Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Found in Hase...Lost in Ginza...

After boldly crossing the street yesterday, I navigated my way back to the hotel and treated myself to a fancy dinner and a glass of wine. I wasn’t sure what was next on my agenda, so I got online (thank god for the internet) and started perusing options. Somewhere in the midst of links and pages, I saw something about “old Japan” just an hour out of Tokyo. It turns out some of the ancient Buddhas and shrines I so longed to see were safely ensconced in the small town of Kamakura. The train ride seemed easy enough, so I decided that would be my next adventure. After all, if I could cross the street and make it back safely, why not just leave Tokyo altogether for a day?

When I arrived on the platform for the train heading due south, I immediately noticed my new favorite toy – the “coffee vending machine.” While figuring out which type of coffee to buy and how much yen it might cost, a young boy with a cute Australian accent set about torturing his younger, stroller bound brother. I couldn’t help but giggle. The parents, with frustration, did their best to alleviate the sibling rivalry, and because strangers don’t outwardly acknowledge each other in such situations, I set about fiddling with my coffee and keeping my obvious amusement directed towards my feet. Eventually the parents apologized, to which I could only reply “Don’t worry, they’re brothers.” We began a conversation – where was I from, where were they from, etc, etc. It was such a relief to be engaged in an actual, verbal conversation. For three days I hadn’t really had a conversation. It turns out that Jon and Sara were on the same journey to Kamakura as I was – but they hadn’t really defined their plan. I shared what I had learned, and we decided to join forces for the day.

Before continue on with my story, I need to share an important lesson I learned: when the “next” train arrived, we all boarded. I was impressed! Spacious seating design, heat, available restrooms…it was even a ‘green’ train. John and Sarah were also impressed. They went to the back of the train, and I sat up front and started listening to my Zune. Soon, the usher came around asking for tickets. I handed mine over and she explained, as best she could in broken English, that I owed her an additional 2,000 yen. It turns out that, in Japan, contributing to an environmentally sound mode of transportation is pretty costly! I had mistakenly gotten on the “green” train for an unknown, unannounced extra charge…Not that keeping our planet green isn't priceless, but I guess a warning would have been nice..."Warning: Green Train: $20, Saving the Earth?: Priceless..."

Anyway, after a peaceful hour on the train, we arrived in Kamakura. We left the train, and after a brief moment of confusion, we found the train to the Hase, the town where the Giant Buddha sits imposingly meditating. Another brief ride on a train reminiscent of the San Francisco trolley cars and we found ourselves in an authentically historic neighborhood of Japan. The cobble streets were narrow and winding and the sidewalks were scarcely wide enough for a pair to walk side by side. We were all easily distracted by the abundance of little curio shops – we adults maybe even more excitable and distractible than the kids. We stopped by a beautiful kimono shop where I was promptly scolded for taking pictures. I’m not totally sure why – it’s not as though I have any hope of EVER recreating any of it – but it was just so beautiful with its oranges, reds and yellows aflame and alive.

We walked a short, crowded path to the Giant Buddha. All my life I have wanted to stand before one of these massive structures - and I can tell you that it was no dissappointment. I am not sure how to describe it; Adjectives just won't do. There before me was a massive statue, perfect in its artistry. But that wasn't the part that left an indelible mark on me; the feeling of standing before a landmark that has been there for nearly 1,000 years...that is the part I simply can't describe. The buildings that orginally existed around it were destroyed by typhoons and tidal waves...yet this massive giant stood immovable. The moment was breathtaking...solemn...unmatchable. So I had the only reaction I could have - I stood silent, mesmerized, enthralled. And then I pulled out my chikin hat and had my new friends photograph me and the travelling hat, because life is short and ever-so-serious if you let it have its way, and this simply will not do.

After the Buddha, the lot of us wandered back through Hase in search of the Hasedera, or the Hase Kannon Temple. Once again, I climbed my way to a breathtaking sight. Surrounded by Jizo, I felt a sense of peace and was overwhelmed with awe. Thousands of tiny steps meandered past thousands of tiny buddhas, and I walked through them all. A trip like this forces a person to confront relgious beliefs. I haven't questioned my beliefs for years, and I don't now. But one thing I realized was that if I have an opportunity to say a prayer for my loved ones, I will. I want good energy flowing through and around my friends and family as often as possible, so with yen jingling in my pocket, I tossed a few coins, lit some incense, and said a prayer for those I love. I can only hope that the winding wisps of smoke travelled far enough for my prayers to be heard.

Later, Jon and Sara treated me to a lovely Unagi dinner, after which we made our way back to Tokyo. We consulted our subway maps to figure out on which of the hundreds of stops we should disembark. We all agreed that Tokyo Station would be the best bet...and probably it was. But what I failed to anticipate was exiting the subway station only to find myself in the dead center of the Ginza shopping district. Basically, in the space of 72 hours, I went from the comfort and guaranteed orientation of a 30 square mile island to being hopelessly lost in the heart of what I can only compare to 5th Avenue in New York City. Oh, did I mention it was after dark? I wandered, freezing, hopelessly lost, finding myself without a soul who spoke English to guide me. After wandering up and down the same streets several times with no luck or direction, I decided to take a chance on the only store I could find sporting an American flag. Luckily the sales clerk at the Tokyo Louis Vuitton spoke enough English to direct me to the Tokyo Metro. Exhausted and past my bedtime, I arrived safely at my hotel.

excerpt from my journal: I can't even explain how amazing this was. Towering, Imposing, Ancient, and yet Serene. How amazing to be standing in front of a statue that has been in National Geographic. Me. Cami. From Union. Of course, no one around me understood the significance...How did this happen? Is it wrong to be proud of my bravery? Maybe there's nothing left for me to be scared of....

Monday, December 28, 2009

Crossing The Street

When I woke up this morning, I really didnt have much of a plan. My big goal was just to get out of the hotel and see something, so after many, many minutes staring at the map and the subway guide, I decided to take a shot at getting to the Imperial Palace. It turned out that it was much easier that I had originally thought it would be. I simply had to return to the subway that brought me here and get off 2 stops later. Now, getting OUT of the subway is still a bit of a mystery to me, but soon enough I felt the cold air that told me I was going the right way.

Based on the map, I knew if I just stuck to the path around the palace, there was no way I could get lost (which is saying something considering my well know geographical retardation). Luckily, staying on the path was pretty entertaining. The Palace is spectacular, and exactly the old world Japan I was hoping to glimpse on this trip. I especially loved the polarity of the classic Japanese architechture on the backdrop of the modern Tokyo skyline. As I walked around the path, I kept noticing the Tokyo skyline. I kept wondering what was over there...but for some reason in my mind it was a forbidden land. What if I get lost? They always tell you not to cross the street when you're a kid....What if what if what if...And so finally the lure of the buildings and the beautiful fountain was just too much for me to resist. I thought, "if I don't cross the streen now, then when will I?"

And so, I found myself facing actual traffic for the first time in months. The closest thing to traffic I've felt in Rota was "rush minute" when three cars passed by at once. But, I did it...and it wasn't that bad. Before I knew it I found myself wandering deeper into the city. I saw an inviting tunnel, and so I wandered down the stairs. I found myself in Ote Central Plaza. There wasnt much, but there were some cool looking restaurants, and even though I wasn't really hungry, I decided to eat anyway, because why not?

When I walked into the restaurant, I was immediately confused again. The hostess sat me at a table with another woman, which seems to be customary here. I ordered "number 24" because it said raw tuna, and that always sounds good. The food was amazing, and came out really quickly. But the best part was the group in the dojo room. They were clearly celebrating, but when they stood up to leave the fun really began. One gentleman couldnt find his shoes, and 2 others couldnt find their balance. The ladies just giggled as yet another gentleman continually apologized to me. I was laughing, of course, and saying "no problem," but another equilibrium challanged gentleman also started apologizing. He told me he was Peruvian, slurred to me for a few minutes, welcomed me to Tokyo, and the lot of them stumbled out into the afternoon.

After lunch, I continued my hapless wandering, trying to stick somewhat to the original plan of the Imperial Palace tour. I wandered back in that general direction, and found that I had almost circled the entire place. I was dissappointed to find out that the museums were all closed, so instead I took a walk through a huge park. My path through the park eventually led me back to the Imperial Palace and the main roads. Even along the busy road there are statues and history to be seen. I wanted to get back before dark, so I started wandering back my original route. Along the way, I found myself just randomly smiling the kind of goofy way you do when you have a new crush. I realized, I do have a crush. This world is amazing. There are so many similarities and differences. As I relished the cold air on my cheeks and the smell of evergreen in the air, I thought of Seattle. But as soon as I thought "this feels like home," I realized I was surrounded by people who speak an entirely different language. I also realized it will be quite some time before I call cold air and evergreen smells "home" again. Right now my home smells like the ocean and feels like a greehouse. On second thought, right now my home smells and feels like anywhere I happen to be at the moment.....

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Pinnacle of Freedom

I noticed that my big girl pants had shuffled to the back of the closet and were gathering dust, so I decided to leave my newfound comfort zone and head out into the world again. I have wanted to go to Tokyo for a long time, probably because my mom was born there and so I have grown up hearing her talk about it, so after plenty of hesitation, I decided to just go for it. Besides selling most of what I own and moving to a microscopic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I think this is the pinnacle of freedom for me. I remember years ago realizing that if I had to pick a single word for what is most important to me, freedom is the one. It seems that not long after that my cage began encroaching on my soul. But then I realized that I do in fact control my life, and that I can make choices to be free. So here I am. I didnt wait for someone to travel with, I didn't wait for the perfect timing, and I didnt wait to learn a language or have a plan. I just did it. I just hopped a plane and travelled to one of the biggest cities in the world all by myself. And it feels great. Better than great even. It feels like freedom.

Perhaps living on a spiritual and highly superstitious island has fostered my already sign-seeking nature, but I had a good feeling about this trip from the get-go. It was during the flight to Tokyo, however, that I really recieved my first tangible sign of goodness. I sat next to two japanese brothers, across the aisle sat their parents and little sister. With a distinct language barrier, there was little talking. At one point one of the boys asked me if I knew "B'z", and I never really did figure out what he was asking. Regardless, towards the end fo the flight, the boys pulled out a handful of keychains and handed me one from Guam. They thanked me - for what, I don't know. At the end of the flight the parents also thanked me "very much," again, for what I don't know. But I thought, shoot, if i can sit and watch the in flight movie and mind my own business and get thanked for it, I must be going to a pretty nice country.

When I arrived at Narita, I knew my plan was to take the subway to Tokyo. I didnt know what that would entail, but I had some vague directions I had found from another traveller online. After the nice lady at the tourist desk highlighted about 3 different routes for me, I went to the next desk to try to figure out more. Even though I speak literally NO Japanese, and the people I asked for help seemed to speak no English, I somehow was guided successfully to my 2nd to last subway stop. But OH WOW, that's when the confusion really took hold. You see, up until the Yarakucho Station, most of the signs were also in English. But when it came time to change trains, I literally walked in circles. I finally went back to the man with the train conductor hat and tried to communicate my complete and utter confusion. He motioned for me to wait, went to the back room, came back with a young associate who proceeded to guide me all the way out of the station, across the street, and down several flights of stairs to the other station. He helped me buy a ticket and made sure I knew the rest of the way. All along the way, people have been more than nice and more than helpful.

As for the rest of my trip, time will tell. I am sure I will find plenty to do - and my friend Issei will surely help as well. Mostly, I am just so excited to end 2009 on such a bold, brave note. My resolution for this year was to live outside my comfort zone - I had no idea that simple thought would lead me to the realization of so many dreams. It really is true that the thoughts you focus on will become reality....