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Japan Mailbag – Part 1 January 31, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Hiroshima, Kyoto, Tokyo.

Since announcing that we would be spending a week in Japan during the Christmas Holidays (Dec. 26th – Jan. 1st), we’ve been bombarded with questions about our trip. I’ve responded to some of those questions directly, but I figured I would share some of them here, along with my answers. Everything you’re about to read came from actual e-mails sent in by our readers.

1) What cities did you visit and which one was your favourite? – Mark from Toronto

We flew into Tokyo on December 26th and spent our first night there. There was an affordable sushi restaurant right near the famous fish market where staggering amounts of fresh seafood are delivered each and every day. Unfortunately we couldn’t find it and have a feeling its closed since the publication of our travel guide which recommended it. After wandering several blocks in every direction trying to find a restaurant that was open and/or had an English menu, we gave up. Our first meal in Japan was McDonald’s. D’Oh! After overcoming the guilt from eating McDonald’s we ventured to the famous Shibuya Crossing. Regarded as one of the world’s most visually stimulating four-way intersections where the green light given to pedestrians releases a timed surge of humanity.

Here’s a pic from overhead courtesy of Google Images.

The following morning we boarded a high speed train bound for Hiroshima which was our furthest target from Tokyo. We spent one night there and then started heading back towards Tokyo in time for New Year’s Eve. We made stops in Osaka, 3 nights in Kyoto, a day trip to Nara and dinner in Kobe. More on that later though…

As for our favourite city, it was Kyoto by far.

I think I can sum up our 3 days in Kyoto with three simple words.

Temple. Temple. Shrine.

I don’t remember the exact numbers but we saw a staggering number of temples and shrines. Having spent almost a year in Asia, I’ve seen enough temples to last me a lifetime. Don’t get me wrong, they are spectacular structures and I appreciate the history and culture attached to them. In Kyoto though, it seems like there’s one on every corner. So after a day spent walking covering most of the major cultural landmarks, it was going to take something special to get my attention.

Cue the Golden Pavillion.

*Courtesy of Katie Images.

Known as the Kinkakuji Temple, it’s a zen buddhist temple built in 1397. Since then its been burned down a few times by a bunch of crazies. Rebuilt, and received a fresh coat of authentic gold-leaf back in 1987.

Not to downplay its cultural and historical significance but it was the structure itself and the surrounding area that were so breathtaking. Everything was in its rightful place. The layout and landscaping were sublime. Even the gift shop was perfectly placed at the exit. It was the Disney World and Augusta National of buddhist temples.

Another thing that we admired about Kyoto and appreciate about ancient cities in general, is their ability to integrate modern architecture and infrastructure into cultural landmarks without sacrificing sight lines or access. Kyoto encompasses this ideal to perfection.

Despite not being overly modern from a visual standpoint, Kyoto has a full subway system, a central train station that’s larger and more modern than Union Station (Toronto) and services a network of local trains, high-speed rail and the subway. Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan and is still considered by most as the cultural capital thanks to its rich history and impressive cultural landmarks. We were shocked to learn that the city has a population of only 1.5 million people. I guess it’s sort of like Ottawa, minus the culture and modern infrastructure. Add Via Rail to the list of things that will make us angry when we get home.

2) What was the climate like and how did your packing go? – Chelsea from Montreal

Excellent question. The climate was a welcome change from the colder temperatures in Seoul. On average, it was between 5 and 12 degress celsius which was ideal for the clothing we had brought and the amount of time we spent walking outdoors.

As for my packing, I’m pleased to report that I ended up wearing every single item of clothing that I packed with the exception of one t-shirt. The only bad decision I made was opting against bringing my running shoes in favour of wearing my North Face shoes for the entire trip. This is very unlike me as I like to always have alternative footwear options but we were trying to travel as light as possible. It’s not that my North Face shoes weren’t comfortable, they’re the best and have served me well for almost 4 years now. Unfortunately, for some reason they developed an annoying squeaking sound on both soles with every step I took.

Katie and pretty much anyone walking within earshot wanted to kill me. It was like hearing a duck quack every time I took a step. Imagine walking through some of the most beautiful temples you’ve ever seen, or the A-Bomb museum with everyone in complete silence, deep in thought and prayer, when in comes Mr. Duck Feet. “Quack, quack, quack, quack…”

I kind of got used to it but I would always get a bit angry every morning when we first set out as soon as the quacking began. It got the point where I was trying to walk on heels and avoiding hard flat surfaces. Gravel quickly became my best friend as the quacking would always subside.

I didn’t learn much Japanese during our trip but I’m pretty sure I know how to say “who’s that asshole with the squeaky shoes?”.

Here’s some video of me walking along a cool little alley full of restaurants in the Ponto-Cho district of Kyoto.

3) What are the toilets like in Japan? – Josh in London

Pretty much the same as everywhere else in Asia, although many of the nicer ones were equipped with built-in badai’s. They had the typical squatters in some public bathrooms but overall most of the facilities we encountered were western style.

While we’re on the subject of bathrooms though, there’s something I’ve been meaning address and now seems like a good time.

My biggest complaint about the bathrooms in Asia is the urinals. Back home, most newer urinals have remote sensors that automatically flush after you walk away. Well, they have that same feature on some of the urinals over here, but most of them flush automatically at the beginning.

Therefore, if you choose one with a slightly overzealous flushing mechanism, you’re likely in store for an unexpected crotch shower. There’s one in particular on the third floor of our school that gets me almost every day. I have to stand 3 feet clear of every urinal in the place just to be safe, but then I have a crowd of 5-year olds staring at me like they’re using those large binoculars on the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building. I guess I’ll stick with the crotch showers for now. On the bright side, at least you don’t have to wash your hands afterwards.

4) What was the energy drink situation like in Japan? – Sean in Seoul

They had Red Bulls for under $2 in almost every 7-11. It was paradise. I crushed a few Vodka-Red Bulls on New Year’s too, although those ones were about $15.

On the downside, there was no Gatorade. None. Zero. I’m still angry about this.

5) How was the flight and which airline did you fly with? – David in New Brunswick

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. If there’s one thing I’ll always remember from our experience over here, it’s how awesome Asian airlines and public transportation are and how shitty they are in North America. Our travel agent found us a cheap flight with United Airlines and it was exactly what you would have expected. Crappy plane. Crappy food. Crappy service. This was also the day after the Christmas Day bombing attempt in Detroit so they were checking carry-on baggage again before boarding in the skywalk.

We also both ended up with seats on the opposite sides of the aisle so we weren’t right next to each other. I was sitting next to what I thought was a young Asian teenager until she tried to order wine. She of course got carded as I honestly would have guessed she was no more than 15. I told her wine was a good idea and got some myself which prompted her to ask me where I was going. We exchanged pleasantries and she told me she was going to Orlando. Under normal circumstances, the conversation would have ended right around point and I would have gone back to my book or my iPod, but I was somewhat intrigued and asked her why?

“I’m a professional golfer. I play on the Futures Tour and the LPGA.”

Let’s just say that I had a few questions for her and Katie was left to read her book in complete silence for the duration of the flight.

6) What was Hiroshima like? – Jenny in Peterborough

On Monday, August 6, 1945, at 8:15 AM, the nuclear bomb ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima by an American B-29 bomber, directly killing an estimated 80,000 people. By the end of the year, injury and radiation brought total casualties to 90,000-140,000. Approximately 69% of the city’s buildings were completely destroyed, and about 7% severely damaged.

Research about the effects of the attack was restricted during the occupation of Japan, and information censored until the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, restoring control to the Japanese.

Since that time, a great deal of information has been shared by the Americans which enabled the Japanese to erect the Peace Museum. It’s very well laid out and gives a balanced account of the events leading up and after the disaster.

Perhaps the starkest reminder of the destruction leveled against Hiroshima is the A-Bomb Dome. Built by a Czech architect in 1915 and pictured below, the building was located at the epicenter of the blast and was one of the very few still left standing. Despite local opposition, a decision was made after the war to preserve the remaining structure as a memorial and a grim symbol of the city’s tragic past.

Here’s what it looks like today…

When the US unleashed Heavy bombing in most major cities across Japan as a response to Pearl Harbor, nothing was directed at Hiroshima which seemed odd given the number of military installations and personnel stationed there at the time. The reason for this was that the Americans wanted to clear picture of exactly how much damage would be done by the bomb and didn’t want their results skewed by damage from previous attacks.

With so much talk of nuclear bombs and terrorist groups and states trying to acquire nuclear materials, I think most people don’t realize the devastation and destruction that one of these weapons can achieve. Walking through this museum and seeing the scope of lives that were impacted by this terrible disaster gives you an even greater appreciation for just how serious a threat these weapons pose in anyone’s possession.

The irony is it doesn’t feel like a new city built from scratch even though every building in the downtown core has been constructed in the past 60 years. Even more impressive is the mindset of the people as a result. They have built this museum and the surronding park in hopes of inspiring peace with the ultimate goal of dismantling the world’s entire nuclear arsenal.

7) Did you take any good pictures? – Amanda in Toronto

At this time, I’d like to observe a moment of silence to acknowledge how grateful I am that we live in the digital age.

Pause for silence...Thank you.

I’ve already discussed the benefits of Skype, Slingbox, etc. but if we didn’t have a digital camera, we would have been bankrupt by the cost of processing all the rolls of film Katie would be devouring. Here are a few more pictures for your pleasure…

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming later this week.

Shanghai January 8, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Shanghai.

Happy New Year! This is the final post from our trip to Shanghai back in early-November. We just returned from a week-long trip to Japan which I’ll be writing about shortly.

After safely arriving in Shanghai after our debacle at the airport which you can read about here, we found our hostel and got settled. It was about 4pm so we still had some time to explore our surroundings and find a nice place for dinner.

There’s nothing quite like going into a completely foreign place and figuring stuff out. It can be frustrating at times, but with patience and the right attitude, it can be very satisfying once you acclimatize yourself to the unfamiliar surroundings.

We had done a little bit of research on Shanghai prior to our arrival, and when I say we, I mean Katie. As with previous trips, I made all of the travel arrangements, figured out accommodations and most importantly in this case, got our tickets for golf on Saturday. That was an experience in itself, but I won’t bore you with the details. Just imagine calling Ticketmaster in China and trying to convey that you live in Korea and want to buy golf tickets for an event 6 months from now – with someone who can’t speak English. Somehow we managed to figure it out and secure our tickets.

Shanghai is the largest city in China, and one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, with over 20 million people. Located on China’s central eastern coast just at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the city was originally a fishing and textiles town. The opening sentence of the Shanghai section of our Lonely Planet travel guide describes Shanghai as the “Whore of the Orient”. This may explain why Tiger has flown halfway around the world to play here 3 out of the past 4 years. Zing!

Shanghai grew in importance in the 19th century due to its favorable port location. The city flourished as a center of commerce between east and west, and became a multinational hub of finance and business by the 1930’s. However, Shanghai’s precipitous rise was interrupted with the Communist takeover in 1949 and the subsequent cessation of foreign investment. In 1990, new economic reforms resulted in intense re-development, culminating in Shanghai becoming the world’s largest cargo port in 2005.

The city has evolved into a tourist destination renowned for its historical landmarks and its modern and ever-expanding skyline including the Oriental Pearl Tower. Shanghai has established a reputation as a cosmopolitan center of culture and design and is now the largest center of commerce and finance in mainland China. With such a diverse mix of cultural history and modern development, Shanghai has been described as the “showpiece” of the world’s fastest-growing major economy.

Our first destination was the popular French Concession. This is one of the more popular tourist spots for foreign tourists and we could immediately understand why. It was an eclectic neighborhood with a nice mix of trendy retail and restaurants along with your typical old-school Mom & Pop establishments. Both sides of the streets were lined with beautiful trees which gave it a nice cozy feeling as you took in the unique sights and sounds around every corner.

We eventually settled at a nice Irish Pub with a street-front patio and a large group of men huddled around a game of checkers. We kicked back and relaxed with a beer while we reflected on a crazy day that almost didn’t materialize. We then took out our maps and planned our course of action over the next 48 hours.

After some more wandering we came across a crowded Mexican restaurant with a cool outdoor patio that practically spilled on to the street. After a brief pause to acknowledge the guilt of being in China and craving Mexican, we succumbed to our hunger. This now brings the grand total of Mexican restaurants we’ve eaten at in different Asian cities to 3 (Beijing, Seoul & Shanghai). I guess I’m still a little scarred from our first authentic Chinese food experience back in Beijing, and didn’t want any similar occurrences (read: bowel movements) while walking on a golf course for most of Saturday.

After a long day of unexpected twists, we headed back to our hostel to get some much needed sleep. Much to our delight, there was a 24-hour massage parlor located immediately next door. We popped in for a dirt-cheap couples foot massage in order to physically and mentally prepare for another grueling day of walking. For those of you who missed it, you can read more about our day with Tiger here.

Upon our arrival back in downtown Shanghai after an incredible time following Tiger, we went for dinner at a place called Simply Thai. I had beef with chili peppers and coriander which I think is arguably one of the most polarizing spices out there. Often referred to as cilantro, most people either love it, or claim that it smells like a dirty J-cloth. I’m in the former group. I can’t wait to take full advantage of the cheap thai food as soon as we arrive in Thailand. Although with our track record, we’ll probably end up eating mostly Chinese food.

On Sunday we tried to cram as much as possible into one day as our flight left was leaving at 9pm that evening. Katie was intent on visiting the famous Yuyuan Garden & Garden and sample an authentic tea house. Seeing as we had spent the previous day on a golf course, I was more than willing to oblige. We arrived at the closest intersection to the garden and did our best to look like tourists with our hands full of maps and lost looks on our faces. This strategy paid off as an old man approached us and asked us what we were looking for.

When traveling in foreign countries, I’ve noticed that we become much more skeptical of strangers and their advances. I don’t blame anyone for keeping their guard up as tourists are typically prime targets for would-be scam artists or locals just trying to make a quick buck. But so far we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the kindness of strangers and their willingness to assist and show outsiders what their culture/country is all about. They are proud people who aren’t out to make any money and simply want to provide you with an authentic experience. This older gentleman was one of those people.  His name was Kahn and he was a retired English teacher. He ended up giving us a guided tour through the entire garden and described details that no travel book or tour guide would provide.

He steered us away from the obvious tourist traps and took us to an even better tea house than the one our travel guide recommended.

Outside of Nestea I’m not a huge tea enthusiast, but this stuff was incredible. We sampled over ten different varieties and each one was better than any tea I’ve ever experienced.

It was now nearing lunch time so we headed for the trendy Xiantiandi district to grab a bite and wander around the area. We had a cool lunch at a place called Kabb’s which featured make your own Bloody Mary’s. They provide 3 shots of vodka, tomato juice and all the fixins (Worcestershire, Horseradish, Salt & Pepper) and you get to put it together as you please. No rimmer, so Katie was a little disappointed, still delicious though.

Afterwards we found a nice patio and had a few beers while doing some people watching before starting our trek home. As you’ll see from the pics below, this area has a new distinctly European feel to it. So much so that we had to constantly remind ourselves that we were still in the heart of Communist China.  As the afternoon slowly faded to evening, I went inside to use the bathroom and watched Phil sink his putt to win the HSBC Champions event we had attended the day before. Even though Tiger didn’t win, it was a fitting end to a memorable weekend.

Finally, one last thing I wanted to share with everyone. I don’t know when it happened. Maybe it’s been going on for awhile and I just never noticed. Regardless of when this affliction materialized, I think everyone will agree that it’s a little disturbing. It seems as though my wife has a fascination with laundry. She stops to take pictures so often that sometimes I don’t really pay attention to the object of her desire. But when I was going through all of our pics from Shanghai, I came across a disturbing trend of pictures featuring wet clothes. Have a look for yourself. Viewer discretion is advised.


Stay tuned for our upcoming Japan mailbag. I’ll be answering questions from readers about our recent week-long trip to Japan. Feel free to submit your questions in the comments section of this post.