Japan Practicalities

A quick list of practicalities if you’re planning on visiting Japan:

Money. Use cash, surprisingly a lot of places don’t take credit cards.
Getting cash is difficult too, though! You can’t just walk into a bank
and use their ATMs, as they are usually only set up for domestic
transactions. Two reliable places that you can get cash from are the
post office and 7-11, they always have international options for
withdrawing money.

Japan Rail Pass. If you are planning on going anywhere outside of the
Tokyo/Kyoto orbit, you have to get a JR pass. It’s expensive and
burned a hole in our pockets but buying the tickets a la carte would
have burned an even greater hole. The other advantage is that you just
flash the pass at the station worker and you breeze right through, no
need to deal with the ticket machine. And they give you a handy
schedule for all the shinkansens in English. You can use the JR pass
on some of the local lines in Tokyo, like the Yamanote line, which
gets you to many places in the city. If you plan to just explore one
area, there are also region-specific passes that are a bit cheaper.

Train reservations. We found no need to make seat reservations for
seats on the train. Of course we were traveling at non-peak hours on
non-holidays, so that may have had something to do with it.

Cell phones. Unless you’re calling friends, we were able to get by
without a cell phone. If you do need one, it’s easy to rent one from
the major airports when you arrive rather than paying ridiculous
roaming fees.

Tourist Information Centers. Use them to help book accommodations for
you and pick up free maps, brochures and info about events. Usually
they’re in the main train station of each city, but the one in Tokyo
is a bit hard to find (it’s near Yurakucho station in an office
building on the 10th floor). We picked up a particularly good brochure
called “Kyoto and vicinity Walking Guide”, put out by the Japan
National Tourism Organization, that we used to explore Kyoto.

Maps. Make use of maps on the streets. Every city we went to had a map
of the local area outside of subway stations and even bus stops with
labels of places of interest, shops, banks, etc. And usually in both
English and Japanese. Even better is that the map is oriented towards
the way that you’re facing. However in Tokyo we had no idea how to
find places with a specific address, even with a map, because streets
apparently are not named!

Cabs. We didn’t really use them, as they were too expensive. The bus
and rail lines are extremely good and easy to use so it really wasn’t
a problem.

Water. Tap water is ok to drink! Yay!

Vegetables. So, surprisingly to us, the Japanese don’t eat many
vegetables and fruit is very expensive. So if you need a healthy dose
of veggies, I suggest you bring powdered supplements or whatnot,
because just seaweed wasn’t cutting it for my system.

Hairdryers. Every single place we stayed at had a hairdryer, so no
need to bring your own.

Language. We had very few difficulties with not speaking any Japanese.
For anyone we encountered who didn’t speak English, hand signals and
gesturing worked out quite well as people are patient and will try to
understand as best as possible.

Hotels. Our favorite hotel was Hotel Monterey La Soeur in Tokyo, in
the Ginza neighborhood. It was the most expensive place we stayed at,
but was really nice in a great location, especially for the price we
paid.

Internet. For us, internet was kind of a pain to come by, as it seems
like you can only get a wifi connection if you subscribe and it’s all
in Japanese. However, we found some free/open connections that we
stole bandwitdth from at a cafe, and occasionally we had wifi or an
ethernet port at a hostel or hotel, but it’s not ubiquitous.
Especially if you’re staying at a ryokan-style place. We didn’t
venture into any of those 24-hour internet cafe/gaming places because
we already have a computer, so I can’t speak for that experience.
Sometimes the tourist information centers have a computer you can use
but they make you pay for it.

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Children’s Day

There is a lovely holiday in South Korea called Children’s Day. Sort
of like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, but for kids. And everyone gets
the day off. We happened to be in Seoul on Children’s Day so Bremelin
arranged a field trip with her advanced English students to meet us
and to take us around the city to practice their English.

We took the train out to Brem’s neighborhood to meet the kids at the
station, bright and early. We had no idea what to expect – what are
Korean middle schoolers like?? They gathered around us, introduced
themselves in English, giggled a bit, and generally acted shy and
bashful. They constantly checked their cellphones for messages. We
shouted, “No Korean! Only English!” but of course after about ten
minutes they lapsed. We got on the train, and I was trying to think of
a million questions to get some conversations started. “What do you
like to do in your free time with your friends? Do you play sports?
Where do you go on vacation? Is there a place you would like to visit
one day? Where do you recommend to visit in Korea? What do you like to
eat?” They wanted to know about our travels, what we had done, where
we liked best, what we had already seen in Seoul. Their English was
quite good, if I spoke a little more slowly they got the gist of what
I was saying, but they tended to not ask many questions. Perhaps from
shyness, but also perhaps a bit cultural, as asking questions of an
elder is out of the ordinary.

We walked all over the city. They loved window shopping in Insadong,
and bought all kinds of sweets that I thought were going to make them
go on a crazy sugar high. It was funny, one of the girls bought some
candy that were considered retro, and I was like, oh these were
popular candies when I was a kid! Like swizzle sticks and bubble tape.
They people-watched. We watched them people-watching. We slurped down
cold noodles in a creamy sesame based sauce, I barely finished half my
bowl but most of them demolished their portions before I was even
done. They told us a bit about their daily lives – they study a lot,
they don’t have much time for sports. They enjoy being with their
families. We wandered over to the rebuilt river, did some more
people-watching. We asked them about their dreams when they grew up, a
few of them want to be diplomats, a boy wants to be a teacher, another
girl wants to be a car designer. So interesting to hear about their
ideas of what the future holds for them.

We constantly scanned the group and counted to eight, “one, two,
three, four, five…ok where did those three girls wander off to?”
Brem did an expert job at corralling them every time we needed to get
them on and off the subway, and I just tried to keep up. I was
paranoid one of them was going to be left behind. And I forgot how
slow it is to move with a group! “Teacher, can I buy something at the
convenience store?” Stop for ten minutes. “Teacher, I have to use the
bathroom!” Stop for ten minutes. “Teacher, can we buy something at
this store?” Stop for ten minutes. It was amusing more than anything,
I barely got an inkling of what it must’ve been like to chaperone my
high school class to the Met.

I couldn’t help but compare them to American teenagers. Most of my
interactions with teenagers these days doesn’t extend much beyond
seeing gaggles of them on the subway and streets in New York and (very
occasionally) the malls of New Jersey. New York teenagers often seem
to be loud, brash, independent, sometimes aggressively sexual. They
don’t like listening to rules and try to break them more often than
not. They feel like they’re on display and they often take over the
whole space. In contrast, the teenagers we were with seemed so
innocent, demure, sweet. They liked to joke around but didn’t shout,
it was more a lot of giggling. They seemed so respectful of us, and I
was surprised. I guess I’m just so used to the “question authority”
stance that urban American teenagers seem to take with adults. The one
similarity, and perhaps seems to be even more endemic to Korean
teenagers, is that their faces seem to be glued to their
cellphone/TV/video game screens more often than not. I was stunned at
how many people (not just our group) zone out to their little devices
everywhere in Seoul.

We took the group to the highest building in Seoul and got a
far-reaching view of this city of twenty one million people. I
couldn’t believe how big it is, neighborhoods blanket the hills and
mountains for miles in every direction. The kids flitted from window
to window, taking cellphone pics and videos, video calling their
parents to say hi from the top of the building, and downing more
candy. By now, we were all exhausted, so we hopped back on the subway
back out to the suburbs to drop them off. We arrived at the station,
waved good bye to them and they dissolved into the crowd. The day made
me realize how little time I spend with people who aren’t around my
age, especially teenagers, and how refreshing it was to get a glimpse
into their lives. As a designer I kept thinking to myself that to
really put yourself into other people’s shoes, you have to meet them
face-to-face, in person and have a conversation with them. It makes
such a big difference, you make less assumptions about them and
discover what it is they really need.

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The Jiuzhaigou experience

So we arrived in a big giant puddle in the parking lot of Jiuzhaigou and we had no idea what to expect. By far the best aspect of our visit was Zhuo Ma’s Tibetan homestay. Beyond the park itself, it made the 11 hour bus ride, fighting with hordes of domestic tourists, and my cold toes all worth it. We yet again found this homestay through an article we found on the internet (do you see a pattern here?), and it sounded right up our alley – we wanted to meet people that actually lived there and experience the local culture. We got that and a whole lot more!

Zhuo Ma is one of the most amazing people that I’ve ever met. She left her small village in Jiuzhaigou when she was only seventeen for Beijing without speaking any Chinese. She stayed for a few years, learned Chinese perfectly, came back to Jiuzhaigou and opened an acclaimed Tibetan restaurant with her brother. On top of that, she started the homestay last year and we happened to stumble in on it. With all of these accomplishments you’d think that she wouldn’t have time for anyone, but she is the total opposite – she is so humble, warm and generous. When we arrived, she invited us in, sat us down right next to the big stove and immediately gave us steaming cups of yak butter tea. And kept them filled the entire time we were there! And even though she was hosting a party that weekend, she went out of her way to help arrange our travels and to make us feel at home.

We really did feel like we were part of the family. She and her mother took turns in the kitchen, cooking up enormous and tasty Tibetan meals (yak, preserved vegetables, fresh vegetables, potatoes. Yum!), and we sat together and ate and drank lots of yak butter tea. We watched Losan, Zhuo Ma’s two year old nephew, run around and we’d play with him for a bit. We had friendly exchanges with cousins, relatives and neighbors who dropped by. We also chatted with Zhuo Ma about her life, the goings on in the village and why she wanted to have a homestay. For her, it’s so important to show visitors the other side to Jiuzhaigou. Many people who visit only see a very superficial, packaged version of Tibetan life if they do at all – basically tawdry “ethnic” performances geared to titillate rather than educate. Realizing that Jiuzhaigou was first and foremost a Tibetan area and seeing the economic and social reality for Tibetans colored our experience in a very different way than if we had stayed in a bland hotel in town.

The other advantage to staying with Zhuo Ma was the amazing landscape. We walked on the yak/sheep paths up the mountain and the views were spectacular. When we were high enough, we could see down into the next valley and the snow-capped peaks loomed over us. At night, we’d burrow under the warmest blankets ever to keep out the mountain cold. And when we woke up, we threw open the bedroom window to a view of Tibetan prayer flags, wooden houses, and craggy mountains in the distance.

There was also a flurry of activity happening at the house, which we also enjoyed. It turned out that the weekend party was for Zhuo Ma’s friend Kieran, an Irishman who works for the national park. People were coming from far and wide for the party, so we met all manner of ex-pats. Some were traveling through, others settled in Chengdu, and some were short term researchers in Jiuzhaigou. So we heard about their experiences of living in China and how it can be both rewarding and frustrating at the same time. One guy said he had to be glued to his mobile phone playing solitaire whenever he was a passenger in a car because if he paid attention to the way people drive he’d go insane.

After a few short days, Zhuo Ma gave us big hugs and we set out for a (very) long journey to Shanghai.

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Sichuan, land of the numbingly spicy

And I certainly don't mean that in a bad way. One of the reasons (besides the pandas) why we decided to come to Sichuan province was because of the cuisine, which is famous for its use of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. These peppercorns have a curious property: they make your mouth go numb, and it's something the Chinese call “ma”. In combination with “la”, the spiciness from regular red chilies, Sichuan cuisine has built a fearsome reputation for its spicy food.

We had our first taste of the peppercorn when we went for hotpot a couple of nights ago. We've been for hotpot before, but this was a bit different; rather than boiling broth, it was a concoction of boiling oil, chilies, peppercorns, and other spices. It was bright red and the scent coming off of it was spicy and tingly. We chose a couple of things off of the menu, which luckily was in English (avoiding the “urinating beef balls” and “ox penis” but at least getting some tripe and beef tendon), dumped it into the boiling oil, and hoped for the best. I fished out a piece of beef, dunked it in some sesame oil, cilantro and scallions, and carefully bit into it. My mouth immediately caught on fire from the red chilies, but as I continued chewing this curious sensation spread on my tongue – my mouth was turning numb from the peppercorns! It's so hard to describe it, I was totally weirded out at first. Maybe it's a bit like when you drink a wine with a lot of tannins and your tongue feels furry, but multiply it by ten and maybe you'd come close.

As we've been eating, we've noticed that the peppercorn is in everything – the stir fries, the noodles, the soups. Sometimes they're added in whole, sometimes they're sneaky about it and crush it up. So while you're eating your mouth goes numb and you didn't even know what hit you. Even for breakfast! I can see why people like it so much though, the interplay between the fiery red chilies and the peppercorns is such a great combination. I especially love the the dried fried red chilies, when done just right they're a bit crispy, oily, fragrant and spicy, I end up picking them out of the dish and finishing them before we've even eaten the rest of the food.

Eating out here is very inexpensive – on average we're spending about $6 US for any given meal, sometimes as little as 75 cents (!) –  but it's finding the right ones that can be tough. Small mom and pop places are everywhere in the city, we've passed by so many I can't even keep count. They're little open air joints with a couple of tables, sometimes the kitchen is open to the eating area, sometimes it's in the back. We've evolved some rules though to decide how to pick one.

  • Walk around during meal times. Then you can see which ones are busy. If it's busy, there must be a reason why!
  • If it's a busy one, look at the floor and the surrounding environment – are there tons of napkins and debris on the ground? If so, skip it because the kitchen is probably disgusting. If the place looks clean, better chance that the kitchen will be clean too.
  • What are people ordering? If the menu is only in Chinese, then it's easier if you go to busy place and point at something that you might want to try than to struggle to string together a sentence. Going into an empty restaurant is tough.
  • Do the proprietors seem welcoming or at least interested in your business? Skip it if they scowl at you. 
  • How does it smell? If it's stinky you probably don't want to go there, and conversely if it smells good then check it out. Trust your nose.

We've actually had a lot of good meals at random places that we'll never know the name of by following the rules to some extent. We had amazing dumplings in Langzhong, they were so good that we went back for breakfast a second time.

Another thing that was inevitable is that ordering off the menu when you can't read and communicate is a crap shoot. Especially when there are no pictures. Sometimes it just comes down to opening the menu and pointing at something, because saying “What do you recommend?” in Chinese (at least my Chinese) draws blank stares. On the train we were lucky and ended up ordering fish fragrant pork, something that is pretty basic and non-scary. At a hole-in-the-wall which we found via EatingAsia, we managed to order some delicious stir fried beans and the fish fragrant pork again (yes, we've learned to identify that one at least.) At other meals we were not so fortunate, one dish was a bunch of offal that neither of us could identify – maybe it was chicken intestine, maybe not? The dish itself was mediocre, and maybe I am better off not knowing what it was. Another meal we ended up ordering snake. Glad I experienced it, but probably wouldn't order it again. So kids: learn your Chinese, you will thank me in the end!

I have to say that I am not fond of the packaged drinks and snacks in Sichuan. Actually, the bottled drinks are quite awful. They're all sugary and fake tasting, real juice does not exist, not even at froofy drink stands. At least in Sichuan it's hard to get a decent cup of tea unless you're at a teahouse, but we haven't really honed our mahjong skills enough to feel comfortable hanging out in one for more than a half hour or so. Coffee is crappy/non-existent. Snacks tend to be overly pungent or that snappy texture that seems to offend Westerners to no end, or are crappy horrible ripoffs of brand names like Pringles. I keep dreaming of all the lovely fruit juices and kopi-o in Singapore and the fresh coconuts in Thailand.

However, we had some great freshly prepared snacks at a pedestrian area known as Jin Li Street. Sichuan is also known for its xiao chi, literally “small eats”. Vendors specialize in one type or another, it can range from various types of fried meat on a stick similar to kebabs to tofu with molasses sauce. Often these are just street vendors, which we've been avoiding them for the sake of the peace of our stomachs. But we were able to sample a bunch of these snacks at Jin Li Street, as the sanitary conditions are a bit more standardized. Our favorite by far was a combo dish of five types of vegetarian rice rolls, they were savory and a bit spicy, and each had its own texture. All in all, we've really enjoyed the food here and are glad that we had a chance to try it. Next up on our plates later on this week: yak meat and other Tibetan delicacies! Stay tuned…

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Face It

This is the first time that I've been to China in my whole entire life. I was born and raised in the States, a Jersey girl at heart. When I was really young, all I spoke was Cantonese. But basically when I hit nursery school, the rejection started. I hated going to Chinese school on Saturdays, I just wanted to be like the rest of the kids. I wanted to fit in and speak English, goddamn it! So my Cantonese slowly declined to the point where now all I can do is order verbally at restaurants in Chinatown. And forget about Mandarin, I can barely count to ten even though I took a semester in college. 

So I knew it was going to be tough traveling through China without being able to speak or read. But the actual experience has been a lot more nuanced than I thought it would be. Weirdly enough in Hong Kong I felt like I fit in. I could understand at a basic level what people were saying, more than I thought I would. People didn't bat an eye if I spoke to them in English or if I replied in mangled Cantonese, it was all good. Being illiterate in Chinese was not a problem, there was usually some sort of translation into English that was good enough. The only places where it was an issue were some of the small restaurants, but perhaps if I had had enough time I would have gotten up the courage to go in and try to ask for recommendations.

Mainland China is a whole other ballgame. Sometimes it's been so frustrating I want to cry. Or at least have a giant sign that says "我不会说中文" ("I don't speak Chinese") so I don't have to say it again for the ten millionth time. Everyone automatically assumes that I speak Chinese, which is fine and normal. At first I would say "I don't speak Chinese very well" and they'd talk a mile a minute and still expect me to understand. So I switched to "I do not speak Chinese". Period. End of story. However, they still launch into a whole long dialogue. Very unhelpful. 

In Thailand people mistook me for being native – which I was surprised about since I don't think I look Thai, but I soon found out that people thought I was Chinese Thai. So people would start speaking in Thai, but at least when I indicated that I didn't speak it, they backed off a bit, tried English or hand signals, and things worked out. They weren't rude in their reactions, maybe a bit curious, but it was easy to deal with.

In China people are totally confused and have no idea what to do with me. It has never in their minds occurred to them that a Chinese person could be Chinese without speaking it. So I've gotten to the point where I've figured out how to say "My grandparents are from Guangdong, I speak Cantonese, but I was born in America, I'm an American" in Mandarin. (Of course, being in Western China, they snort at the Guangdong part.) And they STILL don't get it.

If I don't open my mouth I look like every other Chinese person on the street, even if I dress slightly differently. In fact, when I'm not with Wayne it's like nobody sees me, I'm just part of the crowd. I think it confuses them even more that I'm with Wayne. Just tonight, I was sitting on a rock waiting for him, and this little kid comes over and starts climbing on the rock next to me. OK, no problem. Wayne shows up and we're talking, and the little kid looks over and I swear he fell off the rock with the most horrified look. (The "OMG I've never seen a white person before in my life and I'm going to stare at him for an uncomfortable period of time" is a whole other blog post completely.)  "White person with Asian person? DOES NOT COMPUTE!!" and you see smoke coming out of their ears. Sometimes I think they think I'm his tour guide or something. 

The most frustrating thing about it is that I want to communicate. I want to be able to ask about how the noodles are made, if they like the city they live in, where's a good place to eat, what they recommend doing, what's village life like. But I can't. So I have to stay in my role as a tourist, just passing on through and gawking. Which is fine for now, but I'm looking forward to being able to converse on a deeper level with people like we had the opportunity to in Thailand and Hong Kong.
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Want a train ticket? Good luck.

We said goodbye to Hong Kong yesterday and headed to Guangzhou, where we needed to get train tickets. Guess what? Nobody who works in the train station speaks Cantonese! Crap. So we were stuck with stringing together Mandarin from our phrasebook. We wandered around the station until we finally found the long distance ticket sellers, but we had no. idea. how to to read the schedule. After staring at it for about 10 minutes while waiting on line we sort of deciphered it, but still had no idea if we were in the right line.

We were super lucky though – two girls (who only spoke Mandarin) took pity on us and tried to figure out what we wanted, and helped us with communicating with the surly ticket seller. It almost certainly would have been a gigantic fail otherwise – it was almost the end of the day and there were people crowding around the window trying to cut the line, and the ticket seller certainly would not have had the patience for foreigners who spoke no Chinese.

So we're off on a 35-hour train ride to Chengdu in a few hours. Wish us luck!
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Five quick thoughts on Hong Kong

Thought #1: Why have I never visited Hong Kong before? It is awesome. 

Thought #2: It's actually fine that my Cantonese sucks, it's the effort that counts. Trying to talk to people has helped me remember random words and phrases I thought I didn't know. Eggplant! Good morning! These pants are too long! And it's totally fine to mix in English words, people do it here all the time – "blah blah blah anyways la" – as long as you say the English in a sing-songy Cantonese way. And tack on "la" at the end. It also works in reverse: I'll speak to someone in English and they'll reply in Cantonese and it's all good.

Thought #3: This place is a shopaholic's paradise. Everything from gigantic luxury mega-malls to tiny back alley sock vendors. I have never seen so. many. people. in one place – Mong Kok in Kowloon is this giant river of humanity that I can only describe as a clusterfuck.And they're ALL SHOPPING. After twenty minutes we were so overwhelmed by the number of people that we jumped back on the MTR with our tails between our legs.

Thought #4: I love the mountains. It is insane how all of these high rises are built directly into the side of the mountains. We're staying in Mid-levels, and there are all these twisty lanes with 30 story highrises sprouting from either side of the street. It makes walking around a lot of fun, and everything feels so layered. Even though we've walked past the same streets a few times, I keep seeing new things. And walking versus riding the double decker buses versus a taxi versus the old trams opens up even more views. 

Thought #5: The food is YUM. We had the best of bowl of noodles + wontons + fish balls + beef EVAR. And dim sum really does rule here. The variety is astounding – although with Western food you really have to pay a premium for it.
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