I have been having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I am leaving Korea in less than two weeks. In some ways, I feel like I just left Canada, and in other ways, it feels like a lifetime ago. I think I am different, but somehow, I still feel the same.
I thought I was okay with leaving. I didn’t really feel phased by it. I was asked to give a short speech in front of the school at our closing ceremony. I was confident that I could do this – easy peasy. And then, they handed me the microphone… Standing on stage, in front of all of my students, co-workers, and teachers I have never even spoken to, I started to cry. And let’s just be clear – this wasn’t a normal cry. This was an involuntary emotional response that I was fighting with every bone in my body – and I couldn’t stop it. I lost it, and I was mortified. I tried to pull myself together long enough to string together a few words to express my gratitude to my students for the wonderful year I have had with them. I am sure the few words I managed to spit out were complete gibberish, but my tears and lack of composure said it all – I’m sad and I don’t want to admit it.
Goodbyes suck. We have all been through them. We all know this. We’ve all been through break-ups, drifted from close friends, moved away from loved ones, and even lost loved ones. I don’t have to write a blog post for you to know that. I think the challenging part of this particular goodbye, is it’s definitive. My time in this place has grown and changed me in ways I am not even sure I understand yet. I am leaving Korea 15 lbs lighter and $15,000 less in debt (yeah, you heard that right). I graduated my Masters, taught myself graphic design, learned a bit of French, and opened an Etsy shop. I visited five new countries, made incredible friends, survived a long distance relationship, and made a lot of lifestyle changes – and just like that, I am about to return home to previous life – a life that I knew when I was different then I am now.
I am not entirely sure what that adjustment is going to look like for me, which results in excitement and fear of the unknown. Sometimes, I wish I could stay in my happy Korea bubble just a little while longer, but I can’t. In two weeks time, I’ll be headed to the Olympics here in Korea. Then I will be flying off to travel Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar. Stay tuned for the adventures to come – I am sure all of my negative feelings will float away when I’m laying on a beach in Malaysia in the sunshine – suckerrrssss.
The past two months have been action packed. I expected to spend much of the winter hibernating, but surprisingly, I have spent most of my weekends away from Ulsan. I have been trying to make the most of my last few months in Korea, so I have been braving the cold and leaving my cozy mountain each weekend. I visited Jeonju, the foodie capital of Korea; Tongyeong and Geoje Island; and spent Christmas on Jeju Island. I also spent a weekend in Busan, and New Years Eve in Seoul. I am looking forward to laying low for a few weekends after the the madness of the past two months.
Jeonju had been on my list of places to visit before I even arrived in Korea. Jeonju is know for having the largest 한옥 village in Korea, it’s amazing food, and for being the place to wear a 한폭 – traditional Korean dress. We had a wonderful weekend experiencing Korean culture – wandering through the village, eating Bipbimbap, drinking Moju and Makgeolli, and freezing our asses off pretending to be Korean princesses.
I’ve visited Busan many times since arriving in Korea. Being there in December, we were lucky to visit the Christmas Lights festival in Nampo-dong. I also finally visited Gwangali – one of the main attractions in Busan. Check…Check…
Geoje Island & Tongyeong
Geoje Island and Tongyeong were both beautiful destinations along the southern coast of Korea. I saw very little of Geoje Island, but explored most of the sites in Tongyeong. Tongyeong is home to a beautiful art village that overlooks the fishing port below. It’s a lively and beautiful town with plenty of beautiful sites to explore.
Christmas in Jeju
Jeju Island is off the southern coast of Korea, and it is loosely referred to as, “The Hawaii of Korea”. I wouldn’t go that far, but Jeju was pretty damn beautiful. One of the reasons I wanted to visit Jeju was to climb Korea’s highest peak, Hallasan. Sadly, weather was not on our side and we had to settle for museum hopping instead. We ate plenty of delicious food, and viewed the beautiful coastlines on our three day vacation to Jeju. I’ll be back for you Hallasan.
New Years in Seoul
With three and a half days off of work, it only made sense to head up to Seoul for New Years Eve. As usual, I went to Seoul with one main intention – to EAT. We indulged in three days of veggie burgers and Mexican food – I was in heaven. We also went skating at Seoul Olympic Park. Sadly, the skates were by far the worst skates I have ever worn in my life – I’m fairly certain they had never been sharpened – Ohhhh Korea. I also finally made my way up to Namsan Tower – check!
Korea’s version of “skates”
The coolest of cats
In the past two months, I have checked off most items on my Korea bucketlist. I can spend my next two months in Korea, saving money, relaxing, and spending quality time with friends before I leave. I only have fifty five days left until I leave, and it is a bittersweet feeling recognizing how fast that time is going to go by.
I got kicked right in the feels last week at my school festival. The opening performance by our choir was a song from Rent – Seasons of Love. Well, I’ve never seen Rent before, but this song nearly knocked me on my ass with emotion: My time in Korea is coming to an end.
I have less than sixty days left in the place I have called home for almost a year. I have made unforgettable friendships; worked with incredible, intelligent, and inspiring students; visited new countries; and experienced an entirely new culture – for better or for worse. And just like that, it’s all about to come to an end.
I struggled saying goodbye to my life in Ontario, but this is a different kind of goodbye – one that feels permanent. It is very likely that I may never return to Korea. It is very likely that I will never see a single one of my students again. It is also very likely that I may never see some of the wonderful people I have met here, ever again. I’m left feeling torn between the excitement of the adventures to come and the sadness of leaving something so special behind.
Choosing to come to Korea was a relatively spontaneous decision – as many of my adventurous ideas are. I decided on a Thursday afternoon, on a whim, that I wanted to move to a new country – and a few months later I was selling my belongings, quitting my job, and giving notice on my apartment. I can’t imagine where my life would be today had I not made that spontaneous decision. I am excited for what’s to come, and I know I will look back on my time here fondly in the years to come. Time to go watch Rent for the first time, and have a good cry ㅠㅠ.
At the start of my year in Korea, we were asked to write one goal on a piece of wood during our Taekwondo class. We had to break this piece of wood with our hand – a symbolic way to announce what we wanted to accomplish during our time in Korea. I wrote – “Climb as many mountains as I can”.
Moving to Korea, I knew that I wanted to do as much hiking as I possibly could. Living in Ontario, my access to mountains has always been limited, and I have found myself fleeing to other countries for many years to get my hiking fix. At the start of Autumn, it dawned on me, that not only had I not done as much hiking as I wanted to, but that my time left in Korea was limited. I decided that in the next few months, I had to conquer my two biggest bucketlist hikes – Jirisan, Korea’s highest mainland mountain, and Gajisan, Ulsan’s highest mountain.
Jirisan 1,915 m
Gajisan 1,241 m
In October, I visited the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). I saw a screening for a film called Mountain – a documentary about the history of the relationship between humans and mountains. In the film they ask, “What is this strange force that draws us upwards? This – siren song of the summit…”. This well timed film had me questioning my motivation on the long climbs up both Jirisan, and Gajisan. My quads were burning, my calves were uncomfortably tired, I was gasping for air because my cardio is shit, and I couldn’t seem to find a happy body temperature – why do I do this to myself? No matter how many mountains I climb, no matter how sore I am the next day – something keeps me coming back.
On the descend from Gajisan, I think I finally figured it out. I think I enjoy the unpredictability that comes with climbing a mountain. The first time you summit a peak, you never know what to expect. For someone who enjoys structure and planning, mountains challenge me in a way I can’t control.
On our way down Gajisan, a man stopped us and told us in broken English “Oh, don’t go that way – very dangerous – very dangerous”. Being my usual stubborn self, I decide to proceed down the “very dangerous” route regardless. Turns out that this route involved a lot of scrambling down large boulders, and trying to estimate whether there was a mystery rock under a pile of leaves, that may or may not cause me to eat shit. Regardless, this was probably my favourite part of the entire climb. Hiking and scrambling in unpredictable areas gives me the chance to do some immediate problem solving. My brain is constantly calculating where to put each of my hands and feet in the most efficient way possible. It’s like rock climbing in a sense, because there is no space in my brain for anything else – a mindful meditation if you will. My mind seems to be the most clear when I come off of a mountain – a clarity that I find difficult to find otherwise.
As we do with all great things in life, I have taken my time among the mountains of Korea for granted. The mountains help me clear my head, and they keep me sane. I am going to miss having easy access to them when I return to Canada in 2018.
But how would I summit all these mountains without great hiking friends?
At the beginning of October, Korean’s celebrated Chuseok, also known as Korean Thanksgiving. As a public school teacher, I was lucky enough to get a 10 day vacation based solely on public holidays. When I arrived in Korea, I frantically began to look for flights, and was disappointed to see that the prices were outrageous to fly anywhere in Asia – except to China. I never had a strong desire to go to China, truthfully, it was near the bottom of my list of places to visit in Asia. That being said, I typically let cheap flight prices dictate my travels, so I went for it.
My friend and I set out on a nine day adventure around China with the lowest expectations possible. I had heard that China Eastern – the airline we were flying with – was the worst airline ever. I was told that China was dirty, busy, and to prepare myself to get body-checked more than I do in Korea (which is a lot). I was also told that as a vegetarian, it would be nearly impossible for me to eat at restaurants. Lastly, I was told China was difficult to navigate, and that I would definitely require a VPN to survive among the Great Firewall. None of these things were true.
We left for China on our China Eastern flight with no issues, and minimal delays. When we touched down in China, I was immediately shocked by how clean and modern everything was – point one China.
Our first stop was Shanghai, where we spent five nights. I instantly fell in love with Shanghai. I am hesitant to say this, but I think Shanghai is my favourite city I have ever visited. There is something extraordinary about a city that is home to architecture from ancient China, and buildings with a strong European influence, but also the modern and futuristic buildings of Pudong. We visited Yuyuan Market, which is a large area near the Yu Garden with a number of shops and food stalls. Yu Garden was initially constructed in the 1500s and the architecture in this area was what I expected to see in China. Not more than a few kilometers away, is The Bund – an area where you can walk along the river and view buildings that appear very European, only to look across the river and see a skyline straight out of the future.
Shanghai was energetic, but not so busy it was overwhelming. It was easy to find quiet places to seek respite, and there are plenty of opportunities for good food and nightlife.
Who said vegetarians can’t eat in China?
Who said vegetarians can’t eat in China?
Two of my most memorable experiences in Shanghai, were Disneyland (obviously) and having a traditional Chinese massage. I paid no more than $10 for a one hour massage, including at least fifteen minutes of a Chinese woman doing intense work on my back -while standing on me. It took me several minutes before I even recognized that she was using her feet – such talent. It was an interesting cultural experience, and my body cracked in places I didn’t even know possible – success.
Of course, Disneyland was one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip. I have been deprived of Disneyland and Disney World my entire life – thanks Mom. But, you are never too old for Disneyland, so I took it upon myself to fulfill these dreams at the age of twenty-six. Disneyland is a truly magical place. Maybe I am still a kid at heart, or maybe the people of Disney are just pure genius, regardless, it was wonderful. We even had the opportunity to see The Lion King musical live – in Mandarin. I was mildly embarrassed by how many lines I could quote, even though not a word of English was spoken.
After several days in Shanghai, we made our way to Beijing. Again, I arrived in Beijing with low expectations, thinking I would enjoy it much less than Shanghai. Again, I was caught with my foot in my mouth. Beijing was much more modern than I had expected. While there were many areas with famous sites from ancient China – the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Temple of Heaven – the downtown area was well developed with many modern skyscrapers. There is such a rich history behind every ancient site in China, so before we visited each site, I did some research online to get a background of why each place is so important. Because of The Great Firewall, I had to use Bing for my searches – seriously, who uses Bing?
In the Tiananmen Square area, there was a distinct communist feel. As most people know, Tiananmen Square is the site of the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. According to my Bing searches, this appears to be a very controversial and unspoken topic within China. It is still “unknown” how many lives were lost on that day, and there is no site to commemorate them. For me, this created a very strange vibe in the Tiananmen Square area.
On a lighter note, we also visited a pretty decent replica of Central Perk cafe from Friends. Of all the places in the world to have a replica of the Central Perk cafe, I did not think it would be China. They had good coffee, the friends couch, and even a replica of Joey and Chandler’s apartment.
I was told that in China, many people would ask me to hold their baby to take photos because I’m a foreigner. I made it my goal to hold as many babies in China as possible – because ya’ll know how I feel about babies. By the time I got to Beijing, I hadn’t held a single baby – so sad. One night while we were wandering around a night market, we stopped for a break. As someone was walking by with their baby, I waved with my craziest baby eyes. The baby was stoked, and got so excited that her mom put her down on the ground, and she ran right up to me and into my lap – pure joy – my trip to China was complete.
On our last full day in China, we explored the Great Wall. We were taken to a closed section in the Badaling area, and luckily, did not have to deal with flocks of tourists. It was a very foggy day at the Great Wall, and while some might have been disappointed by the lack of views, it actually created a very eerie and surreal feeling on the wall. The Great Wall was significantly steeper than I had anticipated, and some sections even challenged me due to my fear of heights. The Great Wall was beautiful, but I only explored less than three kilometers of this 21,000 kilometer structure. One day, I hope to see more of it.
China far exceeded my expectations, but it didn’t come without it’s struggles. Fortunately, these struggles don’t overshadow the amazing experience I had in China – so I’ll save those stories for another time. China taught me to explore new destinations without bias, and with an open mind. Everyone who travels somewhere has their own experience, and that does not define my experience. From now on, I will take the comments of others with a grain of salt and choose to see and experience things on my own.
Over the past several weeks, I have caught up with a number of friends from back home over video chat. Some of them, I have not spoken to since I arrived in Korea. I am often bombarded by a series of questions about my time abroad – “Tell me all about things in Korea!” “What is it like?” “How is it?” “You must be doing awesome stuff” etc, etc. Being the honest person I am, I’ve been telling them that my life in Korea isn’t really all that exciting, and that it is actually pretty damn stable – some may even say it’s boring. What? Didn’t I come to Korea for an adventure? How are things stable when I am living on the other side of the world? Easy – I have a Monday-Friday 9-5 job, I spend my weekends doing miscellaneous, and sometimes “Instagram worthy” things, and I come home every night after work to do yoga, cook dinner, and relax – wild. My life is essentially the same as it was in Canada, except I live in Asia.
I mean, I have been lucky enough to see a lot of Korea, and I have visited Vietnam, China, and Japan – so there have definitely been bouts of adventure – but all in all, my life is exceptionally stable. Surprisingly, when I am on these adventures, I usually crave the stability that my life in Korea provides – my comfortable bed to sleep in, adequate space and alone time, a kitchen to cook my own meals, and a regular job with a consistent income. After about two weeks, I am ready and excited to get back to my regular routine. Next year, my plan is to travel for several months – I likely won’t have a stable home or job for at least half a year – for a control freak like me, that brings about a lot of anxiety.
While I am clearly someone with a sense of adventure, I also crave stability – can these things go hand in hand? Perhaps I can find a way for these two aspects of my personality to complement each other, or maybe not. Only time will tell as I set out on my long-term travels in 2018.
Oh, Japan… I am just going to go ahead and say this out loud – Japan is like Korea, but better – sooo much better. Within hours of being in Japan, Jay and I agreed that we 100% could live in Japan. It was beautiful, and clean, and everyone was ridiculously nice. I was so overwhelmed with the kindness of the people of Japan. I am not sure how Canadians earned the rep of being the “nicest” country, but Japan has us beat by a landslide. If we looked lost or confused for even a second, you could guarantee a Japanese person would approach us to offer help. They taught us how to use the machines at the subway, directed us to our destinations, and one woman even rode the subway with us to take us where we needed to go.
Japan was also an ideal vacation for me because our trip centered around two things – a big hike, and lots and lots of food – the dream.
The first stop on our trip was Osaka. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed a day due to Typhoon Noru hitting Japan – the day we were set to arrive – of course. We finally arrived in Japan a day late and decided to skip Kyoto and head straight to Osaka. We spent two nights in Osaka, one at the start of our trip, and one at the end of our trip. Osaka is known for being a foodie city, so I was eager to explore. With our limited time in Osaka, we spent most of our time strolling around the Dotonbori area along the river. We indulged in sushi (of course), and also okonomiyaki, and takoyaki – which are both specialties of the Osaka area – all of which did not disappoint. I also had a horrifying encounter with a screeching bug in Japan who landed on my foot – long story short, I gave a good laugh to a few locals as I screamed and leaped around the sidewalk. I think this was one of the highlights of the trip for Jay…
For me, this was why I went to Japan. I was more excited to climb Fuji than anything else on our trip. Fuji is a manageable climb for beginners with a rather impressive elevation, standing at over 3700 meters. Due to this, it is recommended you sleep on the mountain to avoid altitude sickness. We started our day by taking an early bus up to the Subashiri 5th station at 2000 meters elevation, and then we started our climb. Within an hour, I started to get light headed and nauseous – I now had an irrational fear of getting altitude sickness. We decided to take the climb slow and take many breaks, so I could acclimatize properly.
We took a longer trail that is less frequented and goes through the forest. There was an eerie mist throughout the forest for most of our climb, and we saw very few other climbers – it was perfectly peaceful. Inevitably, the higher we climbed, the more barren it got, and out of nowhere – the mist cleared up and we realized we were far above the clouds.
After about 8-9 hours of climbing, we reached our hut at the 8.5 station where we would sleep for the night. We had expected to see a mix of Japanese locals and tourists, but we were surprised to see that most of the climbers were locals from Japan. We slept in a room with 100 other sweaty hikers, nestled into rows of bunk beds.
Around 1 am, we were woken up by everyone preparing the trek to the summit. I woke up a very sleepy (and slightly grumpy) Jay, and we started to prepare to head to the summit. When we stepped outside our hut, I could not believe my eyes. There were thousands of people trekking up to the summit, and all you could see was the trail of lights.
It took us about two hours to reach the summit as we were going at a snail’s pace (my kinda pace) in line with everyone else. When we reached the summit, it was freezing cold, so windy, and snowing (sort of). I had to dig through my backpack to add on several layers of clothing, to the point where I was even wearing a pair of socks on my hands – yeah, I can be pretty resourceful. To our disappointment, we did not see a proper sunrise due to poor weather. We got a few glimpses of it through the clouds, but that was it. **Insert some cheesy quote about how it’s about the journey and not the destination**. Thanks for the pivotal life lesson Fuji.
However, once we started to descend about 50-100 meters, the views above the clouds were incredible. We started our trek to the bottom, which involved sliding down loose volcanic gravel for several hours – this proved to be quite challenging for my grandmother-like joints, but I survived. I was pleased when we reached the bottom to discover that I had lost my hippie clutch – aka my wallet – aka my Visa and my Korean ID card…. It will likely puzzle me forever how and where I lost that stupid thing, but that’s life.
Fuji was a beautiful accomplishment, and I was reminded of this in the following three days as I navigated the metro and streets of Tokyo. Every stair was taken painfully, one at a time, while my non-dilapidated boyfriend was able to walk around like normal. I will forever be grateful for escalators, elevators, and moving walkways.
We spent the night in a small town with views of Mount Fuji the day we came down from our climb. I expected Fujiyoshida to be a small, but busy and touristy town, but to my surprise it was a sleepy mountain town perfect for recovery from Fuji. Our guesthouse was perfectly situated beside a vegetarian Japanese restaurant called Little Robot. I came to the conclusion at this restaurant that they do everything right in Japan – even vegetarian food.
We also climbed 398 stairs to see the iconic view of Fuji from Arakurayama Sengen Park, but all we saw was clouds shaped perfectly to entirely block Mount Fuji. It was a beautiful quiet park, and Jay was pretty stoked about taking over a Pokemon gym – or something like that.
First impression of Tokyo when I stepped out of Tokyo station – “Wow, this feels just like Toronto”. The general areas in Tokyo aren’t as crazy as I would’ve expected – it’s not insanely crowded, it’s clean, and it’s pretty quiet. However, there are several popular areas and neighbourhoods in Tokyo that are insanely busy with a buzzing high energy.
To be honest – our main focus in Tokyo was eating (well, for me at least). However, we spent most of our time wandering various neighbourhoods, exploring various shops and markets, and trying to navigate the monster metro system. Shinjuku was by far my favourite area of Tokyo. It was high energy, had lots of food, shops, bars, and small pockets of areas, each with a different feel. We visited an old school video game cafe where I observed Jay spend over an hour setting a high score on some game… to which he succeed. Good for him… We also visited a bar in the Golden Gai area, where the stairs were lined with red shag carpet and the interior had money all over the walls. We met an older couple from Thorne Hill and spent our night chatting about Canada and critiquing the sport of “Speed Walking” that was being displayed on the TV. We even spotted some Canadian Tire money on the walls of this place!
We visited Shibuyua (the world’s “busiest” intersection), Harajuku, Raponggi Hills, and Asakusa, but the highlight of all of this was by far the food. We ate some incredible sushi, ramen, and tempura – all of which, will never be the same again outside of Japan. At most restaurants we visited, we were sat so we could watch the chef prepare our food, which was a pretty special experience on its own. I am pretty sure I gained at least 5 lbs in Japan, but was pleased when someone asked me upon my return – “Have you lost weight? You look so skinny” – the happiest moment after you have indulged in multiple dinners and even pizza for dessert over the past several weeks.
Japan has been my favourite country in Asia so far – any country that offers good food, kind people, and beautiful scenery will win me over. I am interested to see how China contrasts when I visit in six weeks.