Monthly Archives: December 2005

Hong Kong Day 19-20

Day 19

It’s hard to be in Hong Kong without making comparisons to Japan.  People here also love their cell phones, but make calls incessantly.  Almost everyone is talking away in public, where in Japan, everyone is always quietly texting a message to someone.

People are less shy and more aggressive here.  When you ask for a discount at a local store in Japan, the sales person will apologize, and shy away, while the Chinese merchants here openly debate and cajole you into retracting your offer.  I almost had fun baiting the camera salespeople here.  I even managed to start bargaining in Chinese:

(in Cantonese)

Salesperson: What are you looking for?
Me: A Canon lens.  17-85. 
Salesperson: Ah…4800 HKD.
Me: Too much!  Your competitor is offering 4190 HKD.  You’ve got to at least match that.
Salesperson: (plays with calculator)  Okay 4190.
Me: Then I should just go back to his store!

None of our lips matched the above lines, by the way.

We started today’s outing in Central, where we walked to the Star Ferry and used our Octopus card to take the ferry across the harbour to Kowloon.  The area of Tsim Sha Tsui is the pier and peninsula on the other side, fronted by a number of museums and backed with a road of both high end boutiques and high pressure bargain stores.

The Ferry is a key element of Hong Kong’s history and tourism.  Aging ferries, not unlike the boats that steam to the Toronto Islands, used to take commuters back and forth from the Island to Kowloon.  Today, a fast subway tunnel does that more efficiently and the harbour crossing is really more for tourists.  But it’s nonetheless a beautiful perspective on the sea, watching ships and boats traverse these fragrant harbour waters.

As we got off the ferry, we walked by the landmark Peninsula Hotel.  The surrender of the colony during World War II was signed here with the Japanese, and years later, James Bond visited in the Man with the Golden Gun.  The stores along the next street, Nathan Road, alternated between some boutique labels and somewhat sleazy electronics vendors.

Along the way, peddlers very aggressively tried to hawk their fake watches, hand tailored suits and other wares directly into your face, often not taking no for an answer, which was really irritating.  I stopped into a few camera shops along the way, but it was obvious most didn’t have stock or weren’t trustable to buy from.  Thankfully with the Internet and friends, it’s much easier to spot a good deal from a bad one these days.  Whether it’s shady camera shops in New York, Toronto or Hong Kong, there’s always someone out to make a quick buck on an unsuspecting buyer.

I met back up with Nadine at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which featured artwork from Hong Kong and Chinese artists, mostly painters.  I wasn’t a big fan of the landscape work that was so common in the galleries, but I did like the contemporary Asian art featured in one of the exhibits.

We went to the Science Museum as well, after lunch at the new TST Sogo department store. The Science Museum is similar to the Ontario Science Center.  Lots of hands on stuff.   Some of the exhibits were getting older but others were surprisingly up to date.  Of interest was a Vivid Group Mandala Soccer VR game, which brought back a lot of memories for me, as well as a a fantastic telecommunications exhibit.

The telecom exhibit included some really nifty displays, including a real working plugboard exchange, a functioning Strowger step by step frame, various sizes of transpacific cable, a fibre optic transmission demonstration, and a neat cellular demo where kids could try and catch a moving car using various cell towers.

We returned to Causeway Bay to have dinner with my family and later went to the Yacht Club to see the Hong Kong harbourfront from a fantastic vantage point.

Day 20

This morning Nadine came with me to visit the family grave site on Hong Kong Island.  We took the subway to Chai Wan, at the easternmost stop on the Island line, then grabbed a taxi up to the cemetery.   The cemetery is built up on the mountain, with terraced levels each holding a row of graves.

Finding the right lot on this hill of several different cemeteries was a challenge almost out of Amazing Race.  However, I had a photograph of my father and mother at the grave, which I used to line up the background of bushes and railings.

After paying my respects at the family plot, we walked back down the hill, finding a monument to Canadian, British and Indian soldiers who held the Island during the onslaught of Japanese forces during World War II.  There’s a Canadian History Minute video about it Canada’s contribution to defending this colony.

Nadine went to inquire about church services for Sunday, while I went back to the Mid-Levels near the elevator and bought the Canon 17-85 IS USM telephoto lens.  I shot with it the rest of the day and I found I could hold stable shots at full extension at 85mm (135mm on full frame) at 1/25 sec.  I like the new lens a lot.

We met with my family for dim sum, at the Hong Kong Jockey Club and later, my uncle drove us around the New Territories and Shatin, which are towards the north of Kowloon, just before China.

We had dinner in Hong Kong at a fantastic seafood restaurant where live stock was brought in from the street market out front and cooked for us immediately.

Hong Kong Day 17-18

Day 17

Our last day in Japan started out rainy and got rainier, unfortunately.  As the flight left 6PM, we needed to be leaving for the airport around 2PM, given an hour and a half long trip on the Keisei train line from Asakusa.  Hence, we’d have to figure out what to do in the morning only.

Both of us went to Roppongi, the hip and happening place for foreigners in Tokyo.  First, we got out a stop ahead and saw Tokyo Tower.  This steel tower is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris getting spraypainted red and white so that planes could land easier.  Admittedly, given the overcast sky and the rain, the Tower didn’t live up to it’s cousin in France.

We walked up the soggy streets of Roppongi, with it’s expensive restaurants and boutiques finally finding the Axis Building.  The building holds a design and graphics company, but also features a gallery space and several boutique stores which sell design oriented products such as Danish stereomaker Bang and Olufsen.  There’s also a very small one room gallery of the Japanese Industrial Designers Association.

Nadine left to see the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, while I waited for the Braun industrial design exposition presented in the Gallery.  This was an extension of the materials we saw in Gion Corner in Kyoto and featured extensive history on Braun’s corporate identity and design involvement.  What’s really fantastic is a Braun juicer from 1955 looks as perfect as an iPod today.  Most of my guesses as to when a product hit market were off by 10-20 years late.

I spent till about noon at the Gallery, then headed back to Asakusa where I met up with Nadine to get to the Airport.  We took the Keisei railway back to Narita and onto a 747 bound for Hong Kong.  On the plane, they introduced the meals as Asian style chicken and ‘flat pasta’, better known as lasagna.  I didn’t realize how much I didn’t want anything remotely Eastern after 17 days.

I spent a good portion of the time listening to the ATC channel they put on the entertainment system:  You can listen to the tower and other planes being given permission to take off, land and taxi and the controllers directing planes to get in line and follow each other.

Kinda weird, but I also liked the John Cusack movie about Air Traffic Controllers too.

Four hours later, we were cleared on runway 24R at Hong Kong’s new airport and descended into the city, bathed in lights.  On to the MTR with a Tourist Octopus card, a far reaching RFID ID card that gets you on buses, subways and pays for food too, and we were off for Hong Kong Island.

Day 18

Today we embarked on our first day in Hong Kong after 17 in Japan.  The first task at hand was to see the Peak, the top of the mountain of Hong Kong Island.  Sweltering uphill in 29 degree heat, we got to the Peak Tram station in the Central district and rode it uphill to the Victoria Peak.  The view was interesting, but we continued along a route called the Morning Path, favoured by locals as early exercise to start the day.  We went downhill, rounding around the peak on a twisty path, meeting oncoming locals going uphill, walking their dogs or getting their morning workout.   Each successive turn seemed to reveal an even better vista of the Island’s skyscrapers and apartments below, all bunched up as if they had slid down the side of the mountain and were keeping from slipping into the water by bunching up at the harbourfront.  On the other side was Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui, where we’ll be visiting tomorrow.

As I snapped a number of photos for a panorama, I saw a Canon 1DsMkII shooter doing the same thing.  It’ll make for a great printout at Costco on 12×18’s!

It took most of the morning to navigate the route down to Hong Kong University, where we grabbed a bus using our Octopus card back to Central district.  After finding something to eat, we continued to Sheung Wan by subway, where we started our second walking tour of the day, going to the Western Market, then looping around to see many of the stores and trading streets of the city, selling goods as diverse as sea cucumbers, old antiques and shark fins.

We also took the world’s longest escalator uphill to find the area of Soho, with it’s trendy bars and restaurants, and back down to find the camera shops of Stanley Street where I started price shopping on a Canon 17-85 IS USM telephoto lens.

One of the trendy places in Soho is a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.  Unfortunately, it’s Westerner maitre’d and expensive looking interior decoration suggests it’s upscale for something that is considered fast food in Japan.

We eventually made it back down to Central, where, walking under the aluminum clad British High Tech Hong Kong Shanghai Bank building, designed by Sir Norman Foster in 1985, we went to the newer Bank of China building, a towering spire of geometric shapes rising above the city.  On the 43st floor, we could see out again onto Hong Kong.

Nadine and I had dinner in Soho, at a Mexican place with fajitas, and went back to Causeway Bay after.  My favourite apple drink commands a fair price at the Japanese Sogo department store, I’ve found.  I will buy a bottle to commemorate the trip for the way home.  I have tried some other drinks today, most notably the MJ Pear Juice, which features Korean Pear Puree as a key ingredient.

I walked around alone in Causeway Bay, amidst the heat and the noise of Hong Kong.  It’s bright neon surrounded me, bright stores selling cellular phones and fashions, signs and lights as high as I could see.  It’s like an artificial sky of signage grows over the streets, a tent city cover over the asphalt of this busy metropolis.

Tomorrow it’s off to see the other side of Hong Kong, Kowloon.

Japan Day 15-16

Day 15

This morning we took the Akita Shinkansen out Utsunomiya, then transferred to Nikko, the home of a very large World Heritage site of temples and shrines.  We started in Ueno, a hub of activity in Tokyo and waited as train after train of commuters were dispatched briskly by the platform conductors.  The JR East lines have colourful trains, while the Central Tokaido trains are white with blue striping, the East have pink, yellow and other more extravagant colour schemes.  Almost all of them were running in multiple trainset consists, two power cars nose to nose, their fibreglass fairings left open.

As we bumbled into Nikko on a local train, we started up the long path uphill towards the site.  Just at the edge of the Nikko National Park, we saw the Shinkyo Bridge, a sacred structure running over a rushing river rapids with the beautiful mountains behind it.

The site itself consists of four major buildings, the Rinnoji Temple, the Toshugu Shrine (the tomb of the first Tokugawa Shogun, a key figure in Japanese history), the Futarasan Shrine (not a big deal from what I could tell),  and the Taiyun Temple (the tomb of the third Shogun).  The Toshogu Shrine featured a ceiling and floor which echoed the monk’s loud beat of two pieces of wood together.  Most impressive was the settings of the buildings, which were often nestled in age-old trees and terraced staircases.

We had lunch in a small Korean place along the way back to the station.  It was covered in testimonials written by tourists, both from around Japan and the world. As a cleverly written note from a American traveler stated, Korean food is to Japanese food as Mexican food is to American food.  Cucumbers dressed in kimchee like peppers and spices made me fear what this kitchen could cook up, but the beef tail (their words, not mine) and ramen I had was just fine.

The trip to Nikko took up most of a day, so when we got back, we headed to the Ikebukuro Station, to find the large department stores the Japanese are for.  Even when I visited Hong Kong as a teenager, the best shopping was done at the large Japanese department stores,
reminiscent of Eatons or Simpsons in Toronto or better yet, the big names like Macy’s in New York or Harrods in London. It turns out the Tobu Department store, filled with expensive items, is just like the latter too–designer goods and expensive wines and pastries filling out the 11 floors it holds, not to mention the self-described ‘excellent restaurants’ on the floors above.

I decided to go back to the hostel early tonight, to rest for an early morning tomorrow as well as to check out the roundabout sushi place down the street.

Day 16

We woke up really early today to see the Tsukiji Fish Market, also known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market.  Unlike many of the places we’ve gone to which are very clearly for foreigners to visit as tourists, complete with gift shops and photo ready vantage points, the fish market was really authentic and busy with it’s regular duties.  This huge, sprawling facility is where all the restaurants and shops go to get their fish from major wholesalers and other distributors.

It’s hard to describe the commotion and frenzy that was at this market so early in the morning:  It’s said the market opens at 4AM, but even at 7AM, it was still jumping with activity.  Hundreds of small truck-lifts sped around us, as if out of a scene from ‘the Fifth Element’: These little forklift like vehicles were basically a small platform to put boxes of fish with a turret like motor which the operator could spin around 360 degrees to make the vehicle turn. This allowed for very tight turning circles in this very crowded space.

While it wasn’t the pristine hills of Nikko, the Fish Market, with it’s dirty floors and fish guts everywhere, brimmed with energy. Everyone around us was involved with selling, auctioning, inspecting or preparing fish.  As one man gutted an eel in front of me, another pair were cutting frozen fish with band saws and a fourth was flinging slabs of ice for packing.

Visually, it was incredible, with dynamic light, lots of movement, and quick moves needed to get the shots in.  I’d fling around the camera, powered up, focus in, then snap before the guts of a fish came flying around or worse, a truck or forklift hit me, walking from aisle to aisle.

We split up at that point to go visit different things: Nadine went to see some of the museums around Ueno, while I headed to the Shinjuku area to look at cameras and to Akihabara to see the Electric Town of electronic goods.

The Shinjuku area was quiet when I got there around 9AM, as most of the places would open about an hour later.  There were many large, multifloored electronics stores, one of which was Yodabashi Camera.  Inside, on every floor, over and over again, played a jingle based on the Battle Hymn of the Republic, except both in English and Japanese, the words of Glory, Glory Hallelujah were replaced with some variant of Yodabashi Camera.

By lunch, I made it Akihabara, the location of the famous giant electronics arcade. Some of the stores are very small:  Just nooks in inner streets and hallways.  One store sold only old remote
controls, CD players and manuals to ten year old LD players.  Others had the latest.  The largest stores had very bright fluorescent lighting, which caused a bit of a headache for me.

One building was dedicated to nothing but toys and models.  I will sum up some of the floors with useful descriptions:

  • Wow, that’s a lot of guns
  • All the limbs you’ll ever need
  • Giant robots by the dozen
  • Amply endowed doll eats Pocky

As in Den Den Town, most surprising is the recycling of old computers, accessories and cameras.  Entire stores of used machines exist,which makes me feel at least stuff is being put back into use. After an afternoon of endless stores, which can weave in and out of various sides of buildings, up and down stairs, I was getting a little beat.

At Sacha’s recommendation, I went to find the puzzle vendor outside the JR Station gate.  An old man explained his wares to me, handcrafted Japanese wooden boxes which appear to have no latches or joints.  Careful sliding of intricately patterned surfaces in a specific way allow for the box to open only after a series of careful moves.  He was very eager to show how the boxes scaled from simple to extremely difficult and while I tend to hate mindbenders, aiming for a low brow approach to pretty well everything in life, I did appreciate his candor and earnest interest in his products.  He left me with a business card sized piece of paper with a greyscale gradient on it.  Put your finger in the middle, and the difference between the two sides of the top disappear: Your finger casts a shadow, which your brain matches to the gradient.  Pretty neat.

Japan Day 14

Day 14
Quality Sushi

There was no joy for baseball this morning in Hiroshima, the home team here being the Toyo Carp and not the Tigers.  Though Carp banners hung from the shopping arcade ceilings, it was drab this morning as rain came down lightly this morning, cool yet moist in the air on a Sunday. We took a streetcar up to the main station, and from there, hopped on a Shinkansen headed northbound towards Shin-Osaka.

Along the way I purchased some omiyage–gifts for coworkers.  My manager at work mentioned this custom, where employees consider it a dishonour and an impediment to the team to take a vacation, hence, they bring back gifts when they return. I picked up some in the form of maple leaf shaped cookies.  Maple leaves, it appears, seems to celebrate the autumn season here in Japan and the gift and bento stands were decorated by bright orange, yellow and red leaves.

The afternoon was pretty pedestrian: At Shin-Osaka we interchanged onto our second bullet train of the day, onwards to Tokyo proper.  After another three hours, we were at Tokyo Station, where we interchanged to another local loop and onto the subway, returning us to Asakusa.

Tonight we went to the Shimbuya district of Tokyo, along Takeshita Street with it’s crazy post-punk fashion stores and youngsters all around.  Some were dressed up in goth outfits, others in Kelly Osborne-esque getups.  One girl had so much bronzer on, she looked  like Beyonce Knowles, complete with teased out blonde hair.

In summary, all I can say is, it’s hard to top a sushi restaurant with ISO9001 certification. Tonight, the place we went to literally had their document of certification hung right up on the wall.  If you can certify software development for quality process, you can certainly do it for raw fish and rice.

Japan Day 13

Day 13

We left the bustling city of Osaka today and headed for Hiroshima, further west and south on the central island of Japan.  As the JR West Japan RailStar 700 came up to speed at 270km/h, we found ourselves at this important city only about an hour and a half later.

Our first goal was to get to Miyajimaguchi, a small town on Itsukushima Island, which features a beautiful gate, or ‘torii’ out in the water just beyond it’s shrine.  The idea was that commoners had to go through the gate out the water, as the island is scared in the Shinto religion.

Once we got to Hiroshima’s main train station by Shinkansen, we left our bags in a very large locker and proceeded to go by local train to Miyajimaguchi.  From that station, we could take a ferry boat,across the short hop to the island.

Built in 1168, the torii’s bright orange was set off from the blues, greys and greens of the mountains and sea in the background and made for great photos, as hundreds of others found out.  As we walked around, we heard a band, rehearsing in a large temple space up above on a hill.

Returning to Hiroshima, we took one of the many streetcars to our hotel.  We got on the wrong one, but with a bit of luck and a transfer card, we got to the right one after a few stops and a change over.  We checked into a ‘business’ hotel, which is a hotel with small rooms and few amenities.  It’s pretty desolate but just fine for the night we’ll spend here until returning to Tokyo.

After leaving our bags at the hotel, we went onwards to see the heart of Hiroshima’s historic past: The Peace Park and Museum.  The museum, which features many exhibits about the nuclear bomb dropped on this city, highlighted the tragedy that ended World War II in the Pacific.  The museum doesn’t really frame the context of the entire World War, but instead focuses on what happened in Hiroshima and the rebuilding of the city afterwards.  It’s goal, is to inform and discourage the use of atomic weapons.

When we entered, a large digital clock at the entrance counted the number of days since the dropping of the bomb in Hiroshima as well as the number of days since the last atomic test which was only about 460 days ago.  I instantly thought of some newcomer to the nuclear club, such as India or Pakistan.  Instead, as I found out later, it was Russia.  Every known test is petitioned by telegram by the mayor of the city, being one of two in the world to have actually experienced such an event.  Reading the language of the telegrams from the Cold War to the language used now to leaders such as Putin and Bush, you can tell attitudes have changed in the world.

The museum features many displays and artifacts, from personal belongings to scale models of the epicenter of the explosion.  In the center of the park outside, is a cenotaph dedicated to those who died.  Further along is a monument to all the children who perished, including the famous Sadako and her thousand paper cranes.  There are several large glass boxes in which paper cranes from around the world, folded by children in school or elsewhere, are mailed to and kept.

I caught up with Nadine at the bombed out remains of the old Genbaku Dome, a building formerly known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now only a skeleton of it’s past structure. Today, most recognize it as the last standing building closest to the hypocenter or ground zero of the explosion.   As I looked up and down the river, you could see youngsters playing the guitar, an old man paddling his boat and families gathered around.  Hiroshima had rebuilt and prospered, as will other cities that suffered similar tragedies.

Even more obvious proof was evident when we walked into town, looking at the various stores and restaurants.  We had dinner at a restaurant with mostly counter seating, where you picked what you wanted, paid your money to a vending machine which printed you a ticket, then put the ticket on the counter for the cook take and prepare your meal.  I had the heart stopping combination of bacon, corn, egg, seaweed and ramen noodle.

Nadine found a used English book store, run by foreigners who called themselves ‘the Outsiders Book Nook’ while I managed to visit one of the larger electronics stores.  It was, undoutably, very bright and very well stocked.   I also, found the exact opposite of the 90 degree USB cable:  It was the wrong end, the flat end, not the square end.

Tomorrow we return to Tokyo on a four hour Shinkansen ride.  We’ve been systematically making our way down the coastline and now are returning up to the beginning.

Japan Day 12

Day 12

Many things happened today, including the fact I nearly had to buy an EOS20D DSLR, but more on that later.

Tiger fever is all around us here in Osaka, as the city celebrated it’s victory.  As I type this, the Tigers rally song is playing through a tinny speaker in the shopping arcade behind me.  The Hanshin department store is having a sale, as are many other places nearby.  Everyone is wearing their favourite Tiger clothing, men and women, young and old.  On my way back to the hotel tonight, I got a Tigers cardboard loudhailer, except the girl who gave it to me motioned that I had to wear it on my head.  Everyone else was, so here I was, standing in the middle of Kita/Umeda in bustling Osaka, with a cardboard cone on my head, with several other folks, sararimen in suits, teenagers, and the like, all wearing these silly cones.

We took a Shinkansen out from Osaka to Himeji this morning, bright and early. Himeji is about 30 minutes or so by train and features a beautiful white castle, finished in 1609.   About 15 minutes away from the train station, the outer moat was actually where the JR tracks are today.

Nadine and I walked up through the castle, wearing slippers to avoid damage of these cultural heritage sites.  I already have trouble wearing slippers, but climbing 50 degree staircases made of creaking wood adds a certain amount of difficulty. From the sixth floor, you can see around Himeji, a relatively small town.  In the distance are graceful rolling hills.

This is where, coincidentally, I forgot my camera on a park bench.

Around the time we were walking to the track for the return train, I was thinking about lining up a shot of a JR Series 500 Shinkansen streaking by with it’s characteristic pencil sharp nose and grey and silver livery colours.  This was also the time I realized I my Lowepro backpack was a bit lighter than usual and that I didn’t have my EOS300D slung around my shoulder.

I was contemplating how much ‘idiot coverage’ my travel insurance covered and if I could afford a EOS20D with 17-85 IS USM lens package with it as we walked by to the castle.  There a professional shooter doing tourist group shots had found the camera and was keeping it safe.  I was really thankful he had found it.  He asked to see my photos and mentioned he figured it was a traveler instead of a local because all of my menus were set to English.

Overall, I’ve found Japan is a very safe and trusting place.  As a fellow tourist from a British group we’ve been running into here and there says, ‘it’s strange to leave your rucksack and not have it nicked’.

We headed back to the bustling metropolis of Osaka, where, now expert in the configuration of the Osaka JR Loop Line, a circular railway which encircles the city, we went to see Osaka Castle, situated not far from Den Den Town.  This building from the outside looks pretty similar to Himeji’s castle.  However, this one was only built in 1931, a reproduction from the same period.

The original Osaka Castle was started in 1583, but was completely burn down in the 1615 after a significant siege.  The new one built in it’s place features elevators, a museum, and air conditioning.  The view from the eight floor of this structure is startling, when you see the
skyscrapers of the city surrounding it.

The last time I was in Montreal, I found this strange hand dryer in a bar which was so powerful, it blew your skin around.  Today we found a Mitsubishi hand dryer which was shaped like a U.   As you put your hands in the top of the dryer, a thin curtain of fast moving air dried your hands in an instant.  I was suitably impressed.

After Osaka Castle, Nadine planned to visit the Osaka Museum, which I decided to opt out of, instead, needing some time to rest, the few days of nothing but noodles, sushi, and traveling catching up with me.  I eventually headed back to Den Den Town, Osaka’s electric goods avenue.  On my way, I saw the NHK Osaka building, the national broadcaster.  As if a matte painting out of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, this gleaming arc of a building shot up from the ground, it’s technofuturistic shape only punctuated by a small NHK logo and an array of microwave domes on the very top.

Named after the first syllable of the Japanese word for electricity, Den Den Town warranted a return trip.  The prices weren’t anything to write home about, but the variety is surprising.  I particularly liked the stores of used computers, which I mentioned last night.   Unlike our used computer shops, which are mostly populated with corporate lease returns of old Dells and Compaqs, these stores have a spread of very small and compact computers, usually the size of a small phonebook, or sometimes, built right into the LCD panel display.   The staff are seen in the background, scrambling to unscrew hard disks and wipe the drives of personal information, putting them back out on display.

Speaking of science fiction, William Gibson’s seminal novel, Neuromancer, speaks of a market street where ‘softs’ are traded and sold, in a bazaar.  Just like the book in Den Den Town–neon signs proclaim softs for sale–used and new software–and even lavender MemorySticks can be found, loose in a bright red plastic basket for 940 yen a piece.

I also found a number of hobby shops which sold all sorts of anime and manga related items like models, figures and videos.  Though I’m not really into anime, I did recognize a few of the Japanese names like Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Macross.  Macross Plus, Seven, Zero and Do You Remember Love? to be exact.

I ended up buying something, yes, the great Ebbro 1/43th scale Honda JDM Inspire, also known as the Honda North American Accord.  Going for about $55 Canadian in Toronto (once talked down to $35 plus tax), I found it for 2900 yen, which was a sale due to Hanshin Tiger mania today.  The Ebbro model is a highly detailed model of the Inspire, which is the same body style as my Accord.  The clerk behind the sales desk couldn’t really figure out why I would want this model–apparently the Inspire isn’t very popular here.

I also got a strange USB cable extender for 300 yen made of weighted rubber.  Sadly, and I did spend a lot of time looking for it, no 90 degree USB cables were to be found.

The breadth and depth of the items stocked at these stores, is staggering. Want a plastic model of a Nissan Skyline?  A JR Series 100 shinkansen train?  In N or HO?  The computer stores stock rows upon rows of motherboards, memory chips and hard disks, more varied than any store at home, though not at any better of a price.  A regular Chinese computer store in Toronto might have five or six keyboards. The keyboard section here has about thirty–including an all black Happy Hacker Keyboard, which has a fantastic tactile response and an Sun Type4/Amiga style Control key placement.

We met back at the hotel and headed out for dinner in Kita.  I had seen an ad for another conveyor belt sushi place, which I think Nadine humoured me in going to.  After dinner, we walked back through on the elevated pedestrian walkway, where bands were playing in the humid night sky to passerbys.

One band playing underneath the walkways was Trick Star Jump, a U2-esque quartet rocking out on the streets of Osaka.  I snapped a few photos of them, their faces dripping with sweat in the evening heat as they entertained the crowd of Japanese city dwellers.  As they finished their set, the lead singer rushed to give out photocopied handouts for their upcoming gigs.

All in all, a pretty full day.  Two castles, a Osaka rock band, more conveyor belt sushi, all the MiniDisc players you could ever want, a scale model of Ohio’s pride and joy, and I nearly lost my EOS300D.

Your comments, by the way, are encouraging and fun to read.  Tomorrow we are headed south to Hiroshima, then a day later, back to Tokyo and onwards to Hong Kong after that.

Japan Day 11

Day 11
From Monastery to Madness

We woke up early today at the Sekishoin temple, which is the home of several Buddhist monks.  These monks have seen fit to equip their guest rooms with the best freakin’ shower and toilet ever invented.  The space is so large it’s like I’m in Canada again.

At 7AM, we filed downstairs to the main hall, where we sat, quietly, at the back of the room as monks came in, dressed in their robes and sashes, and started prayer.  After about fifteen minutes, we were invited to come up, receiving a bracelet in kind gesture, to bow and pray at the various shrines.  Apart from us, there was a young European couple, an elderly Japanese husband and wife, and a sole older Japanese lady.

About half an hour later, we were welcomed into the dining hall, where breakfast had been set up for us.  Sitting across from Nadine, I sat on a pillow, and ate the breakfast presented, which included rice, seaweed, a tofu mixture, several pickled vegetables and miso soup.  The highlight was a ridiculously sour Japanese plum, which I had tried before in Udon noodle soup at Nara.  We had our tea, bade farewell to our monk hosts, and went off to see Koyasan in the morning.

Our first direction was westward, to see the cemetery, called Okunoin.  Amongst huge old trees, were old shrines, headstones and markers.   Thousands of them lined the pathway to a shrine, Kobodaishi Gobyo, where visitors could check on one of thousands of lanterns.  These lanterns, powered constantly with an electric bulb inside, must represent someone who has passed, or at least I surmised, as each had a unique identification number and maps of their numeric layout for visitors were all over.

The highlight of the cemetery for us was a rock, which pilgrims were supposed to lift to a higher shelf about six inches away.  The heavier the rock, the greater your sins were. I couldn’t lift the rock, nor could Nadine.  I suspect it’s a ploy to make people feel guilty about themselves.

We also visited the central monastery for the region, the Kongobuji Temple.  This is the headquarters for a specific type of Buddhism, that of the Shingon school.  While visiting temples is de rigeur for us on this trip, this one, built in 1863, had a pleasant surprise at the far end for us:  We were ushered to sit down and have tea with a biscuit in the new annex hall, built in 1984 as part of a celebration of the 1150th anniversary of the founder’s death.

Finally, we walked over to the giant pagoda we saw last night, called Gayan.  However, it is apparently called a stupa, not a pagoda, and was built in 1937.  Few things do not fit in the 18mm wideangle of my camera.  This huge structure required me to step back three times. Mount Koya was actually quite chilly this time of year and for the first time since the airplane from Canada, I had put on my fleece jacket.  We took the bus back to the cable car, then back out towards Osaka.

The rest of the afternoon was a long and convoluted trip, probably of interest only to railfans.  Started at the cable car at Koyasan, got onto a DMU going downwards to Hashimoto on the Nankai line, then exchanged to a JR line train to Wayakata, which from there, transferred to another JR train to Osaka, where we got lost for about half an hour and eventually found our hotel in the Kita area of town.

We went to the Minami area of Osaka, near Namba station after checking in and got promptly lost in it’s dark streets, punctuated by very bright stores here and there.  After walking around for a while, we stumbled into Den Den Town, the Osaka equivalent of Akihabara.  Huge superstores of brightly lit consumer electronics greeted us.

Some strange items in these stores are not common to westerners.  First, there are used laptops for sale, in pretty good condition, including a very small Thinkpad model I had never seen before.  Also, second hand digital cameras are present.  You can get a Coolpix 885 3.2MP camera for only 4800 yen, or about $50.   Pretty neat.  Next door was a store which sold electronic parts.  Not parts like heat sinks and RAM for your PC, but real parts like DIP sockets, headers, and discretes.  It even had items you’d normally have to scrounge through surplus junk for, such as Noritake VFDs, brand new for your experimentation.  It was like a new, clean, retail Active Surplus.

On our way to find the bridge over Dotomborigawa River, we turned in to some shopping arcades, huge brightly lit outdoor streets, with hundreds of stores.   In one, we found thousands of people, cheering.

What for?  The home team, the Hanshin Tigers, had won, entering them into the playoffs with another Japanese league team, the Dragons.  The mob, under the watchful eye of hundreds of policemen, were cheering, waving inflatable bats and noisemakers, letting go of balloons when
runs were scored.  It was joyous pandemonium and we were right inside of it, not sure what was happening or why these people were so eager.

Japan Day 10

Day 10

Today we departed Takayama in the morning.  The fellow who ran the Kyoto guesthouse questioned Nadine’s plan of two nights in Takayama, commenting, ‘Who stays two nights in Takayama?’  Since then, this has been a bit of a running gag as we see many folks staying more than one night in this small little town.

Yesterday morning, we went to a local market, which runs between 6AM to 12PM.  The market had local vendors with fruits, vegetables and other handmade items like stewed plums.  I had tried such a plum, pickled in some sort of salt, before as part of a bowl of udon noodles and the combination was strange but enjoyable.  The stalls had rows of samples in little bowls, visitors were encouraged to take a pair of chopsticks and grab a sample.

One of the more intriguing items were apples.  It appears there were two prices for apples, 3000 yen for brightly polished ones which had been grown with a vinyl decal overtop, with a blessing or saying then sunburnt into the skin, and a 500 yen class of regular apples.  I like apples as much as anyone, but five or thirty bucks for an apple is a bit much.  Later in the day, there was an adhoc fruit stand near the train station in Takayama, which seemed to have leftover fruit.  A full rack of apples were available, for a 100 yen each. I bought one.

It really was good, but not worth five dollars.

There was no time for that this morning, as we headed to the train station.  We exchanged tickets and got onto the 8:48AM Hida 4 service, express to Nagoya station.  It took about two and a half hours.  At Nagoya, I bought a boxed lunch, a true bento box, and brought it along with me to the Hikari, train service 367, southbound to Shin-Osaka.  During the hour long trip, I tried out this uniquely Japanese food–a small flat box with numerous items, including breaded pork, egg omelet, pickled vegetables, rice of different kinds, fried fish, bamboo shoots, and lotus root.

The Hikari Shinkansen took us across down to Shin-Osaka, on the outskirts of Osaka, one of Japan’s larger cities.  From there, we boarded a local line to get to another stop, which led us to the Hankai private railway.  This next leg took us on a two hour journey up the mountains to Mount Koya.

On the way, at the behest of Victor and Sacha, I bought a bottle of Pocari Sweat.  Despite it’s unusual name, it’s the equivalent of Gatorade, some sort of electrolyte replenishment drink.  The flavour is reminiscent of grapefruit.

The last part of the journey was a ride on a cable car up a 45 degree slope.  The train was actually built on an angle.  Imagine a train car with a set of stairs running the length of it.

When we got to Koyasan, a mountain town, a bus took us to our final destination, a temple called Sekishoin.  A young monk suggested we walk into town along the main road, turning at the only traffic light, to a local pub.  In his words, it was the most popular place in the area.

We walked around the area before dinner and found ourselves looking at a huge pagoda.  As a nearby bell struck six, we headed towards the local eatery.  The outside looked pretty dark and quiet, but inside was roaring laughter and noise, locals cheering and clamoring:  Always a sign of a good place to eat.

After it was obvious we didn’t speak Japanese, a translated menu was brought out, and we selected noodles.  The dinner I chose, ‘Udon noodles with meat’ I felt was the most generic of choices.  A fellow sitting next to me struck up a conversation, asking where I was from, if I spoke Chinese (as he was studying Mandarin at the local college) and many more questions about Canada, including whether or not we eat raw fish there.  He himself was eating a selection of raw liver, horse meat and fish and offered me some, but I didn’t know if that would be inappropriate–though I really did want to try horse meat.  It would be very fun to write in this day’s entry that I ate My Little Pony, but alas, it was conspicuously off the English menu, and I didn’t want to impose on this friendly stranger.

As my neighbour chainsmoked his way through a pack of Mild Sevens, others in the restaurant, not much larger than my cubicle at work, drank Asahi beer, presumably chuckling over old times, the glory days, or something else altogether.  Perhaps by chance, we had found the most happening place in Koyasan, a true native experience.

On our way back, we stopped into a local supermarket.  Nothing strange except that they had specially packed cases of Del Monte canned fruit, wrapped in a cellophane and cardboard presentation box for 2100 yen.   I couldn’t agree more, sometimes my mother will buy me a giant can of peaches as a birthday gift.  I got a bag of Yamayoshi brand teriyaki grilled beef flavoured potato chips on the way back.

The temple where we’re staying is really spacious and neat.  A number of sliding partition walls separates a living room, where Nadine and I are both writing, and a bedroom area, where a set of floor mattresses are.  The private bathroom, features a space age toilet.  Tomorrow, we are told, morning prayer activities start at 7AM, and breakfast at 7:30.   What this holds in store for us, is yet to be discovered.

Japan Day 9

Day 9

Takayama, after an evening of walking around, is a pretty quiet place.  Like Nara, it’s serene, but it’s also very small:  There are only a few major streets and it’s easy to get around.

Last night we had dinner along one of the major streets at a restaurant which appeared to serve one thing: Pork.  A cutlet of pork, deep fried, was served with rice, lettuce, some picked daikon radish and your choice of pretty hot mustard, or a salty teriyaki sauce.  It was very very filling.  It seemed some locals were there, because everyone was watching the small television up in a corner, which was playing the nightly news.  The first segment was pretty funny:  It seems someone in the area was caught with marijuana, a whole 2.5 grams of it!  The second show that came on was a review of Expo 2005, which we had just left.

Expo closed the day before and they showed a package of interviews, clips, musical numbers and the entire six month affair in review.  It’s a huge operation which took years to plan, build, and run, and is now closing down.  Even though the broadcast was in Japanese, it was clear the news segments showed everyone crying, emotionally closing out a chapter of their lives, especially the pavilions from other countries and the volunteers from the Aichi area who had spent six months entertaining guests from Japan and all over the world.

Today, we walked over to the bus center and got a ticket for the bus to the Hida Folk Village, a collection of traditional Japanese houses up in the hills built from the 1600-late 1800’s.  It was sort of like a Black Creek Pioneer Village.

When I was younger, our grade school class spent two weeks at Black Creek pretending to be pioneers and learning how people tilled the land and made peameal.  The Hida Folk Village was pretty neat, if anything to see how the other side lived, not feudal lords or emperors, but regular folk, farmers, sawyers (people who sawed logs) and silkworm growers.

Most interesting of all was a man who was splitting a log.  The man was probably over 70 years old, but he was handling the few hundred pound log with the ease and grace of a ballroom dancer twirling his partner.  He used several implements, a few wedges, a raked blade and a few mallets to make a five foot log with a diameter of about two feet into shingles for the houses.

Another house was having it’s roof rethatched, a process required every few years.  Scattered around the camp were artisans demonstrating their craftwork in the houses:  A woman sewed designs onto cloth, woven elsewhere in the village, a man tied straw into slippers, and a fellow carved animals out of wood.  I spent a few minutes watching this guy carve out of wood, worried that he’d slip and cut himself with one of the array of sharp instruments in front of him.  Obviously over time he’d gained considerable skill and mastery of the material and tools, such that he could start using the texture of his cuts to shape things like fur and muscle on legs and tail of the dog sculpture he was making.

After a morning at the Folk Village, we went back to town, having a short break at Takayama City Hall to book accommodations in Hiroshima.  we then proceeded up through the streets of the town to the Takayama Festival Float Exhibit Hall, which features a museum with special parade
floats from hundreds of years ago.  These thousand pound carts carry up to five million dollars of priceless artwork and gilded sculpture and every autumn about a month from now, are paraded around the streets of Takayama.

The museum itself was pretty funny:  In one room, a 52 inch plasma television is showing high definition video of the parade from last year.  Meanwhile, when we walked in, Nadine and I were given a little tape recorder with a large cardboard tag attached to it, narration provided by a nice young lady who can be clearly heard turning the pages of her script as she reads into the mike.  The tape recorder is labelled with little post it notes, especially important being the ‘Don’t Touch!’ label over the record button.

Such contrasts in technology.

Next door was the Sakurayama Nikko Kan, a museum of building models from the Nikko World Heritage site near Tokyo.  It’s very unusual to find a museum of models, models of which the real buildings in fact are very much still intact and visitable, but they were at least lit well.

After this pair of museums, we were pretty hungry.  I had started off this morning with a winning breakfast of Nissin Cup Noodle as well, so we wandered around to find the French bakery we saw last night.  This is not so unusual in Japan, their bakeries are of fantastic quality, and often in Danish or French tradition.  Unfortunately, we spent an hour trying to find this bakery through the streets of Takayama.

We also managed to find an interesting street of ‘clubs’, which seemed to be colocated with places with ‘snacks’.  What they mean by ‘snacks’ I’m unsure.

Takayama is a very strange place in terms of retail and restaurant offerings.  The stores and cafes open and close at strange times, so it’s never a given when something will be open!  We couldn’t find anything we wanted, so we went to the FamilyMart and grabbed something from the convenience section again.

Our next stop was the Takayama Jinya, an administrative office in the Edo period, around 1600.  This sprawling single floor building was used as part government building, trial court and tax storage for the area.  Unintentionally funny was the Shirasu or law court, where a sign proclaimed only some of the prisoners were severely tortured.  A large storage warehouse was set for the taxation of farmers and their rice.  Thousands of pounds of rice were levied as a tax and stored in this warehouse, so much that the peasants couldn’t feed themselves at one point.

I really liked the interior design of these buildings, as they were clean, elegant and spartan in their design.  Particularly beautiful was the small firepit in certain rooms, seamlessly blended into the tattami floor.

We had dinner tonight at French restaurant near our ryokan, which also happens to be on the corner of the local taxi company.  Across from rows of polished old Toyotas idling, we had dinner at this very small little restaurant, staffed by one man, cook, waiter, sommelier and maitre’d in one.  Nadine mentioned the local beef in the Hida region was particularly good, so I tried the steak.  It was really delicious:  Lots of marbleization, soft and tender, and the au jus was well done.  The sauteed local mushrooms were a cool side dish.

After visiting the ryokan bath and shower,  I came back into the room to find Nadine watching men’s synchronized swimming.  The show is entitled ‘Water Boys Championship’.  It is very strange, to say the least.  Right up there with the strange German girl skipping rope to Janet Jackson on late night television in Berlin last year.

Also on television is a strange show with a hundred girls being berated by the fortune teller from Iron Chef.  I’m not kidding, there’s a teenaged kid crying on national television.  I’m not sure why she’s crying, but it can’t be good.

Something we’ve noticed about Japanese television, apart from the fact we have no idea what is going on, is that almost everything is blurred out.  The nightly news has anyone that’s not directly involved and many who are, blurred out.  Signs of local businesses and random passing
car license plates are blurred out in the background.  Very strange.  It must be a stringent privacy thing.

Tomorrow we’re taking a full day of trains, regional and Shinkansen, to Mount Koya, a breathtaking view near the Osaka region.

Japan Day 8

Day 8

I did laundry last night in a laundromat near the guest house.  Between cycles of washing and drying, I tapped out the day’s events.  Some of you may be wondering how these posts are coming:

I am using a Sony Vaio VGN-U50, a minitablet like computer with a 5 inch 800×600 screen.  Each day, I’m shooting with my Canon EOS300D DSLR onto a pair of 512MB CompactFlash cards.  On average, I take about 200-300 photos.  That’s not to say we’re stopping 200-300 times, I think Nadine would have just about ditched me in Tokyo if this were the case, but I am taking multiple shots.  I try and vary

  • Exposure
  • ISO sensitivity
  • Iris
  • Composition

Sometimes I shoot a few frames in a burst to reduce shutter blur or camera shake, hoping doing a few will average out to a good solid frame in a long exposure.

Either way, I transfer the cards at the end of the day in the hostel onto the Sony and pick the best ones, reformatting them for upload.  I also write up the day’s events in a journal.

This is where the fun starts–finding a way to upload them.  I’ve been finding randomly open wireless access points to upload the files.  It’s brought me to unusual places–last night, I was standing around the corner from the laundromat at a public bath house (and from what I could tell, a pub next door).  Tonight, I’ve been using it outside the ryokan (Japanese inn) we’re staying at.

This morning, we left Kyoto and headed for the train station.  But beforehand, we checked out Kyoto’s tallest pagoda.  Now, after all this temple and pagoda hopping, I’m starting to get a little suspicious of the titles these historic sites are using.  Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple.  Note the use of the qualifier Zen.  Tallest pagoda, but only in Nara.

Before we got back to the station, I went into a convenience store and found something to eat.  Last night I had come the conclusion I hadn’t had the one thing my family considered truly Japanese: the instant noodle.  So I went and grabbed, for 150 yen, a Nissin Cup Noodle.  Japanese convenience stores often offer a microwave and a kettle of hot water (there’s your Standby Rice Cooker, Iain!) at the counter for exactly this purpose.  I ate the Cup Noodle just outside.

We grabbed the Hikari 410 service to Nagoya, departing Kyoto at 11:36.  Rail pass users are not allowed to use the Nozomi, or JR Series 700 trains.  The Nozomi, which look like platypuses or ducks, are faster and newer. Regardless, the Hikari are already three times faster than whatever we have at home.  We pulled into Nagoya at 12:15, then transferred to Hida service 9, a Diesel Multiple Unit headed out towards Takayama.

I dozed off while going to Takayama and when I awoke, I found a stunning vista of mountains and valleys passing by as the train weaved through tunnels and overpasses.  It looked like driving through the Rockies, except the valleys were much narrower.  Buildings and roadways were buttressed up, terraced along the sides of the mountains.  From side to side, there only seemed about half a kilometer of flat land as we went through these mountain passes.

I tried a few more unusual items today:  Yogourt, which ended up not being that exotic, and a strawberry milk drink.  I also tried a pasty spherical concoction on a stick.  The man took one out, dipped it in a sweet soy glaze, then browned it above a small burner.  The flavour was cool, but the texture of this item, which felt like half cooked dough, was a bit offputting.

Takayama is a small little resort town about two hours away from Nagoya.  As we walked through the streets of this quaint little town, we remarked at the old houses and alleyways.  Tomorrow we’ll see Takayama’s sights, but for now, we’re at a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn.  The room is clean and sparse, we’re on these mattresses and the floor is covered in tattami bamboo mats.  In comparison to the somewhat dingy guesthouse in Kyoto, this place is incredibly neat.  The bath is communal, which is a selling point of ryokan, you’re supposed to sit and contemplate in mens and women’s baths.