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Archive for the ‘Japan 2018’ Category

— 1 —

Hey, guys, I think you’re going to spare obscure academic articles this week.

But you will not be spared…..

— 2 —

Brochure 2019

PUY DU FOU!

Long, long time readers will know that in the fall of 2012, I took my two youngest to Europe. It was, as I have written here, a way of forcing myself to homeschool them. I reasoned – if I actually left the country – I couldn’t go racing back to the school principal a week in,  begging her to take us back.

Anyway, one of the highlights and grand surprises of the trip was Puy du Fou. I will bet money you’ve never heard of it.   When I first started researching the trip, I happened upon information about Puy du Fou, and was immediately intrigued. What is this??  It’s the most popular attraction of its type in France – more so than EuroDisney – and I’d never even heard of it.  Then I went to the website, watched the over-the-top amazing videos about knights and vikings and such, and I was determined.

 

We had to go. 

So we did – as far as I could tell, one of the few non-French speakers in the park that day, which also happened to be the last day of the season they perform the massive, (literally) cast of thousands evening show.

It’s an “amusement park” but there are no rides.  The main attractions are recreations of medieval and renaissance villages with artisans and shops, a small collection of animals, a few animantronic features – de la Fontaine’s fairy tales, for example, and then these spectacular – I mean spectacular shows featuring French history, starting with the Romans – in a full-blown Roman coliseum with chariots and so on.

So, quickly – when we went, the shows were:

  1. The Romans
  2. A recreation of a Viking raid story with a variation of a saint/miracle story
  3. A Joan of Arc type story (although not quite)
  4. Richilieu’s Musketeer, which I didn’t understand at all – involving musketeers, Spanish type dancers and horses prancing on a water-flooded stage.
  5. Birds of Prey show
  6. The evening show, Cinescine 

You have to watch the videos to understand why, once I saw them, there was no way I was going to France and not going to Puy du Fou.

I see that for 2019, they’re promoting a new show – it looks to be about Clovis and….hmmm…

That said, I didn’t know anything about the place beyond the fact that it was popular and looked kind of trippy and totally French.

As we moved through the day, I started to notice a couple of things:

  1. The explicit religious content of every show (except the musketeer one, but it may have been there, and I just didn’t grasp it.)   The Roman show began with two Christian men running onto the sandy floor of the coliseum and drawing an ichthys, and being arrested for that.  The Viking show featured a miracle (based, I think on a particular miracle story but I don’t remember which at the time) about a saint raising a child from the dead.
  2. At some point it dawned on me…there’s nothing about the French Revolution here.  Nothing. Not a word, not an image. Wait. Aren’t all the French all about the French Revolution?

I knew that the evening show was about the Vendee resistance to the Revolution, but before I went, I didn’t know anything about the founder of the park, his politics and how the park expresses that vision.

As I keep saying, it was simply fascinating and really helped broaden my understanding of French history and the French people and the complexity of contemporary France.

Cinescine is really unlike anything you have ever seen. You’re seated on this huge grandstand, and the show happens around this lake – lights, hundreds and hundreds of people in costume tracing the history of the area, including the resistance to the Revolution, animals, music….wow.

Loved it, and would absolutely go back if I had the chance.

(If you read TripAdvisor reviews, you will see almost 100% agreement with that sentiment. “Wow” “Amazing” “Hidden Gem” – etc. )

ANYWAY.

The reason I’m bringing this up is that the news came that the empire is expanding – Puy du Fou Espana will begin a soft open late this summer, to be completed in 2021.

I’m absolutely intrigued by this, considering how the French Puy du Fou is expressive of, if not anti-Revolutionary ideals, a more traditional nationalistic view of France that includes, you know, faith. I am wondering what the thinking behind this is – I did see mentioned that one of the historical areas in the park will be a “Muslim camp” and there’s a couple of Arab-looking/dressed fellows in the imagery. Fascinating.

This is the video advertising the “Grand Spectacle” -“El Sueño de Toledo”  – “The Dream of Toledo.”

—3–

Speaking of travel, one of the things I noticed in Japan last summer was the mannered, constant patter from the convenience store clerks. It was weird and awkward – was I supposed to respond in some way or just let it flow over me as I bought my Coca-Cola Light? I thought at the time that it struck me as mannered simply because I don’t speak Japanese. No – it is mannered and practiced and rote – although there are moves afoot to de-emphasize its importance in customer service, mostly because of the greater numbers of non-native Japanese speakers working in that sector. 

Within the framework of Japanese speech exists the somewhat controversial practice of employing formulaic honorific speech by those in the service industry. Manual keigo—so named for the training manuals of phrases that clerks and employees are expected to memorize and use in interactions with the public—creates artificial, repetitious, or otherwise grammatically questionable honorific expressions as companies strive to outdo themselves in terms of reverentially addressing their customers.

Customers can expect to hear generous use of the honorific prefixes “o-” and “go-”, which are appended to words as a sign of respect. “Tsugi no o-kyaku-sama,” or “the next honorable customer,” for instance, becomes “O-tsugi no o-kyaku-sama”—“the honorable next honorable customer.” Similarly redundant compound greetings—irasshaimase konnichiwa, or “Welcome hello”—are also common.

 

–4–

Good stuff from Tom Hoopes on how his family is dealing with tech issues. 

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Some years ago, I edited an edition of Myles Connelly’s novel Mr. Blue for Loyola Classics. That edition is out of print, but Cluny Media picked it up – and you should to. It’s a powerful parable, much better than the execrable Joshua (which seems to have diminished in popularity, thank goodness) and in a way, an interesting response – not retort, but response – to The Great Gatsby. 

If I were teaching high school religion or literature in a Catholic high school – it just might be my summer reading pick.

Well, here’s an interesting review article about new editions of two other Connelly novels, these new editions edited (as was their Mr. Blue)  by Steve Mirarchi of Benedictine College – who happens to married to one of my former students!

Dan England and the Noonday Devil is somewhat darker. Similar to Blue, Dan England employs a narrator who, conventional in the ways of the world, is initially skeptical of the eccentric ways of the protagonist and yet comes to admire him. Having tried a newspaper career, and having been in his own telling converted in an improbable manner from a conformist lifestyle, Dan England now ekes out a living as a hack writer of detective stories. His real talent and great joy, however, is gathering his motley group of friends and acquaintances nightly at his ample dinner table where he holds court. His home “was a veritable hotel” for his friends, and those friends “were parasites of the most genuine and enduring sort,” including artists, ex-fighters, derelicts, “refugees from Communism and White Supremacy,”—“all having in common a love of Dan’s hospitality and generosity and a few having a love of Dan himself.”

A romantic, an eclectic reader, a storyteller, and an ardent Catholic, Dan indulges in wide-ranging talk that includes paeans to the beauty of the Church and the heroics of the saints and the martyrs. He maintains the “belief that Scripture and the saints should be a natural part of the common small talk and banter of each and every day.” The narrator, a newspaper man, is drawn into Dan’s circle after witnessing Dan’s humanizing effect on a colleague. Betrayed by one of his hangers-on, Dan exhibits a Christ-like forgiveness despite the personal cost: “What mattered to him was not serenity or success but what he so often called ‘the plain but nonetheless terrible necessity’ of saving his soul,” the narrator muses.

True to his cinematic training, Connolly’s novels often consist of a series of brief set pieces or vignettes. His characteristic theme is that of the man who eschews a conventional, conformist way of life in pursuit of human freedom. One is reminded of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which similarly tells a parable-like tale of the ultimate “drop-out” from mercenary society and that also employs an initially skeptical narrator. The great difference is, of course, that Connolly’s fools are holy fools. While O’Connor’s original Catholic readers would no doubt enthuse over these novels as decidedly positive expositions of the Catholic faith, Connolly acknowledges the suffering and sacrifice that comes with such belief.

–6–

You probably know about Doctors Without Borders. Well, how about The Mission Doctors Association? This month marks an important anniversary for them:

2019 marks a special anniversary for Mission Doctors Association; our 60th Anniversary.  We have many things planned to celebrate this year as we also look to the future.  Yet, we also know that without the vision of our founder, Msgr. Anthony Brouwers, none of the lifesaving work of the past 60 years would have been possible.

January 14th marks the anniversary of our founder’s passing at only 51 years old, in 1964. This story is a familiar one for anyone who is close to MDA, or who has ever heard me speak!  As the Director of the Propagation of the Faith in Los Angeles, Msgr. Brouwers traveled to Legos Nigeria to attend the Marian Congress. Once it was over he traveled all over Africa – he said later that he wanted to find ways to help the people of Los Angeles know more about the needs so they could be help.  While he expected to hear requests for money, overwhelming he heard “We need help” He met with priests doing construction, sisters (with no training) pulling teeth and bishops who were so involved in the administration and secular tasks that they had little time to be shepherds.

So, Msgr. returned with a very focused vision.  He wanted to make it possible for Catholic professionals, (not the priests, sisters or brothers, just lay people – single, married, families) to find a way to share their gifts as they lived their faith.   In the 10 years that followed, Msgr. founded the Lay Mission-Helpers Association to send teachers, nurses, accountants and others, and then working with the Catholic Physicians Guild, Mission Doctors Association to send physicians and dentists and their families.

 

–7–

 As I noted the other day, I’ve put up Michael’s How to Get the Most Out of the amy-welbornEucharist on Kindle. 

I’ve created a Lent page here.

The page of the articles I’ve published on Medium here. 

And don’t forget my story!

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Random Japan I here.  I’ll have a big wrap up post on Friday, probably, with a post on food coming tomorrow, I hope. 

Where are the modest clothes? Why is everything so trashy? Where can I find a skirt that goes past mid-thigh but also doesn’t trail on the ground? It’s the parent’s cry – heck, it’s the woman’s cry.

Well, here’s your answer:

Go to Japan.

Skirt length is something on my radar not so much for myself , but more for my 20-something law-school daughter. I’m always on the lookout for clothes for her, and a few hours into our Japan trip, I texted her (still amazed that you can do that…) and said, “Longer hems are definitely the norm here. I’ll find you something, easily.”

And it was the norm: out and about in every day life, I saw Japanese women and girls wearing slacks, skirts and dresses with hems knee-length or longer – including school uniforms – and well, kimonos. No shorts except on children and no mini skirts except for that very early morning in Kyoto when we went to a 7 am Mass and passed many clusters of young people who clearly were clearly not getting an early start to their days, but were rather winding up their Saturday nights.  No long skirts there.

Yes, we were in these cities mostly during the work week. We weren’t at the beach or at Tokyo Disney, where the dress code was probably closer to what you’d see here. But yes – if you want longer hems and higher necklines? Japan seems to be your spot.

So I did pick up several skirts for my daughter, judging the size the best I could, and telling her when I handed her the bags upon our return that she was under no obligation to like them or keep them (they weren’t expensive – I paid maybe an average of $15/each at various stores, including Uniqlo), that I wasn’t going to check up on her or ask her. At least one of them fit, though, and looked good when I saw her in it.

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That woman in the center? That was the norm. 

And of course, you do have that cosplay/infantile angle, as well:

IMG_2023 - Copy

Now, kimonos:

Shrines and temples are an important aspect of the fabric of Japanese life, and what I’m guessing is that wearing a kimono is a way to experience that historical and spiritual connection more deeply. For there are loads of kimono-wearing women and some men at shrines and temples and, because these sites are always surrounded by shops and food stalls, there, too. When were in Kyoto, I did see women in kimonos away from the shrines, shopping, but I don’t know if they were dressed that way just because or if they’d been at a shrine earlier in the day.

And yes, a few of them are probably tourists who’ve rented them – there are loads of kimono rental outfits around the historic sites. No, I wasn’t tempted. That would be stupid – I’m not Japanese – cultural appropriation! –  and they look insanely uncomfortable: cumbersome, hot and with narrow skirts and wooden thong sandals, shuffling and clopping along? Nope.

Which brings us (somehow) to…shopping.

  • I’m hardly ever overwhelmed by anything anymore, but I must say that the level of commerce and devotion to shopping I was constantly encountering was astonishing to me. I wondered if I were being stereotypical in my judgment until I read – somewhere – a blog post from a Japanese fellow joking that for his people, shopping was secondly only to sleeping for a favorite pastime. If we’re not snoring, we’re shopping, he wrote.
  • I mean – I’ve been in big cities. This is America, right? Driving down the road past mall after strip after strip? Sure. But this was at a whole other level. It’s hard to explain. Multi-level department stores or shopping malls everywhere, joined together by either covered shopping arcades above ground or endless underground shopping streets. I kept thinking: Aren’t Japanese apartments and houses pretty small? Where do they put everything that they’re buying?
  • I still haven’t figured that out.
  • I was reading an article the other day about the closing of something in Manhattan – maybe Lord & Taylor – and one of the experts said that there’s no place for department stores in big cities anymore. Well, tell that to the Japanese. They’d laugh at you as they waved from the escalator going up yet one more floor.

I didn’t photograph a lot of stores/shops – it just never occurs to me to do so. But a couple of things:

These are school bags. Remember to convert to USD, drop two zeroes. So yeah. A thousand bucks. They were Kate Spade. And we saw a lot of these. I guess they are the thing this year. 

In the electronics stores, there were loads of these: electronic dictionary/translators. I am assuming they are a necessity for school. So many. 

And then:

  • Gaming: Many, many gaming arcades, everywhere (Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka where our locations – can’t speak outside of those areas). We ventured inside a huge one in Osaka called Round 1. Six floors.  And it was just down the block from another multi-level gaming center. Many arcades are owned by video game companies (like Sega) that use them to test new concepts.
  • A quick glance at these places shows all the usual types of games, with some that seem to have particular Japanese appeal: drum games, some games where you tap lights in front of you in response to prompts on screen – experts can do this amazingly fast and draw crowds, photo booths with all kinds of themes, and, of course, claw or crane games.
  • Should you even call it a “game?” I don’t know. All I know is that every arcade featured dozens of crane/claw machines, ranging from those for small figurines to those where you attempt to grab a mega-container of Pringles – or something bigger. It was insane. While I was waiting for the boys, I stood and watched one little girl feed coin after coin (I’m assuming 100-yen, which is about a dollar)  into a machine, after a pretty good-sized stuffed hedgehog. In the time I watched, she tried fifteen times – and she was still at it as we left.
  • Another popular gaming venue features a pinball-type game called Pachinko. I never saw it in action, but we were constantly passing Pachinko centers as we traveled about on trains or buses.
  • And yes, capsule machines. EVERYWHERE.

amy_welborn_13

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All right. Got to finish this Japan-Blogging – this week. So, every day – every day  –  I’ll be here with a little something. Finish it up, then move on.

I’ll begin with a couple of days of randomness.  Just remember, too: when I utter pronouncements like “In Japan…” or “Japan is…” it reflects about ten whole days of life in Tokyo, Kyoto and oh, that one afternoon in Osaka. So, yes – vast experience.

I wanted to go to Japan because we’d never been to Asia, and it seemed that this would be a tourist-friendly place to begin. And it was. I found it very easy to get around and the places to which we traveled were all very clean and felt safe. I’d have no hesitation about traveling to Japan by myself.

So, first: clean and quiet.

Yes, Japan is (here we go…) very clean. I only experienced a couple of even near-shabby areas: tourist-heavy and insanely busy Shibuya and some back areas of Shinjuku – around the famed robot restaurant and, I think in an area where there were a few love hotels. That felt sketchy and was a little grungy.

But other than that: no trash anywhere, no graffiti.

Also, no public trash cans. (Something that’s happening in increasing numbers of cities because of terrorism fears, I know) None. I don’t think they exist except right near food stalls or convenience stores. So how does that work? Wouldn’t the lack of trash cans make it more likely for there to be trash on this street?

Not in Japan. First, the Japanese have a very deep, strong culture of personal responsibility and respect for public spaces. You may have heard that in many, if not most Japanese schools, students share responsibility for cleaning the school (I have read that many workplaces operate with the same expectation). At the end of the school day, students and teachers work together to clean classrooms, shared spaces and restrooms. When this is how you’re raised from preschool, no, you are not going to see a public street or park as something to use any way you please. It is such a common sense practice, isn’t it? I’m sure there are schools – perhaps Montessori – that practice this in the US, but really…why not everywhere?

Secondly, consider – what does a trash can do? It collects trash. It gives trash a home right there in your public space – like it deserves to be there. If you, as a culture, want a super-clean public space, it makes sense to evict trash – in any form – from that space.

Supporting this practice is the fact that walking down the street eating or drinking (or smoking – but I’ll get to that in a minute)  – is just not done in Japan. It’s a serious breach of etiquette to eat while walking down the street. Drinking is not as rare, but still not common.  I saw a bit of water/coffee consumption on trains, but not much at all, and no eating.

Which makes the prevalence of street food in Japan seem…awkward at first. I get my fish-shaped stuffed pancake or my okonomiyaki or my ice cream, for pete’s sake –  from the vendor – what do I do?

You stand right there and eat it, Missy, is what you do. If the vendor isn’t quite sure that you know this, he or she will point to the stool or shelf with condiments nearby and say “Eat there, please – no takeaway.”

And then you throw away any trash, right there.

In my (brief) experience, Japanese shopkeepers of any type are also always prepared to take your trash. I stood in a souvenir shop in Kyoto with a fistful of crumpled up paper for some reason, and the cashier made eye contact with me, smiled, and held out her hand.

The only exception to public trash receptacles that you see – and you see a lot of them – are recycle bins for plastic bottles that are always right next to drink vending machines – of which there are a lot in Japan. Maybe one or two every block? Yep. Selling water, tea, iced coffee, soft drinks and juices. With the little recycle bins right next to it. I suppose you were expected to just chug whatever right there? I’m not sure about that.

Oh, smoking. People do smoke in Japan – perhaps at higher rates than they do in the United States at this point. You can even still find candy cigarettes in Japan. Exotic! But of course – of course – you don’t see folks walking down the street smoking. Every train station (and, I presume office building) has smoking rooms and there are even smoking “rooms” right on the street – enclosed spaces with benches where people stop and grab a smoke.

So there. You can compare the two cultures – the US and Japan – and wonder how much money we can spend, how many more people we can hire and how much more education we can offer to make our public spaces cleaner. You can do that, sure, but it’s useless. The difference isn’t funding or staffing. It’s cultural: Clean public spaces are going to happen , in a culture in which children grow up cleaning their own schoolrooms – and in a culture with a strong sense of personal responsibility and social cohesion and conformity. As is common to observe, those cultural and social norms have a shadow side, to be sure, but well, at least those shadows know where  to put their food wrappers, right?

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— 1 —

I’m still working on a couple of Japan wrap-up posts. I’d thought I would use one of them here, but nah. I’ll just toss up some recent news and links, instead.

First, saints:

Lots of interesting saints coming up this week (well…there are always interesting saints coming up in our calendar, aren’t there?), among them Camillus de Lellis – former gambler, soldier of fortune –  on July 14.

I wrote about him in The Loyola Kids’ Book of SaintsLoyola didn’t choose to excerpt from my book for the entry for their “Saints Stories for Kids” webpage, but you can read most of it at Google Books, here:

camillus de lellis

(Kateri Tekakwitha, whom we also remember on July 14, is also in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints, but the available excerpt on Google Books is pretty minimal, so…..)

— 2 —

Summer time for us usually means a lot more movie-watching in the evenings – a time for Mom to say…you get to play your video games and watch your stupid YouTube videos about video games, so now it’s my turn to pick. 

It’s not always easy. They get it. They understand that what we watch might be a little challenging for them to access at first, but that I try my best to share movies that are substantive and still engaging for them. By this point, they mostly trust me. I think what turned it was (speaking of Japan) The Seven Samurai. At first, they were deeply skeptical – a 60+ year-old dubbed, black-and-white movie? Even if it is about samurai?

Well, of course, it was fantastic. We split the viewing over two nights (this was last summer) and they were totally absorbed and engaged.

So, yeah, they trust me. Mostly.

— 3 —

This summer has been different. My older son works, and most of his shifts are in the evening, and much of the time he’s not working, he’s off doing other things. That’s how it goes! And it’s good – because you want them to be shaping their own lives.

So we’ve not watched a lot of movies this summer so far. Two recent viewings, though, one before Japan and one after:

On the Waterfront.  This was a film I used to show my morality classes in Catholic high schools. It is, of course, a great discussion-starter about the cost of doing the right thing, but it also offers a great opening to talk about evangelization and what it means to take the Gospel into the world – embodied, of course, in Karl Malden’s character, Father Barry:

Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Taking Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that’s a crucifixion. And every time the Mob puts the pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows that happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead… Boys, this is my church! And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another guess coming!

Verdict: They though it was “a little slow” in parts, but liked it, especially as it built towards the end.

— 4 —

Earlier this week, we took on The Great Escape another long one, and another success. It’s based, of course, on a real escape from a German POW camp, and I’d say is about 60.2% faithful to history – with characters and time conflated of course, and well, you know there was no Steve McQueen racing a motorcycle to the Swiss border, right? That didn’t happen. Sorry.

Verdict: Very positive.

This, from the Telegraph, is a great graphic and verbal summary of the history behind the escape.  

On the night of March 24, 1944 a total of 220 British and Commonwealth officers were poised to escape by tunnelfrom North Compound, Stalag Luft III, the main camp for allied aircrew prisoners of war at Sagan in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The subsequent events, thanks to numerous books and the 1963 Hollywood epic The Great Escape, have become the stuff of legend. However the real story had nothing to do with Steve McQueen on a motorbike and over the top derring-do by a few men – in reality some 600 were involved.

Despite being meticulously planned by the committee known as the X Organisation, the escape was a far messier affair than we have previously been led to believe. Events unfolded in chaos with numerous hold-ups and tunnel collapses. Some pushed their way in line; others fled their post altogether.

Now, after corresponding with and interviewing survivors, and seven painstaking years of trawling through historical records in archives across Europe, prisoner-of-war historian Charles Rollings throws new light on the night of the ‘Great Escape’.

SPOILER ALERT: (Seriously, don’t read if you haven’t seen it, know nothing about it, and want to see it) – Be warned that if you’re thinking about showing this to younger or sensitive children: one of the things the movie is accurate about is the fact that most of the escapees were caught and killed. The jaunty theme and occasionally comedic aspects might lead you to think this is  a hijinks-and-fun-caper flick, but don’t think that. It’s very fast moving, enjoyable, has quirky characters and a couple of amusing set-pieces and has good lessons about resilience and standing up to injustice, but just know…most of them don’t make it.

— 5 –

Ah, okay, I said “links.” Here’s a link – a wonderful one:

How this classical Catholic school welcomes children with Down Syndrome:

Students with Down syndrome study Latin and logic alongside their classmates at Immaculata Classical Academy, a Catholic school in Louisville, Ky., that integrates students with special needs into each of their pre-K through 12 classrooms.

The school emphasizes “education of the heart,” along with an educational philosophy tailored to the abilities of each student. About 15 percent of students at Immaculata have special needs.

“When you look at these students with Down syndrome in a classical setting, it is truly what a classical education is all about — what it truly means to be human,” the school’s founder, Michael Michalak, told CNA.

— 6 —

Last week under this very take (#6), I shared a link about a former Catholic church in Boston being, er, transformed into a Dollar Tree store. 

Well, here’s some good news – another perspective from Baltimore:

Baltimore City is hurting. It is bleeding. It is in need of hope and healing. It needs Jesus Christ in the Eucharist—the source of all hope.

And yet, because of the danger in the City I have to close the Basilica at 4 PM every day. It can’t be open without a security guard. And we only have enough money to have a guard until 4PM.

THIS MUST CHANGE!

In my prayer, I know God is calling me to open the Basilica. He is calling me to make Him available to the people of Baltimore every single day in Eucharistic Adoration. He is asking me to offer his forgiveness in confession at all hours of the day. He is asking me to walk the streets and invite the people who live in my neighborhood to get to know Him. He is asking me to provide a sanctuary for those who are ill, lost, homeless, and hopeless. He wants young adults in our neighborhood to have a refuge to flee to after work and school.

I must provide that refuge here in the City. I honestly KNOW that God is demanding this of me.

I agree. I’m ready to help!

But in order to provide this refuge, I need your help. I will explain exactly what kind of help I need in a moment. But first I want to lay out what God is asking me to do at the Basilica.

— 7 —

While you’re waiting for those last Japan posts (should be over the weekend), in case you haven’t seen them – here’s what I have so far:

Also check out Instagram for photos. 

Some previous trip entries:

Mexico – spring 2018

London – spring 2017

Belize and Guatemala  – summer 2017

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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— 1 —

Yes, we have returned. The trip back was completely uneventful, thank goodness. So much easier than the trip over, even discounting the problems, mostly because of the difference in time: the trip west is about 14 hours and the return back east was around 11 (that’s from Dallas to Tokyo and back). Thanks jet stream!

— 2 —

I didn’t watch any movies on the flight over, being determined to get my money’s worth out of that full-reclining business class seat. On the way back, however, I watched two:

Borg/McEnroe

This was not a great movie by any means, but I enjoyed it nonetheless (it’s not long, which makes even an okay movie more endurable.)

Starring Shia LaBoeuf as John McEnroe and Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason as Bjorn Borg, the film recreates the circumstances leading up the 1980 Wimbeldon singles final, in which the 24-year old Borg would play for a fifth title against the brash American McEnroe.

My late father was a huge tennis fan, played quite a bit, and taught me to play. We watched a lot of tennis in our house. One summer in Maine, my dad took me to a

amy-welborn

1975, defined.

tournament in North Conway,  New Hampshire where I saw Connor and Ilie Nastase play, and yes, Nastase did play up his nickname of “Nasty Nastase” for the crowd.  Those of you who are younger might not realize how big tennis was back in the 70’s and 80’s – the era of superstars like Borg, McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and Martina Navarilova and so many others. It was a time (she said, rocking in her chair on the front porch, eying those kids on her lawn) when huge audiences watched the Wimbledon and US Open finals and there were some very dramatic matches played out.

So, I was drawn to this movie, partly from nostalgia, and yes, those first images of late 70’s/early 80’s tennis gear and garb did make me a little verklempt. And I found the movie pretty absorbing, even though I also don’t hesitate to say it doesn’t work.

The point is that Borg was, of course, a superb player and maintained that level through extreme personal control, while McEnroe, in contrast, was out of control on the court and off. The “twist,” as it were, is that we see that Borg had his own struggles with temper as a young man (played by Borg’s real life son Leo at one point) and had to channel that in order to succeed. So, there’s your situational irony, I guess.

— 3 —

The movie goes back and forth in time for both players, highlighting Borg’s growth and giving a glancing view to McEnroe’s domineering father, which is not enough to even come close to fleshing out McEnroe’s story.

In fact, there’s not a lot of depth on either side: it’s an atmospheric collection flashbacks that superficially dramatize one corner of a couple of tennis players’ motivations and psychological makeup.

The most amusing thing to me was the script’s offhanded self-critique. At one point, McEnroe leaves a talk show interview (I think it’s supposed to be the Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder) in a rage saying something like, Why is it always about how I act? Why isn’t it about the tennis? Which, as it happens, one could ask about the movie, too. Yes, the personalities were dominant at the time, but there were also changes occurring within the game of tennis at the time, changes that found expression in what was happening between Borg and McEnroe – not just different personalities, but different games. None of which comes through in the movie, of course.

So, yeah. Not a great movie, but I don’t regret the 90 or so minutes I spent watching it, either.

— 4 —

And then, finally, Lady Bird, which definitely did not live up to the hype.

At all!

Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical movie is about a high school senior in Sacramento who wants, more than anything else, to not be in or perhaps even from Sacramento. Her family is struggling middle class – her mother (the always fabulous Laurie Metcalf) is a psychiatric nurse, her father unemployed, but they manage nonetheless to send Lady Bird to a Catholic high school (because her brother – it’s mentioned twice – had someone be knifed right in front of him in public school) where, it seems, she’s surrounded by mostly wealthy girls.

The movie’s been highly praised both as a coming-of-age movie and as a “love letter” to Catholic schools – since most of what Lady Bird experiences at school is presented in a positive – albeit realistic – light. It is, I will say, one of the few movies that gets all the Catholic Stuff right, in terms of gesture, lingo and what little ritual we see. The one false note – and not just from a Catholic perspective but filmmaking – is the priest character who’s brought in to replace another priest who was the theater sponsor. This new fellow has been a sports coach and treats the play production that way and it’s just too sit-comish and doesn’t match the more naturalistic tone of the rest of the film.

The basic idea is that Lady Bird is struggling – as we all do – to figure out who she is, which she is pretty sure has little to do with where she happens to be from. She’s rejected her given name – Christine – and she just wants to get the heck out Sacramento. Her parents are loving and supportive, but her mother is somewhat brittle and a pragmatist, and for some reason, she and her daughter area just not clicking right now.

There are loads of quality secondary characters – so much quality, in fact, that you really would like to spend more with them than with the fairly insufferable Lady Bird. I’d rather know more about  Janelle, the friend Lady Bird rejects for a time and also more about the priest who, the kids say, used to be married and had a child who died – and we get a tiny glimpse of this reality in another 30-second scene, but it calls out for more.

Lady Bird follows a familiar arc. As I watched it, I thought…here’s the part where she rejects her old friends….here’s the part where she pretends to be someone she’s not….here’s the part where she gives herself too hastily to a guy and here’s the part where she realizes what she did and regrets it…here’s the part where she realizes who her true friends are…here’s the part where she thinks she has gotten what she wants and then stumbles into a situation in which she realizes the value of what she had…here’s the part where she casts aside her youthful pretension, answers the question of what her name is with her actual name…and GROWS as a result. Or, well…comes of age.

I suppose my problem was that it was slight. A coming-of-age film is admittedly going to be a slice of life, but this slice was way too thin. I would have liked to have a little bit more family dynamic stuff so I could understand more of why the mom was the way she was and why Lady Bird was, and was the dad really such a saint?

— 5 —

I’m almost done blogging about the Japan trip. I think I’ve posted on each day – I just have  couple more thematic posts I want to get up. Here’s a list of posts

. You can take the easy way, and just go through all posts with a “Japan 2018” tag. Click here for that. 

Or:

Also check out Instagram for photos. 

Some previous trip entries:

Mexico – spring 2018

London – spring 2017

Belize and Guatemala  – summer 2017

— 6 —

Depressing? Symbolic? Obviously, the answer is: both. 

For more than a century, St. Catherine of Siena Church was a cornerstone of the Image result for dollar tree catholic churchCharlestown neighborhood, a close-knit parish that seemed impervious to the change that swirled around it.

When the Catholic church closed a decade ago, it took a piece of the old Charlestown with it, residents said.

 It had stood vacant ever since. But now, the church has taken on new life — if a decidedly secular one — as a haven for bargain shoppers known as Dollar Tree.

— 7 —

Coming in July:

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Signs and symbols…Bible stories…saints, heroes and history. 

More book reminders (for those who only come here on Fridays) – I’ve made How to Get the Most Out of the Eucharist available as a free pdf here. 

Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies is .99 this month in honor of her feast (7/22). 

(One of several free ebooks I have available)

And don’t forget Son #2’s Amazon author page and personal author page.  

He’s released his third set of stories, called Mutiny!

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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I’ve been asked about the famed Japanese toilets, so here goes – our limited experience:

  • I don’t know if it expresses some deep-seated cultural priority or is just for the tourists’ sake, but after we disembarked from the plane at Narita Airport in Tokyo, the first thing we saw as we made our way to customs was dozens of ads for toilets – from the Toto company, specifically. They lined the walkway to customs. Priorities!
  • Every toilet we encountered was just a bit different, but they all included the same basic features: the ability to flush varied volumes of water, bidet features – and I use plural there because they included more than one, contoured for the differences in male and female anatomy, and seat warmers. Some included a sound feature – that is, the ability to generate sounds (like nature or even music) to cover up…er…sounds. For all I know, they all included this feature, but I just couldn’t interpret the buttons.
  • So here’s  a tour. This was the toilet in our first hotel room in Tokyo (the Richmond Premiere Oshiage).

 

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The two buttons on the top row are for flushing – the one on the right for less volume, the one on the left for more.

The three buttons below that are for the bidet function, the one on the far right being for women.

And that’s all I can tell you. I’m guessing the buttons on the far right are for temperature regulation of both the seat and the water and maybe pressure. But I didn’t fool with them…I didn’t want to break it!

  • This is the toilet from our Kyoto house. I had to grab a screen shot from a video. It seems to me that the electronic bidet stuff is an add-on to an older toilet here. You can see the buttons on the left side – those are all bidet (you can buy that kind of accessory here, fyi). The tank reminds me of an old-fashioned high tank. You might be able to see that there’s an external faucet – when you flush, the water comes out there and fills the tank – something that greatly confused some of us at first, who thought it was some sort of extra sink. You can see the flusher below it, and it controls the volume of water  – push it to the right, you get less, to the left you get more, and the longer you hold it, the more water you get coming through.

 

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I tragically did not take a photo of the bathroom at our last hotel, but here’s one more from a different place.

The Toto company has a “gallery” of their machines at the Narita Airport. I had thought it was like a showroom where you walk around and see amazing space-age toilets, but it’s actually a restroom to use – men go left, women go right – with separate cubby/rooms. There were only two free when I went, and both the toilets were the same. So here you go:

First, check out the nifty little toddler seat for you to set your kid in so he or she won’t wander while you’re occupied. (There was a changing table, too). I have  video  – of me pointing to the buttons, freak!  – that I’ll put on Instagram in a minute. Okay, here’s that post. 

One more: this was in one of the train stations – Gion-Shijo in Kyoto. It was a “Kid’s Toilet” – like our family restrooms, but more kid-sized, with a stall for privacy.

So there you go – a not-exactly exhaustive look at Japanese toilets. I will say that after experiencing this…we must seem absolutely barbaric in our personal habits…and perhaps we are!

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Now that we’re back, I have several blog posts on deck related to specific points of our trip. I’m going to start, as I often do, with the practicalities. I don’t do this beforehand because 1) I never know if things are going to turn out as I think they will and 2) I am not keen on letting people know my whereabouts on a day-by-day basis.

So let’s start:

Why Japan?

I think I wrote about this before, but I’ll just repeat myself. It’s summer, both my still-at-home kids will be in brick and mortar schools over the next school year, and one of them is a rising senior – the era of family vacations with these two is coming to an end. So I wanted to do a big trip, and where have never been? Lots and lots of places, but a big place we’ve never been is Asia. Japan seemed to be an accessible, affordable, tourist-friendly spot to begin. So Japan it was!

I’m not going to be even more boring and repeat the saga of the changes in this itinerary that happened because of a) my changing views and b) the AirBnB/Japanese government issue. But here’s my final verdict on the itinerary, in case you’re thinking about heading img_1917over that way yourself for the first time.

You can skip Tokyo. It’s fine.

Look. I don’t regret our time in Tokyo. At all. But if you are going to Japan because you want to experience Japanese history and culture for the first time, and especially if you are doing so with younger people, Kyoto and Osaka are perfect. Granted, there is a great deal in Tokyo – it’s obviously one of the great cities of the world. But it’s also a challenge in many ways, it’s huge, it’s not intuitive for tourists, it’s very modern since so much was destroyed during World War II, and Kyoto, especially, offers a glimpse of traditional Japanese culture in a way that’s easier to experience than it is in Tokyo.  Now, there might be other reasons for you to go to Tokyo – you want to see a specific site, visit specific museums or historic sites or experience a particular aspect of modern Tokyo: style, youth culture, food. That might be what you’re after. But if you want a manageable, not overwhelming, more focused experience of Japanese life – you can skip Tokyo and not feel badly about it.

For comparison, think about what you would tell, say, someone from Japan or from Europe – or anywhere outside the US – who was going to visit the United States for the first time. If they had two weeks, where would you tell them to go? It’s an interesting question that I’ve thought about a lot, especially as I travel around the United States and see groups of Japanese, Chinese or German tourists (the most common nationalities you’ll see – unless you’re in Las Vegas, then you should add Brits to the list). Would you tell them to go to New York City and make that their focus? I don’t think I would. The US is so vast and diverse, I think it’s impossible to get even close to experiencing it in two weeks, but I think I would tell someone (who had no financial limitations!) to probably visit Washington D.C. before New York City, maybe Chicago, and then focus on the West.

Anyway – so those are my thoughts on my vast experience (ten! Days!) in Japan. There’s so much more than just the cities, and an unending variety of landscapes and experiences, but that said – to repeat myself – don’t feel badly about skipping Tokyo.

First: flights:

We flew from Birmingham. Birmingham – Dallas – Narita, and then back the same way. I had spent untold hours trying to figure out other ways. I could have done the whole thing a bit cheaper if I’d done separate flights, doing the main flight to Tokyo from LA. You can fly (depending on time of year) LAX-NRT economy class for well under a thousand. Maybe even around $700. But I didn’t want to fly straight economy – I wanted premium economy, which gives just a little more space in the seat, and a little more pitch in the recline. And when I started doing the math, to try to string together flights from BHM to LAX and then LAX to NRT would have not been much more than just plugging in BHM to NRT and letting fate handle the rest. (And now, Atlanta fares were no better – worse, in fact, for some reason).

Of course, fate had her cruel way with us when we missed our Tokyo flight, but that’s all in the past now…right?

(By the way – I don’t know if I mentioned this – but AA did respond to my complaints on that and deposited 15,000 miles in my account for the trouble we went through. I thought about thanking them and then saying that since the boys also went through the same hassle, maybe they could get 15,000 miles each, too? But I didn’t.)

amy-welbornI should add that after I checked in, I got the offer to upgrade to business – and…I took it. Yup. I mean – it wasn’t free. When I say, “got the offer” – you might think I’m saying that. But I’m not. They offer to sell you a business class seat is what it is  (unless, of course you are at some high-mileage awards level…which I’m not)  But it the cost of it, even with a business upgrade one way, was not bad, it was a 14-hour flight, and I was so worried about being rested for the Beginning! Of! The! Japan! Trip! that I said…what the hell, it’s only money, I might die next week, so why not and did it. First every business class experience and yah…nice.  You know those people you file by as you’re boarding into economy, the people lounging with their drinks and snacks and towels? Yeah, that was us, for once. Little cubicles, fully reclining seats, better food…worth it. Especially after the hassle of having the trip delayed by 24 hours. Absolutely worth it. Decadent, but worth it.

For the record, I didn’t upgrade on the way back. Got the offer, but didn’t even consider it. The flight is several hours shorter  – 11 hours, which is a lot less daunting-sounding than 14 – and the timing of it makes it less “necessary” to sleep. The flight over to Japan (from Dallas) began mid-afternoon on Thursday and landed at 4:30 on Friday. This flight back left at 11am on Monday and we’ll be back in Birmingham (hopefully) by 1 pm on Monday.  (Update: we were. Early, in fact.) Amazing! A two-hour flight! Well of course not, but the point is, that it’s not as important to sleep. Yes, everyone will be tired, but if they can just stick it out until eight or so, then collapse and sleep for twelve hours, they should be back on track for the next day.

Now – accommodations:

In Tokyo, we stayed at the Richmond Premiere Hotel near the Oshiage station and Tokyo amy-welbornSkytree, which turned out to be, in my opinion, a great place. There are many vibrant Tokyo neighborhoods and areas, and the Skytree area is a bit far from the more well-known (like Shibayu, Ginza and Shinjuku), but I loved it. The hotel is literally right next to the Tokyo Skytree, which has a substantial mall featuring a lot of Japanese goods anda great variety of restaurants. The hotel is also right next to a grocery store and steps from the train/subway station, something that was such a relief at the end of a long day. (View from right outside the hotel.) 

Japanese hotel rooms will tend to be smaller than American hotels – well, globally, that’s the case – American hotel rooms are roomier than what you’ll find in most places, but this one was fine. I requested a third bed, which was all ready when we arrived. We amy-welborndidn’t have a lot of room to walk around, and oddly enough, there was no dresser – there was a cabinet with a fridge, but no place for clothes – but that’s fine. I didn’t go to Japan to hang out in a hotel room, anyway. Everything was immaculate, and yes, it included the famed Japanese type of toilet. Which are a little complicated, but not as impenetrable as we might think: basically, they include bidet features and warm seat. Some feature sound effects to cover up your own…. sounds, as well, but this one didn’t.

One more note on our two experiences of Japanese hotels (and one AirBnB): they do provide more amenities than American hotels. In American hotels, you’ll find the trio of shampoo, conditioner and lotion, as well as soap bars and coffee packets. The Japanese hotels we stayed at also provided toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, q-tips, brushes/combs and slippers (explicitly labeled with an invitation to take with you if you like.)

We were in this hotel from 6/22 to 6/26. I did it through Booking.com, which probably has its disadvantages, but here, made it easy to reschedule, which I had to do twice. No problems or additional charges either time.

In Kyoto, we stayed at this AirBnB house. I will post some of my own photos here, but to get a better (albeit typical wide-angle look that makes it look bigger) – view, go to the website. It was a bit outside the main part of the city, but that was fine.   It was a great little house – very traditional with tatatmi mats, sleeping on the floor and everything. My older son ended up sleeping downstairs because it was cooler – which is easy when your beds are futon mattresses that you can fling about at will. You can see from the photos that the bath/toilet areas were separate. The toilet wasn’t quite as fancy as those we had in hotels, but still had those bidet features. The shower room was an actual shower room  – with a good deep, Japanese style tub, and then a hand-held shower that you could either use in the tub or in the room (see the drain in the floor.)

 

Note: I have some video up about the apartment at Instagram. Go to amy_welborn on the app, or go here to see. 

It was a great location, just two minutes from the train station, and in a real neighborhood.

(A note on lofts and upper bunks and such. Our experience in traveling has invariably been that when we stay in a place that has a loft area or some sort of bunk situation, everyone always thinks it’s initially amazing and so cool – until it’s time to sleep there, and we once again rediscover physics: heat rises. )

The last night, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza airport hotel – which was fine. It was a high-quality space, very clean, with all those amenities and the usual meticulous, painfully polite level of Japanese service – I called to request an extra towel  – there were only two provided – and the fellow on the other end must have said, “So sorry” about ten times. Really. It’s fine.

Transportation:

I probably spent more on transportation but I needed to, but as I always say: everything has a cost, currency is what we use to pay costs, and there are all different sorts of currency: there’s money, there’s time, there’s work, there’s hassle. What currency you use might change at every given moment. For me on this trip, I chose to use the currency that cost the least hassle: the Pasmo card.

Japanese public transportation is pervasive, timely and clean. Buses, trains and subways run on time and are easy to use. I found that in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, almost all signage was in English as well as Japanese. You can certainly purchase individual tickets for train and bus travel, but hardly anyone does. What they do instead is use a card – the Suica or the Pasmo – on which you load money and then just scan at entry and exit gates. I am sorry, but I have no idea how much any of my individual trips cost because all I did was load a thousand yen on the Pasmo when needed, and scan away. (you can also use these cards to pay for purchases and an increasing number of stores and vending machines.)

The only confusion we encountered was in Kyoto, when we ended up on the wrong train one night because we didn’t pay close enough attention to the arrival time. There were several lines – local, express, limited express and so on – that made stops at the station near our apartment. It’s not one of those deals where you can just assume, “This train is stopping at this station around this time, going in this direction, therefore it will make all the stops between here and there.”  We ended up – I don’t know where or how – and had to racewalk to the next station at about ten at night, hoping and praying we’d catch the right one this time – we did! We learned from that – pay attention to the time. If Google Maps says that the train you need is coming at 9:47 – take the 9:47, and believe us, it will indeed come at 9:47. Don’t take the 9:45 or even the 9:46.5! They will not stop and you will end up wandering around Kyoto late at night!

Which brings up the issue of…safety.

There is no issue. I always felt 150% safe in Japan, and would have felt so even if I was by myself. I will write more about this later, but Japan – in my limited, super-short experience – offers a landscape and urban environment that is secure, clean and safe.

img_20180701_0919301We used taxis three times: in Kyoto, from and back to our apartment from the train station, and then in Tokyo that rainy Sunday morning when we were going to Mass. Not surprisingly, the cab drivers were very polite and wore gloves, the seats were covered in white doilies, and the back doors opened and shut automatically. I think Uber operates in Japan, but the taxis seemed trustworthy, so I didn’t even look into it.

Shinkansen:

Yes, we took the famed Japanese bullet train round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. It’s not the cheapest way to get around – even flying would be cheaper – but you know, you go to Japan, of course you want to take the bullet train if you can. Well, it was fine – it was fast, super clean and…a train. It got us from there to there. I purchased the round trip ticket at a discount from here.  The process of getting the tickets was a little complicated – we had to find the tour office in the Tokyo Station (which was a bit of a challenge), but once we did, the very nice fellow printed out the tickets with exhaustive directions on how to proceed from that amy-welbornpoint, which included getting a one-day transportation pass for Kyoto, as well.

These trains run very frequently – many times an hour. You can reserve seats, but the package I got was for unreserved seats, which are in the first three cars. I was a little concerned that there might not be seats – since they were unreserved – but there was no problem. Plenty of room. It took about 2.5 hours to get from one city to the next. Oh – the other advantage of purchasing the Shinkansen voucher through JapanIcan.com was that it’s good for the fastest train that makes the fewest stops – the Nozomi – which the JR Rail Pass is not.

(I suppose I should mention that we did not get Japan Rail Passes – there are a lot of options and big discussions all over the place as to whether or not it’s worth it, and in doing the math, I decided it wasn’t for us. If we’d been doing a lot of rail travel out and about between cities, it would have been – but we weren’t, so it wasn’t.)

Money:

I got a few thousand yen from our bank before we left. I usually don’t bother to get foreign currency anymore before a trip, what with ATMS being so pervasive, but I had read some questionable things about the availability of ATMS in Japan – that you can’t assume that an ATM will take your American debit card. Well, I found that there was no problem. The common advice is to head to ATMS that are in 7-11 stores (yes) – that they are always, 100% going to take your card and give you money back. I found that to be true, and also found those 7-11 stores everywhere. And where there wasn’t a 7-11, there was a Family Mart – one of the other big convenience store chains  – and they took my debit cards too.

(FYI – 100 yen is about a dollar. So to convert prices, just drop two decimal places, and there you go.)

Airport:

We flew in and out of Narita Airport, which is the big Tokyo airport (the other, original airport is Haneda, which is smaller).  It’s busy, but very easy to get around, super clean and efficient. Immigration and customs both coming and going took five minutes, tops. Security as we left was fantastic – when you can leave your shoes on, it’s all good, in my book.

Oh, internet:

My cel phone is T-mobile, which has excellent international coverage. You will find some free wi-fi in the usual suspects (Starbucks, train stations), but it’s not everywhere. We rented a mobile wi-fi device from Japan Wireless. I went through all kinds of convoluted rigamarole and rented it before we went and picked it up at the post office at the airport, but as we walked through the airport, I immediately saw that this hadn’t been necessary – there are booth after booth of companies offering the devices for rent at very reasonable prices. It was a great little machine: All three of us could be using it at night and it was super fast, faster than the wireless at the AirBnB.  The cost was about $6/day, I think.

 

I think that’s about it for the practicalities. Still to come, posts on:

  • Food
  • Interesting signs
  • Shopping
  • Style and Apparel
  • Spirituality

But let me get home and do massive loads of laundry, drink Diet Coke and sit on my own bed in my own room with the door closed, first, okay? Thnx.

(Update: done. Finished the post at 5 am Tuesday morning, after rising a couple of hours ago….)

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