Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Thoughts from Osaka: Cosplay, Sumos & Universal Studios

Dear Osaka,

Thank you for the last three days. You were great. What a wonderful intro to an incredible country. Your city streets were alive with excitement and eye-candy. Of all that we did and saw, three things stand out. One was planned, the others spontaneous.

First: Universal Studios, Japan
The Harry Potter fans that we are, how could we resist visiting Japanese Hogwarts?

Spot-on view of Hogwarts across the Lake.
Shayna finding her wand. Photo-op only.
From the reviews and blogs I saw online, I was a little worried that we were throwing money down the proverbial toilet when we decided to head to USJ. With Hogsmead our main motivation, we decided against the Express Pass (an extra 200 USD) and planned to get their early in order to beat the crowds. Everywhere said that even if you arrived at the park an hour before opening, it might take you a couple hours to get into the Harry Potter section. The park's general opening times are listed online, but vary from day today.

Somehow we got lucky.

We arrived at USJ around 7 on a Monday morning and joined the throngs of people standing at the gates. Around 720/730, the express pass guests were released into the park. We could see them running through the bars toward their desired rides. Then, at 745, they let us in, too.

New Hello Kitty Crown?
Shayna and I booked it to Harry Potter World, expecting to get a timed ticket at Central Park first (as said online), and yet we were ushered right in. We waited maybe 40 minutes for one ride and then explored all the shops, ending our time in Hogsmead by 930. It seemed almost too easy.

We continued our exploration of the park, stopping here and there as we walked through different sections and laughing at some of the items sold in the shops and booths. A lot of people were wearing different head gear (hats, headbands, crowns). It was definitely a fun atmosphere, although Shayna and I found that the actual number of rides was a little discouraging. Two or three per-section and yet five or six shops to bleed you dry…

Still, no regrets.

Second: the Cosplay
Who are these people? No idea. Ha.
During our first day in Osaka, we found out (by accident) that there was going to be an Anime/Cosplay Festival on the morrow. We couldn’t believe our luck. Apparently one of the biggest—if not the biggest—Cosplay event in Japan was happening the following day with full sections of Osaka’s streets blocked off. 콜! And off we went.
This was part of the main street that held a parade, but a number of side streets were also full of characters and spectators. 
A couple of characters posing for cameras.
Identities unknown.
We had no idea what we were walking into (and I have too many photos to add to this post! Ugh!). The hostel worker shrugged it off as a festival, yes, but it was not like the other festivals I've attended. If there was order, it was not translated. There were a few moments where I turned around, momentarily panicked because I thought I had lost Shayna in the fray.

The streets were packed and the costumes impressive. Professional photographers crowded around some of the more impressive costumes and the cosplayers themselves posed with mini-signs asking for twitter followers or Instagram or something (the signs were mostly in Japanese but that’s what it looked like). While we didn’t know all of what was going on: What was the general layout of everything? Was there a central hub? Were there theme areas? Was there a costume contest somewhere? Despite these and other questions, it was still a wicked experience, especially as cosplayers ranged in ages, genres and nationalities. It was cool seeing how people put time and effort into assembling different costumes.
The Spider Crew.
We only wish we knew more of the costume characters. There were some western characters and the timeless classics (Marvel, Harry Potter, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon...), but there were so many that we didn't know. Both of us are a little rusty when it comes to the current trends in anime and manga.
Another unknown, but a wicked costume.
Third: Sumo Spectating
When Shayna was in Korea back in February, she mentioned in passing that it would be cool to go to a Sumo Match. She did a bit of research and learned that (a) there is this tournament happening during the entire month of March in Osaka and (b) it was really hard to get reserved seat tickets (especially as a foreigner), but that General Admission tickets could be bought for same day admission first thing in the morning.
Waiting in the rain for tickets to go on sale! No idea what the banners actually say...
Fast forward to arriving in Japan. After learning that most Japanese people have Sunday off (and thus the line gets more competitive on Sunday mornings, we joined the ticket line Tuesday morning at 7am, already behind a good number of people. We stood in the spitting rain and cold until the tickets went on sale at 745am, procured a ticket (2100 yen), and then waited until 815 for admission. The bouts started at 845 and continued all day with the better, more advanced matches scheduled for mid-afternoon to late afternoon. Many people, once they have their ticket, head out to do other things, returning later. As we were leaving Osaka in the afternoon, we wanted to watch as many matches as we could.
We got tickets! General Admission is only in the four corners of the area (dark purple seats).
The area was fairly empty when we came but slowly started to fill-up as we watched. It was like watching a sleeping dragon slowly awaken as more and more energy arrived with each guest. While we couldn’t stay, we wondered what it would have been like at the peak during the Intermediate and Senior level bouts.
Around 830 when things were still being set up. Really, nowhere had a "bad" view. Just a "bad photo" view.
Each bout was brief. One referee-like person sang an opening and then the two opponents stepped into the dohyo. Then, the second referee-like person presided over the match. On each side of the dohyo sat judges. The north, east, and west sides had one judge each while the south side had two judges and the “next” ref. On either side of the east and west judges sat the contenders for the next two bouts. Upon entering the ring, the sumo wrestlers would face SE/SW (respectively) and perform a couple stretching/squat configurations before returning to the center to face each other. Some bouts lasted mere seconds, others lasted a good minute. At times, the two wrestlers seemed evenly matched and would be locked in what looked like a strange hug, neither moving. And then wham! One would go flying out of the ring.
Watching a bout.
I don’t think I’ve spent so much time watching half-naked men before in my life. I’m also positive I left with more questions than when I entered. Why do the "refs" change so frequently? Why are they always in different robes? What do the strings represent for the sumo wrestlers? Are matches by weight or experience? And those are just the tip.

It was a really cool experience and I would consider going again, hopefully with someone who could help explain the finer points of the sport. That, or after I do more research.

All in all, Shayna and I are stoked for the next phase of our trip. Onward to Nara and Kyoto!

Thanks again, Osaka. For the crowds, the costumes, and the half-naked men.

Love and Hugs

Friday, March 16, 2018

Japan, At Last

During the spring when I was seven years old, a magical event happened at my school. Teachers transformed their classrooms from the mundane desk/work centers to far off places. They hung up photos of breathtaking scenery, wore strange clothing, brought in interesting food, and taught weird games. In essence, they brought us the world.

For seven-year-old me who only knew the names of a handful of countries at the time (probably mainly Canada, the US, France, England, Australia, New Zealand and of course Africa. Because to a seven-year-old in NA, Africa is a country, sorry. ) it was as if the sun had broken through clouds of grey. My spectrum of colour had grown exponentially and I was seeing new shades between shades.

Of all the rooms I visited on our international day, the only one I really remember was that of my to-be grade two teacher, Mlle. M. She came wearing an authentic kimono from her own time in Japan and had pictures of Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms and fireworks by the Tokyo Tower displayed around the room. I wish I could regale you with her stories of traveling around the country and experiences in Japan, but honestly those are the clearest details that I remember. I do remember, however, being so enamored by this country so different from my own that I promised myself that I would someday get to Japan.

Funny how one day, one short activity from my school day in grade 1 could leave such a lasting impression, eh?

Growing up, my favourite TV programs and movies were related to the Japanese style of animation--the best ones coming translated from the original Japanese. I'd watch certain shows over and over again. I'm pretty sure I could act out Kiki's Delivery Service. My sister and I watched the VHS so much it at last broke. In school, when possible I did projects related to Japanese culture including a study of Ancient Japan in grade 5 focusing on Japanese mythology, weapons, and the samurai and then later an essay regarding the Nanjing/Nanking Massacre in University.

In a lot of ways, Japan was always somewhere in my thoughts, even if not directly in my path. Someday, I would get there, I thought.

At last, here I am. Sitting in the Jeju airport. My flight leaves for Osaka in about 40 minutes, boarding in 20. I've heard nothing but good things from friends who've gone, but I still can't help being nervous. Have I been staring at this country through rose-coloured glasses? Will my vision shatter to pieces around my feet as I set step into this country that I've wanted to visit for the last 19 years?

I suppose it's time to find out; on my way from the land of morning calm to the land of the rising sun. 

Love and Hugs

Monday, February 19, 2018

Thoughts from Pyeongchang 2018

Where to begin? 

When I first moved to Korea 2 and a half years ago, the Pyeongchang Olympics were a distant star on the horizon. Yeah I wanted to go, but I had no idea if it would actually happen. At the time, I didn't know if I would still be living in Korea! Et maintenant? Well.

Pyeonchang was amazing. Crazy. Unforgettable. Unbelievable. 
Outside Gangneung Train Station, raring to go.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Would I do it the same? Probably not.

I was a noob. I was busy with work and didn't bother to research some things ahead of time. Now I know, and now here are a number of things I learned (for next time!).

Our 1st event:CAN vs USA women's hockey
1. Stay close to transit.
If you can't stay near the central areas, at least stay close to readily accessed transit. I know each venue is different in how they organize themselves and their transit, but Pyeongchang was pretty spread out. It makes sense when you have that many events and that many people--it would be foolish and suicide to have everything in the same area! Shayna and I lucked out with an Airbnb situated a short 5 minute walk from the Kwangdong Hockey Center. With shuttle buses running frequently throughout the day, it was easy to get back to the train station and other shuttle points. If you stayed further out, there were parking lots located with frequent shuttles as well. The only downside is that shuttle buses don't always take the most direct root and it can be a long trek between locations.

2. Consider location when you plan your events.
Building off the end of (1), even with the convenience of shuttles between venues, consider the spread of the land. We had to forego one of our scheduled events (where Canada ended up with a medal!) because it was impossible to get there after our previous event. We were with friends at the SWE vs NOR hockey game at the Gangneung Hockey Centre. The Luge was out in the mountains at the Olympic Sliding Centre. Transportation time? 2+ hours on the shuttle. With security and lines, they recommend you arrive 1-2 hours ahead of time. Between events we only had about 2 hours. If our event had also been in the Gangneung Olympic Park, it would have been feasible, but... When I first booked the tickets last spring, I never really thought about location which was our downfall. 
Waiting with the crowd for the Skeleton races.
3. Event Selection?
We had a good spread: Ice Hockey, Skeleton, (our would-a-been-but-missed) Luge, Long Track Speed Skating, and Slopestyle Skiing. We went to 5 different venues and got to see a fair bit of the spread. While not all of our events were the most spectator friendly (*cough*Skeleton*couch*), Shayna and I agreed that we would go again if given the chance. For the events requiring a longer track, the television really does offer you the best view, but watching the Skeleton whizz past faster than you can blink and waiting for the skier to leap above the ridge... That anticipation and hope for success sticks with you. Not to mention the camaraderie you feel with the others present. If I ever get to go again, I want to try something new, too!
The Gangneung Oval lit up at night.
Inside the ring!

4.  House Day, eh?
My sister will forever say, "I told you so," because she did mention this to me back during my Christmas Break, but I didn't really understand, nor did I really do the research ahead of time. Although she didn't really come with research either so... she shouldn't have left it all to me to plan! Country (and sponsor) houses can be a huge part of your trip. Some are free and some are not. Some only welcome athletes while others are open to the public. Some have events, some give away free things, some have cultural foods. The Canada House had a giant screen broadcasting events. Definitely cool to watch altogether even if the event was happening less than a kilometer away! 

If I did it over again, I would plan to visit more of the houses. They were scattered throughout the venues, so like events, it would be best to create a navigation plan. I would even consider going to the Olympics and visiting houses only. Potentially cheaper and yet you'd still be in the midst of that atmosphere.  
Inside Canada House
5. Talk to everyone.
There are people from all over the world--most decked out in country swag. Strike up a conversation and meet people! My sister and I met a lot of Canadians (you know, we're sort of drawn together when we have matching gloves and hats!), but also people from a number of other countries. Living on Jeju island, I mainly meet Koreans and my co-workers. I loved being in an environment where I could hear other languages. It was fun just grabbing food, maybe a drink and just hanging out.

6. Dress for the ball. All the SWAG.
We did not bring enough Canada things. I should have brought face paint. I should have worn a jump suit, a onesie and a red wig. I would feel totally outlandish being so up-in-your-face, but it was also really cool seeing others go all out for their countries. Plus, you can win prizes or at least appear on camera which would be equally cool. Ha. Still searching for our 15 minutes of fame!
At the end of our last event before heading back to Seoul (Pheonix Park).
Love and Hugs