Sunday, October 21, 2007

There's No Place Like Home

I'm back from my short trip to Japan, with a new visa in hand (multiple-entry, good through April 2008, extendable), and it's so nice to be back home in Taiwan. I like Japan, don't get me wrong, but this is truly home and I missed it.

I arrived at Kansai Airport in Osaka the evening of October 14, where I spent a good 45 minutes in line at immigration. They were moving folks through quickly, but there were hundreds of passengers. My dear friend Kayun was there waiting for me, though, with a big smile on her face. After a bit of discussion with a not-too-friendly clerk at the counter and at Kayun's urging, I bought a three-day Kansai Thru Pass which was supposedly good on all the subway and rail systems in the area, unlimited rides to anywhere, plus some discounts at tourist attractions, for about $44US. Now, I usually only spend around that same amount for a whole month of travel on Taipei's system, so I was a bit shocked. Kayun and I both kinda figured that three days was like 72 hours, beginning the first time I used the pass, which was for the 15-minute ride from the station where the airport bus dropped us to her house, and that I'd be using it up through Wednesday evening. Nope, wrong. I got two days of travel out of it, because the first "day" was that 15-minute ride! And it turned out that I couldn't use it on one of the main systems, either! I therefore ended up spending another $21US to see me through the two other days. That was my biggest trip expense - $65US on subway/rail fees plus $40US on the airport bus. Crazy. I guess one must pay for punctuality - you can set your watch by the transit system in Japan, truly amazing.

Luke and Kayun have a nice little apartment located in the country-like suburbs. The neighborhood is quiet, with small rice paddies and gorgeous trees and flowers. I was totally impressed with Japanese toilets and thought the shower area was really interesting. Luke and Kayun don't have a lot of space, but they make the most of it, and Kayun keeps it all sparkling clean. I slept on a comfortable sofa in a little room with a sliding door, and it was sooo quiet at night, not used to that!

Got up bright and early Monday morning, because Luke was taking me to the visa office before he went on to his school. Kayun rode with us on her way to her Japanese classes (every day from 10:00 a.m. to 2:35 p.m.), and Luke and I continued on to Umeda Station, where we had to switch trains. The subway/rail system in Osaka is so ridiculously complicated that one could never, ever find one's way alone. We got off one train, walked a long, long way underground to a different station, and took a different line to a station close to where we needed to go. After I submitted my application, Luke left me at that station, and I decided to explore a bit. Yeah, I explored all right, the underground shopping area that stretches for miles in many directions with confusing signs and no one who speaks English! I was starving, hadn't eaten a thing, so I ducked into a Doufor Coffee for a bite. Part of the menu had photos, so I could pick out a sandwich, but the rest was all in Japanese. I can read it if they use the traditional Chinese characters (kanji), but if they use katakana (used for words that come from foreign places) and hiragana, which they normally do, I can't read a thing. So, I'm trying to ask what kind of cold drinks they have, and the guy points to the Japanese menu. I mutter in Chinese, "But I can't read Japanese." and the girl next to the guy says, in Chinese, "Wow, you speak Chinese!" What a blessing - she was from Fujian, China, and she got me my orange juice. Turns out she is also a Wu Bai fan, so it was fun chatting a bit to her.

After I left there it took me at least 45 minutes to find my way back to the station I needed in order to get to Osaka Castle. I was exhausted when I got there and still had a bit of a walk to get to the castle itself. The park is huge (and Blogger is having photo issues now, so you'll just have to click the links to get to the pix, and then you can see all the other ones, too), very quiet and beautiful. Actually, most of Osaka was very quiet and beautiful, and unbelievably clean. I found a spot to sit and rest for awhile and then continued on to the castle area. Swarming with grade-school kids, it was, as well as high schoolers. Seems to be my luck that any time I visit a museum, I can't see anything because there are hoardes of children blocking the view. The castle itself was packed from top to bottom, but I still went in and all the way to the top for the view. I like the way this building gives the illusion one can see through it.

Kayun called after she got out of class, and we made plans to meet back at the station near her house. Took me forever to get there, as I got lost under Umeda Station again, but I finally showed up. We went for dinner at a great place that had salad bar and fresh bread for about $9US (and Kayun treated). The bread, OMG, the bread! A waitress with a huge basket of various slices of bread made the rounds, and we got to eat a lot. There was this one kind that had figs and nuts in it, totally divine. I do miss good bread, which is next to impossible to find in Taiwan. The Taiwanese like bread the texture of Wonder Bread and about as flavorful, it's just nasty. I brought back two half-loaves from this bakery, the fig one and another swirl type that is just lucious. Probably have them totally gone by tomorrow! The salad bar wasn't like US salad bars, as it actually featured various types of pre-made salads, all very good and probably even healthy. Before dinner we had gone to the grocery store across the street, where I was shocked at the prices for fresh fruit. Actually, lots of prices were very high, and Japanese beer turns out to be more expensive in Japan than in Taiwan because of their taxes. Made the delightful discovery that there's a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop near Kayun's home, so we indulged ourselves there, too. Oh man, it's been a long time since I had Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream! Cost me $3US for their "king-sized" scoop, but I didn't mind paying that. Went back the next day, too, ha.

Tuesday it was up early again and out of the house with Kayun, because I didn't think I could find my way to the station without her. I planned to pick up my visa and then explore a bit on my own before meeting Kayun after her class. Got the visa no problem, but once again ended up wandering around underground, searching for a place my little Kansai Thru Pass guidebook mentioned. Never found it. Finally decided I'd rather just go early to the station where I was meeting Kayun and look around there. Found the airport bus station there and checked what time I'd have to be there Friday morning (7:55 a.m.), looked around the area a bit, then found a Starbucks and sat reading my Chinese book and waiting for Kayun. When she got there, we headed for Kobe for the evening, where we ended up eating in Chinatown, because it's one of the few places a vegetarian like Kayun can manage to find food without meat in it. I got a small plate of guo tie (potstickers) that would have cost me $1.50US in Taiwan but was $5US in Japan (and not as tasty). Then we walked to the harbor area, arriving just as the sun was vanishing for good. Everything was decorated for Halloween, and we just wandered around the shops (best find, the Ghibli Studios shop - Totoro everywhere!) enjoying the evening.

Wednesday, and yet another early rise and out the door, this time to meet Kieko in Nara. This time I didn't get lost at Umeda, because Kayun was with me, on her way to the China embassy to apply for a visa for her Shanghai trip. We parted ways before Namba Station, and there I managed to find the right train for Nara, arriving much later than I'd expected, causing poor Kieko to wait about an hour for me at Starbucks. She's a good sport, though, and wasn't angry about that. We wandered a shopping district for a bit, looking for a reasonably priced place for lunch, found one that wasn't bad, ate and chatted, then headed for Nara Park, home of the sacred deer, which terrify Kieko. Seems she was chased by them when she was a child, so now she doesn't care much for them. They are pushy little things, that's for sure. You can buy deer food for them, flat crackers that are yucky (yeah, I tried 'em) but they love them. The deer will bow their heads to you, and then you feed them.....and then you're surrounding by a troupe of bowing, butting, biting deer. They'll tug on your clothes and get deer snot all over you, but they're so cute! Watch this movie, then pop on over to YouTube for two others, including a mating season battle.

Nara Park is also huge, and there are so many wonderful shrines and temples. We walked and walked and walked, took some rest and ate ice cream (mango for me and "some kind of citrus" for Kieko). The deer are everywhere in the park, and the deer poopie is also everywhere, but as soon as they let fly, some little lady comes out with a broom and dustpan and sweeps it up (at least, in front of the shops they do). I bought some Deer Poopie Chocolates to give to a friend, just chocolate covered peanuts, but they do look almost exactly like what was emerging from the deer's hind ends.....yum. After we left the deer park, we walked around other parts of the area to view other shrines. It's so pretty everywhere, even the manhole covers in Japan are artistic. We walked until we could walk no more (well, I couldn't, maybe Kieko could have), then found a place for coffee and chat. Finally, I had to leave for the two-hour trip back to Kayun and Luke's, so Kieko and I parted. I hope she'll come back to Taiwan for a visit - I miss her!

Luke was already home when I arrived (normally he gets in after 9:00 p.m., poor guy, long hours), and Kayun had made quesadillas, saving one for me. Damn, it was so delicious! She's really a good cook, that girl, using sausage, pork, and gouda cheese to create a uniquely flavored quesadilla. And there was enough for me to have one for lunch on Thursday, too. I definitely need to make a trip to Costco here for salsa and tortillas to make my own Kayunsadillas!

I spent most of that day hanging around at their place, relaxing, finally sleeping in until 8:45 a.m. I went to the 100 Yen Store (awesome shop, so many cool things for only $.87US, wow!) and walked around the neighborhood. I was meeting Kayun in Takarazuka City at 4:00 p.m., so I headed out early to give myself some time to check it out on my own. Lovely little town, home to the Takarazuka Revue , an all-female musical theater troupe. I strolled along the flower road to the river and across, then back to the station, meeting Kayun and walking back along the same route I'd taken, but then in another direction for a different part of town. Honestly, by this time I was pretty tired of walking, so after hitting the 99 Yen Store (one yen cheaper!) for groceries for Kayun, we took a cab back to the station, caught a train back to her house, and met up with Luke for dinner. He treated us to all-you-can-eat BBQ (meat for us, curry and veggies for Kayun), and we were the only customers in the whole place. This was the kind of place where you cook your own stuff on the grill set into the table, and they offered all kinds of beef cuts, some marinated, some not, and chicken and perhaps pork, too. Plus sushi, desserts, curry, takoyaki (not as good as the stuff sold close to Kayun's house), chicken nuggets, too many things to even remember. It was a lot more expensive than the same type of place in Taiwan ( about $18US per person versus about $9US in Taiwan), and we thought it was good, but Luke said the Japanese are picky about quality and likely the reason there were no other customers was that this was not a good place!

Friday morning it was up at 6:00 a.m., to the bus by 7:55 a.m., sad parting from Kayun, and a 90-minute ride to the airport. I was on Cathay Pacific for this trip, nice airline, decent food, very comfy seats - and punctual, too. When I got back to Taoyuan International Airport at 1:15 p.m., I was shocked to see no lines at immigration! I was able to walk right up to the counter and got through in less than two minutes. That has never happened before. Caught the bus back and was home by 3:30 or so, I think. DZ was so happy to see me, and she didn't seem as distressed as she'd been the last time I was gone for a long time. Guess she has now realized that I will eventually come back, so she doesn't panic.

Japan: quiet, clean, good air quality, cars that yield to pedestrians, people who actually wait for passengers to get off the train before trying to get on, coffee shops playing quiet background music. Taiwan: noisy, not so clean, air full of smoke from people burning ghost money, cars that try their best to run you over in a crosswalk, people who push and shove to scramble onto the train hoping for a seat, coffee shops blasting music so loud one must yell to be heard across a table.

Japan: somber people dressed in neutral tones, homes that are beautiful and serene but lifeless, residential streets that have no people in the evenings, old people standing on trains because they get insulted if someone would offer a seat, silent subways and railways packed with people afraid to look at one another. Taiwan: people dressed in a riot of mismatched colors and patterns; homes that are decorated with colorful banners and plants - and laundry drying on the balcony; residential streets full of life - kids, dogs, chatting neighbors; people more often than not yielding their seat to older folks and them grateful for it; trains crowded with laughing, happy people madly chatting away to each other.

Japan: a nice place to visit, but wouldn't want to live there. Taiwan: full of life and loudness, annoying at times but oh-so-preferable to a life of stilted politeness. This is my home, and I love it.


aetherwellen said...

Sounds like you had a great time! Love your photos!

Steven said...

Sounds like a good time was had. It's always nice to visit someplace that is entertaining, but that also makes you appreciate home :)

Romita said...

I really dig the video of the deer. How cool is that!