Saturday, September 11, 2010

As you've probably noticed, posts on here dropped off completely because the trip is over. Since my return to the US, I've relocated to New York and just started going through everything I've collected. So a wrapup report is in progress, but will likely take a few weeks to put together. Not that anyone is reading this at this point, but hey, thought I'd throw it out there.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

My last two nights in Tokyo were spent at the fantastic Cerulean Tower, in Shibuya. After my roommate flew back to the US, my friend Tess and I classed it up (this was after subjecting her to 2 nights in the capsule hotel (which usually don't take women) and then several days in a hostel). This was the view from the room, which represents my most expensive timelapse to date. This is looking towards Mt. Fuji, which is, well, not visible. Lets pretend I actually saw it and simply forgot to take a picture.

When I last posted, I was staying in a capsule hotel in Tokyo. We stayed there for four nights, which is rather uncommon for such hotels. The capsule hotel is primarily designed for businessmen that miss the last train out or simply need an afternoon nap. For this reason, there are three different checkin periods for the capsule, depending on how long you wish to stay or what time you check in. Most people stay for an afternoon nap or one night.

When I first arrived, the man at the front desk didnt understand that I had reserved several nights online, so pointed me to the ticket machine. Many transactions in Japan can be completed through a ticket machine, which takes your money and returns a ticket that you pass off to an attendant who knows what to do next. The capsule was little different. I paid for an afternoons stay through the ticket machine, handed the ticket to the clerk, and received a bathrobe, body towel, face towel, and locker key. I had already locked my shoes away in a small locker upon entry, so now it was off to the locker room.

From what Ive gathered, the average capsule hoteler will change out of his regular clothes, don the robe, then head to the baths. The baths were actually one of the best parts of the capsule hotel, once I got used to there being others present. My roommmate, whom I wont name, never partook of the baths, instead opting for strategic spot washing in the sink, which is more disgusting to me than bathing with other men, but to each his own. Anyways, the baths: once you enter, you stuff your new robe into another locker, then roll around a free man. No need to be shy in here. First up, the cleaning station: you sit down on a stool in front of a bucket, various soaps, a faucet, a handheld shower, and a mirror. This is where you clean your dirty self before entering the baths, of which there are two quite large basins to choose from. There is also a sauna. The goal here is to move between the sauna and two baths (which obviously vary in temperature) until your skin reaches some state like 'boiled octopus', which is the translation from Japanese. I didnt even attempt it, as Tokyo was just too hot to bother with that kind of bathing.

Once done bathing, you can proceed to the blowdryers and fuss with your hair (which is increasingly unnecessary for me), head to the massage room, or gamble and smoke in the TV room. I got a 70's Vegas/Mafia vibe from this whole area. If some guido rolled out and started combing his hair in the buff, it wouldnt have been more perfect. Instead, it was myself, one guy I hoped was Yakuza (judging by his full back tattoo), and a few miscellaneous Japanese business men.

The first two nights in the capsule were pleasant enough, as there werent many guests, and they were mostly Japanese. But by the end, the hotel started to fill up with the worst kind of tourist imaginable: other Americans. Almost nothing is louder than packs of roving Americans intent on sharing all the details of their trip or packing and unpacking their bags very late at night or very early in the morning. A word to the wise regarding hostels and capsule hotels: get ear plugs, especially if you've seen white people milling about.

Now, a couple of observations:

Service in Tokyo is just outstanding. Rarely have I seen more pleasant or helpful people. Many people speak even a little English, but seem so ashamed that they dont know more. It's okay, Japan*. My Japanese only covers about 6 phrases, all variations of thank you and hello. Your english is more than I can ask for.

Packaging: In Tokyo, if it is not wrapped up and packaged three materials deep, something is wrong. For example, if you purchase some breaded good, they will each be wrapped individually, put into a paper bag (collectively), which will then be deposited into another bag (plastic) for you to carry away. You can buy individually wrapped sushi at the market. If you go to McDonalds, your Big Mac will be put in its box, put into the McDonalds paper bag, then deposited into a plastic bag. I think with such outstanding recycling, they can get away with this.

Trash cans: there are probably only two or three public trash cans in all of Tokyo. In fact, there could be only one, as that's all we came across. I found this out daily as I have a hard time resisting vending machines. Despite this, I dare you to find litter in Tokyo, as there is a veritable army of street crew keeping things nice. So maybe that's it. Pretend you are in Cairo and throw that trash in your pocket on the ground, where it belongs. Someone will be along within 10 minutes to sweep it up.

Speaking of, Ive recently noticed a habit Ive picked up on the trip, which I find amusing but is likely annoying for those around me. And that is referring to people not by their names, but instead by their nationality (especially when they are doing something bothersome to me). For example, while standing on an escalator in Tokyo, my roommates habit of standing to the right elicits a "Wrong side, America". Or Japanese tourists walking three wide across the sidewalk: "Pick a side, Japan." Or: "No tailored suit today, India, but thanks." Etc.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The worlds busiest diagonal crossing in Shibuya, Tokyo.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I flew into Tokyo this morning, on another terribly early flight. My round-the-world ticket always puts me on either very late or very early flights. And that's why it's cheap (comparatively), I suppose. But I am rather excited about my accommodations for the first few days in Tokyo: a capsule hotel near Kinshicho station. Sleeping in a 2m x 1m x 1m capsule is not nearly as bad as it sounds, and compared to bunk beds in a hostel, the privacy is amazing. But thats where the privacy ends, Im afraid, as the baths are communal. Ive already seen 3 fully naked Japanese men and I've only been in Tokyo for less than a day. If I stay in the capsule hotel the whole ten days, that would be upwards of 30 naked Japanese men at this rate. That's just...way too many.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I've seen quite a few bizarre ads over the course of the trip, but none as disturbing (to me) as some of the plastic surgery ads Ive seen on the metro in Seoul. They aren't gory by any means, but they say a lot about the kind of beauty desired in Korea and even China. I have a photo of one that shows a before and after of a young woman, where the overall goal is a 'westernizing' of her asian features. Surgeries will round out the eyes, puff up the cheekbones and forehead, narrow the nose, and even adjust the jawline. The result is eerie and almost cartoonish.

In India, I saw many ads selling skin whitening creams, which would detail specific problem spots that the ads said all Indians should be aware of, such as the darkening of the skin under the eyes. Luckily for them, Oil of Olay has a new product called, seriously, White. It doesn't get any clearer than that, does it. The Chinese also have a preoccupation with pale white skin, similarly to Victorian England, I suppose, where the wealthy spent all day inside instead of tending fields, so pale skin was a sign of affluence.

I wonder if these countries will experience the shift in thinking the West has in regards to skin tone, where now tan is the sign of affluence, or is at least a sort of prescribed beauty. When the majority of the population works inside and starts to pale, will the Jersey tan become the Shanghai tan? It's just interesting to note how ideas of beauty seem to revolve around the unattainable in many cases, and different cultures pursue completely opposite ideals. Do these cultures simply pursue the rarer combinations as their ideal? Where white skin prevails, is darker seen as more beautiful because it is seen less, and vice versa?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I've been debating how to sum up my thoughts on Seoul, mostly because I'm torn on how I feel about it. On the one hand, it's a very modern, clean city with excellent public transportation and outstanding public parks and amenities. The city itself is just massive; it spreads out as far as the eye can see, only to be lost in haze the higher your viewpoint. It reminds me at times of Tokyo, which is also a low-rise high-density city (and an amazing one at that).

But at the same time, it seems so generic and even-handed, it's almost boring? Surely not. That is an outrageous claim, I think, considering that Seoul is one of the worlds largest megacities (second only to Tokyo). Partly to blame are the previous cities I've visited, where the juxtapositions between the old/new, rich/poor, etc., were so stark, whereas in Seoul, everything is consistently highly-developed. It just seems to lack the vitality one feels wandering around the narrow streets of Hong Kong, or through the alleys of Shanghai. It's like a megacity on mute. I'm not exactly sure how to describe it beyond that.

Even the shopping malls and markets reach a certain genericness. After visiting several electronics markets and malls, you can't help but notice the repetition of stores, prices, vendors. The venues change, but the goods remain the same. In TechnoMart, the camera shops were literally selling the same things, only 5 feet from each other.Floors and floors of the same shops and displays. The monotony of like goods is something I've experienced in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but with far more variation.

Now, this shouldn't detract from Seoul as a city by any means, because it really is impressive in many ways. Seoul is probably the safest city I've visited thus far. The people I've met are extremely helpful and courteous. The food is seriously good. And I can't stress enough how great the public amenities are. Public parks can be found all over the city, many connected by bike and walking trails to the waterfront. The cycling culture and trails in Seoul must put almost all other cities to shame (though perhaps not Amsterdam, where I saw multilevel parking garages for bicycles), as I have rarely seen more cyclists anywhere else. I saw literally hundreds of cyclists tonight along the waterfront, which is a veritable highway for bicycles.

Personal fitness seems to be the national pastime. Every park is equipped with exercise equipment, though in stark contrast to the US, it is all in great shape and in constant use. Nowhere else in the world will you see this many 80-year-olds swinging around on elliptical trainers. Soccer-tennis (which was new to me) seems to be the game of choice for the 30-something crowd.

Anyways, more to come shortly...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

It's surprising how quickly you can become accustomed to a new city. The first few days are bewildering, but then you settle into some sort of routine. In each place, you start to appropriate things as your own as you become more comfortable. This is my metro stop; that is my chair in the lobby; the shower stall in the corner, mine; that is my street; my barber. It almost makes moving onto the next city hard, as you can easily imagine spending another week further exploring the current city.

At this point, I am right in the middle of that transition between Shanghai and Seoul. Shanghai had a tough break coming after Hong Kong, but as I mentioned, after three days, I was settled and approaching the city on its terms, with Hong Kong left behind. And I was glad for it, as Shanghai provided some uniquely Chinese experiences I think would be harder to find in Hong Kong.

Part of these experiences revolve around the rapid urban transformations taking place all over China and in which Shanghai acts as one small example. Most spectacular were the juxtapositions between the older village-like developments amidst the towering high rises just across the street (many still under construction). Many parts of Shanghai are currently a hybrid of the older Chinese planning and the more recent building boom where larger and taller buildings reign supreme. The dark and narrow alleys are now giving way to wider multilane avenues with soaring towers. This is very obvious just by visiting opposite sides of the river; Puxi (the older) and Pudong (the newer).

Puxi was the more exciting because it is the densely populated and established part of the city. Visiting the various markets and traversing many a dark alley, Puxi is where Shanghai is at its most exciting. One of the most interesting markets was the Bird, Insect, and Flower market, where I saw an awesome variety of crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms, fish, birds, and kittens for sale. The whole place was abuzz with crickets as we wove our ways through bird cages and fish tanks, while the sellers huddled inside their shops under air conditioners. A few blocks away we found the antique market, where I saw more Mao statues than Buddhas. Across the street from the antiques market, I ate grilled squid, chicken hearts, and gigantic jalapenos, all on a stick (I was hoping to find scorpions, also on a stick, but didnt come across any).

Pudong is almost a different world. Just 20 years ago, it was farmland and warehouses. Today, it is the financial center of China in many ways, and home to the worlds third tallest building, the
Shanghai World Financial Center. Walking outward from the main hub of Pudong led me to the more recent developments, which were the emptiest (and some of the largest) streets I have seen in China thus far. Its certainly a different Shanghai than you would find in Puxi: brand new and desolate. Not for long though.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010