All articles, tagged with “wanderlust”

the nightlife ain’t no good life

I’m writing this on the Shinkansen. This makes me deliriously happy: I’ve wanted to ride on the bullet train since I found out that such a thing exists, and here I am, carving my way out through the never-ending Tokyo suburbs at something approaching 200km/h. The train moved through the Tokyo city stations like a domesticated cat, picking its way patiently down the tracks, but once we got past Nomiya station, they dropped the hammer and away we went. It’s whisper-quiet, spotlessly clean, comfortable and SWEET MOSES FAST. I want to live on this train, or maybe marry it, I’m not sure.

Of course, this means that we’re leaving Tokyo, which I’m honestly pretty sad about. Four days was barely enough to get the measure of the place, and like all of the great cities I’ve been to, what was found wanting in the end was me, and time itself. More days, more weeks, a month, a year, wouldn’t be enough to see as much of this place as I’d like to see. I’ll be back. Oh yes I will.

And also, surprisingly, Tokyo made me a little nostalgic, for a path I didn’t travel before. When I was 19, I had been studying Japanese for a year and had transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia because they had a Tokyo campus and I wanted to spend a year there. For reasons that seemed to make sense at the time, I transfered back to Simon’s Rock and never made it to Japan as a youth — never made it anywhere as a youth, really, and it’s part of why I travel obsessively as an adult — and looking back, the reasons for not doing it really boiled down to “I got nervous and distracted,” which even for a 19-year-old is pretty piss-poor especially considering how much I now know I would have loved the place then. Oh well, apparently when they say “live and learn,” neither are actually optional.

Anyway, when we left off on this travelogue, we were back at the hotel in Jimbocho, trying to gear ourselves up for a second attempt at seeing Tokyo at night. And amazingly, despite fatigue and the pulsing crowds, we managed to go out for a while. Our friend’s friend was still tending bar at a place in Koenji called “Amateur” (which turned out to be the same bar there that the Tokyo Damage guide recommended), so we braved the JR line, which was packed to the gills with young, fashionable Tokyoites on their way out, and followed the bar’s website’s directions through Koenji Central Road:

Koenji Central Road is a cute, bohemian little strip of yakitori restaurants, bars, used record and clothing stores and other mysterious (to the Japanese-illiterate) Tokyo miscellany. In retrospect, I’m a little sorry we didn’t head there earlier so we could spend some more time exploring.

Of course even though there were explicit directions and the bar was on the ground floor of a street leading directly from the JR station, we almost didn’t make it, since of course in Tokyo buildings are only haphazardly numbered from the street, and the landmarks on the map were all for places with signs in Japanese. Luckily, Amateur had an open door and a large window, and just as we were about to run out of street Miranda spotted a white guy tending bar, which seemed to be a likely sign. We walked in, made our introductions, and sure enough we were in the right place.

We spend a few hours nursing sakes and beers and chatting with the bartender about his life in Japan. After a little while, we were joined by an older, Japanese friend of the bartender, who he introduced as “the boss of this street.” This gentleman (who’s actual name I either failed to get or retain in my jetlag-and-alcohol haze) was, and I cannot think of any better word for this, an operator, in the finest sense. He’d apparently worked in high-tech for many years, but now ran, as they say, “a number of interests” which appeared to be a bit of real estate, a bit of tech consulting, possibly owning the bar we were in (it wasn’t clear) and probably a few more things on the side. He was very interested in talking about Android: apparently his future plans involve starting a cell phone company. He said that I should move to Tokyo and go into business, and while I’m not sure I see that happening I gave him my card: it never hurts to have the local operators have you in their rolodex.

At this point, hunger was beginning to make itself felt (we’d not actually managed to have any dinner, and it was now about 10pm). We’d passed any number of likely-seeming yakitori and noodle places on the way to the bar, but we asked for a recommendation and were pointed at a place with no English signage but a display of live fish out front, and were instructed to just point to a fish and ask for “omakase”, or chef’s choice.

We found the place easily enough, but what followed was one of those inevitable linguistic adventures that you just sort of have to roll with when traveling. On being seated, a scarily chipper waitress tried to take our orders, but of course there was no English either printed or spoken in the establishment. No worries, we were surrounded by hip Japanese college students enjoying some late-night snacks, and we had our instructions. So we pointed at a small dish on the next table over that appeared to be deep-fried sardines, and then I coaxed the waitress out front, pointed at what appeared to be a red snapper, and asked for ‘omakase.’ What followed was a conversation that I thought went somewhat like this:

me: that fish there, just one of them, please ask the chef to prepare however he likes.
waitress: ah, omakase! would you like some sashimi as a starter?
me: that would be fine.
waitress: excellent.

So I tromped back to our table, and a few minutes later the dish of fried sardines appeared. There were about six of the finger-sized things, and they were wonderful. Then as we were finishing that, a dish of about six pieces of sashimi, obviously from the fish out front (which was not a snapper, but some other thing that I didn’t manage to grasp) came, and we very happily tucked into that, and then we waited for the rest of the fish to appear.

And waited.

And waited.

After about 20 minutes, I ran back through my memory and came up with an ominously plausible second interpretation of my conversation with the waitress:

me: that fish there, just one of them, please ask the chef to prepare however he likes.
waitress: ah, omakase? okay, how about sashimi?
me: that would be fine.
waitress: excellent

At this point, while we were still a little hungry, we weren’t starving any more, and we were beginning to think dark thoughts about when the final JR train back to Shinjuku would be. Figuring that if we tried to settle the check while more food was being prepared we would be set straight immediately, Miranda signaled the waitress over and made the universal “check please” sign. Sadly, this was immediately assented to, which was when we found out that in addition to there being no more fish on its way to us, we were going to be charged an additional 5,000 yen cover charge for making use of the restaurant’s late-night amenities.

Oh well, the fried sardines were really good.

We hustled our way back through Koenji, perhaps looking somewhat forlornly at the multiple full and boisterous yakitori joints we were passing. There was, thankfully, a takeaway bakery still open just before the station, and we grabbed some raisin rolls to go before getting on the second-to-last train back to Shinjuku.

Shinjuku itself, sadly, will largely have to be on the “next time in Tokyo” list, but once the train pulled in we figured we had enough metro service left that we could at least take a quick stroll around the station and see the pretty lights:

This accomplished, we declared victory or at least lack-of-total-defeat over Tokyo nightlife, took the metro back to Jimbocho and collapsed.

movin’ on up

This is the ‘view’ from our first hotel. There was really no way to get the entire 6’ wide scope of the room into the frame without a wide-angle lens, but I think you get the general gist:

This is the view from our new room at the Cerulean Tower Hotel, in Shibuya:

We’ve upgraded hotel a bit for our last night here in Tokyo. More later, once I’ve finished playing with the electronic toilet.

to the high catbus (Studio Ghibli Museum, Akihabara)

Last night’s plan A: take the JR line out to Koenji, where a friend-of-a-friend was tending bar, and try to sample some of Tokyo’s nightlife.

Last night’s actual activities: realize at 8pm that we were barely able to move, much less drink. Send apologetic emails, then stagger to the nearest grocery store to get some takeaway fruit and veggies (Tokyo dining so far having been pretty light on both), eat them in our room and collapse. Perhaps not our most glorious moment as intrepid world travelers, but the jetlag demons will have their due. But it was all for the best: we managed to sleep (if somewhat fitfully toward the end) until about 6am, allowing us to get up, shower and shave leisurely in plenty of time to go hit this morning’s destination. Where were we going to?

Aw yeah…

(If at this point you’re confused, my recommendation is: go rent My Neighbor Totoro. Then Spirited Away. Then Kiki’s Delivery Service. Then come back. I’ll wait. If you’re a little pressed for time, just read this.)

Getting to the Ghibli Museum involved taking Japan Rail out to Tokyo’s outskirts, a cute little neighborhood called Kichijoji. A few blocks from the JR station is Inokashira park and nature preserve, and on the edge of the park is the museum. Since the museum doesn’t open until 10am, we killed some time walking around the perimeter of the lake that is the park’s centerpiece. Along the lake is a small shinto shrine dedicated to Benzaiten, behind which is a stone dragon fountain:

Orb spiders had woven webs in many of the bushes in the park; this one was along the footbridge to the shrine:

Our plan had been to skip getting breakfast in Jimbocho, but to get some food before the museum opened by availing ourselves of one of the many cafes and vendors that Miranda knew to dot the park from her last visit here. Unfortunately, 8:30am on a Saturday turned out to be a bit before the operating hours of any of the cafes, and not only did we not find any food, but we found ourselves being eyed balefully by the park’s many, many enormous crows, all of whom looked like they expected us to provide or at a pinch be breakfast.

There were, of course, vending machines in multiple locations in the park, but the only one selling non-liquid items was dedicated to vending tins of caramel corn, which seemed like a pretty unhealthy breakfast even by our standards, so we decided to just wait until we got to the museum, on the theory that there would certainly be a cafe there.

Continuing along the lake, in a wooded area there was a tiny shrine to the Jizo buddha:

At multiple points along the lake, there were seating areas set up where you could watch the turtles surface to sun themselves:

After making our circuit of the lake, we followed the signs to the museum entrance, where a queue of excited children was already forming. And no wonder, considering who was taking the tickets:

Even at the beginning of what was promising to be a sweltering morning, the Ghibli museum was a very popular draw:

Understandably but unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the museum, so there will be no photos of the catbus for you all. And yes, there was a catbus. A nearly full-scale catbus, covered in fake fur, being climbed over and through by a horde of delighted Japanese children ranging from about one to six years. (Adults were, sadly but again understandably, prohibited from joining them.) The smallest children, who couldn’t even make it into the bus under their own power, could lurch around in a pair of tiny depressions on the floor which were filled with stuffed soot sprites. Cute? Kawaii? You don’t know the meaning of the words.

The museum itself was an interesting mix, serving as it had to the dual masters of “museum/mecca for serious Ghibli fans” and “amusement center for six-year-olds.” The building itself was appropriately beautiful: an organic-looking poured concrete structure with rounded stained glass windows depicting scenes from various of Miyazaki’s movies. There is an internal movie theatre showing short films (admission to the museum gets you in to one showing), a re-creation of Miyazaki’s office and studio, and a gift shop with appropriate amounts of Miyazaki miscellany. There’s also a room with multiple kinetoscopes depicting Ghibli characters and scenes, and lots of little nooks and crannies for children to explore, some with ceilings and entrances sized for them. The building has exterior patio sections on every level, including a cafe on the 2nd, and a rooftop garden:

I’d like to report back on the food at the cafe, but I can’t: it didn’t open until 11, and by the time we got there at roughly 11:05, there was already an hour-long queue to get into it. An hour-long outdoor queue, in the ever-more-oppressive Tokyo summer heat. As we were near-fainting with hunger at this point, it took all of about 10 seconds to decide to bag on the cafe and use the nearby take-away window serving hot dogs and ice cream, the line for which was moving briskly. So I guess I can report that the Ghibli Museum serves a perfectly serviceable hot dog.

A single hot-dog wasn’t really cutting it for either of us, so after making the requisite stop in the gift shop, we headed back into the park in hopes that some of the cafes would now be open, and were rewarded by finding of all things a French-style crepirie about five minutes walk from the museum. Set in what looked like a small converted house, the restaurant’s seating area was on an enclosed porch, with windows looking into the kitchen. (Which had, unusually, an all-female cooking staff.) On stepping into the porch, an older Japanese tourist immediately rose to take my picture, which seemed only fair considering how many unsuspecting Tokyoites I’d managed to snap (inadvertently or otherwise) over the last few days.

After finishing our crepes (which were lovely, but I’ll let Miranda relate that part of the story), we walked through the “ART MRT” — a row of vendors set up by the lake selling various homemade knicknacks, and I picked up a few postcards to send home to people.

Walking back to the JR station, we found Kichijoji’s main drag to be substantially more lively than it had been first thing in the morning, including a shop selling goth clothing, complete will full-length skull-and-crossbones-covered Kimonos:

From there, a long train ride brought us to Akihabara.

Ah, Akihabara. If you’d brought me to this place when I was 15 years old, you would never, ever have gotten me out of there. I would have set up camp in one of the many anime/manga stores there and refused to have left. As an adult, well, I haven’t watched any anime in years, and I haven’t wanted to buy a model anything in longer than I can remember — but it’s hard not to appreciate Akihabara, Tokyo’s nerd nirvana. How can you say no to a 7-story megastore where the first two levels are all giant robot toys, and the third level has an actual radio-controlled slot car track:

…and the next level consists of nothing but model trains, including a working track:

…and the next floor is nothing but wall to wall scarily-realistic looking airguns, targets, and re-creations of various police and military uniforms and equipment?

And that was just one store, out of dozens. But better even than the stores are the tiny alleyways between them, filled with vendor after vendor, each selling a distinct variety of electronic kipple. Want diodes? The diode man has them. Need LEDs? Go to the LED booth, just around the corner. Resistors? Talk to the resistor guy. Solenoids, motors, lathes, line testers, casings, tubes, joints? Yes to all of the above! But wait, whatever it is you’re building, you’ll need a switch to turn it all on! No problem:

Then just when you think you can’t take any more, you pass a small opening and realize that there are stairs. Going up. Up to a shop selling the rarest of things in Japan: used goods.

Oh and of course, there were video arcades. Dozens of the damn things, each one a 5- to 7-story monument to the latest in Street Fighter-esque beat-em-up games with the occasional giant robot shooting game to round things out. I wish I could say I liked them more than I did, but I have a few basic problems with Tokyo’s arcades. First, people smoke, which I realize is not technically against the necessary ambience of an arcade, but certainly makes it personally difficult for me to enjoy it. Second and more seriously: I hate basically fighting games, and blame Street Fighter for killing off the gloriously creative videogame industry of the 1980s — and Japanese videogames are basically all Street Fighter clones, descendants and ripoffs. Lastly, Japanese game console are nearly all identical white sit-down units with the game title on a printed sheet of paper held in a display over the game: I completely understand the economies of scale and service that this provides to the arcade owners, but for a lover of unique and weird old videogame consoles, it’s a little dispiriting.

Anyway, there was one completely cool-looking game in the Sega arcade: a Taiko drumming rhythm game! Playing it ourselves was pretty out of the question (nevermind the game instructions being in Japanese, but the songs you had to play to were all j-pop), but luckily two young men were happy to show off the the crowd:

What you can’t see in that picture is that the kid on the left was playing despite the fact that one of his hands was in a cast. That, ladies and gentlemen, is dedication.

We spent about another hour sticking our noses into Akihabara’s various corners, but after a while all of the electronics and anime and porn and maid costumes start to blur together. With one exception. This didn’t blur with anything:

I braved a strict “no photographs” rule for this one, and it was completely worth it. Click through to flickr so you can get to the full-size version of the photo. Look a little more closely on the middle shelves. Wh yes, that’s a row of crucified Ultramans.

No, I have no explanation. I’m not sure I want one.

Outside, we took another few minutes to explore a raised skyway that connects several of Akihabara’s office towers, but other than an enormous live billboard promoting a J-Pop single, there wasn’t much to be found up there.

…so we took the train back to Jimbocho, where we emerged into a sudden flurry of kimonos. Again, no explanations on offer:

Tonight: we’re going out, come hell or high water.

imperium denied (Senso-ji, Ginza)

imperium denied

Our plan was simple: check our email at the hotel, and then walk to the Imperial Gardens and take a ton of pictures there. Well, parts one and two worked out just fine: the gardens were about a 10 minute walk from Jimbocho. There was only one slight snag: they’re closed on Mondays and Fridays. Oops. So we took a quick walk around about a third of the moat that surrounds the Imperial Palace:

…and then lit out for Plan B: the Senso-ji Temple complex in Asakusa.

But first, since looking at a map revealed that we were close to Tokyo Station, we decided to go convert our Japan Rail Pass vouchers into actual passes. This involved a bit of a trek through the bowels of Tokyo Station to find the Magic Window where you could do the conversion, but it only took a few false starts to find it, and the young women at the window were almost overwhelmingly helpful, copying out in longhand a timetable for the trains to our first post-Tokyo destination. Also, the ‘bowels’ of Tokyo station are in fact a sprawling, sparkling and spotless shopping mall and food court, which managed to remind me that breakfast had been raw fish at 7am, and perhaps it was time to start thinking about lunch. But first, Senso-ji.

Senso-ji is an enormous temple dedicated to Kannon (AKA Guanyin), the Buddhist goddess of mercy. To get to this place of repose and reflection, you walk from Asakusa station on the end of the Ginza line, past this amusing building (which I am certain I should know the name of, but am presently drawing a blank):

…and then through a mammoth, never-ending pedestrian mall full of tourists (Japanese and external) and shops dedicated to separating them from their money.

Backing up a bit, regarding the tourism thing: it’s a little odd. In some ways, I feel far less conspicuous as a tourist than I have in any other Asian country: Japan has a huge internal tourist industry, so it’s perfectly normal to see huge groups of Japanese people gawping and taking zillions of photos right next to you as you gawp and take photos. On the other hand, how much do non-Asian (and really, non-Japanese/Chinese/Korean) people stick out here? We’ve now twice recognized people from our plane flight as we were walking around, something that I can’t imagine ever happening in, say, London. Non-Asians stand out in a crowd so much that you can’t help but spot them instantly, and seeing yourself in a mirror is a little jarring: ethnic homogeneity is really frighteningly easy to get used to.

I remember reading a while ago that non-Japanese immigrants tend to go through a phase of trying to stay as far as possible from other non-Japanese, and I think I get that: as long as you are the only gaijin in a crowd, you can kinda-sorta suspend disbelief. But as soon as that second face arrives, it’s all gone…


Senso-ji is a massive temple complex, with an entrance pavilion, a main temple, and then about a dozen smaller shines and memorials scattered over about half an acre. It’s also very, very busy: between the active worshippers and the gazillion tourists (and a fair number of people who seemed to be both) it got a little hectic. We spent about an hour exploring the various shrines before hunger and heat forced us out. I’m kind of an easy mark, photographically speaking, for Buddhist temple complexes (as the fifteen or so rolls of film I shot on Putuoshan Island in China will attest: thank Elvis for digital cameras), so I took about a hundred photos; I’ll be nice and only post four:

Lunch was a noodle shop in one of the quieter corners of the attached pedestrian mall: it wasn’t ramen, but something with a different name that I failed to retain. Pretty similar in practice, but the broth was fish-based, and the contents were just noodles, scallions and three slices of fatty pork. It was brilliant.

I came here expecting to eat my way across the country, but one thing that hadn’t sunk in from all of my reading was how many restaurants here are single-dish operations: they serve one thing only, and they do it really, really well. It’s a very different feel from how most American and European restaurants work, and I have to say I appreciate the focus.

Once we left the noodle shop, we managed to get about three yards away from it before we passed a gelato store, and were powerless against its evil radiation. It was, after all, starting to get pretty hot. That duty disposed of, and the weather still muggy and getting hotter, I suggested that the height of the afternoon might make an excellent time to check another requisite starter Tokyo tourist item off the list and poke through the expensive and (key feature) air conditioned department stores of Ginza.

Well, I can in fact report that the department stores of Ginza are as expensive and as climate controlled as promised. We spent the most time in Mitsukoshi, which had an entrance from the subway station that lead directly into their basement food court, which is completely berserk: two basement floors of food stalls selling exquisitely prepared foods for prices ranging from the vertiginous to the heart-stopping:

But it wasn’t until we got to the “insane food gifts section” on the top floor that we hit the true madness. Ladies and gentlemen, behold the hundred-dollar honeydew melon:

As “Bob” is my witness, I will never bitch about the prices at the Embarcadero Farmers Market ever again in my life.

The really odd part about the super-expensive fruits (not pictured: the $70 peaches, the $50/kilo cherries, the $45 apricots, etc) was that Miranda notices that none of them smelled…much like anything. Which is just weird: to my mind, half the point of a basket of fresh fruit is that putting your nose into them is a quasi-sexual experience, but these ones were apparently bred for size and visual impact.

Between the basement and the hundred-dollar honeydews were 5 floors of clothing, exactly zero items of which were going to fit Miranda or me. I tried on a snappy-looking straw boater out of a feeling of misplaced optimism, and it sat on my head like a beanie. There’s really nothing quite like a clothing store in Asia to make you feel like a large, hairy ape: even glancing in the mirrors in the escalator seemed to indicate that my stubble (and I am, um, not hirsute) was growing at a thousand miles an hour.

Having had enough self-abuse, we walked out into the steamy Ginza sunshine.

Walking up and down Ginza’s main drag revealed mostly more of the same: department stores, clothing boutiques and coffeeshops. Which was pretty much what we’d been expecting from Ginza, so that was alright. We walked through the basement food courts of one or two other department stores, largely on the theory that you can’t see enough eel-on-skewers in one lifetime. Then just when we thought we’d had enough of Ginza, we ran into Hakuhinkan Toy Park, which is like a 5-storey F.A.O. Schwartz, only much, much cooler, because F.A.O. Schwartz never had half a floor dedicated to Totoro and Catbus dolls. Only extreme self-control and the fact that we’re going to the Ghibli Museum (which presumably has a giftshop) tomorrow kept me from walking out of there with multiple 72” stuffed Totoros (and probably a few dozen soot sprite keychains and cell phone charms). And then there was the Wall O’ Gundam toys! And the Wall O’ Tarot Decks, which included the Gay Tarot! Which was not a misprint or an Engrishism, but was really a Tarot for gay people! (Sadly, my enthusiasm did not survive noticing the $40 price tag.)

It also had an entire room of… well… these things:

…and, ugh, these:

Escaping Hakuhinkin with a surprisingly small haul of crap, we decided to hit the Sony building as our final destination in Ginza, and promptly ended up half a kilometer away from it before we gave up and broke out the map. The Sony building itself ended up being not all that interesting, but on our way to it, we saw two brilliant things. First, right next to it, there is a building nearly as tall with a facade that appears to be made entirely out of glass bricks, and has a statue of a horseman on top:

…and as we were waiting for the light to change, this little piece of awesome drove by:

Inside the Sony building, I managed to leave my camera on one of the displays. This being Japan, it was of course still there when, two floors later, I noticed that my hand was oddly lighter and ran back in a panic. But we decided that bit of absentmindedness was a good sign that it was time to get the hell out of the sun and back to the hotel. So, here we are.


fish madness

Ah, jetlag. Last night, we decided to see about getting dinner in the neighborhood, and wandered around a little following the salarymen around to see where they ate. Tokyo’s density of restaurants, even in a relatively non-central neighborhood like Jimbocho, makes this astonishingly easy: so far any not-strictly-residential district we’ve been in has tended to average a minimum of six restaurants per block. After just a few minutes, we found a tiny little place that, as far as we could determine from the display outside, served nothing but gyoza. And I, for one, love gyoza. So we dropped inside, and after a bit of pointing ended up with a plate of about 20 steaming hot fried pork dumplings, redolent of scallions. They lasted about five minutes under our assault, and cost about $5. First meal in Japan: resounding success.

Afterward, we spent a little time poking around Jimbocho, which as a neighborhood seems to primarily specialize in used bookstores, record stores, musical instrument shops and the occasional porn store. I dropped into a “Taito Inn,” a video arcade owned by Taito (the Space Invaders people), but after a few minutes decided that I didn’t need the humiliation of having my ass handed to me by a seven-year-old in a fighting game I’d never seen before.

After about 45 minutes of walking, we were both pretty thoroughly wrecked, and it was an easy call to go back to the hotel and fall dead asleep. The plan for the next day was to wake up really early and head to Tsukiji fish market in time for the morning auction. We completely failed to figure out the alarm clock, but figured that since we were retiring at the late, late hour of 7pm, it probably wasn’t going to be a problem.

Sure enough, we both popped awake at about 2am, and managed to doze semisuccessfully for only about another hour before giving in to the inevitable. We showered, dressed for incipient rains of fish guts, and strolled out into the early morning rain (oops, Tokyo has weather) to hit the subway. The nearest entrance to the hotel was closed, which was a little panic-inducing, but the one across the street was open, and it turned out that the automatic ticket machines spoke fluent english and would give change for pretty much any size bills. Once we got down to the tracks, it became apparent that either the station had just opened, or we’d hit a relatively dead time for the Tokyo Metro; we were the only people in the station, and it was 25 minutes until the next train:

Connecting to the Oedo line to Tsujiki, a few more souls started to trickle in at various stops, including a young man in what is, so far, the single best t-shirt I’ve seen in Tokyo so far:


Getting off at the station, we walked across the street, and straight into…

Tsukiji is a madhouse. A madhouse of fish. It’s a huge semi-open warehouse, easily the size of a New York City block, divided up into rows and rows of stalls, with large aisles between in which drive homicidal diesel-powered go-carts laden down with the day’s catch at tourist-crushing speed. If you can survive the walk to the back, you’ll find signs pointing to a visitor’s observation station in the auction room, which is chilled to about 45f so that the massive, flash-frozen fish on the floor don’t spoil or (quickly) defrost.

The way it works: a batch of fish are laid out in neat rows on the floor. Buyers circulate among them, inspecting the meat. After they’ve had a while to poke and prod the fish, a man rings a bell and all hell breaks loose: the density of people around that section of the floor suddenly quintuples, and after the bell stops ringing the auctioneer (usually the same guy as the bell-ringer) starts barking. In about five minutes the entire lot of fish is sold, and someone starts ringing a bell on the other side of the room. It’s beautifully berserk.

After about half an hour in the auction room, we escaped to wander the stalls:

This man was disassembling a newly bought tuna loin with a sword that was as long as he was tall:

At this point, it was about 7:30, and we were hungry. Very, very hungry. Luckily, we were surrounded by fresh fish. And where there’s fish, there’s sushi. Really, really good sushi. We picked a place at random, and the fish was good enough to immediately shoot it into the top-five sushi I’ve ever had in my life:

After breakfast, we wandered outside of the fish market, which is surrounded by… another market. Some stalls sold fish, others sold produce, non-fish meats, plateware and kitchen equipment:

Our original plan had been to get back to the hotel before rush hour even began, but we lingered a little too long in the outer market, and ended up on the subway at about 8:15am. Luckily we were skirting the major business districts, so the trains we took were merely “Manhattan at rush hour” crowded, and not “crowbars, body lube and can openers” crowded.

Tokyo, so far, is a trainspotters’ delight. The interlocking train systems are a little confusing, but they’re fast, they’re clean, they’re everywhere, and the ticketing systems are largely self-explanatory: the worst that’s happened to us so far is that we’ve misjudged the fare a few times and ended up having to use the far adjustment machines at the disembarking station.

Now: wait out the rest of rush hour at the hotel, check email and walk to the imperial gardens.

oh no, here comes tokyo

Japan so far: living up to obvious expectations quickly. In the 2 hours it took us to get from Narita to our hotel, we have already seen:

  • embossed hello kitty luggage
  • a bored-looking otaku on the Keisai train solving a rubiks cube… one-handed.
  • a fashionable young man wearing a t-shirt with an incomprehensible English slogan: “Don’t Be Influenced by Feeling Black Lady”, over an image of a (white) young woman in photonegative
  • a building with the words “Ritchie Blackmore” emblazoned on the front for no discernible reason whatsoever
  • a hotel room (ours) so small that it’s necessary for one person to be on the bed (or outside of the room) for another person to get from the door to the desk

We are at the moment at the Sakura Hotel in Jimbocho, which appears to be a cute little backpacker-oriented place. The room… well, I’ll try to take a picture of it, but it might have to be from the hallway to get the full effect.

I am, as predicted, somewhere on the loopy side of jetlagged. My body’s clock is somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic ocean, but the rest of me is in the middle of the Pacific. We’ll see how long I can manage to remain upright.

Tomorrow morning: Tsukiji, and the madness begins in earnest.

the last of zurich

This is being written from a combination of the United departure lounge at SFO, as I wait for my plane to Tokyo to board, and on the plane to Japan itself, so it may be a bit more telegraphic than usual. For those keeping track, that will be three continents in four days. I expect to emerge on the other side of jetlag, a new, post-sleep human.

In any case, Sunday:

Woke up, rolled out of bed and downhill toward the Hauptbanhof for another mandelgipfel. That’s basically “almond pastry”, and actually really more like “marzipan inside a croissant”, and even in a land not noted for light foods, it was probably the single least-healthy thing I ate. Needless to say, it was awesome.

From the station, I took a leisurely walk down the riverside past the mostly closed festival booths, and then uphill about half a km to Zürich’s largest art museum, the Kunsthaus. (Literally, “house of art.”)

The building itself isn’t that much to look at, but the exterior sports the single largest Calder mobile that I have ever encountered:

…and a 12-foot-tall casting of Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell”, which even by Rodin standards is imposing. The gate is roughly the size of the monolith in 2001, and is covered with intricate figures of sinners being cast into the abyss. In the main, they look properly tortured, but one group of them on the upper left of the lintel seemed to be having what looked suspiciously like a really good time. Really, I think I’ve been to this party:

The primary exhibition at the museum was something called “Shifting Identities: (Swiss) Art Now”, which like any group show had its ups and downs, but you’re largely going to have to take my word for it, as it was the one section of the museum that prohibited photography. I did cheat a little bit though: one installation involved building an raised, enclosed platform in the middle of the (very large) exhibition hall that could only be reached by ladders. Having climbed the ladder, you found yourself in a small room with a TV (displaying just a Grundig logo: I never found out if that was part of the piece or if someone had forgotten to hit ‘play’ somewhere) and a box on the floor with a small hole on top that you could peer into to see a kaleidoscope. Next to the box was a set of three steps ending in a small platform, which if you stood on (and were over about 5‘6”) your head would stick up through a single open space in the tiles of the dropceiling, giving you a 360” view of the area between the dropceiling and the roof. Since nobody else was in the room and the museum’s dropceiling was not the artist’s creation, I felt pretty okay taking a shot:

I’ll spare you (for now) most of the many, many photographs of other people’s art that I took. The Kunsthaus is a relatively small museum, but it’s pretty well-populated for its size, with a good balance of ‘old masters’ and contemporary pieces. The highlight for me was probably the entire room full of non-“Scream” Edvard Munch paintings, none of which I had ever seen before.

Over in the “avant garde” section of the primary collections, there was an installation piece that from a distance appeared to be a paper mache dead horse, which was disturbing enough:

…until you walked to the other side of it and saw the all-too-real mane, leading to the inescapable conclusion that the fake dead horse is actually covered with the skin of a real dead horse:

And one last shot just for fun: a Mondrian painting shot through a scupture that I neglected to get the name of:

My only bone to pick with the Kunsthaus is that for an art museum in the city where Dada was created, they really didn’t have much to show from that movement: I saw one Man Ray in the photography section, a single George Grosz piece, and… well, that was about it.

Having had my fill of art, I took a quick lunch across the street at a ridiculously posh cafe called “Terroir”, and then grabbed the #6 tram up to Fluntern cemetery. And when I say “up”, I mean it: while downtown Zürich is pretty flat (being along a river and lake), the rest of the city rivals San Francisco for sheer, random verticality. It is in the middle of the mountains, after all. After about 20 minutes of solid climbing, the tram dropped me and half a dozen families off at the Zoo (the nearest stop), and I did my country proud by only completely missing the cemetary entrance the first time I walked past it.

So why go to a cemetery in Zürich? Well, as usual, someone famous is buried there. But it’s not really who you’d expect to be buried in a tony Swiss cemetery. See if you can guess who it is:

If it hadn’t been for the inset box in the Lonely Planet guide, I would have never known about this either, but yes: that would be James Joyce. Also his wife and child:

Fluntern on a Sunday morning is a stunningly beautiful place: surrounded by woods and artfully landscaped gardens, and far enough off the road that in most places all you can hear is the birds at the nearby zoo calling each other. I spent a good two hours wandering through the plots, taking photos of the more interesting headstones and details, of which there were many:

By midafternoon, I’d had my fill of the place, and I took the tram back down to the city. I got off a bit early, planning to walk down a dirt path down the hill by the university that I’d seen earlier in the week. Sadly I was foiled: the path was closed during the weekend. But I did manage to get a few interesting shots near the university:

By the time I got down to the river, the party for the Euro 2008 final was in full swing: pretty much the entire city, plus several other cities worth of people was slowly trickling into the riverside area:

My original plan had been to park myself somewhere in the “FANZONE” (and you really have to imagine that word pronounced by an excited monster truck rally announcer) area near where they had a 20’ tall floating projection screen anchored out in the river, and watch the game (and the people watching the game) from there. This plan was quickly scuttled by the security checkpoint on the outside of the FANZONE: they were patting down people for weapons, but also apparently cameras were prohibited, and I was clutching my large and conspicuous SLR in my right hand. (Why a ban on cameras when every single cellphone in Europe has at least a 3-megapixel camera built into it? Search me, mate.) My attempt to brazen it out by playing clueless American tourist got me nowhere, so I detoured around the FANZONE and walked a bit further north to where I’d been when Germany won the semifinal at the beginning of the week, as I remembered there being a projection screen on one building’s wall there.

On my way there, after basically an entire week of wandering unrecognized through Zürich, I managed to run into first my coworker Alex and his family. Then once I reached the viewing area, I heard my name being called, and saw my coworker Christoph and his girlfriend across the street, who I joined. Ten minutes later, my coworker Travis walked by, on his way to join some friends further down the river. Apparently football brings everyone out here.

…and by everyone, I mean everyone. In the 90 minutes or so between my arrival and the start of the game, our little section of the street went form “busy” to “crowded” to “packed”, and continued on through “jammed”, and “mobbed” before finally arriving at a density of humanity that was in obvious danger of gravitational collapse. I’m sure that the singularity thus produced would have looked like a soccer ball and had an UEFA logo stamped on it.

With grim predictability, I ended up next to That Guy. If you’ve ever been to any sort of large outdoor public event in the states, especially in California, you’ve met him: late-50s to early 60s, scary bronze tan, open shirt (if any at all), long thinning hair, clutching a beer can, trying to say “hey pretty lady” to every woman who walks by. The Swiss-German version of That Guy says “Wie Gehts?” to every woman walking by, but is otherwise undifferentiated from his American cousin. He was largely harmless, and luckily spoke so little English that his one attempt at starting a conversation with us foundered instantly, but over the course of the evening as various people attempted to shove their way through us to get in or out of the crowd, he would sometimes, following some sort of internal sine wave of semi-drunken belligerence, cross his arms, plant his feet, and refuse to let them pass. In the states, this would have probably led inevitably to a fistfight; here, people mostly just sighed, groaned and worked their way around him.

The best part of it was… did I mention that people in Switzerland still smoke? The first few days there, I kept being startled by the number of times I’d smell cigarettes when passing a bar or restaurant. Apparently the mere challenge of lighting up and ashing while in a crowd so dense that getting your arm from your hip to your lips and back was a multi-minute exercise in applied geometry was not going to stop anyone: looking out over the crowd as the sun went down was like looking over the smokestacks of some old industrial plant: a puff here, a puff there, another puff over there, all in never-ending concert.

Hm, I suspect I’m making this all sound pretty horrible, and I should interject here that I was having a grand old time. It probably wasn’t a good place to be if you’ve got claustrophobia or dislike standing on your feet for a few hours, but the crowd was largely happy and enthusiastic, the weather was gorgeous, the people-watching excellent.

Before the game started, there was the requisite pre-game entertainment at the stadium, and as much as I like to mock the overblown pre-game and halftime shows at professional American football games, the show at the Euro2008 final gave me a new appreciation for the NFL’s willingness to pay lots of professionals to put on their spectacle: the UEFA’s pre-game was surprisingly threadbare, involving primarily a pair of pyramidal cages of chicken wire filled with balloons in the national colors of Germany and Spain circling each other for a while before releasing their meagre handful of balloons into the air, while a shellaced-looking Enrique Iglesias sang something in… well, let’s call it Europopese. I’m sure it was uplifting, in any case.

Oh, the game? Well, like most Americans I’ve only got the thinnest understanding of how football is played at all, never mind the intricacies and subtleties of the game at the continental championship level, and all of the broadcast commentary was in German, so I didn’t really learn anything more that day. But like most sports, it’s easy to at least get carried along by the excitement of a crowd of appreciative and demonstrative spectators. As far as I could tell, Spain pretty well routed the Germans: the 1-0 score belied the exceedingly small amount of time that the Germans spent playing offense.

At the end of the game, the Spanish contingent of the crowd went predictably bananas:

…but once the game was done, the crowd thinned out quickly enough that I was able to bid Christoph and his girlfriend (who’s name I am completely failing to remember) goodbye and walk back to the hotel to pack up for Monday’s flight.


A brief day. I got up early, showed and shaved, then grabbed a tram in to the station to pre-buy my train ticket to the airport and mail a small stack of postcards. The main post office is across the street from the Hauptbanhof, and predictably enough the Swiss post office is clean, quiet and blisteringly efficient: I was in and out within five minutes. The queueing system is actually pretty similar to the CA DMV: you get a ticket on entering the room that has a number on it, then about a dozen well-lit displays tell you which window is serving which ticket number, and you can wander around the room as you care to while waiting for your number to come up.

A light stroll down Banhofstrasse later and I made it to Cafe Sprungli, which was already doing a brisk business at 7:30am. Oddly, I encountered my sole bit of linguistic difficulty there, where the extraordinarily goodlooking attendant in their main sales room didn’t have enough English to ask me if I was going to be carrying my chocolates around the city in midday and would I like an icepack to slip into my bag: this was eventually accomplished by pulling one of the icepacks out of the drawer and cocking an eyebrow, which got the message across perfectly.

Then back to the hotel to pack the last of my bags, and from there back to the station, where I was greeted with a stunning sight: the dismantling of the enormous footballer statues, which looked like a scene from some surreally soccer-themed Terminator movie sequel.

From the station, the train to the airport took about 12 minutes, in some sort of entirely successful attempt to make me appreciate BART even less. I checked in without incident and had an uneventful flight to Copenhagen.

In weird contrast to the border control inbound to Zürich, where I was waved through without stamping or even really looking at my passport, the Danish insisted on having us queue and be stamped twice: once while disembarking the plane, and once before entering the departure gate area. In-between, the path routed us inevitably through a series of ridiculously large duty-free stores, where I disposed of the last of my Swiss francs and discovered a completely awesome thing that only the Scandinavians could (or, more to the point, would) have invented: smoked licorice candies, which are totally brilliant.

Arriving at Sea-Tac airport after Copenhagen was dispiriting. Enormous signs at U.S. passport control sternly warned foreigners that they would be fingerprinted and photographed before entry, while a bored-sounding man constantly repeated into the microphone which line you should be in and which papers you needed to have in order. Past immigration, the baggage carousel and customs were downstairs in the windowless basement, and after customs anyone with bags to check forward had to detour into a dingy room with a conveyor belt and a hassled attendant who was there largely to inform people that despite the fact that the bottles of wine and liquor that they’d bought at the duty-free were still sealed in the duty-free bags, and despite the fact that they were never going to leave the secure corridor, they still had to re-pack their checked luggage in order to somehow cram the bottles inside, because they were not going to be allowed to carry them on. This dubious ritual was then followed by another queue to be re-x-rayed and re-metal-detected, presumably in case someone had managed to pick up a bomb or a switchblade from one of the many weapons vendors to be found in the U.S. Immigration and Customs areas. Compared to both Zurich and Copenhagen’s airports, Sea-Tac looked dingy and decaying: combined with the pointless bureaucratic aggression it was hard to avoid the impression of decline and desperation.

The flight to San Francisco was delayed half an hour, giving me time to upload more photos and bang out the previous installment of this series. We then lost another 45 minutes circling over SFO waiting for a landing slot, and then to complete the experience my taxi driver managed to (accidentally?) miss our exit and thus go another $10 out of the way. No matter: I was home, and Miranda, the cats and my own bed were inside.

…all of which I got to enjoy for a day, before getting onto a plane to Tokyo, where I am right now. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, or more likely when I’m too tired to move any more.


churches, cabarets, and a few quick words about trains


Saturday morning, I woke up, feeling at least 20% more human. With great joy, I left my backpack, laptop and assorted other work accessories in the hotel. With a little bit of fiddling, I found out that I could fit the Lonely Planet Switzerland guide into my right shorts pocket. Five minutes later, I realized that if I turned it precisely in one orientation out of three, the Lonely Planet logo would not be sticking up out of the corner of my pocket. (Seriously, I think someone very clever and exceedingly evil did this on purpose.) Realized I’d spent five minutes re-adjusting a book in my pocket and realized that a cup of tea was probably a higher priority than I’d realized: I slipped out of the hotel quietly enough to not wake my snoozing coworkers, and grabbed a tram.

A moment, here, to talk about the trams of Zürich:

Elvis fucking wept.

According to a snippet of promotional video that I heard on my incoming flight, Switzerland has the densest public transit system in the world. I didn’t pay this much mind on my way in: I’ve lived in Manhattan and been a frequent visitor in London, so I consider myself pretty unflappable about such things. Like many such self-assured considerations in my life, this was dead wrong. Zürich’s public transit system is a miracle, and I’m here to testify.

The miraculous nature of the ZVV, to me, is that it successfully challenged one of my central prejudices about public transit. As a former resident of Philadelphia, Boston and New York, and a current resident of San Francisco, I’ve had an unshakable belief, grounded in harsh experience, that in order to do public transit right in a city of any size, you need subways. Multiple subways. Heavy rail, underground: no shortcuts, no wimping out. Light rail, trolleys, busses and Bus Rapid Transit all formed the Ugly and Broken parts of Boston and Philadelphia’s systems, and they form the core of San Francisco’s system which is all Ugly and Broken. There ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, and the real thing is the A/C/E Train: end of story. Right?

Wrong. Zürich does it all with street-level trams, and it works. To do it, some cabal of goddamn geniuses put together a system that merely does everything correctly. For starters, let’s look at the map:

(click for links to much bigger versions)

If you’re a trainspotter like me, you’re already sexually aroused. (If not, well, you probably skipped over this entire section and are looking at more pretty pictures now.) This is what a hub-and-spoke system is supposed to look like: multiple hubs, multiple spokes. Central Zürich is covered with a spiderweb of tram lines, and no matter where you’re going, there’s (a) a tram stop near you heading toward the right hub, and (b) a tram from that hub heading to within a few blocks of where you need to be.

But it doesn’t stop there. Ever stood in line for five minutes, waiting to get onto a city bus in the US because the fare is $1.95 or some other ridiculous sum, and every single idiot in front of you (and, let’s be honest, you as well) waits until they’re at the farebox before rooting around in their pockets trying to find the exact change? Doesn’t happen in Zürich: The drivers don’t collect fares at all, and you can get on or off through any door in the tram or bus. Fares are card-based, and it’s enforced by random card inspections. If you don’t have a valid card the first time, you get fined $60. If you don’t have a fare the second time, you get fined twice that and taken down to the police station to get yelled at. I think a third offense gets you deported to Lichtenstein.

How to get a fare? Simple: every single stop has an electronic ticket machine that sells one-way and round-trip cards with shortcut buttons for popular stops. If that’s not enough, prepaid daily, weekly and monthly cards can be bought at most stations, convenience stores and hotel lobbies. Just to hammer the point home that they know what the fuck they’re doing, the time-based prepaid cards don’t actually start ticking until you want them to, by activating via sticking them in a slot in one of the ticket machines… you know, the ones that are at every stop.

At this point, it almost seems unfair to mention that most of the trams are built so that the floor is roughly six inches above street level: there are no stairs to climb before getting on, so everybody boards in seconds. Every. Single. Time.

But of course, the best trolley system in the world does you no good if it’s stuck in traffic, and here is where the industrial-strength genuflection begins: it doesn’t seem to happen here. Through a fiendishly clever system of timed lights, lightless pedestrian crossings (that keep car traffic slowed down and wary) and dedicated right-of-ways (usually at the biggest intersections), Zürich’s city planners manage to put together a system where the trams just glide through the city like ghosts, unimpeded by any mere physical obstruction. To an American, this has effects that appear to bend the laws of space and time: on multiple occasions, I opted to walk the equivalent of two or three tram stops because I didn’t see a tram coming behind me, saw traffic ahead of me, and figured that there was no way a tram could beat me down the half kilometer to my destination. Each time, like an overconfident rabbit, I found myself staring ahead of me at the finish line, wondering what the hell happened.

Did I mention that Zürich is a city that is, in both population and geography, roughly half the size of San Francisco? HALF. My modest proposal: put the entire staff of MUNI on a plane bound for Switzerland. Have a planted operative hijack the plane to Cuba. Meanwhile, kidnap the ZVV board of directors and say “hey, we’ve got this very understaffed public transit system in a lovely city in America that we’d like you to run…if you do a good job we’ll let you go back to Switzerland in 2020!” A boy can dream, right?

Right, where was I?

Oh yes: Saturday morning. After managing the purchase of an iced tea and a mandelgipfel at the Hauptbanhof, I started my tour of the old churches of Zürich. Zürich on a Saturday morning is a very quiet city: tourists and natives alike were mostly still asleep, and I had the streets largely to myself until around 10am.

Walking south along the river, the first stop was St. Peterskirche (St. Peter’s Church), the oldest in the city, and with a clock tower face that is allegedly the largest in Europe:

I poked my head inside, but nobody was home.

Next on the list was the Fraumünster (Church of Our Lady), which is apparently famous for having its interior stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall. It was a bit further south and another block or two away from the river. Picking my way along with not much more than a sighting of the church tower for reckoning, I ended up going down a passageway where the original stone stairwell had been removed and replaced with rough steel over a rockfall, leading between two buildings each of which were probably older than my country:

As I got to the end of the passage, I heard the unmistakable sound of…brass. And sure enough, as I got closer, there was an honest-to-god amateur brass band seated in the courtyard the the passage opened out onto. Nobody around but me, a handful of shopkeepers, and 15 musicians in traditional Swiss clothes making oom-pah-pah sounds. I’ve never felt more like Number Six in my entire life.

A few blocks away, I finally found the entrance to the Fraumünster:

…only to find a small note on the door explaining that the Church was closed until 1pm today. Time to re-adjust my plans then: I headed across the river to the twin-towered Grossmünster. The Grossmünster doesn’t have stained glass by a famous modern artist, but it’s still plenty pretty on the inside, and more importantly for a small CHF 2 donation, they’ll let you climb up one of its towers. And I mean climb, and I mean up:

After about five minutes of carefully picking your way up the tightest stone staircase you’ve ever encountered in your life (medieval monks: small, patient creatures), secured only by an intermittently available rope, you emerge onto a wooden platform and realize that you’re only halfway up, and the rest is a series of increasingly step tiny wooden steps that slowly morph into rickety ladders by the time you reach the summit. No matter, onwards. Luckily, the view is completely worth it.

(Obviously I took more than one photo from the tower. More later. Many more. Same goes for any reasonably picturesque location, really.)

The ground floor of the Grossmünster wasn’t bad either:

…and beneath and behind the altar is the crypt, which has a statue of King Charlemagne (who founded the church) dating from the 1370s:

Temporarily churched out, I made my way to one of Zürich’s icons of Weimar-era decadence and modernity, the newly re-opened Cabaret Voltaire:

The Cabaret Voltaire is a small personal touchstone for me. There aren’t many art movements that I give a damn about, but dada is one of them, and this is where it started: a small, flickering light that guttered quickly and was lost in the advancing darkness of the 1930s. (If this is greek to you, go read “Lipstick Traces” by Greil Marcus.)

These days, the Voltaire is a cafe/bar on the top floor, a gift shop featuring wares from local artists on street level, and a performance space in the basement. The walls are covered with a mix of dada artifacts and works by contemporary Swiss artists. Every time I managed to find a free minute to stick my head inside over the weekend ended up being in the early afternoon, so of course the place was empty. 2pm just isn’t rush hour for underground performance spaces, no matter how historically important:

By this time, it was around 1:30pm, and I was getting hungry, so back over the river again and through a bit of the business district to Cafe Sprungli, the cafe and confectionary run by the Lindt company, mostly known in the States for their ubiquitous chocolate spheres. In Switzerland, they’re a much more wide-ranging chocolatier, featuring everything from bulk confiture for restaurants and bakeries to truffles, macaroons, pies, tarts and cakes, as well as a full-menu lunch and breakfast cafe. I spent a few minutes wandering around the immense salesfloor with a wolflike expression on my face before coming to the important realizations that (a) it was still midday, (b) it was already over 80f outside, (c) it was probably going to get hotter, and most importantly (d) they would be open at 7am on Monday morning, giving me ample time to do a last-minute chocolate run before fleeing the city. That sorted, I bought a sandwich and some mineral water and grabbed a table outside to watch the (sigh) absurdly good-looking people pass by. Many of whom seemed to be exceedingly well dressed for a hot-verging-on-muggy saturday afternoon. (That’s foreshadowing.)

My lunch disposed of, I wandered in the direction of the Fraumünster. Getting there, I found that most of the better-dressed people I’d seen walking up Banhof Strasse during the last 20 minutes were all gathered in front of the church: apparently it had been closed for a wedding. (In a town comprised 80% of bankers, I don’t want to know what your net worth needs to be to reserve the Fraumünster for your wedding ceremony.)

The wedding itself was apparently over, and the tourist entrance at the back was open, which was how I found out that alone among all of Zürich’s churches, the Fraumünster prohibits all photography in its interior, all the better to sell you CHF2 postcards and CHF20 picturebooks of those fabulous Marc Chagall stained glass windows. Alas, no snapshots for us.

My last stop on Saturday was the Le Corbusier Pavilion, about a kilometer south of the Fraumünster, in the park alongside Lake Zürich. Now, any time you get within eyesight of the river or lake in Zürich, you’re going to see an inordinate number of white swans: they’re gorgeous, but after a few days even I got tired of taking photos of them. This afternoon, however, I spotted something that was unusual-looking enough to warrant a photo:

“What an odd-looking bird,” I thought to myself. “I wonder what it is? Oh well, there’s no way I’ll actually remember to look it up tonight…” And then twenty feet later, directly in front of me, I found an enormous sign helpfully labelling every single bird that a tourist might ever see along the river:

The Swiss are apparently not merely efficient, but well-nigh telepathic. The English name for that bird is apparently the European Coot. I was, and remain, delighted.

Several dozen large lawns and patios of half-naked sunbathing Zürichers and Euro-2008 tourists (an entirely unexpected fringe benefit, I assure you all) later, and after a bit of backtracking through an enormous outdoor childrens’ sports center once I realized I’d overshot, I found the Corbusier pavilion, which as advertised looks like a Mondrian painting sprung into three dimensions:

The building is actually officially the Heidi Weber Pavilion, but was designed by Le Corbusier and holds a permanent collection of his papers. Or so the guidebook said: while the building was beautiful, the sign on the door kindly informed visitors that it was only open between 3pm and 6pm Friday through Saturday, and it was only 2:30.

At this point, I took a quick inventory: I was 2km from my hotel, hot, tired, and sweaty. I had a camera, a guidebook, a small bottle of sunblock, my passport and a pocketful of Swiss coins and lint. My shoulders still felt like rocks, not in the good way, and my ankles were starting to make their own complaints heard. Next to me was a large, cool lake and several thousand sunbathing europeans. My course of action was obvious. CHF12 got me entrance into the nearest reserved bathing area, a secure locker for my camera and a towel rental. No swimtrunks, but the lake water was clean and I was wearing shorts anyway.

The next few hours passed uneventfully.

Around 5pm (give or take), I managed to drag myself up off the lawn and back in the direction of the Pavilion. Which was still closed. Closer examination of the sign revealed that it is only open between 3 and 6pm… in July and August. Apparently the lure of a million tourists in town for Euro 2008 wasn’t enough to convince them to open a few days early. Perhaps next time, then.

My plan for saturday evening had been to grab a wurst and a bier, and to park myself somewhere along the promenade and watch the Euro 2008 final match with the rest of the city. (When in Rome, etc.) This plan was foiled by the inconsiderate fact that the final game was actually on Sunday night. Sausage and beer happened anyway, and then as I was limping back toward the hotel, I found the greatest thing ever: one of the many, many vendors along the river park was, like you’d find at any street fair. 20 minutes later, if I wasn’t quite a new man, I was at least able to walk with my spine and shoulders in something approximating their normal configuration.

By this time, it was past 9, and while Zürich was still out to see and be seen along the river, I was getting a bit tired of being a lone face in the crowd. Solo travel is fun during the day, but it palls a bit at night when you’re on your own somewhere you don’t speak the language: everyone around was having a good time, but my social skills are all built around what is, in Switzerland, everybody’s third-favorite language. I apparently didn’t look completely like a lost American tourist, since during the day people would occasionally come up to me and ask for directions in German, but conversations tended to trail off once it became obvious English was my only language. My urge to play the Chatty American being minimal anyway, I called it a night and walked up the riverside to my hotel, through the gathering dusk.

beware of gauls bearing bottles

Oh, a little bit from thursday that I missed. An important lesson: if a Frenchman offers you a sip of somethine called “Gentiane”, and notes cheerfully in passing that the reason it’s being poured from a bottle that claims to be chablis is because it’s from an illegal distillery somewhere near his home village?

Run as fast as you can in the other direction.

The stifled laughter from my coworkers as I poured myself just enough to cover the bottom of the shot glass was enough to give me pause. Caution appeared to be indicated. I merely touched the tip of my tongue to the pooling clear liquid, and suddenly my entire head was suffused with horror. The high notes were gasoline, ammonia, stomach acids and isopropyl. Other, slowly developing aromas spoke of industrial solvents, chemical spills and newly laid asphalt. Swallowing started a fast burn down my throat, coupled with the constricting feeling of swallowing soap. A few seconds later, I burped. Words at this point fail.

I have sampled some foul liquors in my life. I’ve sipped snake liquor in Vietnam. I’ve had Maotai repeatedly. A former employer made an initiation rite of drinking Riga Black Balsam (AKA Latvian Pine Tar). I’ve been force-fed shots of Fernet by Doctor Hal himself. I regularly enjoy Laphroaig. Nothing, nothing had prepared me for this.

You win, scary French liquor. You completely win. I surrender the field, and we shall never do battle again.

constructed from notes, pt 1

thursday and friday, from memory and the photographic record:


On Thursday night, my coworkers and I went to have a lakeside barbeque in a small park overlooking Lake Zürich. Because I’m an idiot, I decided that the fact that I was once again carrying a backpack with a laptop (the same one I’d schlepped up and down the Uetliberg the day before) was no reason not to hike the 6km from our office out to the park instead of doing the sensible thing and taking the train.

For the record: this was not a sensible decision. The knots in my shoulders by the end of that evening? Indescribable.

As a small bonus, the walk took us through some of the less touristed areas of Zürich, which afforded me the chance to see some of the local graffiti. Now, back on my trip to Iceland, I indulged in some mild mockery of the local street art (the phrases “Hrothgar was here” and “Icelandic homies reprazent” may have figured), but that’s actually pretty unfair: Europe’s graffiti tradition dates back to the Romans after all. And I have to say: Zürich’s taggers could probably pass muster in Queens:

Also seen on the way: one of a disturbing number of the garden gnomes of various sizes that I spotted in various locations across the city. There were many of them, and nobody seemed to be being ironic about it.

Dinner at the lake involved more meats-on-a-stick than a sane person should ever consider eating in a single evening: the Swiss are quite serious about their Wurst. And when I say “on a stick”, I mean that quite literally, as the following (slightly fictionalized, highly slanderous) conversational excerpt will demonstrate. The scene: we have just gotten the coals going on the portable grills, and your humble narrator has wandered over to the Bag o’ Meat to inspect the goods:
Your Humble Narrator: So I see wurst, chicken and beer. Do we have buns, knives, napkins or mustard?
Coworker Who Will Remain Anonymous: Um… I knew we forgot something.
YHN: Really?
CWWRA: Really.
      [Uncomfortable pause]
YHN: You came in a car, right?
YHN: So you could… go get them, right?
CWWRA: Shops close pretty early in Zürich.
YHN: …when?
CWWRA: Around eight?
      [YHN checks his watch. It is 7:45pm.]
      [Uncomfortable pause]
YHN: I suppose you’d better get going then?
CWWRA: I guess so.

While the Co-Worker Who Will Remain Anonymous did eventually return with bread, napkins, condiments and plasticwear, the first round of wursts came off the grill long beforehand, so being the clever engineers that we were, we sent one of our number into the nearby bushes with his swiss army knife. He returned, victoriously, with a fistful of sharpened sticks, which we used to eat the wursts from.

In the meantime, I amused myself by standing still and being used as a climbing pole, fencing partner and tickling target by the adorable 6-year-old daughter of my co-worker Ben and his wife. I’m not sure what it is about me that prompts all children under the age of 10 to think “toy!”, but it appears to be a pretty consistent reaction.

Eventually, the sun went down. And when I say ‘eventually’, I mean around 10pm: I’d forgot how much I missed the way summer nights stretch in the far north.

…and we took a train home:


work work work. meetings meetings meetings. drink with coworkers. dead on feat. shoulders still twisted into Erlenmeyer flasks. wandered out onto the riverfront, got a caphiriña from a vendor. they turn out to be tasty. also sleep-inducing. stumbled back to the hotel, fell asleep. least glorious day as a solo traveller so far.

Oh, one funny note. Google, like a lot of big companies, has a weekly ‘TGIF’ function every friday afternoon to let people unwind a little before the weekend. (Not that the work environment there is so tightly wound to begin with, ahem.) At the Zürich office, the beginning of TGIF is sounded by — and I swear I am not making this up — the theme to “Heidi” being played at top volume over the building P.A. system. I can only shrug my shoulders and say “the Swiss do like their Cheese.”

To be continued.