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

“The World’s Alright With Me”

Simplicity is beauty. Choose a day as your day of simplicity. Speak little, and listen with attention. Eat simple and natural food. Create time periods for not doing anything – just walk, look around, live the moment. – Brahma Kumaris

Dear Friends,

Yesterday was payday. Any payday’s a good day, but yesterday my check was too big. Complaining about too much money may seem like a weird complaint, or one that should get a back slap, but my sizeable check forced me to take a look at my routine in Tokyo. Last month I worked more than sixty extra units. Sixty-three to be exact.

My contract requires me to work twenty-six and a half hours a week, and I enjoyed that open schedule for the first few months that I was here. However, I felt working three hours on some days and six on others left me with too much free time and not enough cash to be as consumeristic as Tokyo requires. I work across the street from the Nihonbashi Takashimaya (a major department store), one block from Coredo (a mini-mall), and two blocks from the Yaesu underground shopping plaza. It was a win- no gain situation; so, a few months ago I decided to open up my schedule and work bonus shifts at 7:45am, and any other available shifts. You’d be surprised at how many businessmen want to get their English in before heading to work.

Of course, my intention for working slavishly were dual: to save for a rainy day, and to finance my newfound expenses like lash extensions and bi-weekly hair straightening at Hayato. Thus, I’ve been working six days a week from early morning ’til night with large breaks in-between. When I have a break, I bike home and take a nap. Rarely do I make plans for the afternoon, ’cause just like a toddler, an old biddy, or a European, I know the afternoon’s nap time.

Yesterday was payday. The night before payday, I wrote a “Things to Do” list, and I wondered how my attempts at simplification were falling so woefully short; for example after paying rent I listed: 1) Buy Skin Food scrub 2) Get Clinique oil cleanser 3) New lipstick (fuchsia)? 4) Lashes at Sourcil 5) Buy skirt in other color at Coredo 6) Dress at Zara (and Nolley’s?) 7) Try finding shoes at Mitsukoshi or order online. I paid the rent, and decided to buy none of those things (except the cleanser). Sometimes, shopping’s like a feel good drug. For a very short time it satisfies, and then you’re right back where you started– wanting. We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.

As much as I love Madonna’s hit from the eighties, I’ve never considered myself a material girl. Designer labels are unimportant to me, having a lot of money was never a top priority, and I always felt I could do more with less. (Let the other Val speak for a minute here): I’m not materialistic, but I like “nice” things, comfort, the best of what I need whether it be skincare, haircare, or individual lashes added to mine. Yet, yesterday was a wake-up call; if my check could be a third more than usual, it meant that I wasn’t doing anything except working. Unacceptable. I live in a beautiful country that I haven’t seen; eight months later, I still haven’t been outside of Tokyo– not even to the zoo. (And, you all know I love a good zoo).

So, in the spirit of reclaiming spirit, calm, and true beauty (nature baby!), last night I decided to actually take my given two days off (not work on Thursday), and go to Hakone. Hakone, a ninety minute trip from Tokyo, is famous for its sulfuric hot springs, open air museum, and black eggs that when eaten can add seven years to your life. (I’m gonna eat two– it may also explain why every psychic I’ve ever visited told me I’d have a long life). See more here: http://www.hakonenavi.jp/english/introduction/index.html. I’ve booked a room in a traditional Japanese ryokan (guesthouse/hotel), where there’s no internet and included in the rate is dinner served in my room. The best part, my room has a private hot spring bath on the patio. (There’s still the option to do a group bath– same gender only). So friends, in two days, I’m looking forward to a peaceful retreat filled with insights, followed by a clear mind, followed by platters and platters of fresh sashimi and sushi, and a soak in hot springs. That’s the thing about money, it shouldn’t be maligned, it makes things possible. Ok, I’m off to nap.

See you soon (from Hakone!),

Val

Jamaica: Not Just Sun, Sand, Sea

Two days, I spoke to my mother on Skype, and after hearing about her trip to The Blue Mountains, I begged her to write it down and send it to me. My mother’s voice is soothing and warm like ovaltine, but her words are richer. Please see her trip in detail, in her own words.

Jamaica: Not Just Sun, Sand, and Sea

by Lorna Smith

I often lie on my bed and look at the mountains. First thing in the morning after opening my eyes,
I open the balcony door, stand for a moment, look at the mountains and savor the day. Often, I return to lie on my back, gaze at them and feel their presence anchor and ground me.

I have looked at the mountains with love and respect and have thought, “I lift up mine eyes to the hills, ”and today I am here at last fulfilling one of my deepest wishes. As a child of the inner city, I had often wondered what it would be like to live where everything was green, quiet and peaceful. As a young adult, I migrated to the concrete jungle and never had time, space or opportunity to
find out. And now, at the sunset of my life, all that I have the courage to pursue is open to me. Sure, my knees won’t allow me to climb to the top of the mountain as I had always dreamed of doing, but with the aid of a car, I can now climb into her lap and be enfolded in her arms. And so, seemingly on the spur of the moment, I made arrangements.

Earlier in the day I had thought of postponing my trip, due to torrential rains, and called to cancel but it was too late; the car had already left to pick me up. We made the twenty- five mile journey
upward into the heart of Blue Mountains in the continuing rainstorm. However, traffic was light and the roads good, except for a short stretch as we neared our destination. So good in fact that the driver and I joked that the politicians must have their homes in these hills. The driver was very careful; he seemed to sense my disquiet as we navigated the many twists and turns. Then very high up in the mountains, the road ran through the training camp for the soldiers. Newcastle. We watched them as they drilled, ramrod straight. They didn’t even glance at us as we passed. Once dry gullies, now rushing rivulets dressed in full khaki, washed the roadway as impromptu waterfalls cascaded.  As we ascended, I saw the way lined with wild flowers, big blowsy lily-like flowers on cane like stalks, and underneath them, ferns. Now and then, an intemperate mongoose flashed across the road.

After hearing of a series of illnesses and deaths of acquaintances, I decided to give myself a respite.
I opened the telephone directory and randomly chose the Starlight Chalet and Health Spa based on their advertisement, in which they offered peace, quiet, nature walks, and “a Blue Mountain Escape.” The chalet is located in the beautifully named Silver Gap. It is a part of the John Crow Mountains in the Blue Mountain chain. In a few shorts minutes all the arrangements were made and now, two days later, I was about to fulfill a long-cherished wish.

At last, we turned onto a long curving driveway drive way and approached the hotel, a venerable pink lady two-stories high, attended on both sided by tall trees, sitting in the protective arc of the mountain.  Flowering shrubs lined the driveway and I gasped in pleasure in anticipation of tomorrow and hopefully the end of rain.  I arrived in a furious rainstorm; sheets of heavy rain in a continuous downpour, accompanied by a thick mist, shrouded everything.

The Starlight Chalet and Health Spa is not a large hotel; however, I was shown to large airy room which opened onto a private verandah and a three sided expanse of mountain. A beautiful canopied bed awaited me.  Only the sound of the rain could be heard.

I woke up early; it was still dark outside, and I lay still and content waiting to watch the sun as he also awakened from his slumber. The morning dawned bright and clear and, from where I am stood on the verandah, the hotel seems to be held in a loose embrace by the mountains. A series of hills present themselves to my admiring gaze. Verdant folds of the nearer ones and in the distance, sharp ridges clothed every shade of green imaginable. In the pure morning light the trees on the top of the mountains were sharply defined as they reached up to a clear blue sky. On the distant lower mountainside, the bright green is almost black at its base; the summit is backdropped by fluffy white clouds that seem to touch it like a layer of icing on a cake. Now, as the sun gets higher, the morning coolness is somewhat dispelled and a curtain of mist covers the near mountains and the characteristic blue that gives the mountain its name is evident.

So, I have learned something this morning, it seems to me that the two strong forces of green and gold uses the cool air as a catalyst to produce that unique blue; almost diaphanous, almost indigo, can’t properly describe it, except with my heart. The blue clothes the mountains of my beloved land.

Now the sun is in my face, I am being embraced by him. There is a soft breeze that floats off the trees and there is the sound of the river far below. I hear the trill of a bird nearby. My senses are overwhelmed.  As I watch the mountains, it seems that the colors shift momentarily; only the view in the distance remains constant, covered as it were with its blue sheet. The nearer slopes are very dark, almost black and bright green with the progression of trees up its slopes. As I feel the increasing warmth of the sun, I am eager to dress and go outside, morning ablutions kept to the very minimum in my haste.

A gentle breeze rises up from the valley and caries a fragrance I cannot define. I had not intended to walk or to explore the grounds before breakfast, but the grounds are magical. The driveway
approaching the chalet follows a curve along a gently sloping assent. It is bordered by hydrangea, rhododendrons, daylilies, old fashioned pink roses, and abundant in bloom and beauty are lesser players in every shade tucked in between. I sit for a while on a bench tucked in a small secret garden that is not visible from the house or the main pathway. I lie on my back and watch the
hummingbirds as they put on their dazzling show. As I, in bliss, drift, I am certain that I hear a dazzling saxophone reach, circle and float away. As I listen intently, I recognize Miles Davis and John Coltrane on the scented air. A gentle breeze, the murmur of the river celebrating “Blue and Green,” and, in this piece of paradise, the trumpets caress and celebrate every “Kind of Blue” in
my heart.

This morning, “I lift up mine eyes to the hills.” As I witness the sun spread his splendor over the newly washed mountains, golden rays through a diaphanous mist, joy bubbles up within me. For a moment I do not recognize the feeling, I’m so transported. Then, when I do recognize what this is, it takes me a few seconds to claim it, hug it to me, to cherish it. This is it– a feeling of ultimate lightness, transcendence, pure, joy.

A Letter to My Future Expats

Konnichiwa Friends,

You don’t know how much it excites me that quite a few of you have sent me emails requesting more information regarding living and teaching in Tokyo. It would be so great to have my own little expat community here (maybe we could name ourselves something cool and Jam/erican); however, lest you think it’s all bright lights and parties in Tokyo, let me highlight some things.

The Job: I can only speak of English teaching, since I’ve no clue what the other markets are like. With that said, if you’re a native speaker of English, with a bachelor’s degree in any discipline, it’d be pretty hard for you not to get a job here. After the earthquake in March, many positions opened up, despite the fact that Tokyo wasn’t affected much by the quake. Many English teachers fled.

At the school where I work, the maximum amount of hours that you’ll teach each week is 26.6. After one month, you can choose to teach more hours for extra pay. You get paid if the students turn up or not. If you have any other interests you’d like to pursue, such as obtaining an online degree, taking classes at the local universities, or drinking Asahi until your stomach bursts, you’ll find your schedule quite adaptable to your needs. It’s perfect really. One of my coworkers writes science fiction novels (and sells them) in his spare time.

The Pay: We get paid once a month, at the end of the month. English teaching is a respectable profession here, and you’ll earn a respectable salary. I get paid much more than I when I worked 37.5 hours a week in New Jersey, but the city’s also a hell of a lot more expensive. Even so, you’ll definitely have more than enough to live and to save if your rent isn’t too high… speaking of rent; let’s take a really close look at the next point.

Living Expenses: There’s no other way to put this– Tokyo’s expensive as hell! I’ve been to expensive cities: Paris, London, New York, Zurich, and I can tell you that compared to Tokyo they’re not so bad (well, maybe Zurich). I’ver never seen anything like Tokyo in terms of expenses. Don’t be like me, and come to Tokyo after you’ve almost finished your savings. Save as much as you can before you come. If you choose to live here, you’re going to rely heavily on your savings, because as aforementioned you’ll only be paid at the end of the month and you’ll need cash to set up. You also don’t get paid for commutation expenses or orientation. You will however get a commutation allowance every month after you’re officially hired (after orientation). It’s no joke in the hood.

Of course, everyone knows it’s the most expensive city for expats, but what does that really mean? It means that a bag of four tangerines at the neighborhood market is US$5. A pomegranate (the best fruit ever, and one I used to enjoy) is US$5. In NY, a movie is $12.50; in Tokyo, a movie is US$24, except on Ladies Day (Wednesday) when it’s US$11. Transportation: You will need a Passmo card (like NY’s Metrocard or London’s Oyster card), and you will pay by the distance; so, your trip can be US$1.60 or it could be US$5.50 (this is the very reason I cannot visit M until after payday). My rent as I’d mentioned in a previous post is US$600 (utilities included), and I share a room. A private room in this house is US$800. Please do the math and figure out what the landlord collects each month. Do you see why I chose to share?

It is possible to get your own place, but unless you know the language or know someone here who can help you adjust, it’d be best to live in a shared house, and there are many. My housemates took me to the supermarket, nearby eateries, etc., and acclimated me to the neighborhood and the way of life in Tokyo my first week (by housemates I mean R and M). If you’re coming with a mate and need your own place, there are companies that are set up to help foreigners find housing for a fee.

Social Life: A few of you have asked me about socializing, but I can only say that however you socialize in New York, Kingston, or Philadelphia is how’re you going to do it here… if you party hard there, you’re going to party hard here, and vice versa. Everything you need to have a good time is here, and no shortage of people to do it with. Everything you never knew you needed is here. Also, there are many expats here, and if you choose to teach, your school and orientation class will have a few people that you’ll connect with. Even if you fail to connect with them, I’m here and up to hang (after payday of course). Let me reiterate there are tons of expats here, so yes you can date/hang out/speak English/find clothes/etc. However, though there are many expats in Tokyo, there are a gazillion more Japanese folks; so, build your communities. Smile, be nice, make friends (kinda like in kindergarten).

I’ll tell you something, I was subconsciously a bit resistant about coming, because my desire was to stay in Paris, eat croissants, and learn French. The universe had other plans for me, and threw me into the biggest change of my grown life. My experiences won’t be yours, but if you’re not happy where you are, or crave change, or feel stagnant, why don’t you make a change? You don’t have to move to Tokyo, though it’s a great choice (and I don’t say that about all the cities I visit); but if you’re unattached, you should get up and go somewhere. Let me tell you, the only thing I regret about coming to Tokyo is not coming sooner.

Sayonara (for now),

Val

p.s