Category Archives: Budget travel

Baby Bodhas

The first Japanese temple I visited was a block from my hotel and was called Zojoji.  I didn’t have a sense at the time whether this was a “typical” temple or not.

As I wrote in a previous post, there are thousands of shrines, large and small, everywhere in Japan.  Zojoji, in retrospect, was an “average” sized temple, with a dozen buildings scattered over what seemed to be a couple acres, and Tokyo Tower looming in the background.

I just learned on Wikipedia—after making my annual very modest donation to support them—that Zojoji is the “head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto Region.”  That’s kind of like saying I am “the greatest travel and prison blogger who lives on the east side of St. Paul.”  I would see a lot of descriptors like this in the weeks to come.

But it was still pretty cool, it being my first.

Most of Zojoji’s current buildings are recent reconstructions except for the main entrance gate, the Sangedatsumon, which has survived many fires, earthquakes and wars and dates from 1622.

1622!  Here’s the gate:

As I also wrote previously, I was in Japan in the off season.  This was thanks to school holidays not having yet commenced and to it being the rainy season.  The downside, of course: rain.  The upside: hardly any tourists.

It had just rained and the buildings were closed, so it was just me and a handful of other people in the complex.  Normally I would be snapping away with my phone, but I was phoneless for now.  I had wondered: would I be able to enjoy this atmospheric moment without capturing it?  (I took these photos later, once I’d got a new charger).

I was pleased to note I felt at peace.

I came across these “baby bodhisattvas”—hundreds of foot-tall stone statues of bodhisattvas.  I’ve found various definitions of bodhisattva online.  The most generic is something like: one who is on the path to nirvana and has compassion for all beings.  Kind of an apprentice Buddha.

I felt a physical urge to reach for my phone to take photos, then relaxed when I remembered my dead phone was back in my room.

This was the explanation of the bodhisattvas:

These are “care guardian deities of children.”  They are dedicated for the safety growth of children and grandchildren, as well as for the memorial service for still birth or miscarried children.  To protect and keep warm their heads, “red hat” “red apron” and “windmill”, were dedicated to the guardian deity of children image.  Please refrain from touching.

I felt a pang of sadness, knowing some of these must represent babies that died. I have four friends or relations whose babies died, and it’s got to be one of life’s worst experiences. I “lost” a baby through adoption, so I like to think I have strong empathy for how it would feel.

Just then a powerful gong sounded nearby and reverberated for 20 seconds before sounding again. It made me jump internally then a calm descended over me.

This was happening just the way it was meant to.  If my phone had still been functional, I might have been hunched on my hotel room bed scrolling though social media to learn that my second cousin’s oldest kid had just graduated from college in Nebraska, or how a guy I met in grad school 17 years ago will look when he’s 100, thanks to a hot new “aging” app.

I gave thanks for my phone being dead—at least for now.

Walking toward the sound I found a monk—yes, with a shaved head and long flowing robe—using a long, thick rope to propel an enormous weight forward into a bell the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.

Why he was doing this—was it a call to prayer?  The “closing” bell? Was he ushering in nightfall?  It didn’t matter.

I crossed back over the road and wondered about this little gem tucked in between hideous concrete high-rises.

I stopped at Family Mart, a ubiquitous convenience store, for some cheap eats before crashing for 10 hours—my first of 26 nights in Japan.

Honey Park and Honey Pots

“I’ll only buy nonstop tickets, on Delta, to Haneda,” my sister-in-law said when we sat down at her dining room table back in February to jump on the flight sale by a Japanese travel agency in Chicago.  “It takes forever to get into Tokyo from Narita.”  Narita, Tokyo’s “international airport,” and Haneda, “the other airport.”  The former is an hour out from the city while Haneda was a 10-minute tram ride to my station.

Keiko and I tried and re-tried the 800 numbers until I heard a live person, speaking Japanese.  I thrust the phone over to her and after 15 minutes of listening to her provide our info and repeating, “Hai, hai, hai…” (yes, yes, yes),  we had our tickets—for $1,105 each.  That’s hundreds of dollars less than a flight to London right now.

If you want to go to Japan, befriend a Japanese American.  They will know about the flight sales.

The flight was so easy.  I think it lulled me into thinking the whole trip would be easy.  I bumped right into Keiko and the boys at the Minneapolis airport amidst thousands of people forming inchoate lines.  Charlie was seated behind me on the plane.  I’d been concerned about him kicking my seat but he didn’t.  I was charmed that Delta provides slippers on flights to Japan but passed on wearing them.  I watched Bohemian Rhapsody, Mary Poppins, Mary Queen of Scots, A Star is Born, and half of Aquaman before we landed.

We breezed through immigration and customs.  Despite Keiko’s doubts, I had no problem withdrawing cash from an airport ATM.  I waved goodbye as I rode the elevator down to the monorail that took me to Hamamatusucho Station, from which I would walk to my hotel, “just 10 minutes from the station.”

In Japan, everything is “just minutes” from a station.  Except if you get lost.  Then everything is an hour from your station.

The Mielparque Hotel lived up to its fancy French name.  It was an 80s-style brass and glass, marble floors and chandeliers-type convention hotel, trying to brand itself as a wedding destination.

I was asked to pay my bill upon arrival, and they couldn’t get my credit card to work.  They tried it upside down and sideways and entered the numbers manually to no effect. Fortunately I had a debit card, but if there was something wrong with my credit card—which gives me 1.5% cash back—this would be a bummer.

I asked about shipping my bag on to Nikko, my next destination.  I had read in at least three sources that this was a great service and that any hotel would be able to help me make arrangements.  The staff at the Mielparque stared at me uncomprehendingly and shook their heads, while also smiling broadly.

I rode the escalator to the ninth floor and heard the deeply-disturbing baby-girl voice that speaks in Japanese elevators.  It’s deeply disturbing.  It was my introduction to—my interpretation—the Japanese valuing women who are weak and infantile.

I had paid $20 extra for a view of Tokyo Tower, which was near the hotel.  My actual room had a view of a brick wall.  So unlike me—I didn’t attempt to fight this with the staff.

Because, as I wrote in some frantic posts in real time, my arrival in Tokyo coincided with the death of my cell phone and a bunch of dodgy charges showing up on my credit card bill.  It’s all good now, but one lesson learned is to bring my laptop whenever I travel, even though it adds four pounds of weight.

There was nothing I could do about my phone until the Apple Store opened the next day.  I wasn’t going to sit in the tiny room wondering what other people had done here before me.

I liked how the porn movie catalogue said “FUCK!!” on the cover, just in case some English speaker couldn’t tell what it was.  Again, it was unsettling how all the women were portrayed as innocent little girls.  Maybe “pure” is the word?

So I went out for a wander.  After all, I knew the neighborhood like the back of my hand now.

Curio Schmurio

I spent a night at my son’s before I left for Japan, so he could easily give me a ride to the airport the next morning and use my car while I was gone.

There are so many logistics involved in a one-month trip, and the more stuff you have, the more thinking and planning it takes.  My car—much as I need it and love driving—falls under the category of stuff.  I couldn’t leave it parked outside my house; it might have been reported as an abandoned vehicle and towed.  My first plan was to leave it in my brother’s driveway, but that would have made getting to the airport challenging because he was already transporting my sister-in-law and two nephews and their baggage in his small car.  I could have taken an Uber or a taxi from there, but Vince said he’d be happy to use my car, which gets better mileage than his minivan.

I know I’m not alone in struggling between liking my stuff and wanting to heave it all out the window and run away forever.

Yesterday I acquired the ultimate piece of stuff, an antique curio cabinet that has stood in successive generations of my family’s homes, most recently my aunt’s.

Why, oh why, did I take it?  It’s a lovely but useless piece; the worst combination of both fragile and heavy.  But there’s a strong tug of nostalgic value.  I have childhood memories of gingerly opening the glass front and taking out the trinkets my grandmother kept inside.  Once a year or so we would do the same at my aunt’s, and she would tell stories about the origins of the cut-glass pickle boat or the bisque Christmas ornament of a roly-poly little man we called Happy Fat.

Molly, my cousin, said she always felt the curio cabinet was a ball and chain.  “We could never run around the house without mom yelling, ‘Be careful of the curio cabinet!’”

It’s a symbol to me, this curio cabinet.  A symbol of my ties to ancestry and place, but also of being stuck in Minnesota and never being able to escape its gravitational pull.  So I’ll try to sell it.  Some nice gay couple may want it for their Lalique collection.

I struggled the day before I left.  Why was I leaving?  It was summer, which is so fleeting and precious in Minnesota!  Summer is our reward for getting through the long winters.  Why wouldn’t I stay, and spend time with my son’s girls?

Of course I went, and here they are examining the Japanese food items I brought home a month later.

People aren’t stuff.  But, like belongings, they make it difficult to run away from home, temporarily or permanently.

I came across this quote from Henry David Thoreau:

There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself….

I’m not sure what it means, or what it means for me, but I do know I’ve got Post-Trip Depression Syndrome (PTDS) and maybe Thoreau—the ultimate case of someone who chucked it all and went to live in the woods—can help.

My travel to Tokyo was completely smooth until I exited Hamamatsucho Station with my suitcase and attempted to find my hotel.  I had chosen not to pay for a portable hotspot or data, so I was going off printed directions, which said the hotel was a 10-minute walk from the station.  How hard could it be?

An hour later I was trudging down the same tiny alley for the third time, squinting to scry English anywhere but mainly to hold back tears of frustration and anxiety.

I was also hoping a stranger would feel sorry for me and help me find the hotel without me having to ask for help.

Finally I walked a half block farther than the city blocks I’d circled four times.  I saw something that looked like a hotel and … it was my hotel.  Whew.

Here’s another quote I totally get, from the travel guru Rick Steves.

Fear is for people who don’t get out very much.


Lynn observed that Japan is a country of many contrasts, one of which is the aesthetic of simplicity when it comes to interiors.  Traditional Japanese rooms tend to have nothing but a table and chairs, an alcove with two or three items like a vase with a flower arrangement in it, and maybe one piece of art on the wall.  This is us in a reception room (what we in the US would call a living room) we visited in a traditional house in Nara:

By contrast, Japan is also awash with stores and vending machines that sell little plastic things.  My last moments in Japan consisted of trying to spend down my yen in the airport gift shops.  On the top floor of Haneda airport there is a mall with one store after another selling everything plastic.  It was all about “characters.”  Pokemon.  Godzilla.  Anpanman.  Hello Kitty.  Totoro.  Kiki.  Sirotan.

Sirotan is a cute baby seal.  Cute is big in Japan and is charming in small doses.

Charlie has a Sirotan stuffed toy.  In the Sirotan store at the airport, one could buy innumerable stuffed Sirotans of every size, along with accessories and costumes.  There were Sirotan towels, hats, aprons, toothbrushes, key chains, pencil cases, lunchboxes, backpacks, sippy cups, chopsticks, pens, fake food, and on and on.  Ditto for every other character.

So there’s this contrast between the traditional simplicity and the tsunami of cutsie plastic things.  There were even toy vending machines in the train stations, in case you can’t make it to your destination without a plastic toy.

I succumbed to the cutsie charms of the shops and bought two Sirotan soy sauce plates and three Anpanman plastic cups.  I told myself, “I need these for when the kids come over.”

In case you aren’t familiar with Anpanman, the animated character who is even more popular than Hello Kitty, here is what Wikipedia says about him:

During WWII, Anpanman’s creator Takashi Yanase faced starvation, which made him dream of eating anpan (a bean-jam filled pastry). Anpanman’s head is a bun made by Uncle Jam. His name comes from his being a man whose head is made of an anpan. When translated into English, Anpanman means “bean bun man.”  He doesn’t need to eat or drink, as the bean jam in his head allows him to sustain himself in this manner. His weaknesses are water and anything else that makes his head dirty. Anpanman was born when a shooting star landed in Uncle Jam’s oven while he was baking an anpan. When Anpanman comes across a starving creature or person, he lets them eat a part of his head.

Sometimes I feel like my head is stuffed with red-bean jam.  If only I could eat it and feel refreshed, or give it to starving people.

It’s easy to notice things like the epidemic of plastic things when you travel.  Charlie and I ate mostly takeout food from convenience stores, and we generated piles of throwaway plastic ramen containers, cellophane wrap, and plastic cups at each hotel.  I avoid most but not all plastic waste at home by cooking with real ingredients.

But as I write this I am sitting in my son’s kitchen while the two girls watch TV in the next room and, lo and behold, there is a TV show about shopping for plastic things.  It’s just a mom, dad, and two girls who are playing with Shopkins, a plastic toy, and saying over and over, “Go to Target by July 19 to buy the new glitter Shopkins!!!”

I guess all these toys and accessories can go live on the Great Pacific Plastic Island when children become tired of them.  Maybe a new superhero—Garbage Dump Man!—will arise to purge the world of plastics for our children and grandchildren.  The plastic island is currently twice the size of Texas, so I hope he (or she) comes soon.

Today I am back in my own home, after a month in nine hotel beds and four nights at Vince’s.  I’ll begin to tackle the trip in retrospect now, as is my way.

But first, I’m having some red bean jam on toast for breakfast.

Toward the End

Today I am writing from a microscopic hotel room in Tokyo near the fish market.  My original plan for this—Charlie’s and my last 24 hours in Japan—was to visit some kind of far-out experiential art museum nearby and to check out the fish market.

But once again, it took us so long to get here … only three trains this time, but we got turned around at one station and missed a train, and at the last station the attendant insisted I owed an additional Y 60,000, which is about $60.  This was on top of about $60 I’d already paid.  I tried to understand why, but he couldn’t explain in English and a line was forming behind us, so I just forked over the cash and made a beeline for the exit.

The only consolation is knowing that Japanese people have a reputation for being scrupulously honest, so my assumption is that I screwed up somehow.  Another consolation is that, if that’s how expensive rail travel is here without a Japan Rail Pass, then my JR Pass paid for itself many times over.  Too bad it expired two days ago.

It was a stressful four-hour journey today for other reasons.  Charlie bought a large stuffed dolphin at the Shimoda aquarium and there was no room for it in his bag.  So he carried it in a big plastic bag along with his stuffed baby seal.  This was in addition to his backpack which contains his epipens, allergy medication, skin ointment, sunscreen, and myriad other over the counter medications.  He also had to pull a roller bag behind him, and it’s like a black hole—tiny but extremely heavy because it’s loaded with Japanese books.

I was busy hauling my own case and also wearing a backpack with my laptop inside.

At one station, I wanted Charlie to talk to the station attendant in Japanese, but he was feeling shy.  I huffed, “Fine!”  We got on the next train and it turned out to be going in the right direction, but I felt terrible.

I apologized.  “You’re only nine.  You shouldn’t have to be responsible for doing all the talking.”  He shrugged.

Even though people are very nice and helpful and the train system is quite efficient and clear, it’s still extremely complex.  Here’s Charlie holding up the schedule for the train from Shimoda, one small city.

None of the apps I downloaded were helpful.  Google lies.  Today, it directed me to a Tesla dealership instead of to the hotel.  It will likely be my only visit to a Tesla dealership.  One of the salesmen walked us outside and gave us very good directions to the hotel, which was a 10-minute walk away.

Vince will pick me up at the airport tomorrow, and my brother will pick up Charlie.  I’ll be staying with Vince and his family for four nights because the Chinese couple who rented my place while I’m gone won’t be out until Wednesday.  Vince has informed me that I’ll be on babysitting duty, which is fine.  The girls and I will go to the municipal pool and I’ll take in the sunlight that’s so vital to transiting 14 hours backwards.

What will change in my life due to this trip?  Something always does.

I will eat more Japanese style.  That is, I will try to pay more attention to the presentation of my food, instead of just scooping up a hunk of brown hotdish into a large bowl.  I would have loved to buy a collection of little porcelain and lacquerware bowls, but I had no room for it.  I will take a look in my local thrift store and see what I can find.

But at the same time I’d like to capture some of the Japanese esthetic of simplicity of décor.  I’m not sure how.  Every wall of my place is covered with art, and I am coming home with two more pieces.

As with almost every trip I take, I come back with an increased awareness that I love to be in nature.  Again, I’m not sure how to “actionize” this, but it’s a good reminder of where I’d like to be headed.

Anne in Shimoda

From the serene mountaintop monastery, I took a bus, a cable car, seven trains, spent one night at a Air BnB cum flop house in the red light district of northern Tokyo, and took two more trains and a bus to a sleepy seaside city called Shimoda.   Funnily enough, I had a Czech great grandmother named Anna Shimota.

I’m here with my nephew, who has chosen the pseudonym Charlie for when I mention him in social media.  I won’t be sharing any photos of him, so here’s a mental picture: he’s nine, with those just-grown-in adult teeth.  He’s got brown plastic glasses held on with an elastic strap that runs around his head and makes his big brown eyes even bigger.  Neither fat nor skinny.  Top him off with a thick mop of brown hair.

Charlie is not allowed to watch TV, movies, or play online games at home.  He’s got permission to do some of that on this mini vacation with me, and he’s like a radar detector for all opportunities to do so.  Forbidden fruit, I guess.

Charlie is somewhere between a kid and a teenager.  There is a child’s yukata in the room, and I was sure he would eschew wearing it because it’s got bunnies on it.  But he put it on right away.

It’s been raining all day.  We ventured out and Charlie spent 20 minutes throwing rocks into the ocean while I huddled in a bus shelter.

Right now I can just see the top of his head and one foot as he lies on his futon watching TV and cuddling the stuffed dolphin he bought with his own money at the Shimoda aquarium yesterday.  There is a pile of snack wrappers next to his futon.  It looks like his suitcase exploded, spewing clothes everywhere.  I made him green tea and he promptly spilled it all over his sheet.

“You’re like that character Pig Pen, in the Charlie Brown stories,” I commented.  He grinned.

I’m not used to a TV constantly blaring, so it’s taken me forever to write this post.  Since I know only three words of Japanese, all the yammering on TV sounds alike, with lots of people yelling excitedly about who-knows-what.  There is lots of “Hai! Hai, hai, hai,”—which literally means “Yes” but is the Japanese filler word, like English speakers say, uh-huh, and folks in the middle east say, yanni.

Right now there is a something on TV featuring people who are very excited about cantaloupe.  They’re buying cartloads of it at the grocery, and families are sitting around their tables, each eating half a cantaloupe.  As with most shows here, there are small screens in the corners featuring people watching and nodding their heads …

Charlie flips the channel: a news show with Shinzo Abe and other pols, all wearing yellow feathers in their button holes.  Why?

Next channel: A home improvement show, with everyone wearing slippers.

Next channel: individuals demonstrating gift-wrapping techniques followed by a demonstration of how to fold an origami water beetle.

Charlie is not the only Internet addict.  When we walked into the room I was enchanted by the view, then dismayed to find there was no wifi except in the lobby, three floors below.  The old lady at the desk shrugged helplessly and gave me a weak smile.  I’m sure she wondered what the big deal was.  Why does everyone get so worked up about this newfangled technology thing that will probably turn out to be just a fad?

My laptop (but not my phone) can detect a couple of free open networks.  I’ve been able to connect once.  Now the siren call of the free public wifi is just grinding away; tantalizing me with hopes of seeing which friend of a friend’s birthday is today.

Once again, maybe I need to accept this as a non-voluntary but healthful digital detox.

We did go down to the lobby this morning to Skype with my Charlie’s dad, mom, and little brother.  Immediately as we got connected and were smiling and waving, the old lady came from behind the reception desk and announced she was going to vacuum now (Charlie translated for me).  Sigh.

Meditations on Buddhism

I made it to the morning meditation, mainly because I was worried about not making it to the morning meditation, and so I couldn’t sleep.  Well, I only slept about two and a half hours because my legs were going berserk, but if that helped get me to the meditation, so be it.

Those of you who have been reading for a long time know that I am a Jewish Atheist Pagan, or JAP.  That’s better than the other thing that JAP stands for.  No, not Japanese—Jewish American Princess.

I don’t know much about Buddhism except that it began in India with the enlightenment of a monk named Siddhārtha Gautamaand and it spread across Asia.

As I write this in my room in the mountaintop monastery, the weird music they play at 6am, 5pm, and 9pm just started.  It sounds like the beginning of the Dr. Who theme song, then turns into a chime-y tune that I cringe in fear is shaping up to be “We Shall Overcome,” but then it fades into nothingness after a minute.

Each of the 52 monasteries in Koyasan, a tiny mountain town, has its own idiosyncratic brand of bells, gongs, chimes, chants, and other noises issuing through the air at all times of night and day.

Back to Buddha.  There many different representations of the Buddha, and bodhisattvas, who from my understanding are kind of understudies to the Buddha.  Is there only one Buddha? Good question.  I think there is only one and there are also thousands.  No one painted a picture of the original Buddha back in 4th Century Nepal.  This makes it okay to depict him in many different races and forms.  There must be hundreds of different strains of Buddhism.  I knew that Zen was a Japanese form, but as I’ve moved around Japan I’ve encountered dozens of others, mostly based on the teachings of some Buddhist master or other.

Buddha’s teachings are known as dharma and sutras are religious teachings.  He highlighted the virtues of wisdom, kindness, patience, generosity, and compassion.  The five main precepts of Buddhism, which are suggestions and not laws, are to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication.  Well, I’ve never killed anyone!

As in many faiths, adherents practice meditation, and that can take many forms—silent, chanting, walking, using a mantra or symbol, etc.

In Japan, about 30% of the population is Buddhist and only three percent are Shinto, which is a Japanese indigenous religion. These faiths overlap and intersect.  Hinduism is also mixed in there.  Unlike with Christianity, none of the three seeks to stamp out the others.

Japan has a temple (Shinto) or shrine (Buddhist) around every corner.  Some are enormous, like Todaji Temple in Nara, which is the largest wooden building in the world and houses a 15-meter-high Buddha.

Others are obscure, like this tiny one I stumbled upon in Tokyo, dedicated to dogs.

At most temples or shrines, I have encountered people bowing, clapping, lighting incense or candles, ringing bells, or listening to monks chanting sutras.

Inside each shrine is … wait for it … an inner shrine.  In most cases these are surrounded by signs asking people not to take photos.  Here’s one that didn’t have any prohibitions.

The inner shrine at the monastery is much like this.  I made the faux pas of wearing my yukata, or dressing gown, to the meditation, and being told, “Yukata, no!”  I had read an etiquette book I bought, twice, and still got it wrong.

I ran up to my room to change and rejoined the group.  About eight guests were observing as two monks intoned (presumably) sutras, punctuated by drums, gongs, and bells.  One had a beautiful timbre to his voice, and the two chanted in harmony.  I have no idea what they were singing, but it was magical, surrounded by dragons, lanterns, candles, incense, lotus flowers and orchids, tapestries, and thousands of intricately decorated boxes.

The jury is still out on my phone but I am taking its darkness as the digital detox I have long discussed but never had the will power to carry out.  Maybe Buddha had a hand in it.