Hong Kong and Japan
Dana and I spent a day in Hong Kong catching up on good western food and the longest escalator in the world up to Victoria Peak. Dana and I, recent escalator connoisseurs, objected to the title. It was really the longest SERIES of escalators in the world. To it's credit, it saved us from climbing very steep mountains of urban density.
It was a very dense but very small city - an Asian San Francisco with a much more ostentatious display of architecture. Living conditions of some of the people were questionable, with a special exception made for those who inhabit the mansions on Victoria Peak. The way the hotel staff treated me, I felt like James Bond -- "I'll take my martini in my room and please turn down by 7 o'clock, thank you." In any case, it was an incredible place to explore and I couldn't help but feel there were hundreds of hidden bars, music venues, and restaurants around the city that only the locals would know of. I thought it would be most fun shared with friends (Scott especially thought Jeff, Lisa, Ivan, Nick, and Suzanne would enjoy).
- Words Learned: Konichiwa! Hai! Arigato! Onsen, Yakuta, sansai, rotemburo, shinkansen, shabu shabu.
- Tipping: None
- Cost: $$$$$
- Food: Delectable
Japan was amazing. I still can't get over the beauty of the mountains and the living breathing temples and culture in this ultra-modern country.
Dana and I started in Tokyo - a gigantic city unlike any I've ever been to. It was huge in that it was sprawling, but unlike other sprawling cities, this one had an unrivaled and thorough train and subway system. The downtown during the weekdays was pretty tame. Everyone above a certain age wore a suit. I mean EVERYONE. They weren't spectacular suits like Armani or anything, just plain black and blue suits. More like uniforms than anything.
The Japanese are sticklers for custom. It was at once awe-inspiring and frustrating. Awe-inspiring because of the living custom of Geisha (more on that later) and frustrating because English was rare outside of train ticket machines. Maps, signs, menus, everything was in Japanese Kanji - impossible to learn for a one-week stay. Thank goodness for picture menus.
Dana and I must have been a very funny site with our height, appearance, and huge backpacks. Everyone kind of giggled when we passed. I think a little of it was because the Japanese seem to pack very light when they travel, and we obviously don't.
We were lucky to find ourselves in a Japanese Ryokan - a Japanese style inn. The first place we stayed in the Asakusa area was jaw-droppingly awesome. The staff were very sweet and helped us adjust to the customs. The room had no standing furniture. Seats were small pillows, the table was low to the ground, and dressed with all the accouterments for green tea for two. There were two Japanese rice snacks on the table, a big tube of green tea, and boiling water at our disposal. There was a western style toilet equipped with a Toto washlet (be careful what button you press). and a separate room with wood floors that opened to a drain so you can both wash your hands, shower, and bathe in the adjacent bath if you were so inclined to waste water.
There was a lot more to the Ryokan; including the futon beds that roll up in the closet when you're not using them, the Onsen communal baths, and the rules of shoes to slippers to special toilet slippers. Unfortunately, I can't write them all down here and now.
We headed to Kyoto, home of Ryokan and Geisha. We downgraded in Ryokan, but enjoyed it all the same. Out on the town... Scratch that, into the town to hunt Geisha, we passed huge malls and small streets lined with hidden and exclusive tea houses marked with nothing but bamboo doors and a red lantern. We found a restaurant overlooking the river separating the more modern buildings with the decades old Japanese houses of the Gion district.
Satisfied with Tempura, we headed to a blues club (yes, a blues club) headed by a long-haired dispassionate youth who shared a love for hot jazz and Muddy Waters. On the way we spotted a couple Geisha headed to their tea house appointments. Dana was so giddy (Scott has never seen her so star-struck) she pulled out her camera immediately and started snapping photos at the now blinded Geisha.
Before we left, Dana tallied 9 more Geisha spottings and felt the burn of sore legs from walking from one gorgeous ancient temple to the next. We luckily stumbled into a restaurant specializing in a legendary Kyoto specialty, the Kaiseki cuisine. It's a collection of small plates of seasonal local dishes artfully presented.
I have to wrap up soon, but we headed into the mountains to visit Shirakawa'go. The houses there have layer upon layer of thatched roof to insulate and protect the A-framed house from the winter snows. This was the most beautiful part of our trip, and there's no justice here in my words. You'll have to take our word for it (and look at the pictures that we'll post).
Okay, Shinkansen (bullet train) = fast and convenient. Japanese baseball game = AMAZING (see pictures and I'll upload an audio clip of the constantly singing fans). It was incredible. I highly recommend, especially to Sandy, Paul, Susan, and Tom.