The Twinkie Times

The life and times of a Chinese American. Born a Jersey boy, lived the expat life, attended boarding school (Lawrenceville), converted to a frat boy (Sigma Pi), got an MBA (Columbia), returned to China, and back to the East Coast now trying to carve out an identity and life as an Asian American dad (gulp) in the midst of a "tertial life crisis" ©

Sunday, September 26, 2004

FLASHBACK: The Adventures of H&H Vol. II

The following week was business as usual.  Since Hoa was only in town
through the weekend, we decided to take two days off for a long weekend
and explore Japan outside of Tokyo.  We had both bought the JR Rail Pass
which allowed us to take any train/subway/bullet train and gave us the
freedom to travel around wherever we wanted.  Of course, being two good
ol' American boys who were Asian, getting around and communicating could
prove to be very challenging so we convinced one of our co-workers Sally
to come along for what promised to be quite an adventure.  Sally could
speak passable broken Japanese and could also read the kanji characters
so for the next four days, our lives were pretty much in the hands of
Sally.  The original plan was to spend  2 days in Kyoto and one and a
half days in Osaka and then come back for a final day of sightseeing in
Tokyo.

Right off the bat, our trip started off with a flurry of excitement.
Thursday morning, we arrive in the Tokyo station at our gate for the
bullet train.  The train is scheduled to depart at 9:52 am and Hoa and I
were there at 9:30.  We were both chipper and excited to take the bullet
train.  9:40 . . . 9:45 . . . 9:47 rolls around and we begin to get a
little worried.  We fully expected Sally to be late (being a girl and
all) but now we were faced with a dilemma.  Our train had already pulled
up and we knew once the clock said 9:52, it would pull away.  We stood
in the doorway of our car debating what to do.  On the one hand, we
could wait and take the next train, but there was also a chance that
Sally would get on the train from a different car and then walk to our
seats.  We decide to get on the train and then use the phone on-board to
try to call her cell phone.  9:50 and we had just put away our luggage
when we hear a high-pitched shriek from the platform and see a flash of
red whiz by the window.  Sally was running wildly down the platform looking for
our car.  We flag her down and she made it onto the train with a minute
to spare.  Right on schedule, 60 seconds later, the doors closed, the
conductor welcomed us onto the Kyoto bullet train and we were on our way.

After a very comfortable train ride, we arrived in Kyoto, the old
capital of Japan.  We had booked a Ryokan (Japanese style inn) over the
internet close to the train station.  We found our hotel and dropped our
bags off since we could not check in for another few hours and headed
off to do some sightseeing.  In Kyoto, there was a choice between seeing
temples, shrines, or temples.  So we chose one temple and one shrine.
The most famous temple there was the Golden Pavilion but that was a 45
minute bus ride away and apparently it was closed for renovations so you
could only see it from afar.  We opted for one of the oldest temples in
Japan built into the mountains (10 minute bus ride away).

So we get off the bus and follow the throng of other tourists to a
shopping street going up into the mountains.  We arrive at the temple
and it is quite a sight.  Bright orange pagodas and temples offering
great panoramic views of Kyoto.  As we wound our way deeper into the
temple, we soon found ourselves literally in the mountains.  There were
trails leading deep into the wooded side of the mountain and other
hidden pagodas that we could see peeking out of the treeline.  Rather
than spend the whole day meandering through that Japanese jungle, we
decided to head back to try and see some more sights.  We arrive back at
the bus stop and decide to go find some geishas (professional female
entertainers who perform traditional Japanese arts such as playing instruments,
singing, dancing, but also conversation and other social skills) so Hoa could take pictures.
We had asked the front desk of our hotel and they said there was a street in Kyoto where all the maikos (geishas-in-training) congregated.

We headed off in search of this famous street not really knowing where it was or what it was called. Unfortunately, the kanji character for geisha seemed to translate loosely into 'prostitute' in Chinese (even though the geisha's profession is non-sexual) so anytime Sally tried to ask someone for directions, she would blush and get too embarrassed to continue. So we wandered around for about an hour finally stumbling upon yet another shrine. This one seemed different with a huge torii (or gate) at the entrance. Once entering, this shrine also lead into the mountains ultimately ending at the peak of the mountain. Leading up the mountain was at least a thousand of these 'gates' covering your path all the way up the mountain. Since Hoa and Sally had been making fun of me and calling me grandpa for not being able to walk uphill for 20 minutes without taking a break, I gallantly started up the mountain determined to see what hidden treasures awaited up top. The trek was not too bad since the torii's shaded us from the beating sun and every 'gate' had different intricate designs and kanji characters on them. The path was actually not very straight-forward and we eventually came to a fork in the path and we chose the wrong one. As we were walking, we noticed that the path started to have a gradual decline. At first we thought maybe we had to go down a little before going up the mountain but the descent continued and we soon resigned to the fact that we were headed back down the mountain.

After we finally got back to street-level, we set off on our original quest for Hoa to see some geishas or maikos. Being two bull-headed Americans (not to mention guys), Hoa and I just marched on not really knowing where we were going. Meanwhile poor Sally was busy trying to translate the Japanese map and triangulate our position so that we could actually walk in the right direction. Miraculously, one left and then another right later, she had successfully navigated us to the right street. The good news was that we had finally found the street after hours of looking, the bad news was that there was not a single geisha or maiko to be seen. We would find out much later that the maikos only really come out at night and that we would not see any in the afternoon.

We returned to our ryokan a little dejected but our spirits were soon lifted when we were shown to our room. It was straight out of Karate Kid II with the sliding paper screen doors and tatami (matted) floors. It had the traditional Japanese feel and a woman made us tea while we gathered around the table on the floor. One of the things that everyone had said we needed to try in Japan was the onsen or traditional bath. Typically these are outdoors and in natural hot springs but many hotels would build indoor ones as part of their facilities. After tea, all 3 of us grabbed the yukatas (robes) and headed to the bath. Luckily it was a random weekday and no one else was in the bath because we soon realized that we were supposed to bathe in this very open room. The first step was to take a stool and use a shower-head to wash/soap/shampoo yourself before getting into the bath. Hoa and I strategically chose two shower-heads which were separated by a big column and then quickly slipped into the bath. Sitting in opposite corners with eyes fixed on the ceiling, we sat in the scalding hot water. The heat was pretty brutal so I soon got out to try on our snappy yukatas.

Sporting our yukatas and looking like something out of 'The Last Samurai', we triumphantly returned to our room refreshed. Once Sally returned, the Japanese woman began bringing in our traditional Japanese dinner which consisted of about 15 different little dishes and a big bottle of Asahi beer. It was a very good dinner but was probably the strangest meal I've ever had. There were bright pink, yellow, green, and blue things on our lap table, not to mention some species of animal that I could not identify. However, with the trusty beer, we all finished up dinner and decided not to waste the night and headed out to see more of Kyoto.

The one sight we did not yet get a chance to see was the Imperial Palace so we thought that might be quite extraordinary at night if it was lit up. We hopped on the sightseeing bus and got off at the palace. At first we had some trouble finding the entrance since the huge complex was surrounded by 8 foot walls of concrete. Eventually, we entered the garden in front of the palace but were disappointed to see that the palace itself was closed. Not wanting to miss an opportunity for a picture, Sally suggested to Hoa that he could climb up the gate a little to snap some pictures through one of the openings at the top. Hoa enthusiastically obliged and approached the gate with camera in hand. As he grabbed one of the posts on the gate, he must have tripped some wire because immediately an alarm went off throughout the palace and some message in Japanese began blaring over the loudspeaker system (similar to the alarms from my apartment). We briskly walked away from the gate trying not to look too conspicuous but as I turned around I saw a pair of headlights heading towards us from the other side of the palace wall. The car flashed its lights at us and then turned on its siren. Not certain what we should do, we just headed towards the exit of the garden as the flashing red light got closer and closer behind us. The imperial guards didn't actually say anything to us so I'm not sure if they saw what happened but they drove alongside us stupid 'gaijin' tourists to the exit and then circled back.

We found out later that the Imperial Palace is actually never open so even during the day you cannot see anything and can only walk around the gardens outside of the palace. Since we were all a bit shaken up at our narrow brush with the law, we headed back to the hotel to get some rest. When we got back to our room, they had made the beds for us, futons laid out on the tatami mats on the floor. They were actually extremely comfortable with thick fluffy down comforters and we all passed out after a long day filled with excitement.

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Monday, September 20, 2004

FLASHBACK: The Adventures of H&H Vol. I

As I slowly adjusted to life in Tokyo, the days went by faster and
before I knew it, it was almost the weekend. Luckily, my timing was
good and my whole floor had organized a baseball outing to go see the
Tokyo Giants play the hometown Yakult Swallows. My friend and coworker,
Hoa, originally from New York who recently transferred to the Hong Kong
office, was also in town to visit. He arrived to the office and shortly
thereafter we exited en masse to Jingu Stadium. We arrived at the
bottom of the first inning and the Swallows must have just scored or
something because the second you walk into the stadium, you are blasted
with a wave of singing and chanting with a brass ensemble
accompaniment. Every fan in our section was on their feet singing along
to the bugles and following the 'crowd leaders' who stood below blowing
whistles and directing everyone. In unison, over a thousand fans around
us were dancing and singing and waving these translucent green
umbrellas, and then once the song was over, they all sat down to await
the next batter. One would have thought that this was a championship
game or at least the playoffs but people told me it was always this way
and that song was only for a base hit. We find our block of seats and
sit down with the rest of the Morgan employees 4 rows back from the
right field wall.

While surveying the stadium, I noticed that in every section of seats
there were people plastered in fluorescent green milling about. Looking
around, I found one in our section and smiled. Bernie and Dan had both
told me about the 'beer girls' at Japanese baseball games and I finally
saw them. Unlike the big burly Yankee stadium beer guys, Japanese
baseball stadiums employ girls who have kegs of beer strapped onto their
backs. Not only do you get fresh draft beer but they are much softer on
the eyes than 250 pound men from the Bronx. I flagged down the nearest
'Super Asahi Girl' and ordered up some beers. Now that we had our beer,
we needed some munchies. We headed off towards the concession stands
and I was looking forward to the usual hot dog or spicy Italian
sausage. When we got to the row of stalls, I was surprised to see a
wide variety of food. One stand had corn dogs, french fries, and
chicken fingers while the one next to it had boxes of sushi and octopus
balls. I went to the 'bento' (lunchbox) stand and ordered a fried rice
box while Hoa bought 3 little corn dogs and an order of octopus balls.
The bento was smartly packaged with little compartments for pickled
radishes, seaweed, egg, and other Japanese side-dishes and went very
well with the beer.

We finished up the food and sat back to enjoy the game. Soon a chant
began to rise through the crowds, 'Dobashi, Dobashi!' Next up to bat,
the hometown hero, the Derek Jeter of the Swallows. Not wanting to
disappoint his screaming fans, he rips the first fastball and it comes
sailing towards us. Everyone jumped to their feet in anticipation but
the ball just made it over the outfield wall and landed in the second
row a few seats in front of us. As soon as the ball landed, the bugles
and whistles started up again and this time people unrolled huge flags
to wave around as the fans sang another song and danced with their
umbrellas. Soon thereafter, the game was over and the Swallows had
upset the Tokyo Giants. We headed out to continue the festivities at a
local drinking establishment.

After a couple rounds, Hoa and I decided to retire since he had only
just landed a few hours ago. We returned to my apartment and he
unpacked his things and headed for the shower. While I was surfing
through channels, I almost fell out of my chair as the all-too-familiar
siren and alarm started going off in my apartment again. This time I
was quick enough to shut it off before the female robotic voice started
yelling at me in Japanese. I guess since it was after midnight and I
turned it off quickly, no one called to follow up this time. Then I
yelled at Hoa to not touch any more buttons in the apartment.

So the next day, we awoke with slight hangovers and prepared to go visit
Mt. Fuji. It was the last weekend it was open since the climbing season
is only July through August. After two different trains and a long bus
ride, we arrive at Station 5, 2400 meters up. There are a total of 10
stations to the top (3776 m.) but we did not really have any illusions
of grandeur and were not going for the summit. So we set off up the
mountain, enthusiastic and excited, thinking we would make it to Station
8, then head back and make the last bus home at 6:50 pm. After about 30
minutes, I was winded and ready to turn back, the enthusiasm was gone,
my legs were burning and breath was short. The combination of altitude
and countless beers from the night before did not contribute to a fun
day of hiking. However, with the constant shouts of 'stop being a
sissy!' and 'hurry up you wimp!' from ahead, I finally made it to Station
6.

The majority of the paths so far had been long windy trails but once on
our way to Station 7, there were steep rocky impasses where we had to
actually climb up. We pass another group of foreigners on their way
down and they take one look at us and ask us if we have any other gear
(undertone -> amateurs). They were dressed from head to toe in North
Face outfits with walking sticks and hiking boots. We had baseball
caps, t-shirts, and shorts with backpacks containing water. They warn
us that it's pretty cold up there and we thank them for the advice and
continue on. Of course while we are scaling up the side of Fuji, a
typhoon of some sort sweeps in and it quickly becomes foggy and misty to
the point where I could barely see 2 feet in front of me. Luckily Hoa
was wearing a yellow shirt so I followed his faint silhouette up the
mountain.

Thankfully, we reach Station 7 just as it begins to pour so we duck into
a rest stop and hunker down to dry off. We order up some small bowls of
$16 curry and each buy $20 ponchos for the return trip. After resting
awhile, we don our new ponchos and pants and prepare for the long
journey down. While navigating the treacherously slippery rocks on the
way down, we look to the east and see the rapidly moving clouds moving
away from us. Amazingly, the storm had passed and all of a sudden we
could see some blue skies peaking through the clouds above us. Below, you
could still see thick fog but we took the opportunity to snap some
scenic shots before we descended back into the gloomy depths of Fuji.

By the time we reached Station 6 on the way down, it was already 6:20 pm
and we only had 30 minutes to catch the last bus leaving Mt. Fuji. We
knew that there was no way the bus would be late or wait for us so we
had to run down the rest of the way. Dirty, winded, and tired, we got
on the bus with 3 minutes to spare and we both promptly passed out for
naps. The trip home was a blur but I remember having left my apartment
at 11 am that day and not returning until 11 pm. I have still yet to
see the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Fuji and am hoping that we get a clear
day so that I can catch a glimpse from our office building but it was
still a great experience 'climbing' Fuji and I am determined to wear
my new poncho as often as possible to maximize its value.

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