Sunday, July 20, 2014

Suddenly Sydney

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 Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Veteran

A milestone had passed without me knowing. I was up late in my dorm room at Bounce Hostel (highly recommended), and talking with Justin, a backpacker from Canada. Like most Canadian travelers I've met, he was a cool, laidback person.

"When was your first trip?" he asked.

"2004," I answered. "I studied abroad in England, then backpacked around Europe."

"So you've been traveling for 10 years," he concluded.

Whoa. Has it really been that long? I can't believe a whole decade just went by without me knowing. Makes me glad that I didn't listen to people who said, "You're young, you have plenty of time. You can do travel later."

No, if you want to do cool stuff, you gotta do it now. Or it might never happen. What if I hadn't decided to study abroad when I was just a college student? I could have missed out on 10 years of travels, amazing friends and incredible experiences. Felt good to look back on those years and have no regrets. Well, almost none. Wish I'd dated more girls.

Behind the Photo

Getting that perfect shot. It's the bane of a solo traveler's existence. I've journeyed a long way, and I need to get that picture with the iconic monument. For Sydney, that was the Sydney Opera House.

I'd been stranded in front of it for an hour. I tried taking selfies, but I don't do it in my regular life, so they came out bad. I asked a Korean girl tourist, and later a young Chinese guy tourist. Also awful. Terrible composition, like they couldn't decide whether to make my face or the opera house more prominent, instead of striving for a balance of both. The same thing had happened in Kyoto, but I'd forgotten that lesson about how Asian tourists take pictures.

My friend Colin had once given me a tip on pictures: zoom in and check your smile. This prevents "full screen regret" where a photo looks okay on the camera's small screen, but later when you view it on your laptop, you realize your facial expression was off. But it's too late to re-shoot because you're already home.

Aside from the composition, I realized my facial expression wasn't natural. I had the "hurry up and take the damn picture!" look because the person was taking too long fumbling with my camera. Worse, my smile was completely fake.

My smile appeared most natural when I looked at two kinds of people: close friends and hot girls. The problem was I travel alone. No friend to take a picture of me. That was out.

So that left only one option . . .

"Excuse me," I said, approaching a hot Australian girl. She was tall, with dark hair, a model's cheekbones and fair smooth skin. Wearing a slim black sleeveless top with pink skinny jeans, and high heels.

"Yes?" she asked, a little startled.

"Can you take a picture of me?" I asked, holding up my camera.

"Sure!" she said.

I showed her the camera screen and pointed, explaining where my face was to go and where the opera house was to be situated. Framing and blocking the shot, as they say in the movie industry. I was talking as Marcus The Director, issuing instructions to the cinematographer. I was single-minded and on a mission, speaking with purpose, not letting her beauty make me nervous. She nodded and understood.

Then I strode into position. Looked at her and thought, "She's really hot." Boom, my smile appeared. Flash. She took a couple more photos from other angles.

She flipped the camera around and showed me the screen. Excellent. Did the zoom-in check on my face. Got the smile. Pimp city.

"Thanks," I told her.

"No worries," she said, smiling.

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Me with the Sydney Opera House

Getting back into travel mode

I had to do transition back into travel mode. Four long years had passed without me going on a trip. I noticed once I started packing, things started clicking in my head.

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Photo of the stuff I packed, laid out on my bed. In the center is a Tortuga Backpack. You can go here to view my complete packing list (Google Docs).

Jet lag was something I took for granted. When I lived in Asia, there was very little time difference when traveling around the region. Maybe one hour, if that. But going from Hawaii to Australia caused some problems.

The main one was I wouldn't get hungry for dinner until like 11:00 p.m., when most restaurants were closed. That sucked! I'd make do with snacks from convenience stores.

Had to get used with getting lost again. My very first night, I went looking for somewhere to eat. I took a tunnel under Central Station and came out the other side. After I ate, I couldn't remember where I'd come from. Must have walked in circles a half-dozen times.

Due to a fear of international roaming charges, I took the extreme step of leaving my iPhone in Hawaii. Gasp! How can you survive without a smartphone?! Luckily, I'd started traveling before those were the norm, so I didn't freak out at the loss of Google Maps.

Eventually, I spotted some familiar signs and found my way back to the hostel. Mission accomplished.

Reverse Culture Shock

I would joke to my friends, "I'll go to Australia when I'm ready to leave Asia and hear English again."

Turns out, the joke was on me. Sydney was the most Chinese place I've been to outside of Asia. I couldn't go anywhere without hearing people speak Mandarin. For me, Australia was more reverse-culture shock. At one moment, I'd be immersed in Asia, then suddenly, I'd get yanked back into Western culture.

--I knew there was a Chinese community, but I didn't expect it to be so everywhere. I swear, at times it seemed like half the population of China was in Sydney (and half of Taiwan's population was in Melbourne).

--I got so used to traveling to Asian countries and not understanding anything, I was hyper-aware of all the English everywhere. Whoa, I could read signs and understand what people are saying again! I don't have to ask waitresses for the "English menu."

--Western food being so accessible. In Asia, you're surrounded by Asian food and you have to look a little harder to find good Western food that isn't part of a major chain. In Sydney, it seemed like every block was loaded with restaurants, cafes and pubs. Wait, the Western food is the local food?! Had to adjust to that.

--Prices. Aww, I can't get away with spending less than US$2 on a meal like I did in Asia. D'oh!

The clearest moment for me was when I was walking out of Market City, a large mall in Chinatown. I'd just eaten dinner at the food court. As I walked on the sidewalk, I looked over at a building across the street and had my mind blown.

Taiwan flag. The sign above the entrance said it was the Kuomintang headquarters in Australia. For reference, the KMT (a.k.a. the Chinese Nationalist Party) is a major political party in Taiwan. I completely didn't expect to see that in Australia.

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KMT headquarters in Sydney

My mind reeled, and I had a mini-meltdown. "Where the hell am I?!" I thought. Whoa, Asia overload. Don't think I can handle this.

Seeing the Taiwan flag triggered my brain and brought everything back. The rush of memories: freaking out over having only 30 days to find a job, desperate visa runs, Taiwan bosses, laughing with friends at hostels, and wild nights dancing at Taipei nightclubs. The wrenching feeling from leaving Taiwan and remembering everything I'd lost.

Too much. That was four years ago, but still felt like yesterday.

The pilgrimage for Ken

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Ken and me at Double Bay

From my travels, I've been fortunate to make new friends and later visit them in other countries. I have a list of people I like to call "The Intercontinental Club." They're the few friends that I've been able to meet up with in two countries or more.

Ken is on that list. He's the very first friend I made when I moved to Taiwan and checked in at World Scholar House hostel. This was back in 2006. Little did I know I would be visiting him in Sydney in 2014. Lots of times on the road, when you make new friends, you add each other on Facebook and eventually fall out of contact.

I'm really glad that didn't happen with Ken. He was living in Thailand, but visited Taiwan several times, we got to meet up in Thailand and Laos as well. I still thank him for taking us out of the backpacker hell that is Vang Vieng, Laos to check out an organic farm and drink "the best mulberry milkshakes in the world."

What makes Ken so special? Put simply, Ken elevates conversation to a fine art. You know those awkward pauses when you talk to people? That never happens with Ken. He effortlessly hops from topic to topic without letting the flow falter: travel to art to high finance to pop culture to history. He has encyclopedic knowledge, but never seems to show off or make you feel like an idiot. Indeed, he makes you feel more intelligent. I learn from him every time we talk. Not to say he's stodgy, he's also one of the funniest people I know. He can take something that's true and phrase it in a blunt and witty fashion that you can't help but laugh your ass off. Hours pass by like minutes.

Ken is a voracious reader, so it made sense to buy him a book as a gift. But what book? The first problem is finding something he hadn't already read, which was unlikely. And if I did, it had to be interesting. Finally, after much consideration, the book I chose was "J. Peterman Rides Again." It's the story of an entrepreneur who started an unconventional catalog company. Peterman journeyed around the world to discover high-quality rare products to sell in his catalog. He's like the Indiana Jones of retail. I thought the combination of writing, travel, business and zeal for quality were a perfect match for Ken. Here's a news clip about it.

Then another crisis. The book was out-of-print. The good news was that Ken probably hadn't read it. The bad news was whether I could locate a copy in time. I ordered one off an Amazon reseller. The shipping took forever, as my flight to Australia loomed closer. I was ready to give up and just mail it to Ken after returning to Hawaii. Literally a few days before my departure date, the damned book arrived. It was one of the last items I threw into my backpack.

One of the first things I did when I got to Australia was to buy an unlocked cell phone (not smartphone) and a local SIM card. I called Ken and we arranged when we could go for a drive. Knowing I liked books, he took me to one of his favorite bookstores. We ordered food from the cafe upstairs. Once we settled into our seats, I had the pleasure of presenting the book to him.

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Ken holding up the "Peterman Rides Again" book

When I explained what the book was about, he was intrigued. This sparked another long chat, mostly about advertising. Just like old times.

Later, he took me out to Double Bay, a ritzy area. We grabbed a table at Cosmopolitan Cafe, which had a stylish clientele. Felt like a luxury restaurant, not a coffee shop. He strategically positioned us at a table near the street. There was a steady stream of the hottest girls I'd seen in Australia walking by, making me wonder what nightclub or bar they were going to.

Before we knew it, it was 1:00 a.m. and time to go home. That's the sign of a great conversation: so much times passes by, and yet you still wished you could have talked more.

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Ken's favorite gelato shop. It's in Bondi Beach.

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I got one scoop of vanilla, and one scoop of hazelnut. Man, I miss eating gelato.

Dancing at Side Bar

A favorite venue for employees at Bounce Hostel was Side Bar. The main appeal was location, crowd and cost. It was on the other side of Central Station, about a 5-7 minute walk. As for the people, Side Bar is under Wake Up, a huge hostel, so the club was full of foreigners (I still call Westerners that after living in Asia for so many years). Last but not least, the Bounce guys had connections, so us guests could get in for free. I though they'd get a kickback for steering in customers, but the Bounce rep said they didn't in this case.

Going to a new club in a new country always feels exciting and scary. I'm curious to see what it will be like, but also wonder if my dance skills might not be up to par. It's been a long time since I'd been to a nightclub, and I'm not a 22-year-old dance machine anymore. Who knew what new moves these young kids had? Sometimes, before entering a club, I'll quickly stretch my arms and legs, rotate my shoulders and knees. Gotta loosen up first. Not as flexible as I used to be, due to aging. The irony is that people interpret my stretching as the complete opposite: "Look, that guy's doing exercises, he must a pro dancer!"

My typical pattern is to check out the scene before hitting the dance floor. I'll take a walk around the whole club, doing a reconnaissance trip. Where is the restroom? Where are the exits?

I'll also scope out the dancers, get a feel for the people. Hot girls. Which guys are good dancers.

On that last point, one time my friend Colin and I were in Club Wax in Taipei. He was being a good wingman and was talking me up to some girls. While I scanned the crowd, he bragged to them, "Marcus likes to see who the good dancers are, so he can destroy them."

 Ha ha. I'm not quite that ruthless. I just want to see who's got cool moves, who I can learn from. You can always improve.

The majority of dancing at Side Bar was the same drunken spasms you see everywhere. There were a few standouts: two guys doing c-walking, a couple of hip-hop dancers and even a female breakdancer. Always fun when you've got some good people on the dance floor.

I actually went to Side Bar three times. The third time was the charm, due to a different DJ. The first two times, the DJ would remix hip-hop songs that didn't need remixing, the originals were already great for getting you moving. Reverse alchemy, it's like he sucked the energy out of great songs. Hate it when that happens. But the DJ on the third night played hip-hop and some really cool remixes where he took non-dance songs (like rock) and putting in techno and hip-hop touches. That was a great night.

Luckily, turns out I didn't need to worry. People liked my dancing okay. Guys came up to slap hands with me. Shows of respect. Western girls pulled me in to grind up on me. That was surprising, since at clubs in Asia, I found Asian girls more passive. Girls in Asia usually would just circle around, giggle and point, hoping I'd notice them. But Western girls seized the initiative. Nice to know that genuine enthusiasm and being in sync with the music will never go out of style.

Any highlights?

- A question from my Australian friend John, who lives in Hobart

The main highlight for me was that Australians just seem to enjoy living well. Play in the sun, eat great food, grab a drink at one of the million pubs around. I know England has a lot of pubs, but because of the awful weather, they're mostly indoors. In contrast, Australia was full of outdoor pubs and restaurants. Like Europe! Even hotels. I'm used to hotels having exclusive in-house restaurants. But a lot of hotels here had open public restaurants on the ground floor. You can't walk through a city block without being within drunken staggering distance of a half-dozen good joints. Probably by design, ha ha.

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Atom Thai, a Thai restaurant recommended by my friend John. It's in Newtown, a funky suburb of Sydney.

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 Inside of Atom Thai

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My dinner: Lemongrass chicken

Inside Information

--book hostels ahead of time. There are major events like concerts in the big cities (especially Sydney), and lots of backpackers doing working holidays in Australia, so good cheap accommodation is in tight supply.

Due to the mass of backpackers doing working holidays, a lot of the crowd at hostels in Australia are long-term stayers. They can be a little clannish and not as open to meeting new people.

I get that, since I've been on that side when I lived in hostels in Taiwan. I wasn't going to make the effort to get to know someone if they were leaving tomorrow. Just be prepared for that atmosphere and seek out fellow travelers to hang out with.

Sydney was where I felt this the most. Melbourne had a lot of long stayers too, but I found them a little more friendly. Maybe it has something to do with the city. Sydney is more fast-paced, while Melbourne is more chill. Your mileage may vary.

My top hostel pick: Bounce Sydney. Excellent facilities, definitely in my Top 10 hostels I've ever stayed in. The only hostels I've stayed in better than this were in Berlin and Kuala Lumpur. Stay here, you won't regret it.

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At the front desk of Bounce Hostel with Kosta (left) and Ray (right). Great guys, they take guests out partying.

Aside from the fine facilities, it was really the staff that made the experience at Bounce for me. All the employees from the manager to the reception desk were friendly and travelers themselves.

Due to the long-stayer factor I described above, it did feel a little lonely sometimes. But Ray in particular was a social whirlwind: he introduced me to other guests and took us out partying at his favorite nightspots in the city. Sydney wouldn't have been the same without him.

--One of the highlights of Sydney is to take the ferry to Manly. There's a long line at the wharf for that ferry. An attendant came over to my line and said you can buy tickets at the machines at any of the other wharves. So that's what I did: walked to another wharf, bought a ticket to Manly, and went back to the Manly wharf.

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This is Wharf 3, where you board the ferry to Manly. But you can get a ticket at another, less busy wharf.

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Get on the front, upper deck of the ferry. As the boat pulls out of wharf, that's where you can get great camera angles of the Sydney Opera House.

The best seats in the boat are at the front, upper deck. You have to wait right at the bottom of the ramp, then run into the boat as soon as they open up the ramp. Seats get taken fast.

--For cheap souvenirs, go to Paddy's Markets, it's under the Market City shopping center in Chinatown.

I bought:

2 sets of drink coasters
1 permanent shopping bag
2 men's wallets
1 women's wallet

All for under AUD$30.00.

 photo IMG_0780.jpg Entrance to Market City in Chinatown

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--Eating out can be very expensive in Sydney. Do some advance research online for terms like "cheap eats Sydney." You'll find specials at various bars and restaurants on certain days of the week.

I sought out the many Asian food courts, eating lots of Thai and Chinese food. Relatively low compared to other options. Market City is one of the biggest and best-known. There are smaller, more hole-in-the-wall food courts that can feel even more Asian.

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Juice bar at Dixon House food court in Chinatown

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Juice bar menu

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Sugar cane juice. It's mixed with lime and poured over ice. Awesome cold drink.

--Where to party. When I asked around, people told me that hip-hop venues were scarce in Sydney. I think it's the U.K. influence, which is more into techno and electronic music.

Then a DJ from Wales gave me a hot tip. He said he'd been looking for a good hip-hop joint in Sydney for a year and a half. The best he came up with was Play Bar in Surry Hills ( From their website, it sounds like a small, intimate venue with an old-school feel.

Unfortunately, my schedule didn't allow me to go. Since I've heard it's so rare to find a hip-hop place, I'm passing this on to anyone in Sydney who might be in dire need of street beats.

Here's what I saw on their About page:
Bringin’ a lil bit of Melbourne style to Sydney…
Raw, street & underground…
Beats, breakin’ & musical excursion…
Turntables & graffiti…
Ales, spirits & vino… 
--If you want an efficient way to get oriented in Sydney, do a tour with I'm Free walking tours. The tours are "free," but you can pay with a donation at whatever amount you decide. They're available in Sydney and Melbourne.

I went with them in Sydney, and had a good time, and met other backpackers. The downside is that they were staying at other hostels, so never saw them again. Oh well. This is why I prefer tours run out of your hostel, so you can meet people who are fellow guests and it's easy to see each other afterwards back in the hostel.

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This girl was my guide, and she was the founder of the tour company. Wish I could remember her name.

--By the way, I got a new camera for this trip.  Canon S110 ($190 on sale at Adorama with memory card and belt case).  The newest version at the time was the Canon S120 ($449).  When I compared the specs, the only difference were some extra video features I didn't care about. So I got the Canon S110.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Toei Kyoto Studio Park: Ninja vs. Samurai

"Japan is all about the side trips."
--Marie, an Australian girl who taught English in Japan

"Welcome to my shop," said the ninja to his victims.

Me and a ninja doing an attack pose

Me with a samurai

"Meet ninjas and samurai!" the headline screamed from the guidebook, Kyoto's Greatest Travel Tips. I'd picked it up from a pile of books at my hostel. The book happened to fall open on that page, which described the Toei Kyoto Studio Park.

It was a guidebook aimed at children, but no matter. I didn't know the Toei Studio Park even existed before I came to Japan. But once I saw that headline, I was hooked!

When I travel, I try to have a balance of must-see places with other places that I'm personally interested in. Some destinations are so famous that you have to go. Kyoto is a requirement for any Japan itinerary. The Toei Studio isn't. Yet I always get more into travel when going to a place I feel like I've "discovered."

The Toei Studio is that curious phemonon: a tourist trap without tourists. Maybe it was because it was raining that day. More likely, it's because the studio isn't prominently listed in guidebooks. This is really strange. When I tell other other travelers about the studio, their reactions are like, "That sounds so cool! I'd have gone there if I'd known about it!"

I joke that the Toei Studio is a Japan-land. Every clichéd image of Japan is there: giant robots, Power Rangers, and sword-wielding warriors. I kept expecting Godzilla to stomp through and blast some buildings with his radioactive breath.

Super Sentai mecha

The Metal Heroes

2-story tall statue of Masked Rider, the world's ugliest superhero

Of course it's all totally fake, which is a nice lesson in how travel can shatter stereotypes. The only place in Japan that had all the iconic figures of Japan was a theme park.

My favorite section of the park was where they did a live studio demonstration of how a scene gets filmed. I have an avid interest in filmmaking, so it was fun to see the Japanese approach to shooting movies.

Director talking to a ninja

Although the presentation was entirely in Japanese, it was easy to see what was going on. A fight scene is like a dance, with careful movements and precision timing. Safety is the first priority. It's up to the actors' skill at performance to make it look dangerous.

The director choreographed the fight sequence, even taking up a stick against the ninja to show what he wanted. Then he had the actors run through the scene a few times until they had it down. At the end of the presentation, the audience got to watch the finished fight scene!

Director fighting with a ninja

Ninja fights samurai!

The studio park is meant for children, but I felt like an excited 10-year-old boy while wandering around the historical village set. Where could I become a samurai superstar?

That's when I saw the Costume Photo Corner. For a fee, I could wear a costume and get a professional photograph. The hardest part was choosing a costume! I was overwhelmed by the wide selection of traditional clothes I could wear. I rejected a lot of awesome suits. Mainly because I felt a Japanese guy would look cool in that, but I'd look like an idiot. After a lot of consideration, I chose a costume.

I never realized how complicated Japanese garments were. Two young Japanese women assisted me in wrapping and tying the layers of robes properly. I felt like an emperor being dressed by servant girls.

The photo assistants really micro-managed my pose as if I was a mannequin. They'd move my fists a millimeter in one direction or another. A girl tilted my head for the best angle toward the camera. At one point, I wondered if they'd pull at the corners of my mouth, to adjust my smile!

The actual photo-taking lasted less than 10 seconds. Then the girls were ripping the clothes off me. I didn't even get their names.

Meet the new samurai superstar!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Kobe: Where's the Beef?

"I am totally willing to drop serious money on a bomb-ass steak."
--Steven, a Taiwanese-American engineer in Kyoto

My Kobe beef steak

This review grabbed me:

"A-1 has a relaxed atmosphere and serves thick slices of Kobe beef. The teppanyaki steak (broiled on a hot plate) is cooked in a spice, wine, and soy marinade and served with charcoal-grilled vegetables and crisp garlic potatoes."
--Fodor's Japan 2009

Ding ding ding!  We have a winner! 

Is it worth it to travel a long way, just for the food?  Yes!  Japanese food will never taste the same for me again.  Once you've eaten "the real thing," nothing else compares. Kobe beef was available all over Japan, but I felt I had just had to eat it in Kobe.  The only way to get the complete experience.

As usual, I got lost coming out of the train station. Finally, I got my bearings and found A-1.

A-1 restaurant

The surprising thing was how the place didn't feel Japanese at all. The wooden counter and bar stools could have come from any pub in the world. It actually felt more like a pub than a dark, smoky steakhouse.

I pulled up a seat at the bar. The cook, wearing a pristine white uniform, came over and silently handed me a menu. The struggle was to avoid staring at the prices. Was that the cost of a steak, or one week's rent in Thailand?

"Should I spend the money or not?" was a recurring dilemma for travelers. Certain things should only be done right, or not at all. This was one of those times. Like that famous Gucci slogan: "Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten."

After I told him my order, the cook unwrapped some Kobe beef and carefully slid them onto steel prongs. Then he laid the meat on the grill. Very efficient, tidy movements. He could have been a surgeon.

Preparing the meat.

Kobe beef on the grill

The fun part was when the cook switched the steak into a frying pan and proceeded to flambée it to hell.  Flames exploded up into the air.  The mark of a real pro: without changing expression, he knew exactly how many millimeters to lean his head back so he didn't lose his eyebrows.


He picked up various bottles and poured the delicious liquids all over the steaks. By now, the aroma was reaching my nose. Immediate thought: when will the food be done?!

Soon, was the answer. The cook faced me and signaled with his hands that I should put on the napkin like a bib. The napkin had long narrow strips that I used to tie it behind my neck. Now I was ready.

Cook with steak platter

The cook deftly slid the steak off the frying pan into a black sizzling platter. He turned around and set the platter down in front of me. The oil and juices crackled, popping off into my bib. Steam carried the heady smells to my nose.

I picked up my chopsticks. There's always a moment of fear when taking the first bite of an expensive meal.  Did I just waste my money on crappy food? 

Picking up the steak with chopsticks

As I bit down into the steak, it was soft and chewy. Just as my teeth met each other, the sauces hit my tongue. Light, savory, with a hint of sweetness. Delicate and balanced mix of flavors, totally different from steak sauces I've tasted in America.

This was one satisfied diner.

Fortified with a good meal, I was ready to explore Kobe. What struck me was how international it felt, for a relatively small city. Cafés, European restaurants, and live music joints were the norm. So cool that it almost made me forget Taipei.

Then it hit me: Kobe was a smaller, friendlier Hong Kong. Both cities have big ports. All that trade lent a cosmopolitan character to both cities. They have lots of foreign-oriented places for expats to hang out.

Walking among the colonial houses felt like a trip through Europe-land. There was a British House, a French house, etc. They seemed dressed up as Japanese stereotypes of what those countries were like.

French house

British house

At nightfall, I headed into Chinatown. I'd heard that Yokohama has the biggest Chinatown, but Kobe's was supposed to be better.

Buddha statue

Entrance gate

Having lived in China before, visiting Chinatowns are now a weird experience for me. These communities have their own separate character, totally apart from the motherland. The average street in China has a household goods shop with brooms and buckets on the sidewalk, a DVD shop with pirated movies, a "hair salon" that's really a whorehouse, etc. Not charming at all.

Kobe's Chinatown shuts down relatively early.  I got there around 9 P.M. and the place was deserted, like a Chinese ghost town. Night markets are really unique only to Taiwan. I strolled around and had the whole area to myself. That's one thing you'll never find in China: quiet.

Temple and red lanterns

Kitschy and tacky fun, like other Chinatowns. This was the China only seen in postcards. Kobe had the only other clean Chinatown I'd seen, besides the one in Singapore.

Cooks at a food stall

When I walked away, I marveled at how Japan had so many cool cities. It wasn't all about Tokyo.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Big O: Osaka

" . . . the Japanese are the world's champion modifiers. Only the most serious restauranteurs refrain from editing some of the authenticity out of foreign cuisines . . ."
--Fodor's Japan 2009, pg. 90

Two girls posing in Dotonbori, a nightlife area.

A rock band sets up near JR Osaka train station.

Chika and me at Shinsekai, a local area.

"Where's the coolest place in Osaka?" I asked Chika, a Japanese girl who lived in the city.

She thought for a moment. "America-mura!" she said. (Translates into Americatown.)

Imagine that "wah-wah-waaah" sound in comedy shows when a joke falls flat. That's what I heard in my head.

"What do mean, Americatown?" I said, flabbergasted. I didn't travel all the way to Japan to see U.S. culture.

"Do not worry," Chika said. "It is still Japanese!"

That reminded me of something I read in my guidebook, how the people can take foreign things and make them Japanese.

"Okay, let's go," I said at last.

Indeed, we wandered into a land of luxury department stores that could've been anywhere in the world. The local effects were in the little things: a snack bar that served Coke and okonomiyaki, an American flag fluttering in the wind as everyone chatted in Japanese.

Two girls eating at a snack bar

An American flag outside a trendy clothing shop

In that moment, Japan seemed very much like America. As different as the two countries are, both are able to absorb outside influences and yet hold on to their national identities. Japan received most of its culture from China, via Korea. But no one would ever confuse Tokyo with Beijing.

Turn to the United States. French fries are Belgian, hamburgers are German, and pizza is Italian, and yet now they are stereotypically American foods. Fried chicken is so old, it traces its origins back to Europe and Africa.

A loud rumbling noise jolted me out of my thoughts. I turned and saw a monster truck roaring by. Just in case everyone around didn't hear him, the driver revved the motor once again with feeling.

Monster truck

I had to laugh. The louder the engine, the bigger the jerk.

"What is funny?" Chika asked.

I pointed at the monster truck growling away from us. "In America, my friends and I make fun of people who drive big trucks and noisy motorcycles."


"We joke that the drivers try to look big, because they are so small," I explained. I held my index finger and thumb an inch apart, in that gesture that is universally understood by girls.

"Ah!" Chika held a hand over her mouth and giggled.

Salarymen eating at a Japanese curry fast-food restaurant

"You were right," I admitted to Chika. "America-mura is still very Japanese."

"I know, I live in Osaka!" She lowered her voice. "We should not stay here too late."

Perplexed, I asked, "Why is that?" Japan was one of the safest countries I've ever visited.

"At night, it is dangerous. Some bad people sell cocaine," she said.

I laughed. "Now that sounds like America!"

Zuboraya, a restaurant famous for serving fugu (poison blowfish)

Photo: Three boys get onto a bullet train

Photo: The Hikari Rail Star bullet train (shinkansen)

Inside Information

Getting into town

Most trains arrive at JR Osaka or JR Shin-Osaka station. Shinkansen (bullet trains) usually go to Shin-Osaka. They're two different stations, so double-check to make sure you arrive at the right one.

From there, you have to take the "Loop Line" to your final destination. Be careful, the Loop Line is super confusing! It looks deceptively simple, but it's not. The different lines don't always stop at every station. This happened to me when I changed trains on it. I seemed to be going further away from the city. When I called my Osaka hostel to get directions, the guy said, "You're almost back in Nara!"

Where to stay

If you have a choice between basing yourself in Kyoto or Osaka, choose Kyoto. That's the best advice I can give. The quality and quantity of budget accommodation is much better. There are also more things to see in Kyoto. Osaka is more of a place to do business.

The good news is that Osaka has really cheap budget hotels, centered around JR Shin-Imamiya station. The bad news is that it's a really poor, ugly area. You won't get a positive impression of Osaka if you stay there.

The budget hotels are all roughly the same. The customers are primarily factory workers and low-level salarymen. For this reason, the room rates are shockingly low: around 2,500 yen (US$30) a night for a private room. Probably the best hotel deal for a major city in Japan.

Lucky for you guys, a nice new hostel opened up in Osaka about a month after I left. It's called Hostel 64. A funky designer hostel, close to Dotonbori and all the nightlife. I really wish I could've stayed there!

I stayed at Lemon House. The price and location were great, but the rooms were appalling! Way too cramped and messy. It's a "gaijin house" meant for long-stay foreigners, who are studying in Japan or looking for jobs. I did meet some nice people, but I wouldn't stay there again.

I've heard good things about Capsule Hotel Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi. What you give up in space, you make up for in location since it's in the middle of all the action. Like all capsule hotels, it's strictly men-only.