Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sunday, January 27, 2008

photopost - Things we ate in China

There were too many photos, so I put them in an album. Click to see the rest of them...

Things We Ate in China

Friday, January 25, 2008

not a real post

I was going to write and tell you about all the amazing food I've been eating, about beijing kaoya and street snacks in Wangfujing, and what the Forbidden City is like at dawn (cold!), and upload lots of pictures, but then I thought hey! Isn't Beijing famous for foot massage? And haven't I worked a really long day getting in meetings with everyone? And it is, and I have.

So, regretfully, I must inform you that I have no time to write about all those delights.

I have a 10pm appointment across town at a foot massage place recommended by my coworkers as "the best in Beijing", and snacks to buy for hiking the Great Wall of China in the morning. Apparently, foot massage takes 80 minutes. I've heard that some Westerners find this is altogether Too Much, and would prefer a less measured pace. Let me tell you: I am SO not one of those Westerners. I am so excited I could spit. (And a word on that -- yes, there is spitting, but for the most part people on the subway do aim for the garbage. There are rules.)

I promise, I do have all the photos saved. I'll post them soon.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

return of the laundry

The laundry girl was as good as her word.
And I, I was so happy to see clean socks and underwear again that I had to share.

photopost - beijing subway

It was rush hour, so we took the subway: 60 min door to door. (cab would have been about 90.) Fare was 2 yuan.

Destination sign, Wangfujing station.

The red (line 1) train is coming!

It's here! It's here!

Like salmon at a ladder, we climb the stairs to transfer to blue line (line 2).

I am pretty sure I could make it to the office in 45 min if I didn't have to struggle through rush hour crowds.... But all in all, the subway is pretty efficient. Beijing has uniformed officials with caps to organize everyone at the station into lines. (I was a little intimidated, so you don't get a photo of the official in his uniform.)

wo qu beijing (finally!)

Well, I am behind in my travelblogging, but I no longer have to wear a mask when I talk to my co-workers -- and not just because I'm in China now, where it takes more than a little sniffle to warrant biohazard protection.

On the flight into China, they give you a form to fill out with checkboxes indicating which of the following potential bird flu symptoms you might have experienced. With trepidation, I checked the box for "cough", since I didn't think the odds were good on my making it through an interview without coughing. I passed on the box for "snivelling". I know, "snivelling" is a real word, but it's kind of humorous to see it on a form.

Anyhow, I decided I was merely coffy, not snivellous. And as it turned out, no one checked the form, just like the Canadian one.


At immigration, you (the immigration customer) get a little panel to rate the officer for level of service. You can choose between very happy face, kind of happy face, okay face, unhappy face, and super unhappy face. I pushed the button for very happy face. He was fast.

I really wish USCIS would add buttons like the Chinese service has. For instance, the USCIS official who stamped the boy's passport with a negative date range in 2007? He would SO get the super unhappy face. And the guy who told me to go to Tijuana to get a visa stamp? super unhappy face.

But I liked the Chinese official. He was nice and efficient. Americans: you could learn something here.

Our hotel is the Beijing Hotel, on Chang An Jie. It's steps from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. This is particularly amusing because Chang An Jie is one of the Canonical Street Names Used In Chinese Lessons, and Beijing Fandian is the Canonical Hotel used in How To Ask Directions examples. I didn't plan it this way, but let me tell you, when getting into a cab, my pronounciation is stellar.

Sadly, Chang An Jie is really really really far from the office. It's 90 min by car in rush hour traffic, and 60 by subway. I should probably move (this is about what my regular commute is at home) but I love being steps from downtown, even if I was too cheap to spring the extra 250 yuan (35 USD) a night for the view.

Beijing Fandian was built around 1900 and feels like an old railway hotel. My room is huge. And we're steps from the subway station.


I am really wishing I had studied harder in class. I have the most basic Chinese vocabulary, and everything here works through bargaining. I got my host at the office to negotiate laundry service for me. It's hard to find a laundrette, so you have to pay by the piece.

I have a week's worth of laundry, and the hotel charges San Francisco hotel prices. As in, I could buy a new wardrobe for that. So the negotiation with the girl from the less expensive laundry service who comes to pick up my clothing goes like this:

[laundry girl] ...and six pairs of socks. That will be 155 yuan. (22 USD).
[my host] okay, and remember, I have a coupon.
[laundry girl] huh. all right. so, we'll have this done by friday.
it's tuesday. i only have underwear and socks to wear because i washed them in the sink at the hotel.
[me] what???
[my host] she says friday.
[me] friday? but i don't even need ironing!
[my host] she doesn't need ironing.
[laundry girl] friday.
[my host]
rapid-fire Chinese with very concerned face.
[laundry girl]
rapid-fire Chinese with very concerned face.
[my host] she says maybe thursday.
[me] this is not good. i have a talk on thursday. i really need clean clothes. i will have to go somewhere else.
[my host]
more rapid-fire Chinese.
[laundry girl]
[my host] she says tomorrow afternoon, but it will cost extra.
[me] how much.
[laundry girl] 30 yuan.
[me] okay, 30 yuan extra, but i pay when she brings my laundry back.
[laundry girl] right.

I am waiting now, for my laundry. I really hope it gets here, or I'll be giving that talk in long underwear and a skirt.

Friday, January 18, 2008

more about the mask

The Internets failed me -- apparently no one has seen fit to write up anything in English about mask-wearing etiquette in Japan.

Luckily, I have colleagues who have worked in Japan, so I can tell you (and the Internets, hellooo Internets) that it is acceptable to go out to dinner with your coworkers sans mask, even if you are totally losing your voice. Which is good, because eating with chopsticks is hard enough, never mind cutting a teeny little hole in the mask through which... no I'm joking. No one eats with a mask on, not even lepers.

Anyhow, dinner was nice. I'm testing the theory that enough sake, shoju, and plum wine will cure laryngitis. Chestnut shoju and plum wine? Very tasty. (The sake, we already knew was tasty, but you might have been wondering about the others.)

We'll talk about my voice later.
Okay, I did find one site, but mostly it asked the question "am I a dork if I wear a hygenic mask and I am a big white gaijin?". I think, if you are asking this question on an Internet newsgroup, the answer is probably yes regardless of the attitude of the Japanese towards foreigners who adopt their germ self-containment practices.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

i has cold in japan

not the worst cold ever, but i am trying to be polite...

photopost - seijin no hi

Meanwhile, back in Shibuya, Monday was seijin no hi, a national holiday celebrating young people coming of age (20). At 20, you can smoke, drink, and vote. It's a huge event, with street fairs, people visiting shrines, and young girls decked out in fancy kimonos all over the place.

Girls drumming at the street fair.

Shibuya residential street.

Train crossing, Shibuya.

Walking to the Meiji shrine

Throwing coins for good fortune and prayer

Girl in kimono. Everyone takes pictures and the girls in kimonos pose.

Looking at prayers at the shrine.

You can shake a box of sticks and get a number, which gets you a poem that tells your fortune. They're reading their fortunes.

Festival snacks outside the shrine. That's fish roasting over coals. Too bad i can't eat them! They looked tasty.

Crossing the street at Harajuku Stn.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

the sound of flushing

So, the super high tech Toto toilets are sneaky... it's not always clear how to activate the flush. The ones at the Ghibli museum and our office are particularly mysterious. Not only is the flush activation mechanism physically separated from the toilet, but they've helpfully provided a nice red herring: a button conveniently located next to the other controls (which wash front, wash back, and fluff, style and air-dry your private regions) helpfully labeled "Flushing Sound". There's a little music note symbol on the button itself.

If you press it, desperate as you may be to avoid having to mime a request for help flushing a toilet because you don't speak enough Japanese to cover this kind of emergency, you are rewarded with.... the Sound of Flushing.

It's not even a particularly good sound of flushing. It sounds like what robots might imagine the sound of flushing would be, recorded, and then played back through a tinny speaker somewhere beneath your nethers. It goes on for awhile, and it does not stop when you press the button helpfully labeled "Stop". Although this button does stop the other washlet functions, it does nothing to the Sound of Flushing, which continues wilful and unabated until it reaches the end of the recording with a pseudo-realistic gurgly finish. Unless, of course, in your mortification at having activated it, you pressed the button again, in which case the Sound of Flushing starts over again.

But the Sound of Flushing is merely sound and (a little) fury, signifying nothing. So you may be congratulating yourself at having stopped the noise, but you are still facing an unflushed toilet.

At this point, I'll explain that the actual flush mechanism is an unobtrusive round button on the cubicle wall, with Japanese characters on it and no other indication as to its purpose. Even noticing it is tricky, because it blends in so well with the surroundings. And, also, let's not forget the large helpful button at the Narita airport toilet, labeled "A GUARD RUSHES". Perilous!

But anyhow, let's assume that you figure all this out. You're still wondering, well... why?

I asked Tohru, who is my expert. He gave me a look, like, I can't believe you're asking this totally ridiculous and obvious question. "No, really," I said, "why would you need the Sound of Flushing?"

The purpose of the Sound of Flushing? It masks any indelicate noises you might be subjected to in the washroom, thus preserving both your dignity and the dignity of those around you.

I thought this was totally ridiculous, but actually, five days later, I'm seeing the usefulness. Sometimes you just want a little mystery about your actions.

I was joking about the washlet fluffing and styling your nethers. Some things, you still have to do for yourself...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

rotenburo! onsen!

The bathing gets its own entry, of course.

I woke up at 5:28 am, I was that excited about seeing the sun rise from the rooftop rotenburo (hot tub, outdoor type). Also, 5:28 is an excellent time to take pictures that don't have other naked people in them. I leave it to your imagination whether I was wearing clothes or not when I took these.

Here is the changing room where you prepare for bathing.

These little wicker baskets hold your things while you are relaxing in hot water. That's my yellow towel.

Japanese-style showers. You sit on the stool and wash before entering the hot pool.

Hot pool! That thing on the right is a sort of underwater couch made of tile for sitting on. Comfort while bathing is essential. The box on the left is where the hot water comes from. You can sit under the waterfall if you like, and the water is hottest there. This is an onsen, so we're bathing in mineral spring water and there's no chlorine smell. Bliss.

This is how you get into the onsen. Those things with the rails are slanted underwater tile beds so you can lie back at an angle underwater. They have, in fact, thought of everything.

To the right of this picture, there's a dry sauna. The rotenburo is through the glass windows, and beyond them, if it were day, you could see the mountains. It is not day, and it was dark outside, so I didn't take a picture, but I watched the stars from the rotenburo on the roof until the sun came up. The funny thing about sunrise is that you think "ah! now! it is so bright, the sun must surely be about to come up!" and then that goes on for an hour as details slowly come out of the world around you and suddenly the sun is actually rising and there is contrast and light. And your fingers are more wrinkled than you remembered was possible.

Train official. They have great uniforms with hats.

The train home. Goodbye Yabuzuka!

photopost - fusejima ryokan

My friend Aki's mother runs a hotel in Yabuzuka, and invited me to come and visit.

The best part of this (and not photographed, alas, because I thought bringing a camera to dinner was silly -- a mistake I will not make twice) was that she asked the chef to make me a traditional Japanese meal without fish. I could eat everything! There was so much food! So, after a morning train ride, an afternoon of bathing, and an evening meal full of tastiness, all there was left to do was sleep sleep sleep.

The Ryomo-go train from Asakusa to Yabuzuka.

Tokyo has canals and bridges.

Yabuzuka! The mountains have snow.

The cheerful welcome at Yabuzuka's Edo-era style "mystery spot".

Edo-era style buildings.

My guide, Kaz, who does gardening for Aki's mother. He doesn't speak English; I don't speak Japanese. We have heart to heart communication. And a lot of gesturing.

We also have snacks. These are bread buns with a sweet/salty glaze.

It looks like the buns made me really fat, but that's actually my guidebook swelling out the pocket at my middle. Really, it is.

More scenic buildings.
One of these is built on a slant and you can do fun optical illusion tricks like rolling balls "uphill". But it was too dark, so you'll have to imagine how cool that was.
There was also a Secret Ninja House with mazes and Secret Trick Doors that you have to figure out. I expect that most 7-year-old Japanese kids can figure them out, but I needed help. No photos, because photos upset the spiritual balance of the Secret Ninja House, so you'll have to imagine how cool that was as well.

The hallway entrance to my room.
The toilet is the first door on the right, and the sinks and bath are the second door on the right, but only the door to the sinks was open. The door to the toilet is so nicely integrated into the wall that I didn't realise it was a door and there was much amusement as I tried to figure out whether I even had a toilet. Every time I figure out a new toilet in Japan (they are ALL different), I feel just like I did opening the Secret Ninja Doors.

When you arrive at the ryokan, you must change into a yukata (bathrobe). Everyone does. And then you wander about in yukata and slippers between bathing and napping and meals. This is me in my yukata.

And this is my cosy futon bed. I did some quality sleeping here, let me tell you.

Monday, January 14, 2008

instructions for riding the train

Very tired because I woke up this morning at 5:30 am because I was so excited about staying at the traditional ryokan inn that Aki's mother runs. See, the rooftop baths are open 24 hours. So I saw the sun rise from a rooftop in Gunma prefecture this morning, sitting shoulder-deep in hot mineral water. Apparently Gunma is famous for strong women and for incredible winds. Both of which are great to contemplate from an outdoor rooftop rotenburo (hot tub).

And then, we wandered around Shibuya, and saw a shrine, and lots of girls in kimono (it was a special kimono-related holiday), and a SUMO WRESTLING MATCH. Also, in the last 36 hours, I rode a lot of trains.

I have pictures of all that, but for now, here are some entertaining instructions for how to behave on a JR line train. Click to enjoy to the fullest.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

not a real post

I was going to write this up as an actual post, but the jetlag is catching up with me. So I thought I'd make some notes. And then I thought the cryptic notes were amusing, so I've made them public. Stream of consciousness blogging what-have-you.

avoiding fish is hard
tofu and pickles and sake
no noodle for you
breakfast at tullys
egg and cheese on toast
tohru is the best
how do you say "to go"?
slurping soba
the sneaky vegetarian, or, i ate your egg and also his.
japanese for char siu is char siu
ghibli museum
umbrella racks
the sound of flushing
orangi juice-u
small cups
ramen of the gods

... and bed.

photopost - tokyo in the rain

I didn't post any train pictures yesterday. I was worried about taking too many photos in public and looking like a tourist. Then I thought 1) no way are you going to be inconspicuous in Japan, and 2) Japanese tourists have taken far more photos of Canada than you could possibly compete with.

Anyhow. Here are some of the highlights... It was rainy. Umbrellas and trains are something of a theme.

The system map for Tokyo is complex.

The Imperial palace gardens.

At this point, I began to notice that the Japanese have much cooler umbrellas. They're all colours and patterns, and in the rain, the crowds were small seas of umbrellas. I felt left out without one.

This bridge at the Imperial palace is very famous. People line up in the rain to have their picture taken. So here I am. Note the lack of umbrella.

You really can get everything American in Shinjuku. The Japanese are apparently as excited by Krispy Kreme as Americans are by Beard Papas. I don't like Krispy Kreme, but I enjoyed the line of umbrellas.

The orange train is the one we took later to the Ghibli museum in Mitaka. There are lots of trains at Shinjuku station, and if you eat soba noodles at the top of the big mall across from it, you can watch the trains while you eat.

Also, after you eat your soba, you can buy a cool umbrella at the department store. Ali decided to go with the cheap special. Mine is so vastly superior.

Best mochi I have had in my life (so far!).

Shinjuku station.

A bus and cyclist in Mitaka, near the Ghibli museum.