What I’ll miss and not miss about Japan

I’m sitting in the Osaka airport, getting ready to a board flight to Budapest, via Dubai. After a two-day layover in Budapest, we are off to Timisoara, Romania, where I’ll start my Fulbright teaching assignment at West University.

Before I leave Japan, here are a few things I’ll miss, and a few things I won’t:

Things I will miss about Japan:

  1. 7/11 Stores. The 7/11 stores in Japan are, for the most part, clean, stocked with nutritious Japanese food and run by people who are polite. I will especially miss the onigiiri–a ball of rice with plums or any kind of fresh fish rice wrapped in nigiri. Atticus especially likes onigiri because he learned that’s what samurai warriors carried in their pockets on long journeys. Sujata says that if you are looking for an Air B and B in Japan, make sure it’s close to both a train station and a 7/11 and that’s good advice.
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The 7/11 around the corner from us in Osaka
  1. Ramen Shops. We have three or four ramen shops in Denver and none of them hold a candle to even the worst ramen we’ve had here in Japan. My favorite ramen shop is a little 6-seat corner shop under an elevated train near the Osaka Mall. We walked in there this past Sunday afternoon and in addition to being served some most delicious ramen, one of the patrons (a local who was friendly with the owner) shared his sushi with us (which he had brought in, probably from 7/11).
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The exterior of a typical ramen shop
  1. Japanese Public Transportation. There may be another country in the world that has a sophisticated public transportation as Japan’s, but I’ve never been there. For the past three weeks, we have used our Japan Rail passes and they have taken us everywhere we have wanted to go on this island–that includes big cities and small, out of the way towns. Beyond that the trains are clean and they run frequently and on time. It is simply astonishing how the public transportation systems, especially in the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka move people around. Finally, the shinkansens (the high-speed trains that crisscross the country) are brilliant. It is maddening that the U.S. can’t put together a public transportation system like what they have here in Japan.
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Osaka Station–Japan Railways
  1. Bowing and saying “Arigato gozaimasu!” I love how the Japanese bow as a sign of greeting and respect. I especially love bowing to older folks as I’m walking down the street or moving through the train stations. “Arigato gozaimasu” means “thank you very much,” and literally everywhere you go in Japan you hear people singing out, “Arigato gozaimasu!!”
  1. The Japanese people I’ve met and had contact with. They are an excessively kind and gracious folk. I love their understated emotions, the way they smile at me when I muster a few Japanese words and, especially, the way the elderly Japanese women fawn over my daughter.
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Yusuke, who gave Atticus and I the best haircuts we’ve ever had

Things I will not miss about Japan:

  1. Hitting my head. If you are over 6′, like I am, Japan is a treacherous country. Most of the light fixtures and door casings hover anywhere from 5’9″ to 5’11” off the floor. This means that pretty much anywhere I go there are things looming in the direction of my scalp.
  1. People staring at me. I suspect this has something to do with #1. I know it’s not because I’m terrifically handsome or that I have foreign object hanging from my nose, ears or mouth. I’ve actually seen dudes standing in front of me elbow their friends and then nod their head my way.
  1. Shopping/Malls. I really hate shopping and I especially hate shopping malls. In Japan, you cannot get away from either of these things. Each rail stop is anchored by a large shopping mall, so you literally have to walk through a mall each time you change trains or get off at your stop. Beyond that, people are just shopping everywhere, all the time. I really can’t figure out where they put all the stuff.
  1. Shopping for jeans. I didn’t pack any jeans in my backpack because they are heavy and I knew it would be super hot in all the places we have been traveling, so I’ve just been wearing shorts and Kuhl travel pants. Japan is a very fashionable culture–people look smart and stylish so I thought (wrongly) that if I could get a cool pair of Japanese denim that I’d fit right in and then people would look at my jeans and not elbow their mates about the excessively tall, white guy standing next to them at the 7/11. This quest has been an absolute and major fail and I am convinced (now, after wandering through countless department and even ’boutique’ jeans stores) that there is not a single pair of jeans in this entire country that fit me. Oh, and it’s the same for sneakers. They have to coolest Converse Chuck Taylor Hi Tops here. None of them fit me. Yesterday, desperate, I asked a clerk if they carried a size 11 and she looked at me, shook her head vigorously, and made the classic Japanese “No!” sign–you just cross your arms in front of you, bow and shake your head quickly back and forth. Sujata caught this and burst out laughing right there in front of the poor shop girl.
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Japanese “No!”
  1. Smoking in restaurants. It’s not too common in the bigger restaurants near city centers, but if you pop into the smaller ramen or sushi shops (which we like to do) off the beaten path, people are smoking, and it really sucks. It’s the same in the bars. Sujata and I went to this little place around the corner from out apartment last night and we were the only two people (of 6, including the bartender) who were not smoking.

I go for a swim rather than watch the debate

If I were back in the States, I suspect that I’d be doing what most of my friends are doing now–wringing their hands, yelling or throwing things at the television or just staring wide eyed and slack jawed at the inanities and sorrowful state of our politics.

I didn’t watch the first presidential debate. It’s Tuesday morning here in Osaka, and watching television during the day depresses me. I don’t feel much of a duty to watch and I expect that it will be talked about until the end of the Republic (which seems like it’s looming), so I’ll have many chances to hear/read about it.

Sujata took the kids to Universal Studios (thank you, Sujata!), which left me a full, wide open day to do as I please and the best part (so far–it’s still afternoon) was a swim at the Osaka Pool.

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Outside the Osaka Pool

I haven’t been able to swim since we were in Phnom Penh and that was nearly a month ago. I couldn’t find a decent pool in Vietnam and up until today that was the case in Japan as well. It’s not like there aren’t good pools here, it’s just that they can be difficult to get to, especially when you rely on walking (Sapana calls it Bus #11) or public transportation. Deciphering pool schedules in Japan is also challenging. Yesterday morning I checked the Osaka Pool schedule and it said they were open so I walked the one mile to the site, only to find they were closed. I’m here to spend time with my family and sightsee but I have to say that one of my dreams is to travel around the world visiting and writing about different swimming pools. I generally talk to the folks who work at the pools and I’ve been amazed by the kind of information you can get–for instance in Darwin, I had a long conversation with the pool manager about the history of that particular pool, how it fits in with the larger neighborhood and the fact they the City was getting ready to rip out the existing pool and put in a much larger and competition-friendly pool. This is harder to do, of course, in Japan where all I can say (with hand gestures) is “How much swim?” or “Locker room this way?” I look and sound like such a fool.

The Osaka Pool was, by far, the best pool I’ve found–not just in Japan, but all the places I’ve swam on this trip. First of all, the structure is enormous and it looks like a giant space ship.

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The Osaka Pool, ready to take off, beyond the trees

Most of the pools I swim at home are housed in ugly, hopelessly square brick buildings that look like some tight-wad public administrator held a gun to the head of the architect who designed them and promised to shoot if the architect went 1 cent over the already-paltry budget. Not the Osaka Pool–the thing looks like it’s ready to lift off.

It’s lovely inside as well. Not private-pool-you-can’t-come-in-here-unless-you-pay-$30 kind of lovely. I never go to those pools anyway–I always look for public pools mostly because they are less expensive–I paid 700 yen which equals 7 US dollars to swim at the Osaka Pool–but also because I don’t like going to those toney places anyway.

Like so many other things in Japan, you purchase your entry ticket at a vending machine, even though there is a lovely person sitting behind the counter just a few paces from the machine.

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The vending machine where you purchase your entry ticket

The locker room was spacious and clean and it even had lockers with free locks. This is a big plus–most of the places I swim at don’t even have lockers, let alone free locks. On more than a number of occasions, I’ve had to tote my shoes, my bag and whatever else I was carrying with me to the pool side and kind of keep an eye on it between strokes.

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Free locker!

The very best thing about the Osaka Pool, though, was that it was 50 meters. I love 50 meter pools because I feel like I can really get my strokes going and I just love the freedom and beauty of that long line ahead of me.

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One of my favorite sights

I was lucky, too, in that the pool was virtually empty today. I had an entire lane all to myself. This, too, is a big deal. One of the reasons I love to swim is because I don’t have to think about anything outside of what I’m doing but if I’m sharing a lane I have to keep an eye on the other person and wonder if they are overtaking me or vice versa. When I’m running or cycling, for instance, I always have to be thinking “Is that dude in the car going to hit me?” or “Can I pass this other cyclist without getting hit by the oncoming car?” I don’t mind sharing lanes at the pool and, in fact, when it’s crowded and I have my own lane I always make way for another swimmer (a lot of swimmers don’t do this and it’s really annoying).

I listened to Charles Mingus’ Ah Um on the walk to the pool and Nick Cave’s The Good Son on the way back. Then I stopped and picked up some fresh onigiri (I am going to miss Japanese onigiri!)  and ate it back at our apartment. I thought about the debate and the upcoming election a little bit, but it felt more like a pesky insect that buzzes your head everyonce in awhile.

Now, I’m off for another adventure.

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Post swim selfie

Our own Tripadvisor

We are wrapping up our visit to Japan as well as, this is hard to believe, the first leg of our three-part adventure.

Up to this point, our trip has been more exciting and interesting than I ever imagined. We have had a few glitches here and there, but overall, our travels and the time we are spending together have been amazing. We have been moving for nine weeks now so part of me is looking forward to settling down in Romania and slowing the pace down a bit. Another part of me will miss the peripatetic nature of our days.

Pulling off a trip like this involves a great deal of planning. There is the long-term planning, like purchasing airline tickets and making sure all the dates match up so that you haven’t bought tickets to fly from Osaka when you are actually in Tokyo. And there are also lots of short-term and micro decisions that have to be made quickly, like “Where are we going to eat at the end of a long day when the kids are starving and we forgot to eat lunch and now none of the restaurants are open” kind of decisions.

And if it weren’t for Sujata taking the lead and applying her unbridled enthusiasm and deft decision making to both the macro and micro level decisions, this part of the trip would not have been half as enjoyable.

 

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Peeling tropical fruit on a fast boat trip in Vietnam

You really have to see her in action to appreciate Sujata’s global trip planning abilities. Some of her skills, I’ve noticed, come from old-fashioned hard work. She reads the Lonely Planet guides inside and out, researches blog posts on the places we are going and picks up enough of the language to get by (or, at least in Japan, will mumble Japanese-sounding palaver in response to questions that she cannot understand). Other skills are more instinctual–she can sniff out the best places for lunch or dinner, she can wind our way through byzantine-like alleys, lead us through throngs of shoppers in some of Japan’s most intensely crowded malls and she seems to have a sixth sense for finding the Japan Railways stations.

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Playing drums at an Air B and B in Japan
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Applying bug spray in Vietnam–even the mosquitoes love Sujata

That said, it’s not all fun and games. In Japan, for instance, Sujata’s enthusiasm for sightseeing sometimes turned into a kind of manic pursuit to visit Guinness Book of World Records numbers of shrines and temples in a single day. At the end of one particularly long day of shrine-seeing, feeling dehydrated and so exhausted that I could barely pick up my feet, I accused her of leading us on a Baatan Death March. That phrase has stuck and it’s been recycled and woven into our daily life so that “Baatan Death March” has become a code word for, “I need to sit and rest,” or “I need water,” or “Where is the nearest bar?

If I were in charge of the trip, we’d be getting on the wrong trains and airplanes, showing up for a hotel stay in Battanbang when we had a room reserved in Phnom Penh, wandering around in circles while I tried to find the nearest vegetarian restraunt on Google Maps and I’m sure we would have lost the children at least a couple of times. The only time anything like that has happened was in Japan when we got on the wrong Shinkansen in Tokyo. Even that, though, was my fault.

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Upon realizing we are on the wrong Shinkansen

Sujata is a successful physician, but if you are planning a trip abroad and you are looking for your own personal tripadvisor, she is available upon request.

Travelin’ Miles

We are traveling to Hiroshima on a high-speed train from Kyoto and I’m listening to Miles Davis’ timeless album of 1970, Bitches Brew. I’ve had Miles Davis, mostly Bitches Brew, in my ear buds since we arrived in Japan almost two weeks ago and in this post, I’m going to think through why this album is, to my mind, the perfect musical traveling companion.

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One of the most famous album covers ever

There are some kinds of music that work very well for travel and others that don’t work well at all. On this trip, given its duration and the long distances we are covering, I’ve found that longer, meandering almost formless pieces of music work best for me and in that regard, Bitches Brew is matchless.

Music can either complement or work against any given travel experience. The most commonplace travel, the daily commute to work, for instance, calls for a very different music than the long, almost uninterrupted, travel that we have been doing for the past two months. For most of us, the daily commute has a definite beginning and end: you grab your bag and your keys, walk out the door, get in your car or on your bike and in a relatively short time, you are at work, wherever that might be. That sort of experience calls for short, brief bursts–like the three-minute pop song. Perhaps that’s why morning radio is so popular. The tunes have clear beginnings and endings, there is a great deal of repetition which is pleasing and doesn’t demand too much of your attention. The songs generally have a clear and consistent architecture–there are few surprises because you have, most likely, heard the tunes before or you are just so used to the format that everything sounds familiar.

There are also the proverbial ‘road songs’–communal sing-alongs that break up the monotony of cross-country travel. Last April we drove to Moab, Utah from Denver for our annual mountain bike trip with our good friends, the Shea-Davis family. Finnegan, the eldest Shea boy, and my two kids were in the back of the car–Sujata was shotgun and I was driving. It’s a long drive and by hour five, everyone was going crazy. The kids reverted to singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” They got all the way down to 76 and were about to go to 75 before Sujata grabbed her Iphone and said with a grin, “I downloaded this for this exact moment–1970s Road Songs playlist from Spotify!” A few seconds later, the opening chords of “Born to Run” were blaring from the speakers, followed by “Tiny Dancer,” “Runnin’ on Empty” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman.” Sujata and I smiled and sang as loud as we could, rendering the children silent.

The three-minute pop/road song, though, does not work for long distance, foreign travel where outside interruptions can serve to complement and even enhance the music and, in the same way, the music can enhance the world outside of it.

This is especially the case with Bitches Brew, an album that both challenges our received ideas of music and also fits into the expectations of what music is, or should be. It doesn’t really have a structure–musical ideas float freely through the entire album. It’s hard to pick up melodies, the emotional calibration moves from dark and ominous to jubilant and joyful. It’s avant garde and experimental at the same time it has a recognizable groove. There are strange musical sounds (Benny Maupin’s weirdly beautiful bass clarinet, for instance) coupled with moments that sound familiar–halfway through the title track, for instance, Miles vamps the melody of Blood, Sweat and Tears’ pop hit, “Spinning Wheel.” Some people call it electric jazz or fusion jazz. Others call it funk. Some call it unlistenable and others call it genius.

Miles assembled a veritable army of players to conjure the uncanny tunes on the album. On any given piece on the double album you can hear two guitars, three electric keyboards, three drummers, a bass clarinet, a bass guitar and, of course, Miles’ trumpet. What’s amazing is that the players never trip and fall over each other–it’s a kind of ideal musical democracy where people are listening to each other, playing off each other, imitating each other’s ideas and making up their own.

There are all kinds of surprising delights listening to Bitches Brew as I’m moving through Japan. I do not like to use noise-cancelling headphones when I’m listening to music as I’m traveling. Instead, I prefer the classic white Apple earbuds–they let in ambient and direct noise from the  world so the interplay between the music and the noise of the streets, trains and planes all comes together in an aural stew. Plus, I can hear Sujata or the kids if they are yelling to me, “Hey, come on–the train is leaving!” Or, “Come up, get up, it’s time to go!” Otherwise, I’d probably be sitting on this train long after they departed.

Every once in a while, on the train to Hiroshima, the train’s PA system plays an eight-note melody that begins with an octave jump, a return to the octave, a quick move up to the perfect fifth, a chromatic progression back to the octave and then about halfway up toward the perfect fifth again. It’s a simple tune that you could easily miss if you weren’t listening for it. Sometimes, though, when that little number comes on the PA, it gets mashed up with Chick Corea’s keyboards–sometimes the two work against each other and other times, it almost sounds like the music on the PA is a part of the music in my ear.

If you listen closely to Bitches Brew you can sometimes hear Miles whispering directions to the players. “Hey Jim,” “Keep it up,” and “John,” as well as some inaudible declarations are peppered throughout the album. These bits of voice are pretty common on many of Miles’ records–there’s a famous moment on Miles’ 1955-56 Prestige recordings where John Coltrane asks for a beer opener at the end of one of the tune. They have a particularly wonderful effect, though, when I’m walking down the street listening to the music and Miles’ voice gets mixed in and wrapped up with the conversations of passersby or people chatting on a train–it’s like he’s joined the conversation.

I think, though, that Bitches Brew works best when I am walking. Within the first minute of the album, the band picks up a sound that just lurches you forward. It’s not really an easy album to listen to when you are sitting down. Part of this is the rhythm section–the two drums kits kick out ancient and exciting rhythms. The long pedaled bass lines hold up the short melodic bursts and scale runs from the guitars and horns. Everything is constantly moving–even in the quiet moments as the musicians gather themselves together to make another run, you feel like you are being pushed from behind–sometimes gently and other times with the force of a will more powerful than your own.

Part of the reason Bitches Brew works so well in this kind of travel environment has to do with the way that Miles and producer Teo Macero put the album together.

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Miles and Teo Macero

The entire album was recorded over the course of three days and rather than rehearsing pieces from the album and then recording them over and over until they got a good take (the more traditional way of recording music in the 1960s and 1970s), Miles and Macero just left the tapes running the whole time the musicians were in the studio. The musicians sat in a circle, facing each other, and Miles would walk around encouraging them, one by one, to create new ideas, hold on to what they were doing or move on to something else. When the sessions were complete, Macero started splicing the tapes together, basically organizing the album by cutting and splicing the tape together. This gives the whole album a kind of unsettled feeling–sometimes you can actually hear the drop outs where Macero made the edits.

In this regard, then, Bitches Brew is a lot like the life many of us lead everyday–conversations start and then end, the floor boards creak as you walk across the room, tire wheels whistle by as you stand on the street corner, rain beats on your umbrella, friends shout greetings to each other across a crowded room, children cry from third-story windows, cars honk greetings and warnings, crickets chirp as in the evening, water runs in the next room and beds groan as they accept our tired bodies.

Tokyo Swallows! Hai! Hai!

Okay, the first thing you need to know is that “Hai!” means “Yes!” in Japanese. The exclamation point is very important because it’s not “Hai.” It’s “Hai! Hai!” so you say it with enthusiasm.

“Hai!” is a fun word–it’s playful and strong and full of vigor.  Maybe you know “Hai!” from the Flaming Lips’ great song, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” a song about a young Japanese girl who saves Tokyo from robots programmed to destroy the city. The tune starts with Wayne Coyne’s scratchy, tentative vocals: “Her name is Yoshimi/She’s a black belt in Karate,” and then almost before he can finish the last word of the line, “karate,” in the middle soundscape you hear a small but strong female Japanese voice shout, “Hai! Hai!” I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times and I still find those Hais thrilling. My kids have been singing along to “Yoshimi” since they were wee ones and they, too, still love to shout out the “Hai! Hai!” parts of the song.

It makes sense that the Flaming Lips would tap into this–they are the rock and roll embodiment of the Japanese “Hai!”

If you visit Japan, an excellent place to find the “Hai!” of this great country is at the professional baseball games, as we did last week.

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My friend, David Cooper, told me that Japanese baseball games were something to see–a real insight into the culture so last Sunday afternoon as we were walking around Tokyo, Sujata said, “Let’s go to a baseball game tonight.” A short time later, we had tickets in hand for a twilight game between the Swallows and the Tigers.

We arrived to the stadium about a half hour before first pitch and as we approached the gates I heard a marching band. It sounded like any given Big Ten university campus on a Saturday afternoon before a big gridiron matchup. I could help but wonder aloud, “A marching band at a baseball game?”

The marching band was still playing and I could tell that there were actually two marching bands–one for the home and the other for the away team, I presumed. I looked onto the field and I noticed something else rather strange: cheerleaders. “Are we in the right place?” I slyly asked Sujata. She checked the tickets with mock seriousness and announced that, yes, we were in the right place. This, too, I have to say, is one of the great things about visiting Japan: you never really know what you are going to get, but if you just stick with it, whatever it is, it turns out to be pretty cool.

Our seats were on the first base line about halfway between first base and the right field wall. Pretty good seats for the equivalent of 20 USD. We had been walking around all day–my legs were tired and I really wanted to try an Ebisu–the premium beer of Sapporo–so I looked around for the beerman–you know him: the grizzled staple of all MLB professional baseball games who trudges up and down the stairs with pre-poured Coors, PBR or Budweiser and who sloshes half of the beer in your lap as you turn over your money and he hands you the beer. That guy.

Here, though, in the Tokyo Stadium, I couldn’t find the beer guy. The closest thing I saw to any beer delivery service were lithe, twenty-something girls in brightly-colored uniforms toting large backpacks and . . .  I couldn’t believe my eyes . . . they were carrying kegs on their back and pouring the beer from the keg to a cup as the customers ordered. They gracefully handed out the fresh pours with smiles and “Konnichiwas!” and they ran up and down the steps with the energy of marathon runners.

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I was thinking that this was probably Yoshimi’s early training to destroy the evil robots.

Sujata and I noticed all this at the same time and in unison we cried out, “HAI! HAI!” We both waved our hands like first-graders who know the answer to the question the teacher just asked and, within seconds, there was a lovely beer girl pouring us an Ebisu.

We couldn’t have been happier.

The Japanese have many things over the United States. The food is better, more tasteful and healthier. The country is more environmentally conscious than we are, the people are immaculate dressers, have cool haircuts and are gracious, kind and funny.

Now, add the beer girls at the baseball games to that list.

I felt like I had already gotten my money’s worth. And then the game began.

With all the excitement about the suds I sort of lost track of what was happening on the field and in the stands. Sujata told me that when she purchased the tickets, the attendant asked if we wanted seats on the home or away side. Kind of a strange question for a professional baseball game, right? She, rightly, chose the home side and until I started focusing on the larger surroundings I didn’t realize that we were sitting in a sea of white and blue and green shirts–the colors of the Swallows, it turned out. I let my gaze cross the field and there across the third base line and throughout left and into center field was a sea of yellow and white–the colors of the Tigers. Atticus, upon realizing that we were sitting on the Swallows side, looked down at his shirt and duly noted to all of us that his shirt had a very large tiger on it. He knows enough about how American sports fans can be sometimes be crazy and violent so he became a bit frightened and asked if he could buy a Swallows shirt to cover up his Tiger. We went back and forth on this for a bit (I said don’t worry, but he was having none of it). He finally snuck out in search of a Swallows shirt, returned sans shirt but clutching a bag of french fries and seemed to forget about his oppositional shirt fairly quickly.

By that time, there was so much going on in the stands and on the field that it was easy to forget any perceived danger from aggressive fans.

Between innings, the cheerleaders for the Swallows and then the Tigers ran out onto the field and danced to Japanese pop songs. The Swallows mascot hammed it up with the cheerleaders, as mascots are wont to do.

When they were finished, fans of the Swallows started singing a whole panoply of fight songs that, from what I could tell, were paeans to their home team.

The game itself was pretty much like any other baseball game, although the Japanese pitchers really take their time between pitches so the innings go on forever. I timed it once and the Swallows pitcher took a full 90 seconds between pitches. We stayed at the game for two hours and that was only the end of the fourth inning!

It was the fight songs, though, that were the most interesting and exciting parts of our first live experience with Japanese professional baseball. I don’t know whether or not the Japanese have a good sense of rhythm, but judging from the display they put on at the Swallows/Tigers game, I’d say they do indeed. All of the fight songs began with a kind of rhythmic build up. The band would lay out the tune and the fans picked up with the band, clapping their hands. Many people came to the game with two smallish baseball bats that I quickly realized were made of a hard plastic. They would whack the bats together, so the clapping hands, the music from the band, the singing and the whacking bats–all that occasioned a wonderfully organized cacophony.

As the Swallows band and fans were belting out their fight songs, the Tigers’ side patiently waited and when the Swallows were finished, the Tigers’ band and fans started up with their own fight songs. It went on and on like this for the entire time that we were in the stadium and I’m sure that as the game went into the late innings, the singing, playing and clapping got even more robust.

There is much to be learned about Japanese culture in all of this. First of all, as I noted earlier, you see the graciousness and orderliness of the culture here at these games. I did not hear one fan yell in anger or taunt the opposing team nor did I notice the home team heckling their own players. There were many opportunities for some of the bad behavior you might see at any given MLB game–the Swallows really sucked that night and the Tigers’ starting pitcher beaned one of the Swallows best players in the head and nothing happened. The benches didn’t flinch, the fans actually went quiet and, this I couldn’t believe, the trainers took the player into the dugout for 5-10 minutes, looked him over, pronounced him okay to return to the game. He ended up striking out, so maybe they should have left him in the dugout.

We’re on the supersonic fast train to Kyoto right now–I’m hoping we can catch one more baseball game before we leave Japan.

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How to say hello in southeast Asia

One of the many things I have loved about traveling through southeast Asia and, now, Japan, is the ways that people in this part of the world greet each other.

Greetings are, of course, cultural codes that are so ingrained into our daily lives that they seem natural or even invisible. When you travel though, seemingly quotidian things, like saying hello to friends and strangers, become interesting spaces to understand and communicate across cultures.

In the States, there are a variety of ways to greet folks. If you come across an acquaintance–not a close friend–you would probably say, “Hello, it’s so nice to see you.” Men tend to reach out and shake the person’s hand.  A woman might keep her hands down at her side or she might show her palms in an act of welcome and openness. Unless it’s a professional setting, women don’t tend to shake hands and men don’t tend to shake hands with women.

If you came across someone who is a really good friend, you might be more demonstrative. You might say something like, “Oh, man, it’s so great to see you! How have you been?” Or, you might use another term. I like to call my good friends, “Brother,” “Sister,” “Big Man” or “Big Fella.”

In much of southeast Asia, a greeting is generally accompanied by namaskar– all you do is to put your hands together in front of your chest so that the tips of your fingers are just below your chin and then slightly bow your head toward the person you are greeting. So, if you are in Cambodia, you would greet someone by saying “Sousday,” as you are doing namaskar.

It is not common to shake hands in many parts of southeast Asia. This took a bit of getting used to for me, as shaking the hand of a stranger or even a good friend is very natural for me and for most Americans, I suspect. The few times I did put out my hand in southeast Asia, people would look at me kind of uncomfortably and then grab my extended hand with both of their hands. All you can do then, is put your hand on top of theirs so what you are left with is four hands piled on top of each other.

It’s awkward and I only did that once or twice.

It didn’t take long for me to get used to greeting folks with a namaskar. I should note here, too, that I’m aware that there are distinctions between namaste and namaskar, but for this post, I’m using them coterminously.

Sujata likes to tease all the yoga people back in Denver who are inclined to greet each other with a namaskar and say, “Namaste.” She finds it humorously affecting and a mild form of cultural appropriation. “They’re just saying ‘Hello,'” she laughs. I’m of a very different mind: I don’t think it’s odd for people to do namaskar at home and I loved doing namaskar when I greeted people when we were in Bali and Cambodia. I’m a tall white guy, so I already felt sort of awkward in many of the places we went and doing namaskar helped me to fit in or to at least demonstrate my respect for where we were.

As I’m thinking about this now, I’m coming to realize how gendered hand shaking is in the States. And it’s not just that, as I mentioned above, there are different expectations for women and men when it comes to greetings. It’s also the way greetings, especially handshakes, are done. American men tend to tightly grasp the hand of the person they are shaking and they put their shoulder into it a bit so the action can oftentimes come across as assertive. Sometimes men are judged if they have a ‘weak’ or ‘limp’ handshake.

Namaskar is actually a much more gender neutral way of greeting. Part of that may simply the root meaning of namaskar–it’s to demonstrate respect for the person you are greeting. Because there is not physcial contact between the greeters, it simply cannot become an act of dominance. In the same way, men and women do namaskar exactly the same way; that is, there is not a gendered way (from what I could tell) to namaskar. And, given that there is no physcial contact (as in a handshake or a hug) men and women can namaskar to each other without eithe paryt feeling uncomfortable.

Tuk tuk drivers are ubiquitous in Cambodia–you can’t walk out of your house or a cafe or restaurant, let alone cross an intersection without a tuk tuk singing out, “Sir! Tuk Tuk?!”  If you did acknowledge them and say “No thank you,” most of the drivers would quickly respond, “How about tomorrow?”–as if I knew when I’d be needing a tuk tuk  a full 24 hours later! Most people–foreigners and nationals–just ignore them (unless they need a tuk tuk, of course) and just keeping walking without acknowledging the request. I spent enough time in tuk tuks, especially in Cambodia, to realize that these guys are really super cool, friendly and hard working. Most of them love to chat and they’ll offer all kinds of advice and insights into the city. And even if they are not garrolous, you have to respect what they do–it’s hard and dangrous work, there’s more competition than you can imagine and they don’t make money. They are not, for instance organized into tuk tuk collectives (like taxi drivers, for instance) so they are all out there struggling for customers. Given that, then, after a few days in Cambodia, when a tuk tuk  driver bawled out to me I would always acknowledge him with a namaskar and the typical Khmer greeting, “Sousday!” If nothing else, it made me feel good that I was acknowledging these underappreciated purveyors of cheap (and fun!) street travel, and most of the time, they smiled and, sang out “Sousday!” accompanied by a namaskar.

There’s another reason I like to greet people with namaskar: it reminds me of Walt Whitman and the mid-nineteenth-century American writers I love. Here are the opening lines of  Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

These are some of my favorite lines in all of American literature partly because what Whitman is doing is performing a literary namaskar for his reader. Among the great early American writers, Whitman wasn’t alone in his love of eastern culture and traditions. Emerson, Thoreau and all their Transcendentalist friends (save that old codger, Hawthorne) were walking around Cambridge and Concord with copies of the Vedas and the Upanishads tucked under their arms, looking for ancient literary and cultural inspiration as they forged their own. Emerson read deeply among sacred Hindu texts, and he turned Thoreau on to them as well. Some of Emerson’s greatest essays and poem directly and indirectly invoke Indian mythology and culture and Thoreau based much of his writing on his reading of eastern texts.

If Walt Whitman  was passing through any southeast Asian country he, too, would freely namaskar everyone he met.

I think that is one of the things I liked so much about southeast Asia: there were so many opportunities to connect with people. I could have stopped and chatted with any tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap in the same way that I could have chatted with any shop owner, restaurant owner, patron or bar fly in Ubud or Phenom Penh. It’s the same way in Ireland and that’s probably why I like Ireland so much, although doing namaskar in Ireland might get you punched in the face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traveling with kids, the dark side

Let me begin with some context and qualifications: I love traveling with my children. They are engaged with their surroundings, inquisitive, thoughtful and they have a great deal of strength and stamina. Rarely do they complain about long travel or sightseeing days and when they do, it’s for a good reason like they are starving or their legs are so tired they are about to fall off.  We have done a couple of overnight international flights–by far the most difficult flights because you’re only on the plane for 5-6 hours so you really can’t sleep which means when you land in whichever country you are landing in, all that’s really happened is that you’ve been up all night. It’s hard on me so it’s got to be doubly hard on them but, still, they have powered through these and many other difficult travel experiences with gusto, verve and aplomb. They are polite and gracious to strangers. They have gone for long stretches of time without food or water–because that’s just what happens sometimes when you are traveling–and being vegetarian makes it even more difficult, sometimes, to eat when people are hungry. They are frequently in bed late and up early the next day, and they manage this lack of sleep with incredible fortitude. In short, I can’t expect anything else from my children in regards to our travels so far.

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Atticus carrying his and his sister’s backpack after an all-night plane ride. That’s toughness.
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Sweet Cow smiles in Saigon

That said, sometimes is just a !@#$% pain in the %^&* traveling with children. It makes me want to (*#%^ scream.

Much of the frustration I feel is compounded by where we are. We’ve spent the last four days, for instance, in Tokyo, a city that is like New York City on steroids, if you can imagine that.

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Imagine being 4 feet 5 inches tall and having to make your way through this AFTER a long day of sightseeing!

So, if Sujata and I were on our own, here, we’d be fine. We’d go to visit museums and shop during the day, come back to our air b and b then go have a drink (Japanese whiskey is amazing), a nice dinner and then hit a jazz club after that. We’d walk hand in hand down the bustling streets, smiling at all the life and movement, staring up at the amazing verticality of this city and gazing down the neon streets at night.

We, of course, do some of those things, but they are all peppered with moments that are punctuated with one or both of us shouting or whispering in a hard voice, “Hey, don’t walk in front of me!” Or, “Could you please not swing your arms back and forth and to the sides like you are doing jumping jacks?” Or, “Would you please lift your head up and look in front of you–you are running into people and they are giving us dirty looks!” Or, “No, I’m sorry but I can’t repeat, what I just asked your mother. It really doesn’t concern you.” Or, “Do you see Japanese children behaving the way you are behaving right now?”

Sujata summed it up best when she said, “They drive you nuts, but they are so great.”

I should say, though, that sometimes I’m not much better than the kids. I am, happily, able to walk a straight line on the streets of Tokyo and, up until now, I have refrained from flailing my arms around and bouncing them off passersby. I generally don’t fall from standing positions, drop all forms of coins and glasses, blow bubbles in my water, shout weird things in public, like I have Tourette’s, or knock over dishes and cups in restaurants.

But, I do get grumpy, say stupid things to Sujata, complain about things I shouldn’t complain about and wait too long to eat or drink, thereby increasing the possibility of me doing all of the weird things the kids do.

And, since Sujata has planned, and continues to plan, the bulk of this trip–she researched and purchased all the plane tickets, all of our hotels and air b and b stays, she is masterful at using Google maps and she generally finds us places to eat–my major mode of communication her is in the nature of questions, as in:

“Sujata, where are we going tomorrow?”

“Sujata, where are we eating dinner?”

“Sujata, where is a bathroom?”

“Sujata, how do you make an international call?

She, god bless her, takes it all in stride (mostly).

The point here, if there is one, is that traveling changes everything. You gain a lot of control of your life because you don’t have to be anywhere or do anything that you don’t want to do. I, for instance, haven’t sat in a stupid, unproductive ‘meeting’ in over six months and I feel all the better for that. At the same time, you lose control of a lot of things: I don’t always know where we’ll eat our next meal, sometimes it takes a couple of hours in the morning before I can find a cup of coffee, I haven’t gone for a swim in weeks because I don’t have access to pools, I haven’t touched a piano in weeks, it took us about three times longer to get home tonight than I imagined . . . All that said, for now, I’m enjoying the uncertainty and the wackiness of it all. We’ll see how long that lasts . . .