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Archive for February, 2010

Another Saturday

With some spare time today we drove out to Folly Beach, yet another coastal Carolina island with beachfront homes averaging about USD 500,000. Folly Beach is very popular with South Carolina residents as a place to spend summer vacation, with beach rentals, sandy hotels, and restaurants with hand-painted signs and tacky  exterior colors . Still winter, the island and beach were pleasantly desolate, and with the permanent colors of summer painted everywhere, it felt quite ridiculous. But I guess in the hot summer heat, it comes together and feels relaxing.

Not much to report, but just thought I’d share a few pictures from my mobile phone camera.

IMG_0047The fishing boats outside of Crosby’s, a small, local fishing and seafood company that sells its daily catch to restaurants and, in limited supply, the public.

IMG_0048More marshlands, I never get bored with them

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On the way back we stopped in Nirlep, one of Charleston’s two Indian restaurants, for a lazy Saturday lunch.  The buffet is reasonably priced, and the dahl and spicy butter chicken are quite good. While there were a few yuppies, most of the clientele were down to earth people.  There were a few Sikhs, and I wondered if the restaurant served mostly foods from the Punjab, but the buffet and menu seemed to be stocked with the standard staples of Indian cuisine.  Across the street is the other Indian restaurant, Taste of India.  We’ll have to try it next time to see which is the better of the two.

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Water bird

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He landed by the water and was in no way afraid of me.  He simply stood by the water watching me run past–“What a wanker, jogging and all of that!”.  Watch out for gators, buddy.  Around this time of night, it is feeding time for them gators, ah hyaw hyaw hyaw!

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Atlanta

Last weekend was a three-day weekend, with Monday being President’s Day, which made for a perfect opportunity for a short road trip.  Destination? Atlanta. When Atlanta was campaigning for the summer Olympics last decade, they called themselves “Hotlanta”, which I thoroughly hated.  Having visited Atlanta to pick up my work visa for Japan six years ago, I was left unimpressed by the city.  At the completion of this trip, I was both pleasantly surprised and left disappointed by Atlanta.

Here we go.  The day before our trip, there was a snow storm blowing over the entire Southeast USA, and I wasn’t even sure we’d be able to make the trip.  People in Charleston drive like maniacs on a daily basis, imagine what the snow would cause?  I didn’t believe it would snow, but around 19:00, the snow coated the pavement and apartment buildings outside.  It was truly a sight, palm trees coated in a thin blanket of snow.  By morning, however, with the temperature warming up, the snow was mostly melted.  By noon, it had all but melted away.

13022010167The first snow-fall in Charleston in ten years

With the snow storm not causing too much trouble the trip was on.  According to Google Maps, the best route was to take I-26 back up to Columbia, SC–the worst place in the world–and then get on I-20 and go west towards Atlanta.  Google estimated the drive to be five hours, which was spot on. Google is going to take over the world some day, I just know it.

mapRed marks the trip to Atlanta, Blue marks the trip back to Charleston.

The drive to Atlanta was completely uneventful.  There is nothing in between Charleston and Columbia, nothing between Columbia and Augusta (Georgia), and nothing between Augusta and Atlanta.  It is easy to forget, but this country is huge, full of rolling hills with absolutely nothing.  In a way it is beautiful, but it also feels very solitary and lonely. The only interesting site was the Savannah River, which is quite wide compared to Japanese river standards.  It was flowing rather quickly around August, but the water was an ugly shade of brown, matching the color of the dirt on the river banks.  It might be an interesting river to take a canoe along?

Liam would have enjoyed the car trip if he were older as there were numerous cow and horse farms along the way.  When in a supermarket it is easy to look at the food and think it all comes from mega-corporate farms in the middle of nowhere in the midlands of the US and Canada.  Yet after driving from Charleston to Atlanta and seeing all of the farms, it really surprised me how much agriculture there is still.  Perhaps it is all exported though, like the case where North Carolina exports almost all of its soy beans going to Brazil.

We arrived in Atlanta around sunset and did some shopping at the furniture store, which was actually the main reason for the trip.  The furniture shop, IKEA, was so multicultural that I thought I’d been transported to Montreal–the most multicultural city I’ve ever seen, more than Tokyo.  The store is located just north of Georgia Tech’s beautiful brick campus.  Georgia Tech, by the way, happens to be one of the top five engineering schools in the US.  Even Target, yet another hypermarché, looked extremely modern and inviting compared to the same stores in Charlotte and Charleston.  Liam was in a bad mood after the long car ride, however, so we checked into the hotel to get some rest.  We tried to go out to eat nearby the hotel, but Liam wouldn’t have it so we ended up taking our food in a box and eating in the hotel.  I don’t know what it is about driving long distances, but it wears me out and I slept a good, long eight hours.

The next morning we woke up and explored a bit of Atlanta.  We didn’t buy any maps or plan the trip, instead depending on our mobile phones with GPS for location services, maps, and directions.  Atlanta has 3G wireless coverage everywhere, even inside of giant stores like IKEA.  It was amazing to be able to look up something on my phone anywhere without having to walk outdoors.  Charleston has pitiful converge and phones rarely work inside of buildings, even apartment buildings with thin walls!  Everyone in Charleston, despite their age, has to have a mobile phone and a regular land-line.  How 20th century, no?

IMG_4458Skyscrapers dominate the downtown skyline

The first thing you notice from the highways is that Atlanta is full of skyscrapers with the marks of multinationals and big American companies: Coca-Cola, Porsche, AT&T, and so on.  When the economy is in good health, it must be a good city for jobs.  Atlanta also has a rail transit system running through the center of the city called MARTA, which has two lines running north-south, and two lines running east-west.  An extensive bus network, also part of MARTA, fills the gaps inside the beltway.  For auto travel, I-85, I-75 and I-20 cut through the center, with a beltway that wraps around the city.  All of the major highways have five lanes in one direction.  It was also interesting to see the stop-light highway on-ramps like those in Silicon Valley.  Such systems are important for improving the efficiency of traffic on the highways, and I’m happy to see another city adopt such systems.

IMG_4453The Georgia Dome – home of the professional American football team the Atlanta Falcons, and also where Georgia Tech plays at the collegiate level

All is not grand in Altanta, however.  As a tourist destination, Atlanta “boasts” the CNN tower, home of the CNN news network, and a visit to Coca-Cola to see how the company is trying to take over the world of beverages.  After those sites, a tourist is recommended to watch professional or collegiate sports, or stop by one of the many bar & grills or concert venues.  *Yawn* Like all cities in the south–with an exception of Miami–Atlanta is just another Southern city with no soul, offering low taxes to multinational corporations and a lower cost of living than the Northeast.

IMG_4462The State Capitol Building

Outside of the city center and the beautiful Georgia Tech campus, the city is surrounded by dilapidated and condemned building projects and stores with iron bars covering the store-fronts.  The lower part of downtown, where the government and Federal buildings are located, looks horrible with bail bond brokers and title-loan operators all over the place.  It reminded me of Raleigh (NC) in many ways.  I noticed two Chinese tourists walking around this part of town, one shaking his head after scanning some buildings on the street.  It must be shocking for Chinese to see urban areas downtown in such pitiful condition.  In anywhere but North America, downtown would be prime real estate.

Having said that, however, Atlanta would not be that bad of a place to live.  While I’m sure the traffic is horrible, if you can put up with it, there is affordable housing outside of the beltway in safe neighborhoods.  I’m very interested in urban living, and I was happy to see that there were many new condominiums in the upper part of downtown and near the Georgia Tech campus.  Most have underground parking, so you could still own and automobile to go shopping around the suburbs while enjoying the urban aspects of life.  Let me put it this way: I’d rather be in Atlanta than anywhere in South Carolina.

IMG_4435Shoya – a ubiquitous Japanese watering hole, known in Japanese as an “izakaya” (居酒屋).  While in Japan I went to a Shoya izakaya countless times for company parties.  What a shock to find one in Atlanta of all places!

Before leaving Atlanta we stopped by Super H-Mart, a growing chain of Asian hypermarchés along the large cities of the East Coast of the USA.  Unlike the smaller markets in Charlotte and Charleston, this one is the size of a regular American supermarket and is stocked with an amazing assortment of fresh Asian vegetables, imported packaged products and fresh seafood.  The selection of fish put ol’ Charleston to shame.  How can we be right by the ocean but only have the same basic selection of fish, while some grocery store Northeast of the Atlanta beltway has over thirty types of fish on sale?  The dominent selection of products was Korean, but there was no difficulty in finding Chinese, Japanese and Thai food products.  There were even specialty sections for Indian and South American foods.

At the exit of the Super H-Mart, there were small store areas decorated with Korean writing, selling eye-glasses, home Internet connections, mobile phones, health insurance, and clothing and Korean furniture items.  A Korean immigrant might never have to worry about learning English with such comforts readily available.  I started to get an itch…Korean looked like it could be really interesting, and with a grammar so similar to Japanese, I might be able to learn it.  On the way out, however, I grabbed a copy of the local free Chinese newspaper, and the itch went away.  “Stay focused man!” How nice to have such learning materials freely and readily available!

In that same shopping center, there was a newly opened Japanese book and coffee store, selling imported Japanese books at a 100% mark-up rate, but I’m sure the manga-otaku will be happy to pay that.  Above the book store on the second level was an IACE travel center, a large Japanese travel agency, and next door was the Shoya iazakaya, pictured above.  Next, we stopped by a small Japanese market just down the street.  While the selection was strictly Japanese and rather limited, half of the building was set aside for the rental and sales of Japanese television programs and dramas.  Behind the counter there were four computers and a shop clerk busily copying DVDs.  With such a large selection, business had to be good with a lot of demand from the expat Japanese population.

IMG_4440Korean style BBQ – grill your meat on the grill to your liking and enjoy the small dishes of spicy and pickled foods along with a bowl of rice

Before heading home, we stopped for a large lunch at Hae Won Dae, an award winning Korean BBQ restaurant.  This was also just a few blocks from Super H-Mart.  In fact, this entire part of Northeast Atlanta seemed to be a mix of Korean and Latina stores and services.  Some, like the restaurant we visited, was welcome to everyone, while others had signs only in Korean or Spanish, seeming to cater to their respective populations.  After filling our stomachs with Bulgogi, seasme-oil tinted bean sprouts, various types of Kim Chee, and a bowl of rice, we were stuffed and ready for the long drive back to Charleston.

On the way to Atlanta, around the state border I picked up a ton of tourist information for the various sites around the state of Georgia  This time approaching the South Carolina border, I was looking to pick up some tourist information for South Carolina, with the hope that there were some places that would not be quite so far away.  Short day trips are great for the regular weekends.  I arrived at the state border and visitor’s center at 5 PM.  I walked up to the door and tried to open it, but it was locked.  Inside there was not a person in site, and the sign on the door said the center closes at 5 PM.  I’m sure the attendant probably ducked out of work early–very South Carolinian style if I do say.  Or perhaps with the huge budget deficit the state of South Carolina carries, they cannot afford to operate the information centers any more. The signs on the highway said we were now traveling on Strom Thurmond highway.  I still cannot believe in this day and age a man like that is still celebrated.

After looking the map, rather than driving north to the worst city in the world, it seemed like we could take the old highway from Aiken to Charleston, and it might save us time.  Well, it turns out they built interstates for a reason.  Rather than be quicker, it took about an hour longer due to the rural drivers and the the stoplights in the rural towns splattered along highway US-78.  Along the way we saw numerous cotton farms and isolated homes surrounded by forests.  There was no mobile phone coverage and often nothing in site other than the occasional house here and there.  It is hard to believe that people can live in such isolated conditions.  We noticed there were a lot of churches along these old highways, and I guess that the church serves not only a religious purpose, but also as the focal socialization center for most rural residents.

When we finally arrived in Charleston, it was nice to see the marshlands and the sea again. I don’t think I could ever live in the Midwestern part of the US.  Give me mountains or sea, but please, no grasslands.

So, now to figure out the next road trip!

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Bowing to the river

IMG_0043High tide and sun down

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Winter Storm

Hard to believe it is already February first.  Where do the days go?  It has been getting warming in Charleston recently, and despite the winter storm blowing though, it will only get warmer.  Hopefully then I’ll be able to take the family out for exploring downtown Charleston and all it has to offer.

I’ve been busy cooking away recently, particularly on the grill.  Winter is the best season to grill because you can keep warm in front of the flames while you cook a good hearty meal. Nothing like coming in from the cold after grilling to a warm home and a hot meal, eh? I’ve grilled a few steaks, some home-made cheeseburgers, and a new favorite, miso-marinated chicken.  Aichi-ken will just not let go of me, I have to get my miso fix from time to time. Speaking of Japanese food…

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Daikon at the supermarket – the picture doesn’t show it well, but it is much smaller than the daikon in Japan, and more expensive too.  Of course when it comes to aubergines, they are tiny in Japan and gigantic in the USA.  Could it be an analogy on a standardized test?  Daikon : Japan :: Aubergine : United States

So I finally saw the Avatar 3D IMAX film after hearing everyone rave about it since late December.  While the story ended a little bit too happy for my tastes, the 3D effects and the virtual world they created for the film completely blew me away.  I had no idea that computer graphics had progressed this far.  The 3D was really interesting too, it makes you feel like you are so much more apart of what is going on.  I can see the film industry splitting in two in the future, however.  One will do classic film, perhaps the big name stars who refused to be computerized, as well as the art-nouveau types.  Then there will be the Hollywood blockbusters and animated features that go to 3D filming. Apparently 3D television sets are due on the market soon too…anyway.  Even if you’re not into science fiction at any level, go see this film just to enjoy the visual world they’ve created.  It is fabulous on the big screen!

I was back in Charlotte just in time for a big winter storm.  Snow was dumped all over the mid-Atlantic, and while many people groaned and whined about the winter storm, it made my year.  I wish it snowed every year!  The white snow blanketed the ground and made everything look nice and clean once again.

IMG_0039How can you not like this?

I’ve seen my snow for 2010, so I can try to be a better sport about the intense summer coming up in a few months.

So what is up with Toyota?  As the proud–yet now rather embarrassed–owner of a Toyota RAV4 that will need to be recalled, I wonder if it was worth the extra money to buy from Toyota.  Though visually the RAV4 looks better than the mini-SUV from Hyundai, the prices and warranties from Hyundai are much better.  I bought the Toyota for the company’s reputation for quality and safety, but in trying to top GM for the #1 in sales spot, Toyota seems to have lost their magic.  All they had to do was wait for GM to go bust again.  My fingers are crossed that my gas pedal doesn’t get stuck anytime soon.  CTS Corp. and Toyota…work overtime to build the new part and ship it to the dealers ASAP! C’mon!

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