Thursday, November 27, 2008

Noticing A Theme Yet?

First, I have to apologize for the toilet theme that keeps repeating in so many posts. I think I've said all there is to be said on the matter and then, WHAM! I'm proven wrong! I keep thinking I should wait to post these things--to gather as much info as possible before writing, and I do! But then I realize that I'd be depriving all of you if I were to hold out for more than a few days. And I can't live with that, so here we are again....

Last week, I detailed how beautiful the countryside of the Yunnan province in Southern China is. But I didn't get into the other side of the trek--the nitty-gritty. We were on a bus for 8 hours, which required several stopovers along the way for potty and food breaks. Our first one came about 2 hours into the trip and we parked along a stream that had a large outhouse building beside it. The building was divided in two: one side for men, the other for women. Though there was only one big room on each side. David had gone ahead of me and taken a peek inside while I was on the bus fumbling in my bag trying to locate my toilet paper and hand sanitizer (two ESSENTIAL items in Asia). He warned me about what to expect when I walked in, but it still wasn't enough to prepare me for what I saw:

Luckily, by the time I got in there the crowds had thinned out a bit and I was only required to share this disgusting space with one other woman. I waited until she left to snap the photo. Probably wouldn't have gone over so well if I had tried to take a picture with others present. This style toilet requires a sure foot and impeccable balance to ensure you don't fall through the cracks and wade through raw sewage. Not a place for bare feet (sorry, Brittney Spears!) or sandals. I couldn't help thinking that I would hate to live downstream from one of these, as the contamination obviously seeps into the creek that is less than 10 yards away. Gives you a new perspective on water quality in China, huh?

The next pit stop we made was for lunch and a bathroom break. David and I opted to skip the prepared cooked meal being served and chose a few tangerines instead. The roadside diner obviously had a deal worked out with our bus driver to stop there every time he came through. As a "thank you" for providing regular business, they gave him a free meal in a private dining area away from the other passengers. Another reason for skipping the food this time was that there were crops being grown in a small field directly downhill from the toilet. I don't want anything I put in my body to be contaminated by something that comes out of it, so I decided there was no amount of money you could pay me to eat those greens.

I'd seen this style of toilet before (at the train station in Chengdu). Essentially, its a trough that you squat over, which is divided into stalls with no door and only about a 3 foot high wall dividing each stall. The trough is continuous under each stall and is flushed every so often by a water source at one end that forces the waste to a drain at the other end. There's never enough water sitting in the bottom of these things and large waste tends to sit, fester and rot. Did I mention the humidity of these bathrooms before? Yeah, it really helps with the smell....

This was the same style of toilet at the hospital in Dali. I've learned the trick in all Eastern-style toilets is to take the toilet paper you intend to use out of your pocket before you walk in and use it to cover your nose until its time to wipe. Then you take one big breath, wipe, pull up your pants and make a run for the door before you have to breathe again. Not exactly foolproof, but its better than gagging!

I'm still not feeling well enough for travel after having my ass kicked by food poisoning (if you can call it that after 3 days of sickness). I'd have to be feeling pretty well to risk having to use toilets like these on the road. These holes don't inspire me to want to wander far from my Western toilet at the hostel...

Illness Is NEVER Part of the Plan

So this is day 5 in Dali, when we had only intended to be here for one night. We've been staying at the Jade Emu International Guest House, which I cannot say enough wonderful things about. As I mentioned in my previous post, David came down with what we thought was food poisoning the morning after we arrived. The hostel staff upgraded us from a shared dorm to a private room for no extra charge, they lent us a DVD player, movies and a heater for free and they've been providing meals directly to our room (and last night they made us food after the kitchen was closed). David attributed his condition to a bad burrito, which initially made sense since I didn't have one. But I came down with the same illness two days ago, which knocked me flat in a hurry. One of the hostel owners thinks it might have been the pizza we shared on our first night in town--apparently there are only two reputable place to get a pie here and we didn't eat at either of them....

Luckily, the onset of my food poisoning came around the time he started to feel a little bit better. Don't get me wrong, he's four days in and not back to 100% yet, but he sucked it up and took care of me when I needed it. My symptoms started at 10:00 pm two nights ago and by 11:30 I was shooting things out of both ends on a predictable half hour schedule. By 1:30am, I'd had enough and asked David to take me to the hospital. He woke up the hostel staff to ask for assistance (one of the owners of the hostel came with us as a translator, despite the fact that she's at least 6 months pregnant and stayed with us at the hospital through the night), helped me to the cab and stayed with me all night in the hospital while I received a shot in my butt to stop the nausea and vomiting (which didn't work immediately and I threw up 7 more times--once on David's sandaled foot as he was helping me to the bathroom), and received two IV drips. He was dehydrated and still suffering but he stayed by my side all night and returned to the hospital with me at 3:00 the next afternoon (as instructed by the doctors) to receive 3 more IV drips. All told, he was in the hospital with me for about 14 hours. I'm really lucky to have him!

For those of you who've ever wondered what hospitals overseas are like, they're everything you'd expect. The place was dirty and nowhere close to sterile. I'm not sure I could venture a guess as to when the sheets on my bed were last changed. I found at least one bug in my bed and saw other (smart!) patients bringing in their own sheets. There are grease stains on the walls behind each bed where people have rested their heads. The paint is chipping and peeling all over the hospital, the floors are dirty (there were cigarette butts on the floor in my room) and disposable items like used Q-tips, Kleenex and needle caps were thrown on the floor. The architecture of the building was not closed and the exterior doors were removed--kind of courtyard style. The room I was in had doors and due to our body heat, the temperature was bearable, but it was by no means a heated room. Also, the only bathroom for the building was an outside W.C., which was about a two minute walk from my room. And when you have diarrhea, that's never a good thing!

Here I am about 30 seconds from throwing up for the 10th time in 5 hours. I jacked a trash can from the hostel as a barf bucket (you never know if they'll have what you need ANYWHERE in China, so its best to go prepared). That's Song, the hostel owner, behind me. She was up all night with us and is a total champ!

I was concerned that I would be given used needles but David (who has had EMT training) assured me that he recognized the needle packaging and watched the nurse prep the tray. I got stuck 3 times on my first hospital visit (1 shot, and twice for my IV). They missed the vein the first time and were pumping fluid into my skin, which swelled up painfully over the course of a few hours and had to be moved to my other hand.

The doctor came in to check on me at 7:30am during my first visit and was concerned when I told him that I wasn't feeling any better than when I had arrived. I was discouraged by this too, since I thought that was the whole point of going to the doctor! We went back to the hostel and rested for a while and a few hours later I was feeling much better. But then I started to backslide by about 1:30pm and was glad I had been instructed to return around 2:00. They hooked me up to another round of IVs, with the same results (no immediate improvement, though I felt great hours later). But this time, things stayed positive. I was able to eat some solid food and I'm feeling almost back to normal now.

David didn't receive the same course of treatment as me, though I tried to get him to go to the hospital when he started feeling awful during that first day. He never felt bad enough to risk the hospital, so we never went and instead, he started a course of antibiotics that my mom had insisted we take with us. Not sure how much they helped over all though. He also ended up with a prescription for some pills to ease his stomach pains from the doctor while I was at the hospital. But he hasn't recovered nearly as quickly as I have.

If nothing else, our respective treatments were very inexpensive. David's pills were $2 and both of my hospital stays were $35 total. The difference in treatment though is that I'm almost symptom-free and David had a bit of a relapse last night. After some early morning texting with my mom, who contacted Dr. Luckmann, we were reassured that we were both on the mend and would expect to make a full recovery shortly. My experience has been very much like previous bouts with food poisoning, though David assures me he's never experienced something so severe or long-lasting.

With any luck, we'll be well enough to travel tomorrow and will be on our way to Vietnam. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! If you're ever in Dali, please stay at the Jade Emu. They really are fantastic!

Monday, November 24, 2008

I Finally Like China!

After leaving Chengdu a few days ago, David and I continued heading south in attempt to make our way to the Vietnam border (I think at this point we've scrapped Laos, since we're killing more time than expected in China). We took an overnight train to Panzihihua and from there caught a bus to Lijiang (we had no idea how long the bus ride was and it turned out to be 8 hours!). Up until this point in the trip, I was under the impression that China was dirty, brown and rather ugly. All the scenery we could see through train windows was rather limited (most of our trains have been overnight trains) and communities beside the railway are less than middle-class. There are always large trash heaps and dilapidated houses nearby and I was starting to think that this was representative of China. And my how I was proven wrong!

Welcome to the Yunnan province in Southern China, where everything is lush and green! We entered the foothills of the Himalayas, where I was rewarded with some of the most amazing views of the trip. Its everything you'd think China would be--tiered fields full of crops, rice paddies, farmers working their fields in straw hats, people hauling things in baskets on their backs or using their mules. It was great to see firsthand that these things really do exist!

We arrived in Lijiang after dark and found a hostel in the Old Town (which we love!!). This section of town is more than 800 years old and is separated by streams and tributaries running from the Jade River. The streams run along side all of the streets and divide the neighborhood into hundreds of smaller streets and alleys. The streams also sometimes create a moat around restaurants and bars, which necessitates the use of planks to cross (not a good place for clumsy, stumbling drinkers...). The streets are paved with the original red breccia, which gives it a really rustic touch.

Everything is lit with red lanterns, which gives it a really cool look. There are vendors set up at all hours of the night hocking their handwoven pashminas, scarves and clothes. Jade and silver jewelry, tea houses and natural health providers are also everywhere. David and I popped into a store along the way and bought some yak meat! Yum!

We had only intended to be in Lijiang for one night before heading to the Tiger Leaping Gorge but plans changed and we stayed two nights instead and skipped the Gorge. When this is the view from your hotel, how can you not stick around??

Lijiang turned out to be an unexpected highlight of the trip! We're currently in Dali (which was said to be as good or better than Lijiang by people who obviously don't know what the hell they're talking about!). We decided immediately that we didn't like it as well as Lijiang and would only stay one night on our way to the Vietnamese border. But things never work out quite the way we plan them and David is nursing a nasty case of food poisoning that he thinks he got from a bum burrito at dinner last night. Note to self: burritos in China are not a wise move! If all goes well, we'll be on the road again tomorrow. Until then!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fear Factor, China

David and I have been doing our best to branch out and eat new things while in China. We went out to dinner last night with a guy named Tzs (pronounced Chi) from our hostel in Chengdu, who is an Asian from New Zealand. He speaks Cantonese and can get by speaking Mandarin with the locals well enough to ensure we had a great meal at a duck restaurant last night. We started chatting with him about some of the things we'd eaten in the last two weeks, which we didn't think were that strange (often because we had no idea what we were eating), but he was impressed that Westerners would try some of the more random things that we have.

For that reason, I 'll share some of our daily cuisine...

This is a picture of David eating Ox Tail in Beijing. Couldn't get me to touch it (I know what happens at that end of an ox!) but he thought it was pretty good.

A few nights later, we found where all the street cart vendors hang out so we tried some dumplings, noodles, ostrich, seaweed, and our favorite--snake. They had it in two different ways: whole or just the meat. We opted for meat only (white skewer), since the whole snake looks a little suspect.

We had some of our favorite finds in Xian. On our first day in town we found more street vendors and had squid for the first time. Looks a little odd, but tastes amazing! Not too chewy either!

And then last night Tzs ordered a "sampler platter" of various kinds of meat. It included things from beef, pork, beef liver (we'd had a plate of this on its own the night before and LOVED it!), some unidentifiable type of fish part and this:

This clear, spicy strip of goodness is cartilage from a pigs ear. Sounds really gross, but it was really tasty. Soft and a bit crunchy. Tastes just like the spice it was sitting in.

And then there was what was (apparently) described on the menu as beef brisket with pumpkin and bread. But when it arrived, it became quickly apparent that it was actually pork belly (which was essentially all fat) mixed with some pumpkin-type stuffing with pumpkin slices underneath. Definitely the most unique thing I've had on the trip thus far, and once you got used to the taste (and past the fact that it was a plate full of fat), it was pretty good. Kind of sweet.

I'm sure we'll have plenty of other things to share as we continue this journey. We still have over a month left in Asia and are in the process of working our way south on our way to Vietnam. I'll continue to take photos of some of the better/weirder things we eat. And just so you know, neither of us has gotten sick from anything we've eaten yet!

Even More On Eastern Bathrooms!

I've discovered that in China, people don't give the reverence and respect to the Western toilet as do the Japanese. I find this highly disconcerting as I have come across several of the top "Worst Bathrooms of All Time" here in China. People pee on the seat and don't clean it up (which would be hard to do as there is NEVER ANY TOILET PAPER! Word to the wise-- BRING YOUR OWN TP!), they leave their smoldering cigarette on the tank while they do their business, marring the porcelain, or they can't figure out the whole seat thing and they pee on the floor directly in front of the toilet rather than aiming for the hole. This is a very mild form of what I'm talking about....

Another thing that surprised me is that, when it was available in my hotel in Beijing, that toilet paper was so durable and rough that it could have been used as Tyvek wrap to weatherize the exterior of a house before the siding goes on! Its really incredible! They seem to have gotten things backwards because the napkins are as soft and flimsy as Western toilet paper, which does nothing to cut the grease on the food you're shoving into your face.

Train bathrooms are some of the most disgusting places on Earth and I'm loathe to even touch the door to ensure privacy, let alone anything else required to do my business. They're always Eastern-style in China (though that was not the case in Japan). People have no regard for aiming their butts toward the hole at the bottom of the toilet to ensure that the tiny amount of water used in flushing (keep in mind it doesn't only spray INTO the toilet, as would make sense. Your feet are going to get showered too!) would be enough to move things along so that the next person doesn't have to smell your waste while tending to business of their own. Its really a wonder David and I haven't contracted some mutant strain of Staph at this point, but that's why I keep hand sanitizer on me AT ALL TIMES (which they don't sell in China).

The plumbing systems here don't have the containment capabilities that American toilets have. There is no U-bend in the pipes to ensure that you're not smelling the waste directly under your feet. Also, the sanitation department doesn't seem to have a handle on how to process toilet paper so when you can use it, you're not allowed to flush it. Imagine walking into a bathroom where there is piss all over the floor, a big turd sitting in the bottom of a toilet with no water in it and a wastebasket full of poopy and bloody toilet paper. No imagine that its hot and humid in there and you'll start to get a sense of what I'm talking about.

There are lots of public toilets all over the place. I can tell because I walk face first into that distinctive raw sewage smell about every 50 feet or so. Its very distinctive as the diet here consists largely of processed, fried and fishy things. The human body does funny things with these components and its ALWAYS smells disgusting. David's nose doesn't work properly so he can't smell it, and for that he is lucky. But we both agree how bad the toilets are around here and do our best to contain things until we can get back to our hostels, which almost always have Western-style toilets. Next time you spend an extended time in the bathroom and can use toilet paper and then flush it so it doesn't stink, think of us and count your lucky stars that you're not dealing with Eastern plumbing!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Frogger, China-Style!

Never in my life have I experienced anything as nonsensical as the rules of the road in China. Whether you're a pedestrian or a driver, you're always in danger. People here are very comfortable with traffic patterns but to me it feels like one big life-sized version of the Atari game "Frogger." The traditional road rules that Westerners take for granted are willfully disregarded, often times with police sitting in plain sight. Traffic laws either don't exist, or are merely suggestions.

Thus far, I've had experiences as a pedestrian and as a passenger in cars and busses. Here are some of the things I've noticed:

1) Stop signs/lights mean NOTHING. Even police will run red lights by several seconds.
2) What looks like a 2 lane road is actually a 5-lane road (two lanes, two shoulders, and the middle) when passing is involved.
3) Changing lanes in intersections is highly encouraged.
4) The game "Chicken" played with oncoming traffic is practiced every few miles. You learn to watch for people passing slower vehicles in the oncoming lane and move to the shoulder to allow them room if they don't have time to shoot the gap. No horns necessary, its just a (scary!!) way of life.
5) That "bike lane" is not reserved for just motorcycles and bicycles. Busses will threaten to plow down anything in their path if they're in a hurry.
6) Right on red is a given (and often left on red).
7) EVERYONE honks at everyone else. If your car doesn't have a horn, chances are you will either hit someone or be hit yourself.
8) Cars move slowly and aggressively. Average speed of traffic is like 10-15 mph in town, 15-25 mph on major roads, 40-50 mph on highways.
9) The left lane is not the fast lane--its for cruising. The fastest way through traffic is often weaving.
10) When cars put on their blinker, they're not fooling around. Move over or be run over.

1) Pedestrians are aggressive about crossing the street. They step into oncoming traffic without a second thought to safety.
2) Just because you have a green "walk" light (animated!) does NOT mean you can expect to cross the street without fear of becoming road kill. It's merely a little less Frogger-style.
3) Just because you have a red "don't walk" light doesn't mean you can't cross the street. Most of the time you can cross halfway and watch for oncoming traffic for the other half.
4) Even if cars have a green light, pedestrians will play Frogger and move step by step across the street, often standing on stripped lines while cars pass. Move slowly and predictably and you won't get hit.
5) Just because there's a sidewalk present does NOT mean its reserved for pedestrians. This is often prime parking real estate. Sometimes its another driving lane for cars and bikes! (Pardon the blurry photo, I was on the move dodging traffic. You'll see traffic moving in the opposite direction and the silver & blue divider for a bike /motorbike lane. This Car is definitely on the sidewalk!)

6) People walk the way they drive--they don't move out of anybody's way. If you don't plan your path beforehand you will run directly into people.
7) Sidewalks and stairs are often granite or marble and are like skating rinks when wet.
8) Sidewalks are also divided by raised yellow rubber indicators (as part of navigation for the blind) and are equally as slick when wet.
9) Puddles may not have a foreseeable bottom and are always full of foulness I won't describe. David stopped wearing sandals in the rain, if this is any indication of how bad it gets....
10) Exposed dirt from sidewalk excavation always becomes a huge trash pile for pedestrians.
11) If there are no public toilets in sight and your 2-year-old has to pee, watch out because he's going to spread it on the street (or in the trash can at a restaurant) and take care of business.

There really is a method to the madness here, its certainly not the Western way of navigation and its taken some getting used to. I understand that the further south we move, the more adventures we're bound to have. Vietnam is supposed to be even more precarious. Stay tuned, more on this topic I'm sure!

Friday, November 14, 2008

I'm Still Here!

I've been having trouble uploading photos to both the Blogger website and to my Facebook account, which is exceedingly frustrating because computer time is often better spent researching the next move, not fighting the system in attempt to upload photos 6 times before they actually go through. This post will have no photos because its such a frustrating endeavor.

I'm not sure I've posted much on China, which is probably a good thing. My overwhelming first impression was not a super-positive one, though the place has grown on me over time. Beijing has a lot of really neat things to see (Olympic grounds, Tian anmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall, etc.) but the pollution and the crowds made my time there relatively frustrating. Its also really expensive! David and I were having to pull money out of the ATM every other day and were "going through money like water." I was determined not to have a negative experience and was doing my best to relax and enjoy my time there but it was difficult because I started to feel run-down.

My diet over the course of our 6 days in Beijing consisted largely of chips, Snickers, beer and water. The restaurant scene there charges Western prices and the places we could afford were often kinda scary. We'd venture out in search of food and walk for an hour before we caved and went inside a restaurant we thought we could stomach. We often ate "safe" things like Subway and Pizza Hut. I'm strongly opposed to Western fall-backs like this, but I was starving and tired of living off junk food. My eating habits got so bad that I ended up with a severe headache.

I was really relieved when we left Beijing and arrived in Xian. We came here with the intent to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, but having been here 2 full days, we've yet to take the bus 45 minutes to see them. I got so distracted by the abundance of amazing food here that I all but forgot about anything else. We were recruited by one of those annoying solicitors at the train station to stay in her hostel. We held out for a while, hoping she'd leave us alone while we poured over our books, trying to figure out if we actually wanted to continue on to Shanghai, as was the original plan, or scrap that and start making our way south to Laos to kill time until our Vietnamese visas become valid on the 22nd.

The hostel ended up being around the corner from some amazing local fare and I've eaten handmade buckwheat noodles for 2 days now and am hoping for a 3rd! We've had really good luck with street food too, trying some grilled squid a few nights ago, which was awesome! Only had one bad meal, which we got by walking into a place that had no English-speakers, no one else in the restaurant eating (so we could point and ask for the same thing) and no real photos of anything. We pointed to a picture on the wall and, for what it was worth, should have just closed our eyes and picked something at random on the menu, because what we ended up with was a plate of pig fat and bones with celery. At least the side of rice and the celery were edible....

So I've been happy to spend a few extra days in Xian and take our time figuring out the next step. It seems we're skipping Shanghai entirely in favor of heading south to Chengdu on our way to Laos. There's a big Buddha statue in Chengdu to see and some trekking we may do in the Yunnan province for a few days before crossing the border into Northern Laos. We may have to try to rent some motorcycles for a day or two because the landscape is supposed to be amazing! Nothing is certain except we're on the move again! I'm behind on blogging, I know. When we get situated somewhere again with Internet access, I'll make a point to sit down and blog about several cultural observations and add photos, regardless of how frustrating it could be.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Olympic Dream Is Dead

Arriving in China was more culture shock than I had expected coming from another Asian country. In such a short time I had gotten used to Japan--how polite and orderly and considerate other people are. Then I arrived in China where people mill about everywhere and make no attempt to move out of the way of oncoming pedestrians or cars, they push and shove, threaten to run you over at any opportunity and yell at you to try their food, take their taxi or buy their merchandise. If Japan is the American South, as cordial and hospitable as you please, then China is Manhattan where people will eat you alive, steal your money and then spit on you. It was a rude awakening.

David arrived here on Thursday night and after taking it easy for a full day, we rented bikes on Saturday and set off into Beijing headed for the Olympic grounds. The ride was long, confusing and I often felt like a bike courrier in DC as we navigated through traffic under threat of life and limb. It took us over an hour to get there with a few minor delays and I was excited to see the Birds Nest rising out of the distance. We made it!!

At first we spent time trying to get inside the track & field stadium grounds but were shooed away from multiple entrances by guards. We could see other people walking around inside and, since we didn't speak any Mandarin, had no idea what they were trying to tell us. We figured out that there was a public entrance around the block and decided that we didn't want to pay to get inside as all the other people were doing. After standing there watching the process, we figured it cost no less than 50 Yuan to get inside and we weren't that interested. Navigating around the track grounds, I got my first taste of the ruin that the Olympic arenas are becoming. Parking lots are fenced in, abandoned and overgrown after only 3 months.

Its an odd mix of abandonment, deconstruction and immaculately kept gardens and common spaces all mixed and jumbled around some of the major landmarks like the Birds Nest and the Water Cube. The major tourist attractions are being maintained and continue to draw revenue through insane entrance fees (we figured it would cost us no less than $60 each to gain admittance inside the Water Cube and upwards of $125 for a VIP pass. No thanks.). Directly across the street from some of the lesser venues like the fencing building (which is directly next to the Water Cube), they're actively dismantling a slew of smaller buildings.

Only 2 months ago, these buildings were actively used by athletes, their friends and families and by spectators. Now they're in shambles less than 500 yards from the big attractions. The multiple subway stations that were installed to shuttle people to and from the widely spaced arenas are now inoperable and closed to the public. I have no idea what these materials are intended for or what they are planning for what will ultimately be an empty parking lot. Better yet, why are they doing this? I thought the slogan of the Olympics this past year was "One World, One Dream." Judging from what I've seen, that dream is dead. Its really disheartening and depressing.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Its All About the Yen-jamins!

I've spent a lot of time in transit over the last few days and noticed a disparity over what I was putting in my journal versus what I was blogging about. I liked what I wrote for myself much better than what I put out there for the public, so I'm making it my mission to be more open and honest and a tad less informational (hence my last post on my bathroom experience). Also due in part to the fact that I won't have computer access the way I did while visiting Wes in Iwakuni, so I'll have to make the few entries I can manage to write, count. I know you all care what I'm doing or you wouldn't be reading, but I'd like to give you extra incentive to keep up with me.

I've had lots of thoughts to myself on Japan's consumer culture but have kept mum on things until now. I think I was concerned that my observations would be judged, as they undoubtedly will, but I need to put things out there without worrying so much. That's the theme of this whole adventure--No Worries.

One of the things I noticed right away is that young Japanese women are crazy for fashion! Most of them would rather live in a dump, barely eat and have a closet full of the hottest designer labels. Its a trend in Japan for women to live extraordinarily out of their means in order to dress up. And my, how they rock it out! I wish I had pictures of some of the things that people wear in Japan but I felt awkward snapping incognito photos of strangers. Not that they would have said anything. They're all too polite. Instead, I tried to take photos in a department store and got this shot before I was asked to leave. At the top of the photo you can see the saleswoman's hand trying to block my shot. I pretended not to hear her. I couldn't pass this up! This is what we're dealing with, people!

Tennis shoes do not exist here. I swear in 9 days time I never saw a single young lady wearing anything besides heels or boots. Often a combination. I was floored by the (what Wes and I called) "hooker boots" these gals were wearing. I'm talking straight-out-of-Pretty-Woman up to, or past the knees, leather boots with 4" heels! They're EVERYWHERE! I even saw a little girl who couldn't have been more than 10 wearing a pair with a kitten heel! What parent in their right mind is going to let their daughter dress like that???

These girls appear so demure and overly feminine but they are rocking some sick shoes, walking miles at a time, and making it look easy. They might barely be 5 feet tall wearing 4 inch heels, but don't be fooled by their tiny voices or their outward appearance. These ladies are warriors!

As seductive as the footwear is, there's hardly any skin showing. They'll wear the tiniest little micro-mini or daisy duke shorts but always over a pair of tights or with a pair of knee-high socks. And the tops are never revealing or low-cut. Many of them are downright baggy. Especially by American standards. These girls are crazy about some make-up, too! Every morning on the train I see young school girls in their uniforms digging through their huge slouch purses for a mirror and some eye shadow. I don't think I started wearing what most people would consider make-up until I was in college. Maybe grad school. These girls are like 13 years old!

I guess what it ultimately comes down to is that Japan has a thriving economy and a young population with an expendable income. The Yen is far stronger than the Dollar and if I had that kind of money and lived in a big city, I might be tempted to dress just like these gals. Ladies, I salute you!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

More on Eastern Bathrooms!

This might be my favorite topic so far. Something about bathroom habits really gets me pumped up! Its probably the kid in me looking for a public venue for a little potty humor, but I'm going to pretend that its the fact that its a topic that many people worry about when they're on the road and I'm doing a public service by documenting my experience.

I came across one of the fabled toilets with a heated seat and built-in bidet--truly a throne if ever there were! Stephen had mentioned them to me before I left DC, but having been in Japan for over a week, I was sure I wasn't going to find one. Then 'lo and behold! This magical creation was in my hostel in Osaka, and at first I was stumped.

The whole heated seat thing threw me off because I wasn't expecting it when I sat down. I did my business and then (like a kid) started playing with all the buttons this thing comes with. You can adjust the seat temperature, the water pressure and, on some models, you can add a flushing sound to the mix if you need some inspiration to move things along. Its very odd. Especially when someone uses one in say, a department store where there are lots of stalls. Um, I know what you're doing in there. No amount of noise the toilet makes is going to distract me from that fact. You're not hiding anything, lady!

What I also found is that some models have a timed bidet feature (uncomfortably long for the normal person--like 15 to 30 seconds, but in the name of research I had to try it out), where some have a freaking free flow with no end in sight! There's a stop button on that bad boy for a reason! Nobody trying to freshen up needs a jet like that! No, that takes a far more twisted mind to enjoy the endless spray. Its not my thing, for sure!

Since my first experience in Osaka, I've seen these awesome toilets a few more times in Tokyo. But then I was reminded of the other awful piss-holes that are out there when I stumbled across this sign in a (disgusting!) public bathroom outside the Osaka Castle.

This may have come in handy, um, about A WEEK AGO! I figured it out for myself without this instructional guide, but still had a good laugh when I saw it and thought I'd share. Especially since the person giving the demonstration is clothed. These toilets are not fun. The picture says it all. This is a situation where constipation could be your worst enemy! There's no leisurely waiting for nature to run its course without fearing that you may be unable to walk for the rest of the day. You can't possibly hold this position for more than a quick pee without your legs going numb!

I've learned how to find the Western-style toilets wherever I go. The trick is to find the handicapped stall. They're not going to make Granny squat over a hole! She might break a hip! And I, for one, fully support that initiative!

The thing about Western-style toilets here is that people actually respect them! I have NEVER walked into one and seen someone else's pee all over the seat! They are usually immaculate and cleaned regularly. It always makes me chuckle when I walk into a stall in a public place like a train station and they've folded over the first sheets of toilet paper on each roll the way they do in hotels. Even the Eastern-style bathrooms are at least clean. Americans, take a lesson and respect what could easily be such a rare gem--a place to SIT and do your business!

Monday, November 3, 2008


On Sunday, Wes and I headed to Miyajima, located on Itsukushima Island, to spend the day visiting shrines. The train from Iwakuni was about 20 minutes and we caught a ferry to the island, which took another 10 minutes. On the ferry ride in, passengers can see the floating Torii Gate, which welcomes visitors to the island.

I had done only a little reading about Miyajima before visiting (pretty much par for the course) and had seen a little blurb about the deer on the island. Wes had also mentioned them and I was prepared to see a few but I had no idea they'd be so prevalent. Or so bold! They flock to the touristy spots, especially near food stands, to try to score a snack right out of your hands (or out of your bag).

Wes has been to the island three time before our trip and told me about his friend attempting to "share" his french fries with a deer, only to have the thing try to stand in his lap and steal the bag right out of his hands. They're not scared of people and will often allow you to pet them. Food cart owners spend a lot of time shooing them away lest they sneak a sample their wares. Though most of the deer have their antlers removed, its no wonder you see signs like this scattered across the island. Duh!

The deer are allowed to roam free (though their population is regulated). They are considered sacred in the native Shinto religion because they are considered messengers of the gods. Try telling that to someone who just got their lunch forcibly stolen!

Wes and I headed toward the Itsukushim Shrine and scored a better photo with the Torii Gate. It was built in 1168 of camphor wood and is about 48 feet high. At high tide the gate appears to float, but visitors can walk down to it in the mornings before the tide comes in. It is common for visitors to place coins in the cracks of the legs of the gate and make a wish.

The Itsukushima Shrine, which dates back to the 6th century, is one of Japan's most popular tourist attractions--no mystery there. It's really cool! It juts out onto the sea on stilts!
The temples and shrines on the island are part of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, which is known as esoteric Buddhism in Japan. The sect teaches that humans can attain enlightenment through rituals combining physical, spoken and mental disciplines. Their deities are noticeably different from other Buddhist sects I've yet seen (some are downright frightening). This Kona looks like a watchdog from Hell!

This Fudo Myo-o deity inside the nearby Daiganji Temple isn't much better. His fierce facial expression shows his strong determination to make humans follow Buddhist teachings. Or else....

The island is very scenic and there are nature hikes all over the place. There are also several really large trees, as evidenced here:

We found a little hike off to the side of a few shops (it wasn't clearly marked) and found a small two story Pagoda at the top. It was cool, but the view from the top of the hike was more what I was interested in. The large building in the back with the sloped roof is the Komyoin Temple. Its also a good shot of the 5 story Pagoda and the Itsukushima Shrine.

This was the direction Wes and I were intending on heading, but cut through a side street and discovered a part of the island that Wes had not been to before. We ended up hitting the mother load when we found the Daisho-in Temple! The Niomon Gate serves as the official gateway into the temple. A pair of guardian king statues guard the gate and are said to ward off evil.

Wes has a thing for small Japanese statues and we discovered a little treasure trove of 500 Rakan Statues. They are representative of Shaka Nyorai's disciples and each one has a unique face and expression. There are several women among the bunch too. This is one of my favorite shots:

After winding our way uphill through the statue garden, we came out by the belfry. This bell used to be rung to tell the time in the morning, afternoon and evening but is now used to start the time for worship. It makes the most gratifying deep sound and Wes liked it so much that he walked around for the rest of the day saying, "BONGGG!"

As I mentioned previously, the Shingon sect of Buddhism has different deities than other sects. This is Shaka Nyorai, or Shaka Buddha, entering Nirvana surrounded by his sixteen disciples.

There is an entire room in the Maniden Hall dedicated to 1,000 images of Amida Nyorai, or Buddha of Infinite Light, who is believed to take the deceased to West Paradise.

These seven Mizukake Jizo Bosatsu statues are centered on the one believed to redeem the spirits of deceased babies and children. Worshipers pour water on each of the Jizo images to console the souls of loved ones.

Of all the unexpected things we discovered on the temple grounds, the Henjyokutsu Cave was by far my favorite. It was kind of eerie to walk inside but once your eyes adjusted it was truly amazing! It houses icons of the 88 temples of the prestigious pilgrimage route on Shikoku. Worshipers believe that they are given the same blessings as people who make the pilgrimage to all the temples on the route.

Throughout the complex there are prayer wheels. It is believed that spinning these Mani wheels invites blessings equivalent to reading one volume of the Hannya-shinkyo, or Heart Sutra. Spinning other wheels around the temple grounds are thought to bring you enormous fortune. I spun as many as I could!

The grounds directly outside the temple are maintained as meticulously as those inside. I could see a small waterfall above the temple and took the walking path to investigate. Here's a view of the temple grounds from above:

It was starting to get dark so we headed back down to the main village to find some grub. Wes had been on the island back in February during an oyster festival, so we knew exactly what we wanted. Unfortunately, the place he'd been before closed at 4:30, so we missed out. But we were able to find another place a little further down the road that was serving up barbecued oysters. These guys are total pros!

On a more random note, there is a style of wooden spoon used to serve cooked rice without impairing the taste that is said to have been invented by a monk who lived on the island. These spoons are popular souvenirs and means of relating handwritten prayer in several shrines around the island. Here's the biggest one in the world! It is made of 270-year-old Zelkova tree, took 2 years and 10 months to create, is 7.7 meters long and weighs 2.5 metric tons!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Iwakuni Kintai Bridge and Hiroshima

After a night of sushi and drinking in downtown Iwakuni, Wes and I got a slow start to the day on Friday. We took it easy and kept it local, heading to the Kintai Bridge in the middle of the afternoon. Its very distinctive and is a local treasure, although the current bridge is only about 55 years old. The original bridge, which was built in 1673, was washed away by a typhoon. The design of the original bridge was so good that the engineers in charge of the researched noted that the techniques used were in perfect accordance with modern dynamic principles. Modern engineering could not improve it. Its pretty cool looking too!

After crossing the bridge, we entered into a little tourist district before Iwakuni park, which is home to several temples and shrines. I insisted we do the tourist thing briefly and we had a killer photo taken as Geisha girls! Wes looks so cute and helpful pointing the way in his little red kimono!

We wandered around the grounds for a few hours and came across the Shirayama Hime Shrine, which Wes had never seen in any of his previous visits. I went inside ahead of Wes, who was taking photos outside and removing his shoes, and jumped a mile in the air when a monk slid open a wall panel and came up behind me while I was studying the architectural detail. When Wes joined us, he gave us some history about the building, which had been burned by arsonists several times throughout the last several centuries. He gave us an Oracle in English (instead of Kanji, like they're written EVERYWHERE) and explained that if our fortune was excellent then we should tie it to a tree outside. If the fortune was less than excellent, we should keep it and come back one year from now and draw another fortune and hope for better luck.

Wes had an excellent fortune so he tied his to a tree, but mine was only good so I kept it. It said, "Your time is coming and you're becoming happier and happier (how true!). You will be able to realize what you have in your mind. But a sudden misfortune will happen to you in case you should be careful." It goes on to detail your fortune in a categories like "expected visitor" - He will come! (David is meeting me in Beijing! Yay!), "missing thing" - It will be found near around you (I lost my base pass and it was inside my Japanese phrasebook...right where I left it!), and "travel" - No problem (GREAT!). There were several others but I figured business, speculation, game & match and childbirth really had nothing to do with me right now.

We wandered through the Graveyard of the Kikkawa Family, who were the ruling lords in the area for hundreds of years. Wes kept walking into spider webs and couldn't figure out why. We were in a section of the park that was off the beaten path and he's the tallest guy around for miles. The rest of the population is my height or significantly shorter. There were no other tall guys around to knock down those spider webs at eye level for him so he was in charge of clearing his own path. And there are some BIG spiders here! To Wes' credit, he only screamed like a girl once! Go Marines, Oorah!

One of the big reasons we went to the park (other than to see the bridge) was to visit the Iwakuni Castle at the top of the hill. Its this beautiful white donjon castle built in the Momoyama-Nanbun style of the late 16th century, and many a "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" joke was made that afternoon. Unfortunately, the cable car running to the ridge line was undergoing some maintenance and we didn't get to see it. We had talked about hiking up instead but by the time we saw everything in the park that we wanted to see, we were losing daylight quickly. It gets dark here so fast! At 4:30 the sun is already setting, which is really depressing as its only October! Wes said the winters here are pretty brutal and I can see why!

We packed it in and headed back to base to meet up with some of his friends for a dinner at Ganesh, this local Indian place, which was really good! We bar-hopped around town again and ran into some pretty funny Halloween costumes in the process. Despite all the scary movies that had been on TV earlier and the people walking around base in costume, Wes and I kept forgetting that it was Halloween!

On Saturday we headed to Hiroshima for the day. The weather was beautiful and we had gotten an earlier start than the previous day and were able to enjoy the sunshine! For me, Hiroshima was on the "Must See" list because of my hometown's participation in the Manhattan Project during WWII and the devastating results it had after the Atomic bomb was dropped. Not that my family and I had any personal connections to the development, manufacturing or assembly of bomb parts, but its very much a part of our hometown history because Oak Ridge would never have been built had it not been for these purposes. Its always odd to visit a place overseas that has experienced tragedy as a direct result of American action, but this place was especially sobering because I was particularly familiar with some of the more gruesome details through Oak Ridge's involvement.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but Hiroshima is an exceedingly modern town, with all of the glitz and glam of Tokyo without the dense population. Wes and I likened Tokyo to Manhattan, while Hiroshima would be more like Atlanta. Iwakuni is kind of like Oak Ridge, except with a nightlife and a military base. We came in through the train station, which is directly connected to a shopping mall. After getting lost inside and having some degree of difficulty finding our way out, we managed to catch a cab to the Hiroshima Peace Park. We walked past the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, deciding that we'd start outside to enjoy the weather. The first stop was the Memorial Monument for Hiroshima, City of Peace. The stone chamber in the center contains a register of deceased A-bomb victims (140,000 by the end of 1945). The arch shape represents a shelter for the souls of the victims.

In the background of this photo you can see the Peace Flame, which has burned continuously since it was lit in 1964. It will remain lit until all nuclear bombs on the planet are destroyed and the planet is free from the threat of nuclear annihilation. Beyond these two memorials is the Children's Peace Monument, which is dedicated to the memory of the children who died due to the bombing. The statue is of a girl with outstretched arms with a folded paper crane rising above her. The statue is based on the true story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died from radiation from the bomb. She believed that if she folded 1,000 paper cranes she would be cured. There are glass containers behind the memorial that contain thousands and thousands of folded paper cranes from all over the world. The paper cranes are left by other memorials as well and throughout Hiroshima as a symbol of peace.

Next we stopped at the Peace Bell. There are inscriptions on the bell in 3 languages and are translated as "Know yourself." People are encourage to ring the bell, so I did!

We made our way to the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, which is a large, grass-covered knoll that contains the ashes of 70,000 unidentified victims of the bomb. When remains are occasionally identified, they are returned to the victim's family.

There are several smaller memorials around the peninsula, but the biggest and perhaps most recognizable attraction is the A-Bomb Dome. Formerly the Industrial Promotion Hall, it was the building closest to the hypocenter (point on the ground beneath an air explosion) of the nuclear bomb that remained at least partially standing. After much debate, Hiroshima decided to preserve its skeletal ruins in memory of the casualties. The A-Bomb Dome, to which a sense of sacredness and transcendence has been attributed, is situated in a distant ceremonial view that is visible from the Peace Memorial Park’s central cenotaph. You can see it in the background of my first Hiroshima photo above. Its hard to know how to pose in a picture like this with such serious subject matter....

After walking around the A-Bomb Dome for awhile and taking shots from all angles (they have real cranes living in the ruins, which seems so symbolic given all the folded paper cranes throughout the park), we headed back to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. They don't let you take pictures inside, but there are some amazing and some pretty gruesome sights to behold. There are scale models of what the town looked like before and after the bombing, as well as lots of belongings of victims of the bombing, including their tattered clothing, skin, fingernails and hair (ew!).

I thought there was a lot of really good information included in the displays but thought things jumped around a little bit (the historical information on the first floor skipped around a lot as to why Hiroshima was designated as a target, making it hard to follow) and the displays for the effects of radiation on people of Hiroshima were the last thing to walk through before the exit, instead of the whole "Why We Shouldn't Use Nuclear Weapons" section, which fell in the middle. I thought they could have set up the order of the displays to better tell the story.

Also, I was bummed that they barely touched on the after-effects of the bomb. And there was virtually nothing to be found on the medical treatment used on the victims or the clean-up efforts made by the city and by other aid groups to make Hiroshima livable again for the victims. I thought both would be important points but they were dismissed with a factoid along the lines of "Within 1 week of the bombing, radiation levels were at 1,000,000th of their initial levels," but they never say what the initial radiation levels were. Or what the half-life of the uranium used in the bomb was (although they did give a figure of how much of the 64kg inside the bomb actually underwent fission--only 0.7kg.) Still, to kill 140,000 people within 5 months, that's not a number to feel good about. But it could have been worse. Much worse.

They also say that radiation does not effect residents of Hiroshima today, but in another display they admit that they don't know what the long-term effects of radiation exposure are. I asked Wes how he feels being stationed so close to a nuclear bombing site for two years. Not so good. Hard to imagine why....

We left the Museum at closing time and headed to a local outdoor shopping center to walk around and catch some grub. We decided on a place that let us grill our on meat at the table. We sat on mats on the floor and concentrated on not burning our dinner and it was awesome! Should've taken photos but I was more concerned with not eating charcoal. After dinner, we found a little bar around the corner to have some sake. We let the bartender and waitress pick for us, which was a wise decision. That was easily the best sake I've had, though I have no idea what kind it was. I've haven't been steered wrong yet by letting the locals pick for me. That's something I'll continue to do all along the way!