Category Archives: travel

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Appreciating the Air

When the sun falls behind the distant trees on the neighboring island, leaving the sky streaked magenta and violet in Gili Air, is your locale illuminated? Is the death of my day the birth of yours? What a magnificent circle!

When I’m gazing at a sky dotted with too many stars to count, and the Milky Way throws a net over falling stars, are you shielding your eyes from the beating sun?

Dear Friends,

Last Saturday, I boarded a bus with eight other passengers, drove one hour to the  Padangbai harbor, then hopped on a ferry to the island of Gili Air. Gili Air, an island of less than two thousand people, is two and a half hours away from Ubud, and worlds away from anything that could’ve been imagined.

It’s tiny! There are no cars or scooters on the island, so instead of blaring horns, we listen to steady waves, roosters, persistent breeze rustling the straw roofs on seaside huts, reggae music issuing from speakers at the numerous beach bars, and many languages rolling into one, especially French, English and German. The only modes of transportation are feet, bicycles, and horse-drawn taxis.

Internet can be found on the island, but not in most places. At the moment, I’m writing you from a beachfront restaurant where I managed to connect. Being without the internet for most hours of the day has been a blessing. It’s a quiet island, and it forces quiet from it visitors too.

The bungalow where I’ve rested my head at night is on the beach, serves breakfast, and costs US$15 per night. Is it any wonder that I extended my four days to eight? When you visit, book nothing in advance, the island is populated with bungalows with clean rooms and owners willing to negotiate. Don’t worry about being far from the beach, because nowhere on Gili Air is more than ten minutes from the beach.

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What’s there to do here you may wonder? Well, you can: practice yoga at H2O (the only yoga studio on the island), snorkel, take a kundalini class at Hotel Gili Air, rent a bicycle for US$4 a day, befriend people on the beach (Dutch guys are particularly friendly).Or how about a movie on the beach after sunset for US$5, a mushroom drink (mushroom drinks are on offer everywhere– no police on the island), meditation (try chanting Om  Mani Pedme Om to increase your feelings of well-being). You could count the shells on the beach, the stars in the Universe, eat fresh seafood caught a few moments before. Or, you can ignore those suggestions and just sit in silent appreciation of the gift of being in Gili Air. While here, I haven’t met a person yet who isn’t aware that they’re in paradise.

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What have you given thanks for today? For me, happiness lies in the air that’s carrying the vibrations of new ideas; the exciting now;  another day in the sun.

 

Love,

Val

 

 

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

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

Getting Happy: Staycationing and Appreciating

Get happy, in any way you can. If you have to run away from home, do it. If you have to go to the beach everyday, do it. - Abraham Hicks

Dear Friends,

1) It’s incredible how memories wash over us like waves. Vibrational waves. You can feel them, and often they physically move you.

2) Earlier this morning, I was chatting with Y, my student at HP, when a memory swept me. My Aunt Pam came to mind as vivid as ever: glowing and deep chocolate and smiling with a gap between her front teeth and her hair cropped close to her head and her face dotted with salt water and her open hands supporting my thin five-year-old back in the warm sea at License Beach. When Aunt Pam lived near the sea, she, my cousins and I lived at the sea.

3)  You’re not deliberate about feeling good, because you don’t understand the power of feeling good. – Abraham Hicks

My student Y is fast becoming one of my favorites, in a pool of “favorites.” He told me that he took his family to Tokyo Disneyland over the weekend. He related that they went on rides, ate sticky amusement park treats, and got splashed with water. He, then, gifted me with a Minnie Mouse pen that his six-year-old son chose. His thoughtfulness and deliberate kindness touched me. Of course, the expression of the day was “You made my day!”

4) If people say, ‘How are you?’ Say, ‘Irrelevant.’ How I are and have been is irrelevant. It’s where I’m going that I want to talk about.-Abraham Hicks

You all know what I love: the sea, getting away, seafood, clear skies, cycling, regular silences, a new book, and frozen drinks. I mention a few of my loves, because on Thursday, I’ll be going to Shimoda, in the Izu Peninsula, for three days. Almost three and a half hours from Tokyo, Lonely Planet states that “its beaches are among the best in Japan.” Four days ago, while sweltering under Tokyo’s unrelenting sun and insane humidity, the thought came,”I need the sea.” Immediately, I googled Izu accommodations, found a cute bed and breakfast, and emailed the owners (because their website stated “no single travelers in the busy season”). Mr. Yamomoto responded to me that there was a room available and that I was welcome. (I knew there would be room at the inn; the universe always answers favorably.)

Friends, I’m not just “getting happy;” I’m living deliberately in a state of happiness.

*Courtesy of Sakuraya

Love,

Val

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Shizuoka: Everything is Good and God

Everything is good and brown. I’m here again with a sunshine smile upon my face. – Jamiroquai (Space Cowboy)

Dear Friends,

Years ago, VP and I saw Jamiroquai perform at a music festival in Finsbury Park. For more than an hour, under a clear evening sky, the crowd jumped, danced and sang until hoarse. It started drizzling, and still we danced.

We all have collective memories and individual memories. Some of us remember where we were when the World Trade Center fell, when Michael Jackson died, when we heard that OJ was on the run, etc. We remember our first kiss, our first time, our first high, etc. I remember all those things, and the first time I heard Jamiroquai’s “Space Cowboy.”

I worked at Urban Outfitters, in the Women’s Department, for six months when I was twenty, and the manager, Scott, had a real thing for Jamiroquai. We all did. The Space Cowboy single, with its multiple mixes and remixes played for months on heavy rotation in the small store.

After work on Thursdays, a group of us would trek to Giant Step or some other small lounge on the Lower East Side or East Village. House, trance and dub step have never been my favorite genres of music, nor have they been forms of music that I can understand while sober, yet I journeyed to Giant Step because a) I was 20 and up for almost anything b) Group activities brought satisfaction c) Three guys on the Men’s Team were hotter than fire (Purple, Jay, and Darryl) and d) I was between colleges and had nothing but time on my hands. We really felt we were living Jamiroquai’s sentiment that “friends are close at hand and all my inhibitions have disappeared without a trace.”

One day, I went to work to discover that Scott had fired the entire Men’s Team. I never found out the reason. The summer wrapped up quickly, as summers do, and we discovered that we were friends of convenience. Making plans to get together rather than simply falling into an impromptu after work shift party are different beasts.

I may be too old now to build solid friendships. Too old or too tired of transient relationships, I’m not sure. Yet, it’s been my fortune to continue to meet wonderful people despite my resistance. A few days ago, S invited me to Shizuoka, two hours from Tokyo, to embrace “mega nature,” as he calls it.

His family’s vacation apartment overlooks the ocean. We slept and woke to the sound of waves  beating on man-made barrier reefs. A special kind of music.

In the morning, we drove into the mountains of Nihondaira for freshly squeezed orange juice. That juice tasted like life/joy/laughter. We were so high in the mountains, we walked amidst clouds. S wound further and further into Shizuoka to show me his favorite spots: a cascading waterfall in a deserted forest, a gushing stream on the side of a mountain, a man-made beach, replete with sand, palm trees and a pirate ship, an all you can eat Italian restaurant with sorbet, ice-creams, various pizzas, a playground with a waterfall in its center, and the busy, downtown streets of Shizuoka City.

Everything is good and green. – Jamiroquai (Space Cowboy)

It’s with good reason that yogis, gurus and zen masters insist upon occasional solitude and reconnecting with nature. Nature is the ground for meditation. Nature’s silence resonates within. Nature is music. Nature forces us to recognize that we are trivial and inconsequential. Nature compels us to see that we are divine, miraculous and part of a greater whole. Nature forces us to recognize that no person is perfect, and that’s okay. (Can you compare to a bamboo tree, a goldfish, a dragonfly?– Maybe).

Aren’t crescendos in musical pieces only the imagined roar of the ocean? Aren’t driving beats in music the imagined joining of sky and sea? Aren’t we dust? Aren’t these memories as sheer as dust?

If you want to make full use of the creativity which is inherent in pure consciousness, then you have to have access to it. One way to access the field is through the daily practice of silence, daily meditation, and non-judgement. Spending time in nature will also give you access to the qualities inherent in the field: infinite creativity, freedom, and bliss. – Deepak Chopra (The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success)

Hope you’re dancing :),

Val

The Creation: Hakone

Praise for the rain that waters our fields, and blesses our crops so all the earth yields; from death unto life her mystery revealed springs forth in joy! – The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God

When you arrive in Hakone from Taipei or Paris or Ocala or Berlin or Palo Alto or whichever city you’re from, you’ll look around and marvel at the lush landscape. You’ll walk to the tourist information booth right outside the train station and get as many pamphlets as you can to find out what you should do and see in Hakone. You’ll thank the very kind Japanese woman for her vibrant “Hello” and answer her polite, “May I ask you where you’re from?” You’ll walk to your small ryokan or large hotel in the rain that falls through the sunshine, and you won’t mind, because you’ll know in your heart that things just don’t get as green as they do in Hakone without a little bit of rain everyday. You’ll smile and wave at the old people who smile and wave at you. You’ll carry a smile on your face, all day, attributable to the old man who leaned out of his top window to catch your attention. You’ll wonder how people live to what seems like a 109 in Hakone. (After your dinner of steamed foods and no trans fats you’ll wonder no more but wonder how you can live here too). You’ll calculate how much money you’d need to live the life you’ve imagined (It may round up to $170 a day).

Praise for the wind that blows through the trees, the seas’ mighty storms, the gentlest breeze; they blow where they will, they blow where they please to please the Lord!

You’ll buy a Hakone Free Pass so that you can ride the bus, the cable car, and even the ropeway, though you’re afraid of heights. As you wind through the mountains, you’ll recall other countries that you may have visited: maybe Jamaica, maybe Brazil, maybe South Africa. You’ll think “I’ve seen such wonders, such beauty, but wow, I’ve never seen this.” You’ll be thankful to take each breath. You’ll see trees that are as tall as small skyscrapers and then it’ll strike you, as nature always does– “I’m but a speck in this universe.” You’ll think what can I ever create that could make me feel the way this view does? You’ll realize that the answer’s “Nothing,” and you’ll be fine with that. You’ll smile inside. You’ll see craters in mountains from volcanic eruptions that happened thousands of years before Christ; you’ll feel like you’re in Babel walking up a mountain where a multitude of languages are swirling in and out of your ears; you’ll take a sightseeing cruise that’s too short, and you wish to go around again, but you must sail off into the air in an aerial tram; too far above sea level, you may wonder if wires ever snap on these things, but you’ll look at your fellow passengers who’re quite calm and thus you’ll calm down; you’ll eat two eggs that have black shells because they’ve been boiled in hot sulfur springs. You’ll believe the idea that you’ve added fourteen years to your life, and start planning what to do in those extra years. You’ll decide that you may have to move to Hakone, because that’s the only place in the world where people will be as old as you’ll be.

Praise for the sun, the bringer of day, he carries the light of the Lord in his rays; the moon and the stars who light up the way unto your throne!

It will stop raining. You’ll be as content with the sun as you were with the rain. You’ll decide to go to your ryokan after a few hours of sightseeing, so that you can be pampered as you deserve. You’ll be hungry and want sustenance, but when twelve small dishes are brought to you in succession, you’ll wonder if you could possibly eat all that food. You’ll surprise yourself because of course you can. You’ll finish with many “Arigato Gozaimasus,” and go to your room where you’ll find that they’ve laid out a new yukata for you, given you a new yellow towel, a new washcloth, and a new toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste. You’ll look at your towel and think, “Well, it’s only 8p.m., I should go downstairs to the hot spring bath that’s open until midnight.” You’ll soak in the onsen (hot springs) for about thirty minutes, and though the pool is shallow, you’ll pretend to swim. You’ll feel like a child and an adult all at once.

Praise for the fire who gives us his light, the warmth of the sun to brighten our night; he dances with joy, his spirit so bright, he sings of you!

You’ll be thankful for every breath in your body. You’ll be thankful for the opportunities you’ve been given. You’ll think of your loved ones who’ve passed on and away and never could’ve dreamed of this. You’ll vow to share how very wonderful Hakone is, how wonderful “creation” is. You’ll be peaceful. Amen.

Getting Away Part 1: Then and Now

Hop on the bus, Gus; you don’t need to discuss much; just drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free. – Paul Simon (50 Ways to Leave Your Lover)

Then: In April 2004, I was teaching English at a language school in Caçapava, Brazil. The owner of the language school was a hard-as-nails woman who didn’t believe in days off, and certainly not two in a row. Thankfully, Brazil has its fair share of national holidays, and so, on one particular holiday, I called a pousada in Ubatuba and made a reservation for four days. The pousada was located across the street from a beach. If I walked along the boardwalk for fifteen minutes, I could gain access to another stretch of hot sand and glittering, turquoise water. On and on it went, beach after beach, each blue and white and green all over. (Ubatuba, three hours by bus from Caçapava, boasts one hundred white sand  beaches).  My pousada was surrounded by cafes, sunbathers in skimpy swimwear, bars, and small shops selling food, souvenirs, and cards. Sadly, in 2004, I was camera-less and blog-less and couldn’t preserve my days in an astonishing city anywhere but in my memory (a leaky thing).

Just slip out the back, Jack; make a new plan, Stan; you don’t need to be coy, Roy; just get yourself free. – Paul Simon

Now: I’m teaching at a language school in Tokyo, Japan. The owner of the language school, I’ve never met, but the manager of the school is a relaxed, cheerful man who could care less about how one’s time outside of the school is spent. He’s never asked me to come in early, teach late, or do anything that’s not stipulated in my contract. He’s never invited me to have dinner at his house with his kids and dogs, never forced me to make up excuses about why I couldn’t go to dinner with his kids and dogs. My contract, as I’ve shared with you before, is non-demanding and strictly professional. The only person slave-driving myself in 2012 is me… Early this week, I woke up, and asked myself, “Why?”

Just get yourself free. – Paul Simon

Then (A few days ago kind of “then”): I stayed up all night looking at the area of Hakone for a two-day respite. I chose Hakone, because it’s less than two hours from Tokyo and its hot springs are reputedly some of the best in the world. I decided to get myself free, to book two days in a sleepy town, rest, and allow the steaming water to wash away some of my general fatigue. It worked.

To travel to Hakone from Tokyo, one only needs to get on the Romance Car at Shinjuku station, and take the limited express train to Hakone-Yumoto. (There are only four stops). The ticket is 2020 yen, and if you so choose, you can also buy a Hakone Freepass, which will give you access to all of Hakone’s transportation (train, cable car, ropeway, and bus). No worries, my friends, I now have a phone with an adequate camera, and I took ample photos to remember it all, and to urge you, wherever you are, take some time and “get yourself free.”

To describe Hakone as “picturesque” would be doing it a disservice, as would the words “beautiful” and “lovely.” It’s surrounded by mountains, and is green green green. Breathtaking… nope, still not good enough.

* My room at the ryokan Shunkoso. The room was the size of a studio apartment, and left me with such a desire for my own place.

* The best part of the room was the view outside my window.

It seems there were five people booked in the ryokan: an old couple, a younger couple and me. What that means is that the service in the dining room was ridiculously good, and I had the hot springs to myself for both days. Unshared. I could, and should write a post of its own on all the food that was served to me at breakfast and dinner, a large amount. My lovely waiter just kept coming with dish after dish, but the great thing about Japan is that each thing is two pieces at the most. I swear if you wanted to lose weight, as contradictory as it sounds, Shunkoso would be perfect. They fill you up on steamed fish, fish eggs in mayonnaise, tofu in sweet sauce, grilled eel, steamed vegetables, soups (There were two different soups at dinner– miso, and fish broth with a piece of crabmeat), and for dessert– a slice of melon, and the next day, a chilled rice custard.

* My Jamaicans, this dish tasted exactly like escoveitch.

* Hands down best service ever received.

The trip to Hakone wasn’t meant to be a food orgy though; it’s about the water. Though cameras aren’t allowed in the baths, since I was the only person in there I figured no one would complain.

*On the left are the showers. You must shower before you enter the hot spring bath. The ryokan provides yukatas (robes and a belt), towels, washcloths, soap, shampoo, razors, and whatever else one may need (hairdryers, Q-tips).

* After eating my first dinner.

Dear friends, this is a post in two parts, because it’s impossible to do it all in one post. I still want to share my sightseeing photos with you, and tell you what I thought about on my walk to town from the ryokan, and how friendly the country people were and how people stopped me to say “Konnichiwa,” and how one old lady pointed to my face and said “Nice, nice.” (Brown skin’s more than rare in Hakone). It was such a pleasure to revel in green… and to think, I always thought I was a beach person, a blue person.

The problem is all inside your head she said to me; the answer is easy if you take it logically; I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free.

Take care,

Val