When one thinks of Tokyo, dense, crowded streets full of neon lights and skyscrapers probably come to mind. And for the central parts of the metropolis, that image is more or less true. But people, even those who are born and bred in the city, tend to forget that Tokyo actually extends hundreds of kilometers to the south, to the Izu and Ogasawara island chains where sparsely populated and little-visited islands can be found. Life on these islands cannot be any more different from downtown Tokyo and perhaps anywhere on "mainland" Japan.
Thursday, July 12, 2018
Monday, June 25, 2018
at 9:04 AM
One of the little-known idiosyncrasies of the Russian Far East is the presence of a relatively large North Korean population. The region's low population translates to a chronic shortage of laborers needed for low-paid construction and menial work Russians are reluctant to take up. In European Russia, Central Asian migrants fill the role, out here the North Koreans play the same role. Despite ongoing sanctions that dramatically reduced their numbers, North Korean laborers are still preferred by Russian firms for their manageability, diligence, and lack of negative cultural (read: Muslim) influence.
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
at 4:11 PM
The campus of the Far Eastern Federal University is a gorgeous one. Situated on the mostly wild Russky Island south of Vladivostok, it is a mishmash of imposing modern buildings connected to the century-old downtown area with spectacular suspension bridges. Perhaps as a result of its extraordinary setting, it serves as the regular venue of the East Asia Summit that bring together political leaders from Russia and its East Asian neighbors. But for the importance of the Summit for Russia's Look East economic policy, locals are a bit annoyed by the Summit serving to shut down the city for weeks at a time.
Saturday, June 16, 2018
at 9:06 PM
One of the greatest thing about living in Asia is the wide availability of cooked foods. Whether it is a major city or a rural town, the main streets of any sizable urban community in much of East, Southeast, and South Asia are dominated by endless arrays of both hole-in-the-wall eateries and fancy restaurants serving cuisines of different regions and countries, at a wide spectrum of prices and quality. Getting food is mostly just a matter of going downstairs, walking for a few minutes, and paying an equivalent of a few dollars at most.
Thursday, June 14, 2018
at 7:34 PM
For the Chinese small traders in Vladivostok, 2014 seems to have been a watershed year. Years of boom turned to gloom as traditional wholesale markets dominated by Chinese traders emptied out. Merchants speak of a massive exodus of compatriots, as they no longer have enough customers to justify high financial and personal social costs of importing their wares and residing in a foreign city. Some merchants gave alarmingly high numbers of more than 2/3 of fellow traders returning to China after 2014.
Saturday, May 19, 2018
at 2:00 PM
The Spaniards have a saying, "in Spain, even the atheists are Catholics." No only do churches dominate townscapes, social norms derived from religious practices are inescapable in daily life of any person in Spain. Hence, even those who do not believe in God follow social norms designed by those that do believe in Him. The pervasiveness of subtle religious identity is simply subconsciously absorbed to such a degree that no one even really think about the religious origins of common everyday practices. And the Spanish carried their religiously embedded social practices to far-flung corners of the world like the Philippines.
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
at 5:10 PM
In the quiet residential neighborhood of Fukagawa in Tokyo's eastern suburbs is a leafy children's playground. Amidst the tall trees, slides, and swings favored by local children and parents is a building that looks oddly out of place. A three-story tall stone building, built in the modernist Western style so favored in early 20th century Japan, greet park visitors. The neoclassical facade of the building is imposing enough to be a centerpiece for a major history museum, yet, located in the little neighborhood park, it has to settle for a much mundane role: the neighborhood public library.
Monday, March 26, 2018
at 10:21 AM
It is hard to believe, but Tsuruoka, a coastal city of little more than 100,000 people in Yamagata Prefecture, has been designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy since 2014. And the designation really shows in the local food. From locally harvested rice, fresh seafood from Sea of Japan, to locally branded beef, chicken, pork, and vegetables, the ingredients are of top-quality. They are cooked in what are countlessly emphasized as truly local ways, steeped in local traditions, and supposedly unique and not found anywhere else in the country. Local chefs and hotel staff are undoubtedly proud of the culinary tradition.
Monday, March 12, 2018
at 5:47 PM
Every unplanned trip has its unforeseen circumstances, and sometimes those unforeseen circumstances can get quite costly. And there was certainly one of those on this particular trip through the Silk Road. On the way back from Yerevan, the Armenian capital to Tokyo, the cheapest way would have been to fly through to Russia and then to Japan. The next cheapest, involving non-Russian transitions, would have been costlier by a margin of close to 300 usd.
Saturday, March 10, 2018
at 8:33 AM
It is unsurprising that in many places of the former Soviet Union, people (and middle aged men in particular) love their alcohol. The winters are cold and long, so shots of vodka are great for keeping warm and whirling away the long nights. The wide availability and cheap cost of making and buying the stuff make them friendly on the wallet just as it is on the senses. The public's indulgence has created a very strong distilling culture, in which high quality alcohol is even made at home with different fruits.
Thursday, March 8, 2018
at 8:55 PM
The immigration official at the Armenian land border with Georgia looked quite hostile. "What were you doing in Azerbaijan?" He asked rather angrily as he flipped through the passport to find the unexpected Azerbaijani entry and exit stamps. When he received the usual "tourism" answer, he was simply unconvinced, deciding to take a copy of the passport page with the Azerbaijani stamps before allowing the passport holder into the country.
Wednesday, March 7, 2018
at 2:10 AM
The little town of Gori an hour outside the Georgian capital of Tbilisi is mostly known for one thing today. It is the birthplace of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. To most outsiders today, Stalin is known mostly for his unpredictable political purges and disastrous collectivization efforts, leaving hundreds of senior Soviet leaders and millions of its citizens dead. But in his hometown, Stalin is still celebrated, not least for his contribution to defeating Nazism and turning the USSR into an industrial power within a generation.
Monday, March 5, 2018
at 8:16 PM
Just a few days ago, the author found himself discussing how to increase number of tourists in Azerbaijan with a few locals in an underground bar in Baku. The economy was in dire straits as the GDP dropped along with oil prices. The government's supposed diversification to non-oil sectors involved little beyond investing in infrastructure to increase exports of natural gas. Tourism, for a city as beautiful as Baku, deserves to be one of the main sources of income in a diversified economy.
at 3:30 AM
The restaurant does not look like much from the street level. With a little "restaurant" sign pointing at a dimly lit set of stairs leading down to a basement of a otherwise commercial building filled with fashion shops. But as soon as the set of glass doors dividing the stairs from the streets were opened, the loud sounds from down below were inescapable. Simultaneously, almost disco-like lights from the basement give off the impression that one is entering a nightclub rather than a restaurant.
Friday, March 2, 2018
at 11:11 PM
At the airport in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital city, the author found himself briefly unable to enter the country due to misunderstanding of the country's visa-on-arrival rules. The immigration staff not only helped him step by step through the process, he also did so with smiles, jokes, and even free chocolate to help him get over the three hour wait at 11pm. In the subsequent taxi ride from the airport to city center, the taxi driver got lost but remained good natured, joking about how streets shouldn't have same names.
Thursday, March 1, 2018
at 8:48 PM
Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, is in many ways the city of its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Having came up with the idea of creating a brand new city to replace Almaty, the economic hub of more than a million people, as capital of the country, he certainly did not hesitate to put his own imprints on the city itself. The city's new airport, university, several other institutions are unabashedly named after him, while the main museums all have sections exclusively dedicated to his life and politics.
Wednesday, February 28, 2018
at 7:13 PM
The Mongolian names for dumplings (buuz) and restaurants (guanz) sounds conspicuously like their northern Chinese equivalents 包子 (baozi) and 館子 (guanzi). Simultaneously the southern Chinese name for the same dumplings 饅頭 (mantou) made to both Korea as mandu and Central Asia as manty. The favorite pulled noodles of Lanzhou 拉麵 (lamian) found itself to Central Asia as laghman just as it went to Korea as ramyeon and Japan as ramen.
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
at 1:41 AM
The center piece of the central park of Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, is a gigantic statue of Lenin, flanked by memorials to Soviet soldiers crowned with the classic hammer and the sickle. Various government buildings in the city, leftover from their prior usage as regional administrative offices for the Soviet Union, are still marked with obvious Soviet insignias despite obvious attempts by the current Kyrgyz state to hide them under contemporary national symbols like the country's flag.
Sunday, February 25, 2018
at 10:45 PM
When the Soviet Union found itself in power, it not only took over some vibrant cities in its territories, it also quickly worked to create brand new ones to suit needs of the planned economies and regional administration. Villages are expanded into cities based on a consistent set of designs that adhere to Soviet philosophies of how cities should look like and function. Based on the set of designs, many similar cities are created in the Soviet sphere of influence.
Saturday, February 24, 2018
at 1:04 PM
"Things are different here," the local driver nonchalantly quipped, "the rules that govern the rest of China simply does not work here in Xinjiang." As the driver took a drive in search of hotels in Urumqi, the metropolitan capital of Xinjiang, he began to remark on just how years of terrorist threat changed how locals in the city and the wider region live their daily lives. After a few hours in China's volatile western reaches, the restrictions can easily be felt.