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You had me at Western Style

Posted by Jason del Sur in Japan
November 21st, 2006

So I started this post in Japan, but never got around to finishing it. And now it’s two weeks since I’ve been home, and there are certain things I miss. I’m not sure if this is one of them…

I apologize in advance for the graphic nature of this post, but it’s something about Japan that merits mentioning.

First off, I would like to applaud Japan for their abundant and free public toilets. You’ll find them in almost every train station and any tourist area. Now, they probably won’t have soap, and more than likely won’t have toilet paper, but at least they’re there. And if you wander around the streets, more than likely someone will hand you what at first appears to be a normal, quarter-sheet flyer. Normally you ignore them, because they’re handing you flyers to the strip club. But not this guy! He’s handing out packets of toilet paper with ads on it! You don’t have to pay 100yen to buy some from the vending machine.

Now, there’s two types of toilets you’ll encounter in Japan. There’s our standard western style toilet. You know and love it: every house, restaurant, and store outside of Japan has one. Then there’s the Japanese-style squatter.

Now there’s a custom in Japan that you take off your shoes when you enter a house or temple. Sometimes they’ll provide you slippers to wear around. But there’s a special set of slippers for using the toilet. If you’re at a hostel or someplace with a shared bathroom, you’ll notice them sitting by the water closet door. You can’t really call it a bathroom, because the Japanese always separate the toilet room and the shower/bath room.

At first I didn’t understand this custom. But as I encountered more and more Japanese style toilets, I began to understand why. I’ve never seen where more people have missed the toilet more. And I’ve been to Indiana. And I’m not talking number one here.

Luckily many places, especially the bigger train stations and hotels, will have at least one western style toilet. But these aren’t your American Standard standard toilets. These are the 2 hours of extra footage Special Editions with hours of bonus features. Oh yes, these toilets have “bonus features.”

They’re the most advanced defecation disposal devices known to man. It’s cold in the morning. Luckily the seat is heated. I never saw this, but supposedly the girls’ toilets have a button that will start playing music/ocean sounds to mask the sound of what you’re doing. When you sit down, it’s like you’re commanding the Starship Enterprise with the control panel you have beside you. (the Klingon and Uranus jokes are too tempting).

And this is one of the simpler ones:

For a good time, push the blue button. You can guess what it is. Just remember, the orange button means “stop.” Tell them Jason sent you, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

Hung Over in Hong Kong

Posted by Sa Wat Dema in Asian Odyssey 2006
November 18th, 2006

Hong Kong to me is eating duck tongues in a local bar while drinking with a millionaire Chinese accountant and his brother, the coach of the world championship Kendo team. Really, that was my Friday night. It began as most of our group went out to celebrate our last night together. Through a deadly combination of many rounds of quarters (a drinking game that I am proud to say I was the first to teach our motley group of Australians and Canadians), followed by the graciousness and many beers of our new found Hong Kong friends, the night was a good one though this morning has been a bit rough.

Hong Kong is really an unusual place despite the 66 Starbucks locations and street signs in English (as well as Cantonese). And yes, we did actually visit a starbucks yesterday and I had a green tea frappacinno (I mean, we are in the land of tea here, though I must say it tasted the same as ever). Compared to the rest of China (and by the way, you do have to go through customs to get into Hong Kong), Hong Kong is super expensive — it is even expensive by our standards; we’re talking $3 for a can of coke. Coming from a place where your average meal is about $1.50, it is a big shock. I am staying on the mainland part of Hong Kong called Kowloon, which is separated from Hong Kong Island by a busy harbor. As you stare over the harbor on the Kowloon side, you see a skyline like nothing else I have ever been. It is truly amazing. The whole harbor as far as you can see in both directions is lined with skyscrapers. Most are covered with neon signs as well which light up in a fantastic display at 8 pm every evening.

Every time I see the Chicago skyline, I can’t help but wonder when there will be a DEMA building among those giants. I had very much the same feeling here. I am not talking about a sense of entitlement, more just of industrial zeal. It’s like if all of those guys can make it, I think I can too. Talking with my friends Ewen and Jason, they didn’t quite feel the same way — Jason would be happy with just the name of his tour company on top of one of those buildings and Ewen would be fine with eating in a restaurant in one of them, so I guess the building part is up to me. Well, we will have to see how close I come by the next time I am here.

In Hong Kong, there are people everywhere, which I guess is to be expected in a city of 15 million. Imagine the most crowded mall you have ever walked through, triple that number of people squishing all around you, and you will have maybe one of the small side streets here at an off time. I walked around this morning down the shopping district and there were literally 1 million people on the same side of the street as me. I know; I counted.

A small digression about our last days in Yangshuo…

All over china, we have seen the ubiquitous groups of Chinese tourists – huge swarms of people, all wearing red or yellow baseball hats, complete with a leader carrying a little flag on a stick. I had a revelation about these tourists on our last day in Yangshuo — you see them constantly riding down the streets of that relatively small town in these tiny electric buses taking in the sites. It is a very cool town with good nightlife, but I could never figure out what they were looking at, what they found so interesting. Finally, after seeing probably the 20th little bus ride by with a dozen Chinese tourists gawking at me, I realized… I am the attraction! They come to Yangshuo because it is a very western city with many foreign travelers. They had come to see westerners like me. That is a pretty shocking revelation to have — the fact that you could be a tourist attraction. It puts things in perspective a bit — think about that next time you head to the Wisconsin Dells.

Although, Yangshuo definitely made up for it — it is also a place that many young chinese come to learn english and you will see them strolling the streets in the evening carrying their lesson books just waiting for an unsuspecting foreigner on which to practice their english. If you are not careful, you will turn around and be attacked by a dozen Chinese highschool girls who want to talk to you and giggle at everything you say. I actually had one group that I think believed that I was actually Tom Cruise for the whole 15 minutes they were talking with me. More than the talking though, I think the main objective is actually to get your email address so they can have a western english-speaking pen pal. You feel a bit like a celebrity throughout the whole process, though I suspect I currently have about a hundred emails from China waiting in my In Box! It is actually a really great experience for them, and you can learn a lot of Chinese as well. And with every school kid you meet that is perfecting their english, you can see how bright the future of China will be (and there are literally signs hanging outside the language schools that say things like “Success in English = Success in Life!”).

The trip from Yangshuo to Hong Kong was another overnight train ride (remember, China is big). Though this ride was pretty easy because I spent my last afternoon in Yangshuo rock climbing and thus went to sleep that night easily. You can not imagine the scenery of Yangshuo — the land is completely flat but every few hundred meters, a huge limestone tower rises out of the earth. The whole place looks like it is covered in coneheads. The climbing is thus excellent and I did some of the hardest routes I have ever tried. We also took a boat ride down one of the local rivers which was bordered on both sides by those huge limestone karsts. It was pretty cool. We even went to the exact bend in the river that is depicted on the 20-dollar note here. I have the photos to prove it.

Quick Question: If you get shanghai’d in Shang Hai, where do you get taken? My guess is San Francisco.

Anyway, back to Hong Kong…

I have one last weekend in Asia and I’ll spend it here in Hong Kong. I may take the ferry to Macau for the day tomorrow as well. This will probably be my last official post before my return, though I may write again tomorrow or Monday morning. If it is, I would like to say that I will see you all very soon (I will be home Monday evening) and thanks so much for keeping in touch on the blog. You are all welcome to join me in my re-fattening process that will ensue as soon as I return through a strict regimen of eating nothing but Chipotle and Buffalo Joe’s wings. I also have literally 9 gigs of photos and videos to show you all. And finally, you should all prepare yourselves for the upcoming, now-infamous, Thai-inspired, “bucket” party that will happen soon. Get ready, because Sa Wat Dema is coming home!

See you all stateside!


Shanghai-ed in Shanghai

Posted by Sa Wat Dema in Asian Odyssey 2006
November 13th, 2006

Much has happened in the last few days –I toured the hectic streets of Shanghai, we stayed in a remote hill tribe village covered in fabulous rice terraces, we explored a quaint river town where fisherman still use comerants (albatross-looking birds) to help them fish, we toured a tea plantation, and I arrived in the very western city of Yongshou. It is has been quite an experience-

Shanghai is a pretty amazing city that reminds me very much of chicago — there is a river with all of the old colonial buildings butting up against it like our skyline along Michigan avenue and Grant Park. These are all of the buildings from the 1800’s when various foriegn powers (France, England, Russia, etc) had important trading posts in Shanghai. Today the city still has that same ruff and tumble attitude, though once you cross the river, it is skyscraper heaven. Every building that can be shaped like a spaceship, be 100 stories tall, and have crazy neon advertisements running down its side have found their way to Shanghai.

We took a day trip from shanghai to visit a remote town with canals instead of streets. It is a truly beautiful place, though Chinese tourists have definitely discovered the place and pack it by the swarm. Interstingly enough, these tourists seem to be more interested in us than the sites –they all come up and want a photograph, people in our group have even been asked to sign autographs! As I mentioned earlier, the fisherman in this town use birds to fish. It is a bit hard to explain, but basically they have these big birds with rings around their necks. They let them swim ahead of the boat and they catch fish, though they can’t swallow them because of the rings. The fisherman then hauls them back to the boat and kind of shakes them until the fish come out. It is all a bit wierd, though they do then feed them smaller fish for their trouble. I have got about a million pictuires of this village – mostly of old teahouse looking places with the standard red lanterns out front.

We then made out way to a very remote area of hilltribe villages (these minrotiy groups called the Yao and the Zhaung). They are all in this area called Longgi, which means the dragon’s back, refering to the hills and crests of the mountaisn they live on. There was no road that led into the village we stayed in called Ping’an, but that is not problem for the industrious Zhuang. You won’t belief it, but they send their women down the hill (imagine about 1 mile of very steep uphill walking down a flagstone path) to carry our bags. And not the young women eaither –it seems the older and shorter these women were (average height was about 4 feet) the better. Trust me, you fell extremely bad when a little old lady who is actually smaller then your backpack is trudging it up this hill –but they won’t take no for an answer! actually, considering the going rate for this service is about $1.50 (and about a week’s worth of their normal salary) they are more then happy to do it. and at least we are not like the Chinese toursists that come for day trips –they have the men of the village literally carry them up the hill in these rickshaw type of things you seel from old movies — no wheels here, just a man on either end. It is a bit amazing.

But once int he village, it is another world. Chickens run everywhere, the houses are all made entirely of wood without nails, and the whole hillside has been terraced for rice fields in almost unearthly shapes. Every last scrap of land that could be made flat has been terraced. And at the top of many of them are ancestor shrines and the graves of the very people that used to work those fields. I spent one afternoon walking for about an hour to the next village over. There were definitely no tourists here, though I ended up getting some great pics and movies of the local people working in the fields or carrying vegetables. It was a great experience.

We have just arrived in a town called Yongshou, which is very westernized and looks like any backpacker area, which is a refreshing site in China. By the way, China is a difficult place to travel –it is amazing, unexpected, and very cool, but it is not easy if you don’t speak the language. Doing China with a small adventorous tour group is probably the best way to see it. If I learned a bit of Manderin (I only know hello, goodbvye, thank you, I don’t want any, and cheers so far) I could probably do it on my own. One cool thing is the food is absolutely great – though it is hard to eat without a big group. Each dish is just one thing –like just pork or just vegatables –so it really helps to have a big group where you can order a little of everything and share. The meal will also cost about $2 a person, so it is pretty great.

Anyway, I hope all is well at home. I am looking forward to coming home and seeing everybody, though my trip is still going strong. I will be here in Yongshou for three days then in Hong Kong for another three before I race the dateline home. (I actually leave at like 11:00 am on November 21 and by some magical, superman-spinning-the-earth like plot, I end up in Chicago at 9:00 am on the same day after a 24 hour travel). Who knows how it works, but prepare for some good times when I get back – with a bit of Thai and Chinese influence of course.


The Red Menace

Posted by Sa Wat Dema in Asian Odyssey 2006
November 8th, 2006

China is big.

Understatement of the century. China is simply an amazing place and nothing like our preconceptions about it. The general feeling you get here is not one of some oppressive communist government, it is just that these people really have their act together (though due to China’s sensorship of the internet and blocking of any “subversive” website, I can post on this blog but I can’t open it up to read it!). I am writing from Xi’an, a medium -sized city in Chinese terms (with 5 million people! Beijing has 13 Million!), and home to the famous terracotta warriors. We saw them yesterday and they are really impressive, especiaslly considering they were built 2000 years ago. They were meant to guard the nearby tomb of the Qin dynasty emporer who united China. His tomb has never been excavated though because ancient texts say that it contains rivers and fountains of mercery. Xi’an itself has a great feel to it and you can walk everywhere. Yesterday, we strolled though the islamic quarter of town and I think I was able to successfully eat every type of street food available. Last night, I ended up going out at a pretty local bar that was not all that different from Murphy’s Bleachers, though the manager made it a point to continually bring over every Chinese girl he could find that needed to practice their english. It was a very good time. Especially considering that the Chinese girls here look nothing like the Chinese – Americans we are used to –they are even hotter here.

A few days ago I climbed a remote section of the Great Wall. Despite freezing temperatures and more wind than Chicago, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I can’t describe the feeling you get when you walk along the wall and see it stretch off across the ridgetops as far as you can see in both directions. It fills you with a sense of infinity. I just wanted to run down the whole thing. You can’t imagine something that is so vast and connects so many people and places. Again, China is big.

Tonight, we board a train to the neon of Shanghai. I bought a copy of Mao’s little red book with all of his communistic teachings in it, so hopefully that will be entertainement for the train. I haven’t read much yet, but I have learned that Work is Struggle, so at least I have that going for me.

Quick fact- everyone here is VERY interested in the mid-term elections in America. I would say they are much more interested than the average american. If anyone gets a chance, please send me a quick synopsis of the results.

Anyway, off to explore the calligraphy area of the city and eat some more dumplings (which are fabulous, especially those stuffed with red bean paste – I know it sounds gross). Talk to you soon.


PS Happy velated birthday Kabeeb!

An Adventure Ends

Posted by Jason del Sur in Japan
November 6th, 2006

I landed safely at O’Hare International Airport yesterday morning. Through a miraculous disturbance in the space-time continuum and/or the international date line, I arrived in Chicago 3 hours before I left Tokyo. Of course, the effect on my body was compounded from staying out all night in Roppongi the night before.

A day later, I have sadly returned to work and am still attempting to recover from the jet-lag. I still have a couple more posts to write on summing up my experiences in Japan, so keep checking back for more from me, and of course more from Brian. I hope to get all of my photos up on the web sometime this week.

But for the time being, here’s a couple good ones.

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