Friday, February 17, 2012

Heaven on Earth in Ngwe Saung, Myanmar

pretty Burmese child wearing Thanaka face paint

The people here walk slowly, languidly, their every movement like a cat stretching in the sun. There is no sense of urgency, no hurry. My day, like that of just about everyone at Ngwe Saung, starts when the first pale rays of sun toss light on my pillow. I can hear birdsong and the omnipresent voice of the ocean. Just outside my window, a boy with skin the colour of caramel sings as he waters the flowers.

The appearance of this place? It is like that one common cliché of heaven, the one where a good man dies and wakes to find himself on an empty stretch of beach, deep blue expanse of ocean on one side and fringed row of tall green palm trees on the other. Ngwe Saung is the earthly incarnation of that paradise.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve visited culturally significant parts of Myanmar. I’ve been to Bagan and Inle, places where all tourists are expected to go. I’ve also been to a few places where tourists, at least white tourists, are such a rarity that the monks end up photobombing me.

Hey monk! Hey random Burmese girl! You're in my frame.

My travels through inner Myanmar were amazing but also, they were intense. It’s rough traveling here alone, especially on the local buses, which sometimes break down and usually end up leaving me (and the other passengers) a few miles from town in the middle of the night. Even more stressful is making a bus transfer, as there are no written schedules and very few people at the bus stations speak English. For this reason, I once end up stuck overnight in the wrong city.

And so, I decide it’s time to relax. I’m ending my travels through Myanmar by spending a week at the beach. It is serene here, gorgeous, lonely.

coastline of Ngwe Saung

When I first arrive, I ask if I can get a discount since I’ll be staying over a week.

“Sorry,” responds the staff girl with a smile. “Not possible. This is high season.”

I look up and down the beach. It’s mid-day. Within my range of vision, I see a total of five people.

“Um, yeah,” I say. “I’ll have to try and come back when it’s less crowded.”

My bungalow is on the far right, just behind the first row of palms.

My bungalow manages to be both beachfront and in the shade of palm trees. At $15 a night, this is the most I’ve spent in Southeast Asia – out of my 5 months of recent traveling – on accommodation. But it’s also on the low-end of hotel resorts in Myanmar. If I stay at the Bay of Bengal Resort, for example, I could be paying around $200 a night. It rather confuses me as to why some people spend so much on their hotel rooms. I guess that roaches the size of Volkswagens – (Do you suppose that’s how the Volkswagen Beetle got its nickname?) – are less likely to make an appearance in bathrooms at a fancier hotel. Not having to deal with them – which I do by closing the bathroom door and coming back later, after they’ve had time to squeeze themselves back down the drainpipes –  would definitely be worth a few extra bucks. But that much? The fancier hotels also often boast of having a seaside pool as a great amenity, but it seems more than a little hipster ironic to sit in a chlorine-laden swimming pool and stare at a gorgeous, gentle ocean that’s only a few steps away.

After just one week of Giardia, you, too, can be ready for swimsuit season!

I meet some Norwegian men also staying at Ngwe Saung, but instead of staying in a bamboo and wooden bungalow like me, they stay in a fancier, pricier place. They hate it.

“I’ve been to a million beaches like this,” says Peter, with a dismissive flick of his wrist toward the stately palm trees and turquoise ocean I’d already fallen in love with. “There’s nothing to do here.”

It suddenly strikes me that paradise has a lot to do with one’s perspective.

"Yeah, it's nice and all, but where are the go-go dancers?"

There are no fire dancers on Ngwe Saung’s beach, no full moon parties. There’s no loud music thrumming in the air. Peter’s right. There’s nothing to do here, really – just swim in the lukewarm water, dream beneath thatched-palm beach umbrellas, watch the colours of the ocean change throughout the day.

So that’s what I do.

mermaid looks out from Lovers' Island

At one point, as I walk along the ocean’s edge, I see dozens of jellyfish, the size of my hand, scattered along the shore. They are as translucent and seemingly as delicate as glass. At another point, I find maybe seven sand dollars, half-buried in the sand and sun-bleached white, having lain there for who knows how many days or hours. They are brittle, and though I collect them very carefully, most of them break before I return to my bungalow. Still, having found them makes me feel lucky, like the way, as a kid, I used to feel a surge of happiness at finding a quarter on the street, even though there was not all that much, even back then, that a quarter could buy. It was more the feeling of luck to find something overlooked by all other passersby. The smallest of treasures.

another day has gone

The sun does not set here, but disappears. Through the course of the day, it arcs across the sky and by evening leans over the Bay of Bengal. About 15 minutes before nightfall, the sun blushes brilliantly and lowers itself by the sea – but then, at a certain point in the horizon, still well above the water, the sun simply vanishes. The day has gone. It is time to shutter the bungalow windows – there are no screens – and tuck the canopied mosquito netting around the bed. It is time to be lulled asleep, once again, to the sound of waves against the shore.

Ngwe Saung wishes you were here! Just not too many of you . . .

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fierce Adventure

I hate bedbugs.

I hate leeches, roaches, and rats. I hate sunburn. I hate touts. I hate arriving alone in a strange city past midnight. I hate traveler’s diarrhea. I especially hate it on a bumpy 12-hour ride on a bus with no toilet. I hate scams, even when I’m (occasionally) smart enough to outwit them. 

These are all things I’ve experienced within the past six months of my around-the-world trip. Yet the truth is that I am happier than I’ve ever been, and I cannot imagine a more amazing life than the one I am living right now. Everything I’ve worked, planned, saved for, and dreamed of the past several years? It’s even better than I hoped it would be.

Bring it on, Year of the Dragon!

In the past six months – since I last posted in this long-neglected blog – I’ve visited seven different countries: Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and my current location, Myanmar. It’s been sensory overload – bright pink petals fallen on a dusty footpath of the sleepy  4,000 islands, the ever-changing labyrinths of Hanoi’s traffic, Burmese women with whorls of yellow face paint streaked across their cheeks and foreheads, an isolated Hmong village funeral where all the men get drunk and spin in circles while blowing banshee-like tunes on old hornpipes, impossibly beautiful sunsets of rose and gold on Railay’s sandy beaches, a boyfriend acquired as my sole souvenir in the clouded mountains of Cameron Highlands. It’s been difficult for me to write about my travels, as I can never identify an ending to this story. There has been no time for reflection, just a continual dizzying forward momentum.

But in Myanmar, a country I chose to visit simply because I know so little about it, time is slow. You can almost see it pass as falling grains of sand in an hourglass. I am traveling alone, and the need to document my travels flares up again, not coincidentally along with the pain that flares in my sprained knee. I am forced to sit still and reflect. 

In a rare cafĂ© that offers Internet, I share a table with three other women – a girl from Hong Kong and two Spanish sisters.  As solo female travelers, these are my sisters on the road. 

Don't mess.

We are strong. (“I’m not paying an extra $5 to the bus driver to be taken to our actual destination. I’ll walk 11 km before giving money to the scammer,” I proclaim, at a different city in Myanmar, jumping off the bus and leading several other travelers to a pickup truck where we ride the last 11 km into town for only $1.) 

We are brave. (“The black market money changers in Yangon cheated us,” Mettea tells me. “They swapped all our money around very quickly, and after we walked away and counted it again, we realized they stole $100 from us. I was so mad that I marched back into the booth and snatched back my $100. Then I grabbed another $100 bill because I felt if they could steal that money from me, then I had the right to steal the same amount from them.” Medea pauses a moment. “Do you think that was wrong?”) 

We all have mothers who worry about us. (“Hi Mom! Thailand’s great!” Natalia messages her mother, believing it better not to worry her with minor details, such as the actual, somewhat unstable country she chose to visit.)

The girls and I first met at the bus station in Bagan, where, contrary to the promises of the different travel agents who sold us the bus tickets there, we did NOT arrive at “7 or 8 am” but at a chilling, pitch-black 4 am. Rickshaw drivers circle foreigners at the bus stop like predators circling their prey, but we instinctively gather together and set out on our own.

“We like walking. We want to take exercise,” explains one of the girls to one aggressive rickshaw driver who follows us.

“It’s a lovely night for a walk,” I add. When I speak, my breath leaves my mouth as little puffs of chilled air. We all stamp our feet from the cold.

The driver laughs at us, not unkindly, and leaves us in peace.

The dark sky is salted with stars. There are no street lamps, but the moon’s dim light guides us. We walk past one, two ancient, bell-shaped temples. A small boy curls his body in sleep as he lies on white-washed stairs leading to one of them.

"sunrises in Bagan are unforgettable"
(Lonely Planet's Guide to Southeast Asia)

Our group of foreigners-met-by-chance walks on to several hotels. Their gates are locked and no one answers when we tiredly rattle the iron bars. We notice a cement ledge outside one of the hotels. A guy from Argentina pulls out his sleeping bag and we huddle beneath it, waiting for morning. As the early rays of dawn lightly redden the sky, a line of young monks clad in maroon robes silently marches by.

Idoia, whose native language is Spanish, tends to produce charming phrases when speaking English. The moment is, as she describes it, “fierce adventure.”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hadong and the Case for Divine Intervention

"Hey, Noona, look at this!" Jini calls out from the living room.

I walk into the hostel's main room and look at the TV, where Jini is pointing. The news is being broadcast live, but the backdrop on the TV screen looks like a comedic spoof of a storm. Leaves and random pieces of debris are flying in such a way that suggests Dorothy will soon be leaving Kansas. A news anchor tries to stay her ground as she gives a report. The wind, meanwhile, swirls her long, black hair upwards into a sort of electrified-looking bouffant.

"What's going on?" I ask.

"It's a typhoon in Hadong. They're now talking about related fatalities."

Hadong, Korea -- an iconically beautiful village located near the southmost tip of the peninsula. Hadong, Korea -- the place I was supposed to be this evening. In fact, the only thing that prevented me from being there was what had seemed, at the time, to be a dumb mistake.

The night before I had asked DJ, the owner of the hostel in which I was staying, which bus terminal was the right one to catch the bus to Hadong.

"Express Bus Terminal," he tells me, circling the stop on my subway map so I won't be confused.

A bit of a skeptic when it comes to directions, I question him.

"Are you sure?" I ask. "Are you sure it's not a different bus terminal, like Nambu? Some buses leave from different terminals."

"No, no," DJ confidently reassures me. "The bus for Hadong leaves from Express."

The next morning, I make it to the Express Bus Terminal with just enough time to leave on the earliest bus. But when I arrive at the ticket counter, the agent tells me all the buses to Hadong leave from . . . Nambu. It's too late for me to go to Nambu to buy an early morning bus ticket, and what's more, all the later tickets for that day have already sold out.

I fume silently, but there's nothing I can do about the situation. Taking the escalator to leave the Express Bus Terminal, I notice the wall above it showcases an enlarged photo of Hadong's vibrant green fields and a tourism catchphrase: Come visit beautiful Hadong.

"Well, now you're just mocking me," I grumble aloud to no one.

The whole thing seemed like a pointless mistake.

Until I saw the news report and the damage wrought by a typhoon.

Now, I'm not the type of person who calmly accepts whatever happens as my fate. In fact, here's one essential truth about me: I fight for what I want. I empty all my energy into trying to solve whatever problem's before me. Even just minutes before seeing the news report about Hadong, I was on the Internet trying to rearrange my schedule and buy a ticket to Hadong for a different day. But sometimes, the puzzle itself is missing a piece. Sometimes no matter how hard I try, things just don't work out.

I think now not just of one particular city I didn't get to see. I think of all the things in my life that I've wanted but didn't work out, from relationships to job promotions. But here's a kind truth I learned: Sometimes not getting the thing you want is the best thing that could happen to you. Had I gotten everything I've wanted in life, I wouldn't be where I'm at now, which is a pretty wonderful place -- one that can't be pinned on any map.

If you're not happy with the moral of my story, just chant this toilet mantra until you feel better.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Travel the World in 7 Links

Welcome to the Reader's Digest version of my adventures traveling and living abroad the past 2 years.

"Seven Links" is actually a project whereby travel bloggers nominate each other to produce links back to the posts they've written earlier, good posts that may have gotten overlooked in all the webbage that daily litters the Internet.

I'm thankful to Sally from Unbrave Girl (  and Brooke from Brooke vs. the World ( for nominating me for this project. And I have to say it's kinda awesome to be nominated not by one but two bloggers who I admire for consistently producing high-quality writing on their own blogs.

My Seven Links

1. My Most Beautiful Post

The reasons why I'm afraid to travel and why I travel regardless. This is my most honest post. That's what makes it beautiful, at least to me.

2. My Most Popular Post

My top post at the moment goes to the time I visited the Taj Mahal without wearing any pants. (I like to phrase it that way -- "the time I visited" -- like it's something that happened long, long ago and not, umm, in January 2011.) Of course, the success of this post should surprise no one, seeing as how it draws in the two audience groups: the Taj Mahal enthusiasts and the partial nudists.

It wasn't until an online Twitter exchange with Sally came up that I realized exactly how many times I've forgotten to wear pants in the past two years: 4 and 1/2 times. In all fairness, three of these times were wearing the same "shirt dress" from H&M that actually proved to just be a long shirt, as I noticed after finally perusing the H&M catalog; the time when I absent-mindedly pulled on a pair of woolen long-johns and wandered down my apartment building's main hallway before realizing I'd forgotten to put a skirt on top of them (which only gets 1/2 points since I didn't actually exit the building); and finally, this -- touring the Taj Mahal without pants:

Mermaids don't wear pants, either.

My second most popular post also is from India. In the latter half of my trip there, I broke my foot and, in a small, very dirty Indian hospital, had a plaster cast put on from my toes to my knee. The pain in my foot was excruciating. But I really wanted to ride camels and camp overnight in the Thar desert. So I did.

3. My Most Controversial Post

Pretty much all of my posts are  G-rated. Posts that you can read to grandma if you so wish. (Please read them to grandma. I need more followers.) The only exception to this may be my most recent post, the one wherein I am repeatedly solicited for prostitution in Korea. Best not to read this one to grandma; it'll only get her riled up and she can be surprisingly vicious with those knitting needles.

4. My Most Helpful Post

While all my posts can be considered quite helpful if you process their contents in a "things-not-to-do" sort of way, my packing list post is probably the most helpful.

Okay, to be honest, it's only helpful to read for procrastination purposes.

5. A Post Whose Success Surprised Me

Meh. This category does not amuse me. But don't worry; I've cheated by adding extra links to other categories.

6. A Post that Didn’t Get the Attention It Deserved

I am going to have to go with all of them. Popular travel bloggers can get a page full of reader comments and support for posts about what they ate for dinner in Europe while I can write about really dramatic things that have happened to me in Asia, and I get . . . crickets. But I don't need to be the King of the (travel blogging) World. I just need the occasional person to believe in me. So if you haven't already, you should go ahead and read about how:

A man repeatedly attempted to break into my Seoul apartment during the wee sma hours of Friday the 13th.

I was stranded for a week in Japan without money, so I ended up sleeping on the living room floor of a kind Japanese escort.

I fell off a train and broke my foot in India. Or possibly the random man who "reset" it while I was screaming NO broke it. You decide.


7. The Post that I Am Most Proud Of

The logic behind why I decided to live a second year in Korea. This actually isn't a post of pride -- I'm just putting it here because it amuses me. My reasons amuse myself.

So there you have it: 7 links (um, rounded down to the nearest 7, that is) from Odysseus Drifts. The best links from my blog - so far. It's now less than three weeks until I start my around-the-world backpacking trip, so the adventures can only get better!

And to continue this project, I am nominating…

Tim from Good and Lost
Julia from Mr. & Mrs. Globetrot
Kelly from Tales from Heibei (

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Foreign Women for Sale

The trouble with only learning the pleasantries of a foreign language is that they are only useful in situations that are, well, pleasant. Should an insult be offered, this leaves you with no language for reply. Personally, the best I could manage would be to harvest from the sparse stock of pleasant, friend-making Korean phrases I've memorized and add "no" to them. Imagine this being the fiercest retort you are capable of making:

Respected sir, do I like you? No! Respected sir, are you fun? No! Are you cool? No! Are you pretty? No!

There are times when such language is not quite strong enough for the situation at hand.

The first time I am mistaken for a whore is on the subway platform at Namdaemun Station. I am wearing blue jeans, a bulky winter coat, a scarf, a backpack. A Lonely Planet guidebook is in my hand.

"I love you," says the man who, at the time, is just a few feet from me. He raises his arms above his head and bends them in the shape of a crooked heart. He shuffles back and forth on wobbly feet.

"Thank you," I reply, smiling. Just the week before, a different man on a different subway platform had repeatedly proclaimed to me that he loved America and loved Americans. I figure this man's declaration is something along the same lines. How nice.

The man moves closer to me. His face is puffy and pink, an old, bloated, babyish face. His bleary eyes are rimmed in red. His breath emits a hazy cloud of soju as he asks, "Where are you going?"

"I'm just going home," I say, still smiling.

"I want you to come home with me," he says.

Again, how nice. He is inviting me back for tea with his family, I think with a naivety that casts its faint glow about me like a halo.

The man opens his wallet.

He's going to show me a photo of his wife and kids, I think.

He pulls out money.

But where are his wife and kids? I wonder.

"This is Korean money," he says, trying to shove a couple of bills into my hand. I curl up my fingers to refuse the money. Confused, I alter my stream of thought, trying to make sense of this unforeseen happening: Could he be a black market money changer? Is he looking for U.S. dollars? I ponder these unlikely possibilities for a minute.

Then, the fog of innocence finally lifts from me.

I am horrified.

And I only say "horrified" because I don't know a stronger word. There is no kind old man standing before me, trying to become my friend. There is only a drunken lech trying to pick up a whore, trying to pick up me.

A Korean woman, standing nearby on the subway platform, watches the entire situation play out in front of her. She is wearing a micro-mini skirt and 4-inch heels, in line with the aesthetics of modern Korean fashion. But it doesn't matter what she wears: She is Korean, so she is pure and well-respected. A Korean man would never offer her money for sex. The woman begins to laugh at me, laughs at the bewilderment and disgust that I can feel myself projecting through every ligament of my body.

My face crumples. I run away to the far end of the subway and quietly cry the whole ride home. It isn't until later that I think about how the wad of money the man had shoved toward me was around 13,000 won. Not only was I considered a whore, I was considered a $10 whore.

The next few times I am mistaken for a whore are also hard on me, although less painfully so, as I can now understand the signals much sooner.

"How much?" a man will sometimes ask as he passes me.

Now, when a man says something like that, I look him dead in the eye and, with unleashed venom, snarl, "You wish."

And then I run away and cry. Because continuity is always a good thing. Right?

{For those of you still confused about the difference between me and a whore, here is a little photo illustrative.}

{what an actual whore wears for a night out on the town}

{what I wear for a night out on the town}

I have a close friend, another foreign woman, to whom I told about these happenings in whispers. She lives in Itaewon, the notoriously sketchy expat district of Seoul, and has never experienced anything like it herself.

This made me feel even worse. Is it just me? And is this how I look to every Korean man, like a whore? Maybe they all believe I'm a whore but some of them simply don't require my services, I think with what may or may not be paranoia.

And up until about a week ago, I never mentioned it to anyone else. I was too ashamed. Finally, last week, after my third "offer" within the course of two consecutive days, I couldn't contain my resentment any longer. I went to a swing dance and polled the three other foreign women there, rather abruptly asking if they, too, had ever been treated like whores.

"Well, only the one time," one foreigner shyly admitted. "But I was dressed really nice, conservatively!"

"Yeah, like every time I leave the apartment," another American woman said.

"A couple of times, sure," confided the third foreign woman.

I want to throw things. I want to throw things at the heads of the men who try to rent my body by the hour. I want to throw (smaller) things at the one or two guys I have since told about it and who counter with jokes. It's not a laughing matter.

I'm writing this because I'm angry and I'm insulted and I'm tired of feeling ashamed. I didn't do anything wrong. There is shame here, certainly; but that shame is not my burden.

I love so much about my life in Korea and the friends I've made here. I have met some Koreans, both men and women, who shine with pure goodness. It can be a truly wonderful country to live in. But not in this regard. This is a side of Korea that is not funny, not cool, and most definitely not pretty.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Unauthorized Autobiography of Captain Polyglot

I am an expert at all things that are not Korean. You may not believe this. And I may not believe this. But all the Korean employees at my workplace unequivocally believe this. They believe it the same way 4-year-olds believe in Santa Claus. And with utter confidence in my far-reaching knowledge of all things not Korean, they ask me for information regarding words in French, German, Portuguese, etc.

Sadly, though, I am not what you'd call a "language person." It's true that while in university, I took one year of accelerated classes in Italian and was always at the top of my class, but in spite of my almost-adequate grasp of Italian while in uni, my knowledge of it has receded in the years since so that now the only thing I feel confident about in Italian is how to order an ice cream. Really, this is the most important phrase anyone can use in Italy, anyway, so that's all good. But to return to the shores of my now-distant main point, my knowledge of ordering ice cream has become the basis for my understanding of all Romantic languages, so that I feel sufficiently informed to take a stab at defining pretty much any foreign word that my coworkers present to me.

Also, I cheat and use the Internet.

"Oh yes, ajdiwureojaksldfj, yes, of course I'm familiar with it. I'm just a little busy now. Give me a minute and {Google, Google, Google, Wiki, Wiki}, yes, it means 'the velvet canvas on which religious icons are painted by Polish farmhands.' And it's pronounced *imitates cat unsuccessfully trying to rid itself of a hairball*."

As you might imagine, this system works very well for me. By which I mean, I still have a job.

Sometimes, though, my coworkers will hand me a paper with a word that's -- not to be judgmental or anything -- totally weird.

I take the piece of paper and squint at it. Pretend astigmatism makes an excellent stall for time.

"That's not an English word. No, it's sure not," I'll observe as I stare at a word in Yiddish? Russian? Something-stan?

"Errm, it's not even written in the Roman alphabet," I'll then point out, in what I intend as a mild protest.

"Yes, that's true," my coworkers will respond, smiling. "And how do you pronounce it?"

The result of which is that one of our language CDs may or may not have a speaker mentioning farflugen where a Yiddish-Russian-Something-stan word would actually be more appropriate. Because farflugen is the most exotic-sounding word I know. I think the Swedish chef from The Muppets used to say it, so I guess that makes farflugen Swedish. Who says you can't learn by watching prodigious quantities of TV?

Sometimes, to be perfectly frank, I feel I'm not the best person for this job. However, I seem to be the company favourite, as out of the three native English speakers in my office, I am decidedly the one most often chosen to answer questions about all things not Korean.

I once overheard a conversation between a Korean coworker and one of the other native English speakers, Evil Disney Princess (a moniker bestowed for her unique ability to say the meanest things imaginable in a voice sweet as honey), about a certain English word. I didn't hear the whole convo, but distinctly heard EDP advise that "The dictionary is wrong about that word."

Perhaps that is why I've been designated as Captain Polyglot. I never tilt at Oxford or Webster. And as for Roget, I feel absolute adulation, affection, devotion, emotion, passion, rapture, relish, and respect.

Anyway, I was just kidding about that farflugen stuff. But if you ever hear the word "onomatopoeia" seemingly used out of context on an EFL CD. Well, that one just might be me.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Train to Nowhere, Japan

"I want to go to a small town," I say vaguely. "One that has nice cherry blossoms."

"Where?" the woman at the tourist help desk in Nara asks.

"Where do you like to see the cherry blossoms?" I counter.

She pauses thoughtfully for a moment and then uses her pen to scratch out a name on a scrap of paper. Immediately afterward, I walk to the train station to buy a ticket there. Even though the train stations in Japan are uniformly Neat and Orderly, I still have trouble figuring out which ticket to buy, so I press my finger against the round, red "help" button at the bottom of the automated ticket machine. Instead of a help screen appearing on the machine, as I'd anticipated, a square in the wall next to it snaps open, revealing a sort of camouflaged window I'd not noticed when it was closed, and a Neat and Orderly ticket agent pops his head out the window.

"May I help you?" he asks. It's an Alice in Wonderland moment.

I show the man my scrap of paper and he guides me through the correct series of buttons to push on the machine.

{decorative tiles on traditional Japanese roof}

My destination, whose name I remember as Yashimoto though I can find no evidence of its existence from the Internet or guidebooks, is a tiny town where any visitor can attain insta-celebrity status by virtue of blonde hair! blue eyes! As I slowly walk through the town, a few people come up to me to shake my hand. A few others greet me with, "Hello-welcome-how-are-you?" and then quickly dash away before I can form a reply.

The center of all activity in town seems to revolve around an old castle that is surrounded by a moat and located on a hill. Before reaching the castle itself, I happen upon a nearby temple. On the outside porch of the temple are numerous plexiglass tanks containing small, brightly-coloured fish. This is so curious of a matter, unlike anything I've seen in other temples in Asia, that without thinking I ask the man nearest me, "Why are all those fish at the temple?"

{temple fish}

The man stares at me in concern. I repeat the question slowly, point at the fish in question, smile and shrug. The first man calls over a second man and relays my question to him. The second man deals with me by passing me along to a group of teenage boys who are shyly reluctant to make my acquaintance. After what appears to be a polite debate among all the men of Yashimoto, one of teenagers makes a phone call for an outside opinion about the fish. After about 15 minutes of this, they settle on a conclusion. One of the young men, urged forward by the rest, solemnly makes the pronouncement: "Fish. Good. "

{sidewalk fish tile}

Relieved that the temple fish are not of a malicious nature, I thank the gathered assembly of boys and men (and I honestly am grateful for the amount of effort they'd put into answering my question). We all respectfully bobble up and down, and I continue on my way to the castle.

Lining the stony path to the castle is a row of rosily-striped vendor tents. I stop by one that has a small group of very happy children collected in front of it. I watch as the vendor mixes a concoction of sugar and syrup and colour in a small iron skillet and then carefully dribbles the mixture onto wax paper, swirling it into Japanese characters. He is making giant lollipops with children's names on them.

{a genuine sugar daddy}

The group of children gathered there stops watching the candy making and begins watching me watching the candy making. One of them giggles and whispers something to his friends. With admirable boldness, he then asks if I have a boyfriend and tells me that I am cute. I really want to tell him no, you are so cute and pinch the darling baby-fat of his round cheeks. But such a response would be a blow to the dignified persona he is working so hard to achieve, so instead I point out that I am old, a grown adult, and ask him why he isn't in school on a weekday. He assures me the age difference won't be a problem since he is "also old, in junior high, almost high school."

This is what I get for hanging out at candy booths.

{my name in Japanese, in candy, possibly upside down}

After buying a container of assorted sushi (and an oversized lollipop with my name spelled out in glossy candy form), I settle on the soft grass under some cherry blossom trees and picnic alongside dozens of Japanese families. The sun's brilliance falls across the lawn, adding a glimmer of warmth to the chilly spring day. A few feet away from me, the ancient castle towers.

The lovely Amanda from
has identified the town I visited as Yamatokoriyama with Koriyama-jo [castle].