Plain Talk

Big World, Little Cat
7 Personality Traits of a Good Traveller by Alex Parsons

1. Be low maintenance.
Do you really need to pack that perfume, eyeshadow, and second pair of heels? If you want to be a good traveller then you’ll need to learn to pack light and go without a lot of regular luxuries. Chances are you’ll be short on time, money and space so figure out what you really need.

When I moved to Japan I realised I needed more thermal underwear for snowboarding and more socks. But not once have I used the bikini, heels or clutch bag that I brought. There just aren’t that many beaches and black tie events in Nozawa Onsen...

2. Be ok with no plans.
Travelling is inherently spontaneous. For an extremely organised person like myself this was quite a stressful realisation. I used to work 9-6 in a Sydney office job and knew exactly how my days would pan out. Now, working in hospitality means that I don’t know if we’ll be busy or if no one will come in. I don’t know who I’ll talk to that day, or the (usually) great conversations that I’ll have.

It took some getting used to but I understand that being comfortable with a state of flux is an important skill to develop. Because, let’s face it, life is chaos. Humans try to wrap life up into pre-package hours and predictable schedules but time rolls on and does not care about our plans.

3. Be organised.
As much as spontaneity is important, it needs to be tempered with a certain amount of organisation for you to be a good traveller. Before I moved to Japan I made a spreadsheet of everything I needed to do before I left. To name but a few things, I had to organise my visa, cancel my car insurance, domestic health insurance, gym membership and phone service.

Then when it came time to head to the airport I had a black folder with print outs of all the information I would need: flight details, accommodation details, emergency numbers, photocopies of all important ID, bank details, maps and directions. All labelled and in order of use, of course. Scarily organised, I know. But so very, very worth it.

4. Be ok with sharing space.
If you’re a compulsive traveller then chances are you’ll spend some time in hostels or share houses. Usually with people you don’t know. Sometimes with people you don’t like.

When I first moved to Japan I lived in a share house that saw four different men come through. Most were polite but two were extremely messy in the kitchen, leaving their food in the rice cooker for days on end, and allowing dishes to pile up in the sink. Two were chronic snooze button hitters so I got to listen to six different alarms each morning. But my favourite was a sexist 30-something year old child that made me so uncomfortable that I started sleeping with a knife under my pillow (details on my blog). But at the end of the day these people provided me with some new perspectives and some great stories.

5. Be ok with solitude.
For example, I’m currently sitting in a bar by myself. A few of my friends are hanging around, playing darts and drinking. But I’m by the fire being horrifically antisocial with my headphones on and a bottle of red for company.

Over the past 6 months I’ve spent a lot of time on my own − in bars, restaurants, cafes, hotels, walking in the mountains, snowboarding, going to the onsen, and living alone for the first time. Before Japan I would have been freaking out about these situations, worrying about what people were thinking about me. But since some solo travel I’ve realised that people are rarely interested in you. They might cast a quick glance at you but they’ve got their own lives to worry about.

6. Be an opportunist.
When travelling, my general rule is to say yes to every opportunity. Drinks with the boss at 1am after work? Sure thing. Go snowboarding with as random guy I just met at ramen? Yeah ok. Take up a job offer from a lady who doesn’t speak English while drunk at a karaoke bar? You better believe it.

Travel is about new experiences and you have to break out from your comfort zone in order to find them. So speak to those other lonely travellers, take new routes to your accommodation, try that unknown meat on the menu. You rarely regret it.

7. Appreciate the little things.
Solo travel is rarely glamourous. Or comfortable. Or easy. But you will see stunning sights that make you question your very existence. You will have many firsts. Ice-coated trees, snow settling in your hair, the morning light catching the steam from the onsen, a flawless cup of tea. Actively seek beauty in every day experiences and you will always be happy. And at the end of the day you will lie down and think, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Keep travelling,

Alex’s blog is called Big World, Little Cat

Plain Talk


The Walls of Politeness That Keep Us Apart by Kohei Usuda

You walk into your local Starbucks in Japan, and between the time it takes to place an order and get your latte, you’re greeted with a torrent of “arigato gozaimasu” from the baristas working behind the counter as they obediently manufacture their smiles and bow their heads. Unaccustomed to receiving such royal treatment after living abroad for a number of years, I used to feel like a minor celebrity just by purchasing a cup of coffee.

Not anymore. Such excessive hospitality or omotenashi can sometimes go to your head. It was a French friend of mine who once exasperatedly confided in me that, living in Japan, he feels as if there’s a “wall of politeness” that separates him from the rest of the Japanese population, an invisible wall that he can never quite get through.

You try your best to make small talk with retail staff, so as to establish common ground, or at least some sort of rapport that is not simply based on a consumer-server transaction. Invariably, however, their responses tend not to stray far from the rigid customer service “manual”, the code of conduct that they’re trained to enact, even when you try to modify that very imbalance of power. Regardless, you’re yet again greeted for the umpteenth time with that impersonal phrase for welcoming customers: “Irasshaimase!”

It’s always dangerous to reductively pass judgment on a certain nationality as such and such. Nonetheless, I get the impression that the Japanese tend to value the “appearance” or the mere “surface” above all else. Philosopher Roland Barthes commented in his observation of Japan that the supreme value here lies in what emerges on the “surface” of things, rather than the layers beneath it. It could be the “wall of politeness” that you encounter in retail stores; it could be the purely visual act of bowing to show one’s gratitude. On the other hand, this centuries-old belief in what emerges on the “surface” can sometimes create beautiful things, such as the exquisitely intricate rock formation of the Zen garden at Kyoto’s Ryoanji that you can contemplate for hours on end, or the playfully innovative “pleats” fabric of Issey Miyake in fashion that plays with the shapes and dimensions of garments.

In other words, the common belief in Japan is that you can tell the content of the book by its cover without it being considered superficial, whereas in much of the West the exact opposite is the case. (Hence the negative connotations attached to English idioms such as “keeping up appearances” or “barely scratching the surface”.)

In the Japanese interpretation of things, a mask is not a mask, as in Noh theater. So that everything appears as if it’s inverted. This is the madly lopsided worldview that’s permeated the Japanese culture. Take for example the ambiguous expression “sumimasen”. It means, literally, “sorry” or “excuse me”, but in reality the same word is widely used to thanking someone, so in Japanese, “sorry” can mean “thank you” as well!





言い換えれば、西側諸国では全く正反対に解釈される所が、日本文化においては中身を読むことなく本を装丁で判断できるという通説が、それが浅はかだったり上辺だけの考えとはとらわれずに設立されるのだ。(逆に英語のよく使われる表現である“keeping up appearances”(平静を装う)や “scratching the surface”(核心に触れない)等、「外観」(appearance)だったり「表面」(surface)といった観念は欧米ではネガティブな意味を伴う言葉となるだろう。)


Unfinished business


HACKETTSTOWN by David Gregory

Boxing Day, raining hard on the two-lane highway winding between dark cliffs, our headlights poking snow piled heavy on fir trees, Yoshi driving, Naomi and Tomoe talking in back, following red tail lights streaming ahead, toward home, all tired after a long Whistler skiing day. “Dave, what is your best Christmas memory?” Tomoe asks me, switching to English.

Ah, Christmas...probably, with Aunt Roberta, about 1993, I think. Hackettstown, New Jersey. The best gifts show people you know something about them that they do not know themselves. That was one of those times.

Hackettstown snuggles up to the Appalachian foothills in the wilderness corner of New Jersey. Aunt Roberta is alone. She has lived most of her life in that big, old house that needs something done to that peeling gray outside. If she had the extra cash. She lost her husband when he was 35; her only son, Richard, in a construction accident a year after he returned from Vietnam; and her later longtime special friend, Joe, to cancer, just before the Christmas I went back.

She has not traveled in nearly 10 years due to her health. But, she holds her head high. Those strong blue eyes that have cried so many times still look straight at you, with love. Her soft voice calms you. Her fine silver hair is casually brushed back; she only takes care of things that really matter.

How does she keep going? She has a way of becoming attached to other families. Allison, next door, loves Aunt Roberta as she had loved her own mother. Allison’s little boy, Kaleb, calls Aunt Roberta, “Grandma”; he never met his own real grandmother. Eric and I always thought of Aunt Roberta as one of our grandmothers, too. She always told us to open her small packages before Christmas day. She knew little boys.

That Christmas in ‘93 I came in from Japan to meet Mom and Dad at Aunt Roberta’s. “Too far away,” she sometimes complained. But, she had always said, “Go.” Find out. Tell her about it. She would be waiting, back in New Jersey. “Write about it.”

The New York bus dropped me into Hackettstown’s snow and cold in front of the boarded up movie theater on Main Street. Mom and Dad came in from Chicago the next day, and we sat around the old table in the warm yellow brown kitchen. It looked like the usual Christmas Plan: early dinner out, gifts, visit Grandma the next day... lots of slow sitting... a routine more than a celebration. Yes, good to be with family, but... then the telephone rang.

Aunt Roberta called from the living room, “David, it’s your friend... he’s in the City... .”

Steve! With Heidrun! They made it... at Kennedy, just in from Germany. Can make a quick stop on their way to Buffalo tonight. “Finally, we’ll meet!” Mom said. After almost ten years, she would have a face to match the name of my good buddy from our early career trainee days at GE. Then, Mom and I sensed a chance. Why not invite a few others, too? Aunt Roberta would love it. I picked up the phone. Of course, Allison said. And with Jay, her husband, and Kaleb, and the new baby, Yeshua.

Allison and crew were already with us when Steve and Heidrun’s headlights finally swung into the driveway. We welcomed them in from the frosty night with hugs. Then, I popped outside and crossed the snowy yard to pull Angie out of her kitchen. “OK, but just for a few minutes,” she promised. “Angie Our Angel,” we called her. She often looked in on Aunt Roberta. Her eyes twinkled.

Coats and scarves piled in the kitchen, we packed into the living room. The party sparked to life all by itself. “So, you are...?”, “How do you know...?” Glasses of juice were poured, plates of baked sweet breads were passed around, fingers poked into bowls of spiced nuts. “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about... ”, “Where do you...?” No music, no special lights, no decorations. Not needed. Only the stuffy sofa and armchairs encircling us.

And the old gray house had never seen such a potpourri of people! Look at tall, German-blooded Steve, with his German girlfriend Heidrun, educated in France and the USA. Allison, from Trinidad, descendant of Native Americans, sitting on the sofa. Jay, son of Indian parents, standing taller than us all, a little shy in the big group. Angie, on the other hand, daughter of Italian immigrants, squeezing her happiness into other arms or hands. And Mom, Dad, Roberta, and myself, the instigators, maybe looking like old timers in the New Country, but with roots that also went back to others brave enough to leave their homelands, in our cases Germany, England, Scotland, and maybe Wales. Who knows? It didn’t matter anymore where anyone was from.

“Ah, I’ve always wanted to....”, “How do they celebrate...?” Yeshua just smiled, cradled in Allison’s arms. Kaleb bounced around, greeting and investigating everyone his bright-eyed way, and finally, exhausted, flopped down into Grandma Roberta’s lap.

Swirling, glowing, an hour passed, filled with chatter, munching, and laughter. The old living room had never been so alive. And, in the middle, Aunt Roberta sat, quiet, soaking it in. Just smiling. But, if you looked behind her glasses, you would see teary eyes. “All these people, from so many places... came here... just for this,” she said to me in her soft voice. “You don’t know how happy I am. Oh, it’s just... .” She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head.

You see, Christmas is not always a happy time for Aunt Roberta. Richard was born on Christmas Eve.

Then, almost as fast as everyone had come together, it was over. Angie had food in the oven. Steve and Heidrun were still long hours from Buffalo. Yeshua was already asleep. Kaleb slumped like a rag doll over his father’s shoulder as they walked out. We waved good-byes from the back porch door and slowly returned to the suddenly empty living room.

Over, so soon. But, we made it happen, one magical hour, that year. For Aunt Roberta. She still asks me to write about it.

“My best Christmas memory? That would probably be from Hackettstown, in 1993... .” The four of us watch the wipers swish away the dark rain, the snow piled heavy on the fir trees. Hackettstown had lots of snow that Christmas. I’m wondering, now... how maybe I, too, received a best gift... one time... many times... in Hackettstown... .

The earliest version of this story I printed in my 1998 end-of-year holiday letter; a revision I read at the “Tribute to Roberta Lyon” memorial service in Hackettstown on 6 January 2001. Special thanks to Eric Gregory for editorial assistance.
Copyright (C) 2014 David Gregory. All rights reserved. Chiba, Japan


Tokyo Fab


5 Reasons Why Samurai Aren't Nearly As Cool As You Think by Joshua Lepage

Samurai may have the reputation of being honorable, principled warriors, at least in the West, but the more you dig into their history, the more ridiculous practices and incidents you find. Here are some highlights.

1. The sakayaki, the traditional half-shaved topknot hairstyle. You may think there's some deep traditional reason behind it, but... nope. Samurai originally decided to pluck (yes, pluck) part of their hair to prevent being too hot when wearing their kabuto helmets. Plucking was the norm until the Sengoku era, when samurai actually went into battle often instead of just standing around looking cool, which finally led them to realize that their scalps would get much less irritated under their stuffy helmets if they shaved instead.

2. You may have seen movies where samurai ride into battle on horseback, but guys... all eight horse breeds native to Japan are ponies. Samurai rode ponies into battle. That is all.

3. Samurai took their swords seriously to a point that is hilarious. Their swords are the reason people walk on the left side of the road in Tokyo to this very day -- they wore their swords on the left, you see, and accidentally brushing against a samurai's scabbard as you passed by was reason enough for him to kick your ass. So honorable!

4. Samurai often came of age and became full-fledged warriors at the tender age of 12. 12-year-olds running around with sharp swords is terrifying enough, but here's an even more terrifying thought: a law had to be created in the 17th century to force young samurai-to-be to have their coming-of-age ceremony by the age of 25, because they were being prevented from doing so by older samurai who wanted to keep them as lovers. Again, super principled, honorable stuff right there.

5. To be fair, this last point doesn't apply to all samurai, but the members of the Late Hojo Clan (and a few others) deserve an honorable mention for going into battle wearing full women's make-up, complete with white skin, drawn-on eyebrows, and black laquered teeth. The reason? They didn't want their heads to look ugly when they inevitably got killed and beheaded.

So the next time you see a Western depiction of samurai as serious and noble warriors, please picture them instead as a bunch of dumb-asses with helmet burn on their half-plucked heads, stealing and killing as they pleased, riding into battle on adorable little ponies and with their faces caked in runny make-up. That's a much more historically accurate portrayal.

What’s App With You?


Game of Thrones - A Telltale Game Series:

Okay, so we're usually skeptical about games based on popular movies or TV series, but this one is blowing us away. It's a six-part series, three of which are already released, that can be bought separately or as a bundle. Each one has about two hours of content in it, playing out a lot like an episode of the TV series but prompting you during key moments to react and take decisions. The series focuses on House Forrester, a family mentioned only briefly in the books, and puts players in the shoes of several of its members, creating a story that runs parallel to the TV show. And much like the show, you can expect a lot of gore, verbal sparring, and political intrigue -- enough to tide you over until the next episode airs.

This American Life:

This app also costs a few hundred yen, but those yen will give you access to over 500 episodes of the excellent radio show This American Life, each of which contains several bite-sized bits of journalism centered around a certain theme. From "switched at birth" to "babysitting" to "when patents attack", there's hours upon hours of content, covering fascinating stories from all over America. Most of their team are very good at what they do, reporting in a clear but compelling way, and that makes this app a very cool tool for anyone out there who's currently learning English. Better than the bone-dry, stunningly boring CDs that come with many English textbooks, anyway!

Tokyo Voice Column


Streetball in Shinjuku by David Alexander S. Dial

Despite Japan’s historically poor record in international play, there is actually a strong basketball community in Japan. While few have been able to make a career out of the sport, many follow their passion in the same way Americans do back home − through pick-up street basketball, or “streetball”.

Back in the States, it is fairly easy to play streetball. Basketball courts are found at almost every city park, and the sport is often taught in elementary school physical education classes, so kids learn the rules at an early age. In Japan, it is a little more difficult. Basketball courts are few and far between, and many courts do not garner a lot of attention, making it hard to just show up and play a game. There are a few hot spots though, if you know where to look.

Technically one of the oldest (albeit renovated) basketball courts in Tokyo can be found in one of the busiest towns. Shinjuku has a little bit of everything you happen to be looking for, and this includes basketball. In the middle of Kabuki-cho, about a minute walk from Seibu Shinjuku Station, is Okubo Park. The park has facilities for both futsal and basketball. While the hoops are rolling portable goals, they are quite stable. Boundary lines, free throw, lane, and three-point lines are all marked. There are technically two facing baskets; however, the court is rather short in length, so it is mainly used for half-court games. The drawback to this court is the hours, which differ depending on the time of year. The court is enclosed in a fence on all sides, which is locked during off hours.

The appeal to the Kabuki-cho court is its location. Of the major streetball courts in Tokyo, it is the one closest to the station. Convenience stores and restaurants are also very close. If you are looking to play a half-court game and don’t want to go too far from the station, give this court a try.





Strange but True


Man accidentally shoots mother-in-law via armadillo

Larry McElro, a 54-year-old man from Georgia, acidentally shot his mother-in-law, who was sitting in her home about 90 meters away, while attempting to kill an armadillo. Although the bullet did hit its target, it ricocheted off the animal's hard shell, hit a fence, and went through the back door of the woman's home and through her recliner before finally hitting her in the back.
74-year-old Carol Johnson's injuries were non-threatening, and Sheriff's investigator Bill Smith told local media that the woman was able to walk and talk after the incident. No charges were filed.

Raccoon climbs 213-meter-tall crane, poops at the top

Perhaps in answer to the city of Toronto's recent decision to roll out a new raccoon-proof garbage bin design for its residents, a lone raccoon scaled a 213-meter-tall construction crane located in downtown Toronto and defecated on top of it before climbing back down.
Crane operator Robert MacFarlane managed to take photos of the animal as it climbed up the ladder, propulsing it to instant social media fame.



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