Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tokyo Orientation, and Hoooong Koooong~!

I swear, time flies. Mostly when you're having fun, but sometimes when you're just plain busy.

I see that last time, I left off just before Tokyo Orientation. On Saturday, July 25th, I caught the shinkansen (bullet train) up to Tokyo, to the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku. It's the same hotel where we had orientation when I arrived last year -- that is to say, super swanky. The first day, we had some information meetings for orientation assistants. Then on Sunday, we spent most of the day at Narita Airport, directing incoming JETs to buses back into the city. I was the leader for bus #7, which got back to the hotel around 8 pm. That was a lot of fun, because as bus leader I got a microphone, and was able to answer questions and tell funny stories to the newbies on our way back.

The next few days were a blur of meetings and introductions and my j-pop presentation, all of which went well. My partner for the presentation, Hui Ling, was an adorable girl from Singapore. All the new Kyoto JETs, for whom I was solely responsible, seem to be a good crowd. There is a certain someone that for all his friendly and outgoing energy seems a little bit KY (kuuki yomenai -- unable to read social situations) and I think he may give Amy, our prefectural advisor, a heart-attack. But otherwise, everyone is lovely, and I made several new friends among the other orientation assistants.

My new coworker at Sonobe is this South African guy named Paul, and he is wonderful. A psychologist by trade, he is just the sweetest, politest, most optimistic person. All of the students love him -- especially the girls! Paul doesn't speak any Japanese, so I'm always trying to tell him what the girls are saying: "They think you're really cool," or, "They want to know how tall you are," or even on one occasion, "She thinks you smell really good." (By the by, at 190ish centimeters, Paul is the tallest teacher at our school, just beating out the principal.)

Just a week after Paul got here, though, I abandoned him to go on vacation in the last stretches of summer holiday. Together with my erstwhile travel companions, Jo, Fig, and Mike, the four of us set off for...HONG KONG!

If you count the travel days at either end of the week, our trip totaled 10 days. We stayed at the Prudential Hotel in Kowloon. It was a great stay, and I would recommend this spot to anybody! First of all, the rooms were super nice -- more than large enough for two people. Double beds for all, holla! And we had a nice view out of our giant window. There was a lot of interesting stuff and nice restaurants within walking distance, besides the hotel sitting practically on top of the nearest train station. Plus, the rooftop swimming pool was almost always empty, so we popped up for a leisurely swim whenever we had nothing else to do and the weather was nice. (Alas, the weather got really rainy for several days in the middle, thanks to typhoon Morakot. But we just used those days as an excuse for museums!)

Anyway, on to the highlights!


Po Lin Monastery and the Tien Tan Buddha -- On Lantau Island. The train system doesn't cover all of Lantau, so at the last stop, we had to switch onto the Ngong Ping cable car. It was a really long lift ride, and pretty scenic, going over a bay and some mountains to reach the village around Po Lin. The walk to the monastery was a quaint cobbled road lined with souvenir stores and gelato shops. The Tien Tan Buddha, which had been massively visible even from the cable car, loomed over the area. The big bronze buddha is 34 meters (that's 110 feet) tall, seated on a lotus throne and surveying the countryside from the top of a high hill. Po Lin Monastery faces the buddha, across a sort of courtyard at the base of the hill. It wasn't huge, but it was very ornately presented. I particularly loved the winding dragons carved into the stone columns which supported the building. After wandering around for some photos, we ate lunch at the monastery's famed vegetarian restaurant. It was a set lunch, and apart from the soup appetizer - weak, dirt-flavored potato water that made me feel not unlike a medieval peasant - it was all pretty good. We ate until stuffed, and still couldn't quite finish everything. As elsewhere in Hong Kong, there was bizarro Mao merchandise available, and I made off with a tin-sided Mao CD case. Red, of course.

The Peak -- On Hong Kong Island. Pretty literally what it sounds like. The Peak is a mountain overlooking the city center, reached by a steep train line ending at a mountaintop shopping mall. There is a fantastic view from the roof, from which you can see the ocean on several sides. There are also about a million more souvenir shops (many of which we patronized) and apparently a wax museum. We didn't visit the latter, though I did insist on having a picture together with the promotional Jackie Chan figure. Heart Jackie!

Avenue of the Stars and the Hong Kong Light Show -- The southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula, at Tsim Sha Tsui. This is Hong Kong's answer to the Hollywood Stars. All the greats of HK cinema - many of them martial artists - have left their name and handprints here to be goggled at. We found Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and many more...including, of course, the untouchable Bruce Lee. He has a statue near his star, in front of which we all posed, mimicking his fierce kung fu! I also geeked out over a little store dedicated completely to Jackie Chan. In addition to all this, the avenue runs along the harbor front, with the absolute best view of the famous Hong Kong skyline. In the evening, the avenue is crowded with visitors, all eyes on that skyline for the Hong Kong Light Show. Music comes on over the PA system, and in a cool feat of collaboration, decorative lights go crazy on the opposite shore's office buildings, choreographed with the music. Not super amazing, but charming, especially to think how all those big corporations came together just to do something trivial and fun.

Hong Kong Museum of Art -- Near the Avenue of Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui. This museum was honestly so-so, but that may be due in part to several of the exhibits being closed for renovation or change or something. Much of the painting, especially modern, didn't suit my taste, though...a little too on the simple folksy side. After a point, I feel like any five-year-old could have done the same, you know? But I did get one nice print in the museum shop, of someone playing a flute.

Temple Street Night Market -- Smack dab in the middle of Kowloon, near Jordan, and thus, our hotel. I think we walked over after dinner one night. There were lots of wacky stalls selling wacky merchandise, much of it probably knock-off. There was a ton of Mao stuff here, so I bought a few funny souvenirs, and some interesting old communist posters for myself. (I've been pretty into art lately, as you may have noticed.)

Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas -- In the New Territories. The first and only Chinese graveyard that I've encountered, this was one of my favorite spots in Hong Kong. Really interesting! As opposed to headstones, there are rows upon rows of cubical rooms, almost like a rental storage facility in layout. (But nicer, of course, and peppered with buddha statues.) Inside each room, the three free walls are covered floor to ceiling in memorial plaques, most often with a photo of the deceased. I'm not sure whether ashes are interred behind each, or what. In any case, this temple went up and up and up a mountain, and it was fantastic and oddly enchanting, even in the seriously pouring rain. My only regret / complaint is that the upper reaches were sealed off - a shame, because we could see an interesting and different landscape starting just beyond. At least I befriended the temple cat, after an intensive ten minute petting session. BFF!

Hong Kong Museum of History -- Somewhere in Kowloon...I forget, but we walked there from the hotel. Now this was a fascinating museum. I didn't know much about Hong Kong to begin with, apart from it being sort of colonized by the British, and this museum was a great way to learn more. The exhibits were vast and detailed, with pretty much an entire period piece neighborhood contained inside. Really, you could go up back alleys from post offices to school rooms to grocery shops temples to western dining rooms. It was like stepping back in time!

Man Mo Temple and Cat Street -- On Hong Kong Island. Man Mo temple seems to have an interesting story, being dedicated to two deities that I would not intuitively associate; the god of war, and the god of literature, respectively. But the temple itself was not super extraordinary. As in some other HK temples, I found myself mostly captivated by the huge spirals of incense hanging from the ceiling. Even apart from smelling wonderful, they were aesthetically captivating. Cat Street is a nearby street market, selling much of the same weird Chinese goods and statuettes. I found a little statuette of a dragon, but instead of the dog-lion dragons I'd normally associate with Chinese tradition, it looked more like a panther. Now it lives on my coffee table.

Peking Restaurant -- Okay, this isn't exactly a sight, but if any of you ever go to Hong Kong, definitely visit this place. It's on Nathan Road, right across the street from Jordan station. We liked it so much, we actually ate here twice. The wait staff were super nice, even though we were the only foreigners in the place on both occasions. But more importantly, the food! Everything we tried was good, from the crispy rice soup to the fried bananas, but the real show stopper was of course the Peking duck. I'd never had it before, and let me tell you, in China is the way to start! So delicious. I can't even put it into words. Except that now I'm hungry.

The Noonday Gun -- Along the waterfront at Causeway Bay. We more or less found this by accident, and I'll admit, including it here is sort of a joke! We'd read about it in the guidebook, and its historical significance...something about the British firing it at noon, I don't know. So we were kind of amused to find it, especially since in real life, it is a really small old canon, painted blue. End of story.

Jade Market -- Kowloon, A long building crammed with stalls selling exactly what you'd expect -- anything and everything jade. (And, for some reason, Bruce Lee playing cards.) There was a lot of jewelry, beads, figurines, and the like, on and on and on.

And also, our day trip from HK to Macau!

St. Paul's Cathedral -- Only the front facade of this cathedral remains, which makes it almost more striking. The facade, though the only wall standing, seems in almost perfect condition, beautifully constructed with carvings and statues. Through the gaping windows, there is only open blue sky. You can see the facade for some time coming, as it sits at the top of a rise, with gentle European bricked roads winding down through the city, lined with sweet shops and souvenirs and even a Starbucks. The whole area was the most beautiful mix of sub-tropical and what I imagine Italy or Spain to look like. Thank you, Portuguese colonialists!

Monte Fort and the Museum of Macau -- Situated right next to St. Paul's, this old fort holds a commanding view of Macau. You can see all the nice pseudo-European architecture, right next to a variety of surprise!casinos. Many of the casinos were actually quite pretty, though, not necessarily detracting from the view. There were a ton of old cannons and the like still stationed around the ramparts, and the center of the fort now houses the Museum of Macau. This museum did a lot of the same things right that the Hong Kong Museum achieved -- intricate reconstructions, photo exhibits, et cetera, though generally on a smaller scale than the aforementioned.

Casino Lisboa -- I suspect named for Lisbon. This crazy golden structure dominates the Macau skyline, but somehow sort of compliments the scenery around it. It's like something out of George Lucas' mind, were he designing a delicate, futuristic elf city.


So there you have it. A nice trip, complete with a real-life Miyazaki character ("Fried noodow?!"), Polish escape tactics ("What? What?! I don't understand!"), insistent salesmen ("You look very nice! I respect you!"), and Giordano shirts for everyone (except for Mike, even though - or more likely, because - his last name is Giordano.)