Monday, April 23, 2012

Singin' and Dancin'

This is a little late, but last October I participated in my junior high school's annual band/choir performance. With three other teachers and 4 third-year students, I performed the song Maru Maru Mori Mori, which gained fame last summer as the end song to a drama called Marumo no Okite.  The drama is  about a man who has suddenly has to raise his niece and nephew (I've never seen it). The end song features these kids (around 7 years old) doing this cute song and dance. They became hugely famous and were on talk shows everyday. This is the original Maru Maru Mori Mori .

I practiced endlessly to learn the words and the dance. I practiced the dance every night before bed and would listen exclusively to this song when I went running. It took a week or two, and I think my friends got pretty sick of the song since I would be practicing it constantly. In the end, I knew the words better than the Japanese teachers and I had 97% of the dance down. As for the costume, first-grade elementary students always were these bright yelllow hats, and all elementary students use the leather backpacks, randoseru, and my cheeks are rosy. I uploaded the video, but I password protected it because it has my students in it. The password is just my name.

Maru Maru Mori Mori from drizz on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

台湾 Taiwan

Sorry for the delay, I have been quite busy since I've come back from Taiwan. Thankfully, I took notes about my journey, so I could remember all the exciting/strange/great things that I saw or experienced. This is going to be long, be prepared. For associated pictures, look here.

Day 1
After a bus ride to Fukuoka (I really should have made reservations, there was almost not enough room for me!), I get to the airport, check-in and receive a Hello Kitty boarding pass. I was flying with EVA, an new Taiwanese airline. I was quite amused by the boarding pass, but little did I know that the whole plane would be Hello Kitty. The outside of the plane, the pillows, the animation on the TV's idle screen, the carrot and fishcake in my meal, my silverware. There was so much Hello Kitty, I was surprised that the flight attendants weren't wearing cat ears! 

My first stop in Taiwan was Taichung. I took a 2 hour bus there for equates to about 600 yen. The 2 hour bus ride I took in Japan the same morning was 2400 yen. Quite a difference! I liked Taiwan already.

This was my first time traveling alone. By this point, so far, so good. My hostel was a little strange though. The office was on the street, but the room was in an apartment building across the street. The room had 3 sets of bunk beds, but was otherwise a normal apartment. Since there was no one else staying in my room, so for 2 days I didn't meet or talk to anyone from the hostel.

The first night I walked around in the famous night market that was just down the street. There were food stands everywhere and people were walking around eating and shopping. It was quite different than Japan. It had the feel of a Japanese summer festival, but more lively, more crowded, more shopping and it happens every night of the year, not every so often in the summer. There are markets like this all over Taiwan. I ate most of my dinners at markets like these.  As for dinner, I ate a flaky sticky pepper bun cooked in a funny kiln like oven, some takoyaki but with shrimp instead of octopus, dimsum shumai,  lime black tea, and grapefruit green tea. It was all delicious, but I don't know the name of anything!

Interesting sightings: Everyone rides scooters; there are scooters everywhere! They seem to have their own road rules, because they would just zip around wherever and whenever they wanted, it seemed. The oddest thing I saw though was how many people took their dogs around on their scooters.

Day 2
Wunwu Temple
For my first full day I headed to Sun Moon Lake.  I decided to bike around the lake, so I rented a bike and headed off. It was a really nice day, about 22 C/ 71 F.  I made some pit stops along the way to look at a temple, a pagoda, a walkway where I was supposed to be able to see frogs (didn't), a gondola ride, lunch at an aboriginal restaurant and at a small park to touch the water.  It was a really nice area, I liked it a lot. When I got back to the bike rental place 5 or so hours later, they took my picture and gave me a certificate for biking the 30 km around the lake. Apparently people don't really do that very often.  It was fun, but I was tired.

For dinner I returned to the night market near my hostel. My food for the day: Dried pork and egg wrap, pork and rice with a fried egg (the aboriginal food), li hing tea (I think it was li hing, I tasted it and was very surprised, it took me a minute to figure it out, but after a few more sips I realized what it was. Reminded me of all my Hawaiian friends), apple flavored milk with rose petals, milk tea served in a black plastic bag with a rubber band to attach it to your wrist, guava. I also stood in line at this place that seemed really famous because it always had a ridiculously long line. I can't accurately explain what I ate, I'm not really sure myself. From what I can figure out, it was a sausage inside a grilled rice-sausage with some toppings. It sounds crazy, I know... I don't think it was worth the long line and communication trouble.

Day 3
At this point I was feeling kinda lonely, especially at night. But off to my next destination, Kenting- a beach paradise in south Taiwan. I took the high-speed train (also significantly less expensive than in Japan) and a bus to get there. My hostel, a surf hostel, seemed pretty laid back, but the person at reception wasn't the friendliest person I've ever met. I spent the rest of the day swimming and reading. The wind was very strong though, so the waves were huge and sand blew all over me while I was reading. When evening came I walked to the downtown area and walked through the night market.  By this time I was really lonely and almost regretting traveling alone. But when I returned to the hostel, the owner was there and he was so friendly and invited me to sit on the patio with some other guests. It was a lot of fun. Most of the guests/workers were Taiwanese and didn't speak much English, but we got by. There were also two Japanese guests and a German one, so I could talk to them.

Food for the day: Thai curry, mabodofu, chicken feet and pig's blood (pudding?)!

Day 4
My hostel offers really cheap surf lessons, so I had one scheduled for the afternoon. In the morning, I borrowed a bicycle from the hostel and biked to this other beach some of the guests recommended. It was beautiful! It was a hot day (29 C/ 84 F), so the bike ride wasn't particularly easy, but it made the water even better. This beach had a drop off really near the beach, so it got deep really fast. This made the waves big and the white water really strong. I ran into one of the Japanese guests there, but while we were swimming he, as he put it, "almost drowned" and I "saved him." I think he got tired and was having trouble swimming in, so he started panicking. I didn't really do anything, I think I told him to hold his breath when a wave was coming and swam in next to him. He made me out as a hero though when he was telling people at the hostel what happened.

Then I had my surf lesson. It was a lot of fun and I stood up every time. I went one time in Hawaii many years ago and in Japan last September. While it wasn't completely foreign to me, it was good to have a proper lesson and some help. The instructor spoke good English and he was really cool. Then I watched a lot of other surfers for awhile, they were great!

For dinner that night, I had Taiwanese hot pot (it was kind of flavorless) and some ice cream.  I got this little wooden frog statue, that when you strike his back with a little wood stick, it makes a frog-like sound. It's pretty neat. They had other animals too.

Despite the beauty of the beach, one thing I did notice (maybe I've been in Japan too long) was the amount of litter on the beach. It really wasn't that much, but I did take a plastic bag out of the water at one point. 

Day 5
My plan for this day was to wake up really early and head to my next destination, Hualien- on the east coast. It was going to be about a 5 hour journey, so I wanted to get an early start. That was before I was reunited with hot weather, sunshine and the beach. I did wake up early, but only to go to the beach and take an early morning nap, listening to the waves, then one last dip in the ocean. I didn't end up leaving until noon!

My journey to Hualien pretty smooth. The train I wanted to board was full (the man at the ticket counter called someone who spoke English, in order to communicate this to me), so I got on the next one an hour later, adding more time to the journey. Not a total loss though, as I spent that hour at a really cool cafe across the street with free wifi.

By the time I got to my hostel it was around 6 and I was hungry, but the hostel owner informed me of an aboriginal dance show at 7 in the downtown area. So I headed over there. The show was fun and at the end the dancers came into the crowd and asked for volunteers to dance. Why not? I went up on stage, but found myself the only person over 7 years old. At the last second a foreign student in the crowd joined me on stage, I think he felt sorry for me. Little did I know, a guest from my hostel was in the crowd and took pictures and video of my dance performance. No interesting food today.

Day 6 (The Hike)
Like most days of my trip, I had an early start, and thank goodness or the day could've gone sour.  I made my way to the first of the handful of hikes that the hostel-owner recommended. Shakadang Trail. It was beautiful. The water was the bluest-blue I've ever seen water be. I heard from another hiker that it was from the marble that made up the gorge. Not only was it blue, but it was crystal clear as well. I was dying to get in and swim but you weren't even supposed to go down near the water. (I did at one point, but only to take a picture. I touched the water though, it was pretty chilly.)

This scenic walk was about 4 km and took a little over an hour. I was going to walk back the way I came, what most, sane people do, but I stumbled upon a trail head. The sign said it was only about 6 km, but pretty difficult. Only 6 km, not bad right? I can do that in less than 2 hours, no problem. Boy was I wrong! The trail went straight up, leveled off for a bit and then straight down. It was indeed a difficult hike and I got really tired. At one point, I arrived at an intersection, I had two options to go down the mountain. I chose the wrong one! It went down all right, but I came to a station of the ropeway, and from there I couldn't find the trail again, so I had to go back about 1 km straight uphill to go down the other trail. What a hassle! The other trail had about 2,000 stairs (maybe even more and I'm not even exaggerating. I would count from time to time and I counted up to at least 600.) By the time I got to the bottom, it was 6 hours from when I started the "scenic walk," which means that measly 6km hike, took over 4 hours! It was worth it though. The view from the top was amazing! I cam across a rooster at one point. When he cawed, it echoed through the valley. It was really neat.

Despite most of my morning being taken up by one hike, I still had time to see another place and somehow mustered the energy to go to Swallow Grotto. This was also very beautiful.

I finished off the night with some Taiwanese shabu-shabu some students from my hostel. One boy got crocodile meat and I made mine super spicy. I had to take advantage of the availability of spicy food while I still could, since it is severely lacking in Japan.

Day 7
Very early in the morning I headed to Taipei by train. My plan for the day was to head to Jinguashi, an old mining town, and Jiufen, a famous shopping area. While in line to take the bus to Jinguashi, I came upon two Asian people speaking English to each other. One turned out to be a girl from Yokohama, who is studying English in college. The other was a boy (and his sister) from Busan, Korea, very close to Kyushu. They were headed to the same places, so we joined forces for the day. Just our luck, the Gold Mine Museum in Jiguashi was closed; the only day in a month it is closed! We still had a good time though. There was a nice path and we got to see some gold mine relics at least. There was also a temple, a giant statue, the remnants of a fort and a beautiful view of the gold-tinged sea, from the runoff of the gold mines.

Our next stop was a place just a few minutes down the road called Jiufen. While being famous before, it really claimed fame with the Japanese animated film Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. (The Japanese title is Sen to Chihiro Kamikakushi). The steep shopping streets of Jiufen, with it's red lanterns, was replicated in the film. Needless to say, if it wasn't before, Jiufen became really popular with Japanese tourists. My students loved the picture I took and could recognize what film I was talking about almost instantly.

Interesting foods: Japanese bread stick (which was new for me and the Japanese girl...), peanut butter ice cream sandwiched between pancakes, a peanut brittle crepe and Korean food for dinner.

Random item: There is a game show on Taiwanese TV where college students (who are required to take 1( or 2) years of English) are tested on their English ability on national TV. It was pretty funny.

For my final day, I planned on doing all the Taipei sites. There are a lot, but two Taiwanese girls I met helped me decided what was really worth seeing. Bright and early, my first stop was the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and National Theater and Concert Hall. Before getting there though, I bought a rice ball. It was much different than Japanese rice balls, onigiri, in pretty much every way. It was about twice the size, the rice was purple and it was filled with... I don't really know what, but it was delicious. The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial was pretty cool too. Worth a visit, but I didn't need to spend too much time there.

My next stop was Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan, with the fastest elevator in the world. Somehow, within the 15 minutes I was on the subway between the memorial hall and the stop for Taipei 101, the weather went from beautiful and calm, to overcast and very very windy. When I got to Taipei 101, they informed me I wouldn't be able to go on the outdoor observation deck and I wouldn't be able to see much, so did I really want to spend the ~$15 to ride the world's fastest elevator and not see anything? The thought crossed my mind, I mean, it's the fastest elevator in the world... but I decided against. Instead, I had lunch. I kept seeing these pizza cones all over Taiwan, so I finally bought one. I knew before I bought it that it probably wouldn't be delicious, but I had to try it. It was about as expected, but cone-shaped.

Next on my list was to ride the Mao Kong gondola, but due to the weather, I assumed it would be closed so I went to the National Palace museum instead. The museum was pretty nice, but very crowded. I saw this little kid trying to go through an automatic door, but he was too short to set the sensor off, so it wouldn't open. It was funny, but I walked over and opened it for him. At one point, I bumped into a Japanese tour group, so I stood in the back and listened to the tour guide talking about some old furniture. I understood most of it and could laugh at the jokes, but there was an old man who could not figure out why I was standing there and I don't think the thought even passed through his head that I could understand Japanese.

I was a little worried that the poor weather would ruin my second to last stop in Taiwan, Tamsui. It is known for it's beautiful sunsets and as a good place to buy souvenirs.  Luckily, just as I was leaving the museum, the weather turned for the better. After buying some omiyage for friends and my schools, I walked along a boardwalk, watching the sunset. It was a nice sunset until the sun disappeared behind clouds.

Last stop, Shilin Night Market, the biggest and most famous night market in Taipei. I went with one of the Taiwanese girls I met, so she was able to give me the low-down on different foods and vendors. First we ate some Chinese food, the two most popular, most Taiwanese dishes, apparently. One was mincemeat on rice and one was an "oyster omelet" but I think we had shrimp, not oyster. Next, we ate some tofu hot-pot, to-go- it came in a plastic bag and was super spicy. Delicious! Finally, we ate a giant piece of fried chicken. The line at this stand was so long, and the place was famous because of how giant the fried chicken is; it was bigger than my face. For dessert we had some yakimochi, fried mochi and fruit ( guava, Taiwanese apple and dragonfruit (no flavor!)).  It was a great time.

The next morning, I set off for the airport at 4am (the vendors from the night market were still cleaning up). I had a pretty wonderful time in Taiwan. I met a lot of cool people, I saw a lot of neat things and I survived a week traveling alone. It wasn't so bad!