4 Days in Tokyo!

I did it! It's been on my bucket list for so long and although I was nervous, I'm so glad I am able to say "I did it once, I can do it again!"

For about forever now I have wanted nothing more than to travel solo. Don't get me wrong I absolutely love traveling around with my friends {and it's still my preference in many instances} but I just wanted to know, for myself, that I could travel alone. Sure my mom stuck me on a plane by myself when I was 9, but I was going to visit family. Yes I've flown across the states alone, but it was always to visit friends. And yes I flew here to Taiwan alone and knowing no one when I got here, but I had people who were expecting me, a job lined up, and assistance along the way.

I wanted to hop on a plane solo and fly to another country knowing no one and having no agenda other than to explore and eat my way through the new cuisine. I wanted to have to depend on myself, to determine solutions to my own problems, and meet people along the way. I wanted to challenge myself...and thank you Tokyo for doing all this and more!

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A month or so ago when I realized that Vanilla Air was offering round trip tickets from Taipei to Tokyo starting at 3,500 {about $109 USD} I knew it was a deal too good to pass up! I juggled some dates around before realizing that after my 6th graders graduate I would have several days without class; so, I put in a request with my schools, booked my tickets, and put on my best pair of dancing shoes and did my self a little happy dance!

I booked my ticket so that my plane leaving to Japan coincided with Mason's plane leaving back to NYC so that when I took him to the airport I went packed and ready to go as well. 

Saturday, June 18
I landed in Tokyo late Saturday night (June 18) and after making my way through customs & security found myself a lovely vending machine to purchase a SIM card for my phone & another machine to change my USD that I brought with me to JPY {the USD to Japanese Yen conversion rate is currently at $1 USD to 109¥} before venturing into what may have been one of the most confusing public transit systems in the world I have ever experienced!

Sadly the SIM card didn’t work right away, so once arriving to the train station I had to rely on the help of 2 drunk European guys to help my find my hostel {such is life haha}. Needless to say it was late and I was tired, so I found my bed, grabbed a quick dinner at the convenient store across the street and crashed HARD for the night!

Sunday, June 19
I’ll be honest, my planning before going to Tokyo was at a minimum and I was more than happy to see what each day would bring. {I know many people that plan out every detail of their trips, but if something goes awry or you don’t get everything in, they dwell on that for the rest of their vacation, thus ruining the magic of the moment! By having no plans, everything turns out much better than “planned”!}

First up for the day was visiting the Meiji Shrine in the Shibuya District. This is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deceased Emperor Meiji, the first emperor of modern day Japan. The shrine itself is located within a park of sorts with many walking paths winding through a small wooded area. There were several different entrance/exit points around the shrine grounds that were all marked with an arch of sorts {called a torii arch} over its path. Walking further into the entrances, you were also presented with a small fountain of water and several bamboo ladles in which you were to cleanse your hands, arms, and mouth before entering into the shrine.

The shrine itself, as well as the others I saw in Tokyo along with their temples, are much different than the temples that I have come so accustomed to here in Taiwan. One of the big differences I noticed between the two almost instantly was that the shrines in Japan did not let you enter into the shrine itself, but rather pray from the outside. Another obvious difference to me was that instead of offering incense while they pray like in Taiwan, shrine goers were asked to toss several coins into a trough like piece and clap and bow several times before sending their prayers to the gods {I love watching and learning how the different religions worship!}

Just my luck I stumbled upon a wedding ceremony going on at the temple as well and had to stick around long enough to snoop around and get some good pictures! There was also a separate building for parents taking their babies to be offered to the church/baptized/christened (ok I don’t know what it’s called there, but you get the jist! Lol). Afterwards I walked 10 minutes or so through the wooded paths and came to the Miji Shrine Gardens. It was pretty, there was an old tea house there and it was manicured nicely with many flowers and a large pond. I think much of the appeal of this garden though was that it was green space in the midst of Tokyo! ;)

Although Tokyo is HUGE I tried to plan my day worth of sights within a common area. This not only made the day easier, but it allowed me to often walk from place to place {I did A LOT of walking these few days!}. I wasn’t trying to avoid the subway or its tolls, though that was a nice benefit, but rather by walking I found myself in many shops and alleys that I would have missed if I had taken the subway everywhere in Tokyo. With that being said I spent some time checking out various shops around the area before walking into a Ramen shop {think real ramen noodles that are now known as a “college staple” in America!} and ordering myself a bowl of Ramen soup and pork for a late lunch. 

After lunch I headed back to my hostel for a power nap, some A/C, and to grab my things….I was DISNEY BOUND!

Tuesday's Taiwan-ism {Taiwan Janitors}

As briefly mentioned previous HERE most schools in Taiwan don't employ janitors or grounds workers for their schools. Yet, most of the schools here in Taiwan are always immaculate. How is that you ask? Simple, we don't let children ever enter the school grounds! OK, ok, just kidding! The kids clean the school, and I love LOVE it!!

Twice a day (once first thing at 7:30am and then again before last period at 2:50pm) students are given 20 minutes to clean their assigned area of the school. The classes are split into smaller groups and are given their assignments that last the remainder of the school year. They are monitored somewhat while they are cleaning, but they do all the cleaning themselves: dusting, moping, sweeping, emptying trash cans, raking, scrubbing the stairways...all of it!

Some areas the children are assigned to include:

Their own classroom
Other classrooms in the school
Public bathrooms
Teacher bathrooms
School offices
Side yards
School entrance 

Sadly in the US I feel as though many parents would complain and accuse the school of "corporal punishment" or make other extreme accusations towards the school. Here though it is looked at as part of their education. Children not only learn the "how's" of cleaning, but they also learn to have respect for their school environment and how to help out around their home. Children here know that if they make a mess of their school it will be them that has to clean it up later, thus helping to keep our campus beautiful. 

It was surely a strange sight at first, but I have come to love this idea as the year has progressed and appreciate the values that are being instilled in these young children!

Mason's Top 10!

Holy moley guys do I have lots of blogging to catch you up on! In the past 14 days I had not only my dragon boat races and a long weekend, but also one of my longtime friends came to visit, I logged a good 35 miles of walking during a weekend at Taroko Gorge, and I took a quick hop, skip, & a jump and landed in Tokyo for a short trip!

I'll start with Mason and fill you in on the rest over the next couple days (ok, and maybe after a nap or 2 as well!)

Top 10 of Mason's visit {if you know me well at all you probably know of Mason as well lol. We started at St. Pat's in kindergarten together and were in the same class for 9 years though 8th grade and we've stayed close ever since!)

The top 10 of Mason's trip:


I finished Chinese class!

So this probably isn't on any of Mason's top 10 list for his 10 days here, but it was such a relief / sense of accomplishment / pat on the back / and stress off my back to finish my second class. Am I fluent, haha NOT EVEN CLOSE! Can I introduce myself, tell you a little about me, order food and give my taxi driver directions; heck yes I can!


Night markets galore

If you've been reading my blog for more than 5 minutes you know that I LOVE food and have fallen head over heals in love with the night markets here in Taiwan. So, naturally, when Mason came to visit, I had to give him the tour...I think we made it to night markets 4 different days while he was here...no shame, no shame!


Meeting my friends!

It worked out perfectly that Ruth's birthday was during dragon boat weekend and she decided to postpone celebrating until we were all back in town. So, lucky Mason {hmm I don't know if he considers this lucky or not lol} got to spend an evening hanging out with and meeting my little Taiwan family that has helped to make this first year abroad absolutely unforgettable!


We pigged out for 10 days.   

Haha, if I think I can put down food, Mason beats me, about 10 fold...so needless to say, between the 2 of us, we did some major eating while he was here! Lucky for both of us they only weigh your luggage when you leave and not the rest of you as well! ;) Mason had his list, and I'm not sure that we left any Taiwan dishes on his list un-touched.


Mason's birthday

Not that this was necessarily in the plans, but it worked out PERFECT! Mason got to spend his 27th birthday here in Taiwan {shout out to Josh for my 1st visitor also having their birthday over here!} Although I had to work Mason did not and decided to spend his day in Taipei. I met him in Taipei after work and we spent the evening climbing Elephant Mountain and stuffing ourselves full with dumplings from Din Tai Fung!


6th grade graduation (times 2)

My babies are gone. Both Xinfeng and Fu Long held 6th grade graduations while Mason was here. We graduated around 150 students at Xinfeng and 8 from FuLong and I'm not sure it will ever matter how many years you teach, telling your students goodbye at the end of every school year is always an emotional roller coaster.


Elephant mountain 

As mentioned above, Mason and I climbed Elephant Mountain for his birthday and as always, the views were BREATH-TAKING! They have to be hands down the best views you can get of Taipei and to make matters even better we were there around twilight time giving us an amazing lighting show as the sun slowly slipped behind the buildings.


Dragon boat races & Dragon boat after party

Due to some unforeseen circumstances I was unable to row on competition day for the dragon boat races, but it worked out for the better as I was able to pick Mason up, watch the races leisurely {aka go home when the temperatures reached 450 degrees!} and take quick naps before heading to the "after party". What a way to throw Mason into Taiwan on his first night here. 100 Taiwanese people in a small rented room eating, drinking, and celebrating to their hearts content and handing out awards to anyone with 2 legs that could blink an eye...needless to say I received an award!


Hiking Taroko

The way the days worked Mason was only actually here one weekend, BUT, I didn't have school Thursday & Friday prior so we had a 4 day weekend to explore! After the races Thursday we left to Hualian Friday morning and spent our day exploring the city of Hualian. Saturday we headed up to Taroko Gorge where we proceeded to walk 15+ miles through the gorgeous landscape! Sunday we took it easy and found a small Cathedral for mass and then headed to check out the ocean before calling it a day and catching dinner in Taipei at the Shillin Night Market. 


One of my longest time friends made it to Taiwan

I knew heading to Taiwan for a year that I was guaranteed one visitor; I knew Mason and his love for all things travel would make it out and he didn't prove me wrong. Our 21 years of friendship have literally taken us to the other side of the world and back now! Thanks so much for the visit and the memories Mason!!!

Taiwan - Flash Video

Here's a quick little video clip just under 2 minutes to give you a little glimpse into Taiwan!

This video was recorded while I was driving home from my evening Chinese class about 25 minutes from my house and have sped the movie up X16 times the original speed to give you a "flash" into Taiwan.

Take in the traffic, the lights, and the ever present glowing signs as I drive from Hsinchu City to my small town of Xinfeng. Enjoy!

Tuesday's Taiwan-ism {Dragon Boat Festival}

Sometimes I have people tell me after reading my blog that "there are tons of festivals in Taiwan". In reality though, I'm not sure they have any more major festivals than what most western countries have holidays.

Largest Holidays Celebrated in Taiwan:

(Click each link below to learn more about the holiday)

Lucky for me out of this list of popular holidays and festivals in Taiwan there is only one on the list that I have missed to date and it's coming up on June 9th! Have no fear Taiwan...I will witness all of your holidays yet! You may have read my post earlier in the week about my training for dragon boat festival. Needless to say the boat racing is only one piece of this national holiday. Not having any idea what this holiday is about exactly, I put one of my co-workers to the test to find out for myself why we really weren't having school!

Dragon Boat festival is celebrate each year on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar (read more about their calendar HERE) falling on June 9 in the year 2016. The story around this holiday states that there was a famous poet by the name Qu-Yuan who was loved by many. When Qu-Yuan discovered that the emperor Zhou was going to be overthrown by the Qing, Qu-Yuan couldn't handle the news and threw himself into the river. Upon hearing this news emperor Zhou sent his men out on boats (presumably shaped like dragons?) to go and retrieve Qu-Yuan's body...Is this story true; I have no idea...is this the story Taiwanese like to tell surrounding this holiday; yes!

Other fun parts of this holiday {aside from the most popular activity of the races} include eating a type of glutenous rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves and filled with pork, small shrimp, nuts, or mushrooms called zhongzhi {think about a Chinese version of a small tamale but exchange everything corn for rice!} Also, children wear and are given small sachets (little bags) around their necks filled with fragrances and participate in egg standing (standing an egg on its end at 12 noon) as well as spending time with their families.

{1. Zhongzhi waiting to be sold and enjoyed 2. Desert Zhongzhi made by students at school 3. Zhongzhi for dinner after rowing practice 4. The desert Zhongzhi unwrapped; lime & green tea!}

Dragon Boat Practice

Thursday, June 9th, is a national holiday here in Taiwan; Dragon Boat Festival {check back Tuesday for more information on this very new-to-me holiday!}

The main attraction of this holiday {besides the fact that we get a 4 day weekend!} is watching the dragon boat races. Upon hearing this I was quite intrigued and initially wanted to watch the races...that is until I was offered to be IN the races...umm yes please!

My school has helped me find a local team that began practice about a month and half ago {I started a little late with only 4 weeks of practice left} and Clement, my poor substitute military guy from school, was tasked with taking me to practice the first couple nights and translating from Chinese to English how to row these massive boats.

Starting last Sunday {a week ago now} we transitioned to the actual river where the competition will take place and likewise rowing real boats instead of sitting in a cement box in the ground!

Dragon Boat Logistics 

16 rowers per team/boat
1 drummer per team/boat
1 flag catcher per team/boat
1 man in charge of steering per team/boat
1 coach per team/boat
170 meters - length from starting point to the flag
Countless - tubes of Tiger Balm, rolls of sports tape, knee pads, & neon orange life vests per team

Our initial training location; a cement "boat" with small moats of water for rowing

One of our teams 2 men's groups at the training site.

During my first night of my one-on-one training with the coach

Actual dragon boats we are practicing in/will use for the competition

Dragon butts! ;)

Yilan County

April 22-24

I PROMISE {both you and myself!} that after this post I will actually be caught up {hurray!} and the remainder of my posts will actually be in order haha! As you may have realized I have myself a little goal while here in Taiwan to make it each of the counties (or areas in some instances) of Taiwan. Before this weekend I still had 3 of the stinkers left and was bound and determined to shave a little more off my bucket list. Luck for me another fellow English teacher from Texas, Ariel, lives in one of the three remaining counties and invited Tina and I out for a weekend...Yilan County here we come!

Now comes the fun part...prepare yourself for an official Yilan County photo dump! :)

The train ride out to Yilan from the west coast is not a short one, so of course dinner was needed! Sushi express offers a choose your own sushi bar for less than $1 USD each. 

The Yilan Center for Traditional Arts was a great way to spend a chunk of Saturday and get acquainted with what Yilan had to offer us!

And if teaching doesn't work out...selling noodles on the street is always an option as well!
The weather called for rain but ended up being a spectacular day to spend outside!

{{Arial, Myself, & Tina}} at the Cultural Village

Next stop, the beach! The beach was filled with small pebbles and sea shells...what could make my feet much happier?!

Loved the views & the breeze!

I've truly been blessed with the friends Taiwan has put in my path :)

The beautiful morning led way into a gorgeous afternoon & perfect biking weather

Biking took us past these funky condos on stilts as well as one of my favorite Taiwan sights, rice field workers!

Near downtown Yilan

Dinner came in the form of ramen and mango shaved ice!

And our post dinner treat included a free local hot spring as well as dinner for the local fish ;)  {and smooth feet for us!}

Sunday brought us more great weather and a picnic in the park with what us American's call..."duck tacos"!

Beautiful views at the park!

Jiufen Old Street - Take 1

Saturday, April 16, 2016

I profusely apologize for anyone who has to deal with me on a regular basis and has ever complained about my endless stream of energy {ok, I guess I apologize, but I'm still not willing to change!} Several weeks ago I began asking around as to what my friends were doing for the weekend and I received unanimous answers from all of them "I'm tired, I think I'm just going to stay home and sleep". What is this word sleep they talk about? I'm still not 100% sure, but I sure don't like the sound of it! :P

Solo adventure, here I come!

I've made a bit of a "to-do list" of things to do before I head back home for the summer, and one of the easier things to cross off this list was to visit Jiufen Old Street in New Taipei City {yes my posts are a bit out of order! You can read about my 2nd trip there with my mom HERE} Since Jiufen isn't terribly far from my house, I decided I'd head out early in the morning and make a long day trip out of it.

First stop of the morning was to make my way to Taipei where the bus to Jiufen left. While waiting on my bus though, what do you know, I meet a fellow American traveler (no shame in checking out someone's phone that they are using to see what language they have it set to!) who had just finished up a teaching gig in Japan and was traveling through Taiwan before heading home. I ask where he's heading {first he gives me a name of who knows what before he shows me the correct name on his map lol} and what-do-ya-know, he was heading to Jiufen...travel buddy acquired!

1. Small alley way 2. Paper lanterns lining the streets 3. Tea shop display 4. Tea house at dusk

The bus to Jiufen was an hour-ish {to be honest, I slept, so who knows!} and when we hopped off the bus we were met with the most incredible mountain views! Throughout the day Alan and I perused the streets graciously accepting free food samples, picking up "necessary" souvenirs, and taking in the sights and sounds that Jiufen has to offer. At one point Alan decided he wanted to stay put for a bit while I wanted to check out the waterfall, so we exchanged contact info and went our separate ways {needless to say thanks to the lovely public transportation in Taiwan some days...I did NOT make it to the waterfall this day!}

The famous tea house in the heart of Jiufen

As the sun began to set in the sky Alan and I met back up and decided to stay for sunset to see what else the area had to offer us. All I've got to say is that the more I travel, the more I'm positive that God is an artist. Holy moly guys it was beautiful! The sunset, the silhouettes of the old Japanese style buildings, the glow of the red paper lanterns...it was breath taking and so worth the wait if you find yourself on the steps of Jiufen Old Street someday yourself!

Extraordinary views!

Tuesday's Taiwanism - {Taiwanese Grocery Store}

Food! It doesn't take a rocket scientist to read my blog to know that I love am obsessed with eating and trying new foods {no shame, a girls gotta eat!} And, to make matters even worse (or better?! I guess it depends on how you look at it!) while I am traveling there is even MORE new foods for me to try...score!

While traveling to a new place I love spending time perusing a local grocery store. I feel as though you can learn so much about the culture and their eating habits and customs by seeing what they purchase and what they stock their shelves with. Needless to say, I have spent more time than I'd like to admit checking out countless grocery stores here in Taiwan as well! In the last 10 months I have truly fallen in love with Taiwanese food {except for you stinky tofu...you're a whole other ballgame buddy!} and love the opportunity to try new foods almost daily.

Today I have some pictures of one of my most recent trips to the grocery store focusing mainly on the produce section {you'll see why!} Although after nearly a year I'm in my routine now of typically purchasing my staple grocery items, it's still fun to check out the new produce and snacky isles and grab something I've never tried before to see what else Taiwan has to offer me!

What other sections of a typical Taiwanese grocery store are you interested in seeing next time, let me know!

(PS - I promise I'm not a terrible photographer! I put my hand in several of these pictures for a size comparison!)

A popular type of eggplant in Taiwan called "Chinese Eggplant". As you can see they are very long and super skinny. They taste almost identical to Western eggplants, but with less seeds. 

These mushrooms are called "Enoki Mushrooms" they are teeny and noodle like once cooked and popular in many dishes here. I suppose if I was a fan of mushrooms I'd like these tiny guys a little more!

Some type of gourd plant. I clearly have no idea what this is but had never seen one before, they were quite heavy!

"Bamboo shoots"! A staple in every Asian dish!! I used to like these, but since moving to Taiwan I love them even more!

I tried to google translate on the sign for these monsters and it wasn't much help. It appears to be a root like vegetable with a dry potato texture.

And here we have 2 vegetables...again 0 help here, but seriously, where do all these crazy vegetables come from and how are there so many different vegetables in the world!