Sunday, October 28, 2001

Asia Update #42 - Sumo and People's Liberation Army

I was in China on September 11.  Came home from a business dinner and turned on CNN shortly after they went live.  Saw the second plane crash and the Tower's collapse.  Shocking, depressing, maddening, and many other words just won't cover the feelings I went through.

The following weekend, I flew to Tokyo. This was the first flight United was making to Tokyo, and thankfully that was as far as I wanted to go, as that was as far as they were flying. Still no flights back to the US at that time.

On Sunday, I got to go to see a sumo match. I had seen it on TV before, but this was my first chance to see it live. Interesting stuff. A lot of history to it, and also a lot of procedures and dramatics for what is often a very short match.

The match starts with the wrestlers entering the ring. They go to their corner and do this stomping act, followed by throwing some salt into the ring (supposed to ward off evil). Then they go and face off. But wait, this is still just show, as they have to go back to their corners again to do some more stomping and salt throwing. Then they are back to the face off and now they are really ready to go.

The match ends when one of the participants is knocked over (any part other than their foot hitting the ground) or is knocked out of the ring (any part of their body touching anything outside of the ring). Some matches are very short (seconds), where others may last a minute or two. The whole time, there is this guy in a kimono who is yelling something in Japanese (something equivalent to "still good! still good! still good!").
Definitely an interesting process and sport, though I don't think I would start following it regularly.

It is a month later now and I am back in China right now. Went to the Great Wall again. This is a different area than where I had visited the last time, and the wall does look a little different. I've heard that many areas have much different styles and were built at much different times.

Had an interesting experience. There are a lot of People's Liberation Army soldiers on the wall sightseeing. Saw one PLA guy taking a picture of his friends, so I offered to take the picture for him so he could get in the photo. Guess he didn't understand this, so next thing I know he still has the camera and I am in with his friends for the picture. Then it switched around and some other PLA members were with me. A few more versions of PLA soldiers, and then even a non-soldier stood next to me to have his picture taken. Had about a dozen pictures taken of me. Felt like I was a movie star or something.

Note - This is the last update! Fun while it lasted, but I left this position, so nothing more to write here... But there is more stuff like this in my other Blogs.

Tuesday, August 14, 2001

Asia Update #41 - Japanese Public Bath

Way back in report #8, I reported about a Korean hot tub/spa ritual. Had a chance to try out the Japanese version this past week. I was in Nagano Prefecture of Japan (near where the last winter Olympics were at) for business and stayed at a resort while there. Seems the resort was mostly based around a natural hot spring in the area (not even any hiking trails in the area). On the list of facilities, they showed a variety of bathing options, such as sauna, hot tub, and public bath. Decided to give the public bath a try.

Public baths were what the Japanese used for bathing before each house had plumbing. So the primary reason for doing it was to get clean, but as inside plumbing became more common, they seem to often only exist in resorts and have taken on greater meaning such as perceived health benefits. The public baths are sex-segregated, which is god given that you get naked (with only a little towel to preserve modesty). I didn't know much of what to expect, so I asked my coworker and got enough details that I was comfortable that I wouldn't make some faux pas (like walk naked into some place where you shouldn't walk naked...).

The start is that you walk down to the public bath area. You can wear a kimono (every hotel room in Japan seems to have kimonos in the room) or can change at the changing room. I wore my clothes down and changed there. Turns out that this spa doesn't provide the little towels there, but you were supposed to bring a wash cloth from your room, so back to the room I went. 

Now appropriately equipped with my little towel, I headed back to the public bath. Took off my clothes and walked into the bath area (modestly holding my little towel in front of me). First step is a rinse off... There was a line of little stools in front of a faucet/hand sprayer, so down I sat on one of them. Was told that you should rinse off before hitting the tub, so rinse I did. Turns out that most just use a little bucket and douse themselves with water from the tub, but no one seemed to care that I sat and sprayed away. 

Then into the tub. Placed the little towel on my head (they do this so they don't lose it - not to look funny). The water was quite warm, so I could only last in it for a few minutes. Very nice feel. The public bath had a large window overlooking a beautiful forested valley and mountains, which provided a very serene setting. Added benefit is that contemplating the view helped me avoid noticing the naked Japanese guys all around me... 

Out of the water and back to the stool. This time I am supposed to clean myself (soap, shampoo, and all). So, scrub away I did. This is where you use the little towel - you load it with soap and use it to lather yourself up. Got myself nice and clean. Rinsed and then dried off (not with the little towel, obviously) and back to my room. 

Thankfully, I got through the whole process without making any big mistakes. And it was rather enjoyable, so I did it again the next morning instead of taking a shower in my room. Even wore the kimono from my room down to the public bath, though I did feel a little self conscious as I walked in the hallway with just a kimono on. Now I normally feel a little self conscious (I was the only white person at the resort, and going by the lack of English skills, I think other foreigners would be few and far between), but this seemed to notch things up a bit.

Got to visit Matsumoto Castle before we headed back to Tokyo. Very interesting, particularly because I had recently finished reading the book Shogun. Gave me an inside feel for much of the setting for the book.

Check out the, um, soda machine I saw in town. I guess underage drinking is not as much of an issue in Japan as it is in the U.S.

An American guy I rode with in Korea is going to do an epic Bike Around the World for a Cause thing next year. Sounds like one hell of an adventure for he and his friend. Check out their web site at

Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Asia Update #1 - 1 Year

One year ago today, I was sitting on a plane starting my move to Korea. Hard to believe that it is a year already. The months seemed to fly by.

It has been one hell of a year. I've been places, seen stuff, and done stuff that I could not have imagined even a few months before heading out. Learned an amazing amount, which will be useful both personally and professionally. Also had some of the most difficult times of my life. Overall, I am very glad that I did this.

Not likely to be too many more of these updates, given that I move out of the Seoul apartment the next time I am there. But I will still be visiting Asia reasonably often for as long as I have this current position, so it is possible that I will throw an update up from time to time.

Saturday, June 16, 2001

Asia Update #39 - It's All Relative

Went for a hike after work last week. Clearest skies I've seen yet in Korea. It was about as clear as a normal day in the Bay Area. Yes, a clarity which we would be complaining about in California, yet was a treat here. Asia on the whole is very polluted (except for Australia/New Zealand, and maybe Japan). The air is almost always hazy. Have seen it so hazy that I couldn't see the buildings a block away from office. How you feel about the air is all relative.

No photos from this hike. Went to the local mountain to my apartment. This is the one I have talked about before as having military bases on it and signs telling you not to take photos. Part of living in a quasi-military state, I guess.

On relativity, I was walking home from the subway station on Friday after work. Exited the station where I normally did, walked one block down to the main street and make a right. Walked down this block and only half noticed the riot police buses on the side of the road. And didn't really notice that they were riot police buses, but instead just made a comment to myself about how they were blocking a lane of traffic and the bus stops. After I turned off the main road to go up to my apartment, I was thinking about how this is all normal for me now. Land mines near where I mountain bike, military bases all over the place, and riot police popping up anywhere at any time. I guess I have acclimated to many of the aspects of living in Korea.

These updates likely won't happen nearly as often from now on. Partly because I am getting acclimated, so things don't seem to stand out as being so different any more. Partly because I will be spending a little less time in Asia now. But I will still upload write ups from time to time.

Thursday, May 24, 2001

Asia Update #38 - Land Mines

Got out for another ride last weekend, but to a different area than the last set of photos. This was Namhan-sanseong, which means Namhan Mountain Fortress. There is a wall, with gates at various intervals, on the mountain ridge surrounding (protecting) a valley. This is much like the Pukansan (see update #35 for a photo of the wall and gate there) and Seoul itself (all the gates in Seoul that I've mentioned before were part of the wall which ringed Seoul).

Finally got a photo of myself riding. Team Wrong Way will be happy to see that I still wear the uniform, even though I don't race much with them any more.

While on the ride, I also got some pictures of the mine zone signs. Definitely smart to stay on the marked trails. This area is roughly the same as a national park in the States - hard to imagine anyone allowing the military to bury mines in Yosemite. Of course, Yosemite is a bit further away from its nearest enemy…

The full set of photos from my mountain bike adventures are on the web. More gory details than most would want to see, so I didn't put them directly into these updates. I do have a couple of animated GIF files (kind of like choppy video) of various people riding (the picture of me above is from one). If you do want to see them, they are at I'll probably remove the less looked-at ones in a few months to save disk space, but for now they are all there.

One question I get often is when I am returning to the States permanently. Good question. The answer could be 'now', 'August', or 'who knows', depending on your definition of returning permanently.
It could be 'Now', because from this point on I plan to be in the Bay Area about 2 weeks out of every month. I guess that means I am living there.

It could be 'August', because that is when my apartment lease expires in Korea. Whenever I am in Korea after then, I will be staying in hotels. So I guess that means that I won't be living in Korea then (not that I am really living here now, given that I travel so much and never got a resident visa).
It could be 'Who Knows', because I will be traveling a lot to Asia for the foreseeable future, until I change jobs to something with less travel. No plans to change jobs right now, and with all the international-related marketable skills I've gained, chances are a change (whether inside or outside of my company) would still involve travel.

So if the question is when I return to that hardcore mountain biker you all loved (or hated), then the answer continues to be who knows. Maybe never?

Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Asia Update #37 - Bangkok

Bangkok was awesome. Has so many amazing temples and the intricately decorated Grand Palace.

Amazing stuff. Everything is so intricate. Each figure or wall is made up of small gems, jewels, gold leaf, or pieces of metal. Huge buildings appear to be assembled one small fragment at a time. And there are so many buildings. Seemed to be temples on every corner. Lots of Buddhas all over the place. The Emerald Buddha was definitely cool, but I think the reclining Buddha at Wat Po was the most impressive (given that the Emerald Buddha was only a few feet tall, but the reclining Buddha was larger than two buses may have had something to do with it…).

One of the forms of transport in Thailand is the Tuk Tuk. They are basically 3 wheeled motorcycles. They got there name from the sound of the two cycle engines they often use. Kind of fun to ride in, but we did have some trouble when we rode in them when the driver would try to renegotiate the fare (it is negotiated up front) or to take us to some friend's store where we would be offered overpriced stuff (and the driver would undoubtedly get a kickback). Below is a picture with a couple of them, along with some standard cabs (which interestingly enough, are sometimes cheaper than the Tuk Tuks).

The locals generally used motorcycles for everything. Family car, taxi, pickup truck, etc. - all were jobs which we saw motorcycles used for in Thailand. Probably the most interesting to see was the family of 4 riding on a standard motorcycle (no sidecar or anything like that). We never did quite get the guts up to take a motorcycle taxi.

Just like the other areas of Thailand, prices here were very cheap. Food and souvenirs were very cheap, such that an American can eat like a king and still pay less than you would for cheap food in the States. And bargaining is normal, so you often find yourself bargaining for the last penny until you realize that it really doesn't make a difference. And we had a fun time trying to pack all the souvenirs and such which we bought.

I had heard that Bangkok night scene was the sleaziest of them all, but didn't get the opportunity to check it out (probably thankfully). We instead decided to go to the local Irish Pub/SCUBA center (interesting mix, eh?). We heard about the place on our dive trip in Pattaya - they also had some divers on the boat we were on.

Vacation's over. Time to go back to work. Bummer, eh? Definitely was a great time.

Monday, May 14, 2001

Asia Update #36 - Pattaya

After a few days in Korea, we headed south to Thailand. The plan is to spend a few days on the beach at Pattaya and then a few more days checking out the culture of Bangkok.

On the first full day, we did some souvenir shopping and headed to a crocodile farm. On the way, there was a field with some elephants in it. Quite neat to see them wandering about and eating (though they were probably part of the crocodile farm, but it sure seemed like they were in the wild).

Along with lots of crocodiles and crocodile shows, the croc farm also had lots of other animals. Various beautiful birds, elephants you could feed, crocodiles you could feed, and even the chance to be photographed with a few animals…

Next day was my day to complete my SCUBA open water certifications (which I started last fall at Phuket). Conditions (especially visibility) were not quite as good as at Phuket, but it was still fun. An added benefit was that along with my certification dives, I also got to do an extra dive to a wreck of a US warship from the 1920's. Quite cool.

Last day was sailing day. We rented a 31 foot catamaran (just the two of us, along with a skipper and hostess) to take us around for the whole day. Sailed for a few hours to 'monkey' island, where we stopped and hiked a while and got to see many monkeys. Then headed to a remote beach for some walking on the beach and snorkeling. Below is a picture of the sailboat we had, along with the dingy we used to get to shore.

Obviously, this was from monkey island and that guy was checking out our dingy for any food we may have left behind (as soon as we landed, one came and tried to steal our backpack from us).
Pattaya has a sleezy night scene, much like what I saw in Phuket. Bars, bar girls, Thai boxing shows, snake shows, cheap souvenirs, etc. were all available. And the strengthening of the dollar has also made things even cheaper than when I was last in Thailand. We hit the souvenir shops and have loaded up with just a few goodies (enough to require that we use one more bag to leave here than we came with, and we likely will do more shopping in Bangkok).