Tuesday, October 28, 2014


In Hiroshima we decided to stay in a business hotel and arrived in the late afternoon. Since we had a bit of time we decided to go to the peace memorial park. It was 6 years ago that I came to this park on my own. We first went to the museum where you can see the many displays of glass that flew into concrete, burnt clothing, melted toys, etc. and the pictures and stories of what happened to the people of Hiroshima. There were hordes of school kids so it was difficult to get around, but I think Aya found it very interesting. More or less I had the same feeling that I did 6 years ago when I came here and the intervening years have only made me more sure that I was correct. We as a species have learned very little about the value of human life. People still slaughter each other for utterly stupid reasons.

From there we walked to the children’s memorial and finally to the atomic bomb dome, one of the only buildings to be left standing afterwards, partial or whole. I wish I could say I was moved or that I had some profound thought upon viewing the peace park, but that wouldn’t be true. Hiroshima is now a modern city and its hard to dwell on past events that have almost no impact on the present. Having ticked that box we went back to the hotel to rest for the next day and going to Miyajima. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Shimada shoten in Osaka

In Osaka and love sake? On the recommendation of a friend we visit this shop in Osaka. Thankfully, it was near our hotel. As well as a small show room on the top floor you can descend a narrow staircase to the basement where there are two small rooms and a cooler room full of sake from around Japan. Sit at the table, tell the gent which ones you want to "taste" and he will bring you bottles of all the ones you like, pour you a small glass, and leave you to taste. At 220 yen per glass, this is a steal and a cool way to try lots of great sake. I took the opportunity to try three and pick out a nice bottle for a friend. A good way to start a morning. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Since we had a rail pass we decided to spend one day in Nagano at Zenkoji temple. We stayed at a guesthouse Fuchinobo on the grounds with wonderful vegetarian food and a nice bath. Since we arrived in the early evening we didn’t do much beyond walking the temple grounds a bit then head back for dinner. It was funny that near the main temple there was a vending machine, for religious charms! When we got back we had a carefully prepared 12 dish meal. It was fantastic.
At 5am we got up and were led up the steps to the temple where we viewed the morning prayers of the monks. Most people were sitting seiza, that is to say with their legs tucked under them. I had done this before when living in Japan and so gave it a go, but I got so stiff it was difficult to get up. After about 20 minutes of prayers we were led down a dark stair case to a completely black hall where we ran our hands along the wall. There in the darkness my hand followed the wall and then hit on something cold, hard, and obviously worn by many hands before mine. To be quite honest I had no idea what we were doing until we came back up. Then I realized that we had touched the Buddha. At the back of the temple is a statue of the Buddha which resides behind a curtain. During prayers the curtain is drawn and you can see the statue, but otherwise you cannot get near. So we had gotten near enough to touch by going into this dark chamber. It was pretty cool. Once we had come back up the monks invited us to sit with them and they made special prayers to people in our group. Aya had arranged a prayer for the health of Aya and Kevin Hurley and it was fun to hear the priest say our names and the monks to follow in prayer.

Once done at the temple we went back to the guesthouse and had a very well made breakfast and packed our bags. By 9am we were out on the road making our way to the train station to get to Hiroshima. On the train heading south a group of Japanese retirees boarded with hiking gear on. They were chattering away and every so often the group leader would announce something or other was coming up and everyone in the group would move to that side of the train car to see it. At one point the group moved to the side of the train and there in the not too far distance we could see the smoking top of Mt. Ontake where over 50 hikers had died in an eruption just days earlier. It was surreal. That evening we arrived in Hiroshima and headed to the atomic bomb dome, another surreal experience. 

Sumo in Tokyo

Sumo in Tokyo is one of the coolest things you can do in Japan. It’s a real cultural experience. This time around I went with Aya and her parents. We also had a couple of friends go that we bought tickets for, but unfortunately we couldn’t get the seats together so we were all in groups of two. Fortunately we were in sections right next to each other.
For many years the yokozuna has not been a Japanese person and it has been interesting to see the wrestlers from different countries. We saw two Yokozuna wrestle in the final match, Hakuho and Kakuryu both from Mongolia. Many come from central asian countries as well as Mongolia. A few from farther afield. One of the contenders at the match was an Egyptian.
The thing about sumo I really like is the anticipation and the shinto ritual proceeding the clash. The crowd is quiet, but occasionally gets riled up for a favorite contender. Two men, throwing salt and slapping bellies, plod around the ring until the moment both are completely ready and then BAM. Usually within a matter of 10 seconds the match is over and then its another 5-10 minutes before the next contenders clash.

All the while there are ads for sponsors, bouts for cash prizes, the girls with kegs on their backs shouting to sell you a beer and the Japanese people around you shuffling programs and eating squid. Its grand and I look forward to the next time as well. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Beijing Property Market

Searching for an apartment in Beijing has been a royal pain. The first thing to note is that estate agents are not honest. Ok, you might say the same thing about realtors in the west since they may not disclose things about a property, they are essentially working for the home owner and for their own commission. This applies here in Beijing too, but the difference comes with the degree of deception. Many places that we have seen listed have looked very nice, but the actual apartments don’t resemble the pictures at all, or a listing will be posted one day and magically be sold by the time we contact the agency. No worries though, the agency has other property they can show us. When we have gone to properties sometimes the owners aren’t there so we went for no reason or the agents forget the key so we can’t get in. Its very unorganized. The other thing to note is that it seems property owners do not feel beholden to woo the customers. I still don’t understand why this is. Many places we saw were expensive, but were shown without being cleaned after the last tenants left or with trash lying around or peeling wallpaper. It would seem to me that selling property is an arms race, but maybe not. When we express interest but ask if small repairs can be made they say no. Its been a frustrating process but essentially this market seems to be experiencing very high demand for what may still be a limited thing in China. No, I don’t mean housing is limited, far from it. There are apartment buildings and villas springing up all around. Many places are less than half full and its getting to be that may apartment blocks outside the major cities are less than half filled. The thing that is in short supply is an investment vehicle for ordinary Chinese citizens.
Unlike in western countries ordinary Chinese citizens are not allowed to invest in foreign stocks, bonds, property or other things. Nor are they allowed to buy Chinese government bonds or to invest in Chinese companies that list on the stock market (the current IPO of Alibaba, the biggest IPO in history is made all the more interesting by that fact). So as a Chinese citizen where do you put your money to mature as you age? Housing. Forget about living in it, buy to invest. All this is fine to a degree, but it also means that the property market in China is red hot. The government has taken steps to slow this down like limiting couples to one mortgage between them (causing a lot of divorces in order to hold multiple properties) or putting a price cap on rents, which really just delays consumption not stop it. In some cities there have even been riots when housing prices have dropped since it means the next guy is getting a cheaper price than you did. If you are a real estate company you have to find other ways to promote your company over others.
All this comes back to finding a place to live here in Beijing. Trying to find an apartment where floor boards aren’t warped or the furniture stained in a building that isn’t decrepit and is close to some amenities has been a challenge. Most of the places that we have view are dirty, broken down, dark, badly decorated, or are so far from any supermarket/restaurant/transport to make them unlivable. Some of these places are downright embarassing. WHY would you put stickers of white people on your light switches?
Currently we are in a serviced apartment at Days Inn in Shunyi. It has two bedrooms and two bathrooms with a decent living room/dining area. It is serviced twice a week and there is a gym and pool on site. We also have the ear of the front desk and can ask for services if we need them. This runs us about 2000USD per month. As a living space its nice, but it takes at least 20 minutes to walk to the nearest restaurant/convenience store area. Not so convenient.
Just this week we finally settled for a place in Star City, Lido district. This puts us downtown, but not the center. The apartment is 3 bedrooms/2bath with a large enclosed balcony. Its too much space for us, but the best part was that the landlord had no furniture in the apartment and agreed to give us 2500USD with which to purchase furniture and appliances of our choosing. The rent is also about as good as it will get at about 1400USD a month. The property does have a small gym and the location puts us about a 5 minute walk from a few restaurants and a large grocery stores. Go 10-15 minutes on foot and the options increase. Also, we are right across the street from the 798 art district which should prove interesting for weekend exploration.
So we didn’t get an apartment with a bath tub in the living room or with a huge crystal chandelier. Besides finally landing our apartment what we did get was a glimpse into the property market of Beijing and man, it’s a mess. You just have to smile and laugh, remembering that, ‘Anything is Possible in China’.