Perfume

Most people would never guess I like Japanese pop. Western pop is bad enough, so jacking the cuteness up to 11 couldn’t possibly help. But there are some great electronic beats, and it’s come to be a symbol of my love for Tokyo.

During Hanami, Yoyogi Park is packed with people sitting on tarps under the cherry blossoms. Friends and family hang out over food and drinks — usually alcoholic and in quantity. Ty, Toby, and I were in the mix.

Two girls and a guy approached, all dressed alike, a woman carrying a boombox bringing up the rear. The guy looked like a gay wizard with his short shorts and long grey beard. They asked if they could perform for us.

The boombox started and they began to dance and lip sync.

I got it on video but didn’t know the name of the original group until Ty saw them on the big screen at Shibuya station.

By then I’d been watching the hilarious video and the song had been growing on me. I downloaded the album and haven’t listened to much else since. Perfume’s GAME was very successful, and they just hit the top of the charts with their new single, “love the world.”

Here’s one of my current favorites. It’s what I imagine would be the ultimate Kylie Minogue track, only with Japanese girls on vocals.

You can download GAME here.

Perfume-GAME.zip

Riding the Dunes of Qatar

On Fridays, everything in Qatar is closed. It’s like Sunday in the US with three times the service interruption.

We had no idea, so when our flight landed in the wee hours Friday morning, the entire city was shut down. We had the wrong address and ended up in the industrial section 20 minutes out of town. The sprawl was incredible — LA has nothing on Doha.

We tried asking for the “city center,” also unaware that a building in the new downtown bears the same name.

Doha’s trying to compete with Dubai for the title of premier gulf city, so the new downtown is populated almost exclusively with cranes and unfinished buildings. It was getting hot quickly in the high-rise ghost town.

If we could just get to the Internet, we could look up the address and even call the hostel if necessary. Unfortunately the guy at the 24-hour pharmacy told us everything would be closed until 4 pm.

It was about 7 am.

There were tons of closed shops around the area. Maybe one would have unprotected wifi? After a few minutes of scouring the area with our phones, we had the address and phone number and were in a cab on the way to beds and air conditioning.

Doha’s only hostel turned out to be quite a bonanza. There are a ton of clean, cool rooms, the common area is done very nicely, and they have fast wifi. It’s a bit out of the way and requires a little direction in addition to the address for taxis, but in a city of excess, paying $20 per person per night is worth it.

Taxis, by the way, are normally super difficult to hail. They apparently retired all the old orange taxis before there were enough new ones to replace them, so when I called in to request a pickup, the wait was 4 hours.

We wanted to get down to Sealine Beach, about 45 minutes outside of Doha, so we figured we’d wander around in the 113 degree heat until we found one.

We were pretty pleased to find our friend John, who was also staying at the hostel, getting out of one just outside.

You wouldn’t expect a guy in his fifties to be interested in blasting around the dunes on four wheelers, but he only took a second to think before he was in. We swapped stories as the sun moved lower in the sky.

One enormous dune came up on the horizon. No build-up of smaller dunes, just BAM!! Cue the dunes!

We tracked down some four wheelers and cruised up and down, found jumps, even raced across the flat desert to the next set of dunes. Had a close call or two too.

It’s too hot before evening to do much of anything, so the next day we visited the old souqs (markets) to look around and find dinner. There were tons of spice and fabric stores, and you’d be able to find almost anything else among the huge variety of shops.

After a walk down to the port to check out the budding skyline. we were ready to get some sleep before the early flight to Paris. Qatar Airways is a blessing of an airline, by the way.

We jumped at the opportunity to extend our layover in Qatar to a couple of days, and I’d do it again. Awesome to get my first glimpse of the desert and check out a gulf nation.

But man is it hot.

The Slowest Train in the World

Why take a 24-hour train over a 4-hour bus?

Because it’s the last running train in Cambodia. Because it’s packed with locals transporting fruit to the capital. Because you can ride on the roof!

Cambodia train roof

The train from Battambang to Phnom Penh used to run three times a week, but these days goes just once on Sunday. We took a taxi 150 km for the privilege.

When the lady changing money outside the station (who gave me an unbelievably fair rate) needed more Rial, she picked up her cell phone, and within one minute three dudes swooped in on motorbikes from separate directions and handed her huge wads of cash.

$1 is worth roughly 4000 Rial, and the biggest bill is the 10,000 note, so your pockets fill up quickly. In exchange for a guaranteed seat, foreigners are charged roughly 5x the normal rate. Even so, it was only $6.

We loaded up into the last car and spaced out the seats, which had been detached from the floor and stacked in a pile.

Wandering through the other cars, most of the seats were occupied by durians, lychees, bags of charcoal, and the women transporting them. The only men on the train were the railway police.

As the train left the station, the overgrown tree limbs on either side of the train started scraping along the train and snapping into the open windows. They say the last maintenance on the track was 8 years ago.

Having read about the roof, I headed up the ladder between cars. Rice paddies and fields stretched as far as I could see, mountains on the horizon. Some kids had clambered up after me. Ty saw my shadow and came up a few minutes later.

Soon everyone was up and enjoying the morning sun. We jumped from car to car, thinking of Indiana Jones.

The train bounced and rocked from side to side, but at the 17 km/hr top speed (Ty measured with GPS) we kept our footing even on the roof. Then the train stopped.

We looked around — no station in sight.

All the men congregated in front of our car, which had somehow gotten enough air to jump the next one’s bumper.

One of the guys tried in vain to separate them and they radioed the locomotive to try starting quickly and jerking them apart. No sweat. The train rolled on, past paddies, villages, and some of the cutest kids we’d ever hope to see.

It moved so slowly that we couldn’t resist jumping out and running next to the train. Outrunning it wasn’t hard and the kids joined in.

As we left Pursat, one of the policemen asked us to move to the next car “for our safety,” though seats among the durians and dragonfruits were scarce.

After we’d moved up, I glanced back toward our previous seats and saw logs filling up the now-empty car. Safety, huh?

Nori, aka bamboo trains, are little cars rigged up using spare tank parts, train axles, bamboo, and go-kart engines. Since the tracks are essentially unused, villagers travel and carry cargo with nori. And now one was behind our train, offloading logs into our former digs WHILE WE WERE MOVING!

Didn’t get a photo, but here’s what they look like.

One after the other, four of these things stacked high with wood pulled up to the back of the train to make a contribution. That was just the beginning.

When we pulled into the next village, there were huge stacks of logs everywhere and a lot of eager-looking people . The second we stopped, they started loading into the boxcar, on the flat car, into our old car, and on the roof! The women seemed to be doing most of the work as usual.

Though we were already hours behind schedule at this point, the train started before the wood loaders had finished. They hustled to get the last few logs stacked up. I’m proud to say moving trains have never kept me from my wood loading either.

We also had to watch out for the fruit. Bags full of it would appear in the windows, passed up by old ladies that could break Ty in half.

This repeated itself for every stop in the next few hours until the train was packed to the gills.

The sun started to set, so we went back up top and found the wood guys perched on their stacks. The paddies reflected everything.

Back in the cars, everyone was getting into sleeping position. The kid next to me curled up on a bag of charcoal. The woman on the other side climbed into her hammock.

Ty strung his up and made a hilarious contraption with cot poles. If he’d fallen, it would have been into a load of durian. I put mine safely out of range and locked myself in with a carabiner.

When we stopped around 5 am, the sun was coming up and the wood and fruit were being unloaded. Another hour and change and we were rolling into Phnom Penh.

Houses (using the term loosely) line the railway, and people were out bright and early eating and walking around.

A full 24 hours after we’d left Battambang, we rolled into the station for an average speed just over 12 km/hr.

It felt like we saw a lot of the Cambodian spectrum, going between its two biggest cities and seeing the towns, villages, and people in between. Traveling overland here may be a little short on comfort, but you’ll see things you wouldn’t have by air, bus, or car.

The train and track have been deteriorating steadily for years, so if you’re in the area and on the fence, go for it. If the holes in the roof, walls, and floor are any indicator, one of these days it’s going to fall apart. Hope you catch it before that.

Sex Tourists Are Not Welcome

The Atlanta Hotel in Bangkok is within walking distance of the tailor district, the Siam Paragon, and Lumpini Park. It’s also right next two of the three red light districts of Bangkok.

When the owner’s son took over, he decided to make it “Bangkok’s Bastion of Healthy Tourism.” The guy must have had some pretty traumatic sexual experiences.. he clearly has a complex.

Staying there, you’re also constantly reminded that the hotel won’t entertain complaints since it’s a “budget” hotel.

They do have an awesome pool area (first swimming pool in Thailand), a good vegetarian restaurant, and easy access to the Skytrain. It was apparently the finest hotel in Bangkok in its heyday in the ’60s. Recommended.

Taiwan: Report Card

Ah, Taiwan, we hardly knew you.  Though our M.O. of working for the first month and seeing the country for the second isn’t very fair to a one-month stop, I was getting pretty fond of it by the end.

So what did we like about Taiwan?  Let’s check out the report card.

Taipei night market

Nocturnal resident friendliness: A

For starters, Taipei stays up late.  At 2am on the weekends, you’ll see elderly couples taking walks (or maybe heading home from the clubs?) alongside kids hanging out.  No matter the hour, there always seem to be people out and about.

There are night markets all over the city that are open well past midnight, and there were plenty of little eateries near our apartment that never seemed to close.

Even during the day, public grounds are always hopping.  Around Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall we’d see people practicing Tai Chi, flying kites, and dancing.  Off to the side there’s a perfect area for workouts.

Record-setting buildings: A

The Taipei 101 is just a few minutes away.  We’d heard the tallest building in the world had a fantastic grocery store in the basement.

It’s true, and the view from the top ain’t half bad either.  You can cruise up in the world’s fastest elevator and check out the counterintuitive counterweight system that keeps the building from swaying.  Apparently putting 600-ton weights at the top helps counter the wind?

Taipei 101

It doesn’t look so tall from the ground, but from the Mao Kong gondola you get a real appreciation for its scale.

Public transportation: A+

How many other cities have gondolas in their people-moving arsenals?

Taipei’s MRT (subway) consistently ranks among the best-run in the world.  It’s very fast, super clean, and there are very helpful full-service booths in every station.  Buses go everywhere you’d ever want to go too.

Taipei MRT

And the trains!  They’re about as fast as the Japanese Nozomi and a fraction of the price.  We paid about $20 for a reserved ticket from Taipei to Taichung — and it only took 50 minutes at 300 kM.

Weather: B-

Most people would schedule a trip outside of monsoon season.  Not sure how we missed this one.

We definitely would have done more around Taiwan if we hadn’t been working around the rain, but it only got in the way a few times.

Electric scooters: F

If they hadn’t died almost directly in front of another branch of the rental agency, we would have had a looooong walk ahead of us.

There’s no better vehicle for driving around Sun Moon Lake, but don’t put much faith in the battery gauge.  We had to see the pagoda Chiang Kai-shek built across the lake in his mother’s memory.  It’s magical when the clouds roll in.

Pagoda

It was a real treat to stay at the Lalu when we were here.  I don’t think working ever looked so good.

Lalu

Availability of electronics: A++

Akihabara is the mecca, but Taipei’s electronics district isn’t far behind.  You can find all the same things, but instead of an entire building devoted to butterfly washers there’s only a booth.  And I’m ok with that.

The largest OEM electronics manufacturers like Foxconn (who actually make all your Apples, Nokias, and Motorolas) are Taiwanese, so computers, cameras, phones, etc are about as cheap as you can get.

Next year we’ll have to stay for the Computex trade show, where everyone shows off their latest and greatest.

I also have to mention the fantastic product support.  Three days after dropping my camera off at JVC’s Taipei office, it was good as new.  They even emailed me pictures of the salt-encrusted insides!

Camera

So we didn’t see as much of Taiwan as we would have liked, but what we did was more than enough to earn it a spot for next year.

Obama’s Global Poverty Act Misrepresented

“President Obama Signs $8500.00 Per Household Tax Into Law: Funds To Go To The United Nations To Combat Global Poverty!”

Or so an email I received from my Dad would have you believe. I get a pretty constant stream of conservative-written forwards, which I actually like because it gives me the opportunity to call attention to any incorrect information.

In the email, Obama’s Global Poverty Act is proclaimed to commit the U.S. to sending 0.7% of its GNP to the U.N., equivalent to $845 billion more than current foreign aid spending. It’s likened to a global tax.

Here are some other quotes:

“Barack Hussein Obama’s Global Poverty Act will commit us to a stealth United Nations-inspired global tax of $845 Billion dollars…”

“…dedicates 0.7 percent of the U.S. gross national product to foreign aid, which… would amount to $845 billion ‘over and above what the U.S. already spends.”

When you see Obama referred to as “Barack Hussein Obama,” I think it’s safe to assume what you’re reading is fairly biased.

This particular email is a rare breed. Since its content hasn’t been aired by any prominent media, you won’t find any real sources if you search for “obama global poverty act.” It isn’t until the fourth page of results that you get any perspective.

The bill does not:

  • impose a tax
  • recommend contributions to the U.N.
  • commit any funding to fighting poverty

The bill does recommend:

  • leveraging trade policy to help developing nations
  • improving the effectiveness of development assistance
  • coordinating poverty reduction goals with other development goals
  • continued participation in U.S.-led programs related to poverty (eg. HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis prevention)
  • integrating principles of sustainable development and entrepreneurship into policies and programs

The bill is pretty benign. It requires the President to submit his plan to reduce poverty within one year of passage. The goal is to promote policy that reduces the number of people worldwide who live on less than $1 a day by half. (Go inflation!)

All that’s required is a statement of the plan. The plan can be anything, whether it’s doing nothing beyond current efforts, defining poverty goals for existing programs, coordinating with other countries to lower trade barriers, or adjusting aid to be directed more toward teaching to fish instead of giving fish.

This bill is nothing like the people who authored this email would have you believe, and you won’t get the facts anywhere in the first three pages of Google results.

If you receive this email, please reply to all with a link to this post.

The full text of S. 2433: Global Poverty Act of 2007 can be found here.

Yakushima Island Part III

Sleeping on concrete isn’t so easy, even coming from a night on the floor of a cave. And without the sleeping bags we decided to rent at the last second? We would have been completely miserable.

So at the first hint of light I started making enough noise to be audible without sounding like a wake-up attempt.

Soon we were all awake, laughing at each other as we jumped around in our mummy bags trying to scare the hikers passing by.

Scaring people

First we checked out Yayoi sugi, the second oldest cedar in Shiratani Unsuikyo forest. At 3,000 years, it’s almost as old as the earth if you’re a creationist. By most accounts it’s more impressive than the oldest, so we started hiking towards the now-mythical mountain hut where we’d intended to stay the night before.

Yayoi sugi

I’d like to take a second to point out how lucky we were to have two full days of sunshine in Yakushima, where locals say it rains “35 days a month.” It looks like Bob Ross’s wildest fantasy for a reason.

The first leg up to the Shiratani hut turned out to be the original Kusugawa trail laid hundreds of years ago for women and children traveling through the mountains. You could have told me the rock-lined path was 20 years young and I’d have believed it, but apparently their trails were as tough as their women.

This was golden week, where a few successive holidays turn into a week off work, so many Japanese were visiting Yakushima too. In Tokyo, no one else says hi to strangers, but on the trail everyone goes back to basics.

As a rule people get friendlier the further you are from a city.

Yakushima trees

After a couple hours of hiking with the morning sun filtering through the trees, we reached the hut and put our gear in a side room with plywood bunk beds. Elliot and I set out to do a little exploring while Ty and Elisia took naps.

There was really only one direction: up. After an hour we reached a junction and took the trail up to the closest peak. The trail as rugged as the day before’s… plenty steep and marked only with plastic ribbons. Any malicious hiker with a pair of scissors could confuse a lot of people.

Soon we found ourselves on a rock overlooking the valley with an unbelievable view. We could see the ocean off in the distance and a fast-moving river down below.

As far as we were concerned, we were on top of the world. I’m don’t think I’ll ever forget the Nujabes track Elliot played for me while we relaxed in the sun.

Elliot on the rock

We headed back down to see if the others were awake. I played noisemaker again to get ’em rolling.

Elliot, Ty, and I took the other trail at the junction we’d found on the way to the rock, which led us down to the abandoned railroad that ran alongside the river we’d seen from above. We’d hiked all the way from the top to the bottom, and soon we’d be going back up to meet Elisia at the top.

Yakushima mountain river

But there was no way I was going to miss swimming in a pristine mountain river! We climbed down the bank and I got my skinny dip on. I couldn’t resist standing up and waving a big hello to the tour group that appeared upstream.

Back on the rock, Elisia had beaten us and was hanging out with the other hikers who’d come to check out the view. We’d allowed ourselves plenty of time before sunset to celebrate our last day in Yakushima. We had nuts, garbanzos, coconut milk, and spaghetti. Elliot brought his laptop up for a little music.

After a full day of trains, a trek through the rain, a night in a cave, a ferry, an unmaintained trail, a night on the roof of a restroom, and a hike up and down the mountain valley, we’d made it. This was the Yakushima we’d come to see.

Yakushima crew

Heather & Tyrone (NSFW)

If you’re a member of my family over 30 years old, DO NOT READ THIS.

Heather lived on our floor. She was pretty attractive, but there was something a little off about her… maybe “skeezy” is the right word. Enough that when she’d bounce into my room and plant herself in my 17 year-old virgin lap, I’d complain loudly instead of rejoicing in my good luck.

There was the time she ran in asking if I had a credit card. Yeah, why?

“There are some pictures of me on the Internet!”

“I’m not paying for it, but maybe we can find them anyway. What site?”

“Playboy!”

Sure enough, we found ’em… The Girls of Spring Break.

Heather
(click for the full picture – opens in new window)

After a handful of similar instances, we were pretty sure she Continue reading Heather & Tyrone (NSFW)

People do the strangest things

We were in Yoyogi Park for the Hanami celebration. Then this happened.

Catch the killer move at 1:04?

These two girls and their very feminine wizard call themselves Bercume, after the all-girl J-pop group they emulate, Perfume. But all they do is dance and lip-sync with ice cream cone microphones?

I got a huge kick out of it, but I don’t really get it. Then again, if I was this dude, getting out of the secret hideout and dancing with my girls would probably be the best thing I had going.

What do you think’s in it for the girls?

Temples, monkeys, and mountain trails

silhouette

I couldn’t help but think that anyone watching would have exactly the wrong impression of us.  Everyone in Excelsior Caffé was seated and enjoying social drinks.  We were standing for lack of chairs and wolfing down the afterthought sandwiches coffee chains serve straight from the microwave.

We were a little behind as usual, heading to Tokyo station to catch our night train.  Our friend Elisia is with us for 10 days, so we were excited to show her the nobi-nobi beds we thought were so cool last year.

Most of the cabins on last night’s Sunset Express are private little space pods with real beds, but one car has carpeted bunks for those unwilling to spring for the Jetson package.  They fill up pretty quickly for good reason.

I woke up to train sounds with plenty of time to take a shower.

If you’re ever on a night train, it’s an absolute must!!  And a great deal — about $3 gets you 6 precious minutes of shower time.  You get to see the shower clean itself when you’ve finished, and if you forget a towel like I did the first time, you get extra points for drying off with the blow-dryer.  Sorry I don’t have video.

The ocean mist was still heavy as the ferry took us past the most famous temple gate in Japan.  Itsukushima Shrine was built on a little mountain island off the mainland where commoners were forbidden.

Most people take photos of the gate from the nearby pier.  Some of the more adventurous go down into the bay when the tide is out and get a bit closer on the sand.  We zipped off our pant legs and waded out in the knee-high water.  It was freezing.

Miyajima gate

The town is adorable, but the coolest part of Miyajima is the mountain trails.  There are a few routes of varying length and difficulty that lead to the temple, observation deck, and monkey sanctuary at the top.  We locked up our packs and Elisia took off for the ropeway (gondola).

The main trail is pretty good for a 2 km climb.  A lot of the stairs are more like box jumps than steps, but it’s a little hard to be proud of something we shared with the elderly and the high-heeled.  Love the Japanese ladies!

At the top we hung out at the temple of the eternal flame, where it’s said the fire’s been going over 1,200 years.  The monsoon that decimated the island about 50 years ago makes me a little skeptical, but I still drank the tea brewing over it.

top of miyajima

Hard to beat relaxing at a temple at the top of our first World Heritage Site.

A little further up at the absolute summit, kids were climbing on the huge rock formations with their parents looking on, but no one could scale the biggest one.  After a couple half attempts, the kids were so interested there was no way I could stop.

Everyone applauded when Ty made it up with a little boost, and after another 30 minutes of trying I took off my shoe to find a toe hold and narrowly avoided failure.  The view was worth it, and one of the mothers told us we were heroes!

ty rock

Over by the top of the ropeway, the monkeys roam freely and the humans are restricted to one area — the ultimate role reversal. We watched them do monkey stuff for a while and got this superexclusive shot of three mid-lesson with their dance instructor.

monkeys

Kudos for your choice of “Thriller,” guys.

The ultimate fast food was waiting for us at the bottom: corn on the cob basted with soy sauce.  Delicious, satisfying, and healthy.

We made our way back to the ferry and 3 trains later we were back in Tokyo in time to catch last order at our favorite Indian restaurant.  Pretty incredible how much activity and distance you can pack into one day.

Oh, did you know budding antlers feel like jelly-filled leather gearshifts?

deer