Totoro Travels

Hayao Miyazaki had a fruitful filmmaking career, but for no film is he better known for than Totoro, a story about a pudgy rodent who could make trees grow out of nowhere. Totoro has since been used as the mascot for Miyazaki’s studio, and more broadly has become a symbol for childhood and innocence. This wide-eyed, frankly dumb looking invention is certainly adorable. It even comes in three incarnations: Big Totoro (grey), Medium Totoro (blue) and Little Totoro (white). It has admirers across the world. In Japan it was an immediate talking point with waiters. But more recently, a barista in Denmark picked up on it and expressed her love for it. It is a cross-cultural bridge, a universalized symbol.

Our love of pudgy animal-like creatures is not isolated to Totoro. The modern day equivalent is Pusheen, the round-bodied cat that wags its tail on Facebook. It reminds me vividly of my late cat which, once described a cow, died of obesity. In Tel Aviv, a skinnier cat that would have envied my cat’s luxurious lifestyle was jumping around furiously to get its paws on a Totoro coin purse. This immediately spurred a conversation about my own former cat, a picture of which solicited a visceral “it’s fat” reaction from the waitress. Trust me, it was much cuter in person. My dad later admitted to wanting to fatten it up a little to give it a cuter figure.

Pokemon is not short of pudgy characters: most notably the karaoke-loving Jigglypuff. But probably the heaviest is the adorable Snorlax who is also an Olympic swimmer. Japan, in particular, has seem to have iconized obesity, perhaps because of its rich culture of sumo wrestling and Buddha. Not all Buddhas are fat; Gautama Buddha, the original one, is quite slim whereas the Chinese “Budai” is heavy. In an unlikely conversation with an Algerian couple in Turkey, they said they preferred the fat Buddha, the wife adding that she loves her fat husband.

What can explain our obsession with pudginess in everything except living people? The fat Venus of Willendorf, exhibited at Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, was once the symbol of beauty. Now, she would be considered unhealthy. There is probably still a basic instinct that links pudginess with well-fed and therefore happiness. Perhaps seeing a fat character draws the same reaction as the uncontrollable joys of eating.

The Totoro coin purse has followed me around in my travels. At times, intended or not, it has participated in my photo album. When it has coins, it is pudgy. When it is poor, it looks like a pancake. Again, another reason why we like pudgy things.

Russia: Enigmatic and Clandestine

Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

It can be argued that modern European history runs parallel with that of Russia. It was instrumental in the defeat of Napoleon, when in 1812 it blazed its own cities and starved the French. The balance of power, as set up by the Congress of Vienna, held until the decline of the Ottomans. Russia’s hopes of displacing the Turks and gaining influence there resulted in: the Crimean War, which it lost; the Russo-Turkish War, which was its last great victory; and arguably the First World War, which it withdrew from. By then Russia had suffered an embarrassing defeat in the hands of the Japanese, and the monarchy that had so defined Russian culture was done. Perhaps the most important contribution of the Russians to modern history is ideological. The monarchy was overthrown by a so-called bourgeoisie revolution and followed by a communist revolution led by Lenin. The communist regime would last until 1992 and spread to other parts of the world. The majority of the 20th century was characterized by the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism.

Peterhof, St. Petersburg

It is owing to these events that Russia has two histories. And perhaps it can be represented in the two main cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg. Like Beijing and Shanghai, the two cities are worlds apart. Moscow is the dark and dreary bastion of communism, propped up by foreboding towers of Stalin, marked by glitzy restaurants and cafés frequented by oligarchs. St. Petersburg is the birthchild of Peter the Great, a reformist Czar that endorsed European traditions and practices, opened up Russia to the rest of the world, and essentially created a European country with cities to mirror Paris and Vienna.

In any case, it is important to recognize Russia as a European country. It has many of the characteristics of Europe. It is developed, it is Christian, it shares in much of the same common history. As stated earlier, Russian history is an important cornerstone of European history, running back at least a thousand years. Russian Czars are essentially European emperors in every way except in name. It is from national pride that Russians are ever abhorrent of the notion of being European, but that is a luxury afforded to them by its convenient geography, sprawling across two continents. Culturally, it is certainly not Asian and most of its population lives squarely in European quarters. So Russia is a part of Europe, lest it moves to create a continent for itself.

Moscow State University

Moscow is characteristic of the planned communist cities of the 20th century. Like Beijing, the streets are wide; the city is made for driving. The centre is the Kremlin, which carries an air of secrecy in foreign journalism, but is actually a space open to tourists. Nearby, the notable Red Square has the famous multi-coloured, onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral. Off to the side, defined by queues is the mausoleum of Lenin, the father of modern Russia. In general, the museums of Moscow are unimpressive. The Pushkin State Museum is criticized of having too many copies and the Tretyakov Gallery, both the classical and modern (Krymsky Val) galleries, have too many unskilled paintings in between the masterpieces. For real art, go to St. Petersburg. Moscow, afterall, is not known for culture.

Strelka Bar

The most rewarding thing to do is to get off at Kropotkinskaya metro stop (the subway system revels in communist grandeur) and take a glance at the gold domes of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Then walk across the pedestrian Patriarchs Bridge to get to the artsy island district that previously housed a chocolate factory. A favorite in these parts is Strelka Bar, for both food and drinks ($40 a person with drinks).  Now, cross another bridge to south of the river and follow the shore southwest until you get to Gorky Park, where you can buy communist-era ice cream, play ping pong, or rent a bike. We rode it to Moscow State University, and along the way went up sparrow hill for a grand view of the city.

Kvartira 44

Food anywhere in Russia, as it is anywhere in ex-communist Europe, is bad. One local place that bucks the trend is Kvartira 44, which has gooey mushroom soup in cored Borodinski Black Bread, though the mixed meat dish is disappointing ($85 for two people with drinks). Dine like an oligarch at White Rabbit, a top 100 restaurant. The greenhouse dome and comfy couches adorned with stuffed rabbits is pure luxury. At night, it is fashionably expensive; at lunch, a set can be had for only 900 RUB ($30 a person). Start with a blue-cheese arugula salad, then have a creamy green nettle soup, and a perfectly cooked trout in a white wine sauce. There’s nothing Russian about this restaurant, except the dressed up maids that clean after you in the washroom, but the best restaurants in Russia are rarely Russian.

White Rabbit

The best way to St. Petersburg is by overnight train. It is comfortable. A ticket for about $100 buys a pretty comfortable spot in a four-bed train carriage. Most trains leave a bit before midnight and arrive early in the morning. Since the Russian day starts quite late, it gives you a bit of time to check in and have a coffee. Like the Moscow subway, the St. Petersburg metro is grandiose and often filled with art. It is also the deepest subway in the world. Most of St. Petersburg is reachable by foot (unlike Moscow) so use of metro is generally limited. Many places, like the Mariinsky Theatre is quite far from any subway stop.

Militarism in front of the Hermitage

St. Petersburg in summer is a pleasure to stroll through with temperatures in the high 10’s or low 20’s. That is also to say, avoid it in the winter. It is the closest large city to the Arctic Circle. It is also touristy city, and requires a full two days to finish. At its centre is the famous Hermitage museum, the art museum that takes up four buildings on the riverfront. Its rooms of Rembrandt and the impressionists are legendary. Nearby is the gold-domed St. Isaac's Cathedral, which holds both a museum and a “colonnade” that you can climb until the wee hours of the day and behold the beautiful city from afar. Across the rivers is the Peter and Paul Fortress where Alexander and Great and Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia are buried. Close to the Russian Museum, which has exclusively Russian art, is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the onion-domed monstrosity to mirror the one in the Red Square.

1812 room in the Hermitage

Finally, take a hydrofoil from where Nevsky Prospekt meets the Neva river to the Peterhof, a palace with fountains and gardens to rival Versailles. Budget about 3 hours for the visit, which means book return hydrofoil tickets four hours after onward tickets. By now, it should be obvious that Russia is an expensive travel destination. In that, it mirrors the Nordic countries that aren’t too far away. Most tickets for attractions are $10-20, and audio-guides are another ~$10. St. Petersburg also has the characteristics of a touristy city with its long lines and a plethora of tour groups. It is essential to plan ahead. Book tickets in advance, either online or at the counter. Some attractions have off-peak hours. The line at the hermitage dwindles close to closing time.

Raising of the drawbridges, St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is an essential city to see in the summer. In the few months of summer it does have, it lights up as the city awakens from hibernation. The most notable feature is the “white nights”. The sun sets only a bit before midnight and the ski maintains a gloomy blue until the sun rises again at 3-4am. A quintessential activity, then, is to take a night river Neva cruise. They usually leave a little after midnight and proceed to show the city from the water before parking for the bridges to rise. As a large port city, the draw bridges disconnect the north from the south for the few night hours. When they rise, the alcohol-fueled youth celebrate with great hurrah both on land and water. You would be remiss not to join them.

But finding something to do until this late hour is sometimes a challenge. One suggestion would have been to see a ballet or opera at the famous Mariinsky theatre. But the rendition of Verdi’s MacBeth was a complete sham. Ugly walls of the stage were showing. So perhaps attend a concert instead (~500 RUB), and then have a late dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Italian Kitchen and maybe take a look at the Van Gogh alive exhibition. If the next day is a Sunday, go to L’Europe for an over the top champagne brunch (4900 RUB). With all the orange juice and alcohol you could ever want and a whole range of meats at the carvery, chocolate fountains, and of course, caviar. The atmosphere is indicative of Russia: fully suited servers that suggest wines to pair whatever you’re eating, and live music that draws from well-known oldies – the Four Seasons included. The only thing missing are oysters and lobster, which are kind of expected at this price.

L’Europe

And so with that alcohol-fuelled Sunday, the trip to Russia is over. This land of intrigue that has also made it to the airwaves everywhere doesn’t feel out of place in our Westernized, modern world. Of course, it has always been a bit of an oddball. Getting a visa just to go there is expensive and annoying. But all the effort is worth it. Moscow is beautiful in its ugliness and St. Petersburg is a cultural hub with an extraordinary atmosphere in the summer. 

Accessibility: The principal language, Russian, uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which despite its similarities with the Latin alphabet, is generally unreadable by English speakers. Google maps converts effortlessly between the two alphabets so searching for places is not difficult. However, navigating the metro where signs often only appear in Cyrillic can be challenging. Credit card is accepted almost everywhere and ATM’s that accept international cards are easy to find. However, some ATM’s do not have English options. Sim cards are about 200 RUB and come 3gb of data and credit for calls.