Boston 2017.1

It’s been about half a year since my last trip to Boston. Time to visit the folks!

Landed at Logan Thursday evening. My parents came to pick me up, and when we got to the house, Mom handed me a bowl of soup. I dutifully drank it. Then she handed me a duck foot. I dutifully ate it. Nourishment achieved, Mom proceeded to prepare the rest of dinner.

After dinner, Mom and I somehow got on the topic of devices and TV. She reminisced about the first radio they had in Hong Kong. It got its signal from a cable. Next came a radio that received broadcast signals. Then a single channel black and white cable-but-not-like-Comcast TV. Again, that got replaced by a TV that could receive broadcast signals… and colors!

She talked about how TVB came on the market first. As a result, they got all the good broadcast tower locations and had the best signal, which drew more ad dollars and allowed them to produce better shows. The other stations didn’t stand a chance. To this day, TVB is a powerhouse.

Dad has joined a golf club to help ease the boredom of retirement. He loves golf, but really he wants to work again. He hates having nothing to do.

They stocked the house with heavy cream for my coffee and my favorite flavors of Häagen-Dazs. So sweet.

On Saturday, we all went to see the circus. The Ringling Brothers are doing their last ever tour, and we all got to see the circus before it went away forever. It was exactly as I expected, but cheesier. There was tightrope walking, juggling, a human cannonball, strongmen, bikes, trampolines… and a couple acts with camels and tigers. Those animals did not look happy to be there. Circus, check! Happy we went. (Thanks Mike for putting this last hurrah tour on my radar!)

On Sunday, Grandma came over to “supervise” joong production. Mostly we made joong and she came by periodically to tell Mom she was doing it wrong. Everything turned out great; I’m really glad this tradition is being passed down the generations. I should do this more often so I don’t forget how.

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Grandma herself is doing okay for her age. She’s definitely a lot weaker physically. Stairs are hard, even single steps. And she forgets to turn the faucet off all the time.

There’s a Chinese tradition of paying respects to dead relatives every spring called Ching Ming, and even though I visited a little late, my folks waited for me to go.

We visited my great-grandmother’s grave on Saturday. Usually, I spend that time remembering her, but this time I felt a true sense of gratitude for having had her in my life. Thanks great-grandma for taking care of me and sis when we were young, and for always being such a steady loving presence.

We visited my grandfather’s grave a few days later. I’ll always remember how he used to study my toys to figure out how they worked; I see a lot of that in myself. I’d long known that he knew acupuncture and practiced on himself, but Mom told me this week that he actually studied it in school. In his final years at the nursing home, Mom would smuggle him disposable needles. Mom the needle smuggler, hah!

I got to see sis and Penny every day. Every day! What a treat! Penny is growing and learning SO FAST. She has so many words now, and learns new ones every day, always listening and repeating what you teach her. Most of her words are in English, with a few in fairly well intoned Cantonese, learned from Mom (“Poh Poh”). She cracked me up one day with “Harajuku”. If you make a kids show with it, she will learn it.

On day 4 she learned how to say “Auntie Viv”, and my heart melted.

Like most babies these days she loves her video, be it on TV, tablet, or phone. Anything with an Apple logo on it is an “iPad”. It’s a both a blessing and a curse. She learns so much from these videos and it buys her parents much needed time, but she totally tunes out the rest of the world when she watches.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, she is hilarious when you take her to the store. She observes EVERYTHING, and notices details most adult would never see. She loves it, and we love it. Shopping with Penny is the bee’s knees.

Penny is the bee’s knees. Seriously, so amazing. And active. In sis’s words, she can’t be contained. The other day we had to go watch her so my sister could shower, and when we got home both Mom and Dad went crashed early because they were exhausted. I think it’s awesome how much she loves climbing on everything and exploring her world, nonstop.

Penny Boo, active and goofy and curious:

Random encounter with an elementary school age kid riding down the street on his bike, dribbling a basketball, as he passed by my parents’ house:

Me: Hey.
Kid: Potatoes!
Me: Potatoes?
Kid: Yeah.

I proceeded to go inside, where Dad was sitting in a chair talking into his phone:

Dad: Hey Siri.
Dad: Hi Sire-ee.
Dad: Hey Siri it’s me.
Dad: Hey. Siri.

Really enjoyed this trip. A++++++++++!!!!! Would go again!

Costa Rica!

Monday, March 27, 2017. Playa Conchal, Costa Rica…

Hola a todos! Estoy en Costa Rica! I’ve barely had to speak any Spanish because everyone I’ve talked to here speaks English. Still, it’s been fun reading road signs and what not.

We embarked on our adventure Friday, when I woke up and Aaron said, “Our first flight is delayed.” SFO strikes again! Indeed, our first flight was scheduled to take off from SFO right around when our second flight was scheduled to take off from LAX, so I got on the phone with Ellen from Southwest, who got us booked on a flight out of OAK instead. I got to go on my first AirBART ride. It’s spacey looking but slooow.

Once at OAK, I came across a cute little robot who wanted to chat. Actually, it wanted me to visit its restaurant, except it was super buggy and never quite managed to do what it said it was going to. But still, cute! See:

Got to our gate, where the incoming flight was delayed deplaning due to a medical emergency. Then we had to switch aircraft because of a broken windshield wiper. Then we had to hold at OAK before take off. When we landed at LAX, we had to hold again for a gate. Finally when we pulled up to the gate, another medical emergency! Thankfully, they held the flight to LIR for the 5 of us coming in from OAK. Sorry, 160 other passengers!

5 1/2 hours later, touchdown! We descended a set of stairs onto the tarmac. Tarmac is how I know I’m not in Kansas anymore.

Got to rent a manual transmission vehicle for the first time ever. I kept lurching the car on start because I’m not used to manual transmission rentals and the starters here aren’t dummy proof like they are in in the US. We also had some fun figuring out whether the 4×4 button meant on or off. The manual was in Spanish, and the button description translated to “interrupter of the blocker of the central differential“. Double negatives much?

Woke up Saturday to chirpy birds and tank top weather. It’s tank top weather at all hours here on the Pacific coast. Just like when I was in Hawaii. I love it. Wandered around looking for food, came across the first of many iguanas in the road, then wound up at the local grocery store. Picked up some kiwi drinkable yogurt. It’s a common flavor here, and not too sweet.

Made our way to the club house and beach. (We’re here for a wedding and staying at a resort with the rest of the guests.) Wandered up the beach, back along a local access road, then had a leisurely-whether-we-wanted-leisurely-or-not lunch. Everything here runs on Tico Time.

This included the wedding ceremony, which was advertised as a 4:30 start so everyone could get there for the 5:30 start. Brilliant strategy.

Wedding partied into the night. Unfortunately, we pooped out before the 10 foot tall mascaradas (human paper mache dancers) arrived.

Late brunched Sunday with the wedding crew. I’ve never had gazpacho at brunch. Me gusta.

Went for another walk down the other end of the beach. Turns out I enjoy long walks on the beach. Just not the ones in the Bay Area. Too cold!

Headed over to Tamarindo, which is way more touristy and happening than our secluded resort. The beach there is fantastic; a gentle slope with fine sand. Walked some more. It’s hot here but it’s nice and breezy by the ocean.

Drank way too many sweet things: frosty coffee, virgin mojito, two virgin piña coladas. Apparently “2-for-1” means for each person in the party who who orders a drink, 2 drinks arrive.

We came across some sort of fresh shaved mango cart. Mango threads con sal y limón y chile. I’m starting to understand where the mangonada flavor profile comes from.

Enjoyed a beautiful, albeit touristy sunset on the beach.

We passed by few supermarkets on the way to Tamarindo. There’s a chain called Super Compro, and another called Megasuper. MEGASUPER!!! Naturally, I needed to stop at the MEGASUPER.

A couple things about grocery store food here:

Thing 1: The chicharrones are amazing. 4505 you have been dethroned.

Thing 2: It seems they have to label artificial flavoring as such, as opposed to “natural” being a feature in the US. This has saved me from purchasing many candies. I much prefer this system to ours.

On the way to and from Tamarindo, there were signs for car washes all along the roads. In Spanish, they read “LAVA CAR”. I love this so much.

Aaron had a scuba excursion planned for Monday morning, so I booked myself a massage at the spa. I’ve generally only gotten massages to fix achy parts; this was my first relaxing massage. You know what relaxing massages are good for? Highlighting all the parts that need work. My body needs work.

When Aaron returned, we headed back toward Playa Flamingo to track down the shoes he left on the dive boat. After that, a SIM card procurement adventure with a lady who didn’t speak English. After the SIM card, we picked up a couple more bags of chicharrones, had ice cream in Huacas, and picked up some galletas at the local panaderia.

Chilled by the pool for a bit, then headed out for dinner. Spotted our first coati along on the way! It was cute and fuzzy, nothing like its apatosaurus warning sign.

Encountered what I initially thought was a moth migration on the sidewalk after dinner. Turns out it was a stream of leaf cutter ants at work. I’d never seen anything like that before, so I made a video.

So many animals here in Costa Rica. Earlier in the day I tried to identify all the birds by our condo. More shapes and sizes and chirps than I can count!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Back in California…

On Tuesday morning, we headed inland for the cloud forest in Monteverde. I have neglected to describe our rental car beyond the transmission. It was a Daihatsu Terios, a tiny SUV, like if you took an early 2000’s Mini Cooper platform but made it look like a baby CRV. It handled the bumpy hilly curvy dirt roads really well. It was a little less useful on fast open roads, but there wasn’t much of that from what we saw.

I should talk about driving in Costa Rica in general. Most of the roads were single lane in each direction. People go the speed that works for them, and others who want to go faster pass when there’s a chance. There’s no ego about it like in the US. At one point, we passed a guy on a small motorcycle towing an open wagon… with a goat in it. Oh how I wish I had a picture. Pura vida!

Along the roads, we came across lots more car washes, various kinds of repair shops, and schools. Many many schools. We learned from some tourist T-shirts that Costa Rica has no army, and it turns out they abolished the army in 1948 after a civil war, putting the money into education instead. I can totally get behind that.

Aaron wanted me to mention the gas prices in Costa Rica. We paid $35 for half a tank. He was horrified. I think we’re just gas price spoiled in the US. One of the benefits of having an army. :-|

We arrived at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve around 1. “Arron!” said the check-in guy, “We waited for you this morning at 7:30.” Turns out that was the tour we had booked. But, pura vida, we can put you on the 1:30 tour! No one else was signed up, so we effectively got a private tour with Sergio.

The cloud forest was unlike any place I’ve ever been. There’s growth everywhere, on every surface. Epiphytes of all kinds on every tree. Sergio tracked the wildlife by sound, then located them for us to view on his scope. He showed us all sorts of birds, a Cordyceps-infected zombie beetle, talked about strangler figs (they grow from the top down), and even located a newborn sloth with its mom.

Fun fact: Sloths are so sedentary that they will sometimes grow a layer of green algae on their fur.

A thing about birds and sloths: They may look like they’re being really still, but through a scope you can see all their micro movements. It’s immensely fascinating.

Crossed paths with a couple black milk snakes. The fact that we saw two probably means there were far more than that all around us.

We also saw more coati in the parking lot pre-tour. After observing them up close, I’ve decided they’re the Costa Rican equivalent of raccoons.

On Wednesday, we did the Don Juan coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane tour. I finally got to see the entire process from coffee sprout to roasted bean. It was interesting to hear about Costa Rica’s relationship with migrant pickers from Nicaragua and Panama. Not that different from what we debate here in the US.

Even more interesting than coffee was seeing how chocolate is made. The cacao fruit is crazy looking on the inside. Even crazier is the vinegary fermentation before it even starts to look or smell like the chocolate we know.

Bonus: We got to meet Don Juan.

We took a different route back to the coast, down a much more gentle dirt road. As we approached a corner, a vaquero waved at us to slow. Next, a herd of cows came around the bend, accompanied by a second vaquero.

On our way to the mountain the day before, we passed by many roadside stands with signs for pipa fría and vino de coyol. On this return trip, curiosity won and we pulled over to try them, whatever they were.

Pipa fría turned out to be a chilled green coconut with a straw in it. So refreshing! And only a dollar each.

Vino de coyol is basically moonshine in a reused plastic bottle. It’s a little tart, a little sweet, a little cloudy, a little fizzy. Goes down really easy. Also cheap, although I don’t remember how much it cost.

After a pit stop to eat and meet Sabra’s cousin, we continued toward the coast. Aaron tried to route us a different way back, and we drove down a side street in a residential neighborhood right smack into a stream crossing. A large pickup came through, but since I wasn’t willing to risk the rental on an unfamiliar water crossing we turned back. That was a long final stretch to the hotel.

Finally got to use my Spanish when we ventured into Huacas looking for ceviche. Success!

Thursday morning, to the airport. Costa Rica, you’ve been beautiful. I hope to return one day to visit your volcanoes, rainforests, and Caribbean coast. Oh, and to eat plantains at every meal. Plantains prepared every which way. Plátanos todos los días.

Photo album here.

Grow

This isn’t so much a trip report as it is a commentary on the experience of jumping from one country to another. I suppose it’s called culture shock, but that term always had a negative connotation to me. Whatever it’s called, however wondrous or uncomfortable it feels in the moment, it’s mind opening. It forces us to reconsider the meaning of “normal” and gives us a chance at understanding “others” who are different from us. During my travels to India and Japan, I watched myself adjust and readjust my worldview. I could feel myself grow.

U.S. to India

Upon exiting the airport and getting on the main road, my first thought was, “There are a lot of people here, and a lot of the people here don’t have very much.” Poor in the U.S. and poor in India are two completely different things. In the U.S. we have housing projects, trailer parks, dilapidated houses. In India there are shanty towns that look a lot like larger, dirtier versions of the homeless encampments in San Francisco, except these towns are homes to entire families.

I saw a tuk tuk drive by with 7 adult males (mostly) inside. In America we call that a clown car. In India that’s how some people get from point A to point B with the resources they have. Here, most of us commute one person to a car and complain about congestion.

Not that there’s isn’t congestion in India. We experienced traffic like I’ve never seen in Delhi and Agra. We also experienced a driving pattern I’ve never seen: A few basic rules like a suggested side of the road to drive on, stopping for red lights at major intersections, a sane and predictable trajectory and speed. Beyond that, find space and make it work. The flow of traffic and weaving of cars is a skillful dance. Horns are used lightly but liberally to let other drivers know you’re there.

It felt a bit like driving in Italy, compressed, shaken, and magnified thirty-fold.

While it did make crossing the street a challenge (at least initially), a part of me prefers it to the U.S. Here, we have rules that people mostly follow, but when someone doesn’t follow them, someone else gets upset. Horns are used rarely, but when they are, they’re often used in anger. Which is better? Chaotic flow, or orderly anger?

Some of the taxis in Delhi sported stickers that read, “This Taxi Respects Women.” India is not a good place for women. I’d seen this in the news, heard it from my Indian colleagues, and read about it extensively in travel guides before arriving there, but this signage really drove the point home. Over the course of our visit, it became abundantly clear to me how few women hold jobs in India. Almost everyone we interacted with who was performing some sort of job was male. The only exception was for security checkpoints; there are separate queues for women and those queues are staffed by women.

Things aren’t perfect in the U.S., but many of us here have it much better than our counterparts in India.

India to Japan

Upon touching down in Japan I drank from a fountain and felt grateful for the luxury of potable tap water.

Japan is clean. It’s clean because its people each do their part to keep it clean. It’s not like we don’t know we’re not supposed to leave a mess for others here in the U.S. So what’s the difference? Is it because we don’t care? What about people who litter on purpose? What compels them do it, knowing full well it’s not okay? What compels some of them to litter specifically because it’s not okay?

Many times while I was in Japan I found myself asking, “What is wrong with us?” Why do so many of us have to be angry and posturing and confrontational? Why can’t we try being polite and considerate first? Why can’t we try to make it work before flipping out?

Japan to U.S.

Touchdown! Time to find a bathroom. A public bathroom. Would it be clean like all the public bathrooms in Japan? Why are these stalls so flimsy? Where’s my Bellagio water show? I feel like a savage.

First restaurant experience upon return: Why is this sandwich so sloppily assembled? Why are the tables not immediately cleared? I should use the restroom… nah, I’ll wait until I get home.

I saw a TV show about the Spartan Race. How privileged are we, to expend our extra energy and hours training for an event like this? How privileged are we to even have extra energy and hours?

How privileged am I, to do exactly that on artificially frozen water, atop bicycles that cost more than some people make in a year?

How privileged am I, to live in a place with resources to support and a culture that tolerates/accepts women having such hobbies?

How privileged am I, to have the option of installing a Bellagio water show on my home toilet?

How privileged am I, to have the ability to go on a trip like this? To be able to afford this trip, be given time off for this trip, and to be in good enough health for this trip. I am privileged, and I am lucky.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a week now. At first, I wished that everyone in the U.S. could travel like this, because seeing the world helps with understanding and tolerance and acceptance. But having written the above, I wish that everyone in the world could travel like this, because the ability to do so implies all their basic needs are met.

I hate the word wish. I use it only for things I cannot make a reality.

Still, all is not lost. Knowing how good I have it affects how I interact with others. It allows me to be more tolerant, compassionate, patient. The world needs more of that, one person at a time, one interaction at a time.

Tokyo!

I had hoped to update every day as that allows me to document in more detail, but our schedule in Tokyo didn’t allow it. In India, we’re not supposed to wander around after it gets dark so I had time to write most evenings. In Tokyo, the city comes alive at night, so we pretty much wandered until we were too tired to wander.

We got to wander for 3 1/2 days: Monday morning through Thursday midday.

First Impressions

Japan is really, really clean. The platform where we waited for our train from Narita to Shinjuku was spotless. You could probably eat off the floor there with no ill effect. As we discussed the spotlessness of the station, we saw a lady scrubbing the opposite platform, pausing periodically to scrape particularly stubborn bits off the surface with a razor. When we got to the hotel, I watched a ~2 year old play with his train in the lobby. He drooled on the floor and immediately fetched a tissue from his mom to wipe it up.

Japan is really, really on time. The trains arrive when they say the will, and the conductor will look at his watch and leave the station on the minute, to the second. Our airport shuttle bus driver did the same. If you want to be on time for something in Japan, arrive 5 minutes early.

Japan is really, really polite. It’s cultural, it’s institutionalized. My first impression was that acting politely makes others more likely to do the same and keeps things peaceful, but I haven’t been there long enough to have an informed opinion on this.

Suica

It seems weird to talk about a payment card so early in my post, but if you go to Tokyo you’re going to want one of these right away. Suica is an RFID card you load money onto. It gets you on pretty much all the transit you need to explore Tokyo, and can also be used for payment at a variety of shops and vending machines. It’s just like the Octopus Card in Hong Kong, which I love oh so much. Super duper convenient. I keep hoping they’ll do something similar with Clipper here in the Bay Area.

The Rail System

I’m only going to talk about a portion of the rail system here since I didn’t get to experience it all. We took a train from Narita to Shinjuku, then hopped around Tokyo on Tokyo Metro and JR East, which are two separate giant overlapping subway systems. In addition to this, there’s the bullet train which we didn’t ride, and probably a bunch of other rail options as well.

We spent a lot of time at Shinjuku Station, party because that’s where our hotel was, partly because we kept getting lost in there. It’s the busiest station in the world, a mostly interconnected 3D maze filled with platforms and gates and tunnels and crossings and shops and restaurants and people and signs and entrances and exits that you think you know but discover you don’t really when you go through them. The station agents don’t speak a lot of English, but if you tell them the name of the station you’re trying to get to they’ll pull out a giant box covered in colors and line names and platform numbers and point to the one you want, then point in the direction you need to walk to find it.

We got better at navigating the rail system over time. It’s really convenient and you can go pretty much anywhere in the city on it. The smaller stations are still full of tunnels and shops, but they’re mostly navigable on the first try if you follow the signs. For the larger stations, give yourself an extra half hour to get lost.

The trains are pretty crowded most of the day. There’s the extra crazy morning rush, a lunch rush, an after work rush, and a final hour before the trains stop running rush. During quiet times, no one has to stand but most of the seats are occupied. During busy times, people learn to make room. During extra crazy times… I don’t know. We decided not to participate in train packing.

Despite all the people, it’s quiet on the trains. Nobody talks on the phone, no one plays music out loud like they’re all cool and stuff. That would be rude.

3D to the Max

Most major cities are somewhat three-dimensional; the subway is below ground and there are tall buildings, often with a couple stories of shops, maybe a basement level, and many upper stories of offices and residences. Tokyo takes this to an extreme. The shops and restaurants often rise 7 stories up and descend ~4 stories below ground. When you explore, especially near a major train station, you often traverse several city blocks in tunnels, going up and down stairs, “exiting” into various malls or food courts, finally popping out in a different part of the neighborhood.

The city comes alive at night with vibrant signs up and down all the buildings. I realized on our second night that these signs are how you know to go into building to find a shop or restaurant on 5F, 7F, etc.

Bidets!

Bidets, such a treat! I seriously looked forward to using the bathroom. They came in different levels of awesome, but I was really impressed with some of the public bathrooms I came across. The best one had stalls that sealed like capsules, automatic lids, heated seats, complimentary running water sounds when you sat down, and a myriad of bidet/shower options including some Bellagio water show type patterns. I know this because I couldn’t read the controls and had to push every button. And, of course, everything in the stall was spotless.

The people of Japan must have the cleanest bums in the world. I feel like a barbarian with nothing but toilet paper back in the US.

Trash Cans

Public trash cans are all but nonexistent. Despite this, there is no trash on the streets because people carry their trash around until they can find a suitable way to dispose of it. I remember Taiwan was like this as well.

On the upside, every time you buy something they insist on giving it to you in a little bag. We quickly learned to use these bags for trash transport; we often carried our trash all the way back to our hotel room for disposal.

Food!

Us, exploring Tokyo, every 5 minutes: OOH STOP! WHAT’S THAT? MUST EAT THIS!!!

Before my trip, people kept telling me, “There is no bad food in Tokyo.” They were right. From sit down restaurants to train station shops to vending machines, everything we ate was super tasty.

Vending machines: There are vending machines all over town, sometimes clustered, sometimes solo, on major streets, and in back alleys. The vast majority of them sell drinks. You can always get water and tea and coffee, either hot or cold. Some machines will also carry things like red bean soup and creamed corn. Many of the machines accept Suica for payment. I would love to have these in the US, but I also realize random vending machines on the street aren’t likely to survive for very long here.

Pastries: There are shops with pastries all over train stations and in food courts that are often attached to train stations. Sometimes these are western pastries, sometimes these are Japanese versions of western pastries. Belgian waffles are a thing here, as well as cream puffs, but the thing I loved the most was a sweet fluffy cheese tart I got from a food court attached to Skytree Station. If I’d eaten it on the spot I would have purchased five more.

A restaurant for each food item: There is no such thing as a “Japanese restaurant” with different kinds of Japanese food items like we have here in the US. If you want gyoza, you go to a gyoza shop. Same goes for ramen, udon, soba, sushi, curry, unagi, etc. They each do only one thing and they do that one thing well. (This is not unlike “Chinese food” in Hong Kong.)

Here is Harajuku Gyozaro, a little gyoza shop down an alley:

Ticket machines for ordering: Many restaurants have a machine at the front where you order what you want, along with customizations. The machine collects payment, then spits out one or more tickets. Once inside, the workers take your tickets and prepare your food.

Eating booths: Many restaurants have open counters for eating, but Ichiran has booths. Here, we ordered through a ticket machine, then set our tickets down when when we reached our individual booths. They took our tickets, prepared and delivered our meals, then closed the little bamboo curtain to let us eat in privacy. There was a sensor under the table in each booth to tell the workers on the other side when a diner had finished, and they would quickly clean the booth for the next person. Super efficient.

Sushi: Sushi in the US and sushi in Japan are two very different experiences. US sushi is often very sauce dependent, often to the point where you can barely taste the fish. In Japan, it’s all the about the seafood, and the proper way to prepare each item. I say seafood instead of fish because you will be served fish and shrimp and oysters and scallop and uni and whatever else came from the market that day. You sit at the bar and watch as your chef prepares your food with a flourish of knife skills. Some items are marinated, others steamed, seared, and in the case of our shrimp heads, roasted (I believe). A lot of the cooking is done in scallop shells. We saw this in action the next day at the fish market. The meal starts with sashimi, eaten with chopsticks and accompanied by sides of seaweed, salt, and soy sauce, then continues on to nigiri, eaten with your hands and accompanied with a side of pickled ginger. Salmon and unagi, wildly popular in the US, are not sushi items in Japan (unless you go to a super touristy joint). Our wasabi was freshly grated on a shark skin lined wooden board. Unlike fake horseradish wasabi, I can eat the fresh stuff no problem.

Tsukiji Fish Market

So where do the sushi restaurants procure all that amazing seafood? At Tsukiji fish market. Auctions happen in the middle of the night before the sun even thinks about coming up. After that, a vast inner market open only to people there on official business gets busy with selling and buying and packing for shipment. There’s seafood and ice and people and scooters and turret trucks zipping to and fro. The inner market opens to tourists at 10 AM. Even then, it’s bustling with time sensitive packaging of seafood for shipment. Did I already mention ice? There’s a lot of ice, and a lot of styrofoam.

The outer market is open to all, and contains a mix of souvenir shops as well as stands with all kinds of seafood prepared in all sorts of ways. If you want fresh seafood for breakfast, Tsukiji Fish Market is the place to be.

Cash is King

Credit cards are good for some things such as hotels and fancy restaurants, but if you want to explore Tokyo, you must have cash! For one thing, you can’t get on a train (or purchase/reload a Suica card) without cash. For another you won’t be able to enjoy most of the random food you encounter without it. No cash, no life.

Arcades, Arcades, and Pachinko

There are arcades all over the city centers, and they are full of claw machines, capsule machines, and video games.

Taiko Master was super fun.

There are also pachinko / slot machine parlors all over the city centers. I think this is where the arcade kids go when they grow up. They’re super loud and smokey. Do not like.

Kabuki

On Tuesday we went to the Kabukiza Theater in Ginza. I’d never watched any kabuki before, even online. Some members of the audience were dressed up in kimonos. So were many of the actors, and by actors I mean dudes, because there are no female actresses in kabuki. The men playing female roles dress up in kimonos and speak in falsetto.

Kabuki happens in several acts. One of our acts was a naming ceremony. I learned that kabuki acting is a family affair, and during the course of an actor’s career he goes through various stage names handed down through generations. The ceremony we watched was presided by 84 year old Sakata Tojuro IV, a National Living Treasure. A row of actors and remain very very still while taking turns speaking. I was glad we got to witness it, even if we had no idea what they were saying.

Skytree

On Wednesday we visited Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower and second tallest structure in the world. It’s a TV and radio broadcast tower. The previous tower, Tokyo Tower, was no longer tall enough to broadcast over all the high rises. We went up to the observation deck for an amazing 360 view of Tokyo.

This view, all the way around the tower, multiplied by many stories up and down for every building. Tokyo is dense!

Robots

I use this term in the most general sense. Japan has a lot of robots. Ubiquitous vending machine robots, butt cleaning bidet robots, meal ticket selling restaurant robots. There are seven story electronics stores the size of city blocks. There’s an entire district, Akihabara, nicknamed Electric Town for its abundance of cheap electronics and parts.

For robot-loving tourists, there’s Robot Restaurant. There are actually more humans than robots there, but it was a weird and wacky Tokyo thing I’m really glad we experienced.

The People

For the most part, people keep to themselves. When store and restaurant employees interact with customers, they’re super polite. When random people on the street choose to interact with you because you’re a tourist, they’re really nice, offer to help take your picture, and volunteer interesting facts about the neighborhood. On our final day, Aaron and I realized it was uncouth to walk around eating, so we found a bench to enjoy our cream puffs. When we finished, an older lady who had been sitting next to us handed us wet wipes for our sticky cream puff fingers. Then she said, “Have a nice day. Enjoy Japan. My English not very good,” bowed, and was on her way.

I don’t know where the homeless people go during the day, but late at night just before the trains stop running they neatly lay out their perfect rectangles of cardboard and newspaper along the wall in open areas of the station. Each rectangle is perpendicular to the wall and they are exactingly spaced from each other. It’s a far cry from Civic Center and the Powell BART station in San Francisco. I wanted to take a picture but didn’t; I wouldn’t want that if I were in their situation.

Remember what I said at the beginning about how Japan is really, really polite? Their emergency vehicles are polite too. No blaring horns, just a dinging bell and patient wait.

Crossing the Street

If you want to cross the street, find a crosswalk and wait for the light. Even if there is not a car in sight, find a crosswalk and wait for the light. It’s the considerate and orderly thing to do. On the flip side, it a car wants to turn, it will wait patiently for all pedestrians to exit the crosswalk before proceeding, and it will do so with a sizable buffer. It’s the considerate and orderly thing to do.

Speaking of crosswalks, pedestrian scramble intersections are a thing here. Shibuya Crossing is the busiest and most famous example, but you find intersections like that all over the place.

Random Notes

If you come across something you want, get it. Don’t think that you’ll be able to find it again later. The maze will win.

Soft serve cones appear to be a thing in Tokyo, so I decided to have one. I stumbled across a Tokyo Milk Cheese Factory and got a cone there. It turned out to be milk flavored soft serve in a cheddar cheese waffle cone. That may sound weird, but it was really, really good. Also, their Salt & Camembert Cookies are to die for.

Google Translate is magical here. You can take a picture of anything and it will translate it for you. We used it to translate a pack of Velveeta. Turns out it’s called “cheap cheese” in Japan.

Speaking of Google Translate, I used it to image translate every pack of soba at a grocery store looking for one that was made of pure buckwheat. Yup, I was that weird foreigner.

If you have time to kill at the Haneda Airport International Terminal, check out the 4th floor before security. It has a fabulous outdoor observation deck as well as a bunch of character shops.

Japan Airlines is my new favoritest airline. The service is impeccable, the seats have legroom, the entertainment console is stocked and snappy, flight attendant ninjas clean the bathroom and fold the toilet paper ends into triangles between passengers, and even leave origami cranes in there for us to enjoy.

Tokyo, you were wonderful. I totally want to visit again!

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Here is the full set of pictures from the full India & Japan trip: https://goo.gl/photos/2NA7iWTW4BriPbUZ7

India Day 9 – Tourists Again

Back to being a tourist on our final day.

We started things off with a visit to the Lotus Temple. It’s a beautiful structure where visitors of all faiths are allowed to worship in their own way, quietly. I love the concept, but it’s hard to achieve silence when you’re one of the most visited sites in the world. Also, the structure oddly amplifies the sound of planes flying overhead. Still, I took the opportunity to sit and reflect on our world, all the anger and fear and hate and pain. There’s a meditation practice in which you try to send peace and love into the world. It’s what so many of us need right now; I wished I could beam those sentiments through that temple out to everyone.

Next, we headed to Qutub Minar, the tallest brick minaret in the world at 73 meters. It’s impressively detailed up close. Also impressive is that at the same site there’s the foundation of a minaret that never completed; if it had it would have been twice as tall as its neighbor.

While we were there, an actual security guard offered to take out picture. Afterward, he asked for a tip. Turns out it doesn’t matter if people here are real security or not; they all want your money.

After that, a visit to Hauz Khas, a hip little neighborhood where we had really good liquid nitrogen ice cream, deep fried baby corn, and international fusion sandwiches. I had assumed that “hip” meant it would look more western, but no, it’s better described as a standard Indian neighborhood with less traditional establishments.

The money situation is starting to get bad here. Every day the bank and ATM queues get longer. People are running out of cash. There are reports of people offering beggars 1,000 rupee notes for their change.

Our taxi driver said, “Low people, can’t get money. High people, make call.” It’s true, this only affects ordinary citizens. The thing is, there are a lot of ordinary citizens.

As for us, our money has gone poof. The airport exchange for tourists is limited to 5,000 rupees per person provided you have a receipt for when you obtained the money. We learned this after standing in a very Indian bank “line”. My receipt is in California. 5,000 rupees would have been a drop in the ocean anyway.

This really drives home the fact that paper currency is ultimately just paper. I’ll spare you the whole separate post about the concept of money.

Lots of random notes today: We finally got used to not trying to put on our non-existent seat belts upon getting into a taxi. Aaron noticed that there’s no graffiti in India. We saw a tuk tuk packed with 7 adult males. People play soccer on random patches of grass atop wide medians. We went to McDonald’s at the airport and got a McSpicy Paneer. The paneer was deep fried to perfection, but dang McSpicy is spicy!

Goodbye India, thank you (and our very gracious wedding hosts) for an amazing experience.

India Day 8 – Wao Baraat

Wedding day 3.

Showed up for the 10 AM Sehra Bandhi at 10:40. It started at 11. We’re getting better at timing things.

All the guys got sehras wrapped around their heads for fun. Then it was the groom’s turn. He got a sehra, some additional adornments and bling, followed by a pile of gifts in yet another gift giving ceremony. Many envelopes were waved.

After that we all went outside where a live band and horse awaited us for Baraat. The groom got on the horse, and the entire wedding party walked, stopped, danced [link to video], repeated our way down the busy street / roundabout in front of our hotel. Everyone danced, and tips to the band were waved over people’s heads.

That was the most awesomest wedding ceremony I’ve ever had the privilege to attend.

The horse took the groom right back into the hotel cum bride’s home. There may have been some sort of negotiation at the door before he was let in. His shoes came off, were promptly stolen by the bride’s sisters, the bride arrived, and garlands were exchanged. Married!

While the guests enjoyed some super fun and tasty hotel buffet street food for lunch, the bride and groom continued with another ceremony. I definitely missed some parts, but from what I observed, their clothes were tied together in a knot, they walked a bunch of circles around a fire, repeated some sort of vow (?), ate sweets, were showered with rose petals, touched their parents feet, and then someone chanted.

Our group chat got hilarious periodic updates on the whereabouts of the shoes. Supposedly this is a lighthearted custom for the groom to negotiate a price for the shoes as a way of accepting the bride’s sisters.

We all got some much needed rest after the wedding ceremony. The evening reception was scheduled to start at 8. We arrived at 9. We finally got the hang of Indian Standard Time.

The reception’s musical entertainment featured a full symphony. Once again the backdrops were fully lined with flowers.

How many flowers went into this wedding? How much coordination to get such amazing musical artists scheduled? How many people did it take to put this all together, prepare our many meals, set up each venue, our special guest rooms, etc.? These last three days have been a mind blowing experience for me and many of our first time Indian wedding guests.

I am so incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this.

Here is the happy couple. I hope their life together is as amazing as the last few days have been for so many of us.

India Day 7 – Moar Wedding

The mehndi developed really well overnight.

Our schedule had us starting the day at 10 with Haldi. A bunch of us went down to the venue and found them still setting up. Oh right, Indian Standard Time. We eventually got started around 11.

They decorated everything for Haldi in pink. Between the decorations and the guest attire I’ve never seen such a brightly colored wedding.

Instead of smearing haldi on the bride and groom to be, we dipped what I think were rosemary sprigs into mehndi (henna) + oil, haldi (turmeric) + yogurt, then dabbed it on their feet, knees, shoulders, and head. The parents went first, then relatives, then guests. It looked like an exercise in patience for the couple.

While the couple cleaned up, the mother performed some sort of gift ceremony. I was told that the groom’s uncles and aunts gave his mother gifts and she gave his cousins gifts. There was a lot of dabbing things on people’s foreheads and waving gift envelopes above people’s heads.

When the couple returned, they broke some plates by stepping on them. After that, more pictures.

In the evening, more ceremonies at Sagai, which of course started an hour late. Circles of women gathered around some combination of the bride and groom’s parents. They exchanged things, donned things, waved more envelopes over people’s heads, and at some point the bride’s mother ended up with a baby doll. I don’t think she had any idea that was going to happen.

Eventually, the couple arrived, and they exchanged rings. Engaged!

After Sagai we transitioned into Sangeet, where guests performed choreographed numbers, held a lip sync competition, and the bride’s father surprised the couple by singing them a heartfelt song. What a beautiful gesture.

After Sangeet, dinner, followed by an amazing performance by Kutle Khan Project, a Rajasthani folk group. I loved their show; so many instruments blending so vibrantly, with such rich vocals. I feel grateful to have been exposed to their music.

After that, an afterparty, which I skipped because it was almost midnight by then.

In non-wedding news, we visited United Coffee House in the late afternoon. The inside is a throwback to British Colonial decor and they serve fancy coffee and tea in addition to a full menu throughout the day. I had worried that we wouldn’t have time to go before Sagai, but even after the taxi ride and tea time and the taxi ride back running on Indian Standard Time we still had plenty of time to spare… because of course Sagai started on Indian Standard Time as well.

Our taxi broke down at the hotel entrance upon return. It was especially funny since the taxi we hired the previous day almost broke down several times. We’re 2-for-2 on mechanically suspect taxis.

Just one random note today: I cannot for the life of me get my hands through the cheapo market bangles I bought in Lajpat Nagar. Aaron had to break them open for them to fit. Are my hands freakishly large by Indian standards? I’ve never found myself too big boned to fit into something. Such is life in alternate reality bizarro world.

Speaking of which, we ran into even longer bank lines at Connaught Place on our coffee run. I’d have stopped to take pictures but I try to get in and out of that area as quickly as possible and do everything I can to not look like a gawking tourist there. Otherwise “security” starts trying to direct you to shopping and small children and women with babies start asking you for money.

India Day 6 – Mehndi

The three day wedding we’re here for kicked off today, so I spent part of the morning in the hotel salon. Salons aren’t really a thing in my normal life. A couple thoughts from the visit: (1) Threading hurts, especially on your upper lip. Beyoncé is spot on. (2) I got my first mani-pedi. Wao such pamper. A+++ would go again!

We had a few hours around midday so we hired a taxi for 4 hours. Hiring a taxi is a thing here: You set a price and the driver waits for you at each of your stops. You agree on a meeting place, call them when you’re ready to go, and they come get you. It worked really well for what we wanted to do, was faster than Uber, and didn’t involve haggling beyond the initial price agreement.

First stop: Cha Bar. It’s a hip tea house inside a bookstore at Connaught Place. They serve 15 varieties of tea. We had their Bollywood Chai. It was pretty good for a spiced tea. I generally like my tea with nothing more than milk and sugar.

Next we headed to Bengali Market, which is a small neighborhood around a roundabout with groceries, housewares, a pharmacy, two banks, and two giant sweet shops. Aaron wanted to come here for the sweet shops. There were long lines at the banks; everyone is trying to exchange their old 500 and 1000 rupee notes.

After that, Old Delhi so Aaron could pick up a kurta. I did not expect such an large neighborhood of nothing but shops. There are shops along the main road into Old Delhi, a bazaar that lines the main road along the side of Old Delhi, shops along the side streets, and shops in every alley. The shops are more or less organized by what they sell; Western jacks and sweatshirts at the bazaar, electronics alley, watch alley, jewelry road, fashion lane, etc.

Kurta acquired. Off to Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. It’s one of several memorials in an expansive park; a serene contrast from the craziness of the traffic and markets just outside its gates.

Cleaned up and headed to Mehndi. All the ladies were given some color and bling on arrival to match the colorful and blingy venue:

Mehndi is centered around the bride sitting really really still for hours while she has henna applied. All the female guests get to have it done as well. It’s mesmerizing to watch.

I didn’t know until a couple weeks ago that henna is applied as a paste that gets scraped off after it dries. It looks like in the picture below as it’s drying, and is orange when it first comes off.

There was entertainment througout the event, culminating in a performance by Hariharan. I guess he’s kind of a big deal, and when he started singing I immediately understood why.

A couple related random notes today: (1) The roundabouts often have grass in the middle, and people often picnic in a circle on that grass. (2) People often picnic on grass in general; it’s not specific to roundabouts. I just thought it was nice that the roundabouts were designed in a way that makes them little open spaces for people.

India Day 5 – Adventures In ARBW

Alternate reality bizarro world continues.

Woke up this morning to an America on the verge of outdoing Brexit, then watched as our nation went full Trump. I’ve had so many thoughts and feelings about this today, and despite my best efforts to be present on my adventures here I found my mind repeatedly wandering back to the election results.

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about my adventures.

We decided this morning to visit Connaught Place. We decided also that since there are sidewalks almost all the way there we would walk.

On Day 2 I wrote that walking in Lajpat Nagar was an adventure in itself. Compared to today’s walk, Lajpat Nagar was a breeze.

In Lajpat, people leave you alone. You wander all you want and when you find a break in the cement median you cross a small congested road with one maybe two “lanes” of traffic.

To walk from our hotel to Connaught Place, but you have to fend off drivers and random guys pestering you to take a ride to the local market because that’s where you really want to be going, not wherever it is you think you want to be going because it’s closed due to “protests”. They’re persistent, will tell you not to go wherever you think you want to be going because it’s dangerous, and some will claim they’re “security”. You also have to cross higher speed multilane roads, often at roundabouts. We used some locals as human shields the first couple crossings, then got a feel for the calculated inching across. The rules aren’t that different from those in Italy: Be steady and predictable and traffic will work its way around you. The difference is in Italy they’ll eventually stop for you; in India they’ll slow just enough to swerve around you.

First person Frogger. It’s a thing here.

Connaught Place was mostly western shopping and more people trying to “help” us reach the market. As we prepared to leave, we spotted a Dunkin Donuts. I had to go in.

Dunkies, you’ve come a long way since your first shop in Quincy.

A bunch of kids ran by and tried to steal Aaron’s box of donuts on our way back to the hotel.

Shortly after the would be donut thieves, we came across a McDonald’s and popped in to check out the menu. Veggie burgers, chicken things, and Filet-O-Fish. As expected, no beef. I was disappointed to find zero fried pies on the menu.

In the afternoon, we walked like pros to The Imperial for High Tea, where we stuffed ourselves like British colonialists.

We walked over to India Gate at dusk. It’s big and monumentey. There are vendors all along the side of the road as you approach; the old ladies cooking corn over a pile of coals on the ground really caught my attention. I wanted to take a picture, but it seemed wrong to do so; I wouldn’t want people taking pictures of me like a spectacle as I was out there trying to make a living.

It started to get dark as we finished up at India Gate, so we hopped on a tuk tuk back to the hotel. My first tuk tuk ride! I enjoyed its breeziness.

Just a couple random notes today: (1) The official uniform around here is slacks and a collared long sleeve button down. Shopkeepers, people with briefcases, pretty much all the men around here wear some variation of that, regardless of what they do or how much they appear to make. (2) I didn’t see a lot of other tourists, but clearly Connaught Place gets more tourists than Lajpat Nagar, because no one stared at my capri calves today.

India Day 4 – Alternate Reality Bizarro World

I’m going to start with how the day ended: The Prime Minister of India declared all 500 and 1000 rupee notes invalid. That’s most of the money in the country. That’s most of the Indian currency we’re carrying. This can happen? It’s a thing? Am I awake? What kind of alternate reality bizarro world is this??

Our adventure just got more interesting.

Back now to the beginning of the day. I pulled open the blinds of our fancy schmancy hotel and saw this:

I felt really torn about living in luxury while the residents around me lived in conditions like this, and this was actually a slightly less distressed block compared to some others. Other blocks have more dirt, more trash, more broken pavement. Cows eating out of dumpsters.

We visited Agra Fort in the morning. It’s big and red and surrounded by a moat that used to be filled with crocodiles. Inside, the palace and surrounding structures where the king and his harem lived. The king supposedly used his harem as game pieces in the courtyard for pachisi. So said our guide. He also said people would be put to death by drunk elephant. Not sure how true all of this is, but it was certainly entertaining.

Nearby was a golf course that our guide said nobody played golf on. They use it for cricket instead.

Our group had a couple hours to kill so of course our guide took us to a kickback tourist trap marble shop. There was a presentation, more presentation, hard sells, a side room of cheaper marble items for those who didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars, followed by an “exit” to a room of textiles, followed by an “exit” to a room of tchotchkes. I expected the presentation and hard sell, but the bonus rooms were a surprise. It reminded me of Ikea. I was amused.

At one point, I chatted with our guide about religion. He asked what religion we were and about marriage in America. His head almost exploded when I told him we didn’t have a religion, and that in America people could and did have relationships across religions.

Back on the bus. Goodbye, crazy Agra traffic. To Delhi! On the way, some crop burning (o gawd pls stahp), and a rest stop. Our driver is fond of rest stops. This one had a convenience store. Aaron stocked up on chips:

We passed by the Buddh International Circuit on the way back. I’ve never seen an F1 venue in person before. It’s huge.

I went to the hotel gym in the evening. It was full of Indian men wondering what a woman was doing lifting free weights. Kind of awkward.