Monday, March 27, 2006

Spring break in Japan

I haven't posted in awhile for two main reasons: First, Alexandra was here in Berlin visiting. We had tons of fun imitating statues, imagining my new roommate as Batman, climbing the Siegesäule and getting lightheaded on the climb down, and eating lots of Kartoffelsuppe. If you want to see pictures (which I must say are pretty hysterical), go here.

The other main reason why I've been M.I.A.? This tiny little archipelago in Asia called "Japan." I was there visiting Dan for the week and we went to Tokyo and hung out in Kyoto. We made a pretty funny couple since everyone assumed that I knew Japanese, though the extent of my Japanese is "Arigato" (thanks). People would direct questions and comments to me, to which I would just stare at them blankly or just give a puzzled look, say, "Um, Dan...?" and Dan would answer in Japanese. I think we confused quite a few people. On the flight to Osaka Airport, the flight attendants assumed I was Japanese and passed me by when handing out landing cards, even though I raised my hand indicating I needed one. D'oh.

The first day I was there, we went to see a light festival that was being held in Gion. I was surprisingly not dying of jetlag and we walked all over looking at temples and shrines. It was really beautiful despite the fact that it was lightly raining. On Sunday, we went to Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is this huge shrine with tons of torii (gates). If you've seen the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, it's the place where the little girl runs under all these orange things. There was a lot of climbing up stairs and hills, wandering on paths that took us through clusters of bamboo trees, and we got to see Kyoto from above. We wandered off a path a little too far and actually accidentally left the Fushimi Inari Shrine, so we had to climb back up a large hill and find the path again. It was a beautiful day and much walking/hiking/wandering was done. By the time we were done discovering the shrine, we were beat.

Sunday evening after the Fushimi Inari Shrine, we took an overnight bus to Tokyo. The 8 hour ride itself sucked because neither Dan nor I could really sleep and the bus was ridiculously hot. When we got to Tokyo, it was too early to do anything, so we ate breakfast in Tokyo Station (we found a McDonald's). Once the city began to wake, we walked to the Imperial Palace, which wasn't actually that interesting. We saw the big wall surrounding the palace and everything was closed. It was a bit disappointing, but Dan said that the Imperial Palace in Kyoto was far more impressive. On Dave Ly's recommendation, we went to Odaiba, this district near the Rainbow Bridge.

We went to Decks Tokyo Beach, which is this weird cluster of malls. Why weird? Well, we found Little Hong Kong on the top two floors of one mall. It was strange and a bit cheesy, but we managed to find a good Chinese restaurant. (This made me pretty happy, considering I can't find Chinese food here in Berlin to my liking.) We then went down a few floors and crossed to a mall that was directly next to the first. It was even more bizarre than the first; it was as if someone transported us to 1950's Tokyo. All the stores sold nostalgic goods or just plain strange Japanese things. For example, we found this store that sold all this crazy stuff with cats dressed up like humans (samurai, ninjas, students, etc.) Check this website out if you don't believe me. Although it was a bit strange and foreign to us, we enjoyed walking around nonetheless.

Tuesday was Dan's 21st birthday, but instead of doing the usual let's-get-drunk-because-you're-legal thing, we went to Tokyo Disney instead. We chose to go to DisneySea instead of the main Disneyland park and we spent the whole day there. You would think that it wouldn't be so different than Disneyworld or Disneyland in the US, but oh, is it. Besides lots of crazy little Japanese girls running around, the stuff they sell is different, everything is in Japanese (even the characters talk in Japanese, obviously), and the atmosphere is very, well, Japanese.

The rides there were pretty sweet. I was most psyched about the Indiana Jones ride, since I'd been on the one in Disneyland in California. It was pretty much the same, except Indy speaks in Japanese. (I definitely made a video of that.) Our other favorite ride was Journey to the Center of the Earth, which seemed a little boring ("What is all this colorful stuff?"), then suddenly there's this big ass monster ("What the fuck is that?!" was my reaction), and finally, a big ass drop and you zoom along really fast. I convinced Dan to go on Raging Spirits, a roller coaster that had one loop, and he actually enjoyed it. We also went on a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride that made me claustrophobic and motion sick (it didn't help that the ride simulated being under water), a small roller coaster that was Little Mermaid themed, and some others that I can't recall. Of course, we also saw some shows. One was really weird and trippy (I fell asleep for a little) and the other was a live performance of Little Mermaid songs. The songs were in English, but when the characters spoke, it was in Japanese.

I'm not going to detail the whole day in DisneySea, but it was a really good time. Dan and I were both amused that we were kids for a day instead of being legal and getting drunk. We just had a beer each when we got back to our hotel. Oh, and I would like to say that I bought the best hat ever from DisneySea, which is super Japanese. I look Japanese. Here's a picture of me in it imitating a Japanese tourist:
Yeah. So the next day, we wandered around a cemetery and then went to Shibuya. Shibuya is the part of Tokyo with tons of bright lights and ads and tons of people. People will collect waiting for the pedestrian lights to change, and when they do, there are just swarms of people crossing every which way. It's a bit intimidating and chaotic, but at the same time, it's what you think of when you think "Tokyo." We met up with Dave for dinner to have shabu-shabu, which is Japanese hot pot. There is a small pot of water and sauce that sits on a stovetop on your table and you continually add vegetables, tofu, and meat. It was sort of strange because Dan kept saying, "More meat!" I suppose it was strange because the entire trip, I would hear, "More meat!" or "Mmm...meat" or something along those lines from him. Newsflash: Dan eats meat now. It was probably the weirdest thing that happened in the week I was in Japan. More so than the crazy Japanese people.

We left Tokyo on another overnight bus ride back to Kyoto and Thursday, we slept at Dan's host family's. At night, we met up with Dan's friends Sam and Mason, Sam's visiting friend Clay, and Mason's Japanese girlfriend whose name I can't recall. We had dinner at a sushi place that had a conveyor belt with all the dishes just rotating around the room, and yes, I did try sushi. However, I still can't get over the texture of fish, and thus, I still don't like it. But I tried it!

After dinner, everyone but Mason's girlfriend went to do some karaoke. We got our own room, had some drinks, and did tons of songs from Weezer's "Buddy Holly" to Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" to Madonna's "Like a Prayer" (Dan, Sam, and I were all about Midd Pride!) to Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" (Jersey Pride!). It was lots of fun. I even did Nena's "99 Luftballons" in German by myself. I'll admit that it's too bad I don't do karaoke more often, even though I think I'm pretty awful at singing.

My last day in Japan was spent with Dan wandering around near the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. Tourists and ordinary folk aren't actually allowed within the walls of the palace, so we walked outside it. The cherry blossoms ("sakura" in Japanese) were starting to bloom and were extraordinarily beautiful. Too bad the sakura festivals are a little later. Nonetheless, I took tons of pictures. Dan and I sat under the sakura enjoying our time together, watched some mothers struggling with their children, and relaxed in the amazing springtime weather. We also went by his university where the Japanese students were starting second semester and then returned to his host family's house to have dinner. Dan's host mom cooked a Japanese feast of tempura and other goodies. It was pretty delicious.

On Saturday, Dan and I woke up at 5:30 a.m. so that I could catch a train to Osaka Kansai Airport. It was a good week all in all, we sorted things out, and we're still going strong. This trip was actually the first trip where I didn't think, "Thank God! I'm going back to Berlin!" When I got back here, all I could think was, "Hmm, I miss Dan, I miss the food!" I have nothing to do for the next two weeks before classes start up again except watching movies, planning my next semesters (this coming and fall back at Midd), and basically, just bumming around. Even so, I'm looking forward to relaxing and time alone since the past month has been filled with visitors and visiting. It's time to recover.

If you want to see more pictures from my trip to Japan, go here. I'm warning you, though, there's 283 pictures!!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Karneval & Prague

The lack of updates has been due to the fact that I was in Düsseldorf and Köln (aka Cologne in English) for Karneval and then in Prague. Ethel, my friend/supervisor from my internship at Fuse, arrived in Berlin last Friday, and on Saturday we flew to Düsseldorf for Karneval. Why Düsseldorf, of all cities, you ask? Christian had invited me (or us) to celebrate Karneval there with him and his friends since it's his hometown. I figured it would be a great experience, especially with a local. He and Pablo repeatedly told me that I had no idea what to expect and they were completely right.

After walking around the city, Ethel and I met up with Christian and his friends and went to their local pub, Schaukel Stühlchen. Everyone, from old couples to teenagers, was on the street dancing outside the pub to music blasting from speakers when we went in. We spent most of the night there, where Ethel and I (and everyone else) drank a lot of the local Schlösser Alt bier, although I had been warned to not drink it. (My verdict: Not bad.) The music was a mix between traditional German Karneval songs (which Christian and his friends all knew and sang along to), 80s pop songs, current dance hits, and indie rock. After a considerable time at Schaukel Stühlchen, Christian, his friend Sven, Ethel, and I went dancing at a club called Stone, where the music was mostly indie rock and German pop. We danced through the night until we got kicked out at about 4:30/5 a.m. and Ethel and I took a cab back to our hostel and tried not to wake up the other people in the room. It was a bit difficult for me because I was on the top bunk, and after having a lot to drink, let's just say it wasn't an easy task climbing up.

Sunday we woke up at 9 a.m. and working on four hours of sleep, Ethel and I took a local train to Köln to see the Karneval festivities there. I would just like to say that the cathedral (Kölner Dom) is probably the most impressive cathedral I've ever seen. Besides that, the festivities were quite obvious with costumed people lining up on the street to watch the parade. The parade basically was all the schoolkids dressed up marching around and it felt like it lasted forever. Ethel and I got tired of watching and were cold, so wandered the city in search of anything but the parade. That mission seemed to have failed, mostly because everything was closed. We did, however, sit in a Burger King drinking tea (since it was about the only place open) observing some teenagers drunk to the point of passing out. This was about 4 in the afternoon. Because we had partied late into the night before, we couldn't bring ourselves to drink the local beer, Kölsch, nor really party. We went back to Düsseldorf and went to sleep relatively early in order to be ready for Rosenmontag.

Rosenmontag is apparently the biggest day of Karneval and we spent it in Düsseldorf. We met up with Christian and his friends again to watch (yet another) parade. However, this parade was much better than the one we had seen in Köln because it was just float after float. Much like Jackie and Doug observed with their Karneval experiences, it seemed to be a day of not being politically correct. Then again, people were dressed up as Mexicans and Indians that would've given Middlebury College a heart attack. There was even one float of "Africans," a.k.a. Germans dressed up as Africans and wearing blackface. I was slightly shocked, but got over it relatively quickly. (There is, afterall, no real word for "PC" in German, except for "PC.")

Watching the parade was an experience in itself. Everyone was drinking beer, whether they had bought it from a stand or had brought it in a wagon, bag, etc. The floats that went by ranged from political humor (making fun of Dubyah or Angie), to local humor (which Ethel and I didn't get), to just plain fun. There were also several marching bands that made me really excited. By the end of the parade, everyone was ready to hit up the bars, and so, we did. We went back to Schaukel Stühlchen and continued to drink and party from about 4 pm to 9 pm or so. It was pretty much like Saturday night except for the fact that more beer was consumed at an earlier hour.

We left the bar to go to a club where there were not that many people there. It actually didn't matter at that point because everyone was pretty much drunk and having a good time regardless. At one point, a whole drum line came into the club and played some traditional German Karneval songs. It was a very good night and was especially great because we got to do as the locals did. My conclusion is that Germans really know how to party and we need to bring Karneval to the U.S. However, it would probably never work, just because there's such a stigma against drinking and we are always concerned about being PC.

On Wednesday, Ethel and I flew from Köln/Bonn airport to Prague. I'm not going to spend much time detailing what went down in Prague, because frankly, not much happened. We actually wanted to try to change our train tickets to come back a day earlier, but unfortunately, it wasn't possible. Prague is a beautiful city, unlike many German cities, since it was basically untouched during the World Wars. It is definitely beautiful in the sense of being a romantic European city and it made me miss having someone with me to just walk through the streets admiring it.
The people we met at the hostel all said the same exact thing: Once you see one thing in Prague, you've basically seen everything. In my opinion, this is true. A good metaphor: Prague is the beautiful woman with no personality. Berlin is the average-looking woman with tons of personality. We explored Prague Castle, saw the Franz Kafka and Toy Museums, and an Alfons Mucha gallery. (Not the museum) To make a long story short, I appreciate Berlin even more now and I'm glad to be back.

Ethel left this morning and I have five days to myself before Alexandra comes to visit me here in Berlin. We'll probably stay here in Berlin and then a week after she arrives, I leave for Japan (when she goes home). More adventures to come.

You can see pictures from Karneval here, but I warn you, there are many drunken photos.
You can see pictures from Prague here.