Milan and Rome

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On Monday September 15 I flew from New York to Milan, and went straight to a business meeting. From there I took the train to Rome. Although I was quite tired upon arrival, I had to stay awake until it was “local time to go to bed” to avoid jet-lag, so I took a stroll through the Piazza della Repubblica, where I had a Panini di melanzana e mozzarella, and Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, where I had a Gelato di canoli (yes, canoli flavor, not a canoli).

The next day, after my meeting, I took the Leonardo Express to Rome’s airport, now called Leonardo da Vinci. The train ticket is €14, but beware of the “hidden fine”! Let me tell you what happened to me, so you can avoid the trap when you attempt to do the same:
I bought the train ticket from the automatic ticket dispenser in the station. I used my credit card, and the machine made me choose the train. I chose one with 20 minutes, plenty of time to go to the tracks and board. The first odd thing is that they only show the track of the Leonardo Express two minutes before it departs, but since it always departs from the same, unmarked, track, or so I learned later, you can go to that track (I believe it is number 22) without waiting for the display to tell you so.
At NO point I was told, by the machine or signs that were sufficiently visible, or in English (or even Italian, since I can speak basic Italian), that I had to “cancel” (or machine-stamp) the ticket.
So I boarded the train, and just as we were arriving into the airport, the conductor showed up, and asked for my ticket. I did present it, and here is the absurd dialog that ensued:

– Sir, you did not “cancel” the ticket, you have to pay a €50 fine.
– Excuse me? I just bought the ticket, I paid with my credit card, here is the receipt.
– Yes, but you did not “cancel” the ticket. The fine is €50.
– How was I supposed to know this? I saw no signs, and this is a train used mostly by tourist, so you can’t expect local customs and regulations to be known without indication.
– I’m sure they put a sign somewhere, anyway you have to pay €50.
– OK, let’s think about this for a second: the reason why some train tickets have to be time-stamped, or “cancelled” as you call it, is because they are open, and therefore time-stamping avoids a second use. But this train company has conductors to “cancel” the tickets on board. Besides, the machine made me choose a time, so I did not buy an open ticket, so why the need to cancel it?
– Because if you don’t cancel the ticket, the gates at the airport will not open. – By then we had arrived to the airport, and everybody was leaving the train –
– OK, if that is the problem, then let me talk to the station manager.

She scribbled something on the ticket, pierced FOUR holes through it, and left, quite disappointed that she did not collect the “let’s abuse the unsuspecting tourist” tax.

When exiting the platform I saw the automatic gates through which passengers had to go, by scanning their ticket. But I also saw one with a station employee, checking tickets manually and opening the gate. So I walked toward him, in order to explain, or request an explanation. But then I thought: “when in Rome…”. How would a contemporary Roman citizen handle this? I timed my steps right, put my thumb over the scribble, and walked right past the employee and open gate. No questions, no explanations, no wasted time, and no €50 fine.
Arrivederci!

In Singapore, day 3: Makansutra Gluttons Bay

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So much traveling, flying, walking, sitting and time zone changes make your body ache, so some exercise is absolutely necessary. In my case, I try to book hotels with swimming pool, so I can swim. In the case of Singapore, given the year round mild climate, I felt like swimming in the outdoors swimming pool to start my third day.

I spent most of the day working, meeting with potential customers. But I had reserved the best for last.

My wife, who by the way was back from her weekend in the Caribbean (I’m not the only one who works hard and “has to endure” tough trips), had sent me this article about Singapore’s street food hawker centers. Although long, it is completely worth reading:
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/09/03/three-chopsticks

So I decided I had to try those. And I went straight to the most famous one: Makansutra Gluttons Bay. Awesome!
In a corner by the Esplanade Theaters and Mall, there is a small stretch with a dozen street food vendors and tables. Do not expect luxury: the trays, plates and silverware are made of plastic, the tables, many of them “comunal”, and chairs are of the most basic variety, and you even have to ask for paper napkins. Do not expect crowd sophistication: a mix of, ay 75% locals and 25% tourists, in jeans and t-shirts. But, we were all there for one thing only: the food. And food they serve you. Incredibly delicious and exquisite food.

While the prices are not dirt cheap, most dishes are a few dollars, so anyone can enjoy a feast. But the key is the variety and gourmet level of the food. I had a seriously hard time choosing, even taking into account that I do not like spicy food, which rules out roughly half of the offering. Still, here is what I had, after much walking up and down, and asking questions:

  • From the Gluttons Bar: coconut and lime juice first, then barley lime.
  • From Old Satay Club: Indian veal crepes (instead of their famous Mee Goreng). Very tender, soft and delicate, with a rich and creamy sauce that apparently they cook for 8 hours with a mix of many spices. Finger-licking good.
  • From Huat Huat: White Carrot Cake (instead of their signature 10 hour BBQ Chicken Wings). It was neither white (rather yellow), nor carrot (it had eggs, spices, seafood, and many other things, but no carrot), nor cake (more like a fancy omelette). But delicious nonetheless.
  • From Thai Yummy Food: lobster balls, and mango green sticky rice with coconut cream. Sweet and surprisingly rich and delicious.
  • From the Sweet Spot: I had to, I must have a duran dessert. So I did. Even although it was covered in ice-cream, with chunks of mango and jelly, the incredibly strong odor of the duran was very obtrusively in your face. While the texture is very tender, the flavor is not mild either. As a matter of fact, I had to endure the aftertaste for over two days! But, mission accomplished.

With my stomach recklessly full, and my taste buds totally excited, I returned to the hotel taking a nice long walk, and admitting that Singapore’s fame as a foodie paradise is very well deserved.

One more food surprise was waiting for me at the last minute: the day of my departure, the flight was SO early that the hotel did not have the breakfast buffet open yet, so I decided to take a quick bite at the airport. Since most places were closed at the airport’s food stall, I had no choice but to go to Hong Kong Sheng Kee Dessert. Lucky me! I had wonderful buns (one filled with “sweet yolk” and the other one with black sesame “mud”) and an osmantius and aloevera drink. The perfect way to end an amazing trip.

Since I might return for my business, here are some places and things to do to keep in mind:

Singapore’s colonial heritage at and around the grassy Padang (an open field in the heart of downtown), starting from Raffles Hotel and ending up at nearby Boat Quay or Clifford Pier; an after-dark stroll through Club Street; a walk down Little India’s Serangoon Road and Mustafa Centre; perusing hip shops and cafes along Arab Street; visiting some flea market (like Zouk flea & easy, Flea Fly Flo Fun, or MAAO Marketlive); jazz at Harry’s; live blues at the Crazy Elephant; all night beach parties on Sentosa Island (if I go with my wife); eating black pepper crabs at the East Coast Seafood Centre; juicy Kobe steaks at CUT by Wolfgang Puck; sushi at Shinji by Kanesaka; exquisite Chinese fare at Summer Pavilion Restaurant; an Indian feast at Rang Mahal; dining in a classic black-and-white colonial bungalow at P.S. Cafe at Harding Road; and of course, more outdoor hawker centers!

Singapore wacky laws

During this trip I have gotten to understand Singapore’s unique history, multicultural – and even more importantly, multi-religion – composition, and political background, better, which leads to an uncommon legislative history and social regulation needs. Having said that, there is a souvenir industry revolving around Singapore’s wacky laws. From mugs to magnets, from t-shirts to shot glasses, all kind of mementos make fun of these fines, that have earned Singapore “the FINE city” nickname:

  • Giving a public speech: $2,000
  • Skateboarding: $500
  • Possession of pornography: $500. Note: even being naked in your own house or hotel room, if visible from the outside, could be considered “pornography”!
  • Smoking: $500
  • Littering: $1,000 first conviction, $5,000 and community labor second conviction
  • Not flushing the toilet: $150
  • Dancing without license: $5,000
  • Urinating in elevators: $1,000
  • Chewing gum: $1,000
  • Graffiti: caning and jail
  • Hugging in public without permission of the other person: fine and possible jail
  • Criticizing religion = sedition!
  • Introducing a stranger as your good friend and speak well of him on false grounds = abetment
  • Connecting on unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots = hacking
  • Oral and anal sex was illegal until 2007 unless it lead to vaginal sexual intercourse!
  • Homosexual relations (even in private) = 2 years in jail

In Singapore, day 2: Suntec City, Din Tai Fung, Gardens by the Bay, and Marina Sands Bay

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In the morning I had a business meeting with Dr. Ho at Suntec City, (home of the world largest HD screen), where I also attended the Medical Asia trade show. It wasn’t easy to get there, because the Formula 1 preparations had many streets closed to pedestrians, so I had to navigate my way around a maze of hotels and shopping malls. In one of them, the Marina Square, I saw a Mr. Bean’s Teddy & Me theme restaurant, and a few steps later a store clerk that looked exactly like Eva Mendes in her early twenties tried to flirt with me. Quite a surreal morning.

The meeting with Dr. Ho went well, but the trade show was quite weak, so by the afternoon, I had covered every single exhibitor.

The first thing I did before going anywhere else was have lunch at a landmark restaurant: Din Tai Fung. No wonder it has a Michelin Star and made it to the New York Times top 10 chain restaurants in the world. Their Xiao Long Bao was absolutely exquisite. The problem with tasting such delicacies is that now I am spoiled, and will not be satisfied with any less than the famous 18-folds.

After that delicious lunch, I crossed the Helix Bridge, going past the lotus shaped and oddly named Art Science Museum, through the Marina Bay Sands, straight into Gardens by the Bay.

Costing over S$1 billion, it which looks like something out of a science fiction movie. The Bay Garden South section features 18 striking “supertrees,” which are tall constructions made of steel and concrete modeled after giant mammoth trees that are illuminated at night. Twice a day the play a music/lights show (“Supertree Rhapsody” I believe they called it) that is worth watching. I caught mine at 20:45h.

An aerial walkway connects the two biggest trees. The IndoChine restaurant is located on top of the tallest tree, which is 164 ft/50 m high. Some of these trees produce electricity with solar cells. They serve as vertical gardens, but they also ventilate and irrigate the gigantic state-of-the-art conservatories housing 220,000 plants from endangered habitats.

The Flower Dome has plants that grow in temperate Mediterranean and subtropical climate zones, while the Cloud Forest recreates a cool mountain forest of the tropics including an artificial cloud mountain with a 115-ft/35-m waterfall. One can’t help but wonder if, very soon, we will be talking about nature in past tense, and visiting artificial domes to be able to experience “wonders from the past” like flowers or animals.

Four Heritage Gardens feature Chinese, Indian, Malay and Colonial Gardens surrounding the Supertree Grove at the northwestern corner.

Striking as it is when you first see it, it is even more spectacular if it’s dark when you leave, and look back.

Before leaving for Singapore, I asked fellow NY expat Iñaki Berenguer, who goes to Singapore often, for suggestions: “Lo que no te puedes perder es subir arriba del hotel que tiene el barco en la azotea (marina sands bay) y tomar un drink mientras ves las vistas” (“You can’t miss going on top of the hotel with the boat on top (marina sands bay) and have a drink while enjoying the views”) he told me.

Obvious as that sounds, he’s absolutely right. The view is breathtaking, and the atmosphere is not as touristy as one would imagine. Or perhaps it’s the fact that there are so many expats in Singapore that rarely anyone seems like a tourist any more.

Before calling it a day, I watched the cheesy but cute nightly water and light show by the bay. Perhaps an even more interesting “show” were the luxury cars parked in front of hotels: a constant display of excess, a reminder of the socioeconomic differences that are prevalent in the whole world, and rapidly becoming extremely apparent in SE Asia.

In Singapore, day 1: Clarke Quay, Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore Art Museum, Chinatown and Little India

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NOTE: For some reason WordPress does not show all the pictures from that day (September 7), but you can access MORE PHOTOS here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jcortell/sets/72157647043529148/

I try not to have preconceived notions about a destination. But one can’t help to associate Singapore with high rises, luxury, order and cleanliness brought about by strict laws. As I was about to find out, there is plenty of all that, and reasons for it, but Singapore is also much more than that.

Singapore is one of the two busiest seaports in the world, along with Hong Kong. About three times the size of Washington, D.C., it is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, just after Monaco.

I arrived at midnight, and after a very quick and easy immigration procedure, all I wanted was to get to the hotel and go to sleep, which is what I did.

The next day I decided to take a walk along the river, from Clarke Quay where my hotel was, to the Civic District. Of course, right after the Parliament House and the Arts House there was the Asian Civilizations Museum. Yay!

The Museum is a fascinating view on the history of Asia, particularly South East Asia. I learned a lot, and enjoyed immensely, although I wish the lightning was less “dramatic” and more practical for museum purposes. Even the glass they chose for the exhibits was not the right one. Call me museum snob. But other than that, it was really cool.

After the ACM I walked past the Victoria Theater Concert Hall and the massive National Art Gallery, currently under construction (opening next year), stopping in front of the Supreme Court to tweet a picture and a comment about the ruling that made oral sex illegal in Singapore unless it led to sexual intercourse (more on the wacky laws later).

I realized that yet again, I had put my hunger for art in front of my real hunger. Singapore is a well known foodie paradise, and I had a long list of dishes I wanted to try and street food hawker centers and restaurants I wanted to visit. Yet, for breakfast I wanted Ka Ya, a coconut-egg spread usually served with toast. I had mine at Ya Kun Kaya Toast in Funan Digital Life Center, served with the fluffiest steamed bread I have ever tried, and with soy drink that tasted unlike any other soy drink I’ve had before. Extremely delicious. A very promising start to a foodie journey.

Full of energy again, I walked over to the legendary Raffles Hotel, with its Long Bar, where the national cocktail “the sling” was invented.
In order to avoid the exhausting sun and humidity, I went through the Raffles City complex connecting the Swissotel and The Fairmont. There I found the Odetoart Contemporary art gallery. I was in shock. Not only did they have an incredible collection of top ticket contemporary art works, which I enjoyed tremendously. But there were many customers inside and they were all buying art! We’re talking very expensive art, charging it to their platinum cards as if they had just bought a jacket! I guess with all the Lotus, Audi A8, Maybach, Bentley and the like parked in the area, I should not be surprised. But still. Wow.

From there I crossed the street to to Chjimes, the former church and convent-school refurbished into a shopping center with food gallery. But my final destination was the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).

I share many people’s views that too strict and controlling of a society may be “comfortable” and “clean”, but too much cleanness and you have a sterile environment in which innovation and creativity just choke and die. That is what I feared Singapore was like. And it might have been going in that direction, but I saw several examples of attempts to keep creativity alive. One was the SAM.

An expertly curated large collection of mostly contemporary Asian pieces, playful and engaging, I stayed there for hours and loved every minute of it.

Disclaimer: the exhibition featured one of my drawings (“Banksy was here. NOT! What is art? THINK+COMMUNICATE”), and my picture was featured in the work of another artist, Philippines born Tad Ermitaño. Yet, I think I am being objective when I say it is an amazing museum with great pieces.

I was particularly drawn to the work of Alan Oei, and there were many reasons why. An artist-curator, he created fictional artist Huang Wei both as a conduit and device to unravel his conundrum, and also becoming a medium himself by doing so. I have designed and sketched, in my thick book of projects, a project just like that one.

After going through the temporary exhibition “Sensorium 360º”, I noticed I still had time to cross the street and go to the National Museum. Since it was late, I could not see the whole collection, but I liked the “street food” exhibition.

To my surprise, in the hall past the museum store, there was a “Steinway No. 1 Historic Exhibition” with legendary pianos by New York piano makers Steinway & Sons like the Number 1 (1836), the Wagner (1876), and the Square (1855). There was also a B-211 and a Chinese family was getting a private access to it for purchase. Their teenage son played it to test it, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. What a gifted pianist! I just sat down with them, and loved the performance. Of course the sound of the piano itself was divine. While nobody had invited me to their party, my enthusiastic applause was well received by them with broad smiles. It was the least I could do for such beautiful gift.

With the music still lingering in my ears, I took the subway in Orchard Road to go to Chinatown.

I have been in many Chinatowns (San Francisco, New York, etc), but this was different. Obviously turned into a giant tourist attraction, with the same shops (Temple Street) selling the same souvenirs (like Steve Jobs nanoblocks figurine, WTF?) as anywhere else, what gives Singapore’s Chinatown its unique flavor is a combination of the colonial houses, and the mind-blowing food stalls, restaurants (Smith Street) and courts (Hong Lim Complex). I had a giant crab with noodles for dinner, and it was so large it took me over an hour to wrestle that beast into submission with my own hands and deprive it of its last string of meat, which combined with the delicate noodles and fresh coconut water, made it an amazing dinner.

I had read it was the monk’s festival week, and I did not want to leave without checking the famous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. I was in for a treat. They were praying inside, and then there was dragon dance and lantern procession, and other things I did not understand.
My picture of the head monk praying with the cash register in the background, or the dragon boys smoking before the dance, may not be technically too good, but they are priceless.

Tired as I was, I was decided to keep discovering more of Singapore, to try to have a clearer picture of it, ahead of my business meetings with Singaporeans. So I used my last bit of energy to get in the subway and go to Little India.

Little India, as you would expect, is filthier and more chaotic. It still feels completely safe, like the whole island. But since it was too late for their up-and-coming art galleries to be opened, I decided to call it a day.

On my way to the hotel, I noticed a sign on the door of the Rasputin Club: no visible tattoos.
I guess it’s not only Japan that may have a problem with my right arm tattoos…

In Tokyo, day 4: Roppongi art triangle and TV Asahi

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My last day in Tokyo started with a n00b mistake: my phones, computer, calendar, and travel apps have different times (I have to keep tabs of New York, Valencia, and local time when I travel), that’s why I wear an awesome Casio solar atomic watch that has world time. But somehow I did not take into account the “international day line”, so I kept checking the time right… but not the date!

By lucky chance, when I was about to leave the Ryokan, the owner mentioned “are you going to check out before you go sightseeing?”.
– What? – I said, not understanding if she was kicking me out for having conference calls in the middle of the night, or if she had the dates wrong.
– You are leaving today, right?
– Well, I thought I was leaving tomorrow, but now that you mention it… let me double check… oh &$%/&%/“!!!

So I went up to the room, packed, checked-out, left the luggage in reception, and decided to make the best possible use of the few hours I have left. I had the day planned in two sections, when I was still convinced I would have a full day to enjoy, so I had to choose only one, and as usual, art wins. And since I had not yet visited the area before, off to Roppongi it was.

In order to save time, I decided to get something for breakfast from the vending machine in the train station.
– What, the machine is out of pumpkin-chocolate chip mousse? OK, this day has not started well. And here comes the train, oh well, I’ll eat art for breakfast.

Even the sky was sad and it started to rain for the first and last time in my trip. But it all changed when I got to Roppongi.

It was too much to cover even in a few days, so I decided to focus on the highlights: the Art Triangle. First I went to the Suntory Museum of Art in the MidTownCenter, but they were showing a mono-thematic exhibition of Bohemian Glass in which I was not interested. Same with the 21_21 Design Sight: advertising posters exhibition. Since I did not have time to weave through streets looking for the triangle’s many art galleries (Art Unlimited, MA, T&G, Le Bain, Axis, Shonandai MY, art labo, etc), I headed towards my next destination, the nearby National Art Center.

The National Art Center did not disappoint me. They had two exhibitions: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay “The Birth of Impressionism”, which is a fine exhibition, but I had already seen those pieces in Paris, and the NIKA Art Exhbition.

The 100 year-old NIKA Art Association puts up a couple of shows each year. This was the 99th show at the NAC. Three floors chock full (too tightly packed, if you ask me) of Painting, Sculpture, Design and Photography. Talk about art overdose. I was in heaven. It was so refreshing, different, interesting. I love it. So much so that I acquired a work (photography this time) from the National Art Center for my collection.

Then I went to the third vertex of the triangle: the Mori Art Museum, on the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower. But the Mori, I found out, is closed for refurbishment until January 2016. They sure have a nice store, but I had to keep moving.

Before I left for the airport there was one more thing I had to do: next door were the headquarters of TV Asahi, producers, among other fine programs, of Doraemon and Crayon Shin Chan. I had to go there. I had to.

In the atrium between the shopping center and TV Asahi they were holding the Belgian Beer Week, with live music and food stalls. Tempting. But I was on a mission. And I was rewarded by picture opportunities and souvenirs that you can’t find anywhere else. My kids are only going to be little for so long. This is the time for such foolishness.

Back in the hotel, picking up my luggage to go to the airport, I realized that with all that art, I had not had breakfast, the most important meal for me. So I went around the corner to get a Donburi and Sashimi for ¥500. Delicious and awesome value.

Full of energy, but sad for leaving with the impression that there was much much more (http://artspacetokyo.com/artmaps/) to be enjoyed and discovered, I left towards the airport in the direct KS line train with one thought in mind. Next time, I won’t be alone. Japan is to awesome to enjoy it by myself, and it has to be incredible to share it with a loved one. There are too many things I am still to see and do in Tokyo: Koenji and Shimokitazawa, ZenyaRen “food theme park”, Ghibli Museum, Hara Museum, Watari Museum, SCAI the Bathhouse, Mount Takao, Tokyo Tower, Gotokuji…; and many that I wanted to repeat and I did not get to this time: Nakano Broadway, Omotesando, Meijingu-mae st., a Daiso, Cando, Donki, o Seria, KiddyLand…

Even the restaurant scene is awesome, with Tokyo having 14 triple-Michelin-starred restaurants – the most in the world.

Beyond that, of course, there are day excursions that I would love to take, like Mount Fuji, Kamakura, Nikko, Yokohama, Kawagoe, Narita, Nagatoro, Mount Mitake or Mount Nokogiri. And other cities, starting with Kyoto all the way to Okinawa.

Unfortunately, one experience that it seems I will not be having is an Onsen, due to my being tattooed. I wonder where the Yakuza bathe.

So I will return, and I would love to do it with my wife and kids. I can imagine my son’s eyes in Robot Restaurant or in Mandarake. Or my daughter’s in KiddyLand. Tokyo is the safest city in the world. You don’t have to worry if you lose your wallet: ¥3 billion in cash is returned to its owners every year, and according to UN statistics, Tokyo’s homicide rate is a mild 0.4 per 100,000 people – compared to a more “frightening” 5.6 in New York (which we in NY consider super low and safe).

In the meantime, I will be watching NHK World Bagin Japanology, Journeys in Japan, Tokyo Eye, Kawaii International, and Kabuki Kool ^_^

In Tokyo, day 3: Tsukiji, Ueno, Ameyayokocho, and Shinjukku

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NOTE: For some reason WordPress does not show all the pictures from that day (September 6), but you can access more photos from that day here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jcortell/sets/72157647279455961/

I really meant to make it to Tsukiji fish market early. Not that I am that interested in the fish auction, but I want to see all the fish before it is cut and packaged or sold. That means getting there before 8am. So I set the alarm at 5am. More than enough to check emails, videoconference with my wife, shower, get dressed and get there, right? Wrong. Hours of non-stop emails had me glued to the futon until I just closed the lid of my laptop and said “enough”. At least I made it there before 9am.

The market is right behind the subway station. A cute billboard with cartoon characters explains the rules. Basically “get out of the way and don’t bother the people who are trying to work there”. Got it.

That’s another one of those places where I would enjoy even better with a real camera. But I also had a blast with my phone. It’s quite picturesque. Of course all that fresh fish makes you hungry (unless you see “fish corpses”, in which case it may make you want to go vegan). Since I’m a hesitant pescatarian – I want to be vegan but I can’t help enjoying fish, a lot –, I went into one of the multiple joints that serve sashimi right there, and waited in line for a good half an hour. Damn morning emails and lazy tourists. But was it worth it? Oh, yes.

What can I say? Of course, the most delicious and freshest sashimi I have had in my life, prepared right in front of me. One suggestion: don’t spoil the taste by ordering sushi, or adding soy sauce or even washabi. Trust me: in Tsukiji you want sashimi, as raw, fresh, and pure as it gets.

I felt like not having anything after that. Could I hold the flavor in my mouth for hours, please? But then I saw a stall selling wagashi, and another one selling tamago on a stick (yes, sweet omelette, on a stick), and I couldn’t resist.

After that I headed to Ueno, another area that I had not manage to cover in my previous trips.

How did anyone let me miss visiting Ueno? It is awesome.

The park is quite large, although not as gigantic like Central Park. Still, it’s beautiful, full of paths, shrines, temples, and museums.

Starting from the Frog Fountain in the South, and heading North, if you keep left, soon you find Shinobazu pond and Benten-do temple. It was covered with lotus plants about to bloom. I saw what seemed to be the first lotus flower of the season. Then a string of beautiful and peaceful shrines and temples led me to the impressive Kiyomizu Kannon-do, then the Zoo area (with their major attraction: the pandas), and then to the Metropolitan Art Museum. I’ll admit it is hard to visit a Metropolitan Museum when we have the MET in NY. It’s still worth a visit, but in my humble opinion it pales in comparison to the Tokyo National Museum a few meters away.

Those meters, though, were filled with local artists, including Agata Yamaguchi, and artisans. It was a pleasure to see their creations, and even better to recognize illustrator Chiho sitting in the park, and begging her to make a character sketch out of my wife’s picture. Awesome!

Once inside the Tokyo National Museum, I could not stop marveling at the vast selection of Asian art they have, divided in several buildings so large each of them could easily be an independent museum on their own. I visited Honkan, the Japanese art gallery; Toyokan, the Asian art gallery; and the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures. Plus I also enjoyed the garden and tea house.

From sculpture to painting, ukiyo-e, drawing, garment design, weapons (yes, some of those Katana actually have names and are famous!), archeological findings, pottery, photography, masks, fans, calligraphy, tea utensils… you name it. Of course perfectly selected and displayed, completely clean, beautiful, informative, and easy to follow. The ideal museum.

My next stop was the Tokyo Museum of Western Art, but again a “closed” sign sabotaged my plans to see more art. Perhaps to force me to see and enjoy the park. Which I did. In particular the Shogi-tai soldiers grave-yard.

Little did I know that the Ueno War (May 15, 1868) delimited Edo era and Meiji Restoration. In this war a group of old government Tokugawa soldiers named Shogi-tai fought against the army of the new government. Does it ring a bell? Was I standing in front of the tombs of “The last samurai” (they do not even mention it)? That was quite an unexpected highlight. I feel an enormous respect for that group, so I did bow and paid my respect to those who faced certain deaths for a way of understanding life. You may see them as suicidal stubborn extremist. I see them as determined brave followers of the bushi-do, a philosophy (or rather a way of understanding life) that has influenced me ever since I read about it decades ago.

To try to get back to the present, and to lighten up a very deep day, I walked down “Ameyayokocho”, one of the very few Tokyo open markets, where I saw the crazy prices for perfect white peaches: from ¥600 to ¥3,500 (a durian will set you back ¥5,000, and it will make your whole house stink for days), and dried-everything, from whole squids to all kinds of fish.

From a street vendor I got some cheese-filled puffy-pastry and tofu to go, and then from a store up the street a small chestnut-cream filled cake.

I love Japanese food!

Before calling it a day I made a final stop in Shinjukku, not my favorite neighborhood by any means, whose streets were packed full of people going in all directions. I was there to check out the Shinjukku Creators Festa (not that impressive if you ask me), and walk the isles of the Tokyo Hands department store.

The pachinko around the corner from my hotel had become a familiar sight that almost induced sleep in me. It was either that or I was so exhausted that I almost fell to sleep before making it to my room.

In Tokyo, day 2: meeting, MOT, Imperial Palace, International Forum, Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo Station, Character Street, and Tokyo SkyTree

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NOTE: For some reason WordPress does not show all the pictures from that day (September 5), but you can access MORE PHOTOS HERE: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jcortell/sets/72157647266817555/

I woke up early, but I had a ton of emails to reply to, so I left my room quite late. Instead of breakfast, I had octopus balls for “brunch” on my way to a business meeting with Komaki-san at the Royal Park Hotel.

The meeting went quite well, and after that I went to the hotel, dropped my laptop, changed out of my suit, and headed to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOT). I had already been there before, but since I could not see the whole museum (long story, I was not alone on that trip…), I decided to tackle it completely this time.

I remembered how, although it is not that easy to get to from the subway station, there are plenty of signs that do lead you there. This time the streets were lined with cute large size figures made by area kids.

When I finally got there, I was extremely disappointed to see that the museum was going to be closed for 25 days. I found out later that they were changing exhibitions, but at the time, all I could see was a sign that said “Closed” and a bunch of Japanese kanji. Not a good way to start the day! But I smiled at the thought of those street figures being all the art I needed to start the day, and I went back to the subway station to go to the Imperial Palace.

Obviously one “does not simply enter the Imperial Palace”. But the gardens are beautiful, and the palace and walls from the outside are nothing less than iconic.

Then I headed to the Tokyo International Forum. Its amazing architectural structure made it easy to find. Outside, the main stage for the Tokyo Jazz Festival had just been set up, so I enjoyed the first concert, and while I could have just sit there for the next three days, I had to move on: too much to do and see to remain still!

Inside the Tokyo International Forum I enjoyed the zen calligraphy of Mitsuo Aida, and then, after wondering how can the Japanese keep everything SO clean (and I mean even under the train tracks in passageways!) I moved on to Loft and Muji. Loft was full of interesting stuff, and I bought a couple of souvenirs there. On the other hand, Muji is everywhere, so I almost passed on it, but a pair of jeans called my name, so I got them too.

Before heading back towards the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, I decided to see the Godzilla statue. That proved to be difficult! Since most Japanese do not speak English, and my Japanese is useless outside a restaurant, my asking for directions gave way to many funny situations. You see, the Japanese tend to disguise their feelings and thoughts quite well, so to get reactions out of them is no easy task. But asking for “Godzilla” downtown Tokyo surely does the trick. None of them knew they had a Godzilla statue in the neighborhood, and some, by the wacky look in their faces, must have thought I believed Godzilla really existed and was asking for directions to its lair. Suimasen!!?!!?? ^_^ But finally this otaku made it, took the picture of the small statue, and left.

The style of the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum was visible from very far away, since it is a 2009 reconstruction of the original building of the Mitsubishi Ichigokan completed in 1894 and designed by British architect Josiah Conder. I did not have it amongst my required stops, even with its over 200 Henri Toulouse-Lautrec works (I just saw a nice Henri Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at MoMA in New York a week before!), but they are currently exhibiting Félix Vallotton – Fire beneath the ice, so I had to see it. And it was totally worth it.

The next stop was Tokyo Station. It has recently been renovated, and it looks great. But I was looking for something more “pop”: Character Street in 1st Avenue Tokyo Station.

Tucked in the underground level (B1F Yaesu exit) of the subway/train station, in the commercial gallery, there is a full street of kawaii, store after store dedicated to fictional characters from movies, TV shows, manga, and anime: Ghibli characters (in Donguri Garden), Riakkuma, BooBo, PlaRail, Tomika, Dragon Ball, Domo, Wallace and Grommit, Curious George, Miffy, Ultraman, Mono, One Piece, Crayon Shin Chan, Doraemon, Despicable Me Minions, Pokemon, Tamagotchi 4U, Lego, Snoopy, etc, you name it, it’s there. They even have a kawaii character that is… and egg!! Fried, broken, in the shell, the cutest egg you have ever seen. And how about the fruit store that sells kawaii-shaped watermelons, like Olaf from Frozen, or a heart-shaped watermelon? Of course I got my kids some stuff there. To top it off, the Gundam cafe, where even the food they serve has robot face-shape.

The most unbelievable sight of all, though, was the incredible long line to purchase gourmet pop-corn at Garret. Insane! Now I don’t feel so bad when someone points at the absurdity of trend-following New Yorkers and their ridiculous lines.

On my way back to the hotel, and since it was a clear night (remember: don’t do this on a cloudy day or night) I decided to go to the top of Tokyo SkyTree, outside of which I see a sticker on the sidewalk reminding everyone that in Sumida it’s against the law to smoke in the street. Way to go!

Opened in May 2012 and rising to a height of 634m, the Tokyo Skytree is officially the tallest tower in the world, beating down its rival in Dubai (the 828m Burj Khalifa is technically a ‘structure’).

I’ll just say this: you HAVE TO go see it. Hop on a plane and travel to Tokyo right now. OK, I’m biased because I love that city, but still: un-fucking-believable.

Warning: when the elevator, which travels at 600m/min, opens its doors and you see right there, in front of you, the breathtaking sight of never-ending Tokyo at night, your heart will skip a beat, and you may shed a tear. I did. It means you are alive after all, or at least that’s what it means in my case.

As far as the eye can see, all 360º, the sight is incredible. Unbelievable. Indescribable. Although I keep trying, I have no words for it.

As a nice bonus, the interactive multi-touch large LCD screens scattered around the observatory allow you to zoom-in, to see it at day or night, and to tell you the story of that particular view. Another great feature: the glass floor where you can look straight down. Wow.

I meant to spend a few minutes there. By the time I looked at my watch, it was nearly two hours later. I had been going around and staring into the twinkling lights for two hours, and it felt like a second.

I doubt anyone can see that and not have deep philosophical questions rise in their heads. I will not share mine here. Not the time or place. But it made me think. A lot. About many things. And it made me say one sentence that I repeated several times this trip: “I wish you were here”. I wonder if she heard me in her dreams.

Before hitting the futon, I had sushi and green tea mochi on a stick. Too bad nana’s green tea was closed, because I could have enjoyed one of their 60 drinks in their menu. Oh, well, it’s not like in this trip I have not had half a dozen of great green teas already ;-)

In Tokyo, day 1: Asakusa

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The trip started with serious work.

During the flight from Newark to Narita there were many movies available in the personal entertainment system, some quite appealing since I would not easily have access to them; movies like a selection from Tribeca Film Festival, Bolt from the Blue, Genome Hazard, Horseplay, Samurai Hustle, The Monkey King, The Snow White Murder Case, or TV shows like Hanasaki Mai Speaks Out, Happy Camp, Secret Series, Tasty Road, Treasures of the Country… but I had access to electrical current outlet plug, so I slept 4 hours and worked on my laptop for 9 hours straight, with “Creep” by Radiohead playing in single repeat mode. I love the song, and lyrics, since I re-discovered through the cover in Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem’s soundtrack.

Thanks to SeatGuru I knew I would have access to electricity, that’s why I self-imposed a tough challenge: to write a “Translational Bioinformatics Innovation” textbook for my students at the Open University of Catalonia (in Spanish), in one flight. In order to put more pressure onto myself, I tweeted it, #ChallengeAccepted hashtag included. And, guess what? I did it! Of course it needs a lot of editing. I might even translate it to English. In any case, as soon as it is completely ready, I will post it here for anyone to download with a CC (0) or )S( license, so anyone will be able to modify it, copy it, and even sell it.

Once I arrived to Narita I took the KS line straight to my hotel, 55min., located in Sumida, literally across the new Tokyo SkyTree Tower.

It was almost two days after I left, since we crossed the international day line, and although I do not “suffer” from jet-lag, I felt a little disoriented, so I stuck to my rule of thumb: no matter what my body asks me to do, when I arrive at a destination, I must adjust to the local time. That meant I had to remain awake for a few more hours before finally laying down on my futon. Time to hit Tokyo streets!

In any other destination that would have meant exploring new places. I am hungry for experiences and knowledge, so I usually I refrain from repeating locations. Tokyo is different. My favorite city in the world, I felt nostalgia of Tokyo, which added to my disorientation, meant I was going to take a walk around a familiar place: Asakusa.

A few steps from the A line station the Kaminarimon gate greeted me like an old friend. After a check-in (not easy, since all the places listed were in Japanese), I wandered in zigzag through Nakamise street and its parallels, like a foreplay slowly and inevitable leading to my rendezvouz with the Senso-ji temple.

“I need a new, better camera”, I thought. My phone’s camera is not enough, specially in dim light. And the sunset was making it a challenge to take pictures that were a piece of cake with the old DSLR that my ex-wife kept. But the garden, temple, figures, gate, streets… all stood there as if posing for me, as if they had been waiting for me for centuries. I don’t have any doubt that I feel a special connexion with Tokyo, and all things Japanese. But as with anything in life and love, one has to learn to also let go and not try to “hold” too much. So I said good night to the fish in the pond, and took Nakamise, where I bought a delicious green tea and sweet white bean paste fried bun. That gave me the energy I needed to walk back to the hotel, instead of taking the subway.

Not that I know my way around Tokyo’s streets that well, but the SkyTree is such a visible beacon, like the Empire State building in NY, that I felt confident I would have no problem going back; and I didn’t.

After taking pictures of the Asahi Beer Hall, with its golden “drop” or “foam” structure on top, from the Azuma-bashi bridge, I went through Solamachi’s Food Marche (2F) knowing what an overwhelming feeling of joy it is to see all those food vendors together, specially the sweets. Japanese restaurants outside Japan do not usually have that many (or good) dessert options, so we Westeners tend to think the Japanese do not make good desserts. How wrong we are! Beyond Wagashi, their confectionary is top notch, and of course it is presented in the most delicate and harmonious way, like everything they wrap. One example: after a delicious (and very affordable) tray of sashimi, I had the best pear-and-cream crêpe I have had in my life (and I have had excellent crêpes in many places, including countless cities and towns in France).

With my tummy full and my palate happy, still licking my whiskers, I made it to the hotel, where Kuma, the hotel’s owners pug dog, was awaiting me to play. Fun! Now time to hit the futon.

Acquiring a work of art from the Guggenheim Museum in New York

August 30th my wife and I acquired another work of art for our collection.

In this case we chose Colombian contemporary artist Carlos Motta: “Brief history of US Interventions in Latin America since 1946, 2005/14″ (Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund 2014.39).

It is part of a series produced by Carlos Motta between 2005 and 2009 that present two chronologies of events in Latin America: one of U.S. interventions in the region since 1946, and one of the area’s leftist guerrilla movements. One side of the print outlines the interventions’ interconnected narratives in text; the other depicts two bloody handprints and the symbol of the Mano Blanca death squads from the 1980s El Salvador.