Category Archives: Travel

Injustice

Military guys and hula

I just returned from my second trip to Hawaii this year, this time with two of my besties, to start moving into my beautiful new house. But more about that later. In the meantime, I give you a rant, with humble apologies if this offends anyone, as I’m sure it will. On the other hand, this is my blog and I can say what I want, so if you don’t like it, go read People magazine. Or jump in a polluted lake. Or eat Brussels sprouts until they give you gas. I don’t really care. Here we go.

I am always very careful about airports. I carry no pointy things, no illicit liquids, no metal on my clothing, no balloons filled with heroin or Uzis disguised as bonbons. I always sail through security, especially since I quit smoking (exactly four years ago, not one puff since, no sir!) and never carry lighters anymore.

But this time, a man with a clipboard pulled me aside for “additional security” at Haneda airport, even though I’d already sailed through the x-ray and body scanner. A white-gloved woman made me sit on a folding chair behind a screen and swiped my palms and pockets with a little piece of paper then started pawing through my carry-on. As my annoyance boiled over into outrage, I asked, “Just what are you looking for?” and was told “residue of prohibited substances”. She apologized and said people are chosen at random by a computer.

Even so, prohibited substances? Do they really think I will fiddle around with gunpowder or crystal meth just before arriving at the airport and then forget to wash my hands? I am both suspect and stupid?

My friend Winston says he gets pulled aside for “additional security” every time, every single time, he goes through an airport. Winston is gentle as a lamb. Winston is also black. I wonder if this is the reality of all people of non-pink skin and then kick myself for allowing myself to exist inside a bubble of innocence, all the while knowing that self-same bubble is what makes it possible to cope with the world.

I understand that security has to do what it can to make the world a safer place, but how does endlessly punishing people for the color of their skin, and randomly punishing others in order to justify that punishment, do anything more than make air travel that much more unpleasant and pile one more block on the Jenga tower of injustice that the world has become? Or is this just another twist on the fundamental injustice that has always been and will always be?

Advertisements

Happy Cake

In this morning’s yoga class, there was only one other student, who turned out to be a tour guide, the type that accompanies Japanese tour groups when they go abroad. But, she said, she hasn’t been very busy lately because people are not traveling much outside of commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. This is because there are too many terrorists in Europe and every American is armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and sub-machine guns.

Granted, many Japanese people are given to sweeping generalizations and melodramatic hyperbole but at the same time and for the first time in history, the governments of other countries are warning their nationals to avoid the States.

I told the other student and the teacher that not all of the States is a war zone and gun control is often a state-by-state issue. In fact, I told them, Hawaii has just recently passed some rather strict gun ownership regulations, thank goodness.

They seemed surprised that I felt that way. I was surprised at their surprise…and then deeply saddened.

So I came home and baked an orange cake because while warm cake might not solve anything, it makes things better, especially if it’s smiling.

I figure if cake can smile, I can, too.

13814992_1254871454545851_1393708419_n

 

What Price Freedom

13551018_1237536976279299_336076220_n

When I went to Bali last year, my travel buddy was Barry, a retired doctor and kindly gentleman, since we were the only singletons in the group. We got along well.

Fast forward a year and Barry and a couple of his friends are touring Japan. Barry asked us to join them for dinner. We did, and they were lovely people. We had a most enjoyable evening, but one part of our conversation really jolted me. I haven’t been able to shake that feeling.

They said that the travel company which had organized their tour had also put together twenty other such Japan tours because the demand for them had multiplied exponentially.

Why?

People are afraid of other places. Nobody feels safe going to Europe or Africa anymore. To be honest, they said, being in Japan was a relief because they live in Memphis, Tennessee, which is second only to Detroit for its gun violence. And I don’t mean the horrific psychosis that happened in Orlando. I mean day to day violence, bloodshed and murder, seemingly random, a specter that trails you every time you work up the nerve to leave your home. They said not an evening goes by when there isn’t a report of injury or death by gunshots on the news.

I had forgotten how common that type of news is in the States. On the other hand, I said laughing, just that same day the TV people had been reporting the discovery of a dismembered body in a pond not far from my house. Everyone stared at me, slightly aghast. “Oh, it’s not funny! Of course not. I’m laughing because it’s so strange. That kind of violence just doesn’t happen here.”

As all of them went on and on about how they’d fallen in love with Japan and couldn’t wait to come back, I inwardly rolled my eyes. But then I realized that I feel safe. All the time. I’m much more likely to be annoyed than threatened when I go out. I don’t lock my doors or windows. I’ve never even been groped. It suddenly dawned on me how complacent I’ve become, how I take for granted that nobody is going to shoot me for my political views or the contents of my wallet or just for looking at them sideways. I can move through my life with the comfort of not ever thinking about where I can or cannot go or what I can or cannot do.

Yes, Japan is wonderful, but it’s certainly no Shangri-la.

Or is it? Sure, it’s expensive, but what price can you put on freedom?

Another Grand Day Out

Destination: Yokohama

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

Maya wanted to go to Chinatown and that seemed like a good idea, so we headed there in time for lunch.

The thing with Chinatown is there are about a gazillion restaurants to choose from. We knew enough to stay away from the fancy ones on the main drag (Bah! Those for the tourists!) but that just left a half gazillion smaller ones on side streets. I figured it was best to just dive in, so chose one because the woman standing outside trying to coax us in had a Chinese accent–usually a good sign.

We got lucky. We ordered and then indulged ourselves in a feeding frenzy worthy of several schools of piranha who had been locked in a closet for a few weeks. Chopsticks flashing faster than a Benihana chef’s knives, we devoured everything except the furniture. Yum! ‘Nuf said.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

So we hauled our bloated bellies toward Yamashita park and the port area where we saw a stingray. That doesn’t often happen. I morphed myself into E.T. to take the picture. (See shadow.)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

We next visited the doll museum which is rather boring but at least everyone else thinks so, too, so nobody was there. We enjoyed the peace and air conditioning.

Then there was this: Marine Tower.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

I have always avoided Tokyo Tower and have no interest in Skytree but we’d been looking for new experiences.

I had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for.

It’s only 94 meters tall. That’s about 30 stories. I’ve been up buildings taller than that. No bid deal, I thought. So we got into the elevator to go up. And the little glass box started to rise…and rise…and rise.

“Oh, cool. It’s a see through elevator. Love those. Look at the steel girders sliding by. Oops. What was that? My stomach just hit the floor. Uh-oh. Can’t breathe. Was that Willie Wonka and Charlie I just saw flying by? There goes the wicked witch on her broomstick. And wasn’t that Harry Potter chasing a Golden Snitch? This can’t be happening. Help. HELP! GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!!”

And then the doors opened. We crept out, hugging the internal wall. I could barely move and could feel myself shaking.

“Oh, no. That’s not you,” said the affable woman wiping fingerprints off the glass. “It’s quite windy today so this thing wobbles all around. I have to keep the glass very clean or people get dizzy trying to focus on the distance.”

Oh, my.  Do.Not.Retch.

And to add terror to an already frightening experience, there was this:

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

Maya is not clowning. You step onto that sheet of plexiglass and your heart plummets to the depths of hell. You can feel your soul being sucked out through the soles of your feet. Not for the faint of heart, my friends.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

After a while, I did manage it, but what you can’t see is that I am staring resolutely into the distance, my white knuckled fingers making indentations in the wooden handrail.

Closed eyes, deep breathing and a meditation mantra are the only things that got me back into the elevator and down to street level.

Been there. Done that. Don’t ever have to do it again. Amen.

By comparison, the ride home on the nearly empty train felt like pure bliss. We were only going forward, not up, and the gentle side-to-side rocking was a comfort, not the erratic shudders of a spindly tower with the structural integrity of a Slinky.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

Maya has made an impressive effort to learn reading and writing. As we pulled into our station she turned to me looking perplexed and asked, “Garbage is dangerous?”

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

Well, yes, that’s pretty much what the sign says. One of the things that makes Japanese so difficult is that even when you can read something, that doesn’t mean it will make any sense. While the illustration shows a relaxed looking hand calmly dropping a piece of paper, which didn’t strike either of us as particularly dangerous, what the text implies is that it is dangerous to toss garbage over the wall and into the street. The thinking is that if they use an illustration of, say, a tattooed thug tossing a beer bottle over the wall, then that’s what will happen. Or something like that.

(Gallic shrug.) It is what it is.

We ate, we laughed, we had a lot of fun. Once again, it was worth the effort and I’m glad we went.

P.S. Diana, this is for you. It’s the hotel where Napolitan spaghetti was invented. You’re welcome.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

A Grand Day Out

I was backpacking in Europe when I got a postcard from my lovely and gracious friend, Leisa. “Come to Japan!” she said. “People are throwing money around. I can get you a job at the school where I’m teaching.”

Her timing couldn’t have been better. It was 1986. I was running out of money. The Japanese bubble economy was soaring headlong into the ether. The crash and burn followed in 1987 but at least I got to experience a year of the bubble. It was pretty awesome, and I don’t use that word lightly.

All of that was nearly 30 years ago, and now Leisa’s lovely and gracious daughter Maya is spending a week with us. We’re having a fine time, too.

One of the things she wanted to see was the Big Buddha at Kamakura, and Kelly just happened to be doing a beach yoga class and picnic there yesterday so we went.

As we sat in meditation pose at the beginning of class, the sun was on our eyelids. I drew the salt scented breeze deep into my lungs as I synched my 15 month tobacco free breath to the rhythm of the surf. Feelings of happiness, gratitude and peace kitten-licked my heart like the gentle waves lapping at the sand.

And things just went uphill from there. We started our picnic, and found ourselves being stalked by soaring, swooping gangs of crows and kites, one of which dove headfirst at Maya and snatched a rice ball right out of her hand; his feathered wing brushed my arm as it streaked past. He surprised all of us so much that we forgave both the petty thievery and the lack of proper manners. We even thanked him later because his selfishness meant we were still hungry and so had to force ourselves to eat some Turkish ice cream, which Maya had never had.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

Just before we left the beach, we were looking for a shell to bring home and Maya picked up what we thought was a lump of coral covered with sticky sand. But under the sand, we were delighted to find this little piece of exquisitry.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

We will never know how or why he came to be on a public beach in Kamakura, nor why he found his way to us, but at least for me, there is something magical in the feel of his sun-warmed body against the palm of my hand. His expression seems to say, “I’ve been waiting for you. Where have you been?”

Having been primed with yoga and sunshine, it seemed that kismet could go hard on us if we didn’t pay our respects to the Big Buddha. He was the reason we went in the first place and he is, after all, very big. He looks serene enough, but one cannot know what’s in his hollow heart. A single stomp from one of his ginormous brass feet could produce a very convincing Monty Pythonesque splat, so it’s probably best not to mess with him.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

It took us five trains and a bus to get back home, mostly because I kept changing my mind about how to do that. When we finally got there, we were wilted. We had salt on our sun burned skin and sand between our toes, but Maya got to cross one thing off her list and I got to add a couple she hadn’t thought of. Overall we were pretty well satisfied and very pleased that we’d made the effort to go.

hot Jane Austin

The Long and Whining Road

As nice is it is to be back home, it was very hard to leave paradise. I will have a lot more to say about that. I need some time to come up with better words than “beautiful”, “exotic” and “delicious”.

Here are a couple of teasers:

WIN_20150421_113115
View from the restaurant terrace at Sideman, Bali

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAFor now, I’ll start with the journey home, which began with a night flight from Denpasar to Seoul.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThree cheers for Korean Airlines. The nice check-in man at Denpasar airport put a special red SHORT CONNECTION label on my suitcase because I only had 45 minutes between flights at Seoul. I wasn’t particularly worried about it but I was seated at the very back of the peanut gallery and one of the lovely cabin attendants was worried. Twenty minutes before we landed, she moved me to first class, my very first time to sit there. I didn’t get any special service, but I did get to play with the buttons on the seat AND use the exit for fancy folks.

The cabin attendant was also worried about my suitcase and told me to enquire at the boarding gate, which I did, but the guy rather facetiously said I’d have to enquire at Narita, which in the end proved unnecessary. My Residence Card and I sailed past the hundreds of Korean tourists waiting in the FOREIGN PASSPORTS line and my red-tagged suitcase was already dancing around the carousel when I got to baggage claim. I zipped through customs where the staff are always delighted with foreigners who can speak Japanese, and hopped on the Narita Express which whisked me homeward, past the familiar rice paddies and tiled roofs and winding narrow roads, so much like Indonesia and yet so very different.

Much as I love to travel and see new places and try new things, it’s a pleasure to be back where I know how things work. I know where and how to buy a sandwich and a train ticket and can do those things without drama or fanfare. I always forget, when I haven’t traveled for a while, just how difficult such things can be*, and while it is a pleasure to cope with them to whatever degree of success, it is also a pleasure when they are easy.

*Most of our meals were group affairs, but one evening we were on our own and eight of us ventured out to find a restaurant. People were tired and kvetchy and couldn’t agree on where to go. I don’t have much patience with that sort of thing so went to the supermarket, where I wandered around for half an hour and ended up with a bag of potato chips and a bottle of Bintang beer. I recommend the latter; the former are better avoided. We live and learn.

Surreal Hiroshima Part 2

The producer had told me a narrator named Hara was coming from Tokyo and that he’d pick us both up at the hotel in the morning. When I got to the lobby….

“Sachiko-san!”

“Eda-san!”

Producer: “You guys know each other?”

No, actually. We’d never met, but had known each other peripherally, through other connections, for years.

The recording only took a couple of hours. She had made arrangements to spend the night with a friend and I had to stay until the next morning to do the final program check, so we decided to spend the day together. First stop was the peace museum, ’nuff said about that yesterday. Then as we were making our way to the dome, one of us said something funny and we burst into giggles. I said, “Hey, I don’t think we should be laughing here!” And that made us laugh even more.

I was planning to head back to Tokyo the next morning after work but Sachiko asked me to go to Miyajima with her. She  pointed out that it had taken four hours on the shinkansen to get to Hiroshima. Or 28 years and four hours in my case, seeing as I’d never been there before. We suddenly found ourselves on an unexpected mini vacation, some time to enjoy and good company to share it with. We both kicked it into silly gear, laughing like little girls who’d run into a clown on roller skates bearing balloons and cotton candy.

Miyajima monument

It took about 40 minutes on a charmingly rattly train and then a 10 minute ferry ride to get to Miyajima, but the journey was worth every minute. It was one of those almost impossibly perfect days. The sun was shining, the sky was clear. Buying my ticket at Hiroshima station, a wondrous feeling of freedom surged through my body. I realized that, for just a few hours, I  could get away with not having a care in the world, which was my oyster and therefore appropriate for lunch, along with some freshwater eel.

I was feeling good.

Breathing the ocean scented water deep into my lungs, I used my superpowers to nearly topple this monument.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

Upon landing and monument toppling, one walks past an arcade of restaurants and souvenir stands and an oddly large number of coffee shops, then one is expected to kiss a deer before entering the shrine, a lovely old wooden edifice built over the Seto Inland Sea. At high tide, the complex seems to float on the water, one of the finest examples of Japan’s traditional, elegant architecture.

We were there at low tide. We saw a lot of barnacles.

Sachiko tried and tried to get a good selfie of us with a deer, but most of them were more interested in the contents of my shirt and Sachiko’s purse, which was pretty much covered with deer snot by the time we left the island.

two deerAnd that was that. We took the ferry and train back to the city, then the shinkansen back to Tokyo and the mini vacation was over. But what a treat. I can’t remember the last time I went somewhere just for fun. Thank you, Sachiko, and thank you, world.

Surreal Hiroshima, Part 1

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA
The peace memorial with the A-bomb dome in the background, covered in scaffolding as they’re checking it for structural integrity, which strikes me as kind of surreal.

I just got back from a working trip to Hiroshima. The work didn’t take long, so I spent some time at the peace museum and park. This is not a happy story.

I had been to the Nagasaki peace museum. I’d seen the personal belongings and photos of those innocents who died so horribly. I thought I was prepared for how it was going to feel. But what I didn’t know was that on that August day, over six thousand kids were in downtown Hiroshima doing demolition work to build, ironically, a breakfront against fires. Many of them were incinerated instantly. Some managed to make it back to their homes only to die in agony hours or days later, while their families watched. There was no medicine, no food, no clean water. There was nothing they could do.

The rationale/propaganda I had been fed was that Japan was never, ever going to give up so the bombs were dropped in the name of ending the war and bringing peace. The truth is that Japan was already done; I am told that it is commonly accepted here that the bombs were dropped as an experiment, just to see what would happen. I don’t think I can accept either of those explanations, not completely.

While I was trying to get my head around all of that, and finding it hard to breathe, a woman came up behind me with a grandchild, I assume. I don’t know; I didn’t dare to look because she said, loudly and repeatedly, “You see? America did this. All of this. This is all America’s fault.” She used that word, “America”. I just stood there listening and thinking, “You know, we can’t really blame Canada or Mexico for this, but I don’t really think it’s fair to blame me, either.” You can’t peg me as American just by looking; I’m often mistaken for German. And don’t forget that Japan and Germany were allies at the time.

As all of this rattled through my brain, I decided it would be prudent to walk away. The old lady doesn’t ever need to know that I understood what she said. I wish I could un-know about the kids.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAOutside, despite the snow, there was a group of kids standing around the children’s memorial, silently, heads bowed, some holding hands. I can only try to imagine what was going through their heads.

The question that keeps going through my head, though, is this: Did they know? When they decided to drop the bomb, did they know about the kids? Did they?

I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know the answer to that.

Rush Hour

imagesMaking my way into the station, much too early in the morning, I descend the stairs, the sound of a thousand pairs of feet echoing around me, the thundering hooves of Tokyo’s workforce stampeding toward another day.

On the platform, the doors slide open and I shuffle into the car, a human zip file compressed among wool and down, beginning to sweat even before the train moves. Walls of jumbled body parts press against me from all sides, one to my left exuding a delicate camphor, one to my right reeking of old onions. Someone behind me sneezes and I feel his breath on the back of my neck.

A wave of sadness washes over me. I am a little mouse, caught in a trap, unable  to move, helpless and vulnerable.  A tiny moan escapes my lips. Tears fall. My reflection in the window wipes them away. Those around me pretend not to notice as we experience these unintended intimacies.

I remind myself that every soul sharing this violation must hate it as much as I do, but that thought does not comfort me. Comfort is home, my bed, my cat, my fuzzy socks, my favorite sweater, cold wine and warm cheese, not this oversized sardine can circulating around the city less elegantly than blood circulates through our veins.

Station after station streams past. People get on, people get off, a faceless blur like sand on a beach, roiling, eddying, always changing yet always the same. We grains of sand all look alike, bundled in our winter wear, but in the end are isolated individuals with nothing in common but misery.

I cannot fathom how some people do this every day. I suppose you can get used to anything if you have to, but I want to get used to this morning agony almost as much as I want to stick toothpicks under my fingernails.

Nowheresville

I just learned a new word: Gun-Tama-Chi-Bara-Gi. It refers to Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Ibaragi and Tochigi Prefectures, and infers that while those areas are included in the Great Kanto Plain, they are Japan’s unsophisticated outback and the people who come from there are yokels and hayseeds. The cool kids all come from Tokyo; a few from Yokohama are also acceptable.

FYI, I have lived in Tokyo for all of my many years in Japan, but of course, that goes without saying.

MapofkantoThe irony here is that when I was small, I lived in a big old farmhouse five miles from a tiny town in Pennsylvania. When I was nine, we moved to Pittsburgh, which for me was a big step up in the world. In case you don’t know, as image and reputation go, the only thing worse than Pittsburgh is New Jersey.

On top of that, I hate crowds and am slightly claustrophobic. You can’t begin to grasp the concept of crowded until you’ve ridden a Tokyo morning commuter train or attended the annual Tamagawa fireworks. And everything is smaller here, the houses, the food, the people. There’s an elevator at a studio I work in that I can’t ride because it’s only slightly larger than a pair of coffins. I’d rather climb the four flights of stairs, even when my knees are hurting.

There was an elevator that small in my hotel in Venice, where my room was on the sixth floor, but after getting crammed into it with an over-sized German couple, I took the stairs. And I nearly had a panic attack when I went into the tomb chamber in the great pyramid at Giza.  The chamber itself is big enough, but the passage to get to it is terribly narrow and one has to maneuver past over-sized tourists both coming and going.

So how did a Pennsylvania yokel end up in Tokyo? Or Italy, or Egypt? Or any of the dozens of other countries I’ve been to?  I guess I just decided to go. I think I’m part cat; I always have to see what’s around the next corner.

What really baffles me is people who don’t–and don’t want to–go anywhere.