Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Balance, Air Travel and Other Random Thoughts

Thanks to Suerk's comment on the last post I have come to a grand realization. The past week's trip to Nippon was one of balance. I love the idea of balance and for my own life it is something I do strive for but most of the time I move very quickly back and forth between the highs and lows and call this balance instead. And I do think now that I have achieved a bit of emotional balance, at least as far as Japan is concerned. My 2005 was a year of education and experience and once I learned it I had to leave it behind. This trip back reminded me that this was indeed a lesson learned and not one I need to continue learning forever. Today when I watched the country disappear from the window of the airplane I felt good. I want to return but for now I need to move on to the next new experience! Thanks Suerk for putting words to what I was feeling.

Suerk, by the way, taught me English in high school - and he continues to teach me even 30 years later. He also directed the best damned production of Godspell that has even been.

It's almost 2 am. I had 5 hours of heavy sleep after being awake for 26 and am in the getting over jet lag mode big time. It's just plain weird that I left Tuesday August 29 at 11:25 am and flew for over 10 hours and arrived in Chicago Tuesday, August 29 at 8:40 am. As always the trip there was fairly easy to get over within a day but the trip back has messed with me big time. A combination of Back to the Future and Groundhog Day.

An interesting thing happened on the flight from Chicago to Atlanta. There were a lot of young Navy guys at ORD today and about 9 of them were on my flight and seated around me. They were very young - early 20s max, and headed back to Pensacola. When we landed in Atlanta the cabin attendant made the announcement about the weather and current time in Atlanta and please remain seated until the plane has come to a complete stop and then recognized our military personnel on board and thanked them and wished them Godspeed and the whole plane broke out in applause. As we waited to get off the plane they began talking amongst themselves about how good it was to be back in the south with support. One kid was talking with another passenger behind me and I heard him say that he came from a town that was totally anti-military and had had an anti-war rally just the weekend before and it was so good to be back where people were pro-war. I wanted so badly to turn around and tell them that indeed I and the majority of this country support everything they do but that they should not confuse this with support for war. I hate war and I hate the man that put us in this mess all the while invoking the name of God. He is no better than the terrorists in this respect. But I love and support the women and men of the military that carry out his orders and put their lives on the line. These kids were equating respect for the military with support of the war. I should have had my little gentle say with them. I did not. I was far too tired.

I found a new vending machine coffee in Japan and have decided this must be the national drink there. I brought back 4 cans just in case I wake up feeling too happy

Monday, August 28, 2006

Homeward Bound

I leave in the morning to return to the US. I have mixed feelings about it, but I also have mixed feelings about Japan. I love it so much and the people are so wonderful and friendly and it's so easy to get around and it's the most wonderfully quirky country but it is the most maddeningly impossible place too. There is NO creative thinking - NO creative problem solving. The Japanese learn everything by rote and anything outside of that is too foreign to them to handle. The saying here is that the nail that sticks up will get hammered back down. So one doesn't do anything outside of the accepted norm. This just totally drives me crazy because I was born to be the nail that sticks up and yet I have to accept it is the culture here. The Japanese are polite and bow many hundreds of times a day, and there are 4 levels of politeness in the language depending on the station of the person you are speaking with and yet in a crowded subway station or in a crowd like the festival I went to Saturday they will push you and shove you and jump line without a second thought. And then, in the middle of towering buildings you will come across a small wooden house with tenderly cared for potted plants on the curb that punks don't kick over and destroy just for fun and something to do. Shopkeepers in the mornings will go out in front of their shops and sprinkle dippers full of water on the sidewalk to "Keep the dust down." Every day traveling the trains you see women in traditional clothing - and this includes young women - and they wear their kimono and stand at the station sending text messages on their cell phones. And it's just about the safest place you can possibly imagine. I could walk down the street at 2 am with 10,000 yen ($100) bills sticking out of my back pocket and no one would touch me. And if I dropped one the guy behind me would apologize for interrupting my walk and return it, bowing.

All this said, one week has been a good visit, although all but one day was spent working. I am ready to get home to my life and projects and the cats. If I came here to really travel the country for a week or two I might feel different but this has been good. I am sad to leave but happy to get home. I think the main charm of last year for me was navigating the learning curve. It was such a challenge every day and such an adventure. Now it is normal to be here. Exciting, but normal.

I truly consider myself so very fortunate. To think that I started this job as a one week temp and have not only had the unbelievable opportunity to live here for a year but to also come back and revisit - I just can't believe this has been my life for the past couple of years!

So I leave Japan tomorrow tired, sore, inspired and grateful. Not too freaking bad.

Photos to come within 48 hours . . .

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Tsukiji and the Asakusa Surprise!

Today, Saturday, I finally got a chance to do a bit of roaming and it was a near perfect day. It was a bit cloudy, and the intense heat and humidity that has been with us this week finally lifted. It was just splendid to be out and about and I had many reminders of why I love it here so much.

I started fairly late as I wanted to do a bit of work first and get it out of the way. The original plan was to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market by 6 am but when I woke up at 8 that was pretty much shot (you have to get there early to really experience the market and it's mostly over by 10 or 11 am). But I went to Tsukiji anyway, and started by visiting the Tsukiji Honhwanji Temple. I sat inside for quite a while as there were 3 Buddhist monks chanting and it was so peaceful and relaxing. (Page in english) if you are interested in learning more.

After the temple I walked around the narrow and crowded alleyways around the fish market and looked at the various vendors and their wares. Tokyo is so hugely modern and yet there are these tiny narrow streets just off the main streets and when you walk through them you almost feel as if you have stepped back in time. Yes, I have photos and I could just kick myself that I didn't spend more time looking for the cord that hooks my camera to the laptop. I got up my nerve and had lunch at a sushi-go-round restaurant, where the sushi chefs stand in the middle and create and then put the sushi on lilttle color-coded plates onto a conveyor belt. You sit and drink green tea and when a plate goes by that looks good you take it and enjoy it. At the end a lady comes up and counts your plates and you get your bill. It was simply wonderful. I had toro (fatty tuna) and eel and scallop and something that I had no idea what it was. The great thing is that these places are all supplied by the fish market just steps away and so you know you are eating the very freshest sushi it is possible to have. Delicious!

From Tsukiji I decided to go back to my old stomping grounds, Asakusa. It is truly my favorite place in Tokyo. I had an email from my New Zealand matie Peter on Wednesday morning. His mother passed away after a long illness last week and he wrote to let me know. I decided then and there that I would have to go to Asakusa while I was here and burn incense and light a candle in the shrine for his Mum.

As I was leaving the subway station at Asakusa I saw posters for the annual Samba festival which, as it turns out, was TODAY!!! This is a huge festival and I heard about it last year but did not go. So I stepped out into the streets of Asakusa which are crowded anyway and I can't even describe the mass of sweaty humanity that awaited me. Yes I have photos and I think I even recorded a brief "movie" on my camera. There were so many people that you couldn't even see the parade. Side note - the parade was underway when I stepped off the train and 3 hours later it was still going strong! Japanese people can have some fun. But anyway - the crowd. Literally (I swear to god) it was full body to body contact trying to walk the streets. I think I might be pregnant. It actually freaked me out a little bit. So much pushing and shoving and you get caught in the tide and pretty much go wherever the tide takes you. At one point I found a side street and sat on the edge of a planter just to get out of the madness. An older Japanese couple walked by and the woman came up to me and gave me a souvenir fan! So sweet and thoughtful! Another very special moment. The walk from the Asakusa station to the temple normally takes about 8 minutes but today it took over an hour due to the crowds. I lit the candle and burned the incense for Peter's Mum and then took in the energy of the festival for a couple of hours. Here's a link to someone who posted photos last year It seems to be an excuse for the normally black/brown/earth-toned wearing Japanese to put on neon feather costumes and thongs and fringe and cut loose and shake their booties. It was exhausting but fun. And oh yeah - while walking around Asakusa I saw my first in-person sumo wrestler! He was on a bicycle with his young daughter. I could tell he was sumo by his size and his top knot. Simply beautiful.

Now it's getting close to 7 and I need to go out and find dinner. When I was here last year I got a per diem and I was filthy rich! I never had a moment of feeling that I had to pinch pennies thanks to Gerard setting it up so we were all living comfortably in this very foreign place. This time all expenses come out of my own pocket and I will be reimbursed for breakfast, lunch, dinner and traveling expenses to and from the office. It stings a bit. Tokyo is far more expensive than I think I ever realized. So I have to make the most of my meal times. I could kill for tonkatsu tonight.

One thing I've noticed is that navigating the subway stairs and walking so much is quite taxing and so I realize that I was in pretty great shape last year. In the US we are sedentary. Here you have to walk and climb stairs all day and put out effort. I am sore and tired and achy but I feel so good!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Yeah, Second Posting in One Day but this is Worth It!

Was walking back the 3 blocks from the take out place and a bus passed. As it passed I noticed an older woman sitting and looking at me intently from the window. Just as it passed I got cocky and gave her a huge smile and waved at her.

She waved back.

This has been the best freaking day ever.

Prepare for Brain Fade and Eyes to Roll Back Into Your Head

This will mean nothing to you but I have to share. I am here in Tokyo to train staff to use the new interface that I have spent a great deal of time testing. I have tested every possible aspect of it because it is important to me that I provide this office with something as close to perfect as possible. I tested stupid scenarios that would never happen in reality but could happen within the parameters of our system. I want this office to know I am looking out for them and value me enough that I can return from time to time and be considered a welcomed visitor who brings things that will make their lives easier. My Japan experience gave me so much and I want to give back by making things as easy for them as possible.

Yesterday afternoon I began the training. Almost immediately we ran into a brick wall in terms of IT. I had no idea why this problem was happening and was heartbroken that it was not an immediate success. Last night I came back to the apartment and worked on it but the jet lag kicked in. All day today I worried about it (my IT contact is in London so the timing was off). All day I checked the time in London. At 5 I came to the apartment prepared for a long hard night of working it out.

Thanks to the absolute brilliance of Mike in London and a brief Skype call the interface is up and running now! I ran yesterday's file with total success and in the morning I will complete the initial staff training!!!! We aren't out of the woods yet but this is a HUGE thing, and a complete and almost perfect payoff for the many hours of mind-numbing testing I did over the past 5 months!!

WOO HOO!!! It's PARTY TIME in Tokyo tonight!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Just so you have perspective on my idea of "party time" I plan to walk down to the local takeout, pick up something edible, come back to the apartment and take a long bath in my deep and perfect Japanese bathtub. I will be asleep by 10 I promise. Unless of course there is something compelling on Japanese TV.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Hello from Japan once again. It is freaking hot here. Not really hot, but humid as only Japan can be. Since I left in December the office has acquired a high tech Casio wall clock (I want one and will try to get one). It has a typical wall clock appearance but with an additional digital LCD window where temperature and humidity is displayed. Today in the office with air con it was 28C (82.4F) and 55% humidity!!!! On the most humid recent day in Atlanta it only got close to 50% and that was OUTSIDE!!! So you can maybe imagine. I was determined to go in today looking good and refreshed and after 10+ hours of sleep I thought it was possible. I showered, made up - I looked positively cute when I left my apartment for the 7 minute walk to the Hatchobori station. By the time I got on the train I was dripping sweat and every facial pore I have had opened fully and swallowed every bit of makeup. Don't get me started about how I looked by 10 am. By 6 pm when I left the office I was caked with sweat and salt and pollution and had a 7 hour case of drag rot on top of bloodshot, jet-lagged eyes. Hard to deal with when you are standing in the station cue with a bunch of cute gorgeous Japanese women.

We (Rasmus and I) arrived at Narita airport at about 1:35 pm yesterday local time which was 12:35 am body time (previous day). I got up at 4 am (body and real time) to get to the airport for my flight from Atlanta to Chicago. We went through immigration, picked up luggage, went through customs, went outside for a cigarette, went back up to pick up our apartment keys, exchanged currency, purchased bus transport tickets into Tokyo, and arrived at the apartment at about 5 pm which was 4 am body time once again so needless to say after 9 months of not dealing with this I am a bit messed up. I went to bed at 8 pm (local time - SIGH) and woke up at 2 am, then back to bed at 3 until I got up at 7:30 am (local time - SIGH).

Tokyo is still as great as it was 9 months ago - people on the street walking and riding bikes at all hours. A city alive. My city. Cashiers at the convenience stores who bow to you after you have made a $3.00 purchase. When my plane took off from Atlanta and then landed at Chicago we flew right beside both skylines and despite the fact that these are major cities they looked so small to me. And here I am in a city of 30 million people and the streets are narrow and quaint and modern and safe and I feel so good and so at home again. Japan, has its problems for sure but it still feels right to me.

I wish I could stay. I wish I had never left. I wish I were home with the cats. I wish I could be here forever. A city of eternal wishes.

There will be photos but not until I return because I couldn't find the thingy that hooks my camera up to the laptop.

The gagaijin.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

A Must See

A Japan blog that I frequent recently had a link to perhaps the most wonderful documentary I have ever seen. This young man from California graduated from college then worked a couple of years to save up the money to walk from the southernmost point of Japan to the northernmost point. He did it between late March and late July 2004, and documented his experiences on video. I don't watch the show so I didn't know this but he also won The Amazing Race. I was so taken with this 1 hour video that I immediately went to his website and ordered my own copy. It arrived in today's mail and I am so excited. This guy has the most remarkable attitude and outlook on life and I have just been 100% inspired by him. His US name is Tyler MacNiven. His Japanese name is Kintaro. Here's the link to the google video as well as the link to his website.

You will laugh, you will cry, you will learn about the kindness of the people of Japan, and you will feast on this remarkable documentary, which was edited beautifully by Tyler and his girlfriend Ayumi.

That's all for now.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Lipstick, Kate Hudson and other stuff

Today it was announced that airline travelers can have lipstick on their carry on baggage. Let's face it - water, once you get through security, is readily available at high airport prices once you are on the concourse and free once you are on the plane. Not like you have to fly internationally with nothing to drink. But NO LIP BALM?!?!?! I can't go an hour without lip balm. I have lip balm in every drawer in my house and two or three tubes in my purse. Today's news was good news. I can fly now.

Kate Hudson and her singer husband (whats-his-name) are splitting after 6 years. Cheers Kate! You made it twice as long with one husband as I did with two combined!

The new participants in the next Dancing With The Stars competition was announced today. Jerry Springer for the love of god! Others of course but I do hope the judges throw chairs at this man. Still, I look back at last season (my first) and it was so GREAT and I swear if you didn't see Jessica Simpson's ex brother in law dance you missed a great dancer. He was truly a talented competitor. And who wouldda thunk it? He truly poured every bit of his heat, soul and body into it and it was a joy to watch. This is my guilty pleasure. Normally I and the cats prefer things like Grey's Anatomy and not much else. No SERIOUSLY - Phoebe gets on the chair by the TV when Grey's comes on and watches it from 2 inches away - she is intrigued.

Speaking of Grey's Anatomy - y'all didn't tell me there was a Season 1 while I was away!!!! For SHAME!!! I started watching in early March which I thought was season 1 and only recently found out it was actually (SERIOUSLY) season 2. So this weekend I went out and bought the season 1 DVD and don't you know between 1 pm Saturday and noon Sunday I had watched EVERY EPISODE. It was a gluttonous feast that I will never regret and yet I am still trying to get over the Mer/Der love hangover. I finally understand all the backstories and season 2 is out on DVD Sept 12 so I can catch up more and I guess late Sept season 3 will begin on TV. So I am almost caught up and I love it and this is maybe the best writing ever on TV including M*A*S*H and Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. So much of TV (mostof it) is total crap but this is bright, funny, compelling and well written and brilliantly acted stuff. Sandra Oh is a goddess and if you don't believe me rent Under the Tuscan Sun and Sideways and then watch her in this. $100 bucks says within 5 years she has an Oscar. She is a SERIOUSLY great actress. SERIOUSLY. For those who don't watch you won't get me saying "SERIOUSLY." But SERIOUSLY you need to watch this and now it will be on Thursdays at 9 so those of us who go to bed early can watch it without guilt.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Visit to the Monastery

About 20 miles from my home, nestled into beautiful countryside in Conyers, Georgia, is the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a Trappist Monastery.

For 14 years I have heard about this place. I've known people who have done spiritual retreats there, and heard about the bonsai the monks do. I've always meant to go but never took the time as there are always other things to be done dontcha know. Maybe it's the fact that due to my Feng Shui purging of the clutter and making an effort to keep my house neat and clean and tidy on a nightly basis but this morning I woke up and there was nothing pressing to do. I spent an hour de-cluttering a bit more in the shed (I am doing this in bits and pieces), then another 25 minutes working on sanding my grandmother's kitchen table, recently inherited from my parents and in great need of refinishing. Then I showered and ate lunch and decided to go to Conyers.

What a joy - what a delight - what fun! In a very Jesus kind of way, of course - not that there's anything wrong with that. I immediately headed for the bonsai house and was amazed at what I saw. In Japan there was a man who lived down the street from me. He had maybe 15 bonsai, very old ones, sitting out on the curb on benches and once a week or so he would work on them. He always said "Konbanwa" as I passed on my bike coming home at night and I always wanted to stop and watch him but somehow it seemed like spiritual work for him and I didn't want to intrude.

Anyway, I saw some bonsai today so beautiful they almost brought tears to my eyes. These things have been trained with love and devotion. I saw juniper, ficus, bougainvillia, and my favorite, ginko. Ginko was the official tree of Urayasu city where I lived and I wanted so badly to buy one but they are pretty pricey. Also I don't have the best track record with bonsai. The ones I have purchased at Target and Lowe's have died sad, miserable deaths. So today I walked away with two small young bonsai - a jade plant and a juniper:

I swear I am going to read up on this and work to keep these things alive. The old bonsai, some of which were 100 years old, were up to $900. A bargain in the world of bonsai. Many in the $100 to $300 range. Many also in the $25 to $50 range. I walked away with 2 bonsai, a mud man figure, and a bonsai care book for a whopping $16.00 total. I told them if I didn't kill them I would be back. I'm just not going to spend $200 on a ginko that will die due to my ignorance, no matter how much I want it. Evidently jade plants are difficult to train but junipers are fairly easy. At any rate I am looking forward to this challenge!

After my bonsai purchase I wandered around the beautiful monastery grounds a bit and then headed for the Abbey store as it was hot as hell (ironic, ne?) and the store was air conditioned. There was so much to look at, from the tackiest of Jesus oriented decor to books about the saints to honey and fruitcake and fudge made at the Monastery. I got four frankincense scented candles and a serenity prayer card and then I noticed the cooler of holy water in a back corner. My Feng Shui book has many suggestions about cleansing the home of negative energy including burning sea salt and smudging with cedar and burning sandlewood incense but it also mentions sprinkling holy water. So I bought a little holy water container and filled 'er up. There was an old, hunched over monk working the register and he rang me up and I paid and then in a very gruff, gravely deep voice he said "You want these blessed?" The first response that came to me was "Will it cost extra?" Luckily I only said "Yes, please." He made the sign of the cross and mumbled something and then got out his little plastic container of holy water and wet his fingers and touched each of my items.

If you are interested in reading more:

I'm not a catholic. I now consider myself to be a loose non-practicing (very) low Episcopalian who dabbles in the study of Buddhism and is open to many spiritual beliefs and practices. I live in an area of the country where there is roughly one strip mall church per person (usually named something like "The Anointed Sanctuary of the Holy Warrior Missionary Church of Jesus") and where it is common practice for people to appear on your doorstep to "save" you and inflict their beliefs upon you. Among my friends are Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Baptist, Baptist, Baptist (I live in the bible belt), Catholic, Buddhist, Shinto, Unitarian, Athiest, Agnostic, Wiccan and Ja-ism. I love them all and have learned from them all. The point is not religion but spirituality. The point is having some sort of faith. The more important point is loving and accepting that just because someone has a religious/spiritual belief and practice different from yours does not mean they are condemned to hell.

Off the soapbox now. It was an entirely good day and so much fun! Now there are more thunderstorms moving in and I need to shut down until they pass. Luckily it seems our hot dry spell has passed and now we are having regular thunderstorms. Still hot, and with the rain also humid, but the air is cleaned so much by the rain and I appreciate every drop that falls!