Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

What I Like about Shanghai

March 22nd, 2009 1 comment

I realize that most of the posts I’ve written about Shanghai are pretty negative. And I have got to admit, my view of the city has been a pretty bad one. In an unbalanced way or not, I don’t know. That’s just how we’ve reacted this time.

But that’s not to say that there’s nothing we don’t like here. While street interactions have been less than ideal (as I’ve noted), getting to know people socially is a very different deal; people here are kind, patient, and friendly.

Shanghai is also very cheap. Yeah, western places like Starbucks and Pizza hut maintain prices that are equivalent to prices overseas, and that can be jarring. But most prices are very low. A 15-minute taxi ride costs a buck and a half. A new SIM card for Sachi’s phone with 400 minutes on it cost about $15. A yakiniku lunch for two with really good beef, a salad, drink, and soup for each totaled only $10. And KFC keeps prices low even if other foreign fast food places don’t–a 6-piece dinner with large popcorn chicken and a small salad cost only $8–less than you’d pay in Japan for just three pieces (and Japan’s KFC doesn’t have Popcorn Chicken, another reason I like Shanghai!).

I also like the way that traffic is designed, if not how people actually drive. China has enough room, and uses it; big roads abound, and each has a fenced-off lane just for scooter, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic, unmolested by the cars that will just as soon run you over than they will give way. And I really like the traffic signals; they have several extra indicators to let you know when things are changing. They blink green before they turn yellow. They turn from red to yellow before they go green. And at the end of the green or red light, you often get a countdown before they change.

I’m sure that if I stayed longer, I’d come up with a longer list. It is by far not all bad–as I said, we just probably got a bad look at parts of it, and probably our filtered memories from a few years back colored our expectations. Nevertheless, I doubt that we’ll be coming back again soon.

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March 21st, 2009 2 comments

One thing you can say for Chinese people, they’re not shy. Three or four times now I have been in line at stores and people come up from behind and shove their way in front of me. People on the street treat you as if you’re not there, even more so than in Japan; they assume you will get out of their way, and have no problem stepping right in your path and stopping.

Automobiles are even worse. Instead of like it is in America and Japan, cars in Shanghai assume that pedestrians will get out of their way. They do not stop until the very last inch, and every moment up until then they show no signs of slowing or hesitation in anticipation that you might not see them coming or might not stop for them. I remember once in Palo Alto, when driving with Sachi, I rounded a corner and a pedestrian was coming up. He did not reach the intersection until I was just rounding away from him, but he was able to reach out and touch the car–and he did, banging on the rear corner edge and shouting at me for the close call. I thought he was being a bit touchy, getting pissed because I took a turn in which I didn’t even come close to hitting him instead of stopping and waiting for him to arrive and to cross; at worst, all he had to do was slow down a bit, maybe not even that. I can only imagine what this guy would think of drivers in Shanghai. You can be in the middle of the street, with right of way, and they will come at you like you don’t exist. I suppose that people here get used to dodging the cars and jogging out of their way.

Last night at dinner, I asked one of Sachi’s friends what she liked about Shanghai. She said that you don’t have to be reserved here, you can say what you feel any time you want. I can certainly see what she means by that–people in China do not hold back. People here say what they feel, tempers flare, shouting happens–and it’s not a big deal.

The thing is, that’s one of the reasons I like Japan–that you don’t have this constant barrage of confrontation. I prefer everyone holding back in public. I got tired of always worrying in the States about who would find some reason to start an argument with me. I’m probably just over-sensitive, but then that’s probably why I like Japan that way better.

Last night, after the dinner where I asked that question, we saw a good example of this assertiveness. As we left the restaurant and waited for a friend to arrive in his van to take us to the next destination, we were assaulted by three women with a little six-year-old girl they had trained to walk up to each of us and beg for money.


The women were using the kid to get money, and it was uncomfortable to say the least. The girl seemed to treat it like any chore adults set kids to do, but you kind of cringed at what this kid’s life was like, being used by adults like that. Yeah, I know, happens all the time. Still.

The thing is, that was not the end of it. As the van came around, we piled in. There were a few bottles of tea in the door I was getting into. After I climbed in, one of the women came up and just took one of the bottles out, holding it as if to say, “hey, thanks for the gift!” When I protested–it wasn’t mine to give up–the woman gave it to the girl who quickly cradled it close and turned around as if to keep me from getting at it. Quickly enough that it was obvious she did this often; she even smiled, as if she liked this part because it was like a game of keep-away. I left it at that, which is certainly what these women expected. I imagine that it’s a usual move–grab whatever you can from the car that is worth having but not worth someone trying to tear from a little girl’s arms.

When I told the others about what had happened, I added the qualification of how poor they must be, and everyone in the car hooted at that one. The common opinion is that these people are doing very well, thank you–all of the grown women were clearly clean, well-fed and sheltered, with clothes that looked new. They probably collect enough from tourists to claim a better income (tax-free) than most people in the city. And the little girl–no one was sure, but some doubted that she was the child of one of the women.

Lots of people like that on the streets in this town. Probably lots of people like that everywhere, but you see it a lot less in the U.S. and rarely if ever in Japan.

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An Interesting Afternoon Stroll in Shanghai

March 21st, 2009 3 comments

Sachi and I went out for lunch and then went shopping. At the restaurant, things went OK, except that a bottled drink Sachi ordered didn’t come for about 20 minutes, despite repeated reminders from us. All the had to do was grab the bottle and bring it to the table. For me, what was interesting was the menu–and not interesting in all that good a way. Unless you consider deep-fried duck chins and crispy pigeon to be yummy menu choices. Some excerpts:


In case you were wondering what duck chins look like:


After lunch, we walked up and down the street. As I’ve mentioned, Shanghai is littered with skyscrapers–they’re everywhere, and seem to be the simple standard-issue building style. There was a 20-story building that looked important, with a big something-or-other “Plaza” sign, with escalators and stairs going up to it. Thinking there was something worth looking at, Sachi and I went up–and found what seemed to be a more or less deserted shop area, not that there was likely much there to begin with. A couple of shop clerks, a man and a woman, played a game of badminton in front of their shop, looking briefly at us to determine whether they needed to put away the game.

We went down the road and across the street on the way to the local supermarket to do some shopping. Along the way, we saw three or four card games going on, a typical street event.




In between a few of these games, a police officer seemed to be telling a lady selling fake DVDs to move her show along–despite the fact that just 30 feet away, another guy was selling the same assortment of DVDs. Maybe the lady just didn’t pay off the right people, or she was in front of someone’s store who didn’t like it. (By the way, they have “Blu-Ray” DVDs on the carts–I have to wonder, are they actually Blu-Rays, or is that part fake too?)



A few steps down the road, Sachi and I were shocked to see an old man fall flat forward on his face in front of us, either because his shoe got loose or because the pavement was so uneven. He started spitting blood on the sidewalk. People rushed to help him, I gave him a package of tissues, and he seemed to be okay, but it was a bit jarring.

I also noticed that this area–right across the street from our four-star hotel–was pretty darned run-down.



I simply cannot get over how much Shanghai looks like a slum much of the time. And not just some parts of it, it’s pretty much throughout with exceptions. Crumbling masonry, dilapidated sidewalks, dust and trash all over, rickety houses everywhere. It’s like a modern city is thrusting up through a third-world city, and much of the modern part is falling into disrepair and being taken over by the run-down parts at a fast clip.

Just before we got to the supermarket, there was a homeless guy laying face-down on a makeshift mattress on the sidewalk, playing a harmonica to beg for money.

In the supermarket (their theme song is, strangely, “Happy Birthday to You”–betcha they don’t pay royalties on that), we were trying to check out when a guy came up to our cashier with a worn & torn box of Crest toothpaste and started shouting at her. At about this time, a guy right around the corner from our register dropped a case of Great Wall Red Wine, leading to a crimson pool slowly spreading and flowing across the floor.

Just another afternoon in jolly Shanghai.

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Cycling in Shanghai

March 20th, 2009 Comments off

Although there are still a lot of bicycles, there are a lot more scooters and motorcycles than I remember before. Or scooters made up to look like motorcycles.




As you can see in the image just above, many of the big streets in Shanghai have partitioned-off side paths that are reserved for bicycles, carts, and scooters. Not that they are restrained to these areas–everyone, including pedestrians, run rampant everywhere on the streets, including those bicycle-driven carts which seem to be required by law to load 20 times more stuff on them than was ever intended.

But the trespassing does not end with the street; scooters often ride right through crowds on sidewalks, as if that were as legitimate a path as a street.


As with all traffic in Shanghai, the general rule seems to be anything goes, and watch out for life and limb–but primarily your own.

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March 20th, 2009 Comments off

They love the big advertisements here in Shanghai:



A surprising number are for American and Japanese goods.

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Fake Fruit

March 20th, 2009 1 comment

Sachi and I saw several stores that bore prominent Apple logos. None were official Apple Stores (do they even have any in Shanghai?) but Apple gear apparently has a bit of a reputation here.


Of course, much of the “Apple” gear you see here is fake, like so many of the bags and watches that are sold. This display was in the Yuyuan shopping area; some of the fakes were very good, but some were less convincing.


I think they have to work on getting the Apple packaging style down, however. I don’t think many would be fooled by this:


Categories: Mac News, Travel Tags:

City of Smog, Rubble, and Dirt

March 20th, 2009 2 comments

One thing that strikes you immediately in China is the pollution and the sense of constant construction and destruction. The smog hits you hardest–you can’t see farther than a few miles through this soup. I don’t see how people stand it, frankly; I for one would not want to live in this. One might not think this, but Tokyo, by contrast, has clean and clear air. If you see this kind of haze in Tokyo, it is due to the weather more than anything else; many days you can see more than 50 miles in the distance, and even on bad days you can see across town. It never gets as bad as what passes for normal in Shanghai.



You can see the effects on the ground–the dust from the smog accumulates, as you can see from the grime that is more visible closer to walls as in this photo from a Shanghai sidewalk far from any other source of dirt:


But dirt there is, as well as crumbling concrete. I remember a similar thing in Spain, where you would see shells of buildings still standing behind cracked and crumbling concrete walls.


Even where construction is building new things, there is mess and disarray. This is the center-divider of the street below our hotel window, where dirt and wood for construction is laid seemingly anywhere.


It’s as if the whole city is crumbling and falling apart sometimes. We’re staying at a 4-star hotel, and yet there is broken plaster fallen from the ceiling of our balcony, just sitting there. Considerable chunks of broken plaster was even left in a corner of our room.


And the smell can be pretty strong, too–much of this hotel has a caustic, chemical odor, in varying levels. I almost don’t notice the cigarette smell on the street sometimes, as it is almost welcome compared to other smells that are found here.

Not that the city does not have its charms. But its faults are pretty darned significant.

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View Out the Hotel Window

March 20th, 2009 1 comment


This is what you see when you look straight out. Not the most enchanting view. Not that you could see for miles anyway, but it would be nice to see at least something else.

You can, though, if you face in a slightly different direction. This is one reason I like places like Shanghai–the interesting architecture:


The upper structure is a sports center or something–but below that building, at street level, is a supermarket (you can see the red arch at the supermarket entrance. If you like the image, click on it for a slightly larger version.

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Crazy Flash Card Lady

March 20th, 2009 1 comment

One of the dangers of going to the more popular areas of Shanghai is dealing with the shopkeepers. They are constantly on the lookout for tourists to fleece. You can note them by their calls: “Lookah lookah!” “Just looking!” “You want this?” And that’s just when you walk by–if you show any interest in their wares, they will bolt up out of their chairs and start in on a spiel. And god help you if you actually ask about something–you will have to beat them off with a stick, almost literally.

I had this happen before when I first came to Shanghai, and forgot my lesson. Today, I looked at Compact Flash memory cards for cameras in a shop, and in a moment of weakness, asked about the 4GB Extreme version by SanDisk. 680 yuan (about $100) was the listed price. I wasn’t actually trying to talk the lady down, I was just trying to calculate the amount in my head and recall what the price was in the U.S. She took my reluctance for a bargaining tactic, and brought her price down to 350 Yuan, or about $50. I told her it was an interesting offer, as I knew that such cards were probably in that range in the U.S. But I don’t like being pressured, and so I told her that I would think about it and maybe come back to buy it.

Not good enough. “What you mean, ‘think about it’?” she asked as if I’d slapped her. “No think, this good deal, I really want to do business with you!” She then lowered her price to $35 after demanding me to type the price I wanted into her calculator. Sachi tried to get her off my back by translating my explanation that I don’t buy things right away, I always think first. This seemed to offend her. Acting angry and hurt, she followed me as I walked away, lowering her price to $20 and then $10, repeating “I really want to do business with you!” I had to walk into another store just to get her to lay off of me. By this time it felt like she was not interested even in making money (the U.S. version costs $30) but if I agreed to take the flash card then she could grab ahold of me and duplicate me with a pod person and then suck my brains out or something. Seriously, I was afraid the card was a defective throwaway or stolen merchandise or something.

They really are that aggressive. Sachi commented on my getup, my digital SLR hung around m,y neck and wearing this big backpack, I just shouted “tourist.” When we walked down busy streets, people would flock to me, saying “Rolex,” “watch,” “bag!” and “antiques!” sometimes holding out catalog sheets full of pictures of watches. Often these people were inside stores they clearly were not employed by. One time a guy tried to hawk special exchange rates to us in a bank. Several people begged for money.

Quite a city to take a stroll in.


Are these real ones in the store pictured above? Or some street hawker who got a big loan and a solid set of brass ones? I would not put it past some of these guys.

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March 18th, 2009 2 comments

Since we got a “super saver” ticket to Shanghai, we did not choose our airline–they did not even tell us which airline until after we paid. It turned out to be JAL. My last experience with them more than 20 years ago was less than ideal, but they were pretty decent this time–for a 3-hour flight, at least. They had the back-of-the-seat video system where you could choose from more than a dozen new films, a dozen old ones, and some TV offerings as well. The kind where you can start, pause, fast-forward, etc. They even didn’t charge for booze. They also had a feature that I never saw before and kind of liked: cameras in front of and below the plane, so you could watch the take-off, landing, and the scenery below the plane in flight. Though their “PA IN OPERATION” signal could have used a few abbreviation periods to make it look less like a torture announcement.

Shanghai is like I remember it: smoky, smoggy, and a bit smelly. Sachi and I took the taxi from the airport, and the taxi driver raced wildly; the way everyone shifts lanes and crowds each other off the road is kind of scary. At least twice on the way we made exclamations in unison when it looked like we were going to hit someone. There is construction everywhere, and tons of high-rise buildings.

We got to the hotel, and though it is relatively new and nice, the lobby had a strong chemical smell. The elevator was a bit better, and the floor where our room is better still. You can still smell it, but it’s bearable.

We went out to a local convenience store to pick up some beers and snacks. Three 500 ml beers, bottles of tea and coke, 2 bags of snacks, and a largish bag of pistachio nuts set us back all of $7. That also brings back memories of how cheap it can be here. Even the taxi ride cost only $23 for a very long ride in from Pu Dong Airport. The only thing that’s too expensive so far is the Internet access in the hotel–$5 a day, and only less if you connect for less than an hour.

Tired right now–will post this tomorrow, later, when we get around to starting up Internet access.

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China’s American Tax

March 12th, 2009 3 comments

If you’re Japanese and you want to visit China for 15 days or less, you don’t need a visa. For longer trips, the Chinese embassy charges you ¥3,000 ($30). If you’re a non-American other than Japanese, for any length of stay, the embassy charges you ¥4,000. If you’re an American: the visa will cost you a whopping ¥15,000, or $153. I found this out to my complete shock when I picked up my visa just an hour ago.

In fact, there is a different fee for non-Americans for single-entry, multiple-entry, and so forth–but Americans pay the top fee no matter what the visa type.

I knew that Sino-American relations were not at their best, but what a way to sock it to Americans! A hundred and fifty bucks for a lousy tourist visa? When I traveled to China five years ago, I am pretty sure that it was ¥6,000, maybe even less. So, this is recent. (Looking it up, it appears to have taken effect in 2007.)

The freakin’ 3-star hotel Sachi and I booked for 2 people didn’t cost that much for a 5-day, 6-night stay–I think the bill came out just short of ¥15,000.

Is there something specific I am being punished for? Or is this general anti-Americanism?

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The Bay

September 16th, 2008 4 comments

You live in a place, and you tend not to go see the tourist spots. I’ve been on this tour before, however–but only once. Today, Sachi and I took the bay cruise (Red & White Fleet edged out Blue & Gold by a dollar and by allowing reservations by phone), and were not disappointed. It’s an hour on the bay, and so long as you avoid the fog, you get a great deal. Here are some of the photos from the day.

This plucky gang of gulls had the gall to knock over a guy’s fried shrimp basket. Gulls: 1; Humans: 0.

This guy seemed like a homeless guy, but it’s not clear. He was not panhandling (best sign: “Need Money for Hookers,” seen elsewhere on the Wharf), instead he hid behind a trash receptacle and scared people as they passed by. 10 points for originality and local color.

Sachi spotted some Murrelets, I knew what they were. Well, sort of–they’re Murrelets, but I don’t know what kind. An interesting catch nonetheless. The little guys even resemble penguins to a degree.

Pelicans graced the bay, here just the one, but elsewhere in flocks.

What Fisherman’s Wharf visit would be complete without the Pier 39 seals?

And, of course, Alcatraz.

A generic shot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Less generic.

Hi, everyone!

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More Saiko Birding

August 27th, 2008 Comments off

Who ever knew it would be such a good birding spot, that hotel? They just happened to give us a window out on a meadow full of birds I usually don’t see, including a few I couldn’t even identify without the help of the good folks at the Bird Forum, always on hand to ID a photographic avian catch for you. Here I thought I had a Daurian Redstart, and it turned out, after magnifying the image, I had a few birds I had never caught on camera before. The first was a Narcissus Flycatcher, a disappointment only in that I didn’t catch it in it’s brilliant yellow, orange, white, and black colors–instead, I got the tamer variety. Still, a new bird!



And then there was the plucky little featherball that turned out to be an Asian Brown Flycatcher.




Those, plus the Long-tailed Tits and even the Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker made for an interesting show without even leaving the comfort of my room. Quite a view, as it turned out.

The nearby Wild Bird Park turned out to have quite a few interesting birds as well. Even the Tree Sparrows had interesting variety, like this white-dominated fellow:


The Varied Tits flitted quickly in and out of the feeders, while the sparrows stayed put, as did the kijibato, or Eurasian Turtledoves, whose larger frames would dominate some of the feeders.



As I reported yesterday, the kawarahira, or Oriental Greenfinches were all about in the park.


I spotted a nice Meadow Bunting in a clearing. I love it when birds fluff up in cleaning, they look like a mess of exploded furry feathers.




There was even a Gray Wagtail down near a pond that Sachi spied and pointed out to me, in this frame doing the weird stretch-my-wing-out-over-my-extended-leg move they sometimes do.


For a rainy couple of days, it was a nice draw.

Categories: Birdwatching, Nature, Travel Tags:

Tourist Ice Trap

August 26th, 2008 7 comments

Since it was raining so much our one full day in the area, Sachi and I decided to try out the local Ice Caverns. Sounded grand, and the images in the pamphlet showed towering columns of glittering ice. You get the impression that you’ll be wandering around this great cavern with these things jutting up around you, reaching up to the roof of the cave. Okay. So we went, and paid our three bucks each. By the time we were out, I was commenting that they should have paid us six bucks for going through that.

Sachi had a great time, but only because she really enjoys it when I get royally pissed–she thinks it’s the funniest stuff ever. Me, I was amazed they could keep such a place open. First off, the railings that you absolutely needed to grip on 90% of the time were freezing cold. The caves themselves were cold, but you could bear that because it was atmospheric–the railings you had to grip hard, which froze your hands stiff in a minute or less. No warnings outside to use gloves.

Second, the cave got really claustrophobic the last half of the way down, making you crouch as you went more and more–then got incredibly narrow at one point, so much so that you either had to slide down a freezing, wet, rocky surface on your ass, or else do the damnedest imitation of low-as-you-can-go limbo in order to avoid that. Seriously, it was so narrow you couldn’t even crawl through unless it was on your stomach–not to mention that part was a 30-degree downward angle on wet, cold rock. One thinks they could note this before you commit yourself, which, by that point, you were. I remember praying that they didn’t let seniors down there. Below is Sachi after the narrow part (I wasn’t able to un-contort myself enough to take a photo of the worst part), smiling because she’s learning so many new cuss words.


And the payoff, once you were down there? Dirty ice, followed by a quick glance at some things that were probably ice columns behind a small grated opening. Below is a flash photo of them:


Then you climb out. That’s the whole show.

When we got out, Sachi went to the restrooms while I waited near the entrance gate where an employee, maybe fifty years old, was taking tickets. I paid attention because a couple of seniors just happened to be there. They asked the guy, “Is the cave wet?” The guy answered, “Not at all!” A total lie–like many caves, maybe this one more than most, all the surfaces were wet to dripping. It was an ice cave, for crying out loud.

I tried to tell the couple that, aside from being wet, the hand rails were freezing cold and gloves would be called for, if they had them. They looked to the ticket guy for confirmation. “Oh, it just seems like they’re cold because it’s an ice cave, it’s cold in there!” I then tried to describe the really narrow part, pantomiming the contortions you needed to go into. The guy laughed it off and encouraged the couple, easily in their 60’s, to go on through.

That guy should be taken out and shot.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, Travel Tags:

Ma Maison

August 25th, 2008 2 comments

So far, the place where we’re staying is proving to be far less impressive than the places we’ve stayed at before. “Ma Maison” is, at best, a mediocre hotel.

Some thing are nice: they have an indoor swimming pool (if you enjoy that), the rooms are spacious, and the service is very good. However, that is offset by the fairly disappointing food, the bad towels, the minimal water pressure, and outside the pool, the lack of anything to do if you have no car.

One thing that Sachi and I have gotten used to in these places is the fantastic food. I suppose that if we hadn’t been spoiled at the other places by top-flight cuisine, the food at this place wouldn’t seem so bad. And it wasn’t bad–just not too good.

The first course was salmon and scallops with onions and dressing. The scallops were very good, but the salmon was tasteless.

The second course was a cold potato soup, coninuing with tastelessness theme–one which would dog the whole meal. The cook definitely needs a refresher course in spices.

Along with the soup they gave us bread. It’s hard to get bread wrong, but they certainly didn’t get it too right. The cook again got spices wrong, using Thyme in the olive oil, leaving a very strange aftertaste.

The next course was Tai (sea bream), again very bland. We forgot to take a picture before eating….

Last was a filet steak with potatoes. I know from experience that it’s very hard to screw up filet, but they managed to somehow. Maybe the cut was just bad, it was stringy and hard too chew, even tough. The red wine sauce was simply unremarkable.

Like I said, not a terrible meal, but hardly all that great. Just not what we expected from our countryside inn. Still, there’s always a good opportunity for a photo… And as I said, the staff are one of the better things about the hotel. After we finished the steak, we didn’t feel like coffee and cake, so we asked if they could bring it to our toon, and they did–a big tray with the coffees and desserts, all the more impressive considering the up-and-down trek from the kitchen to our room, at the far, far back end of the building.

Breakfast this morning was more of the same–food that looks classy but was not all that great. A salad for breakfast, followed by runny eggs and a sausage that was somehow bland. And why do restaurants serve rock-hard butter with soft bread, so that you can’t spread it and instead have to litter the bread with chunks of butter?

Later we went swimming in their pool–not bad, until I got a look at the junk in the water. Seems like with this place, every silver lining has a cloud…

Categories: iPhone Blogging, Travel Tags:

Happy New Year!

January 1st, 2008 1 comment

Here we are, caught between the years. It’s not quite 2008 yet here in Menlo Park, but it’s already well into the afternoon of January 1st in Japan now.

Either way… Happy New Year!

Categories: Main, Travel Tags:

Herbal Price Differences

December 31st, 2007 1 comment

Some things really are just more expensive in Japan. I have noted before that electronics made in Japan will cost up to 70% more in Japan than they do when exported to the U.S. And while vitamins cost more in Japan than they do in the U.S., the difference was even more pronounced twenty years ago, when vitamins were not as easily found in Japan as they are today. But Sachi and I found that herbs are much more expensive in Japan–sometimes ridiculously more so.

In Japan, Chamomile herbs, at their cheapest, cost ¥313 per 30g package. The same herbs, from this store we visited in San Francisco, cost $4.90 for a 1-pound bag. That translates to ¥550 for a 454g package–or ¥36 for 30 grams, or just 12% of the cheap price in Japan.

An even more extreme example is Yellow Dock Root–in Japan costs ¥19,950 ($177.49), while a one-pound (454 grams) package in the US costs just 4.55 (¥511). The Japanese price is 35 times more expensive.

No wonder Sachi wanted to shop for herbs here in the U.S.!! Our only worry is that Japanese customs might not like all those herbs in our suitcases. If there are no restrictions, it would be a nifty way to pay for the trip–one suitcase full of herbs could net a profit of $2500 or so, if you could sell everything. Not that we’re planning to–we’ll just be happy if we can get the stuff in for our own personal use.

Categories: Travel Tags:

Lines at the DMV

December 17th, 2007 Comments off

Even though I live overseas, I keep my U.S. driver license up-to-date. Usually, this is pretty easy–the DMV allows you to renew your license via mail, at least for a certain number of times. But this year, my license expired without the ability to renew by mail, and I had no chance to renew in person as it happened in June, and I would not return to the U.S. until December. So I fully expected to have to go in and take a written test–18 or 36 questions or whatever.

Well, I was prepared. I downloaded the driver’s handbook, and studied it pretty well, filling my head with rules like the California Basic Speed Law and the Three Second Rule, and numbers like 100 feet before turning you have to start signaling, except when there’s a bike lane and you’re making a right turn, then it’s 200 feet, and so on. I took the five online sample tests the DMV puts on its web site, and missed something like 3 of the 50 questions. I even made a page and a half of written notes, something I always tell my students to do.

So I go to the DMV and wait my turn in line, and go up to the counter when they call me… and all they do is give me a vision test, then fingerprint and photograph me. Presto, my license is good again for five years. I still don’t know if I’ll have to take an exam the next time, but this time it was dead simple. Next time, at least, I’ll probably get this out of the way the December before it expires instead of the one after.

Still, this resonated when I read this blog, via Seeing the Forest:

…according to the Governor’s Budget Document, “Over the past two years, the DMV has reduced field office wait times in the largest offices from nearly one hour to 20 minutes and reduced customer telephone wait times by more than 50 percent.” These lines were decreased because the Governor committed to additional funding (demonstrating the direct relationship between funding and good service to the public.)

I’ll betcha there are other ways they do it–they just relate to worse or more risky service, so they’re not mentioned. You can reduce telephone wait time by having fewer human interactions and depending more or machines to answer the phones–which people like a lot less. You can also reduce wait times by requiring fewer tests (like they did with me), allowing longer mail-in renewals, and extending the period a license is valid for (five years nowadays–used to be four years). More funding is good, but it doesn’t mean that all the apparent improvements came from the funding. Administrators always ask for something before giving something.

Some improvements can also be made without funding, just better efficiency: go to the DMV web page for California and find the right office, and it’ll show you how long the line is. That can only help, by steering people to visit when lines are shorter. I checked several times and it was always less than 10 minutes… except, of course, for the time I had to go there, at which time it was about 25 minutes. Still, even at that, it was a shorter wait. I was just really surprised that the visit itself was shortened by there being no written test.

Not that I’m complaining about what it means to me personally… but I’d like to see the figures on traffic violations and fatalities relative to lessening of testing and other lightened regulations, if any correlation can reasonably be made. But let’s just not pretend that budget increases are all that’s doing the job.

Categories: Political Ranting, Travel Tags:

Back Home (The Other Home)

December 29th, 2006 5 comments

Well, it was a good trip. A short one this time–just two weeks in the U.S., and Sachi was with me for only the last seven days. But we packed a lot into that short time.

Right now, I am sitting at gate 100 at SFO, hearing them page Sachi for the nth time. We had a bit of a mix-up, and thought we’d be going to the same terminal (we have different flights). Sachi went ahead just a few minutes, and we arranged it so that she would wait after getting through all the red tape. Then I find out that my flight leaves from the terminal at the other end. I try to get into her terminal to tell her, but despite the advice to do so from the guy at the information desk, the security wouldn’t let me in. I tried paging her, but the paging person keeps screwing up–mispronouncing her name, and then instead of saying “White Courtesy Phone please,” she says “Whitcurtsyphnpls” in a fast bunch at the end; I doubt Sachi can understand it, and if she knew what to do after a page, she’d have answered by now. So, as is my nature, I’m worrying that she’s wandering the airport trying to find me or something. I’m sure that I’m wrong, but as I said, worrying is my nature with stuff like this.

I just asked the courtesy telephone people to page only one last time, but this time I spoke to a guy. I told him that the female announcer was trying and that there should be just one last page before stopping. So a minute later the guy pages her, loud and clear–and then the woman comes on five seconds later, paging her again with the “Whitcurtsyphnpls” suffix. Poor Sachi, she must think that there’s something really serious going on. As usual, I’m making a mess of things. We’ll get it straightened out when we meet again in Narita.

Okay, we’re on our way back from Narita now. It turns out that Sachi indeed could not understand the announcer, but there was no problem; she realized as I did that we had different gates, so we just met up at Narita–where we could at least communicate by cell phone.

Anyway, the first week here by myself (Sachi came later due to work) I went birdwatching (as you have noted if you read this) and did some shopping. After the whole two weeks, I have come away with a new digital video camera (a cheap $230 Panasonic that performs surprisingly well for a cheapie), a similarly cheap 500GB firewire/USB external hard drive ($240, available for $245 at Amazon [price updated]), a new leather jacket for $80 (my old one was getting too worn), several new shirts and a few new jeans, a very nice knit zip-up sweater with a hood, and a new pair of dress shoes (maybe the priciest item for the value, at $200), plus a lot of miscellaneous items. Didn’t go so heavy on the DVDs this time–just a few News Radios, a season of Rockford Files, and a few others. I figure it doesn’t make sense to get movies on DVD for the next few years until I upgrade to HDTV and Blu-Ray and/or HD-DVD.

Sachi and I together went to San Francisco for a few days, seeing the sights and going shopping. There were family days (such as Christmas Eve, when we did the whole present-opening deal), and alone days (such as Christmas Day, when many in my family fell ill) and Sachi and I could spend time just together. We had a great stay for a couple of reasons: first, a good family friend let Sachi and I stay at her home, where we had lots of room and close proximity to my family without crowding them, and second, my father let us use his Prius (with all the bells and whistles) most of the time, and the GPS mapping feature alone saved us from unfolding maps in the car while parked at the side of the road many times.

But perhaps the biggest thing for me was that I did not suffer from some terrible malady. As you may recall if you’ve been here for a while, two years ago my Christmas vacation was muted by a serious nosebleed (massive, really) that virtually immobilized me, and last year I was hobbled by a broken foot suffered one week before I left for the U.S. Everyone (including myself) was wondering what would strike me down this year, but nothing did.

So all in all, it went very well.

Categories: Travel Tags:

New Rule: No Bottled Water on Flights

August 11th, 2006 9 comments

I just got this alert from the U.S. Embassy concerning air travel:

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is implementing a series of security measures, some visible and some not visible, to ensure the security of the traveling public and the nation’s transportation system.


This includes all beverages, shampoo, suntan lotion, creams, tooth paste, hair gel, and other items of similar consistency.

Well, that’s nice. You can still bring matches on board so you can light up as soon as possible after deplaning, but bottled water is now forbidden.

OK, I understand, it’s because of the latest terrorist plot. But it’s still inconvenient as hell. And would it slow things up that much to be given the chance to take a swig from each water bottle at the security checkpoint to show it’s not an explosive?

They’d damned well better have lots of bottled water ready and waiting on all flights, as much as anybody and everybody can drink. I’ve been on flights where they ran out–which is why I typically bring along several bottles when I fly, and so do a lot of other people. Hydration is important on long flights, and I can just see them not caring enough about this. Even better, they should carry a new cache of bottled water and be ready to give as much as anyone wants when asked for, in the bottles–easier on the flight attendants than constantly filling those damned little cups. I used to travel longer, with more connecting flights, and I have to say, toothpaste and shampoo were kind of important; sometimes you can be up in the air a pretty long time, and you can get to feel pretty crummy without these things. Are people who want to brush after meals simply out of luck?

Note: as long as this is on the main page, check out the Sesame Street Terror Alert Notice in the sidebar–Elmo is up!

Categories: Travel Tags: