Food: Tokyo

My culinary adventures in Tokyo fall squarely into two categories: food I ate with my cousin (who speaks Japanese and told me what to order) and food I ordered for myself. Food I ate with my cousin was uniformly delicious, and while most of the food I ordered for myself in Japan was good (except in Kyoto, where stuff got weird), I also ended up making some big faux pas. There was the time I thought I was ordering tea, and actually the teapot was full of the water they had been cooking pasta in. There was time I thought I was pouring water from a pitcher into a cup, but actually I was pouring it into the container that they put your check in when they bring it to you. (That mistake I didn’t even realize until 20 minutes after I left the restaurant, where I put together the one waiter’s horror as he snatched the cup away with the other waiter’s surprise when there was nowhere to put the check.) And then there were the times when the food still had its eyes, but I draw the line at eyes. I just didn’t eat that stuff.

Overall, my food consumption in Tokyo was either noodles and onigiri, which were nice and cheap, or sushi, which was expensive but not ridiculous.

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My first real meal in Japan! A little bit of every kind of sashimi, all of which were tasty except for the snail. Turns out I am not a huge fan of raw snails.
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My cousin ordered this; I think it’s called pan? Kind of like a cross between a waffle and a cake, with matcha ice cream. Delicious!

Below is conveyor belt sushi! The way it works is that each color of plate is associated with a price. The chefs just stand on the inside chopping away and putting plates on the belt, and then as it goes by you pull off whatever looks good. At the end you stack them all up and they count your plates, and then give you the total. It’s a pretty good deal if you go with enough people; I think my share was only $20 or $25, which is amazing given how many different kinds of sushi I tried! (I did not eat the ones with eyes, although my cousin’s fiancé, who is Japanese, did.)

Noodles of Tokyo. Clockwise, cold udon with a poached egg and tempura sticks of shrimp and vegetables; mushroom soba, ordered from a restaurant where no one spoke English by pointing at a picture of what I wanted to eat (the soup was delicious but I ended up with a teapot of pasta water); and dumplings. No idea what was in them. In theory, I am a big fan of the picture menu in countries where the alphabet is completely unrecognizable, but of course those menus limit you to tourist restaurants if you want to understand ahead of time on what you’re going to eat. I don’t particularly like eating in tourist restaurants… which is why I ended up eating a lot of very weird, oddly gloopy things in Kyoto.

Plastic food. This was super common, and I have at least ten or twenty photos of amusingly shiny plastic food, ranging from crepes to pizza to udon. I’m guessing the point is to take the picture-menu-for-tourists thing one step farther, but maybe not.

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It’s been a year

A year ago today, I landed in Tokyo to start my bar trip. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday, but when I think about how much I’ve grown as a lawyer, it makes a bit more sense. I was pretty bad about posting on this blog while I was on my trip, because I didn’t have enough time to write both in my paper journal and on here, and I prioritized the paper journal. But now I’m on vacation (and it’s a real vacation! Because my big case settled at 3 pm on Friday!) and I am finally going through my pictures, and the circumstances are perfect for me to finally put in some updates.

(I took almost 5,000 photos on my trip, between my phone and my DSLR, but my computer can’t sort them in chronological order. So these photo-and-story updates will be thematic more than strictly chronological.)

Safety as a Solo Woman

A few days ago I was flying back from Boston on the same flight as my sister-in-law, and I was using the time in the airport (thanks, flight delays!) to sort through some of my pictures from the trip. (Yes, it’s been 8 months since I got back; no, I haven’t gotten past the first week’s worth of photos yet. Japan was awesome and I took a ton of pics, I’m having a hard time sorting them!) We chatted some about the trip, and she mentioned that her parents had been worried about my safety, so I thought this would be a good time for a post on what to think about, when you’re traveling alone, to stay as safe as possible.

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My favorite sign from the whole trip, courtesy of the adorable Hakone railway.

When Planning Your Trip

I posted earlier about how to choose your hostel (https://atwlawyer.com/2016/07/16/how-to-choose-a-hostel/), but you actually need to be thinking about safety one step earlier, when you are choosing how to arrive in the city in the first place. Ideally, you can pick a train, bus, or plane that will arrive before it gets dark, so that you have the luxury of time and daylight to get yourself situated at your hotel/hostel/airbnb. If that’s not possible, you want to at least try to schedule things so that you arrive at your lodgings by 9 pm or so. In my experience, that’s about the time of night when the feel of a neighborhood can change from comfortable-but-be-alert to get-your-ass-off-this-deserted-street. If you have no choice but to arrive at a horrible time of night, then you need to take that into consideration when you’re choosing your lodging, at least for the first night, and you need to budget a lot more for transportation. Public transit probably won’t even be running, or it might not be safe, and so you need to be able to pay for a taxi.  You also need to be staying at a place that has a 24-hour front desk, and not an airbnb where the owner can only give you the key in person.

Arriving in a New Place

There are a lot of times where I haven’t been able to take my own advice, and I’ve ended up getting into strange places at 3 am. Whether it was scheduled that way or an accident due to a delay of some kind, in order to be safe you need to have a plan ready by the time you step off into the airport or station. First, if you don’t already have enough for a cab ride in the local currency, get cash. Go to the very first ATM you see, even if it’s before the bathroom and you’ve been holding it for hours; there might only be that one ATM, and if you exit through security without getting money, you could be in big trouble. If you will be taking a cab to your destination, have a printout (or pull up on your phone) the name and address of the place you’re staying, and ideally a map. Often there are language barriers, and it’s best to avoid confusion. (Once a cab driver took me to the Red Fox rather than the Red Fort. They were 10 miles away from each other.) If you won’t have data in the place you’re going, take screenshots ahead of time on google maps. This is definitely a place where Uber comes in handy, but remember that not every city has it, so check ahead of time. Also, sometimes Uber is not allowed to pick up passengers from airports and train stations.

If you’re taking public transit and arriving at night, you should already know what train or bus route you want to take; how much a ticket costs to get to your destination (many cities have zoned pricing); and what the final stop in the direction you’re going is, as well as approximately how many stops you will be going. The frequency of service is much slower at night, and you don’t want to spend half an hour sitting alone in a deserted station waiting for the next one if you can avoid it.

If you’re going to be walking, and it’s late at night, you need to have familiarized yourself with the route already. Have the map (or screenshot of it) on your phone for easy access. Prepare yourself and your bags, so that you don’t need to stop and tie a shoe, reposition a purse, or grab a coat that’s falling off your pile of stuff. Walk confidently and directly, and don’t wear headphones.

Exploring

Just wandering around a new city is one of my favorite things to do when traveling, and as long as it’s daytime and you stay in the right neighborhoods, you’re generally fine. How do you find the right neighborhoods, though? Start with the place where the biggest tourist attraction is: the Louvre in Paris, the Jama Masjid in Delhi, the Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakesh, Big Ben in London, and so on. A radius around that will be very touristy, and pretty safe, and if you get past that and start to feel uncomfortable, you can just turn back in. The size of the radius will vary immensely based on which city you’re in and also, realistically, on your race and how you are dressed. If you want to explore outside of tourist areas, depending on where you are you’ll be fine just picking a direction and walking around, but you might need to do research ahead of time.

In cosmopolitan cities like London, Paris, or Tokyo, where the population is diverse, most of the city will be totally safe, and you probably won’t stand out much. Smartphones come in very handy here, because you can look at a map and try to figure out where you are without looking too much like a tourist, since everyone has their nose in a phone all the time. In more homogenous cities, such as Delhi or Phnom Penh, if you are of a different race than most of the population, you will stand out. Period. (In Morocco, I was traveling with a Chinese friend, and we got catcalled with “Konichiwa” for her and “fish and chips” for me, in addition to “gazelle” for both of us.) It can help significantly to dress conservatively and in a color palette that blends in a bit. On my last day in India, I looked out the car window and saw such lecherous expressions on the faces of two men on a motorbike that I shrank back into my seat, and then followed their gazes to see what they were looking at. It was a blond woman in a sleeveless, just-above-the-knee sundress which would have been perfectly appropriate, and even modest, in the US. In India, though, she was practically naked, and people reacted accordingly. In conservative countries I usually wear a light cotton tunic with three-quarter sleeves, over loose-ish pants or tucked into a long skirt, and that helps a lot.

In General

The most important advice is to be realistic, and err on the side of caution. If you need to ask directions, step into a café or shop and ask someone who works there for help, don’t stop a stranger on the street (making it clear to everyone not only that you’re a tourist but that you’re confused). And be careful about going out after dark. There are certain experiences (mostly involving alcohol) that are simply more dangerous as a solo woman traveler than as a solo man or as someone traveling with a group, like going to an all-night club on a tiny island that is only accessible by the occasional ferry boat. I usually only ever have one drink, unless the bar is in the place I’m staying, less than a 10 minute walk away down well-lit (and populated) streets, or if I’ve managed to make friends from the same hostel who want to go out together in a big group and will keep an eye on each other, and even then I stop at two or three drinks. If going out at night is a big part of what you enjoy when you travel, then take a few basic steps ahead of time: leave your passport and all but one credit card locked away so you can’t accidentally lose them; have enough cash for a cab; and, if you’re staying in a hostel, set everything out on your bed before you leave so you won’t be fumbling in your bags in the dark, and waking everyone else up, when you get back.

 

As long as you have a plan for the day you arrive, do a little research ahead of time on safe/unsafe parts of the city, and walk with an air of confidence, you should be fine. Just don’t be stupid, especially after dark, and listen to your gut when it warns you something is wrong. Have fun!

 

It’s been a while!

This is kind of self-evident, since it’s been six months since the last time I wrote a post, but there you have it. One thing I have learned about being a lawyer is that just because something is super obvious to everyone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it down, because you never know who is going to need that contract, or deposition transcript, or whatever, weeks or months or years down the line. So. It has indeed been a while since I’ve updated the blog. I’ve been busy lawyering, and I haven’t really been bitten by the travel bug since I got back, except for a few days of shameless lobbying to get sent to Norway to defend a deposition. That failed, and I ended up defending it over video conference at 4 am. Also a useful life experience, but with significantly less herring and funky brown cheese involved.

But I was having lunch with a friend today, and we were talking about what books we were reading now that work had calmed down a bit, and I remembered that I had this whole creative outlet that I had been completely neglecting. And that I actually really enjoy writing things that aren’t memos or motions or briefs. And here I am!

 

I think I may have mentioned in one of my earliest posts that a friend had suggested I do a spa spin on my trip, and given how much my feet hurt just two days in, I eagerly took her up on that idea. I will (eventually) write longer posts about many of these, but here is just a brief list of all the ways I attempted to pamper myself on my trip:

  • The foot massager machine in my hotel room in Tokyo. A special perk for the “ladies only” rooms. It… sort of worked…? Ish. I still had a cramp on the bottom of my foot for a week.
  • The three different styles of hot tub/onsen at the ryokan in Hakone. One a mix between a (slightly moldy) indoor stone waterfall and a 1920s shower; one a giant wooden barrel sunk into the floor, with a copper bottom; and one a flagstone tub that was too hot to touch.
  • The foot onsen in the Hakone sculpture garden. In retrospect it looked like a feeding trough with pebbles on the bottom, full of feet.
  • A foot reflexology massage in a dingy hole in the wall in a rundown mall in Singapore. It hurt, a lot, for an hour, as he basically just ground my tendons into my feet, but I think it helped.
  • A traditional Cambodian massage in Phnom Penh. A unique experience (and they had goldfish swimming around in the floor), but because they use a mattress on the floor instead of a Western massage table (in order to be able to sit on you with more pressure) there’s nowhere to put your face and I spent most of the time trying to figure out how to breathe.
  • A foot reflexology, and also shoulder massage, in Hong Kong. Bliss.
  • A sauna in Helsinki harbor. Cons included the fact that the place had just opened the day before, so there was still sawdust everywhere, and also people could wander around without paying and, I’m fairly sure, see in the window to the sauna.  Pros included the refreshing feeling you get after swimming the length of a pool filled by the North Sea, which is 17 degrees Celsius, so all of a sudden the air feels balmy. Also the amazing views. And the awesome hats that Finnish ladies wear in the sauna. No clothes or bathing suit, just sitting around chatting completely naked except for a giant felt-y, bobbly thing on their heads. With flowers.
  • Bath #1 in Budapest, originally built by the Turks, which had something like four different saunas (including a salt one and an aromatherapy one) and 6 different pools, and a great view from the rooftop hot tub out across the river and the city.
  • Bath #2 in Budapest, a giant yellow building with two enormous pools outside (one regular and one hot), and at least 17 pools inside, as well as saunas and steam rooms. I tried to up the relaxation quotient with a massage, but should have been warned by the fact that there was a place fill out how many physical therapy appointments your doctor had prescribed you: it was a very cursory medical massage in a wooden cubicle which was clearly over 100 years old, on a massage table that was so hard I ended up with bruises on my cheekbones.
  • Lots and lots of swimming in the Adriatic (in Croatia). The beautiful, bright blue, absolutely crystal clear, very chilly Adriatic.
  • Nothing in Scotland, but I did try to take a bath (full of Epsom salts, to try to help with the itching from the allergic reaction I was having to the flea bites I’d gotten in Dubrovnik) in London. The little lever thingy to raise the drain plug was broken. I had to bail the tub by hand, with a mixing bowl. It was a large tub: 42 bowls worth before the water pressure let up enough I could pry the plug out with a spatula. Kind of cancelled out the relaxation…
  • The Blue Lagoon in Iceland, fancy mud masks and all.

And there you have it! I relaxed in every country except Scotland. 🙂

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The pools at the sauna in Helsinki
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The baths in Budapest
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The gorgeous Adriatic

 

Serendipity

I just had one of those evenings that great travel stories are made of, and before I go to sleep (to sleep the sleep of the just, or, the sleep of those who are about to spend the following day jumping off cliffs and otherwise “extreme canyoning”) I just wanted to share the vignette. Especially since I have hardly been writing anything, which I blame on the fact that I came down with a cold in Budapest and spent all my spare hours (and hours, and hours) sleeping and/or napping and/or sitting in a steam room at a bath house.

I woke up at 6 this morning to catch a 9 am flight out of Budapest, connecting to Croatia, and by the time I finally dropped my bags off at my Airbnb I was pretty cranky. It was a combination of: being short on sleep, still having a cold, having to schlep all over every (ok, to be fair, both) terminals of the Budapest airport to pay 40 euros for having an overweight bag, the fact that they changed the gate at my Prague layover and then I had to go through such a long security line that it went from not boarding at all to final call before I made it to the front of the line, and then clearly someone had pissed in the morning coffee of the lady manning that aisle because she yelled at me six different ways in a strong accent and then yelled at me again for not understanding her, and then the flight was really bumpy so I started getting airsick and multiple kids were screaming and they made me take my headphones off so I had to sit there and listen to the screams. And then the ride from the airport to Split also made me motion sick, and then the guy who I’m renting from just left the keys in the mailbox and the wifi password on a piece of paper, so I didn’t have anyone to ask questions or advice from.

Anyway. Like I said, cranky. But then that all went away when I was able to wash my face, drop off my heavy bags, and head into town. “Town” in Split, for the most part, means Diocletian’s Palace, which the guy built for himself as a retirement home in like 300 and then has been lived in continuously ever since. People still live there, with their washing hanging out to dry and everything, though it is mostly restaurants and hotels. When I was several hundred feet up a belltower, with the sun shining, and the wind blowing, all became right with the world.

I was pretty hungry, so I googled “best dinner in split” and also checked my e-book guidebook, and they all agreed that Villa Spiza was the place to eat. They don’t take reservations, and the line was quite long, but the benefit of being a solo diner is that they can usually squeeze you in in the corner of the bar, so you don’t have to wait that long. It feels less good to have such a short wait when the guy yells “Single woman! The lady alone!” into the crowd to let you know you can be seated, though. The food was SPECTACULAR by the way, if you’re ever in Split it’s well worth the wait but you should show up early before they run out of everything. I was seated at 8:15ish, and they were out of four or five dishes already. There’s one chef, and she cooks on a six-burner stove in a very relaxed way. And everything gets finished with olive oil, salt, and pepper, very mediterranean. Anyway, near the end of their meal I struck up a conversation with the couple sitting next to me, the kind of thing where if either party isn’t interested it dies after a few sentences, but if both are interested it continues for a while. (I got the sea bass, and the guy (Jack) told me how to get the meat off without getting all the bones. And it looked exactly like what cats eat in cartoons.)

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So we chatted until they paid, and then they said they were going to get a drink and would I like to join them when I was done eating. They were very nice and friendly, and so I ended up joining them for several rounds of drinks and chatting, and we also made plans to get dinner tomorrow night. They’re an Irish couple, she’s a pharmacist and he’s a cobbler, and they both have tons of interesting stories and are also both good conversationalists. I think I’m less likely to talk to strangers when I have a dining companion of my own, so. Score one sociability point for solo travelers.

Tomorrow I jump (well, ok, rappel) down a 60-meter cliff. So that should be fun.

Crabs in Cambodia

It’s been way too long since I posted anything, which I am blaming on a combination of being super tired at night, having bad wifi, and/or writing in my paper journal instead. But. Here I am in Cambodia! I have a half-written piece on Tokyo, which I will try to finish in the next few days, but here is the cliff-notes version of what I’ve been up to over the last few days:

Tokyo!

  • Day 1, went to Mariakan museum, the museum of emerging science and technology. Cool robots! Creepy androids! Out-of-place exhibit on ninjas, with shoes that they used to walk on water. Met my cousin, her boyfriend, and her friend for lunch in Asakusa, then went to the big temple (Senso-ji) and pulled a fortune. It was a metaphor about fishing. An afternoon visit to the Tokyo National Museum ended when they shooed everyone out by playing “Auld Lang Syne.” Then we had conveyor-belt sushi for dinner.
  • Day 2, went to Meiji Jingu, a huge Shinto shrine, and its beautiful gardens. Met my cousin and her boyfriend for lunch in Harajuku (cold udon is a thing, and it’s delicious), then bought cute Japanese socks. In the afternoon I went to a Hayao Miyazaki exhibit on the 52d floor of Roppongi Tower. Couldn’t understand any of the signs, but the drawings were cute and the views fantastic. Walked around my hotel’s neighborhood (Shinjuku), quickly stumbling on the love hotels and men-only massage parlors, but also passing the very cool neighborhood of Golden Gai. Four alleyways lined with tiny bars, each seating no more than 10 patrons.
  • Day 3, I had a 3 o’clock train to Kyoto. I went to the Imperial Palace in the morning and wandered around the gardens, then went to Ginza, where I went to a soba shop and ordered what I thought was the tea I saw everyone around me drinking. They brought me a teapot full of the water they had been cooking the noodles in. I missed having my cousin to translate/explain, and did not drink it.

Kyoto:

  • Day 1, I arrived around 6 pm, just in time to drop my bags off and get to the place where the river split to see the huge (as in, the whole hillside) bonfires for Bon-Odori/O-Bon, a religious festival. Kyoto lights five fires, each a different character, and all symbolic. I got to the riverside at 7:30, and it was pouring. Pouring. Pouring. I didn’t have an umbrella, just a raincoat, because I was planning to buy a cute Asian umbrella. Goretex let me down, and by the time I got back on the subway at 8:15 (theoretically they lit the fires at 8, but I sure didn’t see anything), I was squishing with every step.
  • Day 2, I went to Kiyomizu-Deru temple, which is up in the hills. I walked down a gravel path behind the temple, and saw a path going into the woods with a little sign clearly showing it was a hiking trail. Could I read any of the words on the sign? No. But it went somewhere, so I started walking. I climbed up the mountain, until I was way above and behind the shrine, and couldn’t read any of the signs I passed, though it was obviously still a hiking trail. I did eventually find a 2-inch sign in English, and found another trail that led back to the other side of the temple. I got a lot of mosquito bites. Walking down the hill towards Nishkin Market, I stopped at Kennin-Ji temple, where I rested my feet and cooled down while staring at the Zen garden. What do you know, it was peaceful. Zen, you might say. I ate lunch at 3 pm, continuing my cultural misunderstandings by ordering something called sashimi (it was slimy… bean curd strips? I don’t know) and pouring tea into the check stand. I then bought way too many souvenirs, and went back to the hostel to do laundry.
  • Day 3, I went to Hiroshima. I got there around 10 am, went to A-Bomb Dome, the Peace Park, and the museum. The museum hadn’t been renovated since it was built in the 50s, but they were in the middle of doing that, so half of it was closed. That meant a whole museum’s worth of people squished into half a museum. I couldn’t see most of the exhibits over the pack of people, which took away from an otherwise moving experience. Lunch was okonomiyaki, a Hiroshima treat of pancake, cabbage, bean sprouts, bacon, egg, noodles, and several sauces and spices cooked on a big griddle. There’s a food court that sells nothing but that, so I picked the most crowded place and waited in line. I had just enough time to hustle to a beautiful garden, where a couple in kimono were getting their wedding pictures taken, then I caught my train back to Kyoto. I went straight to the Fushimi Inari shrine, where there are red torii gates lining the whole path up the mountain. It’s a 2-hour hike to the top, and the sun was setting, so I only went halfway, but it was beautiful.
  • Day 4, I slept late and then went to Arashiyama, a western suburb of Kyoto. I had a kaiseki (Kyoto haute cuisine) lunch, then walked in the bamboo groves. After an afternoon visit to the monkey park (so cute!) I went to Gion in an attempt to see geisha. I saw one from a block away, and then bought a ticket to a super touristy show so I could see Japanese traditional arts, including the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and a geisha dance. I finally had ramen for the first time for dinner.
  • Day 5, I went to Nijo Castle, which was really cool. They had a nightingale floor, so you couldn’t sneak up on the shogun. I had tea in the traditional tea house. Then I caught the train to Hakone.

Hakone:

  • Day 1, I arrived at the Ryokan (Japanese traditional inn) around 3:30, having had to drag my bags uphill a kilometer in the rain. But they fed me cold tea and a sweet as a welcome, and then I could get straight in the onsen (traditional hot springs), which was why I had come. They’re public (though segregated by gender), and naked. I did not like the way the 5-year old girl stared at me, it made me self-conscious. The ryokan had 4, and I tried all of them: one before dinner (the genders switched for each one at 7 pm), one after, one when I woke up at 4 am, and one before breakfast at 8 am. The place was super traditional, tatami and sliding doors, and a six-course meal served to you in your room. So many kinds of fish. Some good, some gross. Sleeping in a traditional Japanese bed is like camping on a good camping pad, if someone chopped the bottom of your sleeping bag off (my feet stuck out the end).
  • Day 2, breakfast also had lots of different kinds of fish. I didn’t eat the baby sardines, I have a thing against eating eyes. Then I left my bags and went to the Hakone Open Air Museum, basically a big outdoor sculpture garden in the mountains. They have a public foot-onsen, which was odd but fun. Then I walked to the train station, caught the switchback-single track-mountain train, walked down the hill to the ryokan, picked up my bags, walked to Hakone station, took that train to Odawara, caught the Shinkansen to Shinagawa, changed to another line, took that one stop, changed to another line, walked two blocks, and finally ended up at my airport hotel.

Singapore:

  • Day 1, I woke up early in Tokyo, had sushi for breakfast, and made it out about an hour before a typhoon hit and they closed the airport. It was a bumpy ride. 7 hours later, I landed in Singapore. My hostel (a “capsule hotel,” not really, do not recommend) was in Chinatown. I went to the Chinatown Cultural Heritage Center, a cool museum like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, tried and failed to get chicken rice at a hawker center (they were closed, I got rice porridge and mystery meet from another stall instead), and saw the sound and light show at the “Supertrees” in this big public garden.
  • Day 2, I went to the zoo. There’s this cool place where you go through like 4 doors, and then there are whistling ducks, mini deer, 2 kinds of parrots, ring-tailed lemurs, bats, butterflies, all just hanging out around you inches away. The elephant show was entertaining but also maybe exploitative, I felt somewhat conflicted. Then the botanical gardens, then Little India, then Arab Street. I did some shopping in both places, and had very spicy Indonesian food for dinner. I went to the People’s Park Complex and got a foot reflexology massage, my first, which was very painful but seems to have worked because my feet don’t hurt as much as they used to and the weird cramp on the bottom of my left foot is gone. I had a durian milkshake, but could only down four or five sips before I had to throw it away, it was so gross.
  • Day 3, I went to the gardens by the bay to try to go on the catwalk up in the Supertrees, but it was raining so that was closed. Then I went to the national museum, then I finally got my chicken rice. The airport has a sunflower garden on the roof. And I arrived in Cambodia around 6 pm.

Cambodia:

  • Day 1. My friend who’s doing her Ph.D. research in Cambodia met me at the airport, and we took a long and winding tuktuk ride through all the bad parts of town (the roads were big craters full of mud, so we kept turning around), past karaoke bars where the women sit in rows of chairs so customers can pick one, and past big piles of burning trash. We stayed at a hotel a few blocks away from where she used to live, in the hipster ex-pat part of town, and had a very nice dinner of Khmer food. We went to a hotel’s rooftop bar for drinks, and ordered cocktails based just on the name. Mine was good, fresh apple juice with liquor (tequila I think) mixed in, but hers was a little fishbowl of bright blue liquid balanced on a bigger fishbowl full of lights, a battery pack, and flashing multicolor LED lights.
  • Day 2, today! We woke up early and a driver took us down south to Kep, a town which used to be a French resort town back in colonial days. We dropped our bags, changed into bathing suits, and walked over to the crab market. They wade out, pick up a trap, bring it onshore, and then cook the crabs then and there for you. It was too early for crabs, I had a mung bean waffle instead, and then we went to Rabbit Island. You get on this narrow wooden boat and just head over the bay for about half an hour, then have to climb down a ladder and wade in (there’s no dock). The beach was beautiful, and the sun came out. We both got sunburned, stupidly. Then we hung out by the pool, had crabs for dinner, and here we are, surrounded by a mosquito net to keep out not the mosquitos but the geckos and giant-ass spiders who call this bungalow home. Seriously, the spider that crawled off the toilet paper when I tried to use it was a solid 3 inches.

And that’s it, I’m finally caught up! Japan, Singapore, and Cambodia part 1 in a nutshell.

The View From The Top

I’m finally here! It took 28 hours and 37 minutes door-to-door, but I am nicely settled in a “ladies room” on the 14th floor of a Tokyo hotel. I was following the advice of the “First Time in Asia” Lonely Planet book to make sure you had a nice place to stay the first night because of jet lag, and I’m glad I did because I think I woke up at 3 am and every 20 minutes from 5-7, but I could always roll over and go straight back to sleep since the room was so quiet. My plan for the day is to go to Mariakan, the museum of emerging science and technology (robots!!!!), walk around the neighborhoods of Asakusa and Ueno, and probably go to the Tokyo National Museum. I’m going to try to meet up with my cousin, and she has some friends she wants to see, so we’ll see how it all shakes out. Also it’s the O-Bon festival, which means some stuff is closed (like the Tsukiji market, which I am very bummed about), but hopefully that means there will be a parade at some point. When I’m traveling, I love stumbling onto local parades and street fairs, because everyone who’s there is always, without fail, very cheerful and happy, and the good moods are infectious.

When I checked into the room, the lady at the front desk gave me this cute little goody bag with shampoo and things, which surprised me because it seemed like a nice enough hotel that it would already have that in the room. But it turns out that the Ladies Rooms come with special perks: I was opening all the cabinets and finding all of these little machines, most of which I could not identify. I did figure out what the foot massager and clothing steamer were, but there were two other little boxes. A white noise machine maybe? And a mystery box? But the goody bag also came with a questionnaire.

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So I’m assuming the mystery box is a face steamer. I have no idea what that is or how to use it, but I might give it a try. There are also all sorts of little packets and things, most of which are either only labeled in Japanese or which have very generic names (e.g. “ladies amenity”, which I’m guessing is a pad?) in English.

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I picked the ladies room (it’s on a floor that only women stay on) because I had heard that drunk Japanese businessmen can get a little pushy, and it cost the same price as all the other rooms so I figured why not, plus it was guaranteed to be non-smoking, but based on the questionnaire the “ladies amenities” and “ladies facilities” are also things that people seek out. I’ll try to ask my cousin’s boyfriend if this is a common thing in most big hotels, to have a women-only floor, but he probably won’t know.

For the last twenty minutes or so of the flight, I started chatting with (read: lightly interrogating) my seat mate, because even though he was obviously American he was also a Japanese citizen (since he had refused the foreigner card when the flight attendants were passing out immigration forms). It turns out he was bringing his boyfriend to meet his ultra-conservative Japanese relatives, and so all of his time living in Japan had been mostly with family. But he did confirm some of the things I hadn’t been totally sure about, namely that Google Maps is absolutely essential, and unless you read and speak Japanese you really can’t get around without it. Japanese addresses are for the location on the street on the block in the district in the bigger district in the something else in the city, and without Google maps you have to go find the district map to figure out what block to go to. Sort of like DC, where there are four places where Second Street intersects D Street, and you have to know which quadrant you’re in, only in a language that I can’t read. Also when I was asking about manners things, he basically said I can get away with anything because I’m so obviously white, and if people get upset with me for being rude I will probably never know. (Unlike in his case, where his relatives get mad at him for being rude but don’t tell him why.) I will try not to be rude, but there are so many extra rules! When the front desk lady handed me back my passport she did it two-handed, which reminded me that you’re never supposed to hand things to people with only one hand, and that I had therefore been rude to (so far): the people at the SIM card counter, the ticket lady at the airport, the guy at the information desk in Ueno station, and the lady at the front desk when I handed her my passport in the first place. Oops.

Two random facts about Japanese customs: they ask about swords on the forms. (Like, “are you importing illegal drugs, explosives, or swords.”) Also, they funnel you through a single file line next to a quarantine station (big sign reading “This is a quarantine station! We do NOT provide ANY medical care!”) so a thermometer can read your temperature, and over a carpet soaked in disinfectant. There were a lot of signs warning about various diseases, with maps of the world color-coded in various shades of red to indicate risk, but it was all in Japanese, and the US was the palest yellow, so I figured I was fine unless someone told me otherwise. The only word in Roman script was “MERS”.

Getting to the hotel was surprisingly easy, because the trains run so. precisely. on. time. I started with the information desk at the airport, asking her to tell me how to get to an ATM machine, a SIM card seller, and the train. Money in hand, it was time to get online. There were a bunch of counters selling SIM cards, I just picked the closest one, and paid about $35 for 200 mb of data each day for 15 days. More expensive than India, but still very cheap given how impossible it would be for me to function without a smartphone. I asked at the train counter what the best way to get to Shinjuku was, since Google Maps was telling me about trains and buses and I wasn’t sure what was easier, and she looks at the clock (it was 8:03 pm) and says “There’s an 8:10 train, and you only have to change trains once. But you only have seven minutes! Go!” So I hustle downstairs, and wait in line, and by the time I step up to the ticket counter it is 8:07. And yet I managed to get on the 8:10 train with not only my train ticket (I love the train names, it was the Kaisei Skyliner) but a two-day pass for the Tokyo metro. Amazingly efficient.

It took me longer to get the 500 meters from Shinjuku to my hotel than to walk 1 km from the main Ueno station to the one that had the E subway line, because there are so many exits, and so many streets, and all the streets were packed with people on the Saturday night stroll. I kept getting turned around. Thank goodness for Google Maps! Even when I could see the tower of the hotel, I couldn’t necessarily figure out which streets took me to the entrance. The only obviously drunk guy I saw was this older man, who was being carefully steered away from the crowds by very cheerful-looking policemen with white gloves. Somehow I can’t imagine the Times Square police on a Saturday night with white gloves on.

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So I have now spent one night in a Western-style room, and I have to say, other than the fact that the bed is raised off the floor, there is no question about the fact that you’re in Japan. I won’t sleep on a tatami until near the end of the week, when I stay in a ryokan, so I don’t have anything to compare it too, but the Japanese definitely like their mattresses and pillows FIRM. I slept well, but I think it will take my back a while to get used to the new normal.

The mattress has no springs, and has an interesting pattern on the top:

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One of the pillows is a normal feather pillow on one side, but then it’s like straw on the other, you can sort of see the ridges on the top:

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And then the other pillow is sort of like a cross between foam and straw:

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When I say straw, it’s not spiky like real straw, it bends, but it’s like a bunch of flexible straws sewn into pockets. Also, the toilet has a lot of buttons on the wall for the various angles of spray, and you can set the water pressure. Toto is definitely not in Kansas anymore!