w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
We spent two busy weeks in Japan, spreading our time between the mad hustle of Tokyo, the serenity of a Shinto Temple outside of Nara, and the gorgeous cultural capital of Kyoto. And despite the differing perspectives and the rich, varied experience, I realize how little I still know about Japan. It's certainly a quiet country, shrouded in ceremony and mystery, polite yet private. But it's more than that: as I get deeper into this trip, I realize how little I know of the world in general. The frenzied pace of this trip may have cured me of my chronic over planning, but even if I had had the time to research and read, to learn a bit of the language and study Japan's history, I wonder if I would be any closer to understanding this, or for that matter, any country.
How long does it take to really know a place? Should I have stayed another week? A month? A year? Does it bring me any closer to expert if I was born there? What must I see? Who must I know? I'm embarrassed by how often my answer to the kids' questions are "I don't know, let's look it up when we get home," or the equally ineffective "Beats me, go ask your dad". In this blog, I don't attempt to pass my opinions off as knowledge, it's merely my narrow perspective based on our family's experience; a place to catalogue our memories. But as I get close to the end of this trip, I realize travel is for me, a lifelong endeavor; one that requires me to return to locations, read, eat, make friends, and take chances beyond Tripadvisor and the guidebooks' recommendations. I'm sad that this trip is drawing to a close, but at the same time, I know with certainty that this is what I'm meant to do (now if only my kids shared my passion and I could figure out a way to fund it!). As ill prepared as I was for travel, I'm getting better with each place and the list of where I'd like to go next just keeps getting longer. It's humbling to travel, to not know the language or the rules. I find myself so often leading with an apology, and when it's late and raining and nothing is open and you're lost and none of the ATMs will take foreign cards and the kids are hungry and you're all running on the last remaining fumes not yet extinguished by jet lag, travel can really break you down. You start to fantasize about your old house and your old bed and a take-out deep dish pizza and a cold martini shaken expertly by Chris in the crappy old kitchen. But I do believe, and this is what keeps us going, travel can also build you up.
So Japan, I have questions: What's the deal with the geishas (or as they are called in Kyoto, geikos)? And the hedgehogs? And the people that dress up in kimonos to visit historical sites to take selfies? Japan is fascinating. A country where salarymen co-exist with funky Harajuku kids. Where cutting edge technology thrives alongside sumo wrestlers, geishas and ancient Buddhist temples, and serene pockets of nature flourish amongst neon towers. While at dinner, we met an American who'd recently moved from Brazil to Japan. When I asked him about his experience, he said, "In Brazil, nothing works, but everyone is happy. In Japan, everything works, but everyone is so...closed." It's certainly a hard country to know. Perhaps I'll find the answers on my next visit.
A couple of years back my cousins Sunny and Charles visited Tokyo and were walking down the street enjoying a snack when they were stopped by a police officer who crossed his arms in an X and bowing deeply, whispered “sumimaisen“ Translation: "I'm sorry [but forbidden]" . Sunny relays this story with a combination of amusement and reverence for the polite yet rigid formality of the Japanese culture. For sure they are rule followers. No one walks down the street chatting or sipping coffee. There’s no eating in public, no horseplay, and (a nightmare for Oona) no jumping or skipping. Despite the crowds and brisk pace, there’s definitely no jostling or touching. It’s like watching a fluid high speed ballet. Yellow sidewalk markings keep the walkways divided so you can remember to walk on the left and cross only at the designated rectangles. And while I was certain, based on Sunny's stories, that my spirited children and loud American husband would draw similar reproaches, the “sumimaisens” never came. We were, however, shot the occasional disapproving glance, so subtle only a child of Asian parents could detect.
Even subway travel is orderly and efficient, with commuters lined up in single file behind designated markers.
Riding the train during rush hour is surreal. A sea of black suits, brief cases and nearly identical ties.
The kids in the Harajuku neighborhood are as colorful as the salarymen are not. Filled with trinket stalls, funky shops, crepe stands and great people watching, Isoo and Oona loved this area best.
We followed a pack of rowdy teenagers down a staircase to find a purikura shop - a series of photo booths where you can get your picture taken and then enhance it with goofy stickers and images. Each booth offers a different theme and some even rent costumes and wigs so you can recreate your favorite anime character or pop star.
Blonde hair is surprisingly popular in Tokyo.
After browsing the jewel-like bento boxes at the sprawling Tokyu Food Show we headed to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden for a picnic lunch among the cherry blossoms. Hands down the most beautiful city park I've ever seen.
Frantically reading yet another guidebook.
My favorite area in Tokyo was the historic Yanaka. We bought homemade grilled senbei (Japanese rice crackers) and walked the streets filled with wooden houses, Buddhist temples and giant, gnarled trees.
While wandering the alleyways, we ran into a group of school girls in the midst of a photography class. They asked Chris to pose and burst into giggles when he agreed.
There's nothing like the night time energy of Tokyo. This photo was taken at 9pm though you couldn't tell. The streets are so flooded with neon and thumping pop music that it almost feels like you're indoors.
The streetlights at Shibuya Crossing are timed so that all five crosswalks are halted simultaneously. When the light changes to green, the street is flooded with bodies making their way across the massive intersection.
Oona's favorite thing about Tokyo? Karaoke! We went to Karaoke Kan, a high-rise of cozy rooms outfitted with a karaoke machine, overstuffed leather couches, strobe lights and frosted glass doors. $10 gets you a Singapore Sling and an extensive roster of American songs. It was hilarious to walk down the hallway and spy the lone Japanese businessman, tie loosened, drink in hand, singing loudly and off-key in the privacy of his own room. Oona sang her heart out, too. She loved it so much we went twice.
The sprawling Meiji Shrine was built to honor the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. The Emperor was known for introducing Western culture to Japan. He cut his topknot, drank wine, wore Western clothes and encouraged modernity in an otherwise traditional country.
We went to Meiji Shrine and strolled the 170 acre evergreen forest looking for, you guessed it, birds.
Chris loved Tokyo so much he kept threatening to quit the trip and set roots. But the one day he lost it and begged to go home was the day we tried to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market. Chris and I very much wanted to see the giant, human-sized tuna being auctioned, but we knew that there was no way the kids would be willing to cue up at 3:00 A.M.. for the 6:30 show. Instead, we meandered over around 9:00 A.M., just as the fishmongers closed shop and the lines for the sushi restaurants snaked around the block. After an hour and a half, sunburned, grumpy, starving and still only halfway to the entrance, we threw in the towel. Traveling with kids requires compromises, and sometimes, it feels like no one wins. If Chris had his way, he would have stayed up all night singing karaoke, hitting the top notch cocktail bars, listening to Japanese jazz and going straight to the auction. Alas, only 10 more years.
Scenes from the Tsukiji Fish Market. Check out the sword he uses to slice the fish!
The Tokyo subway takes some getting used to; fares are based on distance traveled so for every ticket one must consult the giant fare map. Once you get the hang of it, the subway is efficient, clean and fast. We took the train to Odaiba for what amounted to Isoo's (non-birding) dream day: the crazy arcade/amusement park Joypolis, ice cream, a visit to the Toyota exhibition hall, and a ride on the ferris wheel.
We decided to extend our stay in Tokyo, but because our little loft was already booked, we had to move to another location. A note about housing in Tokyo - the apartments are teensy and Airbnb, while lucrative for hosts, is at odds with the very private local culture. In fact the program is currently being evaluated by the city with new legislation to follow. In the meanwhile, after booking our housing, we were emailed a lengthy handbook with instructions not talk to, make eye contact with or engage any of the neighbors. Also prohibited: talking in the common areas, hanging out on balconies or rooftops and making noise. My favorite of the two apartments was the one in the Daikanyama, a mellow neighborhood with funky boutiques and a beautiful canal. If you ever go to Tokyo, I highly recommend this hood!
Tokyo in a nutshell. Shopping at the Tokyu Food Show.
Also spotted at the Tokyu Food Show. Oona said, "I thought she was a mascot!"
We must talk about the sushi! Ok, there are inexpensive places, but for excellent fish, the cost is high. Or, if you're willing to wait and wait and wait, you can get an awesome meal like this for a great price. We showed up at Umegaoka Sushino Midori Ginza when the doors opened to find we were #61. But it was worth the wait. I mean, the fish is practically swimming off the plate.
While in Tokyo, we crashed a sumo practice. We watched large scantily clad men wrestle, which to the untrained eye, looked as it they trying to flip each other over by grasping and pulling on the mawashi loin cloth and/or, pull their heads off by pushing on their opponent's throat. It was actually more violent and less theatrical than expected. I wish I knew more about its Shinto origins and the role of wrestlers in modern day Tokyo. Later, we shared a train to Osaka with a few wrestlers. I was dying to bombard them with questions, but felt suddenly shy. However, Chris did manage this picture.
While in Korea, I really wanted to do a stay at Golgulsa Temple. Days begin at 4:30 A.M. with hours of sitting meditation interspersed with walking mediation, Sunmudo training and modest vegetarian meals. As you could guess, the kids were not exactly thrilled about the idea (see above re: Tsukiji Fish Market). They cheered when we missed the train. Instead, they opted for a stay at the more relaxing Senju-in Temple in rural Nara.
One giant bed. Oona finally has enough room to spread out.
Jizo is the guardian of aborted, stillborn and miscarried fetuses. Those grieving often visit the altar and offer alms in return for the safeguarding of the unborn souls.
The monks at Senju-in do not go hungry. The fantastic chef treated us to an amazing vegetarian kaiseki (haute cuisine) dinner. It was one of many wonderful meals we had in Japan.
We hiked through vivid Shinto gates to mediate at the top of a mountain. How cool is that?
Our after dinner stroll through the lit lanterns.
We joined the monks for the 6:00 A.M. meditation service that begins with chanting and ends with the burning of wooden prayer sticks. I could have meditated all day. It was such a peaceful, perfect way to recharge.
None of the monks spoke English, though Mako carried a crib sheet around with him in an effort to learn. He was such a sweet, kind man and really lovely to the kids. The experience was so positive Isoo declared himself Buddhist and has begun to meditate regularly.
After Nara we hopped back on the train and headed to Kyoto where we stayed in a fantastic machiya (traditional wooden house) in the Gion area right around the corner from Yasaka Pagoda.
The view of Yasaka Pagoda from the end of our block.
Tourists ride a jinrikisha down our street.
One of many cute little courtyard restaurants in the Gion.
Chris absolutely hated the touristy kitsch of Kyoto, but I loved it for the traditional houses, breathtaking pagodas, lush mountains and scenic gardens.
Admittedly, Kiyomizu Temple was pretty awful. Crowded, noisy with construction and nary a hint of religious reverence. It was like Temple Disneyland. While its cliffside location is impressive, the lack of cultural and spiritual heft left me wondering if it warranted its UNESCO status.
Okay, here is curious phenomenon: for $35/day, you can walk into one of a dozen shops to style your hair and make-up and rent a kimono. The tourists then walk around Kyoto visiting the various sights and taking selfies of themselves in traditional dress. EVERYONE does this and strangely enough, don't seem to find it to be the least bit trivializing.
If you're lucky, you can spot geikos and maikos walking the Gion. People react like they've captured a leprechaun, cornering them for photos and making them impossibly late for work. Guilty as charged.
Geikos heading home after a long night of being charming. I am dying to know more about the geiko world, but their company is limited to a private group of referred customers eager to pay top yen.
Another Japanese mystery: in all the world the potter's wheel turns counter-clockwise with the exception of Japan. Even Eu, the kids' pottery teacher was stumped as to why.
More questions: on every doorstep in Kyoto is this guy. He resembles a happy little hedgehog. While often alone, he is, on occasion, joined by a hedgehog spouse and children. Sometimes he is holding a radish.
Other times he holds a pickle on a stick. Don't ask me why; just add it to the list.
Japanese school girls jump for joy at Yasaka Pagoda.
In Japan we had sushi, tonkatsu, ramen, dumplings, not enough matcha rice dumpling parfaits, and a super tender and oily tasting Kobe steak. But the most fun was the okonomi pancake. It's sort of like a Japanese pizza. Just pick your topping and watch it grill table side.
The whole yen garden thing is real. Big swaths of cordoned off gravel pits raked in simplistic patterns. One garden (which we unfortunately didn't have time to see) is said to feature a landscape of river washed pebbles raked and scattered with nine large stones. Viewers can sit on an elevated platform and meditate on the stones' placement.
We pilgrimaged to Arashiyama to see Kyoto's famous bamboo forest. It's a tidy lot filled with tourists, yet you can't help but feel transported as you walk through the thicket of green stalks. Sadly, I couldn't get a picture worthy of its beauty so you'll just have to trust me when I say its pretty awesome.
We had to take the train back to Tokyo to catch our flight to L.A. For our last night I booked us at the Hotel Nikko Tokyo because they alleged to have not one, but two swimming pools. However when we got there, we were told no kids were allowed in the pool. When I expressed my disappointment, the manager came over and in whispered, apologetic tones, offered us a room with a hot tub. We figured a jacuzzi bath was better than nothing. To our surprise, she led us to the top floor and as she dipped in the key card, Oona whispered excitedly "Mom, it's got two doors! This is going to be good!" It was: a huge suite with bedroom, kitchen, two bathrooms, a sprawling living room, several balconies and a private rooftop garden. Oh and don't forget the hot tub. Perfect end to a great visit.