Saturday, August 16, 2003

East Asia trip report

I just got back from East Asia with my mother. Because Dad is there on a business trip and didn't want us to miss our annual summer vacation, he told us to meet in Japan so that we could travel with him while he worked. Mom and I spent about eight days each in Japan and China. The trip was exhausting but also loads of fun. Read on to find out what we did!

Days 1 and 2

There was little time for preparations as Dad had asked us to meet him in Japan just two days earlier. Despite the hectic schedule, the two of us managed to get everything in order. We took the shuttle to the airport and boarded our flight to Tokyo.

The movies kept me occupied during the long ride. X2 and Shanghai Knights were my favorites, although Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire weren't too bad either. I actually liked X2 and Shanghai Knights so much that I watched them more than once!

The plane landed in Tokyo about 12 hours later. I was a little nervous because my father didn't accompany us - especially with the language barrier - but we passed customs and met up with Dad without issues. He then took us to Akihabara after we unpacked our stuff at the hotel. Akihabara was a place that made our first trip to Japan so much fun.

Dad wanted to take us inside a pachinko parlor but was told that I was too young to enter. Though I was just two months shy of the age requirement and could have bluffed my way through, I didn't feel like lying about my age. However, that wasn't a big deal because I already knew how the game worked, the reason being that pachinko machines appear in Shadow Warrior in some levels. Who says video games aren't educational?

Because we were all a little tired after returning to our hotel, the rest of the evening was uneventful. On the other hand, my parents let me renew my RuneScape membership. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Day 3

The morning began with a trip back to Narita International Airport for our flight to Fukuoka. The funny-sounding name was the first thing that caught my attention. I imagine it's the subject of many jokes. Let's just say my mother insisted it wasn't pronounced "fuck you, OK?"

The highlight of the day was a tour of Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan. The bus took us to the crater of Mount Naka. That was a cool sight, although visibility was limited in the dense smoke. The noxious gases were making us uncomfortable, so we didn't stay here too long except to take pictures.

I took the opportunity to check out the gift shop at the Mt. Aso Ropeway terminal before we got back on the bus. The decorated cookies quickly caught my eye. They looked tasty but weren't exactly cheap. After careful consideration, I decided to save the money for other things.

Day 4

About an hour south of Fukuoka was Kumamoto. One of the city's biggest attractions was Kumamoto Castle. Though historical sites aren't my cup of tea, the castle was pretty impressive. The people dressed as palace guards outside the entrance were a nice touch. The rest of Kumamoto was also beautiful.

This was followed by a stop at a mineral spa. The water seemed dark and uninviting but turned out to be fairly clean. Every so often, someone would check to make sure we hadn't passed out from the heat. They probably didn't want to get sued in case something happened to us.

Dad's colleague Naoki invited us and another business associate to a teppanyaki restaurant for dinner. The food was insanely expensive and cost around ¥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. Therefore, she and I agreed to share a plate. One reason the meal cost so much is that it included the famous Kobe beef. It looked unappetizing because of the blood but turned out to be delicious.

Day 5

We took the train to Nagasaki after a good night's sleep. Our first stop here was the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. The exhibits had a strong focus on world peace. The nearby Nagasaki Peace Park contained memorials for those who perished. The most notable feature was the stone monument that marks the spot above which "Fat Man" detonated.

The café at the museum was the perfect spot for lunch. The sandwiches were so good that we ordered seconds. They also weren't expensive at all. This was unusual because food is generally pricey in tourist areas.

The three of us explored downtown Nagasaki afterwards. Dad started getting hungry again and bought some champon as an afternoon snack at one of the eateries. Mom said the noodles were the best thing she ate on the trip.

Day 6

Our journey brought us back to Fukuoka. Aside from an evening stroll, the rest of the day consisted of packing up because we had to catch an early flight to Shanghai. On the bright side, I had lots of time to play RuneScape after dinner.

One thing I noticed while in Fukuoka is that women would congregate on street corners. Some of them were actually rather attractive. They just stood there like they were waiting for someone. I couldn't help but wonder if they were hookers. From what I could tell, they most likely were. I guess it's a good thing I didn't try to chat them up. *shrugs*

Day 7

It was a crazy morning as the taxi driver took us to the wrong airport. The last thing we wanted was to miss our flight. The chauffeur was very nervous as well but eventually found the right place. That was a close call.

The airport was virtually empty when we got there. This was kind of creepy and reminiscent of horror movies. The Langoliers definitely came to mind. On a lighter note, at least our plane didn't get sucked into a pocket dimension full of deadly creatures. :P

The flight to Shanghai was uneventful. One reason people like to visit China is that everything is dirt cheap. I had a great time browsing the street markets, especially with the amazing deals. This was the best part of the trip.

Some vendors had software for sale. I got The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for just ¥5 at one of the stands. The copy turned out to be a bootleg with DRM removed - which explains the low price. Other than that, the disc worked fine. It wouldn't run on my laptop due to hardware limitations but worked on Dad's without issues.

The final stop of the day was my great-uncle Bao-Chuan's house. Our party had some rest before Bao-Chuan took us to a local restaurant for dinner. On the subject of which, Shanghai has an active nightlife. The streets were full of people and often crowded. But what really caught my attention was all those hot chicks making out with their boyfriends. Lucky dudes.

It was late when we returned to Bao-Chuan's place. I checked my e-mail and briefly logged into RuneScape before going to bed. Of note is that many websites are blocked in China, but a proxy easily solved the problem.

Day 8

Having enjoyed downtown Shanghai so much the day before, the three of us decided to go there again. This time, my parents bought a briefcase to carry all of our stuff. It was originally ¥120 - an already great deal - but Dad talked it down to ¥80 with his haggling skills. What a steal!

However, I soon noticed the combination locks were fake. Talk about "made in China" - no wonder the lady was willing to let it go for such a low price. The briefcase nevertheless did its job and held together for the rest of the trip.

Bao-Chuan and his wife made us a nice home-cooked dinner with lots of dishes. Their hospitality was second to none. Having lived in China for many years, my great-uncle had interesting stories, particularly his experiences with hydrogen bomb tests.

Day 9

It was a somber morning as we went to a cemetery to pay respects to my late great-grandparents on my paternal grandfather Bien-Chuan's side. Bao-Chuan then took us and my aunt Susan to an upscale plaza. Seeing that the weather was fairly warm, Dad treated us to sorbet at a pastry shop. Susan doesn't like cold foods and didn't eat hers - which meant more for me. :-)

Day 10

About 85 km west of Shanghai was Suzhou. The city is sometimes called the "Venice of the East" because of its many canals. Suzhou had a historical feel and was fairly quiet compared to Shanghai. Of the local attractions, the Classical Gardens of Suzhou were our favorite. It's too bad we didn't have time to see all nine of them. On the whole, our stay in Suzhou was quite memorable.

The reason we were short on time is that we had to catch a plane to Beijing in the afternoon. The two-hour flight was also uneventful. Given our late arrival, my family didn't do much other than check into the hotel.

Day 11

Dad was in meetings for almost the entire day. I couldn't play RuneScape or even browse the web because my father needed his computer - the only one with Internet access. It didn't help that there were no nearby Internet cafés. However, the good news is that I had other games that don't require an Internet connection. I actually completed Duke Nukem and Duke Nukem II for the first time without cheats. W00t!

Day 12

The day was much like the previous one: I was again stuck with my old laptop because Dad had more meetings. Though Mom and I went shopping for clothes, the afternoon was pretty dull. But at least I managed to beat Doom II: Hell on Earth without cheat codes. I'm not going to lie - the final boss was annoying as hell.

The evening was more exciting as we went to some supermarkets. The nice thing is that we bought lots of local snacks. Yum!

Day 13

They say no trip to Asia is complete without a visit to the Great Wall of China. The three of us took the cable car to a spot where the wall was accessible. The structure was impressive, especially considering it was built over two millennia ago. However, the Great Wall wasn't without its costs: according to historians, many workers have died from exhaustion during its construction. I guess labor laws didn't exist back then.

Day 14

The Forbidden City was our next stop. One of China's most famous landmarks, the imperial palace once served as the emperor's home for almost five centuries. The whole complex has 980 buildings, but most of them are being renovated and only a handful are publicly accessible. While not as impressive as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City was a sight to behold. I definitely hope the rest of the palace will eventually be opened to the public.

Day 15

We spent the morning exploring parts of Beijing that we hadn't seen. The downtown was huge and full of stores. I could spend days here alone.

Dad took us to the scenic Beihai Park after lunch. The park has a lake and several Buddhist temples. There wasn't enough time to see all of them, although we enjoyed strolling along the lake. The light fog made the view even better. Beihai Park was truly an incredible place.

Days 16 and 17

It was finally time to head home after two long weeks. The Chinese government had ordered a quarantine due to the SARS outbreak in Southeast Asia. It just happened that I had a fever from a cold. The inspectors detected my fever with thermal imaging equipment and kept questioning us. That was a nerve-wracking experience, but they eventually let us pass.

The three of us then boarded our flight to Tokyo. I saw the first half of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers on the plane. The reason we missed the second half is that the movie was longer than the flight itself. Oh well, I'm sure my local library has some copies.

Dad has to stay in Japan for a couple more days due to business reasons. Because his executive assistant had booked the wrong flights, Mom and I had to fly back to Fukuoka and then to San Francisco. There was no direct flight from Tokyo. Shit happens.

At any rate, the outbound flight wasn't too shabby either. I watched The Ninth Gate before trying the SNES games. Street Fighter II and Super Mario All-Stars were great time killers. The only downside is that the controller sucked compared to real SNES hardware. The 12-hour flight was finally over, after which we picked up our luggage and took the shuttle home.

Conclusions

Lasting over two weeks, this was one of our longest trips to date. I actually got a little homesick - which usually doesn't happen when we travel. Of note is that the limited availability of flights made it hard to return home on time. Mom says we had to pay $100 in ticket change fees to avoid being stuck overseas. But at least it's a relief to know I won't miss the first few days of class.

To say the trip was fun would be an understatement. Shopping in Shanghai was the best part because everything is so cheap. Getting used to the prices back home will be tough. Nagasaki, Suzhou and Beihai Park were also worthwhile. The memories from this vacation will certainly last a lifetime.

I hope I can recover from the jet lag before school starts on the 29th. Speaking of which, I'm completely exhausted right now and am off to take a nap. 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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