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Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho: A Perfect Summer Roadtrip

Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho: A Perfect Summer Roadtrip

The Sawtooth National Forest near the Sun River Valley in Idaho is a perfect summer getaway for those who live on the West Coast. Why go to Sawtooth National Forest, you may ask? Not only does it lack the massive crowds that most other national parks have, but it also offers equally stunning hikes and activities.

Skip to the four day itinerary at the bottom if you want to go straight to the logistics!

Never heard of the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho? Me either.

My friend in Utah and I were looking for a nice halfway vacation in between Portland and Salt Lake City. When I opened google maps and scanned the geography, I saw that the Sawtooth National Forest was right smack dab between Oregon and Utah. read more

The Ruby Ronin’s 2016 Year in Review

The Ruby Ronin’s 2016 Year in Review


As social media and the internet have already proclaimed, 2016 was not exactly a great year.  Dozens of amazing, life-changing and truly respectable celebrities passed away–and most of them, in my opinion, left this world too soon (Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Prince… just to name a few).

The most devastating public tragedy to occur in 2016, in my personal opinion, is the election of Donald Trump.  I’m in disbelief that a bigoted, low-intelligence, tax-evading, rapist could become president.  I go into 2017 with a heavy heart and sincere concern about the U.S. and the world.  As someone studying foreign policy day-in, day-out, I am extremely aware of the damage an unpredictable president like Trump will do, and it is very frightening indeed.  I went into graduate school with the high hopes of graduating, working hard to get a job in the federal government and serve under the first female president–and now everything has changed.  My future looks uncertain.

The end of 2016 also invoked personal pain and heartache.  My hometown in Niigata, Itoigawa City, was engulfed in flames on December 22nd.  Over 140 buildings were lost to the fire.  However, because of the tight-knit community and the warning systems put in place, no one was injured or dead.  Over 800 people were safely evacuated.  My friends lost their homes and the entire downtown of Itoigawa is now charred to a crisp.  It was heart breaking.  A city with so many memories and so much history–lost.

Yet if there is one thing I know the Japanese do best, it is rebuild.  After fighting the fire for 1.5 days, the town got together on day 2 and already started preparations to rebuild Itoigawa.  I wish I could be there to help them–the Itoigawa community is my second home, and I truly love them.

Aside from rather gloomy world events, how did my 2016 fare?  Thankfully, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, although there were some rough spots.

The Year of Travel (and seeing old friends)

Sunset in San Diego with Z and Jean

I traveled a lot in 2016.  I went to Japan and visited old stomping grounds (Takamatsu and Hiroshima) as well as new ones (Kumano Kodo and Kamakura).  I stopped by Shanghai and saw old friends and had an epic journey with J to Zhangjiajie, Hunan.  I went to Canada for the first time with Richard, where he took me to Vancouver and Whistler (and I’ll definitely write about this amazing country later!).  We also ventured to Minneapolis, Duluth, Lake Superior, Napa, Sonoma and finished off the year in Costa Rica.

Zhangjiajie with J!
Kumano Kodo!
Mt. Whistler in Canada!
Lake Superior!
Ethiopian food in Minneapolis!
Z soakin up the sun in La Jolla, San Diego

This year taught me that frequent travel is possible without being a nomad.  Sure, roaming the world from one destination to the next with a backpack and a camera is exciting and fun; but the road can get lonely, and not having a home to return to starts to burn a hole in your heart.   It’s nice to travel and explore… but it’s even better to return to someone you love and a cozy, stationary home.

Family and Health Concerns

Brought my dad to San Diego before his operation

Earlier I wrote about this briefly, but my father was very ill this year.  He suffered from congestive heart failure and underwent a complicated quadruple bypass surgery.  The before-after process for surgery was truly heart-wrenching, but luckily the procedure and his recovery was smooth and successful.

My father is already his usual jolly self and nearly 100% recovered.  I am beyond relieved.He still has some other health issues to tackle, but for the most part he is doing just fine.

Although I truly miss life in Asia, it’s moments like this that make me glad I’m in the United States.

Graduate School Highs and Lows

One high is definitely living here

2016 was the year I took the plunge and quit my job to go back to school.  The mental trauma the entire process of graduate school incurred was monumental.  One month prior to graduate school I had nightmares and cold sweats about whether I was doing the right thing or not.  I am not rich and I do not have the luxury to go to graduate school to get a humanities/political science degree, I frequently told myself.  Is this going to be worth it?  Am I doing the right thing?

Oh my goodness readers… days before my first class, I almost quit the program.  Making the decision to spend thousands (like, thousands and thousands) of dollars on education was one of the most difficult decisions of my life.

San Diego sunsets for healing

Also,  I don’t know if it’s my program or what, but graduate school is tough as shit.  It’s like undergrad on steroids, crack and LSD all at once.  I spend every waking hour of my life (not exaggerating) either in class learning or at the library studying.  I probably read close to 500 pages of text and write up to 5 papers per week.  I realized that graduate students are the ultimate masochists, because we pay so much money to suffer.


Yet, I have no regrets.  I’m learning an insane amount of information.  My view of the world, and the U.S. government, has been flipped upside down (and in a good way).  My program has four career coaches to help us find employment.  95% of the graduating class is employed.  I’m in good hands.

I also have to say that: If I went to any other graduate school (including the expensive ivy-league ones), this degree would probably not be worth it.  My school is highly ranked, has incredible faculty; teaches us applicable, real-world knowledge and is affordable.  The value of graduate school is definitely in the caliber of the school and faculty more than the piece of paper.

And Finally, The Big Announcement

Atop the peak of Mt. Whistler, Richard popped the big question.


I now have even more to look forward to in 2017.  Time to plan that wedding.

Happy New Year Everyone!

2016 had some bad (ok, a lot of bad), but it definitely had some good.  I’m hoping that, despite our idiot president and all, 2017 will be a good year.  I will graduate, get married and hopefully find that career I’ve been striving after for so many years.  Although I’m not looking forward to the wedding planning, I’m definitely excited about the next chapter of my life after graduate school–and most of all, starting a new life with Richard.


Have a happy 2017 everyone!

Hiking Zhangjiajie in Hunan: A Must See in China

Hiking Zhangjiajie in Hunan: A Must See in China



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.

Chen and I from six years ago when we traveled to Korea

Chen is from Hunan.

Chen with his AWESOME WIFE!

For years, Chen has been urging me to see his homeland, so when I told him I was going back to China this summer, he and his wife invited me to go–and I did.  I finally made it to Hunan province, the hometown of the infamous Mao Ze Dong, the land of hot peppers and spices, a province full of minority tribes and ripe with national parks.

Believe it or not, this is supposed to be Mao Ze Dong. Gotta love that wind blowing in his hair.

The trip was a wake up call for me.  Chen’s father father lived in a crumbling, concrete apartment building from communist-era China, covered in mold and black decay. Despite all of the wealth in Shanghai and the coastal cities, it was then I realized that although China has managed to lift 250 million people out of poverty, most of its citizens still live in staggeringly poor conditions.

Outside of Chen's father's home
Outside of Chen’s father’s home

Chen’s family was more than generous.  They invited me into their home, prepared the best Chinese food of my life, and made many toasts to my travels.

This is why I love China.
This is why I love China.

After visiting his family, Chen encouraged me to see Zhangjiajie, a UNESCO world heritage site and the pride of his home province.  Although he was unable to accompany me, I was able to persuade J to escape from Shanghai and follow me to the countryside.

And by far, Zhangjiajie was one of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had in China.



Zhangjiajie is a city located in northern Hunan province and is a five hour bus ride from the capital city of Changsha.  The national park Wulingyuan within Zhangjiajie City was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1992.  The first city here dates back to 221 B.C.–so yes, this place is really, really old.  Zhangjiajie is also home to one of China’s minority tribe which, unfortunately, also means it’s the poorest region in Hunan.

Most know Zhangjiajie as the inspiration for the movie Avatar, and it’s easy to see the similarities.  Zhangjiajie is a natural playground of rock formations.  Like fingers reaching up to touch the heavens, the jagged, quart-size sandstone columns hidden in the ephemeral mist of this rural piece of China makes for a mystical landscape indeed.  Some of these columns are almost 600 feet (200 meters) high!

The Good: Must See, Jaw Dropping Views


The scenery at Zhangjiajie was, simply, the most badass thing I’ve ever seen.  Yes, this place is “touristy,” but like the Grand Canyon or the Notre Dame in Paris, it still doesn’t fail to impress.  Compared to other places in China, it wasn’t even that bad.  Hawkers didn’t harass me at every turn and corner and I was able to enjoy nature without someone trying to sell me something every five minutes (which happens everywhere else in China, trust me).


Highlights included Jinximen, a path at the base of the sandstone formations that runs alongside the bubbling brooks and rivers.  Although there were some slight showers while J and I hiked the trail, it was a blessing in disguise because we were awarded with the mist factor.  A touch of mist, the mountains above, the rivers rushing by us–my god, it was perfect.




The view from the top of the glass elevator was excellent.

J: Oh shit! 600 foot elevator in China?! I’m totally a goner…!!
…or maybe not 😉

Another must see view was tian guan tai (天观台), a fairly empty (yes!) viewing spot where J and I sat on a rock, dropped our backpacks, and stared at this magnificent view in utter silence for almost fifteen minutes.  We were very impressed.



My favorite hike was, without a doubt, the aptly named “10 mile painting.”  From the peak of tian guan tai down to Wulingyuan City, this long ass strenuous descent down into the City is hard on the legs, but easy on the eyes.  Every time J and I rounded a corner we had to whip out our cameras.  Every step led us into a new landscape, a fresh perspective, a beautiful painting.  The most photogenic hike ever. read more

Hiking in China: 7 Habits of the Modern Day Chinese Traveler

Hiking in China: 7 Habits of the Modern Day Chinese Traveler

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.

Now, I have nothing against Avicii, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of music I imagine when hiking down one of China’s most treasured valleys. This Chinese tourist didn’t stop his playlist at Avicii–oh no–we heard Calvin Harris, Rihanna, some Selena Gomez and even Justin Bieber.

After 20 minutes, J lost it.

“Excuse me,” she walked up to him and spoke to him in near perfect Chinese.

“Your music is not appropriate for the scenery and it’s causing a disturbance to myself and the other travelers. I think you should shut off that crap and appreciate the beauty of your country around you.”

His jaw dropped.

He shut off his music.

J pierced into his dumbfounded eyes.

He stepped back and cried,

“wow, your Chinese is AMAZING!”

While he totally missed the point, we were able to hike the rest of the mountain without club music. At least, for a little while.

This was only one of many delightful “habits” we faced when hiking with fellow Chinese travelers.

When hiking with Chinese tourists in China, one is bound to put up with enjoy one of these five lovely habits:
1. Shouting and Screaming.  Without end.

Imagine the echos this view makes

Chinese people scream and shout on mountains. That’s just how it is. One scream prompts another scream and pretty soon the whole mountain sounds like a banshee.

I’ve lived in China for five years total and I still can’t figure out why they have to shout their lungs out on a mountaintop.

Maybe they get a kick out of the echo it makes. Maybe they feel like they’re on top of the world and want everyone to know it. Maybe they’re tired and want to vent their frustrations.

Either way, it drives me crazy. J and I were greeted to these lovely echoes and screams on almost every trail in Zhangjiajie, and we wondered what would happen if someone ACTUALLY screamed for help on the mountain.

Oh well.
2. Boombox on the Mountain

Imagine this view to Avici’s “Titanium” song. Fitting, no?

Chinese people love to blast music on their iphone speakers. J and I did not hike Zhangjiajie in the silent serenity of nature—oh no. We had the Frozen song “let it go” as the OST to one of our treks, Avicii on another (as mentioned above), and of course Taylor Swift and other American pop hits following us on almost every trail.

Whenever I’ve gone hiking in China someone is always bound to be blasting music. If you’re climbing a mountain in China, get ready for some noise.
3. Smoking.  Everywhere.

Emilien ETIENNE [ - THE SMOKER - ] via photopin (license)
Emilien ETIENNE [ – THE SMOKER – ] via photopin (license)

Is it just me, or is China the only place in the world where national parks have multiple designated smoking spots on almost every trail?

I was alarmed at the number of people smoking AND hiking (actually, I was kind of impressed). J and I were constantly waving away the stench of smoke and stepping over cigarette butts that people casually tossed onto the national park grounds.

One man was even smoking ON THE BUS. J stormed up to him and commanded that he immediately stop smoking, or she was going to give him the smack down.

He put out his cigarette.
4. Littering

Jonathan Kos-Read Trash via photopin (license)
Jonathan Kos-Read Trash via photopin (license)

China has more garbage cans readily available than any other country I’ve been in—yet the littering problem is enormous.

J and I saw a middle-aged Chinese woman throw an empty yogurt bottle into this lake.

When the lake resembles a mirror, that means don’t throw garbage in it

Seriously? I know that the previous generation wasn’t trained in social graces, but this is a bit much. I feel like it’s common sense not to poison or litter an area as beautiful as this.

J and I saw so much garbage scattered throughout all of the national parks, our hearts were broken by the end of the journey. I really hope the younger Chinese are more respectful of the environment and learns to preserve these natural treasures for future generations to come.
5. Loud, loud, loud voices

This was a loud photo. Trust me.

J was paces ahead of me. I couldn’t catch up. I was weaving through the tourists, wondering why J was in such a rush to reach the end of the trail. The nature around us was lush and gorgeous, yet she was on a mad dash to reach the finish line. When I finally sprinted ahead to catch up with her, I asked.
“Are you worried about time?”

“No, sorry Mary,” J sighed.

“I just can’t stand the ayis (old ladies) behind us shouting and blabbering.”

It was then I realized that we were surrounded by screaming (yes, screaming) and shouting middle aged ladies talking about god-knows-what. It was difficult to hear myself think. If I wasn’t surrounded by screaming old ladies, then I was being blasted by the megaphone of a tour guide addressing a herd of tourists. Totally took the tranquility out of nature.

Luckily Zhangjiajie wasn’t too crowded, so our fast pace helped us outrun the tour group where we were able to find (some) peace and quiet.
6. Spitting
Yeah, yeah, I’m sure most of us who have been in China know about the spitting–but I still can’t get used to it.

J had a front row view of an older man swirl a loogie in his mouth, accumulate foam, then hurl the yellow blob onto the floor with a deep throated snort. She almost threw up her lunch in response.
7. Shoving

J and I were about to board the public bus, and like good foreigners we tried to queue.

Bad idea.

Three older women literally pushed a mother and two children to the ground to grab the last three seats on the bus. Screaming and shouting ensued, but in the end, the three older women got on the bus and the mother and her two children were left in the dust of the bus that sped away.

Basically, to get anywhere in China, you have to shove. I hate being shoved and I hate shoving, but it’s survival of the fittest here. Very tiring.

As I observed the habits of the local tourists, I had an epiphany:

Chinese people really dislike silence.

This is the kind of ‘re nao’ I like

China is a society that values 热闹 (re nao), which literally means hot noise. The definition of ‘re nao’ is loud, energetic, vibrant, vivacious… it’s the noise of peopled gathered together, talking enthusiastically, eating, being alive to the fullest. It’s a trait of the Chinese I love, but it’s also a double-edged sword. During the holidays and at parties, being re nao is awesome, good fun–but it can also grate your nerves when you’re looking to relax. Anywhere.

Chinese people scream on mountains, shout at each other, talk in loud voices and constantly eat and snack (and thus litter) because that’s their idea of a good time. Keeping the spirit of “re nao,” even outside of the home, is a natural trait of the Chinese.

It’s been a few years since I’ve lived or traveled in China, and to be honest the seven traits above wore me out on my most recent journey… especially the pushing, shoving, and loud voices. It was hard to find a moment of peace almost anywhere (even in one of China’s most beautiful national parks during low season), and to be honest it was quite exhausting.

Find inner peace, like this butterfly

So next time you’re traveling in China, mentally prepare yourself for the above. It will happen, but how you handle it is up to you. I suggest learning a few phrases in Chinese (like stop smoking or please be quiet) and do what J did. Many Chinese don’t know what they’re doing is a nuisance to others, and when told to stop they usually do.

Despite the above, traveling Zhangjiajie was totally worth it and, though I was worn to the bone, I have no regrets.

No pain (spitting, shoving, smoking, littering), no gain (gazing upon this).
Have you had any experience with Chinese tourists? Do you have any habits to add to the above?

The Best Place to Visit in America

The Best Place to Visit in America

Zion in the Narrows

My favorite vacation in America is a place I have been trying to escape from my entire life, yet found a whole new appreciation for upon my return back to the United States.

It’s a state with not one, but five national parks.  It hosted the winter Olympics and is known to have “the best snow on Earth.”  It’s home to what some would call an over-zealous and somewhat strange religion.

Yes, my favorite U.S. vacation so far is not San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or even Boston:

Utah Mighty Five

It’s freakin’ Utah.

I spent most of my life trying to escape from the clutches of small town, desert Utah.  I grew up in a tiny community of coal miners where I was heckled and teased for being half-Asian.  I wasn’t exactly thrilled to return back to Utah when my boyfriend mentioned a road trip that not only made pit stops at the Grand Canyon, but also winded back to my home state: Utah.

Despite living in Utah for over 20 years, I never went to Zion, Bryce or even Moab (all national parks, by the way).  It was truly embarrassing, and I knew I couldn’t properly call myself a true Utahn without a visit to these national landmarks.  Despite the sour taste Utah left in my mouth from my younger years, I decided to treat the journey like a trip overseas: A true adventure.

The results?  Well, I thought the grand canyon would eternally top my charts for U.S. travel, but then I went to…

Zion Angels Landing View
Uhh, heaven anyone?

Zion, Utah: A Truly Holy Place

You know how some places just feel… holy?  I’m not a very religious person, but there are moments in life when I see something so magnificent, so much greater than anything my whole life will ever amount to, something so epic it will stand the test of time and leave its mark on humanity–that I lose myself in what I could best call a ‘spiritual experience.’

Looking up to the grand ceiling of Notre Dame.  Watching an orange sunset melt into the ocean on a sandy beach.  The great Buddha Daibutsu statue in Nara, Japan towering over me.

And then, there’s Zion:

I gotta say, this was a pretty good feeling
I gotta say, this was a pretty good feeling

If you pinpoint Zion from Google Maps alone, it looks like a wasteland.  More desert than the eye can see and it’s in the absolute middle of nowhere.

Yet when you drive through the gates of Zion, it’s almost like you’re transported into Narnia.  Suddenly rocks on the side of the road rise into cliffs, the drab beige of the desert melts into crimson red paint on the cliff side, and trees–no, forests–sprout out from nowhere.

The Red Walls of Zion
The Red Walls of Zion
Zion in the Narrows
Am I in Rivendell or Utah?

Zion is literally an oasis in the middle of the desert.

Weeping rock at Zion
Weeping rock at Zion

Due to the shape and form of the cliffs and rocks in Zion, what little rainfall that is trapped here turns into flowing streams, growing trees and budding flowers that lead to an entire ecosystem of wildlife.


It’s like heaven.

The Hike Where People Fall to Their Death: Angel’s Landing

Zion Angels Landing
Goin up that chain!

Yeah, you can see why I wasn’t thrilled when my boyfriend cited Angel’s Landing for our hike of the day.  It’s not only famous for having a loose hanging chain as your sole mechanism of safety up the mountain–but more than five helpless hikers have fallen to their death here.

I’m not necessarily afraid of heights, but the photos were enough to have my heart racing.

chains angel landing
chains angel landing

Yes, those are chains that you hang onto as you hang from the sheer face of a cliff.

One wrong step?  Oh, it’s just a straight drop 10,000 feet or so down.

Come on Mary, I gave myself a pep talk.  You’re a true traveler now.  Prove yourself.  Get up there, grab that chain and hoist yourself up to the top.  Giving up is for losers.

Angels Landing Giving Up
I can do this!

Yet I made a gave mistake: I looked over the ledge.  I saw where one wrong step could lead, and I froze.


I crouched to the ground, hugged the chain for life and looked up to my boyfriend, terror in my eyes.

I can’t.

Hell no
Hell no

My boyfriend nodded and understood.  I told him to move ahead and I would wait for him below at “losers corner” (and yes, my boyfriend is a manly man and went all the way to the top.  He said he had to jump over a ravine to do so, so I’m REALLY glad I wimped out!).

Although I didn’t scale to the very top of Angel’s Landing, I still made it up to the 10,000 foot mark.  Loser’s corner wasn’t the best view of the entire canyon–but I gotta say, it wasn’t bad.

View from the top--imagine falling from here!
View from loser’s corner–imagine falling from here!

I was only in Zion for three days and I barely scratched the surface of what this park has to offer.  It’s a treasure trove of mystery, adventure, exploration and beauty.

As one Zion expert remarked to us:

Narrows Trail
The Trail at the Narrows in Zion

“I could spend my entire life here and still never see it all.”

The HooDoos of Bryce Canyon

Another great reason to see Utah is the insane geological formations, like these HooDoos:

Have you ever seen anything like this?!
Have you ever seen anything like this?!

Bryce Canyon is a small national park that can easily be done in a day trip.  It’s a zig zag maze of trails full of these strange HooDoo formations that glow red, orange and yellow in the changing light of the sun.

The lighting effect through these caves is fascinating!
The lighting effect through these caves is fascinating!


I loved this hike because it was deathly silent and peaceful.  As we hiked around these hoodoos and the forests that they encircle, we heard nothing but the flap of birds spreading their wings overhead.  Every now and then a horse tour passed us by, but the tour group was so entranced by their surroundings only the neigh of the horses could be heard as they echoed across the canyon.

Peace and quiet
Peace and quiet

There is nowhere else in the world where you can see colors or rock formations like this.


These parks are uniquely Utah–and strangely enough, they make me proud to be a part of this great State.


Have you been to Utah?  Do you have a favorite America vacation!?