Monthly Archives: November 2007

Off to Gyeongju

Posted by on November 29, 2007

First meal in South Korea

First meal in South Korea

After resting in Busan for two days, I’m off to Gyeongju. Gyeongju is an historic down in Korea and has two World Heritage Sites. I’ve been staying at Zen Backpackers in Busan, which is different that most places I’ve stayed in that it is an apartment on the 29th floor of a high rise building. Everyone I’ve met here is either coming from Fukuoka or going to Fukuoka. It is definately the place to stay if you are traveling through Busan.

I’m hoping I can work my way to Seoul in just a few days. There are only a few stops I want to make between here and there and it is starting to get cold. It was 0 this morning (I’ve fully converted by brain to metric now, by the way. That would be 32F to the folks back home). My stay in Korea will probably be relatively shorter than my stay in Japan just because I desperately want to start heading south.

The food here is very good. In addition to the meal you see in the photo, I’ve had shabu-shabu and samgyeopsal. Samgyeopsal was really fun. You could it right on your table. I ate both shabu-shabu and samgyeopsal with Hye-Jin, a girl I met on the boat ride over from Fukuoka. I a good time was had by all.

I am going to have to make a serious effort to go out of my way to visit a McDonald’s in Korea to do my update…

Last Thoughts on Taiwan

Posted by on November 27, 2007

Street view of Taipei 101

Street view of Taipei 101

I’ve had this sitting in an unfinished draft on my computer for several weeks now. I figure I should get it up and out before I get any farther in Asia. I don’t want to get more than one country behind or I start to forget to much.

As I noted when I arrived in Taiwan, it is the first country I’ve visited on my trip which I have previously visited. As such, my thoughts on Taiwan aren’t just what I think of the place, but also what I think of the changes in the eight years since I was last there.


The biggest change I noticed in Taipei was the traffic. When I was last in Taipei, the metro hadn’t yet opened and the thing I remember most of Taipei was the streets jammed with scooters and taxis. There were very few private cars. I remember taking a photo at the time of an intersection which must have had about 100 scooters.

Scooters are still the most popular mode of transportation in Taipei, but there doesn’t seem to be as many as before. Likewise, there are more private cars, pretty much all of which are new and nice. Overall, the traffic in Taipei seems much lighter and the city seems cleaner. Not only is that a function of less traffic, but I think the scooters have gotten cleaner. The newer scooters have four-stroke engines instead of older, dirty two-stroke engines.

I really liked the Taipei metro. Along with Singapore, it one of the best I’ve seen in the world so far. It was very easy to navigate even if you don’t know Mandarin.

When I last spent a week in Taipei, I still felt as if I didn’t know the layout of the city. Now I feel as if I have a good idea of how it works.

The other big change I noticed is the use of English in the population.

In 1999, other than the people in the office I was visiting, I met no one who knew English. This time, about half the people I met in stores and restaurants were able to carry on a reasonable conversation in English. All of those people were probably under the age of 20. Almost everyone at the hostel I was staying at was there to teach English overseas. English has been a high priority for Taiwanese education. In addition to teaching it at school, there are also conversation schools which teach English to students, English schools for little kids, and English schools geared towards business professionals. I even read that there was discussion to make English one of the official languages of Taiwan (along with Mandarin and Taiwanese). I don’t know if they ever did it, but it gives an indication of how high of a priority they have given English instruction.

Chang Kai-Shek Memorial

Chang Kai-Shek Memorial

The Future

I had the pleasure of having dinner with Aaron Mowrey while I was in Taipei. Aaron was a debate coach in Minnesota when I was involved with debate, and he was the first person I’ve seen since I’ve started my trip that I knew before the trip started. He is studying in Taipei on a fellowship from Yale.

We discussed the future of Taiwan, the economy, and how it is doing compared to the rest of east Asia.

One of the things we discussed was the thing which is sort of always hanging over any discussion of Taiwan: relations with China.

Just in case you are not familiar with the history of Taiwan, let me give you the brief, 20 second history. At the beginning of the 20th Century, China is technically still an empire with an Emperor, with European countries heavily influencing the country. A revolutionary leader by the name of Sun Yat-Sen overthrows the Imperial government and establishes the Republic of China. Sun Yat-Sen dies in the 1920s and his replacement is a young Chang Kai-Shek.

During the 20s and 30s, rebel communist groups are active in the hinterlands. Later in the 30s, the Japanese invade Manchuria. The Republican forces are overwhelming compared to the communists, but the communists, under Mao Zedong, use the war, a large amount of Soviet assistance and some very clever tactics to eventually route the Republicans and send them fleeing to the island of Formosa. The government on Formosa continued to keep the Republic of China (RoC). The leadership was the same, the flag was the same, and they continued to be recognized at the legitimate government of China by most of the world after WWII.

Sun Yat-Sen is probably the only figure looked up favorably by both the PRC and the ROC

Sun Yat-Sen is probably the only figure looked up favorably by both the PRC and the ROC

The obvious problem was that they did not control a land mass the size of the United States and billion people. Eventually, reality gave in and in the early 1970s, the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) was recognized by the US and was given the seat that the RoC had on the UN Security Council.

The end result of all of this is that today, Taiwan is sort of in a diplomatic no-man’s land. Very few countries formally recognize Taiwan as China. Those that do are usually tiny nations like the Marshall Islands. The US has to go through some diplomatic contortions to work with Taiwan. They don’t have an embassy in Taiwan, but there is a “non-governmental organization” made up totally of “former” State Department officials who work on visa and passport issues. Officials that resign from the State Department to work there do not have that time count against them for seniority or retirement. Got that?

Everywhere I went in Taipei you would see signs advocating Taiwanese membership in the UN. Taiwan has backed away from claims of being the government of all of China and have been moving to just claiming to be the government of Taiwan. However, they have not declared themselves independent. The PRC still considers Taiwan to be part of China. If Taiwan declares themselves independent, China has said they would invade. The US has said they would defend Taiwan.

It has been a potential mess in the making for decades.

Personally, I think the odds of a war happening over Taiwan are small. There are several reasons for this:

  • if it was going to happen, it would have happened under Mao. Much more is at stake now and the Chinese and Taiwanese leaders seem more rational.
  • China has more to lose now that it is more tightly integrated into the world economy. While Taiwan is important, the implications of an embargo or sanctions could crush the Chinese economy. It is much easier for western nations to find low cost supplies of products than it is for China to find new buyers.
  • Relations have been improving between Taiwan and China. While I was in Taiwan, the communist party had their congress in Beijing. Hu Jintao announced he would be open to talk with Taiwan. China has proven they can think long term with Hong Kong, I don’t see why they can’t wait out Taiwan, especially since they can do business with them in the mean time.
  • An invasion would destroy Taiwan which would defeat the purpose of invasion.
  • A move towards independence would risk Taiwanese assets in China. Even if China didn’t invade, they could seize Taiwanese assets and stop trade and investment. Taiwan has an enormous amount at stake in China economically and it would cripple them if they announced independence.
  • A personally think that a Puerto Rico solution might be the end result. Puerto Rico is part of the United States, yet they pretty much run their own show, have their own olympic teams, etc. I could easily see a compromise where Taiwan is part of “China” (whatever that means) yet they have their own government, own currency (like Hong Kong), own olympic team and military. They would send advisors to Beijing (like Puerto Rico has representatives in Congress who don’t vote), perhaps have some officials at the UN in a non-voting status, have joint military exercises, etc.

If this issue can be resolved peacefully (and it is in the interest of all parties to do so), there is really no reason for armed conflict between the US and China, who are a world apart. While I don’t think the probability of a conflict it high, I do think it is one of the most important areas for future diplomatic efforts.

Taipei at night

Taipei at night


Aaron pointed out how the Taiwanese feel like they are slipping economically, especially compared to other Asian countries, specifically South Korea. I certainly don’t see any signs of slippage from the changes I’ve seen over the last eight years. While other nations have caught up to Taiwan, I don’t think it means that Taiwan has gotten any worse.

The most important industry in Taiwan seems to the computer electronics industry. Unlike Japan or Korea, much of the industry in Taiwan seems centered around personal computers, in particular processors, memory and laptops. If you have a laptop, there is a good change it was manufactured in Taiwan, regardless of the brand.

The problem is, the industry has pretty much become a commodity business. There is only one Taiwanese brand I can think of and that’s Acer. Acer isn’t really what you’d call a high end brand. Certainly not thought of in the same way as a Samsung, Sony, or Apple. Taiwan needs to start moving up the food chain. The business they had being the location of preference for manufacturing is quickly being taken over by China. They need to focus more on creating strong brands, design, and engineering. Basically, get out of the commodity business or find a way to de-commodify what they do.

Taiwan also needs to figure out how it fits into the rest of China. China already has two strong finance centers in Hong Kong and Shanghai. I think Taiwan’s best bet would be to become the Silicon Valley of China. China has the finance and manufacturing in place. What they need is place for entrepreneurs to flourish. While many businesses are starting right and left in China, being on an island away from the mainland and outside of the control of the PRC makes it an ideal candidate for being the Chinese launching pad for new ideas and entrepreneurs.

I really enjoyed Taipei. I was there a week longer than I had originally planned because I found it such and comfortable place to be. It will be interesting to see how it compares to Hong Kong and mainland China.

Sweet, Sweet Continental Crust

Posted by on November 27, 2007

For the first time since I left Los Angeles, I am not on an island!

The boat ride was great and I met a very nice Korean girl on the boat over. Within the hour of arriving in Busan, I’ve had several people come up to me to say hello. Koreans are much more friendly than Japanese.

Lots of street food and much more spicy than in Japan.

Lots more to come. My internet connection here is great.

Daily Travel Photo – Manila, Philippines

Posted by on November 26, 2007

St. Augustines, Manila, Philippines

St. Augustine's, Manila, Philippines

This is the choir loft of St Augustine’s church. Note the large choir book on the stand in the middle of the floor. These were written with very large script so all the members of the choir could read off the same book. St. Augustine’s is part of the Baroque Churches of the Philippines UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Domo Arigato Mister Momofuku

Posted by on November 26, 2007

The selection of instant noodles at the average Japanese supermarket is amazing

The selection of instant noodles at the average Japanese supermarket is amazing

I have a quick question for you, and you have to think really quick…..what is the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th Century?

My guess is that that first thoughts that come to mind might include the Walkman, instant cameras, the VCR, blue-green lasers, DVDs (jointly with Phillips), or something involving technology.

They took a poll at the end of the 20th Century asking that very question. The #1 Japanese invention considered by the Japanese was……… instant noodles.

I’ve been wanting to write about this since the first month of my trip when I was in Hawaii. Since then, I’ve probably seen more people eating instant noodles in all the countries I’ve been to than probably any other food. Along with corned beef it was a staple in the Pacific. In the Philippines and in Taiwan, you could find large selection of instant noodles in most convenience stores.

To the average American, instant noodles immediately brings up images of starving college students living of square packages of ramen. In Japan, nothing could be farther from the truth. The instant noodle meals you can purchase here are full blown meals and several generations removed from the bare bones ramen packets you see in the US.

1) The package

1) The package

First some background. The inventor of the instant noodle was Ando Momofuku, who at the age of 48 in 1958, came up with the modern instant noodle. Hunger was a serious problem in Japan after WWII and one of the primary staples of the Japanese diet was wheat imported from the US. Noodles are perhaps the staple food in the Japanese diet, yet everyone was encouraged to make bread. Because noodles didn’t have a long shelf life, he set out to do his part to end starvation by developing a way to preserve noodles.

After many attempts, he developed a technique of flash frying noodles in palm oil. The company he started was Nissin which still exists today. They are the makes of Top Ramen and Cup Noodles. (what’s the one advertisement in Times Square that almost everyone can recognize? The Nissin Cup Noodles sign.)

I always referred to instant noodles as ramen. That isn’t exactly correct. Ramen refers to noodles in a broth, not the noodles themselves. The prepared dish would be ramen, but the noodles by themselves, technically wouldn’t be.

While you can find noodles in cups and bowls, the most common form of instant noodles in the US are the brick packages with the powder flavor packets. Based on this, you’d be right to be suspicious of eating instant noodles. The brick packages are throwbacks to the 60’s when instant noodles first hit the market. Since then they have been taken a long way in Japan, but we have never followed along.

The modern Japanese instant noodle meal is still not nearly as good as a freshly prepared noodle dish, but it is miles better than the noodle bricks with powder flavor packages. Here is a breakdown of an average instant noodle meal in Japan:

2) The Ingredients

2) The Ingredients

Most of the noodle meals in Japan are sold in styrofoam bowls or cups. You can find the brick pacakages, but there are usually only a very small number on the bottom shelf. In the Pacific I remember seeing larger family size brick packages of noodles at roadside village stores. In the Philippines, most of the noodle bowls you’d see in convenience stores (and there were lots of them) were imported directly from China or Japan and hand no English packaging.

The styrofoam bowl, while increasing the price over the brick packages a bit, increases the convenience factor dramatically. In fact, if you purchase a noodle bowl at a convenience store in Japan, they will always put a pair of chopsticks in your bag. The entire meal is self contained.

Inside the bowl, you’ll see a lot more than just a powder flavor package. I’ve had some noodle bowls with as many as 5 or 6 packages inside the bowl. The ingredients is really where most of the progress have been made in noodle technology. Most bowls will have a powder flavor packet. That hasn’t changed. What they do have is one of more of the following: a liquid flavor package, dried meat, dried vegetables, a moist meat package similar to the pouches that tuna comes in.

The problem with the brick packages of ramen isn’t so much what is in it or the fact that it is fried. The problem is what it lacks. There is zero protein, zero vegetables, and very low nutritional value. Putting more meat, vegetables and nutrients into the package, it makes it a more well rounded meal. I must confess however, I have no idea as to the actual nutritional contents of each package, because I can’t read the labels.

3) Enjoy!

3) Enjoy!

You can see in the photo, that the end result is something much more appetizing than noodles in broth. Because of the liquid packages, the broth is usually much more creamy. I’ve even had some bowls which had something that looked like a small pad of butter. When you added hot water, it would melt and form a creamy broth. Personally, I’d often buy a small package of dried octopus or fish and add it to the bowl for extra flavor and protein.

If you should ever find yourself in an Asian grocery store, check out the instant noodle section. You should be able to buy most any noodle bowl for under $2. Just throw a bowl into the shopping cart and give it a try. You’ll like it. You may have no clue what you’re eating because you can’t read the package, but so long as you can eat pork or seafood (this stuff definitely isn’t kosher), you’ll be fine.