I’m Here

Here I am—yoo-hoo—over here!  Way over here, in Japan.

The 11.5 hour flight was uneventful. I watched five movies, ate three meals, and slept for five minutes.  Every once in a while I glanced back between the seats at my five-year-old nephew, and he was only sleeping once.  The rest of the time, he was hunched up like little kids do when they’re jazzed, his black eyes twinkling with excitement. He and his brother are now attending kindergarten and fourth grade, respectively, in local Japanese schools for two weeks.

I had brought my full-size smushy pillow, and it made all the difference in comfort to be able to lean against the window with some padding.

I had a bit of a rocky start in Tokyo.  My cell phone wouldn’t charge, then died.   I walked in circles for almost an hour trying to find my hotel.  The “tower view” I’d paid extra for was a view of a brick wall, and no one at the front desk spoke enough English for it to be worth my while trying to explain it.  When I logged into my credit card account there were a slew of charges from a company I’d never heard of.

Thank god I’d brought my laptop!  How else would I have been able to find an Apple Store in Tokyo?  The folks at the front desk knew only enough English to point at a map handout (all in Japanese except the name of the hotel), to show me how to get to a local train station.

All is well now.  My experience at the Apple Store was delightful.  My Restless Legs disappeared completely for three nights!  I can only guess that my brain thought nighttime here was daytime due to the 14-hour time difference, and I never get RLS during the day.  It’s back now, bad as ever.

I spent two full days in Tokyo, then moved on to Nikko, a small city in the north.  The advertised reason to come here is to visit the shrines dedicated to the first shogun, Tokugawa, and others.  They are amazing, but the delight for me here has been nature and food.

This was my first meal here; a bento box featuring yuba, a local specialty that is soy rolled out paper thin then rolled up into pinwheels.

Here is a photo from a walk I took yesterday along the Tamozawa River.

You could look at this and say, “Hey, this looks just like the Knife River on the North Shore near Duluth!  Why go thousands of miles away when you can drive two hours and see similar scenery?”

And you would be right, to a point.  I love the North Shore and fully intend to go there this summer, too.  But it doesn’t have red painted sacred wood bridges that are hundreds of years old, or stone bodhisattvas wearing red knitted caps and bibs.

It was on this walk—on my fourth day after arriving—that I felt myself come down off the ledge of worry about my phone, my credit card, finding stations and getting on the right trains….  This is often the way when I travel.

After my two-hour walk I hit the main shrine, which involved another half hour hike up a very steep incline followed by 200 steps where I passed people literally bent over double and clutching their chests.

At the top, in the Temple of the Crying Dragon, I was basically accused of shoplifting a lucky talisman.  Thankfully I was too tired to come out swinging, which would be my usual response.  But I left in a huff wishing bad karma on a Buddhist.  More on that later.

I consoled myself with a bowl of yuba ramen.

I returned to my inn and soaked in the onsen, or hot spring bath, which is 10 steps from my room.  Yes, you do it naked.

As I sat on the edge of the pool and gazed out the window I saw there was a stone Buddha in the bushes.  I could just make out his big fat belly … wait—I was looking at my own reflection!

Dang, guess I better watch it with the giant ramen bowls.

The Perils of Presents

I received several more emails from my sister-in-law about footwear, and an in-person demonstration at their house.

One additional thing related to footwear – no slippers on tatami mats.  Even if you put on indoor slippers when you go inside, when you go to a room where tatami mats are, you take off the slippers before you get into that room.

Continuing the topic of shoes – you usually take off shoes at ryokan, minshuku (either at entrance or when you get into the room).  You will be barefoot (or in socks) in tatami rooms – you’ll wear slippers provided (or your own footwear if allowed inside) when walking around outside your room in the building, going to shared bath, dining halls, etc.

Oh, there’s also the topic of bathroom slippers….don’t go into bathrooms in your regular indoor slippers …use the slippers provided in the bathroom…I know there’s way too much on footwear and slippers….

I’m doomed to make a faux pas with my filthy feet, and I accept that.

As I write this I am waiting to check in for my flight, unload the dishwasher, and leave a note and small gift for my subletters before driving away for a month.

Which brings up the whole Japanese gift-giving thing.  I always bring gifts for people when I travel.  Often they are items native to Minnesota, like wild rice; or made in Minnesota, like Aveda, Target, 3M, or General Mills products, or even Spam, as a joke.

I will call my sister-in-law Keiko, her mother Hiromi, and her dad Fred (he does go by a western name) to protect their privacy.

I asked Keiko what gift I could bring for her parents, and she suggested some good chocolate that’s made in the USA.  I’ve got that, but then I got to thinking….

When Fred and Hiromi first came to the US to meet my family when Keiko and my brother became engaged, there was a memorable gift exchange at the home of my mother and her husband.

We sat in a circle around the living room, the three of them and 10 of us.  Within minutes—without anything overt being said—it became clear that this was about Fred and my mom’s husband, Jim.  The two of them talked to each other across the room.  If anyone else spoke, they were ignored.  It was fascinating.  It was all about the alpha males.

Jim said, “We have some gifts for you,” and waved in the direction of my mother.  I know they were aware that gift giving is a big deal in Japan and that they had put some thought into what they should give.

My mom jumped up and delivered gift bags to Fred and Hiromi, from which they withdrew Minnesota Twins baseball caps.  They smiled and laughed and seemed very pleased.  Japanese are obsessed with baseball, so whew—gift-giving success, right?

Then Fred went out to the rental car and brought in a box about three feet long and one foot deep.  He placed it on the floor in the center of the room and lifted the lid.  This was no flimsy cardboard box. It was cardboard, but of a sturdy and obviously high-quality nature.

Fred withdrew a pair of white cotton gloves and donned them, then lifted layer upon layer of tissue to reveal a porcelain figure of a geisha wearing a silk kimono.  As he lifted her he explained, “This is a limited edition; one was given to Bill Clinton by the emperor during a state visit.”

Gulp.  There were oohs and ahs but also sideways glances among my family members as Fred accessorized the geisha with a parasol and shoes.

So, chocolate?  Sure, but today I’ll run over to a store that sells all things Made in Minnesota to see what else I can bring.

And tomorrow I leave.  Do you ever feel, just before heading out for a big trip, that you don’t really want to go?  I do.  There’s something to be said for the comfort, familiarity, and ease of one’s own home. Japan is intimidating and I’m not even there yet.

But I’ll go, of course.  See you on the other side!

Footwear and Funny Walks

One week until D Day, otherwise known less dramatically as the day I depart for Japan.  The sub-letters are all set to move in.  I’m finalizing a written itinerary I will print and bring along, because I’ve gotten caught out abroad when my phone wouldn’t connect to wireless.  I’ve done my test pack.

This was my Japanese sister-in-law’s response when I asked her what the deal was with footwear.

Footwear!  This is a big topic….

What to wear – I would say as a foreigner you can get away with pretty much whatever you want to wear.  When I wore slip on black leather sandals (with heels, but without a strap on the heel side) one summer, my mom thought they looked too casual and should only be worn to hang laundry or water flower pots on the deck.  When I lived there 20+ years ago women tended not to expose bare legs and feet – wear pantyhose or socks – but that may have changed especially because of the ridiculous summer heat in the recent years.  

Where you would need to take your footwear off would be: people’s houses, traditional Japanese restaurants where you’ll be sitting on tatami mats (mostly in private rooms), fitting rooms where you try on clothing, clinics, and inside temples/shrines. 

In most of these places (not fitting rooms or temples/shrines), you’ll be offered or will be asked to wear slippers.  And you would not want to wear these shared slippers (vinyl) on your bare feet.  Also, in homes, you don’t want to make nice cloth slippers dirty by putting your dirty feet in them directly.  So if they don’t wear socks or feet covering of some sort, people tend to bring a pair in their purse etc. to protect their feet (at public places) or cloth slippers (at people’s homes). 

There’s this whole thing about “not touching your feet to the ground after you take your shoes off before getting inside or putting your slippers on” that may be good for you to know. One additional thing – no slippers on tatami mats.  Even if you put on indoor slippers when you go inside, when you go to a room where tatami mats are, you take off the slippers before you get into that room.

Now I am even more confused.  Good thing I’m a crass westerner and no one will expect me to behave correctly!  I’ll have shoes, slippers, and socks with me in a backpack at all times to be on the safe side.

The only thing more boring than hearing about someone’s health problems is hearing about their battles with cable providers and insurance companies, right?  So lucky you—this isn’t about Comcast or UnitedHealth!

The bane of my existence, Restless Legs Syndrome, is my main worry about Japan.

Maybe because it isn’t life threatening and has a silly-sounding name, people—including doctors—kind of laugh it off and don’t take it seriously.

Imagine you are the most tired you’ve ever been.  You drop into bed and immediately fall asleep.  Then, someone standing at the end of your bed grabs your feet and starts rubbing their hands up and down and around your calves until you wake up and have to kick them away.  That’s RLS, basically. Weird, creeping sensations deep in the legs that wake you up out of a sound sleep and force you to move.

The medications available to treat it work great until they don’t.  Then, they turn on you and make the symptoms worse.  I recently weaned off my medication, which was five weeks of Hell.  I slept for no more than 5-10 minutes at a stretch, then had to get up and walk around the house, do deep knee bends, kick, walk on my tip toes, and huddle on the floor face down in the fetal position to get the sensations to stop.  Sometimes I was up for an hour before it calmed down.

It’s better now.  I’ve been sleeping for up to an hour at a time.  But I worry about poor Lynn, sharing a hotel room with me.  I’ve already warned her to not be alarmed when she sees a shadowy Minister of Silly Walks at 3am.

Exchanges

Thanks to Craig’s List, I found someone to sublet my duplex while I’m in Japan.  This will cover my bills back home, which will help me to not dig myself too deep into a financial pit.

The sub-letter is a Chinese guy who is earning a PhD in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Zhang came by in February to look at the place and give me the deposit check.  Yesterday he came again to get an orientation to the house.

He brought a friend with him, Winnie, probably not her real name. Also Chinese, she graduated from the program in Counseling Psychology last year and is working two jobs, one in a group home for severely mentally ill adults and one in some other kind of home for handicapped children, I think.

So the US will still grant work visas for people who are willing to do that kind of physically and emotionally demanding work.  She probably makes minimum wage and gets no benefits.

It’s surprising, once you start thinking it through, how many things about a 900-square-foot duplex need explaining.  I’ve been foiled many a time by Italian washing machines overseas, so I didn’t take anything for granted.

Zhang is renting the place for his parents, who are coming to visit for a month.

I didn’t want to talk down to him but I didn’t want to assume he knew things.  “Your parents aren’t farmers from the Autonomous Mongolian Region, right?” I joked.  I had a renter years ago whose family fit that description.  She had not known what a waste basket was for.  I suppose, on a farm, they just burned their trash out back like we used to do in St. Paul in the 70s.

Zhang laughed and said his parents lived in a big city, but not far from that region. They had just retired from their factory jobs and this would be their first vacation.

“You mean their first vacation since retiring?”

“No, their first vacation, ever.”

Zhang seemed a bit taken aback by the gas stove.  “It’s a flame,” he remarked when I demonstrated.  I assume his parents would know all about stoves.  Maybe he never cooked until he had to fend for himself as a college student, and then maybe he ate in student dining or had a Bunsen burner in his dorm.

My compost bin also seemed a puzzle.  “Why is this woman showing me a can full of garbage, and why does she keep it in her house?” I imagined him thinking.  Winnie said, helpfully, “So the animals can eat this when you discard it outside?”

I said yes.  Why not.  I wasn’t going to try to explain how I am trying to save the planet by creating organic compost that I never use.  And the animals do eat it.

Zhang’s parents have never been on a vacation, never been outside of China or on a plane.  I’m not going to worry about them composting their food scraps.

I asked Zhang if he was done with school for the year.  He has finished his coursework and is now starting his thesis.  “I hope to finish in six years,” he said.  I wondered what his goal was—to teach?  Research?

You hear about the Chinese ability to think in terms of 50 or 100 years, unlike us Americans who are focused on where to buy our next bag of Cheetos.  Would Zhang return to China to help inform his government’s plan to make America its servant? Does that sound parnoid?  Well, I am just as vulnerable to my culture’s propaganda as any Chinese person is to his.

I felt I had to explain why I was going to Japan and not China.  “My sister-in-law is Japanese, and she and my nephews are going, so that’s why I’m going.”  I didn’t mention my daydreams if eating sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“I don’t know how my sister-in-law feels about me going,” I added.

“Inscrutable.  That’s the word westerners use about Asians,” replied Zhang.  I was glad he said it, not me.  And I was impressed.  I don’t think I knew the word “inscrutable” until I was 50.

Happy Days

I have some good news.  Last week my son proposed to his girlfriend, and she said yes.  Not that there was any doubt.  It’s just the latest positive development in his life.

The reason I ever launched this blog was because, five years ago, he was in prison. In addition to the predictable emotions like despair, I felt relief that I now would know where his was, and deep shame.  Counterintuitively, it made sense for me to write about it for all the world to read.

He entered prison a drug addled, bloated, overweight, broke, middle-aged chronic alcoholic.  This was just the latest in a 20-year string of bouts with unemployment, homelessness, crime, and broken relationships.

It would have been easy for him to use drugs and alcohol inside, but Vince chose to be sober in prison.  He also started writing alternate posts for this blog.  They were heart breaking, hilarious, and articulate.

He made it through an intensive “boot camp” program, where he worked on self-discipline, attitudes, and thinking processes.  He also started running, something he hated but continues to this day.

He came home a little over four years ago and moved in with me.  That was rough.  He dated a woman but it didn’t work out.  He got a job in a laminating factory and moved in with a couple guys who were also trying—some successfully and some not—to stay sober.  He started his own blog.  He bought my beloved old Mini Cooper from me.  He dated another woman but it didn’t work out.

Two years ago, he was offered a cook job at a country club on Lake Minnetonka.  That’s where he laid eyes on Amanda for the first time, and it was love at first sight.  He moved in with Amanda and her two young daughters.  From the start, he has been all-in on parenting.  He can now put “expert in potty training” on his resume.

One year ago he bought a house in the tiny town of Silver Lake. He traded the Mini for a minivan.  He worked with me to publish the first year of this blog as a book.  He applied for better jobs, and in the end was offered a great promotion at the country club.

The girls’ father is under a two-year no-contact order.  Vince has supported Amanda as she has courageously fought to finalize her divorce, custody, and child support arrangements.  Last month Vince and Amanda were awarded full custody.  The three-year-old calls him daddy.

In court, Vince made a statement to the girls’ father—that if and when he gets his act together, Vince and Amanda will work with him to welcome him back into the girls’ lives.  The guy thanked him.  I was very proud of Vince.  A lot of men wouldn’t have done that.

Here they are, at the country club where Amanda works, after the big proposal.

In June he’ll mark his five-year sobriety anniversary.  They’ll be hitched in August.

All of this is to say that very few situations are ever hopeless.  Similar to my own story, it didn’t happen overnight and it took a combination of working hard as hell and letting go.  Vince has plugged away, working his program, trying new things, taking risks, sometimes failing, but mostly moving forward.

In three weeks I’ll be in Japan.  I still feel way behind on the planning.  I created a Google docs spreadsheet to try to keep track of it all and it looks a mess.  I’ve got six out of eight accommodations booked.  I’ve got my JR Rail Pass in hand.  I’m finally able to retain some place names from one day to the next.

Progress, not perfection.  One of the AA slogans that is good to keep in mind whether one is an addict or not.

Last night as I was reading about Japanese baths again (I worry about the baths and the shared bathrooms), I was struck by how many iconic cultural traditions Japan has given to the world: origami, sumo, haiku, sushi, manga, anime, samurai, geisha, bonsai, and Zen.  There are probably more.  Is there another country that has created or adapted so many traditions that are recognized worldwide?

Circles

In one month I’ll be in Japan.  My plans are progressing.  I have been assured that my  investment of over $550 in a Japan Rail Pass will more than pay for itself.  I’ve booked accommodations in five locations and have two more to go.  I’ve downloaded apps like a free wifi finder, a Tokyo subway route finder, an offline map of Tokyo that turns out to be only in Japanese, and Google Translate.  I will test this last one out with my sister in law before using it on the street, just to make sure it doesn’t translate, “Where is the sub-way?” as “Where is the worst route?” or some such.

My aunt’s funeral took place last week.

The young priest at the small-town parish had alienated himself from the townspeople and congregants by firing the choir directors because they were openly gay.

Why couldn’t they stay closeted, like him and his “assistant,” Lance?

One day a month ago, my aunt had said to me and my cousin, “I hope you don’t think it’s weird, but I still want to be buried out of the Catholic Church.”  We assured her it wasn’t weird.  She’d been raised in the Catholic milieu of Small St. Paul in the 1930s and 40s.  She attended Catholic schools through high school and worked at a Catholic college.  There was, and still is, plenty of good work being carried out by nuns and Catholic lay people.

But she didn’t want the young priest saying her funeral mass, so my cousins imported a more liberal-minded visiting priest from St. Paul.  Other than calling her by the wrong name, he did a fine job.

You would think that a funeral would be the saddest part of a death, but this was a Catholic funeral, so it was all about Jesus and not my aunt.  Lance played the organ and belted out the hymns like he was in a broadway musical, so at least the music was good.

It’s the little reminders that catch you off guard.  Like seeing her knitting lying abandoned—the baby hat she’ll never finish. She knit baby hats for the local hospital.  I teared up when I came across her glasses, which she wore to read or work on crosswords, two of my own favorite pastimes.

While my aunt was dying—in pain or during moments of indignity she would have hated if she’d been conscious—someone asked, “What’s the point of all this!?” and I thought, “There is no point.  It’s biology, physiology, pathology at work.  It’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.”

And in my mind I start going around in circles like I always do, asking, “What’s the point of life?”

Some people seem to believe that the point is to be productive.  “I’m so busy!” is their refrain, as though that’s something to be proud of.  Others believe the point is to change the world for the better.  But I’ve seen so many well-intentioned do-gooders make things worse.  Is the point to live in the moment and be appreciate whatever is good and beautiful?  That seems a vapid, not productive….  Like I said, circles.

There are infinite details to figure out for the trip.  I need to get my duplex ready for the Chinese couple who are renting it while I’m away. And figure out how will I meet up with my sister in law’s parents to retrieve my nephew when the time comes.  And how do I buy tickets for a baseball game?  My nephew would love that. Must remember to register with the State Department.  Would it be worth going to Yokohama, where my dad was a sailor with the US Navy before I was born?  Should I get travel insurance?  What kind of gift should I bring for the in laws?  Japanese gift giving is fraught with peril.

And what is the deal with the baths?  Are they for health?  To get clean?  To socialize?  To relax?  There are so many types, and so many rules.  This CNN video clip about Japanese baths features Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who quips, “Having to say a prayer before you do something?  Makes me a little nervous.”

What Iffing

Why am I finding it so overwhelming to plan for Japan?  Is it the language barrier?  I’ve traveled in places like Jordan and Palestine where I spoke none of the language except for marhaba (hi), la (no), and yanni (a sentence filler like ya know).

Is it because I will stand out and look different?  No.  I remember standing in a square in El Salvador, all 5’ 3” of me. I was six inches taller and ten shades whiter than everyone else.  I had a great time.

Am I worried about the expense of a month in Japan?  It’s not a cheap destination.  I quit my job in December.  I’m working on contract for my former employer but after June there’s a cliff.  So yes, cost is on my mind but it’s not what’s making my gut churn.

Is it the sheer number of accommodations, train rides, entry tickets, and restaurants that must be found and booked?  Partly, but my Japanese sister in law and Lynn, my British friend who will join me for two weeks, are both working on this plan too.

The closest I can recall to feeling this panicky is planning three weeks in Italy, Malta, and Spain. The what ifs took over.  What if I can’t figure out how to get from the train station to the hotel in the dark and have to sleeping in a park?  What if I can’t figure out how to use the subway and end up on the wrong end of town, and the subway closes and I have to sleep on the floor of the station?  What if I miss the last bus back to Sorrento and have to sleep on a bus bench?

My worst-case scenario always involves sleeping outside, exposed to muggers, rapists, and crooked cops who try to shake me down for bribes. It is always dark, cold, and raining.  There is always an unshaven man in a ratty coat who tries to steal my suitcase.

I think it goes back to my young adulthood of living on the verge of eviction, bounced check fees, and going to food shelves.  But in all my travels, nothing like this has ever happened.  If it did, I would deal with it.  I’m no longer a passive, vulnerable young single mom. So thanks, blog, for helping me analyze my irrational fears!

I am going no matter what, and if I have to sleep in a train station Japan is the place to do it because it is so clean and safe.

Maps, guidebooks, and websites are not particularly helpful in planning a Japan itinerary, unless you enjoy falling down a rabbit hole.

While my map of Australia was overwhelming due to the vast distances, the Japan map is so densely packed it requires a magnifying glass.

I had found Frommer’s Easy Guide to Australia helpful; it boiled everything down to 300 pages.  I bought their Easy Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Western Honshu.  Notice it’s not the whole country, just two cities and their region.

This was my attempt to focus in using post-it flags.

This got my attention:

“One difficulty in finding your way around Tokyo is that hardly any streets are named.  Think about what that means: 9 million people living in a metropolis of nameless streets.  To make matters worse, most streets in Tokyo zig-zag—an arrangement apparently left over from olden days, to confuse potential attacking enemies.  Now they confuse Tokyoites and visitors alike.”

And this:

“Tokyo has a unique address system.  A typical address might read 7-10-1 Ginza, Chuo-Ku.  Chuo-ku is the name of the ward.  Wards are further divided into districts, in this case Ginza. Districts are broken down in to chome (numbered subsections), the first number in the series.  The second number refers to a smaller area within the chome—usually an entire block.  Thus, houses on one side of a block will have a different middle number than those on the other side.  The last number refers to the building.”

Lynn wrote, “We’ll have to accept we’ll get lost more than usual.”

I will remind her she said that when we’ve passed the same intersection for the fifth time.