Few things are as ubiquitous to the travel experience as the phrase, “when in Rome, do as the Romans.” It’s not bad advice. Experiencing how people on the other side of the world do things — whether that’s communal bathing or getting together to tell bad jokes to foreigners — is the whole point. Why bother going to China, if you’re just going to hang out at McDonald’s instead of expanding your waistline with the wholly sexual treasure that is the soup dumpling.
If you’re about to hit the road, do so with an empty, open mind. Strip off the tighty whities and relax in the onsens of Yamanakako, with strangers’ dangly bits presented in panorama; stuff yourself with one more stick of the starchy debauchery that is La Banquise in Montréal; black out for a spell with some new friends in Osaka and almost miss your train. Take whatever you can from the local way of doing things. Please, though. Please don’t feel guilty when you need a taste of home. Continue reading →
This time next week, I’ll be hiking around the base of Mt. Fuji on the Tokai Nature Trail with a friend from London. Starting from Mt. Takao in Hachioji, Tokyo, we’ll be bouncing from temple to temple, mountain to mountain over 200 kilometers, finally finishing in Shizuoka. It will be the longest hike either of us has ever managed.
We’re going to want to kill each other once or twice along the way.
I’ve been on two and three day retreats in a number of beautifully secluded locales in Western New York before, Letchworth and Stony Brook the most memorable among them. By the end of day three, I’m glad for the experience, but I’m slightly irritable with my traveling companion(s) for one reason or another. Here are just a few suggestions for those among you looking to enjoy nature with friends, but who aren’t looking to “accidentally” push anybody into a ravine along the way.
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Though I didn’t think so when I was growing up, I had a really good childhood. I can’t remember a year when we didn’t take at least one trip. Sometimes it was only as far as Gettysburg, PA, though often we’d make the 20-hour trek to Walt Disney World, some 1,100 miles south of my home in Western New York.
I hated how early we had to get up to make our trips. Getting to Disney meant leaving at three in the morning; that way we could make most of the trip by midnight. Gettysburg, only a five-hour tour in the motorized carriage, still required beating the sun. Especially in my oilier, grumpier teen years, I was not fun to get going, I’d bet.
Now, though, there are few things I like more than getting up early for a trip. The world smells and looks completely different at sunrise. Muggy summer air blowing through the train windows, sweet with hints of flowers and baby crops, makes the perfect companion to processed orange juice at 6 A.M.
Especially here in Japan, where everyone is so close together, it’s hard to find a time in the day when you aren’t hearing what others are up to. Catching the first train, then, is a cure for a few things: nostalgia, the insanity that comes with constant ambient noise, and the need to see the world without it looking back.
I think I’m giving my new friends a mixed impression. At the bar, at the noodle shop, I’m fine just to sit back and let everybody else talk. I drink in the smell of ancient tatami mats and wood that make my grandpa seem like a newborn. So long as the vittles, beer, and conversation are equally plentiful, I’m good with just relaxing.
Once we get outside, though, I’m the boisterous, blathering fool I always was, and likely always will be. Is that a castle nestled in the clouds over there? We need to climb that. Now that we’re at the top of the castle, let’s go play around in that hilly woodland in the distance. No, why are you hopping in the car? Let’s just walk.
I’m terrible to be friends with.
Vapid: there’s no other word that better describes the way I talk. It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t say anything unless it means something. Still, I have a hard time making sure that when I speak, each word is worth breaking the silence. It seeps into my writing, too — if you read my really early blog work, I somehow managed to be even more long-winded.
That all changes when I speak Japanese. I’ve reached a point where I can hold good, meaningful conversations. Gone are the days when talks with friends and co-workers start with “How are you?” and end with “I’m fine.” I can communicate, but I am so far removed from any level of fluency that vapidity — my default mode of English — simply isn’t possible. I’m forced to really think about what I’m about to say if I don’t want to sound like a baby who mistook dad’s bottle of Glenfiddich for mother’s milk.
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I’d been getting bored with the type of photos that fill my digital albums and Instagram portfolio. I’m usually working or writing or otherwise distracted when the sun sets (and until sunrise is after 5:00am, sleeping while it rises). Tired of the saturated blues and greens that I usually love, I made an effort to go out an hour before sunset. This is one of my rewards: still hints of blue and green, but a welcome debut of pink, orange, and red over the rice paddies as the sun lays down for the night.
After four months of trying to find my way to the top of the mountain, I was sure I’d finally found the trail. A cement torii framed aged cement steps that eased the sharp ascent through sun-spotted bamboo and humidity. A place that looked like the beginning of a level in Uncharted or a new iteration of Tomb Raider couldn’t possibly be anything other than the trailhead I’d looked for in snow, rain, and oppressive heat. And yet, it was just another dead-end.
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