Sunday, January 29, 2006

Welcome Matt-sensei

Last night was the great big Welcome Party we'd all been waiting for, where Matt was officially welcomed to Utsunomiya by AEON teachers, staff and students.

The evening began with a quick beer at the Lion's Head, as has become tradition to kill the time between the 8PM end of classes and the 9:15PM start to the party. After a quick pint, we headed out to a place called Lucifer for the party... I was half expecting some goth dance club or something, but it turned out to be just a regular bar. The food was so so, but the service was pretty good, so no complaints. In total, I think we had a turnout of about 30 people or so.

It was a good night, Matt seemed quite at ease with everything, as he has all week actually, and got a chance to do the old meet and greet with a bunch of students, which is always nice. On with the pics!

Here is Master Kobayashi and Matt-sensei laughing it up at my attempts to get a picture without any of the trademark peace signs Japanese people love so much. Yoshi was also celebrating a birthday yesterday, and I was asked to lead the group in singing him Happy Birthday. When he saw me take the mike and look straight at him, he melted into his chair and shook his head at me... poor kid. He's much too modest, works his ass off for us every week and I was glad to be able to wish him a happy birthday, our very own samurai in Utsunomiya.

Here is a shot of yours truly with young Kanako-sensei.

Matt schmoozing with the ladies...

One of my responsibilities for the evening was to get students to ask questions about Matt... personal questions ok... or even preferred really... of course the ol' "Do you have a girlfriend?" came out... but nothing much spicier than that... probably because many students had already talked with Matt during his first week here.

Scott's contribution was a lovely amusing poem welcoming Matt, as well as a Gyoza map, with all the important gyoza options clearly marked out for the newbie in town.

Here is a shot of me and Matt with Tomomi (Take Off) and Yoshiko (STP).

Matt, Motoki and Sayaka

The stragglers, last to leave as usual... from left to right Yoshi, Scott, Motoki, Matt and myself, with little Yoshiko out in front.

While I was expected to join the second party, and the few students who asked me were disapointed that I wasn't going.... I haven't been in the mood for karaoke in a while and Scott and I gracefully made our getaway, heading in the opposite direction as the partiers. All in all, a good night.

Today, we headed out to an Omuraisu restaurant out between Hanawada and Keirinjo-dori. Omuraisu is essentially an omelette served on top of rice with some kind of sauce. While the place was pretty busy, it was well worth the wait. I am totally turning Japanese, taking pictures of food and stuff.... ack!

I had the omuraisu with a demi-glaze and mozzarella cheese sauce, quite yummy. It's simply amazing to see the chef making these things, it's not just a simple omellette after all.

As the egg is cooking, it is constantly shifted and eventually rolled into a cigar shape, with the inside still somewhat raw. You then cut through the top of the cigar, and...

Voila, split open the omelette and dish out the sauce... first time I've had omuraisu, will definately try it out again soon!

Along with the main course, the lunch set included salad, soup, dessert and tea... not bad for 1200 Yen!

We then took a detour through Hachiman-yama on the way home, and enjoyed the downright balmy temperature here in the big U. Plans for tomorrow are pretty mellow with nothing on the books but a walk with Scott (and Matt if we can get in touch)... it's been a while since we've been out walking, will be nice to shoot the proverbial shit with him again. Heard from Alex this week, he's subbing in Matsudo, Chiba prefecture and misses Utsunomiya a whole bunch. Had to get up at 6:30 and switch trains three times to get to the school on Saturday, NOT cool... we've got it pretty damn good out here in Tochigi, wouldn't trade it for all the nightlife\exotic food \ excitement of Tokyo.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

93 days

In 93 days, and for the following 157 hours, I will be walking on Canadian soil. Apparently, this news has already spread like wildfire through the offices of my former employer, which is funny since my family doesn't even know the details yet.... oh the power of a single email!

So yes, after what will have amounted to just about one year, I will be back in Canada for a short trip, arriving on April 30th and departing May 7th. This coincides with the Golden Week Holiday in Japan, during which AEON is closed and I get 9 days of vacation. I went to H.I.S. travel today and reserved my seat(s). I will be flying with Northwest Airlines, here is the flight info:

April 30th
16:00 (Japan Time) - Depart Tokyo for SF (9h 15min flight, 8231km)
09:15 (Pacific Standard Time) - Arrive SF (3hr 30min layover)
12:45 (PST) - Depart SF for Detroit (4hr 30min flight, 3337km)
20:15 (Eastern Standard Time) - Arrive Detroit (50min layover)
21:05 (EST - Depart Detroit for Ottawa (1hr 37min flight, 706km)
22:42 (EST) - Arrive Ottawa

Total travel time - 19 hours, 42 minutes but Time Zone changes will mean I land in Ottawa only 6 hours and 42 minutes after I took off from Tokyo.... that should do wonders for my sleep patern for the weeks following this jaunt.. lol It's actually pretty nice to break up the trip a bit... I was going bonkers on the flight to Japan... too long!

I am excited to get back home, even if it is for such a relatively short amount of time. Since I will be extending my contract beyond the current August termination date, I thought May would be a good time to come on down and say hello. For the record, I am coming home alone (this time) since my girlfriend cannot get so much time off in one shot, typical Japanese company, quite unfortunate because I would have loved to show her around and have everyone meet her.

For my return flight, I have just the one stopover in Detroit before the final (and long) leg back to Tokyo.
May 7th
12:20 (EST) - Depart Ottawa for Detroit (1hr 45min flight, 706 km)
14:05 (EST) - Arrive Detroit (1hr 20min layover)
15:25 (EST) - Depart Detroit for Tokyo (13hr flight, 10275km)
17:25 (Japan time) - Arrive Tokyo

So that's the big news for today... Today was also our first day without Alex a the school, Matt is fitting in nicely and learning the ropes as he goes along, just like we all did. I must admit that without Sir Lambert around, there is much less sex-related discussion, but we will try our best to fill in the void left by his absence by randomly muttering phrases about such and such unmentionable acts once in a while in his honour.

That's about it for now, the emails from OR have stopped for now and I'm gonna get to bed before the pics of my girl that I sent out there start a new barrage.... oyasuminasai!

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Monday, January 23, 2006

A first ski injury! Woohoo!

Yes, I did in fact get (slightly) injured yesterday, but we had a fantastic day nonetheless.

Started off the day early with a 5AM wakeup to get ready for the 6AM pickup. Quickly threw my stuff together and headed out the door to Motoki's ski-ready vehicle. We then headed over to pick up Kobayashi-san and then swung by Alex's place. When we got there and he wasn't outside, my mind flashed back to the last time we went skiing.... but thankfully he was in fact just about ready and made it to the car at 6:23, only 3 minutes later than scheduled... good job kid!

So we headed out on the highway to get to Inawashiro, the skies were relatively clear and so the drive went well. After stopping by a rental shop where Yoshi got a great deal on rental equipment, we got to ALTS, and from the parking lot, we could see it was a pretty big place. It's got a few different flanks coming from 2 mountains, so it's pretty widely spaced out with 2 covered quads and a gondolla with about 8 other lifts running around the mountain.

When we got to the top, it was still a bit cloudy but the view was spectacular nonetheless. This is what I was sorry to miss when we went to Hunter Mountain and it snowed all day. In fact ALTS isn't even that high, with the lifts starting at a very low elevation, unlike Hunter who operates from 1200-1800 meters.

One of the most striking features of the view from up here was this huge shining lake off to the left of the resort, depending on the sun's position it was sometimes blinding white, sometimes blue, always purty.

Here is smiling Master Yoshi, doing great considering it's only his 3rd time boarding. I will admit that some day in the future, I will consider trying it out. Maybe around the time that my 4th pair of skis needs replacing and I'm bored skiing whatever hills are around where I happen to be living at the time. But for now, (with apologies to all boarder friends of mine) I am still a skier and must abide by the laws which state that "Boarders suck" for having to crisscross left to right on the hills.

This cloud-shrouded peak is serviced by the gondolla which runs about half way up. Unfortunately the runs coming off it were not that great the one time we went down there and we decided not to bother going back. With the covered lifts, there was no reason to take the gondolla other than to ski to the middle part of the hill, which we didn't get to this time around.

The scenery alone was worth the trip... even if the skiing was shitty here, which it isn't, I would consider coming on up once in a while anyways.

Here is Kurokawa-san and I, thanks a bunch for a great day of skiing Motoki... here's hoping there will be plenty more in the future!

As the sky gradually cleared out, we could see further and further until this lovely grouping of hills appeared.

Alex giving horns in support of the champion University of Texas Longhorns, the college football team depicted on his hat.

Gotta love the mountains.

We discovered a lovely snow park to the far left of the resort and Alex tried his hand at a jump or two, looking pretty damn good doing it too.

From the far left lift, we had a great view of the far right peak which seemed to always have a cloud hanging around the top of it.

Of course dear Alex spent the day listening to some tuneage on his Ipod, and making strange faces once in a while as he sang along...

So that was the day in pictures, at around 1:00, we stopped for lunch and then headed back out and skied a bit more before what I will refer to as the "incident" occurred. We had just left Motoki and Yoshi at the top of the hills puting on their bindings and were going down the hill at our regular speed. I was maybe three yard behind Alex, and at the bottom of a slope, while turning right and before entering a second slope, a snowboarder with a white jacket cut across my path and we smacked pretty damn hard. I was going down the hill, he was boarding perpendicular to it. I just about avoided him but didn't quite make it and my front right shoulder hit his back left shoulder and we went flying. It took me a few moments to get my bearings and catch my breath, I remember the fall and the following tumbles vividly with my head telling me that each impact had in fact not broken anything. I took stock for a bit to make sure nothing hurt too bad and sat up. Looking back, there were a few people on the ground, all but one of which were getting up and dusting off. When I initially tried to stand up, things went white and I got dizzy so I sat back down again. I am certain I didn't hit my head, so it was probably adrenaline or shock. A few minutes later I tried again and still got dizzy so I sat back down. By this time, the ski patrol had arrived and was checking out a guy in a green jacket whom I had not seen up until this point and who was complaining of pretty bad leg pain. The patroller checked me out, I told him my shoulder was sore but was otherwise ok and I was then able to stand up. As the discussions began as to what happened, it was clear no one had any idea what happened except for me and the boarder I hit. What happened after that was just a cloud of snow and flying ski equipment. At one point, I distinctly remember someone saying that the injured guy was coming down behind us and ran into the accident himself, which would make sense since he was higher on the slope than myself and about at the same place as white jacket boarder dude.

So the patrol did their thing, brought in a stretcher for the guy and I was able to ski down the hill with them to the rescue center. I was again checked out by a patroller and a nurse, given some cold packs for my shoulder, filled out a report and headed out the door. The guy I hit was also released, but the unknown guy was shipped off in an ambulance with a knee injury. Too bad. Great big thanks to Motoki, Yoshi and Alex for providing translation services during the accident and it's aftermath. And a message to all boarders out there, if you HAVE to choose someone who's path to cross, make sure it's not the biggest and fastest skier on the hill... cause you'll get hurt. All in all, I think we both ended up with the same injury, just to opposite shoulders. Yesterday my arm felt weak but I could move it... I now have limited upwards mobility, but can carry things fine and if I grunt my way through the pain, I can get my arm to go in any direction. I'm sure I'll be fine, but I may wait a few weeks before another ski trip, just on the odd chance of aggravating it any more than I need to.

So we headed back home, hit Utsunomiya around 8:30 and I pretty much just dumped my crap on the floor, took a shower and went to bed. I slept for about 10 hours, though I was waking up every once in a while with some pain, but this morning I felt decidedly better.

Headed in to the office and met our newly arrived sensei, Matt. Seems like a great guy, I'm sure he'll fit right in with the whole crew out here. Following the meet and greet, I headed out to Nagasaks to pick up some supplies for tonight's birthday feast. I am relatively pleased with the results of my first cream-based pasta sauce, but I will likely add cheese to the mix next time around to give it some extra zip. Wine helped this time around, and it was quite good but it could have been better. Either way, the meal was appreciated, we capped it off with Alex's (step?) mom's bread cinnamon roll thing and it was quite tasty.

So now it's time for bed... next week should be great with having Matt around and showing him the ropes. We'll be sad to see Alex go on Wednesday but he's said he'll come back up here for skiing. He currently has no assignment so will be working out of Tokyo for the next little while. Next Saturday is the Welcome party for Matt, no plans for Sunday\Monday. If the arm is feeling up to it, I may head out skiing again on Monday, we shall see.

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Saturday, January 21, 2006


Woke up this morning to a wonderful sight.... the neighbourhood had been covered by a light dusting of snow overnight.

It's been strange going through a winter without any snow on the ground, though I've been lucky enough to get a taste of it when I hit the slopes in December and when the white stuff came down in Beijing. It's just not the same having a winter without any snow... you get all the cold, but none of the benefits. Snow muffles sounds, this morning was nice and quiet for a change. Snow also covers up all the dust and dirt which covers most buildings around here, so it was nice to have things looking clean...

Unfortunately, by the time I headed out the door this morning, it had mostly all melted... apparently Tokyo's snow fall stuck around, odd since it's warmer than Utsunomiya there usually.

What better to have on a snowy morning then fresh fruit... had a great little spread here this morning with orange, grapefruit, apple and strawberries, with some yogourt and Earl Grey tea thrown in to the mix. Guess them fruits'll help "keep the scurvy away" as Scott says.

Today was our last Saturday with good ol' Arekusu-sensei, and the last day I'll be working without our new teacher Matt who comes in on Monday. Students are quite disapointed to see that young scamp leave, and so are we. Tomorrow is skiing at ALTS Bandai, should be an amazing day, and this time I'll try not to pass out at the onsen... lol

Earlier this week, I slapped together some tacos, which were quite tasty.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Had to get up early for a fire alarm test this morning..... it seems my building tests the functioning of the fire alarms more often than I change my underwear. Luckily I have a camera phone and was able to get the lady in my life to translate the note I found on my door last night, otherwise I would have been surprised as all hell with the 2 men barging into my apartment at 9:25 this morning... I've thought of asking Nakada-san to call the landlord and ask for a little more notice when they need to enter my apartment so that I can get the note translated, but I guess it's not that big of a deal, it's only happened 3 times since I've been here.... so once every 3 months or so.

Had another FANTASTIC lunch at Cafe Praktica yesterday. Alex and I had 3 hour breaks so we took the time to have a nice sit down lunch and one of their amazing coffees. I had the Vietnamese Curry while Alex tried the Borscht. I will have the Borscht next time I think, haven't tried it so far. It's such a nice place for a nice relaxed meal, the people there are great and the food just seems to keep getting better and better. I especially like that they are using a cracked rice instead of just the regular stuff, nice change.

So Alex-sensei will be leaving us shortly, he will be greatly missed. We've had a blast these past months, he's certainly spiced up the atmosphere at the school. The new teacher Matt is in the middle of training now and arrives here next Monday, we look forward to meeting him and hope he works out! His Welcome Party is on the 28th, I doubt i will make it to the second party... these AEON things are fun, but sometimes feel like work...

This weekend promises to be a good one. Friday is dinner with my lady, Sunday is skiing at ALTS and then Monday I'll be slapping together some dinner for a special birthday dinner. A request has been made for some sort of tomato\cheese cream pasta, I will see what I can do with the ingredients I find at the supermarket.

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Taking a raincheck...

Well unfortunately for my skiing aspirations for this weekend a rather large amount of rain drenched Kanto and Tohoku on Saturday, meaning that conditions at Alts Bandai tomorrow wouldn't be worth the drive out. While the temperature is now dropping back down to seasonal averages after a spate of avalanches in Niigata and Nagano prefectures, this merely means that the wet snow of yesterday and today is becoming the hard packed groomed crap of tomorrow. We are thus redirecting our skiing efforts to next Sunday.

Today was a fantastic day. Started out with my first Subway sandwich in Japan...

I had the Chicken Teriyaki, and while it was ok, it could have been better.

I was surprised that they don't have the "toasted sub" option out here... something which Subway came out with after Quiznos' amazing toasted subs took a bite out of their market. China's Subway had it... I've now enjoyed Subway sandwiches in Canada, the US, China and Japan.

After the sub, we headed over to Calmare, a supposed Gyoza lover's paradise if you believe the flyers which were flying around when it first came out.

While I will admit that the selection of Gyoza was quite impressive in the area dedicated to it, and the Gyoza museum section was interesting, most of the first floor is taken up by a Pachinko Parlour belching out clouds of smoke and deafening noise every time the automatic doors open. The second floor is a game center with everything from bowling and billiards to basketball and golf. We did have fun trying to figure out the picture machines which are so popular with High School girls and I now have some pictures of us with computer generated hearts and stars all over them... lol I guess the whole idea behind this building is that a Pachinko loving man can come here to spend some quality time with his family... enjoying a few quick gyoza before sending the wife upstairs to the games center with the kiddies so he can get down to the slots, drink some coffee, smoke some cigarettes and lose some money. Rather sad group of people we saw in there today, not one man upstairs in the games section enjoying sports with his kids... This reminds me of another sad situation I witnessed this week. When Alex and I were having lunch at Praktica on Tuesday? Wednesday? there was a couple having lunch there at the same time as us. They didn't talk much during lunch, and when they were finished eating, the man took out a gameboy and started playing while his girlfriend sat there and stared at him... what a loving relationship.

We then headed home and popped in a great foreign film called "L'auberge espagnole" (The Spanish Apartment) which was quite enjoyeable. While I'd say a good third of the dialogue was in Spanish, of which I have only a very basic grasp, the rest was mostly French. It's an interesting story about a young man who leaves his girlfriend behind in Paris to spend one year studying in Barcelona. He moves into an apartment with an ecclectic and international bunch of people and the experiences they share are quite entertaining and throught provoking. To take the movie at it's word, Europeans are cheating on each other at an alarming rate and the victim-spouse either doesn't care or doesn't know due to machinations by those in the couple's entourage. Great movie if you happen to spot it on the shelf somewhere.

Skiing tomorrow may have been replaced by lunch at the Temple... if I feel up to it when I wake up.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Good week so far

Well it's been a pretty decent return to teaching this week, with the new rotation of students\classes coming through. After a week of practically no talking, my mouth is back in shape and I'm no longer stumbling... much...

The highlight of the week so far was taking the time to have lunch at Cafe Praktica on Tuesday... tried their "porc sauté" for the first time and it was quite tasty. Less than two weeks until the teacher swap, with Alex heading off to another assignment and being replaced with Matt from St-Paul, looking forward to meeting the feller.

Another ski trip in the works for Monday, Alex and I will be heading out to ALTS Bandai, a fantastically large resort near Inawashiro in Fukushima prefecture. I am quite looking forward to it.

The Canadian election is heating up nicely with the Conservatives actually in the lead against the "same old same old" corrupt Liberals. I'm frequently tuning in to CFRA in Ottawa and hearing out the debates and such and Martin is sounding more and more desperate. The latest stupidity to come out of his mouth is a promise to scrap the Notwithstanding clause, which allows the government to nullify Supreme Court decisions, in the constitution. This clause essentially ensure that our elected officials have some measure to balance the power of the nominated Supreme Court. The biggest problem with removing this clause is that it would inflame Quebecers again since the clause was the only reason they supported the latest draft of the constitution in the first place. They simply do not want to be controlled by a panel of political appointees, and quite frankly, neither to I. Martin is essentially only taking his way of ruling one step further. Since he has come into power, decisions made by the Court have dictated public policy, a job which should be reserved for him and his party. To all those who were not pleased with the decisions, he said he couldn't do anything about it as it was a court decision... he just wants to make that statement final by removing the only way government has of protecting public interests from a group of Liberal judges going wild...

Anywho, gotta get ready for work... l8tr.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Where did it go?

Last thing I remember, I was leaving work and and hopping into a waiting vehicle in front of the building on Saturday night... now it's Monday and I'm facing the prospect of starting up classes again tomorrow, where did the weekend go? Looking back on it, I guess it was rather eventful, which is why it went by so quickly...

For dinner Saturday night we went to a lovely restaurant nearby called Vanilla Dive which serves up a nice Asian selection. The atmosphere was quite lovely, and we even got to join in on a birthday celebration or 3 before heading home.

Sunday was the big day, the whole "meeting the parents" thing. Meetings one's girfriend's parents back home is important enough but out here in the Japanese countryside with a traditional\conservative family, it changed into something altogether different. In all honesty, I was not nervous, knowing that previous "in-laws" have fallen right in love with me... but I was somewhat aprehensive at how long we would be able to keep a conversation going with me knowing just about zero "conversational" Japanese. I can order fine in restaurants, ask for directions and information about trains... but I can't even discuss the weather with someone, lol. In the end, it all went over quite well. Having visited Canada (Niagara Falls, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City) and China before, it was relatively easy to find discussion topics with what turned out to be a cute Japanese couple quite excited at having a foreigner in their home for the first time. Her father even searched the kitchen looking for the pictures of their trips and I showed them a selection of my pictures from China and Japan as well. We had a lovely 3 hour lunch of salad, sushi and sweets and when the conversation started to dwindle after coffee, gracefully made our exit. I must say I was impressed with my translator for the session, and I suggested she look into turning this skill into a career!

Following lunch we headed up to Nikko, since we were closeby, to make the first visit to a Temple and Shrine of the New Year. First stop was Futara-san Shrine (same name as the one here in Utsunomiya, but this one's in Nikko) where I paid my 300 Yen and went fishing for a fortune. With the elevation, everything was covered with a light dusting of snow.

Including the famed 5 storied Pagoda outside the Toshogu Shrine.

After visiting Futara-san and saying a quick New Year's prayer, we headed over to Ino-ji, a buddhist Temple to check things out a bit. Due to the cold and the fact that everything was closed down we didn't stick around too long and headed back home quickly. Got an interesting shot of the moon though, I'd love to head up into these mountains on a clear night some time and get a good look at the stars from this elevation.

Once we got back home, we popped in Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino, of which I had only seen parts before. It was quite a good movie, I can see why he got the Best Actor Oscar for it.

This afternoon, we headed off to Movix Cinemas to check out Memoirs of a Geisha, or "Sayuri" as it's called in Japanese. It was good, though I found it glossed over major parts of Japan's sex trade and the whole issue of WWII. We then headed to the Utsunomiya Grand Hotel for dinner at their lovely Beijing-style Chinese restaurant which has a nice view of the South end of town.

And that's about that, back to my apartment a short while ago to organize things a bit and get ready for the return to work tomorrow. Ski trip shaping up for next weekend, not sure where exactly but it'll be nice to head back out on the slopes. Got an email from Caroline from our training group and she's been heading out to Nagano where they've received MASSIVE dumps of snow this year... I am so jealous!!! Will have to get out there some time, though it isn't easy because of the mountain range between Tochigi and Nagano... gotta do a detour through Saitama...

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Friday, January 06, 2006

An easy return to work

Well the work week is just about over, and it's been pretty mellow so far seeing as it's counselling week and all lessons but privates are cancelled. We've been kept at a steady pace nonetheless with workshops and lesson observation\feedback sessions, so it's been pretty good.

It's quite nice to be back in Japan, where I can understand at least some of what is being said around me, where cars stop when they see you start to cross a street, where I can actually have daily conversations with people... great to be back! Everything here is new again, which is why this trip was a good idea. Still haven't gotten in touch with my parents since I've gotten back, they must still be at the cottage, if they read this: I'm back safe, didn't kiss any birds so I shouldn't have bird flu, and wasn't beaten by the PLA.

Plans for January are shaping up nicely... looks like a party on the 14th, possible skiing on the 15th and later this month. This weekend's plans should be interesting... it's "meet the parents" time for me on Sunday, I am looking forward to it, should be interesting. Neither of her parents speaks English, and a foreigner has never darkened their doorstep so lunch on Sunday should be a rather interesting event!

Anywho, gotta clean up a bit and head off to work, aurevoir.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Another safe landing...

I have returned. Tired, fighting a cold, but still in awe of the experience of visiting China. Was picked up by my little lady at the train station, it was sooooo nice to see her again. Didn't do too too much yesterday and today, just lounged around some. Two firsts today, tried some tacoyaki which is quite yummy, and also had some Oden for the first time, also fabulous. Now I've got some unpacking and sorting of stuff to do. Here is what I wrote on the plane ride over yesterday... no more pictures of the trip unfortunately, just the random ramblings of a tired mind... lol

After 9 long days of travelling, I am finally returning home. On the plane with some time (and battery life) to spare, I figured I'd take stock of this fantastic trip of mine and simple copy\paste to the old blog when I get home. Apparently my strategy of having a fairly leisurely schedule in order to stay relatively relaxed and refreshed didn't quite work out, I am in fact tired. I am thus quite pleased that I left myself a few days before having to go back to work on Thursday, I will fully take advantage of these few days of rest, and likely not go skiing on Wednesday as I had originally thought of doing.

I do think however that my voice is certainly well rested. Not being able to communicate with people means that my daily social interactions were limited to asking the hotel staff to write down an address for me in Chinese, thanking the taxi drivers when they dropped me off, bargaining for goods and interacting with the ticket booth people or the odd foreigner I struck up a conversation with. This is quite the change from my usual talk-heavy day at work, so it's nice to have had a break.

Sitting here reflecting about this trip, I find China even more fascinating and mysterious than it was before I came here. I was able to learn quite a bit about China's rich history and the current political and social climate, but how the whole thing still works without crumbling in on itself is unknown to me.

The gap between classes here is so pronounced as to be staggering. Across the street from a Ferrari dealership, lies an entire neighbourhood of people living in crude stone dwellings dating back hundreds of years. A large segment of the Chinese population is being left behind in China's drive to develop and advance beyond their recent third-class status as a nation. All this in a Socialist\Communist nation? This drives home a point that I remember from High School history class. Communism, a system based on the equality of all people, cannot function if some people are more equal than others. It will be interesting to see what comes of China's multi-class system in the future as they integrate further with the West and their HUGE population gets even more of a taste of the way the rest of the world has been living.

This of course brings up some rather disturbing problems for the future, environmentally speaking. If over one billion people suddenly decide they want to live the consumer lifestyle we have in the West, the damage to the environment will be cataclysmic. Already car usage in China is growing at a phenomenal rate, and the air in China's cities is a testament to that fact. Beijing's streets are gridlocked pretty much from sun-up to sun-down with a haze of exhaust fumes permeating the atmosphere, and only a relatively small portion of the city's population is driving at the moment. What will happen in the future? What will China's ever growing demand for oil do to the global market and commodity prices? I think I am quite lucky to be in Asia at a time when the region seems to be at a pivotal point in time. With emerging economies like China, Vietnam and Thailand, Asia is THE place to be right now.

As for the democratic movement, I think it is something which China will have to face up to at some point. As more and more people gain access to the World Wide Web and interact with free people all over the world, the Chinese population will develop a taste for true democracy as well. The People's Liberation Army will only go so far to keep the people oppressed and subservient to a government which builds mega condo complexes for it's "important" officials, while leaving most of the people out in the cold. Luckily, they seem to be smoothing out their approach a bit in order to placate the West. Of course most of the moves are purely superficial, but they are there nonetheless. I was talking with a lady from Hong Kong about the turnover from Britain to China and she says things went quite well. Initially, people were very frightened of the transition of rule to the Chinese government but China was very smart in leaving most of Hong Kong to run as it has for a long time. Their "If it ain't broke don't fix it" approach has so far not led to any major changes in the day to day lives of Hong Kong Chinese. I was also interested to hear on the news this week that the Chinese president has been discussing democratic reforms with the Hong Kong government. It will be interesting to see where this "One China – Two systems" thing goes.

The Chinese people I've spoken with opened up enough to allow me a glimpse into their hopes and aspirations for the future, and they are lofty ones to say the least. Ben, my guide to the Great Wall on Tuesday was disappointed when comparing himself to one of China's top business people, who at the age of 30 has already accumulated billions of Yuan in wealth. Joy, my guide to and from the train station for my trip to Xian, wishes to study abroad for a few years and visit South Africa. I sincerely believe this to be a healthy thing for China since such ambition from within the Chinese population can only bring about further change and further openness. Another thing which I've found about the Chinese is that they are very proud of their English language skills. People went out of their way to help me, addressing me first in English when I looked lost or confused. For example when I first boarded the overnight train to Xian, 3 different passengers helped my find my way to my compartment and the correct bunk. In contrast with the experiences I've had with Japanese people, the Chinese are much less shy about their English abilities. Japanese people I've interacted with have been quite happy to use English, and you can see that they are proud of their abilities, but it's sometimes like pulling teeth to get them to talk.

Culturally speaking, I can only hope that China's destructive past is to be left in the past. It seems that in every period of significant social change in this country, countless cultural relics have been destroyed or damaged in the people's need to "move on". This process was recently embodied in the 70's with Mao's infamous "Red Guard" attacking anything and everything related to China's past with such fervour that only the future need for tourist dollars stopped them from leaving me nothing to see during my time in Beijing. Funny story here about the Cultural Revolution and how it was brought about. Chairman Mao thought it would be nice to see just how happy people were in China. He sent out a questionnaire of sorts to the elite academics of the nation asking for their opinions of the current situation in China. His famous quote was something along the lines of "Let the flowers of their love for China blossom", obviously expecting glowing praise. Unfortunately, many academics chose to be truthful about things and wrote their actual opinion of the status of Chinese society, sending Mao into a fury. He then opted to strike down anything remotely related to China's history and culture and formed the Red Guard. I've seen the damage done to priceless artifacts first-hand such as the large stone tablet at the first Ming Emperor's tomb which was painted red by the fanatics; I guess we should be thankful they didn't destroy it completely.

Certainly an interesting trip, will be glad to hit the ground in Japan, though I have a few trains to take before I can get home. Oddly enough, my bags are somewhat heavier than they were on the way to China, darn those markets. The only thing which stopped me from buying any clothes for myself was the space restriction of my bag… I certainly didn't want to have to buy another one and have to drag it around airports and train stations all afternoon. Anywho, think I'll throw on the old game of Risk and conquer the world while we fly over the Japan sea… it's a hard life…

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

And that's a wrap... almost

Well it's official, after 7 days of travelling, visiting dozens of places, I am officially touristed out. In fact, I think for the next few weeks I will stop using the words "tourist" and "attraction" together and replace the second word with "repulsion". This has been an amazing trip, but I am quite ready to go home now. Japan will be a welcome change, which is why I came out here in the first place after all. It was time to take a break from Japan, and now that I've spent a week in China, I'll appreciate what I've got in Japan (mainly a basic understanding of the language!) much more.

So I slept in this morning, didn't do anything last night, opting for a night of rest instead. Headed out around 10:00 in the direction of the Lama Temple, Beijing's largest buddhist temple. The Lama Temple was the home of Count Yin Zhen until 1723 when he became Emperor, changed his name to Yongzhen and moved to the Forbidden City. His former residence was then known as Yongzhen Palace until it was turned into a lamasery in 1744 and hordes of monks from Mongolia and Tibet moved in. Seeing as this, as New Year's Day, is a National Holiday here, the place was quite busy. And seing as it is a fully functioning buddhist temple, hundreds were heading in to make their first visit of 2006, it was the busiest of the sights I've seen so far this week.

Of course, seeing as I've already visited quite a few temples in Japan, this wasn't that spectacular of a sight for me, until I visited the last hall anyway. This is the lovely decorated Bell Tower, which is still used for certain ceremonies by the monks.

This is one of the two statues garding the first hall, quite striking.

As I mentioned, since this is a functioning temple, there were worshipers everywhere, most of whom were carrying burning sticks of incense... it's amazing nobody went up in flames, though I'm sure accidents do happen.

It certainly was a nice day out, with the sun warming things up quite nicely after yesterday's cold and snow. And the smell of incense burning everywhere was nice.

In front of each hall were these large fires where people could drop incense in as an offering or light their sticks of incense for prayers. The monks also use these fires to burn the other offerings which are brought to the temple by worshipers.

As I said, this place was kind of ho-hum until I reached the final courtyard and the Wangfu Hall which had some quite intricate decorations and was flanked by two towers with walkways connecting into the main hall.

The real shocker came when I entered the Hall though and came face to foot with an 18 meter high statue of Budha, clothed in yellow satin. Making this statue even more fascinating is the claim that it was carved out of one single piece of sandalwood, with the donor tree coming from Tibet. Quite the accomplishment.

Following my visit to the Lama Temple, I had pretty much completed all the major tourist repulsions in Beijing, save for the Summer Palace, which I will save for my next visit since it's best seen when the gardens are in bloom anyway. With plenty of time to spare, I ventured off again down the streets of Beijing, heading in the general direction of the Forbidden City. After a good hour or two of wandering I ended up on Wangfujing Dajie shopping street again and boy was it crowded! I quickly hopped a cab and headed back to the hotel. Instead of grabbing lunch at a restaurant, I thought I would check out a supermarket nearby and I'm quite glad I did. For 16 Yuan (about 3$), I made out with a bag of food and ate like a king. Unfortunately that means that I am still full and need to do some more walking to make some room for dinner. I refuse to leave Beijing without having had at least one good chinese meal! I've recently taken inventory and have found that I've skipped around half of my meals this week, which means I haven't really had a chance to sample any real good food. Most of the time I've been eating on the go, so tonight I'll have a seat at Berena's Bistro, which Lonely Planet promises serves up great Sichuan dishes. After that, it's back to the hotel to pack my bags and get ready for the trip home tomorrow. Flight leaves at 9:20, which means a 5:45 wakeup and a 6AM departure to avoid Beijing's Monday morning traffic jams.

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