All Well in Wellington 2/2

On 16th October 1848, Rūaumoko – the youngest son of Ranginui (the Sky) and Papatūānuku (the Earth) – walked about the Awatere valley in the Marlborough district. The effect was what the Māori call rūwhenua, ‘the shaking of the land’.  The rumblings tore 150 kilometers of land up to 8 metres wide, and then reached North Island, where they knocked down houses and sent bricks flying. Thankfully, Wellington then was not massively populated, and only three deaths were recorded. Some people escaped the shakings and spent the night on boats, where they made a mental note to use wood for building from now on.

So, when seven years later Rūaumoko returned and caused the 8.2 quake alongside the Wairarapa fault which produced a ten meters high tsunami, lifted part of the Rimutaka Range mountains by six meters, and raised the eastern harbour shore (where the current CBD is) two meters high, Wellingtonians were mostly prepared. Only one person in the city died (as Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand states, there were less than ten casualties outside of Wellington), and only a few were injured.

Rimutaka Range, on the way to Wairarapa

More than a hundred years passed, but stability is still a very long way off. New Zealand is a teenager of the geological world, with the freshness and beauty of first youth, but also the growing pains of constant topographical changes, the acne of volcanoes, the rapturous tears of tropical rains and door slamming shakes. It is spectacular and dramatic. Safe? Maybe not, but … ‘A living planet is always on the move’ – writes David L. Ulin, author of ‘The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith’ – ‘In some sense, you might even say that a living planet exists in a continual state of crisis, that this urgency, this insistence, is what defines it as alive’ (p. 265)

The earthquake risk for Wellington is high. Underneath New Zealand, the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates collide, and Wellington sits on top of one of the most active faults.

The 2008 New Zealand film ‘Aftershock’ shows what would happen if it goes. There is lot of useful information on what to do, and the City Library provides you with a combined hazards map, and a Black List of dangerous buildings to avoid (generally speaking, new buildings and wooden houses – unless they are hanging from a hill on poles – are fine). One of the safest places in town is Te Papa Tongarewa, an excellent museum, and worth being in at anytime. It sits on 135 shock-breaking isolators: and if you are interested in finding out what an earthquake feels like, you can experience one in Te Papa’s quake simulator house.

Many people questioned the wisdom of coming from Japan to another earthquake zone. The first morning in Wellington, when I realized I was at the very end of the world and there was an earthquake kit at the door, I also questioned my sanity. But it turned out to be an excellent decision, and after I resigned myself to living in constant terror I had the time of my life. I have never been so awake and alert: there is nothing to make you enjoy the present moment as much as the uncertainty of whether you will ever be allowed to finish your coffee before the roof falls on your head. ‘Earthquakes’ – says David L. Ulin – ‘do strange things to our psyches, by shattering what may be our most widely held illusion, the inviolability of solid ground. Not only does this undermine our belief in the everyday stability of existence, it also offers, in a way I can’t pin down exactly, evidence of an entirely different vision of reality’ (p. 9).

We first chose the Southern Cross Apartments, then a house in Karori, a green suburbia in the hills. The Karori tunnel, linking Karori with the town, is a 112 years old brick structure prominent on the Black List. Every time I was travelling through it by bus, I was even more alert than usual, listening for the steps of Rūaumoko in the ground below.

But everything was quiet, and all was well. The god of earthquakes and volcanoes, so anticipated in Wellington, was busy somewhere, where he had not been expected at all: in the heart of Christchurch.

Te Papa Tongarewa, Awesome Forces exhibition

Victoria University safety instructions

CBD

Library

Wellington harbour, Te Whanganui-a-Tara

Old brick buildings on Cuba Street

Christchurch earthquake reminder

Southern Cross Apartments, Te Aro

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All Well in Wellington 1/2

Whoosh, and almost a year had passed since I landed in New Zealand and tucked into my gluten free cookies. But maybe that had to be expected. After all, I had a lot to catch up on my return to Europe, and anyway I was too busy walking around dramatically re-telling my adventures to a captivated, if a little bored, friends and family members (‘And I said: let’s drive behind this flock of sheep for fifty kilometers in the rain, as there layeth the place where Frodo had been chased by the Nazgûl’ – ‘wow, no way, and what happened next?’). Now, I do not want to imply English suburbia is boring, not after what we experienced in Kashiwa (now an official ‘radiation hotspot’), but it can be mildly hypnotizing. To wake up from slumber and kick-start this blog to life I propose an unbelievably catchy Māori song: 

 

So, Wellington. It is a happy place. In 2011 the Lonely Planet named it the 4th best city to visit and it has the reputation of being ‘the coolest little capital in the world’. The traffic on the main street can be stopped for a skateboarding race. The dress code for witnessing a Parliament session is ‘to wear shoes’. Second-hand (or rather ‘pre-loved’) clothes and Salvation Army handouts are a fashionable must-haves. (I was particularly enchanted by a thrift shop near Weta Cave Studios called ‘Sequel’). Poetry reading and guitars on public squares are welcomed. Going to the supermarket or travelling on a bus barefoot is encouraged. B52, The Rembrandts, Tom Petty, Metallica and Cranberries are still played in bars, pubs and on the radio. After two weeks there your hair spontaneously turn into dreadlocks and you are gnawed by the compulsion to dye it purple. After a month you go to the supermarket in pyjama trousers and feel overdressed. After three months you learn the haka and toy with the idea of tattooing your face Māori-style. If you do not leave then, you will probably stay forever, informing your worried family in your newly adopted New Zealand accent that you are buying a sheep farm and becoming a grazier.

With its less than 400,000 citizens, Wellington seems to be perfectly sized: big enough to retain anonymity, but conveniently small to allow for coincidences and accidental encounters. True, I used to see the same faces all the time, and I would be wary of recommending it to anyone who feels like having an affair (the news about your misbehaviour would probably reach home before you did) but in any other respect it was wonderful. While cozy and homely, the cuteness of colourful little wooden houses was never suffocating. It could not be: snug as it felt, it was not possible to forget the vastness and remoteness of its surroundings. The far away and end-of-the-world feeling was, at least for me, impossible to shake. You could lie wrapped in a pink duvet in a sweet doll-like bedroom, and you were still in the midst of the Exciting and Dangerous. And when a heavy tropical rain violently rattled the roof, and the famous Wellington winds (with their record 248 km per hour) made you fly so fast you lose your jandals, you knew first hand what is often forgotten in the cocoon of a big city: the nature is big, and you are small.

weather forecast, The Dominion Post

Europe seems far away, world affairs irrelevant, breath-taking spaces inviting. ‘Laid-back’ and ‘outdoorsy’ are the words often used to describe this. A 2011 United Nations survey consisting of 8000 interviews with young people in 20 countries showed that young Kiwis are happier than their foreign peers, and their ‘major fear’ was ‘to live in a city apartment’. (This was hailed ‘distinct from any other country’ by a surprised Bronwyn Hayward from the Canterbury University).  And although I have heard all sorts of complaints about the ‘New Zealand propaganda’, egalitarianism is high, and tolerance for unequal power distribution low. Compared to past-oriented Europe and future fixated US, New Zealand is a today kind of place. And although Wellingtonians are strange people who wear ‘gumboots’ instead of ‘wellingtons’, they really know how to enjoy life.

As far as I am concerned, Wellington has just one fault: it goes straight through the city, and looks just like this:

picture from GNS Science website, http://www.gns.cri.nz

The fault had its moments in history, and is well overdue for another ground-shaking performance. This leaves Wellingtonians in the grip of anticipation. But let’s leave this as a cliff-hanger for the second part of the article: and let’s hope it will be the only place where it plays a major role.

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Spring Cleaning: A Message from Green Tea Bottle

When my travels ended and I re-settled in my suburban London life, I neglected this blog in a spectacular way. As I have not checked this site for many months, I missed a few important comments and questions, for which I apologize: I am dealing with them now. I created a Green Tea Bottle e-mail account (it is in the new ‘contact’ section under ‘about’) so I will be more accessible in the future.

As a part of a big spring cleaning I dusted up my note-books and travel journals, and I am happy to say that Green Tea Bottle is now revived. I have unpublished material from New Zealand, Malaysia and China, but as I travel a lot (although not as dramatically as last year) I may extend my reports to these as well. It is a joy and pleasure for me to write my posts, and if there are people who enjoy reading them, then I cannot really ask for anything more!

Welcome back, and enjoy your tea!

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Gluten Free(dom) NZ

When travelling to a new city, it is interesting to pick up a local newspaper and – language permitting – become acquainted with the local scandals and affairs. The first ‘Dominion Post’ (covering Wellington and North Island) I scrolled through had three interesting articles in it. The first was about kindergarten children being given gun licences; the second about two women burning the cheating boyfriend’s clothes in the microwave; and the third about the bunless ‘Double Down’ burger coming to New Zealand. Since I arrived almost at the same time as the burger, I could observe how the story unfolded, and how it caused sensation and controversy (with the sale raising at some point to 35.000 in one day). The burger drama, however, was a mere smokescreen. New Zealand is an astonishingly health conscious place, where organic dairy free sugarless bunnies are dancing on green elvish meadows in the non-radioactive air (although partially under the depleted ozone layer).

First of all, there are no nuclear plants in New Zealand – a fact that I, coming from Japan, greeted with an understandable cheer. Even more luckily, the popular New Zealand fruit, feijoas (feijoa sellowiana), are high in iodine. You cannot avoid feijoas anymore than you can avoid green tea in Japan, so I hope that any radioactive particles I might have acquired were washed away with feijoas-ice cream and Lothlorien Dry Feijoa Sparkling Wine.

Bare-foot hippies giving away free apples on Cuba Street could have been a clue. But it still had not dawned on me until I took a close look at the little shampoos and soaps provided by the serviced apartments in which we stayed during our first month in Wellington. Clinging onto the remains of my SLS and paraben free shampoo, I was carrying the small bottles into the bin when … wait a second! Natural Earth 100% vegetable based Manuka Honey & Harakeke Oil soap in a 100% degradable packaging? What kind of hotel gives to its residents something like this?

But neither ‘Dine Desire’ eco-friendly food for cats nor the ethical nutrients debate surprised me as much as the gluten free paradise I discovered first in Wellington, and then in the rest of the country. I never came across anything like this before, and I have travelled a lot. As someone on a gluten free diet I know how difficult eating out could be. But not in New Zealand!

According to Gill Keuskamp, president of Coeliac New Zealand, a non-profit organization which has been running since 1973, the disease affects 1% of the population. That makes 40 thousands coeliacs. Their life in New Zealand may be grain-less (they have to watch out for the crossed grain logo on the food packages) – but other than that, it is rather sweet. Especially when you consider cakes from Fidel’s Café.

I cannot stress enough how absolutely amazing this is. Heaven, Hell and Domino Pizza all have gluten free pizzas on their menu. You have to pay 1 or 2 $ more for this option, but hey! You do not have to go to a ‘free from’ section in a supermarket and make your pizza at home, but you can eat it out, or order it as a take-away. The Burgerfuel chain (currently spreading into the Middle East and having opened their first shop in Iraq on the 7th of May) has vegan, gluten free burgers. And it is not an expensive place, but a mainstream fast-food chain for teenagers. I scoffed eggs on gluten free toasts in a middle-of-nowhere stop for truck-drivers on the South Island, and had a gluten free lunch with cake in the earthquake-ruined Christchurch. In every cafeteria, deli or bakery you can choose from various gf options – and if you decide to go online, you can find more than 900 products on sale. Almost everyone I have met had a coeliac husband, wife, daughter, parent or friend. You can also buy a gluten-test (I do not know how accurate) and check your intolerance (if you think you have one) at home. The gluten (or lack of it) presence is so omnipotent, than even my cake-eating husband started wondering about his own well-being and hinted on having himself tested (that idea did not survive meeting a wheat laden carrot cake). I am sure that even elves from Rivendell (Kaitoke Regional Park, Upper Hut) ate gluten free lembas bread.

After struggling with the Japanese ‘ingredients’ lists which were, well, in Japanese, I found New Zealand almost too easy. And it is not only the abundance of the gluten free foodstuff – the quality is also great. So, if you have any food allergies or intolerances – you will find your safe dining table there. But watch out – you may soon discover you are growing a pakunei, which is Maori for a protuberant, or – in other words – a very big belly.

Arrowtown

Eggs on gluten free toast in Flaxbourne

Gf bliss at Fidel's

Vegetable market, Wellington

Soaps and shampoo from Southern Cross Serviced Apartments

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Kia Ora, Aotearoa!

Many years ago my cousin Iza and I dreamt of going to Australia and New Zealand. We spent many hours imagining our life there, the repeating theme being that crocodiles and poisonous spiders would be better than our parents. Ah, the happy lives of teenagers. We used to visit our holiday house, sit on the bridge near the long Kashubian lake (which we dubbed Anduin) and sing Australian-related sea shanties until a local farmer shot at us with his shotgun.

But you have to forgive us for clumping both Australia and New Zealand together. They were not real countries at all, but vague Far Away Lands, Where Our Parents Will Not Tell Us What To Do. Many years have passed and we did nothing to get there. I sort of assumed it would just happen one day. I could picture myself strolling in an elegant hat among some poorly defined (but romantic looking) landscapes, and sitting on a wooden porch sipping New Zealand wine. Preferably with Aragorn.

The reality, however, was very different. I landed in Auckland with a small suitcase, one pair of shoes and underwear for five days. After we realized that returning to Kashiwa (now considered a ‘radiation hotspot’) was not very realistic, we decided not to go home – anyway, our house was rented out for the planned six months of our trip – and to travel somewhere else. On the plane from Kuala Lumpur I tried to remember what I actually knew about New Zealand. Except for the recent quake in Christchurch, it came to sheep (especially ‘The Black Sheep’), Lord of The Rings, the Māori, and some vague anecdotes from Bill Bryson’s books. When looking through the windows, I saw some spectacular views and small white specks which I decided could well be herds of sheep. The sheep were walking up-side down. But I expected that: after all, I was (for the first time in my life) crossing the Equator and going all the way South.

However, some people would disagree with this. And why not? After all, there is no up and down in space, and it is all up to our mental representation of the world. I have been told that in Christchurch, before the earthquake, one could meet an Australian guy called The Wizard, who preached passionately on this subject and sold maps like the one below:

And surely enough, you can buy ‘New Zealand – No Longer Down Under’ maps everywhere. I am not surprised that New Zealanders and Australians are somewhat fed up with being pushed to the corners of the often geographically inaccurate, europocentric maps. Used to inflated images of Europe (usually with Britain being the size of Australia), I was amazed to discover that the journey from Malaysia to Auckland takes more than ten hours (on the way back, it was eleven and a half). It seems to me I was not the only one with this kind of impression. I kept receiving e-mails saying ‘it was good you stayed in this part of the world, close to Japan’ – even if the distance from Japan to Auckland was way bigger than that from Japan to England. But, even the great travel writer Bill Bryson fell for that, complaining bitterly in his book ‘Down Under’ about the ‘interesting discovery that Brisbane is not three or four hours north of Sydney’ as ‘if you look on the television weather map Brisbane and Sydney are practically neighbours, their little local suns and storm clouds all but bumping into the chart’ (‘Down Under’, 2001, pp.236-237).

I only began to understand this when we were flying over Australia. Red rocks were all we could see. Not even one kangaroo. Nothing. For seven hours. And New Zealand … you know you are far away when adverts for ‘jobs in Antarctica’ appear in your local newspaper!

It was weird to see Orion’s belt upside down. And, of course, there is the Southern Cross (the Crux). It features on New Zealand, Australia and Brazil flag, and is easy to spot. Maoris calls it The Punga, the Anchor that holds the Tama-rereti’s canoe – our Milky Way. And you can really see the sky. In the country where GPS says ‘follow the road for two hundred forty kilometers’ you can find yourself alone in the complete darkness, surrounded by stars that seem to come down to the dark horizon all around you. The Milky Way crosses the sky over your head like a giant, well, milk spill. Which does not properly describe the mystical beauty of it, neither the way it brings you to your knees.

Picture by Alex Cherney, Australian astronomer and photographer

I had always imagined New Zealand to be a laid-back, relaxed, hippie culture. But I had absolutely no idea what I was about to deal with until I saw the Air New Zealand official safety video. It was shown on board the Auckland -Wellington plane, and cheerfully invited us to take the necessarily precaution during the flight. Well, what can I say – just look at it yourself:

So, this was where we landed: on the far away, shaky islands, among volcanic steams, sheep, fern, possums, jandal-wearing Kiwis, hobbit little houses on top of the Wellington hills (in which, as I was later to discover, things are up-side down as well, with kitchen and the sitting room on the first floor, and bedrooms downstairs) and God knows what else …

Kia Ora, everyone!

Alex Cherney and his pictures

Not giving up on green tea

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The Asian Buffet 2/2

We are halfway through our buffet party … You may still need your chopsticks! Ahead: a few dishes more, plus drinks, sweets and music.

Vending Machines

According to the Lonely Planet Guide, there are six million vending machines in Tokyo – which makes it one machine for every two people. I counted five on the way from Kashiwa-noha Campus station to our Lodge – and there was one in the Lodge as well. No wonder Japan needs fifty-four nuclear reactors. I am sure half of them exist solely to support my green-tea drinking habit.

And not only green tea. They have jasmine tea as well. And rice-roasted tea. And Pocari Sweat ‘ion supply’ drink. And cappuccino. And black coffee. And corn soup. And all of these are HOT!

The abundance of vending machines in Tokyo has additional advantages, too. If a chikan follows you, why not try to avoid detection by pretending to be one? Aya Tsukioka, a Japanese fashion designer, invented an anti-rape dress that helps you melt into the city landscape. You just have to remember to stand still: I have seen a bowing seal in Japan, but a bowing vending machine would be politeness stretched too much even by Japanese standards!

Recycling

Not so easy to understand. And there is a lot to recycle, too (every time I was unpacking my shopping, the opening line from Twin Peaks was shooting through my head ‘She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic’). PET bottles, combustibles, non-combustibles, plastic wrappings, wrappings made from single material, composite materials … A great weight loss programme: faced with washing and dismantling the tin, you may feel like skipping your snack.

Japanese Sweets Factory

Eating Japanese sweets should not be the same as the premenstrual stuffing of one’s face with Snickers and hiding the wrapping under the car seat. It is a part of the tea ceremony ritual, where the bitterness of powdered green tea is complemented by azuki bean paste sweetness.

Tea drinking has three aspects: medicinal, spiritual and entertaining. Jou-namagashi sweets are served during tea ceremonies: their colour, name and shape have to correspond with the occasion and the season. Azuki beans used in their production are extremely popular and abundant in Asia, and said to lower blood cholesterol level. You can get them in ice-creams, buns, donuts, soups: there is even azuki flavoured Pepsi. To make Jou-namagashi you use Nerikiri – a mixture of white bean paste (Shiroan), sugar and rice.

We are amateurs, but – under the guidance of Mr Takano, the sweet making chef – we managed to produce snow camellia (Yukitsubaki), chrysanthemum (Kiku), nightingale (Uguisu) and plum blossom. We were showed how to use kaishi paper and a cloth, through which you squeeze your dough to give it a right shape. It is not as easy as it looks, and while my nightingale resembled a crocodile, too long to fit the box, my husband ended up with a happy looking frog.

Mr Tanaka showing us how to squeeze dough

Tea ceremony

Itsukushima Shrine (Miyajima Island)

In bright orange and red colours, this is one of the most beautiful Shinto shrines in Japan. When the tide comes in, the temple seems to be floating on water. The island, considered sacred, has not always been as accessible as it is now. These days you can take a boat and stroll amongst the very friendly deer that wander around the area. I did not know it while visiting, but I have since read that burials, deaths and births are still not allowed on the island, as the purity of the shrine is of the utmost importance.

Funky Monkey Babys

What do you mean you have never heard of Funky Katō, Mon-kichi and DJ Chemical? Everyone knows them. If you do not believe me, just mention their names in Japan or Korea … then wait for the reaction.

Jizōs

I saw these for the first time in Nikko. There may be a hundred of them (hence the name, Hyaku-Jizōs) – but again, there may not be. Some of those sitting on the Bake Jizo Trail disappeared in the flood more than a hundred years ago. Plus, according to legend, they are impossible to count and will play tricks on all who try to do so. We made an attempt – but it was hard to see them clearly, and sometimes only their red hats and bibs helped us notice the smaller ones under the thick layer of snow.

Jizōs are protectors of travellers (also in their spiritual ventures), pregnant women and children – often those who have been miscarried, stillborn or aborted. They can be also seen at cross-roads. I came across a small army of them in Kamakura: they were surrounded by flowers and incense sticks, and parents’ offerings of toys and sweets.

Toilets

Japanese bathrooms made me realize I have lived my entire life like an animal in a burrow. Not only the toilets are more technologically advanced than my laptop, but they also talk (and, sometimes, play music). The bathtub spoke to me, too. According to my Japanese friends it says ‘I will be ready in ten minutes … now I am ready, you can come in!’ The bathroom may be small and (especially in hotels) carved from one piece of plastic (I told you! Wrapped in plastic!), but you can set the water’s temperature and play with various buttons.  Then you can call someone through the in-built intercom to bring you a glass of wine, and sit in the bath for hours reheating the water when it gets cold.

Toilet in McDonald's, Shibuya

Public toilet

The Great Buddha of Kamakura (Daibutsu)

Daibutsu used to sit in a great hall, which was destroyed by the tsunami of 1498. What a view it must have been! The wild, foamy water destroying everything in its way, and the Amida Bhudda quiet amidst the waves, with his eyes partly closed, maybe only glimpsing through – in the words of impressed Rudyard Kipling – ‘drowsy eyelids’. Can you imagine that?

The sea in Kamakura

How to Queue?

Japanese have been dubbed ‘the Germans of Asia’ for a reason: everyone visiting notices that this is a country where Ordnung muss sein. Kids are shown ‘How to Properly Queue’ videos and are taught how exactly one should behave in a shop. Of course, the ‘nail that sticks out gets hammered’ approach has a long history. In his infamous remark (for which he had apologized since), the governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara claimed that the earthquake was a divine punishment for the rise of individualism in Japan and the tsunami waves were much needed to ‘wipe out egoism’. But his lament about the Japanese (especially young ones) being selfish, was not only distasteful, but also completely unfounded. It was this very cooperative and collectivistic behaviour that impressed the world in the aftermath of 11th of March. I was much surprised how people in the supermarket – which was opened for a couple of hours only – kept their calm. There was no panic, no fighting over the limited water bottles and no stealing from each other’s trolleys. As people were moving quietly among the empty shelves, they were bowing politely to each other. And although this inward-emotion expression may have side-effects (Japan has the fifth highest suicide rate in the world), in this particular situation it proved to be an effective method in handling the crisis.

Buddhism plays a big part in this, with its idea of interconnectedness and the temporary nature of things (very relevant when you live on uncertain ground). At the end, this unification made Japan one of the world’s most unique and original cultures.

Keeping Warm

The way people actually experience temperature is culturally specific. As anthropologists claim, being protected from the elements is only of second importance to adornment. But looking at Japanese school-girls walking in the snowy Tokyo with bare legs and impossibly short skirts made my ovaries squirm. A lot has been said about the Japanese school-girl icon, and much Japanese fashion seems to be inspired by the school uniform. But how do they manage in this cold? Not that they have much choice – they are allowed only knee-high socks, and a little jacket. Adjustment is of supreme importance, but it seems they may have something else up their (very thin) sleeves.

Heattech is a Japanese invented heat-generating material. As soon I found out about it, I ran to the Uniqlo shop and bought myself two tops, socks and a waist-warmer. Not only do they keep the warmth, but they also produce it, so what looks like a thin top can actually replace your old woolly jumper.

(If this does not help, there is a more spiritual way to fight the cold, known in Tibetan Buddhism as ‘tumo’. If you are a practicing yogi, you can learn to defy freezing temperatures by creating your internal heat, sufficient to dry wet sheets. Then you can meditate naked in the snow. But before I achieve this state of balance, I am afraid I will retreat to my Heattech.)

South Korea

We were running from the radiation so fast, that we only stopped in Seoul. Hosted by our very hospitable friend and her lovely mum we could reflect upon our travel choices, and make up our minds on what should we do next. In the meantime, we discovered why the Koreans are called ‘the Italians of Asia’ – all this laughter, noise and kissing couples on the Seoul underground! We also drank fermented green tea. Although we did not manage to visit the Kimchi Museum (that is how much the Koreans love their kimchi!) we certainly tried some. It is a popular side dish, usually made from fermented vegetables, and spicy. The food in Seoul was great: jellyfish, octopus, rice dumplings … But dining with the dog has a very different meaning than in Japan: however, despite seeing an odd ‘we serve special meats’ sign I cannot tell you much about it.

Starving at the Banquet – North Korea

DMZ – the Korean Demilitarized Zone – is an hour’s drive from Seoul. Our hosts took us there by car. On the way, through the barbed wired fence, we could see the river Han dividing South from North.

It is worth noting that some parts of the Goseong-Gun, Gangwon Do Odusan Unification Observatory were available to foreigners only. We did not have our passports with us, but as we looked unmistakable non-Asian, no one asked to see them. Somehow, our South Korean friends were let in with us too.

The most interesting part was the outside terrace with the lookout to the North. It was like peering into a different world immersed in a glass ball. All our travel dilemmas suddenly seemed irrelevant, and our troubles luxuries. There, through the binoculars, we were looking at a dictator’s monument among the shells of propaganda houses and people travelling on bikes. Small groups were walking up a hill. So close, yet so impossibly far. My heart went out to these people. Despite the heavy veil of North Korean propaganda and the information embargo, every month there is news about people dying from hunger and suffering in the concentration camps such as Yodŏk and Camp 22 (where, allegedly, gas chambers are used). Many people are imprisoned as ‘guilty by association’ if one of their relatives is detained (Amnesty International, May 2011). In 2008 a documentary by the Polish film producer Andrzej Fidyk portrayed the stories of those who managed to get out (‘Yodok Stories’, 2008).

Amnesty International reports on the breach of human rights in North Korea

1000¥ 10-minutes Hairdresser

– Pay at the machine and collect your ticket

– Wait in a queue of salary-men

–  A hairdresser sets the timer

– 10 minutes later leave with your new haircut (don’t forget to bow!)

– Next please!

Leftovers

Is this REALLY the best way to sell trousers?


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The Asian Buffet 1/2

When launching this blog, I hoped to serve you a regular, nourishing Japanese dishes. Instead, we will have an Asian buffet, with many Japanese main courses, but also Korean pudding, and Malaysian sweets to take home. So, before we say good-bye to Japan (at least for now) and say hello to New Zealand – enjoy the bits and pieces I collected over my couple of months stay there!

 Loneliness in Tokyo

You are Japanese, things are not going well. Why not advertise in Metropolis, the biggest English language newspaper published in Japan?

Women looking for Men

Please smile at me.

I’m almost fat and 30+ so, my husband doesn’t like me anymore. He’s cheating. Help me to cheat, too. No serious strings.

Seeking tall, gentle, and well-educated American medical doctor (cardiologist is preferred) to understand me for long-term relationship.

It would be no less than a miracle to find someone, but suppose I give up finding someone, there is nothing. That is why I am here.

On 3/11 earthquake day, I recognized my strong wish for having family and kids. If you’re ready for a new stage, please contact!!

I want fall in love with Japanese I am here looking something in the past that can’t be found in the future or present.

Married, elegant, intelligent, calm, in her late 30s, seeks a new boy friend under 30 in Tokyo. Looks matters.

I can be materialistic but very caring and giving.

Preferred slim and casual guy, not playboy or fashionable.

I’m so lonely I feel I can die.

Looking for a reasonably intelligent gentleman who owns a reasonably big house in Tokyo or his home country, because this JF [Japanese female] wants to move in with her 10,000 books. Age, nationality please.

I am feeling bored of my normal life. I need inspiration. I need something fresh feeling. As I am a single woman right now, so I don’t know if it goes serious love or just to have fun, but lets try to start something together!

I have started night out recently and found it so fun! But I have nobody to share the joy with. It doesn’t have to be clubbing, just like bar hopping, chill night. Can be watching some movie at night in my place. I have a big projector system.

I’m looking for someone I met the other night. His name was something like Pasemko. If you know him, please contact me.

I have a long holiday (Apr 29-May8) but no plan. Help me!

Men looking for Women

I like when people see me as moral and trustworthy, because I am. It makes me feel like a kid getting a gold star on his drawing. I’d like to find someone under 30 who can make me laugh and who likes receiving oral pleasuring. 

These days have been tough. Married have a boyfriend? I am married so understand. I am 40 yr businessman looking for passion in my life. My wife is not a nice person. Help me feel better please.

Let’s have lunch on the bed.

22, living in Tokyo. Seeking my first woman. From a virgin boy.

Are you tired with Japanese behavior and treatment. I don’t mind individuell or dominant behavior of woman. Drop me a line maybe we are matching together.

I never smoke and gamble.

Love hotel

Love hotel

Power-sleeping

I had to go all the way to Tokyo to discover I possess a Japanese super-power: sleeping undeterred while sitting, standing, marching, in a disco and with planes taking off over my head. It was nice to see that the whole city seem to share my passion and ability. You go into a tube carriage and are confronted not only with almost complete silence (the use of a mobile phone is usually not allowed) but also unmoving bodies. Men, women, businessmen, geishas – they all slump on their seats looking unconscious. Then, when the train arrives at their station, they suddenly switch on like robots. Countless times I could feel someone’s sleepy head getting heavier and heavier on my shoulder. But, I did not push them away. As a fellow sleep-lover (although not as tired as the regular commuter) I let them slouch on me. My only worry was: supposedly there was another sarin attack and you entered a carriage full of dead bodies … How would you notice the difference?

Women only tube carriage

Dining with a Dog

A bit like a cat café, but you have to bring your own dog with you. While you choose your food, the dog is presented with a special dog’s menu, and can join you for your coffee. There is also a special hairdressing saloon for dogs!

Daiso

Daiso is a 100¥ shop. It is not like Poundland, though: it is extremely clean, neat, and everything is nicely packed. You can buy boiled chestnuts, antiseptic lunch-box dividers, collagen tablets, chopsticks, gift-wrapping, face-masks, plastic bento boxes, and much more. I expressed my admiration to Japanese and foreigners alike, and have been told the quality of their products is poor, and they would not necessarily recommend it. I strongly disagree with this, for I love Daiso. I have lots of very nice socks from there!

Traditional Japanese Dancing Classes

Difficult at the beginning, but once you get it – absolutely fantastic! The trickiest part is to open the Japanese fan quickly. There is no opportunity for improvisation, every move has its place and requires great discipline. The teaching method was based on the repetitio est mater studiorum principle.  Our sensei showed us the whole routine in one go, and instead of learning it step by step we spent weeks repeating the whole thing at once. It would not be ‘step by step’ anyway – in Japan, you rather learn ‘hands movements’. Of course, at the beginning I remembered the first two moves, and the last two ones. But after practicing, practicing and practicing I had mastered the routine. Then, I could start concentrating on perfecting my performance and waving the fan in a graceful manner. At that point I understood the satisfaction some people may find in leading a monastic life: there is a great sense of freedom in a strict structure. So, with my body totally occupied by the turns and bows, my mind was wandering freely, far, far away from the dancing room.

Collagen and Vitamin Beauty Jellies

I have mentioned these more than once. I am a big fan. Easily absorbed (as claimed) and quite tasty, they are supposed to be the quickest way to nourish your health and beauty from inside. You can buy them almost everywhere, from the local Family Mart to Daiso. You can also get collagen drinks, pills and powder. Some Japanese restaurants are said to specialize in ‘collagen cuisine’ and provide ‘beauty menus’ with collagen sprinkled or dissolved into your meal. Collagen marshmallows are another invention. Does it work? I am not convinced. But why not give it a try?

Onsen

Everyone knows that Japan is impossibly clean. In Shibuya crossing – the biggest pedestrian crossing in the world – you will not find a single piece of paper. The concept of purity is something that transcends through all the social spheres from recycling to spiritual matters. But should I really wash myself for half an hour before entering the onsen? Going to a small indoor/outdoor onsen in Nikko I was faced with a dilemma. I was the only foreigner and not sure of the proper code of conduct. I would gladly go to a mixed-onsen (konyoku) and have my husband (and some Japanese guys, hmm) on my side, but this was not the case here. So, I spotted a woman who came in at roughly same time as me and decided to copy whatever she did. She undressed – I undressed. She took a small stool and sat on it in front of the low-placed shower – I did the same. She started washing herself … and washing, and washing, and washing …and sure I did as well. But after about twenty five minutes I started having doubts. How long will it last? The woman next to me went out, came back with a sponge and started the whole procedure again. I gave up and, smiling apologetically, started ascending into the main hot pool. Thankfully, no-one ran away. After a while, I hopped outside, where – amongst the snow – was a small hot spring. Straight away, I was approached by a nice woman who wanted to know where I was from and what was my husband’s profession. We had a nice little chat, and I came back to the main bath. After that, I washed again (I was too scared not too). It was a lovely experience and I came out pink, rosy and refreshed. Warning though! If you have a tattoo – even if it is a small dolphin or a rainbow jumping pony with a halo – you may not be let in. The tattoo is a mark of a yakuza, and there is no place for them in regular, honest, and clean places like communal baths.

Purity: Nikko in the snow

Purity: Nikko in the snow

Silver chopsticks

Specialty of Korea. They are heavier than wooden or plastic ones, so you may need some practice before digging into your kimchi. Usually they are made of stainless steel, but as the legend goes silver tarnishes when in contact with poison and they were used for checking  food safety by the Korean aristocracy. You also use a spoon in Korea, and there is a complicated etiquette concerning the way you use it, and place it near your plate. As we were told, the oldest person at the table is seated and served first, and when he/she finishes the meal, everyone else should stop too. As in Japan, sticking your chopsticks into a bowl of rice is not a good idea, as it resembles funeral/ancestral ceremonies. Just put your chopsticks aside (but do not cross them) when you are not currently eating. Do not point your chopsticks at anyone either.


… to be continued.

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