Archive for the ‘The Great Outdoors’ Category

Congratulations are in order for my baby sister, Marbs, who is one of three singles players on her high school tennis team with an undefeated record. 19-0, and this is only her second year playing the sport! (Like, seriously. She only picked up a racket last year.)

Her photo was in the paper today, and I’d link to it if I wasn’t anonymous. But she looks so fierce. I’m proud of you, kiddo.

With the AP classes, orchestra, college and scholarship applications and job, I don’t know how you have the time to do it all. Must be something in that NorCal water . . .


In other news, I posted more Japan pics on Flickr.

Can’t believe I was there just three months ago–it seems much more time has passed. I miss Kyoto.

Otoyo Shrine 7

Click on the picture above for more shots of Honen-In, Otoyo Shrine and a sad little tempura dish that set me back six bucks.

The latest batch (as well as the first, of Ginkaku-ji) were taken during my first day of sightseeing in Japan. I devoted that time to Tetsugaku-no-Michi, “The Philosopher’s Path.” The road, sprinkled with delightful little cafes and shrines, wasn’t too crowded–but I followed a few tourists when I got lost. And I did get lost.

Back then it was hot. I wasn’t dying like the other foreigners, yet it was hot enough that I lost five pounds of water weight by the end of my trip, in spite of a diet of waffles and green tea ice cream.

I spent the majority of the day on foot, and by nightfall I had blisters on my feet. My bright pink purse was heavy with my Lonely Planet guide, Japanese phrasebook, camera (with four spare batteries, and I still ran out of juice in the middle of the day), paper fan, water and five pounds of coins I wouldn’t be able to convert to Won upon my return to Korea.

I prefer the tiny shrines like Otoyo, because there are less visitors, which means I have more time to just sit down and take too many half-assed pictures. Anyway, as usual my pictures don’t do the place any justice. It was so peaceful, so unexpectedly quiet for a hot tourist spot like Kyoto.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know about Japan and their temples, so if you want to add notes or define stuff in my photos, feel free to do so.

On this particular night I downed sake shots (straight out of a carton!) with awkward Germans, a dueling Swede couple, a short-haired French girl I totally crushed on, some Canadians who were also teaching in Korea, and two Catalan siblings I’ll call “Lucy” and “Linus.”

I hit it off with Lucy and Linus right away, fascinated by how many languages they spoke with ease. Between them, they knew Catalan, Spanish, English, German, Latin, Japanese, Italian and I’m sure they were fluent in more.

I was starstruck, because I don’t even know Tagalog.

“In Spain, when we have drinks, we say chin-chin,” Lucy explained after pouring my third drink. “But when we said this in Tokyo, our Japanese friends were so embarrassed. Chin-chin means penis in Japanese! So for our first week here, we were yelling penis in bars, with no idea why people were staring so hard.”

“I loooooove you,” I slurred. “I never had Spanish friends before. Will you be my friends?”

“Yes, but you must know we are Catalan, and not Spanish,” Luis pointed out.

“Uh-huh whatever. Chin-chin!”


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What does October have in store for me?

Let’s check my Hyun Bin calendar!

Return of the Hyun Bin calendar! 

3rd: Day off. Time to watch those pirated DVDs gathering dust on my bookshelf.

On Wednesday, I have to go back to work, but the holiday extends through–

5th-8th: Yoga in the mountains! Four days in Gyeongju, at my favorite temple. Which also happens to be my favorite place in all of Korea.

I’m knitting a gray scarf for the head abbot. The last time I saw him, I asked about practicing Buddhism, but I don’t think he found me serious. Hopefully we can further discuss this.

14-15th: Pusan International Film Festival. Heading down south with MF, Z and Z’s coworkers. 

20th: Jay-Z concert in Seoul.D already bought the tickets. H to the izz-o!

21st: Korean Proficiency Test. I’m signing up for a class that’s associated with a church in Seoul.

You actually don’t have to be Christian to join, but they do encourage you to attend church. (People from different religious backgrounds take the course, so I probably won’t be pressured.)

The semester only lasts for six weeks, but you know how competitive I am. If I’m not working, and I’m not in yogilates, I’m studying.

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You don’t have to go all the way to Seoul or hike in the mountains to get giddy with your camera.

While I was taking a walk one hot Saturday morning, I came upon a sign for a Buddhist temple. Although I’m keen on learning more about this religion, I had never visited any shrines or temples in my city, so I decided to look around.

It wasn’t much–pretty much the equivalent of a market, adorned with last season’s Buddha’s Birthday lanterns. But there were all these beautiful flowers. I went crazy with macro.

I usually don’t like to spend that much time in my town, because it really isn’t that interesting. We don’t even have a coffeehouse! (And yes, I know how “ugly American” that sounds.) So all these plants were a pleasant surprise.

Click the picture above for more flower power on Flickr.


Hmm, other stuff I’ve been up to:

1) Yoga is kicking my ass. Even with my athletic background and past yoga classes, my itsy-bitsy, beautiful (seriously, she looks like a cross between Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh) instructor challenges me. I don’t hurt anywhere, thank God, but she leaves me curious about the next lesson.

2) I’m addicted to last year’s popular Korean television drama, My Name is Kim Sam Soon. I originally started watching episodes to see Hyun Bin, but this show is so tasty. I stayed up til one in the morning last night to see watch more, and you should too.

I can’t do the show any justice. Do yourself a favor and at least watch the first ten minutes of Episode One on YouTube. Look, there are even subtitles!

3) I’m downloading a lot of empowering, “I’m gonna get through beat this heartache into the dirt” songs on LimeWire. Admittedly, some sappy love ballads too. Enough disco and country to kill a baby elephant.

Obviously, I need to get away from the computer as soon as possible.


I can’t believe I’m turning 25 on Thursday.

I feel like I’ve aged quite a bit here in Korea–for better or for worse, I don’t know. But in spite of the disappointment and heartache I’ve shouldered these past few days, I feel like I’ve made more accomplishments in this tiny country than I have in my previous 24 years.

I wonder what I’ll be like at age 50 . . . Most important, I wonder where I’ll be.

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Much thanks to D for sending me these photos, which were taken two weekends ago at my favorite temple.

However, they hardly do justice to the splendor of that night.

Imagine doing yoga in the mountains, under the stars and right next to these lanterns . . .

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“Bali, bali.”

“What’s he telling us?” D asked, following my lead as I broke into a run.

“Hurry, hurry,” I answered. Then, grinning, I pointed at my watch. “It’s stopped. Crazy.”

We’d only been at the temple for a few hours when we started our workout with the monks. I broke away from D to join the master, who had remained as tough and distant as I’d remembered. We jogged up the winding hill, past the dorms and dining room and towards the cave shrines.

Although I used to do ten-milers through the orchards back in California, running uphill was extremely rough. However, I bit my tongue and held on, even as we raced up the mountain steps. We rolled back down and went up another hill, where the other monks were waiting.

The head abbot spun me around by the shoulders, towards the lotus lanterns lighting the mountain in shades of red, pink, yellow, green and blue. “Beautiful, yes?”

“Ne,” I sighed, sucking in as much air as I could. I leaned over, rubbing the blood back into my legs.

“There are two thousand lanterns.”

“Wa!” I said, turning to him. I’d seen some of his staff making the lanterns by hand earlier this morning.

A few minutes later the rest of my class joined us and we took pictures. I took D aside and hugged her. “Thanks for doing this with me,” I said.

“Pia," she gasped, "after being in the cities for so long, I didn’t know places like this existed in Korea.”

I looked up into the clear, starry night and smiled. When did I stop being the newcomer? “Yeah, it’s pretty awesome, isn’t it?”

We finished our exercises out in the open, under the lights of the stars and lanterns. After class a young monk approached me.

“Your kicks are excellent,” he said. “Did you study the martial arts?”

I shrugged, trying to hide my pride. “Taekwondo, Tangsoodo and Hapkido.”

“That explains why we mistook you for Korean,” says J, a journalist from Busan, as we walk back to the dorms. “You look Filipino, but your speech and mannerisms fooled me and my boyfriend. It must be all your martial arts training.”

“I’m hardly fluent in Korean,” I said. “And . . . I’m not a real martial artist.”

“How long are you staying here?”

Just then the master flew past us and raced up the mountain, as swift and fluid as a jaguar. I watched him dart into one of the cave shrines, illuminated by the thousands of lanterns. Taking a deep breath, I wondered.

Just how long do I plan on staying here?


The next day was painful.

My crotch and thighs stiff from ninety minutes of sitting meditation in the cold outdoors at four in the morning, I began to walk uphill in an effort to relieve my cramps.

I found Anne—a tall, blonde and lithe public school teacher in her late twenties—writing in her journal in front of one of the shrines. I sat next to her and took out my water bottle, offering it to her.

“Sorry to disturb you,” I sighed, leaning back on my palms, watching the birds shoot out of the trees one by one.

She turned off her iPod and guzzled the water. “No, that’s okay. I just wanted to relive our meditation here, that’s all.”

“Do you think you’ll come back?”

“Nah. An experience like this is best had only once.”

“Maybe,” I said, stretching out my legs. “I can’t stop thinking about this place. I’ve been in love with it since the very beginning. It’s crazy, but I don’t ever want to leave.”

She laughed. “That’s probably why your watch broke. I can understand,” she sighed, handing my bottle back. “I spent my last vacation backpacking through India. For the first three weeks, I was in this yoga school. Four hours a day in the heat. It was crazy, but by the end my friend had to tear me away.”

Grinning madly, I gasped, “You can study yoga in India?”

“Of course you can. It’s very cheap—five hundred dollars gets you a room and food, hours of yoga and endless lectures on anatomy and spirituality. It was actually a month-long program, but the last week was for yoga instructors only.

"Why?" she asked, eying me. "Are you interested?”

“Well, not for the summer, that would be too hot. But if I get a public school job and long winter vacations . . ."

"Sure. And if you’re serious about this Buddhism thing, you can go to the same town the Dalai Lama is in. You can go anywhere in India and Nepal. There are so many different schools—and of course, you’ll need four or five months to really do India, unless you just want to explore one state.”

Suddenly, I remembered when I’d learned my grandmother had cancer. Holding her waxy hands as we faced each other in bed, watching our faces under the covers. Denying.

“When I graduate from college, we’ll go to India . . . we’ll see the Ganges River—”

“What’s that?” she sniffed, her breath stinking of Marlboros.

“It’s a holy river, Lola. Hindus go there for salvation. And then there’s the Taj Mahal! It’s supposed to be the most romantic place in the entire world.”

“What do I care about water and the homes of people I don’t know? All I want is for my family to be together in one place.”

“But wouldn’t you want to travel after you get better? Stop smoking and fly around a little?”

“Pia, when you’re my age, all you’re going to want is the people you love, under one roof. I don’t like California either, but even though I want to be in the Philippines, I don’t want to leave you, your sisters and your mother.

“Someday,” she sighed, “after you’ve had your turn around the world, you’ll understand.”

I turned to Anne, who was tucking her iPod into her knapsack. “Do you ever miss
Minnesota?” I asked her.

“Um, no,” she answered, her upper lip twitching.

“But what about your family?”

She shrugged and stood up, pulling me to my feet. “You know, I did a little, during my first year. But then I just decided to let them go. Not my family—but those negative doubts in the back of my mind.

“Now I’m having a way better time. It took me a year, but I finally love Korea—Most of all, I love the opportunity to travel. I’ll visit my hometown every now and then, but I’m never going to live there again.”

“You mean Minnesota?” I asked as we began our descent to the dining hall.

“No. I mean the United States. I’ll never live in America ever again.”

I smiled to myself and tapped my watch. “Yeah. I know what you mean.”

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Visited my favorite temple, near the southeast coast. I'm too tired and sore to post pics and write, but here's a taste.

If you think they're cool now, you should have seen the lanterns at night.

Part of our training last night included running through this mountain (as well as the hill leading up to it). Obviously it was difficult, but the lanterns were lit–all two thousand of them.

And for anyone who is wondering, I finished the run second, on the heels of a marathoner. Not to brag or anything.

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Roads and Trails

 “What cute gloves!” I gushed. “Do they come in pink?”

I was preparing for a trek up Bukhan, a famous mountain on the outskirts of Seoul. Feeling fierce in a vintage-looking Ramones shirt and sweats, I was ready to dominate what I felt was an unworthy challenge to my athletic prowess.

It must be said that I’d only hiked three times prior to Sunday. Twice while wandering around Buddhist temples, and once with K and NYer (the latter held my hand on our way down, which probably made me queasier than the altitude).

Hiking is an exceedingly popular hobby amongst the older population—and by that I mean anyone with grandkids. Every weekend the elderly suit up in the trendiest gear, pack up eggs, rice cakes, water, cigarettes and soju and take the subway to one of the numerous mountains littering the country.

I was drawn to the activity mostly out of my desire to visit more temples. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) monks were only tolerated in the mountainous areas.

Also, my Taekwondo classes had stopped running on Sundays, and I needed some form of exercise or my body would implode in job-related anxiety.

In Korea, there are two ways to reach the top of the mountain. One can either take the road and enjoy the scenery and scout some temples with ease. Or blindingly use the trails, which is what I did.

I had done very little research on Bukhan Mountain—I just assumed that it would be a beautiful walk with little discomfort. Of course, I was wrong. It all began innocently enough . . .

. . . Then the ground was steeper . . .

 . . . Until I was faced with a stretch of white rock, rope and cables. No steps.

It actually gets more difficult than this—at one point I was just pulling myself upward with my arms, and my feet weren’t touching anything at all.

Did I mention I was just wearing two-year-old running shoes? As little old men and women passed me in their hiking boots and walking sticks, they laughed in embarrassment for me.

Some pumped their fists in the air and shouted, “Fighting!” I was too worried about my well-being to pump back.

As I climbed higher and higher, I was slipping and didn’t know how I would get down. All that kept me going was the hope that I would find a road that would send me back to level ground.

Finally I found a flat area I could sit on. And the view made the journey well worth it.

View from Bukhan

As I guzzled Powerade I thought of how I’d felt stepping out of the airport in Incheon five months ago. I’d been so desperate to latch on to someone, to find my niche—to find a family.

Now I was wandering aimlessly, and I'd found something that could make me happy.

I had just gotten up to continue when a young man approached me. “Don’t go,” he said. “Dangerous.”

It only took a few more steps to realize he was right. I stumbled back down until I found him with some of his coworkers, who urged me to sit with them and take their rice cakes and water.

His name was Francis and he’d only started studying English when he was in college a few years ago. However, his ears were excellent—he’d spent some time in San Jose—and I was able to talk to him quite easily. He was working for a phone company in Seoul and made a point to go hiking every Sunday with his group.

“Why did you come alone?” he asked me.

“My friends don’t like to go hiking,” I said. “Just drinking.”

“And your boyfriend?”

“He’s in San Francisco.”

(I don’t know why I lied.)

He held my arm as we puttered downhill; eventually I allowed him to take my hand. I was ashamed that I was so dependent on him, and was humbled by how easily the mountain had overwhelmed me.

I’d convinced myself I could easily take Korea on my own, but I suppose I remain far from capable.

When we reached the road he offered to take me back to my apartment. It was out of his way, so I asked if he could take me to the subway station instead.

“Happy Easter,” he said as we climbed into his car.

“Oh, I had no idea.”

“I thought all Filipinos were Catholic.”

“Oh, I am,” I mumbled. “But I haven’t been to church in a long time.”

We soon reached the station. “If I am in your city,” he said, “can I call you.”

I smiled back at him, trying so hard not to look pained. “I have your card.” His face fell and he nodded.

Stepping out, I turned back to him, wishing we could be friends. I thanked him in Korean, spun around and dashed across the street and into the metro.

I stood for the entire ride home, staring out of the window. I passed the rice fields, temples and folk houses. I flew past the paper lanterns swinging from telephone wires and the flowers wavering from the trees.

I saw my reflection in the window, smudged with dirt and darkened from the sun. I felt the blood running through my arms and legs.

And I knew that sometime during my ascent that Easter afternoon, I’d fallen hard.

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