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Back to the (Amazing) Daily Grind

Friday, July 14, 2006
So, with Gabe on his way to America, I headed back to the island to start working and living my life again. The narrative for this post is pretty loose (read: this is just a bunch of random pictures), but I would say that a loose random narrative pretty much sums up my life these days. There are certainly worse things than being at loose ends after work, going around and seeing wonderful things, doing things with friends, and taking pictures. In fact just the other day I was out on my scooter after work, tearing around some tiny switchback on the side of some mountain, and I thought "If I could stay here and not have to work, and it could be summer all the time, I would never leave." Immediately after I had that thought, I figured most people would stay any place in the world if they never had to work and it was summer all the time, but still. It's sublime here after work.

Those of you who knew me before I went to Japan know I had a thing for abandoned houses. Abandoned houses are funny in Japan, because they are all locked up and in spotless condition. The only way you can tell they are abandoned is that the mailboxes are full of old notices, and the grass is not mowed. There is no creeping into abandoned homes, finding little bits of detritus and old forgotten things here, at least not that I have found. I did find one falling-down building the other day, but there were footprints in the mud that weren't mine, so who knows what goes on here.

On Tuesday of last week, after school I was driving home and I passed a little old harbor I always admire as I pass, but had never photographed. As I'm down into the last month before I go home, I have gotten into this mindset where I look at something and ask myself if I have satisfactorily photographed it or not. If the answer is no, I pull over and have another go at it. Here is my first shot at the little stone harbor in Kinoe.

Let's just take a moment to acknowledge the fact that that tiny road along the right is my commute to work. I'm so spoiled for roads and driving.

I don't think anyone uses this harbor any more.

The other recent development has been fishing, namely doing a lot of it. I asked Mori to teach me to do the net fishing he does every day, so that meant going out one afternoon and then again at 7:00 the next morning. I don't have many pictures because I was hauling nets into the water the first time, and then blearily hauling fish out of the water the next morning, decked out in full waterproof clothes and white rubber boots.

After dropping the nets.

The next day Mori and his father pulled the big new boat out of the water to clean it, and Mori supervised the tracks that the boat went onto, Mori's father drove the boat, and I handled the gigantic winch with the most awesome control box ever.

I am realizing this is all one day. First the net, then we pulled the boat out, and then Kawamoto-san took me (and friends) out for dinner as a thank you for making some nice prints of pictures I took of his kids. Dinner was yakiniku (grilled meat) which is super-popular Japanese food here, and I have never seen back home. I will have to open a yakiniku shop.

One of the kids I photographed. This is me photographing him again.

After Yakiniku, there was bars and karaoke, and after that, there was sitting out in the road.

As soon as I go out with Mori and co, the pictures become blurry. It's practically a rule.

The next day Theresa visited from Kui. We drove around tiny roads, but we didn't do much because I was a little bit wrecked by drinking and karaoke, followed by hauling nets and getting stung by stingrays. As of now, I hate sting rays.

A temple back in the hills.

I think Neko and I felt about the same way that day.

Finally, a preview of the epic that begins next week - last days at school, lots of pictures of cute kids, with the occasional side adventures of being chased by a helicopter, driving a giant boat really fast, and nearly killing myself for a sunset.

Hatsune on my second to last day at Nishino elementary, photogenic as ever.

I'm not sure if I'll update on Monday, as it's a national holiday in Japan (Ocean day).

Kyoto With a Guest

Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Here is a test: Can I write a full-length blog post in under an hour? It's 11:30 now, I usually try to be asleep by now, but it's Wednesday, and I have responsibilities. At 12:30 I draw the line, so here goes nothing.

Last we spoke, Gabe and I had headed out from Osakikamijima, on our way to Kyoto. We caught a the train and got in at the tail end of the day. We got a bus to the only guest house that still had rooms in all of the city, and checked in.

The famous (infamous?) Uno House was a pretty intense place to land after hauling bags through the hot Kyoto afternoon. An extremely tan American woman with a smoker's voice and perfect Japanese was having an animated conversation with the harried looking lady sitting where I guessed the reception desk was. A little boy who seemed to be her son was running around half naked and cigarette smoke poured from a kitchen just around the corner. Every inch of every wall was covered in handwritten signs instructing you on what you could and couldn't do, and rather than floors and hallways, narrow snaking pathways wound around, carpeted and about six inches above moldy damp concrete. Walking through the kitchen someone asked me if I had a dog with me, the little boy stood in our way and shouted for his mother, who ignored him, and then we were through. The woman (who turned out to be Mrs. Uno) walked us along a progressively narrower hallway until she came to our room which had no air conditioning, no window, terrifying wallpaper, and a rusty wall fan.

Looking back towards the kitchen.

To our room.

Our excellent room. At 2,000 yen a night, we were getting what we paid for. (2,000 yen is about 18 dollars, if you're too lazy to look it up.)

It's the details and the decor that really make it.

So, once we had come to terms with the Uno House, we decided it would be best to head out a bit and see what the neighborhood was all about. All the temples and sites of Kyoto had closed, so the directionless stroll was the way to go. We ended up finding the river right away, and right from there, the contrast between Kyoto and Tokyo was perfectly clear. I suppose I had noticed it in the past, but after spending a week trying to get to know Tokyo, I could really feel the different character that Kyoto has.

Tokyo does not have anywhere that looks like this.

As we walked along the river, we must have passed hundreds of these restaurants, all with porches on the river, all with women in Kimono serving groups of businessmen and older Japanese couples. I don't know what they serve or what these places are called, but they are pretty cool.

In Tokyo, I suddenly felt lonely seeing young couples all around, but in Kyoto the same feeling was mixed with love of the great Kimono everyone was wearing. It's really something you hardly see in Tokyo, but in Kyoto it's common for groups of young people to be out in traditional clothes.

Coming off the river, we walked right into some sort of demonstration. That sign says 2000 years, and something about a west shrine or temple. What I like about these guys is their umbrellas - I want an umbrella with monk's protests written on it.

As Kyoto was never bombed in the war, there are a lot of bits of old pre-war style buildings all around. They are surrounded and encroached upon by newer architecture, but little bits like this - I look at it, and I can imagine the city as it was in the 20s and 30s, low buildings that looked like this along the commercial streets, and wood and tile homes and teahouses crammed together along the dirty back streets.

Night fell, and we walked back along the road that ran behind the porch restaurants. One gets to the restaurants through long narrow alleys, some clean and lined with bamboo, but some looking more like this.

That sign for "Paul's Boutique" kind of kills it for me.

I stopped to take a picture of this book store, and the owner, who was sitting on a railing behind me got a big kick out of the fact that I was taking a picture of her empty, dark bookstore.

Another alley.

So, then we got some dinner and went back to the hotel, at which point Gabe decided to close his eyes at about 9:30 and fell fast asleep. Not wanting to bother him I went out into the kitchen and met the people who seem to live at Uno. It was an interesting group, a bunch of travel bums basically, one guy had been here four months, had been farming in Shikoku, staying in people's houses, bouncing from place to place. Another guy had come to see his girlfriend in Tokyo and had some sort of relationship mishap and ended up in Kyoto without her and without plans. The farmer and the girlfriendless one decided to hitchhike back to Tokyo tomorrow, but that night they were going to go out. They asked me if I wanted to, and I decided why not - I went to tell Gabe, who seemed very confused as to what time it was, who I was going out with, and why, but his confusion lasted all of five seconds, and then he was back asleep.

We ended up at some tiny basement reggae bar that was serving 400 yen red stripe and playing the oddest selection of reggae you have ever heard. The best one was "Magic Carpet Ride" from Aladdin - the reggae version. If you don't understand the words, it's all just reggae, I suppose, but the really cool looking Japanese girls dancing to a reggae mix of a song from Aladdin was pretty funny.

Oddly enough, I met this fellow and his sister.

I say oddly, because they live about ten minutes from me in Brooklyn, two stops further down on the F train. They were living in London - he was working, she was bumming along for the ride, and they were just traveling for fun. The found the bar by chance, and I almost didn't go out at all. As we got to talking, he had gone to Stuyvesant and knew a few kids from my high school, and she had gone to her prom with Ian Cella - a kid who I sat next to in elementary school. How strange is that? Very strange.

We talked about Brooklyn, Japan, high school, and we drank some beers. The brother (whose name I have since forgotten) and I watched the girls dancing a bit, at which point he informed me that "Japan is a fine country." And he meant fine about the looks of the ladies, not the general appeal of the country. According to him, and he seemed well traveled enough, Japan is the number two most fine country. Number one is Denmark. Who knew? I'll have to see if they need English teachers who can speak a little Japanese in Denmark.

The next day was our single full day in Kyoto, and so we made a point to head out early and see as much as we could. The first two times I went to Kyoto were so perfect and I had so much more time - that while I took a lot of pictures, I wasn't crazy about most of them. It's tough for a hazy summer day to compete with the fall foliage of last November, or even the pouring rain of March.

A graveyard at Chion-in.

We did have a knack for finding the traditional Japanese weddings. I really wanted to go up there and get the awesome picture that the photographer was getting, but it was off limits and guarded by two serious looking monks. How about that for a wedding portrait though?

Gabe, taking in Japan.

I really like this picture - it's not amazing in any way, it's very conservative and the sort of thing you might find in a guidebook. The thing is, you would find it in a guidebook because it sums up a lot of the feeling of being in Kyoto, and when I see this picture, I remember what it's like to be there, and that's important.

Side note: This is the coolest tour guide I have ever seen. He was there with an American family, showing them around, but in full traditional dress with a topknot. All he needed was two swords tucked into his sash and he would be a totally credible samurai.

Kinkaku-ji gardens.

I totally owned Gabe in the "throw ten yen into the stone bucket" game. How dumb would you feel if you were the person who threw the one that's all the way in the back, or the one right in front?

We did some more stuff, had a good dinner, and then slept uneventfully (and kind of uncomfortably) at the Uno House. In the morning we packed and headed out. We had some time to kill, so we decided to walk back to the river. It had poured rain all night, and the rain had scrubbed the haze out of the sky. It had also raised the river tremendously, which was quite a sight to see.

This is almost the same picture as the first one. Look at the difference, in how clear the air is, how low the clouds are, how high the water is, and how much of the plants have been washed away.

And that was that. I put Gabe on his train to Narita and watched him fight with a Japanese man for his seat as the train pulled away, then had half an hour to watch trains come and go until mine came.

A 700 series Nozomi superexpress.

With some careful planning I had managed to get myself on one of the once-an-hour new 500 series trains, which was the only Shinkansen I had not ridden. While most Shinkansen have long streamlined noses, their regular cars look about like normal train cars, boxy and square. The 500 cars are cylinders, and the front of the train is longer and pointier than any of the other trains. The canopy is a shiny black bubble. I was pumped.


The train looks, sounds, feels like, moves as fast as, and costs as much as an airplane. I was home in 32.532 seconds.

And that's that. It's 12:28, so as the Japanese say, dekita - I've done it. Back on Friday for more solo adventures.

Gabe On Osakikamijima

Monday, July 10, 2006
A short update tonight, but a nice one, I think. After my week in Tokyo, I was ready to come home to the island. I loved every minute of Tokyo, but after a while the heat, living out of a suitcase, not having friends around, and not being able to cook began to wear on me. Gabe and I packed and caught a Shinkansen home. It was a busy week, I worked, Gabe came to school, and we did almost all of the things I love to do on the island. I didn't take many pictures, as I was busier being a guide, but I did take a few.

On Tuesday of that week I took the day off and Mori took us to Aakajima - a tiny little island made of two hunks of rock connected by a little sandy beach. As soon as the water warms up a little, Mori and I are going to go snorkeling for shellfish off this island. The edge of the island is a rock shelf going straight down to about 50 feet of water, full of overhangs and rock ledges. Just today Mori asked me if I could snorkel - I told him of course, but he said this was hard snorkeling. Apparently you have to swim straight down about ten feet, then grab onto a rock ledge to keep the current from washing you away and see if you can find any of these giant snails hanging on to the underside of the rock. If you can, you have to pull yourself under and try to grab them, and then swim to the surface to get some air. I can't wait.

Snorkel site 1.

Intrepid explorers A and B. You can see the rock face under water well here.

The water was pretty icy, but Mori insisted it was fine, and while we continued to refuse, he went swimming.

Looks like something from a tour brochure, doesn't it?

Mori got a nasty jellyfish sting along the whole length of his arm, but to the bitter end, he insisted that the water had been fine. I don't know.

I drove the boat home - I can now check "drive a boat on the inland sea" off my list.

Priority one during Gabe's visit was to share the joys of scootering. We went on more than one nice long scooter ride all around the island, and for those I brought my camera. Like anyone who rides a scooter here and really understands the appeal, Gabe began to wonder what a scooter would cost back home, and whether it was worth getting one. We talked about it a bit, because it's something I have considered, and I raised the point that had convinced me that scooters were better left in Japan: Where in the world could you ever hope to find better roads and conditions for scootering? I really think you would be hard pressed anywhere. The roads here are often too narrow for cars, they are almost always empty of cars, and they are too steep for bicycles. Beyond that, they are beautiful windy roads, often passing though bamboo forests, jungle, coastline, and mountaintops in the course of 15 or 20 minutes. The distances are never so far as to be prohibitive with the 55 km/h cap on the scooters, and this is five minutes away from my house.

That's after we passed a tiny stone bridge over a little waterfall, and then is followed by ten or fifteen more tiny switchbacks.

The tiny waterfall.

Scooters 1 and 2 - literally, those are their license plates. This picture is a small part of why I love scootering so much.

Like I mentioned - from jungle to mountaintop in about 2 minutes.

This area is completely different from where I live, and yet it's a fifteen minute drive if you take your time. It looks like something about third world countries from National Geographic if you ask me.

A little shrine we found in Kinoe.

Inside the shrine.

This picture - I love this picture, and not because it's a particularly wonderful picture. To me this picture is everything I love about riding the scooter. I'm standing in some place I just found on the side of the road, and as I look down and across the inland sea, I get a view that few people who don't live here will ever get to see. A tiny shred of a town is wrapped around this one bend in the road, maybe it was bigger in the past, but now it's just a few houses, a meeting hall, and a shrine. The scooters are parked down there, mine has its seat open because I just pulled out my camera to take some pictures, and the jacket I wear when I ride is draped over the basket. That's all well and good and nicely evocative, but what really gets me is the road. That perfect narrow curve, swinging left around a corner, and then tightening into a right between two ancient houses, and then winding along the coast. I look at that curve, and I feel it in my bones, leaning left, letting off the gas, swinging my weight over and leaning right, checking the mirror to see if anyone is coming, and then putting on the gas as the sound of the little 50cc engine echoes off the old mud and bamboo walls. Sitting at the computer writing this, I can almost hear that sound, I can almost smell the sea, and I can almost feel the wind in my face as I accelerate into the next set of curves. I wouldn't buy a scooter when I went home because nothing in New York could ever come close to the experience of scootering here.

And that was about it. We did more things, had more rides, had dinner at Mori's house, played video games, and before we knew it, the week was over, and it was time to go to Kyoto. We left on Friday and got another train. You'll hear about that action packed day and a on Wednesday, but here are two travel pictures that are not necessarily from leaving the island the last time, but they remind me of heading out to Kyoto.