Saturday, 10 November 2007

Blogger gone weird... again

Before I could not log in or view blogs without some third-party device
Then I could log in, view blogs AND comments without anything (woohoo!)
And now.. I can log in and write/edit posts but cannot view blogs (including my own) without the aid of a proxy.

ARGH! What the?!

Love affair with Ikea

Just reading my old broadsheet newspaper online (The Sydney Morning Herald) and came across this article:

Ikea plans new stores, for one in a million

Jano Gibson Urban Affairs Reporter
November 10, 2007

SYDNEY is in the grip of a flat-pack revolution. Every Saturday, up to 15,000 people wander through Ikea's maze-like megastore in Rhodes, filling oversized trolleys with products bearing unpronounceable names. Then they go home and scratch their heads trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

The city's love affair with the Swedish homeware giant saw almost 3 million people converge on its only Sydney store last year. Sales leapt 37 per cent, making it the fastest growing Ikea store in the world.

"It's like a big sports event every Saturday," said the company's Australian boss, Kent Nordin.

Recognising that the shopping experience at Rhodes could soon become an overcrowded nightmare, and keen to attract people who feel Rhodes is too far from home, Mr Nordin is planning a huge expansion program.

He wants Sydney eventually to have four Ikea stores, all bigger than the 25,500 square metres at Rhodes.

The next store will be built in the city's south-east, possibly on the site of the old Tempe tip, on the Princes Highway. The company is also considering areas around St Leonards, in the city's north, and, Liverpool, in the south-west.

"Our rule of thumb, roughly, is one store per million people and, of course in Sydney, with 4 million people, one store is never going to be good enough," Mr Nordin said.

Ikea's global success came down to a simple three-point formula, he said.

"You come out here and you see solutions. We try to show you how your home can work. Then, when you look at the price tag for that shelf or hook, you say, 'I can actually afford to do that.' The third is that you can pick it up and have it today."

Despite Marrickville Council documents revealing that a new store at the remediated tip site could cost $250 million, Mr Nordin rejected suggestions that an expansion would lead to a rise in prices.

Ever since I was about 10 or 11 years old I had a fascination with Ikea. OK not just Ikea but any furniture chain store that came with lovely, colourful brochures in the mail I could browse through for ages. I'm not talking a few minutes but I'd look through it over and over again over the period of the whole year. I in fact have all those Ikea catalogues I collected since 1987!

At one stage Sydney had three or four Ikea stores but now only has one. My mother, sister and I went to the Gordon store when it closed down. I also visited the Moore Park and Blacktown stores.

When the Rhodes store opened it was a really big deal. It was touted as the largest Ikea store in the southern hemisphere. Since Sydney is such a huge place all the Ikeas used to be a fair distance from where I lived but Rhodes was only about a 20min drive from where I lived after I moved out of home. I don't think I have a single friend who doesn't like Ikea!

I remember about a year ago all the Christmas decorations started coming out and I spent ages oohing and ahhing over them. I even bought some pieces which I used for our wedding reception.

I love browsing the 'rejects' corner to see what bargains I can find.

I actually enjoy putting together furniture. Both my parents are very DIY orientated and I think I have definitely inherited this from them. I have fond memories of my first ever visit to Ikea when I was maybe 10 years old and following my parents around with the paper tape measure and little pencil and playing in the ball room with my sister (even though I was a tad too old LOL). More recently, I remember rushing to Ikea to get a big white Expedit bookshelf that was $100 cheaper than the normal price. The crowds were huge and some greedy people even got two. I remember being annoyed and waiting ages for someone to help me load the big heavy boxes into the car. In the back of my mind all I could think of was my sister telling me that that is how 'service' works in Europe. There is none. Because labour costs are so high there are never enough staff members to help you (contrast this with China! hahaha).

I applied for a job with Ikea about a 18 months ago. No, not as a sales assistant but in their design department. They kept me waiting for ages then wrote back to say that the position was withdrawn. I was heart broken. I had studied their catalog. This was before I even knew about the job! I started planning our living room even though it would probably never eventuate but it was still fun to dream. I knew the names of so many brands - Expedit, Billy, Kramfors, Hensvik, Bonde, Leksvik... I drew up floor plans of the various rooms with measurements and little paper cutouts (to scale) of various pieces and played around with them in the room. Actually I've been doing this since I was a kid..

Now I am in Shanghai and not far away from the one and only store here and I have only been there once (right when we first moved in and barely bought anything). What is wrong with me?!

We got the catalog from them in the mail recently and I was really disappointed. Instead of the thick ones I got back home this one was only 30 pages or so. Not only that, you can't get them in store, you have to have them sent to you and I've been waiting for this since May?! Crazy. The good news is that the prices here are about 60-70% of what I was paying back in Australia (which, I calculated using exchange rates and online catalogues from other countries and it was a LOT more than most countries even the UK in some instances!)

Methinks it's time for another visit there. I'll be going on a weekday thanks. I hear from the Lonely Planet (I think) that it is just crazy on weekends.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Scooter arm warmers

Seen today: So that's what people do when they are riding their scooter and their hands get cold!

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Yaohan Next Age BaBaiBan and Roberto Cavalli for H&M

(to make up for lack of photos in a lot of my previous posts there is a bit of a photo overload in this entry!)

Well I went to Yaohan Next Age today and was pretty disappointed. For the supposedly second biggest department store in the world and largest in Asia it didn't seem that big nor exciting. The cosmetics and kids areas were great but the others were pretty blah. I went into the stationery section hoping to find some nice stuff but after being in Japan I was of course sorely disappointed. It was about as boring as stationery in Australia 10 years ago. Bland. Manly. Blue, black, grey, plain. No bright colours, no cutesy cartoony figures.. I will say though that I found glue tape there though. I have been looking for it everywhere in Shanghai to no avail. I bought 2 of them in Japan. I hate how other types of glue warp the paper and don't stick that well. The saleslady said to me, "You do know that is glue and not correction tape?" and I was thinking, "Uh..yeah... because correction tape is everywhere and I have searched high and low to find this!!" It had Japanese packaging and said Made in Vietnam. The one I bought in Japan was made in China. Weird.

To get some more of my Japanese 'fix' I went to a Japanese restaurant in the top of that building and it was pretty good. For 40 yuan I got a set meal, didn't even finish it all and was totally stuffed. The noodles were fantastic, as was the tempura but they gave me some eggnog type thing with a prawn in it and I thought that was totally gross. The tea was nice though and the salad was OK too. The funniest thing I noticed was that the lady standing at the front of the restaurant was wearing a kimono, socks and sandals. However, she didn't have the proper Japanese tabi socks and had normal socks. You can't wear normal socks with those thong/flip flop sandal things! Haha.

After being disappointed I decided to go to the Super Brand Mall. On the way there I took some photos of the Pearl Tower and construction workers near the station. The Pearl Tower never ceases to amaze me. You have no idea how big it is looking at a photo. You really need to see it for yourself to see how mammoth it is! I was quite impressed and shocked at the station's interior - it was pristine and almost empty! What was going on? Was I really back in Shanghai?

Then I caught a train to Zhongshan Park and went into H&M (even though I had already gone into the one in Super Brand/Pudong, but didn't really look at anything). I looked at an interesting looking black trench coat and then looked at the tag and realised it was part of the long awaited Roberto Cavalli collection!

I got so excited about taking photos that I actually stopped looking at the clothes. Not sure if I like them or not. They are all either black, gold, or animal print. The dresses all come in their own sheer gauzy organza type fabric bag which was nice and different. The pieces are fairly reasonably priced, I think. The stupid security guard wouldn't let me take any photos but I got some.

There are some better ones up on Flickr too.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Yaohan, Best Denki and Singing Aeon (and Jusco)

It's amazing when you travel to a new place you learn more and more and sooner or later the jigsaw pieces begin to fit together. I experienced this so many times in Shanghai already.

Whilst we were in Naha Mike was sick with a cold and we desperately needed a cable or card reader for me to upload my photos and clear the SD card, and a plug adaptor thing.

I went to the busiest street in Naha thinking I could find this but the only thing they sold were souvenirs and trinkets. I then wandered into a department store thinking I could find it there but nope. I went up to the first person I came across who was a beautiful short lady working in one of those cosmetics counters. She didn't know a word of English and I barely knew a word of Japanese. I pointed to the slot on my camera and mimed a long object and said "USB cable". She took me to a Fuji photo place nearby and they didn't know where to get one either. She then took me back to the department store and came to the conclusion I could get it from a store called Jusco. Since our hotel was near the monorail station it was only a convenient 3 stop trip too.

So I stopped at a nearby eatery to bring Mike back some lunch, had a rest for about an hour and then set off again. Prior to going out I asked at the hotel front desk and they suggested I go to a store called "Best Denki" or as they say "be-su-to den-ki". She said I had to take a short taxi ride to get there.

Not having a clue what Jusco OR Best Denki sold, I looked them both up on Google on the hotel's free internet computers. I came to the conclusion that Jusco was a general store like Kmart and Best Denki was a sole electronics store. It was a hard choice to choose which one to go to but in the end I decided on Jusco simply because it was easier to get there and I could look at other stuff too (like groceries or clothes).

So I went to this Jusco and was in absolute heaven. It was similar to Carrefour in Shanghai in that it sold general household goods and had a big supermarket attached.

It sold everything under the sun for a reasonable price and it was all just so beautiful, sparkly, cute and perfect.

It turned out that only the supermarket was called Jusco and the budget department store was called Singing Aeon and had musical notes as the logo.

So where is all this leading?

Well, I am still wishing I was in Japan and pining for anything Japanese. I did a quick search on Google and it seems that there is a Yaohan store in Pudong. So I go to wikipedia and look up Yaohan.

It turns out that is it no longer called Yaohan in Japan and was bought out by the Aeon group, ie Singing Aeon. As well as that, Yaohan had an electronics store called Yaohan Best which started in Singapore and is now called..... (drum roll)... Best Denki.

So it turns out that no matter if I went to Jusco/Aeon or Best Denki to buy the cable and plug adapter it was actually the same company all along!!

Just some random trivia I found about Yaohan Next Age in Shanghai - it is the second largest department store in the world, surpassed only by Macy's in New York :)

Hubby's first Mandarin lesson

After weeks and weeks of agonising about what to do with learning Mandarin, which method, which company.. hubby finally decided on getting a personal home tutor with Mandarin H----.

Last night the tutor came over and I was basically bumming around on the net and doing some design work on the computer and eavesdropping (how could I not? They were sitting 2 metres away from me).

Anyway, at one part of the conversation I was trying to hold it all in and not laugh my head off. It was just too funny. It may not seem funny to anyone else but at the time for me it was hilarious.

They were talking about Sydney, our hometown...

The conversation went something like this:

Tutor: "So what do you think tourists find interesting about Sydney? I
hear there is a famous theatre there."
M: "No, it's in Melbourne. Melbourne has lots of theatres."
Tutor: "Oh? Sydney doesn't have theatres?"
M: "It does but not as many."

Then at this point I realised they were both confused and I couldn't resist blurting out, "I think she means the Opera house!"

After a few chuckles and confused looks.. it continued...

T: "So what else is interesting in Sydney?"
M: "There is a bridge.."
T: "A bridge? Do tourists go to Sydney just to see a bridge? Is it a famous bridge?"
(at this point I realised she had probably never heard about the famous Harbour Bridge?!!)
M: "Yeah.. it's a big bridge..."
T: "Hmm..OK."

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

The island of Okinawa

(above: the sunset that greeted us when we arrived in our hotel and checked in. The two pictures were only taken minutes apart).

Okinawa is a prefecture of Japan encompassing hundreds of islands, the biggest and most populated of which is... (funnily enough), Okinawa.

We flew into Naha, the capital, from Shanghai which took only 2 hours. Love a quick flight (living in Australia everywhere is a mega long flight). Since we had planned to go to the amazing Churaumi aquarium we needed to hire a car. The reason is because it is at least 2 hours away from Naha and the buses don't run that frequently. Also Okinawa can be a difficult place for non-Japanese as there isn't much English signage or international tourists around. It took me a bit of effort but after extensive searching on Google and getting nowhere I actually emailed the Australian consulate in Shanghai and they told me how we could apply for an international licence whilst not being in Australia so I sent off the forms, photocopies and photo and a few weeks later we got our international driver's licence in the mail, which enabled us to drive in Japan. Too easy!

So anyway, I thought it would be best to stay closer to the aquarium so we could get there from our hotel easily. I researched and researched, which was a hard task given most websites were in Japanese and most of the hotels were luxury resorts which were out of our budget.

In the end Mike agreed we could splurge and the hotel I chose was about halfway between Naha and Churaumi. We could also get a great rate with them and they were by no means one of the top end ones! So we ended up staying at the Renaissance Okinawa. We had had a great experience with the Renaissance in Kuala Lumpur (which by the way is part of the Marriott chain) and were in no way disappointed with the Okinawan one.

The resort was out of this world gorgeous. The room was spacious and we had a balcony overlooking the sea. We unfortunately did not have a room on the 'nice' side of the hotel but nevertheless we had a gorgeous ocean view and saw brilliant sunsets. The hotel seemed to be quite full and they did not have any double rooms left so we got a twin but they ingeniously put the beds together and it actually felt like a king size bed.

There were so many restaurants to choose from I don't know where to start. We ate at 3 of them and also had room service. Since the resort is located in a fairly isolated area there was no point looking elsewhere nearby to eat so we just ate, slept and played in the hotel grounds.

One of the main reasons for choosing this hotel too was because I had seen pictures on their website about helmet diving or sea walking. It looked like the coolest thing ever as I can't do scuba and it seemed like a cross between snorkeling, snuba and diving. Mike agreed that I should do it as he likes to get me to do anything sporty because I'm usually so non sporty.

As well as giving us each free buffet breakfasts they also gave us each 3500 yen credit to use towards any of the many water activities. Since the sea walk cost 6000 yen we used both sets of credits for this. Mike still had 1000 yen to use but didn't because he actually fell ill on our very first day in Okinawa!

The next day we woke up and had one of the most amazing buffet breakfasts I have ever seen. The variety was endless and covered Japanese food, Chinese food and typical Western/American food. There was also a cute little low stand for the kiddies. They also had freshly made pancakes, any kind of eggs you wanted, and delicious dessert treats.

(Part of the amazing hotel. There are two restaurants inside the hut.)

After that we headed back to the room for a short rest (we both hate early mornings but had to be up so we could have the breakfast which finished at 9:30am) then I went out to do my sea walk.

Then, I realised that the Japanese are extremely punctual and although I thought I was on time I was in fact late. Major embarrassment! They were still polite and helpful as ever and quickly got me to sign the waiver form, gave me a wetsuit and told me to put it on. The others had left and were on the little floating pontoon thing already.

I was personally escorted by boat to the pontoon. I felt really special. I also had my own personal instructor and demo with his very limited English. On the pontoon we were also asked to take off our thongs and put on the booties.

All I knew was that I had to equalize the pressure inside my nose and go down the ladder slowly. I actually started panicking on the inside thinking what if I missed some major thing and didn't know what to do if something went wrong?

There were 7 in our group including me (they allow up to 12 people per time slot) and one by one we descended down the stainless steel ladder. At the top of the ladder I actually started freaking out. I am actually scared of deep water and it was 3 metres deep.

I took the ladder really really slowly and when the water was around my chin level they plonked the 30kg helmet on me. Due to the buoyancy effect the helmet didn't feel anywhere near that heavy though!

I went down the ladder one rung at a time, each time letting my ears adjust. It was a really weird feeling. My breathing also sounded really slow and loud. Like that moon walk. In fact when I got to the bottom the effect was exactly like the moon walk!

You cannot walk normally. You can only walk really slowly and you sort of 'bounce' along barely even touching the floor. I really did feel like Neil Armstrong for a while. You breathe normally and your face and hair are actually completely dry. Amazing! Anyone can do it and the only discomfort you feel is the pressure in your ears constantly changing but it's by no means painful just a little weird and annoying.

We fed the fish and saw some Nemos and sea anenomes. Our guide had a waterproof magna doodle type whiteboard which he used to communicate to us, and even wrote in English just for me (I felt special!)

After around 10 mins our time was up although it felt much much longer than this and I wanted to stay down there forever. It was just so much fun I really recommend it to anyone who wants to experience the underwater world but can't scuba dive.

Back from Japan

Well I'm back from Japan and had an absolute blast. Where do I even start?

I have now visited almost 20 countries and have pretty strong impressions about what makes a country good to visit and travel in, and what makes it bad.

After 2 weeks in Japan I can honestly say I can't really think of too many negatives.

First of all the people are amazingly humble, polite, helpful and seem happy to help/serve you. OK maybe not all of them but most of them.

Second of all, the information signage is out of this world. I find myself in some sort of mental pain when I'm in a country where I don't speak the language and the signs are extremely inadequate. Even in my home town of Sydney where I DO speak/read the language and have visited certain places thousands of times I can still find myself getting lost. Nope, I'm not stupid. The signage is just seriously lacking and what little signage there is is not exactly that helpful.

Most of the signs are pictorial so you don't even need to know how to read anything and self explanatory.

Eg 1. In the airport coming back to Shanghai near the waiting area there was a sign outside the public toilet with a map of the layout! That's right. The walls and little toilet stalls were illustrated. Also, it had a map pointing you to the next closest toilets should these be closed for cleaning.

2. In most places where there are public toilets it tells you on the door if it is a "Japanese style" toilet (squat) or "Western style" (seated).

3. If you find yourself lost you will sooner or later find a sign telling you which direction to go, and in addition if it's a popular touristy place there is probably also a human directing people.

4. The Japanese are big on safety and there are cute little cartoony illustrations everywhere telling you not to do this or that, or we apologise for ... etc.

Enough about signs. At times I felt like I was a child and the Japanese people were my parents.

1. In our first hotel whenever we were directed somewhere they didn't just point to it or tell us, they actually took us there personally and if there were stairs they pointed them out to us seconds before we hit the stairs.

2. When a staff member took a photo using my camera they handed it back to me and put the strap back on my wrist for me.

3. When I went into the water at the beach they asked me if my camera and watch were both waterproof. I can't imagine anyone else asking or caring. In fact, I have ruined a perfectly good watch when I forgot to take it off one time whilst boating.

4. When I bought something in a shop and was carrying other stuff, they put the handles of the plastic bag into my hand for me... etc.

People in Australia seem to think that Japan is an expensive place to visit. It's been ingrained into everyone's heads. I don't what started this or how it came about but everyone is like "Ooh Japan is SO expensive" and the majority of those people have never even been!

Well I can say for a fact that many things are cheaper than Australia - food and clothes for example. The food is amazing - healthy, tasty, quick and nutricious. and about the same price we'd pay in Australia for a food court meal.

The clothes, shoes, bags are so beautiful and stylish and made to fit Asian bodies - my ideal of heaven (as nothing in Australia ever fits, the sizes seem to get bigger year by year and even the smallest size of clothes and shoes are too big for me now). The quality as well as the design is superb.

The homewares are similar - beautiful, stylish, small and neat, just perfect.

If you are a craft / DIY lover, it is simply heaven. There are about a billion amazing illustrated craft books covering every topic under the sun and there are many shops which sell all the bits and pieces you need. Some rare/hard to find things too - like a t-shirt screen printing kit, leather work and stamping, resin ornament making, anything your heart desires!

I could go on and on... I am dying to get back there soon! :)