Two Amazing Gadgets for Traveling

I carry a lot of electronics with me. I figure that if you include all my electronics and electronics related stuff (cables, wires, chargers, etc), I have more electronics with me than I do everything else combined.  I’m not complaining, I like electronics. I like running the website, taking photos, etc. I have by necessity sort of becoming an expert on traveling with technology. I have recently purchased two items which have really made my life easier and I’m so giddy about them I just have to share.

iPod Touch

I missed out on all the hoopla with the iPhone. I didn’t actually get to even see a real one until several months after they launched when I visited the Apple Store in Honolulu. Given my circumstances, an iPhone was out of the question. Constant moving between countries makes it very difficult to have any sort of phone, let alone something like an iPhone which is tied down to a provider.

I figured that Apple would milk the technology in the iPhone for all it was worth and come out with an iPod. I was right.

I saw it for the first time in the Ginza store in Tokyo. I had to go there anyhow to get my power cord for my laptop replaced and got to play with it for the first time. I broke down and purchased the 16gb model.

For starters, I have been traveling without an MP3 player up until that point. I do have an old 40gb iPod with me, but the battery is shot so I can only use it when its plugged into the laptop. It is pretty much just a storage device at this point. Having a lightweight, slim MP3 player has been great. I’ve dramatically increased the number of podcasts I listen to. I find it to be a much better use of my time than just listening to the same music over and over. Podcasts I now subscribe to include: Indie Travel Podcast, History of Rome, Filmspotting, The Economist, Stratfor, National Geographic World Talk, NPR Foreign Dispatch, Binge Thinking, TED Talks, This Week in Media, This Week in Tech, Rocketboom, and a few I can’t think of off the top of my head.  I also have one set of the Feynman Lectures.  (Even better than the Feynman Lectures are the Walter Lewin lectures from MIT. I want to get those on my iPod too. I watched the entire Physics I  course before my trip. I just read an article about him in the NYT where he prepares 25 hours for each 1-hour lecture. It shows.)

Now when I’m eating, or on a subway, I catch up on things. I tend of have lots of time to do that, so more often than not, I have no podcasts to listen to. Video podcasts work especially well on the iPod Touch.  On its own merits as a music and video player, the iPod Touch is great.

But wait, there’s more…..

It also serves as a photo album. I have about 100 of my best photos from Flickr on my iPod Touch. It is very handy to whip it out and show people my route (i took a screen shot of my route in Google Earth), and the places I’ve been. It makes it a bit more real. I’m going to put some of my videos on it as well.  You move through photos my just wiping your finger across the screen. I had one girl in Roppongi entranced for like an hour looking at photos and asking me questions. How many pieces of technology can do that???  It is far and away the best pocket photo book I’ve ever seen. It is much better than using prints.

But wait, there’s more….

I can also use it as a web browser. On several occasions now I have used it to check email from the street or in a restaurant where I found an open wifi connection. In Hong Kong, I purchased a 30-day wifi account with the local phone company for about US$20 that works on both my iPod and my laptop. It also lets me see if there is a wireless signal in the area, so if I want to use my laptop, I don’t have to bring it out to check. I can use the iPod as my wifi sniffer, which I’ve done several times.

When shopping for a camera in Hong Kong, I pulled up the Google page with all the prices for the model I wanted. When I went into bargain, I showed them how unreasonable their prices were and justification for what I thought was reasonable. It really took the wind out of their sails (or should I say sales??).

Once they open up the API and let 3rd parties write programs, it is only going to get better. It lacks some simple things like a text editor, but I’m sure that will come.  They should come out with a model that lacks voice and just has data with a cell company. The more I see people use cell phones in Asia, the more I realize that data, not voice, is the killer app.

The Sanyo HD1000

When I started my trip, my intent was to do a lot of video podcasting. As you can see, there hasn’t been much of it. Honestly, it is much easier to shoot photos than it is to do video. Moreover, my cames uses miniDV tapes which are a real pain to work with when you are on the road. You shoot an hour of video, you have to let it play for an hour to capture it on your computer. Then it is all one big file and you have to chop it up to get what you want.  What I wanted was a small, lightweight camera that didn’t use tape and shot in HD. When I left back in March, there really wasn’t anything on the market which captured my attention. I got a camera, and its a nice camera, but it wasn’t really right for the sort of work I’m doing.

When I read about the new Sanyo line of cameras, I got really excited.  The HD100 and the HD700 are small cameras with a pistol grip design. The best part is they don’t use tape. They don’t even use a hard drive. They write directly to flash memory. Moreover, they store each clip as a separate file, so you can instantly get which one you want. I have an 8gb memory card in my camera and I also purchased a wide angle lens. Today I took some test video at the 10,000 Buddhas Temple in Hong Kong. As I’m writing this, I’m FTPing all of it to Kris. I got my Palau video to him that way and the whole process went very fast. Sending a tape via international mail can take weeks and it might never get there at all. (there is a package I sent from Taiwan to my parents that never made it there).  Is really the perfect camera for what I want to do. No tape, No moving parts, Full HD. (Actually, iMovie and QuickTime doesn’t work with the clips shot in full 1080i mode. Sanyo blames Apple and Apple blames Sanyo. There are some work arounds, but until then I will probably just shoot in 720p)

Oh, I also found out today that it will function as an HD web cam when I hook it up to my computer. I wonder if Skype will work in HD?

I’m going to stop using YouTube for displaying videos. There is no point in shooting High Definition video then put it up on YouTube where it will look like crap. I don’t know what service I”ll use, but I’m more than open to suggestions.

I hope to have some sort of video to show from Macau and then progressively better ones as I figure out what the hell I’m doing.  Once I get to that point, I’ll probably put up the videos on iTunes.

Not in Macau

So, I’m not in Macau after all.

I decided to stay a bit longer so I can get new glasses here. Its cheap and I’d rather not wait until I get to Australia. Also, the impending Christmas season is making it hard to get rooms and flights. I’ll make the best of it. I need to find a store that sells sandals here too. I went to, what I can only call, the shoe district last night to find a pair. The only store I could find with sandals only had Men’s sandals in a size 11. Chinese just don’t wear sandals I guess.

I’m off to the 10,000 Buddhas Temple today. I’m going to take a photo of everyone so I have daily photo material for the next 30 years.

Last Day in Hong Kong

Tomorrow I’m off to Macau. I’m sure I’ll be back to Hong Kong just to get a flight out, but that’s about it.

Last night I had the best Mongolian BBQ I’ve ever had and got to see a street performer escape from a straight jacket. Can’t beat that.

If nothing else, Hong Kong has been very productive for me. I’ve had a big surge in new readers the last week. Some housekeeping issues and things I’ve been working on:

  • The page should be loading faster. I created a static version of the site to take care of traffic spikes I was getting. I’ve been getting a lot of people from StumbleUpon, so thanks to everyone who as been Stumbling my photos and posts.
  • I fixed the RSS feed. The RSS feed should now have full text and images. Before it was truncating everything and leaving the photos out. If you don’t use RSS or know what an RSS reader is, you can click on the email icon in the upper left and have new updates sent to your mail box.
  • If you are new, check out my map. I use Google Earth to mark where I’ve been and embed photos and links to the website for each place. It is a continual work in progress. It is best to view the file directly in Google Earth if you have it installed.
  • I am currently #1 in the Travel Category at the Bloggers Choice Awards. The contest is running through most of 2008, so it is far from over. If you like the site, take 30 seconds to toss me some pity a vote.

The Shrines and Temples of Japan: Part 2, Horyuji and Nara

Pagoda at Horyuji Temple
Pagoda at Horyuji Temple
If you’ve been following along for a while, or if you at least take a look at the left column of my website, you’ll notice that I have an affinity for UNESCO World Heritage sites. I’m not trying to visit every one of them, for that would be impossible. I passed up four in Japan and one in the Philippines. I use them as sort of a proxy for a guide book. (and I never use guidebooks). If you know nothing about a country and you wanted to know what “the” things to see while you were there, odds are most of them would be on the UNESCO list. Certainly, if they are of historic, cultural, or natural significance.  This rule doesn’t hold all the time. Some really amazing things are not on the UNESCO list. Nan Modal in Micronesia and the rock islands of Palau come to mind. I also got a bit of a mini-education from the head of the World Heritage Committee in Rennell in the Solomon Islands about how the process works for getting on the list. Let’s just say it isn’t an accident that rich countries have more than poor ones or that something as significant as Nan Madol is off the list while the Sydney Opera House (built in 1972) is on the list.

I will leave my UNESCO rant to a later day…

I bring this up as sort of a prelude to why I bothered to visit Horyuji and Nara in the first place. Unlike Kyoto, I had never heard of either of these places before I visited Japan. Most of the other travelers I spoke with in Japan were not planning on visiting either Nara or Horyuji (especially Horyuji). It just wasn’t on the list of “the” places you had to see in Japan. Too bad for them, because what I saw there were some of the coolest things I’ve seen in Japan.

After Kyoto, I went to Osaka for a few days. Honestly, I probably would have been better off staying in Kyoto given the hassle I had of finding a room.  Both Horyuji and Nara are as easy of day trips from Kyoto as from Osaka. It is just a matter of getting on the right JR train. I managed to see both Horyuji and Nara in one day without difficulty. If anyone in the future should stumble across this while doing a Google search, I’d definitely do both if you are going to do either one. It is a very short train ride from Nara to Horyuji.

Horyuji Temple World Heritage Site
Horyuji Temple World Heritage Site


Horyu is a very small town and the temple is by far its biggest attraction. The Horyuji Temple is actually the first site in Japan to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site, which should give you an indication of its importance. (as a general rule, the earlier a site is declared a heritage site, the bigger of a deal it is. The first were listed in 1993). In nothing else, the Temple of Horyuji has a claim to fame for being the site of the oldest wooden buildings in the world.

Built in the seventh century, the pagoda is the only wooden buildings from that time period on Earth still standing. The log used as the center post of the pagoda was cut in the year 594. Many of the wooden buildings you see in Asia are really reconstructions of earlier buildings which were destroyed by fire or war. Hiroshima Castle? Destroyed in WWII. The golden palace in the Forbidden City in Bejing? Rebuilt several times after fire destroyed earlier buildings. Almost everything I saw in Korea has similar a similar story. The temple of Horyuji, through sheer luck, has managed to survive wars and fire for 1,400 years.

If you look closely at the photo of the pagoda, you will notice a wire running down the lenght of structure. Every wooden building you find in Japan will have a wire like this. It sort of takes away from the photo, but it is vital that they are there because they are the grounding wires for the lightening rods. The number one killer of wooden structures over the years has been lightening. Strangely enough, the odds of the building surviving are probably better now than they were hundreds of years ago. No wars between factional warlords, lightening rods, and no open fires for heat. Oh, and firetrucks.

(Actually, it is believed that the temple isn’t the original building either. The first was built in 607 and burned down in 670. The current temple was finished in 711…a very apt number for Japan.)

The temple is still an active, working Buddhist temple and draws a large number of tourists from Japan. Outside of the pagoda and main temple building, the entire temple compound has a museuma and other structures in addition to a garden.

Todaji Temple, World's Largest Wooden Building
Todaji Temple, World's Largest Wooden Building


The biggest surprise was in Nara. Most of the historic things of note are all within one large area centered by a park. Like Miyajima outside of Hiroshima, Nara is full of tame deer roaming around. You can buy stacks of small crackers to feed the deer in the park. Nara was the capital of Japan before Kyoto from 710 to 784.

As I was doing the circuit of the temples in Nara, I wasn’t really impressed by anything, until I noticed a very large gate in the distance. In fact, the size of the gate was sort of deceptive. As I got closer, the gate became huge. It was far larger than any other ornamental gate I’ve seen in Asia. It was the gate to Todaiji Temple. I saw the word Todaiji on the map, but I really knew nothing about it. I thought to myself “This gate must be the big calling card for the temple.” How wrong I was….

Like most of the temples I visited in Japan, they usually chage a small fee. I went to the ticket window, paid my 500 yen and went around the wall go to the main temple building. As buildings go, it isn’t big. You can see bigger in almost any city. It took me a bit to realize that this totally made of wood. This is a freaking huge wooden building. (I later found out that a previous temple stood on the same spot and was destroyed several hundred years ago. The previous temple was actually 1/3 bigger than the current one.)

The Daibutsu in Todaiji Temple
The Daibutsu in Todaiji Temple
So now I’m pretty excited. I like big things. I like old things. I like big, old things. (Imagine how excited I’ll get when I’m at the pyramids..) I’m taking my photos not even thinking about what might be inside a building that large or why you would need to make a building that large to begin with.

I enter the building and there it is. The same thing that is in every Buddhist temple: a statue of the Buddha. This one however is the giant, economy, family sized Buddha. It is called the Daibutsu, or large Buddha in Japanese. It is 15m (49ft) high. The original Buddha was built in 754. Since then, temples have been destroyed and rebuilt. The current bronze Buddha was repaired in parts over the last several hundred years. The current building dates back to 1701. (Amazingly enough, there used to be two pagodas here that were estimated to be 100m tall. They would have been the tallest structures in the world outside of the Great Pyramid.)

Inside the temple are several giant guardian statues. Each one is about 30ft (10m) tall. There is also a hole carved into one of the pillars in the temple. It is said that if you crawl through the hole, it will give you long life. As children are the only ones who can realistically fit through it, it is probably true.

In addition to Todaiji, there were other things on interest in Nara (Nigatsu-do Hall and Kasuga Shrine), but everything was sort of dwarfed (excuse the pun) by Todaiji. The one other thing that was interesting were the students practicing Ogasawara-ryu, or horseback archery.

If you visit Japan, make it a point to visit Nara and Horyuji. The pagoda at Horyuji and the Todaiji Temple were two of the high points of my trip.

Random Thoughts on Hong Kong

A canopy of street signs
A canopy of street signs
Here are various observations on Hong Kong that are probably too short to justify their own posts:

  • Street signage in Hong Kong for stores are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They not only extend into the road, but often will cross the meridian and overlap signs from the other side of the street. The effect it to almost cover some streets. At night almost makes Nathan Street (the main shopping street in Kowloon) look like downtown Las Vegas.
  • There was a great deal of concern over what would happen to Hong Kong after the hand over from the British to China back in 1997. With the exception of a PRC flag flying over a few governmental buildings, I can see nothing that would indicate that this is part of the PRC. In fact, I was very surprised yesterday to see an informational table set up by members of Falun Gong. I saw a similar table in Taiwan, but that’s Taiwan.
  • Hong Kong has a separate currency from China and Macau. The Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the US Dollar at about HK$7.79 = US$1. The bank notes here are actually issued by private banks. The HK$20 note sitting in front of me say “The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited Promises to pay the bearer on demand at its Offices here TWENTY HONG KONG DOLLARS. By order of the Board of Directors.” There are four banks that issue HK notes. This is actually what currency in the US used to be like in the 19th Century, except you could redeem the notes in gold or silver.
  • I was expecting Hong Kong to be expensive. It is rather cheap. You can get a value meal at McDonald’s for a little over US$3. There are shops for cheap custom tailored suits all over. You can’t walk down the street without someone trying to get you to buy a suit.
  • You also can’t walk down the street without an Indian trying to sell you a copy Rolex watch. They literally will say it is a copy. My guess is that the police probably cracked down on fraud and counterfeit goods and the peddlers got around that by just admitting that their stuff was fake.
  • You can still see a British influence all over the place. The street signs look like they could be from the UK. Many Anglican churches still exist and many British schools. English is widely spoken.
  • It is a good thing that English is widely spoken because this place wouldn’t work without it. This is easily the most cosmopolitan city I’ve seen outside of New York or LA. I hear so many different languages on a daily basis, I can’t recognize most of them. English is the tread that holds it all together. It has a lot in common with Singapore in that respect.
  • The Territory of Hong Kong is much bigger than I thought it would be. It isn’t all dense and urban. There are actually some villages farther out and some areas you can’t even see a single building.
  • You can find ANYTHING to eat here.
  • I’m surprised at the number of Latin American tourists I’ve seen here. I’ve met few few people from Latin America on my trip so far.
  • You can see tenement buildings like the Chungking Mansion right next door to sleek modern high rise buildings. There doesn’t seem to be as much segregation by economics here as in other places (but it does exist. Houses on Victoria Peak are very expensive).

I have two more days in Hong Kong before I’m off to Macau for a bit. Macau is the Vegas of Asia (literally. The same big hotels in Vegas are in Macau). I am liking my new video camera so far. I hope to start churning out podcasts soon. I got a haircut yesterday. First time I’ve gotten a real haircut since I was in Fiji back in July.

The Pinoy Dispora

Filipino kids in Vigan, Philippines. They begged me to take their picture
Filipino kids in Vigan, Philippines. They begged me to take their picture
I don’t just like to write about what I see in certain places and then drop the country as I move on to the next. There are some subjects that deserve revisiting, and one that sort of jumps out at you in Hong Kong is the Philippines. Why the Philippines? You’ll notice it if you spend a little bit of time here. You’ll not only run into a lot of Filipinos but you’ll find many money wire stores that advertise sending remittances back to the Philippines. Some have Philippine flags on the front of the store.  If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that Filipinos constitute the largest group of foreign workers in Hong Kong.

Why? Not hard to figure out. The Philippines is relatively close, English is widely spoken in Hong Kong and almost universal in the Philippines, you can visit Hong Kong without a visa, where as most places require an application process. While I was in the Philippines, the most popular Filipino movie was Apat Dapat, Dapat Apat whose plot involved several female friends who go to Hong Kong to work as domestic servants. (When I was in the Philippines I was watching a TV show when some ads for foreign work opportunities flashed across the screen. I was taken aback at one which was for Hong Kong domestic help, and the position required a college degree. Kind of reflects poorly on job opportunities in the Philippines when they can demand a college degree to get a job as a maid.) As I write this, I’m in a pub eating lunch and the entire wait staff here is Filipino.

Filipinos have become the modern day versions of Jews and Chinese. In every European and Middle Eastern country you used find a population of Jews who filled an economic niche. Likewise, Chinese and Chinatowns can be found all over Asia which they often owned many businesses and were brought in originally as laborers. The same was also true of Indians during the British Empire who went to work in Guyana, Fiji, or Africa. Filipinos are filling that role today. Not only can you find Filipinos in Hong Kong, but also in Saudi Arabia, and throughout Asia. If I were a betting man, based on what I saw in the Philippines, I would bet that you see Filipinos follow the same course in these countries over the next several decades. They come in as laborers and end up owning businesses and having a higher standard of living than the local population. And, like the Jews and Chinese before them, they will probably end up getting the short end of the stick by locals if they become too successful.

You see a lot of signs like this in Kowloon
You see a lot of signs like this in Kowloon
Filipino Hong Kong laborers aren’t the only thing that was the impetus for me writing this. I’ve noticed in the last few weeks that there has been an explosion in the number of Filipino bloggers and websites. As a percentage of the population, they seem far more represented online than you would expect. While I wasn’t something I had considered, in hindsight it makes perfect sense. Working online is basically the same thing as working overseas, without the overseas part. You can have an international audience, earn US Dollars, take advantage of technical training, and do it all under the radar of local officials and not have to leave your family. Based on the small sample of nerds I saw in the internet cafes and game rooms in the Philippines, they have a core of an internet culture on a par or better than other countries in the region.

The Philippines has been slower than most of SE Asia in developing, but I think it probably holds more potential then other countries in the region, in the long run. People however, have been saying that since Marcos fell. If they can overcome their political problems and corruption, I think they might be the next Asian tiger.

The Temples and Shrines of Japan: Part 1, Kyoto

Read part 2 and part 3

The Kyoto Tower is the single most noticeable landmark in Kyoto and was built to lead Kyoto into a future of flying cars and jive talking robot butlers.
The Kyoto Tower is the single most noticeable landmark in Kyoto and was built to lead Kyoto into a future of flying cars and jive talking robot butlers.
Travelers to Europe often complain of church fatigue. Everywhere you go, you see old churches and castles and after a while they all sort of just blur into each other. In Asia, the equivalent would be Shrine and Temple fatigue. No place I’ve visited so far suffers more from this than the greater Kyoto area.

Kyoto is packed full of history. It is like going to Rome or London. This is the where the former capital of Japan was located and it was intentionally spared from bombing during WWII because of the historic structures there. There is so much stuff in Kyoto that after several days, I still felt as if I didn’t see everything. Throw in the sites of nearby Nara and Horyuji, and it was a lot to digest in a short period of time.

I’m going to break up the discussion of the historical shrines and temples of Japan into three different posts. The first will deal with Kyoto, the second with Horyuji and Nara, and the last with Nikko. This will easier to digest for you and easier to write for me.

I’m also only going to touch on what I found interesting. Two of the big attractions in Kyoto for example, are Nijo Castle and the Imperial grounds. I didn’t really find Nijo that interesting and tours in the Imperial household had to be scheduled in advance, so I didn’t bother. I do have photos of both places, however. If you’ve been to Kyoto and think I missed something special, feel free to mention it in the comments.


Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868. The Imperial grounds in Kyoto are in fact still owned and controlled by the Japan’s Royal Family. Having been the capital for over 1,000 years is what makes it the epicenter of Japanese history.

Unlike Hiroshima which was destroyed in the war and totally rebuilt, Kyoto was spared from bombing during the WWII. Since WWII however, most of the older houses and structures in the city have been razed and replaced with modern buildings. At first glance, Kyoto doesn’t look any different than any other Japanese city. (and they really all do sort of look the same, but that is another post). When you arrive in Kyoto by Shinkansen, there is only one building of historical note that you can see: the five-story pagoda at Toji temple.

One of the books I read in Japan was “Dogs and Demons” by Alex Kerr, who is an expat who lives in Kyoto. He really had nothing good to say about the development of modern Kyoto. Unlike many major historic cities like Paris, Kyoto destroyed and rebuilt most of the old housing and in the process destroyed the feel which the city had. While many of the historic buildings were preserved, they were preserved in neighborhoods which are indistinguishable from what you would find in Tokyo or Osaka. This isn’t to say Kyoto didn’t need to modernize but really lacks any unique vibe. You walk away from the train station and the first thing you are hit with are gaudy pachinko parlors. That is the reality of modern Kyoto. (I should also note that Kyoto is the home of Nintendo)

The Golden Pavilion
The Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pavilion

The one thing in Kyoto I just had to see was the Golden Pavilion. One of my favorite movies is Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters by Paul Schrader, about the life of Japanese author Yukio Mishima. One of the four chapters featured snippets of his 1956 book, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. In the movie, a young Buddhist acolyte with a stutter and a limp develops a hatred for everything beautiful and burns down the Golden Pavilion. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made and probably the most overlooked.

Anyway….I really wanted to see the Golden Pavilion. The Golden Pavilion is sort of the poster child for Kyoto. The photos of the Golden Pavilion are one of the iconic images in Japan. What I was completely unaware of until I got there was that the story of a young monk burning down the pavilion….was true! In 1950. a Buddhist acolyte burned down the Golden Pavilion. It was a huge scandal at the time in Japan. The building which currently sits was a replica of the original building and was constructed in 1955. (Actually, like most historic buildings in Japan, the pavilion had burned down several times previously)

The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji in Japanese) was built to house relics of the Buddha on the grounds of a former Shogun. The building is literally covered in gold leaf.

If you ever come across other photos of the Golden Pavilion, you will notice that almost everyone is taken from the exact same angle. You can’t enter the pavilion. There is a pond in front and across the pond there is a place for taking photos. Looking at the structure from across the pond is about the totality of the Golden Pavilion experience. There is a nice Japanese garden nearby, but there are no tours of the building.

Five story pagoda and garden at Toji Temple
Five story pagoda and garden at Toji Temple

Toji Temple

From the outside, the most stunning and prominent feature of Toji Temple is the five-story pagoda. Not only is it the tallest wooden structure in Japan (57m) but it is also the largest structure of any sort in the immediate area. No matter where you go in Japan you will see a sea of two and three story buildings (this is because of earthquakes. Until recently, the engineering to build tall, earthquake proof buildings didn’t exist.) It is really odds to see a wooden building stick out as the tallest structure in the area. As I said earlier, it is the only historic structure I was able to see from the Shinkansen as it entered Kyoto from Osaka.

The temple, however, is more than just the pagoda. There are two large wooden structures on the grounds in addition to a Japanese garden. The other building serves to house large statues of the Buddha. It was in these buildings that for the first time on my trip I got the real feel for something being old. The wood inside was ancient. You could feel it and you could smell it. Prior to this point, the oldest man-made structures I’ve seen were either made from stone (Easter Island and Nan Madol) or were masonry buildings no more than 400 years old (Vigan and Intramuros, Philippines). Toji was in a different league of old, at least as far as the senses were concerned.

The temple is of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, a subject which I feel not in the least bit qualified to discuss further. In many of the temples I’ve been to Asia have belonged to different sects and I can’t say I really know enough to describe the differences between them. I think that will be something I will have to research for a post in 2008 from China or Thailand.

The Shinto shrine to Inari in Fushimi
The Shinto shrine to Inari in Fushimi

Fushimi Inari-taisha

If this looks familiar it is because I used it as a daily photo a few weeks ago. It is a Shinto shrine to the fox deity Inari. The mountain which it is located (also called Inari) is significant because its paths are lined with thousands of wooden gates (torii). The wooden gates are sponsored by individual and are continuously being built. Walking up the mountain surrounded by gates is sort of surreal experience. Every so often you’d run across a guy who works for the shrine installing or painting a new gate. At several spots on the mountain, you would find small shrines with miniature gates. There is a small gate industry in the area as you can purchase gates and put them on the shrines.

There is a scene from the recent movie Memoirs of a Geisha which takes place here.

If you manage to make it up the mountain, you have a beautiful view of Kyoto all its sprawling, gray glory. Along the way, they have small stores and places for pilgrims to buy things. I really had no idea that Fushimi Inara existed before I arrived in Kyoto, but it was probably the highlight of my time there. The fact that I walked for over an hour from my hotel to get there made it all the better when I finally arrived. (Finding a train station just a few blocks away from the entrance which I could have used for free with my JR rail pass made me sad on the way back, however).

In my next installment, I’ll be talking about the oldest and largest wooden buildings in the world in Horyuji and Nara.

Taking Care of Business

I think I’ll be in Hong Kong for a few more days. I have resolved myself to not leave here until I am caught up on my photo processing and have gotten ahead a few posts. My cold is for the most part gone. I have finished all my photos from South Korea and have gotten some of my Hong Kong photos done. They should be finished by the end of today.

I’ve been surprisingly busy the last few days even thought I haven’t really gotten too far from the slum Chungking Mansion. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the website, doing behind the scenes things. It is difficult and frustrating at times to try and keep serious website while traveling.

When I initially started this trip, I had intended to shoot a lot more video. The problem has been having to shoot on tape, then having to run an hour of tape for every hour you shoot, then having to slog through one giant file to get to the footage you want. Even getting Kris to help with editing hasn’t really solved the problem of having to send him tapes, and him having to go through the same process back in the US. In fact, the best footage I have taken was on Easter Island, and that tape is defective and somehow it can’t be read.

I think I may have the solution to my video problems. Sanyo has introduced a new line of video cameras which save everything to flash memory. No tape, no hard drive with moving parts. I could save almost an hour and a half of HD video on an 8gb card (which is one thing that is cheap in Asia). With this, I would solve most of the problems I’ve had with video editing. I could FTP files to the US and even do smaller things myself because the clips are all random access. The quality should be more than good enough for the web. The cost isn’t that bad either.

I really would like to do more video podcasting, and be able to do it on a regular basis. Any camera solution I use is going to have to be something which is easy to edit and turn around video. I think the Sanyo is the answer to my prayers. Too bad it wasn’t on the market last March.

For people who are new to the site, you can see my previous video attempts here (me getting a tattoo) and here (swimming with jellyfish in Palau).

Chungking Mansion

The Chungking was built in the 1960s and is home to over 4,000 people
The Chungking was built in the 1960s and is home to over 4,000 people
Hong Kong is very densely populated. I knew that before I came here and I knew that my selection of affordable lodging wouldn’t be first class. I have no problem with that, and for the first several days I was in Hong Kong I had a nice, but small, place to stay. However, I wanted to stay a few more days and (this has happened a lot in Asia) they were booked over the weekend. I fired up the internet and checked out places that were available. I wound up at a hostel in the Chungking Mansion in Kowloon.

Normally, when I do longer posts, I tend to wait until I’m out of the country when I have more time to go over photos and think about what I”m going to say, but I wanted to make an exception here. I’m writing this inside my tiny room in the Chingking Mansion and I think it is so different, so unique, so……Hong Kong, I had to share this immediately.

I have never, ever seen anything like this place in my life. Do not let the word “mansion” fool you. This is as far from a mansion as Miller (the champaign of beers) is from champaign. The fact that this building has its own Wikipedia entry should tell you something.

Inside Chungking Mansion
Inside Chungking Mansion
The moment I walked into the doors I felt like I had stepped into a scene from Blade Runner. Africans, Indians, Arabs, Europeans, Filipinos, and mainland Chinese made this look like an alien experiment where they took a sampling of people from every part of the world and put them in one place to see how they would live together. Time Magazine called the Chungking the best example of globalization. I’m not entirely certain that if I were globalization, I would not want the Chungking Mansion to be my poster child.

The first floor of the building is all shops, stores and restaurants. It is nothing but remittance stores, money changers, places to buy luggage, electronics stores, cutom tailoring shops, cell phone kiosks and halal restaurants.

If you walk with a bag, you will be accosted by people trying to sell you a room. In the A Block of the building alone (and there are five blocks), I counted 30 guesthouses, hostels or hotels. That isn’t a typo. Three-zero. I literally cannot walk in or out of the building without someone trying to rent me a room.

Chungking Mansion Block
Chungking Mansion Block
Getting up or down the building is difficult. Each block has two elevators: one for even floors and one for odd. The elevators are small so there is always a queue to get in. More often than not, there is a full car going up and a full car going down. I’m on the third floor so I usually just take the stairs.

Being on the third floor is a good thing because this is probably the biggest fire trap I’ve ever been in. Lets just say the wiring codes in Hong Kong are not at the same level as the rest of the developed world. The third floor is the base floor for the building. All the different blocks seperate on this floor. This means I can get out side quikly if something were to happen (I know. I actually took the time to check the escape exits in here).

I’d say that if you are around Nathan Street in Kowloon, you should stop by and see it, if only for the experience, but if you are in the area, you probably can’t avoid it. I can’t really recommend anyone stay here unless you are really on a budget or have no choice. There are better places to stay that are cleaner, nicer, and you don’t feel that you are trying to get ripped off by everyone you meet. You also wont have to deal with the ever present smell of feces.