Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Going out for Thai.

We returned form our Winter Weekend in Hokkaido on Monday night. Tuesday morning I went to school for a regular work day. I came home and repacked my bag. Heavy clothes out, light clothes in. Without managing a wink of sleep, we left the apartment at 2am, and caught a 2:19 train, the first of a few to Tokyo/Narita Airport. A 9am flight on Air China brought us to Beijing. While Lindsay savored her layover in a new country's airport, I played it cool. I knew that scene. After a couple hours we were on a new plane headed to Bangkok.

Arrived at 6pm, and it was hot. We chose the cool season, but that is really only the slightly-less-hot season. Out front, armed with internet research and guidebook savvy, we approached an official taxi booth. The signage of the booth notified any tourists that these particular taxis were legit, would use their meters, and would not pull any scams. The driver took us to our location, though he did insist to have known a better/cheaper place, and he did take a couple extra laps around our neighborhood to settle at the right place.

We stayed in a colorful, out of the way guesthouse on the south end of Chinatown that we had booked last minute. Much of the trip was actually last minute. I generally cannot get time off from school, but saw an opportunity of a Wednesday holiday followed by tests on Thursday and Friday. I am of no help for tests, and Lindsay is proactive is making travel plans, so a Bangkok we will go!

After dumping the bags and dressing appropriately, we set out to spend our little energy on exploring the neighborhood and finding dinner. Wednesday night, and the street was where everyone should be. There were other tourists, but this was very much a spot for living, and so much for sight seeing. What we saw were colorful buildings and lights, cars speeding and braking, vendors with recognizable animal parts and mysterious fruits. At the end of one street, a group of people gathered around an old film reel projector to watch a movie projected on the side of a building.

Everywhere were people watching, walking, sitting, drinking, and shopping. I was ready to stop and be a part of everything that I saw but did not have the time. For as far as time was concerned, I had come on a budget.
After a couple sweeps of the main drag, we settled on a street corner populated by tables and chairs. The outdoor restaurant specialized in fresh seafood. I know this because I sat alongside the stockpile of crab & friends, on the rocks.

For our first meal we had a mix of sautéed greens and chili peppers. The rice was late in coming, so I did my best to cut the spice with my coconut milk drank from a coconut. The beverage was tasty, but did little to curb the delicious suffering of my meal.
I think Lindsay rather enjoyed documenting my ever-shinier complexion as I did not relent. ...He asked if I wanted spicy. I said yes, and would do so again.

In the morning we had fruit and coffee at the restaurant on top of our building. Then set out to get a better sense of our area. Each neighborhood seemed to have a niche, and Chinatown was scrap metal. Our immediate area especially looked like a chop shop. The sunlight showed what the moon had left alone. Streets full of cars, mostly dead. Some awaited surgery, while others served as impromptu garages. Neat stacks of engines and axels. Large saws taking things apart, and torches putting them back together. It was all so interesting, and yet I felt like a trespasser. I kept walking, and took minimal photos.

It was a working city. Shops kicking out smells, and people pushing carts, wheeling loads far bigger than themselves. After Chinatown, everything seemed a little bigger. We had a map and a mission, but found it quite difficult to deny the back alleys and side streets. Tight, canopied markets, where you had to be willing to rub hips with anyone to get anywhere. Fruits and fabrics transitioned to radios and remote controls. We emerged into the electronics neighborhood. Tents with tables of car stereos and racks of home receivers. Speakers larger than me, sitting on the sidewalk. And everywhere, tables of open circuitry being poked with soldering irons. Had my camera gone missing, this would have been my first place to look. Many items were probably hotter than the sun.

We avoided doing so, but on occasion it was necessary to pull our map out in public. I never like to be the obvious tourist, but maps are especially fatal in Bangkok. Taxis, tuk-tuks, and kind strangers are all aggressive. One kind fellow grabbed our map, told us where we were going was closed for ceremony, and we should go to this other place. He drew all over it (mostly useless information), and played tug-of-war with Lindsay while hailing a tuk-tuk for us. Lindsay recovered the map and we disengaged from the stranger and cab, determined to put the mileage on our sandals.

...As a side note, the tuk-tuks are cheap, common, abundant transportation for the locals. For tourists they can be more of an adventure, including: paying way too much, going to the wrong place, propositioned a jewel scheme, and arguing over agreed upon fare. We abstained from such excitement this time around.

-- Oh gosh, I am getting lengthy. I shall take a pause here, and post more shortly --

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Winter Weekend

I have been fortunate, over-stimulated even, to have been raised by four seasons. My adopted climate does not boast this, at least not to my taste. Winter in Shizuoka (Autumn extended), bottoms out at freezing, and even that is sparse. I have had a few opportunities to wear my rain gear, but there will be no snow pants this season.

I have discovered that I am only as tough as my climate, and what once was t-shirt weather, now gives me a chill. To retain identity and jumpstart physical memory, I took a little trip. My winter weekend.

I joined in for a trip organized by some of the prefectural contacts for my program. We flew to Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, for a four day weekend. By no coincidence was it the weekend of Yuki Matsuri, the winter festival in the city of Sapporo. Parks and streets became galleries of snow and ice sculptures. Some of which could fit in a living room, while others could flatten a house. Every year an international crowd of 2 million converge in the city for the occasion.

My time there was winter at its finest. We arrived to find abundant fluffy stuff, and it just kept coming. The temperature hovered just below freezing. For all I know, I was trapped in a snow globe clamped in a paint mixer. Perfect.

Friday night a couple dozen of us met for dinner at the Sapporo Brewery Beer Garden. It was a Genghis Khan, cook your own, all you can eat lamb deal. I passed on the mutton, but found my fill in the vegetables and beer. An excellent snowball fight took place as soon as we got outside. I lost my hat while being on the receiving end of a snow tackle, and then lost a glove in transit home. I love playing in the snow.

The weekend was mostly walking around as a group of individually wrapped, climate controlled, photo snapping bundles. Occasionally we stopped walking to sit and eat. Folks were rather excited to try the ramen and crab, popular winter grub in Hokkaido. With the exception of the hotel’s bountiful breakfast buffet, I was less enthusiastic about the food. A while back I had decided to try veganism for the month of February. And unless a region is particularly vegetarian friendly, it is difficult to stray far from a kitchen. However, Hokkaido is the dominant farming region of Japan, and I would absolutely love to return in the warmer months, perhaps a harvest festival. They fancy themselves makers of cheese. I will be the judge of that.

On Sunday Jackson, Tatyana, Lindsay, and I took a local train to its end and then hopped a bus for another hour to an area in the mountains known for onsens (Japanese hot springs). We walked through the smallish town and decided upon a random onsen that seemed acceptable from the front. The choice proved good. The boys and girls split, and we were able to bathe outdoors alongside the hills and amongst the trees.

There were usually a couple other guys out there with us, but as soon as they were gone, I took my opportunity to climb out of the bath and into a snowbank. I was as civil as a naked man in a snowbank can be, but still opted for discretion because who knows what the locals might think.

I know some folks back home may enjoy packing their winter into a weekend, but such would not be my choice. I want my winter long. I want my winter tough. I want the weather to break just before I do. Then I can feel deserving of the warmth to come.

My winter season began and ended with a plane ride. Back in Shizuoka, I have another month or so until fall shifts into spring.