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Learning Korean History at Seodaemun Prison

Around him swarm the plaining ghosts
     Like those on Virgil’s shore—
A wilderness of faces dim,
     And pale ones gashed and hoar.
-Herman Melville, from In the Prison Pen

During the day in Seoul, I sent my parents on the tourist trail to the places I had already seen–I had little interest in revisiting the palaces and museums, and I was less enthusiastic about waking up early on this vacation. I headed out on my own and caught up with my parents later in the day.Soedaemun Prison

I decided to stroll around on the sunny day to the west of Gyeongbokgung, the main palace, as I had never been in that direction. I expected to find more neighborhoods similar to Bukchon, but I was mistaken–the historic neighborhood ended and Seoul became almost boring for a stretch, but I could still enjoy the unfamiliar streets.

Independence Park

Independence Gate from across the busy street

After a fair distance wandering, I came to Seodaemun Independence Park and the arch to its entrance. At the time I only knew this as a park and nothing more, so I crossed the street to wander through and find what was there. I was attracted by the Independence Gate, which resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in its design (though much smaller).independence gate seoul

While, the main destination in the park, and more or less all I saw, is Seodaemun Prison History Hall, the park also has other monuments such as a statue of journalist and independence activist Soh Jai-pil. As I didn’t know what was in the park, I only took a brief look at everything before finding the large structure that is Seodaemun Prison History Hall.

Seoul indepedence park monument

Monument for those who fought for independence

The prison opened in 1908 just before Japanese occupation and was used to detain independence activists after 1910. Conditions were poor for the prisoners, and there is evidence of torture remaining at the site. The original design of the prison was for 500 people, but at it ended up with nearly 3000.Soedaemun Prison

Unlike the S-21 in Phnom Penh, Soedaemun Prison is more focused on history and the movement toward independence and democracy in South Korea, which makes this museum a bit less depressing and mentally exhausting.

Soedaemun Prison

One form of torture used during Japanese occupation

Of course, there are parts of the museum that showcase the inhumane treatment of those unjustly forced into the prison’s confines. There were some rooms that were too short to stand straight but too narrow to sit.

Soedaemun Prison

The exercise yard

Even the exercise yard was a form of isolation–the fan-shaped brick structure didn’t allow prisoners to communicate during their time outside. It shape also allowed guards to easily observe the inmates when they attempted to communicate.

Soedaemun Prison

There’s a fake guard above the cells

The most disturbing of sights at the museum was probably the corpse removal exit–a tunnel in a corner of the facility hidden from view of the prisoners. There was no indication as to whether it was still used after Japanese occupation.

Soedaemun Prison

Disposing of the executed prisoners

Some visitors, such as myself, would think that a prison for independence activists would have been shuttered after post-World War II independence. However, the South Korean government decided to maintain the prison for its own anti-government activists who protested the US-supported dictatorship. It even continued to be used until democratic reforms arrived in the country in 1987. It didn’t reopen as a museum until 1992.

Soedaemun Prison

Photos of prisoners who were once held there

While conditions at the prison supposedly improved after World War II, they weren’t much better. Prisoners continued to be tortured under a brutal regime, though much of the treatment of prisoners during that time was glossed over at the museum.

Soedaemun Prison

Martyrs Monument to those who died during Japanese occupation

Admission to the museum was only KRW 3,000, which at the time was less than $3. It was certainly a worthwhile find on my wandering journey through Seoul as I was able to learn a bit more about history.

In Awe of Kuang Si Waterfalls in Luang Prabang

Unlike at other times, I had a rough itinerary for my time in Luang Prabang–I wanted to get as much done in one day as I could to allow for more time to relax–and my main focus was to get to Pak Ou Cave and Kuang Si Waterfall.

It was more difficult than I expected to find a tour that included both the cave and waterfalls in one day–I found plenty of half-day tours for each and even more than included elephant riding, which I wanted no part in. When I finally found the tours I wanted, I found prices varied significantly.

Kuang Si Luang Prabang

Flowing pools at Kuang Si

And I still managed to overpay for my tour. I paid almost double what a woman on my tour paid because her entrance tickets weren’t included in the tour price (with her paying for her own entrance, it was almost half what I paid). More reason for me to say that anyone in Luang Prabang should avoid booking through Nova Tour.

Despite overpaying, it was well worth the trip to Laos.

Kuang Si was the final stop on the day’s tour before heading back to Luang Prabang where I could enjoy an evening of wandering the streets in search of local cuisine. Our van arrived at a parking lot full of taxi, buses, and tuk-tuks surrounded by overpriced souvenir stalls. It looked like a classic tourist trap.

kuang si

How does that work when everyone’s going swimming?

To enter Kuang Si without a prepaid ticket on a tour is only 20,000 kip (US$2.50). From the entrance, tourists walk along a trail through Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre (whether it’s a real animal sanctuary like MandaLao or just a zoo for tourists is debatable). The center is home to endangered Asiatic black bears.

Asiatic Black Bear

The bears were not active late in the day

As I followed the crowd, I wondered how far the hike to the waterfalls was, and before I knew it I arrived. That’s when I searched for a place to change so I could go swimming in the pools. I found toilets and changing rooms a short walk from the crowded pool–the toilet was absolutely disgusting and I wanted to hunt down the filthy tourists who created such filth; the changing rooms were slightly better.

kuang si

The waterfalls in between moments of tourists climbing and jumping

Solo traveler dilemma

The next problem was that I had no way of going swimming. I had a ziplock bag for my phone and wallet, but I had nothing to protect my camera. Everyone was leaving backpacks on some benches off to the side and I figured at least my towel and change of clothes would be safe there, but there was no way in hell I’d leave my camera there. I had lost my tour group, so I had no one to ask to watch my things while I took a dip. This is also where the tour guide I had paid for would have been useful had he actually done any part of a tour guide’s job.

Kuang Si

Guess I won’t be joining them for a swim

I managed to walk into the water a little way, but I had to be cautious. The cloudy calcified pools make it impossible to see where you’re stepping, and the rocks are a bit uncomfortable on the feet. It’s easy to slip and fall completely into the water. While carrying a camera that is not waterproof, this adventure is a bad idea.Kuang Si

After deciding to not leave my camera out while I went swimming, I took a walk farther from the crowd–I wanted to see more of the waterfalls and the surrounding area. I hadn’t done much research and didn’t realize how big the area was (again, the tour guide didn’t tell the tour group anything about Kuang Si or where to go once there).

Finding less crowded views

I meandered along the trails, admiring the waterfalls and turquoise pools that reminded me a bit of Huanglong in China but with a little less color in the water. I found serene spots where tourists weren’t swimming or forbidden from swimming as the areas were considered sacred–these were the best spots for photos.

kuang si

Have a quiet seat in the water

That first pool near the entrance to Kuang Si was by far the most crowded area. I found a few pools with only a few people relaxing in the cool water. I continued my stroll along the paths as I saw more and more pools and small waterfalls surrounded by trees and other plant life. As I walked, I enjoyed the soothing sounds of the water and the disappearing sounds of people.

kuang si

Quieter views around Kuang Si

And then I arrived at Kuang Si waterfall.

There’s a platform that crosses the water in front of the three-tier, 200-foot Kuang Si waterfall so tourists can take plenty of photos from a few angles without getting in each other’s way. But there were few people when I arrived. How was such a popular tourist destination so quiet and devoid of people? Obviously, the awe-inspiring view of Kuang Si and the sound of the waterfall muted any noise from the crowd, but the crowd didn’t exist.

Kuang Si

First view of Kuang Si waterfall

I stood on the platform, staring at the waterfall and enjoying the mist it emitted on that hot day. I watched a few people sitting off to the side eating snacks and taking in the view as others walked past. Everyone who came this far stopped for photos and a moment to breathe–we were away from the crowds playing in the water farther downstream.

Kuang Si walkwaay

Walkway at Kuang Si

I’ve read a few stories on other blogs about crowds at Kuang Si, but I suppose I got lucky. Perhaps it was because it was my last stop on a tour before the sun set and most tourists make it their first and only stop for the day. Whatever the reason, I was overjoyed to have a peaceful view of one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever visited. I can see why this is considered a holy place for locals–it’s impossible not to be overcome by the relaxing flow of the water.Kuang Si waterfall

There was a trail that went up from the side of Kuang Si, but I decided against going because I didn’t know how long the hike would be and I knew I had less than an hour left before I had to be back at the parking lot. Plus, I was wearing flip-flops, which makes hiking a terrible idea particularly as it increases the chance of slipping on wet rocks.

I decided to take a while longer to enjoy the waterfall in front of me rather than risk the hike (which I’ve read is worthwhile and I’m kicking myself for booking a tour that limited my time). I took a slow walk back toward the parking lot–I paused at some pools for more photos as the sun was setting and the crowds thinned out. Had I brought a flashlight, I would’ve been willing to stay even longer to catch the last glimpses of sunlight on the exquisite pools.sunset kuang si

I was disappointed to leave so soon. I was more disappointed to have visited such a beautiful natural scenic site alone. I knew I had made mistakes along the way and I didn’t have enough time for a re-do. If any of my readers plans to visit Kuang Si, I’d advise spending the day there and renting a tuk-tuk (they’re everywhere in Luang Prabang)–avoid tours and just find some other travelers to join you for the day. Make some quick friends to watch your belongings and rotate when it’s time for a swim.

Relaxing Weekend at Sun Moon Lake

But now the sun and moon illumine a gold and silver terrace,
And, clad in rainbow garments, riding on the wind,
Come the queens of all the clouds, descending one by one,
With tigers for their lute-players and phoenixes for dancers.
-Li Bai, Tianmu Mountain Ascended in a Dream

While my parents visited Taiwan for the first time, I searched for places to visit outside Taipei. I had to consider what my parents would enjoy and, if it was more of a nature destination, how physically strenuous it would be. Sun Moon Lake (日月潭, Rìyuètán) in central Taiwan fit the bill. As an added bonus, I had never been there.

Lalu Island

Lalu Island

Sun Moon Lake is the largest lake in Taiwan, covering more than 3 square miles, and is designated a National Scenic Area. There’s even a pagoda that Chiang Kai-shek had built in memory of his mother, but we didn’t go there.

We took the high-speed rail to Taichung Station and transferred to the other Taichung Station via the slow, local train. We saw nothing of the city–we wandered near the bus station in search of dinner before getting some sleep in preparation for an early morning bus to Sun Moon Lake that would take about 90 minutes.sun moon lake sunset

It was a scenic bus ride through the countryside of Nantou County, winding around the mountains and along rivers. The ride was alright–my dad wasn’t pleased with the idea of a long bus ride, but he didn’t seem to mind this one. We also found that the bus stops at the high-speed rail station, which shortened our return trip to Taipei. If we had stayed near the high-speed rail station, the bus might’ve been too crowded on the way to Sun Moon Lake.sun moon lake

Although it’s the less touristy side of the lake, we stayed near Shueishe Pier because the main bus stop for the ride to and from Taichung was there. And the Hotel Del Lago was right around the corner from the bus stop. My parents chose the hotel after I told them which side of the lake to look at, and they wanted one overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, the deck outside the lobby had no chairs, and downstairs was slightly obscured by the trees. Still, it was pleasant sitting outside for breakfast and watching the clouds pass through the surrounding mountains–the morning air was still cool enough to enjoy.sun moon lake clouds

It was humid and hotter than it should’ve been in the mountains, but we managed to see the highlights of Sun Moon Lake despite the hindrance. Granted, we didn’t do as much hiking as I would have had I taken the trip on my own–parents aren’t always in the best shape for such activities–so we ended up taking the boats that cross the lake and the bus that circles it to avoid too much walking. We avoided taxis because they’re overpriced. Note: Public transportation (other than long-distance buses) at Sun Moon Lake ends around 5:30 pm, and the taxis charge a premium at flat fares only to drive around the area.

Taking the ferries that cross the lake between three piers is a great experience–the views from the lake are exquisite. It can, however, get crowded with numerous ferries running simultaneously with all the tourists (mostly from mainland China). As most tourists visit Sun Moon Lake as a day trip, the ferries are the most efficient means of transportation. On the first ferry ride, we had a difficult time figuring out which pier our boat departed from–we asked around and got pointed in the right direction along with a few other confused tourists.

Ita Thao and the ropeway

Ita Thao and the ropeway

When we arrived at our hotel, it was raining. As the rain dissipated, the mountains surrounding the lake became clearer as the clouds floated through. If it hadn’t been for the masses of tourists, the view would’ve been even more impressive–it’s probably the reason Chiang Kai-shek vacationed there (there’s even a scenic outlook along the lakeside trail that was supposedly his favorite place to sit).

On the first day, we took the ferries to all three stops–the first was Xuanguang Temple. The temple itself is not that interesting after visiting so many others throughout Asia. It was a lot of steps to get there, and all the tours stop there as well, making it a bit crowded. Around the back was a trail that we decided to wander despite not knowing where it led–it was nearly empty and peaceful.

Xuanguang Temple trail

The trail behind Xuanguang Temple

We wandered past betel nut palm plantations, with signs warning of guard dogs and to remain on the trail.

betel nut palms

Betel nut palms

Upon reaching the end of the trail, we were on the main road around the lake. The trail led to Xuanzang Temple, which my dad wasn’t willing to walk up to (I went along with my mom). The views from higher above the lake were amazing. Again, there wasn’t much of interest at the temple other than the view.

Xuanzang Temple view

View from Xuanzang Temple

We inquired about taxis and the distance to the next ferry stop along the winding road. Rather than walk the main road that didn’t always have a shoulder or sidewalk, we decided to walk back to Xuanguang Temple and take the ferry to Ita Thao.

Ita Thao

Ita Thao in the distance

We wandered the streets around Ita Thao–it was mostly street food vendors and souvenir shops. We searched for a restaurant and decided on a small place that served local dishes. I had to order the black pepper deer (the deer is a spiritual animal for the indigenous people). The food was nothing special, but it was better than what I ate in Tainan.black pepper deer

Back at Shuishe, we found nothing to do after dark. The best choice was buying a few drinks at 7-Eleven and sitting outside staring at the dark lake–the distant lights at Ita Thao illuminated almost nothing of the area. It was peaceful as most of the tourists departed.

Sun Moon Lake Ropeway

View from the ropeway

On our second day, we bought full-day bus passes and headed for the Aboriginal Culture Village by way of the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway. We arrived before most of the tourists and had a private gondola through the mountains–the clear day provided bright scenery surrounding the lake (though I had to stick my camera out the small openings in the windows).

Traditional reconstructed house at the Aboriginal Cultural Village

Traditional reconstructed house at the Aboriginal Culture Village

The Aboriginal Culture Village reminded me a bit of Folk Culture Village in Taiwan with its singing and dancing performances–the image in China is always of smiling minority ethnic groups singing and dancing. The difference in Taiwan is that the village also has some decent cultural exhibits–rebuilt traditional homes that explain daily life of different classes of people among the aboriginal tribes.

Aboriginal performance full of singing and dancing

Aboriginal performance full of singing and dancing

There were also some interesting statues in the area. I swear one looked like Charlton Heston and another was Ralph Wiggum with a flute up his nose…er, rather two flutes.

Who knew Ralph Wiggum was in Taiwan?

Who knew Ralph Wiggum was in Taiwan?

After returning to Ita Thao, we took the bus around the winding roads along the lake to Wen Wu Temple (文武廟). The Confucius temple, which was rebuilt twice after the Japanese built a hydroelectric dam in the area, is dedicated to the First Ancestor Kaiji and the God of Literature. It’s an impressive temple, but it still lacks a bit of charm (or maybe it was just too many tourists).

Wen Wu Temple

Wen Wu Temple

Most interesting part of Wen Wu Temple, other than the view of the lake, was the digital fortune teller. Who needs to shake some sticks and find the number for the fortune when you can let a machine do it for you?Wen Wu Temple view

In all, it was a relaxing weekend at Sun Moon Lake. It felt good to see another natural wonder of Taiwan and get out of the cities. Plus, it seemed to be a highlight of the tour for my parents.

The only disappointment I found with Sun Moon Lake is that you can’t rent a kayak or canoe to paddle around the lake (probably because of all the tourist ferries crisscrossing the lake). There are more hiking trails and walkways around the lake, which I would’ve taken had I been traveling on my own.

Under the Domes in Singapore

The trees lean closer today.
The singing in the electrical woods
has gone dumb. It looks like rain
because it is too warm to snow.
-Yusef Komunyakaa, Rock Me, Mercy

It was my top destination in Singapore–alright, second on the list after Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, which was closed for renovations. Everyone who had been there told me that the Gardens by the Bay was the best spot in the small nation. After my visit, I agree (though I still haven’t been to Bukit Timah, so I suppose it still up for debate).

The biospheres from the back of the Marina Bay Sands

The biospheres from the back of the Marina Bay Sands

After wandering from Marina Bay station to the waterfront promenade, I escaped the afternoon heat by cutting through the Marina Bay Sands mall–the mall that contained everything I couldn’t afford (alright, I could afford a bottle of water at 7-Eleven, but everything else was out of my price range). What I didn’t realize before I arrived is that access to Gardens by the Bay is through the mall–up the escalators and on a bridge over the busy street to a magnificent view of the Supertrees and gardens below.Supertrees

If not for the crowds and humidity, I could’ve sat overlooking the gardens for hours–as it was I took more than my share of pictures from the lookout point above.supertrees-walkway

I didn’t wander through the gardens too much as I had already been walking about the city much of the day and my feet were already sore, but I had to check out the Supertrees before heading to the domes. This meant that I missed out on a few other parts of the gardens like the dragonfly and kingfisher lakes.

Dragonfly lake

Dragonfly lake

I was more interested in the OCBC skyway between the Supertrees, which cost S$5 so it didn’t break the budget for the short walk. From 22 meters above the gardens, the view is beautiful–and it’s possible to look over everyone’s head to get the photo.

View of the Supertrees from the walkway

View of the Supertrees from the walkway

The only thing I missed with the Supertrees was the Garden Rhapsody with light and music each night. The trees are lit up with bright colors with music. On my visit it was only in blue and white without music in honor of Lee Kwan Yew who passed away a few days before I arrived. It was still beautiful to see the trees lit up as the sun set, but it also gives me another reason to revisit Singapore for another show.supertrees-night

I reached the biospheres that house the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome and stood on line for a ticket. I wasn’t interested in the Flower Dome, but was forced to purchase a combination ticket for S$28 (only locals can buy a single ticket for one or the other). The ticket price seemed excessive, but I was already there and it was something I wanted to see. Unlike many more affordable museums I’ve been to in the last year and a half, the domes at Gardens by the Bay accept credit cards, so I didn’t have to worry about making another trip to the ATM.

Artificial mountain in the Cloud Forest

Artificial mountain in the Cloud Forest

Of course, I headed for the Cloud Forest first–it sounded like a more interesting biosphere, and I was right.

Upon entering I was greeted with a blast of cool air and mist from the waterfall. I wanted to stand beneath that waterfall to cool off more quickly, but the air was cool enough for me for the duration of my walk through the Cloud Forest.

Waterfall in the Cloud Forest

Waterfall in the Cloud Forest

The dome houses beautiful plants along the path and educational information–they even offer a mobile app to enhance the tour through the dome, but I couldn’t download it as I had no wifi connection at the time. It feels like a mountainous hike through a forest that is somehow cooler than it should be; the artificial mountain is covered in plant life and surrounded by a walkway that juts out at all angles. There was even a LEGO garden, including LEGO Venus flytraps.

LEGO garden

LEGO garden

At the top of the Cloud Forest, visitors can take in the view of the entire dome as well as the landscape outside the windows–another angle of the cityscape the Supertrees out in the gardens.

Marina Bay Sands from inside the artificial mountain

Marina Bay Sands from inside the artificial mountain

After a long walk through the mountainous dome, I crossed over to the Flower Dome, which was more interesting than expected–in some ways it was more enjoyable than the Cloud Forest.

This is why it's called the Cloud Forest

This is why it’s called the Cloud Forest

Most of the visitors to the Flower Dome were in the center, taking photos with the tulip exhibition that incorporated childish fairy tale houses (because that’s what people think about when they think about tulips and the Dutch). I’m not interested in tulips or cheesy cartoon houses, so I was able to walk around and learn about the rare plants that are housed in the dome. This dome is also filled with sculptures, many of which are intricate wood carvings, that have little relation to the plant life that surrounds them (though they are enjoyable to see).

One of the wood-carved dragons in the Flower Dome

One of the wood-carved dragons in the Flower Dome

The Flower Dome is separated into sections by region and climate–rare plants from different continents are located next to one another with informative signs for visitors learn more about what makes these plants unique.

Inside the Flower Dome

Inside the Flower Dome

What I expected to be a dome filled with colorful flowers turned out to be an enjoyable walk through the world of ecology–a global flora capsule of sorts.

Sculptures among the flowers

Sculptures among the flowers

Seeing so much green around Singapore certainly helped to change my perception of the nation being a sprawling city. This is much more than just a city; it’s a city with an oasis or three to help residents and visitors escape.

Have you visited the Gardens by the Bay? What did you think?

 

Head in the Clouds at Qixingshan

The weather was beautiful in Taipei on Saturday. I planned to wake up early and get out into nature for the day, and headed to Yangmingshan National Park, an area I hadn’t been to since my first time in this city over a year and a half ago.

My previous trek through the national park was brief–I had no idea where to go and had to head back to Taipei to meet a friend earlier than expected. I at least got to hike a little and see the area around the visitor center, which is worth checking out once.

Welcome to Yangmingshan

Welcome to Yangmingshan

This time around I planned a little better–I decided to hike the tallest peak in the Taipei region at Qixing Mountain. Qixingshan, or Seven Star Mountain, is an inactive volcano that still emits plenty of sulfur fumes (who doesn’t love the aroma of rotten eggs while hiking?). The summit reaches 1,120 meters (3,675 ft)–not nearly the highest peak I’ve hiked, but still a decent trek.

After nearly an hour on the bus (it would take longer, but the bus didn’t make all its stops because no one got off and no one wanted to get on either), I got off at Qixingshan bus stop, figuring that was the easiest spot to start from on my trek up the mountain. I was wrong.

Just off the bus

Just off the bus

There was no trailhead near the bus stop. There was a map that indicated I had a long way to walk to get to the trailhead for Qixingshan. It wasn’t far, but the path toward the visitor center to start the hike was cordoned off, possibly due to damage from the most recent typhoon.

Time to start hiking along the bamboo trail

Time to start hiking along the bamboo trail

While the weather in Taipei was beautiful all day–low 80s, not too humid with a cooling breeze–the weather as I stepped off the bus turned to chilly and cloudy. Well, cloudy isn’t quite the right word here as the clouds were around me. I wouldn’t call it fog either. I was just in the clouds in the mountains. And with the strong wind howling, the clouds moved rapidly around me.

Such a beautiful view...

Such a beautiful view…

I contemplated heading back to Taipei for the pleasant weather, but I had already spent an hour traveling and decided I might as well see if the clouds would dissipate (they didn’t). The higher up the mountain I hiked, the thicker the clouds became.

I still found fellow hikers along the way–people as crazy as I was to hike in such conditions. Of course, those people had light rain jackets; I was wearing a t-shirt. While parts of the hike were strenuous, I didn’t so much sweat as I had condensation form on me–the weather conditions, according to the visitor center, were 17°C and 99% humidity.

We reached the peak of Qixingshan

We reached the peak of Qixingshan

I’m sure the views from Qixingshan are beautiful. But I saw nothing. It was difficult to see more than 20 feet ahead.

On the way down, rather than tempt fate and hike to another peak in the clouds, I headed back toward the main visitor center to catch a bus back to Taipei. Unfortunately, the trail splits a few times along the way–and the direction signs do not say anything about the visitor center. This forced me to ask people heading in the opposite direction for some help (that reminds me, I need to study more Chinese).

The way down was much longer than the way up, which certainly isn’t pleasant for the knees. If I had come prepared, I might’ve stopped at the hot springs in Beitou on the way back home so I could relax and recover. Instead, I headed home and climbed six flights of stairs.

The sulfur fumes were strong along this part of the hike

The sulfur fumes were strong along this part of the hike

As the weather cools in Taiwan, I’ll probably plan a few more hikes–there are still some short hikes around the city that I haven’t yet done. There are also hiking groups that take weekend trips to the more challenging mountains in central Taiwan.

Has the weather ever hampered your outdoor activities? And did you still continue with your plans?

Finding Nature in Tokyo at Mt. Mitake

As the weather cooled in autumn, I searched for new outdoor activities around Tokyo–it was almost late October and the foliage was beginning to change with the season. I hoped for a better view of the fall colors than I had the previous year.mitake-view

The previous year I hiked Mt. Takao and Mt. Oyama and even spent days in most of the parks throughout the city. I searched for hikes that weren’t too difficult or too far from my suburban apartment–most destinations were at least an hour from that home in Kanagawa.mitake-river

I decided to head to Mt. Mitake, which is part of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park (a fact I didn’t know at the time), because it wasn’t too far out of the way and wouldn’t be too crowded (or so I had read). I was also inviting a friend to hike along with me, so I didn’t want to find anything as challenging as Mt. Oyama.mitake-bridge

It was a bit of a walk from the train station to the trail–a cable car was required to get to the trail; it was insisted upon by my hiking companion. We walked along the road in the hope that it led in the right direction–it was a while before we saw a sign that sort of pointed in the right direction; the sign came after we crossed the footbridge over the river.mitake-cable-car

We wandered from the cable car through a town along the way that had some old-style houses that were mixed with newer additions for remodeling.

House in town near Mt. Mitake

House in town near Mt. Mitake

Before embarking on the adventure through nature, we stopped at Musashi-Mitake Shrine, which seemed to be intended for dogs and dates back to 1307 (though most of it was built much later). This shrine is at the summit of the 3048-foot mountain.

Musashi-Mitake-Shrine

From the Musashi-Mitake Shrine we hiked into the forest, away from the few people who were spending the day in the park (mostly with their dogs).

A stone dog at Musashi Mitake Shrine

A stone dog at Musashi Mitake Shrine

We didn’t really choose a path through the wilderness on the outskirts of Tokyo; we just followed the nearest trail that sounded interesting–it claimed to lead to waterfalls and a rock garden. We had no idea how long the hike would take us or how difficult it might be. We wandered up and down some hills and hoped that the next turn around the mountainside would take us to our scenic destination.mitake-waterfall

The hike felt like it took longer before we reached Nanayo Falls. It was a pleasant stop at the small waterfall before heading back to the cable car; we didn’t even make it to the rock garden and second waterfall. Had I been hiking alone, I might’ve taken a longer route through the park in an attempt to find Mt. Otake and probably would’ve gotten lost along the way.mitake-forest

It was probably best that we departed Mt. Mitake when we did as evening was approaching with the early autumn sunset. We boarded the train for central Tokyo where I could change lines and head back to the suburbs and my hiking companion could do the same but in the opposite direction (and much closer). The long train ride felt good on my legs (though not so much when I had to stand again). I slept for a significant portion of that ride that took me close to two hours.

mitake-gate

The entrance to Musashi Mitake Shrine

After numerous hiking adventures on my own, it was a different experience having someone with me. It was more fun to have someone to talk with along the way, but more difficult to go at my own pace. Sometimes I prefer to be alone with my thoughts in nature–the cathartic experience of hiking.

Is it a better experience to hike on your own or with other people?

An Extended Hike Through MacRitchie Reservoir in Singapore

“Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear.”
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

On my second day in Singapore, I decided to take a hike to make up for my previous day’s failure. That first day I attempted to go to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, a large rainforest park in the outskirts of Singapore, only to discover that the park was undergoing renovations (supposedly they were improving the trails or something like that). That’s when I decided to head for the MacRitchie Reservoir, which is a much larger park than I expected.macritchie-reservoir

MacRitchie Reservoir, which was created in 1868, is popular among locals–there are numerous trails for people looking for little exercise. I saw groups of people out for a stroll as well as those jogging around the reservoir and surrounding forest trail. There were even a lot of people renting kayaks.macritchie-reservoir1

I originally thought I could walk to the reservoir from the MRT station, but I was definitely wrong. After a failed attempt at getting a bus (I was on the wrong side of the street), I checked out the stops listed on the bus stop but didn’t see a stop for MacRitchie. That’s when a kind local came up and offered some assistance–she told me which buses I could take and where to get off; she even took the same bus and pointed me in the right direction after I got off.

As I arrived at the reservoir, I headed for the trail around the water before turning off onto the forest trail. As I entered the park, there were a lot of monkeys playing in the trees and plenty of people watching them (there are signs in parks in Singapore reminding visitors to not feed the monkeys or carry plastic bags that monkeys might mistake for food). Along the trail I also noticed some small monitor lizards (I’m disappointed that I didn’t see any of the larger ones).macritchie-monkeys

The sign pointing to the forest trail said it was about 5 km to the TreeTop Walk, which is sponsored by HSBC (nice to see them doing more than laundering money for drug cartels).

What I didn’t realize is that the trail to the TreeTop Walk doesn’t go around the reservoir–it’s a trail through thick woodland, so you can’t see the reservoir. I also didn’t realize that while it’s 5 km to the destination, it was more than 5 km to finish the loop and then find the way back to the park entrance. I somehow found an exit along the way to the main road and bus stop nearby that would take me back to the MRT.

The forest trail through MacRitchie Reservoir

The forest trail through MacRitchie Reservoir

I was only a short distance into the forest trail–the noise of Singapore had already disappeared in the distance–when it started to rain (it is a rainforest after all). There are plenty of shelters along the trail, so I managed to find one before I got soaked with my camera. It cooled the weather until I made it to the TreeTop Walk, but it heated up considerably after that and I was desperate to get out–there were others I encountered on the trail who wanted to get out faster as well.

The HSBC TreeTop Walk

The HSBC TreeTop Walk

the TreeTop Walk had a beautiful view, especially considering the air cleared after the rain. After walking through the humidity after the rain, the view wasn’t as energizing as one would hope–I was sweating so much I felt like collapsing on the bridge (and it only got worse when I saw the signs for more than 5 km back out of the rainforest in either direction). The route I took back out of the rainforest took me along a country club golf course, which made the experience a little more surreal in my humidity-induced delirium (maybe it was a mirage).

View from the TreeTop Walk

View from the TreeTop Walk

I was tempted to stay on the bus to see where it went just because I was exhausted and thoroughly enjoyed the air conditioning on the ride to the MRT station.

Instead of heading back to my hostel to shower again and possibly take a nap, I decided to head farther from my hike to Bayfront. I wandered around the Marina Bay Sands mall to cool off in the air conditioning (and with the hope that I could find some affordable food (nope)) before dragging my tired legs to Gardens by the Bay, which is a story for another day.

View from the TreeTop Walk

View from the TreeTop Walk

I got to end my day with dinner at a little sidewalk buffet restaurant in Little India where I met a Dutch tourist and a few locals who ordered plenty of beer and even more food. I even met the owner of the restaurant who joined us for some of the beer and food. Somehow I paid less than half of my bill–certainly nothing to complain about.

Despite a hot and exhausting day, it was the kind of travel exhaustion I needed to rejuvenate myself (though my feet would disagree).

Preconceptions and Reality in Singapore

“We sail tonight for Singapore
We’re all as mad as hatters here”
Tom Waits, Singapore

Last year when I considered taking a trip to Singapore I thought of a million reasons to not go, most of which stemmed from the little I knew about the country.

Maybe it all goes back to 1994–I was finishing middle school and a 19-year-old American named Michael Fay caused an international incident by being sentenced to a caning in Singapore. Americans were in an uproar over the punishment Fay received for vandalism. I thought he was an idiot. But that ordeal left me, and many others, with the impression that Singapore is a brutal police state.

It’s not.

singapore-skylineYes, there are tons of laws to follow, and the punishments for breaking the law can be harsh (mostly steep fines now). The laws governing day-to-day activities, however, don’t really register with tourists. No spitting! Ok. No littering! Fine, where’s the trash can? It really isn’t any inconvenience.

And when it comes to all the restrictions, no one seems to care about jaywalking. People cross the streets when they want, but they make sure no traffic is coming first (this isn’t Hanoi). Drivers are polite enough to stop for pedestrians, but I don’t imagine they’d be as happy if those pedestrians walked in front of their cars.singapore

I always thought Singapore would be immaculate with all the rules they supposedly enforce. It is quite clean, but there are plenty of messes–there was a public restroom at an MRT station was foul (still better than any public restroom in the US). There were a few others that weren’t much better. And at the outdoor food courts, there are plenty of messes–I saw no trash cans because everyone just leaves dishes and trays on the tables for staff to clean up. I’m sure if I stayed out later, those same food courts would get a bit messy.

For a country that some might regard as a police state, there isn’t a police presence. I was there for Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral, and there were long lines of people paying their respects, so there were some police around to mostly help with directions. The police were quite friendly and helpful.

Clarke Quay at night

Clarke Quay at night

That level of friendliness and helpfulness expanded to the general population. I’ve said before how polite and friendly people in Taipei are. I found people in Seoul and Tokyo to also be polite, though not nearly as friendly. People in Singapore are more than that–they’re helpful and accommodating.

Example: I wanted to purchase a three-day metro ticket (which is not for a full 72 hours because the ticket offices aren’t open early enough), but the ticket office was closed when I arrived at Changi Airport. An MRT employee apologized because the office closed early in honor of Lee Kuan Yew. She then helped me buy my ticket and made sure I knew where to go. When I finally got to buy the three-day ticket, the ticket office was going on lunch break. There were three people ahead of me and they all desperately wanted to get things done now (I didn’t want to wait another hour either). The employee stayed to help us, but turned anyone else away. In Japan and Taiwan employees wouldn’t be so flexible.

I certainly worried about the weather in Singapore–I know it’s hot and humid year-round. But the heat wasn’t unbearable. Afternoon downpours were inconvenient, but they felt great. I had expected the city to be fully air conditioned, like in Hong Kong. We used to joke that Hong Kong was 5 degrees cooler than mainland China–I swear it got colder as soon as I set foot across the border at Luohu crossing. If I visited Hong Kong in the summer I went from frigid temperatures indoors to oppressive heat and humidity on the streets (my glasses would fog up if I went indoors for more than 5 minutes before going back outside).

supertrees-night

Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay

Singapore manages temperatures better. There was a progression to temperature changes that prevents people from getting sick and acclimates the population. It was hot and humid outside, and it got cooler as I got further into the metro stations–the buses and subway cars were quite cold, but I was prepared for it with the progression. The ticket area of the MRT was a few degrees cooler than outside; the waiting area for the train was a little cooler; and the trains were even cooler than that. The progression of air conditioning means that the city is more energy efficient than Hong Kong.

Another preconception I had was that Singapore is just a huge city. While that is true, there is also plenty of green space. The city is so well planned and covered in green. And all the plants along the streets and in the parks are well maintained. It’s not like in China where they rip out a plant just because a leaf is turning brown.

MacRitchie Reservoir

MacRitchie Reservoir

I went for a hike at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve only to find the 400-acre reserve was closed for trail renovations. There were some other trails nearby though; they just weren’t as interesting. There’s also the MacRitchie Reservoir, where I took a more than 10 km hike (I thought the hike was only 5 km). And there’s still the Gardens by the Bay and the Botanic Gardens. There is a lot of room to breathe in Singapore.

Singapore impressed me.

Have you ever visited a place with a preconception that was quickly broken?

Beer in the Park

“While we were sober, three shared the fun;
Now we are drunk, each goes his way.
May we long share our odd, inanimate feast,
And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky.”
-Li Bai, Drinking Alone by Moonlight

This week marks the 61st anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The National Day holiday is the second-longest holiday of the year after Spring Festival. When I moved to China in 2005, I arrived three weeks after the holiday. It wasn’t until the following year that I took a short break from Shenzhen for the national holiday. After seeing all the main sights the previous year, I decided to not go too far and ended up on a bus to Zhaoqing in Guangdong Province–it was almost another hour past Guangzhou.PBRpark

One of the more unusual sights to behold in Zhaoqing was the park in the center of the city around Star Lake. There was a dried up fountain that had an oversized can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the same beer that is so popular with hipsters and was recently purchased by a Russian company. When I returned to Shenzhen, I discovered the reason for that giant PBR can; the beer is brewed in Zhaoqing for the Chinese market, which is a large market for the company.

After I departed China, PBR came out with a limited-edition brew for the Chinese market–a $44 dollar bottle of oak aged pissy beer. No matter what they did to “improve” upon the traditional PBR, I was certain that it would still cause a hangover before the bottle was empty.

Hiking the Highest Peak in Seoul

a trail of climbing stairsteps forks upstream.
Big ranges lurk behind these rugged little outcrops—
these spits of low ground rocky uplifts
layered pinnacles aslant,
flurries of brushy cliffs receding,
far back and high above, vague peaks.
– Gary Snyder, “Endless Streams and Mountains”

I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit a national park that was so close. It still took about an hour to get to Bukhansan National Park from my apartment–the park is on the outskirts of the city and requires taking a 20-minute bus ride from the metro station. Nonetheless, I was determined to get to the park and hike, even if I did wake up a bit later than I should have. It was a good excuse to test out my new hiking shoes–my Columbia shoes were wearing thin and not capable of the occasionally slick rocky trails.

bukhansan

First view of Bukhansan National Park

Getting to the park wasn’t as difficult as I thought it’d be. There was a tourist information booth just outside the station, and they gave me a list of buses I could take and told me where to get off. It helped that the bus announcements were also in English.bukhansan stream

I wasn’t sure where I was going. I hoped that the trail signs in the park would be better than the ones at Yongmasan and Achasan. Fortunately, the signs were much better, though without a trail map it was a little more difficult deciding with trail to take. I was, again, lucky–I chose the trail that I wanted without actually knowing that it was the one (sometimes it pays to follow the crowd).Bukhansan

I figured it wouldn’t take long to follow the trail that claimed to be only 4.5 km (I’m not sure how they measure distance around here, but I’m fairly certain it shouldn’t take over two and a half hours to hike that far). It took a strenuous two and a half hours to hike up Baekundae, which at 2,744 ft is the highest peak in Seoul.

Baekundae

View from atop Baekundae

The more than 30 sq. mi. that encompasses Bukhansan was established as a national park in 1983. Its history dates back almost 2,000 years when the first fortress was built in the mountains. A nearly 6-mile defensive wall was constructed in the mountains, but was partly destroyed during the Korean War. According to some of the historic information posted along the trail, the region was used to discreetly move weaponry through the country–I can only imagine the difficulty of lugging all that equipment up the mountainside.

Bukhansan wall

One of the gates through the fortification at Bukhansan (only about 1km from the summit of Baekundae)

The mountains in Bukhansan National Park are beautiful. Rocky cliffs greet hikers as they wind their way up. On other peaks, I watched more adventurous visitors scale the rocky mountainsides–park rangers ensured that all rock climbers were fully prepared prior to attempting the climbs. I enjoy hiking, but I’m not up for rock climbing.

Bukhansan

Those specks on the far mountaintop are people

The main trails are well maintained–I doubt there’s a specific trail for those brave enough to scale the cliffs–and there are even stairs in some places (more worn and natural stairs are in other areas, but they can be a bit slippery).

Baekundae Trail

It’s not THAT steep

The trail leading to Baekundae started out fairly easy for the first hour, but gradually increased in difficulty. Toward the peak, it was a scramble up a near 70-degree slope. The way down is much more difficult, but there are ropes and cables that are firmly implanted in the rock to ensure that hikers don’t fall all the way down the mountainside.

baekundae

Just roll me down the mountain instead

The peak was crowded. Most hikers stopped there for a long rest and a picnic. I love that the Korean concept of appropriate hiking provisions includes bottles of soju, beer, and makgeolli. I enjoyed a beer from a convenience store when I returned to the town on my way back to the bus.

Baekundae

Nice place to lounge after a hike. Now, how do I get down?

The only downside to the hike was the weather–the haze obscured the views that are still spectacular on such days. If I move back to Korea, I’ll have to take the hike again on a clear day. The air cleared up a bit as I reached the summit, so it turned out alright for the day.bukhansan

My new hiking shoes held up quite well in Bukhansan–the lack of tread on my old pair would have probably meant my demise, or at least a broken bone or two. Had I arrived earlier in the day, I would’ve tacked on a few other short trails, but I was tired and hungry (the humidity didn’t help much). Despite only hiking for about five hours, my legs were quite sore the next day. Even after sitting down on the subway, it was rather difficult to stand up again (I also fell asleep on the train for a bit).

Independence Day in Seoul

As I previously noted, I had no real plan for a July 4th celebration in Seoul–I couldn’t seem to find any activities for the holiday. I settled on going out with a friend for a burger and beer in Noksapyeong, a trendy neighborhood near Itaewon filled primarily with non-Korean restaurants and brewpubs.

Spicy burger at Thunder Burger

Spicy burger at Thunder Burger

We settled on dinner at Thunder Burger–a small shop that offers a variety of hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries. It’s a no-frills establishment with only a few tables, but that also explains why the burgers only cost $5-7. While my friend went with the classic cheeseburger, I couldn’t pass up the chance to eat a spicy burger–it had sliced jalapenos and crushed chili peppers (it wasn’t overly spicy, but it had a decent kick to it).

I'm inclined to agree

I’m inclined to agree

After our meal, we headed down the road in search of Magpie, the lone brewpub I haven’t tried in the neighborhood. As we passed Magpie, we ended up at Room H, a rather simple bar that serves beer brewed by Korean brewery Weizenhaus. I’ve been to this place before, and their stout was the best dark beer I’ve had in Korea. This time around, I tried their hefeweizen, which was alright for a humid evening, but nothing special.

Weizenhaus Stout at Room H in Noksapyeong

Weizenhaus Stout at Room H in Noksapyeong

As we were finishing our drinks, we heard some loud noises outside. “Do I hear fireworks?” I said. Sure enough, we could see fireworks off in the distance–presumably from a US military base nearby. We finished our beers and walked up the pedestrian bridge just outside Room H for a better view of the fireworks. It was definitely a better view than I had last year in Boston, and the display was rather impressive.

4th of July fireworks in Seoul

4th of July fireworks in Seoul

The following day, I met up with other friends for some Korean barbecue and managed to introduce them to a quiet bar in Itaewon that serves Korean and imported microbrews (my one friend was a little upset that the visitor was introducing new watering holes to the locals).

Gen. MacArthur in Jayu Park

Gen. MacArthur in Jayu Park

To fill out the weekend, I headed to Incheon on Sunday. The city is of historical importance as the landing point for American forces during the Korean War. As part of my wandering through Incheon, I headed to Jayu (Freedom) Park, which is on a hill above Chinatown. Within the park is a statue to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who led US forces into Korea.

It turned out to be a pleasant July 4th weekend away from home.

How do you usually celebrate national holidays while traveling abroad?

Into the Clouds in Taroko National Park, Taiwan

The highlight of my three-day trip to Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast was a trip through Taroko National Park. After asking about the weather forecast for Saturday and Sunday, I decided Saturday would be the best day to visit the park (Sunday turned out to be the day with sunny skies). The day started with watching mountains around Hualien disappear behind clouds and continued with light, intermittent rain and brief moments of sunshine.

qingshui taroko

The first stop at Qingshui Cliff

My plan was to rent a motorbike in town and ride through the park on my own. Unfortunately, when I arrived at my hostel, I was told I needed an international driver’s license so I had to book a group tour instead. Later, as I talked with the owner of the hostel, I was told she could arrange a motorbike without the license, but it was already too late.taroko national park

While riding a motorbike along the mountain roads would’ve given me a few more hours and fewer crowds, I probably would’ve missed out on some parts of the tour. It was also easier to get dropped off along the road and then meet the van further up as I walked to take pictures.

taroko national park

Entrance to Taroko National Park

The only problem with taking a group tour through Taroko is that most of them are geared toward mainland Chinese tourists and follow the same route, which means that every stop is fairly crowded. Although I was on such a tour, my guide spoke fair enough English to point out some things to me–he also spoke to me in Chinese every now and then. Also, unlike other Chinese tours I’ve been on, this one never stopped for any shopping (of course, a few of the scenic stops had vendors, which is to be expected).taroko gorge

The winding roads through Taroko Gorge provide beautiful scenery–the mountain forests and rocky cliffs along the coast are what attract so many tourists to the area.

taroko gorge grotto

Roads running through the mountainside at Taroko Gorge

The roads are carved out of the side of the mountains–there are some tunnels that are concrete, but most are unreinforced caves that look out into the gorge. It’s not easy to find a photo opportunity without tourists around, but I image it’s possible if you arrive early enough.taroko gorge road

Along the road into the park, visitors are offered free helmets in case of falling rocks that appear to be rather common. Of course, for more than a small rock, the helmet will not protect you. Signs everywhere advise visitors to keep moving. If those signs weren’t ominous enough, the one before the first tunnel on the way to the Baiyang Trail and water curtain cave should be warning enough for some to not travel alone.taroko-warning

Aside from the caves and stop by the rushing river, there isn’t much along the Baiyang Trail. There was more after the water curtain cave, but it’s been closed for safety reasons (too many rocks falling from above). I managed to bring my camera into the cave underneath the poncho the tour provided, but it was difficult to get any decent photos without getting soaked. This is another reason so many people spend money on a GoPro.

Water Curtain Cave

Entrance to the water curtain cave

Despite not stopping at more places, like the temples we passed, the tour stopped at a lot of the most photogenic spots in the national park. There were definitely advantages to taking the tour instead of the motorbike, but I’d still like to try riding through the area on my own.

This is reassuring

This is reassuring

I was warned to bring food along with me as there aren’t many restaurants or food vendors in Taroko National Park. The tour stopped for lunch at one of the few places with enough seating for tours. The food was mediocre and slightly overpriced, but the outdoor seating provided a great view of the mountains. I also had a pleasant time talking with a few members of my tour who happened to be mainland Chinese students studying in Taiwan–it was a great opportunity for me to brush up on my Mandarin.taroko gorge

If I head back to Taroko National Park, I’ll definitely rent a motorbike and head into the park well before the tours arrive. I really should see about getting that international driver’s license to make things a little easier.

YouBike on Taipei Riverside

youbike

It’s a little heavy, but the YouBikes are comfortable for sightseeing

I’ve been planning on using the YouBikes, Taipei’s public bike share, since my first week here. Unfortunately, unless you have a cellphone to connect to your EasyCard, you have to use a credit card to rent the bikes, which means you lose out on the free first half hour of use. So, I broke down and bought the cheapest smartphone I could find from Taiwan Mobile–this thing is so cheap that the camera is only 3 megapixels and doesn’t have a flash (I didn’t know such phones still existed).

I rented a bike from Linsen Park, which is just around the corner from my Airbnb apartment. On Saturday I rode down the street and took a few turns off the main road. I found some new restaurants and shops that I would have to return to, including an American chain brewpub. I had no destination in mind Saturday, and ended up getting a little lost at times just because I didn’t care where I went. For around two hours on the bike, I paid about $1.

taipei riverside park

I wish there was a bike route app

Sunday I made more of a plan. I was determined to go for a ride along the Keelung Riverside Park. This was a little more difficult than I expected–entrances to the park aren’t as easily recognizable or plentiful as I thought. There’s a high concrete wall around the park and only a few entrances–fortunately, I found one of them by the Rainbow Bridge, which was not as interesting as I had hoped.

rainbow bridge

On Rainbow Bridge

From Rainbow Bridge, I rode out to Dazhi Bridge and crossed the river before making a return trip. There was some light rain and some strong wind, which made the ride a little less enjoyable. Had I found this route the previous day in all the bright sunshine, I would’ve been much happier (and more sunburned).

riverside park

Taipei 101 from the opposite side of the Keelung River

I had expected more trees in along the paths, but they might have obscured some of the photos. I was also surprised at the number of baseball fields in the area–and they were all being used. There was even a graffiti wall (there was a sign encouraging people to use it instead of defacing public property), which had some decent art.

dazhi bridge

Dazhi Bridge

According to the estimate from MapMyRide.com (the map doesn’t follow the roads/bike paths exactly), my ride on Sunday was a little more than 14.5 miles. I couldn’t calculate my ride from Saturday because I really don’t know where I was.

Yuanshan Hotel in the distance

Yuanshan Hotel in the distance

The YouBike is my new favorite way of seeing Taipei. They even have lights for riding at night and it’s common, and sometimes easier, to ride on the sidewalks. Traffic can get hectic, but I really didn’t have any problems with drivers like I used to have back home in NJ.

Protest Marches on in Taipei

sunflower movement

The sunflower movement took to the streets on Sunday in Taipei

After stopping by the protests at Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, I figured I probably wouldn’t see much more during my stay. I knew there were still protests going on around the government buildings–some professors are even holding classes for students at the protests.

Protesters marching down the street outside Peace Park

Protesters marching down the street outside Peace Park

Of course, it would help if I’d pay attention to announcements about such things going on in my current home.protest-march2

On Sunday I headed to Peace Park and the National Taiwan Museum for a day out. When I exited the train at NTU Hospital Station, I was surprised to see so many people–and why were all these others taking pictures at the station? As I exited the station I was surrounded by people in black shirts holding sunflowers (the symbol of the protest movement) and police.

The friendly Taipei police are ready to stop you from going anywhere

The friendly Taipei police are ready to stop you from going anywhere

Peace Park was mostly blocked off with intimidating temporary barbed wire barriers and police. Even some of the nearby streets were blocked off with the barriers.

Welcome to Peace Park

Welcome to Peace Park

After I was finished with the National Museum, I headed back to the station to see what more was going on with all the protesters. The crowd had grown significantly and they were marching down the main street.

Guess I won't have that relaxing walk through the park today

Guess I won’t have that relaxing walk through the park today

Estimates of the size of the crowd ran from 100,000 to 400,000 depending on which side of the argument you ask.

That can't be good for business

That can’t be good for business

Sayonara, Japan

Tomorrow morning I say goodbye to Tokyo and Japan for a while. I’ve already decided that I want to return when the weather warms up (I didn’t expect to stay this long and didn’t pack appropriate cold-weather clothes). I will head out for Vietnam for a few months–the first stop will be Hanoi, which is just going to be wet, according to weather reports. I have a free VPN set up to navigate around internet censorship, and I have a backup paid option just in case.

The view of Tokyo from Shinjuku Park

The view of Tokyo from Shinjuku Park

As much as I’m sure I’ll enjoy Vietnam (especially the food), I’m still glad my first stop on this journey was Japan. It’s not often that I make specific plans to return to one place, especially not to the same city, but such was my time here.

If anyone has a recommendation for my time in Vietnam, feel free to leave a comment. I haven’t planned much my trip yet, but I’ll have all next week during work hours to find exciting things to do.