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life

Thank You Tokyo, Thank You Tomodachi

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Tokyo is like a dream. In the early morning, on the quiet streets, when no one is stirring, and the river is calm, Tokyo slowly flutters her eyes. It’s breathtaking, and for a city of over 13 million people, very quiet. Before seven o’clock, there are faint tremblings, and one can follow one’s thoughts undisturbed on waves of energy from Toyosu to Nihonbashi.

It’s not an original idea that it’s the people, not the place, that make a moment in time special. There’s no denying that Tokyo is special– how often have I spoken about its magical sunlight; its streets strung with lights; its charming citizens; its efficiency; its proximity to rivers, mountains, hot springs and seas; its festivals; its culinary delights; its deep, lingering sunsets? There will never be another Tokyo, but my dear friends, more importantly, without you, there never would’ve been the Tokyo I enjoyed and will cherish. How can I say thank you?

It’s true that three years ago I came here with no expectations, so it was almost impossible to foretell what the future would hold. Here we are– I’m sorry that I didn’t give more; listen more; try harder; be better, in all the ways I could have and should have been. It’s not an excuse, but I’ll tell you that this was all a new experience, and hindsight is always 20/20. Going forward, I’ll change more nos to yeses; give as well as you’ve allowed me to receive; take the time to be more patient and kind. I’ll also take the time to sit by rivers and reflect on how many times we sat side by side– on the beach, on a tatami mat floor, in the izakaya, in the restaurant, in the park, in the coffee-shop, in the school, in my apartment, in the shared house, in the deep dark night in the playground. Let’s remember how we looked at our present moment, and wondered over our future, and here we are– in the future we discussed.

You never know how much you love a person or a place until you’re ready to say goodbye, do you? Know that I was always appreciative. Recently, I listened to a talk given by Osho at one of his retreats where he said the reason couples are in so much anguish after a break-up is because they were “strangers, then friends, then strangers again. That’s what hurts.” Though time and distance will separate us, my dear friend, (and my dear Tokyo), let’s never be strangers to each other.

Love,

Val

….it was a very good year for city girls who lived up the stairs with all that perfumed hair…and it came undone

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life, travel

Kyushu: What A Difference A Year Makes!

Dear Friends,

This morning I woke up to a lovely email from my dear friend Nigel which closed with the words, “Do you know what you were doing this day, last year? Yes, it was the start of our Kyushu trip!”

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 When Nige proposed that we take a plane to Kyushu, and do a roadtrip from Fukuoka to Kagoshima, with stops in Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Oita and Miyazaki, I jumped at the suggestion. Last October, I had been in Japan for two years, and hadn’t strayed very far from Tokyo. Life at that point was work, eating and drinking in izakayas with friends, occasional onsen vacations to nearby Gunma, Hakone, Atami, and Izu, and way too much shopping. In essence, Tokyo life. It had fleetingly passed my mind that I should take trips to Hokkaido, Okinawa, or elsewhere, but it never happened. Unfortunately, Nige’s imminent departure from Japan, and his desire to tour Kyushu, made “someday,” that day.

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 To tell you the truth, I was nervous about spending a week, 24/7, in a car, in hotel rooms, all around town, with a close friend. In the past, there were trips, that changed relationships from “friends” to “former” friends. Turns out, there was nothing to be nervous about– it was amazing. We left for the airport at 5:00am, didn’t part for seven whole days, and had nothing but good times– ate fantastic bowls of tonkotsu ramen, shabu shabu, sushi and sashimi…even KFC, upon my request; soaked for long periods in various hot springs, some with ash, some at night, some in caves; viewed erupting and non-erupting volcanos; accepted candy from strangers on mountaintops; hiked gorgeous mountains and saw deers hiding; drove through a town called Obama; visited temples, shrines, and lakes; drank hot sake and ate meals in rooms where only we were served; had our feet nibbled on by fish of all sizes in fish pools; dropped all inhibitions, and talked about adventures.
Nagasaki

Nagasaki

It’s wonderful how a friend can allow you to do and see things, you’d never thought of before. It’s amazing how your life opens up, when you embrace the world, others– when you step out of your comfort zone. And, Japan– what a breathtaking, spectacular country filled with kind, ever courteous, gracious people. Last year at this time, Nigel and I were in a fish market in Fukuoka sampling fried fish cakes, and now it’s almost the end of my stint in this country. What a difference a year makes.
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private onsen in Beppu

private onsen in Beppu

enjoying tonkotsu by the roadside in Tenjin

enjoying tonkotsu by the roadside in Tenjin

volcanic lakes in Miyazaki

volcanic lakes in Miyazaki

Yufuin, peace and light

Yufuin, peace and light

Sakurajima

Sakurajima

Ciao,
Val
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life, travel

Rishikesh: Nothing and Everything All At Once

Hi Friends,

I have a few weeks left in Tokyo, and have been preparing for my departure. There isn’t much to do really, because as you know, I already sold almost all of my belongings when I moved from Nihonbashi to Suitengumae. If you recall, three American guys came with an empty truck and cleared out my apartment for about $500, but it was a relief to get rid of everything in one shot. If I didn’t sell everything, I’d have to pay to have it removed, so they did me a favor. I underestimated the power of Craigslist though, because I posted all the items at 8am, and by 10am, the email came from a Californian saying he’d buy it all….and anything else that wasn’t listed.

So, I’ve downsized yet again, and have nothing but two suitcases and one bag. You can’t imagine how good that feels; unless of course, you, too, have simplified. Last night, I was thinking about what I didn’t need and could bring in some cash, which is always useful, and decided to sell my (two) watches. Neither watch has been worn in in about five months, and they’re pretty much dead weight. After I posted them on Craigslist, once again, a response came in record time, with an offer to buy them both. However, this time, the eagerness in which the guy responded made me reconsider selling. Someone else wanting what I had rejected made me want them again. Funny and typical, no? I started to reconsider, “Should I keep ‘em, even though they’re not needed? Maybe, I’ll want to wear them again in the future?” I realized I was being ridiculous, since they were only worn when a good impression needed to be made (i.e interview, etc.) and not actually to tell time. The buyer’s picking them up on Monday, and when it’s time to buy a watch again, and the time may surely come, then okay. Don’t get me wrong, beautiful things that give pleasure are always a plus, but different strokes for different folks. Just yesterday, a friend and I were talking about how amazing it is that the things that once seemed so important can become totally insignificant.

It seems obnoxious to others when one says, “I don’t do this” and “I don’t do that.” It seems like whenever anyone invites me to an event lately, I say, “Oh, shabu shabu? Sorry, I don’t eat meat;” or, “An izakaya? Sorry, I don’t drink anymore.” Just the other day, my co-worker asked me how long this charade would continue, which is quite humorous. Yes, it’s all about balance and moderation, that’s true. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with people’s personal choices, what whoever chooses to eat, drink or wear, but that’s exactly it, a choice. I asked my mother the other night, “How do I take my self into the real world? The world of my friends who knew a different person?” She told me to just live and not feel the need to explain anything. (Wise woman.) As Osho said, “Every morning you clean your house and throw the rubbish on the rubbish heap, but you don’t go declaring and advertising to the whole town that again you have renounced much rubbish, again this morning you have done a great deed of renunciation. No, you know that it is rubbish — finished.

What is there to tell about it?” This week, I’ve applied for my visa to India; paid my deposit to the ashram in Rishikesh; starting walking a few kilometers a day around the Imperial Palace to physically prepare myself for what’s ahead; and, tried to cut down on chocolate to prepare myself for the complete lack of it where I’ll be. Ha! Eliminating chocolate only made me crave rum and raisin ice-cream, and that’s been on the table one too many times this week. The ashram has a no dairy/no fish policy, so it’s going to be a challenge. A real challenge as sugar addictions are no joke. Despite the fact that I’ll be shaking from sugar withdrawal for the first few days, here’s an idea of the incredible schedule:

5AM        Prayers

5:15         Hatha Yoga class

7:00         Pranayama        
7:30         Meditation  
8:30AM    Breakfast
10:00       Practicum class 
11:00       Class or free time
12:30PM  Guided Diaphragmatic breathing session
1:00         Lunch….. etc.,

The ashram has no Internet, so I’ll be without Internet for one month, which will also have me twitching and feening as well. There will be a majestic view, breathtaking sky or majestic sight that I’ll want to share with you via email or this site, and I won’t be able to. Though, I guess, after a few days, it won’t even matter anymore. Kind of like giving up Facebook; for some reason, this time, it just doesn’t matter at all. I could never get how others did it. There will be hours and hours of silence. In scouring the Internet (my beloved friend), I found this Courtesy: http://www.healthandyoga.com (A popular website that helps you find natural solutions for complete health and detoxification) :

As you make your way to the room, you are struck by its modesty – even austerity for some. No carpeting, no air conditioning /heating and no TV… what the hell am I going to do? Is this what I paid for? – Again, that wretched mentality of expectation! While most adjust quite well, others are filled with agonizing thoughts such as this.

Welcome to the Ashram… Your transformation has already begun!

Every experience should prod you to witness it with awareness. You should constantly witness your feelings and try to go deeper by understanding why you feel particularly so. As you do such introspection on a regular basis, you realize over time that the fault is not in the environment or the people that you interact with. Instead the problems arise from within. The situation is only a catalyst to bring the deep contradictions to the surface.

The Ashram setting gives you a chance to experience and reflect on this. Consequently, the changes that take place within you are more positive and permanent.

Once you are settled in, you begin experiencing the immense positive energy that envelops the Ashram. Starting from the morning Aarti prayers on the banks of the holy Ganges River to your morning yoga class, the mind and body experience a unique freshness.

The “now,” and the anticipation of the many tomorrow’s after tomorrow, stirs feelings of nervousness and giddiness.Tonight, I had dinner with S, my friend and former housemate, who’s been away from Tokyo for two months. Such a fabulous person, such a giving friend, and as we sat around the table, and then said goodbye outside the restaurant in Nihonbashi, I thought how I’d surely miss him; how, if he’d been in Tokyo these last few months I may have delayed my departure. It’s difficult leaving; taking a step forward; wishing someone dear farewell, but it’s just a constant journey back to self, isn’t it? We’ll meet again, won’t we? Love, Val

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life

Food For Thought

‘I ain’t half the man I used to be. There’s a heavy shadow hanging over me.” (Yesterday)

Dear Friends,

It was payday two days ago, or as I proclaimed to all and sundry, “the second happiest day of my life.”  I wished everyone a “Happy Payday” all day, as if it were some public holiday. I had felt the days leading up to payday were grim, since I had my eyes on quite a few things that my wallet couldn’t support. However, I did treat myself to Skittles, that are now being sold at American Pharmacy in Marunouchi, and rationed them out like there was a candy war. Rationing is certainly not my thing, since the bag lasted only a few hours.

The chill of autumn’s circling the city, carrying the message that summer’s over, and the decorated streets of Ginza and brisk nights of winter are on the way. It’s clear and lush in its gorgeousness outside, so I decided to get on my beloved bicycle and ride through the streets of Ningyocho, around Suitengu, and up to Nihonbashi. As it’s a Sunday, there’s no one around, the streets are devoid of life; a cyclist’s dream. I wind up in a park where multi-colored water jets are surging green, blue and pink streams. Aquatic rainbows dance in fountain’s lights.

A homeless man is rifling through a garbage can for food. His search seems futile, as he has already looked through two garbage cans with no success. Maybe, I’ve been blind or oblivious, but I’ve never seen a homeless person looking through the garbage in this park before. As a matter of fact, in this neighborhood, the homeless are rare, and they are usually sleeping on the side of the bridge, at the park in Kyobashi, or on the benches near the Sumida River. The homeless I’ve encountered never beg, but carry their belongings on their back from place to place or wheel their shopping carts that overflow with huge plastic bags filled with plastic bottles. They’re easy to ignore, because either they’ve learned to make themselves “invisible” or I’ve learned to overlook things that make me uncomfortable. This man sifting through the garbage about six feet away, I can’t, and choose not to, ignore. As a matter of fact, I choose not to forget him or this night (hence this note).

On payday, one of my co-workers told me that he was down to his last $2. I nodded sympathetically, because I had been there before. Thankfully, times haven’t been rough lately, but there were days that were just so “broke.” My co-worker knew what it was like to be hungry (as many of us have at one time or other), but the difference was that not only could he see salvation coming in the upcoming payday, but he could have, if need be, asked any of us for a few dollars to tide him over. Most of us know that when we’re on our last dime, food, more than anything else, is the saving grace. I wish I had some money in my pocket to buy the homeless man something to eat. Would he wait, while I run to the ATM, and then the convenience store across the street? How do I convey the sentiment? At this moment, there’s nothing in the world this man wants more than two slices of bread or money to buy some food, and I have neither right now.

It’s easy to turn away, isn’t it? Yet, when hunger’s ripped you in half; turned you inside out and left you wasted, and desiring sleep to escape the pangs; when you’ve counted coins in your palm and tried to figure out the cheapest way to get full; when everywhere you look, you see others eating, drinking, and oblivious to a harsher reality, then you know you must face the issue at hand. That man’s hunger we share, or could because we’ve all been ravenous.

What to do? Take the weight of the world on our shoulders and burden ourselves, yet remain inactive? Impossible.

Feel hunger, consciously not eat for a day, in order to feel compassion? Possible.

Feed one hungry person who can’t afford to feed themselves once a week? Possible.

Fill someone’s stomach, or attempt to fill a small bit, before indulging in another mindless treat? Possible.

Feel for someone else, instead of looking away? Possible.

Dear friends, as you know, I’m leaving in five weeks; heading to a place where they’ll feed me three square meals a day, and supply me with unlimited tea. There are no snacks offered, and I actually thought of sneaking in my own, but now I won’t. I’ll be grateful for what’s given, and remind myself, that many others are suffering.

Much love,

Val

p.s New and old readers of these letters, thanks so much for reading. It’s such a pleasure to see your names pop up one by one in my inbox. I’m grateful that you take the time.

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4 Lessons From My Father

Hi Friends,

Last night, I spoke to my father on Skype for over an hour, because there was much to catch up on. His directness, combined with his no-nonsense tone, over the years, has never ceased to amaze, amuse or annoy me, and that has been mutual. Strangely, he encouraged my childhood precociousness, but that outspokenness and verve led to many of our clashes. “Children are to be seen and not heard” wasn’t a maxim used in my house, but I know, as the child and not peer, I overly exercised the right to speak a few times.

It’s always been said that we’re too much alike, and therein lay many of our conflicts; however, now that I’m many years beyond my “problem years,” I can see that he’s done what only a parent can– be brutally honest for the greater good. We’ve both mellowed out a lot. (It had to happen, right?)

With time, I’m recognizing some of the lessons he tried to impart, that completely infuriated me then, and the new ones that I really appreciate:

1) Be responsible with your money. Once, when I was 23, I asked my father to borrow $40, to which he answered  “No.” I couldn’t believe it, ’cause I needed the cash, and I knew that he had it. It all seemed so unfair and selfish that it rankled me to the core. Why should I be held accountable for the money I earned, when there was cash that could be borrowed. I never forgot that, and it took years for me to see that he was right. I, also, never forgot that a week later he sent me a check for $200 to “help,” and a note about money management. (The message is just now registering.)

2) Show up on time. Jamaicans are allergic to clocks, and watches (except as fashion statements), but my father shows up early for every occasion. It’s so un-Jamaican of him– this punctuality thing, and it must boil down to his many years of living and working in New York. I hear there may be others like him, but I’ve never met them. He once told me that a funeral we were attending started two hours earlier than it really did, because he wanted me to get there at 1pm, the designated time. When I showed up late, and somewhat amused that I had been deceived, he only replied that if he’d said the correct time, we would have been late and disrespectful to the family of the deceased. Point taken. It’s only in the last three years that the message has taken root. Time is the most valuable commodity anyone has, and someone who shows up late (repeatedly) doesn’t know its worth.

3) Be good to others. There was a childhood Christmas that I distinctly remember where my brother and I had to choose the gift we liked the most, drive with our parents to an impoverished neighborhood, and give it to a less fortunate child. The lessons that were important to learn then were: 1) We were fortunate to have what we had, and our good fortune should be shared 2) No one is beneath or above us, especially not due to finances. We’re connected on a deeper level. 3) Giving feels even better than receiving.

4) Be crazy. There were three things that my father said to me constantly while growing up, “Ma nishtana halila hazeh,” (loosely translated as “Why should this day be different from any other”), “Lusmishinup,” (spelling and language unknown– but essentially, “Shut up” said affectionately), and “I’m going crazy, you wanna come?” There were times in my childhood when we’d be sitting around, and my father would get the car keys and say, “I’m going crazy, you wanna come?” The act of spontaneity, the getting up and going on an adventure, always resulted in happiness. Mind you, the “crazy” was never very crazy at all– Devon House for an ice-cream cone, a drive around town, to the house of one his friends for conversation where I played with one of the kids or listened to the adults talk about things I couldn’t understand as someone’s pipe smoke lingered over my head, a drive for a patty, a respite from the ordinariness of life. In all my years, my travels have never been as exciting as going along for the ride and “going crazy,” and I’ve never forgotten that it’s important to get up and get moving sometimes.

Last night, my father said, “What’s this India thing I read on your blog? How many pieces of you are there that you still need to find yourself?” He made me laugh, though his question was serious. There are so many pieces of all of us, discoverable and undiscoverable, but I’m so thankful to my father that many identifiable pieces are whole and intact– awareness, esteem, humor. He was never a softie, or the teddy bear type of dad, but his actions spoke of many things incommunicable by words.

Love,

Val

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Lucy
life

The Lure of Tokyo

Dear Friends,

It’s 12:26am, and I should be dreaming of houses by the beach and surfers coming in to shore, but I just came in from my private lesson and feeling far from drowsy. My private student works in the financial industry, and leaves work quite late, so our lessons start late and run until almost midnight. His English is excellent, thus we converse about all sorts of things for ninety minutes or so. I guess we’re the other’s sounding board, except one of us leaves more financially stable than when we greeted. (Thank heavens, ’cause some days my pockets are oh too light.)

We meet in a karaoke bar’s private room, because the rooms are quiet (except for the atrocious singing nearby), and you can drink as much as you’d like for one set price. As you know though, since Ubud, I haven’t drunk alcohol. My drink of choice is hot oolong tea, which has tremendous health benefits and is reputed to be great for one’s metabolism. He drinks whiskey sours, and/or beer. He asked me tonight why I’m being so restrictive with myself, “No beer, no meat,” to which I replied that I have no judgements at all about those things, and if one chooses to eat them or not, but I have no taste for them at the moment. If you don’t want something, it doesn’t hurt if you can’t have it, right? Unfortunately, my feelings about Nutty Buddies and Snickers bars aren’t the same.

In Ubud, I met quite a few people who had visited Rishikesh and Mysore, and they opened my eyes to the incredible beauty of those places, and what could be learned from time spent there– in regards to yoga and meditation. For the last week or so, I’ve been looking at ashrams in both places. Honestly, my only thoughts of India had been that it was overly-crowded and hectic.  When I told my boss that I wanted to move my resignation up a bit, so that I could visit India before Jamaica, he asked me if I was “doing an Eat Pray Love thing.” He made me laugh, because I hadn’t thought about it that way, though Ubud is rife with the book’s presence. However, a yoga retreat, or a meditation retreat, is the natural next step if you’ve become in love with yoga. It’s not that India is the place that I must go in order to do so, but the fact that I’m in Tokyo makes it cheap and convenient to get there.

My student O urged me to not to get “too religious,” but I countered by saying that it’s not about “religion” in a technical sense at all. He asked me if I believed in God, and we spoke at length about my interpretation of God, which isn’t defined by Christianity, the religion I was born into, or any other organized religion that I have a modicum of knowledge about. Truly religious people would find my views sacrilegious, though I find biblical verses to be gorgeous and helpful; just as I do Rumi, Buddhist principles, etc. It  puzzles me how some spend hours in church one or two days a week and behave far from “godly,” kind, and all-loving. O stated that if I sit in meditation all the time that I would become obsessed with God, but I already feel that God is everywhere, so my intention is to find clarity in silence.

He asked me what would happen after India, and I spoke to him about my future plans. He asked why I don’t stay in Jamaica for awhile– but, how can I live somewhere where I can’t ride my bicycle at night? As I rode home, the lure of Tokyo came over me, and I realized why it’s been so hard to leave this place. It’s so safe, so easy, so convenient– almost too much so. I thought, “Why not stay six more months, save some money, then move on?” The 24-hour everything, the affordable, cramped, yet comfortable living, the short, moderate seasons, the excellent customer service–it certainly is a trap. As I said to him, I must say to myself, and to you, “Prioritize what is important; what you want to see each day; who you want to spend time with; how you want to live;” then, the answer will come. Silence in India isn’t needed for that clarity, just a pen and a notebook.

Namaste…:),

Val

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Elevate Your Mood

Do you not know that we are fearfully and marvelously made? That we have been custom-designed to play a unique role in history, that is separate and distinct from anybody else in the world? Nobody else has your fingerprint, nobody else has your voice print, nobody else will ever be you. There’s never been a you before, there’ll never be a you after you, you’re in a class all by yourself. — T.D Jakes

Dear Friends,

These days I’m feeling euphoric, so much so that I’ve restarted the glad list for a week of gratitude. (I know some of you are highly annoyed by extreme bursts of joy and “gladness,” so please skip this until you’re in a better mood…or maybe, by some chance something in here will lighten your mood.) Fingers crossed.

The point of the glad list is to start noting things, no matter how small, that put a smile on your face. It’s been scientifically proven that you can elevate your mood by training your thoughts to be more positive.So here goes:

1) As you know, I’m moving to Germany in a few months, so last night my wonderful friend D left a German cd with eighteen lessons in my locker at work. I did lesson 1 twice, and it’s exciting that I can now say , “No, I don’t understand German,” “I understand English,” “I understand a little German,” “Do you understand English?” Awesome friends and a little more knowledge is something to be glad about.

2) In Ubud, I had a session with a nutritionist and spoke for an hour about the foods I should and shouldn’t be eating. Granted, I could’ve bought a book or done the research, but meeting with the nutritionist was fantastic, because she looked at my nails, tongue and eyes to see what was lacking. It’s easy to eat well in Ubud, because the town is devoted to health, but when I came back to Tokyo, I fell, again, into bad habits– chocolate, popsicles, pasta almost everyday, cheese, cheese and more cheese. (Let’s be honest, everything tastes better with cheese.)

Two weeks, it hit me that my diet really needed to change, so I’ve been eating an abundance of vegetables, nuts, some fruit, and drinking much green tea and water. I’ve been cooking the vegetables, for only a few minutes, with garlic, olive oil and a touch of sea salt, and I must tell you that my energy is through the roof and my skin is smoother. Eat your veggies!

tog

3) On the blog, Bodhi, I came across the greatest post (http://bodhilove.wordpress.com/a-month-without/), which introduced the blog Zen Habits (http://zenhabits.net/). Zen Habits is an amazing blog filled with tips on living simply, more centered, and with purpose.  So for the millionth time, I hope I’ve finally broken my Facebook habit. I hadn’t been on in awhile, but last night I deactivated the account altogether. Last week, before even reading Zen Habits, I’d disconnected my cellphone service (smartphone’s are a trap), so I’m reachable only twice a day via the Internet (email (valerieasmith7@gmail.com), Skype, and LINE). It’s freeing not to be constantly checking for email updates, etc or have to answer messages immediately or be filled with guilt; if you didn’t know, now you know. So, what’re you glad about?

This is your moment, this is your day. Everything you’ve gone through in the past was getting you ready for this moment right now!– T.D Jakes

Love,

Val

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