Saturday, August 29, 2009

Onigiri - Japanese Snack Food

In Japan, and Japanese influenced-countries like Taiwan, you can get sandwiches at the ubiquitous Lawson Stations or 7-11's, BUT you are missing out on a treat if you just stick with the Western food. Try an onigiri for a light, healthy and very tasty treat. About the size of a baseball, the standard triangular onigiri you can get in convenience stores is also an incredibly well-designed feat of packaging.

The central rice "ball" has a small amount of filling: in this case, if I read my Chinese right, it's creamy shrimp(?) - please correct me if I'm wrong here. But the crispy nori wrapping goes soggy if it touches the rice. Several years ago, Japanese design engineers came up with a way to keep the nori on the outside separate from the rice by a two-layer packaging design. You pull the tab (top dead center of the triangle) out and around, splitting the package in two, then pull off the plastic wrapping from each of the other corners, and voila - crunchy nori wrapped around the riceball. It's like the magician's trick where he pulls the tablecloth off the table and leaves the crockery intact.

Try two different flavors and a drink and you've got a great lunch for around USD$5.

Safe travels! Des

Saturday, August 22, 2009

G Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

I'd stayed at the G Hotel one night before, and wasn't too impressed with this self-consciously odd hotel. However, this time round I was in for a treat. As per last time, the vast open entrance hall was gently booming with ambient jazz, which starts off very soothing, but drives you crazy after a while. The same three odd chords ( a minor 13 / an augmented 9 etc...) repeated endlessly over a hip drum track. You get the picture.

"Sorry: you have to check in on the 15th floor." Oooo. Kay... So up we went... and were served ice-cream (rather nice apple-soybean ice cream) while I got checked in (little hiccup with the credit card - note to self: tell yer credit card company where you're going before you make the trip). After this got sorted... "We've given you a free upgrade to an Executive Suite." A... ha! Time for a little luxury after some of the dives I've been stuck in over the years.

360RM** for an "Executive Suite": two huge rooms that would have made six separate hotel rooms in Singapore: at twice the price. OK, the view was of the apartment building next door (and a bit of the sea), but the room was very luxurious. Free soft drinks in the fridge: admission to the Executive Meeting room (free breakfast: free BEER), and from said Executive Meeting room, what has to be one of the best views of the Malaysian mainland and Penang out to Batu Ferringi. You are not supposed to bring friends in and drink the fridge dry of beer, but they smilingly overlooked this (plus Damian is a charmer). All this and a rubber duck in the bath, too!


Safe travels! Des

**About USD$110 at time of writing.

Penang, Malaysia

Almost missed the connection at HK. Thought 70minutes would be long enough, but only JUST: with yet another x-ray and hoards of mainland Chinese in the way and jumping the line. I did make it to the plane (second Cathay Pacific flight I'd been on that day) to find the seats on this one were just as awful as the last flight. Lots of leg room, but there was a bit at the back of the bottom seat cushion that chafed my rear end for the entire flight. Quite a contrast to the Business Class upgrade on the flight from Taipei to Seoul, which was SWEET! Nice smiley service, but even my jaded color palate rebels against the batik-inspired turquoise and green of MH.

Malaysia has a colonial history, which may be apparent from this roadsign. Which placename does not fit with the others, children?

OK: it's Malaysia, so the immigration forms were the usual ones cunningly psychologically designed to weed out miscreants. "Are you bringing in illegal drugs?" Why would anyone with a greater than room temperature IQ (and yes, I am talking Celsius) even ASK that question? A different KIND of "stupid" is required to ask this one: "Have you visited any countries that the WHO has designated as centres for H1N1 virus? Yes or no? If you are caught lying you are liable to imprisonment." WTF?? YES or NO??? I am on a plane in mid-flight: I can not "phone a friend", nor look it up on the web. So what to do? Hmmm... I just put a big "?" in the middle and said I had no clue, as I was not a member of WHO, and listed the countries I had been in, in the last seven days. Seemed to work. This was a recurring theme throughout my trip: customers doing a quick thermometer check of the forehead or ear, and asking in a big form if I had stayed in "any countries that the WHO has...". Again, I don't have Peter Townsend's phone number, plus by the end of the trip, the local death toll from H1N1 went from 18 to 36, and I was pointedly writing "Malaysia" down as my guess at a WHO designated flu hotspot.

Anyway: got out of customs in Penang with no issues, and met my old friends Dave and Damian who had booked me into the G Hotel on Gurney Drive, Penang. More anon.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I'll Have the Ummmm...: Korean Language

After Taiwan and Malaysia (some English spoken and English ubiquitous, respectively), Korea was a bit of a shock. Maybe it was too much MASH as a kid, or the thought that there were thousands of US troops still stationed there, or the belief that, as a civilized nation - it would be expected that..... but no. They don't speak English. At all. The colleague I was traveling with is fluent in Hokkien, several dialects of Chinese and English (OK: Singlish), and with me in tow, we can get through most foreign encounters OK, but this was off the scale. "I can't really leave the hotel" she said, exasperatedly. "There is one restaurant just down the road where they know me, and I point at the pictures on the menu." The picture shows one example of the problems you face.

The written language (Hangul) is completely unlike any other script on the planet, and is claimed to be the most logical script on earth, since each combination of sticks and balls even gives you instructions on how to pronounce it! The reason for the logic is simple: Hangul did not evolve naturally over time: it was created at the instigation of Emperor Sejong in 1406, who wanted a unique script for his country instead of just half-borrowing from the Chinese (like the Japanese did).

Since Korean is only used in South and North Korea, there is not much call to learn the language, and unlike Japanese, learning the written language does not even help you with other languages. As always, I found you can go far with the usual politeness things : Kamsamnida (Thank you) and Annio-Hassio (Hello), but that's as far as I got.

Safe Travels! Des

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Korea: Three Days

I'm typing this on the KAL bus from the Coex Hotel to Incheon Airport with a head full of memories from my three day whirlwind tour that took me from Seoul in Northern South Korea down to the South and also points East and West. This time it's proving difficult to pin down my experiences in a few words, but I'll try.

I got out of Taiwan just as Marokot was about to hit the island. After a two month long drought and (see previous post) the highest temperatures in 40 years this was a particularly cruel irony.
OK: Korea. Let's start as I did, at the HUGE Incheon airport, recently voted # 1 in service beating out Changi (Singapore), where I waited on line for immigration for what seemed like hours getting hotter and hotter simply due to the temperature. Meanwhile, heat-sensing cameras were checking everyone for fever: but my problem wasn't fever, it was that PHEW. It was too hot! I quickly found out that air-conditioning in Korea is just that: the air is treated like an honored guest, being gently conditioned to a temperature 1 degree below that of the stifling outside air.

The hotel I was staying at, the Coex Intercontinental (Seoul) had the friendliest check-in lady I have ever met in my life: Joy Moon. I've met a lot of good and helpful hotel workers, but she should be a national treasure! She and I crossed paths at check-in; when I forgot my key card; and at check-out. "I remember you!" she beamed, and didn't even check my ID.
August is the rainy season in Korea, and everywhere you looked, there was greenery. Not the sterile austerity of grasslands, but trees. Lots and lots of trees. Covering (according to my friend Mr Park) 70% of the country. I'm used to the rolling hills of upstate New York, but Korea is similat but different: real mountainous hills, all covered in forest. And startling clusters of large apartment buildings. As we drive from the North to the South of the country, we would drive through wooded hills and beautiful mountains to find BAM!! a cluster of 50 identical apartment buildings. Right in the middle. More later.

Safe travels! Des

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Taoist Temple: Hsinchu, Taiwan

Right behind the inglorious bulk of the Ambassador Hotel, Hsinchu is this gaudy but beautiful Taoist Temple. I'm sure there must be a lot of them around, but this is the only one I can recall ever seeing. It's in use (you can see the lady in the shadows burning incense).

I got back from the long walk (about 3 hours) dripping with sweat and mildly subburned. At dinner that night, my colleague Tommy asked if I'd stayed in the hotel all day. No: why? "It was the hottest day in 40years in Hsinchu: 39.4C". That's 103degF: no wonder I stopped at every 7-11 on the way to drink Kirin Afternoon Tea! [Note that Kirin Afternoon Tea is the official tea drink of the Joys of Travel Blog until someone pays me to say otherwise].

Safe Travels! Des

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hsinchu, Taiwan

Finally, 30hours after starting off down the road, I got to my hotel room in Hsinchu and managed to get a good 4-5hours solid sleep, which is not bad. Up at 5: a little B2B blogging and email, then out into the heat of the day at around 8am...
One of the eponymous "joys of travel" in foreign countries is that every step can bring you a new experience, even after 20 or so years of global travel. Just stepping out of the hotel, there was clearly some kind of wedding car thing going on... but what was the box in front of the bride's car? Pop! Bang! Yup: Chinese celebrations mean fireworks.

Only mad dogs, this sweaty Englishman and 1,000's of Tawanese people were out in the noon day heat. It was 37C at 11:00am (for those of you used to the Fahrenheit scale, this equates to "Sweet Jesus, that's hot!"). Scooters everywhere; and tucked away behind the huge Ambassador Hotel was the Dayglo austentatiousness of a lovely Taoist Temple, which will feature in my next posting.
Safe travels! Des

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Narita Airport Stopover

After nearly missing my connecting flight from Washington Dulles to Tokyo (D'oh!! Note to self: check before assuming a very similar flight is a codeshare!), it's now 24 hours since I started my journey to Taipei. Where better to lay over for a couple of hours than my old stamping ground, Japan? It's a good chance to practise language skills: if they answer you in English you have failed - play him off, Keyboard Cat! And the perfect opportunity to get some real Japanese food. The restaurants where I live in the US are labeled "Japanese food" but are run by Chinese people...meaning they're about as Japanese as I am. 2500yen at Narita Airport gets you one of the many Kansai soul foods - Unajuu (broiled eel layered on rice).
How authentic is it? Lemme see... Square lacquered wooden box with a lid on it? Check. Eel liver soup in a wooden cup - also with lid on it, and the eel liver actually present? Check. Eel nicely arranged on top of rice and not smothered in nori-flakes and/or sesame seeds? Check. Taro (sweet soy sauce) added in a small quantity to the eel just before grilling, not dumped on top of it like barbecue sauce on a 4th of July hamburger, destroying the flavor? Oh yeah!. Good stuff.

No cellphone signal (so no change there) but I can take a nice picture of the calligraphy at the restaurant with the cellphone anyway. If you read the hiragana, you can see the way they've made the eel into the "U" character for Unagi.

Only one real "beef": the airport shops have inspired a haiku:

At home waits my fridge.
Refrigerator magnet:
Are you in Japan?

Travel safe! UncleDes