Thursday, July 31, 2008

Trying To Hold On

I am sitting in my friend's double bed a little too awake for 12:45 at night, but in Japan it is 4:45 in the afternoon and my inner clock is still adjusting. My fingers are also adjusting to life back in the States as they struggle to find the apostrophe and colon on a non-Japanese keyboard.

But I will readjust my typing instincts soon enough, and I fear that as I begin to fall back into routine I will begin to forget as well. I will forget what it is like to be surrounded by signs I can't read because they are printed in an alphabet I cannot comprehend. I will forget what it is like to be the only white person in a room. I will forget what white rice tastes like first thing in the morning. As with so many events in life, these things will fade into memories that grow more distant and distant, but I know that the intangible experiences, thoughts, reactions, and reflections will embed something new into who I am. Another building block in life, and I intend to be better for it, taking the opportunity to grow in my understanding of the world and its individual inhabitants, including myself.

My last seven days in Japan were the perfect finish to my time. Amazingly, I found my friend Meiko in the crowds of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo within minutes, and we stashed my suitcase in a coin locker before finding a place for lunch.

It was a three hour bus ride into Ibaraki and Meiko's city. The temperature dropped notably in this time to a very tolerable level, and I couldn't believe it! With its ocean breeze and northern location, Hitachi made it difficult for me to believe that I had spent three weeks sweating away.

So many of the Japanese people I interacted with on a personal level proved to be very hospitable, and the case was the same with Meiko's family. Her cousin was getting married in Tokyo while I was there, so I traveled with her family to the wedding and was graciously welcomed as a member of the family for the day. The hospitality even extended into the next day, for we stayed in Hotel New Otani that night and took a train back to Hitachi around noon. I felt like I was in another life with the lifestyle I led those two days. The hotel was the fanciest I have possibly ever stayed at, and we ate dinner at a revolving restaurant with a three hundred sixty degree view of the city.

The rest of my nights were happily spent sleeping on a simple, comfortable Japanese futon in a room of tatami mats that were new enough to fill the room with a sweet, earthy odor that transferred itself onto my clothes and lasted my first twenty-four hours back in the States. Sadly, it is gone now.

And as the days continue to go by I know I'll forget more of the weariness, the sweltering heat, and hold onto the views of lush countryside, wild lilies along the road, women in yukata shuffling by in the subway station, people (both friend to friend and customer to salesperson) bowing to each other in greeting, and all things that made Japan unique and/or beautiful to me. I know in those four weeks, I only tapped into the outskirts of a culture entirely different from what I am familiar with. And that's why I am so very glad I went, at least for that tiny sliver of broader understanding.

Now I really should be kind to this body of mine and discipline it back into sync with the Northwest sun. Tomorrow I will finally be back in Bellingham after being gone a month and a half and am looking forward to a brief three weeks there before I head back to Texas for fall last fall semester! Maybe that will help me leave this place of tall pine trees, snow capped mountains, and herbal smelling local markets. If I must.

By the way, I have my camera back! I picked it up at the airport upon my arrival and will soon be in my mom's kitchen cooking and baking with her and my sister as much as possible. Please stick around, and thank you so much for following along as I took flight after flight, bus after bus, and every form of transportation in between, testing out too many mattresses to count along the way.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

My Feet

I know a fourteen day gap stands between now and the last time I posted, and I`m not even going to attempt to summarize each of those days, but let`s see what I can do here...

Since arriving in Kyoto on the 10th, it has been difficult to get computer time beyond ten minutes here or there. But today I found myself with a whole day to work with. I woke up at 4:30 this morning to say goodbye to the group I have been traveling with. It was a sad time. In the last few days the subject of me transferring to Western has come up among my new friends and me, but those of you who have watched me transfer (twice) already and stretch my college courses into five years do not need to worry. I`m returning to Abilene in the fall.

My overnight bus for Tokyo leaves at 11:30 tonight, so I am sitting cross legged on a chair at my hotel noticing how dirty my feet are. That`s what you want to hear about, right? The dirt in between my big toe from my flip flop strap? Well, here`s a more telling image about my travels...the slight imprint in these spongy flip flops I brought with me has increased over the last twenty days to a defining mold of each of my toes, my arch, and my heel.

We have done a lot of walking.

For the sake of brevity, the best way to give a glimpse of where my feet have taken me is to leave you with some highlights of my time in Japan. Here are a few of my favorite memories.

Time with locals. I got to spend two nights with my friend`s friend here in Kyoto. She showed us a wonderful time by taking us away from the group for two nights. One to go to a little Mexican restaurant for dinner and a place called The Smoke Room for dessert. I wish I knew the name of the Mexican restaurant because it was delicious, but definitely look up the Smoke Room if you come to Kyoto. It`s very small and has a great wine list with cheeses and sweets. The second night we were invited to her home for her mother`s cooking, and it was so nice to not eat out for a change. Equally as memorable was getting to celebrate the 92nd birthday of my professor`s adopted mother! My prof studied in Kyoto during graduate school and her "okasan" invited us all over for a sushi party one night.

Celebrating in the streets. We came to Kyoto just in time for the Gion Festival and the night before the procession the streets downtown shut down for pedestrians to come through and see the extravagant carts that will be pulled along the next morning and get street food and drinks. We found some good, cheap chu-hi.

Falling in love with the countryside. So far I can see myself living in Tokyo or Ohara, if I come back to Japan. Ohara is opposite Tokyo in practically every respect. It is small, populated with rice patties, indigo fields, and quiet homes with simple roof tiles, but in one life possibility, I can see myself settling here for a while, growing my own natural dyes and wearing indigo fabric from head to two.

Hanging out by the river. There is a river that runs through Kyoto, and our second night here we found a restaurant near it and afterward got some beers and popped them open along the unevenly paved boardwalk that parallels the river. People always gather down there at night, and that night there was a musical duet of a girl with an accordion and guy with a guitar selling their CD. Wish I could have gotten it. Today I found refuge from the sun at the river during mid afternoon with my back against a bridge`s cement pillar and my bare feet dangling over the stony slope. It was so strange to walk around the city with no particular direction I was going, no backs to follow, or clock to mind. I felt like a true vagabond.

Alright, I have overextended my time limit on this computer considerably. It`s time to get off and let another hotel guest have a turn.

I miss you all terribly, along with the taste of whole grain bread and spinach. Today I stood in front of a banana priced at 125 yen (about $1.25) and just couldn`t bring myself to buy it. Another thing I`m looking forward to when I get home.

Now please excuse me while I go wash these dirty feet.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Oyasumi Tokyo.

We ended our adventure in Tokyo at the same place it began.

Because of some miscommunication and our own weary bodies, today ended up being our slowest day yet. Four of us girls ventured out at 12:30 to hit up one last clothing store (I have practiced the utmost willpower in this area the past few days but broke down when I came across an adorable $5 belt). Ginza, the neighborhood we were in, is just a five minute walk from our hotel and, like so much of this area of Tokyo, requires a lot of neck-craning to take in full views of buildings. We fed off the energy of the flowing foot traffic and busy car engines, keeping a steady pace and commenting on the adorable outfits every single Japanese woman seems to possess. I will always be amazed at how far those women are willing to walk in high heels.

At dinnertime we navigated ourselves along the above-ground transit line known as the JR line to get to Shibuya. The Shibuya Crossing is famous because it is a crazy intersection with crisscrossing walkways that all turn green simultaneously. Cars stop and the street is flooded with people. Three friends and I joined the flow but with people coming from the opposite direction it was amazing that we were able to find each other on the other side.

We saw two sides of the area of Shibuya and over our dinner of udon noodles and tempura discussed which area we could picture ourselves living in. The side we saw when stepping of the JR almost reminded us of Europe. It was quieter, there were back alleys and steep hills. The roads had patterns to them, reminding me of cobblestone, and there were even some pubs around.

Above the roofs of the pubs rose Shibuya`s central skyscrapers, and it was easy enough to find our way there toward the udon noodle shop we were craving. The transition from one neighborhood to another was startling. All of a sudden we were ambushed by neon lights and giant images of Cameron Diaz`s face advertising for Soft Bank.

This is what we all expected Tokyo to be like.

I am glad to have discovered every square foot is not so big, flashy, and frenzied.

Shibuya is energizing and stimulating, but I could only handle that sort of thing for so long. We are staying in Shiodome, which is still a central part of Tokyo, but mixed in with all the skyscrapers are peaceful pockets of foliage, and the architecture is so well done that I do not hesitate to call all this glass and steel beautiful.

As I said, we ended up right where we started.

After letting the sardine packed JR cars empty out so we could get a spot inside, we rode back to our hotel. It just so happened that we arrived at 7:45, fifteen minutes before Miyazaki`s enchanting clock was set to bring in the hour (it only comes to life five times a day). Our first day here, on July 3rd, we had all gathered as a group to see the giant clock play out its magic, and it was so fun to stand there in the darkness, leaning against the glass railing and feel like we had grown older and wiser with all that we had experienced in the last five days, as quirky little characters clanged away a playful rhythm.

Oyasumi Tokyo. Good night big beautiful city.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Tokyo: Day 3

The sharing of my Japan experience would not be complete without a mention of the heat.

I am sitting in our hotel`s "business center" enjoying the air conditioning and yet knowing it is only drying my sweat to my body, only disguising my need for a shower. Not the most beautiful vision, I know, but there it is. This place is humid and hot this time of year.

We started out the day in Harajuku, an area of Tokyo known for its street fashion. The younger generations congregate here in the most amazing/bizarre clothing and accessories. As we watched girls with thick tights covered in strawberry print or wearing knee high platform boots, all I could think about was how hot they must be in those clothes, and why weren`t they sweating as insanely as me?!

From there three of us split off in search of good shopping, architecture, and air conditioning and went in search of Spiral, a beautifully designed building in the area of Aoyama. We caught the subway back to our hotel, and it felt so good to be able to smoothly navigate ourselves around. I now feel confident with the underground systems of London, Paris, and Tokyo!

If you`re wondering if I`m actually getting an art education in all of this eating, shopping, and walking, well, yesterday was our day of visiting art exhibits (and there will be more to come). We went to Roppongi and visited 21_21 Design Sight as well as a graphic design exhibit in Midtown Tower. Both were beautifully presented and of very high quality.

One thing I really appreciate about many of the areas I`ve seen in Tokyo is their emphasis on appealing aesthetics. Everything semi-recently made is visually enriching inside and out. It is strange, however, to have no contradiction to this. The streets are clean, the people are well dressed...where is the dust and grime we`re so used to in life? It must still be around here. But is it worse to hide it beneath the surface, behind smiles and bows and pleases and thank yous?

That`s as far as I`m going to get today. We are leaving in an hour for dinner and I`m looking forward to a shower before then.

I will let you know what delicious things we eat tonight (and eventually post them on here in illustration or photograph form).


Thursday, July 3, 2008

Life in Tokyo

My stomach is full, satisfied with rice, sashimi, miso soup, and green tea. Oh, yes, and the red bean filled donut I had as a prelude to breakfast.

It is just past 8 o`clock in the morning but the group of students I am with here in Tokyo rose at the ungodly hour of 5am to make it to the fish market bright and early. Thankfully our body clocks are still adjusting to the new timezone, so the fact that the sun had barely risen didn`t discourage us.

We walked as a flowing mass along the sidewalks of this wonderous city, craining our necks to see the peaks of buildings and dodging puddles that were growing as the large raindrops fell on top of our heads (at least my head. I had no umbrella.)

I need to go change out of these wet clothes before we head out to do more sightseeing today, but there is some sad news I must share first. It is very very sad. Are you ready?

My dear little Canon Powershot has gone off on an adventure of its own. As I settled into Seattle for a day between Sacramento and this trip, it took off for San Jose, nestled in the seat pocket of an Alaska Airlines plane. Or maybe it found its way into the hands of another photography lover and its red leather case is tucked into a different purse.

What can I do? Hopefully someone is taking good care of it, or it is simply waiting in a lost and found box to be linked back to me and will be waiting when I get home. Either way, I am without a camera for these four weeks in Japan and am so sad I do not get to share pictures of my time with you.

I`m sure I wouldn`t be able to resist borrowing someone`s camera here or there to take a particular shot, but otherwise I`m carrying a sketchbook everywhere I go and trying to just be thankful for the chance to be here.

Maybe I`ll even find myself a nice fine Japanese camera and settle down here with him for a couple years. ;)