In November and December of 1997, the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra toured through Taiwan and Japan. I felt fortunate to be included on the tour.
The days leading up to the departure of my trip were hectic; four-hundred-eleven-thousand-nine-hundred-thirty-seven details had to be taken care before I could leave. So when my brother finally dropped me at the airport, I was ready - ready to go, ready to travel, ready to do something!
I should have been ready to sit on my butt. The flights were to take us from Cincinnati to San Francisco, and then on to Taipei, Taiwan. The flight to San Francisco passed smoothly enough. It was the flight to Taiwan that was the killer. You know its going to be a long plane flight when the airlines are planning to show 4 movies and serve 3 meals. It was 13 hours of excited, agitated boredom.
We arrived at our hotel in Taiwan about 26 hours after leaving home. I had slept very little during that time. Fortunately, the hotel in Taipei was gorgeous. In fact most of our hotels were first class, which is yet one more benefit of union membership for symphonic musicians.
I slept badly for the first several nights. Despite what the clocks said, my body thought it was still back in Ohio. I woke up about 4:00 AM the first couple nights and couldnít get back to sleep. The TV in the room didnít prove to be much help. The only English speaking channels were CNN and a channel that showed old American reruns - a sort of Taiwanese "Nick at Night". Oddly enough, they seemed to show the same programs repeatedly. Just my luck that they showed the exact same episode of "Charlieís Angels" every night at 4:00 AM.
Our first day in Taiwan was a free day. I spent it wandering the streets and shops in the area around our hotel. The streets are filled with small vendors of food. We were warned to eat nothing from street vendors, but that warning was unnecessary for me. Iím nowhere near that adventurous when it comes to eating.
The street vendors sold food that was simply unrecognizable to Americans. Some of it looked like a bad joke, and some looked like it belonged in a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. Fish on a stick was one of my personal favorites. But large cauldrons of boiling stuff that appeared to be filled with eye of newt and leg of lizard were quite common.
That first day was Thanksgiving, and the orchestra celebrated with a large buffet dinner in the hotel. Lots of the food at the buffet seemed like upscale versions of the Indiana Jones food from the street vendors - various raw fish things, egg things, and soups. But the chefs at the hotel did prepare some American food, such as the classic "Mushed" Potatoes. (Giggling at grammar errors in signs was a favorite pastime on the trip. Another favorite - a sign backstage in a concert hall in Japan that said "Exit To Robby.")
After Thanksgiving dinner, a large gang of us went down to an area called Snake Alley. Snake Alley is a night market, which means itís an open-air market area that operates only at night. Its main attractions are several vendors who sell snake meat and other assorted snake related food items.
At one of the booths, a man badly in need of dental care was speaking in rapid and animated Chinese to a crowd of people. He had a couple of caged animals, one of which appeared to be a beaver-like creature, and one was, I believe, a mongoose. He tormented these animals with food for the delight of the crowd. Itís a good thing my wife, Linda, wasnít there with me or he would have needed even more dental care.
He pulled a large snake out of a bag. The snake was about 6 feet long, an inch or so wide, and was not at all happy to be in the bad-toothed manís hands. The man clamped the snakeís mouth shut, hung it up from a rope and attached a weight to its other end, causing the snake to be suspended vertically. He spoke more, then using a pair of scissors, he slit open the snakeís chest and cut out its heart. He set the heart on the table and the heart continued to beat for the next 10 minutes or so while the man continued on.
With the snake still writhing and struggling, an assistant came up with a pitcher and together they drained all the snakeís blood from the slit in the chest into a pitcher. The man lifted the pitcher up in the air and spoke rapidly. He made another incision further down the snake and cut out a small organ, then squeezed a thick, black liquid from this organ into the pitcher of snake blood. Then he poured some into a glass and drank it.
At this point, he appeared to be making a sales pitch of some sort, and most of the people who had gathered around the table quickly left - a testament to their wisdom, in my opinion - but one fellow did step up to drink some and was quickly ushered back to some tables where he could drink his snake blood in peace.
I was the only one of my group of musicians who stayed around for the whole show. I wonder what that says about me?
We wandered on down snake alley and found a variety of other booths selling a variety of other offensive items - it was an equal opportunity offender. One booth was showing pornographic videos to attract customers, another had a videotape of dog-fighting, others had birds in nets that one is supposed to buy and set free in order to create good karma. Others had more of the bizarre food things.
Further down were the brothels, with many small rooms and many young women plying their trade. Prostitution is legal in this one small area of Taipei. The brothels were just one more of the street vendors whose goods I didnít dare try.
The cab ride back to the hotel was one of the more exciting things Iíve experienced in a long time. The cab driver ran two red lights, cut off busses, and did practically anything possible to break a traffic law. The strange thing was, his driving did not seem out of the ordinary. Everyone in Taipei drove like that.
The streets are filled with motor scooters - not motorcycles - scooters. Those little annoying things appear to make up about 3/4 of the traffic on the streets. And theyíre not being driven by the sort of rough necks one associates with motorcycle riding here in the US. There were women in formal dresses, men in business suits, old ladies, pairs of young policemen, priests - anyone who might need to go somewhere would likely do it on a scooter.
I stood at a large intersection near our hotel and watched the traffic for about a half-hour one morning, and it was fascinating. Each cycle of the light looked like the beginning of a motor scooter race. The scooters donít have to wait in line at traffic lights, so they all slide up between the cars to the front of the intersection into a large white box that appears to be the "motor scooter stop zone." When the light turns green, the scooters all shoot out in front of the pack. I counted 110 of them taking off from one cycle of the light.
And those things were everywhere. Theyíre allowed to park scooters on the sidewalk, which means theyíre allowed to drive on the sidewalk too. I was in constant fear of being hit by a scooter or a taxi or one of the other home made motorized vehicles we saw.
The streets, other than a few major thoroughfares, were narrow, without sidewalks or curbs. Scooters, cars, people, and street vendors all shared the same space. The buildings all appeared to be rather hastily constructed, with 2 or 3 stories and shabby exteriors.
The electrical wiring was not to be believed. A glance in any direction on a small street would reveal what appeared to be masses of intertwined, black spaghetti strung several feet above our heads. Cables that would carry 120 volts of power were spliced with no more than electrical tape and suspended with coat hangars. It appeared that tapping into the neighborís power line is a widely accepted practice.
The Taiwanese seemed to be as interested in us as we were in them. I got the feeling that there was not much tourism in Taiwan, and that the Taiwanese were not so accustomed to seeing tourists as to be annoyed by them. The people were in general friendly, and a few came up and talked with me briefly. One asked me if I knew Bobby Knight, the coach of the IU basketball team. Well, why not - Bobby Knightís an American - Iím an American - kind of makes sense.
The second day in Taiwan, I had to cut short my sight-seeing in order to practice. At the concert that night, I performed Jerry Maguire, which is a piece that features a guitar solo. I wanted it to go well, and since our equipment went on a separate cargo plane, I hadnít touched my guitar in several days.
The Chang Kai Shek Memorial Hall where we performed was spectacular - a true monument to what money can buy when building a shrine to a fallen leader, and a true monument to wasting money in a country wracked by poverty.
Jerry Maguire was to be performed like a concerto, which means I wait in the wings, the conductor announces my name, then I walk out in front of the orchestra, sit down and play. The excitement of the trip combined with jet lag and the nerves of performing a piece for a couple thousand people made for a few anxious moments off stage.
Maestro Kunzel announced my name, the door opened and it was time to go. I stepped onto the stage and the sudden noise of the applause and bright spotlight that hit me in the face caused a sensation similar to being unexpectedly thrown into very cold water. I was very briefly almost shocked at the sensation and couldnít quite catch my breath, but remembered what I was supposed to do and walked quickly to the center of the stage.
I must have had a "deer in the headlights" look on my face because as I approached the center of the stage, Kunzel yelled out over the applause "Smile, Timmy." (Everyone in the orchestra calls me Timmy, but that doesnít mean you can.)
Once I sat down to play I was just fine. The piece came out well and was well received. After that, the rest of the concert seemed rather routine.
The next day, a group of us went to something called The Jade Market. For those who like to shop, this would be a wonderful place. For me, it was interesting for about 10 minutes. It was table after table of the same trinkets carved out of Jade. Perhaps I just donít appreciate the finer trinkets in life. But I did find a Tower Records. And in the Tower Records was a big display of Cincinnati Pops CDs, along with several of them that had my name on them. Itís a funny feeling to go into a record store in Taiwan and see your name on a record for sale there.
That night we performed another concert which went well and was well received. Both concerts in Taiwan were sell outs. After the concert was a big party at the hotel with plenty more of the strange food things and drinks. I drank more than I should have and decided to go up to the room when my joke to Maestro Kunzel about seeing his wife leave with a muscular waiter got a chilly reception. Best to leave before I say something really dumb.
The next day we went to Japan.
Moooo. This was one of the jokes muttered most often on the trip. When 125 people move as a group, there is no choice but to proceed in a big herd, with one person leading and everyone else following. And I followed very carefully. I now understand what one buffalo feels like - stick with the herd or you will die. Worried about catching the right train in Hamamatsu, Japan? Stick with the herd. Donít know where the buses are? Stick with the herd. Not quite sure where to go or what to do? Stick with the herd. Moooo.
The plane trip to Japan was pleasantly uneventful. Our only excitement that day was at a truck stop when the buses stopped for a break on our way to Hamamatsu. We were all greatly entertained by the choice of snack foods. In a place where we in the United States would usually find potato chips, the Japanese had squid, seaweed, and raw fish. We were particularly amused by the brand names - BM Coffee, Topaco Sweat and something called Calpis (say it out loud).
Our hotel in Hamamatsu was wonderful - one of the nicest Iíve ever stayed in. The rooms were large, clean, and the toilets had a console of electric buttons on the side that made you feel as if you were at the helm of the Starship Enterprise while you were doing your business. The buttons controlled various little hygiene devices that sprayed warm water to clean your bottom. (Shh. Donít tell anyone, but I kind of liked it.)
The audience in Hamamatsu had a lukewarm reaction to the concert. Or it may have just seemed that way after the wild Taiwanese audiences. The Japanese are a more reserved people in general. Or maybe they just didnít like us in Hamamatsu.
From Hamamatsu, we got on a bullet train to go to Tokyo. Those trains are nice. They zip along around 150 MPH and are quiet and comfortable. Iím going to see if theyíll install a bullet train from Waynesville to Cincinnati.
In Tokyo, as everywhere in Japan, we were greeted at the busses and the hotel by uniformed people, generally young, pretty women, whose job appeared to be to smile and bow. At first it seemed rather odd to have all these people smiling and bowing, but after a while, I began to rather enjoy it. It gave me the feeling of being welcome. It presented the image of great politeness. I think there should be more bowing and smiling in the United States.
Our time in Tokyo was all too short. We were there for only 2 days, and between the travel time and the concerts (I kept forgetting that since I got paid to be there, it was work and not pleasure), we didnít have much time for sightseeing. Trying to see an ancient city which now has 12,000,000 residents in a couple of hours is like getting to sniff just one dish of a 2000 course grand buffet meal. There was just so much more to taste.
Tokyo was where I first got brave with eating. Because I didnít want to spend a kingís ransom in the hotel restaurants for food, I had no choice but to wander out into the streets for meals. Of course, itís not as if we were floating down a raft on the Amazon river and hunting elk with a bow; the streets around the hotels were full of restaurants like McDonaldís and Kentucky Fried Chicken. But I couldnít eat at them, because they donít serve vegetarian food..
So, I had several meals in the small Soba shops that regular Japanese folks eat in. Soba is a tasty noodle dish which consists of long thick noodles, in a hot broth with vegetables. It is filling and warms you to the core. You eat it with chopsticks and drink the broth by lifting the bowl to your mouth and slurping. You slurp to your heartís content. Slurping that would make my mother recoil in horror is considered perfectly acceptable table manners in Japan. Just one more thing I liked about Japan.
We played two concerts in Tokyo, and I performed Jerry Maguire one more time. This time I was more relaxed and enjoyed playing it in a way I had never really enjoyed playing it before. Usually, Iím just too nervous and excited from sitting in front of the orchestra to actually enjoy playing the music, but this time I just had a good time playing it. I remembered to smile when walking onto the stage too.
Paul Patterson and I performed the song Dueling Banjos at 6 of the 7 concerts, and each time it was one of the hits of the show. Whenever we play it, we stretch the beginning part out a bit and always toss in snippets from other songs just to keep the audience on their toes. In Taiwan we played a bit of a tune called "Peach Blossom Takes the Ferry," which is apparently a very popular song because the crowd burst into applause as soon as they recognized it. In Japan, we added a snippet of the song "Astro Boy," which is the theme from a popular cartoon, and each night the audience clapped along with us while we played it.
From Tokyo, we headed to Osaka and then to Hiroshima to perform concerts. Each of those days evaporated quickly as we traveled and performed a concert on the same day. What I remember most about Osaka is a good bowl of Soba that cost 260 yen (about $2.40). It would have cost nearly $20.00 to eat in the hotel restaurant, and probably wouldnít have been as good.
Our hotel in Hiroshima was located right next to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. The Peace Memorial is a monument to the victims of the atomic bomb that went off there. Itís a rather moving memorial. They have several outdoor monuments and a museum with the history of Hiroshima and thorough documentation of the damage done by the bomb. It is understated in a typically Japanese way, and somehow the understatement makes it even more powerful. I visited it twice and came away agitated both times.
As a statement of why nuclear weapons should never be used, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial is moving. As a statement of what actually happened during World War II leading up to the decision to drop the bomb, the memorial is rather one-sided in its forgiveness. The time lines of Japanese history in the museum stop about 1930 and then start again in 1945 when the bomb is dropped. There is essentially no mention of the horrendous atrocities committed by Japan - no accepting of the blame for why the bomb had to be dropped. I wonder if our own memorials appear so one sided to people from other countries.
I bought a T-shirt while I was at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. It said "Hiroshima Loves Peace - Hiroshima Peace Memorial" on the front. The tag on the T-shirt said "Made in the USA." Several layers of irony there.
We headed for home the next day, and I wasnít even close to ready to come home. But, mooo, I had to stick with the herd. At 11:30 AM on Saturday, we left Hiroshima. We took a bus ride, a two hour train ride, another 90 minute bus ride, a 2 hour wait at the airport and then a 9 hour plane flight and arrived in San Francisco at 11:30 AM on Saturday - the exact same time we left Japan. I got to my house that night at about 11:30 PM after being awake for about 30 hours. I was a sleepy boy.
Weíre going back to Japan next year for a three week tour. I canít wait.
© 2002 - 2013, Tim Berens