Japan, U.S. & Canada 2001
Visitor number (since September 2002):
....and have a nice day, eh?
In the wee cooler months before the temperature soars past what seems like the 65° celsius of a Shanghai summer we started to plan our break in western China. Before and after that My wife was to have two different stints in Japan - one for her teaching experience and one to finish off some exams and workshops. For her to go to Japan the second time it was going to cost around RMB5,000. After talking to a couple of agents we found that we could get all the way to New York on JAL for just RMB 1,500 extra, then stop in Tokyo on the way back. Such are the vagaries of airline pricing policies, but needless to say we didn't need much convincing. Three days before the flight we finally got our seats off the wait list, the China trip was canned for another year, and were packed and on our way. Gorden-don (rapidly becoming one of the world's most travelled teddies) came along for the ride too and some pictures can be seen on his website.
The agent initially told us that we would need a stopover in Tokyo on the way. This didn't bother us at all as the room would be paid for by JAL. Like a randy American sailor who was going to knock back a free night in Tokyo! I ran out and bought myself a flash new "Giant" mountain bike with the intention of getting it couriered to Myoko from the airport. Then every time we went back to Myoko I could do some exploring on the bike. Apart from the scenic pleasures it would also be practical, helping to wear away the millions of calories my doting mother-in-law loves to impose on me each visit. Anyway where was I? Oh yeh, however the agent changed their mind and booked us straight through on a very tight connection. We actually ended up sprinting from one terminal to another to get the connection. Arriving breathless (which doesn't take much these days) we found that the flight to NY had been delayed 30 minutes. Thanks for telling us! The irony was that on the way back from NY we had to spent a night in Tokyo, which wasn't paid for, because the flight was delayed 5 hours and left us no time to get the train to Myoko. The flight to NY wasn't too crowded but I had to cope with the members of a college sumo team - one fat man in front and another behind...
Speaking of fat men one of the first things you notice coming from China is how much larger the people are in North America. After we'd been there a while and experienced the huge servings of fat, cholesterol and sugar that pass as meals we begun to understand the reason why so many people are big. I'm surprised that 80% of North Americans aren't diabetics either. Perhaps they are but they've just hidden the stats away somewhere where nobody looks, like in George W. Bush's left hand desk drawer next to his world diplomacy manual.
Anyhow, we jagged a limo ride from the airport to the hotel in New Jersey. There was meant to be a JAL bus but they couldn't find it (maybe it was in George W's drawer), so they put us in a limo with another Japanese guy instead. Unfortunately a basic limo - no spas, champagnes or dusky latino maidens provided. After an agonisingly slow check-in at the Holiday Inn we spent a fruitless night trying to adjust our body clocks by 12 hours, "No stomach, it's breakfast not dinner", "No head it sleepy bo-bo's time, not getting up time", that kind of thing. At least the late night quesadillas in the bar were damned good.
The three days in NY were spent on all the usual sights - Statue of Liberty, lunch with the squirrels in Central Park, a stroll up Broadway and on to Times Square, the World Trade Centre (soon to be sadly demised), Chinatown, even a spontaneous subway trip to Coney Island and fortuitous timing at the NYSE to see the closing bell. In the eats department we loved the NY delis where you could buy a smorgasbord of salads, seafood and the like at a reasonable price.
Atop the WTC - less than six weeks out from 9/11
(1) On the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and
(2) Cigarette and coffee time outside the NYSE for the people who run the world, economically speaking
We stayed two nights at the Holiday Inn plus a night with my old JET buddy Alan in Hoboken. Hoboken is a very cool place across the Manhattan River from NY that's being rapidly yuppified. Hoboken was home of ole' blue eyes himself, where the term 'hobo' was coined, and also the location of the first ever baseball match. How's that for a rapid history lesson? Alan, who after endowing us with all this wonderful Hoboken history, took us to a very cool bar and restaurant that night overlooking the river (see below).
From NY we agonised about whether to rent a car or use public transport and we opted for public transport. On the overnight bus to Niagara Falls we weren't sure if we'd made the right decision. The driver was Herr Commandant and the elderly lady (see: old bag) behind him spent half the night chatting to him. We ended up overhearing their life stories and felt we knew them better than some of our closest friends. In the end I asked her nicely to "speak more quietly". Given my state of tiredness I just wanted to bluntly say "Shut the #*^! up #@*")*!", but restrained myself. We zipped through customs and soon found ourselves amongst the beautiful greenery and stately homes of Niagara Falls - minus any Canadian cash...
After stashing our bags at the rail station and eventually procuring some cash at the casino (by legal means, although I can't speak for the casino) we spent a day wandering around Niagara. Once again we did all of the usual tourist sights - the walk behind the fall, the Maid of the Mist boat, the Spanish aero car above the downstream rapids, plus some local gardens and monuments. We went to Taco Bell twice that day - once before it opened and another time after it was closed! We had our evening meal at the casino and also just had to try our hand at the pokies (one armed bandits) where after an hour or so we had racked up the amazing loss of, let me see, $1. That night we stayed at the local youth hostel, which was to be the cheapest accommodation of our trip. In was up early in the morning for a train to Ottawa, with a stop for breakfast first at "Dad's Diners" - one of those fun old style 'greasy spoons' where all the customers know each other and like to harass the waitresses....
Due to the misinformation of the local ViaRail clerk the night before ("No, you don't have to book, there are plenty of seats...") we had to have a four hour break in Toronto. Actually this was fine as four hours was about all we needed to see the place. Maybe that's why they wanted the Olympics. We had coffee at the CN Skytower (yet another of the 'world's tallest building'), and had a quick look into the Skydome. As we wandered around the city it seemed awfully quiet for a place of that size. Eventually we discovered that most Torontians prefer the maze of underground passages and malls that cross downtown. They were built to help keep people out of the bitter winters but it seems now that the locals have developed a 'mole' mentality and rarely come up except when necessary, such as for fire, noxious gases or terrorist attacks by visiting Yankees fans.
Back on the train to Ottawa we had a good laugh. We encountered a train stopped opposite in a station. and in the window was a teddy bear waving . I'm sure they laughed just as much when Gorden waved back.
And so it was into Ottawa, capital of the great country of Canada, and a quite cool city to boot. Here we were staying with another old JET friend, Kevin. Kevin lives in a very nice old house close to downtown from where we could walk to the local market, parks, art gallery and national parliament building. We had some meals at some delightful cafes and restaurants, plus enjoyed just strolling around. On Sunday Kevin and his lovely partner Lara took us out hiking in a national park. Along the ways we encountered lots of cute wild life and some caves (see below). It's interesting to note the differences between Australia and Canada here. When you're walking through the countryside in Australia and hear rustling in the bushes you pick up a large stick or rock and prepare yourself for the possibility of something nasty, venomous, or both, such as a brown snake. In Canada you get your camera ready and wait for something cute and harmless to come out like a chipmunk or squirrel. Important note to hikers: Grizzly bears are excluded from this listing as cute and/or harmless.
From Ottawa it was deeper into francophone Canada and our practising of 'merci' and 'merde'. On arrival in Montreal we were a little shocked at the decrepitude in downtown but after walking around decided that a B&B near the bus station (in reality a cheap hotel with muffins and instant coffee for breakfast) was the best bet. We took an evening stroll around the old port area of Montreal (see below) which was quite lovely on a summer's evening. There was a television special going on, but as it was live and we were without our tardis, there was no chance of us rushing back to the hotel and seeing ourselves on TV. We finished the evening off with lovely buffet meal in Chinatown, adding to our rapidly increasing girths.
The next day we bought an all day bus/subway ticket and set out around town. We had a nice walk through the Royal Park overlooking the city, then down to St. Joseph's Oratory where some Catholic pilgrims were making their way on their knees up a substantial number of steps leading to the basilica. From there it was across town to the Biodome and old Olympic Park. Montrealians don't seem to like discussing that they are still after nearly 30 years, ahem, paying off their debts from the 1976 Olympics. After some CD shopping and an oishi Japanese meal it was back to the hotel, sorry B&B, for the evening.
For something different we decided next morning to take a fast ferry up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City rather than a bus or train. We got our wake-up call late and our taxi arrived early, incurring a waiting fee. In the rush My wife left behind some clothes, but not too much. So it mattered little and afforded the excuse for more shopping later. To this end we added the taxi and hotel tips that the receptionist and driver didn't receive for their less than wonderful attitude.
Once in Quebec we walked up from the harbour to the old city and looked for the B&B recommended by Kevin. That was full but it was easy to get another nearby - Chateau de Lery. It takes little more than an afternoon and evening to walk around the gracious buildings and streets of the old walled city. Once one has completed that however there is little else to do.
Having decided a second night's stay was probably illogical we checked out after our muffins and instant coffee and caught a bus down to the commercial district where we spent the afternoon shopping. We stopped on the way back at a local library to check our e-mail and now possess a membership card as we had join up to use the internet. An evening in old Quebec is pleasant with cafes, buskers and illuminated buildings which we partook of, along with one last 'beavertail' (no, that's not some strange sexual practice, but a rather delicious pastry) before heading to the bus station for an overnight bus to New Brunswick.
The trip to Fredericton was trying aboard a very full bus with two connections in the wee hours on the way. Along the way we witnessed a pick-up truck colliding with a car at an intersection in front of us, that then went into a ditch. Obviously having to keep to schedules the bus driver sailed on as if nothing had happened. We thought this must've been the reason for the TV news crew when we arrived in Fredericton. No, in fact it was for the infamous sex offender just released from jail on board. We thought the guy was a little strange...
We missed Charles at the bus station (yet another JET connection), so we spent the morning and early afternoon wandering downtown. We bunked in at the library for awhile (literally, we were so tired from the trip) before Charles came to pick us up. It must be said that Fredericton library has an impressive view across the river and is a very nice place to while away the hours. That night Charles and partner Sarah (also an ex-JET) took us out for seafood dinner, then for a very nice drive around town.
There was a hearty breakfast the next morning at the local farmers market. That morning we had a seen an article about a group of four Japanese schoolchildren staying in the area and we ran into them at the market. I think they were happy to speak Japanese to someone after two weeks in Canada. After that it was a walk to the parliament and art gallery. Charles and Sarah took us for a drive later that day down through the countryside to St. Johns. Along the way we got to meet Charles's parents. We stopped that evening for a delicious meal at the well know Suwanna Thai restaurant overlooking the 'reversing falls'. Note to web surfers and/or potential tourists: Do not base your entire Canada Maritimes itinerary around the 'reversing falls' of St. John....
The next day our gracious hosts made us forsake the bus and whisked us off to Bangor, Maine by car. This is the area that Stephen King stories are based in, and once you see the surroundings and people you understand (especially the surly border guard). As much as we would have liked to have lunch with Charles and Sarah, not to mention the tattooed rednecks in the bar adjoining the Greyhound depot, the bus was leaving soon and thus had to bid a sad adieu, or see ya' round (seeing we no longer needed to think/talk/act in French)
Sarah and Charles suggested a nice stopover would be in the outlet shop dominated town of Freeport on the way. However the bus sailed straight past the turn-off and went onto Portland. It seems peculiar that just about every town on this coast seems to be named ".....port" or "Port....". How original. Freeport doesn't seem to lack much - except public transport. Hence it was a $35 taxi fare back up the coast. We found an extremely nice B&B (a real one this time!), The Capt. Briggs Inn, to stop in for the night, then went out to plunder the local outlets. Although we got some some things at reasonable prices we really realised, not for the first time I must say, how cheap it is in Shanghai. It's really like living in one open air outlet mall and food court combined. After a wonderful breakfast and a little more shopping one of the owners of the inn told us that he was heading to Portland for shopping and gave us a lift. He dropped us off near the Concord depot (woohoo- no Greyhound this leg!) and we got an immediate connection to Boston...
If you're still with us at this time, and let's face it who could blame you if you weren't, we were approaching our last stop on the trek - Boston. This place is renowned for accommodation shortages and so it proved with us. We left the bus station and headed down through Chinatown looking for a cheap hotel. Boston's Chinatown must be the only one in the world without cheap Chinese hotels. Not that I would confess to having done any meaningful research on the topic. However we DID find a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant so the walk through near record Boston heat (it's true!) had at least some reward. Eventually we located a summer hostel at Boston University student accommodation and managed to get a twin room overlooking the river towards M.I.T. and Harvard. It was rather pretty, apart from the 19th century plumbing, lack of a/c, and thunder of traffic on the highway that borders the river.
That night we walked to Harvard Square and caught up with an old UCSC friend , Heather, who is now doing her Ph.D. at M.I.T. Heather is famous for being the bestower of Gorden to Nic in 1995, so they enjoyed a happy reunion. We had a nice meal in the "Brew Moon" brewery (see above) before a walk around Harvard University and a late night icecream. Best in America - or at least that's how the shop advertised itself.
After lunch at the Union Oyster Bar
The next day loomed hot again so we restricted our activities to the "Freedom Walk" seeing historical places of interest such as old churches, famous gravesites and meeting places. Along the way we stopped for a late lunch at America's oldest restaurant, the "Union Oyster Bar" (see above). The oysters and chowder were pretty darn good too. That night My wife rested up and I went to the "Comedy Connection" with some of the other hostellers. The host for the evening spent a fair proportion working over the large contingent of U.S. sailors. Maybe they were stopping on their way through to Tokyo. I don't know...
Along Mass Ave there was a quick stop at the local thrift shop where brand names, obviously disposed of by wealthy ivy school graduates before they became merchant bankers, stockbrokers and crack dealers, could be picked up for a song. From there we hurried back to the hostel and booked out. We didn't have time for the JFK Museum unfortunately and decided to jump on a bus to NY. Not of course before we had another visit to the abeforementioned Vietnamese restaurant.
Arriving in New York we got a bit of a tour going toward the bus depot, arriving via Harlem, Central Park and the Museum District. Once there we went to an electronics dealer in Soho and bought a computer to take home. Note to consumers: Do not buy anything from Soho Electronics (a.k.a. Panaweb) on West Broadway, do not get them to order you a taxi to Hoboken and do not take your computer through customs in China. They will all rip you off! We spent our last night at Alan's place again (see New York section). After we waited out the local blackouts (too much heat, too many a/c users, "Blame it on the yuppies" said people interviewed by the morning paper) we had dinner and margaritas at a great Mexican restaurant. Muy bien comidas!
The next morning we lugged our by now substantial luggage via local bus back to NY and then caught the bus to JFK airport. This seemed like another 'tour', with some street theatre / road rage between the bus driver and a taxi driver thrown in. We have never heard the notion of mother relationships heard so explicitly between two people before I think. Finally at the airport it was time to leave, apart from the fact that the plane was five hours late. We were consoled with $10 meal vouchers but they could not compensate for the factor that we would now have to stay the night in Tokyo at the other end. At least this flight was not very crowded and we even got exit seats, nowhere near any sumo wrestlers...
After a long wait at customs (because the customs officer with no clients at the Japanese passport section did not want to serve me as the husband of a Japanese citizen, but preferred that I go to the back of a very long and slow moving gaijin line), changing money, storing luggage and catching the slow train in, we finally got ourselves into the Yushima Plaza hotel around 11pm. Jet lag kicked in and we could sleep very little. We dragged ourselves down to an early breakfast and managed to get on an early shinkansen before the o bon crowds really kicked in for the weekend. My wife got a seat, but I had to sit on the floor for most of the journey. Being back in Myoko was great and I finally got to meet my brother-in-law Nobu for the first time. Only took four and a half years. I guess we've both been busy.
After the normal whirl of family and friends it was back on the train to Tokyo three days later. My wife had to finish off some study at Soka University and was returning slightly later than me. After parting in Shinjuku I spent the day looking around Tokyo seeing a few things I hadn't seen before - the Budokan Hall, the somewhat controversial Yasakuni shrine and the interesting Edo-Tokyo Museum. I also managed to catch a local festival that was happening in Fukugawa, plus be offered various 'services' (more than once) in Kabuki-cho - the seedy part of Shinjuku. I crashed the night in a capsule hotel near Ueno that ended up being so spacious I could stand up in it. The next morning I had a window seat as we flew down the coast of Japan and enjoyed myself trying to pick out cities and landmarks. Finally it was back in Shanghai, and My wife followed five days later. Just the clothes to wash, bills to pay, and remnant of jet lag to get over - and there were plenty of all three...