Sunday, October 24, 2010


I am in China. I can't access blogger or facebook because the government doesn't allow it. It's very strange because it's not like I need to watch my back or anything. People are people, they have lots of KFC's and Starbucks and McDonald's soft creams (for like 35 cents!) and I can go pretty much where I want when I want. But if you're reading this before Nov 3 it means my girlfriend posted it from LA after I sent her the raw text.

Also my internet has sucked in China. In Japan we usually had high-speed internet. This was crucial because I quickly found that my memory cards for my camera were nowhere near as big as what I needed - I haven't been on a truly long trip since I got my HD shooter. I had two 8 GB cards and I bought a 16 GB for the trip... and I blasted through them in a few days. So I signed up for a flickr account and have been uploading everything there. But I can't do that here because my connections have been so slow. It is becoming a big problem.

This is also why I haven't posted other videos. I have a good 4-5 more Japan ones to create but all the video is on flickr and not on my hard drive. I need a high speed connection to batch download them. I think they will have to wait until Hong Kong.

Japan feels as far away as LA did when I was in Japan.

Everyone pushes to get on trains without letting people get off first. Traffic follows evolution - the bigger you are the more right-of-way you have. Green pedestrian walk signs mean virtually nothing if anything larger than a unicycle is coming your way. When pointing at menus what you 'hope' something looks like is never what it is. I am 90% sure I ate rat my first night (it tasted ok but seeing a small spinal column gave me pause). Beer is laughably cheap, and Budweiser is laughably premium. I have eaten street food several times and have not gotten sick yet. (Watch what happens after writing that...). Bus and subway drivers slam on both the accelerator and the brake for no reason I can think of - people constantly fell into me on the Shanghai metro. I saw a toddler pee on the floor of a train station and the mother laughed. Then a cleaning lady came by and swept it up. And I haven't seen a taco truck anywhere.

But. The Shanghai skyline is one of the most impressive I've ever seen. When I smile at people I get genuine smiles back, even though I really only use two words of Chinese. Well three. I know a few more words but no one ever understands them except for 'pijiu'. Which of course means 'beer'. I'm seeing less and less English the farther from Shanghai I go but the more difficult it gets the more rewarding everything is. I am not that far at the moment - I'm only in HangZhou, but tomorrow I have to catch a bus to a main station and then another bus to Tunxi, near HuangShan mountain. I am not sure how I am going to find the station from the first bus, and once at the station I don't know how I will find the bus to Tunxi. But I'm willing to bet I'll get there. And on Tuesday I will climb the mountain. And I might do it again Wednesday, or I might move on to the deep South.

Quick story. My current hostel gave me directions to it for my arrival. I was taking a taxi from the train station, which they told me should cost 11-13 yuan, but when I got in I couldn't find any taxis. I was starting to get frustrated. I finally found one, but when I told him my destination (Gulou) he just shook his head and said something while making a hand gesture. Another guy stepped in and said the same thing. Then another guy. A small crowd of taxi drivers was forming. At first I just thought the first driver was off duty. I had no idea what they were telling me. I repeated the word they kept saying, and they nodded. I didn't have a clue what it meant. I kept saying "Gulou" to no effect. I tried deciphering the hand gestures they kept making. A map? No. Writing maybe? They wanted to see it in writing?

Luckily I had written the characters for Gulou in my notebook. "Ok, just hang on a moment there boys!" I said. I pulled out my notebook and they nodded. They understood the character. "Gulou!" they said. Yes, I had said that 10 times already! One guy said "one hundred", then typed it in his phone and showed it to me. Highway robbery! I laughed and shook my head and gave him my "what do you think I am, an idiot?" look.

Another stepped in and typed "40". I laughed at him too. He put the phone in my hand so I typed "12". His eyes got wide and he looked at me half like "you are killing me!" and half like "oh you are not stupid!" He typed in 25. I gave him the same look. 20. I made the universal hand sign for "a little bit lower". I made the number '15' with my hands.

He nodded with approval, smiling and laughing like I just took him for a ride. Then he mimed someone riding a scooter...

And that's what he had. A tiny scooter. It was raining and I had my large backpack on. I immediately thought of D-1 (only a few people will get that reference). I wanted a regular cab... with a roof... but had gone through too much already. Plus I figured it would be worth the story.

I couldn't stop smiling as to wove in and out of traffic in the rain on that tiny lawnmower of a vehicle, me with a huge backpack hanging off the back and clutching a tiny Asian man with my knees. I talked to him the whole way there, saying things like "ok buddy, don't blow this!", "oh man, the guy driving that car is a complete moron!", "you should really get a windshield on this thing!", "why did that horn sound like it was inside my skull?", "boy this place sure blows when it's getting the remnants of a super typhoon, huh?". Et cetera. He replied to everything and I'm convinced he knew exactly what I was saying by the tone of my voice, and context (ie he just cut off a tour bus, he almost ran over a small child etc).

Finally he stopped. "Gulou" he said, pointing toward a stone wall. I only had a 100 yuan note and figured there was no way he'd have change, or admit it if he did, but sure enough he had the change and gave me 85 back. I gave him 5 more even though you don't tip in China. It was worth it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Day 2, Part 2

While still in Akihabara we walked through the loudest pachinko parlor ever - it was like a rock concert. Then we played some video games in an arcade including the one with giant drums (it's shown in Lost in Translation).

We avoided the girls dressed as french maids who were handing out fliers for 'maid cafes' all around town. You literally go in and pay excessive amounts for coffee or whatever so you can have girls fawn over you. It's a completely alien concept to westerners, especially since they girls all try to look like they're 15.

Then we took a short ride over to Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace. It was getting late so the gardens on the palace grounds were closed, but we walked around the moat a bit, noting that with all the runners the area was like Central Park. We found a huge fountain area and took some pictures there in the dusk as bats flew overhead, then jumped back on the subway and went all they way out to Shinjuku on the westside. It's kind of like Santa Monica assuming that where we were staying was Los Feliz.

Shinjuku is insane. A large part of Lost in Translation was filmed there, as is the hotel the characters stayed at. According to the guidebook there was a crazy alley full of yakitori restaurants - tiny shops that served pretty much just skewers of grilled meat and organs. And beer.

It was hard to find. We wandered around the station and huge department store areas until we found some thick crowds and finally some small alleys. We walked into one and thought we had found the spot... then I looked to my left and saw an even smaller alley. It was swathed in red lanterns. This was it.

We must have passed through the alley eight times. The places were so small, and either they were totally packed or the proprietors were trying to get us to patronize their spot. No way, we wanted the popular spots, but just when we found the balls to sit down in such an intimidating spot someone always swooped in and grabbed the available stools.

Finally, out of desperation, Jacquie squeezed into a tiny spot in between some Japanese businessmen. One of the cooks pointed to a picture of an eel on the wall - apparently that's all they had. Whatever. We ordered four eel skewers to start. And a giant Kirin.

Immediately three wasted businessmen started hitting on Jacquie. Sort of. They probably didn't know telling a girl "you are very sexy" and "you are 15!" is considered a creepy come on in America. But it was hilarious. We gave them a lot of "Kampai's!!!!".

One of them could barely function when he left. Later a guy literally fell off a stool next to me. He tried to stand up and fell over again. No one batted an eye. Public intoxication is totally acceptable, but you have to behave perfectly during the day.

We learned that we were in the coolest yakitori spot by far - this particular bar, with only 12 seats, had been around for decades. The combined age of the three cooks confirmed this - one looked like the son of the other, and the son was not young. And they've only ever served eel and beer. There was a thick coating of eel grease on one of the lights above the grill, kind of like the McSorley's of Tokyo (for my New York friends).

We got more and more skewers. You'd think skewers of eel and beer would be cheap but 13 or so skewers, plus 2.5 giant beers ended up costing us over $60. Oh, by the way, Japan is ridiculously expensive, and the dollar to yen is at its worst in like 20 years. Awesome.

Anyhow, for the second night in a row we took a risk and came up spades. It was a great time. We walked around the insanity of Shinjuku some more and bought a crepe. Not what you're thinking, crepes in Japan are incredible. Ours had whipped cream, strawberries, chocolate syrup, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a slice of cheesecake, all rolled up to look like an ice cream cone. Sheer genius.

We tried to get a beer at a British Pub (a chain called Hub) that advertised Guinness for 500 yen. Upon sitting down we realized that got you a 'mini pint', a full pint cost 900 yen (over $10). Bastards. We left.

Good thing too cause we had a long train ride back to Minami-Senju and I was falling asleep standing up. But it was a great night.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Outside L.A.

The first video is done.

Right Now

It's 10:05 PM Tokyo time. Jacquie left for LA last night and it was very hard. Tomorrow is my last day in Japan. I'm ready to move on, but this is an incredible country.

Fun fact #1 - they are enamored with Halloween. Stores have been decked out in orange and black since the moment we arrived... on Oct 3.

You can walk into virtually any restaurant and have success, both in ordering and in food quality. We literally never had a bad meal, and usually the food was incredible. Servers will bend over backwards to serve you regardless of language barriers. This is the most polite society in the world, I am sure of it.

I will probably end up missing melon soda more than anything. Grape soda is a close second. Melon floats are tied with grape soda.

They have the easiest to use and most efficient transportation system I've ever seen.

Their TV mostly sucks. It's not all Ninja Warrior, MXE and Iron Chef. On average it seems worse than ours (but it's hard to tell).

Popular music is godawful.

(drunk) Japanese businessmen loved Jacquie. Popular comments include "you are very sexy", "i like you", and the ever popular "you are 16!"

Skype is out of control cool. I know I'm late to the party, but I'm talking to my Mom as I type this. It is insane.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Day 2, Part 1

Oct 4

Woke up in our virtual cubicle and navigated the shared showers for the first time. You had to hold down a lever with your foot for the shower to work so I got some calisthenics in.

It had rained overnight and the day was very overcast. Just a white blanket of clouds (much like China was for the whole trip in 2007).

Our first stop on our first full day in Tokyo was the nearby Asakusa district. When we bought our Japan Rail Passes in Los Angeles the woman at the travel agency asked us where we are staying. We said "a-sah-KOO-sa", and she repeated "a-sah-ka-sa" super fast... no accent on any syllable at all. It couldn't have sounded more different. Almost all Japanese pronunciation is like this (so it's not "ar-ee-GAH-to", it's just "a-ri-ga-to").

Anyhow. Asakusa is a not very built up area (and therefore cheaper) with an old temple and not much else. We bought rechargeable PASMO cards for the subway en route since there are a few different subway companies, each with their own tickets, but the PASMO works on all of them.

The walk up to the temple was paved with souvenir shops. A lot of crap but Jacquie bought a rice cracker to go with the coffee and rice ball-filled-with-something-red she picked up from a convenience store (also the place where I saw a candy called "Crunky Ball Nude").

The temple was pretty, there were people tossing money into a box and praying and there was a big cauldron of incense burning out front. A five story pagoda was next door and had a nice little garden outside with a koi pond. I stepped out of the way of a dude trying to take a picture and he said "shia shia" - Mandarin for "thank you", but I didn't think fast enough to reply with the Mandarin for "you're welcome", which I do know because I'm such a relentless badass.

Wandered around some side streets with 'cute' architecture - just small shops and aesthetically pleasing colors and stylings of the second stories of each building. Found a ramen shop and went for it.

Ramen is one of Japan's biggest selling points. I hadn't had much of it but I recognized that ramen shops were the taco trucks of Japan - cheap food that people just can't get enough of because they are mind-numbingly delicious. Suffice to say they are not the cheap ramen cups from days of college past, but are large soup bowls filled with piping hot pork bone broth and various noodles, pork, shallots, bamboo shoots, vegetables, 1-up mushrooms and the like. And this place was delicious. To top it off I paired my pig cocktail with a secret weapon, something I had been waiting to try - melon soda.

And yes it is as good as it looks. It tastes like sweet honeydew mixed with Kool Aid Man. My new favorite drink (until I tried melon soda floats and Yebisu BLACK).

We walked off the porcine swill by crossing a bridge over a river and then back across another bridge. Found the subway and jumped on the Yamanote line, which circles the city. It was recommended as a good way to get an overview of the city but it was sort of a waste of time - even though it's above ground you can't see too much.

So before completing the full circle we hopped off at the geek mecca of Akihabara. Not sure why we went since we're too cool for school but it was on the way.

Neon madness... and we hadn't even hit the mega stops of Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ginza yet. And it was daytime. I had looked up this area before we left LA and wanted to find one spot in particular. I trusted my spider senses as we navigated side streets until we gazed upon the 8-bit wonder of the world: Super Potato.

I won't lie - I could have spent a day wandering through the four floors of 8 and 16-bit systems and games in their original packaging. It was like an archeological dig of awesomeness. The Pompeii of pixels.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Day 1

As always, traveling reminds me how easy traveling is. 11 hours in the air and you're suddenly in Japan. It doesn't feel like a big deal no matter how much I tell myself it is.

Jacquie and I had separate planes on account of me getting mine for $250, a feat I pulled off by using reward miles (I signed up for a few credit cards and checking accounts a few months ago for the bonus miles).

My sister and her boyfriend drove us to the airport. My flight was 2 hours before Jacquie's, which sucked. We sat around the airport lobby until I had to head through security. It felt all wrong saying goodbye to her before such a long flight.

But it was fine. The flight couldn't have been more uneventful. I had a window seat and to my surprise NO ONE sat in the middle seat next to me. This is the first time I've been on an international flight that wasn't completely full. It was a nice trade off for the fact that the entertainment 'system' was circa 1991. Just old school drop down TVs in the middle of the aisles, not even above the seats. And the first movie was J Lo's endearing The Backup Plan. I'm telling you, no man was involved in the making of that movie. It's not possible. Even the leading 'man' must have been a woman in disguise. That's what happens when you fly an old school 747.

Food came around and the three Japanese guys ordered beers. The stewardess asked if they wanted American beer or Japanese beer. Score! The information booklet said the flight would only have American. So I drank a couple Kirin to get the trip started off right.

Got to Tokyo, went through customs, and waited for Jacquie's flight by baggage claim. Saw her as she reached the top of the escalator and started taking video of our 'meeting' (footage is already in a video I'll be posting soon).

Followed our guidebook's advice and followed signs to the Keisei railway and bought tickets to Ueno station. Got there without a hitch (all signs are in English too) and figured out how to buy tickets for the subway to Minami-Senju, the stop near our hotel. Being in New York just two weeks ago (!!) was a huge help to us here. If you know one subway you know them all (LA's subway doesn't count).

The hotel directions were sufficient and soon we were at the New Koyo Hotel. This note was at the front desk:

Hell yes we said we'd do it. The show's coordinator had just put the sign up so the hotel manager called her and she came right over to meet us. We were set to film on Wednesday, three days later. Awesome way to start the trip.

To call our room in the hotel/hostel 'tiny' would be an understatement. With the futon pulled out we had roughly 3 square feet of usable space. But it was dirt cheap for Tokyo, the most expensive city I've ever visited. Maybe the most expensive in the world?

Set out back down the street for dinner. There were not many options in our neighborhood, and we almost just grabbed some pre-made snacks from Family Mart, a 7-11 type store (speaking of which, there are tons of 7-11s in Japan).

Jacquie wanted a real meal though, so we picked the 'cutest' one, which had no English anywhere within 100 feet. All the restaurants here have curtains and other obfuscations, but we could see in just enough to know that there were three other patrons at the tiny bar. We slid open the door and walked in.

It was a sushi bar. There was a hostess/waitress, the sushi chef, and the three patrons. No one spoke more than a few words of English. We sat down and were brought a Japanese menu. We talked it over and decided we'd just point at something. The chef and waitress tried to be helpful but there was a little bit of a language barrier.

Finally one of the other patrons spoke up. "You speak Japanese?" Uh, no. "English?" Yes. She spoke enough English to communicate, and she and the waitress and chef (who she seemed to know fairly well) started talking rapidly. Eventually they offered us an 'off menu' option - a plate of nigiri sushi for 1500 yen each (around $19). Sounded good to us. We got some tea and soup and waited.

The chef then laid down a plate of utterly incredible-looking sushi in front of Jacquie. And then he gave me one.

Massive score. The sushi was incredible. Best squid I've ever had (the one in the upper right).

We talked some more with the English speaker, and then some with the chef and waitress, who we learned was his wife. They were more comfortable with us by now and knew a few more words than it at first seemed. After learning the chef's name I pulled out a 'doy itashimashite' (nice to meet you) and got a solid response back from him, including a deep bow. Pretty happy about that. We took a picture of the couple and then took another of Jacquie and I with the chef. Then he presented me with his card and wrote the name of the restaurant and its contact info in English (really Romanji) on the back for us. Incredible experience.

It was pretty much the best possible way to start our trip in Tokyo. The night receives a perfect score of 18 palm fronds (out of 18).

Tokyo in 5 days

Madness is a pretty good word to describe it. So is orderliness. Somehow these two ideas make sense together in Tokyo. By day the subways (the incredible, timely and omnipresent subways) are nearly silent apart from the creaks and whines of the trains, black-suited businessmen and well-dressed women simply stare at their phones and type. By night the same businessmen are literally falling down drunk off of eel-skewer izakaya stools... on a Tuesday... as neon blasts vertically in every direction. It is (New York) times (Los Angeles) squared. It is exhausting, and it is awesome.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


We are here and our days have been packed. Most free time has been spent desperately trying to find accommodation for the weekend (we just succeeded this morning). I could live in Tokyo in a heartbeat... but there aren't enough drinking bars. You always have to eat when you drink. But even old businessmen (especially old businessmen) can be found drunk as college freshmen any day of the week. Talk to one of them and hilarity ensues.

The train system is a breeze. New York two weeks ago (I was in New York two weeks ago?!) was the perfect primer for Japan. We are pros.

Yebisu beer.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The 24 hour countdown is about to begin

I've been loading up my computer with the various programs I'll need to work on music and video while I'm in Asia. I'll be gone for 2 months so I better find the time to make something happen. I guess I'll take a timecard with me.

Doing day job work for the last time today (well until Dec at least). I'm in San Francisco to see one last client, then it's back to LA tonight to do final packing. I cannot wait.