The Pacific ocean is wide, wider than a look a world map would suggest. My travelling time to Singapore from Honolulu was to be 23 hours first through a 11 hour flight to Manilla and then a 3 hours and a half flight to Singapore with a good 8 hours of layover in between. Since spending the better part of my day killing time in the Manilla airport international terminal did no sound very appealing, I decided to pass the customs and go walk around the Filipino capital for a couple of hours.
I had to negotiate my taxi ride pretty hard with several threats of opening the door and getting out but eventually I managed to reach the city. My apologies for being an asshole tourist mr cab driver, but the fact that I’m leaving from the airport does not justify multiplying your fare by 8. The make a short list short, all I had time to visit was the Rizal park, the Intramuros (old town), a UNESCO world heritage church and the Chinatown. Add to that a few intrusions into the local life at markets, street food stalls and churches and that was it for my excursion into Manila. Much to the disappointment of all these very feminine looking men that seem to have a keen interest in me, that was all I could cram into the couple of hours I had away from the airport.
Manila, being situated in a developing nation and having had a long history of Spanish colonial rule, had much in common with state capitals of Central-America I found. It smells, its dirty, its hot, save a couple of nice older buildings, its full of ugly, circulation is a huge mess, manifestation of abject poverty are abundant (the amount of street children…) and I bet it can be visited in a day or two. But on another level, its exhilarating to be in and its an overwhelming feast for the senses. It’s definitely a departure from Honolulu and a nice foretaste to what is coming my way in South-East Asia. I’m travelling again.
What am I doing in Hawaii? Those that read my articles on Japan will have a good idea. For the lazy rest, let’s just say that some things are worth (ahem! women …) changing your plans for. So after a long flight from Taipei and back through Osaka, Japan, there I was in America.
And America it felt. For the first couple days, it felt strangely good to be in known territory again. Stores I am familiar with, a culture and a language I can understand, food that in spite of its lack of refinement, is only done properly in North America. Only for the first couple of days though, because soon enough, the large roads, oversized pick-up trucks with mags, poor public transportation, poor urbanization and a sprawling suburbia soon made me remember why our cities have such a bad reputation around the rest of the western world. Honolulu is no exception, it is just another American metropolis with daily traffic jams, sketchy neighborhoods and homelessness issues. Close inspection will reveal an Hawaiian twist to things, but if it was not the many hours of flying over the water, you would think you’re actually on the mainland. Downtown Honolulu really is many people’s idea of an idyllic place, which is why plane loads of foreigners and american retirees flock there when the weather on the northern hemisphere gets chillier. I even met my uncle, who along with my aunt has been snowbirding a couple of weeks out of the Canadian cold in a rental condo for the last couple of years. Literally steps away from the famous Waikiki, I did not really bother asking them how much their rent was, but I bet it was way beyond my current means. Also beyond those of most Hawaiians for that matter as a only few kilometers away the upscale hotels and shops abruptly fade to expose the harsh reality of city life in America.
Honolulu boasts a couple of nice museums and monuments, but its flagship attraction is definitely Pearl Harbour, the site of the eponymous attack by the Japanese in 1941. It takes at least two days to properly visit. What I managed to see on the two occasions that I managed to wake up early enough to make it worth the trip was the USS Bowfin, a WWII submarine, the USS Missouri, a battleship and the pacific aviation museum, which made for its lack of quantity with quality restored warbirds from the golden era of aviation. Otherwise, the Japanese might have you believe that Waikiki is the place to be and indeed, while they used to drop bombs on this island they now drop big dollars and invade by the thousands every week, especially in this area where it is said that they spend on average 500 to a 1000 dollars a day, While the famous beachfront street makes for a nice evening stroll, there is not much to it if you’re used to the concept of American style shopping or think your hard earned money shall be spent on something more worthwhile.
The island on which Honolulu is, O’ahu has a bit more to offer and Melissa and I devoted many afternoons driving around it to sample some of its foods, check some parks, beaches, skydiving (wanted to try but the weather was not on our side), etc. I wanted to take her out scuba diving as well, but it was too logistically complex so one weekday I woke up at 05h30 and went on my own. While certainly more expensive than your average tropical country, the quality of the equipment and overall level service left very little to be desired. I would not say the same about the diving itself though, to which I would only give the OK mark. The reef appeared to be in decent shape, the dolphins and whales were at their usual posts along the route to the wreck (an upside down landing barge) but there was just not much to see down there.
On the second dive, I found myself face to face with a sea turtle as I was exiting a swim trough. It was hiding immobile in a corner so the other divers had not seen it and when came the time for it to go back up for a gulp of air, it had to swim through a large cloud of divers into which a couple she bumped during here ascension, leaving them very surprised when they noticed who they had collided with. Much to the amusement of the Japanese group that was following us at a shallower depth. It’s hard to properly convey facial expressions with a full set of scuba gear on, but laughter is one that gets across pretty easily.
The Big Island part 1
Hawai’i, the state, is an archipelago and Hawai’i is its largest island. There are eight overall, and having exhausted all that I felt like doing around Honolulu, I had to go visit another and picked the most obvious one for three reasons. First, because it’s the one with most if not all of the active volcanoes on it (when you see images of Hawai’i, chances are they were taken there); second, it had one specific dive I really wanted to do. Third, because I friend I had made while in Honduras was staying there. To save some confusion, the Hawaiians have decided to name their eponymous land mass the big island, because it is big; go look for yourself on Google maps. Big enough so that it takes several hours if not an entire day to circumnavigate it by car, hence the absolute necessity to rent one because public transportation, as in most places on this continent, is lacking: consisting only of a couple of buses that circle the island every day. Also warned by Melissa and longing for the cathartic sensation provided by the open road, the decision was an easy one and I rented a set of wheels that I picked up in Hilo (the largest city) the morning after arriving on the island.
Once at the wheel, I immediately set out for the volcanoes national park, where the most active volcano on the island has been spewing gases and molten rock for as long as the records go back. No luck this year though; activity had receded so lava flows have hardened into a thick crust and no longer dump themselves into the ocean into a spectacular show of smoke and light. Still, past eruptions provide for a spectacular scenery and a lot of it can be viewed from the comfort of your vehicle or a short hike. It was already late in the afternoon, so with a map of the park in hand, I set out on the road down to the coast, stopped at a few craters and made it to the end, where the road has been covered by a lava flow that occurred in the 1980s. I timed everything so that by the time I would be back at the visitor’s center, night would have fallen and it would have become possible to see from a distance the glow of the lava lake inside the Kilauea projecting itself on the fumes. However, a thick fog had settled, making that impossible.
No worries, by leaving at this moment, I could arrive in time for the end of the free amateur stargazing session happening every night at the visitor center of Mount Mauna Kea, Hawai’i’s highest peak at 4205m and home to numerous telescopes. I had hoped that due to it’s altitude, the mountain would be free of weather obstruction but no luck again, the clouds had beaten me. A break in the cover let me see Jupiter and its Galilean moons, but that was it. Nonetheless content of having enjoyed such a great view of that planet, I got in my vehicle for the journey home. The thickness of the fog made the drive back a very long (but eerie) one where I often had to slow down significantly and put the four flashers on. In the end, I arrived at my hostel safe and sound but too mentally exhausted too do anything but watch TV with the receptionist and listen to his ramblings about conspiracy theories and generally stuff people that waste way too much time on the web like to talk about.
Having not seen enough of the Volcanoes national park, I set out for my second visit, which this time I dedicated to on foot rather than on wheels exploration. Walking inside and around volcanic scenery is as one would expect, spectacular, and I wish I had had all my camping equipment with me to go for a longer trek away from the crowd of day visitors. That night, I was suppose to meet Rimas (my diving friend from Honduras) on the other side of the island, so after a quick stop for a responsible wine tasting session at a local winery, I got behind the wheel and drove to Kailua-Kona, where after dropping my stuff at the hostel, I joined up with him at a local bar. You meet dozens of people on a weekly basis while travelling, a portion of which end-up on your Facebook account and an even smaller percentage you even stay in touch with, knowing however that the chances of you ever seeing them again are slim to none. Thus, it felt special to encounter Rimas so far from where initially came to know one other. He was my diving instructor in Utila, Honduras so it took me some minutes to do away with the student/teacher relation we had over there but once I had adjusted, we picked up were we left and had many stories to recount as the only constant within both of our lives had been travelling. For that night, I had booked a room at an affordable but very inconveniently located hostel; Kona, being a resort town, is very pricey. But for the remainder of my stay, Rimas kindly offered me an inflatable bed in his living room, which I gladly accepted, sort of expecting he would make that proposition, but too polite to ask for it outright.
Diving with Manta Rays
Having been shown videos of the famous Manta ray dive of Hawaii by a french guy while in Tokyo, it was clear I could not leave the big island without having swimmed with the “peaceful giants” myself. Rimas’ girlfriend, Sarah, was working as an instructor at one of the local dive shops and told me they offered it and went out pretty much every night. The next day upon awakening at my hostel, I grabbed the phone Melissa had kindly let me use while in Hawaii and called to inquire about availability for that same night, because the dive happens after sunset. The manta ray dive is simple in concept: a lot of people hold a lot of very powerful underwater torches, like flies to light, the plankton gets attracted in the beams and the mantas to the plankton.
We headed out in the middle of the afternoon, stopped along the way to watch a whale that was putting up a show for us and first dived the site at daytime. On the way up, a manta ray was spotted in the blue, a very good sign according to Sarah, because it meant more were around. Came back on the boat, had some sandwiches and waited for the sun to set while spinner dolphins were, well, doing spins around us. Nothing really would have prepared me for the awesome spectacle that was to come. There is an always eerie feeling of being underwater at night, with others waving beams of light all around, but what made the experience unbelievable was those large, several meters across, manta rays looping in the beams to gulp the congregating plankton, in the process getting so close that sometimes I had to duck out of the way or got brushed from behind. If only the surge had not been so strong. The only rock that I had to grab on already being a poor anchor, I soon noticed that my bare hand had been centimeters from a sea urchin. From there, I attempted to hold it between my legs, but to no avail, I still had to paddle around to keep myself stable and as a consequence exhausted my air fairly fast. For those of you that are interested in getting a video approximation of what it was like, click here.
Not so sure if we’re really doing a service to these animals by making feeding so easy for them, but listening to the staff explaining how it lets the dive community keep a close eye on the population by reporting each different sighting of an individual using a web tool, I convinced myself there was some good in it. Every manta ray sports a specific pattern of dots on its belly, which make them recognizable as each has inherited its own little name and apparently, those that have been diving the area for a long time know all 200 of them. A true relation of interdependence when you think about it: no manta rays, no divers; no divers, no money; and on completion of the logical loop: no money; no manta rays. Such is the reality of wildlife conservation on this day and age.
The Big Island part 2
Wanting to do some more hiking the next day, I brought up a Google map view of the area on my laptop and realized that the cinder cone of the nearby volcano was actually climbable. Great! Drove there, but nowhere was the entrance of the park to be found. Went back and forth, even asked local shops, no clue. Frustrated, I headed for my plan B, which was basically just a beach with some paths around it but too absorbed with my previous failure, I simply checked out the beach and went back to Rimas’ apartment. All hope was not lost, I could still go stargazing! There I called the tourism information center at the Mauna Kea observatory to ask if the skies were clear enough but once again, no, the cloud layer was again obstructing the view. Rimas’ came up with a great alternative: drink.
Full of good intentions the night before, I did not manage to wake up as early as I wanted on my last day, so I had to cancel my initial objective of going back to that stupid park and devote the remaining time I had with my rental vehicle to crossing the island back to the other side. Again, beautiful scenery, but the jungle had given way to a barren high altitude valley between the imposing Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. I was making good progress, so I figured time permitted for me to climb again to the Mauna Kea information center to enjoy the view at daytime, which I did and to my surprise found they had a telescope aimed directly at the sun. So for the very first time, I got to see with my own eyes solar flares and black spots, but through a filter of course. I was told that going further up to the top, where all the bigger telescopes are, required a 4×4, but I saw a few cars making the ascension and some other tourists confirmed that it was indeed possible. If I did go, I would need to extend my rental, but according to my interlocutors, the view was well worth it. Upon asking the astronomer on duty if he recommended it, his answer was a categorical no. Towing from 4000 meters high down to Hilo starts at a 1000$, rental places forbid it and tough it is possible by car, making it up with the underside of the vehicle unscathed requires a healthy dose of skills a chance. That settled it.
Satisfied with all the driving around that I did, I decided not to extend my rental and drove back to Hilo, surrendered my rental vehicle and got to the airport where I sat and worked for a good 8 hours while waiting for my flight back to Honolulu. A bit of productive time never hurts. It boggles me with it’s not possible to ferry between the islands, but as explained by Melissa, the service used to be available, but the airline companies lobbied hard and in the end managed to convince the lawmakers that ferries were worse for the environment and had the passenger ferries’ operating licenses revoked. Go figure.
Going halfway around the world for girls
The things we do for the ladies… If it was not for Melissa, I bet I would probably never have gone to Hawaii and for that alone I am grateful. While Honolulu is not my idea of a nice city, the big island definitely had a lot more to offer that I expected and I’m certain the other ones would be worth paying a visit to as well. I’ll be blunt: the overall appeal of Hawai’i is far lesser that any other place I’ve been so far, but as you might have guessed, sightseeing was not the priority, it was things that fall outside of the scope of this blog.
So in the end, I did not do much that is worth recounting on this post, I really lifted my foot of the pedal when it came to seeing and doing things. Not meaning that I did not spend any quality time there, quite the contrary, but It’s just as well that the pace slowed down because I needed a break. I needed a bit of boredom and sedentarity to feed the travelling bug. Once I got back from the big island, I was ready to head again into the Asian vortex and within a few days had booked my plane ticket to Singapore.
Even the Taiwanese people identify themselves as being Chinese. As a matter of fact, the official name of the country is the Republic of China, which also very much pleases their mainland big brother, who in effect still considers the island of Taiwan to be one of its provinces. All aspects of the culture are strikingly similar, so is the official language and there seems to be consensus among part of the population that one day reunification should occur. However, only under certain conditions, namely that actual China shifts to a democratic political system and cleans up its act when it comes to human rights, freedom of press and wage disparity.
This confirms my original impression that Taiwan was an improved version of China, where people are more welcoming, friendlier and helpful; where cities are safer (not that the continent was particularly unsafe) and cleaner; where tradition and modernity mix in interesting and anachronistic ways; where in general, the inhabitants make you feel that they are happy and grateful you are visiting their country. Owing to its smaller size, one cannot really expect as much variety as can be found across the Taiwan strait when it comes to sights and people, but this also means that distances are smaller and consequently that travelling around is not as much a grueling task as it is in China.
Making a stop in Taiwan was not part of my original plans, but upon hearing positive comments from a variety of people I had met up north and noticing it was halfway between Japan and South East Asia, I figured I should break my journey south in two and explore what this little island is all about besides manufacturing computers and cell-phones.
Taipei may be the capital of a bustling economical power, it has managed to stay relatively relax and in spite of the spurious growth that has affected most Asian urban centers in the past decades, is well urbanized and pleasant to walk around. True to my travelling habits, lots of urban exploration on foot I did. First to find my hostel. Due to strong lobbying by hotels, hostels are not allowed to advertise at all their location. All you get is an address and mine pointed to the fourth floor of an apartment building. Not really knowing they were so hard to find, I had decided to use the “show up and see if they have room” technique. Luckily, as I was climbing the stairs, the owner was going down so in the end I managed to secure accommodation for my stay in Taipei.
Over the next days, I simply walked around the city and visited a museum or two, checked out the famous Taipei 101 and walked some more. Obviously, I also entered some temples, which to my surprise are generally very extravagant in this country as a whole and a nice departure from those I had seen thus far in Asia. The hostel was practically empty so I spent most nights being productive in front of my screen, but one evening my roommate, Shab, a girl from the UK, offered me to follow her to a Couch Surfing meetup, where through the famous website/social network, foreigners gather around at a bar to exchange about various things related to not being home at present. The following evening, we linked up with someone we had met at that meetup to have some drinks and plenty of them were drunk, the last ones on the steps of the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, which even at 3 am looked impressive.
After four nights, I had decided I had had enough of concrete and cars and left the capital for a more nature oriented experience. David, the owner, had been very thorough in his briefing of all that there is to do for a stranger in Taiwan and strongly recommended that I go to Taroko National Park. Upon him suggesting that it was possible to rent scooters and ride them around mountainous roads I was pretty much sold.
Hualien and the Taroko National Park
After short train ride to the east coast of the island, I disembarked in Hualien, a regional capital and my basecamp to the Taroko National Park, famous for its mountainous landscapes and spectacular gorges. It was too late to go there when I arrived so all I did for the remainder of day was to borrow a bicycle from the hostel and ride it around the city. As planned, the next morning, I got up as early as I could (still late by most people’s standards) and got to the scooter rental shop that I was recommended by the hostel, the only one that will rent machines to foreigners.
Riding a scooter is quite easy and instantly I got the hang of it. Much easier than motorcycles in my opinion, but that also makes them very treacherous at high speeds as their small size and wheels do not provide as much stability nor braking power. Still, scooters should be driven like their bigger counterparts, in other words, not like bicycles with engines. They are not as fun, but provide a convenient way to get around, especially that my objective was at least 20 km away and the park being set in a gorge so essentially linear, this also meant that sights and trails could often be separated by several minutes of driving.
Aside from having to share the road with massive convoys of Chinese tourist buses on occasions, I had a blast riding on the only and sometimes single-lane road that winds its way up the gorge. Along the route where different trails and sights and I managed to see the better part of them; I even found a natural hot-spring that you could bathe in for free. Everything that I saw was just spectacular but about the trails themselves I’m slightly ambivalent as most were in such a state I never even got close to be able to call was I was doing hiking. Some high heeled tourists were probably very relieved that there was pavement everywhere, but I was sort of expecting a closer to nature experience. Then again, with the amount of visitors the park gets and its geology, classic dirt paths would not last very long. Whatever, I got to walk on several scary suspended bridges and found trails far away enough from the helmet wearing hordes (yes, some had helmets on to protect themselves from falling rocks) and surrendered my scooter after two days pretty satisfied of having admired such spectacular landscapes, especially while driving in them.
One last night at the hostel where I stayed up very late with the staff, their friends and some guests drinking all sorts of alcoholic beverages and that was it for my time in Hualien. Funny anecdote: Chinese people, during their very of first class of English in school, get baptized with a name foreigners will have an easier time remembering. Most opt for something classic like Kelly, John and so on, but some choose to elect their own and one Taiwanese girl that night had picked Jelly. Jenny? I replied. No, Jelly, as in jellyfish, or jellybean (incidentally the comparison she prefers). Sure that could provide to be an hindrance to finding serious work abroad, but in her case, it befitted her personality very well and if anything, with the kind of job that would employ her, a silly name could actually provide to be an advantage. Her real name was Jin Xue and I’m most likely not writing it correctly.
Kenting National Park
Located at the very southern tip of Taiwan, Kenting National Park was another thing David back in Taipei strongly recommended in his lengthy and thorough tourism briefing. Apparently, you can do surf there and given the large quantity of surf shops, it was probably the case, but not really into gliding on the surface of the water and bragging about it for hours afterwards, what closed the deal on Kenting was the fact that you could do diving there … and rent scooters.
Different park, same formula. I rented a motorized two-wheeled mean of transportation as soon as I could and got to all places that were apparently hikable in the park. Once again, where I was hoping for a good solid two hours of proper trails, I got half an hour walks in the park on concrete or brick layed pathways. Since most Taiwainese and Chinese live in cities and are not really used to moving themselves around on uneven and loose surfaces, they come very poorly prepared for actual hiking, both physically and logistically speaking. It seems to me that given their long history of civilizations and millennias of human influence on the landscape either through road-building or agriculture (rice cultivation being the most obvious example), the Chinese have lived removed from true wilderness for much longer than the average North-American. For this reason most go to parks for the same reasons that they go to zoos, to get a glimpse of nature in a safe, controlled and convenient environment. It was not bad per se, but travelling all this way just for this would have been thoroughly disappointing.
In Taiwan, there is so much scooter traffic that the authorities thought wise to build special lanes for them which on some roads materialize themselves as bike-paths sized side roads where all the small engined two-wheeled traffic gets channeled. Quite dangerous if you ask me. Motorcycles go as fast as cars and in consequence require nearly as much space for breaking and for reacting to unexpected events or obstacles on the road. Coupled with the tunnel-vision effect created by speed the requirement for space is even further justified and since people in Taiwan drive like idiots, close calls are a normal occurrence. Crashes? not as common as one would expect. I passed a lady with a severely damaged leg she broke while swerving to avoid a truck that suddenly pulled into the motorcycle lane, but that was it. I guess you get good at driving like an idiot.
Anyway, for supper, I went to the nearby night market, which are quite the thing in Taiwan and very popular with both tourists and locals. A large number of small stalls set up shop along the street or in a dedicated lot and sell a wide variety of food from all over Asia. The one in Kenting was quite conservative as it catered mostly to tourists; the most original food you could have there was fried oreos, the rest was generally your average Asian fast-fare. In Taipei however, I was told that at one night market snakes could be ordered.
Second day was diving day. Woke up really early, drove to the dive shop and found out I was the only customer. Excellent, this meant I would be diving alone with their divemaster. I got my equipment, which was in poor general conditions but working fine otherwise, hoped on the car and we drove to the first dive site, which was located in a artificial cove created by a large wave breaker. Popular with snorkelers, the site apparently boasted a wide variety of hard and soft corals along with a good population of fishes and other creatures of the sea. Compared to other places I have been, it was nothing to write home about, the flora and fauna appeared to be in rough shape and there was thrash all around. The highlight of the dive were a giant clam, very large pufferfish and some clown fishes swimming around in their anemone habitat. Otherwise, most would have found the dive to be somewhat boring but since I get a kick out of breathing underwater and had not been diving for some months, I enjoyed it. Next dive was done at a deeper site, which provided interesting topography and wildlife and was in fairly good conditions due to its remoteness from human activity but once again, nothing extraordinary except for a sea turtle, which according to the divemaster, are quite a rare sight these days. Having been accustomed to hanging around with sea turtles, I found the sea snake more exciting to watch. it may sound like I was let down but in reality, I’m quite thrilled with having had the opportunity to experience Taiwan’s underwater world. The majority of animals and plants look similar to those I got accustomed with in the Caribbean, only differing slightly in shapes and colors, but there definitely were some newcomers to my repertoire. If only the divemaster would have known their name in English, but sadly, a bunch of Chinese characters are not of much use to me.
The afternoon was devoted to riding the scooter around the area, but out of the touristic roads. The driving was quite spectacular and so was the scenery. A stop at the Sichui grasslands scenic area to stretch the legs provided me with the best views of Taiwan I have had on my entire trip, the lighting was perfect, it has just rained so all the vegetation was glittering with water droplets and thick clouds were rolling up and down the hills. In the distance, I realized that the many abandoned concrete buildings I had been passing on the way there were part of an expensive decommissioned military complex occupying the whole top of a nearby hill, with coastal gun batteries protected by large bunkers and radar arrays. Had I had the time and prior knowledge of this place, I really should have trespassed for a bit of exploration. After I got back to the hostel, I worked for some time and then went for food at the night market again. This was my last night in Kenting but given my discoveries of the day, I wish I could have spent a bit more time in the area. It always pays to veer of the beaten track once in a while.
Unsure of what my next move would be, I decided not to return to Taipei just yet. I could go to Hawaii, get stuck a couple more days in Taiwan and then go to Hawaii, or have some weeks to spare, go somewhere else than Taiwan, and then go to Hawaii. In every cases, it was best to spend whatever time I had left in the country to visit another place, even if it was for a couple of hours. That morning, I woke up to find that in fact, Melissa really had enjoyed my company in Japan and wanted to see me in Hawaii, so I quickly booked my plane ticket and proceeded to Tainan, a middle-sized city that apparently had a nice old quarter.
At least that is what I remembered from David’s briefing. He had circled Tainan on my map and wrote a bunch of Chinese characters near it. Once there, no old quarter to be found, but the lady at the hostel kindly redirected me to the night market, apparently the largest one in Taiwan, where after dawn every day of the week stalls set up shop to provide clients with food, carnival type of games and cheap clothing. Indeed the market was big and it took me a solid hour to explore it. Later on during the night, I befriended an Indian guy who told me he had been to two markets this night. What? I asked the staff that had provided me with directions about this conspiracy and her answer was that I had gotten to the small one. The other, the largest in Taiwan for that matter, was only two blocks away. Whatever, the market I visited fitted the bill so I did not really bothered going again. Let’s go for a drink the Indian guy proposed and so we did. Himself a software engineer as well and working in Taiwan, we had some interesting discussions … but not about computers.
That was it for Taiwain. Up at the crack of dawn the next day (Sunday the 19th), bus to high speed train station, high speed train to Taipei, flight to Osaka, flight to Honolulu and at 9 am I landed in the Hawaiian capital, crossing the international time delimitation and going back in time to an extra long Sunday.
So you want to experience China but not the Chinese? Go to Taiwan. So you want a country you can actually properly visit in less than a month? Go to Taiwan. So you want cheap and tasty food? Again go to Taiwan. So you are in Asia but don’t really know where to go next. Go to Taiwan. Enough said.
As for myself, I’m off to Hawaii, where I intend to soak in the island lifestyle and not do (comparatively) much for the next couple weeks. It’s an unplanned destination, but after all, what is travelling? An escape from the ordinary.
Je débarquai à Tokyo très tôt le matin, fatigué et déprimé par la perte de ma partenaire de voyage. Après avoir trouvé l’auberge et y avoir fait une longue sieste, j’entreprit d’aller visiter un musée et d’ensuite explorer un pan de cette immense ville en revenant à l’auberge à pied. Je désirais tout particulièrement voir Akihabara, le bastion de la culture manga/jeux vidéos du Japon. La promenade s’avéra très intéressante, surtout en raison des multiples spécimens d’adolescents japonais costumés que je croisai sur mon chemin, particulièrement dans les alentours de la ville électrique (surnom d’Akihabara). De retour à l’auberge le soir venu, je ne trouvai rien de mieux à faire que de m’isoler devant mon ordinateur, car il semblait que c’était le thème de la soirée, notamment pour un groupe d’occidentaux, tous les yeux rivés sur leur game boys. La chose me parut un peu pitoyable, mais j’appris plus tard qu’ils faisaient partie d’un tour organisé dédié à la culture manga japonaise, ce qui les excusa de leur comportement plutôt antisocial à mes yeux. Plus tard par contre, je fis la rencontre d’un français et d’un serbe qui s’apprêtaient à partir de l’endroit, mais décidèrent de sauver ma soirée en restant pour me tenir compagnie. Nous fûmes plus tard joints par une argentine et un autre français et dans notre petit coin nous passâmes un bon moment à échanger dans de différentes langues.
À mon réveil, je réalisai que le fait que nous étions lundi allait sérieusement compromettre mes plans de musée de la journée. J’optai donc pour un classique: errer. Comme première destination, je choisis Ginza, célèbre pour ses magasins à départements de luxe; j’avais besoin d’un nouveau portefeuille Louis Vuitton de toute manière. Tel que prévu, je ne fis pas long feu dans ce genre d’environnement et procédai en vitesse vers mon prochain objectif, grimper une tour pour y admirer la vue et me diriger vers un parc du quartier réputé pour être plutôt charmant. Ceci fait, je pris le métro en direction de l’intersection principale du quartier commercial de Shibuya, où apparemment il y traverse au-dessus de 100 000 personnes à l’heure, faisant d’elle le passage clouté le plus achalandé du monde. Effectivement, il y avait du japonais, et tournant en rond en tentant de m’orienter vers mon prochain objectif, je contribuai à plusieurs reprises à cette statistique. Harajuku – un autre quartier de boutiques trop chères mais valant le coup d’oeil pour ses devantures de magasin extravagantes – fut mon dernier arrêt de la journée et je repris le métro en direction de l’auberge. Surprise surprise, il y avait encore une absence totale d’atmosphère, alors j’alla retrouver mon amis l’ordinateur jusqu’à ce que l’argentine m’accoste pour me souhaiter un bon voyage, car elle changeait d’auberge. Voyant que je m’ennuyais profondément et que la même chose l’attendait possiblement là où elle allait, Mercedes me proposa d’aller prendre un verre et vers la fin de la soirée, nous nous donnâmes rendez-vous le lendemain pour aller faire les touristes ensemble.
Le jour suivant donc, je la retrouvai à son auberge et après un repas au train de sushi, nous allâmes visiter une exposition d’installations d’art numérique. En chemin, nous grimpâmes un autre gratte-ciel muni d’un observatoire sur son dernier étage. La vue était largement meilleure que celui que j’avais visité le jour précédent et permettait vraiment d’apprécier l’étendue d’une des plus grandes métropoles de la Terre. Une fois sorti du musée qui s’avéra fort intéressant, nous allâmes explorer Shinjuku et Roppongi, qui s’avérèrent être encore d’autres agglomérations de magasins, de bars et de restaurants sans grand intérêt.
Tous des quartiers fortement recommandés par le Lonely Planet, tous la même recette décevante. Ça m’apprendra à ne faire confiance à un livre qui se prétend être le guide du backpacker, mais donne des adresses d’hôtels à 200$ la nuit. J’en ai quoi à foutre moi du Mariott de Tokyo, je n’ai pas besoin d’un guide pour le trouver, si j’ai les moyens de me payer une telle chambre, je vais aussi être en mesure de me permettre une limousine pour m’y rendre. Il semblerait que les éditeurs du Lonely Planet, victimes de leur succès, se soient mis à courtiser une autre clientèle plus aisée pour aller bouffer des parts de marché au guide Michelin. En conséquence, la quantité de contenu pertinent (le genre de truc pour lequel on voyage, pas les grandes marques que l’on retrouve aux quatre coins du monde) a grandement diminué pour laisser place à des conseils de boutiques et de restaurants hors de prix. Je suis certain que Tokyo a énormément à offrir à celui qui sait où chercher ou qui est bien conseillé. En trois jours de visite, je ne me suis pas vraiment donner les meilleurs chances de faire de belles découvertes, mais n’empêche que j’ai été un peu laissé sur ma faim. Remarquez aussi que vu la compagnie dont j’ai profité la semaine précédente, la barre avait été mise très haute.
Tokyo est impressionnante et hautement intéressante et je ne prétend en avoir vu un seul pour cent, mais elle m’a paru comme étant similaire aux autres villes japonaises dans lesquelles je suis passé, seulement sur une plus grande échelle et avec moins de charme. C’est peut être ma faute d’avoir visité le Japon à l’enver, mais une fois à l’aéroport, je me suis rendu compte que je n’étais pas mécontent de quitter la capitale.
Triste de partir du Japon cependant. En regardant par le hublot de l’avion en direction du terminal 2 de l’aéroport Narita, je remarquai un membre du personnel de guidage au sol qui nous faisait des signes d’au revoir de la main. Quelques moments plus tard, il fit la révérence à l’appareil et disparu de mon champ de vision.
Elle mérite son propre article, car il ne m’a jamais été donné de côtoyer une société aussi polie et respectueuse et franchement, je ne crois pas qu’il en existe qui puissent les supplanter. Peu importe l’endroit, les Japonais sont toujours présents, serviables et souriants. Même livré à eux mêmes, leur étique de travail fait en sorte que peu importe la tâche à laquelle ils s’adonnent, il est garanti qu’elle sera bien faite et ce au premier essai. Les villes sont d’une propreté telle qu’il y est très difficile de trouver des poubelles (Melissa a formulé l’idée de développer une application pour les indiquer aux touristes), les Japonais ramènent leur déchets à la maison comme le prescrit de nombreux signes dans les parcs. Avec raison dans le fond, contrairement à nous qui erronément pensons que nos emballages usés et restes de nourriture ne sont plus notre responsabilité.
Je fis l’expérience du savoir vivre de ce pays dans le plus inattendu des endroits: au Mister Donut. Les deux seuls préposés furent si serviables que Melissa et moi nous sommes sentis franchement inconfortables d’avoir eu droit à un service cinq étoiles pour le seul achat de cafés et de beignes. Pour donner quelques exemples, ne parlant pas anglais, les employés firent leur possible pour s’assurer que nous ne manquions de rien, ils nous apportèrent lait et sucre sans même que nous le demandions et lorsque l’un nous renversa un peu de liquide sur nos mains et la table, plus vite que son ombre l’un d’eux accouru avec des serviettes. Lorsque nous quittâmes l’endroit, nous eûmes droit à la révérence Japonaise avec un “Good bye, thank you” maladroit mais chaleureux et ce n’était pas parce que nous étions manifestement touristes, les autres clients ayant eu droit à la même qualité de service.
Les Japonais ont encore une fois mis la barre haute. Pour votre divertissements voici une sélection de signes que l’on peut trouver un peu partout au Japon. Pour la collection entière, rendez-vous ici.