Archive for October 2018

Shanghai Old And New

October 31, 2018

DSC01307

Shanghai is full of paradoxes. They have preserved some lovely old areas, as well as some even lovelier and older areas, but much of the city is brand, spanking new. The contrasts are amazing.

DSC01291.JPG

It’s not just the architecture, it’s also the generations. These two women didn’t seem to know each other, but seeing them together was really evocative.

DSC01197.JPG

And the fashion. Ultra-hip,

DSC01210.JPG

DSC01223.JPG

and pose-worthy ancient.

DSC01293.JPG

Even the furniture surprised me. These hand-carved chairs are from the Qing Dynasty, which began in 1636.

DSC01304.JPG

But this furniture is from the Ming Dynasty, which began in 1368, although this stuff could just about pass for mid-century modern. Both are found in the wonderful Yu Garden, which is over 400 years old and also offers the visitor

DSC01287.JPG

a cacophony of koi,

DSC01289.JPG

a zig-zag bridge that only the emperor was allowed to cross, because it contains nine zigs and zags, the most auspicious number, and one reserved for the emperor’s use. Not even the empress was allowed to cross it.

DSC01299.JPG

There’s a lion made of iron that is over 700 years old,

DSC01305.JPG

a stone with 72 holes that’s been revered for more than 1000 years, because if you pour water in the top, or burn incense at the bottom, all of the holes will yield a beautiful result,

DSC01300.JPG

and a reflecting pool illustrating the principle that the reflection of the moon gate prevents you from knowing the depth of the water.

DSC01199.JPG

Outside the garden, in the old town, you can buy a bracelet of hand-hammered silver,

DSC01201.JPG

a flute made of clay,

DSC01204.JPG

or even a jade carving, if you’re extremely rich.

DSC01214.JPG

Outside of Shanghai proper, in the “water town” of Zhujiajiao, you can ride a hand-poled boat, which we did.

DSC01213.JPG

DSC01217.JPG

DSC01275.JPG

While in the French Concession, a part of Shanghai that was ceded to France from 1849-1943, you can celebrate Halloween at Wolfgang Puck’s,

DSC01283.JPG

rest in the shade of plane trees (platanes) that were imported from France,

DSC01276.JPG

get a taste of Bavaria at Paulaner, served to you by Chinese ladies in Bavarian costume,

DSC01279.JPG

and even marvel at the site where the very first congress of the Chinese communist party was held.

DSC01308.JPG

If you’re utterly exhausted you can stop at this tea house,DSC01309.JPG

before visiting the state-run silk factory. Now let me say that I went there to learn about Chinese silk production, and possibly buy a scarf.

DSC01310.JPG

But after they showed me how the silk thread is spun, something I had already seen in France,

DSC01312.JPG

they showed me how the workers take a small mat of silk

DSC01315.JPG

DSC01313.JPG

DSC01314.JPG

lifting and stretching it until it becomes a single layer in a pure silk comforter. You guessed it, I couldn’t resist getting one to bring home.

That was just two amazing days in Shanghai. I feel like I barely scratched the surface, and I haven’t even mentioned the food, which certainly isn’t for lack of sampling it. And I haven’t told you about the marriage market. Or strange Chinese medicines I’ve tried. That’ll all be next.

 

Shanghai By Night

October 30, 2018

DSC01248.JPG

I was completely unprepared for the beauty of Shanghai. My guide in Beijing had kind of disparaged it, “so modern, so commercial,” and I hadn’t read enough about it before we arrived to be prepared for how breathtaking it is. There’s so much to show you that I’m going to do it in three separate posts. This one is about the Chinese art of taking back the night.

These were taken through a moving car window, but are still beautiful, I think.

DSC01245.JPG

This last little ditty was the night time view from my balcony. But what the city is really famous for is the nightly light show created by the stunning architecture and a parade of dinner cruise boats. I watched it all from our ship, and I think that’s the best possible view. Now you can see it too.

DSC01247.JPG

DSC01246.JPG

DSC01251.JPG

DSC01252.JPG

DSC01256.JPG

DSC01261.JPG

DSC01260

DSC01258.JPG

This last amoeboid boat is my personal favorite, but the whole thing was the stuff of dreams. What amazes me is that in largely utilitarian China this entire spectacle exists for one reason only: beauty. It’s not for a special event, it’s not advertising, Shanghai does it just because it can. Or maybe, to show that it can, as it progresses along its path toward becoming one of the world’s hottest and brightest economic rising stars.

Better In Beijing

October 27, 2018

DSC01094.JPG

Ok, so Beijing wasn’t all terrible, not at all, despite my nerve-wracking run-in with the embassy. The city is surrealistically huge and crowded, with death-defying traffic and milky-white air. Oh, and my guide was mostly a dud and didn’t explain much, but he did get me safely from place to place, which I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish on my own. But there is beauty, and interesting stuff, and I aim to show you that, without prejudice. It’ll be mainly a photo essay, which is more prejudice-free than words, but I know you’ll enjoy the eye candy.

It’s more or less mandatory to go to the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square, although I wouldn’t have minded giving it a miss. It takes hours to walk through even a fraction of it, and most of that looks more or less the same. I know, I’m a heretic.

 

DSC01012.JPG

In fact, it’s so exhausting visiting there that people have to stop for rests and snacks. Notice how they all look kind of grumpy? That seemed to be a standard look in Beijing, where I saw very few smiles.

DSC01007.JPG

However, I do have this shot of myself with Chairman Mao and a few dozen of our best friends, which is worth something.

DSC01013.JPG

This jacket is perfectly ironic in a city where each person seems to have about one square meter of personal space, at best.

DSC01017.JPG

DSC01022.JPG

DSC01023.JPG

DSC01033.JPG

DSC01035.JPG

There are lots of gorgeous details in the Forbidden City,

DSC01029.JPG

DSC01030.JPG

DSC01039.JPG

and it’s also a thing to dress up and have your picture taken there.

DSC01032.JPG

Although I suspect that these kids are dressed like this all the time.

DSC01058.JPG

Later, walking through a shopping street, we saw these baboons advertising…..something. It wasn’t clear what. Flashlights?

DSC01059.JPG

Also these scorpions waiting to be fried, although it wasn’t clear why, since I didn’t see one person eating them. Maybe because some were still writhing around.

DSC01061.JPG

I also saw several Muslim restaurants, which don’t serve pork and have a lamb-based menu.

DSC01091.JPG

DSC01097.JPG

DSC01102.JPG

DSC01107.JPG

DSC01106.JPG

The Peking Opera was quite wonderful, and if you ever have a chance to see it I recommend it highly. The performance is only an hour long, but the level of skill and pageantry is quite something.

DSC01108.JPG

And speaking of wonderful, I think this was my favorite stop in Beijing. China has 56 distinct ethnic minorities and all of them are represented in this outdoor museum, with original buildings and objects that have been moved from their home areas.

DSC01114.JPG

DSC01116.JPG

DSC01122.JPG

DSC01119.JPG

DSC01127.JPG

DSC01135.JPG

DSC01123.JPG

These women are from Qinghai province, and the lady in blue was super nice and sold me a pair of earrings from her home town.

DSC01136.JPG

DSC01137.JPG

DSC01143.JPG

DSC01149.JPG

DSC01151.JPG

DSC01152.JPG

The park is huge, and I don’t think I saw more than a third of it before it was time to go.

DSC01132-001.JPG

Besides, the air pollution was getting steadily thicker and the buildings were shrouded in smog. All in all it was an interesting couple of days, although I don’t feel in any rush to visit Beijing again soon.

DSC01158.JPG

Although I had gotten from the port at Tianjin into Beijing by car, a journey of 2 1/2 hours if the traffic is good, we went back partly by high-speed train, which was cool. The terminal was vast,

DSC01162.JPG

and the train was impeccably clean, quieter than many European fast trains, and made it up to 346 km per hour on our short 30 minute journey.

DSC01163.JPG

Alas, when we got back to Tianjin the air quality had deteriorated even further and was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I think I can safely speak for everyone on board when I say we were all glad to set sail for Shanghai.

 

Trouble In Beijing

October 26, 2018

DSC01163.JPG

First trouble is, you can scarcely breathe. See that air pollution? It’s not fog. It’s air so thick you can taste it, and believe me, it doesn’t taste good. This shot is actually at the port in Tianjin, but it was the same everywhere.

But that was the absolute least of my worries. No photos will accompany this story, because I was afraid that if I took any I might get arrested. Seriously.

One side thing I’m doing on this trip is visiting a series of Education USA offices, helping to recruit foreign students to come to the college where I work. Education USA is under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, staffed by local people, and is usually located inside an American embassy building. That’s the case in Beijing, and I had been warned to be prepared for the fact that the building was a fortress.

Oh yes, it definitely is that. But I have an appointment with an Education USA staff person, I’m an American and I have an American passport, and it’s my embassy, right? What could possibly go wrong, except everything?

I present myself for the appointment, accompanied by my Chinese guide. I’m sure it doesn’t help that he’s dressed like some sort of teen hip-hopper, in a long denim duster with a hoodie underneath, but I don’t really know if that makes any difference.

So I show up at the east gate at the Beijing embassy as instructed, half an hour early, figuring it might take some time to get in and find my way to her office. I show my passport at the gate, show them the name of the person I’m supposed to meet, and they refuse to let me in. And by “they” I mean the Chinese guards surrounding the place. If you imagine, as I did, that our embassies are guarded by crisp battalions of our Marines, you’re in for the same surprise I got.

The guards say no Americans are allowed to come in by that particular gate. I have my Chinese guide with me and he argues with them, gives them my contact’s name and tells them I have an appointment. They ask for her phone number, but I don’t have that. Oops. What I do have is a bag with Education USA printed on it that I was given in Tokyo, and I show it to them, but they have no earthly idea about the program. I wave my passport around quite adamantly, and they definitely know I’m an American, but they still refuse to let me into my own embassy, and they aren’t the least bit nice about it. No one there speaks English at all, and they show no sign of sympathy for my plight. Finally they tell me to go to the west gate. Just to get rid of me, I guess.

I’m at the east gate, going to the west gate. The circumference of the embassy is enormous. I’m not good at judging distance, but it’s probably half a mile all the way around, maybe more. We finally arrive at the west gate, which turns out to be the entrance to a parking structure. The guards tell my guide no one is ever allowed to go in by that gate, unless it’s for parking. Also, they don’t speak English and are totally unimpressed by my passport.

A small group of Americans walks out and I beg them to help me. They say they are only “contractors traveling with diplomatic passports.” Uh, yeah, right. They’re inside the embassy, they’re contractors, and they have diplomatic passports. I sensibly refrain from asking them who they work for, because I don’t think it would be in my best interest to know that.

One of them does take pity on me and finds and calls my contact’s number. No answer, straight to voice mail. The west gate guards deny me entry just like their east gate brothers, and they tell me to go to the south gate. Are you sensing a pattern here?

At the south gate they won’t let my guide come with me, no Chinese people allowed, they say. I kind of panic, because now we’re going to be separated and it’s not clear how we will meet up again, and I’m going inside a gate but not inside the building, and I can’t understand a word anyone says. Having no choice, I walk to the entrance of the building alone, but guess what? They won’t let me in either, because I don’t have a phone number for my contact. I didn’t have the wit to ask that “contractor” guy for the number he had called, so distraught was I at the time. The guys at this entrance are friendly and even smile at me, and they speak a little English, all a welcome change, but they won’t let me in. I ask to see an American officer. No can do, you can’t see any American without an appointment. I’m an American, this is my embassy, and I can’t see anyone. Then they call someone at the east gate, who tells them to send me back, this time they will let me in. I feel caught between Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day and Dante’s nine circles of hell, but I go. Reluctantly.

When I get back to the east gate, a little more than an hour after I first arrived, a nice lady comes to meet me and lets me in. She’s a colleague of my contact, who, as it turns out, was on leave for the day even though we had an appointment, which is why no one answered her phone.

The meeting with the nice lady goes well, and it turns out to have been a worthwhile exercise in frustration and rage. However, and I can’t say this strongly enough, WTAF? The Chinese “guard” our embassy (or, as a shipboard friend suggested, hold it hostage), and an American can’t get in. If it had been an emergency would they have let me in? If I had been bleeding to death would they have called an American to help out?

I hate to say this, but I really don’t think so. I always thought that an embassy was a place of refuge for its citizens. How wrong I was. Take heed and be prepared. Your embassy may not be your friend.

Fun In Fukuoka

October 25, 2018

DSC00941.JPG

To get to Fukuoka we passed through the Kanmon Straits, the narrow body of water separating the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, very early in the morning.

DSC00943.JPG

On the optical illusion, near-miss front, I wondered whether we’d actually make it under this bridge,

DSC00947.JPG

and whether we were actually on a collision course with this freighter. Of course, we did, and we weren’t. See that yellow haze above the mountains?

DSC00949.JPG

Here’s the explanation. This part of the coastline is heavily industrialized,

DSC00944.JPG

and heavily populated. Here you can see how big apartment complexes are edging out more traditional neighborhoods.

DSC00957.JPG

After being in several small Japanese cities Fukuoka, with a population of over 1.5 million, was a bit of a shock,

DSC00955.JPG

DSC00961.JPG

although it was very pretty downtown along the canal.

DSC00952.JPG

It was Sunday and there was a band playing in a downtown shopping area, neither of which explains why this person in the audience was so outlandishly dressed.

DSC00960.JPG

There was an “eco-festival” in a downtown park and I arrived just in time to see these dancers walk offstage,

DSC00959.JPG

and to meet these two. In gestures and pidgin English I asked them a few questions: “Costume?” “Ninja dress!” “Salute?” “Ninja sign!” And then, with a bow, they presented me with their cards “Ninja card!”

My pidgen-talk got exercised a lot in Fukuoka, consisting mainly of “Sumimasen, Daimaru?” accompanied by a gesture in one direction or another along the street. Translation: Excuse me, is the Daimaru store this way? It’s a huge department store, known to everyone, very upscale, and was conveniently located near near the ship’s shuttle bus drop off point, so if I could find Daimaru, I could find my way home.

DSC00963.JPG

How luxurious is it? You’ve heard about those hundred dollar melons in Japan? Well, here are two at roughly $100 each, and one at about $150.

DSC00964.JPG

But wait! This one is almost $300. Not per kilo, not even per pound. Per melon. And there was only one on offer, so the buyer would be one very lucky owner of an unimaginably expensive but extremely well-dressed cucurbit.

Although the upper floors of Daimaru are filled with the likes of Givenchy, Yves St. Laurent, Estee Lauder, and so on, I made a beeline for the basement.

DSC00965.JPG

That’s where the melons are to be found, and also things like this $500 party in a box,

DSC00968.JPG

a fantastically fragrant Paul Bocuse bakery section. There were endless shelves of beautiful prepared foods and I wanted to have lunch there, but I never found anywhere to actually eat. Apparently it’s all there for the convenience  of hungry (and wealthy) subway commuters, since the doors of this food emporium open directly into a subway station.

DSC00974.JPG

That evening I had organized a group of fellow passengers to go with me on a yatai crawl, after I read this article. It’s a nightly pop-up scene, tiny food carts, lots of drinking, cheek-to-jowl with other diners at the few stools surrounding each cart.

DSC00972.JPG

Where we were, the carts all served three things: Fukuoka’s famous pork ramen, grilled yakitori skewers,

DSC00970.JPG

and oden. Since I love oden so much I decided to skip the ramen, although a friend who had a bowl said it was delicious. And here’s also where I learned to order dry sake, instead of the sweeter kind usually served to women. The sake was poured into cups holding, oh, I’d say about 5 ounces, but the food must have soaked it all up, because no one seemed at all drunk, nor was I, even after two full cups.

DSC00973.JPG

The oden was wonderful, as was the yakitori,

DSC00977.JPG

and the people sitting next to me thought so too.

DSC00979.JPG

Heading back to the ship that night I was really sorry to be leaving Japan. I have never been made to feel so welcome in any other country. The Japanese sense of hospitality was truly heart-warming, and I’m glad that we will have another couple of days in Japan a little later in our journey.

Now, onward to Beijing, an admittedly daunting prospect.

 

 

 

Sweet Little Kochi

October 23, 2018

DSC00921.JPG

I’m a real fan of taiko drumming, which, when played in a group, is properly called kumi-daiko, so says Wikipedia. It has a thrilling energy that always captures my attention, but it never occurred to me that I would hear the best taiko of my life on a dock in a small Japanese town I’d never heard of before. These guys were absolutely fierce, and approached drumming as a martial art. Best wake-up call ever, and their energy got my day off to a great start.

DSC00926.JPG

Today I had just three goals: get more yen, find a specific lunch, and do some non-specific shopping. I had read that the latter two were to be accomplished in the covered arcade called Obiyamachi, and I assumed that yen were everywhere. It was an easy walk from the ship to Obiyamachi, but an ATM proved more difficult to find. The directions I was given at the money exchange office led me through some narrow back streets, so that was interesting in itself, although, in fact, there was a bank not 100 yards from the spot I’d left when setting out on a wild goose chase. Wandering semi-aimlessly is getting to be a specialty of mine on this trip, and in Japan, at least, it feels perfectly safe and comfortable.

Once properly provisioned with money, I began to enjoy the window shopping.

DSC00927.JPG

DSC00928.JPG

This was an amazing flower shop, and leads me to a question. Which of the above photos is “better?” Obviously, it’s the same shot, just with a different crop. To me they say two entirely different things, but maybe that’s just me.

DSC00930.JPG

There were also several shops selling kids’ school uniforms,

DSC00932.JPG

and even a couple of western-style cake shops. I thought the $15 price tag on those pretty rolled cakes was quite a bargain, and proved that not everything in Japan is exorbitantly expensive.

DSC00989.JPG

I stopped into a little textile shop, because I needed a hand towel. It’s an odd fact of Japanese life that many restrooms, even though they have fancy toilets that can play music to drown out potentially embarrassing bathroom noises, do not have any paper towels. Some have air dry systems, but many have nothing at all. I noticed lots of Japanese people pulling small towels from purses and pockets and decided that I needed one too.

I found many lovely things in that shop, and ended up buying several of them. But the real story is that a couple of the pieces had unfinished edges and were unraveling a bit. I could see that the shop made things to order, so I asked (pantomimed, really) whether the edges could be sewn up. The helpful couple running the shop indicated that they were happy to do so, and I kept on looking around for a few minutes until I saw, to my horror, that the lady was sewing them up by hand and not by machine. Since they had already told me “free” and “service” I felt terrible about all that work, and ended up saying that I would do the piece that she hadn’t already finished by myself. I was just blown away by the fact that she was willing to hand sew the edges of a $17 piece of fabric, which took her about 15 minutes, for free.

DSC00933.JPG

Next I set out looking for the Hirome market, which I’d read about on TripAdvisor. There someone had said there would be no English sign, that I should just look for the “fortune cat.” I correctly identified this as the lucky creature, and dived in.

DSC00934.JPG

That post also said that the market itself was a sort of madhouse of non-English-speaking, communal tables, free-for-all, which turned out to be pretty accurate. I was in search of the meal this post had described, a local specialty, and to find it, I’d read, I should look for the longest line in the place. Bingo.

DSC00936.JPG

My apologies for the photo. The food, however, needed no apologies. This is katsuo tataki, bonito fish that is wrapped in hay and set on fire, to char the outside while leaving the inside rare. Sliced and sprinkled heavily with coarse salt, it’s heaven. Served with freshly-grated wasabi and thinly sliced raw garlic (which my first enthusiastic bite revealed to be definitely not ginger) it’s a total treat. In the background you can see the blobby green aonori tempura, which looked even blobbier up close. Just imagine taking sheets of nori and crumpling them, then dipping and frying them into a dense crunchiness. I wish I could eat that meal again and again.

DSC00938.JPG

Being alone, I sat at a table with several young Japanese guys who were all looking at their phones and paid no attention to me. But as they began to leave these five ladies filtered over to my table, one by one, until we were all together. The lady at the far end turned out to be a retired English teacher, which really brightened things up for me. It turned out that these ladies had all played together in an orchestra at university, and now they make an annual reunion trip together, this year to Kochi.

Weirdly, they weren’t eating what I had, and they asked me how I knew to eat those dishes. When I said it was a “famous meal on the Internet” they were all astonished. They professed to be equally astonished by my proficiency with chopsticks, which made me realize that it was the fourth or fifth time I’d heard that compliment since we got to Japan. It was hard for them to understand that, growing up in California, I’ve been using chopsticks for most of my life. I guess my upbringing was more cross-cultural than I normally give it credit for being.

Some of my best experiences here have been around food, and partaking of it with people who are also willing to share a bit of their culture with me over a bite and a glass. But I imagine that comes as no surprise to you.

Everyone Loves Kyoto

October 21, 2018

DSC00866.JPG

I love Kyoto. Everyone loves Kyoto. And on the day we were there, everyone else was there too, all at once, loving Kyoto almost to death.

DSC00849.JPG

We started at the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkakuji. It’s Kyoto’s most iconic sight, and thousands of people were there to see it, at least half of them groups of school kids.

DSC00858.JPG

They were remarkably well-behaved, but each group had to have its picture taken in front of the view of the Pavilion, making for a chaotic scene.

DSC00859.JPG

This is the view I wanted, unadorned by selfie-takers and giggling kids.

DSC00860.JPG

However, our guide grabbed my camera and insisted that I too had to have a photo taken there. I guess I’m sort of half-way glad he did.

DSC00880.JPG

One group of students was walking together, all dressed in kimono, which is A Thing to do while in Kyoto. Alas, they too were absorbed in looking at their selfies.

The Pavilion is topped by a golden phoenix, to denote its rising from the ashes. It has burned down several times over the centuries, most recently in 1950. It was restored in 1955, and is said to have been covered with 45 pounds of gold leaf during that restoration.

DSC00878.JPG

Here was a spot to toss a coin and make a wish. I decided to the stick with the same wish I made in Tokyo.

After what our guide called “an ordinary working peoples’ lunch,” which was indeed nothing remarkable, we went to the Eikan-do Zenrin-ji temple.

DSC00884.JPG

It’s a wonderful place, not least for two signs that might be my favorite signs of all time.

DSC00882.JPG

DSC00893.JPG

Seriously, though, it’s gorgeous and tranquil and doesn’t allow photos of its antiquities, which include the only known statue of Buddha looking backward over his shoulder. I did take pictures wherever allowed, most notably on the stunning grounds surrounding the temple.

DSC00888.JPG

DSC00891.JPG

DSC00896.JPG

DSC00900.JPG

Next our guide, Ken, took us to Kyoto’s old town.

DSC00910.JPG

Here too there were crowds, and lots of kimono-clad tourists. I wish we’d had more time there, but a quick walkabout revealed that

DSC00911.JPG

even Kyoto is not immune to nonsense-English. Fortunately, most of what we saw was more like this.

DSC00905.JPG

DSC00904.JPG

DSC00908.JPG

DSC00907.JPG

Because we were docked in Kobe, some 80 minutes away from Kyoto, our time there was much shorter than I would have liked. It’s definitely a city I’d like to visit in more depth.

DSC00916.JPG

This is all I got to see of Kobe, nor did I get to try the famous beef. I hope that I’ll have the chance to return to this special corner of the world.

 

There Was No Mountain

October 21, 2018

DSC00800

In Shimizu, when the mountain is out, you can apparently see Mt. Fuji from all over town. In theory you would see it from here,

DSC00815.JPG

or from high atop this Ferris wheel. But nope, even though the sky above us was clear, the mountain was in hiding and my adventures here were of a different sort. Today I went out on my own, in a country where I speak about seven words of the language and read exactly none.

DSC00802.JPG

My first mission was to find an ATM, and believe it or not, a 7 Eleven is where to do it. By the way, I’ve seen quite a few of those cute Shiba Inu dogs, which of course look right at home here.

DSC00804.JPG

You know how a 7 Eleven sells all sorts of snack food? This one was no exception.

DSC00803.JPG

This is their recycling installation, for the eco-minded among us.

DSC00801.JPG

And the manhole cover near the store, much more beautiful than it had to be.

DSC00805.JPG

And beauty was my mission, as I was looking for this museum. It had no sign in English, so I asked a young man who was walking in. He smiled, nodded, and proceeded to pay for my entrance ticket. The Japanese are a wonderfully welcoming people.

DSC00806.JPG

DSC00807.JPG

Inside, the architecture was as beautiful as it was outside.

DSC00812.JPG

DSC00814.JPG

There was a lovely display of wooden boats, and the level of fine detail on each of them was amazing.

DSC00809.JPG

DSC00811.JPG

The Shimizu/Shizuoka area is known for tea production, and from these displays I surmised that it was a mainstay of the local economy in the past, and that these jackets were typically worn by tea workers. I was the only person in that part of the museum and I didn’t see any signs in English, so surmise is the best I have to offer.

DSC00816.JPG

On my way to find lunch, I discovered that hair appointments here cost about what I am used to paying. Just remove the last two zeroes on those prices and you’ll have a number that is about 10% higher than the current value of the US dollar.

DSC00817.JPG

Walking through a market while looking for a place to eat I saw these beautiful dried squid, just about the size of your hand. I tried a sample, and it was very chewy, but tasty.

DSC00819.JPG

DSC00820.JPG

Japanese restaurants are known for having plastic displays of their menu out front, and I thought this one looked the best, especially because it had oden, which I love and saw nowhere else. However, I unwittingly chose perhaps the most challenging restaurant out of the 20-25 choices I had in front of me.

DSC00821.JPG

That no one spoke English pretty much goes without saying, because to my surprise, wherever we go in Japan, no one speaks English. But this place didn’t offer a sympathetic server who might struggle through a few words and gestures with me, because here you order from a screen.

A tiny young woman seated me on a stool in front of the screen, and went back to greeting people who were passing by. I had no idea what to do. I went back to her, practically took her by the hand, and pointed to the plastic foods I wanted, then went back to the screen and shrugged sheepishly. When she was sure she knew what I wanted she poked at a few things on the screen and left me.

DSC00824.JPG

I surreptitiously glanced at people around me and noticed food was arriving in front of them on a conveyor belt, which stopped in front of the diner who had placed the order. Wow.

DSC00822.JPG

Then I saw that the people on either side of me at the counter were tapping the green canister over their tea cups, and wow again, everyone had a little hot water spout that delivered water at perfect tea temperature.

DSC00825.JPG

Not long after that the conveyor stopped in front of me, so I understood that this was my bowl of oden. I removed it, but the screen kept beeping at me until I realized that I had to press a button to indicate that I had received it.

DSC00826-001.JPG

DSC00827.JPG

If you haven’t had oden, it’s a delicious stew made with a dashi broth and filled with various fish cakes, daikon slices, agar cake, and other delicacies. I think I made a faux pas in ordering it, since it’s a cold-weather dish, but I love it so I didn’t care. That and some prawn, fish, and vegetable tempura left me happily stuffed and cost about $17, as compared to the minuscule $32 sashimi bites in Tokyo.

DSC00831.JPG

DSC00829.JPG

We had only a short stop in Shimizu, so I headed back to the ship after lunch, inordinately pleased with myself for navigating my first day on my own in Japan, however awkwardly. On the pier this guy was making noodle-stuffed omelets that he garnished with various sauces, and many of the crew members were buying them, for under $5.

DSC00837.JPG

As we were getting ready to sail away, this group of little kids performed dances and songs for us. My balcony is on the equivalent of the seventh floor, so it was too high up to guess their ages accurately, but consensus among the passengers was that they were in kindergarten or first grade. Those kids sang and danced their hearts out for us, including some really disciplined and highly coordinated running all over the place to make different shapes as a group. They finished up with a rousing rendition of YMCA, which has never before sounded so great.

Shimizu is a sweet little town that I was sorry to leave. And I didn’t even mind missing Mt. Fuji.

Tunneling Through Tokyo

October 20, 2018

DSC00744

There are 12,000,000 people living in Tokyo, and I feel as if I’ve seen every one of them. This picture was taken at 9:30 at night, when office workers are just going home.

I hadn’t really grasped the enormity of the situation when I selected a guide who travels exclusively by train, subway, and foot. My feet grasped it, though, when we traveled well over 20,000 steps on the first day alone.

DSC00694.JPG

The subways are so crowded and people are so tightly packed together that during rush hour every train has one car for women only. Tokyo makes you revise your notion of personal space.

DSC00703.JPG

DSC00696

We started at the fabulous Tsukiji Fish Market. When I inquired about this sign near the entry my guide, Teru, said that is was intended for Chinese tourists, considered to be very rude for eating while walking. Of course, it could just as well be intended for Americans, because we’re certainly not innocent of that crime.

DSC00699

Just to be macho I sampled the raw whale meat. It tasted the way dogs smell, familiar, not unpleasant, but not like something you’d ordinarily put in your mouth.

DSC00708.JPG

DSC00710.JPG

The market also held other non-fishy surprises, including radishes labeled in French and tiny fingernail-sized Hakurei turnips.

DSC00711

DSC00713.JPG

The bigger surprise was at this little sushi spot, where our tiny sashimi snack of four small bites of eel, two shrimp, and two slices of tuna cost a whopping $32.

DSC00716

DSC00714.JPG

Next we walked through the serene Hama-Rikyu Garden where we saw this 300 year-old black pine tree, tenderly supported in its old age.

DSC00720.JPG

We were able to see part of a play at the National Noh Theater, where no photos are allowed during the performance. Noh is an ancient and largely impenetrable art form, difficult even for Japanese audiences, but I enjoyed its strange beauty.

DSC00725.JPG

I had wanted to visit a renowned handicrafts shop where they were exhibiting lacquer ware from all over Japan. Everything was exquisite, including this tiny but street-legal Subaru which had been restored and lacquered by hand. The crafts were too expensive for me, but this car was for sale for about $40,000, which I thought might actually have been a bargain for some collector.

DSC00731.JPG

DSC00729.JPG

The Ginza by night, where I was on a frantic quest for Ibuprofen because my feet were falling off. Teru was absolutely convinced that it was not possible to get any sort of pain medication without a prescription, never having taken an over-the-counter pain drug in his life, although he’s about my age. So I was able to educate him about something in Japan, a pharmacy where, of course, OTC pain relievers were readily available.

DSC00736

Drugs, plus a copious amount of excellent sake in a really nice robatayaki restaurant, made it all much better.

DSC00738.JPG

This was the sake menu, and we tried several different kinds,

DSC00732.JPG

DSC00741.JPG

while enjoying charred saury fish, which is just now in season, squid sashimi and tempura, and vegetable tempura with taro, bamboo shoots, and a larger version of shishito peppers. Oh, and I also got interviewed by TeleTokyo for a food show they were doing on foreigners and Japanese food. It will air next week when I’m in Beijing, so I won’t get to see it, but hopefully Teru will be able to record it for me.

DSC00745

Here’s the spectacular view from my Tokyo hotel room because yes, my friends, all of that happened in a single day. Hence the 20,000+ steps and sleeping like a stone.

DSC00751.JPG

The next morning we decided to take some taxis. Look at how pristine this one is, with lace doilies on the seat backs. Another one we took had a driver wearing white gloves.

DSC00752.JPG

The Imperial Palace is an obligatory stop in Tokyo, but all you can see is the outside grounds, since the emperor and his family still live there. I opted for a taxi-window view of this watch tower and called it good.

DSC00754.JPG

I wanted to see more contemporary Tokyo life, so we went to the Akihabara district, a place of which Teru strongly disapproved. To me it looked absolutely normal, funky, casual, like many places in American cities. To him it represented a degeneration of Japanese society. In one sense I had to agree with him.

DSC00758.JPG

I had asked to see a cat cafe, and Akihabara is where they are.

DSC00761.JPG

The one we went to was pretty much like visiting the cat adoption room at the Humane Society, with the exception of the fact that you had to take off your shoes before entering, and they served iced green tea.

But Teru said that if we were going to see a cat cafe and since we were in the neighborhood we could also see a maid cafe. Maid cafe? Yes, a place where “cute girls” dress like maids and serve you.

DSC00756.JPG

Fortunately, we got there too early and the maid cafes were closed. Because take a close look at the “maids.” Wouldn’t you say they are about 12 or 14? Evidently you have to be 18 to be a maid, but then make-up and costumes transform the young women into something that might delight pedophiles, but turned my stomach.

DSC00768.JPG

This is much more how I think Japanese kids should look.

DSC00772.JPG

Perhaps they are on their way to this school?

DSC00771.JPG

DSC00773

Next we walked down a charming and tranquil street to the beautiful Fukagawa Fudo temple.

DSC00777.JPG

DSC00778.JPG

DSC00780.JPG

DSC00781.JPG

DSC00782.JPG

In the temple nine priests and monks performed a striking Buddhist ritual, with chanting, fierce drumming, and the burning of wishes, sending them heavenward.

DSC00775.JPG

How that works is that you buy a little stick, each one representing a generic category of wish, like “healthy family” or “happy marriage.” And then you personalize it. The cost of the wish is a donation to the temple, and the priest tosses your wish into the fire during the ceremony.

DSC00776.JPG

And that was Tokyo.

 

 

 

 

No Cranes On Demand

October 19, 2018

DSC00595

Prepare yourself for an onslaught of Japanese adventures. We’ve been ashore every day, with no breaks, and I’m way behind. I’m going to try to do a rapid-fire catch-up on the last few days, which have been pretty amazing. This was my first Japanese sunrise.

DSC00602

This was what I first saw coming into Kushiro in the early morning. Like every Japanese port it’s protected by a series of low sea walls.

DSC00607

As it turns out, there’s always food awaiting us on the dock, as if the cruise ship were starving us. This, for the donut-minded among you, was one of Kushiro’s offerings. I didn’t try them, but the area around the cart selling them smelled really good.

DSC00608.JPG

A small group of us piled into a van and headed north, up toward Hokkaido’s Lake Akan. Our first stop was the International Crane Center, where, disappointingly, we were about a month too early to see flocks of red crowned cranes in the wild.

DSC00609

DSC00622

Instead, the center showed us a few lonely-looking cranes in captivity,

DSC00612

DSC00625

as well as teaching us about the habits and life cycle of the supremely elegant birds.

DSC00627

DSC00628

Our next stop was a roadside rest station, where delicious snacks were available. I love Japanese food, so I was in heaven here. A kabocha fritter and crunchy wakame and sesame snacks made a fine lunch for me.

DSC00630

DSC00631

Next we went to see Ainu dancing and singing. The Ainu are the aboriginal people of northern Japan, and apparently here in Hokkaido is the only place where they have a distinct cultural, as opposed to assimilated, presence. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside or during the performance, but the theater building was beautiful and the performance was interesting.

DSC00634.JPG

DSC00637

It’s already autumn in Hokkaido, and so beautiful in the countryside. Doesn’t this look just like Japan should look?

DSC00655

DSC00647

The town of Kushiro itself, though, is absolutely unappealing, at least what we were able to see of it.

DSC00661

 

DSC00658

DSC00675The townspeople came and put on a wonderful sailaway show on the pier for us, featuring these taiko drummers, seen here from high up on my balcony.

DSC00657

Kushiro’s sunset was spectacular. That’s our ship, in the golden light.

DSC00686

We were in port with the Pacific Venus, the second-largest Japanese flag cruise ship. Here the pilot boat guides us out past her, and onward toward Yokohama.