Monthly Archives: November 2007

Alive at Ground Zero

Posted by on November 5, 2007

I’m well in Hiroshima.

First, I’m finally around other tourists. Tons in Hiroshima especially around the Peace Park. Second, I get off the train, start looking at bus routes and a Japanese woman comes up to me and says in English “are you lost?” So much for people not speaking English. They also have electronics stores here which I haven’t seen in Japan so far….and 7-11s.

The bullet train did indeed live up to its reputation for being fast and reliable. I had to take a non-bullet train for a stretch of the journey because there was no track laid yet. that Stretch was about 1/3 the distance but took 1/2 the time. Maybe more.

The Japanese countryside is very dreary. Same small houses for as far as the eye could see. Every river and stream in the country seems to have its banks covered in concrete.

I also managed to buy the new Mac OS here and install it. I was worried about the language, but it wasn’t an issue.

I have wireless here, so expect more photos and updates the next few days.

Off to Hiroshima

Posted by on November 4, 2007

I’m off to Hiroshima in a few hours. This will be the second train trip of my journey. The first being a 48 hour hellish experience from Dallas to LA. I expect this to go much smoother.

The photos I have from Yakushima should be amazing. I was at Yakusugi early in the morning yesterday and the clouds were still hanging in the forrest. The effect was sort of surreal with all the mist and the cedar trees.

I got my Japan Rail pass, but the route from here to Hiroshima isn’t direct. There are three or four trannsfers I have to make. It should be fine, but you never know. I think at least part of the trip is via bullet train.

…and the Iron Chef was Proud

Posted by on November 2, 2007

I wish I had taken a photo before the meal

I wish I had taken a photo before the meal

I just ate what was probably the best meal I had on my trip. (if you don’t include the dinner I had at Picasso’s at the Bellagio for my send off, it definitely was). I’m not even sure what everything was. There was some sashimi, a shrimp dish in some creamy sauce, a hot soup that was cooked at the table, a small plate of beef and veggies cooked at the table (it wasn’t a teppenaki meal either. It was like a Sterno heater). There was crab, some sort of salad, a fish soup with one of the best broths I’ve ever had, some sort of something I’m not sure what it was but it came in a tiny crock pot and had a shrimp and a scallop in it.

My favorite type of food prior to this trip was Japanese. The gap between it and Indian has gotten larger (but India still will have a shot make up the ground later on).

You will often hear people saying that Chinese/Japanese/whatever food isn’t the same as what it is in China/Japan/wherever. I don’t think that is quite true. If you order fried rice, it wont be that much different from what you will find in China. There isn’t much room to change things. The ingredients are the same, the perpetration is the same, and the people making it for you may have been born in the same country. (There are a few exceptions to this, mostly with spicy foods. Sechuan, Thai, and Indian foods are usually toned down a notch for westerners, but this can usually be corrected by just asking for it to be prepared like it would be back in the motherland).

The real difference is in what isn’t on the menu.

Dinner in Yakushima

Dinner in Yakushima

Since I’ve gotten to Japan (and the same was true in Taiwan), I’ve been bombarded with food choices I’ve never seen before. Yes, I’ve eaten my fair share of sushi, but you don’t see nearly as many noodle stands in the West, even though that is probably the national dish here. All of the foods you see aren’t the stuff of fancy, sit down restaurants either. Most if it is the sort of stuff you can find on the street or at 7-11. Sometimes it might be something familiar in different presentation. It could be something familiar like jerky, but made of something unusual…..octopus.

I realized that if I wanted to share with people I meet the food from my home, taking them out for a steak or a burger wouldn’t really do it. I’d need bratwurst and cheese curds, and you just can’t find that here.

Out of Kagoshima

Posted by on November 1, 2007

I finally made it to Yakushima and I finally found an internet connection I can use with my laptop.

Getting here was another exercise in frustration. I booked a space at a hostel on the island. I never heard back from them. There were no instructions on how to get there from the port (it was supposedly a 5 min walk), and I wasn’t able to find any taxis in the area. So I went to plan B and am staying at a hotel. This hotel has one plug with a LAN connection I can plug into. They hide the plug and the cable. I can’t believe that so many hotels in Japan don’t offer, if not internet access in the rooms, then at least wifi in the lobby.

Moreover, when I was in Taipei, I would go someplace public to eat and see many people with laptops. I have seen no one here with a laptop so far. Perhaps I’m just out in the hinterland or something, but I’ve been very surprised to say the least.

Tomorrow I’m going to rent a car and visit the notable places on the island. It isn’t a huge island and many of the hiking treks are reasonable if you drive to them.

I try to read books on some of the major places I visit. I’m currently reading “Dogs and Demons” by Alex Kerr and read “Embracing Defeat” by John Dower. Both of which deal with post war Japan. It really makes me look at things in the country differently than I otherwise would have. In particular, massive construction projects and a very strange and out of the way landscaping project I found while walking in the hills of Kirishima National Park.

I’ll be here for two days, then the 21 day clock starts ticking on my Japan Rail Pass. I’ll try to go to Hiroshima on Sunday and stay there for a few days. I don’t know the train schedules yet or the process of cashing in my rail voucher, so it might be Monday.

I’ll be in Hiroshima for 2-3 days, before moving on. I’m then thinking of taking the advice of one of my readers and going to Osaka and using it as a base and doing day trips out of there. It is easier to stay in one spot and take the train (especially if it is free) than to constantly lug my bags around.

When I visit a place, I usually do shorter posts like this, some longer posts with photos, then some sort of wrap up post with my final thoughts on the country after I leave. I think I’m going to have to change that for Japan. I don’t think one big end post can do this justice.

Anyway, before I experience the beauty which is Yakushima, I’m going to experience the IMAX version first….because I can’t check into my room for 3 more hours.

National Day

Posted by on November 1, 2007

The flag of the Republic of China

The flag of the Republic of China

I am a member of While I have used it to get information, I have never used it to actually stay at someone’s house or to meet someone. The first person I’ve met on from Couchsurfing was Ruby, who agreed to show me around Taipei on National Day. (October 10)

This is the story of that very interesting day….


The primary festivities were supposed to take place at the Peace Park in Taipei. I was told to get there early, about 7am, so I got up really early just to make sure I was able to find my way there on time. The Peace Park is on the metro line so it isn’t hard to get to, but I hadn’t used the Taipei metro at that time, and the park was in walking distance of my hostel, so I figured I’d just walk.

Bad move. I ended up far away from where I was supposed to be and eventually had to take the metro just to get back to where I started. I did get to the Peace Park finally, but I was late so I figured I had missed Ruby. I had no idea what she looked like, so I figured I had screwed up and should just make the best of it.

Police at National Day celebration

Police at National Day celebration

I had no idea what was going on at the park. Police were everywhere. Not only were the police there, but they were loaded for bear. They had the riot gear out, trailers designed to deploy razor wire barricades, large steel barricades with barbed wire, and rocket launchers. Yes, rocket launchers.

Bus loads of kids from local high schools were showing up. Everyone was dress in similar school jogging suits. Being the only white guy in the area, I got lots of kids that would wave at me in the bus or try to practice their English with me (“Where you from? You like Taiwan? Do you like the Yankees?” See my Taiwan McDonald’s post for why the Yankees are popular in Taiwan…)

Being “the white guy” paid off as Ruby eventually found me wandering around with my camera. She didn’t know what was going on with all the police either. There was supposed to be some sort of parade/performace with all the high school kids. From what I could gather, there were protests last year so this year the police went way out of their way to have a strong show of force. The missile launchers were there as a sort of show of force to China.

We kept waiting around for something to happen, but nothing ever did. A bigger crowd showed up, including quite a few German tourists, some Boy Scouts, and a guy walking around with a sign giving out free hugs. (guess who got questioned by the Police…)

We eventually decided to leave as nothing was really happening. Ruby helped me through the process of getting a card for the Metro and we went to the Metro mall inside the Taipei Main Train Station. In particular we went to a restaurant called Din Tai Fung, which specialized in steamed dumplings. They had a window where you could see them making the dumplings. It sort of reminded me of an upscale Chinese version of Denny’s.

Steamed dumplings are not something new to me, but I did learn the proper way to eat them. I had always just grabbed them with chopsticks and put it into my mouth. I was shown how to put it on a spoon and add ginger with vinegar or soy sauce on top. We also had some other dishes as you can see from the photos.

After we were finished eating, it was still pretty early, so she took me to a city outside of Taipei near the coast, Jiou-Fen.

This is a bean soup and a dessert

This is a bean soup and a dessert


The trip there was about an hour via train and bus. The city was a just a small town was some temples. It was where a lot of people from the city would come on their days off. Because it was National Day, there were a fair number of people there.

It was also raining. It has been overcast or raining my entire time in Taipei up until the last few days I was there. It was the leftovers of the typhoon which passed by a a few days before I arrived. The area we walked around was partially covered, so I only had to occasionally jump between awnings to avoid getting wet.

The market was sort of a day equivalent of the night markets in Taipei. Lots of food vendors, lots of souvenirs, lots of things to cater to tourist (mostly from Taiwan. I don’t really seeing any westerners there).

I got the impression that this was the “keepin it real” part of Taiwan. I’ve eaten at tons of Chinese restaurants in my life, but I have never seen many of the foods offered here. Stinky tofu, pies with meat and tapioca, and something that I don’t know the proper name of, that I can only describe as bean soup dessert.

Fish ball vendor in Jiou-Fen

Fish ball vendor in Jiou-Fen

Stinky tofu does indeed stink. It has a smell very similar to that of a strong blue cheese. It isn’t as bad as a Limburger, but it’s pretty strong. The taste is just like tofu, which is to say there really isn’t much taste to it at all. The stuff we had was fried, but I saw it served other ways as well.

The bean soup dessert really wierded me out. It didn’t taste bad, it was just a very different combination of tastes that what I normally expect when eating bean soup. For starters, it was literally bean soup. It was full of beans and sweet potatoes. As if you purchased a bag of beans to make a bean soup. Second, The sweetness didn’t come from the sweet potatoes either. This was very sweet. Like they dumped a bag of sugar into a pot of bean soup. Also, it was also served hot. I had the simultaneous sensation of eating a hot soup for desert and sugary beans. It was very odd. I ate everything, but I couldn’t really finish off the broth. Hot, sugary, bean water didn’t appeal to me.

On the way back to Taipei City, we stopped and checked out some of the local souviner places and had dinner at a local restaurant which was near the hostel I was staying at. When you are in a place where you don`t know the language, it is easy to eat street food but much harder to eat at proper sit down restaurants. With street food, you just point at what you want, but if it is a legit restaurant, you have to read from a menu. Having Ruby there to order made the entire process easy.


The goal for the evening was to go and catch the National Day fireworks display. We managed to get out of the restaurant, take the metro, get on a shuttle bus and made it to the harbor where the fireworks were being displayed, just in time. The street in front of the harbor was packed with people. It looked like Times Square on New Years Eve.

Dried fish vendor

Dried fish vendor

I have no photos of what happened this evening. I was carrying around my camera in my camera bag and I wasn`t able to take it out. I had planned on taking photos of the fireworks, and I brought my tripod along so I could shoot it, but if I had taken the camera out it probably would have been destroyed.

I need to describe the set up where everyone was taken to view the fireworks. The harbor, where all the shuttle busses dropped everyone off, is surrounded by a very high wall. The wall goes down the length of the river, so there is no way to really go over or around it. There was however a gate and a small area on the other side of the gate near the river.

The fireworks were being set off on the other side of the river. This means that the wall prevented pretty much everyone who was there on the street from seeing them.

Oh, and the Chinese really like fireworks…..

We eventually worked our way op to the harbor wall, which was right at the point where the entire street of people was trying to get to. The crush of everyone trying to see the fireworks was to the point where I felt I was going to have the wind crushed out of me. Little kids were screaming and it was near impossible for their parents to get them out. I kept having headlines from the 1979 Cincinnati Who concert flashing in my head.

This is literally the only time on my trip where I felt like I was in any sort of danger. When you are in a crowd like that, there isn’t much you can do. You can’t run. You can’t walk. Eventually a flow of people moving the opposite direction opened up and Ruby and I got out that way. It was really crazy.

My day began with a failed parade and a show of Taiwanese police and military force and ended with fireworks show that could have ended up in a mass trampling, and in between, lots of Chinese food.

I’d really like to thank Ruby for showing me a side of Taipei I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It was a helluva day…