In high school, I worked at the only Chinese restaurant in my very humble town called “Hunan Village.” I neither knew what, or where, Hunan was at the time.
Fast forward six years later, and I meet the inspiration for my foray into China: a man named Chen. Through our friendship, he inspired me to not only self-study Mandarin in Japan, but also to study abroad in Beijing and later take the plunge and move to Shanghai. Honestly, without Chen, China wouldn’t even be a part of my life.
J and I were descending one of China’s greatest treasures: the National Park of Zhangjiajie.
Every corner we rounded presented us with a new jaw-dropping landscape of carved sandstone valleys poking through a sea of lush green trees. J and I took a deep breath, inhaled the clean air of the countryside and lost ourselves in the sea of clouds swirling in between the mountains.
That is, until Avicii arrived. You know, the Swedish DJ. The Chinese tourist who came bouncing down the trail behind us was blasting him full volume from his iPhone speaker.
How in God’s Name did I hear about this virtually unknown trail, the Kumano Kodo?
Well, I first stumbled upon this off-the-beaten-path pilgrimage when I worked for the Japanese government and found this photo on a pamphlet:
Something about it captivated me. Maybe it was the bizarre costume/pilgrimage outfit that is so ancient, even my knowledge from four years of Japanese language and culture classes left me in the dark. Perhaps the fact that it was one of only two UNESCO recognized pilgrimages in the world appealed to me, and I was dying to check ‘pilgrimage’ off the bucket list.
I stepped off the train platform at Takamatsu station, awash in nostalgia. Five years ago I found myself at this very same bus and train station housed in the city’s harbor. I was struck first by the smell of crisp and raw ocean air washing over me. The brilliant blue sky reflected the ocean surrounding the island. Unlike the streets of Tokyo, the people here walked at a slower pace, a smile on their face, with a peaceful calm floating over the city.
I was so grateful to return to one of Japan’s most charming small cities: Takamatsu.
Ah, March. The prelude to Spring. The light at the end of a long winter tunnel.
Or in Japan, it’s the start of one of the most prized occasions of the year:
Cherry Blossom Season.
Whatever high expectation you have for watching cherry blossoms in Japan (or better known as ‘hanami,‘ which literally means ‘watch flowers’ 花見), Japan will not disappoint on this front. It’s a magical experience.
While many tourists envision their hanami experience like an anime opening (think wind blowing in your hair as sakura petals brush past your skin), the reality may differ somewhat. To get the kind of hanami experience you’re dreaming of, it involves more than hopping on a plane and finding a sakura tree–it will take a whole ‘lotta planning.
Chances are, most western travelers never heard of Nagano. Maybe it sounds slightly familiar thanks to its hosting of the 1998 winter Olympics, which actually helped put Nagano on the map. For the most part, howeverit still remains widely unknown.
Nagano is one of Japan’s larger prefectures located in the Shinshu region directly west of Tokyo (about a one hour bullet train ride away). It is one of the most mountainous regions in Japan and is known for its snow, great peaks and amazing forests.
Call me spoiled, but after almost two weeks of this..
I thought: Enough. I can only lounge on a beach and read a book for so long. I need some exploration. Adventure. Excitement. And besides, if I drink anymore cocktails on this beach I’ll turn into the drunk that passed out on the shore and washed out to sea.
I want to see more than the beach. I want to see a part of Thailand no one else dares to explore.
I want to go to the jungles of Khao Sok.
Khao Sok made it into my itinerary mostly thanks to the word of my well-traveled Italian friend:
My best friend of over 20 years was in Thailand for a Pharmacy study abroad program, thus sparking the entire idea of me going to Thailand before my exit from China. After her gruesome 30 day course involving lepers, TB, getting smacked in the face with a ping pong paddle and elephant “sanctuaries” that reminded her of concentration camps, she was in desperate need of some R&R on the beach–and that’s exactly what we got.
Krabi, Just Go There
In southern Thailand, there’s few places that have escaped the wrath of tourism–Krabi included. I thought that Krabi would be a quaint, little seaside town that housed a few hostels and maybe some 5 star hotels–but man, was I wrong. Krabi is completely saturated by the tourism industry, with shady bars at every corner, hostels on every street and people trying to flag you down with cheap tours to go island hopping every 5 minutes.
During my visit home over the holidays, my dad and I sat at the bar table sipping white peony tea. He was nibbling on a cinnamon roll, I was snacking on some leftover Goi Cuon (Vietnamese spring rolls) my mom made earlier in the evening.
My father fought in the Vietnam war. It’s where he met my mother.
There are a slew of Vietnam veterans scattered throughout the country, but few managed to bring back a local from the war torn remains of Vietnam. Even fewer of these couples managed to keep their relationship together through the final, and most difficult hurdle: Culture Shock. Even if Vietnamese woman were to escape her homeland and be with the GI of her dreams in the supposedly “happily ever after” ending following the Vietnam war, many of them experienced extreme culture shock from their new American home and intercultural marriage, and few could adapt to the foreign world they were living in. This is best portrayed in the movie Heaven and Earth, where after ten years of marriage the Vietnamese wife of a GI leaves the safe haven of the USA and, eventually, goes back to Vietnam.