Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sunday October 21, 1:35 p.m.

It was an interesting day yesterday...had three types of social interaction. First, there was the biweekly lesson with Tully & The Coffeemaker. My occasional role as Souvenir Santa Claus continued (and will continue for another couple of weeks) as I handed out Mah Jongg memo pads to the kids. I've been lucky that the basement of the coffee shop, though musty, is plenty empty.
Then I raced back home to my station to meet The Anime Duke and his two traveling buddies from Canada. True to Canadian tourist form, they arrived wearing T-shirts and shorts while me and the natives wore jackets. I took them for lunch to the ramen shop downstairs; they really enjoyed the garlicky broth. The two friends were asking about a couple of products that I'd never seen before but we checked out the nearby 100-yen shop just in case, but nada...
Took them home. They'd never seen a typical 20-square-metre 2K apartment before and they were suitably surprised at how I have managed to survive in my glorified closet for the past 13 years. The Duke took one look at the massive box holding the three Idolmaster dolls for The Anime King and just dismissed any possibility of taking any of the boxes home outright, contradicting what the King had said.
I also heard the other side of the potential tiff between The Duke and The Anime Chamberlain. The latter warned me that The Duke was a bit too feckless and disorganized, and certainly The Duke won't be anyone I would consider traveling with since he likes to go wherever the winds take him that day. On the other hand, The Duke was getting a little miffy about The Chamberlain being too uptight and starchy about the whole thing. The Duke tried to call him up to no avail. It's a surprise to me how these two ever decided to go traveling together.

My third interaction was in Ebisu, one of the tonier areas of Tokyo just one stop away from Teen Mecca Shibuya on the JR Yamanote Line. The Satyr was celebrating his birthday, thanks to his girlfriend of several months, Miss Ivory. I got to Ebisu an hour early so I just walked through the Atre Mall, one of a chain of station malls (yes, there is actually a chain of station shopping centres here in The Big Sushi). The usual throng of people walking everywhere. I actually sat beside a Japanese woman and her gaijin beau having a quiet spat about something. I ended up going to one of the balconies overlooking the taxi pickup area. It was interesting how quickly cabs just go in and out picking up their fares. The Big Apple may have the largest number of taxis on the planet but The Big Sushi has the widest variety of taxi companies. I saw six cabs out there waiting for fares and each of them belonged to different firms.

At 6 p.m., I met Movie Buddy, The Sylph, The Satyr and Miss Ivory outside of the West Exit of JR Ebisu. Skippy would've come but she's busy nursing a cold and has therefore also cancelled her presence for Mo-Yan tonight. It's been a month since I saw MB but it's been close to 4 months since I last saw The Satyr. The five of us then waited near Garden Place for MB's Australian comrade-at-arms, Sam and his family. It took a while but he and his brood finally showed up and we walked over to the restaurant for the evening, China 8 Cafe.

The fare at China 8 was akin to what I'd had in Hong Kong just a few days ago. There was the Peking Duck, the gyoza and the sho ron po. A cute waitress just fell in love with Sam's 6-month-old son, which at one point got an admonishment from the chef carving up the duck for unprofessionalism. Being the chronic Libran, I could understand the chef's point of view since the waitress was getting rather sickly about her fawning but on the other hand, I thought that the chef doth protest too much.
Some more folks joined us at the already crowded table...all of whom were The Satyr's buddies. Then, Miss Ivory unleashed her surprise in the form of a birthday cake for both The Satyr and me...since mine came by on the day I'd left for HK. I did tell The Satyr that there shouldn't be anything done on my account. Good friends follow that request; close friends disregard it utterly. Plus, we both got presents. From MB, I got the original Ian Fleming novel of "From Russia With Love", which I'm using for my subway reading. Plus, I got some Godiva Chocolates. And from The Satyr and his lady love, I received HMV gift certificates. Guess where I'm going after I log off? After the dinner, most of the guys decided to go drinking but I demurred since I had The Younger this morning. But there has been talk for the seasonal DVD Night.

So, 3 different interactions. The first one had me in teacher mode so I was talking at 75% normal speed while I was just zipping along with The Anime Duke and his boys. The b-day party had me somewhere in the middle.

As I said, I had The Younger this morning. She was her usual sleepyheaded self. However, she brightened up considerably on seeing the latest arrival of Scrabble. We would've gone long with the game except that her parents offered to drive me over to Higashi-Nakano Station since the father was off to America for a conference for the next week.

True to my nature, I scouted for the meeting place tonight for the JR Shinjuku West Exit police box...found that straight away and then discovered that Mo-Yan was just at the end of the road where I used to teach at The Company years ago. Still three hours away from that meeting with The Sisters of State and BC. I had lunch at the nearby Excelsior Coffee near Mo-Yan. Pretty empty....which brings me to give a piece of advice when looking for someplace to eat on a busy Sunday in Tokyo. Always try out the commercial areas which are often deserted for lunch.
The novel "From Russia With Love" is somewhat different from the movie version in that it does go into very fine detail (as Ian Fleming always did) on everything. It's certainly different from the Mickey Spillane delivery of terse, bite-sized phrases. Fleming uses complete sentences with glorious description. James Bond doesn't even show up until nearly halfway through. A lot of the exposition in the first half is devoted to the characters of Rosa Klebb, Red Grant and the plan to assassinate 007 which I do appreciate.

Speedy contacted me yesterday about me trying to teach The Dentist and The Manhattanite on the next Saturday, although the 27th has been made an off day for me. He was offering me the classes probably since he felt I could've used the income due to my 3-day absence last week but I also think that he wants to get down to town on some of his other admin work that day. Well, The Matron mentioned some weeks ago about inviting me to some harp recital involving her daughter so I had to tell the bossman that it would be a wait-and-see until tomorrow afternoon...not sure what will become of that invitation. But if MB and The Satyr are coming over, then I may still decline even if nothing comes out of The Matron's plans.

Well, I'll probably be off to Takashimaya Times Square across the tracks. I'll check out HMV; I may even buy some Kinokuniya gift certificates for The Satyr as recompense for his kind gift last night. Krispy Kreme 1 supposedly says that there is merely a 40-minute wait for donuts today but I think it still looks like 90 minutes, at least.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Saturday October 20, 8:48 a.m.

Well, now that I've got Hong Kong off my chest, just some of the stuff that's happened over here.

The one news item that got my blood boiling was the news about that little girl who got stabbed to death right in front of her own house by some fiend...that's the only word I can use for this murderer. I really, really hope that the cops catch this guy. There have just been too many kid slashings and stabbings in this country.

And the other big news was the disciplinary bushwhacking that the notorious boxing family of Kamedas got from the national boxing association. I knew that Daiki Kameda needed to have a straitjacket wrapped around him when he decided to suddenly change his championship match with reigning champ Naito into a wrestling bout in the final round, but I was surprised that both the father and older brother Koki got nabbed as well. Daiki was given a 1 or 3-year suspension (I forgot which), Koki got censure and the dad has been ousted from the sport...just like that brutal oyakata Tokitsukaze.
To be honest, for all their bluster and bling bling, the Kameda antics didn't seem any different from the stuff that American boxers often pull in their press conferences. However, in a society that prefers to have the standing nail whacked down, the boys just went too far.

Getting back into the swing of things. I saw B2 on Thursday. She was fine. I've already started giving away the tons of souvenirs from HK. I gave her a pad...a writing one, silly. At the juku last night, Jolly was a cancellation but The Ace showed up. I gave him a kitchen magnet...hey, at least it was something. The juku boss got a calendar. Looks like The Ace may be doing the slow fade from me after more than a year of his Friday lessons. He's asked to cut down his time to 30 minutes.

The Anime Duke finally called me last night....almost 24 hours after his initial promise to do so. The Anime Chamberlain had contacted me the day before, and he warned me that his buddy is a bit on the feckless side. But it looks like it was just a matter of The Duke coming into town too late past the witching hour and losing his Internet connection. Anyways, he and his posse will be making a quick pass-through into my neighbourhood to see about those voluminous packages for The Anime King. So I'm gonna have to wrap up things quickly with Tully & The Coffeemaker this morning. And then, I've got The Satyr's birthday party to attend later in the evening. Skippy has to skip that and the Mo-Yan outing tomorrow with me, The Sisters of State and BC due to a cold.

Definitely back in the saddle again...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Thursday October 18, 5:33 p.m.


The final day of the tour through Hong Kong started with yet another round of breakfast at the buffet restaurant. However, I decided to rein myself in a bit at the tables. True to The Lady's whirlwind nature, we quickly hit the subways once more and headed off to Wah Tai Sin back in Kowloon to visit a temple. The incense there was quite overpowering. The Class Act did their praying while I politely demurred at any attempts to recognize religion.
Then, it was back on the train again so that all of us could get some final items for souvenir shopping. So it was back to IFC and Dynocks again while the ladies went upstairs to get some stuff from a tea shop. And then it was some more walking until we hit a dim sum place called Lok Fu. We were on a clock by that point so it was a quick run-through of the platters before we got back to the hotel to get checked out.
Once again, a chauffered van got us back to the airport on Lantau. And The Class Act and I made our goodbyes at check-in since they were on a JAL flight (Business Class, of course) and I on an ANA flight (cattle car...I mean Economy Class, of course). Managed to get a few more souvenirs for Speedy and The Beehive before boarding.

Hong Kong was indeed a revelation. In fact, the culinary journey worked a little too made the crud served on the flight home all the more egregious. That was the worst saikyo-yaki (maybe saitei-yaki would've been a better description) of salmon I'd ever had. I really gotta work on getting to like planes again.
Thursday October 18, 4:46 p.m.


Got up at 6. Still good. No aftereffects from the previous night's horrors. I turned on the TV. One of the strange things about CNN showing on at the hotel was that all of the voices were pitched one octave lower. So, everyone sounded like Sith Lords. We had Darth Larry, Darth Anderson and Darth John King. Also, unlike in the other countries' hotels, it didn't seem like I could get any of the local HK channels...just variations on CCTV. It was pretty laughable watching the propaganda on that station. It resembled that classic SCTV sketch about accidentally getting Soviet television.

Met the ladies down in the lobby. One thing about staying at the Mandarin was that it was a busy place. Staffers always seemed to be talking with guests about something. And it was certainly a magnet for the foreigners. I saw many more Westerners than local Chinese which may say something about how much the rooms were. Actually, the night before, we did make a celeb sighting. Korean actor, Lee Byon Hung, was entering one of the bars with his entourage. I had been told that the hotel attracted its fair share of famous faces.

The Lady took us to a congee place nearby (well, actually we took the double-decker bus a couple of blocks) that she often frequents. I could see and taste why. The congee was probably one of the best I'd ever had. In the rice soup, there were chunks of meaty chicken and other veggies. Plus, we had the complementary plate of deep-fried bread to add to the hearty stew. It's one of the regrets of Japanese culinary culture that there were none of these breakfast restaurants in my adopted country...unless you count McDonalds.

Then it was off by taxi to the Peak Tram station where we hopped on the tram all the way to the top of Victoria Peak. This garnered the first major Wow moment of the whole trip. It was truly amazing to see all thse huge architectural stalagmites amassed together and going so high. I could only imagine how it must be to live in the penthouse apartments of some of those towers.

After getting back down, we headed back to the Mandarin...and surprisingly enough, The Lady suggested a brunch at the restaurant on the mezzanine. Didn't realize that The Lady had quite the appetite. However, both she and The Matron could observe that I had fully recovered from my brush with death the night before as I plowed into my dishes of bacon, scrambled eggs, danish and other stuff from the tables. Yup, I was back.

It was another brief return to the rooms before we headed out once more...this time, by subway to Tsim Sha Shui. Actually, we went quite a bit north to the Jade Market. There, I saw the ladies' true talent in haggling for all sorts of jade accessories (whether they were really jade remains to be seen). The market was located in this rather non-descript factory building where the fans were going on full blast to keep the heat out. I also noticed that a lot of the surrounding buildings had that decrepit look....quite a far cry from the techno-architecture of Central. The ladies' enthusiasm for their art got me drawn into the mix...and ended up buying a few trinkets myself for The Sisters of State and BC...yep, souvenirs had to be bought.

Once all of us got our business done in the Jade Market, we made our way down to the main street via a wet market. Yup, the odours of the place reminded me of old Chinatown in downtown Toronto in the summer. We walked down a few blocks when The Lady saw a tiny eatery serving Turtle Jelly...yep, you heard me right...gelatin made from the blood of the cute little reptile. The Lady swears by it, so I tried a bowl of the stuff; actually, it wasn't half-bad. It tasted of herbal medicine, strangely enough, but with a generous dollop of honey, I could down it easily.
It was a long walk down Nathan Road to Tsim Sha Tsui. I'd had earlier impressions of the area being a wider version of the tackier parts of Shimbashi in Tokyo but actually it looked more like Omotesando. By the time, we got to that side of Victoria Harbour, we could see a lot of the brand name goods stores. However, we went instead into the Peninsula Hotel, and the lobby was actually more opulent than the one in The Mandarin. Huge ceilings with huge chandeliers and a string quartet playing on the mezzanine. The reason we were there was that The Matron wanted to buy some very expensive chops at this store which had photos of some fairly famous clientele, including the half-carbon, half-silicone Kanno Sisters.

It was then time for lunch so we made our way up again north to a shopping/financial centre. There was some noodle place which The Lady had seen in the guide book. And it was another hit. We shared two bowls of pretty spicy noodle soup and a round of sho ron po dumplings. The gourmet tour was working to plan.
We took the Star Ferry back to Hong Kong Island. The way the ferry was rocking, I was afraid that both my brain and stomach would be taken back to the previous night's events, but it turned out to be OK...although since the ride was a mere 5 minutes, there wasn't much time for me to get sick on the rolling waters.

From that point onwards, The Class Act and I split up for the rest of the afternoon. They had to get some more souvenir shopping done and I decided to crash for about a couple of hours. At about 4, I also went out souvenir hunting and ended up scouring most of Central for the next two hours. There were just too many expensive department stores to find anything affordable. And I'm not sure what Chip N' Dale would've done with Manolo Blahnik shoes. However, near the end of my odyssey through the literal hills and valleys of Central, I managed to pick up a lot of stuff at this W.H. Smith-like bookstore called Dynock. The interesting thing about it was that it was wholly English in content....not a Chinese book to be found. Which reminded me how literate in their second language a lot of the folk here were (well, the ladies in the turtle jelly eatery couldn't speak it). The bank tellers, the taxi drivers, the building receptionists could all speak English fluently...not surprising since HK was an English colony until a decade ago. Here in Japan, you would feel that you had won the lottery if you could find a similar person who could even speak a few words.

Got back and freshened up before heading back down to the lobby at 7 to meet The Class Act and The Butler. I apologized to The Butler profusely for what nearly happened the night before. True to his profession, he smilingly laughed it off. Then it was off to Wu Kong, the Shanghai restaurant in Causeway Bay that would bring us the culinary highlight of the entire trip. The ride there by taxi also brought the second Wow moment...seeing Central in lights. It was truly a Blade Runner moment.

We went up to the 13th floor of this building in HK's version of Times Square where there was a huge queue waiting for taxis. The manager of Wu Kong graciously greeted us at the door and escorted us to the table. Some minutes later, my old university buddy, The Cap arrived and I did the intros. Then, the feast began. It was a 2-hour-long blur of culinary ecstasy including such delights as Shark's-Fin Soup, Mandarin Fish and Peking Duck. The masterpiece, though, was Steamed Crab in some sort of liquor. The manager brought us the still-alive but trussed-up crabs on a plate...some minutes later, they were brought back to us fully cooked into an orange glow. Now, I'm not a huge fan of crab since I don't like having to work for my food by trying to crack open shells but the taste of this crab was such that it was truly worth the time of hammering and cracking and sucking to get every morsel of this succulent arthropod into my digestive tract.
It was also good seeing The Cap after so many years. He was looking a little paunchier from his wiry days at U of T and had a few more laugh lines around the mouth and eyes but it was the same ol' guy. The Lady later remarked that the two of us were obviously bantering about like old buddies. Yup, it's been a long time since I could talk that easily with anyone.

We were all pretty stuffed by the end, and The Cap politely declined the offer, but the rest of us had one more stop at a dessert place called Moon Kee before retiring for the night. It was a very brief stop...just 15 minutes...but we had to try some of their sweet bean soups. Worked wonders for the digestion. We hopped into our taxi one last time, and gave our goodbyes to The Butler one last time since he couldn't see us off home the next day. He's a good guy to know.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Thursday October 18, 3:43 p.m.

Well, it was like an Indiana Jones movie....a lot of exploration and excitement, a bit of pain and even more awe, a few laughs and some trip-ups along the way. That is the short story for my trip to Hong Kong between the 15th and 17th.


Woke up at the horribly early hour of 3 a.m. in the morning to pack and then head on out to Narita Airport. This action would trigger a rather unfortunate payback later on in the day as you'll find out.
Arrived in Narita to see that even at the bright and early hour of 7, there were plenty of tour groups lined up to invade the rest of the world. I found my desk at HIS, the nationwide discount travel ticket agency in Japan and got mine for my ANA flight.
Just like Indiana Jones' phobia for snakes, I have developed a new one for planes...especially the economy section. I was stuck in the middle for both going and coming back. I could only imagine how the two of us would react to the overrated "Snakes on a Plane"...thank the heavens that it quickly fizzled. Not sure what it is that triggered it. Perhaps it was the flight from Toronto to Tokyo early this year via Hell...otherwise known as the airspace over Vancouver. There was a rather turbulent air mass which made me very prone to seeing what I'd had for the inflight meal...again. Even with an ANA flight, I was just itching to get off the plane for all of those 4 hours squeezed between two other passengers...even with VOB (video-on-backseat) display. Mind you, I did see Robin Williams' "License to Wed" as the in-flight feature....some of that maniacal Williams humour was back but I can see why it would make an ideal plane movie. As for the in-flight meal, the menu called for steak, but it was really just gloppy beef...stuff you may see at the end of a Yoshinoya serving day.

Got to Hong Kong weary but alive. It was warmer than Tokyo but nowhere near the blazing heat that it's notorious for. I met The Class Act at the carousels of this huge airport and then we met The Lady's butler in Hong Kong...The Butler. But the Butler wasn't in uniform...he was having a couple of days off just for us, so he was in Polo shirt and jeans. Really nice and accomodating guy.
True to service from a 5-star hotel, there was a van with chauffeur (yup, black suit and cap) which took us and the luggage to The Mandarin Oriental down in Central. It was a 30-minute trip from the airport...during which I got a taste of the amazing architecture that HK is renowned for. I saw a lot of nosebleedingly tall apartment buildings jutting out of the ground like stalagmites in a cavern. And there was that familiar haze which usually envelops the city; however, none of us suffered any asthma attacks during our time there.

From Lantau Island to Kowloon and through the under-Victoria Harbour tunnel over to Hong Kong Island....I just had to gape at the grandeur and size of some of those skyscrapers. Skyscrapers wouldn't be the appropriate word...these were skystabbers. There was the HKBC Building competing with the behemoth for The Bank of China and the International Financial Centre (IFC) for mastery of the skies. And it wasn't just height but breadth as well. Some of these buildings were simply massive...certainly would put some of big buildings, such as Tokyo City Hall and Sunshine 60, to shame.
We finally got into The Mandarin Oriental I said, a place with 5 stars and a long reputation, only to find out that our rooms were still not ready from one of three Japanese staffers. Not a great start. In fact, I'd have to say that perhaps the hotel may need a bit of a wake-up call itself by getting one of its stars knocked off. On the plus side, the hospitality and the rooms were indeed top-notch...there was also a very large plasma screen TV, newspapers and fresh fruit ready for the taking. And the breakfast buffet on the mezzanine was just wonderful to behold.
However, I'd have to say that there were minuses as well. The Internet connection with the wireless keyboard was a bit of a disappointment...especially since one had to pay $16 HK for the day's privilege. There was no mouse but one of those rubber trackball-like these stuck into the keyboard...not the fastest maneuverability. Plus, the keyboard had limited range...I couldn't really use it from the bed. It was either bring the chair right dead centre or type on it standing up in front of the screen like Geordi LaForge does in TNG. And often the keystrokes wouldn't register onto the screen, so blogging would've been too much of a pain in the neck.
But it wasn't just me...The Class Act also had a bit of a problem. For some reason, the hotel charged them for spa usage when in fact, the ladies never went anywhere near the place. And the staff also screwed up on the pickup time to head back to the airport. Nope, not exactly 5-star level service.

During that one hour reprieve we gave the staff to get the rooms ready, The Class Act, The Butler and I wound our way through Des Voeux Ave to find a bank to change our money from yen to Hong Kong dollars. We found a large one in which we made our way to the massive basement level for currency exchange. I discovered that the banking services are set up like the banks in North America. There were none of the cute tellers in bright uniforms or the benches to sit on while waiting. It was the snake-like queues with all of the staff looking very smart in sharp suits. Still, it was a wait for more than half-an-hour but when we finally reached out tellers, we were out within a few minutes.
Then, we decided to give the hotel another extra few minutes while The Class Act searched for that famous place which makes those very special 1000-year-old eggs. We found this very non-descript place with an open front, and a seemingly crabby old woman who sold them. The Butler's wife, an accountant, worked in the next building, so she cameoed and husband and wife managed to negotiate for some boxes of the stuff to be sold to The Class Act. We finally got ourselves checked in. However, the ladies decided to head on out to Kowloon by Star Ferry for some early souvenir shopping while I decided to chill out in my very air-conditioned room.

A couple of hours later, I was summoned down by The Class Act for dinner. The Butler took us on foot a couple of blocks to the aforementioned IFC. As we negotiated the human traffic in the overpasses, I noticed that there were far more Westerners in suits in HK than there are in Tokyo's Marunouchi district. We finally got into the IFC mall and up to the 4th floor where our first dining experience in HK would take place...a trendy restaurant called Cuisine Cuisine.
And this is where some of the pain part would come in. As I'd said earlier, I had awakened at the ungodly hour of 3 in the morning with not a lot of sleep prior. Plus, I was getting some major neck stress from sitting in the plane. Well, that and some champagne that I shouldn't have had in the first place helped to launch a major headache at the restaurant...which then led to my stomach. Too bad, too...the fare there was Szechuan but of a surprisingly mild and fusion sort. I was able to politely ingest some of the stuff there but I finally had to head over to a washroom to try to clear my brain. No explosions occured but no relief did, either. The ladies knew something was up when I got back...The Matron remarked that I looked an awful shade of cerulean blue...didn't really match the orange curtains. She gave me a couple of Bufferin but I knew that it wouldn't help much now that the migraine was in full rage mode. And sadly, I had to leave a lot of the main course behind since I didn't want to add any more ammunition, so to speak, to the gun.
We all hopped into the taxi. By that point, I was pretty much mute just trying to hold things together. The next stop in the journey, pre-planned, was Happy Foot, a reflexology place. I would've been just happy to get back to the hotel to pray to the porcelain god but for some reason, I decided to go with them to this place. By the time we made it up the 11th floor where Happy Foot was located, I was standing but that was about all I could do. Everyone there just stared at me and wondered when I would erupt although the staff was classy enough not to bring the bucket over. I replied in kind and didn't vomit.
After another trip to the washroom to try to clear my head, I staggered to my armchair in the dimly lounge where The Class Act had already dunked their feet into bowls of brown water. I was more than happy to collapse into one of them....a chair not the ladies. For the next 50 minutes, a masseur went to work on my tootsies. And since this was the Asian variety of reflexology, there was more pain involved. The guy squeezed, pounded, kneaded, pinched and just about used every technique on my soles, toes and heels to get some sort of violent reaction from me. Aside from some sudden groans, I was dead to the world. But it the end of the session, I was feeling like a regenerated Time Lord. A lot of the pain was missing from my head...nothing like an even more painful experience to expunge pain. And I got the bonus head massage as a coda, although by that time I didn't need it. I was one grateful tourist.

Now that I was back to normal again, the three of us (The Butler had already left at the beginning of our session...felt badly about that but I had another chance to give him my gratitude the next night) walked back to the hotel. My senses were back on observation mode once more so I noticed how more brighter and bigger the neon signs were in HK. We passed by the famous Yung Kee restaurant...which actually served those 1,000-year-old eggs that the ladies had bought earlier in the day.
Got back to my room, took a shower, and got into bed...just relieved that I didn't need to yawn in Technicolour.