Posts Tagged With: metro

Buddha Call

If you use a site like TripAdvisor to find the most popular Hong Kong tourist destinations, the list will generally include the cable car ride and Giant Buddha on Lantau Island. Now, it is true that in traditional Zen-like settings one rarely finds the words “Buddha” juxtaposed with “cable car ride”, but we figured, what the hell, we’ve got the day free and it’s on all those lists, so…

The attraction is fairly new, built about 25 years ago, and Lantau Island itself is immediately adjacent to the airport on the tip of the mainland. The best way to get there is by Metro, which we had early on decided not to use since it has become the locus for many of the protests and police actions. But then we figured that since we had missed out on the Molotov cocktails two evenings ago, we should at least enjoy the prospect of a robust tear-gassing, and off to the Metro we went.

The Hong Kong Metro is impressive. The stations and trains are large, spotless, efficient, and ultramodern, although many of the fare machines have been damaged by the protests and taken out of commission. The cars are wide with molded stainless steel seats — rather unfortunately reminiscent of oddly clean bus station urinals —  and the doors between cars stay open so that looking down the length of each train gives the impression of some kind of pedestrian interstellar portal.

Alice had downloaded a Hong Kong Metro app that served quite well to help us navigate the system. Fares were reasonable; it cost about US$3.50 per person to get out to the island, about a half hour ride.

Problem was, the further out of the city we went, the worse the weather got. We started with hazy sun, then moved into gloomy overcast, traveling past huge apartment blocks that, for their ominous appearance, may be housing either alien larvae or blocks of residents in suspended animation.

If you lived here you’d be numbered and barcoded by now.

By the time we got to the cable car station at the base of the mountain on Lantau we were pretty fully socked in, and the ride up the mountain — and thus into the clouds — offered a somewhat apocalyptic cast, at least when the visibility was greater than 50 meters.

When you die, this cable car takes you to the underworld.

The cool part, though, was that the cars had glass bottoms (we had actually paid extra for this, since not all of them do), which adds a note of surrealism and acrophobia to the experience.

We were greeted at the top by more clouds and rain, the Giant Buddha itself, sitting serenely and wetly atop an adjacent hill and overlooking the pseudo-village of Ngong Ping. Here was the sort-of serene part of the scene, heavily Photoshopped so that you can at least make out the statue through the drizzly gloom:

What the photo doesn’t show was the “village”, which was a shopping enclave that included such traditional Chinese restaurants as — and I assure you this was actually there — “Ebeneezer’s [sic] Kebab and Pizzeria.” There were some interesting souvenir stores as well (Alice bought a nice fan), but my favorite by far was the centerpiece of the complex, a garish-looking multimedia virtual reality extravaganza called — and again, I swear this is true — “VR 360 Walk With The Buddha.” And now I suddenly realize that I should have Photoshopped a VR headset onto the statue in the previous photo. For it is said that the way of the Buddha is through the Playstation, one of which surely would have been owned by Siddhartha Gautama himself.

There are 268 steps from the base of the hill to the statue, and we did exactly none of them because it started to pour. So back down the Stygian cable car we went, closing the book on this particular adventure. It was the Afternoon of the Anti-Zen.

We leave early tomorrow morning for Hanoi and the main part of our trip. Stay serene, grasshopper.

 

Categories: Hong Kong | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Land of the Rising Sun and Falling Rain

alice-metaOur flights to Tokyo began in Philadelphia but since I’m in charge here and I’m writing about airports I feel compelled to open with an image of Alice on meta-display at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, close to where we live. This doesn’t have anything to do with Japan but all our friends thought it was pretty cool. (I took the photo of Alice in a waterfall in New Zealand and wrote a blog post about it here. I submitted it for display at the airport about a month ago.)

Our actual journey to Tokyo was unremarkable, taking 5,211 hours — at least it felt that way — and arriving on schedule with our desiccated corpses in row 19. The trans-Pacific leg of the flight was on a 787, the Boeing “Dreamliner”, which is as advertised a pretty nice plane: noticeably quieter than most and with much better air quality. The snazzy part, though, were the windows: the shades are electronic, not physical, and you can dial in the opacity to turn them a lighter or darker shade of blue. Most people opted to do this — it being rather sunny at 38,000 feet — consequently bathing the cabin in a tropical oceanic blue light. It is rather like flying inside an aquarium.

The downside of this is that when you do fly over something interesting — and we overflew some truly spectacular Alaskan glaciers — it becomes difficult to find a place from which to look out and admire the view. Everyone’s windows are dark blue, and it feels like looking at the Arctic landscape as through it had been relocated underwater in the Bahamas.

Narita airport is in the hinterlands about 40 miles outside of Tokyo, so after flying all that distance you get to enjoy a whole new journey into town. There are several ways to do this, one of the easiest being an express train line that runs directly from the airport to the Tokyo main rail station. It takes about an hour. We bought tickets immediately after clearing customs but had to wait about half hour until the train left. Notice that I say “until the train left“. The train arrived almost immediately but the cleaning crew — one man to a car — spent the rest of the time cleaning in that fastidious Japanese way that reflects either an advanced aesthetic or culturally-ingrained OCD. By the time we were allowed to board  you could have performed open heart surgery in that rail car.

The ride into town passes through surprisingly rural countryside considering how vast and utterly urbanized Tokyo itself is: the metro area is 5,200 square miles with a population of 38 million. In other words, it is a city that itself is one-third the size of Holland with twice the population. With numbers like that it is surprising to see any grassland at all, let alone rolling fields. Gradually, of course, the landscape gives over to suburbia, small outlying towns that are surprisingly European in appearance, two story dwellings with tile roofs. The giveaway is that about 10% of those roofs curve slightly upwards at the eaves, giving them a distinctly (and deliberately) pagoda-like appearance.

The overall scene was on the gloomy side, mainly due to the weather. We arrived through drizzle and heavy overcast, and the towns — and Tokyo itself — were shrouded in low-lying clouds and a persistent light rain. We are in a tropical storm, it seems, and the rainy weather continued through today and will alas remain with us for at least another few days. Nothing to do about it but sightsee with umbrellas, which we had the foresight to bring. (I do not know the name of this particular storm, or even whether it has one. This being Japan, I would name it either Tropical Storm Sushi or Tropical Storm Manga, the latter if the storm has a big eye. Ha ha!  A little meteorological humor there!) Tokyo is in general a pretty rainy city: it gets 105 days of rain per year, about the same as London.

mustardWe arrived at our hotel, 24 hours after walking out the door and suitably exhausted, at about 5 PM. (We are staying at the Hotel Sardonyx, whose name, Alice observes, would make it the ideal pied-á-terre for me and my entire family.)  In the interest of mitigating the worst of our impending jet lag, we decided to tough it out for a few hours and have some dinner at the hotel before crashing into bed. That dinner was a little dose of surrealism of its own, the management having decided for some reason to serve almost exclusively some Bizarro-world simulacrum of what someone thinks American cuisine is. Everything you need to know about that meal is contained in this image of a mustard packet that I was served with my sandwich.  I did not have any “frank frutes” with my dinner, and if I had I assure you that I would not be looking for the “unique taste of plan sourness”, in part because I have no idea what that is attempting to mean.

And so to bed. Our room is small but comfortable, largely Western in appearance and feel but for a few very Japanese touches. One is an invisible rectangular heating coil behind the bathroom mirror, about 16 inches on a side, that keeps that area of the mirror fog-free no matter how long and steamy a shower you wish to take. The other is an intimidating toilet with onboard electronics, which is to say about a half dozen buttons of varied and uncertain function. At least two are related to some bidet-related butt-washing function; a third — which Alice mistakenly activated, to our delight — heats up the toilet seat. Our buttocks are now nice and toasty, thank you very much.

We slept well and long enough to at least partly counteract the 13-hour time difference, awakening at 7:00 AM or so, so we had some breakfast (vastly better than dinner) and struck out on the Tokyo Metro for our first round of exploration. As it turns out, that fact inspires me to close this post with a paean to the Metro.

The first thing you have to realize is that you need a big subway system to serve 38 million people.  How big?  This big:

tokyo-metro-map

Leaving out the buses and trains, there are 13 lines containing 285 stations. It carries nearly 9 million people a day. But the system’s designers did something very clever that, astonishingly, does not seem to have occurred to any of their counterparts in other cities: they numbered the stations on each line. The stations all have names describing their location, of course — the one across the street from our hotel is Hatchibori — but on all the maps and signage they also appear as sequential numbers on their particular line. Hence our Hatchibori station is Hibiya-11, Hibiya being the name of the line that we’re on. The Ginza is Hibiya-8, which tells us immediately that if we want to go see those gazillion lights at night we need only hop on our own local station and travel for three stops.

How do you navigate transfers? In our case, with the help of my new favorite and exceedingly wonderful piece of software, the “Tokyo Subway Navigation” app, available for free at your favorite online app store. This little gem uses your phone’s GPS to tell you what station is nearby and how far away it is; lets you select start and destination points from a searchable database (e.g., your hotel and the Imperial Palace); and then tells you not only what stations to get on and off at, but how long each leg will take and how much the trip will cost. You can even eliminate that last concern altogether by shelling out ten bucks for a Metro 24-hour pass, which gives you unlimited usage on all 13 lines. Between that day pas, the app, and the intuitive station numbering, the city is basically at your feet; we bopped around all day with scarcely a thought. Next time I will tell you where we bopped to.  It involves sushi, kabuki, and manga action figures.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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