Saturday, March 24, 2007

Another Reason not to Buy a House in Beijing

A lot of people wondered whether we were going to buy a place in Beijing when we moved here. Among the reasons for not doing so when we arrived were the fact that my employment situation was unclear, we were not yet sure where we'd want to commit to living for an extended period, and there are a lot of hurdles to overcome for a foreigner to buy property. The other day I learned of another reason, and the photo here demonstrates it.

There is a Chinese term going around now--钉子户 (dingzi hu)--that literally means a "nail household" and refers to a property owner who refuses to allow his property to be confiscated when there is a new development going in. The picture is of one such dingzi hu in Chongqing, SW China. The owner of the house had all the necessary papers, including title to the use of the land, and all she wanted was for the developer, who is building a multi-million dollar complex on the site, to provide her with a space of equal size in the new building. Instead, she was offered a small financial settlement. After some months of stand-off, she was recently informed that she would have to accept the settlement and they had until today to take down her house.

So it seems that even with all the right papers, you still are unlikely to win. Looks like we'll be renting for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

My Traffic Ticket

The other day I received in the mail a letter from the Beijing city government. The letter, which was all in Chinese, was to inform me that I had been filmed going through a red light at a particular intersection in the city on January 18 in a particular car. At first I wondered whether there was some sort of system whereby a passenger in a taxi was liable for the infractions that the driver commits on his behalf, but then I realized that there was no way for the government (even the Chinese government) to have figured out who the passenger is in a taxi at any given time. When I looked at the letter more closely, I saw that there was no name listed on the letter, just my address, so it occurred to me that perhaps the former resident of our apartment had been a driver and he merely failed to let the city know that he had moved. Worrying that the police might come to arrest me as the current resident, I phoned our real estate agent to get his advice about what to do. He told me to just forget about it, and if the police do come to take me away, to tell them that I do not own a car. I wonder if they'll buy that, but in the meantime, I am deactivating the doorbell.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Can you believe it? More photos!

When I was in the US last month, my family asked me to take more pictures of my day-to-day life in Beijing. Never one not to do exactly what my family asks me to do, I dutifully did so yesterday. Here they are.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Tokyo Pictures Reorganized

I have had second thoughts about putting all our Tokyo pictures in one gallery, since it's a bit overwhelming. So now they are separated into a few different galleries:

General Tokyo Pictures

Tsukiji Fish Market Pictures

Kamakura Pictures

Yasukuni Shrine Pictures

Meiji Shrine Pictures

Imperial Palace Grounds

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tokyo Photos

Our photos are uploaded from our trip to Tokyo, and can be viewed here. As usual, there are a lot, so best to browse through rather than do a slide show, unless you're a die-hard fan of our photography.

I forgot to mention an interesting thing--as we flew home on Tuesday, James, who was sitting by the window on the right-hand side of the plane, drew my attention to the view out the window. From our altitude, it just looked like a pretty normal-looking expanse of a nighttime country, with lights illuminating the towns and roads. However he pointed out that the lights sort of stopped along a relatively straight line in the landscape, and then showed me the plane's GPS map showing our location--we were flying right over the area just south of the 38th parallel, and what we were looking at was the utter absence of electrical lights in the Democratic People's Republic of (North) Korea. Amazing, and too bad we did not have a camera handy!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Last Report about Tokyo!

On Monday morning, the day broke to gorgeous blue skies and rather frigid temperatures. We had a leisurely morning at the apartment and then headed out to visit the Meiji Shrine, where the memory of the reformist emperor Meiji is honored. It's a lovely, simple, temple, located in a stand of woods near Omotesando and Harajuku districts, two of Tokyo's more happening areas. There is not really much to the temple--it's not like a Chinese temple, where there are gods to be worshipped/bribed and lots of color--but it's very Japanese in its simplicity and elegance. There are also lovely grounds around the shrine, where in the right season you could see a river of irises in bloom, for instance, but it is still a bit early for that so we just enjoyed the quiet and the scenery.

From the shrine we wandered around Omotesando for a bit, stopping in a few stores (including one devoted to all things Tintin) and buying some things for the house. This is a very nice area to walk around in, and with the sun blazing (though not being too hot) it was a perfect way to pass a few hours. We eventually got to Oriental Bazaar, an emporium selling all sorts of souvenirs and things at remarkably low prices (in fact, you had to wonder whether these Japanese trinkets were perhaps actually made in China, they were so cheap). We picked up several yukata (Japanese cotton dressing gowns) to leave for our houseguests to use and a beautiful set of bowls. Unfortunately, this meant that we were stuck carrying them around for the remainder of the day, since I did not bring a backpack along. I am convinced that I would have found a great knife to buy in Kamakura's knife shop on Sunday had I just not brought a backpack along.

For lunch we stopped at a huge place where PM Koizumi took George Bush near C&K's apartment. Ken ordered a set lunch while James and I ordered a la carte. For the same amount of money, whereas James got a stick or two of grilled meats (granted, they were exceptional) and I got a bowl of rice with a small slice of salmon on it and three small pieces of tempura, Ken got a never-ending panoply of dishes that ran the gamut from salads to beautifully fried shrimp to pork to palate cleansers to dessert. Lesson: always order the set lunch.

Our last objective of the day was to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine complex, a Shinto shrine where the spirits of those who died fighting for Japan are commemorated. It's controversial, since among those enshrined here are 14 Class A war criminals from World War Two, including Hideki Tojo (wartime Prime Minister) and several others who were executed after the war. The shrine itself is lovely, a much more elaborate structure than the Meiji Shrine, but the part that really stands out is the museum attached to it, which recounts the history of Japan's military. The part related to WW2 is, to say the least, a bit of a surprise to anyone who did not receive their education in Japan, since it claims that the war started out as an attempt by Japan to rid East Asia of Western colonialism that only turned into a world conflict when the US refused to sell oil and other necessary raw materials to Japan. There is even a display that shows how many months of these inputs were left in Japan after the US boycott began. Also, it accuses the Chinese of failing to understand Japan's motivations in occupying the country, and of prolonging the war by not acquiescing to the installation of a puppet government in Nanjing after the KMT fled to Chongqing. There is even a little section that shows the happy people of Northeastern China striving to build their own little Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (made more or less famous by Bernardo Bertolucci's film "The Last Emperor"). Ken and I found ourselves calling to each other frequently to point out yet another outrageous claim, and checking our Japanese dictionaries to make sense of some of the displays (many of which bore no English translations).

We had to leave when the shrine closed at 5, which I am sure came as a relief to James, who is not quite the history buff that Ken and I are, and then wandered around through the Imperial Palace Gardens in the dark until our feet gave out and we opted to take the metro back to the apartment. Dinner was at a great little place that we found nearby that served excellent small dishes and that arranged for us to have a sake tasting so that we could explore this drink a bit more thoroughly.

On our last day in Tokyo we revisited the Imperial Palace Gardens, this time in daylight, which is a lot prettier. Unfortunately, not much was in bloom, though it looks like it must be gorgeous when the cherries, azaleas, irises and other blossoms emerge. Having pretty much walked ourselves to within an inch of utter collapse, we made this a pretty short excursion, and then walked through the government area to meet Connie for lunch at a conveyor belt sushi bar near the US Embassy, where the sushi was really excellent and reasonably priced. Perfect way to mark our last meal in Japan before returning to China.

The return trip to Beijing was not quite as seamless as the outbound journey. Though we had no trouble with the Narita Express train or any of that, we were disappointed to find that there were very few shops on the air side of the airport to spend our last remaining yen (there are plenty on the ground side, but we could not bring liquids, such as sake, from there to the air side, so they're kind of worthless). Also, our flight was about two hours late, so we did not land in Beijing until 11pm, by which time very few immigration officers and luggage carriers were working so the whole process of getting out of the airport took rather longer than normal. We did not get home until after midnight as a result, completely exhausted.

Monday, March 12, 2007

More on Tokyo

Our dinner that night a few days ago turned out to be at C&K's favorite little izakaya, where we had a very simple meal of Japanese dishes washed down by a sampling of different sakes. The way they serve sake here is worth mentioning--they put a glass in the middle of a square cup made of either lacquer or wood and pour the sake into the glass until it overflows and then fills the cup, too. You drink from the glass until it's empty, and then you either drink from the cup (not easy to do) or pour from the cup into the glass.

On Sunday we woke up at a much more reasonable hour and set off, despite the rain, to Kamakura, a town about an hour away by train that was once the country's capital and that is festooned with temples. We had a little trouble figuring out which of the countless trains would take us there, but eventually figured it out, just in time for the train to arrive. Perfect timing. Once in Kamakura we sought out a place to eat, hitting on a small tempura place where we had a very nice meal of assorted tempura on rice with soup and pickles. This gave us enough strength to start wandering toward one of the town's most famous sights, the Daibutsu or Big Buddha. Having been to Leshan in China some time ago, where there is an ENORMOUS Buddha, and to the one on Lantau island in Hong Kong, this one was a bit smaller than I imagined, though it was in a lovely setting and was pretty photogenic. According to my mother, there is a photo of my grandfather taken at this very spot in the 1930s when he would travel to Japan on business, so I felt obliged to have my photo taken here, too. I will have to seek out that old photo and compare the two.

After the Big Buddha, we continued to the Hase Temple, noted for its wooden statue of Kannon. It's a beautiful temple, with well landscaped gardens, little ponds, and an interesting cave where people can leave talismans. The view of the town of Kamakura from the temple was also nice, though it's not a particularly lovely town and the sky remained gray throughout our stay.

We wandered around the shops of Kamakura for a while, including a stop at a knife maker where neither Ken nor I managed to find anything to buy. After our train ride back to Tokyo, we were all pretty tired and opted to have dinner right away, since we would probably all have fallen asleep had we returned first to the apartment. We chose a Gyu-niku place, a Korean-inspired place where you order different meats and grill them at your table. The food was delicious, and also went down well with the sake and beer that we ordered. We were out of there by 8 or so, and wound up having another early night.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

In Tokyo

Here we are in Tokyo, enjoying a short holiday with friends of ours who are living here for a few years. We left Beijing on Thursday morning, taking a surprisingly pleasant flight on Northwest Airlines, which I used to avoid flying with like the plague. Nowadays they seem to have decent planes that afford all passengers play-on-demand films (I watched For Your Consideration) and all sorts of games, and the plane was brand spanking new.

We arrived in Tokyo's Narita airport quite a bit early, and after a relatively quick exit from the immigration and customs formalities, were presented with the choice of taking either a bus or a train into the city. The train was leaving first, so we opted for that, but we did not have enough time to pull money out of an ATM before boarding, so we just used a credit card to buy our tickets. An hour later we were in Tokyo station, starving for lack of having had anything meaningful to eat, but without any money with which to buy anything. We went in search of an ATM, but quickly learned that, despite its veneer of modernity, Japan's ATMs are generally incompatible with foreign cards. Eventually I found a machine that would accept our card, so were able to get in a cab to get to our friends' apartment. Unfortunately, Japan's cellphone network is also incompatible with the rest of the world, so we had no way to ask our friend how to find his place, and I had to resort to my rudimentary Japanese to communicate with the driver and get to our friends. Fortunately for us, our friends live at the US Embassy compound, so there were security people there who could arrange to phone our friends and get us in the place.

Once we got settled in we headed out with Ken, one of our hosts, to do some quick shopping for some bread and to get our bearings in the neighborhood. When Ken's wife, Connie, returned home from work, we had a quick drink at home and then headed out to a nearby yakitori place for a great dinner of grilled sticks of various kinds. Delicious, and quite good with the sake that accompanied yet, but it was our first taste of the vast price difference between dining in Beijing and in Tokyo--a relatively simple dinner set us back around Y6,000, or nearly $60 per couple.

On Friday morning, we woke up blissfully late--around 8am--and went with Ken to do some touring around. Our first stop was to go to the Asakusa area and visit the Kaminarimon Gate and the Sensoji Temple and walk around the old neighborhood. In fact, we spent quite a time walking around, heading from Asakusa to Ueno and then to Yanaka, snapping photos all the while. We found a very simple place for a lunch of udon noodles in the Yanaka area, and picked up some Japanese snacks along the way. We eventually found our way back to the apartment, met up again with Connie, and then headed to dinner at Acqua, on the 47th floor of a downtown office building, for a taste of luxe Tokyo.

We agreed to wake up on Saturday at the unreasonable hour of 4am in order to leave the apartment around 4:30 to make it to see the tuna auctions at Tsukiji Market. This market is one of the biggest seafood markets in the world, where all kinds of sea creatures are sold for the restaurants of Japan and beyond. The day's tuna catch is laid out here in the early morning for buyers to poke and prod and then bid on in a very quick auction that is one of Tokyo's more unusual tourist spectacles. Though we had been told that the auctions were now off-limits to tourists, this turned out not to be the case, since they have set aside a viewing area on the auction floor where tourists were busy snapping photos to their hearts' content. After watching this spectacle, and then wandering the aisles of the market (and, yes, buying some things to take back to Beijing), we stopped at a small restaurant called Okame (おかめ)for a breakfast of sushi and sashimi. The place next door had a line that went around the corner for quite a while, but this place had only a couple of people in it, none of whom appeared to be disappointed with the food, so we went in. (Turns out the place next door is the oldest in Tsukiji, and so is regularly written about.) It being not quite 6:30 at this point, Connie felt it was too early to eat raw fish, but James, Ken and I had no such qualms and ordered a nigiri sushi set, a sashimi set and a chirashi set (respectively) from the very friendly sushi chef. As we waited for our food, I casually mentioned the name of a Bethesda, Maryland, sushi place that I used to go to years ago and that I also went to last month, and it turned out the chef knew it, and used to work at Makoto, another DC-area sushi place! Small world! Ken's sashimi set was rather smaller than I think he was hoping for, but the fish that it comprised was of the finest kinds. James' sushi set was quite a bit larger, and my chirashi (which is sashimi set on top of a bowl of sushi rice), though the cheapest, was about the largest of the lot. All of it was delicious, and we even got to try a kind of fish--baby eel--that is only available in Japan, and then only at this time of year. So quite a treat!

We wandered from Tsukiji toward Ginza in search of an open coffee shop to take a break in, but that was easier said than done, since nothing opened until 8am. We did eventually find a place where we could warm up a bit (the early morning was quite chilly) and plan the rest of our day. We opted to aim to be at the Nihombashi branch of Mitsukoshi, a posh department store, for the big opening ceremony at 10am, when women come out and welcome the shoppers to the store. We made a few purchases here and then wandered around the area a bit longer, until we went for shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot) at Shabuzen in the Ginza Core building. Then more wandering, this time on the metro, to Shinjuku, for a wander around that area and a poke into the Tokyu Hands store, a phenomenal multi-story home goods store where I found a beautiful, handmade Japanese knife and Connie bought a banana holder (you need to see it).

By this point we were all fading, so we returned to the apartment for a break before heading to dinner.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Purim in China

Purim is the Jewish Festival of Lots, one of the less depressing Jewish holidays, which, though it too commemorates yet another attempt to wipe out the Jewish people, ends on a happy note with the mastermind behind the plot, a Persian vizier named Haman, being hanged! How much happier can it get?

The basic story of Purim is as follows (if you are familiar with the story, feel free to skip to the next paragraph): for reasons too complicated to get into, the king of Persia ends up marrying a Jewish girl named Esther (or Hadassah in Hebrew), though the king did not know she was Jewish. Later on, the king's vizier, Haman, manages to convince the king to kill all the Jews in the kingdom, again for reasons too complicated to get into. Learning of this, Esther tells the king that he might as well start with her, since little did he know that she, his favorite wife, was a member of the tribe. Seeing the light, the king decides that the gallows should not go unused, and orders that Haman be killed for his perfidy. Thus endeth the lesson.

Purim is normally celebrated with the reading of the Book of Esther, during which the audience is expected to make a big racket whenever Haman's name is uttered. They also eat little triangular cookies, supposedly reminiscent of Haman's hat. Anyway, it appears that the Chinese are really into this holiday, since, while we have not seen the cookies (called Hamantaschen, by the way), Beijing has been experiencing a riot of fireworks all day long, presumably connected to city-wide readings of the Book of Esther. [It should be noted that some nay-sayers will claim that the fireworks could be connected with the fact that today is also the 15th day of the new Lunar year, aka the Lantern Festival, and that the fireworks may be connected with that. Of course such people are clearly anti-Semites.]

The video was a relatively quiet period in today's entertainment, shot through our living room window. Definitely play it with the sound on. And by the way, I understand that Israeli colleagues of a friend of ours have been having panic attacks, reliving the war years as a result of the noises outside.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Back in Beijing

After a long (17-days!) trip to the US, I am finally back in Beijing, gradually getting reaccustomed to the time and settling back into my routine. It is amazing that my visit to the East Coast managed to coincide with the arrival of this winter's worst weather, leaving me to experience about four snowstorms in such a short time. But that makes coming back to Beijing's relative warmth (too warm even for a mid-weight jacket yesterday) that much better.

My time in the US was mostly spent working on a project, but during my off-hours I was able to take care of all sorts of errands, such as selling our last remaining car, taking care of the paperwork for our first expatriate tax returns, and doing loads and loads of shopping. Amazingly, whereas I left China with one suitcase and an empty box (explained below), I managed to return with two full suitcases and two full boxes. What were in them?? Take a look, and gain some insight into what we cannot find in our local shops:

1. Towels (yes, they sell towels here, but they're very thin and not very nice; I really missed our Turkish towels that I know are in a box somewhere, though I was too lazy to try to find them in our storage pods)
2. Kitchen equipment (I brought back my mandolin, some old wooden spoons, a spaetzle maker, a vacuum sealer, a knife sharpener, a paella pan and other things that I could have done without, but why??)
3. Not-too-perishable foodstuffs (dried cod, salted anchovies, pancetta, belacan, anise extract and others to help with the preparation of Italian and SE Asian dishes)
4. Perishable foodstuffs (mostly cheese; they just don't sell good cheese here at reasonable prices)
5. Treats (Italian cookies from a bakery in Glendale, Queens--brutti ma buoni, anise toasts and sesame cookies--all of which made it intact, surprisingly)
6. Dog paraphernalia (rawhide bones, squeaky toys, shampoo, etc)
7. Toiletries (loads and loads of razor blades, deodorant, moisturizer etc)
8. Requests (my boss asked for me to bring her a 220v Cuisinart food processor, since they don't sell them here; a few other colleagues also asked me to bring some small items for them)
9. Wine (that empty box was a wine shipping box that we used on our outbound trip in August and that we saved for future use; used it to bring another dozen bottles of wine that we stored at a friend's house)

Of course, United Airlines only allows 3 bags in the hold, so I had to pay a small fee for the fourth bag, though it was totally worth it. And amazingly there was no duty to pay on arrival here!