Made by you and I

Foreign: Thoughts on traveling alone

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I think any county with a sizable population becomes a shell containing different countries. What do I mean? Back in the states we have New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta which draw people from all over the world who, in finding equilibrium, create a culture different from those smaller cities, towns, parishes which house what we can call “Americana”. Said differently, Paris is not France and neither is Tokyo, Japan.

I woke up to a dark overcast on Saturday which got heavier and denser until, by 9:00 a.m., the rains fell in earnest. The festival was to start from 11:00. Here and there were costumed performers with face paint warming up — pepping themselves up — for their dance in the festival.

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Remember those options from my last post? Well, when I walk down the street I stick out and the assumption is I can’t understand anything. I do like a pretty face, or funky costume, and I am not shy to talk to strangers. When I want to know something I go up and ask — we take that test drive together, which opens up the potential for the same series of questions I really don’t want to answer again and again and again and again, so generally I keep control of the conversation.

Talking with these people under the covered walkways in Okayama, everyone I met was from Okayama, highly unusual for one living in Kanto and coming from Los Angeles. This was not a small town, but people gathered from the same place have a social bond that’s difficult to enter from the outside which explains the word we all use –“foreign-er” — and it’s Japanese equivalent 外人 (literally ‘outside person’).

Becoming part of a group is hard, this is not unique to Japan.

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The idea underlying something foreign is that it doesn’t belong, is not indigenous, is, well, ‘outside’ the norm. I grew up a composite of foreign things, so I’m used to it, but if it’s your first time the cold can be bracing. It is difficult to make acquaintances here. For me, I’ve taken my exclusion as an opportunity to become comfortable being alone. Walking by myself I see things people miss. And I clearly understand what I like, know what I want to do in contrast to what I end up doing with my friends, co-workers, partner.

Traveling alone, especially in Japan, is unusual, but with a camera in hand and tripod over left shoulder I am now a photographer in the eyes of these groups I glide by, and occasionally, delve into.

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And they are, at least for this day, something other than the lives they left behind this morning.

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A strong foundation and open doors

Okayama castle courtyard

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Japan has different classes of accommodation. There are elite hotels for the super rich (and weddings), 1-5 star hotels for traveling, business hotels, capsule hotels. For futons and home cooked meals there are Japanese inns and pensions. And if your traveling on a budget there are hostels, manga or Internet cafes (you get a partitioned space), and all night onsen (which come with reclining arm chairs for you to sleep in till morning) — and there are even more options, which is all to say that I knew I’d find someplace even though I was traveling peak season and making reservations daily.

In my head I thought I’d mostly stay at business hotels because they offer breakfast, are mostly new, are everywhere, and are inexpensive (about 50USD per night with breakfast). So my first night was at the APA Hotel. 

Imagine you’re in a country that communicates in a language that is almost noxiously difficult and so not widely spoken. You’re short. A six foot four white guy walks in with a back pack and swagger do you:

A) Panic, then debate with your co-worker who speaks better English.

B) Greet in your best English. Haro.

C) Greet in casual Japanese. オスっ!

D: Greet in formal Japanese (like you’re supposed to). いらっしゃいませ。

E: Ignore and hope the problem goes away.

Sometimes sadly, those are my options.

So I arrive at my hotel and the front desk staff opts for D and are then surprised, pleased, and curious just how far my Japanese ability extends, which leads to an amusing phenomenon where whomever I’m speaking to might do one of two things:

Speaker faster than normal (hopefully because their nervous) and stop to add whatever English they remember. For example, 岡山の観光地といえば、まず初めにあがるのが、岡山城、後楽園、あの PARUKU ando CASSURU. もちろんここだけじゃあないけど。。。。If I’m feeling playful I might put on an earnest face and define Park and Castle (in Japanese) to make sure we’re on the same page.

That other thing some people do is answer me in English when I speaking to them in Japanese — do not do this to me unless you are devastatingly handsome, single, and able to flirt because I will call you out on it in public and crush whatever ego you have under foot — really grind it with all my weight — before I tell you to leave my presence and provide me with someone who is competent. (It’s how I get free stuff.) ;)

So this hotel’s staff was professional and curious and still test-driving my Japanese when told me that I was in luck because tomorrow was The Momotaro Matsuri, which they get to explain. Well, what do you know. I have no set itinerary, no reservations to bind me, and I can buy my next shinkansen ticket whenever I like. (raise a glass) Cheers to being unfettered.

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So why am I showing you the doors to Okayama Castle after that story? Well, aside from the cliche about travel opening up doors these doors used to be permanently closed to all but a few of high birth and now anyone can pass through — including you, which is true for so many things in our lives. On either side of these doors is something built, a space planned, something beautiful and new (to me). The same is true for whatever passage is just before you. Alternatively, you could just wait in that space between.

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Actually, I really like this image. Notice the rocks with form the castle base? These are uneven, roughly hewn with the spaces filled in with smaller rocks, a sign that this is a much older castle. Before them is the frame which houses huge doors all in perfect symmetry but fragile by comparison and rebuilt many times over the centuries. Japan had hundreds of castles of which only the stone bases and moats remain. To my eye this is a reminder, with whatever you do build a strong foundation.

Five stories and a twist

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Friday morning I woke up, did some house cleaning (before I passed my key on), and finished up the last of my summer work. It was three before I started looking for a hotel — and they were all over priced in Kyoto. I scanned the route in my mind. Okayama. I could stay the night there then catch the ferry over to Naoshima. It was five by the time I left with Hiro’s backpack and two pairs of each: shorts, t-shirt, over shirt, socks, Calvins. I packed one outfit for sleeping and the essential grooming gear (toothbrush, razor, gel, Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair). All the rest was camera equipment — and it was heavy. Over my other should I carried my tripod.

The Shinkansen from Shin Yokohama is about three hours. They sell special bentos onboard called “Eki Ben“, each one packed with foodstuffs from all the major areas a given Shinkansen passes through: Quality, not quantity.

Onboard I found my hotel through my iPad 3, used Wikipedia on the Mini Retina, and Facebooked on the iPhone — traveling alone with the world in hand.

I got to Okayama sometime after nine. The drizzle started the moment I left the station — and it did not stop until I came back home four weeks later. Still, my holiday was a blast. One of the many perks I get by living in Japan as a teacher is two – three months holiday. Don’t misunderstand. I work hard. I work seven days a week, plus I have to do extra things  in my free time such as grade 5-page essays and create lesson plans, which is all to say I earn my vacation. The twist is that I use it to learn. This year, my aim was to teach myself how to take better pictures.

This post begins a photo series I will tag “vacation” and “travel” along with whatever city I happen to be in. My pics aren’t perfect. I’m posting them not only to share to but learn through your criticisms and comments. I also hope they’ll give you a sense that Japan is someplace you’d like to come visit. It really is unlike anyplace else you can go on our small, blue dot.

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I’m starting with five different pictures which look the same. They were taken near the same spot around the same time in the morning (about seven a.m.) but with a little math I endeavored to put them on the same plane. They are of Okayama’s main attraction: The Okayama Castle. I’ve been to Okayama several times and so this time I didn’t wait to go inside. Rather, things happened and I changed my plans yet again to see something new which I’ll write about next. In the meantime you can play “Spot The Difference” and/or tell me which version you like best. Enjoy your weekends!

 

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Contrasts

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Elementary schools were given colorful streamers for children to write down their good wishes for the world. Phrases like, “I want everyone in the world to try hard with a smile”, “May good feelings and smiles all over the world increase”, “All the children of the world come together and make a peaceful world”. These were hung down different streets (from those on my previous post). Being of lighter paper they fluttered more in the breeze providing a sound like leaves and the reflected light of dozens of rainbows with the children who made them near, playing in the streets. And there, alone, perhaps resting, was a very dour older lady in monochrome.

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The bridge to the land which wasn’t there

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From the seventies Japan amassed much of it’s garbage into a landfill used to reclaim land from the sea. By the late 80’s the site was full and work began to turn this landfill into a new part of the metropolis — Odaiba. Before it was heaped full of excess and waste Odaiba used to be series of small rocky crags that housed the cannons which keep the West out of Japan. Of those original islets only two or three remain are filled in with the waste as people threw out the old and bought the new during the long bubble period. Now Odaiba is home to Japan’s technological growth including the Miraikan, dormitories for international exchanges, vast shopping areas, luxury high rises and green acreage. The bridge which connects Tokyo to Odaiba is the Rainbow bridge (pictured here). Odaiba also houses Fuji TV, Japan’s largest TV network (the oddly shaped building below), which should be said helps shape the image of Japan for Japanese people.

(Another post which should have been uploaded while I was on holiday.)

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Great website with images and ideas I want to share

I’m doing my morning cruise around the blogosphere and while reading this new blog (with great tips and discussion) I’m redirected to another site with a click. Because I live in Tokyo the approach of how to represent it especially appeals. It’s inspiration and I wanted to share.

For his salaryman images.

For his Japanese home images/concept. 

 

 

 

Summer nights

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When I was a boy I often went to Knott’s Berry Farm. There was a ride that took you though neon colored scenes, florescent nightscapes, and day glow characters. Those bright hues on black have always appealed to me. Vibrancy, I’m attracted to the energy and otherworldliness made from these kinds of colors.

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Silent protest

Do you see me now?

Do you see me now?

Every town has someone like this. In a city of 42 million we have a few. What do you notice first? The thrilling fashion sense? The daring glasses? The perky breasts? It wasn’t until I came home and looked at the images that I noticed the decals. What I quickly dismissed as crazy — and tried really hard not to stare at — is actually a protest calling for the Abe government to not expand the military. How could I have missed such a clear message?

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Selfies and haircuts

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This is the before and after for my hair cut.

I loved having long hair but when it dries I can’t do much with it, so before my holiday began I visited my カリスマ美容師 (they call top stylists Charisma Stylists) in Aoyama. I love my hairstylist and the salon: There are only two women working in the whole place — and 50 stylists. My stylist is awesome. His name is Fuyuki and I’ve been seeing him for a few years, but I stopped coming for about 10 months to grow my hair. The look in his eyes when he saw me, I was like a new toy.

Cut, cut, thin, think, thin, cut, step back and come back to it. He’s an artist and works mainly with magazine models — and that ladies and gentlemen, along with all the support staff, is why I pay about 150USD to get my haircut.

The last pic is me this weekend.

 

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Small symbols

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On long strips of brightly colored paper couples, parents, children write their wishes then tie them to long bamboo poles which hang in the breeze over several days or weeks, totaling in the hundreds of thousands. Imagine all the wishes in the world made visible. Walk along the long city blocks and stop to read them as you please. I feel quite blessed to live in a place and at a time that almost every wish I read is for the happiness of another.

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What it feels like traveling (sometimes)

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I got back the other evening on a late shinkansen. I walked into my home, immaculately clean, lay fresh sheets on the bed, took and shower and slept for sixteen hours uninterruptedly.

I had set 15 posts to upload here automatically during my holiday, expecting to chime in from time to time with “cellphoneography”, but they stopped self-posting. I apologize for that. Once I started island hopping keeping a charge in my i-devices became a battle, so I shut down all mail and anything push; used the cell camera when the taking out the Nikon was impossible; and used the remaining charge to find accommodation. As I was planning each day as it came, and traveling during peak season, finding a place to stay ended up more of a challenge than I anticipated. The point being I was frustrated to log back in today and see all these posts in a queue.

I have thousands of photos to sift through from my holiday. A large part of this trip was learning how to work my camera, to see what I can do with it. I do have some exceptional shots I’ll eventually get around to sharing but for now I’ll leave you with a post that should have uploaded a while ago.

This is a photo I took during a Tanobata celebration. Ultimately, crowds can be isolating. Being different within the crowd is an opportunity.

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Cellphoneography: Kyushu is the best

I’m exhausted but my day was just too good. I wanted to share a little of the beauty with you.

I was in Tanegashima, regrettably just for the day. The island is pristine. The people among the kindest I’ve ever met. It’s a perfect balance between modern and untouched. It’s remote location has prevented it from becoming spoiled by tourism — and if you see the beaches and get in the water you’ll wonder, like me, why it’s it’s relatively untouched.

Oh, it also houses the Japanese space program.

 

 

 

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