Thursday, April 29, 2010

Taiwan: my tummy loves it

The first week of May in Japan consists of a series of holidays lumped together called Golden Week that effectively give everybody the week off. We've decided to spend our Golden Week in Taipei, Taiwan. It's been a while since we've been dumped into a country were we've had zero language ability. I think I'm physically incapable of controlling the tone of my voice. If anyone's witnessed the horror of me playing the Rock Band video game on vocals, you'd know I fail even the easy level. Thus, tonal languages are not for me. Thankfully transportation has been ridiculously easy thus far. The subway is very simple, and, unlike Tokyo, the maps are always bilingual. Weirdly enough our travel agent booked us at a hotel catered to Japanese cliental, but I guess it's nice to have everything in a language we can sort of read instead of one we can't read at all.

So far, we've been EATING. Taiwan is incredibly vegetarian friendly. This afternoon we planned to have lunch a fancy veggie buffet but our map was wrong. Once we had given up and started to search for a different place to eat we actually passed a tiny dive of a vegetarian shop. This has never happened when we've traveled before. Thankfully we've memorized the characters for vegetarian restaurant. As we stood looking confused at the menu painted on the wall, a woman came up and spoke nearly perfect English and offered to help us order. Greg ended up with a veggie beef bowl and I had some sesame noodles. Our massive meals were only about a $1.50 each. That's another thing I'm loving about this place; it's so cheap. I've heard it's expensive compared to most of Asia but compared to Japan I feel positively rich here. I bought a giant cup of tea for $1 and used my new favorite food selection method of smiling and pointing randomly at the menu. It's worked great so far.

After lunch we went to the Miniatures Museum of Taiwan, which basically consisted of many impressive dollhouse scenes. Weirdly enough, most of them seemed to have been built by bored mid western Americans. Here's a tiny playroom:
There was one that looked like a crazy cat house, complete with litter box using kitties:

After that we hit up an electronics market and then we went to Taipei 101, the former tallest building in the world. The world's fastest elevator shot us up to the 91st floor in 37 seconds flat. The weather wasn't great, so here's the best shot I could get:

Visibility decreased rapidly beyond that point. You also get to see the Super Big Wind Damper that keeps the building from tipping over. Yes, that's the official title.

Then we headed to a vegan hot pot place and ordered entirely too much food. The concerned and friendly English speaking waiter had to walk us through what to do because we are useless foreigners. I went with the super spicy Szechwan pot and although my mouth was on fire it was divine.

Other observations thus far:
  • The smells are intense. Japan never really smells like anything but walking down the street here it goes from intensely horrible to intensely awesome and back again every few seconds
  • Traffic is insane. There is not an inch of sidewalk without a scooter parked on it. We've nearly gotten hit a few times and we already witnessed an accident.
  • I've seen a few stray dogs but it's weirdly not depressing. They're really friendly and well fed so I think street vendors look out for them.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A cat house

Being unable to visit Caramel in Oakland has left Greg sorely in need of some kitty time, and Japan has just the thing for people like him. Cat cafes are places you can go to, well, hang out with cats. Sounds pleasant in theory, but the thing is that when you've spent money to hang out with cats you expect the cats to put in a little effort to hang out with you. Cats, however, do not understand this basic tenet of capitalism.

Nekoburo is on the top floor of the huge Tokyu Hands DIY store in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Each cat has a break room with some sort of theme. It reminded me of the orphanage in John Waters' Crybaby. "This is Olive and he enjoys washing dishes and leopard print chaise lounges."

When not lounging in their oddly themed rooms, the cats spend most of their time competing with each other for high ground where people can't reach them, and running away from the paying customers. The only person in the building who managed to get some kitty head scratches in was Greg, naturally.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Tokyo Dizunii, please!

As you might've already seen from Andrea's photostream, we went to Tokyo! Not just to Tokyo, but Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea.

Tokyo Disneyland is pretty much what you'd expect (near-identical to the Anaheim one), although there are few neat touches.

After diligently standing in line for a Space Mountain FastPass, we saw that the wait for Star Tours wasn't too bad. I can't emphasize to you how surreal seeing an animatronic C-3PO speaking Japanese can be at 9 AM after a long, sleepless overnight bus ride.

There are popcorn stands everywhere, with flavors ranging from chocolate to caramel, and lines as long as some of the rides themselves. This one is actually selling curry-flavored popcorn.

Standing in line for the Haunted Mansion.

These were the only vending machines I saw inside the park. They were in Tomorrowland, if it wasn't obvious.

Yes, we did the teacups. We were happy that we hadn't eaten anything immediately beforehand.

Unfortunately, since we went on a Sunday, the lines were insane. If you imagine a typical crowded day at Disneyland and triple it, you might have an idea. We managed to get FastPasses to most of the rides we wanted to get to, although Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters was jam-packed from the 8:00 AM opening onward and perpetually had a 3.5+ hour wait. If we had opted for the FastPasses, we would've had to come back at in about 10 hours.

The next day was reserved for DisneySea. This is the strange new themepark that has a vague nautical feel, along with some equally impressive line waits. Through both days, though, we managed to only have to stand in a long line once, for the Tower of Terror. I managed to finish half a book in the 2.5 hours we were waiting.

This park's gimmick is that its various lands are meant to look like seaport styles from around the world. There was Italy, New England, Middle East, Jungle, and late-19th-century New York, among others. There's also a giant volcano, which houses the Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea rides.

Inside the volcano. You don't actually get to go in the submarine, unfortunately. 20,000 Leagues is a cute but kind of disappointing ride where you go in a miniature faux-submarine that's not actually underwater and see a bunch of weird fake-looking sea-people who resemble geckos. I would've been more disappointed if I had waited 3 hours for it, but we grabbed a pass for it instead.

Journey to the Center of the Earth was more fun, but had some of the same dinky, silly-looking animatronics. The weird thing about DisneySea was that, except for Tower of Terror, it seems like they spent all their time and money making the exteriors of the rides look good, and then skimped on the rides themselves somewhat. Center of the Earth at least managed to redeem itself with a (brief) roller-coaster portion.

In the upper right is the Tower of Terror, which is a free-fall ride in the dark. It was a long wait but I'd say it was worth it.

In addition to the innumerable popcorn stands, DisneySea was also big on churros. Here, Andrea holds two black sesame-flavored churros (yes, black sesame!).

So, that was the first two days of our journey! Fun times all around, even if it was pretty chilly and windy at times. It's easy enough to get to from the Tokyo city center that I'd say it's worth it if you have an extra day or two there and aren't sure what else to do.