Stories from a Tour of Asia: Taj Mahal and Thai Beaches

•September 10, 2004 • Leave a Comment

Beaches, Con Artists and Hopes

I’m home and figured I’d send a wrap up to my travels. The second to last day of my vacation was one of the best. It was a beautiful day on the most beautiful beach with the most beautiful girls. The sky was clear blue, the water was warm and calm, and the girls were French. One of them was half Pakistani and half Vietnamese. I was tempted to go to Paris instead of coming home. The island was Koh Samet which is four hours from Bangkok, Thailand. Normally, it isn’t considered among Thailand’s best but the French girls picked out what the travel book said was the best beach on the island on the ferry ride across and I invited myself along. I swam for several hours on each of the two days I was in the island and then hopped a bus on the mainland to arrive back in Bangkok the night before my flight.

Before spending three days in Thailand which was on my route home from Bombay, I had two terrific weeks in India. I caught up with many old friends and went out just about every night. I helped out with orienting some of the new students who are just starting their MBA this September and got to give a speech at their inauguration since I was the distinguished alumni. I gave a good speech.

I also managed to visit Delhi for several days and made a day trip out to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I’ve been scammed many times in my travels but think I fell for half a dozen ruses in Delhi. I was told attractions were closed and that particular tours were better than others. All lies of course. I went to visit Jama Masid, the largest mosque in India. At the door I was offered a tour of the place, declined it and then grudgingly accepted after being pestered. After the fifteen minute tour, I was cornered in an alcove of the mosque and told that I owed 250 Rupees ($5) for fifteen minutes of the guide’s time. I told the guide that I had intended to tip him but that since he was such a thug and a rip off that I wasn’t giving him a dime. I then jumped down off the three foot balcony into the main square of the mosque and walked away. When I was leaving, he told me I owed him 100 Rupees. I told him that I had given a nice fat donation to the mosque on his behalf.

A tour agency sold me a “bus” trip to Agra where the Taj Mahal is located that took place in a shabby van. In Agra, the hustlers were even worse. I found one restaurant that had three menus: one for the foreigners, one for the Indian tourists and one for the locals. The owners grew upset when I collected all three menus and told them that I would only pay what was on the cheapest menu. Eventually, they said that they would not serve me. At the next place I went to, I demanded a 50% discount and was given it, so I think I paid just a little more than I should have. By the time I got to the Taj Mahal, I was so frustrated and tired that I almost got teary eyed upon seeing it. The Taj Mahal, a palace crafted of the most refined and ornately carved white marble, is justly famous. I was only able to stay for an hour even though I would have been happy to stay for five.

At the start of the seventeen hour, $30 train ride back to Bombay from Delhi, I was in a compartment with 3 South Africans of Indian origin, an Indian couple with a two year old baby and a Japanese girl. My first sight when I sat down was Asuka, the Japanese girl, crying hysterically because a thief took her shoulder bag—with her passport, mobile phone, digital camera, cash and credit cards. I cheered her up with my ten Japanese phases. While she had not kept her stuff in a money bag, the experience didn’t increase my fondness for Delhi. When we got to Bombay, I went with Asuka to the Mumbai Central Police Station. The police had the nerve to tell us that she had to go back to Delhi to file a report. After three hours, the police finally gave us an official police report. I think maybe they wanted a bribe but I’m glad we didn’t give them one. I wish I could have blown my temper a bit but that would have just made things worse.

On my plane ride home from Bangkok to Tokyo, I sat with a twenty-five year old Thai girl who was going to marry her 40-year old boyfriend in San Francisco who she has spent all of two weeks with on two separate occasions. She said many of her friends were jealous but that she really had no wish to go to America. She was going just because she loved her boyfriend. She had $35 in her pocket—that was all her family could afford to scrap together. Certainly, I don’t know enough but I hope life works out for her.

Friday was graduation so I officially have my MBA. Mostly it was an excuse to travel. I’ve visited seven countries this year: India, Costa Rica, Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam & Cambodia. I won’t be forgetting the beggars in Bombay, the smog in Shanghai or prostitutes evident in just about every country I’ve visited. I don’t know whether the museums from the wars in Hiroshima or Vietnam or the thoughts of all the women who had nothing to sell but themselves bothered me more during my trip. Neither will I be forgetting the beaches in Kerala (India), the mountains in North Vietnam or half a dozen other highlights. I believe my travels are somewhat frivolous but consider myself pretty fortunate to have seen so much of the world. I hope I can visit many of my newly-made friends from my travels again someday as well as all the old ones I saw along the way.

I’m going to go find myself a job or create one. In the meantime, I’ll campaign for John Kerry—and pray for my country even though I’m not much for praying. To those who have read my spiels, thanks. If I’ve made your spam list, thanks for keeping me humble.

Until the next adventure,
Mike

P.S. I owe pictures to some of you, more stories to others and school work to still others…give me a couple of days.

Stories from a Tour of Asia: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia

•August 27, 2004 • Leave a Comment

All,

I haven’t sat down for nearly four weeks but finally here’s an update. I’ll write one more note before I go home which I’ll reach on September 9th. I’m trying to take the train to Delhi from Bombay tomorrow to see the Taj Mahal but with the Indian train system, booking tickets is always an adventure and we shall see how it goes. I’ve spent the past week in Bombay, saying hi to friends and helping out a little with orienting the next class of IMBA students. No crocodiles have eaten my passport. As always, thanks for reading. Be in touch.

Love,
Mike


Jim and Mike’s Little Adventure in Thailand

To begin my three week sojourn through SE Asia, I met one of my classmates Jim in Bangkok and we immediately hopped a ten-hour overnight bus to Koh Toa, a small island off the coast of Thailand.

It’s mostly a divers’ hangout so we were afraid we’d be second class citizens considering that at the most we’d be snorkeling. As it turned out, we had nothing to worry about. We stayed at a beach hut resort and did almost absolutely nothing for three and a half days. I started a nice tan. Off the beach of our little resort, it was possible to snorkel although the water although it was really too shallow to swim. The first day in the water I thought that I saw a fish that looked like the gourami in my fish tank when I was in seventh grade.

The great event of our stay was a half day snorkeling trip. We signed up and pulled away from the dock one afternoon. Immediately, a two-hour onslaught of pouring rain ensured. For the first fifteen minutes of the rain, we were in a speed boat and I think that it went the fastest I have ever gone in a boat as it took us out to some sort of cross between a tug boat and a house boat from which we would dive. After the rain abated, Jim and I went snorkeling. I lasted just over an hour and saw at least a couple hundred species of fish and untold thousands considering that there were schools everywhere. The coral and sea anemones were incredible. As it turned out, I think we had a least as good a day as the divers had and we paid a heck of a lot less. The water was at most thirty feet deep where we snorkeled and we could see just about all the way to the bottom not to mention all the spots were it was even shallower. I especially liked these three or four-inch fish that swam right up to my mask. In retrospect, we picked a good day to go snorkeling since with all the rain it would have been a miserable beach day. My nice tan became a mild sun burn.

Jim and I also hiked the mile and a half from out beach hut to the main town several times. Along the way, you could look at the rocks along the coast and the aqua marine waters. You could also navigate several wooden-plank walk way death traps. The last night of our stay, a couple got married and the beach hut resort had a grilled shrimp and chicken menu special that anyone could order. Jim and I uncomplainingly partook of the barbeque shrimp kabobs. The next day we split and I left for Vietnam for ten days while Jim stayed to continue the hard living on the island beaches of Thailand.

In other notes, Bangkok is perhaps the least pedestrian friendly city I have even been in with large boulevards for streets, crowded sidewalks and hell bent drivers. The bus to the beach was probably the nicest long distance bus I have ever ridden, even better than the ones in Peru not to mention Ecuadorian school buses.

They are big on their motorbikes

I loved Vietnam from the moment I could see it from the air. Even flying into Hanoi, you can see gorgeous green rice paddies in every direction. On the way from the airport to town, you get to see the rice paddies up close. The other thing that is apparent as soon as you get on the road is that everybody in Vietnam has a motorbike. At first I thought the ratio of cars to motorbikes was 1 to 35. I later raised my estimate to 1 to 50. I later learned that there are 3 million motorbikes in Saigon (although I have no idea how many people there are) and that five years ago there were none. Someone told a joke that the World Bank gave the Vietnam government money and it was immediately spent on motorbikes for everybody. The underlying story was that everyone got their motorbikes on credit and if the economy crashes, there is going to be a lot of scrap metal available.

I went on two two-day tours. First, I visited Ha Long Bay in the north, with its hundreds of rock islands. The cool thing about the trip was that I slept on a boat overnight. I also visited Sapa, a ten-hour train ride from Hanoi to the rural mountains up north. This entire second trip was a fiasco beginning with my tour company not giving me my train ticket, getting picked up by the wrong driver at the train station in Sapa and waiting two hours in the hotel for my guide to pick me up. I ended up playing UNO in the hotel lobby for two hours with a bunch of the village children which was more fun than a tour would have been. Of course, they were so cute that at the end of the two hours I had to buy bracelets and postcards from every single one of them. The kids spoke marvelous English that they’d taught themselves from listening to tourists. Maybe all the classes with the gringos in Quito should be in English then the kids would have no choice but to learn a few words and could probably have a conversation after a year of girls’ program. I also went on a hike through one of the valleys where rice, hemp and indigo were cultivated. All of the clothing that the village people made was from hemp and I got to see various steps of the process. It was quite awesome.

Hanoi is a big dusty and noisy place but rather quaint. Mostly, I think that the French occupation left the inhabitants with a touch of aesthetics. Half of the buildings are concrete cinder block and half are French colonial but that’s an improvement over the usual 100 percent cement. I went to see Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum. He is laid in state and all fixed up. It’s very creepy. The line to see him was several thousand long and I probably had wait an hour to see him even in the short tourist line. Clearly, he is a national hero for his opposition to the French and later the US.

After five days in the North, I headed to Saigon. The city was nothing likely I imagined it would be. I had heard that it was just another city that was developing quickly and very westernized but I found that Saigon (like Hanoi) before it felt like a small city and not at all westernized even if its touristy. It possessed none of the skyscrapers or the crowds of Tokyo, Shanghai or Bombay but of course size is always relative and both of Vietnam’s hubs are sizable enough. Saigon is not as quaint and charming a place as would be suggested by songs such as Billy Joel’s Good Night Saigon. I guess more so than any place I’ve ever been, even more so than Southern Peru, SE Asia is really the world’s backpacking capital. The touristy part of town was filled with all the usual hostels and restaurants catering to foreigners. They even had fake Lonely Planet guides that were very cheap.

From Saigon, I went on tours to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta. The tunnels were amazing. They were hundreds of kilometers long, built by hand and allowed the Vietnamese guerrillas to live right under the Americans. The Viet Cong’s tactics were beyond creative. They used metal from American bombs to make mines and weapons. One of their techniques was to place mines with bamboo shafts in the Delta. American boats would search the river banks during raids but at low tide, they’d get punctured by the Vietnamese traps. Then the crocodiles would finish off any unfortunate Americans. The Delta was nothing like the jungle I was picturing it would be and the devastation wrought by Americans during the Vietnam War became quickly apparent during my stay. The forest around the Delta is young, consisting of thirty year old palm trees, signs of a place that is only beginning to recover from Napalm and all the other chemicals that Americans used in bombing the place. In America, the war has all sorts of rationales. Visiting Vietnam first hand, however, makes it abundantly clear that we were an invading and occupying army. I visited the War Remnants museum in Saigon, formerly called the American War Crimes museum and remained sadden for hours: 3 million Vietnamese dead, 4 million wounded, hundreds of thousands of after effects. The bitterness that was evident in the Vietnamese people’s memories of the war was strong and well deserved by all accounts. I can only imagine what they will remember in Iraq some day.

It Doesn’t Rain in the Brochures

I visited Siem Reap in Cambodia for three days and spent a day wandering the temples of Ankor. Siem Reap is pure hinterlands with only 80,000 inhabitants. I didn’t have time to stray far off the beaten track but the poverty in Cambodia was intensely apparent in a way that it was not in Vietnam. My hotel room was $3 a night and for the tourist season, it appears that many people try to create some income whether by selling trinkets or giving motorbike rides. Ankor Wat and its surroundings are just incredible. Pictures do it some justice so I cannot wait to show them off. In the middle of the day, it poured rain but I just kept walking in my Poncho since I wasn’t coming back any time soon and explored a few of the various temples. I think my favorite ruin was one that was being eaten by the jungle. It had trees growing on top of six feet high stone block walls that was two hundred feet tall and eight feet in diameter. The root systems of some of the trees were the size of what would normally be considered big tree branches, with roots easily as big as the bottom branches of the Maple with swings on it in my backyard. At the end of the day I went back to Ankor Wat to spend a few more hours there. The sun came out and I got a last few good pictures with clear blue skies. That night before I left for Bangkok to go to Bombay for a couple of weeks, I got bit by about 100 mosquitoes but there are no apparent ill affects other than the numerous welts from bites.

Lasting Impressions

So after covering these three countries, Vietnam wins the award for my favorite place, the one to which I would return in a second. Even with Thailand’s beautiful beaches and Cambodia’s wonders of the world, the people from the tour guides to the hotel receptionists, the hairdressers to the random people on the street in Vietnam were warm and awesome. I was sad to leave each step of my journey knowing I wouldn’t see many of them again. One of the great things about traveling, however, is that far off places are no longer abstractions but places where friends with faces reside. I’ve had a great trip and I’ve still got almost two weeks to go.

Stories from a Tour of Asia: China Wrap Up

•August 2, 2004 • Leave a Comment

The day after tomorrow, I leave China for Bangkok. The trip thus far has been marvelous beyond expectation. I write from my friend Phil’s computer in his hometown of Hangzhou, two and a half hours outside of Shanghai but I’ll cover what I’ve done in China after I wrap up my last week in Japan.

Certainly after my adventures at the hot spa (read previous post), I was on a high but no more so than I usually am during my travels. The highlight of the week was that one of my classmates, Kevin got engaged to his girlfriend Tamara, proposing at volcanic colored lakes in the West of Japan by Nigata.

After a week of corporate visits, we closed out our time in Japan with a baseball game, and on our last evening, a cocktail get together and three hours of Karaoke. I didn’t partake of the singing as there was a scarcity of talent as it was but it was a ton of fun and a great way to end the trip and say our goodbyes. At midnight, half of us were not ready to call it a night and so we decided to go clubbing. Most of us had to wake at 5 in the morning so there was no point in sleeping anyway. We’ve got quite a diverse group including Roberto from Rome who is quite the stereotypical Italian. He has frequented the clubs four or five nights a week during our stay in Tokyo, always has the discount coupons that let you go for $10 and two drinks instead of the normal $30, and knows the bouncers by name. His style with women is quite a sight to behold, he walks up to them, says hi, I’m Italian. After dancing for several hours, I left Tokyo for Shanghai at 6 am having had two hours of sleep.

I guess I should mention a few last things before describing China. One is that our dorm in Tokyo wasn’t quite the hotel that it appeared. Half the residents were models from various countries. For most of my stay, I thought that they were all from Eastern Europe and Russian. I was disappointed that it took me until the day before my last to learn that several were from Colombia and Brazil. Roberto knew every model by name even though the rest of us couldn’t even get a hello. All I can say is that they provided nice eye candy.

This week in Shanghai has been quite amazing. It’s reportedly the most westernized part of China and I shall have to visit other parts some day. The city has its fair share of carbon monoxide but is nowhere near as chaotic, poverty stricken or decrepit as many sections of Bombay. That said, I have not seen the slums on the outskirts. The twelve of us who came stayed at the Howard Johnson which in China is a five star hotel. We had a gym and spa and breakfast was served every morning.

I don’t really have any great adventures to share since we spent the week on corporate visits. Thursday, we came to Hangzhou and went to visit my classmate Phil’s old employer, his dad’s factory. The region around Shanghai is a boom town and Phil’s father’s factory makes metal Patio furniture for the US under the HomeCasual label although Target, K-mart and Walmart all put their own labels on it. Looking at the furniture, I felt like my grandmother has plenty of similar stuff at her shore house. The company has grown from 10 to 50 million dollars in revenue with profits remaining level for the past five years. Margins are squeezed every year but I think the place is quite an accomplishment. The factory was begun ten years ago by Phil’s dad and now employs close to 3,000 people, many seasonal, at $5 a day. Phil’s dad gave us a hero’s welcome at the factory and then took us out for a fine Chinese meal. I cannot imagine what the meal would cost in the States or here but it included rounds of crab, lobster, Kobe beef and lots more. After the meal, we went to the West Lake on the city’s outskirts. The more than 500 year old man-made lake is surrounded by parks with beautiful landscaping and mountains in the background. I’d say it’s the most beautiful part of China that I will see.

Saturday evening, I caught up with Rob DeLach, a former volunteer friend from Ecuador and Elizabeth To, a friend from Philly as well as some new Shanghai friends. Rob’s Mandarin is quite impressive after less than a year. I came back to Phil’s house yesterday with my classmates Adam and Laura and spent two days here. I told Phil’s family that the visit to his home was the highlight of my stay in China, and indeed it has been. Their hospitality has been exceptional. Phil’s mom made the best Peking Duck for me one evening. I also got to meet Phil’s girlfriend and she is a sweetie.

I will go back and hang out with Rob and Elizabeth in Shanghai tomorrow. Hopefully, I’ll hit the black market from which my classmates could not peel themselves away earlier this week. Wednesday morning, I’m off to Bangkok. I’ll probably hit the beach with my classmate Jim in Thailand for a couple of days before exploring Cambodia and Vietnam. I hope to visit a friend of the family in Saigon. I gave my computer to Adam to write his final paper, although given its recent behavior, I’m not sure it’s much of a gift. At any rate, I’m not sure when my next update will be. Being an ugly American sure is way too easy so I’m vowing to be less of one for the next couple of weeks. Thanks for reading.

Be in touch,
Mike

Stories from a Tour of Asia IV: Japan Wrap Up

•July 29, 2004 • Leave a Comment

The last two weeks in Japan flew quickly and with the exception of a final paper that I have to e-mail, I just about have an MBA. It really has been a wonderful experience but I’ll just share a few of my latest weekend adventures in my typically longwinded fashion.

I took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto on a Saturday morning over two weeks ago and was there by 11:30am. I had heard much about Kyoto since it’s considered the cultural capital of Japan. First I visited several temples and a castle in the city and then I picked one of Lonely Planet’s less touristy walking tours and headed for the subway station where it started. As soon as I came above ground I was lost and there were no street names—I’m never traveling again in a place where I don’t speak the language without a small pocket compass to figure out directions. At any rate, I used my few Japanese phases and got myself pointed in the right direction. Several blocks later I found a temple on a hillside and started climbing. After going through a Buddhist temple that was a couple hundred years old. I ascended the steps until I came to a cemetery. After about a half hour walk up through the cemetery, I came to a view point from which I could see much of Kyoto. The view was spectacular with lots of skyscrapers and mountains all surrounding the city. In typical Japanese fashion, a red construction crane smack was in the middle of the view.

When I came down the hill, I took a different trail and ended up going through another temple and a huge public garden. At the end of the day I had covered most of what Lonely Planet recommended to see just by happenstance. The other notable sight of the day was a traditional Japanese neighborhood with two and three-story buildings of wood, bamboo fences and shutters, paper lanterns hanging from awnings and stone block cobble stone streets. It is just about the last neighborhood in Japan that serves as a geisha stronghold. Reputedly, you can sometimes catch sight of a geisha in the evening but since there are only about 1000 left in all of Japan and several hundred in this particular neighborhood, it’s even a big deal for Japanese to see one and I didn’t.

That night I stayed in a Ryokan (Japanese Inn) where there was a tatami mat (three inch thick straw mat) on the floor and a thin mattress covering it. My room in this case was five feet by seven feet but at $40 was priced right. Just about the best thing about traveling in Japan and staying in cheap hotels is that they have public baths with hot tubs in the basement. I could get very used to starting and ending the day with hot tubs. Indeed, I decided after my second cheap hotel that since I couldn’t find natural beauty in too many places, I was going to go out of my way to find a hot tub whenever I could.

The next day, I hopped a train to Nara. I had seen enough Temples and didn’t much feel like seeing any more so I avoided all but one. I instead rented a bike for three dollars and biked around the city for five hours. The city has a huge park with lots of temples which I blissfully ignored. There are also 1200 sacred deer in the city park that were quite beautiful and families and kids fed them biscuits along various trails. The highlight of my trip, however, occurred when at the end of the day I was about to hop on a train back to Tokyo and asked paused to ask where I could find an Onsen (hot spa) or Sento (Public Bath). There were none of the latter within a reasonable distance but the tourist office recommended one of the former. Basically, I just wanted to sit in the hot tub but there is a whole ritual. I was somewhat intimidated (about getting in the buff with a bunch of old Japanese guys) but one guy invited me in and showed me the ropes.

Basically, you have to wash and then get in the hot tub, cold tub and sauna in a particular order. After I followed proper protocol twice as I was told to do though the men started signaling that I had done my round and it was time to leave. They were leaving too. I of course, being the contrary American, wanted to jump in the hot tub one more time so I waited until they left the bathing room and hopped back in the hot tub for another 15 minutes.

After another week of corporate visits, I wanted to get out of town one last time before leaving Japan so I went north to Sendai. It was two hours on the bullet train. I think potentially saved a thousand dollars with my three week Japanese rail pass. Upon arriving in Sendai, I asked at the rail station hotel reservation desk if I could get a spot at an Onsen out of town. Alas, they laughed at my proposed price of $30 bucks and told me that the cheapest rooms were $130 but even these were all sold out since Japanese vacations had just started. I ended up staying in Sendai over night. Japanese cities are like American suburbs. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Sendai was no exception with plenty of neon and concrete. At any rate, the next morning I caught a bus 1 and a half hours north to hike to a 55 meter waterfall. It was somewhat out of the way but not far enough as I shared my time at the waterfall with about 200 fellow Japanese tourists. I did manage to find a peaceful garden off in a corner above the waterfall along the river where I grabbed some lunch.

After hiking to the waterfall, I wanted to visit a hot spa since that’s what Japanese normally do for vacation. I caught a bus half an hour away to a hot spa town and hiked along a beautiful river gorge for about a mile. I was disappointed to learn from my hike that all the hot spas were basically five star hotels and that none seemed to be out in the open when I could jump in a hot spa for a couple of hours. Nonetheless, I decided to go find myself a hot tub. I walked along until a point on my map where there was supposed to be a hot spa. What I found was a huge compound with a parking lot. I walked inside to a gorgeous hotel reception room but there was no one around so I decided to see if I could find anyone. I walked through some long ornate hallways and up and down several flights of stairs with oriental rugs and hopped on a moving floor for fifty feet and saw no one! After moving through an automatic door, however, I spotted several families and kids standing by a carp pool through the atrium on the second floor and went down to check it out. The carp were the biggest I have ever seen, including one that was well over three feet long.

From the pool, I could see the entrance to the public bath and tried to find some employees to ask about using the spa. None were readily available but a guy stocking the soda machine so I asked if I could go in the spa but all he could tell me was that the men’s spa was off to one side. I decided that there was sufficient permission to enter and check things out. In the locker room, there was only one employee and I asked him about the policy for the spa and he said that it was free. I put all my stuff in a locker and went and luxuriated for an hour and a half, using the sauna, the three hot tubs including two that were outside and the cold pool as well as the sit down showers. It was awesome although as a skinny white naked bald guy, I’m sure I was quite a spectacle.

Actually, I forgot to tell you that right before I left for Sendai, we went out for my classmate Phil’s birthday and ended up staying at a club where the Japanese women were just beautiful until three in the morning. By the time I got home I was so hot that I decided to shave my head. And no, I wasn’t drunk since I didn’t miss any spots. I had been looking for a haircut for two weeks but the average price for a guy’s hair in Tokyo is $30 although you can find them for $20 if you look really hard. Apparently there is this deal to get a cut for $10 but if they don’t finish in 10 minutes, you get kicked out with whatever they’ve done and I figured I could do at least as good a job with my electric and safety razors and that it would grow back before I got home. So yeah, I was bald. And yeah, Tokyo had been really hot. This summer was reputedly the hottest in more than 30 years and we had several days of 40 degree centigrade heat, about 100 Fahrenheit.

At any rate, after my nice visit to the spa, I decided to leave by the way that I had come in. Unfortunately, the automatic sliding door didn’t open for me. After inspection I figured out that you needed a hotel card key to open the door and that I was trapped in the compound! Well, I found an exit sign and followed them around for several minutes. Eventually, I came to what must have been the front entrance lobby since there were 500 Japanese and about twenty staff working the front desk. I walked out the front door thinking I was scot-free. Immediately, I realized had no idea where I was. I conversed with one of the door staff who didn’t speak English but who got another staff to help and eventually they dug me out a map. One of them walked inside saying they were going to get someone who spoke English. Before I know it, ten hotel staff walked out a form a semicircle in front of me. I was thinking, oh my, the jig is really up now. Their expressions didn’t show it but I’m pretty sure they were wondering what the hell I was doing there. I’m not sure whether my adventure downstairs at the spa had made its way upstairs but since I was not a guest, they couldn’t charged me for anything and the Japanese are adverse to confrontations. I therefore acted like everything was perfectly okay, got my directions, completely taking advantage of their lack of forthrightness and high tailed it out of there, across the highway and back to my trail to the bus stop feeling great after my 1 and half hour visit to what was probably a 500 dollar a night Japanese hot spa.

After the bus back to Sendai, I caught the train for Noibu, a beach town with a cheap youth hostel. I made some friends and played cards and the next morning hit Matshima, one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan according to one of the country’s poets. Well, it was somewhat touristy but there was this one island with a wooded garden that I walked around on for a couple hours that was just beautiful. I would say that the visit to the Island and its vistas of the sea and other nearby islands was the highlight of my trip to Japan.

To be continued…with other adventures in Japan and a week in Shanghai,

Mike

Stories from a Tour of Asia III: Japan

•July 12, 2004 • Leave a Comment

July 12, 2004

Dear Family and Friends,

Japan is awesome even though it has not inspired me as much as my stay in India did. I have few remarkable stories to tell in part because Japan is so similar to America, at least outwardly.

I’ve played musical rooms with classmates and now am settled down with Phil, who is from Shanghai. We’ve got a great set up in an apartment hotel in Akasaka, just about the most upscale happening neighborhood in the Tokyo. Three blocks away, there is a row of restaurants half a mile long. We’ve hesitated to wander down there since about 80 percent of the places charge prices that we would consider justifiable once a year, if that often. Within walking distance is Rogoppongi, the primary club scene for foreigners and adventurous Japanese. They say of both Mt. Fuji and Rogoppongi that visiting both are necessary but only a fool skips them or visits twice.

Whether it’s paying 263 yen (a yen is about a penny) for three spoonfuls of Hagen Daz or 1,850 yen for a 1 liter bottle of sake, the cost of living in Tokyo is downright exorbitant. I was hoping the sake would get my writing juices flowing one evening but had to top it off with two itsy bitsy ice cream cups first because I was still hungry after a 2,000 yen meal and that dulled the edge. Certainly, I feel like I’m living the good life compared to most of the places that I’ve been.

God–For what I’m paying, I better be experiencing the good life. But I find even if it’s expensive, at the very least, I’m not roughing anything. Tokyo is clean, like being in a ward that has been scrubbed down with antiseptic. One of the mysteries is that there are very few trashcans but there is almost no trash anywhere to be seen. The subway is just incredibly beyond nice, convenient, fast and almost exactly comparable to the cost of riding SEPTA (What an ironic and apt acronym we have for our transportation system in Philly now that I think about it). The subway stations even have sparkling restrooms.

I’ve eaten at enough soba and undo noodle places to ensure that by the end of my stay, I will have had a lifetimes worth of noodle soup. The places are rather neat, homey and affordable, generally tending to be father and son places. They serve just about the cheapest meal you can find for 5 to 7 bucks. I’ve also been to quite a few decent restaurants. One of the honors I have had since I was among the first to arrive was to take others out to see the scene and that put a nice little dent in my pocket since walking out of the dorm cost at least $10 and probably $30. There are several little convenience stores around and although they are not particularly cheap, they are open 24 hours and have the requisite bread, peanut butter and jelly as well as plenty of dried ramen. My room also has a hot plate and a refrigerator which help keep costs down.

Temple is the only full scale US University in Japan and is not recognized by Japan’s ministry of education. This causes lots of complications and means that students do not qualify for discount travel passes and are sometimes not recognized by Japanese companies. Oddly enough, foreign companies in Japan value the education that Temple provides to its 3,000 students highly all the more so because of how different the US style of education is from Japanese institutions. The university does seem to be extraordinarily well connected and has access to the ears of the US embassy and many local business people.

The Temple campus is about mile walk from the dorm or a 5 minute subway ride and a six block walk. To tell the truth, even though we have four days of classes a week, I am in no mood for academics. We went on a corporate visit to Price Waterhouse Cooper and the gentleman decided that he wanted to talk to us about corporate citizenship. I just about wanted to smack the guy he was so patronizing. On the other hand, we had a guy come in and talk about real estate in Japan and that was incredibly interesting.

As always, personal experiences are much more powerful than general abstractions. One day, my roommate Phil and I went to Shinjuku train station in Tokyo which has millions of travelers each morning. Purportedly, Tokyo has the two busiest train stations in the world, one of which is Shinjuku. Well, Phil and I arrived about fifteen minutes too late to see the bustle but we walked around the neighborhood. Tokyo has a number of parks and at Shinjuku Park, Phil and I came across about five hundred homeless people, all men as far as we could tell. They were in a soup line and at first we could not really tell if they were homeless. Many had suits on even if they looked a little ragged.

We initially thought it might be some company sponsoring a morning breakfast in the park but continued examination revealed otherwise. Throughout the park there was make shift living quarters covered with blue tarp. I could not imagine being homeless in Tokyo since I have not seen any beggars, have no idea if beggars can collect a dime and there are no cheap places to eat. Rice costs four times what it does in the States thanks to government price fixing.

On the way back to our dorm, we found a LOVE statue just like the one we have in Philadelphia. It was quite awesome.

I think my favorite experience so far has been visiting Tsujiki, Tokyo’s Fish Market. Japan consumes a sixth of the world’s fish and one third of it passes through Tsujiki. We went at 5:30 am the morning.
The market has an indoor and outdoor section and both are several acres. Inside there are thousands of stalls specializing in every type of seafood you can imagine. Little motorized flatbed carts zoom back and forth all over the place. In one section there are lines of frozen 300 pound tunas being auctioned off one at a time to the wholesales food buyers and the best restaurants in town. After visiting the market, five of us went for sushi. It was about $20 bucks a person and it was the best sushi I’ve ever had. At 9:30am, we still had the whole day free.

I made a trip to Hiroshima which was quite moving. The Shinkansen (bullet trains) was similar to the one I rode in Spain, very fast and convenient. Five hours flew by like nothing. The city has created a park to commemorate the neighborhood demolished as a result of the Atom bomb. The statistics on the horrors wrecked by the bomb were quite overwhelming. 140,000 people died in the year after the bomb exploded. I loved the letter the Mayor of Hiroshima wrote to President Bush asking him to visit the city’s museum before going to war in Iraq even if it was to no avail.

I’ve been to half a dozen shrines and lots of commercial districts in Tokyo, most of which are quite nice. I am trying to pick up a little Japanese and it’s not too hard but I need to put some more effort into it. There is this one spot with teenager girls dress up as Goths and hang out. It is corny but neat. It doesn’t look like I will have time to climb Mt. Fuji but I will probably go to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka this weekend. I’ll try to send another missive before I leave Japan in two weeks.

All for now,
Mike

Stories from a Tour of Asia II: Japan

•July 6, 2004 • Leave a Comment

Hey Family,

All is going well here. Japan is quite amazing. It’s so nice and clean that I feel like there is little worth sharing. I think my new favorite food is shasumi (fresh raw fish). We have visited quite a few shrines and museums in Tokyo. I went to Hiroshima yesterday and came back today using my All Japan Rail Pass. It’s already 2/3rds paid for after one trip. The Shinkansen (bullet trains) was similar to the one we rode in Spain, very fast and convenient. Five hours few by like nothing.

Hiroshima was very powerful. The city has created a park where many houses were demolished as a result of the Atom bomb. The statistics on the horrors wrecked by the bomb were quite overwhelming. 140,000 people died in the year after the bomb exploded. I really like the memorial to Sadako, the little girl who tried to make 1000 paper cranes to cure herself of leukemia which she contacted when she was 12, ten years after the bomb. She died having made 600 plus cranes over 8 months. Today, thousands of paper cranes are sent to Hiroshima each year to be placed by her memorial.

If you would like to call, I have a phone in my room that has free incoming calls (for me at least) if not for you. The number is 03-5570-0221, ext. 3625. I am normally in my room at 10pm which is 9am your time but you can try earlier too if you would like. I will try to give you a call some time this week.

Talk soon,
Mike

Stories from a Tour of Asia I: Japan

•June 28, 2004 • Leave a Comment

Hey Everyone,

I am in Tokyo. Dan waited for me at the airport for about an hour and we took the bus into the city. We got some noodles for dinner and it’s about 8:50pm and 7:50am for your all.

So far, we just see lots of concrete buildings but the hostel for tonight is nice and has internet access. We went to a supermarket to check out prices. It was 11 bucks for ten eggs to give you just one idea. Tomorrow, we will move into our dormitory.

Dan is chatting with his brother via instant messaging so we will have to plan a session. He said he is going to get his microphone and do live sound chats too. Wouldn’t that be cool?… and it`d be free too.

Well, the pictures are of the one nice building in the city and the restaurant where Dan and I went for noodle soup.

Lastly, Katharine the brainiac gets a shout out for her SATs.

Talk soon,
Mike

 
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