TQE | That Queer Expatriate

Expatriate, not ex-patriot: I'm a progressive liberal and queer American in Berlin, Germany. My roots in include 18 years in Denver, 6 in Laramie, Wyoming, 6 in Bloomington, Indiana, and 6 in Weimar, Germany. Sense a pattern? Don't want to leave a comment on this blog? Email scintillatingme at gmail.com, username "elmadaeu"

Why I went to Toronto: Kent Monkman and the Casualties of Modernity.

mischief

Certificate of Mischief on right; Navajo rug on left.

It’s taken me awhile to finish up writing about my around the world trip, but this one dragged out because I was waiting for my local framer to finish framing my Certificate of Mischief.

You might recall (or not, because I don’t think many people are reading my blog) that last summer I had a long weekend in Montreal, where I found and fell in love with Kent Monkman, a Canadian artist who paints wonderful paintings that makes wonderful commentary on history and how it is interpreted.

I would love to own a piece of art by Kent Monkman, but I do not have enough money to do so – so I bought his Certificate of Mischief, which is now framed and on my living room wall, on what has become, accidentally, my native peoples art wall. It’s right next to a Navajo rug that I bought in New Mexico and under a drum I bought in Alaska, so it’s in good company.

The certificate was shipped to somebody in Toronto, who held it for me, until I could get there to see Kent Monkman’s major installation work, Casualties of Modernity. The work is on display at the Bank of Montreal headquarters, which, despite its name, appear to be predominately in Toronto. To see it, one must make a reservation.

Which I did – in fact, Casualties of Modernity became the icing on my around the world tour cake – what made the trip go from being super awesome to being super-duper awesome.

In this installation piece, which involves watching a video and examining the room where the piece is installed, Kent Monkman provides some powerful commentary on the state of art today – and where it is going and where it is coming from. The video part was hilarious as it made some deep points.

What amazes me about Kent Monkman and his work is how it connects to me. It’s pretty clear that I am not frequently, seriously, involved in art. While I enjoy looking at it, I am not one who can dissect it easily, nor do I have, generally speaking, “favorite” artists. Yet within seconds of seeing Trappers of Men at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, I had jotted down his name for future reference. Then when I saw “Welcome to the Studio: An Allegory for Artistic Reflection and Transformation, 2014” at the otherwise completely unremarkable Musée McCord d’Histoire Canadienne, I tracked down a copy of a catalogue of his work. Then I floated away with happiness when I stumbled into The Night of September 12, 1759 at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

His work resonates with me in a way that I cannot easily explain and he is the only artist (outside of my personal friends) who is, for me, a destination artist.

I will go out of my way to see his work, in other words.

On Vacation I went book crazy – 2015’s Books 31 to 47

Since getting back from going around the world, I’ve been busy – and I’ve forgotten to write anything.

But it’s time to do a quick book catch-up. I read a lot of books while winging my way around the world. The Kindle is the most wonderful invention ever, because if it weren’t for the Kindle, I would have had to buy and dispose of a lot of books. And my bags would have been even heavier than they already were.

I’d link to the books on Amazon, but there are 17 here, and that’s too much effort. Call me the lazy blogger.

31: More Than This by Patrick Ness – This is a complex, bizarre, dystopian novel that is hard to explain. There were points when it was a struggle to make progress through the book, but I can safely say, now, that I’m glad I read the book – it’s a grown-up novel that is probably aimed at older teens. Either way, I recommend it.

32: Chicken Feathers & Garlic Skin: Diary of a Chinese Garment Factory Girl on Saipan by Chun Yu Wang — I read this book before I got to Saipan in order to read something from there. It’s a memoir of life as a professional garment maker in Saipan’s factories. There’s a bit of economic history needed to understand the setting: since Saipan is part of the USA, goods made there can legitimately say “Made in the USA” – but factory workers still crappy salaries – crappy by American standards, but fantastic by Chinese standards – which is how Chun Yu ended up on Saipan sewing clothes.

The book isn’t bad—it pretty well covers her life experience in factories – the ups and downs of different managers – and life on the fringes of Saipan. The working conditions sounded pretty horrible, but her stories are no different than what I’ve heard about garment factory work elsewhere in the world. The context of being on American soil is what’s disturbing. Although all the factories are gone, it’s clear that the US government doesn’t give much thought to it’s Pacific possessions – but that’s a meta issue that falls outside the scope of this book.

33: Fair Play (All’s Fair) Josh Lanyon – this is a convoluted story about an ex-FBI agent whose Father is targeted for assignation. It’s supposed to be some kind of whodunit mystery, with the real mystery being with me: why the hell did I buy this book. It is a poorly written, boring book.

34: Coming Out to Play by Robbie Rogers and Eric Marcus – this is Robbie Roger’s autobiography of his life as a gay footballer (err soccer player). The book manages to be horrifying in some respects – and delusional in others. For the record, the horrifying part has nothing to do with the fact that he’s gay—it has to do with how he addresses the fact that his in utero twin brother miscarried, but he did not. The delusional part is that Robbie seems to think that soccer matters. He states that it’s the fifth most popular sport in America, after basketball, football (American style), baseball, and hockey. Among this type of team sport, I suppose he might be right, but the distance between number four and number 5 is large enough to make being in fifth place irrelevant. Which is pretty much what I thought of his book in general: ignoring the horrifying part and the delusional part, we’re left with an anemic story of being petrified to come out of the closet, afraid of what might happen to him. I’ve read that story before – more times than I can count. Hearing it from a quasi-celebrity-footballer whose life story is not especially compelling or interesting isn’t worth anybody’s time.

35: Starstruck (Bluewater Bay) by L.A. Witt – This is a trashy gay romance novel, that’s not badly written. There’s nothing especially awesome about it, but – more importantly – nothing bad about it either.

36: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – I finally got around to reading this wildly popular teen novel that examines what it is like to been a teenager with cancer. I doubt anybody who reads my blog regularly is among the target audience – but I won’t spoil the ending. It’s a worthwhile book that manages to pull you right in, taking on a serious subject without talking down. I will probably never bother to see the movie, though – reading the book was enough.

37: Porn Again: A Memoir by Josh Sabarra. This is actually a funny Hollywood memoir about what it’s like to suppress one’s sexuality and focus, with laser like intensity, on one’s career. While I’m grateful I don’t have Josh’s life, I was was amused reading about it.

38: The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen. This is a novel from the 1980s that is highly acclaimed. Centered on St. Louis, it looks at life in the city after the city hires a new police chief from India. Quite frankly, I found it boring and I had to push myself to finish the book.

39: Bottled Up Secret by Brian McNamara – This is a shitty coming of age, coming out of the closet, gay teen romance novel. Poor writing. Dumb story.

40: Cutting Out by Meredith Shayne – I happen to read this on my flight to Auckland – perfect timing. It’s a gay novel – leaning toward the romance side – set in New Zealand. The fact that I pulled it up was incredibly random, I swear, but appropriate. That said, it’s a slightly above average novel. Nothing too super special, but sweet.

41: Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup by Andrew Zimbalist — This is a book that should be read by anybody who wants to host either the Olympics or the World Cup. Or, for that matter, any mega-sporting event. Simply put, it’s not worth it economically. Your tourism revenues go down – and not just in the year you host the event, but for several years. The stadiums you build are expensive and, after its over, expensive to maintain.

42: Educating Simon by Robin Reardon – For a teen, coming of age, coming out of the closet, kind of novel, this is actually exceptionally well written. That said, I found Simon, as a character, to be obnoxious, even as he changes to become a nicer person through the course of the novel. Ultimately, though, he’s not relatable to anybody except upper class Englishmen. However the book manages to rise above the problems with Simon, becoming an interesting story of what it’s like to grow up gay in affluent Boston, prior to the Boston Marathon bombing.

43: Frat House Troopers by Xavier Mayne — This was basically an erotic novel dressed up to be a gay romance novel. Well written for what it is, but not great literature by any stretch of the imagination.

44: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown: So this was the first of two books in a row that centered on life during Nazi Germany – this one on the 1936 Summer Olympics, which were held in Berlin. I actually learned a lot from the book about the sport of rowing. It seems that back in the 1930s, it was a hugely popular sport. The book is all about how the University of Washington rowing team came to dominate the sport in the mid-1930s, ultimately becoming the representatives for the USA in the Olympics. The parts focused on the American team and its training was great. However, living in Germany I’ve come to be tired of the Nazi topic. I don’t want it forgotten, but I’m tired of reading about it. The book intersperses bits of life in Germany, discussing how the Nazis made Berlin look good for the Olympics, removing signs of oppression against Jews. I liked the history taught in the book – although it seemed to be focused too much on one specific rower (probably due in part to the fact that he was the last one living)… Highly recommended.

45: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – I read this for my book club – the second of two books I read that focused on life during the Nazi era. This one is firmly set in World War II and centers on the life of an orphan German boy – a wiz with radios – and a blind French girl. Without spoiling the book, it’s enough to say that this is a sophisticated, grown-up work of literature that is exceptionally well done.

46: OGLAF book One – The only physical book on this list, this is the first book of comics published from the OGLAF website. I really like the comics – these are adult situational comics, but not porn, rather there’s a sophisticated sense of humor inherent in the comics. The website is worth exploring, starting with the first OGLAF strip.

47: Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy – This book is still in progress as I have two more chapters to go. The first chapter put me off – way off – I actually set the book aside for a week or so, while I read books 44 and 45, before realizing that book club was fast approaching. Ultimately the book has redeemed itself admirably. I won’t spoil it here, but this book is adult, sophisticated literature.

Winnipeg Objective Achieved: #VisitCMHR – The Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, as seen from the main entrance for those not in groups and those who are not physically challenged.

When I started setting up my around the world trip, exactly how I was going to get from New Zealand back to Europe was a bit unclear. After doing some thinking, I knew that I wanted to stop in Toronto, but the question remained, what came before or after it.

In the end, I went with a stop before Toronto: Winnipeg.

Winnipeg offered me one big thing that I wanted to do, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The museum caught my attention when it opened for two reasons: first there was some controversy over the content of the museum and what information it presented, specifically with respect to the first peoples.

Second, the building’s architect was Antoine Predock.

Starting with the latter, the architect: I first encountered the work of Antoine Predock while a student at the University of Wyoming. He’d designed the American Heritage Center and UW Art Museum (aka “The Centennial Complex”) facility at UWyo – it sits just north of the basketball arena (which is to say, it’s not at all central to UW’s daily life as it sits fairly far east of the core, walkable, campus).

American Heritage Center

This is the Centennial Complex at the University of Wyoming. The “mountain” houses the American Heritage Center.

As a student at UW, the Centennial Complex and how it managed to not only be unattractive to look at, but awkward to use fascinated me. Although it was built in the era of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it was inaccessible to anybody in a wheelchair. The university would deny this, pointing out the wheelchair access ramp, but the access ramp was one of the world’s longest access ramps – at some point the university must have conceded defeat because the entrance to the complex has been altered and there is an elevator from the public parking areas to the original entrance area of the building.

Top of The Shard

This is the top of The Shard in London.

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR) shares some of the strangeness of the UW Centennial Complex: It’s not quite the “mountain” that UW has, but there is a clear peak to the CMHR. That said, the actual peak reminds me very much of The Shard in London—with its seemingly disjointed and disconnected glass top.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights Walkways

Canadian Museum for Human Rights — these are some of the ramps that you walk up from the ground floor until you reach the seventh floor.

I suppose, theoretically, that somebody in a wheelchair could enjoy the CMHR, as it was intended for the able-bodied, but I doubt that most would enjoy it: The CMHR consists of 8 levels, connected with ramps. On paper that doesn’t sound bad, but in reality, the ramps are incredibly long. There’s probably no way that the average wheelchair user could manage to wheel themselves all the way from the ground level, up through all the ramps needed to reach level 7. It’s hard to really describe here how long the ramps are, but trust me when I say that the ramps are long. Thankfully there are two elevators (although neither go the full height of the building, one is compelled to transfer somewhere when going the full distance) in the building that pretty much allow direct access to the actual exhibit spaces for those that are unable to walk the ramps as the architect intended.

The museum’s architecture also leads to some interesting spaces and design choices: there are a fair number of exposed I-beams, and at a couple points it is easy to see the fireproof coating on the I-beams. There were also some areas that appeared to be wasted space and potential dust collectors, which I doubt the museum will ever be able to make effective use of in their work.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights Model

This model of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is in the center of the welcome space.

I guess that I continue to be underwhelmed by Antoine Predock and his work as an architect – the museum’s spaces are a bit too awkward and a bit too strange. The access for the physically challenged means that those accessing the exhibits via elevator will miss the intended effects that comes with walking up the ramps into each successive exhibition.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

This is first gallery in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights; the wooden tower in the back is actually the theater housing the film presenting indigenous perspectives.

As for the former issue, the Canadian Museum for Human Right’s actual content: it’s actually surprisingly good. Starting with a gallery that attempts to define human rights, it continues with indigenous perspectives – these two galleries work together – although clearly the indigenous perspectives gallery is intended to be an olive branch to the first peoples of Canada – those who were here before the Europeans “settled” North America. The initial gallery space is pretty strong – although I think that some of the key moments presented on the timeline are a bit weak or irrelevant. The indigenous perspectives gallery is definitely a work in progress – pretty, art focused, but not much actual content.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Some of the timeline presented in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The strongest gallery in the museum is the third gallery: Canadian Journeys, which focuses on the wide variety of oppression that Canadians have faced, often from their own government. This part ate up the largest share of time of any of the spaces. While in the space a number of school groups came through learning about human rights, as well as a group of older citizens who were getting a more theoretical tour of what the museum’s objectives were and how it attempts to fulfill the objectives.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The Canadian Journeys gallery at the CMHR — each of the boxes below the large screens is a mini-gallery exploring one area of human rights in Canada and how they have changed over time.

The fourth gallery examined how human rights are legally protected in Canada. Because there was a group tour in that area, I didn’t really explore it – so I cannot say much about it. Right next to it was the “Garden of Contemplation,” which from a distance reminded me of the Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Berlin – in the sense that rocks were emerging from the group.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The Garden of Contemplation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The next grouping of exhibits (on level 4), started with the holocaust, looked at the role of breaking secrecy in order to make sure human rights abuses are not hidden forever, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and how Canadians are working to make a difference. I’ll admit that since I live in Germany, I have reached a personal saturation point with respect to the holocaust – I jumped right through the exhibit and into the turning points for humanity section, which examined social movements and subsequent change.

Again, some of it was well done, some of it wasn’t – probably the weakest link on this floor was the “actions count” portion, which attempted to bring the work of select (usually young) Canadians into focus. I find that I didn’t care and moved onward rather quickly.

The next level’s gallery, “Rights Today,” was, at least for me, entirely forgettable. Perhaps I had reached sensory overload by this point: this was about two hours after starting exploration. When dealing with heavy issues continuously I tend to reach mental overload points after awhile.

The next to last gallery has rotating exhibitions – currently featuring an exhibition about Peace – put together by Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum. Again, I had reached information overload, so my engagement with this exhibition was limited.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Contemplation by the “Peace” exhibition.

Finally the “Inspiring Change” gallery was for true believers, emotive types. As I tend to be a cold hearted asshole, I don’t tend to like these touchy feely moments, where we are suppose to write down what we will do as we make a commitment to bettering the world.

The last stop is at the top of the “Tower of Hope” – which, as I noted before, reminds me of The Shard. From it’s name its suppose to be a tower of hope, but it actually provides some interesting views of Winnipeg. Perhaps hope got lost on the way to viewing the vista.

As a component of my around the world adventures, Winnipeg and the CMHR has been a worthwhile stop on my road from Auckland to Toronto, but I’m not sure I would make a huge detour to come here just to view the museum.

As far south as one can easily go…

I would post photos and do other things here, but the Internet access at my current hotel is, in a word, terrible. The next time I expect to have decent Internet access is Saturday evening.

In addition to coming to American Samoa in order to be here, I thought that while here, I would attempt to get to the southern most point of land in the United States at Steps Point.

Unfortunately I did not make it there, but I came within about half a mile and a few hundred feet in elevation. The difference between as far south as I got and the last drop of land on this island was a steep downward journey along a trail that is not at all maintained.

That said, Steps Point is not, technically speaking, the southernmost point of land in a US Territory. That’s at the Rose Atoll, which is an uninhabited island that is part of the national park here in American Samoa (or maybe marine life sanctuary – the exact ownership is unclear to me, now that I think about it). To get there would involve a several day boat ride (practically speaking) and I would guess a lot of permits (the impractical part).

So I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished: From South Point on the Big Island of Hawaii (the southern most point of the 50 States), to Point Barrow (the northern most point of the entire United States), ending with being pretty close to Steps Point (the southern most point of land in the United States with inhabitants reasonably close by).

I might point out that the waters on both sides of the southern most point are marine wildlife sanctuaries (I would Google the exact information, but understand, my Internet here is very slow, like slower than 1997 Internet at the University of Wyoming), but a very nice family owns the land.

The family (well, husband and wife) were kind enough to give me a guided tour of the area, spending a great deal of time with me (far more time than I expected!), talking about what it is like to live and work the land.

One thing that I can safely say – now that I’ve had it on a few Pacific Islands, is that I no longer despise coconut, I actually like it, but with caveats. I must be fresh coconut, fresh from the tree. Anything for sale in Germany (or mainland USA) is probably disgusting and worth of being despised.

Tomorrow is a back to the future kind of day…

Monday, April 20, 2015, has rocked, AGAIN! Polynesian Airlines, specializing in time travel…

Pago Pago Harbor: Goat Island Point

This is Goat Island Point on Pago Pago Harbor, as seen from my hotel room balcony.

Thanks to the magic of 35 minutes on Polynesian Airlines, from Today to Yesterday (or, as I now think of it, from Tomorrow to Today), I am having a second Monday evening – yesterday I was on a Samoan beach, today I am in Pago Pago, American Samoa.

American Samoa was one of my clearly delineated objectives for my 2015 travel adventures – and with my arrival here, I have now completed the set of inhabited American territories in the Pacific. I have but only the Caribbean left to go: Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

Certainly I am sad to have left the Taufua Beach Fales – it truly is some place magical and wonderful. The drive from there to the airport in Apia (but not the big international airport) is amazing, with spectacular scenery around every bend, whether in the form of beautiful plants or dramatic overlooks, Samoa is great.

But the American Samoa adventure has begun. I have already arranged my tour for tomorrow. It should be amusing and disturbing at the same time – especially since I am easily prone to major sweating in hot and humid climates.

I took a short walk from my hotel toward the center of Pago Pago, passing a number of small shops and the McDonalds. I probably should have stopped at the McDonalds, for the recommended restaurant was closed until dinnertime at 6. I was starving, so I tried a Japanese/Korean place where the food was bland beyond bland and the waitress tried to convince me that it was impossible to give me a small serving of tap water and that I needed Fiji brand bottled water.

Beyond that, the sun is already behind the mountain: it’s 6:30 and it dark out. My hotel has a washing machine – must pay to use it – and I am taking full advantage of it to wash everything. The sand at Taufua Beach Fales is incredibly wonderful – on the beach. But it also manages to get into everything.

Monday, April 20, 2015, has rocked! From the beaches of Samoa…

Taufua Beach Fales: Sunset

My sunset for Monday, April 20th.

Since Friday evening, I’ve been off the grid, enjoying myself at the Taufua Beach Fales located in Samoa.

Taufua Beach Fales: Morning!

Morning at the Taufua Beach Fales.

Now that it’s evening – Tuesday fast approaching with its onward travel – I want to post a few photos – and remark upon the fact that my time at Taufua Beach Fales has been way too short.

To Sua Trench

The To Sua Trench, a large hole — it’s salt water at the bottom, fed by tidal action through an under ground cave.

I’ve had three full days here: Saturday I took a tour of the island with several other people (two Germans and a Sri Lanken – all of us living in Europe), seeing waterfalls, caves, a bit of the main city, plus the countryside.

Sopo'aga Falls

The Sopo’aga Falls, as seen from a nearby outlook.

This island is impossibly beautiful – they refer to themselves at the pearl of the Pacific, and I wouldn’t disagree: the lush green scenery, the amazing shades of blue in the water, the sand that agreeably squeezes between my toes.

Really – this is paradise.

Taufua Beach Fales: Fale 2

My home at the Taufua Beach Fales since Saturday (I slept in a different one Friday)…

The Taufua Beach Fales, to add the whipped cream, is a bargain: I’ve paid about US$260 for four nights for a fale that, in addition to coming with both breakfast and dinner, comes with its own toilet and shower. I imagine that the open fales, and those without toilets, cost a bit less, but still include breakfast and dinner.

Fiafia Night

The Saturday Fiafia Night included local dancers performing.

In addition, Saturday night a show is put on, complete with traditional local dancing – and Sunday lunch is also included. The food is plentiful and, generally, delicious.

Fiafia Night

More of the the Saturday Fiafia Night.

Fiafia Night: Fire Dance

Fire Dance at the Fiafia night — the performers were quite young and dropped their torches several times.

The sightlines down the beaches, left and right, morning, noon, and evening, are beautiful. The ocean has some strong currents that make wading and swimming a fun challenge.

And, of course, one can just sit and do nothing – an activity I also engaged in.

I arrived with the thought of finding postcards and stamps – and in the end the number I have written amounts to zero.

Returning to Samoa seems like a given. The question is when.

Nu'utele Island

Another morning in paradise.

When you have a few hours to kill in Yokohama – Cupnoodles Museum

Entering CupNoodles Museum

Entering CupNoodles Museum

I spent Thursday taking a walk around Yokohama. Before today, as far as I was concerned, Yokohama might as well be Tokyo – but it’s not, in the way that Hartford is not New York City.

It does have a very nice old port and, armed with a map, I headed out from my hotel with four hours to kill. Seriously, I had made no plans for my day – other than knowing that I needed to catch the train to Narita around 2:00.

My eye was immediately drawn to the Cupnoodles Museum – it looked like a reasonable walk, through some nice looking areas (at least on a map; reality matched) and, in the worst case scenario, would help me get some exercise that might help me sleep on a long redeye flight.

CupNoodles Museum: Product Timeline

It wasn’t just me at the museum, school children abounded!

The museum was easily found and after paying my 500¥ entry fee, I was free to wander. There was even a free English language audio guide, which helped me understand what I was looking at. For somebody who hasn’t eaten instant ramen noodles in years, it was still enjoyable.

The first CupNoodles: Chicken Ramen

The first CupNoodles Product: Chicken Ramen

Momofuku Ando started selling Chicken Ramen in 1958, eventually turning it into a powerhouse product that is, as college students the world round know, affordable, fast, and not that bad for you. The company creates and sells an incredible variety of ramen soup.

There was a cute, hokey, video presentation (with an English translation for me) – that traced the history of the product, including how cup-o-noodles were invented: a result of the inventor visiting the United States and seeing how Americans liked things in cups.

What enchanted me the most was that after leaving the film, we were presented with a replica of the wooden shed, exactly like the one that Momofuku worked inside while developing his product. This is the Silicon Valley story all over again, but instead of developing the product in a garage, it was developed in a wooden shed.

Replica of Momofuku's Wooden Shed

It’s not a Silicon Valley garage, but it is a replica of the original wooden shed.

The video, and the museum, also emphasized the fact that Momofuku persevered – although his early entrepreneurial efforts (which were not disclosed) failed, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and he never gave up. The ramen noodles were invented relatively late in his life – he was, as I recall, in his 40s when he finally derived the product that made him famous (and rich).

Although I didn’t actually do it myself (my future travel plans make it awkward), for 300¥, one could actually create your own flavor of Cup Noodles – including you own packaging.

Create your own Cup Noodles Flavor!

Design your own flavor of CupNoodles.

It was a great way to pass an hour in Yokohama – certainly not something for the cultural elites, but nevertheless amusing and educational.

Baseball in Japan: Three More Games

Yokohama Stadium Lights

Yokohama Stadium Lights

I’m winging my way south tonight – leaving the northern hemisphere, heading toward parts I’ve never visited before. I have been south before: South Africa and Swaziland – but I am very much biased toward the northern hemisphere in my travels.

While in Japan I attended three baseball games – on in Nagoya, one in Osaka, and one in Yokohama. While there are some obvious similarities – the fields are different and, consequently, the experiences were rather different.

Nagoya Dome

Swinging away at Nagoya Dome

Oddly my first game – at the Nagoya Dome – ended up being my least favorite, even though I sat next to one of the most interesting people I’ve ever sat next to at a random event. The Chunichi Dragons were hosting the Yokohama Baystars – and the home team won (go team!). The thing is that the Nagoya Dome, opened in 1997, screams generic 1970s era baseball dome in America – it’s a soulless place, with absolutely nothing that gives the physical environment any charm. About the only positive thing I can say about Nagoya Dome is that it offered free wifi, something not offered at either of the other two games I attended.

The interesting guy, sitting next to me, was the prime example of Generation Schengen – perhaps even more so: he was French, but when he was a baby, his parents moved to the Netherlands. For all intents and purposes – especially his accent – he’s Dutch. And boy does he know a lot about American sport – all of them (including some non-sports, like auto racing). His expertise ran the gauntlet from college through professional – and it sounded like he goes to America for vacation, just to watch sporting events. The conversation was exceptionally interesting – and certainly more than made up for the fact that Nagoya Dome is a soulless, pitiful, excuse for a stadium. I couldn’t even be bothered to buy anything to remember the game by.

Surprisingly, for a rainy Friday evening, the stadium was basically empty – there were vast acres of empty seats and it never felt full. Given the weather outside, one would think that fans would have streamed into the stadium – but no. Apparently the Dragons are unloved, even at home.

Koshien Stadium

Koshien Stadium, see from about as far from home plate as you can be, without being in the outfield stands.

My second game on this trip was the Hanshin Tigers hosting the Hiroshima Carp, down in Osaka. This was a splendid game and a splendid environment – even if the home team lost. Koshien Stadium is an old field, dating back to the 1920s, and it feels like it. I cannot recall ever having seen such narrow passageways to get around the stadium (I accidentally went in the wrong gate because I misread my ticket, so I got to see a lot of the stadium’s underbelly) – with nooks and crannies filled with food and gift stands.

Balloon Blowing / Seventh Inning Stretch

Blowing — getting ready for the seventh inning stretch….

Seventh Inning Stretch

During the seventh inning stretch, one lets go…

Cleaning up the Seventh Inning Stretch

After letting go, it’s clean-up time.

The overall atmosphere at the park was outstanding – I would heartily recommend a baseball experience with the Tigers as host. I even ended up buying a baseball jersey for one of the players, Mr. Fukudome – although I suspect that either he mispronounces his own name or I do.

Mr. Fukudome

Mr. Fukudome is my favorite Japanese baseball player.

The last game was the Yokohama DeNA BayStars hosting the Toyko Giants at Yokohama Stadium. I purposefully chose a hotel directly across the street from the stadium so that after the game was over, I could get to my room quickly and easily. From my seat to the hotel: less than five minutes.

Trying to pick off a BayStar

The BayStar made it back to first in time.

The field is artificial, but still charming. I had an excellent seat: third row, about 20-30 feet beyond first base. Unlike the other fields that I’ve been to in Japan, this one did not have netting protecting fans from foul balls this far out. The sightlines were excellent – for the most part. About the only bummer was the swarm of girls (and it was 95% girls) selling beer, coffee, and other assorted sundries. Since the first row of seats were back from the wall a few feet, the girls (and a million kids, between innings) walked in front of me as they shifted between aisles.

It’s been quite a few years since I last saw a professional baseball game in America and I suspect I will feel a bit let down: Japanese fans behave the way American fans behave at a basketball or football game: constant noise, constant drumming, constant chanting. It’s a vastly different experience from that of American baseball, which, as I recall, is fairly laidback and quiet. There’s nothing quiet about baseball games in Japan.

Yokohama Stadium

Sunset at Yokohama Stadium.

Of the four teams whose fields I’ve visited (remembering that I’ve seen the Hiroshima Carp), I would give a slight edge to the Hanshin Tigers over the Hiroshima Carp: both offer excellent visitor experiences. The Yokohama Baystars are in third place. Coming up a distant fourth are the Chunichi Dragons – I might even go so far as to recommend against watching the Dragons play at home, if you’re looking for an initial Japanese baseball experience. It’s that bad.

Not to forget Seoul…

National Museum of Korea

The pond out front of the National Museum of Korea.

It’s not that I forgot to blog about Seoul, it’s that I ran out of time and there were other, more pressing things.

That said, Seoul is a city I could imagine myself living in. It’s clean, interesting, full of friendly people, and easy to navigate. I had a fantastic time in Seoul – with one minor, bizarre, exception – and would happily return to explore more of the city.

Ihwa Mural Village

Ihwa Mural Village – the road into the village.

Ihwa Mural Village

Ihwa Mural Village: Evoi

My first full day in Seoul was spent doing two main things: exploring the Ihwa Art Village (or: Ihwa Mural Village), which is a tightly packed, hilly neighborhood filled with a large number of murals – many of which are cool, a few of which are awesome, and a couple of which left me scratching my head. While I was there – a Wednesday morning, it was crawling with school groups.

Ihwa Mural Village

Climbing the fish ladder of Ihwa Mural Village.

The other thing I did was go to the Korea Furniture Museum – to which I offer a strange, mixed, review: The museum, once you get there, is amazing. The furniture on display tells a story of Korea’s cultural history that I highly recommend.

With a few major caveats – I actually left the museum angry because they would not call me a taxi – even after I pointed out that I didn’t have a phone that worked in Korea (I did have my German phone, but really?) – she wanted me to walk to the nearest bus stop or call myself. Now, before you call me childish, the museum is on top of a steep hill, with a narrow, windy, two lane road between its entrance and the next street. At least one blind curve in there that made me, as a pedestrian, rather nervous. The museum even recommends taking a taxi from the nearest subway station to them, so it’s a bit strange that they refused to call a taxi for me.

The other annoyances revolve around little things: they never responded to my email (sent well in advance) for a reservation. I had to ask a Korean friend to contact them on my behalf (and they also ignored his email, so he had to call) in order to get a reservation. My tour guide also stuck to script and rushed me through the museum in almost exactly one hour – she ignored 95% of my questions – and I was the only person on the English language tour.  (The museum’s website is also bizarrely designed…)

In short, the museum’s content is amazing, but everything else about the Korea Furniture Museum sucks.

Ihwa Mural Village

While this is near the Ihwa Mural Village, it’s not a mural. I found the gas lines to make a rather pretty figure.

I spent Thursday and Friday wandering the city – I hit a few museums (including the fabulous National Museum of Korea), wandered some shops, looked at pretty scenery, and watched trading going on in some of the enormous markets around town.

Dried Fish

Dried fish for sale in one of Seoul’s markets.

Like Taipei, I think that I could have spent a lot more time in Seoul – I want to return.

Man on the Street

A blue man along the streets of Seoul.

Two of Five Down: The Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands

Abandoned HotelWith all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Guam under my belt, it occurred to me that I might as well go for it all and visit all of the inhabited US territories – there are five of them, including Guam and, this week’s stop, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands.

Abandoned BuildingIt wasn’t until I was at the CNMI Museum that I learned that the CNMI was a possession of Germany between 1899 and 1916, when Japan forcefully took the islands from Germany. Strangely, I might note, I don’t think any German that I’ve talked to even knew the islands existed before I brought up the fact that I was going to visit Saipan.

Saipan SunsetRegardless, I had an interesting week on Saipan.

Banzai CliffSaipan is a tourist destination for people from Korea, China, and Japan – with a smattering of Russians. There are, of course, US mainlanders here, but they fall into two distinct camps: military (the vast majority) or screwballs like me.

Honestly, I am hard pressed to come up with a reason to come here unless you like World War II (Pacific Theater) history or cannot afford to go some place nicer.

What’s here, geared for the dominant group of tourists, are enormous resort hotels, many of which are obscenely expensive.

Bird Island LookoutWhat the tourists do is beyond me: none of the beaches that I visited were unusually or especially nice, they were just beaches of mediocre quality. Most of the sites around the island are WWII oriented – and while I’m sure many Japanese tourists like to pause and remember their ancestors who committed suicide at Suicide Cliff, these activities do not take that much time. There’s diving (if you’re into that) – and I hear it’s good.

Suicide CliffThe island does seem to have an unusually large number of Ford Mustangs (given the population of about 45,000 people) – all of which are in very bright primary colors and rented to tourists, who drive around with the top down and selfie sticks sticking out – or if not with a selfie stick, their gopro camera is attached to the car somewhere visible.

Abandoned Resort ComplexBut that seems to be it – when it comes to tourist shit.

On the flip side, there is an undercurrent of poverty and broken dreams here – which I suspect the happy-go-lucky Asian tourists don’t necessarily notice. Abandoned buildings abound and the average age of cars (not counting rental cars) appears to be around 10 years.

Joy BeachtelMaintenance of buildings and streets seems, at best, shoddy. The nicest, best, maintained building that I’ve noticed around town is a McDonald’s.

I closed out my trip with a quick stop at the Thursday Night Market – a tourist oriented, locals attend, fair held along the ocean front. With a plethora of food choices, one won’t come away hungry, or broke. There are also some stands selling local art (I wasn’t even tempted) and others selling cheap clothing.

Thursday Night Market, Garapan SaipanIt’s safe to say that I’m happy to have visited the CNMI, but if I were looking to vacation in this part of the world again, I would probably choose Guam.

Or, to be frank, stay in either Taipei or Seoul for a little bit longer.