Tag Archives: family vacation

Japan from a Korean American Perspective

Anyone can be anime thanks to Japanese photo booths

After traveling on my own for a year, I was excited to meet up with my family in Japan. We haven’t seen each other since our month-long romp through Bosnia/Croatia/Italy at the end of last summer  (http://whereintheworldissandy.com/2016/10/09/family-reunion-in-bosnia-herzegovina-and-croatia/).  This time we would be spending six weeks seeing Japan and then South Korea for a first-ever family trip back to the Motherland and country of my birth.

Welcome to Tokyo!

I was looking forward to seeing Japan, a country that friends and fellow travelers consistently rave about, but candidly as the daughter of a Korean woman who remembers the devastation of Japanese occupation, I was cautious with my enthusiasm at least with mom around. My sister Sylvia a lifelong anime fan and artist has always been openly admiring of Japan, much to mom’s chagrin. My hope was that despite the long, complicated and devastating history between Korea and Japan, that we would all enjoy our time together and as soon as I saw their adorable faces at the airport, I knew that we would.

Tokyo Tetris

Tokyo is a perfect metropolitan puzzle, buildings of every size and shape that seem to perfectly together, like Tetris pieces. Everything is exceptionally clean with a sometimes annoying lack of public trash cans (because you carry it home or to the office where it can be disposed of privately). And despite the dense population, it all feels speedy and silently orderly. I’ve never seen such a big city full of so many people, cars and other forms of transport, lights, and distractions making such minimal noise.

Senso-Ji Temple in Tokyo

I’ve heard that not many Japanese people speak English and that proved to be quite true, but their reputation for politeness is also spot on. My first day in Tokyo, I wandered around lost trying to find my Airbnb in the Kyobashi neighborhood and it’s easy to be lost in these small streets without names. A lovely young woman saw me walking around in circles, staring desperately into my phone at Google Maps and approached me and we did a variety of body and hand gestures trying to communicate. I showed her the directions from my Airbnb host, which included like 10 screen shots of corners of buildings directing me to the apartment none of which include street names because as I already mentioned, there are no street names. This woman proceeded to walk a few circles with me for the next 10 minutes and I was so grateful and astounded by her patience and kindness so when we found the building, I was happy she initiated a hug because I was thrilled to give her a grateful squeeze.

We explored Tokyo using its amazingly efficient public transportation system, using mostly their subways and trains to get around the city. A tip for those who are going to travel around Japan, go ahead and buy the JR Rail Pass. It’s expensive, but worth it. Not only does this pass allow you to travel buy the famous Japanese bullet trains from city to city, but the JR lines also run all over the Tokyo province as well and the pass is good for those trains and you can use that pass as much as you’d like for the period that your pass is valid.

Food Glorious Food

Like Godzilla, we destroyed everything in our paths. Well, everything that’s edible, including the sushi, savory ramens, crispy tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet), yakitori (skewers), mochi (sweet rice cakes) at every turn and so many things. Japanese cuisine is delicious and always beautifully presented even when you’re eating at the most casual izakaya. In fact, our first night in Tokyo, we wandered to a local izakaya and were given enthusiastic welcomes in Japanese and the menu which was all in Japanese (as are most menus in Japan) and pointed to pictures of food that looked relatively familiar or just yummy. The tiny cafe was filled so the waiter made an impromptu table for us with a few plastic crates and a piece of wood that they put together on the small street outside the restaurant. The three of us squatted, graciously ate the delicious meal and laughed as the only cook who is apparently also the logistics person left the grill, jumped on a bike and returned in about five minutes with stools for the next group of patrons to sit on the street next to us.

Akhibara Anime Heaven

Sylvia got to live her greatest fantasies in this neighborhood that’s known for being the center of the anime universe. There are enormous digital and traditional billboards with bright, sexy but adorable anime girls, game rooms, toy stores and fans lined up we don’t know what, but it was definitely something to do with anime. As you wander the streets, there are young woman dressed in cute skipper or maid costumes with bright bows in their hair and they invite you to come and have dessert in a maid cafe. So we did and I described it as a happiness nightmare where everything is over-the-top cute. We were given cat ears to wear and the cafe is decorated like a little girl’s tea party. When mom was initially asked to “meow-meow” when ordering her food and drink, she didn’t seem too keen, but we were all meow-meowing by the end. But don’t let all of this cuteness fool you, it comes at a cost, literally every part of it includes some kind of charge including taking photos inside the cafe.

Domo Arigato Mr. Robot Restaurant

There’s really no way to accurately describe this surreal experience in way that does it justice. It’s part musical, part dance performance with everything from unicorns, robots, dragons, lasers, and rainbows all colliding together for an unforgettable hour and a half. Yes, it’s very touristy and I think every foreign tourist in Tokyo was in the restaurant, but it’s also such a uniquely Japanese cultural experience.

Taking It Down A Level in Izu

We took the speed train to the Izu Peninsula to a small town just outside of Ito and stayed in a traditional Japanese house with sliding wood doors, sleeping on tatami mats, all nestled in a quiet street where the only sound are passing trains. It’s a totally sleepy town on the black rock/sand beach and like much of Japan, surrounded by mountains. We loved Izu, it’s scenic and quiet and we were able to slow down from the dizzying pace of Tokyo life. We saw some lovely temples, amazing volcanic cliffs and turquoise water, and mom and Sylvia rode ski lifts for the first time. Our favorite part of the Izu experience was visiting an onsen, a Japanese bath house that’s set in the mountains with an outdoor bath where you can sit in the steamy bath set outdoors overlooking the side of the mountain and you feel like Venus rising, all powerful, beautiful and nude. Mom, Sylvia and I spent a lot of quality time together this past month, including much of it with our clothes off visiting these awesome baths. When in Japan…

Kyoto the Florence of Japan

Everyone loves Kyoto and it’s because it’s gorgeous and timeless. In many ways, I felt like Kyoto was the Florence of Japan, not as much happening in the craziness of Tokyo, but there’s wonderful cultural liveliness and the history feels more tangible there. Part of that is because there are temples literally everywhere in the city and we stayed in Gion, the part of the city known for temples and a rare geisha sighting. There are a ton of kimono rental shops as many people, especially the young adults want to experience this city in traditional clothes. And as much as I love the ways these kimonos look, I have to say that with 90+ degree weather and 300% humidity, I didn’t envy these pretty ladies in their clothes and struggling up these steep streets in their wooden sandals.

We were lucky enough to meet my new friend Ben from the US who is living in Kyoto so we got a personal tour of this amazing city. Ben’s incredibly knowledgeable and excited about Japan so it was fun to see the city with him and he took us to some awesome places, including Kinkakuji Temple (the Golden Temple), Ryoanji Temple the home of Japan’s most famous rock garden and a drizzly walk down Philosopher’s Path.

My favorite part of Kyoto was the bamboo forest in the northern part of Kyoto. I loved Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and one of the most memorable scenes from that movie took place in this bamboo forest. It’s otherworldly and you’re slowly meandering through green serenity.

Oh Yeah Osaka

We ended our fabulous journey through Japan in Osaka, the country’s second largest city. It had many of the amenities of Tokyo but felt far less dense and immense. The city’s most famous for food and we definitely know why as we had some of our favorite meals in Osaka. I also got to see my friend Shun whom I met in Australia and we quickly became lifelong buddies. He lives in Kobe not far from Osaka and met us at the Osaka Castle stop and brought us to an insanely delicious ramen place. After stuffing our faces with salty savory ramen, we explored the incredible Osaka Castle. It was like 200 degrees that day, but we loved every minute of it and loved seeing it with my favorite Japanese friend.

In the end, we all left having a greater appreciation of Japan, the modern and ancient aspects, the food, the polite and kind people and ease with which you are able to travel the beautiful country even if none of us spoke Japanese (well Sylvia remembers some from years of anime and mom recalled a bit from childhood). And it was so wonderful to get to connect with friends during this trip to Japan, generously giving their time and hosting us in their respective cities. To them and to the quiet and polite people of Japan “domo arigato goziamasu”.

Family Reunion in Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia

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After an amazing time Spain with my best friends, I had a few days before a major trip with my family that would last for four weeks and would take us from Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Italy! I knew I needed to rest, recuperate from a lingering travel bug and gear up for what I knew would be a fun, but potentially stressful month ahead.

Albufeira, Portugal, my hideaway before family time.
Albufeira, Portugal, my hideaway before family time.

So I took a flight to Portugal and went to Albufeira in the Algarve, a little town on the gorgeous coast with soft sand beaches and tangerine colored cliffs. My Airbnb host Raquel picked me up from the tiny airport which I was incredibly grateful as I didn’t realize that I booked her place that was almost 45 minutes from the airport and the public transportation options are pretty much non-existent in this part of Algarve. It turns out Raquel quit her stressful job as a journalist working in Lisbon a few years ago to slow down and reassess life, move to her small hometown, which led her to meeting her German partner and having her first child. We had a great conversation about city life, demanding careers, travel, the European economy and ventured into more philosophical territories about the meaning of life and how quickly it passes, which is why we both knew it was time to make a change. She told about how tragic it is that the economy in Portugal has suffered and the struggle of trying to make a culture and people conform to “German standards” of the EU. It was a really interesting perspective that I hadn’t heard on such a personal, but quite informed point of view. Raquel’s place was 5 minutes from the beach, amazing and cheap food and little to no tourists — it was paradise and I soaked it up for five days.

I decided in my last day to stop by a beauty salon to ask about getting my color done. I’ve spent the past 3 months without wearing makeup (I don’t count lipstick/lipgloss as makeup as these are in the “essentials” category for me like water) and it’s been GLORIOUS. As a woman, you can appreciate how much time even the lowest maintenance versions of getting ready with as little makeup as possible still adds up. I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup when I was younger even in high school, mom didn’t want me to wear it because she said it would ruin my skin, so I didn’t really wear it in college and so entering the “real working world” I was a little gung-ho at first and probably looked like a drag queen. So not having to do it and just walking around the world without any makeup on is so DAMN LIBERATING. And here’s the thing, I feel more beautiful now with nothing more than sunscreen than I do when I’m all dolled up with full make up on. I’m sure the not-working is making a major difference too. OK, back to the salon story. So the lady was very sweet and she didn’t speak any English and I spoke no Portuguese so when she asked me about my hair and lifted the greys and asked me a question in Portuguese about it, I said “yes” thinking she was asking about covering the grey, but it turns out she turned my reddish highlights in the front of my hair to full blonde. So now, I am a blonde Korean.

Blonde Korean
Blonde Korean

Flying to Sarajevo is a little challenging from Portugal, so the only flight I could find for less than 1000 euro was to spend a night in Brussels and leave the next morning so that’s what I did. I arrived in Sarajevo to find my mom, sister Sylvia and her boyfriend Ervin and his aunt waiting at the airport for me (they flew in the evening before). Although it had only been a couple of months since I’ve seen them, it was nonetheless super exciting to see the people I love most in the tiny arrivals area of Sarajevo airport. And as expected, my mom was thrilled to see me and the first words out of her mouth expressed dismay and horror, “ohmygod! You soooooo DAAAAHHHKK!!!  Your face ruining all those feckles (freckles)!” Korean culture like many Asians, believe “clean”,  fair milky skin is the definition of beauty. But this Korean American loves her some sun and the more Vitamin D I can absorb into my body, the better. I was excited to see my family for our first trip to Europe as a family and we would spend the next two weeks in Bosnia and Croatia visiting Ervin’s family.

View of Sarajevo from the air
View of Sarajevo from the air
My "terrible" tan and the cause of much concern from mom. That's Sylvia's very white leg.
My “terrible” tan and the cause of much concern from mom. That’s Sylvia’s very white leg.

My family didn’t have many opportunities to go on  vacations. Mom was always working and money was often tight. And now that mom is retired and I am taking this time off, we decided that it would be a  chance for all of us to meet some of Ervin’s family in Europe and enjoy some time here together. Ervin and Sylvia have been together for a long time. At this point, I honestly don’t even remember a time when he wasn’t part of our family. He lives in Alexandria with mom and Sylvia and he and his family left Bosnia toward the end of the war and immigrated to a suburb of Chicago.

We stayed with his sweet and kind mom Dijana in her home in Sarajevo and Ervin’s family adopted us for the next two weeks, feeding us, driving us around, and just making us feel as welcome and like we were part of their family. There is no better travel experience than being with locals, and there is certainly no better way to see Bosnia than being with Ervin’s family. There was a constant stream of aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, neighbors and friends and they were all the warmest, hilarious, generous and most thoughtful people. They brought us into their homes, fed us enormous quantities of food, poured potent shots of rakia (homemade liquor that can be at least 40 proof) into our glasses, gave us gifts and shared stories and much more.

Sylvia, Mom and Dijana loved feeding the pigeons in old town Sarajevo. No thanks.
Sylvia, Mom and Dijana loved feeding the pigeons in old town Sarajevo. No thanks.
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Lovely cousin Alma
Family photo at Uncle Rosco's mountain home.
Family photo at Uncle Rosco’s mountain home.
Peas we picked from Uncle Rosco's garden that later Aunt Jela turned into the world's most delicious soup.
Peas we picked from Uncle Rosco’s garden that later Aunt Jela turned into the world’s most delicious soup.
Enjoying our time at Uncle Rosco's mountain home.
Enjoying our time at Uncle Rosco’s mountain home.
One of our many "light' meals in Bosnia.
One of our many “light’ meals in Bosnia.
Dijana's godfather, part of the cutest couple on Earth
Dijana’s godfather, part of the cutest couple on Earth
Dijana's godmother. She's 84 and I love her.
Dijana’s godmother. She’s 84 and I love her.

One of the most incredible aspects of our trips was hearing from Ervin’s family about their stories from the war in the ’90s. I’m embarrassed to say my memory of these horrifying events was vague at best as I was in college at the time, so hearing accounts of survival, escape, injuries, death, heroes and heroines and even happy tales was so inspiring and humbling.

The Bosnian War took place between 1992 – 1995 and was part of the break up of the former Yugoslavia and the conflict between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. It was a brutal and devastating war that led to approximately 100,000 deaths and over 2 million people were displaced, horrifying rapes and murders with some later convictions of war crimes. We heard stories over the years from Ervin, but hearing them from his mom, aunts, uncles and cousins painted an even more harrowing and inspiring picture. There were tales about hiding during the bombings, knowing that their homes were not able to withstand these type of weapons, children playing outside near barricades and bombs, food, supplies and people making their way through tunnels, surviving with little food and constant fear and so many examples of heroism. It’s hard to believe that while I was dancing at frat parties to Naughty By Nature, people not too far from me were figuring out how to survive.

Two of our favorites: Uncle Josip and Uncle Rosco. They are both heroes from the war and really after.
Two of our favorites: Uncle Josip and Uncle Rosco. They are both heroes from the war and still today.
The tunnel where many escaped and supplies were brought in during the war.
The tunnel where many escaped and supplies were brought in during the war.
The largest cemetery in Bosnia where many who died during the war are buried.
The largest cemetery in Bosnia where many who died during the war are buried.

And the most remarkable part of these stories was how they banded together, across cultures, religions, families and borders to take care of each other.  At the time and now, it didn’t matter who was Muslim, Bosnian, Croatian or Catholic, they were family, friends and neighbors and they were going to survive together. It’s a lesson that I think that’s more valuable now than ever. And these people do not wallow in loss and sorrow, the family lives fully, work and play hard, and are justifiably proud of their countries and histories.

Seeing Bosnia and Herzegovina was  eye opening and my family and I really enjoyed our time there. We spent a few days in Sarajevo visiting family, touring the old city where the mosque and Catholic church are less than a mile apart, ate delicious treats and mom and Sylvia relished in buying the bronze Turkish tea sets and other souvenirs. Much like the people, you could still see evidence of the war all over the city, but repairs and resilience were also evident.

Mom soaking in the crisp perfect air in Herzegovina
Mom soaking in the crisp perfect air in Herzegovina
Quick stop to buy fresh mountain trout. Note that this fish looks like a minnow in Uncle Rosco's giant hands.
Quick stop to buy fresh mountain trout. Note that this fish looks like a minnow in Uncle Rosco’s giant hands.
Insane cliff divers in Mostar
Insane cliff divers in Mostar
This is the full view of the bridge and freezing waters in Mostar.
This is the full view of the bridge and freezing waters in Mostar.

Ervin’s family took us from Sarajevo through the gorgeous drive through Herzegovina where lush mountains looked down into crystal blue lakes and rivers. We were heading to Croatia to Ervin’s family’s beach home and went via Mostar, an ancient city close to the border. Our stop there included an extravagant meal (yes, my pants were tighter after this trip) and seeing the cliff divers who jump off the old bridge, but not before asking the audience for money to watch the spectacle.

Repiç our beautiful home for the next week.
Repiç our beautiful home for the next week.
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Walking along the one road leading to Klek, the other “bigger” yet really tiny town to get essentials like ice cream.
Our "TV" in Repiç and where I would watch the sunset every evening.
Our “TV” in Repiç and where I would watch the sunset every evening.

I’ve heard so many things about how beautiful Croatia is and all of the hype is true. It’s gorgeous. The mountains aren’t lush like they are in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the climate is more arid, but the Adriatic Sea is spectacular to behold. The beaches are rocky, which is pretty typical of many European beaches, but the water is bluer than the sky, and little towns are set along the cliffs with white and nectarine colored roofs.

We stayed in a tiny town called Repiç, just about an hour from Dubrovnik, but quite different in that it’s mostly undeveloped and locals who have resided there for multiple generations (although that is changing with more foreigners buying property there). The house was built by Ervin’s grandfather who made everything from the structure, to the welding work of the iron terraces, plumbing, and electrical. His grandfather and really the entire generation of men from that time, including his uncles can build anything. It makes me embarrassed that I can barely assemble a 3 piece shoe rack from Ikea without having a complete mental breakdown.

When we were in Sarajevo, Sylvia accidentally stepped on my iPhone, which at the time felt like a punch in the gut because my phone was my map, my calendar, my email, text and really my lifeline to everything and everyone. Being in small towns without having a phone and without internet access was frustrating at first, but eventually allowed me to really relax and unleash. And it was really easy to do this in a little town like Repiç, where our routine consisted of breakfast outside on the patio, followed by a quick walk down the steps to the sea (which was pretty chilly, but worth diving in because the water was so clear), laying in the sun and staring out into perfection, lunch, then a brief walk over to the tiny town of Klek where we would get ice cream, then dinner and bed. It was quiet, simple and perfect.

Ervin's longtime neighbors in Croatia, the super hilarious and active 86 years young. His home was spectacular.
Ervin’s longtime neighbors in Croatia, the super hilarious and active 86 years young. His home was spectacular.
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View from his neighbor’s deck.
This would be the crystal clear Adriatic Sea.
This would be the crystal clear Adriatic Sea.
Ervin returning to his childhood swimming pool in the sea
Ervin returning to his childhood swimming pool in the sea

We ended our time together with one night in Dubrovnik, which after almost a week in Repiç felt like NYC in comparison. There was a serious issue with my Airbnb host pulling an awful bait and switch (first and hopefully only BAD Airbnb experience) and so we were left scrambling for a new place to stay at the last minute. Dubrovnik has been a hotspot for tourists for some time, but it seems Game of Thrones has really upped the fervor as there were so many tours and shops with GOT themes.

The city is really as beautiful as the photos and as much as I wish I had more time to explore there, I was really happy I spent my time with my family in the quiet and off the grid in Repiç. We were all sad to part and say goodbye to Ervin’s family. In just two weeks and despite language and cultural challenges, we had all become one family and shared so many laughs. We hope that we have an opportunity to show even a tiny bit of the hospitality and generosity that they showed us when they visit us in the U.S.  We also said goodbye to Ervin who had to return home and get back to work while mom, Sylvia and I set off for part 2 of our European adventure.

Young love in Croatia
Young love in Croatia
Dubrovnik at night
Dubrovnik at night
Sisters hugging it out in Dubrovnik
Power couple Aunt Jela and Uncle Josip giving a lesson to the young couple
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Sisters hugging it out in Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik at night
Dubrovnik at night
Last family photo
Last family photo