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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!

Chinese APad/iPed


Saw a Japanese news report earlier today on YouTube via TokyoMango about a Chinese iPad knockoff called the APad (or iPed?) that’s been popping up recently.  The reporter goes to the big shopping center in Shenzhen to check out the device at a shop selling it.  To be honest, I think I’d be more likely to buy one of these than a real iPad, especially since I’m thinking of heading over to HK or China sometime before August anyway.

The device’s casing looks almost exactly like the iPad, and it has a camera and full touchscreen.  To make it even better it also runs Android meaning that the thing is probably super customizable and would give you more freedom than a real iPad ever would without maybe jailbreaking it or something.  Sure the specs might not be as good as the real thing, but considering that it costs less than USD$100 I’d say it’s not a bad deal.  I’m not likely to spend 500 bucks on an iPad that I realistically wouldn’t use that much, but if I have a chance to get an APad I think it’d be worth having another toy to play around with.

On a side note it’s funny how often Japanese news has stories on Chinese knockoffs and counterfeits.  I always get the impression that rather than just providing information they’re trying to just point fingers at China for “being bad.”  Knockoffs are an awesome alternative to people who can’t or won’t by the original devices, and it’s hard to believe that the APad is actually going to have any effect on iPad sales.  Especially considering the iPad isn’t even officially available in China  yet.

Blue Island

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Spent last week in Qingdao (Tsingtao), China for work. It was a pretty short and busy trip but it was nice to get to travel again, especially in a place where I’m mostly illiterate and unable to communicate without pointing at pictures or making Hadouken-like motions with my arms. That’s always kind of fun.

On Monday afternoon I arrived at Narita a little bit later than planned, but it didn’t matter since my flight was delayed over 2 hours. I got a 1000 yen food voucher that I used at Subway to get a foot-long smoked turkey and avocado sub, which was way too much food but it was free so no foul. Finally got to Beijing where of course I had missed my connecting flight due to the delay, but it was easy enough for Air China to put me on another flight to Qingdao. This was unfortunately also the very last flight out of the Beijing airport, meaning I had a few more hours to kill in an airport. It was pretty late at night so most of the shops were closed but they had a KFC open where I got a sandwich and “9 Lives Juice” which was a fruit juice blend and not a magical potion. There was snow on the ground in Beijing.

From the Qingdao airport I took a taxi to my hotel, which was like a 40 minute ride but since it’s China and not Japan the fare was less than USD $12. Slept and spent the week attending a conference for work which was fairly uneventful except for one night where I was taken out by a client to a really nice dinner with about 12 people, only 1 of whom spoke English. Chinese dinner parties are awesome because the theme always seems to be “let’s order more food than we could ever possibly eat.” Probably because food and things are so cheap, this is a good way to throw a good party and kind of show off to your guests. There was all kinds of different dishes including tons of good seafood since Qingdao is a coastal city. Got to try conch and sea cucumber for the first time. The restaurant we went to was also a few doors down from the Tsingtao beer brewery, so we had pitchers of fresh beer all over the table. I actually don’t really even like Tsingtao beer in bottles, but the 2 varieties they had at the dinner must have been different from what’s in the bottles. Had a wheat ale-tasting one and a dark lager that tasted a lot like chocolate. Both were some of the best beers I’ve had ever.

Everyday I’d be at the conference until the late afternoon, come back to the hotel to get changed, then walk around and explore the area. There was a Carrefour across the street and a Jusco down the road, plus some smaller shops and a lot of restaurants in the area near my hotel. Walked through a few market streets but nothing big like in Hong Kong. They did the sailing events or something for the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Qingdao so they city was pretty cleaned up – maybe getting rid of or at least relocating street markets was part of that. I saw 2 street markets that were more like flea markets, with hawkers setting up their stuff on tarps on the street. Probably so they can all pack up and run if the cops come to shut them down? Speaking of the Olympics, on my last night in town I walked to the pier area where the sailing events all took place and it was pretty nice. They had a huge boardwalk area with really modern architecture, and this sweet “Olympics” pier that took about 15 minutes to walk to the end of. The bottom level of this pier had restaurants and bars, but the top part was just a giant elevated walkway with the flags of the world, each with its own spotlight. It’s hard to explain but it was pretty awesome looking especially walking down at night.

No other big stories from Qingdao but my second night in town I walked into some random restaurant that had pictures of their menu on the wall. I chose a dish that looked like huge plate of beef and vegetables with some chili peppers. When it came out, I realized that the amount of beef and vegetables was almost equal to the amount of garlic and hot red and green chilies. This thing was ultra mouth-searing spicy, but it was amazing and I ate almost all of it. I’m glad I ordered a bowl of white rice to go with it. Also tried a kaiten-sushi in China for the first time ever, which wasn’t bad but was closer to American sushi than real Japanese. They had a lot of crazy rolls with random ingredients in them. Not as good as Kappa.

Coming back into Narita on Friday night I got an extra long inspection at customs. The officer even commented something like “so you’ve been to China quite a few times, huh?” I wonder if this was just a coincidence or if having the super thick passport has something to do with it. I don’t think I’ve ever had to even open my bag up at customs. Oh well.

Level 100 Passport

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My passport is maxed out. No more blank pages. Well, there are two or three pages in the back that are blank but I didn’t realize until today that these are special pages only for amendments or stuff to your passport. I’ve got no more blank pages for visas/stamps. Normally this would be an awesome thing – a fine accomplishment for a world traveler. But today it helped make my morning a huge pain in the ass.

I’m heading to Qingdao, China next week. I was planning on going to the Chinese embassy last Friday to get my visa, but I realized that you have to already have your roundtrip airplane ticket and hotel reservation made to apply. I didn’t have that, so I booked them over the weekend. This morning, I headed to the embassy to apply for the visa. They’re only open from 9AM-12 noon, and the place is about an hour away from me, so it’s already a little inconvenient. I planned on getting there at 11-ish, and to play it on the safe side I grabbed a taxi from the station since I didn’t remember how to get there and didn’t feel like wandering around lost in the cold wind and rain. As an added bonus I found the long-lost sixth Great Lake separating me from the taxi, which I discovered by using my foot as a measuring device. The depth was “knee.” The taxi was also far away enough that I needed to step into the water with my other foot too, which ensured I would be squishing my way around town the rest of the day.

Got to the Chinese embassy, waited a while, then presented my finished paperwork and passport, at which point it was explained that I’m an idiot who should have read the actual passport text: the last two pages are for special amendments only and NOT for normal visas or stamps. So my passport hasn’t had any fully blank visa pages since July, and I find this out with less than 7 days before I’m supposed to go to China. Chinese embassy can’t let me apply for a visa with no blank space, so I’m referred to the US embassy who can add the necessary pages. Went into the hallway to call the US embassy, with a nice receptionist who transferred me to the passport department. No one picked up at the passport section, even after I navigated through 3 levels of their phone menu system, with each stage having what seemed like a 10 minute message of instructions, menu options, and probably the entire United States Constitution. The long menu at least let me know that the passport section is only open from 9-12 and 2-4, which is 2 hours better than China.

Either way I figure I should get out of there and head over to the US embassy, in hopes of getting helped during that 2 hour afternoon window of service. I already know I’m going to have to come back to Tokyo at least two more times this week. At this point I was getting pretty pissed off, walking back out into the pouring rain down the street screaming obscenities and making other weird noises. Probably not the best of choices since I was walking past Chinese guards who were likely armed and looking for an excuse to shoot someone cursing in English and growling like a dinosaur.

Finally got through to the US embassy, was told that they usually require a web reservation and all reservations for today were full. I explained my situation and they told me I could come and wait, but there was no guarantee they could help me. Chinese visa takes 4 days to process or 2-3 days with the extra 3000 yen rush charge, so I figured I needed to try and get my passport fixed ASAP. Grabbed lunch and entered the US embassy at 2, waited in line for about 45 minutes before I got helped, which wasn’t really that bad. During my waiting I got to observe some military wife who reminded me how annoying people can be, as she seemed unable to shut up. In between her sentences she spat out a constant stream of “OK”s and “yeah”s, and even when she was walking out of the lobby to the passport photo booth she was talking to herself the entire way. There was also what appeared to be an American guy with his Japanese wife and their kid applying for a passport. The kid was maybe 14 and had the rattiest rat-tail I’ve ever seen, going all the way to his waist. I hope he gets refused entry into the US – we’ve got enough of that kind of people as it is.

At first they were going to mail my passport back to me in “5-10 days” but I told them my story and they said I could come get it tomorrow. Of course it only takes 1 day; all they’re doing is putting a few extra pages in the passport! But I was at least grateful they could do it for me. I’m going to go back tomorrow morning to pick up my passport, then head back to the Chinese embassy. It doesn’t help that there’s a typhoon on the forecast.

But yeah in short it’s pretty sweet that I filled up my passport. But if anyone else is getting close don’t make the mistake that I did in assuming the last 2 pages are just normal visa pages. You can apply to get extra pages for free if you’re getting close. At least I didn’t find this out trying to get back into the US for X-Mas or something.

Almost forgot about this. This was the best customs poster I saw during my last trip. No, probably ever. It’s from the Hong Kong Food and Environmental Hygiene Department warning about fines for smuggling raw meat and vegetables across the border. Or something like that (I can’t read Chinese).

I don’t know what’s better, the fact that the old woman has a giant flannel bag full of raw chickens, or her bright velvet Rick James pants.

Poster from the HK Food and Environmental Hygiene Department

HK Trip – double thumbs up

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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.

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