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Archive for February, 2013

Taiwan, Day Three – 28 February 2013

Taipei, day three. Actually, this should be titled “Taiwan, day three” since I spent most of this day outside of the city.

A taste of what I saw today.

A taste of what I saw today.

Today turned out to be a pretty special day – but then again, everyday I’ve been here has been pretty special. It’s 28 February, and today is a public holiday here in Taipei, commemorating the 228 Massacre I spoke about in the first post. As a result, the streets and trains were jam-packed with people moving around here and there, and lots of places became a claustrophobe’s nightmare.

And I didn’t realize it until I got back home, after being in the midst of it for more than twelve hours.

I started out early, heading out around eight. I decided to go exploring outside of Taipei City; after beach day got ruined yesterday, I was anxious to go somewhere off the beaten path. I wanted to look for the Shifen Waterfall, but it’s located to the northeast of the city, and takes ninety minutes and two trains to get there. The first train out of Taipei wasn’t so bad – I ended up standing the entire way to Ruifang, but at least there was room to shift feet along the way. The train was still packed, and still I didn’t realize that today was a special day. I got to Ruifang, and changed trains there.

This is the area outside of Ruifang Station.

This is the area outside of Ruifang Station.

This ride was a doozy.

This line operates on a single track serving a diesel-powered train running intermittently in both directions, and everyone seemed to want to head in the same direction as I was. When I say that this train was packed, I mean it – I’m talking sardine status here. There was barely enough room to stand and, because the windows were so low along the sides of the car, I couldn’t clearly see what stations I was pulling into, and the crowds refused to thin (and still I didn’t realize that today was 228, or even question why so many people would be so far away from the city on a Thursday). I was afraid I would jump the gun and miss my station, so the first time I saw a sign that said “Shifen Waterfall” I shoved my way off of the train – though, as I found out, I did jump jump the gun and miss my station, one stop early. Fortunately, I had a forty-five-minute wait until the next sardine can arrived, so I passed the time taking a few pictures.

This makes me glad I got off at the wrong station.

This makes me glad I got off at the wrong station.

The scenery north of Taipei is absolutely breathtaking – it’s along the rugged coast in the mountains, and because the weather here is tropical everything is always covered in a deep celadon green. The peaks are cut by deep, deep gorges and valleys and, along the route I took, the Keelung River runs in the bottom of the gorge the entire way, through sheer-cut cliffs and around huge boulders scattered along the riverbed. In lots of places flowers were blooming and except for the rushing river far below the station there wasn’t much noise around. I like to think of myself as an urban warrior, but I really enjoyed this small taste of wilderness, of nature at its rawest and most primal. This was the first time I’ve gone out on a nature hike alone like this, and I really enjoyed it.

Soon enough another packed train came, and I went to the next (and correct) station, Shifen Station. This was the place everyone disembarked, and it was a stream of people pouring out of the train. Along the platform and along the tracks there were lots of food stalls and souvenir shops, and lots of people congregating on the train tracks during the lull between trains. I hung around the station for a bit, then headed off to find the falls.

Shifen Station, where everybody congregated.

Shifen Station, where everybody congregated.

Managed to catch a lantern being released.

Managed to catch a lantern being released.

Shifen Waterfall is about a kilometer and a half from the station, a pleasant twenty minute walk. Along the way there were a couple of interesting pedestrian-only suspension bridges, and after a long windy road deeper into the scenic area I came to the entrance to the falls. It cost NT$80 (about $2.70 USD) to get in, for as long as one wishes, and it was worth the trip and the entrance fee. They call this place “Little Niagara”  and it certainly lived up to the part to me, though this was only the second waterfall I’ve ever seen (chalk it up to living on the East Coast, and in the South to boot). It was amazing. The area along the falls has been transformed for tourists, but it’s still an awesome scenic spot. There’s lots of water running everywhere, and a pond full of huge koi, and a lily patch, and lots of places to relax in the sun and be lulled into drowziness by the roar of the falls.

The red wooden path leading to the falls.

The red wooden path leading to the falls.

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Shifen Waterfall.

Cool dragon statue that was part of the koi pond. There were a few spots like this throughout the falls area.

Cool dragon statue that was part of the koi pond. There were a few spots like this throughout the falls area.

I stayed out there for a few hours, and eventually made my way back to Shifen Station. The ride back to Ruifang was still packed, but not so much as before. I got back to Ruifang Station, and caught a bus bound for Jiufen, a village in the mountains along the north coast, a village that’s been there since the start of the Qing Dynasty (about three hundred seventy-five years). On any other day the bus ride would have been about fifteen minutes but today it took about twice that time, due to the narrow winding road and the traffic clogging the entire way up the mountain. Along the way I passed a couple of interesting temples built right into the mountainside, and  though the road got steeper and windier and narrower as we went this seemed to make no difference to the driver- the ride became a bumpy, thrilling,  kinda-dangerous rollercoaster. Eventually I made it to Jiufen in one piece and went through the market there.

The view from the Jiufen bus stop.

The view from the Jiufen bus stop.

The market at Jiufen.

The market at Jiufen.

Like the train to Shifen, the market in Jiufen was also a claustrophobe’s nightmare. There were people everywhere, and because of that in places the queue of people slowed to a crawl, and in some cases a standstill. Some of the people there seemed to be playing a strange sort of game – How Long Can We Stand In Place and Converse While the Line Backs Up Behind Us? But Taiwan is just that sort of place. No one is ever in that big of a hurry here, and though they might shove past you it’s never malicious. It’s only in the interest of getting where they need to go as efficiently as possible. Sometimes they have to use a shoulder to get their point across, is all.

After a few more hours there, I decided to head back to Taipei and find something to eat. Unfortunately (because it was a holiday… which, at this point, I still did not realize) the line to get the bus back down the mountain was long as hell. And slow as hell. And my feet hurt like hell. I stood in line for about thirty minutes, and got tired of waiting by the time I got two-thirds of the way to the bus stop, so I tried to find a cab. I found a guy but when I asked for a ride back to Ruifeng he told me it was a holiday (at first I thought this was a ploy to avoid the tiny fare he would have gotten) and I’d have to take the bus back down the mountain. By now, not only had I lost my place in line it had become longer, and I wasn’t going to wait anymore. I wandered down the road a bit, smoking a cigarette, and noticed the line for buses headed up the mountain was almost non-existent.

Light Bulb Moment if ever I had one.

The view further up from Jiufen.

The view further up from Jiufen.

I rode the bus all the way to the top of the mountain, and got an even better view than I did lower down at Jiufen. Not only that, I managed to find a seat for the bus ride down, and got all the way back into the heart of Taipei from up there. Now that’s a win in my book, for sure. Incidentally, this was the first time this entire trip that I actually laid eyes on Taipei 101. I still don’t have a picture of it. That will change tomorrow.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Taipei, and I want to make it a good one. I’m sure inspiration will strike again. Stay tuned, people.


Taipei, Day Two – 27 February 2013

Taipei, day two.

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A rainy Taipei.

The day started out as a bust – I woke up around nine, and it was raining. I washed clothes around noon, and it was raining. I had plans to go out to Fulong Beach, but the downpour dashed them all all to hell. Still, it wasn’t a total washout – it stopped raining around four-thirty, and I hit the streets.

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The gate to Raohe Street Night Market.

I went out to dinner and hit up a couple of night markets that I didn’t get to last night. The first was Raohe Street Night Market, identifiable by the gate at its entrance and the temple just outside of it. By the time I got there the market had just opened, and the crowds were really thin. I walked the length of the market, and ended up with some kind of meat on a stick. I headed back toward the entrance and saw one stand that had a long line in front of it. It turned out to be a Taiwanese steamed bun stand, and they made them to order – part of the reason the line was so long was that as soon as they were done, they sold out. People in front of me bought a dozen at a time. I stood in line for about thirty minutes, but it gave me good opportunity to see dozens being made.

The famous Taiwanese bun stand I was telling you about.

The famous Taiwanese bun stand I was telling you about.

They started out with dough that they rolled into small balls. Then they were brought to the assemblers, who kneaded the balls into sheets and stuffed them with meat and green onions, then sealed them. They put them in these barrel-like oven things, with hot coals in the bottom of them. The buns took maybe ten minutes to bake, and not soon after I knew why the line was so long. They are one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, bar none. They put Japanese nikkuman to shame by far.

The entrance to... well, I should think you can read.

The entrance to… well, I should think you can read.

I headed to another night market, Shilin Night Market this time. This is probably the most famous night market in Taiwan, and it feels and looks the part. There were boutiques everywhere, and shoe stores, along with the obligatory food stalls and knickknack shacks. I walked the length of this one as well, and settled on a Taiwanese sausage on a stick.

They’re really fond of stick food here.

On the way out, I saw another one of those steamed bun stalls. I couldn’t resist – I bought two more and smelled them all the way back to the hostel. Then I devoured them. And they were good.

The third and fourth of the night.

The third and fourth of the night.

Tomorrow, rain or shine, I’m planning something really cool and off the beaten path. It’s something I’ve been planning for hardcore, since I decided to go on this trip. And I’m gonna see that it happens.

Stay tuned, people.


Taipei, Day One – 26 February 2013

Allow me to start by saying, “sickness.”

Okay, maybe not literally. But metaphorically, anecdotally, undeniably and totally, this place is awesome. What makes it awesome?

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They’re gonna getcha. Seriously, if you’re not careful, they will.

Everyone and their mother rides a scooter here.

Everyone and their mother smokes cigarettes anywhere and everywhere here.

There is cheap food and alcohol here.

I think you get the idea. Taipei is everything a successful metropolis should be, in my opinion – there’s reliable transportation, the people here are pretty warm and inviting, and there’s always the adrenaline rush, the off chance that an errant scooter could take you out at any moment.

Seriously.

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The view from the roof of my hostel.

The best thing about Taipei (and Taiwan) is the fact that it’s warm all year round here. When I first touched down at my hostel I couldn’t wait to change into shorts and short sleeves. The most surprising thing was how shabby some of the buildings look. But that was hardly a deterrent. I stopped by the convenience store outside my hostel for a quick snack and drink, and I was off.

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The main pagoda at 228 Peace Memorial Park.

I started off walking down the main street in front of the hostel, marveling at all the tropical plants lining the wide boulevard. The first place I went was 228 Peace Memorial Park, a public greenspace that commemorates a massacre that took place in Taipei between the Chinese Mainland-controlled Kuomintang and Taiwanese citizens on 28 February, 1947. The park was built during Japanese occupation in 1908 and renamed after the massacre. It’s an impressive piece of public planning, and looks every inch the part.

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CKS Concert Hall.

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CKS Memorial Hall. Massive is not the word.

Afterward I hopped on the subway for the first time, and it’s really easy to use, since there’s English along every inch of it. The first place I went was the Chiang kai-Shek Memorial Hall, a huge complex consisting of a huge square, Liberty Square, bounded on all sides by the CKS Experimental Theatre to the south and the CKS Concert Hall to the north. It took a few minutes to walk across the huge square to the base of the monument, and it towered above me when I got there. Afterward, I walked through the park that surrounds it, and moved on.

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Flowers in bloom in February on the CKS Memorial grounds.

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The blooming trees reflected in the pool.

The next place I went was Ximending, called Little Shibuya by the people here, and it looks every bit the part. The only difference between the two is the signs that tower above the street are in Chinese rather than katakana. This is where all the young people hang out, and I spent a few hours walking around and through it.

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Ximending.

It’s full of clothing stores and knickknack shops, and, after a certain hour, stalls where people sell cheap, delicious eats. I wandered through the area, smoking cigs, when I saw a tattoo parlor. I decided to ignore it, then changed my mind. After a few minutes’ haggling I was in a bar stool getting inked. It took about forty-five minutes, and is quite badass, if I do say so myself.

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Me getting tatted.

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The finished result.

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The interior of Longshan Temple.

After, I stopped at Longshan Temple, a huge taoist temple, again, in the middle of a busy section of the city. I watched people move around me, making offerings and prayers to the gods, but all I could do is watch, because it was so different that what I had learned about making an offering at a temple in Japan. Nearby was a night market, so i decided to stop by.

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Huaxi Street Night Market, aka Snake Alley. There were huge snakes there, but no pictures allowed.

A word about these night markets. They are insane – anything and everything can be found at any one of them. I had read and read and seen documentaries about them, but they do not do them justice. There’s food and clothing and live animals and carnival games and people playing majhong and people smoking cigarettes and Hello Kitty and people scratching lotto tickets and I don’t know what else. And they stay open from around four in the afternoon until well past midnight. I had only planned on going to one a day, but today I ended up going to at least three: Guangzhou, Snake Alley, and Sanhe, riding the rails and pounding the pavement in many corners of the city already.

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Sanhe Night Market.

There’s no doubt that I’ve barely scratched the surface of Taipei. When my flight first got here it was really foggy, and the pilot threatened to turn the plane around and head back to Osaka. Fortunately it lifted enough that the pilot could land safely, and I’m so glad he did.

Tomorrow, I’ve got something special planned, and as long as the weather permits, I’ll make it happen. Taipei, day one – securely in the books.


Swiss-Made Pocketwatch – 25 February 2013

Just a short post this time.

Today begins another trip during my Japanese exodus: this time to Taipei. I’m really excited about this one, as I’ve planned this one alone and will go it alone, and most likely see and do interesting, self-inspiring things. I have lots of stuff planned, but I’ll wait until I get some pictures under my belt before I break the seal here. Needless to say, I’m excited as hell. Unfortunately, my flight doesn’t leave until early tomorrow morning from Osaka, and the bus to Osaka gets there around ten tonight.

Sheesh. Not even enough time to explore Osaka. It looks like more airport camping is in the cards for yours truly.

But it’s all part of the adventure, like some humongous game of tag, catching buses, taking planes – and making sure it all runs as a Swiss-made pocketwatch does.

Stay tuned, people. Stay tuned.


A Simple List – 21 February 2013

I’ve been living in Japan for nearly six months now and I’ve seen things, lots of things that were once fascinatingly different from what I had been used to in America (as was to be expected), but now have become common as I’ve acclimated to my no-longer-foreign surroundings. I’ve been thinking of the best way to format this post for several days, and because I’ve seen so much I think a simple list is probably the best way to get my point across this time.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, either.

 

 

Cars here are maybe 20% smaller than their American counterparts, as there is less room to sloppily park that wide body in a parking lot with tight spaces.

The crows here are HUGE. Not. Even. Kidding.

There are actually a great number of people here who are my height or taller, and are Japanese. (I know this one is kinda stereotypical, but, like all stereotypes there is a grain of truth in this one.)

There are Japanese who will be short with you, and a surprising number of them are of advanced age.

Music is very important here – small tunes play everywhere; on the subway platform before the train arrives, when the adorable seafoam green garbage trucks move through the street, standing in line at the movies, etc., etc.

The garbage trucks are adorable, and where I’m living they’re seafoam green and play music as they move through the streets.

Most people here don’t make eye contact with strangers unless absolutely necessary, and that goes double for gaijin – foreigners.

At the time of this post I have experienced two small earthquakes. They felt weird, and I could almost feel them coming before they came.

If you’ve ever seen an anime where there are students dressed up in school uniforms, the young people here in middle and high school wear uniforms that look exactly like that. Related – the little kids really do wear those yellow hats. I’m looking into acquiring one for myself.

More foreigners than Japanese have made fun of my stilted Japanese. This was genuinely a surprise.

There appears to be an overabundance of Ferris wheels in Nagoya, and in Japan in general.

Japanese food really isn’t all that weird. But some of it is, even at this point in my adventure.

There are almost no Burger Kings here. If I had a Whopper addiction, I’d probably be in rehab by now.

日本語で話してことが上手になったかったですから、私はアニメの歌詞を学んだ。諸刃の剣だ。多い言葉を学んで、文法がより少ない学んだ。
(I learned anime lyrics because I wanted to become skilled in speaking Japanese. It’s a double edged sword, though – I learned lots of words, but not so much in the way of grammar.)

Japanese girls are smoking.

Some Japanese guys want to become as smoking as the girls (read visual kei).

On the whole, Japanese police are fairly quiet where I live. I could be running a cathouse out of my room and as long as I was quiet they wouldn’t come get me.

Clubbing here is… different from back home, but I don’t really like clubbing so this point is moot.

You can get a tattoo here. I am living proof of that.

You can not go into an onsen (hot spring) or sento (bathhouse) if you have even one. I am living proof of that.

This place is fucking expensive.

The trains and buses really are never late. Planes – international flights, anyway – are another story.

People here work as hard as possible, even in the most menial of jobs. It’s refreshing.

I thought that conveyor-belt sushi was the bees knees when I first got here, but the novelty wore off inside of two weeks. It’s good stuff, though.

The oddest thing I’ve seen in the grocery store? Dried krill used as flavoring. Pretty cheap stuff, too.

The oddest thing I’ve seen in the street? A drunk girl passed out on the sidewalk while her two friends squatted next to her. It was still warm out, so she didn’t freeze. And she was still smoking.

The oddest thing I’ve done since I’ve been here? I went with a couple of friends to a maid cafe, where waitresses in maid outfits serve their almost-exclusively male clientele and make small talk with them. My skills weren’t very good then, so that portion of the night was a bit lost on me. Still fun, though.

The absolute oddest proposition I’ve experienced? I was approached by a woman who worked at a semi-erotic ear-cleaning parlor. When I saw the prices quoted on the flyer she gave me, I had second thoughts. But not before I took a picture with her.

I’ve followed symbolic prostitutes of the Emperor through a temple and the shopping arcade behind it, and into a grocery store where they stopped to rest and bless the store with good luck for the coming year.

A parade here is one of the most polite things I’ve ever seen. No one yells, no one screams, and the audience calls out to participants politely to get the perfect photo-op.

The Japanese love everything western – from Halloween decor to hip-hop to Harley-Davidsons to American football. I even bought a pot-leaf chain and pendant during a festival here, and wore it to school without incident.

I’ve almost been run over by drivers three times, and the first two incidents happened at the same intersection a week apart, while I had the right-of-way to walk across the street. Take from that what you will.

Not a lot of people hang out at Nagoya Port, but apparently that part of town is home to a Yakuza enclave. I haven’t seen any, but it’s on the list before I return home.

Some of the shrines and temples I’ve seen are the oldest things I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re also some of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

 

Without question coming to Japan is the craziest, most exotic and by far the best thing I’ve ever done. And there’s still four-and-a-half months of the ride left.