Years in the making

The city has been working on a bike lane for a very long time. It seems like at least 2 years. I can’t be sure. I do have some historical records I think on various blog posts. Here’s a post from January, and here’s one from October … of 2009.

Yesterday, they finally opened up the approximately 800 meter bike lane. It removed a lane on a very busy street.

Opening Day

 

The first day the sidewalk was armed with heavily clothed workers on a lower ‘90s kind of day (34 degC) with quite a bit of humidity directing traffic to the new bike lane.

Controlling the flow

 

It gets a little confusing

 

Lots of signage and rules associated with this bike lane and parking areas.

No lack of signage

 

No lack of signage

 

No lack of signage

 

No lack of signage

 

People seemed to be using it pretty happily, well most people. It’s funny to me, because I only see these bike lanes on streets with really wide sidewalks anyway!

This way please

 

Hong Kong

While living in Asia, I certainly want to take advantage of the proximity to major Asian cities. I had the chance to visit many places in Japan and Bangkok and Koh Samui, Shanghai, Taipei, Bali, and most recently Hong Kong. When you can take a long weekend and visit a place that is otherwise so far away from the US, you have to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, the airfare doesn’t seem to mirror the relative proximity, but oh well.

Tomo and I decided to visit Hong Kong before summer and while our schedules kind of allowed a trip there. I was very busy prior to going so I had little time to do research. Luckily Tomo had some time. I had been to Hong Kong before, so I had a general idea of what to see and where to go. Tomo had the restaurants picked out. And the sites. As a side note, if you can read Japanese, ALWAYS get a Japanese guide book. They seem to be done so differently than an English language book and their recommendations have rarely been a letdown.

Tomo flew in from Tokyo and I flew in from Nagoya and we met at the Hong Kong airport. And for those of you that remember the amazing approach into the airport – that’s no longer the case. The airport moved a while ago, and so now it is a pretty mundane approach to Lantau Island, and then a train into the center of Hong Kong.

Pacific Place

 

Our hotel was centrally located at Pacific Place near Admiralty metro station, so we were in good shape location wise. Also, our flights arrived early enough that check in was timed perfectly and we had an afternoon and evening ahead of us. We planned a skeleton of an itinerary that included walking to Man Mo Temple, around SoHo (South of Hollywood) for some good local food, and then back to The Peak Tram for a night view of the city. Haven’t I said that the journey is more interesting than the destination? Well, we never quite made it to the temple on the first day.

As soon as we left the hotel I was reminded how Hong Kong Island is a maze of multilevel walkways, roadways, and people movers. Of course, there is an entire area known as the mid-levels which are halfway up to Victoria Peak. So we were a little bit up and down for awhile, incidently passing many of the places I had visited before.

Which level do I take?

 

The towering mid-levels

 

I was quite happy, because these were areas I wanted to see again. We wandered through the edge of Hong Kong Park, past the High Court, along Queen’s Road Central, then kind of accidently to Hong Kong Station (where, quite honestly, we had a bit on an air-conditioned respite from the heat). We played on the mid-levels tramway for a bit, riding up to somewhere close to Hollywood Road, and then we wandered through the markets, looked at Pottinger Street, and found some delicious food as had been Tomo’s real reason for going to Hong Kong! We never actually made it to the temple.

Modern Hong Kong.

Not all architecture can be beautiful

 

Packed skyscrapers

 

Central

 

Mixing the old with the new, bamboo scaffolding on modern buildings.

Bamboo scaffolding

 

Taking the tmid-levels tramway up to Hollywood Road with some of the fading buildings of previous modernity.

The mid-levels tramway

 

Seen better days

 

Hollywood Road

 

Hong Kong still mixes in images that seem unchanged in 40 years.

Butcher shop in Soho

 

Workers in Central

 

Shopping in SoHo

 

Just like in Shanghai, our first day food choices were excellent. Unlike Shanghai, I had no stomach problems. Our first highly recommended (from the Japanese guide book) stop was a shop specializing in Won Ton soups. It is amazing to me that, only through a map in a book, we could find this one specific restaurant in a country where we don’t speak the language. It shouldn’t be that amazing, really, but it is. The soup was excellent.

Tomo admiring the soup

 

Preparing the special soup

 

While we were wandering around the markets, Tomo stumbled across another of our destinations. I have no idea of the name of the shop, but after we had our soup we headed to this shop for some pork. It wasn’t hard to forget that we were eating pork because we had dead pigs hanging all around us.

Our pork treat

 

Hanging pigs

 

The prep area

 

The pork was delicious, although the skin was a little too crispy for me. The hotel club lounge concierge that we saw a couple of times was shocked that we “really went local.” I enjoy eating good, local cuisine. Is it any different than eating at El Terasco in downtown El Segundo? Probably not.

Finally, Tomo wanted an egg tart and so we went there as well. It was good as well. Of course. I only had a bite, but it was a delicious bite.

Egg tarts for sale

 

We meandered along Hollywood Road and somehow I knew it would take us to The Peak Tram. Or at least the general direction. Hollywood Road is full of Expat bars, so there were a lot of loud, drunk, expats along the way. I did notice so many more foreigners than in Japan. It seems of course that there are many in Japan, but not like Hong Kong. Even Tokyo doesn’t compare.

Last time I was in Hong Kong, I went up to Victoria Peak via the Peak Tram. It is a must-do in Hong Kong as far as I’m concerned, although of course it has been tacky-fied with a wax museum at the top. I guess I have a thing against wax, museums… I’ve never been to one. The tram track can be amazingly steep, and the car or seats are leveled. So before you know it, you see these buildings towering next to you in the mid-levels that are at a completely unbelieveable angle. The buildings, of course, are straight up, but the tram is at an amazing angle.

It seems they’ve built the world’s largest giftshop at the top of the tram, known as the “Sky Terrace.” The Sky Terrace was built in 2007, so it wasn’t around the first time I was in Hong Kong. I prefer the area without the Sky Terrace, but I guess there is money to be made. The view though, did not disappoint, and we could look out over Hong Kong Island over to Kowloon. Interestingly, looking across the harbor to Kowloon, it seemed that the new 118 story International Commerce Center was actually taller than The Peak. I wonder…

View from The Peak

 

There was quite a queue to go back on the tram, so we lounged a bit in a very expensive bar. But, since we were used to Japanese prices, it didn’t seem so expensive! We made it back to the hotel with a full day behind us.

 

The next day I wanted to do a little shopping. I had discovered what so many foreigners learn – my clothes were becoming rags. All the walking back and forth to trains had started to rub worn spots on my pants. And I noticed that my pockets were starting to fray as well. Not very cool. We went to the shopping area below our hotel, but the brands were all a little too pricey for me. Tomo thought we could go to Times Square, but when we got there found out that the Ben Sherman, which is always a good bet for me, had closed. That was basically a bust. We had Dim Sum reservations, so we decided to take the subway because it seemed that it was just below the mall. Except … it wasn’t. Beware in Hong Kong of signs that point you to the subway. You could have a hike ahead.

After the relative failure in the morning, Dim Sum was a hit. I negated the Shark Fin’s Soup on morale grounds. That was unpopular but the only real point of contention during lunch.

Dim Sum in Hong Kong

 

Dumplings

 

After Dim Sum, we decided to take the tram, or Ting-Ting. Tomo knew from his guide that the fare was $2 HK, or about 0.25 USD. We had exact change. Except, three days prior the fare had gone up to $2.30. We didn’t have exact change. The Octopus Card works on the tram, so we went to the subway station and paid $300 HK for two Octopus Cards. That’s an expensive tram ride. The Octopus Card would cause some discord by the end of the trip, but it all worked out, except for $14 HK.

Tram stop

 

Oops, the price just went up

 

Inside the tram

 

We took the tram almost as far as we thought it could go. We were expecting it to round a corner, but an old man yelled at us, basically telling us it was the end of the line. It was. We walked around the dried food area like in Taipei except this time Tomo went away empty handed. Apparently we passed the scrap metal area as well.

Dried food area

 

Dried food area

 

Salvage center

 

We knew we were close to the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road, so we started heading in the general direction. I had been to a similar temple in Kowloon and have the picture hanging in my house.

Tin Hau Temple, Hong Kong, 2004

 

I know we are not supposed to take pictures in the temple but I saw some other guy doing it and he was Asian so I figured it was OK. I’m going to have some karma point withdrawals now. I hope I had enough in reserve.

Man Ho Temple, Hollywood Road

 

Man Ho Temple, Hollywood Road

 

We did a little more shopping, or more appropriately we failed in our shopping attempt and then headed back to the hotel to rest a bit before embarking on a harbor cruise. The harbor was a bit of a tourist trap, but an enjoyable one. Hong Kong has a light show at 8:00 pm, and it was amazingly underwhelming. But we watched it from the boat. We got to cruise, drink, and enjoy the lights of Hong Kong. I was able to get some pictures from it.

Hong Kong Island from Victoria Harbor

 

Tomo has turned into a hotel snob. I can be partially blamed for it, but his work has also introduced him to nice hotels. So when we got off the boat in Kowloon and headed to the Peninsula Hotel. Not bad. We wandered up Nathan Road deep into the heart of Kowloon. Our destination was a restaurant off of Canton Road, and we probably went a little too far because someone’s feet got a little cranky. Not mine. The restaurant was OK, probably the only disappointing food in Hong Kong. We probably ordered poorly. Interestingly the same restaurant is in Tokyo and very expensive. Hopefully the food is better. At 10 pm though, the place was packed with people of all ages.

Kowloon, Nathan Road

 

Kowloon Restaurant, around 10:00 pm

 

As part of Tomo’s hotel snobbery, he really wanted to stay at the brand new Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. Not only the Ritz-Carlton, but the club floor of the Ritz-Carlton. That basically meant a total relaxation day would be in store. Through a special offer, we were even able to get an upgrade to a Junior Suite. Sweet.

International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong

 

The hotel is atop the brand new International Commerce Centre. And by atop, I mean floors 103 to 118 of a 118 story building. For those of you keeping track of tall buildings, that’s tall! We’ve now been toTaipei 101, the Shanghai World Financial Center, Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State Building. But I’ve never fallen asleep so high. Ha ha. The room was great on the 117th, and Herve took very good care of us at the club lounge. The weather was rather rainy and that was just fine – even a better excuse to stay in the hotel. Of course, having to go down 117 floors does discourage you from freely coming and going.

The 117th

 

Restaurant Chandelier

 

The pool and fitness center were on the 118th floor, and the view from the pool was spectacular. Plus, they had an outdoor heated Jacuzzi. It was not unconformtable to sit outside in the rain on the 118th floor enjoying a bath of hot water. Sort of like a mountain top rotenburo.

Swimming on the 118th

 

Fitness Center with a view

 

I was able to find some summer pants that fit me. Thanks to Calvin Klein for suggesting that I have a 30 inch waist. That’s the size of pants I was able to buy, and amazing that all their pants were 34 length. I guess a tailor is cheap in Hong Kong. They fit me quite well though.

The next day, we checked out around 12:30 pm, headed to the airport, and then back to the grind.

It was a nice vacation, a great mix of hustling and relaxing.

Graffiti

 

Himeji and The Davids

For a normal weekend, a Saturday trip to Kanazawa would have been the single plan for the weekend. But not the weekend of the 1st and 2nd of June. Nope, I also planned a trip to Himeji the same weekend.

It turned out that David and David were in Japan again, this time hanging out a little South and West of Tokyo. I had a really good time last time we got together so I wanted to make sure we were able to meet again.

Once again, I had to be at Nagoya Station before 8:00 am. This time the mode of transportation was by train. I had to switch trains in Osaka, and apparently I hopped on the party train. The man next to me was eating a McDonalds hamburger at 8:53 am. Just the smell made my stomach hurt. The four おばあちゃん (middle aged women) in front of me though had a much more direct method of enjoying the train ride. They each popped open a beer and did a kanpai! (cheers!) before we got started. Party on ladies!

Party on!

 

We knew before we got to Himeji that it would be under renovation so the few would be obscured by structure. It did not disappoint, it really was obscured. I had been to Himeji before, so my main purpose was just to hang out with Dave and David. Conveniently we crossed paths (literally) in Shin-Osaka station, although our seats were in different reserved sections.

We had an excellent tour guide who provides free English guided tours. It was probably good with the current conditions of the castle to have the guided tour. Unfortunately, the discussion I remember the most was here absolute enthusiasm when I mentioned “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It turns out she is a HUGE Chow Yun Fat fan.

I was able to get some pictures, but not as many as the last time The Davids and I got together. Still, it was nice catching up with them and I look forward to seeing them in San Francisco one of these days.

Himeji Castle

 

Himeji Castle

 

Himeji Castle

 

Himeji Castle

 

Himeji Castle

 

Himeji Castle

 

Himeji Castle

 

Himeji Castle

 

I left Himeji around 3:00 pm. I was pretty tired. It had been a rather long weekend and in just 4 days I was heading to Hong Kong.

Himeji Castle

 

And don’t forget – no scribbles.

Himeji Castle

 

Road trip to Fukui and Kanazawa

A younger, very social, Japanese colleague of mine recently got his driver’s license AND a car. It isn’t cheap or easy to get your license in Japan, especially if you’ve never had a driver’s license. I wrote extensively about it, as has every gaijin with a blog who bothered to get their license. Araki-san invited me and some others to go on a bit of a road trip to visit the 百万石祭り (hyakumangoku festival). The hykumangoku festival commemorates Lord Maeda Toshiie’s move to Kanazawa castle. But it always seems like it is the journey, and not always the destination that is what the trip is about. Indeed, we had a good time on the journey.

Hyakumangokudori

 

We met around Nagoya Station early on a Saturday morning. Well, not that early but 8:00 am felt early after a nomikai the night before. Until this weekend, Japan had special rates on their highway system – you could get on and off for only 1000 yen, and I believe it was twice in one day. It was set up for economic stimulus. We were able to take the tollway the entire trip.

This was how we rolled.

 

Japan has a number of SAs, or service areas, so you can take a break along the way without getting off the tollroad. We even had a guide to the service areas along the way so we could understand the specialties that each service area would have. We didn’t expect one of the service areas to have special sauce for ice cream like miso. According to one of the signs, “it taste’s like caramel!” Why not just get caramel instead?

Typical service area.

 

Soy sauce and Miso ice cream topping.

Why not chocolate?

Why not caramel?

 

We did get off the tollroad for an excursion into the mountains in Fukui prefecture to enjoy some delicious soba. Rice was being planted by hand across the street from the restaurant. The menu was simple.

Inaka soba restaurant

 

The extensive menu

 

Too arty of a shot of soba

 

Araki-san

 

Outside the rice was getting planted.

Rice planting

Rice planting

 

Continuing back on the highway, there was another big SA right by the sea of Japan. We could even walk down to the water.

Sea of Japan

 

When we got to Kanazawa, we decided to “Park N Ride” because we knew the city center would be crowded. We hustled to the bus stop, and got on the bus the attendant told us to board. Araki-san is from Kanazawa, but about 5 minutes in to the ride I had to say, “Are you sure this bus is going the right direction?” Araki-san replied, “I am starting to wonder …” So leave it to the gaijin would had never been to the city before to figure out we were definitely going the wrong way! But honestly, since I can’t really read anything in cities in Japan (of course I can but it is more dramatic to say I can’t), I probably rely on more intuition than if I was Japanese. We showed a giant act of defiance and refused to pay for the bus. I’m not sure if I am allowed in Kanazawa again, but we were rebels (and grabbed a taxi instead – and with 4 people it cost about the same).

The taxi dropped us off at the edge of the Nagamachi Samurai district, and we wandered through the area until we got to the parade route.

Nagamachi Samurai District

 

Nagamachi Samurai District

 

Nagamachi Samurai District

 

We followed the parade route up to the castle, and spent a little time hanging around the castle grounds and having unhealthy festival food. I had karaage of course and my stomach hurt afterwards, but how can you refuse karaage at a festival?

Kanazawa Castle

 

Kanazawa Castle

 

Araki-san showing us his home

 

From the castle, we went to 兼六園 (kenrokuen), one of the three best gardens in Japan. The famous gardens are 後楽園 (kouraken) in Okayama and 偕楽園 (kairakuen) in Mito. I have already been to Kairakuen when I lived in Mito. I’m lucky to have been to two of the three best gardens! Unfortunately, Kairakuen is closed after the Great Eastern Japan.

Kanrokuen

 

Kanrokuen

 

Kanrokuen

 

Kanrokuen

 

After the garden, we were able to watch the parade. It had the requisite bands, parade queen, but had a few elements that you do see in parades in the US. For example, firemen performing acrobats on ladders erected in the middle of the street by a team of firemen, or samurai walking down the street. Fun.

Hyakumangoku Parade

 

Hyakumangoku Parade

 

Hyakumangoku Parade

 

Hyakumangoku Parade

 

We had wanted to visit a gold leaf shop as the area is famous for gold leaf but unfortunately the shop was closed because of the festival. Ooops. We surprised Araki-san’s parents, especially since they didn’t even know he had a car, failed at visiting a sushi restaurant (too long of a wait) and headed home.

It was a really good time and I am thankful that I was able to spend the time with good friends

You’ve got to look good – always

A few weeks ago, a group of colleagues loosely formed around my Japanese teacher decided it would be a good idea to see a soccer match. I’ve described the Nagoya Grampus in my previous post. The only problem was that it was occurring basically at the same time the remnants of a typhoon were blowing through. It didn’t make for the best weather walking to the stadium.

Rainy day

 

But, in typical Japanese fashion, even if the winds are destroying umbrellas, and you are reduced to a red poncho, it is important to have the Louis Vuitton front and center.

Fashion Sense?

Why carry a Louis Vuitton bag in such a mess? I hope it was a knockoff.
 

The soccer match was fun, and the Grampus won. I think the final score was 5 – 2. Maybe it was 4 – 2. We all emjoyed it.

The true fans