Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Day 585: The Last Visa

I've been rather quiet the last few days because I've been putting most of my energy into - read: stressing over - getting my last visa sorted out for my return home through Russia.  I'm pretty sure it's a success story and unless the sky falls in or the gremlins take over, I'll have the visa in my hands by the 13th... and if so, it will turn out not to be the hardest visa I've ever applied for: USA, China, I'm looking at you!*

Still, it's a lot of messing around getting paperwork ready, trekking over to the consulate through multiple stages of a new public transport system to meet a short and nebulously defined target opening time.  I had one dummy run getting those issues sorted out on Monday, was greeted very politely and helpfully by the consulate staff today and charged a sum of money so much smaller than the one Mike got sucked out of him that he is likely to have a nervous breakdown when he hears what it is.

So there you are - unless something goes drastically wrong, I'm coming home through Siberia in the winter, and adding South Korea and Germany to my list of visited countries (very briefly).

Countries visited over 21 months:
  1. France
  2. United Kingdom
  3. United States of America (inc Hawaii and American Samoa)
  4. Fiji
  5. New Caledonia
  6. Australia (inc Tasmania)
  7. New Zealand
  8. Indonesia (Bali)
  9. Singapore
  10. Malaysia
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Vietnam
  14. China
  15. Japan
  16. South Korea
  17. Russia
  18. Germany 
  19. United Kingdom
It feels like there should be more than that! Also it feels very strange that it's coming to an end.  Oh well, tomorrow I'm off to see some more anime.

* It is true that the visa application process is more complicated for citizens of some countries, notably the US and UK.  In fact it feels as if the Russians are openly collecting data on visitors from these countries well beyond what's relevant, no doubt in retaliation for similar activities on our governments' part.  Among the questions I wasn't really prepared for were the names, addresses and phone numbers of my last two employers and the names, addresses and phone numbers of my institutions of higher education + dates of starting and finishing. Not many people carry that information in their heads, so think of it if you're going to be applying to Russia for a visa and are making a longish trip to a consulate to do so. Also, we are required to confirm that we haven't done any of a number of obnoxious things, as per the USA immigration card, as task I always find quite entertaining. I think the other stuff you need is spelled out around the Internet.  For a transit visa: all tickets and bookings, passport, photograph, insurance (for some countries more than others but you should have it anyway), cash for the fee. The 'invitation' is not required for transit visas, though it is for others.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Day 581: Manga

Today, instead of anime, I did manga.  I'm actually not a big, big fan of manga despite its links to anime.  I like my comic strips coloured in, like the French/Belgian ones. I rarely even buy those, because I hate to spend so much money on something I can read so fast. But I found out the Manga Museum had a free open day today so it was definitely worth going along.  The Manga Museum should probably be called a library.  It has a few little exhibitions in odd corners, but it's basically many, many bookshelves filled with manga comics.  They call this the manga wall. There is a long wall dedicated to translated manga, with plenty in English and French as well as other European and Asian languages. There are tables and a cafe where you can read and that's about it.  I stayed and read manga for a several hours. Course, I couldn't really take any photos of the manga, so here are a few bits of Kyoto I visited during the last few days.

Inside a temple compound, the Tojo I think
More of the same temple

The Kyoto Tower reflected in modern buildings
The riverside walk
Old style houses along the river banks

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Day 578: Anime

One of the things that's different about Japan compared to other countries I've been to is that I'm already a big fan of some parts of Japanese culture: origami and anime.  I was really happy when I discovered how cheap basic orignami paper is here, then the first boutique shop I found yesterday (well, after the sweet shop) was the fancy paper shop. I'm going to be buying myself a Christmas present in there before I leave!

But today I'm going to the cinema.  It takes longer to pick out a movie when you don't understand a word of the cinema's website.  Here is what Google Translate said about the movie I chose: Fuse.


Down the mountain was in response to the death of his grandfather, Hamaji girls and your shotgun. In the town of fullness, hearing the strange rumor her for the first time what you see what you hear. Draw the blood of humans and dogs, eat the (Dama breath) raw living, of a person disguised as humans - that those who called <- - Fuse Xi>. For violent crime and that they cause. Hamaji encounter wandering, and Sino white-haired youth wearing a dog's face soon to town looking for a place to stay. Set in Edo unfolds Aquapolises fictional story of a girl straight
Some people may wonder why I'm going to see a movie I won't be able to understand.  Well, for one thing I'm OK with piecing together the meaning from other cues and anime is all about the drawing.  For another you can't really learn a language without listening to it.  After seeing the movie, I can do better than Google on the plot summary.
Himaji is a bounty huntress in a world plagued by werewolves, descendants of an illegitimate relationship between a queen (or goddess) and a wolf. Unfortunately for Himaji, her compassion interferes with her work and that's before she falls in love with Sino, who happens to be a werewolf himself.  Sino doesn't keep his secret long: a little habit like ripping people's hearts out and eating them soon becomes apparent, especially when you have to rescue your girlfriend from would-be agressors. Fortunately, Sino only eats the hearts of baddies, so he's redeemable in principle and Himaji may have the key to saving him.  
To be honest, I'm not quite sure how she did it or where he went to in the end because the solution was embodied in a letter. Too bad for me, obviously speaking the language would help.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Day 577: Kyoto and Nijo Castle


Yesterday, it rained all day so but today is fine so I decided to go for a walk around Kyoto.  The city is built to a grid system with many narrow alleys (like the one I live in), the buildings are mostly terraces and low rise houses, and at first I thought it was going to be nothing but boutiques and little restaurants.  Then I found the arcade, which I suppose is a series of covered alleys with even more boutiques and small grocery shops. Everything is very, very nice, even the fruit and fish are beautifully presented.  The people who run the food shops stand at the entrance bowing to passersby, not at all like the rest of Asia where they greet you with a communication that basically means 'get over here and buy something NOW!'  So far, Kyoto lives up to Japan's reputation of being refined and polite.


I was going to do a lot of walking today but then I happened on Nijo Castle so I went in to explore that instead. I remember it coming up in one of my courses as an example of how some architecture expresses status and sets out to dominate the person who wanders in to it.  The main way most castles do this of course is by making sure nobody wanders anywhere without a proper invitation.  This is still the case really: visitors don't get to wander around at will, even through the gardens and are encouraged to stick to a single route. But I suppose that's more in the interests of conservation. What is really meant is that Nijo Castle advertises the fact that you can't force your way in with huge irregular blocks of stone, and lets you know your place in the hierarchy when you do get in by making you wait (or not), then having you received in one of a strict hierarchy of rooms, all of which contained more tatamis and painted screens than you could afford yourself.  Standard stuff, really.


Saturday, 27 October 2012

Day 575: Getting set up in Kyoto

So much for the older Japanese way of life - today I get to deal with the modern world, first and foremost some cultural differences surrounding money.

Lunch on the train: the rice parcels are sort of the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich, then there's... the other stuff... I'm not sure what it is, but it's quite nice

Money
The internet says Japan is a cash based society which is probably at least still partly true. We, on the other hand, are plastic based societies.  We're not used to carrying loads of cash around and anyway we have withdrawal limits.  To make matters worse, it's apparently the case that most Japanese ATMs won't accept our cards and we have to go to airports, post offices or 7-11s (specifically, not any grocery store)..

I was already feeling the cash flow pinch in Narita.  It happened like this. I was at the airport waiting to withdraw money and the American woman in front of me asked me if I thought the machine was accepting her request for money in dollars or yen.  I was completely disorientated by this question, so when she eventually told me she had successfully withdrawn 3000 yen, I merely thought that didn't sound a lot and I would take 5000.  I should have completely dismissed her as the not very experienced helium-head she was. 5000 in cash is about 60 USD and only just enough to get through a couple of days in Narita including the smallest helping of barbecued eel. Next, my future landlord in Kyoto got back to me and said his credit card machine was broken and he hoped I would pay 3 weeks rent in cash on arrival. Oooops! It's one thing to do that at, say, Vietnamese prices, but here I'm paying 71,000 yen for 3 weeks (which is still good value for Kyoto). I'm pretty sure my weekly withdrawal limit is no more that 50,000 yen. 

Trains
Besides, I have to get to Kyoto first - another 10,000 yen - and the internet says that tickets can only be bought on credit cards at select ticket counters at best. Fortunately, things are less dire than they seem.  50,000 yen really is my top cash limit, but the reported problem with the ticket machines are due to Americans (mostly) not having those chips with PIN numbers on their credit cards. The only real problem is that it's completely non-intuitive to use, even in translation. I thought about Mike while I was riding the Shinkasen, that's really his thing.  I thought you couldn't really tell how fast it was unless something was really close, but maybe that's a European thing as well.  The only train I usually ride back home is the TGV.

My desk / dinner table / living room
Living space
I booked a Japanese style room because I knew I would get more floor space, but of course I have to figure out how to use it!  Actually, I am very, very happy with it. I'm pretty sure the western style rooms have that plastic parquet on the floor and I have nice warm tatamis.  I don't have to contend with a double bed takig up space, instead I have stacked mattresses that I can even move around.  The room could probably do with a few pictures, especially with the low furniture which leaves big expanses of wall, but otherwise it's pretty great.  I have a tiny kitchenette, a tiny bathroom (with tiny bathtub), and - very important - a relatively large concrete covered space in which to leave my shoes so I don't trample the tatamis with them.

My bed, but I move it away from the curtains at nighttime and arrange the coffee table as a night stand.


Food shopping
The next challenge, since I am self-catering, was to go down to the local supermarket and see what I could get to cook.  It turns out that if you want to avoid cooking in Japan, nothing could be easier.  There's a huge range of takeout meals, snacks and so on.  It's cheaper than eating out, but I thought I could do a bit better. I decided to stick to buying things that are more like condiments or pickles since I wouldn't have a clue how to start making those. Fish is cheap and plentiful, along with whole cuttlefish, large chunks of octopus and other sea foods, so I'd better make the best of those.  You can buy big packets of mixed fish chunks right off the counter, though it does seem that fish that might be eaten raw is about twice the price of fish for cooking.  In the end, the biggest challenge was cooking anything with my very limited set of utensils and space. OK, it's also true that when I had to pay for my shopping I stood helplessly holding out my pile of strange coins while the nice cashier took the ones she wanted.  That's another cultural difference - throughout SE Asia and even China we didn't have to deal with coins all that much.

I can still manage to cook dinner - well, it has been about 5 months since I had to.
PS: I'm slowly catching up on the China posts. There's one about our trip to the Great Wall further down.  For me, that was one of the highlights.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Day 574: Boso No Mura

The reconstructed rural idyll
The real 21st century thing
 I knew from last time I was in Narita that there was some kind of museum of domestic architecture nearby called boso no mura (meaning village in a forest, I think).  I'm interested in domestic architecture and wanted to spend my second day there. There's a range of rather fiddly options for getting there, but the one I chose, especially since it's a beautiful day, was to take the train one stop to the next village then walk about 2km.  It couldn't have worked out better - the countryside is full of tiny backroads and paths, more flowers and butterflies than I would have expected at this time of year, bright sunshine and, especially, crystal clear air. It turned out that learning the hiragana proved useful already because the signs were a lot more helpful than the map I printed out.  See, that says boso no mura!

That's a little cemetery in the background, at a crossroads.

In the end the biggest risk wasn't getting lost, but getting distracted by the many interesting detours I could have taken on the way to the museum. I am thinking that although Japan is surely THE most expensive of Asian countries this is surely related to the fact that you can potter around in it without getting hassled to death.  That's quite a big compensation for doing without a bunch of things.

This is a burial mound I passed on the way.  It turns out there are about 100 in the immediate area but this is one of the largest

The boso no mura museum isn't exactly on the international tourist trail.  It's the kind of place where you find school field trips in the week and family outings at the weekend.  You can get tea and cakes there, see how your great-granny lived, just after a really thorough spring clean anyway, and go for a woodland walk among the ancient burial mounds afterwards.  Still, it's the ideal place for tourists who are usually interested to see the traditional lifestyles of the country they're visiting while having a good time.

Looking towards the reconstructed merchant's street at boso no mura.

The farmhouse kitchen with views into the living area and workroom
View across the living room towards one of the tatami rooms, in what I imagine was quite a fancy family house.


Altogether different and much older style of accomodation built in a sunken pit with a tent of thatch over it.


Miniature terracotta army outside one of the burial mounds.  After seeing the big one in Xian it was an interesting association.
 I returned to Narita more or less the way I came and went to find some barbecued eel and sake.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Day 573: Narita

That's Mt Fuji, just under the airplane's wing

Well, here I am in Japan!  Narita - location of Tokyo's international airport, and most civilised place in the world for a layover - is just as sunny as the last time I saw it. The air is clean and I can see the colour of buildings a mile away, so I am taking my first breaths of clean air for some time. I have a tiny hotel room equipped with everything anyone ever needed including a nightshirt and a toilet that comes with its manual glued to the wall.  I also have a bathtub, so first bath in months as well!  I spent the rest of the day learning hiragana so now I can read a whole load of stuff and not know what it means.  Just as Chinese signs and billboards were starting to become comprehensible!  I do prefer the instant internationalisation of the Chinese character system really.

After sleeping until 11 o'clock, I wandered down Narita's main street, looking for somewhere affordable to have lunch. There are lots of restaurants with plastic models of their dishes outside the window, but I was looking for something basic and hit on a bakery which did a 500 Yen (6USD) lunch plate.  It included:
  • 1 slice of quiche
  • 1 sausage roll
  • 1 croissant sandwich
  • 1 slice of baguette with cheese
  • 1 salad bowl
  • 1 egg soup
  • 1 ramequin of yoghurt
  • 1 choux pastry
Of course they are all tiny, but also beautiful and tasty.  I also ordered lemon verbena tea, which cost nearly as much as the lunch and came with more accessories than I really knew what to do with, including an egg timer and two strainers.  The teapot seemed to be one of those magic ones that never run out of tea, despite looking very small and transparent.  I think I love Japan nearly as much as New Zealand.

Narita's main street is a mixture of trinket shops, food shops, and restaurants.  The content of the food shops seemed weirder last time I was here, or maybe I've seen so many strange foods over the last few months that I'm immune.  The most common food product at the moment seems to be bags of large golden rice crackers which I'm going to have to try at some point.  At the bottom of the hill, just before the temple complex there is a gathering of barbecued eel restaurants where I may have to indulge tomorrow, even though it will set me back a bit more than 500 Yen.


Narita's temple complex involves some very beautiful buildings set in a large and lovely park where I spent the afternoon wandering around listening to birds and looking at carp as big as my leg.  The Japanese do parks and landscaping better than the Chinese.  They don't think that nature needs some help from music blaring over it from loudspeakers or brightly coloured ornaments in all the trees.  I found Chinese art at its best to be monumental and quite austere, but when it comes to the everyday human or natural scale, they tend to the cheap kitsch as everyone says. 

Last time I was here in Narita, I found the temples full of things I didn't understand, and I suppose that's still the case, but this time I at least found out that they belong to the Shingon branch of esoteric Buddhism.  We tend to associate the word esoteric with magical stuff, but it seems that esoteric schools of Buddhism mostly differ from others by believing enlightenment is potentially accessible at any time.  It's kind of funny that despite this it's one of the most secretive religions as regards its teachings.  The cynical part of me thinks that's so lots of people don't pop up saying 'I tried this at home and it absolutely did not work!'.  When I read about Shingon I found some of the traces of Indian influence it preserves to be quite interesting.  It uses sanskrit characters in a few contexts and a fire ceremony descended from the vedic fire ceremonies for Agni. The school has been present in Japan since about the 8th century. I was really more into nature today, so that's what all the photos are of.

















PS: speaking of China, it isn't because I didn't like it there that there are no Chinese blog posts, it's because I didn't have time to write any!  We did a lot of zooming around and were nearly always crammed into smallish spaces at least with each other, if not with a lot of other people.  It's not really a situation that's conducive to writing. But now, that I do have time, I'll tell you about Chengdu in a minute, how about that?