One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The swing of things, part 2

It's been a long time since I last wrote to you. I've been very busy in my new job at the law firm.

I thought that I should write a bit about the aftermath of my trip.

1. Most of the gifts I brought back were well-received. I gave one of my Totoro dolls to a deserving baby and kept the other one for myself.

2. I've only developed 13 out of 35 rolls of film so far. I plan to drop off the rest of the film at Black's tonight. The rolls I've developed were pretty much randomly distributed across my trip -- shots from Russia, Mongolia, China, and Japan. There's a lot of good stuff. I can't wait to see the rest, though: hutongs, Harajuku girls, and other wonders.

3. So far, I haven't done any writing about my trip, although I've given some thought to what aspects I would write about if I were trying to get something published in a magazine. Different topics for different audiences.

4. I noted with interest that George W. Bush visited Mongolia recently.

5. I have to throw out the jeans I wore on my trip. They're done. Their useful life is over.

6. People here at home had good things to say about the $3 haircut I got in Shanghai.

7. I need to send copies of photos to certain people. The nomadic families in Mongolia, for instance -- I shot family portraits for them and will send copies through Boojum Expeditions. The Russian family that shared my compartment on the train from Moscow to Irkutsk -- I have a great shot of Sasha and Marina, the brother and sister, taken out on the platform while they were buying snacks from a vendor. The Chinese couple that took me into their home, made me dinner, and gave me my new name -- I'll send them some of my pictures of Beijing.

8. I still have about $20 worth of Mongolian money, and I despair of ever getting it changed.

9. I haven't chewed my Siberian pine tree gum yet.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The swing of things, part 1

I made it back to Toronto safe and sound.

The flight from Tokyo (Narita) to Chicago (O'Hare) was eleven hours long, the longest of my life, but it went by much more quickly than some other trans-oceanic flights I've been on. I attribute this to the following facts: I had a row of seats to myself, with no screaming baby, gregarious boor, or sneezing wretch beside me; the American Airlines staff were friendly and responsive; the seat was comfortable; and on this Boeing 777, there were small TV monitors in the backs of all the seats, and you could choose what you wanted to watch and when you wanted to watch it from a touch-screen menu. I watched Batman Begins for a second time, and then Fantastic Four, which was plagued by a bad story, bad dialogue, bad acting, and bad special effects.

I believe that the name of our captain on the Tokyo-Chicago flight was "Zane Lemon." This has got to be one of the all-time coolest names.

Even though there was never any chance of me leaving the Chicago airport during my stop-over, I still had to go through U.S. customs and then airport security procedures after landing. I barely made my connecting flight. I was struck by the contrast between the way Japanese people tend to act in public and the way North Americans tend to act. I watched airport employees' and passengers' tempers flare in the long and slow-moving security line-up. Ugly words were exchanged. Sighs of exasperation and disgust were heaved. Bags were kicked and shoved viciously. After spending two weeks in Japan, these open displays of hostility and other negative feelings were kind of shocking.

The short flight from Chicago to Toronto was only about half full. We were encouraged to move around and sit wherever we liked. I saw nothing wrong with my assigned seat and so stayed put.

Jess picked me up at the airport with a handful of balloons, including a large Homer Simpson balloon that she had combed the city in order to find.

One thing I've realized after being home for a few days: Toronto is not really a big city. Moscow, Shanghai, Tokyo -- those are big cities.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

8 weeks

Well, that time went by quickly. I've crossed the 110 lines of longitude between St. Petersburg and Tokyo, and had a lot of fun doing it. I've met some wonderful, generous, weird, and intriguing people. I've shot 33 rolls of film and some digital on top of that. I've learned things about myself that I probably wouldn't have learned in the comfortable and familiar context of home. I've had my eyes opened to ways of life vastly different from my own. I've seen things that broke my heart and things that inspired me.

I only have a few minutes here at the internet place before I need to go pick up my luggage at Kimi Ryokan and take a train to Narita airport.

I'll definitely be writing some follow-up entries for the blog after getting home, although probably not right away and not on a daily basis. I'm starting my new job on the 17th, and naturally my focus will be on work and on visiting with family and friends. I'll post some pictures on the blog as soon as possible -- the digital ones are no problem, but it may be a while before I have all my film developed because of the great expense.

My toe seems to be doing better today.

Take care, readers. I'll be writing just as soon as the dust settles. I'll be seeing some of you before too long, and that thought makes me very happy.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Pork cutlets

Emeryll was making fun of me yesterday because during my time in Japan I've been eating breaded pork cutlets and cabbage salad to the exclusion of almost every other Japanese dish. To fix this situation, we found a small yakitori restaurant in Shinjuku last night and ate skewers of chicken prepared in different ways and flavoured with different seasonings. We washed the chicken down with Sapporo beer.

Neighbourhoods in Tokyo I've explored a bit: Ikebukuro (where I'm staying); Shinjuku, including the sleazy Kabuki-cho area; Shibuya, home of the immense and crazy crosswalks featured in the documentary film Baraka; Akihabara, with its concentration of giant consumer electronics stores in "Electric Town"; and Harajuku, recently brought to the attention of Westerners in a song by Gwen Stefani. Stefani sings about the "wicked style" of the "Harajuku girls." I shot a whole roll of film on Sunday afternoon in the small public square beside Harajuku Station -- the right time and place to observe these girls with their bizarre and outrageous clothes, make-up, and accessories. They line up around the edges of the square, chatting, laughing, admiring each other, checking themselves out in compact mirrors, and posing for Japanese and foreign photographers. It's a very interesting subculture.

Yesterday, Emeryll and I spent the whole day in Kamakura -- a small town just an hour from Tokyo on the train, famous for its beautiful temples, shrines, and an enormous bronze Buddha. Several of the sites we visited were tucked away in wonderful, hushed, almost eerie woods. Although yesterday was a national holiday in Japan ("Health and Sports Day"), Kamakura was not crowded at all -- it was a wet grey day, and also I think a lot of people here wait to visit places like Kamakura until the leaves on the trees reach their most beautiful autumn colours. We came back to Tokyo and went for a drink at the New York Bar on the 53rd floor of the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. This is one of Tokyo's ultra-luxurious hotels, and the one where Bill Murray's character stays in the film Lost In Translation. You may recall that several scenes take place in the New York Bar -- Bill Murray's character tries to drink away his jet lag there. We saw no celebrities, but I did enjoy a fine glass of pinot noir. We made a point of leaving before the 2000 yen cover charge kicked in at 8:00 pm.

Today I hope to visit the highly controversial Yasukuni Shrine -- a shrine that honours the memory of Japanese soldiers killed in war-time. The controversial part: the shrine explicitly honours several high-ranking officers who were found by courts to be war criminals for their actions in China and elsewhere during the 1930s and 1940s. Every August 15, on the anniversary of Japan's surrender, prominent Japanese politicians visit the shrine, provoking angry protests from different groups in Japan and abroad. This and related issues cause a lot of tension between the Chinese and Japanese governments. Apparently, black vans blasting right-wing propaganda from loudspeakers can often be seen (and heard) cruising around the shrine. I encountered one of these creepy propaganda vans in Fukuoka on my first day in Japan, and wouldn't have known what it was if my friend Steve hadn't told me about them. The voice that came out of the loudspeaker was dead serious, cold, and strident -- all the people walking by seemed to ignore it completely, though. I didn't know what the voice was saying, but I could guess: a lot of nationalist-verging-on-racist stuff about Japan's destiny in the world. "The past is not really past," somebody famous once wrote. I think maybe it was William Faulkner. That observation certainly seems correct when applied to Japan and WW2.

I'm ready to come home now. I have a painful blister on the third toe of my left foot.

I plan to blog a bit tomorrow.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Squealing

As I was leaving Ryokan Rikiya in Kyoto yesterday morning, the owner, a tiny little old lady, came out of her room to thank me and to invite me to come back. I told her that her ryokan was beautiful and that I loved staying there, and she squealed wth happiness, whether real or affected, giggled, covered her face with her hands, and said, "Oh, no! No, no, no, no!" It was quite a spectacle.

On the shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo, I was sitting at first in a smoking car. It happened by accident. After about ten minutes I was starting to get lightheaded and nauseous, so I moved to a non-smoking car. Cigarette smoke is my kryptonite -- my weakness. Imagine if cigarette smoke was Superman's one weakness!

The taxi I took from Tokyo Station to Kimi Ryokan had an onboard navigation computer with a cool three-dimensional display. The driver relied on it heavily -- I guess he didn't know Ikebukuro that well.

At the ryokan, there's a dry-erase board behind the reception desk with all the guests' names and nationalities. I'm the only Canadian right now. The most common nationalities are American, Italian, Swiss, and Australian.

I took the metro last night to meet Matt and his friend Minami in Ueno. It required interventions by three kindly strangers -- a hip young dude, a woman with a small sleepy dog in her handbag, and a metro employee -- to get me from Ikebukuro to Ueno on time. The three of us walked to a bar a few blocks from the station, passing several hostess bars with crowds of whooping salarymen outside. I drank two glasses of Suntory beer. The bar was below street level, crowded and interesting. At one point, we heard a woman way in the back screaming angrily and drunkenly at her date.

Matt told me some things about his life and work here in Japan: originally from Melbourne, Australia, he's been here for three years, teaching English and doing translation work. Minami is a student of Chinese literature, Chinese culture, and gender studies at a university here in Tokyo. She mentioned that a transgendered person had just given a lecture in one of her classes.

We talked about Haruki Murakami. Matt has read a lot of his stuff, mostly in translation before coming to Japan. Minami has only read Norwegian Wood, and she's not a big fan, because she doesn't think the dialogue reads as authentic and natural. She recommended a different Japanese author for me -- Shimada Masahiko.

Matt and Minami told me about some of the more exotic and challenging foods you can eat in Japan, including the octopus or squid dish where the creature is cut up alive in front of you, and then you eat its arms, still thrashing and twitching, one by one. Apparently, it's quite a painful thing to do, because the suckers on the tentacles grab at the inside of your mouth and throat. It was in the course of this conversation that I taught Minami the English phrase, "death throes." Another disturbing one: you have a bowl of water with a chunk of tofu in it; the water has tiny carp-like fish called loaches swimming in it; the water is heated up; the fish try to escape the heat by burrowing into the cooler tofu; they get stuck; they die; then you eat the tofu with the dead fish embedded in it.

They taught me the hierarchy of thank you phrases, with "domo" being the most casual and "domo arigato gozaimus" being the most effusive and super-polite. They taught me how to order another beer, and how to ask for the check -- "kaikei." They taught me that it is unnecessary, and perhaps even a bit weird, to reply or make any gesture in response to the cheery welcome one receives when one walks into a Japanese convenience store.

The guy working at the desk in Kimi Ryokan is not Japanese. He's from Beijing, but has lived here for ten years and speaks the language fluently. We talked a bit this morning about the relative merits of Beijing and Tokyo, China and Japan, and he described for me how difficult it is to feel fully accepted in Japan -- to no longer be treated as a "foreigner" and kept at a psychological distance. Even after ten years, he feels that distance, and he argues that in China, a less insular society, foreigners can integrate much more successfully. "Like Dashan," I said.

I've been having problems using my bank card at ATMs here in Japan, and a helpful lady at Citibank allowed me to call the customer service people back in Canada to sort it out. It amazed me that a person in Toronto could tap a couple of keys on a keyboard, and seconds later, tens of thousands of miles away, across the ocean in a different country, my ATM problem could be solved. But it was!

It's 12:30, and I'm meeting Emeryll at 2:00 by the statute of a dog outside Shibuya Station, so I should get going.

Ikebukuro

This has to be very quick, because I'm using the internet at a Kinko's and it's ruinously expensive. I've arrived safely in Tokyo after a 2.5-hour ride on the shinkansen and checked into the very pleasant Kimi Ryokan in the Ikebukuro area. Plans are afoot to meet up with both Emeryll of U of T Law and Matt of No-Sword. There's a Denny's restaurant around the corner from my ryokan, so I can eat "Moons Over My Hammy" or a "Super-Bird" if I'm feeling like something familiar. The trip is almost over; I can't believe it.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Foxes

Don't think that I don't care about you -- the reason I haven't been blogging up a storm lately is that I've been having trouble here at the tourist information centre logging into Blogger and accessing the "create a post" page. Mysteriously, the connection is working right now, so I'm going to seize the opportunity.

The last three days have been busy ones. On Monday, I did a five-hour walking tour with "Johnny Hillwalker," a quirky and opinionated Japanese man in his 70s. I learned a lot about the following subjects: Shinto, Japan's native religion; Japanese Buddhism in its many forms; traditional arts and crafts of Japan; geishas; and much more. I met some interesting people on the tour from Chicago, Hawaii, Quebec City, Ottawa, and County Kildare in Ireland.

Yesterday, I bought some gifts for people, went to Nijo Castle, explored the Nishiki-koji food market, visited a shop selling washi (the wonderful hand-made paper), drank Japanese beer at an Irish pub called "The Hill of Tara," and tried six different kinds of sake under the guidance of the very knowledgeable bartender/proprietor at "Sake Bar Yoramu" -- a charismatic little hole-in-the-wall on a dark side street. It rained hard all day long, and I was forced to buy an umbrella at a convenience store. At 500 yen, it was pretty affordable.

>Sake Bar Yoramu is owned by Yoram Ofer, an Israeli in his 40s who has been living in Japan for twenty years. He speaks and writes Japanese fluently. His bar only has six seats, and his clientele is mainly a local and Japanese one. He taught me some things about sake, and also gave me his best explanation of wabi-sabi, the aesthetic that is embodied in so much Japanese art. For a while last night, I was his only customer, but then a number of other Westerners trailed in, having seen the same ad as me in the Kyoto Visitor's Guide. I met a German couple in their 60s -- him a neurologist and her a mathematician and theoretical physicist who "specializes in the concept of time." I met a young couple from Melbourne, and we talked at length about the episode of The Simpsons in which the Simpson family travels to Australia. "It doesn't show Australia in the best light, really," the woman said. I met another young couple from Sheffield, England, who are both physiotherapists. They're on a three-month break from the hospital where they work and are travelling around the world. From Japan, they'll go on to Australia, New Zealand, and South America. "So many Westerners tonight," I remarked to Yoram. "When it rains, it pours," he said. "Before tonight, I haven't had a foreigner in here for 10 days." I stayed at the bar for hours and had a really fun time, but I actually hated the sake. I find it absolutely awful.

Today, I took the train to the outskirts of Kyoto to visit Fushimi-Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the goddess responsible for harvests and prosperity. She is often represented as a fox, and there were beautiful stone statues of foxes everywhere. There were also thousands of bright orange torii (gates) lined up to form a hiking path around Inari Mountain, and in some places the torii were so close together that they achieved a kind of tunnel effect. It was a very damp day, like yesterday, and I liked the way that everything looked -- covered with beads of water, and the colours all changed. There were also a lot of large, elegant, black and yellow spiders building webs in the corners of the gates. I met and walked with two friendly Americans: a man from San Diego, and a woman from Portland, Oregon.

I go to Tokyo on Friday, and will be meeting up with my law school friend Emeryll on Saturday to do a daytrip to Kamakura. Emeryll has her own blog -- http://survivingtokyo.blogspot.com. I'm also hoping to meet up with Matt -- an expat living in Tokyo, a translator, and the author of No-Sword, another entertaining and informative Japan blog that I read.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Humidity

Public internet facilities are hard to find in Japan, and when you do find them, they're expensive! I purchased an hour of time here in a tourist information centre on the 9th floor of Kyoto Station, and it cost me 400 yen (about $4 Canadian). After the low, low prices of Russia, Mongolia, and China, it's an unpleasant feeling to bounce up to prices reminiscent of home.

I've been in Kyoto since yesterday afternoon, and am staying at Ryokan Rikiya -- a beautiful and peaceful inn with an amazing location in Higashiyama-ku, one of the best places for viewing temples, shrines, and the occasional geisha. My room has paper screens, and I can see a little temple on a hillside from the window of my sitting area.

Lonely Planet seems to suggest that it's rare and special to spot geishas, but I've seen four or five groups of them in various places around Higashiyama. How they look: white make-up on the face and neck; brightly coloured kimonos; wooden sandals; and parasols, usually. They walk gracefully up and down the narrow alleys. The problem with seeing them is that you don't know whether you're seeing genuine geishas or regular Japanese women, tourists, who have paid to be made up and dressed up like geishas. It's a thing you can do here.

Today was overcast, very grey, but oh -- the heat. I poured with sweat from the minute I left the ryokan until, well, I'm still pouring with sweat. Now, I sweat at the drop of a hat, but all the Japanese people around me in the streets and at the temples were feeling it, too. The fans were out, waving enthusiastically. Much green tea ice cream was being consumed. There's no way I could live in this country -- except maybe in the northern part, on the island of Hokkaido.

I visited a few important cultural sites today: Kiyomizu-dera, Kodai-ji, Chion-in, Murayama Park, and Yasaka Shrine. All were within a ten-minute walk of my ryokan, The first three on that list are Buddhist temples. Yasaka Shrine belongs to the Shinto tradition, but I've learned that in Japan, most people are happy following the teachings and practices of both religions. Over the centuries, the two have mixed together to a considerable degree.

Murayama Park was a real delight because at one of the ponds I saw ducks, turtles, carp, and a beautiful, dignified crane. I think I got good photos of all those creatures, but I'm especially hopeful about the photos of the crane. Small boys with nets were catching the turtles and then letting them go. A little girl walked up to the water's edge, next to me, to look at the turtles. I was leaning down, trying to focus my camera, but I could see her out of the corner of my eye. When she realized she was standing right next to a gaijin, she gasped in surprise and bolted back to her parents, where she stared at me from behind their legs. The parents were laughing.

The craft shops here are amazing. My mother would have a fit.

I thought I was being very clever last night by going to a convenience store and buying food for today's breakfast and lunch. I bought two pizza buns and two plastic containers with pear sections. I discovered this morning that the pizza bread tastes just wrong, wrong, wrong, and the pear pieces are not packed in water like you'd get in a can back in North America, but rather are suspended in a clear gel. The gel just tastes like pears, but it's still weird and unsettling.

I took a Kyoto city bus to get down here to the station and do some banking. I'm a bit proud of myself for managing it!

>Tomorrow, I'm going to do a four-hour guided walking tour with some local character named "Johnny Hillwalker." Afterward, I'll try to find out if it's possible to see any traditional Japanese theatre while I'm here. That includes, of course, bunraku -- puppet theatre. It's a serious art form here in Japan.

I'd like to say a few things about the A-Bomb Museum in Hiroshima. First, I was horrified by the displays on the health effects of radiation experienced by those who survived the initial blast. There are still many thousands of people all over Japan and other countries who are living with serious medical problems because of the A-Bomb detonation on August 6, 1945. The Japanese word for these survivors is "hibakushi." Second, I was deeply moved by the drawings and paintings that survivors have made, showing their experience on that day and the days that followed. In many cases, the artist was a small child on the day of the blast and only drew or painted the picture decades later. Third, I was impressed by the sensitive and tactful language that the museum materials used when discussing Japan's imperial ambitions, culpability for the war, and atrocities like the infamous "Rape of Nanking." I got no sense of white-washing for the domestic audience. Unfailingly, the materials called for all countries to be as objective and truthful as possible about their own behaviour during the war. Finally, I was interested to get the museum's take on America's reasons for using the A-Bomb: to defeat Japan without needing to invade the Japanese home islands, obviously; to defeat Japan without real assistance from the Soviets, in order to achieve a more favourable balance of power in the Pacific after the war; and to justify the enormous expense of the Manhattan Project to the American people. I'm not sure if this list represents the conventional wisdom in the West as well, but I'm curious to find out. Normally, in casual conversation with lay people, you just hear the first reason -- to end the war quickly without further loss of Allied soldiers.

Okay, I'm running out of time. I'll write again as soon as I can!