Friday, May 18, 2018

The $ Story

Jumping on the uncrowded six train, Bronx-bound, the pair quietly settles in across from each other, he next to a couple of Japanese tourists, she beside an older black man slightly the worse for wear.  Something catches her eye and she gazes down between her fur-lined boots to find a solitary one dollar bill.  With the impulse of a toddler her brain exclaims, "Mine!" just as her intuition buries the thought.  I can't have been the first to notice it, she thinks; this dollar has history.  Pulling her attention up, she makes eye contact with her friend, understanding he's arrived at the same conclusion.  Mercifully, curiosity begins to overtake her focus from her frozen bones.  The cool wind whooshing through the car picks up the bill and carries it down the aisle to her right.  The train begins to brake, and having already arrived at the next station, the doors open.  A young man, hand firmly grasping his impractical sagging pants, swaggers onto the train.  Spotting the dollar, he snatches it up and performs a brief yet spirited money dance, singing, "Money money money!  I got money!"  You'd think he'd won the lottery the way he was carrying on, not found a dollar on the floor of the New York Subway.  Cutting his celebration short, the older man sitting to her left jumps up.  "That's my dollar!"  "What do you mean it's your dollar?  It's on the floor way over here."  "It's for the homeless."  "Shiiit, I'm homeless!"  At that, the older man closes the gap with the younger, staring him down.  Money Dance wavers.  Obviously deciding one dollar isn't worth a fight with an old man, or the legal fees incurred proving possession actually is nine tenths of the law, he sucks in his breath, lets out a long, "Maaaaaaaan," and drops it, literally. 

Were a pair of monkeys riding unicycles and balancing plates on sticks to barrel down the train led by the Queen of England playing trumpet, she would not have been more entertained, or curious about the state of that six train.  The doors shut, the train picks up speed, and the old man takes to pacing the car, presumably standing guard over his dollar.  She feels this is the perfect opportunity for her friend to come sit beside her, provide some small shield to the scene as well as clever commentary.  She raises an eyebrow in his direction, but he gives one subtle shake of the head.  He seems to know this ain't over yet and is wary of getting on the old man's bad side.  Suddenly turning back on his heels, the old man reclaims his seat next to her, and the slightest hint of smug knowingness crosses her friend's face.  For a moment, she's in awe of him.  Never has she been out-intuitioned. The old man can't relax for long, because soon they're arriving at the next stop and he must again take up the cause.  The next unsuspecting stranger, black do-rag hiding both hair and emotion, looks more hardened than the first, yet takes a kinder approach, shocking other riders.  Bending down to pick up the dollar, he offers it to the man standing vigil.  "This your dollar?" he asks.  Practically growling, the old man says, "Put it back."  The young man looks perplexed.  "But..."  "I.  Said.  Put it back.  That's my son."  The eyebrows of everyone on the train, pointed towards their shoes, raise.  "It's for the homeless.  Put.  It.  Back."  At a loss for words, the young man takes the path of least resistance and releases the bill, takes a few steps forward and settles into the seat on her other side.  "You're not the first," she whispers under her breath.  He harrumphs.  The Japanese tourists giggle.

By now the dollar has made its way pretty far down the train, hovering by the pole just in front of the train doors.  Leaning on the opposite entrance, semi-dazed, the father watches over his son, ever the protector.  A sense of conspiratory community has overtaken the passengers: bound by curiosity and bearing witness, everyone is engaged, connected both to the dollar and each other.  For the third time the train comes to a stop and it occurs to her that this train's dollar story started some time before she boarded.  She had been a chapter for those who entered before her-the rare individual who didn't take the bait.  At this new stop, a man and a woman join the narrative.  With the old man hovering just beside him, the new man, looking both erudite and artistic, dips down to grab the dollar and offer it to the woman standing nearby.  "Ma'am, I think you dropped this."  She shakes her head: "Thank you, but no.  It's not mine."  The man furrows his brow, considers it a small stroke of good luck, and pockets the bill.  Collectively, the passengers of that six train pull in breath, waiting for the reproach they've come to count on, come to savor.

But it doesn't come.  The old man doesn't kick up a fuss, in fact he says nothing at all.  It is as if his son is dead to him, or maybe never existed in the first place.  A few passengers begin to look up, making tentative eye contact with the others.  Can it be? their eyes say.  After all that, he'll give up now and just let that guy have it?  Money Dance, feeling slighted, says what they're all thinking: "Well shiiit."

Based on a true story from the New York Subway, Decembery 30, 2017

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Japan: Highlight Reel

After my initial weekend in Tokyo, I spent five days working at the Box Japan office before heading to Kyoto, and finally Hakone.  Here are my favorite highlights from the rest of the trip.

Box Tokyo

My U.S. team was graciously welcomed by the Japan team, and while the week was very productive, we also managed to have lots of fun on the side.

Tomoko and me near the Imperial Palace

My team at Mutekiya in Ikebukuro

It was the best ramen I've ever had, hands down

On my last night in Tokyo, the Japan team took us out to Shabu Shabu, which is where you have a little pot of boiling water at your table and cook meat and veggies yourself.   In Japanese, "Shabu shabu" is onomatopoeic because that's the sound it makes when you swish the food in the water.  We learned lots of interesting facts about each other, such as that Haru, below, spends time in Duo Lingo every day and is proficient in an array of languages including Turkish, Russian, and Italian.  Something to aspire to!


Book Apartment

This place, located in Shinjuku, Tokyo, was a dream I never knew I had.  Several stories up on a super busy, brightly lit street, I spent $6 for an hour of bliss in my new happy place.  For many people seeking their "happy place" in Tokyo, it might be something more underground or kinky like a maid cafe or who knows what, but for me, it was a large open space filled with books, massage chairs, and throw blankets.

 

There was a female-only section, with little cubbies where you could curl up and read or nap, as well as showers and a whole prep area complete with lotions and curling irons.  Peace permeated the space via the chamomile-lavender essential oil spray pumped through the vents.  My two teammates and I explored the space like children on Christmas morning.  Speaking of, if anyone is looking for gift ideas for me, I'd really love a Book Apartment. 


I left surging with inspiration, wanting to bring this genius business idea back to San Francisco, but soon realized that the success of such a space is innate to the Japanese culture of respect: for space, people, books, everything. 

Sitting in utter calm, watching the busy streets below

This may have been the most peaceful moment of the trip

 
The neighborhood my haven sits in

If you are an introvert or a book lover and find yourself in Shinjuku, Tokyo, please give this place a visit.

Shrines/Temples

Real talk: there are a lot of shrines and temples in Japan, and trying to see them all or even a handful can get a bit overwhelming and even monotonous.  Some were particularity interesting and had an interactive or unique architectural/artistic element, but sadly some just felt like overrun tourist traps, lacking the solemnity that you'd expect of sacred sites. 

I visited many between Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara, and my favorite by far was Sanjūsangen-dō in Kyoto, where an army of 1,001 Buddha statues spans a long wooden shrine as far as the eye can see.  One could feel the sacredness of the space, the silence and sense of peace enough to take one's breath away, if the sight of the Buddha statues hadn't already.  Plus, no phones were allowed, which of course I loved. 

#onlyinjapan
Outside Sanjūsangen-dō

Sometimes you have to wait your turn to pray

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest 
(would've been really peaceful sans selfie sticks)

The most popular religious site in Kyoto is the Fushimi Inari Shrine, probably due to its being so photogenic.  It's really striking in person, and has hundreds of business-donated torii leading the 2.5 miles up the mountain.  I only did a small stretch, but can imagine the full trek would be gorgeous, with tourists thinning out towards the top.  Definitely go here early, as throngs of tourists snapping photos are truly a buzz-kill at a spiritual spot such as this. 




FOOD

I found that meals in Japan were either a quick, $10 affair, or an elaborate $150 marriage.  My favorite meal of the trip generously leaned in the latter category: Sushi Iwa in Kyoto.  Lauded as Steve Job's favorite sushi restaurant, I reveled in the beauty, freshness, and flavor combinations of each course. 

Blackthroat sea perch with kiwi
(I could cry this was so good)

Monkfish liver with red wine jam in rice cracker sandwich

"Just a little soy sauce"

Sea urchin

The boss and me

At another exceptional meal, Kobe beef quite blew me away.  Let me try to put this into words: you know when you first fall in love, and you hear a song on the radio and you think, so THIS is what everyone’s been talking about. That is what Kobe beef tastes like.


Nara

In a small town near Kyoto, there is a deer park where the deer, as per Japanese culture, bow to you.


Before even making it to the deer, I stumbled upon a craft fair where I went a wee bit nuts buying up handmaid ceramics.  I got so lucky-the fair only happens once monthly!


The main attraction, other than the deer, is the Tōdai-ji Temple, which houses the world's largest bronze Buddha statue (see below). 


While the statue is beautiful, what will stay with me is the people making fools of themselves behind it.  People young and old wait in a huge line for the opportunity to crawl through "Buddha's nostril" (which is really just a hole in a pillar) with the idea that it will grant them enlightenment in the next life.  In practice, the journey through the "nostril" is far from enlightened, with people shimmying and giggling, and grannies having to yank their elderly husbands through from the other side. 



On the way out, I finally decided to buy some deer crackers.  At that point I was in trouble because THEY KNOW.  I felt like a Disney princess with deer following me around, but it was far less glamorous because they don't just fawn (see what I did there?) over you, but also nip you in the butt! 

 

Make sure you look closely in the video and notice the deer bowing before they get a cracker!


Hospitality

It wouldn't be fair to say that Japanese people are the most hospital people I've ever met, because so many cultures exhibit a seemingly exhaustible amount of openness and generosity in their own way, yet Japanese people add an incredible level of respect to the art that makes for a very unique sense of hospitality I hadn't experienced before.

Visiting the Golden Gai in Tokyo, a labyrinth of ex-brothels turned charming hole-in-the-wall bars, Renuka and I picked a door, any door, not knowing what kind of vibe or experience would be on the other side.  We were pleased with our choice, the opposite of what most venture to the Golden Gai for: a sweet Japanese matron whose compact, cluttered bar felt more like her living room.  Pouring us bowls of sake into her friend's homemade ceramics (they were so expertly crafted: thin, and reminiscent of abalone shells), she did her best to engage in conversation while preparing complimentary pumpkin for us on her hotplate. 


On the topic of patience and generosity, I want to share with you my experience at a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  More so than anything I did, I think the tea ceremony embodied what I came to know of Japanese culture.  It is said to be a form of meditation, rooted in the themes of respect, purity, tranquility, and harmony. Such a deliberate, welcoming experience felt like performance art wrapped in a hug. 

The sweet woman below taught me about the origins of matcha and the process of the Japanese Tea Ceremony.


I learned how to enter the room and how to bow appropriately to all the important elements of the space, and then I got to watch her go through the ceremony itself.  I took it all in as a passive observer: her showing respect to the simple instruments she used, the graceful movements as she performed each act of purification, the gentle matcha whisking that cresecendoed in tandem with the rain pounding on the traditional wooden roof.  In fact, after the ceremony was complete and I was enjoying my matcha and local sweet treats, she commented on how this particular ceremony had been one of her favorites she'd ever performed because of the rain's score, and we both sat in awe of the moment we had shared.



In another show of dignified hospitality, upon leaving this fantastic kaiseki restaurant (can we talk about how fabulous all the k's in Japanese are?), the two waitresses (this word doesn't do them justice) walked me out of the restaurant, bowed and thanked me, and continued bowing to me as I walked down the street and didn't stop until I turned the corner.  This showed so much patience, so much appreciation and care, that I honestly got choked up once I was out of their sight. 


The final examples I want to share with you took place on trains.

Get this: In Japan, when a conductor reaches the end of a car, he turns around and bows to the entire population of the car before continuing on his way.  Can you believe that?  I'm still shaking my head in amazement when I think of it!

Waiting on the platform for the arrival of my train to Hakone (with my many bags-I bought far too many souvenirs), an older Japanese lady engaged me in conversation.  She only spoke maybe a few dozen English words, so mostly I recited the cities I had visited, where I was going, and smiled a lot.  Once the train arrived, she relieved me of one of my bags and followed me on, sitting right behind me should I have any questions.  An hour later, as she was alighting one stop before mine, she grasped my hand to her heart and exclaimed, "Enjoy Japan!"

Hakone/Onsen

Mt. Fuji from the train

The Hakone Open Air Museum, a large park scattered with varying types of statues and art pieces, was such an inspiring, playful place!





Back at my ryokan, I checked into my room and marveled at the tatami mats, sliding doors, and mountain view. 


Putting my phone on airplane mode, I enjoyed being disconnected while getting a massage, soaking in onsen (hot springs), and getting to wear nothing but this yukata for 24 hours.

Hot spring foot soak bar in the lobby!

Sashimi on dry ice

So many little treasures to discover!
These sorts of Japanese meals are like that bag
you love with so many pockets.

Outdoor hot springs in the hotel's basement.
There were also private balconies you could reserve with 
hot spring baths overlooking the mountains.

Anticipating Needs
Every need is thought of.  For example, check out these personal chair baskets for your loose accessories:

Or these snack-sized ice packs for you perishable to-go foods:


Or the shot glass of hair bands so you can really dive into the ramen bowl:


In my hotel bathroom, the mirror above the sink was fog-proof.  They've really thought of and designed for everything in Japan!

And then, there are lots of helpful, guiding pictures, such as this:




Or this:

But in all seriousness, the wayfinding tools were the best I've seen.  At baggage claim, there wasn't only an interactive map, but also a sped-up go-pro video that showed you exactly what the walk to different forms of transportation from your current location would look like.  

In the metro, some trains had screens above the doors that showed a map of the platform you were approaching, and where station exits, transfers, and more were located from each car on the train!  

And on the bullet Shinkansen trains, each seat had a guide that showed you which direction on the train you'd need to walk to find certain services, like bathrooms, smoking rooms, and trash bins.  It was all so well-planned, easy for foreigners to understand, and helpful.


As often happens, I think the culture shock will be in visiting a new place, but it's always more shocking returning home!  I certainly missed the culture of respect, cleanliness, impeccably dressed and stylish women, and lack of homelessness once I was back in San Francisco.  We could certainly learn more than a thing or two from the Japanese!  Now to make some matcha...