Purpose one: writing a travelogue to describe my various trips.

Purpose two: muse.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sweet Boulder Creek

I am back in Boulder Creek, where the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming. I hope to post some more pictures and comments on the Asia trip, in between catching up, so stay tuned.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Adult Playgrounds

The central piece in a playground is a cool structure for kids to climb on. Yet, when adults build cool structures, at least in Europe, they don't make them climbable. I think there is some aesthetic rule that dictates people should not defile a beautiful piece.

The Chinese and Japanese have no such inhibitions. If they build something big worth looking at, they attach something so you can walk it, climb it, or otherwise ascend it and check it out from the inside and the top.

When I went up into the Pearl Oriental tower, there was a "sightseeing walk." The name was not that inspiring, but I was surprised to find out that this was a glass surface exposing you to all of the 250m of air underneath you. It was really cool.

The Sightseeing Walk in Oriental Pearl Tower

Compared to the World Financial Center, I thought the Pearl Oriental Tower was the better experience. You don't get quite the same exposure in the former. The World Financial Center had a cool space-theme going, though, with moody electronic music and interesting light effects.

In Tokyo, I went to view the International Forum, and again, was pleasantly surprised that they had built ramps so you could walk along the insides. It enabled me to view the structure from another perspective and get a better appreciation. The Kyoto Train station had the same feature, with stairs and 'skywalks' enabling you to walk up and down and across the appealing structures, viewing it and the surroundings from different angles.

Inside the World Financial Center

King of Consumerism

Famous Binh Trang market in Saigon

I don't want to hear another word about American Consumerism. When it comes to retail, Asia has America whipped twice over.

Everywhere you go, there are shops, markets, stores, malls, merchants, joints, marts, street-vendors, cafes, restaurants, businesses, pitchers and peddlers. If I hiked for three days into the desert, a hawker would show up offering a marked-up drink. It would probably be cold, too. They are nothing if not crafty.

Ads are ubiquitous. I have never seen a higher density of advertisements as on the Japanese metro cars. China doesn't seem to have any codes or norms about sound pollution, so speakers and multimedia ads blare at full volume wherever there is a concentration of people. I saw lots of clever marketing gimmicks. In Beijing, there was a long LCD display in a train tunnel, where an ad would animate and then follow the train for a minute, perfectly aligned so that it would display right outside the window.

China and Vietnam do not seem to have any zoning or licensing restrictions. Any joker can sell junk straight from the sidewalk, and any wheezer can run a laundry out of the back door. Thus you get the traditional hutong, where businesses of all kinds are crammed together. Hutongs have charm, but they are essentially strip-malls with history.

The retail market was not introduced by the West, or by tourism. Some of the local markets are older than Jamestown. I can be driving in the country, out where they almost never see a foreigner, and suddenly traffic comes to a stop because a market is in progress.

In Kyoto's history museum, they had created a model of how a market street in 17th century Japan might have looked.

The oldest tradition is perhaps around the temples, where peddlers sell incense, oil and other offerings and gimmicks to the worshippers. When you mix retail with religion, I don't think you can get more consumer oriented.

It shouldn't surprise us that people want to spend their money, but the point is that it is not a western thing. Hard as it is to believe, compared to Asia, America's consumerism seems a bit muted.

Osaka must have the largest retail area in the world. The shops and malls continue for miles in all directions. There are underground, maze-like tunnels with even more shops and cafes. As elsewhere, half the stores carry women's clothes and bookshops double as reading room for students and the stingy.

The Superbrand Mall in Shanghai is probably the largest mall I have been to. You can get the sense of its size only in one dimension: in the other two, it seems to sprawl on forever.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Notes on Japan

Japan is a land of ironies. For instance, it's the cleanest country I've even been to, but you can't find a garbage can anywhere. I was carrying my trash around for days. It's expensive, but few places take credit cards and few ATMs work with your card. The latter is not just an international problem: you can walk past a bunch of unused ATMs, then see one with a long line of locals. I learned to look for 7-11, where the ATMs consistently worked with my card.

My dad would have loved Japan. He would have loved the food, and the attention both diners and chefs pay to the meal quality and experience. He would have loved the baths. He would have loved the nifty toilet seats with heating, spraying, mini-flushes, automatic lids, etc. I saw toilet seats with more complexity than programmable VCRs.

The legendary Japanese politeness is real, and an interesting study in the difference between politeness and friendliness. I found the Japanese almost consistently polite, but few were outright friendly. On several occasions, I had the sensation that a Japanese not speaking a word of English would receive much better help in America than an American not speaking a word of Japanese is likely to receive in Japan. Barring some Beavis Redneck tending counter.

That said, I did meet some truly friendly people. In Fuji-Yoshida, a lady in a tea shop gave me a free treat and some prints of local scenery. In the same place, I met a sculpturist, Ishibori. He makes some really interesting figures, check out the gallery. They didn't speak much English, but showed interest nonetheless. I enjoyed this experience of generosity. I wouldn't call it an isolated incident, as I experienced this kind of warmth several times while in Japan. In general, though, I found Japanese people curiously passive and intransigent.

Goodbye, Japan

Accidental Tourist

One of the advantages to traveling without a set itinerary is that you discover neat things that don't get much attention in the guidebook. By chance, I got to Matsumoto later in the day than I had planned and chose to spend the night there. By chance, in the hotel I stayed at, I saw something about a historical castle in town. I took a few hours the next day to go and check it out.

It happened to be one of the oldest, perhaps the oldest, original castles in Japan. It was certainly older than anything I saw in Kyoto. It was also a more fulfilling experience, because you got full access to the inside -- all the historical buildings in Kyoto were restricted.

The castle doubled as a history museum, with an old gun collection, historical samurai armor, pottery, art and other artifacts. It was more tourist friendly, with descriptive texts in English. Overall, I had a better view into history here than my entire time in Kyoto.

Farewell China

I'm back in my beloved Hong Kong, free speech land.

On my last afternoon in Shanghai, I had coffee on the Pudong side of the river. The sun was shining on the boats drifting by while China's national flag wafted in the breeze. It was perfect for my last hour in the People's Republic of China.

Now that I have unfettered Internet access again, I hope to catch up on my blogging a bit.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Blocked Equals Gagged

I am back in censorship land. Right now, all Google blogs are blocked, and posting is hard. I am using vtunnel to post these few lines, but it is a little dicy and I cannot post pictures. Email has also been slow and inconsistent.

Once I'll be able to post normally again, things will be out of order, or at least out of chronology. I will do my best to get back to the regularly scheduled program.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Japan: Gourmet Paradise

The food in Japan is quite possibly the best in the world. I think it's better than in France. It's so different it's difficult to compare, but I found the Japanese consistency mind-boggling.

I learned to look for the vegetable displays outside the restaurants. At first, I thought these indicated a vegetarian restaurant. I think it means that the restaurant serves Kaiseki. They are delicious meals, though the tab can run up with all the little dishes. The prices look innocent, but soon you've ordered for $50 worth of items.

The reason they are vegetables out front is probably that meat would go bad.

There was a disparity in the quality of savory foods in the restaurants and noodle-shops, vs. the sub-standard sweets they served in the tea-rooms and coffee-bars. A good friend of mine has a theory that you cannot make good deserts without good dairy. Japan in a way both proves and counter-proves this. Throughout Asia, the dairy is mediocre. One casualty from this is that after twenty years of insisting on a little cream in my coffee, the last couple of months I have been drinking it black. I'm sure the low quality of dairy is at least partially responsible for the varying quality in Japanese sweets, of which there is a plethora. Yet, you can find the occasional gem, as in the near-perfect green tea ice-cream I had at Tempura Fukamachi.

Parfaits are served in nearly all their "coffee and cake" places. One I got in Tokyo was quite good.

This noodle shop in Osaka serves the best noodles ever.

These noodles are so good, one meal here converted me to a noodle fan.

These noodles are so good, I could have dinner in another place, then come here and have noodles for desert.

These noodles are so good, if you visit, I dare you not to finish the bowl.

If you decide to look for it, go from Namba subway station towards the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. It will be just past a McDonald's on a road something like "Nansai." (Citing from memory, which is unreliable with Japanese proper nouns).

One of the advantages to paying $200 for a world-class barbecue, besides the perfect food, is the decor and the views. Kamon is at the top of the Imperial Hotel, where you can look over the Imperial Palace and get a rare view of the interior of the Imperial Gardens.

Of course, I had some of the worlds best sushi too, at Kanesaka in Tokyo. I had to wonder how you get sea-food to be so consistent in quality and flavor. I think they need to send a qualified cook, or team, down to the fish market every day, perhaps multiple times in a day, and pick out, by hand, the best of the best of each type of fish. That's time-consuming, and you need trained people to do it. I'm sure they pay a premium both for the quality and for the skimming. No wonder world-class sushi is expensive.

It doesn't hurt to have access to the world's largest fish market.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Note on Acclimatization

When I climbed Aconcagua, we tried to take advantage of the "climb up, down, then up again" paradigm in acclimatization. According to this method, you climb up above where you are acclimated, spend at least a night up high, then climb back down and spend a day or more down below. Sleeping high will send the signal to your body to produce red blood cells. Climbing back down will enable the body to produce red blood cells much faster, so for the next four days, the count will increase.

According to this theory, I should feel great on Mt. Fuji, coming from the Alps and then spending three days in Tokyo. This was so. I didn't really feel the altitude until well above 10,000 feet.

I couldn't reconcile this with another datum about high altitude climbing, which is that it can be dangerous to go down when you are acclimatized, spend time low, then climb back up. I think I realized what's happening in this case. When you go down after altitude, your cells will compress from the added pressure. You will retain the red blood cells, perhaps even produce more, now that your body is more comfortable. When you climb back up, you will feel great, not being much restrained from the low oxygen. However, your cells will still expand, and if you don't give it the time to do so slowly and uniformly, you will get sick. Edemas occur when cells of different kinds expand at different rates in the low pressure of high altitudes.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Yesterday I climbed Mt. Fuji. It was a bit touch and go, not with the climb itself, but in getting to the start. Not to mention the timing with the weather.

Fuji from Fuji-Yoshida

I had reserved a hotel in Fujiyoshida, not knowing the bus to the mountain actually leaves from Kawaguchiko. I got up early in the morning and hiked over to Kawaguchiko at 5AM, but the bus wasn't running that early. I had conflicting information about it from the web. The bus only runs from around 9AM to around 3PM this time of year (May).

I ended up taking a taxi to 5th station. It cost $130, but I figured it was my only chance to climb Fuji.

The climb wasn't hard. I did need an ice-axe the last 300 feet before the crater, but I wasn't about to turn around at that point! There was a runout 1000 feet below me, so I went for it anyway. Notwithstanding my comments about the Japanese and their crampons in my last post, on Fuji, the last 1000 or 2000 feet would have been faster with crampons. Had I been there earlier in the day, it would have been uncomfortable without them.

View of the North Alps

I did the Kawaguchiko route, mostly because I thought that was the one I could get to. It comes up to the crater about 120 degrees away from the actual summit. I went the long way around, which was a mistake as the snow was getting soft and it was a trudge.

View North towards Tokyo, on the crater, and on the summit

Compared to Mt. Shasta, I felt Mt. Fuji was about half the effort. Climbing Mt Fuji the route I used corresponds pretty closely to climbing Shasta from Bunny Flat to Thumb Rock. Except you start a little higher at 7,800', end a little lower at 12,500', and you might feel a little better from more oxygen at the lower latitude. When doing Shasta, Thumb Rock is three quarters of the way in elevation, but due to the exponential nature of altitude, often it is little more than half way in time.

The Actual Summit from across the Crater

Thursday, May 7, 2009


You got to say it fast, or the locals won't understand you.

From Tateyama, I went down to Takayama, which was a tourist trap I promptly made my escape from by taking the bus to Kamikochi. Kamikochi is famous for its natural beauty. I didn't see the big attraction to Kamikochi itself. Sure, it's a nice river valley, with good views of the surrounding mountains, but all the hotels, shops and crowds give it a city-park feel and there isn't much to do. Kamikochi makes Yosemite Valley look like the backcountry.

Kamikochi from Nishiho ridge

However, it does work well as transit to the surrounding alpine destinations. I had wanted to make it up to the Dakesawa hut, but it turned out to be closed, having been crushed in an avalanche. I ended up going up to the Nishiho-sanso instead, and I loved it. Sanso is a Japanese hut. Nishihosanso is up on a ridge, so protected from avalanches and you get better views. The drawback is, there is only that one ridge to ascend. Climbers do use it to reach routes on Mt. Okuhodaka, Japan's third-highest peak.

Sunset view from Nishiho-sanso

Not having any equipment with me, I just wanted to climb up Mt. Nishihodaka.

The Japanese must really like crampons. At both Tateyama and at Nishohosanso, when I told people I didn't have crampons, I got the ominous little "ooh." Yet, on neither route did I encounter any sections where I would have wanted crampons. If I had carried them, I never would have donned them. I saw many Japanese hikers or climbers wearing crampons through miles of perfectly good snow.

Okuhodaka from around Nishoho-doppyo

I made it up past Nishoho-doppyo, a worthwhile destination in itself. It got a little more technical from there. I would call it class two, with a couple of short class three sections where I skirted a hard patch of snow. Although I got some exposure, there was really only one spot where I would have been a goner if I fell.

On Nishoho-doppyo, on the way up

At the sanso, I met the nicest Japanese people so far. I find that outdoors people tend to connect, even across language and cultural boundaries. I got a new friend, Hiro, who shared his lunch and was terribly concerned about me. I felt bad about making him concerned, but fortunately he got good reports of my progress.

Nishiho-sanso is recommended, but if you go, bring a stove to melt snow. They charge $3/500ml of water.

On Nishohodaka Summit, descending from the summit, and Nishihosanso

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Japanese Alps: Tateyama and Murodo

Tateyama in the Evening

I'm back in town after spending a few days in the Japanese Alps. I went to Murodo and climbed Tateyama. Some maps refer to it as Mount Onanji, so I'm in the annoying position that I'm not sure of its name.

If you are in to the outdoors at all, and are going to Japan, try to make it to Murodo. Transportation will take you all the way to the huts at 2,500m/8,000'. You will use a combination of trains, cable-cars and bus. The steep cable-car ride is almost worth the trip by itself.

Murodo is a skiers paradise: tons of snow, accessible, nice huts, many bowls to choose from. The main drawback is that it has evidently been discovered by all the Japanese skiers. Climbing Tateyama was a little reminiscent of Shasta, with the ant trail going up.

From Murodo, you can make it all the way across the mountains to Omachi. That seems a cool route. I wanted to make it South to Kamikochi instead. It was easier for my plans to backtrack, so that's what I did.

View of Murodo from Oyama. You can see the tent village camp. Raicho-so is the building left and up from the camp. In the blow-up image, you will see lots of little dots, which are people.

The snow at Murodo confirmed a theory I have that the West Pacific is much colder than even the East Pacific. I suspected this from the cold temperatures in Shanghai, which is about the same latitude as San Diego, yet has a climate more like that of Portland. Western China was much warmer. In the mountains there, snow levels were well above 10,000'. In contrast, at Murodo, it was at 4,000' -- same as California in winter. Murodo is level with Los Angeles. We are in May, and the bus still drove through 20' snow ruts at 7,000'. Not enough to impress a Norwegian, but the locals seemed awfully proud of their steep snow banks.

In Murodo, I stayed at Raicho-so. I had accidentally picked the hut furthest from the bus terminal and it still added 20 minutes to my climb. It was cool to hang out in the Onsen tub, though.

Shrine at Oyama, 2990m

On the Summit of Tateyama

[Ed: In the original post, I confused the East and West Pacific. It can be confusing because the West Pacific is by the far east, and the East Pacific is by the US West coast. It's not difficult when you think about it, but appearently I didn't think about it.]