Posts Tagged ‘travel’
I was heading south down I-95 through North Carolina yesterday. If you have ever made this journey, you will know that I was bombarded with billboards for South of the Border. It’s a kitchsy tourist stop that, over time, has expanded into quite a little empire with an interesting history. I’ll let Wikipedia explain some of the nuances:
South of the Border was developed by Al Schafer (1914-2001), who founded a beer stand at the location in 1950 and steadily expanded it with Mexican trinkets and numerous kitsch items. He had a great deal of success because of his location, which was immediately across the border from a dry North Carolina county, and grew his small business into what was, by local standards, an economic empire. South of the Border grew to over a square mile, required its own infrastructure, and had its own fire and police departments. Schafer became reclusive, building a large compound of interconnected houses outside the Dillon city limits. At South of the Border, he kept secret apartments hidden in the backs of restaurants and shops.
The billboards start from miles out, offering up a mix of ethnic stereotypes and the downright weird. I swiped these two examples from Wikipedia:
We decided that this would be a fun place to stop, gas up the car, feed the dogs, and be entertained by a cheesy roadside attraction. Here I am right after stopping (I’m holding dog leashes, in case you are wondering what this particular pose is):
Be sure to note than van behind me. It had a tiny sign that read “Blue’s electronics”. We stopped in the parking lot for a while to feed and walk the dogs, and during this time Blue wandered around on foot and eyed us suspiciously. He also, at one point, walked through the car wash and inspected it. The dogs were being uncooperative, and we soon noticed that the place was crawling with what looked like feral cats. Not what you want to see at a place that heavily advertises its food.
Still, we gassed up the car and I went inside the gas station to purchase a coke. It turned out that they didn’t sell cokes at South of the Border, presumably because it is too mundane of an item. They also didn’t sell beer on Sunday, which I learned because someone had written “no beer sold on sunday” on tattered pieces of cardboard which were displayed throughout the store. It looked like someone had gone from off ramp to off ramp and swiped the “will work for food” signs from various hobos and just written on the back.
Undeterred, I moved on to the bathrooms. The men’s room had individual stalls for all of the toilets, including the urinals. At first, I thought this was a nice little touch. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that people had used the urinals for an excretory function that the urinals are not designed to handle. It looked like the Augean Stables. I’m not a squeamish guy, but I bolted from the bathrooms and told Anne (who was waiting for me under the watchful leer of Blue) that it was time to leave and never look back.
South of the Border will always live on in my nightmares.
We woke up early Sunday morning and caught a train over to Kyoto, a much more laid back city than Osaka. From our ryokan, we were able to walk to the grounds of the Imperial Palace. The palace itself was off limits unless you went through some super complicated permitting application, so we just toured the grounds and the parks that surround it. Dinner was more revolving sushi…did I mention that we love that stuff? The next day Anne and I walked down and saw some temples and shrines that are in the middle of Kyoto. The city is dotted with temples, and the dichotomy of such an old structure in a modern city is really striking. After lunch, I went for a run along a river that runs through the city. The Japanese seem to really be into keeping warm, wearing ski caps and gloves even when it is warm outside. I ran right after a cold rain, so I must have looked like a crazy person running through the city in shorts and a t-shirt.
Tuesday morning found us heading back to Tokyo for our last full day in Japan. As much as we loved Japan, we were getting anxious about heading home at this point. We missed our dogs, missed our bed, and missed our normal routine. Also, I was craving a burrito to the point of near psychosis. Our hotel room, on the 33rd floor, offered up great views of both Tokyo Tower and Mount Fuji. It was nice to have a final, quiet night overlooking the cityscape of Tokyo.
Our last night.
And then we came home to Tallahassee, where we are now living in a jet lag induced fugue state. The Japanese scavenger hunt was a lot of fun, I got 6 out of the 10 items. I also gave myself +1 for finding a pirate, and +2 for running into Paris Hilton. So I’m calling it 9 out of 10, because it’s my game after all.
Osaka looks like what would happen if New York City and Las Vegas had a baby. It is very hip, densely packed, and home to an enormous amount of neon lights. After some difficulty finding a cab driver who was willing to take four foreigners, a baby, and all of our luggage, we were soon settled into our first western-style hotel, a Comfort Inn. The lobby was constantly playing an English video about Comfort Inns, which turned out to be some kind of investor infomercial. It was pretty amusing to be waiting for an elevator while hearing about how they are maximizing profit per guest. We had our first full sushi dinner of the trip, courtesy of a chef who had spent some time in Miami. I turned a banana leaf into a map of the state of Florida in order to show him where Tallahassee was located. Dinner was followed by a few drinks at a jazz bar across from our hotel. The proprietor was very friendly and we promised that we would be back the next day.
On Saturday, we went to an aquarium in Osaka. I love aquariums, and this one definitely delivered. With whale sharks, huge manta rays, spider crabs, and an incredible jellyfish exhibit, this place left me very very happy. Plus I got my picture taken with a pirate. You can’t beat that. We had octopus balls for lunch, which basically consist of a piece of octopus in some dough dipped in batter. It sort of tasted like a barbecued pancake ball. With, you know, octopus in it. After a relaxing afternoon, we hit the crazy streets for some more food. Dinner came in the form of revolving sushi. This style of restaurants has all the guests sitting at a bar which has a constantly moving conveyor belt in front of them. On this belt, chefs place individual plates of sushi and you take whatever interests you. At the end, you are charged based on how many plates you have taken. We LOVED this, and used the opportunity to try some new and different looking pieces.
After dinner, we strolled through the pedestrian mall and did a little shopping. It was a little surreal, at one point we were getting some t-shirts while “Teenagers” by My Chemical Romance blasted on the speakers. We stopped by the jazz bar again for some drinks, and our bartender had actually printed out some pictures of Anne and I sitting at the bar from the night before. He later walked us out when we were done and told us that he had had a great time. It was really cool. We swung by one last bar and was amazed to find that they served Guinness. It’s the little things in life. They also had a Jenga-like game called “Woody Unbalance”. Again, the little things. It was around this time that we noticed that our threshold for crazy has increased dramatically. Things that stopped us in our tracks a week ago are no longer phasing us. I’m not sure if that is a good or bad thing. Katamari Damacy definitely makes more sense to me now.
Thursday…oh what to say about Thursday. We caught a cab from our ryokan to our previous ryokan, where we had stashed most of our luggage. In our early morning exuberance, we left our laptop in the cab and promptly freaked out. Fortunately, the ryokan staff was extremely helpful and we had the laptop back within 10 minutes. 10 scary, scary minutes. After that, it was non-stop travel to Miyajima. Our day can be summarized like this:
- Shinkansen (bullet train)
- Another shinkansen
The shinkansens were great; I had never been on a bullet train before. Lots of legroom and nice views along the way. After a while though, I desperately wanted to be done traveling.
Miyajima was an oasis though, and we were immediately treated to a private dinner of exquisite food with an attentive waitstaff bring us course after course. We took a stroll after dinner to see the torii in the water. It is large enough that boats loaded down with raucous tourists drive though it, and projects a calm presence even when the tourist boat has a light-up dragon head.
On Friday morning we had much more time to explore the island. The temple here is gorgeous beyond words. Walking past the tame deer that live on the island, we headed up what seemed to be an endless stone staircase. The climb was well worth it, and we were greeted at the top with a path surrounded by statues of Buddha. We explored all the shrines, including a cave that absolutely packed with statues. Miyajima offered far more than we had time to look at it, but we had to leave early to make a pilgrimage to a different kind of shrine: the Peace Memorial at Hiroshima.
After a short trip to the Hiroshima train station, we caught a cab and asked to be taken to the A-Bomb Dome. The dome in question is the top of a crumbling structure that was the closest building to the blast that remained standing. We zipped through the city, swung around a corner and it suddenly came into view. The dome is a very sobering sight. Our cab driver told Anne “peace” as we got out onto the street. Nearly fifteen years ago, when I was at the Air Force Academy, I toured American nuclear missile silos and considered working in one as a post-graduation career path. Seeing Hiroshima after nearly taking that road with my life was…troubling. We walked around the memorial, went through the museum, and had to rush back to the train station to take a shinkansen bound for Osaka.
onday morning we boarded a train to make our way to Hakone. We passed through Shinjuku station, one of the busiest stations in the world. Madness would be the best way to describe it. With over 3 million people going through it per day, and more than 200 exits, it was a near certainty that we would get confused here. Naturally, we accidentally exited at the wrong gate, then went through the turnstile without paying. Our sincere cluelessness was enough to placate the guard and we settled in for the 90 minute ride to Hakone.
We were nervous about staying in another ryokan, but our place in Hakone was an oasis. Friendly staff, large rooms, an outdoor bath, and the sound of a rushing river right outside our window. I bought beer out of a vending machine here, and not just any vending machine but one with a poorly translated sign. Two birds with one stone on the scavenger hunt. The sign reads: “Canned beverage makes you refresh. We carefully did the best selection. They are outstanding among others.”
We walked around Hakone for just a bit, they are really into dried fish here. I slurped down one a half bowls of noodles for a late lunch – noodles are the Japanese equivalent of burritos for me. I can eat them for every meal and in large quantities. One theme that keeps coming up is how truly alien things can be here. Case in point: our noodles had something in them that no one amongst the four us could determine if it was animal or vegetable. Also, the textures are so unique that upon trying something for the first time it can be hard to say whether or not you like it. Eating can be sensory overload.
That night our ryokan served us dinner in a large banquet hall. We were fortunate enough to get a private room that came with a crib for Laxmi. Our dinner was another baffling experiences that begin with a plate of raw meats and vegetables sitting on a burner. A waitress came in to start it cooking while we ate a variety of appetizers. We mistakenly started eating a plate of rice and beans, which turned out to be something we were supposed to add to the soup that was being made in the center of the table. Dinner was very strange, but highly enjoyable.
Tuesday morning I ran the streets of Hakone, which are beautiful but can be very steep. I have yet to see another jogger here, so I’m not sure if there is any special etiquette that goes with it. Later that morning we set out to see a temple, which required a very steep climb through a local park. The effort was worth as the temple was beautiful and looked like something I had only seen in movies. This was exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to see in Japan. The temple had a graveyard of indeterminate age. Some of the gravestones are covered in moss and they could just as easily be 100 years old as they could be 10 years old. Later in the day, our random explorations along the side of the road uncovered several shrines that looked like they had been there for a long, long time. We felt like Indiana Jones as stumbled upon shrine after shrine tucked into the woods. Of course, Indy never heard the sound of cars whizzing by as he made his discoveries.
We wrapped up Tuesday by having dinner at our ryokan wearing our yukatas, which are traditional Japanese robes. Very festive to eat dinner in a restaurant in your bathrobe. The food wasn’t quite as crazy as the night before and started off with cuttlefish sashimi. Turns out that I love the stuff. The biggest challenge was keeping my yukata sleeves out of the open flames on table. No telling how many etiquette rules I would be breaking if I set myself on fire. Later that night, Anne and I watched Lost in Translation on our laptop that night…it was one of our favorite movies already, but after being in this country our appreciation for it has increased tenfold.
On Wednesday we hit a different part of Hakone, via a mountainside rail car. Beautiful trip that ended with us at the Hakone Open Air Museum, the home to some incredible sculptures in a stunning environment. We spent the afternoon strolling through the mountains, with the leaves just beginning to turn, looking at sculptures by Rodin, Henry Moore, and many others. It even had an enclosed building with a Picasso exhibit. Museums aren’t usually my thing, but I LOVED this one. I had no expectations going in and was totally overwhelmed.
I would be overwhelmed again a few hours later when we wandered into the Venetian Glass Museum solely because it was located across the street from our next ryokan. Words cannot describe how gorgeous this place was. The museum was dedicated to classic and modern glassworks, but the real draw of this place was the glass forest. The trees and bushes were wrapped with glass and wire sculptures creating a wonderland that looked like Willy Wonka’s vacation house. We strolled around the gardens until closing time, and walked back to the ryokan for dinner. This night’s meal consisted of us grilling our own food at our table. We managed to generate enough smoke that the other patrons asked for the doors to be opened. Dinner is always such an adventure here.