Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Happy is on the road: bicycles in Korea and Japan

Transportation in Korea, at least outside of major cities, was a free-for-all. We saw everything from cars, trucks, and bikes to tractors, 4-wheelers, and gas-powered wheelchairs on the roads. Bicycles were common, but I can imagine riding there to be a risky prospect.

"Happy is on the road" - almost enough to make me start carrying a purse.

Old man with a bicycle at the street market in Osan, South Korea

In Japan, transportation seemed to be much more regulated. Bicycles were much more prominent, and it was interesting to see how they integrated into pedestrian and vehicular traffic. They freely flowed from sidewalks to streets as necessary, and though it felt like it would be easy to get hit by one while walking, it was probably never unsafe.

A typical Japanese town bike at the playground of the Imperial gardens, Kyoto, Japan

Bike parking at a train station

A small shop that sold wire bicycle models. I really wanted to buy one, but resisted the urge to accumulate more useless stuff.

I got the impression that there wasn't much of a bike culture, per se, but that bicycles were just part of the larger culture in general. But in both countries, along with the masses of people using bikes for practical purposes, there was some evidence of an enthusiast camp who rode for fitness and sport. That is to say, they also have roadies in Lycra and mountain bikers pounding down the unpaved trails. And as evidenced above, there were accessories for people who just love bikes.

Nearly all of the town bikes had kick stands attached to the rear hub which allowed the bike to stand freely (visible in the playground picture above). I almost bought one of those to bring home and put on my touring bike. The two-legged stand I have on there now gets in the way of the chain a little bit.

Some bikes also had arms extending from the handle bars with a clamp on the end to hold an umbrella, but it was more common to see people just steering with one hand and holding their umbrella in the other. When not deployed for protection from sun or rain, the handle of the umbrella was hooked onto the seat post while the other end ran back between the wheel and either the kickstand or fender mounts.

It was also not unusual to see people riding around while smoking cigarettes. On town bikes, squeaky chains and brakes were the rule. I'm not sure any of them actually cared, but I wanted to get a big bottle of Triflow and put up a sign advertising free bike lubes.

My observations of Asian bicycle security were interesting, too. The approach seemed to be that, as long as someone couldn't hop on the bike and ride away, the bike was safe. So cable locks were often wrapped between a wheel and the frame, but it was rare to see a bike actually chained to a stationary object. I wish bicycle theft were as small a problem here in the US.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The First Day of Summer

While I don't remember all of the ways I spent my summers when I was a kid, I can definitely remember the way summer felt - the anticipation leading up to the last day of school; the long days playing in the woods behind our house; big slices of watermelon on the back porch; week-long trips to visit my grandparents' farm.

As adults, we generally don't get to revel in summer the way we used to. It would be easy to get lost in nostalgia and feel like something has been lost. But for me, it still kind of has that exciting feel to it, and I want to do everything I can to make the summer live up to the expectations set by my childhood.

True, there isn't as much time to spend playing when most of the days are spent earning a living. But most of us still have mornings, evenings, and weekends to live to their fullest. We still have vacation time accrued to compress into a week what used to take a month to do.

The Solstice - the official start of summer - was late last night, which makes this the first full day of summer. The kids have been out of school for about a month, now, but the last field trip for my mountaineering class is tomorrow (it's my last day of school!), which will free up some time to pick and choose how I'm going to spend my off day each week. And the other weekend days when I'm taking care of the kids are full of promise, too.

As far as I can see, this summer is going to be all about climbing, hiking, slacklining, biking, skateboarding, and teaching my kids what I can about all of those things. What are you doing this summer?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Korea and Japan: a late Yule present

Back during the winter holidays, I didn't get any gifts for anyone. And I mean that literally. Nobody got anything from me. At all.

Part of it was that I didn't make the time to do any shopping. And part of it was that C made sure that the people who matter most got gifts from our family. But mostly I think it was because everyone I would have bought gifts for doesn't need anything. On the contrary, most people I know complain that they want to simplify their lives rather than accumulate more stuff.

But I didn't want to be a Scrooge, so I told my family that my gift to them would be an all-expenses-paid adventure to the destination of their choosing.

I spent the next several hours arguing that Disney Land did not count as an adventure.

This heated debate subsided into the kind of subsurface boiling that lava might do after a violent volcanic eruption. A few days later C turned to me with narrowed eyes and said, "I want to go to Japan." I'd been called to account, and now I'd have to put my money where my mouth is. "Sounds fun," I replied.

Of course we couldn't actually get away until after the school year was up, so we planned the trip for the first two weeks of June. Which means that at the time of writing, I've had just enough time to recover from jet lag.

The trip actually entailed a week in South Korea - visiting my sister, who is stationed there right now - followed by a week in Kyoto. It was probably the best vacation we've had.

We flew out of Denver on a Thursday, caught a connecting flight in Seattle and landed in Seoul on Friday evening. The time zones are such that you lose a day in transit. My brother-in-law picked us up from the airport and took us to their home in Pyeongtaek. Travel is exhausting, and I don't sleep well on planes. So we had just enough time to settle in and hang out for a bit before going to bed at a pretty normal local time. We all got up the next morning feeling more or less adjusted to the new time, which was a pleasant surprise.

The next few days were spent going all over the place, seeing museums, visiting temples, going to amusement parks, walking through markets, and playing at a water park on the US Army post where they work.

One particularly nice coincidence was that their neighborhood, comprised largely of Americans working for the military, held a barbecue one evening while we were there. We enjoyed a sense of community that I haven't felt in a long time. There's a unique bonding that takes place when you're all strangers in a strange land, or so to speak, that doesn't happen much here in suburban US of A.

C and M at a street market, Osan, South Korea
Korean War Memorial, Seoul, South Korea
Korean War Memorial, Seoul, South Korea. A trove for AFV enthusiasts.
Tofu vendor at a street market, Pyeongtaek, South Korea
Traditional dancers and musicians, Korean Folk Village
Buddhist temple, Kwang Duk Sa, South Korea
Kwang Duk Sa, South Korea
T-Express roller coaster, Everland, South Korea

Our week in Korea flew by for me. Before I knew it, we were being shuttled back to Seoul to catch a flight to Osaka. From there we traded in our pre-paid vouchers (acquired from a stateside travel agent) for rail passes and took a JR train to Kyoto. The train station is essentially part of the airport, so it was much less stress than I thought it would be. Still, I'm glad that we insisted on fitting everything into a single suitcase plus backpacks. Shepherding two kids through public transportation is challenging enough without a lot of extra baggage.

Even though we didn't manage to do much more than one destination per day, Kyoto was a whirlwind of palaces, temples, museums, and trains. It was a great choice for first-timers in Japan, as there is so much history there, and the city is quite manageable in size. I think Tokyo probably would have been a bit overwhelming.

Nijo-jo (a shogun's palace), Kyoto, Japan
Tea house, Imperial gardens, Kyoto, Japan
M and some monkeys, Iwatayama Monkey Park near Kyoto, Japan
A train station somewhere north of Kyoto, Japan
Trees at a Buddhist temple (Yasaka?), Kyoto, Japan
Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto, Japan
Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto, Japan
Waterfront, Toba, Japan. We were on an island, so the kids wanted to see some water.
Katsuya Terada work at the International Manga Museum, Kyoto Japan
Imperial Palace, Kyoto, Japan

It was a great experience being a visitor to such very foreign countries. I mean, everything from the landscapes and architecture to the languages and alphabets were completely new to us. It's really humbling to immerse oneself so thoroughly in the unknown.

The flight home was from Osaka to San Francisco, and from there back to Denver. It all went smoothly enough, but while we once again arrived in the evening and should have gotten a good, on-schedule night's sleep, I was slower to adapt back to Mountain Time. Hopefully tonight I won't wake up again at 03:00 wondering whether I'll be able to coax myself back to sleep for a couple of hours.

There will be more about this trip to come. There was simply too much to encompass in a single blog post.