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HK bonus story of terror

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Even though the previous blog post is dated September 8 (the day I started writing it), I didn’t actually get around to finishing and publishing it until earlier this afternoon. I almost totally forgot about the return trip from Hong Kong, which was quite possibly one of the worst travel experiences I’ve ever had. The day I was leaving HK, it had been cloudy and raining here and there for most of the morning. My flight wasn’t until about 3:30 in the afternoon, so I had a pretty easy morning and got to the airport super early.  Checked my bags in, grabbed some roast pork and duck for lunch, and everything seemed to be going fine.

しかし!!

Things did not turn out fine. Due to thunderstorms, our plane was stuck on the tarmac for over 4 hours. This was after we had already boarded and everything, so that entire time we were sitting on the plane, without drinks, TV, food, good air circulation, etc. All the captain/attendants would tell us over the intercom was that fights were delayed due to weather and they would let us know when we would be moving. Oh, and they apologized several times. Which, unfortunately, does absolutely nothing to actually ease the pain of having to sit on an airplane that is not moving for longer than your actual scheduled flight time. I’m sure there are safety regulations to keep planes from letting their passengers off after they’ve boarded once, even though that would have been so much nicer. Better yet, they shouldn’t have boarded our plane at all if they knew that the storms were severe enough to keep us from moving. It’s not like the thunder just came out of nowhere between the time they started boarding and the time they closed the hatch on us. I fell asleep a few times but the time still passed by pretty slowly. Then we finally took off, so you’d think that would be the end of the nightmare.

Nope! About halfway through the 4 hour flight, the captain comes on and tells us that since our arrival time is now looking to be around midnight (8:00 scheduled + 4 hour delay), we will be unable to land at Narita Airport as scheduled. Apparently Narita, the biggest international airport in all of Japan, closes at 11:30 at night. I still don’t understand this one, since I’m sure it doesn’t actually close. But regardless they were no longer going to be taking me to the airport that is about 45 minutes away from my apartment. No, they’re instead going to Haneda, the primarily domestic airport south of Tokyo that is about an hour and a half away from home. That is, if there are trains running. Which there weren’t, since most Japanese trains stop running around midnight. I realized very quickly that I was going to be stranded as Haneda airport with no way to go home, but there wasn’t much I could do before we landed. The air staff also assured us that they’d “take care of us and help us get home” which made me think, with the slight bit of optimism I still had left at that point, that they would either put me up in a hotel near Haneda or pay for a cab all the way home. I should have known that wouldn’t happen.

Arrived at Haneda, and everyone is stranded. The airline, ANA, gave all passengers 5000 yen (about 50 USD) as we exited the plane. That’s all. No hotel stays, no coupons for flights, nothing. And of course at this point there are no trains, and a taxi back to Chiba would have cost me well over 200 (maybe even 300) dollars US. There was a super pissy Australian guy with long hair who made a bit of a whiny scene at the payphone lobby, but there’s not much to go into there. So yeah I was trying to figure out what to do, and eventually I decided to just take a taxi to the southernmost (i.e. closest) part of Tokyo, where hopefully there would be a capsule hotel or a net cafe. Talked to the cabbie and told him my situation. Shinagawa was close but there weren’t really any net cafes there. So I opted for Gotanda, which was fairly close and has some net cafes (in addition to lots of super shady stores and people around the vicinity). Taxi fare cost me like 7000 yen, and I had to spend the night in a cheap net cafe, which cost another 2000 yen. Thanks a lot ANA for a great welcome back.

I went home the next morning at about 8AM tired, still pissed, and lugging my suitcases around. The only extremely minor benefit from this excursion to the net cafe was that I got to watch Ame-Talk for the first time, which is actually a pretty funny talk show. But yeah that was it. The ordeal wasn’t enough to ruin the HK trip necessarily, but it was a pretty terrible way to end my last vacation during my stay in Japan.

Almost forgot – HK 2010

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HK dai pai dong

It’s officially too late to write about this, but here goes anyway.  Back at the end of July I took a trip to Hong Kong since I figured it would be a lot easier and cheaper to do it from Japan than from the US at some point later on.  Got a pretty cheap flight from HIS and off I was to HK for about 5 days.  Derek and Christy were nice enough to take those days off from work to hang out and show me around.  Also got to meet up with Sunny and Chris on my second day in town.  This was like my fourth trip so by now I at least know how to get around and stuff, but there’s always new stuff to see, explore, and eat.  Despite my fairly limited travel experience (compared to most “global travelers”) I still think that Hong Kong has the best food on the planet overall.  It doesn’t help that I was raised on Cantonese food and love eating in general.  But I mean come on – it doesn’t get any better than dim sum, does it?

I arrived in HK on a Friday night.  Bought a prepaid SIM card for super cheap (100 HKD?  Only around 15 USD) and put it in this crappy unlocked phone I had.  Talk about easy!  Even my prepaid GoPhone in the US didn’t seem this easy to set up.  I think it only took me about 3 minutes to buy the SIM chip, install it, and make my first call.  After that I snagged a taxi from the airport to Derek’s place which wasn’t too far away.  Cheap taxis in Asia are always a nice change from Japanese taxis, which might be cleaner but are also about 10 times as expensive.  The next day got dim sum for brunch and checked out a huge mall in the afternoon.  And yes the legends about Derek are true – he has a Spiderman Golden Master Pass to every gym in HK.  During our visit to the mall he ducked out for a 15 minute workout in the gym that was conveniently located inside the same building.  About an hour and a half later he was finished.  I totally thought Hiroaki was joking about Derek doing this, but it’s totally true.  The man is a machine.

Anyway that night we had Chinese hotpot which is a lot different from Japanese nabe or shabushabu even though the basic premise is the same: take a bunch of pieces of food, put it in boiling soup until it’s cooked, eat, repeat.  This was at a chain restaurant called Little Fat Sheep, and it was great.  It’s all you can eat for 2 hours although they don’t really care about the time limit since it’s pretty impossible to eat hotpot for 2 hours straight.  Tons of meat, vegetables, and “other” keeps coming at you on little trolleys, and you have two soups on a burner in the center of your table to put it in.   One was like a standard mild soup, and the other one was a spicy one.  Spicy in China is not the same as spicy in Japan.  Here, the soup was literally filled with red chili peppers, cut in half so as to release their spiciness throughout the pot.  You couldn’t put your ladle in the pot to scoop out your cooked meat without getting half a scoop of chili peppers every time.  Since I didn’t want to die, I left a sizable pile of uneaten peppers on my plate.  I hope I wasn’t the only one since I’m sure I looked like a wuss.

Next day hit up a Vietnamese place for lunch and got on a bus for Shenzhen, China.  Last time, I took the train up to cross the border, but the bus was also really cheap and fast.  You have to change buses when you get close to the border, but it’s an easy process and in just about 2 hours total we had moved from a shopping center in Hong Kong, which sold global luxury brands like Gucci, Prada, LV, and Coach, to the giant mega shopping center in Shenzhen who sold copies of global luxury brands like Gucci, Prada, LV, and Coach.  That evening we went to this spa place, which at first sounded really sketch, but when I got there it was actually really nice and clean.  The place was called Water Cube, or 水立方 in Chinese.  No, not the Water Cube from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but a spa in Shenzhen who has cleverly stolen the name.  At first when Derek and Christy were talking about going to a spa/massage place I had imagined like a super shady happy ending place.  But when we got there it was more like a family-oriented resort fused with the nicest high-end Japanese internet cafe you can imagine.  You get there and go to segregated locker rooms.  You can shower, use the hot tubs, jacuzzis, etc., then you head to the main area (which is co-ed) where everyone is wearing the same goofy Chinese pajamas.  You don’t have to carry your wallet around with you, since any charges are just billed to your locker number which is on a plastic wristband you wear around.  Drinks and fruit are free, but there’s a restaurant in the building where we got some dinner.  The food was good and cheap, since it’s like that pretty much everywhere in China. You’re free to roam around the place – there were tons of sections of super comfy leather easy chair recliners, pool tables, ping pong, fruit and juice bars, a video game corner, and even a room with a giant projector screen.  Each chair has its own TV and there are attendants running around everywhere whenever you need something, or are too lazy to go to the juice bar to get your own glass of watermelon juice (which is the nectar of the gods).  You’re charged a really low entrance fee and can pretty much stay as long as you like.  There’s TV, internet, and magazines and stuff to relax with, then of course there are massage packages and individual massages you can get.  Everything is pretty cheap and they just add it to your bill.  You can even sleep there over night if you want on the recliners: they turn the main lights off and everything.  The whole place is pretty much just a huge awesome internet cafe with better food and with massage options.  I’m not really a huge massage guy, but I did get a “foot scraping” where an old Chinese dude comes and uses a straight razor to shave dead skin off your feet.  It sounds horrible, but that was probably the weirdest and oddly awesome experiences of my trip.  I definitely recommend hitting up one of these types of places in Shenzhen if you get a chance – you probably  need to take someone who speaks Chinese with you though because otherwise you have to do a lot of sign language which sometimes works but is kind of a pain in the butt.  My favorite gesture is the “I dunno” head shrug with both hands.

Did some of the standard shopping in Shenzhen for bootleg movies and cheap clothes before heading back to Hong Kong on the train.  Stopped by Temple Street on my way back to do some shopping and eating at the dai pai dong street stalls, which are amazingly cheap and delicious.  The last day of my trip was pretty much just buying souvenirs for friends in Japan, and eating.  It was a great trip and I really hope I can make it again sometime.  And hey now I can get back to writing about stuff that didn’t happen 2 months ago!

HK Trip – double thumbs up

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heeeeeeeyyyyy
One final post about the Hong Kong/Macau/China trip (probably). I think I covered all the major stuff I did in the overly long entries I wrote before this one. It was a great trip and I definitely want to go back again sometime. I think getting a group of people to go one day would be ideal, since we can just order ridiculous amounts of food and all only pay a few bucks.

Thinking back to HK, I think the subways and trains over there and even in China might rival if not beat the Japanese ones. If there are any Japanese people reading this right now I’m sure they’re thinking to themselves “that’s impossible” but it’s pretty true. HK’s trains seemed cleaner, bigger, and smoother. Sure HK has a lot less area to cover than say, JR East, but I was still really happy with it. I don’t think I ever waited for any train more than 4 or 5 minutes. The only negative is that there are no luggage racks up top in the cars, which doesn’t make sense. There are LCD screens inside the cars that show of course loads of advertisements but also some other programming. Japanese trains pretty much have only weather and stuff, but the train in China had an America’s Funniest Home Videos-type show on that was pretty funny because the category was “animals attacking men below he belt.”

Cell phone etiquette is also totally diferent from Japan. Whereas pretty much everyone in Japan follows the rules of putting their phones on silent or vibrate in public places, HK seems to be the complete opposite. I can’t read much Chinese, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were signs in the trains saying “Please turn your phone’s ringer ALL THE WAY UP.” There was an almost constant barrage of C-Pop MP3 ringtones anywhere you go, with people always picking up their phones and starting conversations (WEI!) wherever they are, yelling enthusiastically into their handsets. This is probably because the average Cantonese conversation is the same decibel and excitement level as a Japanese person trapped in a burning building full of children. In Japan on the train if someone gets a call you see them cupping their phones to their head as if it were a severed ear, whispering quietly, ashamed that their silent conversation might be inconveniencing someone else.

OK I think that’s everything about the HK trip for now. I need to get to bed.

World Tour 2009

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Let me share with you some pictures from my most recent travels:
Window of the World
I saw the Pyramids, the Statue of Liberty, that Jesus statue, the Coliseum, Niagara Falls, the Taj Mahal, Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, Easter Island, Angkor Wat, the Grand Canyon, Stonehenge, and a bunch of other famous world landmarks. Pretty impressive, right?

Well it would be, if this wasn’t all in the same afternoon in some theme park in Shenzhen, China.

Last Monday I took the East Rail from Hong Kong up to the border into China to check things out. Ari told me about this park called Window of the World that has replicas of most of the world monuments and landmarks all crammed into one park. A lot of the replicas are just small models, but there are some pretty big ones. Eiffel Tower I think was one of the largest, since it’s kind of like the park mascot. The park was cheesy as hell but still a pretty cool way to spend an afternoon. I only had one day in China and wanted to do some shopping in the evening so I kind of did a quick tour of the park in one afternoon. I got to see almost everything I think.

世界之窗

After walking around in the sun seeing replicas of all the landmarks of the world in one day, I headed back to the station near the border where there is a giant shopping center similar to Ya Show in Beijing, full of small shops selling bootleg and fake stuff. It’s called Luoho and it’s this giant building immediately in front of you after leaving the station into Shenzhen. I didn’t buy too much this time, some DVDs, some shirts, and a pair of shoes. Like Ya Show you have to bargain with everyone, which is half the fun right there. I got the fake shoes I bought down from 400 RMB to less than 100. The guy also offered me one of his sisters to take as my wife for free but I just wanted the shoes. Food in China is also even cheaper than Hong Kong I think – I had BBQ pork for dinner and it was like 3 or 4 bucks US.

Casino War

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Last Sunday I decided against just walking around aimlessly in Hong Kong (which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea) and decided to take the ferry out to Macau. Macau is technically a separate “special administrative region of China,” meaning that I’d need to bring my passport to go through customs. That worked for me, since my Passport is filling up fast and I want to get some new pages added soon anyway.

After taking the hotel’s free shuttle to the general vicinity of the China Ferry pier, I still ended up wandering for about 45 minutes trying to find the right pier. I asked someone and their answer was “go to the shiny gold building,” which made me think I was actually trapped in some kind of weird video game. Anyway after a detour through a pretty nice mall and eating Chinese-style curry for lunch, I arrived at the golden pier and hopped a boat to Macau. The guy I asked was apparently not lying. The ferry only takes about an hour, and the ride was really nice. I think I slept most of the way.

Gold building
Of course the gold building is the boat to casino island.

Arriving in Macau doesn’t feel like you’re in a different country from Hong Kong at all. It looks pretty much the same, but they have their own currency. However this currency is pretty useless if you’re only going to the casinos like I did, since all the games are played in Hong Kong dollars. Macau is a really old Portugese colony and has a lot of historical sights and stuff, but I spent most of my afternoon at the Sands Casino, which is yet another huge shiny gold building. The inside was pretty similar to what I remember from Las Vegas, only without the cigar smoke and free alcohol. Also 90% of the people were Chinese/Asian, and 90% of those people were senior citizens. I put a limit on myself for the day’s gambling from the get-go, and was actually doing pretty good at one point playing roulette and $100 HKD a hand blackjack. And of course I lost most of that by the evening.

The games were pretty much what I expected, but baccarat seemed to be predominant. Also sic-bo and some dice game that I have no idea about. There was also War, as in the card game played by kids who can’t play real card games. Except in the casino the minimum bet is $100. There were also dancers on the bar most of the time (wearing clothes of course), but during breaks they were playing a BoA DVD. It felt weird to be sitting in China listening to a Korean girl sing in Japanese. Quick note: the McDonald’s inside Sands sells Egg McMuffins at any time of day, which is amazing. The HK ones do too, but this was where I made the discovery initially.

I started and ended my Macau trip at Sands, but in between I also walked around the Fisherman’s Wharf area there, which was mostly tourist traps but with some cool buildings. There was an old-style Chinese castle, a volcano, some funky stone gates, and a bunch of Babylonian architecture that was part of another casino. The volcano had an arcade in the basement that was dirt cheap so I played some Street Fighter there in the wrong aspect ratio. I felt like I was in high school through since you have to buy tokens to use any of the arcade machines. (Exhilarama in Crestwood Mall was pretty cool the first few years.) I also went over to the Golden Dragon casino, which is super local with almost no English signs or instructions anywhere, and almost exclusively baccarat. Also I’m pretty sure that everything in the building above the 5th floor was some form of brothel. Karaoke in China (KTV) is not the same as karaoke in Japan.

Sands Casino

After getting the 9:30PM boat back to Hong Kong, I checked into my second hotel (cheaper and more stuff in the area). It was pretty late so I just went to Temple Street and got some awesome food at a street restaurant. Beef chow fun (乾炒牛河) might be one of my favorite noodle dishes ever. Also this whole big plate cost me like USD $3.

I can never get food like this in Japan

Up, up, and away

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Saturday in Hong Kong I woke up early to go do some sightseeing with Sunny. I was staying on the Kowloon side, so I had to take the Star Ferry to the Hong Kong side, then from there I took another ferry to Lantau Island. I don’t think I’ve ridden on a boat in a while so it was pretty cool. The first one was only about 5 minutes, then the second was about a half hour.

Ferry in 香港

After getting to Discovery Bay, met up with Sunny and her boyfriend at the pier and we got dim sum at some restaurant overlooking the beach. If memory serves me right, the place was named FAGORA or something funny like that. They had good chicken feet. DB was a pretty cool place, like a little resort town with a lot of expats and higher-end residents. We sat on the patio facing the bay, and it looked more like Hawaii or some tropical island; pretty different from where I was in Kowloon the day before where it seems to not be a requirement to wear shoes, but it was a definite rule that you have to spit on the sidewalk a lot.

Discovery bay

I just realized that these Hong Kong blogs might have a lot of pictures. Oh well.

After brunch we took a bus to Tung Chung, where we were going to take the “cable car” up to the area where the Big Buddha statue was. For some reason I was expecting like a trolley that you’d see in San Fransisco: a slow crawl up a hill with a lot of old ladies all humming the Rice-a-Roni theme song. No. Instead I see a long cable going up a tall-ass mountain with little metal and glass cars speeding along it. Holy crap. So we ended up taking this 25-minute cable car in the sky up the mountain to the area with a tourist village, a monastery, and of course the giant Buddha statue. The cable car is called the Ngong Ping 360, since the cars are made of glass and you can look out from every angle. Of course, the key direction to pay attention to is down, since if you’re looking down and it seems to be coming very fast towards you, then you’re falling and you will soon die. Luckily every time I looked down the ground was staying about the same level vertically, and I did not plummet to my death. Luckily.

Cable car up the mountain

The above pretty much sums up my feelings during the ride. OK so I’m exaggerating a little bit; it wasn’t that bad.

No, actually it was pretty terrifying, especially with the wind blasting the little car the entire way in every possible direction. But let’s move on, shall we?

Once we got off the little hamster cage cable car, we were in Ngong Ping village, supposedly set up like a traditional village but was really a tourist trap with a lot of gift shops and little restaurants. There was even a very traditional Chinese Starbucks. Our cable car tickets included two little activities, both related to Buddha and both cartoons. It was nice to take a break from walking in the sun though. Finally we got up close to the main attraction: a giant Buddha statue that was visible from the cable car earlier, but looked a lot bigger in person. According to wikipedia, it’s 110 feet tall.

Tian Tan Buddha

Sure it’s impressive, but it does feel a bit cheap knowing that it’s only been around since 1993.

On the way back down from checking out Big Buddha we got some herbal jelly made with tortoise in the village (which was actually not bad, and supposedly good for you), then headed back to Central to get dinner. Had a TON of food, which was all awesome. Spicy crab in a mountain of fried garlic, a steamed whole grouper, squid, tofu, fried rice, and red bean soup. It was an awesome touristy day overall.

No more cable cars though, please.

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