Tag Archives: Travel

Travel Guide: Kyoto and Around

April is cherry blossom season in Japan and it’s as beautiful as everyone says. April is also early spring, which means the weather is highly variable. Umbrellas and layers were key to feeling comfortable wandering around Kyoto, Japan’s Imperial capital beginning in the 8th century. It remained the seat of power in Japan for over a thousand years and historic monuments, shrines, and temples abound. Renting a kimono for the day is a common activity in Kyoto and it was fun to see people dressed up – almost like going back in time!

This was my first trip in Asia with both parents and it was a fully immersive experience. (Dad and I went to Thailand and Vietnam a few years ago when I first moved to Singapore.) We took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto immediately after we landed and that made for a long day of travel; we were glad to finally be there!

We settled in and then went to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which was beautiful in the rain. The sound of the trees and smell of the earth was a lovely change from urban life in Singapore.

The next morning was sunny and we started early at Fushimi-Inari, a Shinto shrine known for its red torii gates. Fushimi-Inari is guarded by foxes and statues of them are located around the mountain. It was a beautiful walk and felt other worldly, as though passing through each set of gates was a doorway to somewhere else.

The view on the way up was stunning, too.

My dad wanted to visit Tofukuji Temple because he’d read that it has beautiful gardens, which I’m sure it does once spring actually blooms. But trees were budding and the ground was covered in moss and that was good enough for me.

From there, we went to Nishiki Market, a covered arcade of streets selling all sorts of food products, clothing, and souvenirs. I was mostly interested in the food stalls and we returned a couple days later to explore further. It was so enjoyable to smell new smells, taste new tastes, and just look around. Markets are always a travel highlight for me because they bring so much life there in so many different forms.

We ended the day wandering through some lovely streets with little shops and visiting Kodaiji Temple. The gardens around the temple included a bamboo forest and an exquisite cherry tree in full bloom, which was definitely the main attraction.

I really appreciate how Japanese gardens are sculpted and landscaped but not manicured. It makes them lovely in a very believable way.

Among the many nice elements of traveling in Japan is the convenience of trains. The Japan Rail pass allows foreign tourists access to most of Japan’s trains (like the Euro Rail Pass) and trains don’t require reservations. They are also very clean and extremely timely and comfortable!

Kyoto is an easy base for day trips and we took one out to Himeji Castle, Japan’s largest castle and one of very few that have remained intact. I was really glad that we opted for the guided tour. The tour guide was knowledgeable and friendly and more than made up for the lack of signage.

From there, despite the chilling rain that had begun to fall, we got back on the train to visit Osaka where we hoped to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening. Mum and I walked around the moat of Osaka Castle (Dad got a little lost or left behind – long story), occasionally putting up our umbrellas for the rain that alternated with patches of bright sunshine.

When it began to hail, however, we realized we needed another plan. After battling the driving rain and wind to get to the train station we returned to Kyoto and sheltered indoors to dry off. Not all plans work out and travel is an adventure, right?

Our last day in Kyoto was the nicest we’d had and I’m especially glad it was sunny because we went to Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple, and it was utterly stunning.

We walked to a pretty shrine surrounded by a garden of cherry blossoms and food stalls on our way back to the center of town . . .

. . . and then spent the rest of the morning in Nishiki Market where I took most of the photos above. From there, we visited the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, which was informative as well as free! It was useful in explaining much of the handiwork we’d seen and some of Kyoto’s history, particularly in terms of the geisha culture that still exists in a much smaller form.

After dinner in Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, it was time for one more sleep before boarding an early train to Hiroshima.

We had experienced all kinds of weather, tried new food, visited beautiful places, and were excited for something new. Stay tuned!

Running to; running from

I always said I’d live abroad but I never imagined doing it.

I was very close with my family growing up, even largely getting along with my parents when that wasn’t cool. I heavily weighted “distance from home” when choosing a university and moved back after graduation because I didn’t know where else to go. Many of my happiest memories are with my family, which is why many people thought it out of character when I moved halfway around the world.

A few years ago, a friend mentioned the strangeness of people who choose lives abroad. There are relatively few of us, though the number is growing. Our common ground is simply that we’ve made the decision to leave home. No one gets here by accident.

Over the course of a different conversation much later, the same friend commented that many of us are running; some are running to while others are running from. But, he said, only some of us have acknowledged it. This has played in the back of my mind for over a year because, in retrospect, that’s it. That’s the answer.

Curiosity

I’ve always been curious about what else is out there. I spent hours as a child poring over the 1995 edition of Children Just Like Me and I wanted to meet all of them. I wanted to talk to them, learn their languages, taste their foods, see their world. I was fascinated by diversity, though I didn’t yet know the word. I just knew that there was a lot more to see than my immediate environs.

As an adult, I know that my parents made financial decisions to allow us to travel as a family. They showed me that the world was accessible, navigable, and wonderful. I learned that while it might not be easy, it would work out, whatever it was. My parents smiled when I told anyone who would listen that I wanted to see it all. They smiled when I bought a car with a manual transmission that I didn’t know how to drive because I wanted to be ready.

But travelling and moving are very different things.

Running To

I had a job, a Master’s degree, a long-term boyfriend. I lived in my town’s coolest neighborhood with a great roommate and other friends nearby. My family was a mere 12 minutes away by car. (It took a number of lesson-arguments with my dad, but I learned to drive a manual.) Continuing on the current trajectory would have been easy and obvious.

I don’t do very well with easy and obvious. I wanted the novelty, adventure, and excitement of living and working somewhere new. I wanted to minimize my possessions and figure out what really mattered. I wanted to speak new languages, meet new people, and wake up to a different sky.

Back then, I thought the world was really big. Now, I know it’s actually quite small.

When I first accepted a job in Malaysia for the 2014-2015 school year, I had to double-check a map. I didn’t know the questions I should have asked. I didn’t know the research I should have done. I was determined to go and insistent that it would work out. And if it didn’t, I’d come back. My boyfriend and I bought plane tickets and off we went, completely unprepared for what awaited.

Suffice it to say, we learned a lot. The Malaysia archive on this blog can provide some insight. Even though I cried every single day for a month and then some, I was always glad to be there. And despite everything that went wrong, which almost everything did, I couldn’t imagine leaving a world I’d just begun to explore in earnest. I couldn’t imagine returning to what was easy and obvious.

Running From

All of my friends in Malaysia had worked elsewhere overseas and talked about possibilities, experiences, and impressions of the world that I’d never imagined. During orientation, one mentioned that he didn’t believe in nations; I’d never heard of such a thing and it fascinated me. This is it, I thought.

Back home, there were expectations. There was a path. And somewhere along it, I got scared.

I suspect that’s why I couldn’t go back. After a year in Malaysia, I was planning to move to Singapore where my boyfriend had gone to look (unsuccessfully) for a job. We spent the summer in the US and he prepared to move to New York while I would go to Singapore to give him time to settle. In the airport, I promised I’d only stay for a year. In a year, I’d be ready to return to “real life”.

But I wasn’t.

I did return to the US a year later because I’d promised I would. Maybe I even thought I wanted to. But as the time to departure drew closer, I began realizing that I couldn’t continue life as usual. Perhaps deliberately, I made some decisions that would make doing so impossible.

After a year being single in New York, I moved back to Singapore. I tried to tell myself that I was returning somewhere that still felt like home, but I wasn’t. I was running from the path that I had grown up expecting to follow.

Today I know that path has been abandoned, given up, lost. I’m not running anymore, but I’ve turned so far off the path that it has ceased to exist.

It feels good to breathe.


Just yesterday, a friend sent me a job posting for his school in Beijing. “In case you’re looking to make moves,” he wrote.

At some point I will, but I’m not quite ready right now and that’s okay, too. My contract is up in June and I’ll stay for two more years. At some point, I’ll start looking. Or maybe I’ll stay. A lot can happen in two and a half years; a lot has.

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province

I recently had the privilege to lead a group of grade 11 students on a week-long journey through Yunnan Province in southwestern China. As on the trip to Battambang, Cambodia that I led for this group as grade 10 students, we worked with the JUMP! Foundation, who continue to be my favorite people. They develop, design, and manage the program along with their partner schools and it’s an honor to work with them each year.

This trip was the first time many of our students experienced what it’s like to be a backpacker. We traveled with packs and on overnight trains, moving to multiple locations throughout the trip. There’s a lot of travel in one week because we spend the first and last days transitioning between planes, trains, and buses but it was a phenomenal experience. 

After a series of opening activities (JUMP! programs involve lots of running around and games, which are really fun, as well as group reflections that are valuable) and another bus ride, we arrived in our first base, Jianchuan.  The town itself is quite small and there was no restaurant in town large enough for all 63 of us so one of the restaurant families opened their courtyard and invited local chefs to cook the three meals we’d be eating there. The food we had all week was truly extraordinary and a major highlight for some of the students and even the staff.

JUMP! had told us about Bai, the minority group that we’d be spending much of our time with on the trip. China doesn’t have the best history in its treatment of minorities, but Bai language, culture, and style of dress remain vibrant and distinct. Learning about and from the Bai people began almost immediately. After some food and our first shower in 36 hours, we headed to a traditional pottery workshop and learned about the ancient art of black pottery that is famous in this region. Interestingly, it’s the use of pine wood in the kiln at the comparatively low temperature of 500°C that makes the pottery black. 

Walking through Jianchuan the next day was like going back in time. The main road of the ancient town was part of Tea Horse Caravan Road that connected to the Silk Road and although no longer a merchant spot, it’s still a functioning street.

Our morning activity was a scavenger hunt following a hand-drawn map through Jianchuan Old Town. We began at the central town square . . .

. . . with the goal of investigating the local economy . . . 

. . . a beautiful shrine . . .

. . . and a local park with pagodas.

From Jianchuan we headed to Shaxi where we’d spend the next three nights. Shaxi is a very small town and a bit like a fairytale. Like Jianchuan, it’s part of the Tea Horse Caravan Road, which is really cool. I even did some shopping there!

We had time to wander through town during our stay and it was so serene and beautiful. 

The countryside was equally beautiful and we went on a bike ride through the fields across the river.

In keeping with the connection to nature, we hiked Shi Bao Mountain the following day. It’s a beautiful pine forest with grottos, temples, and views of Shaxi and the fields beyond. My stereotypes of China had been fading since our arrival and I voiced that for the first time with my students up on the mountain. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. 

At the summit, we had a picnic linch of the rice rolls and rice balls that we’d made that morning, which had been really fun.

Then we spent the rest of the day in a tiny Bai village, Bao Xiang Si-Shi Long. “Bai” means “white” and many of the homes and buildings were painted white and then decorated, which was quite charming.

Much of the afternoon was spent learning a song in the Bai language. Bai bears no similarity to Mandarin, so it was a challenge for everyone. Our hosts also taught us a traditional dance and performed it for us in full traditional dress at a bonfire later that evening. Two singers performed the song that we’d painstakingly learned after transliterating the Mandarin characters and then we tried to show them what we’d learned of their dance. Try is the key word here, but the Bai people have only recently started teaching their language to outsiders so it was an honor to be included.

A major endeavor during our time in Shaxi was a fascinating anthropology research project that had students learning about local concerns as a result of migration, modernization, and the mixing of immigrants to Shaxi and the Bai locals. Students then followed a hand-drawn map around town to conduct interviews, mostly in Mandarin, to ask a series of questions they’d devised to learn more about the problems. Then, they were tasked with coming up with viable solutions, which prompted excellent group discussions about the appropriateness of walking into a culture and trying to be of help. On the last day of the trip, students presented their proposals to each other and the group voted for three of the ten presentations to give to some of the locals they’d interviewed. I certainly learned a lot and I know the students did, too. And as always, food was a highlight.

The end of our interview day was one of my favorite experiences of the trip, probably because it was so simple. We went stargazing! We don’t see stars that often in Singapore because of light pollution and cloud cover, but the sky in Yunnan was clear and bright. It was cold, too, winter cold, but we headed to the rooftop of our hostel after dark to lie there and simply look up. We gazed in silence for a while and then played a game of “I Wonder”. At the end of the day, I wonder how we all happened to be there.

Our final activity the next afternoon was a really nice follow-up to the stargazing, meeting people, and group reflections that we’d done throughout the week. My group’s leader and I also taught a few meditation techniques that our students enjoyed. So when it came time to hike an hour through the rice fields for half an hour of silence and solitude, our students were ready and looking forward to reconnecting with themselves and how they’d changed during the week.

And all too soon, we were back on buses, the overnight train, and the plane home. As a staff, we high-fived at the happy faces and safe return. As an educator, I delighted in seeing my students grow and mature over the week, developing new friendships and connections with others. And as a person, I was happy with the crisp air, bright sunshine, learning, and laughter that made up every day.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. -John Muir