Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back in China

This is a great wall and only a great people with a great past could have a great wall and such a great people with such a great wall will surely have a great future.
--Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon

"So," I said to the Hungarian economist next to me, "We're sitting in a van, drinking beer, after we jut ziplined over a river from the top of the Great Wall of China. Life's good, huh?"

"As long as we survive." He replied.

He had a point. Our van's driver was swerving back and forth between the only two lanes available to him: the lane of oncoming traffic, and a construction site. Neither of the two cop cars we passed even slowed down. We spent about half an hour doing this without stopping. I'd seen scarier driving, but none quite this skilled.

I'd spent the day hiking up and down the stairs of the great wall with three Hungarians, a Frenchman, and a Finn. We covered only about 10km of the 6,400km length. So I can't speak for the whole thing. But I wasn't expecting it to be so... steep. When I pictured the Great Wall as a kid, I pictured a long, flat stone wall in the desert. What I didn't realize is that, near Beijing at least, the wall runs along to top of a mountain range, running up and down and side to side so sharply, that two members of the team had to drop out of the hike early on because of vertigo. We went from Jinshanling to Simitai sections, some of it in perfectly restored condition, other parts that had us scrambling down crumbling bricks thousands of years old. I made a couple friends out of vendors with my pidgin Chinese and having bought too many apples for snacks.

The highlight wasn't even something I'd planned on doing at first. When someone told me about a zipline from the wall to the ground, I pictured a cheesy twenty-foot cable over a stream to a car park. I did not picture a massive cable running over a river gorge with stunning views of the mountains and great wall spreading out on either side.

That was before the crazy driving. Well, the crazier driving. I dozed off during the ride over and woke up to see us barreling toward an 18 wheeler in the oncoming traffic lane. I didn't fall asleep again after that.

I went the extra distance to try to avoid the sections of the wall that everybody else goes to. I wasn't trying to be non-conformist, I just had seen what unruly mob that is Beijing tourism can be in the Forbidden City and the Heavenly Temple, and decided I didn't want to spend all day being pushed and shoved out of the way for photo ops. I command some respect because of my size, but I saw a father with a kid on his shoulders practically knock a Spanish woman to the ground without even looking at her, just in the course of walking from one spot to the next.

So after checking off the parts of the tourist checklist in town that I was most interested in, I started looking for slightly more out of the way places. I noticed something on my map that said "798 Art District" and a can of paintbrushes next to an intersection. So I hopped on a bus to check it out.

Turns out 798 is a new area that used to be factories. The factories have been gutted and turned into art galleries and studios. Walking between the newly cleaned smokestacks, you find enormous statues of all kinds. And inside some of the buildings, between the artists cafes and coffee shops, the paintings in particular are striking. Because of government censorship of media and the internet, I expected the local art scene to feel stifled. But it doesn't. I never saw anything in outright rebellion against the government, but a few things I saw about, for example, Vietnam and the war there, surprised me. I came back the next day just to see more. There's a big event happening this coming week which I'm going to want to check out with the time I have left.

That time is running short. I'm now on a deadline. I have less than one month to make it from Beijing, China, to Munich, Germany. That's most of Eurasia in less than one month. Yes I could fly, but that's expensive and you don't see much except clouds. So I've set my sights on the grandaddy of all train journeys: the Trans-Siberian Railway. This means a Russian visa. That means the Russian embassy in Beijing. This means three visits (four after tomorrow) to a heavily fortified piece of soviet architecture with heavy local police presence, a lot of bureaucracy, and, oddly enough, a pet pair of chickens and a turkey. Don't ask, I don't know either.

So I've been in town for a while. I spent last night being shown around Wangfujing district, a part of Beijing that was torn down because it was antiquated, then rebuilt to look like "old Beijing" Sort of. The massive malls and designer shops kinda threw the image a bit, but it didn't stop the street vendors from selling everything from starfish on a stick, to still-wriggling-scorpion-skewers. One bite of lamb's head soup was enough for both me, and my friend showing me around the place. As she put it, it tasted like rubber bands. As we looked around the shops, stalls, tourists, and the family having their photo taken in front of the neon-lit bookstore, she turned to me and said "This, I think, is the real China." She was born here, I trust her on the point.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Blur Whizzing by that was Korea

Note: I'm back in China. This means I'm back under the blogging restrictions I was on a few weeks back, and also means I can't access Facebook. Once again, comments on both this blog and Facebook will be emailed to me, but I won't be able to respond. That's why I haven't responded to anybody from the last post anywhere. I may find more temporary ways around this, but I wouldn't count on it. The only ones I found last time only partially worked.

In the temple just outside Tokyo, the Mexican in full kimono lowered his voice and switched to Spanish. "You know the only culture more closed than Japan?" he said. "Korea. Sure, the Japanese are squarish, yeah? They're squares. The Koreans have never known a circle."

I wanted to find out if it was true. And after my fast trip across South Korea, I'm still not sure. It seems like subtlety is not an issue in Korea. Japan has an art of communicating without saying anything. Koreans are direct, and say things directly. So in that sense, it's more open. But at the same time...

Let's put it this way. Confucius was from China. Korea imported Confucianism and practiced it and "purified" it so much that the Chinese started coming to study it there instead of the other way around. That might give you an idea of what kind of culture Korea has.

Everybody knows something about China. Everybody knows something about Japan. If you stick a microphone under a western kid's face and tell him to rattle off things that have something to do with Japan, he'll go from "ninja, samurai, sushi, sumo, anime..." and keep going from there. Same with China, starting with Kung Fu and working one from there. Korea isn't really like that. If you say Korea to the average young westerner, mostly they'll scratch their heads, mention something about a war they don't really remember, bad stuff about nuclear weapons, and a little puppet with glasses running around singing how he's "so ronery inside, arr arone." If they're good, they might mention kimchi, garlic, and an unhealthy obsession with the game Starcraft, but that's about it. Korea doesn't advertise its culture the way its neighbors do.

My view of Korea comes from a week across beaches, up across mist-strewn forested ridge lines, up to the DMZ, from the bottom docks of Busan to a helicopter pad in Seoul. And even after all that, I feel like most of what I know, I know secondhand. The work ethic. The social gender segregation among young people. The history of the country getting kicked where it hurts again and again throughout its known history.

A smattering of things I know firsthand: I know that the Korean rock scene is hard to find, but worth the finding. I went with a pack of English teachers and a geography/language-genius-turned-farmer to a rock festival on the beach. I know the skateboarding is abysmal after watching three skaters ollie down five stairs and eat concrete again and again and again-- only one guy landed on his board and the crowd went nuts. Then there's what Koreans do at the beach. They don't swim. They don't use swimsuits. They run, fully clothed into the water until is at about their waist level. Most of them then fall over. The English teachers said this was pretty standard across the nation (except the falling over part) and that despite being a peninsula surrounded by beautiful beaches, most Koreans they know can't swim, and none of them use bathing suits of any kind.

Actually, while I'm on the subject, let's talk English teachers. In most other countries I've been to, teaching English is for travelers who want to earn some money while abroad, and get a deeper understanding of where they are. You'll find a few almost anywhere. But in Korea, teaching English is for the money. And the country is full of English teachers everywhere. Almost all are White, American or Canadian, and in their early twenties. Racial discrimination in hiring is openly acknowledged here, and I've met Brits and South African teachers who have been asked by employers to disguise or change their accent to be more American (which, let me tell you, they just love to be told). The pay is good, and it usually comes with benefits like an apartment and a bonus at the end of the contract. I asked multiple teachers why they were in Korea. All but one of them told me the exact same thing: there aren't any jobs back home, and this pays.

The main problem, aside from the racial discrimination, is that this means a bunch of Americans and foreigners get shipped out to Korea and suddenly find that, well, they don't much like it. The cultural attitude of unswerving respect for those above you, and the attitude that harmony is considered more important than, say, the written terms of a contract, drive a lot of unprepared westerners kind of nuts. And that just turns their mood sour over everything. Let that be my warning for you all: there are lots of relatively well-paying jobs in South Korea for young (white) English speakers with a year or two to spare. But please, please, please, do not take a job like that until you do your homework on Korea and Korean culture and decide you actually want to spend that kind of time there.

Korea has a lot to offer. I don't have the expertise after spending only a week there (and a good chunk of that with expats) to tell you about it all. I'm just going to touch on one thing I found near the northern border.

The so-called Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, is hardly Demilitarized. North and South Korean troops patrol the area without cease, none crossing the military demarcation line of course, but still maintaining an active, fully armed presence. The last hostile shot was fired back in the 80s. But North Korea has dug multiple tunnels underneath the DMZ well into South Korean territory towards Seoul. The last one was found in the 90s, and they expect to find more.

Yet despite all this, there is one overwhelming theme everywhere I went in or around the DMZ: Unification. The word seems like it's everywhere: Unification Road, Unification Park, Unification Museum, Unification Bridge. South Korea is the only country I've ever been to that doesn't describe itself as a sovereign nation. It's half of a country, painfully divided over the last fifty or so years. Millions of family member have been separated, and in culture which is designed to honor the elders of your family, living and dead, in their proper place, this is a more painful division than it could be just about anywhere else in the world.

The image that will stay with me most was the background image for some writing in a nearby museum exhibit. It was a black and white picture, mostly of coiled razor wire, of the kind they use on the top of the DMZ fences. It's being held in one hand by an old man to his own forehead. He is crying.

I've seen some great beaches, hiked great hills with shrines overlooking beautiful views, seen modern metropolises to match almost anything in Japan or the West, and eaten some good, bad, and, yes, just plain ugly food, but when someone says Korea to me now, I'm going to first think of that old man.

Check out this entry's Photos. Or not. I'm not sure the link is working. Is it? If you comment, I'll see your answer, even if I can't respond.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Travel Tip: Advice from Women Backpackers for Women Backpackers

One of the top two questions I get about backpacking is whether I have any special advice for female travelers, especially solo female backpackers. In case you haven't guessed, I'm missing a critical qualification to answer that question properly. So, I enlisted the help of not one, not two, but three lovely lady backpackers to share advice for women who want to travel. Sonia, Emily, and Sonja have all backpacked through multiple countries and had lots of really good tips for other women who want to do the same.

I've edited one or two of the responses for length, but I left the content as is. You'll see some repeats, but I kept them in since I thought that emphasized how important the tip was, and also because each person had a slightly different, useful take on the idea. Also, since were are talking about sex-specific advice, a few of these things are going below the belt, so if you're squeamish or easily embarrassed by those sort of things... well, I guess you've been warned.

So, in no particular order, here we go:

From Sonia:
1. Remember that while verbal harassment is annoying, it is not necessarily indicative of any actual threat. I had really obscene things shouted at me in India, but I don't think I was ever in any danger (besides from microbes) It's not to say that it's pleasant or you want to put yourself in those situations, but don't add to the unpleasantness by scaring yourself unnecessarily. Many countries are safer - even for women - than the US.

2 Dress appropriately. You will get less unwanted attention (or at least politer attention) if you dress according to the norms of the country. In India for about 7 bucks I bought two sarwal kamis - the very long shirt and pants and shawl. No one was inappropriate towards me in all of my stay in southern India (the north is a different story). The shawl was also nice because it could double as a head cover - either for sun protection or modesty.

3. Look into menstrual cups so you don't have to worry about carrying/ finding your brand of tampons/pads. (They're more environmentally friendly too!)

4. For the 3rd world (and parts of the more developed world): learn how to pee without actually sitting on the seat. If you don't do this before you leave, you'll learn quick. Holding it until you get to a clean toilet is not an option. It's mostly a matter of strengthening your quad muscles.

5. This isn't particularly for women except I think they tend to be lighter sleepers: EAR PLUGS

6. Bring a sarong, it's useful as a skirt, a beach dress, shawl, head cover, an extra blanket, something to change behind/under when privacy is lacking

7. In many countries it's more appropriate for you to approach a woman to ask for help/ directions/ etc... Unfortunately they are less likely to speak English, so it's a bit of a trade off. (Note from Joel: I found in many Latin American countries that women were better for me to ask for directions because they'd to admit it if they didn't know where something was. Some men in cultures where machismo is a big deal would rather point you in the wrong direction than admit not knowing how to get there.)

From Emily,
I think it is interesting to note the difference between solo female travel and female travel with other people. A solo female has a lot more to worry about since she must make her way through foreign lands with an eye out for her own safety.

1) Female travelers (especially solo ones) simply need a little extra $$$. They must have a bit extra money to avoid potentially uncomfortable and dangerous situations as hitch-hiking solo, staying with strangers, to avoid staying in a crummy guesthouse where you simply don't feel safe, taking a taxi at night instead of walking...the little things.

2) Don't put yourself in a situation where you end up being alone in the front seat of a taxi, especially at night. If sharing a cab with other guys, have them drop you off first at your destination. If you must be alone with a cab driver, move to the back seat and don't start overly friendly conversation (esp. at night). Also, make sure the cab driver knows where he's going but don't assume that he does even if he nods and says yes 5 times. Give him/her an address and map and be conscious of the surroundings outside your window.

2) Fake wedding rings...I have one, but haven't really used it. But good to have if you feel it would make a difference in safety in different situations or places. Could steer the creepy older men at the bar away from the younger female backpacker prey. Also good for checking in at cheap hotels so the wrong people don't get the wrong idea.

3) Dress appropriately. COVER UP IN CONSERVATIVE CULTURES. There have been numerous times when I wanted to scream this at other girls sporting midriffs and hot pants and watch as the entire block of local men step out of their shops to stare. Not only does it perpetuate the stereotype that Western woman are easy and sleep around but can bring the wrong advances from not so nice local men.

But ok, it's HOT outside, so stock up on linen and silk clothes before you travel. I have a white silk scarf that I use to cover my shoulders and doesn't add any extra heat in hot weather. When you get to a local culture buy cheap clothes that the locals wear such as long breezy skirts, lightweight pants, etc. Also, in conservative cultures, wear a more conservative swimsuit to the beach. If done right, you shouldn't need to sacrifice style to stay cool and dress appropriately.

Stock up on tampons (preferably the mini ones that fit into the palm of your hand) before leaving home, especially in Asia where they're almost non-existent.

5) After sunset, don't walk by yourself and talk on a cellphone while you walk. Stop walking to receive a call or make a call and resume walking after hanging up. A distracted female is a better target for mugging. Unfortunately this is another one from personal experience but I wasn't mugged, my cellphone was stolen from my hand while I was talking on it and walking. It can happen, so be alert.

6) In hotel rooms, deadbolt doors at night.

If you are caught in a situation walking alone at night, walk confidently, look people in the eye, and be aware of your surroundings to make yourself seem less vulnerable.

From Sonja,
I think my biggest advice is that with a bit of confidence, some awareness of surroundings, and a lot of common sense, traveling can be great for single women. I think there is a lot of fear about traveling solo for women, and some of it is justifiable and some of it is not, but overall just having some safe practices will take care of you.

The first thing I'd say is know the country you're in and what the views on women are. Many cultures may see a single woman traveling as reflective not just on her morals but her families - how could your brother/father/husband let you go out on your own!! In other circumstances, it may be just fine that you're traveling alone, but you'll have to deal with cat calls. The bottom line is that almost all countries agree that there is a line where harrassing a woman is absolutely deplorable/despicable. Before going anywhere, try to understand their views on women, and use that knowledge to your advantage. For example, when I rode a bus alone in one culture that believed that one of my male relatives ought to be by my side, I made sure to sit next to an older man and I think his paternal side gave me protection from the cat calls I was receiving from younger men earlier. Sometimes its as easy as wearing a [fake?] wedding ring. Whatever situations you are in that might be less comfortable, if you know the culture's views on women, it will make navigating them more tolerable.

Dress appropriately. I can't stress this enough. Whatever the women of that culture wear, at best try to match the conservative level. I understand there are issues with women's rights and you may want to take a stand against having to cover your head or wearing a burka because you may believe that is wrong. Fine, but know that in doing so you have made a choice to bring on other possible consequences. I'm not saying fighting for equality isn't a good fight, but there are more effective and efficient ways to do that then being a solo foreigner dressing liberally in a conservative culture. At very least, in most cultures, be aware of the amount of leg, cleavage, and neckline that they show, and try to match (if not be more conservative than) what they do.

Figure out a hair style that you can manage without much equipment. I've heard from some that super short hair is the way to go, others that have gone long hair and pony tails. I have traveled both ways, and for myself I felt that, if I could shower nearly daily, then both are manageable hair styles, but that pony tails are better when you're doing more camping and shower-less travels. If you can manage to travel without a blow dryer, do so. Any time you want to look nice/fancy, you will be able to either (1) stay in a nice hotel for a night and use theirs, or (2) borrow one from a fellow hostel stayer. Definitely suppress the urge to bring other tools like a straighter or curling iron.

Plan outfits. With clever shopping, you can find a pair of sandals that function as both comfortable walking-around sandals and nice for a skirt and a fancy night out. Ditto on shirts, ditto on pants, ditto on the whole shebang. The big thing is think through everything you probably will do on the trip. For me, I conceptualize on how often I will want to be athletic, fancy, "normal", in hot weather, and in cold weather. Then once you figure out this list, find as many articles of clothing that cross these boundaries - like a plain white t-shirt that can be for athletic and normal wear but with a skirt could also pass for fancy. This keeps the load small while letting you be a girl - somewhat - about fashion.

If you want to go out at night, or are more of a party girl, and are traveling completely solo, then make a point to befriend someone at your hostel and go out with them.

PS. There's also a really cool but intimidating invention I think called Rapex that a woman can wear inside her so that, if she is raped, it clamps down on the man so she has time to get away and leaves the rapist in need of medical attention. Random fun fact for you.

And there we have it! Special thanks to all three backpackers for helping out! I should also note that Sonja told me she'd be happy to help out girls with specific questions, so if you have any questions for her, I can forward them on. If you've got something specific for Sonia or Emily, no promises, but I just might able to browbeat them into answering a question or two themselves.

I highly encourage any other women with independent travel experience who want to share tips to comment on this post. If you have any problems with that, you can always email me instead, and I can post your message.

Monday, August 10, 2009

a JoelIsOkay(tm) update

Just as a response to a couple emails, news reports back home have been giving a lot of coverage to typhoons hitting the coast of Asia, so people are asking if I'm okay. Yes, I'm in the coast of Asia, but the typhoons are actually south of where I am in Korea. You can see a map of them here. I'm fine. At worst I'm getting rained on. I'm keeping an eye on Morakot as it's headed towards parts of China I'm headed towards, but I'm pretty confident it will have died down by the time it gets there.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

From the Sky of Nippon

I have a hard time keeping track of days unless I wake up in my own bed. Since I haven't done that in about ten and a half months, my sense of time is completely off-kilter. Then there's my sleep (ha) schedule. It feels like it wasn't that long ago since I last posted, but I've got three complete entries running around my head with a lot of extra material to make a fourth or fifth. Plus there's some great material for a tips post I've been getting help with. But since it's a post that will only help half of you, It'll have to wait just a bit longer. I'll try to splice down excerpts to make one complete post.

First, this view. This gorgeous sunrise view from several hundred meters above the clouds. It was enough to make crowds around me give three cheers of “Banzai!” when the sun was already up. I was too exhausted to join in. I'd been up all night climbing this stupid mountain, and without any canned oxygen. Blame my testosterone for that decision. Like just about everyone who climbs to this place, I started halfway up already. Unlike most of them, I was at the top in four hours, for no good reason.

There's a saying that a wise man climbs Mt Fuji, but a fool would do it twice. I'm no fool. I caught the very last bus from Tokyo so that I could start around 10pm, making the top in time for the 4:45am sunrise. I started from the fifth station with a jacket, hat, and a borrowed headlamp. By the sixth station, I'd taken them all off again. I was too warm, and the nearly full moon was plenty to see by, as long as I hadn't been blinded by any other tourist's flashlights along the way. The climb had all the visual appeal of climbing up a gravel construction site at a 45-degree angle for hours. At first it was easy, I was just walking up switchbacks past lines of hundreds of tourists staying resolutely in a snail-paced single file following a leader with two blinking red light sticks. There were supposed to be ten stations altogether, but they stretched into lines of huts selling water and instant soup and letting people stay the night sleeping on a packed floor for $80 a night. There seemed to be more station than trail at some points.

Then came the parts where I started using my hands. It wasn't until then that I turned around and realized that I was actually above the clouds. Then the altitude kicked in. I was back to walking without my hands, but after a while, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I could hear my pulse throbbing at the base of my skull. Breaks weren't voluntary any more. I had my jacket and hat back on, plus my cheap fleece sweater from Argentina. I could the the lights from the ant-lines of tourists crawling up to meet us from below, and that kept me moving all the way to the top.

I was there two hours early. I'd been told about the vending machines, so I wasn't surprised to find them there. I want to know the story of how they got them up there, I bet it's good. I wrapped myself up with everything I had, even my rain poncho, and curled up to sleep on a wooden bench next to the thirty or so climbers that had reached the top ahead of me (one of whom, in true Japanese style, was busy playing his Nintendo DS). I don't know if I actually slept or not. I just know that I took out my earplugs and looked up at one point, and saw colors in the sky (plus several hundred more people all around looking at the trinket stands and vending machines).

The result, you can see glimpse of in the photo above, but if there are two things you can never do justice to in a photo with a point-and-shoot camera, they're sunsets and sunrises. Mt Fuji stands as the only mountain around for miles. Sunrise there is unforgettable. It's all in the clouds. The sun rising above the sea foam of clouds floating above the green forests, blue lakes and city lights far in the distance. If you cross to the west side of the caldera, you can see deep blue silhouettes of other peaks far away and below you sticking out from that sea of clouds. You can almost see the curvature of the earth from the horizon. Then again, maybe that was my vision after the altitude and lack of sleep.

It was the last adventure for my old backpack. The poor thing was falling apart slowly after ten months of heavy non-stop use. I finally had arranged to pick up a replacement from the company offices in Japan, but I brought the thing with half a load up to the top of Mt Fuji. I had to give it to the store in Nagoya before I could walk away with my new bag. It was a real wrench letting the old thing go. It had been with me through five continents, twenty something countries, up the top of mountains to the bottom of the earth. But after a stolen top compartment, a missing chest strap, one broken clip, a mysterious chemical burn hole in the front pocket, and finally a busted left shoulder strap, it was time to retire the poor thing. It felt like putting an old, beloved pet to sleep. My new bag is the same model (deeply discounted, thanks to some emails with the company), but slightly altered color scheme. I have to admit, having everything working again is pretty nice.

I was running out of time with my Japanese rail pass. My last day I wanted to get to Shimonoseki in time for a ferry to Korea. I was a little annoyed with myself for getting a late start. One thing you learn about travel is that when you have multiple connections, delays are magnified. For example, taking the wrong subway cost me five minutes. When I got to the station I learned those five minutes meant I'd missed a train to Shimonoseki, the next one leaving two hours later, indirectly. The two hour delay meant that I probably wouldn't get to the Ferry terminal in time to buy a ticket for the ferry, the next one leaving the next evening. So a five-minute delay actually resulted in a full day's delay.

So I was sitting on my shinkansen bullet train west towards Shimonoseki, drifting off to sleep, still catching up from my adventure up Japan's tallest mountain. At one point I woke up, and noticed we were going past some very pretty scenery. Bamboo forests and hills. They gave way to a village made entirely of rice paddies and traditional Japanese houses, like something out of a childrens' picture book. We went from there into a tunnel, and back into the hills. Then came a second traditional Japanese farming village. Then the third, after another tunnel. I got out my camera as we went into the second tunnel and got it ready to get some shots of what I expected to be the fourth village on the other side of the latest tunnel. That's when a tone sounded and an announcement came through the speakers for the next stop: "Tsugi ekewa Hiroshima. Hiroshima desu..."

I lowered my camera. There would be no ancient farming village on the other side of this tunnel. Anything made before 1945 would be gone.

We pulled into the Hiroshima station and I looked outside at the rain. Do I get off? I might still make it onto tonight's ship if I happened to get a fast local train connection to town and then begged. Even if I didn't, I wasn't sure I wanted to see this place in the rain. What would there be left to see?

I was pretty much convinced not to go. I thought of something my father told me a long time ago: that in life, he'd always regretted the things he hadn't done far more than the things he'd done. I picked up my new bag, squeezed past the people boarding, and stepped out of the train.

It was hot. The bad kind too, not scorching, just muggy enough to make you feel sticky. I wandered downstairs into the station and picked up a free tourist map, wandering vaguely towards something described as the "Peace Park." I read about an event or two planned on the back where families of the victims of the atomic bomb would gather at 6:00pm and launch paper lanterns with messages for peace down the river in honor of the 64th anniversary of the bomb. August 6th. I looked at my cell phone to check the time. Thursday, August 6th, 6:15pm.

I've seen demonstrations for peace before, but usually they're either political or filled only with the kind of guy who, when I asked for tips on traveling through Laos, turned his blond dreadlocked head to me and said "Love. Just... open yourself to Love... all around you." This was different. I saw families walking down the street with their kids, who were drawing on piece of paper, getting ready to send them out to the water. Pieces with Japanese flags, American flags, and simple words. They wrote their message, attached them to a floating bottom with a candle, and sent them down the river under the shadow the "atomic" dome- the skeletal beams of only structure to survive the nuclear explosion. I wondered if that was really what it took to bring people together with an answer, a quiet demonstration that they saw death and destruction a long time ago, they know an alternative, and they want to honor it.

I saw a group of people around my age holding signs that said "Free Hugs." I walked up to one of them and asked him why the signs were only in English, and not in Japanese. He told me in broken English that it was an international symbol that the Japanese people knew too.

My grandfather and great-uncle both served in the US military during WWII. We've always been proud of that. Still, my great-uncle has a few things to say about the Japanese that I don't care to repeat in public. Many of these guys probably had grandparents in the Japanese military. Who knows what some of them say about people like me and my family. All I know is their grandchildren were there to honor peace, and they wanted to give hugs, and their signs were written in my language.

I caught the ferry to Korea the next day. I don't mind the delay anymore.
Check out this entry's Photos.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Japan is Japan is Japan.

I write this from the island of Oshima, of the pine islands of Matsushima. Legend has it this one one of the favorite places of the Japanese poet, Basho. Basho is most famous for his work with haiku, a Japanese form of poetry famous for how much it can pack into a few words. If I remember my high school writing class correctly, an entire haiku contains three lines: first with five syllables, second with seven, third with five. Maybe the first has seven too instead of five, I forget. What I remember from that class is that Basho managed to snag a place among my favorite poets by cramming one succulent, evocative image into three words: “Watermelon, mud fresh.” (Well, that and also I remember somebody else writing an English haiku that went something like “Haikus are nice. But sometimes they don't make sense. Refrigerator.”)

My point is that I'm sitting on a island that was loved by a man who was famous for being evocative yet brief with his words. I've never been much for channeling the dead, but I'm going to need all the help I can get from him to keep this short, because this last week in Japan has packed enough action for me to easily fill a half dozen full posts or more. If these last two paragraphs are any indication, I'm not off to a good start. Here goes anyway.

Before arriving in Japan, I had been fed more contradictory information about this culture than any I have heard about any place in the world. Since this is (depending on how you count things like Antarctica) the 26th country I've been to this trip, that's saying something. One day I would meet someone who would tell me that the literal translation of the word for thank you meant “what an unpleasant feeling,” (of being indebted to someone, I assume). A week later, someone would tell me that it actually meant “it is good to be alive.” A Frenchman told me over a drink that a Japanese person will never invite someone to their house no matter how close you are, and two days later a Canadian told me confidently that Japanese people will invite you to their house easily, sometimes right after meeting them, and that they will be extremely hospitable. But my favorite piece of advice came from a Kiwi who told me his impressions of the country, back in February:

“Japan is... Japan... is Japan.”
I looked at him oddly and said “Right. Truisms. I know Japan is Japan.
He returned the look. “Have you been to Japan yet?”
“Then you don't really know that yet.”

He had me there. My real introduction was on board the ferry from Shanghai to Osaka when I met a Japanese-born Canadian about my age who was coming back to Japan for the first time since he was six years old. He gave me a rundown on general etiquette, downplaying any real cultural differences (“I mean, no, you shouldn't stick your chopsticks in the rice and leave them there, but come on, how often do you take a fork, stick it in a steak, and then just leave it there back home?”) But the real revelations came for both of us when we got to shore and he started translating some of the things said around us.

Like when we went into a post office and asked for an ATM that worked with international debit cards. “That lady just thanked me about seven times. All I did was ask for directions!”

Or there was the PA announcement we heard in a grocery store that went on for about a full minute. “...all he was saying was thanking the customers for coming in and taking time out of their busy schedules for coming into the store. That was it. That was the only reason they made an announcement over the loudspeakers.”

Then there was what started happening when we got off our first subway. Keep in mind that we'd both just been in Shanghai, where if you want to get anywhere in a subway station, you put your head down, your elbows up, and act like a bowling ball. It seems people there wouldn't even notice if you knocked them flat on their back, or if they knocked you on yours. In Osaka, we got off a subway, passing two businessmen on our right, stopped, looked at each other, and said in unison, “...they waited for us!” It's a new country.

Being courteous here in Japan is a big deal. If you translate some of the simple exchanges you have every day into English word for word, the look ridiculous just because of many times the words “pardon me,” “please,” “sorry,” and “thank you very much” show up in every single sentence. Unlike Mandarin Chinese, Japanese does have a word that translates directly into “no,” but you'd never guess it based on everyday conversation because it's almost never used. It's just not a nice thing to say.

A lot of people I've met have told me that the courtesy feels masked. They think that anybody who makes that big a show of gratitude can't possibly mean it-- that it's all a fake veneer covering a repressed, depressed, highly stressed out and pressurized society that will never allow anyone to actually get close to them as a outsider, or even show any real happiness or kindness to each other, let alone to a foreigner. I don't buy it. Frankly, I think that kind of view is much more a reaction of westerners feeling uncomfortable in the face of people who say thank you so much more often than they do themselves.

There is definitely a strict set of rules you must follow if you want to be polite. Pick up food dishes and bring them close to your mouth when you eat. Always finish your rice if possible. Slurp your food loudly, especially soup (no, it's not a myth, they really do consider it a sign of appreciation here). Don't step over people's outstretched legs. Give and receive things, especially personal items like business cards, with both hands. Deny and downplay all compliments. Those are just the basics, I haven't even touched on how many degrees to bow in different situations or what you're supposed to say when. The list of differences is so long that it can really intimidate people. I think that's where a lot of the talk of a cold, untouchable society comes from. But if you think about it, we come from a culture with something to say when you burp, something to say when someone else sneezes, something to say when you want to get up from a meal, rules about when you can start eating (after how many people have been served), an order about which gender or age yields seats, or opens doors, or carries things, and a lot more besides. Most of these specific rules don't exist in Japan. So I have a hard time calling anything about their system of etiquette rigid or byzantine. It's just different.

As for acceptance, even little gestures make me feel like Japanese people aren't just polite, they're actually quite nice and friendly. Things like when I bought a couple small cakes from a traditional sweet shop, and when I tried to thank the lady in Japanese, she gave me a huge smile and tossed in a pack of cinnamon mochi for free. Or when I bought a prepackaged tempura lunch from a convenience store and pointed to chopsticks instead of a fork, the clerk pumped her fist in the air and said “Gambate!” or “go for it”! I can tell that people are more shy here (there are jokes about how Japanese guys have turned “vegetarian,” because they're too shy to go “hunting” and actually ask a girl out), but I've been spontaneously invited into three people's homes now in about four days. I'm don't think I'm doing anything special to make this happen, it's just what the people here will do.

As long as we're talking about stereotypes, I will tell you about one that's true. First of all, I find this to be true across China as well as Japan, but Japanese people do work very very hard. Officially, most work 9-5 jobs. But from what they've told me the reality is they usually work at least 70 hours a week. They are paid overtime, but because of project deadlines and general culture, they don't have the option to go home at 5:30. They earn enough money this way to deal with the high cost of living, (a simple bowl of plain Udon noodles in Kyoto can cost more than eight times as much as a plate of Chow Mian fried noodles with pork, egg, and veggies in Shanghai). But it comes at the cost of sleep, time with family, and often health.

The work schedule combined with the fact that public transport shuts down after midnight has created some interesting business opportunities. First of all, a bed in a normal hostel dorm costs around US$35. The most I can recall paying for a hostel bed this entire trip comes to around half that. In fact, for much of this trip, I've often been paying one tenth of that or less. However, because so many people end up staying far from home because of work, other cheap places to spend the night are cropping up. The most famous is the “capsule hotel,” which is somewhere between a hostel dorm and a space pod out of the sci-fi channel. But also a whole line of 24 hour businesses have started offering “night packs,” basically the option to rent whatever space they have for the night. Karaoke bars are a popular option, having padded private rooms with lots of space as well as food and drinks. But the one I ended up trying was an internet cafe.

I'd only learned about this on the boat over, and when I found myself next to Kyoto station with my bags around midnight in the pouring rain, I snaked my way through the subway tunnels to get to a 24 hour 2nd story shop called the TopCafe. I bought a membership for 200 yen, chose a space that had a mat like a gym mat instead of a reclining chair for another extra 200yen, paid for a night pack and was told I had seven hours in a cubicle with as much of the free soda, coffee-machine drinks, and soft-serve ice cream I wanted. The short version of the story is: It wasn't comfortable, and I woke up the next morning to the sounds of someone puking their guts out from a bad hangover, but it was cheap nights sleep and of course free internet, games, and DVDs had I felt like using them during my precious seven hours of sleep time. The unlimited access to the soft-serve ice cream machine was a huge bonus, though the closest things I could find to actual food were both in the coffee machine: an “onion soup” that tasted exactly like instant ramen broth, and a thick yellow corn-flavored something that I guess must have been soup. And while seven hours was definitely not enough time, it did get me out bright and early to beat the crowds to Fushimi Inari,one of the most famous temples in the country.

That's the first I've mentioned of the sights, isn't it? That's a shame. Twice I tried to explore the city of Kyoto and was completely sidetracked into hiking the beautiful forested hills to the north and west instead. Dotted with shrines, natural springs, and waterfalls, and just ten minute walk from the heart of the city, the paths are some of the best I've seen in a very long time. Then there's the shrines and temples. Minimalist, but very atmospheric, especially the smaller ones tucked away in quiet corners of the hills.

Then there's the other end of the spectrum: Tokyo. I haven't spent much time in Tokyo yet, but I'm pretty sure I'll feel about it the exact same way one Tokyo native explained about how felt about Shinjuku, one the city's biggest train stations: it's a complete maze-- I'll find one way through it, forget, and find a new way through every time without visiting a single part twice. After Shanghai, the buildings seem short, but they go on for miles in every direction. The typical apartment's size (at least of the two I've seen) is about the size of hallway in an American house. I had room to lie down width-wise with maybe a foot to spare at the widest point. We checked out a fireworks display (a summer tradition in Japan) and found a field several times the size of a football field completely filled with people sitting there to watch. I've seen a lot of people in one spot before, but only once or twice have I seen numbers to compete with that. I believe the greater Tokyo area houses about 30 million people, and they've managed to pack them all in somehow.

Have I not mentioned the food yet? How is that possible? Yes, there are the standards: udon, miso, rice, and beef bowls. Then come the surprises: the curry for example. Or just how creamy and gelatinous real tofu can be. The weirdest though, was definitely nato. Nato is a mixture that looks like half baked beans and half Elmer's glue. It's fermented beans and bacteria that is typically served for breakfast over rice after being mixed with a raw egg and something like mustard. I could get used to the taste, but it would take a few servings. Takoyaki, on the other hand, I've adopted immediately. It's octopus fried in balls of dough with an excellent kind of barbecue sauce over the top.

And that's not even touching on the story of my walk through the roughest neighborhood in Japan, the climb up the best preserved Japanese castle, the night spent in the temple with a priest and his venerated Bose sound system, the afternoon ending in an Onsen communal bath with a bunch of Frenchmen, the men on the streets of tokyo with a bullhorn shouting for the reinstatement of an emperor and standing army, or the evening when I had to explain how to ask for change and tell someone you were looking for a geisha (though not to hire them) and a pay phone. To conclude in a nutshell with a random observations and facts, the Shinkansen bullet trains are amazingly fast and punctual. The toilets really do have half a dozen buttons on them, but they're fairly self explanatory based on placement and sometimes hilarious little cartoons next to them. And yes, the fresh sushi really is every bit as amazing as you've heard.
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