Sunday, August 25, 2013

Gujo Hachiman

Exploring the city of Gujo Hachiman can be done in a couple of hours by foot. I followed this self guided walking map albeit in a roundabout fashion. Here are some highlights that I particularly enjoyed.

this red bridge - view of the river while standing on it and the buildings surrounding it (near location M on map)
the view from miyagase bridge (location N)
igawa komichi - a small narrow street with a canal full of giant fish! (location X)
Igawa Komichi was really cute. Walking down the narrow street with all the fish leaping nearby was like walking back in time. Along the street there are wooden boxes where you can buy fish feed for 100 yen. There are washing platforms built along the canal which villagers use to wash their fruits and vegetables in the canal! Be sure to walk all the way down the street (past where everyone is clustered feeding the fish), there is access to the Yoshida River bank with some awesome views.

yanaka komichi (location P) - I love the old architecture!
view from shin bashi "new bridge" (location Y)
gujo hachiman castle (location G)
The view from the base of the castle was amazing - probably even better from the top of the castle. However at this point of our trip we had been up and walking for several hours and didn't feel like climbing up to the castle itself or for paying the entrance fee into the castle.

Also be sure to check out Shokunin Machi (location J to K), an historic street where in the feudal times, the town's craftsmen lived and had their businesses. Unfortunately all my photos of this street didn't turn out so nice due to the crappy lighting.

For our meal of the day we stopped at Harajin Soba, a restaurant near the Miyagase Bridge, for you guessed it - soba! This place is apparently very popular, a television food program was filming while we were there! Again I saw some Japanese celebrities! If only this had happened to me while I was in Taiwan.

soba noodles with a meat rice bowl = 1580 yen
I really enjoyed the meat bowl but the soba noodles were just meh for me. I think it's because I'm not such a big fan of buckwheat but the way you eat soba made it pretty interesting. The noodles are served cold and you dip them into the cup of dipping sauce (soba tsuyu). The water that was being served at the restaurant was the water used to cook the noodles, apparently after you finish the meal you can mix that water with the dipping sauce leftovers and drink it!

I really enjoyed Gujo Hachiman! It is one of the best cities I've had the chance to visit while in Japan. I just love all the Edo-styled houses and old architecture. Reminds me of Kyoto but better since there aren't as many crowds!

cave exploring in Gujo

So most of the attractions in Gujo Hachiman are actually in the city and easily accessible by walking. One of the major attractions in the area is the Otaki Cave which has the tallest underground waterfall in Japan at 30m. No public transportation goes to the cave and we found out that a one way ride by taxi costs more than 3000 yen. I think the taxi basically has to wait for you to finish going through the cave and then take you back so the total cost to check out this cave would probably be around a $1000 or 10,000 yen. The taxi would have taken 20 minutes to get there and so my friend Yuna suggested that we walk there. Thinking a 20 minute taxi ride wouldn't be such a long walk I was down to go until I found out that the cave was 8km away from the city center or roughly a little over 5 miles away... At this point I was really meh about checking out the cave but my friend really wanted to go and a blog had mentioned taking just an hour to reach the cave by foot so I was like why not. Well it wasn't an hour away and it was raining the whole time we were walking. Such a bad idea! Thankfully some nice Japanese people on their way to the cave passed us as we were walking on the side of the road up the mountain and turned around just to give us a ride! THANK YOU AWESOMELY NICE JAPANESE PEOPLE! We were still so far away from our destination - if we had known how far we would have probably given up. At one point we did see a bus drive up the mountain (it stops before reaching the cave but at least the walk from that bus stop would be much easier than the walk from the city center), no idea what bus and where to catch it.

The nice Japanese people offered to give us a ride back down to the city but they wanted to check out two caves, Otaki and Jomon Shonyudo (limestone cave in Japanese). I was fine with that and had actually wanted to visit Jomon while doing research but didn't know how to get there. I was really disappointed with the Otaki Caves and wouldn't recommend paying for a taxi to see this place. If you have a car then sure might as well visit it but I wouldn't go out of my way to visit it. It might be because I had just recently visited Hwanseongul Cave in Korea and that was massive and mind blowing and compared to that Otaki was disappointingly small. The waterfall wasn't what I imagined it would have been - seemed more like a trickle of water coming from the ceiling.

the weird lighting they had in the cave made things appear green

The area around Otaki Cave was bustling with restaurants and souvenir shops. You can even pay to catch ayu, a sweetfish famous in this area. Included in our ticket was a voucher to get a fortune from inside the souvenir shop. Mine read small fortune (I only recognized the 'small' kanji) everything else was in Japanese.

Jomon was a lot better because the only light you have is a flashlight that is provided when you buy a ticket. Supervision wasn't very tight (which I've noticed in a lot of Japanese places) and I'm sure if you bring your own flashlight you can just wander right in and no one would notice... It was super creepy to just go around with your flashlight but it made me think that's how explorers must feel like when they go around back in the day. The mood was kind of spoiled with these groups of tourists and children screaming all over the place. So we let big groups walk past us and waited awhile in one place so that we could get the silence and creepy atmosphere we were looking for. Everything is in Japanese but my friend tells me that they discovered human remains in the cave and I think prehistoric Japanese people use to live there. They had sculptures built inside the cave depicting their caveman lifestyle. 

found a bat colony! they were so cute rustling around; not so cute if they flew at me
one part of the cave had a sign that highlighted the fact that this was bat poo - a lot of it

not crystals but water droplets!

The Details
Otaki Shonyudo: 大滝鍾乳洞
If you want to walk there head towards the train station outside of town and follow the Japanese signs for Otaki Cave. Be warned it should be an approximate 2 hour walk with a lot of it uphill. The Japanese information pamphlet has a map but the English one doesn't...
Hours: 10am-4pm
Admission Fee: 1000 yen

Jomon Shonyudo
Hours: 10am-4pm
Admission Fee: 500 yen

You can buy a combo ticket for both these caves at the Otaki Cave ticket office for 1300 yen (Package A). Package B I believe includes food. The Jomon Cave is cave is a walkable distance further up the mountain from Otaki Cave

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Gujo Odori

I know! You don't have to say it. I've been neglecting this blog a lot these couple of months. I've just been so busy on the weekends and then too tired to even muster up any energy to think of something to write, let alone actually write it up and post it. I've finally started to explore Japan kinda. It's more difficult to explore Japan than it was to explore Taiwan mostly due to the cost. You would think with such an established public transportation system that it wouldn't cost an arm and a leg to get to places.

I recently visited an awesome town called Gujo Hachiman which is famous for its Gujo Odori. Odori is a kind of dance performed in Japan, usually around the Obon Holiday. People perform it in public places and anyone can join in. You just observe how the steps are performed and then join the line of moving people. I danced horribly but it was amazing to be able to experience such a traditional Japanese custom. I also finally got to wear my yukata, a summer kimono! Apparently after August wearing a yukata is a big no no. Bummer because I only got to wear it once and that thing was EXPENSIVE!

Japanese elders really know how to dance! The dancing starts at 8:30 and lasted until 10:30 but when I was here it went on till 11! On certain days during the Obon Holiday the dancing lasts all night which is what this town is known for. I was in Korea during that week so didn't get see it. :( That platform you see in the picture is called a yagura and usually acts as the bandstand for the musicians and singers. Each region has their own kind of music and style of dancing. Every time the song changed so did the dance. People here have got their steps down. Once the music changed, everyone flowed right into the next style of dancing while I fumbled around trying to mimic their steps.

my awesome yukata! i was sweating balls after all the dancing!

We stayed at an awesome hostel that was attached to a temple. The rooms were very nice and traditional. Since Gujo is very small, everything is easily accessible by foot. There are no showers in the hostel but they have an agreement with an onsen, hot spring baths, nearby which you can go for free but they closed super early around 7-8pm so I didn't have a chance to check it out.

getting to sleep on futons - can't get more Japanese than that!

The Details
Getting Here: I highly recommend taking the Gifu Bus from Gifu to Gujo Hachiman because it drops you off in the center of town rather than if you take the train here. The train station is on the outskirts of town and involves quite a few transfers from any major city.
Bus schedule
You will want to get off at this stop: 郡上八幡城下町プラザ. The bus is really on time so if you know that its around the time you should be getting off then get off. The marquee inside the bus only displays the stops in Japanese. The one way fare on the bus costs 1480 yen and this bus is distance based so you'll see the prices change as it gets closer to Gujo. At the Meitetsu Bus Station (right below the Meitetsu Train Station) you can get a round trip ticket for a 10% discount. If you're taking the JR to Gifu the bus also stops at the bus station right outside of the JR Train Station. Head towards bus stop #14. The bus will have Gujo Hachiman on the outside.
Other ways to get to Gujo

For info on what dates the Gujo Odori will be held check out their amazingly helpful website.

Stay: Gujo Tosenji Hostel
Cost: 3900 yen for non members
I believe they have a super early check out time which was fine with us since we only had one day here to explore all of Gujo. I don't believe there is wifi here so that could be a problem for most people. There are also a lot of ryokans and hotels in Gujo Hachiman but they can be a bit pricey for backpackers.
Gujo Hachiman Map
Print out this map before you go - so helpful! Not sure if you can get the same map at the tourist center. The map is super accurate and to find the hostel just head to Tosen Ji. There are also some English sign posts scattered around the city near major attractions.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

penis park!

Alanna wanted to go to the beach while we were in Korea so we headed to Samcheok a city roughly 3.5 hours away from Seoul. The day we were leaving was a holiday, the Liberation Day of Korea from Japan rule, so there was a lot of traffic. What was suppose to be a 3.5 hour ride turned into 6-7 hours...  Samcheok is known for its beautiful beaches, awesome caves and a penis park, Haesindang Park.

There are around 50 phallic statues located in the park. There are different stories about the origin of the park but they all revolve around a maiden drowning in the ocean. After she died the nearby village started having problems, they weren't able to catch any fish. The villagers discovered that the spirit of the dead girl was driving away the fishes. One way or another they found out that the image of penises appeased the dead girls spirit and so built all these statues to keep her happy. A penis hungry ghost girl. Haha.

After the penis park we went down to one of the nearby beaches, Yonghwa Port. Unfortunately the police closed down the beach shortly after we arrived and everyone had to leave the water - never seen the likes of it before. While we were at the beach we found out that Koreans wear their clothing into the water. They might be wearing bathing suits but each and every one of them wore t-shirts and shorts over them! We didn't have a change of clothing and none of us wanted to be the only ones exposing our flesh in public so we didn't enter the water. I like how at Yonghwa Port the beach has food stalls right on the sand.

nothings better than eating an awesome meal on a beautiful beach!

look closer do you notice the clothed koreans??
samgyeopsal - fatty pork

yummy FREE side dishes
The Details
Bus from Seoul to Samcheok Schedule
fare: 17400-28200 won ($17-28) depending on the classification
You can choose to leave from Seoul (located at Express Bus Terminal Subway Station) or DongSeoul (located at Gangbyeon Subway Station)
According to a teacher living in Samcheok it's better to go from DongSeoul because it's not located in the center of the city and hence a faster trip. Leaving from the Express Bus Terminal, it takes a long time to actually leave Seoul because of all the traffic which could be easily skipped by taking the subway.

Haesindang Park (해신당공원)
Access: Take bus 24 from Samcheok Bus Terminal
Bus Fare: 1,600 for adults
Travel time: 40 mins
Schedule: buses leave every hour on the hour from 5:50am-8:20pm
there are two stops and entrances to Haesindang Park one at the top and the bottom of the hill; I recommend getting off the bus at the top of the hill because you can walk down through the park and exit the park at the bottom.

Park Hours: March-October 9:00am-6:00pm; November-February 9:00am-5:00pm
Admission Fee: adults 3,000 won

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

a glimpse into North Korea...

How could we visit South Korea and not take a tour of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) & Panmunjom area?? The name is actually a little misleading because a lot of people want to visit the DMZ but the place where you can cross into North Korea territory is actually the JSA (Joint Security Area) and that area is usually included in Panmunjom tours. We did a whole day tour that combined both the DMZ and Panmunjom. The "half day" tours visit only one area and are a couple of hours shorter, they start later so you end up back in Seoul almost around the same time. I highly recommend just doing the JSA/Panmunjom tour because you get to actually step into North Korean territory and see North Korean soldiers. The DMZ tour was nice and included a lot of different buildings and important landmarks of the Korean War but the highlight would have to be the Third Infiltration Tunnel - the sole reason we booked the whole day tour instead of just visiting the JSA.

our ride down into the tunnel - awesome car seats
The tunnel can also be accessed by foot but we got the VIP service, riding this cool little tram/train? It gets really cold down in the tunnel so I recommend jackets! Pictures aren't allowed in the tunnel so that's a bummer. North Korea denied building this tunnel but later declared that this tunnel was part of a coal mine. Black "coal" was painted on the walls to confirm this statement - you can still see parts of the tunnel with "coal" on it.

In order to get this picture I had to put on my bitchy persona. We were waiting in line to take pictures with the signs but the Chinese tourists kept cutting everyone. I got annoyed when they did it to us and I snapped at them to wait their turns. Ugh!

the DMZ
our tour included lunch - bulgogi!
endless side dishes - nom nom nom
There must just be one Korean restaurant in the DMZ because every tour bus stopped here for lunch. I've had better bulgogi for sure but it was nice to have this included in our tour package.

JSA - looking into North Korea
North Korean soldier spying on us - he tried to hide behind the pillar in the beginning
in North Korea territory posing with a South Korean soldier - the door behind us leads to North Korea
The JSA portion of the tour is guided by American soldiers stationed there. It was really cool listening to all the cool little facts they had about North Korea and the JSA. The reason why South Korean soldiers stand like that is because it is used as a form of intimidation. The sunglasses prevent eye contact with North Korean soldiers and therefore any connection with them. Only ROK soldiers stand guard around the blue buildings and they all hold black belts! Our tour included a North Korean defector whom you could ask questions about her escape and her life back in North Korea. Prior to this trip I had read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea which included how North Koreans left North Korea, but it was an amazing experience to be able to hear it firsthand.

The Details
The JSA area has a strict dress code but t-shirts are allowed.
Tour Company we used: Panmunjom Travel Center
I liked our tour. The tour guide was meh but the chance to talk to a North Korean defector was cool. Also it has one of the cheaper prices for a full day tour at 120,000 won per person.

A highly recommended and popular tour is offered by the USO through Koridoor. They sell out fast so you need to book far in advance - our trip was planned really last minute or we would have wanted to go with this company. At $80 it is a lot cheaper than our tour.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Korea here I come!!

First thing we did after checking in our hostel was to grab some food! What else?!? We stayed at Bong House located in Daehangno which is a really cool area with lots of food and shopping. Also it's within walking distance of a lot of popular destinations and very convenient. We ate at Dakgalbi HaneulBornDak located on the main street right outside of Hyehwa Station.

This looks like a self barbeque setup but is actually stir fry and the waitresses would go around helping the customers cook the food. I kept having to remind myself not to lift my rice bowl to my mouth which is considered rude in Korea.

ha neul born dak 7000 won
This restaurant specializes in dak galbi which is stir-fried chicken marinated in chili pepper paste. The restaurant had a weird rule that stated we had to order at least two dishes. It was freaking delicious and we followed it up with some cheese bokkeum bap.

cheese bokkeum bap (fried rice topped with mozzarella cheese) - 3000 won

The Details
Getting from the airport to Seoul: Korea Tourism
We chose to go by AREX because it's a lot cheaper. I suggest just taking the commuter train which takes 10 minutes longer to reach the city but is almost half the price of the express. Purchase a one way ticket to Seoul Station. We purchased our end destination ticket for Hyehwa Station (which is more expensive) but then when we tried to use the one way ticket to enter the subway area in Seoul it didn't work and we had to purchase another ticket.

Stay: Bong House
The place is a little bit run down but it's in a great location, staff were friendly and customers get a free beer every night they stay there.