Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: travel (page 2 of 5)

Home from España

We’re back. The trip was great. Barcelona, Santiago de Compostela, Bilbao, and San Sebastian. Longer letter later. Photos forthcoming.

Heaven, Hell, or Houston

Gwen and I took off for Houston this past weekend to catch the Body Worlds exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Pretty mind-blowing stuff. I’d taken an anatomy class and dissected critters, but there’s something different about seeing actual cadavers, opened up and perfectly preserved, being able to walk around them, seeing how everything fits together, seeing healthy organs next to diseased ones. That sort of thing. Makes me want to take better care of myself. The exhibit is ending there soon, so make plans now if you have any interest.

We spent the night at the Hotel Derek (which apparently people who go to Houston know as a trendy type of place), and I goggled at the $5 water at the minibar. Makes me wonder about the economics of these hidden costs. The hotel only permitted parking via valet service; this was the first time I’d ever used valet parking, which has always rubbed me the wrong way. The current popularity of it mystifies me; its presence at suburban locations with empty parking slots 20 paces away from the front door astounds me.

At a friend’s suggestion, we had dinner at a sushi joint called ら, which was fine if you like dance clubs. The sushi was tolerable, the wait was long, the decor was chic, and the music was much too loud to permit conversation. Just to be unHoustonian, we walked there from our hotel, about 10 blocks down Westheimer.

Saturday we went to the Menil, which was also very worthwhile. They had an exhibit of surrealist art (nothing by Dali, but plenty by Yves Tanguy, who I discovered is very, very similar). For whatever reason, the surrealist exhibit was very dimly lit; I was reminded of a Dali at the Art Institute of Chicago, “The Invention of the Monsters,” which had faded so that one of the figures originally on it was completely lost, and I wondered if perhaps surrealists were notorious for painting with shitty paints that faded easily, which would explain the dim lighting. It occurred to me this would be an interesting technique to use intentionally, so that the original image changed over the decades to reveal something completely different. Perhaps something on the theme of Ars longa, vita brevis.

Driving out of town, we got a little bit lost, but happened upon the Art Car Museum. Sadly, we were running short on time at that point, so we decided to save it for a future visit.

As as Austinite, I ridicule Houston almost as readily as I reminisce about Austin-that-was. That’s not entirely fair: there’s a lot of cool stuff in Houston, and despite the atrociousness of its sprawl, the center of town is much more of a real city than Austin is. Still, it falls in the “nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there” category for me.

Mobile backup

A friend taking an extended road trip just had her car stolen, with her laptop and everything else in it. That sucks massively. It got me thinking about the problem of maintaining backups and having access to them in a situation like that.

My home computer is a desktop. Currently I have it hooked to an external drive, and backup software runs in the wee hours every night to copy my home directory to the external. At some point in the near future, I hope to get a network-attached storage drive, so that I can A) liberate a little desk space, and B) move the backup away from the computer, in case something happens the computer. Admittedly, I’d only be moving the backup about 15 feet away, but a black box wedged into a cramped closet is much less likely to attract a thief’s attention, and if the roof collapses or something like that, fifteen feet might be enough. That’s what I’m counting on, anyhow.

But what about when you’re on the road? You need a backup medium that you keep separate from the laptop but still have ready access to, that is reasonably fast, and perhaps most importantly, is convenient to use. What are your options?

Before you can decide, you need to get your priorities in order. Some files are more critical than others; some change more frequently than others. Assuming that you will need to make compromises, you want to make sure the most current and most critical files are the most readily available and most frequently backed up.

Exclusive of media files, my home directory is about 5 GB. I’m guessing that about 1.5 GB of that is actually cache files and other digital ephemera, so to recreate my home directory, I’d need to be able to store about 3.5 GB. This would exclude all applications, music, videos, and photos. In reality, I could probably cut this in half by omitting a lot of archival files, though to do that I would need to reorganize my hard drive considerably. I’m lazy, so let’s stick with 3.5 GB as a target.

So, what are my options?

iPod
It just so happens that I have a 4 GB iPod Nano (rumor has it that these will be bumped to 8 GB soon). This would just accommodate me, plus a few hours of music or whatever. A hard-drive based iPod would have no trouble at all; in fact, I could store my home directory even with most of my media files on a 60 GB model. The potential problems here are that I would need to be scrupulous about keeping my laptop and iPod separate, and the temptation to keep music on the iPod, even if it cut into my storage requirement.
Network
My web-hosting company gives all its customers 20 GB of storage and webdav access. Webdav is pretty cool, because it lets me mount my network storage just like a hard drive on my desktop. A really, really slow hard drive, but there it is nonetheless. If high-speed connections could be taken for granted, this would be the ideal option—putting my storage in a remote datacenter that has its own redundant backups etc. But high-speed connections are hardly universal, and even when present, the upstream rate can be pretty slow. Backup software generally only backs up files that have changed since the last backup, but even with only 10 MB to back up, over a 128-Kbps upstream line, that will take at least 10 minutes (allowing nothing for communications overhead). In terms of convenience, this can’t be beat, assuming the connection is there. Make sure the remote volume is mounted and let the backup run. This is the only option that can be run unattended and still keep the backup volume physically separate. Having it on the server means I don’t need to even use my own computer to get at it; better still would be to have it in some web-readable format so that I could read it from any computer with a web browser. Thanks to Google, a lot of people are moving in this direction anyhow. I’m not entirely comfortable with that, and I get benefits from programs that run right on my computer that I’d be unwilling to give up, but perhaps if I had a more mobile lifestyle, I’d make a different tradeoff. And I do essentially do this already with my photos, by uploading them to Flickr.
Optical storage
Most newer laptops can burn to CDs at least, and in many cases to DVD. A single-side, single-layer DVD can store 4.7 GB, so I’m in the clear there. The drawback here is convenience: you need to go to more trouble to insert the disc, set up the burn session, burn the disc, label it, put it away somewhere, hope that it doesn’t get scratched before you need it, etc.
Flash drive
While this is technologically equivalent to the iPod Nano (and comes in the same storage sizes), I see a few key differences: there’s no particular temptation to use the flash drive for music, and you can hook it to your keyring. For this reason, I like this solution best for the most critical and current data: if the drive is on your keyring, you’re less likely to leave it connected to the computer. Well, I’m less likely, anyhow. This does require me to launch the backup manually, though.

I can imagine a multi-layered approach where I use a thumb drive as my primary backup for working files, bring a DVD that I burned in advance with some critical applications, occasionally burn a CD or DVD with photos (possibly snail-mailing it home), and occasionally upload my very highest-priority stuff to the server when I can take advantage of a fast connection.

Big Bend

Gwen and I went camping in Big Bend from the 24th to the 29th. First off, some photos from the trip.

I had never been to Big Bend before. Gwen had been four or five times, and knew the place pretty well.

She had made reservations well in advance, which turned out to be a good thing.

Friday

Departure day. Gwen had checked the weather report the day before, and found that the overnight low this night was supposed to get down to a brisk 13°F. Brr.

We had been planning on bringing our road bikes, and changed plans. We were going to need more stuff just to stay warm, leaving inadequate room in the car for our bikes and related appurtenances. So we ditched the bikes, and packed a massive down comforter and all the warm clothes we could lay our hands on. I’ve actually gotten rid of almost all my cold-weather gear (I can’t remember the last time I had to spend a significant amount of time outside in 13°F weather), so I wasn’t really well-equipped for this trip.

Our preparations were somewhat desultory, and we didn’t get underway until 11:00 AM or so. We drove and drove and drove and drove some more. We stopped for dinner in Fort Stockton, the last good-sized town before Big Bend, at a Mexican joint called Bienvenido’s (adequate food, poor service). Gwen was in a bit of shock when a car pulled up next to us in the parking lot, covered in crusted-on ice. That and the blowing snow made us wonder if we were in for more than we thought. We filled up the tank in Marathon–Gwen recalled that gas at the filling stations in the park was outrageously expensive–but the Marathon Chevron actually had the most expensive gas I’ve ever bought (as it turns out, the stations in the park were actually quite a bit cheaper).

Driving into the park just after dusk, there was a little bit of light to see the scenery by. I couldn’t see much, but what I could see was very dramatic, and reminded me of the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia.

After almost precisely 500 miles, we arrived at our campsite in the Chisos Basin at 8:00 PM–it was long dark and already quite cold. The basin is desert at 4800 feet, and the thin, dry air just doesn’t hold any heat. We leapt out of the car, pulled on as much clothing as possible, pitched the tent, rolled out our bedding, and jumped in without shedding a layer.

It was a difficult night. Though both Gwen and I have spent years living in cold climates, we’ve not only dis-acclimated to the cold, we’ve forgotten other side effects that cold can have. On vinyl, for example. We were sleeping on a PVC air mattress, which is normally very comfortable, but apparently vinyl loses pliability below a certain temperature, and we crossed that threshold. As we discovered the next day, there were a bunch of pinholes at creases in the air mattress, meaning our butts were on the ground within an hour or so. I consoled myself by thinking about the Shackleton expedition.

Saturday

Got up late, stiff, and somewhat cross because of a bad night’s sleep. Observed ice crystals formed all over the interior of the tent. On getting out of the tent, we saw a family of deer foraging right by our campsite. I got my camera out of the car. Despite the fact that I had just charged the batteries the day before, it was completely dead. Same result when switching out the batteries. “Oh yeah, batteries don’t like the cold” I remembered.

This was my first opportunity to really take in the view. The thin, clear, and unpolluted air seems to improve one’s vision: everything seemed abnormally sharp. Mountains were all around us, in clear detail. Incredible.

Even in daylight, we felt it’s too cold to really enjoy hiking. It also happened to be Christmas day. We decided to drive into Terlingua. The drive there was interesting enough in itself. For one thing, it added to my understanding of just how huge the park is (about half the size of Delaware)–we were on the road there for at least 25 miles, and drove through a section of the park with a completely different geography and ecology.

Once in Terlingua, we spent some time exploring the cemetery there. A lot of the graves were very old, and little more than cairns with crude wooden crosses in place of headstones (or in many cases, collapsed or missing). Some were more elaborate rough constructions of rock and adobe in the shapes of churches, with nooks for offerings in the transepts. Some of the oldest graves had newly made granite headstones, and all the graves seemed to be tended in some way, with plastic flowers or other offerings left on them. Some of the newer graves were for Anglos, but clearly in a Mexican folk style.

There wasn’t much else to do in Terlingua that day–Ms Tracy’s was in fact open for business, but we didn’t stop in. We did stop in the world-famous and eponymous store in the adjacent Study Butte for coffee.

Driving back, we stopped in the Santa Elena Canyon, but didn’t hike it all the way because we would have had to cross water, and we were loathe to risk getting our feet wet.

After getting back, we went over to the camp host’s trailer to see if he had any supplies with which we could patch up our air mattress. His wife was there, and gave me a roll of duct tape and some glue that supposedly can join anything. We smeared glue over anything that looked like it might turn into a leak, and then laid a big strip of duct tape over that. And hoped.

That night, we made some salmon on the grill at our campsite. It’s an unfortunate but understandable rule that wood fires are not allowed in Big Bend. It would have been nice to have a big fire pit that we could sit by and toast our toes, but we had to make do with a little box grill on a post and charcoal.

The night was warmer than the night before, but still damn cold. We tried playing Scrabble while our salmon cooked, but it was too cold to sit still and concentrate. But I didn’t sleep in my coat that night, a major improvement.

Our air mattress repairs were partially successful, which was better than I expected. We turned the leaks into slow leaks, so the mattress could hold air for 4-6 hours. We still had to get up in the middle of the night to reinflate it, but that was manageable.

Sunday

Considerably warmer in the morning, but still brisk. We were in a basin surrounded by mountains, and as as it happened there was one peak that obscured the sun from our campsite until 9:30. Since it wasn’t really warm until it was in direct sunlight, it was hard to get moving in the morning.

I don’t have a lot of camping experience, but based on my limited experience, the facilities at Big Bend are more primitive than at other state or national parks. No showers and no hot water at our campground. All cooking clean-up must be done at one sink (which often had a line), which was a numbing experience with the lack of hot water. I did a little checking, and discovered that the Rio Grande Village campsite supposedly had showers. I could already see that I’d like to return to the park with my bike someday, but I’d like to have easy access to showers when I do.

We headed out and drove to the Lost Mine Trail (has the mine ever been found?). This was quite popular, with wonderful views all along. We had packed a lunch, which we ate out at the very end of the trail, on a rocky, windy peak where nobody else ventured.

I discovered that once it warmed up, my camera worked fine.

Afterwards we went to the hot springs. We had packed swimsuits for the occasion. The drive in is on a rough road that’s precarious in spots–I would have been worried attempting it in a big vehicle (as almost everybody there was doing). The springs themselves are in the ruins of an old and very small spa. There are the remnants of a tiny hotel and store nearby; what’s left of the spa is just high enough to segregate the hot spring’s water from the Rio Grande. At one point, Gwen dipped her foot in the river to see how much colder it was than the springs. Quite a bit colder, but her skin was burned by the pollution in the river. On the other bank was a Mexican guy selling tchochkes. Now, to get these trinkets, you’d have to risk the $5000 fine from the feds and risk contact with the mutagenic effluent in the river. Not worth it. There were a few other people taking the waters with us, and we talked about how arbitrary the border seemed. Everybody present, including a couple of bubba-types, agreed it was ridiculous that people couldn’t cross. Of course the other topic of conversation was the cold nights, and ways to stay warm. We were astonished that two of the guys taking in the springs with us were actually using a propane heater in their tent.

The waters were warm, relaxing, and moderately cleansing. After a good long soak, we made our way back to the car and left. Since we were nearby, I suggested we stop by Rio Grande Village to scope it out as a future campsite, and check out the showers. Rio Grande Village actually had the same amenities as Chisos Basin, but was larger and seemed more orderly. We got a little turned around trying to leave, and spotted a bobcat on the prowl, looking for snacks. We followed along slowly in the car. At one point we pulled even with some old folks having a picnic by their RV; they were watching the bobcat too. Gwe called out “I hope your poodles are all inside” and one of them responded “Oh, bobcats come through here every day.” They seemed unconcerned. Which seems naive, but it was still interesting to see a bobcat up close.

We discovered the purported showers were just outside this campsite, at a small store. Which had air mattresses for sale. We thought hard about replacing our dud, but decided to put up with it until we had more options at our disposal.

Monday

This was the day that Gwen had scheduled for us to hike the South Rim trail. This is a long hike, and she was concerned that we might not make it home by sundown. We packed plenty of food, two camelbaks full of water, and headlights. We hit the trail at 9:00 AM. Although we did spy a couple on the trail far below us, we didn’t actually run into anyone until we were about 4 miles into the hike, at which point we ran into three parties, including a couple of guys who looked as if they had been given $1000 gift certificates to REI. They told us they had spent two nights on that trail already, and were carrying an amazing panoply of the newest, whizziest, ripstop breathable waterproof GPS-enhanced gear. I was tempted to snark “if you guys weren’t carrying so much gear, you’d be able to hike the trail a lot faster” but I restrained myself. They were having fun.

We powered along the trail, every view more amazing than the last. At some points we were probably looking 100 miles into Mexico. Midway along, we came to a fork where we could add a 1.5-mile detour around the East Rim onto the route; we did. Eventually, we started descending, which was harder on our poor joints than climbing. But we saw a hummingbird and some sort of bluebird along this leg. After 6.5 hours and 14.5 miles, we were back. We hung out briefly by the store near our campsite. We stretched in the sun, and Gwen discovered that her long hiatus from Coca-Cola was, well, over. We watched the people who were staying at the park’s hotel. A foursome so car-dependent (excuse me, SUV-dependent) that they actually drove from the store to the hotel, a distance of maybe 100 feet. An unlikely couple of an attractive 30something woman and a goomba type in his fifties with an all-denim outfit, flashy jewelry, shiny boots, and a rug that was practically wall-to-wall carpeting.

We went down to our campsite, cleaned up a little, and went back up to the hotel restaurant for dinner (tired enough after our hike that we actually drove the half-mile or so). Dinner was a disappointment. I guess one shouldn’t expect too much from federal food service, but it was overpriced and undergood. One’s better off with a camp stove and well-stocked ice chest. At the hotel front desk, we asked if the hotel rooms had kitchenettes; they do not, although the cottages do have micro-fridges and microwave ovens. Although cooking is prohibited in the rooms, if I were going to stay in a hotel room there for any length of time, I’d sneak in a self-contained gas ring, because there are no other dining options within 30 miles.

A British (?) family with two young boys drove up and staked out the campsite next to ours. The boys proceeded to run around like yahoos. I wished I had their energy–not just so that I’d have it, but so that they wouldn’t.

We retired to the tent and played Scrabble by headlight.

Tuesday

Our last day. We managed to sleep in, despite our troublesome flattress, and awoke with too many aches. After a leisurely cup of cofffee and general hanging around, we made our way down to the Window trail. The rocks were a bit tricky to navigate, and we were moving slow because of the prior day’s exertions, but the payoff at the end was worth it. This was a very popular trail (being right next to a popular campground), and the window view is at a point where the trail necks down to almost nothing, so we didn’t really spend much time hanging out there.

We would be leaving the next day, so we started getting our stuff in order to pack for the trip.

I improvised a sort of pasta for dinner with stuff I had remembered to bring and leftovers to make up for stuff I had forgotten. We played Boggle.

Wednesday

Time to go home. We were up at a reasonable hour, packed our stuff, and hit the road. On the way out, we discarded our defunct mattress with great glee. Filled the tank (we had driven over 250 miles in the park). Stopped in Marathon to get a snack and explore the Gage Hotel. Set the cruise control at 84 and got moving.

This from Gwen: Big Bend trips are truly getting-away trips for me. It’s a long and very empty drive out…plenty of time for contemplation. And then once you’re out there, there’s so much there out there. It seems endless, and full of huge edges with more endless over the edge. I always wonder how anyone ever had the gumption to cross that vast expanse of dry country not knowing when it would change into something more hospitable. I always come back feeling cleansed by the extremes — temperature, distance, landscape — all of it brings me back to a fresh place in myself.

Lubbock

Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws in Lubbock this year. Gwen likes the town about as much as anyone with a lick of sense should, but is a dutiful daughter and didn’t feel she could shirk her filial obligations. I was along for the ride, I guess you might say.

I’d been to Lubbock with Gwen once before. We didn’t see much of the town at the time, and what little we did see reminded me a lot of Westheimer in Houston. One damn strip mall after another. This time, I wanted to see more.

We got a late start—about 6:00 PM the day before Thanksgiving—and pulled into Lubbock around 12:20 AM, so all our driving was in the dark.

The dinner itself was fine. Gwen had picked up an organic turkey from Central Markup and brined it two days in advance–we transported it in a brining pot in our ice-chest to Lubbock. It turned out pretty well, and the brining did add to the flavor, but it wasn’t the super-juicy, flavorful sensation one might hope. Not bad, but perhaps not worth the trouble. All the other traditional T-day foodstuffs in abundance–white and sweet potatoes, green beans, apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies, cranberry sauce, stuffing, etc. After dinner I dismantled the carcass, extracted the wishbone, and gave it to Gwen’s sister so she could break it with her 5yo daughter.

We had packed our road bikes, and the day after Thanksgiving decided to go for a ride in the countryside. Gwen called a local bike shop for tips on a route, and we headed south on Slide Road to FM1585 and headed west into the stiffest, most unremitting wind I’ve faced since…I don’t know when. I was struggling to get my speed even as high as 12 mph, and Gwen was struggling to stay in my wind-shadow. The barren, flat landscape does nothing to slow the wind’s progress, and provides no visual distraction for the weary cyclist. In short, an unredeemably unpleasant cycling experience. After about six miles of slogging through this, we came to an intersection and I decided that enough was enough. We turned around and flew back. My cyclometer’s battery had crapped out, but I estimate we were doing 20 without pedaling, and I was topping 30 when I put a little muscle into it. That was fun, though brief.

We made our way into what we though was the center of town, around the Texas Tech campus. 19th Street seems to have the only fancy-looking houses in the whole town–the rest of the city is brick ranch houses, circa 1968. It’s as if the town takes all its architectural cues from the landscape–flat and desolate–and has a sort of altitudinal humility that prevents buildings from sticking up too much. Even the roofs have shallow pitches. The campus at Tech is not much of an improvement, and the buildings are inexplicably spread apart, making me wonder if the students take golf carts between classes.

We noodled around the small neighborhood just east of Tech, which seemed to be historic, judging from the cobbled streets. Eventually we found a bike shop, run by a friendly guy who commiserated with us about the wind–he told us the wind that day was as bad as he’d seen in a long time. He told us a better route back to Gwen’s parents’ place, and we followed that, taking Boston Av south to the loop. On the way, we passed what appeared to be Lubbock’s funky neighborhood–an intersection with a small grocery store, a coffee shop, and an organic food store. We made a mental note and rode on.

That night, on a suggestion from Gwen’s sister’s husband, four of us went to Hub City Brewery, Lubbock’s sole brewpub, on Buddy Holly Street (a two-block stretch that appears to be Lubbock’s entire nightlife neighborhood). Three of us had the oatmeal stout, which was OK. Gwen’s sister had a chocolate martini, which was not: it’s as if the bartender knew of chocolate martinis by reputation, but had never tried one or seen a recipe for one, so he had to fake it. Chocolate syrup and gin in a martini glass.

Saturday, Gwen and I headed back to that coffee shop we had seen during our ride, and discovered that it had the shabby atmosphere of a neighborhood coffee joint, the coffee itself was little better than the swill served at most diners. Again, it’s almost as if the coffee-shop operators knew of coffee shops by reputation, not by direct experience.

I had to do some work, but later that day, Gwen, her sister, mother, and I went to an antique mall where Gwen and I scored this weird masonic chart, apparently a sort of diploma.

Sunday morning, we got on the road pretty early. We stopped at a Krispy Kreme (which, sadly, had much better coffee than the funky neighborhood joint) to fortify ourselves for the road and were underway by 9:30 AM. As before, I marveled at the emptiness of the region. Lubbock is a very Christian town, which kind of makes sense: if you live there, you probably want to believe you’re bound for something better. Then again, it would also be the perfect place to situate a Zen monastery, because there is nothing to distract you from contemplating the void within.

Random highlights and lowlights of the trip:

  • Passing the “New Hope Cemetery”
  • Passing hundreds of dead raccoons by the side of the road. A lot of dead deer as well.
  • Observing odd place names like Fluvanna and Flat White Road. One of the towns near Lubbock is Levelland.
  • On Thanksgiving night, observing a line of 12 cars in the drive-thru lane at Whataburger.
  • Speculating what kind of beers might be at the brewpub: Our guesses: Desolation Ale, Prairie Pilsner, Level Lager. Naturally, all the beer would have to be flat.

Japan Trip 2004

I’m posting my writeup of the Tokyo trip as a series of entries back-dated to the days they refer to. I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, but there’s so much here that Movable Type chokes if I try to post the whole thing as one monolithic entry. For best results, start at May 20 and work your way forward. I’ll eventually be posting some observations from the trip as well, as part of the regular flow.

I’m using Japanese text for place names and wherever else I feel like it: hover over the text to get the English. This trick may not work in Internet Explorer. Sorry (actually, I’m more sorry if you’re using IE than that this doesn’t work in it).

Photos are online: Log in as adamguest/adamguest if need be.

Reader’s Digest version: We had a great time. We walked an incredible amount–Gwen estimates about 10 miles a day–and our legs protested at the end of every day. Because of the somewhat constraining conditions where we were staying, I felt ready to be getting home when we left, but if we’d had a little more slack, I would have been happy to stay for a solid month. I want to visit again, soon.

Coming home

Hung out. Had pastries. Went to airport. Found a Lawson Station from which we procured more nigiri. Found our gate, and on a lark, I decided to see whether there was a free wifi node. There was, though I suspect this was through oversight, not intention. Got on plane. Baby cries for 6 hours, but eventually settles down. Arrive in San Jose. Claim checked bags and passed through an alarmingly casual customs interview:

Inspector: What’s in the box?

Me: Um, two pair of shoes and some paper products. [forgetting, in my jet-lagged fog, to mention some kitchenware, a really big sharp knife, and a candy bar]

Inspector: [waves us on]

We then had to immediately pass through another security inspection. Now, at no point had we left a secured area. The implication here is that they don’t trust Japan’s security inspection–in which case, they really should have just turned back the plane.

Recheck our box of goodies, find our gate (for-fee wifi there), and wait. Get on the nerd-bird back to Austin. Catch cab home, and try to sleep.

Returning to Austin from Japan is always weird. We left Tokyo at 5:15 PM Saturday local time, and landed in Austin at 5:30 PM Saturday local time. The human body doesn’t know what to do with this.

The dead

Our last full day in Tokyo.

We had acquired enough trinkets and tchotchkes to bring back to friends to fill a decent-sized box. I was planning on mailing this, and today would be our last chance to, but Gwen suggested we be parsimonious for a change and bring it home as checked luggage. Despite my deep aversion to baggage carousels, I assented.

Graveyards. Gwen has a thing for them, seeing signs of how people live in the way they bury their dead. We made our way to a shrine in Brian’s neighborhood, 代々木八幡宮, walked around the grounds (which, interestingly, included a reconstruction of a stone-age thatched hut that apparently stood in the area in 4000 BC or something), took in the cemetary there.

I suggested we go to the 都庁, the city hall. Saying “city hall” makes it sound kind of quaint, and not at all like a tourism destination. Wrong. Tokyo’s population is in the same ballpark as Australia’s, and the Tocho is two 48-story towers plus a surrounding complex, done in an intimidating style by 丹下健三 that Joseph Stalin would have approved of. It’s very much a product of the bubble economy, trumpeting Tokyo as a world financial capital, and although Japan’s economy has been in the shitter ever since it was built, it seems to have been the harbinger of many more audacious mega-construction projects that have followed, including Minato Mirai, Roppongi Hills, the underground expressway, and so on. Apparently 10 more projects on the order of Roppongi Hills are in the works for the next 20 years.

Anyhow. The cool information displays that were once installed on the second level were gone and replaced by shops. We hit the observation deck. Gwen observed “no wonder we’ve been doing so much walking!” The city goes on forever in every direction.

Back in the funereal mode, we made our way to the granddaddy of cemetaries, 青山墓地. Extensive enough to have numbered lanes and picturesque enough that for one day a year, it’s Tokyo’s favorite picnic spot (with people having pizzas delivered graveside), there also seem to be a lot of interesting people buried there, judging by the headstones. We noticed a couple of unkempt graves (upkeep is the responsibility of family members) that had signs posted by the management saying, basically “use it or lose it.”

We noticed some really enormous monuments, standing 20 feet tall or so. One in particular caught Gwen’s eye, and there were three guys in front of it discussing something, two in suits and one in some kind of maintenance uniform. This monument was especially huge, and had an explanatory plaque telling a few facts about the interred: apparently he had been a major military muckety-muck in the early days of modern Japan, having been an admiral in the Russo-Japanese war. There were several graves that were perfect stone hemispheres, which reminded me of stupas somehow.

Aoyama Bochi is near to Julia’s office, so we stopped by there to visit for a bit. Stopped at the nearby 時代屋 restaurant, which was having a 釜めし定食 for lunch. It looked pretty good, so we went in. Quirky place. In the basement, with a waist-high door you need to crouch to pass through. The interior is filled with antiques (hence the name of the place), many of which have little explanatory cards hanging from them. After lunch we did some more wandering around Roppongi, which is never seen in its best light by day. Eventually we made it back to the apartment, and had dinner at another quirky place, アホアホ, which specializes in dishes made with chili pepper and garlic: each item had a garlickiness and spiciness score. Although we enjoyed the garlic bulb deep-fried whole, we found the spiciness ratings to all be inflated. The owners apparently have a Jackson 5 fetish: they had an apparently original concert poster from a Jackson 5 gig in 1971 and Jackson 5 figurines over the bar. The music was strictly Motown, and there was a breakdancing video running on the TV.

You can never go back

I had a morning meeting with a client I had done some work for recently. Gwen accompanied me into Shinjuku, where the office is, and went off on her merry way. My meeting went OK, I suppose, but I felt awkward. Three Japanese women speaking in a level of 敬語 that I found both embarrassing (I’m nobody special, and not deserving of that level of speech) and impossible to match. My own Japanese tends inevitably towards the casual, and it’s always a last-minute catch for me to tack on a not-too-casual verb ending in these situations. On top of that, I was particularly tongue-tied, refusing to drop into English but having a hard time even living up to my usually modest ability to express myself in Japanese.

After the meeting, which lasted about an hour, I reconnected with Gwen at Alta. She had discovered 世界堂, an excellent art-supply shop, and Okadaya, a hobby-supply store with a narrower but deeper selection than Tokyu Hands, focusing particularly on textiles.

Bryan had suggested we go to lunch at a place he likes, 文琳, which has a cheap-ish lunch special he descibes as “kaiseki Chinese.” Indeed, it was quite good, with little bijoux tidbits of this and that, just enough to enjoy the taste of each thing.

After that, I told Gwen that I wanted to walk along Yamate-dori back to my old neighborhood, 東中野. It was going to be a long, ugly walk, and kudos to her for putting up with it. When I was living in Tokyo in 88-90, the city was in the beginning stages of a project to widen Yamate-dori and build an underground expressway beneath it. Because Japan apparently has weak eminent-domain laws, the city began buying up properties all along the street as they became available, tearing them down, and barricading the spaces where they had been–I’d seen evidence of this on previous trips. Well, it seems that they’ve acquired all the extra margin they need, because Yamate-dori has been widened, and the center is completely occupied by construction equipment doing the prep work to install the underground expressway. I wanted to see for myself how much things had changed, and how much was under construction. So we walked. And walked. And walked, and then walked some more. With only brief interruptions, that center construction strip covered Yamate-dori as far as the eye could see. Cranes rising into the air every hundred feet or so. Mind-boggling.

We came across a new train station that would have taken us directly to my old train station; Gwen was getting pretty tired of all this walking, but said she could hold out if we’d be there in another 15 minutes. Which, I estimated, we would. So we walked on. And pretty soon, sure enough, we found ourselves at 中野坂上駅, not the station I had planned on going to, but one I had used every weekday for about a year. It’s at a major intersection, of 山手通り and 青梅街道. I didn’t recognize anything. Nothing at all was familiar. The shock was physical. The area had been spruced up, with new buildings, a terraced grassy 待ち合わせ spot. We continued along a bit, working our way into the back streets of the neighborhood. Some buildings I recognized, some were clearly new. Gwen asked me if I wanted to place a bet on whether my old building still stood. I didn’t, but it did (though its address had changed, because the house next door, occupied by a crazy geriatric couple, had been torn down and replaced by two houses).

We wandered around the old ‘hood a little more, taking in the 商店街. We came across what had once been an improvised sort of restaurant operated out of a yurt with a few stools outdoors. The restaurant was still there, but it now occupied the lower two floors of a 9-story building. Pao. We decided to eat there. It wasn’t in a yurt, and in fact the interior was quite nice, but it retained some of its old yurty funkiness. Most of the seating was low, carpeted platforms, with pillows and knee-high tables. We took one. Gwen decided that she wanted our next dining room to be just like it. The menu was Afghan oriented, but about half the dishes we wound up getting seemed more Italian. It was all good, though. Gwen had a cocktail of Cassis and Oolong tea, which was actually pretty good, and we split a mango tart for dessert, which was excellent. When we got up to pay, I mentioned to the woman at the register (who had probably been there all along) that I lived in the neighborhood 15 years ago, and remember when the place was a yurt. She said with a smile ‘things have changed.’

Nikko

日光. This was our other getaway destination, and I decided we should make a day-trip of it. Headed out early, and took to the 特急 from Asakusa. Had a little time before boarding, so we stopped in a nearby coffee shop, where the waitress was visibly shocked that I could speak and read Japanese–that was kind of fun. The area gets so many tourists that the ratio of Japanese-speaking white people to all white people must be much lower than in other parts of town. Anyhow, the trip out was uneventful, and once there, we walked up the main drag to the shrine area. Nikko’s three shrines and temples are probably what the town is best known for (along with its national park, and its monkeys), and that’s what we were there for. It’s hard to do justice, in words or pictures, to these places. Unlike most of Japan’s religious buildings, these are covered in ornament. As a f’rinstance: part of 東照宮 is surrounded by a wall in 87 sections. Each section contains three panels. Each panel contains an elaborately carved and colorfully painted scene showing birds: the top, birds in the air, the middle, birds on the ground, and the bottom, bids in the water. Each panel different. It’s like that everywhere you look: no opportunity to decorate, illustrate, illuminate, exalt, inspire, or awe is overlooked. As one of our guidebooks put it, Nikko is “17th-century Disneyland.”

After about 5 hours of this, my eyeballs hurt. We started heading back, stopping for a bite on the way down to the station.

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