November 30, 2012

Delightful Discrimination

Wow, another fantastic day in which I accomplished three more goals: go to Okinawa, perform in a karaoke bar, and be denied access somewhere because I'm white. Only in Japan can being discriminated against lead to so much joy.

I decided early in my Japan adventure that I wanted to go to Okinawa, which are the southern-most islands in Japan. I knew very little about them, but my research for Pursuing Happiness kept leading me to this area of the world as the people are insanely happy. That, and they had excellent beaches. I messaged all my friends in Tokyo to see if anyone wanted to join, and Aziz responded that he would love to come, assuming his two friends who were visiting from London were also interested. And they were! By the end of my adventure I plan on just stealing all of Aziz's friends.

Most trips during the past two months have been spontaneous, with only the slightest amount of planning. We had booked flights to Okinawa, found an apartment on AirBnB for one night, and a resort for the other two, but that was as far as our plans extended. So when we found Aziz at the airport, we had reached the end of the "planned" portion of the trip. "Perhaps we should get a rental car?" someone suggested.
Our shuttle bus to the rental car company, equipped with truly elegant chandeliers. 
I'm not sure why the process of renting a car took an hour, or why it required mountains of paperwork and no less than 4 employees helping us at once, but it did. I'm also not sure how we intended on finding this guy's apartment who we were staying with, but we did.

November 28, 2012

That Hit The Spot

The day began early as Rika had offered to drive me and one of her students down the coast to a famous Miyazaki shrine on the water. But before we set out, she had to make a quick pit-stop at her parent's house. They spoke very little English but still wanted to invite me in for tea, sweets, and to give me a gift. And of course, they also wanted a photo:
If you're ever low on sweets, just hope a flight to Japan as they love to give gifts
We swapped cars with her parents, picked up Yoshiko and headed South along the coast. The cloudless sky, crashing waves and palm trees all seemed more SoCal than SoJap:

Peace signs with Yoshiko
My wonderful couch surfing host, Rika

The drive through Miyazaki city was quite pleasant. We talked about language, culture differences and whatever else came to mind, and if it weren't for the Coldplay mix CD, I'd have said it was pretty perfect. No part of the journey felt like we were in Japan, however, and even when we arrived at the shrine, with its Torii gates and red paint, it felt more like we were in South East Asia rather than Japan:

No good shrine is without a money making gimmick, and this place was no exception. Below the cliff was a rock which sort of looked like a turtle, which was all they needed to encourage tourists to throw clay pebbles at its back. If one made it into the pool of water that collected on its shell, that was considered good luck. And for 100 yen, you were given 5 chances at glory.

I can't say I believe in the good luck, but I certainly believe in the good feeling that comes from accurately throwing pebbles, and I made two! Between this and the prizes I won by shooting corks at toys, one might accidentally mistake me for physically coordinated and athletic.

Inside the cave: prime real estate for a gift shop.
I kid you not, this sign is advertising a rock which looks like a breast. They make candy from the water that drips from this rock, which is said to be good for expectant mothers. Right...

Yoshiko and Rika tried to convince me that I needed some boob-milk candy, but I thought it best to put some real food in my stomach. Unfortunately, the town is famous for their seafood so we ended up driving to Obi, which is known as "little Kyoto" and is famous for their Chicken Namban: Japanese sweet and sour chicken.

As happy as I was to hear the words "sweet, sour, and chicken" so closely in a sentence, they failed to mention that the dish comes smothered in mayonnaise. And if you're thinking that mayonnaise doesn't really go with "sweet" "sour" or "chicken" then you're absolutely right! But I was happy to be eating chicken rather than the shrimp ice cream we had seen earlier in the day.

We strolled around Obi for a bit and enjoyed the scenery, most of which reminded me of the Oregon:

On the way back, I told Rika that I would like to take her and Koji out to dinner as a thank you for letting me stay with them. We swung by the house to pick him up and then set out for burgers. Over the meal, Koji wanted to practice his English and was very eager to use some of the phrases he had picked up. At the end of the meal, I decided to teach him "that hit the spot". It took a little bit of time to explain what it meant- when you're really hungry and you feel it in a certain part of your stomach, and then when you eat a good meal, it completely fills that spot of your tummy, thus it hits the spot- but he finally understood.

As we finished our meal, he kept repeating to himself "hit the spot. hit the spot. hit the spot." He was trying to cement it into his brain but I feared he was just remembering the words and not the meaning. While he was repeating the words to himself, Rika asked what I had planned in Okinawa, to which I replied I didn't have any plans and asked for suggestions. 

"Well Koji has been a few times, but he really only goes to pick up women."
"Oh really?" I inquired, shifting my attention to Koji, who gave a coy smile.
"Yes, the women there are very beautiful." he replied, before being scolded by Rika. But he continued "They hit the spot!"

I was confident that he understood the meaning.

Before saying my goodbyes before bed, I taught Koji a few magic tricks to beef up his act. 

November 27, 2012

Teacher's Pet

The highlight of the day, by far, was the soundtrack playing at the local grocery store where I waited to be picked up after exploring Takachiho. The music can best be described as a hybrid of cell-phone ring tones, muzak, and someone experimenting with various sounds on a synthesizer. The tunes, which included "Living La Vida Loca" by Ricky Martin, "Without Love" by The Doobie Brothers, "September" by Earth, Wind and Fire, and "I Saw the Sign" by Ace of Base appeared to use the original backing tracks, but the vocals had been replaced with bizarre synths. Often times the pad would switch in the middle of a line, as if someone were playing whilst another person clicked forward in the library selection panel of a Korg Triton.

And if you're thinking that I must have had a shitty day if that was the highlight, than you do not understand how unbelievably wonderful this music was, because the rest of my day was great.

Rika suggested I head an hour away to Takachiho, which as I'm sure you're aware, is home to a pretty famous gorge here in the Miyazaki prefecture. She said I could take the bus, but informed me that there was only one road from Nobeoka (where I'm staying) to Takachiho, so it would be easy to hitchhike. "I'm in!" I replied and she proceeded to make me a sign with the kanji for Takachiho. This will undoubtedly become a collector's item in years to come.

Her estimate was that it would take me ten-twenty minutes to get picked up, but she underestimated how charmingly blond I can be. Two minutes after she left, a small Toyota hybrid pulled over and the cutest old man motioned for me to join him.

November 26, 2012

A Warm Miyazaki Welcome

Another early morning as I had to catch the 7am high speed ferry from Yakushima to Kagoshima. A word to those looking to travel to Yakushima: while the high speed ferry takes half as much time as the ferry, it is painfully boring: no casino, no theater, not even the ability to move around. I would absolutely recommend the slow ferry at least one way.
Goodbye to Kagoshima
I've been looking forward to Miyazaki, not because I know anything about the area (I don't) but because my Couch Surfing host was going to throw a potluck party in honor of my arrival. I did not know it, but the area where I was headed is a small town, so foreigners are few and far between. And since my host is an English teacher for adults, she invited ten of her favorite students to her apartment to welcome me and practice their English.

When we were exchanging emails, I let her know that I would be delighted to have a party, but that I didn't eat seafood. Not wanting to offend me, every person brought chicken! Which is just as well, because I've always said what goes best with chicken is chicken. So as each guest arrived, the table started to fill up with all sorts of fowl goodness!
Halfway through the arrivals and my mouth began to water. 
The party was extremely enjoyable. Everyone was a bit shy at first, but as the night progressed and our bellies filled with chicken, the conversation came more naturally and everyone became more confident in their English. It was such a delight to make friends with the students and they were all so appreciative and curious about me. Again, small town with very few foreigners, and while my host has had almost 40 couch surfers stay with her, I am only the second American. And to come from Los Angeles AND to have worked at a radio station... that just blew them away.

One of the guests told me he loved grunge music. "Nirvana?" I inquired. "Yes, a bit, but my favorite band is Pavement." I had found my Japanese David Rosenfeld and I was in love. 

By far the highlight of the evening was the magic show, which we were informed was three days in the making. It is unclear to me if the show was supposed to be comedic, but it was easily the most entertaining thing I've seen all trip. Every "trick" was screwed up: the balloons did not pop, and for his grand finale, he performed the trick where you make something disappear by throwing it behind your back. Unfortunately he kept missing and hitting himself in the face with the balled up paper that was supposed to disappear. I'm unsure if he managed to finish the trick as I was in tears:

Somes tricks REALLY impressed the guests
The big reveal of the grand trick
A delighted audience
Koji the "Great"

Rika's students have clearly formed a close-knit community and they're all very eager to learn English. It was such a pleasure to be in their company for the evening and a real honor to be able to help them learn. I find it so fascinating to discuss language with people. They say you learn about your own language through studying another language, and this is certainly true, but you also learn about your own culture through studying another. I've never spent so much time thinking about English, American culture and customs as I have in Japan. I found myself once again trying to explain sarcasm, puns, and play on words, this time with minor success. I've realized more and more what a difficult language English is to learn, but the ambiguities of the language, the lack of rules, and the constant evolution of words has lead to, in my opinion, an incredibly rich language. And while I don't have much to compare it to, I can already tell from the limited Japanese I know (and just as limited Spanish) that there's no language in the world as malleable as English.  

The food was excellent, the entertainment top notch, and I felt incredibly welcomed. And to my delight, I was invited to join Rika tomorrow evening for her group class at the community center. I gleefully accepted!

November 25, 2012

Princess Mononicky, pt. II

Read Part I of Princess Mononicky

What drew me to Yakushima was the Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke, which I first watched in Tokyo a few weeks ago. One of the things I learned while reading about the film was how Miyazaki and his animators travelled to Yakushima in order to find inspiration for the look of their film. A few clicks later and I was cycling through the most gorgeous images of lush, green forests of moss covered trees whose twisted roots were partially obscured by the thick fog that blanketed the ground. 

So at 8:15am, after stashing everything I brought with me save some salami, my jacket, and a water, I set out to become Princess Mononicky.

I will save most of the descriptions of the forest for the photos as they do a better job of describing the landscape, but I will say that no picture I took can capture the beauty and mystery of the forest; certainly not the way it looked, and definitely not how it sounded.

My hike turned out to be a three part adventure:

The first part was a 2 hour climb through the woods. This path began as a paved road, turned into dirt trail, and then vanished into a series of pink flags tied to trees, which marked the way. The climb was never easy as I was rising in elevation over rocks and damp inclines, but the path occasionally flattened out and I had a chance to look beyond my feet.

A sign letting me know I was headed in the right direction
How foolish I was to think it would be paved the whole way..
This marked the end of the paved road
My guides through the forest
Stream crossing
Everything was covered in moss

The birds cried overhead and a few made strange clicking sounds, reminiscent of the forest spirits from Mononke. I could hear what I assumed were monkeys somewhere in the distance, but they did a good job of staying hidden. Every few minutes the sound of running water would trickle into my ears and then grow into a roar as I approached a rushing stream or a series of waterfalls. Everywhere I looked there was green; the trees, the moss covered rocks, the ground all a rich emerald color. Even the air seemed to glow green as if the sun penetrating the leaves ahead had been diffused into a green spotlight.

Princess Mononicky, pt. I

Read Part II of Princess Mononicky

I can say without hesitation that today was one of most enjoyable days of my life. That said, it began with a bit of terror:

The night before, I pulled out a map at my hostel and started looking for the best trail to hike. I struck up a conversation with a family who was staying in the room next to me and they suggested taking the Kusugawa trail as it was easy enough that it did not require proper hiking gear and also offered some of the best sights on the island. Unfortunately though, the trail began at about 1:30 on the clock and my hostel was at 6 (the island being a circle). And, because the hike took 7-8 hours, it would mean beginning at 8am.

I checked my bus schedule and found I could catch the 7am from my hostel and be dropped off right at the trail head. My second night's hostel was located at 12 o clock, so I wouldn't be able to bring my bags there before the hike, but I figured I'd make something work.

So I rose at 6am, packed my bags, walked to the bus station and had just enough time to pop into the convenience store and grab my breakfast, lunch, and perhaps dinner as well as some hydration for the day: A 2 liter bottle of Pocari Sweat (ion enhanced water) and a bag of salami slices. $5.

If you're doing the math, I'm now down to about $15, and while I had already purchased my hostel for the second night and my return ferry ticket, I still needed to take the bus from my hostel to the trail, which was an hour trip, and hopefully have enough left over for a cup noodle for dinner.

The bus arrived and I sat towards the front in order to keep an eye on the board above the driver, which showed the price of each stop. I counted the change in my pocket and found I had 1663 yen. As we passed each stop, the driver leaned forward and tapped a button which raised the fare. The increments were inconsistent though, so sometimes the price would rise by 20 yen and other times 90 yen. Every time he leaned forward to push his button, my heart sank. Would this be a 20 yen or a 90 yen raise?. I tried to calculate how much the trip to the trail would cost and determined I very well may have to get off early and walk the rest of the way.

The bus travelled up the coast, the price of my fare rose, and I sank deeper and deeper into my seat. I watched as a millipede squirmed across the seat-back in front of me. Each time he began to reach the top, he'd slip and have to start again. He'd squeeze his body together and then slowly push against his hind legs and inch towards the top. The pace was agonizingly slow, but still felt faster than my bus ride. The only thing that seemed to be moving quickly was the price of my fare.

I'm so fucked.

I again counted the change in my pocket. Maybe I missed some? I hadn't, 1663 yen. It was then that I remembered that the entrance to the area of the mountain that I most wanted to see was 300 yen.

I'm so fucked.

I searched the pockets of my jackets to no avail. 1663 yen.

I watched the numbers of the passing stops decrease as my destination grew closer. I checked the fare: 1120 yen.

I think I'm not fucked! We were only 3 stops from the trail and I began to become hopeful. 

Sure enough, as we arrived at stop 37: Kusugawa, the fare read 1290 yen. I had just enough for the bus and the entrance to the park. Dinner? I'd figure that out later.

It was 8am and the sun was trying to poke through the clouds. I had 370 yen in my pocket, some salami, 2 liters of a drink called Pocari Sweat, and an 8 hour hike ahead of me. Oh, and all of my luggage.

November 24, 2012

The Fifty Year Sword

While most readers of Mark Danielewski's novella The Fifty Year Sword were probably able to comprehend the writing more than I was, no one in the world can say they read the story in a more beautiful or secluded area. And considering the novella is a bit of a ghost story, the isolated reading environment only heightened my enjoyment.

I should note that I read the iPad version of the book. Mark had been showing me some samples of the pages this summer, before it was published, since he had decided to do something new with the format. Although the book had been printed in a limited quantity a few years ago, the real fame of this work comes from the live-readings Mark has staged over the years, often on Halloween. These performances incorporate live music, shadows and projections, and a great cast of actors who read the 5 parts. The story is written from the perspective of 5 narrators, each marked by different colored quotation marks, so I imagine the translation from page to stage is phenomenal.

And in the iPad version, Mark and his team tried to capture some of that excitement by adding music and sound effects to certain pages, animated letters, and the occasional drawing or animation. These carefully crafted touches really enhanced the reading experience, and although the different colored quotes were sometimes hard to differentiate on the backlit screen, overall the unique format was a success.

It took me a few pages to get into the rhythm of reading Mark's signature meter, made even more difficult due to the swapping of lines by narrators. And often I would have to stop to look-up a word only to find that it was made-up. Definitely a taxing read, but it flows so beautifully that even the difficulty is enjoyable.

I have never been frightened through the written word and while it has certainly made me excited, I've never felt my heart beat in my chest simply from reading. But when The Fifty Year Sword begins to pick-up and the mysterious storyteller in the novella recounts the story of how he came into possession of his sword, I could literally hear my heart in the stillness of the Yakushima night. The addition of the music and sound effects only heightened this feeling. 

The brilliance of the animated text is that it caused me to slow down. I would often read a passage and then see that the words at the bottom were disappearing. I would read until they disappeared, flip the page, return, and then rush to read before they fell off the page. By controlling the pace, the author controlled my feelings. I would also be forced to wait on a wage while some animation played out across the page, sometimes re-reading words or finding new meaning. 

It was a great effect, a quick and enjoyable read, and one that I plan on revisiting once or twice more on my trip as there was still much I did not follow. The breaking up of the dialogue between characters, for example, was not something I paid much attention to as I was just struggling to comprehend the language. But I imagine Mark has woven some interesting finds within the broken up text and I look forward to unraveling the mystery. There's a lot of sharp imagery (it's about a sword, after all) and the main character (if there is a main character) is a seamstress, so my assumption is that the broken up text has something to do with cutting and mending, but for what reason I'm unsure.

I also wonder about the message. The fifty year sword only exposes its wounds on the 50th birthday of the person who has been cut. Is the metaphor that the scars from our childhood only begin to show in our older age? Mark, are you reading this? Care to enlighten?

A Hitchhiker's Guide to Yakushima

Life is a lot like hitchhiking: You've got a destination in mind and depend on others to help get you there. Most people will not be able to take you all the way, but they get you closer. And sometimes they'll alter the course of your trip in ways you never imagined. But if you wait for someone to take you exactly where you need to go, you very well may not get anywhere.

Things have been stressful since arriving in Kagoshima. I am down to about $35 cash and few places, if any, accept credit card. I spent last evening trying every ATM in Kagoshima to no avail. I am fearful that I'll have an even harder time on Yakushima island and although I can purchase my ferry tickets and hostel rooms with a credit card, eating and taking the bus will certainly require cash.

On top of that stress, I've been lonely. I've certainly had my fair share of excitement, but it's not always easy to be alone and I certainly wish I had company to share this adventure with. But I have decided that when I get to Yakushima I'm going to turn off my phone; I need to learn to be present.

The final stress to add to the list was the uncomfortable bed I attempted to sleep in last night in the hostel. I've been pretty lucky so far with accommodations, but last night was not one of them. There was a sign that read "bed may shake due to traffic, do not worry" so I knew from the start I was in for a poor night's sleep. Luckily, I didn't have to spend long shaking in bed as I left my hostel at 7am. My ferry was leaving at 8:30 and I wanted enough time to get tickets and to try and find a cheap breakfast.

The ferry was quite pleasant. The main area was a series of carpeted platforms where passengers slept. The Japanese have the ability to fall asleep just about anywhere, so walking through the first floor of the ferry is a bit like that scene in Inception where they go into the opium-den of people plugged into collective dreams.

The second floor had a bar, a casino, a theater and a ramen restaurant. I would have enjoyed some ramen or even a few turns of the slot machine if not for my lack of fundage. I instead settled on a bagel and water. $5. Bringing my fundage down to about $30.
Leaving Kagoshima with Sakura island in the distance
No Alan & Michael production on this cruise
Sakura island is an active volcano which occasionally dumps ash on Kagoshima
4 Hours later, Yakushima in sight

Yakushima is an almost perfect circular island with the main port located at 12 (if you image the island as a clock). My hostel was at 6 and was a 70 minute bus ride. But by the time I made it off the ferry and collected some maps at the tourist center, I had missed my bus. Not a great start to my time on Yakushima as I then had to wait 2 hours for the next bus. I splurged on some delicious curry ($10) while I waited, Truth be told, the restaurant was playing a Bill Withers album and the mixture of good music and hot food lifted my mood.

Spirits lifted a bit, I went to the bus stop and accepted that I'd have to wait 90 minutes. It then occurred to me that buses cost money, which I did not have much of. It also occurred to me that there was only one road road that travelled along the coast. This would be the perfect place to hitchhike (71)! I stuck out my thumb and watched as cars passed. The drivers all seemed to notice me, as they would bow their heads, but no one appeared to know why I was sticking out my thumb. Perhaps they thought I was saying "Hello, good work driving!". Kelly, who had spent a month hitchhiking, told me most Japanese people are unfamiliar with the concept. But, no more than 90 seconds after beginning, a small SUV pulled over and the Japanese man who was driving alone signaled for me to get in. 

まさひる(Masahiru) turned out to be an extremely great guy and we talked non-stop during our hour-long drive. He had visited America a few times and told me he enjoyed West Hollywood and Santa Monica. He was traveling on Yakushima alone and had been hiking for the past few days. He has a son who is a freshman in high school and just struck me as a young, cool dad. He said he would take me to where he was going (about 20 minutes from my hostel) but then eventually just dropped me off at my front door! We got a bit lost and I kept telling him I would be happy to walk and find exactly where I was going, but he insisted that he see me safely to my hostel. We took some photos, exchanged email addresses, and then parted ways.

My first hitchhiking experience was a complete success! And as I would later discover, missing the bus was the best thing that could have happened to me. 

My hostel was a true Japanese inn. No beds, just futon mats and rooms measured in たたみ(tatami, which are floor mats used as measurement in Japan). I ended up having the room to myself and doubled up on futons to create a rather comfortable bed on the floor. 5-star living!

Welcome to my crib
As the sun was setting I went out on foot to find two ocean-side onsens, one of which was only accessible during low tide. The water in the first was a bit too cold to enjoy as the ocean water had started to return to the baths, and by the time I arrived at the second onsen, I was more taken by a group of rocks off the coast than I was the naked old people in the baths. Both onsens were beautiful and I ended up enjoying the sunset and appreciating how present I had become without my phone.
Jurassic Park-style leaves
Out of focus giant spider
Clouds and fog blanketing the island
Ocean-side Onsen

Sun setting as I walk to the second onsen
Where's Ariel?

The walk back to my hostel was about 45 minutes, but after I stopped at a store to get dinner (cup noodles) I realized I had become an expert in the ways of hitchhiking. I stuck out my thumb, watched a few cars pass in the night, and then once again flagged down a small SUV. This time the young driver did not speak English, but the drive was short and my limited Japanese allowed me to express my appreciation.

The night concluded with a ghost story written by my friend Mark Danielewski, and with the enjoyment of this novella also came the completion of goal 52.