Monday, January 31, 2011

Getting in touch with your roots: Our Trip to Japan & Korea

It was amazing to travel back to the motherland with Aileen.

I know for both of us, we feel an affinity with our respective cultures in Japan and Korea, despite having both grown up in Canada. I always notice how passionate Aileen is about her Korean heritage, and having been back to Japan after a hiatus of almost fifteen years, I realize how amazing it feels to be connected back with my roots as well. I was also so excited to share a part of my culture with Aileen (and of course, I knew she would go nuts with the endless shopping in Tokyo!). This made it an important and incredible trip for us both.

The one thing I do notice about the Japanese culture, is that there seems to be a well functioning hybrid of extremes. Japan has always been on the leading edge of advanced technology, but this is fused with culture that is steeped deep with ancient tradition. This is apparent in the core of bustling Tokyo, with endless retail and fluorescent signs...

...Yet, turn a corner and you may find youself at a serene well-preserved and active temple:

You can also notice this in most bathrooms, which often still maintain the custom of changing into bathroom-specific slippers, yet have the most high-tech toilet seats as standard issue (photo: notice the array of buttons and dials on the control panel).

One other thing I learned from being in Japan is that for such a populous place (Tokyo's current population is about 13 million!), there is an unbelievable amount of respect, courtesy and cleanliness. Check out this rack of bikes in busy Shinjuku...notice there aren't any locks (this would be cleaned out in 2 minutes flat in Toronto):

We were helped out with directions countless times (the network of trains and subways in Tokyo is boggling!), and were consistently amazed with how patient and helpful everyone was despite my broken Japanese.

Unfortunately, as Aileen also pointed out, we were surprised with how much of modern Japanese food has become saturated with preservatives and artificial chemicals...which is in great contrast to the health-optimizing traditional Japanese diet.

Just a few of the many other contrasts include the typical stature of Japanese compared to their monstrous athletic brethren in sumo; conservative clothes contrasted with bold, sometimes outlandish streetwear; quiet, respectfulness varied with well-known crazy Japanese gameshows and manga culture.

Reminders we took home from this trip:
  • Get in touch with your heritage, and know your roots
  • Incorporate traditional Japanese foods as part of a healthy diet: miso soup, seafood, seaweed, healthy stews
  • Cold, unsweetened tea is an affordable, refreshing and healthy alternative to juices
  • Always be respectful and helpful to others
  • Be sure to balance a busy worklife with a much-needed vacation!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

We're Baaaaaack! Amazing times at the Shilla Hotel in Seoul and Exploring Tokyo!

Oh my goodness!!  I LOOOOOOOVE KOREA AND JAPAN!!  What a wonderful way to begin 2011 :)

We started our trip in Seoul at our fave hotel, The Shilla.  After working straight through the holidays, we wanted to start our trip with some uber relaxation and there is no better place in Seoul than The Shilla to do this.  It has excellent, EXCELLENT service, an awesome gym, yummy restaurants and an extensive wine list at the lounge, amazing outdoor pool to enjoy in the summer  and THE BEST sauna and Korean Bath amenities EVER (Makoto and I are huge hydrotherapy fans and basically live in the pool/gym/sauna/steam room every time we stay here).  We went out our first night in Seoul to meet up with friends but after that, we spent the next few days relaxing, eating yummy food and visiting our fave spots in Seoul.

Entrance to gym/sauna at The Shilla:

Thank goodness we took the time to decompress because...

TOKYO IS CRAAAAAAAAZY!!  Since it was my first time in Tokyo, Makoto was my wonderful tour guide and we spent the week checking out all the major sites (Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya, Imperial Palace, Tokyo Tower, Roponggi, Tsukiji Fish Market (the best sashimi I've ever had), Ginza, Asakusa, etc) which were insane, beautiful and completely inspiring.  I can't get over how clean and organized such an intense city can be. 

And...of course...THE SHOPPING.  Oh. My. Goodness.  I was in shopping heaven.  I shopped.....

and shopped....

and shopped...

and Makoto was so patient...until he finally had a mini (much understood) freak-out on me and reminded me that we had bought another two pieces of luggage to carry all of my treasures back home in :) hehehe.

We were also so lucky to be there during the Sumo Tournament.  Even if you know nothing about sumo, you quickly become a fan.  They still strictly follow all the interesting rituals and traditions of the game, the rules are easy to follow and you can feel the love that everyone has for the Sumo wrestlers (who are considered national heroes).

Makoto eating Chanko Nabe (Sumo Soup):

Even though we were on holidays, we still tried to keep ourselves as balanced as possible.  We knew we'd be doing a lot of this (how can you resist fresh draught beer and "highballs" which are whiskey/soda/lemon at almost every snack bar/cafe/restaurant/izakaya in both cities):

So we still made sure to hit the gym, drink lots of water/green tea and get lots of good sleep in.  One thing we noticed in both cities is that there is such an extreme in the food.  It's either completely healthy, natural and nutritious if you choose to eat traditional Korean/Japanese (Korean soups/ban chan, Japanese nabe mono/sushi/sashimi, barley/green tea) food or completely synthetic, fried and MSG laden (ramen, curry rice, aspartame in almost everything sweet...especially beverages in Japan).  We definitely gravitated towards more traditionally prepared foods but had fun trying everything!|

Also, one thing we always splurge on whether at home or away are massages.  We were in massage heaven in both Seoul and Tokyo but I must say that Ariran Spa in Shinjuku was AAAAH-mazing!  They incorporate both Swedish and Shiatsu massage techniques and finish every treatment with layering hot towels over your body then wrapping you up in a thermal blanket while they gently knead your muscles.  To. Die. For.

I've been up since the crack of dawn (forgot to take my melatonin last night!!) so I did laundry (5 loads) and am looking through all my souvenirs and pics.  I heart Seoul and Tokyo forever and caaaaaan't wait to go back!!!

Now...time to plan the next trip!!!  Spain?  South of France?
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