life

“You Do This To Me”

You came and you changed my world. -MJ (Liberian Girl)

1) It’s two days until Michael Jackson’s birthday. When my friend BL told me it was his mother’s birthday on August 25th, I responded that it’d be Michael Jackson’s birthday on the 29th. His next words were, “So what?” Our friendship ended on that subway ride, (after an hour of I Spy, of course). Let’s compare, since I’ve nothing better to do, and if you’re reading this, you’ve got time on your hands too:

His Mother: A disheveled son with no taste in music.

Michael Jackson: Decades of happiness to many.

2) Do you remember my student M, from many posts back, that confessed to me that he wasn’t getting any “nighttime opportunities,” because he enjoyed getting drunk in izakayas more than going home to his wife? Well, he’s moving to Singapore in less than two weeks, and we had our last class together this afternoon. At the end of our session, I extended my hand to shake his, and he hugged me. Very un-Japanese, especially since he wasn’t drunk at the time. He said that he’ll miss me, and since we don’t really know each other at all, I now suspect he was in fact intoxicated during our lesson. When I asked him what he was concerned or nervous about with the impending move, he stated that his most pressing issue is “not finding the right nightclubs.”

3) This morning, I met another student S who’s visiting New York for the first time next week. As to be expected, he’s excited, and had a list of questions to be answered, and expressions to be defined. He exuded so much calm and peacefulness that I wondered if he was ready for New York at all; then he asked me, “Where can I go to hear Ne-Yo’s music?” Ne-Yo?! What do I know about where they play hip music, and the fact that I used the word “hip” at all definitely means I’m not. (I couldn’t tell you the name of even one Ne-Yo tune.) My only useful recommendation was to buy a Time Out as soon as possible, especially since I’m completely out of touch with the ever-evolving metropolis that’s NYC.

4) Speaking of New York, every time I try to find good, spicy, Buffalo chicken wings in Tokyo, my taste buds twinge for Blondies on the Upper West Side. Check out the undercooked, far from spicy wings, I got in Komozawu Daigaku:

* You may be asking, “Why’re they so big?” Yea, I was too. The restaurant did make up for the ridiculous wings with a burger that was impossible to finish:

*AS Classics bacon cheeseburger

5) You, you, you can never say that I’m not the one who really loves you. - Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney (Say, Say, Say)

Summer. The sun’s setting on the summer. The nights are cool, there’re no more summer clothes in the stores, the summer sales have wrapped, and most importantly, when I visited Hayama’s Isshki Beach a few days ago, the Blue Moon guy reported that this upcoming weekend is the last weekend they’ll be open until next summer. I don’t get why they’d close all the beach restaurants so early, since the days are still scorching, but the only answers forthcoming are, “That’s Japan,” and “The jellyfish are coming to shore soon.” (Huh?) You’d be surprised at how many questions are answered, “That’s Japan.”

In true awesomeness, while I was in the water, Lars, a German guy, came in with a bodyboard. In isolated areas, foreigners have a tendency to speak to each other, so we exchanged pleasantries, and before you could scream “Wave,” I was atop his bodyboard. (That’s not code). I tried unsuccessfully a few times, until I finally rode a wave. It was thrilling, (my bathing suit thought so too, as it partially flew off).

6) You’re every wonder in this world to me, a treasure time won’t steal away. – Michael Jackson (The Lady in My Life)

Michael’s voice always brings me back. Everyone sitting around one television set waiting for the première of a video, singing together, getting excited, dancing, wanting something or someone unattainable, out of reach magic, moving streets, glitter and shine, barbecues and high school fetes, the sun setting too soon. And, here we are.

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travel

To Beach: Beach, Beached, To Have Beached

Dear Friends,

I promised myself when I returned from Shimoda’s Shirahama Beach that no day off, from then until the end of summer, would catch me not wearing a swimsuit. I have two days off, and I vowed to myself that at least one of those would be spent at the beach or at a pool. (Off the record, I just found out that Tokyo’s about the size of the state of California. Late info, I know).

Traveling to Shirahama Beach weekly wouldn’t be feasible, due to the time and distance, but there are other beaches closer (and cheaper) to Tokyo. I consulted the oracle, Google, and found fantastic beaches to visit two hours or less from Tokyo: http://www.cnngo.com/tokyo/play/five-most-picturesque-beaches-within-day-trip-tokyo-739306 .

The trip to Zushi, the end station for Hayama, from Tokyo (Suitengumae) takes an hour, with little to look at, except apartment buildings, department stores, and convenience stores; so I read the beginning of the novel I picked up in the break-room at work, Songs in Ordinary Time. While reading, I’d occasionally grin, knowing that today, a day which had been forecasted as most likely wet and gray, was anything but.

Upon arriving in Zushi, it was necessary to catch the #12 bus to Hayama. I had no idea which stop Hayama would be as all the signs were in Japanese characters (hiragana), but I figure it’d be a safe to exit when the couple sitting in front of me, in swimwear, got off the bus.Thus, when they rang the bell, I, too, got up and grabbed my beach bag.

After walking only a few steps, a smiling woman waved at me and asked “Sea?” She said some things in Japanese that I didn’t understand, but it didn’t matter, and we fell in step together, and walked to the water.  (It was a good thing too, because I had no idea where I was going, as the beach isn’t visible from the road, and I’d already lost sight of the couple from the bus).

Her name is I; she introduced me to her friends C and H, who were saving a table at one of the beaches’ tikki bars, The Blue Moon. Pretty soon, photos were being taken, English and Japanese phrases were being thrown around (some were caught), and we were eating treats that C brought from Nagoya. We indulged in fish, and avocado salad, and drank guava juice and beer. At one point, I and C went to get massages they had scheduled.

*The path to the beach.

*I’d never seen black sand before; it’s more stunning than I thought it’d be.

 

Can you imagine going to the beach as often as you’d like, a reggae bar at the far end of your beach backyard, watching the sun set behind the horizon, being as relaxed as the shoe-less and the sand-between-the-toes folks always seem to be?

Let’s recap: I left the house alone with a bag and a dream :), and returned with five potential friends (I met a fellow American on the bus back home, and an energy specialist on the train back to Tokyo). The universe is bounteous, isn’t it? (Of course, it is.)

 

Cheers,

Val

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life

Obon: To the Dearly Departed… The Joy of Life

Dearly beloved, We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Electric word life, it means forever, and that’s a mighty long time, but I’m here to tell you there’s something else… Prince (Let’s Go Crazy)

In various parts of Japan from August 13 to August 15, the Japanese celebrate Obon. Many leave their apartments and houses to return to their hometowns, by plane, train and automobile, to honor their deceased ancestors. The belief is that on those days, the spirits of their dearly departed will return to their homes on earth to spend time with family. Each town commemorates their dead in a unique way, and their way of bringing the spirits back differ. I’ve been told that in Nagano (prefecture), small horses made from cucumbers are placed in front of each house so that the deceased can ride in on them. Paper is lit, so the spirits can leave on a trail of fire. Ancient rites for the dead lead the living to conduct mass exoduses for communion. Sometimes, I think of my dearly departed, and my dearly beloved, and I honor them with what I can give.

What a life we live. Today, my friend D, who’s clearly practicing for grandfatherhood, read me some excerpts from Augusten Burroughs’s book, This is How. The passages really moved me, because so many of them dealt with loss: losing a lover from a terminal illness, losing a child, and yet, finding joy in each breath, in each day that one lives, finding redemption or clarity in grief. Making it, coming through, surviving, really living. The book speaks of how we often tend to take things for granted, until we suffer, then we become grateful. It’s imperative to be grateful in sickness and health. Gratitude is a lesson that often comes late. There’s always something to be thankful for, isn’t there? (If it’s hard to find, dig deeper, and each day, it gets easier).

I’ll share some of the many things that I’ve been grateful for this week (in no special order):

1) Last week, I taught Z, a very bright, well-mannered, adorable teenager. He was such a thrill to teach and learn from. I had no idea that Nara was the oldest city in Japan or that sixteen-year olds still love Michael Jackson. He’s just completed writing a post World War Two drama– at 16! I told my boss the other day that if instructors were allowed to request students, I’d request him, because he’s such a great teen, and my boss told me that Z had already beaten me to the punch; thus we’ll be having classes together three days a week until he returns to his high school. Tomorrow, we’ll celebrate the completion of his novel and his special spark, with chocolate.

2) For some reason, as much as I’ve said I don’t want kids of my own, I really enjoy when children are around me. (Let’s be clear, not children under six). Another great student and one of my regulars has seven-year old fraternal twins, whom I’ve never met. Yesterday, he showed me a photo that he’d taken of them waving hello to me. In the same week, another student’s six-year old son sent me a postcard. I was and am grateful.

3) Recently, and indirectly, I was introduced to two positive, life-changing blogs www.5thingstodotoday.wordpress.com and www.evatenter.wordpress.com. Both blogs are zpositive, inspirational, and nothing short of mental health sustaining. Being positive is a rhythm, and once you’re in, like any dance or game, you must practice to be at the top of it. From Eva Tenter’s blog, I found Abraham Hicks whose no-nonsense wisdom uplifts and grounds me everyday. Isn’t this amazing?:

What do you think about finding a thought that you know would be helpful to you and turning it into an obsession? …Why does somebody else get to choose what you’re interested in? – Abraham Hicks

I’m not unaware of what’s going on in the world, it’s impossible to filter out politics, wars, reality tv, dramas, and turmoil, but it won’t be turned into my obsession, and will be sifted through as much as possible.

4) On Thursdays, it’s been my pleasure to have conversation classes with a small group of three. Last Thursday, they took me to dinner near their workplace, because the week before I mentioned that I loved Thai food. We went to Blue Papaya in Kanda, and the leader of the group, ordered dish after dish after dish and Singha beer after Singha beer. Sweet dishes, spicy dishes, seafood dishes swimming in coconut milk. It was a wonder that I could ride home at all.

etc.,etc.,

5) Today, I received a ten percent discount at my favorite Italian restaurant in Ningyocho (Salvatore Cuomo), where I indulged in a lunchtime mango sangria. Yum.

6) A few weeks ago, I wrote about “getting happy.” It’s as clear to me, as it is to you, that it’s not always possible to get away or go on vacation or run off to a nearby beach or visit a new city or country, therefore the happiness, which we all seek, must come from within. To reiterate, it’s all around you, within you, treasure every unexpected thing, every delight, every beautiful thing/moment/thought. Happy things this week: a wonderful conversation with my father, the man who inspired my wanderlust by always saying to me when he was leaving the house to run errands or visit friends, “I’m going crazy, wanna come?”, blossoming trees, sunflowers climbing up a fence, my student Mari who said “I may not look 50, but I tell everyone my age, because I’m proud of my life and what I’ve done.”

 

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life

References

I already know how to love
I already know how to kiss with tongue
So now all that’s left is to dream
I already know where to go
I already know where to stay
So now all that’s left is to live -  Os Tribalistas- (Ja Sei Namorar translated)

Tokyo excites me. It excites me when I’m riding down the street amidst a swirl of bicycles; salarymen in white shirts and black pants, grandmothers, children, old men in hats, all of us crossing, seemingly so different, but all alike, because we’re racing for greens. The knowledge of that shared experience excites me.

A few days ago, my boss gave me forms to take down to the immigration office to renew my visa, a process which he warned takes a full day. What? Have we reached this time already? I couldn’t believe, and still can’t, that I’m only a month shy of a year in Japan. How does that happen? One minute, you’re standing in the airport utterly confused about everything in your path, and slightly intimidated by a new language everywhere, and the next moment, you’re wrapped up in a life… and still utterly confused.

Just the other day,  my friend D and I were talking about how interesting this city we live in is, and how it’s never the same from day to day. (Maybe, we’re the ones constantly evolving and not the city?). In our conversation, by the Sumida River, I told him that after almost a year here, Tokyo still confuses me. I know nothing about this place, less about its people, and even less than that about its language. It’s always new, every single day, which I love. Despite an ever-present bewilderment, I don’t think I’ve appreciated another city more, nor had a desire to leave anyplace less. (Granted, it’s less than three years, the usual time for my onset of boredom).

It’s natural though that as great as my new surroundings are, and as special as many of the people around me can be (Japanese and foreign), there’re things I miss about the “West”. To be honest, it’s not the West but my friends whom I miss, and our references. To have others understand what I mean with little, or no, explanation; to have liked the same music, know the same artists, have gone to the same clubs, walked the same streets. For example, two weeks ago, TD and I connected on Skype, something we can rarely manage to do, due to time differences and busy schedules. Anyway, the first thing he said to me was “Could you please turn the Al. B down, so we can talk.”

“Whoa, how’d you know it was Al.B?”

“C’mon, who didn’t have that album?”

That’s my point. His question, “Who didn’t have that album?” is an assumption that I can never make here. I aim not to make assumptions at all here, because half the time I don’t know what I’m talking about, and the other half, I’m forced to swallow my words with a shot of whiskey. I guess this post is a love letter to Tokyo, because it’s concretized the many things I don’t know for sure.

Some things I’ve discovered in these eleven months:

1) In other posts, I’d said that I’m too “old” to make new, “real” friends and stretch myself, which is complete nonsense/rubbish/bs. People are wonderful, for the most part, and not getting to know others would only be my loss.

2) A common language isn’t the most important thing for shared understanding.

3) Somewhere along the way I morphed into a cougar; not that anyone really knows my age, so they don’t know quite how cougar-ish I am. (My age denial has grown even stronger in this last year, which I really appreciate).

4) Positive thoughts are no joke. It’s important to see the “God” in people; it’s amazing how abruptness, rudeness, and general weariness fades away, when others are recognized as divine.

5) I have a healthier appetite than I realized, especially for ramen, bacon cheeseburgers, and eye candy.

I must go, now. I think I know that in two or three years, I must also leave Japan, but where to, I don’t know. (Somewhere in Europe for sure– somewhere with safe living, an abundance of cyclists *(bike lanes), city life, English as the second language, the list goes on). The world’s small and life’s short, that I know.

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Shimoda: Sparkle by the Sea

Dear Friends,

My mother often talks about her “heart smiling.” Her top three inducers of heartsmiles are usually birds, flowers, and her grandchildren (*not in that order– roses would probably be first). When I arrived in Shimoda (door to door, four and a half hours from Tokyo, because I took the cheapest way), viewed the never-ending sea from the train, felt the humidity of Tokyo evaporate, climbed the short hill to my bed and breakfast (called Pension in Japan), and settled into my Western-styled room overlooking trees and orange plants, “my heart smiled.”  Right after the words, “my heart’s smiling,” sprung into my mind, I realized that I’m becoming more and more like my mother everyday, and thought that she’d appreciate the fullness of the scene.

Shimoda differs from Tokyo in obvious ways. It’s a sleepy seaside town that has a stream of steady business for  the warm months of the year, then it dies down in winter. It’s not bustling by any stretch of the imagination. There were numerous surfers on the #9 bus that I took to my pension, and for a moment it felt like a scene in an American teen surfing movie. It struck me that many of the passengers on the bus were uncharacteristically brown. Deep brown or glowing orange. Unlike Tokyoites, it was clear that Shimodans(?) weren’t shying away from the sun under parasols. The town’s residents were pleasant enough, but not overly friendly, polite or effusive, as one often finds in Tokyo. It seems visitors, even six-foot black visitors, in their midst, don’t faze them. No one tried to practice English. It was a refreshing change in a way, the not caring. (You’d be surprised how foreigners seem to faze many in Tokyo. It’s a rare day that I don’t experience full on staring, by adults, which is even more pronounced when I’m walking with one or two tall friends.)

Fleeing to the sea for a few days was not only wise, but affirming. On both days, I woke before six o’clock, which wasn’t hard to do, because the sun was extremely high in the sky by 5:30. In record time, I got ready, grabbed my beach supplies (a few thousand yen for a beach umbrella, water, snacks) and my book, and walked three minutes down the hill.

 

*All my views were from this angle.

After ten hours on Shirahama beach, which included on an off napping, texting, eating popsicles and soba (people come to you with menus on the beach, so you don’t have to leave for food or drink), reading, and more napping, it was dinnertime; so I decided to haul myself off the beach, and head downtown to dinner. I took a quick shower, got back on the #9 bus, and headed to tastebud bliss.

Friends, I don’t know the name of the restaurant in which I dined on Thursday, Friday, and this afternoon (before I left town), but what I can tell you is that the fish, at the very traditional Japanese restaurant is sublime, heavenly, divine, scrumptious, somewhat Caribbean, and beyond satisfying. There are no chairs, only tatami mat floor seating, the menus are in Japanese, with no pictures, and the chef and waitress speak no English. Not even one word. Yet, it’s comfortable.

I ordered the same thing on Thursday and Friday, a whole, fried, salted snapper, and a whole, steamed snapper in sweet sauce today. If Jamaica and Japan fell in culinary love, mated, and consummated on a plate, it’d taste like the fish I ordered each day.

*Lockers to place your shoes. You can’t wear shoes in the restaurant.

*When I returned on day two, the chef without saying a word, gave me extra fish, and free dessert.

 

In Shimoda, I: Rested. Wrote. Ate. Dipped in warmth, literally and figuratively. Observed others at a distance and close up. Met new people, who coincidentally enough, live very near me in Tokyo. Read. Slept on a bed, not a futon! Bought more postcards than I know people.  Smiled (a lot). Made plans to go back.

*Girls lighting sparklers.

Cheers,

Val

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