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July 11, 2016 17:46 +0000  |  Family Friends Lucy Vancouver Violet 8

christina-me christina-michael dad-lucy-mom grandma-jack grandma-lucy lucyfoot lucy me-sarah-shawna mom-violet-dad shawna shawna-sarah shawna-violet-matt violet-jack

Noreen keeps asking, and as it's quite possible that she's the only regular reader of this blog, I really should do what I can for her :-)

On June 17th, my contract with the British Government ended, and the very next day Christina and I got on a plane to Vancouver to spend some well-deserved relaxation time. I hadn't seen my family in about a year at that point, and Christina hadn't been in Canada since 2013 so there was much to see and do -- so much that I thought I might see about extending my stay by a few weeks (now that I didn't have a job to go back to right away). That all went sideways after the 23rd, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Squamish

I wanted to go hiking. I figured: this is the first time Christina has been to BC in the summer, let's show her how beautiful it is! The plan was to the Grouse Grind, or hike the Chief, or some other gorgeous and brutal experience, but jetlag is a harsh mistress and neither of us were even remotely interested in anything that difficult in our first few days. Instead, my dear friend Shawna, now living in Vancouver, back from Korea (yay!) drove us up to Squamish with her husband Michael and her friend Sarah for a leisurly ride up the Sea to Sky Gondola. There, for the ridiculous-but-acceptable-when-accounting-for-jetlag price of $40 each, we had a nice ride up the side of the mountain to a plateau at the top with little "hiking" trails (more like a stroll really) and magnificent views in all directions.

I didn't take a lot of pictures on this trip, so instead I'm just going to fill this post with lots Michael's shots from this hike. He's a pro photographer and he made us all look amazing. My new profile pic is one he took actually ;-)

A Quick Visit with Friends & Family

There wasn't much time for anything else in Vancouver this year. We had one day to (try to) recover from the jetlag, one to go Squamish, and one to visit with friends & fam. For this last case, we booked some time to meet with Ruth (Jeanie's mom) over lunch at Boston Pizza where we were treated to messy, sticky (but quiet!) children and good company. Ruth bought me chocolate (yay!) and gave us bubbles to play with, and we got to catch up on what was going on in our lives. Later that evening we did it all again, but with a larger group and in a noisier setting: Quinn, Jeanie, and Michelle met us for dinner at Milestones where we watched basketball and talked about what's going on in our lives. Chris and Trish were supposed to meet us there too, but their twins had the audacity to be born just a day or so beforehand so they had their hands full.

The next day Christina, my grandmother and I hopped on a bus up to Kelowna.

A Note About Greyhound

Holy crap is this the way to travel now. They've instituted express busses, shortening the YVR/YLW trip to just over 4 hours. During the trip you get:

  • Large, comfortable seats
  • A beautiful view
  • Free Wi-Fi
  • AC Power

Why would you ever want to fly?

  • 40 minutes to the airport
  • 20 minutes to check in
  • 20 minutes through security
  • 1 hour waiting for your flight
  • 40 minutes in the air
    • Turn off your laptop "for safety"
    • Tablets are ok, but not keyboards, they're dangerous!
    • Yes, I'm bitter
  • 20 minutes to deboard and collect your bags

=~ 3.5 hours and about 3 times the price. Screw that.

Kelowna

After having our schedule feel very pressed for the first few days, I tried to slow things down a bit in Kelowna. We had lots of slow nights doing family dinners, some lounging in the sun on my parent's patio, and a few shopping trips here and there.

The Engagement Party

Things got a little crazier around the 25th, as we were doing a joint birthday party / engagement party for Christina and me. It was only family at this shindig, but it was an opportunity for the fam to get to know Christina and see us together. We're still not sure how we're going to work out you know, actually getting married yet, so there were a lot of questions as to how the actual ceremony will happen. Would we do a Greek wedding? In Athens or on an Island? What about doing one in Kelowna and another in Greece? I think I'm starting to understand why people just don't bother getting married: the stress is insane.

Still, it was nice to be able to spend time with both of my grandparents in the same room again. We even had my grand-aunt June fly in from Ottawa this time around! It's been a really long time since all three have been together. I also got to see Violet & Ried for the first time which was fun, and despite Shawna being fresh out of the hospital with my brand-new niece, she was there and looking fabulous.

Lucy

My new neice, Lucy Jane Quinn was born, 6lbs & 2oz, just a few days before we arrived. She was nearly a month early and so she had to be kept in the hospital for almost a week while she got used to being in the world. Mother and baby came out of it ok though, so all is good. Christina and I had an opportunity to visit her in hospital where tiny Lucy was bundled up in a box with tubes up her nose and down her throat. Shawna was there with a bundle of books and a laptop on hand: she was the food source so she basically had to set up shop there until the doctors let her take Lucy home.

She was released a few days after we arrived in Kelowna though, so the second time we saw her, she was at home with Mom, Dad, sis, and the dogs getting her immune system revved up.

Brexit

When I booked the flight, I joked that I might leave one country and come back to a completely different one. Like most Britons I didn't actually think that that would happen. As the votes rolled in, my family huddled around the TV, dumbfounded by the sheer idiocy of the British public on this issue. Our jaws gaped at the fall of the pound, of the considerable sum of money I had personally lost in just a few minutes. Christina was in rough shape for much of the rest of the trip, and I cancelled any plans I might have had to extend my stay in Canada.

Idiots doing idiot things because they're idiots.

Melanie

The only friend I have up in Kelowna is Melanie, who was up there finishing her contract with UBC. We went for some ice cream and then met her for lunch where I got her to take a picture with @travellingjack! Then my mom picked us up like we were still in high school to take us home. It was a nice day.

My Solar Desalinator

One project I've been toying with in my head for years now got to see the light of day for some time while I was in Kelowna. I've been working on a way to use solar power to desalinate water cheaply and pollution-free modeled after this power station in Andalucia.
Most of the progress on this front was talking to my father and brother about it, changing the model in my head, scratching bits out on napkins, and fiddling with a parabolic mirror in the backyard and almost setting the house on fire. Good times.

I've started fiddling with a proper 3d model in Blender, and now that I'm back in the UK, I've started poking around to find spaces that might be able to offer me the technical expertise I lack in this area. Something may never come of it, but you never know. For now, it's fun to think about.

Remainder

The rest of the trip was largely a series of car trips: out to Peachland and Penticton to see my aunt and then brother's family, running through sprinklers with my neice and eating fabulous homemade ice cream. Other nights we drove out to Vernon to have dinner with my grandmother and grand-aunt, and still other nights we just stayed in, ate Dairy Queen Blizzards and bemoaned the future of the UK.

Canada Day

Canada Day in Holiday Park is a big deal -- by Holiday Park standards anyway. It's a villiage of a lot of old people with a lot of golf carts, small decorating budgets, and a lot of time on their hands. Given this equation, a golf cart parade seemed fitting for Canada's birthday. It was our last day in Canada, so we got up in time to see the show, after which I drove down to the Greyhound station to send my grandmother home. For the rest of the day we relaxed in the sun (or in my case, the house) and enjoyed the peace, quiet, and family.


I'm back in the UK now, and the Brexit mess is still in full swing. I decided to come home on time because I felt like I needed to be here in case shit, but that feeling of helplessness is as thick here as it was in Kelowna. I think in retrospect I wish I'd stayed a little longer -- I really miss my family, especially now that I've got two nieces who are just starting to grow.

Being an expat is hard.

January 07, 2012 03:07 +0000  |  Family Friends Netherlands Self Reflection Travel 4

I suppose blogging in general took a big hit in 2011 eh? I mean, everywhere you look now, people are using tumblr, Facebook, or even Google+ for blogging these days, and the old-fashioned site-as-blog has more or less evaporated. But I've always been part futurist and part luddite, so I've no intention on following suit. This blog may have become sparse over this past year, but it's still the one place where I can post anything I want, on any topic I want, and still retain control over my content. I'll likely keep this up and running right until Diaspora becomes more portable/accessible, or some other similar project comes along and does a better job.

But this post, I couldn't skip out on this one. It's the annual recap post. It's like the Christmas Card I never sent to anyone that recaps what's happened in my life this past year. Like all of its predecessors, it's a long one, so you might want to grab a beverage ;-)

An Unhappy Start

2011 started out pretty down for me. I'd been laid off from my less-than-enjoyable gig at Work [at] Play and had, on the advice of my good friend Chris Rhodes, decided to take the opportunity to look for work in Europe. I had moved out of my $1300/mo apartment in Vancouver's West End, and into my grandparent's basement in Delta, and was actively looking for work overseas: France, Germany, and the Netherlands were all candidates, and Japan & Korea were both pie-in-the-sky hopeful locations. I got three interviews in Europe, two in Munich and one in Amsterdam, and from them, two offers. Unfortunately, I didn't much like the prospect of those offers, and the 3rd company wasn't interested (I wasn't sufficiently enthusiastic about Perl). I was unemployed, in debt, and living in my grandparent's basement. I was 31.

But then Shit Got Real

Things started to look up though after I had an interview with a Dutch company who offered me a gig literally 15minutes after the phone interview. They offered to handle my visa and arrangements for my initial lodging, and wrapped this in a six month contract for a rate that seemed reasonable. I was set. I was moving to Europe.

I said my goodbyes to my friends, and then to my family, packed all of my worldly belongings into three bags, and got on a plane. It wasn't scary, rather I had gone into that "autopilot" mode I have, where the future is committed, there's no sense in worrying about it. In retrospect though, I'm still surprised that I managed it with so little stress.

Money!

Just when I thought that money was going to get super-tight, I stumbled into two $5k cheques: one from the Canadian government, a tax refund for the six years I'd been putting off doing my taxes, and the other for my involvement with TheChange. Together, these two helped pay off my growing credit card balance and finance my move into a new, unfurnished place here in Bussum. Kids, never let it be said that money is the problem. It's not. If you line up everything else, it always seems to work out.

Five Weddings in Five Cities

Then there were the weddings. Jesus Christ people, did you all have to get married all in the same year??? I'd missed Annie & Desmond's nuptials back in 2007 and will regret it forever, I wasn't going to let that happen again with some of the closest people in my life. Shawna & Michael had their ceremony in Yeosu, Stephen & Irena had theirs in Toronto, Chrystal & TJ had a reception in Vancouver, while my brother & Shawna got married in Kelowna, and Noreen & Craig rounded out the year with their wedding in Honolulu. If you're curious, that works out to roughly 35,653kilometres (about 1/10th of the distance to the Moon), about $5507CAD (before carbon credits, Mother Earth hates me) and 26 days off work (105% of my vacation)... and I'd do it again. Each wedding was an exciting experience and a milestone in the lives of people I love. I can think of no better way to have spent my time and resources this past year.

Politics and Missed Opportunities

Somewhere in there, Canada got a new King government, a new NDP Official Opposition (yay!), and the Green Party saw it's first MP elected (more yay!). Politically, it was a HUGE year in Canada and I really felt left out of it all. There are days, on this side of the Atlantic, that I feel like I gave up on a life I could/should have had when I left Toronto, or Vancouver, and I wonder if it was the Right thing to do. What would it have been like to work with Adriane Carr on her campaign? Could I have helped enough to see her take a second seat? If I'd stayed in Toronto, could I have helped keep Ford out, or even just helped another candidate take a council seat? Would I be running for a council seat in the next election? I suppose that the biggest lesson learnt from this year so far has been that each decision commits you to walking through one door to the exclusion of others, and that commitment requires a certain acceptance of this fact.

Rounding it all Out

I ended the year with a trip home for Christmas with the family, paying off my student loans, and closing my account at CIBC. I entered 2012 100% debt-Free and unsupportive of big banks. I even managed to ditch Facebook.

The bulk of the rest of the year was filled with weekend trips to different cities and towns around the Netherlands, a pair of trips to London and Paris, a short romantic relationship with a lovely girl that turned into a wonderful friendship, and a few more friends on top of that -- all of this wrapped in a cloud of shell shock, excitement, and frustration that comes with living in a new city, new country, new continent, and new culture. It's been good for me I think, and I'm glad I've made the decisions that brought me to this time and place in my life.

April 27, 2011 08:21 +0000  |  Friends Language Moving 5

A series of good things have been happening lately, and I just wanted to share them:
  • I have an apartment in Bussum, The Netherlands. It's mine. I live there. You can now start mailing me things :-)
  • I have a bank account, and a residency card, and a residency number. I am an official person in the Netherlands. Next up is the cell phone and home internet.
  • I have a couch! And a friend who helped me put it together!
  • My computer has finally arrived at my job, so I'm no longer working on my tiny laptop. This new machine has SIX CORES and EIGHT GIGS OF RAM.
  • I made a new friend last night at my Dutch class. That makes *three* people whom I can call if I want company for a movie or something.
  • American movies here are in English with Dutch subtitles.
  • The Canucks won game 7. How is that not awesome?
  • My new apartment is a 10minute walk to work. I can now sleep in.
  • In less than 3 days, I'll be in Yeosu, Korea to watch a dear friend get married in a traditional Korean ceremony.
  • I'm learning Dutch (albeit slowly), but just the other day I actually understood a 100% Dutch conversation and joined in, (albeit in English).
  • It got distcc working on my laptop & supercomputer here at work so I can compile stuff way faster.
  • I talked to my family via Skype while they were all around the dinner table at my grandparent's place.
  • I got my tax returns from the past 5 years in, to the tune of about $7000! That'll help pay off my credit card.

In a blog that's usually plagued with negativity, I wanted to share some happy thoughts.

April 16, 2011 21:54 +0000  |  Cycling Friends 3

I had a lovely, though taxing day today. My new friend Sue invited me out for a day-long cycling trip following a flower parade from Voorhout to Lisse. The idea was to take our bikes out there by train and then ride them along the parade route in time to catch the actual parade as it rolled into Lisse.

It didn't actually happen that way though. When we arrived in Voorhout, the parade was just starting. We had to weave through the onlookers to get ahead of the parade and make our way northeast to Lisse. We'd be moving faster than the parade, so we could still be in Lisse to see it roll by. But then we got lost... and sidetracked by the hectares upon hectares of vibrant tulips spread over the countryside. Sue insisted on stopping for pictures an aweful lot, and then at one point, no one was remembering to check our GPSs, so we went way off course. But no big deal, we were still ahead of the parade, and now we had a couple hours of sightseeing done.

We found our way to Lisse, thanks to the wonders of technology and the kindness of strangers, toured a beautiful church and perused the open market for lunch. Can I just say how awesome Dutch doughnuts are? NOM. I also had a shaved ham sandwich with caramelised onions and some tasty sauce along with some fresh squeezed orange juice. (...and I do mean fresh-squeezed. The oranges were right there).

The parade finally arrived in Lisse. (Have I mentioned that this is a multi-city parade? It goes all over the region, all day long). The theme this year was Broadway shows, so there were floats dedicated to Wicked, Westside Story, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, and Grease to name a few of the English ones. And here's the thing: every float was made of flowers. All of the colour, design, everything but the physical supports underneath were made of real flowers. The floats weren't only beautiful, but they smelled great too!

Dan (not me, but Sue's Romanian friend) wanted to go to "Goh-gan-hoff" (I don't know how to spell the proper Dutch name, but that's roughly what it sounds like) to see the apparently world-famous fields and buy some bulbs for his own garden in Belgium, so we continued North through the aforementioned fields. Even with the weather being less-than-friendly, it was a really beautiful trip. Along the way, we ran into the parade now and then as our trip took us away and back toward the parade route throughout the day. We biked North, then East toward Hoofdorp, where I knew there was a Gowalla snowflake to pick up and didn't want to miss my chance, and from there, we hit the Hoofdorp train station and went our separate ways.

Altogether a really great day. Going by my rough map (below), Google says we travelled more than 31K, which is pretty awesome.

August 18, 2010 03:26 +0000  |  Friends Toronto Who Am I Why I'm Here 2

After more than two years, I've finally found my way back to what I've come to call my "spiritual home". Toronto hasn't changed much, the weather is still sticky, the politics is still chaotic, and the garbage is still left on the sidewalk to bake in the sun. Toronto is hot, crowded, and still just as amazing as I remember.

I've made a special effort to get out to see as many people as possible, as well as re-sample the various tasty food joints scattered around town. I've also been playing Gowalla like a madman. More than 1500 check-ins in only a few days, acquiring all but one of the items. Big thanks to Stephanie who emailed me the locations of a few she found with Gowallatools, that was really cool of her.

Outside of the fluffy Gowallaness, I've taken a lot of time to reacquaint myself with the city. I've been thinking about moving back here ever since I left, and I want to take this opportunity to try to re-imagine my life had I never left, or if I were to return some day soon. It's not something I can really have covered in the few short days I've been here, but I hope to have something worked out before I leave.

A lot of it has to do with my social network. In Vancouver, I feel as though my friends there see me as the person I was back in 2001 when I ran away from that place. Here, I see the person I want to be in the eyes of my Toronto friends.

Tomorrow afternoon I'll be renting a bike and Stephen & I will go for a ride across town. I hope to visit High Park, and maybe even Robin (HEY ROBIN, TXT ME BACK ALREADY!) Then I'm hoping to see Tanya in the evening as well. Coming up this weekend is the Green Party National Convention, which so far doesn't look all that exciting but I'm hoping that looks are deceiving on this one. After that, I'm headed to NYC, then DC, then back here for Sheena's Wedding and then back to my other home in Vancouver. Keep your eyes on Twitter feed for more up-to-the-present detail and pictures, and I'll try to post again here soon.

June 20, 2010 09:15 +0000  |  Friends 1

It's 0117hours and I am tapping this into my phone while I sit under what's left of Robson Square post-Olympics. A dance troupe is practising on the other side of the former ice rink and I am in my pretty clothes... I've just come from a wedding reception held in a Chinese Restaurant only a few blocks from my house.

Merry Wang, an old friend of Noreen's from way back finally got around to marrying her boyfriend and she was kind enough to let me come along so I could see her in her pretty dresses (I love weddings!)

This isn't a self-reflective post or anything like that. I was just reminded tonight about how I don't blog enough anymore and I thought that this was a perfect excuse.

Merry was stunning in her wedding dress. The reception seems to have gone off well, and everyone seems to have had fun. I even ran into Katie Rife, a girl I knew back in high school who followed a similar path to my own: she got the hell out of this place and moved somewhere exciting, only to return later, unsure of what to do with her life. While for me it was writing code in Toronto, for her it was getting a Masters in percussion in San Francisco, but I get the feeling that we're in much the same boat.

My brother did the music for the night. (I got in as his "assistant") and I got to spend some time with Noreen as well which was nice because I've missed her. I'll see her again for a Noreen-centric shindig on Monday though. I hear she's bringing me some Cap'n Crunchberries from Americaland!

That's all to report at the moment. It's just nice see people you care about being happy :-)

October 07, 2009 02:31 +0000  |  Friends Self Development 4

I suppose that this is my own fault for not updating this blog more religiously, but there are a few gaps in my personal life that I've neglected to detail here. I shall attempt to remedy one of those gaps now:

Remember that trip to Japan back in March that I took with Susan? Well it was awesome. Susan is awesome. So awesome in fact that in our time apart, we've only seen our relationship grow stronger. In fact, I usually refer to the state of "us" as being "if we were in the same city, we'd be together" if that helps clarify things at all.

It's been rough though. She lives a few thousand kilometers or about a $1000 plane ride away so maintaining anything has been difficult at best. She came up with the brilliant idea of maintaining a private blog between the both of us though and that's been helpful, as have been the frequent Skype calls that peppered the months between then and now.

Anyway, she's coming to visit... this Saturday... FOR TWO WEEKS. We're currently working out what we'll do with her time here, but since I don't have any vacation time left, there will be a number of days where she'll be solo in the city unless there are volunteers out there to show her around (anyone?).

So yeah, that's my big update. My slightly-less-big update however is that now that Matt's living with me for a few months, he's managed to convince me to go to the gym with him in the mornings... at least until Susan gets here. The idea is to get me used to the idea of regular workouts, early mornings etc. and even better food (that last one is the hardest).

So far, it's been actually pretty good (all of two days). I've enjoyed the early mornings (much quieter outside) and the cardio. I'm not a big fan of the weight training though, maybe that's not my bag. But since I've managed to get over my displeasure regarding the be-like-hamster feel of running in an elliptical machine, I find I rather like the feel of the workout... especially since the machine takes the pain and pounding away from the bottoms of my feet which were always a big blocker for me.

So yes! Big news all around. Now I have to get home to clean up for Susan's arrival. I have some more stuff to mention here, but that will likely have to wait for another late night at the office.

September 12, 2009 09:03 +0000  |  Friends

I really don't know what to write here, but I feel as though something must be written tonight about the passing of a wonderful woman who I wish I had taken the time to get to know better.

Leah Kubik (Cunningham) was an astounding young woman with a dedication to living life the way she felt would be the most interesting. She showed this dedication in every way from her clothing to her demeanor, to mad skillz with regard to balancing things on her head. She lived with such an enviable passion -- I was made a better person in knowing her, if only for a little while. I truly regret not taking the time to get to know her better.

Leah died, as she lived, doing that which brought her joy and excitement. Not your conventional fun, mind you, but ghost hunting on the rooftops of old buildings isn't for the weak of heart, and hers was tenacious.

She will be missed. My heart goes out to her husband. The world is diminished in her passing.

May 27, 2009 21:06 +0000  |  Culture Friends Japan Korea Transit Travel 1

The Pagoda in Asakusa
This was the main tourist attraction near our hostel, a beautiful pagoda right next to a Buddhist temple.
The Buddhist temple in Asakusa
The view of the courtyard from just inside the Asakusa temple.
Downtown Shibuya
This is a fragment of the density that is Shibuya. I've heard that Bladerunner was modelled after this.
Susan at the Meiji Shrine
The Meiji Shrine is really a great big part in the heart of Tokyo.
The Imperial Palace in Tokyo
This is the present home of the Emperor of Japan. The role is purely symbolic now (unlike Canada, he isn't officially the Head of State), but he's still treated as though he is.
Me in a field of yellow flowers
One of the few good shots taken of me on this trip. This is in Hama Rikyu Teien, a giant garden within walking distance of the world-renouned Tsukiji fish market.
Susan ina field of yellow flowers
Susan made a face for this one to be funny, so don't worry, she's not mad :-)
Susan loves ladybugs
Susan loves ladybugs
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
The The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is one of the tallest in the city and they offer a free elevator ride to the top so you can check out the skyline.
Imperial Palace, Kyoto.
The seat of Imperial power for nearly 1000years, this is was shot in the garden of the Imperial Palace, Kyoto.
Nintendo!
This is the closest they would let us get, but I still feel all special for being there.
A pagoda in Gion
As part of the lantern festival in Gion, this pagoda was illuminated.
Susan and cookie
Everything is cute in Japan, even the cookies.
Susan and the view
The view from our lunch stop in Okinawa.

I've not been very studious about my Japan update and for that I'm sorry. Life's been a bit crazy since I returned "home" and I guess I figured that if I put up the pictures, I could put it off a bit but as the details of the whole trip are beginning to fade from memory, this is becoming more urgent.

So where shall I start? Lets start with a good one: Susan is awesome. Our relationship before the trip was a rather disconnected one. We knew each other only a little when I left Toronto, but I honestly believe that we've grown much closer as a result of this trip. It's always a risk, choosing to travel a foreign country with a friend and I'm really glad that it worked out so well. She compensated for my weaknesses and I for hers. I just thought that I might get that out first.

General

Japan is an interesting place. Though not as foreign as you may think, it's still quite different from Canada. This became quite clear to me no less than 15minutes after we landed at Narita Airport: I was fingerprinted as I came through customs. Those of you who know me know that this was quite traumatic for me. I've managed to go 29years without being treated like a criminal and here I was, at customs in a foreign country where I didn't know my rights in this regard. The man pointed at the little computer, and holding my passport he said: "Fingers. Put". I complied and it's really been bothering me ever since. I've even found myself trying to think of ways to mutilate the tips of those two fingers...

So yeah, Japanese folk seem to have fewer concerns about how much power the State has over them. This probably bothered me more than anything during my stay. A close second though would be the social acceptance of smoking over there. They still ask you: "Smoking or non?" when you enter a restaurant. Nasty. At least they can't smoke on the subway.

The subways were a bit of a disappointment really. All those stories you hear about pushers on the trains? Never saw one. In fact, the trains we were on never got any more crowded than a TTC or Seoul subway car does. From what I hear though, the JR Line trains from the surrounding areas are what started this rumour, as they support the suburbanites, but since we never went there, it never happened.

Tokyo

Transit is a good place from which to segue into Tokyo though. My gods it was impressive. Not so much the stations or the trains themselves, but the sheer number of lines and how the city manages its mass. Tokyo supports within its borders the entire population of Canada. 12million in Tokyo proper, and 33million when you include the suburbs.

But here's the kicker: you wouldn't know it. Excluding a few famous intersections, the focal points of the city are sufficiently dispersed that you don't have the "downtown" problem that plagues most North American cities. Instead of funnelling all 33million people into a single urbanised core, Tokyo supports many, many "cores", each with a mix of residential, commercial and even industrial uses. People will often live in Shinjuku and work in Roppongi, both "downtowns" in their own right, but within the same city. For the Vancouver people, imagine if Burnaby were a real destination for people, or if it wasn't unique to live in Vancouver but work in Richmond. Now imagine that all of that space were one great big city. That's Tokyo -- but with real transit.

One more note on the transit: it's massive. It's a mesh of 13 subway lines and 282 stations (not including the commuter rail (JR) lines) criss-crossing above and below ground, all different colours, sporting hard-to-remember names and managed by two different private companies. Now, imagine that even with all of that complexity, that it was super-easy to navigate: Each station is sequentially numbered and colour-coded so if you're going from A to B, you find the coloured line you're likely to take on the many free multi-lingual maps, find the start and end points and take their numbers. If you're going from 13 to 26, then you make sure that the numbers are getting bigger as you ride. If not, you're going the wrong way. Transit way-finding in Tokyo was never a problem.

Another common myth people hear about Tokyo is that it's a concrete desert, but nothing could be further from the truth. True, much of it is paved, but there are beautiful gardens everywhere, and I'm not talking about these lame Toronto-style parkettes, or these new mini parks that are popping up in Vancouver, I'm talking about acres of tended streams, trees and flowers right in the midst of the city. Some like the The Hama Rikyu Teien Gardens near the Tsukiji Fish Market cost a few hundred yen (100¥ was roughly $1.30CAD), and others like the Meiji Shrine are totally free. Beautiful landscaped public spaces nestled between the urban spaces to help keep people sane. It's really very impressive.

We only had three days in Tokyo though, so we couldn't possibly have seen everything we wanted to. Squaresoft and Joypolis would have to wait for another time. We did however see the busiest intersection in the world, in an area of town called Shibuya, visit Asakusa for its beautiful old Buddhist temple, walk through Shinjuku to see some awesome architecture as well as the Imperial Palace (though we couldn't wake up early enough to get inside the grounds). Tokyo is awesome, but expensive. You should go, but make sure that you're prepared to drop about $75CAD a day... assuming that you're staying in a hostel.

Kyoto

Like every rational country, Japan links its major cities with high-speed rail that plugs into local transit. You can take the subway from Asakusa to Tokyo station in 20minutes and without leaving the building, hop on a bullet train to a city hundreds of kilometres away. We were in Kyoto in a matter of hours.

Kyoto is pretty much the opposite of Tokyo. Where Tokyo is sky scrapers and 33million people, Kyoto is a quiet, traditional Japanese town riddled with centuries-old temples and a less-than-impressive subway system. You don't come to Kyoto for the bustle and night life, you come for the culture, history and peace.

Susan had booked us into Tani House, a hostel that bills itself as a traditional home converted for hostel living. We got a whole house to ourselves, complete with kitchen, living room, bathroom and a few bedrooms and the old woman who runs the place even made us tea when we arrived. We ate on the floor, we slept on the floor in the paper-walled bedroom and let the high-energy memory from Tokyo fade away. It's a great place to stay, I muchly recommend :-)

While digging around for a link to Tani House, I happened upon this YouTube video of the interior. Check it out if you're interested.

We didn't have a lot of time there, so sightseeing of Kyoto was rather rushed. We spent one day visiting the Imperial Palace1 complete with English language tour and acres of cherry blossoms and continued into the rest of the city to do some general sightseeing. Kyoto is divided by a massive river that the public uses for everything from jogging to picnics to makeouts. It's really quite beautiful. Have I said that enough yet? We spent an evening in Gion at a lantern festival, and we even paid a rather entertained cab driver to take us to The Nintendo Building. That's right, I can has culture.

Kyoto: Learn Your Pronunciation

One final note on Kyoto before I move on. We realised early on in our stay there that as Kyoto is overrun with beautiful old temples, the locals (and for the sake of this story, the cab drivers) usually navigate by the temple names rather than street intersections. This can be dangerous if you don't have the pronunciation down.

We'd done everything right. Susan had acquired a map of the city and directions to our hostel. We'd found the temple nearest our hostel (Daikaku-ji) and circled it on the map and after a long day of sightseeing, figured that a cab ride home was only appropriate. We handed the map to the driver, pointed at the circled portion and we were off.

It wasn't long before Susan and I both started to feel as though we weren't on the right track. The surrounding areas looked less and less familiar as the ride continued on and eventually the city began to fade away. With fewer and fewer lights on the streets outside, we started to freak out just a little. We asked the driver: "Daitoku-ji?" and he smiled, though looking a little confused and nodded. We had put all of our faith in a map and a stranger and now there was a lake coming up on our right.

30minutes and about 30 000¥ later, he pulls into a dark, deserted temple and asks for his cash. We panic. Much confusion ensues. Clearly he was sure that he'd taken us to the right place, but this was obviously not where we wanted to go. The driver figured that we did in fact want to be at this temple, we just didn't know where our hostel was from here. He turned off the meter and took us a little further into town where he proceeded to ask strangers for us regarding the location of this "Tani House" place. No luck. We got him to take us somewhere near civilisation, paid the incredibly patient man and got out. It was 10pm and we were on a strange street in a foreign country with a phrase book, an (apparently useless) map and just under about 100000¥.

It took us some time (and a few fruitless enquiries with non-English-speaking locals) to figure out that when we'd initially circled the temple on the map, we'd gotten a syllable wrong. Daikaku-ji was in the middle of nowhere. Daitoku-ji was where we wanted to be. It hadn't been a problem before because we'd followed the aforementioned directions to our hostel the first time.

So let this be a lesson to you kids:

  • Get a map
  • Make sure you've got the right place on that map.
  • Trust the cab drivers in Kyoto, they're awesome, but feel free to second-guess yourself.
  • Make sure that you have lots of cash -- just in case.

Tangent: Language

For those who already know, I apologise for stating the seemingly obvious, but since I didn't know, I must assume that I'm not the only one. Written Japanese is in fact three different character sets: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Most people know this much but what surprised and impressed me was the fact that each of these character sets have their own purpose -- ie. they're not exactly interchangeable.

Kanji for example is probably the closest thing to what Westerners often assume all Asian languages are like. Each symbol is a single character (as opposed to Korean which is a composite of symbols representing a syllable) which represents an idea or thought. "Home" has it's own symbol, as does "food" and "vehicle". These symbols are then combined into statements, often only a few symbols long that culturally mean something. "Car parkade" cannot be represented in Kanji, instead they symbol for "vehicle" and "place" are used and everyone understands.

The problem with Kanji though is that it's limiting. You can't really create full sentences with it easily. For this, hiragana is provided as the sort of "glue". The symbols are noticeably different and actually "spell out" into words rather than independently represent ideas. I don't really understand much more than this.

Lastly, there's katakana, which as my guidebook explained, is often used for foreign words. My name would be spelt with katakana as would "Vancouver" or probably even "meat loaf" as there's likely is no Japanese word for it. katakana appears deceptively similar to hiragana (for the uninitiated) so understanding signage with a little guidebook is really tough.

If there's anything that I've taken away from this trip, it's that I apparently have an aptitude for languages, or at the very least a sincere interest. I managed to pick up the basics in no time and have little touble handling navigation and simple conversation. It's fun! You should try :-)

If you're interested in finding more information about the various writing types in Japan, I found this handy site that covers not only the modern usage, but the historical roots of all three types as well.

Okinawa

Frankly, I was surprised that you can't take a train to Okinawa. Of course I knew that it was an island, but I figured that Japan of all places would have tried to run a train there :-) Sadly, this wasn't the case though, so we took a train from Kyoto station to Kansai airport in Osaka and boarded a short flight to Okinawa where we met Susan's friend Yasuko (pronounced "yes-ko") who would serve as our awesome guide for the duration of our stay in Japan.

The differences between Okinawa and either of our previous destinations are night & day. Everything from climate (tropical) to urban design (far more suburban) to culture (it's like another country) is drastically different from either Tokyo or Kyoto. Where Tokyo has skyscrapers, Okinawa has decaying low-rises, instead of subways, there are highways. The presence of Americans too is staggering. There's a US air force base within the city limits and everywhere you look you see American military types with their families. It's amazing how your personal feel for safety changes as well. In Kyoto Susan watched a girl leave her laptop on a table in a Starbucks while she went to the bathroom, but that kind of thing is much less likely in Okinawa.

But outside of the city, Okinawa is surrounded with tropical forest. Yasuko drove us all over the countryside to holy shrines and sleepy little villages where we took pictures of the flora, were eaten by bugs and enjoyed the scenery. We ate at a little place called "Pizza and Sky" with an amazing view and visited a series of cottage factories where people were making glass sculpture by hand. This is the kind of thing you just can't do on your own and Yasuko made this possible. She is awesome.

Our last big stop in our Okinawa trip was the Churaumi Aquarium a massive building on the shore that plays host to hundreds of different aquatic species. There was the traditional dolphin show as well as the biggest fish tank I've ever seen. I saw a fish that was bigger than a house dude. Crazy, crazy stuff.

Going Home

All of the above took place in the space of a week. There was more of course but as it is, this post is already way too long. Japan is just fascinating. With its mountain of cute toys (Hello Kitty anyone?), ancient culture and honourable people, it's an amazing place to experience. I'll have to go back, as I just didn't have enough time for everything I wanted to see. Next time I'll have to spend more time in Tokyo and Kyoto and be sure to visit Hiroshima as well. When I do return though, I hope that Susan will come with me too. She was fun :-)

Footnotes

  1. Kyoto was actually the original seat of the Emperor from way back in the 8th Century. In fact, "Kyoto" means "capital city". It was later moved to Edo (Tokyo) in the 1800's.

March 13, 2009 02:48 +0000  |  Friends Japan Korea Transit Travel 4

You know, I intended on updating more often than this, but frankly my life here in Seoul hasn't been all that "epic" :-) I guess a post every 5 to 7 days will have to suffice.

Shawna & Friends

Even with Emily-Jane's poor timing in her moving back to Toronto only a week before I arrived, I've still managed to spend lots of time with friends in Seoul since Shawna moved here from Yeosu (여수시) at roughly the same time as Emily-Jane left.

Jeong-Yeon
At the end of my first day in Seoul, Jeong-Yeon and I were quite tired from our wanderings as we headed home.
Shawna and Me
Shawna and I messing around at the restaurant where I had the kangaroo.
Make Yourself Fucking Lovely
Yes this says what you think it says. It's a little clothing store in Itaewon.
Shawna's friend Paul
Paul is Shawna's really cool neighbour who babysat me for a day and speands a great deal of time with Shawna. He's a cool guy and it was nice to have met him.
Seoul City Subway turnstyles
Seoul uses a turnstyle system for it's underground. You can buy a Tmoney card and charge it up with Won, which is later automatically debitted by these two-way machines. Billing is based on distance travelled rather than Toronto's one-price-for-all or Vancouver's zone system.
A Korean washing machine
This is Shawna's washing machine. If you had only a week's worth of clothes to your name, could you be sure that you knew how to operate this thing?

My first night here was shared with Shawna, her new English-teacher neighbours and an old friend from high school, Jeong-Yeon (whom I visited last time I was in Seoul). We ate pizza, talked about Buffy and got along swimmingly. As the week has gone on, Shawna, Paul (one of her neighbours) and I have spent a great deal of time together -- pretty much every evening has had the three of us doing something. Paul got off work early and took me around town to buy some tailor-made shirts and pick up a loner phone (call me or txt me! 011-82-10-8686-6551) and Jeong-Yeon did some wandering with me as well. Everyone here has been really helpful and supportive.

Some of you had expressed doubt as to my ability to survive in Korea due to my horribly picky eating habits, so I thought that I would mention that I've yet to consume any traditionally Korean food this week :-) Instead, I've enjoyed unlimited steak at a Brazilian steakhouse, some incredibly good kangaroo at a high-end restaurant & winery, french toast at a cafe down the street and ice cream at Cold Stone. Paul even brought over some gelato last night :-) Shawna has assured me though that tonight we're going out for real Korean food. I hope it's BBQ :-)

So yes, Seoul is very much an international city. Not nearly as foreigner-friendly as Berlin or even Florence, but you can see that they're making serious efforts. Unlike Yeosu, where white-folk are extremely rare, I've noticed a rough ratio of 1:40 in the subway system. Some neighbourhoods like Itaewon (이태원동) are more westernised but anyone navigate the awesome underground thanks to the excellent way-finding signs and maps throughout the city.

Quest for the Spatula

It was based on these observations that I decided to go out wandering on my own yesterday. Armed with about 60 000 원, (won) (about $52 CAD), a phrasebook, a cellphone, and some rudimentary phrases like "hello", "thank you", and "I'll take that", I went for a walk with the intention of getting lost and finding my way again. Turns out it wasn't all that hard to do both.

The plan was to return home with a new power strip for Shawna's desk, a plastic spatula (she only has a metal one for her Teflon pan) and some groceries. The power strip was tough. I walked into a hardware store to find someone who spoke just enough English to tell me how much something cost but not enough to figure out what I wanted. She handed me a pen and paper and we played pictionary for a few minutes while she bounced around the tiny store pointing at things to see if that's what I was looking for. Eventually we got it though. She asked for "one, two" and I handed her twelve-thousand won.

The rest of the trip was far less fruitful. I would walk down a street for 20 or 30 minutes passing a pharmacy, then a phone store, then a office supply store, then another pharmacy, then another phone store... repeat until exhausted. Then I'd turn a corner and it'd be the same thing, only this time with furniture stores. Who would have thought that finding a cheap plastic spatula would be so difficult? I spent much of the rest of the day just strolling through zig-zaggy streets, stopping in to corner stores looking for some salt & pepper for Shawna's kitchen or some cooking oil but nothing was more elusive than that damned spatula... so I gave up and got on the subway, deciding to favour the entropy approach: I picked a station that didn't look to be too far away (I was getting tired) and hopped on.

서울

There wasn't much at Nakseongdae Station (낙성대역) either but as I was sitting there waiting for the subway I started to realise that I understanding Korean writing really isn't all that hard. The name station name Nakseongdae was written on a support beam just above the Korean and without thinking I began sounding out the script. Once you understand the basic composition of the vowels and syllables, everything seems elementary. Once on the subway, I began scanning the map looking for other station names I could pronounce -- it was awesome. I can't say that I understand Korean yet, but it's a hell of a thing to feel that click in your brain when you at least start down that path.

Software

My only regret so far (and frankly, this isn't that big of a deal) is that I've not had much time to work on my own technical stuff. I wanted to finish my password-tracking program so it could handle groups, or learn more about Django but neither of those have happened. I've done a lot of relaxing though and that, more than anything else is what I've needed lately.

Susan is arriving from Daegu (대구) tonight and she'll be staying here at Shawna's with me and Soomi. This tiny little place is going to be a full house, but not for long -- Susan and I will be getting on an early flight out of here to Tokyo in the morning. Then begins the really foreign part of my trip :-)