Goofy Signs and Menus from China and Japan

By: leelefever on December 29, 2006 - 2:54pm

I think the locals thought we were weird when taking pictures of signs and menus.  We were reminded how sensitive language is - replace a few words with synonyms and the results end up a tad off target and usually hilarious.

 This was just before boarding a cable car in China:


 Also in China, at the Three Gorges Dam.  Billions of dollars on the project and they couldn't hire a translator for the sign every tourist sees?  Welcome to China. The guy in this photo is Miles Hilton-Barber, Blind Adventurer.  Perhaps the most amazing person I've ever met. He didn't turn over.


Concern for the relics I get, but the railings? This is from the Summer Palace near Beijing.  The railings were not relics, by the way.


At Yellow Mountain in China, this is truly an earnest request.


Don't worry, I didn't take it as a compliment, really.  From a crappy state-run hotel in Guilin, China


Yes, China star-rates toilets.  Seriously - it was still not great.  This is inside the Forbidden City in Beijing.


Menus offered a near-daily source of laughter. This one is from a Dim-Sum menu in Hong Kong: Minced crap (I think they mean crab)


Yes, in fact, that is a cute potatoes with butter.  Japan.


I'm just not sure what this is supposed to say. Japan


Even when Japanese is not translated to English, it has a completely unique style.  This is from a hiking trail in Tsuwano, Japan.  See if you can decode it...


 This was my guess:

1. Scrape the bottom of your shoe

2. Place scraped matter in your hand

3. And smoke it?


I love the design of this Japanese subway sign, seriously.


Stop using rocket shoes.  From Osaka Buffaloes Baseball game.


Baseballs hurt. From Osaka Buffaloes Baseball game.


If I could do the trip over, I would build a catalog of crosswalk signs.  They exist in every country in different forms along the same lines.  This one obviously warns people to watch out for George Washington crossing with a devil child. Japan.



No one wants to see Pac Man drunk. Waka waka waka (hiccup).  Japan.

 And finally, if you're wondering what strategies Sachi and I will employ when we combine forces in 2007, this describes it perfectly:

Without yours, our trip would not have been then same- thanks.

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Tech Report: Japan

By: leelefever on August 11, 2006 - 11:11pm

Part of our trip is focused on experimenting with technology and mobile networks as we travel around the world.  A tech report is our way of relating the geeky side of what we're discovering.

Japan is one of the places in the world that one would expect to encounter the highest technology and in many ways, we were not disappointed.  However, in terms of testing and using the Japanese mobile network, we were left in the cold. Japan’s mobile network evolved without integration with the GSM international standards. So my Treo 650 was worthless in Japan.  GSM “worldphones” will not integrate with the Japanese network, though the word on the street is that this may change soon. Japan does use CDMA, but it is not as prevalent as their PDC system. 

This quote from an informative Japan Zone article may help:

Very briefly, there are three mobile phone technologies supported by the major networks within Japan - PDC (Personal Digital Cellular), CDMA (Code Divisional Multiple Access) and WCDMA. DoCoMo, Vodafone and TU-KA support the established PDC, and DoCoMo and Vodafone have also introduced the newer WCDMA, while AU supports CDMA. All three of these technologies are incompatible with each other.

It is possible to rent phones while in Japan, but we didn’t.

Within Japan, the mobile network is quite sophisticated.  One of the more advanced capabilities I experienced was when we met up with Gen Kanai in Tokyo.  He looked up a restaurant’s phone number, put the number into the GPS tool on his phone and then had the phone lead us to the restaurant with a dynamic map and car-style voice commands. Mobile GPS- very cool and something I think (hope) we’ll all have in the US soon.

I had assumed that the Japanese are big users of SMS (short message system), but this is not the case.  They do use their phones for text communication, but it all occurs via email, not SMS.  The difference is the same as it is between instant messaging and email on your home computer. 

More than any other Asian country, in-room Internet access in the norm, and often with blazing fiber-optic connection speeds.  I made a habit of bit-torrenting all sorts of things while in Japan. Internet cafés are accessible from nearly everywhere, but not nearly as pervasively as in other Asian countries. Like the US, I imagine that home computers and mobile capabilities limit demand for cafés.

Wi-fi is available somewhat ubiquitously, though we did not seek it out often. In most urban settings, I would see networks available, but mostly secured.  In the remote Alpine  mountain village of Kamikochi, where there is not really even a town, we found a strong wi-fi signal, much to our delight. 

If I could do it over again, I would likely rent a Japanese phone and give it a test run.  It is also important to remember that buying electronics abroad can sometimes be hazardous.  Products like cameras, computers, etc. are meant for the Japanese public and not visitors so they have instruction manuals, cords and even keyboards/controls built to Japanese specifications. 

Is Japan Expensive for Tourists?

By: leelefever on June 11, 2006 - 2:57am

Like many travelers, we understood that Japan would be an expensive place in which to travel.  After spending a month in the country, we’d like to provide our perspectives on how much travel costs for tourists in Japan.  All prices are in American dollars.

In visiting any country as a tourist there are 5 costs that must be considered: 

  1. Arrival - The cost of getting there (and leaving)
  2. In-Country Transportation- The cost of moving around within the country
  3. Lodging- The cost of having a place to sleep each night
  4. Food and Alcohol- Keeping the belly full
  5. Tourist Activities- Seeing and Doing

Unfortunately, the first 3 of the 5 costs for Japan are likely the highest you’ll pay in almost any country- but there are some ways around the high expense.


  1. Arrival – It is generally expensive to fly into Japan from anywhere in the world.  However, there are places in the world that serve as major hubs and you may find that departing from these hubs can reduce the costs. We bought a round trip ticket from Bangkok to Tokyo for about $650 per person, even during Japan’s holiday season (Golden Week- April 25th- May 5th).  We hadn’t seen any tickets under $1,000 other than the ones we purchased.  The best advice is to plan ahead, be prepared and jump on any tickets that are below your expectations.
  1. In-Country Transportation - This one is an absolute no-brainer.  Japan has an amazingly safe, efficient and comfortable rail system that serves almost the whole country.  If you plan to travel to more than one or two cities it is essential that you purchase a “Japan Rail Pass” or “JR Pass”.  You must get the JR Pass before you leave - you CANNOT get one in Japan. The JR Pass web site has listings for ticket agents worldwide.  We bought a standard 14 day pass for $391 per person.  That seems like a lot, but once you start seeing how much inter-city train travel costs, you’ll be glad you have the pass.  For instance, a one way trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen bullet train costs about $200 per person.  We figure that our JR Pass paid for itself within the first week of our trip.  Taxis are rather costly too and we took them very rarely.  In Tokyo, the charges start at about $5 and can quickly rise to over $50 on a late night trip home (subways stop around midnight). Further, most major cities have subways (not covered by the JR Pass) that cost $1-$3 point-to-point
  1. Lodging – Tourist lodging in Japan can be a complex mix of western rooms vs. Japanese style rooms, regular hotels vs. business hotels, ryokans vs. hotels and hostels.  Hostels offer the lowest rates ($20-50 per person) and the high end reaches to thousands of dollars.  On the whole, staying in hotels in Japan is an expensive affair, with 2-3 star western-style rooms costing $70 per night or more for two people. Often there are different prices for the number of people, enabling a single traveler to find a cheaper room.  For $80-$120 you get the regular hotel amenities (TV, A/C, bathroom, tea, breakfast, etc.) along with some Japanese treats like a yukata (robe), slippers, a shoe horn, disposable toothbrush, etc.  Near most train stations are “business hotels” which lack character, but have convenient locations, basic amenities (plus in-room Internet connection) and a decent price.  We found business hotels to be useful and easy for our travels in Japan and usually paid between $60-$80 per night.  If you want the Japanese experience of staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese traveller’s lodge), we suggest going to a nice one and paying the $200 for the whole experience.
  1. Food and Alcohol - Aside from the basics listed above there are other costs that should be considered.  Food, of course, tops the list.  Food is one thing in Japan that offers a number of choices for different travelers.  It is possible to eat street-side noodles or a rice bowl meal for less than $4 dollars and then walk around the corner to a tempura restaurant that is $100 per person. Like many things in Japan, you pay for the experience.  Also, as a TwinF member mentioned, there are great choices in the convenience stores, like 7-11, which have delectable sushi rolls for about $2.  We found nearly all food, cheap or expensiv,e to be delicious, fresh and of high quality.  Also, you will surely drink your weight in Japanese tea, which is generally served free of charge.  The Japanese must consume more beer per capita than any other country.  Beer is sold everywhere and the prices are quite reasonable, depending on your drinking habits. A can of beer is usually about $2 from a vending machine and a draft beer in a restaurant is about $3-4.  Sake is also very popular and the prices vary widely based on reputation and quality, like wine.
  1. Tourist Activities - One of the wonderful things about Japan is that by simply being there, your tourist ambitions are fulfilled.  Walking the streets, riding the trains and sitting in parks all offer the tourist a view into the quirky and entertaining culture – free of charge.  You will pay for entrance into castles, some temples and shrines, etc.  These are usually between $5-10 per person. On the whole though, tourist activities in Japan are not prohibitively expensive and the most rewarding things are free.

So, to answer the question: Is Japan Expensive?  We would say yes.  We spent about $200-250 per day, all inclusive.   Compared to a place like Thailand, Japan is 3-4 times more expensive on a day-to-day basis.  But, the expense is the cost of admission to experience a truly unique, sophisticated and beautiful country that is extremely safe, clean and very rich in culture.  It was well worth our money.



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Tokyo's Costume Play Kids and Shibuya Crosswalk

By: leelefever on May 29, 2006 - 1:42am

Being that we're leaving from Tokyo, we decided to come back to experience three specific things that we didn't get to do on our first visit to the city. 

First, is what are called the cos-play-zoku, or costume play gang, that gather in Harajuku's Jingu-bashi in outlandish costumes.  They like having the attention for the most part, but you get the feeling that they aren't doing it to impress the tourists that photograph them.  They stick together and take lots of photos of one another too.  A weird and fun experience that we recommend highly.

 I didn't smell anything bad.

 You rarely see any young Japanese person without a mobile phone, even if they are wearing a little bo peep outfit.

 This is just plain scary and reminds me of Bangkok.

Next on the list was seeing the Shibuya crosswalk on a busy day. It is the busiest crosswalk in the world.  Amazing.

 This is before:

 and after:

Lastly, it would appear that I have some bizzare fascination with rush hour trains.  I would say that it is an interest in the daily lives of people in other countries.  Like in Mumbai, India, I made a special point to got to the Tokyo train station at rush hour.  Actually, I got up early to ride a packed train this morning just to see what it was like.

Once I got on, I was amazed at the absolute silence and how the volume of people meant that no one had to hold on. I was against the door and the girl next to me had her should in my back for the whole ride.  I only rode for two stops and felt good that I didn't have to be in the middle of all the people.  Here's a shot from inside that doesn't do it justice:

 These guys man some of the busiest stops on the line and they physically push people into the cars before the doors close. I didn't get to see it myself, unfortunately.

 And so, we're coming to a close of the Japan-based blogging, which is greatly enhanced by high speed internet connections in Japanese hotel rooms.  We're off to Bangkok in the morning and I imagine we'll write a little more about Japan before it's all over.

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In Japan: You See the Darndest Things on the Street

By: leelefever on May 29, 2006 - 12:48am

TwinF readers know that we're a bit cynical about the tourist experience and look for the authentic things that make a place unique or different.  It only takes a few seconds on the streets of Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto (or even in small towns) to feel that Japan is a very different place. Here are some of the things we've seen (or haven't seen):

Something that has bugged me is that there are very few trash cans in public places (compared to home). I sometimes carry trash around for 10 minutes looking for a proper receptical.  The Japanese are very particular about their trash and I think it's a good thing.  However, it does mean that some instruction is required.

 In every city there are buildings filled with tiny bars.  There are hundreds of them and one night we decided to check out a few.  Walking into one of these tiny bars is like walking into someone's living room and running one of their friends off the couch.  We were not welcome and it was obvious.  Signs like this display the bars by name:

 Another ubiquitous part of walking around is the prevalance of platic food.  The Japanese have mastered the art of creating plastic versions of the dishes served within a restaurant.  I rely on them and remain astonished at how good plastic food can look- and it never spoils!

 The Japanese have also made life easier for blind folks by providing a raised strip of sidewalk that leads to public transport, toilets, etc.  Not really remarkable, but truly ubiquitous.  They are everywhere.


 In Japan, you might see gas pumps that hang from the ceiling:

Or cantaloupes that cost  US$46.00.  This is an example of "omiyage", which is a present that someone brings back to friends after traveling.  Thanks to omiyage, the Japanese take gift shops to a whole new level.  It is the most perfect cantaloupe I've ever seen.

Or these contraptions, which must be some sort of bench.  I cannot find a comfortable way to sit in one.  Maybe I'm too big.

In Japan, you might even see hotels (often called Love Hotels) that display their rates as such.  Love Hotels are (supposed to be) used for couples who cannot get privacy at home, thanks to granny and the kids.

 My brother Randy went to Japan and one of his points was that every square inch of land is utililized for something productive.  He was right.  Outside of the cities you don't see yards beside houses.  Instead, you see rice paddies, which are much more productive than plain old grass.

The vending machines in Japan could be a whole other post.  Pocari Sweat is a bit like Gatorade and became one of my favorites.

 I heard about beer in vending machines so much, but we rarely saw any.  We figure a law must have changed.  Though, at one hotel we had vending machines for beer, whiskey and sake.  I like this quote from punk band The Ramones: "We came across a miracle, there was beer in the soda machine".  Some of the best and cheapest food comes from places where you pay a vending machine outside and take a ticket inside to be served.


In Japan, a constant source of hilarity is what some call "engrish", or English translated from Japanese that comes out a bit, um, off.  A perfect example.

 In Japan, you'll see heaps of young Japanese women struggling to walk with torturous high-heeled footwear.  I'm not sure if they don't know how to walk in heels or if their shoes are not meant for walking, but I truly feel sorry for them. Sometimes they fall down.

We're just hours from leaving at time of writing and I will miss Japan.  Quirky, beautiful, tasty, fun, Japan has it all.  I'll be back. 

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Hozu Gawa River Trip

By: leelefever on May 29, 2006 - 12:30am
Something we would recommend if you want to get outsdide of the cities around Kyoto is the Hozu Gawa River Trip. You take a train out to the mountains west of Kyoto and take a wodden boat thorugh the mountains for two hours. For us, the most entertaining part was listening to the reactions of the Japanese girls in front of us. Good fun and beautiful scenery.
Of course, this was a bit different than the Shotover Jet River Boats in New Zealand...

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The Cultural Centers of Japan: Kyoto and Nara

By: leelefever on May 28, 2006 - 2:38am

With Osaka as our base we took a few days and went to two of the major cultural centers of Japan: Kyoto and Nara.

The first capital of Japan was in Nara and Kyoto was the home of the emperial family for much of its history. This all makes for too many sites to count.  That's why I feel sorry that our time in this area is going to have to be condensed in one post.  We are leaving Japan soon and while we have an Internet connection, we hoping to get a few posts up in the last day or two.

Kyoto is only about 30-40 minutes for Osaka by express train.  However, this fact is misleading because it doesn't account for getting to the main station in Osaka or to the desired station in Kyoto.  All said and done, it took about 1.5 hours each way, which was a bit of a grind.

Though it rained and rained, Kyoto was amazing.  We're not huge fans of shrines and temples, but the gardens that accompany them are incredible , once you get outside of the Kyoto concrete jungle.

Ginkaku-Ji, which is a stop on the philosopher's path, was my overall favorite.  Small, but intricate and very well kept.

Despite seeing many temples and shrines in Japan, this was the first  time I had seen the zen gardens with carefully and almost unbelievable constructed sand structures.

Next was Heian Temple in Kyoto, or more specifically, the gardens at Heian, which you might recognize from the movie Lost in Translation: 


One of the real highlights for me was seeing a couple of real geishas in the Gion district of Kyoto.  I deliberated for a while and finally asked this one for a picture (in Japanese no less!)


Nara is an easy day trip from Osaka and most of the sights are all in the same park. Nara has the largest wooden structure in the world: the Daibutsu Den Hall, rebuilt last in 1709.  The size of the building is quite deceptive. It's big freaking HUGE in every porportion. Awesome.

 Inside is a giant wooden buddha (nearly 500 tons of bronze) and two very cool (and scary looking) wooden statues.

The park in Nara is covered in friendly Deer, who are considered national treasures and sometimes terrify food-carrying kids.   

And this completes the whirlwind tour of the Kansai region.  Phew.

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Osaka, Japan

By: leelefever on May 28, 2006 - 1:32am

The area around Osaka, which includes Kobe, Nara and Kyoto, is the cultural center of Japan and where we based ourselves for 5 days. 

We used Osaka as a base and stayed at the Hotel Riva Nankai in the Minami area, which was an excellent location (like Osaka's Times Square), but priced a bit more than we wanted at about US$120 per night.  Luckily, there was a mix-up and we had to change rooms and they gave us a better room for about US$85.  Woo-hoo!

So we kicked around Osaka some.  The aquarium was pretty amazing as it has the largest single indoor tank in the world which contains a whale shark- the world's largest species of fish.

 I really dug the jellyfish.

 Osaka is a bit grungier than the other cities we visited.  The fashoin is a little more urban and people are generally more boisterous.  This made for the best people watching in Japan.  All the rage in Osaka were knee-high black stockings and brightly colored heels:

All the guys have bleached hair worn a bit like the "hair bands" in the 1980s.

 We also saw a baseball game: the Osaka Buffaloes against Yokohama.  First of all... buffaloes?  They couldn't find anything more Japanese than that?  The game on the field was just like any American baseball game, but the crowd was a different story.  Each team had live marching bands in the outfield bleachers that made the most noise as their team's batter was at the plate.  Everyone was seated, even during a homerun, when they beat inflatable bat-things together furiously.  At one point, everyone blew up balllons and let them go at once.  Apparently we didn't get the memo, but it made for a cool spectacle.

 Then of course, the Japanese have invented innovative ways to dispense beer (that is a small keg on her back and a tap  in her hand).  This photo also provides further proof that it is impossible for Japanese girls to be in front of a camera without a "peace sign".

To cap it all off, we had a roto (conveyer belt) sushi joint behind our hotel, where we went twice to enlarge our stomachs.  The sushi just keeps coming.


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Why a Koi Tattoo?

By: leelefever on May 27, 2006 - 6:36pm

My decision to get a tattoo, and specifically Koi tattoo, was not something that I took lightly and I wanted something with lasting importance. For me, nothing is more symbolic than a Koi.

  Throughout my life, these fish have played a significant and enduring role through my family’s business of breeding and raising high quality Koi and goldfish for the US market.  Blue Ridge Fish Hatchery was founded by my father in 1958.

Yes, I grew up the son of a fish farmer.  The way some grow up milking cows, herding sheep, growing rice or baling hay, I grew up breeding, counting, feeding and packaging millions of fish on a goldfish farm in Kernersville, NC, USA.  Just outside of the house where I grew up are fields of water (ponds) used for growing Koi and goldfish.  As a kid, my friends and I would ride motorcycles around the farm and on more than one occasion, our motorcycles ended up at the bottom of a Koi-filled pond.

As a teenager, I would drive a cargo van filled with boxes of live fish in water to the airport for shipment all over the US.  Let me tell you, a vehicle full of water is difficult to keep between the lines as the water sways back and forth.  Conversations over dinner were often dominated by talk of raising, selling and breeding Koi (which bored me to death as a kid).  These fish were as much a part of my life as going to school, skateboarding with my friends or eating chocolate chip cookies.


In the 1980s and 90s, Blue Ridge became one of the nations largest and most successful breeders of domestic Koi, selling millions of fish a year.  Also in that time, my father, uncle and brother introduced a new type of Koi to the market called the Butterfly Koi (above), which is marked by long flowing fins.  Now, all over the world, these fish are bred and sold under the name “Butterfly Koi” and my brother Randy is the person that gave them that name.  This development increased the success of Blue Ridge and likewise, our family’s contribution to the history of the Koi. 

From my personal experiences, Koi have come to symbolize family, innovation, prosperity and strength.  And so, I have chosen to mark my skin with the image of a Butterfly Koi, in the country where the Koi breeding originated (Japan) and on a place on my body where the Koi will always be close to my heart. I cannot imagine anything more appropriate for me and my arm.


See also:  So, I Got a Tattoo 

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So, I Got a Tattoo

By: leelefever on May 27, 2006 - 6:18pm

 Japan seemed like the perfect place for me to get the most durable souvenir I could imagine- a tattoo.  I’ll talk about why I choose a Butterfly Koi soon, but for now I want to describe the process.

  I had been considering a tattoo for many years and have a few designs stashed away should the inspiration hit.  Upon arriving in Japan, I learned about the history and style of tattoos in Japan and thought it would be perfect timing.  The inspiration had hit. 

In a modern-history nutshell, the Japanese government used to tattoo prisoners, which led to tattoos being a symbol of criminals (perfect! I know).  In the 18th century, released prisoners would seek out an Irezumi-shi –a Japanese tattoo artist who could cover their criminal past with new tattoos.  The Japanese Irezumi style evolved from this past and is now considered the most artful in the world.  Visiting dignitaries like King George V had a tattoo placed on his forearm in 1881.  It helps too that Japan (and her tattoo studios) are very clean and responsible.

I cannot claim that my tattoo is in the Irezumi style, as it lacks color and is not elaborate or intricate.  After resigning myself to the event, I spent a lot of time on the design, taking inspiration from these two pictures among others. 

(The artwork on the right is by Barbara Psimas

My goal was to get a small tattoo placed on the inside of my right arm and high enough that that tattoo would not peek out from under a short shirtsleeve.  Here are the drafts, including the final one in the middle.

I took these drafts to a 5pm appointment at Chopstick Tattoos in Osaka on May 25th. There, I met the no-english-speaking Magoshi, the artist.  I have to say it is a bit daunting to work with a tattoo artist who does not speak your language and I don’t recommend it.  However, I was able to communicate through an English speaker and Magoshi produced a sketch that was an improvement on my own work and would provide the template for what would appear on my arm. I guess art is indeed universal


Before I knew it, Sachi and I were in a clean room and he was going at it on my arm.  For those that may have been confused, this video is of me reacting to the pain of the tattoo (I didn’t know Sachi was recording it). 

The pain wasn’t negligible, but it wasn’t excruciating either.  I have to say, like many do, that there is a bit of pleasure in the pain.  What freaked me out a bit was looking over at my skin after Magoshi had done the shading and seeing every pore leaking a tiny spot of blood. I could have done without seeing that.

 It took less than an hour and we left with a bandage on my arm covering my new souvenir and a smile.  It turned out even better than I expected and I have no regrets whatsoever.  I would like to say that I’m glad that I made this decision as a 32 year old man and not a 20 year-old college student.  I feel supremely confident that, at 32, I have the maturity and outlook to proceed with such a long-lasting decision with full awareness of the consequences.  Nevertheless, I’m sure my parents and in-laws are both ecstatic.

See also:  Why a Koi Tattoo? 

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