Tag Archives: trains

All aboard…if you dare

My dad was in the business of potato chips, as was his father before him, and I think another generation before that. Snack foods, particularly potato chips, were always a part of my upbringing.

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There was a whole drawer in my childhood kitchen dedicated to snack foods: pretzels, beef jerky, Slim Jims, and of course, potato chips. I was born with fried potato coursing through my veins. We mostly ate the salted ones, but if one was feeling particularly sassy, there were also Bar-B-Q chips and sour cream and onion for the truly adventurous. But that was it.

Enter Japan and its obsession with improving on what was pretty  much perfect to begin with. Now, to be fair, they came out with pizza chips a few years ago. Dusted with pizza sauce flavored chemicals and globs of chemically induced fake cheese, they’re actually pretty tasty.

Pizza chips

I could get on board with the pizza chips. But then something went horribly wrong this summer. The potato chip train started to careen dangerously fast along the rails of the acceptable.

I began to encounter flavors that could only have been imagined by sweat-covered minions stoking the engines of the locomotive bound for hell.

 

Wasabi flavored beef jerky?

Wasabi beef chips

Grilled eel?

Grilled eel chips

Green curry?

Green curry chips

As the express train bound for the outer reaches the unimaginable rattled toward its inevitable doom, I suddenly felt a horrific shudder as the train derailed and tumbled into the abyss when I saw this:

mikan flavored potato chips

Mikan chips

For all that is good and holy on this sweet earth of ours, how did this ever get past the censors? Granted, I’m a tad old fashioned and a bit of a purist, but what’s next? Soy sauce flavored ice cream? Sashimi served on a bed of cotton candy? Miso soup with marshmallows?

I say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and plain old salted potato chips ain’t broke.

Training the Mind

This morning marked my 104th meditation session, 1920 minutes of being mindful.

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I’m doing an online guided meditation course. It keeps track of these things. I took great pride in watching the numbers rise on my quit smoking meter, but there’s something oddly unsettling about Big Brother knowing how much time I’ve spent looking inside me. At least he doesn’t know what I’ve seen there. Probably.

Yesterday, The Voice told me to visualize a point of light in the middle of my chest and allow it to grow and grow until it reached the edges of the universe.

Today, the light turned into an effervescence that bubbled up and out of me like champagne from a shaken bottle. I can’t find the words to describe how good it felt.

The Voice also told me to take time to revisit that state of mind several times during my day, so I did. As I was standing on a platform waiting for a train, I closed my eyes and the bubbles started pouring out of me. The train had to drive through a great cloud of them as it pulled into the station. It reminded me of the light parade at Disneyland and I couldn’t help smiling.

There are few things as mind numbing as standing on a platform waiting for a train. Anything that can turn that experience into champagne and Disneyland is worth pursuing.

Another Grand Day Out

Destination: Yokohama

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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Holiday Ha Ha

Gather ’round, boys and girls. It’s time for…(drum roll)…

Jokes that are only funny if you live in Japan!

Yay!

Several office ladies were gathered around the green tea dispenser in their crisply pressed uniforms. One of them said, “My boss is such a dope. He’s just the stupidest thing since the 8% sales tax. The other day, he actually rode the Marunouchi line from Ikebukuro to Shinjuku.”

Peals of laughter all around. Then another of the ladies said, “Hah! My boss is even stupider than that. Last February, he gave me chocolates on Valentines Day.”

Gales of laughter. Green tea went flying out of mouths and up noses. Crisp uniforms were sprayed misty green.

The Marunouchi line is the red one.
The Marunouchi line is the red one.

The Marunouchi subway line does indeed run from Ikebukuro to Shinjuku. But the above ground Shonan-Shinjuku, Saikyo and Yamanote lines also do that. There are three stations in between for a distance of just under 5km. Travel time: between 5 and 10 minutes. Cost: 160yen. The Marunouchi line departs Ikebukuro and heads southeast past Tokyo Station, loops toward the northwest and arrives at Shinjuku a whopping 17 stations and 24km later. Travel time: unavailable. No one has ever actually done it. Cost: interestingly, only 170yen, the minimum fee for subways because it’s based on the actual distance between the two stations.

As for Valentines Day, Japan loves to absorb customs and traditions from other countries, but they sometimes get a tad warped. On Valentines Day, women are meant to give gifts to men and not the other way around. It’s usually chocolate and has become obligatory in working situations. It’s called “giri choco” and usually ends up being passed along to wives or girlfriends since macho, manly Japanese men would mostly prefer to drink beer than eat sweets. Obviously, this is not fair. It puts undue pressure on women to spend money on men who still generally get paid more than women do, so in these enlightened days of sexual equality, the candy companies invented White day, March 15, when men are meant to buy candy for women. Mostly they don’t.

In recent years, Halloween has boomed in popularity. People are always shocked when I tell them it’s not a national holiday and nobody but kids really cares about it. Ditto Valentines Day. Although it’s not unheard of for friends to give each other gifts, it’s really meant for lovers, which is how Christmas is treated here. If you’re dating, you’re meant to go out for an expensive, romantic Christmas dinner. Families eat KFC and strawberry shortcake, which is available all year, but at Christmas time comes with a plastic Santa and costs twice as much. There’s just as much commercial hype as in the States–music, decorations, sweets–but the celebration is on Christmas eve. Everyone gets up and goes to work as usual on Christmas day. I did a boxing class at the dojo, which is ironic considering that today is Boxing day, at least in England, where it is a national holiday, but is unheard of both in the States and in Japan. December 23, on the other hand, is a national holiday here, the emperor’s birthday, but I had to work. And I worked after boxing class, so today is Christmas in my head. To celebrate, we went out and bought ourselves some treats.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAHappy holidays, everyone. I hope 2015 will be as awesome as 2014 has been.

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.

A Tough Week Tale

Gosh, what a week. Three days in a row I had to get up early, face the crowded trains, and go to work, where I am expected to be both pleasant and efficient. This is hard for me. I suppose if you have to do it every day, you get used to it. But my schedule is totally unpredictable. Every week is different.

I know what you’re thinking. “Awwww. Poor little freelancer. Some people do that every single day, you lazy Lima bean.”

Yeah, well, some people actually like morning. I’m not one of them, and never have been. Family lore holds it that mornings in my house went like this:

Mom goes into my brother’s room. Gentle kiss on the forehead. Angelic smile. “Good morning, mommy.”

Then she goes into my sister’s room. Another gentle kiss on the forehead. Another angelic smile. “Good morning, mommy.”

Then she stands in the doorway to my room, throws a shoe at me and yells, “Mouse! Get up!”

Apparently, it was dangerous to get any closer to my bed than that. I’m told I was a thrasher. I have no recollection of this, but even now, people who live with me know that it is unwise to speak to me before I’ve had my morning coffee.

It’s not like I’m a night person, either. I used to be, but these days I go to bed pretty early. Maybe I just don’t like being awake.

I do like being freelance, though, despite the uncertainty. I can’t imagine going to the same job day after day and doing the same thing over and over. I feel like I’ve created the career I’m pursuing, and I like the variety. I’ll never cure cancer or invent a better mousetrap, but I do good work, smile a lot, and always make my deadlines.

If anybody has any complaints about that, you’re welcome to lodge them, just not before 10:00 a.m. I can’t vouch for what may happen if you do. It is possible that the universe will implode, and I don’t want to be responsible for that kind of thing.

Too Close

One of my blog bunnies suggested that my recent reference to briefcases on a crowded train was a euphemism. It wasn’t. While groping and other misdemeanors are common enough, I have never been groped. Not once.

One of my Japanese friends said that it doesn’t happen to me because I’m scary. I just laughed, but then realized she wasn’t joking. “Fair enough,” I said. “I guess I am kind of scary, but you can’t know that just by looking at me, can you?” And she said, “Yes. You have an air about you. You’re not the kind of woman who would put up with that.” Again, fair enough.

I’ve seen it happen, though, and am always astonished to see the poor women just stand there and take it. Maybe that’s what my friend meant; it wouldn’t occur to me not to fight back. I’ve always had a strong sense of personal space and don’t hesitate to use my elbows if someone gets too close. I have had greasy salarymen try to nap on my shoulder, but that is easily sidestepped by suddenly leaning forward or a quick elbow jab to the ribs.

It’s hard to imagine just how crowded a Tokyo commuter train can be if you’ve never experienced one. The laid-back American might say, “Why not just wait for the next train?” Well, the next one isn’t going to be any better. Nor the one after that. And I have to get to work.

It’s dehumanizing, being crammed up against the bodies of strangers, smelling their breaths, feeling their body heat. These are intimacies I would not otherwise take except with the closest of friends. And this is not a culture of touch. Japanese people on the whole do not know how to hug; even handshakes can be awkward.

So I remind myself that as hard as it is for me, it must be twice as hard for everyone else. But even so, if I have to take a morning train, I will stick with the women only car. And gropers beware.

Back Street Blues

I had to haul my weary behind, and the rest of me, out of bed at 7:00 this fine Sunday morning and take FOUR trains to go supervise an audition that began at 9:00. I firmly believe that no one should have to work at 9:00 on a Sunday morning, but that is the nature of the beast when one is freelance. A friend working full time recently said, “Gosh, being freelance must be great. You can work when you want to.” “No,” says me. “I work when THEY want me to. That’s not the same thing at all.”

The English part of the audition was done by 9:30. It’s a good thing that I love the Back Street Boys because I wouldn’t take this kind of sheiss from anyone else, at least not without becoming colossally grumpy.

Now, before you go getting yourself all worked up, it’s not the BSB you’re thinking of. It’s a production company called Back Streets. The name was taken from a Bruce Springsteen song. I would take the Boss over a boy-band anytime, but when I first started working with them, the company was just three guys, so I started calling them the Back Street Boys and the name kind of caught on.

They did finally hire a young woman, and a director we worked with a while ago pointed out that they’re actually the Back Street Middle Aged Men and a Girl, but let’s not quibble.

So I gave a mighty sigh and headed back to the station. I rode the same four trains to get back home, by which time I was mightily hungry since I can’t eat that early in the morning. I treated myself to a brunch of blueberry pancakes and bacon because bacon, like warm cake, makes everything better.