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.

A Canadian in Beijing: “Made In China” Electronics

I am exhausted. I have just spent an afternoon – yes, a whole afternoon – electronics shopping here in Beijing. Now, that does not mean what you think it means. I am not talking about going from store to store and price comparing or from mall to mall to seek out the “right” brands. No, this was in the same place for the entire time and consisted of much chatting, visiting, standing around and generally not shopping. According to my friend Traci, this was shopping “Chinese style.”

For all of my many gear geek friends, the opportunity to be in an electronics market where anything you possibly want is a fraction of the price would have been like being in a giant toy store. I can see their eyes light up at this idea and can picture them running around like children on sugar at a Boxing Day Sale at Toys R Us.

I just wanted a working camera. When my friend asked me what I wanted the camera to do, I said “take pictures!” He looked at me like I was kidding.

I wasn’t.

You see, many things are cheaper here in China. I’ve already talked about the cheaper clothes and food and services (like massage or manicures), but I haven’t yet mentioned anything about electronics. Since much of this equipment is actually “made in China,” it is a fraction of the price here compared to buying it in Canada. As I am heading home in just two weeks, I figured I’d better stock up.

My friend Rui came to the rescue again. He is Chinese and a Beijing resident and he offered to take me a nearby electronics market, which looked like a giant mall without walls. Escalators and huge signs and enormous, shiny, mirrored columns divided the stalls, but the merchandise was generally identical in each. The trick is in the bargaining and herein lies my weak point. I can bargain but I don’t know how much it’s “supposed” to be or what is actually a “good deal” here. For expensive items, I was worried about getting ripped off for simply being non-Chinese. So, as soon as I even mentioned that I needed some items, Rui refused to let me even consider going without him.

It turns out that he loves this stuff.

Like my friend Daisy, Rui is a natural at bargaining. Or, perhaps he’s just experienced for having lived in China is whole life. Whatever the reason, he’s good. What’s more, he has contacts everywhere and this electronics market was no exception. In typical “guanxi” fashion, his friend who works in one of these stalls is someone who he has done “favours” for in the past (I’ve no idea what!) and so calling on this friend now was right in-line with the give and take of this cultural phenomenon.

Rui is a Virgo. Need I say more? He wanted to very thoroughly price shop before he went to his friend for “advice.” We started the shopping marathon upstairs in this market in the slightly more ritzy shopping area by checking the “listed” prices of digital cameras. Since mine broke last week, this was my most expensive purchase and so the most important one to consider. Rui explained that listed prices are about one-third higher than they “need to be.” I was rather lax about it considering they’re still half as much money here than they are back home, but he was determined to be the shopping champion and I now understood that I had signed up for this tournament by seeking his assistance. And, hey, I’m not complaining. It was wonderful of him to help me save some money.

After this price shopping research mission, we went downstairs to where is friend worked, in the belly of this electronics monster store’s warehouse. When we arrived, we were ushered behind the counter and offered stools to sit on. Rui chatted and caught up with his friend while simultaneously playing a video game and passing around cold drinks. As usual, the presence of a strange “Canadian girl” was the subject of much curiosity, but they were all really nice to me and complimented my Chinese in typical polite fashion.

The conversation made its way around to what we were doing there, eventually, but not right away, of course, which would have been rude (he explained later). In fact, it was about fifteen minutes before the topic even arose and I was trying not to look as bored and agitated as I was feeling. (I mean, I’m really not into video games!)

I was weary, to tell you the truth. It was a hot day and this was a crowded market. I’m used to going into a store, buying an item and then leaving. This elaborate exchange was unexpected and I had to talk myself into sitting back and observing this process as part of my cultural learning rather than wanting to just leave and forget all about this mission altogether. I sat back and listened. When shopping here in China, there’s obviously no hurry. I mentally re-arranged my schedule for the day and got on for the ride.

Shopping is not a task; it’s a social process.

Eventually, a woman arrived with some cameras under her arm. I’m not sure where she came from, but she had been called by Rui’s friend. True to his word, the discount was extreme – about two-thirds off of what we’d seen upstairs just as he’d said – and she showed us two models. They weren’t exactly what I was looking for and so she left and returned again, this time with my desired model as well as another brand that she began to try to talk me into buying.

Rui explained to me in English that this was a common ploy: try to talk the buyer into something else because there is a greater profit margin on the other item and the discount is too low on the item the shopper desires. When I still wanted the same one after her sales pitch, she upped her price by fifty kuai saying there’s no way they could sell it to me for the price originally offered.

I was shocked. Usually discounts stay discounts, but now it was going backwards?

In English again, I asked Rui what was going on. He explained that this was her way of trying to block our purchase and that she probably wasn’t going to go down to the original price. I decided to just pay the extra fifty kuai and buy the one I wanted.

[Here in this market, English was the language that we were speaking as it allowed us the privacy to comment on what was happening without being understood by the vendors. I know it’s not safe to make that assumption, but it seemed to be working in our favour.]

Another thing to consider here is the different between “real” items and “knock off” items. Since this is the place where these things are made, it’s also where products are manufactured to “look like” the real thing. Rui’s friend demonstrated the difference between a real USB memory stick and a knock off one. When he held them up the only difference I could see was that the plastic casing was a little thicker on the knock off version. He explained, though, that the 2gig space on the knock off one was really just about 1gig, whereas the real ones had the full amount of space on them.

When it came to the camera, Rui insisted it be in the original box, sealed and dated by the manufacturer. He sent the woman back for a brand new box and I would never have thought of that. In Canada, the stores all carry new items (or so I imagined!) and they always come in their boxes. Had he not been there, I probably would have been sold a knock off.

In the end, this camera cost me the equivalent of $160 Canadian and I’m thrilled to no longer have to borrow a camera (though, thanks Dave for loaning me yours!) I still have no idea which stall this woman worked at or why we never went to her! I also left the market with some USB memory sticks, two USB hubs and all of the appropriate cabling and memory cards that I needed. I probably saved over $100 Canadian on all of my items thanks to Rui’s connections and bargaining. That doesn’t even count the savings that I automatically experience by buying these items here instead of at home. So, no complaints.

It took over four hours.

(I’m just sayin’…)

I was looking for some other items too, but going back again makes my bones tired. Maybe the next time I’m in Beijing.

I suppose if I want to expand my electronics inventory here in China, I’d better learn how to play some video games!

A Canadian in Beijing: Summer Ice Skating

Here it is the heat of summer in Beijing and I found myself on ice skates last night. I looked down at the ice rolling under my skate blades in the “You Yi Shopping City” mall ice rink last night and I laughed out loud. I was wearing a light shirt and jeans and the sweat was dripping down my back. Ice skating in the summertime? I don’t think this Canadian has ever been skating without mittens on her hands! China, I keep forgetting how inventive you are!

Last night, a group of us went to a local mall to strap on skates and make some circles around the rink. It was a standard ice rink just like the ones back home, but this one was in the middle of a huge shopping mall – one of the largest in Beijing – and it’s not the only ice rink found in a mall in this city. In fact, naïve me thought that only our famous “West Edmonton Mall” in Canada had ever thought of such a crazy idea. Turns out, thanks to a quick chat with my Quebecois friends who came along, that there’s one in a mall in Montreal too. So, I guess it’s not so rare after all . . .

When we arrived, we descended down giant escalators into a wide walkway and saw gallery style railings that looked down and into the ice rink. People leaned over these railings all evening, intermittently watching the skating from above. I did the same for a moment before going down yet another set of escalators into the skating area.

Choosing skates was the first adventure. I don’t use figure skates because I’m more comfortable in hockey skates. When I asked for hockey skates, the overwhelming response was “Are you sure? They’re dangerous!” I assured the staff and my Chinese friend that I was sure and was reluctantly handed the skates without picks on the blades. It seems as though this choice is more rare here in China, especially for a woman. I explained that I thought it was more dangerous for me to have the picks on the ends of the blades because I’m not used to them and they catch the ice and could tip me forward. It all depends on experience, I suppose.

We all sat down and strapped our skates on and I was excited. It’s not every day that I get to go skating and, even though I live one hour from the longest skating rink in the world (Ottawa’s Rideau Canal), I did not make it into Ottawa for a skating day this winter. I love to skate but I had to go to Beijing to find the time!

My skates were laced and done up long before anyone else’s. I took to the ice and took a few loops to gather back my comfort on blades. I love the feeling of ice beneath me. It’s such a powerful sound, too, that slick scrape of skate blades on frozen water. The very pitch of that sound is nostalgic. Then, when I get the rhythm under me, I feel like I’m flying on the ice the way flying sometimes feels in a dream state. It’s as though you’re being carried along and not actually generating the flight, like the way your hand will catch and ride the wind when you dangle it out your car window while driving.

Like surfing the air.

I suddenly realized that I was daydreaming and ignoring my friends then, and so I went back to check in on them to find out why they were taking so long. There were some size confusions with the skates and then lots of switching between hockey skates and figure skates going on. All of my friends that came with me are male, but all but one settled on figure skates in the end.

It’s very common for men to skate with figure skates here. It’s very unusual back home, in my experience, unless they are training to be figure skaters. In fact, in Canada, I’m ashamed to say that as kids we used to differentiate hockey skates and figure skates as boys’ skates and girls’ skates, respectively. I no longer see it this way, of course, knowing that many women (like me) prefer hockey skates and/or play ice sports and many men (of all sexual orientations!) are accomplished figure skaters. Still, I realized last night that these assumptions are still in me when I found myself marvelling at all the boys in figure skates being so beautiful and graceful with their turns and spins while I roughly cut and scraped the ice at top speed, racing between people and wishing I had a hockey stick and a puck to chase.

Stereotypes are meant to be broken.

When I looked up at the posters hanging from the upper railings around the rink, I saw a maple leaf almost immediately. A picture of a local hockey team showed the kids wearing hockey jerseys with various NHL team logos. One of the kids in the front row was sporting a Montreal Canadiens jersey. I definitely felt at home in that moment and quietly complimented the photographer on placing that kid in the front row. Of all the teams to feature, I’d say that was a good choice!

There were many little kids on the ice as well — some who looked no more than four years old — and several were being coached in certain techniques by professional skaters. The center of the ice was being used as training areas as were the corner circles, thus making it necessary to skate a bit slower in order to avoid collision with the little ones. Speed could be increased as it got later, though. By around nine o’clock, the rink was clearing out and we had the last half an hour with lots of free space to mess around and practise tricks and have some races.

I had a great time. It was an unusual outing, for sure, but I enjoyed the exercise and the challenge of trying to remember how to skate backwards in a circle. The skills we learn as kids stay in our limbs, I believe, and I found my body recalling the movements and finding the steadiness bit by bit. I’ll have to go back and keep practising!

When we left, it was closing time at 9:30. Some of my friends spent most of their time off the ice, but everyone tried to skate, at least, and we all put on our shoes again in a good mood.

With the piped in Muzak still ringing in our ears, we watched the rink staff rolling large silver coverings onto the ice not unlike those used in the windshields of cars in the summertime to protect one’s interior from overheating. No zamboni and so I imagine that this technique enables the rink to maintain its frozen state, like a cooler. Still, I wonder how they do smooth the surface again? Perhaps the zamboni comes out in the mornings? I have no idea.

I woke up this morning with sore muscles and a bit of homesickness for Canada. Next year, I’m not going to miss the canal. That’s a promise to myself.

And I’ll be sure not to forget my mittens.

Photo of the Day (4/18/07)

Recently Jaime mentioned April being National Poetry Month so when I saw this photo tucked into the Gadling Flickr pool I felt obligated to select it, but why? Well the photographer, cfarivar, has titled the shot as “Y-Men Poem” and when as I read through I am not sure how it came about, but a few other questions came to mind. Like would it be an educated guess to say that ‘Yes’ is a lingerie store of sorts? Or does this written dialogue about panties make women really want to shop there? I love the exclamation marks after it all though!!! The excitement to be found in South Korea!!!! Let’s go – Yes?

A Canadian In Beijing: Malled

My little dorm room came with a kettle and a cup and a few towels but not much else besides the furniture and some simple bedding. To get through three months, I knew that I’d need a few simple household items. For instance, I didn’t have a bowl or a scrub brush for dishes, nor did I have any dish towels or a good pair of scissors for cutting open packages. I also needed some self-loading pencils for the numerous Chinese characters I’m writing in school, the kinds with built-in erasers for the likewise numerous mistakes that I’ll make writing those very same characters.

Anyway, this is all to say that I needed to go shopping.

The other part of the truth (which may or may not be the bigger part!) is that I had been avoiding doing my laundry and I was completely out of underwear. Rather than hand wash a few pairs to get me through, I decided that I could probably afford to buy a few more pairs. Lazy, I know. I’m such a stereotypic bachelor right now!

With all this in mind, I grabbed my reusable shopping bags and headed to the heart of Wudaokou.

It is really hard to gauge the size and scope of a building’s interior in this city. For instance, the university has a huge canteen. The first time I explored it, I saw a large room and a lot of food being offered, cafeteria-style. The second time I went in, I noticed an upstairs and there I found another large room with separate kiosks of food like at a North American mall. The third time I went in there, I was with fellow students who led me upstairs again but this time we went through a rear door of that same upstairs room. This door looked like a service entrance, so I hadn’t questioned it, but it brought us into a hallway that led to restaurant after restaurant offering various international fare. I was amazed at my terrible sleuthing skills the two times previous.

I feel a little like Alice walking through the looking glass. I have no idea what I’ll find around every corner and I am constantly in awe at the density of sights, smells, sounds and activity here.

So, en route to aforementioned room supplies, I went into the Lotus Center for the second time since arriving. As I was walking around, I suddenly noticed an escalator at the far end of the small, main-floor, shopping complex that I had mistakenly understood to be the entirety of the “Lotus Center.” I went up this escalator and found myself in a giant mall with three levels that offered everything from DVDs to housewares, new shoes to fresh vegetables, cigarettes to shampoo.

Okay then. How did I miss that the first time?

I stood at the top of the first escalator looking around, dumbfounded, and became a bit like a rock in the riverbed of a flowing public. People flowed around and past me as I turned and waited for a relatively quiet moment to photograph the escalator.

Because I have never seen items for sale on an escalator before. The items don’t move but you do. How does that work?

Picture this: you’re the shopper and you think, “hey, maybe I’ll buy that item but I’d like to check out the ingredients first.” Then, after picking it up and realizing that you’d probably be better off without all those unpronounceable contents in your body, you’ve been carried up and away from where it belongs! Stranded at the top or stranded at the bottom with a box of cheap cookies in your hand, what do you do?

Maybe it’s a brilliant idea. Perhaps you’d look at the effort it would take to put it back — You’d have to do the up/down loop in order to be the conscientious shopper who returns an unwanted item to whence it came, after all — and then just throw it in your basket and consider buying it as your penance for being lazy? Go back into the flowing public just to put back a box of cookies? I think not. Besides, at that point in the consideration, you’d likely have talked yourself into wanting them after all! Maybe they’ll be the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted, you wonder.

Oh how the mind justifies. This is how advertising gets us.

As you can imagine, with these ideas running through my head and so much to take in, I sometimes walk around a bit like I’m in a daze. China makes me move slowly and I get jostled around and bumped into by people left and right — people who are less in a state of wonder and with more of an agenda. This was how it was for me for the remainder of my time in the Lotus Center. My little basket and I wandered wide-eyed through aisle after aisle and my little basket slowly got heavier.

I admit to being tempted by the incredibly low prices of stuff here. I bought my underwear. The women’s version was terrible and came with bows! I ended up buying a four-pack of men’s cotton briefs with some cool designs on them for a whopping 4 kuai (or almost $0.59 a pack — That makes it $0.15 a pair!) Note to self: I am bigger than a men’s medium in China; they’re kinda tight!

And what else did I buy? Well, 96 kuai later and I must admit that I’m not quite sure! I got my school supplies and some letter-writing supplies, some slippers for my cold dorm floor, tea towels, some food products, some water. All in all, it’s easy to say that things are cheap here, but those cheap things eventually cost a lot of money! I know that 80 kuai is only $14 Canadian, but I am aiming to keep this journey within budget and so I found myself scratching my head.

Did I really need the beer shampoo just because it was made of beer?

Maybe I can blame it on the televisions? At the end of every second aisle, a television set with non-stop advertising easily catches a shopper’s gaze. At least, it caught mine! I watched a few ads just for entertainment’s sake, but didn’t buy the products being advertised. Still, perhaps I was subliminally affected into believing that “buying is good” and “shopping is healthy” and “I need more stuff.”

Those discounts are alluring. I couldn’t resist.

At the checkout counter, I dutifully waited my turn and have become quite good at saying “wo bu yao daizi, xie xie,” which means: “I don’t want a plastic bag, thank you.” Everything is put in plastic here unless actively requested otherwise. They look at me strangely but accept my weird “foreign” request without much dispute. Lately, I’ve also starting following up my request with: “shijie you tai duo de daizi.” This means: “The world has too many plastic bags.”

The last time I said that, I actually got a smile.

This is a picture of my checkout line among about twenty others. If only my little camera could capture the panoramic of these views to show the whole scale of such experiences. You’ll just have to take my word for it!