29 January 2009

japan, day ten

last day.  i won't lie, it was also the most boring.  i can't describe how exhausted i was at this point of the trip.  we only slept, maybe four hours, after our night out.  i honestly, really thought i might collapse on the walk to breakfast.

yet, i abide.

cute spelling.

we went back to shinjuku for one last look around before hopping on the plane to return to hong kong, shop for a souvenirs, for the girlfriends especially.

and to also take a few more pictures in the bright, morning sun.

tokyo.  wild style.

after walking around for a while, it was time to head back to the hostel and collect our things.  the front desk gave us directions to the nearest train to the airport.  

that's where things went wrong.  no trip is ever without drama, i suppose.

remember the picture of the tokyo subway system?  not only does it look like spaghetti, but there are two separate systems in the city, the tokyo subway and the JR lines.  we hopped on the JR, following the map and the instructions we were given.  there were no english signs in the station.  we should have known better.

four stops later and it became clear that we were on the wrong train.  we hopped off, struggled to ask someone about where to go, and then, ultimately, got back on the same train.  which, after 40 minutes, dropped us off in the middle of nowhere.  we were now less than two hours away from our flight's departure.

a kind, old lady (have i mentioned how great japan is?) waved us over and, though some creative gesturing, explained that we had to wait 45 minutes for the next train to the airport.  which would itself take another 45 to reach the airport.  it was going to be close.  we drank a hot, canned-corn drink.

we got to the airport with maybe 15 minutes to spare, mostly discouraged, but determined not to give up until it was really, completely too late.  we ran to the terminal and were treated like triage patients at the northwest terminal.  though initially they said we were too late, they were able to rush us through and get us on the plane, not three minutes before it left the gate.

one plane and one taxi later, we were back in hong kong.  for three days.

in conclusion, my visit to japan did nothing less than restore my faith in the human race.

28 January 2009

japan, day nine

home stretch here, folks.

morning in the capsule hostel, surveying the damage.  most of the other guests had already gone, home to their wives and families.

we spent the next four hours wandering around tokyo, searching for a place to stay for the night.  one hostel after another in asakusa was booked up, or, even worse, had only one bed available.  we finally travelled deep into the heart of the city to find a room.

with what little afternoon we had left, we decided to visit the Yasakuni Shrine, Tokyo's own controversial war memorial.  i was excited.  first, the giant gate to the shrine, made out of steel and not the usual wood.  after a walk through a street market, and a quick stop at the temple proper, we found the Yushukan, the japanese war museum.

the museum did not disappoint.  after a few rooms of ancient samurai swords and armor, it was on to the real meat: revisionist WWII history:  germany had no choice but to start the war after suffering such disgrace after WWI.  japan fought in nanking with honor, then left its people alone.  america forced japan into war WWII by cutting off their oil supplies.  

i don't really blame them.  they weren't evil and hell-bent on genocide, they were just hell-bent on empire.  weren't britain, and spain, and the netherlands, and the french, et. al.?  after sealing themselves off from the rest of the world for some hundred years, it was the americans that sailed to japan and demanded they open their borders for trade.  with the americans came their guns, and with the guns came a devastating power struggle that opened the way for the power-hungry.

and never forget: samurai hearts.

it was cool to see this zero up close and personal.  but the last part of the museum, a few rooms covered floor to ceiling with pictures of dead soldiers, really nearly moved me to tears.

after that sobering trip, we went back to our new hostel to rest up and meet with a handful of austrialians we had met in kyoto.  we went to dinner with them, after having had dinner on our own, then went to a club that one of their local tokyo friends had recommended.  which sucked. 

so we went to another neighborhood, and found another club, this one, a little off the beaten path.  things were slow at first, but after a little gin and tonic, things started to pick up, and ultimately, we danced all night with some local folks.  it was a great last night in town.

26 January 2009

japan, day eight

after some rest, it was time to head back out for my last day in kyoto to see the b-side temples.  not before a delicious brunch at the dorm accompanied by jimmy cliff.  have i mentioned how great japan is?
our first stop: Sanjusangen-do, Hall of the Lotus King.  before stopping inside, i had a quick drink and examined some hilarious anti-smoking signs.  gotta watch out for that neglect.

inside (again, no photographs allowed) were one thousand full-size statues of warriors, flanking a 20-foot tall buddha.  one thousand is a very impressive number.  there were also around two dozen stone statues of ancient japanese gods.  since 1164.  1164.  for those who are keeping score, the magna carta was 1215.

everyone at the temple was very kind as well.  we met a wonderful old couple who were delighted to see a couple americans off the beaten tourist path.  they had met while in college in wisconsin many years ago, they explained, and that we were lucky to visit kyoto in the winter, when the crowds were thin.

walking to the next temple, while crossing the street, a car full of kyoto-ans stopped to let me cross.  i gave them a smile and a quick bow.  their faces lit up and all four passengers gave me enthusiastic bows in reply, in unison.

have i mentioned how great japan is?

next we walked up the hill to Kiyomizu-dera.  kyoto is flanked on three sides by hills, this temple perched off one.  some sort of temple has been at this location since the 798, with the current structure dating back to 1644.

mostly, though, it had great views of the city below.

a small street on the way down the hill.

another temple, but at this one, you can see the main attraction without paying a single yen!

finally, we stopped at Nishi Honganji, which was perhaps the most modest, yet most legitimate, temple that we stopped at.  as we arrived, a dozen or so priests had arrived for a tour of the temple.  after a lot of walking, it was great to sit on the tatami floor and relax for a minute.  no cameras allowed, but that didn't stop this person.

another long walk in search of a greek restaurant, which we found after some time.  we hopped on a bus and made way for some car dealerships we had seen the day before, hoping to scope some metal and maybe grab some brochures in japanese.  which we did.  nerds.

finally, we hopped back on the bullet train to return to tokyo for our last few days in japan.  we arrived to discover that all the rooms in our old hostel were booked, for the next couple nights.  at long last, it was time to buckle down and experience that most japanese of experiences: the capsule hostel.

that's where i spent the night: a plastic box with a built-in TV.  i had prepared for some futuristic complex, gleaming, white, and brand-new.  instead, it was more like the future, as imagined in the 1970s.

it gets better.  anything goes inside the capsule hostel, especially smoking.  everywhere.  by everyone.  a pair of old japanese businessmen, who were loitering around our lockers, were absolutely delighted to see us.  which was a little strange.  we then made way upstairs to shower, only to discover that the showers were quite communal.  sat on upside-down buckets and hosed off like monkeys, then soaked in a cold bath with five other old japanese men.

it was pretty intense.

have i mentioned how great japan is?

W memories

the New York Times had a fun editorial about the photographic legacy of W.  i picked out a few favorites:

remember those days?  sigh.  goddammit.

goddammit.  at least he knows how to make fun of himself?

there's your whole story, right there.

W, right before his last press conference.  i thought this was surprising, and revealing, a window past the cowboy bullshit to the heart of a man who's upset to be leaving his post, and perhaps,just maybe, genuinely sad about all the things that went wrong under his watch.

25 January 2009

japan, day seven

i felt more than a little groggy and slow the next day.  yet, there were temples to be seen. 

first up was kyoto's most famous temple, Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion Temple.  just look at that gold leaf.  how tacky.  maybe gold was more acceptable back in 1397.  yes, 1397 (though it was rebuilt as recently as 1955).  pretty incredible.

at the site, there were a lot of children in school uniforms and kind, old people.  a walk through the moss-covered garden finished the trip.  

next was the Ryoan-ji, the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, home of Kyoto's, and the world's, most famous rock garden.  after a short walk through the grounds, we sat and looked at the rocks.

and looked some more.  no bullshit, no colors, nothing in your face, nothing screaming at you.  just relax and look at the rocks.  it was fantastic.  this garden is around 600 years old.  there are fifteen boulders in the garden, placed so that you can only see fourteen at any given angle of view.  

according to legend, it is only through enlightenment that one can see the fifteenth stone.

weathered wood.

inside the main temple.  no need for furniture.

the rest of the temple was beautiful as well.  trees with red leaves, a lovely pond with flirtatious ducks, and an orchard of these dr. seuss trees.

our last best-of-kyoto stop was the Nijo Castle, a 400-year old shogun castle.  this bike has nothing to do with the castle, but everything to do with awesome.

pretty impressive.  we arrived just as they were closing the castle, and we managed to sneak in for a quick tour - no cameras allowed, of course.  which was too bad.  the rice-paper windows let in really beautiful light and the hundred-year-old wall-size paintings were incredible.  life-size statues colored in the picture in some rooms and gave me a sense of order, duty, and respect.

about half the rooms had secret rooms, closets, really, where samurai would hide and wait - for years - in case the shogun needed help.  the coolest part about the castle: the hallway where i walked.  underneath, the shogun ordered a system of bells and chimes attached to the floorboards, so that the floor chimes when it's walked upon - the nightingale floor, for defense.

unimaginable wood carving, for intimidation's sake.

what shogun's castle would be complete without koi?

in a giant moat?

the view from the castle keep.

after the long day of sightseeing, i was ready to relax, and spent the rest of the evening taking it easy in the hostel, sitting on my butt, reading more of dreams from my father.  made small talk with a few aussies, who told us some tales of our behavior the night before.

gotta make america proud.

24 January 2009

japan, day six

day six: it was time to leave tokyo.  ryan and i packed up our things in the room and made way tokyo station to catch the legendary shinkansen, the bullet train.  after dropping US$110 each (!) on tickets, we walked, then ran, then sprinted to catch the train in time.  our platform was on the opposite end of the massive train station, and we only had ten minutes to cross.

after tearing through the crowds and running the length of the platform, we made it to the train with only a minute to spare.  after a few more stops in the city, we were soon rocketing through japan at 180 mph.  not that you would know it inside the train, the ride was so smooth and quiet.  the bathrooms were fully automated, and the train was right on schedule.

got to hand it to the japanese.

two hours later and we had crossed a third of the island to reach kyoto, japan's place for temples and protocols.  all my friends in hong kong who had visited japan gushed about the city, and said it was a must see.

unfortunately, we spent most of the afternoon trying to find a place to eat, and then, a place to sleep.  the first hostel we visited - full.  the second - abandoned.  we left our bags in the store room and wasted no time exploring the city.

kyoto was not nearly a dense or big as tokyo.  in fact, by comparison, it's a modestly-sized town of 1.5 million.  at this point, i was pretty used to cities in the 7 million - 8 million neighborhood.  there were only two subway lines!  weak.

above, kyoto tower.  

kyoto was the capital of japan, centuries ago.  naturally, we first tried to visit the imperial palace.  unfortunately, by the time we got there, it was 4, so the sun was already going down and the palace was closed for tours for the day.  still managed to eke out another long walk.

we wound our way through kyoto as the sun went down, stopping at the kyoto history museum, which was a major disappointment.  it was renovated around 1990, and it was clear that nothing much else had been done to the museum since then.  

these cars weren't part of the museum.

ultimately, we wound our way through the major shopping districts of kyoto, then finally made our way back to the hostel where we had left our bags.  only to discover that that hostel was full for the night as well.  we lugged our bags to the other side of town and finally found our hostel.  recently renovated, bar on the ground floor, easily the nicest hostel i've ever stayed at.

ryan and i bought a couple beers and proceeded to be loud entertainment for the rest of the guests at the hostel for the remainder of the evening.

22 January 2009

japan, day five

have i mentioned that ten days is a long time?  and that we still manged to fill those days to the brim?

after our late start, we energized with kebabs in asakusa.  visiting tokyo really took the piss out of coming back to america, mostly, because of the real food.  that and the adequately sized beds.  it was almost too much to bear at once.

next up was shinbashi... not another shopping mecca, but yet another city center.  there was some wild architecture in this part of town, including this straight-out-of blade runner nightmare.  judging by the hanging laundry, i would guess that people live here.

another crosswalk, another view.  more dramatic lighting today.  my favorite billboard, upper left "Better road and better life."  

one of the nearby malls held an advertising design museum.  after a little struggle to find the place, we were rewarded by a very professional and concise exhibit on the history of japanese advertising, dating back to the 1800s even.  it was at once discouraging and encouraging to learn that even then, even in japan, product placement existed in theatre.  the more things change...

however, as a history nerd, i was most taken by the japanese wwii propaganda posters.  above, japanese rosie the riveter.  rosai, perhaps?

and here, a poster encouraging japanese citizens to grow their own liberty gardens.  i guess most things really are universal.

afterwards, a stroll though hamarikyuteien, an old imperial garden and duck hunting grounds.  naturally, lots of nature, including many trees sculpted over the decades, full size bonsai

and beautiful flowers.  in the dead of winter.

i couldn't resist some cheesy exposure tricks.

or this adorable fire hydrant cover.  for being a bunch of samurais they sure like cute stuff.

a long walk (there were many) followed the park, then a trip to the tsukiji fish market.  as in, the fish market.  500 lb frozen tuna as far as the eye can see fish market.  tokyo's fish market.  the sushi quest was on.

after wandering the small alleys near the fish market and surveying some of the recent catch, including crabs as big as manhole covers (absolutely terrifying), we found the perfect restaurant for our sushi feast.  our sushi chef was an old pro who complimented my chopsticks technique --- after i accidentally split a piece in two.

we ate no rolls, just fish on rice, the real style.  and to cap it all off, two pieces of the infamous fatty tuna, the king of all fish.  with good reason.  "melts in your mouth" is usually empty hyperbole.  not this time.

then, it was time to head back for asakusa.  we had no idea what was in store for us.

on our way down to the hostel lobby, we ran into a pair of brits, one i had met the night before.  they were headed out on the town, and after, ten second's deliberation, we decided to join them.  the evening started off mild.  our two new friends got dinner, and ryan and i watched them fumble with their chopsticks.

we then prowled the dive bars of the neighborhood.  one of the brits, a rather cute and precocious girl, would open the door to a small bar and, after being greeted warmly, would quickly and nervously slam the door shut.  the fourth time, we pushed in. 

inside this bar, there were only four people: the barkeep, a middle-aged businessman, his sidekick and his girlfriend.  we sat down.  shortly, the barkeep arrived with menus and snacks.  i thought we'd beat feet in the next 15 minutes, tops.  i decided on the mispelled "wild tukky."  the bartender came back over and said that the other gentleman in the bar wanted to buy a round for us.  great!  within a minute, he greeted us warmly, announcing that he was "gentleman!  gentleman!" pointing to himself, also peppered with "japanese."  

within minutes our friend, named tomo, waved us over to join his party at their table.  that's when the party began.  turned out that tomo was a very generous, and very successful, businessman, who was delighted just to have new company in this bar.  what started as one round of drinks became round, after round, after round of tequila shots.

tomo then taught us this japanese phrase: "non-DAY-an-ay," which means, "what are you talking about?" and is to be said while hitting your friend, playfully and aggressively, on the shoulder.  to which one replies, louder, "non-DAY-an-ay!" and hits back, harder.  this goes on until someone gives.  this carried on for hours.  the british guy complained about the violence and whined that he "bruises like a pear."  the chick refused to drink.  lousy brits.  thank goodness for tomo he had the americans.

tomo also had a thing for armwrestling.  armwrestling his friends, his new friends, making his new friends armwrestle... tomo threw down US$50 on a match i had with the brit.  meanwhile, tomo's girlfriend served as translator.  tomo would ramble on for a few minutes, and she would say, nervously, "tomo is, very glad to meet you... and... he wishes you all the best... and... and, he is very drunk."  

finally, after i won a game of darts, tomo started taking his pants off, then passed out at the bar.  we got in a cab and went back to the hostel.  

this was easily the highlight of the trip.