Day 521 of Traveling the World, Bangkok, Thailand. July 17, 2019.

Street Food Tour 2019, via the year 1919! Everything available 100 years ago, and cooked as it was 100 years ago, was on the menu last night as we toured around and in Chinatown. But the first stop was, as with everything in Bangkok, a Buddhist Temple….the Golden Buddha Temple Syelendra. Inside is housed a 6-ton golden Buddha, which was concealed with plaster for 200 years to hide its true value.

After that is a photo down the main drag in Chinatown, with the already-not-very-wide streets cordoned off to set up….food stands. We passed hundreds of them, most involving rice in some form, and lines in front of many of them. Our tour guide, Alex, knew the tastiest and most popular dishes, and deftly guided us through the mobs to attain our Foodie Nirvana. First, though, photos of some of the narrow alleyways of Chinatown, empty markets that bustle in early morning but look forlorn at night, and just before the food photos, an abandoned, moldy-surface hotel where it is said people died from drug overdoses and other…things. Alex said it might be haunted, as women have been seen staring out the windows, and he has been thinking about adding a haunted sites tour to his itinerary. Most of these places sure were creepy, but they are in Alex’s hometown and stomping grounds, so we felt (mostly) safe.

On to the food! In order, you can see excellent satay with peanut sauce; then, a dessert soup, flavorful ginger broth with sesame balls…when bitten into, the balls tasted like exploding peanut butter in your mouth! After that is a surprise!…Michelin-rated Thai donuts with a coconut dipping sauce that was just heavenly – word was out, though, as the line waiting for this delicious treat was extremely long. The photo of what looks like tacos were amazing to taste, as they are called, for lack of a better translation, Thai pancakes. What looks like grated cheese is sweetened pumpkin, and what looks like sour cream is a coconut marshmallow-y cream. The “taco shells” are very very thin and crisp crepe-like pancakes, and it all works together very well. The last of the foods we ate is extremely popular here…sticky rice and mango. The sticky rice has sweetened coconut milk in it, and with the fresh mango, it is simple and so, so good.

Okay, on to the most interesting part of the evening! You can see salted fish being grilled, and then what looks like an attack of alien lobsters! And, oh yes, the stand with insects of all kinds….roasted worms, larvae, grasshoppers, and scorpions on a stick. We watched a couple order a scorpion and proceed to give it to their little girl like they were presenting her with a lollipop. As you can see in the photo, she put it up to and around her mouth while everyone took photos. Then, the vendor asked for it back, ripped off the stinger, and gave it back to her. The girl wasn’t particularly horrified by the scorpion itself…just sort of indifferent. The couple also ordered a bowl of grasshoppers, of which you can see a close-up. I said to the woman, do you like eating them? She made a face and said, they are terrible…they are for my husband! Our guide Alex asked if any of the four of us on the tour wanted to try a grasshopper, and we all declined, grimacing. But then brave Lauren, an ER doctor in New York City, said she was game! She held the roasted grasshopper-on-a-stick, peered at it, gulped a little, and asked if she should bite some off. Alex said, just go for it….ALL of it! She said, so you just want me to eat the whole thing all at once!??? Yes! So you can see the six photos of the evolution of her getting it into her mouth, chewing, and swallowing. In the fourth photo in the sequence, you can see a little bit of grasshopper leg sticking out. What a sport! She said it mostly tasted like soy sauce, was quite crunchy, and wasn’t so bad. We reminded her that she was eating lungs, heart, brains, its digestive tract, etc., and she said….ugh, don’t tell me that before I’ve even swallowed!

It was a fun, and interesting, night. Except for the bugs, everything was “normal” food…chicken, pork, donuts, soup, fruit, lots of rice and coconut, salad. All dishes could be made more or less spicy, depending on taste. We all tried the Thai hot chilies, and they left some burn in your mouth, but weren’t too bad overall. And again, they were present on all the tables so that you could add them as you wished. This was our 25th food tour in cities around the world, and like all of them, the guides really work hard at diversity and local, unique dishes that taste good. A great way to see, and eat your way through, a city.

Day 517 of Traveling the World, Bangkok, Thailand. July 13, 2019.

There are no words. Mind-boggling is too understated. Fantastic, magnificent, stupendous, outstanding…are all too weak. We commented that the Grand Palace in Bangkok makes Liberace look modest, and plain. Everywhere you looked inside the compound, there was (genuine, 24-karat) gold and gold leaf, statues (many repeated a hundred times around the base of a building), glass tiles, roofs with ornamentation, little shrines, small showcases, spires, temples, intricate detail, frescoes, protector gods, mosaics, carved entrance doors, painted porcelain, Chinese cherry tree tiles, color color and more color, and oh, yes, people….thousands of them. What a day! It was a privilege to walk the grounds and gape at everything this site has to offer. Even the trash cans were decorative! There was a graduation class mugging for the many cameras trained on them, thousands of photos, thousands of selfies, life…life…life! It was exhilarating. Just look at the images! Beautiful! Photography was not allowed inside the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, but it contained all gold ornamentation and fixtures, and enshrined a Buddha carved from a single piece of jade that dates back to the 14th century. After all the temples and shrines, we came to the actual palace and government buildings. That’s when we started seeing more and more guards.

The palace dates to 1782, and was home to Siamese kings for 150 years. Many of the buildings were not accessible, but the war ministry, department of state, and even the mint was inside the walls of the complex. The site is the spiritual heart of the Thai people and is used today for ceremonial and religious purposes. Several spots were for “Thai people only.”

We actually tried to see the palace yesterday, but found that we were improperly dressed. Shorts, tank tops, tight jeans, and flip flops are not allowed, nor sandals without socks. They send you into a building where you can “rent” proper attire for a few dollars. Instead, we opted to return today, dressed appropriately. Entrance is steep, for Thailand: about $16 per person. This is entirely within the bounds of entrance fees for the world’s major museums and sites, of course, but everything else in Thailand is exceedingly inexpensive.

Yesterday we wound up at Wat Mahathat, wat being the local term for temple. After the photos of the Royal Residence, the first photo from yesterday is the Naga Buddha, where Buddha is being protected by a seven-headed snake (with a cool red mouth!) called Mucilanda. As you can see, we were delighted by the many, many gold Buddhas and the light fixtures…a light is not just a light, it is a work of art! The inside was very quiet, and you can see a monk praying in front of the large Buddha.

We have been experimenting with different forms of transportation. We tried a river taxi yesterday for 50 cents per ride, but it did not announce each stop, was jammed with people, and we never knew what was going on. We tried Asia’s version of Uber, called Grab, and it worked fine the first two times at a good price, but then failed yesterday when they said none were available and this morning, when we had to walk quite a few blocks to where the driver parked. When we tried taxis they didn’t want to turn on their meters, just negotiate a price, but they were on the high side. So, we have ended up with traditional tuk tuks a couple of times, although each time we had to negotiate to not be taken to other attractions and not be taken to a jewelry shop, where, according to the driver, “all you do is look around for 5 minutes and I get free coupons for gas!” In other words, the drivers get kickbacks for bringing in unsuspecting tourists to buy junk. It is said that tuk tuks are the most fun you can have on three wheels! No trip to Bangkok would be complete without trying one. The first time they were quite insistent on the shopping trip….until we walked away. Then they quit pushing the shopping and just negotiated over the direct ride to the hotel. We thought it might be too hot to ride without air conditioning, but the open-air vehicles provided a nice breeze. So today, we walked up to a tuk tuk and said, here is our offer: no shopping stops, just return to our hotel for the same price as we paid for one last night. The driver capitulated immediately. He is shown in the last photo. Of course, the forerunner to the tuk tuks was a rickshaw, then there were rickshaws attached to bicycles, and the motorized tuk tuk was introduced in the 1960s. The best thing is that they can move through heavy traffic much better than a car, as ours occasionally drove on the other side of the road to get around congestion. It didn’t work quite as well as a simple motorcycle, but it was close. If we had gotten into a head-on collision, what a way to go!….having a ball on three wheels!

Day 515 of Traveling the World, Bangkok, Thailand. July 11, 2019.

We thought we would spend our first day in Bangkok just walking around the area of our hotel, getting the lay of the land, and taking it easy, as there is a 2-hour time difference from Seoul, and we are still a little “off.” We walked into the mall next door, ICONSIAM, and were just shocked and delighted by how they had redefined the mall concept. Walk with us through our photos, as we start at a gorgeous teak wood-designed market section, with a low ceiling, fruit stands, lanterns, and an artificial stream with small kiosks that look like floating boats. Street food booths were set up along the walkway with some very, very inexpensive foods. We are talking, food prices from 1950! There were small chicken kabobs for 16 cents each. Most of the meals in restaurants along here were $4-6. Out on the street, they were selling corn dogs on a stick for 15 cents, while styrofoam takeout boxes jammed with rice, chicken, and salad went for 32 cents.

After that portion of the mall, it opened up a bit, starting with the elephants, and here come the upscale retailers: Gucci, Apple, Bally, and local companies. Every floor had something different to gawk at. We both said that this was the sort of retail space we thought we might see in Tokyo, but we didn’t encounter anything this lovely and interesting there. One floor housed a cineplex, and most of the movies were American in their original English, but with Thai subtitles. A lot of people who travel don’t think about seeing movies, just seeing the local sights. But over the years, we have found that you just can’t go all day, every day, You need some rest time. That is where movies are great, as you can sit in the dark for a few hours and rest your feet. The one time we don’t mind paying to see commercials is when they are in a culture foreign to us. The ads are in the local language, of course, and are sometimes hilarious…very simple and innocent, somehow. And they are a great insight into the culture. It is often a mental exercise trying to figure out what they are advertising as you watch it, and sometimes it ends and you still have no idea what they were selling. Blue jeans? Skin cream? Cell phone service? Cars? We have probably seen about a dozen movies in Asia this year, and the price is typically around $6. Popcorn and soda are about $3 each. A bargain!

Following the mall photos are a few views of the Chao Phraya River, taken from a terrace cafe on one of the upper floors. The river runs through the center of Bangkok and certainly is a part of the city’s vivacity. Do you see the skyscraper that looks like it is falling apart? That is the King Power MahaNakhon residential towers, the tallest building in Thailand, at 1,031 feet. Opened in 2016, it was designed with a spiral “helix” cut into the sides, creating many more units with balconies for views of the city. The Ritz Carlton owns 200 units in the building that sell for between US $1.1 and 17 million. The next to last last photo is some very happy ice cream that we encountered! And the last photo is fun…at the airport in Seoul yesterday was this happy robot walking around with gate and flight info on its belly. If you scanned your boarding pass, s/he gave you gate info and the status of your flight. It was neat.

As we walked around, we discovered a Thai massage shop across the street. We had seen a question posed on the Internet, “where can I find cheap Thai massage in Bangkok?” One answer was, “asking THAT is like asking, where can I find some rice in China?” Anyway, massages there are $8 per hour. We joked that we would just go in for 8 hours some day, and let them send in different masseuses as shifts changed and people went to lunch. If you have never had a Thai massage, it is heaven. You don a light shirt and short pants and lay on a mattress on the floor. No oil is involved. Rather, the whole experience is lovely pressure, pressing, stretching, walking on your back (yes, they are very petite and light), elbows being nuzzled into your back and legs, all followed by a scalp massage. A tour guide once described Thai massage as being like yoga, but they do all the work for you. They stretch you in ways you never knew you could be stretched. It is the most relaxing hour of your life. So, yes, we indulged…and made another appointment for tomorrow! We may have one every day, in fact. $8!!!!

Day 512 of Traveling the World, Seoul, South Korea. July 8, 2019.

Pomp and circumstance! Fabulous costumes! Colorful flags with dragons and tigers! Weapons! A marching band! And, all at a palace….Gyeongbokgung, in northern Seoul. There traditionally were five palaces in Seoul, with Gyeongbokgung being the most northerly and the largest. First built in 1395, it served as home to the kings of the Joseon Empire. The premises were destroyed by fire in the Imjin War of 1592-1598, and the palace was abandoned for two centuries. In the 19th century, some 500 buildings were restored as well as all of the palace’s 7,700 rooms. But, under the Imperial Japanese occupation in the 20th century, almost all of the palace was systematically destroyed. It has only been since 1990 that a 40-year restoration plan has been in place, with all of our photos of the gates and the main palace being of the re-creations.

We were there for the changing of the guard ceremony, which takes place with full pomp and regalia twice a day. There is a photo of the giant drum that announces the commencement of the ceremony, then a marching band and the guards with flags, scimitars, colorful costumes, and bows and arrows. At the end of those photos is a short video of a small part of the ritual.

Many, many people were dressed in traditional Korean period costumes called hanbok. The palace is surrounded by many shops where they can be rented for a few hours fairly cheaply: $5 per hour, with a minimum of 4 hours. You can see people in hanboks in many of our photos. An added bonus: if dressed in one, entrance to the palace is free (although normal admission is only $3).

After all the excitement and color at the palace, we went looking for some traditional Korean chicken. We found it in the alley that you can see…they all seem to have a tangle of overhead wires and cables, although this one had lanterns strung the entire length as well. All of the restaurants and stores were tiny, but look at the decorations and hangings. The one that says PVC on top has miles of PVC elbows and joints, as you can see! We loved the photo of the noodle bowl….the chopsticks filled with noodles move up and down! Oh, and speaking of chopsticks, we want to note that while tables are set with forks and knives, in most places, chopsticks are also available, and everything is eaten with them, including noodle soup, and yesterday at breakfast…a chocolate croissant, sandwiched inside two chopsticks, eaten in many small bites! Every morning at breakfast, there is a station where you can have omelettes and eggs made to order. Can you believe….the chefs make omelettes with chopsticks? They put your requested fillings in the pan with chopsticks, then add the eggs. They then scramble it all very fast with chopsticks, and rather than flipping the omelette, as would be done in the West, they quickly roll it to one side of the omelette pan, so that it is shaped like an omelette due to the rounded edge of the pan. They cook it a while, flip it in the air, cook it some more, and slide it onto your plate….a perfectly shaped omelette, made with chopsticks! So interesting.

The last photo is a little poignant for us…we are 9,645 km (5,993 miles) away from our former home in California. But, we get to be in a new home every few weeks! Of course, now that we know our way around Seoul a bit and found a favorite Mexican restaurant and a favorite BBQ restaurant, it is time to depart, in less than 48 hours. Look for our next post from Thailand!

Day 505 of Traveling the World, Bujeon Market, Busan, South Korea. July 1, 2019.

We present….the unusual, different, sometimes gross, but always interesting sights of Bujeon Market. But it could be almost any market in Asia, where living, once-living, and agricultural products are laid out and sold. It seemed that 80 percent of this market was seafood and more seafood, so the first photos start with once-alive (most likely recently alive) fish, squid, octopus, clams, mussels, crab, shrimp, and sardines. Then we graduate to the still-alive, with living octopi in a basin aerated with a soda bottle’s help and some eels that looked like sea snakes. After that, yummy pig’s feet and a pig’s head, unfortunately caught with a woman’s head, but she was very much alive. My grandfather was a butcher, and a favorite dish back in the day was pig’s feet jelly, eaten with boiled potatoes and vinegar. I was afraid of the pointed hooves as a child, but my grandfather would pick off small pieces of the hooves’ tender pork for me, and it was delicious.

Next….very much alive, wriggling, squirming silkworms! Apparently, they are delicious deep fried with lemon and pepper, taste like roasted almonds, and they help hurting shoulders and necks…so, if you ache….. After that, here comes the garlic! Just look at all the bunches ($10 a bunch) and how they wrap around the corner. What in the world does one do with this much garlic? One bunch would last us the rest of our lives. Ay!

Then we passed a local Dunkin’ Donuts, and were amazed by the local flavors of donuts….Tornado Potato Donut, Ugly Potato Ring, and Black Sugar Chewing Donut. Local branding is so colorful and so much fun to look at! Following the donuts are two overview photos of the market, followed by the subway station closest to us that took us to the downtown area. As you can see, there wasn’t another human being in the entire station. We were alone. It looked like they were ready to film a movie there, having gotten rid of everybody!

We end with our amusing photo of the day…the seat for the pregnant woman. Sounds like there is only one in the entire city, huh? We first sat there until we noticed the sign, then moved. There were two pregnant seats in our subway car for the one pregnant woman, and guess who ended up sitting in them? Of course…an old, old man and an old, old woman!

Day 503 of Traveling the World, Busan, South Korea. June 29, 2019.

Can you believe the first two photos are the entrance hallways to our hotel, Hilton Busan, and not sets from Star Trek?? The hotel opened in 2017, and it is so exciting to see some unusual and interesting architecture after staying in so many ordinary hotels over the past 500 days. As seen in the third photo, every floor has two chairs facing the Sea of Japan, while the fourth is a cafe facing the shore that keeps quite busy during the day. Breakfast in Asia continues to amaze us. In addition to the standard American offerings of cereal, sausage, bacon, eggs, and pancakes, this hotel features…two or three kinds of rice, green vitamin (spinach), lentils, stir-fry, dim sum, noodle soup (prepared to order, and marvelous), ox knee soup, seaweed soup, sautéed anchovies, two kinds of spicy Korean pancakes, miso soup, steamed mackerel, smoked salmon, a full salad bar with salad dressings, bulgogi (Korean barbecued meat), and abalone porridge…to name just a few. There is also a fruit and yogurt bar with five kinds of yogurt, and a fabulous dessert bar with apple pie, pecan pie, tiramisu, bread pudding, chocolate cake, and if you can believe it, an eight-tiered chocolate fountain that runs continuously! It is something to see! We get free breakfast, as we are Hilton Diamond members, but for everyone else it is $45 per person. Imagine, if we had to pay for it, our 11 days here would total $990 just for breakfast.

There is a coastal walking path outside the hotel along the coast, and there are three photos taken from the path. You can see a woman who successfully and joyously climbed the rocks, and then two photos of something that delights and fascinates us….Korean stacking rocks. In the Celtic world, they are called “cairns,” and here, people pile rocks, sometimes precariously, on top of each other, making a wish. If the stack remains, it is said your wish will come true, but if it falls…..well, you know. People are welcome to add rocks on top of stacks already made and also make a wish. Aren’t they pretty, though? In some ways, they look like tiny pagodas. It was so delightful to stumble upon them without knowing they would be there.

Next, there are two food pictures. The first looked so unusual that we took a photo without having any idea what it could be. Do you see the containers with what looks like dried weeds? One whole container costs 10,000 won, about $10. I asked the hotel staff what it was, and the question passed to four people before we arrived at an answer…it is agar, a gelatinous derivative of seaweed, used in soups. We engaged a chef for help, and he told us that a container would feed 20-25 people when boiled, so the true cost is just 50 cents per person. The next photo was at the grocery store bakery. As you can see, sweets are lined up on a table for people to pick out their own. Pastries in Asia are not normally found in glass cases. Those in the forefront are croissants that are very, very liberally loaded with powdered sugar! The woman you see was cutting the pastries so that each different pastry could be sampled.

The last photo is from the Grand Hilton Seoul…rules for the Fitness Center. The way No. 6 is worded, and the fact that it even needs saying……

Day 502 of Traveling the World, Busan, South Korea, Sea of Japan. June 28, 2019.

What a beautiful day! Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is probably the most famous (and as the sign says, the most beautiful) Korean Buddhist Temple, as it sits on the coast on the Sea of Japan, and is about a mile from our hotel, luckily. Tours bring people all the way from Seoul just to see it. Isn’t the first photo of the site from the viewing area just so beautiful? You can see the entrance bridge, the pagodas, some statues, and the Sea of Japan. It was first built in 1376 by the great Buddhist teacher, Naong. In 1970 it underwent some restoration work. We were fascinated by the gorgeous painted roofs, the impressive statues, the 108 (!) stairs going down to the temple (yes, we had to climb back UP), and all the color and vibrancy. The temple complex was free to enter, and even on a cloudy day, was crowded.

We won’t describe each photo, as they are all taken in the temple complex and will wash over you, but we will point out a few things. If you can read the fine print in the third photo, a pagoda as you enter the first of the 108 steps, it is titled Traffic Safety Prayer Pagoda. We suppose that that does not date to 1376! The fifth photo is neat because it evokes the feeling of ancestral benevolence…in Catholic theology, it would be the Communion of Saints, honoring family, friends, and all who have gone before us and are watching over us. People were throwing coins, trying to land them in the lower statue’s basket. Nobody could!

We loved the fat pigs when we saw them, but didn’t realize until we were on our way back that their backsides were also photogenic! There were lots of dragons on site, including one in the Zodiac parade of 12 statues. As you can see from the Zodiac message board, it is noteworthy that these statues have animal heads and human bodies. There are also a number of Buddhas. You can see the one labeled Buddha of Granting a Son, with its well-worn belly. The giant fat gold Buddha is the one for Luck and Prosperity. The Reclining Buddha, which always looks like a woman (from our past viewings in Myanmar and Thailand), is the Buddha of Nirvana. The statue in the photo that is third from the bottom is the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.

Do you see the statue of the glaring man who looks like an angry Moses? There wasn’t a sign to tell us what it was, so we asked our hotel staff if they could tell us what it says on the bottom of the statue. They were all baffled, until one said, “we can’t read it…it’s in Chinese!” So, wanting our blog to be complete for our readers, we didn’t give up. We installed a scan and translate app that translates photos. It told us that the text said, “I am dizzy.” !! We don’t think so!

The golden Jijang bosal statue is shown next to last in the photos. He is said, in the Korean Buddhist tradition, to help the transition into the afterlife. His name is chanted during funerals. The last photo was a sign we saw in several places on the property. While we can’t read the Korean warning, we know exactly what it signifies!

Day 496 of Traveling the World, Seoul, South Korea. June 22, 2019.

The sights in the most famous shopping area of Seoul, Myeongdong, are so varied and so fun! The first photo is what most of the streets looked like as we walked past them and looked up and down….they were jammed with shops and local restaurants, often 10 stories of different stores, and people walking, talking, shopping, and eating. It was so vibrant and noisy! Just wonderful.

One of the photos is of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Cathedral. We were surprised to learn that 63 percent of South Koreans are Christian, and 35 percent are Buddhists. All other religions, including Islam and Confucianism, total 2 percent all together. As we have walked around and took bus rides around the city, we saw many, many Christian churches. Speaking of walking around….we have known people who are just paranoid about directions, and afraid of getting lost, even in their own city or county. We walked through these narrow streets today for about 4 hours, with no GPS and no maps, deciding we would just wander and enjoy and figure out how to get back to our bus stop when the time came. So we did, in a country where the alphabet is not one we know or read, and we had a lot of fun just looking and walking. We both had a good sense of which direction to head when we were done for the day, and unerringly crossed streets, found familiar buildings, and got back to the exact spot where we needed to catch the bus….when we had never been on these streets before. You really can do it!

So, in the photos, there are street scenes, some street sculptures, the cathedral, and some goofy characters selling things in the shopping district. We went to a movie, and when we came out, the street outside had been transformed into a pedestrian food fair, so we decided that street food was a better choice than a restaurant. We paid $2-4 for each delight. The first is Korean Egg Bread, with an egg cooked right on top! It was very tasty, slightly sweet, slightly crunchy, but unusual…a Korean favorite, with many stands serving it. The next one is fun…over a foot high, this is a Potato Tornado, a spiral-cut potato that is skewered, deep fried, and rolled in cheese sprinkles. Next is baked cheese on a stick, followed by a wonderful chicken kebab. The last item we tried was the pot stickers, made fresh and grilled in front of us. By now, we were stuffed, so that was it for us. The food pictures after our impromptu dinner are just for fun. You can see the ad for octopus skewer, shell skewer (?), and then they are selling….Self-development. Your guess is as good as ours! After that is skewered squid, but look at their tiny faces…they look like smiling Caribbean Santa Clauses with braided beards, mon! Then there are the corn dogs with what look like measles…that is just diced potatoes in the batter. We also saw battered corn dogs with actual crinkle-cut French fries all over the outside that looked like they had been glued on! The last two photos are ice creams. The first photo is of hand-rolled, hand-packed ice cream cones meant to look like a flower. The one with the outer green “leaf” made of green matcha tea ice cream is the only one completed, but aren’t they beautiful? It seems a shame to eat it. The second is advertised as 32 cm high….13 inches of ice cream that was so pretty! So that was today’s trip into the heart of the most popular Korean area of Seoul. We loved, loved it.

Day 495 of Traveling the World, Seoul, South Korea. June 21, 2019.

What would a trip to South Korea be without a tour of the infamous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)? Oh, the barbed wire! Oh, the soldiers! Oh, the security! Oh, the bleakness! If not for South Korean soldiers swinging on children’s swings, the day would have been oh, so serious!

The border between South and North Korea is one of the most militarized frontiers in the world, even though it is named “demilitarized.” Running roughly along the famous 38th Parallel, the DMZ is still loaded with land mines…2 million were installed, and only half that number have been removed. Largely due to the land mines, North Koreans today who defect usually try to get to South Korea via their northern border, through China. Interestingly, it was South Korea who built much of the wire fencing due to aggression from the North. Each side is heavily guarded to thwart any attacks.

We actually thought our tour of the DMZ would be to the strip of land often seen, with soldiers from both sides facing each other, and barracks where conferences are held. But that is called the Joint Security Area, and not included in most tours. In fact, we were told South Koreans are not allowed there, so we do wonder who runs those tours! We read an observation that it is so ironic that South Korea’s main tourist attraction is North Korea. Anyway, we got as close to the DMZ as is possible, and saw into North Korea (not surprisingly, their trees, rivers, and mountains looked just like South Korea!). We went to an observatory, saw the Freedom Bridge, and went into the Third Incursion Tunnel, found in 1978. In total, four tunnels were discovered between 1974 and 1990, with the North Koreans claiming they were for coal mining, but they had obviously been dug for military invasion.

In the first three photos, you can see some of the many miles of barbed wire we saw, but it is just a fraction of the entire 160-mile length of the border, which is all divided by single or double rows of sharp razor wire and barbed wire. In the third photo, taken from the highway, you can see one of the regular guard towers that appear every few hundred yards. Behind it is the Han River, which is only about 1/3 of a mile wide here, with North Korea on the opposite shore. The river is so shallow that some people tried to walk across to defect, but this whole area is dotted with land mines.

The fourth photo shows the Bridge of Freedom, used by soldiers returning from captivity in North Korea. The photo after that shows North Korea from the Dora Observatory, where free binoculars were available to focus in on buildings, etc. A man next to us pointed out a small guard shack with a North Korean soldier present, exclaiming that it had been a long time since soldiers had been seen in this part of the DMZ.

Following that are a few photos taken from the bus of the road into the restricted zone. You can see that the barricades make vehicles slow down and weave in and out so as to prevent a vehicle speeding straight and accelerating. Our passports were scrutinized before entering this area, which we were required to bring. Also, we were asked not to wear shorts or skimpy outfits, as in the past, North Koreans took photos of this common western dress and used it as propaganda, telling their people, “See? They don’t have enough money there to afford full, regular clothing, like you have.” Ditto for even waving to a North Korean soldier, as they would use that as propaganda: Look how much they like us! They want to live in North Korea!

After that are some of the many South Korean soldiers we encountered, followed by photos of the Third Tunnel. It takes 7 minutes to walk down, down, into the tunnel (and even longer to walk back up, with even the in-shape soldiers gasping for air). Hard hats had to be worn, and even though we were careful, as the ceiling got lower and lower, about 5 feet high, we hit our heads on the ceiling about two dozen times! And just in case, there were gas mask instructions posted on the wall, because who knows what can happen from the other side?

And, always wanting to end on a cheery note, or at least a fun note: the last two photos were taken outside the very-serious incursion tunnel. Meant for posing and photo-taking, they are so silly that they take your mind off politics and all things that threaten good people everywhere. So….smile!

Day 489 of Traveling the World, Tokyo, Japan. June 15, 2019.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Without comment, we present to you….Japan’s Imperial Palace! It is shown in the first two photos. We took a tour of the Palace grounds, and before we went up a small curved driveway that hid it from our view, our guide noted that the Imperial Palace was very simple, but she thought that made it even more beautiful. And we walked up, and saw…the building in the first two photos. After having seen the castles in Nagoya and Osaka, we weren’t quite ready for this view. All the concrete in front of the Palace is a gathering place for the public, about 50 feet deep. Every year on December 23, the Emperor and Empress appear on the balcony to greet the public, which draws tens of thousands of people.

The Palace is in the center of Tokyo, and you can see office buildings in some of the photos of the grounds. Online, the Palace is described as a series of interconnected buildings, one of which looks more like a castle. It was formerly in Kyoto, dismantled, and reconstructed here. That is shown in the fourth photo. We weren’t told that the Palace was several buildings…we were just taken to the building you see in the first two photos and told that was “the Palace.” In the third photo is the Imperial Household Agency, where matters of State take place. It was the first building on our tour, and is adjacent and down the hill from the Palace. Meetings with Heads of State occur here, while banquets and State dinners are held in the Palace.

The fifth photo doesn’t look like much, until we found out that the two half-dome vegetation structures are a cluster of many trees planted close together to form the shape of two turtles, long-lived creatures, symbolizing that same hope for the Emperor. Following that are a few photos from around the grounds, including the “eyeglass” bridge. Under the right circumstances, the arches reflect in the water to create the illusion of a pair of eyeglasses.

The final photo is fun. We are guessing that the woman is employed in child care…she and another woman both were pushing a four-seater cart, each with four children inside, ranging from infants to about 3 years old. They were all getting their sunshine for the day!

Day 485 of Traveling the World, Osaka, Japan. June 11, 2019.

So many cities have their very own castles and palaces, and Osaka is one of them. While it looks a lot like Nagoya Castle from last week’s post, set on a stone foundation and surrounded by a moat, this is, indeed, Osaka Castle. It has had much destruction rained upon it and many iterations of renovation. The castle’s construction was begun in 1583. It was destroyed by lightning, by a civil war, and again in WW II. The current building’s renovation was completed in 1997, but as a museum rather than a castle. It is very pretty, with the moat surrounding it, and can be seen from around Osaka (wherever the skyscrapers don’t interfere!).

The photos show a few different angles of the castle, including the moat. And, as you can see, there is even a gold tourist boat that runs through the moat. There was also a train that circled the grounds, for $2 per person, but with all the signage being in Japanese, we couldn’t figure out where the pickup was! There were also many outer buildings up at the castle level, no doubt lookouts and guest houses, as you can see in the one photo. Outside the castle, you can put on armor, for a price, and have your photo taken with samurais and ninjas. The last two photos are our fun cultural glimpses for the day…”Please pay money at the cashier before eat things which you are going to buy!! Thank you!” – and, a very special salon where they don’t cut hair, but…..

Day 483 of Traveling the World, Sagano Bamboo Forest, Arashimaya District, Kyoto, Japan. June 9, 2019.

Ha! We thought we were going to see the major sites in Kyoto today, just 30 minutes away by train. There are two palaces, and temples, shrines, and a famous forest. We would do it all. Again…ha! We were up early, had a fairly quick breakfast, and then began the travel fun! We couldn’t find the correct train line in the train/subway/shopping complex that sprawls underneath our hotel. After a few inquiries and after following several false leads and signs, we were finally bound for Kyoto…except we boarded the slow train, not the Special Rapid train even though we could both swear that it said Special Rapid on the side when it pulled up. So it took awhile. When we got to Kyoto, we had another learning curve, looking for the correct train line, standing in two different queues, and finally were on our way to the Bamboo Forest, another 20 minutes away. Once we got there, we decided to follow the crowds, as the signage to the forest was all in Japanese. Giant mounted maps along the route didn’t show the bamboo forest, at least not in English. So we followed everyone, and there were scores of people walking toward us, which convinced us that we were headed in the right direction, as they were coming from the forest. A good thought, except when the road split, there were equal numbers of people going two different ways. So we asked a vendor, who pointed back all the way we had just walked and said, “10 minutes, then turn left.” We actually, arrogantly, thought she was wrong! But she wasn’t. We had enjoyed walking through the village, though, and every other shop was soft-serve ice cream: both the wildly popular matcha tea flavor, a new-to-us bamboo flavor (!), and vanilla. By the time we got to the forest after walking back from where we were, it was more than 2.5 hours since we had left our hotel, rather than our assumed 50 minutes. So, no other sights were taken in today, just the forest. But what a forest it is!

Sagano Bamboo Forest is on every list of Famous Forests, Top Sights in Japan, and Places to See Before You Die. The grove was created in the 14 century by the Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk, Muso Soseki, who w