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/

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

summer

You know those summer days when you were a kid that stretched on an on? You would ride your bike to the store and then a friend’s house and entire days would pass where nothing happened except being hot. And then just when you thought you could not be more bored, it was time to go back to school and you instantly wanted to take back all the bad things you said about sitting around doing nothing. My summer was not like that at all. So much happened this past spring – we decided to move to and did all the prep for moving to Seattle and then deferred it until next year, I applied for and was accepted to the Masters in Digital Media program at the Centre for Digital Media in September, I went to Tofino for an epic spring break to go surfing and diving, and we got a dog and closed our company – that I planned a summer off to recover from the burnout.

I’m not very good at sitting around, I know this about myself, but I planned to hang out at the dog park every day and read books, except for the days that we went on hikes in the mountains and swam in lakes. It was going to be lazy, hot and glorious.

But let’s start with the basics – small white puppies can’t spend all day outside at the park. They get sunburnt and are too excited to sit on a blanket while I’m reading. They also don’t know how to swim and can’t go on hikes longer than an hour (although we did get in a couple of laps around Buntzen before I learned that). So I did a lot of reading, but it was mostly on patios close to home while she was having a nap. (Ah, the joys of being a new parent!)

I can’t blame it all on the pup though. I am an awful person to travel with if you like beach vacations. Before the tickets are even booked, I will inevitably have a long list of places I want to visit and have no problem zig-zagging across town or eating 2 or 3 lunches in order to fit it all in. So I should have known that faced with a vast expanse of summer days, I would get antsy and start finding exciting ways to fill them up. We went to puppy training and we learned to sail, I started Crossfit, deferred my MA until next year, took about twenty classes online, and read a lot of books.

We had some adventures too (see below). It was, in fact, glorious.

Summer

Diving Skookumchuck

So in June I went on a dive trip to Powell River with friends. We did a couple of dives in Mermaid’s Cove at Saltery Bay before heading to Egmont and doing some wreck, drift and wall diving at Agamemnon Channel, the wreck of the HMCS Chaudiere, and the rapids at Skookumchuck Narrows. I find the mermaid statue (the star attraction of Mermaid’s Cove) to be a little creepy and for all the talk of Skookumchuck being some of the fastest water in the world, I think one of our dives in Browning Pass last year was faster but this was a fantastic trip.

Warbonnet

We were in the water with orcas not very far away (although we didn’t see them underwater), I got a chance to try out my new underwater camera that Matt had just bought me as well as to test out my new Deep and Wreck PADI diving specialties. The life out here is amazing and the hospitality at Porpoise Bay Charters is so homey and welcoming I could have easily stayed.

Barnacle

Here are the photos from the Powell River trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157634176861753/

Temple

Visiting the International Buddhist Temple 

I was at a bit indecisive at the beginning of summer – get a dog or go travelling – but I figured with Matt working so hard getting a dog would be some joy (and pee!) that he could share. I was (and still am) hungry for travel though, so I took myself to Richmond’s International Buddhist Temple for a mini-adventure. It has the largest gold Buddha in North America and many beautiful murals and gardens and once inside, I really did feel transported. I would have loved to stay and read my book or meditate by one of the pools. There’s also a restaurant on site where you pay by donation and that was pretty exciting for me although they brought me way too much food.

Walterses

Riding Highway 20

In July we checked an item off of Matt’s life list – to ride Highway 20 through the Cascades to Osoyoos and then home through Manning Park. He wasn’t in it so much for the stunning mineral-rich turquoise lakes, beautiful wastelands of flooded river banks, mountains or valleys but rather for the sexy S-curves and the lack of stop lights. When I stopped to take a photo of the scenery, Matt took one of the road. It was hot but we were both so happy.

Osoyooos

We stopped for lunch in Winthrop, a delightful gold-towny surprise and then stayed in Osoyoos, which is much more of a dump than I remembered. “Are those real leathers?” the guy at the front desk asked when we checked in and then goggled a bit when we wrote “Ducati” on the vehicle registrar. Needless to say we had not made it up the valley to any of the wineries but we wouldn’t have had anywhere to put bottles anyways. – same problem with fruit from Keremeos – but we were just there for the road so next time we’ll stay in Winthrop and ride it all the way back too.

Keremeos

Here are the photos from our Highway 20 road trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157634953729684/

Quadra Island

Visiting Quadra Island

We had tried and failed to go camping a couple of times so Matt finally found us a cabin on Quadra Island for the August long weekend. Quadra Island is pretty far away but in exchange for a bit of a car ride (which Riley would give half her breakfast for anyways), we got an enormous house (sleeps 10!) with an enormous patio, a hot tub and a bbq. Hell yes, this is the life! We were so stoked about it even before we saw how clear the water was (I could see urchins 60 ft down and REALLY regretted leaving my dive gear) and the porpoises playing in the channel or went canoeing out to our little island and exploring the bluffs. Riley was equally stoked about being able to run around outside by herself and explore under the deck and she did go in the canoe and in the water with a little coaxing but we weren’t there long enough to get the ‘city’ out of her – she still peed in the driveway every morning.

Walterses

We liked it so much that we’re planning on coming back next year, although it’s going to be even more of a slog from Seattle…we might have to come for a week. And I still want to go camping at some point.

Sea

Here are the photos from our Quadra Island trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157634951331674/

art

Nick Bantock Art Workshop

The next weekend found me on another ferry, this time to Sidney-by-the-Sea by the Swartz Bay ferry terminal. I went for an art workshop with Nick Bantock that was even more awesome than I could have imagined. It was less technique heavy than the workshops I’m used to with Jeanne Krabbendam but provided enough ideas and energy to get me started on several projects – which I will probably have to revisit in winter.

Browning Pass

Diving Browning Pass on the Mamro

I lasted about seven months after the last trip to Browning Pass before I had to book it again, this time on a liveabord. I wanted to go back with a camera but now I think I may just have to go back every year. I’ve been diving in some amazing warm water places but this has got to be one of my favourite places in the world, mist and mountains (and more orcas!) topside and a world or colour down below – corals and sponges covered in fish and invertebrates – stretching as far as the eye can see.

Undersea

There were only 6 of us on the boat which was nice and cosy. We had an opportunity to stop at Telegraph Cove  – an old whaling station – on the way up to Port Hardy and have a look through the museum. The whole town is on boardwalks around the cove and the museum has whale skeletons of all varieties. You think you understand how big whales are but it really hits home when you can stand inside a jaw with other people or use a vertebrae as a stool.

Whale vertebrae

Here are the photos from my Browning Pass dive trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157635245601126/

wedding

Jenn & Jordan’s Wedding

And then even before my gear was dry we were off to Salmon Arm for Jenn & Jordan’s wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony with lots of lovely people in attendance and the rain just made it a little more interesting.

Here are the photos from the wedding and our trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157635239166625/

 

I had planned to settled in in September and get a job but Matt’s going to Europe for a couple of weeks so I’m going to tag along! We’re certainly going to need home for a rest after all this.

Sail Away, Salty Dog!

Sailing

I have wanted to learn how to sail for approximately forever. There had to be a boat somewhere in amongst my many forms of love for the sea and power boats just seem like marine cars to me so I have known since I was a child that at some point, I was going to learn how to sail. Having time off and no real direction seemed like the perfect time to start checking things off my life list so Matt signed us up for the Crew course at Cooper Boating on Granville Island.

Matt & Degan

We had done a half day “see if you like it” sail with them back before we got married. This is us about to go out, pretty sure we’re going to like it.

Sailing

And we did like it, in spite of the grey days and having to be rescued on the way back in because the engine had run out of oil. Of course sailing through the Bahamas didn’t do anything to dissuade us either so we rode our bikes down and prepared to learn the ropes with two other women in our class.

Vancouver

Most of the what we learned in the crew classroom sessions was what was required for the PCoC (Pleasure Craft Operator’s Card) exam but we also learned the language of sailing.

I thought I already knew how to talk like a sailor but there is a different name for every single thing on a sailboat and many parts of that language have made it into this one. Some people would find that infuriating but I think it’s delightful and I have lit up with a big smile in the middle of several conversations lately when I come across a new crossover term. Some are obviously nautical, like knowing the ropes or loose cannon and some are so lost that we only know the expression –  like the only thing most of us know about gunwales is that they can be either full or packed – but the really glorious ones are the ones you say all the time, without really thinking about they came from. Like, slush fund or bitter end and so many more: taken aback, hand over fist, high and dry, by and large, hard and fast, make my way home, etc. I don’t think I’ve ever used between the devil and the deep blue sea but I love it so I’m going to have to rig a conversation where I can work it in.

Matt

We also learned how to sail, in spite of being out in 21 knot winds (a storm warning) on our first day and almost ramming another boat. We got through it though and brought our bruises and rope burns to Day 2 where our instructor filled in all the knowledge gaps and we got to know our points of sail, how to recover a object (man overboard) from the water, how to tack and how to dock. It was very exciting but we still only knew the basic basics* and weren’t really qualified to do anything other than crew on other people’s boats. So with Matt’s urging, I impulsively registered for the Skipper class the week after. He was unfortunately in Seattle, so he’ll have to take it next month.

Well! The Skipper class was a whole different ball game (there’s got to be a nautical term for that), because instead of just knowing what to do when the Captain asks, now we were learning to make the decisions and call out to the crew to get things done. This involves knowing your points of sail, knowing your  plan, knowing your boat and keeping close watch on the sail, sheets, lines and tell-tales to make sure everything is ship-shape. I have no trouble giving orders but I discovered quickly (with the help of the instructor yelling at me) that I am tiller challenged. Tillers work in the opposite way that steering wheels do and being tiller challenged means that I invariably move the tiller in the opposite way that I want to go. On a tight turn with the sails hardened, this can be pretty dramatic and by the end of the day I was exhausted, embarrassed and questioning whether I should even bother going back the next day.

Bowline

 

It’s hard to not be good at it when you’ve wanted to do something for so long and I was so frustrated that it didn’t come naturally. I thought maybe I needed to crew under some good skippers for the summer to get the hang of it but Matt was very encouraging and especially as the other girls had spent a lot of time on boats it seemed at least worth trying. And a day sailing has got to be better than a day at home on the couch so I practiced my bowlines and studied up on my theory.

Skipper Degan

And the next day I got my Day Skipper certification! Thanks to Drew, a much better and very patient teacher.

I was still embarrassed but pretty proud and when I got home I saw that Seth Godin had published this:

The ludicrousness of embarrassed: I understand why we may have evolved to have the automatic, out-of-control feeling of embarrassed in some situations. But is it useful? Has being embarrassed ever helped you accomplish anything useful? We can (and should) work to eliminate it from our emotional vocabulary. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth not being embarrassed about. And if it’s not worth doing, don’t do it. One reason to avoid doing something is because it leads to embarrassment. A better reason is because it’s not the right thing.

It was the right thing and I’m really glad I went back to finish it off. I still need to spend a lot of time practicing and Matt needs to get his certification but we’re making way. We’ve got time. And when it’s time for us to buy a sailboat, well, we’re just going to get one with a steering wheel.

 

__________

*Our instructor told us the 4 stages of learning, which I hadn’t heard before but quite like:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know
  2. Conscious incompetence – you do know just how much you don’t know
  3. Conscious competence – you can do it but you have to think about it
  4. Unconscious competence – you know it so well you do it without thinking