Off to Gyeongju

After resting in Busan for two days, I’m off to Gyeongju. Gyeongju is a historic down in Korea and has two World Heritage Sites. I’ve been staying at Zen Backpackers in Busan, which is different than 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 definitely 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 my 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

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

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.

Domo Arigato Mister Momofuku

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 the 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 a large selection of instant noodles in most convenience stores.

To the average American, instant noodles immediately bring 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 packages, 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 has 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.

1 Month

I have been in Japan over one month. I can’t really believe it. I’ve have so much stuff to write about, but I’ve been so busy it has been hard to find the time. I still have 6gb of photos to go through. You’ll be seeing Japan updates for a while I think.

Tomorrow is the last day of my rail pass. I’ll be leaving Tokyo and going to Fukuoka where I can get the ferry to South Korea. I’m hoping to stop and see Mt. Fuji on the way if the weather is clear.

Today I was in Nikko and went to the fish market at 6am. Had sushi for breakfast. Yesterday I was at Shibuya and Shinjuku and was up early to talk with the family for Thanksgiving. (Japan had their Thanksgiving on Friday. Yes, they have it.) Thursday I went and hit Roppongi at night with a guy from Wales, London and Switzerland. A good time was had by all. I’ll be going into more detail on all those neighborhoods later.

I’m staying at a capsule hotel for the second night tonight in Akihabara, the big electronics district. It is……different.

I also got an iPod Touch at the Apple Store in Ginza. It is amazing. If only there were more open wifi ports in Tokyo.

I’ve also hit a point where I have amassed so many photos I’m going to start doing a daily photo on the website. I think it is a good way for people to enjoy some of the sights I’ve seen without having to slog through all my stuff on Flickr.

I think I’m going to take a day of rest in Fukuoka. I’ve exhausted

Tokyo Drift

I’ve been in Tokyo for two days now and haven’t done a thing. I’ve really just been processing my mound of photos. I’m still not totally done, but I’m far enough for my satisfaction. The problem of uploading that many photos at once is it is usually too many for people to look at all at once. At least I’ve been able to rest and I’m not as sore from carrying my stuff around for several days.

While I found a place in Tokyo, I’m back having to find a place for the weekend. It is near impossible to find a bed in a hostel during the weekend in major Japanese cities. You have to reserve well ahead of time, which quite frankly, isn’t my strong point.

My rail pass runs out on Sunday, so I don’t think I’m going to get too much farther north than Tokyo. I did want to go to Hokkaido, but it is starting to get cold and my desire to see Hokkaido is overwhelmed by my desire to avoid the cold. Korea will still probably be cold (I remember seeing snow in episodes of MASH) and I don’t want to spend much more time than I need to in winter.

My goal for the next 24 hours is sushi. I’m going to seek out one of the best sushi restaurants in Japan for a meal, eat fugu, and visit the fish market tomorrow morning.

Other than that, I’ll be doing the typical Tokoy tourist stuff: Imperal Palace, Ginza, Rappongi, and I might take a day trip to Nikko.

I’ve been asked what I’m going to do for Thanksgiving. I’m thinking turkey sushi….

Adventures in Pooping, Vol. 1: Land of the Rising Bun

The toilet of tomorrow......TODAY
The toilet of tomorrow......TODAY
This if the first installment in what I’m sure will several posts on the bathroom habits I discover around the world. I can think of no better place to start than the place which has achieved the pinnacle in toilet technology: Japan.

For those of you rolling your eyes right now, deal with it. I’m the guy who brought you McDonald’s reports from every country, so this certainly shouldn’t surprise you. Also, my McDonald’s posts are usually my most popular ones. You can never go wrong underestimating the Internet. PT Barnum would have a field day if he were alive.


The average western toilet is a pretty elegant, yet simple mechanism. Water is in the tank, is emptied into a bowl, the water level causes water to flow down an S-shaped drain in the back which causes a siphon which takes the water and the contents down with it. Refill the tank, rinse, repeat. Everything is done via water pressure and gravity.

Most western toilets are literally no more than that. They may vary a bit in size and shape, but there are few things to add.

The Japanese, however, looked upon what we did with the toilet and said to themselves, “we can do better than this”….and indeed they have. (Given they traditionally used the squat toilet, they had a great deal of room for improvement)

Captain Kirk would feel at home sitting here
Captain Kirk would feel at home sitting here
I’ve seen several toilets like this one, but the particulars I’ll be discussing involve the toilets in my hotel rooms in Kirishima and Kyoto.

For starters, they use electricity. In addition to having it hooked up to the water and drain, you need to plug it in. (Next time you are in the bath tub, think of a large basin of water being mixed with electricity.) The electricity is needed for the pump, the lights on the control panel, and the seat warmer.

The seat warmer. I have a car with a seat warmer. When its the middle of winter, there is no better feeling than having your butt warmed from below. When you are using the john, the feeling of luxury is even greater. If it is cold out (and it is getting chilly here in Japan) you really don’t want to get up. Ever. I could easily fall asleep on the john because it is usually the warmest place in the room. If you aren’t from a cold part of the world and you haven’t experienced the terror of going to the bathroom outside in freezing temperatures, it is sort of like jumping into cold water. The seat warmer is as comfortable as that is unpleasant.

This toilet had an honest to God remote control. If there is one thing you are never remote from when you need to operate it, it is a toilet
This toilet had an honest to God remote control. If there is one thing you are never remote from when you need to operate it, it is a toilet
Bidet. Basically, the idea of a bidet is to use a stream of water instead of toilet paper to clean yourself. Traditionally, a bidet was a separate basin next to the toilet. To use it, you’d have to sort of scoot over with your pants around your legs to use it.

If you have never used a bidet before, it is a bid odd at first. In fact, you might think that it isn’t quite as good as using paper. However, once you’ve used it and think about it, it is actually a much better solution than toilet paper.

The real innovation from Japanese was integration of the bidet and the toilet bowl. The bidet just is a nozzle which comes out into the bowl when ready, and directs a spray to the right spot. How it knows where to aim is beyond me. I’m not sure I want to know.

Buttons and knobs. Controlling a western toilet is pretty easy. There is one switch and only one thing to do with the switch. The Japanese toilet is not so simple. In addition to the seat warmer, you have to control the bidet. First, the water can be directed to either spray your entire bottom, or a more directed stream to the area in question. You can also control the water pressure. This is important because if you don’t know what is going to hit you, it can come as a big surprise. Trust me. You can also control the water temperature on some of the toilets, which is also a very nice feature. Very nice.

The other thing I’ve noticed in the places I’ve stayed at are the bathroom sandals. Most bathrooms had a pair of sandals in the bathroom for the express intend of being used while going to the bathroom. I have no idea why you need special toilet footwear, but I’m guessing it might be a carry over from the squat toilet days. From what I’ve seen of the squat toilet, I’d want two pairs of shoes for going number 2 as well.

Finally in Osaka

Himeji Castle made it through WWII untouched
Himeji Castle made it through WWII untouched
My trilogy of Osaka posts is now complete. I’m writing this in Osaka and I’m exhausted. I spent all of today walking around Nara and Horyuji with a far too heavy camera bag. I had to carry stuff with me I normally wouldn’t have because my room situation was in flux. Rooms in Osaka have been a real pain this weekend.

My back and legs are killing me. I’ve also not gotten much sleep the last few days because I’ve had to get up early to get to Osaka to find a place. I had no luck finding hostels in Osaka this weekend and had to wing it. Thankfully, after 5 rejections, I found a room at a hotel near the train station.

The last few days have been a blur of temples, shrines, and palaces. Today was probably the most impressive of what I’ve seen so far. The structures at Horyuji are the oldest wooden buildings in the world. T?dai-ji Temple in Nara is the largest wooden building in the world. (33% smaller than the one it replaced in 1709). The Buddha inside is one of the biggest statues I’ve ever seen.

Tomorrow I’m off to Tokyo. Honestly, other than historical stuff, I’ve done little else in Osaka. Time is ticking away on my rail pass so I want to make the most of it. I’m going to spend at least four days in Tokyo, perhaps more. I don’t know if I’ll end up in Hokkaido at this rate.

I probably have close to 500 photos to process still from Himeji, Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. Tomorrow I’ll stop briefly at Mt. Fuji on the way to Tokyo and spend the day updating the website and sitting around.