A quick reminder to everyone that tomorrow at 3:45pm, Malaysian Airlines flight MH 148 will roar off the tarmac at Tullamarine Airport, taking with it Mr Sidor & myself for a second-round romp through Asia. It'll be 2010 by the time we're back and as always, I'll try to keep you guys posted on all the beauty, bizarreness & bad decisions of those 5-and-a-half weeks... as well as any late-night revelations bestowed upon us by the Asian gods Asahi, Singha & Chang.
Have a good December people - drive carefully, stay out of bushfires and the next time you hear from me, I'll probably be in some sort of subterranean internet cafe run by a sumo in a Kerokerokeroppi costume.
Tokyo isn't just a city - it's a model of the future; a society 25-50 years ahead of the rest of the world. Here, you order cooked meals from vending machines, toilets feature a dozen buttons instead of two, and lamp-posts announce the latest specials on offer at the electronics store across the pavement. To the Western newcomer, it's a dizzyingly high-tech environment where automation means the buildings and vehicles talk to you more than the people - which might explain the Japanese distaste for loud conversation or even eye contact with strangers.
Walking through the Shibuya district with Dom two nights ago, I was blown away by the endless sensory stimulation coming at you from all directions - Tokyo is an epileptic's hell, a metropolis-sized virtual reality positively crammed with colours, lights and sounds. Yet at the same time, in the midst of this disorienting carnivalesque madness, the Japanese themselves run like perfectly synched clockwork, harmoniously flowing off to their respective destinations without ever shouldering, staring at or cutting into each other's paths like we do in the West. Tokyo society virtually radiates the collective consciousness Jung wrote about, coming across as a genuine (albeit gigantic) community rather than just a mass of individuals, existing together in an urban space but without regard or respectfulness towards others. Just half an hour ago on the way back to the hostel, Dom and I witnessed a policeman squatting down and comforting a depressed drunk - a display of compassion you'd never see from the foot soldiers of Victoria Police, who'd sooner throw him into a divvy van and charge him with being a public nuisance.
Cases in point: the ambulances here, rather than just blaring their sirens, request via a loudspeaker that cars move out of the way. On the subway, if you buy a ticket that doesn't cover your whole journey and the turnstiles slam shut on you, you don't get some big Maori looming over you demanding an explanation and scribbling out a $120 fine - instead you just walk up to a 'fare adjustment' counter and a lady politely informs you how much you're under, and you simply fork out the difference. The interesting thing is, it'd be extremely easy to cheat the system here - there are no ticket inspectors and the turnstiles are more symbolic than effective - but in a society that functions with such perfect elegance, integrity and efficiency, doing the right thing comes naturally rather than having to be imposed by higher powers.
For all the glitz though, there are some unsavoury aspects to Tokyo society. One is the vaguely paedophilic undercurrent here - the bizarre fetish for maid outfits, cutesy but X-rated anime comics and, more sinisterly, the proliferation of what can only be called child porn: DVDs featuring 13-, 14-year-old girls dressed in panties and skimpy bikinis. It's maybe this lack of adult (as opposed to underage) sexuality that makes Japanese society somewhat sterile when it comes to night life and social interaction - whereas in Bangkok finding a bar just means wandering down the street, and getting flirtatious smiles and waves from Thai girls is commonplace, Tokyo is a frustratingly closed society when it comes to mingling with the locals after hours, and Japanese women - though extraordinarily pretty and well-dressed - are very reserved and, in some cases, even give off an air of distaste for us bigger, more boisterous Western men.
Overall though, Tokyo is a marvellous place, with areas straight out of a futuristic movie set, and delicious, delicate food that makes Western fare seem crude and greasy by comparison. There's so much more I could write about right now but I've only slept 10 hours since arriving on Thursday morning... and there's still one more district to explore tonight before we move onto Mount Fuji tomorrow.
Forgot to take my camera cable so photos will have to wait - for now, o-hay-o!
Today, after picking up my passport from Asakusa Police Station (long story), Dom & I finally left Tokyo for the mist-shrouded tranquility of Mount Fuji. Seriously, this whole area is like something out of Ninja Scroll - the nature here is so primeval, with big brooding mountains and vast steamy lakes, that you feel like you're travelling 500 years back in time to the days of samurai warriors & hermit monks. Leaving the frenzied gadgetry and crowds of Tokyo, the temperature's also plummeted to a bone-freezing 5 degrees - although being a Northern Hemisphere winter, it's crisp & refreshing rather than Melbourne's characteristic Damp & Shitty.
Since it got dark pretty much as soon as we piled off the bus, we haven't had a chance to explore the Fuj yet but did seek out a traditional BBQ restaurant, where I had the best pork & beef I've seriously ever had. For those unfamiliar with "Japanese BBQ", it's basically the traditional Japanese thing - sitting cross-legged on mats in front of a low wooden table - except that in the centre is a hot gas-fired mesh for roasting vegetables and strips of meat. Since no-one at the establishment spoke any English - pretty much the entire town here's just locals or Jap tourists from Tokyo - Dom & I simply ordered "pork" and "beef", accompanied by enough jugs of Kirin to fill a lake, and were presented with plates of finely sliced portions of both, garnished with mouth-watering herbs & spices that put Colonel Sanders to shame. Just the smell of it was so good we couldn't even wait for it to cook properly - just tore into the stuff as soon as it got brown like a couple of savages. That's one universal thing about Asia - the food's so damn good you never actually stop wanting to eat. Hunger becomes as irrelevant to food as wanting children is to sex.
Anyway, just thought I'd write that quick summary to keep you guys in the know. Yesterday we checked out the Imperial Palace and Red Light District - basically a day of high culture followed by smut - but I'll save that for another time, and perhaps a less extensive audience. Right now I got just enough energy left for a hot shower, a look through tomorrow's plans and some 'Lemon Strong' gin-in-a-can to send me off to sleep.
Just waiting at the bus terminal atm for the overnight bus to Kyoto. I can't stand overnight buses, mainly coz I'm not used to sleeping upright in big rattling boxes, but seeing as the train would require me to sell all my belongings plus several internal organs I guess we had no choice. Upon arriving here at midday we discovered the overnighter doesn't actually leave til 8pm, so we did the natural thing and yes, walked more than 5km to a Monkey Show on the edge of town. And it really was a full-on WSPCA-unfriendly monkey show - two little chimps dressed in pants & T-shirts, walking on stilts and jumping through hoops while kid's music blared in the background. Me & Dom were the only ones in the entire theatre and at the end we got to shake the monkey's hand and received a free umbrella each. After that we walked back 5km through Kawaguchi, socks soaked in blister juice, had a few Asahis & pork cutlets for dinner and now here we are. I just looked around my bag for another 100 yen for Internet, and it appears I packed my shower gel without closing the cap. Everything in my backpack is now covered in sticky blue shit and reeks of Ocean Minerals.
On a less retarded note, we did catch cable cars to the top of a mountain prior to all this and got absolutely stunning views of Mount Fuji. The mountain is fucking incredible - so high it looks like it's actually suspended on clouds, the Shinto version of Mount Olympus. I could go on about what a sight it was but I'll let my photos do the talking once I can be bothered resizing and uploading them. I bought a cable to copy them to PC so we're getting there.
Anyway, the timer's about the run out. I hope this email was worth reading. Monkeys and beer aside we ARE trying to be as cultural as we can.
Mapeusz Duczko (according to my hostel reservation)
As expected, I didn't sleep on the overnight bus. At 5am we arrived just outside Kyoto Central Station but since check-in at our hostel wasn't til 3, we wandered down to Maccas in the dawn cold, jacked ourselves up on grease & caffeine then embarked on an impromptu tour of what you could call the Kyoto Old Town - basically a time warp into medieval Japan, with white pebble tracks curling around elegant rock gardens, bonsai trees and towering wooden temples, Shinto deities lurking within their shadowy inner sanctums. Bathed in morning sunlight and set against the red-&-amber backdrop of autumn, Old World Kyoto is absolutely stunning - we wandered around on foot for roughly 5 hours, pausing only to pose for a photo with a bunch of Japanese schoolgirls, giggling incessantly & shaking our hands as though we were major celebrities. I guess that's kinda the way it is in Asia - blonde hair makes you a rock star, though on the down side having tatts, at least in Nippon, makes you a Yakuza or at least some sort of unsavoury figure. Sitting on the overheated subway with my sleeves rolled up, I noticed many a wary look at the skull & crossbones on my left arm.
But I digress. Overall, Kyoto has a distinctly grittier & old-school hustle & bustle compared to the robotic machinations of Tokyo... Hell, I couldn't even get the fucking shower to work in our Tokyo hostel - the damn thing kept talking to me but no matter which buttons I pressed the hot water refused to come out, leaving me shivering & frustrated after 25 minutes in the bathroom. Both me & Dom have had more of these 'Bob Harris' moments than I can fit into an e-mail but hey - all part of the whacky Japanese fun.
Which brings me to Osaka - officially the coolest, craziest city I've been to in all of my travels. Osaka is like a mix of Tokyo & Kyoto - it's got plenty of the neon flash & high-tech novelty of the former but feels somehow more human, more grounded in the 20th rather than the 22nd century, with a network of seedy alleyways and eccentric characters strutting all over the place - spitting/muttering hobos, girls & guys that look like they've spent the last 5 years in Wonderland, and the ladies.... ohhh, the ladies. Osaka is undoubtedly the capital of Japanese Eye Candy, positively brimming with gorgeous faces & petite figures... though being Japanese, they tend to be more cute than sexy - literally living, life-size dolls. Again me & Dom spent a good few hours just ambling up & around the main drags, sipping lychee juice & capturing all the madness on camera - at one point a store promoter in a stars-&-stripes jumpsuit made me laugh so hard he came over & shook my hand, the two of us grinning at each other in a sort of whacked mutual understanding. We also managed to wander into a full-on Nazi clothes/regalia store, decked out with swastika badges, death's-head caps and 'die Deutschen Reich!' T-shirts.... though the store owner quickly turned sour when she saw me preparing for a photo & promptly ushered us out.
Anyway, tonight we're just chillaxing in the port city of Fukuoka, before catching a 7am ferry to Korea tomorrow... the sleep deprivation's hit me like a brick today so after this I'm taking a shower, scoffing down some cold octopus balls I bought at the corner store & heading to bed, to drift off to the wheezing buzz-saw of Dom's snoring.
Til next time............
5am in Fukuoka. A man screams. Me & Dom wake up from our slumber, catch a cab to a nearby port and embark on a 3-hour ferry ride to Korea. We settle into our plush red seats, open the chips we bought at 7-11 & swap our drink cards for cans of Kirin. An hour later both chips & Kirin are making an unscheduled reappearance into vomit bags as the ferry bounces off wave after wave, people belching & chundering like a Russian housing commission. By the time the ferry arrives in the Korean port town of Busan, pretty much everyone is green in the face, swaying and wishing they'd opted for the slower but smoother 9-hour ferry instead.
Fast-forward 30 minutes and we're boarding the bullet train to Seoul, Tom Jones blaring inexplicably out of the platform speakers. Seats are taken and a game show involving crushing cans with your middle finger is screened. A speedometer showing the train's current speed is displayed in the top right corner of the screen, at times surpassing 300km/h, the mountaneous, mostly undeveloped Korean countryside whizzing by at blistering speed. 3 hours and a lost iPod, antibiotics & other possessions later, we're finally in Seoul, which basically looks like Osaka if it hadn't been maintained for a few years. While people are quick to make comparisons with neighbouring capital city Tokyo, from what I've seen I'd say Seoul is halfway between it and Bangkok - certainly grimier & more chaotic than anywhere I stayed in Japan. Last night was just such a night but I don't even have the energy to recount all of the good, the bad & the ugly that went down... the priority now is to fill up on some hangover soup, call the bank and anchor my brain back into reality.
Will strive to e-mail something with a little more substance next round... ciao ciao!
Today was that day on your holiday where everything goes wrong. We woke up feeling like shit and after slowly, painstakingly getting our stuff together, left Hong's Guesthouse to catch the subway to Incheon, where we were meant to board an overnight ferry to Beijing.
First we caught the wrong train and ended up going about half an hour in the wrong direction. The second time we got it right, but dozed off and missed the station. By now the ferry had long gone and so here we are, in an Internet cafe full of hardcore Korean gamers - cigarette & mouse in hand - trying to find some last-minute backpacker accommodation in a town that probably doesn't have any..... or at least Dom is while I write this sorry little update. It's currently 7:55pm and we haven't even eaten since yesterday.
On the upside, one thing I've really enjoyed the last few days is the communal, primeval Korean BBQ - there's something deeply satisfying about sitting around a hot coal-fired plate, sizzling cuts of marinated meat and sharing the various side salads provided. Yesterday a Korean guy we first met in Tokyo introduced me to bean paste, one of the standard dipping sauces for Korean BBQs, and it is The Shit. First shopping trip back in Oz, I'm heading straight for the Asian grocery in Windsor & buying a vat of the stuff along with some steak.
Anyway. I'm gonna help Dom find some accommodation now.... judging by the look on his face things aren't looking too promising. Kurwaaaaaa
It's interesting how life throws up unexpected diversions and puts you on new & strange paths to see how you fare. Yesterday when I woke up I was still in Incheon, Korea, in a seedy love motel me & Dom had shacked up in after we missed our ferry to China. Love motels are common throughout Asia - essentially they're like normal motels, but you can hire rooms by the hour "for time with your friend" (as the ancient Korean owner explained) - and there was plenty of quality time going on in this one, with repeated banging/moaning keeping me up until 3 or 4am. It wasn't until I cranked up the air conditioner to Ice Age setting that I managed to block it out... then woke up the next morning with a sore throat & a torso that felt like a corpse in a morgue.
Anyway. Put simply I had to cut my trip short, so after a hearty breakfast of dumplings Dom & I parted ways, I caught the bus to Incheon Airport and purchased a $650 flight to Bangkok, my VISAs to China & Vietnam wasted. Upon entering customs I was immediately taken aside and made to explain my carry-on luggage - which in contrast to the usual Backpack with Book + Snacks, consisted of a slightly soiled plastic bag full of pharmaceutical drugs, two cans of 'Gold Brew' beer and a half-used packet of tissues I'd picked up for free in Osaka, with a phone sex line ad on the back. The cans were immediately thrown in the bin and the drugs closely examined - sleeping pills, sore throat lozenges, Neurofen, a small bottle of Valerian root extract + some glucose tablets in a sandwich bag - all taken in the last 12 hours and leaving me feeling slightly delirious. On the plane I got seated to what appeared to be a genuine drugdealer - some dreadlocked deadshit who spent the entire 6-hour flight fidgeting & glancing around nervously.... probably an Aussie drug mule wondering if he's going to get his head cut off in Thailand.
Which brings me to where I am now - the so-called 'Land of Smiles'.
I gotta say, although I freaked when I found out I couldn't bring my flight to Melbourne forward - essentially leaving me stranded in Bangkok for an indefinite period of time - the negative feelings quickly gave rise to positive as I stepped out of the taxi into the familiar back-alley ambience of soi 4, Sukhumvit Road - a downtown area of Bangkok where Dom & I stayed 2 years ago. I began wandering down, inquiring whether there were rooms available at all the guesthouses I passed, and within a few minutes I was on the back of a motorbike driven by a Thai chick who offered to take me to a place she knew down the road, which sure enough had cheap (if pretty dingy) rooms available. I drank the remaining Gold Brew can I'd stashed in my check-in luggage, took a shower & crashed into the hair-riddled bed, falling asleep to the familiar Bangkok cacophony of barking stray dogs, farting tuk-tuks and the general 'gang bang maaaaiiii!' yelling of Thais on the street, which never stops no matter how early or late it is.
Today I caught a tuk-tuk to the Chinatown district & basically just wandered around, an albino freak in a crowd of jungle bunnies. Chinatown is still a bit of a secret despite all the tourism here - there's virtually no Westerners there; just ethnic Chinese & lower-class Thais - which basically means I was by far the palest, tallest person in the district & felt like a millionaire with the prices. All of the shit here - mainly fabric, fashion accessories & kids' toys - is imported direct from China and sold at prices that, quite frankly, make you sick when you remember how much you sold them for at Kmart. I bought a new belt, wallet, wristband and a little something for you peeps back home and the lot came to about $10 - although the tuk-tuk drivers themselves robbed me blind.
And yes, the wristband. What happened to the one I had?
Before I caught the tuk-tuk I'd tried (unsuccessfully) to catch the SkyRail to Chinatown, where I was accosted by an out-and-out ladyboy with a jaw like Arnold Schwarzenegger but a personality like Paris Hilton. With his more genuinely female friends watching & giggling, he asked me excitedly where I'm from, how old I am, whether I'm single, tried to kiss me several times on the cheek then asked whether he could at least have my wristband to keep. I've already given gloves away to homeless people & lost countless possessions on this trip, so I figured why not... I took it off, he/she made me put it on his/her wrist and then nearly cried with happiness. All very strange, but very Bangkok.
So anyway, I'm gonna have to leave it there folks - I could write shitloads more but I'm soaking with sweat, I've swigged the last of my water and I'm worried I didn't lock the door to my room down the road... for those who asked about photos, I'm just gonna send 'em out at my own pace once I'm back home, coz I don't carry the necessary cable round with me anyway.
P.S. Josh - I'll call you when I find a functional phone, but what about the option of just cancelling the flight, getting some amount of refund & returning with Jetstar? I'm gonna have to peddle my arse to ladyboys if I have to finance myself til 4 Jan.... and that's not funny at all.
Those who have read Fear & Loathing would be familiar with the middle part of the story, when Duke - suddenly alone, out of money, and physically & mentally burned out - decides he has no option but to escape Las Vegas.
Well, that was my second night in Bangkok - now 3 days ago. When I got back to my room after loitering around Chinatown, I made a nasty discovery: my red Westpac Mastercard was gone, completely vanished. Not even St Anthony could get me out of this final crippling loss, and after an hour of deep thinking to the sound of a faulty air conditioner, I knew I had to make a run for home. Bangkok is not like Japan or the West: if you something happens to you there you either flee while you still can or get fucked. No money can mean dying on the streets like a dog - and as anyone who's been to Bangers would know, people literally do. For the well-to-do tourist Thailand can be a paradise... for the down & out, it's a hell-hole & a graveyard.
And that's something that kinda disgusted me about Thailand this time round, even before the bankcard debacle: beneath the smiles & extroverted natures lies a ruthless & callous shark ethic: take what you can; everyone for himself. Once the gravity of my bankcard loss sunk in, I spent about an hour fucking around with public phones & Internet cafes, trying to use a phone card I'd bought at 7-Eleven... when I finally asked the woman back at the guesthouse how to use it, her response: "for this service, 50 baht". Yes, I had to pay the fucking bitch just to read a small paragraph of Thai instructions, only to inform me she "doesn't understand it" either.
This is in stark contrast to Japan - elegant, supremely civilized Japan - where the people may be more reserved but if you approach them for help, they'll do whatever they can for you humbly & unconditionally. Hell, if me & Dom had kept every map a Jap had sketched for us to illustrate their directions, we wouldn't have room for the half the shit in our backpacks. Figuratively speaking, anyway.
So my last & second proper day in Bangkok, I went to a slightly upmarket district down Sukhumvit Rd & did some clothes-shopping. I managed to find a department store at the top of one building that was literally a bargain-hunter's dream - basically a gigantic Thai version of Kmart, but packed with Punjabs & Arabs - so you know prices are gonna be lower than an old man's balls. I guess you could say Thailand is the ultimate capitalist society: very rewarding if you got moolah, merciless if you don't. That day I still had moolah, but the next....
....was fucked. I got up at 3am to catch the taxi to the airport then board the $950 8am flight to Melbourne I'd booked with Thai Air; a prime investment of my remaining money to get out of south-east Asia while I still could. When it actually got to 8am 5 hours later, I wasn't seated on a plane at all, but engaged in a very nasty exchange with a pack of computer monkeys at the Thai Air office, who forced me to miss the flight because I couldn't produce my bankcard. Naturally I explained that it was lost, and that I had to get home because I had no money, but they weren't interested - in fact, I got the impression the sight of a Westerner in trouble got them a bit wet. A lot of bad craziness & hostile dialogue followed but finally, after several international phone calls to my bank & parents, we managed to get a Malaysian Airlines flight arranged for 5pm - another $350 expense on a now-insanely overblown budget. It was about 10am by that point and the 7 hours that followed were deadset the most boring of my life - pretty much just lounging there in the Departures Hall, watching couples, families & random paedophile types walk by, with just enough hard cash left for a club sandwich & milkshake at midday.
And now here I am - still running on no sleep since 3am Thai time yesterday, quavering on the last of my adrenaline reserves before I crash in my beautiful, wonderful own bed tonight.
As an epilogue I'll say that Japan really impressed me, from the moment I stepped off the plane into the immaculately clean & soothing airport - yes, they actually play meditative music throughout the Arrival terminals in Tokyo, making disembarkation seem like awakening out of some uplifting dream... or perhaps drifting into one. On the other hand, Thailand is blatantly about enterprise - the moment you amble past the baggage carousels people start screeching at you for taxi services - "WHERE YOU GOING MISTER? MISTER! WHERE YOU GOING??"
At times it can be fun, of course. On my final night, while scoffing down some pad thai below a tattoo parlour I'd checked out, I got talking to a Thai chick who at one point held out the cup she was drinking from and asked me to "donate some sperm". A Japanese lady would sooner commit hara kiri than do something like that. But I pretty much got this same chick to admit she'd sleep with anyone if they had the cash - the fatter the better, in a way, since "a big belly means a big wallet". And this had been the first thing I'd noticed when I stepped out of the taxi into Soi 4 on Wednesday night: the sheer quantity of old - 60, 70-year-old men - hobbling around with Thai girlfriends that looked about 12, and possibly were. The street was veritably crawling with disgusting Jozef Fritzl types - German accents, beady blue eyes & pulled-up white socks all over the place; kinda what the world would like if the Third Reich had won the war & been succeeded by sexual deviants. Me being so much younger &, dare I say it, more attractive than most of the fossils & misfits that constitute Soi 4's foreign population, it was difficult to make it even one block without Thai chicks waving & calling out... "Hey mister, I want to talk to youuu!"
So yeah. That's enough writing for one night... you're probably wondering what's the latest on Facebook about now & I'm craving some tea before bedtime. I'll send out photos of Japan tomorrow - finally - and will catch up with yas all soon!
OK, so we've finally got to the point we've all been waiting for. The photos.
Most of the pics are of Japan - Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, in that order - and the last 10 or so are of Seoul & Bangers - specifically, the last 2 are the strip of degeneracy that is Soi 4, Sukhumvit Road, and I say that with all the affection I have for the novelty, existentialism & adventure-potential of degenerate strips.
Seeing as I'm sitting here waiting for an operator in Bangkok to take my call on loudspeaker, I may as well write a final little bla on my stint in Asia.
So in case you haven't picked up on it yet, Japan rocked. Even more than I thought it would. I knew ever since watching Lost In Translation that this was a country I had to go to, but it wasn't just that - now I actually wanna live there, at least for half a year. After some Thai Air call centre monkey accepts the red light blinking on her phone, I'm gonna look into English-teaching jobs in Osaka. It was just that good.
By comparison, Korea was pretty soulless & unfriendly. Crossing the water from Fukuoka to Busan, the woman instantly lose their cuteness and the men grow about a foot in height, so I no longer felt tall - something I was savouring back in Nippon. It also gets damn cold on the Korean peninsula - it actually snowed briefly in Seoul on my last full day there, but it still wasn't enough to lend the place much charm. Seoul is cold atmospherically as well as literally, and the Traditional Korean BBQ - especially the delicious bean paste I mentioned in an earlier e-mail - was pretty much the only redemption of those 4 days.
OK, some nasty hag just took my call. We argued for about 10 minutes over why I should have to pay a $100 cancellation fee for a flight they forced me to miss. I'm going to say this once then get over it: Thai Air customer service sucks harder than a katoey whore. Done.
Anyway, I'm gonna wrap this up & let the photos do the rest of the talking. Randomness was obviously the key criteria over aestheticism this time - let's face it, no-one really gives a shit about the sunset over the bamboo trees; if you want that just Google Oriental desktop wallpapers or something. Enjoy & to all of you, if you wanna check out the Land of the Rising Sun sometime in the next 12 months, let me know & I'll see you there.
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