Saturday, July 23, 2016

This November

apolitical (adjective) (definition from Merriam-Webster)
1:  having no interest or involvement in political affairs; also :  having an aversion to politics or political affairs
2:  having no political significance

For much of my life I thought of myself as relatively apolitical, but this has changed over the past few years.  As a loved one recently pointed out to me, it is a privilege to be able to think of oneself as apolitical, for it implies some ability to be detached from - insulated from - the realities and inequities of the world.  I avoid venturing into the morass that is social media politics, and I also intend to keep my blog relatively free of politics.  That does not mean that I do not have strong opinions.

The night that President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 was one of the most memorable of my life.  It was the fall of my junior year.  I was sitting in my dorm room watching the returns on my computer screen and, with my door open, simultaneously hearing the TV coverage being played in the lounge down the hall.  Right after the election was called, I remember the elation that flooded our building and the tears of two black dorm-mates as they ran past cheering, arms around each other.  I remember feeling that this election result was important to them on a level that I myself would never fully understand, but could respect and be grateful for, and that it helped me believe in greater possibilities.  I remember walking into the lounge and standing with my fellow students as the Obama family walked onto the stage in Chicago, an image of solidarity, love, and renewed optimism.  At that moment I realized that this election was perhaps the most important political event that my generation had experienced.  I will miss President and Mrs. Obama very much.

This year's presidential election is the one for which I am most fired up.  As I read the news and hear about all the outrageous statements made by various politicians, I feel nostalgic for the candidacies of Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney.  I re-watch The West Wing and wish that Arnie Vinick was a real person who could run for president.  I vacillate between anger, indignation, and resolve, and even though the political optimism I felt in 2008 is a memory, I still feel hopeful for a better world.

I am proud to be an American citizen who is also a woman, a Chinese-American immigrant and daughter of immigrants, a scientist, and a future physician.  My deep-seated belief is that our country needs a president who is experienced and tough, but compassionate and classy; a president who balances idealism with practicality, and understands the realities of American politics.  We need a president who values the contributions of immigrants in America, and who believes in women's rights, reproductive rights, LGBT rights, high-quality healthcare and education for all, and biomedical and basic science research.

I encourage everyone to think deeply and critically about what is at stake in this election, to partake in civil discourse about our beliefs, to volunteer for the campaign you believe in, and most importantly, to vote on November 8.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Winter 2015 Japan trip, day 3: Torii, castle, and temple in Kyoto

Saturday, December 26: Full day in Kyoto

Fushimi Inari-taisha is the iconic mountainside shrine with thousands of orange torii gates along the trail.  Inari is the patron spirit of "fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture, industry and general prosperity and worldly success" (Wikipedia) and foxes are its messengers, so fox statues and statuettes are everywhere.  Because this is a shrine for business, the torii gates are sponsored by corporations and range in size depending on the size of the donation.

Sponsor information on the backs of the torii

The shrine has its own train stop south of the city center.  Based on our experience, I highly recommend going first thing in the morning (i.e. before 9am) to beat the tourist rush and enjoy a more peaceful trail experience; when we left mid-morning, we saw a stream of tourists entering.  We spent about 1-1/2 hrs there and hiked 2/3 of the way up the mountain on the loop trail.

(by Andrew)
Seen in the window
View from the lookout about 2/3 of the way up
We went up the main path with the most torii gates and then, on the way down, took the less-popular branch of the trail (go to the right side when facing downhill at the main branch point).  This branch also brings you back to the main entrance, but through a more residential area that features hundreds of little shrines with little torii gates, fascinating in their own right.

After returning to the city center, we had enough time left in the morning to visit Nijo Castle, a 17th-century stronghold with large wooden buildings and sprawling grounds.  We weren't able to go inside the buildings on this day, but still enjoyed strolling around the complex.

Main gate
Entrance into inner keep

Inner moat
Around 1:00pm we took a taxi to Roan Kikunoi for a kaiseki lunch, which was incredible and deserves a post of its own.

To walk off the lunch we visited Ginkaku-ji, the temple of the “silver pavilion.”  It is the sister temple to Kinkaku-ji, the famous gold-covered temple usually seen on Kyoto postcards, but more subdued in its beauty.  Andrew thinks that while Kinkaku-ji is the most famous, Ginkaku-ji is perhaps better to visit because of its subtlety, and because the garden is more walkable.  I have only visited the latter, but agree that it was very worthwhile.

Typically meticulous groundskeeping

We were still so full from lunch that we skipped dinner, save for a few bites of onigiri made from the leftover kaiseki rice course.

We didn’t get to but considered: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Monday, July 18, 2016

Winter 2015 Japan trip, day 2: Christmas in Kyoto

Kyoto was by far my favorite city during this trip.  This wasn't surprising to me, given what I had read about it before our trip, and how Andrew had fondly described it, but I was still struck by the city's sheer loveliness.  Known for its cultural and historical value as a former imperial capital, Kyoto survived the fire bombings that flattened many other cities during World War II, including Tokyo and Osaka.  (In fact, Kyoto had been on the shortlist of targets for atomic bombings, but Nagasaki was substituted).  As a result, the city is a blend of well-preserved traditional architecture and landscape design with modern Japanse efficiency.

Friday, December 25: Tokyo to Kyoto via bullet train

The train ride on the JR Central Shinkansen Nozomi was about three hours.  The Nozomi Superexpress is the fastest option between the two cities and has an appropriately impressive name, announced mellifluously in the onboard welcome message.  We chose regular-class tickets (not the first-class "green car" service) and had clean, comfortable reclining seats with plenty of legroom, handy purse hooks next to the large picture windows, overhead luggage racks, space for larger luggage at the end of the car, and an adorable refreshments trolley (pushed by a very nice lady) that comes by every 45 minutes or so.  You can have ice cream on the train!  Needless to say, JR Shinkansen has Amtrak beat.

Our hotel in Kyoto was the Hotel Gimmond, a Western-style hotel with an elegant (if dated) lobby.  After dropping our bags and eating a quick onigiri lunch from the adjacent Lawson's, we took a taxi to the Higashiyama district.  This is arguably the most famous sightseeing district in Kyoto, filled with beautiful temples, shrines, and a blend of residential and ryokan/hotel buildings.

Christmas ice creams!

Kiyomizu-dera is a beautiful Buddhist temple with massive wooden buildings, constructed in the 17th century, and an important religious site.  Its wood-beamed construction has zero nails!

(by Andrew)
(by Andrew)

After walking back down the hill slightly and purchasing some shichimi togarashi - a commonly used seven-spice blend - we turned north and stopped in at Inoda Coffee.  This is an old-school establishment with a dark wood-beamed interior. high ceiling, and enormous charm.  White-gloved servers and staff prepare drink orders and precisely de-crust sandwiches in an open kitchen with stainless steel kettles and implements.  Drinks are served in porcelain cups and tall glasses, with a proprietary sugar cube placed on the saucer.  The cafe has a huge window overlooking a small garden.  The one downside is that smoking is allowed inside, but even so, I loved this place.

We continued north and happened upon Kodai-ji temple, which was nearly devoid of other visitors after we walked past the staircase entrance.

The large Zen garden and hillside paths were focal points of the landscaping.

There are many unexpectedly stunning spots in this district.  I could easily have spent more days here.

Other tourists with holiday cheer

Eventually we ended up at the Philosopher’s Path, so named for some (20th century) philosophy professor who would walk along the little canal every day.   Kaze-no-yakata is an old shop located right on the Philosopher's Path and specializes in beautiful round ornaments made of colored thread.  Andrew bought a small trio of these ornaments on one of his previous trips and was pleased to see that the shop was still there this time.

Another shop we particularly liked was Dot Dot Kyoto, which is set out of the way of most tourist traffic and has a slight hipster vibe.

Eventually we got tired of walking, caught a taxi back to our hotel, and walked five minutes to Ippudo Ramen for dinner.  This was so, so good, and made even the "best" ramen in LA seem vastly inferior.  The broth was deliciously but not cloyingly rich, and the perfect balance of savory without being too salty (my primary complaint with ramen in the U.S.).  The restaurant was very busy, but seats opened up quickly, ramen being a high-turnover service.  Our party of four had only a short wait for counter seats.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Winter 2015 Japan trip: our travel tips and Tokyo recap

Last December, my parents, Andrew and I traveled around Japan for 5 days before heading to Shanghai to visit my grandparents.  We wished it could have been a longer trip, but had a great time regardless, and I am looking forward to returning.  Below is a list of our recommendations and a summary of our time in Tokyo, with forthcoming posts on Kyoto (my favorite) and Osaka.

Our tips for first-time visitors to Japan:

  • Depending on how much travel you intend to do, be aware of the Japan Rail Pass. It offers unlimited access to JR trains, including some of the less fancy bullet trains. JR (Japan Railway) is the country-wide train system, which also runs within major cities, and overlaps with city-specific train systems or private train lines (e.g. Tokyo Metro or Osaka’s Keihan line). If you are staying in primarily just a few cities, the rail pass may not be worth it, but otherwise it is a steal. We did not get the rail pass because we only rode the bullet train once.
  • Tipping is not customary and will probably be turned down.
  • All the hotels we stayed at would hand us our keys whenever we entered the hotel, and would ask for our keys whenever we stepped out.
  • Convenience stores are a great option for a quick, inexpensive, and tasty meal. Lawson's and 7-11 are two of the commonplace chains. You can pick up breakfast pastries and onigiri (rice balls with different flavorings/fillings) and hot/cold drinks, even yogurt and bananas sometimes, but bakeries on the street or in train stations have better pastries (see below).
  • Vending machines selling hot and cold beverages are everywhere.  There are also (rarer) vending machines selling ice cream, and they are a good bet.  We particularly recommend the matcha cone and the Krunky bar, which is essentially a Crunch bar with thicker chocolate coating.
  • Train stations of moderate size and above have great food options, ranging from stand-up noodle counters to sit-down restaurants. The Kyoto and Osaka main stations, as well as several Tokyo stations like Shibuya, are train station - shopping mall hybrids with multiple floors of restaurants and stores (perhaps you'd fancy a quick stop at Muji before hopping on your transfer?).  But even medium-size stations like Kyobashi in Osaka or Karasumaoike in Kyoto have cafes and - most importantly - bakeries.
  • Western-style bakeries in Japan are awesome. The pastries are typically fresh, delicious, and inexpensive. Eat them! You'll probably do enough walking to burn it off, anyway. And if you see a mochi donut, try it.
  • Malls in general are a reliable place to find a tasty meal.
  • Many restaurants accept credit cards (Visa) now, especially in the big cities.  But carrying sufficient cash is a good idea for transit, buying things, some restaurants, etc.  For international withdrawals, use the Japan Post (post office) ATMs, which are available in airports, big train stations, and sprinkled in neighborhoods.
  • Street crime is very low.  Of course common sense is always good, but we never felt unsafe at any hour.
  • Public restrooms at major tourist destinations in big cities tend to be well-maintained. Japanese toilet technology is, after all, excellent. Depending on where you are, there may be squat toilets, or squat toilets and Western toilets.  Regardless, it’s probably a good idea to keep a pack of tissues and some hand sanitizer with you (true for anywhere in Asia).
  • Subway or train tickets are printed on small slips of paper which you insert at your entry station gate and then hang onto until your exit gate - very economical but easy to lose, so be careful!
  • Don’t bring Sudafed— it is illegal in Japan and may cause delays at the airport.
  • Taxi drivers control passenger doors via a switch.  Don’t open/close them yourself.  They are also pretty reasonable cost-wise and we got the sense that the drivers could understand tourist destination names in English.
  • The only Japanese I know, other than names of dishes, is “Konnichiwa” and “Arigato [gozaimasu].”  Granted, Andrew did pretty much all of our communication, which was enormously helpful, but I still felt like it would have worked out even if it had been just me and my parents. As with most places, you can get quite far with a couple phrases and lots of smiling and nodding (and, in Japan, some shallow bows when that is happening around you).

Our itinerary:
December 23: arrive in Tokyo (early evening)
December 24: full day in Tokyo
December 25: Tokyo to Kyoto by midday
December 26: full day in Kyoto
December 27: Kyoto to Osaka by late morning
December 28: depart for Shanghai

Wednesday, December 23 - arrival in Tokyo (Narita International Airport), train to Asakusa

Our hotel was the Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa (5 min).  Asakusa is an older neighborhood in Tokyo, without many skyscrapers. It does have a well-known temple and touristy shopping area, and is relatively convenient transit-wise.

This is a Japanese-style hotel with futons and also private bathrooms. Each room is really a mini suite with a small sitting area, a bathroom, and a bedroom.

Entrance to our ryokan

Additionally, there is a communal bathroom on each floor (available to the three or so rooms on that floor), and a soaking spa on the first floor which is first-come-first-serve. We thought this was a fun place to stay, and as a bonus, it offered a delicious Japanese-style breakfast ($14/person additional and very much worth it). The innkeeper's name is Tony. He is very nice, speaks English, and in fact used to work for Levi's in California.

Not shown: a lovely piece of grilled salmon

Thursday, December 24: Full day in Tokyo

Tsukiji Fish Market - a must for food enthusiasts, of course, but also generally fascinating. We weren't able to see the tuna auction since it is closed to the public in December and January, but we still enjoyed walking through the outer market stalls and the commercial market. Watch your step and be careful not to get run over by the motorized carts whizzing through the narrow aisles!

Mitsukoshi (luxury department store) - our particular interests were the Shiseido counter (hello, favorable exchange rate!) and the basement "Food Hall," which has tons of takeout food options of all types displayed extremely attractively. This is a great place to buy a bento box for lunch.

Itoya (stationery store), a.k.a. seven floors of stationery perfection, a.k.a. my idea of heaven. There is one floor devoted to paper and another floor devoted to “crafts," which includes a stunning array of handmade papers. The displays are so beautiful as to be intimidating.
All the shades you could desire

Meiji Shrine - a Shinto shrine built in 1915-26 and set in an evergreen forest. I admired its spare, quiet beauty, apparent even with the considerable crowds.
Barrels of sake donated to the shrine
Inner courtyard

Harajuku - known for weird urban Japanese culture, but we didn't see much in the way of crazy costumes or cat cafes. There is, however, solid coffee to be found here, even at the chain establishments like Steamer Coffee Co. (One thing to note is that portion sizes in Japan are much more modest - i.e. reasonable - than in the U.S. A typical coffee was served in a 6-8 oz porcelain cup.)

Shibuya - big, busy shopping neighborhood.
  • In particular, we wandered through Tokyu Hands, which is a 10+ story hardware store, but “hardware” encompasses everything from home goods (kitchenware), stationery, travel supplies, to actual hardware (nuts and bolts). Also, rabbits.  This store was very fun to browse and felt more accessible and relaxed than, say, Itoya or Mitsukoshi.
  • Tokyo’s busiest intersection, with the 6-way pedestrian crossing right in front of the Shibuya station.  It was worth seeing just because it’s kind of insane, yet still vaguely orderly.

For dinner in Asakusa, we asked innkeeper Tony to recommend a sushi place nearby.  He walked us <5 min to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with a name we didn’t register, where he knows the chef.  We were the only tourists there and the sushi was awesome, not to mention surprisingly inexpensive.  This was my mom's first time trying toro (fatty tuna), and it's safe to say she found it a transformative experience. Lesson learned: ask your innkeeper for food recommendations.

For a nightcap, Andrew and I went to the rooftop bar at the Andaz Tokyo, which features innovative, “award-winning” cocktails and a lovely view of the city.  We didn’t make a reservation so were seated at the bar instead of at a table next to the windows, but it was still nice, and also very fun for people-watching.
Fancy-pants cocktails

Tokyo things we didn’t get to but considered:
  • Mori Art Museum. It is at the top of Tokyo’s tallest building and has an exhibition of Takashi Murakami (including the world’s largest painting).
  • Omakase-style cocktails at Gen Yamamoto.