Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hiking, Board Games, and Earthquakes

As usual, the weekends go by way too fast. This weekend brought warm weather which made it a lot easier to spend time in the great outdoors. On Saturday, I did some spring cleaning (trying to get a jump start on the bug season) and then headed to Gifu City and met up with some other ALTs. First stop was a mall (Malera) which is one of the largest malls I’ve ever been to. My favorite part of the mall is it has Starbucks and a foreign food store. At Starbucks, it’s cherry blossom season, so of course I’ve had to have a cherry blossom latte (Grande $5.75).

Welcome to Tanigumi

After the mall, we headed to Tanigumi. I’m not 100% positive on the story, but this place is the 33rd (and final) stop on a certain kind of Buddha Shrine Tour. We took pictures with the famous Buddha that everyone comes to see. We even participated in the “find the buddha in the dark course”, we paid 100 yen and walked into complete darkness and by using your hands, you had to find the Buddha. If you found him (which we did) it is supposed to bring you enlightenment. Although it was cool to find enlightenment, I was not a big fan of the dark (it was creepy). After laughing our way through the Buddha course, we went to a statue that is supposed to heal certain body parts.

First: clean the hands/body. Second: place the piece of paper on the location that needs healing

After walking through the Shrine, we started hiking towards the top of the mountain. The hike was fairly nice; however the way down was not nice to my shoes…Since I’m from the NW, I’m spoiled with nice green areas to hike. When comparing it to Multnomah Falls, it doesn’t really compare. But, nonetheless it was a good workout and it provided great views.

View from the Top-ish

Once hiking was over, we went to a fellow ALTs home and we got cooking. On the menu was Thai food! We made Pad Thai and Thai Green Curry, all with tofu, so delicious. The food was wonderful and it was a great change from Japanese food. We played some board games and thanks to the 100 yen store ($1 store), I had all the supplies for an old college game I played, called Beer Pong. Some of you may know what I’m talking about, but if you don’t, it’s a game where you shoot ping pong balls into plastic cups…(That’s all the explanation I can give, but you could always look it up on google).

Awhile later, the sleep gods called for us…It was just a normal night until at 5:41am, I got an early wakeup call from the Earthquake Gods. I didn’t know this, but Japan gets about 400 earthquakes per DAY! This earthquake was centered just north of us in our prefecture and it was fairly large since it could be felt around Japan for over 100 miles. After about 10-15 seconds later (it was a longer than normal earthquake), my heart started to calm down and went back to sleep. When we got up this morning, we found out the details of the earthquake and on Japan’s earthquake scale, not the Richter that it was a Lower 5 (from 0 to Higher 7, there are 10 levels). I’m not sure how it compares to the normal scale, but it provided plenty of aftershocks for our friends up north. Sunday morning was completed with breakfast at the local (and only) cafĂ© in lovely Neo (pronounced Nay-O). For about $5, you order a drink and get breakfast with it…I love morning sets!

Finally it was time to head back to my part of the prefecture. 45 minutes in a car, 80 minutes in a train, and 10 minutes walking and I was home. Sunday afternoon was filled with cleaning, cleaning, and more cleaning.

Friday, February 25, 2011

“Niaho Taiwan” Part 4 + Weekend Adventures in Gifu

It felt like we had just arrived and yet we were leaving Taiwan. The last day was spent near the main train station since we needed to catch a bus to the airport. We did some shopping (I bought some good souvenirs that will eventually make their way back to America). On Monday, we realized that we had converted more than enough money to use in Taiwan, but since the exchange rate was terrible at the airport, we decided to spend it all! It was definitely a good decision. We found our way to a massage place yet again, and indulged in a 45 minute massage from blind individuals. It was quite the experience, and I would recommend it to anyone!

Thai Milk Tea. Very Orange. Go Beavs.

After returning to Japan, the week went by super fast. I was at my last JHS and I shouldn’t admit to favoritism but I really love some of the kids at that school. One girl (who is an amazing chef) gave me some homemade chocolates for Valentine’s Day. After the quick 4 day week, on Saturday I went snowboarding with 3 other JHS English Teachers. We went to a resort in Gifu (about 2 hours North of me) and spent the day in clear blue skies. It’s been almost a week since I went snowboarding and I’m still nursing a bruise from one icy fall.

On Sunday, I played golf with 3 other teachers at the only golf course in my town. It was only a 5 minute drive from apartment! The weather was perfect, blue skies and about 50 degrees (such a change from the high 30’s). Playing for the first time since winter vacation, an 80 wasn’t a bad score.

View of the surrounding towns/cities

Par 3: 155 Yards

Par 4: 450 Yards. From here it was a slope of -45 yards!

This week I was back at Elementary School and right now we are about 4 weeks until the end of the school year. You can definitely tell students are going into the spring break mode (and I don’t blame them). However, the end of the school year mode is really affecting the loud and especially challenging classes (the ones I’m not the biggest fan of, but oh well). I can’t tell you how many times I just stopped talking in one 5th grade class and the students didn’t even noticed…I feel really bad for that homeroom teacher, I can’t imagine dealing with them everyday!

On Thursday I had the privilage of teaching 95 1st graders how to play Rock, Paper, Scissors. It was awesome, but by the fourth and final class, I was beat. I’m guessing that I played over 400 games of Rock, Paper, Scissors in less than 4 hours…However, even at recess RPS was still a hit and whenever the 1st graders saw me in the hallway, it was “Amanda Sensei…Rock, Paper, Scissors, 123…Oh yes/oh no”. The cutest part was that the kids picked up on the emotions/gestures/phrases of winning “yes!!!” and losing “oh no” and putting their heads in their hands. It is adorable.

This weekend finds me heading towards the big city of Gifu and surrounding areas. I’m going to spend some time hiking, exploring, and speaking English at a normal speed.

School Lunch: Mixed Veggies with some green stuff (I don't know what it is).The brown sludge stuff is pork on top of fried tofu...I tried slicing it open, but there was too much sludge. Slice of orange. Milk. Green Tea. Rice. There was some soup with bacon in it, but I left it where I found it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

“Nihao” Taiwan - Part 3

Sunday! We decided to get out of Taipei for the morning, so we visited Danshui. This town is on the northern most part of Taipei, as it is located on the opening of the river into the ocean. Sunday brought us the best weather, it was over 60 degrees and overcast, it was quite nice. Our first stop: Starbucks (a real treat because I hardly see them in my area of Japan) and decided which direction we should head. Danshui is reminiscent of the Dutch influence in the architectural design. I even found my own cafe (Amanda’s Cafe)!

We walked along the river and bought a ticket on the ferry that would take us to the tip of the harbor, it was about a 10 minute boat/ferry ride to “Fisherman’s Wharf”. To be honest, I was disappointed in the wharf. I expected more things, but maybe it’s not a popular place to visit in February. We saw the sights and headed back to Danshui. On our way back to the train station, we sampled many Danshui-ian food shops. First, I had a glazed strawberry set (delicious) and then we went and sampled some pancake-like goodies (one was filled with red beans (azuki) and the other was some creamy potato mixture). Both were good and we got them fresh, which I think made them even better.

We took the train to our next stop of Beitou. It is famous for its hot springs resort. Literally, that is all it has, hot springs and more hot springs. If you didn’t know, Japan and the Japanese LOVE their hot springs (or onsens). Lucky for me, I’ve come to love them too! I already know that I will miss them when I leave. We planned on going in the public hot spring, which is pretty popular, but once we got there and saw how packed it was, we realized we could live without the hot spring experience. Up to this point, we hadn’t had our daily bubble tea experience. So, we set out for a bubble tea shop. After about 15 minutes of searching, we finally found a little shop and ordered ourselves some lovely bubble tea. Sitting at the train station, plotting our next move with a refreshing bubble tea in hand was just the way I pictured my Taiwan vacation!

After Beitou, we continued down the same train line to the 2010-2011 Taipei International Flora Exposition. This was something we stumbled open when we went to the Shilin night market on Friday. There were thousands of people, so it was hard to miss. We got our tickets and walked around. They had competitions for the Chinese New Years and the displays smelled fantastic! We walked around outside but due to the rain, we didn’t last long. About 15 countries also had displays of their country, I found the American display and surprisingly enough, I saw the one and only “Spuddy Buddy”. Now those of you who aren’t from Idaho or didn’t play golf at Idaho, you might not know who “Spuddy Buddy” is. He is the famous potato mascot that Idaho uses in its promotions. He is also famous in the golf world thanks to the Idaho Golf Teams! I spotted several “Spuddy Buddy” displays and I was quite excited. After a walk through the gift store, we called it a Flora Expo night. The expo started in November and goes through April. It was huge and we only saw about a third of the entire display but it was pretty cool. It would definitely take a full day to see the whole show.

Soon enough it was dinnertime and my map listed two curry restaurants but somehow, we didn’t find them. Since it was Sunday night, I figured that they were probably closed. Instead, we found a T.G.I. Fridays, something I’ve only been to once or twice in my life. I feasted on chicken fajitas, since Mexican food is nearly impossible to get in Japan. It was amazing, let me tell you. After dinner, the rain had set in and it started to pour. Instead of going to a nearby night market, we called it a night and headed back to the hostel. We took a detour through the underground mall but didn’t see anything that fancied us.

What I learned. Japanese was more useful than English. Everything was incredibly cheap and for the most part, fairly priced. Taiwan is the 7-Eleven CAPITAL! They were everywhere! Literally, right across the street from each other, just to make it more convenient for you. I found it odd that in a lot of situations, foreign food/businesses would be located next to each other. For example: I saw a Starbucks, KFC, and McDonalds lined up one after the other.

“Nihao” Taiwan - Part 2

Saturday: Day Two. First on the agenda was the National Palace Museum. They have free English tours twice a day, so we made our way to the 10am tour. I can’t even tell you how many people were in the museum, it was packed! First, it was a Saturday morning, and second, it was just after the Chinese New Year. This means that everyone gets a week to one month off of work/school. We took our trip at a peak vacation time, but it was worth it. In the museum we looked at the famous jade, iron, steel, ceramic pieces. It was breathtaking. In the ceramics display, our guide pointed out the best/most famous piece, and believe it or not, it was nothing special to the regular eye. However, being so simple was an understatement. The piece reminded me of a bathtub; however, it was only 6 inches long, 4 inches tall, and 4 inches wide. It was a beautiful turquoise color. The reason it was the most famous piece is that it had no flaws. It was perfect, no bubbles, no chips, nothing. As our guide said, most people would skip over this piece for a more ornate, eye catching piece.
National Palace Museum

After pictures outside of the museum (no cameras allowed), we made our way back to the Shilin train station. While debating our next move, we saw a stand for Chinese pancakes. I had read about these being famous, so naturally I wanted to try them. We settled on the Chinese Yam flavor with basil and corn wrapped up inside of the pancake. It was delicious!

Early Saturday afternoon, we boarded the train bound for Longshan Temple. This was just southwest of the main train station. Longshan Temple is the most well known temple in Taipei, perhaps all of Taiwan. It was crowded...ridiculously crowded actually. After the Chinese New Year, people go to the temples to pray for a good year. They give offerings of food and other material things to the god(s). Since we visited right after the new year, we got to see this in action. There was so much good, beautiful food, being placed on tables as gifts to the god(s). The temple itself was a color sensation. When it comes to comparing Japanese and Taiwanese temples, the Taiwanese temples win hands down for color wheel use, intricacies, and overall appeal...sorry Japan, but I still love the Japanese temples. We walked through the temple, dodging hot ashes at every move and after our nostrils were completely full of incenses, we walked outside to look for......a bubble tea shop. After wandering around, we never found one. Instead, we found several food shops and bought different types of bread-type goodies.

Saturday night we found our way to East Taipei for a different side of Taiwan. We walked through a mall and eventually settled on a Thai restaurant, something we aren’t privileged to in Japan (the Japanese just don’t do spicy). As usual, I had curry and it was pretty good. After an early dinner we walked to the Taipei 101 Tower. This was the real reason we went to East Taipei. We walked by the city hall and the exhibition center (which was hosting a book/stationary expo). At the Taipei 101 Tower, we were told that the weather conditions meant we couldn’t go outside and wouldn’t be able to see much. January through March is the rainy season in Taipei, so it didn’t shock me. However, the price tag did. $15 to ride in the world’s fastest elevator, up 97 floors in 37 seconds. I only paid more for 5 things in Taiwan (hostel, dinner, duty free items)! At the top of the tower, we were greeted with a picture display of Taiwan through the years, mainly the past 100 years, as 2011 is the centennial of Taiwan (well, the Republic of China - Taiwan). The pictures told a great story and as I was reading the captions, I could think of numerous people who would love to be reading these things ( father especially).

After the tower, we mistakenly got off at the wrong level after the tower and ended up in the food court. My mistake lead us to nothing other than bubble tea!!! It was pretty cold outside, probably about 45 degrees, but bubble tea sounded amazing (and it was). With our bubble tea in hand, we walked over to the Taipei City Hall and experienced the 2011 New Years Lantern Festival. For those of you who don’t know, in the Chinese zodiac, 2011 is the year of the rabbit. It occurs every twelve years, so those turning 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, 84, and 96 this year are “rabbits”. Which means, I am a rabbit, so this is my year! woo! The lantern festival had hundreds of displays. First, we saw 5 lanterns, all representing different things: personal health, good luck in school, good luck in business, overall health, and “your own personal wish”. We took turns at all the stations, and if the white lanterns turned red, that meant our wish would be fulfilled. Lucky for me (and for everyone else), the lanterns turned red, meaning all of my wishes will be granted this year!
5 Lanterns and the Taipei 101 Tower

Taipei City Hall

We walked over to the concert area, and there was a girl group who performed famous pop songs (think Lady Gaga, Kesha) and oldies. After getting a few laughs, we walked through the actual lantern display. All the displays used the rabbit as a central piece...I’ve never seen so many rabbits in my life! At 9pm, this HUGE rabbit lantern starred in a once a day water and music show (think Bellagio). It was pretty cool to watch and when it was over, we called it a night and went back to our hostel. We really clocked in the numbers for walking, I can’t imagine how many miles we walked, but I was exhausted!'