Sunday, December 13, 2009

Odds and Ends

a few random thoughts as I've made my way down from Japan to the Philippines over the last day and a half...

today's weather

Seattle: bad

Tokyo (left) and San Diego (right): better

Manila, Philippines: Just right!

flying in luxury and style
Admittedly, I am very much looking forward to my March 1st flight on Qatar airways, a self-proclaimed 'five-star' airline. Cebu Pacific, a Filipino discount airline which got me from Japan to Manila last night, is admittedly nowhere near five-star status. However, having an exit row seat means plenty of leg room, and not having anyone sitting in the middle seat, means plenty of elbow room as well, so luxury and style! There are admittedly a few limitations to exit row seating - the seats don't recline and your bags all have to be overhead. There's also some limitations to discount airlines - food for purchase and a 15kg luggage limitation, but all in all, it was better than I might have expected!

highway bus vs. the gaijin
Before climbing aboard my Cebu Pacific Airbus, I needed to get from Nagoya to Osaka. This was accomplished by virtue of a Willer Express highway bus - the cheapest, and reasonably convenient, way I've found to get around Japan. At boarding time, they have a full list of all the passengers seats assigned and all. All the names are in Japanese... except for one: Aleksandr Slepak at the top. So, in order to board the bus, I chose to simply smile and point to my name. This was sufficient - no id checks, nobody even wanted to look at my confirmation printout... When you are the only 'gaijin' on the bus, Japan doesn't really want to deal with you, they just hope you won't cause any trouble. I didn't.

what you never expected
I enjoy wine. And I would've been disappointed to have left Mendoza, Argentina, the Napa Valley, or the South island of New Zealand without tasting some (I wasn't disappointed). Somehow, I don't really think of wine when coming to Japan though. Sake? Sure. A bar featuring 300 hundred different types of tequila? I'll introduce you to the Iranian guy running it in Tokyo... Organic French wine? Apparently, you should expect that as well!

A wine tasting in Nagoya, featured organically-grown French wine. The proprietor, dressed more for snowboarding than wine-tasting (but who makes several trips to France to select his wines yearly) may have been the best part...

the industrial metropolis of Osaka
My flight was actually at 7:20 at night, but I arrived in Osaka around 10:30 in the morning, so even after taking a couple of hours to navigate my way around the enormous conglomerate that is the Osaka train station in search of such things as Baggage Storage, tourist information, and lunch, I still had a few hours to play tourist.

The most striking feature dominating the Osaka skyline is the Umeda Sky Building:
The 173 meter building is apparently only the 7th tallest in Osaka, but certainly the most recognizable, with its pair of 40-floor towers coming together to support the floating terrace at the top. It's an exhilarating ride in the glass elevator to the top, where it's capped by an outdoor walkway (which is surprisingly less blasted by the wind than I would've expected). A few views of the building, and of Osaka from the top of the skyscraper:

Up close on a sunny afternoon

View from the top

The Yodo river pulses through the center of Osaka, and is spanned by a variety of bridges

Massive escalators lead to the top

looking extremely symmetrical inside

Industrial achievement, abstract art, or both?

Umeda building posing with a more industrial side of Osaka in the foreground

controlled chaos
Just step outside your first airport in any city in SE Asia, and this is what you're confronted with: chaos, but somehow controlled. You are also hit in the face with warm vibrant air, the screams of touts trying to sell you everything under the sun, and more often than not, the scents of exotic cuisine. Manila is no exception, and the contrast is especially stark coming from Japan (Singapore may be renowned for its cleanliness, but Japan is certainly the cleanest country in the world).

My experience started when I landed around 10:30 at night and hailed a taxi to go to the nearest LRT (light rail) station. We arrived 15 minutes later, and chaos immediately ensued. The driver couldn't actually drop me off right in front of the station, as, with Christmas approaching, the market has taken over several adjacent streets, so I walked for 10 minutes through a sea of humanity buying, selling, screaming, arguing - living their chaos. Then I got to the station, discovered that it had actually closed two hours ago, and had to walk back... I do wonder what the cab driver thought of the foreigner who appeared out of the middle of nowhere, with a large backpack on, to hail his cab, but he got me to my hostel 30 minutes later for a price that's still less than an average subway ride in Tokyo.

Navigating around Manila is also a bit chaotic as there seems to always be traffic, and while there are street signs, there seems to be an alarming lack of numbers marked on any (well, most) of the buildings, so finding an address can take a while. While I wouldn't have expected my cabbie to have known anything about the Red Carabao hostel on Felix Huertas street, I was a little surprised when my driver ths morning also had to stop and ask for directions to get to the World Trade Center building, home of Manila's Chinese embassy. Fortunately, Manila seems to be overflowing with guards of various sorts, who, while seemingly not doing much else, are good for providing directions.

lingua franca
What do you get when you take a country, whose population is almost entirely indigenous, have Spain colonize it for a few centuries, then have the US come in and take over in the 20th century? Well, confusion, as far as I can tell. I suspect Manila is not actually representative of the rest of the country, but as that's all I've seen so far, here's what I've found:
- vast majority of signage on the streets (let's say 60%) is just in English. All advertising and street shops are posted in English. At the malls, you often hear English spoken as the first language behind the counters, even though the people on both side of the conversation are Filipino. Most people do speak I language I do not understand, so presumably Tagalog.
- some signs are in English and Tagalog. Safety warnings and instructions and such. I'll give these 35% maybe. That might be generous for the upscale shopping and business neighborhoods, like Makati.
- the remaining 5% is just Tagalog - you have to search for these. They are usually official government signs of some sort

No Spanish you'll note, however, Manila has a distinctly Latin American feel to it, and it's not just the near-tropical climate. The street names are all Spanish, and I can occasionally pick up a word or two in the Tagalog conversation that seems derived from the Spanish language. Catholicism is king, of course, and there's plenty of churches, while the jeepney, the preferred method of local transport, appears to be straight out of Central America central casting:

Santa Cruz vs. Santa Cruz
my hostel here in Manila is in the Santa Cruz neighborhood. When I arrived last night, it immediately struck me that it reminded me of something. This morning, it finally came to me - it reminds me of the hostel I stayed in in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, of course! Both used to be relatively upscale private houses that have been converted to a new life as hostels. The patently un-hostel-like fancy bathrooms are a dead give-away... Wonder what Santa Cruz in California's like?

Happy Holidays
I've heard loud-speakers at the malls here in Manila (in English, of course) reminding potential customers that Christmas is only 11 days away. Both Japan and the Philippines are fully decked out in Christmas decor - perfectly sensible in a deeply religious Catholic country like the Philippines, a bit strange in a largely secular, and Buddhist, if anything, country like Japan, but I'm only here to observe, not to judge...

The Umeda Building in Osaka wishing you a Merry Christmas

And a display on the street in Manila reminding you how the whole thing got started

This isn't holiday related, this is Gena and Cheburashka, from a Russian children's cartoon, I used to watch growing up. It wasn't even the best Russian children's cartoon, which makes it appearing today in Japan even odder...

1 comment:

b mathew said...

Great post as always. That Umeda building looks fuckin awesome!