Monday, July 20, 2009

This is not really my field, but maybe someone will read it.

I am not the most environmentally conscious person on the planet, but I try not to create too much excessive destruction. I carry net grocery bags in my purse. I don't leave more than one light on at a time. I've been trying to shut the hot water off whenever I'm not specifically using it. I only use the air conditioner for a few minutes at a time, and feel guilty while doing it.

I do generate trash, though. My recycling pile is full of packaging, mostly plastic: bottles, wrappers, baggies, whatever. There seems to be no end to it. A big part of the problem, of course, is that I'm a lazy so-and-so and don't bother to cook very much-- I eat far too much processed food. But even fresh vegetables often come in a plastic box.

There's definitely a recycling system here, and a lot of people are pretty good about separating the recyclables from their regular trash. Sometimes I even try to keep the plastic and cardboard bits separate, like I'm supposed to. (Okay, I totally would do it at home, but it's hard to take the system here as seriously when our drop-off point is a haphazard pile of garbage underneath a tree.) I'm not sure how good the system is, or how much of the stuff we hopefully put out can even be recycled, but it's better than nothing.

Still, I'd rather not generate the trash at all. Why don't manufacturers focus more on refills and reusable packaging?

I'm not talking about "refills" like you can buy in the store now-- new cartridges for your pen, or plastic pouch of laundry detergent you can put into your bigger container at home. The average "refill" package contains almost as much plastic as the original. Worse, all of the packaging is thrown away as soon as the contents are dumped into the old container. I'm talking about a real refill system: collecting, sterilizing and reusing the containers that already exist, rather than using more resources to make a new one.

With the current attention on our (vast) environmental problems, I wonder why reuseable packaging hasn't taken off. Is it a vested interest of the plastic manufacturers? Is it too much trouble to set up the infrastructure? Those are the two reasons that spring immediately to mind. For the first, there's no answer except to vote and demonstrate and stay informed, as with any political problem. For the second: everything's got to start somewhere.

For a good refill system to work, packaging should be durable, easily sterilized, and (eventually) recyclable. You'd need some kind of collection-and-exchange system-- maybe even something like the way milk bottles used to be reused. Some refills-- nontoxic products in small packages-- could probably even be done at the same store where the products were originally sold. I hate throwing away empty pens, for example, because aside from the ink there's nothing wrong with the pen. They're made to last for years, but are useless in weeks or days. How much technology can possibly be involved in refilling a ballpoint pen?

We already have a refill system for propane tanks: take the empty tank to the store and trade it for a full one, paying only for the gas and the service. Buying a new one every time would be wasteful and stupid, when the old container is perfectly good and can be reused for years. Why not use the same attitude when designing smaller things?

Our culture admires the shiny and new. You can't have a consumer economy without a consumer base that likes to buy things. Many people would probably be reluctant to use a system like this at first. There's no reason, though, why a few companies couldn't try it with a few products-- a kind of novelty for a while, until the idea caught on. Government subsidies could help them with the setup costs. When the infrastructure was built, I imagine a refills system would catch on pretty quickly. How much cheaper is it to sterilize and relabel an old bottle than to make a new one? The old dairy companies had it right.

There is endless room for this. It could be adjusted for almost every product. Shampoo, ketchup, nail polish, whatever: turn in the empty bottle, get a full one at a lower cost. It would be even easier for something like a produce container: just design a sturdy basket that could be dunked in boiling water befor new plums (or whatever) were loaded into it.

There is nothing but possibility here. There is no argument, except for immediate convenience, that could make disposable packaging seem like a better idea. (Although if some packaging were made immediately biodegradable, I might change my mind on that one.) I wonder what company will be the first to start experimenting with this.

Two things

I loved the movie version of The Half-Blood Prince. I would have liked it even better without Ginny Weasley sticking her freckled nose into every available scene.

I never really took issue with Ginny in the books-- the way the romance developed, sure, but not the romance itself. In this movie, though, I felt like her presence was kind of a distraction from the real story. (Also: did anyone else see her fighting with Dean Thomas before Hermione mentioned it at the party? Anyone? They looked pretty happy at The Leaky Cauldron to me.) Don't get me wrong-- Bonnie Wright was great as Ginny. I just thought there was too much of her.

Tom Feldon and Rupert Grint were great. I could have watched Draco Malfoy forever, and Ron was vastly entertaining. Snape and Dumbledore were, of course, great as well-- hell, I liked pretty much everybody.

I loved the direction, by and large. There were a lot of really beautiful scenes. I should watch the movie again so I can gush appropriately about my favorite parts-- as of now, there are too many to choose from! There were some heavy cuts, and some odd decisions on story development (I am thinking mostly of the one that involved a field and a sudden fire), but that's all to be expected in this kind of movie.

I want the last movie, NOW.


I've been reading about Iran, and thus (a little bit) about Shia Islam. (The book is Persian Mirrors, by Elaine Sciolino. I've had it on my shelf for a long time and am really enjoying it now.)

The author doesn't go very deep into doctrine (or hasn't in what I've read so far). What caught my attention was her mention of the story of the 12th Imam. Apparently this is a messianic figure who's supposed to have disappeared as a child at the end of the 9th Century. In Shia Islam, it's apparently believed that he will come back towards the end of the world and... well, Wikipedia says "bring justice and peace to the world by establishing Islam throughout the world," so we'll go with that. This second coming of the 12th Imam, of course, sounds a lot like the second coming of Christ, which in turn bears certain resemblances to the second coming of King Arthur. I know there have got to be others out too-- it would be interesting to look for them. (I just did a Google search for "second coming" and got mostly articles on the Yeats poem, which is pretty fabulous. I like that poem...)

Humans seem to be pretty fond of these legends-- the hero who will come and fight the final battle for us, and lead the righteous into a new era of peace and joy. Actually, Harry Potter (to tie these threads together) is a pretty good example. Child messiah rids the world of evil once, receives appropriately grandiose title ("The Boy Who Lived!"), and vanishes from the (wizarding) world (with the help of Dumbledore, who is absolutely a God metaphor). Ten years later, when evil once more rears its head, the Child Messiah comes again, battles evil, and prevails-- ushering in a new peace that lasts for at least 19 years. Someone could write a dissertation on Harry Potter as Unintentional Biblical Allegory-- but the dissertation could just as easily be about Harry Potter as Archetypical Messiah, or something related. These are just things that we think about-- we like for good to triumph over evil, and we want to know that someone will come take over for us when things get tough.

The problem with these legends, of course, is that they are legends. We have no way of knowing whether they're true or not. Sure, someone might show up in the nick of time, just as the world is about to end, and fix everything with his magical powers-- but the best thing to do is to work on improving the world ourselves. If King Arthur does decide to come back, it can be an unexpected bonus.

(I have the sudden strong urge to go and read The Dark Is Rising. Wish I'd followed the earlier urge to buy it.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Get over it, already

I am tired of worrying about my weight.

I lost about thirty pounds a year ago, apparently by switching from no exercise at all to several hours a week. The weight loss has since plateaued, and I've been waiting since for the rest of the weight to drop off. It's not happening.

I'm tired of caring. I have too many other things to do with my brain right now. I have a full-time job, the GRE to study for, dance classes to go to, and friends to have a good time with. I have books to read and languages to learn. I have new music I should really be listening to, and a stack of it to play, so why am I so worried about the way my belly looks in profile?

I've also been using weight as an excuse to avoid dating: "If I go out now, I won't attract the kind of person I want to attract, because I don't look the way I want to look." I've always thought that if I got myself looking, acting, and being exactly the way I wanted to look, act, and be, then my perfect mate would come zooming down the line immediately, attracted by my own perfection. It finally occurred to me the other day that I don't want to attract the kind of person who will only want me if I look just-so. I don't expect my partners to be ideal, physically or otherwise, and I certainly wouldn't like the kind of person who would expect it of me.

I'm going to try to eat healthily and do the things I want and need to do, without worrying about the numbers so much for a while.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Why I Want to Study Urban Planning

(or, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the City.")

I've been reading a lot of nonfiction books lately. A People's History of the United States told me about American people's movements and common folk trying to change the world. Endless Forms Most Beautiful let me marvel at the intricate, clever workings of the evolutionary process in animals, then pointed out how many of those animals are being wiped out before they can even be studied. The more nonfiction I read, the more I want to influence the world for the better. I want to do something with my life that has a real, immediate impact on the world.

At this point I can finally say, with about 90% certainty, that I've chosen urban planning.

I used to think that I wanted to live far away from cities-- out in the mountains, in a house deep in the forest with only the sounds of birds and wind for company. I used to think I hated cities. It's taken me a while to realize that I love them.

It's not my fault, entirely. I was a suburban child from the age of nine. Before that I lived on military housing, which was similar but even more boring. I hated the uniformity of the houses, the monotony of the lawns and regularity of the streets, the fact that there was never anything interesting to do. (You can only ride your bike so many times around the block before it starts to get old.) I read a lot of fantasy novels as a child, most of which described city life as soulless and dirty. I loved the country-- or what I'd experienced of it from visits to my grandparents' house-- and I figured that if suburban life sucked, then city life had to be a hundred times worse.

Even so, when our family went on trips that had us out after dark, I always loved to look at the city lights as we passed them. Something was always going on in the cities-- everyone was awake and alive, shopping and eating in restaurants and doing lots of interesting things. When it was raining, the lights would blur, and stain the drops of water that rolled down the windows. They seemed even more exciting, then: despite the cold and the dark outside, the life of the city was obviously continuing unabated.

I never really liked leaving those lights behind. Highway driving at night meant long, long stretches of black countryside, with only the lights of other cars for company. (The red taillights we were following always seemed demonic to me, and the white headlights on the other side of the highway looked angelic. I remember wondering, when I was really small, why the other side got the pretty lights and we were stuck with the ugly red ones.) Sometimes my parents would tell us stories, but more often the car was quiet, with most of my siblings sleeping and maybe Rush Limbaugh crackling on the radio. At the end of the drive was a quiet, sleeping neighborhood; a quiet, sleeping house; and bedtime, with an end to adventures.

I went to college in a very small town, three miles down the road from a medium-sized one, forty-five minutes from the nearest city. Late at night, when my friends and I got bored, we'd watch movies in each other's dorm rooms, or go down the road to Wal-Mart and play around in the empty aisles. There was nothing else to do. I loved college, actually, but the fact remains that any time we did anything really interesting, it meant a trip to Asheville. New movies were what usually drew us there-- Firefly, Mirrormask, the latest Harry Potter. (The nearest movie theater to the school had screens you could count on one hand and never got anything new until well after the release date.) We'd make an evening of it: go shopping downtown, where the stores were quirky and artsy; hit up Barnes & Noble, the mall, the comic shops my friends liked to go to; have Japanese for dinner, or Indian, or whatever else we felt like eating.

The opera is in Asheville, and the symphony. There are little galleries and a wonderful chocolate shop and the Asheville Pizza and Brewery, where you can take in your movies along with good food and great beer. There are art and music festivals, historic buildings, strange little twists and turns to get lost in. Asheville is not a big city, but it was the center of culture for us.

When I moved back home, after school, there was no real center of culture at all. We had movies, sure. My hometown has huge theaters, chain stores galore, every high-demand consumer product you can shake a stick at. It does not, however, have the opera. Or the symphony. It has no museums that I'm aware of. There are apparently galleries, but they're far flung (and, anyway, at that point I was not cool enough to want to visit them.) Worse: anything you want to do there, you have to do by car. Even the corner market might be a quarter-mile away, or more, and the nearest bookstore might well be across town. With an area of 43.5 square miles (according to Wikipedia) and a population well over 100,000, Cary is like a small city that's been stretched out like silly putty until it does no one any good.

After dark, the town shuts down. Closes its eyes. At ten p.m. in a residential area, you can go outside and feel like the only person alive in the world.

Contrast my current home, in a rapidly-developing area in South Korea. The town started out as a farming community, but is urbanizing with amazing speed and fast approaching city dimensions, if it isn't there already. Right now I live in a fifth-floor apartment cornering on a downtown back street that's bordered half by stores and half by high-rises. At any hour of the day or night, there will be someone passing by below my window. It may be a street sweeper or trash collector, or a group of friends out on a binge, or a bunch of rowdy high school students just getting out of their cram schools, or a solitary walker whistling or singing as he or she strolls along. From five stories up, you can hear the scrape of feet on the pavement and the echoes of conversations. The buzz and rumble of car engines is white noise now. Sometimes it's exceptionally noisy, and then it's hard to get to sleep, but most of the time I find the constant presence of other humans outside surprisingly comforting. I'm never alone, even when I'm tucked up in my apartment and haven't spoken to a soul (except the cat) all day.

I always used to feel guilty for shopping and eating out, but I couldn't help myself. I love shopping in cities. There are always things on the shelves I never thought of before-- clever little ornaments, books by authors I've never heard of (some of whom would never make it in a Barnes & Noble). I used to buy way too much. Restaurants are another downfall-- I can't see a new place without wanting to try it out. I would chastise and guilt trip myself, convinced I was being wasteful and greedy.

I've only recently realized that the food, and the jewelry, and the baubles and books and gadgets, aren't really the point of shopping, delightful as they may be. The pleasure comes in being out on the streets, in seeing the people and enjoying the multiplicity of ideas and just being part of the scene. For a suburban girl, this is a huge revelation: I had never learned to think of street-wandering as something to do for pleasure. Where I come from, all the stores and buildings look the same. You go where you need to go, maybe a couple other stores if they're close by, then get in your car and go somewhere else. City shopping-- especially downtown shopping-- is different. You don't even really have to buy anything-- just enjoy the presence of the art and the music (because a good store will always have good music) and the other people who you'd never see if you stuck to your normal routine.

I used to think of that kind of shopping as a guilty pleasure, and of city amenities (like all-night businesses, subways, and all that jazz) as the good parts of a necessary evil. "We need these now," I thought, "but someday, when the world is perfect, we'll have to regretfully wave good-bye to these things as we phase out the cities altogether." Now I want to get rid of the bad sides, instead-- make city life seem like less of a "necessary evil" and more of a viable and beautiful thing.

It seems like a dense, well-managed city, replete with public transportation and free from high-crime areas, is much better for the earth than a sprawling suburb with half the population. The remaining land can be kept beautiful and unencumbered.

I really believe that the suburban lifestyle as it is currently practiced-- sprawling developments, endless highways-- is not sustainable, and that it will someday come to a crashing halt. Maybe people will rebel against zoning regulations and start building things they need where they actually live. Maybe everyone will shake their heads in disgust and move off to denser, more workable cities. Whenever that system collapses, the country will be left with an endless desert of concrete, unfit for anything but reflecting heat. I've been wondering for a while what we're going to do with it. How do you reuse laid concrete? Can it be shattered and used as building materials somehow? Is there a way to dissolve it? So much money gone into something that's ultimately going to be a waste-- there has to be something we can do with it.

Overextension never did anybody any good. The British Empire overextended; look where it got them. Look where it got every other empire that ever dared... imperialize. (I like impericize better; can I use that?) If you spread your feet too far apart, you're going to fall over eventually. Modern suburbanism is a form of hyperextension that can only go on for as long as an extensive support system is in place. When it becomes too expensive to support, it's all going to collapse. I used to think that city life was polluting and wasteful. Now I'm realizing that the suburban lifestyle, as it's currently conducted, is the real evil.

I'm going through graduate schools now, making a list, checking it twice, etc. I'm looking for big, interesting cities with state universities where I can study urban planning affordably. Suggestions are welcome. :)

(This entry is brought to you mostly courtesy of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I have been doing a lot of thinking about this stuff latetly, thanks to this amazing book. Go read it!)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Your respiratory functions are being monitored.

I just got a phone call from the Korean CDC. Apparently I was seen-- and reported-- sneezing at the airport, and my name got put onto a list.

Dear Korea: You are unhinged. Seriously. There is something wrong with a country that has the kind of police-state mentality it would take to a) monitor travelers' bodily functions, whether through spies or security cameras or whatever, and then b) rather than speaking to them in person, and resolving the issue on the site, put their names on watchlists and track them down inside Korea. (That plan of action, actually, makes me think they have someone going through security footage in search of suspicious respiratory activity-- or, possibly, that they require airport/airline staff to post daily reports of illness indicators, which are gone through later.)

Fortunately, the caller was convinced by my (accurate) explanation of my suspicious sneezes: I have summer allergies. I started sneezing immediately after getting to Japan. (The disease, according to the guy on the phone, incubates for seven to nine days before symptoms appear.) He told me to watch myself for a week or so, and call the CDC if anything showed up. (Right.) Still, I was majorly creeped out by the phone call. The speaker-- who started the conversation by mangling my name-- had that oily, too-intimate tone we associate with people who do not mean us well. If I could have asked to see his credentials over the phone, I would have done so.

Worst, I don't think my concerns are idle. I read an article in a free English-language mag called Groove: Korea about the Korean government's... unique?... approach to quarantine. After a case of swine flu appeared in a new English teacher who'd just gone through company training, several dozen of his co-trainees were rounded up in ambulances and dragged off to quarantine. They were lied to (or at least misinformed) about where they were going. Many were not given a chance to pack their bags, and had to spend the next several days in a strange place with no possessions and no changes of clothing. A blog entry with links to several accounts can be found here.

I'm going to be looking over my shoulder for weeks. Thanks, Korea.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

I'm writing this in an internet cafe near Ueno station. It's six minutes past midnight and I really should get back to the ryokan and get some sleep, but I wanted to get at least some of my backlog of travel notes typed up before I lost my momentum. I thought, a few minutes ago, that I'd lost my travel notebook, which would have about broken my heart. It's the same one Mom and I used when she was here, and I hope to keep it forever.

Tuesday morning, I overslept. A lot. Checkout was at 10 o'clock, and I woke up at 11-- for some reason I'm having a hard time waking up to my phone alarm here. (Maybe I should have brought my regular alarm clock, a big musical one that might well be able to wake the dead.) Just as I was muttering "no... no, no, nooo," there was a polite tap on my door, and I was able to apologize in person to one of the ryokan staff members while pantomiming frantically that I'd been sleeping. Everyone there was quite nice about the whole thing, and they didn't charge me any extra for the late checkout. I would wholeheartedly recommend Sawanoya for anyone who's staying in Tokyo; it was a lovely experience in pretty much all respects.
Suzuki Ryokan, on the other hand, is more than a little disappointing. (Can I give it a negative review while still staying there? Is that kosher? Somehow I doubt the owners spend much time scanning the Internet for English-language reviews of their establishment... ) It is orders of magnitude less nice than Sawanoya. I will grant that it is, in fact, weirdly charming-- there's a kind of woodland theme going on, and I've even got a "tree" in my room (will post pictures when I'm able). It is also cheaper, by about 1,300 yen (around 13 bucks) per night.
I would, in a heartbeat, have spent those extra thirteen bucks a night for more time at Sawanoya. I don't regret not having made a reservation there ahead of time, because I had no way of knowing if it would be nice or not, but I wish they'd had space available for the whole week.
Unfortunately, Suzuki asks for cash up front (at Sawanoya, you pay at the end), and I paid it before I'd looked very closely at the room. The room, I discovered later, is none too clean. The shower room is downright disgusting. They do not clean every day-- or, indeed, any day, as far as I've seen. Mostly, the family that runs the place stays in the back rooms, and the guests come and go as they please. It's a weird, slightly creepy little place, and I wish now I'd shopped around more before deciding to stay there. (I was so excited that one of the places from the Lonely Planet book could accommodate me for the five days I needed that I didn't bother to look further.)
On the other hand, it's insanely convenient-- the train station is only a flight of stairs away! The futon is more comfortable than the one at Sawanoya, too. Trade-offs. :)
(I just listened to "Camel Walk," by Southern Culture on the Skids, because it was playing on Di's playlist which I put on for background music. It is a weird, weird song. Reminds me a bit of the B-52s. Strange... yet fabulous.)

After a shower-- I felt like I needed one, having just lugged all my crap to the new ryokan-- I headed over to Asakusa for a look around. Sensoo-ji, the big Buddhist temple over there, was lovely (or what I could see of it was). The building was mostly covered by scaffolding when I went, unfortunately-- I guess they're doing some kind of renovations-- but I could see the temple guardians and five-story pagoda and the giant straw sandals and the big red lantern and all that good stuff. I would have liked to sit down inside for a while, because it did have a very beautiful altar, but only temple members were allowed past the outer... foyer, I guess you'd call it.
Asakusa temple, the little Shinto temple there, was almost an afterthought after Sensoo-ji. It's tucked around the corner from the Buddhist temple and is only a fraction of its size, and I imagine a lot of tourists go their merry way without ever realizing it was there.
There were pigeons everywhere. Lots of signs explained (in multiple languages) that pigeons were quite capable of feeding themselves, and that people who fed them were contributing to a minor ecological disaster and general nuisance. Some of the statues in a small garden I passed were wearing "cloaks" and "bibs" made of old clothes, apparently to protect them from the pigeon poop. It worked, to a point, but didn't do much for their heads or faces.
Passed some kids playing rock-scissors-paper (however you say that in Japanese). Another cultural similarity with Korea. :P


The Lonely Planet guide has a blurb on a doll shop called Yoshitoku, where they make beautiful, traditional dolls intended for collectors. I'd decided before leaving that I would go and look around, and that I might get a doll if I found one that I liked and could afford. (I always loved looking at Mom's collection of international dolls when I was a kid!) The store wasn't too hard to find (it was raining again, but I'd brought my umbrella), and they did have a lot of beautiful dolls inside. I looked at everything, and read what documentation was available in English.
I was surprised, at first, that some of the most expensive dolls in the shop were quite tiny, and looked very simple compared to the tall kimono-clad ladies in traditional poses. I couldn't figure this out for a while-- surely a beautiful embroidered kimono was more expensive than the simple, hard, cloth-covered bodies on the little dolls I was looking at? Then I looked closer.
I just looked it up, and found that these are called kimekomi dolls, made of carved wood into the grooves of which the cloth is very carefully tucked, creating the visual effect of very elaborately folded cloth garments. The closer I looked, the more impressed I was, because I saw that the expressions and poses where much more subtle and real than the ones on the geisha dolls I'd spent the first few minutes looking at. I was surprised, and delighted, to see a tiny kimekomi girl sitting on a shelf, holding a flute, with a price tag of about 43 dollars. I immediately decided to get her.
I pointed her out to an employee, who brought her to the counter and had me sit down. He handed the doll, and the price tag, to another employee. She looked at them both, frowned, and left the room. When she came back, she said two cruel words: "Chigau puraisu."
Wrong price. The actual price on the doll I'd chosen was well over two hundred bucks, and far more than I could justify spending on a four-inch doll I knew nothing about beyond the fact that it was pretty and I liked it. My mother always jokes that she knows she has good taste, because she always gravitates towards the most expensive thing in the room without even seeing the price tags. I've obviously inherited that knack from her. -_-
Side note: It is much easier to find drip coffee in Japan than it is in Korea. Also, Mr. Donut is a superior breed of donut shop. Cream-filled, icing-dipped crullers, anyone?
We do seem to bring the rain, don't we? My parents used to joke that we should hire ourselves out as a rain charm to places suffering from drought: all we have to do is go on vacation somewhere, and down it pours. Tuesday got rainier and rainier as the evening progressed.
There's a street in the Asakusa area that specializes in restaurant areas-- plastic food, mass-produced dishes, door curtains, etc. I went looking for it, with the vague idea of picking up some plastic food for my mom (heheh), but couldn't find it. It might have been there, but just closed down already: a lot of businesses here close around five. I might try to find it again before I go.
After Asakusa, decided to go to Akihabara-- the big electronics district-- to see what I could see-see-see. I ended up in a massive (6-story?) electronics store called Yodabashi Camera, where I wandered up and down and picked up a USB drive and a little camera case. Afterwards, quite exhausted, stopped into a "Victorian pub" next store called "The Rose and Crown," looking for a beer and possibly some English-speakers to talk to. Akihabara is a big tourist draw, after all, and a British-themed bar seemed a likely hangout for parched foreigners looking for beer.
The bar was packed... with Japanese customers. As I should have expected.
Japan seems to understand beer much better than Korea does. It's quite a big thing-- like at home, I guess. In Korea, half the advertisements in the subways are for soju companies; in Japan, it's beer.
Half-pint done, I went outside and looked in vain for crowds of otaku. Should have looked at the guidebook: prime time for Akiba is apparently late afternoon. The rain was coming down harder and harder, but I needed to find an internet cafe-- no 'net at Suzuki-- so I slogged around for a long, long time. Finally got directions from a nice attendant at a smoker's-den-and-pay-toilet across the way from Yodobashi. Found cafe; checked mail; left, looked for dinner; realized trains were about to stop; left.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Monday, June 15th, 2009

If I'm rich, I'll wear Bliss. That's the first note in my travel notebook for Monday the 15th. I made it as I was walking up Omote-Sando, the posh designer avenue coming off of Harajuku. Some of the most amazing prices I'd ever seen. On the other hand, everything in some of the windows was a work of art. I only say "some of the windows," because I think there's a lot less art in some of the big designer labels than there is in smaller shops elsewhere. Of course, even the smaller shops were pricey in this area: 30 bucks for a change purse was not at all unheard of. I moved on.

I did pop into the Oriental Bazaar to check out the Japanese souvenirs there. It was a tourist trap, obviously, but as tourist traps go not too bad. I still want to pick up my souvenirs in other places, but if I can't find something I want later I know where to go. I also stopped in at Kiddyland (an obscenely expensive 6-story toystore) to find small souvenirs for the kids. I ended up getting them tiny charms and erasers out of the vending machines.


Note: I love the hydrangeas everywhere. They're in full bloom here, and besides the amazing ones at the East Garden Sunday, I saw plenty at Omote-Sando and elsewhere in Harajuku. I think they're one of my favorite flowers. I keep trying to take a picture of one that captures the exact shade of blue, but so far haven't been able to. Maybe it's my camera (or my ignorance in using it). Mom: hydrangeas? Or should I just come home and start my own garden? Because this week, I'm starting to be tempted.


At lunch, I wrote: "Keep trying to like Hara. better, but just feels like a big, pretentious mall. Prob. more fun w/ friends." I'd been tromping around a while at that point, and had been mildly harassed by a North African (?) hustler in the slightly-seedier Takeshita-dori. I had lunch at the Eco Cafe, which I think was some sort of experimental organic place, but wasn't really good enough to warrant the money. Damn good coffee, though, and after I had some I felt better. I'd also found a necklace I liked-- hematite beads with copper and amethyst accents-- at a jewelry shop called the Stone Market, on one of the small streets in Harajuku. The store had some cool stuff, pretty reasonably priced, and the sales guy was really nice. I'd go back, if I came back to Tokyo again.


The coffee revived me a bit, and I went wandering. I ended up at the Fiesta Gallery, which is a massive sprawling two-and-three-story house-turned-art-gallery, which can be rented out for peanuts by local artists who want to have private showing. You choose a little bit of wall-- all the rooms are available, bathrooms and shower rooms included-- pay about five bucks a day, and put up your stuff until the money runs out. It was interesting. There was a mix there-- "real" artists, who had really interesting and compelling stuff on the walls, and then others who were pretty obviously amateurs, with... less... compelling... things. I thought the best by far was... well, the card says "kuroko." A young man was sitting in the gallery, greeting passers-through, but I'm not sure, now, if he was the artist or not. "-ko" would indicate a girl, but honestly I don't know. It's pretty gruesome stoff, some of it-- lots of things-turning-into-things, people-growing-from-things, things-growing-from-people, bones and bodies, etc. Still, it makes you look, and keeps your attention, and I did quite like it. Or, at least, I thought it was pretty good. Here's the ( website on the card I got...

There were some foreigners outside on the (painted, mosaicked, be-sculptured) deck, chatting. One of them seemed to be pitching an art installation, themed around garbage and ecology, to another, who was trying to show off how jaded and knowledgeable he was. They... gave the place a very art-school, college town atmosphere, which I guess it has overall, anyway.

Seeing an amateur gallery, where it looked like just about anyone could display, made me want to try and produce something in terms of visible art. If I were cooler, I'd bring a sketchbook when I went out and make lots of pictures for you all to marvel at. Maybe when I get home I'll try to draw more, outside of whiteboard masterworks in my kindergarten classrooms.


Harajuku more or less won me over, in the end. There's a massive "fashion tower" (as Koreans would say) called Laforet, which appears to be where most of the action is at. (To those who've been to doota! in Dongdaemoon, it's like that, but a lot cooler.) I was lured inside by the promise of "books" in the basement, but was quickly distracted by the gothtastic shops I knew my friends must have visited a few days before. I started up one escalator at a time, and was pushed by sheer stubbornness to see the whole thing. A lot of the stuff was aimed at certain markets-- gothic, Lolita, gothic Lolita, rocker, punk, artiste-- but there were also a lot of stores that were just plain cool. I saw some of the hypercolored accessories that are so popular in Korea now, and wondered which country had started wearing them first. Are the kiddies wearing neon plastic jewelry in the States these days? I can't keep up.

I didn't try on much (just one shirt, not nearly generous enough), but was surprised to see quite a lot that looked like it would fit me. Either the Japanese are a bit bigger than Koreans (some people are, certainly), or there's just a lot more give in the clothes. Here, too, the "laundry basket" look has gotten popular-- layers and layers of floaty earth-toned clothes, shirts and scarves and big droopy hats, everything you need to make you look like an artist living an idyllic life in the country. Except, of course, that few artists could afford so much as a scarf at one of these places. Most of the stores were boutiques, or at least branches of very fashionable chains, so of course the price tags were heavy. The music was quite good, anyway-- especially at one shop that sold headphones and "rocker gear" in general-- and I enjoyed looking around and seeing what people had created.


Went to the Tokyo Apartment Cafe for dinner. (The guidebook had recommended it, and it's right next to Laforet-- win-win, yes?) Had a tomato-and-olive salad (actually tomato-and-olive-oil), vegetable soup, and a glass of wine. Is a preference for white wine an East Asian thing, or what? The red ones on the menu were a bit much, so I had the house wine, which was okay. (Listed as blush, but looked red and tasted... mild, I guess.) The food was okay, though not amazing. The atmosphere was cool, but it was definitely the sort of place I'd want to go with friends. I was starting to feel quite lonely at this point, so I ate pretty quickly and left (though, stirred by my new Fiesta-Gallery inspiration, I did try to sketch a little at the table).

I'd been getting a rotten headache, and it got really bad at dinner, rather cramping my enjoyment of the evening. The wine helped a bit, I think, and I dulled the pain further (ha, ha) by eating a crepe (my second of the day) from a stand nearby. Winced and shuffled my way back to Nezu station for my last night at Sawanoya.

Fortunately there's a pharmacy right by the subway station. Popped a few ibuprofen, which helped tremendously. I've gotten a cold, actually, and I think the headache must have been the beginning of it. I was fine Saturday (with the obvious exception of having been dead on my feet) and I really hope it goes away by Sunday, because I do not want to get dragged out of line by Japanese (or Korean!) customs officials a little too concerned for my health.

A band of American college students (I think) had showed up at the ryokan that morning with their Japanese teacher-- one of them admitted, when asked, that they were on a class trip. When I came back in that evening, several of them gave me borderline hostile looks. I tried to make polite conversation after I had my bath later (Sawanoya onsen... how I miss you...), but the two girls still downstairs were not in the mood for talk. I'm not sure if they were just clannish, in the way that tour groups (I guess?) can get, or if I had unwittingly offended them somehow. Maybe they just didn't want their Genuine Japanese Experience cluttered up by other foreigners. Whatever. People are weird.


Downside of tatami rooms: You really kind of have to close the windows when it rains, because otherwise you get rotten straw. Oh, forgot to mention-- it started raining around five or so, and showered off and on the rest of the night. Seems to be a pattern here, though tonight (Wednesday night) we've mostly missed it. Forgot my umbrella Monday, but will not make the same mistake again!


Am typing this in my room at Suzuki. Can hear vague sounds of the guest next door doing something or other. There's no lobby here, unfortunately; I'd really like to talk to some other travelers, since it's mostly been me and my iPod this week.

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

I'm not sure if I can get on the computer downstairs for a long time, and don't really want to monopolize it anyway, so I'm typing this on my laptop and will update the blog with it. I need to get a cute, quirky USB drive while I'm here. I keep trying to steal Internet, but without success: there's a DSL modem in the room, but I don't have the LAN password and have been too shy to ask for it. Silly self.

Warning: I'm writing these entries up from what I wrote in my notebook each day. There's no particular order to them, and a lot of tl;dr. Skip what you like. :P
Where were we... Sunday.

I was so tired Saturday night that I fell asleep in my clothes, and slept the night through with the lights all blazing. I'd managed to roll off my bracelet (bit chunky jadeite bangle I got in Itaewon) and had managed to fall asleep with it planted directly under the center of my back. Ouch.
Couldn't, therefore, immediately pass an objective verdict on the comfort of the futon.
The inn was very quiet, and I was feeling a little isolated, and wished I'd talked to the Australian couple I briefly met the night before. l resolved to be more sociable in the future.
First things first: I went down to the bath, which I hadn't been able to use the night before (on account of falling asleep fully clothed, etc.). Japanese traditional baths are called onsen. It was my first time using one, and it was a conversion experience.
What you do is wash off outside the tub, rinse off all the soap, and then get into the water (which is very hot, and stays heated all the time). The tub is quite deep, and when you're in all the way the water comes up to your shoulders (or your neck, I guess, if you're smaller). Then you just sit and cook until you feel like getting out (or until the flesh melts off your bones). The baths here have sliding windows that look out on a little walled garden outside. If I knew anything about Zen meditation, I would say it was very Zen. I did try to meditate.
It was a conversion experience. I got out feeling like a happy wet noodle, and started the day cheerful and relaxed. If you will believe it, I've never once gone to the saunas in the two years I've lived in Korea. At first I was too shy-- overweight foreigner, public bathing, horror stories about rude Koreans staring and poking and making comments... After that I felt so dumb for never having gone that I just... never went. I'll go now, though. It had been too long since I'd had a proper bath.
My first order of business for Sunday (after breakfast, which ended up being at a Metro Starbucks) was to find another place to stay after my time at Sawanoya Ryokan ran out. The next ryokan on my list from the guidebook was Suzuki Ryokan, a few stops away at Nippori. I had to change from the Metro to the JR (Japan Railways) Yamanote line-- the system is much more complicated here-- but got there without a problem. This new ryokan is right by the station, and was relatively easy to find. When I got there, the lady and I had a fairly upbeat conversation in broken English and very broken Japanese (I just managed to remember the days of the week), the upshot of which was that I now have a reservation from Tuesday night through Saturday night. As the guidebook describes Suzuki as "quirky" and "weirdly charming," I am hoping that this is a good thing.
I finally made it to the Imperial Palace area around noon. There are parks all around the Palace, and I spent a good hour or so walking through them before I made my way to the East Garden (my original destination). The East Garden is the only part of the Palace that's open to the public. There's a (very) small museum right near the entrance, which was displaying Japanese artwork on the theme of seasonal flowers. Only two pieces really struck me. One was a strikingly realistic painted-ceramic sculpture by Okuda Kodo. I can't remember what flowers they were, but they almost looked alive. The other was a painting, right by the entrance, whose English name was Cockscombs (or Coxcombs, maybe). The artist was listed as Higashihara Hosen. I was completely captivated by this painting. The reds are warm and liquid and suck you in, and the painting is full of details you don't notice right away-- a bug-eaten leaf, a spotted petal, etc. It was a really simple painting-- just red and yellow flowers, with no background-- but I stared at it for a long time.
The East Garden is mostly just a small botanical garden, though it does have a few old foundations and three restored guardhouses. The only flowers that were really blooming were the hydrangeas, and those were incredible. I kept trying to take pictures of them, but couldn't capture the blue. Mom would have really liked them, I think. Along with a few other buildings (one of them having something to do with mausoleum records, I think), there's a small music hall in the garden. It's octagonal, with with pretty mosaic walls, and was apparently a present for the Empress on her 50th birthday. I kept thinking how nice it would be to get to see a show there.
I finally got out of the Garden around 3:45. I didn't feel like hanging out in the area, and I knew most of the museums in the area would be closing at five anyway, so I decided to head over to Roppongi. Roppongi, as I understand it, is half sleazy drinking area and half up-and-coming urban hub. I stopped into a bookstore and bought a Japanese dictionary on the way to Roppongi Hills, which my guidebook listed as a marvel of modern urban design. (Hey, if I'm going to get into urban planning, I might as well start paying attention.) Roppongi Hills is, indeed, a cool little area-- very self-contained and space-efficient, which apparently is the idea. Aside from the high-rises (which I actually am not sure I saw at all) there's a movie theater, a bevy of high-end shops, a statue of a giant metal spider, and an art museum. The Mori Art Museum, to be precise.


It was open until ten. What was I supposed to do? It was something like 5:30 then-- that was plenty of time to look around. I balked a bit at the price, though: 1,500 yen for a combination ticket (museum, city view, and SkyDeck), which was all they had. By that time I kind of wanted to see it, anyway, so I broke down and paid it.

It was quite misty, and the 52nd-story view was not all that impressive. It's a cool city to look on, anyway. Ordered chaos, bound by streets and highways that seem to be squeezing the city like big girdles. Most of the buildlings around the Mori tower are fairly short, which I guess makes the view seem like a higher one. I could see a few roof gardens, especially around the Roppongi Hills area, which was nice. (Everyone should have one!) I didn't want to stay there two more hours, even to see the city light up, so I moved on-- but I got a little pop-out 3-d "city viewer" to show the kindies when I get back.

The museum's featured exhibit was called "Kaleidoscopic Eye," or something, and it was all supposed to be multisensory art like the "Synaesthesia" exhibit Mom and I saw in Seoul. This one was on loan from Austria or Germany or somewhere, but a lot of the artists were English or Canadian or American. My favorite installation was "Global Domes XII," by John M. Armleder. It's a room where two rows of six big disco balls each hang from the ceiling, lit from overhead by small spotlights. The balls are spinning, and the entire room is filled with whirling flecks of light, all turning in different directions. It was like watching snow fly, or cells moving in a bloodstream, or (the title "Global" reminded me) the spirits of millions of people, all going about their daily lives in different ways without taking much notice of each other. Since the balls were lit from directly overhead, their shadows were perfect circles directly beneath them, adn they seemed to be resting on columns of air. The room was quiet, and felt like a temple. It wasn't quite an optimal installation, since the ceiling was clearly panelled and there was a covered window on one wall, but I really liked it anyway. I'd love to see more of Armleder's work.

Because so many of the artists in this exhibit were from English-speaking countries, a lot of the artwork used varying degrees of written/spoken English. There was one exhibit, for example, that was called "Y": a forked tunnel made of Christmas lights spiraling around a plywood walkway, with mirrors on two sides to confuse people. Viewers were supposed to walk through the entrance and out one of the exits, and then go back and do it again if desired. The problem was that the two exits, which were clearly marked "EXIT ONLY," were marked only in English, with no translation posted anywhere I could see. The result, most of the time, was a traffic jam.
Another artist whose work used a lot of English was Janet Cardiff. Anyone heard of her? I found her pieces really unsettling and worrying. One was newspaper articles and poems on index cards; one was a table where you moved your hand over the surface and heard a sound (just like a lot of the exhibits at the Seoul MOMA, Mom!). All the speakers played spoken-word scripts, in English. I'm not sure what the people who didn't know the language were making of the whole thing.

Matthew Ritchie, a British artist, had an installation there called "The Family Farm." It was drawings, paintings, and written words, all combined. Take away the words and the piece loses half its effectiveness. (He's definitely an artist I'd like to see more of.) Another interesting British artist was Sarah Lucas, who had a piece from a set called "Bunny Gets Snookered."

It really drove home to me the importance of the English language in modern culture. It's not just direct communication; it's reading, writing, movies, art, and everything else with an international aspect to it. I've really been reminded of how lucky I was to grow up speaking the world's current lingua franca (haha), and I really want to improve my foreign-language skills so I don't feel like soem kind of global freeloader.

There was a piece by Peter Tcherkassky called "Outer Space," which was an edited film on loop in a darkened theater-like space. It was pretty creepy: the whole point of the piece, apparently, was to convey the impression that a spirit was in the room with the viewer. I don't know if I'd credit it with that level of effectiveness, but it got me thinking. Why don't artists do haunted houses? For a "multisensory" exhibit like this it would be perfect. You could make it a challenge: who can make the most effective haunted house using only senses other than sight-- changes in air pressure, soft breathing, thumps or running feet, etc. Sometimes horror is at its scariest when it's at its most subtle. Maybe someone should do a study of haunted houses as an art form.

One of my favorite pieces was a crystal fountain flowing with diluted LSD, overhung by pitcher plants (actually, the sign said they were Nepenthes, which I guess are different). The artist was Klaus Weber, and apparently the thing was a proposal he did for a public hall somewhere. It was rejected; go figure. I liked it, anyway-- the "water" in the fountain made a beautiful sound as it hit each layer, while the plants overhead made the piece very dreamlike and ominous. There were glass walls up around the fountain, which dimmed the effect a little bit.

Two other pieces I liked were Casa con piscina, by a duo called Los Carpinteros, and Astrophotography by Cerith Wyn Evans.

On the way out, I stopped by what was possibly the most expensive museum store I'd ever been inside. Bought a postcard.

No pens were allowed inside the museum, but I sneakily took a lot of notes anyway. As you can see.



Side note: In several places so far, I've seen displays of books from the Wallpaper travel guide series. Many world capitols are represented. Seoul is not one of them. I wondered if that was a buying decision, or if the book just hasn't been made yet. I hope it's the latter, since it would be rude of Tokyo to blatantly exclude its neighbor.


I realized that night that I'd managed to go two days in Japan without eating any Japanese food. I had had: Coffee and a sandwich. A banana Curry and nan Two more bananas More coffee and another sandwich A matcha (green-tea-powder) latte. Okay, I guess that kind of counts.When I realized this, I was at the Roppongi Hard Rock Cafe, drinking a vanilla shake and eating steamed vegetables. (That place is expensive.) I resolved to at least have some ramen before the day was out.


I had expected Roppongi to be a bit like Itaewon in Seoul-- a one-street dive, kind of a ghetto for foreigners of various origins. It's actually quite different: much cleaner, with more restaurants and clubs, most with tuxedo-clad African men outside hustling for customers. It's also bordered by a quite up-market area-- Roppongi Hills, where I'd spent the evening, is right next door. Maybe Itaewon is just like itself.


Something funny that I've noticed: Certain Japanese and Korean foods are "evil twins" of each other. I stopped into a 24-hour diner on the way home Sunday evening (wanting something a bit more substantial than a milkshake and veggies) and ordered what looked like bulgogi and rice with sides of kimchi, soup, and salad. I thought I'd happened onto a cheap Korean chain restaurant. The rice was as expected, though there was a lot more of it, but the bulgogi was... oddly tangy. Silly Japanese people, I thought, don't you know that bulgogi is supposed to be sweeter? It took me a second to realize that I was, in fact, eating teriyaki. -_- The "kimchi' was actually Japanese pickled cabbage, which was flavored with ginger instead of pepper and surprisingly pleasant. The soup was good old miso. Two years ago, Korean food used to fake me out the same way.

Another side note: Eating rice with chopsticks is damned hard. It makes perfect sense to me, now, why the Koreans would want to use a spoon. One of the first things I started to miss, maybe.


There's a three-story grocery store in Nezu (and probably elsewhere) called Akafudado. It is made of win. I meant to take pictures, but forgot. What I really wanted to document there was the curry section: it took up both sides of a mid-sized aisle. If I want to eat "real" Japanese food, like "real" British food, I should really just eat a lot of curry.


Walking back to the hotel, I was struck by how many actual houses I saw. In Korea it's all high-rise apartment buildings, but I haven't seen that many of them here. Strange, actually, since I think the population density in Japan is a little higher. (I have no idea, actually; I need to look that up.)


I'm finding that I know and remember at least a bit more Japanese than I thought I did. I also gesture a lot. I've wondered a few times if people who gesture a lot when speaking in their native languages have an easier time communicating nonverbally with people who don't speak their language.

I do think I might be speaking Japanese with a slight Korean accent. I keep blending my vowels, instead of pronouncing them properly. I wonder if I also bow and gesture like a Korean. The don't-pass-things-one-handed thing, for example, is apparently not nearly as important here. I keep forgetting and doing it anyway, so I propbably look a bit strange and formal.


It's now 12:05 a.m. Thursday-- I keep falling asleep before I can update this. I bought a USB drive yesterday, so with luck I can finally start updating the blog (there's no internet at my new ryokan, and I am not dragging my laptop around Tokyo. My back and shoulders hurt enough now as it is!)

Monday, June 15, 2009

6/13/09: Arrival in Tokyo

Spent a sleepless night, packing and playing with the cat. For some reason I got in the habit of pulling all-nighters before big trips. Not "for some reason," actually: it's because I procrastinate and don't start packing till the last minute. Was (and am, residually) as tired as you might expect.

Dropped the cat off at friend Katie's around 6 or 6:30. Poor baby was completely bewildered: I packed up all his stuff, including his litterbox and all his toys, and abandoned him at a strange woman's house with only a hug and snuggle goodbye. I have since heard that he started off the morning by pooping on Katie's bed, and now won't snuggle with her. As I am in another country, I hope he starts to adjust a little better soon. :( How do you explain to a cat that you're just leaving him with a baby-sitter and will be back soon? He was okay at my mom's house last summer...

It was an absolutely BEAUTIFUL day out, and I had a lovely ride from the Gimpo airport to the Incheon one. (Shortest and best way to get to Incheon International is a bus to Gimpo Airport and then a half-hour on the Airport Railway.) Instead of long stretches of mud, I saw estuaries, covered in grass and populated by egrets or whatever those white birds are. Tried to practice with "My Japanese Coach" (DS game) and got a little done.

There was a brief kerfuffel over my visa, which expired on the 14th. Sleep-deprived as I was, I had a hard time explaining to two airport staff members that I would in fact be getting a new visa as soon as I came back to Korea. I was allowed to go, eventually, but Korean Customs kept my alien card. Hope I'll get back into the country okay.

Plane ride: Asiana; short and painless. Awful food, though.

The first thing I noticed about Japan was that it is hot. Or, at least, that they let more gaps through their AC systems than Koreans do (Koreans have a horror of natural weather patterns, I think). Customs was amazing-- quickest immigration procedure I've ever been through. Got mug-shotted and fingerprinted, and out the door I went. There was an airport employee making all the foreigners show him their disembarkation forms before they got to the front, so he could be sure they were all filled out correctly. About ten minutes after I got to Customs-- maybe fifteen-- I was buying a train ticket for Ueno. Twenty minutes after that, I was on the train.

At first glance, the Japanese countryside is both different and not-different from Korea's. The houses weren't too dissimilar, but there were more of them-- not nearly as many high-rise apartment complexes here, at least not that I've seen. In some ways, this country feels more familiar to me than Korea ever does. People seem much more casual here. The Metro actually reminds me a little bit of the one in Paris, though I can't pin down why.

I actually feel a little guilty for liking Japan so much already-- like I'm being disloyal to Korea. I don't think I'm going to share this blog with any Korean friends-- I'd hate to hurt their feelings. I like the styles here better, and the food at least as much. It also just feels more comfortable. There are fewer stares-- people are more used to foreigners. There's also a more relaxed feel to the whole area. In Korea, a lot of people are constantly on edge, as if they're afraid of putting a toe out of line.

I navigated the subway to Nezu, having decided to check up on some of the ryokan there. (Ryokan are traditional-style Japanese inns.) Once I got to Nezu, I stood around for a while and looked like an idiot, because I'd progressed far enough into sleep deprivation that I was having a hard time deciphering maps. People in Korea, if they see you looking lost, will very quickly come up and ask you if they can help you find something-- in English, half the time. I've been spoiled, and it took me a while to figure out that wasn't going to happen here. (The only people who've approached me on the street so far have been hustlers; you attract them by pausing on the street while leading a suitcase and being white.) It's good for my self-sufficiency, I guess.

I finally made my brain work out the way to the first ryokan on my list, and made it most of the way there by myself. I finally double-checked with a couple on the street, and they jumped to help me the second I looked twice at them-- both of them speaking almost-perfect English. It's not that people aren't perfectly willing to help you, apparently; you just have to let them know that you would in fact like some help. Good to know. :)

I found the ryokan I had been looking for-- Sawanoya Ryokan, it's called. I hadn't made a reservation, because I wasn't comfortable doing it sight-unseen over the internet, but they had a room available for three nights. I took it, figuring that left me three days to find another hotel.

I thought, for a few minutes, that I'd be over the ryokan thing by the time three days were up. It's nice, sure, like a family-run B&B aimed at tourists, but I figured that the novelty would wear off soon.

What I didn't count on, however, was the scent of the tatami mats. They smell like fresh-cut grass. IT IS INCREDIBLY ADDICTIVE. I had never realized that tatami mats had a smell! I almost wonder if I could get away with having a room like this at home. The setup, for the uninitiated, is a small room with a floor covered by rectangular woven-grass mats. There's a thin, flat mattress to sleep on (I think it's what the Japanese actually call a futon) with a big thick duvet over that. The duvet in my room is stuffed with down. My room has a regular sliding door to the balcony, and more traditional wood-and-parchment screens just inside. Wall panels swing and slide open for storage space. There's a low table with a tea set, a corner with a phone and a DSL modem (which, sadly, does not appear to work) and a small sink by the door, which shuts and locks in the traditional hotel-room way. Instead of hotel bathrobes, you get a yukata (a light summer kimono). They put origami planes on the pillows, I guess to keep the tourists happy.

I was EXHAUSTED, but resolved at least to go out for dinner. On the way out, I noticed a book-exchange shelf. Fabulous! I took the marked neighborhood map the ryokan owner gave me and went out, seeking food.

I am ashamed to say this, but I must: I had Indian. It was so late at night, and I was so tired, that I didn't feel like going into a restaurant where I couldn't read the menu or understand any questions-- and the Indian place was right there. I had mutton curry and garlic nan. (Curry was -ish; nan was amazing.) The (Indian) waiter kept smiling like we were sharing a private joke; when I left, he thanked me in Japanese. I just managed to answer him in kind.

I am amazed by the fleets of bicycles I see here. They were out in force last night. Everyone seems to have one; most of them don't even seem to be locked up, though I haven't looked really closely. The air (at least right here) is quite clean, and the streets are much quieter than in other cities I've been to. Something to think about.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Stuff and Things

I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to do next. I'm about to start a new contract, and it will be my third year of teaching here- same school, same job. I like it, but it's starting to get old.

I want to keep Having Adventures. The more I read, the more I want to see. I've thought about the Peace Corps, but I don't feel very comfortable with the whole go-where-you're-sent, do-what-you're-told thing. (I briefly considered the military, back in high school, and rejected it mostly for the same reason.) Ditto the Foreign Service, though that would be more to my taste. I'm not sure I want a full-on career working in Points Abroad, and embassy work sounds a bit boring. (There's also the exam and hiring process, if it comes to that.)

The easiest thing would be to just keep on teaching, maybe in another country. I briefly thought of going to China for a year or so, just for the experience. I feel like I'm starting to be in a rut, though, and the thought of spending years and years more teaching ESL abroad for profit is starting to feel a little suffocating.

Another option would be to try and do grad school abroad. I don't know where I'd study, but I'm still thinking about urban planning off and on (especially whenever I read something remotely environmentalist). My main concern there is the expense: from what I know, most places won't let you work on a student visa, so I'd be living abroad and pouring my savings into school with no guarantee of a job afterward.

It sounds cliche, but I do feel like I'm being pulled in two different directions. One part of me gets a little wistful whenever I see updates about friends my age getting married, moving into new apartments, having friends with other friends I haven't seen in years. Another part thinks I'm lucky to be free of all that, and wants to cut all ties and go wandering in Cambodia or something. I've tied myself down a bit with the cat, which is one weight on the "settling" side of the balance, but I don't quite want to put down permanent roots yet.

On the other hand, I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss going to parties with people I've known since college, catching up on people's lives, being at home and making a place for myself in a neighborhood I can plan to stay in for a while. My life here is many things, but one big one is TEMPORARY. I have to avoid picking up too much stuff-- knickknacks, dishes, things to move later. My friends come and go-- one of my best friends here is leaving in a couple of weeks, and I've only known her a year. Starting over again means I'll have to pull up what roots I have put down and start the whole awkward feeling-out process again, in a new town at least, maybe a new country. It's a daunting prospect.

The obvious downside about going home, right now, is that the job market is terrible. If I go home, even for graduate school, there's no guarantee I'd be able to find a decent job, and there's the terrible risk of ending up right back where I started. The one thing I DO NOT want to do is get stuck in a retail rut all over again, even if I could start at a slightly higher level. I've gotten used to being able to afford to do the things I want to do. I like having the money to travel, eat out, buy clothes-- these are things I couldn't do, before, not with a bank account that was always veering towards the negative. I'm luxuriating in stability. The problem is that it's a false stability. No matter how many roots I put down here, this is not a place where I could stay forever.


I tried to spend yesterday making plans for Tokyo. Made lots of lists, but didn't get much concrete planning done. I've almost decided-- pending in-person inspection of the area-- to stay in Ueno, at least. I plan to find a motel first, set up camp, then read my guidebook a little and go out for a bit of sightseeing before dinner. That will probably be all I'm up for, the first day. Ueno's the area that had most of the most interesting restaurants, according to the guidebook. It's also right on the railway, and has some interesting things to see. It seems like a safe, comfortable area to base myself from. I tried to make reservations for a ryokan, but I'm not really comfortable doing that over the internet. Since travel plans always change, anyway, I'm leaving mine fluid this time. I plan to take my laptop and will try to update as possible; if nothing else, I'll try to do some kind of a write-up when I get back next week.


A story for you. I'll preface it by explaining that all the foreign teachers' apartments are leased by our school, and the school handles all the maintenance requests (largely because none of us speak much Korean).

A year ago, I came back from my end-of-contract vacation and noticed that a section of my ceiling was sagging a bit. I didn't do anything about it, because I thought it was just the wallpaper coming loose and didn't want to deal with the fuss of repairs over something so simple.

Over time, the sag got bigger, and I realized there was stuff inside the paper-- as in, the damp, crumbling contents of the ceiling. I told John, our school's man-of-all-work, and he brought in the building guard to look at the problem. The guard opened the ceiling panel, looked inside, frowned a lot and made some noises. He left, promising repairs.

A few weeks later, the ceiling started to drip. I put a pot under the leak and called in John again. He called the building guard. The building guard came up, opened the ceiling panel, looked inside, spotted the leak, and commandeered my (one and only) mixing bowl. He put the bowl up inside the ceiling to catch the drips and went away, promising repairs.

The leaking stopped for a while. John said that the problem had been a leak in the water pipes upstairs (our floors are heated with hot water), but that it had been fixed. I forgot about the problem (and the mixing bowl) and waited for the ceiling to dry out. The bulge was by now very unsightly, and the paper was starting to peel a little at the seam.

A couple of months later, the leaking started again. I called in John. John called the building guard. The building guard came in, opened the ceiling panel, took out my mixing bowl (now overflowing with water and silt), emptied it out, and stuck it back up again. Apparently the problem had not been fixed. He left, and John promised me they would fix it this time. The leak seemed to stop, the ceiling dried up it was ugly, but not unstable. I breathed a sigh of relief and went on with my life.

On Tuesday, the ceiling started to leak. Again. I touched the bulge, and found that it was wet again. The paper is now gaping about two inches at the seam, the inside of the crack is black with mold, and the whole thing looks like it's thinking about coming down. (I tried to take some pictures, but was unable to capture the full effect.) The kindergarten had its 100th Day event today, and I'd gone in for fun, so I let John know that the Problem had returned. He brought the building guard over right away. Lo and behold: My mixing bowl, still faithfully serving its new purpose, was once more overflowing, and the problem had SPREAD. Water was now pooling in other areas of the ceiling, which are now subtly beginning to sag. The guard mopped something up inside the panel, replaced the bowl again, and stuck the biggest sag with my paring knife like he was lancing a boil. Water immediately began to drip out-- and not clean water, either, but brown and rusty, enough to fill a tupperware container halfway. The guard said it would stop after about ten minutes; it was more like three hours, though it did stop.

I started crying. This is my house; this is where I live. The fact that Upstairs is having a problem with its sink (that's the latest explanation) should have no bearing on the structural soundness of my roof. The guard left. John gave me a hug and promised that someone would be in to work on the thing tomorrow-- I'm leaving him my key so he can let the guy in whenever he ends up coming, since I have an errand to run in Seoul tomorrow and we don't know when the repair guy would be coming. John also promised they would fix the problem permanently next week. We'll see.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What I'm Doing Now

It seemed like a good idea-- not least because my mother suggested it-- to resurrect this blog from the sands of time.


I'm on vacation. A serious vacation, from the middle of May till the end of June. The first two weeks were spent with my mom, traveling all around inside Korea. We hit a lot of tourist spots, ate a lot of food, enjoyed each other's company and generally had a great time. Now I have the month of June to fill.

I have one more trip planned, from June 13th-21st. I'm going to Tokyo. I've always wanted to go-- to Japan in general, and Kyoto and Tokyo specifically. I'd like to go more than once, and I decided I'd stick to one city this time. Partially it's to motivate me to go again, though I don't think that will be a problem. I haven't made very detailed plans yet, but that's my only goal for tomorrow so I should get some details sketched in then.

I'm going alone. I found out after I'd booked the tickets that some friends of mine were going a week earlier, but I have things to do in Korea this week and couldn't change the dates. I used to think about traveling alone without even blinking-- I've spent a lot of time alone-- but now the idea is less appealing. Part of the reason I'm not doing more traveling this month is that it doesn't seem as much fun going myself as it would be going with friends.

It should be a nice, relaxed trip. I'm thinking about spending each day in a different area of the city, though I'll probably change my plans (such as they may be) once I actually get there. I'll probably do a lot of wandering around, shopping and taking pictures and watching people. I'd like to talk to people, too; I wish I knew more Japanese. I know a lot of people speak English, but I feel bad not knowing the local language, even though I'm only going for a week. Hopefully people won't be too offended.

That's three weeks of travel. The other three weeks, interspersed with important things (a wedding, a good bye dinner, etc.) are devoted mostly to idleness. At first I was going stir crazy, but now I'm getting to enjoy it. Every day I get to sleep late, stay up late, eat when I want to, go where I want to, and spend most of my time reading and playing with the cat. (The cat seems to be pretty happy about all the attention. I feel bad for leaving him alone so much when I'm at work.) Overall, I'm enjoying the hell out of my free time, and I don't want to go back to work.


At some point while my mom was here, we hit that point where Korea suddenly decided it was summer. Korea dresses by the season, not by the weather. There seem to be cut-off dates inscribed in the culture, which perhaps I could read if my Korean were better. They tell people when it's okay to wear short sleeves, or go sleeveless, or turn on the A.C. Maybe it's in the news; maybe everyone just watches the celebrities and does what they do. We foreigners tend to dress more for comfort, and I've often been the only one on a subway car in summer clothes, despite the weather. Right now the trendy Seoul ladies are all wearing gladiator sandals and cute little buns in their hair. I've seen several people in sleeveless tops, and am no longer getting funny looks for wearing mine.

The weather ranges mostly between sullen heat and heavy rain, with a few muggy days in between. It poured down rain tonight. The sidewalks here are all uneven bricks, and the water stands in puddles or runs everywhere in little creeks. I soaked the cuffs of two pairs of pants and was glad to put on dry pajamas when I finally got home for good.

As long as I don't have to go outside too much, I almost prefer the rain to the "clear" days. There are millions of cars here, and the air pollution is getting really bad. Looking out the bus windows, sometimes I feel like I'm in a futuristic landscape being toted through poison gases in a protective bubble.

Bug season has also begun. Aside from the mosquitoes, I really don't mind them-- mostly they're delicate little black things, easily squished and not very noticeable. The mosquitoes themselves are a bit of a problem, always out for my sweet blood. I keep thinking about getting a net-- there's a hook above my bed where someone must have hung one before-- but I've been through two summers here without one and don't know if the expesnse is really worth one. If I catch a horrible mosquito-borne disease, feel free to point fingers and say "You should have bothered!" The mosquito trucks are almost more troubling than the mosquitoes themselves. They come out at dusk, and drive around trailing pesticide fogs that smell kind of like a more noxious form of auto exhaust. Does not smell healthy to me, though Korean kids seem to like it. (Old clip, but still funny.)


Went to a friend's wedding on Sunday. She's American, but married a Korean, and they had a full-on Korean ceremonies. Korean wedding ceremonies are big photo-shoots, staged and short, with fabulous gowns and lots of staff and a very assembly-line feel about them. I've been to several of them here, all for co-workers, and they're mostly variations on a theme. Most people get married in a wedding hall, which is a big building with one or several chapels in it, each of which can be rented for about a one-hour ceremony and is then cycled over to the next group (not counting clean-up, set-up, and other prep time). Guests give money, not gifts, and in return are given meal tickets for the buffet dinner that follows the wedding. There are a lot of guests at these things. Many are friends or colleagues of the couple's parents, and may not know the bride and groom personally at all. Everyone pays their respects to the couple and their parents, gets a picture taken with the bride, watches the ceremony, eats fairly quickly, and leaves en masse.

My friend's wedding was fairly typical-- except, of course, for the fact that the bride was not Korean. The Koreans involved in the wedding did not seem to know how to handle this. The ceremony was in Korean, and only a few phrases were translated. Most of the Korean guests I saw spoke to the groom's parents, but did not have much to say to the bride or her mother. Worst of all was how my friend's mother was treated. She'd just arrived in the country the day before, speaks no Korean, and was obviously uncomfortable. The wedding hall staff dealt with the situation by sticking her in a corner and ignoring her. All the foreign guests made a point of talking with her, but I thought it was really shabby of the staff-- and the groom's parents- not to make more of an effort to include her. The language barrier is not really an excuse; there were plenty of bilingual Korean guests present who would probably have been happy to translate.

The Korean wedding guests also seemed uncomfortable with the large number of foreign guests at the wedding. Mostly they just decided not to look at us. Eye contact or at least a nod would have been appreciated. Maybe it's just me; no one else I asked seemed to have noticed anything unusual in the vibe. Since both the foreigners and the Koreans pretty much talked amongst themselves (with the exception of our school's Korean English teachers, who mingled), I guess they wouldn't have. Anyway, it was a pretty ceremony, and the bride and groom both seemed very happy, which I guess is the most important part. (I actually sang a song-- they asked me a while ago if I would-- which came off pretty well; fortunately a friend of mine was nice enough to play the guitar. We did "Love Me Tender," which might not be exciting but was really appropriate for the bride and groom. So-- not a gig, but the first time I've sung on personal request. Huzzah!)


I think I'm starting to understand how resident aliens in the US must feel most of the time. One big problem is the frustration of being unable to communicate. The worst was the first few weeks after I got here, in June of 2007. I couldn't read anything without a lengthy struggle-- all the signage might as well have been hieroglyphics. For someone who spends mostof her free time reading things, this was intensely frustrating, almost suffocating. My Korean's gotten better, and I can usually get my point across, but complex conversations are beyond me. If something goes wrong-- if there's a problem with my cell phone, or a notice gets posted in the apartment building, or something breaks in my apartment, I need an interpreter to get anything done. I need to study, and have been better about it lately, but I really want to be able to acquire the language instantaneously. I'm impatient.

There are different ways of communicating here-- different nonverbal cues, different postures and gestures, different connotations. I think about the subtleties involved in communicating in English-- subtle shifts in tone, obscure references and metareferences, the fine shades of meaning that make us choose one word over anothere-- and am frustrated by the knowledge of how much I must be missing even of those conversations I do understand. It's not that I have any particular fascination with the Korean culture-- it's just that my main goal in life has always been to understand things.

There's also a sense, here, that many people don't see you as quite a real person. There's plenty of the oh-look-Mommy-a-blond/tall/fat/foreign person that I expected when I came over here. I've gotten used to it, and it doesn't bother me that much, though it does set my teeth on edge a bit every time I hear someone say "Whoa, look, a foreigner!" or some variation. (I've started responding with "Oh, look, a Korean!" which always gets a stunned look from kids who'd never conceived of a non-Korean being able to speak even a little of their language. Sometimes I just glare.)

What really bothers me, though, is something I've noticed more and more of lately: people who treat me as if I'm not there at all, or as if I've got the plague or something. I don't mean line-cutting, or jostling in a crowd, though there's plenty of that to go around. I mean I am standing in a store or bank, face-to-face with an employee, mouth open to ask a question-- and then some Korean person comes up and interrupts the conversation with a question of their own, as if the employee had been staring at nothing. And the employee answers them, and lets me sit and stew until the More Important Person's concerns have been dealt with. Or I am on a bus or subway, and there is an empty seat next to me, and some Korean who has just boarded looks desperately up and down the car for any other seat before taking the one that is available right in front of them. Foreigner cooties. I know we're associated with the Swine Flu now, being as how the furrn devils had it first, but this all predates that.

Korean culture is quite homogenous, and it's usually very easy to tell if someone is Not From Around Here. Most people are not used to trying to decipher a foreign accent; mispronounce your Korean a little bit and you're speaking a foreign language to them. Koreans as a whole are also very nationalistic. "Us and Them" rhetoric is not just popular, but standard. An exceptionally popular name for things is "Uri," or "Our." "Our Bank." "Our Rice." "Our Potatoes." The "Us" in question is clearly defined." It's a bit much to overcome if you want to interact normally with someone to whom you might as well be an extraterrestrial.

Not everyone is like this. The vast majority of the people I talk to here are exceptionally kind and friendly-- curious about where I'm from and where I'm working, complimentary about my poor Korean, eager to communicate as well as we're able to. That's why it's so startling-- and so hurtful-- when that one person in a crowd suddenly stops what they're doing to give me a blank-faced full-bodied stare as I walk by. I guess it's like with anything-- no matter how many positive things there are, the negative ones still stand out.


This wasn't meant to be such a negative post, but all this has been bothering me. I'll try to think of something a little more upbeat for next time.

Take care--