Endorsement: TripIt for planning long-distance travel online

I am flying to the US next Friday for a two-week trip around the East Coast, stopping in New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Myrtle Beach. One of my biggest helpers in planning this trip has been a website called TripIt.

I generally use Google Calendar for planning my schedule, and as long as I stay in Japan, it works just fine. My Windows Mobile phone automatically syncs to Google and displays upcoming Google Calendar events on its Today screen. But there is a serious drawback to Google Calendar: its assumption that the user will always stay in the same time zone.

Let’s take my flight from Narita to JFK, ANA flight 10. It leaves Narita at 11:00 AM JST, and arrives at JFK at 10:45 AM EST on the same day (thanks to the International Date Line). If I stick to local time on my calendar, it’s impossible to input this flight unless I create two separate events for arrival and departure. Even if I do that, my calendar will still assume that I am on Japan time no matter where I go, so it will assume that I have already arrived even when I am hours away from arriving.

Enter TripIt. It was designed as a socially-networked travel tool; you put your upcoming trips online and it tells you who else will be in your destination with you. I find this particular function to be pretty worthless, but the real beauty of TripIt is in calendaring trips that go across multiple time zones. Here’s why:

  1. The TripIt web page always shows the itinerary in local time. You can specify departure and arrival time zones for each mode of transportation you take. This is perfect for planning each step of the itinerary.
  2. Each account has an iCal feed which you can use to automatically reflect your travel plans in Google Calendar, iCal or any other modern calendar app.
  3. The feed shows up in whichever time zone your calendar reader is set to. While I am planning my trip in Tokyo, all the times show up in Google Calendar in Tokyo time, which comes in handy for figuring out when to sleep so I can minimize jet lag. Once I am on the plane to the US, I can switch my phone to Eastern Time and all the events will convert to Eastern Time.
  4. Automated input keeps this from being a pain in the butt to set up. All you have to do is forward your airline, Amtrak and hotel confirmations to a special e-mail address, and TripIt parses your travel plans into your calendar automatically.

Thanks to the authors of this web site for solving my problems–now I’m ready to enjoy sweltering weather, greasy food and panhandlers again!

Summer travel plans

I have just booked a trip home for the summer. I will be flying from Kansai to Newark on August 18, flying from Newark to San Francisco on September 10, and flying from San Francisco back to Kansai on September 15. While back home in Montclair, New Jersey (that’s the NYC end of the state) I may also take a brief trip down to DC at some point, so anyone in any of those areas who wants to meet up, please drop me a line.

Aside from that, I am also planning to take a trip over to Korea either before or after my visit back home to visit some friends there and do a bit of sight-seeing, so if any readers in Seoul want to meet up then, also feel free to get in touch.

Witnessing the Wreckage at Narita

Yesterday morning, a Fedex plane crashed and burned in Narita airport in the airport’s first fatal accident since opening in 1978. You can see commentary-less footage from the BBC (which cannot be embedded) at this link.

I flew into Narita yesterday early afternoon just hours after the crash, and noted a bumpy landing — the plane shifted left and right after touching down — and the pilot then told us the news. We were lucky that we were in a Boeing 777, as larger planes had been unable to land because the runway was out of service. We saw the morbid wreckage as we moved towards the arrival gate, and I took a picture of the plane from the terminal.


Brief travel update: Riding the Philippine rails (or not)

Having spent a couple of days in Manila catching up with old friends, it is now time to head to the south. My plan had been to take the Southrail train all the way from Manila to its terminus in Legaspi in the Bicol region at the SW tip of Luzon-a roughly 15 hour ride on the aging pre-WW2 train system with a top speed of around 50km/hr. This travel plan had been slightly augmented when I met a Dutch girl who had just arrived the same day as I to do a four month tour working at an education related NGO and doing research for her MA who was very keen on the idea of joining me on the trip.

We met up yesterday to work out the details, and being somewhat confused by how the time tables on the official website had no relationship with the information presented in the Lonely Planet, printed in 2006, I called the number on the website only to be told in that in fact both time tables were entirely wrong, due to the fact that the line has in fact been closed for around two years. Astonishingly, this rather critical detail is printed nowhere on the Philippine National Railway website that I could discover, nor on the Wikipedia page (at least in English).

After looking around a bit, I discovered that the line has been closed since a typhoon caused major damage in 2006. Since, as I mentioned, the line was ancient and only ran at pathetic 50km/hr (like 30 mph), they had been planning to rehabilitate it and upgrade to a modern system that could at the very least be called “high speed” when compared to the old line. Since the planning for the rehabilitation and upgrade was already underway, it seems that they decided not to even bother with the easier and faster work needed to simply reopen the train as it was before the typhoon, and instead take the opportunity presented by a complete closure to complete the long-term project more rapidly and efficiently. They claim that the new, higher-speed Southrail train will in fact be opening by the end of the year, although considering that New Jersey Transit has been unable to finish the repairs to the Newark Broad Street Station that has kept the Montclair Line that goes from my house to Manhattan from providing weekend service for at least a year past the originally promised date, combined with the notorious Philippines corruption, I have little confidence in this date being kept.

It is worth noting that, as in the good old USA, the Philippines (or at least the main island of Luzon) had a substantially more extensive and better rail system before WW2. In addition to the Southrail, there is also an old Northrail that hasn’t run for many years, as well as some smaller branch lines, and also a number of trams around the Manila area which were completely annihilated by the bombing of WW2 during the re-conquest of the city. Metro Manila mass transit rail has only in recent years begun to be replaced by elevated rail lines, which currently includes one MRT line and LRT lines 1 and 2, to which a 3 is curently under construction and more are planned, including a direct rail link to the new airport at some point.

Having taken this detour to learn a bit about the history and state of the Republic of the Philippines railway system, in the end Joosye (which is pronounced nothing like how you think) and I will be taking the bus.

Day 1 in the Philippines: Chatting with communists

After my mishap last week I made sure to get to the airport about two hours earlier than I needed to, and so naturally the plane was an hour late-which would have easily more than made up for the amount of time by which I had missed my plane last week.

I found a place to crash for the night in the backpacker/tourist district near downtown Manila as it is not too far from the airport, although I will be staying for the next couple of days in the University of the Philippines area up in Quezon city, about an hour away from the airport.

I took a brief stroll around the area after checking in to pick up some toiletries at a 7/11 and grab a snack. This is not the nicest part of Manila to walk around at night, as you have to dodge both men trying to sell you women and women trying to sell you themselves. Even if that had been the goal of my walk, as opposed to toothbrush and stuffed bread thing, I am perfectly capable of reading signs and walking into a store and don’t need anyone following me and gabbing in my ear, thank you very much.

In the morning I took another stroll around to get breakfast, and instead of being accosted by pimps and whores met with watch and viagra merchants. Shouldn’t the viagra sellers be out when the prostitutes are? Doesn’t anybody coordinate their schedules? Such are the mysteries of the cosmos.

Walking around with my new camera, I was reminded of one of the peculiarities of the Philippines, being that a foreigner wielding a fancy camera will actually be stopped by locals asking you to take their photograph. “One shot, right here.” They say. Needless to say, this is the reverse, or at least crossverse, of the usual relationship between the tourist photographer and the busy local. It takes a few times, initially, to realize that there is no scam, no demand for money involved, but merely some globally rare but nationally common enjoyment of the experience of being documented.

After being called upon to photograph one smiling old man-a pleasant enough interaction-I had the misfortune of stepping on a sidewalk stone which shifted in a downwardly spinning fashion beneath my foot, plunging it into the murky sewery depths beneath, soaking my foot and mildly scraping my shin. A couple of people on the sidewalk nearby hurried over to ask if I was all right, and  no serious harm done I said that I was, as one man hawking cigarettes nearby shifted the slab back into a less precarious place.

Just before getting back at the hostel (whose wifi I am currently perusing) I stopped to briefly admire a well-maintained fire truck parked on the street, whereupon I was greeted b its crew, relaxing at the side of the street across from it. Exchanging hellos, they asked me where I was from, I told them “US, New Jersey, currently studying in Japan”, the usual introduction, following which I become absorbed into a nearly hour-long conversation with one of the men. They were volunteer fire fighters, not city employees, and even the fire truck is privately owned. I saw a Rotary Club emblem on it, presumably one source of funding.

This man, whose name I will not mention for reasons that will be apparent, looked to be in the general neigborhood of 30. When I started to expain to him that I was studying the area of colonial history he gave his widely-shared opinion that education was the best thing that America had given to the Philippines. He then followed up by expressing dismay that America and the Philippines, having been engaged in building a system of education generally maintaining a high level relative to the region, had not carried those high standards into the realm of Philippine history, choosing instead to present a slanted and incomplete version of that history, particularly where the Community Party of the Philippines is concerned.

He asked me if I had heard of Jose Maria Sison,  which I had. Sison, now elderly and living in political exile in The Netherlands, is the leader of the CCP who has written many revolutionary tracts over the years. I mentioned that I have one of his books, “Philippine Society and Revolution”, written in the 1970s, which I had downloaded from a website. I mentioned that I had read more of Renato Constantino, the most famous left-wing historian of the Philippines, to which he replied, “well he’s OK too,” clearly indicating a strong preference for the writings of Mr. Sison. Out of both interest and politeness I then asked where I might find some more of Sison’s writings, to which the reply was “well, for that you have to go up there” by which he meant, to the mountain camps where the communists hide out and train. His writings are banned in the Philippines, and cannot be bought or sold or even possessed openly.

He, or perhaps I should say The Young Communist, which is what he gradually and eventually came out as, was originally from Manila, of middle class background. Of partial Chinese descent, his grandfather had married a non-Chinese Filipina and been disowned, which says enough to The Young Communist about Chinese society for him to want no part of it. He went to Polytechnic University of the Philippines,which he described as the second most communist university in the country after UP (University of the Philippines), where he had been recruited by one of his professors. UP, he said, while containing the highest proportion of communists and communist sympathizers, is also by far the most elite and wealthiest of the nations universities, with over 80% of the student body themselves coming from an elite background. While people there may be intellectually communist, and may even join the struggle, they will never have the full level of understanding of the need for revolution possessed by those of a more humble background. “Poverty is part of the education.”

He had then spent his university career traveling back and forth between the city, where he studied in class, and the mountain regions, where he studied in the communist camps. He never lived full time in the mountains, because (and he stressed this) he “never had a job up there” due to not being a member of the armed struggle. Instead, he studied comunist philosophy and methods for organizing and activism, and worked in some aid programs for the aborigines. The aforementioned writings of Sison were studied, but he said he would always shred or burn a copy after reading it.

After university, he stopped going to thee camps in the mountains to concentrate on work in the city. He mentioned that there was some sort of amnesty for CCP memberss, which applied to him perhaps since he was not in the armed faction-I did not adequately get the details. The Young Communist then gestured at the fire truck saying that it was part of his work, to do something for the community. While he does consider himself a communist and refers to other communists as “comrades”, he is pragmatic and considers himself a realist. He says he works for revolution, but not in the radical and dramatic sense of a popular uprising and the establishment of a People’s Republic, but in the sense of changing the social order in a gradual and peaceful fashion. To this end he is involved in organizing in the labor movement and in the promotion of revolutionary art, and even the volunteer fire fighter duty, and makes money to live off doing some kind of event organizing thing, which I got virtually no sense of due to his clear lack of interest in talking about work when he could be talking about the real work.

Having seen the results of revolutions throughout the 20th century, he does not believe that an armed uprising will actually improve things long-term except, and here I dare to presume, in the case of a violent and oppressive dictatorship. He had particular venom and bile for Marcos, whom he considers perhaps the worst person in modern Philippine history-a statement that many would agree with. In his view, following the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution, which toppled Marcos, there was a window of opportunity for real reform, which was squandered and undermined by the same old elite, and each president since Corey has only been worse. Like many here, he bemoans the fast that the best and brightestt and most educated leave the Philippines behind to go work in the US or other foreign countries, which “is bad for the Philippines on a macro level, but you really can’t blame them for taking care of their families” even as it continues the cycle of underdevelopment.

While I can understand how an espoused communist might not be in favor of armed struggle for both moral and pragmatic reasons, I am both startled and puzzled to hear him say that he considers Marxism to be unrealistic and Marxists to be mistaken. When he goes on to say that national democracy is the only framework that makes sense to work within for the foreseeable future, I am left wondering what actually makes him a communist as opposed to merely a very progressive liberal. What, aside from self-identification, is different from my own views? We seem to have similar views on both history and current events. Neither of us is calling for the overthrow of the state, but think that dynasty in electoral politics (a far more serious problem in the Philippines, but one that is distressingly on the rise in the US) is unforgiveable. Perhaps he has a dream of some distant communist society, but what person with any spark of imagination and optimism doesn’t fantasize about a future utopia? I certainly don’t pretend to think that any society in existence in the world today, however much better things may be now than in the past, is more than a shadow of things to come. But I also don’t pretend to have any glimmer of what future society might be, as fun as it is to guess or imagine. And I wonder, does The Young Communist even believe in communism? Does it matter? If someone can follow a religion-say Christianity-as a set of moral guidelines but not a literal description of history or roadmap to the future, why can’t someone calling themselves Communist approach that doctrine in the same way?

Double passports?

Apparently Taiwan has a peculiar new proposal, the likes of which I have never heard before-to allow second passports. Upon seeing the headline, I assumed at first that this was about some change to the laws on multiple citizenship (which have been hugely controversial in Taiwan recently, at least regarding politicians such as Diane Lee) but it is actually something completely different.

He said many businesspeople had been lobbying for a second passport as their travel documents were sometimes held up at travel agencies or embassies during the visa application process, which prevents them from traveling abroad during the waiting period.

I can certainly understand how this might be useful, as I had to be without my passport for well over a week when getting a tourist visa to enter Kazakhstan, and could have serious problems if, for example, I had to rush home to the US for a family emergency.I have simply never heard of such a thing before. Would this system be entirely unique, should Taiwan implement it?

Travel time

I”m heading to Manila today and will be in the Philippines until March 24. On this trip I bring the following items:

  • Asus eeePC 1000 (40GB flash, 10″ screen)
  • Canon EOS 50D with sundry batteries and memory cards
  • 50mm 1.8F lens for above
  • 17-85 EF-S IS lens for above
  • 11-16mm 2.8F Tokina lens for above
  • Several changes of underwear, socks, t shirts
  • One leather-bound journal style notebook, found entirely blank on a street a couple of years back. previously used on my Taiwan trip last summer
  • The cheapest Nokia GSM phone sold in Taiwan as of last summer, to be used with locally purchased SIM card (my last trip there was a vending machine in the airport, I hope there still is)
  • Monies, cards of credit, and other documents as being necessary for the execution of commerce
  • Osprey brand hiking backpack
  • And other divers items of minor importance

My exact plans are still rather vague, but definitely involve spending some time in Manila, visiting the Banaue Rice Terraces, and probably riding the Philippines’ single long distance train line from Manila to the its terminus in the SE corner of Luzon and seeing what’s on the other end.

I will hopefully find some internet along the way and do a bit of blogging, and there will be an extensive visual record upon my return.

Heads up

I’ll be flying to the Philippines next Thursday (March 5) and staying until March 24. I don’t have a clear travel plan yet, aside from spending a bit of time in Manila with some friends I haven’t seen in a while, but I’m definitely going to check out the famous rice terraces farther north in Luzon. Are there any readers in the Philippines, particularly Metro Manila? Any readers with particular recommendations on places to visit?

The bullet train from Shinjuku to Odawa and Hakane

This has to be one of the most poorly fact-checked articles on Japan ever.

I am with a group of friends on a short trip to Tokyo. Keen to see some Japanese countryside, and to experience a part of everyday Japanese life, we’ve asked the concierge at the city’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, where we are staying in some style, how we might visit an onsen.

Easily, is the answer. Hakane is one of the country’s most famous onsen resorts (Japan has 2,000 such places, and 20,000 hot springs), and lies just two hours from Tokyo. Better still, it’s reached on a bullet train, meaning we will also get to enjoy another of Japan’s iconic experiences. The concierge will organise tickets and transfers.

But not our short trip to the train, sadly. If you were to have a nightmare involving public transport, forget buses, Tube delays or people barking into mobiles. Think, instead, of Shinjuku, Tokyo’s main railway station […] a vast and bewildering maze, made all the more bewildering by the fact that there isn’t a word of English anywhere, or at least none that we can find, as we scour signs and dash from one bemused, monolingual Japanese commuter to another asking for help. […]

All too soon we are disembarking at Odawa to pick up the local service to Hakone-Yumoto. We sit and ride through increasingly pretty countryside while gaggles of Japanese schoolchildren beam at the Western strangers in their midst. We revel – as we have done so often in Tokyo – in the otherness of the whole experience.

Where to begin?

1) The Mandarin Oriental is near Tokyo Station, on the other side of town from Shinjuku. If this guy was taking a “short trip” to the station, he was probably getting the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station.

2) But let’s assume, arguendo, that he really did go to Shinjuku. He wasn’t really riding a “bullet train,” then, since the real bullet trains don’t go to Shinjuku. It was probably an Odakyu Romance Car. Unlike the Shinkansen pictured in the article.

3) Where did he get those numbers? Two thousand is close to the official count of the 全国温泉旅館同盟, but here’s a site that counts fifty thousand onsen in total.

4) Anyone who can’t read the English signage in a Tokyo train station needs new glasses.

5) Anyone who can’t find a single English speaker in a Tokyo train station either isn’t trying hard enough or doesn’t speak comprehensible English. (Perhaps this chap has an unintelligible accent.)

6) Obviously, there is no such place as “Odawa” or “Hakane.”

7) The word “otherness.” What the hell does that mean?

Observations from jogging at the Imperial Palace

Today Mrs. Adamu and I went jogging around the Imperial Palace moat, an activity that is apparently all the rage these days. Mrs. Adamu is training for a half marathon, but I do one slow lap myself just to burn some calories. It is easy to see why the palace area has become a popular place to exercise – it is an unimpeded, smoothly paved path, the view is gorgeous, and it’s easily accessible from Otemachi or other surrounding stations. The downside, of course, is that the jogging traffic has begun to resemble a busy freeway, forcing slowpokes like me to constantly watch my back so as to not get in the way of the more serious athletes. Normal tourists visiting the grounds are also quite visibly inconvenienced by bespandexed Tokyoites rushing by.

But all in all it’s a great experience. Today was particularly eventful:

  • Happy Takeshima Day! The holiday set up by the Shimane Prefectural government in 2005 to remind their fellow citizens that the disputed rocks belong to Japan, not Korea. This is apparently a big deal to right wing groups (see Roy’s earlier post on this), so to commemorate, one decided to use its megaphones outside the Social Democratic Party headquarters to loudly berate them with accusations of treason for close ties to North Korea. BTW, these guys might think their country has a valid claim to the Takeshima rocks, but stamp expert/blogger Yosuke Naito shows us some fairly convincing Korean stamps that say otherwise.
  • Workers were emptying the shuttered Palace Hotel of furniture and other items. The hotel was set up in 1961, just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics,  on  the site of what was once part of the Imperial Household Ministry and then a GHQ-run hotel “for the exclusive use of buying agents from abroad.” While it must have looked quite modern in 1961, more than 40 years later the design resembles a Holiday Inn and noticeably clashes with the more refined palace across the street. The current building will be torn down, with a renewed Palace Hotel will set to open on the site in 2012. We started jogging the imperial grounds in mid-January, just weeks before the Palace Hotel shut down. We thankfully at least got to take a peek at the lobby before it was relegated to the history books. The inside looked much grander than the exterior, with obsequious front desk staff, expensive-looking lounges, and old-school carpeting and wood-panel walls. By far the neatest item in the lobby, however, was a wood-carved clock, shaped like a world map with digital displays showing the time in major cities. It was considered cutting-edge at the time it was unveiled at the time of the hotel’s opening. The thing just oozes 1960s modernity – I could picture this on the wall of an enormous workroom full of office ladies working on typewriters (click for full size. Thanks Yomiuri!):
    Amazingly, no one knows who designed or manufactured the clock despite its iconic status, but one thing is for certain – it will live on. Though originally set to be destroyed after the hotel closed, at the last minute a German patent office decided to take it (for no charge except shipping costs) out of the management’s nostalgia for frequent stays at the hotel during business trips to Tokyo.