But then, I'm sure they're something like puppies and babies - they get big. And let's face it, we were all much cuter when we couldn't walk. :)
Monday, June 30, 2008
But then, I'm sure they're something like puppies and babies - they get big. And let's face it, we were all much cuter when we couldn't walk. :)
Actually, they use face masks to mask the aromas of Hong Kong. I expected the smell in Tokyo, but apparently they've got some smell control measures in place (I'm thinking ginormous Glade freshners in the sewers). However, Hong Kong is making up for the lack of smell I've thus far experienced. It's like decades of decay with layers of mildew as the city can't possibly ever dry off. And the open air meat markets (they chop it off the bone right then and there for you) definitely add to the aroma.
And I'll probably be talking about this for the next four weeks, but this is the single most warm and humid climate I have ever experienced. Today Jess and I went downtown to explore our new city, and about five minutes into it, I was ready to rip my clothes off (see this post for details on my toleration of heat).
It started to rain a bit, and I was like, "Thank heaven for this acid rain - it sure is nice and cool."
Sunday, June 29, 2008
So what we didn’t tell you about arriving in Hong Kong is that the whole “we” part of the arriving is what was important. You see, on Friday night, I decided I’d do a little reading about Hong Kong, and for whatever reason, clicked on the Customs button, where I learned that to enter Hong Kong, one needs a passport that is valid for at least six months after the departure date.
We leave July 30. Jess’ passport expires September 15. That's a big ol' month and a half for those of you who aren't counting, not quite close to six months.
The other secret is that as much as we loved the internship and Tokyo, the real reason for the summer is this extra schooling, which will offload his course load for the next two years, as his dual degree is seriously plaguing him with credit requirements. If we missed out on this schooling part, it was going to make for two jam packed years.
We considered getting me to Hong Kong while he stayed in Tokyo to sort things out, but I sort of had a mental breakdown at the thought. (And when I say “sort of,” I mean full blown.) So we said lots of prayers, crossed our fingers, and headed to the airport.
There were two hurdles: (1) Get past the airline ticket agent - they aren’t supposed to allow anyone to fly without the six month cushion, and in Japan, you do everything by the book, and (2) Make it through Hong Kong’s Customs.
At the gate, our ticket agent took Jess’ passport, read every word, running her finger under each line, paused at the date of expiration, then handed his passport back. Then they gave us Executive Priority Boarding and two free passes into the American Airlines lounge, where I stocked up on free Crunky chocolates and drank Sprite to my heart’s content.
Don’t ask questions.
Then came Customs. Jess handed his passport to the little lady behind the glass. She kept humming the song that she had started before Jess arrived, gave the passport a once over, stamped it, and shuffled him through.
It was that easy. So we’re in Hong Kong, where I swear my fingers are actually turning prune like. I’m not exaggerating either about the wetness, as I know I’m wont to do. Jess removed the lens cap from his camera, and the lens instantly fogged over. And our windows are dripping with condensation, much like our faces after we’ve taken ten steps.
But it’s a new world, and it should be fun. We’re just grateful we made it here together, and with such ease.
And I seriously enjoyed the Sprite.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
So we head off to Hong Kong this morning. And first of all, I just wanted to note that I actually do do my hair occasionally, which this picture illustrates. Granted, within roughly 30 minutes of this shutter snap, my hair was pinned back and on top of my head. But still - I have moments that my appearance is reminiscent of my former self.
We're staying in the dorms at the University of Hong Kong, so I'm assuming they've got wireless Internet floating around. In any case, I'll find a way to keep you all updated on our adventures.
I've loved Tokyo. It practically breaks my heart to leave. But I'm so grateful for how wonderful it was.
Get ready Hong Kong - here we come. And Hong Kong, you better have some decent bread, or you're going to hear from me.
Friday, June 27, 2008
So some of you might remember that song when Baz Luhrmann gives the class of 1999 (my class) his best advice. You know: "If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it." Click here for the lyrics (go find "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) online if you've forgotten it or never heard it - it's pretty fun).
So I was thinking about that song for some reason, and started thinking about the advice I'd give if someone I knew were coming to Tokyo tomorrow. So I started writing it down. And I decided to post it, not only for the benefit of hypothetical future travelers, but because as I jotted these things down, I realized that I'd really done it. I conquered Tokyo, and even more so, I conquered my fear.
It isn't a secret that I was pretty apprehensive about this whole thing. But it's been a wonderful experience, and it's made me more brave, more grateful, and more sure of the important things. So here's my advice.
"I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proven by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now..."
1. Pack an umbrella. Make sure it's small and slim to fit in your tourist bag (bring one of those too - just accept that you're a foreigner, and tote the necessities - Kleenex, antibacterial, camera, umbrella - you'll thank me later). The umbrella will save at least one day. And possibly your marriage.
2. If you see a Mister Donut, go in. Order an Almond de Pan (or four). They're really different, and it might take a bite or two, but they're delicious. Also, they have purchase points, so if you ask for a card (it might take some pointing and miming) - you can accrue points for cool prizes for all the doughnuts you consume. And it really is great incentive to keep consuming when all is said and done.
3. If you see a Krispy Kreme, go in. You'll have to wait in line here (probably about 30 minutes), but the free doughnut that they literally pull off the doughnut conveyor belt and place into your hands is worth it. And so will the dozen or two doughnuts you are then conned into buying as you stand in line thinking about how amazing it was when that free doughnut melted on your tongue.
4. Do visit the convenience stores. There's always a row of pastries - try lots of them. The Swiss Roll is always a winner. And the small bread balls with chocolate filling are surprisingly delicious. Don't get the one that looks like a chocolate chip sweet roll - it has mayo in it. And avoid the red bean paste - it's a sweet bean, and it's not that bad, but our American tongues just don't prefer it. And don't forget to buy bread - the six slice loaf is my preferred thickness of bread (they come in 8, 6, or 4 slices). Do buy lots of bottled drinks - they're too good to ignore and too easy to pass up with a vending machine always in view. Try Calpis, Pocari Sweat, Mitsuya Cider, C.C. Lemon, and Lemon Vitamin Water.
5. Don't drink or eat the strange green drinks or foods. I don't mean salad or veggies or the things we're used to. But liquid, ice cream, cookies - they'll look really good, probably like mint chocolate. But it's green tea. They're huge on the green tea - half of the vending machine is green tea. You can ask for water at restaurants, but they tend to forget. Get used to drinking after dinner. :)
6. If you're crunched for time, try and fit in these tourist destinations:
- The Imperial Palace: Especially if you enjoy running or walking, it's a great three mile loop. But even more, it's a beautiful, somehow reassuring, plot of land. You can feel history seeping out its walls and into your skin. Be sure to visit the East Gardens - it's the portion of the inner Palace that you can actually visit. But take note - it's only open Tuesday through Thursday. Be sure to take your camera.
- Meiji Shrine: If you know what you're looking for, you can actually find a shrine within minutes of almost any location. But before they all start to look the same, visit my favorite. It's grand, beautiful, and peaceful, and is missing the commercial facade that some of the shrines have taken on.
- Nikko: If you have time for a day trip, head to Nikko. It's about two hours away by train, but it is absolutely worth it. It's unlike any other scenery you'll see in Tokyo. You get to ride through Japan's rice field country and end in what feels like a mountain resort, without the resort part. It's an old, quaint, little town with what have been deemed the most "elaborate" (some say gaudy) shrines in Japan built into the mountain, surrounded by lush and deep forest. It's a breath of fresh mountain air.
-Takeshita Dori: Takeshita is a great place for some affordable Tokyo shopping. (Any department store will be beyond any Nordstrom price tag you've ever seen.) Takeshita is home to the Harajuku kids and tourists a plenty. You can find super cute clothes, shoes and jewelry (as well as not so super cute, but fun to laugh at), and some excellent Japanenglish shirts. There's also a four story dollar store here (called Daiso) that is an experience all by itself.
- Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Nagoya: We did this in 3.5 days, but with the convenient speed of Japan's Shinkansen (bullet train), it is well worth it. (Be sure to order a Japan Rail Pass before you come to Japan - it's a train pass that's good for one week and will save you literally hundreds of dollars if you do traveling like this.)
7. Do bring decent shoes. If you're walking miles every day with a couple pieces of cardboard strapped to your feet, you're going to start feeling it (believe me). Speaking of walking - do lots of it if you have time. Sometimes I'd have a general destination, but I'd just wander for a while until I found it. There are so many things to see in this beautiful country, and doing it by foot is just about the right speed.
8. Do try using a squatter. Why? It'll build character and extremely good quad strength. For an adventure, use one on a moving train. Enjoy the smell. And don't pay attention to your shoes sticking to the floor.
9. Do enjoy a vending machine dinner, particularly curry with pork cutlet (I bet if you don't like pork [like me] you'll like this pork). It's seriously so handy, and it's a kick in the pants. And don't be afraid to go to McDonald's at least once - I wouldn't overdo it, but it really is so yummy and different than the States. And they're really used to foreigners - they're flipping the Japanese menu over to the English side before you can blink. I'm told the shrimpburger is delicious (for real), but I just really love the cheeseburger. Oh, and they also have a secret drug in their Grape Fanta. Try it.
10. Don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself. If you have a question, ask. They're almost always more than happy to help (there are some cranky pants, but for the most part), and the good news is that you'll never see these people again, so be as foolish as you want. Also, these are the people who are making total fools of themselves every morning during rush hour, cramming their smelly bodies into the crevice of your arm pit, just so they don't have to wait for the next train. We all have our moments.
So enjoy yours. :)
Thursday, June 26, 2008
So I've seen quite a few shrines and temples in the last month. And while they are each beautiful and unique, I feel that some are more meaningfully attended and tended, and each brings something different to the tourist's table. When the girls were here, I took them to Meijing shrine in Shibuya. I had once attempted to see this shrine, but it was at the height of my knee pain, and I didn't make it to the actual shrine on account of the fire shooting sparks out my knee as well as the 1/2 mile journey to get to to the shrine.
But when the girls came, I thought it would be a good one to hit for comparison to the shrines they saw in Kyoto and Nara. I'll admit that as we trudged toward this shrine, I was thinking, "Oh man, another shrine." But when we finally rounded the bend to the actual shrine, my heart smiled a little.
Meijing shrine was built in 1920 in honor of Emperor Meiji and his wife. Emperor Meiji is considered one of the most forward thinking emperors of Japan, especially in his methods of Western thinking. He drank wine casually, wore Western clothes, and embraced new ways (often Western) of doing things. He is treasured and remembered for the influence he had on the country's progress. When he and his wife passed, the shrine and its accompanying grounds were constructed in their remembrance. During the air raids of WWII, the all-wood shrine was burned to the ground. About ten years later, the shrine was rebuilt with wood donated by the people. It remains one of the most visited shrines in Japan, with major events and services held there.
The simplicity of the shrine, the beautiful wood carvings, the open spaces, the meaning behind it - everything about this shrine just speaks peace to my soul. It's just a beautiful, reverent feeling. You can feel the respect the people have for their former emperor, and the respect they continue to pay.
I took Jess back a few days ago so he could see my favorite shrine as well as get some pictures for me.
The list is long, but this is yet another place I'll miss in Tokyo.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
This is not your mother’s Disney. Disney Tokyo is full of grown adults with fuzzy ears and tails. In fact, there were fewer visitors without an extra pair of ears than with. Those of us who maintained our human persona were definitely residing outside the norm. Comfortably, I might add.
Like I said, curry popcorn. And I really like curry, but the stench of curry, butter, and popped kernels at 9:30 a.m. was not normal. I also think that curry popcorn is not normal. We did not participate in the wait for this Disney treat. They also have maple ice cream, lemon honey churros, and tortilla wrapped hotdogs.
Johnny Depp is alive and well in Tokyo. I’m sure they’ve added him to the Pirates ride in the States as well, but I thought I should probably mention that he makes a fine wax specimen. Seriously. Also, you think you know Pirates, and then you go to Disney Tokyo: “Jiyxkjs shibmachi panzoa DAVY JONES nubioeim aeyome itchome.”
It was bizarre – all rides are in Japanese (duh, I know, but I really did expect the English scripts), with the exception of a random phrase like, “Zip a dee doo dah, zip a dee ay, aqnrjek rmlicvnm wern, wehrak A WONDERFUL DAY.”
Splash Mountain is still splashy. Our first plunge we had the privilege of sitting front and center. This is as close as I got to looking like a Disney character, I’d say something like a wet rat. Nice.
So when I was a wee one, my dad convinced me that Thunder Mountain Railroad was just a “little train ride.” Right. Luckily, I enjoy “little train rides” now, and we particularly loved this prop, hailing from the motherland.
All in all, a great day, although we ended up feeling pretty darn trunky and missing home. I’m glad we went though. Because I’m sleeping so much better knowing that curry goes on everything. Including popcorn.
Jess just opened the drapes to have a look outside at our night time view. Now I’ll spare you the, ah hem, details, but I have provided one of those pictures that is simply worth a thousand words.
Click on it if you need a better view. We’re still laughing. And we could definitely use a laugh right now – there’s a bit of melancholy in the air as we prepare to leave this place we love. And who how can you not love it with high rise views like this? :)
P.S. Disney is still coming. We have one million photos that are currently uploading onto my computer.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Two words for you: Curry. Popcorn.
I know. You're hooked. You're dying to know more.
But as it turns out, my hotel bed, which by the way is a fraction of a fraction softer than the board I was sleeping on at our apartment, is calling to me.
Just keep thinking about curry popcorn, and enjoy a few of our best friends in the picture with us. It was us and a few hundred of them - we thought it would be rude to not include them. ;)
Monday, June 23, 2008
In any case, I practically did cartwheels when I found it. But it gets even better. The artwork on my back is actually something like an American Idol for Hello Kitty. (The funky Kanji and Katakana symbols roughly translate to "Idol Kitty.")
Sunday, June 22, 2008
So today is an unexpectedly sad day for me.
Jess finished his internship on Friday, but we don't go to Hong Kong (for school) until Sunday, so we have a week of free time - Jess' first opportunity to live the life I've been living for the past four weeks. However, because the apartment was arranged for us by his law firm, we're sort of out of a place to live for a week. So we're moving to a hotel and staying with some friends until we leave. Secretly, I'm excited for the hotel as I'll have a soft bed and a maid, but mostly I'm sad.
I went for my last run on the trail around the Imperial Palace today, and because the heavens decided to smile on me, my knee held out for the whole loop with very little pain (usually it's screaming a couple minutes into it). It isn't a particularly beautiful day, but it was particularly beautiful to me as it will be my last run there. Our hotel isn't near the Palace, so I'll be hitting the downtown Tokyo pavement instead.
I didn't expect to be so sad, but every time I even think about leaving, I tear up. I know I have a week left, but there's something about leaving the Palace, my Palace, that really gets to me. When I got here, the Palace instantly became my landmark, but even more so, my constant. I knew I could walk a couple blocks and see it. I knew that every morning I had somewhere to run, somewhere to do my thinking, a place that was mine, even if for just forty minutes a day. As we prepared to come to Asia, I worried I wouldn't be able to find that, something reliable, as I thrive on order and structure. But the Palace became that to me. It's immovable and beautiful, and exactly what I needed.
It's funny how much I've grown to love this place, especially when I wasn't even sure I would come. I'm so glad I did.
And now I don't want to leave.
PHOTO: That's me running on the trail. Sometimes I would walk with Jess to work down the hill and then run home. One day he had his camera. :)
Okay, so I know I've established that Japanese women are tiny and that their hair doesn't move when subjected to the extremities of the weather, but here's another thing: they have pristine, porcelain looking skin.
And here's why: they cover up. When the sun is out, they use umbrellas and wear funky, flappy hats. When they exercise, if they are actually wearing shorts, they have spandex pants underneath, and usually, even if it's one billion degrees out, they're also wearing a long sleeved top. And one of the most interesting things is that quite often, they wear gloves, of the fingerless variety. They sport short and long ones. I saw one woman shading herself under a fancy umbrella, with a little extra UV protection found in long gloves to her shoulders - only her fingers showing. But obviously it pays off. They really are a beautiful people.
And then there's me. I wake up in the morning, throw open the drapes, and if the sun is shining, do a happy dance. I find great satisfaction in donning my running tank and shorts, hitting the trail, and letting the sun do its work. And I'm seriously proud of my flip flop tan line on my feet, as the Cheney gals will attest - I kept showing them how good it was getting all week. And I realize that I have a problem (please recall), but sunshine and I just simply get along. The whole porcelain skin thing just doesn't do anything for me. I really should learn something from these gals and their UV protection skills, because the whole not eating thing won't work out (hello Japanese pastries) so I won't be achieving a comparable waist size any time soon.
But when it comes to skin, I prefer glowing, thank you very much. :)
PHOTO: In Nagoya, we visited Noritake Gardens, which houses Noritake, Co., one of the largest pottery and china producers in the world. It's also the home of one of the only remaining original red brick mills in Japan (few remain after WWII). It was a quaint and beautiful little gem we found hiding in the hustle and bustle. A woman left her gloves behind, so I grabbed a shot.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
3. Bears sweat too. At least I like to believe that this is sweat not water - today was one of the most sweltering days we've had. At 80 degrees and 95% humidity, I'm pretty sure I hovered between life and death several times today. And I don't even have a fur coat. Poor guys.
5. Monkeys make pretty cute mommies, despite their very sad looking rear quarters (I'll spare you the photos).
6. The animal kingdom knows how to mix and mingle. (It's interesting - they put different species in the same pens. Pretty sure these two were paired based on looks, as it doesn't appear they really prefer each others' company.)
8. Even penguins like their bling. He-ey!
So we were in Hiroshima, sitting in the train station, enjoying our stacks of pancakes, and we started admiring the pretty and tiny Japanese girls sitting near us. I'm pretty sure they don't eat. At least that's what we were supposing. And then I said, "It doesn't make any sense. Why are Americans just so much bigger?"
I then took my pre-processed stack of pancakes from its plastic package, and shoved it in my face.
Hmmm, good question.
NOTE: It's hard to see, but Kimmy's shirt matches mine. We thought they were the most perfect Japanenglish shirts ever made. :)
Friday, June 20, 2008
So these prayer tablets are some of my favorite things (you might have seen them on the blog previously - I snap at them a lot). Almost all of the Buddhist shrines have a collection of them just outside their entrances. I think they look so striking as they hang together, hundreds of prayers actually visibly penned on wood, mingling with one another.
I think it might be something like our spoken prayers, all criss crossing airwaves as we speak and think them aloud together, but also very distinct from one another, and each singularly recognized.
To offer prayer at a Buddhist shrine, you simply buy your wood tablet (they cost about $5), write your prayer and wishes, and hang it up. I myself have bought two prayer tablets.
And I respectfully said "Amen" aloud as I dropped them in my backpack. :)
Thursday, June 19, 2008
So this morning marked one of the most unique experiences I've had in Japan. The girls and I arose at 6:30 a.m. to head out to the Tsukiji Fish Market. And going into it, I had no idea what to expect, except that this is the biggest fish market in the world. What we discovered was pretty much a frenzy of funky looking motorized vehicles, men in rubber boots splashing through fish innards, flapping fins, and bins full of sea creatures.
So what you have is nearly 1,000 wholesalers who sell anything from shrimp to eel to ginormous tuna. In the mornings, they are cutting (the large fish are frozen and cut with a band saw), packaging, auctioning and selling their fishy goods. And the process is absolutely fascinating to watch - it's become a major tourist attraction, with foreigners wandering around wide-eyed in between booths as the wholesalers push past them with buckets of water, slime, and fish.
It's best described with pictures actually, which I've included. But let's just say that I felt semi-ill and had to sit down finally after I watched one too many real life Nemo slaughterings.
And I don't think I'll be eating any fish sticks any time soon.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
So up until recently, the smell of incense didn't exactly do anything for me. In fact, to me the smell was really reminiscent of a back corner mall shop, dripping with head scarves and wooden bangles. I think it's something about the incense being trapped in such a small space. It's like the smell could've been good, but then it had to spend too much time in one space coexisting with merchandise.
Now, however, my preferences have shifted dramatically. At many Buddhist (and otherwise) shrines and temples, you will find just prior to the entrance, a cauldron of sorts - usually a big brass or iron bowl, usually somewhat ornate - full of incense burning. In most cases you purchase a stick (sometimes you're just encouraged to donate), light it, and put it in the pot as an act of purification. And then you sort of scoop the smoke up into your face, thereby scooping up the good of that purification into you as you breathe it in.
Over the last four weeks, I've watched the procedure countless times. And I think it's beautiful - the smoke dancing in the bowl, the worshippers hands swirling it toward them. And I've absolutely grown to love the smell. I think part of it has to do with the fact that it has an outlet and sort of dissipates into the air, only clinging to those people or buildings near it instead of being trapped in the mall, mixing with the smells of new clothes and Chinese food under heat lamps. But mostly I think I love it because to me the smell has become Japan.
At one of the guardhouses on the Imperial Palace trail (there are several), there is always incense burning. I don't know why that particular point on the Palace grounds has incense, but I love it. It's become a part of my treasured morning ritual run, and I look forward to that ten seconds of Japan infused air every day.
And when I visit these shrines, I often walk by the swirling smoke myself, take a big armful of that incensed air, and breathe it in deep. The smell has become refreshing and familiar and beautiful.
And I'll miss it.
So we visited a Shinto shrine in Nara that had all these beautiful stone lanterns with moss and vines crawling around them. And they were everywhere. I took dozens of pictures of them (by this time Jess had returned to Tokyo to work, so I was assigned photo duty). They were in every direction and were actually much more stunning than the shrine itself. (Then again, after about two or three shrines, they sort of all bear a striking resemblance to one another, so perhaps the lanterns were just a breath of fresh air.)
And then the tour guide explained that these beautiful stone pieces of art were actually just representations of donation that local citizens make in order to keep the shrine up and running.
But let's be honest - these are way better than having your name on a plaque on the back of a park bench. I mean, who really wants strangers' backs rubbing up against their name when their donation can actually outshine a shrine instead? Welcome to Japan. :)
Monday, June 16, 2008
Well, yesterday, our tour guide told us that the peace sign is actually not a peace sign in Japan. It's a happy sign. It's like saying you're happy, wishing happiness. It has nothing to do with peace here. So all these Japanese with their two fingers perpetually in the air (yes, they do it here too) are actually not peaceful Asians.
Here's the thing - these deer are not normal. They're totally tame. And smart. Well, maybe other deer are smart, but I've never been headbutted by wild deer, so I can't adequately judge their intelligence levels. And these tame deer have a particularly obnoxious level of street smarts - they actually "beg" for food. As in they bite at your clothes and your fingers. However, in Japan they are a protected species, thought to be sacred, so you can't bite back. Our tour guide told us that if you find a dead deer in your front yard, you better hurry and move it to your neighbor's, as you will not only be fined heavily, but you will also have all sorts of bad luck.
So anyhow, yesterday in Hiroshima, these deer are just chasing the tourists around, begging for food, pulling at their t-shirts, trimming their fingernails. However, you're not allowed to feed them there - signs are posted letting you know why it's unhealthy for them. But today in Nara (a city very near Kyoto that has the biggest Buddha, not to be confused with the second biggest Buddha in Kamakura), we visited the national deer park, at which you're actually encouraged to feed the little monsters (you too can have deer slobber on your fingers for just Y150 - about a buck fifty - the cost of a stack of "deer crackers").
And to prove their insane intelligence, this fellow, upon finding one tourist's hands void of food stuffs, stole her brochure instead. And ate it whole. Took him about five minutes to get the trifold down. And no amount of coaxing, tugging or bribing with real food would get Rudolph's relative to release his kung fu jaw grip on the thing.
But still, Jodi made us stand by the creatures that I was so entirely unimpressed with, no matter how sacred they were, and pose for a picture. Here's how it went: