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New readers: Please consider sticking around around. I blog almost every day. It’s random and scattered (as the sidebar indicates) , but you might find interesting things. Once in a while.

amy_welbornWhat kind of blog is this these days? Well, I just said it – random and scattered. It functions mostly as a way for me to stretch my writing muscles a bit every day before I get into either work-work or my ongoing attempts to Be Creative. 

Back in the early days of blogging up to about ten years ago, I ran a blog that was, perhaps, like one of your more active Facebook pages today. I blogged about current events, usually posting 5-10 times a day, had a super active (and mostly great) comments section and, somehow managed to write about two books a year. While having a couple of babies after forty.

Then you, know, life changed, and my husband died (ten years ago on 2/3 – hard to believe) and it just wasn’t the kind of blogging I wanted to do anymore, really. As I’ve said before in this space, when I was doing a lot of intense current-events blogging, getting into the fray wasn’t a problem, because I had someone who was here to assure me after I shut the computer down, “No, you’re not crazy. Well, you’re sort of crazy. But not that crazy. And you mean well.”

But without that – without someone who has your back in the sanity-department, you (or at least I) are really taking some mental and emotional health risks in engaging too heavily online. IRL is much, much better. Always.

But I do continue to write and even to blog here. Most of my blogging reflects things I read. I’m very interested in history, as I say again and again, because it helps me understand the present moment. I don’t have many missions in life, but one of them is to nag whoever is in earshot about the invaluable perspective knowledge of the past brings.

And I don’t blog every thought that I have on every issue. I tend to be cautious on that score because I want to have the whole picture – or as much of it that’s available to me – before I comment. That’s why I don’t say a lot, for example, about Pope Francis. I have opinions, sure, but the whole thing is so opaque and weird to me that it’s impossible for me to pin down what’s worth me saying for public consumption. At this point.

So I’m into sharing information and occasional insights. I’m a teacher, I’m the child of teachers and the daughter of a librarian. Ask my poor kids about the experience of being homeschooled by me – someday one of them will probably write a memoir called Death by Teachable Moment. 

Oh, and the travel. I write a lot about travel, and there will be much, much more of that, God and the DJIA willing over the next few years, as Son #5 and I embark on a homeschooling/roadschooling journey when Son #4 goes off to college in a few months.

Basically: I read things, I see things, and write about some of those things, trying to figure out Big Things.

So, one of the things I do around here when nothing in particular strikes me is throw together a digest of what I’m currently reading, writing, watching, listening to and cooking. This won’t be that interesting – we are still mostly in recovery mode from the oldest attending the March for Life.  Here’s today’s.

Writing: Finished That Thing. A week early. I could have held onto it and looked at it a couple of more times, but why? It’s fine, and if they want revisions – now they have a week more to wrestle them. The sooner to invoice you, my dear.

And now…what? I have another story I need to get out of my head, and then I need to focus on something bigger. Not sure what. I want to start and finish something by June 1. Something.

Oh, and I added links to our 2016 Italy trip to the “Travel” page. 

Reading:  That’s what this will be, mostly. I’ve not watched or cooked much over the past couple of days. Mostly I’ve driven my car. Two ortho appointments, one other doctor’s appointment, school dropoff and pick up and a Metallica concert.

No, I didn’t go to the Metallica concert. My 14-year old did, accompanied by a friend. He’d been gifted with the tickets by his oldest brother, who lives in NYC and had hoped to come down for the concert, but was unable to because of his work load. So he took a friend, and they had a great time (I’ll get a fuller report this afternoon.)

On Twitter a few weeks ago, I remarked on the contrast:

Of course, to be really fair, as someone responded:

In fairness Metallica is now what Sha Na Na was to you and me

Heh.

So, okay – reading. Not much of that either. Hopefully things will calm down soon and I can focus on words on pages again. I started Sheed’s Transatlantic Blues last night – I’ll give it a bit more attention today to see if it’s a keeper. Oh, the other night I started Chekov’s Ward No. 6, but found it just too depressing.

Since today is the memorial of St. Marianne Cope, I went back and read the poem Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote about her.

Perhaps you know Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote an “open letter” in defense of Fr. Damien, against a gossipy, bigoted accusatory published piece written by a Presbyterian minister in Hawaii. Stevenson had visited Molokai – after Fr. Damien’s death – and was strongly affected by it, and was moved to defend the priest.

You can read that letter here.

During his bit more than a week on Molokai, he spent time with Sr. Marianne Cope, of course, and even purchased a piano for the colony. He also wrote a poem about the experience, the gist of which is that even though the sufferings of those with Hansen’s Disease might cause one to doubt the existence of God, that course is corrected by the loving presence of the Sisters:

To the Reverend Sister Marianne, Matron of the Bishop Home, Kalaupapa. 
To see the infinite pity of this place, 
The mangled limb, the devastated face, 
The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod, 
A fool were tempted to deny his God. 
He sees, and shrinks; but if he look again, 
Lo, beauty springing from the breasts of pain! 
He marks the sisters on the painful shores, 
And even a fool is silent and adores.

I try to read a few academic journal articles a week.  Like much else in my life, my choice of topic is random, but I tend to settle on Catholic-centered medieval through early modern themes.

Last night, I read this one: ” Each Should Tend His Own Garden”: Anna Bijns and the Catholic Polemic against the Reformation

A narrow topic, yes, (as all academic journal articles are by nature), but interesting, since I learned things I didn’t know before. Always good. What I learned:

I learned, of course, about the existence of this woman named Anna Bijns – a well-known poet of her period and  – 

She was in fact the first writer in the vernacular to achieve widespread fame through the printing press. Everything she experienced in her city was material for her sharp pen. Nothing was taboo: badly thwarted love, the vain illusions of Luther and his followers, the threat of freebooters from Gelderland at the city gates, the insufferable policy of tolerance pursued by the city council, deceit and conflict within marriage, the sad but well-deserved lot of hen-pecked husbands and the need to relax with the hilarious nonsense of the repertoire of popular festivals.

She is able to express all that excitement with a verbal dexterity almost unequalled in Dutch literature. Complex rhyme-schemes, alliterations and neologisms gave her texts an irresistible cadence, while the subtly orchestrated passion still came across as natural. She was also the first author in Dutch literature, to present herself emphatically as an individual with personal views and emotions of her own. 

She was also a devout Catholic and determined to do what she could, in her small way to fight heresy. So she wrote poems and disseminated them. The article explores this aspect of the culture – most of the poetry-making and disseminating was oral, but she, as a woman in Antwerp, did not have access to the public fora in which that occurred. (In other cities women did, but not in Antwerp.)

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Bijns was one of the very few Catholic lay people in the Low Countries who was prepared to take her fight for the Catholic cause into the public domain, and she was the only one to do this in vernacular print. The work of many rederijkers reflected the growing interest in evangelical ideas, or attempted to find a middle ground between old and new ideas, but there are very few examples of zealous defences of the Catholic faith in rederijker circles. There is only one rederijker play from before the Dutch
Revolt which takes up the gauntlet against the Reformation. In this play
entitled, Tspel van de Cristenkercke (c. 1540), a character called Dr. Genuine Scriptural Proof introduces a plot in which the virgin Honest Simple Faith holds out against the advances of Self Regard, the son of Heresy. Its author, the Flemish bookbinder Reynier Pouwelsz, may have written it to reaffirm his loyalty to the Catholic faith as he had been charged with selling forbidden books a few years earlier. Although we know of many Catholic poems that derided the Reformation, these were rarely published in print, and mostly date from after 1560. Th e first author genuinely to follow in Bijns’s footsteps was another woman, Katarina Boudewyns, whose Prieelken der gheestelyker wellusten [Bower of Spiritual Joy] appeared in Brussels in 1587. Like Bijns, Boudewyns presented both (Marian) devotional poems and spirited attacks on the heretics, especially the Calvinists who had ruled Brussels in the early 1580s. So why was work like that of Bijns such a rarity?

The article explores that last question – and concludes that up to a point, heresy had been presented as a moral problem – one was a heretic because of pride – and therefore a problem for clerics and spiritual directors. A lay person didn’t interfere in another lay person’s spiritual battle. But then, eventually, the issue came to be seen as one of principle and ideas, and could  – and should be – argued in the public square.

Note that at one point, though, Bijns complains about the way in which the clergy are not picking up the slack and doing their job:

  Decades earlier, Bijns had also expressed her frustration
at the perceived lack of leadership in a struggle for which she declared herself willing to die. One of her refreinen in Book II responded to the praise
heaped on her by a Flemish cleric:When I let my eye dwell over the various estates, I am amazed that there
are so many learned men today who do almost nothing to resist Luther’s
arrogant teachings [. . .] and however much I try, one person can’t make
a dance. Heretics may note my work, but they make fun of it, thinking
it’s just woman’s work [. . .]. So put your mind to it, priest, as a brave
champion, take up the pen, and it will easily have an impact. You have
been appointed watchman, let your trumpet sound, seeing the enemies
surrounding the people of God. I have the will, but I can’t do it.

Do you see what I mean about history helping to understand the present? Four hundred years later – has anything changed?

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He’s a saint who was a strong leader….the first page of the entry in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints.

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A very quick, super busy weekend in NYC.

The occasion: For some reason my 17-year old is a Vikings fan. Vikings were playing the Jets. Oldest son, who lives in NYC, said, “Hey, why don’t you bring him up for the game?”

So…sure!

Left Friday, arrived at LGA about 9:30. Took shuttle to hotel #1 in Astoria (picked because of the shuttle). Went out and walked down the nearby Steinway Street, which, for the distance we walked it, is shoulder to shoulder hookah bars that time of night – interesting! We got some fabulous shwarama and falafel at Duzan, then went back and crashed.

Up the next morning, packed up and walked (with our backpacks – we were only staying for two days – it’s all we needed.) down to the Museum of the Moving Image, located in the old Astoria Studios, which for a time (the 1910’s-20’s) was the busiest movie studio in the country. It was good, although I wish they had the history of the place a little more prominently displayed and even used as a framework for exhibits. The special exhibit right now is on Jim Henson, which was very interesting, especially the material about his early career. Jim Henson’s is the only celebrity death I’ve ever reacted strongly too – if you were around and sentient during that time, perhaps you remember? It was because he was relatively young (53) and it seemingly came out of nowhere (it was toxic shock syndrome related to a bacterial infection…although there’s also disagreement about that, too), so it shocked many of us.

Anyway, after that, we caught the train, went across the East River, checked into hotel #2 – the first time I’ve ever gotten a hotel in Manhattan on points, so yay – and it was perfectly located – the Residence Inn that’s very close to Bryant Park. We were headed to the Morgan Library, but on the way we stopped at this chicken place in Korea Town we’d been to a couple of visits ago – and it did not disappoint this time, either. Super quick, too – it’s already

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cooked, and you just grab it from the case. Perfect for what we needed. at the moment.

Then over to the Morgan Library for their excellent exhibit on Frankenstein at 200. I’d figured this would be the main museum experience for J because he’d be game watching the rest of the time – and he read Frankenstein last summer for school, so perhaps he’d relate?

One side was material related to the cultural and personal genesis of the work – explanations of the gothic, of the state of science in the early 19th century, and so on. Included were a few manuscript pages of the novel, written in Mary Shelley’s 18 & 19-year old hand. Amazing.

On the other side were posters and programs and illustrations from adaptations. As with so much else, the popularity of Frankenstein was solidified very early by adaptations.

Ann Engelhart – friend, collaborator and water-colorist – met us at the Morgan. I always enjoy going there – they have good, well-curated smaller exhibits (Frankenstein this time and one on Thoreau last time we were here)  and it’s always wonderful to peruse whatever manuscripts they’ve pulled out of the collection in the library itself – not only the illuminated manuscripts and one of the three Gutenburg Bibles in the collection, but things like a hand-written Liszt transcription of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. 

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At this point, the oldest son met us, and then took J away to watch football (Tennessee-Alabama & Indiana-Penn State about covered it) with him at a bar. The three of us then walked back through Bryant Park and up to Steinway Hall, Steinway’s Manhattan showroom.

A diversion – Steinway, is of course, headquartered in Astoria – the very spot we’d been in the day before. The history of Steinway is a good one to study for a bit of a microcosm of immigrant energy, 19th century social tensions, and the transformation of the urban landscape during this period.

Here’s a short summary of Heinrich Steinweg’s invention and development of the fortepiano and his emigration to America in 1853. 

And here’s a history of the Steinway presence is Astoria/Queens – Steinway (as he changed his name) moved his workshop from Manhattan to Queens in the face social unrest – fears of anarchists and socialists – and the draft riots.

With all of this newfound space, William was able to bring in plenty of infrastructure to support the company and its employees. Victorian row houses were built for Steinway employees so that they could all live close to the new production headquarters. Steinway Village spanned, roughly, from what is now Ditmars Boulevard up to the East River/Bowery Bay; and from 31st Street to Hazen Street. A group of the original two-story brick homes has been preserved on 20th Avenue and 41st Street.

Besides the housing, several amenities were developed to make Steinway Village a place that employees and their families could spend all their time. Steinway Reformed Church, built in 1890 on land donated by William Steinway, still stands at 41st Street and Ditmars. The Steinway Library, started with books from William’s own collection, is now a branch of the Queens Library. A public school (one of the first free kindergartens in the country), a fire house, and a post office were also built.

For entertainment, Steinway employees had North Beach, an amusement park/resort area with a ferris wheel, swimming pool and German beer garden located on the Bowery Bay waterfront. The venue did not survive Prohibition, however, and eventually became the site of North Beach Airport (which was later renamed LaGuardia Airport).

William helped develop a whole network of transportation, including ferries, streetcars, trolleys, and horse-car railroads to make the neighborhood more convenient and bring in additional revenue. His influence in the area was so far-reaching that he was responsible for the development of the tunnel under the East River that is used by the 7 train today. 

Someday, we’ll go on the Steinway factory tour – but not for a couple of years – since you have to be 16 to go on it…..

Oh, but back to Manhattan. Steinway Hall has a dedicated room for those who’d like to play a Steinway. There are perhaps some days when it’s more in demand than others, but on this day, we only had to wait about five minutes to take our turn.

Yes, an $80,000 piano feels different….

img_20181020_180038We then did some wandering, stopping in a store here and there (like this one – my son’s favorite), seeing a group doing Capoeira – this Brazilian martial arts/dance thing that is becoming all the rage up here, I guess, then eventually ended up back at Pete’s Tavern, where my oldest wanted to take us to dinner. It’s one of his favorites, and a fun spot to go, it being the longest continually-operating restaurant in New York City.

Sunday morning:

Mass right around the corner from our hotel at the Shrine of the Holy Innocents. It really is just by coincidence that the Masses I’ve attended while traveling over the last two weeks have been Extraordinary Form Low Mass – they’ve both been closest to our hotels at the moment. This one was considerably less crowded than Mass in Kansas City, but that’s not surprising – it’s not a residential area, to say the least. I do wonder how many tourists stumble in there for Mass and settle in, only to be deeply confused, wondering if they’ve entered a time warp of some kind. I think they could probably do a bit more with information directed at people in that situation.

Then a quick breakfast at a deli – we attempted the Andrews Coffee Shop, but it was packed out (not surprisingly), so we just stopped in at a deli down the block, where the guy behind the counter took about five orders before he started cooking, didn’t write anything down and got it all almost 100% correct. “A legend,” as my son said.

Next: Penn Station where my oldest met us, and my fears of my Vikings-gear clad son getting beat up by Jets fans was somewhat alleviated by the waves of Vikings fans surrounding us, also headed to the game. A good weekend trip to NYC, I guess, right?

Then M and I headed to Brooklyn, bearing all of our backpacks – we’d checked out of the hotel, of course. We took the 2 train down here:

…where Ann met us, and we had a lovely afternoon at the Brooklyn Museum – where I’d wanted to go for a while.  They had a decent little Meso-American collection, which M enjoyed – particularly since he found a pretty definite error on one of the placards (I’m going to have him write a letter this week to the museum about it, suggesting a correction.) He also enjoyed the Egyptian collection, which is good-sized, and we were all moved by these large paintings of prisoners during the Russian-Turkish War.

There is some fine American work, including this striking portrait.

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The “Brooklyn Della Robbia” is lovely, and I was..amused by this placard.

My translation: For a while, this piece was deemed way too Eurocentric and Christianist for our eyes. 

Ann and I both took some time to separately go view Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. 

I’ll admit – I was surprised, both by the piece and by my reaction to it. As a young woman, I followed the very controversial beginnings of this piece, as it toured the world, scandalized some and then finally settled in Brooklyn. I was somewhat intrigued, but saw it mostly as a pretty strange concept, and not expressive of any kind of feminism I was interested in signing up for.

Seeing it in person is an experience that convinced me it’s a worthy piece of art, not just a gimmick. And to be honest –  the conceit of it is going to strike a 58-year old woman differently than it will a younger person. We are, in generally, more comfortable and less shockable (some of us, at least) and the body is just…the body. Weird, amazing, singular, life-giving and at the same time, dying. Given the chapel-like setting, of course a spiritual response is expected – but what that is will depend on whether or not you’re looking for the divine feminine or your looking for hints of the desire for Truth, Beauty and Life in what people make in a broken world, through a glass darkly, despite themselves.

 

(If you go to the museum site and read the questions and answers about the piece, you’ll see how the end game to identity politics is clearly in sight, as the museum earnestly responds to a question about the exclusion of “transgender women” from the piece…..)

We then had a fabulous lunch at Werkstatt – fresh, homemade pretzel, wurst, schnitzel and goulash, with lovely cool little dabs of salads to provide contrast. It’s the kind of place: small, serious yet informal – that is totally the norm in the New York City, that is not a big deal, that just sits on the corner like it’s a Waffle House or something – and would be dominating Instagram as  The Restaurant of the Moment for six solid months in Birmingham. It’s just what happens when you get millions of people living in a few dozen square miles, having to compete, live and express their passions. Everything happens and such a higher level – for good and for ill, I suppose.

A great meal!

Ann then drove us around Prospect Park, showing us some great home architecture as I, as I always do, try to figure out how in the world normal people live there, living in these expensive apartments and houses, eating out all the time, paying enormously high taxes… And they do. I get part of it – salaries are higher, people share dwellings, but still. I really don’t understand!

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Ready for Halloween!

I didn’t get a photo – I don’t know why – but of particular interest was the fabulous Japanese House, constructed in the early 20th century. Go check it out. 

 

Then…..the ordeal of getting back here. Which was only sort of an ordeal. We went back to Penn Station, then the train to the Newark Airport (flying out of Newark because of the kid at the game in NJ). For his part, he was making his way from MetLife Stadium to the airport, accompanied part of the way by my oldest. There was some…confusion, but all’s well that ends well. He made it. Our original flight was supposed to leave at 8:30, but it was massively delayed, assuring that we’d miss our connection from ATL to BHM. When I got to the airport, I immediately went to the gate agent and she put us on standby for another, earlier – also delayed – flight. It was supposed to leave at 7:15, I think, but was now scheduled for 8:05. I really don’t understand how all of this works. There were over a hundred people on standby for this flight, and we were #8-10. How did we get so highly placed? I don’t know. And we got on. I don’t have status of any sort. So no – how we got on is a mystery. But we did, and were able to make the connection (if we hadn’t – we would have taken the later flight, and I would have rented a car in Atlanta and just driven home.)

And now, grumbling, everyone’s back in school, and here I am….phew!

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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:

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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.

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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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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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Friday was going to be a challenge because of the threat of rain. I had been watching the forecasts all week, and both Friday and Saturday looked to be potentially rainy – although I didn’t know what that meant here. Because, you see, in Florida, for example, “rain and thunderstorms” can mean nothing more than something blowing through for fifteen minutes in the late afternoon.

We decided to risk it, packed up our umbrellas (clear because most umbrellas sold and used here are clear plastic) and set out on a little less than one hour journey to the northwest area of Kyoto called Arashiyama. It’s known for a few things – having some older, preserved streets, some interesting shrines and temples (shocking!) and….monkeys.

img_2212

Yes, monkeys. We moved from deer yesterday to monkeys today.

The Iwatayama Monkey Park is at the end of a pretty strenuous twenty minute hike up a hill on the river. I was a little concerned because – trying to be culturally sensitive here – Japanese animal facilities are often not run with the same mindset as those you’d find in the United States. Read reviews of Japanese zoos, and what you generally find is post after post expressing shock and dismay at the small cages and lack of stimulation and natural environment.

But this was just fine. As far as I could see the monkeys are free – but they hang around because, you know, people are handing out food all day – and seem content and cared for by staff.

So, ethics stress behind us, let’s enjoy some monkeys!

 

You can purchase apples and peanuts to feed them in a rest house – and that’s the only place you’re allowed to feed them – and the monkeys seem to know it, because outside that area, they don’t approach humans and basically ignore them. You’re warned only not to touch them and not to look them in the eye – they apparently sense that as aggression.

It was very interesting to watch them, and we were lucky because this is spring and spring means babies.

They had interesting behavior around the water. A monkey would sit there and splash with its feet and hands, make all kind of weird gestures, poke its head in, and then just sit back, maybe do it again, and then maybe jump in for a swim eventually. It was like they were getting used to the water, just as we might do.

After that, we went down to the very busy touristy street leading to the river, and headed to the famed Bamboo forest – which was…nice. I mean, it’s pretty in person, but not as haunting as it is in photographs because, of course, you’re there with dozens of your closest friends.

The walk became far more peaceful when we went off on another path, headed to the one temple I thought we’d try to hit – the Otagi-Nenbutsu-ji Temple. It was a lovely walk on paths/streets (because a few cars passed us) that wound up through neighborhoods that were part residential, part historically preserved, and some restaurants. The Temple itself is on a hillside and this is the attraction: 

In 1955, the temple’s fortunes began to change when a new head priest was appointed. His name was Kocho Nishimura and he began the long process of renovating the temple. Kocho Nishimura was not only a priest but an accomplished sculptor of Buddhist statues. He hit on the idea of having visitors carve their own statues for the temple under his guidance. These “rakan” statues, which represent Buddha’s disciples, were all added to the temple between 1981 and 1991, but look much older as they are now fairly covered with moss. Because each statue was carved by a different person, each one is completely unique, and many have humorous expressions or whimsical poses.

 

We caught a bus back into town, did some shopping, got caught in a torrential downpour, had ice cream and beer, then got a train back to our apartment.

 

Right: “Kimono Forest” at the Randen tram station. 

Dinner was a challenge. We are in a part of town that has a rich, interesting history, and is certainly busy enough, but it is not non-Japanese tourist oriented. There are loads of restaurants, but few have English menus and while I can tell the basics about a restaurant from the photographs they have posted and some awkward conversation, the details escape me. So while the boys rested, I wandered around, poking my head into various restaurants, asking for menus, trying to figure out what they had. The problem was – I could, for example, see that this restaurant was a chicken restaurant featuring yakiniku – chicken that you grill yourself tableside. Great. But I would have no idea which chicken part we’re ordering or what comes with it or how much would make sense to order. The online translating apps are not very helpful to me here, perhaps because I don’t know how to use them efficiently, but mostly because in any given moment, I need to know a lot in a short amount of time.

So you know what we did?

img_20180629_203351I discovered, right across the street and around the corner, a Tanzanian restaurant. The sign out front said the chef and proprieter was also an English teacher. We’re in.  And do you know what? It was delightful. The food was excellent – one boy had a chicken pilau, I had a fantastic stew, the other had fried chicken and fried and we all had samosas. And it was such a pleasure and relief to speak English, easily to someone besides my kids. Even after a little more than week – you forget how relaxing it is not to feel lost in translation, constantly.  So thank you, R.M. Asili Cafe and Dining! 

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