So I finally figured out what “cowhells” are, for those of you who are curious:  cow ligaments.  Apparently they’re popular because you get all the beef flavour without all the fat…

But my recent travels have also taken me to Japan, where I came across another first.  I was in an izakaya-style restaurant.  They served all types of skewered and grilled meats, and they had an English menu.  I am always so grateful for translated menus, not only because my Japanese is atrociously bad, but also for the entertainment they so often afford.

In this particular restaurant, there were lots of chicken choices:  chicken thighs, chicken skin, chicken wings, and my…um…I can’t say favourite, but the one that caught my attention, “chicken crotch meat.”  What even is that?!  I will have to leave it to your imagination, Dear Reader, because I didn’t order it.  Call me chicken.

Tap-tap…skreeeee….hello?  Can you hear me? It’s been a long time…  So many reasons for the hiatus, but none of them really need to be detailed now.

I’m just on my way home from Taiwan, and seeing as I managed to pop into the MOCA in Taipei again – and that’s where my last post left off – it feels like the right time to step back into the ring.

Again, a brilliantly curated collection:  there were two main featured artists, one playing with oversized, bold statements spoken in feathers and bamboo (sorry, no photos – but quite playful and provoking), and the other creating elaborate set-piece, mural-sized photographs, as well as some portraits, that tear little holes into the fabric of our “advanced” society and its trappings.  Oddly, I took only one picture this time, and it wasn’t even of one of the mural/photos; instead I snapped a shot of a life-sized, bansai-shaped tree the artist had sculpted out of razor wire:

razor tree

You can kind of see some of the other photos behind, but I was really struck by the metallic cruelty in such an organic shape.

Interestingly, there was an echo of that dynamic in a display I saw in a metro tunnel/underground shopping mall:  this was a World War II diorama made completely from Lego.  I was struck by the same tension created by the use of a childhood toy to re-create a black period in our collective history.  That said, it was pretty cool…

lego war

And finally, just for fun, I’ll leave you with some tantalizing dishes from a Taipei menu.  They were really flogging the cowhells…(can’t get the image to rotate – sorry!)

cowhells

When I have a pocket of time on one of my trips, I try to spend a few minutes in a temple or museum – the recharge I get from absorbing culture/learning/admiring gives me the same elevated feeling as a good night’s sleep or a contemplative walk in the woods.  It’s so important to pause, reflect, consider, analyze, and question.

I had a thoroughly cleansing experience today at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Taipei (http://www.mocataipei.org.tw/blog).  The museum is not large, but the exhibits were first rate.  Two artists were featured, one Taiwanese and one Chinese:

Formosa Erased (Ming-Chu Huang) was emotionally challenging for me, and left me with a sense of disquiet. The pieces (sculptural creations made primarily of wood punctuated by the flotsam of modernity) were beautifully intricate in technique and composition, with a frenetic feel and a harsh comment on modern carelessness.  From the introductory pamphlet:  ‘“Formosa erased” evokes the reality that the once beautiful, natural island of Taiwan as well as its inhabitants’ inner spirit is now suffocated by the materialism of the society.’

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I didn’t photograph the main installation piece, which took up most of one room – like a mini, convulsed, wooden city with pointless structures and aimless details, populated by mini-creatures and symbols of “progress”…

 

In the primary exhibit, History Re-Presented, Cai Zhisong blew me away with his brilliant blending of irreverence and honour, mixing traditional forms with modern perspective, tender subject matter with hard and heavy materials. Picture a rose, perfect in its replication of every petal and thorn, the jagged edges of its leaves and the graceful strength of its stem.  Now picture that rose 30 feet long, nine feet high, and made of lead:
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Fantastic!

There were oversized, 3-D lead roses mounted on vertical panels like Chinese scrolls that I long to have in my home, and there were artificial clouds – trapped in a box, emerging from a wall, straddling a railing – that throw our inside/outside assumptions into peril.

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But my favourites were the figures: slightly larger than life (except for one massive form), exquisitely crafted, and captivating.  The faces are so beautiful and so perfect, their seamed sheets of metal making me think of how we construct ourselves and others, as well as our societal distancing from the intimacy of human interaction.

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The lightness of spirit I felt as I exited the museum; the feeling of having touched truth and importance; the good-fatigue of having done the work of contemplation – this is another form of meditation, and one that I intend to practice as often as I possibly can.

 

It’s common knowledge that pretty much anything you want, you can get from a vending machine in Japan:

Snacks?  check.  Beer?  check.  A can of hot coffee?  check.  A clean dress shirt after you’ve stayed out drinking all night?  check.  Bananas?  check.  Yes, that’s right, bananas.  I saw this at a subway station:

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Somewhere, someone’s life is complete.  (Not mine, really – I don’t care for bananas.  But I’m darned impressed by the technological innovation that can deliver them fresh and unbruised from a vending machine!!)

Ahhh… nice to be back in the land of heated toilet seats. 

Yes, I woke up yesterday morning in Tokyo, and am here for a week.  It’s a quick trip, but I have to say I’ve really been looking forward to it.  It’s funny how adaptable we humans are, by and large; I’m quite used to the rhythm now of coming and going, to the point where if I’m at home for more than a month or so it almost feels odd.  I laugh at myself.

A couple of interesting things so far:

– I’m staying in a different area of town this time around – figured I should check out something new.  Anyway, my hotel is quite nice (small, but not quite as hobbit-ish as the last one in Osaka), and the neighbourhood seems pleasant.  I was intrigued to note, however, that there’s a lounge called “Dark Souls” just next door, and a Grill and Bar by the name of “Butcher” halfway up the block.  Plus, just two doors up from Butcher is a mystery business called, simply, “Holy Bitch” – it never seems to be open, so I have no idea if it’s a nail bar, a sex club, a place of worship, or what.  Is there an unseemly side to this part of Tokyo that has thus far escaped me?  It remains to be seen, but I’ll let you know.

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– Oh hey, and speaking of new things, this was a first for me, too:  I was in a public washroom today, and saw a small, hinged platform at the base of the wall of my toilet stall.  It was labeled “Changing Board” in English; the Japanese description was fuller, but unfortunately still inscrutable to me.  My first thought was that it was a changing table for babies.  “Why would you want to do that on the floor?” I thought to myself, though I guess it would eliminate the risk of the baby tumbling off.   Then it dawned on me:  it’s for changing!  Your clothes!  Without having to stand on a cringe-worthy public bathroom floor or teeter dangerously on one crushed shoe while you put your other foot in the leg of your pants while holding it up so it doesn’t touch the ground.  Picture this:  you’ve just purchased something and can’t wait to wear it, or you’re leaving your job at a fast-food place and don’t want to wear your uniform home, or you’re just completely indecisive and brought a change of clothes in your bag because you couldn’t make up your mind…and here is a clean, flip-down, changing platform built right into the stall.  How thoughtful is that?!

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Japanese innovation.  Gotta love it.

 

So here’s an idea I think is terrific:  the Taiwanese government has established legislation to the effect that construction sites must be surrounded by “green” walls.  (I have to be honest here that I’m not sure if that’s on a national scale or more localized, or even if it’s just negotiated on certain construction projects.)  Here’s an example:

awesomeidea

See what I mean?  The walls are constructed with sets of brackets, into which long rows of potted plants are placed.  These planters can be slid in and out quite easily if they need replacing.

There is an extraordinary amount of construction going on in Taiwan, and I have to say that these walls really do give some respite – if I’m walking by one, I walk as closely as I can to the plants, and breathe deeply.  It’s a very local, very immediate form of carbon offsetting, really, and I am so appreciative of the extra hit of oxygen.  I’d love to see this policy adopted in Canada!

That said, the plants don’t do much for the noise factor.  The more time I spend in Asia, the more I find that it’s not the crowds, the traffic, the smells, the hustle and bustle, or the language isolation that is most draining for me – it’s the noise.

I’ve always been very sound sensitive, but the incessant noise just gets under my skin and makes my insides withdraw.  Adding to the constant of traffic sounds, there is ongoing construction for a new subway line happening right in front of my current hotel.  They must be facing some serious deadlines (or else the workers are really hungry for overtime), because the work continues on late into the night – the first night I was here, they were at it until 3am!!  You know that big tractor/machine-thing that uses a huge spike to percussively drive holes into concrete?  Yeah, they were using that.  Non-stop.

There’s certainly an abundance of noise pollution in downtown Vancouver as well, and, I’m sure, every other urban centre in the world.  This has to be taking a toll on us – mentally, creatively, spiritually, physically…  We can’t live to our fullest potential when we are (consciously or unconsciously) on the defense against a bombardment of noise!

No easy answers, for sure, but I hope that all of you have opportunities in your daily lives for aural respite.

Silently yours,
Erin

Not the car kind of parking, but public park kind of parking.

Here are three head-scratchers – please feel free to add your own suggestions for these in the comments!

Um, bear nesting ground?

bearnestingground

Or how about these ones:  my best interpretations are, “Do not give a bear a swift kick in the a**!” and, “Never sleep in a bear’s bed when it might come home.”

nokickbear

And finally, a sign from a park in Taipei.  No interpretation needed here, as they very helpfully include the English translations.  It’s the ones in the upper left corner and the bottom right that I find most entertaining!

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(I think that bottom-right one might be hard to see.  The instruction reads, “Please leash your dog.  If nature calls please scoop it up.”  Love it.)

I can’t believe my Taiwan trip is almost done (though I can’t wait to get home) – it’s been a whirlwind.

I’ve got a ton of notes and photos, but haven’t really had a chance to put them together with any coherency… so you get randomness… Enjoy!

We’ll start with some very cool white, bitter melons:
whitebittermelon

Then move on to a car carrying a bride and groom.  All very symbolic, I’m told – the number of cars in the procession means good luck, the sugarcane across the top means sweetness in the relationship, and so on.  I haven’t yet found anyone who can tell me what the plastic bag full of raw meat tied to the roof rack is for.  Maybe just in case they get hungry on the way to the reception…?

weddingmeat

Next is a shoe brand that likely wouldn’t make it very far in North America.

questionablebrand

Here is a warning my hotel provided, giving guests a heads-up about potential abusive treatment from staff.

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And a different restaurant boasted this intriguing dish:

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And while we’re on the topic of food, here’s a stall in the night market that was doing brisk business.  Unfortunately, the words I want to point out to you were blinking on and off, and I caught them in an “off” moment.  But if you look carefully, you can read, “Bloody cake,” kind of in the middle of the sign.  That is, in fact, exactly what it is:  a savoury, chewy “cake” made of glutenous rice and pig blood.  Served on a stick.  The stall owner got a bit cross with me and wouldn’t let me try the shot again, I think because I wasn’t buying.  Oh, well.

bloodycake

I have to say that the food highlight from this trip has to be the bubble tea ice cream…unbelievably yummy!!

bubbleteaicecream

At a different restaurant, this curious, 4-inch long fellow really wanted to join me for dinner one night…

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And speaking of food, durian sure gets a consistently bad rap in hotels!  I see variations of this sign almost everywhere I go.

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More randomness.  What the…?!

serenity

This also caught my eye:  now who wants to push the button for the walk signal?

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Oh, and mahjong is available as a midway-style game at the night markets, along with throwing darts at balloons, tossing rings onto bottles, and other, more familiar pastimes.

mahjongdealer

 

Just two more things to share tonight:  the first is this dapper fellow I came across while walking back to my hotel.  The funny thing is, it took me a beat to process exactly why he looked so hipsterish.

wiseorhipster

 

And finally, this has to be my favourite store name from this trip.  As I was driving by, it looked to be a retail shop of some sort – clothing?  household items?  I’m not sure.  The sign itself provides no clue…

bestsignoftheday

 

That’s it!  A little bit long, and very eclectic.  But these are the things that continue to tickle my fancy on the road…

Taiwan has to be one of my favourite places to eat.  The food is so fresh, the flavours so clear, the prices so low… a winning combination!

I had a fantastic “tea meal” the other day, shortly after arriving.  There must be a special name for this type of cuisine, though I don’t know what it is – in essence, every dish is cooked with tea in some way.  Here’s a set of descriptions and photos of what I enjoyed in my multi-course meal.  I wish I could share with you the actual tastes as well, but I’ll have to make do with words…

  • thinly-shaved, tea-smoked duck breast (delicate but strong, sweet-smoke flavour)

teaduck

  • sauteed shrimp and tea leaves (fresh, basil-ly tea taste)

teashrimp

  • shredded tea-infused chicken (floral, light, and clean)
  • ultra-moist and tender tea-smoked and tea-steamed fish (double-whammy:  intense smoky tea flavour on the outer, smoked edge, and delicate hint-of-tea inner flesh…oh, wow…)

teafishnchicken

  • palate cleanser:  a shotglass of sharp/sweet, acidic and fruity tea vinegar

(drank it too quickly to take a photo…)

  • Asian radish, poached in tea and soy sauce (salty, round, earthy flavour)

tearadish

  • tea-marinated and glazed fatty spare rib (fall-apart tender, and deeply caramalized into a sweet/savoury meatiness – served with a tea-steeped cherry tomato and some tea-pickled citrus rind, both beautiful counterpoints to the meat, as well as gently-steamed okra and a dish of unbelievably delicious roasted burdock-root rice)

tearib

  • The next dish was served as a bowl of lettuce, topped with thinly-sliced raw fish.  The waitress poured steaming-hot, mildly-flavoured tea/broth into the bowl, instantly wilting the lettuce and cooking the fish.  Lovely.

teasoup

  • finally, dessert:  two small rice cakes, one made with purple rice and stuffed with a red bean and oolong(?) tea paste, the other made with white rice and stuffed with a coconut and jasmine(?) tea paste.  Oh, yeah…

tearicecake

I’m in Osaka.  I’ve been here several times now, and I always stay at the same (very comfortable) hotel.  But, horrors, it was fully booked this time, so I had to choose somewhere else – always a bit of a gamble when booking online.

Anyway, I’m feeling a bit duped.  I’ve stayed in small rooms in Japan before, but this is ridiculous!  It’s bigger than a capsule hotel (though not by much), but when you book a capsule hotel, you know what you’re getting:  basically a tube in which to sleep.  Done.

I think a room this size should come with a luggage warning:  “Please be advised not to travel with anything bulkier than a ziplock bag,” or some such thing.  When your room is so small that the only place to open your suitcase is on your bed, you have to be really organized.  You have to think beyond what you need right now, and consider anything you’ll need for the next 24 hours as well, because you won’t be hauling that sucker up onto the bed to dig through it for every little thing, then re-packing all the things you just disturbed before zipping it up and leveraging it back down to the floor, where the only place with space enough for it to stand upright is blocking the bathroom door.

Then you need to find a place to put the things you’ve got out, so you put them on the chair.  Of course, when you go to sit down, you have to move them to the slip of a desk, but that means stacking them on top of your computer.  If you want to use your computer, however, your things get moved to the bed again, or perhaps on top of the minibar fridge against which your knees seem to knock every three and a half minutes.

Did I say sit down?  That’s a bit tricky, as you can’t actually pull the chair all the way out before it hits the bed.  You kind of have to pull it as far as it will go, tip it slightly, then slide your legs in sideways (knocking your knees on the fridge again, damn it), before your butt makes it onto the seat.

Taking a shower is a similar struggle, not to mention having to pee with the door open because if it’s closed you bang your knees on it when you sit down.  (Only partway open, of course, due to the suitcase in the way on the other side.)  I measured the bathroom, and if I stretch one arm out with my fingertips touching one wall, the other shoulder is almost grazing the opposite wall.  That, squared.  The sink overhangs part of the (half-size) bathtub, but is cleverly disguised by the shower curtain; thus, a typical shower experience goes like this:

1) Reach for the shampoo and hit your head on the shoulder-level shower nozzle.

2) Jerk back, hitting your elbow on the handrail on the opposite wall.

3) Overcompensate, driving your hip into that sneaky little sink.

4) Rinse. Repeat.

I feel like Gandalf in Bilbo’s home at Bag End – not imposing and powerful, but oversized and really clumsy.

There is an upside to a room this size, however:  if you’re lying in bed and you realize that you forgot your water bottle on the desk or your cell phone (for your morning alarm) on top of that bloody fridge, you don’t have to get up – you can reach absolutely everything right from where you are!  Finding the positives…finding the positives…

Also, and I have to say this is a first for me, the room came fully equipped with a book of manga!  Cool!  If only I could read it.

But perhaps the best feature of this room is that the bathroom amenities have sweet, inspirational sayings printed on the packaging – uplifting thoughts for when you’re sitting there with the door partially open, nursing your sore hip and bruised knees.  Phrases like this one on the toothbrush:  “Life is full of trials and tribulations.  A man of strong will delights in adversity.”

My personal favourite, though, was clearly written with someone like my son in mind, and is printed on the body sponge:  “Create your own wind and ride upon it.”

And on that note, my friends, I’m checking out.  Of this lovely hotel, that is, and heading home.  The pace of posts is likely to slow…

Oh,  but I have one more photo to share, this one of an elevator door.  At first I thought, “What on earth is up and/or falling out of her skirt?!”  But then I started to wonder:   Maybe she’s just created her own wind and is riding upon it…?

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