That’s all she wrote

Where was I? Oh yes – Macau being awesome. Yes! It is! Everyone says Macau is just another Las Vegas. That’s only half of it. Yes, Macau has a Venetian, an MGM, a Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, among other grand, towering casinos. But unlike Vegas, Macau actually has charm. The regular parts of the city that are not flourishing gambling centers are very neat, charismatic, colorful & unique. The people of Macau are mostly Chinese, but Macau is an international hub, attracting residents from all over Asia. I found Macanese people to be really kind & much warmer than the Beijing folks. Reportedly in about 30-40 years, Macau will officially become part of China. I wonder how/if it will change after that.

So, like I was saying in my last post, we were fortunate to stay with a friend in Macau, Hernan. He is originally from Bogota, Colombia, but has been working on & off in Macau as a musician for many years. There is a demand for talented musicians in Macau to play in bands at the various casinos. Currently, Hernan is playing bass guitar & keyboard, as well singing some back-up vocals here & there, in “the” official band at the MGM hotel & casino. There are 7 people in the band: 2 Americans, 3 Colombians, 1 Cuban, and 1 Australian. And they rock! They play & sing Top 40 hits. The band, called Soul Republic, plays a 4 or 5 hour gig every night except for Mondays (yowza!). They play in a bar/club-type place inside the casino. We saw them play Tuesday & Wednesday night, and they drew an impressive crowd both nights. Each person in the band basically lives part-time in Macau (as long as they have work) and part-time back home. Whichever hotel/casino they are employed with at the time pays for them to stay in pretty bad-ass apartments and provides a food/drink stipend, in addition to paying them a salary. Pretty nice gig I’d say.

Anyway, Daniel & I had a great time rocking out to the band’s music both nights. During the day, we explored the main Portuguese section of the city. Throughout the entire city, all the signs are written in Portuguese. The street names are Portuguese. It’s so neat to see the smaller, more romantic Portuguese-style buildings against a backdrop of busy nondescript high-rises typical of Chinese cities. We visited a hill perched in the center that provided excellent views of the entire region. There was a lighthouse & fortress there. We ate Portuguese food which was delicious. The appetizers were Portuguese sausage & a crab shell head stuffed with diced up crab meat & other fixins. I had chicken baked in coconut milk sauce with potatoes, onions & tomatoes. Daniel had some sort of fish soup. Yum 🙂 I love new culinary encounters.

Thursday we took a ferry to Hong Kong, across the bay. It only cost about $20, and it was super easy. That is considered an international trip, which felt weird! By the way, did I mention the currency in China, Macau and Hong Kong is different? So imagine our difficulty in trying to first get rid of or exchange or Chinese yuan, then Macanese patacas, then Hong Kong dollars. I’ve definitely lost quite a bit of $$ with all the currency exchanges, but there’s really no way to avoid it, and at least I get to keep some currency souvenirs from each country.

Hong Kong is beautiful. It’s made up of many islands connected by bridges. The edge of each part of land that faces the center, or each other, is lined with skyscrapers. This makes for a fantastic cityscape at night when all the skyscrapers are lit up. We stayed on Hong Kong Island, along the “causeway” which is a main stretch of roads & highways. It faces outward toward the inner bay, looking across at Cowloon. Our hotel was located in North Point, just one of many neighborhoods along the causeway. The subway system in HK is simple, easy, cheap & efficient. We could easily get anywhere throughout the islands by changing subway lines. We spent 2 nights in HK. Each night we stayed on Hong Kong Island for dinner & drinks. There is one particular area, called “Lan Kwai Fong,” just a few subway stops from our hotel, that was highly recommended to us from people who live in Hong Kong. Lan Kwai Fong, or LKF, is known as party-central in HK. We came to find out it is also where all the tourists go at night. Meh :/ I saw more white people in LKF than I do in my own neighborhood in L.A. We did some bar-hopping, danced to live music, it was fun but certainly nothing new. It was nuts. The streets were filled with people, shoulder-to-shoulder, in some places standing room only. Because the bars were so packed, many people would just buy a beer from a market and drink it out on the street & hang out there. At the end of the night Daniel & I found a bar/lounge with a smaller crowd that was perched up on the third floor. That was a nicer ambiance, and they made really yummy inventive cocktails. I think I’m realizing I might have been too old for LKF…? Oh boy.

During our one full day in Hong Kong, we went to a highly recommended shopping district, “Causeway Bay,” which ended up being filled with either total crap or designer goods & electronics that are sold back home.
So that was sort of pointless. We then set out to visit the “Big Buddha” which, as it turns out, is pretty far away so that ended up being an all-day activity. Everyone in HK calls it “the Big Buddha” so if there is a more official name I don’t know it, sorry. We took a cable car from the main station on the island of Lantau, and that was a really lovely ride up into the mountains. Too bad the weather in HK during our time there was foggy & overcast, because I bet the views from the mountains can be spectacular! We were able to see some views of the ocean and the town below us, and the airport, ha! The big Buddha is a bronze statue that is perched ontop of a mountain. It’s pretty impressive. There’s a little village surrounding the Buddha, and a monastery. It’s pretty touristy. There are a gazillion steps leading up to the Buddha. I felt like I was on a pilgrimage. See some pics below.

We ate a delicious crab dinner our last night in HK. It was “spicy crab” served at a well known restaurant under a bridge. In fact, the restaurant is called “Under Bridge Spicy Crab.” Hehe. We were the only white people in the place. Score!

Hong Kong is definitely the most western-like environment we’ve been on this trip, but it remains very Chinese. Everyone speaks Chinese (Cantonese), but many people also speak English. In fact, it’s such an international hub that it seems that English needs to be used frequently among people of different nationalities because it is their only common language. What an interesting & diverse place.

I am currently hungover, sitting in the HK airport waiting to board the plane home (with a 3.5-hr layover in Beining…ironic?). Do you think we’ll stop in a random Chinese city again? You never know what to expect with this Asian adventure, but it’s been a great one!

I want to market the importance of seeing & experiencing a non-western region of the world, ESPECIALLY if you are from the U.S. We are sheltered & isolated in the U.S. We think our social norms, political causes & struggles are universal. This is just NOT TRUE. Just because you might be able to ‘get by’ speaking some Spanish or French, and just because you did a year of study-abroad in Europe in college, that does not mean you ‘get it.’ After traveling throughout South America, Spain, & now Asia, I still don’t feel like I ‘get it,’ but I do feel closer to understanding how my own American biases & ideals are just that – American, or western, not “normal” or reflective of how others think in different parts of the world. I simultaneously feel that I have more in common and less in common with Japanese & Chinese folks than I felt before I embarked on this journey. But that’s not what is important.
All of us HAVE to realize that we are the same species and we have to co-exist. The world is getting flatter. We need to get to know each other. We need to try to understand a culture rather than put a positive or negative value on the culture (those are Daniel’s wise words).
I can now see how beneficial it was not to take a pre-planned tour of these countries. Although I felt very lost at times, with no guidance or instructions on how to go from Point A to Point B, that feeling is a valuable one. It forced us to ask questions of strangers, which enabled us to get to know the locals! Seeing a country through the lens of a tour group is very different than seeing it through the lens of a traveler who is forced to assimilate as best they can. In that sense, the struggle is important & rewarding.

Thanks for reading. Until next trip…maybe Turkey? Israel? Russia? Zimbabwe? I’ll take recommendations.

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Culture shock

Woof. What a whirlwind! Beijing is a very complex city with complex people. And we only got a small snapshot of the city & it’s culture since we only spent 2 nights there. Our experience in China was strange from the get-go. Our flight from Osaka, Japan to Beijing, China was supposed to be a direct flight. While checking in at the China Eastern Airlines desk @ the Kansai airport in Osaka, there was no mention of a layover, and our ticket stated Kansai –>Peking. Well, our plane landed about an hour & a half after takeoff. I said to Daniel, “Wow, we’re about 2 hours early?” Most of the passengers on the plane appeared confused. The flight staff had allegedly announced (in English as well as Japanese & Mandarin) that we were making a stop in another Chinese city first, before heading to Beijing! Problem was, they were speaking so softly on the intercom that we, among other passengers, never processed that piece of info! So there we were, on the tarmac of a random Chinese city, surrounded by non-English speakers, not knowing what we were supposed to do next. They ended up herding us like cattle off the plane and into that airport (I can’t remember the name of the city). We had to go through the whole immigration checkpoint hooplah, during which the Chinese immigration officer scrutinized my passport for 10 minutes while asking me to smile & push my hair back, presumably so that I would look more like my passport photo. Weirdo! It took about 45 minutes for all the passengers to get back on the plane…the same plane. I’m still confused about the whole ordeal. We safely arrived in Beijing a little over an hour later, obviously later than anticipated which was fine with us but imagine what other passengers w/ connecting flights must’ve been thinking! Peking airport is NUTS! It’s the most massive airport Daniel & I have ever seen! And it’s gorgeous and hi-tech. We had a hard time figuring out transportation but we ended up paying too much (by Chinese standards, not L.A. standards) for a private car to take us to our hostel (an hour-long trip due to ridiculous freeway traffic). Our hostel, which I would recommend to other travelers, called Downtown Backpackers, was located in a “hutong” which is a type of neighborhood or district with small streets intended mainly for walking & biking, chock-full of tiny businesses: shops, bars, street vendors, restaurants. It’s kind of a cramped environment with a lot of hustle & bustle. It appeared most of the people strolling the streets were tourists from all over. We actually saw the most westerners in Beijing than in any other Asian city. Particularly a LOT of French people. By the way, ya know how I mentioned the streets in the hutong seem to be meant for pedestrians? Well some Chinese folks on mopeds, motorbikes & even in cars insisted on using the streets too! And they didn’t care about slowing down or running people over. All we’d get was one warning honk from behind, and the vehicle would whizz by a second later, going full speed. Oh – and this wasn’t even the worst of the dangerous driver madness we experienced there. We saw a really bad, multi-vehicle collision on the freeway one time, and another time our very own tour bus, filled with 15-20 people, hit another moving car. So the fact that Beijing taxis didn’t have seatbelts was a very serious problem. At least in Latin America, where drivers don’t follow traffic laws or stay in their lanes either, I’ve never actually seen a collision. In China the danger is real! Haha. Oh – speaking of cars…there is a multitude of fancy cars here. I mean A LOT of nice cars. Everyone drives German cars: Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes, Audi. We even saw a police car that was a Mercedes. There are Range Rovers everywhere too. It’s kind of strange…there aren’t many compact cars in Beijing. It was a striking contrast against the backdrop of poverty we witnessed there.

We signed up for a Great Wall tour that was departing the morning after we arrived. I had received specific recommendations from some friends back home re: which parts of the wall to visit and which parts to avoid, in order to see the most authentic and least renovated sections that also weren’t overrun w/ thousands of tourists. It was so late in the evening when we arrived to our hostel that there was only one Great Wall trip option left for us to join and we barely made it onto the list! I didn’t recognize the name of the particular section of wall we were signed up to visit, and I was a little concerned we would end up seeing the most touristy part.

Boy, was I wrong. After boarding our little tour bus w/ about 15-20 other tourists @ 8:30am, it took us almost 3 hours to get to the Great Wall. It was so rewarding. There was nobody there. Our whole group was so pleased w/ this trip. We walked on the wall for about 4 miles, from the Jinshanling section to the Simatai section, both of which were built during the Ming dynasty. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the blue sky (nice escape from Beijing’s constant grey pollution cloud). It also happened to be super hot and the trek along the wall was quite rigorous at times, because the wall follows the slopes of the mountains. The last part of the hike in particular was really neat because the Simatai section is very authentic with little-to-no reconstruction. The whole time I was thinking how could those soldiers run up & down that wall, which in certain sections is like a stair-master from Hell, defending China from the Mongols?

The endless views of the surrounding landscape from the wall were fantastic! See pics below.

Since we were lucky enough to participate in this more remote Great Wall hike, the trip basically lasted all day. We arrived at the hostel in the late afternoon and thus did not have time to see the Forbidden City that day 😦 So we missed out on that tourist attraction during our Beijing stay, since our flight left the next morning. Instead, we ended up having a very unique experience seeing the Beijing (or Peking) Opera that night. It was Daniel’s idea to go; he knows about the Beijing Opera since he’s a musician, and he always teaches his students about it. This is not your typical opera. It’s definitely not the type of music or singing that my western ears are accustomed to hearing. The stage design was very simple, with almost no props on stage. It was normally only 1-2 people on stage during a performance. On one side of the stage there was an ensemble of 5-6 players of bamboo & silk instruments who accompanied each performance. We saw 3 acts or stories. The first involved 2 men who performed a fight sequence using impressive martial arts & acrobatics. They didn’t sing or speak. The 2nd was just one woman on stage singing in a high pitched harsh tone. The third involved one woman and a few men. Again, only the woman sang. The last act included some more acrobatics. I’m glad I got to see the opera, because many people say its the epitome of traditional Chinese culture. Daniel was excited because he can now actually share w/ his students his own observations of the opera and show them the videos he took!

We ate smoked duck for dinner that night. It wasn’t Peking duck that everyone raves about, but it was pretty darn tasty. I still would like to try Peking Duck. Maybe we can get a knockoff version in Hong Kong when we go there.

I have to be honest. Beijing was my least favorite stop on this trip. To be fair, our time there was rushed and we didn’t get to know our surroundings very well. And I don’t regret going because the Great Wall was amazing! But we really didn’t meet any friendly or helpful people in Beijing, with the exception of other tourists. I know this sounds strange, but there was very little smiling there. I’m not sure if that is a reflection of unhappiness or just a social norm. The city itself is very disorienting. Most of Beijing is filthy, with a lot of undeveloped areas. There are other parts of the city that happen to be very developed, with high-rises and interesting architecture. But even the “nice” parts of town aren’t really that nice. And everything appears to be under construction. Despite us not having the greatest first impression, I think it was important for me to see mainland China. Almost every article of clothing I wear was made in China. My toothbrush I’ve been using on this trip was made in China. People from the U.S. need to get to know China. Like it or not, it’s the future.

Next stop was Macau. I don’t need a visa to go to Macau, but Daniel does, since he has a Colombian passport. The website for the Chinese consulate (and friends’ tips) indicated he didn’t need to get the visa prior to this trip and it could be arranged upon arrival in Macau. Interestingly, when we checked in for our flight @ the Beijing Airport, the lady at the Air Macau counter asked that Daniel show her 1,000 yuan to prove that we have enough $$ to travel there…? Daniel later told me this has happened to him before when entering other countries with visa requirements, including the U.S. We were both really annoyed. We obviously didn’t have 1,000 yuan and kept telling the lady that we have plenty of money in the bank. She eventually caved and gave us our boarding passes. I guess she was just following instructions. It was funny – when Daniel gave her his Colombian passport, she had to pull out her 300 page manual to figure out how to deal with him. Haha!

We arrived safely in Macau in the early afternoon. When going through immigration, Daniel was pulled aside into a separate room while his ‘visa’ was arranged. Great success – he made it!

Macau is so interesting & cool. We were exposed to the mix of Portuguese & Chinese culture right from the get-go. At the airport, all the signs are in Portuguese, with secondary translations in English & Chinese. Chinese people in Macau speak Cantonese. I haven’t heard anyone speak Portuguese here, but the Portuguese influence does exist. Portuguese architecture is scattered all throughout the city. There’s a fortress ontop of the highest hill in town, overlooking the bay. It reminded me of las fortalezas I visited in Cartagena, Colombia and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Macau was a LOT of fun. Great people, great FOOD, and we had a friend to stay with, Hernan, who was so gracious & hospitable to us! I’ll share more about Macau on my next & final blog post. Right now we’re about to take a ferry across the bay to Hong Kong. Ciao! Sayonara! Baaibaai!20130829-171015.jpg20130829-171025.jpg20130829-171036.jpg

Save the best for last

The last 3 nights of our Japanese excursion were spent in Okinawa. You know what they say…save the best for last. I can’t think of a better way of summarizing our time there. Okinawa is an archipelago of islands south of mainland Japan. We had to take a 2-hour flight to Naha, the main airport in the big island of Okinawa. We spent our first night in Naha because we arrived in the evening. By the way, when planning this trip to Okinawa we didn’t
book any places to stay because my research indicated its very laid back and easy to book accommodation after you arrive. This proved to be true. A sweet lady at a tourist information desk at the Naha airport helped us find & book a hotel room for that night. She also gave us an excellent suggestion for what to do/see while we were in Okinawa.

Naha is actually pretty cool, with plenty of places to eat, drink & shop, but it definitely only served the purpose of being a port town for us to crash in until we could go elsewhere in the morning. Dani & I had expected to see some Americans here, particularly folks in the military. Given the history of Okinawa being a territory of the U.S., and the ongoing military presence (there’s a base on the main island) there, our expectation was well-founded. However, there was not only a complete lack of westerners there at all, but Okinawans also speak little-to-no English! Much less English than mainland Japan. We found this surprising and very refreshing.

The next morning we took an hour-long ferry ride to Tokashiki Island, which is part of the “Kerama Islands” just west of big Okinawa island. We have what’s-her-name @ the airport tourist info desk to thank for this trip.

Tokashiki Island is heaven.

It is not only the most beautiful, tropical paradise EVER, but it also happens to be home to a very small population of the nicest, most jovial people I’ve met! There are basically 2-3 tiny villages on the island, and 2 main beaches. It would probably take 30 minutes to drive across the island. It’s surrounded by coral reef, and filled w/ lush forest.

We stayed in a guest house near Aharen Beach, run by a couple. As a small group of us (mainly Japanese tourists, and one Polish couple) arrived from the Tokashiki port and checked in, the husband, who appeared to be in his thirties, held his 2-year-old daughter in his arms (freaking cute!) the whole time. Oh – and husband also happens to be in charge of leading most of the daily scuba & snorkeling trips. The wife pretty much manages the guesthouse throughout the day. They have help from others, not sure if they’re family too. One of the younger guys (20yo), Tomo, helped w/ the snorkeling trips, and he also cooked sometimes! Actually, as we met more & more of the people who live & work on Tokashiki (we probably could have met the entire population in a week), we began to realize how collaborative the community is. It seems everyone helps run the various operations on the island together. For example, one of the guys who did some cleaning at our guest house the first day (who was also a big fan of Daniel’s guitar playing) served us lunch at a restaurant down the street the next day.

We basically spent our entire time in Tokashiki with smiles on our faces. We snorkeled each day for a few hours, explored the beach near our guest house, called Aharen Beach, met many people in the tiny town in which we stayed, partied & played music late into the evening with a large Okinawan family whom we met at one of the bars. And they didn’t even speak English but we managed to have a great time anyway!

It was so hard for us to say goodbye to Japan, and particularly Okinawa! What a surprising & gratifying trip. Japanese culture is much more heterogenous than I expected. Western Okinawa & Hiroshima had a significantly different vibe than the eastern metropolitan city of Tokyo. There were a few common themes however, including the streamlined & convenient nature of moving around the country & each city, the kind & polite people, and delicious cuisine everywhere! Japan is a well-oiled, organized machine. Everyone follows rules. There is very little crime. This makes for some inflexibility at times. There isn’t room for negotiation. But after we picked up on this (the hard way), it was not a problem. I longed for Japan even more when we got to experience Beijing, China. Just take every comment I’ve made about Japanese culture and think the opposite. That is Beijing. The reason I’m just posting this blog entry now about Okinawa (after we’ve already left Beijing and are now in Macau) is that China restricts many internet websites, including my blog evidently, in addition to Facebook (oh the horror!). More on our Chinese adventure later…hint: we walked 4 miles along the Great Wall and there were no crowds. Amazing.

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Highs & lows

We had a somber day in Hiroshima on Tuesday. Hiroshima is a beautiful city with really kind, friendly people. In fact, when we arrived at the Hiroshima train station late at night, we had another encounter with a group of young Japanese people who offered to help us find our hostel. They walked us 15 min to the hostel – this would never happen in the U.S! They were musicians, on their way to a gig. Too bad I hadn’t slept in 24 hrs; otherwise I would’ve loved to see
them play.

We started our day with an awesome breakfast typical to this city: Okonomiyaki. It’s basically a lump of noodles (udon or ramen), sprouts & some other veggies, with whatever meat or seafood you want, delicious sauce and egg, with another optional fried egg on too. It’s fried in a big flat surface in front of you. See pics below. Yum!! Cholesterol overdose!

Obviously the main reason we came to this city was to see the A-bomb memorial and Peace Park. The people of Hiroshima and their mayor are anti-war & anti-nuclear weapons advocates. Since 1945, each time a country has used a nuclear weapon, even for testing, the Hiroshima mayor has written a letter of protest to that country’s leader. All the hundreds of letters were on display at the Peace Memorial museum (see pic below) Some of the letters were written to U.S. presidents. The memorials throughout the park & various exhibits in the museum begged visitors (in overt & symbolic ways) to help prevent another travesty like the one that happened in Hiroshima. The stories about survivors & those killed, many of them children, were disturbing. It’s completely different to learn about this event from a Japanese perspective. It paints a picture of the U.S. coldly using their country as a guinea pig for the A-bomb. For example, one exhibit in the museum explained that during WWII, leading up to dropping the A-bomb on Hiroshima, U.S. leadership asked its military not to bomb that city, or inflict any damage whatsoever to it, in order for the effects of the A-bomb to be accurately measured & observed after it exploded. I’m realizing how little I learned about the Hiroshima & Nagasaki A-bombings in history class. The main events from WWII we learned about in the U.S. were Pearl Harbor and the Holocaust. Why was this A-bomb massacre practically omitted from history class? Is it because we as Americans feel justified in eliminating an entire city of innocent civilians (over 200,000) because of an attack on our armed military base in a remote area? The Pearl Harbor attack has special meaning for me because my grandfather was on a ship in Pearl Harbor that day. I wonder what my grandpa would think about all of this, were he alive today.
See some photos of the Peace Park below.

We finished up our sad
experience in Hiroshima with a quick afternoon trip to Miyajima, which is a short train ride south of Hiroshima. Miyajima is a small island; we took a 20-minute ferry there. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, and it’s best known for the Itsukushima shrine that includes a ‘floating’ torii gate. We were there at the perfect time of day (late afternoon, just before sunset) and it was one of the more beautiful places I’ve seen here. Random factoid: deer roam the island. I still haven’t figured out how the deer got there…? and they’re tame! See pics below.

That night we departed Hiroshima for Kyoto, which seems to be the cultural center of Japan. Little did we know, Kyoto also happens to host the worst climate in Japan! I’m talking upper 90s, extreme humidity & strong sunlight. Oh – and a brief daily rain shower.

We had our first experience eating Japanese fast food in Kyoto (our first morning there, because it was another holiday – every other day is a holiday here! – and most bakeries were closed). You have to order your food from a machine w/ a screen displaying all the different meal options. Nope, no English. 20 minutes later we had ordered our meals and they actually were quite good! I’ve been eating udon at almost every ‘quick’ meal. It’s sooooo good here in Japan. And I’m not normally a noodle kind if gal.

We then embarked on our outing in Kyoto. We took the bus to Gion, which is a popular destination for tourists. We only lasted about 20 minutes and had to escape the heat & drink a cold beer! We checked out a temple and walked around some gardens and could not last any longer so we went back to the hostel in the afternoon to enjoy the A.C. for a little while. We then decided to take a quick 15 minute train ride to the Fushimi Inari shrine in southern Kyoto. This shrine is magical. In addition to the main temple in front, the grounds consist of endless winding paths throughout the hills behind the temple, and thousands of red-orange torii (wooden arches) line each path. You may remember seeing these red glowing paths in the movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.’ See pics below.

The timing of our return to the hostel from Inari was perfect, because it started to rain shortly after. I did some laundry while waiting for the rain to stop…which it didn’t. The guy running the hostel recommended that we see a show at a theatre in Gion that night, which we did. It was alright…definitely tourist-oriented and a little cheesy but we got to see some traditional Japanese dance & musical instruments. Daniel volunteered me to participate in the ‘tea ceremony’ in the beginning of the show. Pretty embarrassing but hey I got to drink some freshly made green tea! The Gion district at night was reeeeeeally cool. The streets were lined with restaurants and some very nice homes. That night, we ate our most delicious (and indulgent) meal yet: shabu shabu. See pics below. We sat on pillows on tatami mats at a low table with a gas burner in the middle. The beef was delicious! We then had drinks at another rooftop bar (see pic below) and called it a night.

Overall, our daytime experience in Kyoto was diminished due to the nasty climate. It’s a super touristy city and I felt like I was on temple overload. I loved the Fushimi Inari shrine, however, and our dinner was absolutely delicious. Totally worth the trip.

Next up: Okinawa. One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, with the friendliest & happiest people in Japan. We spent 3 days there, and still didn’t get enough! All about that part of our trip when I muster up the energy to write some more 🙂

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Fuuuuuuuji

Daniel & I hiked to the summit of Mt. Fuji. We did not plan ahead of time to do this, nor did we have any training. We didn’t even have hiking boots. It was one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever overcome and I’m proud of both of us for achieving such a fantastic & rare accomplishment!

This is how it happened…After getting about 4 hours of sleep, we woke up early Sunday morning and hopped on the train to Kawaguchi-ko, a town near the base of Mt. Fuji which is just west of Tokyo. When planning this part of our trip, I honestly had not even considered ascending the entire mountain. It seemed ridiculous. I have been hiking here & there since I was a little kid, but nothing serious. Daniel never hikes. And we didn’t have a lot of time or resources or even the right gear to do it. I figured we’d take little trips/hikes around the base of the Mt. Fuji and enjoy the views of the summit from a distance.

Daniel had a different plan in mind. He has a co-worker, Evan, who hiked to the summit of Mt. Fuji a few years ago with his wife. Evan had told Daniel all about how it was “relatively easy”, and took about 6-7 hrs to ascend, and 2-3 hrs to descend the entire mountain. This little story was all it took to convince Daniel to do it. So while we were on the train to Kawaguchi-ko, Daniel basically made up his mind (rather confidently), that we were hiking to the summit of Mt. Fuji! This is one of the many characteristics of Daniel that I love – he decides something he wants to do and sticks to that decision without considering the smaller details or steps required to get there. This attitude of his has made our trip adventurous & unpredictable (in a good way). Anyone who knows me well knows that my mind operates in the exact opposite way (hence the reason we actually have a travel itinerary & places to stay and see here – I planned this trip). I consider all angles before diving into unknown territory! It took me a couple hours to jump on his Mt. Fuji bandwagon (no hiking boots? no cold weather clothes? no walking sticks? no sleep/energy?) but I came around to the idea, with the condition that we get at least 4-5 more hours of sleep first. Oh yeah – did I mention we did this hike at night? When we arrived at our hostel in Kawaguchi-ko, we dropped off our things, went to the local grocery store to stock up on food & water for the hike, and returned to the hostel to sleep (about 3pm-7pm). By the way our room at the hostel was bad-ass. I don’t know how this place calls itself a hostel. See pics below.

One of the ladies who worked at the hostel graciously lent me a fleece & windbreaker. Daniel had a couple jackets already. We each wore plain ol’ tennis shoes (my fancy hardcore Merrell hiking boots are at home grrrrrr). And off we went, with 1 wooden walking stick (provided by the hostel for free) and backpacks lightly filled with food, water & extra clothes. We took an hour-long bus ride from Kawaguchi-ko station to “5th station” where the trailhead is located.

Our goal was to reach the summit before sunrise so we could enjoy that spectacular moment from the top. We began hiking around 9:30pm. It was pitch black. No, we did not think of getting flashlights! We were able to stay pretty close to other groups of hikers with flashlights though. We met & chatted with a few people along the way. There were folks from all over the world taking on Mt. Fuji. Fortunately it was an almost-full moon, which helped a great deal with lighting the path. The first hour of the hike was easy and pretty flat. Then it completely changed after the first rest stop! The remainder of the hike consisted of very steep & rocky trails. It was grueling and never-ending. There were about 10-12 rest stops along the ascent. Each rest stop appeared to be run by a different family or group of locals. Each stop had a guy who would use a branding iron & hot coal to ‘brand’ our wooden walking stick for 200 yen. This was a unique way of marking our progress up the mountain. What a great keepsake we have now! We’ve been carrying the stick around Japan since we left Mt. Fuji, and it’s quite a badge of honor.

We took 7.5 hrs to reach the summit of Mt. Fuji. Quite frankly I’m surprised I made it up that dang mountain at all, so you can only imagine how rewarding it felt to have completed our ascent before sunrise. We sat among hundreds of other hikers, freezing our asses off (wind chill was killer), joints aching, and watched the sun slowly peek out from behind the blanket of clouds over the horizon. Everyone up there gasped as the sun rose. See some pics below – but they don’t truly capture the beauty of it. I also have video but I can’t post that here. Before the sun came up, I’d pretty much been clueless about my surroundings. After it officially
became daytime, I was finally rewarded with spectacular views below! We got to enjoy those views during the our descent (which was also grueling & quite steep). Daniel actually hurt his knee, which he only realized after he tried to stand up for the first time from a sitting position at the summit. He was such a trooper and we made it down the mountain slowly & safely.

After 12 hrs of hiking and very little sleep, we were basically walking dead – but proud walking dead! We showered as quickly as we could at the hostel and had to take 2 slow trains to reach a Shinkansen train (bullet train) so that we could head west for Hiroshima that night. By the way, that Shinkansen is bad-ass. It’s amazingly fast & sleek. I felt like we were floating across the tracks. After a 6-hr train ride, 24 hrs of no sleep & pushing my body to its limits, I passed out quickly at our Hiroshima hostel 🙂

What a life-changing experience this has been! I can’t wait to share more!

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Toky-doky-o

Yes – I’m alive!

Our two full days in Tokyo were a great success! Sorry this second blog post is so late. There have been very few free-time moments when I’ve been able to accomplish anything but sleep. But for good reason…

Friday morning, we had a buffet breakfast (I ate dumplings, tiny Japanese-style omelet, rice porridge & bananas) near the hotel. We walked over to Shinjuku Station where we picked up our Japan Rail (JR) passes (we had purchased those in L.A). The Japanese girl @ JR who helped us get the passes had a wicked & dry sense of humor, she was cracking us up. When we told her we’re from the west coast of the U.S, she said “I went to Seattle once. Everyone’s depressed there because of the rain. Lots of schizophrenics.” Huh?

So there are quite a few different rail/metro systems in Tokyo. Our passes get us on the JR lines for free, but we came to find out that some of the other non-JR lines are more convenient depending on what part of town you’re going to, and we have to pay for those like everyone else. And you have to use a self-serve kiosk…in Japan…scary! And by the way the metro map we were given…wow. Intimidating? Terrifying? I need better adjectives (see pic below). I pretty much figured it out by the end of the day…but it did take allllll day. And it took us about 30-45 minutes to figure out how/where to board the first train in the morning but we made it to Tsukiji Fish Market in one piece.

Tsukiji Fish market is Tokyo’s wholesale seafood district. We were hoping to see massive bluefin tuna being sliced & diced right before our very eyes. But there was just one problem…it turns out it was a holiday on Friday and the wholesale district was closed 😦 There is a bright side to this story. In conjunction with the wholesale market, there’s a little 2-square block area nearby that is like an open-air fish market/sushi bar heaven. No cars allowed, just people walking & biking. Each street is filled with hole-in-the-wall, freshest-sushi-you’ll-ever taste, types of places. The appearance of these sushi ‘places’ is difficult to describe. Notice that I’m not using the word “restaurant.” The place we chose was pretty much 10 feet of sushi bar and a couple of small tables, separated from the street only with what appeared to be a room divider. There’s no door. Luckily there’s some form of A.C. coming from somewhere (did I mention its in the upper 90’s, humid & sunny here at all times?). We ordered “omakase” which is chef’s choice. It was a variety of sushi (meguro, salmon, toro) as well as raw shrimp (yuck!) and ikura (salmon roe…yuck!) served over the most delicious rice sprinkled with seaweed. We then ordered negitori which is my new obsession. It’s chopped up bluefin tuna belly served with chives over rice. There was a moment during our meal here when Daniel looked at me and said something along the lines of “Life is good” and we definitely soaked up the moment and realized we were fulfilling a foodie dream.

We managed to roll our over-stuffed selves back to the metro station and hopped on the train heading for Asakusa which is in the northeastern part of Tokyo. Asakusa has an ‘old town’ which consists of a couple streets straight out of the movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ which was really neat. It also had a beautiful park with temples & shrines & little ponds throughout. There’s a large walking street, about 4 blocks long, in Asakusa that heads straight toward a major temple. The street is lined with shops selling just about everything. We were immediately lured into the smell of these bean paste cookies at one of the shops, and despite my tummy being filled with tuna, I still managed to eat one (and bought another bag for later). The cookies are made with a funky contraption on a conveyer belt.

Along the main street in Asakusa I mentioned above, there were tourists from all over the world as well as Japanese tourists. When we reached the end of the street there was a massive and evidently very well-known Buddhist temple called Sensoji (see pictures below). There were hundreds of people forming a line to drop a coin at the front of the temple as an offering. After each person drops a coin they put both hands together, bow their heads & appear to say a silent prayer, then clap both hands together once, twice or many times. I followed what everyone else was doing…it felt a little too similar to blowing out a birthday candle and making a wish. As we’ve visited more temples around Tokyo I’ve noticed this is a regular tradition at every entrance (not blowing out birthday candles but prayer/offerings, tee hee).

We were completely wiped out from all the walking around combined with the heat, so we headed back to our box – I mean hotel room – in Shinjuku. We made plans to go out to dinner that evening at 9pm with one of Daniel’s old college friends, Eri, who is Japanese and lives here. We napped…and overslept…and were awoken around 9:30pm by the lobby staff calling the room to tell us that our visitors were on their way in the elevator! Oops. No shower for me.

We ate out with Eri and her friend Satomi at an izakaya restaurant, which is kind of like the Japanese version of a gastropub. Cheap food & beer. After I drank a Sapporo, Eri suggested I try another drink (I forget what it’s called) that is kind of like a fruit flavored vodka soda. What makes it reallllly tasty is they serve the vodka soda, and they give you the ACTUAL whole fruit on the side along with a small manual juicer. I ordered grapefruit flavor so I squeezed juice from an actual half of a grapefruit into my drink. Why don’t we have this in L.A? How easy, fresh and delicious is that? Calling all bartenders!

After dinner the 4 of us went to another bar (the same one Dani and I had gone to the night before with the jazz-loving bartender). This time since it was a Friday night it was busier. Eri, Satomi, Daniel & I talked for hours throughout the night about Japanese culture
(more on what I’ve observed & learned about this later). I must say these ladies are excellent ambassadors for Japan. Both speak English very well, they’re highly intelligent, sweet, and they’re TONS of fun. Eri had to work the next day but we all peer-pressured her to stay out all night, muahaha. What a good sport. We ended up going to karaoke, duh. Eri & Satomi belted out their favorite Japanese ballads, and Dani and I tried to find songs all of us could sing together but that wasn’t easy. The only Japanese/American collaborations we could conjure up were Disney songs…which is just fine with me. Eri and I rocked a bilingual “Part of that world” from Little Mermaid.

5am bedtime came quickly. Needless to say we slept in the next morning but not as late as you’d imagine (10-ish).

On Saturday Daniel and I took the metro to Tokyo Tower which is very tall and provides excellent panoramic views of the city. The building looks like a copy-cat of the Eiffel Tower, and in fact there was a sign that made sure to point out the fact that Tokyo Tower is taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris…neener neener.
We then did Tsukiji Fish Market Round 2, making another attempt to see the wholesale market and deliveries of massive amounts of tuna. As soon as we got off the metro there, we could smell the fish. Unfortunately, however, we had missed the entire production and the wholesale district was completely deserted by the time we got there. Oh shucks, we’ll just have to settle for eating fresh sushi in the neighborhood next door again… 🙂 While we were walking around looking at the shops & searching for our next hole-in-the-wall sushi place, we came across a man slicing up a massive chunk of bluefin tuna. He had a “knife” (sword) that must have been 3-4 feet long, and was filleting the fish perfectly. The fish’s head had been cut off and was sitting on ice. I’ve never seen a fish that big. The Japanese guy filleting the bluefin spoke a little English and was friendly with us. He told us that the fish came from the New Zealand region this morning. Wow!

By the time we stuffed our faces with sushi and managed to get back to the metro station, it was early afternoon. We took the metro to Ueno, a town about 15-20 minutes north. Daniel had received a recommendation to visit Ueno Park which tends to have live outdoor music pretty regularly. We didn’t see any live music, but we did enjoy a long stroll through the beautiful, large park that also happens to house the Ueno Zoo, a botanical garden, and a mini-amusement park for kids. Oh! This was the first time I got a mosquito bite in Japan. Daniel got bitten too. Lucky us.

After a nap back at the hotel (maybe this will become a daily pattern?), we went to the restaurant at the top of our hotel (27th story) and had a small dinner overlooking Shinjuku in all it’s bright glory. We then headed by metro to a neighborhood called Ebisu where an old friend of Daniel’s was playing a gig. So as we’re leaving the Ebisu train station, we realize we have no idea where the bar is located…minor detail! And what happened next is one of many mind-blowing acts of kindness from a Japanese stranger we have encountered here. We stopped a group of young locals to ask them for directions to the bar. They spoke about 5 words of English total and obviously none of those words were from the ‘getting/giving directions’ section of English class. After a couple minutes of them trying, but failing, to Google-map the bar’s location for us, one of the guys, ‘Cho’ (sp?) basically said goodbye to all his friends and took it upon himself to help us find the bar. Cho and Daniel & I wandered the streets of Ebisu for about 15 minutes trying to find the place. Cho asked for directions from local business owners along the way. What a great guy. We were so thankful and would not let him leave without allowing us to buy him a beer at the bar. We had a beer together and tried to communicate using our limited Japanese & his limited English. I wish I could have written down his full name so I could at least give him a shout-out on Facebook or something! Anyway, as I mentioned before, this is not the only time we have experienced this go-out-of-your-way kindness here in Japan. (And it only gets better as we move west)

It was another late night out (or early morning?) for us. Satomi (Japanese friend/karaoke goddess from Friday night) met us at the bar. Daniel’s friend, Tommy, plays base in the band. They played American Top 40’s music. After the band was finished playing, Tommy & another guy in the band, along with Dani, Satomi & I, went to another bar in nearby Shibuya, and then had late night (early morning?)…dinner? Midnight ‘snack’? at an Izakaya, where we stayed until 4am-ish. So you’re probably thinking we’re 2 crazy hooligans for partying so late these two past nights. But there’s actually another reason, in addition to being drunks, why we, in addition to many Japanese folks, party so late here. So, the Tokyo metro system is amazing & efficient. You definitely don’t need a car here (reportedly only wealthy people own cars). However, the local trains stop running around midnight! WTF!? So basically when you’re out with your friends, 11:45pm is major decision time. Either you say “screw it!” and stay out partying until the first morning train can take you back home, or go home now, or crash at a nearby ‘capsule’ hotel (google it) where you practically pay $10 to sleep in a coffin ’til morning. Obviously the first option is best. Oh, and I guess no one really takes taxis here. Satomi told us that she has never taken a taxi home from a bar late at night! Ha! Moral of my story – metros here need to extend the nighttime hours at least on weekends so these people can sleep!

Couldn’t sleep in too late the next morning because we were headed to Mt. Fuji on Sunday. And little did we know, we would be needing endless amounts of energy & stamina…stay tuned!

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A new frontier

“We’re officially not in ‘the west’ for the first time ever” -stated profoundly by my boyfriend Daniel as we landed in Tokyo last night. My internal dialogue was saying something similar…think ‘Wizard of Oz.’

Yep! Another travel adventure, another blog! I hope I can sustain it this time. The Brazil blog was a FAIL, but for good reason – I had too much fun. And FYI – Daniel & I are taking this trip to Asia exactly 2 years after we met in Brazil. Funny how life works…

Our itinerary consists of 6 flights & many hours of train travel. We’ll be abroad approximately 2.5 weeks – 10 nights in Japan, 2 in Beijing, 2 in Macau, and 2 in Hong Kong. Yes – We are ambitious!

It has always been a dream of Daniel’s & mine to travel to Japan. I really feel like the time I have in Japan isn’t enough. I could probably spend a month here. But hey, that just means I’ll have to plan a return trip some day 🙂 We’ll be traveling throughout the southern part of the country only: Tokyo, Mt. Fuji, Hiroshima, Kyoto & the islands of Okinawa.

FYI – Japan is 14 hours ahead of California. So my ‘today’ is most likely your ‘tomorrow’ and my ‘yesterday’ could be your ‘today.’ Confused yet? Me too.

After we touched down in Tokyo around 8:30pm (my Thursday night, your Thursday wee-early hrs of the morning), we purchased an express train ticket from the airport directly to Shinjuku, which is the part of Tokyo where we’re staying. It was surprisingly easy to get the ticket & find the train. All train station signs here are in Japanese & English. Good thing, too, because this is the first time I’ve been in a country where the written language does not use the Roman/Latin alphabet. Anyway, the express train was sleek & sexy, and spotless. It looked brand new. It happened to be very late so there was pretty much no one on the train. I could tell we were approaching central Tokyo when the view outside the train window went from black to florescent & neon lights! Clearly Tokyo’s urban planning is all about over-stimulating your senses (think Vegas on steroids).

Shinjuku is not only a corporate/business center crowded with skyscrapers, but it’s also known for great nightlife. It happens to have one of the larger metro stations which makes Shinjuku a great home base for exploring Tokyo. After we walked out of Shinjuku station (around 10pm) and got over our initial shock re: the aforementioned over-stimulating yet beautiful environment around us, we proceeded to wander aimlessly for 30 minutes trying to find our hotel. We must have been low on brain cells at the time, because our hotel is massive & uniquely shaped (see pic of white curvy bldg) and you really can’t miss it.

Ok so I was prepared for the whole Japanese tiny-room phenomenon, but this is just hilarious and I’m still getting used to it. Our hotel room cannot be more than 250 square feet. Daniel & I could barely fit through the front door together, ha! Our pillows are filled with rice, and we have one tiny 3×3-ft window that we can barely see through. But the room is very clean (everything is here) and at least the bathroom & shower are nice. Super fancy toilet – interesting bidet experience…won’t go into details. Actually, all the toilets here in Tokyo, even in the public bathrooms, are pretty fancy. Am I still talking about toilets? I digress…

We went out for a beer after we got settled into our hotel. It was pretty easy to find a bar. Our first stop
was very random – a small bar filled with Japanese men playing darts (very politely, I might add, and no shit-talking…so not my style) and one small group of tourists. We met a couple people who offered to show us around in Hong Kong when we go there. Not sure if we’ll take them up on their offer, but we shall see. We then went to another teeny-tiny bar that only had 2 other local patrons. That place was neat. It was a speakeasy-style bar with 2 bartenders in black suits & ties who chipped cubes of ice off a big ice block. The bartenders spoke very limited English but Daniel somehow managed to bond with one of them over their shared love of jazz. Typical! Haha.

Although it was early morning L.A. time, we felt exhausted and slept through the entire night like babies. What time change?

Next post – first daytime outing in Tokyo. Stay tuned!

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