered the enclave of one and two story buildings. The streets buzzed with tourists scrambling to try the wide array of new things awaiting them (which were many) ranging from fried seafood on a stick to rickshaw rides.
We decided to save the commotion for later and settled on a buffet which was a unique experience unto itself. The buffet featured an assortment of bite-size dishes that included everything from steamed pumpkin to fried potatoes to pieces of colorful tofu molded into little flowers, with all of it being served up in small baskets placed around the room. Our plates, large and square with nine separate sections indented into them, were ingeniously designed to accommodate the bountiful selection before us. We were allotted 60 minutes for the buffet but, despite our valiant efforts to fill each of the minutes as fully as we had each of the sections of our plate, our stomachs waved the white flag at just 45 minutes and we decided to leave early. In need of a good walk after this, we headed to Tenryu-ji, one of the main temples in the area.
Before coming to Japan a student had asked Ryan why he was going through all the hassle of going to another country to see temples and mountains when he could see both of those right in China. The answer to that became clear as we entered the temple. It undoubtedly shared many similarities with temples we had seen in China, but there were just enough differences to make it feel like we were touring a temple for the first time. Many of the buildings’ roofs were not tiled, as they are in China, but thatched, the walls were paper, and the gardens designed to an aesthetic uniformity. So much so in fact that as we walked through them we felt as if we were walking through a miniature set where each tree and bush had been placed exactly where they were meant to be by giant hands from above.
The grounds of this temple were small however and we soon found ourselves at the exit, which conveniently sat at the entrance of the sight that we had traveled to the area to see: the bamboo forest. In the pictures we had seen of it before the trip, each one appeared to be dipped in green with the only deterrence from the different shades of the hue being the brown dirt path running down the middle. But, as we walked up to the forest, the dim light of the late afternoon gave it a more ominous feel than the bright colors we had seen in the pictures. The only sunlight that made it into the forest shined down in slivers that had managed to slip through the thick canopy of leaves sitting on top of the stalks. This, and the cool air we felt as we entered the forest, gave it an eerie feeling. As we walked down the dirt path further into the endless stretch of bamboo stalks, the strange feeling that accompanied our entrance quickly became one of fascination as we took in row after row of thick bamboo trunks shooting up into the sky. To take everything in, we walked back and forth through the forest several times before leaving for good and crossing the river again to head back to our hostel.
Our second day started early as we wanted to beat the crowds to our first destination: Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, one of the most visited sights in the city. As we entered the grounds though, we were disappointed to find hordes of tour groups wandering about, rendering our efforts of early arrival moot. Eager for a view of picturesque gardens rather than a sea of like-colored hats, we maneuvered our way through the crowd, finally coming to a stop at the edge of a small pond where we had a beautiful sweeping view of the temple’s scenery. Dominating the view was the appropriately named Golden Pavilion, which warranted the crowds moving around it with its completely gold exterior which was duplicated almost perfectly in the mirror-like reflection in the pond below.
As our trip to Japan was in early February, the landscapes we saw were not filled with cherry blossom trees or the rich foliage of autumn, but rather the bareness of winter. Though this couldn’t compare with what we imagined the other scenes to be, it still had its own beauty and the colors that did exist were more striking amidst the dull browns and whites of the trees. Of these colors, that of the moss blanketing the surrounding hillsides stuck out the most, taking on an almost lime green shade as the sunlight reflected off of it.
As we made our way around the grounds we noticed a group of students eyeing us intently and soon after their professor approached us wanting to know if we’d be willing to answer a few of their questions for a school project. This would be the first of many encounters with students looking to complete their school work, with most of them being scripted and very few of them being based in any sort of interest in what we had to say. Regardless, they were sweet and we had fun talking with them.
After Kinkaku-ji, we grabbed a bite to eat around our next stop, Nijo Castle. The food at the restaurant wasn’t anything special, but the experience we had there was. Upon entering, instead of a waitress taking orders, we went to a vending machine, chose a picture of what meal we wanted, slipped a bill into the machine, and took the two tickets that popped out. Tickets in hand, we sat down and gave them to the waitress who brought our food out shortly after. It’s funny how what’s the most mundane of tasks for some people can be so exotic for others.
With full stomachs, we headed to the castle, which was different from any concept of a castle we had ever known apart from the moat that surrounded it. Rather than tall spires reaching into the sky, the structure stretched outward with curve-tipped eaves. Inside the walls, the many rooms contained minimal furniture or decorations, making it difficult to imagine a luxurious royal lifestyle ever taking place there. The one exception to the humble interior design was the beautiful murals adorning the walls of the different rooms, with each scene being different from the next. Of all those that we saw, the one that stuck out to us the most was of tigers lounging under a shade tree. What made them unique was that the paintings weren’t based on any first-hand knowledge of tigers by the artists, but rather of descriptions they had heard through stories. Because of this, the tigers took on a stocky, muscular look, slightly different from the sleek versions that we are familiar with.
The aesthetics of simplicity didn’t just stop with the visuals though, the air in the castle halls was still and cool, the smell clean, and the sound, aside from the soft murmurs of visitors in the distance, consisted of only the creaking of the wooden floors. This, as we found out, was no accident as the creaking was designed to make sure that any intruder looking to off an imperial would not be able to do so quietly. Because of the bird-like sound of the creaking that accompanied each step, the floorboards were dubbed “nightingale floors.”
After the castle, we made our way to Kiyomizu-dera, a temple whose crowded, bustling atmosphere was a world apart from the peaceful one we had just visited. The temple was perched atop a hill and to get to it we had to walk up a crowded street full of vendors. The atmosphere, which would have triggered a fit of hair pulling in Shanghai, was comparatively charming being on vacation and we strolled up the hill to reach the temple’s main pagoda. The first thing that caught our eye as we approached it was the white and orange adorning the exterior of the different buildings which seemed to glow in the light of the setting sun.
As we explored the different corners of the grounds, we came across what we thought to be one of the more unique parts of the temple: the “Love Walk.” As legend has it, if you can walk from one of the small rocks marking the start of the path to the other at the end with your eyes closed, you have found your true love. The area, naturally, was populated by packs of giddy teens who we pushed through to partake in the testament of love. Ryan, who went first, quickly and confidently made it from one stone to the other. Kate however, veered off course rather quickly and ended far away from either stone.
With our future together now in question, we decided to move on. The rest of our time in the temple was spent wandering around the grounds, taking in views of the city slowly darkening below and the landscape obscured by twilight. As street lamps slowly flickered on around us, we decided to move on and begin our hunt for dinner.
Our search took us to a restaurant where they made a dish called issen-yosyoku, which could best be described as Japanese tacos, and the only dish they served. We took this, along with the fact that the restaurant was packed, to mean that the mad concoction of ingredients we watched the cooks stuff into the tacos was worth trying. After nibbling at first, unsure of the questionable combination of ingredients, we were happy to find that our assumptions of deliciousness were correct and we devoured the tacos.
Our last day in Kyoto started as the previous one had, with some yogurt, muesli and a cup of coffee in our hostel’s common room, though the feeling was much different as we knew that we would soon be leaving one of the most comfortable and beautiful cities we had ever visited. Anxious to make the most of the time left to us before our train left for Tokyo, we headed to the Shinto shrine of Fushimi-Inari, one of the sites we had been looking forward to seeing the most.
After going basically from temple to temple over the course of the past two days, we were worried that the all-too-familiar temple fatigue (the point when the sights and sounds of different temples start to bleed together into one, losing their allure) would set in and diminish our appreciation of the place. This worry was quickly replaced by one of excitement though as we walked up an alleyway to the temple through a haze of odorous smoke emanating from the various fried food vendors lining it. After somehow managing to elude the temptation to try one of the many delicious-looking treats, we emerged from the alley and were met with the first of what would be thousands of orange torii gates, the unignorable symbol of the temple that lined the surrounding hillsides in an endless fashion.
As we began to explore the grounds more it was hard for us to imagine the temple as a place of worship for some as any sign of tranquility was lost amidst the mob of tourists weaving in and out of each other. For us it was exciting but a meditating monk might think otherwise. One thing we noticed in our exploration was the various statues of foxes scattered around the grounds and sitting in front of the different shrines and buildings the way lions do in China. We later learned that the foxes represent messengers to Inari, the god of grain and business. This helped give some context to the torii gates too, as each one was individually donated to the shrine as an offering to Inari for good fortune in their financial endeavors.
Before entering the maze of torii gates that began where the temple grounds transitioned into forest, we stopped off at a mouth-rinsing station where we used a large bamboo ladle to rinse out the inside of our mouths as was custom for visitors to the temple. Because sincerity is a fundamental aspect of Shintoism, the mouth-rinsing represented a purification of the heart.
With clean mouths (and hearts!), we entered the stretch of gates which made for a kind of hallway that would serve as our guide up and eventually back down the hillside. The gates were packed together pretty tightly so as we walked through them, it created an illusion of walking down an orange painted tunnel that extended as far as the curves of the hillside would allow. At some points, where the stretch ahead of us was flat, the gates created a miniature hallway effect, where the people walking by us would gradually shrink as they walked on, eventually disappearing into the tiny square of light waiting at the end.
We walked on and on, waiting for a break in the gates, but it rarely came and when it did, it was brief. Some of the gaps included small shrines with the familiar fox statues adorning them, an area with tiny huts that families could reserve and go to to make offerings, and, of most use to us, large maps that always reminded us that we had not walked nearly as far as we thought we had.
After walking for an hour and a half, we realized that at least another hour of climbing awaited us before reaching the hill’s summit. So, with our departure to Tokyo looming ever closer and one more temple to visit on our list, we reluctantly decided to turn around and begin our descent. After winding back down the mountain and emerging from the gates to the main temple grounds again, we succumbed to the array of fried foods that had tempted us on the way in. As we examined the food more closely, we realized that our choices were basically a variation of either meat on a stick or seafood on a stick. We tried both, which were equally delicious, along with some of the dessert options and then made our way to our last stop in Kyoto: Nanzen-ji.
The temple, quiet and secluded, offered us a nice retreat from the crowds of Fushimi-Inari and a peaceful end to our tour of the city. Walking up to the temple, we were met with a massive 500-year-old gate that was unrestored, a rarity in Asia we’ve found, as most temples we come across are restorations due to their wooden nature. Another feature of the temple that we had been looking forward to seeing was the aqueduct running alongside it, which looked very European and seemed out of place in the Japanese landscape. The temple, nearly void of tourists, was fairly free range and we were able to climb up on top of the aqueduct and walk along it through the forest ahead. Looking to avoid a mad dash to the train station that seems to be a trademark of all of our trips, we didn’t walk too far or for that matter spend too much time at the temple. After leaving, we grabbed our bags from the hostel and boarded our train for the nation’s capital.
Our time in Kyoto was far too short but, despite barely grazing the surface of the abundance of sights and culture packed into the metropolis, undoubtedly one of the more enjoyable experiences we’ve had in our travels.
For our inaugural blog post, we decided to highlight our most recent trip to the city of Suzhou, an ancient city located in the suburbs of Shanghai (if such thing as a 4 million person suburb exists!) The city, filled with narrow canals and lush gardens, offered us a glimpse into China’s rich past, which is something that’s hard to come by in the ultra modern and always changing Shanghai.
Our journey started as always with an early morning trip to the railway station. To punctuate the enormity of the city we’ve come to call home, our commute to the train station was twice as long as our ride from Shanghai to Suzhou! When we arrived, we traded a train seat for a subway seat and began our search for Mingtown Youth Hostel, which took a little trial and error to find (and holding the map right side up!). Luckily for us though, it sat on one of the most famous streets in the city: Pingjiang Lu, a cobbled lane that stretched along one the city’s many canals. After dropping our things off and taking a quick nap, we were on our way exploring the city.
Upon leaving the hostel it didn’t take long for us to discover the charms of Suzhou while we walked down Pingjiang Lu, taking in the beautiful scenery it created on the way to our first stop: the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which was humble in name only as one could spend hours exploring its sprawling grounds filled with flawless landscaping. The garden, much like many of the temples we have visited during our time here, offered us a rare shot at tranquility and an escape from the daily grind of the city. Upon entering the grounds, we were met with several different routes for exploration. The first path we chose, a secluded stone walkway snaking into a bamboo forest, led us directly to…a bathroom. To its credit, it was in a beautiful old building, but our second route was chosen more wisely.
Shortly after starting down this path, we found ourselves in a quintessential Chinese scene: a pagoda rising up from the horizon in the distance, traditional gazebos dotting the hills of the grounds, and a pond criss-crossed with stone bridges, all surrounded by a nature-filled landscape dominated by weeping willows swaying in the breeze. We were brought back to reality by a sign that warned us of the looming danger of civilization, which, if you’ve lived in China before, you know is a fair warning! To fully enjoy the scene we perched ourselves on some pond-side stones, where we ate our lunch and watched as the falling autumn leaves collected in the water.
Our lunch was followed by a slow wander through the rest of the garden, making detours off the beaten path for different points of interest, among them a bonsai tree garden where each tree was its own optical illusion. To look at them was to expect a scale of enormity, but in reality they only climbed a mere two feet. Aiding in the illusion were small rocks made to look like mountains, a theme that carried on throughout the grounds even after the bonsai trees ended. After nearly two hours in the garden, our meandering eventually led us back to where we started, so we decided to move on to our next site—the Lion’s Forest Garden.
Although both shared the title of garden, the two were completely different. The latter was more compact and featured an area filled with large rocks; despite the numerous signs against it, we and many other tourists used the rocks as a personal playground to pose for pictures as the opportunities were too good to pass up. After getting our fill of pictures, we descended into the jagged hallway created by the rocks and emerged to find ourselves alongside a small pond. One great feature of the Chinese gardens we’ve seen so far is that they don’t follow any rules or pattern in terms of layout or architecture. We were hard pressed to find a window that was square, a door that was rectangular or a wall that stretched straight into the distance. This garden was no exception, as each turn offered something new and unexpected.
Though the beauty of the park didn’t wear off as we continued to explore, our energy level did and we decided to take advantage of the waning light with a boat ride down the canal near our hostel. The dim light of the twilight hours ended up creating the perfect atmosphere for the ride and a feeling of complete detachment from the world moving around us. About halfway into the boat ride, our “captain” began loudly singing Chinese folk songs. Though we couldn’t understand anything about the songs and the singing was more of a screeching cat than a serenading Sinatra, it added to the charm of the experience. After 40 minutes, we were steered ashore and embarked on our hunt for dinner.
The restaurant we settled on sat alongside the canal with a beautiful view of the waterway which slowly began to fill with ripples from the oncoming rain as we watched it from within, which created a warm atmosphere for our dinner of dumplings and vegetables. As we stepped out into the night, the rain became less enchanting and more of a nuisance as we had to scurry back to our hostel without an umbrella. After getting back and suffering through an ice cold shower, we layered ourselves into bed and waited for the next day to begin.
Our first stop on our second day in Suzhou was to Tiger Hill. Before going, we were hesitant to go to any place that featured ‘hill” in it’s name, fearing any sort of incline as our last trip took us up the side of an entire mountain at Huashan. A city bus dropped us off at the foot of the hill and we were welcomed with the sight of a 1,000-year-old pagoda that made the site a popular tourist attraction. As we approached the hill, our path was lined by trees whose leaves were seemingly stuck between their transition from summer green to autumnal yellow, giving them an almost lime green shade. The leaves framed the pagoda, which foreshadowed our entire experience in the park: a seamless coexistence between nature and man-made structures making it hard to imagine one being there without the other. One element that added to this mystique was the damp air and wet ground that had been a result of a recent rain shower that had passed just before we arrived.
As we worked our way further into the park, we came upon a large, open area with a lily pad-strewn pond in its center surrounded by moss-covered rocks towering above. Among the many things to look at was a bridge that had perched itself on two of these rocks, creating a beautiful scene to accompany our hike to the top of the hill, which was surprisingly shorter than we had anticipated. Before we knew it, we were were gazing up at the pagoda, which we were pleased to find out was an original, not having been destroyed and reconstructed like countless other temples and pagodas throughout the country. It’s originality came at a cost though, as the wear and tear of time caused the tower to lean (like in Pisa), displacing it’s top by 2.5 meters from its base. A feature of it that became very obvious as we stood at the foot of the tower, staring slantedly up at it.
After giving the tower its due contemplation, we slowly made our way back down the hill, soaking up the scenery once more as we descended. Once back in the city, we sought out a place for lunch. The search for the perfect place became drug out and, although we wanted something new, we settled for the restaurant where we had had dinner the night before. We were saved from the disappointment of repetition by a rather large and leggy centipede that scuttled out of our menu’s binding as we opened it. We left the restaurant as fast as our swift-footed friend had, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we found a great dumpling restaurant a little further down the the road whose menu thankfully featured a larger assortment of dumplings than insects.
After filling up on various varieties of jiao zi, we made our way through the rain to the Suzhou Museum. Sadly, our trip there was short-lived due to a combination of lethargy and a lack of exposure throughout our life to Chinese culture and history. While living in Spain, it was easier to digest the mountains of information packed into each museum and put everything we saw into a context having been brought up learning about Western history and culture. In China though, without that exposure, we’ve found the appreciation of it all to be much more difficult to come by. However short-lived our visit was, we still enjoyed the museum and all it had to offer outside of the traditional concept of a history museum such as it’s large, outdoor koi pond.
Our remaining time in Suzhou was spent napping on a table in our hostel’s common room waiting to leave for the train station. Walking along the canal for the last time on our way there, we knew we were going to miss the charms of the city. Living in Shanghai makes it difficult to experience the concept of traditional China. In Suzhou however, with its white-washed building walls accompanying tree-lined canals, rain-slicked cobblestone streets, and old buildings seemingly forgotten by time, the city made this concept infinitely more attainable.