Asia Day 22-30: Tokyo

  • Surprisingly, NRT was the least impressive Asian airport I encountered on this trip. If I had to rank them, I’d say HKG > SIN > KUL > NRT, although that’s a bit unfair to SIN, since I didn’t spend that much time in it and it was midnight. And let’s not talk about North American airports.
  • I thought travelling around Asia made me pretty good at navigating train stations. Unfortunately, I was not prepared for the massive labyrinths that are JR stations. Compounding the horror that is Shinjuku station was the fact that this was essentially my entry point to Tokyo. After the harrowing experience of trying to escape it for the first time, it still took me a good 10-20 minutes navigating my way through the station every trip for the first few days.
  • For example, on the first night, I had to get to Shibuya from Shinjuku. Instead of doing what a person who knows what they’re doing and taking one of the JR trains, I decided to take the metro there from Shinjuku 3-chome. For some reason, I’d assumed that Shibuya was on the Marunouchi line, which it isn’t. Whoops, and once I’d passed through the gates, there was no way for me to go back out and get on the proper line. So I travelled one station, got out, and went back. Actually, I had to do this twice, because the first time, I forgot to actually exit the gates. And after getting back from Shibuya that night, I discovered that if I had walked a bit further down the platform, I’d actually walk right onto the platform for the line I’d originally needed to get on.
  • My smartphone was insanely helpful, since the Japanese addressing system is entirely unhelpful to foreigners. Streets aren’t named. Instead, things are divided into districts and blocks and numbered as such. This kind of makes sense for finding a place, but it doesn’t seem very good for finding out where you yourself are.
  • I think it was here where the concept of train electrification clicked for me. When I think back, I did very little travelling on the metro here. Most of it was on JR trains, which you can kind of think of as analogous to the GO trains. So it’s essentially what we have as regional commuter rail, but they can run it with subway frequencies. Also, their trains are very punctual.
  • I stayed at a capsule hotel because there was a deal going on when I booked and it ended up being mad cheap (about as much as it cost per night as my stay in KL and KL is mad cheap). It was a neat experience and the location was very convenient. I’m not sure if I’d do it again, just because it’s a hassle having to stash your luggage in a public area and especially the lack of access during the day (capsule hotels are usually closed for cleaning).
  • I decided to get a travel lock for my luggage, since it was being stored in a relatively publicly accessible area. I went to the nearby Muji to see if they had any since I noticed they had them on the website. The store only had the combination-style locks but not the key locks so I asked a lady who worked there if they had any and showed her what I wanted on my phone. She tried finding it on the shelves and came back and apologized and went on the computer to look and couldn’t find it and apologized and got another person to help and went to the back to look and this took a number of minutes before she came back and apologized because they didn’t seem to carry it. I felt bad because she seemed really disappointed.
  • One night, I got back to Shinjuku on the last train after nomihoudai. It was really weird because the area that I walk through to get to my hotel is usually bustling with izakayas and restaurants but it was completely dead. My hotel was in Kabukicho, which apparently is a pretty sketchy place at night and especially after most reputable establishments close. When I was about a minute away from my hotel, I started to get followed by a really sketchy looking dude trying to push something. I held up my hand and sped up, but he kept following uncomfortably until I just went ‘LOOK SORRY I don’t speak Japanese’.
  • I think my biggest regret was going to fast food places. I thought Lotteria or Mos Burger would be decent. They’re not. The electricity they provide in the seating areas is much more delicious.
  • Cicadas there are hella loud and never shut up. When I was in Ikebukuro, after a bit of exploring, I sat down at a park. All I could hear was these bugs.
  • Japan is really hot and humid during that time of year. I can’t begin to count how many yen I threw at 7-11 and FamilyMart for bottles of tea because of the heat. After wandering around Ginza and checking out the flagship Uniqlo there, I thought I’d check out the Imperial Palace. I walked to a corner and felt dread because it was way bigger than I expected and really hot. I walked across the moat and sat down under a tree. Then I walked back across the moat and down to a metro station because I did not have the energy or willpower to walk the entire way around the gardens in that heat.
  • Going around Shibuya was really cool because The World Ends With You did a great job adapting the physical layout and capturing the feel of the area. When I was there, I remembered there was the big Tower Records there and I went to check it out and to listen to the new Soutaiseiriron album for the first time, which had come out while I was in Hong Kong. Listening to CDs in a record store, how quaint.
  • Another train confusion story! I decided to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market one day and it has a stop on the Oedo line. Taking the Oedo line from Shinjuku is super confusing because the Oedo line is a giant backwards lowercase sigma ($\sigma$). Inside Shinjuku station, there are two Shinjuku stops: Shinjuku and Shinjuku-Nishiguchi, but they’re separated by the intersection of the loop and tail part of the $\sigma$. Since Shinjuku-Nishiguchi was closer to where I was standing, I took the train from there. To get to Tsukijishijo from there, you had to take the train to Tochomae and then get off to transfer to another train going towards Shinjuku.
  • They use every digit in the prices over there, so you’ll have things that cost, say 103 JPY. Why? Who knows, but this means that they will hand over piles of change if you pay with an unoptimal set of currency and have no choice but to weep silently as you accept 97 JPY in coins.
  • Nintendo 3DS StreetPass is one of those features that makes a million times more sense once you use it in Japan. Every time I stopped walking was a good time to clear StreetPasses. I don’t think I would’ve been a tenth of the way as far as I am in some StreetPass games as I am now.
  • So I mentioned the Ginza Uniqlo. I was prepared to be blown away and drop a ton of cash on excellent Uniqlo stuff, but I wasn’t and didn’t. Part of the reason was that I’d gotten most of what I wanted in HK and part of it was that in some ways, the selection was actually worse than normal stores. I’d read that this might be because that Uniqlo is a huge tourist draw, which means stuff runs out faster. I found the Uniqlos in Shinjuku had more stuff I was looking for so that theory seems to hold up.

Asia Day 7-21: Hong Kong

  • Hong Kong is really, really dense. This is a fact that my dad likes to constantly point out whether we’re on a bus going through Kowloon or in a car driving across Sheppard back home. I thought Singapore was dense, but Kowloon and the shore of Hong Kong Island blow it out of the water. Everything is packed, even all the older areas. I’m not sure how to characterize it except that there are towers and tons of people pretty much everywhere you turn.
  • I spent my time in Hong Kong with my family, which meant that I didn’t really do anything in the way of planning, I just let them handle it. This turned out to be a really good idea because my extended family basically gave us a pile of delicious places to check out and brought us to more non-touristy places and a lot of these places would have been troublesome to navigate without literacy in the Chinese language.
  • Speaking of literacy, this really stretched the limits of my Cantonese skills. Unlike SG and KL, HK is pretty ethnically homogenous, so everything’s in Chinese and Cantonese by default. Of course, being a British colony for about a century means that basically everyone knows English fairly well. On the other hand, social interactions felt a lot more natural here, as long as conversations didn’t get too complex. A common occurrence was starting a conversation in Cantonese and have it fall apart about a minute or two in, revealing my true identity as a stealth Westerner.
  • This was a very helpful video. I’m still not entirely sure which aunt/uncle is supposed to be which, there were a lot of them.
  • Beer is really cheap. Obviously, fancier stuff costs about the same, but your typical dinner drinking fare is something like 15-20 HKD (2-3 CAD) for a litre. Also, I was really fascinated by the beer bowls at some of the more Chinesey places.
  • UNIQLO. Oh my God, Uniqlo. I think I went to about ten different Uniqlo stores and bought something from almost each one and they didn’t even have any Gundam t-shirts. I am profoundly saddened that there isn’t a Uniqlo in Canada. List of Uniqlos I went to: apm, Telford Plaza, Festival Walk, Cityplaza, Miramar, Olympian City, Harbour City, PopCorn, New Town Plaza, and the Lee Theatre flagship store.
  • I hadn’t appreciated using cards for arcades like at Bugis until the arcades here forced me to stuff six 1 HKD coins into the machines within thirty seconds. Similarly, trading in a 20 HKD bill and carrying 20 coins around is also annoying.
  • Most of the transfers on the MTR are very well designed. On most lines, they make sure there are two transfer stations right after the other and which station you transfer at depends on which direction you want to go in on the new line. This lets the station be designed such that every transfer is done by walking across the platform and you never have two streams of people moving against each other. Compare this to the Bloor-Yonge or St. George transfers, where people are forced to move between levels and everyone is moving against each other.
  • Speaking of the MTR, somehow my parents arranged for us to stay at one of the few areas that doesn’t have walking access to the MTR, To Kwa Wan. The closest MTR station was Mong Kok, which is about a half hour walk. The result of this is that I got really well acquainted with the geography of the city through buses, all of which are double-deckers. But I was told not to worry, To Kwa Wan would be getting an MTR station there once the Central-Shatin link was done in 2020.

Asia Day 4-7: Kuala Lumpur

  • A new mistake to start off the new leg of the journey: not getting RM when I was in Singapore. I didn’t know that we’d stop along the way to KL and when we did, there was all of this stuff I could’ve bought (coffee, prepaid card) but couldn’t because I thought I’d just get my money changed when I was in KL so I wouldn’t have to do the CAD to SGD to RM dance. Very unfortunate.
  • My very first impression of the city was that it was way more chaotic than the orderliness I’d gotten used to in Singapore. Car traffic isn’t really bad so much as there’s a ton of it and traffic signal coordination is not very good. You can get long stretches without the signal changing, which leads to the problem of a ton of people jaywalking. And of course, if people are jaywalking across six lanes of traffic, there’s really no need to change signal timings, right? And then in addition to all of this, you have motorbikes weaving in between lanes and up sidewalks and it was all very stressful to someone who likes obeying traffic signals.
  • My earlier mistake came back to ruin me. See, I was staying near Masjid Jamek and it turned out none of the money changers nearby were open that Sunday. And when I tried to take some from the ATM at the nearby HSBC, my card got blocked. So I ended up walking all the way to KLCC to get money and food. Other than being super tiring and causing some minor panic, in the end, this just forced KLCC to the front of my plans and I spent the evening wandering around the mall and the surrounding plaza, stretching my neck to get a decent shot of the Petronas towers.
  • It’s here where I started to realize one great thing about Singapore’s hawker centres: all you need to do is find one and then you can wander around to discover what’s good. It’s a lot harder to check out goodies when they’re all over the place like in the rest of the world (such as in KL).
  • A very bad time to look for traditional Malay food in a traditional Malay area like Kampung Baru is during Ramadan. I took a day and stopped by there twice to discover that things weren’t open before realizing that it was Ramadan and it’d make sense no one was selling food during daylight hours. Whoops.
  • Somehow, I think my favourite coffee shop in the world might be located here. So the hostel that I stayed at also runs this neat Western-style (by which I mean they do espressos and that sort of thing as opposed to kopi) coffee shop called LOKL. I mean, it’d fit right in at Kensington Market. They make really good breakfast and a damn good espresso. Things that I would love to bring over: fried bread instead of toast and espresso shots with a shot of condensed milk.
  • I had my suspicions that the RapidKL LRT was not actually light rail. I noticed a Bombardier logo on one of the trains which prompted me to take a look at Wikipedia and that proved my suspicions correct. The Kelana Jaya LRT is actually a second generation ICTS system like Vancouver’s SkyTrain, which means it’s actually a descendant of the same technology that’s used by the Scarborough RT in Toronto. The more you know.
  • The KLIA Ekspres is a really nice train ride. Rail links to airports are just a great idea in general.

Asia Day 1-4: Singapore

  • The unfortunate thing about arriving after midnight is that a lot of things you need are closed. My only regret was getting a SingTel prepaid card at the airport, since they only came in 50 SGD denominations. Now I know better. And unfortunately. The MRT was closed too, which meant paying many monies for taxi service, which also threw a wrench in things when it turned out that the taxi company had stopped accepting Visa literally 24 hours before. And so I started off minus a significant chunk of change.
  • Luckily, food in Singapore is good and cheap, even in mall food courts, where it’s slightly more expensive (but still a ridiculously good deal compared to home). A list of things I ate in Singapore: kaya toast with soft boiled eggs, lor mee, chicken rice, laksa, duck rice, murtabak, mee pok, claypot chicken rice, bah kut teh, carrot cake, chicken rice.
  • Because it is important to set priorities, one of the first things I did was locate the Jubeat machines and acquire an eAMUSEMENT pass. I played a game before realising that I had to go and buy the pass too. Once got it, the girl who had been there for a while noticed I was a noob and offered to play a local match with me to give me some songs. Arcade Jubeat is a lot more tiring than tablet Jubeat because you need to actually move your hands and press down with a bit more force. Some patterns took a bit of work to translate from the small screen. The hardest thing to do was figuring out how to hit patterns that occur on the top and bottom row, because that distance couldn’t be covered by stretching my hands anymore.
  • After tiring myself out, I went to get an EZ-Link card for the MRT. Doing the thing where you place your entire wallet on the card reader is fun. Not having to deal with tokens is fun. The stations themselves aren’t design wonders or art installations and I don’t think they need to be. I’m okay with stations that look the same, as long as they’re nice. An interesting thing about suicide barriers is that they serve a few more purposes than preventing suicides. They close off the station to the tunnels, so the stations can be climate controlled more effectively. They also prevent stuff from flying onto the tracks and getting set on fire. They provide more space for signage. And they also make the station nice and quiet when trains come rushing in and shield the station from the accompanying gust of wind.
  • Inside the trains themselves, the one thing that’d really help in Toronto is the indicator for which side the doors are opening on. Yes, the TR1s already have the LED sign point it out when the trains arrive, but the MRT trains have a little section next to the LED route map which either lights up the THIS SIDE panel or the OTHER SIDE panel while the train is headed to the next station.
  • After having wandered around the malls at Orchard and being very tired, I noticed that a deficiency of Singaporean malls is the lack of seating. I think I could only ever find one bench per floor, at most. I would later discover that this is a deficiency in most Asian malls.

Asia Day 0

On kind of a whim, I decided to go to a bunch of places in Asia. I never did go on a cool trip after I finished my undergrad. I kind of figured if I were going to go check out Asia, it’d have to be now, in what’s likely my last significant chunk of time I have where I can do what I want without feeling bad.

So I decided to go to a bunch of places. How did I decide? Well, I definitely want to go to Japan, so I decided to be in Tokyo during Comiket because I am a gigantic nerd. And if I was going to Japan, I should probably go to Hong Kong because I likely wouldn’t go there otherwise and family and all. And I decided to go to Singapore because just going to HK and Tokyo seemed kind of lame for a trip and Singapore seems like a cool place that I could survive in with English and poor Cantonese skills. And I decided to go to Kuala Lumpur because it’s close enough to Singapore and also seems like a cool city. I like cities. So the plan is Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.

I got up bright and early to get to Pearson because US security takes hours or something. It turns out that didn’t really help except maybe to beat the horrible 401 rush hour traffic. They do this thing now where they queue you in customs by departure time, so I basically spent two hours between check-in and customs. Apparently this is because of US budget cuts or something. THANKS OBAMA.

The first flight was a tiny one to Chicago and was fairly pleasant. Wifi was allegedly offered on the flight but I never got it to work. Oh well, it was short enough that it didn’t really matter and I got some chores done in Animal Crossing. O’Hare was okay I guess except that they don’t offer free wifi. THANKS OBAMA.

I don’t fly much, so this is my first significant experience on a long flight. It sucks. Being on an airplane is neat. Being on an airplane for fifteen hours without Internet is not so great. Especially when assigned next to a baby. I dabbled around on my 3DS and iPad for a bit before realising I could check out the on board entertainment. I ended up watching the first half an hour of House of Cards and Wreck-it Ralph before settling on two episodes of Top Gear and Utada Hikaru’s second singles collection. Deliverance eventually arrived and I got to explore HKG.

First, I’d like to mention that the HK security people don’t seem intimidating at all. They all seemed like laid back Cantonese sitcom people. After the quick checkpoint, I looked for food and decided to get congee because the airline food was kinda gross. One very nice thing about HKG is that they have these wonderful charging stations that include USB outlets. Sadly, there only seemed to be one for an entire stretch of gates.

The flight from HK to Singapore was a lot nicer since the actual flight was much shorter and I was seated beside grown men instead of screaming and pooping children. And that brings us to Singapore.