Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Dec 16 2008

Down to Kaohsiung

I took the noon high speed rail down to Kaohsiung on Monday to attend a wedding, arriving at the new, airport-esque Zuoying Station at 1:30 p.m. I was eager to experience the new MRT that has taken so long and been the subject of so much controversy over the last decade. Fortunately, the HSR station is almost on top of the subway station, so after only a short exposure to the sunshine outside on the way down, I was there.

The first thing I noticed was the level of ambient light; Taipei’s subway stations are very bright in comparison. The low, dark ceiling, festooned with a metal grating, along with the solid glass walls along the platform made it feel like a bar lounge instead of a subway station. The place smelled of fresh concrete, and hardly any people were there. The train, when it came, only covers half of the platform length, so that if you weren’t in front of the right doors you’d miss the train.

Inside the cars, the seats line the sides, Hong Kong-style, rather than utilizing the forward/backward style of Taipei. The seats are molded plastic of an unsettling green hue, but the curvature of the handrails and the white walls and pillars aren’t so bad. It’s like an alternate universe version of Taipei’s system. I wish they accepted the yoyo cards, though.

After getting directions from a good-looking subway employee wearing a baseball cap, I transferred at the Formosa Blvd Station to an even more sparsely populated train to Xiziwan, surfacing a couple of blocks from the harbor. I like cities with harbors, and it’s always the first place I want to go when I get to Kaohsiung. Near the subway exit was a line of tiny scooters, just frames with wheels and a seat, really, under a sign that said “electric scooters”. Intrigued to see whether Taiwan is actually going to follow in Shanghai’s footsteps in promoting electric scooters, I went to the nearby shop, only to be told that the scooters were actually 50cc two-stroke models. I am convinced that you could slap an electric motor, paint the front shell olive drab and have a hit on your hands, but that idea doesn’t seem to have occurred to the manufacturers. “The time to buy one of these is now,” the shop owner told me. “Two-strokes won’t be legally manufactured after this year.” Apparently they’re going to put a 4-stroke engine in instead.

I rented one anyway, just to see how it drove, and rode it out along the coast past the university. Even mild hills challenged it, and the suspension was barely working, but it was light and highly maneuverable. I could pick it up easily, almost like a bicycle. Good for local jaunts but not much else.

The coast road was very pleasant. I stopped to look down at the sun on the incoming waves, while a monkey perched on the railing by the roadside nearby watched me.

Kaohsiung HarborI rode back down to the harbor to watch some of the big ships coming and going through the pass, and then around the neighborhood for a while before returning the scooter and walking back to a bar by the water, where I was the only customer. Kaohsiung feels empty after the crowds of Taipei. Huge cargo ships loomed through the haze, cutting a swath through the paths of the triangular ferries bearing scooters and their riders across to Qijin Island. A black cat yowled at me, wanting food, but all I had was ginger tea. Next door was a Navy port where sailors got off transport ships and flowed per whistle commands into blue buses to take them into the city.

After night fell and I had taken my fill of superfluous pictures of tables and lamps, I headed back to the subway station to board a train for Formosa Blvd Station, where the wedding was being held. Only when I emerged from the station did I realize how grand a station it is. Four shining crystal structures jut out of the ground surrounding the roundabout on the surface, and the effect is quite striking.

Even at rush hour, the city had an evacuated feel to it. Perhaps I’m not used to the wide streets. The new concrete sidewalks have helpful instructions embedded in them, though my phone had already told me where I was going. I arrived at the Howard Plaza and found the wedding party on the fourth floor ballroom. The groom, Chalaw, greeted me at the door, and I found my seat next to David Chen at the same table as Lin Sheng-xiang and the Betelnut Brothers. Kimbo was at the next table, busy downing bottles of wine.

Chalaw had told me to bring my pocket trumpet, so I had assumed he wanted me to play accompaniment to one of the songs at some point. It turned out, however, that he wanted David and I to go on stage and play something. Consummate musicians that we are, neither of us had prepared anything. David didn’t even know that he was expected to play. Being only one third of the total Muddy Basin Ramblers, and me with a bass, we puzzled over what to do. Eventually, after I hurriedly learned “Nagasaki” on the trumpet in about 30 seconds backstage in case they wanted two songs, we played the Taiwan Song, which worked out pretty well, considering.

Kimbo, who was amazingly still upright after so much wine, played after us. All of the music that night was great, with lots of aboriginal tunes and singalongs. Sitting at the table with the Betelnut Bros., we had the best seats in the house for their impromptu accompaniments. Sheng-xiang sang one song written by his mother, who was at the table as well. She blushed when he mentioned her on stage.

We had to catch the last bullet train back to Taipei at 10:12 p.m., so we couldn’t stay. The party was winding down anyway, as many of the guests were from other parts of the island. A cab ride later we were at the station, and after a momentary panic when my ticket decided to play musical pockets on me, we were on the train back. The train felt like a low-flying airplane as it sped over the lights of villages and rice fields, accompanied by the occasional safety announcement. I played with David’s Ricoh, which made me realize what Internet posters are talking about when they mention a good user interface. If only a camera combined Sigma’s image quality with Ricoh’s interface, they’d sell like hotcakes. Alas, prior to the as yet still-mythical micro 4/3 camera (the G1 doesn’t count, IMHO, as it’s too big), we’re all still waiting.

It was past midnight when I switched on the lights of the Water Curtain Cave. It’s good to get out of town once in a while.

I’m taking this week off to finish up the editing before I leave for Osaka next week. I realize that it’s not the best time of year to go, but it was short notice as I was told by my company that I have more vacation time than I’d thought. I’ve heard that Kyoto is a beautiful city, which is a slightly daunting thing to me, seeing as I don’t usually like to photograph beautiful things (where’s the challenge in that, after all?). Still, it should be interesting, as I know next to nothing about the place.

posted by Poagao at 11:50 pm  
Feb 07 2008

Asakusa and the river cruise

Lovely weather out today. The people at the reception desk downstairs call me by my name with its Japanese pronunciation: Hayashi Mijiyaki-san! Hai!

It being such a nice day, I decided to go to Asakusa, but when I got to the subway station I accidentally ended up on the wrong platform. I told the guy at the window, and he issued me an “I am an idiot who cannot read plain signs” tag to take around to the correct platform. There I boarded a train and sat next to two heavy (in that entitled-due-to-excessive mass kind of way) Korean girls with identical Olympus mini DSLRs.

At Asakusa, once I managed to find my way out of the warren of shops and stores surrounding the station underground, I headed for the bridge over the Sumida River for a look. A mass of surprisingly unkempt old junks lined one bank, and on top of a tall glass building on the other side was to all appearances a gigantic, golden turd. I’m guessing Godzilla’s been drinking late at night again.

bowI turned around and made my way to the Shoji shrine/shopping complex, avoiding the main thoroughfare and taking side alleys to the shrine itself, which was swamped with tourists from all nations, though only the Japanese dared take the rickshaws for rental rides. The urn in the center of the square was surrounded by tourists trying to wave the smoke in their direction for good luck. I found this amusing because, whenever I am near smoke, it naturally blows my way, and so it was today: wherever I walked, the smoke followed me. I think the more devoted of the tourists were a bit jealous.

I walked around the rather neglected bell tower, which looked like a nice place to live, and then around to the rear of the temple, where workers were carting leftover snow and spreading it around to melt. Otherwise the area was deserted, but I felt that the shadows of the trees and the puddles left by the melting snow, mined by pigeons, were far more photogenic than anything in the busy front end.

basketcaseI left the complex and walked around the neighborhood. Once, when I was taking a picture of some colorful garbage left in front of a shop, a man walked by chuckling at, I can only assume, my choice of subject matter. So I took a picture of him. I am finding the hot packets quite useful for gloveless shooting in the cold, by the way.

Later, I came across a shop displaying shiny suits of all colors and velvet lapels. “Too small for you!” the owner told me. Probably a good thing, as I was eying the maroon number.

After lunch at a counter-style curry place, I walked back to the river and bought a round-trip ticket on the river cruise to Hinode Pier and back. With me on the flat, glass-ceilinged boat were dozens of schoolchildren who were doing some kind of school project that apparently involved shrieking and jumping up and down. It wasn’t terribly relaxing.

boat viewBut the view was nice, and I could rest my legs as I watched the city slide by. We went under bridge after bridge, but the woman describing them on the microphone at the front of the boat stood no chance against the students’ noise.

Eventually we arrived at the Tokyo Port. I had no idea where I was, so I asked when the last boat back to Asakusa was. “5pm,” the guy at the counter said. I had an hour and a half, so I walked across the road, under the highway, over a bridge and up a street until I reached a downtown-like area. A sign for an observation deck caught my eye, so I followed it to the Hamamatsucho World Trade Center. A ticket to the 40th-floor observatory costs 630 yen, so I thought I’d go up take a look.

observatoryI practically had the place to myself. Yet the view was wonderful, even better than the city government building, I thought, though it could have been the light. The sun was inching towards the horizon, and the whole area was spectacularly lit. I would have liked to have stayed until the city below lit up, but I would have missed the last boat back to Asakusa, and I was meeting Arnd later in Ueno. I guessed, however, that they would keep the lights on inside, spoiling any chance at good night shots.

Back at the dock, I noted a genuine vintage Airstream trailer made into a food stand sitting unattended on the dock as I boarded the ferry. This time there were only a few people on board, and the city was slowly lighting up as the sun went down. Navigating back up the river proved very relaxing and much more enjoyable than the trip down had been. I wondered if the people sitting behind me were inserting English words in their conversation for my benefit, as people in Taiwan often do. Japanese, however, has so many English words in it that I really couldn’t tell.

Back in Asakusa, I started walking in a roughly westward direction towards Ueno, somehow ending up on a street full of motorcycle shops. There is the perfect amount of motorcycles in Tokyo; they are common enough that people know how to drive around them, but they aren’t nearly as crushingly ubiquitous as they are in Taiwan. I saw some really sweet, low-slung models, too.

I thought as I walked how much effort people here have put into making life more convenient. From the little restaurants everywhere to the pictures of food, the vending machines, the ticket-based economy to the public restrooms and useful maps; everything seems taken care of. It’s a little frightening, but then again, I’m used to living in what amounts to a working anarchy, where things are left to solve themselves most of the time. Some would frame the contrast in terms of Buddhist vs. Taoist philosophies, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that. I’m still getting used to standing on the left side of the escalator.

A road sign read: “If the parks or schools in your neighborhood are not safe, please take refuse in the area indicated on the map.” The indicated area, shown below on the sign, was Ueno Park.

I reached Ueno Station early, so I sat down next to the escalator by the Hard Rock Cafe to wait. Unbeknownst to me, Arnd arrived about the same time, waiting just behind a column around the corner. We both sat in our spots for roughly 20 minutes, each wondering where the other was. Eventually I stood up, walked a few steps and saw Arnd and his friends, many from Flickr.

flickritesWe crossed the road and walked to Za Watami, a third-floor restaurant near the train tracks, the kind where you take off your shoes, put them in a little wooden box and sit with your legs in a depression around a table, and ordered beer and snacks. As soon as we sat down, out came the cameras, with everyone snapping away at each other while we waited for the food to arrive. Besides me and Arnd, flickrites Hiromy, Jimmy, Grumpy Old Man and Un Gato Nipon were there.

Over the course of the next few hours we talked about Japan, Taiwan, travel, photography, technology, and many other interesting things. It was good to meet up with the group; I had a lot of fun. I’ve now filled up my 4gb card on my big camera and have just 6 minutes of video left on my little camera.

Tomorrow I am going to visit the Ghibli Museum. I have no idea where it is or how to get there, but I’m sure I can figure it out. Much of this trip has involved figuring things out as I go, and it’s worked so far.

posted by Poagao at 12:09 pm