Friday, July 29, 2005


Between Beijing and Xi'an, China

We are on the slow train to Xi'an with our two Chinese guides, taking a little break from the trying time that was Beijing.

It was difficult to get comfortable there. Despite the occasional helpful student, most of the residents of Beijing seemed to treat us with a mix of wariness and contempt. Since very few of them spoke english, and Mike and I speak no Chinese (Mandarin or otherwise), it made for tenuous local relations. Add to that the heat, extreme humidity, and overbearing pollution of the city, and you can see why we've had a hard time of it so far.

Plus, the OC cameras both took a turn for the worse after Mt. Fuji. "Surprisingly", the high winds, fine dust, and the rapid pressure and temperature changes involved with the Fuji climb didn't agree with the fine motor controls of the DV camera nor the still camera (Fuji-san had one last laugh at our expense). So, we had hoped to get them fixed in Beijing, as the Operation is a bit neutered without the recording devices. We spent two half-days dealing with that business. The Panasonic DV cam couldn't be fixed, but mine was repaired for $60.
Later that night, the recently-fixed still camera, along with it's expensive flash memory card, was stolen in a club.
So, we ended up having to purchase another set of cameras and peripherals, putting the OC back ~$2000. Normally, there are cheaper ways of dealing with these problems, but, when you're on a year-long trip through foreign lands, you can't afford to wait 2-3 weeks to go through the proper channels.
In light of all of the camera bullshit, we didn't have a lot of time to spend enjoying our proper roles as tourists in China's capitol. We were able to take a long, scam-filled tour to the Great Wall, and sample some of the local delicacies, such as Beijing Duck. We also took a quick stroll through Tian'anmen Square, where we goofed around with some visiting Cantonese students (the pictures from this incident were lost because of the camera theft), and we met two fine young Chinese students.

Vicki and Lilli have proved to be the most welcoming part of China to date. Their company has been a pleasant breeze in the otherwise oppressive heat of China. They were a great help through our last days in Beijing. Having two fiery Chinese women speaking on our behalf got a lot more accomplished than our pathetic linguistic flailing and pantomimes.
Luckily, they have decided to join us in our trip to Xi'an.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Shout Out to Andrew and Weewee

Beijing, China

We made it to China.

Our last night in Japan was spent in Kobe, on the southern coast of Honshu. There, we sampled the local delicacy of Kobe beef, and it was delicious. I had heard of Kobe beef before, and the ridiculous levels of luxury involved in its creation, but I wasn't ready for it. It was by far the best steak I had ever had. Tender, savory. My mouth is watering right now just thinking about it. The meal was almost worth the $200 we spent on it.
The rest of that night was spent in a simple Japanese "shot bar" on the second floor of a random alley building. It was named Dilse, and it was theme was taken from an Indian film made in 1998. Weird. I tried some of the Nepalese rum they had. And, of course, we drank with the locals, and handed out business cards. Another successful OC operation.

The next morning, we boarded the ferry to China. It was a long two-day tour along the southern coast of Honsho, and across the East China Sea. I spent most of the time reading and messing around with some OC photo albums. There were also some spectacular pictures along the route, and we chatted a bit with some fellow travelers. Canadians, but we won't hold that against them.
Ooh. And there was Karaoke.

Upon our arrival in Beijing, we were blessed with two guardian angels. The first was a Indonesian fellow named Weewee, who was on the shuttle with us from our ferry port in Tengen to Beijing. Well, it was supposed to go to Beijing. It turns out that our bus driver was trying to cheat us, and was only going to take us to the train station at Tianjin. When Weewee found out, he fought the good fight, keeping us all updated on how the bastard was screwing us (WW spoke four languages), and eventually got us half of our money back. We were dropped off at the train station, said goodbye to Weewee, and bought ourselves some tickets to Beijing. That's where we met our second savior.
Andrew (his english name) was a Chinese student who was on the train to Beijing to visit his family. We struck up a conversation almost immediately, and he was very friendly. After the train stopped at its destination, I figured we would part ways. But, Andrew refused to say goodbye until he had helped us work out our accommodations in Beijing. It took us about an hour, but he eventually scored us a great hotel right near the station for a good price (about $40/night for a double). He went way out of his way to help us out, and did it all with a smile.

So, here we are now, in the Sanjuanjingan Hotel, enjoying cheap a cheap room and ample broadband access. We arrived in Beijing two days ago, and spent all of yesterday doing chores and cleaning up. Today, we are off to start our exploration of China.

Monday, July 25, 2005

There Are Two Kinds of Fools

Shinkansen Train Between Tokyo and Osaka

[This blog entry is dedicated to Allan E. I wish you had been there for this.]

Hopefully the last of the Fuji-related blog entries...

According to every pamphlet, guidebook, and newspaper travel section about Mount Fuji, there are exactly two kinds of fools: those that never climb Fuji, and those that climb it more than once. If you believe the cliche, Jason, Juan, and I do not currently qualify as fools. We are likely to stay that way.

It is traditional to climb Fuji at night and time the ascent so as to reach the top just before sunrise. There are 4 trails. Along each trail there are 10 "stations" where you can rest, eat, and even rent a bed. There are also numerous huts between the stations that sell drinks and snacks. We chose the most common starting point - 5th station of the north trail. The available literature claims that this is a 1700 meter path taking 5 hours on the way up and 3 hours on the way down.

The day of the climb, we woke up in a traditional Japanese hotel (ryokan) around 8, spent some time in an Internet cafe, got supplies for the trip, and were on the train by early afternoon. The route from Kyoto to Fuji went unexpectedly through Tokyo and was generally longer than anticipated. The original plan called for taking a long nap sometime after our arrival at Fuji. We did not arrive at the 5th station until 11 PM, so there was no time for dozing. I was yawning when we passed the starting line.

The base of the trail was a very pleasant if somewhat steep (by South Carolina standards) path through low forest. Fuji is a volcano, so the trees gave way quickly to a world of ashy red and black rock. The trail is very well marked and easy to climb at night with just a flashlight. It is comprised mostly of gravel switchbacks with the occasional hard rock scrabble. Steps have been built near the huts or where the terrain is too steep to keep the gravel in place.

Fuji-san does not like climbers and has many defenses. The most obvious is the steepness of the ascent. My legs and lungs are not used to sustained climbing. I had to stop to catch my breath at just about every turn. The fatigue is compounded by thin air. We took extra precautions to stave off altitude sickness. The climbing surface is also a hazard. It is easy to slip on the gravel if you are not careful about your footing. I was amazed at the strength and unpredictability of the wind. Sometimes it whipped suddenly around the rock hard enough to almost push you over. In other places there was a strong sustained wind that caught anything it could (hats, jackets, small rocks, backpack straps) and slapped you in the face with it.

The worst of the Fuji perils by far is the cold. Near the top, it was chilly enough that the shivers set in if I stopped moving for more than a minute. Our warmest clothes proved to be very inadequate for freezing temperatures and high winds. I can not remember a time that I felt as cold.

Despite adversity, we made it to the top, and very nearly in time for the sunrise. There had been other parties of climbers along the way, but I did not expect the traffic jam near the summit. The last 100 meters were a single file line of people moving at a stop-go pace - very frustrating. Rather than attempt to push through and possibly miss the sunrise, we holed up on the side of the trail. It was so cold that I could barely use the video camera. Without our liliputian tripod, I am sure that all of the footage would look like it was taken during an eruption. The sunrise was marvelous - well worth the shivering.

I was very energized by the growing light and prospect of being done. The last bit of the climb was easy. Juan thought otherwise. He made the Frodo-esque declaration that he "could not go on". I am no Samwise. Rather than utter some dramatic words and heft Juan onto my shoulders, I left him behind and bounded up to the summit with Jason. The top of Japan's tallest mountain is host to a welcome array of souvenir shops, small restaurants, and ecologically safe bathrooms. Jason and I huddled against a building for the whole ten minutes that it took Frodo to kick himself in the ass and finish the job. I knew he would.

We spent about an hour relaxing in the nicest refugee camp (Jason's observation) in Asia. It was a fairly large wooden building with rows of benches filled with dirty, tired people in ragged clothes shivering and eating soup. Juan scored us some ramen and I secured a couple cans of coffee from a pot of boiling water. A little heat and some third rate noodles do wonders when you've been awake for 24 hours and just finished a 1700 meter climb. A borrowed menthol cigarette pushed me up to 10 for 10 on the self-satisfaction meter. Those things really go to your head at high altitude.

Conquering Fuji was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that left me feeling full of life. Climbing back down Fuji was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that left me feeling like I wanted to kick a puppy. The route down is endless steep and slippery gravel switchbacks. You are restricted to an annoyingly slow pace or risk falling on your butt into a pile of sharp rocks. Worse yet, the wind and other climbers kick up loads of volcanic dust. It covers everything, gets into your nose and mouth, and sometimes blinds your eyes. Black snot. Ew. My shoes will never be the same.

It was a relief to reach the forest again. We sat for a bit and watched low clouds come down the valley. Beautiful. The bus came an hour after we reached the fifth station, and the climb was officially over. Not too long after that, we were all sitting in our ryokan's outdoor hot tub (onsen) taking in a view of Fuji-san over a placid lake. Our very long day ended as it began - snoozing on futons on a reed mat (katami) floor.

I agree that climbing Fuji twice makes you a fool, but it is not so clear to me that climbing it once makes you wise.

Thursday, July 21, 2005


Room 1132 in the ANA Hotel Narita, Japan
Special Guest Blogger - Juan N.

MT FUJI IS TALL. And it is very cold, very windy, and very dusty. Two hundred feet from the top, I couldn't bear the weight of the ring any longer. Sam carried me the rest of the way.

Seriously though, I was *this close* to turning back. But I didn't, and I made it. And I have the pictures to prove it.

Even though the way down was much easier, towards the end it took everything in my power to stay awake and put one foot in front of the other.

The ryokan we stayed at afterward was nice. I did the onsen thing. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 27 was my anxiety level the first time I did a Japanese bath, that time was a 12. I was better, but being naked with my friends is FAAAR outside my little comfort zone.

I said goodbye to the guys at Tokyo station.

I took a train I thought was bound for Narita but instead turned back at Chiba. I had to get off at the first stop back and spend time deciphering a train schedule before figuring out I had to wait over thirty minutes for a Narita train actually going there.

I checked into my hotel. Spending one last night in Japan before hopping on a plane back at 6:45 PM. Will be back in LA 12:50 PM THE VERY SAME DAY. Yeah, Japan is so cool they have planes that travel back in time. How old has that joke gotten?

In closing, this trip was a blast for me. I'm so glad I came and I had a wonderful time. Thank you Jason and Mike for hosting me. And organizing so much of the shit. And carrying everything up Fuji for me.

This is guest blogger Juan, broadcasting live from Japan, signing off. Over and out.

Now lets see if I can enable APM support in my kernel...

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Fuji-san 3: Last Legs

Lake Kawaguchiko, Japan

The first difficulties we encountered when descending Fuji were the strong winds. They weren't as powerful as they were on the top of the mountain, but they were decidedly more dangerous. Climbing down is always a bit tricky, as it can be difficult to control your speed of descent. But, with Fuji's strong, gusting winds, it really was hairy. They would come from seemingly random directions, and sometimes felt almost like I had suffered a full-body punch. There were multiple times during that initial descent that I had to stop moving and crouch down against the wind, waiting for it to die down before I felt safe enough to continue without tumbling down the mountain.
When we finally got to a safer part of the climb, the wind stopped being a danger, and became more of an extreme nuisance. Well, not the wind so much as the dust that it churned up. The path we were hiking down was covered in super-fine red volcanic dust, and every time Fuji decided to kick the wind up around us, we were blasted with stinging clouds of high-velocity dust. It got everywhere; In our eyes, in our lungs, in our ears... I could go on about every crevice in the human body that could hide this dust, but I will spare you the details. Needless to say, after an hour, we were covered head-to-toe in Fuji-san's spunk.
The descent continued for three hours. As we dipped in altitude and the day matured, it became much warmer. So, we were constantly stripping down. At the top of Mt. Fuji, we were bundled up to our necks with every piece of warm clothing we could find, but, by the time we reached the bottom, we were down to our t-shirts.

We reached the bottom at 9:30. It had been over ten hours since our hike began.

But, our little adventure wasn't yet over. We were filthy, tired and cranky. Juan was nearly passed out with exhaustion, and we still had to make the two hour journey to our hotel in Kawaguchiko. But, make it we did. We had a chance to nap a little bit on the bus, I managed to retrieve my JR Pass at the Kawaguchiko Station, and we made it to our hotel with minimal hassle. However, we arrived at noon, and they wouldn't allow us to check in until 15:00, so we had to wait a little bit longer before we could get into our room and clean ourselves up. We putzed around the town for a bit, and had some lunch, and were eventually allowed into our room. It was a pleasant japanese-style room with tatami floors and three futon beds. It was surprisingly spacious and luxurious for the price we paid. It also had a very nice view overlooking Lake Kawaguchiko.
I spent the rest of the day cleaning up from Fuji. I took a shower, shook the excess Fuji-dust from all of the secret places in my bags and shoes, and wiped them down with a wet towel. I also had time to do my laundry, and generally organize all of my shit.

At the end of the night, I was relaxing alone in the outdoor onsen (japanese public hot bath), with a stunning view of the nighttime Mt. Fuji lording over Lake Kawaguchiko. I had plenty of time to myself, letting the stress of the past 36 hours slowly melt away as I stared at the top of Fuji and reflected on what had just happened. Looking at the dominating figure of Fuji-san from the Lake made it hard to believe that we had actually made it all the way to the top, but, we had. And it was totally worth it. By far the most unique experience of this trip to date.

But now, I'm tired. So, I think I'll get some sleep.

Fuji-san 2: Restricted Access

Lake Kawaguchiko, Japan

When we finally began hiking up Fuji-san, I caught my second wind. It was refreshing to be out in nature instead of cramped away in some sweaty train car.

The beginning of the hike was beautiful. The woods around the base of Mt. Fuji were impressive at night, and the trail we followed was wide and had a slight slope. Other hikers were rare, so we got to enjoy Fuji's splendor on our own. Once we moved above the tree-line, the view became even more spectacular. In the valley below us, we could see the city lights glowing beneath the slow-moving haze of evening clouds. The vague outlines of other mountains could also be seen around Fuji-san. And the japanese stars finally made their appearance. If the hike had maintained this atmosphere the entire way, it would have been pleasant, but probably not very satisfying. "Luckily", things changed rapidly once we passed 6th station.
All vegetation quickly died off, and the relaxed walk along the wide beaten path turned into a straining scramble up a heavily bouldered mountainside. At this point, I seriously began to doubt the claims that the elderly frequently make trips to the top of Fuji-san. There may be some grandparents that could make it through that part of the climb, but for those few that could, it would be quite a struggle. For the three of us, it wasn't easy. After about an hour of the boulder climbing, the terrain once again changed into a slow slog through loose-graveled switchbacks. And we were tired.
It became clear that the rest of the climb was not going to be easy. The higher we got, the colder the air became, and the wind began to really pick up. It was occasionally even strong enough to make me lose my balance. We had to stop and rest every fifteen minutes or so, and every station became a godsend. Stopping inside of the stations wasn't an option, as they charged a ludicrous amount of money per hour to rest inside of it's fire-warmed environs. They even had overpriced soups, drinks, gloves, flashlights, etc. Anything a struggling climber might need. We never went in, but the stations still provided a perfect place to hunker down, get some cover from the wind, and perhaps eat a little Crunky and drink some water.
As the climb progressed, things only got harder. The switchbacks became steeper, the air colder, and the wind stronger. There was a brief return of the boulders of doom, and I could feel every step in my thighs. Also, because we were rising in altitude so quickly, the air thinned rapidly. Breathing became strained, and the breaks became more frequent. Altitude sickness was a serious concern, so we were constantly on the lookout for any signs of nausea or headache.
When we finally made it to the last leg of the Fuji climb, things became crowded. Most climbers had timed their ascent to reach the top around sunrise, including us. So, as it was nearing 4:00, everyone was clogging up the thin trail heading up the final 100 meters of Fuji-san. After a bit of this stop and go hiking, the sky began to lighten, and it became apparent that we weren't going to make it to the top before the sun showed itself on the horizon. So, we found a nice flat spot about 50 meters shy of our target, and made a little camp. We took a bunch of pictures and video of tired climbers and some nice sunrise shots.
Eventually, about twenty minutes later, the crowds thinned, and we made the final push to the top. There was a brief period where Juan just gave up. 5 minutes short of our goal, and he sat down and quit. I must admit, I was feeling nauseous, and cold, and dirty, and tired... but I wasn't going to stop when I was so close. Mike and I pushed ahead.

At 4:30, we made it to the top of Mt. Fuji.

Juan joined us five minutes later, and found us huddled against the side of a building. It was a relief to finally be at the top, but it was also unbelievably cold. At the crest of Fuji-san, there is no protection from the wind, and it was biting. The climb was done, and my endorphin high was rapidly fading away. I needed some warmth. Luckily, the top of Fuji is an oasis.
There is a tiny tourist town up there, with warmed buildings and hot soup. We ducked into one such abode, and got us some hot ramen and boiled cans of coffee. After torturing ourselves through five-and-a-half hours of mountaineering, these simple items were exactly what we needed. We rested inside for about an hour, letting our bodies warm up and our minds clear. It was like a refugee camp in there. A good forty people crammed into a small wooden shack, looking haggard and beaten, gratefully sucking down hot bowls of soup. It was perfect.
When we had finally recovered, we packed everything back up, and once again braved the top of Fuji. Somehow, it had become colder since the sun came up, but it was alright. We would be climbing back down soon, and we had warm food in our bellies. We took a quick walk to the rim of Fuji, and looked down into its volcanic depths. Duly impressed, we ran back to the entrance, and hastily began what we hoped would be an easy jaunt down the slopes of Fuji.

Unfortunately, Fuji-san never makes anything easy.

Fuji-san: The Quickening

Lake Kawaguchiko, Japan

Last night, we climbed Mt. Fuji.

There is no way that single sentence can fully describe the experience. Even a few paragraphs or pages would be insufficient. I have no doubt that I could write a novel about what happened over the past two days, but, I'm not a novelist. So, I'll just type out enough for three blog entries with the understanding that this description will invariably be incomplete and lacking. But, I'm hoping that this partial description will at least give you some idea of what happened to Mike, Juan and I.

We woke up yesterday at 8:00, with Fuji on our minds. I was in charge of getting us there from Kyoto, and I felt confident that we had plenty of time to spare. We needed to be at Fuji-san by 22:00, and I figured if we left Kyoto by 15:00, the trains would easily get us there in time. So, we phaffed about, slowly packing up and checking out of the ryoken. We ended up at the internet cafe for some updatin', where we chatted with a visiting american couple. We shopped around for some climbing supplies, and eventually showed up at the JR train station around 15:00. We took the first leg of the journey to Nagoya, and that's where everything turned to shit.
It turns out that the Chuo line route I thought we could take from Nagoya to Otsuki was actually a slow local train that wouldn't make it as far as we wanted. The only way to make it there was to take a train back to Tokyo then take the Chuo line heading the opposite direction, essentially back-tracking over a hundred miles. From there, we would have to catch a local train and then a highway bus, all in the hopes that we would end up at the 5th station of Mt. Fuji by 23:15.
Luckily, this all worked out, but not without a price. The trip was long, and our connections were hard. We had to rush between tracks lugging around large backpacks and Juan's ridiculous rolly-bag. We nearly missed our connection in Shinjuku, and I ended up leaving my JR pass in Otsuki, but we eventually found ourselves standing outside of a convenience store a few hundred feet away from the 5th station. After the last highway bus left, we were alone except for a strange japanese man lurking in the fringes of the light spilling out of the convenience store. He helpfully pointed the way towards the station, and muttered some unintelligible encouragement at us as we started our hike. We were already tired and stressed out from our day-long trek through Japan's public transit system, and we were now about to undertake the 1-mile vertical climb separating us from the top of Japan's tallest mountain.
It was 23:00. We wouldn't reach our goal until 4:30 the next morning.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

My Shinkansen Front the Most

An Internet cafe in Kyoto, Japan
Special Guest Blogger - Juan N.

We devoted yesterday to the Aichi World Expo. Man, I wish we would've planned that better. We didn't end up with a whole bunch of time to explore what a world expo has to offer. As soon as I spotted the Gas Pavilion I got waaay too excited and blew over an hour waiting for the wonders of natural gas, which turned out to be a lame-ass magic show. With some fire. Arrgh.

The Maglev exhibit was much much much cooler though. That was a 3D movie built from test footage of the world's fastest maglev train. Man, all of a sudden the Shinkansen seem so passe. Not to mention the Gold Line in Pasadena. I will not rest satisfied until my car rests of a cushion of air. Or magnetic field lines, as the case may be.

I met up with Jason and Mike (they weren't as excited about the highly entropic state of matter as I was) later, and we had ourselves some Mexican food in said country's pavilion. The Japanese approximation of tacos de pollo was not a very good one. I wanted to check out the Robot Station, later decided on the Toyota exhibit, and finally realized I didn't have enough time before we booked it for Kyoto.

I did, however, walk away with plenty of Merch merch. Gotta help the ol' Japanese economy.

We were short on time and were presented with a slight conundrum. We could take the earlier Shinkansen that stopped at every stop, or wait for the direct route that left 20 minutes later. Mike suggested we turn it into an experiment, so I grabbed his phone, and jumped in the early Kodama Shinkansen.

And look at that. My train beat theirs by a whole 5 minutes. I met them with a giant grin on my face. Man, my Shinkansen front the most!

With no time to spare, we made it to our Kyoto no ryokan. Showered, and had a good night's rest.

We woke up for the free continental breakfast and met a nice couple. The girl, Taryn (sp?) reminded me a whole lot of you, Jackie.

We checked out of the ryokan and walked ourselves to the Internet cafe I am writing this entry in.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Japanese Peeps

Kyoto, Japan

The Shinkansen has just left Kyoto station, and we are bound for the World Expo in Aichi. Juan is sitting near me, manically typing away, no doubt blogging his ass off about our experiences yesterday. His update will surely be rife with details, so I'll keep it brief.

We originally went to Kyoto with the intent to take it slow. Tokyo had been rather hectic and I was looking forward to experiencing the subtler side of Japanese culture. And we were mostly successful. Kyoto was beautiful, and the number of temples and shrines was impressive. There was a particularly cool view from the Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple in the hills overlooking Kyoto. While walking around the city all day, we also had a few run-ins with the Gion Matsuri, one of Kyoto's great festivals, and we watched the sunset lounging next to the Kamo-gawa (a river) and drinking cans of Japanese beer. We eventually ended up in a small, red-lanterned izakaya (pub/restaurant) when it finally happened.

We have been "in country" for almost two weeks now, and it has been fun. But, there is a noticeable issue with Japanese culture. The people are very insular. They are polite and helpful to us gaijin, but they don't get very friendly. They tend to stay at arm's length. The one time we kind of met a native, it ended in some sort of aggro play-fight. We've spent the remainder of our time experiencing Japan in our little foreign bubble, very seperate from the natives.

But, in this restaurant, we actually connected with a Japanese couple sitting at the table next to us. We shared sake and laughs and Juan wowed them with his broken Japanese. It was a random stop in a Japanese back-alley, but it turned into our first real native connection. Later that night, we found our way to another seemingly random bar in Kyoto, not too far from the river. It was a strange, slightly American-themed place that was gaijin-free. Once again, with the help of Juan's increasingly adept use of the Japanese language, we made a bunch of new friends. Very cool.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Kyoto, Part Deux

On the Hikari Super-Express Shinkansen to Nagoya, Japan
Special Guest Blogger - Juan N.

Kyoto was un-fucking-believable!

Taking the bus from the station to the inn was an ordeal. I had no clue how the fares worked. Turns out you pay when you get off. Not when you get on. And I was lugging around the largest suitcase in Japan.

A short, slightly confused walk later, we ended up in front of the Kyoto Travelers' Inn. Jason and Mike checked us all in and we crashed into our Western-style room.

First order of business was trying out the public baths. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive. I stripped down to a pair of shorts and put on the light cotton robe the hotel offered. Grabbed my orange towel, and tailed Mike and Jason to the bath.

Left our shoes at the head of the bath, got up on the floor, and I stripped down to my birthday suit. I have never been naked in front of strangers who aren't my doctor. I also have never been naked in front of friends before.

Next room had a bunch of showers, with no stalls in between. I sat my cheeks on a small plastic stool, and began washing off. Mike and I engaged in idle chat while Jason was off to the side. After I washed off the grime, I eased myself into the boiling hot bathtub at the end of the room.

The bit of apprehension turned into a full-on anxiety attack. However much I freak out, asking girls out and the like, I don't think I've ever had an attack like that before. After I admitted as much to the guys, they were surprised because on the outside I maintained my composure. I guess I become two people: the cool, suave outside and the freaking out, with-a-pounding-heart inside. Several minutes into soaking in the pool, I began the relaxation exercises my psychiatrist taught me. No dice.

As quickly as all that started, it ended. My heart raced for a good while after I was nice and dry and on my own bed in the room. And look at that, I survived. It wasn't as relaxing as I would've liked, but I'm glad I took another big step towards not being such a gutless coward.

Next day.

We woke up to the most alien sounds outside our window. Were they birds? The water system? Shoved that question aside as we dressed and raced for the end of the Goin Matsuri. A Kyoto parade. We stuck around for a half hour or so, in stifling humidity. It was a quite a sight, watching the paraders turn their tall, lumbering, pagoda floats. The front wheels don't steer like those on a car, see, so they resorted to an elaborate procedure involving wet bamboo slats on the road to slide the float on, lots and lots of pulling, etc.

During the parade I asked a of couple people about that weird noise that never left us. I already had suspicions they were insects, and a quick chat with the natives confirmed them.

Had some lunch, and worked our way up to a temple complex above Kyoto. It took me a while to realize I did the complex already, on my previous trip here. The climb was sooo much easier on a tour bus.

We wandered down from the hill. My feet were killing me. God, I do hope I can manage Fuji-san. We sat ourselves by the river and enjoyed us some beer. We then delved deep into the very bowels of Kyoto for some grub.

Mike found us the smallest restaurant in the smallest of side alleys. I could bearly read the menu. We all decided to just pick three random things and share them family style. They put me in charge of the picking.

Conversation began flowing between us and the table to the side. The guy, Seki, plays in a heavy metal band called LSD. His female companion, Minami, uh was cute and I never figured out what she did. Abundant osake greased the wheels even more.

I can count on my left hand the times I've been high on life. And folks, that dinner was definitely one of them. Pleasant conversation, in fucking JAPANESE, with a couple of natives, put me on the top of the world. On our way to the next stop, I took Jason's pen and wrote a note on my hand, reminding myself to thank the greatest Japanese teacher, ichiban nihongo no sensei, for making it happen.

And the night only got better.

Jason and I grabbed ourselves some soft-serve from a Wendy's and we ended up in a 50's kind of bar thing. I needed to pee. When I returned, I sat between Jason and Mike at the counter. With a couple of ladies to Jason's left.

The sake started flowing and the conversation right along with it and Mike invented drinking games and Jason gave me the seat he occupied and get this. I began flirting with the ladies in Japanese! They were the nicest people, Andi to my immediate left and Tomoko to her left. I FLIRTED, YOU GUYS. We exchanged compliments, I fed Andi some popcorn, she ran her hand lightly down my leg, Oh. My. God. I danced me some swing with Tomoko.

Amy S? Mission Accomplished.

Next on our list is the Aichi World Expo. We're tackling Fuji late on Tuesday. Not sure what happens in between that and my final stay in Narita Thursday night, before I head back to the good ol' US of A.

To Kyoto and Beyond

Hamamatsu, Japan

We're currently on the Shinkansen ("Bullet Train") traveling at ~150 km/h towards Kyoto. After a wicked outing (involving some "legal" drugs) last night at a club called Womb, we ended up at home at 6am only to find out that we had been politely kicked out of our digs and had to vacate the premises by the afternoon. So, we made a patient, informed, and well-reasoned decision to leave Tokyo and make our way to the former capitol of the Land of the Rising Sun. Once there, we'll be staying in a local hotel, and hopefully enjoying a much quieter slice of Japanese life.

It's probably better this way. It felt a little like we had stalled in Tokyo. We spent ten days there, without really getting to know much about the country. We had free reign over the Japanese rail system, but we never used to do anything besides get around Tokyo (except for the one day trip to Nagoya). Don't get me wrong; Tokyo was fun. But, there's only so much you can learn about Japan wandering through the gaudy streets of Shibuya. Now, over the next week, we are going to be seeing more of Japan outside of it's legendary metropolis. We will be absorbing the traditional customs of Kyoto, marveling at the wonders of the World Expo in Aichi, taking in the sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji, and relaxing in a natural hot spring overlooking Lake Kawaguchi-ko.

Then, if things go as planned, we will be hopping onto a ferry to Tientsin, China next Friday.


On the Hikari Super-Express Shinkansen to Kyoto, Japan
Special Guest Blogger - Juan N.

Wow. Yesterday took it out of me.

I spent the first part of yesterday following Jason and Mike doing administrative things. Sending packages out of the Central Tokyo Post Office. Making hotel reservations for Fuji-san at a Tourist Information Center.

We met up with Allan at Tokyo Station. I don't know if you all know him, I personally met him and his lovely wife Larissa, who has a killer accent, in New York.

The first order of business was the annual light festival at Yasakuni Shrine. I had no idea at first, but that's the controversial shrine Japan has for war dead. Controversial because some of those dead are convicted war criminals. And the prime minister makes annual pilgrimages to the place, much to the chagrin of China and Korea.

Despite the context, the festival was wonderful. The grounds were decorated with what somebody told me were 29,000 lanterns. It was packed with people, lots in traditional garb. There was a dancing demonstration, where folks from the very audience joined in. Drunken revelry. And the food. Oh. My. God. There were rows and rows of booths selling all sorts of grub. And I had a blast sampling stuff, some of which I bearly grasped the composition of. I had a meat stick with onions and scallions, this sort of cabbage pancake, a cool slice of pineapple, and a chocolate covered banana.

Yeah, with the significant language barrier, and the fact that I'm not in Japan usually, means I have put the vegetarianism on hold. Why limit yourself in the midst of exotic tastes?

After the festival we spent time in a tiny, hole-in-the-wall bar called Gaspanic, in the heart of Shinjuku. I had me some Japanese Corona. Yeah, like with the limes. And now with katakana! A 50-odd year-old salaryman was in the midst of the dancers, cooling himself off with a hand-held fan and enjoying Asahi no biru from a straw. And grooving to the 90s hiphop with the best of them.

We waited for Johnny Cocks and his girlfriend outside. Once we met up, and greetings were exchanged, we set off looking for Club Womb.

Well, first he tried his darndest to get us in this Maniac Love Club. The keisatsu forced the place to close early, and the guy at the door wanted 3000 yen from each of us to partake in the remaining 30 minutes. Works out to a dollar a minute. No thanks.

Yeah, after that we ended up in Club Womb. And we all partied until the Sun came up. I asked the bar girl for a Vodka Red Bull (I was tired), only after she assured me they did in fact have Red Bull. To her, Red Bull means grapefruit juice. So yeah, I had me lots of those, danced me lots of "aggressive techno", and it was great. The lasers were amazing. I was taking picture after picture when a bouncer noticed and forced me to delete them from my camera. Halfway through, when I got the last ounce of dance out of me, I was passing out from exhaustion.

Turns out the club is smack dab in the middle of a bunch of Love Hotels, and it was interesting, if a bit unsettling, to have hawkers asking me if I wanted sex with young girls. Uh, no thanks. Irimasen.

After the longest day, we shambled into our Tokyo palace, all bleary-eyed. Mike shouted Fuck! at the sight of an email he just got. And like he already mentioned, it turned out the wife of the actual tenant of the place was returning that very day, and wanted all us freeloaders out.

Jason and Mike decided to leave Tokyo early and spend extra time in Kyoto. Jason hooked us all up with tentative reservations at a local hotel.

And sorry Mike I ate your muffin. I was hungry!

A Spot of the Shintos

Tokyo, Japan
Special Guest Blogger - Allan E.

Guest-bloggart Allan E here. We went to the Mitama Matsuri Shinto festival yesterday in the Chiyoda ward --- I'd been in Tokyo for 4 hours, and this certainly helped orient me as to where I was in the world: Japan!

It was in this enormous shinto Shrine, with a huge central walkway with glowing fifty-foot high walls of hanging paper lanterns on either side; there were kimono clad shintoists, nappy-clad wackos (who's job turned out to be drummers) & a ton of nattily turned-out younsters in traditional garb. It was really beautiful. Rave lighting too! Shinto is a religion that moves with the times all right. And is that Asahi they're all drinking? --- best religion ever!

As fortune would have it Mik3 happened to be well versed on the subject of Shintoism and told me of four sacrements we were to embody that evening in order to be down wit' the gods. I remember embodying at least two:
  • we had a bathe on the way in (in this handy big communal sink with big wooden ladels)
  • we stuffed our faces with all manner of tasty Shinto grub
Or at least they stuffed their faces...I started but was brought to a spluttering halt halfway into the first item on the menu, which was meat-on-a-stick. Feeling adventurous, I chose a different stick to the others. Why is it that whatever country I go to in the world, whenever I try to experiment with the local cuisine I always, ALWAYS, get tounge. Yech. Tasty cabbage pancakes to follow though. And then banana-on-a-stick! I just knew I was going to be impressed by the technology in this place.

Anyways, this must have been just enough to get me down with the gods (or perhaps it was my jet-lag) for as we watched a display of traditional Shinto dancing I found myself sorely wanting for the deep inner-harmony that these people seemed to posses. They seemed so at peace with their funny circle dance, and their grooving nappy drummers, that I truly felt I was missing out on something. Back home, the most harmonious event that ever seems to happen to me is if two or more people chance to feel like boozing at the same time. Bah. I've realised there is a real gap in my life. Need to buy me a maypole or something.

Anyways, we are about to get evicted from our swank downtown gaff and the OC is moving on to Kyoto --- shame I could only spend one day with the boys, but it was a good one. It finished at 5am with Mike curled in a foetal ball on the left foot of Jonny R (C)'s beautiful ladymate in a truly magnificent display of pure helplessness. It was poetry (or something), and a fitting end to our evening spent cock-bungling our way round various Tokyo nightspots.

Shouts to all OC blog-readers, most especially beautiful wife Laz...I am sorry you can't be with us. Japanse girls are all fat. x

Juan Stole My Muffin

The extended OC (now including Juan N and Allan E) had a big night out with Jonny R (C?) and his lovely lady friend. We rolled back into the gangsta pad around 6 AM and were greeted by an email from Leo R telling us that we have to vacate by "the afternoon". Our benefactor's wife is returning to town and wants the place clear of freeloaders. We have had 4 hours of sleep and are now hurriedly packing up the place and making ready for departure. In keeping with tradition, I have a big hangover. This sucks. Easy come, crapulently go.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Codec Wars

This one is for the nerds...

As you may know, some folks have been unable to view OC videos. Herein lies the story of how we decided on our preferred format. The identity of said format is also revealed.

We are using Final Cut Express 2 for editting. It supports a number of output formats. The ones of note are:
  • Quicktime - Apple's video format of choice. Using it requires download of the Quicktime player. There is no player available for Linux.
  • AVI - This is a venerable format with wide support, but the FCE II encoder does not allow you to adjust the frame size. That makes it unusable.
  • MPEG 4 - An "open" standard, if a somewhat new one. It is the guts underneath a lot of Quicktime.
For the first round of videos, we used MPEG 4. After problem reports started coming in, I discovered that Microsoft is no longer supporting MPEG 4. They dropped it in favor of their own format. Uh oh. Time to shop around for some other options.

According to most online sources, Flash video has by far the highest penetration rate for its player at about 95%. This makes it a very attractive option due to the "it just works" factor. The Flash MX editor from Macromedia is out of our budget. A company called On2 makes an alternative Flash movie encoder. Their cheapo product, Flix Lite, goes for $40, but it uses a single pass encoder. The output looks very crappy compared to the competition. The professional version of Flix (Flix Pro) goes for a pricer $140 and uses a 2 pass encoder. Tempting.

We decided that $140 is too much. That left us with a choice between Quicktime and MPEG 4. Since you can't play Quicktime on Linux, the choice was clear. MPEG 4 is the winner of the Coded Wars.

But, how to we intend users to play this sparsely supported format? The answer to all our prayers is VLC Media Player - a free, multi-platform player that deals nicely with MPEG 4.

Huzzah! Thanks to Jen C (no longer A) for the tip off.

Baby Seal Girl

Tokyo, Japan
Special Guest Blogger - Juan N.

Later than yesterday, we set off for Odaiba. Second train we took was a neat, driverless one. Jason and I argued over the reasoning behind rubber tires on concrete tracks and Mike asked if we had comic book stores to run while he was filming the ride.

First stop was this science museum I already forgot the name of. We only had an hour to spend before the place closed, and Jason had the (very intelligent, actually) idea of starting at the top and working our way down. Top floor had Earth and life science exhibits. I saw some gross nematodes under a microscope. Next floor down was robotics and information technology. Quite neat. A robot baby seal. A mechanical model of the Internet. A giant LED Earth. Electronic fish that respond to your footsteps. While I was lost in the nanotechnology exhibit, this guide, a very cute female Japanese one who didn't speak a whit of English, showed me the ropes. That was near the beginning.

We all could've stayed for much longer than the hour alloted us. On our way out, that same Japanese guide was standing there, hugging the baby seal and squealing. I immediately turned to Mike and asked if I could take that girl home.

We climbed into the Fuji TV sphere of fear. Had us some dinner on the Decks. And couldn't get into the Sega Joypolis arcade because it was closed. Two trains rides later, we're back in the apartment.

Observations of Japan

Tokyo, Japan
Special Guest Blogger - Juan N.

Yesterday morning we got up real early to catch the shinkansen to Nagoya, my old Japanese stomping grounds. I made a couple of observations. 1) The skies are gray here. I don't think I've seen the sun since I've arrived. I like the sun! 2) People here don't smile as much. Mike mentioned it was early, and most of them were going to work, and nobody smiles when they go to work.

I had a big smile on my face nonetheless.

The shinkansen are still just as awesome. They are spaceships that ride along the ground! Mike pointed out that technically, all vehicles travel through space, and thus qualify as spaceships. I groaned.

While I was blissfully looking out the window, Jason poked me and urged me to make the D20 Modern version of myself. Here are the results:

Level 2 Smart Hero. Occupation: Technician.

STR 8 (12)
DEX 14 (10)
CON 8 (15)
INT 18 (15)
WIS 12 (12)
CHA 10 (10)

My Talent is Savant: Research and my Feats are Gearhead, Educated: Knowledge (Physcial Sciences) and Knowledge (Popular Culture). And Vehicle Expert. I maxed out my ranks in the Drive Skill.

What's interesting to note is that the ability points that aren't parenthesized are what I think my, Juan C Nuno's, ability scores would be. For a heroic version of me, anyway. The ones in parentheses are what Jason thinks of me. He ended up assigning me the average of both sets of scores.

An interesting exercise in self reflection. Fortunately, I think I've moved past the point of not really caring what others think of me.

Also, quite possibly the NERDIEST thing I have ever done. EVER.

Anyhoo, we got to Nagoya, saw us some great sumo. First time I've ever done that. This trip is gonna be a whole series of firsts.

Which is entirely the point.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Big Boys

Tokyo, Japan

Sorry it's been so long since my last update. Japan has been such a refreshing country that I haven't had the time to stop and make a post. There is so much to do and see here.

Juan joined us yesterday, bringing our beaner/honky ratio up to more reasonable numbers. Today, we all went to Nagoya to see the Sumo tournament. There was some confusion on our way there, but we eventually made it to our destination (God bless our JR Passes. They have saved us so much money and time so far.).
Watching the matches was quite the experience. There's a lot of tradition and pomp associated with each confrontation, easily outlasting the actual physical match. But, after watching a few dozen, you get into it. The bluffing and intimidation involved in the pre-fight ritual becomes very apparent.
There is one match in particular that sticks in my mind. I don't remember the two rikishi, but they were two rather unremarkable (relative to other sumo wrestlers) examples. One of them (we'll call him Frontalot) was making a very big show out of his preperation. Throwing salt high in the air, flexing, grunting, and generally showboating. The crowd was loving it, and it was obvious that the guy was trying to rev himself up, and psyche the other guy out. But, the other wrestler (we'll call him Ice Cube) wasn't phased. When face-off time came up, Cube hunkered down and patiently waited while Frontalot continued his antics. After a false start by Frontalot, the match was quickly finished by a single well-placed facial slap by Cube. He sent Frontalot into a very embarrasing sprawl in the dirt. After almost three minutes of chest-beating and preperation, the match was finished in three seconds.

Taking it Edo Easy

Tokyo, Japan

On Monday all OC personnel took some much-needed exercise and worked on various administrative issues. Jason got his camera sorted out. I will wait until Australia to get my last Hep B shot. Some gifts were put in the mail. Mike's laundry and Leo's towels are clean.

Jon W is on six month assignment in Tokyo. We met him and Leo in Roppongi for dinner and drinks. This is apparently the part of Tokyo where foreigners go to get drunk. Somehow (not naming any names) we managed to wander into a German "snackbar" serving up huge portions of food at somewhat larger than anticipated prices. I get full (and poor) just thinking about it. Afterwards, Jason retired to digest. Jon, Leo, and I pressed through another thick knot of strip club towts to reach a hip-hop club called DMZee.

I met an interesting womqn in the bar. She is ethnically African but grew up in Bermondsey, London. She is married to a German. They both live and work in Tokyo and they have three kids that speak English, French, German, and Japanese. This is the kind of family I want to have on day. We talked a bit about London and some about South Carolina. The American south was of particular interest to her, having never been there. Unfortunately, DMZee was nearly empty and good conversation was not enough to keep our party together. We all parted company after one drink.

Early up on Tuesday to move into our new digs. Leo has this friend called Mike that is letting us use his place while he is in Hong Kong. The apartment is plenty big, very nice, and completely free. I can not get over our luck. We owe Leo a big one for this.

We trucked out to Narita in the afternoon to see a thousand-year-old temple complex before meeting Juan at the airport. Naritasan Shinsho-ji was a welcome change from the fever-pitch of Tokyo. The temple buildings are set on peaceful hilltops surrounded by gurgling streams and turtle-filled ponds. There were very few people around, so it was possible to take pictures and study things without the self-consciousness of overt tourism. We breathed some incense, washed our hands in sacred water, and lit a couple of good-luck candles. Buddhism (Shinto?) seems very relaxing.

Juan arrived on scheduled into Narita Airport and we were right there waiting. A few confusing train/tube jaunts later, we were all safe in the new OC HQ. It is very good to have Juan's familiar face in our company, even if he does give me a hard time for nearly getting my ass kicked.

Japan Rocks?

Tokyo, Japan

The first weekend in Tokyo went smashingly.

Friday night, we hooked up with the mysterious Jonny R and his lady friend, Raina (sp?). After dinner and fancy cocktails in Meguro, we met them at the little dog statue next to Shibuya station. Jonny R reminds me a bit of Allan E. His accent is familiar and he has the same smart sense of humor and general friendliness.

It is never easy to think of a place to go out off the top of your head. We hit a local convenience store for some cans of beer to aid the decision-making process and eventually settled down in a casual bar/restaurant (more the former than the latter) called Soma. They were showing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas followed by True Romance on the wall behind our table. I got a few good pictures of Jason chilling with Gary Oldman.

Soma afforded us the opportunity to sample the local spirits. I had a sweet potato sochu (sp?) that colored my cheeks and tickled my fancy, but we switched back to more conventional OC drinks (beer and vodka tonics) after the first round. I like Asain liquor - just not enough to drink it all night. A very boozy karaoke session followed our very boozy drinking session. Jason has a fine video of me belting out She Drives Me Crazy like only I can. The sun was ah-rising when we bid farewell and hit the the train to Meguro. Leo was away biking around an island, so there was no worry about waking up our host.

I spent the better part of Saturday sleeping and being hungover. A can of beer and a lot of water put me back in the mood to go out. We took Jonny R's advice and set out for "The Wizards Convention" - a poorly-named hard rock showcase at the Shinjuku Loft. It rained like hell during the walk between the train station and the venue. Shinjuku really shines in the rain. You get the neon lights from above and their reflection again from below. It is lovely in a Blade Runner kind of way.

Weather was not the only obstacle. We had to run a gauntlet of strip club towts. All these African guys kept sidling up, smiling, being generally pleasant, then pitching a reduced cover, free drinks, or our very own Ukranian girl to take home. I am not sure why they are all African. Maybe most strip club clientele like the accent? Whatever the reason, our nubian friends were not exclusively an annoyance. Once turned down, most were willing to give accurate directions. Without them, we might have wandered around in the rain for much longer than necessary. You always get the best directions from the seediest cats.

The Shinjuku loft is a cool little venue buried 3 floors beneath the streets of Tokyo. The cover was $40 and drinks ran for about $5 - not cheap, but not the kind of expensive I have come to expect from Japan. Total capacity for the room must be 200 and there are two efficient bars, a main stage, and 2 lounge areas. It was crowded, but I could always find room to stretch. There were a number of other honkeys around, but also lots of Japanese hard rock types. It seemed legit. We saw 3 bands. They varied from toe-tappingly good to finger-tappingly bad. All of them were loud. Boredom hit hard 25 minutes into a psychedelic metal freak out art jam, so we split.

We went back out onto the streets and right into annoyance #1 about Tokyo: the trains and buses all stop running around midnight and don't start again 5. Taxis - expensive at all times - add an extra 30% during the 12-5 transport outage. It was going to cost us another $40 to reach Leo's. Bollocks to that. Now I know why you see some many people sleeping in clubs and on the side of the road. It saves a boatload of yen.

We killed two hours in Shinjuku by eating some noodles, walking around a bit, getting further harassed by towts, and finally by playing/watching video games in an arcade. Tekken is mesmerizing when you are tired and your ears are ringing. We were on the first train out and made it home in short order.

You know what else is seriously expensive in Tokyo? Movies. On the back of the praise-conservative Jennie C's professed adoration of the new Batman picture show, we hit a Shebuya cinema Sunday afternoon. Tickets were $18 a pop. Wow. Fortunately, the cost of snacks did not scale along with the ticket price. I am not quite ready to finance popcorn and Coca Cola.

The weekend was capped off by a quiet Sunday night of reading, introspection, email, and blogging. We also watched a bit of the Tour de France with the recently-returned Leo R. There is a lot more going on in those races than I thought. I cheered enthusiastically for Lance because I liked his work in Dodgeball.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

We Almost Died Tonight

Hey y'all. Mike made me take away the two exclamation marks I had in the title. Anyway, this is guest blogger Juan. I have arrived safe and sound into Tokyo 6:00 PM local time. Jason and Mike were there to meet me. It was good to see them again.

Ten subway trains later, I arrive at their swank apartment. And I really mean swank, This place is giant! Four times larger than Jackie's old place in Nagoya. Upon arrival we decide to wander around for some grub.

We find a noodle house, where no English is spoken. I make use of my meager Japanese skills to get Jason soba with meat, Mike some soba with meat, and me some soba with no meat. A guy at the table next to ours seemed friendly enough, and Mike quickly commenced making conversation.

He called up his girlfriend in the Philippines to make conversation with the crazy amerikajin. And Mike joked about how we were lost in Kyoto, looking for the Tokyo Tower. She might not have taken his joke as lightly as she should have. Her boyfriend didn't seem to either.

And then they were talking about going outside and fighting and the lights were going out in the noodle house, and yeah, I have to admit I was getting a little nervous. Mike kept turning to me, asking for help communicating, and all I could muster was "wakarimasen." I don't understand.

Mike wanted to wait until the agitated native left. Jason was ready to go. I sided with Mike. We all left anyway. Mr Crazy Native and Mike were at the point of having a sumo bout and that was when we all decided to book it. Stopped by the local AM/PM for some beer, and it's back safe and sound in the apartment.

I am now quite drunk on said beer, posting this. Take care, y'all,

Live from Tokyo. Over and out.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Eastern Capital

We arrived in Tokyo 2 days ago and moved into Leo R's place. He is a most gracious host and has provided us with a room of our own, a key, and the general run of the place. His kind hospitality has brought a bit of sanity back to the OC. There is a great physical and psychological value to having a home base. If all goes well, we are going to move into an empty apartment owned by a friend of Leo's called Mike. It should have enough room for Jason, Mike, Juan (arrives on the 12th), and Allan (arrives on the 15th), if he opts not to stay with Jonny R. Having a free place to stay in central Tokyo is a major win. Less money for hotels means more money for sake.

Speaking of the local devil, we made contact with Jonny R just a few hours ago and will soon meet up with him for an evening out on the town. Tenative plan is to hit a funk show in Shibuya then move on to a club that goes late - possibly for some drum and bass. According to Mr. R, D and B has made something of a comeback in Tokyo, so we may be able to recharge the battery that has been steadily draining since our last outing to Respect in LA all those weeks ago.

I am just getting over the price shock caused by jumping from Russia to Japan. You can ride the Moscow metro anywhere it goes for twenty five cents. A ride of 2 stops in Fukuoka costs you two and a half dollars. Hotels, food, and (especially) booze are all super expensive. Cigarettes, though, remain very cheap. Go figure. I'm going to have to watch myself carefully to stay within the $100 a day target, even with the free digs.

Looking forward to a night out on the town. It's been awhile since we were out and about in a proper city. I crave a room full of pretentious urbanites and think back in horror at the townie discos that we've seen in the last few weeks.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Get Down, Get Funky

We made this video while Jonny C was in Pasadena to test out the new camera and work a bit with Final Cut Express II. Strictly speaking, it is not related to the OC, but it may be of interest. Cracker Dance (with your host, Jonny British) is inspired by and dedicated to Jenny T.

Cracker Dance

Sweat the technique.

New Photo Albums

We've got two new injections for you.

1) St. Petersburg House Party
A lovely evening with some locals. Check out this post.

2) Trans-Siberian Railway
How do you get from Moscow to Vladivostok in only eleven days? Take the train.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Two Tickets to Anywhere in Japan, Please

Fukuoka, Japan

Arrived Vladivostok at 9 AM on the 4th. In hotel by 10 and napped until 2 or so. Immediate call to travel agent revealed that ferry to Fushiki Japan is booked until July 25th. This was a bit of an issue because:

1. Vladivostok is the dreariest place on Earth and we were keen to leave.

2. Our Russian visa runs out on the 9th and we (as usual) wanted to avoid any "Imperial entanglements".

3. I had a massive hangover (see Jason's post for more details).

We looked into a few options and made a few more fruitless calls before giving up in favor of supper and a relaxed evening celebrating the America's birthday by watching a lot of Russian television.

Up bright and early this morning (the 5th of July) and back at it. Most travel agencies in our guidebook were not answering the phone. The one that was kept telling me to call back. Jason tried to get our hotel to help with arrangements, but they first misunderstood the request, then gave us some sort of yim-yam about needing visas for Japan. We don't need no stinking visas.

It was almost noon. Checked out of hotel and trekked down to the marine terminal to try things out in person. Carrying 30 kilos of stuff in the rain and cold made me unhappy. I was of the opinion that we should have left the big bags in the hotel locker, but Jason thought otherwise. Again, Jason's instincts were ultimately correct.

The ferry ticketing office was no help. They just repeated the line about July 25th and directed us to another ferry company that handles traffic via Korea. They had a boat the next day or Saturday. The former required a 5 hour bus ride. The latter required us to wait around in Rainopolis for a few days. Neither is very appealing. We popped back up the hill to a flight agency. They seemed a bit baffled when we asked for the cheapest tickets for that day to "anywhere in Japan". I guess most of their customers care where they are going.

We ended up with a pair of tickets to Fukuoka via Seoul. Out the front door of the ticket agency and directly into the waiting arms of a taxi. Our excitable (and suspiciously cheap) cabbie got us to the airport in plenty of time to have a cup of tea and a snack before getting in an immaculate Air Korea jet. We made the tight connection in Seoul (last kids on the plane), and are presently enjoying the broadband supplied by our hotel next to the train station. Tomorrow we will spend about 7 hours getting to Tokyo via train.

I like it here in Japan. We had a hella good supper, everything is clean, and old friends are on the way.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Trains Are All Right

Between Irkutsk and Vladivostok

The trans-Siberian trains are much nicer than our little guide book led me to believe. We did the journey in three legs: Moscow to Omsk, Omsk to Irkutsk, and Irkutsk to Vladivostok. The first two were local trains. They are cheaper and slower than the standard long haul services and the cars aren't as nice, but only marginally so. The advantage of the local trains is that you meet more Russians and less tourists. Our current train (not a local - the #2 Rossiya) is filled with vacationers. They parade past our door every 3 hours to take in a meal - each fatter and more laden with cameras and fanny packs (ahem - bum bags) than the last. We took this service hoping to meet more English-speakers. Even if these folks speak English, I'm not sure we have much to chat about.

Second class cabins sleep four in a pair of bunks separated by a 2 foot table that comes out from beneath the window. The beds are comfy enough, but my body is just a bit longer than the available space, so I've had to scrunch up. It is not possible to get total darkness and the train jerks around a bit. My sleep has not been great, but I'm getting enough rest. A side effect of train sleep for me has been very anxious dreaming. My slumber is currently full of worries, mostly of the trivial kind. For example, I had a long dream about how I couldn't get my laundry done because I kept running into friends from high school. That sort of thing.

We've been living on a steady diet of bottled water, cookies, cheese, salami, bread, tea, and cup o' soup brought on board with us. You can get boiling water from a samovar at the end of the car at any time, but that's the only cooking you can expect to do. We've supplemented this with surprisingly good meals from the restaurant car and supplies from the vendors at the stations along the way. Eggs, beer, and BBQ chicken are available at almost every long stop - everything a boy needs to live. On our current train, we went for the "service" option - three hot meals delivered to the cabin and free sheets. Sheets normally cost about 40 roubles. I reckon it is not worth the extra cash.

Because the cabins sleep 4, we have shared space almost the entire way. Our companions have been:

* A mother, son, and grandma who spoke no English. The little boy was about 4 and very full of life. He didn't understand that we couldn't understand him, so he chattered away at length about the fashionable topics of the day without getting much in response. It was fun.

* A mother and son. They boy must have been about 9. They were with us a very short while and the only thing I learned is that the son prefers Playstation 2 to other gaming systems.

* A man around 60, Sergei, and a babushka (possibly his mother?). Neither spoke English, but Segei was very game to chat. We managed to communicate our origination, destination, and how the power system on an iBook works. Babushka seemed astonished that we were traveling to Lake Baikal without being able to properly understand Russian. She shook her head a lot.

* A mysterious alcoholic smoker of about 40. He offered us beer and chicken and took something of an interest in our game of chess, but little else.

* A father and son. The boy was around 7 and very interested in English. He had us check his spelling of words like "Halflife" and "skateboarding". Papa made some small talk for a bit.

* A lone girl in her 30s. She lives in Newport Beach of all places and speaks fluent English. She's attractive and fun and a breath of fresh air after it being only Jason and I for the better part of 24 hours. She is visiting family for the summer before heading back to LA.

* One (very?) drunk and heavily sweating Russian named Nikolai on his way to a hospital in Vladivostok. Professor Kolia (as he was later dubbed) took an immediate and profound interest in us. We were forced to get out of bed, drink vodka, and eat cheese and sausage. In one memorable scene, me and Dr. K sprinted from the train and back to avoid being left behind while acquiring more supplies.

There isn't a proper shower available, but it is possible to get a decent wash. The bathrooms at either end of the car have a drain in the floor covered by a thick plastic mesh. On the fancy train, there is a shower nozzle that you can connect to the sink. Elsewhere, you have a plastic bucket to fill up with water and pour over your head. I do not have shower shoes and I am not brave enough to stand on the mat barefoot. I have been sticking to the "whore bath" style of hygiene.

Power outlets tempt us from the hallway, but they are only on intermittently at best. On this train, we learned that we can get them turned on for one hour for 50 roubles. I am not sure if that is the system elsewhere. I have yet to kill both laptop and both video camera batteries, so I always have one electronic toy to keep me busy.

On the topic of cameras, it has been difficult to get quality video or stills because we are almost always shooting through glass. The odd instance of an open window then forces one to confront the camera stability issues caused by a moving train. I've got maybe 2 hours of footage to work with. With luck, some of it will not be full of reflections and/or hopelessly bouncy. A few of the still shots look OK.

Total time on the train is something like 8 days, but I'm not feeling it. Between chess games, eating, staring out the window, sleeping, reading (I just finished Eugene Onegin), and toying around with the laptops, time passes quickly. The plants are green, the flowers are out, and the rivers, lakes, and sky are (generally) blue. It's hard to believe that we have passed through some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. This must be a very different journey in the winter.

Irkutsk is Very Nice

Somewhere between Irkutsk and Vladivostok

Irkutsk is lovely. It reminds me a bit of downtown Charleston. The buildings are a varied mix of concrete hotels and offices, plaster-over-brick shops on the main streets, and old wooden dwellings done in the distinctive Siberian style we've been seeing for the last 4000 km or so. There are rivers on two sides and the buildings give way near the banks to simple parks providing a healthy margin of green space between city and water. The central square is bordered by impressive churches, ornate civic buildings, and two modern hotels. Old-school trams rumble down tree-lined streets amid a bustle of mostly older Russian cars.

Speaking of trees - this time of year, Irkutsk suffers from something called The Summer Snow. A common local variety of tree (we never found out which) starts droppings white fluff in incredible volume. In some spots, the air is so dense with the stuff that it's hard to keep your eyes free of it. The large portion that reaches the ground collects in white drifts that look like a cross between snow and fish eggs. In the right light, it really does look like snow falling. We were also not the only ones to discover that the "snow drifts" ignite very easily and burn quickly. I saw one burn along a gutter for almost 30 seconds, covering a space of about 20 meters.

Everything in Irkutsk was easy. They spoke English at the hotel and had a ready supply of hot water. Local restaurants featured English menus and the Internet cafe was easy to find and supplied Wifi at a reasonable rate. We were able to upload some collected blog articles, photos, and videos without the need for the always clumsy inter-machine transfer.

It also proved very easy to meet people. On our first day, we were a bit stuck for what to do after a "traditional" Siberian supper. Fearless Jason attacked the problem in the best way possible - by badgering some local girls in the park until they agreed to take us to a bar. The bar turned out to be an empty, but hospitable place featuring karaoke. Mike - Jonny B Goode and Country Roads. Jason - Take On Me. Katia - some Russian ballad I don't know the name of. Nastia - didn't care to sing. I had a brief chat with some older Australians on their way west. We soon ditched the karaoke bar in favor of a drunken wander around the city. The girls showed us the local landmarks and two excellent views of the rivers. Company parted around 4 with an argument over taxis. I insisted that Katia and Nastia take a taxi home at our expense. They refused. I begged. No dice. It makes me unhappy leaving women to walk home alone in the cold in the middle of the night in Siberia.

We didn't make it to Lake Baikal the next day. Late lunch in a cafe, a trip to the central market for train supplies, a few hours in the pub, and 5 hours of sleep rounded out our visit to the "Paris of Siberia". I could have easily spent a few more days, if not just to dip my toe in the Lake. The water is meant to elongate life and bring good luck.

Russian Hangover

Vladivostok, Russia

"Nikolai, spakoinoi chebyshev!"
I groan and open one eye. There is the frowning gold-toothed lady, screaming into our room. I blearily raise myself onto one elbow, my screaming-induced headache keeping me from rising any further. I try to blink the sleep away as the angry russian women keeps yelling. It takes me half a minute, but I eventually regain some semblance of lucidity, and I realize that she's not screaming at us. She is screaming at him. The fat, sweaty, snoring Russian in the bunk across from me.
Wait. How do I know his name? And where am I? God, my head hurts.
The horrible women hollers one more time, then dissapears, returning a relative quiet to our cabin.
Ok. We're on the train. Yes. We're on the train to Vladivostok. We're supposed to arrive today, right? At nine. No, wait. Nine Vladivostok time. Which is what? Um... two? Yes, two Moscow time. This is too hard.
My brain is pounding.
Why the fuck does my head kill like this? Take a few breaths...
That's better. So, two o'clock Moscow time, and my watch says... Ah. One fifty. Ok. That's why she was yelling. She was trying to wake Nikolai up, because we're here. I guess I should get everybody going.
I stretch a little bit as my head clears and try shake the sleep out. But, the headache is still there. And it's because we were drinking last night.
There was a lot of drinking.

The night before, Mike and I were just getting ready for bed, knowing that we'd have to be up in less than eight hours. Everything was packed, the lights were off, and I was setling in for a nice slumber. Just as my mind was fading, the cabin door slammed open, and he came barreling in.
His name was Nikolai, and he had a mission.
At first, I was just going to say a nice, polite hello, and fall back to sleep, but Nikolai wouldn't allow it. He was loud. He shuffled things arounds, grunted, and generally made a racket. By the time he had settled in, Mike and I were wide awake, and it was time for a cigarette. When Nikolai offered me one, and I declined, he reached into his magic bag and pulled out a peeva (beer). Clearly, if I wasn't smoking, I would be drinking. This would be the theme of the night.
We drank beer and vodka, and ate squid jerky, sausage, bread, cheese, and some sort of pork fat. The Screaming Lady showed up then, too, to tell us to quiet down. I guess we were waking the children in the cabin next to ours. But, we kept at it all night. Mike and Nikolai even ran off the train during a midnight stop to refill our food and alcohol supply. All three of us were sweaty, loud obnoxious Russians. Then, at some point, we all passed out.

And now, it's morning, and Ms. Screamski has returned in full force. Mike is shuffling around in the bunk above me, asking why the horrible lady keeps yelling at us, and Nikolai is awake and bellowing into his cellphone. The train is slowing pulling into the desolate, raining, all-consuming greyness of Vladivostok. I'm tired, hung-over, dirty, stanky, and extremely grumpy.
For the first time this trip, I feel Russian.