Hokkaido

Since it was in the flight path of a North Korean intermediate range ballistic missile, the lovely, lush Japanese island of Hokkaido was my day trip destination last week. That’s where I met up with Japanese-Canadian fixer Shizuka Andersen and rushed off through the countryside to yet-another-Japanese-town that felt a bit post-apocalyptic because it was originally built for a much larger population than lives there now.

Shizuka doesn’t drive, leaving me to fumble my way through driving on the left side of the road again (which means I kept turning the wipers on and off when I wanted to signal) and at one point drove at least two kilometers on the wrong side of the road before realizing I was driving straight into oncoming traffic and sharing a freak-out screeching car-veering moment with Shizuka. I also flew into and out of Hokkaido in one day, so thank God we went to Lawson’s (a Japanese convenience store) at the airport and stocked up on my go to konbini snacks: the egg salad sandwich, salmon onigiri, Jagariko and a lighly sweetened iced tea.

As we were driving the 90 minutes through fields of postcard-pretty green farms and their multi-colored barns, we scarfed down “lunch” in order to make it to Maple Tree Elementary School (student body: 60) in time for a missile attack drill! So bucolic out there for a war time anachronism, but such is life these days in Northeast Asia. Reported that story in lickety split so we had time to turn around and get back to the airport, and it was only when I went to fill up the gas tank before returning the rental car that I realized I spent the day with pesky onigiri rice stuck to my shirt. I guess no one noticed.

Next time I am definitely spending enough time in Hokkaido to AT LEAST try the onsen that’s inside the airport.

Missile drill, 2017.

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Charmed

At any Shinto shrine you can get various omamori — lucky charms or talismans to provide protection and good luck. There is the generic one for “victory,” which is reliable, but also for very specific wishes, like a new job, or “traffic safety” or “beauty of legs and skin.” Since I am on my final Tokyo reporting trip before baby, I went to Meijijingu (shrine) specifically for the “speedy and safe delivery” charm for #3, but then saw the one “for soundness of mind and body of child” and thought, well I should get that covered, too. So now baby has both. And I’m out $20.

Just covering my spiritual bases.

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Random Dinners: The One At The Japanese Ambassador’s Residence

The beautiful starter, which included pumpkin, octopus, shrimp, sweet potato and peas.

Japan and Korea have famously rocky ties dating to the various times in history Japan has tried to conquer Korea and the whole actually-colonizing-Korea bit in the early part of the 20th century. Imperial Japan did cruel things, like take tens of thousands of young, poor Korean girls into sexual slavery to serve at “comfort stations” during wartime. (I have detailed the UN report on this on my work blog.) The issue isn’t over. In fact, because Korea has continued to allow statue tributes to the comfort women despite a verbal agreement with Japan in December 2015 to resolve the issue “for good,” Japan is not pleased and pulled its ambassador to Seoul and its consul general in Busan.

That’s where a diplomatic row intersected with my Friday night plans. A few of the Seoul-based international bureau chiefs had been invited to dinner at the Japanese Ambassador’s residence, high atop a gorgeous mountain near Seoul’s city center. It has an immaculate Japanese garden, from what I’d been told. When I was in Tokyo earlier in the week, the thought they might cancel the dinner crossed my mind. But no! Dinner was on. We went ahead and ate at the ambassador’s house without the host, the ambassador.

Diplomat Sato-san, seated with the yellow tie, hosted a goodbye dinner because he is off to New York soon.

Part of the reason we were able to enjoy ourselves anyway was because the ambassador’s chef, who was brought in from Japan exclusively for him and his events, was NOT recalled to Tokyo. He was around to make us a traditional kaiseki (multi-course) dinner, which includes an appetizer, soup, sashimi, simmered dish, grilled dish, tempura dish, shokuji and dessert. Everyone agreed this place serves the best Japanese food you can get in Seoul, and Japanese is my ultimate favorite cuisine so it did not disappoint.

I’m not supposed to eat yellowtail or tuna due to incubating the baby but this was too delicious. So was the sake, since I had to take a shot because I am a hedonist with no willpower.

Steak tempura, and underneath the paper was folded into an origami crane, because, of course.

I only took pics of appetizers because once we really got down into the kaiseki’s many courses, I was just focused on eating.

As usual, outnumbered by men.

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2016 Year In Review: What Just Happened Here?

In July, with my fixer Akane, in the Japanese Alps reporting on a traditional naked festival.

Ah, 2016. A year so seemingly bad that it became its own internet meme. Not only was the soul-sucking U.S. presidential election rather horrifying, but artistic icons kept dying — Bowie, Prince, now George Michael. Mix in another hottest year on record, Brexit, the ongoing refugee crisis, rising nativism all over the world, nuclear tests by North Korea and it’s easy to get a girl down, you know?

In the micro sense, my 2016 was a tornado of travel and jet lag but rather charmed and full of surprises, like the new baby in my belly. (WHAT!? Still processing, but running out of time for it to sink in.) It was a year for much Japan exploration, and full of friends and weekend getaways all over the place — Cebu, Bangkok, Okinawa, New York, London, Seattle and more.

Notable Firsts: The G7 summit, airport transportation by high-speed boat, flight with the U.S. Treasury Secretary, police-escorted motorcade through Beijing, aka, experiencing Beijing without its infamous traffic, gong bath (it is a thing), Go tournament, hosting an NPR show, getting a compliment from the president, kabuki show, naked man festival. (Some details below.)

Recurring Theme: Jet lag. Naps. Longing for booze and not being able to drink it.

Favorite Selfie: My brother Roger Hu goofing off with daughter Eva (and a magnifying glass) when we were all in Taipei for the Lunar New Year.

New Person: A new Hu was born on December 1, after 48 hours of labor. My little brother Roger is now a dad, to baby boy Ethan Hu. Another E-Hu in the family makes me so proud. I can’t wait to meet him.

Eva and Uncle Roger’s giant nose

Regrets: I didn’t call my friends who I don’t meet up with in random cities. Going to make a more concerted effort in 2017.

Randomness: Pineapple Park, y’all. Hostile environment training. Dairy Queen in Laos.

Notable New Friend: CNN International’s Saima Moshin, who I technically met in 2015. But we really solidified our friendship this year, and I’m better for it.

New countries: Philippines, Thailand, Laos

And in no particular order…
Asked the Deputy US Secretary of State about North Korea’s hangover free booze
Watched traditional kabuki performed by children up in the mountains
Attended first Japanese naked man festival, featuring not men but boys (yikes)
Got attacked by a raccoon, who then STOLE my mic
Slept through Taiwan’s big February earthquake, had to do a bunch of TV to talk about it
Learned enough cab Korean to get around
Gave Isabel a Korean first birthday party
Ran out of passport pages
Went back and forth to Japan 11 times
Went to Hawaii for work … twice
Thought a lot about smog
Watched artificial intelligence beat a 9-time world champ at Go
Covered the President’s historic (and moving) visit to Hiroshima
Passed up a chance to live in Shanghai
(Went back-and-forth for awhile before making a decision)
Guest hosted Weekend Edition
Interviewed Omarosa
Had soooo many karaoke (or in Korea, norebang) nights
Played The Sunday Puzzle with NYT Crossword Editor Will Shortz
Somehow got knocked up again, hrmmm
Learned how to tie a tourniquet really quickly, and to make one
Achieved objective of reading a lot more books than last year
Asked President B-H-O about North Korea on his final Asia trip
Got a presidential compliment: “Those are good questions”
Finally saw Sir Ian McKellen IN THE FLESH
Learned how to make a pig face out of a rice ball
Drove on left side of road and right side of car for the first time, didn’t die
Witnessed Obama and Shinzo Abe’s quiet tribute to Pearl Harbor victims at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

Free from nursing by July (but pregnant again in August), logged 128,367 miles in the air (resulting in jet lag for many days of 2016), going to nine countries and spending 145 days away from home. I need a nap. Bye.

Previous Years in Review:
2015201420132012 | 20112010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

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Thanksgiving 2016: Okinawa and Pineapples

The largest vehicle I have ever driven. And I had to do it on the 'wrong' side of the road.

The largest vehicle I have ever driven. And I had to do it on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

Hello! We are just back from Okinawa, where we went on our FIFTH, count ’em, FIFTH, squad vacation with the Wan-Yau’s of San Francisco (but currently, Singapore). Eva and their son, Jonah, are the same age and met in swimming class when the Wan-Yau’s lived in Seoul in 2015. We first went on an eight-person adventure to the weirdest place ever, Jeju Island, last summer. Since then, we added trips to Osaka, Cebu, Bangkok and now, Okinawa. Now that we travel so much together we don’t really like to travel without them. And since we spent Thanksgiving with the Wan-Yau’s in Seoul last year, it was fitting to have thanksgiving dinner together again.

Okinawa is a great getaway from Korea for a long weekend. The weather is divine, the people are easygoing, the scenery is always beautiful. For family vacations, the attractions offer just the kind of ridiculousness I enjoy. Like PINEAPPLE PARK, a theme park tribute to pineapples. I cannot describe the LSD-trippiness of it very well except to say that there are “pineapple cars” with a pineapple theme song playing over and over again, and in the pineapple snacks store you can sample every kind of pineapple-made concoction ever made and fill up on the samples, so I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t love that.

Okinawa also boasts of impressive marine life, and one of the world’s best aquariums. So we loaded into our party bus, a Nissan rental van that could seat eight, and I drove the squad about 80 minutes north to see WHALE SHARKS.

Speaking of driving, this was the first time I drove “the British/Japanese way,” on the left side of the road and the right side of the car. Those aren’t the only things that are backwards. The signaling is on the right side of the steering wheel instead of the left, which means every time I wanted to “signal” I was just turning the wipers on and off. This was actually the hardest thing to get used to. By the time I mastered it, it was time to come home.

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What is the future of journalism? Pick any adjective out of the dictionary and that word can describe it. The news business is in such a revolutionary time that filling in “The Future of Journalism is ____” with any word, and supporting the argument, has become a parlor game among a certain mass media-obsessed set.

Today I found myself on another future of journalism panel, and a Japanese journalist shared the observation that his paper’s business plan is “old people living longer.” Luckily, he says, Japan is an aging society and “old people love the printed paper,” so their business model rests on those eyeballs. The only times people call to cancel their subscriptions is when a subscriber has a.) died, or b.) lost enough eyesight that the print is too difficult to read.

Banking on old people to stick around as long as possible (in relatively good health) is kind of Japan’s nationwide policy, come to think of it.

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Planes, Trains, Buses and Boats

The traveling White House press loading yet another mode of transportation. These people are pros at moving their luggage around.

The traveling White House press loading yet another mode of transportation. These people are pros at moving their luggage around.

I just returned from a five-day trip to Japan that felt like it lasted two weeks. Part of the reason is how much of Japan’s main island we had to traverse to cover the president, who was making his final trip to the Asian country as president. He concluded it with an unprecedented visit to nuclear ground zero, Hiroshima.

You know how when you arrive at an airport there are signs for “Taxi” or “Rental Car”? At the Nagoya airport, there are signs just like that, except for “High Speed Boat.” That was the first leg of my journey to get to Ise-Shima, the twin cities hosting this year’s G7 summit. I boated it 45 minutes to Tsu before catching a bus to Ise, which was another 70 minutes away.

Boat transit.

Boat transit.

That was just the beginning of several days inside various transportation-craft, the best of which were the chartered planes for the traveling White House press. They featured KFC chicken fingers as we awaited clearance for take-off and everyone in first class.  Instead of numbered seats, you get a seating chart, by news organization.

CNN was the team in charge of pooling the shots for the rest of the networks, hence, UBER crew.

CNN was the team in charge of pooling the shots for the rest of the networks, hence, UBER crew.

I like doing these POTUS trips because I get to reunite with some of my old Washington pals, like David Nakamura, who travels with the president a lot for his gig at the Washington Post, and I always meet new friends, too. This time the CNN International crew that adopted me was led by their Hong Kong-based editor and correspondent, Andrew Stevens. When the G7 leaders visited the heart of Shinto-ism, the Ise Shrine, the press didn’t get to go. So we waited til the leaders left and made our way there to check it out.

At the Ise Jingu with CNN producer Steven Jiang, in from Beijing, yours truly and CNN correspondent Andrew Stevens, in from Hong Kong.

At the Ise Jingu with CNN producer Steven Jiang, in from Beijing, yours truly and CNN correspondent Andrew Stevens, in from Hong Kong.

Not long after this photo was taken, we wandered a street in front of the shrine’s entrance and found a craft beer stand. Not unlike a lemonade stand, but with beer and fried oysters on sticks. Divine.

The trip got increasingly more intense as the end of it neared, because the final day was the weightiest of the president’s Asia journey: He visited nuclear ground zero, Hiroshima, and became the first U.S. president to do so. It was emotional being there, especially when the two survivors that would shake hands and hug the president were rolled in their wheelchairs right past me as I rushed to get out to the camera locations to catch the wreath laying. I knew immediately they were the survivors from their ages — nonagenarians — and from the contentment on their faces. One of them had clear evidence of burns on his skin. I later read he had been burned head to toe in the bombing.

Anyway, it’s difficult to cover those sorts of events because of the bigness of what’s happening before your eyes and the lack of time to reflect upon what you’re bearing witness to, and what had happened there in that spot where we stood, where now there’s manicured lawns and children and French bulldogs playing. 71 years ago, it was a wasteland.

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We Need To Talk About My Osaka Karaoke Experience

Intense singing. With strangers.

Intense singing. With strangers.

It’s no secret I enjoy a good karaoke night with friends, but it turns out there’s a semi-private karaoke experience — with strangers — I enjoy just as much.

Last weekend in Osaka my friend Sarah and I stumbled upon several bars of the same type: They are sorta-divey, narrow spaces — only as wide as a tall man’s wingspan, a single, sit down bar that seats maybe 12 people, tops, and three bartender women who serve you sake, beer or liquor while you and your barmates sit around and take turns signing karaoke selections which appear on the two screens in front of you. (The bartender ladies make sure to offer you the remote and song book at frequent intervals so the singing doesn’t cease).

You just drink and sing, and smoke, since it’s allowed in Japan, with strangers in a super intimate setting. Or you can ignore everyone and stare straight ahead, since it’s a bar and not a living room setting, like private karaoke rooms (which are far more common across Asia). But everyone applauds you at the end of your selection, these bars are full of men but non-suggestive bartender women, and you end up feeling a general sense of community in a short amount of time. I need to know what this bar concept is called!

A stirring rendition (at least to us) of  "Moon River" with our new (and only) Osaka friend.

A stirring rendition (at least to us) of “Moon River” with our new (and only) Osaka friend.

We befriended the Osaka man who happened to be seated next to us, and he humored me by singing the Japanese cliche, “Sukiyaki,” because it was the one Japanese song I could think of. I returned the favor by selecting “Moon River,” with which, for some reason, all Asians I’ve ever karaoked with are familiar.

The best part of the evening was, after we were three bottles of sake in, the bartender ladies passed out karaoke snack sticks for everyone. I think it was like a Funyun, but in the form of a cylinder, and wrapped in cute Doraemon packaging featuring little Doraemon holding a microphone singing. They come in onion or curry flavor (among others) and they were DELICIOUS. Sarah was most excited about the snack.

WHAT ARE THESE BARS? I don’t know the Japanese name for them but there’s gotta be a name for this type of experience, since while wandering the area near the Tennoji Zoo (parts of it can be kinda sketchy by Japan standards), there were several of them in a row. At first we were intimidated about wandering into one, namely because they were so small that it seemed unnerving, and because all the customers were men and the bartenders were women. But nothing even remotely weird or sexual seemed to happen while we were there. It was just a good ol’ time, making new friends. Definitely one of my top nights in Asia.

The curly haired man on the end there ended up singing a Queen song for us, which was pretty crazy.

The curly haired man on the end there ended up singing a Queen song for us, which was pretty crazy.

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I’ve Got Seoul But I’m Not A Soldier

It’s announcement time! I’m switching roles and becoming an international correspondent for NPR. That’s very cool. But what’s cooler is I get to open up a new Korea/Japan bureau for the company, based in Seoul. You know I like the beginnings of things.

For most of 2013, Friend Javaun and I would randomly yell “Annyeong” to each other from one floor to another at NPR headquarters, where the fourth floor overlooks the third. Never did I imagine that Annyeong could become a daily, non-ironic greeting.

I lived in Asia for a spell when I was 19 years old, with an all-male hip hop group that had just signed on with Warner Music Taiwan. The lead artist was an alum of a hot 1990’s Asian boy band called “L.A. Boyz” and my roommates were forming Machi, which went on to enjoy brief fame and a hit collaboration with Missy Elliott. The afternoon I went out for a movie with those boys in crowded shopping center was the only time I’ve ever experienced what it’s like to be chased by paparazzi and screaming teenage girls.

I think back on that time as a vortex. I know I lived those months in Taipei, but the experiences were so heightened and frenetic and strange that it still doesn’t feel real, even these 12 years later.

Now I live what is more akin to a “grownup” life. A real job. A spouse. A spawn. Two cats. My geriatric dog. And we’re about to uproot ourselves and charge into the Asian vortex, together.

We’re planning to move at the beginning of 2015. I don’t know what to do with our house yet. I am panicked about getting to see the final episodes of Mad Men without too much time delay. I worry about my 16-year-old dog surviving a cross-planet move. I am unsure of my own abilities to cover a place where I am illiterate.

But I’m also filled with excitement and wonder and gratitude for the chance to do this. I know how rare a privilege it is these days to get a chance to work overseas, supported by a large, well-funded news organization. As my friend and mentor Kinsey said, it’s invaluable experience that will change and shape our lives.

Whoa, right? We’re planting the NPR flag on an action-packed peninsula! Can you imagine the culture stories? This is the place where they just hosted a competition to see who could zone out the longest. C’mon, that is gold!

Onward, into the vortex.

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