Saturday, October 01, 2005

Sunday October 2, 11:33 a.m.

I've got my windows open and my fan on, and yet it still feels like summer is trying to hang on for dear life in my room. Wouldn't it be nice if I actually felt chilly? Well, I guess I may have to wait another couple of weeks or so.

Now that I've got the Taiwan odyssey out of the way, it's back to regular programming here. And befitting that fact is the additional fact that everything else will sound rather mundane in comparison. any case, I've gotta do some major ironing and then head on out to Tokyo International Forum to meet my former student and help her with some interview questions.
Saturday October 1, 11:35 p.m.


On my hotel TV of well over a hundred channels, I managed to catch bits and pieces of "Red Dragon", "Wild Wild West" and "Ghostbusters". Maybe I will see the first two in their entireties someday.

The final day in Taiwan was just breakfast and then checking out. Our final minder was Mr. G, a kindly old man. The Madame and I, along with a couple of others, were the first ones to board the big bus. However, Mr. G told us that it would become a full complement since the bus had to pick up several more pairs at a few other hotels. The entire trip would take an hour but at least we got to see more of the city in daylight. Then once that was done, we had one more chance to do some shopping at the final duty-free shop. I'd forgotten to get a couple of more souvenirs for the students so it was lucky I could get the chance although I think there were just a few too many of these duty-free chances on the itinerary. All in all, I had amassed quite a few things on my journey which amounted to a full two bags along with my original carry-on.

We got to the airport about a couple of hours before boarding. The processing didn't take as long getting out as it was getting in. And finally, around 3:20 in the afternoon, our plane was on its way home.

The Madame and I both agreed that Taiwan was a worthwhile trip and perhaps another one could be made someday...this time on a bit more luxurious junket although there was nothing wrong with the economy pack. However, The Madame confessed that she was already researching our next trip to Vietnam. She may have to wait a while until my financial and migratory situations finally come to a conclusion. But in the meantime, there are always the domestic trips. And maybe the both of us can continue evolving our relationship.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Saturday October 1, 11:42 a.m.

October has started a lot more appropriately than September did. That is to say, the temps are much more acceptable today. I got a knock from an artificially high-voiced fellow doing the census. Yup, today, October 1, is National Census Day (just gives you the tingles, doesn't it?). It's the quintennial day in which national census takers find out how many people fill out censuses. Apparently, one of them is now me. Anyways, I got that out of the way within 5 minutes so I'm just waiting for the guy to come back at about noon to pick up the form. I was gonna put down "rabbit hutch" under the category of size of apartment but since the space would only accept a numerical figure...

Gonna be pretty busy today with a lot of errand-running and Immigration stuff to handle. I actually got some good news for a change on that front. Paddy was able to score a triple if not a homer with me getting my koseki from my mother's hometown. He said that if I could send a fax of my birth certificate over to the town hall there, that will suffice. Hmm...I have the certificate with me but I'm just not sure if it will be acceptable enough for the officials there. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. On the other side, my uncle called me up and told me that he's sending over his contribution of documents today. Again, fingers are crossed.

Now, back to the Wonderful World of Haruhiko in Taiwan...


Our final full day in Taiwan. It was a bit rainy out there. After our usual breakfast in the basement ballroom, we met up with Mr. J once more in the lobby of our hotel. Unlike Day 2's full crew, it was gonna be another "just us" tour with Mr. J and the driver so it was back to the minivan. And a pretty nice minivan it was, too....a state-of-the-art Volkswagen with GPS.

The day's voyage would be a mix of country and city climaxing with an ascent up to the 89th floor of the world's tallest building, Taipei 101. However, the morning would have us traveling for an hour out of the city and into the mountainous areas over winding roads. There were a couple of sites which caught our collective eye. One was a whole bunch of cute little houses popping up like mushrooms on one side of a hill. Mr. J told us they were actually very ornate tombs. The Madame kinda shivered at that point...she scares rather easily, as would later be confirmed during lunch. The other site was while we were traveling through an old industrial town which definitely has seen better days. We saw these glowing flourescent tubes pointing out from buildings like spokes of a bicycle wheel. Mr. J told us that those buildings were basically brothels. Truck drivers need their own rest and relaxation so they often stop off at these places, allegedly to pick up a stick of pep-up gum (and you can actually get those, too). The buildings have large front windows in which a girl dressed up in a miniskirt and not much else just sat at a desk waiting for prospective customers to drive up.

Finally, we got to our destination which was a former gold mine area by the northeastern coast of the island. We had to go up some a hill via some winding road which made me slightly queasy but I was still able to hold in my breakfast. There was an inadvertent joke which made me do a double-take. Mr. J, in his usual repetitive way, was describing the historical significance of the area when he suddenly pointed that there it was...right by the 7-11. Well, next to the historically significant 7-11, was this narrow alley lined with various shops of various products and aromas which we were to traverse for a good 500 metres or so. We saw places making confectionaries, making blobby meat buns and producing various wares. And then we came to the end which was this ledge overlooking the cove. It was quite a beautiful site so of course, we unsheathed our cameras. Then, Mr. J took us back on the road heading back to the 7-11 when we made a left down a steep staircase. There was one instance of incongruous architecture in the form of a Russian tea house. Next to it was our tea and then lunch spot.

To enter the restaurant, we had to go through a very low stone tunnel for which even The Madame had to bow her head to manage. Then it was up a couple of steps and into this three-storey wooden building or teahouse. We went up to the 2nd floor and onto the balcony with another panoramic view of the cove. A rather sullen waitress took care of the tea part for the first half hour with the usual techniques already shown in the previous tea seminars. However, nothing was sold at the restaurant, thank heavens. Then, we ended up having lunch at the same table. It was another gorgeous feast of various dishes including juicy prawn, stewed pork with limp sliced bamboo whose texture and taste resembled that of stroganoff noodles. , and ma bo do fu. We almost had a perfect time there until some hungry wasp decided to butt in and try to suck the juices out of some of the prawn shells. That got The Madame vacating her seat very quickly. What got her and me a bit nervous was the fact that the little buzzer was doing quite a bit of flying around our heads as well as getting back to his bountiful feast. The Madame had to call up Mr. J for a rescue although he just reassured her that the wasp was really just interested in the prawn. And showing his flair for salesmanship, he iterated that the food must be good if even wasps were willing to go for it. However, the nice thing was that the sullen waitress actually gave us a beaming smile and a "Shie-shie" when I complimented her on the meal in my fractured Mandarin. Nice to know that the adage "You can't tell a book by its cover" still holds sway in the 21st-century.

We were back on the road again...this time, to a railroad station. Mr. J got us our tickets and then took us on a train ride for half an hour to a small village. There was only one track so when the train reached the village, that village was the final stop, and so the train just reversed and headed back. We walked along the old buildings and noticed that a lot of them were just plain empty or housed with with the very young or the very old. Mr. J remarked that all of those in-between fled to bigger cities for work. We finally reached a place which specialized in paper lanterns. The old woman there spoke in semi-fluent Japanese and invited us in to make our own huge paper lantern so we wrote down our wishes in English and Japanese on this sturdy crepe paper of a rather large size. And then she attached it to this wire frame. We went outside where we held onto it while she lit some kindling in a small basket underneath the lantern. It resembled a miniature version of a hot-air balloon. And then once she got it lit, she gave the word and we let it go. The pink lantern just shot up in the air like a rocket and then disappeared into the clouds. The Madame wondered if it would make it all the way back to Japan. I just thought it would probably end up in the Pacific somewhere and devoured by sharks.

The minivan was back so we hopped on in and our next stop was Taiwan's answer to Niagara Falls. The brochure and other material kept comparing these waterfalls to the world's most famous ones...ones that I proudly acknowledge as belonging to my country so I silently scoffed. We had to navigate our way down some rocky slope. Of course, with my Bobby Orr knees, I was the last one to make it down. The Madame asked me how I was which was a bit of a verbal emasculation. The falls themselves were shaped very closely to the Canadian Falls which made me wonder if these waterfalls were natural or man-made. However, The Madame enjoyed it for the nature and the negative ions given off, so that was good enough for me.

After several minutes enjoying the fresh air, we made our way up and back into the van. It was back to the long journey into Taipei. I think the two of us had a small nap..I know I did. When I woke up, we were back in a sunny downtown and back to....where else? Duty-free shopping. Like the shopping in the basement of that ritzy hotel the day before, this shop was also on the high end of things. I kept the hovering staff happy by buying a few things here and there but The Madame and I tried to keep them at bay by not staying at any one place in the shop too long. We also had an extended stay in the washrooms which helped.

When we got back to the van, Mr. J suggested to us about a massage since there were still a few hours before dinner at our last restaurant for our trek. We quickly demurred on the massage still remembering the painful experiences from the night before. However, the two of us wanted to go for the real bubble tea. Mr. J, being the hardened veteran he was, had his driver look up the info on the GPS. Sure enough, there was a place near the Taipei 101. It was a nice little trendy cafe: lots of large windows to let the light and scenery in, and a lot of young staff and customers. Hmph...the two of us were probably the oldest ones there with the exception of Mr. J. The Madame was still a bit skittish of having cold bubble tea due to the tap water so we ordered hot bubble tea. At first, I wondered how we were gonna be able to drink hot bubble tea without having our tongues scalded. Well, the tea came with spoons and not straws so that resolved that issue. It was great tea, though. Definitely worth a second visit.

Then we were off to this local restaurant with the Japanese name, Aoba. The two of us were a bit apprehensive about it since the day before, Ms. S castigated it as being just expensive and not very good quality-wise. Well, we were quite happy with it, actually. Again, all the food came out in one big invasion on our table. And once again, there was so much of it that we couldn't finish it off. Well, after that delightful culinary surprise, The Madame came to the decision that Ms. S would definitely not be on the request list for any future trip to Taipei. She much rather preferred ol' repetitive Mr. J. I had to admit that the old man, despite my reservations about the guy when we had first arrived, was a good ol' tour conductor and someone that I would heartily recommend to any friends or students heading for a similar tour to Taipei.

Finally, it was the visit to our tour's piece de resistance, Taipei 101. By the time we got there, it had already gotten dark so the tower was already lit up like a glowing bamboo stalk which it was supposed to resemble. In fact, the entire area was probably the most modern I had seen in my three nights in Taipei. The first 5 floors of the complex represented a shopping mall reminiscent of Roppongi Hills. And then we came to the elevator taking us to the 89th floor. Mr. J bought us our tickets and we just jetted off on the fastest lift ride in the world. Our ears popping like corn kernels attested to that fact. Our guide bantered to us...very rapidly, since, well, it was the fastest lift ride in the Mandarin, Japanese and English. Once we got out, the floor reminded me in decor and setup of the main observation deck for the CN Tower, so I wasn't duly overwhelmed. However, the night view was quite nice although one side just overlooked basically nothing but a sea of black. There was still the main part of downtown which just glittered so I took pictures of that. It was just the two of us up there; I'm sure Mr. J had been up the tower plenty of times already so that he probably treated the experience just like I treated any trip to Niagara Falls...with a yawn (but I'm still proud that the better looking Falls are on the Canadian side). Once we got our cameras shot up we made it back down to the 5th floor about 10 minutes before the appointed meeting time. I was surprised to find out that most of the tower is still unoccupied; quite a waste of energy and money to keep something like this up without the tenants to finance it. There must've been a lot of fistfights in the Taiwanese Parliament to get this tower up and running several months ago.

Mr. J picked us up and we took one picture with him since The Madame was totally taken with him and we made our final drive back to the hotel after a very long but happy day. Going through downtown in the van, I was just impressed by the energy of the stores, people and neon just blazing. I can't say that the Ginza has that type of juice anymore although I could be seeing Tokyo's most expensive avenue through 10 years of living here.

We got to our hotel, took our showers and tried to see if the basement ballroom was open for coffee without having to be greeted by that portly snarl queen. We got to B1 to see that the place was dark. Well, so much for the 24-hour cafe. So we ended up gabbing for a while in my room. The two of us came to the conclusion that our trip was gonna be a life-long memorable one. The Madame was sorry to see the end of it come so soon but the next day was the day we went back home.
Friday September 30, 10:33 p.m.

Well, my first full day back in Japan had me on a wild goose chase at Speedy's. That demo lesson student pulled an AWOL. I had a rather fishy sense about her when she had first come in to talk with Speedy. My thinking is that she was a spy from one of the rival companies such as NOVA or AEON on a fishing tour. In any case, I was still able to be the omiyage Santa Claus and bring my first gift of 20-year-old Pu'arh tea. I rather felt sorry for Speedy, though, since he didn't sound too happy when I left the office.

I actually hit the gym for the first time since I got back. I did a full workout. I felt silly though wearing my good shoes with my sweaty outfit home since I wanted to take the shower here rather than at the gym. I got home and had an early dinner consisting of salad and a box lunch. Then, perhaps it was Taiwan that did it, but I took a nap which went into the evening. I ended up on the futon for five hours before finally getting up a half hour ago just to do this blog.

And back to our main feature...


I woke up on Tuesday fact, I woke up and drifted back to sleep several times during my first night in Taipei. So much for no jet lag. But it really shouldn't have happened since we only went back one hour during the plane ride. I guess it must've been the excitement of being in another country. The Madame also mentioned that she didn't sleep too well either; she's rather a light sleeper, I gather.

Breakfast consisted of a buffet in the B1 of the hotel. It was in this faded windowless ballroom with a couple of adjoining smaller rooms. The place was already packed when The Madame and I came in at about 7:00 a.m. but luckily one of the waitresses saw our plight and led us to one of the empty rooms. It didn't stay empty for long, though, as other Japanese tourists came to share our table. The buffet itself was OK as buffets go: the usual pork bits and scrambled eggs with a little Chinese stuff warming over the sterno.

At 8:40, we came down to the lobby to start our first full long day of touring. Unlike the previous day, we had a full bus tour crew consisting of members from yesterday's pickup and some other Japanese couples. It wasn't Mr. J this time but Ms. S, a youngish/oldish woman of seemingly no-nonsense military precision. She did a roll call in a very loud voice and got everyone hustled onto a large tour bus.

The theme of the day was a full tour within the city itself. We certainly got the subtheme of the journey when Ms. S started to pepper her nonstop explanations with a lot of monetary figures which kinda turned my traveling companion off. Our first stop was a temple. We stayed there for about 20 minutes during which we took the usual pics and witnessed a large group of acolytes in either black robes or street clothing chanting and praying. We also made our own wishes. The chanting was so loud that even Ms. S' voluminous vocal cords couldn't penetrate it.

Then we took the bus over to what I think was the Memorial Hall for Chiang Kai-Shek, the father of the country himself. It was an impressively massive structure whose gleaming white walls just gleamed in the sun. The setup resembled that of the Imperial Palace here in Otemachi. Inside, we were privy to see the leader's old Pontiac limo from decades ago before going up the elevator to a higher floor. Once we got off, a lot of us dropped our jaws in awe when we entered the huge chamber containing the gigantic bronze statue of the man himself sitting peacefully. It easily dwarfed the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington. Ms. S informed us that the room was open to the sun only for a few hours everyday and then it was sealed with only a couple of guards on duty. She also said that temps in the chamber got mighty high in the sealed room.

After taking some more pics, we clambered down 88 steps from the memorial and then walked another hundred metres or so into a small park where there was a small path pebbled with jutting rocks. Beside it was a stone slate facing us which had carvings of the right and left feet. The path was a reflexology tester and the slate showed us which parts of the feet reflected certain parts of the body. I didn't but everyone else including The Madame took off their shoes and/or socks and tried to negotiate through the path. Heard quite a few ouches and ughs from the madding crowd. There was one old guy in a wheelchair having his feet massaged by a tech nearby.

The next stop on the tour was to another tea seminar. Hm...repetition seemed to be another underlying theme, I thought. However, the lady who did this seminar enthralled the female university students with the advice that wiping wet tea leaves on the skin acted as a rejuvenator. It would seem even just out of post-pubescence, women were very aware of the ravages of aging. Me? I just enjoyed sipping the various kinds of Pu'arh, Oolong and Jasmine that came my way with the sweets. Afterwards, I bought what would be my biggest round of purchases in the form of various teas. Man, the students had better be grateful.

It was back to the bus and a ride to where else? Another duty-free shop. We were given 40 minutes to carouse. I took that opportunity to buy some more souvenirs in the form of pineapple cake. Once again, the staff were on us like flies to honey trying to pawn off their wares. The Madame wasn't too impressed with the jewelry, stating that the stones weren't cut too well and that the surrounding stuff was too gaudy for her tastes.

After all that touring and shopping, it was time for lunch. And lunch was at the famed sho ron po dumpling restaurant, "Din Dai Fong". There are a couple of branches here in Tokyo as well which always attracts long lineups at lunch.Well, we were lucky enough to go to the flagship restaurant in downtown Taipei. Not surprisingly, the place had a sizable lineup outside despite it having four floors. There was a digital counter outside reading off the numbers off of tickets that waiting customers had to get into the place. Fortunately for us, the tour planners had already gotten us in to the fourth floor so it was just a case of navigating the tight corridors and crowds to the 4th floor. We had to be separated into two groups.

The food came at us like a storm. Having brought up in dim sum-crazy Toronto, I was accustomed to having my food brought out all at once but my traveling companions were caught a little off-stride when all of the steamers containing not only the world-famous dumplings but also various other examples of dim sum fare were unleashed in one wave. Ms. S efficiently rattled out that we were on a clock, people and that we had to get back downstairs a half-hour later. A tall order, to be sure. There were four guys with us in the room who struck me as being rejects from indie bands so they were getting a bit snarly with this overparental authority. But luckily, no other major fireworks occurred. And we were all pretty famished so the food did go quickly. We didn't quite make the half-hour record but Ms. S wasn't unduly put out.

Back on the bus. It was another hour's ride out to the boonies where Ms. S confided that she had a son in the army (!) which made me and The Madame wonder how old she really was. The afternoon segment of our journey started with a visit to, and I'm paraphrasing Ms. S here, the Yasukuni Shrine of Taiwan (I never caught the original name of the place). Well, that's a pretty ironic way to describe a place. And unlike the Shrine in Tokyo which has caused so much controversy throughout all of Asia, the Taiwanese version had a couple of guards out front sweltering in their uniforms but standing rigidly at attention by the gates like the Beefeaters at Buckingham Palace. And there was a changing of the guard, a very slow and majestic march to the shrine itself. Some ominous looking minders of the shrine silently but clearly told some of our parasol-sporting members to shut them down in deference (there was a sign that stated that all hats must be taken off once inside the grounds).

A half-hour later, the bus took us to the famed Royal Museum where we spent a full 90 minutes making a quick tour. The Madame and I along with a few other women tagged along with Ms. S and she provided us with an informative account of the various exhibits which included some impossibly intricate jade sculptures. Not surprisingly, the four L'Arc-En-Ciel wannabes were nowhere to be found. They probably went behind the museum to smoke some spliffs. About two-thirds of the tour in, Ms. S left us on our own and The Madame and I made a beeline to the souvenir shop and I got some more stuff for the students and family.

Our next stop was yet another souvenir shop. Unlike the previous one though, this one was a cut above. It was nestled underneath a huge modern hotel and boasted a lot of the brand names. Of course, I didn't bother getting any stuff from Chanel or Ferragamo.

By the time we finished things off there, The Madame and I were noticing that there was gonna be a breakup of sorts in our large group. A few of the members had signed up for full-body massages, and several others opted for the famous (or notorious) foot massages. The Madame and I had thought about getting one although it wasn't part of our tour package but then Ms. S spoke to us directly for the very first time and offered to include us with the rest of the younger group. She told us that it would be a few more hours before our table would be ready for dinner and since we wouldn't be heading back to the hotel, she figured that we might as well get our money's worth. So we decided to go for it for 900 yuan.

As Ms. S would repeatedly tell us, the reflexology salon was one frequented by Japanese celebs like comedian Ken Shimura and actress Keiko Matsuzaka. The place itself had the look of a well-worn shop in the inner city unlike those very fancy-schmancy spas in Tokyo. But then again, these places in Taiwan were just like sento (neighbourhood bathhouses) in Japan....places to relax and enjoy banter. At the front, we all had to doff off our shoes and socks and then we were taken all the way to the back of the shop, past two rows of settees where techs were already hard (and I do mean hard) at work pummeling soles and kneading toes. There were several wash basins in which a couple of techs put in some hot but not scalding water and then some brown powder. We had to put our feet into the solution and soak for 5 minutes. The powder had an effect which made our tootsies heat up and tingle.

Then we were all brought to the next shop beside the main salon where there was another room full of settees and waiting masseurs. I hopped on mine while The Madame lay down on the one to the right of me. Then, the ride began. My guy started using his knuckles to dig a path through my sole. It didn't particularly hurt and in a way it was rather soothing. I was a bit worried about my rather large corns but his kneading didn't bring any pain there either. However, the screams started emanating from my traveling companion, and for that matter, from some of the other members. The young lady to the left of me was alternately grimacing and reveling in the feelings of her massage so that I was wondering silently if she would have a lucrative future career in S&M movies. As for me, the pain started coming when my guy started gong at my toes. There was one part of my big toe which objected to the attention of the masseur's rather pointy fingers. I didn't yell or scream out but my face conveyed varying emotions to which he said to me in Japanese "shoulders". Ahhh...I reacted. We had been given pamphlets on which were illustrated maps of feet with the corresponding body parts. I was checking off the parts to which I registered pain. It looked like there was something to this reflexology after all. All of the painful parts of my feet registered with the parts of my body that I usually complain about: shoulders, neck and eyes.

However, during this so-called "relaxation", there came really the only down part of our entire trip. Ladies came by to do a hard-sell on The Madame and my moaning neighbour to my left to get them to buy these huge bottles of pills to take care of those aches and pains that registered from our feet. I suppose that the women were no different than the duty-free shop staffers. But they had come during a time that was supposed to be relaxing (it wasn't) and it wasn't as if we could just get up and leave easily. I think that vulnerabililty irked the Madame and my neighbour. I didn't even let my lady get through the "front door", so to speak. I just looked at the bottles of pills, conveniently located on the other side of the foot maps, rather uninterestedly and just nodded non-committally before slowly turning back to the foot maps. That short-circuited her spiel. I was glad for the experience and just as glad that I probably won't do it ever again.

The Madame and I finally got separated from the rest of the group. For some logistical reason, the bus couldn't come in time to pick us up for dinner so Ms. S hailed us a cab and drove with us shotgun to the restaurant. The Madame and Ms. S had a short harmless tete-a-tete about the efficiency of that foot massage (The Madame complained of a sore back due to the session right up to the next morning). Our dinner for the 2nd night was a more down-at-home affair. The dish du soir was a bowl of ramen but actually the ramen wasn't all that impressive compared to the so-called supporting dishes. We had some stewed fatty pork called kakuni (which is also quite famous in Okinawa, a place that's just a stone's-throw away from Taiwan), some greens with some mincemeat on top, juicy boiled prawn and some other stuff. It was great stuff but even I couldn't finish everything. I was able to finally put that phrasebook to good use. I told the waitress "hao-ch" or "It was delicious" for which I got a smile back. I'm not sure if the smile indicated that my tones were so horribly off or if I were on target but I assumed that I'd said it properly enough.

Finally, after a long day, we got back to our hotel. It was the usual nighttime routine. We took our showers and waited to see if we would be still energized enough to get together for a chat. Despite the heavier schedule of the day, The Madame did take up my invitation and we headed downstairs. I'd initially read that the Paradise boasted a 24-hour cafe. Well, we got to the cafe and it was half-dark. When we approached the lone matron behind the counter, she gave us a flash evil eye before she calmed down enough to show us the menu. We ordered a couple of hot milk teas and gabbed for half an hour before the matron started turning off all the lights, save one. My, that was an awfully big hint! The Madame was aghast at the service of this portly woman. As it turned out, this so-called 24-hour operation finished at 10:30 which it was when the woman started shutting down. And I reminded my friend and former student about what Ms. S had said at one point during the tour: Taiwanese society, unlike Japanese society, does not place good service high on the priority list. It's everyone to himself and herself in this country. Her very direct statement also reflected another latent truth about traveling in Taiwan. It was a good call by The Madame to go on a full tour. We had been insulated in a warm blanket of carefully trained natives who knew how to handle Japanese tourists. We would've probably been snarled at as interlopers or annoyances unless our Chinese language skills were on top if we had gone the individual traveling route.

The second day was over.
Friday September 30, 4:49 p.m.

Continuing on with Day One of the Taiwan trip: after all of the shopping at the duty-free shop, we were finally taken to our respective hotels. Luckily for the Madame and me, our hotel was the first stop. It's called The Paradise on Hsin Kuang Rd, a bit of an inner city type of area which reminded me of Shimbashi or Ueno here in Tokyo. Mr. J took the two of us in for check-in. The front desk staff was also conversant in Japanese. The lobby was fit for a small city hotel but it seemed to be crammed with a fountain which deserved to be in a larger, more ornate establishment.

Our hotel rooms faced each other on the 7th floor. The Paradise, true to its 3-star rating, seemed like a Holiday Day Inn. My room was the usual double bed affair with two chairs, a desk, a functional bathroom, TV, fridge and closet. But no minibar. However, I was quite impressed at how many channels the TV could get. It was well over a hundred of them: a mix of the international news channels, CNN and BBC, movie channels and a lot of different Chinese-language stations. Over here, an average hotel TV will just get you the 7 basic channels, a few movie channels, porn. Not a porn channel to be seen anywhere on this TV.

After unwinding for about an hour, Mr. J called us down to the lobby because it was time for the dinner segment. This time, it was just the two of us so the old guy took us personally to another part of the downtown to a restaurant. As we were being taken there, I noticed how much of the traffic is just clogged with scooters. They were just weaving in and out through the nooks and crannies made by the larger automobiles like X-wing fighters around Imperial Star Destroyers. It was amazing the dexterity of these scooter drivers. Mr. J, with a slight lament, talked about the headaches these guys could induce in a regular auto driver.

Finally, we got to this restaurant which specialized in shark's-fin soup and abalone, something that was specifically written on our itineraries. While Mr. J sat at another table with his co-horts, The Madame and I were seated a few tables in what was a fairly trendily appointed place, decor-wise: black leather chairs and black tables set against white stucco walls. The music was smooth jazz. True to the insular nature of our tour, the majority of customers was Japanese tourists. I made my first faux pas when I, unthinkingly, took a sip of the water which came to us in glasses. Realizing it too late after all the talk of not drinking tap water, The Madame got worried and asked about it to Mr. J. I had images of me spending all night on the "throne" in the bathroom or heaving out the other end. Mr. J and the waitress reassured her that everything was OK and that the water was safe. She relented but wasn't too assuaged since her feeling was that although the natives may be used to the stuff, the local water may not be to the tourists' liking. I told her with some false bravado that I was sure everything would be OK. But I ordered a Taiwan beer for an extra 88 yuan.

Both the shark's-fin soup and abalone came in bubbling pots filled with a thick soup of what I thought was oyster sauce, cornstarch, soy sauce and what-have-you. Very delicious but The Madame, with her appetite of a hummingbird, had to give the remaining half of her abalone over to me...not that I was complaining, mind you.

After the both of us were thoroughly stuffed, Mr. J and his driver took us further into the downtown area. In his repetitive style, he gave us a description of the various areas including the local jail, the Akihabara-like electronics area and the famous Night Market. The man certainly knew how to handle his Japanese guests since he used a lot of Tokyo name places to analogize the various areas in Taipei. While we were heading to the Night Market, I noticed how much of Taipei resembled a mix of Tokyo and Toronto. I swore that one neighbourhood was almost a dead ringer for Yonge St. north of Bloor.

Mr. J dropped us off at the opening of the Night Market, a long strip which reminded me of Harajuku. I had originally thought the area would be just a large mass of corrugated-tin roofed open shacks sellling all sorts of food that would best fit that infamous dinner scene in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom". However, at least the part we saw was a lot trendier with lots of boutiques and a few stalls selling goodies. Mr. J wisely let us explore our own way down the street for about 40 minutes before meeting him at a designated store. The Madame took a look at some accessories shops while I ended up buying a pair of baggy short pants for 288 yuan as loungewear in my hotel room since I couldn't bring along my pyjamas. Once again, I noticed just how much all the surrounding neon and architecture struck me as being so much like Toronto's Chinatown.

Mr. J drove us back to the hotel around 8:30. When we got back to our respective hotel rooms, I proposed that we could meet up again after our showers and chat. But The Madame seemed a bit tired after the exertions of the day so I gave her an out by suggesting that if she didn't knock on my door 45 minutes later, then it would be assumed that she decided to retire early. Sure enough, after my shower (interesting at how high the bathtub walls were...I had to stretch to get my legs over, and the bathroom floor was so high that my head peeked over the curtains), I waited til 9:15 but no knock. And I ended up hitting the bed at about 10. I guess it was a good thing that we both decided to knock ourselves out. It was a bit of a tough start to our trip in Taiwan but it ended quite nicely.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Friday September 30, 6:30 a.m.

The day after the big trip to Taiwan. It certainly has gotten colder, not just cooler, in my short absence from Japan. Almost froze to death in my futon last night.


Back on Monday, it was still fairly warmer although not like the heat wave of earlier September. It also wasn't the most auspicious start of my first trip to another Asian country. I had been expecting that my trip from my apartment bright and early to Narita Airport would be a cakewalk since I was gonna go against traffic. Completely struck out on that one. Not only was the Keisei Line packed to the gills with commuting students and beladen travelers but I missed the last express to the airport that would be seen for half an hour. When I did get the express, I was fuming mightily inside as I held on for dear life to the straps so that I wouldn't be crushed by the ongoing masses inside the train. I sent my traveling partner, The Madame, a warning call to her cell that I would just make it to the meeting place at the designated time of 8. As it turned out, even with my simulated act of running between the final stop and the Departures floor, I was 5 minutes late. And then I couldn't find The Madame at the designated meeting place.

Luckily, The Madame found me sweating in the long line just to get past the security checkpoint into the check-in section. It turned out that the meeting place was switched at the last moment. And I was indeed fortunate that the only one who had been affected by my late arrival was just her. I had been worried that there would be some sort of officiously huffy tour coordinator waiting to admonish me and a group of other travelers giving me the evil eye. But as it turned out, we were the only people there. Any sign of a tour wouldn't show up until we arrived in Taipei.

The 3-hour flight from Tokyo to Taipei was happily uneventful although The Madame was suffering from some pressure within her ears which almost gave her a headache. I speculated it was due to the age of the plane.

There was a good sign that the bad luck from the morning was continuing into the day. When we got to Chiang Kai-Shek Airport, the two of us had decided to make a quick pit stop into the washrooms on the way to the immigration checkpoint. We were both surprised to find out that the toilets were pretty modern. All those horror stories about paperless stalls with holes in the ground were unfounded but then again we were in a modern airport. But I digress. Because of out stopover, we ended up at the end of a very long slow line which took well over an hour until we finally got ourselves checked. Since I was one of the few folks without a Japanese passport, the immigration officer asked me a few questions in English...most likely for both personal and professional curiosity. The Madame had gone through without being asked anything. Then came another long spate while The Madame searched for several minutes for her suitcase when it wouldn't show up on the carousel. Instead, it was found all by itself in the middle of the floor. It was obvious that it had been opened up but fortunately nothing was taken.

So basically after almost 2 hours since leaving the plane, we finally got outside. Our tour conductor was a native Taiwanese man by the name of Mr. J. He was on the better side of 70, a kind of cheerful Yoda type. In a heavily Chinese accented Japanese, he repeatedly cheerfully told us that he'd been waiting for us for a long time. His tendency to repeat phrases over and over again would become one of his charming points but at the time I was in a bit of a surly mood due to the annoyances of the trip so far so I initially had a rather negative view of the man and was disappointed that we didn't get the typically self-effacing Japanese conductor. Then, Mr. J had the gall to tell us to head over all the way to one end of the area to hand in our ticket stub at this desk so that we can take our chances at a "Welcome to Taiwan" raffle. I thought, "Just take us to our damn hotel!" but The Madame and I dutifully walked down to the desk and got some free traveling bags for our trouble. When we got back, we saw that there were a few couples with Mr. J. All I could think was how they must've thought of us keeping them waiting for almost 90 minutes.

The outside was hot although thankfully not too humid when we got into the minibus. As soon as we started the hour's drive into downtown Taipei, Mr. J got into his quick, oft-repetitous patter about our schedules. It turned out that the folks on the bus would be having different itineraries for our stay so The Madame and I had to scramble for our pens to write down meeting times on each day of our journey.

Our drive on the highway was our first chance to see what Taiwan looked like. It was driving through the Japanese Alps. There were lots of verdant hills lining the highway with a few huge colourful temples and lots of tall massive apartment complexes sprouting here and there. We were no longer in Kanto, Toto.

When we finally got into the city, it struck me as being a bit of a grimier Tokyo. Despite Taiwan being just as earthquake-prone as Japan, the buildings seemed more courageously taller if grayer and a bit more dilapidated than their counterparts in this country. Well, our first stop wasn't our respective hotels as it turned out but a souvenir shop which specialized in tea. Souvenir shopping would be the running gag of our 3-night, 4-day journey. There, our weary group got to sit in front of a woman who spoke to us in Japanese and performed a tea service with various blends. We were also given some snacks such as dried mangoes and nuts. We were also impressed by her usage of a rather unique teapot in which the hole was at the bottom of the pot. And yet no water came out when she turned it right-side up. While we were being mesmerized, the staff took care of our currency exchange concerns and quietly returned our money in the form of Taiwanese dollars in small packets. Ahh...I realized....what a good way to keep us distracted from the mundane aspects of traveling. And it certainly didn't hurt their cause that all of the ingredients in the tea service were on sale just a few metres behind us. Another running gag that would become prominent in our time there was how good these souvenir shop folks were in their salesmanship. The ladies, and all of the salespeople at the various duty-free shops were ladies, would just softly bludgeon us in their accented Japanese at how wonderful these items would make as omiyage. Well, they got me to quickly buy up some of their wares. I bought a few boxes of oolong tea and pineapple cake, a particular favourite on the island.

While The Madame was doing her own shopping, my mood had lightened considerably since our arrival at Chiang Kai-shek so I decided to graciously apologize to Mr. J for our very late exit through the gates (despite it not being our fault). He just as graciously waved it off as being no problem....the first sign that Yoda could be a nice guy after all.

To be continued...