October 20, 2014

The Peak is the pits

One of the must-see attractions in Hong Kong is The Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island. Basically you scoot up the mountain in a tram and admire the view of the city below - which travel writers have waxed absolutely lyrical about (this, for example, from Time: "you'll see one of the finest harbors on Earth and a skyline so improbable, audacious and lofty that Manhattan's looks provincial by comparison").

On Friday after work I decided I would congratulate myself on surviving a second week in Hong Kong by spending a lovely evening up at The Peak. I pictured myself sitting in a sophisticated bar on the mountain top, cutting a lone silhouette against the skyline. I would sip red wine (I don't actually like red wine) and write meaningful vignettes into my journal, pausing every so often to gaze broodingly out the window. 

The first moment this fantasy was destroyed was arriving at the tram terminus and realising that about 300 mainland tourists had the exact same idea as me (well, maybe not the tortured writer part). It took about half an hour waiting in line to get tickets for the tram. Then another 30 minutes as the tram went back and forth, ferrying tourists crammed like tinned sardines up and down the mountain.

When my turn came, unfortunately I was one of the sardines who didn't get a seat, and had to stand in the aisle. So I gripped on for dear life as the rickety old tram charged up the mountain, at one point, apparently, at a gradient of 27 degrees. The man in front of me was for reasons unknown doing a leisurely set of squats as we travelled. I caught a glimpse of this in the window reflection and, to my horror, with the angle we were at, I realised it looked as though I was the unwitting participant in a standing sexual act. Two girls sitting next to me clearly noticed this, too, and burst into giggles. I glared at them.

After making it up the mountain (having left dignity at the bottom), we emerged at what is known as the Peak Tower, a godawful conglomerate of overpriced souvenir shops (I love Hong Kong tshirts), international fashion brands (Crocs), restaurants (Bubba Gump Shrimp) and, worst of all, Madame Tussauds wax museum. There was also a counter selling tickets for the Sky Terrace 428, a viewing platform purporting to offer a 360 degree view (the 428 refers to the fact it is 428 metres above sea level).

Everyone else seemed to be coughing up the HK $40 (about NZ $7) for this Sky Terrace, so even though I thought it seemed a bit shit to have to pay for the view, I did too. I joined the throng snaking its way up the escalators to the top of the tower.

It was hell on earth up there. Every possible inch of balcony space was taken up by a crowd about four-deep. Selfie sticks were criss-crossed against the skyline, camera flashes went off at random, bouncing off the smog. I felt like I was at war. Blinded, dazed and disoriented, I backed away, promptly tripping up on someone's tripod. I turned in the other direction, and narrowly avoided a selfie stick to the face. I watched as tourists descended into selfie-taking monsters, pulling victory signs and duck faces and bunny ears. Amid the Cantonese and Mandarin, I suddenly heard a more familiar language - Japanese. "Jidori shiyo ka?" Let's do a... jidori... what does jidori mean... self... take... oh. There is now a Japanese word for selfie.

Finally a glittering opening appeared through the masses. I jumped in, pulled out my camera and aimed it at the scene below. Snap. I lowered my camera and considered the view. Yep. Quite nice.

Job done, I hoofed it out of there. I needed to find a bar - I no longer cared about writing meaningful vignettes into my journal, but I did care very much about a drink. Once I managed to escape from the Tower, I found myself at a ritzy shopping mall, the Peak Galleria. I looked wildly for the dining directory. There was just one very expensive looking bar and restaurant. I decided to go to a juice bar instead and settle for the cheap but unsatisfying option of lychee flavoured bubble tea.

Then it was time to get off the damn mountain, but that was also easier said than done. In the time it had taken for me to unsuccessfully search for a bar and slurp my bubble tea, all the other tourists had taken their billion selfies, dined at Bubba Gump Shrimp and marked the occasion with a brand new pair of Crocs. A massive line had formed for the return tram. I waited another 30 minutes. I crammed in like a sardine. And when I finally got out, I marched away from that mountain without looking back.

Postscript - I did actually look back, figuratively speaking. When I got home I googled variations of "The Peak sucks" to see if I was the only tourist in the history of the world to have not enjoyed the experience. But it turns out, I actually did the whole thing wrong and could have saved myself a lot of trauma. First, I went at peak (hah) time, 8pm on a Friday night. That's a no-no. Second, there is actually a less known and completely free viewing platform on top of the Peak Galleria. Third, there is also a 7-11 convenience store in the Peak Galleria and I could have bought booze from there and had my own wee sneaky BYO outside. And finally, instead of the tram, I should have gotten a bus back down the mountain.

I guess I peaked too soon.

The line for the tram.
The line for Bubba Gump Shrimp.
The line to take selfies.
The view (I mean, yeah, it is quite good)
Another, very slightly different view
The Peak Galleria
The line for the tram back down

October 17, 2014

Reporting the Hong Kong protests

In my last post, I mentioned that the protests seemed to be dying down, as the government had agreed to hold talks with the movement's leaders. Well, shortly after that the government cancelled the talks, and thousands of protesters marched straight back onto the streets.

This week I got the chance to head out into the field and help with some of the protest coverage. Now, when I say "help", my contribution has been absolutely miniscule - it has more been an observational exercise than anything else. At the New York Times, where I'm doing my internship, the reporters are working through the day and night to cover this event, which is constantly evolving and has no end in sight. Not only do the reporters have to be in three places at once (there are three major protest sites), but they are also working to deadlines across different time zones for various editions of the paper. Then of course there's the hungry beast that is the web, which has to be fed constantly. As do personal Twitter accounts. Then, after all of that, they've somehow got to find time to sit down and interview experts to get serious analysis on the whole thing.

It's exhausting just to think about. These guys are bloody troopers, and I'm learning a lot from watching their reporting and seeing how the final stories come together each day.

For me, it's been a surreal experience. As a national news reporter, I do most of my work from the office. Probably the last "event" I was involved in was the royal tour of New Zealand. I went to the airport when Prince William, Catherine and baby Prince George landed in Wellington, and interviewed royalists who provided quotes such as: "I do wish [George] had been wearing a hat in this cold".

Over the past couple of days I have found myself interviewing people about universal suffrage, the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China, and police brutality.

People have been incredibly approachable. Of course, it helps that for the most part the people I've spoken to have been protesters who have a bee in their bonnet and want the world to know about it. But there are also a lot of bystanders - and they are the really interesting ones to talk to, because you can never predict what they're going to say. How do they feel about the protests?

"At first, I supported them," said one retired man in Mong Kok. "But it's lasted so many days. I want to go to Tsim Sha Shui for shopping and to see my friends. If I take the bus, it's $2. But the bus is cancelled so I have to take a taxi. It takes up my time and money."

I have seen insane bamboo barricades being constructed, attended a rally and rushed to the scene when there were rumours of police using tear gas again (it turned out it was pepper spray, and I was sent home when it looked like it was getting dangerous).

Half the time I have no idea what's actually going on, as most of the speeches and skirmishes are in Cantonese. Sometimes I ask people around me to summarise what's being said, and they're generally happy to oblige. Other times people have actually come up to me, offering to help (I have the "lost lamb" look down pat now) or just curious about what I'm doing here.

On one such occasion, I met a bizarre character. He was a Chinese businessman who lived in Milan and spoke with - I kid you not - a Tony Soprano accent.

"New Zealand, huh," he said with a sneer. "You're a fucking long way from home."

Occupy Central: Back in action
Tent city in Admiralty
Spot the creative "middle finger" gloves at the end of the poles
"Central Government and TRIAD offices"
Bored policemen guarding the Central Government offices
Construction of bamboo barricades on Monday night
These were pulled down the very next morning.
At a rally in Admiralty, my view of student leader, 18-year-old Joshua Wong
At the rally condemning police brutality hundreds of people held up these signs, saying "black cops" (I think)
This is me interviewing someone in Mong Kok. I gave him my business card and he later sent me this photo, which must have been taken sneakily by his friend. Only in Hong Kong.

October 10, 2014

Do you hear the people sing?

As luck would have it, I landed in Hong Kong right amid one of the biggest news stories in the world. Over the past two weeks, thousands of young Hong Kongers have taken to the streets, protesting for full democracy. China is offering a watered-down version, with its plans to pre-screen political candidates so it can essentially control elections

It is said to be China's biggest democracy movement since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing. This is something one of my colleagues back home took pleasure in bringing up before I left, helpfully advising me to stay away from tanks.

It seems like the protests are starting to die down now, so on Tuesday night I decided to head to the main site in Admiralty district, near the government headquarters.

Emerging from the station, the first thing you notice is the sea of posters, messages and artworks, haphazardly stuck to walls and posts. Some are simple, scrawled in pen, while others could have been created by graphic designers. "Keep calm and open your umbrella", says one. "Listen to our thought," says another. Yellow ribbons, which have become one of the main symbols of the movement, are everywhere, tied to fences and gates, pinned to the shirts of supporters. I even saw a baby on the subway playing with one, curling it around his little fingers.

It is eerily quiet and empty on the outskirts of the protest zone. First aid sites are abandoned, but remain stocked with supplies, in case the police come back with tear gas.

Round the corner onto the main road, and even now, with protester numbers dwindling, the scene catches your breath.

Against a backdrop of towering skyscrapers are hundreds and hundreds of people, dotted like little dark ants along the highway. Some are sitting barefoot on rugs, shoes neatly placed at the edge, while others are perched atop of the highway barriers. Along the way are ladders and crates so people can safely climb over. A man reached out to help pull me across to the other side.

There was suddenly a mild commotion - something set the protesters off, causing them to burst into song. They started singing happy birthday in both Cantonese and English, apparently to drown out their opponents.

Music is a recurring theme. A giant banner stretches across an overbridge bearing the words of the Les Miserables anthem, "Do you hear the people sing?"

On the opposite bridge is John Lennon's Imagine: "You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one".

Perhaps most eye-catching of all is the "Lennon Wall", covered in a rainbow of Post-It notes featuring messages of support for democracy. Markers and notes are provided so visitors can add to the wall, make their mark on history - however impermanent it may be. As one of the notes says, "everyone deserves freedom of expression!"

At the base of the wall is the striking "Umbrella Man" statue. He is made out of wooden blocks and carries a golden umbrella, bathed in the light of a street lamp.

As I spent the hour wandering around, I thought about what it all meant for Hong Kong, what it meant for China, and what it could mean for history. Then I thought about New Zealand's most recent election, and the "missing million" who decided not to vote.

I don't think they know what it feels like to hear the people sing.

Posters at Admiralty Station

A first aid station, stockpiled with supplies
Protesters singing happy birthday in the middle of the highway
Occupy Hong Kong artwork
"You'll never walk alone"
"You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one"
Lennon Wall of democracy

Overlooking Occupy Hong Kong, protester numbers dwindling
Umbrella Man statue
Note: Sorry these photos are so crappy quality, aside from my general lack of photography skills I don't have a proper camera yet so these were iPhone jobs.

October 06, 2014

Hong Kong: First Impressions

I remember reading somewhere that Hong Kong is like Asia for beginners. All the guidebooks harp on about the "East meets West" culture - most people speak some English, it's easy to get around, the food's great, the shopping's great... and so on.

So I came here with a smug sense of preparedness. I "practised" going to yum cha. I flicked through my Lonely Planet guidebook. I watched a few Cantonese tutorials on YouTube for good measure.

Three days in Hong Kong, and I am eating some very humble dim sum.

I'm not sure exactly when the culture shock set in. It could have been on the train from the airport, looking at apartment blocks so ridiculously tall that you wonder how they could have possibly been made by humans and not jenga-playing giants. It could have been reading the sign on the door of my hostel which said it was operating illegally and the owners of the building accepted no liability for anything that happened to me. Or it could have been during my first Hong Kong breakfast, when I found myself sharing a table with a stranger, eating a rather bizarre soup containing macaroni noodles, lettuce and ham.

As a result, I have at times descended to the ranks of my least favourite type of traveller - the creature-comforts traveller. I am ashamed to admit I visited McDonald's and Starbucks within the space of 72 hours.

But even those places had their own unique experiences. At McDonald's, I watched a waitress get into a heated argument in Cantonese with a woman, seemingly over the fact she was loitering at her table after she had finished her food (as I was doing the exact same thing trying to make the most of the free wi-fi, I paid close attention to the series of events).

Then as I was sipping my Starbucks on Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, a small Chinese boy was thrust upon me, followed by each of his parents, and I suddenly found myself the centre-piece of a family photo shoot.

I haven't taken many pictures so far because it's too overwhelming. I've just been wandering around, mouth agape at the sheer masses of everything. Skyscrapers, shops, people.

I do love the MTR, the subway which is so clearly sign-posted and easy to use I haven't gotten lost once. I don't love the sticky humidity, the random downpours, and the tiny wet bathrooms. Thanks to a combination of the three, I have already gone through about half the clothes I brought with me.

Then, of course, there are the democracy protests. I spent the first two nights staying in the centre of Causeway Bay, one of the hotbeds of the Occupy movement. On Friday evening, I heard yelling, screaming and sirens outside my ninth-floor hostel window. Too nervous to leave the building, I watched the situation unfold on Twitter.

A group of masked Beijing supporters had pushed through the barricades and started attacking the young protesters, trying to force them to leave. It was unbelievable hearing it all happening right below me.

Apart from that night, the protest area in Causeway Bay has a strangely festive atmosphere. The barricades have turned what I assume is normally one of the area's busiest roads into a complete pedestrian zone. While the number of actual protesters has thinned out, crowds of locals and tourists wander around taking photos of all the pro-democracy signs and messages of support.

I have now relocated to a charming apartment in Central, where I will be living for the next six weeks. More on that later, but so far challenges include how-to-wash hair-using-hand-held-shower-while-sitting-on-toilet, and how-to-not-disturb-resident-kitchen-cockroaches.

Support Hong Kong: Causeway Bay protest site
"If not us who?! If not now when?!" Signs and messages of support.
Umbrella Revolution.
Causeway Bay outside Sogo department store - turned into pedestrian zone by protests.
The world is watching Hong Kong.

February 28, 2013

The Only Blonde in Osaka: Where I've Been

Where I've been: 2012 Japan Trips
Today marks the one year anniversary of this blog! It began as a way of documenting my semester-long exchange at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan. I never thought anyone would actually read it. But along the way I started to really enjoy travel blogging. I started putting effort into my posts, hoping they might come in useful for anyone with an interest in Japan. I began reading other people's travel blogs, and was inspired by their style, tone, and all the fascinating places they were blogging about.

In the past year I have had more than 100,000 views on this blog, which is pretty cool. A lot of these are because I mention Sailor Moon so much that unwitting searchers probably think this is some sort of Sailor Moon fan site. Many views also come from the Japanese news website Searchina, which has a section reporting what foreign blogs are saying about Japan. Three of my posts have been translated and featured here. The views that make me happiest are from people who search 'Osaka blog' or 'things to do in Osaka'. I hope that they came to love Osaka as much as I did.

Glico Man: A symbol of Osaka
I think the best part about writing this blog has been that it encouraged me to do things I might not usually have done. I visited dodgy areas of Osaka. I ate and drank weird things. I used bizarre toilets. There was a brief sojourn to South Korea. I even went to a bloody baseball game. I would do pretty much anything for the sake of a story to put on my blog.

In December I was lucky enough to have another opportunity to go back to Japan, as part of the Kizuna Project. I spent 10 days in Japan examining the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. Visiting the Fukushima region gave me a whole new perspective of Japan. It was one of the best things I've ever done.
Kizuna Project: Asakusa on our last night in Tokyo
Where to now? I don't have any plans to go back to Japan in the immediate future. If I can save up enough money by the end of the year, I would love to go back - this time as a proper tourist, JR Rail pass and everything. I want to do the whole country, Okinawa to Hokkaido. Until then, I'm not entirely sure what to do with this blog. I may post every once in a while. For now, thank you to everyone for reading. Thank you to all my friends and fellow exchange students in Japan who made the experiences so special. Osaka - thank you for having me. お世話になりました.

Friends: A trip to Nara Park
I'll leave you with a motto that Ryan and I came up with after getting lost in Tokyo so many times during our first week in Japan. It stuck with us for the whole trip: "Even if it's the wrong way, it's an adventure.'
Ryan and Siobhan: Lost in Tokyo

February 16, 2013

Japan Toilet Tales

I've spent a while internally debating whether this post was appropriate for publication, and have decided it must be done. One of the most common questions Japanese people would ask me was 'what was your biggest culture shock when you first came to Japan?' The answer was always 'toilets'. It's not a particularly sophisticated response, but I think most foreigners in Japan would agree. Everyone has a 'Japan toilet story'. And for the uninitiated, using a Japanese toilet may well end up being one of the most memorable/traumatizing experiences of your time in Japan. I will tell you why.
The Asakusa Asahi Flame statue in Tokyo. I'll let you decide why this image is relevant. (Image source)
1. The Seat Heating

Let's assume your first time is on a conventional Japanese 'throne' as opposed to the notorious squat toilets (more on them to come). You approach the shiny white beast, trou-down, and sit. You let out an incredulous yelp, as your cheeks experience a sudden - but not unpleasant - glow of warmth radiating from the seat. In your own country, the temperature of a toilet seat is usually proportional to the amount of time the previous user has spent sitting on it, the knowledge of which is highly undesirable. In Japan, this same sensation is recreated artificially - but it may become a guilty pleasure. Forget walking on sunshine, you are sitting on it! And don't it feel good?

2. The Slippery Situation

In Japanese households, the commonly known etiquette is to remove your shoes before entering the house, and put on a pair of slippers. But did you know that there are also a pair of slippers especially for use in the toilet? This is so you don't contaminate the rest of the house with your nasty toilet-foot germs. Unfortunately, after experiencing the joy that is the heated toilet seat, you are likely to be in a state of euphoria that causes you to forget your footwear. Many foreigners have had to perform the shuffle of shame back to the bog after being caught out wearing the toilet slippers somewhere other than the toilet. Don't let that be you.

3. The Spray Buttons

When using a Japanese toilet, one will likely come across an intimidating array of buttons, each of which has a different purpose depending on the gender and sanitary needs of the user. The most common buttons are marked 'oshiri' and 'bidet', for a bum and ladypart shower respectively. More advanced models allow you to adjust the heat, angle, and strength of the spray. These buttons can be problematic for the curious foreigner who dares to test them. Many don't seem to realize that you do actually need to be seated for it to work properly. For some reason it comes as a shock when, upon pressing the button, a jet of toilet water shoots out and blasts the hapless victim in the face.

Useful English instructions next to the toilet in a hotel.
4.  The Sound Princess

On the wall beside some Japanese toilets are ominous, Big Brother type speakers. These are the aptly named otohime or 'Sound Princess', a machine designed to drown out the embarrassing tinkling tones of female urination. I remember when this was introduced to me. I was a guest at an English Speaking Club meeting, held at the teacher's house. I mentioned my bewilderment at Japanese toilets, and she decided I should be bestowed with the honour of a demonstration of her brand new 'Sound Princess'. The whole class followed us into the bathroom. The teacher pressed a button, and a loud 'GURRRRRRRRRR' reverberated around the room. I laughed. My hostess looked at me with cool disapproval, and said, 'maybe in your country you do not care, but we Japanese women like to go to the toilet in secret.' Because a roaring Sound Princess is so discreet.

5. The Squat

Nothing incites fear in a foreigner's heart more than entering a train station or old building and finding that the only toileting facilities available are traditional squat toilets. First of all, it seems you need the thighs of a rugby player and the balance of a gymnast to even think about attempting this. Then there is the issue of what to do with your clothes: for the novice squatter, there is nothing more precarious than a pair of tights tangled around your ankles while in this position. I heard a story about a girl who was so baffled by the squat toilet that she thought it would be best to just take all her clothes off for safekeeping while she did her business. By all accounts it was going well, until she dropped one of her socks in.

Documentation of the squat toilets at my high school in Hiroshima - there were no western-style toilets.
6. The Flush

You've navigated your way through the wonderful world of seat heaters, slippers, Sound Princesses, spray buttons and squats. Just when you thought it was all over, the Japanese toilet deals you another low blow - by hiding the flush in the least conspicuous place possible. If there is one valuable piece of advice I can offer, it it is that you should ensure you can locate the toilet's flush before you proceed to do anything else. This small act could save you from potentially mortifying situations. To share another story from a source who prefers to remain anonymous, one time this person had to use a disabled toilet, as it was the only one available. Unfortunately, after finishing up he realized he couldn't distinguish the 'call assistance' button from the flush. This user decided it wasn't worth risking it, and all he could do was put down the lid and run out of there, leaving his 'problem' for the next person to solve.

7. The Future

Recently, reports of new smartphone-controlled toilets have been circulating the internet. The toilets, which are supposedly available in Japan this month, can be connected to Android phones via bluetooth. The user downloads an app that allows all the functions of the toilet to be operated with a touch of the phone. The toilets also have inbuilt speakers, so you can ditch the 'Sound Princess' and play your own sweet beats. The app even contains a 'toilet diary' to record all of your bowel movements!

When it comes to your Japanese toilet experience, as the saying goes, you can't polish a turd - but in Japan you probably can roll it in glitter. If you know which button to push.

January 29, 2013

(More) Kit Kats in Japan

I came, I saw, I bought Kit Kats.

As I have mentioned before, I like to collect Kit Kats from different regions in Japan. It started out innocently, but has sort of developed into an obsessive and nerdy hobby. I'm not even living in Japan at the moment, but I still occasionally check the Nestle Japan website for Kit Kat updates. FYI, there's a new thing where you can order custom-made Kit Kat packaging, complete with your own photo and message. How bloody cool is that? I'll have my face on a Kit Kat wrapper, thanks.

On my recent visit, I was able to tick off several items on my Kit Kat bucket list. First, I came across the special edition Tohoku region Kit Kat in a souvenir shop at Aizu Tajima station in Fukushima. This was a Zunda-fumi, or Edamame Soybean flavoured Kit Kat. It was created by Nestle to support Tohoku after the earthquake, and 10 yen of each chocolate bar sold went to the relief fund.

A few days later we were riding the Tokaido Shinkansen line to get to Nagoya. At Nagoya Station, I picked up a cool box of Kit Kats designed to represent the four major stations on the Tokaido line: Shin-Osaka, Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagoya. Each individual chocolate bar even has a little picture of the different types of bullet trains! Although the flavour of this variety is a simple milk chocolate, I like to imagine people buying these so they can eat a Kit Kat at each stop on the line. At least, that's what I would do.

To my immense excitement, in a souvenir store at a shopping mall in Odaiba, Tokyo, was a whole stand of Kit Kats. Although I had found many notorious flavours on my last trip to Japan, there was one that I had missed out on - the crowning glory of Japanese Kit Kats: Wasabi. And it was here. The Shizuoka-Kanto regional edition, Tamaruya-Honten Wasabi. I laughed like a maniac and purchased it immediately, knowing it was destined for some poor, unsuspecting victim's Christmas stocking.

All too soon, the trip came to an end, and I found myself at Narita Airport, with 800 yen to my name. In what is becoming a slightly embarrassing tradition on each of my Japan trips, I ended up spending my very last yen on a box of Tokyo Rum and Raisin flavoured Kit Kats. Because I'm classy like that.