Published March 13, 2009
HUNDREDS OF FEET ABOVE Osaka’s streaming avenues, Janice and I are sharing a hot dog. Or some form of one. The sausage has been tucked delicately into not a bun, but an undersized French roll that leaves the dog sticking out the ends. Still, it satisfies, and we watch the blinking lights of planes arriving and vanishing above Kansai International as we dip into a conversation about the things we’ve lost.
The last six months have been taxing; an unconventional start to married life. The adjustment has wrung us of creative energies, and so much of what we sought in coming to this side of the world seems to have thus far escaped us. Weekends that could have been better spent traveling were frittered away on errands. Regimens designed to help us study language, write daily or cook more often were abandoned. Our friends have spread diasporic across North America, falling out of touch across an ocean, and we’ve yet to make any solid acquaintances.
We see the stage and the countdown clock ticking towards midnight. Perhaps it’s the altitude, but after several days of rest and exploration we feel ourselves sobering, realigning. The things that matter float to the surface as our minds settle in quietude. We talk now about what we want; what we promise we will do. And a New Year looms, almost literally, on the horizon. A half-rotation of the earth and Japan will again greet the sun.
Continue reading ‘Days 6 & 7: Where the Yodo Meets the Endless Ocean’
Published February 23, 2009
Tags: Food, Kyoto, Osaka, Travel
THE WATERCOLOR GLOW OF RED and white lanterns washes over Pontocho alley as dusk slips silently into night. We had set out to find the perfect setting for our final dinner in Kyoto, but after being brusquely turned away from our first pick (no reservation) we find ourselves wandering. The restaurants all appear nameless, their doors hidden. The tiny rooms we pass are filled with diners and brimming with conversation. To my ears the words are an indiscernible murmur, but I imagine they speak of an Old Japan that even then was colored by change.
With no knowledge of written Japanese, we pause only at places that include pictures on their menus. We soon realize, however, that whether or not a restaurant uses photos is indicative of its atmosphere and caliber. Those that seem the most refined or traditional rely solely on the printed word to list their dishes. And so we feel our options whittled down to a potentially embarrassing/unappetizing meal at an upscale establishment or a more common experience if we play it safe.
Just as we consider exiting the alley to seek food elsewhere, a small, simple menu outside the doorway of an aged wooden building catches our eye. There are only a few things printed in English and no descriptions. But the name of one dish touches on the fading memory of a meal I once ate as a child — sukiyaki.
Continue reading ‘Days 4 & 5: Sugar in the Sauce’
Published January 27, 2009
Tags: Kyoto, Photos, Travel, Writing
A FRENCHMAN WHO LIVES in Australia is looking for a jazz club in downtown Kyoto. He pensively inspects a folded map, looks towards the corner of Sanjo and Gokomachi, and then eyes me. A black saxophone case is slung on his shoulder.
“Do you speak English?” he asks, a muted sense of urgency between his scattered accents. I tell him I do and a relieved smile spreads across his face — the kind one might get upon finding their emergency cigarette at the end of a hard day. “Oh man, that’s great!” he says, pausing for a moment to enjoy this good fortune. But at his second question, Do you know your way around here?, it becomes clear this celebration may have been premature.
He’s supposed to meet friends at eight o’clock at the venue, and it’s supposed to be right here. Janice and I lend him our eyes, sweeping the intersection once over and even looking at the map ourselves. But no dice. We’re just wrapping up our second day in the city and our local knowledge is thin. We wish our new friend good luck and start on our way back to the ryokan.
Then Jan sees it — Le Club Jazz (yes, that really is the name), on the second floor above an Italian restaurant overflowing with lubricated wedding party merriment, groomsmen outside chatting with glowing faces. I run down the street and catch up with our international musician and point him in the right direction. Champagne bubbles of thanks and excitement flow in return, and we consider checking out the club ourselves as we say a more final farewell. But we’ve been exploring since the morning, and a hot bath and our futon are singing a shamisen siren song.
Continue reading ‘Day 3: A Slow Walk to the End of Daylight’
Published January 21, 2009
Tags: Fukuoka, Kyoto, Photos, Travel, Writing
TOIRRETU. THIS IS A WORD every foreign traveler in Japan should know, unless they are fond of doing that awkward dance one does when trying not to wet themselves. But don’t expect to find this word, dear reader, in the pages of Lonely Planet’s Kyoto City Guide. Though they have devoted in their glossary an entry for the word sabi — “a poetic ideal of finding beauty and pleasure in imperfection; often used in conjunction with wabi” — the LP staff thought it unnecessary to include the correct Japanese pronunciation for “toilet.”
And so there I was, aboard one of the sleekest and fastest trains in the world, painfully trying to communicate with the ticket-taker. “Batharoomu wa doko deska?” I asked, hoping that if slid a few Japanese-sounding vowels into my English that he would understand.
He didn’t. He cocked his head to the side for a moment, and then with an Ah! it seemed to click. Then, using his arms to make an “X” he said, “No Batharoomu.” And so I went back to my seat, confused and squirmy with two hours ahead.
Continue reading ‘Day 2: Honeymoon Breeze’
Published January 19, 2009
Tags: Korea, Shopping, Travel
THE UBIQUITY OF PASSPORT covers in South Korean shops speaks volumes to this society’s new internationalism. Spending a month in the outskirts of Newcastle to do an MBA program or jetting off to Vancouver, B.C., for an English-language course have become commonplace adventures — necessary to reach a level of relative success. Coming across a cover that communicates a matching sense of class to customs agents, however, is less frequent.
I picked up this hand-sewn, goat leather passport cover by designer Park Jin Ok (or “Janey,” as is stitched on the detail tag) in the homewares section of A Land in Seoul’s Myeongdong district on a recent shopping trip. The way the corners don’t exactly match up gives it a rough-edged DIY feel that contrasts nicely against the material’s baby-softness; the small inner pockets are handy for keeping track of train, ferry and plane tickets. The truffle brown color of the leather is classic, and will show the nicks, stains and wear from the years’ travels.
Published January 16, 2009
Photo from the Citizens' Movement for Environmental Justice
SEOUL – HE’S A MAN WHO likes his running water.
While South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has officially dropped his plans for a nationwide canal he claimed would have revived the heartland, his government is continuing to push forward with similar schemes to resuscitate the economy. One is a major maintenance project intended to restore the banks of the country’s four largest rivers and bolster the sagging construction sector. Another is the expansion of an existing canal that would connect the Han River, which snakes through the heart of the capital, with the Yellow Sea.
Lee gained widespread popularity before becoming president as the mayor of Seoul for tearing up a massive arterial to make way for a park tracing Cheongye Stream, which had been buried underneath. But his latest projects have landed him on the blacklists of South Korea’s environmental groups. The Han-Yellow Sea expansion of the Kyeongin Canal has drawn the ire of a several in the area who lampoon the project as wasteful and unnecessary — not to mention ecologically disastrous.
Kwon Chang-sik, secretary general of the Joint Committee Against the Canal, recently told the Kyunghyang Sinmun that the Kyeongin Canal is full of standing water tainted by sewage. Were it to be connected to the Han River, oil and other runoff would flow into an estuary along the banks of the Han and destroy a habitat for seasonal birds. The economic benefits of the expanding the canal are nil, Kwon said. “Traveling the distance of the canal takes 30 minutes by car but would take 4 hours by boat.”