Sunday, November 18, 2007

The End?

I’m writing this on the last day of my trip as I speed towards Tokyo on the Shinkansen, which is perhaps my favorite train in the world. I’ve spent the better part of the last 300 days traveling from Sydney to Tokyo, a total of ten countries and dozens of cities, posting more than 100 blog entries and 3,000 photographs. That I'm going home hasn’t completely sunk in. I’ve been taking this trip one day, one week, one city at a time, and the end has crept up on me. So it is with mixed feelings that I return to Tokyo, where I’ll spend one more night before boarding a trans-Pacific flight (my least favorite form of travel) back to the U.S. of A.

I’m excited to return to familiar territory, where I speak the language and I am well versed in the customs. I’m looking forward to seeing family and friends, to eat my mother’s cooking and watch late-night cable television. But I’ll miss the freedom of the open road, the expected pleasures and unexpected impediments that make for open-ended travel. I’ve got an itch (no, not that kind of itch), formed early in life, that leaves me restless. It will lead to more travel in the future. For now, it's time to reflect on 2007 and look to 2008.

As a final installment of Packmonkey: Asia (leaving the door open to Packmonkey: North America and Packmonkey: Europe), I offer a short summary of the good, the bad and the in-between. This is hardly a recap of my entire ten months on the road, merely a short trip down memory lane. I plan to offer a little more reminiscing once I'm back in Los Angeles.

Everything Australian: I spent nine weeks in Australia in February and March, traveling overland along the southern and western coasts from Sydney to Broome, then into the Outback on a 4WD trek from Adelaide to Alice Springs. Australia is a beautiful country. The interior is desolate, stark and remote, the coasts rugged and wild. As a whole, it is a challenging, rewarding and breathtaking place to travel. I will never forget sleeping under the stars in the Painted Desert or swimming in sea lions in the Eyre Peninsula. I also made some lasting friendships in Oz: Bernie and Kate, Dean, Elizabeth – keep in touch! Australia raised the bar for all subsequent destinations. The time I spent in Australia amounted to the trip of a lifetime. Had I returned home after the Outback, I would have been satisfied.

Monkeys and Mountains in Malaysian Borneo: I arrived in Malaysia with low expectations. I left in love with the country. The Malaysian people were some of the friendliest I encountered - always a smile for the wandering Jew in their midst - and the food unexpectedly satisfying. The three weeks I spent in Malaysian Borneo sealed the deal: encounters with the orangutans, proboscis and langur monkeys, Uncle Tan’s jungle camp and the trek to the summit of Mt. Kinabalu, which left me exhausted but marked two of the best days of the whole year.

Backpackers’ Laos: Backpackers flock to Southeast Asia, so it’s no surprise that there’s a backpacking culture in this part of the world. My time in Laos, from my arrival at the border with Thailand to my departure from Vientiane, was the ultimate backpacker’s experience. The country itself is wonderful, remote and rural, yet unspoiled by the tourism you encounter in Thailand and Vietnam or the tragic history of Cambodia. Laos had been described to me as Thailand of 20 or 30 years ago. Ten short days in country showed me the Southeast Asia I dreamed of visiting.

What made my time in Laos really special was the friendships I made. Two days floating down the Mekong solidified a bond with my French amis, Guillaume and Emmanuelle. We spent the evenings in Luang Prebang at a sidewalk bar laughing over glasses of cloudy pastis, the days meeting the young monks at the city’s temples or swimming at the tranquil waterfalls outside of town. In Vang Vieng I met Mitzi and her daughter, Miksa, from Hawaii. We explored caves and rented bicycles for a trip to the local market. At night we relaxed over cheap food and beer at the backpacker cafes. Miksa and I even found time for a marathon afternoon watching "The Simpsons." Traveling friendships are short and intense, and one of the joys of travel.

Food, Food, Food: Who doesn’t love to eat? Everywhere I traveled there was something new to taste: kangaroo sausages in Outback Australia, blue rice in Malayasia, chicken rice in Singapore, khao soy in Northern Thailand, even deep-fried tarantulas in Cambodia. There were also some old favorites to devour: sushi and ramen in Toyko, curry and pad thai in Thailand. Somehow, I still haven't tried durian.

Indonesia Headaches: I arrived in Indonesia with high hopes. Two weeks later I couldn’t leave get out the country fast enough. From the touts and taxi drivers oozing desperation in Bali to the scam artists in Java who took me for a ride, I was overwhelmed by the amount of ill-will I felt in Indonesia. I’ve heard reports from other travelers about good times in Bali and Java, so I will not say the country is filled with bad people and bad times. At least I left with two good memories: sunrise at Mr. Bromo and an afternoon spent wandering the ancient Buddhist temple at Borobudur. These two places almost make up for all the aggravation I experienced everywhere else in Indonesia.

Tourism in Thailand and Vietnam: Thailand and Vietnam are two of the most popular destinations in Southeast Asia. They were also, for me, two of the most disappointing destinations on my trip. In the island of Southern Thailand, I encountered hoards of westerners traveling from one beach to another. It seemed that the locals in sight were either serving the foreigners beer and food or cleaning their rooms. There was also the terror of the night of the flying termites. The beaches are nice enough, but crowded and dirty. Were it not for the energy of Bangkok or the charm of Chiang Mai, I’d have to write off Thailand as a loss.

In Vietnam, the tourism treadmill also operates at full speed. Perhaps it was because I’d been on the road for six months, or perhaps it was because I was exhausted from a whirlwind tour of Cambodia. Whatever it was, I found Vietnam to be hectic in all the wrong ways. From the overcrowded and polluted streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, where even the act of crossing the street was hazardous, to the constant haggling over prices, Vietnam was a downer.

Life and Death in Cambodia: I only spent 10 days in Cambodia, but those days contained some of the best and worst times of my trip. On the positive side was an extraordinary tour that took me into the Cambodian countryside and introduced me to the real Cambodia of today. The tour also resulted in a few of those backpackers’ friendships that I mentioned earlier. I loved drinking late into the night at a small bar in Kampong Cham and on the beach at Sihanoukville with Sally and Renee, nurses from Adelaide, Australia. And Kathe, a university student from Holland, turned into a close and unexpected friend.

On the down side was a bus accident that left two Cambodians dead and exposed the utter corruption and poverty of Cambodian society. I refer you to the impassioned blog post I wrote on the afternoon of the accident.

Return to Tokyo: I knew that I wanted to end my trip in Japan, to return to a place I lived for 18 months in the early 1990s. I did just that and I am now reminded of that old adage about not being able to go home again. In the years since I lived in Tokyo, I’ve changed, Japan has changed and the world has changed. I love the country and the Japanese. I loved taking Japanese lessons and exploring the country again. But in the end I could have done with less. I’d been on the road for most of the year and was tired, wanted to do little more than curl up with a good book and a glass of whiskey. So I spent most of my time in Tokyo enjoying solitude and rest.

My time in Tokyo was good for the spirit, but perhaps something of a missed opportunity. Perhaps what it taught me is that the next time I take off and travel the world, I’ll impose a six-month limit. For me, that seems just right.

So on the eve of my return to the U.S., I look forward to reuniting with family and friends, to starting a new chapter in my life that builds on everything that’s come before.

Some people say travel changes you. I think that’s a big fat myth. I’m still the same person I was when I started this trip. What I have now that I didn’t have before is a greater understanding of the world and my place in it. I think I’m more humble. I’m definitely more aware of how fortunate I am. My place in this world is small, but my future is unlimited. The end? I don't think so. Just another beginning.

A HUGE thanks to everyone who checked in and supported me over the past ten months. I will see you all very soon!

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Friday, November 09, 2007

The Bomb

I didn’t come to Nagasaki for the temples. There are plenty of temples, all of them very beautiful. But really, who comes to Nagasaki for the temples? Most visitors come to Nagasaki to learn about the atomic bomb.

It’s true that this port city on the western edge of Kyushu has a long and vibrant history, that it was once the most international of Japan’s cities, open to trade with China and Holland when the rest of the country was closed to the outside world. What brought me here is the day in Nagasaki’s history, August 9, 1945, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the unsuspecting populace. Historians argue that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the capitulation of the Japanese and hastened the end of World War II, saving more lives then they took. Whatever the case may be, the loss of life was substantial and the results horrific. (The Wikipedia entry on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is very informative, and a shorter read than Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." I also recommend John Hershy's "Hiroshima."

A visit to the site of an atomic bomb detonation is a surreal experience. A black monolith in a small public park marks the site of the explosion, dubbed the “hypocenter.” The monolith points to the sky, to the spot 500 meters above ground level where the bomb (nicknamed “Fat Man”) detonated, instantly killing 75,000 people.

The Memorial at Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park


It’s a normal place today, serene even, surrounded by houses and shops, a sports complex to the west and a baseball stadium to the north. I tried as best I could to imagine what it was like when the bomb exploded. I’m afraid my mind isn’t capable of that level of imagination.

As of today, the Japanese government has verified the names of more than 143,000 victims of the bomb. It’s not an insignificant figure, but compare it to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, the quarter of a million Indonesians wiped out by the tsunami of 2005, or even the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who’ve died in the past few years. The horror of the atomic bomb, therefore, comes not from the numbers killed, but from its ferocity, its ability to incinerate and destroy in the blink of an eye. This power is documented at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, a valuable repository of artifacts and information related to both the bombing of Nagasaki and the larger subject of nuclear weapons.

The museum seems to be a requirement of the Japanese educational system. On the day I visited, a Tuesday afternoon in November, a steady stream of school groups marched from the hypocenter to the museum. The galleries were packed with teenagers, which left me feeling like an interloper on their field trip. Nevertheless, I was able to take my time and view the twisted relics and the photographs of the leveled city.

After so much destruction and death, it was a relief to enter the memorial for the victims of the bomb. The memorial hall is not on the itinerary of the school groups, which means it remains empty and quiet. It is a chamber designed for contemplation and prayer. In contrast to the museum, the memorial works through understatement and simplicity, with a single small room where images of the dead are shown on three wall-mounted monitors. In the “Remembrance Hall,” twelve pillars of light lead to a registry containing the names of the dead.

Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims

I don’t want to get political here. But this visit reminded me that there are still tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the world today. It’s a wonder that not a single one has been used since August 9, 1945.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Art Smart

Cities all look the same after a while. There are exceptions on the world stage; Paris, New York and Rome will never be mistaken for anything other than the singular creations that they are. But most cities are interchangeable; you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.

This may be especially true of Japanese cities, where concrete is the order of the day and logic a byproduct of urban planning. A Japanese city may have a few major thoroughfares, but mostly it’s a collection of dreary, functional architecture haphazardly assembled into an urban sprawl. Nobody comes to Japan to gaze at the architecture. Leave that to the Parisians.

This leaves someone like myself at a disadvantage. I’m an inveterate wanderer, happy to leave my map behind and let my feet lead the way. In Japan this can result in walking through miles and miles of forlorn industrial landscape. This truth hit me hard when I arrived in Fukuoka, the largest city on the island of Kyushu. This is a city on the rise, though I think it’s still got a ways to go. There’s a bid to host the 201 Olympic Games, which would give the city a boost. For now, however, this city of 1.5 million strikes me as indistinct from other Japanese metropolises.

Fukuoka Skyline

Nevertheless, Fukuoka does have a few attractions to recommend. After months in Southeast Asia, I was itching for some culture. I first hit the Fukuoka Art Museum, where visitors can indulge in either ancient Japanese art or a gallery of modern paintings and sculpture. Given the choice, I always lean towards modern art.

The Fukuoka Art Museum’s modern art collection includes pieces by Miro, Warhol, Rothko, Chagall, Basquiat and other famous names. What distinguishes it from other modern art collections I’ve seen, however, is the tone of the work. As I wandered the galleries, I realized that I was smiling and chuckling much more than I usually do in museums. Somewhere in the Fukuoka Art Museum is a curator with either a gleeful sense of humor or a sunny outlook on life. Even the sculptures in the plaza outside the museum – a giant yellow pumpkin and two figures with bare bottoms – seemed lighthearted.


I’d been reading Claire Messud’s “The Emperor’s Children” and was curious about the museum's Rothko. One of the characters in the book finds solace in the Rothko reproductions that decorate her small studio. Rothko is an artist who, for me at least, is synonymous with the dreary and the desolate. But the Fukuoka Art Museum’s piece, a two-tone square of color, magenta and white, both colors bleeding at the edges as if damaged by a heavy rain, struck me cheerful and vibrant. The magenta glowed with a vibrancy I hadn’t recognized before in Rothko. The closest analogy I can offer is the manufactured color of canned beets – a rich blend of red and purple. I spent ten good minutes in front of the canvas and came away with a better understanding of the artist and my own sensibilities.

The museum offered another surprise – prints from the "Diary" series by the Japanese printmaker Tetsuya Noda. The subjects were simple: portraits of friends and family and domestic scenes. Like the pieces in the modern art gallery, these were filled with humor and hummed with the stuff of life. A stencil of a young boy throwing a tantrum at a kitchen table was more funny than sad, the child’s face screwed up in a recognizable ball of fury. (Some good examples on this page.)

I skipped the gallery of ancient Japanese art altogether.

The next day I traveled 30 minutes south of the city center to a small town called Dazaifu, where a cluster of temples attracts a steady stream of tourists. It is also the site of the Kyushu National Museum, Japan’s fourth national museum. This modern museum, which opened in 2005, is located in the hills above the town and is reached via a steep escalator and a colorful tunnel. The building itself reminded me of a rolltop desk or one of those hardshell backpacks. It is a stunning building, but it still struck me boxy and akin to a fancy warehouse.

Kyushu National Museum

It’s a good thing, then, that the museum’s galleries are impeccable and that the permanent exhibits are educational without being overwhelming. With the help of a free audio tour, I wandered from prehistoric times (obsidian spearheads), through the advent of writing and currency to more modern examples of sculpture and religious worship. The museum has been attracting a million visitors a year – no small feat considering its remote location. I highly recommend a visit if you ever find yourself in Fukuoka (perhaps as a break from the 2016 Olympics).

I didn’t expect much from Fukuoka, least of all two enriching museums. It only reinforces how much I enjoy these outings, and how much I look forward to returning to the U.S., where I can gorge myself on art anytime I want.

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In my last post I wrote about eating at a ramen joint in Fukuoka. I said that I would return and I did, slurping up more delicious ramen. This time I ordered a type of Hakata Ramen that I later learned was favored by "women and the elderly." It was milder than the type I'd had a few days earlier, but just as delicious. I could, however, go for a plate of pasta or a burger after all this ramen.

Here are a few photos for a bit of, uhhh..., local flavor.

Hakata Ippudo Ramen, Fukuoka

Fake Candid

Mmmm... Noodle Soup

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Benkyo Suru

One of the goals, perhaps the only goal, I set for myself before arriving in Japan was to hunker down and learn Japanese. I am one of the hundreds of million of Americans who speaks a single language. I can order a taco and and call you a bad names in Spanish, but that hardly qualifies as being bilingual. I’d like to possess at least a functional ability in a second language before I die. I love Japan and the Japanese, so this seemed like a good time to immerse myself in language lessons. To this end I signed up for 75 hours of private lessons over five weeks.

The first day I was given a level test, which I promptly failed. You can’t fail at something you know nothing about, so I'll just say I wasn’t able to complete the test. Lessons, therefore, started at the very beginning, with an introduction to Japanese sounds and one of the language’s three alphabets, hiragana. I progressed to simple declarative sentences: My name is Matt; This is a pencil; That is a cat.A few hours of homework each night strengthened my reading and writing skills.

For the two weeks, I felt like a five-year-old, struggling to read and write, tripping over words and unsure about grammar and usage. My handwriting, to my eyes at least, appeared primitive, a child’s blocky script. Reading a few lines of text required great concentration and the words came out sounding like a recording played at half speed. I struggled to understand this unfamiliar language, forcing myself to throw out literal translations and accept my ignorance. (Literal Japanese to English translations of the previous sentences might be: Me Matt am, This pencil is, That cat be.)

I persevered, aided by the patience and understanding of two of my three teachers (the third seemed incapable of understanding my confusion and would speak so rapidly I would hear sounds rather than words). Day by day, my knowledge grew. One piece fit into another, one sentence building upon the previous. Eventually, I started to fill out the simple declarative sentences with verbs and adjectives. “This is a cat” turned into “The black cat on the bed is eating fish.” “I am Matt” evolved into “My name is Matthew Klein. I’m American, from the state of California. I worked at the New York Times.”

Kanji, Hiragana and English

When I learned the verb "benkyo suru," I knew I had found something to latch on to. The word means “to study,” but the meaning goes deeper than that. It means to apply oneself academically, to delve into a subject. Watashi wa mainichi nihongo wo benkyo shimas” became something of motto ("shimas" being the present form of "suru"). The sentence translates as “I study Japanese every day,” but its meaning is broader than simple routine. Being able to identify the cat on the bed is great. Applying a language’s deeper meanings to myself is better.

So where did all this classroom learning get me? I can read some of the advertisements on the subway walls. I can write a few Kanji characters and simple sentences. I can pick up the gist of a conversation at the table next to mine in a café. I can even order food at a restaurant with something approaching confidence. I was even able to buy a train ticket from Tokyo to Kyushu and the entire transaction was conducted in Japanese. It was a small yet satisfying victory.

With only five weeks of language courses under my belt, I’m far from literate. Nevertheless, I know a lot more than I did before arriving in Tokyo.

Language is that special subject in which the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. Imagine that I'm a house. I’ve received my first thin layer of paint, a base coat or solid but boring white. I need another base coat, perhaps two, then a few layers of color and then all the trimming and detail work. After that I'll need touch ups and perhaps a complete remodeling at some future time.

As I write this I am no longer in Tokyo. I've traveled 1,200 kilometers (five and half hours on the shinkansen, an experience worthy of a blog post) south to Fukuoka on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. Upon arrival, I checked into a hostel and asked for a dinner recommendation. I was directed to a nearby Ramen restaurant where I was told I could sample a local specialty, Hakata Ramen. (Wikipedia correctly describes Hakata Ramen as having "a rich, milky, pork-bone tonkotsu broth and rather thin, non-curly and resilient noodles.)

The ramen was delicious. I rounded out the meal with a plate of Hakata-style gyoza, which are, according to tradition, bite-sized so Hakata women would not have to open their mouths too wide and thus embarrass themselves, and an ice-cold glass of draft beer ("nama biru, iipon, oneigaishimas" - "one draft beer please"). The restaurant itself (and the hostel for that matter) is located in a nondescript part of the city. You wouldn't look twice at it if you drove by. Inside, the decor was spartan and functional, a rectangular room with a few wooden tables, a counter and an open kitchen.

The staff was young and gregarious and took an interest in this foreigner in their midst. One English-speaking waiter approached for my order and I offered a few words of Japanese. This brought another waiter over for a few questions. I was served my ramen and I augmented the soup with condiments like spicy pickled cucumbers (tsukemono: "tsukemono ga daisuki des" - "I love Japanese pickles", a very useful phrase), mung beans and strips of tangy ginger. This brought another waiter over for a quick discussion, in Japanese, about hot food and pickles. I expressed, in Japanese, my love for both.

Long story short. Soon after I'd slurped my last noodle and forced down the tenth miniature dumpling, I was deep into a conversation about Volkswagens (Beetles and Buses) with a man who spoke less English than I speak Japanese. I struggled to express myself, and the guys, I could tell, were using familiar verb forms instead of the more polite forms I'd learned in class, but I could follow them and they were patient with me. It was the first time I'd really put myself out there with a foreign language and the dividends were enormous. A little effort resulted in an encounter that would have been impossible just six weeks ago.

I paid my bill and told them, in Japanese, that I'd be back the next night for more ramen.

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