Travel-Inspired Tattoos

I spent 29 years on Planet Earth without ever getting a tattoo. Then, in March of this year, I took the plunge. Why? Well, for me, I was finally inspired to get inked because I had an idea that was special to me. It connected me to set of memories that I never wanted to lose and had a unique personal story involving two amazing trips that I had taken.

On the inside of my left forearm I have my last name tattooed in Hindi. While traveling to India twice in 2007, I had learned that my last name (pronounced baarish in Hindi) meant rainfall. And both times that I went, despite the fact that it was not monsoon season, it poured in Delhi. The running joke amongst my Indian coworkers and friends was that I had brought the rain with me.

Immediately, I knew that I wanted to get baarish tattooed somewhere on my body. I had several of my Indian friends in Delhi and in the States write the word on paper for me (I did not want any misspellings, or worse, a completely different word tattooed by mistake). I debated where on my body to get it, what tattoo parlor to go to and whether I should try to get back to India to have it done there.

It took me a year to gather up the nerve to get inked. Now I wonder why I waited so long. My tattoo is an incredible reminder of two amazing trips to my favorite country in the world. It immediately stirs up memories of friends, places, foods, smells and experiences. And it’s my family name, in which I take a great deal of pride.

I almost got another trip-inspired tattoo this past spring. That story is less sentimental and more comical. Though it could have been tragic. While out in Osaka, Japan one night, after several sakes and Yebisu beers, my friends and I met up with a tattoo artist. He introduced us to his friends and showed us their studio. In my drunken stupor, I actually thought it would be a novel idea to get a tattoo of the Yebisu logo. Thankfully, the studio was closing and no one was available to do the job. I dodged a bullet on that one!

Have any trips motivated you to get inked? Have you gotten a tattoo while on a trip? Do you regret that shamrock on your lower back that was inspired by a few too many pints of Guinness? Share in the comments.

Get lost in Osaka Japan’s craziest public park

I had a chance to visit Osaka on my trip through Japan last month and I am convinced it has be one of the more bizarre places I’ve ever visited. In addition to gorging myself on deep-fried Octopus tentacles and fishing for live eels, I also discovered Osaka boasts some truly surreal architecture.

This instinct for surreal architecture also extends Osaka’s public spaces, including one of the city’s more recent additions, Namba Park. Rather than tear down the city’s under-used baseball venue, Osaka Stadium, city planners decided to remake the space into a futuristic public space, boasting a shopping complex and an awesome rooftop park. The park is composed of a series of terraced levels, filled with cliffs, waterfalls, ponds, trees and manicured sitting areas. Sounds like a fun place to wander around for an afternoon, doesn’t it?

What I find most interesting about Namba Park is the example it sets for other urban tourist areas. All too often if a building or stadium proves unpopular, the city will tear it down and put an ugly parking lot in its place. Rather than follow this depressing example, the city of Osaka chose to leave the shell of their old baseball stadium intact, offering tourists and locals alike a useful public space that offers a great hybrid of both the urban and the natural.

Eating your way through Japan – a photo gallery

The phrase “Japanese food” has a fairly standard meaning in the United States, conjuring images of sushi, instant noodles, seafood and teriyaki chicken. But as I discovered during my recent trip to Japan, the cuisine is far more diverse, delicious and surprising than I could have ever imagined.

Over the course of his trip, this intrepid Gadling blogger left no culinary stone unturned and no meal uneaten. Not only did I taste some of the freshest sushi and most savory ramen, I also ate some of the tastiest French creme puffs and the most tender Italian spaghetti. Let’s also not forget the many slimy, tentacled, raw and downright horrific things I ate too, which I’ve included as well for your viewing pleasure.

A special thanks to Gadling blogger Matthew Firestone for serving as my Japanese translator and food guide for this post. Don’t let him in front of a menu after he’s had a few cocktails!


Amazing Race 12 episode 9 recap

As the teams left Mumbai, India for Osaka, Japan I thought, now there’s a contrast. I haven’t been to Mumbai or Osaka, but I’ve lived in New Delhi and traveled in Japan. If you put the two places on a spectrum, they’d be at opposite ends. Smells, sounds, music styles, food, religion, dress–if you come up with a category, I can assure you that they are nothing alike.

Ah, I have one. Tea is a popular beverage and both places have a real fondness for flowers. And one more similarity. Temples are quite prominent as cultural and historical landmarks in both countries. If you want insight into the inner workings of the countries’ belief systems, the temples are a good place to start.

Japan’s organizational style seemed to suit the teams well once they got to Japan, although for most of this episode TK and Rachel weren’t featured. Since they made a mistake by going through two airports–New Delhi and Beijing– to get to Osaka, by the time they landed in Japan, it was almost dark. The moral is: Never, never, never expect that going through two airports will get you anywhere fast, particularly if one of the airports is the one in New Delhi.

The other three teams ended up on a flight that went from Mumbai through Hong Kong to Osaka which meant they hit the ground about the same time, managing to be neck and neck for a good part of the episode. The first stop was Kishiwada Castle, a majestic, pagoda style building with pristine, orderly gardens.

Built in 1547, the castle is now a folk museum. Hmmm. I didn’t see any folk art or folk artifacts, but perhaps that’s because the teams barely had time to catch their breath from hoofing around the grounds and up into the main building to find their clue that would direct them to Kanjosan Noda Station–part of Osaka’s subway system.

At the point when Nate and Jen snatched their clue out of the box, they were as happy as could be since they figured out they were in first place. Likewise Ron, still vowing to be a better father and a better traveling companion, quit chastizing Christina and let her lead the way for a change–after all, she lived in Japan before and had studied Japanese. Don and Nick , now in third place, continued along in their consistent, affable and respectful way, even though Don was beginning to feel road weary and it showed.

I did notice Nick’s smart move when he asked the taxi driver to stay and wait for them while they looked for their clue at the castle. When I lived in India I often asked the taxi I hired to take me someplace to wait. It was worth paying the extra money just to have a taxi after whatever errand I was on in order not to be left stranded.

Once at the station, each of the teams found the station cleaner person who handed them their Road Block instructions. One member from each team had to don white gloves and a hat worn by Japanese taxi drivers so they could actually become taxi drivers just long enough to take a Japanese couple assigned to their cab to the post office five miles away, drop them off and head back to meet up with their team mate. Not so easy.

In Japan traffic patterns are opposite to the U.S. and the driver’s side is on the right. Then there are the signs mostly written in Japanese and the one way streets and the roundabouts. If I was doing this leg, I would have flashed back to my high school driver’s ed nightmare.

While watching the couples patiently sitting in the back seats of the taxis I thought that it must have not been that hot in Osaka. No one was perspiring. Can you imagine what it would have been like to be the Japanese couple wondering if and when they’d get to the post office? Or what it would have been like to drive if the temperature was what it was in Mumbai?

During this task, Christina discovered knowing Japanese did not do squat. She set the windshield wipers off once and couldn’t find the key. Turns out, she doesn’t drive back in the U.S. because she doesn’t have a car.

I was totally rooting for Jen in this part of the race. She was so darned pleased with herself, and so proud of how she looked in that hat. She’s growing on me. The white gloves and hat reminded me of the airport folks who work at Narita airport. Japan is such a tidy place. Plus, she’s so polite to everyone. Notice how many times she turns to say, “Thank you?”

One snippet I enjoyed seeing during this segment was watching Don and Ron drink water and share snacks at the subway station while they waited for their team mates to come back. It was a “Since I can’t do much about anything at this point, I may as well relax” moment.

The relaxation was totally over after Jen & Nate, with Christina & Ron close behind, headed off for their second Road Block. Nick managed to get himself lost while driving the taxi, therefore arrived at the subway 10 minutes behind the other two.

I’m not sure why Don is worried about his age. Nick somehow manages to get lost during every episode. If Don had been driving, they may have fared better. Still with TK and Rachel not even in Osaka yet, what’s the hurry?

Halfway through the episode there was a shot of TK & Rachel heading through the airport in New Delhi realizing that they probably made a bad move. The first time I saw the New Delhi Airport I wondered the same thing. The lighting in that place is so funky; it can make you think something is wrong with your eye sight–plus it doesn’t really smell all that swell.

After the taxi driving, you’d think that Jen and Nate could have enjoyed their triumph. She was trying to by excitedly recounting her moves, but he was an idiot. Instead of praising her for her driving skills, he told her that he couldn’t really listen while they were taxiing it to the Kita-mido Temple, a 16th Century Buddhist temple for their next Road Block directions.

Oh, bad move. This prompted Jen to become upset and the mood chilled which they had a hard time shaking, even after they arrived first at Saera Flower Shop for the Road Block task “Sense of Smell. “

If teams picked Sense of Smell their task was to pick a real flower from the fake flowers by sniffing it out. Ron and Christina also chose the Sense of Smell. As soon as they hit the shop close behind Nate & Jen, Christina told her father to blow his nose and he did. They found their flower not long after Nate and Jen found theirs and left.

Since Nate and Jen were back in their bickering mood, they had a heck of a time finding a taxi to take them to the Pit Stop at Tempozan Park, which allowed Christina and Ron time to catch up.

For a brief while though, it seemed that Ron and Christina would lose their edge since their taxi driver was acting like he might, to use Ron’s word, croak. Now, that would have made for some interesting TV. Even more than Jen accusing Nate of shoving her. There was a repeat of that footage, and from what I could tell it was more of a nudge, as in a “Get in already, we’re in a hurry and I’m excited because we might win a million dollars” kind of nudge.

Nick and Don were also beginning to narrow the gap between the two teams in the lead and them because of their ability to get along. Nick, who by this time was carrying his grandfather’s bag as well as his own, never blamed his grandfather for their lag time which is probably why they rarely court disaster. Even though Don wasn’t thrilled with their “Sense of Touch” Road Block task of getting small robots to play soccer at the Shimojima Building, he didn’t let that get in his way of letting Nick show him what to do. This was a pretty nifty way to work in Japanese gadget smarts.

The task involved using some sort of cell phone gadget to get the robots to move. It seemed to me these two were pretty good at this task, although I couldn’t tell how long it took them to get the robots to score the two required goals. For a guy who is going to be 70 soon, Don exhibits probably the traveling behaviors that lead to success. He will admit when something is out of his realm, but will try it anyway, and eventually succeeds.

TK & Rachel, who seemed to breeze through all the tasks even though they were all done after dark, were determined to enjoy themselves whether they ended up in last place or not. They did, and they were rewarded. When they stepped onto the mat at Tempozan Park, Phil told them this was not an elimination leg. Yipee. So for one more week, we’ve found out that it does pay to be nice.

As for Ron & Christina who came in first, they each get an environmentally friendly electric car for their efforts. I wonder if Christina will sell it or use it to tootle about when she goes back home. Neither of them seemed that thrilled with their prize, but they are thrilled to come in first, something Christina attributes to Ron not being negative towards her all day which helped her to concentrate.

I wonder if TK & Rachel ever get miffed at each other? I hope they get more air time next week.

*Shots of the teams are from the Amazing Race Web site.

Big in Japan: The Myth About Money

Let’s start off by dispelling a common myth – are you ready for this?

(I know you’re not going to believe me, but just bare with me for a few moments).

Japan is not astronomically expensive. There – I said it. In fact, compared with most major cities in North America and Europe, I’d argue that it’s a bargain.

Are you still reading this? I fear that I may have already lost most of my audience with such a seemingly absurd statement, but if you’re still reading this post, let me explain.

In March of 2007, the Worldwide Cost of Living survey released by the Economist Group lists Tokyo and Osaka as the 5th and 6th most expensive cities in the world. Truth be told, this year was a marked departure from previous lists in that Tokyo and Osaka weren’t entrenched in the number one and two spots. According to experts (who know way more about economics than I do), this year’s chart topping cities of Oslo, Paris and Copenhagen were given a boost thanks to a strengthening euro and the declining dollar.

So what’s going on here? How can I, in the face of experts, still argue that Japan is a bargain? Bear with me for a few more paragraphs – I’m almost there.

The biggest expense that most Japanese contend with is the soaring price of real estate, which is made all the more absurd by the total lack of developable land. The term ‘shoebox apartment’ has a whole different meaning in Japan, where 100 sq ft is arguably a palace. Indeed, when my Japanese friends first came to the states to stay with my family at our modest – by American standards – house in suburban New Jersey, they seriously thought we were oil moguls.

Assuming you can get over the lack of space, it’s possible to live in a shared apartment in central Tokyo for only a few hundred dollars a month, which pales in comparison to the money my friends pay in New York City, London and San Francisco. Sure, a lot of the buildings in Tokyo are asylum-esque concrete monstrosities built in the 1950s and 1960s (hardly the Golden Age of architectural achievement). But, it’s possible to find some great places out here if you know where to look.

Case in point – I’m currently renting a room in a two-story traditional Japanese house just a few minutes from Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s most fashionable entertainment districts. My room has wooden floors and picture windows, and enough space to put on my writer’s cap on and hammer out this column.

(Next week I’ll go into detail about apartment hunting, and give you some tips on what to look for).

Of course, I haven’t even touched on how affordable it is to eat out in Japan, particularly if you know how to avoid the expensive spots. One of the themes of this feature column is going to be Japan’s unique (to say the least) cuisine, so we’ll return to this issue several times in the near future. And finally, with the world’s best public transportation system, and a bike-riding culture to boot, you don’t need a car to live in Japan, which is a significant savings if you’re moving here from North America.

Are you sold yet? If not, tune in next week for a posting about apartment hunting in Tokyo. And don’t worry – there will be plenty of time to delve into the full culinary spectrum of Japan!