Sunday in Munich

September 23, 2015 - 4:37 am 1 Comment

I booked a 10.5 hour tour that would take me on a day trip from Munich to Linderhof and Neuschwanstein, two of the three castles built by Ludwig the second of Bavaria (Fairytale King), not to be confused with the Mad Prince who was his brother Otto. To set the context, after ascending the throne at the age of 18 under a constitutional monarchy structure, he blew through the entire family fortune accumulated after many centuries from building these three elaborate castles. With no concern for cost and an eye for expensive details, often styled after Wagnerian operas, you can imagine how grand these are!

In 1886 at the age of 41, he was dethroned by a council under the claim of insanity with the support of his extended family. Given low finances, he borrowed from Prussia, the country’s sworn enemy, and indiscriminately took credit to support his frippery. Despite this, he was still a fairly popular king since he hired a lot of construction labor which was a more stable livelihood compared to farming, and evidently in Germany, kings could not draw funds from the tax base but rather had to spend their own resources – hence, a private form of economic stimulus. Post his relocation, he was found drowned with his doctor in a shallow lake despite being a strong swimmer…clearly a clear conspiracy theory link to murder. Anyway, a fascinating life story of a seemingly delusional, grandiloquent person. He wanted to destroy his three castles upon his death (Ludwig was notoriously reclusive which seems horrifically ironic considering the grandiose receiving rooms and great halls), but his family opened up the castles for tourism instead, which made back their entire fortune and some.

I awoke early and made my way to the central bus station to find the tour operator. Rather than recount all the details, I’ll list some of my reflections:

  • Linderhof: Crazy rococo style – the tour guide equated this castle to a “condo”. I thought she was joking but indeed, the actual castle was modest in size although extremely grotesquely styled. Imagine gilded 24 carat styling in classic baroque decorative panelings everywhere, elaborate chandeliers, ivory carvings, paintings/mirrors crammed on the walls, expensive textiles and furnishings – a compact, even more intense Versailles stuffed into a small space. Ludwig greatly admired Louis XIV for being an absolute king (in contrast to his constrained power), so this homage in the form of a castle recreated the opulence and self-import in every detail. It almost felt as if the air from the room was being drained away given the intensity of the gilded embellishments. In contrast, the outside garden was very beautiful and pleasant – Ludwig II built a full facade just to hide the pump for the certain fountain! Linderhof was a definite “experience”

  • Oberammergau – In between the two castles, the tour group made a pit stop in a traditional village where I got to try a delicious schneeballen (baked cookie ball coated in chocolate and orange liqueur), browsed traditional handicraft stores that sold hand-made cuckoo clocks and local crafts, and explored the Passion Theater (the town had pledged to put on a passion play every 10 years if spared from the black plague, which they subsequently have carried out other than one hiatus during WW2)

  • Neuschwanstein – this is the famous castle that was Disney’s inspiration for the Cinderella castle. Sitting on top of a cliff, it’s really a breath-taking sight. I had to walk >30 minutes up a steep hill just to get to the tour gate. Ludwig II built this castle as a homage to the absolute monarchs of the Medieval times (but with all modern conveniences of the time and his fanciful eye for embellishment along the general theme), so the style was drastically different than Linderhof but with substantially more open space and consequently, grandeur. This castle is really impressive – perhaps the most elaborate I have ever seen even after visiting quite a few when I lived in the UK and traveled throughout Europe

  • One of the most pleasant aspects of the tour was the drive through the mountains and valleys – the scenery is bucolic and just breath-takingly refreshful with the quaint wooden houses with the beautiful frescos, green farming plots, and gorgeous natural scenery. I’m so glad to have taken the bus tour since it would have been near impossible to get to these castles – it took two hours to get to Neuschwanstein upon some seemingly remote mountain roads!

Upon arriving back in Munich, I had dinner at this local German gastropub. The food was truly fantastic despite being very heavy! I ate Wienerschnitzel (fried breaded veal pounded flat), spaetzle, oxtail ragout, traditional flat bread with sour cream + onion, and then chocolate cake. Yes, maybe I over-did it but I’m so eager to try everything! The food here is very heavy though – I had to drag myself back to the hotel. What a great weekend!

 

A Saturday in Munich

September 23, 2015 - 3:13 am 1 Comment

My first day in Munich was really great – since I only have a weekend to explore, I was intent on maximizing my day! After the flight, I went to the hotel, quickly settled in, and then took off to the city center. The hotel is somewhat far away and the German train system is extremely confusing, but alas, a nice bystander helped me out and the train speed itself was very impressive. Since it’s Oktoberfest here, the streets teem with people everywhere, many of them dressed in the tracht – suede mid-calf pants with straps for men and elaborate corset-like A-line peasant dresses for women.

So despite a red-eye flight (with limited sleep), this is what I did:

  1. Went to the Viktualienmarkt where I had a tasty cured meat sandwich on bread that seemed to be a cross between pretzel and croissant – alas, if only I had the stomach to try out all the interesting little stalls! There are all these tasty looking desserts with long names I can’t pronounce

  2. Saw the Munich Residenz which is one of the most famous historical palaces/government buildings. There are ~300 public rooms so it was so much to see

  3. Went to Muncher Hofbrauhaus, the place recommended by Grace’s friend. It was as crazy experience! Every person there drank enormous 1 liter beers, and every 5-10 minutes, a band would play German music. The beer hall was gigantic – a labyrinth of tables! I ate sausages with sweet mustard – bratwurst and then a Bavarian variant (mild white sausage that comes in water)

  4. Browsed the Munich City Museum. The first two floors were most of your normal expected historical items (EX: statue of Duke Henry the Lion who founded Munich)…but the third floor went bonkers with psychotic puppets. Another wing was dedicated to National Socialism (Nazism) since it originated in Munich

  5. Ate dinner at Kochspielhaus, a place recommended in the NYT – by then, I was on the verge of collapse given general exhaustion

  6. Most importantly, I walked around the city historical center and the small garden areas. It’s really fun!

A few observations:

  • Germany is affordable – the food and admission prices are very reasonable

  • Core Munich is very small but there is a sprawling suburbia around it given central planning policy on housing stock

  • It’s very helpful to know at least some German words to get around…I don’t seem to have the memory to be able to remember words properly since many are so complex and tough to pronounce

  • The Germans are extra sensitive about the history of Nazism – the topic is treated with directness (unlike the Japanese…)

  • A large part of the city got destroyed in WW2 so most of the artifacts/edifices have been heavily reconstructed. Nevertheless, Munich is still beautiful and feels very historic

2014 (Brief) Recap

January 30, 2015 - 11:09 am 1 Comment

I’ve neglected writing in my personal blog for a while now – seems that it’s hard to squeeze out an extra hour to do this, but increasingly I’m aware that memory tends to distort and fade such that I would appreciate having a record to remember all the simple joys, triumphs, and challenges.

2014 was quite a cornerstone year for me – new job at Vernier Capital (launch in Feb 2014), bought a place in Brooklyn and moved, Forbes 30 under 30 in education, and a whole lot of intellectual stimulation with travel (Switzerland with the St. Gallen symposium, my first trip to India, and 2x trips to Greater China). Givology continues to grow albeit our fundraising receipts in 2014 disappointing due to website performance, which we fixed only mid-year

I can’t possibly expound in detail but below are some 2014 reflections:

  • Brooklyn is a really fun place to live – my neighborhood is filled with wonderful restaurants, pretty old Brownstones, no traffic (I’m very happy to avoid the tour groups on Wall Street!), a beautiful Botanic Garden nearby, and just a relaxed atmosphere. The sense of neighborhood is spectacular and whenever I feel peckish at night, I can just hop across the street to get a donut, sushi, or chicken. My family came to celebrate my first Christmas, complete with tree and decorations! Mom and dad seem particularly enchanted by Yemen Café, and I always look forward to having my little sister visit
  • Getting the mortgage vexed me to no end – with my credit history, I assumed that it was just be easy…but it turned out to be extremely difficult and we barely closed in the time period allotted. I had to conquer mountains of paperwork, and we braved living out of a suitcase in Long Island City for half a month prior to moving in
  • In December, braving the cold weather, Dave and I took a wonderful eating trip to Montreal, where I indulged too much on fois grois (including the legendary Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon), Montreal bagels (St. Viateur came out ahead of Fairmount…frankly, both put NYC bagels to shame even though I love NYC bagels!), and other extraordinarily rich foods (particularly maple sugar deserts). From the Belles Arts Museum to walking around old city, we had a really amazing time together
  • India is really extraordinary! Despite my short time there, I packed in as many sightseeing highlights as possible (it cost only $50 to hire a full guide and taxi in Delhi and $125 for a private tour/car to the Taj Mahal) and re-connected with friends from Oxford who I haven’t seen in years
  • Work is going great – I love the flexibility to look at companies around the world and traveling to meet management teams and better understand the entire supply/value chain. It’s impossible to run out of new ideas and I like the start-up environment
  • Making a stop in Taiwan during a China trip in December was very worthwhile – I got to see my grandfather who has been sick. Even though I am very sad about his condition, it was so good to see him one more time before he passed away. He’s now watching our family from above!  
  • My second time at the St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland was an extraordinary experience. I had a lot of fun asking questions and participating in debates regarding intergenerational conflict. It’s always so inspiring to meet peers around the world engaged in entrepreneurial activities from all different sectors!
  • Givology continues to grow, although the pace was disappointing for me this year. We on-boarded some exciting new partnerships (Apne Aap, Abaarso, among others), officially launched our product line (www.giveinspiration.org), actively grew our social media network with our #givchat tweetchats and other campaigns, published the second edition of our book, and continued with our core chapters and online fundraising. Fixing the website is my top priority for this year and I’m willing to pay to get this done on a personal level
  • After playing ice hockey at Chelsea Piers for the Fall season of 2013 and Spring season of 2014, I decided to take a hiatus given my schedule. Even though I miss skating and the excitement of competition, I realize that taking a more relaxed weekend schedule has become increasingly instrumental

12/29/2013 – Day 10 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:43 am 1 Comment

We woke up early this morning to go to the famous Nishiki Market near Shijo street. Rich with local foodstuffs and traditional crafts, the market stretched block after block with so much to observe, taste, and enjoy! I didn’t recognize a lot of the foodstuffs sold, but we saw everything from big pots of miso of all different types, pickled vegetables, and raw and roasted fish to raw and steamed mochi, sugar candy with beautiful designs, and my favorite – matcha (green tea) warabi mochi. Grace and I shared a big box of the warabi mochi and relished it completely – if only we can get this in the United States! I love the soft texture that feels like chewing on a cloud, as well as the delicate flavor.

Nishiki is famous for its roasted baby octopus with a quail egg stuffed in the head (served on a stick), but we didn’t eat one this time around since it was too early for food like this. We did eat various desserts, shared an sweet potato and vegetable oden (fish cake base served hot on a stick), and Grace had a stick of marinated raw tuna on a stick. Since this is our last full day in Japan, we also bought a lot of the traditional omiyage for gifts when we get back. Kyoto is famous for its yatsuhashi, a confectionary sweet traditional the region with a glutinous rice flour shell wrapped as a triangle around a flavored paste of some sort, from green tea red bean to cinnamon and yuzu. The overall texture is soft and mochi-like, and absolutely delicious. Grace and I bought quite a few boxes to bring back!

We wandered into the Teramachi district to get a sense of Kyoto’s downtown. Most surprisingly, we saw so many traditional shrines, cemeteries, and temples fully integrated into the modern shotengai (covered shopping area). Literally, just stepping into a nook brings about another world – I’ve never before seen such a melding of old and new within such a small space. Grace and I had a terrific time poking around the shops, many of them dedicated to anime goods, manga, and Japanese pop culture. Grace bought some comics, doujinshi, and other assorted items, while I bought some keychains and cute trinkets. We saw a lot of Free! and Kuroko merchandise in particular, and marked it down on our list of animes to watch when return back home. I haven’t watched anime since freshman year of college – it may be time to re-visit my old comfort activity!

For lunch, Grace spotted an okonomiyaki restaurant on the third floor of a non-descript building! We had a blast eating the delicious octopus pancake and pork and seafood hiroshimayaki! I wish I could okonomiyaki everyday…I love the sauce, the cabbage, the special batter, the flavoring and the bonito flakes, and the interactive nature of smushing the pancake around on the hot table plate and shoveling it with the tiny picks. Despite stuffing ourselves, we somehow managed to find room for a matcha crepe for dessert afterward from a popular stand.

Our host had recommended visiting an onsen (hot springs) at a ryokan in an adjacent town, but given the difficulty of making the trip fit with our limited time, I did my research and found Funaoka Onsen on the outskirts of Kyoto, accessible by public transportation. Grace told me that she did not recommend that I go given the potential severity of the culture shock but I didn’t listen to her…oh how I wish I did!

Funaoka Onsen was listed as the top bath-house in Kyoto by Lonely Planet given its status as one of the oldest bath-houses in operation (over a century in age), and its famous carved wooden panels along the ceiling of the dressing room dating back during the period of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria – as expected, depicting often violent scenes. Funaoka contains an outdoor bath, a sauna, a cypress-wood tub, electric bath, Chinese herbal bath, and a few other small baths as well. Given the old history and traditional feel of the bath, we heard that it’s a favorite haunt of geisha, maiko, yakuza, and others seeking a more historical experience. Given how public bath-houses are an important cultural tradition in Japan, I thought that in theory it would be a great experience…the actual execution of our expedition, however, lets just suffice to say that I am glad that I went to see what it was like, but I will not repeat anything of this sort for the rest of my life.

There is so much hair-splitting etiquette in public bathing that without Grace, I would have been completely lost and likely ejected from the establishment. I think people in Japan are a lot more comfortable with being naked together compared to Americans…I had trouble psychologically getting over this hurdle and spent the entire time completely embarrassed. The baths were all very hot which made me feel very light-headed, and in shifting to the cold bath while outdoors on a 30 degree Fahrenheit day, I caught a cold and caused leg muscle spasms. Meant to be a relaxing experience, typical residents stay about an hour or so (if not more), but we high tailed it out in 10 minutes. I had trouble figuring out how to use the traditional washiki toilet, and couldn’t get the brown herbal bath residue off my skin (alongside the images of the naked old people out of my head). Grace was kind enough to do the “I told you so” routine only once, both of us reeling from the heat and vapors of the bath.

We took the bus back to central Kyoto, and had a soba teishoku at a delicious restaurant. If only I could eat like this everyday – we savored our last dinner in Japan with a lot of gusto. We then went back to the Kyoto Avanti department store to take some more purikura photos to commemorate our trip, as well as eat our dessert together. Grace and I split a mango waffle and green tea cheesecake parfait – alas, we’ll miss Japanese desserts!

With heavy hearts and heavy bags from our souvenir and gift shopping for family and friends, we headed back to our residence in Kyoto. I don’t feel ready to leave – Japan is a magical country to visit and my most favorite “tourist experience” I’ve ever had, ahead of Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Korea, China, England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Mexico, and all the other places I’ve ever visited in my lifetime thus far. I love the exotic cityscape, the delicious and reasonably priced set meals and desserts that can be found everywhere and of elevated quality even just stumbling into a random place to eat, the convenience of the trains to see so many cities, the intriguing pop culture and subculture presence, the beautiful historical sights, the omnipresent vibrant shopping arcades, the traditional crafts, the “cute” trinkets sold everywhere from Rilakkuma to Pom Pom Purin, the fashion of the youth and the vertical hair, the anime characters everywhere…all of it! Furthermore, I love spending time with Grace, my dearest sister and best friend in the whole world.

12/28/2013 – Day 9 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:42 am 1 Comment

A picture is worth a thousand words, and to express the serenity, beauty, and sheer grandeur of the sights we saw today, it’s more apt to show with a photo album than with words. Nevertheless, I will try. We woke up early to see Nijo Castle, a UNESCO world heritage site and the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, built in 1626. Unfortunately, we only had a chance to see the outer gates since the caste was closed for renovation and re-decorating ahead of the new year.

We returned back to Kyoto central station for a quick breakfast and to meet Erica, one of Grace’s longest-standing friends from when she did a summer abroad in Montreal in high school. Our goal for today: to tackle Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, and Ninnaji Temples in an afternoon.

Kinkakuji in one word – majestic. Translated roughly as “Temple of the Golden Pavillion”, Kinkakuji is a UNESCO world heritage site renowned for its Muromachi period garden design with the original design dating back to 1397. Gold leaf covers the entire three-story pavillion, strategically positioned on an island surrounded by a magnificent Japanese strolling garden. Evidently, the grounds were built on the fundamental principles of the Western Paradise of Buddhist Amida to illustrate the harmony between heaven and earth. With the sky blue and the weather very crisp, it was truly a perfect day to enjoy the walk and marvel at the splendor of the garden. Grace took so many postcard-perfect photos – it takes absolutely no skill to capture a perfect moment because of the breathtaking naturalistic minimalistic setting which belie a painstaking amount of effort to create.

We then took a short walk to Ryoanji Temple, stopping on the way for Kaiten Sushi (conveyor belt sushi), which I love the most. What luck! We stumbled on a great family location, completely mechanized with the added bonus “games” that we could play to win gatcha-pon prizes after eating a certain number of plates. Salmon/avocado/onion, seared salmon with garlic butter, maguro (tuna) in large quantities and in all different shapes, salt and fresh water eel, tender scallops, octopus, crab, grilled mackeral, shrimp tempura…we stuffed ourselves silly while sipping delicious powder tea (which I bought from the restaurant since I enjoyed it so much). At only 100 yen per plate containing two sushi, a fantastically fresh and delicious lunch came out only to be $26 for the three of us. Oh, if only we could find something like this in New York and at this price point for the quality!

Our bellies filled with wonderful sushi, we headed to Ryoanji (Temple of the Dragon at Peace), a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its zen kare-sansui (Japanese rock garden). Built in the 15th century, the temple served as the mausoleum for the late Hosokawa emperors. The famous rock garden was much smaller than I had originally anticipated, spanning a rectangle of 248 square meters with 15 stones of different sizes, composed in five separate groups. The stones are surrounded by white gravel, carefully raked daily by the resident monks. I’m not quite sure what makes the garden so special, but after doing some reading, it seems that scientific analysis shows that the empty space of the garden is implicitly structured to align with the temple’s architecture such that the critical access of symmetry passes close to the center of the main hall. Hence, the implicit structure of the garden appeals to the viewer’s unconscious visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes. This garden has been subject to a lot of academic debate…frankly, from my perspective, it is just a simple and beautiful garden meant to be enjoyed for its simplistic and serene design.

After Ryoanji, we headed to Ninna-ji, which probably ranks last in terms of tourist popularity but in my opinion, was the shining point of the day and one of the most memorable and exciting experiences of our Kyoto trip, far surpassing anything we’ve seen today. Founded in the Heian period around 886, Ninna-ji is a sprawling temple complex filled with things to see and discover, from a gigantic pagoda (the scene for the Kyoto tourist photo of the pagoda surrounded by cherry blossoms), a sakura garden, smaller temples representing architectural styles of different periods, and most importantly, the Goten – the former residence of the head priest. Grace took some spectacularly breath-taking pictures, capturing the elegant wooden covered corridors between interior buildings, detailed painted sliding doors, and the interior rock and pond gardens. Mirroring the style of the imperial palace, wandering the Goten barefoot evoked a strong feeling of tradition. Ninna-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and well worth a visit again, particularly in the spring during the cherry blossom season. Words fail to describe the sense of overwhelming beauty and serenity that we felt.

We then returned to Kyoto station for a green tea parfait with Grace’s friend before parting ways. Grace and I then headed to the Kyoto Avanti department store for some shopping to take advantage of the big holiday sales! Given the exchange rate and the discounts, we bought a lot of wonderful gifts, clothing, and shoes for very cheap. I love the style of the latest Japanese fashion for women so I splurged a bit. We then had dinner in the basement food complex, selecting a really special teishoku restaurant that served healthy set meals, including a ground rice and mountain yam cold sticky soup that evidently is very good for you. I loved the tofu and the pickled vegetables…alas, when I leave Japan, I will miss all this incredible food and the presentation and variety of the teishoku meal!

12/27/2013 – Day 8 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:41 am No Comments

Another early start to the day since we wanted to do some sightseeing in Kyoto before heading off to Kobe. Navigating the bus system, we went to Sanjusangendo Temple, home of the 1001 life-sized statues of the thousand-armed Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, the majority constructed in the 13th century and created from gold leaf layered on Japanese cypress. The area outside the temple was also the site of the famous duel between Musashi Miyamoto and Yoshioka Denshichiro in 1604.

The overall ambiance is very eerie – in my opinion, a great movie set for a psychological horror film. In front of the Kannon statues, there are 28 life-sized statues of the main Buddhist deities, each frightful in its aggressive stance, incensed facial expression, and clear glass eyes which look like they are constantly glaring. The thousand-armed Kannon are equipped with 11 heads to better the witness the suffering of humanity, and have a thousand arms to better fight the suffering. Although the actual statues only have 42 arms each, we’re supposed to subtract the regular two arms and multiply by the 25 planes of existence to get to the full thousand. We had to take our shoes off at the entrance, and walking through the cold temple towards the gigantic Kannon at the center of the temple, the whole experience felt very mystical. Afterward, we toured the beautiful traditional garden surrounding the temple and took some pictures.

We returned back to the station and had a delicious an-pan, and then lunch at a popular restaurant in the station. For $9, I got tofu and mixed vegetables, udon, rice served with three toppings, and pickled vegetables, all presented beautifully. Grace ate her favorite unagi-don – roast eel in a special bamboo box to make the rice extra flavorful when steamed.

After dropping off Grace’s friend, we headed to the train station to go to Kobe, one of Grace’s favorite weekend haunts during her summer in Himeji – only about one hour away. What a fun shopping city! It’s not a traditional tourist destination, but Kobe is one of the most popular places for people to live. Kobe has all the big stores and chains that Tokyo claims fame to, but none of the crowds. In particular, I loved all the anime/manga stores, as well as the gigantic Book Off in the center shotengai area! We bummed around for two hours exploring the shops, and we even saw our first anime cafe featuring Free! (a popular bishonen anime about a swim team…it’s on my list of things to eventually watch when I get back).

We met Grace’s friend Rie at 3 PM in Umie, one of Kobe’s largest and newest shopping malls. I’m not familiar with Japanese brands, but I picked up a beautifully intricate shirt and a pair of matching cute seal cups. Once we made our loop, we stopped for a tasty cookie shell cream puff before heading out back to the Santomiya area, stopping along the way for souvenir shopping. Rie loves shopping so she took us through alleyways and shortcuts to the best and most popular shopping areas for clothes, accessories, shoes, cute trinkets, and other popular goods among the youth of Japan.

One of Kobe’s most popular tourist destinations is Chinatown. Although limited from an aerial extent (no bigger than the small Washington DC Chinatown), Kobe Chinatown is very clean and manicured, very different from any other Chinatown I’ve ever visited before. All the stores have a shopfront with tasty snacks on sticks that can be bought and then nibbled on while walking, contrary to typical etiquette in Japan. I ate a steamed Chinese leek pork bun, while Rie ate a stick of fried mochi.

It’s hard being an immigrant in Japan – the laws favor citizens for employment and social services, and obtaining citizenship even after being a second or third generation descendant of an immigrant is extraordinarily difficult. Furthermore, even after obtaining citizenship, minorities are often treated as “foreigners” still, and hence many change their last names in an attempt to disguise their background. There’s a whole wikipedia article on xenophobia and ethnic issues in Japan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_issues_in_Japan – we’re not seeing it since the country is very friendly to foreign tourists, but I can see how difficult life would be to actually live here. In this regard, I think the US is truly unique in creating a culture that assimilates immigrants and welcomes diversity – there are always exceptions, but it’s truly one of the most open cultures in the world, partially because of its relative youthfulness but also because of its democratic social evolution.

For dinner, we met up with another of Grace’s friends (she has so many and truly possesses a unique ability to make and retain friends for years…) who lives and works in Kobe, and we went to a charming cafe restaurant in one of the basement shopping areas. I tried the curry vegetable soup, which had a really interesting flavor. Akari’s majors in English, so it was a lot of fun chatting with her and hearing about life in Japan. We then finished the day with Puri Kura together to mark today’s outing.

We arrived back in Kyoto quite late and climbed into bed. All in all, a wonderful day! We pack each day with adventures and experiences, but time is flying way too fast. I don’t want to come back so soon – I wish I have more time here!

12/26/2013 – Day 7 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:40 am No Comments

We declared today “Grace and Joyce hangout day”. Waking up slightly later than usual, we took the train for 1.5 hours to Himeji, where Grace studied over the summer. Famous for Himeji Castle, Himeji is a “small big city” according to Grace – the suburbs sprawl far out of the city, but the main street is just one straight path from the train station to the castle. Unfortunately, Himeji castle was under significant restoration – scaffolding covered the entire facade so we couldn’t see the structure. Instead, a box-shaped tent completely shrouded the castle with a terrible print of what we ought to have seen.

We didn’t have an agenda today, nor did we rush. Instead, all I wanted to do was to see where Grace hung out over the summer and do a day “Grace style”, with lots of shopping, eating, and wandering around absorbing the atmosphere. We started off in the central shopping area in a department store called Piore, and then we went to the shotengai (covered shopping area). Unfortunately, it rained the entire day so we tried to stay indoors as much as possible.

Himeji is extremely cheap when compared to Tokyo, and even Kyoto. We started off with a gigantic Katsu set lunch – deep fried pork cutlet in a special flakey batter – for the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac meal in Virginia. Even though we were very full, we went to an Akashiyaki restaurant afterwards to share an akashiyaki (imagine takoyaki but with dashi) set lunch with octopus rice and eight delicious yakis. Then, wandering the streets, we shared a similar dessert to taiyaki with sweet red bean filling but in the shape of a circle. After taking a short walk, we went to Nana’s Green Tea and shared a large green tea parfait, perhaps my favorite dessert since arriving in Japan. Later on, Grace ate a wasabi-pan while I nibbled on a sugar-crusted melon pan. All this food of course came ahead of dinner. It would be unsurprising if I gained 5+ pounds…but the food is completely worth it.

As a general commentary, I love shopping here in Japan – there are just too many wonderful things to look at and buy! Grace knows the best stores and locations for value and quality. I’m probably spending too much money, with the justification that I rarely have a chance to take a vacation like this and that eventually, everything I bought as a gift will be given away. Furthermore, everything here is so cute – from socks and cell phone trinkets all the way to decorative cups and clothing…I simply can’t find things like this in the United States. Both guys and girls like cute things, and men’s fashion is taken more seriously here than anywhere I’ve seen in the world thus far. Anime goods and gatcha-pons (vending machines that deliver small anime trinkets of mixed variety) are ubiquitous…if only the US were like this! Based on the art styles that resonate with us, Grace and I have been writing down the names of potential anime shows to watch for when we get back. Alas, having not really watched much anime since high school, I don’t recognize any of the popular shows other than Utapri, which Grace made me watch a few episodes during Thanksgiving break.

In the evening, we met up with Grace’s Japanese friends from the CLSA program – Naoki, Yuka, Tomi, and Hiroyo joined us for Japanese-style Chinese food. I had fun listening to Grace interact with her friends even though I had no idea what she was saying. Her friends were really nice, and I enjoyed the cultural exchange. Grace had told me so many wonderful stories about her summer and her adventures with her friends so it was meaningful to meet everyone in person. Grace had felt nostalgic throughout the day – I’m glad that she had a chance to come back and see everyone again.

12/25/2013 – Day 6 of Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:38 am No Comments

Merry Christmas! We woke up bright and early to take the train to Osaka, Grace’s favorite city in the Kansai region. Only 40 minutes away by express train, Osaka is a vibrant, youthful, colorful, and expressive city. People here speak in Kansai-ben, with intonation that sounds much warmer and more casual than Tokyo-speak.

We started off at the famous Osaka-jo Castle, one of the most famous in all of Japan for the role ir played in the unification of Japan during the 16th century of the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Toyotomi Hideyoshi commenced construction of the castle in 1583. He probably represents one of the few examples of social mobility in feudal japan, rising from a lowly peasant’s son to a powerful samurai and kampaku (regent) with his effective political machinations. The castle eventually fell under his son’s rule when the Tokugawa invaded in a legendary battle (the descriptions illustrated that many of the generals and key officials committed suicide afterward – suicide in feudal japan was highly honorable).

We then took the subway to the Shinsaibashi, the main central shopping area. What a fun city! Shotengai (covered shopping areas) abound everywhere, and I enjoyed poking around. When we got to the famous bridge with the Glico man and crazy giant food-stuff storefronts (crab, sushi, octopus, cow…), we took a lot of pictures. Even though all Japanese love their food, Osaka residents take it to the next level. We started off with deliciously fresh and hot takoyaki – tender octopus in a soft batter with a tasty coating of barbeque, sweet mayonnaise, and bonito flakes. Then, we went to have kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi). Everything was so cheap! Grace and I had 12 plates in total, including fugu – the poisonous puffer fish if cut improperly. Fugu has such an interesting texture – it doesn’t taste like much, but it has a very soft, watery, yet tender texture – really hard to describe but very delicious with its delicate flavor. It came out to be only $7 per person even though we stuffed ourselves full with lots of sushi, including soft cloud-like raw scallop, seared tuna, seared and marinated salmon, surf clam, octopus, eel, and of course, all the traditional fish pieces. I love the experience of pulling things off the belt – I wish I could eat like this every day….

With our bellies completely stuffed, we headed to Mandarake, one of Grace’s favorite stores, in America-mura (the foreigner district), selling all sorts of anime, manga, idol goods, and other subculture curios. Grace bought some doujinshi and some anime goods, and I enjoyed browsing through all the crazy cosplay outfits.

Looking at trip advisor, the #1 attraction in Osaka is the famous Kaiyukan aquarium, one of the largest public aquariums in the world. I give the aquarium 5 out of 5 stars for content and scale, but barely a 2 out of 5 stars for animal welfare. Since Christmas is a couples’ holiday and the aquarium a popular date location, we had to wait in line for 30 minutes to get in, but it was a pleasant day outside and we enjoyed the architecture and whale illumination on the outside of the building (not to mention people watching and marveling at the crazy gravity-defying hair of the teenage Japanese male). Inside, we followed the guided path, elbowing amorous couples out of the way, to see a huge variety of fish and aquatic flora and fauna. Notably, this aquarium is famous for its whale sharks – we saw two inside a large tank, sharing space with a multitude of stingrays, manta-rays, and smaller sharks. Known for being the largest extant fish species, the whale shark can grow to be over 14 meters and and weigh over 66,000 pounds.

To make the viewing experience more pleasant for visitors, the width of the tank is very limited so the fish have to approach the viewing glass, but the depth can be significant. I felt terrible for the dolphins, seals & sea lions (crammed together into a small tank), and penguins in that order – the aquarium squashed in a sizable number of each in a very limited amount of space. They barely had sufficient space to move without smashing into each other, particularly the dolphins. It was really impressive to see so many animals up close as the high density compelled more of the animals to approach the glass, but I wish that the overall environment was healthier. Don’t even get me started on the touch tank area…there were a dozen penguins just sitting out in a tiny viewing space with their wings clipped. They were completely stationary, unhappy and probably too hot. The touch tank allowed me to feel a slimy manta ray, a spiny leopard ray, and a shark. The rays were huge, perhaps 4 feet in diameter each and stuck in a tiny limited space with shallow water, tons of grasping hands, and too high an animal density for any comfort. One part of me marvels at the opportunity since I’ve never been able to get a chance to touch something so large before (most touch tanks stick to just horseshoe crabs and small boring crustaceans), but the other part of me is astounded that the aquarium can get away with something like this and vehemently opposes some treatment of animals…oh well, not all aquariums have a conservation focus.

We then headed back towards the station area for some dinner, stopping in at the fancy rooftop dining bazaar of the Seitan Department Store. We had odd “western” fusion food my traditional Japanese chanko nabe set meal also contained German sausage. Grace had a hamburger hot plate special, and we then shared a delicious holiday chestnut parfait (the desserts are too amazing here…it’s terrible for me but if I don’t eat them now, when will I get a chance again?).

Tired, we headed home for a good night’s rest. Alas, a conclusion to Christmas – frankly, it doesn’t feel very much like Christmas so I have every intention of celebrating a “proper” Christmas with my family when I get back to the US!

12/24/2013 – Day 5 of Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:37 am No Comments

Christmas Eve in Japan doesn’t feel as “holiday-like” but we’re still having a blast. Grace and I woke up early to get to Arashi-yama, about 50 minutes away by bus. Similar to Tokyo, Kyoto is not a walkable city and the tourist maps irk me greatly since everything is not drawn to scale – it may look close, but on foot, two shrines seemingly half an inch apart on the map may take nearly 2 hours to walk to.

What a beautiful little town! Arashiyama, nestled at the seat of the mountain, is chock full of shrines, nature walks, old traditional housing (reminds of the Japanese equivalent of the Cotswolds in England), and traditional craft shops. We enjoyed ourselves just wandering around and exploring the area, starting off at the famous Tenryu-ji, a UNESCO world heritage site built in 1334 by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Evidently, the renowned Zen master Muso Soseki designed the garden and pond – as I enjoyed a leisurely stroll, I wrote the following haiku (meter of 5-7-5).

Grace walks without coat
Why does she feel not winter?
I am so freezing

Exiting the shrine to return to the Okochi Sanso village, we found ourselves ensconced in a beautiful bamboo forest, quite similar to the setting and feel of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In wandering the forest path, one can easily forget the modern day world – imagine thick, densely lush green bamboo stems stretching over 30 meters (98 feet) towards the sky.

We then shopped for some traditional souvenirs in the village, particularly chirimen zaiku crafts – hand-made trinkets constructed from old kimonos. Stopping for lunch, we had a vegetarian tofu set lunch meal at a famous local restaurant, known particularly for its yuba (tofu skin). I love the delicate presentation of the many small dishes; this meal particularly memorable for its inclusion of tofu is so many forms including boiled and served warm with pickled vegetables, tofu ensconced with egg, thin yuba slices in creamy soy milk, tofu salad, tofu ball with vegetables, tofu-based peanut mochi…absolutely delicious. For dessert, I stopped for red-tea frozen yogurt; alas, my waist line must be expanding from all the sweets that I’m eating – fresh cream green tea parfaits, exotic crepes of all types, green tea flavored ice cream, Japanese-style donuts, stuffed Belgian waffles, just to name a few!

With our stomachs satisfied, we went to Iwatayama Monkey Park across the river. After ascending a steep mountain path for twenty minutes, we arrived at the top, exceeding the height of the Kyoto tower! I’ve never seen so many Japanese macaques at once in my entire life!! There were over 170 monkeys clustered together, just taking it easy and relaxing amongst the tourists. I’ve never been so close to monkeys of any kind before – perhaps because of liability issues, we’re not allowed to approach monkeys in the USA, but here, the attendants purposely bring the monkeys close to you for a picture and we’re allowed to just walk up straight to them as close as we want to observe. The monkeys have become quite tame and will sidle straight up, just inches away (the big ones can be scary…they look quite aggressive). Evidently, the red faces and red butts are the result of translucent skin showing the underlying vessels.

We entered into a small shack, bought some prepared monkey snacks, and then fed the monkeys by hand. I really enjoyed the experience of having their small little hands scratch my palm as they picked up the apple pieces. We could see hierarchy at play in which monkeys got the preferred feeding locations; the extremely cute baby monkeys often got chased away by the peevish, belligerent adults. Extremely intelligent, the monkeys would groom each other, play games, and amuse themselves. We had so much fun just watching.

After a precipitous climb down the mountain, we took a bus back to the central Kyoto station to go to Gion, the historical geisha district. We sampled the traditional omiyage of Kyoto (I find the thin mochi-paper stuffed pockets delicious), shopped in a store selling traditional blotting paper (evidently the company dates back to the geisha era), and just enjoyed wandering through the district. Sometimes maiko (geishas in training) will appear on the streets – we didn’t see one today but Grace and I will keep on looking!

We then headed back to Kyoto station for dinner – a traditional soba set. It’s amazing how we just randomly choose places to eat and have never been disappointed. For $12, I got shrimp and vegetable tempura, cold soba, assorted sushi pieces, and pickled vegetables, all displayed very elegantly. We then stepped out into the main train hall to view all the Christmas decorations and to climb to the top of the tower to view the night skyline. It doesn’t feel much like Christmas Eve – even though the streets and stores are replete with Christmas decorations and lights (people even wander around dressed like Santa…), Christmas here is considered more of a “couples” holiday rather than a family event. Moreover, it’s tradition here to eat Christmas KFC…I do miss dad’s turkey and opening presents together under our Christmas tree.

In terms of logistics, we’re staying at a traditional-style Japanese house, conveniently located just one station away from the Kyoto main train station. Even though our room is small (4.5 tatamis in size), the futons are so comfortable and I really like the homestay experience. Our host is really friendly – she’s definitely progressive by Japanese standards, and she speaks really good English which makes communication very easy. One cultural thing of note is that no one locks their door here; the implicit trust between strangers is very high. When we ate at the cake buffet yesterday, people would just leave their purses, wallets, and expensive smartphones just lying on the table. As a New Yorker, I find this really tough to comprehend. Despite not tipping any waiters, we get excellent, 5+ star service. When we buy products, the store clerks bow, speak formally with many honorifics, and take great care in packaging the products carefully. Grace is absolutely right – after being here, it makes service in the US look terrible. Japanese culture has so many hair-splitting etiquette rules; not understanding the language and the culture much, I’m constantly violating “good behavior” to Grace’s consternation and embarrassment. Oh well, I’m trying my best.

We bought 3-day rail passes in anticipation of going to Osaka, Himeji, and Kobe. More to report soon!

12/23/2013 – Day 4 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:34 am No Comments

We woke up bright and early to take the Shinkansen Nozomi line to Kyoto – we covered 476 km in just a little bit over two hours, with maximum speed just north of 300km/hour. I really enjoyed the smooth ride – very economical compared to the Eurostar and extremely comfortable in terms of seating and space. If only we had this type of transit in the US!

Kyoto is extraordinary! Without a doubt, it ranks as one of the top three cities I’ve visited in my life. Shrines, temples, and historic relics litter the city – I took a look at a simple tourist map, and saw dozens of UNESCO World Heritage site markings all over the place. As the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto has the historical buildings that Tokyo lacks.

We started off at Kiyomizudera Temple, founded in the Heian period in 798 with its present building constructed in 1633 under the directive of Tokugawa Iemetsu. Sitting atop a mountain, the temple is incredibly scenic, with ornate verandas and halls, pagados and curved ceilings all brightly painted…truly extraordinary. We had a spiritual experience in taking a journey to the wishing stone in the basement of the shrine, referred to as the “womb” of the Goddess of Mercy. We took off our shoes and stepped into complete pitch dark (at the borderline of anxiety inducing…), guided only by the prayer beads serving as a railing that took us to the wishing stone. The instructions provided to us: “Return to the womb of the great merciful mother. When you find a light in the dark you will realize you are newborn again. There is a Sanskrit character that symbolized Daizuigu Bosatsu on the stone. Turn around the stone and make a wish.”

Afterward, we went to the famous Jishu shrine, dedicated to Okuninushi, the god of love and matchmaking. We saw the two love stones placed 6 meters across, in which visitors who successfully walked from one stone to the other with their eyes closed get lucky in love (and those who don’t will fail)…frankly, impossible to even attempt given how crowded the shrine was with young couples! Regardless, the view was certainly romantic, nestled into the mountain with beautiful carved shrines and traditional Japanese architecture.

Wanting to make the most of the day, we went to the famous Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, a Shinto monument to the Kitsune god of rice. What an amazing landmark – words cannot express the sheer amount of amazement I felt in climbing the mountain that contained more than 10,000 red gates and over 32,000 individual sub-shrines! I’ve seen the photographs of these famous consecutive red gates in National Geographic – what an exhilarating experience to make the hike myself, enjoying the crisp mountain air and the monumental scale. I must have walked up thousands of stairs in the process…even though my thighs and knees burned from the physical exertion, this undoubtedly ranks as one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done in my lifetime. We went in the early evening when the sun was just setting – I felt as if we had the entire mountain to ourselves. It took over an hour minutes to walk up the mountain and just as long to get back, and we didn’t even take the long route either. I can’t sufficiently emphasize how magical the entire experience felt – it’s one of those just truly astounding wonders of the world.

Imagine seemingly endless vermilion tori (gate) through a thickly wooded mountain; a shrine complex a world upon its own. Along the 4km path up the mountain, shrine cats abound beside fox statues (often seen with a key in its mouth to indicate access to the rice granary). Evidently, Memories of a Geisha featured a young girl running through these “torii tunnels”, taking advantage of the mystical ambiance. By the time we came down the mountain on the “Buddhist” path (compared to the “Shinto” ascension route), the environment became semi-eerie. Even though it took a lot of effort to climb, I do hope to come back before I leave since it’s just so special.

Grace spent about a week in Kyoto during the summer so she expertly took us around. There’s simply too much to see in Kyoto – even if we tried, we wouldn’t be able to cover all the historical and religious sites in a week! Since we’re also going to visit Osaka, Himeji, and Kobe, we’re mainly going to do the highlights. There are so many local handicrafts and omiyage (special regional delicious treats, often times sweets) – I want to buy a lot of things to take home as well! Throughout the day, I bought traditional arts and crafts of Kyoto, from printed banner cloths to ceramic decorative cups – alas, if only I can take everything home! Tomorrow we look forward to Arashiyama, Monkey Mountain, Gion (the traditional geisha district – perhaps we’ll be able to spot one on the streets!), and a whole heck of a lot more temples, including the resplendent completely gilded in gold leaf Kinkakuji Temple, Nijo-jo castle, and Sanjusangendo Hall (with 1001 life size wooden statues of Kannon, the goddess of Mercy).

For dinner, we went to Sweets Paradise – oh, how I’ve wanted to come here since hearing about Grace’s experience over the summer! Basically, we had 90 full minutes to eat unlimited amounts of tasty cakes and Japanese-Italian spaghetti! There were at least 30 different cakes to choose from, from apple creme brulee and green tea mont blanc to blueberry cream tart and the most heavenly sponge cake, complete with all the fixings imaginable and a large white chocolate fondue fountain about the size of my complete torso. The spaghetti was also incredibly delicious – meat sauce, pesto, tarako (octopus eggs…ugh, didn’t like this one), spinach mushroom, and ham carbonara. The spaghetti had a texture of udon so it tasted really interesting. Furthermore, we had unlimited access to a tea bar with perhaps over 40 different types of special fruit, herbal, and traditional teas. Even though I stuffed my face to the extreme, everyone around me – these tiny Japanese girls, all barely a size 2 – put away perhaps up to double the amount that I ate. While I took a tiny sliver of the best looking cakes, they took chunks the size of their palm. Perhaps good genes that despite all the food eaten in copious quantities, no one here is that large in size?