7s Heaven: The HSBC Dubai Rugby 7s

My relationship with my fiancé closely mirrors my relationship with rugby. I began dating Matt seven years ago when I moved in next door to the infamous “rugby house” located strategically between campus, and the bars. If ever a real life “Animal House” were to be, this would have been it. I spent afternoons wrapped up in the antics of the rugby team, weekends supporting our boys in tournaments, and nearly every day with Matt. I quickly came to know this sport as less of a game and more of a culture. A culture that is sometimes difficult to date. Throughout the past seven years I have had my struggles with rugby. I’ve bailed people out of jail in rugby related incidents, nursed concussions, and been thrown out of establishments through mere proximity to this raucous ruck. And I love every single memory. The WWU Warthogs single-handedly made my University years a messy success. This past weekend I attended the Dubai 7s tournament, and similarly to the Hong Kong 7s in 2010, beer was drunk, fun was had, and I again proclaimed (from the top of a table in Irish Village no less) “I love this sport!”

In its 41st year (yes the Dubai 7s are older than the UAE herself) this tournament has seen the same type of growth the UAE boasts. The games moved from the Dubai Exiles ground in 2008 with New Zealand taking first in front of a crowd of 50,000 boisterous fans. That’s the great thing about 7s, it’s anybody’s game. This year my bet was on Fiji after winning their first title in two years at the Gold Coast 7s in Australia, although, if you had asked me over the weekend I would have said Australia because of their handsome, and highly criticized, chartreuse jerseys.

Attire is a vital part of any international 7s tournament. During the Hong Kong 7s in 2010 a friend wound up in jail for taking the field in a polar bear costume, and when he arrived at the slammer he was greeted by a zoo of other costumed fans for what he recalls as “an even better party!” Matt prioritized his ensemble for months prior to this year’s tournament, hiring a Pakistani tailor down the street to make him a custom Elvis suit which he then begged me for weeks to bedazzle.

Dubai can certainly lay claim to some of the world’s most colorful expats, a parade of flamboyance only trumped by the Friday night half-time show in which sky-divers parachuted out of a circling airplane onto the field while camels trotted around the pitch. With all the pomp and rugby spirit in the air I could have been anywhere, Vegas, mardi gras, or a pirate ship on its way to a frat island, but one thing is for certain, wherever you are for your rugby 7s experience, it will be the time of your life!

In the end it came down to England and France, notoriously my two LEAST favorite teams regardless of the sport. I still hold a grudge against the French National Football team for their dirty play against Italy in the 2006 FIFA world cup (slightly hypocritical I know), and I’ll just be frank in saying English sport fans in general are some of my least favorite type. Needless to say England took all in the final game sending fans into immediate and united versions of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Despite a sad ending I still managed to flirt shamelessly with Eagle’s player Nick Edwards (while Matt took photos), score some free beer in an apple dunking contest, eat nothing but crispy bacon all weekend, and watch my favorite sport with my favorite rugger/Elvis impersonator. Hope to see you at the next HSBC 7s!

Want to experience the Dubai 7s?

Tickets: Tickets can be purchased online here, or the day of from the ticketing booth. Hotel: Al Jawhara, near Irish Village. Transportation: There is a FREE shuttle leaving from the stadium parking lot to downtown Dubai as well as taxis waiting at the gate. Parking is also free but not recommended if traffic makes you batty or have been drinking. After Party: Irish Village for a pint and all night dance party.

Lordy, Looks Who’s 40! : The UAE Turns 40

I haven’t been home in the USA for three 4th of Julys. The last time I waved a red, white, and blue flag in a patriotic parade, I still thought it appropriate to prance around in a bikini and cow-girl boots. The amount of energy exerted on building parade floats, making red, white, and blue cheesecake and collecting an arsenal of fireworks was immense, and I can safely say, my July’s have been a little less chaotic the last three years. I have so much more free time in fact, that I have been able to devote spare hours to celebrating all the other cultures I have come in contact with since 2009. Matt and I have cheered on the Korean Soccer Team in the World Cup, embraced the tradition of cock fighting in the Philippines, sported our red and blue on Bastille Day in Paris, and celebrated Palm Sunday with the overwhelming Catholic population in Costa Rica. So which country trumps all in the nationalism department? No surprise, it’s the baby of the bunch, The United Arab Emirates, turning 40 years-old this week!

My Neighbor's Car.

Led by former president Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan, The UAE united its seven Emirates December 2nd, 1971 and have been catapulted into a race toward modernism ever since. The goal of maintaining a strong cultural heritage is a top priority for the Emirates, a priority that rears its red, white, and green head around every corner.

Among all the zealous displays of patriotism, and overcompensation for being such a new-comer to the scene, the UAE’s national day falls at the perfect time of year for a home-sick American. You see, with all of the “National Day Lights” which sort of look EXACTLY like Christmas lights, and the colors of the flag proudly on display:  green, red, black, and white, I could swear that it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. J I am always happy to celebrate with locals, regardless of how over-the-top or strange I think their customs may be. I can only imagine trying to explain why we Americans decorate our boats, go out into the bay and light off fireworks on the 4th, but I love it!

Off to watch my man play in the Dubai Rugby 7s!!! Have a patriotic weekend wherever you may be.

Sugar, Spice, and Souks: Deira Spice Souk

Photo Credit: Jo Kelly over at

If you came to the United Arab Emirates in search of old world vignettes, tucked in narrow alleyways, filled with magic carpets, Arab men in colorful head scarves and puffs of jasmine flavored incense, you may be disappointed when confronted with the modern city. While Dubai rises high into the clouds with its contemporary sky scrapers, tradition can still be found around every corner. One sure spot to scope the cultural heritage of the UAE is the Deira spice souk, along the Dubai creek.

Starting on the creek’s West bank, visitors can meander through the textile souk, picking through cashmere pashminas, and stalls filled with vibrant fabrics. Beware of zealous merchants going to extremes in order to catch your attention with their goods. Within moments of entering, the vultures descended, not even bothering to circle first before throwing scarves and bangles over my unsuspecting body. The technique worked, and I ended up walking away with a hand stitched garment from Pakistan, a pair of Ali Baba shoes for a very special three year old, and a giant hookah… My arms were in serious need of some pack camel assistance to carry my loot, and I hadn’t even crossed the creek yet!

The real treasure hunt begins on the East bank of the creek, known as Deira. This collection of souks hold spices, gold and other precious trinkets, as well as picture perfect photo ops in every turn. To get across to Deira from the textile souk, simply hop on one of Dubai creek’s Abra boat taxis, costing only 1 dirham, leaving approximately every other second, from wherever you are standing. The abras go across to a few different points along the creek so just gesture toward the spice souk and your driver will make sure you get to where you want to go. Matt wasn’t satisfied with just one ride on the traditional boat, with its cool breeze and ample people watching, but after three trips across I distracted him with a coconut vendor and we finally docked.

At the mouth to the Deira markets is a bustling intersection with bus transfers, water taxi stations, and street vendors selling “Natural Viagra.” Yes the souk really does carry something for everyone. Now one might think that shopping for spices involves buying three lbs of vacuum sealed black pepper at your local Costco, but I assure you, there is so much more sniffing and tasting fun to be had!


I pride myself on a well developed palate, thanks to a few years of traveling and sampling a diverse range of flavors, so I was thrilled when the first vendor we happened upon wanted to test me on my spice knowledge. By sight I passed five out of six spices including: Frankincense, lemon balm, dried rose hips, cinnamon, and saffron. Where I went wrong was failing to identify the Arabic spice combination that is Ras El Hanout. In my defense, this traditional spice combines many of the ingredients I called out in a guessing frenzy including, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric. I can’t wait to take my Summer holiday to the USA next week and deliver a few new salts to the one and only, SaltySeattle!!!

The complexity of layered flavors in Arabic cuisine can be attributed to a long standing history of spice trade throughout India and the Middle East. A trip to the Deira souk provides a look at the rich and spicy history of a nation becoming quickly modernized. Enjoy your backyard grilling and seasoning this July, and save me a salty salmon burger!

Size Matters: The Burj Khalifa


If you are like me, and a large population of Australians, you are intrigued by, and often duped into making detours in order to view “The world’s largest can opener”, or “The longest dreadlock.” While hopping around Australia last Spring I was taken by how many signs I saw for “Broken Hill’s Big Bench” Or The Big Yabby.” I was equally surprised by how many times I stopped and even paid money to view these one-of-a-kind anomalies. When I found out that I was moving to the home of the world’s tallest building, I was thrilled to add another “tallest…” to my list.

A visit to the 127th floor of the Burj Khalifa requires a reservation, made easily in person at the Dubai Mall entrance or for a fraction of the cost, on their secure website. We opted for a an evening visit in order to see the city lit up after the sun went down. I would recommend experiencing the fountain show from both ground level and from the 127th floor. The shows run from 6-11pm weekends, starting every thirty minutes, but make sure to cover your camera and tighten your shala because the spray reaches far into the audience.

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa has been surrounded by controversy since its construction began in 2004.  Completed in six years, the building is said to have taken 22 million man-hours, from men who later reported cases of exploitation in the form of low wages and poor living conditions while completing the project. While the total cost of construction reached 1.5 Billion USD, the cost of neglected social responsibility and misery for workers was much greater. It is estimated that laborers, primarily from South Asia, earned as little as $2 USD per day and were forced to continue working as employers confiscated passports. These men often worked 14 hours a day and there are reports of shortages in water and safety eqipment. In 2004 and again in 2006 workers attempted strikes in protest of their unfair labor laws, but were further opressed by police forces. By 2007, 4,000 workers were imprisoned and then deported for participating in protests. Standing in stark contrast to the conditions laborers faced during its construction, the Burj Khalifa is a reminder of the cost of such rapid growth.

Descending the tallest building in the world I heard that little “tick” you make when you have checked another “biggest”, “tallest”, or “oldest” off your travel list. A trip to the Burj Khalifa is not however your run of the mill roadside attraction. With over 28,000 glass panels this impressive sky scraper towers above the innovative city that is Dubai, reminding us that in the United Arab Emirates, the sky may not be the limit.

Project Surya: We Love Japan!

This is a heads up about a special project I am participating in to raise awareness and funds to help Japan. The project is called Japan Aishteru “We love Japan” and aims to provide aid after Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami. After last year’s visit to Japan and watching this devastating story unfold I have felt saddened and helpless at the struggles this amazing country is facing. In order to show support, a group of women have pledged to dedicate 108 sun salutes through Project Surya in order to raise awareness and funds for our brothers and sisters in Japan.


An estimated 30,000 people were killed in the 9.0-earthquake and tsunami that tore through Japan 250 miles northeast of Tokyo on March 10, 2011.  Over 157,600 people are currently in shelters, near the epicenter of the quake, 150,000 houses in eight prefectures are without running water and 3.2 million homes are without electricity following the strong aftershock. Japan has been left with an estimated cost of over $300 billion, this is the most expensive natural disaster in the history of our existence.

Please visit Project Surya’s web-page to find out the number of ways you can become involved in this project.

Thank you for your support!

Friends and Phở: A Week in Saigon

They say you can never go home again. A tricky saying when your home has spanned three countries in six months. Don’t get me wrong, I in no way feel sorry for myself, in fact this popular phrase has freed me up to the fun and challenging task of taking the concept of “home” with me in my backpack. I felt at home in Korea, not that I ever got used to often being the tallest in a room, or that I grew accustom to kimchi for breakfast, but it was my friends who made my home there. Naturally our last day on the way to the Seoul airport is heart wrenching even now to remember, until I realized the advantage of having seriously nomadic friends. Oh the places you’ll go! With six of these bosom buddies having relocated to Saigon and this city being among the 75 cities I want to visit this year (life is short OK!) it was a no brainer that Matt and my first break from the desert would be to re-live our Korea glory days in Vietnam!

Matt and I had just over a week in Vietnam so we chose a very small radius of area to cover, reflective of the pace in which I prefer to travel: leisurely, with enough time to sample traditional cuisine, get tricked into drinking too much with locals, and picking up some truly unique souvenirs along the way. Our base was Saigon where our gracious hosts offered us a bed, a scooter and a place to rest our hookah. I was made aware of the government presence shortly after arriving when the owner of our host’s apartment asked for copies of our passports during our stay. I stepped outside to a stream of scooters decorated with the star of the communist flag and although I spent a year five hours from the North Korean border, this was my first face-to-face with a truly socialist regime. With that said, I think it is impossible to fit Saigon under any one umbrella term. This city beats to a whole new genre from its scooters that outnumber drivers, twenty-four hour pho, expat scene and surrounding green hills laced with the history of a not so distant war.

These nearby, lush hills of Củ Chi set the stage for our first day in Vietnam. It had been six months since we said good-bye to our retro, Korean scooter with its red and orange flames, so the moment we feasted our eyes on a city wall-to-wall in two-wheeled madness, we wanted on! The trip to the tunnels should take under two hours from the city, but characteristic of my preferred pace of travel, I like to stop for drinks, food cart fare, photo opportunities and the occasional flat tire.

The city faded behind us after a quick tire repair and was replaced by the green rice fields so reminiscent of the Vietnam we see in postcards. An occasional ox drawn cart, communist propaganda poster and spring roll stand completed my visual sketch of the countryside. The tunnels presented a chance however to explore a less picturesque history. Our guide, a retired soldier who served in the Vietnam War, led us underground, neglecting to mention the meter tall, dark crawl space we were sharing with the bats that spend their days roaming from one passageway to the next. The network of tunnels and underground meeting rooms were used by the Viet Cong leading up the 1968 Tet offensive and eventually the seizure of Saigon in 1975.

After making it out if the tunnels without turning into the newest member of the Twilight gang, my curiosity for the history of Saigon led me to the War Remnants museum. The museum was a must for me in understanding the city’s transition from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh. Additionally I make a point of taking in at least one natural history museum, or fine art collection on any city stop, as these places tend to provide a few hours of quiet reflection on the bustle I encounter in trying to experience a city on foot.

The entrance is difficult to miss, with left over US tanks and shell casings lining the driveway. I was tapped on the shoulder by the stub of an arm, attached to a man who wanted only to know my citizenship. I hesitated wondering if I could pass as Dutch and then swallowed my pride and whispered “American.” The man looked at me as if he had already known and picked me out of the crowd as someone who carried so much embarrassment and guilt upon seeing the propaganda in the War museum that I would gladly hand over the contents of my wallet. He was right. This living image of the continued suffering brought about by war rang loud inside the museum walls, and for the remainder of my time in the city.

Although the museum left my head in a rebellious cloud of propaganda and uncertainty about my country as well as the one I was traveling, I stepped back out into Saigon for a night out with my Korean comrades. We hit up Pham Ngu Lao, district 1 where I overheard a group of expats talking about Bob Dylan giving a concert after nearly forty years of singing anti-war anthems heavily inspired by the Vietnam war. I wondered if Bob Dylan too felt the same full circle sensation I had as I attempted to come home again, seeing my friends here in this new setting. We found a Korean restaurant and the Hangeul seemed to flow faster than soju as we reminisced on our year together. This group has found a new home in Saigon, a city that has initiated them amidst communist stars, crispy rolls and spider webs of traffic. Just in case our old nomad neighbors had any thoughts of forgetting about us as they acclimate to their new city I made sure to leave a little token of my affection in the form of a stray kitten, once white, and in need of some love from fellow nomads.

Leaving Korea: My Top 10 Experiences

It has been 365 days since I arrived from my home in the Pacific Northwest to South Korea. In this year I have seen and experienced more than I could have hoped for in a lifetime. Living abroad is one of the greatest challenges we can face, and one of the most rewarding experiences. I have, at one time or another felt stripped of my culture, my language, my family, my religion and my personal comforts. But I have also gained a Korean family, friends, a new understanding and appreciation for religion, language, and the comfort of knowing I can meet many of the challenges that have plagued me in the past, head on. With so much gained this year, Matt has helped me to narrow down our top ten Korean experiences. Here they are! :

10. Jim Jil-Bang

Kicking off with number ten is the Jim Jil-Bang. Throughout the year we have spent hours on buses fitting our favorite Korean style bath house to the tune of “YMCA” as an expression of our deep love of the one stop scrub spot. The Jim Jil-Bang is above all else a bath house, where men, women and families go to clean up and relax in soaking tubs, but it also holds another purpose as a 24 hour place to get some shut-eye. We have, on a few occasions slept in one of the 24 hour Jim Jil-Bangs when it is just too late for a motel, and the experience is a truly memorable one. With dozens of Koreans piled on the spa floor, all dressed in jammies provided at the front desk, we always crack up as we step over snoring (and at times, flatulating) snoozers, trying to find a place to lay down and join in. The first time I had my back scrubbed by an unsuspecting adgima, I knew that this experience had to make my year’s top ten.

9. Scooters

Our first day in Korea I thought Matt and I might buy bedding or maybe groceries, but in fact our first outing was to the scooter shop to pick up some wheels for the year. Our scooter has truly become part of our lifestyle here as we rode it through rain and snow this winter and formed a “scooter gang” with friends for long road trips to temples, waterfalls and the beach. I finally got brave the second half of the year and started taking our retro bike on my own and if you have ever stepped into most of Asia you will understand my apprehension. Scooters follow little to none of the road laws present in most countries. In Korea you can witness scooters on sidewalks, parked inside buildings, and zipping around corners at top speed. Delivery drivers balance coolers of bibimbap as they fly between cars and through red lights, making the scooter a unique part of the Korean experience.

8. Sporting Events

You followed along as we cheered Ulsan Mobis basketball team to victory this past March and you mourned the loss of Korea’s defeat in the 2010 world cup. Between baseball games, school sports day and trips to the swimming pool, we have seen another side of Korea, filled with national pride as they support their athletes. Koreans know work ethic like no other culture I have ever seen, and this rings true on the soccer field and basketball court. Americans may be larger than the average Korean, but I guarantee a Korean will spend the night in a lap pool perfecting his stroke long after the western athlete has gone to bed. The athletes are not the only one’s dedicated to their national pride either. To this day I have never experienced a crowd of fans quite like the Korean crowd. There is no “if you can’t beat em’ join em’ ” option here, you either join in or you might as well go home!

7. Nore-Bang
I have been invited out with my principal, several of Matt’s superiors and numerous friends throughout the year to partake in norebang or “singing room” and the experience is never short of amazing. Imagine a karaoke scene, minus the stage, the dive bar backdrop or the hundreds of people whom you have never met booing your version of “Sweet Caroline.” The norebang is for private groups where you and your posse can sing until the wee hours with all the comforts from home, comfy couches, popcorn, beer and a big screen tv flashing some interesting and at times provocative clips. The image of my vice principal getting down to “Hey Jude” still puts a smile on my face, making the norebang experience a highlight to my year in Korea.

6. K-Pop

Back in the Fall we learned that MTV’s “Biggest Bad-ass Star” was a Korean by the name of Rain. With curiosity seriously peaked, we made the weekend trip to Seoul to see for ourselves if this sexy Korean, dancing machine could really deliver. Not only was the “Rainism” concert one of the most entertaining shows I have seen in ANY country, but this experience opened the door to a whole world of K-pop that I didn’t even know existed. Since then I have memorized Korean pop songs, screamed along with my middle school students when Shinee, 2ne1 or Big Bang are mentioned and even joined a K-pop dance class so I could follow along to the music video. With no other popular music genre option in Korea, K-pop stands alone as the dominant music source, and it seems that a new teen heart-throb group pops up weekly. It’s so hard to keep track of all the new talent I have been forced into buying a new pair of K-pop socks to wear on my slipped feet every time an album drops. And sure enough, just as quickly as Wonder Girls or 2PM popped up, they were gone, like magic, magic magic, it’s magic…oma oma oma…

5. Temples

Korea’s temples lie outside of any history or culture I had seen before this year. Standing proudly at the top of most mountains, walking into a temple is a must when visiting Korea. Our hike in Jirisan national park on Buddha’s birthday was the most memorable temple visit this year in Korea, with monks serving bibimbap to hikers at the top and the constant sound of chanting up and down the steep mountain. We stepped into the secret gardens inside Biwon and walked along paths that kings treaded in the 15th century. We visited what is claimed to be the largest central hall in Asia at Yakcheonsa on Jeju island. We ate temple lunch with monks after the lunar new year at Munsu temple and spent an afternoon with the female monks at the all women’s temple Songnamsa at the base of Gagisan mountain. The temple experience has been a highlight of our year in Korea and brought us not only a better understanding of the Korean culture but an appreciation for the preservation of ancient history throughout the world.

4. Korean Food

If there is one thing I will miss about Korea, it will be the food. From kalbi to live octopus we have spent the year putting daring, squirming, delicious food into our mouths and loving almost every morsel. Learning hangul was crucial to ordering food in a restaurant or at the market and we quickly recited our favorite dishes. In the winter we dined on samgye-tan stuffed chicken submerged in a hearty soup. In the spring we feasted on live octopus and fresh catches from the raw seafood market. The family style in which we have eaten this year has brought us close to our friends in Korea and even Matt can now sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor of a Korean restaurant.

3. Hiking

Coming from the Pacific Northwest we have grown-up with green mountains as a backdrop and Korea has certainly not dissapointed us on any of our vertical wanderings this year. We have hiked the tallest mountian in South Korea, picniced on the lip of a volcanic crator and finished up our year of hiking with a trip to neighboring Mt. Fuji in Japan. At the top of every mountian in Korea, your ascent is celebrated with a kimchi feast, toasting other hikers and enjoying a miraculous view. Seeing Korea from the top of dozens of mountains this year has made me appreciate our amazing earth much more and continued to instill a sense of adventure in my travels.

2. The DMZ

With the world’s most secretive country less than six hours away from our home on Korea’s southern coast, Matt and I have been eager to learn more about the relationship between North and South Korea since we arrived last August. In the year we have been here, the ceasefire treaty signed in post war Korea has been claimed not valid by the North, a South Korean warship has been sunk, and as of just recently North Korean leader Kim Jung Il has up and left during a visit by former US president Jimmy Carter. You would think that living in the midst of all this talk of possible war outbreak that we would be better informed than the rest of the world as to what was going on in our backyards…but we are not. Our visit to the demilitarized zone did very little to better understand the continued feud between North and South, but it did cast a hopeful light on future peace talks. We were able to visit and enter the 44km long third tunnel as well as Dorasan train station, the last stop on the rail line before passing over the North Korean border. The train station exists as a hopeful sign that peace will one day be acheived and that backpackers like myself will be able to make the trip of a lifetime by land.

1. Teaching

Ringing in at number one may be a surprise to many. I have spent the last 20 years being educated by teachers that I respect and admire and I was eager to take my place as one of these influential figures to my students in Korea this year. And then I got assigned to my position teaching fifteen year old boys… With class sizes averaging forty-five students I felt completely helpless trying to control, let alone teach English to ESL students. I have struggled and doubted myself more this year than ever before, nearly given up on several occasions and asked “why me?” Truth be told, on the other end this experience has helped me grow as a traveler more than any of the other nine on this list. The confidence I have acquired leading a class has made walking into a hostel and making friends elsewhere a breeze. The acceptance and realization that not all education systems are the same and flaws appear everywhere has helped me to appreciate the uniqueness of culture. The support and encouragement from fellow teachers has helped me remember that even when travelling through barren outback I am never alone. At the end of this year my students brought me more joy, understanding of Korean culture, and unforgettable stories than any other experience. Teaching is the hardest thing I have ever done, but certainly the most rewarding.

A big thanks for following my year in Korea, for your comments and your support, and a very special thanks to Matt for being my one link to home with everything that this has entailed. I am off to Australia for two months to volunteer, swim with sharks, wander through the outback and FINALLY enjoy a bottle of red wine. So stop by and follow this next adventure! Until next time, Anyonghi-kesseyo!

I Saw the Sign.

It is clear to me just how global the English language is, after having been employed fresh from University as an English language teacher in South Korea. Amongst the neon hangul signs that I spend hours on the bus translating, there are just as many English posters and signs catching the attention of foreigners and Koreans alike. And while Korea is making a tremendous effort towards proficiency of the English language, I can’t help but chuckle at grammatical errors, mis-spellings, non-sensical phrases and the occasional, accidental double entendre printed on a t-shirt, a restaurant sign or on the side of a bus. In no particular order, here are some of my favorite “English” signs spotted in Korea this year:

My 36 Views and Thoughts From Mount Fuji

A year of hiking in Korea and a lifetime of vertical wanderings has peaked at the ultimate sunrise ascent to the top of Mount Fuji with my favorite travel partner (no I didn’t carry a bottle of red wine up…not a bad idea though). Matt and I somehow managed to get restless looking around Japan’s fantastic cities after a few days and jumped at a chance to get outa the heat and climb the country’s tallest mountain. Bold move, BIG pay-off!

Fuji is an active volcano standing at 3,776 m. It is recommended for climbers only from July to August as temperatures at the have plunged as low as -38 c. Matt and I were coming from the West which is undoubtedly more of journey that from Tokyo, so we opted with a travel agency to make the trek BEFORE the trek a little more comfortable. Royal Holiday Tours out of Kyoto provided everything we needed for a great experience. Our package included a guide, three meals and accommodation on the mountain to help our bodies acclimatize to the change in altitude, and not to mention we were with a wonderful group of Japanese climbers who made the whole trip memorable.

Matt and I both knew we wanted to climb overnight in order to reach the summit at sunrise. This meant we would be climbing between 8pm and 4am to the top, making a roundtrip from station 5 to the summit roughly 12 hours. At mid-night we stopped at station eight to sleep a few hours in a bed that can only be described by singing “There were ten in the bed and the little one said, roll over, roll over…” I slept snug up against about twenty-five other hikers under one very long blanket for a couple of hours until it was time to try and beat the sunrise to the top of the mountain. As the elevation grew higher, the wind picked up and I thought that my spontaneity in jetting off to Japan and hiking its tallest mountain had finally caught up to me given that I didn’t have a proper winter coat. A man in our group leant me his extra layers making the final 300m possible.

Living on the West coast I have soaked up some of the world’s best sunsets but little do I know of a sunrise, and I really think the bar is unreasonably high after viewing one from the top of mount fuji. At the top were a sea of weary hikers, warming their hands against cups of green tea, and a couple of friends of ours from Korea GETTING ENGAGED!!! Amidst the backdrop of a snowy crater to our left and rising sun on our right I felt at the same time small and extremely powerful to be amongst the adventurous and lucky group that get to claim this view.

Fuji is nestled in my memory between stormy boat rides in Southern Italy and zip-lines through the Costa Rican jungle as an experience so special and unique to a culture that it remains in your arsenal of moments that changed your life forever. My 36 views of Mount Fuji are absolutely priceless.

Turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, in Kyoto.

There are places I never dreamed I’d visit, art I never thought I would be worthy of seeing in person, food I never imagined sampling and landscapes too rich and wild that seeing them in person feels like a dream. Japan was on this list of “nevers.” That is until a week ago when Matt reminded me that due to work priorities and my need to spend two months of the upcoming Fall finding my way through the Australian outback, that we had one last chance at an adventure together before heading back to Seattle. We booked ferry tickets that evening and took off on what has been one of our most fulfilling, spontaneous and life-changing adventures to date.

The beetle ferry from Korea’s southern port in Busan takes three hours to cross into Japan’s Fukuoka port city. With speedy and clean transportation and affordable rates this was the best option for us to get from Korea to Japan. Upon arriving at Fukuoka’s train station we broke one of the cardinal rules of travel: always check currency conversion rates. We boarded the bullet train headed for Kyoto after purchasing what we THOUGHT were equivalent to 29,000 won tickets. Three hours later after arriving at “bullet” speed to our next destination it occurred to us that we had just spent 29,000 YEN on train tickets. I’m not even going to convert to USD for any of you folks because it is just too painful to admit. Never the less the Shinkansen (new main line) is a scene in and of itself reaching speeds of 300km/hr! This was certainly the most luxurious transportation Matt and I will EVER have the pleasure of taking.

With only two days in Kyoto and plans to meet up with some long lost friends from Australia, we had a packed itinerary. First stop was the Higashi Hongan-Ji temple close to Kyoto’s train station. The temple was founded in 1603 and exists as a massive, gleaming reminder of Japan’s Daimyo rule. Each beam glitters with gold making this temple a dazzling must-see sight. Next up was the National Museum of Modern Art displaying Trouble in Paradise/Medi(t)ation of survival. We spent a good three hours playing in the museum’s second floor, hands on exhibition, exploring relationships between space and object. After hunting for silk kimonos and Geisha sightings in Nishijin textile center I was lured into a kimono fashion show where not only did I get to feast my eyes on dozens of beautifully handcrafted silk garments, but also had the pleasure of meeting the little green work-a-holics behind the scene, SILK WORMS! After purusingChicago for a second hand kimono, the Vapor’s “Turning Japanese” was officially on continuous play in my mind and I wanted nothing more than to live and breathe Japan the rest of my days.

We sampled sake into the wee hours in the famous Geisha district, Gion, and I quickly saw the international and quirky appeal of Kyoto. Within six blocks we hit up a wine bar, an underground reggae joint (underground I mean in the most literal sense as the music was completely mainstream but refreshing), the “Bob Dylan bar”, and a private party held inside a sake bar the size of a tea shop. A night-cap ontop of Kyoto-eki (train station) perfectly summed up a vibrant and whirlwind look at one of the world’s most intricate cities.

Maybe it was the company I was so fortunate to be sharing, old travel stories coming up for air, the sake, the delicate and meandering sidewalks, the neon signs perched next to edo architecture or that feeling of being back on the road, but Kyoto is where I fell in love with Japan and back in love with the hobby I have restled with the past year. I will never stop travelling and I would be a lucky lucky girl if I found myself back in Kyoto any day. Off for the climb of my life, Fuji here I come.