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Where in the world is Sheryl?

Subject: #1 Greetings from Beijing
Date: August 23, 2007 9:12:33 AM PDT


I write this from my $30 hotel room near the main train station. It even has its own computer in the room - you can't beat that. Having just arrived (it's 11 pm right now) via airport bus, i won't say more about Beijing at the moment except it appears to have grown since i was here 8 years ago.

For those of you who don't know, i'm en route to North Korea and Bhutan, with short stopovers in Tokyo, Beijing & Bangkok.

I had a whirlwind night and day in hot, humid, slightly drizzly Tokyo. My main reason for stopping over was to visit the Tsukijii fish market, probably the largest in the world. It's where most of the big tuna caught around the world come to be sold as well as all types of fish and sea creatures from everywhere. I was at the market by 5:30 am, as early as the first metro could get me there.

The huge market complex was a beehive of activity. The early morning tuna auctions were what drew me there as the sun was rising. There were huge roomfuls of flash-frozen (solid) tunas lining the floor waiting to be auctioned off. There's a flap the size of a hockey near the tail that potential buyers use to assess the quality of the fist. After they're purchased, either individually or in lots, the fish are dragged across the floor by a men wielding fish hooks. There are also fresh tuna, which are packed in wooden crates or large styrofoam coolers with ice for shipment. It was fascinating to watch.

There is also a huge convention center size room with people selling every type of sea creature imaginable (squid, octopus, eel, giant clams, spiny urchins, etc.). Some of them are cutting up frozen tuna with table saws or fresh tuna with huge knives. These and other seafood will be sold to distributors and restaurant owners locally and for other Japanese markets. It seems like everyone takes pride in their work. I watched several men (women are mostly cashiers) "lovingly" wash their tunas before cutting them up. The aisles are narrow and there's a lot of activity. One of the dangers is the funny looking motorized carts that zip around the larger aisles. They're wooden flatbeds on wheels powered by what looks like a cylindrical shop-vac that sits in front. The driver stands behind it and controls it with a steering wheel placed atop the cylinder with a hand-brake. They're very good at squeezing through the narrow spaces and avoiding people.

Outside the market are shops and restaurants, mainly for the workers. Of course i had sushi. I had been practicing to say to the sushi chef "omakasay," which means "whatever you recommend." It worked and i got a nice variety of fish that tasted a tiny bit fresher than home. It cost about the same too. All in all, the fish market exceeded my expectations.

After wandering around the market for about 3 hours, i walked to the Ginza area, which is the fancy shopping street. It's the image you see in films of night time downtown Tokyo with the large Jumbotron-type signs on the buildings. It was pretty dead at that time of day but i could imagine it in the evening or even later in the day when the wealthy come to shop at the designer stores.

Next i took the subway north to Yanaka, a traditional part of town. The subway is very efficient, clean, and easy to use; signs are in Japanese and English and they announce the stops as you approach as well as flashing them on a ticker inside the train cars. I believe there are several systems or lines and they're privately owned.

I wandered around Yanaka for several hours, taking advantage of the shrines to sit down and relax. There are NO benches anywhere as far as i could tell except in the shrines. Hard to find a garbage can too, but when you do, they're recycling bins for paper, plastic, & waste. Anyway, I had a delicious lunch at a mom & pop sushi eatery. A set price for a large bowl with rice on the bottom and about 12 kinds of fish (squid, abalone, octopus, tuna, eel, roe,etc.) There was also a small bowl of miso with floating shrimp heads - eyeballs & tentacles (you squeeze out the innards and eat them) and two different types of pickled vegetables. Many of the restaurants have picture signs outside with the prices marked. It's easy to figure out where to eat if you see a picture of something that looks good, especially if you can't read Japanese. The pictures are very realistic and plastic representations are popular too.

Then it was back to the airport by train, about a 70-minute ride. I flew JAL (Japan Airlines) to Beijing. As i've always said, the US carriers can't hold a candle to the international ones. The food is great (they actually feed you) and the service is pleasant.

I'll be here in Beijing tomorrow (well, it's already today) before heading for North Korea on Saturday morning.



Sheryl Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer based in Boulder, CO.