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For a taste of the weird and wonderful, head to Japan
WHEN the burger place Five Guys opened in Hong Kong just in time for Christmas it was such a novelty that the queue - and the aroma - ran all the way around the building, and lingered. Now I marvel at "hand-cut" fries and "handmade" burgers.
But wait, is there any other deviously digital way to fashion a lump of mince beef? Do connoisseurs fashion patties by driving a car repeatedly over a protesting moose till tender, before sprinkling on salt and pepper and kicking everything into the campfire (without the use of hands)?
While heavily armed Los Angelenos high on ecstasy or the latest Trump tweet duke it out for the best burger - Five Guys, described as the "Willy Wonkas of burgercraft" by the Washington Post, pitted against the stacked-high In-N-Out, and the Big Apple's very own Shake Shack - savvy travellers need only head to Japan for a taste of the weird and wonderful.
Just pick up a copy of 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions for a peek into some revolutionary ideas like the toilet-paper-roll headwear for runny noses or the "Daddy Nurser" for grown men to enjoy the wonders of motherhood.
There's no end to the wonder. In Japan, everything runs on time. Trains. Clocks. Bowels. Even typhoons. Departing Narita as a major storm blows in snarling traffic and toppling telegraph poles, the lady at the check-in counter is unruffled. "Typhoon-o come 5-o-clock-o. Your flight-o depart 4.30pm. No problem-o." Outside people are horizontal in the howling wind.
People run on time too, screaming in all directions, when Godzilla turns up. It's how the population keeps fit. If this happens to you, pick up the kids and run screaming (don't jump into a taxi - with the meter starting at ¥700 or S$8.66 - you'll be screaming again).
It's the Japanese way. Or so the movies have it. All idle guff, of course. In reality, people are running for trains. Including Godzilla. And, in the face of terrible calamity, the Japanese are stoic to the point of sacrificial passivity, taking tsunamis, radiation and earthquakes in their long-suffering stride.
People are excruciatingly polite. As are garbage vans. As a spotless truck slowly passed me, I heard the dulcet tones of a woman in sing-song Japanese. My colleague translated. The announcement says, "Be careful. We are turning left." Three cheers for polite garbage vans. I hate despondent or rude garbage vans. Things in Tokyo are certainly different. Like the sign in the toilet at a posh hotel that read: "Do not splash water or detergent on the product. This may cause fire or trouble."
Then there are those peanuts with plastic wrappers that sternly state: "Not to be used for the other purpose". How can one disagree? Signs everywhere remind you Japan is fraught with peril. But nothing will prepare you for late night action movies on the telly featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger - dubbed in Japanese.
One of my favourite hangouts is in happening Harajuku where the five-storey Kiddyland bursts with oddities, stuffed character toys, games, and mad inventions. There are more dads than kids here, fiddling with toy trains and furtively hugging stuffed animals. The more adventurous can venture into Japan Sword near Toranomon Station for reproductions ranging from ¥20,000 to ¥80,000 or considerably more for prized tameshi-giri blades that have drawn human blood, and I don't mean while shaving. The less intrepid can play with "handmade" dolls at Yoshitoku in Asakusa or peer cautiously at the Godzilla statue - a strangely diminutive two-foot rendition - in Hibiya Square.
Always a place for new fads - and old ones - there's no end to choice of hostelries, from the quirky Book and Bed where guests sleep capsule style between bookshelves, and Hanare, a concept hotel in the ancient and unruffled district of Yanaka whose 'outlets' and 'baths' are littered across the town for insights into rural Japanese-style living, to the luxury-plus-nature intrigue of "glamping" by Circus Outdoors in the far west of Tokyo at Okutama where fluttering old-world tents redolent of knights and jousts are secretively perched in the hillside forest.
Pin-stripers tired of the puzzling neon antics at the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku (with its bikini-clad dancers and hulking creatures) can try a blushingly almost kosher Alpha Male establishment like Seventh Heaven in Roppongi where ¥7,000 buys a lap dance by a languorous leggy blonde who will declare she loves you in a heavy East European accent after the first drink.
I'm sure she means it. This is your cue to run screaming in all directions. Far better to stave off the night chill with a "hand-ground" Tokyo-style burger at Blacows, which marries Wagyu beef with yakiniku flavours.
Hong Kong is no slouch when it comes to surprises. I recently received a delicate pink envelope in the letterbox with my name and address beautifully handwritten. I looked at the stamp with its fresh postmark and the careful scotch tape-sealed flap and wondered if this was a beautiful "hand-crafted" New Year message from some forgotten friend?
It had an intriguing feminine touch. What a treat. I carefully prised this little masterpiece open to discover… the "Best properties and prices in Hong Kong" - four pages of unapologetic gloss dross. Suddenly, I felt like running screaming in all directions. Happy New Year.
- The writer is a Hongkong-based journalist and editor of SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com