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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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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

 

 

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Appreciating the Air

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travel

To Beach: Beach, Beached, To Have Beached

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

*The path to the beach.

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

 

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

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

 

Cheers,

Val

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travel

Shimoda: Sparkle by the Sea

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

 

*All my views were from this angle.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

*Girls lighting sparklers.

Cheers,

Val

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travel

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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travel

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

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