Monday, November 30, 2009

Taking on Tokyo

In October, we found ourselves with an unexpected open week on our hands. Where should we go? we asked each other. Being so close to so many places we've never been, it was a little overwhelming to choose. But in the end, we decided to go to the most populated city in the world:

Upon arrival, after checking into the hotel, we needed to get some dinner...

That's in Yen, right?

Now before you slap us with a "Pathetic American" card, let's review that acquiring a hamburger in Jining is virtually impossible. Wendy's has not made it past the Great Wall yet, but even McDonald's, found in most large cities in China, is absent in our little corner of Shandong Province. So it was a case of, see Wendy's sign, look at each other for subtle cues, look at Wendy's sign while salivating, simultaneously agree to cave into the crave. And let me tell you, that was the best damn Wendy's meal I can recall.

After eating, we decided to take in some
Japanese culture, and just wandered the streets. We found several of these pachinko parlors, which I knew nothing about before and now know a little more about thanks to a certain Mr. Wik A. Pedia. But from personal experience, I can say that the place is a frenzy of noise, lights, smoke and zombie people continuously firing buckets of small, metal balls into the machine that very much resembles a slot machine crossed with a pinball machine. We stayed just long enough for me to snap a picture and then I had to GET OUT. Sensory overload.

We mostly just took in the scene on the streets, little alleys chock of full of small bars and restaurants. And we found out the hard way that some of these bars are "members only, men only" kinda places. Well, we didn't want to go to your silly bar anyway!

We retired to the hotel soon after and I had a lovely passion fruit caprihinia at the hotel bar. Again, not doing so well with the whole Japanese experience, I know, but that was just day one. We had more chances...

We stuffed ourselves with hotel breakfast the next morning and then set out on the subway to another area of town. On our way to see a temple, there was plenty to feast the eyes upon.

Fake food...
A festive, fall street market...
And a monkey! In a tunic!

The rest of the day consisted of a boat tour under a great number of modern bridges and then we made our way back to our neighborhood on foot, stopping by the Tokyo Tower for a view of the city.

In case you were wondering, it does look much like the Eiffel Tower, except it's slightly taller. Always gotta be some sort of one-upmanship going on, eh?

For the rest of our five day stint in Tokyo, we mostly chose a district to explore each day and took it easy. We did eventually manage to eat some Japanese food, although I'd be lying if I said we didn't have Indian food for lunch one day...and maybe Italian another day... We justified it all because Japan seems to have a well-established grasp of what foreign food is supposed to taste like. Many times when you are aching for that simple deli sandwich or pizza or some such fare, a Chinese establishment will miss the mark more often than not. I mean, I'm all for creativity, but corn on pizza is just weird and a far cry from pepperoni, you know? And sorry, ketchup is NOT pasta sauce.

We were both fascinated by just how different Japan was from China in several ways. Japan is clean. I mean, we're talking immaculate. In a city with 20 or so million people, the lack of mess is just astounding. And it's quiet. Okay, let me clarify this, because I am sure other people who have been to Tokyo might raise their eyebrows a stitch on this one. By quiet, I mean no one is yelling into their cell phone, no one is honking their car horns, and no one, absolutely no one is clearing their throat in that most shudder-inducing way. Also, after coming from a country where we surprise the people by saying 'thank you' so often, Japan overwhelmed us with all the pleasantries. Thank you's and please's and welcome's and apologies and different kinds of thank you's. Wow. I've never had anyone say so many things to me during the 60 seconds it takes to buy a book.

I will just share a few more things about our trip, in no particular order. We stopped by a temple on one of our walks in the evening, and there were monks inside chanting. While I have been to a great number of different sorts of temples in China, this felt like the real deal and I was not quite sure why at first. But then it hit me: people were actively worshiping here. You could hear it and you could feel it. Some temples in China feel like a relic, an ancient site that once held believers, but this place was alive. We both stood there for a long time, just listening and watching.

On our last day we visited the Meiji Shrine in the Harajuku district. This was probably my favorite thing we did. This was not just a shrine. The shrine is in the middle of a forest. 175 acres of forest, actually. And the trees are large and lovely. I just felt myself let out sigh after sigh. I loved the shrine as well, the simple decorations so refreshing to me after seeing one too many multi-colored and gold encrusted temples. The gates were wooden, unpainted and plain. I loved it.

We walked for quite a while here and found a field with only a few people around. The grass seemed as clean as the city, so we joyfully sprawled out on the ground as the sun went down. Hundreds of crows flew about, calling out and flying in huge groups from big tree to big tree.

Nature in the middle of a huge, congested metropolis and I could not have been more relaxed. Of course, what's the sublime without a little absurd...

A cart of babies!
Childcares of America take note: convenient, safe, and oh so cute with those little colored hats!

To end I will tell you about our cab ride. Living in China, we take cabs all the time. They are cheap and we have no car. In Japan, however, they are far from cheap. There is a reason everyone uses the subway. But on our last night we decided to take a cab home for the experience. The cabs themselves are swanky in the way that you expect the driver inside to be named Jeeves (or maybe I just hope this). The car doors open and close automatically: a germaphobe's dream car. Although, they would not have to worry about germs in this car at all, as the inside is immaculate. There are white doilies on the headrests and they are actually white, the head room could accomodate Yao Ming himself and the ride is smooth and swift.

We were close to our hotel when our driver ran over one of the reflectors on the yellow line on the street. We sort of felt it and would not have thought twice about it except that the driver apologized up and down for it, looking down right embarrassed. I almost started laughing. I've seen cab drivers in China run over whole curbs and not even flinch. To get an apology from them, I am pretty sure we would have to run down a dog or small child first. I wish I had known how to say, "Life is short. Run over all the reflectors you please!," in Japanese, but I doubt it would have changed things. In the end, I guess a pricey cab ride should be impressive, just like everything else in that city. I quite enjoyed myself.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I have always loved Halloween. I grew up looking forward to Halloween each year once the leaves started to change their color and I felt that nip in the air. My childhood best friend also loved the holiday and we would spend time dreaming up the best costumes, watching semi-scary movies, carving the best jack-o-lanterns and most importantly, plotting out our dream haunted house. She had a few Halloween parties and since she lived on a farm, hayrides and hay bale mazes were always on the bill. We got older and replaced trick-or-treat with haunted houses complete with guys wielding chainsaws above our heads. Scary, yes. Magical, no. Now that I am an adult, I have to hope for an opportunity to dress up either for a house party or for going out to a bar or club, which to me, just isn’t the same. It seemed more fun as a kid somehow. I confess a couple years have slipped by with no celebration at all, but I still love Halloween. I still dream of the best party I could ever throw. I still hope trick-or-treaters will come to my door. I still carve jack-o-lanterns, setting them outside with an eerie flickering candle inside. Gotta try to keep the magic alive.

The Chinese do not celebrate Halloween, but they do have a ghost culture. Similar to western cultures, ghosts can be good or evil. They are visible to some, but invisible to most. Many ghosts avoid the light, so fires are used to keep them away. Evil ghosts are thought to travel in straight lines, so many paths, such as the bridge at the Yu Yuan Garden in Shanghai, have many bends in them to keep such spirits away. The seventh lunar month, which falls in July, is considered ghost month, a time when ghosts are able to cross back through to our world. So those who believe give offerings to ghosts, many times their own ancestors, but sometimes they also must appease “homeless” ghosts who do not have any living relatives. Sometimes fake money, or “ghost money” is burned to keep the spirits happy.

Since coming here, I have heard that many Chinese people sincerely believe in ghosts and are quite scared of them. Many people on the mainland are now atheist and do not believe in the old traditions of ancestor worship or appeasing angry ghosts. I read that many more people in Taiwan, having left the mainland before Communism and the elimination of many old traditions, kept the old ways alive, many of them fully believing in ghosts.

I am fascinated by this. Generally I am not superstitious. I do, however, love a good ghost story, a tale of the unexplained by someone who swears to its happening. The only weird thing that ever happened to me was that a lamp went off a few seconds before I reached the dial. I chalked it up to something electrical, but had fun thinking of it as a sign of a meddling spirit. If I were truly superstitious, the house I grew up in was prime territory for potential ghosts. One segment of the house is over 100 years old, existing in the days when the canal still ran through Groveport. Some say the house was the ice house on the canal, selling ice chunks to the passing boats. Others say that it used to be the town jail. If that isn’t fodder for some spooky stories of lingering ghosts, I don’t know what is. Did I mention that the town cemetery is across the street? Childhood games of “Ghost in the Graveyard” played in my front yard had a little more punch, the looming tombstones dimly glowing in the pale orange flood lights just yards away.

Despite grim prospects for any sort of Halloween this year aside from my carved baking pumpkin and some imported Halloween Peeps in the shape of ghosts, I was pleasantly surprised with an opportunity to sneak in some festive fun. An American we met here, Mike, and his Chinese wife, Vicky, have started an English school in Jining. They invited us to come to their Halloween celebration. So, with last year's costume props in tow, David and I came to help. They had trick-or-treating, a costume fashion show, games, decorations, and a haunted house! They turned one of the classrooms in the small school into a haunted house complete with cobwebs, spooky music, and the required costumed performers jumping out at every turn. And this is how I learned first hand how scared Chinese people are of ghosts, because I volunteered to be one of the ghouls. Armed with a spooky mask and a good hiding spot, I scared the pants off of young children and parents alike. I tried not to scare them too badly, but in truth, some people did not make it through the whole house, opting to turn back. But they all seemed to be laughing once they came out, so I felt confident no one was going to have nightmares that night.

It felt really good to have helped a handful of kids in a small corner of China experience a little Halloween fun. I have realized that many holidays are simply much more exciting and magical when there are kids around. I certainly enjoyed my Halloween this year, as they gave me a good excuse to pretend to believe in spooks for an evening, helping me to keep my inner child alive and kicking for yet another year.

If you would like to read more about the belief in ghosts in Taiwan, check out this article.