New Mexico Redux

New Mexico
My mom had airline tickets to Albuquerque and I had points so we set off after Christmas for a few days. Matt and I had been to New Mexico for the first time on our road trip last October, travelling through Taos Pueblo, Farmington and Chaco Cultural Centre to see the ancient pueblos. We were mesmerized by the landscape and the history so I was excited to see what Albuquerque and Santa Fe were like.

New Mexico
The short answer is cold. We looked out the window and saw the sunny courtyard so walked out in sweaters…then promptly headed back to the hotel for jackets, toques and gloves. The sunshine was nice but at -4 degrees it was significantly warmer in Seattle! But Historic Albuquerque is beautiful and was still all decked out for Christmas with wreathes and ribbons and a creche at the church. And the red chiles hanging everywhere are surely not seasonal but if you want a mix of red and green on your enchiladas you ask for “Christmas”.

New Mexico
We took the train to Santa Fe and that was a beautiful ride through the state and up to 7,000 feet elevation. Needless to say it did not get any warmer and the plaza in the Old Town district was still covered in snow – beautiful against the sandstone pueblo architecture. We walked everywhere, ducking into art galleries and boutiques, finding little cafes to warm up in and eventually sitting down to a beautiful lunch at the historic La Fonda hotel. We saw the Georgia O’Keeffe gallery but there’s not much there; we were more impressed with the light and the landscape, the architecture and the Puebloan craft markets. It’s easy to see why so many artists have found themselves here, and how so many beautiful things have come out of this area.

New Mexico
Here are some photos from the trip.

New Mexico

New Mexico

New Mexico

New Mexico

From Kyoto With Love

Kinkaku-ji

If visiting Tokyo feels like going to the future, visiting Kyoto is going back in time. The train station is sleek and modern but as soon as you leave it you are in the land of temples and shrines, and women wearing kimonos around town. That also means tourists and people speaking English and places that take credit cards – all things that I can appreciate while travelling but that I had gotten used to doing without in Tokyo. I wrote in my journal, “It feels so weird to be in Gion district with souvenir stores and trash cans. Today I actually saw some (extremely uncomfortable looking) benches. Also an older woman sitting on the floor! Mind blown.”

Nijo Castle

After my Kamakura temple tour, I had my work cut out for me. On the first day I went to Kinkaku-ji temple (the Golden pavilion) then Ryoan-ji (with it’s serene rock garden), and then Nijo Castle but somehow I just wasn’t feeling it. Kinkaku-ji is amazingly beautiful but it seems strange to me that a Buddhist temple would be gold-plated. I couldn’t get my head wrapped around the irony of that. And the Ryoan-ji rock garden, set up in such a way that you can never see all 13 stones felt like a good place to sit and meditate or read but it was overflowing with tourists. Nijo Castle was neat and I was grateful to be able to go inside after the fly by of the Imperial castle in Tokyo but there is not much to see other than the building structure, the moat and the “nightingale floors” which were designed to creak musically and deter intruders. All of the furniture and original screens have been moved to another museum.

And I was getting tired by this point. It was hot and humid and my feet were killing me. I had Tom’s with me to Japan, because I had prioritized having cool feet and being able to slip them on and off several times a day but my feet couldn’t stand up to the endless walking with no support. I tried to buy some insoles but I’m sure the Japanese manufacturers couldn’t even conceive of my size 10 feet and so they only came 2/3rds of the way up. By the time I got to Nijo Castle in the afternoon, I had taken to calling them my nightingale shoes because they were squeaking all kinds of different notes.

Gion

In the evening I put on a dress and went to visit the Gion and Pontocho districts, both historic “geisha” districts (although Gion is the more notable) that are laid out with red lanterns and bamboo slatted storefronts with so many beautiful shops and restaurants as well as the historic teahouses.

“Geisha” actually means ‘art person’ in Japanese – including males – and in Gion they prefer the term geiko, ‘a woman of art’. Maiko (‘dance child’) are geiko / geisha in training and are identified by higher platform heels and extra hair ornaments. Several photographers were hanging around the main teahouse, trying to get a glimpse of the women on their evening rounds But I was both bored by that exercise and feeling weirded out by the theme park level of tourism in the area so I wandered up and down the narrow alleyways checking out all the things. I overheard one man saying to his wife, “yeah, but even if we stayed here for a month you couldn’t eat at ALL of them,” and I knew exactly how she felt. Taking shortcuts and back alleys, I actually ran into both a geisha and a maiko with their entourages, trying to avoid the crowds. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo but I was pretty satisfied with that experienced and went off to find some Kyoto-style sushi.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

The next morning I climbed a sacred fox mountain. I had considered visiting Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine with its ten thousand orange torii gates the day before but changed my mind when I read in my guidebook that I should allocate 2-3 hours. Why on earth?! The shrine is a bit south of Kyoto but other than the time needed to get there I couldn’t understand why I would need so much time to get my calligraphy book signed, throw some coins, ring the bell and pay my respects – as I had done in all of the previous shrines. But when I arrived and set off (through a side door again, I am always missing the main gate), I saw people walking their dogs and doing landscape maintenance. I walked for ten minutes or so, wondering where the famous Pi-shaped gates were or even a map and then I found both – the shrine sits on Inari mountain which has four main shrines and thousands of sub-shrines, spanning about 4 kilometres. The orange Torii gates cover the entire mountain in all sizes – corporations sponsor large structures that form an archway over the trails and smaller versions are sold as emas that visitors can buy and leave at the shrine. As if this weren’t enough to cover the whole mountain in orange, as I walked up the mountain I passed huge stacks of “used” emas, collected from the shrines to be burned as an offering to the gods.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

The god in this case are Inari, the god of rice but foxes are the messengers of the gods and highly represented here. The main gates feature a pair of fox statues, one with a key to the rice storeroom in its mouth and the other with a jewel that represents the spirit of the gods. This iconography is repeated all over the mountain, with some fox statues wearing red aprons and toques and with fortunes tied around their feet – clearly recently cared for – while others were many years old, broken and eroding. Some of these were also dressed in deteriorating red aprons and toques and in addition to the statues, fox-shaped emas were also for sale so the effect was hundreds of fox eyes staring out at you which gave the mountain a vaguely creepy air. I was there early in the morning and there were a few hikers but the udon shops weren’t open yet and I saw no crowds until I was almost all the way down again. I did pass one man who was off to the side of the trail surreptitiously brushing the long blond hair of a doll. I thought it must be for an offering but when he saw me coming he turned away and hid it in his jacket.

As I climbed up and up, the landscape alternating between orange Torii gates and landings full of foxes and shrines, I had plenty of time to think about my time in Japan and how this year has changed me as a person. I wouldn’t call it a meditation per se but when I arrived at the shrine at the top of the mountain, it was so anticlimactic to make it obvious that the journey was the reward (and maybe an udon soup if the shops were open – the sake for sale is to give to the foxes).

When I got back down to the main gates it was late morning and the busses had started to arrive. School children were all over the main shrine area, taking selfies while they rang the bell to wake up the gods, hanging strands of origami cranes and giving carrot offerings to the horse shrine. An older woman who had been sweeping the plaza with a wooden broom when I arrived was now sitting in the shade watching her work being recreated for her. On the way down I had been thinking that it would have been nice to bring a book and maybe spend a few more hours there but I probably wouldn’t have come for a mountain hike in my bad shoes if I had known what I was in for in advance. I’m glad I did though because it turned out to be one of my favourite places in Japan.

Nishiki Market

Since I missed out on kitsune (fox) udon soup on the mountain, and since it was on my way back into town, I decided to stop in at Nishiki Market instead of pressing on into the countryside to visit the Suntory distillery. People kept telling me that I would like Kyoto better than Tokyo and I can see why it would be a popular sentiment. It has the tourist infrastructure, the beautiful temples and shrines, the decades of ex-pat writers coming to study, etc. All of the Americans I met on my flight from Korea were headed there. But I’m not so sure. Tokyo is far more closed to outsiders and that makes it interesting to me; I want to learn Japanese so that I can hang out in the yakitori bars with people after work and I want to learn what all the things in the depachika department stores taste like. When I was planning my trip, I chose Japan because I wanted to explore somewhere that I could lose myself, struggle and grow. Tokyo floored me in that regard but Kyoto is different. I spent the entire time I was there making (what felt like) huge decisions – should I eat lunch or go drink whisky? Should I spend the day at the fox mountain or go to the Arashiyama bamboo forest? Should I go to a Maiko show or stay in a traditional Japanese inn? – but other than getting lost on the bus, it didn’t challenge me in the same way that Tokyo did. I love that the Japanese literature books I’ve been reading (some written a very long time ago) take place in the spots I was visiting, and I could have easily spent a month there and seen everything that I wanted to – maybe even found my way into the local culture – but Kyoto felt closer to vacation than travel, as my husband likes to say.

And even though I agonized over some of my decisions, I regret nothing. Nishiki Market was lovely and has at least one of every Japanese delicacy; seafood (both dried and fresh), tea, dessert, fresh produce, snacks, all kinds of pickles, knives, and lunch. I wandered through the stalls and sampled matcha tea flavoured warabi mochi (a softer, looser version than the traditional rice cake…something like a savoury marshmallow), tai yaki (the fish-shaped cake filled with red bean paste), and kasuzuke (pickles made with fermented sake lees) but then I tucked into some udon noodles with grilled mochi wrapped in nori and a beer. So delicious after my hike! In the evening I had burnt miso ramen from Gogyo so it turned out to be a day of noodles and soup – a very good day.

Kyoto

The next day I spent in eastern Kyoto, visiting Kiyomizu-dera temple and the Higashiyama area around it with its ancient shops and restaurants, some having been catering to tourists and pilgrims for hundreds of years. Kiyomizu-dera is a wooden temple (unbelievably, no nails are used in the entire building) high up on the hill so it has survived many of the fires that ruined other wooden temples from the same era. It also meant that it was a bit of a hike, my second mountain climb in as days with my terrible shoes. But other visitors were walking up the trail in traditional kimonos and sandals, so I kept my grumbling to myself. In any case, the view from the top was worth it. Kiyomizu-dera is celebrated in all seasons because of the beautiful view out over the cherry and maple trees to the city below.

Kiyomizu-dera

It was extremely busy but I spent some time wandering around the main hall, and drinking from the Otowa waterfall where you can choose a stream for longevity, success at school or luck in love. There is also an entire shrine dedicated to the god of love and that might have explained all the teenagers. Like all the shrines, there were charms and fortunes for sale but the main draw are two stones that you have to walk between with your eyes closed in order to find love. I laughed at the idea of this, clearly conceived in a time with way less tourists crowding the platform but I didn’t stay long.

Yuzuya Ryokan

I had been on the fence about staying in a ryokan but they are expensive and many ban tattooed people from the public bath – an important (in some cases necessary) part of the experience. But the exquisite seasonal kaiseki set menus (another important and necessary part of the experience) are planned ahead so they unable to cater to dietary needs. Meaning that I could plan to do it on some future trip, but not with Matt. I decided to book into Yuzuya Ryokan and at times it was strange – basically eating a tasting menu by myself, in a yukata (Japanese pajamas) but the food was incredible and I managed to avoid the public bath experience and offending anyone so that was good.

I crawled into bed, full from my amazing dinner and fully prepared to go to sleep at 9 PM when I heard drums outside. I knew it was a full moon because I’d seen notices for various full moon festivals around town (the September Harvest full moon in particular is very special) but it hadn’t occurred to me that one would be happening at the Yasaka Shinto shrine right next door. I ran right over and got to watch the Taiko drummers and shrine maidens, grinning like mad at the unexpected experience – especially just a couple of days after happening upon a Shinto wedding!

In the morning, I went back to the shrine to get a stamp for my calligraphy book and then continued on to Chion-in temple next door. It has a beautiful winged Buddha but more importantly, it gives out 3 stamps – one for the temple, a poem and a Buddhist sutra – so that made my day and then I was ready to hop on the train for Mount Koya.

Gratitude & Grace

Home

Today is Thanksgiving in America. “Yanksgiving” as we’ve taken to calling it in order to differentiate from regular Thanksgiving that happened back in October. I am volunteering at SAM tonight and tomorrow we are going up to Whistler to join some friends for a ski weekend. So we have no real eating plans, and no bird in the oven. It feels strange, but then it also feels strange to have Thanksgiving while it’s snowing out. We’ll deal. But while I’m alright with passing on turkey, I can’t let the occasion slip by without thanks.

Riley

I listened to the first episode of the Good Life Project podcast yesterday, during which they asked Brené Brown what it takes to live a good life. Her response, without hesitation, was gratitude. It’s important. She then went on to say, “I think for me, a good life happens when you stop and are grateful for the ordinary moments that so many of us just steamroll over to try to find those extraordinary moments. So my good life is soccer practice and carpool line and tuck-ins and date night…and knowing that it’s good.”

Friends

I haven’t been very good at that lately. I’ve been trying to grow and change things in literally ever aspect of my life and it’s so hard. I am struggling a lot and getting frustrated with my lack of progress. The gap between where I am and where I want to be seems so huge and while I do make a daily note on things I am grateful for, they are usually small or specific. Coffee, someone backing up in a crosswalk to let me walk through, a good book to pass the time. The kinds of things that are so easy to miss when you’re bogged down in other things, life.

Matt

Even today, a day of thanks, I’ve been stressed out trying to write a good sample for my grad school application and not being grateful that Matt made me a nice breakfast and took the dog for a walk – nevermind that he helped me with the work as well.

Maceo

Lately though, some of the things have been huge and specific – people I have just met offering up their entire contact list to help with my job search, people that I don’t know at all befriending us and making us feel welcome, coworkers and clients I haven’t talked to in ages giving giving me recommendations, friends coming to visit and making sure we’re settled in ok. The enormity of the gifts and the impossibility of never being able to give it all back feels a bit overwhelming but the simple grace of being grateful and expressing gratitude helps lighten the load.

Family

And still we haven’t gotten to the stuff you take for granted, the dinner table items; health, family, friends, clean water. I’ve had so many of the extraordinary experiences that Brené Brown talks about and I am so grateful for them, for this life. But I like the reminder and the opportunity – the grace – to bring that thanks front and centre and try to live it in every moment.

Sea

Nootka Sound

Tahtsa Dive Charters

I was asked to do a trip report of our dive trip to Nootka Sound for my new dive club newsletter. I’m not through writing about Japan and the National Parks road trip yet but this will serve as a good blog post in the interim!

Nootka Sound

In remote Tahsis B.C., a November morning is a quiet, misty and grey affair. We got our first view of town on a Saturday so all the boats were still in their driveways and there was no one about but us divers. As we gathered at the dock to wait for the boat we watched the faintest sliver of pink emerge over the mountains but otherwise the grey dock was reflected in the grey inlet and grey as far as the eye good see. We didn’t yet realize the amazing array of colours that awaited us just a little ways down the inlet and down into the water.

Nudibranch

There were four of us from Marker Buoy; Carl Baird, Bruce Brown, Ken Gatherum and myself – so new to the group that this was one of the first outings I had seen posted. We had met the day before to load up the truck with our gear (at least 15 tanks and I don’t know how many cameras plus bags and suitcases) before starting the long drive north. Tahsis is on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, not such a bad trek as the crow flies but our route took us through Tsawwassen ferry terminal, by boat to Nanaimo, up island to Campbell River then east to Gold River where both the pavement and the cell phone towers ran out. I had plenty of time to get to know my new friends and we finally pulled up at Tahtsa Dive Charters HQ around 6 PM, tired and hungry.

Tahsis is a tiny blip of a town, so small that in winter there are only 2 restaurants with limited hours. On Halloween both were closed because there were hot dogs and fireworks at the local school so we settled into our rooms at Nootka Gold B&B and got ready for diving. Most people in town have more than one job; Jude from Tahtsa Dive Charters is also the mayor while husband and Captain Scott Schooner works at the fire department and ambulance. Our host at Nootka Gold B&B, Silvie Keen, also runs the Tahsis Time Grill restaurant and the other restaurant in town is also the gas station and grocery store. I really liked the vibe. It’s a town that can’t support slackers – everyone has to pitch in and be kind and decent.

Anemone

The Nootka Sound area is huge with a complex system of deep inlets popular with sport fishermen in the summer, as well as kayakers and hikers. The sound also has historical importance. It’s known as “the Birthplace of British Columbia” because this is where Captain James Cook first came ashore in March 1778. To his relief, the Mowachaht First Nations people wanted to trade and not attack so the site was named Friendly Cove.

It’s possible to go by boat to explore the landing area (and I think I would like to come back to do this) but our group headed up Espinosa Inlet to “The Gardens” instead, the place Little Espinosa Inlet empties into the larger Espinosa. It’s a relatively narrow passage and that means lots of life. Captain Scott clearly knows the area very well and the visibility was excellent. We saw swimming scallops, Noble Sea Lemon nudibranchs, a Giant Dendrenotid nudibranch, huge rock scallops and a wolf eel dotted across a carpeting of pink strawberry anemones. The pink was startling at first, like coming across a girl’s birthday party, but then there was the yellow of the sea lemon nudibranchs, orange golden dirona nudibranchs, giant purple sea cucumbers, blue bat stars…all the colours of the rainbow. At one point Bruce and I came across an egg yolk jelly that appeared to be stuck to the wall but as I look back at my photos I think the strawberry anemones were actually eating it, very very slowly.

Nootka Sound

Topside again we made our way out to “Double Island” mouth of Esperanza inlet. It’s unsheltered and there was a bit of current and chop that made the dive a bit rough. I was having gear issues and by the time I was finished dealing with them decided to sit this dive out. I was lucky, the weather was in our favour and so I bobbed about in the sunshine with Scott, watching sea otters and diver bubbles.

Wold Eel

I wasn’t the only one who was appreciative of the sunshine. Tahtsa’s dive boat is fast enough to get out to the open sea and back in a day but the sacrifice is that it is a pretty bare-bones vessel. There is no cover or windbreak on the boat, which had caused us a bit of trepidation in the grey dawn, although it seems that there are many closer dive sites for wetter days. There are also no bins or dry areas so plan to bring your own dry bag and containers if that’s a need. Finally, there is no head on the boat either so Captain Scott kept his eyes out for beaches where we could make a pit stop between dives.

It all worked out and our trip back up the inlet was gorgeous; evergreen covered islands dropping right into sea, rocky outcrops full of tide pools and otters, sea lions and eagles making an appearance at regular intervals. When we stopped for fuel the caretaker told us that his dogs had cornered a bear under one of the cabins the night before. This place is teeming with life.

Cloud Sponge

Our third dive of the day (and where we stayed for the rest of the trip), was Mozino Point. This is the darling of Nootka Sound, close enough to Tahsis that a boat can get there in ten minutes but diverse enough to serve up a different dive every time. Mozino Point is the site of the lighthouse at the junction of Tahsis Inlet and Tahsis Narrows, an area that sees a huge interchange of water and is hundreds of feet deep. Captain Scott told us that 90% of the time the tide is flowing out to sea but on our afternoon dive it had got itself turned around and was heading into town. There was a bit of confusion underwater and then the consensus was to go with the flow.

The colours at Mozino Point are even more spectacular than the Gardens. Pink and red strawberry anemones start of the splendour, decorating rocks, barnacles, scallops without prejudice. Nudibranchs all of kinds and colours lay around languidly. Then we arrive at the cloud sponges, eggshell white and just as fragile, surrounded by several kinds of rockfish and tunicates and a few white reticulated sponges thrown in for good measure. Farther below this are the rare and fragile Gorgonian corals which we would see the next day.

Gorgonian Coral

The dive boat comes out of the water at night and although it seems safe enough to leave all the gear on it (Scott told us that many homes don’t even have keys), he was going out with a group of hikers before us in the morning and needed room for them. The late departure combined with the daylight savings fall back meant that we had much more time to kill in the morning than I’m used to on a dive trip – and frankly more than made me comfortable, considering our 12 hour journey home – but we were organized and at the dive site in no time. From the lighthouse it was down 140 feet or so to get a look at the rare Gorgonian corals. These are lurid pink fan-shaped corals, some fuzzy with polyps out feeding and some closed up, looking dormant and stony. I saw one that had an orange peel nudibranch draped over several coral protrusions. Sea pens seem to grow in abundance in the area so we saw a lot of those near them and from there we made our way back up through the cloud sponges, checking in each of them for any critters that might be hiding out. Then into the strawberry (anemone) fields for more pink, more scallops the size of dinner plates, huge barnacles fishing, swimming scallops chattering like false teeth through the water, and decorator crabs in all the latest fashions. Coming up towards our safety stop I realized we had covered quite a bit of distance and the scenery had changed again. Here was ribbony kelp, purple sea urchins,  and some perch. A few feet below the surface Bruce pointed out a small jelly to me and we realized at the same time that there was a smack of them, all around us. I surfaced laughing and ready to do the whole thing again. A five star dive, to be sure.

Nudibranch

We waited only as long as we had to before getting back in the water again but we passed the time eating granola bars and watching the sea lions hunting not far from the boat. He wasn’t bothered by us at all but as soon as we entered the water he cruised by us to take a look. This dive was similar in features to the previous day, substituting the deep Gorgonians for the inclusion of a huge China rockfish and a wolf eel but it was equally delightful and made me wish that this amazing site was not quite so far away.

As always, there are more photos on flickr.

Experience Your America – Our NPS Tour

Olympic Peninsula

It started with Mount St. Helen’s. After we got a new truck, we went to Dick’s Drive-in and then Riley and I went to Mount St. Helen’s.

Road trip

Then we went to all of these places:

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK

Hoh Rainforest

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

Mammoth Caves

Yellowstone

Bison

En route through Wyoming

Farmland

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

Colorado

Elk

TAOS PUEBLO

Taos

Riley

CHACO CULTURAL NATIONAL HISTORIC PARK

Chaco Cultural NHP

Arizona

CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT

Canyon de Chelly

Arizona

HUBBLE TRADING POST

Hubble Trading Post

PAINTED DESERT / PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK

Painted Desert National Park

Sunset

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK

Death Valley

Death Valley

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

Yosemite National Park

And finally home.

4468 miles, 9 National Parks and monuments, 10 states. My favourites were Yellowstone, Hubble Trading Post (how I wish I could afford some Navajo weaving!) and Canyon de Chelly, Matt’s were Chaco Culture NHP and the Petrified Forest. Riley liked the dog parks, jumping on hotel beds and sampling sticks in all locations. Next time we will definitely camp out, hike and take it slower so we can explore more places along the way but that was an amazing sampling of

And the Xterra held up exceptionally well. In fact, we christened it Wade Davis, after my favourite explorer.

Check out a whole bunch more photos here.

Kamakura (Japan)

Kamakura

In Spain almost all of my journal entries started with “OMG, it’s so hot” or “I’m melting!” and when I think back to riding around the country on motorcycles in thick leather, the heat in Japan shouldn’t even phase me but OMG, it was so hot! I now understand why every shop sells tengui – beautiful but also highly functional handkerchiefs – and why every woman in Japanese art is holding a fan. What I don’t understand is how they manage to hold it together in real life, wearing stockings and carefully coiffed hair in weather that made me want to stay in my air-conditioned hotel room all day. But for all the chic people walking around Tokyo without noticing the heat, at least some of them were with me on the train to Kamakura, a beach town about an hour and a half south.

I wasn’t going for the beach though – I wanted to see the Great Buddha. Some things never change. When I was a kid I was obsessed with Greek culture and desperately wanted to go to Athens but my mom was afraid I would just party the entire time so she sent me on a home exchange to France instead. You have to try pretty hard to have a party vacation in Kamakura but I feel like my mother would have been satisfied. In the 2 days I was there, I saw 5 temples and 3 shrines and the only time I even saw the sea was from the top of the Hase-dera temple complex. The sad fact is that that is actually the only time I saw the sea the entire time I was in Japan.

Kamakura Buddha

That was too bad but I had better things to do; the Great Buddha was smaller than I expected but beautiful and serene and sitting out in the open (after a tsunami destroyed the Kōtoku-in temple in 1498). This was my first step back into the history of Japan. In Tokyo almost everything is new. Even the Asakusa temple complex that I visited was mostly rebuilt after the war and the city itself seems to be in a constant state of regeneration but Kamakura has been a temple town since about 700 AD.

Hase-dera

Next I went to the Hase-dera temple, a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon (goddess of mercy). The literature I was given says that, according to legend the monk Tokudō found a camphor tree so large he thought he could carve two statues with it. Once went to Nara and the other was launched into the sea, letting fate decide where it would end up. It washed ashore close to Kamakura and the temple was built for it. The statue of Kannon was impressive but what struck me even more were the statues of tiny buddhas lined up everywhere like a little army. They are statues of the Jizo Bodhisattva who helps the souls of dead children to reach the paradise and they are everywhere, covering all the landings as you climb up and up and up, with potato chips and flowers and candles left for offerings.

Kamakura

That night I stayed in a traditional guest house with gorgeous post and beam construction, a traditional sand pit stove and teakettle and tatami mats. At night we unrolled our soft futons in a communal female room and lay out pillows that are stuffed with adzuki beans. There was no air conditioning and I thought I was in for a sleepless night but it’s amazing what can be done with air flow in a house made of screens and both the pillow and the bed turned out to be completely comfortable. I was amazed to see so many women travelling by themselves too. Japan is notoriously safe (and one of the reasons it won out over other destinations for me) but the only man in the guesthouse was one that worked there. The rest were solo women travellers, some on the road for months at a time, through many countries, others travelling in groups from relatively close by in Japan.

It was wonderful to be in such a welcoming space after the masculine no-nonsense business hotels of Tokyo and I would have loved to stay for a few days to get into the rhythm of it but there were temples to see and I don’t honestly know if I could have lasted much longer without A/C.

Hōkoku-ji

The next day I went to Engaku-ji, Kenchō-ji, Tōkei-ji (the “divorce temple”), Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, and Hōkoku-ji (the “bamboo temple”). Engaku-ji and Kenchō-ji are the darlings around town, huge monastery complexes rated #1 and #2 for Zen temples in the area. I was impressed by the many outbuildings and gardens but without having an opportunity to sit for a meditation session, most of it was lost on me. Instead I preferred Tōkei-ji which got it’s start as a refuge for battered women and was instrumental in cementing Japan’s divorce policy because they considered women to be officially divorced after staying there for three years. Hōkoku-ji is called the “bamboo temple” because it is housed in an grove of enormous bamboo. Most of the grounds are closed off but there is a teahouse and sitting drinking a bowl of bitter matcha tea while the green light filtered through the bamboo down was worth the trip in itself. I felt closed off from the world and so calm – which I imagine is the point of a temple.

Lotus

Most of the temples I had been to so far are Buddhist (including the one I went to in Richmond) but Meiji-Jingu in Tokyo was Shinto and I loved it and now  Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū was my favourite site in Kamakura. In Japan, Buddhist temples are noted by the -dera or -ji appended to their names, and shrines are jinja. I love the orange Torii gates and flags leading up the path, the shrine maidens in their white robes and the various activity stations. At Tsurugaoka I wrote a prayer for peace and happiness on a horse ema – a wooden plaque that is hung up with the wish on it for the gods, and I bought a fortune by shaking a cylinder with numbered chopsticks in it – the number of the one that falls out corresponds to a drawer with your fortune in it. Fortunately mine was both good and in English so I kept it with me. If you get a good fortune you’re supposed to save it and if not then you tie it to a fence and say a prayer. Next that I perused the amulets and purchased one to ward off senility. Later I learned that each shrine and temple has its own stamp and calligrapher so I bought a calligraphy book and had it inscribed as well. I was tempted to back track to the temples I had already been to that day but instead I worked on filling it up in Kyoto and Koyasan and it is one of my most treasured souvenirs from Japan.

Calligraphy

But I still wasn’t ready to enter the shrine. There is some crossover in the history of Shinto and Buddhism and there is also a lot of similarities in the way people behave at the sites. Most have a purification area near the entrance where bamboo ladles are laid out on a fountain. To purify yourself, first you pour water onto one hand then onto the other, then rinse your mouth from the water in your hand and pour the remaining water out into the drain (not back into the fountain). Inside a Shinto shrine you swing a heavy rope pull to ring the gong get the god’s attention, then throw a coin into the (insanely loud) offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. For someone who was raised to be as quiet as possible in church this all feels quite noisy and public and jovial and I loved all of them.

I found out later that I had effectively come in the back door, that this shrine was the darling of Kamakura and a wide tree-lined street leads up to it from the train station, but I am used to nosing around and I see everything eventually. But I wasn’t expecting to see a wedding!

Wedding

As I came up to the main pavilion I saw the groom wearing a kimono and the bride in white wearing the traditional hat that my guidebook says is designed to hide the woman’s horns until after the wedding. The musicians sat on the side of the pavilion and were dressed in turquoise robes but everyone else stood outside, many dressed in beautiful kimonos – although there seemed to be as many professional photographers as guests at the wedding. Apparently part of the ceremony includes a shrine maiden dance which I missed but I did get to see the procession down to the main street where their rickshaws were waiting and that was pretty neat. Conveniently, the promenade led out to the train station and since I had checked my bags there in the morning, it made it easy to hop on the bullet train to Kyoto.

More photos from Kamakura are here.

 

Postcard from Tokyo

Tsukiji

It’s become very fashionable for people to describe Tokyo as a hectic, crowded place absolutely teeming with people and positioned squarely in the future. The host / author / blogger / yelper goes to dinner at the fighting robot cafe and then to a pachinko parlour and then maybe eats some fugu before passing through Shibuya crossing at rush hour on the way to Kabuki-cho, the frenetic pleasure district. This kind of thing. No one ever shows Meiji-Jingu shrine, with its 100,000 trees. Or the wide, empty streets of the Ginza on a late weekday morning. Naturally I was underwhelmed. It took me two entire days to get to Tokyo, during which time I passed through the rice paddies of Incheon, Korea, the industrial areas, vacant lots of Narita and then along the partially closed expressway to arrive at Tokyo station. Later I would have a near panic attack at the amount of people pushing through the station and the utter lack of coherency of the train schedule but arriving by bus in the middle of the day and walking to my hotel I marvelled at the quiet emptiness. When I had settled into my hotel I sat down with a cold beer and wrote this:

“I am simultaneously over and underwhelmed by Tokyo. It’s a big city, yes, but there are plenty of green spaces and doesn’t even feel that busy. The expressways are impressive but there are homeless people sleeping under them, like in any city. And there are expensive hotels and restaurants to be sure, but there are plenty of cheap ones too. It feels kind of like Manhattan to me and I think the only way I could have been awed by its size or density would have been to parachute straight into Shinjuku at rush hour. But maybe the things that make it feel almost recognizable are the same things that make it impenetrable. The department stored are like museums where you are not supposed to take photos and where you’re wasting everyone’s time if you don’t know what you want. The place is immaculate but there are no trash cans. Everything is in Japanese, except for some English words that catch the eye then end up being entirely random. The city is not built on a grid, the address scheme is almost nonsensical and street signs are rare. If you do find what you’re looking for, there is another level of impenetrability inherent in the manners and etiquette. Every man is wearing the same outfit; white undershirt, short-sleeved dress shirt, black slacks and shoes, black laptop shoulder bag – the uniform for some kind of capitalist army”

How true that would turn out to be, and Victoria Abbott Riccardi sums it up nicely in Untangling My Chopsticks, “things seem so easy until you try to understand them. An American acquaintance now living in Tokyo said that after his first week, he felt he could write a book about the country; a year later, only a magazine article; after fifteen year, only one sentence.”

Ramen

For dinner my first evening I went back to Tokyo station for ramen at “Ramen Street” – a collection of ramen shops where you order from a machine and have the option of paying with your metro card. I had some trouble with the order of operations (as well as my first realization that things were not going to be as simple as they seemed) but the ramen was delicious and deeply comforting – and I decided to be satisfied with the sheer fact that I had arrived in Japan and fed myself. At one point during my trip a friend had emailed and said she thought I was brave for travelling in Japan by myself. I hadn’t given it much thought because when I travelled often, it was frequently by myself and I like the freedom to spend as long as I like in a museum or occasionally eating lunch twice without forcing anyone onto my schedule. But if I had thought about it, about the fact that it was my first time in Asia or in a place where I knew only a few words of the language and none of the alphabet, my first time travelling alone in quite a while and after a hard year of set-backs that knocked big holes in my confidence, I’m not sure if I would have been so cavalier about it. I wrote in my journal, ” this is hard. Other times when I travelled I used beauty or money or knowledge (language, geography, etiquette) without even realizing it but now I have only the internet and the kindness of strangers.” The kindness of strangers started well before my trip, with people offering all kinds of suggestions for things to see and do and eat. Friends reached out to friends and my landlady introduced me to someone she knew in Tokyo and people everywhere were offering to help. Part of this is the Japanese culture – the importance of being polite and a gracious host is evident everywhere but as I sat eating my ramen in a crowded station bar, it was good to be reminded that people are kind and the world is a beautiful and interesting place.

Tsukiji

The next morning I had an early morning wake up call to check out Tsukiji Market, followed by the requisite sushi breakfast at Sushi Dai. Because it was such a food-focused outing, I’ve written a lot about it on my food blog.

I wrote:

I thought I would cry at the auction. I was actually prepared for the possibility that I might have to give up fish, so anxious am I already at the dire strait of the oceans. The sight of so many tuna lined up on the floor didn’t unhinge me, but the understanding that this was the second series of auctions that day and this happened almost every day of the year made me feel faint. But as much as I am passionate about ocean conservation and sustainable fisheries, it was hard to be angry here.

I hate that we are fishing tuna out of the water. I hate that Japan is still whaling, I hate that there was a mountain of Styrofoam and I all this is juxtaposed against the love I have of diving and undersea life. But instead what I felt was intense respect for these workers, readying their shops every day at 4 in the morning and doing their best to move food through the market in spite of the tourists who come to gawk at them, awe at the sheer diversity (of not only fish but produce) and beauty in the market as well as the frantic pace of bikes, pedestrians, cars, vans and scooter carts trying to get the fish delivered as quickly as possible.

In short, I thought it was pretty neat, even before I had the best sushi of my life.

Sushi

Matthew Amster Burton writes in Pretty Good Number One that ‘Tokyo is not beautiful but is full of beautiful things’ and I felt that too. I had no desire to climb the Skytree and even the wide commercial avenues of the Ginza were hard to take in but every side street I looked down had a shop or restaurant or that I wanted to check out, paper lanterns moving about softly in the breeze and bells tinkling invitingly, or a display of something so specialized you could hardly believe the shop stayed in business. The beauty here is in the details; a pair of hand-carved cedar chopsticks, made with love and incredible attention to detail and then wrapped in such beautiful packaging you would think it was a gem. Or a the wagashi, Japanese confectionary so detailed and beautiful that they really are edible gems, handled by glove-wearing attendants in the glamorous depachika department stores. Matt asked me in an email what I had seen that was beautiful and I replied that everything was beautiful. From the police motorcycles to the tengui handkerchiefs, everything has been made thoughtfully and well and when that sunk in my world broke a little bit. I watched a door man at a shop changing the position of the doors at closing time to lead outwards instead of inwards and I was ashamed for every mall in America.

Asakusa

But I only had a few days in the city so I took my metro card and ranged far and wide. I went to the Asakusa Buddhist temple complex, wandered around and snacked. I had the best sushi of my life again and I walked from the serenity of the Meiji-jingu Shinto shrine through Harajuku down into to the insanity of Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku. Kabuki-cho is the pleasure district – in any other city it would be called the red light district and there are a couple of strip bars here but there are also Maid Cafes, video arcades, pachinko parlours, photo studios where you can be digitally glammed up and who knows what else was missed in translation. Arriving here after work and getting caught up in the sea of commuters spilling out of Shinjuku station was the craziest version of Tokyo I ever saw. I got to take the photo below, a close-crop of one street but a pleasure district without much alcohol and no dancing isn’t really my thing so I continued back up under the station where I found the warren of yakitori joints and izakayas.

Shinjuku

There must have been 30 different places, all specializing in something different and most so small that the proprietor was grilling on the windowsill facing the street and passing meat down to patrons. The smell of smoke – from the grills and from all the men off work smoking and drinking – united the area called Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard’s Alley). My guidebook warns that some entire places are reserved for locals and I thought this was just code for “not friendly to foreigners” but then I saw a reserved sign hanging across the doorway of one shop.

Some shops were for noodles and several were dedicated to yakitori. I also saw some mushrooms and something cut in a half-circle. Zucchini? Then a guy turning a sausage to get it charred on all sides. I like walking down one alley and looking in the front of the restaurants then turning a corner and being able to see in the back. Finally I decided on a place and ordered the set menu which really meant that I had no idea what I was eating. My best guess is pork heart, chicken skin, chicken thigh, wing tip, negi (similar to a fat green onion) and some other kind of pork. I thought how funny it is that many people are scared to eat here and don’t worry about the etiquette because they don’t know a thing about it but for me it’s the opposite – I chewed happily on my mystery meat and blushed deeply when my neighbour passed me a tissue.

Drunkard Alley

Later I met up with a friend of a friend, a fellow lover of travel and decidedly awesome person, and we went to a grill-it-yourself izakaya in the area. Yoshiko ordered for us but at least here I could identify the giant scallops – as big as my hand, huge turban snails, sashimi and crab with quails eggs in them ready to be cooked. We sampled sake and shochu and chatted about all the amazing places in the world. Then suddenly it was late and we ran to catch the last train, smelling of smoke and grease and smiling broadly. Then in the morning I left for Kamakura.

Snacks

Here are all the photos from my trip: https://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157647124951877/

Blue Period

Blue

“Work seemed fundamental for man, something which enabled him to endure the aimless flight of time.” – The Woman in the Dunes, Kōbō Abe

I have written on a post-it note, “You have to have some faith. Your moment is coming” from this excellent post on Medium. But it’s getting old. The other day I spent the entire day painting and took Riley to the dog park where she played in the water and I met a girl from France. Then I went to my graphic design class and came home and read my travel book until 1 in the morning. A few days later I went to my first SAMbassador volunteer shift at the Seattle Art Museum and it turned out to be the opening of Pop! Departures (the pop culture exhibit we have on with Warhol and Lichtenstein) as well as the monthly jazz concert and several tours. So it was packed and party-like and I had a blast chatting with people and looking at art. I am also working my way through a self-study course on Japanese poetry and literature and will be taking a class in Japanese language in a few weeks. I’m updating my resume and checking out grad schools, I took a photography class. I’ve joined close to 30 meetups and four professional organizations. I’m systematically checking out different cafes to write in and I’m exploring Washington State. I just got back from Japan and an exploratory trip around the Olympic Peninsula. This week I am going to Vancouver, then my sister is coming to visit and then Matt and Riley and I are going to go on a road trip around the Western United States. I’ve read over 100 books this year, some started and finished in the same day.

My life is pretty freaking great – on paper anyways. In actuality, I am going out of my freaking mind. So much of it just feels like filling time.

When we first embarked on this move to Seattle, we were ready to drop everything and leave immediately. Truly, I thought we would have to send Matt down and I would follow because things were happening so quickly. But then things changed and there was a bit of a wait so I picked up some projects and settled in and waited. But then there was another setback and another until it seemed like the rug was being pulled out from under me every two or three months. It’s hard to keep up the momentum and the hope that your moment is coming when you’re constantly being told to wait. It’s exhausting.

The latest is that the USCIS Service Center in Nebraska is reviewing my application for Employment Authorization and that will take them three months – until November 15th. But instead of having faith I’m steeling myself for another delay. I came home from Japan thinking that I would be able to work at the end of September only to be told I’d have to wait some more. It’s different from being unemployed but employable – that’s a hard place to be in but at least you can apply yourself to finding a job. And retirement…well, a fellow volunteer at the art gallery told me happily that he spends a lot of time just sitting and thinking about things and that when I was old enough for retirement I would be ok with sitting and thinking too. Maybe. Maybe it’s true that life catches up with you or that if you have the rest of time to plan our your retirement it’s easier, but I don’t think so. I think I’m more like this taxi driver I heard interviewed on a podcast recently:

Host: Do you look forward to retirement?

Taxi Driver: No, I’m scared of it. I don’t feel that retirement is exactly the best of things for me. When you retire you sort of go into a shell and you’re like the forgotten person. You get bogged down in nothing and you do nothing and you wind up nothing.

Host: That’s interesting, so here you put in a minimum 12 hours a day, 7 days a week but you feel more tired…

Taxi Driver: …if I didn’t. Because when I’m not busy I get very weary.

-Radio Diaries #19 Working Then And Now

I like being busy. In truth I always imagined that my retirement would look much the same as my days do now; walking the dog, going to yoga, meeting up with people for various activities, travelling, cooking, reading… I’m grateful for the time I’ve had to spend doing these things and for Matt working so hard, but I want to contribute. I want to be able to get into the rhythm of working on something for longer than a quarter, to stop filling time.

It’s Thanksgiving in Canada today. I’m going up to see some friends and have dinner with my family. I’m grateful to be able to do that, on what is a weekday in Seattle. It’s a beautiful fall day, my favourite time of year. I love wearing sweaters and going for walks in the leaves with my dog and a mug of tea. I love the rain. I love the feeling of back to school and settling down to work. And so I feel that if my moment is coming, it will come in the fall. I’m so ready.

Adventure Time!

Grins

Most of July was spent on unpacking and setting up our place in Seattle and hanging art and preserving fruit because the farmers market is only a block away and I can’t seem to help myself. But I have picked up the Washington State Visitors guide and made all kinds of notes in it in preparation for visitors and exploring on my own in August. So it was kind of funny that my sister came down and right off the bat suggested we go to Oregon to ride dune buggies.

Oregon Coast

I was thinking that we would tour around the Woodinville wineries, maybe go for a bike ride and check out a new neighbourhood but I am always down for both a road trip and an adventure and both together is just not something that I need to be convinced of.

My friends, knowing that I love adventure, took me snowmobiling for my staggette and I’d been ATVing before (and of course I ride my motorcycle on a regular basis) but neither of us had been in a dune buggy or on a sand dune and Ally hadn’t even been to Oregon!

Oregon Coast

We took Highway 101 for maximum coastal scenery, through such funny little towns as Centralia, Pe Ell and Lebam, past a hundred antique shops and drive-through espresso booths, and stopping at every third pull out so that I could take a photo.

Cannon Beach

Of course we stopped at Cannon Beach for a photo as well as a walk and I was agog at the size of it. I had visited about 10 years ago – long enough ago that I was not surprised to see how much the town had grown – but I was surprised that I had so drastically mis-remembered the size of the beach. It’s the kind of beach that makes you want to play; do giant leaps across the sand or twirl or fly a kite just to try and consume a little bit of it. When I was last there it was winter and no one was on the beach but my boyfriend and I bough toy airplanes anyways and ran around throwing them until they were destroyed and we were freezing.

Cannon Beach

The other thing that surprised me is that it’s not even close to the most beautiful part of the coastline. I guess the last time I was there we just got back on the I-5 and didn’t think of it but there is a Long Beach in each province and state on the Pacific Coast and with few exceptions, it’s really just one long beach from Canada to Mexico, twisting and rolling through amazing pockets of scenery that can only be described as spectacular. I am definitely going to have to go back and do it again on my motorcycle.

Newport

We crashed in a beachside hotel in Newport and woke up in a cloud – there were people on the beach but I could barely see them. Even so, it was wonderfully peaceful and the kind of thing I used to dream about when we lived in the city. Sitting outside drinking my coffee and listening to the waves would have made the trip amazing for me all on its own but we were only an hour away from the dunes so the day just kept getting better!

Oregon Coast

Oregon Sand Dunes

I probably don’t have to tell you that the Oregon Sand Dunes are ridiculously fun. We were a little dismayed that they wouldn’t rent us a dune buggy (too expensive for them to maintain as rentals) so we hired a professional driver who took us out on the dunes for an awesome ride and then we rented an ATV and went back and did the whole thing over again ourselves. I’m glad we did both and I’m also glad that they didn’t rent us a dune buggy. We told them we wanted to go fast and so they let us take their sole high-powered machine (and I suddenly had flashbacks of the high-powered snowmobile ending up in a ditch) and we still managed to almost fly over a sand cliff AND got it stuck. I think when the operators give their fast machine to two women they assume it’s going to be babied. Not in this family!

Ready to rock

More photos from the trip here.

Diving

We were barely back in town when it was time to go on the next adventure – a combination camping, diving and crabbing trip. I have been bugging Matt to go camping with me and Riley for a year now and I’ve been trying to go crab diving for way longer than that.

Shine Tidelands 1

We drove down to a place outside of Sheldon in Hood Canal – about 2.5 hours south of here and camped in a state park and it was pretty fun – Riley LOVED the tent – but we were literally closer to our neighbours than if we had camped in our backyard. I thought that was pretty funny. And then we drove up the peninsula to Shine Tidelands State park to meet some divers and get some crab.

Crab

I managed to catch some females and too small crabs but came back empty handed for the barbecue. Luckily others had better luck and we had a wonderful feast of crab, clams, mussels, foraged blackberries and cold beer. Ah, summertime!

Crab

Up next: Mount St. Helen’s, a loop around Olympic park, some more visitors, sailing, then Japan.

The Month of June Trembled Like a Butterfly

Hammock

“Green was the silence, wet was the light, the month of June trembled like a butterfly.”

~Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets

Sometime in June while I was living in my car, I saw that piece of poem written on a sign. I sighed happily (as I often do when I encounter unexpected poetry) and then wondered if June was trembling because of anticipation, or fear or just speed…and then it was gone and I forgot all about it.

Maceo
I don’t remember the first time I saw the city of Vancouver. I was probably too young. I was born there, in Grace hospital (that burnt down and was rebuilt as Women & Children’s) but grew up in the suburb of Langley. The first few visits to the city that I do remember felt like a long journey – over the big orange Port Mann Bridge and then a seemingly endless stretch of nothingness until we were off the freeway. But even when I was asleep (probably most of the time), I always knew we had reached the city because I woke up when we stopped at 1st and Commercial and I would marvel at the gritty urbanness of the gun shop at that intersection, fiercely gated and barred up. Much later I lived right across the street from where it had been and felt completely safe, always wondering if I had just made it up. Our trips into town seemed to revolve around something my dad had forgotten at his office on Hastings Street or a Chinese food dinner at either Wok With Yan or the Beijing House. I remember trying so hard to get my hands around the chopsticks and playing next to the koi pond in the floor but I am suspicious of memory. Even though I can picture Wok With Yan’s restaurant where the White Spot is now on Georgia Street, I know I was very young. I feel like I must be getting something wrong – not least because I haven’t seen either of my parents eat Chinese food in maybe 25 years. To think of them making such a long drive into town with small children to eat it boggles the mind.

Vancouver
The last time I saw Vancouver was at Crab Park early in the morning. I took a photo because it was gorgeous out and it felt poignant but truly I have many photos of our dog park, a place that I have been to almost daily this past year. This time though, we were in a rush. We had cleaners to deal with, cars to pack, and then a whole lot of paperwork to fill out at the border because finally, after a long wait, we were moving to Seattle.

Riley
I went to university in Victoria but I’ve always thought of Vancouver as my home. I read a poem once in which ‘home’ was defined by wherever you had your heart broken. In a way, I think that’s true…it’s where you had your formative experiences. I lived in the West End, East Van, Cambie Village, Commercial Drive, Main Street, Oak Street and Gastown. I ate at SO many restaurants (sometimes even consecutive businesses in the same storefront), hiked in the forests, dove all over the coast, got married, worked for several different companies as well as started my own, and made lots of friends…for all of these reasons Vancouver will be home but also for all of those reasons it was also time to leave.

Moving van
It’s always been a dream of mine to live abroad and I’ve dabbled in it (multiple home-stays in France an Germany and a lot of travel) and prepared for it (I’m a certified TESL instructor and a dive master and I have a filing cabinet worth of books and maps) but there has always been something holding me back, usually a boy or a girl, sometimes debt, at times common sense.

Lake City
But we are finally here, just barely abroad, and that’s ok. It’s a step. From here we can go elsewhere and even this border hop has had its share of paperwork and problems. Had we moved to say, Poland or Japan, we would currently be standing in a drug store hoping we were buying toothpaste and not hemorrhoid cream, walking everywhere for fear of driving or taking transit and ending up in another city, and eating all kinds of interesting new food. Instead we are driving around in our same cars (minus one motorcycle and one truck), speaking English, eating sushi and burgers at the two decent restaurants in our neighbourhood and when we get lost, we pull up google maps to tell us where to go. Easy Peasy.

We are glad of the adventure, in any case, and ready for all the next ones.

Seattle

A better quote for this month might be this famous one:

“Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.”

~Anais Nin

Home
Wish us luck. And come visit.