Part 3: Experiences and afterthoughts on Japan, Singapore, and Malaysia
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006
But the original purpose of this trip was “vacation,” and to that end, I did a huge number of interesting, totally (or mostly) non-iPod things overseas… such as sampling each city’s most interesting shops and foods. Since this is Backstage - a place for occasional personal blogging - I wanted to offer this peek into my personal photo collection. Click on Read More for shots and details.
As we once said in a feature article, iLounge loves Japan. Speaking solely for myself now, this sentiment is equally or more true today than it was when I first visited the country 14 years ago - no matter how many times I go back, it never feels like I’ve spent enough time there. By the end of this visit, which was my shortest (3 nights) stop there yet, I really felt like I should have stayed longer.
Here’s the hotel. Though I booked 4-5 star places in Singapore and Malaysia, I wanted a traditional Japanese-style room for my time in Tokyo. Simple, yet beautiful, this actually turned out to be my favorite room all trip, and one of the most memorable on any vacation I’ve had, ever.
The hotel is located immediately next to the Asakusa Kannon (Sensoji) temple, founded in the seventh century, and its considerably more recent five-story pagoda. Their famous Nakamise-dori shopping arcade leads right up to the temple. I went through this area every day and night - it’s one of my favorite places in Tokyo, and all of Japan for that matter.
Most of my brief time in Tokyo was spent in cosmopolitan shopping areas, such as Shibuya (above), which was decked out in beautiful Christmas light displays and packed with people. Thanks to a ban on public smoking, the air quality was much improved over how it used to be - filled with cigarette smoke virtually everywhere.
No doubt you’ve heard of Japan’s reputation for crazy signs, restaurants, and foods. Here’s a shot of Go! Go! (gorilla) Curry, and a separate look at one of the country’s notorious display cases full of plastic food. The bottom shot is from a fugu (puffer fish) restaurant, one of many in the country that specialize in removing fugu’s toxic organs, the poison from which is rated at 500 to 10,000 times the danger level of cyanide. Around 100 people die in Japan each year from eating tainted puffer fish. Yes, I’ve tried it. You wouldn’t believe what it tastes like.
Ginza in Tokyo. It’s like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, but in Japan. All the high-end retailers are represented here, including Apple, with the photos in our Tokyo report. The main street in Ginza isn’t anything special, but the storefronts (from Dior, shown, to Sony, below) tend to be pretty cool.
Most of what we saw in the Sony store was “more of the same” - generally the same products we’ve seen there for a decade, but with iterative improvements. One of the highlights was a chance to spend some quality time with Sony’s $2600 pair of Qualia 010 headphones, which are regarded as one of the world’s most premium. Sony had the 010s hooked up to a Super Audio CD system with a remastered version of Billy Joel’s album 52nd Street. Even as a person who seems to appreciate treble detail more than the average listener, I found the 010’s a little bit bright… but wouldn’t throw them away if I was given a pair. Insane prices and low demand have killed the Qualia line, so the only chance most people will have to experience the products is in Sony stores like this one.
On to Singapore, which may not have the aggregate standard of living found in Tokyo, but sure makes up for it with some extravagant trappings in its better parts. My hotel (above) was great. But what I really love about Singapore is the country’s incredible obsession with food - awesome, cheap food, often served in the most amazing “food centres” (think food courts times 10) with a staggering variety of options. They range from mall-quality nice (but limited in scope) to massive, but less attractive.
I love to have so many menu options that picking just one meal becomes almost impossible. That’s Singapore pretty much every day, a “problem” aided by the fact that an entire meal can cost as little as US $5. I made it a point to try as many different things as possible during this trip, but even so, there were a couple of things I came back for twice. Mee Goreng is a local noodle dish that spoils you on all other noodle dishes, including the venerable Thai variant, Pad Thai. This one relies on curry powder to provide a memorable kick, and is most often served with prawns and other seafood.
Blue desserts are hard to pass up - they make for such good pictures (and stories). I had a couple of these while in Singapore - blue gelatin with lychees (actually, the cherry-less longan) and shaved ice - as well as a take with strawberries instead of longan. The taste was great, and the memories priceless.
A lot of Singapore’s strength is in the modernity of its otherwise familiar institutions. Yes, they have movie theaters, but theirs sometimes have waiting lounges filled with games and Internet terminals (here, the Red Lounge, sponsored by Coca-Cola). And there’s an entire theater just devoted to coming attractions if you want to sit in there and screen trailers while you wait.
Many of the shops and restaurants have a nice modern edge, with interesting graphic designs, names, and energy.
The city is filled with impressive - though not especially tall - architecture and tourist-focused development, such as Suntec City’s huge Fountain of Wealth. It’s supposed to be the largest in the world, and there’s a light and water show every night, accompanied by music. There’s something oddly fun about sitting in front of such a gigantic fountain, getting sprayed by misty water on a tropical summer night, and listening to speakers booming Asia’s song Africa. The movies of this scene are far better than any still image could capture.
Finally, there was Kuala Lumpur. Like Singapore, the climate was tropical, and the skies were almost always gray.
As it was monsoon season, rain fell there with frequency, but not enough to dampen (well, significantly) the trip. I had a few opportunities to take shots of the city, which is in the midst of executing a radical modernization plan through the year 2020. The fruits of this labor are obvious, and generally beautiful.
One of the best spots in the whole city was the National Mosque, which though of greater religious significance to the local Muslim population featured a breathtaking mausoleum for the country’s deceased favorite sons. Set in the center of a circular reflecting pool connected to the Mosque by a footbridge, simply walking into the mausoleum makes you feel as if you’re in a place too sacred for mere mortals to enter. It’s just incredible.
On a less serious note, much was made prior to my trip of the country’s Burger Ramly stands, which for a time were being charitably described as a budding Asian competitor to Western fast food chains such as McDonalds. I took these shots (and more) for a friend, showing the special Ramly preparation process, which consists of frying even the buns in butter, cooking up dyed red beef or uncolored chicken patties, wrapping them in eggs, and then covering them in chili sauce, mayonnaise, cucumber, cabbage and more. Verdict? Overrated and inconsistent from stand to stand. For my money, I’d take the Staples Center’s bacon-wrapped hot dogs any day.
Here’s Petaling Street - aka Chinatown - which at night becomes an open-air market full of tourist gifts, food, and counterfeit goods. As I was leaving, cops rushed in with two huge vans to bust a bunch of local merchants for counterfeit goods (mostly clothing) and poor customer service. That’s right, poor customer service. It was in the newspaper. Just imagine how bad the customer service has to get at the Shopping Arcade below before the cops get called in.
Thean Hou is supposed to be one of Southeast Asia’s largest Chinese temples, and though most such places excel in horizontal square footage, this one uses height - namely a six tiered design, of surprisingly recent vintage - to earn its keep. Even having visited dozens of temples elsewhere in Asia, I thought that this one was still pretty memorable. The “treasure” shops inside were selling Buddha Blaze, a hypnotic swirling display with optional chanting audio (accessible via a switch). Like the Fountain of Wealth, still pictures don’t explain just how interesting this thing is in person. I brought two back.
Finally, there’s the food. Singapore’s still king, but Malaysia comes close. It lays claim to having invented satay, the grilled meat-on-a-stick dish most associated with Thai cuisine, and vendors in both Singapore and Malaysia do a knock-out job with satay variants not found in the United States, such as duck (!!! - with a web site, no less) and lamb. Prawn satay was, in my experience, comparatively disappointing. The country’s chili and curry dishes were also pretty sharp.
All in all, it was a pretty cool vacation; of course, it could have been longer, but the days were all pretty memorable. I hope that some of them made for interesting reading and viewing, and perhaps they’ll inspire other people to check some of these places out for themselves.
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