Sushu's Travel Journal

July 28, 2010

In Tokyo

Filed under: Asia — Tags: , — admin @ 11:41 pm

So we got into Tokyo very late Saturday night, due to a mysterious 3 hour delay by Air China. So late, in fact, that the cell phone place in Narita was closed and our sketchy guest house contact couldn’tmake it out to check us in, so instead we went out of the Ikebukuro north exit and walked around until we found a hotel, and checked in. Turned out it was a love hotel. They charged us extra for checking in before the overnight stay time, but didn’t explain. But that’s okay because we were tired and we were experiencing a love hotel. We picked the room from a panel of pictures. The room had a karaoke machine and a dedicated softcore porn channel and perhaps a jacuzzi. It was very posh! Apparently it was also one of the more expensive love hotels in the area. This area is on our walk from the guest house to Ikebukuro station, and it’s chock full of love hotels. There’s one that’s Panda themed, another that is Safari themed, and another that is Ganesha-themed. Some of them have very cheap overnight stays, like 4000 yen (about $50 by current exchange rate). I can totally see the couple’s way of living in Tokyo on the cheap as: check luggage in coin lockers during the day ($5), sleep at love hotel at night.

As for us, we are staying at a Guest House about 15 minute walk from Ikebukuro station, in Ikebukuro Honmachi 1 chome. It is a 5 minute walk from Kita-Ikebukuro, which isn’t on the standard Tokyo metro map because it is not JR and not Tokyo Metro. It is instead on a private “Tobu Tojo” line. Even though this station is just one short stop north of Ikebukuro, it is very much a residential district, with small 2 story houses and quiet narrow streets. Our neighborhood shops are mostly clustered around the Kita-Ikebukuro stop, and consist of: a convenient store, a bento shop, a sushi shop, a soba and unagi shop, a miscellaneous goods shop, a raw meat shop, 2 tobacco shops, and 2 Chinese food/ramen shops. There’s also a little map shop on a random street, and lots of parking lots, presumably for people who drive their car in and switch to the train at the Ikebukuro station. Our room has only a single twin bed in it, and a small desk, but the month rent is pretty reasonable (about 90,000, all told), so in the end it’s worth it.

These days Jono has been going to work at the Mozilla Japan office. I would stay at home looking up information about Nagasaki or Tokyo, then meet him for lunch by his office. Then I would go visit a museum or something, and then we’d meet for dinner and some hangings out.

Monday I got a GRUTT pass and visited the Ancient Orient Museum and the Planetarium in Sunshine City. At the Planetarium, I learned that planets beyond Saturn aren’t worth mentioning or displaying, and that the Weaver Girl is apparently a princess.

Tuesday I went to Ueno Park and visited the awesome and cute Shitamachi Museum where I played lots of old timey kids games, and fished a balloon out of water! And then in the evening we went to Akihabara and got some RPG books for Ewen. The RPG shop had EVERYTHING from old school D&D to Japanese RPGs to various board games, and the shop attendants knew whwere the most obscure things were. I picked up a martial arts role-playing game book. Then we went to Tokyo Tower, which was all right.

Tonight we wandered around Yoyogi Park (the Meiji Jingu was closed), and now we’re at a manga kissa. This one, in fact. The manga kissa is pretty awesome. We sit in this little cubicle, which is about 300 yen per hour. There is internet, tv channels, and a Playstation 2 insided the cubicle. Outside are shelves and shelves of manga and magazines and also a small DVD collection. There are several vending machines of free drinks, as well as fresh fruit juice and soft-serve ice cream. They offer free blankets and stuff if you want to stay the night. There is also a vending machine for yakisoba and takoyaki. It’s pretty awesome. A 10 hour overnight stay (check-in starting 9pm) is only 1900 yen ($22), which would be the single-person, non-love-hotel way of surviving Tokyo on the cheap.

On Friday we’re heading to Nagasaki! And next weekend we’re hitting 3 summer festivals in Tohoku. Should be exciting stuff. :D

July 23, 2010

World Expo Day 3

Filed under: Asia — Tags: , — admin @ 11:41 pm

Got there earlier today — noon. After a short digression at Slovakia (we’re suckers for pavilions with no lines, but they generally turn out to be unmemorable), we went over and lined up for the America pavilion. We really wanted to see how America would choose to present itself. Yesterday we were trying to figure out what “American food” would be, and had been excited about the possibility of mac-n-cheese, chili, and deep-dish pizza. The American Pavilion was … disappointing. First, the “American Diner” was just hot dog, pizza, hamburger, and a pulled-pork sandwich. The pavilion itself was composed of 4 sections. The first section was a 5-8 minute movie on 1 screen where a lot of Americans try and fail to say “Welcome to the American Pavilion” in Chinese. The second section was a 10-minute movie on 3 interacting screens about “the American Spirit”, which seemed to involve little multicultural kids drawing pictures of “cloud cars” and other “new energy” ideas, followed by a Chevron spokesperson and two random professors.

Obama shows up at the end to do a classic Obama speech about human ingenuity and curiosity, and inviting “you and your family to the United States of America”.

Then we were herded into a third room, where there were 5 screens in different shapes. Yup, it’s a third movie, this time 12 minutes long. It’s something about a little girl wanting to start an urban garden, and bringing the whole neighborhood together. In the middle, it rains, and they spritz water on us, thus making it a “4-D” movie. Har.

Finally, we were herded into the “corporate sponsor” room, where there were little plaques from each of the corporate sponsors talking about how awesome they are.

Um… where’s the display about the diversity and beauty of our land? The tourist highlights of our major cities? Or what about some sort of narrative about our history of immigration and adaptation? Or even information about our major industries and our technological contributions? Instead, the common theme seemed to be “American children are cute, thanks to our sponsors”.


In comparison, the Mexico pavilion had an interesting exploration of city and cultural memory, showcasing artwork interpretations of the concept of the “city”, starting with Mayan temples and Spanish cathedrals, and ending with this cool set of masks that you can look through to see a video of everyday life.

There were also cool interactive technology things that gave you more information about Mexico’s environmental challenges, and allowed you to explore the layers of history buried under the modern city, or even showed you how peoples’ lives were interconnected.
The screen you see in the background there is actually an interactive history of the land of Mexico city, showing the layers of civilization and construction.

Angola was also pretty good: there was a man hiding behind the door who randomly spritzed the people coming in. There were plaques talking about its slavery and colonial legacy, and a series of interesting plaques and accompanying short videos about different aspects of Angolan life and different sectors of its economy. There was a separate line for a 4D film, so we didn’t go to that, but overall it was very cohesive: all of the videos were made specifically for the World Expo, and presented a coherent message and interesting insight into Angola. I would dare say that Angola was cooler than America.

Speaking of things made specifically for the Expo, Slovenia gave each of us a cute pamphlet and a little book written by one of their philosophers specifically for the World Expo. We tried reading it — it was neo-Marxist and loved the word “Proletarianisation”. So we stopped. But still — it was made specifically for distribution at the pavilion!

We also went to a bunch of small African exhibits, which were cute if slightly camel-obsessed. Then we went to Venezuela, which had … a courtyard of hammocks.

And then a secret room with live music.

And then some plaques with photos and direct interview quotes from the streets of Caracas.

And then other plaques with Hugo Chavez extolling the virtues of socialism.

And then a statue of Simon Bolivar. A bit hodge-podge not unlike Pakistan.

We then hiked back to see if we can line up for Japan, but it was a 4 hour line and it was already 6:30pm, so instead we had dinner, hiked all the way back to the Americas Square for some live Tango music and dancing, and then took a boat tour ferry back. En route to the ferry dock, we ran into a parade with various floats showing sketchy Chinese interpretations of different cultures. The last float was “America”.
At the head of the float were some “Native Americans”. The float itself were some trumpets and a large top hat.

At the end of the float was Uncle Sam. I didn’t notice, but Jono says that they were all wearing white make-up, including the Native Americans.

It was somewhat bizarre that we started and ended our Expo day today with odd representations of America.

Jono says that the only 2 he still wants to see is Japan and Britain, both of which have very long lines, so on our way back from the Expo today we bought these cute foldable stools. Tomorrow will be a Waiting In Line day, for both of those have 4+ hour lines. I also want to visit one of the Scandinavian countries, so if we have time at the end of the day, we’ll hop in whichever has the shortest line.

July 21, 2010

World Expo Day 2

Filed under: Asia — Tags: , — admin @ 11:40 pm

Yesterday we got there at around 3pm and headed back at around 9pm. As Jono remarked, pavilions generally convey the following messages:
- “Our country is a friend of China!”
- “Our country is vibrant and modern and worthy of investment/trade!”
- “Our country has a deep and rich culture!”
And then there’s always a store so that you can buy their stuff.

There are 3 general approaches to the pavilions, I think mostly dependent on which people got their hands on the design.
1) National Museum: exhibits of culture and artwork, with detailed plaques (ex: Indonesia, Morocco)
2) Industry Expo: showing off lots of companies and main industry sectors. Many small booths and ads
3) Tourism Highlights: Pictures and videos of why you should visit, showing
Of course, mixing and matching happens as work is divided between, say, the national tourism bureau, the industry sponsors, and the national museum.

Pavilions we visited:
- Cultural Center — looks like giant flying saucer. Had nice view of the river and the exhibit halls. Had some boba on the 6th floor

- Nepal — is giant stupa + shop. Stupa was pretty awesome, but I was disappointed that they didn’t engineer the path up and down the stupa in a way to let us walk around it 7 times.

- Jordan, Afghanistan (“Land of opportunity”), Bahrain (“Pearl of Arabia”), all part of the Middle-East joint pavilion. Jordan was kind of cute, and some ceiling lights and showed off the Dead Sea. Afghanistan was basically a rug bazaar, no narrative whatsoever. Bahrain had a bunch of industry jargon about their business-friendly regulatory infrastructure, and their history of pearls and petrol.
Afghanistan:

- DPRK — 5 gallant scenes that you can take your picture in front of, a video of national music, and a shop selling great works of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader.

- Iran — Downstairs: a paragraph of welcome by Ahmadinejad, stuff about medical technology, some maps of the Persian Gulf. Upstairs: Persian rugs for sale. Was disappointed by lack of history, obviously in Industry Expo

- Morocco — pure national museum style, with the building itself a beautiful example of Moroccan architecture. Downstairs: exhibits of Moroccan crafts. Upstairs, a “medina” — Moroccan bazaar, but exhibit only, not real people selling stuff. Outside: real palm trees.

- Pakistan — Hilariously disorganized design — they couldn’t agree on a single font or uniform method of presenting images. Projections on mist next to tv screens next to turning slats next to back-lit posters. One hallway had on the right side photos of accomplished Pakistani women, and on the left side, the Mango Saga, wherein Pakistan gave Chairman Mao a mango and then he “gave it to the Chinese people”. There were 5 different photos of this mango. The next hallway had photos of various Pakistani leaders shaking hands with various Chinese leaders. Then there was a hallway about Pakistan’s UN participation.

- India — The inside of the pavilion was subdivided into a shop section, a food section, and a museum section. In the museum it was a circular hallway, with pictures of modern Indian life and people on the right side, and traditional Indian crafts on the left side. In the middle of the circle was an auditorium thing where they showed a 3D-in-the-round video about how chakras were connected with the elements that create urban harmony. Um… yeah.

Pavilions that we wanted to visit but couldn’t:
- Saudi Arabia: The line was over 9 hours long. It blocked up an entire street, and if the line was single-file, it would be over 4 km. Turns out there’s the BIGGEST IMAX EVER inside– instead of a half-dome, it’s a full sphere. Here’s a video: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTcwNzIwNjI4.html

- China: Apparently you need to line up 3 hours before it opens to get advance tickets for it. It’s also the largest pavilion there — there’s a 3 or 4 story building that forms the base where inside are individual pavilions from all the provinces. Then there is the China pavilion proper on top of that.

- Taiwan: Next to China were the Macau (shaped like a rabbit) and Hong Kong pavilions, and on the other side of China across the street was the Taiwan pavilion, which had a giant glowy sphere that’s actually a screen. We wanted to visit but apparently that also requires advance tickets.

- Japan: the line was super-long, but since it looks like a Zerg cocoon, and promises to have robots inside, we are determined to get in tomorrow.

- Korea: Looked cute, but once again, line kinda long-ish.

July 19, 2010

World Expo Day 1

Filed under: Asia — Tags: — admin @ 11:37 pm

Yay! Jono’s here! He got in really late last night (2am), so this morning we got some pan-fried soupy dumplings (see here), and then Jono spent the morning and afternoon working on Test Pilot (there was some sort of code freeze today or something). So we didn’t head out to the World Expo until 5pm. We got there at 6, and went to the following:

- Riverside park — very quiet, with some water landscapes
- Australia — The building design was pretty cool — a bit like Ayers rock. There was a part where all of their famous landmarks were on the ceiling, upside down because they’re the land “down under” har har. They moved everyone along at a brisk pace, and the wall exhibits mostly seemed to be centered around three “mascot” kids. Then we got herded into a large round auditorium where instead of seats, there was a butt-height padded bar that we can sort of rest against. Then there was this weird show on these large rotating curved tv-screens featuring the 3 mascot kids talking about life in Australia. The screens would rise out of the ground to form a circle, and then sink back down to reveal a new centerpiece, and then rise back up again to show the 3D-animated mascot kids playing against the background of the new centerpiece.
- Philippines — where it was basically a big dance party. They had a DJ on some scaffolding, lots of swivelling lights, etc. In a corner was a massage parlor, and next to that a cafe area. In the middle were some displays of musical instruments and a Filipino snack company selling bags of chips.
- Malaysia — Despite advertising themselves as “the true Asia”, the exhibit hall just had 2 floors of discrete exhibits that seemed to have just been randomly assigned to different groups. For example, an exhibit about Malacca and Georgetown was followed by a display about the best golfing places followed by a broken video about why Malaysia is the spirit of Asia, followed by a display about race cars, followed by some people selling various tie-dyed fabrics, followed by a jungle display with fake plants, and then upstairs there’s a display by a company who is responsible for green power in Malaysia, a rubber company display, and a small gallery of Malaysian artworks and a man doing caricatures. Yeah, it was very confusing
- Indonesia — This one was really cool and designed like a museum. There were objects and live music and plaques and video. We climb a slow ramp up, wending around the structure. Most of it is open-air, and built with lots of bamboo. But yeah — there were exhibits about Indonesia’s biodiversity, fabric, music, metalworking, woodworking, major crops, a nice hallway juxtaposing the beauty of Borobudur on one side and the modern cityscape on the other side. It was just really well designed and cool.
- New Zealand — after going through a room with lots of videos showing how people live in New Zealand, we emerge onto a green rooftop and then walk our way down. The roof is pretty awesome — all the Chinese people kept touching it to check that it’s real grass and ferns.

By then it was 9:30pm so we made our way home on a super-crowded subway. And now Jono is super-tired and asleep. :D

July 15, 2010

Physically in China

Filed under: Asia — Tags: — admin @ 11:27 pm

I am in China but still in the train en route to Beijing. Yesterday was 6 hours spent at Russian customs and then 5km later 6 hours spent at Chinese customs. Perhaps then worst day of the trip: trapped at a station and the trapped on a dark train with no toilet access and sporadic going through of my luggage.

My last cabin mate got off today at noon at Harbin, so now it is just me and the 4 next door: 2 Chinese students who have finished their college year abroad at Moscow, and two Norwegian girls newly graduated from law school and nursing school.

We will be arriving at Beijing at 6am tomorrow. I will probably escort the Norwegians to their hostel and then go to the airport. After a 2 hour flight and some public transit finangling, I will finally be in Shanghai and uncle’s home. But apparently, I shouldn’t stay at our Shanghai apartment because last year Jono and I made too much of a mess or something. So I’ll see if I can find a reasonable motel nearby that also has internet access. Dad wants us to be close enough to go home for dinner but not to actually stay there. Sigh. So I probably won’t be settled in China until late tomorrow night.

July 12, 2010

On the Trans-Manchurian

Filed under: Europe — Tags: — admin @ 11:25 pm

So this is day 3 on the trans manchurian. The km signpost that we just passed said 4262.This means that I am over 4000 kmfrom Moscow and about halfway done. The train is relatively comfortable. In my room we started with woman who is a piano teacher from Italy with a daughter my age and a son slightly younger – the age of the young man returning from his year of mandatory military service. He is shy, but also fiercely proud of being part of the great military review last year. He got off at Per yesterday. The last one is a Chinese chef making his 2nd annual trip back to wife and son in Harbin. The woman lived in Siberia for 16 years when she married to a Russian soldier. After the divorcE 10 years ago, she went back to Italy. This is the first time she has bbeen this far back to Siberia in 10 years.

Typing on the Kindle is slow going. Suffice to say that the land is majestic and the people few. My cabin m.ates communicate in a combination of Chinese Russian and Italian/Spanish. I buy breakfast and lunch from the ladies on the oplatform, but enjoyed dinner at the dining car enough to go back and brave the Russian menu

July 8, 2010

7/8

Filed under: Europe — Tags: , — admin @ 11:25 pm

Took 4 hour bus to Novgorod.  Provincial town has 2 hotels, and as we discovered, only 2 restaurants.  But the river is beautiful and we chanced upon an Orthodox service in a 1000-year-old church in the middle of the kremlin.

Today is a day of travel — train back to St. Petersburg and then train to Moscow and then the Trans-Siberian, so no more internet until I get into Shanghai.  Wish me luck!

July 7, 2010

7/7

Filed under: Europe — Tags: , — admin @ 11:23 pm

Just a quick update today because I hurt my lower back yesterday and spent the online time looking that up instead. 

Instead of the walking tour, we did a boat tour.  Man, so many pretty buildings and parks, mostly built by Tsars and Tsarinas who "felt like it" or to commemorate a special occasion, or for their lover, etc.  I’m in awe of the amount of resources and manpower at their command — These buildings are all decorated with statues and friezes and other crazy stuff.

Then we spent 7 hours in the Hermitage, which is a giant palace with lots of European artwork.  Impressionist paintings always look better close-up.  Also caught some nice Reubens and Rembrants.  What was most amazing, however, was this exact duplicate of Rafael’s Loggias from the Vatican.  (http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/html_En/05/hm5_5.html).  At around hour 5 was when my back started feeling crappy.

Then we went to dinner at this little Russian restaurant.  The meat dumplings here were even better than the last place.  I got chicken breast stuffed with egg, and a cauliflower soup.  Soups remain delicious.  There was some sort of party there, where people were getting up to make speeches, and then singing songs while playing the guitar or accordion.  A dude also made bird chirping noises with 2 rubber bands.  It was very amazing, we felt like we were guests at someone’s house.  A man walked around trying to toast everyone, and when we left, an old man kissed my hand.  It makes me really want to learn Russian and come back to Russia properly– The food is yummy, the people are nice, and the art is awesome.

July 6, 2010

7/6

Filed under: Europe — Tags: , — admin @ 11:23 pm

So we’re in St. Petersburg.  St. Petersburg is very different from Moscow.  Whereas Moscow has these very stern and solemn buildings and squares, St. Petersburg felt like a Scandinavian city, and reminded me a lot of Copenhagen — wide canals, tree-lined boulevards, neo-classic and rococo facades, countless stands selling hotdog rolls.  There seems to be more artists here, they’re more relaxed and I’ve seen many just relaxing on the grass in a park. 

Yesterday we took the hydrofoil to Peterhof, which is a Versailles-like palace that Peter the Great built away from St. Petersburg.  It was very pretty.  Aside from the Versailles-like fountain stuff, Peter also built some smaller retreats closer to the seaside in the Dutch style.  This is also when I discovered that the Gulf of Finland is (a) very shallow, and (b) very polluted and brown.  :(

Peterhof was mostly populated by Russian visitors.  Like YuanMingYuan, lots of locals go there to relax at the beach, walk in the park, eat ice cream, and frolic in the fountains.  For locals, entrance fee is only 140 py, which is like 5 dollars.  In addition to the stately marble fountains from Tsar times, there were also fun soviet fountains like fake trees and flowers that squirt water.  It was a great place for relaxing and people-watching.

After getting back from Peterhof, we wandered the streets until we found the restaurant we wanted but they asked us to come back in 30 minutes or so (of course, my question about putting ourselves on a list was meeted with a shrug).  There happened to be a cute little park across the street with a statue of Pushkin, so we bought ice cream and relaxed in the park.

The dinner was super-yummy.  I got a salad that had slivers of tongue, yellow bell pepper, cucumber, and cheese.  Smothered in mayo and dill, of course.  I also had a meat and veggie soup with sour cream and dill.  (I’ve had very good soups in Russia).  Finally, I had meat dumplings that looked reminescent of wontons, served in a little urn, and smothered in sour cream and dill.  CS Bear had some really good Beef Stroganoff, with a delicious light sauce.  What made the dinner perfect, however, was the music.  A very passionate violinist and a very laid-back guitarist. 

Today we’re going on a formal walking tour, so I’ll talk more about city monuments tomorrow.

July 5, 2010

7/5

Filed under: Europe — Tags: , — admin @ 11:19 pm

So it got dark at midnight, and then got light at 4am in the morning. I woke up and finished my journal-comic of the previous day, and posted. Then I went back to sleep and woke up again at 11am. The Lemur made yummy breakfast omelettes, and then we headed out to Red Square and the Kremlin.

When walking through the Red Square, I couldn’t help comparing it to Tiananmen. It’s longer but narrower, and of course the buildings that flanks it are European styled. The Lenin mausoleum was closed, but I was surprised at how unremarkable it seemed from the outside. Sure, it’s red and black marble, and with austere corners, but it blended into the background of the red walls and buildings. Unlike the Mao-soleum, there aren’t triumphant statues and youths standing guard. Maybe it’s because Russia is no longer Communist, and so has a different relationship to Lenin. For example, outside the Red Square, next to all the street vendors selling matroyshka dolls and communist kitsch, there were many "personalities" that you could take a picture with. Sure, there’s Homer Simpson and Spiderman, but there’s also Lenin and Stalin and Tolstoy. Several Lenins, in fact. One Lenin-Stalin combo actually staged themselves in the setup of that famous photograph, except now you can sit between them. When I look around at the people here, I can’t help but wonder about the generation gap and the difference in life experience and outlook of the last 20 years. The people dressed up as Lenin and Stalin probably remember a very different portrayal of Lenin and Stalin in their youths.

The Kremlin was pretty cool. Of course, we couldn’t visit most of it, lots of police making sure we only keep to the tourist section, which is essentially Cathedral Square and a park. The churches were pretty amazing. I’d never been in an Orthodox cathedral before, so I was completely blown away by the floor-to-ceiling covering of various icons and religious and historical paintings. The icons stare at you eerily, and I can totally believe that there’s a spirit behind it. I also finally figured out the whole iconostasis thing — it had made no sense when I read about it. I especially loved all of the Jesus icons — each of them had the same markings of hair and facial style to show that it’s Jesus, but each of them slightly different — gaunt Jesus, haggard Jesus, sad Jesus, fierce Jesus. Up on the ceiling inside each onion dome was also a Jesus icon, which we dubbed Sky Jesus. The plaques that were in English mentioned all sorts of artists and styles that I knew nothing about. I’m sure that’s how western tourists feel like in Dunhuang. We also discovered that the Russian tour guides leading Chinese tour groups spoke very beautiful Chinese. Made me wonder what sort of foreign language requirements and options are available in their public school.

After the Kremlin I went to fetch my Trans-Siberian tickets, but ended up causing us to miss the train to St. Petersburg, so we had to try to switch train tickets to a later train. That was quite an ordeal. We ended up standing in 3 lines — one to find out which window to stand at, one to return the previous tickets, and one to buy new tickets. It took an hour and a half, and I think they might have accidentally only returned me the money for 1 of the tickets, but by the end of that hour and a half, I didn’t want to wait in another 1/2 hour line. Maybe I’ll do it on my way back.

And now I’m in St Petersburg!

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