(2/16) Philippines and Singapore

Day 1: Mt. Batulao and the Philippine Sea

My dad and I arrived in Manilla on February 4th and because of the Chinese New Year, the next day was a vacation day for my dad’s company. We got up early the next morning and after a delicious and filling breakfast headed out to meet our driver for the day, Juan. Juan is a wonderful human being and as you will see, he became much more than just our driver. He became our tour guide and companion for the rest of the trip.

Our plan for the morning was to head to a mountain about an hour away and hike, and do one more hike on our way back to the hotel for the evening. However, when we arrived at the first “jumpsite” as Juan liked to say, we discovered that the path was closed for restoration. Unsure what to do, we got back in the car and brainstormed a new plan. Juan decided to take us to his sister’s house on the beach because her husband owned a boat and then take us out to an island just off the shore. However, he warned us that this was the local spot and we might not be allowed to go to the beach because we were foreigners. When we arrived, we were greeted by curious Filipinos who were confused why we were on the local beach but after Juan explained to them in Tagaytay that we wanted to go to the island, they happily let us in.

Half an hour later, we found ourselves flying across the ocean on a very cool boat constructed out of an old car engine and some pretty legit engineering. The weather was hot but absolutely beautiful and the sea spray felt amazing. When we arrived, we were greeted by a large group of Filipinos who brought our boat to shore. We jumped out and hopped into the water for a quick swim. It was one of the first times I’ve been able to swim since being out of the US and the water was a beautiful crystal clear color. After a refreshing swim, we wandered the island exploring the nooks and crannies and searching for shells. I was surprised by the vast quantity of trash thrown all over the island. Although I was only in the Philippines for a few days, I noticed that trash disposal seems to be a common problem which is rather unfortunate.

After heading back to shore, Juan took us to his home! He showed us his garden and we met his son. We tried to convince his son to come hiking with us but he had other plans for the afternoon. Juan is growing cashews and several other fruits and nuts. After a quick tour, he took us to Mt. Batulao, a beautiful mountain close to our hotel. Although it was late, a guide was still willing to take us up to the top (one of the requirements for this hike was to have a guide). Juan hiked with us too in his sandals. On the way he told us that his older brother, who had sadly passed away a year ago, had always encouraged him to hike but he never had the chance to before because we was so busy working. He was so happy to join us and he was a positive and wonderful companion to have on the trail. The hike was quite steep but thankfully the evening was approaching and the weather had cooled down a bit. We climbed up for about an hour and a half over several peaks marked by signs. It was an exhausting but rewarding hike, and the views stretched for miles. We made it back to the bottom just as the sun was setting and enjoyed a peaceful dinner out on the patio overlooking Taal Volcano.

Day 2: Taal Volcano

The next morning my dad had to head out early for work but Juan still came and picked me up for another adventure. Today he was going to take me down to Lake Taal to hike the island mountain. We had been admiring this volcano for several days because our hotel was situated on the edge of the lake and during breakfast and dinner we could see the volcano clearly. The drive down was steep but we slowly made our way to a place Juan knew were we could charter a boat to take us out to the island. The boats again were just like the one we had been in the day before and the lake breeze and waves splashing against the poles of the boat felt wonderful.

When we arrived on the island, we were met by our guide for the day. We decided not to ride horses up and instead opted to hike the volcano. The hike was steep, dusty, and hot but we made it in good time and stopped at the top to admire that views of the lake. Unlike the island we had visited the day before, this site was quite crowded with foreign tourists speaking English, Chinese, and all sorts of other languages. I met a group of Jehovah witnesses from the US who had been living in Taiwan for 11 years, and they shared some sweet pomelo with me as we rested in the shade. I also learned that our guide had lived in Taiwan for several years working in Taoyuan at some kind of a cloth  factory. She spoke some Chinese too! While we hiked, she pointed out several locations were steam was coming out of the rocks or water and the lake was boiling because the volcano was still active. She told us that in 1977 the volcano had erupted, causing several people to die because it happened during the night.

After heading back to the boat and back to shore, Juan took me up to a very high scenic area where I could see all across Manilla. He pointed out Mt. Batulao, the island we had been to, and his home. We ran into several school groups and a few people asked to take photos with me at the top.

Afterwords, we headed back to the hotel so I could change for dinner. My dad’s coworkers were taking him out to dinner at a fancy restaurant and they had invited me along. Juan dropped me off and I waited for the rest of the group to arrive. The restaurant was unlike any other place I had eaten at before. There was a beautiful cocktail garden with glowing orbs where we started before heading to the main table. The food was delicious and my dad’s coworkers were very sweet. I even tried raw meat! Juan drove us home after for the evening, and we packed our stuff because it was our last night in the Philippines.

The next morning we woke up at the crack of dawn to make it to the airport in time. We were lucky to catch the sunrise and the beautiful Taal Lake was glowing in the early morning sun. It was sad to say goodbye to Juan, our newfound friend and guide. He promised that if we came back we could meet him again. He also told us that we had inspired him to hike more, and the next weekend he would take his son to Mt. Batulao!


Day 1: Botanical Gardens and Hawker Stalls

My only knowledge of Singapore before traveling to the country was from reading the book crazy rich Asians. Though I really enjoyed reading this book, it did not give the most well rounded perspective of what Singapore is like so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When we arrived, my dad had to go to the office first thing so our taxi dropped me off at the hotel and I checked us in. It is SO HOT in Singapore. It felt strange after being in Japan but I quickly tried to readjust my internal thermometer.

After checking in, I decided to walk to the botanical gardens that were right near the hotel. Although it was only about 15 minutes of walking, by the time I arrived I was dripping sweat. I only had about an hour so I headed directly to the orchid exhibit. I didn’t know this before but apparently Singapore is very famous for their orchid cultivating techniques! They make many different types of hybrids and name them after celebrities that come to visit Taiwan. There is even one named after the Obamas!

After walking through the gardens for a while, I headed back to the hotel and met up with my dad. We went to the Newton Hawker Center to get some food from the stalls. It was so crowded and there were giant lobsters, Indian food stalls, Chinese food stalls, craft brewed beer, and everything in between. We settled on some Indian food and some beer and I ate until I was completely stuffed. After dinner, we headed down to the waterfront promenade in hopes of catching some fireworks but just missed them. Thankfully there were fireworks all week because of the Chinese New Year so we had plenty more opportunities to see them. We wandered along the shore and gawked at the incredible architecture along the way.

Day 2: Gardens by the Bay

The next day we headed to the gardens by the bay first thing in the morning. Although it was crowded, we were able to sneak by many of the crowds. We started off the morning on the Skytree walk. Again, what an architectural marvel like most things in Singapore! Next we walked through the gardens and stopped at sculptures to take many pictures. We finished the morning by walking through the two large glass showcase areas called the cloud forest and the and the flower dome. So many incredible flower arrangements!

After we finished up at the gardens, we walked through the waterfront to see the famous merlion statue that is the official mascot of Singapore. On the way we passed through a spiraling Helix metal bridge, past the art and science museum shaped like a lotus flower, and of course the Marina Bay Sands Hotel with the giant boat deck that seems to be precariously resting on top of the building. We stopped and bought some coconut ice cream, and headed to see the battlebox after for a tour. This was probably my dad’s favorite part of the whole trip, I could see how excited he was about the history. The battlebox or the Fort Canning Bunker is a bomb proof structure built right near the waterfront district in Singapore. During WWII, this was the British underground command centre. It was in this structure that the British army made the heartbreaking decision to surrender to the Japanese army and allow them to take over Singapore and Malaysia. It marks “the darkest” period in Singaporean history according to our tour guide. It wasn’t until recently that the battlebox was rediscovered and tours were brought through the area. In the beginning of the tour our guide promised us that whoever answered a trivia question correctly would win a prize, so of course my dad won!

After the tour we headed back to the hotel and drove to find some chicken rice for dinner. My friend from Singapore had recommended a place so we went there even though it was quite far away! The chicken rice was quite good and a famous Singaporean dish. We caught a taxi and headed to the Marina Bay Sands hotel because we were determined to catch the fireworks. We decided to get tickets to the top observation deck and view the fireworks from overhead as they lit up the waterfront area below. Although we had to wait for a while, we got drinks and enjoyed the views and the water show and laser show. Finally it was time for the fireworks. They were spectacular! It was worth the wait and thanks to some strategic planning, we even beat the crowds home.

Day 3: Little India and Chinatown

My dad’s coworker met us in the morning to take us to the famous Budda Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore. Although the actual temple was build fairly recently, it is still quite famous because the entire casing for the relic is made out of gold. When we arrived, I was wearing a dress and had to put on a cloth to cover my legs. My dad’s colleague is Buddhist so the tour he gave us was very in depth and personal. While we were walking through the museum, there was a chanting ritual happening on the first floor that went on for the whole day!

After we finished touring the temple, we traveled through Chinatown stopping to look in shops and buy some sugarcane juice. Singapore is a very unique country because it has a large population of people that speak Chinese, English, and Hindi. There is a intersection of many different cultures in this tiny and unique country, which meant that within a 15 minute drive we could travel from Chinatown to Little India and see a completely different culture. Little India was filled with color and bustling crowds. I’ve never been to India before so I was excited to see this part of Singapore. We tried to visit a Hindu Temple but it was closed so we walked around the outside admiring the architecture.

That evening we headed to the Botanical Gardens again because my dad hadn’t had the chance yet to see it. We saw some black swans and admired the beautiful flowers. For dinner, we decided to eat on the garden grounds in a restaurant outside, overlooking the gardens. The food was prepared so beautifully!

Our last stop of the night was the Singapore zoo for the night safari. This was one of the top tourist destinations in Singapore because there are very few zoos in the world that provide visitors to see nocturnal animals active at night. There were soooo many people once again speaking a variety of languages. Although we showed up about an hour late for our ticket time, we still got into the line just fine and made it. It was rather difficult to see some of the animals in the dark lighting but it was overall a very cool experience!

After our safari we headed home to bed. After enjoying some herbal tea in the VIP room at the top of the hotel, we packed our bags and headed to bed a bit early because it was our last night and were leaving the hotel at 4:30 the next morning.

Day 4: Back to Taiwan

We rose too early and made our way to the airport. As we got closer I felt a wave of sadness, realizing the next time I’d see my dad would probably be back in the US in the middle of July after my Fulbright grant was complete. I still had about half a year ahead of me away from my family and away from home and although I was excited to get back to my students and teaching, I was a bit homesick.

After a sad farewell, I made my way to my gate. I sat for a while feeling lonely but distracted myself by beginning to plan some of my class projects for the second semester. I missed my students and I was ready to get back to school. Chinese New Year vacation was an incredible adventure filled with new foods, good friends, beautiful sights, crazy adventures, and the best visit from my dad 🙂 There are enough memories from this adventure to carry me through the second half of my Fulbright teaching adventure, and I am refreshed and ready to start the next half of my position as a teaching assistant!

(2/9) Chinese New Year with Dad!

1/29 Yuzawa

I split with the Jenna, James, and Sarah in the morning and headed to Yuzawa, activating my JR pass along the way. Throughout the trip, I had been a bit skeptical about the much anticipated J-Pow, that is, some of the best skiing in the entire world according to ski magazines and websites I had been following. However, thus far there was no snow and the weather was hardly cold enough for snow to last should there be a storm. I dozed off on the train and woke up in Yuzawa. I looked out of the windows in shock. There were several FEET of snow. I was astounded that just an hour train ride out of the city and into the mountains could bring me to a place with such drastically different weather. As I scanned the station for my bus, I ran into a Chinese father and his daughter. They told me they were also planning on heading to Naeba Ski Resort and we got on the bus together. Meanwhile, a blizzard was building around us and as we drove up to the resort, we watched the mountains of snow on either side of the slopes grow above the windows of the bus. The traffic lights were covered with snow so it was impossible to tell whose turn it was to go. Thankfully, our driver seemed to have everything under control and only skidded out one time. I made it to my guest house in one piece.

The guest house was a cozy place buried in a blanket of snow. The owner was a Singaporean couple (goodness knows how they were surviving the cold) and they spoke perfect English. They set me up with a ticket deal and cheap rentals. I cozied up for the rest of the afternoon to ride out the blizzard as half of the ski area was closed. Later that evening, my newfound Chinese friend messaged me and asked if I would be willing to teach his daughter a ski lesson in the morning. I happily agreed to meet them at 8:30 am the next morning.

1/30 Naeba lessons

I met my student at 8:30 the next morning, excited and ready to go. Quickly realizing I had overdressed, I looked out over the blindingly white slopes on a different place than the night before. The mountains disappeared into the horizon and blue skies contrasted starkly with the white snow fields. My student was a first time 4 year-old and although we was excited to ski, she was nervous and tired easily. I taught her for two hours but found it difficult to capture her full attention and found myself using all my teaching tricks to keep her occupied. But she learned to stop and (sort of) turn by the end of our lesson! Her dad was thrilled and although he couldn’t ski, he had a great time photographing our lesson.

The rest of the day I had to myself to explore the slopes. Elaine, my host sister from Taiwan, had recommended Naeba but she had warned me that the terrain was not the most exciting in all of Japan and that there were less trails than Bretton Woods. However, I was happily surprised. The mountain was very tall and the whole upper section was open for free skiing through a snowfield. Although the conditions declined throughout the day, there was fresh powder from the day before and very few people on the slopes. I was flying down the mountain (in not so great ski gear) but nevertheless flying! I even crashed a few times, something I haven’t done in the past few years while skiing. There were several lifts but I spent most of my time skiing off the gondola because there was never a line and I had access to most of the mountain from the top.

After an exhilarating day, I headed back to the hotel for some dinner and a shower. Much to my excitement, I realized the guesthouse was actually equipped with a Japanese style bathhouse! There were showers and a heated pool to soak in with a beautiful view of the resort. I went to bed warm and cozy, ready for day two.

2/1 The Dragondola

The second day was a bit colder and cloudier, unfortunately blocking the views of the mountains in the horizon. Nevertheless, I was up early and ready to head to Kagura, the ski mountain connected to Naeba by the longest gondola in Japan. I only had to upgrade my tickets by 10 USD to access this whole new mountain!

I got on the second gondola of the morning and rode for 20 minutes to Kagura. I was so high above the ground and it was rather nerve wrecking to be alone so high above the mountains. When I arrived at Kagura, I began to ski my way across the resort. The mountain was huge! It put Sunday River to shame I must say. I finally made my way to the area I’d been searching for; an out of bounds tree skiing field. I was a bit nervous on my first ride up because I discovered that most other skiiers had brought skins and backpacks but soon realized that they were headed up to the higher peaks that the lifts didn’t reach. The powder was above my knees and it was incredible. I crashed a couple of times (which can be partly attributed to my non-powder skis) but skied until the lift closed at 12.

I spent the rest of the day slowly making my way back to Naeba along the mountain, trying to hit as many trails as possible. Unfortunately I didn’t have an English map so there was some guesswork in the plan but thankfully I didn’t get lost. By mid-afternoon the snow picked up and I had to take a break because I couldn’t see the slopes any longer. The snow never fully went away so I headed back not too much later. One very cool thing about the lifts was that they were enclosed with a plastic bubble to keep the wind and weather out. I’d love to see more of those back home!

That evening back at the guesthouse, my dad met me! Although it had only been one month since I’d last seen him, it felt longer and it was good to be back with my family. We ate dinner at a delicious restaurant just around the corner and excitedly talked plans for the next few weeks of travel, as well as news from back home.

2/2 Dad takes on Naeba

We woke up the next morning with a plan to head back to Kagura, but the weather got the best of us and closed the gondola down. Additionally, the Naeba gondola was shut down and the lower lifts were the only thing left open. Although initially disappointed that I couldn’t show my dad where I’d been skiing, I was ultimately grateful because the blizzard was much larger than anticipated. The wind was whipping snow in our faces and it was hard to see. Despite this, the skiing was still phenomenal. We explored all the trails that I hadn’t done at Naeba because I had been skiing at the top. These trails presented new challenges with even deeper snow, little to no visibility, and unexpected moguls and divots. We both took several tumbles and my dad insisted that I was trying to kill him on several occasions. One time we were convinced we were about to get dragged into an imaginary avalanche but we made it to the bottom in one piece and discovered that the avalanche was a figment of our imagination.

Later in the afternoon, we headed back to the guesthouse to change and gather our things. Then we said goodbye to Naeba and took a bus back to the train station, and began our journey to Kyoto. I joked that I only had one week of winter but it was a memorable one that made up for the humid rainy weather in Taiwan!

2/3 Kyoto Shrine Day

We arrived in Kyoto late on Friday and slept in a bit Saturday morning. We had two days in Kyoto and decided to spend the first one traveling around to all of the Shrines in and around the city. We stopped at one right near our hotel on the way to breakfast before heading to the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-ji. Although the park was quite crowded, we were overwhelmed with the serenity and beauty of the temple just sitting on the edge of a small pond. The reflection in the water was mesmerizing and despite the crowds I felt a sort of calmness. Although the temple was reconstructed several times because of fires, the original design dates back to the late 1300s.

Our next stop was the Bamboo Garden. I had seen so many pictures and heard many stories so I had high expectations for this place. Although it was beautiful, it was so crowded with tourists and somewhat underwhelming. We did walk through a beautiful traditional Japanese garden on the way back that was beautiful however! Nevertheless, it was a good adventure and our short visit gave us time for perhaps the most impressive shrine in Kyoto, the Fushimi Shrine.


We reached the Fushimi Shrine in early afternoon. This shrine is truly an architectural marvel. There are hundreds of orange arches leading up a mountain winding through graveyards and smaller shrines along the way. The hike was longer than expected and after a few hours of fast walking we were quite tired and hungry. We headed back to Kyoto near our hotel and tried to make one last shrine stop but unfortunately the gates were closed for the night. We decided to head to Gion for dinner and get some Yakitori from a small restaurant in one of the many alleys of the old city area. It was a cozy atmosphere for a chilly night. Afterwords we explored the city a bit and and we were even lucky enough to catch sight of a few Geisha secretively slipping through the streets.

2/4 Nara

We headed out early in the morning to catch a train to Nara, the old capital of Japan. We had just grabbed our seats when suddenly I heard a voice call out, “Becca?!” It was Helsa and her mom Jane, my Taiwanese host family. We had been planning to meet up for dinner but I didn’t realize that we were both heading in the same direction. Unfortunately they were not going Nara and instead heading to the Fushimi Shrine but we made plans to get some good Japanese kobe and wagyu beef for dinner.

When we arrived in Nara, we were suddenly flocked by Japanese people asking to be our tour guide for the day. We were bewildered by the number of people willing to take us around the city and explain the history to us in English for free! They were stationed at every temple and shrine along the way and brought a binder filled with pictures of some of the statues inside of the closed temples. We stopped at the Kofuku-ji temple, the Tōdai-ji temple, the Kasuga Shrine, and several others.

As we walked through the temples and shrines, we noticed a somewhat unusual crowd of people clustered in the front of several temples in what appeared to be a line. At one temple, we witnessed Geisha dancing and at another there was a large bonfire right in front of the temple! Although we didn’t figure out what was happening that day, when I headed home I looked it up on Wikipedia as any good researcher would and discovered that it was the weekend of the bean throwing festival. This always happens right before the start of spring in Japan, and beans are thrown to symbolically purify temples and homes by removing evil spirits.


The fire in shrine

My favorite part of Nara however wasn’t the temples and shrines, it was the deer. As we walked through Nara Park, we discovered deer everywhere. They were walking right up to us and sniffing around, hoping for a treat. There were ladies selling deer crackers so we bought a couple and we were instantly surrounded by deer all begging for crackers. The way they begged was quite unique, they would bow there heads repeatedly until we fed them a cracker, a Japanese custom of saying thank you. They were so cute! We spend the rest of the day being followed by deer, even all the way up to the gates of temples. The reason for the deer abundance is because deer are seen as sacred messengers of the gods.


A few deer just sitting in the park

That night we met up with Helsa and Jane in Gion for a last delicious meal of kobe and wagyu beef, a famous Japanese dish. It was a perfect end to both of our adventures in Japan as Jane and Helsa headed back to Taiwan the next morning and we were off to the Philippines the next day. Goodbye for now Japan but I will be back!



(2/2) Midyear Conference and Tokyo

As Fulbright ETAs in Taiwan, there is only one time during the year when we can leave the country and that is during the Chinese New Year holiday. It’s our ‘winter vacation’: a three-week break from the end of January until the beginning of February. Some people choose to go back to the US while others use the time to travel around Asia. Three other ETAs and I had been planning a trip to Japan in the months leading up to the break and we were eagerly anticipating our adventure outside of Taiwan.

Mid-Year Conference

However, before we could leave we had one more thing to attend: the Fulbright Midyear Conference. This was a four day event hosted at the Great Root Forestry Resort, a spa and hot springs resort in New Taipei City. This event was an opportunity to get to know the other sites and hear more about what other ETAs are doing around Taiwan. At the end of the day, I was really grateful to have the opportunity to work in Hualien. I think we are lucky to have a smaller group of ETAs and as a result we are a close-knit group (both geographically and socially). We are also lucky to have a good coordinator and a beautiful location.

There were several teacher sharing sessions and I got some great ideas for my own classes as a result. We were also able to hear from the scholars at the conference about their research in Taiwan which was very eye opening. At the end of the conference, Fulbright had a speaker who had retired from working in the foreign service come to talk to us about the tumultuous relationship between Taiwan and China. We all left the conference feeling a little more uneasy than we had been before about Taiwan and China’s political relationship. Overall it was a rewarding experience and a chance to catch up with ETAs from other sites that we hadn’t seen since Thanksgiving.

First stop… Japan 1/23!

Sarah, James, Jenna and I had a flight to Tokyo immediately after the conference that brought us into Tokyo at 6:00 am the next day. After an awkward conversation at the ticket counter during which I found out my bag was overweight and tried to put on as many articles of clothing as possible in the airport to lower my baggage weight, we were off. Unfortunately because we were all seated in the emergency row our chairs did not decline so we had a pretty sleepless night to start our trip. Nevertheless we were as enthusiastic as ever when we arrived and quickly got to business trying to find our way to Hostel DEN. I must say… perhaps the most frustrating thing about Tokyo is that the subway system is privatized and as a result there are many different intersecting lines that require different types of tickets to ride. Furthermore, although two different privately owned lines are going from the same station, you sometimes have to walk all the way out of the station and enter through a new gate to transfer lines. We were so confused when we first arrived but by some stroke of luck we ended up on the right train headed to our hostel and got off at the correct stop.

Hostel DEN in Ginza is an amazing place to stay and I would recommend it to any traveler. There is a kitchen, lounge, and reading space on the first floor. Each bed is comfortable and has its own curtain, the staff speak English fluently, and the entire hostel is quite neat and clean. However, the most fantastic part about this place is that each bed comes with an UNLIMITED DATA mobile device that guests are allowed to take out into the city and use for maps and online guides. Unfortunately because we did not know this, James and I both got SIM cards and Sarah got a wireless wifi router for the time we were in Japan.


Enjoying Raman as our first meal

We started out the day with raman because what better option for our first meal? Then, I headed off to the Imperial Palace to walk around the gardens. It was a beautiful day and I happened to stumble right into a free English tour and got a very detailed explanation of the history of the palace from a very sweet older man. The garden and park are open to the public, but the current emperor resides in a private section of the imperial palace. The actual building burned down several times throughout Japanese history and has been rebuilt, or in some areas not rebuilt. Unfortunately it wasn’t Japanese Cherry Blossom blooming season, but there were still several beautiful flowerbeds.

After I quick nap, I made my way to Akihabara, the “electronic district of Tokyo” with the rest of the crew. Although I know little about manga, anime, and Japanese video games I was nonetheless enthralled by the insane SEGA buildings filled with floors of video games and vending machines. There were people (primarily men) who looked like they had been at those machines for hours and didn’t flinch for a second when we walked by. We walked through stores selling anime figurines and past several maid cafes. It was unlike anywhere I had ever been and I was pretty overwhelmed.

Shinjuku and Yuta’s home 1/24

The next day we slept in a bit to catch up from our travel. We decided to head to Shinjuku and explore the city for a bit before heading to Yuta’s house which was much farther outside of the city. Shinjuku is a big commercial shopping area and it was quite crowded when we arrived. As we were walking down the streets, we came across two young girls that were being followed by a flock of men. They were holding posters and immediately came up to me. Although they spoke to me in English I had no idea what they said and awkwardly said “What?” The flock of people began to surround me. I panicked and looked at James, Sarah and Jenna for help. They all ignored my pleading eyes. The girls then asked me if I wanted to join them on their walk to which I said, “Uhhh no thanks!” Sadly they walked away back into the crowd and their followers looked at me disdainfully. I turned to James and asked him what had just happened, to which he replied, “Those were probably idols! Why didn’t you say you liked fan music and take a picture with them?!” I had no idea what idols are, but it turns out that they are young women (and sometimes men) that are viewed by society as flawless, innocent, and angelic individuals. They sing and dance, and are idolized by Japanese people for their appearance and lifestyle. Young girls often aspire to be like idols, but the consequences of an idol making a mistake and breaking their angelic facade are high so they are forced to lead very constrained lives. And…. unfortunately I missed my opportunity to worship one.

I had enough of the Shinjuku area quickly so we headed to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The garden is a traditional style Japanese garden and has beautifully shaped trees and small ponds and bridges. However we didn’t stay for long because it was already time to head to Yuta’s home for a traditional family style Japanese dinner. We met up with five other ETAs and some TEFL advisers there and prepared the meal. The dinner was delicious and was accompanied by sake which made it an even more joyous celebration of Fulbright family. After a fun night of games and chatting we headed back to our hostel in Ginza for the night.

Mori museum and Odiba 1/25

Before we left for Japan, we had found and researched an exhibit through the Mori Art Museum called teamlab Borderless. We got our tickets before we got to Tokyo so they didn’t sell out and we were excited to see the interactive digital exhibit. It was definitely the most surreal museum experience I have ever had. Once we entered the building, we were immediately brought into a room with flowers covering the floor, walls, and ceiling. The flowers grew where we walked and slowly shifted when we moved past them. In another room we found ourselves surrounded by stars in space, and in another we watched a storm of lights from inside of a room covered in LED lights. We drew fish and watched them swim by on the wall as part of the exhibit. The most incredible exhibit in my opinion was a completely mirrored room with hanging lanterns that changed color over time. The mirrors made the display feel endless and I felt as if I was floating in space. The pictures hardly do the museum justice.

The next adventure of the day was a tour around the Odiba area one of the main waterfront sections of Tokyo. We saw the life-sized Unicorn Gundam Statue, an anime character, and toured through the Diver City mall. I went to Hello Kitty World and got an adorable shirt. We finished off the night in Harajuku, a colorful street that is near Shinjuku and home to many animal cafes, crazy outfits, and sweet desserts. I got a massive cheese corn dog and best of all, I got to visit the cat cafe and cuddle with many cats. Overall, an awesome and adventure filled day.

1/26 Temples and Shrines and Kitties oh my!

Although we had done plenty of exploring in Tokyo already, one thing that Sarah, Jenna, and I felt we had neglected were the various shrines and temples throughout the city. We decided to devote Saturday to exploring these religious sites with our first stop being the Meiji Shrine near Shinjuku. Unfortunately most of the shrine was under construction so we didn’t get to see it, but we did get a poem fortune! It was around brunch time when we arrived so we stopped at Flippers for pancakes and HOLY COW they were some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had in my entire life. We even arrived at the perfect time to avoid the crowds.

The next stop was the Gotokuji Shrine a little ways outside of the city, famous for many small cat figurines. This temple might have been the birthplace of the cat figurine which brings good luck and fortune to whomever places it but this is just one story. The temple is quite old. The last stop of the day was the largest and most famous temple that I visited in all of Japan. It is called the Sensoji Temple and apparently was completed in 645, making it one of the oldest if not the oldest temple in all of Japan. Despite the fact that we went right as the temple building was about to close, it was still incredibly crowded. And quite cold. Needless to stay we didn’t stay for too long. We grabbed some dinner and went to a bar after, where we met two other foreigners who were living full time in Japan. Apparently I accidentally ruined one of the guys pick up girls strategies when I told him that he dropped his wallet. In Japan according to him, if you are interested in a girl you leave your money and cash just SITTING on the floor of a bar and hope that she tells you it accidentally slipped out of your pocket. He was trying to catch the attention of a cute Japanese girl behind us but alas I messed up his plan.

1/27 Imperial Palace Runs, History, and Shibuya

I decided to go for a morning run around the Imperial Palace because of the beautiful weather. Apparently in Tokyo, this is the place to run. It was a zoo! I almost got tramped many times. At one point I was entirely convinced that I had accidentally crashed a 5k race because there were people holding up signs with the mileage and cheering people on, but it turns out that they just do that every day! After a satisfying run, I headed to the history Edo Tokyo Museum with Jenna and Sarah to learn about the history of Tokyo and Kyoto, a place we would all be visiting sometime in the near future. We learned about the many fires that destroyed Tokyo throughout the years and the how the capital city moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. We also learned some of the devastating effects of the World War II bombing in Tokyo and how the city had to be completely rebuilt. Japan has a history filled with hardship, innovation, and creativity. It was really fascinating to learn about.

After the museum, we headed to Shibuya to see the famous crossing and grab some dinner. Although I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, I was shocked by the number of people pouring across this one street in every direction. We ran into an incredibly flustered foreigner from America who told us he had made a plan to meet his friends at the Shibuya crossing… what a horrible mistake. We tried our best to help him, hopefully he made it! After dinner we grabbed some beers in the area and met up with the wallet dropped friend who showed us around a few of his favorite places in the city.

1/28 Mt. Takao and the Last Night

I decided to take my own day to explore Mt. Takao, a small hike about an hour outside of the city. I was hoping to catch some views of Mt. Fuji and to be honest, I was itching to get out of the city. The weather was beautiful and along the way I was often greeted with a friendly hello and wave. When I reached the top, I was surprised to find vending machines everywhere just like the rest of Japan! There was a stunning view of Fuji as well. I was so excited I made several people take photos of me in front of the mountain.

I made it back to Tokyo earlier than expected and decided to wander around the Ginza area for a bit. I explored the KitKat store and got some unique flavors, and found some cheap coffee samples. After a bit, I met up with the rest of the crew in Roppongi. Both of these places are very ritzy but we enjoyed looked at the cool architecture and the views of the Tokyo tower from the city. We headed back to the hostel for a chill last night to reflect on our Tokyo adventure. It had been a whirlwind of traveling and miraculously we got on the correct subway every time (except the one time everyone put me in charge of navigating). Tokyo is overwhelming, impeccably clean, high tech, and an amazing place to visit. It was time to say goodbye for the next chapter of the journey… skiing in Yuzawa and meeting my Dad for the Chinese New Year!