Monday, September 29, 2014

A Friday Korean Surprise Part 2: The Teacher's Dinner

Friday as a whole captured the yin and yang of Korean surprises.  They are wonderful sometimes when your classes are canceled at the last minute or when you get to take some fun trip, but they can also get you just when you want them the least.

My day Friday started with a wonderful surprise Sports Day, and I was fully ready to cruise to the weekend after the festivities were over.  I typically leave school around 4:17 to catch the 4:20 bus home.  At about 4:12 on Friday one of the teachers asked me if I was coming to dinner.  

What dinner?!

Yes, it was what I feared.  There was in fact a teacher's dinner that I was expected to attend after school.  Now, it's not that I don't like the teachers at my school.  I actually like them a lot, but that doesn't make teacher dinners any less boring when you can't really communicate with anyone. was Friday.  All I wanted to do was get home and put some sweatpants on.  

Luckily the plan was to eat at a restaurant right next to my apartment. It also wasn't a super long teacher's dinner with drinking afterwards (which can happen more times than not).  So, I guess all in all I can be thankful for that.  

Needless to say, by the time I got home Friday night I was ready to settle in for a surprise-free night locked in my apartment. 

A Friday Korean Surprise Part 1: Sport's Day!

Fridays have now become my longest, and therefore most exhausting days.  Fridays are always a little tough no matter what kind of schedule you have, but with my new schedule I have six classes on Fridays, which means I pretty much don't stop teaching all day long.  Last Thursday I stayed out late with some friends, so Friday morning came way too soon and I had those remorseful thoughts we've all had when our alarm abruptly wakes us up--why did I stay out so late? Why did I stay for that one last drink?

Nonetheless. I got on the bus and was on my way to school to face my Everest of a day.  As I got off the bus I quickly realized something was different.  There were tons of things set up on the school's yard.  Yes, this could only mean one thing: SPORT'S DAY!

Sure enough, I saw some of the sixth grade students and asked them what was happening and they confirmed that is was indeed sports day.  I walked into the teacher's room and all of the teachers were dressed in their matching athletic clothes at which point they said "Oh, Sarah. Did you know today was sports day?" Well, obviously not since I was dressed in black pants with a nice top and a cardigan sweater.  TIK.  Although I did find it somewhat amusing when the other teachers scolded my CT for not telling me.

Now, Korea can throw some pretty terrible surprises in your face from time to time, but it can also throw some wonderful surprises at you at well.  Thankfully, this was one of those wonderful surprises.  Instead of teaching all day I got to sit around and watch the kids participate in various activities.

Group warm up.

The kindergartners are in green and are just TOO CUTE!

Popping the balloons. 

Karaoke session at the end of the day.  So funny. 

I experienced sports day last semester at my high school, but the elementary version was pretty different in large part because sports day is a family event at the elementary schools.  The students had their parents and sometimes their grandparents there with them at school, which was actually really awesome to see.  The parents even participated in a number of events, including the karaoke session that happened at the end of the day.  This was probably the most entertaining part of the day to watch because the students (even the 6th graders!) would get on stage with their parents and sing and dance to whichever songs they chose, I love how much Koreans love singing.

Overall, it was an entertaining day even though I wasn't really involved with any of the activities.  It was fun just to watch the kids have fun! And I guess it didn't hurt that I didn't have to teach any classes either...

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Things co-workers in Korea say.

Over the past month I've met a lot of new people at my new schools. You get asked all sorts of strange things in Korea, but they're not really considered strange questions at all to Korean people.  Here are just a few of the most common questions I've been asked by my new co-workers over and over:

--Do you like beer or soju better?
--How much can you drink? How many bottles?
(and yes I put these questions first because they're common and totally acceptable questions to ask a new co-worker in Korea)
--Do you have a boyfriend? WHY NOT?
--When are you getting married?
(Please note that "Why not?" That is ALWAYS the reaction I get when I say no)
--You have a nice body. I thought most Americans were big?
--How do you have such a nice body?
(People really are shocked that I'm American and not fat)
--What do you eat for breakfast?
--What do you eat for dinner?
(It's polite for Koreans to ask if you've had breakfast, but what I've noticed is that they're always curious about what I eat when I'm not at school)
--How did you learn to use chopsticks?
(Because it's clearly a skill foreigners can't master.  They're also always impressed that I hold them the "correct" way.  It doesn't matter that I've been in Korea for a year, I am still constantly complimented on my chopstick skills)
--Do you like Korean food? 
--Isn't it too spicy for you?
--I thought foreigners don't like spicy food?
(Yes, Koreans are convinced that foreigners don't like spicy food and therefore don't like Korean food. So opposite from the truth!)

As a foreigner in Korea, I hear these questions ALL THE TIME. While last year at this time I found it interesting, the other day I found myself not even thinking about it as the words were coming out of my mouth.  Just another day as the foreigner.

My new school life.

It's officially been a month since I switched to my new schools, so I guess it's about time I explain what my school life is like here in Korea now.

As most of you know, last year I worked at a high school here in Jeomchon.  Since the government cut all of the high school and the vast majority of the middle school positions last March, if I wanted to stay in Korea I had to move to an elementary position.  Although I would have loved to have stayed at the high school I worked at last year, sometimes these things just aren't in our control.

I now work at three different schools. Working at more than one school is pretty common for EPIK teachers, especially in the more rural areas.  Although last year I was only a ten minute walk away from my school, this year I have to take the bus or get a ride to my schools because they are rural schools.

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I am at what I call my main school.  This is an elementary school where I teach grades 1-6.  I see first and second grade once a week, and I see fourth and fifth grade once a week for regular class.  Finally, I see fifth and sixth grade twice a week for normal classes.
The view from the 5th grade classroom. Gorgeous. 

That pile of logs is where I wait for the bus. 

Not a bad bus stop view. 

My school is small, but has a huge gym!

Playground at my main school.

This is what's around my main school....not much. 

I also teach something called "after school classes".  The after school classes are any of the classes that are held after lunch. These are supplementary classes where I don't have to teach the textbook, although I have been choosing to continue to work on material based off the textbook, especially in reading and writing because I can see that is where the students are behind. Technically my first and second grade classes are after school because there's no national curriculum for first and second grade. I've been working on really basic things with them like letters, phonics, colors, numbers, etc.  I also see grades 3-6 once a week for after school classes.  That means in total I see grades 4-5 two times a week and grades 5-6 three times a week.

The class sizes at this school are pretty small with about ten kids in first and second grade, six kids in third grade, around ten kids in 4th and 5th, and seventeen kids in 6th grade.

Tuesdays I change gears completely because I am at a middle school.  While the native english teachers were cut in the majority of middle schools, country schools were able to keep their NETs due to the fact that they get less exposure to English than the kids in the cities do.
View in Dongro, the part of Mungyeong I travel to on Tuesdays. 

I got out of the car one Tuesday and this was the view from the school yard. So beautiful!

This school is pretty far away from Jeomchon--about a forty minute drive with my CT.  I'm lucky to get a ride though, because if I took the bus it would be about an hour commute.  In total, this school has 24 students.  Yes, 24 students in the entire school! Middle school in Korea is three grades, equivalent to 7th-9th grade in America.  My 1st and 3rd grade students actually have a pretty good level of English, but my 2nd grade class is by far the most difficult...I think their level may be on par with my fifth graders at the elementary school.  It's strange, but sometimes you just get interesting groups of students. Overall I really like being at this school though because I can communicate more with the students and I can plan more interesting lessons.

Thursdays I am at another elementary school that takes just over an hour to get to from Jeomchon.  This school is about as rural as you can get.  I teach grades 3-6 at this school and I only see a total of 15 kids in the entire day.  My 3rd grade class has TWO students in it, fourth grade has THREE, and so on.  I teach all my classes in the morning, so the principal actually lets me leave after lunch (which technically isn't supposed to happen), but the buses are so rare to that part of the countryside that otherwise I would have to wait for a really long time to get the next one.  It's definitely been a perk to working at that school, especially since there's such a great travel time.

My very small Thursday school.

REALLY in the countryside. 

Overall my transition to elementary school has been ok.  I don't hate it, but I also don't love it like I loved my high school last year.  I think this is really due to two things.  The first reason being that I have to teach the textbook.  Every school in Korea is required to use certain textbooks, and as a teacher you have to cover the book from cover to cover.  The books come with CDs which you use to go through the lesson.  Of course I supplement the textbook and try to make it more exciting, but at the end of the day there's only so much you can do. It's especially tough for 6th grade because these pre-teens have that too cool for anything attitude, and the textbooks are way too childish for them.  It's a struggle to get them to do anything, especially when they material you have to work with is childish.

The second reason I'm not head-over-heals with my new job is because I can't communicate with my students like I could at the high school.  While there were definitely communication barriers with my students last year, I could still talk to them about tons of things.  I know I say it all the time, but I really adored these kids and came to really care for them.  I loved hearing about their lives, their future plans, and their thoughts about what was going on in the world.  I got such an amazing look into Korean culture and Korean society because of them and I'm really thankful that I could learn so much from them.

This year is a different story. I love kids (and man, are they CUTE!!!), but their English level and my Korean level are about the same, meaning it's pretty much as low as can be. I have one co-worker at my Mon/Wed/Fri school who can speak English.  He is the third grade teacher, which means he is only in my class for third grade.  The homeroom teachers come to the other classes with their students and while they can help control the students, they can't really communicate with me.

When it comes to after school classes, I'm pretty much on my own.  The homeroom teachers rarely come to those classes with the students, so I'm on my own to explain activities and manage behavior with students who can't understand what I'm saying.  At my Thursday school no one really speaks English at all and the homeroom teachers don't come to any classes with the students.  The only saving grace of these situations is that the classes are small so I can do a lot of managing of student behavior by walking around the classroom.  I have to say that although I'm not crazy about elementary school, I am glad that I'm at least at these small schools because I can somewhat manage classes as well as give students A LOT of individual attention.  I don't really know how NETs deal with elementary classes of 30 or more students.

I've recently resumed my Korean studying in hopes that I will be able to improve my communication with my students and co-workers.  There are so many great things about this experience, but being the only foreigner in a school can be a really isolating experience at times.  I experienced this feeling last year at well, but I felt much more connected, in large part because of my students and co-teachers in the English department.

With that said, this year is going to give me a LOT more free time.  Since I just teach the textbook at the elementary schools, planning is a lot more straightforward (even though between my schools I have 8 different textbooks!) This gives me a lot of time to do other things--like study Korean.

I also want to emphasize that I really don't hate my new job.  I still enjoy it, especially when I get to work with the students individually and can see the improvement in their reading and speaking.  It's just not what I'm passionate about, which in some ways is a blessing I think because it can become easy to get comfortable in Korea and stay here for years and years.  This job gives me an opportunity to travel and learn about Korea, but these change of work circumstances will also ensure that I keep thinking about the future and getting back to doing what I know I love.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A year in review.

Things have been so crazy lately that it's hard to believe my one year anniversary of being in Korea has already come and gone.  I wanted to do some sort of reflective post on it at the time, but things were just too insane with the farewells and new schools.  Better late than never though, and in this case I think late is actually better than if I had done it on time.  Things have changed a lot over the past month, and it's actually given me some perspective on everything I experienced last year.

I've decided to choose a significant photo (or two or three) from each month I've been in Korea.  There were hundreds to choose from, but I tried to pick the ones most meaningful to me. Enjoy!

August 2013

Ahhh, my first meal in Korea.  This probably seems like a strange photo choice, but I will never, ever forget how I felt eating this meal when I sat in the cafeteria at Jeonju University. After months of paperwork and questioning my decision to move abroad, I was actually in Korea, on the other side of the world from my friends and family. It was that time when so many things seemed strange, including this weird mix of "breakfast" foods.  Nonetheless, everything was new and exciting and even the simplest things were an adventure, even breakfast.

September 2013

 This photo was from when I was in Ulsan during Chuseok break.  This was the very first time I traveled after moving to Jeomchon.  It's funny to think about now, but navigating the buses felt like such a huge accomplishment at the time. I'll never forget the sense of relief I felt when I stepped off the bus and successfully met my friends in Ulsan.
My very first of many festivals in Korea was the Omija festival at the end of Chuseok break last year.  At the time I didn't know the other Jeomchoners I went to the festival with very well, which seems so strange to think of now.  This was one hell of a way to get to know each other, as the festivities continued on into the next morning and included classic moments such as eating grasshoppers and my first time at noraebang in Jeomchon. It definitely set the tone for the rest of the year, and looking at these festival pictures almost feels like looking at my baby photos now.

October 2013

The Color Run was my first time going to Seoul and staying with my friend Jackie, who I had only met a month beforehand.  It was the first of many legendary weekends that I still think of each time I go to Seoul. This photo reminds me of the beginning of my friendship with not only Jackie, but just about every other person in this photo. Again, I can't help but think "aw, we were such babies then!"

This trip to Chucheon during one of our long weekends in October was my first weekend trip with people from Jeomchon. It was the first of many adventures out of town, and provided some of the most classic moments that we continued to reminisce about throughout the rest of the year.

November 2013

 This is from an appreciation dinner that was held for all of the teachers in Mungyeong.  I'll never forget going to this event and realizing how special it was to be part of such an amazing community.  It's funny that I felt so close to everyone at the time, but looking back on it I was still so early into my time here. I think that just goes to show how much everyone welcomed me and made me feel a part of the community so quickly.

This picture was from the first snowfall, which funny enough was one of the only snowfalls we had during the winter.  The students all ran outside like little children bursting with excitement at the sight of the snow.  My supervisor insisted on taking this photo with me, and I'm glad she did because she is truly one of the kindest Koreans I've encountered during my time here (and I've met quite a few exceptionally kind Koreans).  As the seasons changed and the holiday seasons approached I experienced my first bouts of homesickness, and I'm glad I had wonderful people caring about me at school through those difficult times.

December 2013

My memories from December of course revolve around Christmas.  I was lucky to have a wonderful holiday season, even when I was far from home.  The trip to Seoul to see Nutcracker was one I'll never forget, especially since it ended with the best Christmas music noraebang session.  When Christmas Eve approached, we had a warm gathering here in Jeomchon--I don't think we could have had a more festive holiday evening.  Although I missed my family at home, I didn't feel alone while surrounded by so much love, which in my mind is another testament to the amazing community here in Jeomchon.

January 2014

January was the month of Thailand! I was so fortunate that my best friend from home could make the trip all the way to the other side of the world to travel with me.  We hung out with tigers, rode elephants, and saw tons of amazing temples in our short time.  Sometimes I can't believe that we were really there! This was my first time traveling in Asia outside of Korea, and was the first time I realized just how much I had become acclimated to Korea.

February 2014

February was my friend Jackie's last month in Korea.  I was lucky that my school made me do minimal deskwarming and gave me some extra time off, which I then used to take some trips with Jackie and her mom, who was visiting from Hong Kong.  Looking at these pictures, it seems strange that it's now been so long since Jackie left.  She is one of my best friends I made in Korea, even if we were only in the same country for six months, and I'm so glad that I got to take these last trips with her right before she left. 

This one is from a trip to Mungyeong Saejae.  This was one of my favorite weekends, during which lots of friends came down here before Jackie left.  We were lucky enough to be at Saejae for one of the few days it snowed this winter, and it certainly was beautiful.  

March 2014 

Oh, the Sea Parting Festival in Jindo....when the sea didn't actually part.  This weekend did not go even remotely as we had planned, but it is still a weekend full of hilarious memories, and the five hour bus ride down there was entertaining enough to make it worth it. In my mind, this weekend is just proof that sometimes trips don't go the way you expect them to, but that doesn't mean it's going to be any less memorable.

March was also the month the new school year began.  Although there aren't pictures to represent that, in my mind I will always remember this month because it's when I got a FANTASTIC new group of students.

April 2014

April was the month when the warm air made its way to Korea.  Spring was beautiful not only because of the cherry blossoms, but also the abundance of other flowers that were everywhere!  It didn't matter where I went, there were flowers all over the place, and it was absolutely beautiful.  It was perfect timing to take a trip to Juwangsan, where there were still cherry blossoms and all kinds of other flowers. I'm definitely looking forward to this season again this year.

May 2014

May began with a long weekend, during which we went to the absolutely beautiful Bijindo.  This is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been and I will never forget this relaxing trip with fantastic people.

At the end of the month I was lucky enough to have two friends come to Korea.  What a gift to be able to have people from home experience my life here in Korea. I loved having my American and Korean lives collide for a short time!

June 2014

The farming festival in Namhae was definitely one of the highlights from the year.  Namahe is absolutely beautiful, and let's get real...when am I ever going to plant rice ever again?

In June I also welcomed my 25th birthday.  This was a birthday I'll never forget in large part because of the AWESOME students who kept surprising me all day long.  I don't think I've ever felt so much love on my birthday before.

July 2014

July was not only HOT, but it was also an extremely busy month.  While I'm used to taking it easy in the summer, things only got busier in July.  I put a lot of work into my English camp. While it was exhausting, I had a great group of kids to work with and I had a lot of fun teaching it. Have I mentioned how lucky I was to teach such phenomenal students???

July was also the beginning of the end for some people I love dearly. While I was slightly in denial, the countdowns were on, people began to give away their things, and farewell events began.  In many ways, it was the calm before the storm.

August 2014

Although I was home for half of August, when I got back to Korea things sure did change quickly.  Leaving my students was really difficult, but what was most difficult was saying goodbye to such important people in the Jeomchon community. As a recent friend here recently told me, you have to have a really open heart to be an expat. You not only have to be able to accept people and let them in, but you also have to be able to let them go and say goodbye. Well, accepting people wasn't the problem for me, but letting them go has proven to be a whole lot more difficult. 

I'm still not used to how empty it feels here in Jeomchon now, even nearly a month later.  I'm not sure when things will start to feel normal again, but these changes have taught me a lot. It's easy to get comfortable in Korea.  At times it feels like we will all be here forever, but that's not the case in the least. Our lives here are temporary, and eventually we won't have the privilege of living right next to each other anymore.  Eventually we're going to be scattered around the globe, separated by huge time differences and expensive plane tickets.  These changes have made me much more aware of everything as I head into this second year.  Seeing how quickly a year goes by makes me want to take advantage of everything this time around.  Although I experienced a lot last year, I don't want to let anything pass me by during my last year in Korea. When I get onto that plane to go back to America in August I don't want to have any "what ifs".  I want to know I pursued everything, whether it's something about my teaching, sightseeing, or a relationship. 

It's amazing how in one year Korea went from being a complete mystery to my home.  As I looked through my pictures, I was amazed at how much happened during every single month.  There was never a month without trips and FLOODS of memories.  I'm so thankful for all of the experiences I had during my first year in Korea.  I can't imagine not having these experiences, and in many ways hard to remember a time what I was like before Korea was a part of me.  A year isn't a long time, but my oh my, a whole lot sure can happen in that short time. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Too much Korea.

Some days Korea is just too much.

My new Wednesday schedule only consists of two classes.  It seems that would be a great thing, but my two classes are both after lunch which means 1) I have to sit around and wait all day before I teach. Sitting around and waiting all day is not my favorite 2) The kids are CRAZY because it's after lunch and after they've been running around and playing.

Granted, my third graders were good this afternoon.  Have I mentioned how cute they are?!  Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse with sixth grade.  In the less than a month I've been teaching at the elementary schools I've learned something very valuable: I never want to teach sixth grade.  These pre-teens are too cool for school, which high schoolers can be too...but at least my high schoolers could understand what I said to them.  Trying to get a classroom of 17 sixth graders to sit down and shut up when they don't really even understand what you're saying isn't cool.  Add in the fact that I have NO authority with them and there's no co-teacher with me and it just makes things worse. Classroom management plans are in the works, but this is certainly unlike any other situations I've had in the past.  Let's just say today's lesson plan went out the window quickly and instead ended with the class writing the key phrases 5 times each....and one more time for each time someone talked....which was a lot of times.

After what felt like an interminable 40 minutes with the sixth graders from hell, I went back to the teacher's office.  I have a little over an hour at the end of the day without classes, so I was sitting at my desk preparing materials for Friday.

About five minutes before I was supposed to leave for the bus my CT called me (even though he was just upstairs?) and told me to go see him.  Luckily, it didn't take long and I went back downstairs just in time to grab my things for the bus,

As I was outside walking to the bus my CT shouted my name out of the window and told me to come back in.  When I told him that I was going to miss the bus he said "It's ok, next bus!"

This is not what you want to hear just as you're breaking free from school.

Now, this CT has been asking me about a certain e-mail I supposedly should have received, but haven't.  Apparently he didn't believe that I didn't receive it because he made me show him my entire e-mail inbox, which pretty much meant me explaining what every single e-mail was about because he couldn't really understand just by looking at it.  Don't you think I would recognize an e-mail in my inbox that had Korean writing on it??

After I apparently proved myself, it was another fifteen minutes of him asking "why didn't you get the e-mail?"

Hmmm, I don't know! Why don't you call them and ask them to send it again? Or have them send it to you?! There must be some sort of proactive solution there somewhere.

Finally, he said he would drive me home since he made me miss the bus.  Just what I wanted.  Another quality 20 minutes of stimulating conversation focusing on how important it is for women to get married.

To cap things off, some of his parting words with me were "Sarah, don't forget! Meeting man! Get married! Very important!"

Some days you just get an overload of TIK moments. This was one of those days.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Japan:Final Thoughts

Before seventh grade I'm pretty sure I didn't know anything at all about Japan.  Luckily, in my second year of middle school I was fortunate to have an amazing social studies teacher who had traveled all over the world.  Her classroom was filled with things she had taken back from all of the countries she had been to, which was quite the impressive list.  I vividly remember nothing amazed little middle school me more than seeing a Coke bottle that had Japanese writing on it. I guess before that I had never really considered how big the world was or that there were actual people just like me who liked Coca-Cola in other places outside of America.

One of the units we did in that class was about Asia, and we learned quite a bit about Japan.  For Christmas this teacher gave us all a nice pair of plastic chopsticks, and I remember thinking this was the COOLEST thing ever. As I tried to figure out the correct way to hold them, I couldn't fathom how people actually ate with those things.  It just seemed way too difficult to be a real method of eating.

I wish I could say it was that teacher who ignited my passion for Asia, but that's not really the case. She did ignite a certain curiosity in me about the world though, and it's only after now traveling to Japan that I can look back on seventh grade me and marvel at just where life has taken me and just how much I have learned while living in Asia. I never in a million years would have imagined that all these years later I would be living in Asia, traveling to Japan and not thinking twice about eating with chopsticks.

Life is truly unpredictable in just about every way. Like most people in America, I never really put Asian countries on the top of my "must-see" places.  I always wanted to go to Europe (and still do so badly, btw!!), but Asia always just seemed too different for me.  I didn't really know what there was to see there besides maybe some temples (which I stupidly thought were the same in every Asian country) and some strange food.  They do eat cats and dogs in "those" countries after all, what other strange things could they eat? It just never seemed for me.

Even years later when I became interested in seeing Asia and decided to come to Korea, I think I was somewhat naive about Asian cultures.  Westerners tend to see Asia as a homogeneous continent, where every country is roughly the same in terms of culture, and I think I fell into that mentality before coming here myself.  Even when I first came to Korea, Japan was definitely not on the top of my list of countries I wanted to see because I figured it would pretty much be the same as Korea.

However, the more time I spent in Korea and the more I learned about the relationship between Japan and Korea's histories, the more interested I became in seeing Japan for myself.  Koreans will gladly give you their opinion about Japan and tell you all of the terrible things Japan has done in the past, and this just fueled my curiosity about Korea's neighbor to the East.

I only spent three full days in Japan, which isn't long enough to really know much about a country, but it is long enough to get some impressions at the very least.  Here's a quick list of the some of the things I'm taking away from Japan:

1.  Architecture.  Visiting the shrines, temples, and palace in Japan was very different from visiting similar sites in Korea. While Korea's temples and palaces are all painted with the same red, green and blue design, bright orange was the prevalent color of the shrines and temples in Japan.  The large pagodas are also uniquely Japanese, and something I have only seen once in Korea.

2.  Language. I go through most of my time in Korea feeling like I'm failing miserably at learning any of the language because I usually feel like I can't understand anything.  However, nothing makes me realize how much I actually understand in Korea like going to another country where I literally know none of the language again.  Japanese had a completely different sound from Korean, and it was a bit disorienting.  Not to mention, not being able to read anything was strange.  Although I don't know what most Korean signs say, I always read the words in my head as I walk by--I actually didn't realize how much I do this until I was made illiterate again.

I was recently thinking about how when I used to get instruction manuals written with multitudes of languages I used to think all the Asian languages looked the same. It's so funny to think back to that now because now I could NEVER mistake Korean for Japanese or Japanese for Chinese.  Once you learn the differences between the languages it seems impossible that they ever seemed the same.

3.  Money. In Japan 100 yen=1 US dollar.  In Korea 1,000 won=1 dollar.  Moving the decimal point two spots over instead of three took a while for my brain to get used to.  Additionally, in Japan coins are a major part of everyday life.  I usually HATE carrying coins around, but in Japan you don't really have a choice because even the 100 and 500 yen ($1 and $5) currencies are coins.  There are only three bills for the 1,000 yen, 5,000 yen, and 10,000 yen notes.  So basically, anything below the equivalent of $10 is coin.  I know this is a more practical system because coins last much longer than bills, but I was not a fan of having to juggle so many coins.

Also, despite hearing so many warnings about how expensive Japan was, I was pleasantly surprised at how manageable it was.  Yes, it's definitely more expensive than Korea, but for the most part I think the prices were about the same as American prices.  Overall, I expected to spend a lot more than I did on the trip.

4.  Food. Japanese food is everywhere in America and quite popular these days.  I was excited to eat a lot of food on this trip, but with the exception of the sushi, I have to say I wasn't all that impressed with the food in Japan. Maybe we just weren't looking in the right places, but I can honestly say that I certainly think Korean food is far superior to Japanese food.  Maybe I'm just used to having spicy food, or just a little too sensitive to the salty taste of the Japanese food, but I just wasn't all that impressed with the dining options in Japan.  There was a lot of seafood too, which might be why I wasn't that impressed because I'm not a huge seafood person.  We also saw a surprising amount of fried food, which I was also not expecting or a fan of.  Overall, Korean food is still my favorite...and I think one of the best-kept secrets in the culinary world.

5.  Transportation.  Overall we found Japan's transportation system to be pretty confusing.  There are so many ways to travel-- trains, subway, buses, but then also JR lines, which are a whole different system.  You can get anywhere you want to go using the transportation system, but it's certainly not as straightforward as Korea's system.  We were also surprised by the lack of English on the transportation maps.  On the subway signs we had to use to figure out our fare, they were almost entirely in Japanese, which meant we had to try to match Japanese characters which was not really so fun.  Also, the information centers for all of the types of transportation were on polar opposite ends of the stations.  This means that so many times we would go to one place to try to get some help, only to be sent to the other side of the station because we needed a JR line instead of a regular line, or a regular line instead of a JR line.  I've never appreciated my T-money card and Seoul's awesome and easy to follow subway so much.

6.  Style.  This is one of the first things I noticed about Japan.  Koreans have a very specific style, whether it's the type of backpack that people use, the sneakers they wear, or the kind of hiking clothes they wear.  Everyone in Korea dresses the same.  There's really very, very little variation on what see in terms of fashion here.  However, Japan was a totally different story! We saw people wearing all kinds of different things.  It reminded me much more of America in that respect just because there was actually diversity in fashion. This was something I really enjoyed about Japan. Individuality for the win!

7.  Tourism.  Kyoto and Osaka are huge sites for tourism in Japan.  Although I never expect a country to accommodate me, I was surprised at how few signs there were, and furthermore, how few of those already scarce signs had English.  With tourists coming from all over the world to visit these places I was surprised at how difficult it was to navigate at times without knowing any Japanese.  However, I have to say we stopped people for help multiple times each day, and every time the Japanese people were extremely kind and happy to help us.

Overall, I had an awesome time in Japan.  Jen was great to travel with, and it was an all-around enjoyable trip.  I wish we had more time, but I'm really glad we took advantage of our Chuseok break and seized the chance to travel outside of Korea.

 Although, the problem with traveling is that it always makes me want to travel more.  I thought this would be my only trip to Japan, but now I'm extremely curious to see Tokyo.  I can't help but wonder how different Tokyo is from Kyoto and Osaka.  In my mind I envision Japan to be this super modern country that is way ahead of Korea, but Kyoto and Osaka weren't really that at all, The cities actually felt a bit outdated, so I'm now wondering if Tokyo is more of what I expected Japan to be.

Japan, you treated us well! See you again....maybe!

This officially concludes my account of my time in Japan.  Phew! Sorry for the choppy and boring writing...I wanted to write everything before the craziness of the week begins and before I forget what we did each day.


Japan Part IV: Osaka

Tuesday morning we woke up early, packed our things and got on the train for Osaka.  Osaka is one of Japan's largest cities, and since we had to fly from there early Wednesday morning, we figured we would get an early start and try to see what we could of this city.

Once our train arrived we made our way to our hostel, which was not nearly as nice as our Kyoto hostel, but at least we only had to stay there for one night. Sometimes you just don't know what you're going to get with hostels.  Generally they're great, but now and then you draw the short stick and end up with one that is less than comfortable.  Oh well...sometimes you get what you pay for. 

Once we checked in, we were off to what is probably the most famous site in Osaka, Osaka Castle.  Osaka has a long history, but is most significant for its role in the unification of Japan.  Today there is a large park that surrounds the castle, where you can get a view of the castle from all angles.  

The inside of the actual castle is a museum that is full of historical documents, artwork, and weapons that are relevant to Osaka's past.  I'm a pretty big fan of museums, so I enjoyed looking at the TONS of exhibits inside.  

On the top floor of the castle is a deck where you can get a view of Osaka.
View of Osaka from the top of the castle.

Osaka Castle was the only thing we knew we really wanted to see in Osaka, so after that we just looked at our map and found a temple that we thought looked cool, and made our way in that direction. 

We ended up eating lunch along the way, and then we made it to Shitennoji Temple, which turns out was the first Buddhist temple in Japan. 

Really beautiful pagoda. 

We didn't spend terribly long at the temple because well, nature was calling us and there weren't a lot of bathroom options around.  We decided to head back to a shopping mall we saw earlier to use the bathroom.  We ended up getting some smoothies and sitting for a bit.  By this point in the trip our feet were TIRED so we needed to take a lot of breaks from walking around in the sun.

After resting for a while, we decided to see what else we could see, and wandered over to Shinsekai, where there were tons of places to eat.  We weren't paticularly hungry at that point and a lot of the food was either 1) fish, which I'm not really crazy about or 2) fried, which tends to make me sick.  So, we decided to wait on eating and just took in the atmosphere as we walked around. 

After seeing all that we wanted to see, we made our way back to the mall we had been at earlier to find a place to get a coffee and relax a bit.  After a failed attempt to find wifi, we found a restaurant to have some dinner at.  

Yes, those are teeny tiny fish on the top of the salad.

Not sure how Japanese this was, but it was delicious!

After dinner it was of course time for some dessert:

Since we had an early flight the next morning, we made our way back to our hostel following dessert to pack our things and get a few hours of sleep before making the trip back to Korea. Although we were sad to leave, Japan sent us off with one of the most beautiful moons I've ever seen.

Goodbye, Japan!