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!”


 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.
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

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).

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,


“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: 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!),


My Last First

Dear Friends,

Two hours ago, after our morning classes, LD, B and I went to the Maruzen next to our workplace for waffles and curry (LD‘s stomach has confirmed that his curry order was a misguided choice). As we enjoyed the sun, warming our backs through the glass windows, and the silence of the cafe, LD wondered aloud about the end of firsts. He commented that he hadn’t had any “firsts”  in many moons, and there were probably no more firsts coming. B chimed in that it was true that lately each day seemed like the one before and the weeks were melting into each other. We all concurred that we’d fallen into a monotonous routine: Get up, go to work, eat, drink, wait for days off, spend the days off in exactly the same way as the week before (eating and drinking),  then repeat. Our lives were pleasant, enjoyable enough, but alas, they’d become boring.

I disagreed that there no more firsts to be had, since I’d just recently gone to Daikanyama, a first. Additionally, I questioned if firsts were so important, since things always seemed to get better after the second, third and even forty-fifth time. Almost simultaneously, they began speaking of the excitement, good feeling, and high energy of waiting for a first time. (Anticipation often beats the experience, doesn’t it?).

As all drifters know, when the feeling of routine and tedium overtakes, the first thought is “It’s time to get out of here.” And thus, a desire to move on, leave Tokyo has gently washed over both LD and B, and I have spoken of wanting a vacation– a short getaway, to which the question then arose, have all the firsts in Tokyo been explored? To that, the answer was a resounding “No!” I whipped out a notepad and we started thinking of a list of firsts that we must do, one a week. (It’s a public declaration now, so they must get done). Though D has been here for a year and LD many more than that, there were numerous activities that had never been done. (I started to feel less guilty about my six-month bout of general inactivity).

Let’s start with the first 12:

1) Visit Tokyo Tower. Not visiting Tokyo Tower is like a tourist visiting New York and not seeing the Empire State Building up close or going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower. Yet, two of the three of us haven’t been there. We’re not from here, so you’d think that visiting the second highest building in Tokyo and a national monument would’ve been high on the list of things to do… but nope. Though like the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower, it’s overpriced to go to the top (reportedly US$70), so we may just take a look from the outside, and not the top.

                                                                                                             (*Image taken from

2) Go to Tsukiji market. Tsukiji fish market is the largest seafood market in the world; it opens at 4am and it’s possible to go there and eat a delicious breakfast of soup, sashimi, and all manner of seafood delights. Since it’s an outrageous idea that any of us would actually wake up to go there, we came to the conclusion that the best plan of action would be to stay out all night, then go for breakfast. It would certainly beat the usual after the club McDonald’s.

3) Visit Senjoji in Asakusa. Built in 645 AD, Senjoji is Tokyo’s oldest temple. I went to Senjoji with my former housemate to pray a few days after New Years, so it won’t be a first for me, but we’ve agreed that our lists of firsts don’t have to be firsts for us all. By the way, I got a great fortune at the temple on New Year’s which promised great things in all areas of my life, just a reminder big Buddha– I’m waiting.

                                                                                                             (Wikipedia image) 

4) Take a trip to an onsen in Hakone. Only an hour and a half from Tokyo, we can go to Hakone, and immerse ourselves in steaming springs (onsens).  The hot springs are both mixed and separated by gender. I’m still not completely comfortable with being nude with a large group of people, so though I’m excited about the idea, not completely sure I’ll make it. (I would’ve been an unsuccessful hippie).

5) Attend a sumo practice. They were both excited about this, but the thought of watching two huge men roll around on a mat, half-naked, doesn’t excite me. Let’s change 300 pound Japanese men in loin cloths to two greased up hotties, and I’d be totally down. But, as aforementioned, it’d be a first and maybe the experience alone is worth it?

6) Tour the East Garden at the Imperial Palace. A picnic in the spring perhaps?

7) Watch a baseball game at Tokyo Dome. As boring as baseball is on television (and my god it is), it’s quite different in a stadium of fanatics, drinking beer, and absorbing the energy around us.

8) Go fishing near Ochanimizu. Rent a boat, head into the semi-deep, and catch something to eat. It sounds frontier-ish, and in Japanese fashion, expensive.

9) Kabuki Theater. How could we be in Japan and not see kabuki even once?

10) Go to Kamakura beach. LD asked me if I liked the beach, and now I have whiplash, my head spun around so fast. Do Japanese salarymen get drunk every night after work with their colleagues? Is Tokyo super expensive? Is a first kiss special and awkward? The answer to all those questions– Of course!

11) Go to Fujiku amusement park. For the record, I hate rides and I’m not sure if Japanese amusement parks have cotton candy or a Japanese version of Italian ices, so I’m not sure why I agreed to this one.

12) Visit the science museum in Odaiba. Once again, I’m not sure why I agreed to this, except the fact that Odaiba (island) has beautiful views, great shopping and cool restaurants. When they’re looking at “science,” I’ll be at the all you can eat buffet at Sizzler.

The list-making committee:

People can motivate other people. A book can motivate. Money can motivate. But the best motivator is an idea. – Brahma Kumaris

Take care,