Relics of the Future (Hong Kong, August 2003)

The first time I visited Hong Kong, I was in awe of the countless apartment complexes juxtaposed on the subtropical hills, the myriad roads that could easily double as parts of Manhattan’s Canal Street, and a health form asking me if I had a fever, cough, or other common ailments.

What?!

That’s right, the time was August 2003, when the SARS pandemic was still on every Hong Konger’s mind, even while case numbers were decreasing.

Although SARS did reach Ontario, Canada, it was mostly focused on China – where it originated, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  However, given that it was much less contagious, all I recall regarding plans to prevent its spread was a temperature check at Hong Kong’s airport, that flimsy health form, and some prescient leaflets at hotels and restaurants dotting the metropolis:

See anything familiar?  What’s it like eating out – if that’s still possible – in your area?

Japanese Sewer Covers: The Trading Card Edition. Yes, Really.

Firstly, Happy 2021 everyone!

I’m kicking the year off with a post dedicated to a country to which I was supposed to have relocated last year.  Might 2021 make good on that?…

Oh, Japan, you weird, endlessly fascinating archipelago.  In one moment, you’re on top of the world, donating memorable antagonists to such movies as Gung Ho, and snapping up coal mines in such regions as Manchuria.  万歳 (ばんざい), banzai!

Next, however, you’re introducing to manic hobbyists sewer cover trading cards.

Manhole Cover/Card in Kodaira, Tokyo, Japan

Wait…WHAT??

In April 2016, the 下水報道プラットホーム, or Sewer PR Platform, decided to capitalize on Japan’s increasingly popular マンホールの蓋/ふた, or manhole cover designs, and introduced the first set of limited edition trading cards.  Although April Fool’s Day is not Japanese holiday – nor is it a holiday in any country, for that matter – the first edition was issued on April 1st.  And collectors are called manholers.

There’s got to be a joke somewhere in there.

Manhole Card Sign at Fukui City Hall

Roughly every quarter since then, a new batch has been introduced, showcasing manhole cover art from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. To get them, it might be as simple as going to a visitor information center next to a train station, or more awkwardly by paying a visit to a city/town hall or sewage treatment information center.  Whatever it is, the cards are free, and you’re limited to one per visit.  As far as I know, English versions of the cards also exist.

Having first noticed these sewer covers a number of years back, I just wish that these were printed way back then, if for no other reason than to learn the background story to the designs.  The front of a card shows a colorized manhole cover and city coordinates (and some type of manhole card collection legend in the lower right), and the back, a description of the art, as well as when the design was first executed:

Fukui City Manhole Card, Front Side
Fukui City Manhole Card, Reverse Side

After checking the invaluable Sewer PR Platform website, I decided to check out one of these sewer cards with my own eyes, this time in Fukui, the prefectural capital of Fukui…prefecture.

Although it’s best known for dinosaur fossils, according to the above, with Fukui suffering from the calamities of earthquakes and air raids, the city government adopted the 不死鳥 (ふしちょう・fushichou), or phoenix, as its symbol, and as the design on its manhole covers.  Though plenty of other Japanese cities could join them in choosing the phoenix for the same reasons, the backgrounder goes on to note that the phoenix was selected in 1989, to celebrate the centennial of the establishment of Fukui as a city.  Huzzah!


If you’re a Japanophile and keen to learn more about its history and pop culture, you’ll probably want to grab a couple of these manhole cards…or, you could do simply as a secondary source of vending machine income.

Coins, Coins, Obnoxious Coins

Money (Coin) Collection - Numismatist 1Coins are obnoxious.  It’s not their fault…no, no, it’s because governments ’round the world can’t resist weighing down our jeans or handbags – or not, as you’ll see shortly – with coinage.  Is it in deference to those of us easily distracted folk, eager to make music out of the clanging currency?  Or, are they still produced so that cuprolaminophobics – look it up! – can amble over to the nearest train track to have their way with coins?

Kudos to Canada for stopping the minting of the tangible penny.  (As an aside, I like how their official mint website has a section for “our products.”)  Denmark’s central bank doesn’t produce paper money or coins.  On the flip side, too many countries around the world accept US or foreign coins.  Plus, quarters are so darn useful, whether it’s for one-armed bandits or one-night stands.

Getting back on track, I guess I used to be something of a numismatist, or coin collector.  The majority of my collection consists of coins more useful these days as paper weights than legal tender – for instance, pre-euro, and something from Zimbabwe in the ’80s – but that’s part of the point of it being a hobby, no?  What follows is a sampling of some of the less welcome members to pockets worldwide (and yes, I realize that they’re still money)…

Money (Coin) Collection - Numismatist 2The left column, with examples (top to bottom) from Hong Kong, the Maldives, Zimbabwe, and the UK, are ones that have not been eluded by the American diet.  However, if one of those ever fell from your hand or pocket, you’d definitely notice it.

At the same time, are those any more obnoxious by their extremely light opposites in the right column? We have the Japanese one (y)en, the Indonesian 500 rupiah, and the bane of my consumerist existence while in China, the fen.  If a cashier gives you a fen, it’s a euphemism for the country laughing at you.  Bad advice: try spending it in Taiwan.

Money (Coin) Collection - Numismatist 4With the US quarter as a guide, the left column, with Costa Rica and the UK again, as well as the right column with Hong Kong, Belize, and the same 50p from the UK, display coins that are too darn big.  Though we’re nowhere near the scale of the monolithic currency of some Pacific Islands, what’s the reason for this?  Save for Costa Rica, it seems as if imperialism isn’t the only category in which the British got carried away…

The right column also shows some of the funkier shapes of coins.  Someone was asleep at the switch one day, and now his/her handy work gets the attention of bloggers.

Money (Coin) Collection - Numismatist 3Starting from the left, we have the Japanese five (y)en, the US dime, 50 cents from South Africa, 5 sentimo from the Philippines, one tetri from Georgia, 5 koruna from the Czech Republic, and 20 colones from Costa Rica.

The first time I noticed a perforated coin was in Japan.  Curious about why some coins have a hole in them?  Necklaces are one reason, sewing coins into clothing, another.  Thinking about it another way, the Japanese 5 en coin isn’t worth much – particularly outside of Japan – but string it onto some jewelry, and watch your coffers grow.

As for the middle column, that coinage is ridiculous small; the US penny – for its size and its denomination – and the 20 colones, were placed in the photo for comparison.  I’d feel sheepish (particularly outside of their home countries) trying to pay for something with tetri, or the colones for that matter.  Can you imagine a coin-only checkout line?


I hope that you enjoyed this brief tour of coins around the world.  Are there any standouts in your book?

Lost in Translation: The “Hungry for Gold” Edition

Throughout my travels, I’ve come across a heady amount of signs, ads, and menus lost in translation.  Though it’s more fun when I’m able to read the original language, too, it’s very easy to bowl me over with copy that was clearly pasted into an online translator, and then pasted verbatim onto whatever deliverable for which it was being prepared.

Having spent much of my overseas time in East Asia, I can cheekily say that Japan and China share the gold medal for the volume and quality of their Engrish.  However, if I had to nominate two favorites – one from each country – I think it would be these.

Let’s start with China.

In Guangzhou, one of my favorite places to wander and dine is the neighborhood of Xiaobei, known for its population of folks from all around Africa, as well being a de facto hub for Islam.  The extraordinary amount of trade and commerce that occurs in this area, the seething relationship between African expats and locals, and the diverse food options all contribute to making it a unique part of the city, nay, country to visit.

In general, I would go there when hungry, either to get a bite of something Turkish, or for some superb Uyghur bread, called nan, covered in sesame or sunflower seeds:

To get back on topic, on the second floor of the same restaurant where I’d buy the nan, I would get mixed noodles with a cumin-laced soup, and a couple of kebabs.

The menu, however, had already made up its mind about who I was:

First of all, this one is so amusing in that they even got the Chinese wrong.  Whereas the Chinese says 馄饨 (húntun), or wonton, their translation is of the word 混沌 (hùndùn), which alternatively refers to a chaos that existed before earth.

In other words, mentally dense.

For you see, the character 混 means to mix/blend, and the character 沌 is chaotic/murky.  Somehow, when you combine the two, you get sucked up by Chinese creationist theory.  —

As for Japan, it’s a shorter story, but no less risible.

After arriving in the port city of Takamatsu, I started to feel peckish.  Yes, I would eat their famed Sanuki udon later that day, but for the time being, a Japanese bakery was in the cards.

For twenty years, I’ve been a fan of Japanese bakeries, starting with the corn kernel-stuffed buttery loaves, and right up to the tingly “mapo” roll found last year.

But then, I’ve never encountered this:

Even at a bakery named after a Scottish nursery rhyme, I’m still confused.

Is there an explanation?  Yes.  Somewhat.

The name of the bread is – wait for it – translated correctly.  クリーミ (kuriimi) is creamy, and ソフト (sofuto) is shorthand for software.  But,       ソフト also means soft.  Of course, the folks who printed up this label – whose description reads as a “moist and soft bread with custard cream folded inside” – would have chosen more wisely – though less memorably for marketing purposes – if they had gone with the Japanese word for soft,
柔らかい (yawarakai).


Would you have put these two entries in your pantheon of Engrish?  Which would be your two candidates?

Welcome to Chinatown

As a child, I used to think that the Manhattan Chinatown was one of the coolest neighborhoods to wander around, be puzzled by the Chinese characters written all over the place, and to visit a vastly different culture without needing to hop on a plane.  Later on, I learned that you could get ersatz versions of Western desserts for low prices, but the standout for me was always the (Portuguese-inspired) egg tart.

In any event, after starting to travel, I realized that New York City’s Chinatowns were missing something prominent that other 华埠 (huábù) /  唐人街 (tángrén jiē) proudly displayed– a paifang (牌坊 páifāng).

朝陽門 (Chaoyang Gate), Yokohama Chinatown, Japan

Historians believe that paifang, aka pailou (牌楼 páilou) were influenced by the ancient Indian torana gate, in which four gates – representing four important life events of Buddha – were placed at the four cardinal directions, on paths leading to a stupa.

Breaking down the word paifang, the pai refers to any number of communities in a fang, or precinct.  Originally, they served as markers to designate individual fang, but eventually became more ornamental in purpose.

西安門 (Xi’an Gate), Kobe Chinatown, Japan

Paifang were historically inscribed with specific moral principles to obey, and/or praise the government for recent accomplishments.  Thereafter, icons such as plants and animals whose sounds were homophones with auspicious words – e.g. fruit bat, which also sounds like “blessing.”  Though, modern ones take a more…hospitable approach to phraseology.  For example, a number of paifang have carved into them the idiom 天下为公 (天下 tiānxià “everywhere below heaven,” “the whole world/China;” 为 wèi “for;”公 gōng “the public,” collectively owned”)– this roughly translates as the world is for everyone.

With that background exposited, let’s dive into some Chinatown paifang photos from around the world…with a couple of surprises added to the mix.

What?!  A paifang in China?  Of course!  This one leads the way to the Ge’an community (隔岸村), in the Bao’an district of Shenzhen.  If you’re a tourist and you ended up here, you’ve got quite the wanderlust.

The joke’s on all of us…this paifang is the entrance to a restaurant in Istanbul.  Or, maybe Chinatown will simply “annex” this district.

Latin America++

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Manchester, United Kingdom

 

Busan, Republic of Korea

USA

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But, the questions remains– when is one of New York City’s Chinatowns going to receive its first paifang?

Traffic, Dhaka-Style: The World’s Rickshaw Capital (Bangladesh)

Traffic is one of those detestable facts of life that seems to follow you, no matter where you go.  Whether it’s waiting on line at a market, inhaling exhaust from the cars during rush hour, or you’re trying to buy a pair of limited edition Super Mario Bros. shoes on the Puma website right after their release, traffic swoops in to sap your vitality.

Not to mention, if you like traveling, you probably have stories of superlative traffic situations.  One of mine stems from taking an airport bus from Congonhas Airport to downtown São Paulo; we moved roughly three miles in two and a half hours.  Then, you have the pipe that fell on a highway between Mexico City and Puebla; on that bus, we waited around eleven hours before the go-ahead.  And have fun trying to cross a street in a Vietnamese city.

Ah, yes, Vietnam.  Being a pedestrian in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi takes some guts, what with the never-ending swathes of motorbikes narrowly missing knocking you over.  It’s usually worth it though, given how delicious much of the coffee and street food is.  But, is there an analogous metropolis out there, known for its mesmerizing traffic, perhaps somewhere in South Asia?

Almost.

Enter– Dhaka, Bangladesh, the undisputed rickshaw (Bengali: রিকশা) capital of the world; by some estimates, there are more than one million rickshaws (aka pedicabs) throughout the city.  They are well-known for their colorful designs featuring monuments, cityscapes, and movie stars, and regularly jostle with lead and methane-emitting cars, trucks, and buses.  So congested are Dhaka’s streets that in 2018, the average driving speed was said to be just above 4 miles per hour.

Having recently read that the Dhaka government is planning to remove all pedicabs by next year, I wonder how successful this initiative will be.  COVID-19 may have put a temporary stop to it, but irrespective of the pandemic, millions of residents rely on the pedicabs for commuting, as their quotidian job, or for transporting goods.  Overall, Dhaka’s infrastructure is not equipped for the more than 19 million that live in the metro area, and completely eliminating rickshaws would only add to the vehicular traffic.  Also, if they go the Jakarta route – getting rid of rickshaws coupled with a rising middle class –  it might pave the way for motorbikes, which again would add to the traffic crisis.

On that note, I leave you with this nocturnal image, as a passenger in a Dhaka rickshaw in 2007:


Fortunately, the first line of a Dhaka metro system – as well as a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) scheme – are under construction.  Given that the city is monsoon fodder, I’m hoping that these two modes of public transit have some sort of buttress against flooding.

Jagalchi Seafood Market in Busan, South Korea

Jagalchi Market, Busan (Pusan), Republic of Korea (South Korea) (10)

Jagalchi Market, one of my favorite food markets in the world – at least for now – is located in the metropolis of Busan, South Korea, in the southeastern part of the country.  You’ve got seafood downstairs, restaurants above, and the possibility of trying some of the freshest crustaceans, mollusks, and bivalves out there on both floors.

Yep, this place is quality.

Likely established in 1876 and named for the gravel (jagal/자갈) that surrounded the food market/port at the time, it only became a major center in the fishing trade after the Korean War, when many refugees from other parts of the country made it to southerly Busan.

With a bit of the market’s history out of the way, let’s take a short tour of the area:

Jagalchi Market, Busan (Pusan), Republic of Korea (South Korea) (1)

If you hop on line 1 of Busan’s metro, you can easily get to Jagalchi market.  In fact, since Busan’s main train station downtown is also on line 1, you could make an easy day trip from Seoul and other Korean cities using KTX, the national high speed rail.  Or…you could just stay where you are, because if you’re already in South Korea, excellent food already surrounds you.

Jagalchi Market, Busan (Pusan), Republic of Korea (South Korea) (2)


Unlike the coy version in Shinjuku, Tokyo, this nearby crab specialty restaurant isn’t ashamed in the least to remind you that you’re in Jagalchi town.

Jagalchi Market, Busan (Pusan), Republic of Korea (South Korea) (7)


A boat by a seafood market?  No way.

Jagalchi Market, Busan (Pusan), Republic of Korea (South Korea) (3)

Jagqlchi Market façade

Jagalchi Market, Busan (Pusan), Republic of Korea (South Korea) (8)

Fisherman taking a very long break

Jagalchi Market, Busan (Pusan), Republic of Korea (South Korea) (9)

Dried squid…and now I’ve pinpointed the exact moment I lost the attention of half of the voters in NYC and south Florida.

Jagalchi Market, Busan (Pusan), Republic of Korea (South Korea) (6)


From the polychromatic family of sea squirts comes 멍게 (meong ge) or in Japanese 真海鞘 (マボヤ/maboya), less commonly known as sea pineapples.  They’re hermaphroditic, spontaneously expel water and are apparently best served raw or pickled.  I didn’t get to try them, and I wouldn’t suggest calling someone a sea squirt either.

Jagalchi Market, Busan (Pusan), Republic of Korea (South Korea) (5)


Seafood.  Count me in.

Jagalchi Market, Busan (Pusan), Republic of Korea (South Korea) (4)

Pretty sure this sign reads something to the effect of “if it’s raw, dig in.”  But don’t quote me on that.

Jagalchi Market, Busan (Pusan), Republic of Korea (South Korea) (11)


The main event.  Oyster.  Soy sauce and wasabi.  Garlic and green chilies.  Some kind of wonderful fermented bean paste, better known locally as doenjang (된장).  Ubiquitous carafe of water.

To sum up Jagalchi in one word…ideal. now just point me to the nearest seaweed buffet, and I will rent a room.


Have you been to Busan and/or Jagalchi Market?

Nirvana Under the Covers in Osaka, Japan

Have you heard about the latest trend in Japan?  That being, to not have kids?

Forget I said that, but stay on the same wavelength for a moment.

Osaka - Daigo (Nirvana) Love Hotel
Oh look, it’s Osaka Castle~

Tokyo might be my favorite city in the world (thus far), and part of the reason is due to the randomness that can be found on just about every block.  It could be a sampling of dyed tapestries in the middle of an unlit alley (can’t recall where exactly, but it was near Nihombashi), a Statue of Liberty near Odaiba, a bowl of coffee-flavored ramen, or that Balinese-themed love hotel in Kabukicho.

Yes, that last one is a Japanese mainstay, and although the Tokyo area has plenty to choose from, I might have to give Osaka the point for its collection of zanier architectural styles.  Come to think of it, “love hotelism” should be a neologism in an architect’s vocabulary.

However, today’s emphasis is not on the exterior of the hotel.  We’re going to have a brief look at the meaning of the word on the sign; Warning– this language lesson might be slightly off-color.

The two characters that make up 醍醐 (だいご “dye-go”) refer to cream in its purest form.  Thank you, you’ve been a great audience.

If you’ve heard of the Indian staple food ghee, – which may also be known as the greatest flavor of all – that’s one definition.  Staying in the same region of the world, 醍醐 has adopted another, more transcendent meaning- nirvana.

Never thought Buddhism would pay a visit to LearningFeelsGood, but here we are.  Though, if nirvana is supposed to be the point where one’s sufferings and desires are extinguished, what kind of name is that for an Osaka love hotel?

Then again, if the owner was going for the unattainable goal definition, perhaps it’s surrounded by a moat?

Traveling to the Wrong Destination is Still Traveling

Ever end up in the wrong city?  I ask this, because I read a story a few years ago about someone flying to the wrong “Taiwan.”  Which is to say, the passenger meant to go to the island, but ended up in Taiyuan, China instead.  Never mind that the two places are spelled differently – in both English and Chinese, that the former isn’t a city, and that the person likely needed a visa for China, but I decided to see how common this type of mistake was.  Indeed, it does happen from time to time, that folks end up in the wrong place– just ask these travelers.

Although China did for a spell have a thing for building its own versions of European hotspots – Austrian villages, anyone? – supposedly, the central government has put the kibosh on those.  Then again, it’s unlikely one would confuse Paris, Tianducheng for Paris, France…or even Paris, Texas.

And then we have Atlanta, which really doesn’t want you to get anywhere quickly if you’re looking for an address on Peachtree Street.  (Hint: there are no less than 71 streets with the name Peachtree in them.)

Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Located – I’m Shocked – on Peachtree Street

Thus, in the vein of this topic, I’ll pose this question to my readers– if someone offered you a trip to Mecca, which would you choose?:

Mecca, population ~ 7, 100, in California?  It is also close to the fascinatingly dubious Salton Sea, which I’ll get to in a later post.

Or…

Mecca, population ~ 1.5 million, in Saudi Arabia?

Suggestion: Having been to both, Saudi dates are the best I’ve ever tried.

Unforgettable Breakfasts in Sapporo, Japan

We have both been duped by today’s title.

I wish I could say that my breakfasts in Sapporo, Japan were unforgettable in the positive sense – then again, I did have control over what was to be eaten – but to be fair, it was only one day’s selections that were unique.

I was drawn to Hokkaido’s largest city by, what else, food, and indeed sampled more hits than misses.  Down the line, we’ll cover more of what I ate, but today the focus is on one of my multi-breakfast days.

A short walk from my hotel led me to Nijo Market (二条市場), arguably Sapporo’s most famous.  A relatively relaxing place compared to other markets in the country, it also has products much harder to find outside of Hokkaido…

Sapporo - Nijo Market GoodsCase in point, over at the Nijo Market, you can buy bear-in-a-can ( kuma in a kan), seal (海豹 azarashi) curry and tinned Steller’s sea lion (todo).

Sapporo - Steller's Sea Lion and Onikoroshi Refined Sake

It was a tough decision, but I went with stewed sea lion, served in the 大和煮 (yamato-ni) style, which means stewed with soy sauce, ginger, and sugar.  How do you wash that all down at 7:30 in the morning?  With a US$.80 juice box of sake called “Demon Slayer.”

The stew was well-seasoned – nothing surprising for Japan – and you definitely knew it wasn’t your standard issue beef or pork.  Or tube-shaped fish paste cake.


Sapporo - Yamazaki Pan, Chocolate Wafer & Whipped CreamGetting my daily dose of bread was next on the list, so I flocked to the nearest convenience store for inspiration.  The brand Yamazaki Pan comes up with rather bizarre crust-less bread creations, and if you couldn’t read Japanese but knew about Japanese food, you might be forgiven for thinking that they are all stuffed with mayonnaise and yakisoba.

That is unless you noticed the handy graphics depicting what is likely inside.  In this package, we have Fujiya chocolate wafers and whipped cream.  The wafers seemed a bit stale, but on the whole the sandwiches did the trick.


One of my favorite aspects of eating in Japan is hunkering down at a kaitenzushi restaurant (回転寿司/conveyor belt sushi).  Not only do they have nearly unlimited tea and pickled ginger (made easier because they are self-serve), but you can also often find ネタ (neta, toppings/ingredients for sushi) unique to that establishment.  I’ll go over this in more detail another time, but matsutake mushrooms, raw chicken and hamburgers have been spotted in addition to seafood.

Sapporo - Kaitenzushi Shirako

Those toppings are head-scratching enough, but what about 白子 (shirako)? 

Shirako, or milt, is the seminal fluid of various fish.  Yet, it wasn’t so much what I was eating but the texture of it.

That’s a lie.  It was both.

Needless to say, that was the best lemon I have ever eaten.