Friday, January 22, 2010
Lost in Tokyo Translation.
My last few days with Ash were spent literally shopping until we dropped. Bangkok must have some of the cheapest shopping in the world. So we went around town in buses, tuk-tuks and taxis to some of the biggest markets and shopping centres in Bangkok. Among these were Chatujak Market (15,000 stalls), Pat Pong Market (best place for knock-off handbags, watches, etc.), Khaosan Road (backpacker central) and Union Mall. Union Mall was something we stumbled upon and it was definitely somewhere undiscovered by tourists. But we began to get paranoid that people were ripping us off simply because we were foreigners. This made us coin the code "NFF" which means "Not For Foreigners". My feet were so sore after this marathon shopping fest.
We also took a tour to a place 2 hours out of Bangkok where we saw the Bridge over the River Kwai and rode on the "Death Railway", which wasn't dangerous, it was called that because in WWII the Japanese made the prisoners of war build a railway so they could get supplies in to their soldiers and a lot of them died building it. We also got to ride an elephant (yay for Ash!) and ride a bamboo raft. The next day we did the floating market, which is pretty cool to see. Basically there are a series of canals where people float around on boats and try to sell you stuff. We had people pulling our boat over with hooks and trying to get us to buy their stuff. It was crazy. Ash got to feed an elephant, but alas, she was trying to stick the food up its trunk. For those of you zoologocally educated, you will know that this is like trying to stick food up someone's nose. Poor little elephant.
So then Ash left me :( and I was all alone. I stayed at a hotel near the airport for my last couple of nights and it was definitely an NFF area. Everyone was staring at me when I walked down the street and the Thai boys were wolf whistling at me, which was a little unnerving. I met a guy at the hotel from Brisbane, who reminded me of someone I know. He had rented a motorbike and said he needed someone to ride on the back and hold a video camera for him so he could film the ride into Bangkok. Having no idea who this guy was and having had so much bad luck with motorbikes previously, I would like to say I declined the offer. But then that wouldn't be very interesting would it? So I jumped on the back and off we went. Of course, I didn't realise then that he had no idea how to get into Bangkok from where we were, which was about an hour out.
So we kept stopping at intersections and tapping on taxi windows to get directions. Not the most effective GPS. We even found ourselves at a service station at one point surrounded by workers trying to draw us a mini map. So we ended up riding around for hours until we found signs leading to the airport, which was near our hotel. But we went too far, then got stopped at a tollbooth because motorbikes aren't allowed on expressways apparently. By now it was nearly 1am and I had dirt all over my face and was about to fall asleep and I had to get up at 5:30am to go to the airport. He started swearing at the toll guys and I thought this is it. This is when I get arrested and have to stay in Thailand forever. But the toll guys were actually very nice. They showed us where to do a u-turn then and we got back. Then, just 200m away from our hotel we were stopped by a police barricade. What luck hey. When I got back I felt like I had ingested the whole smog cloud hanging over Bangkok and then some.
I arrived in Tokyo a few days ago and caught a train out to my backpacker's hostel. I'm not going to lie to you, I was scared out of my wits and I had a bit of a cry on the train. My first impression is that Japanese people are quite cold and uninviting. No one smiles at you and the cold inidifferent way they look at you in passing is almost worse than the wolf-whistling from the Thai boys. The more I learn, however, the more I realise they are particularly shy and also not so used to foreigners. Japan has a very low immigration rate, which is probably just as well, because the small island country is packed full of people. When you look out at the sea of faces, it's very rare to see anyone not Japanese, or at least Asian. You could imagine how I must stand out. So I was feeling pretty sorry for myself the night I came in.
Then Claire walked into my dorm. She was a friendly American who lives in Korea but speaks fluent Japanese. She invited me on a day trip to Nikko. Having no idea who she was, or where Nikko is, I of course said yes. She was a very handy travelling companion to have. We caught a train to Nikko, about 2.5 hours north of Tokyo and it was 2.5 times better than Tokyo. The place was a very quiet and peaceful mountain village, very picturesque. We were surrounded by dark mountains sprinkled with snow at the top. All the little shops and cafes were traditional Japanese style with sliding doors and everything wooden.
We walked uphill to some temples and shrines which they must have paid millions to restore, because they looked magnificent. All gold/bronze trimming and intricately carved archways, poles, dragon heads, colourful wall and roof murals - everything you think of when you imagine Japan. Claire was an invaluable guide. At one point an old Japanese man muttered something near us and she turned around and blasted him in Japanese then stormed off. I was like what was that about?? Apparently he had said something like "very big" in slang Japanese and she thought he was talking about her, as she is quite tall for a girl, even by Western standards. So she turned around and said "I speak Japanese and that was very rude!" then stormed off. In hindsight, she said he may have been talking about the bloody big temple behind us.
We went further up the mountain and it was COLD. We saw a beautiful waterfall that was falling on rocks covered in snow, it was very pretty. We had lunch in this cute little Japanese restaurant where we were the only customers and the old Japanese lady looked after us with some suba noodles. It was deliciously warm. Once again I was grateful for Claire, because the menu was all in Japanese.
We then went to visit a friend of Claire's in a place about 45 minutes away. While we were waiting for her at the train station, Claire convinced me to try on a kimono. I thought why not, it will make a good photo. So next thing you know I'm walking out of there having bought the whole kit and kaboodle - kimono, obi, undergarments - for about $70 aussie dollars, which is pretty cheap.
Then to top off my day we went to a quintessential Japanese restaurant with low tables and cushions around. The food was delicious. The wait staff were uber-polite, bowing to us and treating us like royalty. I let the girls order, as once again the menus were all in Japanese. But they taught me a helpful phrase "osusume wa nan desuka?" which means "what would you recommend?" for next time I can't read. All in all a great Japanese day - the food was great, the people friendly and the scenery breath-taking (or maybe that was the cold). I just had to get out of Tokyo.
Now I'm job hunting without much success yet. Fingers crossed!