I've been to Tokyo 11 times in the past decade, and, being a sushi lover, I always make it a point to stop by Tsukiji at least once per trip (sometimes multiple times!). However, I've never been to what is widely heralded as the best stall in the famed mecca of sushi. There's always an insane line (longest in Tsukiji) and I would invariably decide against using up my precious time in Tokyo waiting in a crazy line.
On this my twelfth trip to Tokyo, I finally made up my mind to pay Sushi Dai a visit, long wait and all. It's long overdue.
The media this week (and all month, really) has been wall-to-wall news, articles and essays about Beijing. Here's my contribution to the avalanche of Beijing coverage:
- Beijing [Figure-Ground.com]
- CCTV Headquarters - Rem Koolhaas/OMA [Figure-Ground.com]
- National Centre for the Performing Arts - Paul Andreu [Figure-Ground.com]
Incidentally, for the first time that I can remember, I'm actually excited about the Olympics. It has not much to do with the Games themselves, but everything to do with the host city and country. All the controversies surrounding this Olympics (the pollution, the media censorship, the crackdown in Tibet, the support of the Sudanese goverment) and the herculean effort the Chinese have made in successfully building a new Beijing that just screams money and power everywhere you look, have made the Olympics interesting again.
I just returned from an 8-day trip to Beijing. I haven't been to China in almost exactly three years and Beijing specifically in eight. China's effort to spiff up Beijing for the Olympics has been well reported but still I was unprepared for the great leapt in general quality of life of Beijing today.
These are things I usually think of when I think about life in China: Bicycles, squatters, line cutters, phlegm, dirty bills, gray polluted skies, garish architecture. These are the truths about China today, you can choose to overlook them and focus on the positives, but it doesn't mean they don't exist. Sure, you can still find all that in Beijing today but they are nearly all gone. In their place are blue skies, stunning architecture and a flourishing art scene.
First of all, it's surprising not to see many bicycles around. This is China! where bicyles are the mode of transportation. It's like Taiwan without the scooters. Inconceivable. But there it was, roads absolutely clogged with cars, but not so many bicycles. I knew Beijingers are hot for the automobile but I was not expecting to see so few bicycles on the roads.
Another change which I was not expecting to see is that there were no longer people squatting on the ground everywhere. People actually just stand around instead of squatting on the ground.
Other things that used to drive me crazy about the mainland are markedly improved. There are still line cutters, but not nearly as many. It used to be nobody (or at least it felt that way) waited on lines, it was a mad scrum to buy anything or to enter anywhere. Now, the majority of people wait in line.
There are still people hocking up phlegm, but not nearly as many. You can go for hours without hearing it once.
Most of these points seem directly related with Beijing government's removal of migrant workers from the city. Now that I think about it, big city folk probably never really squatted or spat that much to begin with. It was always the poor, uneducated migrant workers bringing down the overall social climate of the cities.
The money is not as dirty and worn as before. I come across crisp new bills all the time. I didn't notice a lot of wallet usage and new bills get immediately crumpled up in pockets so it's quite a battle the Chinese government has to fight to keep the money in circulation not looking like the moist, soft, tattered bills I used to come across all the time in China.
And out of the 8 days I was in Beijing, a shocking 5 of them had blue skies. Granted, it's not blue like a Vancouver summer day blue. Even on a clear day you can see some light haze in the horizon, but it's not the complete gray that used to blanket the city.for days on end. The drastic measures of temporarily shutting down factories and limiting trucks on the roads have already made an impact. When they start limiting cars starting on the 20th (even number plates one day, odd the next), it can only get better.
Even the simplified Chinese characters, which used to bother me, look good to me now. I guess it was always the crappy typeface they typeset everything in that offended me, not the actual simplification. Now that Beijing and China has progressed to a point where good graphic design is employed, I'm actually beginning to like simplified Chinese characters. With their clean, simple lines, the simplified characters are very modern, in the sense of the art and architecture movement. All of a sudden traditional characters look fussy and dated.
Some things haven't changed, like the sully and indifferent service you get everywhere, from government workers on down to store employees. It's like a country full of people who openly hate their jobs. You tend to get very unfriendly, curt, and, most of the time, completely unhelpful answers to any questions you might have. Asking a Chinese a question appears to cause them great inconvenience.
Oh, and the food is still too salty.
And too bad they can't do anything about the traffic, which is as bad as everyone says it is. The ring roads, which are the major traffic arteries of Beijing, are in constant gridlock.
Most of these progress probably won't last much beyond the Olympics. Once the migrant workers return and the ever increasing cars and trucks go back to jamming the roads, the overall quality of life will likely go back to before. The Chinese government could always unilaterally decide they like their capital city to remain spiff and shine, however. In that case, perhaps this new Beijing will not be only temporary.
See my Beijing (July 2008) set on Flickr for photos and more thoughts on and reactions to the "new" Beijing.
- Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972) - Kisho Kurokawa [Figure-Ground.com]
I've also expanded Figure/Ground's Tokyo (2005—2007) section to include photos from Fukuoka and Nagoya. Therefore, the section has been renamed "Japan" to reflect the expanded scope. Definitely take a look at the Fukuoka sub-section if you are interested in architecture. There are quite a few interesting buildings in that set.
I love Taniguchi's buildings. They're very elegant and understated.
- Toyota Municipal Museum of Art - Yoshio Taniguchi [Figure-Ground.com]
Another Taniguchi building I've photographed: The Gallery of Horyuji Treasures.
- Osanbashi Yokohama International Passenger Terminal - Foreign Office Architects [Figure-Ground.com]
Three recent works of Tadao Ando in Tokyo (pictured above from left to right: hhstyle.com/Casa, Omotesando Hills, 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT). You see a definite departure from earlier works with the incoporation of lots of sharp angles and diagonals. I'm not sure I like this "new" Ando. These are pretty underwhelming projects compared to his earlier work like the Church of the Light and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
- Tadao Ando in Tokyo, 2005—2007 [Figure-Ground.com]
- Harajuku Protestant Church (2005) - Ciel Rouge Creation [Figure-Ground.com]
- Bangkok & Ko Phangan [Figure-Ground.com]
A selection of photos from four trips to Tokyo taken between April 2005 and December 2007.
- Tokyo [Figure-Ground.com]
Surprise, surprise, another update to Figure/Ground! Hot on the heels of the Indonesia travelogue, here's a small update featuring a few shots of Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel entrance (yes, just the entrance), moved from Tokyo and planted in an architectural history theme park near Nagoya.
I thought it looked extremely sad, having been torn not just from its location, but from the rest of the building as well. It's architecture without context.
The photos of the truncated building set against a lush mountain backdrop and overlooking a lake look just so ridiculously incongruous and wrong, so you won't see those here. Some of you are probably curious to see them, but I simply cannot do that to FLW.
- Main Entrance Hall and Lobby of the Imperial Hotel (1923) - Frank Lloyd Wright [Figure-Ground.com]
Photos from a short trip to Indonesia last May:
- Indonesia [Figure-Ground.com]
I can't believe it's been ten months since I last updated Figure-Ground.com. It's frightening how time flies. I've introduced a couple of minor tweaks to the site's look as well.
See also the Indonesia (May 2007) photoset on Flickr.
I was looking out the window of the plane as it started to taxi away from the gate when I noticed that the airport grounds crew not only bows to the planes as they taxi away (this is to be expected, Japanese people bow all the time), but they also—get this—wave goodbye to the planes until they are out of sight as if each and every one is full of their closest and dearest friends. Tell me that isn't adorable.
When did Japan get so paranoid about visitors? At some point between now and when I last visited in July, they've instituted American-style immigration check-point, with photo taking and fingerprint scanning (in fact, they've gone one-step further and scan both of your index fingers).
Plus, their customs is now almost as invasive as Customs Canada. It used to be you could just breeze through customs, you didn't even need to fill out a declaration. Now, they are carefully searching through nearly everyone's luggages. They even took my tripod for an x-ray and asked me a ton of questions about where I'm from, where I'm going, what I'm doing, etc, etc. Even padded me down for good measure.
What the hell are they so afraid of?? Customs Canada's excuse is that they want to soak every last cent of every poor Canadian who travels, but what about Japan? Do they have such a huge smuggling problem that they need to do this to every visitor? Or are they just targeting us Taiwanese?
Anyway, perhaps because of their unfailing politeness or my unfailing love of everything Japanese, all these added invasions of privacy didn't really seem all that unwelcoming. You get the sense that the people doing the searching are just following new bureaucratic rules versus a lot of the U.S.
immigration officers sorry, I meant Homeland Security officers who seem to be on power trips over all their expanded powers to keep you out. A few smiles and "thank yous" go a long way.
My brother Yutai suggested that we go try something nice while I was in town visiting him in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago so he picked Kappa based on some glowing Yelp reviews. (We wanted to go to the French Laundry but I didn't know I was coming for sure until it was too late to attempt to make the two-months-ahead reservation).
I have never used Yelp so I don't know how accurate it is in general, but at least with this restaurant, I can tell it is reviewed by easily-impressed neophyte Japanese food eaters.
The tiny 10-bar-seat restaurant is located in Japantown, hidden in a dark entryway above a Denny's. The sign by the door is small and only in Japanese. So you're thinking: "Wow, just like one of those fabled hidden Tokyo eateries where only regulars are allowed inside! This must be good!"
While Kappa has a small regular menu, they pride themselves on their seasonal omakase menu, starting at $85 per person. The omakase menu has to be ordered ahead of time when you make the reservation, which is what we did.
I will just come right out and say it: start-to-finish, it was the best meal I've ever had.
If you are reading this review, chances are, you know all about Robuchon and his Ateliers popping up all over the world (Tokyo, Paris, Vegas, New York, London, Hong Kong at last count), so I won't get into who he is (a legend in French cuisine) and what his Ateliers are all about (fancy French food in informal settings inspired by sushi bars). What better place to try his Atelier concept than at the original location, the one in Tokyo?
In all my trips to Tokyo over the past few years (this was my 8th trip in 8 years), I've never tried a high-end sushi restaurant (I went to Nobu Tokyo once, but I don't think that really counts). Not having a reliable local guide
to take me, I've always thought the mysteries of haute sushi dining is most likely out of my reach because at that level, the interaction between the sushi chef and the customer is so important (and as it turned out, it did prove to be a problem this time). Plus, I am more than satisfied simply trying the multitude of affordable dining options in Tokyo. The relief on my wallet (in an otherwise expensive city) is a welcomed side benefit.
I still don't know any local foodie (or anyone, period, who lives in Tokyo, actually), but I decided it's time for me to dip my toes into the realm of fancy Tokyo sushi joints. For my first foray into this world, I decided upon Kyubey (久兵衛), supposedly one of the most famous sushi restaurants in all of Japan. Incidentally, they are the inventor of gunkan-maki ("battleship wrap")—the technique of wrapping sushi with a loose topping like ikura or uni with a strip of nori. I figured since they are that well known, they are likely as equipped as anyone to deal with foreigners.
These photos are from a trip I took to Seoul over two-and-a-half years ago. I've been meaning to put them up but never got around to it. I'm actually at the airport on my way to Jakarta right now; hopefully, I won't sit on my ass for two-plus years before putting the photos from this trip up. I'm planning on going to some rather out of the way places in Indonesia so wish me luck! This is the first time I'm going somewhere where I need to take preventive medication (for malaria). I almost wanted to cancel my ticket after I read about all the horrible diseases I could contract there. Yikes.
- Seoul [Figure-Ground.com]
"We were told there were ghosts in the house. I decided the ghosts were ghosts of cubism." —Frank Gehry
A small update today: a few exterior shots of the Gehry Residence in Santa Monica. I took these after I went to see Eames House in nearby Pacific Palisades.
I finally got around to seeing Sydney Pollack's documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry last night and I remembered I have a few shots of his house which I never posted so here they are.
- Gehry Residence [Figure-Ground.com]
The documentary is okay, nothing too interesting. It's basically a 80-minute love-fest of Gehry and his work. I understand Gehry is a larger-than-life figure, but can the partners in his firm come off as any more in deference of him? Craig Webb, who by the way is a splitting image of Lyle Lovett, acted more like an awe-struck first-year student assisting his famous professor than a partner in a major architecture firm.
Some Gehry Quotes from the Documentary
On starting a new project: "I'm always scared that I'm not going to know what to do. It's a terrifying moment."
On a model he's working on: "That is so stupid looking, it's great."
On Alvar Aalto: "I would say my work is probably closer to him than any of the other previous generations."
On architecture: "What bugs me are these god damn rules that my profession has as to what fits and what doesn't."
I have put up a selection of photos from my trip to Egypt last month:
- Egypt [Figure-Ground.com]
The most memorable part of the trip for me was the night spent in the Western Desert. Some of my favorite shots are from there as well.
There is also a photoset on Flickr with some photos of me being a tourist, plus other miscellaneous photos from the trip.
The National Palace Museum of Taipei holds the world's foremost collection of Chinese art, much of it never exhibited, much less lent to other museums. After a badly needed four year renovation project, the formerly-dowdy museum has reopened with a blockbuster show that displays some of the rarest and most valuable works from its vaults, said to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The crowds are understandably big which is always a challenge for anyone trying to enjoy art but the Taipei show presents an additional obstacle: nose grease. The entire show is presented in darkened rooms and everything is behind glass (owing to the fragile nature of the works). After you fight your way to the front of the throng of people, you discover that every pane of glass protecting the artwork is dotted with nose grease. Yes, Chinese paintings and calligraphy often require closer examinations to see their exquisite details, but still it's not necessary to plaster your greasy face against the glass like so many people were doing. The oily residuals blur the view of the details and all I could do was try to look around them. But there were so many nosey smudges to try to look around that it was distracting, frustrating and kind of disgusting. At one point my eyes just glazed over and all I saw were the nose prints (kind of like when your camera struggles to focus and end up focusing on something in the foreground).
I don't know if the museum wipes down the glass every night (let's hope so), but on the chance that it does, you should plan your visit right as the museum opens in the morning (9am every day).
- Grand View: Painting, Calligraphy and Juu Ware of the Northern Sung Dynasty and Sung Dynasty [National Palace Museum Official Site]
- Rare Glimpses of China’s Long-Hidden Treasures [NYTimes.com]
 Less shabby now, but let's just say it's no Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nevertheless, the works on display are indisputably magnificent.
Over in my Flickr photostream I have posted a set of photos of Yingge Ceramics Museum, located about half an hour outside of Taipei. There's not a lot of great architecture in Taiwan, modern or otherwise. For example, with the exception of a church by I.M. Pei (which I have yet to check out), no notable architect has built here. That said, this is one of the better buildings on this island. It's designed by a local architecture firm 竹間聯合建築師事務所 (Zhujian Architecture Studio). Nevertheless, it's nothing special. That's why it's not being featured on my architecture photography website Figure/Ground; but it's worth seeing what the state of modern architecture is in Taiwan so I've uploaded the set to my Flickr photostream. These are just some quick snaps I took with my dinky pocket digicam when I went to check it out a few months ago.
- Yingge Ceramics Museum 鶯歌陶瓷博物館 [Flickr]
 Well, actually, that's not entirely true. Supposedly some highway rest stop is designed by OMA but from the pictures I've seen of it, it's not close to one of their stronger works.
- Salk Institute - Louis Kahn [Figure-Ground.com]
Another Kahn masterpiece: Kimbell Art Museum.
PS: I'd like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy new year!
- Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels - José Rafael Moneo [Figure-Ground.com]
As Singapore's de facto national dish, Hainanese chicken rice (or, as the locals call it, simply "chicken rice") can be enjoyed from literally hundreds of places—from dedicated chicken rice hawkers to fancy restaurants, and everything in between. I had a little under 3 days to find the best chicken rice in the Lion City. So, with the help of Singapore's famous food bible, Makansutra, I vetted a list of chicken rice places I wanted to try during my short stay.
I ended up eating 6 chicken rice from 5 establishments (one place I went twice) in a span of about 60 hours.
I promised frequent updates on Figure/Ground, so here it is: another set of photos, this time of the Eames House.
- Eames House - Charles and Ray Eames [Figure-Ground.com]
After laying dormant for close to a year and a half, my travel and architecture photography site, Figure/Ground, has finally been updated! Hopefully there will be frequent updates over the next few weeks as I put up all the photos from the past 2 years (I may not have had the time to update the site, but I didn't stop traveling or taking photos!).
First up, the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters (pictured above) in Los Angeles and the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
- Caltrans - Thom Mayne/Morphosis [Figure-Ground.com]
- Guthrie Theater - Jean Nouvel [Figure-Ground.com]
With this, I have finally posted all the photos from Italy. Next up, Seoul!
Incidentally, this was actually the first thing we saw in Italy. As soon as we landed and checked into our hotel, we headed out to the Roman suburb of Tor Tre Teste to look for this church. It wasn't easy as we only had the name of the area and a picture of the church to go by. After a couple of transfers on the buses, we got to the area and just started showing the picture to random Romans to find our way there.
What did I think of it? Let's just say that I'm not a huge Richard Meier fan and this didn't do anything to change my mind.
- Jubilee Church - Richard Meier [Figure-Ground.com]
Continuing with architecture from my Italy trip, this is Tomba Brion, a cemetary and memorial for the Brion family designed by Carlo Scarpa in a little town outside of Treviso in the Veneto. If you are interested in more Scarpa, in the Italy entry on Figure/Ground, I have a photo of a footbridge he designed in Venice and some photos of Castelvecchio in Verona. The only photos left from that trip yet to come are from Richard Meier's Jubilee Church. After that, I'll probably take a break from architecture photos and work on travel photos from Seoul that I took during a trip way back in October of last year.
- Tomba Brion - Carlo Scarpa [Figure-Ground.com]
I'm slowly working my way through the backlog of photos I've accumulated since last October. This is the music auditorium in Rome designed by Renzo Piano. Still to come from the Italy trip are Richard Meier's Jubilee Church and Carlo Scarpa's Tomba Brion.
- Auditorium Parco della Musica - Renzo Piano [Figure-Ground.com]
Located in the basement of an apartment building near Hengshan Lu in Shanghai, there is a tiny gallery that has an amazing collection of vintage Communist propaganda art from the Cultural Revolution period. To get to this apartment building, you have to walk through a gated private parking lot/complex (very common in Shanghai) and find the building tucked in the back. The gallery, with a 20RMB/US$2.42 admission fee, consists of two dinky rooms in the basement. There is a talkative fellow there who is eager to practice his English on you and loves discussing the particulars of every poster and painting.
The not-for-sale posters aren't very nicely presented, just hanging here and there all over the tiny basement rooms. Some clipped to a board, some poorly framed, others covered with a dirty plexi. But the posters themselves are incredibly interesting, both historically and visually. Plus, they are sometimes unintentionally hilarious. They also have a selection of vintage posters which you may purchase (cost: 700RMB to 2,000+RMB), but those aren't nearly as nice as the ones on display.
It's worth a visit if you are in Shanghai.
See my photos of some of the posters and paintings from the gallery posted over at figure-ground.com:
- See the posters [ 22 Photos ]
Propaganda Poster Art Center
Rm BOC 868 Huashan Lu / 華山路868號總統公寓B座OC室
+86 (21) 6211-1845 or +86 (139) 0184-1246
Hours: 9am-4:30pm daily
Xiao long baos (小籠包), or commonly referred to as "soup dumplings" in English, originated in Shanghai. At least in New York, I have never tasted a single one that I can even remotely consider to be a passable rendition of this fine Chinese delicacy. All xiao long baos in New York have one thing in common: the skins are ridiculously thick. And they tend to be too large. If you're lucky the filling might be about right, with a good amount of soup; but the skin.... oh the humanity! Sometimes they are so thick I could swear I was eating a cha shao bao (roast pork bun). New Yorkers love Chinese food and, if you've ever seen the lines at Joe's Shanghai in Chinatown and Flushing (horrible xiao long baos, btw), many love xiao long baos. Sadly what they are waiting in line for are not even a pale imitation of the real thing.
I'm off to Tokyo in a couple of hours. I'll be there until Friday and then it's off to Shanghai until 5/5. It feels like I was just in those two cities, but it has been about half a year. Hopefully Shanghai doesn't grate on me as much as it did last time.
At long last I've put up the photos from my trip to Italy last November.
There are still architecture stuff from the trip that I have to put up (Meier's church in Rome, Piano's concert hall, also in Rome, and Scarpa's Tomba Brion), not to mention all the photos from the trips I took before going to Italy (Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei). One of these days (hopefully soon) I'll get around to them...
In the meantime, take a look at these photos. For those of you that actually follow my visual narratives and go through the photos one by one, you'll be glad to know that I've implemented link prefetching. If you are using a compatible browser (test yours here), the photo page will automatically load the next one in the background while you're looking at the current one. Should help speed up the browsing process. Of course, if you jump around the photos non-sequentially, this is not going to help you.
And a reminder: You could use the arrow keys on your keyboard to navigate through the photos.
- Italia [Figure-Ground.com]
And a little narcissism:
- Yusheng in Italy [24 Photos]
Photo above is from the town of Assisi.
I was in Taipei for two weeks beginning of the year to attend my grandma's funeral. While that is not a happy event, it did bring together my family which is spread out over three very-far-apart cities (New York, Vancouver, Shanghai) and that was a good thing. Here's a whole load of photos from those two weeks.
I have decided not to put up shots from the funeral itself because while I don't think so, some may find those in bad taste (or at least depressing). Changed my mind.
Friends & Family in Taipei [ 76 photos ]
These are some of my favorite shots from the set:
- Dad, grandpa and uncle walking
- Yuyang avoiding the paparazzi
- Ma chatting with grandpa
- My parents and Yutai looking for our old apartment
- Ma cooking
Incidentally, from mid-September to mid-January, between all the trips I was taking, I actually spent three more days in Taipei then I did at home in New York. Just FYI, not that you asked.
[Update: 嘉嘉說上面那張很像《無間道》... 你說呢? 哈哈]
I know I said I would put these up a few days after I went to see it... Three months later I've finally got around to it. And I still have a huge backlog of photos I need to put up from all the trips I've been taking recently.
[From Figure/Ground] I was enchanted by this building the moment I saw it. The building's glass facade set on a diamond-grid reminds me a little of my other favorite building I saw this year: Koolhaas' Seattle Public Library. Speaking of whom, I wonder how jealous Koolhaas is that neither of his Prada "epicenter" designs is remotely as successful as this one by Herzog & de Meuron.
I love the way the random mix of convex, concave and flat glass panels generate a constantly changing perspective of the products and the shoppers inside. It's as if each panel is another page in a live-action Prada catalog.
It's been exactly one week since we got back from Italy. I've tried to let the experiences and memories settle a bit before writing this wrap up (okay, I was just tired and didn't feel like it).
So, how was the trip? Sadly, not great. Believe me, it gives me no pleasure to be contrarian (as everyone else I know who has gone to Italy absolutely loves it), but I simply didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped.
I was pulled over on the side of the street near my hotel in Milan. I was at the trunk, organizing my stuff to bring up to the hotel when a man on a scooter came by and said "Scusi!" and started talking to me. Asked me if I spoke English and was trying to introduce himself. He didn't pull completely over to where I was standing, remaining a few feet away. I was feeling a little puzzled. Why was this man trying to talk to me? What did he want? Because he was kind of far away, before I stepped over to him to find out what he wanted, I instinctively looked back at the car to make sure it's okay (I'm more careful now after having our bag slashed in Rome). And I saw another man leaning into the backseat of my car!!!! Did I leave the back door ajar?? Or did he open it while I was being distracted by his scooter cohort?? I don't know. I yelled out "HEY!" to him and he turned and started to run while holding my jacket (which was in the backseat). I took a step back and reached over to him and pulled my jacket back before he was able to run away. By the time I turned around, the scooter accomplice was gone as well. My heart was racing a mile a minute and I closed the trunk and jumped back in the car and locked all the doors and tried to calm down. I've never directly confronted criminals before. It was unnerving. To think, all my camera equipment were in the backseat as well!
I was almost going to overlook the incident in Rome because, fine, you can get pickpocketed anywhere in the world and maybe it just happened to have happened in Rome for me. It didn't necessarily have to mean anything (even though it did confirm what all the guidebooks and even local Italians, say about crime here). I was willing to chaulk it up to bad luck. BUT, now twice in two weeks I have been robbed. That's insane. In 31 years I was not robbed once. [Well, okay, I had my camcorder stolen in Amsterdam, but that was more about me being careless and leaving it unguarded. Nobody used a knife to slice anything open and nobody tried to trick me into leaving the camcorder; it was all me.] Now twice in two weeks in Italy I have been (almost) robbed. That's no bad luck, that's just a scary country.
Tonight we went to a Michelin 3-Star restaurant, Le Calandre, in Sarmeola di Rubano, a few minutes outside of Padova, near Venice. [For those of you non-European and/or non-foodies not familiar with the Michelin Guide, here's some information on what it is and what it means to have three stars.] I have never been to a Michelin 3-starer before (or 2-star or 1-star, for that matter) so I was quite anticipating the meal. Some people consider this the finest restaurant in all of Italy. The chef, Massimiliano Alajmo, whom we met at the end of the meal, is the youngest chef ever to have been awarded 3 stars by the Michelin guide. Of couse, I also heard from somewhere that the Michelin rating system is not as accurate in Italy as it is in France. But it's got 3-stars and I have read many fine reviews of this place, so I think it's safe to say that it's one of the very best in the country.
So how was it?
It's roughly the mid-point of my trip through Italy. So far I've visited: Rome, Ovieto, Parugia, Assisi, Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa, and Florence. Here are some thoughts and observations (mostly complaints, you know how much I love to whine):
The guide books weren't kidding when they warned against being pickpocketed. Within hours of arriving in Rome, our bag was sliced open while we were jammed on a subway car. Luckily the bag was so packed with our hats, scarfs, gloves, etc, that nothing fell out except for the polarizer for our camera. Well, the bag is ruined as well, of course.
I've been riding subways almost all my life and all over the world and this was the first time that I've been pickpocketed.
Thinking back, I should have been more vigilent as earlier that same day I saw a man on the bus I was riding chasing after a thief who had just took his bag. On top of that, at the entrance to the subway station where my hotel was, there was a HUGE sign saying BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS. Serves me right to ignore warnings.
Not sure if it's just my imagination, but after that experience, when I was on the subway in Rome, a couple of times I felt people feeling around near my pockets, seemingly trying to see if they can take anything from me. Except for a few Asian countries (Tokyo and Seoul come to mind), you're almost always told to be mindful of your belongings; but I always sort of took it as kind of an obvious, useless advice. I didn't realize that for Rome, you literally have to clutch your stuff if you don't want it to be stolen within minutes.
I then went back to the guide book to read more carefully the section on dangers and it also said that there are scooter gangs that ride by and snatch your bags. So anytime I hear a scooter coming up behind me (and that's all the time), I instinctively hold on to my stuff a lot harder.
Or at least that was my experience anyway. Your mileage may vary.
I know I said I would post stories and photos as I toured Asia, but as it turned out, I didn't post that much at all. Kind of hard to sit in front of a computer when you are having that much fun, you know?
Anyway, I'm leaving for Rome in a few hours and I want to at least put up the snapshots from the Asia trip before I go. The Figure/Ground entries on these cities are still in the works, I'll put them up sometime after I get back from Italy. But what my friends and family really want to see are these (damn narcissists we all are):
- Last set of pictures from Taipei: These are almost all from one night right before I left Taipei. As they had all month long, Cube琪, 神秘欣 and my cousin 嘉嘉 provided me with hours of silly fun.
- My week in Seoul: The days blew by in a drunken blur. Nevertheless, I do have some thoughts on this city which I will share when I put up my proper travelogue entry on Figure/Ground.
- Shanghai & Xiamen: This set is mostly of my parents, who live in Shanghai.
Okay, that's it for now. Off to Rome!
Last month in Seoul, I tried live octopus (산낙지/san-nak-ji).
I've eaten a bunch of almost-live/just-died seafood that continue to wiggle as they are served. (Only in Asia, though. Asian people have a fascination with watching the animal suffer as they eat. I don't get it myself. Or maybe Westerners would have a similar fascination if there weren't those pesky animal rights people around.) For example, I've had fish and lobster where the heads and tails are still moving while you eat the flesh, but at least the flesh is "dead." But this dish of raw octopus contains still moving flesh. Some pieces are hard to pick up as the suction cups are still working and they are stuck onto the plate. Not sure if my host was pulling my leg, but I was told to chew them real well before swallowing to avoid the pieces from suctioning to my esophagus. Lovely.
We got to pick our victim from the tank ourselves. The lady at the restaurant advised against our first pick, a lively looking fella. Apparently, the active ones are a little loco and don't taste good, therefore you should pick the more sedate ones. Whatever. She could have told us anything and we would have had no choice but to believe her. Any Korean readers out there can confirm or deny her claim?
So how was it? How do you think it was? I don't even like octopus sushi (tako) so I didn't much like this either.
This ridiculous article titled "From cells to bells, 10 things the Chinese do far better than we do" has been making the rounds in the blogosphere these past few days. I say ridiculous because it was obviously written by someone who has not traveled widely in Asia (or at least meant for someone who has not traveled widely in Asia), as almost all of the things that the author claims China does better (like cheap cell phones, stop lights that count down, wireless service bells, parking data, slipcovers for chairs in restaurants, etc, etc) can be found all over Asia (HK, Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, etc, etc). It's an Asian thing, not a China thing.
In response to that, I present you with my list of ten scary-ass things about China, most of which are uniquely Chinese. For this list, I won't include anything pertaining to politics and government (like human rights, or lack thereof, for example). You could easily make a top 1000 list of horrible things about China if you included the government. This list will only include stuff that bother the heck out of me on a day-to-day basis living here. Keep in mind that I've spent most of my time in China in Shanghai, easily China's most advanced city (along with Beijing). Everything I mention below is progressively worse the further out from Shanghai you go. Believe me, I've ventured past Shanghai several times and each time I've been scared shitless.
- The internet here is almost unusably bad. Many overseas sites simply aren't reachable and even the ones that are, are very, very slow. Must be their uber censorship router filtering everything coming into the country.
- Horrible Mandarin. A properly educated mainland Chinese person speaks beautiful Mandarin, I have to admit. Unfortunately, most Chinese people aren't well educated and they speak horrendous Mandarin.
- Simplified writing is an abomination. It's as if one day the American government decided that not enough people are literate so they decide to adopt text messaging shortcuts as the national written language "cuz it's EZer 2 Lern."
- Chinese people have absolutely no concept of waiting in line. It's just one manifestation of the general lack of curtesy here. I've never met a population of people that exhibited such rudeness. It's all part of the lack of education that I mentioned before.
- Pollution. And I include with this not only the horrible air pollution, but noise pollution as well. The constant honking on the streets slowly drives me insane as I walk around the city. I know this isn't just Chinese, it happens in many other places, but man, they love to honk here. Car horns. Bicycle horns. Police whistles. It's non-stop noise everywhere.
- If the honking doesn't drive you mad, the cacaphony of people hocking up phlegm will do it. Maybe it's the horrible air quality, but why do Chinese people have so much phlegm????
- Chinese people love to yell. You'll usually find at least one or two people on every block angrily screaming at someone about something or other.
- Food generally speaking is horrible here. The hygiene is low-to-non-existent and the culinary skills are seriously lacking as well. I wouldn't be caught dead eating anything from a street vendor in China. You can get food poisoning just by looking at them. Speaking of restaurants, the quality of service in China stinks as well. Due to the cheap labor, the ratio of the waiters to customers is frequently 2-to-1. Yet most Chinese wait staff have no idea how to properly wait a table.
- Bad architecture and design. Chinese people's concept of good architecture is a building with a faux european renaissance look with a lot of gold trimming, hopefully with a fancy top. Driving around Shanghai, you'll notice that almost every building has some sort of "hat" on top.
- Too many instances of dirty old men paired with hot young things. It's just disgusting and sad. I know there are sugar daddys all over the world, but it's literally all over the streets here. You can't turn around without seeing an old man with a pretty young girl.
I'll end the list at ten, but I could go on and on. Well, I've always said China is a scary-ass place. Scary as in it's scary backwards. It's progressing fast, no doubt, but it's still very, very backwards. Scary, too, because it is progressing beyond the sophistication of the populace.
I remember the first time I came to Shanghai three years ago, I didn't think much of it. Then perhaps because the idea of Shanghai generates such enthusiasm everywhere, I, too, became quite enthralled with it on my following visits.
Yet, having just spent the previous 5+ weeks in some of Asia's other great cities (Tokyo, Taipei and Seoul), I find myself having a very poor initial reaction to Shanghai this time around. Somehow all the things that didn't bother me the last two times are bothering the hell out of me. The constant honking. Bicycles everywhere. Dirty little cabs. Poor little 5-year-old girls made to sell flowers on the street. The phlegm, oh the phlegm. The horrible Internet access (a lot of sites that I read just aren't reachable from China for some reason ~ including my own figure-ground.com ~ damn you communist censor bureau or whatever hell else agency is responsible for this). Etc, etc.
But mostly, it's the lack of manners of the mainlanders that really put me off.
It's only been a few hours, maybe I'll get over my initial repulsion and get back to appreciating the positives of this city.
The last 5 days have gone by in a drunken, tired blur. I'm not sure if it's the cummulative effect of 5 weeks of being away from home or it's just Seoul, I have been really, really tired ever since arriving here four days ago. Mostly I think it's the one-two punch of not sleeping at all the last night in Taipei and the bottle of Jack Daniels on an empty stomach the moment I arrived in Seoul. I never really recovered fully after that.
Anyway, some final thoughts on my month in Taipei.
- People talk about globalization and how the world is getting smaller all the time, this is how it has impacted me: Thanks to broadband Internet and the power of BitTorrent (best client: here), I was able to continue watching all the shows I watch back home. And thanks to webcams and Skype, I was able to see and interact with my family almost on a daily basis. And thanks to mlb.tv, I was able to watch every single Yankee playoff game (including the last four excruciating defeats). It's little things like that that can help lessen homesickness (although I could have lived without watching the heinous Yankees-Red Sox series).
- The month went by much quicker than I had expected. Where did all the time go? I didn't end up doing anything I had thought I might have time to do, like traveling around Taiwan for a few days, for example. Or, I had wanted to eat 20 sticks of 豬血糕/Zhu Xie Gao and 20 bowls of 牛肉麵/beef noodle soup and I only managed 15 sticks of 豬血糕 and 14 bowls of 牛肉麵 (see the comments section of my 牛伯伯 vs. 牛爸爸 post for a list of all the places I tried).
- But somehow, without trying, I consumed a whopping 16 plates of 涼麵/cold noodles. Damn you, Leslie, it's all your fault.
- If that sounds like a LOT of carbs to you, it is. I don't care who you are, if the next time you see me you tell me I gained weight, I will not hesistate to punch you in the face. I know I'm fat, I don't need you to tell me.
[From Figure/Ground] For those of you not familiar with the new MoMA's architect, Yoshio Taniguchi, here are a few shots of a gallery he designed a few years ago for the Tokyo National Museum. You can see some of the same elements he's using in the new MoMA.
More snapshots from Taipei (and a couple from Kaohsiung, too... including a shot of my notoriously camera-shy uncle). Somehow my month in Taiwan is almost over and I haven't done anything I thought I would do. Yet, the time has flown by quickly and with lots of fun.
Favorite shots from this set:
- 01: grandma and uncle.
This photo so accurately captures their relationship. Him, yakking away incessently. Her, thoroughly bewildered, yet completely engrossed by his nonsense.
- 04: Leslie and model.
- 05: Leslie conquering many, many plates of his favorite cold noodles.
To be fair, two of those plates were mine.
[Today's entry has such a limited and specific audience that I'm going to post in Chinese. If you really want to know, it's about my favorite thing to eat in the world—Taiwanese beef noodle soup.]
今晚我去試了牛爸爸牛肉麵。以前在溫哥華有一家叫牛伯伯的牛肉麵我超愛吃。是我在台灣以外吃過最好吃的牛肉麵。我在紐約跟溫哥華試過好多好多家牛肉麵沒有一家像樣的﹐除了牛伯伯。不止像樣﹐還好吃極了 ~絕對不會比台灣任何一家差~ 每次我去溫哥華都會去好幾次(雖然它地點好難去)。後來它關門了。生意太爛了吧 ~地點實在很不好~ 我每次去溫哥華最盼望的就是去吃牛肉麵的﹐關了以後都不想在去溫哥華了。(Sorry, Yutai!!)
從他們的網站上看﹐牛爸爸這家不是牛伯伯老闆開的。是一個在溫哥華的台灣人回來台北用牛伯伯的秘方跟名氣開的 ~他也是覺得牛伯伯超好吃吧~ 那他(牛爸爸)跟牛伯伯到底是怎樣的關係我就搞不清楚了。到了店以後我問了一下老闆他只是說他們是一樣的... 也好像沒什麼興趣跟我詳細解釋。
溫哥華牛伯伯是一家小小的店﹐只有幾樣東西。除了牛肉麵以外﹐好像就只有海南雞飯跟一些鹵味小菜(可能還有一兩樣別的我記不得了)。台北的牛爸爸就不同了。店比牛伯伯大很多。光是牛肉麵就有好多種。有乾麵。有不同級的牛肉麵。從普通的(NT$150)﹐到精品的(480)﹐到什麼貴賓的(1000!!)﹐ 到3000元的!!! (好離譜) 3000塊的牛肉麵比紐約50塊美金的漢堡還要更離譜很多。至少50塊美金的漢堡是在家很高級豪華的餐廳。這3000塊的麵是在家普通餐廳。我們試了一碗普通的牛肉湯麵跟一碗480的。
不一樣﹐比較不好吃。麵完全不一樣 ~粗很多~ 湯倒是差不多。但是麵很重要﹐所以加起來就差很多了。而且他們的鹵蛋﹐豆干﹐海帶都好爛﹐沒味道又硬硬的。以前牛伯伯的豆干好好吃。
I've put up some snapshots of friends and family from my first week in Taipei.
Click here to see them.
Starting yesterday, all visitors to the U.S. (including the previously exempt people from the visa-waiver countries) are being fingerprinted and photographed under a new revision to the US-VISIT program. I guess there wasn't much fuss made over it or something since I hadn't heard anything about it until today (and I usually try to keep an eye out for stuff like this).
I sort of understood the previous requirement to fingerprint and photograph not so much as a criminal check but more of a biometric identification procedure. They fingerprint you at your home country when you apply for a visa and when you show up in the U.S., they fingerprint you again to digitally match you up with the visa to ensure that you are the same person who applied for the visa. Or at least that's how I understood it. And that made sense to me. But now, they are fingerprinting everyone, even those who don't need, and therefore didn't apply for, a visa. So what are they using the fingerprints for exactly? It's not to ID you to your passport. They are basically just going to compile a huge database of everybody's faces and fingerprints. Lovely. And you can be sure, despite whatever assurances they give, that the Department of Homeland Security will keep them all on file forever.
Luckily, Canadiana (and Mexicans) are still exempt. For now. Along with the Patriot Act, the U.S. is becoming such a hostile country to be in for visitors and its own citizens alike.
Yutai: Drooling yet?
Everybody else: This is a 豬血糕/Zhu Xie Gao (Literal translation: pig's blood cake), usually found on street corners or in night markets of Taiwan. Might sound pretty gross, but it's damn delicious. It's a rice cake made from glutinous rice and (from what I've been told) chicken blood—not pig's blood as the name suggests. Either way, it's good. The black-colored rice cake is then steamed to tender softness and, just before serving, dipped in sweet chili sauce, coated with crushed peanuts and topped with chopped cilantro. (25NT/~75¢US)
You can usually find this in Taiwanese restaurants around the world, but don't bother ordering it. Everytime I've tried it, it's been really, really terrible. The taste is wrong and the texture is wrong as well. Just horrible. I've also tried buying frozen ones from Taiwanese supermarkets and those are no good either. Why nobody can make a half-decent 豬血糕 outside of Taiwan is beyond me.
For my last night in Tokyo, I went back to a little restaurant I discovered last time—開花屋/Kaikaya.
Kaikaya serves interesting modern Japanese seafood. Order from "Today's Special" and you'll most likely taste some fish that you've never had before or even heard of. Aside from Shanghai and Taipei (which I don't consider foreign cities), I don't usually make it a point to find good restaurants. I simply don't have the time or energy after a long day of shooting and exploring. I go to random places that look packed and hope for the best. Kaikaya is one of those serendipidous finds.
The place is run by an affable manager named 一平/Ippei (the guy in the photo above). He doesn't speak much English (just like a typical Japanese person), but he sure makes the effort. If you go, just tell him to order for you; you won't regret it. He'll most likely recommend it, but make sure you get the tuna spareribs... it's not to be missed. You'll probably spend around 40USD per person, less if you don't drink.
I recommend calling ahead to reserve a seat as the place is always packed. Otherwise, you'll end up eating on the sidewalk like we did last time.
• Kaikaya website (for telephone and directions)
In a couple of hours, I'll be on the plane, beginning my 8-week, 4-city romp through East Asia (Tokyo->Taipei->Seoul->Shanghai).
I'm planning to use liaoyusheng.com as an outlet to post stories and photos from my travels that don't necessarily fit the type of narrative that I wish to maintain over at Figure/Ground. Figure/Ground started out life as the Rhapsody Travelogues. At first, it was very story-oriented: I would find pictures to fit the stories and anecdotes that I wanted to tell. Over the years, the emphasis on stories faded away and the photography took center stage. And that's fine, it's a direction that I consciously took. But that meant there are stories that I wanted to tell but can't because there are no good photographs to accompany them.
This is where liaoyusheng.com will come in. I'm planning to have frequent updates about the trip on this site during my travels. There might be stories or funny observations. Or maybe there will be photos that aren't necessarily great but show something interesting. And at the conclusion of the trip, I will still put up my customary entry on Figure/Ground.
That's all just a very long-winded way of saying: check this space often!
I've posted some photos of me from the trip to Germany. Nothing exciting in these photos, just me. They are only mildly interesting if you knew me. Head over to my Figure/Ground site to see much more interesting photos of Germany.