Thoughts of a Canadian Exchange Student

Japan: Kyoto (京都)

Gion

Gion

Kyoto, Japan was visited: June 27 – July 2

Since Taiwan is so much closer to Japan than Canada, it made perfect sense to hop over there for a short vacation.

The Places We Visited:

On the recommendation of a friend, we stayed in a guest house called Uno House. It has a nice location in the northeast of Kyoto and the price was very agreeable. We stayed in a private room. I guess my favourite part about the guest house was that it was like a sort of maze inside and that it seemed quite traditional. We even slept on the floor on futons. Although I didn’t know any Japanese (but thank goodness I could read some Chinese, so helpful when taking busses), we managed to get around fine.

For me, Kyoto was all about the castle, the temples, the shrines, the spiritual symbols (and some shopping, too!). Thanks to the gracious help of my friends, I got to see some of the best parts of Kyoto within a short amount of time.

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji

The places that we went to were:

For a map to see where all the places are: http://kyoto.asanoxn.com/info/kyotomap.htm

Ryōan-ji

Ryōan-ji

Funny thing, it was raining most of the time we visited these sites… I swear the rain clouds followed me from Vancouver to Taipei to Kyoto XD. I really liked visiting all these places, and the most funny thing was that since they’re all major tourist sites as well as places of quiet contemplation (supposedly), the contrast between the noise of the tourists and the quiet of the sites was, well, funny. ^^ Outside of our first day in Kyoto, the weather for the rest of our trip was very good, very sunny, and very hot.

Torii at Heian jingu

Torii gate for Heian jingū

Of all the sites that we went to, I liked the Nijō- (seriously, a castle in the middle of the city?? Cool!) and Kinkaku-ji the best (Gold. Building.). Nijō-jō had nightingale floors for protection against night attackers. When an invader walked on these floors, due to their special construction, they’d squeak. No matter how lightly I tried to step, I could only make the floor squeak when I walked on the floorboards. Very cool and ingenious. The site of the Kyoto Imperial Palace is actually much larger than it seems because the boulevard leading up to the palace is massive. The vastness of the boulevard neutralizes the largeness of the palace. Ryōan-ji was very nice, but I don’t think I’m meant for Zen Buddhism. I didn’t draw out much meaning from sitting at the rock garden. Ginkaku-ji was under renovation when we went, so there was much to see. Oh, Heian jingū was pretty cool. The torii gate was so big! I was pleased to find that the shrine was orange. I thought that they were supposed to be brown for some reason.


Chion Temple

At Chion Temple

The day that we went to Chion Temple, we had the opportunity to see practising monks. When we were walking around the temple grounds, after the many stairs to get up into the temple grounds, we heard the chanting of monks, and on a whim, we joined a line and went inside a building to take our turn in turning something around (like turning a totem pole or something). That was interesting. The main hall was the best, though. It was very dark and shady inside, a welcome respite from the heat, and you couldn’t wear your shoes inside. The prayer area was very large and solemn. It was difficult to see the relics that you’d pray to. It was just massive inside that one building. Oh, and at Yasaka Shrine, we had a glimpse of practicing shrine maidens, miko!


Gion back alley

A Gion back alley

After wandering around for a bit, we ended up in Gion without knowing it. I thought I was just in some very old section of Kyoto. Despite not knowing that I was actually in Gion (I got tired of looking at the map), I was very impressed by the whole area. It felt like what Japan had been before skyscrapers and all the industrialization the world experienced. Oh, this fall I watched a 1936 film called Sisters of the Gion (祇園の姉妹) (good film), and I realised how important the district was to the geisha culture. Although we didn’t see any geisha in the area, when we were walking by the establishments, one of the doors was open and I took a quick glance inside. It looked like the traditional houses in Japanese movies. I wonder how the whole area prevents fire hazards… For that matter, I wonder how the place we stayed in, Uno House, prevented fire hazards…

Food:

The first night in Kyoto, we ended up eating at a yakitori place. It was probably a pub or late night sort of place – like a more upscale version of an university pub. We figured out that yakitori was basically chicken grilled on a skewer. Haha! The whole menu was basically chicken. We had the chicken knees with sake.


Sushi

Sushi!

We also had sushi while we were in Kyoto. The restaurant’s waitresses were dressed in traditional Japanese clothing – something that the Vancouver restaurants don’t do. Although, I think we may have offended them when we asked for wasabi. Are we not supposed to eat it with sushi? Anyways, it was very good. Kyoto’s and Vancouver’s sushi are both very good. But, Kyoto’s sushi is miles better than Taipei’s. Sushi Express? Nooo~ Sadly, we didn’t get around to eating any eel while we were in Japan.


Colonel in Kyoto

The Colonel in Kyoto

Some Thoughts:

Kyoto is a quiet, beautiful and clean place. It’s vastly different from the hustle and bustle of Taipei, even though we stayed over the weekend. Kyoto felt very subdued and relaxed. From what I saw, the clothing that the people wore in Kyoto was much more subdued in colour and style than the clothing in Taipei. The clothing in Taipei pops loud, bright and vibrant colours. There’s also no scooters zipping in and out of traffic or night markets.


Downtown Kyoto at night

Downtown Kyoto at night

As Kyoto as a city is really old, maybe that’s also why it was more relaxed. Kyoto was the capital city of Japan from 794-1868 and Taipei became the capital of Taiwan in 1895. Or even more likely, what the cities supposedly represent probably had/have a larger impact. Kyoto’s old name was Heian-kyō (平安京), meaning the capital of peace and tranquility. Although today, Kyoto is no longer the (symbolic) political centre of Japan, its value as a cultural capital seems to have carried on up to the present day. On the other hand, Taipei is the economical and political centre of Taiwan. People gravitate towards Taipei for its opportunities and this makes the city a locus of change, transformation and energy. Anyways, irregardless of the actual economic and political situations in Kyoto and Taipei, Kyoto seems like the happy, stately elderly people that you see advertised in marketing campaigns and Taipei seems like a young adult brimming with endless possibilities for the future.


A Kyoto back alley

A Kyoto back alley

Kyoto also reminded me an awful lot of Vancouver. Actually, it felt so Vancouver-like with its integration of nature and urban structure. Vancouver’s nature spots, for example, Stanley Park, despite looking wildly grown is actually carefully shaped by human hands to keep that wild-untouched-by-human-hands look. Kyoto has a more domesticated, sculpted-looking kind of nature. As both cities integrate nature and urbaness seamlessly, despite the difference in their respective ages (Vancouver was established as a city in 1886), they’re just so similar. It’s such a surreal experience to be able to slip into a park in these cities and the whole urban feel melts away into the background. I’d like to go back when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. It’d be fantastic! (As long as it doesn’t rain. XD)

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Hong Kong & Macau (香港和澳門)

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The Hong Kong night skyline.

I went to Hong Kong and Macau:

The food… the FOOD! It was great. Just like at home.

Hong Kong:

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The Kowloon Walled City Park.

I saw many beautiful things. The Hong Kong skyline is magnificent. The Kowloon Walled City Park is relaxing. (Who knew Hong Kong had so many parks!)

I saw A LOT of the Hong Kong MTR. I felt like a mole because I spent so much time riding the subway. Efficient, though.

I rode on a tram! I rode on the Mid-Levels Escalators! I rode on an elephant! (Ok, just kidding about the last one.)

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The junk.

I got to see a junk! Too bad it was on a motor engine instead of wind power. (Its tourism business’d sure go down if it ran on the wind.)

Macau:

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Largo de Senado Square (Macau Main Plaza).

Eating my Po-tart. (Portugese egg tart.) Mmmmmm… delicious.

Seeing Largo de Senado in real life.

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At the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade (尖沙嘴). The display for the Beijing 2008 Olympic games.

Guess what I didn’t mention? You get a cookie if you’re correct.

Temples, Temples, Temples

Posted in Academics, Chinese, Culture, NTU, Observations, Outdoors, Sightseeing, Taipei, Thoughts, University by J on December 6, 2007

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Taipei Confucius Temple

Thanks to a field trip arrange by my Chinese philosophy professor, with my class, we had the opportunity to take an actual look inside a Confucian temple. With a tour guide! In English! (See National Palace Museum post for why one should have a tour guide. You’ll be bored otherwise.)

When we were watching the film of one of the biggest Confucian ceremonies, Teachers’ Day, I remembered that in September of this year I didn’t go! NOooooOOoo, it looked so cool. So… ritualized and filled with meaning. As well as having special music played for it.

The Confucian temple itself was under construction (due to termites?), but that didn’t detract from the vibrant colours of the decorative adornments or from the Southern style swallow-tail architecture. At least that’s what I think the guide said.

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Ritualized clothing for the Teachers’ Day ceremony.

After, we just crossed the street and, voila! We were in a Daoist/Buddhist temple. The Bao’an (大龍峒保安宮) temple was more 熱鬧 (lively) than the Confucian one. I was surprised that the Daoist and the Buddhist philosophies were combined into one temple. Actually, I was just very surprised overall that, if you wanted to, you could do an extremely quick tour of hitting up the Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist philosophy within 15 minutes.

From a very secular viewpoint, both temples were beautiful. Something new to learn everyday.

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Bao’an Temple

A Taiwanese Halloween

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The Taiwanese do not celebrate Halloween.

As I also found out, nor do many Europeans. It is almost a wholly North American activity. Strange, I thought it was celebrated almost the world over; it must be that North American ethnocentrism creeping in.

Despite being just another North American activity, we celebrated here at NTU with a Halloween Music Party (萬聖節音樂會)

and reversed trick-or-treating.

Halloween kicked off with many of the exchange students and some Taiwanese students taking pictures in their costumes in the main lobby of the dormitory. There were many colourful costumes. For example, I rented my costume from a costume shop in Ximending (西門町), as did most everyone else. However, the most inventive costume, a hedgehog, was hand-made. That costume won the top prize in the Halloween costume contest.

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As a large group, we proceeded to make our way to the Student Activity Center, Huoda (活大)

from the dormitory while handing out candy to anyone we encountered along the way. This reverse trick-or-treating (normally, we go to doors and then get candy from the dwellers) was odd at first, but then quickly warmed up to. By the ones who were giving out the candy (us).

Actually, I think we scared a lot of the students that were still around at 6 pm on campus Wednesday night because they were avoiding and staring at our group as we were saying, “Happy Halloween!” (in Chinese). Hmm… Perhaps our (rather) large group was scary and a curiosity because we were all dressed for the Halloween occasion.

Afterwards, after some fun at the Male Dormitories where they had games and trick-or-treating at doors prepared for us, the music concert came next. All in all, quite a fun night!

Ironically, despite the fact that most of our costumes weren’t scary (as they are supposed to be, as Halloween is a night of ghouls), I’m sure that we gave some people quite a scare because it was something so out of the ordinary. Hah! It also marked all of us as totally foreign. I hope that next year’s Halloween at NTU is as fun for more people as it was for us.

Rock Climbing at Longdong (龍洞)

Posted in Chinese, Clubs, Outdoors, Sightseeing, Taipei, Taiwan, Thoughts, Weather by J on October 24, 2007

Wow.

Wow.

Taiwan’s natural scenery is beautiful. Outside of Taipei, that is. Taipei has its own kind of splendor. A type of city-bright, neon-lights, living-beauty. (Are there really neon lights in Taipei? I forget.)

This past weekend, I went with the Mountain Climbing Club on an introductory rock climbing day trip. That’s what 登山 of 登山社團 really means. It’s not actually an outdoor club but a rock-climbing-hardcore-mountain-doing-things club. My revelation aside, it was fun to go outside and see somewhere else in Taiwan that wasn’t Taipei.

Earth is beautiful.

Earth is beautiful.

To practice the belaying and rock climbing skills we learned at the last two “classes” that the club put on, we went to Longdong (龍洞), which is about an hour away from Taipei.

With gorgeous weather for an October day and nice grippy rock, practicing belaying and rock climbing was a nice way to spend Sunday. We were right by the seaside, which was an added bonus.

So beautiful, yet so dangerous. Not.

So beautiful, yet so dangerous. Not.

Haha! Getting to the rock climbing area was interesting, if not a little dangerous. I remember looking down as I was made my way to the climbing area and thinking to myself, “if my hands get too sweaty and I accidentally slip, I’ll probably die. Those rocks down there don’t look too soft to land on…”

Tall.

Tall.

Other than that, there was lots and lots of Mandarin speaking to be found: free for you to tune into or tune out just like a radio, or, even school (or life). Almost a television analogy. The digital age! Or was it analog?

All in all, there is so much more to Taiwan than Taipei. Taipei isn’t Taiwan. Just like how Guangzhou is not Guangdong. [Historically, Guangzhou (Canton) came to be taken as the name for the whole province because the city represented the province – somehow.] I feel like I’m just getting started on getting to know Taiwan.

It feels good to exercise outside.

Looking at our climbing area from a distance.

Looking at our climbing area from a distance.

Transforming

Posted in Chinese, Looking Taiwanese, Miscellaneous, Taipei, Taiwan, Taiwanese People by J on September 19, 2007

I’ve recently decided something.

I will change how I look into something that will help me blend in better than I already do. This way, I can go against stereotype – as long as I don’t open my mouth and start speaking in Chinese. My accent and pronunciation totally gives me away. I think that this will be a fun experiment.

Hmm what else needs to be fixed/changed… I need to stop liking exercise and being outside: I’m much too dark. I wonder what sort of psychological and emotional shifts this experiment will change. Hmm…

I think I’ll go almost all out (need a cushion). When? Sometime before I leave Taiwan. Also, I need some time to play out my experiment, too. Also, to do it all at once or gradually, I don’t know. I think I’ll just leave it up to my mood and daring in the near future.

That is all.

Informal Learning

As mentioned before, day by day, my Taiwanese Feelings Gauge Radar (TFGR) gets better and better. But first, let’s just examine what I mean by TFGR.

I find it difficult to tell if Taiwanese people are actually nice or if they’re just being polite. Just now, in the library, I had no idea how to get on the wireless network. So, I asked. This girl helped me out to the extent of looking it up on the internet about how to get on, helping me to try to get on and even pointing me in the direction of the building on campus that could help me out. People at my university at home wouldn’t go this far to help someone out unless it was a friend. Was she being nice, or was she being polite?

Interestingly, or perhaps not so much anymore, she took me for an American that was coming back home to study in Taiwan. You can see a bit of my rant about this in my post: “An Experience with a Taiwanese Guy (Part I)”

At home, I’m used to things like if you’re asked if you want something or not, you’ll get it regardless if you want it or not. For example, if someone is getting everyone rice, and you say that’s enough rice in your bowl (about 1/2), it’ll be topped up regardless of your wish. It’s just courteous. Another example from home that I grew up with is fighting over the bill. Let’s say that you’re out for dinner with friends and when the bill comes, (if you’re not poor students), you argue over who gets to pay the bill. Getting to pay is a kind of trophy. These actions are considered polite and the right thing to do.

Here in Taipei, it’s different. Perhaps it has to do with urban youth or something like that. However, I’ve noticed that things you say here are taken at face value despite underlying intentions. For me, that was a large jump to make when dealing with other people who look Asian.

So, every time that I come into contact with more and more Taiwanese people, I like to believe that my Gauge is being tweaked to be a little better.

And why the radar part? Aside from being able to gauge how Taiwanese people are feeling at the moment, with Radar, I’d be able to forecast what sort of emotions and mannerisms would be coming my way. Thus the naming of the TFGR, the Taiwanese Feelings Gauge Radar.

A handy little tool because every day here, I go out and practice speaking and just talking to people using Mandarin despite how stupid I feel most of the time for looking Asian (Taiwanese) and not being able to speak or read Mandarin. I know, it’s my problem. Students here at NTU are really nice! Or polite. I still haven’t gotten my gauge tweaked quite right, yet.

However, I have a riot here every day =). I love it in Taipei and especially being at NTU. For example, watching the “typhoon” yesterday from the under the covered area in front of the main doors of the Main Library for a few hours. (The library was closed on account of the typhoon.) It was so luxuriously warm that I didn’t mind the light rain falling on my books. It was a very wet day though. I no longer regret bringing my rain jacket from home. Hehehe!

So! I’ll let you know how good (or bad) I think it is by the end of my experience/adventure here!

*Note: The TFGR is patented by me. Haha!

An Experience with a Taiwanese Guy (Part IV)

Posted in Chinese, English, Learning, Miscellaneous, NTU, Phone, Taipei, Taiwanese People, Thoughts, University by J on September 19, 2007

After consulting some Taiwanese people about what they thought was going on, I decided to make it clear that I didn’t really want to participate in a language exchange with him.

So, in a text message back (SMS) on the evening of the 15th, I said, politely, as I learned it isn’t nice to give a straight out refusal here, that I was already busy that weekend. Also, I wrote that I already had someone else to practice with (which was true).

Lastly, the most important of all the things I’ve learned from this experience with him was this phrase: “You are a nice guy.” (你是個好人) Basically, this means that, “you are a nice guy, but I have no interest in you.” Apparently, this is very quickly understood by Taiwanese guys. So, I put this at the end of my SMS to make the situation very clear. Useful phrase. Let’s hope that I don’t have to use it again.

If he really wanted to have a language exchange with me, he could’ve cleared things up with me after this message that he had no sort of intentions that followed along these lines. On the other hand, he could be quite embarrassed about it all, but if he could just ask me for my cell phone number (a foreigner, to boot!), I have reason to think that he’s quite bold.

To justify my actions: I think those were the vibes that I was getting from him, but if this happens again, I think that my “Taiwanese Feelings Gauge Radar” (TFGR) will be more fined tuned. Everyday, my TFGR gets better every time I talk to anyone Taiwanese. =)

So, to finally, finally close this long story:

I haven’t heard from him since.

P.S. I heard that the Taipei 101 area has some good looking guys (帥哥/shuai ge). Haven’t been there yet. =P It’ll be perfect to practice using my radar!

An Experience with a Taiwanese Guy (Part III)

Posted in Chinese, English, NTU, Phone, University by J on September 19, 2007

The next day, I got a call from him.

Shock!

He just wanted to know how my day was going, if I got to see the clubs at NTU or not (it was clubs day), if I had free time that night to go out for dinner, if I had time to go out on the weekend with him, that he would help me with any PTT troubles I had… What?!? Remember, I thought I’d never hear from him again after the dinner from the night before.

(PTT is this really MS-DOS or mIRC looking bulletin board system that is the hub of NTU internet life, basically an old-school forum)

Umm…

I made an excuse to get out of going out. Yay! I was in the clear!

Yeah right.

Later that night, I got a text message from him asking if I’d like a Chinese teacher and if I could teach him English. Uh… What a baffling situation! It sure didn’t feel like he wanted to practice English. Yes, he could be shy about his English skills but to be able to just ask someone for their phone number after a few minutes, in my book, takes guts… so, my gut feeling said, “no, sorry, no way, no how”.

Then, I forgot about the text message until late Saturday night.