Tag Archives: languages

Chateau Life-eze, Japan

I’d like to tell you about a really cooI place I stayed in during my recent trip to Japan. I was looking for a room on the Couchsurfing website and I came across an International Share house in Kanagawa just outside of Tokyo. The building itself is very unusual and I was glad I found it.

Firstly, its designed in a chateau-style which stands out dramatically from the grey concete of modern Japanese buildings. Secondly, It’s in a very picturesque location: perched very high up at the top of a steep hill and next to a dense forest, it’s a bit like being in the Swiss Alps.

It’s called Chateua Life-eze and they really run with the concept. The kitchen has been fitted with wooden beams and the doors are decked out with wrought iron handles.

The rooms are fairly small (for a single person) and the beds are western style (my mattress was on the firm side). Each one comes with a wardrobe, TV and desk.

The house has a third floor for women only and although I wonder if this is necessary, it might be a consideration for some people. I didn’t find out whether couples can sleep on a different floor but there are larger rooms for up to 6 guests.

There is a kitchen on the 2nd floor with excellent cooking facilities. It was so spotless that I was afraid to use it, although I did made dinner on two separate occasions. Japan has become very strict with regards to waste recycling and seems to have a problem with cockroaches. I was told to wrap all food waste in plastic bags before throwing it away.

The main purpose of my visit was to provide a cultural exchange for the mostly Japanese residents who want to learn about other cultures. I was a bit unsure what this would involve but it was mainly fine, although it took a while to break down barriers (the Japanese are at least as awkward when meting strangers as English people). They wanted to talk to me about my impressions of Japan and the differences between Japan and England. I shared some food with them, but people seemed to cook their meals separately (it’s a share house but people definitely don’t share their food).


Overall I did enjoy my stay at the Chateua but I would have liked to have spent more time with the other residents, and I would have enjoyed the opportunity for more activities. It was also a little strict (I was told not to leave any belongings in the bathroom) and I didn’t feel that I could relax completely while I was there, but other more clean and careful guests who don’t mind sticking to rules will be fine.

The people

The house is managed by Mai and Nagi. I got on well with Mai who was very charming but I really wasn’t sure if Nagi was being rude or simply didn’t appreciate me being there. Each morning she asked what I was planning to do (implying I should go somehwhere). There were two other members of staff who I spent some time with in the evening, but most guests were at work most of the time I was there). There were 7 guests who came to the cultural exchange. I thought the book of short biographies for each guest was a nice touch.


About the area:

Yomiuri is on the Odakyu line (express trains from Shinjuku take 15 minutes). There is shrine near the house and an amusement park not far away (Yomiuri Land). Tokyo Women’s University is also nearby. The Chateau can be booked through AirnB and Couchsurfing.



My first visit to South Korea

First, let’s get past the over-familiar, guidebook cliches written about South Korea: It’s a land of contrasts (often the first sentence of many travel guides); its one of the most rapidly developing of Asian countries (actually it was, but the economy has been slowing down in the last few years; the country doesn’t have any old buildings (kind of true, but not the full story).

First things first. Most passengers arrive at Incheon airport, the rectilinear building that was opened in 2009. The first thing you notice is how quiet it is. Korea is often referred to poetically as the land of the morning calm. It’s peaceful and quiet on the day that I arrive. From the airport it’s a one hour bus drive into the centre of town.

Seoul has been a popular tourist destination for many years and traveller numbers are growing every year. Whilst it has a reputation for being closed off to foreigners, it has become a very accessible city.

I wanted to do several things on my trip. Firstly, use the language which I have been learning for the last 16 months. Secondly, I wanted to get to know as many Korean people as I possible. Finally, I wanted to know how it would feel being a foreigner in a country whose population is over 99% ethnically homogenous.

You step on to the subway and typically you are the only white person on board. I keep my head down mostly. The wifi connection means that people can use their phones underground, but nobody bothers sending messages or makes calls, instead they use the countries’ message app Kakaotalk. Its free to send messages and emojis. I also notice how large the elderly population is. With one of the lowest birthrates in the world, South Korea has a huge army of seniors. Sometimes they look at me strangely and at other times they seem to glare, but it’s not always easy to tell. They can be very helpful as well. I go to Busan, and when my ticket won’t open the gate, an ajeosshi (old man) pushes me though the turnstiles at the same time as himself. Interesting fact – they have underground malls at most of the big metro stations. Some of them are easily 500 metres long. And they sell things everywhere. From piles of stockings, winter gloves and scarves, to food stands (the waffle craze is going strong) you can’t travel anywhere without buying something. The stations are huge (some have as many as fourteen gates) and all are very clean. They also have toilets just inside the gates, its very conveninet. The urinals are stationed directly on the floor, meaning that unfortunately it’s possible to aim and miss.

Old vs new

Does traditional culture still exist in  modern Korea? Yes, you can find it if you know where to look. You can stay in a hanok (traditional Korean house) in the Bukchon area of Seoul. Girls dress up in hanoks (korean traditional dresses with voluminous and brightly cooloured skirts). The most popular Korean drama is currently Dokkaebi (and it cleverly sets itself in the past and present with a time travelling goblin played by Gong Yoo. Coffee has become extremely popular with several US imports (Starbucks, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, as well as Korean companies such as TOM N TOMS and Yoger Presso). I go to several but disappointingly they are all much the same. It is still possible however to go to a traditional Korean teahouse (tabang), where you can sit on the floor and drink various teas from beautiful Korean ceramics.


I had already primed myself for eating Korean food, and I have enjoyed many bottles of soju. But I wasn’t ready for the sheer amount of it. My first snack was grilled chicken, eaten standing up in the frozen streets near Jongno Samga station. In Busan, I eat the famous odeng (compacted fish cake on a stick) with a cup of fish broth. Everyhwhere in central Seoul you will see pojang machas, the tents that are run by seasoned men and women. I eat a plate of the sweetly spicy snack known as tteokbokki and I am instantly flooded with endorphins. Later in the university district of Hongdae I try a deep fried milyang hotdog on a stick (no bun) which costs WON 1,000, the equivalent of one dollar. If a stall has a long line, it’s usually good indicator of the quality. Korea is a fairly rule-based culture, but it seems you can do anything where selling food is concerned. I wonder why we can’t have the same thing in England, before realising that the red-tape and bureaucracy means that vendors can serve nothing more adventurous than burgers and ice-cream.

In the coastal town of Mokpo, I have some of the best food experiences of all. First, I visit a raw tuna restaurant. They serve different parts of the fish, which we roll up in thin layers of dried seaweed. I try the cheek and the liver, each part having its own different taste. We sit in a private room with curtains which are opened every few minutes by the waitress who has to crouch nearly to the floor to bring in new delicacies.


With so many places offering food and drink, it’s hard to find somewhere that only serves alcohol. Seoul has very few British style pubs. The one I went to was Cask, a wrong-headed attempt to make an upmarket pub, with table reservations and a beer sommelier. One beer here costs 8 dollars. Only a few minutes away I stumble across one of my best finds. Situated above a chicken restaurant and a karaoke room is a hof. I go alone, a daunting prospect. Luckily the barman sits down with me and shows me some drinking games. I try them out on a group of female students on one of the tables next to me and they are impressed enough to spend the next few hours drinking with me.

Whilst it’s rare for traditional Koreans to eat and drink alone, there is now a craze for solo dining and eating known as ‘honsul’ and ‘honbab’. Honsul Couple was also a recent Korean drama starring SHINee. There are even solo noraebang (karaoke) rooms for people who want to sing without the horror of others watching them. I tried one and it was a very liberating experience.

Random encounters


I believe that you should be able to go anywhere on your alone and meet up with someone, make friends. Sadly it doesn’t happen too much in London, where people are more concerned about themselves than other people. But I has several encounters where I met up with people in this way. When I left the girls at the hof, I walked into a pizza place and ate it at the table. Pretty soon I meet a bunch of Korean guys and we start talking. Then someone suggested going on to somewhere. That meant more food and drinking, the place being a yang gochi joint, and I got to try the latest Korean food trend, which is to rotate skewers of lamb over a charcoal barbecue.


What can I possibly say here? Except that – with or without plastic surgery – they are some of the best looking women you will find anywhere in the world. Whether young or old, fashionable or cute, they are all different but at their core they have something about them that is unmistakably Korean. When you approach them always be polite, friendly and respectful. I didn’t always get the best reaction, but it was always interesting.


With the popularity of British culture currently very high, Koreans are very interested in learning about England. I met several women who wanted to practise speaking English with me.



When a big new Korean film is released, everyone goes to watch it. A country smaller than the UK has a very healthy film industry. Recently released Crime thriller Master beat Star Wars to the number one slot at the box office. Its star is Lee Byung Hun, who recently appeared in the American film remake of the Magnificent Seven. I watch it at the luxurious cinema chain Megabox in Busan. Cartoons are also very popular, with Japanese anime Your Name currently topping the box office. In Seoul, I try a DVD room, a place where you can watch a DVD in a private screening room. I watch a Korean film Shinsegae (New World) which also happens to be the name of the country’s largest department store. It’s possibly the most violent Korean film I have watched.


K-pop has been the biggest thing in Asia for the last several years and shows few signs of slowing down. Not everyone loves it by any means and some Koreans hate it. When I was staying in Gangham, I found a Dunkin’ Doughnuts store right outside the offices of JYP Entertainment. I was surprised to see that most of the women waiting to catch a glimpse of their idols are middle-aged tourists from Japan. Right now the biggest acts in K-pop are the Korean/Taiwanese/Japanese girl group Twice and boy band 2PM. English music is also very poplar and it seems that Koreans love romantic ballads by Sting, The Bee Gees, and Ed Sheeran.


Politics and protest

Nowadays everyone must surely be aware of the political storm surrounding President Park Geun-hye. Even sub-zero temperatures couldn’t keep the protestors away from the streets of Seoul on the Saturday I visited. But away from the main pro-democracy protest calling for the President’s resignation, there was another protest defending the president against all the charges. The pro-park rally gathered outside Seoul Station, where they sang the National anthem and waved the Korean flag. There was a slightly sinister air about it. The old guard, who supported Park Chung Hee (dictator until 1979) obviously don’t want things to change.


The best of Korea

Here are some of the places I enjoyed visiting on my trip:

Bukchon Hanok village: I stayed here with Miho for three nights.

Busan, Seoul’s second city is only three hours away from Seoul by train. The food is different and the people speak with a different dialect. I found it to be very laidback and relaxed.





Why I don’t like Korea fans

What’s your passion? Is it an interest that you enjoy sharing with others or is it an activity that you pursue alone? Maybe you enjoy meeting up with people who also share your passion.

Or is it difficult to find someone who likes the same things as you? I am a huge fan of Korea and if I wanted to I could attend many meet-ups for fans of Korea. But I choose not to. Here’s why. I already know what I like about Korea. I’m not really interested in listening to what others have to say about it. Maybe they know more than I do, or maybe they don’t. But I know from painful experience that it can be frustrating to listen to others drone on about something which you care about. It’s also why I don’t enjoy book groups because I find myself disagreeing when ever someone shares their opinions on the book, or I can’t understand why they don’t like it for the same reasons I do.

That’s why I don’t bother attending any fan meet-ups that I see advertised on Facebook. I’m very happy watching Korean films whenever there is a festival, but I’m not interested in hearing what any non-Korean has to say about them. Sometimes a passion shared is a passion weakened.

I went to a Korean language class and it was terrible, because it was full of people talking about Korea but they didn’t know anything. If I want to learn about Korea I will do it by getting to know other Koreans. It’s the only way as far as I’m concerned.

This year, I will be visiting Korea for the first time. I heard that it’s really cold in winter. So maybe there will be fewer foreign tourists. Well, I can only hope…

Diary of a romance, part 9

It looks like this is not the last of these posts as I have responded to the high level of interest in this topic.

I have found that one downside to spending your time with someone is that people assume that you just want to be alone with them. Friends stop calling; the invitations dry up.

We’re doing just fine. I’ve booked a holiday in Berlin next month so that will be great. I’ve arranged to meet my friend Max who has promised to be our personal tour guide for the trip.

We watched a travel program showing us some of the amazing sights (such as the zoo with Panda Bear ‘Bao Bao’ and a Polar Bear called Cnut). Plus they have special tours of the Eastern part of the city in Trabant cars. Sadly, I’ve just read that both of these bears died a few years ago. I must start watching more up-to-date travel guides.

Bao Bao was the oldest Panda Bear to have been raised in captivity. Sadly, he died a few years ago.

What else? It’s nearly 100 days since we started seeing each other so that calls for some kind of celebration.  Suggestions welcome please!

Journey to Conversational fluency: e-book review

The founder of the blog Dedicated Polyglot has published an ebook in which she explains how using non-traditional methods of language learning can be more effective than textbooks and formal lessons.


Her book starts with the idea that learning a language is more about experiencing a country’s culture than simply learning grammar and sentence structure.

Most textbooks are a waste of time; it can take a lot of patience to wade through all the selections on the market. Classroom learning also gets the thumbs down because you only move as fast as the slowest learner. It can also be very expensive.

So what are language enthusiasts supposed to do? They can start by finding a language exchange partner through a website. It’s amazingly easy to do this and its an effective way for each party to improve their language ability. Plus, you may also gain a friend too. In my experience, keeping in touch through email or Skype has improved my fluency very well and has only been helped by careful use of google translate.

Most people give up on learning a language but if you experience an emotional response through another language this book argues that you will be more likely to persevere and stay the course.

One of Maria’s languages is Korean (and it just so happens that I am currently learning it myself) and she states that it has been through immersion in Korean media (cartoons and music) that she has managed to learn Korean. So called K-dramas, in particular, have enabled her to absorb much more korean. As she points out, once you have watched a few episodes of a particular drama, you will be familiar with some key vocabulary, since most of these shows emphasise strong feelings such as love and sadness.

It’s great that there are new perspectives on language learning. Through the blog and now this ebook I have realised my love of language learning, and particularly, learning Korean. Most surprisingly, it seems that learning a new language can actually cause a person to think differently. For example, when speaking English, Maria is more open-minded; whereas when she speaks Korean she feels more in tune with her emotions.

It’s a helpful book because it shows that there is more than one way to learn a new language. I’ll continue to learn Korean and I’ll continue to follow anything this language guru recommends in future.

Download Maria’s e-book from Amazon.

You can also read her blog at dedicated polyglot.com.


Why I am learning Korean

how-to-learn-koreanHere’s how I began my journey into learning Korean.

I’d always considered myself a poor language student. At school I learnt French from the age of 8 until 13. I barely got past the stage of being able to order an ice-cream. The languages on offer when I took my GCSEs were French, German and Spanish. I had no natural affinity for any of them. Inexplicably I chose to learn German. I never went to Germany, or had any German friends. It was useless. Since then, aside from picking up key phrases from the lonely planet guides of various Eastern European countries Continue reading Why I am learning Korean