Blog of the trip to Japan and Australia


Pictures of Japan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand


Preparing the trip to Japan/Australia
Sunday, September 12, 2010, 08:16 PM
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It feels weird to prepare a trip to two wealthy countries (Japan, Australia) after so many years of traveling to poor countries.
I feel that i don't know how to travel in rich countries anymore.

I have compiled a long list of things that i want to visit or revisit in Japan: http://www.scaruffi.com/travel/japan.html




Tokyo
Sunday, October 3, 2010, 05:45 AM
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I survived the most dangerous part of the trip (dilapidated stone-age
airplane of a bankrupt US airline) and arrived Tokyo.
As expected, everything is more expensive than you expect.
The tourist office helped me figure out where the buildings are that i want to see. Tokyo is mostly for architecture.
On the plane i worked out a mini-plan of things to see: two days in Tokyo, one in Nikko, one in Kamakura and Yokohama, 3 in Kyoto, one in Nara, one in Himeji and one in Osaka. That should cover the main history and art of Japan.

Practicalities
Immigration: no visa necessary, 5 minutes, fingerprinted
TOurist info: superfriendly and competent
Narita- Tokyo Ueno by Keisei line: Y1000, 1.5h
New Koyo Hostel near Minami Senju station (3 stops from Ueno) in a quiet alley: Y2700 for the Western-style room (Y2500 for the Japanese-style room, which is just a mat on the floor)





Tokyo
Monday, October 4, 2010, 07:00 AM
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Explored Central and northern Tokyo. MOstly modern architecture.
Tomorrow western and southern Tokyo, also mostly modern architecture.
I have to say that so far Tokyo does not compare with New York, Shanghai,
Dubai. It's probably because of the frequent earthquakes. The architecture is quite modest. I took 340 pictures in one day, but they are mostly about the culture than the art.

It's amazing how Japan is still Japan, while China (at least the big cities) is becoming westernized so rapidly. In so many ways the Japanese have remained faithful to their traditions, whereas China is rapidly becoming a copy of the USA. I guess the difference is that CHina is a dictatorship and people must do what their government tells them to do, whereas the Japanese government never ordered a total westernization of the country.

I am also intrigued by this nation that does not believe in street signs (nobody uses addresses here, and it's rare to see the name of the street at an intersection) but then it's very precise in what it does (there are extremely detailed instructions everywhere, and restaurants even display pictures of the dishes).
There is uncertainty in where you are but not in what you do.
There are recycling bins everywhere but no garbage cans (it is clear what to do with materials that can be recycled but not what to do with the rest).
There is a balance of ambiguity and precision. I had noticed this also when having business contacts with Japanese firms. The discussion would always be vague, as if they didn't understand or were not interested, but instead they perfectly understood and were interested. They rarely say yes or no, preferring to let some consensus arise spontaneously. However, the negotiate will eventually end with all details hammered out.

Re-reading the history of Japan, i am also intrigued by how this nation of warriors (samurais), farmers and fishermen that couldn't even build ships transformed almost overnight into a nation of engineers. Until the Meiji revolution of the 1860s Japan had virtually no experience in engineering. Once they decided to westernize the country they rapidly learned how to build things. After World War II that process accelerated.
Unlike China, though, that has thousands of years of tradition in manufacturing, Japan had to start from scratch. Where did the skills come from? Where did the motivation come from?



Tokyo
Tuesday, October 5, 2010, 06:33 AM
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The two main areas for modern architecture (i.e. skyscrapers) are Shiodome and Shinjuku. Shinjuku was Japan's first experiment in the futuristic city. It is a forest of high-rise buildings, but there is no theme.
Shiodome is very recent and does have a "theme": the walkway that runs around the whole "city", a couple of floors above the street, competing for sky space with the trains. You can walk the whole city without ever setting foot on the asphalt down below.
Using Tokyo's public transportation one realizes how far behind the USA has fallen.

Japanese are more interested in boutiques than in skyscrapers. THere are two main areas for fashion shopping: Ginza (notably Harumi Dori) and Omotesando (near the Olympic stadium). They contain hundreds of super-expensive stores. Beverly Hills is a small version of them.

Japanese food is definitely not for me. Here i've had the worst (and smallest) sandwich of my life, the worst bagel and the worst croissant. So obviously this is not the right place for Western food. However, Japanese food feels tasteless and sometimes disgusting to me, so that's even worse. Luckily tonight i found a Chinese restaurant.


Nikko
Wednesday, October 6, 2010, 07:06 AM
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Day trip to Nikko, site of a Buddhist complex declared World Heritage Site.
See pictures (link in the right column of this page)

Meditation
When it comes to security, the contrast with the USA couldn't be stronger: the USA feels like a police state compared with Japan. You can leave luggage unattended and go buy something (it also helps that thieves don't exist). There is no metal detector when you enter a skyscraper and nobody asks you why you are there. There are still lockers in all train and bus stations where you can store your luggage, and nobody checks their content. Police officers are never suspicious of you: they mostly want to help you find your way around. You can take pictures of any government building. All of this is rapidly disappearing in the USA, that will soon be just a memory of the free country that it used to be. The reason why Japanese feel so secure is that there is no terrorist group targeting Japan. The reason why no terrorist hates Japan is that Japan is not involved in any conflict in the world. The reason why Japan is at peace with everybody is that someone else is doing the dirty job for it: the USA. Japan does not need to protect itself against North Korea and China: the USA does it. Japan does not need to protect the mercantile routes to the Middle East, Latin America and Europe: the USA does it. There are no domestic or foreign threats to Japan because the USA absorbs all the risks and all the blame. The spectacular cities of the future that Japan has built since the 1980s would immediately become targets for terrorists if they were located in the USA. Ditto for the monumental railways and government buildings. From the viewpoint of foreign affairs, Japan is largely a worry-free society. someone else is doing all the worrying.
To make things even better, the USA is the very country that buys most of what Japan produces. Simplifying a bit, the USA has been patrolling the world so that Japan can make competitive products that it then sells to the USA. The USA pays the bill twice: first with its defense budget (which is essential to protecting Japan's mercantile routes and to maintain peace in the region) and then with all the money that consumers spend to buy Japanese goods.

Practicalities
Tobu line from Akasusa station to Nikko: Y1320 each way
Ticket for all temples in Nikko: Y1000
Note that shinto shrines are free, just like Christian churches and Muslim mosques, but Buddhist temples almost always charge an entrance ticket (in every country).


Osaka
Thursday, October 7, 2010, 05:57 AM
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I am staying in a Japanese-style hotel. The number of shoes they give you and that you are supposed to use in different rooms vastly exceeds my memory:s capacity.



Nara
Friday, October 8, 2010, 06:56 AM
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Nara is the ancient capital and is full of Buddhist temples. As always with
Buddhists, they charge an entry ticket, and here it is truly outrageous. Besides, photography is not allowed pretty much inside any building.
The buildings themselves are modern reconstructions of the original temples. On the other hand, the "forbidden" pictures are on sale in the souvenir shop, so it is obviously not "sacrilege" to take those pictures: they don't want tourists to take them otherwise the tourists will not buy the postcards and books.
Basically, the artistic masterpieces are simply used as a display window to lure customers to real center of the Buddhist temple: the souvenir shop.
The whole thing put me in a bad mood.
I was done in 7 hours (most people take two days to visit the five major temples, three of which are outside the city). Then i spent one hour
touring downtown Osaka (Umeda) which has the usual dose of futuristic skyscrapers.

Practicalities.
I'm actually staying in Osaka, which is a lot cheaper than nearby ancient capitals Nara and Kyoto. I move to the Toyo Hotel (Y1500), also in Shin-Imamiya, the neighborhood of Osaka that seems to have the cheapest hotels in the whole country. Free wireless internet included.
Train Osaka-Nara: Y540, 30 minutes


Himeji
Saturday, October 9, 2010, 07:13 AM
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Grandiose castle, the most impressive left in Japan.

Still staying in Osaka. Frantically looking for a new hotel because all hotels are full due to a coming national holiday. TIme to move on to another country?


Ise
Monday, October 11, 2010, 06:05 AM
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The Isejingu is the most important shinto complex in Japan. It contains several shrines. Naiku is the biggest and most important, because it is dedicated to the sun goddess Amateratsu, the grand-grand-grand...-mother of all emperors. All the buildings are only 20 years old but they date from the 3rd century. The reason why this is possible is that every 20 years the government builds an exact replica of each and every building and destroys the old building. The rebuilding is faithful: original techniques of 2,000 years ago are employed (for example, no nails can be used). The last wave of rebuilding took place in 1993 and cost a fortune. This also means that an army of carpenters are paid by the government to train for twenty years and be ready for the next wave of rebuilding. The Naiku contains a sacred mirror that only the emperor is allowed to see (but apparently no emperor has ever wanted to).


Osaka
Monday, October 11, 2010, 07:56 AM
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I finally found the time to write down all my notes on Japan. See the right column (Japan 2010).

I a proud that in just one week i found out how to survive in super-expensive
Japan. I never paid more than 1800 yen ($20) for the hotel room (not dormitory
but private rooms), with a low of Y1500 in Osaka. I look for the Y100 stores
and buy snacks, fruit and vegetables there (even bread and juice,
but not cheese). The Shin-Imamiya neighborhood in Osaka has been a godsend.
I was based here while touring Osaka, Kyoto, Hmeji, Ise and Nara. Definitely worth the extra costs for transportation. It is near both subway and railway.
There are dozens of cheap restaurants around.

My life has been fairly miserable: wake up at 6am, start traveling/touring, walk like a maniac the whole day, return to the hotel around 7pm, write down notes and upload/classify pictures, plan the following day, eat a snack, go to sleep around midnight. One of the few trips of my life in which i have met no local people.

So far the weather has been between warm and hot, with just one day of rain (this is technically the rain season).

Tomorrow i want to see a few more rarities in Osaka and Kyoto. In the
afternoon i leave for Taiwan with Jetstar (discount airline).


Taipei, Taiwan
Tuesday, October 12, 2010, 11:22 AM
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Arrived Taipei late evening. Found a cheap hotel Backpackers near station
but it's almost twice what i was paying in Osaka, which sounds strange (Taiwan has the reputation of being cheap, Japan has the reputatio of being expensive).
Moved to a cheaper hotel (Happy Family, Y550), also near the station but much better than the one recommended by the Lonely Planet.
Taipei is very hot and humid.
I bought the ticket to Australia for October 15. I think it arrives the morning of October 16.




Taipei
Thursday, October 14, 2010, 01:20 AM
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There is one country that is democratic and peaceful. Its people are among
the most honest, friendly and polite in the world. Maybe that is the reason
why this country is not allowed to join the United Nations.
Taiwan is not recognized by the world because an evil empire, mainland China,
has de facto declared war on it. Led by the USA, most countries decided to
behave basically like prostitutes, accepting the will of the big economic power
(that is neither democratic nor peaceful) and they gladly sacrificed the
dignity of Taiwan.
The United Nations should therefore change name to "The Organization of the
Nations Recognized by the Dictatorship of Mainland China".
And presidents of the USA should stop lecturing the world about freedom,
democracy and human rights: the only thing that really matters is money.





Saigon, Vietnam
Friday, October 15, 2010, 12:22 AM
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Long story why i got stuck at the Saigon airport. It was the cheapest way to reach Melbourne (Australia) from Taipei and i figured they would give me a one-day visa to spend in the city. Unfortunately they didn't, so i'll have to spend the day at the airport (but they gave me free lunch and free internet).



Melbourne, Australia
Sunday, October 17, 2010, 05:35 AM
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My first impression of Melbourne was very negative: ugly, unfriendly,
primitive and expensive.
I have never been crazy about visiting Australia, and my first
impression confirms why. There is very little for me here: it's basically
a less exciting version of California.
The good news is that crime is very low, although not as law as in Taiwan
and Japan. The bad news is that prices are incredible.

Australia is one of the most expensive countries in the world.
I was sleeping for $18-25 in Japan (private room). Here it's impossible to
find a single under $50. A bed in a dormitory for eight is the same price
($25-30) as a private room in Tokyo (same kind of hostel).
(It is terribly difficult to find a decent single room because Australia is
obsessed with couples: most hotels have only double rooms and dormitories.
Dormitories seem to be far more popular than in the rest of the world).
Most Australian cities don't have a subway so you have to take an
old-fashioned bus from the airport to downtown, and it's $15 each way:
the same service as in the average African country but at the cost of
the most expensive Western city (more expensive than New York).
The Australian dollar just reached parity with the USA dollar (it rose 40% in
a few years), which might explain.
Still: a small bag of chips ($1 in the USA) is $3-4 here (regular convenience
store), a soda can ($1 or less in the USA) is $2.50.
You have to pay for wireless internet at the hostel and it's $10 a day.
You have to pay to leave luggage at the hostel and it's $3 a day.
And so forth.
For these prices one would expect good services. Compared with East Asia,
instead, the services are average at best. In my hostel one elevator doesn't
work and the other one is in awful conditions. The "traveler's help" desk
at the train station had a sign "will be back soon" at peak hours.
The infrastructure is far from spectacular. As i am writing, there are no train
and no bus links between Melbourne and Sydney (Australia's biggest cities)
because of floods caused by rains. This would be an easy 3-hour train
ride in Japan or Germany.
Long-distance transportation is not much better than in Africa or Indochina,
certainly a far cry from what you get in Japan and China these days.
Flights needs to be reconfirmed (something i have not seen even in Africa
in the last decade).
Credit cards are accepted but a 3% fee is added (as it used to be in the USA
about 30 years ago).
Since i have left Vietnam i have not been able to use the Internet for long
because it's either unbelievably expensive (it was free in all the other places)
or it is unbelievably slow (like now) or it just doesn't work.

I am planning on leaving as soon as possible to New Zealand.
It is worth the $300 of the roundtrip ticket.

Practicalities.
The tourist visa is easy and free for European citizens (a bit more difficult
and expensive for USA citizens). You apply online at http://www.immi.gov.au
(eVisitor if you are from Europe). You then receive an email with a reference
number and your passport number is stored in their database. When they arrive,
they scan your passport and read the visa information. Basically, all you have
to do is hand them your passport. The eVisitor for Europeans is good for one
year and allows you multiple entries (each one up to three months).

Melbourne confusingly has two airports.
Bus from Melbourne international airport to downtown: $15 each way.
Bus to the other airport (Avalon): $20.
Cheap hostels are spread all over town, but mainly Southern Cross Station and
Windsor seem to have the highest concentrations, the latter having the cheapest.
A few blocks from Southern Cross Station there are Discovery, Elizabeth and
Backpackers, each one block away from the other.
It is terribly difficult to find a decent single room because Australia is
obsessed with couples: most hotels have only double rooms.


Sydney, Australia
Sunday, October 17, 2010, 09:58 PM
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Sydney is much more interesting than Melbourne and, of course, it has one of the wonders of the world, the Opera House.

Practicalities:
The first night i stayed at Maze Hostel on Pitts St for $45 single room
(dorm beds are $26, overpriced for what you get).
Tonight i'll stay at Sydney's Backpackers (one block away) for $22 in a six-bed dorm with free internet.

The Pacific boom.
It is a different world. From China to Australia (with the single exception of Japan) economies are booming, people are getting richer by the day, currencies are going up, housing is not enough to keep up with demand, employment is going through the roof. While the USA is experiencing the worst economy in almost a century, with a rapidly declining dollar, record unemployment, housing-market bust and falling household incomes, the Asian-Pacific region is living in a parallel universe of 5-10% yearly GDP increase. Fifty years ago a USA citizen could travel virtually anywhere in the world and spend pocket change for hotels and restaurants. Now USA citizens are the ones staying at hostel dormitories and eating sandwiches on the sidewalk. That the transition happened while the USA was the world's superpower makes it even more mistifying. Historians will look back at this age and wonder "what were they thinking". The USA won World War II against Germany and Japan: the net result was that Germany and Japan became the USA's main economic competitors on the world scene. Half a century later the USA also won the Cold War against communism: the net result is that Russia, India and China have become fast-rising economic juggernauts that created a huge trade deficit in the USA. The USA is also largely responsible for the demise of the European empires, i.e. for the world-wide process decolonization that created dozens of new countries in Asia and Africa: the net result is that many of those countries are getting richer by selling expensive minerals and cheap labor to the USA at the expense of the USA's standard of living. In other words, the USA is a failed empire not because it lost the wars (it won most of them, all the important ones) but because it has failed in administering its victory in an unprecedented manner. It used its enormous influence to establish and maintain a geopolitical order that made the USA more (not less) dependent from the rest of the world at a time when it should have been the opposite. The USA imports oil from the Middle East, imports goods from China, exports capital to the third world and exports jobs to India not because evil foreign powers force it to do so but because this is the world that the USA itself created and maintains (through an expensive military investment). This world is causing a rapid decline in the purchasing power of the average USA family through dollar depreciation and economic crisis. The rest of the world enjoys the nice life.


Christchurch, New Zealand
Tuesday, October 19, 2010, 11:19 PM
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Immigration officials screwed up my New Zealand trip.
When i arrived at midnight at the Christchurch airport, they detained me
for more than one hour, searching everything i
have in my luggage and asking me all sorts of questions about my private life.
These stone-age assholes haven't yet realized that you can just google
somebody's name and get a lot of information. The zealous scrutinizer was
scribbling my replies on a notebook (no, not the computer but an old-fashioned
paper one with an old-fashioned pen). She wanted to see my return ticket,
blissfully unaware that today air tickets are electronic. She wanted to see
my hotel reservation, blissfully unaware that today you book them on the
Internet. She searched everything but never thought
of checking my laptop (that contains information about everything i do and
this entire trip) and not even my camera (that has more than 1,000 pictures
of where i have been this month). It wasn't just the waste of time (at midnight)
that pissed me off but the fact that the whole process is obviously obsolete.
After one hour of interrogation she learned a lot less about me than she would
have learned from an Internet search. For example, she never asked me if i am
a writer and i never told her. Therefore she never found out that i published
17 books, that i have a website and that this whole story will be published on
the Internet for eternity.

Because of this incident i got to the hostel very late and this morning i woke
up too late to catch the last bus to Queenstown. My original plan was to do
Milford Sound tomorrow and then Abel Tasman in the remaining days.
Now i have to cancel Abel Tasman because i don't have enough days.

Later i was told that New Zealand is paranoid about the food and medicines
you bring in. But she could have told after ten minutes that i didn't have
any food or medicines.

Christchurch had a strong earthquake a while ago and they still have
aftershocks. People got used to it. There was one this morning while i was
in the lobby of the hotel and nobody even moved from their seats.

I am back to horribly slow and expensive Internet.

Practicalitie
$1=NZ$1.25
The cost of living is a bit higher than in California: same prices as Australia
but the NZ dollar is 25% lower.
Internet: $3/hour
Wi-fi: free at the public library otherwise NZ$10=$7.5 at hostels
Frienz hostel NZ$22=$18 for dorm bed
Tour bus (that stops along the way) from Christchurch to Queenstown: NZ$89
Bus and cruise from Queenstown to Milford Sound: NZ$159
Hostel in Queenstown: NZ$26 in dorm




Queenstown
Thursday, October 21, 2010, 03:03 AM
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It took one day for the bus ride from Christchurch to Queenstown (New Zealand's
main tourist town). The bus passed and stopped by a number of popular natural
attractions, including New Zealand's highest mountain. Nothing spectacular,
if you have seen the Alps and the Sierra Nevada,

It takes one day for the bus ride to Milford Sound and the cruise around it.
Many consider this the most beautiful part of New Zealand.

New Zealand is obviously geared for tourism. I don't know what else they do,
but they have a color brochure for every little attraction and town (some of
which wouldn't even be on the map in other countries).
The infrastructure is as primitive as in Australia. Do not count on
fast, frequent and modern transportation like in Asia.
Do not count on Japanese-style buses or superfast trains.
There is no overnight transportation.
The vast majority of buses
only leave in the morning. If you need a connection, you have to spend
the night there, no matter how early you arrive: the next bus invariably
leaves only in the morning, usually between 7am and 8am.
Hence it takes a long time (or renting a car, which is expensive) to visit
even a small region. In general, you'll have to join (expensive)
tours to see what you want to see or rent a (expensive) car.
New Zealand is also the land of one-lane bridges.
All of this may add to the magic of the country but makes it harder to visit it.
The people are invariably friendly and honest: it's like going back a century
or journeying into fairy tale.


Australia and New Zealand are very similar to the USA, except for a few things:
1. they use the metric system (the USA is the only country in the world that
doesn't), 2. the price is the price (in the USA the price is never the price),
3. they are not fat, 4. they don't indulge in the ghetto-style slang (the
f word, "dude", "hey man", the "like" used every three words)


Southern island, New Zealand
Saturday, October 23, 2010, 02:51 AM
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The people of New Zealand seem to love their country very much (and take immaculate care of it) but it leaves you the feeling of an aging nation. I saw very few young people (particularly male ones), and many of them turned out to be foreigners who are employed for a few months in the various local industries (mostly farming and tourism). It feels like New Zealand is the equivalent of the rural Midwest in the USA, where so many young people leave for the big cities of the East and West Coast, whose equivalent here are the big cities of Australia, Asia and the USA. (This makes it feel even weirder that they would be so suspicious of visitors instead of welcoming them enthusiastically and luring them to settle forever).



Leaving New Zealand
Sunday, October 24, 2010, 08:11 PM
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Going back to Sydney. Current plan
Oct 26 Blue Mountains
Oct 27-30 Tasmania (flying from Sydney into Hobart and flying from Launceston
into Brisbane).
Oct 31- Nov 1 Brisbane and Gold Coast
Nov 2 flight back to the USA


Blue Mountains, Australia
Tuesday, October 26, 2010, 04:45 AM
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Spent the day touring and hiking in the Blue Mountains. Pretty waterfall,
pretty forest, pretty canyon, but we have millions of these in California
(most of them are unnamed and not even on the map, whereas here there's
a color brochure for everything).
Tomorrow early morning i fly to Tasmania from Sydney.




Tasmania
Thursday, October 28, 2010, 02:20 AM
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Tasmania is a whole different world from the big cities of Australia.
Here people are a lot friendlier. It's a bit like New Zealand, with more of a personal touch. The information office at the Hobart airport was possibly the most helpful ever. When i was walking around town, several people asked me if i needed directions. So far the landscape is the main disappointment. I was told this was the most beautiful part of eastern Australia. I just don't see it. The main attraction near Launceston is the Cataract Gorge: there are thousands of such sights in California, and most of them are not even on the map nor do they have names nor is there a town with brochures and tour buses to serve them.
I have also visited the four historic towns: it takes about 20 minutes for each, and there is nothing to see unless you are into churches built in the 1860s. The power of marketing is such, though, that i find tourists everywhere taking pictures of churches that in their country would have been demolished long ago.
Besides being friendly, they also have decent public transportation: i can finally resume the pace i was keeping in Japan and Taiwan. After Hobart i have visited the "ancient" town of Outlands (where buildings date from the 1830s) and i am staying in the "ancient" town of Launceston. Just like in Sydney, all the original buildings were built by convicts. Many buildings were originally prisons.

Australia may not be New Zealand but it is still a very safe country.
They say that Sydney is "dangerous", but you can walk at 4am downtown Sydney carrying all your luggage (including a camera, a laptop, two passports and all my money) and nobody will bother you. (Try that in San Francisco). New Zealand was founded by farmers and, generally speaking, humble law-abiding people; but Australia was founded and built by convicts. The funniest thing of all the descriptions of "ancient" buildings is that they were built by convicts. So was the most famous bridge (in the town of Ross in Tasmania) and so was the first road out of Sydney. Australia was basically colonized by criminals. It is therefore surprising that a community of criminals managed to create (over just two centuries) a crime-less society.
Unfortunately i am having trouble finding the slightest intellectual in Australia to discuss these topics. I always find plenty of intellectuals in the Middle East and even Africa who are more than willing to discuss the history and societies of their countries, but here i haven't found anyone. People are friendly and all, but only for very practical and ordinary things, not for big ideas. I discuss with other backpackers, but even those are disappointing: here i have not found the kind of adventurous and curious traveler that i usually find in "dangerous" places. Here it's more the casual superficial tourist (almost all from Europe and Japan).

This is my first trip to developed countries in many years, and i accidentally picked four countries (Japan, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand) that have virtually no crime and virtually no Islamic-related trouble. For the first time in many years i don't have to worry about thieves, diseases, civil wars, anti-Western sentiment, corrupt officials, power outages, etc.
This might explain why some days i get a bit bored: usually i don't have time to get bored because i am too busy trying to survive :-) This time the surviving is easy.
However, it's interesting that i feel i have less freedom than in Africa or in the Middle East. I miss the power of bargaining (some hostels were empty but the owner/manager still refused to reduce the price of the room, and same for half-empty restaurants). I also miss the flexibility of stores and markets that are open whenever there is a customer, not according to some published hours. I miss transportation that leaves whenever there are enough passengers, instead of transportation that leaves only at 8am daily no matter how many people would like to travel at 3pm. Hours are probably the most annoying constraint: i am not used to hours anymore. I am used that you show up, find out where the guards are eating or watching tv, give them a little tip, and they open the gates for you. Here not even a presidential order would open a museum or a library after hours. The affluent world is better organized, but i am not sure that this translates into more freedom for the individual. It certainly translates in less work for the establishment. A tour to a park was canceled because they didn't have enough people: in a developing country, they would have either slashed prices to lure more people or asked the ones already committed to pay a bit more, but they would not have canceled a trip. The net result of Western-style organization is that i couldn't see what i wanted to see: that's less freedom, not more freedom.





Tasmania
Friday, October 29, 2010, 07:59 PM
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Cradle National Park is considered the best of Tasmania's parks: in California
this would be such a minor attraction that i doubt they would even name it.

The ratio of things to see divided by how much it costs to see them is probably
the lowest of all the countries (more than 130) that i have visited so far

Australia and New Zealand are famous for nature, but nature is often
substandard compared with other countries in the world, rarely truly amazing,
while the costs are indeed amazing.




Brisbane, Australia
Sunday, October 31, 2010, 06:38 PM
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I uploaded more pictures: http://www.scaruffi.com/monument and click on Japan/Australia
Flying back to the USA tomorrow November 2.

Notes on Japan, Taiwan and Australia

  1. The Pacific boom. It is a different world. From China to Australia (with the single exception of Japan) economies are booming, people are getting richer by the day, currencies are going up, housing is not enough to keep up with demand, employment is going through the roof. While the USA is experiencing the worst economy in almost a century, with a rapidly declining dollar, record unemployment, housing-market bust and falling household incomes, the Asian-Pacific region is living in a parallel universe of 5-10% yearly GDP increase. Fifty years ago a USA citizen could travel virtually anywhere in the world and spend pocket change for hotels and restaurants. Now USA citizens are the ones staying at hostel dormitories and eating sandwiches on the sidewalk. That the transition happened while the USA was the world's superpower makes it even more mistifying. Historians will look back at this age and wonder "what were they thinking". The USA won World War II against Germany and Japan: the net result was that Germany and Japan became the USA's main economic competitors on the world scene. Half a century later the USA also won the Cold War against communism: the net result is that Russia, India and China have become fast-rising economic juggernauts that created a huge trade deficit in the USA. The USA is also largely responsible for the demise of the European empires, i.e. for the world-wide process decolonization that created dozens of new countries in Asia and Africa: the net result is that many of those countries are getting richer by selling expensive minerals and cheap labor to the USA at the expense of the USA's standard of living. In other words, the USA is a failed empire not because it lost the wars (it won most of them, all the important ones) but because it has failed in administering its victory in an unprecedented manner. It used its enormous influence to establish and maintain a geopolitical order that made the USA more (not less) dependent from the rest of the world at a time when it should have been the opposite. The USA imports oil from the Middle East, imports goods from China, exports capital to the third world and exports jobs to India not because evil foreign powers force it to do so but because this is the world that the USA itself created and maintains (through an expensive military investment). This world is causing a rapid decline in the purchasing power of the average USA family through dollar depreciation and economic crisis. The rest of the world enjoys the nice life.
  2. The ever declining dollar The yen was at a record high. The Australian dollar is at a record high (it just reached parity with the USA dollar). Last year Africa was too expensive in USA dollar because the Central African Franc was so high. The euro is worth twice what it was when it was introduced. The Russian and the Brazilian currencies have also staged dramatic increases. And all economists think that third-world currencies are artificially undervalued, i.e. they should be even higher than they are. We are rapidly moving towards a world in which the USA dollar will be the world's weakest currency. In the 1950s a USA citizen could travel around the world with pocket change. Now USA citizens are the ones who stay at the cheapest dormitories.
  3. Supply but no demand As i travel through developed countries after many years of traveling through under-developed countries, the biggest cultural shock is that the price is... the price. In the developing world the price is set by supply and demand. You can always bargain a price at a market and even at a downtown store. You can bargain the price of a hotel room and the price of taxi ride. In the developed world the price is set by the costs of manufacturing, transporting and marketing the product. What people are willing to pay for it becomes a minor factor. The price can be bargained only marginally. Hence one sees long stretches of expensive stores in European and Japanese cities with virtually no customers inside. The store owners complain that business is bad (meaning that customers are not willing to pay the price that the store demands). It does not occur to those European or Japanese store owners to slash prices by 50%, as anyone in China, Morocco, Mexico or India would do. In theory the developed world lives in a free market driven by supply and demand, but in practice we have created an odd economy in which prices bear little relationship to supply and demand. The state of the economy as a whole depends on whether the customers are willing to spend the money that the stores demand. Hence the importance of marketing, whose purpose is basically to avoid the need for bargaining (instead of reducing the price of a product so that people will buy it, spend money on marketing the product so that people will buy it at the current price).
  4. How to build a peaceful society Japanese society is amazingly crime-free. Japan is also one of the most pacific countries in the world. If one exclused domestic abuse (which is still widespread) society is free of the kind of verbal and physical violence that is common in the West. In particular, there is none of the extreme violence that is pervasive in the USA (make one mistake while driving and someone will show you his middle finger, hit someone in the supermarket and he might threaten to beat you up). Japan used to be a land of continuous warfare: many states fighting each other. After unification, it became a militaristic power. After beating Russia in a war, it became an imperialistic power that tried to conquer all of Asia. Even after the USA defeated it, Japanese soldiers continued to fight heroically, refusing to surrender. Therefore its history is far from peaceful. For a long time the prevailing myth was the myth of the samurai, not the myth of the Buddhist monk. If one could pinpoint what caused Japanese society to change from being so violent to being so peaceful, one could try and apply the same medicine to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the answer might be horrible; two atomic bombs.
  5. Japanese art is not art Japanese art has always lagged behind Europe, India and Mesoamerica. Most of the temples that we admire in Kyoto and Nara, made of wood and with virtually no decoration, were built 1,000 years after the Parthenon, five centuries after Rome, and while France and Germany were building the great gothic cathedrals. These Japanese temples display a chronic lack of imagination. The imperial shrine in Ise (3rd century architecture) is embarrassing: stone-age carpentry. Progress in architecture, sculpture and painting was extremely slow in Japan. Buddhist temples (that date from much later than in India, China and Indochina) are rather primitive by international standards, but look like Disneyland compared with the pre-existing art.
  6. The ultimate service society Customer care reaches quasi-religious levels in Japan. From the restaurant waitress to the train conductor everybody is trained to help the customer in every possible way. This is the ultimate service society. You can see it from many little details. For example, the train ticket bears both the departure time AND the arrival time. In the West the ticket seller is only interested in telling you at what time you have to show up. The ticket seller is only interested in selling you the product. Once you are on the train/plane/bus it is your business to find out how long the trip is. In Japan the ticket tells you what time you have to show up AND the one thing you really want to know: at what time do we arrive? The difference between the Japanese service society and other western societies is that te Japanese seem to truly care for your well-being. Ultimately, they are all customers: when they get off work, the waitress and the conductor become ordinary commuters and consumers, and they benefit from the same service society for which they work. This infinite loop seems to be more than just a capitalistic device to win repeated customers: it seems more like a religion. Ordinary people rarely talk to the foreigner, but they are very helpful whenever the foreigner asks for help. They worship the customer the same way they worship their ancestors.
  7. An industrial revolution without a scientific revolution Thanks to the scientific revolution (and the innovations in transportation and warfare that followed), Europe conquered the world. The first European colony to win independence, the United States of America, became the largest economic power and the most powerful military power in the world. Since the USA was a former colony, it initially despised the old European order based on colonialism. It is thanks to the emergence of the USA as a world power after World War II that Britain and France had to let their colonies go. A few decades later the USA empire had another traumatic effect on the world order: progressively, all of the newly independent countries adopted the free-market capitalistic model of the USA. When the last enemy of this model (the Soviet Union) collapsed, this process of conversion to the free-market ideology accelerated leading to a global economy. The global economy, in turn, led to a world-wide economic boom that mostly benefited emerging countries (many of which used to be former European colonies, and China was de facto too a European protectorate). Therefore the USA empire has caused a three-staged revolution in world order: 1. decolonization, 2. globalization, 3. world-wide economic boom. After the financial crisis of 2008 (that has mainly hurt the Western countries) it appears that the fourth stage will be a pre-colonization order, with the Chinese and Indian economies dwarfing the European economies, and threatening USA dominance. However, something is missing. These former colonies are undergoing the process of massive industrialization that Western Europe underwent after the scientific revolution, but these former colonies never had a scientific revolution, nor did they contribute to it in any form or fashion. Europe had Galileo, Newton, Maxwell and Einstein, just to mention Physics. It boasted countless discoveries, inventions and theories. The industrial boom was a consequence of that intellectual boom, that eventually migrated to the USA. The USA became the world's main producer of scientific theories, technological inventions and Nobel prizes. Today the USA is still the main (almost the sole) producer of ideas. Because the former colonies have rapidly industrialized, it has also become the main consumer of foreign products built around those ideas. The industrialization of Europe's former colonies consists in building products out of Western scientific inventions and technological innovations. It was Japan that invented this economic model: build better products based on USA inventions. Japan contributed no major scientific discovery, and no real invention. Its success has been due mainly to manic refinement of other nation's ideas. Initially it also relied on cheap labor. Now that its currency has become one of the strongest in the world, it simply relies on making better products. But it still does not rely on native inventions: the radio, the television set, the computer, the videogame and the cell phone were all invented abroad (all in the USA, by the way). The developing world is simply imitating the Japanese model: build products around USA inventions. The Japanese relies on a closed system: a number of large companies manufacture all sorts of products. Their research laboratories continuously improve consumer products. There are virtually no startups, only large multi-purpose corporations. By definition, large corporations tend to refine ideas, not create truly innovative ideas. The very motivation to go to work is different in Japan from the USA. Employees are faithful to their company and expect their company to take care of them. There is virtually no job mobility: employees are not looking for jobs elsewhere, and companies don't lay off employees. One is faithful to the other. The chief goal is not to create innovative products but to provide stability to both the individual and the company. It is not that the Japanese system stifles innovation: the system is a consequence of a society based on no real innovation, a society that never underwent a scientific revolution. The developing is following the same path: an industrial revolution without a scientific revolution, that will rely on building products based on USA scientific discoveries. Japan is now stuck in a chronic stagnation. One wonders if the lack of a scientific revolution, rather than an aging population or a rising currency, might have something to do with it. If so, one wonders if that is the common destiny of all emerging economies, the fifth stage: not the golden age of Asia but an age of chronic stagnation.
  8. Japanese traditionalism versus Chinese westernization The world always thought of Japan as a westernized country (it is in fact often included in the list of western countries) but now that the whole of Asia is becoming westernized Japan is beginning to look like the exception to the rule, not the model of the rule. It's amazing how Japan is still Japan, while China (at least the big cities) is becoming westernized so rapidly. In so many ways the Japanese have remained faithful to their traditions, whereas China is rapidly becoming a copy of the USA. For example, Chinese-style hotels (not to mention restrooms and toilets) are disappearing, replaced by USA-style hotels (and restrooms and toilets), whereas Japanese-style hotels are still commonplace, and they mostly have the old-fashioned Japanese restrooms. Japan never adopted Western food. There are few foreign restaurants. Bread is now common all over the world, except in Japan. Very soon all Chinese will speak English as the second language, something that Japan never managed to achieve in 60 years of tight USA alliance. And so forth. I guess the difference is that China is a dictatorship and people must do what their government tells them to do, whereas the Japanese government never ordered a total compulsory westernization of the country. The condition of women is also part of this picture. While more and more women work, almost none has an executive position in a large corporation, and none has any major political position in parliament. Japan is a nation that still has women-only cars in trains, and in which most business hotels do not accept women. Most women do not walk properly, as if their feet had been injured. Japan is quite amazing as the only developed society that wasted 50% of its potential. For decades the world thought that there was something fundamentally more "modern" about the Japanese people that allowed them to join the ranks of western countries, compete with them and even beat them. Recent history has shown that there was nothing special about Japan: once they became democratic and capitalistic, all the Asian countries followed suit: Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, India, China... If there is something different, it is exactly the opposite: Japan seems to be more jealous of its traditions. It just so happens that it lost the war and it was "colonized" by the USA, hence it was the first Asian country to become heavily westernized. But with every decade, as the other Asian countries become more and more westerized Japan reveals to be less westernized than it looked like.
  9. Give me ambiguity or give me something else One of the biggest contradictions of Japanese society, and perhaps the fundamental one, is the unlikely coexistence of precision and ambiguity. The tourist is exposed to Japanese precision mainly thanks to public transporation, which is notoriously super-humanly punctual. Tidiness at all costs (street cleaners even pick up cigarette butts, and everybody routinely uses different shoes for outside, inside and restrooms) is a direct consequence of the idea of precision. Honesty is an indirect consequence of the ideal of precision: a honest society has precise rules that nobody ever breaks. At the same time, though, Japanese businessmen are maddeningly vague when they negotiate a contract. The conclusions are invariably vague, as if they didn't understand or were not interested, whereas they perfectly understood and were interested. They rarely say yes or no, preferring to let some consensus arise spontaneously. Eventually, the negotiation will end with all details hammered out. Japan is a nation that does not believe in street signs (nobody uses addresses here, and it's rare to see the name of the street at an intersection) but then it posts detailed instructions everywhere, and restaurants even display pictures of the dishes. There is uncertainty in where you are but not in what you do. There are recycling bins everywhere but rarely a garbage cans (it is clear what to do with materials that can be recycled but not clear at all what to do with the rest). One can see another form of ambiguity in the way high-tech is pervasive but then Japan is still a cash-only country (credit cards are rarely accepted) and ATM machines don't accept foreign cards. Japan has the fastest trains in the world, but traffic lights have no sensors. More ambituity: Japan might be the cleanest country in the world, but it is also the biggest waster of plastic in the world. It is staggering how many layers of plastic are used to wrap any object, especially food. Ditto for paper: employees of both private and government offices love to hand out maps of their neighborhood when giving even the simplest of directions. Japan is very much this balance of ambiguity and precision.
  10. How to build a society of engineers Reading the history of Japan, that for centuries was a land of warriors (samurais), farmers and fishermen that couldn't even build ships, it is a mystery how it transformed (almost overnight) into a nation of engineers. Until the Meiji revolution of the 19th century Japan had virtually no experience in engineering. Once they decided to westernize the country they rapidly learned how to build things (and very often the founder of a manufacturing company would be the descendant of a samurai). After World War II that process accelerated. Unlike China, though, that has thousands of years of tradition in manufacturing, Japan had to start from scratch. Nonetheless Japan came to be the world's role model for engineering. To achieve such a feat a nation needs the skills and the motivation. The skills to build an engine, a watch or a radio were just not there. The state of mind was not the one in Britain, where the industrial revolution had produced over the centuries a mindset biased towards engineering advances. In Japan that motivation could not naturally evolve. But it did.
  11. The source of Japanese wealth When it comes to security, the contrast between Japan and the USA couldn't be stronger: the USA feels like a police state compared with Japan. In Japan you can leave luggage unattended and go buy something (it also helps that thieves don't exist). There is no metal detector when you enter a skyscraper and nobody asks you why you are there. There are still lockers in all train and bus stations where you can store your luggage, and nobody checks their content. Police officers are never suspicious of you: they mostly want to help you find your way around. You can take pictures of any government building. All of this is rapidly disappearing in the USA, that will soon be just a memory of the free country that it used to be. The reason why the Japanese feel so secure is that there is no terrorist group targeting Japan. The reason why no terrorist hates Japan is that Japan is not involved in any conflict in the world. The reason why Japan is at peace with everybody is that someone else is doing the dirty job for it: the USA. Japan does not need to protect itself against North Korea and China: the USA does it. Japan does not need to protect the mercantile routes to the Middle East, Latin America and Europe: the USA does it. Note that those routes are more vital to Japan than the USA: the USA produces about half of the oil it consumes, and imports most of the rest from the Americas (Canada, Mexico, Venezuela), whereas Japan has no oil at all of its own; and the USA economy does not rely on exports to the rest of the world as much as the Japanese economy does. There are no domestic or foreign threats to Japan because the USA absorbs all the risks and all the blame. The spectacular cities of the future that Japan has built since the 1980s would immediately become targets for terrorists if they were located in the USA. Ditto for the monumental railways and government buildings. From the viewpoint of foreign affairs, Japan is largely a worry-free society: someone else is doing all the worrying. To make things even better, the USA is the very country that buys most of what Japan produces. Simplifying a bit, the USA has been patrolling the world so that Japan can build competitive products that it then sells to the USA. The USA pays the bill twice: first with its defense budget (which is essential to protecting Japan's mercantile routes and to maintain peace in the region) and then with all the money that USA consumers spend to buy Japanese goods.

Pictures of Japan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand

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