Saturday, August 16, 2003

East Asia trip report

I just got back from East Asia with my mother. Because Dad had to go there for a long business trip and was afraid we'd miss our annual summer vacation, he told us to meet in Japan so that we could travel with him while he worked. It was an quite a long trip as Mom and I spent about eight days each in Japan and China. The journey was rather exhausting because of its length but was also loads of fun. Below is the trip report, although it's quite long!

Days 1 and 2

Dad had asked us to meet him in Japan just two days before, so we only had a short time to prepare for the trip. Despite that, the two of us managed to get everything in order and not forget anything. It was then time for a long and tedious flight to Tokyo.

The good news was that the plane ride wasn't as boring as I had expected. The in-flight entertainment had several movies on different channels, meaning that we could pick what we wanted to watch. I saw four movies on the plane, namely X2, Shanghai Knights, Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I'm an action nut, so I enjoyed X2 and Shanghai Knights the most. I don't like animated films as much as live-action ones, but Treasure Planet and Atlantis weren't too bad either.

Mom and I were somewhat nervous when we landed in Tokyo because this was only our second time in Japan and neither of us knew much Japanese at all, but we were able to meet up with Dad without problems. The three of us then went to Akihabara after some rest. This was one of the places that made our first trip to Japan so much fun.

We passed a pachinko parlor at one point, and Dad wanted to show me what it was like inside. However, one had to be 18 or older to enter, and I was just two months shy of the age requirement. The guy at the door only asked how old I was and didn't check IDs or anything, but I'm not really the type of person to lie about my age. This wasn't that big of a deal as I already knew what pachinko was like thanks to Shadow Warrior. You could say being a gamer has its advantages.

In any case, it was time to head back to the airport to board our flight to Fukuoka. As we arrived there, I couldn't help but notice how much the name sounded like "fuck you, OK?" I'm sure it's long been the butt of foreigners' jokes.

All of us were tired from the traveling, so we didn't do much in the evening besides relaxing in our hotel room. On the other hand, my parents let me renew my RuneScape membership. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Day 3

The main stop of the day was Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan. The tour bus took us to the crater of Mt. Naka, the most active vent. It was somewhat hard to see the crater because the smoke was so dense that it often obscured the view. The noxious gases were also irritating to my lungs, so we didn't spend much time outside other than to take pictures.

Before heading back on the bus, my parents and I went to check out the gift shop at the cable car station. There were some cookies with a picture of Mt. Aso on them that looked really good, but I couldn't bring myself to pony up the cash. Japanese souvenirs aren't exactly cheap after all.

Day 4

About an hour south of Fukuoka was Kumamoto. One of the city's biggest attractions was the famous Kumamoto Castle, one of the three major castles in Japan. Although I'm not a big fan of historical sites, it was pretty cool to take pictures with the people dressed up as samurai warriors outside the entrance.

The three of us spent the afternoon at a local mineral spa. I had my reservations at first because the water appeared somewhat dark and uninviting, but it turned out to be fairly clean. Every once in a while, someone would check to make sure we hadn't passed out from the heat. I'm sure they didn't want to get sued in case something happened to us.

Dad's colleague Naoki invited us and another one of their business partners to dinner at an upscale teppanyaki restaurant in the evening. The food was insanely expensive, costing between ¥9,600 to ¥12,000 per person. Mom felt it was wrong to let Naoki spend so much money on us as this was supposed to be a business affair, so she and I agreed to share a plate. One reason the meal cost so much was because it included the famed Kobe beef. The steak looked unappetizing at first because of the blood, but it turned out to be rather delicious.

Day 5

Nagasaki was our next stop. This was the second city that the U.S. nuked at the end of World War II. On the subject of which, our main stop of the day was the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum in the morning. The most notable feature was the stone monument that marks the spot above which "Fat Man" detonated. The exhibits inside mostly focused on the victims and survivors of the bombing, and there was a strong anti-nuclear weapon theme. We also visited the nearby Nagasaki Peace Park to see the numerous memorials that were erected for those who perished.

It was then time for lunch, so we bought some sandwiches at the museum's café. Unlike at most other museums, the food here wasn't expensive at all. The sandwiches turned out to be quite good, so we ordered seconds.

The three of us went to find out what downtown Nagasaki had to offer after lunch. Dad started getting hungry again, so we had some champon noodles as an afternoon snack at one of the eateries. Mom said it was the best thing she ate on the trip.

Day 6

Our journey took us back to Fukuoka. It didn't have as many attractions as the other cities we visited, although we did enjoy an afternoon stroll along the harbor. Other than that, my family spent most of the evening packing up as we had to catch an early flight to Shanghai the next day.

One thing I noticed about Fukuoka is that a lot of women would congregate on the street corners in the evening. Some of them were actually rather attractive. The strange thing is that they just stood there as if they were waiting for something - or someone. I couldn't help but wonder if they were hookers. Come to think of it, they most likely were, so it's probably a good thing I didn't try to chat them up. *shrugs*

Day 7

Our trip to China began with a big mishap: the taxi driver took us to the wrong airport, and we were worried that we'd miss our flight as a result. The chauffeur was obviously very nervous as well, but he eventually managed to find the correct airport.

Because our flight was early in the morning, the airport was virtually empty when we got there. The whole situation was kind of creepy - it was reminiscent of the Langoliers miniseries, based on Stephen King's novella of the same name. But at least our plane didn't get sucked into some strange interdimensional rift full of deadly creatures. :P

The plane landed in Shanghai a short time later. One reason why some people like to travel to China is that everything there is dirt cheap. There were so many amazing deals, and my parents and I had a great time checking out the street markets. This was undoubtedly the best part of the trip.

The deals were too good to pass up, so we bought what was ostensibly a Chinese edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for Windows for just ¥5 at one of the stands. The copy turned out to be a bootleg, which explains the low price. Other than that, the game still worked fine. It wouldn't install on my laptop because the hardware was too old, but I was able to play it on Dad's without issues.

Shanghai also has an active nightlife; the streets were teeming with people in the evening. But the thing that caught my attention the most were all those hot Asian chicks making out with their boyfriends. Lucky dudes.

Day 8

The three of us had so much fun shopping in the street markets that we decided to do it again. This time, my parents bought a suitcase to carry all of our stuff. It was originally ¥120 - an already low price - but Dad managed to talk it down to ¥80 with his 1337 haggling skills. What a steal!

But while checking out our new suitcase, I noticed the combination lock was fake. Talk about being made in China - no wonder the lady was willing to let it go for such a low price. The suitcase nevertheless did its job: it held together for the rest of the trip.

The day ended at my great-uncle Bao-Chuan's house, our home for the night. Bao-Chuan and his wife generously made us a nice home-cooked dinner. Their hospitality was truly remarkable.

Day 9

The morning had a somber beginning: our first stop was an old cemetery where we and Bao-Chuan paid our respects to my late great-grandparents on my paternal grandfather's side. After everything was said and done, Bao-Chuan took us and my aunt Susan to downtown Shanghai. The weather was fairly warm, so we treated them to some sorbet at a café in an upscale shopping plaza. Susan didn't eat hers because she couldn't handle frozen foods very well, so I gladly took care of that. :-)

Day 10

Next on our list of destinations was Suzhou. The place was similar to Venice in the sense that it had many canals in place of roads. One of the highlights of the city was the Classical Gardens. We only had time to visit one of them - Lingering Garden - but it was an absolutely lovely place. I definitely wish we had the time to visit the other gardens as well.

The reason we were short on time was that we had to catch another flight, this one to Beijing. Unlike Shanghai, the part of Beijing we visited had a more historical feel and lacked the numerous street markets. I liked Shanghai better, but that's just me.

Day 11

Dad was in meetings for the entire morning and afternoon, so Mom and I couldn't really go anywhere. Furthermore, he needed his computer for the meetings, and mine was too old to connect to the hotel's Internet. At first I thought it was going to suck as I couldn't play RuneScape or even browse the web, but it wasn't all that bad because I had a bunch of games that didn't require an Internet connection. Speaking of which, I managed to complete Duke Nukem and Duke Nukem II for the first time without cheats. W00t!

Day 12

The day was much like the previous one: Dad had to go to more meetings where he needed his laptop. I couldn't get Internet access until he returned, so I was again stuck with the games I had on my computer. This time, I beat Doom II: Hell on Earth without cheat codes. The final boss was rather tough, but I was eventually able to kick its ass.

Day 13

It goes without saying that no trip to China is complete without a visit to the Great Wall, so that was our next destination. The three of us took the cable car to the top of the wall, and it was hard to believe how big the whole thing really was. From what I've heard, the structure is almost 4,000 miles long. This was extremely impressive, especially considering it was built over two millennia ago. Talk about extreme engineering!

But the Great Wall was not without its costs: according to some historians, several hundred thousand workers may have died from exhaustion during its construction. The Great Wall is sometimes known as the "longest cemetery on Earth" as a result. It definitely makes me glad we have labor laws these days.

Day 14

Our adventure brought us to the Forbidden City. One of Beijing's most famous landmarks, the Forbidden City once served as the emperor's home for almost five centuries. While not exactly as impressive as the Great Wall in my opinion, the palace was nonetheless an amazing place. The whole complex has 980 buildings, but most of them are being renovated and only a handful are currently open to the public. I would love to see the palace in its full glory someday.

Day 15

We explored downtown Beijing for a bit before Dad took us to the scenic Beihai Park in the afternoon. The park has a large lake that covers more than half of its area, and an island at the center. There is a pagoda on the island, as well as several other temples. We didn't visit all of them due to time constraints, although we did enjoy strolling around the lake. Some areas of the lake were completely covered with lily pads, making it especially beautiful. The light fog made the view even better. Beihai Park was truly an incredible place.

Day 16

It was finally time to head home after a long trip. Due to the SARS outbreak in Southeast Asia, there was a quarantine to prevent potential carriers of the virus from leaving. As luck would have it, I happen to have caught a cold a few days earlier and had a mild fever as a result. The inspectors had thermal imaging equipment and noticed my elevated temperature, which they kept questioning me and my parents about. It was a nerve-wracking experience, but they eventually let us pass. Phew!

The three of us then boarded our flight to Tokyo. There was a showing of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers on the plane, but we only got to see about half of it because the entire movie was longer than the flight itself. I guess I'll have to look for it at my local library soon.

All of us were completely exhausted from going so many places, so we didn't do anything else for the rest of the day other than get some rest.

Day 17

Dad has to stay in Japan for a couple more days due to business reasons. He dropped me and Mom off at Narita International Airport, and the two of us were on our own again. Due to an error on the company secretary's part, Mom and I had to fly back to Fukuoka and then to San Francisco; there was no direct flight from NRT to SFO - at least not without spending hundreds of dollars in cancellation fees.

Unlike our outbound flight, this one didn't have any good movies aside from The Ninth Gate. On the other hand, the in-flight entertainment system had lots of free games. They were all SNES classics, with Street Fighter II being my favorite time killer. The controller sucked compared to real SNES hardware, but it was better than nothing. The 12-hour flight was finally over, and Mom and I were home at long last.

Conclusions

At over two weeks, this was one of our longest vacations ever. I actually started feeling homesick several days ago, something that usually doesn't happen when my family travels. Because we couldn't book any flights until several days ago, I was afraid we'd be stuck in Asia and that I'd miss the first few days of class as a result. Much to our relief, this was not the case, although it's going to take some time for the jet lag to wear off.

The trip was a lot of fun despite being so exhausting. I loved shopping in Shanghai because everything there was so cheap; that was by far the highlight of our trip. Getting used to the regular prices back in the U.S. certainly isn't going to be easy. Shanghai wasn't my only favorite place; Nagasaki and Beihai Park were also among those that made the trip so special. The memories from this vacation will undoubtedly last a lifetime.

School starts in a little over a week for me, so I should probably begin preparing for my classes soon. That said, I'm a little sleepy from the jet lag right now, so I'm going to go get some rest first. Peace.

Currently playing: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Historical note: Pictures from the trip are available here.

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