Monday, March 23, 2009

In retrospect

I am passing time in broad steps. The last few days have catapulted and somersaulted, assailing each other in attempt to reach me. I am trying, I am trying to stay away from them, but they still they reach out and grab me. Sounds have become muffled, my movements are irrelevant.

I will be leaving for the airport in half an hour.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Kyoto was awesome

Ah, the joys of hostel life!
Kyoto actually worked out really well.
The other 6 in the room with me turned out to be quite decent, so I had some company as I trekked around Kyoto for three days. It's nice to make friends on the road.
And Kyoto was wonderful and beautiful. Peaceful, picturesque and charming. Breathtaking even. And WARM! Able to walk around with short sleeves for the first time in a month. I had been feeling quite proud of my Californian self being able to tolerate the 0 degree weather in Beijing until the Canadian I was hanging out with told me that it was 30 below in Edmonton at the moment... 30 below celcius!
The hostel was in an ideal location. Smack in the middle of town, within walking distance to a few train stations, restaurants, Gion and some temples.
Plug: bAK pAK Gion Hostel, booked via

So after being spoiled at my aunt's house in Osaka, I was ready to tackle the trains and trekking the trails in Kyoto. It's not as small as Nara, so what looked like a decent walking distance on the map frequently ended up being pretty far... But the exercise was good to burn off those huge meals I was eating!

The temple complexes were beautiful- many had extensive grounds and beautiful gardens. You could spend all day at one.

The bamboo groves were enchanting... Hearing the wind through the leaves, seeing the light filtering down greenly... It didn't really matter where you walked, every road had something interesting. Omoshiroi.

Philosopher's Path- leading you down beside a small creek in a quaint neighborhood, kind of reminded me of the Venice canal area in LA, but even cuter. The neighborhoods here are all so tiny- roads barely fit the cars that drive down them, the train crossings looked like toy train tracks! And the trains were always so colorful. My favorite was the green velvet seats in the Keihan Line. I would always fall asleep navigating my way home, on the heated seats.

The best was yesterday afternoon's mission- getting from the Philosopher's Path to Fushimi-Inari Ji before dusk... Walking through endless neighborhoods, passing other shrines along the way that were also totally cool- but having to pass them by because we were on a mission... Including Nazen-ji shrine, which was the breathtaking one- first glimsped through the pine trees at a distance- enormous wooden building like a silhouette at first- materializing into a fantastic scale that dwarfed the trees around it, hazy in the cooling afternoon air, which was UNSEASONABLY WARM!!!!

It gets even better. We hop on a train and make it to Fushimi-Inari as the sky is darkening- but the lanterns leading up were lit, so we kept going. This shrine is known for the thousands and thousands of torii gates that were constructed into tunnel-like pathways that traverse for miles up and around the mountain, and also by foxes. It was unbelievable. Especially at night... It got dark, and there were very few adventurous souls out hiking up through the torii gates at this time. Every so often there would be a break in the tunnel and there would be a cluster of shrines. Lit up by lanterns and streetlights, it was dramatic and mysterious. The dominating color was bright orange, the color of the torii gate. You could buy little gates and add them to the collections on various shrines. You could buy big gates too- there were tons and tons. At what we thought was the top, we sat down to rest, and were joined by a couple of badgers. Magical! Chilled up there with them for a few minutes, and then attempted to find the way down. Went another way, just to see more, realized we were going the wrong way when we ended up walking down a path with absolutely no lights, but it was lined by a musical little stream... Wow... Upon backtracking we realized that we hadn't reached the top, and were in fact nowhere near the top... Looking up from certain points you could see the lanterns highlighting the characteristic orange color high above our heads. These torii gates were truly a formidable monument.

Hiked back down just in time to reach the hostel before 9:00pm, to pick up my bags from storage, grab a quick bite from the 24 hours supermarket Fresco next door, and head out for the bus station for my 23:10 bus. Which was really not bad- utterly unremarkable in fact. Sat in seat 1A, in a ladies only row, and once I figured out how to recline the chair I was able to pass out on my inflatable neck pillow (Lifesaver, that one!). Recliner seats aren't all that comfortable, but I'd take it any day over stinky feet blanket beds. The road was nice too, no airborne moments!

7 hours later, I woke up at Tokyo Station and subwayed it back to Khaosan Asakusa Annex Hostel, where I'll be staying for the next 5 nights. The girl at check-in told me I should stay another week, because the cherry blossoms will be in full bloom by then. Right now they are just starting, a few trees here and there blossoming. I'm tempted, I'm very very tempted.

For now, I will take things as they come. Heading out to the musuem in Ueno park again... Had attempted it when I first arrived in Tokyo, but I was truly disoriented at that time. Had to recoup from China- it took me a couple of days! Feeling much better now and ready for anything.

Peace out gang, until later.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Nara and last day in Osaka

Osaka has been great. I didn:t know what to expect from meeting my relatives, but was thoroughly happily surprised.

My mom:s cousin has been spoiling me rotten- baths every night, breakfast every morning, dinner every evening. Delicious every time! Classic Japanese food. In contrast to the food in China, I recognize many of the flavors here. It comes from my grandmother, faithfully serving up traditional Japanese food at all important occasions. So while I was truly surprised at many of the Chinese flavours, here in Japan it:s like coming home. Not to mention all the delicious street foods- today I had fresh mochi made in front of my eyes! And 7-11 sells all kinds of sushi fast food- nothing at all like the nasty old hot dogs and weird sandwiches they have in the US.

Last night I met my two little baby cousins, aged 2 and 5. Nina and Aina- two adorable little tornados! During the course of the evening they took every cushion off the couches, tormented the kitty, opened and closed all the doors in the house, rolled around on the floor, rode on the toy tractor and threw the wooden balls from the toy rollercoaster all over the floor. Then we had dessert and they drew pictures. Their parents were great- their mom, Aki, showed me pictures of Aina in her cheerleading outfit, and of the cutest Girl:s Day bento lunch she made with food that looked like the Girl:s Day hina dolls. Their father threw them up in the air as they screamed. It was great, being a part of this little family! My mom:s cousin had made a sushi dinner, with chirashi sushi rice topped with baby squid, and uni on the side. There was vegetable tempura, and for dessert, inside out mochi and green tea ice cream. A beautiful family moment.

Another cool thing- I learned how to spell my name! My grandmother had it written on the back of a picture, and my cousin wrote it again for me. Then I looked it up online and found that the meaning really is something like the ocean at dawn. She said it was a difficult character even for her to write.

Today I went to Nara. Took the train. Love the train. It puts me right to sleep, with the comfy heated seats and rhythmic motion.

Saw a bunch of cool temples- Toddai-ji, the biggest wooden structure in the world, with a huge Buddha inside. Nara National Museum had a bunch of Buddhas and Boddhisatvas inside, demonstrated the path of Buddhism from India through China and finally to Japan, merging and finding a place next to Shintoism. Kaisuga Taisha was a big temple complex located at the base of a hill, in the middle of a forest. By the time I wandered over there it was getting dark, so the crowds of people had gone home, and it was just me and a bunch of greedy deer. They get used to getting deer cookies which are sold everywhere. So the deer come nosing up to you, scaring the children, looking for treats. But it was really nice to be there quite alone. The paths were lined with stone lanterns and Shinto gateways. This was the traditional peaceful, restful Japan that I wanted to see. I wandered around until it got too dark to see, plus it was cold and I was hungry.

Tomorrow I:m leaving this sanctuary and heading out for Kyoto. It:s all hostels from here on out, plus one night on an overnight bus. Gotta have at least one overnight bus experience in Japan to compare with India and China, right? It almost doesn:t seem fair!

Friday, March 13, 2009


Yeah, the trip has really changed me- introspectively, philosophically. I:m in the final stretch now, and I never could have predicted the point to which I:ve come! It took me a couple of months to leave my previous state of mind. Now I have been wrenched into another reality. Actually, another way to say it would be that I have gotten to know my self better. I look at the model of job, marriage, children, house, etc and feel like it is an ideal dream, something I more-than-half-but-not-quite-whole-heartedly aspired to but didn:t really know how to get started getting. Is it really for me? I still want security and a family, but in my style. And I can:t limit myself to waiting or hoping.
I think this marks another stage of growing up. I don:t think there:s a particular age at which people learn this- I just came to this stage later. And with much introspection. I:ve always been a late bloomer! I mean, what:s so innovative about realizing that you are unique, and that no one else is going to live life the way you do? And then taking that idea and running with it, not worrying about the way other people have lived their lives, or being sideswiped by your own expectations of how you think you should live yours. Basically, there are more things I want out of life, and I know they aren:t going to happen unless I make it happen.
Do I prefer loneliness and a path less traveled than a stable, settled family life? I:m not too into the loneliness part, but I don:t want to `settle`. I don:t think I am going to settle down in any conventional way, and now I have to figure out how I will do it.
For now I:m planning to come back to LA (I may still decide to prolong the return- not sure yet) and start working (of course). First bill comes due in May. (Unless I postpone it, which is possible).
Here:s to the world, and how small it is, and the possiblities that travel opens up, here:s to the future! Here:s to life!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Modern day roots

You know you:re somewhere special when your favorite place to be is the bathroom, and not for any of the wrong reasons. Did I mention the heated toilet seats?

I:m being treated like a queen here in Osaka, it:s no joke. For the second night in a row, my aunty knocked on the door to tell me the bath was ready- internal sensors that pipe in more hot water when it starts to cool down...

Overall, I:ve had really great experiences meeting people on the road. People have been kind and hospitable, have invited me into their homes with no reservations, shared food, stories and had many a laugh. All this despite language barriers, age and cultural differences.

And now, meeting my relatives for the first time has just been unbelievable. And to get along with them so well.

They are my mother:s cousins. They took me all around Osaka today- I was the one who ended up falling asleep in the bus on the way from the castle to Namba shopping district, and again on the train on the way home. They were so gracious, so patient.

We went to the aquarium and looked at the fishes. Whale sharks and manta rays. Sea otters, penguins and jellyfish. There was a huge ferris wheel. The manta ray was pretty cool. He had another fish stuck to him. Swimming in a constant vortex, around and around. Why do the sun fish look so - unfinished? Like a glob of playdoh smushed up. And they look at you like they want to say something, blinking their eyes. They are the heaviest known bony fish in the world. They have an average adult weight of 1,000 kg.

Namba shopping district was awesome- I:ll be going back there tomorrow to check out the clothes in, ahem, greater detail. The girls here are all wearing a similar fashion- a short loose dress over tights or thigh high socks, and knee high boots. I already have the dress part...

We had famous Okinawa food for dinner- Okinoyomi. Special to the Osaka region. They bring this delicious potato mash up and it fries up in front of you on the table like in teppanyaki but way more casual. Also some smoked oyster with noodles thing and an eggy pancake with arugula and octopus to dip in ponzu sauce. Wow! Dessert was azuki bean cake and corn tea. I can:t wait for tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Are there haunted houses in heaven or am I in Amsterdam? I mean Japan?!

Japan is unreal, surreal, and everything in between.

I have returned to the motherland, to the homeland, to a land of mythical proportions. Maybe it`s always this way when you finally go to a country you are supposedly `from` and yet have never been to.
I have had expectations formed in my head about Japan as long as I can remember... What I really never considered was actually being here...
So it was totally unreal to land and actually be here... Can I repeat that yet again?! I can`t believe I`m really here!!!
In fact, it`s taken a few days to really get into it- it took me longer than I thought it would. I was in complete disbelief for the first few days, floating around in a weird kind of limbo. Beijing was just cold and weird for the last week, all alone after three weeks of constant company. In contrast, Japan was easy- convenient and very non-scary... But still new and different. And I had to make a bunch of decisions about my schedule for the next week- I wanted to have a plan to get to see and do everything I wanted before D-Day...

(And by the way, I ended up extending the trip. I will be back on the 24th instead of the 18th. Just a few more days but... I wouldn`t put it past myself to extend it even more. The temptation is too great- I know that once I get back to LA it will be hard to leave. I just want to stay gone... In my dreamy, surreal, traveler fantasyland...)

Anyways, I need to stop saying xie xie, and get used to saying arigato gozaimashita!
Sayonara, not zai jian!
No more bu yao! Nobody`s tried to sell me anything yet!
The toilet seats are heated!
Many people speak English, and they seem more concerned than annoyed when you ask them frantic questions about whether or not this is the right train stop.

So, let me back up and tell you the story of when I first arrived. (No, it`s not that interesting, but let me just tell you anyway!)

I checked into the Khaosan Asakusa Annex hostel, where I slept in the 8 bed female dorm room. It was clean, warm and cozy (with those amazing heated toilet seats!)
Got online and discovered that Gary and Jane were staying in a hotel near by, and we made plans that night to meet up for dinner. It was really nice to see them again and reminisce about the good old days- over a lovely Indian meal with some really nice red wine! They walked me back to the hostel and I bid them adieu for the billionth time...

The next day I met up with a friend of a friend, who had another friend in town from the US as well, so we all walked around Asakusa- visited a shrine, saw a ninja comedy show, and ate deep fried mochi.

Then we went to Tokyo Bay, where we encountered the BEST haunted house experience I`ve ever had- Talk about surreal! This experience now rates as one of my most favorite moments of all time. Not much really scares me, but this time, I ran out screaming!

So, it`s in the mall, this haunted house, and Dee Jae, the guy who lives in Tokyo, was like, you guys should go into this haunted house. And we were like, naw, whatever, we`ve been in haunted houses before. We`d rather save our $$ for sushi. But he was like, well, have you seen any Japanese horror movies? And I thought to myself- good point. Japanese people have really scary ghosts.

Basically, you are sent into the haunted house with a red flashlight and a mission. It`s very small, really. You have to find a table inside, put the card on it, clap three times and bow. That will stop the ghost from persecuting you. It seemed simple enough, but what a concept! We went in together, me and Jasmine, holding our red flashlight. The door swings shut behind us and all you can see is a shabby looking interior of a shack, with the occasional disembodied head or busted Japanese lantern. It was really hard to see anything, and nothing was really happening. I didn`t want to swing the light around too much in fear of seeing something I didn`t want to see, so we`re basically just walking quickly through it. Then the noises started and boxes started shaking. Then it would get quiet again... Then we would walk quickly by whatever it was, and then jump out of our skin as people popped out from behind something else. It got a little mazelike and we had to push past dead bodies hanging from nooses... Once we tried to go back, and a head popped out and said `No!` Man, we clapped so hard when we saw the table with the cards on it, and the ghosts were running up behind us, saying `Arigato! Arigato!` and we ran the heck outta there! It was awesome! Man, the psychology behind it was genius- what an adrenaline rush- tons better than a roller coaster! I don`t think writing about it here really did it any justice- it`s something you just have to experience- thank you Dee Jae!

Later that night we went to an all you can eat/ all you can drink for 90 minutes spot, and I got home quite happy. The next day I spent time at the train station planning the rest of the trip... Which brings me to the next surreal but also most awesome and wonderful Japanese experience.

Two of my friends, Jackamo and Osei, from capoeira, had been called on to work in Japan for a few weeks. I was excited that I would be there at the same time, so I resolved to meet up with them. First of all, Jack tells me they`re at Huis Ten Bosch at an amusement park in the very southern part of Japan... looking it up online was not helpful, because all I find is information in Japanese or Dutch... Dutch?! Yes, Huis Ten Bosch turned out to be a spot-on replica of Amsterdam in Japan- What!!!??? Yeah, they`ve got tulips and windmills, cobblestones, and CHEESE!!!

And of course, the Dream Circus. Jack and Osei were performing with the Kenyan Fire Limbo troupe- yes, ladies and gentlemen, Fire Limbo! Our versatile CBLA capoeiristas are capable of anything, and I have the videos to prove it! (Coming soon, I promise). Again, it was awesome! There was Mitch the clown, there was Tyler, a ten year old juggling virtuoso, there was a woman who came out with like twenty trained cats, trained CATS!!! There was a family who did the tightrope act, and people balancing on poles meters high in the air which in turn were balanced by a man holding the pole on his chin... There was so much. I got to meet the performers and hang with them offstage- lovely people. I even got a bear hug from Funtik the Russian bear- Boris had me posing for all kinds of pictures- me and Funtik! Wow!

Thank you SO MUCH to Winny and Kiyomi and the entire circus crew for being so warm and welcoming. I felt like I made a bunch of new friends, even though I was only there for a few days. It was doubly (triply-quadrupely!) great to see some old friends, good people whom I`ve known for such a long time- it really picked up my spirits and reminded me of how much I do love my life back in the states, and how special my friends are to me... And to all my friends I`ve met along the way, you are all in my life because you are special, and because we found a common bond- life is great in that way. We are all a conglomeration of the love we spread around- and what goes around comes around. I can`t wait to host my new friends when you come to visit! I love you all! sniff sniff- I get so sentimental sometimes!

Anyways, back to the story... breakfast! It had been so long since I had cereal- man, was it good! A huge breakfast buffet in the mornings- Western and Eastern, eggs, sausage, fruit and yogurt, and on the other side was fish, miso soup, rice porridge and pickles! I ate it all, it was so good.

So after seeing the show yesterday, we chilled out for bit, practicing floreios on the mats, teaching the circus kids how to do au sem mao- then we headed for town, in search of the shoe stores and carousel sushi- both of which we found. It was me, Jackamo, Osei and David (unicycler extraordinaire)- we took the train one stop into the town of Haiki. A really nice man helped us with directions, and it turned out he was a janitor at Huis Ten Bosch- super nice guy, with really good English skills. The walk towards the shoe place was peaceful and scenic. It was dusk, and the moon was almost full, starting to shine bright in the twilight. We tried to take pictures to capture the moment. Jackamo noted that taking pictures of the moon can never do it justice. We encountered a shrine along the way- watched a taxi driver stop the car with his passenger inside get out to pay homage- he did the same clapping three times and bowing thing that I was supposed to do inside the haunted house- interesting... Walking over a bridge, we saw a crane walking elegantly across the shallows- such a beautiful Japanese image.

Then... we went shopping!!! Thank god the boys I was with were also into trying on clothes, because I was like a loose cannon in there- `Mac House`- Japanese styles at fairly reasonable prices, at sizes that fit, and I finally bought some new trousers! I mean jeans! I can`t tell you how good it felt to put on some different clothes the next day, after 2 months of the same. I was jumping for joy.

I jumped around even more when we found the carousel sushi place- the only down side was they didn`t have sake, but with $1 plates, who could argue?! They had Sapporo on draft and all was good with the world. In fact, I believe they went back again tonight, while I have moved on to Osaka. I boarded the train this morning, loaded down with a couple more kilos granted by me NEW CLOTHES! Headed off to meet my Grandma`s niece, relatives I have never met. Happy and apprehensive.

Before leaving today I had a chance to catch the MC Escher 3D movie- hyper-surreal, as I see Japan is master of...

And on to Osaka. My mom`s cousin met me in the train station- I don`t know how she recognized me but I was so happy to see her! She was so nice... This story just keeps getting better and better. I didn`t know what to expect, meeting a relative I had never met before, in a country I had never been, which I was supposed to be from but don`t even speak the language. Well, we got along just fine. Her English is fine, perfect for basic communication. We took the train back to the Ashiya station, and she showed me how to get home on my own (where to catch the taxi) and we hopped in her car and zoomed off. We were greeted by George the jumping barking dog, and the meowing cat. (I think that cat might have been hungry enough to walk a tightrope for a meal!) She prepared a wonderful delicious meal of meat loaf, rice, beef stew, and brocolli and crab salad, follwed by azuki bean cake for dessert. And green tea. I was so happy and full. She showed me pictures of my sister and cousins when they came to visit years ago, and even brought out the ones of herself at 22 when she went to the states- my mom was there, my dad and my uncle! All so young- they looked like they could have been friends of mine, in authentic 50s outfits. So then, (this story is about to get better yet...) she shows me the bathroom, where there is a hot bath prepared... Oh my god- I will have to install a Japanese bathroom in my castle one day (when I get a castle ;-) Wow... Next to the bathtub is the shower area, which is bathed in warm air blasting from the ceiling. But the bathtub, the bathtub! It`s like 4 feet deep, and filled with sudsy water kept at a constant 45 degrees- temperature monitored and controlled! What luxury, what heaven!

And to top it all off, there is a laptop in my room and I can sit here typing happily away for hours and hours, free from net bars, free from fees, free from chain smoking Chinese gamers- man I told you, Japan is UNREAL! I finally feel comfortable again, my astral is rising (that`s a Portuguese term) and my faith and wonder in the world is once again, renewed.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

China, zai jian!

Last day in China.
What a TRIP!
Didn't think it would end up like this- China was just like every Chinatown I've ever been to, and yet NOTHING like what I expected.
I've seen more scenic mountains than I can remember. I've been pushed and shoved but got back up again. I drank memorable mushroom tea, and ate the ma-laa spice. I learned to say "I love you" and "I don't want it!" and used both terms liberally! China has succeeded in challenging my every conception of what I thought was normal. I wonder how it has changed me. I'll let you know. ;-)

In the meantime, please enjoy this sample menu:

The Shiitake Mushroom Flower Rubber Cooks the Lean Meat
Sheet Iron Eggplant Ammunition Pouch
Fish with Acid Cabbage
Green Beans Fry the Salt Fish Pig Neck Meat
Speculation Black Goat
The Clear Fighting Cock Willow Tree Explodes the Pine Mushroom
Lightly Fries Does Fragrant
Granulated Substance Nest Hyacinth Bean Silk
Hot Donkey in Pot
Intestines in Pot

Monday, March 2, 2009

Back in action

So this morning I woke up all quiet and lazy.
No place to go, no one to meet.
It was nice, in the yellow room with the rainbow drapes.

I did laundry, then spent all morning in the foreign language bookstore, copying stuff out of the Japan Lonely Planet. (Foreign language- because in China, English IS a foreign language! Haha.) Noticed that on the map in the back someone had gone in and written a lowercase "t" over the uppercase "T" in Taiwan. National pride goes deep, I tell ya.

The first thing I did when I left the house (ok, hotel) was to go to that little Kodak photo shop and DOWNLOAD MY PHOTOS TO DVD!!!! It took two DVDs and 60 yuan to transfer everything- I've just about filled up the 8 gig memory card. Whew- so glad I was given this second chance NOT to be stupid.

I continued down the street on the way to the bookstore.

Was hungry, so I poked my head into this little shop that looked like it had some bowls of yogurt and muffins in the display case. Couldn't properly identify any of the bowls of stuff- it LOOKED like yogurt, and it LOOKED like it might be tasty, but most- no, I'll say pretty much EVERY taste expectation here in China has been cruelly undermined by something like salty pickle when you were expecting sweet bean, or nice big chuncks of deep fried sweet and sour pork FAT intstead of pork MEAT... (On a side note, the funniest one was the bread sandwich- yeah, it looked like there might have been meat inside, but it was just more bread! Hilarious.) There was one time in the Shanghai subway when I actually bought something that ended up being exactly what I had secretly hoped it might be.

Well anyways, I was standing there contemplating this yogurt-looking stuff, and I noticed a beautiful sound- it was coming from behind the counter- it wasn't a stereo, it was the shopkeeper, and she was singing... Like the voice of an angel, it brought tears to my eyes. It was unreal. The word "singing" is too brash a word for the sweet texture of sound that poured from her.

And she was so gracious- I was just standing there, dumbfoundedly staring at her. She smiled at me, and I told her she sounded beautiful (Language barrier be damned! But she understood me). She held herself with pride and compassion, and helped me choose something to eat. It is actually pretty rare that people have been helpful in choosing food at a restaurant, so I really felt like I was in a dream. I sat down and ate, and she kept singing, occasionally interupted by the telephone or an oblivious customer. The yogurt was strange, it had a taste kind of like old socks, but the muffin was good. I sat there mesmerized.

I was reading up on Beijing today, and it mentioned how internet access is increasingly more and more rare. There are people employed by the government to scour websites for anti-government propaganda. About 10% of all websites available online are restricted access from inside China. In addition, these net bars SUCK!!! They are not for normal people to come and check their email or update their blogs. I am sitting next to crazed young Chinese chain smokers playing online computer games for hours. It is unbelievably disgusting- the heaters are on high, it's too warm and the air is hazy from cigarette smoke. The guy next to me lights up his cigaratte and I may just as well be smoking too. Ugh. I may not be back here too much more before I leave- hopefully Japan is better. Please everybody! Boycott cigarettes! Don't allow your body to be controlled by nasty selfish perpetuators of self-pity, disease and scum. Ugh! Disgusting! I can't wait until the rest of the world catches up to the idea of forbidding indoor smoking like the US, India and England- not sure where else it is banned. I suppose China still has a ways to go. The big thing on the news these days is discussions regarding setting up a Chinese food safety comission. First things first.
Peace. I'm out before I suffocate.