Sunday, 26 February 2012

Birthday Earthquake!

It is nearly six months to the day since we arrived in Taiwan and my birthday today. More important than all of this, though: today we experienced our first earthquake! I suffer from mild vertigo, so when I started to feel as though the room was moving, I put it down to my affliction. But as it didn't seem to go away, and the door chain was undoubtedly swaying too, I asked Conrad if he could feel it. Sure enough, it was a very weak earthquake.

Despite the fact that this was a tiny one, being ten floors up lends a certain frisson to the experience. Conrad wrote to a friend in the UK today and said that it was like 'fear all over your body', which puts the feeling quite well, I think. As we were waiting for it to stop, I thought this was a good time to put together an earthquake plan in my head in case we get a bad one. This mainly consists of getting out of the building as quickly as possible.

It has been pouring down here for the last two days, rather marring the long weekend we're having, with two days' school holiday to commemorate 2/28. Plus I've hurt my foot, so even if it were beautiful outside we couldn't go far.

Enough complaining!

Last weekend Conrad and I went on a mini-hike around the hills next to Jingmei, the next suburb along from us. One of the best things about Taipei is that you can literally alight at an MRT stop, walk for five minutes and find yourself in beautiful rainforest.

The entrance to this hiking trail is next to a temple on one of the main roads in Jingmei. There are myriad paved trails leading from it, crisscrossing the hills. We trekked around for an hour and a half or so in no particular direction. It was impossible to get lost because the city is close by and even if you end up returning down a different trail from the one you came up on, it's very easy to get your bearings again.

As well as the beautiful, lush rainforest, there were some interesting sights. We came across this boulder, which had some kind of carving on it in the shape of a human face, as well as steps carved into the edge of it. I don't know how well you can make it out from my picture.

There was a sign next to it which explained more, but only in Chinese, unfortunately.

I assume it was carved by one of the tribes who used to live in the area before they were unfortunately forced out. As with many indigenous peoples the world over, the tribes who originally inhabited Taiwan were dispossessed by waves of colonisation from other countries, in this case, mainly southern mainland China. Interestingly, these people are ethnically Austronesian and share ancestors with Polynesians, Indonesians and Malaysians amongst others. In recent times, the Taiwanese government has made efforts to address the rights of the existing descendants of these peoples.

Another thing I find perennially interesting about walking in the hills and mountains of surrounding Taipei are the plants that I recognise. I'm not enough of a botanist or gardener to name them, but it always feels remarkable to see plants that I know as houseplants growing outside. The plants that have to be carefully nurtured in just the right conditions to survive in the UK are wild here. For example, does anyone recognise this tender houseplant? It's rampant in the hills of Taipei.

Now that spring is just nearly upon us, I'm looking forward to many more such enjoyable hikes.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

How We Didn't Do Okinawa - Part III

The final instalment in our Okinawan Odyssey. I can't believe it's taken me three posts to write about a six day trip.

For those who are reading these posts out of order, this is the story of how we didn't really do all those things you're supposed to do when you holiday in Okinawa, though I think this last episode is least able to qualify for that definition.

For a start, we did have a meal in a traditional-ish Japanese restaurant. We slipped off our shoes (noticing too late that we'd all worn our oldest, dirtiest shoes for the occasion) stepped up onto the dining platform and sat awkwardly on the floor while the attendant slid our cubicle door closed.

I have to say I found the fact that other diners were partially screened from view to be the greatest spark to my curiosity I have ever known. I was so fascinated by what our neighbours were doing I could barely concentrate on our own meal.

On one side there was a young couple having what looked like, from the level of formality, a first date. I could be wrong on this, though, as they were also, very ritualistically, serving each other and offering morsels on chopsticks for their partner to enjoy. They were also quite shamelessly posing mid-bite while their partner taking photographs of each other.

On the other side was a group of men who we believed were Taiwanese or Chinese, as they were speaking in English to the waiter (this was a phenomenon which tickled us, that English was the lingua franca between two Asian countries). There were some interesting dynamics going on there. One of the younger men was trying to order for everyone, which I think annoyed the older man of the group who barked 'I want a beer!' in the middle of the process.

But I digress.

Here's Conrad looking suspiciously at his starter:

which turned out to be some kind of smoked chicken strips, I think. Here it is, anyway. Maybe you can figure it out.

These are Andy's photos as I'd forgotten to take my camera, so not everything we ate is here. Here's Andy's sashimi. One of the delights of eating in Japan is the beautiful presentation of the food.

We also had some kind of seaweed fritters and (cooked) fish. Here's the view from under the bottom of our partition:

This meal took place at Mt. Onna village, where we stopped on our way up the island.

On our final day we did another thing you really should do if you're holidaying in Okinawa, which is to visit Shuri Castle in Naha. This was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, originally built in the 14th century but burnt and rebuilt several times since then; the last time being when it was sadly all but demolished by three days of American bombing during the Battle of Okinawa at the end of the Second World War.

Some of the original palace remains and the rest has been reconstructed, showing what an amazing feat of construction it was. The site is huge and set up on a hill. Here are the palace walls, which are about 14 feet thick I think:

Here's the one of the entrances:

And here's one of the original features, dating back to the fourteenth century. It's the outlet for one of the springs that were a guaranteed water source when the castle was under siege.

Inside, I found the understated beauty and simplicity of design and decoration a strong contrast to European palaces of the same period. Here is one of the lower rooms where the king would hold public audiences:

There is clearly a lot more to be said about Shuri Castle, but I can't do it justice on these pages, so I'll leave it here. Suffice to say we had a couple of interesting and awe-inspiring hours there.

That visit took place on our last full day in Okinawa. The next morning we took the monorail back to Okinawa airport.

We had a great time, all in all. One of my lasting memories of the trip will be, I think, the huge contrast that it was to Taiwan, in my necessarily limited perception. The high level of ritual, politeness, fastidiousness and tidiness was quite a shock to the system after six months of living in Taiwan. As someone who doesn't have an intuitive understanding of social mores and customs, though, I have to say I feel more comfortable living here where things are more relaxed, and my occasional faux pas is shrugged off as due to me being a crazy foreigner.

Having said that, there was one thing I deeply appreciated about Okinawa on those cold, humid, windy days, and a revelation I've deliberately left to last - the fact that that many of the numerous drink vending machines sold delicious hot cocoa. Hot cocoa virtually on tap is difficult to beat.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

How We Didn't Do Okinawa - Part II

Firstly, my apologies for not posting sooner. I'd intended to post again about our trip to Okinawa during the week but didn't get a chance.

Secondly, I'd like to begin by talking about how Okinawa compared to Taiwan. For two islands that are only a little more than an hour's flight apart, I was surprised at how different the two cultures were. Okinawa was, in my limited perception, very obviously Japanese and a marked contrast to the island we had left behind.

To my mind, it was like Taiwan Through the Looking Glass. It's cleaner, it's tidier, there are drinks vending machines everywhere, but the most shocking difference I noticed was in the traffic. At one point I was waiting to cross the road and a car just stopped dead in the middle of the road. There were no traffic lights nor crossing of any kind, so for a while I was confused. Then the driver motioned with his hand for me to cross. Realisation dawned: he had stopped to let me cross the road. I was amazed. In Taiwan pedestrians and drivers play a kind of 'who dares wins' game in the streets where you have to keep your wits about you.

Another difference was in the language. Obviously, Japanese is very different from Mandarin or Taiwanese, and I didn't have a clue what anyone was saying, but the language sounded incredibly different, and the manner in which people spoke was quite different. For example, when paying at the checkout at a supermarket, the assistant kept up a continual monologue. It sounded like she was saying:

"And here are your oranges that I'm putting in the bag, they're very nice quality aren't they? And here is your raisin bread, followed by your juice. I'm putting them in very carefully for you....." And so on...

Japanese sounded like the twittering of birds, and the same sound was used for the signal to cross at traffic lights too. Even the ticket barrier at the monorail chirruped as each ticket went through.

Some things I was expecting, such as the deep bows from service staff. Other things were very unexpected, like the number of Okinawan men who pluck their eyebrows. I noticed one or two in the first couple of days, and then you know what it's like when you notice something, and then suddenly you seem to see the same thing everywhere? It seemed that no matter where I was looking, there was a man with plucked eyebrows. Is this a Japanese phenomenon or something just confined to Okinawa? Sorry, no photos!

I do, however,  have some other photos for you. On the way up the island we stayed at a B&B near Mount Oona, which is where Conrad and I spent a day on the beach. It was great to get out of the city and into some beautiful mountainous countryside. Here's the road we walked down to get to the beach:

 And here's one of the beautiful flowers we saw growing by the edge of the road:

The next day we went the rest of the way to the next major city, Nago, and then immediately caught another bus out to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. This was an amazing experience. I'm just going to post a lot of photos and tell you a little about what was there.

This is at the entrance to the aquarium. All the creatures in the tank are alive and the public can touch them - gently!

Here are a few photos of the coral fish tanks.

Sorry, the photos aren't the best quality but I hope I've given you a flavour of the amazing variety of fish to see. That was just the start of it though. We went on to see even more amazing and strange creatures. Here's a four-foot long lobster. I didn't know they even grew that big!

And here are some eels, just popped out to say hello:

And seahorses!

These were just a few of the huge variety of weird and wonderful creatures that we saw, but still the best was yet to come. The last part of the aquarium contains a tank large enough to house three whale sharks and lots of rays of different species. It was hard to take in how large this tank was.

We were in the aquarium for about two hours. There was lots more to see than I've managed to show here, and lots of displays about sea animals of all kinds, their biology and history of their interaction with man. The aquarium is set in a large recreational area which is entirely free to the public. There is only a fee for entry to the aquarium. In the park there are large tanks of dolphins, a false killer whale, huge sea turtles and manatees. (I have to say I felt sorry for the manatees. They looked too confined in their tank. The other animals, especially the dolphins and false killer whale, looked very healthy and happy.)

There were also tropical plant houses, botanical gardens and other recreational areas for the public, but unfortunately the tropical plant house was closed on the day we visited (which I was really gutted about) and it was very cold and windy, so we didn't spend as much time there as I would have liked.

We got the bus back to Nago and ate at the equivalent of a greasy spoon cafe just outside the bus station. Not that the Japanese would ever eat anything so bad as is served in a real bus drivers' cafe in England! No, this food was tasty. I tried natto, or fermented soy beans, a breakfast staple I'm informed. It looks disgusting, full of long strings of what looks like mucus, but it tastes quite nice! (I don't know if I could stomach it first thing in the morning, though.)

Here are our meals:

Andy just chose a couple of dishes, knowing that he would end up 'helping' Conrad with his. He had miso soup too, and the natto that I tried.

Some kind of seaweed fritter/tempura.
This is Conrad's choice. Playing safe as always. 

And this is mine. As is often the case, I'm not really sure what it is, but it looks, and usually tastes, nice.

We went back to Mt Oona to stay the night, then got the bus back to Naha the next day. Our last day in Okinawa in my next post.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

How We Didn't Do Okinawa - Part I

During the usual 'What are you doing for Chinese New Year?' discussions I told a friend we were going to Okinawa.

"Oh, are you going to the hot springs?"

"No, I didn't know there were any."

"But that's why people go to Okinawa.........."

Okinawa is (I learned) famous for hot springs, snorkelling, Pachinko gambling and the Okinawa diet. We did none of these when we went to Okinawa.

We were there for six days and got off to a slow start. It took me a day or two to come to terms with how expensive everything was compared to Taiwan. I would go to pay for things only to find my purse shrivelled and trembling in my bag.

"Come on, I need some money to pay for the monorail," I would say.

"No, no, it's more expensive than an amusement park ride and not as much fun!"

The first hotel we stayed at was out at the harbour rather than in the capital, Naha's, centre and we spent some of the first day wandering around lost. We finally found the main street, which consisted of endless souvenir shops, restaurants and amusement arcades. In the evening hawkers would stand outside on the pavement trying to persuade customers in. I realised what this all reminded me of. Yes, I had travelled thousands of miles across the world, to a completely different country and culture, only to find that I had come to a place remarkably like Blackpool.

The second day Andy had a work crisis that necessitated our hanging around the hotel for much of the day. We had not got off to a good start anyway. The disadvantage of sleeping near a harbour is that ships have fog horns, and the disadvantage of sleeping in a hotel is the other guests. We had some chatty Korean women on our floor, who managed to talk loudly in the corridor throughout the early morning at intervals of just-long-enough-to-go-back-to-sleep.

We did manage to get out in the evening for dinner. I said earlier that we didn't eat the Okinawa diet while we were there. The Okinawa diet is famous because the Okinawans are one of the longest-lived people in the world. I think our chances of living to a great age were reduced significantly by the meal we had that night. Vegetarians should look away now.

We went to a teppanyaki restaurant, where, as you probably know, a chef cooks your food in front of you and often performs juggling tricks with his knives and other implements to entertain the guests. I had another 'this reminds me of something' moment during our chef's performance. Then I had it - Tommy Cooper! Our chef kept dropping his condiments and knives etc., so that at some points I was seriously concerned for his safety.

But the food was delicious:

These started the frying show. They are little gelatinous fish. I didn't find out what they were made of and probably don't want to know.

Next came this mildly healthy dish. Large rings of onion, tofu, potato, purple sweet potato and the green stuff in the middle is bitter gourd (I think) with some very fatty ham to go with it.

My lobster is on the right and the thing on the left is a giant prawn of some kind.
Here comes the meat.

The steak and now empty lobster on my plate.

So the day didn't end too badly.

The next day we travelled halfway up the island with the intention of visiting the aquarium at the other end the day after. This day was the best weather we had all week, and luckily the place we were staying at was near a beach. Okinawa has beautiful beaches. We saw them all along the west coast as we went up on the bus. It also has world famous coral reefs, where you can go snorkelling in the summer. As we were there in the winter the best we could manage was a few wonderful hours paddling and relaxing in the sun:

That's all for now but I'll write more on Okinawa later this week, including the foibles of Okinawan men and the twittering of birds.