I’ll be blunt. We’re eating our way through Seoul, unable to pass whatever’s being fried or boiled or grilled at the next street vendor. I could lie and say we’re focused on the museums and historical sights of this massive city, and taking in the modern culture (and odd American exports). That’s all happening, but only between meals. And snacks. And meal-snacks.
A lot of that is thanks to the incredibly friendly people who keep pointing us in the right direction. Locals regularly walk right up to us — personal space, they care not! — if we look remotely lost or confused (so, every day). That’s surprising for a city this large, dense and cosmopolitan.
After a whirlwind trip through Japan, we had a choice for our limited time in South Korea: Keep the same pace to zigzag the southern part of the country — including going to an internationally known mud festival — or rest.
We arrived in South Korea via the port city of Busan, thanks to a ferry from Japan. Busan came highly recommended from friends who’d lived in South Korea, and we were in the region during the Boryeong Mud Festival, which Lonely Planet lists as a “must see.” The fest draws close to a million people each July to frolic in giant vats of mud between concerts, raves and other festivities.
And this, my friends, is the difference between traveling in your 20s and … not in your 20s.
Gray-blue sea surrounds us now that Japan has faded off the ship’s stern. We’re alone, walking the windy port-side deck while awaiting the first glimpse of South Korea. A uniformed sailor appears in the windowed passageway above us. His stance — legs wide, hands clasped, eyes locked on us through sunglasses — signals we’re a bit too close to the lifeboats.
We’re about to enter a new country from the sea, which I love, because it offers a slow, anticipatory view of the travels ahead. I’m also fresh off what may have been the best nap of my adult life, lulled to sleep by calm seas and lapping waves, while resting on a sunlight-warmed lounging mat.
Once again, Japan doesn’t disappoint the budget traveler.
We meander onto a nondescript path while climbing a steep mountainside staircase at Japan’s sprawling Daisho-in Temple. The stone path could be a service entrance or maybe an entryway to another small shrine. We aren’t sure. But we have time, so a wrong turn won’t hurt.
Then colorful dots appear on both sides of the forested path. A few steps later, the dots of red and white and yellow and blue climb up a long stone staircase through the woods. When I realize what we’ve happened upon, I melt into full-face smiles.
Thanks to a broken gondola that doubled our hiking time (and distance!), we were given a beautiful sunset as the ocean hit high tide and surrounded the Itsukushima Floating Torii Gate.
The oft-photographed gate is just off Miyajima Island in Japan. The island is accessible by ferry after about an hour’s train ride southwest of Hiroshima, and it’s a must-do trip if you’re in the Hiroshima area. The island offers steep hikes to stunning mountain views, with a series of fantastic temples and shrines along the way — including maybe my favorite temple in Japan.
We got to see a lot of Japan, but I think we saved the best for last. I loved Hiroshima. The main draw for tourists like us is undoubtably the Atomic Bomb Dome and the Peace Memorial Park. And rightfully so. They are somber but necessary places to experience.
But the city is also eclectic coffee shops and intimate sake bars with incredibly friendly staff. It’s home to a baseball team with avid fans. Hiroshima’s okonomiyaki (fried-noodle pancake), unique even in Japan, can’t be beat. And at least one Thomas the Tank Engine bus ferries young students wearing matching hats.
Hiroshima is definitely the city we’d most want to visit again in Japan despite seeing its primary tourists spots.
One of the coolest experiences we’ve had so far was taking a meditation class and staying overnight at the Shunkoin Temple, a Zen Buddhist temple in the hills of Kyoto. We wanted a break from the nonstop touring of the city’s temples and shrines (more on that later ) to learn more about the history and beliefs behind them.
The deputy head priest, Takafumi Kawakami, offers meditation classes and opened the temple to overnight stays as a way to introduce Zen meditation to anyone who’s curious. He does a great job bridging the gap between cultures for us Westerners, in part because he lived in the U.S. for a few years and speaks fluent English.