After only a few hours travelling, the word for the day has to be 'civilized'. The first exampleof this was on the plane, where one of the choices on the in-flight personal entertainment system was a review of the Rugby World Cup. Despite the USA having a team in the tournament, there was not a single mention of it in the media over there while it was going on. Probably too busy watching big men in tights pat each other on the bottom before crowning themselves 'World Champions' (without inviting any other countries to take part, of course!). Anyway, it was very civilized of Japan Airlines to stick the rugby on especially for me!
Getting through customs was also very civilized. People smile at you, explain where you need to go and what you need to do, and are all very helpful. A world apart from the neanderthals you get atmost customs checkpoints, who are usually too busy polishing their jackboots or practicing goose-stepping to be of any use. All very civilized! And if that wasn't enough, the first TV wesee in the airport was showing highlights of England sticking 50 points on the Eye-ties. The only way to beat that would be if we were giving the Welsh similar treatment!
The drive from the airport went through miles upon miles of industrial sprawl
before getting to central Tokyo. This, the gloomy weather, a few canals, and
the fact that the Japanese are civilized enough to drive on the proper side
of the road makes this place very similar to Birmingham (that would be Birmingham,
England, and not Birming-Ham,
Alabama!). The only noticeable difference is that even with no knowledge of speaking Japanese it's possible to get the locals in Tokyo to understand what you're saying. Just try THAT in Birmingham!
Decided to try a few different things at the local sushi place, including
raw cuttlefish which, not surprisingly, has a strange texture not unlike slimy
rubber. Theories that it has the same consistency as a game-worn sumo wrestlers
underwear have yet to be confirmed. Also on the menu was something called
'Young Panctus'. Didn't try that one though, as it's name sounds strangely
like a junior public schoolboy being forced to bend over so that the school
bully can use his buttocks for a toastrack!
And while hunting through my stuff for a toothbrush, I discovered a red feather
boa had been smuggled into my luggage. Good job I didn't have to explain THAT
to customs officers! The guilty party who hid it in my bag will be receiving
swift and merciless revenge, cackle, cackle!
This is just a quick note to say hello and let you know that I've started
the next set of adventures. Yay!! Warwick is traveling with me for the next
5-6 months, and it's great to have his company. We left from San Francisco
Sunday, and arrived in Tokyo, Japan on Monday afternoon local time.
We're staying with my friend Dave and will be here for a week. It's been great so far!
I'll send out more descriptions of our experiences here soon. This message
is more to kick everything off, send an overview of our itinerary, and make
sure that my email list is updated. So, please let me know if you want to
removed from the list, or if I need to update any email addresses. Thanks!
As far as the itinerary, here are the basics:
Feb 16-23 - Tokyo, Japan
Feb 23-Mar 1 - Taipei, Taiwan
Mar 1-4 - Hong Kong
Mar 4-Jun 26 - Bangkok will be our hub for visiting Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, with a side trip to Nepal
Jun 26-Jul 15 - Delhi to Mumbai (Bombay), India
After that, we'll be heading to Europe (mostly England) for the rest of July
and August. I'll be trying to visit friends in France and Germany during that
time, and might get to other countries as well. At the end of August, Warwick
will return to California, and I'll head back to India.
I'll be in India until flying to Cairo on Oct 7th. The rest of my itinerary is:
Oct 7-Nov 8 - Cairo, Egypt (with a possible side trip to Israel)
Nov 8-Dec 6 - United Arab Emirates
Dec 6-Dec 19 - Fly to Istanbul, Turkey, and spend the 2 weeks going overland to London
Dec 19 - Fly London to Indianapolis (to be home for the holidays!)
So, that's the plan. We bought around-the-world plane tickets, so the route
will stay the same and the dates are pretty likely to stay the same. The things
that we'll do within each region are still to be determined, especially
for the time in Southeast Asia and Europe. It should be a fantastic trip!
I look forward to hearing from each of you from time to time. It's always nice to hear what's happening at home. And, as with the last trip, I'll be in touch and will send out updates when possible.
First up, a trip to the Tokyo City View,
a huge skyscraper that gives a great view of...lots of other huge skyscrapers.
Some of the apartment blocks have their entire roofs covered with grass, which
probably makes a game of football with your mates last a long time if you
have to send somebody down 50 flights of stairs to fetch the ball every time
somebody kicks it too hard! And one skyscraper is wider at the top than it
is at the bottom, which should prove to be an interesting test of engineering
when the next big earthquake hits!
20 minutes of frenzied picture taking later and we headed off into the unknown.
On the same floor as the observation deck was an exhibition of modern art by some (apparently) famous Japanese artist. She has been creating the 'weird and wonderful' for 50 years, and the illicit substances she must have consumed in order to come up with this stuff over the years would probably fill a large barn. Can you imagine yourself walking through a room full of giant inflatable red and white polka-dot ten-pin bowling pins? Or maybe a pitch black room with color-changing fairy lights suspended from the ceiling? This one is apparently called 'You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies 2004', but I think the translation from Japanese is wrong and it's actually called 'I am heavily dependent upon hallucinogenic drugs and I want the whole world to know it'.Still, nice of her to add '2004' to the title, as I am often getting confused between all the years when I have been Obliterated in a Dancing Swarm of Fireflies. The next room showed a video of her prancing around and occasionally spitting out feathers, which soon had us running for the exits!
Several more people bowed at me again today, and I am getting used to these
outward displays of respect.
Which of course is how it should be!
Only one disappointment in the first full day in Tokyo, which was the Godzilla didn't rise up out of the ocean and trash the city. But there's always that to look forward to tomorrow I suppose!
Failing that, the Mothra costume might have to make it's first appearance of the trip.
Here's a tip from the top for young filmmakers: If your film doesn't include
women in their underwear cuddling men in seven foot tall white furry suits,
girls sitting in trees with their faces painted to look like cats, or groups
of frogs with human ears glued to their backs hopping around in circles, then
don't bother with the Japanese market, because that seems to be all they are
interested in over here!
Day Three - Tokyo
Everything in Tokyo is expensive, and not just a bit expensive but REALLY expensive. Today's cup of coffee was 800 yen ($8, a fiver), and everything else is priced in a similar way. The general school of thought is that the high cost of living is because of the high wages, low crime, etc., but I reckon there is a more sinister reason. Boots. Yup, that's right, boots! Tokyo is reknowned as a fashionable place, and basically all the women between the ages of 18 and 30 walk around wearing knee-length leather boots and short skirts to show them off. The only exceptions to this 'uniform' are the ones who either wear schoolgirl costumes or those who dress up as boys, but they are another story!
So, I think that the government here is profiting from this outrageous display of flesh by adding a 100% surcharge to everything you have to buy. This of course if fine with me, in fact I would probably pay a lot more!
"But what about the women?", I hear you ask. Well, it is true that a cup of coffee will cost a woman 800 yen as well, but the 'boot tax' allows for this because not all of the people in the leather boots and short skirts are women. In fact it seems that quite a high proportion of the people wandering around the streets of Tokyo in leather boots and short skirts are men/boys. And if that won't keep the ladies happy, I don't know what will!
Shrines are pretty big in Japan, and can be found anywhere, from small ones in the street, medium sized ones in between houses, up to huge ones in public parks. So you will be walking along the street passing modern day houses, and all of a sudden the person walking in front of you will stop suddenly. Then they will clap a few times, bow a few times then carry on walking. Apparently all this (plus throwing money into a box - I knew there had to be a catch!) cleanses the soul. Maybe they're meant to be used after a trip to the 'Love Hotel' part of town.
'Love Hotels' (pronounced 'Luuuuuurve Hotels') are pretty much as advertised
(revolving heart-shaped vibrating water beds, mirrors everywhere, video cameras
- honestly!), but with one difference from the Western World - they tend to
be 'Bring Your Own'. There are no Pimp Daddys trying to sell you the 'Dish
of the Day', and these places are treated basically as hotels, where you can
either 'Rest' (yeah, right!) or 'Stay' overnight (presumably if you're too
tired from 'resting' with all that video equipment!). It is really common
in Japan for families to live together in a single house or apartment, so
on those nights when you and your beau feel like getting jiggy but don't want
to spoil Grandma's enjoyment of watching the news on TV, you can pay your
3,000 yen down at the local 'Luuuurve Hotel'. "Hey Grannie, me and Fifi
are just popping out to Hotel Nookie for a couple of hours, would you like
us to bring you anything back?"
Day Four - Tokyo
Tokyo is home to the world's largest fish market,
and after seeing a travel show about it, it seemed worth getting up at 3am
and taking the 15 minute, 3,000 yen taxi ride to go and see it.
The first thing to notice when you get there is that you are the only person not wearing wellington boots. Which is fine when you're walking the streets, but just wait until the discarded fish parts start flying around! The second thing to realise is that the bigger and/or faster your vehicle is, the higher up you are in the pecking order and the more chance you have of seeing the next sunrise. So forklift truck drivers hurtle around with reckless abandon, the motorised carts
(which seem to be controlled by the driver standing around some kind of washing machine drum with a wheel on top) also seem to zoom around quite happily, but then the handcarts (presumably pulled by those people who DO know how to drive and are therefore unsuitable for controlling either of the two previous methods of transportation!) are pulled around by men with a look of fear in their eyes. The only fun they seem to have is when they spot a tourist and then they make a beeline for them, aiming for any body parts they can squash to brighten up their day.
The place covers several acres, and is packed with individual stalls selling everything you can possibly imagine that comes out of the sea. So you can stroll down there, grab an octopus, angler fish or handful of live eels, and have them on the table for breakfast.
There are also wide open spaces where they auction off huge tuna - thousands of them laid out in rows. Each one sells for around a million yen, and is sold within a few seconds by a bloke shouting and waving his arms around a lot. After they have been sold, groups of men with huge metal hooks heave them onto carts and drag them away.
Without actually asking about employment opportunities, it seems like hacking
up fish with large knives is a popular occupation. For example, I'm pretty
sure the conversation would go something like:
Me: "So, what do you do for a living?"
Shrimp Boy: "Well, I stick my hand into this tank full of live scampi, pull one out, then throw it into a different tank depending upon how big it is. I do this for 15 hours a day."
Me: "How nice! And what about your friend next to you?"
Eel Boy: "I grab a live eel out of a large bucket, slit it's throat with this huge sharp knife, then throw it into another large bucket where it choke to death on it's own innards."
Maybe writing software for a living isn't so bad after all!
The tendency in Japan is towards the small (no comments please!), which is cool if you're the world's smallest camera (1 inch by 2 inches with numerous similar sized attachments and costing 400,000 yen ($loads, quid loads!), but not so good if you're something more practical - like a doorway. It's easy to spot anyone over 6 feet tall in Japan, even if they're sitting down, because they will have either bruised or bandaged heads. Even in your own home, a few tinnes of the local tipple has the magical effect of making you forget that you need to duck your head when you get up off the sofa and make your way to the bog. It can also have the magical effect of making you forget that you have a squat toilet, at which point things can become distinctly unpleasant!
So, you're walking along the street, and coming in the opposite direction is a bloke taking his pet out for a walk. Is it a dog? Nope! How about a cat? Nope! How about a fully-grown monkey then? Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner! Now this thing must have been around 4 feet tall, and seemed quite happy being led around on a rope. Obviously has quite a special relationship with it's owner! Although this has been the only pet monkey sighting so far, the locals didn't seem to bat an eyelid as it went past, so it can't be that uncommon.
The Imperial Palace is the
Emperor's year-round residence, and is quite an impressive place.
Complete with stone walls and a couple of moats (filled with dereaded spindly killer fish!), it would be impossible to break in there. So, we were quite surprised when a courier turned up this morning with a letter from the Emperor himself. He had heard we were visiting and wanted to entertain us, in face it would be an honour and a privilege if we would grace him with our presence. Unfortunately we had to decline the Emperor's kind offer and told him he would be eating roast swans on his own tonight, as a couple of hours earlier we had passed a bar with a 'Guinness Happy Hour' from 5 to 7pm, with Guinnes at only a fiver a pint. At a price like that, how could that be turned down??? Might grab a kebab on the way back from the pub and drop by to see the Emperor later, hope he likes chilli sauce on his!
Temple-tastic! With a large dollup of Shrine Frenzy thrown in! Although the centre of Tokyo is very modern, there are plenty of reminders of Japan's past dotted around the outskirts of the city. A one hour train ride takes you out of all the craziness and into far more relaxed surroundings. In the same way that there are ancient towns and castles in England to remind you of life 700 years ago, Japan has it's temples and shrines. Sorry America, but any country that considers something over 20 years old to be an 'antique' has no part in this discussion!
The temples are huge wooden buildings, based in well-kept, serene grounds and packed with ancient artifacts dating back to the 14th century. Each temple contains some part of history, such as the oldest this or the biggest that, and it's cool to see the locals going about their daily business of clapping and bowing a lot while the tourists take photographs of everything. No matter what order you see them in, the first one is the best, the second one similar but still fun, and so on. By the time you have slogged your way around temple #15 (because of the fifteenth random, obscure, but unique characteristic is possesses), you are pretty much 'templed-out'.
By far the most impressive part of the day was a visit to see the Giant Buddha. Cast out of bronze in 1252AD, it used to live inside a temple that was unfortunately swept away by a tidal wave in 1498. I suspect Godzilla may be responsible for this, but of course there is no evidence to support this theory (in keeping with the rest of my theories!). So now someone's back garden contains a 50 foot tall, 121 ton statue of Buddha. And a gift shop, of course!
Despite the Zen experience of visiting all these religious places, there is always the need to eat. In an attempt to further experience Japanese culture, lunch consisted of a curry in a French Guyanan restaurant with Caribbean reggae music blasting out. And because there is no smoking ban in Japan, all you had to do was walk down the stairs to the restaurant, eat your food whilst passively inhaling the 'herbal' cigarette smoke, then float back up the stairs as if by magic!
Later on, the local noodle house was playing a cheesy 80s CD as their background music. Interesting how things must get lost in translation, but the song inbetween Bananarama and Hall & Oates was 'Meat Is Murder' by The Smiths. I had never heard that played in a restaurant before, and although it didn't put me off my beef stew, it did make me chuckle as I bit into another slice of poor old Buttercup!
Day Six - Tokyo
Biggest disappointment of the trip so far - there was no Sumo wrestling going on at the National Sumo Stadium (in Sumo town, naturally!). So I will just have to survive the rest of my life without seeing a big, fat, sweaty man being given the world's biggest wedgie. Shame!
Here's a 'tip from the top' that isn't in any guidebooks. If you are buying lunch and, for example, a sandwich costs 250 yen and a drink also costs you 250 yen, you have the option of taking the 'lunch set' for 600 yen - 100 yen extra. And the 'lunch set' contains...a sandwich and a drink. And nothing else! After a couple of minutes, the conversation descended into 'bloody tourists' being shouted in Japanese and 'bunch of bloody rob-dogs' being shouted in English.
One shrine in Old Town Tokyo will even read your fortune for you. Just throw your cash into a box (surprise!), pick a wooden stick out of a tin, then select your fortune based upon what is written on the stick. All very high-tech! Anyway, out of the hundreds of fortunes available, I happened to get 'The Best Fortune' and Sharon happened to get 'The Worst Fortune' As I tried to point out that this clearly means that I, and not Keanu Reeves', am 'The One', I was repeatedly beaten until I shut up. Of course now I realise that I exist in a higher plane, I feel no pain, and going 'Ouch, ouch, ouch' was just for effect. Besides, Sharon's fortune can't be bad, because she's here with me. Right???
Cruising around the red-light district (took a wrong turn and ended up there by mistake!), the biggest night-time activity in Tokyo (if you're a spotty teenager) is going to an amusement arcade and feeding cash into the machines until your retinas burn out and your brain explodes out the top of your head. These places are packed out with people aged 13-15, and all boys - not a single girl in sight. I wonder where all the 13 year-old girls go to? ...
Day Seven - Tokyo
Found 'em !!! Japanese schools are open 6 days a week, so on Sundays the
kids REALLY let their hair down. In certain parts of the city there are congregations
of hundreds of teenage girls, all dressed up in ballgowns, black & white
makeup, red & black leather gear straight out of 'Hellraiser', and a decent
amount of 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' and 'The Addams Family' clones. There
were angels, devils, schoolgirls, brides, hippies, punks, goths, and even
some in Nazi SS
regalia. And these are all teenage girls out in public! It is one of the strangest things I have ever seen!
After seeing enough boots and leather to keep anyone going for weeks, a gentle
stroll in the park seemed to be ideal to regain some semblance of normality.
Two yards into the park we come across the 'Dancing Elvises' - four Japanese
blokes wearing 50's 'James Dean' style outfits blaring Rock 'n' Roll tunes
on a ghetto blaster and dancing along to them. Again, totally bizarre! Just
past them are people having a picnic while a couple of their group play the
tuba, and running around all over the place are small dogs whose owners have
dressed them up in various outfits. Neon pink 'boob tubes' for dogs seem to
be fashionable at the moment. What initially seemed to be a game of football
soon merged in with the other madness when a small rule change was spotted.
Whenever somebody got the ball, they would crouch down with their legs apart
(a la squat toilet), then flap their arms up and down like a giant bird while
everyone else ran past them. No wonder the Japanese team never did so well
in the last World Cup. And as soon as a seven foot tall English hippy with
a cane told me to "Make love, not war, maaaan", it was clear it was time to go. Running past the dogs, bird-men, tuba players, Elvises (now doing 'The Twist' to Sex Pistols songs!), and the rest of the freaks, the mild chaos of the Tokyo subway system was like a breath of fresh air!
Just like 'one more ride on the rollercoaster' or 'one more triple vodka and coke' can cause serious problems, 'one more Japanese meal' can do the same thing. Things were going fine nice sushi, a few beers, and even a mouthful of the previously mentioned 'Young Sphinctus' tasted good. Then a dish appeared on the table called 'Fish Bowl', which is a kind of soup with different pieces of fish floating around in it. So I tried a mouthful. Except the dish isn't called 'Fish Bowl', it's called 'Fish Balls'. As in 'genitalia'! I noticed this at the same time I closed my mouth and bit down, It is, by a long way, the single most disgusting thing I have ever put into my mouth. Never mind 'Finding Nemo', here's a gobful of Nemo's own special fish sauce. I'm not usually one for making predictions, but I am sure that I will be eating my own balls before I try any of this stuff again!
Many, many thanks to Dave, who gave us the run of his place, had a fridge full of beer and a cupboard full of snacks (which are now empty!). And the French Maid outfit will live in my memory until my dying day !!!
Day Eight Tokyo to Taipei
Before leaving Japan, here is their score:
Food: 7/10. Would have been 8/10 without the fish tackle.
Cost: 2/10. Ridiculously expensive.
Fashion: 9/10. Even the least fashionable person (me) doesn t look out-of-place over here.
People: 7/10. Mad and very friendly.
Temples: 6/10. A set of moving walkways between them would be nice.
Bars: 2/10. Too expensive to go into.
Language: 5/10. Incomprehensible, but lots of signs in English.
Haircuts: 6/10. Not much variation except the young girls on Sundays. Also an alarming number of purple rinses.
Boots & Short Skirts: 10/10. Yeah!
Sport: 5/10. Not baseball season yet. Boo!
Overall, not a bad effort from the Land of the Rising Sun, although selling
cheap beer would increase it's popularity dramatically.