Friday, February 25, 2011

Week 18 in Japan

Hello everyone, hope this message finds you well in your part of the world! The last couple of weeks for us have been hectic, busy, and filled with lots of great traveling. As some of you know, we just returned to Shanghai from our mandatory visa leave, during which we spent nine days in different parts of Japan. Neither of us had been to Japan before, so it was great to share the experience together. If it were possible to sum the entire trip up in one word, it would be awesome. In fact, totally awesome. A big reason that our trip was so enjoyable is that we had a couple of friends show us around, which allowed us to do and see more than if we had been on our own. Knowing how to get around, what attractions to see, and finding good places to eat would have taken up a lot of our time, so having a personal guide really made things easier and less stressful. We want to give a big thanks to Frank and Debbie for all of their gracious hospitality, we can't wait to reciprocate the gesture when you come to Shanghai.

One of the best parts of the whole trip was being around some of the most kind, polite, and hospitable people in the world -- the Japanese. Within a few hours after landing in Nagoya, we had an experience that summed it all up. We were standing in line waiting to buy a ticket for the subway. When we got up to the kiosk to purchase our ticket, we were having a bit of trouble learning the new system, though we were trying hard to act like locals, haha. Just when we were about out of ideas on how to buy a ticket, a guy who was patiently waiting behind us (picking up on our confused and disoriented button-pushing) asked in a soft voice if he could possibly help. Luckily, we found the correct route just as he was asking, but the gesture was a stark contrast from what we have become used to in the past four months -- since that guy would have cut in front of us and been on the train already if we were in China.

There were other pleasing differences, too. For example, smoking is highly restricted in Japan, and even outside on the streets there are designated smoking areas (i.e., in many places you cannot walk down a public street smoking a cigarette). People are also very orderly and, for the most part, heed traffic, pedestrian, and subway rules. We were in Tokyo's most famous intersection in Shibuya, which is similar to Manhattan's Times Square, and it was really interesting to see people flood the intersection when the light turned green. Yet, when the light turned red, no one crossed. Another major difference we noticed was that Japanese people, much like Americans, respect one's personal space, and don't insist on shoving and cramming themselves against each other. Not only did this come in handy when we were standing in lines for the subway, but when we got on it seemed like people would rather wait for the next train than force themselves into a full car.

Lastly, and I hope this doesn't sound too wonky, but I was really impressed with how efficient things are in Japan. I've always heard that the Japanese are legendary for their efficiency (i.e., automobiles, living spaces, work productivity, etc.), but watching people throw away their trash was a real eye-opener for someone who's been in China for the last few months. There are many different types of trash containers put out in public places, and some of the categories include: plastic -- which can be further classified into cups, bottles, and "pet" (which are odd plastic shapes), glass, burnable, non-burnable trash, and "other". It wasn't the different types of disposable containers that impressed me, but rather it was seeing people take the time to separate their trash into these bins while rushing to catch the subway. Someone running out of Starbucks would dump their remaining iced coffee in one bin, put their cup in a second bin, plastic fork in a third bin, and then napkins in the burnable bin!

Our first stop was in Nagoya, a city in central Japan. Shortly after unloading our bags we were treated to a Yakiniku dinner, which is the Japanese term for "grilled meat". Some of you may have heard good things about Japanese beef and, let me just confirm, all of the rumors are true. The meat was unbelievably tasty, and being able to grill it ourselves at the table was a lot of fun. Definitely a great way to start off our trip. While in Nagoya, we had a chance to check out some of the city's featured tourist venues, such as the Toyota Automobile Museum and Nagoya Castle. Nagoya Castle was pretty sweet, because it was constructed in 1612 for the brother of a Tokugawa Shogun. Our friend Frank knows a great deal about the Tokugawa Shoguns so it was a pleasure to have him along to help explain things. The castle has a long history but, in addition to serving as a residence, it also secured an important position along the Tokaido Highway. The Toyota Automobile Museum was another cool experience, although we didn't really have much time to go through the museum. If I had a chance to go back to Nagoya, however, I would definitely want to spend more time there.

Because it's so close to Nagoya, we decided to spend a day in Kyoto. Truth be told, I wished we would have spent much more time there. As the former Imperial Capital (i.e., home to the Japanese Emperor), Kyoto's history runs deep and it is considered as the center of Japanese culture. It was cold the day we went, but that actually turned out to be a blessing because we were able to see some of the most spectacular sites under a blanket of snow. Throughout the day we were able to see a few really great attractions, most notably the Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizu-dera Temple (adopted by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage List), and Nijo Castle. Nijo Castle was the most fascinating for me, because I was walking around the palace grounds imagining the Shogun's Samurai fighting with swords and stuff. Anyways, Kyoto is definitely a place that I plan to visit at least once more in my lifetime.

Tiffany wanted to say a little more about the train we took from Kyoto to Tokyo: The Japan bullet train, otherwise known as the Shinkansen, is famous all over the world.  Many countries, including the United States, have completed or are trying to copy Japan’s train system and technology.  The Shinkansen runs to all the major cities and is still expanding to reach more areas of Japan.  The train runs up to 10 times per hour between Osaka and Tokyo, and carries around 151 million people per year.  So we were so excited to get an opportunity to ride the train quite a few times while we were in Japan.  We used the Shinkansen for transportation between Nagoya, Kyoto, and Tokyo, but the train ride between Nagoya and Tokyo was the one we were most excited about.  The two cities are around five hours apart by car. However, by train we were able to make in there in less than two hours (while sleeping almost the whole way!).  The trains are really clean inside and the seats are unbelievably comfortable, as compared to just about any other mode of transportation. Throughout our ride I was very excited to not only be riding the famous bullet train and going to Tokyo, but most of all: Going to Disneyland!  Tokyo Disneyland was the last Disney Park in the world I had not been to and the anticipation was incredible.  When we finally got there, let’s just say, it lived up to all the hype and even more. We had such an amazing time.

So now we're back in China and settling into things here. Just a quick update on our electric bill, since Tiffany talked about it a couple weeks ago. To recap, our bill for the first couple of months was around 150-250RMB ($20-$35). In January, however, we received a bill for 600RMB, and then started wondering if one of our neighbors might be borrowing some of our electricity; you know, like borrowing a cup of sugar. Well, we just got a new bill for February, and it was over 1000RMB, even though we've consumed pretty much the same amount of electricity since we got here!!! To add something new to the equation, Tiffany has a couple of potted plants that she keeps outside of our front door. When we returned from Japan, we noticed that one of our plants was missing the bottom piece from it's pot. Seeing that our closest neighbor has a few plants on their stoop, we went over to see if they had accidentally reached into our locked gate and picked up the bottom piece of our pot. Sure enough, it was under one of their plants (it's a noticeable piece, definitely ours). Hmmm, I'll keep you all posted as the electric bill saga unfolds. Until next week, take care!

Things To Do in Shanghai

Get your Hair Dyed Gray
A blonde friend of mine recently went to the hair salon to get her hair re-dyed as her roots were starting to show a bit. Being a new expat, she wasn’t sure where to go so she walked the streets until she found a salon where she saw other blondes getting their hair done. At this point, she happily made an appointment for the next day.  When she returned to get her hair done the next day she explained to the hairdresser what she wanted done.  When the hairdresser was done, he turned her around in the mirror and she had bright orange hair. The hairdresser realized his mistake and tried it again. However, the second time it came out very fakey blonde yellow. At this point, my friend told them to just make it look natural. So he died it one more time adding “brown”.  As he turned her around the third time, they both realized a big mistake had been made, her hair was GRAY!

The moral of the story is: Ladies, if you’re going to get your hair died in Shanghai, do some research first.  A good place to start is:  Here you can find tips, advice, and great places to go for all the things ladies need: hairdos, waxing, mannies and peddies, etc.

Maybe It's Just Me

I've got a piece of advice for anyone thinking of going to Tokyo, particularly if you want to eat: Save your money! If any of you has ever bought food at a theme park, concert, theater, or sporting event, you understand what's it's like to feel the sharp pain of being gouged at every food stand you visit. I've been to Dodger Stadium enough times to know (and willingly accept) that I'm being used when I pay $10 for the "foot-long" Dodger dog that comes on a soggy bun (right, Nads and Jbeck?). But seriously, after spending four days in Tokyo, I feel about as used as an '89 Honda.

The night we arrived in Tokyo we decided to have a nice dinner at a swanky little joint in the Ginza District (shout out to Gary, because it was swanky). The prices were a bit high, so we decided to order a couple of pasta dishes and salads to share. I ordered the Ravioli, which cost about $15-$20. Because we were sharing, the chef was nice enough to put the order on two plates for us. When it came out, there were three Raviolis (1 square inch in size) on each of our plates. I looked at the plate and started laughing, just before I thought about going to McDonald's after we were finished.

A couple nights later, we were tired after a long day at Disneyland, so we decided to try our luck and go out to dinner in a different part of town. We settled on a chain called Pronto, and started off by ordering a cheese plate (one of our favorite things to eat and is not easily found in China). When it came to our table, the plate had six chunks of exotic cheese, and six tiny Saltine crackers as a pairing. I thought it was a little odd that they would serve nice cheese with Saltine crackers, but I thought it was even odder that they only brought six. I asked for more crackers and the waitress, who didn't speak great English, walked away and started a discussion with three of her co-workers. She came back and showed me a text message from her iPhone which read, "crackers alone cannot be done." After Tiffany said, "No, really, it can be done", she told us it would cost us $2 for her to bring us more. After she brought us six more small crackers, I seriously considered walking to the 7-11 next door (maybe 30' away) to purchase an entire box of crackers. Instead, I took a second look at our $15 cheese plate and silently asked myself, "Is it just me, or do people here really eat like this?"

1 comment:

  1. Auntie Loie really enjoyed this Michael. I'm so happy that you two can have this wonderful experience. Love you,Auntie Loie