Sunday, May 27, 2012

Tokyo Transport

Fresh from the high humidity and temperatures of the tropics Tokyo greeted us with cold, pelting rain and confusion. What fell wasn't a 3 month long annoying Seattle drizzle mist, it was a cold, heavy penetrating, soaking downpour that sopped through my shoes, socks, pants and sweatshirt. After spending time in Thailand and Malaysia what I know that rain in the tropics is that it announces itself with a darkening sky and if that doesn't make you take heed it's followed by thunder and lightning. Then it'll rain like a sonofabitch for perhaps an hour and then all is forgiven and the day resumes a few degrees cooler. The Tokyo rain lasted all day and then it was spent, the next morning the sky turned blue and the temperature eventually jumped to a summer like 80F.

Japanese stores hand out free umbrella condoms for all customers and/or have communal umbrella stands. Some urinals in public men's rooms in Tokyo have small metal hooks alongside to hang your umbrella allowing you to conduct your personal business with both hands and to help you to keep your aim true. The sinks in Japanese men's rooms often have 2 spigots and both are motion sensitive. The one on the left squirts a generous helping of soap into your hand like an excited 16 year old boy on a hot date and the one on the right dispenses water. Everything I saw was clean, clean, clean, very little of the stink of a pay toilet squat house typical all over China. In Tokyo public rest rooms seemed to be plentiful free and unabused. 

We got around Tokyo by train. Tokyo has an amazing network of trains running with great frequency. Miss one and there's another right behind it. I never figured out who or what was in charge of which trains. Some lines are the Tokyo Metro, some are JR trains and still others belong to different railways private like Tokyu. Most of the lines intersect and some transfers are free, some are discounted and some transfers are full price. The system is massive so nothing is simple, there's organized chaos down there. Sometimes we bucked never ending rivers of salarymen to find the path to the next train or to the surface but we managed without getting too waylayed.

There seems to be a code of conduct that nearly all passengers adhere to.  There are signs in the train cars in English and Japanese requesting that people refrain from talking on their cells phones.  The only time I heard anyone on a call phone on a train the offender was speaking Mandarin.  Locals certainly don't ignore their phones, everyone is preoccupied with game playing and texting but there's no cell phone talking.  Very few people hold face to face conversations, it's all manners and decorum packed into a very large can.

The trains have a common payments card called Suica. Foreigners get a break on a special foreigner only Suica at the airport upon presentation of a passport and purchase of a ticket to and/or from Narita airport and I imagine the tourist authorities get data on where foreign tourists like to go in return. Recharge machines can also check on the amount of funds left on the card and upon request will deliver an accounting of all of your trips for the week, that's mine to the right.  Suica payment is good on trains, buses, some 7/11 stores and many other convenience stores and fast food restaurants.  Not much is cheap in Tokyo, our Suica cards arrived with 1500 yen installed and we quickly chewed that down and had to add funds twice. Recharges are performed by machines that have an English menu upon request and take cash and plastic.  Station announcements are often in English and signage is almost always bilingual.

As a result of the March 2011 tsunami and meltdown of a nuclear power plant north of Tokyo in Sendai all of the nuclear power stations in Japan have been pulled from the grid and shut down. The result is an electricity shortage. Stores are warm inside and so is the Tokyo Metro since air conditioning draws lots of juice that the Japanese grid can't provide. A new train, the Tokyo Metro 100 series, has just been put into service on the Ginza line that has LED lighting inside and out and flat panel displays for advertisements and station announcements.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In Asia How Do You Know When is Tap Water Safe to Drink?

That's easy, 7/11's are everywhere so just drop in and price a liter of water.  If it works out to .30 then use tap water for bathing and stick to drinking bottled water.  At a 7/11 here in Tokyo I saw 1.5 liters of water for sale for nearly $4.  In Bangkok bottled water is cheap and there are lots of things to do in Bangkok but drinking water from the tap isn't one of them.  In Tokyo I drink water straight from the tap, it's delicious.

This method had also guided me to drink tap water in Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Wat Arun

I turned 60 on the flight to Bangkok and now I have a feeling of what the future might bring. Wat Arun is one of the grandest and most distinctive of Bangkok's many Wats.
See this?  Big, isn't it? It's Wat Arun, also known as the Temple of Dawn and if you're inclined to climb it you're supposed to do it at dawn. It's on the western side of the Chao Phrya river and is accessable from central Bangkok by ferry.

We took several ferries to get to it and thought that everything else on the grounds and the structure itself were best appreciated at ground level. Eleanor doesn't climb, she balked at the Great Wall in Beijing so there was no way she was taking on Wat Arun.  I took lots of pictures on the grounds at Wat Arun and we ferried out of there to continue our ride up the Chao Phrya river to Nonthaburi and later to some well deserved hotel air conditioning

But the next day I returned to Wat Arun on my own. The grounds are free to roam and there's plenty to see but access to the structure cost me 150 baht (around $4.50). And I was free to climb in spite of the fact that it was late morning, it was 100 degrees and the sun was just rocking down out of the mid day tropical sky. As I contemplated my climb I waited for a small Japanese woman to descend the upper steep stairway. She was slow and deliberate and when she finally got down off of the stairs she was shaking and looked petrified. Hey, how bad could it be?

I went up. You can go up about half way to the top but the stairs are slippery from years of people climbing, narrow and steep. I had no trouble getting up although the metal handrails that I assume were added after the Thai ancients built this sky phallus were burning hot. How steep is the staircase?  Look to the left, see the stairs above the decending monks?  That steep. 

The view up there is tremendous. I took lots of pictures and started going down the steep stairs.  But I couldn't do it. It was steep and I wanted to treat the decent as I would coming down a ladder.  I turned my back to the river and my face to the steps but there were no rungs and the stone steps were hot.  I retreated to take more pictures and to contemplate my next move.  I'm afraid of heights and it's all stone so if I fell down the stairs I'd be lucky to survive.

I made it. I did it slowly, deliberately and with the constant thought that one slip could be life altering/ending. I burned my hands death gripping the hot metal railing. I used every ounce of strength to get this done and  my thighs still ache. 

But here's the point: when I got down to the ground my first thought was that this what old age is like and that I had just crossed the boundary between the days when I could do such a strenuous task and now I'll never be able to do this again. That stage of my life is over. A man's got to know his limitations and now at 60 I'll be knowing some new ones.