Thursday, September 10, 2009

Japan Part 1 - Tokyo Super Mega Happy Post

We arrived into Tokyo after a twelve hour flight from Frankfurt feeling fairly refreshed after an evening of doing nothing in the hotel. No walking around checking out old buildings. No expeditions to discover new evening eating establishments. It was nothing but room service and German TV. That was all to change, oh yes.

We arrived into Tokyo with enough information to get us from the airport to our hotel in Shinjuku. Prior to setting down in Tokyo, James and Junko had scared the living crap out of us making it seem like it would be a monumental feat for us to get to our hotel room. It seemed like we would have to prove our worth by fighting Godzilla before the magical portal to our hotel would open and beckon us in.

It was actually no more difficult to navigate here than anywhere in Europe that doesn't speak English. Usually there are some English signs about the import points to get you going in the right direction. There was a train that left from the airport and got to the Shinjuku station without a transfer. Shinjuku train station is one of the busiest train stations in the world with over 3 million people traveling through it per day. They pride themselves on their bullet trains being late by on average 6 seconds which includes all mechanical failures.

I was worried a bit because our plane got into Tokyo at 7:30 AM which would put us on the train at about 9:00 during rush hour. We had our luggage with us so the thought of getting pushed onto a train and spilling out the other side was not appealing but the train wasn't packed and we had seats for the whole trip. Very enjoyable. Here is a blurry picture of a packed train though:

The first thing that you will notice when you get to Japan is how nice everyone is. In a US airport you would see people screaming and just generally unhappy. In Japan everyone without fail was happy and cheerful. If you got a cup of coffee the waitress would make it seem like you are the coolest person in the room and that it is an honor to have you purchasing the cup of coffee from her. Basically you constantly feel like a celebrity. When you go into any store the people there greet you with a Japanese saying of some sort. With that many people jam packed into such a small area I am very pleased that they are unreasonably nice.

Anyhow, enough with that, onto our voyage to our hotel. We got off the train at Shinjuku station and it was pretty busy but nothing unbearable. You could see that there were definite traffic patterns in the people so you just got into the flow and went where they were going. Roberta had printed out a map and we followed it directly to our hotel. No problem. After a room change due to them giving us a smoking room we were off and running.

The bathroom in the hotel lobby had the mother of all electronic toilets. When you walk up to them the lid opens and a blue neon light in the bowl turns on. I don't think that I need the glow from below lighting up my poop. Then the control mechanism was more complex than most microwaves. I was so amazed that I shut the door to the stall and took a picture of the controller. The flash went off and I walked out just as the bathroom cleaner was coming in. Don't know what he thought.

One nice feature of the bathroom in our hotel was how space was limited so they combined the bathtub and shower area into one room. Imagine a typical stand up shower stall right next to a tub so that the shower door encompasses the shower and the separate tub. If I ever design a bathroom I will add that feature. The room was relatively small but for being one block off one of the busiest strips in Japan I was pretty happy.

Pretty much right after we got there James showed up and checked in. Roberta needed a nap but I was ready to go so James and I hopped a train to Akihabara. On the train trip there I realized how tired I was an took a little nap. James was cracking up because I had only been in Tokyo for a few hours and I was already blending in sleeping like a Japanese salary man.

Akihabara is the biggest electronics/nerd sport shopping area in the world. We started wandering around through alleys of stalls selling everything from capacitors to robots to hentai porn-o mags.

Since population density in Japan is so high you will have stores and restaurants that take up 10 stories of a building. In Akihabara the theme seemed to be the higher that you went the less kid friendly the material was. If you take into account that ground level was barely kid safe then you can imagine what the 8th floors were like. Almost all the stores sold big pillow cases with naked women on them that you are supposed to cuddle up with. At one point we ended up on the 6th floor of some place and I realized that it was a gay comic book room.

The comic cover that will stick in my mind forever was one with these two girls getting friendly who just happened to be naked, pregnant and covered with some sort of gelatinous goo. I should have bought it to share it with the world. One of the places had a whole floor that just sold vintage gaming gear. Everything from old consoles to old PC games. There were some real gems in there. That was on the second floor, the other floors sold crazy offensive squid porn.

Smoking cigarettes in Tokyo is funny. There are signs all over the streets saying that you can't smoke in the streets. There are official looking men walking around with the "no smoking on the streets" symbol on their jackets obviously waiting to yell at any street smokers. But then you can go in any restaurant and they are packed with smokers. We actually went in a Wendy's today (we were craving something we understood) and people were chain smoking in there. Smokes are fairly cheap at $3.00 out of the vending machines. Also, all over the place the signs that indicated no smoking were more often then not worded "No Smorking". I love it.

I have seen some funny Engrish language on Japanese goods before but never understood how deep it went. The english phrases on buildings will never cease to amaze me. "Super happy fun cafe". Also a fair portion of the Japanese teens wear t-shirts with English sayings on them that almost make sense. They are usually supposed to be some sort of phrase with deep meaning but end up being a comical combination of words. Junko's mom actually has a shirt that says "Sometimes I pee when I laugh" She had no idea what it meant until Junko told her but she kept wearing it anyway. The Japanese definitely have a good sense of humor.

In Shinjuku right near our hotel there was a cat cafe where you can go in and have a cup of coffee and pet kittens. They had a sandwich board out front with pictures of all sorts of cute kittens. We wanted to go in but James was concerned that we would end up accidentally adopting a kitten. One reason that will draw us back to Tokyo is to visit a cat cafe.

One of the most memorable moments throughout the trip was when we had gotten lost and were wandering around Shinjuku at night. We stumbled down this street which just happened to be packed with restaurants and other nefarious businesses. At one point the volume of the street got so high that it was deafening. It was a combination of people talking, restaurants announcing their wares, music streaming from buildings and who knows what else. It was so loud to be actually amazing.

We walked through Shabuya during the day which is one of the more mainstream shopping districts. We were craving something we recognized so we went into Krispy Cream donuts for a break. They had the donut making machine in front of a bunch of glass so that you could see the whole donut making process. Once we got to the end they gave us free donuts for taking such an interest in the process. Fresh off the presses(or out of the boiling oil to be more precise). Mmmmm....

We got to Shabuya a bit early so most of the shops hadn't opened yet. We decided to go for a walk and ended up in the area with the highest density of themed love hotels in the city. A love hotel isn't as bad as you think (at least my understanding isn't). They are themed hotels that offer 'per night' or 'just a rest' options. The themes range from a Thailand beach resort to a South African safari. To me it initially sounded like you get a prostitute and head to one of these places. James informed me that the apartments are amazingly small here and a full family lives together so there is rarely private time to get it on(hence the Japanese population declining). These love hotels offer the parents time to get away for some themed private time. To get a room in a love hotel there is a vending machine where you get the key so they are fully discrete.

The main intersection in Shabuya is the combination of about 6 pedestrian areas that all go at once. When the pedestrian walk light changes it is a flood of humanity streaming from all sides. Somehow you just start walking and without being too much of a ninja you are at the other side safe and sound. I do feel that people tend to get out of my way a bit because I am substantially taller then them.

When the kids here get dressed up to go out it is funny. The guys are a cross between urban hip and Fonzie from Happy Days. Many of the guys have long hair bleached on the ends and have it poofy and done up. They walk with a swagger that means business. The girls seem to have a competition to see who can wear the highest heals and the shortest skirts.

The Japanese vending machine scene is amazing. There are vending machines everywhere in every city. They sell all sorts of flavored sugar water and alcoholic beverages. Some of them sell hot coffee drinks in the can. Throughout out journey we were looking for the mythical vending machines that sold used underwear but were unable to find them. We actually didn't see vending machines selling anything other than drinks and smokes. Sad days. My favorite drink to get from the machines was a yogurt flavored drink. It was thin like any other drink but it tasted like yogurt. Yummm on a hot day.

It seems like there are two national sports here: Shopping and Eating. They combine them by putting amazing food courts in the basements of all malls. The food courts are an easy way to get food as all the food is right in front of you. The language barrier can sometimes be difficult as most restaurants don't have english menus. You are trying to order by pictures which can be sketchy at times. We never had a problem getting food to put in our faces.

Breakfast on the other hand was a bit odd. The traditional/typical Japanese breakfast includes some miso soup, dried salted fish and these fermented soy beans. I tried it but couldn't get into it for breakfast. The fermented soy beans were the strangest. They had this stringy brown good surrounding them and when you tried to pick them up with chopsticks it stuck to the beans and the bowl and fanned out like something that I can't describe. I only had Japanese breakfast once. We had the American breakfast in the hotel or went to Mr Donut for the donuts that had the consistency of Mochi.

We were also looking for the fabled 'No Pants Shabu Shabu' but weren't able to find it. We did have regular Shabu Shabu which was good. Shabu Shabu is where they bring you out a boiling pot of broth on a flame and then bring you various types of meat to cook in it. 'No Pants Shabu Shabu' is where the waitresses aren't wearing underwear and the floor is mirrored. I feel like to get the most out of Tokyo you would need to know someone here and have them show you around.

One morning we got up at 4:30 to visit the largest fish market in the world. The Tsukiji Fish Market was an amazing spectacle. Acres and acres of these little motorized flatbed carts racing around at full speed. This is a tourist attraction but I think that it was one of the more dangerous ones that I have ever been to. They guys on the carts are not going to slow down if you get in their way. There were all different types of fish from little micro-shrimp to the giant tuna auction room. There were eels still kicking around and big squid just waiting to get roasted. We actually got there a little bit late at 5:45 but the place was still buzzing. Roberta had open toed shoes on which was probably a mistake as the fish juice was flowing out of every where. Surprisingly it didn't stink too much like fish in the market. The only time I noticed a fish smell was right when we got off the train. Luckily because Roberta is sensitive to smell because of the preggers thing. I think that the fish markets were one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Then we were off to try to get pushed onto a rush hour train. During rush hour on certain lines they become so packed that there are specific people hired to push everyone into the trains. We tried a bit to find a train to get pushed onto but we were always heading the wrong direction and didn't get the joy of being on a super packed train. Roberta, being pregnant, wasn't all that hip on the idea either. Rats, another reason to come back to Japan.

Final thoughts on Tokyo:

At points in the trip I switched between being in awe of Tokyo and being disgusted by the rabid consumerism and seemingly fake nature of the whole thing. It is hard to really put Tokyo into your normal box of understanding though. There are all sorts of pointy bits that will stick out the edges that just can't get to fit in no matter how hard you push. Kiwis consistently told me that when visiting the states that their first impression was that when Americans were being friendly and outgoing they thought they were being fake. I get the same feeling here. Can an entire society be this friendly, outgoing and happy? Through working 12 hours a day in a mad dash society can a person internally really be this cheerful? It is hard to understand if not impossible in such a short visit.

Maybe after I have had time to decompress from the trip I will post a follow up post with my thoughts.

One thing is for sure though. Japan has been one of my most amazing vacations ever.

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Monday, September 07, 2009

Vienna trip

After 35+ hours in transit we are finally into our hotel room in Vienna. As crappy as 35 hours on airplanes and in airports sounds it really wasn't that bad. As long as you have sleeping pills and a bit of entertainment you are ok. We are going to read this post in 30 years and laugh about having to travel like this since we will just be teleporting everywhere.

Some thoughts on Vienna
- Definitely the most beautiful city. The city was halfway demolished during worldwar II and the city rebuilt itself entirely along the original urban design style due to some strict city planning regulations. I only dream of working in a town with vision like that. On the other hand after awhile it all looked the same, whereas perhaps a few more modern buildings thrown into the neighborhood would have given it some historical context for comparison.

-The one exception to the above comment - I can resolutely state with some matter of fact'ness' - every major city had a modern art building that looked like some big mega block plunked out of some post-80's architectural handbook. In Vienna I spent a good deal of time in the Museum Quarter and can say I didn't really like the exhibits at the modern museum, but the natural history museum had the biggest rock rooms - AWESOME!

-Changed hotels to the Intercontinental wear Adam stayed on his first trip to Vienna as it had better internet connections, windows to the street, air conditioning, beds basically everything was nicer.

-I took a bike tour and I had a really good time, would highly recommend it as the first point of call in Vienna. It helped me get my bearings around the city the day before we were scheduled to depart. They had really nice KTM city bikes to go with the miles and miles of bike lanes. I was in heaven, every time I get on a bike it's perma-grin!

- We went to a mozert concert with some opera singers. Vienna is famous for being Mozart's place of residence where he did most of his work as the first full time artist contracter (they were usually employed by kings, etc). The performers were all dressed up in period costumes. I suppose we were suppose to envision ourselves as being in the mozart time period, but I just confirmed in my head I do not like classical or opera singing regardless of costumes and quality.

- Vienna food was great and is known for it's weiner shnitzel. I had it once to try it out but my conscious kept reminding me of what veil was. Thereafter I stuck to the cheese, breads, sweets and coffee - mmmmm the food was so good there.

More Vienna pictures here.

The start of our trip and our stop in Hong Kong

About 9 months ago I went to Europe for a business trip and Roberta stayed at home. When the plan started to formulate to send me back to Europe for work it wasn't even discussed. Roberta was coming along as well. There is something amazing about the history in places like London and Vienna that the locals take for granted. Sometimes it takes a tourist to remind them of how stunning their home is.

Our trip from Auckland started very nice with Roberta hooking us up with a business class upgrade from Auckland to Hong Kong. 12 hours on a plane and being able to lay down flat is pretty nice.

When we arrived at the Hong Kong airport there were signs all over the place saying that if you were sick then you need to get a health check to stop the spread of the dreaded swine flu. Roberta and I both had a slight cough so Roberta ticked the box. They instantly pulled her out of line and gave her a good going over to make sure that it wasn't swine flu. It was funny seeing her with a face mask on. That would have made a good picture.

Our plan was to get into Hong Kong and accomplish about 5 things in our 6 hour layover. Mainly we just wanted to see the city and get a feel for what Hong Kong is. Unluckily we got there in the morning before any of the shops opened so the city was fairly dead.

We took the train to the city center. The good thing about Hong Kong is that all the streets have english signs. We walked aimlessly through the city for a while then found our way to the vintage tram which takes you to the top of the big hill behind the city. At the top there was basically a big mall that went up about 6 stories to a viewing platform at the top. It gave really good views that were almost 360 degrees. I got a picture of what looks like a nuke plant on a small island behind the city. Seems like a dangerous place for a power plant to me.

One thing that I really like about Hong Kong was that to get anywhere you could take these elevated pedestrian walkways so you didn't have to be in traffic. It made for a much nicer city experience.

Our dreams of Dim Sum were dashed on the rocks as we had to hop the train back to the airport before our place left without us. I must say that Hong Kong has the most amazing airport. It is stunningly huge and clean. There is a whole entertainement area with an IMAX and arcade.

Back onto the plane but this time in economy. Luckily I got some good sleeping pills from the doc before I left.

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