Thursday, March 18, 2010

Quite Enough of a Good Thing

Hi readers—I began this post back in Japan (in fact, early in Japan), and I am back home now, sitting by the fireplace in the living room at 3:30am, wide awake and starving, because my body seems to think it's 7:30 at night, and where is my fish for the evening??? I'm not allowed to eat anything, however, because I have to go to the hospital at 6:00am to begin proceedings for my Gamma Knife event later today. More on that sometime soon over on I Thought I Was Done With This.


Ian and I and J, Ian's work partner and, slightly, boss on this expedition, were met on arrival at Narita airport by Y, one of the people who would be taking the course. This was quite a relief, as all I could see in my jet-lagged state (it's not just the hours of time difference [7; now 8 because of Daylight Savings back home]; it's definitely the hours in the air as well [10]), were Japanese symbols and black-haired people, and that gave me really no clue as to how we were supposed to get to our hotel, which I hadn't paid any attention to, and which Ian remembered wrong. Anyway, we were whizzed through crowds and down hallways and between other travelers. Ian and J were each handed a large envelope of cash—their travel per diems, and food per diems (that saved us the hassle of immediately having to locate an ATM that would work with American banks—many don't)—and then we stopped briefly and bought tickets.

We found ourselves in reserved seats on a train to Yokohama central, switched to a different train and went one stop further to Sakuragicho station, were ushered through the purchasing of Suica cards so we didn't have to buy individual train tickets anymore, and then led out of the station, up an outside escalator, past a Starbucks and into our hotel. We were met by K, a colleague of Y's, who was also staying in the hotel (they both work in labs in other parts of Japan), and the two invited us to dinner. They treated all three of us to dinner that night, and indeed we were treated to dinner the next night as well, and the next night as well. The four-pack of Theo chocolates and the colorful fish-themed magnet that we'd brought for each Y and K started to seem embarrassingly small. We'd been warned about the lavish hospitality of the Japanese, but had way underestimated it.

I will say this: the second two dinners were attended by most of the students in the course, and so 11 people dividing the cost of feeding 14 wasn't quite so bad, but still. We were quite relieved when we were finally allowed to start paying for some of our own sustenance.

The trip up to Kushiro in Hokkaido was equally well-managed, with one exception. Although the train did run from Yokohama to Haneda, the main domestic airport, an airport bus was deemed quicker. We were herded onto the train for one stop from Sakuragicho back to Yokohama Central, then ushered at a fast clip through the station and out a back door where we got into a snaking line. A bus pulled up and the line started moving—not terribly fast, but no hesitation, ever, to allow you to catch your breath. In moments our bags had been taken from us and stowed under the bus and we'd boarded, scanning our Suica cards on the way. Our guides had headed straight for the back, and Ian, who could see farther than me, paused to look around, to see if maybe there were seats together that he'd missed. "No, no, there are two across the aisle from each other back there; go, go!" I hustled him along, caught up in the rush.

We took the two seats, a couple people came back and took the last two just behind us, and people kept coming back. They didn't stand, however: when the last permanent seat was taken, the person grabbed a folded seat from the side of one of the seatbacks and unfolded it into the aisle. He sat down. The next person unfolded the next seat and sat. Then a woman next to us. Flap-flap-flap-flap-flap the rest of the aisle filled up and we were on our way.

When we arrived at the airport, 45 minutes before our flight was due to take off, Y & K headed immediately for baggage check. Here is where their incredibly efficient system broke down.

I had an itinerary from Orbitz, but I did not have a ticket or a seat assignment. When we followed them to baggage check, we were turned away. At least, I was, and Ian, being the gentle and responsible spouse that he is, came with me. We got into a line of people waiting for Ticketing instead, K, joining us to make sure the language barrier didn't slow things down, because at this point we had about 30 minutes before our flight was due to take off. K assured us that going to the gate 15 minutes before was sufficient, and I chose not to worry about it. It wasn't my fault that no one had checked to make sure all the cogs were well-oiled and ready to roll.

Anyway, I was very glad to arrive in Hokkaido where it seemed that things didn't need to be quite so efficient.


And now I am going to head to bed, in the hopes that I'll be able to sleep for an hour and a half, and ignore this aching maw of a belly.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Trouble With Tempura

The hotels where we've been staying serve a buffet breakfast, a combination of Japanese breakfast foods and Western breakfast foods. The Japanese options are the same as for all the other meals—a large bowl of beautiful, glistening, translucent salmon eggs, various unidentifiable pickles, various fishes, and miso soup. The Western options include scrambled eggs, some sort of salty meat and some sort of potato (in La Vista, where we are right now in Kushiro, they're mini hot dogs and tater tots and fries), and a nominal amount of cornflakes. In La Vista, there has also been a big plate of onion rings. Not really being an onion-ring-for-breakfast gal, I had avoided them up until this morning, when I thought "why not add one to my miso and hot dogs?" Here is the ensuing conversation:

Ian: "How's that onion ring?"

Me: "It's squid. I'm ready to go home."

Friday, March 12, 2010

When In Rome . . .

I'm perched in my window on the 9th floor of the lovely La Vista Spa Resort Hotel in Kushira, Hokkaido. We were told it might be colder on Hokkaido and, indeed, it is. The snow that dampened and entertained us in Yokohama fell here in shovelsful—maybe a foot and a half—and so it's like we've gone back in time to winter. The only dirty cars we've seen yet in Japan have been here; even the only dirty streets. Walking around in Tokyo last night felt like walking around a soundstage. I was thinking Tokyo Disney at first, but there's no way they could keep that density of family revelers as clean as those regular city streets. Nevertheless, the snow is pretty pristine white, possibly because this is a booming metropolis of a mere 200,000 people, so only about 1/77th the size of the greater Tokyo-Yokohama area. And we drove through acres of pristine forest, with nary a visitor around. And bears live here—evidently lots of them. You have to be just as careful camping in the summers, and hiking around in the fall when they're preparing for the long sleeps, and in the spring when they are RAVENOUS, as you do in the Olympics and other parts of the northwest.

Anyway, while I appreciate the insane attention to detail that allows Tokyo to run as effortlessly smoothly as it does, I'm happy to be in an environment where the less-refined character of my cog isn't an imposition on the Greater Order. There's not a lot of space in the Tokyo system for the imperfection that appeases Allah. They'd better watch it.

Anyway, this is actually going to be a post about food. A favorite phrase of Mom's when we were kids was "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." This saved our necks on more than one occasion during our first visit to Italy when I was 12 or 13, and we found that the only safe way to get from one side to the other of careening motocross racers barreling around the roundabouts (why slow down? There are no corners!), was to cling bodily to a Roman, preferably a Roman nun, and take every step exactly as she took hers. Mom was mostly referring to food, though, and mostly not Roman food, because who has trouble with tomato-y, garlicky and oregano-y Italian?

Japan, however, has the potential to be difficult. I used to assume myself to be an adventuresome eater; that is really not the case. I haven't yet learned to embrace my chickenshittedness however, with all the love and acceptance that I believe it yearns for, and so I am glad that I can legitimately claim to be allergic to at least one shellfish—crab—and therefore bring all other shellfish along for the ride, even, in a pinch, bivalves or the suckery part of cephalopods. This saves me from things like shrimp and all its relatives, both large and small (although the teeny ones the Thais put in Pad Thai I manage to swallow down with the delicious, delicious everything else the Thais put in it), and any squidgy things that I can't bring myself to put in my mouth (Ian's and my bargain for Japan was that he would eat all the squidgy things while I would sing all the Karaoke. So far, only his side of the bargain has had to be held up.).

Even that moderately substantial category, however, has protected me hardly at all from an enthusiastic introduction to many, many new things.

Actually, this has been fantastic. For our first three nights in Yokohama, we were taken to dinner by groups of people. The very first night, exhausted and dazzled and bemused by 10 hours of flying time and the utter foreignness of the place we found ourselves, we were glad to find that we were eating at one of the restaurants at our hotel. It was one of those tables set close to the floor so you take off your shoes, but thankfully one that was actually set in a well in the floor so your legs didn't take leave of you in crossed numbness by the end of the evening. We ate some skewers of meaty things, some daikon pickle, some beer, some sake that was poured from a large bottle into a little pitcher until the pitcher overflowed, filling the first cup which was perfectly placed under the spout. Very theatrical. There were bits of sashimi—including horse sashimi which is, yes, raw horse—pickled quail eggs, some tempura vegetables, maybe salad, some fatty bits of smoked pork belly . . . maybe only the horse that I patted myself on the back for trying.

The next night was a festal meal, though—several of the people who had been attending the course also came to dinner bringing us to 13 in number—and the beer flowed, the sake flowed, and boy oh boy did the fish flow. I will say this: having a meal with 13 people is the way to do it in Japan. We must have had almost 20 different things served to us over the course of 2 or 3 hours, and it was all interesting, and much of it I liked a lot, and only some of it was hard to keep down, and I think there were only two things I didn't try, over legitimate concern for my health. One might imagine that one of those things would've been the chicken sashimi—yes, I just wrote that—but no, the chicken sashimi I ate.

I will say this—all the writing about food is making me hungry—and making me realize that, before I go on, I'll simply have to switch formats. Check back in a day or so for the link to a picasa site devoted to our Japanese meals. Expect detailed captions.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bathroom Instructions and Admonishments

It IS good for drinking.

I know this looks like a towel rack, but it's not.

Caution: this is not a Third World Country.

There must be some warning we can make about the shampoo . . . (and they were successful)

Yes, but does it flush?

Careful now, a baby can drown in two inches of water. And a turkey can drown in a rainstorm!
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The Opposite Vacation from the Last One

Yokohama, a city of over 3 million inhabitants (that is, 7 times as many people as live in the country of Cabo Verde as a whole), is cold (it snowed Tuesday night), flat, full of skyscrapers and electronic heated toilet seats (a very surprising discovery in a random subway station loo) with buttons for washing there if you so wish, has malls and amusement parks on every corner and a 24-hour convenience store (Family Mart) in the hotel lobby, endless channels of TV, a ridiculously extravagant consumer culture (judging from the mall I wandered in for a bit yesterday morning when it was still raining), and is part of possibly the vastest, most elaborate train and subway network in the world. A few years ago Ian and I were driving around Scotland, and when we approached Aberdeen near the end of our trip, Ian, who was navigating, described the knot of roads around the city center as a "spaghetti of lines." Talk about a spaghetti of lines. And the fish is served raw.

I'm enjoying wandering around here, getting the traditional Anglophone's chuckle over some of the names: Pocari Sweat for an energy drink; Booze CafĂ© for the restaurant at one of the amusement parks. My first, travel-weary impression of the place, rushing through a crowded train station in the early evening on Monday, was monochromatic, or maybe slightly dichromatic—a population of fair-skinned people with brown eyes and black hair, 95% of whom seem to wear all black to work. Looking out the 22nd story hotel room window in the morning, I'm struck by the sameness of all the hurrying forms, coming and going from the train station at the base of our home. Up close, color announces itself better—some puffy coats are beige or dark green, or even occasionally red or orange. And everyone carries an umbrella, and when those are up, the palette changes considerably.

It's obvious that efficiency is highly valued here—everything works like regularly oiled clockwork, things and people alike. Fans are quiet, the bathroom water is hot almost instantly here on the 22nd floor, or cold almost instantly if you want to drink it. "GOOD FOR DRINKING" says the sign above the sink, so you don't need to ask if it's okay. And it is good for drinking. All the lights in the room have switches between the two twin beds—and all the lights work. People move through the subways at the same fast clip, not even slowing to enter or leave the ticket gates, their Suica subway passes in hand by the time they arrive. To keep the flow of humanity moving, the gates stand open, and only close if you don't have enough money left on your pass to pay the fare. If this is the case, there is a "Fare Adjustment" machine in the wall just next to the exit. People are polite and they wait in line, and wait for the walk symbol when crossing the street—there is no unnecessary rush—but everyone moves with purpose, always, keeping time-wasting to a minimum. The "door close" button is used every time we ride the elevator.

We are cautioned or apologized to about many things in our hotel room: "NEVER HANG TOWELS OR CLOTHES ON LIGHTING EQUIPMENT. DOING SO COULD CAUSE FIRE," or "Please refrain from smoking in bed." I had left an inch of water in our bedroom hot pot yesterday morning, and when the room was cleaned, a notice was left:

    "Dear Guest.

We trust you are having a comfortable stay with us, however we would like to deeply apologize for hotel regulations that require us not to handle any cups, glasses and a pot with liquid inside. This is in case if there is a contact lense or its chemical inside the riquid. if there is any questions.

    Please contact the front desk, and we will deliver new glasses and cups.

    Thank you for your co-oporation.

                        HOUSE KEEPING"

This care, and yet, the hot pot is heated to boiling on a hot plate built into the desk next to the television. And because of the great technology involved, every toilet has an electrical outlet right next to it. Not the habit of plumbing/electrical wiring that we are in back home.

At any rate, I'm having an awesome, if bemusing, time wandering around and just drinking in the foreignness of it. I walked through town yesterday afternoon for a couple hours, searching for a shrine that I'd seen on a map. There are location maps posted regularly throughout the area, so I could check where I was from time to time. The maps aren't oriented N/S, though, but rather in the direction you are facing, which takes some getting used to. Also, we're on the eastern side of this island and so the water is to the east, not the west, and I've had to flip my mental map. I eventually found the shrine, and it was beautiful and strange and not at all what one would expect five minutes' walk from the tallest building in Japan, but it took me the better part of an hour and half. I mean, I couldn't even tell where to look for a street sign, let alone how to read it. Anyway, by the time I got back to the hotel, I WAS STARVING TO DEATH. Dizzy with hunger from the sheer density of stimulation.

And now I get to go and do it all again!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Link to Pictures

That should get you to all the recent trip photos.

Next up: Japan!

A Quick Reckoning Before We Leave for the Fifth Continent in Six Months

In no particular order:

10 flights in 3 weeks is a lot of time in the air, and almost as much time in airports. They took my picture on the way to Guernsey (which is not legally a full-on part of the UK although they accept the Pound Sterling . . . and give you change in Guernsey pounds which are only accepted in—you guessed it—Guernsey [or banks—thanks A&F for being my last-minute bank]). Also on the way to Guernsey, I sat next to a hot young kid who, it turns out, was a rugby player coming in to help the Guernsey team in some game the next night—his name was in the Guernsey paper we all received when we sat down. I later saw him stuffing the paper into his duffle bag, a slightly embarrassed grin on his face.

The last day in Cabo Verde we wandered around the Sucupira Market, which is quite pleasingly Third World with its warren of stalls and vendors selling cheap and/or used clothes, shoes and flip flops, African cloth, tools and housewares and personal care supplies, and also services—a tailor, a cobbler, hairdressers. Somewhere in the middle I stepped on a little round-headed thumbtack, which came right into the bottom of my Keens sandals and poked, only enough to be annoying but not enough to break the skin, whenever I took a step. We left the market and sat down in the shade on a curb somewhere and tried to pry it out. A young Cabo Verdean came by and peeked at what we were doing; when he saw the tack, he jumped to concerned action, grabbing my sandal and loping off to a guy in a shop who had a key or something that wedged out the tack. I am embarrassed to admit that I was momentarily worried when he ran off with my shoe that he would keep it and I would have only one shoe . . . but then I realized that he, too, would have only one shoe, and a nasty, dirty, slimy, smelly, much-hiked-in one at that. In fact, I was lucky he didn't pass out from the sheer disgustingness before he was able to get it back to me, repaired and again very comfortable.

The one night we had in Lisbon happened to be a Saturday, and we had dinner at a small restaurant in the Alfama (one of the neighborhoods, charming, cobbled streets, I'd never actually been to this part of town before), at a restaurant where they happened to have live Fado, which is a uniquely Portuguese variety of music with guitar and singers, evoking soulful wistfulness and longing. The owner of the restaurant was a mostly jolly man who argued a lot with his wife, who seemed to be the one chef as he was the one server, but treated his patrons with friendly congeniality. At one point he went racing outside; a couple minutes later he came back with fresh rolls—so fresh that the one he threw at me on his way back to the kitchen ("no charge!") seared my fingers. I juggled it back and forth and pulled off hunks—the crisp crust and the moist, pillowy insides were the BEST. BREAD. EVER.

My hotel room in the Lincoln House Hotel in London: An awesome feat of engineering. The room was about 8 feet wide and maybe 12 feet long and included a double bed with fancy pillows, a desk, a coffee/tea/hot cocoa station with an electric kettle, a giant wardrobe, a sink, a miniature toilet-shower pod which appeared to be a boat bathroom cased in with wallboard, and a teeny fridge the size of a six-pack cooler. The bed was built purposely high so that you could store your luggage underneath. Very efficient. And only about $140 for a night.

Reading Winnie the Witch with six-year-old B: "Let's read Winnie," she says. "There are six stories in this book," I say. "Which one do you want?" "ALL of them!" says B, and that's what we read.

Sharing my Tarot cards (with parental support) with nine-year-old C, B's older sister. She may be a psychic in the making!

Hanging out at my home away from home in Portugal, with B and C and their parents, and cooking Gordon Ramsey's chocolate fondant cakes. YUM.

Hanging out in Tunbridge Wells with other old friends and their two boys—almost two and just three weeks—both of whom I got to meet for the first time. And such tasty home-cooked meals! And the bathroom at my B&B . . . which was large and comfortable and had a tub and a shower and a wall-length radiator-towel bar that I hung all my clothes on before I put them on in the morning (it was COLD in England, snowing almost every day I was there), but, strangely, not a single electrical outlet. The house wasn't that old, and there were lights in the bathroom—well, one light, connected to a loud, loud fan that didn't go off for 15 minutes after you turned off the light so I only turned on the light once the whole time I stayed there—but no outlets. Very strange.

Aside from in Cabo Verde, where I didn't check, free WiFi everywhere we stayed. It was all secured, though—in fact, all the WiFi my computer picked up on anywhere was secured. This was a BIG change from our 2007 trip, where pretty much nowhere had secured their wireless.

And, every stranger I encountered, anywhere, for any reason: friendly, talkative, nice. I don't remember people being outright rude to us in 2007 when we spent four months traveling in Europe, near the tail end of Bush's presidency, but now they are nice. Obama may not be the magician people were hoping for, but the fact of him is a huge boon to the image of Americans outside our country.