elmarschraml.com

Occasionally updated personal site and blog

Monthly Archives: June 2018

Vegas!

The journey from Hongkong to Las Vegas was by far the longest leg of the whole trip – can’t get around crossing the Pacific. Was almost glad for the stop in Seoul – not only shortening the intercontinental flight to a bearable 10 hours, but also because Seoul airport had the first and only playable piano of the whole trip.

korea_piano

Speaking of Korea – you would expect airplane food to always be bland – well, with Korean Air, if you go for the Korean meal, you get some rather non-bland items like seaweed soup. Not bad, actually.

korea_seaweed

The secret to beating jetlag? Take a nightflight, where you inevitably sleep little and badly – arriving in the afternoon local time, your jetlag will say that it’s early morning, and a long way away from sleep – but your sleep-deprivation will want you to sleep immediately, nicely canceling each other out.

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What I did the first day in Vegas? Absolutely nothing, at least till the evening. Decided I needed some rest&relaxation, and spent most of the day at the pool. Which is free for hotel guests – but no outside food or drink allowed, and a single simple drink is between five dollars (a coke) and 8 dollars (a beer). A nice lounger with a shady canopy? 80 bucks for two for the day. EVERYTHING at the typical Vegas strip hotels is comically overpriced, at least inside the casino-hotel-tourist bubble of the strip. Beer at a bar? Easily 10-15 bucks if at a concert venue. Burger with side dishes can top 30 dollars with service and tax – and that is NOT one of the super-luxury hotels, but a normal one.

Jetlag is a bitch, and got its payback on the next day. Could not fall asleep till 1 am, woke up at 4 am, fell back asleep at 6 am, and when I woke up again it was four in the afternoon….
Activity of the day: A concert – and not just anyone, but Carlos Santana and band. A true hero of my youth. Had browsed Vegas shows, but not too enthusiastic about some random stand-up comedian, or spending 150 bucks on tickets for the cirque du soleil (ALL the high-profile shows are ridiculously expensive), and by chance found that Santana was playing in Vegas, had a show tomorrow, and was in a not too large club – awesome! Got to experience a superstar from just a few meters away.

vegas santana sign

vegas santana stage

According to Wikipedia, Carlos Santana is 70 years old – wow, that was not apparent on stage at all. He was in a good mood, rocking out with his band, playing for almost two hours, and not above imparting some mystical life philosophy (he truly is an old hippie, in a totally off his rocker, but charming kind of way).

vegas santana band

Santana are one of the rare bands that are complex enough to sound good on recordings, but have the energy for a great live performance. And most music is either all about the melodies and harmonies, or all about the rhythm – Santana combine the two like no other. A great show, a great night – definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip. All the better because it was totally unexpected – I had no idea they were playing in Vegas. That’s the advantage of a whole town built on and for entertainment – it attracts all the big names in entertainment, so you could go see a different star’s show every night if you wanted.

Just a small, crappy video of one of the quieter moments – no huge stage props, no pyrotechnics, no dancers or video shows – just an old man with his guitar, and a tone like no other.

 

 

Honkong: Man mo temple

hk manmo me

Last pictures from Hongkong are from the Man Mo temple – dedicated to the gods of writing and the god of war.P1040165

Situated pretty much downtown, it’s tucked in between modern skyscrapers. It’s also up a hill. Lots of stairs in the Hongkong heat mean lots of breaks in snack shops along the way for more of my favorite tropical drinks – green coconuts and fresh sugarcane juice.

hk manmo altar

hk manmo offering

hk manmo wishes

Oh, and remember the pictures of unidentified meat snacks from last time? Today I came across a shop selling the same things, but since it was in a more touristy area, they had pictures and English names for the items.

hk food intestines

So now I know that my “chewy” snacks were “Fried pig intestines” and “Boiled snail meat”. Congratulations, Hongkong – you win “weirdest (now identified) food we got Elmar to eat”!

More Hongkong

hk kowloon panorama

Hongkong does not really have a lot of must-see sights – probably because it’s a very young city: only really started with possession by the British in the late 19th century, grew after the communist victory in the 1940s, and boomed with China’s return to the world stage of capitalism in the eighties.

Fun fact: The reason why Hongkong was handed back to China in 1997 was that most of the teritory had not been ceded to Britain, but “leased for 99 years” – which back then was probably considered the same as ceded in all practical terms – who would have thought in 1898 that the duration of the “lease” would actually matter?

 

Even today, Honkongers seem very pointedly to define themselves as not part of mainland China, in lots of little things like e.g. Whatsapp being the messenger of choice rather than WeChat, or major things like using traditional chinese characters rather than the simplified ones introduced by the communists.

hk kownloon symphony

But the really impressive skyscraper panorama is quite a sight, especially at night and seen from Kowloon (the other side of the harbor to Honkong island).

hk starferry

The other side of the harbor, seen from a so-called “star ferry” (like the one in the picture”) criss-crossing the harbor for a fee of exactly 2.7 HK dollars (abotu 30 eurocents – and yes, they do have special prices for seniors and children). One of those things every says is a must-do in hongkong, but honestly quite boring – you get much better skyline views from the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade on the kowloon side, and for actually crossing the harbor the subway is much faster.

And since lighting all the skyscrapers up statically is not enough, the whole skyline is combined each night for a gigantic light-and-sound show. Totally cheesy, and totally cool.

Again a case where a video is needed to do it justice, and already plentiful on youtube, like this one:

 

And yes, they do have red-sailed chinese-style boats sailing in front of the skyline just to look pretty – though those are of course tourist boats.

hk kownloon junk 3

hk kownloon me 2

Your correspondent getting hungry – so off to the market areas for some food.

hk restaurant

Most of which is, again, quite literally foreign.

hk kitchen

With a heavy emphasis on all kinds of seafood, and especially very fresh seafood. Yes, these buckets are in front of a restaurant, and very much intended for you to pick out your dinner. Which, this time, I was not adventurous enough to do.

hk food snacks menu

Snack stand? Looks good. And seems to be popular, so let’s try those meat-on-a-stick things they have.

hk food snacks

The verdict: Chewy, not much inherent flavor, but not bad with a bit of soy sauce. No idea what it IS, though.

hk food fried

This was also originally fried on a stick, and then sold with some VERY spicy broth. Crispy, chewy, some kind of pork rinds maybe?

hk food sweet potato

For desert, let’s pamper ourselves with something familiar: McDonald’s ice cream. Which happens to be purple and sweet-potato-flavored. Not my favorite.

hk japan

And a local supermarket amusingly had a special section for Japanese snacks – i.e. exactly the things I had found in supermarkets in my previous temprorary “homeland”.

hk nightmarket github

Found at the night market, among a milion other designs for Tshirts: A design for “github commits”…huh? So coding is cool and brag-worthy now?

Another hongkong cliche busted: It is NOT full of people selling rip-offs of expensive handbags and watches any more. Although if you do take more than 5 seconds to look at the genuine own-label watches on display, someone will inevitably whisper “copy watch?” in your ear, and a pushy salesguy will try to get you to come into a seedy-looking back lot.

hk ads video

On the main streets: LOTS of huge, bright billboards – and of course those are all high-res video screens.

hk bright rundown

And sometimes a curious mix of the brigh-and-shiny with the grimy-and-rundown.

 

 

 

 

Hongkong: first impressions

hk starferry junk

On to Hongkong – the last stop in Asia on this trip. Lots of skyscrapers? Check. Cliche chinese junk boat? check. Victoria peak in the background? check. Pretty much fullfills the postcard image already on the trip into town from the airport.

hk peak scrapers

When I say lots of skyscrapers, I mean LOTS of skyscrapers, very densely packed, and not that pretty. Hongkong’s area seems to be 80% steep, wooded mountains, and 20% extremely dense city.

hk market fish

I expected Hongkong to be somewhat similar to Singapore – mainly Chinese world city with some western influence. True – but that’s a bit like saying that pop music is all “guitar-based modern music”. Where Singapore is Smooth Jazz, Hongkong is more punk rock.

Like this market above I stumbled into not far from my central guesthouse – suddenly it seems like you’re in the middle of rural china, where all kinds of strange-looking food is peddled by people speaking no English at all.

hk market mangos

Also some delicious fresh lychees, papayas and mangos, which became most of my dinner. I could stay in the tropics just for all the fresh, juicy, tasty fresh “exotic” fruits.

hk hotel view

Hongkong is also very, very intense and urban – interesting in a “city that never sleeps, lots of things going on everywhere” kind of way, but also exhausting in a “wayyyy too many people in way too little space” kind of way that makes Manhattan seem like a quaint, relaxing little town.

hk crowds 2

Like the fact that even at 11 pm on a weeknight, all the market streets in Kowloon are just packed with people.

hk crowds

Or that the subways are full of crowds, no matter when or where – not sure if the picture even does the true hustle and bustle justice.

Where people in Singapore are all smiles and politeness, people in Hongkong are much more..well, not really impolite, but businesslike, kind of like “happy to see you, but you better know what you want. so I can deal with you quickly, before the other 20 people standing in line behind you, because I have people to see and places to go”.

hk hotel view 2

View outside my hostel window. Most residential buildings seem like that – not really bad or rundown, but very much like cost and space efficiency was a big concern, and charm or coziness not so much.

hk tiffany

There’s also a huuuge class divide. Somebody else described Hongkong as “built for rich bankers, and their slaves” – would not go so far, but there is a huuuge number of luxury shops – I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many shops for expensive jewellery or high-end designer fashion in one place.

hk hotel

On the other hand, normal people’s living quarters seem quite grimy and, well, not really shabby, but not-nice-looking in a way that’s probably not so bad, but at least on first impression rather third-world looking. (This was the entrance to the apartment which housed my hostel room – they converted a regular apartment into a bunch of private hotel rooms. It was admittedly a rather cheap room, since regular hotels in Hongkong are easily north of 150-200 euros a night, and I did not want to choose a capsule hotel either).

hk hsbc building

On the other hand, you see no beggars either – probably not because there’s no poor people, but more because begging would be an inexcusable failure to be a good capitalist. The picture above is from the lobby of the famous HSBC building – forgot to take a better one from outside.

Was quite impressed by all the people dressed in impeccable business dress, with ties, and some even with dark jackets – in 30 degrees heat and 80% humidity! In Abu Dhabi, a dry 42 degrees was hot, but at least the locals were suffering the same way. In Hongkong, an extremely humid 30 to 35 degrees feels worse to me, but the locals seem to be fine – maybe the human body adapts better to humidity than to heat with prolonged exposure?

hk peak me

View from Victoria peak, the hightes point in Hongkong, served by the “peak tram”, a  peculiar antique funicular.

hk peak topThe endpoint of the tram is not really the top – there’s a road leading further up the hill.  There were some more nice viewpoints towards the other side of the island (not much to see of the surrounding islands in the foggy weather, unfortunately, past some nice gardens, and then unfortunately the very top is inaccessible behind a fence surrounding some antennas.

hk peak end

Not sure why I decided to hike up there in the extreme heat – maybe my Bavarian genes compelling me to go up as soon as a mountain is in sight? If I look just slightly overheated in the picture above (despite adopting the asian custom of using an umbrella as sun protection), well, it was definitely time to go back to my hotel room and spend a few hours in oh-so-sweet A/C.

hk tram

Caught a double-decker tram on the way back – those are old and slow, but dirt cheap (flat fare of less than 20 eurocents), and somehow cool. That most of them carry advertising for mutual funds must also be a hongkong-style capitalism thing – I mean, would you expect a random person on public transport to care about mutual fund brands anywhere else?

 

Japan: Mount Inari and the philosopher’s walk

inari gateMount Inari is a famous temple mountain, mostly for its huge collection of red gates along the paths. Usually a single red gate marks the beginning of the sacred area, but at mount inari, there’s hundreds of them.

inari circus

Almost like a tunnel, and along several hundred meters of paths. And yup, it’s pretty crowded, so not exactly a serene athmosphere.

inari tunnel 2

Pretty.

inari zen 2

Most people, as always at popular sights, only make it to the very beginning, take a picture in front of the popular sight, and leave. Once you get higher up the mountain, the crowds vanish almost completely.

inari path

Also, I got lost. Meant to follow a sign to another temple just a few hundred meters away, and ended up following a path that led completely away from the main area. Which turned out to be great – a wonderful little hike through the bamboo woods with almost nobody in sight.

IMG_3472

Which was good, because the crowds gave me a bit of a headache. The night before I had closed down the bar in the hostel together with these guys (a very nice British tourist, and the two guys running the hostel and its bar). They were happy to have some foreigners there to test which drinks they were planning to offer in the future. Some Japanese wine turned out to be horrible, in exchange they poured us some Sake on the house (which tasted like fermented mushrooms…), we discovered some excellent Japanese whisky, and so on…

IMG_3470

By the way, we got inspired to some scientific experiments: The Japanese one-yes coin, which is very light, and not worth much (less than a cent), does indeed, with some effort, float on water..

inary way up

It was hot, it was humid, and the way got steep. And the mountain is so holy that you’re not allowed to even drink water. Well, on this lonely path, whether or not I happened to have a beer in my pack or not, and whether or not that was a good antidote to my hangover, is between the Shinto gods and me…

inari cemetery

The path winds past a few of these lonely, half-forgotten cemeteries. Must be super creepy in the dark.

inari cemetery 2

inari me

Not much of a view on top, so a view of some more red gates will have to do. Mount Inari was one of my favorite places in Kyoto, interesting, beatiful and strange like so much of Japan, and also really good to get out of a big city for once, and hike through some nature.

lunch broth

Lunch at a Japanese casual restaurant at the station. Rice, soup (the teapot above is in fact not a teapot, but the broth to pour over the rice), and some more unknown but tasty proteins.

ginkaku

On the last day in Japan, the so-called “philosopher’s walk” winding between various temples along a canal. Above is the garden of Ginkaku temple at the start of the walk.

ginkaku garden

Yup, more pics of lovely Japanese gardens.

ginkaku garden 2

ginkaku philosopher

The philopher’s walk along the canal. Pleasant enough, but I was a bit templed out by this point, so skipped most others.

Lunch today was prepared by these guys along the road: the process involved frying some dough, filling it with eggs and lots of cabbage, liberally coating it in soy sauce, and finally putting some fish flakes on top.inari hiroshima

inari hiroshima 2

The end result looked strange, but ended up tasting really good. By the way, being able to handle chopsticks is a real advantage in Japan – while most food sellers will be polite and attentive enough to supply you with a fork when they see you struggling, a lot of times they will simply not have any forks.

ginkaku philosophers end

Yet more beatiful gardens, of course. This part was not even really part of a garden, just before the entrance of a temple that was closed.

ginkaku bamboo

And some nice views into the bamboo woods.

ginkaku philosophers kimono

And with this, leaving behind not just the philosopher’s walk, and the ladies above, but also leaving Japan – next up: Hongkong.

 

Japan: more temples

museum exhibition

First stop today: the national museum of Kyoto, which I came accross by chance, and which currently has a special exhibition of Ike No Taiga. Never heard of him, but seemed to be a big name, was wondering if it was worth the rather steep ticket price, when a Japanese girl in front of me turned around, took a ticket from her hand and gave it to me, saying “here, present for you”. I have no idea why, but hey, I’ll take it.

No pictures form inside the exhibition allowed, sadly – so you’ll have to believe me that it was a very unusual style (ink paintings and calligraphy from 17th century Japan is not exactly common in Germany), but because of that well worth seeing. I did not see the genius in some of the more abstract paintings, but he certainly had a unique and calm, restrained style.

ryoan garden

Next up: Ryoanji. This is like the Mona Lisa of Zen gardens – if you’ve only ever seen one yen garden, the image above is probably the one you’ve seen. It’s famous for its 15 stones being positioned in a way that there is no place from which you can see all at once (yes, I did have to try). I don’t quite see why exactly this one is so special, but it is beautiful in an abstract way, no doubt.

tofuku stone

Next: Tofuku, another famous temple.

tofuku rocks

Another zen garden, similar in style to the one at Ryoan, but does not quite have the same kind of perfect serenity.

tofuku gravel

Another garden, with some rather abstract gravel field.

tofuku famous

Aaand another really famous zen garden, this one rather modern. Can’t say that I saw what was so special about this one.

tofuku flower

Still beautiful – I could take pictures of Japanese gardens all day long. Well, did, in fact.

So here’s one more.

tofuku garden

tofuku columns

Tofuku is also famous because it has zen gardens on all sides of the main building, each in a different style. This one with large stone columns – again, no idea why. Probably symbolizes some important concept in zen philosophy, or some mystical geography, but I don’t know enough about it to tell you what exactly.

tofuku monks

These guys probably smelled my ignorance, because they shooed me away from entering the inside, even though there were plenty of people already there. Way to go, teachers…

imperial fishes

On the way, passed along a kind of children’s fun fair. Some of the stalls had little fish for the kids to catch and take along, or even tiny turtles – to eat? as pets? No idea why.

 

ginkaku flower

Just the front of a random old house on the way, but beautiful.

yasaka gate me

And another temple: yazaka.

yasaka wash

How to temple properly: First, wash your face and hands using the ladle provided at a fountain on the temple grounds.

yasaka bell

The step up to the temple, bow, pull the cord to ring the bell, clap twice, and bow again.

inari wishes

Then, for a donation, put up a wish or blessing.

yasaka exit

All done, going home for the day.

 

 

 

More random stuff from Japan

Apologies if the rest of the Japan writeup becomes a more or less random mix of impressions – it’s been a while (currently in Orlando, two countries and three cities further in my travels), just did not get around to blogging.

When I started out, I was afraid I would be bored in the evenings, since while I do plenty of stuff by myself, going out alone is not my thing. But when you travel at a break-neck pace of changing countries every few days, a fair bit of time is spent on the mechanics of travel, everything from checking in to flights, to figuring out transportation, reading about interesting things in the next city coming up, or simply doing laundry or mailing things home. Or sometimes you just need to relax, take a nap, and surf the internet for a bit for something familiar when the adventure-o-meter has hit another peak.

jp signs

Above: another inexplicable Japanese thing found in a random backyard. The flags look somewhat religous – but why would they be in a parking lot?

jp map

A “helpful” map of the neigborhood.

jp mcdonalds

Even McDonald’s manages to be incomprehensible.

jp engrish

Hilarious examples of “Engrish” (i.e. badly mistranslated English) are everywhere. Probably should not make fun of it, since I’m glad for every bit of English to be found. Still funny, though.

japan ac remote

In the hotel – the guesthouse was fully booked for the last two days of my stay, so had to change to a Toyoko Inn – a generic efficiency hotel for businesspeople, sort of like the Japanese Motel One. Pro: My own room, and a much softer bed (maybe my hipbones are too hard or something, but I could feel the floor through the futon-style mattress-on-the-floor in the guesthouse). Con: When Japanese say “space-efficient”, they mean it – like the tiniest pseudo-wardrobe I’ve ever seen, about 20cm wide, in the space between the foot of the bed and the wall.

But it has A/C – let me just grab the remote for the A/C and adjust it – well,shit….

japan parking

These little neighbourhood car parks are everywhere – because streets in the old parts of Kyoto are narrow, there is usually no street parking at all, giving enough space for pedestrians and bike lanes. Munich, please copy!

japan kei cars

Speaking of cars and space, these are “Kei cars” – a special class of car that gets tax benefits in return for being limited in engine size and especially length, leading to lots of very boxy, but somehow cute, models never seen outside of Japan.

jp restaurant english

Signs at a restaurant – “English menu” and “credit card” are pretty much codewords for “foreigners welcome”. Small, mom-and-pop run neighborhood bars or restaurants are pretty much hit or miss – sometimes when you enter a restaurant, they will immediately make hand gestures shooiing you out again as soon as they see you’re a foreigner. Which is not racist, more like “there’s no way we could have a successful interaction, so please do not even try”. I have never been to another country where people are so unprepared to deal with foreigners – both due to the rather insular and peculiar culture, but also simply due to a lack of language skills.

food ramen place

On the other hand, I have also never been to another country where people are so extremely determined to be polite, helpful and go out of their way to make it work. When they see you, you can almost see a thought bubble above their head saying “oh shit, a foreigner – WTF am I going to do now?!?” – sometimes leading to the above mentioned immediate rejection, but mostly then leading to trying their very best to be accomodating. Like the lady above in a little restaurant in my gust house’s neighbourhood. The fact that she spoke no English at all did not prevent me from enjoying some excellent Ramen noodle soup.jp rules

A list of rules how to behave – don’t remember any more where, did not understand them anyway. Another funny term I heard: “Gaijin smash” – an action done by a foreigner (gaijin) that is so far outside Japanese social norms that they do not know how to deal with it, so you get away with it. Which, if you’re kind of an ass, can be exploited, but that I probably also caused a couple of times without even realizing it.

jp window plastic

Have I even posted a picture of a restaurant entrance yet? Pretty much every restaurant entrance (by law, I think?) has amazingly realistic plastic models of the dishes. Which is of course super helpful to the clueless foreigner.

nishiki ticket macine

Also great: Restaurants, or more often food stalls, where you order at a kiosk at the entrance – find a list of meals on a poster, note the number, buy a ticket for that number at the machine, and hand the ticket to the waiter.

jp supermarket bright

Just a regular supermarket shelf – can’t even do justice to the real thing, where everything is very, very bright, colorful and visually loud – quite a contrast to the restrained style of Japanese art. Japanese supermarkets have LOTS of weird things (when in doubt, it probaly contains green tea, red beans or seaweed), and very few English labels – I almost took a bath in toilet cleaner…

golden green tea

Yup, even Hagen-Dasz does ice cream with green tea and azuku beans. Not my favorite.

imperial bookshop

A wonderful antique bookstore in the market area downtown. Though sad to be walking by a beautiful bookstore that is totally lost to me due to the language barrier.

golden ticket

Speaking of restrained art: This is the entrance ticket to a temple – probably the prettiest ticket I’ve ever gotten.

nishiki coffeeshop

And finally, a little break at Tully’s coffee – the dominant local Starbucks clone, where people go to hang out, read, or do homework. Excellent coffee, relaxed mood, and good jazz music – I could basically live there…

Playing Jazz on the radio seems to be a thing, not just in Japan, but also e.g. in Singapore, wherever things are meant to seem high-class – and not just the kind of dumbed-down elevator Jazz, but some serious jams by the likes of Coltrane. Strange, but loving it.