Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Exploring Seongnam City

Today Jonathan and HJ needed to go to work so we took it easy. Slept in a bit, laundry etc. Around lunch time we headed out on our own! We took a short bus ride to AK Plaza in the downtown area of Seongnam City (suburb of Seoul).  This is the area that Jonathan and HJ live in. The girls found this fountain to try to cut the heat. They watched the water and got a bit wet! 

These innocent looking cicadas create an incredible amount of noise all day long! We watched children trying to catch them near a playground.  We had to look up info about them and apparently only the males make that mating call during the hot summer days. 

These multi level buildings are seen everywhere you look in Seongnam City (suburb of Seoul). They are packed solid with businesses. Everything from restaurants and cosmetic stores to tiles and Karaoke bars.  It's a little difficult to find places to look around when you are not able to read the Korean signs.. but you will notice some English.

Fascinating traffic ways. I took this photo while crossing the street.

Abby and I headed to the grocery store (in the basement of a close by building) to pick up some breakfast food.

Auntie HJ joined us for dinner. She took us to a chicken restaurant that serves awesome garlic roasted chicken. We enjoyed the spicy fries and the sides of pickles, jalapeños and radishes.  The beer went down really well with the chicken too!

After dinner, Auntie HJ explained this truck. This man makes a living driving around selling traditional Korean wares.  She shared some stories about what some of these pieces were used for in the olden days.

Thanks for reading, 

Last Day in Japan

Our last day in Japan started off with an amazing brunch on the 30th floor of our spectacular hotel - The Portlandia Hotel in Kobe.  The room itself was enormous and had many amenities.  Rachel and Abby's favourite feature was the toilet with a seat warmer and a bidet.  But the brunch was really something else and the view from the 30th floor of the old tower in the hotel was phenomenal!

After dining in style, we boarded the bus and our first stop was the Herb Garden Ropeway, a gondola ride up Nunobiki Mountain in Kobe.  Not only did the view from the top offer some spectacular views of the city of Kobe, but the beautifully manicured gardens lining the path all the way down the mountain made for some great photos.

When we arrived at the top, one of the ladies from our tour group ran up to us and grabbed Rachel and Abby by the arm and dragged them over to this statue for a picture.  She gestured to us something about the girls being like angels.  In fact, many of the folks on our tour bus were quite taken with our girls and would often rub their arms, pat their heads and even buy them gifts.  The lady pictured here presented each of our girls with a little something at different points in our travels which was completely unexpected and caught us by surprise.  To be honest, I really don't think the girls minded all of this extra attention and, at times, might have even played to the extra attention that they were receiving ;-)

Although I snapped many macro shots of the flowers adorning the gardens on the way down the hill, the following flower was my favourite.  I've never seen a flower that looked like this before and was very intrigued by the vivid colours and detail in this flower.  While I have no idea what kind of flower this is, I've now officially dubbed it as 'the coolest flower in the world'...

From the Herb Garden Ropeway, we headed over to Kitano Village in Kobe for a walking tour of the district that, literally translated, means the village of 'different looking people'.  This hillside neighbourhood was home to one of the first batches of foreigners in Japan and many of the Asian tourists who come to visit are amazed by the architecture.  For us, it was no big deal ;-)

We left Kitano Village and made our way over to Ikuta Road for our last meal in Japan.  The sushi restaurant we stopped at proved to be the perfect send-off (for Jennifer and I, maybe not for our kids)! Nice variety and everything was very fresh and flavourful.  While we enjoyed our meals, Rachel and Abby's highlight of this restaurant was being required to remove their footwear at the door.  Not only did we have to remove our shoes, by we also got to lock them up in individual shoe lockers with wooden keys.  We think more restaurants should have features like this!

After lunch, we had to catch a high speed passenger ferry from Kobe over to the Kansai Airport in Osaka for our flight back to Seoul.  The weather was nice so it was a pretty smooth ride, but I was still surprised by how little impact the large swells had on our boat ride.  I was prepared for being tossed around a lot more.  

The flight back to Seoul aboard Jeju Air (or the 'Mr. Winky Planes' as Abby calls them) seemed short and we arrived at the Gimpo Airport (not the Incheon airport which we flew out of) before dark.  We hopped into a bus for the hour long ride back to Seongnam City then a short taxi ride later we arrived safely back at Jonathan & HJ's place around 9:00pm. 

Auntie HJ prepared a wonderful beef bulgogi for dinner which we devoured before calling it a night.  Although it was only a few days and a few cities, we can now scratch Japan off our bucket list.  And now we're going to continue this little adventure of ours on Korean soil for the next little while...

To those of you who are reading our blog posts, thanks for following along with our travel tales! 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Kyoto + Kobe = Krazy Kool!

We woke up in Osaka, Japan and enjoyed the breakfast buffet. It had traditional Japanese foods as well as more common breakfast foods like cereal, sausage, eggs and Rachel's favourite - croissants!  We drove to Kyoto, Japan. Along the way we saw beautiful scenery! 

Kyoto, Japan... the tour guide shared this bamboo forest with us! It was a spectacular walk through a forest filled with very tall, thick bamboo trees.  It rained most of the day but that didn't stop us from enjoying the day!

We also visited Kiyomizu Temple today. This photo was just at the approach. The impressive structure is below.

These three natural springs bring people love, health or education depending on the one you drink from.  We then drove to another temple in Kyoto.

The bus driver parked quite a ways from the next temple. On our walk to Inari Jinja Temple we noticed these beautiful tombs along the road in a heavily populated area.

This path led to the temple. It was a spectacular sight!

Along the highways we often saw many interesting things.  However, it was difficult to take a photo without a large wall or truck getting in the way. We did manage to snap this one ... with some recognizable landmarks for Canadians!  We didn't realize the driver sits on the opposite side of the vehicle in Japan and also drives on the other side of the road. Yet the speed limit is posted in km and haven't seen many areas that are over 80 km/hour, even on the freeways! 

We arrived in Kobe, Japan just in time for dinner.  We had a traditional Yosenabe (hot pot) with vegetables and beef.  It was also served with rice.  Absolutely delicious.  We had a short drive to Portopia Hotel in Kobe, Japan.  Turns out it's on an island... 

Andy and Jonathan went to check out downtown Kobe via train. I hope they will share about their adventures later! Goodnight. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Glimpse of Japanese Culture

We had a very early start to the day today.  We were up at 4:30am to catch a ride to the airport with Jonathan and HJ to spend a few days in Japan.  We're extremely grateful to Auntie HJ for making arrangements for all of us to enjoy a three day bus tour around several cities in Japan.  The first day was pretty spectacular and we love what we've seen of this country already!

We flew into Osaka and other than a one hour flight delay it was pretty smooth sailing.  Once we cleared customs and the tour group assembled (all Koreans with the exception of us foreigners), we loaded into our bus to make the trek from Osaka's airport to the city of Nara.  Beautiful drive through industrial, rural and mountainous regions.  We were quite surprised by the number of golf driving ranges that we saw en route and somewhat aggravated by the barriers along both sides of the highway for much of the trek.

We finally arrived in the city of Nara at about 2:00pm and headed straight for the buffet restaurant that was awaiting our arrival.  Had a great lunch that featured a number of Japanese menu items, then we headed just down the road to explore Tōdai-Ji Temple.  This is the world's largest wooden temple and it is home to an enormous Buddha sculpture.  Apparently 16 full grown men (Japanese men?) could stand in Buddha's hand!  It's really difficult to convey in pictures just how massive this structure is...

From the temple, we walked through the surrounding Nara Deer Park to return to our tour bus.  The mule deer who inhabit this park are extremely curious about humans and do not hesitate to make their presence known.  While they're not great about just standing still and posing for a picture, they love to sniff bags and pockets looking for handouts.  In fact, they've been known to harass people a little and can even become a little aggressive.

From Nara, we hopped back on the bus and made our way back to Osaka so that we could see Osaka Castle.  Due to the delayed flight, we didn't have time to fully explore this spectacular historical feature within the heart of Japan's second largest city.  We walked around both the inner and outer moats and made our way right up to the castle itself.  However, we didn't get to make our way inside the main building as we had to make a beeline back to the bus for our next stop.  Our retreat to the bus became that much more hasty when it started to rain as Koreans really dislike the rain and all their umbrellas were left behind on the bus.

From Osaka Castle, we drove right into the heart of the city to briefly explore Shin Sai Bashi, which is the most bustling shopping district I've ever seen anywhere.  I likened it to Times Square on steroids.  There were tens of thousands of people flowing along the sidewalk and, apparently, it gets even crazier at night when all the neon signs get lit up.  We were very grateful for the hour that we had to wander through Shin Sai Bashi, as it's definitely a spectacle that none of us will soon forget!

After retracing our steps through Shin Sai Bashi, we filed into a fantastic teppanyaki restaurant called Chibo for our dinner reservation.  The food was prepared on a hot grill right at our table and was extremely flavourful.  The most intriguing part of the meal was the okonomiyaki (seen below) which was almost like an egg pizza stuffed with rice, shrimp and squid then topped with barbecue sauce and mayo.  After our meal was complete, Rachel tried her hand at being a teppanyaki chef and proved that she's got quite the skills!

We headed back to the bus and made our way to the hotel, but not before a quick selfie overlooking the Dotomborigawa River and Shin Sai Bashi.

Our hotel was located right beside Osaka Station and this area was also bustling.  While Jennifer and the girls settled in for the night, I strolled up and down a number of vibrant streets in this region.  There were numerous restaurants, lounges, gaming rooms (slots, video games, etc...) and karaoke rooms.  I could have spent hours exploring this area but knowing that tomorrow will be another full day, I decided to make my way back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.

Even though we felt as if we had just arrived in Korea and wanted to explore Seoul more fully before heading to Japan, we're thrilled that HJ and Jonathan could both join us for our Japan side trip.  A great big thank you once again to HJ for booking this bus tour on our behalf and making all of the necessary arrangements.  It sure is a treat to have our own personal tour guide :-)