Memories from traveling alone

Hi everyone,


Taken at Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen garden.

I have a feeling this one might be a tough one to write. Who knew that five days could be so packed? My one-person trip was wonderful. That being said, there’s no way I could talk about all of it. So I’ll talk about some of it, in a disjointed fashion. Some choice moments, the way I remember them, as I remember them.


The gate outside of Kanazawa station. We’re not in Kyoto anymore.

Kanazawa is a mid-sized city about 2 hours away from Kyoto by train. It was raining when I arrived and very chilly, but luckily my hotel was close by and the first day was by far the coldest and wettest.

After checking into the hotel and calling a few people, I realized that it was time for dinner. After getting lost twice and becoming quite cold, I finally found the restaurant that was recommended to me.


This is what it looked like from the outside. Like a lot of great Japanese restaurants, looks were a little deceiving. But not the wonderful sounds and smells coming from it.

One thing that I found was different about Kanazawa was that people either immediately spoke English to me, or didn’t speak English at all. I suppose it’s a combination of it being a slightly more westernized city but also not having quite as many tourists as Kyoto.

When I walked in, I talked to the waitress in Japanese and she spoke English back to me. This continued for a little while before she realized that I could speak and understand Japanese. This made everyone happy. I was even happier when they gave me a warm towel for my cold hands.

The staff talked among themselves and decided that it would be too lonely for me to sit at a table for four by myself, so they sat me at the bar in front of the chef, shifting two foreigners from the bar to the table in order to fit me. There was a Japanese couple off to the side of these foreigners who looked happy to see them replaced by my quiet, lone, Japanese-speaking self.

I struck up a conversation with the chef in Japanese and sometimes English. His English was amazing; very natural and easy to listen to. I suspected that he had spent a lot of time in the States. But I preferred to try my Japanese and he seemed to appreciate my efforts. The food was amazing, and I ordered a few glasses of sake to go with my meal. That seems to always start conversations in a Japanese restaurant. Kanazawa is by the sea and has an amazing culinary history, so amazing sushi there is both startlingly delicious and relatively cheap. As soon as I tasted it, I suddenly, as if it was a long-lost memory, remembered what seafood is supposed to taste.

I ended up eating and drinking quite a lot, which made the chef/s happy and the Japanese couple still next to me vaguely amused. The woman eventually struck up a little conversation with me in Japanese.

“Where are you from?”


“Oh! Are you living here now?”

“Yeah, I’m going to school in Kyoto.”

She paused. “Which school?”


She looked surprised and smacked her date on the arm. “Hey, this guy over here says that he he’s going to Doshisha.”

The man turned towards me and pointed at himself, eyebrows raised. “Oh really? I guess that means I’m your senior classmate!”

He explained that he had also gone to Doshisha, although his hair was greying around the edges and claimed that that was ages ago. Because of this he called himself “ojichan,” [aka Japanese ‘Pops’], and that’s what I’ll call him the rest of the time here.

They invited me to sit in the chair right next to them, and after talking a bit more, the woman asked if I had any time after dinner. To do what I wasn’t really sure, but I knew I had plenty.

“Good. I was already planning on going to my favorite bar after this,” said the ojichan. “How about we all head over together?”

The chef gave me a knowing smile as I put on my coat and headed out the door together with the couple.

On the way there, we walked though what I later figured out was the famous Higashiyama tea house district. Ojichan kept telling his partner to take pictures of me in what seemed like random places. It was pretty trippy to be walking through this multi-level maze of teahouse streets at night with an already tipsy ojichan and his girlfriend. The layout and architecture is pretty much untouched since they were built 300 or so years ago.

Since he was from Kyoto and she was from Kanazawa, he eventually admitted that he didn’t know the way and ojichan and I ended up following her to the bar.

When we arrived at the bar, the bartender was waiting for us at the door. We walked in and took a seat at the bar. Ojichan immediately took a wallet that the bar sold from a jar and slid it to me. “Here, it’s a gift.” One of the bartenders looked a little nonplussed, but ojichan looked at him and said, “is that alright?” There was a pause from the bartender and he cocked his head t one side. “…Yes, of course.” It was a good atmosphere, though. It was clear ojichan and these bartenders went way back.

He had his usual whisky and then proceeded to order me many different kinds of sake to try.

We ended up talking about politics, religion, love, history, family… Not seriously or philosophically, though.

“What are you, Christian?”


“Well I’m Buddhist. Japan is one of the few places in the world when two people like us, a Buddhist and a Catholic, can drink together. Kanpai!”

I remember how often he kept slapping my shoulder. He also had people take various pictures of me with him, or of me and the bartender. I thought about posting them on here, but decided against it. If you want to see them ask me to show them to you next time we meet.

It should be noted that at ever bar or restaurant I went to on my trip, I invariably ended up talking about the upcoming election. I never brought it up myself, either.

At one point he pulled out a piece of paper and tried to explain to me the concept of “一期一会[ichigo ichie],” which is actually a very important concept in tea ceremony and because of this I was already aware of it. But I let him explain it anyway.

“Each time, only once. You know what that means? It means tonight. It means that tonight, maybe…”

He paid for all my drinks, even though he raised his eyebrows quite high at the final bill.

By the time we finally decided to leave it was around 2 AM. We all made it down the stairs and into the night air. Ojisan immediately hailed a cab, and before I knew it I was headed back to my hotel.

I remember looking through the rear window a little while after the taxi started up, realizing that I never got to thank him. In fact, I never even knew his name. He’ll always be ojisan to me. I wonder how he’s doing.


I think this one was my favorite: 母 (mother)

The next day I was recovering from my night. I went to a shrine to get a stamp for my goshuincho, and ended up getting a map and a recommended one-day tourist route from a priest there.

By the time I got to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, I was already tired and a bit hungry. I got a ticket to the centennial exhibition of Inoue Yuichi’s calligraphy.

I hadn’t heard of him before, but I fell in love with his work.

One thing I remember the most was how hungry I was when looking at his works. I suppose I was hungry before, but as I walked through room after room of his calligraphy, I got hungrier and hungrier. And somehow that felt right.

I almost felt dizzy, and I wasn’t sure if it was the art or my body. Probably some combination of both. One of the reasons I love calligraphy so much is how much it shows off the human who made it and the tools that they used.

You can see the brush strokes–every little bristle, if the brush is big enough and dry enough. And you can feel the hand of the calligrapher holding the brush. You can almost hear the brush move on the page.

It ends up being almost three dimensional at times, like smoke or the streaks a drop of dye makes when it’s in water.

There was something reckless and bold about these pieces, but also mature and human.

More than anything, they felt hungry, and I loved it.


At the Wajima morning market.

My hotel in Wajima (a little ways up from Kanazawa, on the Noto Peninsula) was quite a story in itself. That’ll have to wait for another time, though. I’ll say at least that it was a traditional family-run Japanese inn, and all the walls and doors were covered with patches of Japanese paper. It kind of felt like you were walking through a giant blanket-fort made out of slivery quilts. But another time.

My hotel was located about a 10 minute walk away from Wajima’s famous morning market. If you think of Wajima in Japan, you think of the morning market. If not the morning market, the lacquerware.

When my bus pulled into Wajima, I realized that I was in a part of Japan that had no safety net for foreigners like me. It felt like a cross between a town you find on the highway in the west, and an old beach town. Small-town Japan. Trucks rolling through town and not too much public transportation.

On my first morning in Wajima, I went to the morning market. At the market I saw fish, happy grandmas, and absolutely amazing lacquerware. I guess I hadn’t really understood lacquerware before Wajima. It was always something that seemed more like a coating or piece of furniture than an actual labor-intensive process. It actually takes as many as 124 steps to make a normal piece of Wajima lacquerware, and the help of many specialists.

And there they were in the morning market, lacquerware stores open next to grandmas selling seaweed and charms. But just because it was in a morning market and in Wajima didn’t mean it was cheap. If it’s made right and the real thing (you can usually tell because the artist signed the bottom), a small bowl or cup is around $80. It’s hard to describe just how breathtaking it was to see these works of art in so many stores–each piece the real deal being sold by authorized dealers all over town.

I didn’t end up getting any. I decided that if I was going to get something it was going to be the real thing. Instead I just walked back and forth through the market and enjoyed all the grandmas calling me oniichan and cute. It felt great to be spoken or even called to in Japanese with no question as to whether I could understand them.

A video of me making Wajima lacquerware chopsticks with the help of one of the store owners. To make the very elaborate gold patterns in Wajima lacquerware, you have to etch your patterns in first and then lacquer the surface a bit. Then you sprinkle in gold dust and laquer it again. As you wipe the excess away, it looks like the patterns are appearing out of nowhere. It was really difficult to etch patterns onto such a small surface. Surprisingly difficult. So I decided to just have fun and make my own patterns that seemed to work for me.

A family that was across from me that seemed to have given up halfway though and decided to gripe about their trip came over and huddled around me as my design was revealed. Their reactions are great (jouzu=talented).


Walking around Wajima after dark.

My last day in Wajima I took a bit of a hike around town before coming down at night to find a place for dinner. As I looked at the river, I realized that my mind thought I was seeing lacquerware. I had seen so much lacquerware over those days that I actually thought the dark night-time river was actually the surface of a lacquerware table or bowl. So of course I had to take a picture. Most pictures usually don’t turn out quite the way you want them to, but I feel like this one is just how I remembered the river looking.

The restaurant was pretty nice as well. The chef made amazing tempura and I ended up talking with him at the bar a bit. He looked pretty tired and kept sitting down while customers ate. He was an older man who looked like he’d stayed in Wajima for a long time. I started to talk to him about foreign customers. He said that not too many come by, but when they do they always bond over sports. He told me that his upstairs room is currently full of sports jerseys, plastering every wall. “When they go back home they always send me things and more often than not it’s a jersey or a baseball cap.”


My loot I got from the tempura chef, except for the stamps. The stuff in the bag to the left was a gift from a sake brewery I visited earlier.

I didn’t have a lot to give him, but I still had one or two potato pins I brought with me from Idaho. They’re these little pins that are literally potato shaped and have “IDAHO” written on them. I’ve had to correct some people because they thought they were turds.

He was so happy that he immediately disappeared and returned with what he told me were two limited-edition stamps. “You can’t even get these in Kyoto! Just released this year!”

But even then, on my way out he gave me a bag full of cooking chopsticks and two pairs of Wajima chopsticks.

“For your Mama and your Papa,” he said to me in English. “Please, come back. Bring something if you can. We’ll talk again.”

Maybe I will.


The view off the dock in Wajima, towards Korea and China.

In contrast to Kyoto, Kanazawa and Wajima might be what people call the “real Japan.” That is, the Japan that isn’t meant too much for tourists. Then again, Kyoto, in comparison with these small towns and even Tokyo’s Westernized grandeur, is also often called the “real Japan.”

I’m not sure you’ll ever really find a “real Japan.” But in my experience, if you look, you’ll find a Japan. I think there’s a bit of guilt and self-imposed punishment that happens when you’re traveling if you’re not careful. Especially if you’re alone or feel alone for some reason. You have to find the real thing, or else your trip is a waste. You have to outshine these other travelers.

I don’t know where/what/when the real Japan is, but I think that finding anything worthwhile requires a bit of self-forgiveness. Forgiveness to just do what you do, see what you see, and find what you find. Forgiveness to find your own place in your trip. Because that might be the hardest thing in the end: to find a place for yourself amidst the grand design of your trip.

Maybe, if there is such a thing, the real Japan (or anywhere for that matter) is where you find a place for yourself. Where you find a place you can sink into. It doesn’t even have to be a physical place; maybe it’s just a feeling. That’s at least how I felt during this trip. Forget about finding the “real” anything. If can’t forgive yourself, it seems difficult to let that go.  I had the best times just being where I was and doing what was there.

Till next time,


Thawing in early spring

Hello again,


Taken at the Imperial Palace, right by my university.

The weather has been just wonderful recently. The last week or so especially. I’ve heard on the news that there’s a warm wind coming up from the south. Not sure how much longer it’ll last, but it’s nice to get out of bed and not immediately start shivering. I also realized that I have no idea how warm it is here in Fahrenheit, only in Celsius (19°). I suppose that made it about 67°F today.

I decided to take a little walk today before my afternoon class. I hadn’t been over to the Imperial Palace in a while, even though it’s just a crosswalk away from my university. It may be hard to tell from the picture, but the weather was wonderful. A bit warm with a light breeze. Just a hint of rain. I even ended up taking off my two jackets. I’ve been wearing two jackets and a sweater (along with some long underwear) every day for about 3 months now, so it felt great to walk around in my jeans and button-down.

I think what I’ve missed most are the smells. And right after that the sounds. I guess it might be harder to smell things in winter, or smells don’t carry as far, or they’re just harder to notice… I can smell the city again. I didn’t realize how much I missed the smell of cars and leaves and food. It was a whole other dimension of the city that I was missing. And of course the flowers are blooming as well, but I was already expecting to be moved by them.

What I wasn’t expecting at all was all the sounds. The birds, the cars, the wind, people on the streets, and even trains. Was I just not paying attention during the winter? Looking back, it actually seemed louder, like there was white noise everywhere that blocked out these things.

I was talking with a friend the other day about how you don’t often really know how cold you are until you get warm again. Whenever I got in the shower during the winter here, it felt like my feet were melting. The hot water hitting them actually felt freezing cold until my feet thawed enough to feel warm.

Winter is hard, wherever you are. Sometimes I even forgot that it doesn’t stay like this forever. A letter to my friends reading this: let’s really enjoy this upcoming spring. It seems like its been a hard winter for a lot of people again. It might take a little while to thaw, but it’s worth it.

Seasonal change, and I guess change in general, brings a bit of clarity to things. In a few weeks or months, I may be used to spring instead of winter. And then I’ll be aware of a whole new host of things as spring turns into summer.

But it seems to always start with smells, and then sounds, for me.

It was a strange place to meet another American. In a Zen temple in Arashiyama.

I had been to Tenryuji a few times before, but this was the first time I’d had the chance to actually go into it, I usually walk around the gardens or the famous bamboo path behind it. And it wasn’t just inside the main complex; thanks to my religion professor’s connections, our class was actually able to go inside the old meditation hall (the new hall is elsewhere because the tourists were becoming a bit loud) and meditate.

The monk who was showing us around was from the US, but he’d been in Japan since 1969. He was a funny, sweet guy–and a little awkward, too. What really amazed me was his face. It looked like a monk’s face. You know, the weathered face you see so often in movies and books. I guess it comes from the practice and not the nationality.

The space of the temple was suddenly different, as well. For once, I was the one who was being affected by the rooms, and not the other way around. It seems like whenever I go to temples or shrines, I’m only seeing things there. It’s kind of like I’m bouncing off of everything and not getting many responses. This time was different.

I started to realize that the space was affecting me now, instead. It was bringing me in and quieting me down. In some strange way if almost felt as if it had finally, slowly turned around to face me. And it was looking me up and down with a smirk.

Meditation went alright for me. I think the hardest thing to do in meditation is to forgive yourself. Because you’re going to mess up. And your leg is going to cramp. And you’re going to think about train tickets. But if you can give yourself a little slack, that seems to be the first good thing to come out of meditation.

After the meditation session (where most people were whacked by a stick but I missed out on it), we asked the monk why he became a monk in the first place. “Ahh. Well that’s simple. Misery and suffering,” he said with a smile.

“I just wasn’t happy with life anymore, and the things that made other people happy didn’t make me happy at all. This just seemed right for me, and for me, it has been.”

It may seem strange for someone who was suffering before to come to a place that actually seems to cause more suffering. That stick that some of my classmates were hit with was just the most mundane of physical challenges that Zen monks have to endure. They also often clean all day, while waking up around 3:00am for chanting. Not only that, but the mental strain of having to memorize all the sutras and many steps of doing things (from going to the bathroom to going asleep).

The monk answered out questions with two main points. First, that there is a distinct difference between pain and suffering. The pain of being hit by a stick, for example, is just a quick pain that sounds a lot worse than it feels. But if you start to ruminate on it too much, you start to connect it to other pains and memories in you life. “Ouch, that hurt. It doesn’t seem like it really hurt anyone else, though. Just like me to be whining at a time like this. And I’m supposed to clear my mind! Everyone else seems to be so much better at that, too. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this…” and so on. But in reality, it was just a quick pain that passed in an instant. Pain in itself if fine. It’s when it turns into suffering afterwords where the real damage is done. He asked us to do our best to not let our pains turn into suffering.

Second, that there’s real value in being scared. This really resonated with me because of tea ceremony and kyudo. There’s a sweet spot between being too scared to do anything successfully and being too skilled for something to be challenging. When you find it, you’re so concentrated on trying to do that one thing or trying not to mess up that it actually clears your mind of many distractions. He told us a story of a friend of his who deliberately went to his master over and over again to be tested on riddles that he had no clue how to answer. And he loved it. It’s very frightening to have someone quickly asking you these impossible questions in a loud voice, but for that one moment, it seemed like he was free of his ego.

It’s given me a lot to think about. But I’ve realized that thinking about it isn’t much good. I’ve had better luck just living my life enjoying spring and being terrified at tea.

Kyudo has actually been going pretty well. And I have something that I know you’ve all been waiting for. Me in my uniform.


An awkward picture of me in uniform, kindly taken by another kyudo student.

Taking a picture of yourself in uniform is actually kind of a big deal, as it turns out. My senseis had me pose in various locations and paid very special attention to the way I carried myself. In the end, this was one of the best pictures we took. It doesn’t show me with a bow or anything or by any actual targets, but it somehow seems to represent the sport and my training more than any other picture could.

One of the reasons why this picture-taking opportunity presented itself was because two other foreign students have started to come on Saturdays to the dojo. Because of this, a few things have changed. The biggest thing is that my Japanese has suddenly become better and worse.

People come to me quite often now to ask my how to say a complicated word or phrase in English, so that they can talk to the new students. Sometimes I know how to, other times I don’t. But not knowing doesn’t seem to stop them from coming to me.

At the same time, people have also sometimes started to talk to me like they do to the new students. Slowly, and with smaller words. Sometimes even in English. I’ve learned to appreciated the English, though. Some other English speakers here are annoyed to no end by that, but it seems easier on everyone if you try to view it as the favor it is. Speaking a foreign language is very hard, and I appreciate the effort they take to communicate.

That these two things don’t seem to contradict, even in my mind, seems very exemplary of how people interact with foreigners in general.

It’s fun to sometimes peek through the other side and understand how English speakers are seen. When my kyudo sensei was talking about other foreigners who he was training the other day, he said he wanted to understand what they where saying to each other, “but they just went ‘braaabarbarwabaarwarr’ the whole time.” I laughed with everyone else because I suddenly realized that that was actually a pretty accurate representation of what English sounds like. One that I could never come up with on my own.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be on a 一人旅, or one-person trip till Sunday. First I’ll be going to Kanazawa, and then heading up to Wajima. My next post probably won’t be so much of a summary as it will be a few snapshots (with actual pictures and with short blurbs) from my travels.

I was a little hesitant about this trip. My program is paying for it, so it would be a waste to not go. I’ve been feeling a little lonely lately, though. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be actually alone for that long. But looking at it now, with the trip ahead of me tomorrow, I’m not sure I’ve felt on my own in a while. What with work, school, and my host family among other things, I haven’t had much time to myself. For some reason, perhaps that was making me start to feel lonely.

I’ll see what happens on the trip, but I’m excited to take in the beginning of spring by myself. Now to packing.

Wish me luck,


Serendipity of everyday life

Hullo all,


I thought I’d take a picture of how the street where I work looks. This picture pretty accurately captures Nishiki, and my shop is just a few cross-streets away.

This week felt pretty busy, like it has been for a while now. It always seems like I’m rushing from place to place. But, to be honest, it feels good. I may not have mentioned this, but I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been. Kyoto is known as “The Walking City.” You might have noticed from my last post, but in a lot of ways Kyoto is actually quite small and quite big. Just the right sizes for walking pretty much everywhere you need to (with a few subway/bus/train hops to get you in the right place).

I’ve been cutting things a little close recently, in the mornings especially, because it’s still pretty hard to get out of bed on account of how cold it is. The past month and a half or so I’ve been running to the train almost every morning. It started as a necessity, but now I actually like it. A nice little jog in the morning. And I’m actually running with a purpose; to get somewhere!

I might just start walking a bit more when I get back the the US (maybe even running). That would be hard, though. You can’t really beat a place called “The Walking City” for ease of pedestrian access. Even if it does sometimes get a little crowded in the small streets and marketplaces, like above.

I liked giving simple job highlights last post, so I think I’ll do that again. Memories from this week:

  • Having my picture taken with an American guy who bought saké off me. He said he wanted a picture with the “American Saké Pro” to show his buddies, to prove I existed. He even came back the next day to buy more.
  • My favorite and least favorite customers are the ones that, without even blinking, treat me like another Japanese shopkeep. I can usually keep up with the speed at which they talk, but combined with unpredictable accents, personal quirks, and ambient noise, I sometimes have to call in a coworker to talk with them instead. I hate to break the illusion of my proficiency, but sometimes it really is for the best. On the other hand, it always feels like a miracle when I can keep up with one of these people and even get them to buy a bottle or two. I feel like a rock that somehow skipped over to the other side of the river.
  • I ended up meeting a middle-school acquaintance of mine’s parents. They were so surprised it seemed like they took a picture almost on reflex. I wouldn’t have known there was a connection if I hadn’t idly asked where they were from, though.
  • Proudest moment(s): when a large tourist group comes by, invariably lead by a Japanese guide carrying a small flag or pole. It seems to take a bit of pressure off of them once they see that I’m a foreigner and also knowledgeable about saké. But the best part is when I also have to interact with Japanese customers while the tour group is still trying samples. The guide starts translating me! Into English! What a rush. Think about that. I’ve finally integrated enough that I too have to be translated and explained in order to understand me. I, too, have become a sometimes object of fascination.
  • When an older Japanese man came up to the stand and I offered him a sample. He looked a bit glum, but when he looked up and saw my face a huge smile spread across his face. He said in [loud] English: “How strange! You are the only person who is not Japanese here! Look at her, she’s Japanese!” He pointed to my older coworker, who chuckled worriedly. “Look at them, they’re Japanese!” He pointed to our other customers. He furrowed his brow now, still smiling: “Very strange! You’re very strange! You’re an exception!” Yes I am, nice older Japanese man. And so are you. It is funny, though, how older Japanese men all seem to speak English in this way. Very big smiles, very big voices, big facial expressions. I wonder if this is how Americans seem…


I decided to try and find my tea ceremony sensei’s tea implement shop the other day. It’s a shop that caters specifically to my school of tea, and the owner actually practices tea with me and sensei on occasion. I saved the wrapper from my fukusa because it had the address of the shop on it. So I thought. It instead had the address of the owner’s actual house. I didn’t feel like knocking on his door unannounced, so I walked back through Arashiyama to the train station. It was nice to be back again. I’d also never been to this part of Arashiyama before; only to the more popular train stop.

Next to the train stop I remembered that there was a verry big-looking shrine. I had to check out a shrine by myself as part of a homework assignment anyway, so I went through the torii gate.


There’s another, inner torii gate after you walk though the first big one.

It was a great chance find. Most shrines in Japan enshrine just a few kami: Tenjin, a god of knowledge and academics; Inari, a god of agriculture, industry and general good luck [of Fushimi Inari]; and Hachiman, a god of archery, war, and protector of the Minamoto clan. These are some of the most popular kami in Japan, and are mostly who I see enshrined in Kyoto–especially in the bigger shrines.

However, Matsuo Taisha enshrines three lesser-known deities, and is known especially for its connections to saké. As in, like, it’s the saké shrine. In fact, my saké company sells what it calls Arashiyama saké, mostly because the area is so well-known for sake brewing.

So, I of course went to the main alter (shown above) and prayed a bit for the company and our saké. It’s a really beautiful shrine. Quiet, too. I didn’t have too much time to spend there, though, so I got my goshuincho stamp and went to leave. It turns out that this shrine was actually instrumental in shifting the ancient capital from Nagaokakyo (where I currently live with my homestay) to Kyoto. This also makes it really old. Older than Kyoto itself, really.

The other day, I was working with one of my older co-workers when she suddenly asked me which saké bottle I bought when I first chanced on the shop and introduced myself.

Fujin Raijin.”

“Ah. I knew it. It was a gift from the gods, wasn’t it? You coming here?”

Maybe it was. Maybe my trip to Matsuo Taisha was as well. It’s hard to tell sometimes, where divine intervention fits into life’s strange combination of hard work and chance. It seems to be easier to find in retrospect.

Regardless, life seems to find a way of collecting all that unpredictability into a couple of chance coincidences. It seems to be a bit reliable in that way.

Till next time,