Friday, March 30, 2007

la isla bonita

For our last full day in Taipei, we headed up to Danshui, the end of the MRT line and the place where the river empties into the sea.

An old port town, Danshui is the home of a university, and several forts dating from the times of Dutch and Portuguese trade and expansionism. One of these forts is Fort San Domingo. Though it's not an incredibly striking building, it was interesting to learn about the local history and especially the role the Dutch East India company played in opening China to trade. Again we were able to borrow English earphone guides, this time for a rental fee. Though they were helpful, they were not as thorough and polished as those at the 2-28 Museum; most of the information coming out through the headphones was written, sometimes verbatim, on the posters scattered around the fortress grounds.

After visiting the fortress and walking up and down the boardwalk, looking at the ocean, we tarried for a few minutes in the market streets. We were able again to find boba coffee, which was exciting, this time writing down the characters for what we wanted on another scrap of paper and showing it to the juice john. Chewing on tapioca pearls, we made our way back to Danshui station. Though we had sighted a veggie restaurant sign on our walk, the shop was closed.

Back in the city, we disembarked from the subway at Minquan West Road, intending to check out Caves bookstore, the notable English language bookstore. Unfortunately, again, they didn't have much in the way of Taiwanese lit in translation - perhaps a few countable on one hand, and very expensive. We then found a veg restaurant with a buffet - Song Ching - where we enjoyed a very fresh, cheap, and varied heaping helping of dinner.

We had planned to go to see Chinese opera at Taipei Eye - the LP had said there were performances on Thursday through Saturday evenings. Showing up about an hour before the supposed showtime, though, we were disappointed to find out that the LP had been wrong: showings are only scheduled on Friday and Saturday nights. As it was our last full day in Taiwan, we had missed our chance. Note to self: write LP and tell them about this mistake in their guidebook.

We headed again to the Shida night market, as it was the same neighborhood as the cafe we had been told to visit, Mo!Relax, owned by some friends of friends. This was a great place, and the young proprietors Dizzy and ShiChi were so super cool and friendly. He's a designer, she's a translator, and they use the cafe as an office, working on their own projects at the same time as overseeing the business. When we went, all the tables were full of friendly lounging hipsters, many with laptops. Definitely a rad place to hang out, feeling more like a living room than a cafe, with a homey atmosphere and shelves full of cds and design books. I'm in the process of co-writing an article about these guys for Ping Magazine, so more on them to come. But in the meantime, an excellent place to check out if you find yourself in Taipei.

At about one a.m. we said our goodbyes, laden with gifts from the gregarious couple, and caught a cab back to our hotel for a few winks before having to pack up and head back to Tokyo.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


Something that's a nice change about being in Taiwan is that people smile. They're curious, interested, helpful. They don't give the stone-cold stare or look at you funny for being in their general vicinity.

We went to Yangmingshan National Park for a look-see. Setting off from Taipei main station, we plotted our day at a Mr. Brown's coffee shop. I was leery of this place, because they have a brand of canned coffee that's not that great. Well, I used to like canned coffee. But the novelty's worn off. And I mostly can't stand the stuff anymore. But the coffee shop was quite decent, their lattes and cakes made and served with skill and attention to detail. A pleasant surprise. We found, after some searching, the bus to Yangmingshan. The LP advises that it's possible to catch the bus from Zhongxiao road. It turns out this is true, but the line begins on the north side of the station, outside the train terminal.

It took about 30 minutes or so to get to the bus drop off. From there, it's a short hike to the visitors' center. Unfortunately, the maps provided there are not helpful for walking in the area. There's an English map for sale in the giftshop which we didn't buy.

Yangmingshan park is very beautiful. Too bad we didn't get to see very much of it. The weekday shuttle bus is infrequent and the bus stops are poorly posted. We wanted to see the waterfall, but it was a really long hike and we couldn't figure out how to catch the bus, even with the help of the welcome center staff. We sat around what we thought was a bus stop for at least an hour, feeding squirrels, partridges, and a really cool bird with a long blue tail that would occasionally swoop in and steal some bread.

Finally, tired of waiting, we went out to the main road and managed to flag a cab down. She had no idea what we were saying when we tried to pronounce the name of the waterfall, but I had written down the characters and showed them to her and recognition dawned on her face. She drove us there (it would have been a very long walk indeed) and we hiked down the last little ways to see it. Lovely; but it was getting dark already and we had a slim chance of catching the last shuttle bus. Either that, or we would have to try to flag down another cab on the lonely mountain road.

Fortunately, just as we emerged from the woodsy path and onto the road and to the bus stop, the shuttle appeared. From the bus plaza we caught another bus back into the city and wended our long way down the mountain, surrounded by students and folks with flowers and vegetables sticking out of their shopping bags.

We found a veggie restaurant at Taipower station called Su Yuen and then hit the Shida night market, where we finally achieved boba iced coffees with the assistance of a helpful teashop keeper. Chewy cool deliciousness.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

raining today

Today we wanted to go to the national park, and headed to Taipei main station with that goal in mind. It's drizzling as we get some lunch. It's raining as we exit. And by the time we start looking for the bus, it's pouring. Nix that idea.

Instead we hopped over to check out the 2-28 Peace Park and Memorial Museum. The park is pretty, with gardens and a big monument to the events of 2/28/1947, but the museum is what stands out.

Aided by the free English earphone guide (the signs are mostly in Chinese), we learned a lot about the history of Taiwan since WWII. Especially interesting was learning about the role of Japanese imperialism and the clash between the Communist party on the mainland and the Nationalist party headed by Chiang Kai-shek. I liked this better than the National Palace Museum - though the artifacts there were beautiful, I found it much more interesting to learn about the history of Taiwan through the stories of its people.

We headed again to Taipei station for some more veggie buffet excellence, then over to the Shilin night market to peruse the scene. Checking out the youth and fashion over there, it's noticeably more casual than Tokyo - still cute, but much more laid back. Illustrating this is the fact that there are way more flat shoes in Taipei. You still glance the occasional high heel, but even these tend to be kitten heels, and not the killer three-inch and higher fuck-me pumps that all the débutantes in Tokyo seem to wear. Refreshing, that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

First full day Taipei

We got a late start, sleeping in at our cozy little hotel. Luckily, the MRT station was at our doorstep. Soon we alit at Shilin station, two blocks from which was rumored to be a vegetarian restaurant. We hadn't gotten 50 feet from the exit, though, when the sign jumped out at us: "Vegetarian Kitchen", the sign exclaimed, under some other Chinese characters. We went right in and were greeted in a friendly manner by a man who introduced himself as Ken and had lived, he said, in North Carolina. He helped us with the menu and talked to us about Japan, where he got deals on freeze dried coffee and other imported wonders.

We proceeded on the bus to the National Palace Museum, an impressive place surrounded by a lush green valley creeping up into the surrounding mountains. Inside is housed a wonderful collection of Chinese art dating thousands of years back. The whole place smelled gorgeously of jasmine and had many fetching exhibits and plenty of elbow room. My favorite exhibit was the one about seals, or hanko, as they are known in Japan. Though everyone here uses them instead of a signature on important documents, I have yet to get one of my own, instead using one of the family's whenever a delivery needs to be signed for or I need to open a bank account. The exhibit, though, was beautiful, and featured some prehistoric seals as well as videos detailing the craft of seal-making. Now I'm inspired to design and have made one of my own, to register with the city office and use on my letters and documents. The thing that most struck me, I think, was the way that the seals were added to artists' canvasses and so became a part of the artwork.

After the museum, we headed back into downtown. On the way there, we passed many houses and apartment buildings that, though in no way as decrepit as those I saw in Hong Kong, still had an air of gentle decay about them. This was most obviously manifested as rusting and crumbling. Remarkably, a good deal of the residences we saw had, in addition to the abundance of greenery in the surrounding areas, their own trees and other potted plants, tumbling from balconies and climbing up railings. It seemed to me that nature was attempting to reclaim the buildings of the city, and that the city was in agreement.

We made a stop at the excellent Eslite bookstore in search of Taiwanese literature in translation, but alas found none. The LP recommends "Notes of a Desolate Man", which they didn't have, but which I've ordered from and is on its way.

As night fell, we headed off to the night markets. First though, we ducked into Longshan Temple. And we were so happy that we did! This temple is a cacophony of light and sound and smell. As we entered past the wall of glowing lanterns and the prostate monks and blind masseuses, we were assaulted by the dazzle of the courtyard. Everything is gilded and gleaming: golden detailing on the ornately carved roof corners; myriad sculpted animal figures cavorting in groups and lit from within - dragons, pigs, birds; a huge incense pot and people praying under fringed lanterns; vendors hawking food offering and incense in elaborate piles. The temple houses many religions - Buddhism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship at least, along with probably a few others. The multidenominationalism adds to the general clamor of the place and makes it, in my estimation, much, much better than Disneyland. Head to Longshan Temple for light, color, and spiritual revelation. I offered some incense to my ancestors and headed for Snake Alley.

First, though, we were hungry, and on the way to the market I spied the character that means vegetarian: 素 (su). Upon closer investigation, this sign hovered over a stall selling steamed buns, one of which was veggie. We purchased a pair and bit tentatively into them. Delicious!! I think they were NT$10, which works out to about thirty cents for the both of them.

Into Snake Alley for a peek where, mercifully, I didn't see any snake disembowelment. Tired by that time, we just idly perused the wares before hopping back onto the subway in order to as quickly as possibly crawl into our freshly made beds.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Ni hao Taipei

We touched down in Taipei about ten p.m. It's called Chiang Kai Shek airport, or so I thought, but then I noticed a funny thing: on signs and postings, the airport seems to be called the Taoyuan airport. I wondered if this was to disassociate from CKS himself, and it seems this is so.

Driven into Taiwan by an extremely friendly cabbie, we got our first taste of the character of Taiwanese people: chatty, smiley, and eager to converse and help out. He tried to teach us some words and to demonstrate the tones using "wo". Which means "I" and "car" and some other things, I think. We repeated after him, trying to mimic the different intonations, and he just laughed at us. Well. He dropped us off just in front of our obscure hotel. We checked in to the Yo Tong Regency, a small but friendly and standard business hotel with extremely convenient access to Zhongxiao Dunhua station - our elevator was only steps away from the subway entrance. The staff is really nice and helpful, lending ethernet cables and extension cords and otherwise being generally useful. We ventured out into the late night to find a chain of tea shops open right behind the hotel. We fumblingly ordered two ice coffees, which were huge and came, milky and sweet, in half-carafes, filled to the brim. Buzzing with the caffeine and neon, we retreated to our 13th floor room and slept sound til morning.

Friday, March 23, 2007


Kenta, one of my most impish students, was terrorizing Ms. K. "Yada!" she reprimanded. "Cut it out!"

Kenta scurried away and she shook her head. "Itazura" (悪戯) she told me.

Means michief. Or Itazura-ko, mischievous child. Which Kenta certainly is.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Very Important Moss and other great attractions

On our last full day in Kyoto, we readied ourselves for a hearty tramp and caught the bus up to Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. Contrary to its name, the pavilion is not silver, at least not literally. There's a lovely garden attached, and luckily for us, it was a Tuesday, so not too crowded. But still crowded enough - I can't imagine how bad it must be on a weekend. I'd love to go back when it's even more sparsely attended - I've heard that in the fall, at night, they light up the place and the pavilion glows. To console us, though, for the lack of glow, we were treated to a small exhibition with little snatches of the various kinds of moss that could be found around the garden. They had little descriptive labels, one informing us that the sample before us was "VIP moss (like Very Important Person)". Suitably impressed, we continued our ascent to the overlook of the garden, and I was struck by the amazing shelves of sand that are formed into ridges and waves that aren't so extraordinary from below, but which assemble into a remarkable pattern when viewed from above.
Next we strolled along the Path of Philosophy, a lovely cobbled lane next to a spit of a stream, but which passed by many other temples and shrines. We stopped at a little shrine along the path, of which I've forgotten the name, but which was dedicated to some animals, most notably the rat and the fox.

Back to Shijo for a last round of shopping and visited the wonderful Morita paper store, a bit off the main drag, which has a gorgeous array of handmade paper. I. picked up a sheaf in various beautiful shades of green for printing his record insert, then we were off to Kyoto station to catch our train back to Yokohama.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Again to the inescapable Nara, which we seem to visit every time we go to Kinki. But who can resist petting hordes of wild head-butting deer, clamoring for shika senbei? We bought some right off the bat and I. did much better with not freaking out while feeding them. The trick is to hide the crackers in a pocket or deep in a bag and only take them out one by one, preferably not in the middle of a crowd of them.

Then on to Todaiji, the biggest wooden building in the world, reportedly, and home to a wicked cool big buddha. And, AND, it was not crowded. Which meant there weren't huge crowds pressed around the pillar with the hole the same size as Buddha's nostril. Which, if you can wiggle through it, means that you can reach enlightenment! And, AND, I did it! As did M! We are getting to nirvana! Wicked!

Back to Kyoto because the National Museum was closed (Monday, duh) and tramped up and down Shijo avenue, the main shopping street in Kyoto, looking for paper, frivolous shoes, stamps, and a yukata for M's mom, which she found in Teramachi arcade. On the way, we were handed a flyer for an Indian restaurant by a miserable and freezing cold-looking man, so after some of our missions were accomplished, we wove through the alleys looking for Ajanta Restaurant. We were not disappointed - the food was excellent.

Back to the White Hotel to rest our aching feet.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sunday in Kyoto

M. is in town, so we trekked down to Kinki for a long weekend looking at the ancient cities.
Checking in once again to the White Hotel after availing ourselves of the slightly cheaper and slower Puratto Kodama shinkansen, we prepared to squeeze some sightseeing into the rest of the day.
One of the closest big temples to Kyoto Station is Sanjusangendo, which I hadn't visited before. We hoofed on over there and arrived at about 330, just in time to get a good gander at the thousand and one Thousand Armed Kannon statues held inside. So cool! No pictures allowed, but just being in there among so many carved-not-cast statues, obviously made with care and great detail, was fantastic. Except for the idiot boy tourists behind us who kept making stupid comments.

After, since it was still light, we walked over toward Kiyomizudera, which I went to last year when J. was here. We didn't pay to go in, but did gawk at the pagoda a bunch and trolled the shopping streets of Teapot Lane (on Teapot Hill) and Sannenzaka. I. and M. sampled many pickles at a traditional pickle shop, and I bought a packet of cinnamon an-filled mochi triangles, the Kyoto specialty.

Finally, we strolled up the river to Gion and walked around the area. Just when it looked like we were out of luck, a maiko came clattering along one of the narrow cobbled lanes, completely decked out in finery.

A fitting end to our first day in Kyoto.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


the act of holding two jobs, one your "real" job, the other an extra, often worked at night.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


a suspicious person. As in, "Get your fishy fushinsha-ass out of here!"

Last year, walking back from Naruse station, we passed as usual the little mom-and-pop drugstore, with its displays of multicolored toilet paper on sale. Out popped a guy from the recesses of the shop, wearing some kind of school uniform and carrying a gym bag. He looked like he was in his late teens to early 20s. Accosting us, he let loose a barrage of words, at the same time brandishing a sack of potatoes.

"Sorry - wakarimasen." We didn't understand him, not at the rate he was going.
He effortlessly switched to English.
"Right now, we are in the middle of a national campaign! It is a very important cause that allows me to offer you these potatoes for only 300 yen!"

300 yen? The bag held about 5 sad little potatoes. I could buy the same bag at the market across the street for 150.

We tried to brush him off, saying we weren't interested, but he dogged us down the street for about half a block more. Finally he gave up, trailing off behind us.

We thought we had seen the last of him. But, telling the story that night, it turned out he had also approached C. in our neighborhood with the same line.

Monday, March 05, 2007

sano, nikko-shi

Hit up Sano again to hang out with R. and K. Pretty low key this time, mostly looking at thrift stores (always on the lookout for Goccos; also currently seeking frivolous shoes) and walking around. We did hit an osenbei factory in Nikko city; we also checked out the foot-onsen outside of Kinugawa onsen station, but it was too crowded to go in; too bad.
Ume trees are in bloom about now, and there are lots of little temples and shrines near K's house in Imaichi. We walked around several; at one we found a stack of boxes marked with the Buddhist manji symbol, meaning harmony and balance. Better known in the West as the swastika, but in fact appropriated by the Nazis, the Buddhist incarnation usually faces left, not right.