Still in Kagoshima

I`m still in Kagoshima. I finally got to upload a few photos, but only a fraction of what I`ve taken. I also found a solution to my wireless problem. There are plenty of wireless net access points in Japan, but you have to pay for all of them. I just purchased a Boingo account which should solve my problems for Japan and Korea. Pretty much every McDonald`s uses Boingo and a ton of other places.

The last few days have been frustrating. I`ve broken the strap on my sandals, been unable to get net access, and haven`t been able to speak with a single person in days. I`ve encountered ZERO other people traveling in this area and haven`t met a single person who speaks English. Thankfully, you don`t need to speak a language to buy things.

I also have no idea how to get out of the Japanese character mode on Japanese keyboards

Sometimes you just get rucky

When you travel by the seat of your pants and make things up as you go along, sometimes you strike out and sometimes you hit it big. Yesterday, I hit it big. Totally by accident.

I reserved a hotel room online in Kagoshima. The cheapest one available was in Kirishima, which I assumed was a suburb of Kagoshima. Well, it isn`t quite a suburb. It turns out it is a small village in Kirishima National Park with hot springs everywhere. The place I reserved just happened to have some sort of Fall special, so I got to stay in a nice hot spring spa resort for not much money.

I have a ton of photos to upload still, but I`m not having luck getting internet access. I`m at the Kagoshima airport right now at a pay-per-minute terminal on a bus layover watching the end of the World Series Game 3. I also got to watch the Dragons vs. Fighters last night in the Japan Series.

Hopefully, I`ll have a real internet connection later today.


Just a quick update. I`m in the Kobe airport. I got bumpted to first class for the first time on my trip. In the Okinawa airport I saw robots. The plane I flew on had a camera mounted on the belly of the plane and one on the nose. When you were landing, you could see the actual landing all the way through to the gate. It was great. I dont know why you dont see that on more airlines. Watching the clouds and sky below you, on a screen projected in front of you is a bit disorienting, however. You feel like you are going to crash when you see ground racing before you.

The Kobe airport is built on a island out in the harbor. It isnt a big airport, but its pretty cool. I my flight leaves for Kagoshima in about an hour. I hope I am in first class again. I slept through the food last flight.

This Isn’t My First Time You know….

This isn’t my first time in Japan. I was here for one day in 1999 during a stop over from the US to Taiwan. We took off in a blizzard and the de-icing on the wings required a fuel stop in Anchorage. The delays resulted in me missing my flight to Taipei so I was put up in a Raddison near Narita for the night.

So while I wasn’t totally unprepared for Japan, I can’t say I’m really experienced either. I must say I’ve been somewhat surprised by Okinawa.

Okinawa was the only part of Japan proper which felt the brunt of a full scale invasion in WWII. Okinawa was also under direct US control for far longer than the rest of Japan. While most of Japan was under direct control of Mcarthur for only five years, the US didn’t give up control of Okinawa till 1972. Since 1972 the US has had a big presence on the island. Over 25,000 US troops were stationed here plus their families.

Given the strong US presence here, I figured that Okinawa would have a stronger American influence than the rest of Japan. So far, I’ve seen next to nothing.

Signage and usage of English is well below what I saw in Taipei. I’m only surprised at that because of the history of the island. I’ve seen very few westerners here. Only a small handful. I’m at a “western” restaurant right now typing this (because they have free wifi) and I’m the only white person in here. Everyone else is Japanese.

I was also surprised at how hard it has been to find an ATM machine, and in particular an ATM machine that will take foreign cards. Even in Minneapolis, I could find ATM machines that would work in six languages (English, Spanish, Russian, Somali, Japanese, and Hmong). I have since learned that the Japan Post Banks (the post office here is the biggest bank in the country) will take foreign cards. I have yet to find anywhere else that will. I guess I just assumed Japan would be on the cutting edge of ATM technology. They’re not. (most of the machines are designed to read passbooks, as in passbook savings account that you saw in the US 20-30 years ago).

Japan is going to be interesting. In many respects, this is the most “foreign” place I’ve been on my trip so far. Tomorrow I leave Okinawa for Kagoshima and Yaku Island. From there, I finally cash in my Japan Rail voucher and head to Hiroshima.

Final Thoughts on the Philippines

The Hon. Mayor Edward S. Hagedorn
The Hon. Mayor Edward S. Hagedorn
I think I should finish up writing about the Philippines before I get too much farther in my trip. The farther I get away, the less fresh it is in my mind.

From the moment I landed in Manila to the moment I left, there was something that just didn’t seem right with the Philippines. The Philippines in an Asian country, but it feels like a Latin American Country. I mean that in the best and worst sense.  It gets its latin influences from being a Spanish colony, same as most of Latin America. But it also seems to have caught the disease that most former Spanish colonies suffer from.

Let me start at the beginning…

While traveling through the Pacific, I noticed on most islands there was a lot of idleness. People just sitting around doing nothing.  I wont pin down a reason, but I think it is part geographic, cultural, and even environmental. I could write a lot more on the economic prospects of Pacific countries, but let me just say they aren’t good. No matter what happens, being isolated in the middle of the Pacific ocean with few resources or people isn’t a recipe for success.

The island in the center of Ulugan Bay is owned by MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
The island in the center of Ulugan Bay is owned by MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
In the Philippines I saw something very different. Everywhere I went, people were busy. In every village, no matter how small, I saw signs in front of houses offering services. Everyone seemed to be selling something, offering tire repair services, welding, operating tricycles, all usually in addition to farming. Even the guys in Manila who were trying to sell me fake Rolex watches were at least hustling, trying to make a buck. There seems to be no lack of work ethic or entrepreneurial spirit in the Philippines.

Every college I drove past you would see a sea of white from the uniforms of nursing students. Nursing is a very popular area to get into in the Philippines. They produce an abnormally large number of nurses.

English is widely spoken in the Philippines, which gives everyone them a leg up over other companies in the global economy. They also have close ties with the US, which you would think would also be to their benefit. To top it all off, they are in a region, South East Asia, which is experiencing tremendous growth.

Despite all this, the Philippines is poor. By all rights, they should e doing much better. The question that kept running through my head during my entire stay was “why”?

Approximately 8,000,000 Filipinos work overseas. That is about 10% of the country. One of the reasons that nursing is so popular of a profession to enter is that it is relatively easy to study (compared to becoming an MD) and it provides an easy path to getting a work visa outside of the Philippines. In particular, to the US which has a nursing shortage. The country is suffering from a tremendous brain drain. I went to the US Embassy in Manila to look into getting a new passport. I was stunned by the lines at the embassy for people applying for an immigration visa to the US.

One young man I talked to flat out told me he has six years to wait before he can go to the US. He will probably study nursing and maybe even get into a sham marriage so he could move to New York. The sham marriage would cost him 20% of his income. I read one article in a paper which lamented how common it was to have doctor appointments canceled because the doctor has left the country.

Another editorial I read stated that for bright young people, you desire to either a) leave the country, or b) get into politics or law enforcement. Everyone I talked to sort of took it for granted that they wanted to leave the Philippines, preferably to the US or Canada. In fact, when I brought the subject up, I usually got a look that said “duh”.

After having spent two and a half weeks there, I wont claim to be an expert in Filipino domestic affairs or know what the answer is to the Filipino problem, but I think it lies squarely in the political system. (BTW, if you are Filipino and reading this, feel free to chime in the comments. I’d love to hear your opinion)

This visitor center was a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
This visitor center was a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
The only thing you ever really hear about the Philippines in the international news is about politics. For much of the post war era, the Philippines was run by a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. He was tolerated by the US because he was an anti-communist and allowed the US keep a naval and air force base in the country. When he was overthrown in the mid 80’s, there was a lot of speculation that the Philippines would be the next Asian economic miracle. It never really happened.

What seems to have happened, is that the corruption which was concentrated in the hands of Marcos go distributed throughout the whole system. It is as if they Filipinos said when Macros left, “No longer will we be subject to the whims of a corrupt dictator! Now we will be subject to the whims of corrupt democratically elected officials!!”

The Philippines is very corrupt. Their previous president, Jose Estrada, was ousted by a popular revolt due to his corruption. While I was in the Philippines one of the big stories was if he was going to be given a pardon. There were also charges in the newspapers against the current president,  Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA for short), of corruption regarding her and her husband.

Transparency International ranks the Philippines 131st in the world in the perception of corruption index. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist in the world. 53 journalists have been assassinated since the presidency of Gloria Arroyo started. Sort of makes it difficult to fight corruption when there is a good chance you’ll die if you do.

To really hammer home what Filipino politics is like, I need to present the case of the HONORABLE MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN, mayor of Puerto Princesa. I should note, that I really don’t know anything about MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN might be a great guy. MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN might run a really clean city. I have no idea.

This rest stop was a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
This rest stop was a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
I do however know the name of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN because on anything which is remotely touched with city funding, you will find the name and face of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. In the taxi tricycles, every license sticker has the photo of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. Every garbage can in the city has “A project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN” printed on the side. The road to the Puerto Princesa underground river park has signs saying the road is a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. The rest stop on the way there is touted as a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. When you get to the park, the building at the park says it is a project of “MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN”. There is a giant billboard at the park with the photo of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN at the mouth of the cave. At the airport, there was a poster of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN looking at you in the waiting area.

MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN was usually printed much larger than the name of the project itself.

The only public works projects that didn’t have MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN printed on it were the bus stop shelters. They had GOVERNOR JOEL T. REYES painted on it.

The most egregious example of this I saw in Manila. I saw a sign congratulating a man who won the purple heart award in the US Marines. The sign had a photo of the young man shaking the hand of the local mayor and below that, was a portrait of the mayor, with the name of the mayor in very large font. This guy was injured in battle, and yet it was only there to promote the mayor. Kind of sad.

The reason why law enforcement and politics are such desirable professions is that it allows you to attach your car to the corruption train. Every public works project is liable to kickbacks, cronyism, and will all be used to keep the incumbents in power.

Sadly, so long as the best and brightest keep leaving the country, those who might have the greatest incentive for reform aren’t around to make it happen. Then again, I can’t really blame them for wanting to leave the Philippines for greater opportunity elsewhere.

Lost in Translation

Well, I made it to Okinawa.

The flight was only about an hour long. The real difficulty was when I got on the ground. There were no working ATM machines that took foreign cards in the international terminal, and only one in the domestic terminal. There were no places available to change currency. Very little was written in English and my cab driver didn’t speak a word.

Nonetheless, I made it. Things always seem to work out.

Initial observations:

  • It’s true. Lots of vending machines. I took a walk out around my hostel and managed to see seven without turning my head at one point.
  • It is certainly more expensive here. I had prepared myself for worse, so I can deal with it. I’ll cut back a bit on my food.
  • I got a map of Japan with all the youth hostels in the country laid out. My rail is paid for 21 days, so it shouldn’t be too bad as far as expenses go. I’m sure Tokyo will suck, but that’s Tokyo.
  • I really really hate getting into to places after sunset. You can never see anything. I try whenever possible to arrive when I can see the city I’m arriving at.
  • I’m going to finally have to buy a phrase book I think. The US controlled Okinawa from the end of WWII to the early 1970s. We still have military bases here. I figured that you’d see more English here than anywhere else in Japan. There is next to nothing here. Thankfully, Japanese isn’t a tonal language.

I should also note the reason why I have Okinawa separate from Japan on my list of places on the left. 1) I’ve arbitrarily taken the Century Traveler Club’s list of places as the list I’d use to organize my website. They list Okinawa separate. 2) Okinawa is to Japan what Hawaii is to the US. It is a part of Japan, but it is geographically, culturally, linguistically, and historically different from the rest of the country. It wasn’t made part of Japan proper till the late 19th century.

Tomorrow I’m off to see the castle and some of the other sites from the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park

Underground River Entrance
Underground River Entrance
Along side the rice terraces of Banaue, the highlight of my trip to the Philippines was my visit to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the longest, navigatable, subterranean river in the world. (got that?)

Puerto Princesa is the capital of Palawan province, the western most province in the Philippines. If you look at a map of the Philippines, Palawan is the very long island running NE to SW on the far western edge. Because of the subterranean river and other natural features (El Nid and Tubatha Reef) it has dubbed itself as the Ecotourism capital of the Philippines. I didn’t have time to get out beyond Puerto Princesa, but everything I have heard and read from other tourists about Palawan has been positive. Given how affordable the Philippines is, I can easily see this becoming a bigger destination for the backpacker crowd in the future.

Technically, the underground river is within the city of Puerto Princess, however it is an hour and a half drive from the “city” to the river. This is more a function of the how the borders of the city are defined. My day started out at 7am getting picked up by the tour company. Entrance to the park, transportation there and back and lunch was P1,200 (about US$25) which is a pretty good deal. My group for the day was myself, two girls from Japan on vacation and four retired Filipino women who did/are living in the US.

Water Jeepneys
Water Jeepneys
The road out to the park was interesting. As you got further away from town, the pavement stopped and the road became a dirt road. That was not a big deal. What was interesting is that every so often, the pavement would start again….and then stop…and then start…and then it would only be paved on one lane. There appeared no rhyme or reason to where things were paved. The Filipino ladies later told me that they were joking that the pavement was only in front of homes that voted for the mayor/governor. What is sad is there may be some truth to that (more on that in my final Philippines report).

The road going out was really beautiful. We stopped briefly at an overlook of Ulugan Bay and drove through some amazing limestone formations and rice paddies. The underground river and all the surrounding landscape is due to karst formations in the surrounding limestone. As water seeped through the rock, the carbonic acid in the water would slowly eat away at the limestone. The result here is the underground river. In most places you find extensive caves, you will find a similar process going on.

After 90 minutes of alternating paved, non-paved roads, we finally arrived at the park….or at least the staging area for the park. The actual entrance to the cave was about a mile away from the parking area. The only way there is via boat so there are tons of water taxis which take people six at a time to the river entrance. Like the jeepneys in the Philippines, the boats were all very colorful and customized.

The cave entrance was surprisingly small given how big the river is. The river goes into the mountain about 8km and the height of the cave is about 60m in the largest cavern.

I have about a dozen photos that I took inside the cave. I took about 200, the vast majority were garbage. Taking photos on a moving boat in a pitch dark cave isn’t easy. Especially when the primary light source is a lamp held by an old woman in the front of the boat that you have no control over. I had to sort of figure out everything on the fly during the 45 minutes we were in the boat. Eyeballing the photos as they came up on the LCD panel, I figured out that the best photos came when I set the ISO to about 400 and pointed the camera away from the spotlight and just used my flash. If I had the ability to stop and get out of the boat at a few points, and could set up a tripod, some really amazing photos would have been possible. Sadly, that wasn’t in the cards. What you see on Flickr is not only the best of the lot, but the only ones that came out close to respectable.

All the black dots are sleeping bats
All the black dots are sleeping bats
The boat that goes into the cave is paddled. Any sort of motor used inside of the cave would have been 1) very loud, 2) eventually covered the inside of the cave with soot, and 3) used up oxygen deep inside the cave which would take a while to replenish. Air circulation is poor the farther in you get. The guys that do the boat tours paddle groups of six out and back in a 45 minute trip all day long.

The one thing you are warned about before you enter the cave is to close your mouth when you look up. There are an estimated 40,000 bats which live in the cave and if you look up with your mouth open, there is a good chance you will end up with the taste of bat poop. You can still see bats as far as 1km into the cave, which means they have a helluva flight in and out of the cave every night before they can even start worrying about food.

The boat guides had their spiel down pat. I’m sure they tell the same jokes and describe the same things on every tour. The things which were constantly pointed out were the various stalactites and stalagmites which looked like people and things. One room was called the Cathedral because of all the stalagmites which looked like religious things. There was one that was called the Three Wise Men. From just the right angle, it kind of, sort of looked like three heads wearing crowns. Another was called the Holy Family, and from the right angle it kind of, sort of looked like a man, a woman and a child. There was one that looked like a candle with melting wax.

The Mushroom Formation
The Mushroom Formation
The next area was called the produce section. There was one formation that looked like a giant mushroom cap and there was one that looked like a giant ear of corn. There was a stalactite that looked like two hands holding each other, one that looked like the butt and back of a naked woman, and one that looked like the head of a diving bird. You had to be at the correct angle to make out most of the images, but they were there. There was even the obligatory formation that looked like Jesus.

When the cave trip was done and we were back to blue say and firm ground, we had a plesant suprise. There were several macaques monkeys near the dock. The monkeys, I was told, have learned to steal plastic bags from people because they know that plastic bags are more likely to have food in them. Two of the monkeys even put on a show for the crowd.

The other really neat thing which was waiting for us were monitor lizards. This wasn’t a zoo and the animals weren’t plants. We just got lucky to see up close two of the major animals in the national park. The monitor lizards moved very slowly and constantly had their tongues out looking for food.

When we finally got back to the parking area, we had lunch waiting for us. It was nice little buffet with coconut soup, some fish and pork with rice and fresh coconut to drink.

I should also finish my post on Puerto Princesa by noting, that while I was there I got to try birds nest soup for the first time in my life. Birds nest soup is made from nests of swifts which create them with their own saliva. It sounds gross, but it tastes pretty good. In Hong Kong, a bowl of soup can go for upto US$100. A kilogram of bird nest can sell for thousands of dollars. I got my bowl of soup for US$4. At that price, I couldn’t pass it up.

Zai Jian Taiwan

Longshan Temple
Longshan Temple
My stay here was about a week longer than I expected, but I’m booked to leave here tomorrow and arrive in Okinawa. I’ll be there for three days then I fly to Kagoshima in southern Japan. I got my Japan Rail pass so I’ll be able to explore the country by rail for 21 days.

This is the first time I’ve needed to get a ticket in well over a month and a half. I last purchased tickets way back in Guam. No longer island hopping like I was in the Pacific has reduced my costs dramatically. (That is why I did the Pacific countries first actually. I wanted to get the most difficult, expensive part of the trip out of the way first) I currently only have tickets booked to Kagoshima. I think I’ll take a ferry to South Korea from Japan. I have found that there is a ferry that goes from Japan and South Korea to Vladivostok. I’d be very interested in going, but the problem will be getting the visa from the Russians. I’d have to do it in either Seoul or Tokyo and the application process would probably take longer than the length of time I’d be in Vladivostok. I think a visit to Vladivostok would be very cool, but I’m not going to do it if the visa is too big of a pain in the ass.

My reason for going to Kagoshima is to visit Yakushima island, a World Heritage Site. It is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in Japan, and the forest that inspired Princess Mononoke.

If anyone has suggestions for what to do, where to go, things to see in Japan, don’t hesitate to make suggestions. The suggestions I’ve gotten from this website have proven more valuable that the information I get from guidebooks.

The Happy Prosperous Restaurant of the Golden Arch

Rice Burger
Rice Burger
For all the new readers, you can get the background on why I’m writing about McDonald’s here.

McDonald’s Taiwan is the first McDonald’s I’ve experienced since New Zealand to have a completely unique item on the menu: the rice burger.

The rice burger is a burger where the bun is replaced with rice and the patty is replaced with pork and there is a sweet sauce on the meat. It is basically everything you would get in a pork dish at a Chinese restaurant but in burger form.

Unlike most burgers, it didn’t come in a wrapper or a clam shell burger box. The container looked like a french fry container with a lid. The package had a baseball theme going with Chien-Ming Wang on the package. Chien-Ming Wang is the Michael Jordan of Taiwan. He is a starting pitcher for the Yankees and has won 19 games in each of the last two seasons. I went to the McDonald’s a block away from my hostel one morning when I first arrived and they had a projector set up and were showing the Yankees/Indians game live. I’ll talk more about Taiwanese baseball at a later date.

McDonalds Near My Hostel in Taipei
McDonalds Near My Hostel in Taipei
Back to the burger….

The rice bun wasn’t like a rice cake. It was moist, freshly cooked rice packed into a patty. It came wrapped in a wax paper like container. In hindsight, I think I ate it incorrectly. I think you were supposed to eat it with the paper around it. I ate it like a regular hamburger and the rice started to fall apart. I’m not sure if the rice was weirder than the pork or the sweet sauce. It was different, but it wasn’t bad. From what I understand, the rice burger got its start in Taiwan but has since spread through the rest of East Asia.

Unlike the Philippines, the rice burger was the only rice on the menu at the Taipei McDonald’s. The primary side item was french fries, but they also had a bowl of corn you could get. They also had corn soup on the menu. McDonald’s was the only place I saw corn for sale in Taiwan.

The rest of the menu was very heavy on chicken. Other than a Big Mac and a basic hamburger, there was no beef on the menu. No quarterpounder. No double cheeseburger. No McDLT. No The Big Mac, along with the basic chicken and fish sandwich, are the only items I’ve seen at every McDonald’s on my trip so far.

Crispy McChicken
Crispy McChicken
I had plain fried chicken at a McDonald’s for the first time in Taipei. It was really good. Like, unusually good. I ate chicken at McDonald’s for three days straight I liked it so much. I don’t know why it was so good, but it was.

To give you an idea of the cost of things in Taiwan, a basic Big Mac meal was NTD$99 (US$3). They did offer larger sizes for both fries and drinks, but they didn’t really publicize it. It was NDT$5 to up size either the fries or the drink. Portions were the same size as you would find in the US.

While Coke products were big on the menu, cold green tea seemed like the most popular beverage amongst locals.

I saw one Burger King in Taipei, one KFC, zero Domino’s, a few Pizza Huts and a few Subways.

I did see a bunch of Starbucks, and I saw even more Starbuck ripoffs. There were no fewer than three chains of coffee stores I saw that were ripoffs of Starbucks with very similar logos: Barista Coffee, Mr. Brown Coffee, and IS Coffee. They all had similar round logos with an image in the middle. There was also a burger chain which was probably as popular or more popular than McDonald’s called MOS Burger, but I think they are out of Japan and I’ll probably write about them more when I’m there.

Frankly, there are a LOT of food options in Taipei and western fast food is really a tiny part of the mix. The vast majority of the restaurants and food stalls are Chinese (or Taiwanese. I can’t say I’m that well versed to know the subtle differences).

I’ll be posting the story of my National Day adventure in Taipei soon, which will have more details on my local food adventures.

…I didn’t come all this way just to eat at McDonald’s :)