Category Archives: Adventure

Shoguns and Squats

I’ve already written a bit about Nikko, how I arrived there on my fourth day in Japan and it was there that the anxiety that had trailed me from the US ebbed away.  As I wrote in my last post I am feeling a lot of anxiety of late, but I know it comes … and goes.  I’ve never had a full-blown panic attack and ended up in the ER like some people I know.  I get out and do things despite feeling anxious about them.  Ninety-nine percent of the time everything turns out okay.

And sometimes, like in Nikko, physical exertion, attraction distraction, and serenity of a place help the anxiety disappear.

Nikko’s claim to fame is that it hosts tombs of the early shoguns.  The shoguns were hereditary military commanders who ruled Japan for nearly 700 years, until Emperor Meiji was given real powers during the Meiji Restoration in 1868.  “Shogun” is Japanese shorthand for “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force against the Barbarians.”

Now here I came, a barbarian wandering among their tombs.

The structures are unique because they are Japanese interpretations of Chinese shrines.  This means that, unlike the simple, spare style seen elsewhere in Japan, the shrines in Nikko are over-the-top ornate.

Guidebooks and online advisories will say you can “do” Nikko in a day. Maybe that’s technically true—if you arrived by tour bus and had a guide barking, “hurry, hurry, on to the next shrine!”

But why would you want to hurry?  Nikko is so much more than the shrines, as I discovered.  I spent three nights there and could have easily spent a fourth.  Or the rest of my life.  Nikko is in the mountains and the soothing sound of water coursing along little streams and springs is ever present.

I found the pedestrian entrance to the shrine complex, which encompasses half a dozen shrines, each of which encompasses a dozen structures. Every shrine charges an admission fee of $2 to $12.

I climbed and climbed the irregular stone steps, in the rain, to the main square, then wandered around trying to decide which shrine to visit first.  I could just catch glimpses of golden rooftops.

I decided on the mausoleum of Iemitsu, grandson of the first shogun, Ieyasu. The shoguns often have a birth name, a warrior name, and military titles that makes keeping them straight challenging.  So I didn’t try.

I figured I should use the toilet before entering, where I encountered my first Japanese-style toilet.  No, not the ones with lots of electronic features, but a squat.

Pivot: Iemitsu designed his own mausoleum to be “subtle” so as not to outshine his grandpa’s.  This is just the hand washing station at the entrance.

Ladle up some water, wash your left hand, then your right, then have a drink out of your cupped palm.

I remember this as “the quiet shrine.”  It is set in ancient woods and the only sound was birds calling back and forth.  I was one of only three people there that day.

Near the handwashing station there was a jumble of mountain scenery, with two stone statues that I only noticed because I stopped to contemplate the forest.

More steps, and through an ornate gate with fabulous protectors on either side, borrowed from Hinduism.

This structure was basically a storage unit for giant bells and drums used during special events.

There were a thousand stone lanterns, all “donated” by feudal lords to the shogun. I liked the moss and fern hat on this one.

I stopped at each landing to look out over the tree tops and listen to the birds.  At last I arrived at the top and the inner shrine, where photos were not allowed.  There wasn’t really anything to do there, so I slowly walked back down.

I guess most of the lanterns can be lighted, and I would see this later in my trip.

From somewhere, I heard the music from the Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairies wafting through the forest.  What it signified, I had no idea, but I chose to take it as my dinner bell.

There—just writing this remembrance has brought me a sense of calm.

My Name is Anne, and I’m Anxious

I need to write an honest post about anxiety.

I could tell myself it’s not logical to be anxious.  I should be grateful, even.

I don’t have to commute or work full time. I haven’t touched my savings since quitting my full-time job in December.  I’m healthy enough that I feel safe forgoing health insurance—which would cost me over $800 a month for a lousy plan—and instead use a healthcare sharing program, which costs $220 a month.  I enjoy my contract work with my former employer, working on million dollar proposals to the UN and US government.  I enjoy my very-part-time job at the YMCA minding little kids.  It’s summer, and I’ve got free time to go berry foraging or biking the wild paths along the Mississippi.  I live in a charming and affordable duplex.

Vince, who less than three years ago emerged from prison with nothing, owns a home, is a dad, and is getting married in 10 days.

Yeah, I know I have it good.

Then why do I get ice-cold stabbing pangs of fear in my solar plexus?  It’s not every day, or all day, but it can last for hours and it’s extremely unpleasant.

I think it is thanks to my nemeses, the what ifs.

My financial future is uncertain.  What if my contract isn’t renewed next year?  Should I get another full-time job?  What if no one wants to hire a 59 year old?  I recently read that the average job hunt for someone my age is 12 months. Maybe I should have started looking months ago!

Could I try to live off my savings?  It’s not my regular monthly expenses that are a problem; they’re very modest.  There are always things like new tires ($$), a new phone ($$), and a crown on my molar ($$$$). What if my engine gasket blows, or I need two crowns next month?

I have a plane ticket to Panama for December but haven’t booked accommodations.  What if Panama turns out to be super expensive?

Those are the semi-rational what ifs.

If I allow it free reign, my mind conjures up additional scary possibilities that are unlikely to ever happen.

I saw a sign warning of coyotes at the river today.  What if I was attacked by one on my walk and couldn’t work?  I would lose everything and end up one of those homeless people on the freeway exit holding a sign that says, “Sick.  Can’t work.  Anything helps.  God Bless.”

I swore at another driver on my way home from the river as we both fought our way through a traffic jam. What if I lost it, rammed someone with my car, and ended up in prison?  How humiliating would that be?

Images of these things happening actually flash through my mind.  Usually I am barely aware of them, and I can laugh them off.  But they probably contribute to the anxiety

And those are just the neurotic thoughts about me and mine.  I despair that my country can put a man on the moon, find a cure for Hepatitis C, and produce all sorts of genius inventors and entertainers and artists but we cannot come up with a single solution to gun violence.  One of my neighbors was killed in a mass shooting in 2012.  Will I, or someone I care about, be next?

Then there’s climate change.  Contrary to what millennials seem to believe, not all of us baby boomers have been callously disregarding the environment all our lives.  My first environmental protest was in 1974.  We were calling on the government to clean up the Mississippi River.  And it got done.  But as I sit in my car writing this—at the river, on the latest of a series of unusually hot days—I fear we are all doomed.

When I travel I do feel nervous about finding train stations and such. But mostly I am in the moment every moment and my anxiety is fleeting and mild.

I’m went to the Mississippi today to hike uneven terrain, to throw myself off kilter so I would have to focus on each step or I’d pitch headlong into the dark, swift current.

There I go again!

Cabbin’ It

I felt a bit guilty casting aspersions at Chinese tourists in my last post.  I’ve discussed the phenomenon with half a dozen world traveler friends, and they all hold the same opinion, that Chinese tourists are rude, and—the worst sin of all—they are forever ruining other people’s views in their quest to get the perfect selfie, often with the hateful selfie sticks.

I had this experience in Rome, at the Colosseum.  I was standing at a viewpoint, marveling at the history of the place, when a young Chinese woman stepped in front of me and began preening and pouting for selfies.  She seemed completely unaware that she had ruined my moment and was blocking my view.

Maybe that’s what made it so annoying—it was clear that to her, I didn’t even exist or at best was a detail to be worked around.

“But of course,” I said to a friend the other night at happy hour, “she may not have been Chinese.  She could have been Korean, or American. I never heard her talk.”

“I know,” my friend agreed.  “But there are so many Chinese out there!  So the odds are she was Chinese.  They’re always in huge groups with a Chinese guide, and they barge in front of everyone.”

“I know, I know.  I’ve seen that many times. I was almost knocked into the street in Eton when lived there two summers ago. The Chinese tour groups came along the sidewalk like juggernauts.  It felt like they would have trampled me like a bug if I hadn’t moved out of their way.

“Their guides had a horrible attitude.  But I’d like to think there are polite Chinese tourists, immersing themselves in local culture, speaking a little Italian, but we just don’t notice them because … they’re not doing anything obnoxious.”

“Right.  I hope you’re right,” my friend replied doubtfully.  “Well, we Americans were the bad tourists for a long time, and still are. And the Japanese used to be notorious for taking photos of everything but not stopping to learn anything about what their subjects were.”

“I encountered a lot of horrid, loud-mouthed Spaniards in Germany.”

“And the Brits, especially in Spain, are super loud and trashy!”

We agreed, the Chinese get a bad rap for good reasons but also just because there are so many of them.

Travel used to be reserved for the rich. Thanks to the discount airlines and cruise ships, anyone can invade a beauty place with their braying and bad behavior.

I was on the shinakansen to Utsonimiya.

Oot-sone-oh-mee-yah.  I loved the sound of it so repeated it in my head too many times and now it’s an earworm.

The shinkansen was clean and quiet.  The seat was so capacious I could keep my suitcase in front of my knees.  The ride was smooth enough that the water bottle I set on top of my bag never trembled.

From Utsonimiya I would take a regular train to Nikko.  Then, I had mapped out how to walk from the train station to my lodgings.  There were buses, too, but they wouldn’t go all the way to the Turtle Hatori Annex, and I was nervous about getting on a bus with my bag, figuring out how to pay, getting off at the right place, and walking from there.

I needn’t have worried about any of it.  The moment I arrived in Nikko the skies opened up and the only option was to take a taxi. What a relief!  I didn’t care how much it cost; I had to admit that I just didn’t want to walk or take a bus.

The taxi driver wore white gloves and his seats were covered in white lace.

The inn was twice as far and a much more convoluted route than my guide book or Google maps had led me to believe.  I would have arrived exhausted it I’d walked.

The taxi cost about $9—no tipping expected—well worth it.

I had made my first successful transition from one city to another, the first of nine in the month to come.  After being oriented by the chatty hostess of the inn, I strode out to explore Nikko in the rain.

All Aboard!

I enjoyed my last good breakfast for a while, monitored the messages about my mom, then checked out of the Mielparque Hotel and rolled my peach-colored suitcase toward the station.

I had figured out that, when searching for a station, I should watch for gusts of salary men in black suits streaming forth at regular intervals and walk in the opposite direction.

Today I was taking a bullet train, or shinkansen, to Nikko.  Japan just “revealed” the new Supreme model, which goes 186 miles per hour.  I don’t know how fast the one I rode on went, but fast enough that the scenery was a blur.

First I had to figure out the queuing system for boarding.  You can reserve seats on the shinakansen but I hadn’t bothered to do that, having been assured by the JR Rail people that this train wouldn’t be crowded, it not being tourist season.  The cars were numbered, but how would I know which cars were unreserved? Along the platform about every 10 feet, there were lanes painted on the pavement to indicate where you should line up to board.  They were numbered.  What did the numbers mean?  “1” sounded like it would board first, so I got into a lane marked 1.

The shinakansen arrived, sleek as a space shuttle.

As it slowed to a stop I saw that some cars were marked “unreserved,” and I gave up my space at the head of the line to rush down the track.  I didn’t know how long the train stopped at this station—I had seen some trains spend only 30 seconds at the platform before departing.

I was first in the queue for the unreserved car, when a young woman with a giant bag stepped in front of me.  Had she not seen me?  Was there something about the system I didn’t understand?  So far, I had found the Japanese to be polite and devoted to order in the extreme.

“Excuse me,” I said, “There’s a queue.”  She appeared not to have heard me as she watched down the platform for her boyfriend, who hurried up to join her.  When they spoke I realized they were Chinese.

This would be a theme on the trip, and something I hear about from anyone who has traveled anywhere—that the Chinese do not recognize any system of queuing.  It’s survival of the fittest.  This explained the women I’d seen walking past long lines at women’s toilets, right to the head of the line.  No one had said anything.  I had wondered if there were subtle social cues I just didn’t understand which made it okay for some people to bypass the wait and go ahead of everyone who was patiently waiting, including old ladies and pregnant women.  But now I knew—they were just Chinese.

I can be a nonconformist in many things, but when it comes to lines I’m a law-and-order person.  So I spoke up again, more forcefully.

Excuse me, there’s a queue—a line,” I said forcefully as I jabbed my finger at the eight people who were now lined up behind me.   This time she couldn’t ignore me.  She and her boyfriend didn’t look at me but they moved immediately behind me.  So they were still barging in, but none of the people behind us, most of whom were probably Japanese, had the temerity to say anything.

I’m sure they were all—Chinese, Japanese—thinking, “Americans are so pushy!”  But I was there first, and I was going to get a good seat.  I hoped a few of the Japanese were silently cheering me on.

The doors opened silently and a cleaning crew stepped out and lined up in front of us. They must have boarded another car and worked their way down to ours, at shinkansen speed.  They were dressed in impeccable pink uniforms and had feathers in their caps.  I found these photos of other such crews from a news article.

The crew leader shouted something and they all bowed and smiled at us, then gestured for us to board.

The queue dissolved and a mad scramble ensued as everyone ran for a seat.

Ten seconds later we were off.

Love, Harry

The Meiji Shrine is just a hop-skip from Takeshita Street, with its cat cafes, kids in costumes, and stores dedicated to specialty socks.

But arriving at the shrine was like sinking into distant time and place.  The shrine—and I don’t know what makes it different from a temple—enshrines the deified spirits (but not the bodies) of the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken.

You may have heard of the “Meiji Restoration.”  It (to vastly simplify) was the reassignment of power to the Emperor Meiji from the Shoguns who had run things in Japan for hundreds of years.

During the shogunate there had been Emperors, but they were only figureheads, like today.  When the American Admiral, Matthew Perry, arrived in 1853 to press for a treaty after over 200 years of Japan being closed to foreigners, the Japanese recognized how far behind they were technologically.  The Emperor Meiji led the industrialization of Japan, along with other reforms.

Meiji was the 122nd Emperor.  That sure beats any European throne for continuity.  Naruhito, the 126th Emperor, just ascended to the throne after his father retired—a first in Japanese history.

I stopped at a café near the entrance to have a cappuccino and a red bean croissant and lace on my new walking shoes.  The café wasn’t anything special but I am still thinking about the croissant today, it was so delicious.  For the next month I would look for another one, to no avail.

The shrine is surrounded by 170 acres of woodland and gardens. The trees were so enormous it was difficult to capture them “on film.”  If you can make out the people in the photo below, it will give you a sense of the scale.

I had seen small wooden plaques at the shrine I’d visited the day before, but since my visit coincided with a torrential downpour I hadn’t lingered to inspect them.  Today it was dry.  This is just one of five or six walls of plaques. After observing for a while, I figured out that you buy a plaque at a little kiosk, write a prayer on it, then leave it behind—presumably in hopes that the Emperor’s or Empress’s deity will grant your wish.

Here’s Harry’s wish:

This reminded me of the western wall in Jerusalem, where people write prayers on scraps of paper and leave them tucked inside the cracks.  I did this.  In 1998 I left a prayer for my son to recover from addiction.  He is now in recovery.  So it worked!

Some of the plaques had illustrations of students taking exams or of boars—it being the Year of the Boar.  I bought a couple and tucked them in my bag.  I wasn’t going to leave them behind; they would make great little souvenirs.

I strolled through the gardens.  There was a bonsai exhibit.

And Iris gardens, which were cultivated in fields of standing water.

I caught a glimpse of a monk.

There was a gift shop; I bought a boar banner for 200 yen (less than $2) which I now have hanging in my entryway along with a plaque from a subsequent shrine.

I would travel to Nikko the next day.  I retired early to my hotel room and tried to deal with the mistaken charges on my credit card.  I got caught in a loop where I couldn’t login to my credit card company’s website because it wanted to send me a verification text due to me being in an unfamiliar location.  I couldn’t get texts, right?  And I couldn’t call them.  I tried Skype but my credit for regular calls had expired and when I tried to top it up it was somehow linked to Apple, which said my account was invalid.

Suddenly a slew of texts arrived.  I guess I could receive but not send.  My mother was in the ER, unfortunately a regular occurrence. I am on all her forms as the contact.  I had delegated to my brother while I was away but my niece stepped in and took charge.

My mom was released the next day.  I suppose I should have felt guilty about not being there, but I felt only relief.

Bouncing Around

“How’re the kids?” I asked Keiko.

“They were up til 4am bouncing on the bed,” she replied, her face drooping with exhaustion.  “They’ve got jet lag, but they seem to get wound up, while I’m the opposite.  Charlie was nervous about starting school, too.”

Charlie, my nine-year-old nephew, had started a three-week stint at a local school that day.  His five-year-old brother was going to attend a week of kindergarten.

I expressed sympathy and felt grateful I was staying in a hotel.

“Have a pastry,” I implored her.  “Maybe the sugar will help.”

After much pointing, smiling, and bowing, the pastry-shop ladies had picked out four beautiful items and wrapped them as though I were visiting the Emperor.

“Most popular,” one lady kept repeating as she pointed to a rubbery-looking green blob.

“Okay!” I enthused.

“I have no idea what any of them are,” I told Keiko and Fred.  They read the enclosed descriptions and suggested I try the green blob.  It was rubbery, and filled with red bean paste.  “I love it,” I pronounced, truthfully.  “It’s not too sweet.”

After an hour or so of socializing at the art show, I was off to see the famous Takeshita Street and adjacent Meiji Shrine.

But first, I spotted a pair of 2020 Tokyo Olympics-branded trainers in a shop window and screeched to a halt.  I did need some closed-toed shoes, right, so I wouldn’t spend my entire month in Japan slipping around in the rain?  I sidled into the store, checked the price, did the currency conversion in my head, and dropped the tag like it was coated in acid.  A hundred bucks!

I know, I know.  Most people spend much more than that on shoes.  But I don’t.

I left the store and kept walking.  At the corner, instead of going straight toward the station, I turned right and walked around the block, thinking.  The shoes were Asics, a good brand.  I would wear them for at least three years, probably. So they really would only cost $33 a year, or $2.75 a month!

But I’m not working full-time anymoreI could find a pair of similar trainers at TJ Maxx for $28…but not with the Tokyo Olympics logo on them….not that I care about brands or logos, but I do love the Olympics.

Back in the store, I pointed the shoes out to a saleswoman, and she brought me a pair of socks and slippers.  This was going to be interesting.  Through a series of hand gestures, she guided me to remove my flip flops and put on the socks—without touching the floor—then slide my feet into the slippers.  Then, after she laced up the largest pair of shoes they had in stock, I carefully retracted one foot at a time and—without touching the floor!—slid them into the shoes.

I wondered, what her reaction would be if I accidentally skimmed the floor with my foot?  Would it shock her?  Make her gag? Would she make me go in back and wash my feet with soap and water?  It seemed crucial enough that I was very careful and didn’t blow it.

I bought the shoes, and I’ve worn them almost every day since.

Takeshita Street.  It took me some time to get there because, unbeknownst to me, the station has two names: Harujuku (the popular name) and Meiji Jinju (the official name).

When you think of quirky young Japanese people, Takeshita Street is the place.  There, they cosplay, which—I think—means they dress in character from anime/manga stories. Here’s the impassioned answer I found when I Googled, “What is the difference between anime and manga?”

Anime is animation of a cartoonish show and manga is book of pictures or comics (also graphic novels). They are not the same!     

Since I couldn’t care less about either, Takeshita Street was a meh for me.

I did buy $50 worth of weird socks to give away as souvenirs.

There was a cat café.  The idea of eating in a room full of cats and possibly litter boxes did not appeal.

I am not Takeshita Street’s demographic, but I gave it a go, walking up and down and then out.

Word of the Day: Death

I got up this morning to find that one of three kittens I am fostering for the Humane Society was dead.  It’s not uncommon for foster kittens to die.  The mother cats are stray, barely adults themselves, emaciated and hungry, and/or diseased. It’s a cruel world.

Later today I will attend a funeral where Vince will give the eulogy for his best friend from prison.  I don’t know how he died.  He was only 34.

For those of you who are new to the blog, I began writing it with my son when he was in prison.  As he transitioned from prison and addiction to a healthy, sober life, I was freed to write about fun things like travel.

I still try to contribute to efforts at reforming our US system of mass incarceration.  This week I attended a meeting with the new Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

We were there to demand a moratorium on a practice called crimeless revocations.  In Minnesota, out of the 10,000 men and women in prison, 24% are not there for committing a crime.  That’s right; they are in prison because, after serving their sentence and being released, they missed a meeting with their parole agent or—most commonly—they relapsed and used drugs or alcohol.

So we lock them up, where they sit in prison for four to eight months.  They do not receive drug or alcohol treatment or any other services because they are short-termers.  They lose their jobs, their housing, and whatever fragile relationships they have started to rebuild on the outside.

The commissioner agreed that this practice is a waste of time, money, and lives.  But he said he couldn’t stop doing it until he gets buy-in from all his people.  We’ll meet with him again in a month.

Vince wasn’t sent back to prison, but he had all his privileges revoked because he didn’t answer when his parole agent called.  He was doing community service work in a noisy warehouse at the time and didn’t hear his phone ring.  For a month, he was not allowed to leave the house for anything but work.  No AA, no socializing with family or his sober friends.  No gym, no runs. None of the things that were going to keep him on an upward trajectory.  It was his darkest month.

The prison system is designed to punish, not rehabilitate. One of the worst forms of punishment is to mess with people by setting unclear expectations, catching them on some minor infraction, and coming down on them like a sledgehammer.

In Japan, as I’ve described already, I stood to one side and observed as worshipers approached the inner sanctum of a temple or shrine.  In Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Nara, and Koyasan, they bowed, clapped, threw coins into a donation box, and lighted incense or candles.

I’m not a believer, but I felt something, at times.  Perhaps it was because I was mystified by what was taking place.  Maybe I was moved by the sincerity of the worshipers, or the atmosphere.

Especially since my aunt died, and now that Vince’s friend has died, I would like to think there is the possibility of some lingering connection between the living and the dead.

Maybe I should turn the French curio cabinet I inherited from my aunt into a household shrine, complete with photos of ancestors and incense burners.

Day Two in Tokyo.  My sister-in-law’s father, Fred, is retired from a big Japanese company. He has been painting with a group of fellow retirees for years.  If I understood correctly, companies support their retirees to participate in hobbies together.  Fred is also in an essay-writing group.  Today I managed to find the building in which his painting group was holding an exhibition; these are his works.  He’s very talented.

I stopped first to get some pastries because that’s what people do in Japanese novels.

I’ve had eight hairstyles since I last saw Fred and Hiromi five years ago.  But of course I’m white.  He picked me out in the crowded building lobby, hugged me, and said, “Welcome, Anne-san!”