25 September 2011

Go To Japan

I thought it would be interesting to try and rank all of the places I've visited in Japan and Korea.  If nothing else, it's been fun to look through all my pictures and reminisce.  This post will obviously be about Japan and I'll do a post on Korea closer to my departure (which is only a little over 2 months away now).

For my full rankings of everything I've seen in Korea and Japan you can click here.

My rating system is as follows:

5 Stars - Extremely unique, beautiful, and interesting.  These are places that really stand out as highlights of my time in Asia and rival some of the best places that I have ever visited.

4 Stars – Definitely do this.  May not have the whole package, as is the case with 5 stars, but these places were still extremely interesting or beautiful.

3 Stars – Highly recommended.  

2 Stars – If you have the time.

1 Star – Don’t waste your time.

Let's start out with my destination rankings.  This is a ranking of the big tourist destinations and I have any smaller nearby attractions listed in parentheses.

1. Kyoto - 5 Stars
I guess this probably isn't too much of a surprise, but Kyoto truly is an amazing place.  You can visit temples and shrine until you drop.  Fushimi Inari was my personal favorite, but there are so many good ones that you can't really go wrong.  Fancy a trip to the Imperial Palace?  Or perhaps you'd like to see a gold temple?  Maybe a stroll through one of the countless and irresistibly peaceful gardens?  You can do it all in Kyoto.

2. Hiroshima (Miyajima) - 5 Stars
Visiting the A-Bomb Dome is a very surreal experience.  I can't say I've ever had a feeling quite like I did that day.  Combine this with the fact that Miyajima is a short train and ferry ride away from the city and this place is most definitely a highlight of Asia.  Itsukushima was my favorite historical sight in Japan and the a hike up Mt. Misen on Miyajima is a must.

3. Tokyo - 4.5 Stars
This is the biggest city in the world, but I can't say that I ever felt it was overcrowded.  There are a near infinite number of things to see and do.  The only thing that kept me from giving it a full 5 stars is that I didn't feel as though it was that much different from western cities, whereas Kyoto and Hiroshima are distinctly Japanese. 

4. Kumamoto (Aso) - 4 Stars
Mt. Aso was amazing.  And I mean AMAZING.  I guess volcanoes are pretty legit.  Kumamoto Castle was also a very interesting experience and Honmaru Goten, which is located within the castle, was decorated beautifully.  The nightlife is pretty fun too, but it's obviously not on the scale of Tokyo.

5. Nara - 4 Stars
If you go to Kyoto and you're not completely templed out by the time you leave, you should definitely swing by Nara for a day or two.  The two must-sees are Todaiji, which is the largest wooden structure in the world, and Horyuji, which is the oldest wooden structure in the world.  Nara Park and Nara National Museum are also pretty cool.

6. Nagasaki (Gunkanjima) - 3.5 Stars
Urakami Cathedral is kind of the Nagasaki version of the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, but not very much of the original cathedral remains.  Nagasaki does not have any monument that is as iconic as the A-Bomb dome, but I personally thought that the Peace Park in Nagasaki was more interesting than the one in Hiroshima.  Gunkanjima, which is an abandoned island that was at one time the most densely populated area in the world, is a short ferry ride from Nagasaki and is also very interesting.  Unfortunately, I don't think they have English tours (at least mine wasn't in English). 

7. Kamakura - 3.5 Stars
This is a very nice day trip from Tokyo.  It's only an hour or so from the city and most of the sites are within walking distance of each other so it can easily be done in a day.  My favorite was Daibutsu, which is a gigantic statue that weighs in at 93 tons.  I also really enjoyed Kenchoji and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu.

8. Osaka (Himeji) - 3.5 Stars
This probably would have been ranked higher if Himeji Castle had been open when I visited.  I really wanted to see the castle, but the main keep is closed due to restoration work for the foreseeable future.  I only spent one day in Osaka so I can't say too much about it, but it has some very cool architecture and the nightlife is certainly entertaining.

9. Nikko - 3 Stars
I was actually a little disappointed with Nikko.  Maybe I just had a bad experience, but the place was extremely crowded and I wasn't quite as wowed as I thought I would be.  With that said, I was holding Nikko to a pretty high standard, so it's still a cool place.  Just not THAT cool.

10. Fukuoka (Kokura, Dazaifu) - 3 Stars
I guess this was my least favorite area in Japan, but that says more about how good the other sites were rather than saying anything bad about Fukuoka.  Fukuoka is actually a beautiful city and there are some interesting temples and shrines.  Dazaifu and Kokura are also very nice places.  There just wasn't any wow factor.

What about individual sights you ask?  Well here are my top 5.  I gave them all a 5 star rating.

1. Tokyo Sky Tree (Tokyo)
This is the second tallest structure in the world and the largest freestanding structure.  It's 2,080 feet tall!  And for some frame of reference they decided to stick a 31 story building next to it.  Yes, that thing on its left is 31 stories tall and yet it looks like a Lego next to the Sky Tree.

2. Mt. Aso (Aso)
I had never seen an active volcano before, so this was an almost otherworldly experience for me.  I saw it in the winter, which I actually think is the best time to go because the place seems so desolate and deserted.  I saw some pictures of it in the other seasons and it looks beautiful, but I would say go with winter.  This could have very easily been number one.  Ranking one and two basically came down to a tossup. 

3. Itsukushima (Miyajima)
This is a shrine that was built on the water because the land was deemed to be too sacred.  This provides some awesome pictures at high tide.  You can also walk out to the torii at low tide.  I recommend visiting at high tide in the morning, hiking Mt. Misen, and then returning in the afternoon at low tide.  Seeing the shrine at high tide is slightly better, so if you have to pick go with high tide.

4. Fushimi Inari (Kyoto)
This shrine is an entire mountain and consists of over 10,000 torii gates.  The gates basically form tunnels along the multiple paths up the mountain.  The gates are extremely dense at the bottom of the mountain and slowly thin out as you get higher up the mountain.

5. A-Bomb Dome (Hiroshima)
As I stated previously in the post, I've never experienced a feeling quite like the one I got from seeing the A-Bomb dome.  It's a grim reminder of the 150,000 people who perished as a result of the atomic bomb.  The dome and the museum can be extremely depressing, but I still wouldn't hesitate to recommend the sight to anyone who visits Japan.

And since I visited so many of them, I figured I'd do a list just for temples and shrines.  So here are my favorite religious structures. 

1. Itsukushima (Miyajima) - 5 Stars

2. Fushimi Inari (Kyoto) - 5 Stars

3. Todaiji (Nara) - 4.5 Stars

4. Shoren-in (Kyoto) - 4.5 Stars
No impressive structures to be found here.  Instead, this place is home to the most relaxing garden I have ever experienced.  Waterfalls, birds, meandering paths, beautiful scenery, and large open rooms in the temple itself.  I would recommend visiting this place last so as to give yourself time to just sit back and relax until you've been rejuvenated by the healing powers of nature.

5. Kiyomizu-dera (Kyoto) - 4 Stars

And now just for some random thoughts about Japan.

My favorite new food was definitely okonomiyaki.

I actually didn't drink sake while I was in Japan.  A little depressing.

The only place I didn't visit that I would still really like to see is Mt. Fuji.

The trains are awesome.  Why does America's infrastructure suck? 

Japan is incredibly expensive.  But you probably already knew that.

My favorite trip (I took three) was probably my first one to Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, and Hiroshima.

I didn't run into any food that was too weird.  I mostly just ate a lot of sushi. 

My two favorite things that I've seen in Asia thus far are both in Japan (Shhhh, don't tell the Koreans).

Be careful if you go out drinking in Tokyo.

You can take it easy on trying to visit every temple in Kyoto.  I visited too many.

The trains leave and arrive EXACTLY on time.  You'd think Mussolini was running the country.

In general, Japanese people speak better English than Koreans.

However, there is a lot less English signage in Japan than in Korea.

Go to Japan.

17 September 2011


Jeju Grandfather Statue
This week I had Monday and Tuesday off from work for Chuseok ( 추석 ), which is the Korean Thanksgiving holiday.  So what did I do?  I headed off to Jeju Island ( 제주도 ), which is billed as the “Hawaii of Korea” and is currently one of 20 finalists for the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World.  It certainly did not disappoint as it provided some of the most beautiful views I’ve seen thus far in Asia. 

I flew out of Seoul on Saturday afternoon and landed an hour later in the middle of a tropical depression.  Nothing too exciting happened during the flight, but arriving on a beautiful island while it’s pouring isn’t exactly the best way to start off a trip.  I got to my hostel and attempted to tour around Jeju City ( 제주시 ) a little bit, only to return to my hostel about 15 minutes later with my pants and shoes thoroughly soaked.  But that was only the beginning of my run-in with this tropical depression.

I’m certainly not one to let a little rain get in my way of touring, so Sunday morning, despite the fact that it was still raining cats and dogs (which means free food for Koreans! Just kidding of course...), I decided to climb Halla mountain ( 한라산 ), which is the tallest mountain in South Korea.  At 1,900 meters (about 1 ¼ miles) in elevation, it’s certainly no small task.  There are shorter trails to the top, but the one I decided to take took about 4 hours to get to the top.  The fact that I was hiking up a river certainly didn’t expedite the process either.  Seriously.  Look at the picture.  Flippers would have been more useful than hiking shoes.   

The path...
However, this only continued for the first mile or two of my hike (the entire course is about seven miles).  The rain eventually subsided by the time I made it to the rest shelter, which is about a 1 ½ mile hike from the top of the mountain.  However, they were refusing to let anyone climb to the top of the mountain because of the weather conditions.  I had read the weather reports before hiking and I knew it was supposed to clear up around noon, so I hung out at the rest shelter for about 30 minutes with the hope that the skies would clear up.  And what do you know?  At 12:00 (almost on the dot) the sky miraculously turned blue and the sun started shining.  The weather changes so fast at the top of the mountain that this seemed to happen almost instantaneously. 

I then began the final leg of my journey (which was also the steepest due to the shape of the mountain) and it took me about 45 minutes to reach the top.  The weather was great when I reached the top and I got to take some spectacular pictures.  

View from the top
I took a shorter and steeper route to the bottom, which provided some amazing views as well.  All in all the trip ended up taking me about 8 hours.  It was well worth the time, effort, and drenched clothing. 

One of the peaks through the trees
Hallasan Rating: 5 stars
I must admit I still enjoyed climbing Seoraksan a little bit more, but I’m really splitting hairs with the comparison between the two.  Hallasan is an absolutely beautiful mountain and is certainly worth the climb for the sole fact that it’s the highest point in South Korea.

Onto Monday.  Let’s go spelunking!  Yes, I made my way over to Manjang Cave ( 만장굴 ), which is located in the northeast portion of the island.  It is one of the largest lava tubes in the world (if not the largest).  It was certainly an interesting trek, but not the best place for pictures because of the poor lighting.  However, the lava tube at the end is certainly photogenic and is even lit up to provide better pictures.  The portion of the lava tube that is open to the public is only about ¾ of a mile, so it takes about 30 – 45 minutes to go to the end and back.  

Lava tower at the end of the lava tube
Manjanggul Rating: 3 stars
An interesting way to kill an hour, but not essential for a trip to Jeju.

From Manjang cave I caught a taxi to Seongsan Ilchulbong ( 성산 일출봉 ,Ilchulbong translates to Sunrise Peak) to climb one of the most famous sites on Jeju.  The climb only takes about 20 minutes, but the throngs of tourists really slow things down.  Everyone seems eager to get a view from the top, which is nice, but personally I thought the view from the coast was much more spectacular.  You get to see the cliffs of Seongsan Ilchulbong descending into the sea and you get a very nice view of U-do ( 우도 ), which is right off the coast.  

Sunrise peak
View from the coast
Seongsan Ilchulbong Rating: 4 stars
A beautiful place, but I’m not convinced it’s deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status. 

Next stop was my new hostel.  I had spent the first two nights in Jeju City, so I booked a hostel in Seogwipo ( 서귀포 ), which is the other city on the island, for my last two nights.  I dropped my stuff at the hostel before heading out to the two famous waterfalls in Seogwipo: Cheonjiyeon ( 천지연폭포 ) and Jeongbang ( 정방폭포 ).  The latter of these two is known as the only waterfall in Asia that falls directly into the oceans (although technically it falls into a small cove that is right on the ocean).  Both sites were scenic and cool, which was a welcome reprieve from the heat.  

The actual waterfall is a lot bigger, but I liked this picture more.
Cheonjiyeon Pokpo Rating: 2 ½ Stars
As I said, a scenic place, but by no means essential.

Falling into the ocean
Jeongbang Pokpo Rating: 3 ½ Stars
This is the larger of the two falls and with its special status of falling directly into the ocean is worth a look.

And that was it for Day 2.

Day 3 was easily the best day I had on Jeju.  It started off a little rocky as I had trouble finding my first destination, but after that it was smooth sailing to some of the most spectacular sites on and off the island.  My first stop was Mara Island ( 마라도 ), which is a small windswept island that has the distinction of being the southernmost point in Korea.  The island is only a 30 minute ferry ride from Jeju and is certainly worth the trip.  There are no trees on the island because of the high winds, but the coast and the views of Jeju are simply stunning. 

Lighthouse and Jeju in the distance
No trees
Mara-do Rating: 4 ½ Stars
I can’t quite put this on par with Hallasan, but it’s pretty close and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Jeju.  Make sure you go on a nice day though.

I then caught a cab to Sanbang mountain ( 산방산 ) to check out a cave temple and the Yeongmeori cliffs, which are located about a ¼ mile from the mountain.  There is a temple at the bottom of mountain, which is pretty nice, but nothing too out of the ordinary when it comes to Korean temples.  A short climb up the mountain then takes you to the cave temple ( 산방굴사 ), which is more like a hole than a cave.  With that said, it has some pretty nice views and is a relatively easy hike.

The temple located at the base of the mountain
Sanbanggul-sa Rating: 3 ½ Stars
Worth visiting, but when I heard “cave temple” I was picturing something much cooler.

Then it was on to Yongmeori ( 용머리 ).  And all I can say is WOW.  If you have even the slightest bit of interest in photography you will be in heaven.  Cliffs of striped rock on the ocean with Sanbang mountain as a backdrop.  You can’t really ask for too much more. 

One of my favorite pictures
The cliffs with Sanbang mountain in the background
Yeongmeori Rating: 5 Stars
Definitely, definitely see this place.  I didn’t hear too many people talk about this place, so I don’t think it’s one of the big attractions on Jeju and for the life of me I can’t understand why not.

I thought I was done for the day, but I accidentally got on the wrong bus and ended up at Jeju World Cup Statdium ( 제주 워드컵 경기장 ).  So I might as well take a look around, right?  It’s a cool stadium and has actually been transformed into a total entertainment complex complete with a waterpark, movie theater, supermarket and a museum.  Obviously, I didn’t really care about the other stuff.  I just wanted to get some shots of the stadium.  And the setting sun provided some great lighting for my pictures.

Inside the stadium...
And outside the stadium
Jeju World Cup Stadium Rating: 4 Stars if you like architecture, 2 Stars otherwise
It’s a really cool stadium and provides some pictures, but if stadiums aren’t you’re thing then don’t waste your time unless you’re going to a soccer game.

And now for my final day on Jeju.  My flight to Seoul wasn't scheduled to leave until 4:00 in the afternoon, so I had most of the day to explore.  First up on the agenda was Oedolgae ( 외돌개 ), which translates to "lonely rock".  This sight is located about 1.5 miles from downtown Seogwipo.
Oedolgae and Bum Island in the background
Oedolgae Rating: 2 ½ Stars
Nothing too outstanding.  But it does provide a pleasant stroll along the coast and of course some beautiful views.

I then returned to my hostel, packed up my stuff, and set out for Cheonjeyeon ( 천제연 ).  This was the third waterfall I visited on the trip.

Cheonjeyeon Falls
Cheonjeyeon Rating: 3 Stars
Another waterfall.  All three of the falls that I saw were nice, but you really only need to see one of them.

My final stop in Jeju was Hallim Park ( 한림공원 ).  This park has something for everyone and is a great way to get a taste of everything available to tourists on the island.  The park has a botanical garden, two caves, a bird sanctuary, a water garden, and a rock garden.  It's a pretty big place that takes about 2 hours to tour around.  

Palm Tree Road
In the water garden
Hallim Park Rating: 3 ½ Stars
A pretty cool place to skim the surface of Jeju.

And that was it for Jeju.  After an hour bus ride I found myself at the airport and ready to head back to reality.  I've had a hard time deciding if I liked Jeju more than Seorak Mountain.  I really loved both places, so at least for now I'm gonna leave it up in the air.  Here's a quick review of my top places to see on Jeju.

1. Halla Mountain - This should be on everyone's itinerary.
2. Yeongmeori - A very close second.
3. Mara Island - Provides amazing views of Jeju.
4. Seongsan Ilchulbong - One of the most famous and beautiful sights.
5. Jeju World Cup Stadium - Probably the only man-made sight worth seeing.