Monday, March 31, 2008

Finally! A blog about Japan!

Well, it's been four months now since I've made it back to familiar territory in Japan, so I think it's about time I finally write a blog about it! Blogging about Thailand took much longer than I expected and believe it or not, I actually did try to spread the entries out as to not be so overwhelming... which I hear was not so successful. Anyway, I hope to actually catch up to current time somewhat soon. It shouldn't be too difficult since most of the winter involved weekends cowering under layers and layers of blankets, or my kotatsu (heated table) watching streaming episdoes of Nip/Tuck and The L Word or attempting to talk with friends and family on the not so impressive Skype. Needless to say, I won't be blogging about that (anymore).

So, Japan. As if Thailand wasn't adventure enough for Ms. Frank, she planned and budgeted a trip in Japan as well! I was pumped to get to show her around a little bit and see some new places as well. Despite popular belief, I actually do have a job and had to be there during the next week - but, that still left us the first weekend we arrived in Japan after Thailand and the next weekend after she went down to visit her Aunt in Kyoto.

Frank was on her own for her first night Tokyo, Japan because of our different flights out of Thailand. While I was sleeping in an airport in Taiwan, she was living the backpacker life, meeting new people at a hostel in Tokyo and partying at night. I arrived just in time to go Round 2 with her for another night in Roppongi. But first, we eat! Our first dinner out was entertaining, seeing as none of us speak Japanese and Katie was having her first go at using chopsticks. Can't remember this guy's name... I think he was from Czechoslovakia or something??? He was a chopstick pro from his travels in Korea, so he taught her a thing or two.
I like big bowls of shrimp noodle soup!
Frank had talked to a few people who had gone on a roller coaster in Tokyo Dome City. She quickly became obsessed with the idea of riding it too. So, we ate, rallied the troops, figured out how to get there, got there, and by that time it was closed. Frank was not so happy.
But at least we got to see these adult men riding arcade horses like there's no tomorrow. And drink out in public (always amuses me). And go to a reggae bar in Roppongi. And go to Gas Panic. And stay out all night long.
The next day I made Frank get up extra early so she could actually see an area of Tokyo other than Roppongi. First, I took her to one of my favorite shrines (Meiji Jinguu). It's got a big 'ol torii, and the wall of sake, and of course the shrine, but I really just like the walk to get there. It's through a beautiful forest and the lighting was magnificent that day. It was also right after the New Year, so there were tons of Japanese visiting to give their blessings for the new year. These lanterns were also hung for the New Year.
This kid was so amused by the pebbles on the walking path... it was adorable!
Entering Meiji Jinguu
Exiting Meiji Jinguu.
Out into the daylight of Harajuku. In addition to the typical Harajuku goth girls, we saw this guy! Frank wouldn't let me hug him:(
But she did convince me to buy some cool art... not from this guy though. It was another guy that was painting, and there were a few that were really awesome. I asked him (in my broken Japanese) if he paints all the ones he had displayed himself and he said 'Yes', so I got my favorite one. When I got home to take it out of the plastic sleeve and hang it up, I realized it was totally a computer printed copy. It was sad.
Next we headed to Omotesando Hills, where Lonely Planet claims it's "the closest Tokyo gets to Paris". I don't know about that (having never been in Paris), but it is pretty entertaining just to walk around and stare at all the pretty things. I also got yelled at from an employee at Harry Winston for attempting to take a picture of a ring. Man, rich people sure are uptight. Check out the video below for a scan of the street.

Somehow Frank managed to find a super cute purse she could afford, so we rejoiced about that for awhile and then went for lunch. Finding an affordable lunch was as difficult as finding the purse, but we did end up at a cute little Japanese restaurant. They had the plastic models in the entrance to the restaurant, so I thought we could just ask the waitress to come look and we'd point to the ones we wanted. I didn't realize I didn't know how to say "Could you please come with me out to the plastic models so I can show you what I'd like to eat?" and just felt far too rude running outside while she was trying to take our order... so, we just pointed to pictures in the menu. It took us about 30 minutes to choose something from the menu, after which we pointed, and she said our choices weren't available (no idea why). So we just said "anything is fine". We were pleasantly surprised with our awesome set meals. This was Frank's first go at udon noodles and miso soup, vegetable tempura over rice, salted tofu and pickled radish. In one day she managed to basically master the art of chopstick usage.
Next up on the agenda: a trip to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices to get our free view of central Tokyo from the observatory floor in the North tower! It was closed.
Back to the hostel to grab our gear and take the long trip back to Maebashi for the night. You can just imagine how fun it was to carry all our gear from the Thailand trip and Japan through the metro subway and JR train systems back home. Pretty sure Frank hated me after that, but my pocket book loved me!
On the JR; before people got off so we could sit down. See, my strategy was to keep to warm however we could in the bitter cold. She was missing that warmth that night, laying in my icebox of an apartment. Even with my AirCon (wall heater) on full blast and 4 blankets wrapped around her, I found her with gloves and a beanie on the next morning. Welcome to winter in Japan!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Annnnnnnnnd CUT!: The final hazy moments in Thailand

We got into Bangkok on our night bus at something like 1am. Frank headed straight to the airport for a 4am flight while I was left to wander the streets of Bangkok. Ironically, I happened upon 3 other ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) from Japan looking to kill some time as well. Back on Koh San Road, we tossed back a few and planned our future as mates on Justin's boat trip around the world. I am the designated chef/deck swabber/massager. The best part is, he was dead serious about this endeavor and everyone was giving him crap for it because he's not doing JET next year in order to pursue this dream of his.
Anyway, they too left me around 6am, at which point I became a lone wanderer. I did however, get to see one last sunrise in Thailand!
I roamed around some of the paths and areas I had been to before and tried some new tasty treats as well as the tried and true fresh fruit on a stick and grilled plantains I love. Check it out: monk on the road!
This area of Bangkok is known for it's magnificent flowers.
A great sight and smell in the early am to somewhat rouse me from the insomnia haze.
I love clouds!
Bangkok's China-town: full of the most random collection of things to buy I have ever seen in my life. It kind of looked like my Grandpa's garage, with all the dirty metals and rusted tools and electronics in plastic containers covered in dust. Just like Grandpa, they too were asking way too much for their crap:)
Despite Lonely Planet having recommended MBK as one of the must sees in Bangkok, I refused to use the time I had in the beginning to go shopping in a mall. It was one of the authors top choices for places to eat, but with street vendors on every corner, a food court wasn't exactly priority cuisine for me. With time to spare, I figured there was no harm checking it out now. Of course when I finally got there, it was closed. But, just for another hour.
The mall was gigantic, and after all the street shopping we'd done and the little money I had left, I figured I may as well spend the rest of it on the few items I was eyeing up in Koh Samui. So, I was on a mission to find me the Heroes DVD's, some kind of corny work-out video, and running shoes... I found none of the above. Instead I ended up with incense, a watch, and ice cream. I'm sure for some, shopping in an air conditioned market similar to those outside would be much more appealing - but I kinda like the hot, sweaty, polluted hustle and bustle of the outdoor markets. Adds character. Anyway - I tried out the International Food Court as well, and it was as great as the author made it out to be. There were 10 different restaurants representing cuisines from around the world. The best part was that they cooked it all up right in front of you, so it was interesting to just walk around and see and smell the foods from India to the Mediterranean. I had forgotten how much I missed couscous until then. Mmmm.
So, I guess ending the trip in Thailand with consumerism was somewhat representative of my vacation. I had a great time with friends and got to see and do a lot of what I hoped to do. BUT, I did feel like a selfish, disgusting tourist at times, adding to the commercialism and pollution that has dramatically changed the landscape of Thailand. Tourism is a very important aspect of Thailand's economy and being one of the world's poorer nations, I suppose I was somewhat helpful for their economy. Since tourism is so popular and important, I'm not denying that what I did is part of the "real Thailand"... but I definitely found myself wanting to "get off the beaten path" a lot more. My impression of Thais was great and I found myself thinking "Wow - I can't believe sooo many Thais speak such great English! However they're teaching here, Japan should take note!", but then I realized all the Thais I was interacting with needed to speak English for their jobs. My interactions with the people and the land were so limited. I'd love to get back to Thailand at a different time of year with more time and less travel buddies and do it different. Until then, I'll look back on this experience with a smile on my face and place in my heart for Thailand. Khawp kun ka, Thailand... khawp kun ka.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Take 11: That Funky Weather, Baby Got Me Down

So, we had a rainy night out for New Years' Eve stuck on Koh Samui. It wasn't a complete disaster, but it was a lil disappointing. Days three and four on Samui were much the same. I guess that's what happens when you over plan for a vacation and have high expectations. Frank and I were hoping to get off the island, anywhere less touristy. Our game plan early on was to hopefully catch a ferry off the island on New Years' Day and get somewhere remote to go camping. There are tons of national parks that sounded GREAT for hiking and wildlife watchin'. You can guess how well that went. We weren't goin' anywhere. There was no other option, but to enjoy what we could of Koh Samui.
The next morning we woke up just in time to get the 'free' breakfast at the hotel. I opted for the "Western" breakfast instead of pad thai or chicken soup this morning.

Gopika was leaving us to head north on a flight to Chang Mai, so we returned her bike and then headed off on our own with nothing but our giant map and the knowledge a storm might be on the way. Oh, the beautiful island mountains amid a cloudy sky and polluted forefront... brings a tear to my eye.

I was enjoying the ride and getting to see more of the island. Despite the lack of sun, we thought we would try to find a beach to at least lay and nap on. We drove, and drove, and drove some more with no sign of a beach anywhere. We got adventurous and started taking roads we didn't plan on. This also meant we had to refer back to the map about 183 more times. It didn't help any that we had ripped out the area went to the day before for "quick reference". We eventually got to a coast with a little fishing outfitter on the edge and asked them if there was just a little beach we could chill on close. This was about the time we were reminded how the tides work, and that with a storm on the way, there wouldn't be any beaches for napping. Greaaatttt. Mid afternoon the rain started...
It made us cold...
and wet.
That weekend there was a "big" festival going on on a main drag near our hotel. There were two main stages (where I assume bands were meant to play), rows of festival games, and heaps of food vendors. There wasn't a huge showing in attendees (surprise, surprise), but I got Frank and Chris to go with me and check it out. What to eat, what to eat...
flavored meat on a stick???
giant salted and grilled fish???
fresh salads, seafood, and toilet paper?
SOLD! I ended up getting a fruit smoothie (now a staple with every meal) and a spicy shrimp salad that nearly dismembered my tongue. I literally had to scrape the dressing off to eat it. I don't think I've ever eaten clams or mussels in the past, but it's clearly never been a particularly memorable experience. So I decided that if ever there was a time to try 'em out - it was now. I got the combo container. They were just as I remembered: unmemorable. Neither really has a great taste to them, and the clams have the creepiest texture and the nastiest poo juice that squirts out of them. Plus, they were next to impossible to open - I had to go back to the woman that sold them to me to ask her how to eat them. They're the seafood equivalent of a grapefruit to fruit: least pleasurable and most difficult to consume. Not worth the effort. The sauce the shellfish came with made both edible - but neither was really enjoyable, despite my smile. That smile says, "Look Mom - allllll gone!"
It was time for a dessert to get that flavor out far from my mouth and mind. This guy was making massive pancakey thingys filled with red, green, and white fluffy insides. I was intrigued. I got a piece of each. The presentation was great, and I like pancakes and colored food - so I thought I couldn't go wrong. I thought wrong. It basically tasted like a thick, chalky cornbread. Strike two.
The last attempt of the night was going back to the tried and true cream filled sweet mini-taco things. The crispy outside shell with a hint of cinnamon, the warm, thick and airy glob of cream on the inside and the sprinkle of sweet shavings on top hit the spot!
Onto Day 4 of Koh Samui. I had optimistically booked a dive off an island north of Koh Samui. Another one of my ambitions for this trip was using the PADI diving certification I had gotten almost 3 years ago in Fiji. I hadn't used it since Australia, and Thailand has some of the best reefs in the world. The Andaman Coast has prime locations, but there just wasn't time there, so of course I saved it for the Gulf. And of course, a storm was on the rising making it impossible to dive anywhere of interest. It did, however, make the waves choppy and the catamaran rides miserable as I sat in the back surrounded by pukers as I banged on the bathroom door to actually use the one available toilet. She wouldn't budge... worst 2 hours in Thailand. easily. But don't worry - I had ANOTHER hour and a half catamaran ride AFTER that one, so I got into the bathroom when she had to leave. Yeah, I choose the furthest reef to go to, as it's the most remote, unspoilt, and beautiful. Oh, and I also got yelled at for sitting on "ridiculously expensive" diving gear as I was doubled over in pain.The best part about this trip was that I was in it alone. My friends aren't scuba divers, lucky them.
I did manage to get a few shots in of "the scenery" in between fits of nausea and other sicknesses. Here's a few shots of Ko Phangan (the smaller island north of Koh Samui where we were supposed to go for New Years).

And this is Koh Tao (the even smaller island north of Ko Phanang - supposedly one of the islands that has retained relatively little development).
As we're suiting up for the dives, I ask my diving leader which reef we're headed to. I did my research, so I'm all like, "So, is our first dive at the Japanese Gardens or Chumphon Pinnacle?" He looked at me, pursed his lips, and said "Yeahhh - we can't go to any of those sites today. We'll be diving in the only area of safe water today - right off the shoreline up there." Awesome.
It did feel good to get out in the water and dive again after being away from it for so long, and I did see some fish, some reefs, and some garbage bags. Needless to say, I was once again, a little disappointed.
At least dinner that night was great! And we even made it to The Library!
The next morning was the last for Frank and I... and since we had no visible sunsets in the past three days, we wanted to wake up for sunrise. We asked the front desk what time it rose and he said, "5:30 maybe, 6 o'clock maybe". Great, so we arranged for a 5:30am wake-up call - which we didn't get. But Chris' new watch worked, so we got out on time to walk to Chawang Beach in what was the pitch black. We walked down the beach a bit to get to lay on some loungers til the sun rose in who knows how long. We then got kicked off the loungers and waited in the sand. And this my friends, was the gorgeous sunrise we awoke for on our last day on Koh Samui! It was time to go back to Bangkok. So we waited, and waited, and waited some more for our van to the catamaran (yes, back on the catamaran for me). 1 hour and 3 phone calls later, it came...
Breakfast, anyone?
Goodbye Koh Samui!
Still stormy = still shaky. This is what it looks like when you try to take a picture inside a catamaran in our weather conditions.
From van to catamaran to bus. Back on the nightbus - my home away from home.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Take 10: All nighter full moon party on Ko Pha-Ngan... doubt it!

It was New Years Eve Day in Ko Samui and after a killa night's sleep on the most comfortable cot of a gorgeous hotel, I woke up early wanting to seize the day. As per our plan, I roused Gopika and Frank out of bed, too. First things first, we rented us some motorbikes! Props to both Gopika and Frank for volunteering to drive... but I can't lie, riding on a bike with Frank was quite possibly THE scariest experience of my life. I think I was pretty good about being supportive every time we ran into a curb or almost clear off the road, but inside my heart was beating a mile a minute. We drove around awhile just trying to get a feel for the bikes before stopping at yet another travel agent to book up the things we wanted to do in/around Ko Samui.
After stressing from the near fatal bike rides and attempting to book things for the next few days and transportation back to Bangkok (as the end was in sight:( ), the beach was the most logical place to go and relax. Ko Samui has a gajillion beaches, but the one right by our hotel (Hat Chawang) was supposed to be one of the best - so back we went.
It was great temperature outside and the ocean was sooo perty - but the jet skis were a bit unnecessary in my eyes (and ears).
We attempted to make a plan of attack with the time we had left in the day. We used this not so convenient map that I'm pretty sure was bigger than the island itself. Nice work Tourist Association of Thailand.
Back onto the bikes. I still wasn't too anxious to drive, and Frank seemed to be getting the hang of it... that was, until we decided to stop for lunch in a tiny market place and I hopped off so she could pull a U-ey to park in front of the area and instead reved up the bike and ended up sliding across the road on her side. Gopika and I kind of just stood there, stunned for a second while a Thai woman ran up and immediately started putting iodine on her. The workers became a little quieter around the area, but picked up pace again in no time. Frank was laughing and reassured them that she and the bike were fine. She told the woman to please stop putting iodine on her, those were old cuts she was putting it on now. After the woman showed us her own wipe out scars she left, on a motor bike. The best part was that Frank was not concerned about the bike, or her own cuts, but whether or not the iodine was permanent and would leave marks on her legs for New Years Eve celebration. Because clearly that would be the most noticeable in a dress and equivalent to a scarlet letter.
Anyway, I convinced the girls to try some street market food. I had yet to try some "authentic" curry soups. I liked it, but apparently they weren't too keen on the idea of having random chicken bones and skins in their food. After lunch, it started to drizzle. There were a few waterfalls on the island so we wanted to make it to one of them. The closest one was maybe an hour and a half bike ride away. After Frank got the hang of biking (for real this time), it was a really enjoyable ride. It was an incredible feeling to be on the back of a bike taking in the all the sights. We stayed on the main road the whole time so we didn't get completely lost and end up missing New Years Eve altogether. Yet, it still felt like we were doing our own thing on this far from secluded and still amazing, island.

It started to rain a little harder, but we were still okay for driving. We made it to base of Nam Tok Na Muang waterfall in the center of the island, passing ATV outstanders and elephant ride companies en route. I had my heart set on hiking the 1.5km to the upper falls for the view of the sea, but the rain was making us all nervous and we were pretty sure we would get stranded there with no way back if we chanced our luck.
So, we took a quick dip in the lower falls and Frank cleansed her wounds.

I decided I'd give driving a try. I apologized to Frank for having given her any crap before for her "reckless" driving. It was way tougher than I thought - but I did love it once I was under control. That's until the predicted storm hit. We pulled off a couple of times to wait it out because we were essentially blinded. It never actually stopped, but we figured we might as well wait on a beach. So we snuck through this ritzy hotel's lobby and walkways, stood under a few unsuspecting clients roofs, then hit the beach. We had it all to ourselves!

Now, half the booking that morning was dealing with transportation to a nearby island called Ko Pha-Ngan. The whole reason we booked this place for New Years was with the intent of going to this raging full-moon party on the neighboring island complete with over 12,000 ravers turning up to dance, drink, and smoke the night away. Not exactly my cup of tea, but something I wouldn't mind standing in awe of. But as the rain became heavier and refused to stop (we were seriously driving through 2 feet of standing water by the time we made it back to our hotel) we agreed it would a pretty miserable experience in a monsoon. All except for Frank who was ready to rock that party, rain or shine!
Not wanting her to get messed up on the crazy island mushrooms all by her lonesome, we convinced her to stick with us on Ko Samui. It was no Ko Pha-Ngan, but I think a good time was had by all on New Years Eve...
...Except maybe for this guy, who I asked to take a picture of us (unknowingly) as the clock struck midnight! Whooops.
The Green Mango was our rendezvous bar and it was live with pop music, hot tourists, and buckets galore. Happy Belated New Year, everyone!!!