30 July 2009

jet lag, home, and stuff

Right, so I'm home after my trip to the far east, and I've basically been trying to recooperate and rejuvenate for the past few days. I picked up my new eyeglasses, bought a camera, exercised, shopped, cleaned, read, slept, watched some tv, saw Harry Potter, and gone stir-crazy.

On Tuesday, I rode 15 miles to buy a camera.

The big news is that we have to buy another car. Sarah was in an accident a few weeks ago, and the insurance company has totalled the car. We're looking for another one. We want another Prius, but it doesn't look like the Prius is suffering from the same recession that other cars suffer from.

This morning, I was up at 4am and unable to get back to sleep (the last remnants of jetlag?). At 4.45, Sarah came home from work. So, we had a nice visit before she went to bed and I started my day.

27 July 2009

back home, safe, and photos!

I'm back in LA, safe and sound. Got all my bags. Also, I uploaded all of my photos from my trip to Korea and Japan. You can see them all here!

25 July 2009

en route

I'm all packed, and we're going to leave for the airport in about 30 minutes. Then, I'll fly for a long time... Post on the flip side!

A good morning, a ‘meh’ afternoon, and a great end of day!

Saturday, 10.51pm

Ian worked late last night until about 2.30am, so we had a late start to the day today. Ian got up between 10.30 and 11, and we met Reiko for another fine day out Tokyo. The weather was finally great – warm, sunny, blue skies, big puffy clouds! We headed down to Odaiba, which is the newest section of Tokyo (similar to Pu Dong in Shanghai). Odaiba is basically built along the coast across the river from Tokyo. From its rocky shores, we could see all of Tokyo laid out in front of us:

Look at that skyline! It looks like a matte painting!

Before we did much exploring, we stopped for lunch. Sushi! My favorite!:

After lunch, we hit the coast, exploring the different odd thing to be found in Tokyo. First, we found a small version of Lady Liberty:

Then, it was down the coast to find a HUGE replica of a popular Tokyo Anime character robot called Gundam. This Gundam had blinky lights, steam (mist) that came out of is chest and legs, and a head that pivoted and tilted. Here he is with his head raised to the sky, about to take off (not the steam coming out of his legs):

I thought he was going to take off and swoop through Tokyo, but he didn’t. Instead, he just stood there.


For our last thing in Odaiba, we hit a really cool science museum/center. In the main hall was a globe with a perpetually-moving display. Here’s a display of ocean temperatures:

Also inside the museum was an ingenious display of how the internet packetizes and transmits information. They do it all with little white and black balls, see, and the internet sends those balls down metallic chutes towards spinny ramps, see, where knowledgable Japanese people help ensure that the messages are delivered properly. It’s all very efficient:

Leaving Odaiba, we headed back to Asakusa, where we were going to see a very famous fireworks display. Unfortunately, the streets were a mess. The fireworks were going to be set off over the river, but there was no place along the river for us to watch! The streets were packed with people moving back and forth over bridges and down streets, trying to find a good place to watch the show:

After 45 minutes of wandering around trying to find a viewing point, we gave up and decided to try a different subway stop. That was just as lame, so we gave up and headed back to Ikebukuro for dinner.

Reiko found us a great place to eat dinner. We had beer, plum wine, dumplings, mushrooms, pancakes, edamame, chicken, fish, octopus, sushi, and French fries. Mmm!

Now, Ian and I are back at his place, internetting a bit before my last night here in Tokyo. We’re meeting Reiko tomorrow morning to trek to the airport for my afternoon flight. It’s 11.13pm here, 7.13am on Saturday morning back in LA. I’ll be home in just over 24 hours!

Will probably post once more before I take off… but if I don’t, Sayonara Tokyo! And thanks Ian and Reiko! It’s been a blast!

24 July 2009

Shopping, eating, and two kinds of beautiful women.

Friday, 11.37pm

Today started out messy but ended up really terrific.

After three solid days of Japanese ancient culture (two in Kamakura, and yesterday’s trip to Asakusa and Ueno Park), I decided that I needed a bit of modern Japanese culture. So, instead of doing more history, I thought I’d go shopping, to get a feel for modern Japanese people and catch a glimpse of the world-famous Tokyo design sensibility.

First stop was Roppongi, which is well known as a hedonistic center.

Bars, restaurants, and strip clubs are all over the place. I found some really beautiful design (clothes, furniture, art), but most of it was, alas, not Japanese. In addition to the heathen scene, Roppongi is also becoming a high-end-retail center, so there were lots of boutiques from NYC, Paris, London, Germany. The Japanese stores I went into were disappointing, except for a gourmet food shop that reminded me a lot of Balducci’s near Lincoln Center.

Also, it was rainy. And warm and humid. So, I’m walking around a disappointing area, and I’m wet, hot, and sticky. PLUS, I couldn’t find the one store I was looking for. Not a good start to the day.

Disappointed, I moved on to Shibuya, which is a combination of Times Square and soho:

Lots of shops, both big and small. Big chains (Claire’s, Tower Records, HMV, multiple Starbucks – including one in the photo above). I found some nice things to buy in the shops. Also, I found the Tokyo Apple Store! While at Shibuya, the sun finally came out, making my wet clothes hot AND wet. Mmmm. Fortunately, the sun didn’t last for long, and by the time I left Shibuya, the rain was back.

From Shibuya, I went up to Harajuku, which caters to a teenage clientele:

I found some more gifts, and a Japanese toy store (Japanese-designed toys were on my list of things to investigate). Also, I found this sign:

Interestingly, right below it, a man was boasting very loudly about how smorky he was. Out of nowhere, the cops came and hauled him off.

From Harajuku, I zipped up to Ikebukura to meet Sou for dinner again. He suggested that we go to a street festival in Shimbashi. That sounded good to me – if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Anthony Bourdain, it’s that the soul of a culture can be found in its street food. Sou and I headed to Shimbashi, where we ate bits of everything. In honor of Aunt Laura, here’s a collection of the goodness:

Small fish (6” or so), fried whole, eaten whole:

Fried squid:

Some sort of starchy potato-like thing, served with spicy mustard:

Chicken with a teriyaki-like sauce:

Soft-shell crabs (about the size of my fist) and grilled tuna:

Shark, sardine, and green onion fritters:

One thing we didn’t have was Ayu, these medium-sized fish that were grilled whole, head-down, over a charcoal grill:

After dinner, Sou and I wandered to another part of the festival, where there was dancing and music. I just intended to record the event, but Sou decided that I should learn the dance. He found a nice lady to teach me the dance, which was basically a 30-second loop of the same dance. She said I danced well. Here is her (on the left), me (second from the left), and some other women after the dance:

Accompanying the dancing was recorded music and live taiko drumming. There was one drum, but there were four drummers (it looked to me like a grandpa and four older grandchildren). Sometimes they took turns drumming (each for about a minute at a time), and sometimes two played at once. Here are two of the drummers:

I was pleasantly surprised to see that two of the four drummers were women. Beautiful, strong, focused, intense women. Sou says that until about 10 years ago, taiko drumming was male-only (sushi-making too), but that now women are starting to make significant inroads into the field. Taiko drumming is very athletic. The sticks are huge, the drum has major rebound, and the performance generally requires some extra-musical flourishes (stick twirls, flips, poses, etc.). I met some of the drummers after the event was over, and Sou took a photo of us.

Another thing that happened at the festival was a beauty pageant. Here are the winners – a totally different kind of beautiful women:

After the festival, Sou and I had a cup of coffee and then boarded the train. I had a great time with him, it was nice to have some social time after a few days on my own in a strange city.

Now I’m back at Ian’s apartment, trying not to distract him from his work. I think I ate a bit too much fried food, so I’m trying to placate my stomach with some diet coke. Ian and Reiko and I are hanging out again tomorrow – not sure what we’re doing yet… but I’m sure to write about it!

23 July 2009

Asakusa, Drum Museum, Ueno, Akiba, and Sou!

Thursday, 11.35pm

Today I was on my own in Tokyo. Ian had to work, and Reiko had to study. No matter, for I am an intrepid explorer! After taking a lazy-ish morning to nurse my sore ankle (I twisted it in a rocky puddle at Enoshima yesterday), I headed across town to Asakusa at around noon. Reiko thought I would definitely enjoy it, and she was right! It’s a huge shrine right in the middle of Tokyo, complete with some Buddhas, a Kannon, shrines of different shapes and sizes. The main shrine is covered in scaffolding as it undergoes renovation, but here’s the main gate:

And a charming statue. They say if you rub him, you’ll have good luck.

For lunch, I had a few small cakes that were just-baked (still hot) and filled with red bean paste:

After leaving Asakusa, I wandered south, and then west. I went to a really great drum museum, which unfortunately didn’t allow photographs. There were about 600 drums in there, most of which you can play. I wish that I had been traveling with another musician! The museum is sponsored by the company that makes most of the traditional drums for Tokyo musical groups, and in the gift store, many were for sale. Alas, they were too expensive for me. I couldn’t bring myself to spend $84 on a pair of finger cymbals, no matter how Japanese they were.

I continued to wander west towards Ueno Park, which is one of the bigger parks in Tokyo. If you can imagine Central Park, but add to it lots of Shinto Shrines, a small carnival, and a zoo, then you have Ueno Park. Here’s a series of gates that lead to a tiny arbor and shrine:

And here’s a shot of the pond, covered in lilies, with a building on the far side.

After Ueno Park, I thought I’d take one of the walks that my guidebook suggested. It wasn’t terribly successful, as the maps in the book don’t match the reality of Tokyo streets (we had a similar problem in Beijing, as I recall). Nonetheless, it did get me from Ueno Park to a bridge over the river, where I snapped this balance of nature and industry:

After the walk, I headed back to Akihabara, where I thought I’d do some shopping. Alas, what I was searching for was not to be found. Still, I got to experience Akiba one more time (probably the last time, as I won’t return tomorrow and probably won’t go there on Saturday either).

By this point, I had been on my feet and moving from about 12:45 to 6:45. From Akiba, I took a train (finally sitting down!) back to Ikebukuro to meet Sou for dinner. Sou directed the Japanese piece in Shanghai that was particularly challenging last month. He works near Ikebukuro, and he took me to a Japanese restaurant for some Japanese frittatas. Here’s the frittata:

And here’s me and Sou:

After dinner, Sou and I went to an arcade to play some video games, including one where you bang on taiko drums. Think Ondekoza, Guitar Hero, and Japanese pop music! I did respectably well. After that, Sou took me upstairs to an entire floor of photo booths. We had our photos taken and then got to decorate them with computer imagery. I’ve got the photos and will scan them when I get back to the US. Interestingly, the floor we were on is reserved for straight couples or groups of women. I guess they’re both anti-gay and worried about men prowling the floor. An attendant actually came over and yelled at Sou and I for being up there. He explained to her that I’m an American tourist, and that was enough for her. I guess ugly Americans are allowed to be on the photo booth floor.

Before getting back on the train, Sou and I made plans to get together tomorrow night as well. That’ll be nice.

In the meantime, I need to figure out what to do tomorrow. I think I’m historied out. I’d like to see some fashion, design, and modern art. I’ll check my guidebook in the morning. Any suggestions?

22 July 2009

Kamakura, Enoshima

Wednesday, 11.37pm

This is a LONG post!

What a great two days it’s been in Kamakura! Ian and Reiko took me down to this seaside town for an overnight trip. It’s lovely. On Tuesday, we started our trek with a few bad omens as Ian forgot his wallet and I was unable to withdraw cash from the ATM. Those crises solved, we proceeded on our way. It took about 90 minutes to get from Ian’s place down to Kamakura, all of which was done on public transportation. We saw a lot down there (Kamakura was once the capital of Japan, and as such, has an excessive number of shrines, most of which we hiked to), so I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.

The Great Buddha, which we saw as we ordered SWEET POTATO ICE CREAM!:

Our lunch of Kamameshi (rice, egg, chicken, and radish), veggies in vinegar, and miso soup:

A floating forest at Hachiman-gu:

And a shrine there too!:

Another shrine:

And another:

A mossy yard at Enguko-ji:

And a spider there too! (click for a bigger picture):

Also, a shrine was there!:

That night, we ate a feast based on Shirasu, which is a tiny little fish that is the local speciality. Shirasu is about 1.5cm long, 2mm thick, and is eaten before it grows to any sort of maturity. With our dinner, we had grilled barracuda, baked yellowtail, Shirasu on rice, pickles, miso soup, tempura, sushi, a raw bowl of Shirasu with mustard, and Shirasu on salad. I took photos, but I’ll wait until I get home for you to see them.

After dinner, we walked on the beach, dipped our toes in the Pacific (the Bay of Japan, really), and looked at Enoshima island, which would be our destination the next day:

On Wednesday, we walked across the bridge to Enoshima:

…which has many more shrines and interesting sites. Here’s a dragon:

And a craggy shore:

We found a fence where couples secure locks, symbols of their unbreakable devotion:

And we watched the eclipse (through our cameras)!

We found another shrine:

and ate some funky octopus crackers!

After our lovely time on Enoshima, we headed back up to the main part of Kamakura. Before we left, we went to the shrine of Kannon, which looks like this, looking out over Kamakura:

It took a lot of steps to get up to see her:

She is beautiful, to be sure. Also at her shrine was this flame, which was lit from the burning rubble of Hiroshima, and has been burning ever since. In the background on the left, you can see a piece of rock that was also pulled from the wreckage at Hiroshima:

After that moving display, we decided that Kamakura couldn’t top itself, and we headed back to Tokyo, where we went to a Shinto Shrine right in the middle of the city:

The Hanazono Shrine is located conveniently near chain hotels:

After this last shrine, we were pooped and we headed back to Ian’s place to have some dinner and chat. I showed Ian and Reiko my photos from China and Korea and we talked recession, culture, and such. After Reiko left for the night, Ian and I stayed up later talking computers, personality, and relationships.

What a fun couple of days! I like Reiko a lot, and I’m glad for the chance to spend some more time with Ian.

Tomorrow, I’m on my own in Tokyo! Not sure what I’m going to do, but I’ll start with a late morning. From rise to bed, I’ve been surrounded by people for the last 5 days. I need a break.