Friday, December 29, 2017

Our Second Week in Sapporo and the Holidays

We've settled into our little sardine can of an apartment nicely.  Warm and cozy, comfortable, and convenient.  We have ventured into the city center several times.  A movie, holiday shopping...finally found that new camera...yippee.  Yesterday we took the regional train down to Otaru on the coast and toured the railroad museum.  We walked over seven miles...good exercise to offset all of the sitting we've been doing. 

We've caught up on a lot of our TV watching...finished off a couple of seasons of new shows, and gotten a few movies in.  All in all the time is passing nicely.

Christmas is upon us and we blew the budget a bit and bought some really nice Black Angus Prime Rib steaks for the big day.  Christmas morning sticking to our imposed gift budget of $10 per person and "consumable" we gift each other with Cheetos, Skippy Crunchy Peanut Butter, and a new traveling water bottle.  LOL.

Our Japanese vocabulary is growing.  We can now count to ten, have mastered about fifteen plesantries, and can say "excuse me" and "you first" as in " take my seat please."  That later always gets a sweet smile on the metro.

New Year Eve is upon us and it appears we will be staying home.  Sapporo does not have a public countdown or outdoor party.  It is a fairly quiet and reverent holiday where folks review the past year, plan for the new and celebrate new beginnings.  It is a cultural thing and quite lovely.  There is the perverbal music and dance at the high end hotels...not for us.

We have been spending our free time online planning out our year...making reservations...and exploring options.  By May all of 2018 will be paid for and that means a whole lot more going into the reserve account for our Africa and South American adventures where purchasing a vehicle may be our best option.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Our First Week in Sapporo. Japan

We left Seoul and flew Japan Airlines to Tokyo and then on to Sapporo.  They were both beautiful flights with a short layover in Tokyo's Haneda airport.  Getting train tickets in Sapporo was quick with the assistance of an English speaking person at the tourist desk.  We purchased long term transportation cards and rode the express train into the city, then the subway system to our neighborhood.  All simply, quick, clean and efficient.  We will be here a full month. 

It was a 1/4 mile walk up a slight hill to our apartment.  We are renting a small two-room unit on the ground floor, each room about 10'X10' - about the same size as our US motor home that we lived in for a full year while on the road.  Two bunk beds fill the sleeping room literally to the walls.  There is a small space between the two, maybe 10 inches.  The other room has a nicely equipped efficiency kitchen with refrigerator, two burner gas stove, and microwave.  There's a washer and we will be making good use of that over the next month.  There is a small coffee table and a couple of cushions to sit on the floor.  The toilet is separate and in the entry way.  It has an automatic, computerized commode.  The soaking tub and shower are off of the kitchen area.  The small tub actually works great for a hot soak.  The place is very compact..and all for $680 complete.  Good heat, lots of hot water, flawless WiFi, and the owner also supplies a pocket WiFi system that we can take with us on day trips.  That has already come in handy.  It is a cellular hot spot that we can connect our phones to and this gives us instant access to address questions, translate signs, and get directions.  All in all it is quite a deal.


It is a ten minute walk down the hill to the metro station.  That is good daily exercise in itself.  There is a nicely stocked grocery store at the station and a few blocks away another larger grocery, kinda like a small Walmart.  Our neighborhood is typical from what we can tell. A few shops, restaurants, schools, churches, a Buddhist temple, an indoor public swimming pool that opens in a week...yippee.  Lots of single family homes and small apartment buildings...three to six each.  Ours had six apartments, each identical to ours...we think our Airbnb host owns at least two of them...maybe more.  It's home for now and we like it.  Now it is time to settle in to a quieter lifestyle, casual days, lots of rest, and try to figure out what to do with all of our spare

After a few days in the apartment sitting on the floor gets old, so we found a second hand store and bought a table and four chairs for $80.  We will leave it behind when we depart.  He'll appreciate the gesture...we hope...or will sell or donate it.  At any rate it is a lot more comfortable and we aren't so cranky or stiff in the morning.

The train station is a ten minute walk down and back up the hill.  Downtown Sapporo is a 20 minute ride on the metro.  For a city of 2 million it is pretty compact.  We have pretty much covered the downtown area in this past week.  Walking the streets, visiting large stores, going to the movies - there are a couple of big screen theaters that show current films in English.

The restaurants are fairly priced, pretty much like in Seoul, but the grocery stores have an amazing choices and we are on a it is great to finally have our own kitchen again.  Bobbie has made some awesome soup and we are enjoying some of our home favorites...pasta, fresh salads...haven't quite been able to do any Mexican yet.  The stuff we need isn't easy to find...especially tortillas or corn meal.  That's a surprise.  There is a Costco but is is an hour train ride away so that  won't happen unless we are really bored.

Sapporo is home to the Ice Festival that starts next month.  We will miss the festival itself but enjoy the preparation of the ice sculptures.  The city right now is in Christmas mode so there are lots of decorations and lights.  Even a traditional German Christmas village.

The city really is proud of its gardens and landscaping.  Everything is protected with elaborate screens and tie downs.

The metro stations lace the busy parts of the city and are all connected underground by massive corridors, shopping malls lined with hundreds of can literally walk for miles underground getting from one side of down to the other without ever touching the snow...and there is plenty of that too.

We've learned a few basic words and each day is an adventure into this unique culture that one the surface looks a lot like home, but as you dig in find out it is a lot different.  For $3.50 in paper and trimmings we made a Christmas tree for the table.  Steaks will be on the menu...something that is quite dear and quite pricey here. 

We will be here until January 11th when we relocate to Tokyo for another month.  Stay tuned.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Days 22 - 30 - Our Last Week in Korea - The End of an Amazing Six Month Group Tour with Friends

Our last week in Korea was great.  We enjoyed a nice hotel with a king bed right off of a main street, one block from a major Metro station, and with zillions of restaurants and stores within a few blocks.  Tired form four weeks in Korea, we kicked back a bit and tailored our activities to short excursions on most days.

Our first day back was spent lounging.  We went through all of our bags and made some additional deletions to our inventory.  Some clothing is being donated to a local charity and we're discarding things that we have now been carrying around for 500 days that have not been used.  We are slowly but surely getting our luggage weights down to more manageable amounts.  LOL.

In the afternoon we visited a local Costco store.  It was a nice Metro ride across town to a suburban location.  We roamed the store getting the feeling we were back in the is exactly the same...except for the people and some of the stock on the shelves.  Nostalgia crept in and we succumbed to a traditional hot dog, chicken bake, and a soda.

We visited a local Mexican restaurant for dinner.  They advertised themselves as "better than authentic" and that was fairly accurate.  They were most definitely not authentic Mexican but it was tasty.  And NO CHOPSTICKS or Kimchi for a change.

We booked a half-day tour to the DMZ - the North Korean border.  It was an interesting ride with a guide who eased whatever tension we might have had.  Nonetheless it was the DMZ and it was the border...and there was plenty of security.  The morning started out with fog and snow and ended with sun and a warmer day.

Fences and guard towers lined the highway that skirted the river between both countries.

At the Freedom Bridge we wandered the site.

The old train that used to go back and forth over the river between the two countries.  Now a museum.
A border fence with lots of prayer ribbons.
Popeyes for lunch...yes, a real chicken burger and the North Korean border.

No man's land.
The security checkpoint to get into the DMZ itself.  Our passports were checked.  A high military presence was everywhere...of course.
Entering the DMZ.
The train station that connected the two and until 2008 had a train that ran back and forth.

North and South Korea passport stamps.
"Boarding" the train to Pyeongyang.

The vehicle gate...highway closed since 2008.
The lookout.  Atop a nearby hill we could see into NK.

The girls inspecting the military troupe visiting the site.
A video at the Third Tunnel.  There have been four tunnels dug under the border by NK and all have been discovered.  The Third Tunnel has been turned into a tourist attraction.  The video was a bit disturbing as it was 100% propaganda for reunification...something no one sees happening any time soon.

The tunnel is 250 feet below ground and was discovered by accident.  The South Koreans closed it off with three barrier walls seen bottom left and then dig an inception tunnel for tours.  The inception tunnel is 1190 feet long and descends at an 11% grade.  
It is a long downhill walk and as you can see, those are people WAY DOWN THERE.
At the bottom it leveled off into the actual tunnel where we walked another 1000 ft.  The actual tunnel is only about 5 1/2 feet high so that last hike was hunched over.  At the end of the tunnel were the barrier walls.
It was interesting and a bit unnerving to be honest.  And a long climb back up to the surface.  We were taken back to Seoul and later than night continued our hunt for western food by having pizza and pasta at an Italian place.  We are in the middle of all the embassies so there are plenty of non-Korean choices.

We spent the last three days taking long walks in the neighborhood, spend a whole day hunkered down in the room because it was so darn cold, and our last day packing up and getting ready for our goodbye in the morning.

We have spent the last six months with George, and the last five months with Andrea.  In that mix another 15 came and went as we traveled from Iceland to the UK and then on to Northern Europe, Scandinavia, all the way across Russia, and into South Korea.

At our last meal together just an hour ago, we all admitted that we have spent more time together in the past six months that we have over many years with family and other friends.  And George, our brother, and Andi, our sister, are our family in so many memorable ways.

So here's to the gang...we'll see you all again in Nepal, and a few of you along the way.  Tomorrow marks the first day since we left the USA that we will be alone...and that will get some getting used to all over again.....