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. A 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. You hardly ever see the Meiji-Jingu shrine, with its 100,000 trees, or the wide, empty streets of Ginza on a late weekday morning. It took me two entire days to get to Tokyo, during which time I passed through the rice paddies of Incheon, Korea, industrial areas around the Seoul airport, 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 number 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:

“Tokyo is a big city, yes, but there are plenty of green spaces and the pace isn’t as fast as I expected. 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 a bit like Manhattan to me so I think what I’m surprised about is the lack of culture shock that I was bracing myself for.  But maybe the things that make it feel almost recognizable are the same things that are masking cultural mysteries. The department stores 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 city is immaculate but there are no trash cans anywhere. Everything is in Japanese, except for some English words that catch my eye then end up being entirely random. The city is not built on a grid, the address scheme is almost incomprehensive, 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 office-worker army”

Victoria Abbott Riccardi expresses something similar 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 years, 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 success of having 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 back 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’ve travelled, I leveraged 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, 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 that the person behind me had helped me order, 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 early morning sushi breakfast at Sushi Dai. 

I wrote on my food blog (now defunct):

I thought I would cry at the fish auction. I was actually prepared for the possibility that I might have to give up eating 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. However, 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 all this is juxtaposed against the love I have of diving and undersea life, but instead of being angry, I felt 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 (not only of fish but produce too) 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 ate 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’ that really resonated with me. I had no desire to climb the Skytree but every side street I looked down had a shop or restaurant 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 could stay in business. The beauty here is in the details; a pair of hand-carved cedar chopsticks made with love and incredible attention to detail then wrapped in such beautiful packaging it looks like a treasure. Or wagashi, Japanese confectionery, handled by glove-wearing attendants in the glamorous depachika department stores that are so detailed and beautiful that they really are edible gems. 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 tengui handkerchiefs, everything has been hand-crafted thoughtfully. And the attention to detail shows through in the service as well. I sat and watched a doorman 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

I only had a few days in Tokyo but I took my metro card and ranged far and wide. I went to the Asakusa Buddhist temple complex, wandered around and snacked on street food. 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 the insanity of Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku. Kabuki-cho is the pleasure district (in another city it might 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 that got missed in translation. Arriving in Kabuki-cho at rush-hour and getting caught up in the sea of commuters spilling out of Shinjuku station felt like the Tokyo postcard that I described at the start of this post. I explore for a while and then 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 then passing meat down to patrons. The smell of smoke (from the grills and from all the men off work smoking cigarettes while they drank) united the area called Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard’s Alley). My guidebook warned 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 specific to noodles and others were dedicated to yakitori. I also saw some mushrooms and something cut in a half-circle (zucchini?). I had fun walking down an alley and looking in the front doors and windows 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 meant that I had no idea what I was eating. My best guess is pork heart, chicken skin, chicken thigh, wingtip, 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 didn’t really care to know more.

Drunkard Alley

Later I met up with a friend of a friend, a fellow travel-lover and a decidedly awesome person, and we went to a grill-it-yourself izakaya in the area. She ordered for us but it was easy to 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 so late and we ran to catch the last train, smelling of smoke and grease and grinning broadly. 

Snacks

In the morning, I left for Kamakura.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

summer

You know those summer days when you were a kid that stretched on and 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. This past spring we decided to move to Seattle and got everything ready…and then deferred it until next year. Then I applied for and was accepted to the Master’s program at the Centre for Digital Media and decided not to go. It is too much of what I have already been doing as a career for me to spend the time and money learning. I went to Tofino for an epic spring break surfing and diving, we got a dog and closed our company,  we learned to sail, I started Crossfit, took about twenty classes online, and read a lot of books.

And then there were more adventures:

Summer

Diving Skookumchuck Narrows

Some friends and I went to Powell River and 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. A fantastic trip.

Warbonnet

Barnacle

Visiting the International Buddhist Temple 

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. 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 too,  although they brought me way too much food.

Temple

Riding Highway 20

In July we rode our motorcycles 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 stoplights. 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.

Walterses

We stopped for lunch in Winthrop, a delightful gold-towny surprise and then stayed in Osoyoos, which was less exciting than I remembered – especially with not being able to do any wine-tasting or fruit-hauling.  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

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 with an enormous patio, a hot tub and a bbq! We were delighted and wished we could have stayed a lot longer.  I could see urchins 60 ft down from the deck (which had me regretting not bringing my dive gear), and porpoises playing in the channel a little ways out. We went canoeing and beachcombing and hiking to explore the bluffs. Riley was so happy to be able to run around outside by herself and explore under the deck. 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

Sea

Quadra Island

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 come winter.

art

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 liveaboard. 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 of colour down below – corals and sponges covered in fish and invertebrates – stretching as far as the eye can see.

Browning Pass

Undersea

There were only 6 of us on the boat which was nice and cozy. 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 vertebra as a stool.

Whale vertebrae

Sail Away, Salty Dog!

Sailing

I have wanted to learn how to sail for a really long time. I have always had such a powerful love of the sea that I knew I was going to learn how to sail at some point. Having this time off work and no real direction seemed like the perfect time to start checking things off my life list so we signed up for the Crew course at Cooper Boating on Granville Island.

Matt & Degan

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.

Vancouver

Most of 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 some of the language of sailing. There is a different name for every single thing on a sailboat and many parts of that language have made it into this (current, daily use) one. I find the crossover words delightful and love knowing the history of them. Some are obviously nautical  (knowing the ropes, loose cannon), but many are more obscure; slush fund, bitter end, 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.

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 an object (man overboard) from the water, and how to tack and how to dock.

Bowline

Then I took the Skipper class – to learn 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 a 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 and embarrassed. But 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, and now I have my Day Skipper certification too.