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    Weekend Trip to Osaka, Japan

    With the recent busyness of my graduate schoolwork, position change, and adjusting to life as a family of three, it’s been some time since we traveled outside of Korea. During our recent Thanksgiving break, we had a long weekend and decided to check out nearby Osaka, Japan.

    OsakaCastleFamilyPic

    We left for the airport right after school and flew on Peach Airlines, a knee jammed, but efficient discount carrier from Incheon (ICN) to Kansai International Airport (KIX). Peach offers great prices for airline tickets across Asia, but charges for the extras (meals, checked luggage, seat preference, etc.). If flying Peach, it’s worth noting you need to print your ticket QR code ahead of time or face the unexpected Ryan-Air –ish fees. 

    We arrived late on Thursday at KIX, so we took the Airport Express train to Namba station. Between the airport and Namba, the Airport Express takes about 1 hour and costs 920 JPY (approx. 8 USD). We arrived too late to take the Limited Express Rapi:t train, which takes around 30 minutes and costs 1,430 JPY (approx. 13 USD). We arrived at Namba station and after stops at a couple of convenience stores, located our AirBnB nearby. (You can find timetables for both express trains here.)

    Osaka

    On Friday, we stopped by Nippombashi and Namba stations to try and find the tourist friendly Kansai One Cards, but they were sold out. Instead, we purchased ICOCA transit cards and made our way to Osaka Castle. 

    Osaka Castle

    We enjoyed exploring the castle and its grounds. Aside from the crowded inside and top of the central castle building, the grounds were quiet. 

    OsakaCastle1

    The top story of the central castle building had a great view of the city and surrounding mountains. The outside of the building is beautiful, accented by gold and surrounded by maple trees.

    OsakaCastleTop

    OsakaCastleMaple

    We took a couple of hours walking around the castle walls and giant moats. There’s an option to take one of these traditional looking boats through the moat, but we decided to take in the view from land. 

    OsakaCastleBoat

    Dotonbori

    Later on Friday, we headed towards the Dotonbori area. This part of Osaka is super crowded as it a hot spot for tourists, shopping, and food. There are several iconic and unique signs on the outside of stores and restaurants. 

    Glicoman

    One of the most recognizable signs is the Glico Running Man by the Ezaki Glico confectionary. According to Rough Guides, the sign is over 70 years old and the area around the sign is a popular gathering spot following sporting victories. 

    We slurped Ramen for dinner. Surprisingly, few places in Osaka take credit cards, so we exchanged cash so we could place our order in the vending machine outside the restaurant. 

    RamenOsaka

    I had Miso noodles with Pork. It was rather salty and so delicious!

    RamenInside

    RamenMachine

    Later that night, Leah and Emi were tired, so we went back to settle them in for the night. After bedtime routines, I went on the hunt for a good sushi restaurant. I have seen several pictures and videos of conveyor belt sushi restaurants and wanted to give one a try. I headed back towards the Dotonbori area and came across Dotonbori Akaoni, a Michelin endorsed Takoyaki (たこ焼き) street food booth.

    Akaonistorefront

    Takoyaki is basically a fried dough ball with a small octopus inside. I stumbled upon this literal hole in the wall. I ordered the basic takoyaki with spicy sauce for 500 JPY (about 4.5 USD). It was slightly chewy and had a spicy burn that didn’t quite settle in until a few minutes after.

    Akaonichopstick

    AkaoniKitchen

    My hunt for sushi continued by walking through Dotonbori, which proved to be more challenging than during the day. The evening crowds were thick and lively during the dinner rush. 

    DotonboriNight

    I found Genrokuzushi (Dotonbori), a touristy, but cheap sushi joint. However, the line went about 15 meters beyond the restaurant’s doors, and after not moving in line for 20 minutes, I moved on.

    I eventually came to Chojiro in one of the side alleys. 

    ChojiroSign

    It was fairly affordable and the best quality sushi I’ve had so far. I enjoyed sitting at the conveyor belt and seeing the sushi being made right on the other side of the counter. 

    SushiBelt

    My favorite was the avocado tuna. It was so fresh! Another favorite was the Wasabi Tuna. The wasabi was so spicy, it felt like my nostrils were turning inside out!

    Wasabi Tuna

    Wasabi Tuna

    SushiAvocado

    I loved it so much I brought Leah and Emine back the next night. They gave us our own private room with a sliding door! Either we looked fancy, or it was because of our lively 9-month-old baby (likely the latter). All three of us were exhausted, but enjoyed the fresh sushi (just rice for Emi) followed by matcha ice cream. We ordered with the restaurant’s automated ordering system on an iPad.

    LeahSushi SalmonSushi

    Although we only got a small glimpse, we loved the time we spent in Osaka on Friday. We spent most of the day Saturday in Kyoto before our meal at Chojiro. More on our time in Kyoto soon!

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    Bohol and Panglao

    Even though we would have, we weren’t able to book a full week in Moalboal. We decided to spend the last two nights of our vacation on the island province of Bohol.

    Getting from Moalboal to Panglao took an entire day. I was hoping we’d be able to catch a ferry out of Oslab, but with it being Easter weekend, we were told the smaller ports would be crowded and unreliable. We hired a taxi for 1500PHP (around $30) to drive us three hours to Cebu City. From there, we purchased ferry tickets to Tagbilaran. The ferries had already sold out of the earlier time slots. After a few hours wait, we took the 2.5 hour ferry ride east to Tagbilaran. It was dark by the time we got there.

    We stayed at Momo Village on Panglao Island, just off the southwestern tip of Bohol. We found and booked the place through AirBnB. (Get $20 off your first stay with AirBnB!) Momo Village was AWESOME. The owner, Ana, was so hospitable. Believe the reviews – her cooking is incredible. Momo Village had a five-story tower with a room on each floor. We stayed in the very top apartment (which was originally never meant for guests, but was Ana’s husband’s art studio). The view was amazing.

     

    Momo Village Tower

     

    The mosquitoes weren’t awful at that time of year, but we needed the windows open to keep the room cool. So we put up the mosquito net to avoid creepy crawlies on us while we slept:

     

    Momo Village top room

     

    View from Momo Village Tower

     

    View from Momo Village Tower

     

    Purple leaves plant

     

    Ana’s husband had several beautiful driftwood pieces around the property:

     

    Driftwood sculpture

     

    After a delicious breakfast, we rented a motorbike from Ana and set off to explore. There was an option for a full-day tour around the area, but our time was limited and there were only a couple of places we wanted to see.

     

    David on Motorbike

     

    Leah store

     

    A holy week procession:

     

    Holy week parade

     

    Our first stop was the Tarsier Sanctuary. These nocturnal primates were mostly sleeping, but we caught a few with open eyes! They were cute little guys. A few fun facts:

    • They grow to just over 6 inches and weigh between 2.8–5.6 oz.
    • Tarsiers are able to rotate their heads 180º to compensate for their immovable eyeballs.
    • They are carnivorous primates. They eat insects, spiders, lizards, and birds.
    • Their third finger is the same length as their upper arm.

     

    Tarsier monkey

     

    Tarsier monkey

     

    Tarsier monkey

     

    From there, we went to the Chocolate Hills. There are over 1,200 of these natural land formations. Unfortunately, no chocolate was involved. The mounds get their name from their brown appearance during the dry season. Apparently the limestone mounds were formed ages ago by the uplift of coral deposits and the action of rain water and erosion.

     

    Chocolate Hills sign

     

    Chocolate Hills

     

    We had lunch at the restaurant at the Chocolate Hills. The quality wasn’t amazing, but the prices weren’t bad and we were super thirsty and hungry.

    We stopped by White Beach, but were too disturbed by the super old white men with teenage girls and left soon after. We’re talking girls probably younger than their daughters. Eegh.

    It was a long day on the motorbike. David did a great job of driving. We both did a great job of sweating. The showers we took that night were some of the most needed and refreshing ones we’d had in awhile. We ate dinner that evening at Momo Village. I’m telling you – probably the best meal you can have in Bohol!

     

    Sunset in Panglao

     

    David and Leah at sunset

     

    Our time in Bohol was short, but I’m glad we were able to explore it for a day! Ana drove us to the ferry port early the next morning. We took the ferry back to Cebu City and a taxi from the port to the airport.

    Travel Note: When flying out of the Cebu Airport, there is an airport fee of 750PHP per person (about $16). You must pay this before you go to the gate area, so keep some pesos on you!

    I claim our first Asia trip (outside Korea) a success! 🙂

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    Canyoneering in Kawasan Falls

    During our stay in Moalboal, Philippines, we wanted to take full advantage of the gorgeous scenery and explore some of the local landscape. Our resort offered excursions through their company Planet Action Adventure. We signed up with our friends for the Kawasan Falls Canyoneering expedition.

     

    canyoneeringkawasan

     

    We were so glad to have booked it through the adventure company. They provided the transportation, gear, wonderful guides, and a delicious lunch. We left the resort at 9:00 am and returned around 3:00pm.

    You guys. This experience was SO. COOL. And these pictures do not do Kawasan Falls and the canyon justice. (We had a waterproof cover for David’s phone, but it was difficult to take great photos and videos. Thanks to our friend Lauren for some of these pics!)

     

    Planet Action van

     

    Riding on top of the van. No big deal.

     

    Riding on van roof

     

    David and Leah wearing helmets and lifejackets

     

    It was Team Chaco vs. Team Keen and we all won.

     

    Chaco shoes and Keen shoes

     

    Cebu eco tourism stamp

     

    Sliding down rocks in Kawasan

     

    The van dropped us off up stream and we began our trek into the canyon. We jumped into fresh water pools, slid and shimmied down rocks, swam, and took in the amazing tropical scenery. I was cautious and did not do some of the larger jumps (partially because I’m a wimp, but this time I had an excuse). I doubt the experience would have been a doctor recommended event so soon after my surgery, but it all turned out fine.

     

    Hiking Kawasan Falls

     

    Cliff jumping

     

     

    Kawasan Valley

     

    David peeking out of a rock

     

    Swimming in Kawasan with friends

     

    We ended our hike at Kawasan Badian National Park. The waterfalls there are popular and were what we saw photos of when we first researched the area. We didn’t have time to swim there, but it was cool to see. I’m glad we didn’t try to do the park on our own – we wouldn’t have seen or experienced anywhere near what did with the tour.

     

    David and Leah by Kawasan waterfall

     

    Kawasan waterfall

     

    Kawasan swimmers

     

    Kawasan rafters

     

    The BBQ lunch was fantastic. Fish, squid, chicken, rice, salad, bananas (or plantains?)… We were HUNGRY and all got our fill. Bravo, Planet Action Adventure.

     

    Lunch feast in Philippines

     

    Other Notes:
    This was a very physical adventure and we wouldn’t recommended it for small children. You can avoid some of the cliff jumps, but in several places you must jump in order to continue down the canyon. The guides were great and showed us where to step and pointed out where to land. Wear shorts (the life jacket straps ride up) and shoes with lots of traction. You can sign up for the tour even if you aren’t staying at Tipolo.

     

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    Philippines: Moalboal

    The fourth week of March was spring break and we traveled to the Philippines! I was a little nervous; it was our first East Asia trip outside of Korea. I shouldn’t have worried. The Philippines was a dream and just the escape we needed. We chose there because it had the cheapest airfare and the beach.

    When it came to planning, we had no idea where to start. Fortunately, some friends were traveling there too and let us crash their digs. We flew into Cebu City and spent five nights at Tipolo Resort in Moalboal. (We spent our last two nights in Panglao. More on that in another post!) Tipolo was the best. The restaurant had delicious meals, $6 hour massages, kayaks and gear to rent, and it was quiet and right on the beach… we would absolutely go there again!

     

    View from Tipolo resort

     

    We took a late flight out of Seoul and didn’t land in Cebu until 1:25 am. We booked transport across the island to Moalboal through the resort, which worked out great. It was a long drive, maybe 3 hours or so. Because we booked the room for that night, we crashed as soon as we set down our bags.

    Seoul’s pollution did a number on me before break and a small cough turned into a full on infection. I lost my voice, was hacking up a lung, and I knew I needed antibiotics. In the morning, we took a motorbike taxi into town and stopped at a pharmacy. The pharmacy required a prescription, and after a couple of hours, I was able to see a doctor (pediatrician) and get the meds I needed. I was nervous that the visit was going to set us back on cash, but it cost $6 to see the doctor. SIX. DOLLARS. That’s it. And then around $25 for meds. With z-pack in tow, we took a motorbike taxi back to Tipolo to enjoy our vacation.

    Motorbike taxis were a hoot:

     

    Philippines bike taxi

     

    Leah in a Philippines bike taxi

     

    We had a blast playing in the water, checking out White Beach, searching for colorful coral, and riding around the area. Renting a motorbike for a day cost just under $9!

     

    David riding a motorbike

     

    Planted palm trees

     

    Beautiful view on side of highway in Philippines

     

    Tropical flowers in Philippines

     

    Man climbing palm tree for coconuts

     

    David kayaking in Moalboal

     

    Coral beach

     

    I’m obsessed with the colors of our beach finds. I called this our handful of Frutti Pebble confetti:

     

    Philippines beach finds

     

    Another dream fulfilled: fresh coconut!

     

    Leah with coconut vendors

     

    David drinking out of a coconut

     

    Moalboal is famous for scuba diving. We didn’t, but David snorkeled and saw some amazing fish and coral:

     

    David snorkeling

     

    Fish and coral in Moalboal

     

    Coral and blue fishes

     

    Most of the signs we saw were hand painted. Swoon!

     

    Handpainted signs

     

    Bright, purple flowers

     

    San Juan Nepomuceno Church

     

    Sunset at Tipolo resort

     

    Jumping on the beach at sunset

     

    Where we ate:

    • The Last Filling Station at Tipolo. The French breakfast was my favorite. And all of the mango and fruit juices. And the mango dream ice cream dessert. The pizzas were good too. Did I mention the mango?
    • Blue Abyss Dive Resort Restaurant. Food was decent.
    • Veranda on Panagsama Beach. This was our favorite meal, maybe because we were so hungry that night.
    • A fish restaurant close to the Chilli Bar Restaurant. I didn’t catch the name of it. Overpriced, slow service, but the tuna was really yummy.

    Where we stayed:
    Tipolo was great. The meals at the restaurant and gear rentals were added to the room tab, which was convenient. The ladies who worked there were all kind and helpful. The rooms were a good size and clean. The showers had no water pressure, but the water was hot. Wifi didn’t reach to our room, but was fine in the dining area. It was not a fancy hotel resort, but was perfect for our needs. We recommend it!

     

    I’ll share soon about our canyoneering adventure in Badian!

     

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    Lunar New Year in Gyeongju

    Working at an international school is fun for many reasons, one of them including regional holidays off of work. Lunar New Year was the second week in February, and we traveled southeast with some friends to Gyeongju (경주). Lunar New Year is one of the biggest holidays in Korea. Often, people travel from Seoul to their hometowns to spend time with extended family. Thanks to a friend, we were able to get standing room tickets on the KTX speed train. We left Saturday morning and two hours later arrived in Gyeongju!

    Gyeongju is an important historical city. It was the capital of the Silla kingdom which ruled about two-thirds of the peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries. Today, it’s no longer the capital, but a smaller city. There are many historical sites, which is a draw for tourists.

    Where We Stayed
    We rented an AirBnB cabin with two other couples. The owner, Minmook, was a wonderful host. He went above and beyond! He made multiple trips to pick us up and drop us off at the house, take us to a grocery store, and get us to the bus stop. He brought by fresh fruit on multiple nights. The guys got to chat with him and hear his interesting story. Minmook lived all over Korea, built the three houses on his property, and recently started a blueberry crop. Though the house is a little out of the way, we highly recommend it! (It’s an easy ₩5,000 taxi ride to the main bus stop and attractions.)

     

    Gyeongju sunset

     

    Gyeongju sunset with hanok roofs

     

    Boys grilling meat

     

    We tried Hwangnam bread, which is original to the region. The pastry is filled with a dense, sweet red-bean paste. It was first baked in 1939 and is now sold throughout Korea.

     

    Traditional Gyeongju bread - Hwangnam bread

     

    Korean fish and bowls

     

    This was the commons area where we cooked, ate, hung out, and enjoyed the firewood stove:

     

    Cabin stove and room

     

    The house had two bedrooms. One had a Western style bed, and the other room used the traditional Korean mattress pads called a yo. David and I stayed in the mini-living room and also used a yo. The bedroom areas had ondol heated floors, which made for some cozy sleeping:

     

    Sleeping floor mats

     

    One day, we visited Bulguksa Temple (불국사), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Admission cost ₩5,000 for adults.

     

    Travel friends

     

    Bulguksa walkway

     

    Iron dragon door knockers

     

    Bulguksa Hanok roof

     

    Bulguksa Seokgatap tower

     

    Prayer rocks:

     

    Balanced prayer rock stacks

     

    I found a cross!

     

    Bulguksa cross detail

     

    Bulguksa architecture and roofs

     

    Bulguksa Hanok roof

     

    Child with a bird water pipe

     

    The next day, we decided to hike to the Seokguram Bell Pavilion, which we could see in the distance from our house. We went way off the beaten path and walked up and down some major hills. My phone said we climbed 155 flights! We also took a wrong turn so our hike ended up being over five miles. But we enjoyed the company, sunshine, and fresh air. When we got to the bell, we only stayed five minutes because we saw the bus and didn’t want to wait another hour to get back into town.

     

    Hiking buddies - selfie in mirror

     

    Seongdeok stucture

     

    Ringing the Seongdeok bell

     

    Though there was a lot more we could have seen in and around town, our weekend was perfect. It was a relaxing retreat to be outside the city.
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    First Taste of Beondegi

    So… I ate a bug in Korea. Beondegi to be specific.

    We’ve been in Korea for about six months and we’ve really enjoyed the local food. Eating is one of our favorite pastimes, and we like trying new things. Even when we’re a little skeptical.

    We traveled southeast to Gyeongju the first weekend of February with some friends for Lunar New Year. (More on that soon!) While we were out one day, we walked by street food vendors. One lady was selling beondegi (번데기). I had no intentions of ever eating this food, but… when everyone was trying it, might as well?

     

    Boiled silkworm larvae

     

    What is beondegi?
    Beondegi is boiled and seasoned silkworm pupae. (Pupae is the stage between the larva and adult form when the bug is in the chrysalis stage.) Korean people eat beondegi as a snack, though I wouldn’t call it the most loved or popular food of choice. We often see food vendors with a long line of customers, but I never see a line at beondegi pots. According to earthexcursion.com: “Beondegi came to rise as a much needed source of protein during the Korean War because protein was scare, as well as many other macro nutrients.” I think we paid ₩2000 for a small paper cup (about $1.65 USD). It was MORE than enough.

    How did it taste?
    …Not as bad as I thought it would. It was a little bit fishy and nutty to me. Some of our friends thought they tasted similar to boiled peanuts. It was a little crunchy and a little chewy. Thinking about what I was chewing was the worst part.

     

    Beondegi seller

     

    Cup of beondegi

     

    Here’s a video of our first beondegi experience:

     

     

    And if I’m ever hankering for more (yeah right), I can always find a can of it at the grocery store:

     

    Beondegi can

     

     

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    Trumpeter Swans on Magness Lake

    While we were in the States over Christmas break, we traveled south to see my mom in Arkansas. She heard about some other northern visitors, and we drove to Heber Springs to check them out.

    Arkansas hosts hundreds of trumpeter swans every winter! The swans migrate from the Midwest to Magness Lake and enjoy the warmer temperatures from November through February. Trumpeter swans are the largest of waterfowl in North America and are the rarest type of swan. Their wingspan can reach up to 10 feet! The first three swans came to the lake in 1992; researchers think they were knocked off course by a storm. Swans mate for life and they teach their young their migration routes. Now, as many as 150 swans can be seen on the lake at a time.

    We stopped by the lake in the afternoon and saw around 25 swans, along with other ducks and geese. If we had stayed a little longer, we might have seen more fly in after their day out hunting. A friend gave us a bag of cracked corn to feed the birds. They were beautiful!

     

    Magness Lake swans

     

    Trumpeter swans on Magness Lake

     

    Magness Lake in Heber Springs

     

    Cracked corn on Magness Lake

     

    Flock of trumpeter swans

     

    Trumpeter swans through brush

     

    Cracked corn

     

    Holding cracked corn

     

    Trumpeter swans swimming

     

    Trumpeter swans

     

    Trumpeter swans

     

    Trumpeter swans

     

    David, Leah, Mom at Magness Lake

     

    To see the swans, take Arkansas 110 east from its intersection with Arkansas 5 and 25 just east of Heber Springs. Go 3.9 miles from the intersection to Sovereign Grace Baptist Church, marked with a white sign. Turn left onto Hays Road. Parking spots are available. The swans are best seen in the mid-afternoon to dusk hours.

    We look forward to visiting the swans over winters to come!

     

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