Back from my trip, with lots of film to develop and things to talk about. In keeping with usual wanderlust tendencies, I spent the majority of August out of the country: specifically Japan, a quick daytrip in Bangkok, and then Cambodia. What I brought: three cameras, probably thirty+ rolls of film (acquired some film as well), a week’s worth of clothes, a trusty pair of black vans, and the lappie for interaction. What I brought back: pasalubong(standard), mosquito bites(also standard), leftover currency(also also standard), and memories(also corny).
I don’t know if I could call my trip to Japan a usual ‘wow Japan I WANT TO SEE EVERYTHING’ vacation, because I was mostly just chilling with my homie who lives out there. Him and his crew ride a lot, and thankfully one of his friends had a bike for me to use, so I was pretty much riding every day and seeing Tokyo that way – which, I am now convinced, is the best way to explore a city. Though I will say that riding around in Tokyo as a visitor–shit, even walking–was a complete mindfuck. Even with a map you might have a BIT of an advantage. Little to no street signs are available, and even if I’m lucky to see one all I can do is just see it, since I can’t read japanese. And then the whole no grid aspect of their city design does little to help once you do get lost. Thankfully I was almost always riding with friends, and even if I was solo I kinda memorized the big streets that I needed to get around on (word up that corner meiji dori and omote-sando) so it wasn’t that scary. And Japanese people are absolutely the nicest people ever.
One thing I read about, but didn’t really believe until I got there, was the heat/humidity. August being the hottest of all months in Japan, I was really in for it while I was biking everywhere. Sweat was literally leaking from every pore of my being. I remember one time after riding and just sitting, looking at my legs like they got sprayed down with cooking oil. This came as a slight disappointment because I wanted to come back with some gear, and trying things on was definitely not going to work out—lathered in my own essence and getting it all over clothes. HOW DO JAPANESE PEOPLE NOT SWEAT? I see people walking out in the streets like it ain’t no thang.
I would start near Azabu and the farthest I rode was a paltry Nakano, so the radius between those spots was the usual stomping ground. Although six miles back here is nowhere near as dense as it is there. Definitely saw new things each time I rode, and it was all fun. And since you can’t really take your bike on any train, I wasn’t using their (stellar) public transportation that much—except if I knew I just wanted to walk around and shoot. I did not get any JR Pass so I didn’t explore farther, which I don’t really regret—I figure I’ll do all the longer distance tripping the next time I visit. All I wanted to do was ride. (I say stellar to any public transportation that isn’t Los Angeles because frankly, L.A. fucking sucks for that)
‘Niche’ cannot even begin to describe how the Japanese approach the notion of a shop. From magazine stores that only sell old magazines from the 80s/90s to photography boutiques that have a whole level dedicated to Leica to a store that sells japanese movie posters from the 60′s and before to a place like condomania to basically ALL of Akihabara, places will specialize in the most minute of interests, and with gusto. It’s very different from the the usual Walmartization/Supertargetization that I’m used to, which is admittedly inconvenient but not unwelcome. It’s obviously a very Japanese mindset but I also want to say it’s influenced by their tight real estate opportunities. You probably could never fit a Home Depot sized anything anywhere in Japan.
I generally like to shoot a lot at night, and with darkness comes all the usual neon and fluorescent lighting present in big cities. At first, I wanted to say that the quality of light in Japan is surreal, clean and pure, but what I realized later on was that it wasn’t the light—but rather the cleanliness of everything around me that was reflecting said light. All cars are clean. All streets, spotless. All manner of objects that would refract or reflect would do so, uninhibited by dirt or fog or atmosphere. I’d never seen such a thing. Truly a night photographer’s heaven. People don’t litter ever. No gum on the streets.(I’ve been told Singapore is also a clean street haven-by law) No stray newspapers or fliers. I might be exaggerating, especially in larger/busier parts of town (Roppongi is kinda dirty, but only in comparison) but you get the idea. This blew me away a) in their respect for their surroundings and b) because THERE ARE NO PUBLIC TRASH CANS. or rather there are, but they are few and far between. And don’t even get me started on their convoluted method of separating your trash. +1 for the Japanese ‘no halfassed shit’ ethos.
I ate. Extravagantly. Fuck it. I figure I’m here, I’ve got to avail of the wonderful food. And fuck, I think now I can’t eat at any of the usual Japanese spots here in L.A. because I fear they won’t compare to what I had in Japan. Yeah, I’m being a snob, fuck you. I just see myself sitting at Mitsuwa for lunch and weeping silently into my ramen, tears running down my face and into the broth. I had fucking delicious unagi-jyu, tonkatsu, chicken katsu, takoyaki from a street stall, saba, cold soba, ramen, a great omakase experience, more ramen, beef sashimi, and more ramen. Most of the dishes would literally melt in my mouth. I don’t know how they do it. I used to say that I don’t eat fish, but I realize now that it just wasn’t prepared well, or wasn’t fresh. I’d been living a life unexamined. Must be the usual American fixation on beef/chicken. HOWEVER, I did miss tacos. (definitely had some the second day I got back)
There was such a selfless, courteous, respectful nature apparent in everyone I met. I’ve got an inkling that it comes from their Buddhist background as well as the whole tatemae/honne deal. It seems that their notion of ‘self’ is derived from what is socially acceptable as a group(how does this make us look?) and less about the individual(how does this make me look?). It definitely struck me coming from a wholly Western upbringing, where we can accept (and sometimes dismiss) certain idiosyncracies, or flaws, or even wrongdoings, because we are all our own person. Japan’s got it all different. And not to say that it doesn’t work, because as evidence of their lasting culture and influence, it is indeed working, it’s just very .. different. Even now I’m mincing my words to not sound like I’m being judgmental about it, but I find it very interesting and worth examining in detail.
I am definitely going back. This trip was a great primer but I’ve got to explore more. I’ve also got to build a bike there.. the whole NJS steez is off the chain (off the derailer?) and I met up with a gang of people that were into building bikes/having bikes. Apparently riding brakeless there is ILLEGAL, which is nbd to me because I can’t skid haha! But the fixed/track bike game is next level there (again, no halfassed shit) and I wanna be one of the cool kids.
After twelve days I was off to Bangkok for a layover two days, converging with my cousins where we took a touristy daytrip to see the sights. There’s no direct flight to Phnom Penh anyway so I figured it’d be nice to see Thailand quickly – though I’d like to see that country in detail at another time. My aunt scheduled us a day trip in and around Bangkok. It was pretty maxed out, long bus rides watching the city peel away into countryside, stopping into carefully orchestrated tourist traps. Some pretty good photo opportunities but I really didn’t feel like I was learning anything about Thai people. As always, it definitely improves the travel experience if you’ve got a local on your side — something we lacked. We did find a great hole in the wall restaurant for dinner though, and it was delicious and cheap, two great things into one.
Quick wikipedia-ing leads to the fact that Bangkok is a major tourist destination, and now I understand why I’m feeling the way I feel. I can’t really knock on what’s most likely the main source of income for some people that live in the city, the ones in the markets and on corners and riding tuktuks all peddling their stuff. It’s definitely a part of their culture, whether or not it’s a desirable one. I do definitely want to see a side of Thailand that isn’t all about that, though.
As the bus came back into the city arriving dusk, it really felt like the Philippines – people out in the streets selling shit, all manner of lights and food stalls and people just chilling the fuck out, posted up on the block, thick layers of dirt and dust and trash caking sidewalks, streets, glass, THE SMELL OF DURIAN, etc etc etc – and I really love that shit. Definitely another wealth of night photography opportunities. That to me feels so distinct and telltale of S.E.Asia, just idling on the street watching things get bought and sold while taxis vie for position alllll night. The relaxation that happens in those regions is taken to ultimate levels.
After the whirlwind day in Bangkok it was off to Phnom Penh.
My aunt has been living in Cambodia for 10+ years now, and whenever she’d come back to the states for vacation she’d always be like ‘you should visit me!’ and now was the only time our schedules had aligned, so I along with my cousins planned something really quick and made it happen. Also lowkey a friend of mine went to Angkor Wat and her pictures were making me kinda jelly so I had to get on. Again, I got a very Philippines vibe riding around – maybe that’s just the 3rd world qualities of S.E.Asia? but lots of dirty and unkept roads, little to no care for lane demarcations on major roads and no lines at all on smaller roads, unbelievable amounts of motos/tuktuks, low rise architecture. The absolute antithesis of what I was around in Tokyo, but not unwanted.
One of the major things I noticed in Phnom Penh was the amount of street markets. Where my aunt lives is a stroll away from the Russian Market which is basically a paradise for jewelry, silk goods, meat, software, toys, bags, etc – you name it, it’s most likely there. That part is not all too surprising, but maybe 1km away you’ll find ANOTHER street market, similar in size and scope. I think we went to three or four different markets there and I’m sure that wasn’t all. It’s like, if you aren’t in a market selling some shit, or offering a ride on a tuktuk, then you’re just chillin.
We spent about three days in Siem Reap. Coming from the west coast, or basically anywhere in California, I have no real sense of ancient things. There might be some buildings that are 100 years old but that’s infantile in comparison to elsewhere – and especially around places like Angkor Wat, which are dated into the 12th century. That kinda shit blows my mind, it’s literally unfathomable. It’s on some Indiana Jones/Uncharted steez and you realize that these things don’t just exist in movies or jpegs, they’re very real and gigantic and awesome(no slango). I find with sites like these, the relationship it intertwines with the neighboring city is very interesting. It becomes more of a capitalistic endeavor first and a protection of culture second. There’s gotta be a small fortune made per day just from entrance, hotel, food, and transportation. Even in the temples, every avenue that can be monetized seems to be covered – people selling water, snacks, gifts, books, cigarettes – all just steps away from such massive sights to behold. I felt their presence dwarfed the importance of the temples, but who am I to judge: this is probably their livelihood and making money in a 3rd world country is a big deal.
We took a tuktuk just outside of Siem Reap where we were able to see what about 70% of actual Cambodia lives like, and that felt more authentic. Houses on stilts and generators for power and people – again – just chillin the fuck out. We stopped at this restaurant that was ‘super traditional’ in where it’s just a large house on stilts overlooking rice fields with hammocks strung up. We ordered some tea, some beer, and just chilled the fuck out in hammocks for like an hour. A family was in the corner playing some card games and eating and also sleeping. I was definitely in the mood to get used to something like that. It was nice to slip away from being constantly accosted by someone trying to either give you a ride or sell you something.
Yes, I ate a lot here as well – but no tarantula. Yes I lose. But around Siem Reap/Phnom Penh I had lok lak, fish amok, banh chao, some malaysian food, some nepalese food (which tasted more indian than nepal imo), and various curries. I need not go on about my love for curry. Some of the fish dishes I couldn’t get with but otherwise Cambodian food is pretty good. And cheap. I’m just secretly trying to be Anthony Bourdain, guys. OH and can we talk about their iced coffee?? Instead of creamer these fools just use condensed milk. Best believe I bought some this weekend to try and make some bomb ass iced coffee at home.
Since I booked multiple roundtrips instead of a more expensive open jaw ticket, I was marathon mode near the end of my trip. Sleeping in airports and missing my flights and shit. Although the missed flight was purely my bad. And also hilarious. Thursday night I had a hotel near Narita to stay in, as my flight was the next day/Friday at 5:25pm. Since I was already so close to the airport I figured I might have some time to go hang out with my homey in Tokyo for lunch and then come back and catch my flight. I check in my baggage at like 1130am and I’m thinking cool. I got this shit. Just train back into Tokyo, get some lunch, train back nbd. Little did I know that the local train takes like two hours to get into Tokyo. Also forgot that I have no way to contact my homey – I ain’t got a phone. I end up getting into Roppongi area at around 2:30 and I am DESPERATELY looking for some wifi to hit him on skype with. But also reference the fucked up street system there, so I can’t really tell him where I’m at too. Fast forward to 30 minutes later after finding some wifi from a restaurant THANK GOD and I meet up with him. I end up with some cold soba that I terrorize in twenty minutes, tell him peace, and I’m on a taxi towards Ueno station – there’s a super dupes express train from there that goes straight to the airport in forty minutes, and I’m banking my whole afternoon on it. Some traffic from Roppongi to Ueno – but it’s a far distance anyway – and I’m there at 4pm. WHEW. but then NOT WHEW because the Skyliner(thats the name of that express train) won’t leave the station till 4:40. I think I’m fucked. The train will arrive at Terminal 2 at 5:21.. flight leaves 4 minutes after. HMM. The whole train ride im psyching myself up to start running, getting to the counter to see if they can call my gate and to tell them to hold on (lol in retrospect what was I thinking?) cuz I’ll be there. So off the train I’m like bolting up towards the counter, out of breath and trying to speak slow english ‘IM LATE IM REALLY LATE’ and the girl at the counter is like oh .. then looks at my ticket like ohh… then at her watch like OHHH and she looks up at me like O_O HOLD ON and then I am chasing after her as she’s getting me through crew checkpoints and whatnot. Though I do get held up at the x-ray check because of – fucking – my film. She goes off and i’m sitting there for five minutes, and I’ve definitely lost my flight by then. She comes back with a resigned face to tell me what I already knew, but dude she was so ready to get me on that flight. I felt bad for making her run, heels and all. But she was so eager to help me out, even as it looked hopeless.. again +1 (more like +100) to Japanese people.
I’m now in the process of scanning all (25) of my rolls, which is going to take me A LONG TIME so yeah. The end. I will post pics later.
All in all, a fun and memorable trip. There’s still a lot of S.E.Asia I’d like to explore, namely further south: Indonesia and Malaysia. (and then that way I can stay a little in the PI too.. green hills here i come) Still would like to fit in Morocco, India(I heard the north is beautifully lush), Turkey, Iran, Colombia.. whateva man. Can’t ever see it unless you just go.