On the Mad Genius of “An Idiot Abroad”

Days of laying in bed, crying fits in the bathtub, nary a sleep without nightmares for two weeks. When I set out to start my year long adventure in Japan, I didn’t exactly have these things penciled into the itinerary. Japan, I can remember thinking, was the place I had spent the best summer of my life. Japan would be a newer, happier chapter to help punctuate a few rough years. Japan, I was certain, would be the start of something new.

Luckily, with a little time, assorted offal cooked on tiny halberds of timber, and an addiction to exploration, real Japan has since fallen more in line with the Japan of fantasy. Well, that’s almost true; I’ve yet to visit to the smoke-filled halls and booze soaked rooms of a karaoke joint since my return in December.

Of all the salves that kept me from taking the next flight out of Narita, the ramblings of an idiot — a famous idiot — were likely the most potent. Continue reading →

You Mean, the Snow is Just Going to Stay There?

I have a long history with snow. Growing up in Western New York, it was something of a tradition to expect to mourn summer and fall in one go, as winter would often grab hold at the beginning of October. More often than not, the icicle shaped tendrils of the coldest season wouldn’t let go until March.

When I went to college, I moved into an area where the snowfall was even worse. The State University of New York at Fredonia was only a few short miles away from Lake Erie. When lake effect season rolled around, you could bet on weather cancellations or outright campus closures reliably each year. All this to belabor the point that I know winter well; I know snow, and I know how to deal with it. Hell, most of the time I love it.

Sabae's snow fall makes it feel like home.

Sabae’s snowfall makes it feel like home.

When I got word that I was assigned to Sabae in Japan’s Fukui prefecture for my 18-month tenure as an English teacher, my employer tried to stress that this wasn’t like most of the country. Winter in the Hokuriku region, an area west of Tokyo that encompasses Fukui, Ishikawa, Niigata, and Toyama prefectures, isn’t the sort that simply brings cold temperatures and a token snowfall. What I’ve learned very recently, in fact, is that this region receives the highest volume of snowfall of any inhabited and arable part of the world. That is, it’s a lot like home. Continue reading →

A New Year of a Different Sort

Music so loud your innards feel like they might explode. The stink of alcohol and cigarette smoke. The push to find someone to kiss or go home with by midnight. It’s New Year’s Eve in America.

A half day earlier and 10,000 miles away, an old man, lips curling dryly over toothless gums, piles kindling of pine and cedar on top of struggling embers. He bends low to the fire, using it to light a hand-rolled cigarette between his lips. It’s 20 minutes to midnight, and it’s his job to make sure the fledgling fire erupts into a true bonfire by the time the bells begin to bellow from the shrine in the New Year. The deluge, switching back and forth between rain and heavy snow, isn’t making the task any easier.

Shinmei Fire

“Another 15 minutes,” the shrine’s crier, stirring a vat of sweetened rice porridge beneath a dripping tent, shouts.

The news that 2015 is still so far off is greeted differently around the fire. The wet wood now spews thick, gray smoke that causes attendees to cough. The fire-starter, apparently given up on the notion of a tower of excited flames, mumbles something about 2014 having been a good year for his son. A small girl, no more than three feet tall, coughs her way through a rendition of “Ari no Mama De,” the Japanese version of “Let It Go” from the globally ubiquitous “Frozen.”

She’s been dancing as she sings beneath an umbrella adorned with Elsa and Anna, the sisters from Disney’s musical and commercial phenomenon. She decides to change one of the song’s most important parts: its ending. Usually sung as “the cold never bothered me, anyway,” she’s clearly had enough of the ceaseless shards of snow hitting her exposed cheek like subzero bee-stings. “The cold is bothering me, anyway,” she chants. Her creative license is met with giggles from the ring of spectators around the billowing logs.

Smoke fills the shrine grounds as visitors arrive for hatsumoude, the first prayer of the New Year.

Smoke fills the shrine grounds as visitors arrive for hatsumoude, the first prayer of the New Year.

Over the next 10 minutes, the sound of boots pushing into wet gravel intensifies, as the parking lot fills with cars. Greetings of “congratulations,” meant in a way that sounds suspiciously like “so glad you didn’t die this year” seem to bounce like pinballs from mouth to mouth, reveler to reveler.

Weirdly, I think, no one walks with a strange slouch in their gait. The rush to get the next drink, the next infusion of mind-numbing buzz, is replaced by that to wash hands, get in line, and offer a prayer for health, happiness, and success. The  warmth of huddling families takes the place of the grasping hands looking for the nearest mouth to kiss.

The single strike of an unseen drum cuts through any conversation. The hiss of wet wood and the irregular popping of hot stones beneath the dying fire serve as background music for the silent scene. The crier, having left the rice porridge to someone else, begins to count down from 10. Each new number brings a hollow beat from that same unseen drum at a more rapid pace.

The crier runs out of numbers, and the drum goes silent. The metallic ring of wooden mallet on bronze bell rumbles lowly from the small building across from the shrine itself, only slightly illuminated by the orange glow of a single hanging lantern. It’s 2015 in Japan.

A prayer, a small donation, and a blessing later, and most are on their way back home to get out of the cold. There, they’ll talk of their hopes for the new year, while osechi ryouri, a selection of dishes reserved for the holiday, is enjoyed a la carte. Hot tea, warm conversations, and clear minds help to set the intention, the tone of the annual reset. No blackout or awkward morning farewell required.

Prison and Personal Injury, or a Recent Trip to Letchworth State Park

The Fourth of July weekend is coming to an anxious end, and with that ,  it’s only natural that many decide to head to their local parks/watering holes/sports stadiums to get one last bit of life in before work resumes on Monday. Thinking I’d use Sunday to visit a state forest I’ve never been to and hopefully check out some waterfalls, I instead found myself both threatened with arrest and injured — the latter of which occurred when a bear jumped out at me on the trails, causing a rather nasty sprain of the ankle. (That last part might be a lie.) Sonyea State Forest: A Stone’s Throw from a Local Prison Sonyea State Forest is located only a few miles away from the nationally famous Letchworth State Park, just outside of Mt. Morris, New York. The forest has a long history, starting many years ago as a colony for a local community of Shakers, before transforming into a retreat for those suffering from epilepsy. Following the advent of new treatments that effectively reduce the signs and symptoms of epilepsy, the retreat was finally repurposed by the state into the Groveland Correctional Facility. Groveland is a state-level high security prison for male offenders. Having never been to the forest before, I punched it into Google Maps on the trusty phone and sped on my way, the Tallest Man on Earth’s “Wild Hunt” trickling from the speakers, the gentle scents of honeysuckle and grass barely winning their fight with the country air (re: manure) as they pushed through my cracked windows. All signs pointed to a good morning. Continue reading →

Enjoying Independence Among the Trails and the Trees

The U.S. gets pretty loud on the Fourth of July. No, I don’t mean our typical level of noise we tend to make about global politics and whatnot; I mean oh-my-god-why-are-my-ears-bleeding kind of loud. Seemingly from the time the sun peeks its hot little head over the horizon, somebody is outside lighting up a charcoal grill upon which to cook up a week’s worth of tubular meat stuffs — all of them, mind you, to be consumed in one day.

Fourth of July, otherwise known as our Independence Day, is this annual exercise in complete sensory overload. Nostrils variably burn with the thick smoke of spent saltpeter and the charring flesh of some animal, porcine, bovine, whatever. Your ears are left undefended to ford a never ending stream of pop patriotism, belted out, as ever, by a dude with a beard. Fireworks excite the eyes, alcohol taints the blood, flame permanently reworks skin — as I’ve said, it’s all very loud.

I’ve always been more of a relax by the campfire with good beer, good friends, and a guitar to pass around kind of a fella. Despite my daily demeanor, I really don’t like “loud.” So at first light, I went straight for the quietest place I knew within 10 miles: the trails. Continue reading →

Five Tips for Traveling in Japan on an Empty Wallet

Note: This post was originally published on the now defunct “Writings from Abroad” in March 2014. Rather than let it go to waste, I thought Words from the Road would make the perfect home for it. Hope you enjoy!

The plane lands at Chubu Centrair International Airport, some 50 kilometers south of Nagoya. Passing through customs, I take a sharp left toward the train station . My navy blue carry-on, no larger than a boot box and stuffed to the brim with clothes, a camera, and notebooks, fits comfortably next to me as I board the Meitetsu Limited to Chiryu. It’s all I need for the month long research trip. From the bus station, it’s just a 15 minute bus ride to my host-parents’ in Kariya.

NagoyaStreets

Arriving at the L-shaped house built traditionally with glass, wood, and shoji paper, I’m greeted by smiling faces, a warm, well-cooked meal of miso with clams, salted salmon steak, rice, and chopped cabbage. Bedtime comes quickly, and I think nothing amiss as I leave the bath, lay my head onto my pillow, and let the night takeover.

Checking my bank account the next morning, I find the funding for this research trip hasn’t been deposited. With $100 to my name, I fire a panicked email to my financial aid department, words like “worried” and “frustrated” peppered throughout. That evening, I receive a response. The funds won’t be transferred for a week.

Here’s how I got through:

  • Limited Public Transportation- Japan’s mass transit is internationally known for its convenience and being run on-time. You tend not to hear about how quickly it adds up. Granted, you can buy a one-day subway pass in Nagoya for around ¥800, just about $8, but when that’s a 12th of what you have to live on, you look for alternatives.

This is how I learned that traveling by foot is the best way to see the soul of a city, the backstreets with restaurants with names like Coffee & Spaghetti and shinto shrines stuffed between apartment buildings. It’s also a simple, if tiring, way to shave a few dollars a day off expenses.

  • Everything is a Hotel- Nagoya was ranked the 10th most expensive city in the world in 2012 by Yahoo! Finance. Its costly nature extends to everything in the city. The cheapest hostel I could find ran around $35 a night. If there’s one thing that traveling poor teaches you, it’s creativity. For under $20, you can rent a plush leather chair or computer desk at an internet cafe and sleep through the night.
  • Floors Are Free- Making friends in a foreign country is always a great idea. They can give you recommendations for local restaurants, sightseeing opportunities and more. What you learn really quickly is that they also tend to have free floor space. While a hard floor might be uncomfortable, it is 100% free. Just be sure to offer to cook breakfast the next morning.
  • Convenient, Varied, Cheap Food- Food is a constant nagging need, especially when you’re traveling by foot to stay on budget. Luckily, Japan is saturated with convenience stores. Lawson, Circle K, 7/11– you’ll see them all, wherever you are. Offering everything from sukiyaki to curry bowls to rice balls of every flavor, you can always find something new and tasty for a fraction of the price of eating at a restaurant.
  • When in Nagoya…- Nagoya is full of amazing locations. The city’s castle, rebuilt following the Second World War, offers a look at classical feudal architecture and a selection of samurai gear, ranging from kabuto helmets to katanas. Tokugawa Garden’s waterfalls, tea houses, and auburn, gold, and green flora offer a calming place to meditate and enjoy a warming glass of green tea. Unfortunately, even when you can buy paired tickets for these attractions for under ¥700, complete poverty approaches quickly.

If you’re willing to spend your days as a local would, you can save money and gain a deeper understanding of the culture.Being able to find joy in an old comic in a used bookstore or with a pencil in your hand and a notebook in your lap while watching farmers tend to the summer’s flooded rice paddies — these are the type of things that give you an understanding of what it means to be Japanese, while simultaneously helping you save yourself from bankruptcy.

Before this experience, there were few worse travel nightmares I could think of then trying to survive in a foreign country with a drained bank account. By getting creative and stepping outside the definition of “tourist,” I found that traveling poor is possible; it might even be a better way of doing things.

That’s not to say I want to try it again.

An Off-Morning at Rochester’s Public Market

$2 buys you a hard-glazed blueberry doughnut and a cup of forty weight, served en vogue in wax paper and styrofoam. Of course, what you’re really buying with your cup of burnt joe is access. Rochester’s historic Public Market, a Flower City staple since 1905, churns with vendors and those looking to take advantage of their cut-rate produce on the weekends. Now, at the beginning of the week with the sun just barely managing to peak over the sloping metal roofs of the market’s many buildings, it’s only freight drivers, the sudden hiss of hydraulic breaks, and the cuss-laden conversation of middle-aged men, hardened by years of early mornings in a starving city — all of this paid access only.

To take a seat outside Union Street Bakery and breathe deep the cloud of sauteing onion and garlic wafting from Juan and Maria’s nearby empanada shop, you’d better be ready to buy that mud and you’d better pretend to like it. The bakery’s owners are kind but proud people, unaccustomed to giving away the prime seats outside their glass-faced bakery that resembles an old New England wharf shop for free.

Union Street Bakery Rochester Public Market

Continue reading →