Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Hutongs First

Because I’ve been to Beijing before, I haven’t felt the need to go back to sights I've seen, like Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, although John has been getting up early and doing most of that kind of sightseeing. Instead I’ve been catching up with people I know here and trying to see things I either haven’t seen before, or things that may not be around the next time I’m in Beijing, whenever that may be.

Yesterday John and I explored the hutongs a neighborhood that falls into both categories. A hutong is an alley, and I’d never visited this particular warren of them in the Xicheng District northeast of Tiananmen Square. Most of Beijing’s old hutong neighborhoods have been bulldozed and replaced with high-rise apartment buildings. This is probably a good thing for the residents who don’t have to live medievally anymore, but somewhat of a shame from a historical standpoint. Beijing is going through a building spasm right now to get ready for the 2008 Olympics. The authorities seem to be mostly leaving this system of hutongs alone, but only time will tell if it survives the wave of modernization.

John and I turned down the first alley we came to, and spent 45 minutes at a teashop that was only a few steps in. We realized quickly that we’d have to pace ourselves better, but it was worth it. The proprietress saw us admiring a wall full of ceramic tea mugs and spent the next half hour reeling us in gently. She had us sip cup after tiny cup of tea, including oolong, black tea with a sweet, smoky flavor far more complicated than any tea I’d ever tried before, and a brew made by dunking a ball of what looked like dried herbs in boiling water. After a few minutes, the ball opened up into a whole flower—a chrysanthemum, I think. I realized quickly that the $2.50 mugs were a loss leader and that the tea was where the profit was, but it all tasted so good that I didn’t mind. Almost an hour went by with our host praising my meager Chinese to the stars and caffeinating me to the breaking point. I did end up buying some of the black tea, which surprised even me because I’m really a coffee person. But somehow the storeowner had won me over and made me into a tea drinker in one morning.

Fueled by six different kinds of cha, John and I set out to explore further into the neighborhood. It was an appealing maze of twisting alleyways, which is a huge contrast to most of Beijing, which is laid out in an L.A.-style grid of long, wide, straight boulevards. I thought the best part of the day would be walking around the lake in the middle of the district, but the lake turned out to be lined with backpacker-friendly bars where happy hour started at 10am, and pan-Asian noodle houses that reminded John of places that catered to trekkers in Katmandu. There were also aggressive rickshaw drivers anxious to take us on tours of the neighborhood. They all knew only one word of English: “HELLO!,” barked at sea-lion volume, and if it didn’t get their attention, they would yell it louder and grab your arm to make sure you knew they were there. John knew two good tricks to get rid of them, though. The first is to simply break down and take a tour, which buys you an hour with nobody demanding you take his. We chose the second method, which was to rent bicycles. Most of the drivers understood that if we were on bikes we weren’t likely to abandon them to get in their cart, and we could outrun the few aggressive ones who persisted.

Bikes are also a good way to explore the alleys, and it was a joy to ride through narrow passageways and suddenly come out into a small hidden square containing a market and a two-table restaurant with the chef cooking skewers of meat on a tiny grill outside.

We got lost a few times, but that was part of the fun. Finally trudging back the way we’d come that morning, we got an enthusiastic wave and a hello from the tea lady, who seemed genuinely happy to see us again. We had a moment of appreciation for her and her soft-sell approach, and I hope that Beijing’s Olympic modernization drive includes an effort to rediscover a little bit of this kind of old-fashioned marketing.

Here's my Beijing photo gallery.

Past Meets Present

Let’s be honest: Beijing is not a beautiful city.

In fact, it’s dusty, gritty, grimy, polluted, and several other kinds of dirty that I can’t think of the words for just now. In addition, it’s crowded and has the most chaotic traffic I’ve ever encountered. (No, I haven’t been to your hometown, so yes, maybe your drivers are worse, but believe me, this is bad.) The pedestrian is at the absolute bottom of the pecking order, getting to cross the street only when every car, bike, scooter, motorcycle, truck, bicycle rickshaw, taxi, horse-drawn carriage, and pushcart driver who wants to run the red light has done so, To stroll Beijing is to risk death half a dozen ways, ranging from emphysema to being run over by a melon vendor.

But, Beijing is also a city of amazing sights that everyone should see once, and for me, it’s a place full of personal history that I’m glad to return to. I’ve revisited sights I remember from 1992, and connected with two people I am very happy to have seen. One is my host, Tim Pettus, who is the father of a good friend I met while studying Chinese in college. The other is a long-lost friend named Matt, who was my T.A. in freshman year Mandarin class. We’ve been in sporadic touch over the years, but I hadn’t seen him since he graduated from college in the summer of 1990. I remember Matt at 22, wearing jeans and a yellow hoodie that may have been the only warm garment he owned. The man who got out of the taxi cab was wearing a dress shirt and blazer, and carrying a briefcase, simultaneously paying the driver and checking in on his kids by cell phone. But I recognized him instantly, and we had a great time catching up over dinner with his family. He lives here now, having created a life for himself in the suburbs of Beijing. It was strange but beautiful to see someone I remember as a big kid with a house and kids of his own. It reminded me that while it may seem like little changes from day to day, 15 years of days can add up and somehow make you a grown-up without your even realizing it.

Here's my Beijing photo gallery.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Last Day

Pipi and I spent our penultimate evening in Pu Dong, the new area west of the Huang Pu River. This area was farmland until 1990, when plans for development were announced, and I don’t remember much of anything being there in 1992. Now, though, it’s a futuristic business center. Because it’s mostly office buildings, there isn’t a lot for a visitor to do, but it is interesting to walk around, and there are plenty of restaurants. It was already dark when we got there, and the buildings looked particularly surreal. The Pearl Orient tower, a combination TV tower and observation deck, looked like a rocket ship with its glowing purple spheres. Most buildings glowed brightly, even though everyone should already have gone home, but some were completely black, and I realized it was because they weren’t done yet. Everywhere you looked there were cranes, and because construction goes on 24 hours a day here, some of the empty black hulks had welders’ sparks pouring out of windows. It was a strange and eerie sight, but I guess that’s what it takes to put up a whole city in less than 15 years.

The next day Pipi and I spent walking the Old Town district, and the former French Concession. I remember finding the French district overrated in 1992. I had the worst cream puff of my life there (Crisco puff was more like it), and I realized there just wasn’t much French influence left there, for better or for worse. That’s still sort of the case, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone go out of his or her way to visit. Old Town, on the other hand, is very interesting. A lot of people there live somewhat like what we saw near the candy factory, and a lot of it has been renovated and preserved. There’s a section of the old city wall visible. It’s not very old, maybe mid 1800s, but in forward-looking Shanghai, that’s ancient.

In between the French Concession and Old Town is an area called Xin Tian Di, literally “new heaven and earth.” The area is essentially an upscale pedestrian shopping mall with an old Shanghai theme. The storefronts have been constructed (or restored, in many cases; this isn’t a complete sham) to mimic a style of building popular in the early 1900s. There are a lot of Western-style restaurants and cafes, and stores with American and European brands. The Chinese restaurants are pretty upscale, too; Jackie Chan owns a cafÈ in the mall. The restaurants and stores could have been plucked from an outdoor Southern Californian mall, but the architecture is authentically Asian. A small museum devoted to the architecture described Xin Tian Di as a place the Chinese find Western, Americans find foreign, the elderly consider nostalgic, and the young deem hip. In a sense, all of Shanghai is like this, and this mix of Eastern and Western consumer culture is probably something we all should get used to.

Shanghai photo gallery

Down the Rabbit Hole

Is there anyone else out there who likes White Rabbit candy as much as I do? They’re little Tootsie Roll-shaped candies, very chewy. They come wrapped in edible rice paper, and they’re very sweet. The basic flavor is like condensed milk, but you occasionally see mango and sometimes lychee flavor in the United States.

The wrappers on the American candies give a Shanghai address, so Pipi and I made a pilgrimage. The factory was a long walk from a metro stop. The street was easy to find but we didn’t think we’d ever get to the right number until finally I noticed that the high wall we were walking beside had strange little rabbit decorations on top. A few steps later, we realized we could smell the intoxicating scent of hot condensed milk and we knew we were in the right place.

We entered the gate and walked past a guardhouse, where there was a giant map of the complex, all in Chinese. We were allowed to look at that as long as we liked (not that it was much help), but as soon as we went a step further, the guard started yelling. I’m not sure what he said—something about capitalist running dog candy spies, maybe? At any rate, we sweetly explained that we were looking for White Rabbit. We meant the factory, not the candy, but he directed us to a doorway covered in plastic flaps near the main gate. It wasn’t the kind of doorway that said “Factory shop here.” It was more the kind of doorway that said “Here’s where the dangerous machinery is; keep out.” But in fact, it was a little factory store. The main counter inexplicably sold cigarettes, but in the back room, there were bags and bags of White Rabbit, in all kinds of flavors we’d never seen, including mint and yoghurt (both good) and red bean (not so much good).

Afterward, Pipi and I decided to walk around the perimeter of the factory. The front was on a busy street, but the back of it was flanked by a small, poor, crowded residential neighborhood. I saw some people watching TV, and Pipi swears she saw someone on a computer, but for the most part, it was a classic overcrowded Chinese city scene, with communal bathrooms, adults sitting around fanning themselves, and children toddling around wearing pants with a split down the back rather than diapers. It was pretty shockingly squalid, but I was almost relieved to see a glimpse of what I remember China being like after the Emerald City experience of downtown Shanghai.

What made the scene even more poignant was that our next stop was the Shanghai Center, a complex containing both a theater where acrobats perform (our reason for being there), and the Ritz Carlton hotel. Going from a neighborhood of filthy row houses to umpteen stories of opulence, built in a faux Chinese temple style, was a jarring juxtaposition. It made me wonder what elderly Shanghai residents, those old enough to remember the international concessions, think when they see white faces on the streets. Do they see visitors with an honest curiosity about their culture? Or do they see a second wave of Europeans flaunting their wealth and doing as they please?

Shanghai photo gallery

Friday, May 26, 2006

What We’ve Been up To

Pipi keeps asking me what I did when I was in Shanghai last, and the strange thing is, I can’t really remember. I remember walking along the Bund, Shanghai’s famous European-style main drag, and I remember multiple trips to a general-delivery post office to try to pick up an absentee ballot that never came (it’s harder than you might think to vote absentee in a Communist country). I barely even remember where I stayed, except that it was near a cigar factory, and that the bus that went there was always so crowded you couldn’t see out the windows—you just had to start pushing your way to the front as soon as you smelled tobacco. They’re probably still talking about the day I realized I’d never make the door in time and squeezed out a window instead.

Then again, maybe they aren’t. I can’t seem to remember any of my personal history in Shanghai, and the whole city seems to have a similar problem. There aren’t many signs of Shanghai’s history around. This is a city that is looking to the future. And in fact, the first sight we went to see was the Shanghai planning museum. This museum is essentially a big advertisement for a world expo that is being held in Shanghai in 2010, but it’s a really cool one. It’s full of interactive video and virtual reality exhibits showing how fast Shanghai is growing and how quickly it’s modernizing. It’s all spun very positively, but once you know what to look for, it’s hard to ignore the cranes and wrecking balls knocking down old apartment buildings so that new high-rises with plumbing and air conditioning can be built—not necessarily with the same tenants. (I’m not saying it’s good, I’m just saying it’s interesting.)

We also took a tour of Shanghai’s Jewish history, which sounds like a joke, but isn’t. Jewish real estate moguls built a lot of Shanghai’s famous hotels, like the Peace Hotel (seen in the movie Empire of the Sun). Later, the city sheltered tens of thousands of European Jews fleeing Europe in the 1930s. There’s not a lot of this history left, but you can see bits if you are shown where to look. We were taken to one alley in North Shanghai, for example, that was home to about 1500 Ashkenazi Jews. Today, everyone there is Chinese, but if you look closely, you can still see nail holes in each doorway where a mezuzah (a tiny box holding a Hebrew prayer scroll) once was. It’s very moving, and a little chilling, but still, this story is still a lot happier than that of most Jewish families of the time.

Don’t worry; we’ve done a lot of fun things, too. We took a cruise up the Huang Pu River to the place where it meets the Yangzi River. We shopped Nanjing Lu and discovered the fine art of haggling while shopping for artwork. (The dramatic man who sold Pipi the scroll swore we’d talked him down so far his boss would punish him, but we left before the beatings began.) We made a pilgrimage to the White Rabbit candy factory. We saw the Shanghai Museum, said to be the best museum in China, and I guess I agree even though the coin exhibit was closed for “inner re-arrangement.” I walked around People’s Park early in the morning and watched elderly people start their day by doing Tai Chi as well as badminton and ballroom dancing.

We’ve also eaten ourselves silly, of course. We’ve made discoveries ranging from Shanghai’s trademark Xiaolongbao, which are broth-filled pork dumplings that I think I could eat every day for the rest of my life, to McDonald’s taro pie. Almost every day I have a pork bun for breakfast, unless I have a greasy egg pancake. I missed out this morning, though, because I slept until the outrageous hour of 7:30, when Shanghai is beginning to think about lunch. So it was croissants for Pipi and me. Tough day. At lunch, Pipi and I decided to splurge and go to a famous old restaurant. The food was great—crab dumplings and the best bok choi ever—but the ambiance was so weird we left before dessert. The whole time we were eating the staff were yelling back and forth to each other and throwing plates around setting up for dinner. It made us long for the florescent-lit lunch counters we’d been thinking we needed a break from.

Next up: The French area of Shanghai, Old Town, and Pu Dong, an entire city that has sprung up across the river from Shanghai in the time between my visits.

Shanghai photo gallery

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Fractured English

I had always been told that Japan is the world capital of fractured English slogans and t-shirts. Having been to China, I found that hard to believe, and now, having been to both, I am willing to take a stand: China makes the world’s weirdest t-shirts and billboards. Japan may have cornered the market on non-grammatical and charmingly malapropish English phrases (Pocari Sweat sports drink, for example), but China has the monopoly on the just plain weird. For example, I had only been in the country a matter of hours when I saw a middle-aged man at the airport meeting a flight wearing a t-shirt that said “Lesbians Taught Me.” (And believe me, I was dying to see the party he was waiting to meet.)

Later Pipi and I saw a teenaged boy near People’s Park (and within walking distance of the site of the first Chinese communist party meeting) wearing a shirt that said “Commies Aren’t Cool,” and I wonder if we were the only ones who saw the irony in that.

Shanghai photo gallery

Shanghai Surprise

I had a minor anxiety attack on the plane circling Shanghai when suddenly it hit me that I would, in a matter of moments, be back in China. As much as I enjoyed and appreciated my experience backpacking here in 1992, the country also exhausted and exasperated me, and I wondered what in the world I was thinking, not just returning to my personal Waterloo but also dragging along someone I love.

Almost from the second I landed, though, I realized I was in a completely different place. Sometimes, in fact, I wonder if I didn’t get on the wrong plane and end up in, I don’t know, Singapore, maybe. So little is familiar. I miss some of the charming old aspects, like sidewalk tailor stands, and old people shuffling around in blue jackets and caps. And I’m not crazy about all the new developments, like traffic jams and beggars. But for the most part China seems to have taken an enormous (perhaps even great) leap forward. When I was here last, China seemed to be in an awkward adolescent phase, trying really hard to be something it wasn’t ready to be. In 14 years, it’s grown up a lot, and it’s still tripping over its own feet a little, but it’s easy to see what it’s going to be like when it’s a fully grown modern city.

Actually, it’s really just about there. It has most of the trappings of a Western city: Shopping malls, a subway system, Starbucks, skyscrapers, even a Ferrari dealership. Many of the old, backward customs seem to have fallen by the wayside: Nobody spits on the street anymore, and I just realized recently that nobody stares, either. The gawking and the constant chorus of “hello, now we practice English” used to drive me bonkers, but I don’t get a second glance now. The novelty of blue eyes in Shanghai seems to have finally worn off.

It’s not just the skyline and mucus management techniques that have changed, though. The country just seems fundamentally more welcoming. I used to have a stock spiel I would give when someone asked me what was difficult about traveling in China. I would say how in a communist country (and one with no tipping, at that) there was no incentive for anyone to give good service. I would complain about how foreigners were seen as there to be milked for their perceived fortunes (the practice of charging visitors double the Chinese entrance price has fallen by the wayside, too). But now I feel terrible about every bad thing I said about China during its peevish development years.

I keep thinking of a time during my first visit when I was homesick and I passed a long-distance telephone office. I thought how nice it would be to call home. So I went in, and found four women behind a counter playing cards. There was nothing else in the room except for three telephone booths, all inexplicably barricaded off from the rest of the room by a wall of sandbags four feet high. It was hard to get the attention of any of the women, but finally I managed to get one to tear herself away from her card game long enough that I could tell her I wanted to make a phone call. “Phone call?” she snapped incredulously, “To make a phone call, you need to go to the bus station.” That seemed odd, but who knew more about long-distance phone calls than someone who worked at the phone office? So I got on another bus and went to the main station. When I got there and asked about making an international call, they looked at me the way someone might look at you if you went to your local AT&T office and asked when the next bus to New York was leaving. There was no hope of getting what I wanted there. I’d been had by someone who just didn’t want to help me.

Contrast that with the last 24 hours here, when Pipi and I seemed hell-bent on self-sabotage, but were saved from ourselves every time. First I overpaid for dinner by 10 kuai (about 25 cents) and a waitress chased me down and gave me the extra bill back. Then I left an umbrella at a café in a museum, and they found someone to make an announcement about it in English over the loudspeaker. The next morning, Pipi and I were waiting in the lobby of the Peace Hotel for a tour we’d signed up for to begin when a Chinese man sidled up to me and asked my name in broken English. At first I thought he wanted to know if I was part of the tour group, but then I noticed he had Pipi’s credit card in his hand—she’d left it in the ATM outside, and this man had taken it upon himself to ask the name of every wai guo ren in the lobby until he found a match. Getting out of a cab in the afternoon, I dropped my sunglasses in the street and didn’t even notice until I heard a traffic cop yelling “Hello, hello” over and over again. When I finally looked, he made the international finger-circle-around-the-eyes gesture for glasses and pointed to mine lying in the street. When he realized I was a slow-moving foreigner, too frightened to dart into the endless stream of rush-hour bikes and kamikaze cars, he waded into the traffic himself, then came all the way across the intersection to give my sunglasses back to me. It’s true that he had his traffic cop status to protect him—I think in just about any culture you’re in serious trouble if you run over the guy who’s supposed to be protecting people from getting run over—but still, I couldn’t believe someone would risk his life to help someone who isn’t doing a very good job of helping herself. Something has changed in China, and while maybe not all of it is good, it’s definitely making the country an easier place to visit.

Shanghai photo gallery

Sunday, May 21, 2006


After arriving in Tokyo, John, Daisuke, Kazuko, and I went directly to the main thing we’d come to see: the annual Sanja festival. Sanjen means “three gods,” The festival is a Shinto celebration of three deities that seem to be the particular favorites of the residents of the Asakusa neighborhood, This area is the closest Tokyo, mostly a sprawling modern city, has to a gothic quarter. It too is full of the post-WWII tile and glass boxes you find everywhere, but somehow the area survived both the war as well as the great earthquake of 1923 better than the rest of the city. It wasn’t all built from scratch in the 1950s, and there are lots of traditional wooden buildings and a few grand temples that still exist.

The festival itself was a surreal affair. It was easily the most flamboyant and fun religious festival I’ve ever attended. The Sanja Masuri neighborhood residents parade around dozens of gilded portable shrines. Each one weighs about a ton. It’s carried by men and women dressed in period costume, this period being the Edo period, from the early 1600s to the mid-1800s. For women that means a robe and leggings, and children wear cute smock-like garments and headbands. (“Everyone looks like a sushi chef today,” said Daisuke.) Grown men, however, wear a short robe and not much else—just a sumo wrestler-style undergarment. It takes some getting used to to see these guys, who on any other day wouldn’t dream of wearing shorts in public, not even wearing pants.

Groups of people dressed like this carry around the shrines, parading them through the neighborhood, They are quite boisterous when they do this, chanting in an exaggerated manner and keeping the shrine moving not just forward, but in a rolling up-and-down motion, too, like it’s a groom at a Jewish wedding. I later found out that back in the day, Asakusa used to be Tokyo’s theater district, so the showmanship makes sense.

After the parade, Daisuke and Kazuko headed home, and John and I grabbed our luggage out of the locker we’d stored it in and went to our hotel. Called the Homeikan, it’s about 100 years old, and started life as a boarding house for nearby Tokyo University. It’s a traditional Ryokan style building, with heavy wood, tatami floors, futon mattresses, and a bathroom down the hall.

It was here that I got my first real taste of the intensive Japanese slipper experience: When you check into the hotel, you leave your shoes on a shelf in the lobby and put on one of dozens of pairs of waiting slippers. You wear these to the door of your room, but not a step farther. When you enter the room, you leave your hallway slippers outside and pad around your room in your socks.

If you should want to use the bathroom, you put your hallway slippers back on and walk to the lav. But there you have to abandon your hallway slippers and step into a pair of bathroom slippers, waiting for you just inside the bathroom door. When you’re done, and this is crucial, you step out of the bathroom slippers and back into hallway slippers, At your room of course, you have to remember to take your slippers off before you enter. I’m glad the hotel is sparsely booked today, because I’m having a lot of trouble with this. I understand the system; it’s just that the slippers are so comfortable and natural that I’m having a hard time being mindful of my feet—I completely forget what I’m wearing the second they’re on. Which in a way is good because I don’t love the idea of wearing communal shoes, even with socks.

After dinner, I went by myself to the Shinjuku district. This is the neighborhood where the movie Lost in Translation took place, and it’s the neighborhood that looks most like I expected. When I got to Tokyo, I was surprised to see that most of it is low and drab. I expected it to be a 21st century maze of neon-lit skyscrapers, but in fact, that’s really only to be found in Shijuku, which is half Tokyo’s business center, and half an entertainment capital. It was a lot like I expected, with Times Square-like neon and thick crowds flowing in and out of video arcades and pachinko parlors. It was interesting, but the sight of so many people having so much fun when I was all alone and barely understood what was going on was a little alienating and put me in a little bit of a funk, so I went home pretty quickly and made a long trans-pacific phone call. Pipi couldn’t be showing up at a better time.

Hakone Area

Today John and Daisuke and I got up early and took the train to the town of Odawara, where Daisuke’s sister and mother live. This town is on the edge of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, which is, as you might guess, the home of Mt. Fuji. Ironically, though, it turns out that the closer you get to Fuji-San, the harder it is to see because mist and mountains block your view. Actually, John says one of the best views is from the beach in Hayama, where he lives.

The Sano family owns a fish-cake factory, and on the way into town we stopped by and said hello to the family, who were still at work. I got to try a fish cake. It was sort of like gefilte fish, and sort of like those processed chicken cutlets you get in school cafeterias. Not bad. What was bad was a treat Daisuke’s sister had just brought back from Okinawa. It was an individually packaged serving of tofu fermented with yeast, called Tohuyou. It looked like a little cube of pate smothered in ketchup, and it smelled like miso paste (so far so good), but it tasted like vegemite, which itself tastes like a salted barnyard, so not so good.

From there John and Daisuke and I went to the grandest hotel in the Hakone area (in fact, it’s one of the grander hotels in Japan), called the Fujiya. It was built starting in 1878, and is an imposing building constructed in a heavy beamed, Craftsman style. (Or so it seemed to me—I know the Craftsman style was actually borrowed from Japan.) Every celebrity in the world seems to have stayed there, from Mark Twain and Helen Keller to John Lennon. (And I’m thinking that would have been quite a dinner party.) Lunch was very continental, with a beef fillet, grilled whole fish, consommé, and crème caramel, served by slick-haired waiters in Tuxedos who looked like they came straight out of Shanghai in 1930.

After that, we saw the town’s other main attraction: hot springs. Japan, like New Zealand and Iceland, has thousands. This particular one was mostly outdoors, with hot but relatively unscented mineral water (no sulfur fumes) spilling over rocks and into big pools about 3 feet deep. Except that it was single sex (the guys had their own area), it reminded me a lot of Orr Hot Springs in Ukiah—another situation where I realize this is the original. I knew the Japanese like their bathwater extremely hot, so I was nervous, but I’m guessing this wasn’t much over 100 F. I was able to stay in a while. It was relaxing, and I pretty quickly forgot that I was stark naked in the company of some of the most etiquette-obsessed people on earth. Everyone relaxed, chatted, washed each other (it’s considered extremely rude to take a bath without being completely clean to start with) and just generally seemed to forget that they were Japanese. Or so it seemed to me, although of course the public bath is one of the older rituals in Japan, and the experience is actually a quintessential Japanese ritual.

I’m glad I didn’t swear of Okinawan food, however, because the other thing Daisuke’s sister brought back from her trip there was some of the best pork I’ve ever had in my life. Okinawa is justly famous for the meat, and it was delicious. We ate it for dinner, along with vegetables and noodles boiled in a hot pot, in a dish called nabe.

Next: Nicole conquers Tokyo.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Today was rainy, so we just took a quick trip by car down the Izu Peninsula in the morning, culminating in the discovery of a great Chinese restaurant a few miles south of Hayama. (Even the Japanese don’t eat Japanese every day.) The highlight for me, though, was stopping at a gas station, and seeing station attendants bowing to patrons. I wish this happened at home--when I pay $35 to fill up my little car, I might appreciate a little bow myself.

After lunch, John drove us to the town of Enoshima. This town is on an island separated from Kamakura by about 100 yards of water. It’s a little on the tacky side, which was interesting to see. I didn’t think the Japanese did tacky, but they do in fact have plastic trinkets representing extinct parts of their culture just like we do. They show things like Samurai swords instead of cowboy iconography, but it’s the same idea. Enoshima did have two fancy hot springs and was apparently the site of the yachting portion of the 1964 Olympic games, but aside from that, I guess I have to say it wasn’t a banner sightseeing day. (We really only went there to pick up flyers about the spas.)

On the way home, thogugh, we stopped at a junk shop in Zushi that was overflowing with beat-up shoji screens, multi-drawered Japanese bureaus needing refinishing, nearly complete sake-cup sets, used kimonos, Godzilla cigarette lighters, and other detritus of daily Japanese life. It was far and away the most culturally illuminating part of the day. A slack-jawed boy who had been playing catch with his buddy the whole time we browsed (“so much for the workaholic stereotype,” John said under his breath) sold me an abacus, which I will have to ask Daisuke how to use.

Dinner was another eye-opener. John and I walked to the port area of Hayama, which is a formerly funky, quickly gentrifying part of town. All the places we wanted to eat were closed for some reason, though, so, starving, we found ourselves in front of a Denny’s, and decided to go in.

John had been before, so he knew what to expect, but I was completely unprepared for a Japanese Dennys. Except for the color scheme and the modest prices, almost nothing was familiar. Beer was served. Waiters bowed. Waves broke against the beach right outside the restaurant. The menu was almost completely Japanese favorites (I had pork stir-fried with ginger, for example), and portions were small.

And no, I don’t know if you get a free meal on your birthday. I didn’t have the vocabulary to ask.

Today's photos

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Big in Japan

Today’s main objective was to see the Daibutsu, the Big Buddha of Kamakura. It’s a bronze statue, 30 feet high, constructed in 1252. It’s hollow, and for an extra 20 Yen--about 18 cents--you can go inside.

There are easy ways to get there, including buses and a small local train, but my father is fond of saying that sometimes the hard way is the easy way. This always seemed like a kind of koan to me, so I thought it might apply. I’m pretty sure, though, that we really did pick the hard way. We took a hiking trail that claims to only be 3 kilometers long, but it seemed a lot longer. It was hilly and muddy and flanked by steep drop-offs that reminded me that I’m not in the litigious United States any more. It was also beautiful, passing by various shrines and temples, including one that was a sort of 13th-century women’s shelter. (Women couldn’t get divorced legally, but if they spent 3 years living at this temple, they were declared divorced by local authorities.) We saw lots of torii gates, lots of altars, and lots of people actively praying and making offerings.

After all the walking we did on the trail and in the town of Kamakura, we needed to collapse for a while after lunch, but later in the day we went to a shrine near John’s house in Zushi. It’s a Shinto shrine, right on the water, and it has a haunting Torii gate on a small set of rocks far out to sea. I think the idea is to provide a gateway to the shrine to anyone coming from the water. A number of sculptures are on the shore, and it’s tempting to guess that the people who built it were fishermen looking for protection from the Pacific. Now, however, the only thing anyone on this stretch needs protecting from is all the dogs being walked on the sand. It’s very peaceful and a visit is a nice way to wind down a scurrying-around kind of day.

Here is my photo gallery from today.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

First Day

Today, John and I visited Kamakura, a few JR train stops from Hayama. Kamakura is usually described as a good day-trip from Tokyo, but there’s enough to do that it would be better to spend the night. John and I have the luxury of spending three whole days only a few minutes away, so we’re not breaking our necks to see everything. John of course has seen most of this before, but he hasn’t photographed everything he wants to yet, so in a way it’s new to him, too.

We first went to the Hachimangu Shrine, which is at the end of a long, narrow, cherry-tree lined pedestrian walkway. Like all Shinto shrines, it has an enormous Torii gate (wooden, red, with a double crossbar) in front of it. It’s a popular spot for school trips, and it was hard to get photos without little yellow-hatted ducklings all over the place. A few tried out “hellos” on us, but it was refreshing to be in Asia and not feel like a Bigfoot sighting.

The next stop was the Hase Kannon temple, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the goddess of Mercy. The statue of her is 30 feet high and has 11 heads. And it’s 1200 years old. What really makes this temple interesting (I was going to say “unique,” but John says this is actually common) is that the grounds are covered with statues of Jizo. According to John’s partner, Jizo was originally considered a sort of patron saint of travelers, but somehow the concept got caught up in the idea of life being a journey, and now Jizo is known as the guardian of children. At this particular temple, however the statues are left in honor not just of any children, but specifically to remember miscarried or stillborn children. The atmosphere isn’t morbid, but it is solemn, and it’s just another reminder that I’m in a very different kind of place.

On a lighter note, we had lunch at a soba noodle restaurant in the hills overlooking Kamakura. The restaurant, called Raitei, is in a 400-year-old wooden building that used to be a private home in Yokahama (how they ever got it up the hill, which a bus could barely navigate, is beyond me). As if that wasn’t cool enough, the garden surrounding the building is great for walking. I’m not normally a garden kind of gal, but this garden is not centered around the foliage. It’s pretty overgrown, but it hides all sorts of sculptural surprises, and you feel like Indiana Jones when you explore and suddenly find a nest of stone bodhisattvas half reclaimed by vines.

SO far Jizo must be looking out for me, because it’s been a great first day, with no serious jet lag and a lot of really interesting sights.

Here's a link to some photos of the things I've been talking about.


I arrived in Tokyo in one piece after a flight unremarkable except for five minutes of terrifying, dinner-tray throwing turbulence. At the airport, I got myself on a train bound for Hayama, the town where John lives, about 2 ½ hours from Narita airport. The town is only about one hour outside of downtown Tokyo, however, making Hayama a far-flung Tokyo bedroom community. It’s very pleasant, just outside of the greater Tokyo urban sprawl zone, and it’s on the beach. Apparently there are great views of Mt. Fuji from the waterfront, but it’s been cloudy, so I haven’t seen this for myself.

I’d been in Japan for less than 12 hours when I committed the worst faux pas possible in Japanese culture: I was sitting at the breakfast table when I realized I was still wearing bathroom slippers. Luckily Daisuke, John’s partner, wasn’t awake yet and John thought it was funny.

Monday, May 15, 2006

At the Airport

A rare Sunday blog entry—I’m at the gate as I type, and don’t know when I’ll be online again. I just spoke to my father on the phone, and he asked me if I thought I had everything I need. I said I thought so, but that if I didn’t, there wouldn’t have been room for it anyway. I packed densely, but not lightly. Everything fit in a small internal frame pack that doubles as a duffel bag, and a smaller day-pack. Which is good news, except that each weighs about 30 pounds. Luckily, a lot of it is made up of some pretty impractical gifts I’ve brought for ex-pats I’m going to impose upon along the way. Gifts include a bottle of champagne, four pounds of lentils (seriously; apparently these are hard to find in Japan), two pounds of coffee beans, and a ceramic jug of maple syrup.

The next time I travel, everyone’s getting gift certificates.

Interestingly, everyone keeps asking me what I’m packing. I find this odd, since I think I’ve pretty clearly demonstrated a complete obliviousness to what constitutes normal clothing choices. Whenever I am in Europe, for example, I am invariably addressed first in German, no matter what country I’m actually in. I’d like to think it’s my blue eyes and pink cheeks. But I know it isn’t. I know it’s my choice in footwear.

So asking me for packing advice is a little bit like asking a guy sleeping in a doorway wearing three hats what vintage you should take to a dinner party. But since people seem to want to know:

  • 2 pairs of long pants
  • 1 pair of ez-wash shorts
  • 5 solid-colored t-shirts
  • 1 workout t-shirt
  • 1 button-down short-sleeved shirt
  • 1 sweatshirt
  • 10 pairs of socks, assorted black and white
  • 1 bathing suit
  • pjs
  • gym shorts
  • sneakers
  • casual walking shoes
  • Tevas
  • 10 pairs unmentionables
  • Laptop
  • camera
  • cellphone
  • chargers
  • cables
  • 6 months worth of backlogged magazines
  • 4 guidebooks (2 Trans-Siberian, 1 Shanghai, one Japan)
  • The Kite Runner
  • An absurd amount of toiletries (six week’s worth) so I am not reduced to having to buy Darkie toothpaste while I’m away.
  • Also a jar of Woolite
  • Assorted other gifts and trinkets, which I will be glad to be rid of. Sometimes giving really does feel good.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Five Days and Counting

This is another quote I can’t verify, not that I haven’t tried. Maybe I made it up, but I don’t think so. I am sure that somewhere I read a quote by Anne Morrow Lindberg where she was reflecting on how the eve of a trip feels. She did like to travel, and was always happy once the trip was really underway, but she said that just before departure, the thought of leaving made her feel like a little snail that someone is attempting to peel from her rock. (I guess we know now why Charles left her at home that time he flew to Paris.)

I’m feeling a little snailish myself right now. I know I’ll be excited once I touch down in Tokyo, but right now? Barnacle city. I feel like I’m still stuck to this rock, and will be until I finish an impossible amount of reading, write an impossible number of pitches, and tie up an impossible number of last-minute details. It may take archeological tools to detach me from my apartment and get me on the plane.

Of course, once I’m on the plane, it will be too late to get any of the trip preparation stuff done. Nothing to do then but relax and watch the movie.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Home Stretch

One last arrangement made: Shanghai hotel reservations. We’re living a little dangerously here. We decided we liked a hotel called the Yangtze Hotel, a big art deco building close to everything. But we’ve read mixed reviews. Some say it’s great, some say construction makes it a nightmare. So I purposely picked a less expensive room, because the descriptions for these rooms don’t boast about the view of Nanjing Lu, the noisy street. I also reserved a room for just one night, hoping we’ll be able to stay all week if we like it. It’s got to beat the hostel next to a cigar factory that I stayed in in 1992

Thursday, May 04, 2006

More Devilish Details

The last time I traveled in Asia was 1992. Laptops were the size of carry-on wheelie bags. Digital cameras were the stuff of wide-eyed futuristic predictions (“By 2005, people will carry their photo albums in their pockets. And they’ll be able to fax copies to each other using only their minds!”) Nobody could imagine ipods then. So I honestly couldn’t tell you what a Chinese electrical plug looks like—I never needed to use one. (Although I could tell you every place to buy Walkman batteries from Beijing to Urumqi.)

Now, however, things are different. In a way, that’s good. If, for example, we were for some reason to get a new president, I wouldn’t have to go four days without knowing who it was. (This really happened to me during a ferry trip up the Yangtze River.) Now I could call, e-mail, or probably even download a podcast to find out the news. (Not that I would. I’m over 30; this is enough of a stretch.) But all that takes electronics, and electronics means chargers, and chargers, in Asia, means adaptors. Lots of adaptors.

I’ll be traveling through four countries, so I was imagining carrying a whole suitcase full of voltage converters and plug adaptors. But I found a nifty little device that takes care of the problem. It looks like a big old-fashioned three-prong plug, but it’s got various prongs hidden inside it, which slide out as needed. I’m not explaining that well--here’s a picture. It’s pretty clever. It can be set to fit plugs in 150 countries, including three of the four I’ll be in.

So don’t expect me to IM you from Mongolia. But everywhere else, we’re good to go.