Travel Essay: You wake up to the pattering of rain against the windows. It is June, the rainy season, the month of rat-colored skies when humidity alternates with a chill in the Japanese archipelago, your homeland. I need a vacation, you think. In Taiwan.
Why Taiwan? Because you are tired and want easy, stress-free and cheap travel abroad. The three-and-a-half-hour direct flights between Tokyo and Taipei cost only about 30,000 yen (about 300 US dollars). None of your friends who visited Taiwan fumed over tourists’ misfortune, while people have told you how they got ripped off in other neighboring countries. You lived and traveled in North America and Europe in your youth and you’ve been itching for your first foray into Asia outside of Japan. Above all, the name “Taiwan” inexplicably resonates deep within you.
The following week, you sit in an airport shuttle bound for the heart of Taipei, breathing in the pungent smell that recalls Chinatown, and gazing through the windows at the massive charcoal- and ginger-colored buildings along the highway blurred in polluted air. The substantial quality of these constructions—apparently condominiums—creates the illusion that you are on a continent, rather than an island far smaller than Japan. Probably because the Taiwanese are of Chinese origin, you speculate, as you keep inhaling the peculiar smell filling the bus. This smell—a mixture of fishy, oily, spicy, and other mysterious odors—grows overpowering as you exit the shuttle to walk to your hotel. Along the street, a sea of Chinese characters in solid crimson, indigo, and ivory on sooty facades stretches in all directions, illuminated by the champagne sunlight after a late-afternoon shower. Many of these buildings have a run-down look that gives the impression of unlivable apartment complexes. Your eyes continue to scour the blocks and you spot what look like traditional street eateries on which hip cafés and restaurants muscle in. Throw your baggage into the hotel and come, they beckon.
You step into an old-style eatery with a roof and no front walls. A man fries rice noodles on a sizable griddle and women serve customers. One of the servers speaks to you in Japanese, which astonishes you because she was so quick to tell that you—a woman who looks as East Asian as she is—are an alien. You are also confused because your default language outside Japan is English, so you hear yourself stuttering in English and then Japanese. She leads you to one of the sidewalk tables, and, because there is no menu, you are immediately served a bowl of spicy soup with chicken dumplings, shiitake, daikon, and cilantro, and a plate of equally hot rice noodles mixed with ground pork. A family of four takes an adjoining table, and you think that, with this substantial yummy meal costing only three bucks, you wouldn’t bother to cook at home. An older woman ladles additional soup into your nearly-empty bowl. It begins to rain, then comes a tropical downpour. No one seems to notice the drumming on the eaves and splashes on the road just a yard away from their sandaled feet.
Next day, a blazing sun converts the soaked city into a steamer. Drenched with sweat, you drift onto the grounds of the historic Longshan Temple and amble through the roofed passage around the courtyard. People in their everyday clothes or black robes sit or stand randomly in the sun to chant a sutra, never minding the heat. More people stream in, holding incense sticks that look giant compared to their counterparts for Buddhist rituals in Japan where, with rare exceptions, only monks chant sutras. They place these sticks on the ash in the burners, and some of them amble across the courtyard into the building at the end of the passage. Inside the building, under rows of vermillion paper lanterns, silence reigns, and the unceasing chant outside sounds as if it were coming from behind clouds.
The chanting still echoes in your ears when you get back on the street. There, in contrast to the local Buddhists’ vigorous voices and to your general impression that Chinese-speaking people have boisterous exchanges, no one talks loud. When on the phone, many cup one hand over their mouths, like people in Tokyo do to spare strangers from overhearing their conversations. So, what prevails in the streets is never the locals’ chatter but that pungent smell which grows sharper or fainter in the subtropical heat while you saunter past food markets, stalls and eateries. Sheaves of whole raw fish and squids lie limp in rows; bagged trotters’ split ends point toward you or the sky; skewered chicken and pork are piled high like pyramids pierced all over with arrows; vivid-colored slices of mango, cantaloupes, pineapple and berries entice you to buy them by the bucket. At semi-open-air diners, the locals eat from bowls brimming with minced pork, omelets crowned with thick amber-colored sauce, or mounds of shaved ice doused in bright orange syrup. You don’t travel for food—in fact, you catch a whiff of shallowness, greed even, in people who go overseas to insatiably pursue local foods for “cultural experiences.” That said, when your stomach growls, you get pulled into a classical local food court like a lassoed animal.
There, you find yourself lost among the cluster of stalls, gawking and frowning at the menus overhead. You recognize many of the letters because you know 2,000-plus Chinese characters used in Japanese, but most of these familiar logograms make no sense when combined in Chinese ways. You decipher “beef noodles,” “seafood rice porridge,” and “chicken thigh and rice.” But what are “flower branch rice porridge,” “purple leaf egg flower hot water,” or “fried sewage water”? Finally, you beckon a girl working at one of the stalls. With English words and gestures, you communicate that you want to take out the second item from the left on the menu (chicken thigh and rice), and the girl hands you the food in a package with a Chinese adage printed on it: “Know you have enough; Don’t deplete your good fortune.” While you savor every mouthful in your hotel’s quiet and air-conditioned lobby, a young employee sits near you to have his meal, watching Pokemon in Japanese on his iPhone.
Your street food experience in Taiwan climaxes at a night market, just as all travel guides guarantee. You join the hordes of people filing toward the Shilin Night Market, and soon see stuffed animals and plastic masks of anime characters, shooting games, clothing, shoes, iced tea stands, and an ocean of food stalls. You buy a cup of rice noodle soup and eat it on a stone step at a temple behind the stall, watching the endless currents of people this market attracts every night, seven days a week. You get iced café latte with black tapioca pearls crowding the bottom of the cup, and notice the sign you decode as “a small intestine wrapped in a large intestine.” Of course, you try this hotdog-like food with an herbal smell that fills you enough to mark the end of your eating spree. Then you let yourself be carried in the torrent of people cascading down a staircase to the basement, and there, you witness heaven.
No floating angels or celestial light, but the locals cramming around tables to bite into fried meat or seafood, and food sellers frantically flipping omelets or stirring noodles on griddles under fluorescent lights. From the focused yet relaxed look on their faces, you can tell these people are fully there to make or eat the food, letting nothing else matter in this moment. They fill the basement with these vibes of the simple and intense mindfulness that you never thought possible in a packed food court. You watch them spellbound because they look so alive. And happy.
During the rest of your stay, you visit a peaceful, verdant quarter that features museums away from the street bustle. You watch the Changing of the Guard in Freedom Square. The grand architecture of the theater, concert hall, and memorial hall in the vast Square again makes you feel the air of a continent in this island nation. And you see enough neat-looking apartment complexes, some of which have plants and flowers growing beautifully over the iron gratings covering the windows, as opposed to those sooty buildings that struck you on your first day as barely livable.
Decoding menus remains a struggle, though you have successfully deciphered many simple public signs such as 洗手間 (restroom; 御手洗 in Japanese), 公用電話 (public phone; 公衆電話), and 天雨路滑 (the floor is slippery because of rain; 雨で足元が滑ります). This is the type of fun never available in the West.
Now you are on the boardwalk through the mangrove swamps in the northern part of Taipei, and find the quiet you wanted before flying back to Tokyo tomorrow. The sky is clear. The sun is blazing down. Cicadas are singing. Mountains and shiny modern buildings soar beyond the expanse of mangroves. The heat, quiet, stillness, and vastness somehow recall a desert region in the American Southwest, despite the mud and lush vegetation surrounding you. Crabs and mudskippers pop out of the sandy-gray dirt and plunge back into their holes; white water birds swoop down onto the wetlands to peck around, or take a slow walk with you. When the boardwalk ends, you keep walking, past yellow paper lanterns hanging around a dilapidated house, past bikers taking a rest who will later overtake you, and past Buddhas lined up against a brick building. Then you reach Tamsui, the town along an estuary that leads to the Taiwan Strait. You gasp at pink plumeria flowers quivering in the salty breeze from the river—and at the shards of sunlight over the stretch of water. You have seen this view before. By the East River in New York, the Ala Wai Canal in Honolulu, the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London, and the Sumida in Tokyo. You sit on a bench to watch the glitter dance the way it does around the world, and stay until the sun drives you into the shade and then to the metro station.
Next morning, while waiting for your bus to the airport at the terminal, you go to a stall for breakfast and point at mysterious food items sorted in stainless containers. This, this, and that, you indicate to the woman who cuts up the food with scissors, tosses the pieces into a strainer, dips them in broth, and pours them into a plastic bag with spice and chopped scallions. You only recognize an egg; the others may be fish paste, or meat. You are never sure, and you like that, because you like this experience of eating unidentifiable street food from a plastic bag with chopsticks at a bus terminal.
Back in Tokyo. Given the short flight time and the city’s East Asian atmosphere, you don’t feel like you’ve returned from overseas. Yet you do feel different, just as you did after navigating through streets in North America and Europe. Now you know that any journeys to foreign destinations, nearby or faraway, lead you to equally spectacular views of the world.
BIO: As Kaori says: I write literary essays while working as a freelance translator based in the Tokyo area. My work has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Sliver of Stone Magazine, Easy Street, Punctuate Magazine, Peacock Journal Anthology: Beauty First, and more. Other than writing, I enjoy strolling through any street I happen to be on, looking for poetry in everything with occasional success.
PHOTOGRAPH: Doug Donaldson c. 2016