And Then Syria Murdered Its Citizens in Their Sleep

Six weeks before I was to leave for my long anticipated tour of Israel, Syria used nerve gas on its own people, murdering more than 1000 in the middle of the night.  And the US (as I type this) is preparing to send missiles into Syria, who vows to retaliate against Israel when that happens.  My tour would bring me within 4 miles of the Golan Heights at the border with Syria.  So….I am seeking counsel from friends of friends, trying to make an informed decision about whether I should push on with my plans.  Then, one night as I am lying in bed trying to fall asleep, I find I am making plans:  I will sleep with my passport and credit cards around my neck, and I will keep a backpack with essentials packed and ready within reach of my bed just in case I need to leave my hotel room in a hurry.  And, I need to remember to pack only shoes I can seriously run in, just in case I have to flee from danger…then it occurred to me these are not plans I should be making in preparation for a non-essential leisure trip to anywhere.  So, with great disappointment, I cancelled my trip.

I am now in a battle of wills with the hotel where I booked a room for the end of my organized tour.  They are refusing to refund my money.  I asked nicely, I pointed out my written confirmation never mentions my rate is non-refundable, and I ask for my request to be escalated to management.  When they said no again, I said I was disappointed, and would handle this through my bank.  I also said I would be posting this in a review on TripAdvisor – my #1 travel resource.  A few hours later I received a threatening, nasty email with an implied threat to involve lawyers.  So here’s what I am going to do.  My completely truthful review has been submitted to TripAdvisor, on which I am a senior reviewer.  As soon as it is published, I will invite everyone I know to read my review and click on it as “helpful”.  The properties always keep an eye on their TripAdvisor ratings, and I am hoping they will recognize how they may continue to lose business because of my posting, and that it would be easier if they announced in the comment field that they have generously reconsidered my request and refunded my money.  That’s the plan.  We shall see if it works.  Either that, or Mossad will kick in my door in North Carolina and force me to retract it at gun point.

Would I let a little thing like missile strikes and hotel bullies from The Rothschild in Tel Aviv wreck my vacation?  No way.  I am happy to tell you the new plan is TUSCANY!!

ImageI am registered for a week long course in Italian cooking at a culinary school in the middle of nowhere, about 90 minutes outside of Florence:  Casa Ombuto.

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Mornings are free to explore the 80 acre estate or the surrounding medieval towns, and afternoons are spent in class. This is the castle in Poppi, the town where I will be staying.

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Dinners are what we cook each afternoon, enjoyed together in the villa.  There is one day trip to see olive oil pressed and cheese produced, and there is one free day for run into Florence.  I cannot wait.  It’s not the massive adventure Israel would have been, but I will learn some new skills and spend time in the heart of Italy where it will be beautiful, quiet, and where there will be a very low likelihood of scud missile strikes.

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Choosing Israel

DomeoftheRock

It has been many months since I returned from Japan.  For the first few months after my return, I will be honest with you.  I had no desire to travel.  I was glad to be home, enjoying my friends, my comfortable home, my sweet collie dog.  But, because I am Joy. and the more I see of the world, the more desperately I wish to see more, I began thinking about my next destination.

My mother, wonderful person she is, gave me a framed map for Christmas, with a plaque that reads “Around the World With Joy”, with pins to show where I have been, and where I hope to go.  It is a lot of fun to look at a map of the world, and think “Oh yeah!  I forgot about that place.  I definitely want to go THERE”.  Places that earned a green pin include Bora Bora, Thailand, Rio, Kenya, St. Petersburg, Tahiti, and ISRAEL.

I have discovered I get quite a mixed reaction when I tell people I am traveling to Israel.  The first question is WHY?  Lots of smart people think vacation destinations are places of relaxation or entertainment, such as beach resorts or Las Vegas.  These people will never understand why I would go to the trouble and expense to visit the Middle East for fun.  Some people’s first reaction is a religious one.  “I never pegged Joy as the religious pilgrimage type!”  I have never felt more defensive about a vacation destination, and I am surprised I care about the impressions I make on others.  Here is the Truth:  I am mesmerized that there is a place in the world that is considered sacred by so many, which for its entire existence has been, simultaneously, a source of profound inspiration and indescribable violence.

Maybe, since Japan, I am drawn to antiquity and how ancient history can be relevant and integrated with modern life.  I will be honest, though.  I have to think there is some sort of crazy mojo in that place.  I want to see for myself.  So, I will prepare.  Today is March 27, 2013.  I depart for Israel on October 5, 2013.  I decided to begin my blog today, when I have decided to go.  I will share with you what I learn as I study the history of that place, and learn about the stakeholders in the region.  I want to have a scholarly foundation of references to draw upon when I walk the streets that Jesus and Kind David walked.  I want to learn what it meant to be a woman in the time of Jesus, and what it means to be a woman today in the West Bank.  I have a reading list already, and have begun “Jerusalem: A Biography”.  I plan to re-read the Gospels.  Honestly, I haven’t studied the Bible since High School.  Many will say it’s about time I opened that Book again.  I know almost nothing about Islam, but I will before I leave for Israel.

So many touchy topics – religion and politics: the two biggest taboos in polite conversation or Facebook.  😉  I’m diving right in!  Won’t it be a fun summer to hang around with me?  I will use this space to share my journey as I prepare for the trip, as I travel, and after I return.  If you read my blog, I urge you to comment as much and as often as you like.  Be my teacher.  Feel free to disagree with me, but please know that I have respect for that place and the people who live there.  No haters, OK?  Let’s be brave.

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Saying Farewell

In the blink of an eye, my month in Japan is complete.  Tomorrow I face approximately 22 hours of travel, door to door, but waiting for me is my own comfy bed.  My dog Leia better brace herself for a month’s worth of collie cuddles.  A 3-day weekend to adjust, then Monday the blessed return to my normal routine. 

Friends, I am starting a pool on the total of my Japan expense report.  It will include round trip business class airfare and a month’s accommodations.  The person who comes closest will receive a gift from Japan. Email your guesses to joy.yucaitis@gmail.com

Today Andy (our General Manager for Japan) presented me with a very special gift I will cherish for the rest of my life.  You may have noticed that scrolls, screens, important documents, and pretty much everything printed in Japan includes a small red stamp in a corner – representing the artist or author.  I learned that everyone with a bank account in Japan must have a tiny one created for banking transactions, like part of your signature.  Well, Andy commissioned an artist to carve me a beautiful stamp of my name in calligraphy.  The top of the stone stamp has a detailed carving of a lion, the bottom is my name in relief (for stamping), and along the side is engraved a thank you to me, from Andy, and the artist’s name.  The artist then framed an example of my stamp.

Here is a close-up of my name.

The framed stamp (my name, and the inscription)

And the stamp, itself. 

I am very grateful for this opportunity to live and work in Japan.  I have learned much about Japanese business culture.  I snuck a hug from Andy before I left – no one was looking and he was a good sport!  We are good pals by now – I felt it was safe to go in for a quick hug.  Hint:  not normally a good idea in Japan!  As I packed my briefcase, I was feeling some separation anxiety.  My Japanese colleagues have become friends, and I will be very sad if we do not meet again.  No more subway staring games, no more $12 cups of coffee, no more gelatinous gobs of mystery goop wrapped in banana leaves.  Ah but as usual, the very best parts of my stay are the memories I have made and the lessons I have learned, and they pack well. 

When I see my friends, I will either talk without ceasing to make up for lost time, or I will be uncharacteristically mute from my month of relative social solitude.  Perhaps an occasional wail of “Wilson…!!!!”  I reckon most of my insights about this trip will come weeks and months from now, as I view it from a little more distance.  I do not fool myself into thinking one month is enough time to know and understand Japan, but I am pleased to have more than a passing acquaintance with her.  This is an amazing country full of contrast.  Yet, people are so similar everywhere you go.  We all aspire to find common ground, like streams traveling down distant mountains towards one cool lake.  Where we will meet for a $12 cup of Starbucks coffee and laugh as the gaijin bows to the barista.

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Dancing in the Graveyard

(Apologies!  I have had trouble uploading this post from several days ago)

Three stories for you today. 

Chapter 1:  Feast!

Friday, August 31, Yoshitaka Ando “Andy” (the man I have been training this month) hosted a farewell banquet for me.  We went to a traditional sukiyaki restaurant overlooking Ueno Park and for four hours, we were fed course after course of delicious food – some of which was prepared at the table.  Japanese beer, 2 kinds of sake, and 2 kinds of tea.  Every course was served on a gorgeous little plate or bowl.  The teeny sake cups were beautiful.  One never pours their own sake.  You serve each other.  Isn’t that nice?  One of my colleagues told me about a trip he took in the US, driving Rt 66 to the Grand Canyon.  He said he considered getting a tattoo but chickened out.  They told me that people with tattoos are not allowed in public pools or hot springs, and it is often a criteria to deny employment.  All I can say is there are an awful lot of middle aged divorced women in greater Raleigh who will never know the joy of a Japanese hot spring. 

 

 Chapter 2: Crime!

More than 10% of the entire population of Japan lives in Tokyo.  My colleague Phillip (British ex-pat) reported to us a few days ago that his satchel was stolen – STOLEN!  It happened in a pub, and he admitted most of the clients were British ex-pats.  Anyway, he reported it to the police.  He was pretty disappointed because he loved the bag – a limited edition he bought in Australia.  Two days later, his girlfriend got a call from the police.  They have his bag, and could he stop by and pick it up today?  The caper of the wayward Aussie satchel was solved in a city of more than 8 million.  Seriously?  WHERE does this HAPPEN?!?  God bless you, Japan. 

 Chapter 3: Museum

Today I headed back to Ueno Park to visit the Tokyo National Museum.  Ueno is sort of like the Washington DC Mall, except with lots of trees, a baseball field, and a zoo.  It is surrounded by all of the largest museums in Tokyo.  I saw 12th century samurai swords with blades that looked brand new.  I bet they can cut through a tin can, and still slice through a tomato!  By far my favorite thing was a pair of terra cotta figures; tomb ornaments from the 6th century of a man and woman dancing.  They are adorable.  I absolutely love that fourteen hundred years ago, someone created two dancing figures for someone’s tomb.  I am not sure why they made them look like penises with faces, but that makes them even more hilarious to me.

In Ueno Park there is a giant Starbucks  I have changed my attitude about the global chains you see in every single corner of the world.  I used to resent the intrusion of American brands in distant cities.  Now I realize, it’s just a sign that people are honestly the same everywhere you go.  Starbucks makes delicious coffee, and we humans really enjoy a good cup of coffee, no matter where we are.  And yes, we like burgers and fries, and the occasional fried chicken.  Americans are mad for sushi.  I do not see it as marketing run amok.  It is a sign that we are all so alike, as different as we may seem.  Kind of beautiful, if you think about it. 

OK, Friends.  Tomorrow I head to Hakone and Mount Fuji.  It’s supposed to rain in Tokyo.  Cross your fingers for good weather and clear views.  Four days from now, I will be in the air, probably somewhere over eastern Russia, on my way home.  There will be one final post from Japan before I leave. 

 

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It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I have shown you magnificent scenes of Japanese beauty, history, and grandeur.  Today, I would like to introduce you to my everyday life in Japan.

I live in a studio apartment in the Shirokane neighborhood of Tokyo.  The literal translation of Shirokane is “Platinum Hill”.  It is an upscale neighborhood in the boonies of Tokyo.  On a subway map of Tokyo, here is where I live, and where I work:

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I live in the Oakwood Apartments – a two-tower 15 story high rise.  I am on the 9th floor.  Here is the view from my front door.  Yes!  That is Mt. Fuji! 

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If I were perhaps a bit more important, my company may have placed me here (across the street):

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Leaving home, heading for the subway, I pass many small shops.  Some of them seem a little pretentious, such as this shop that sells everything pale pink or lacy that can fit in the small space.

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Here is a local chain of a book/video store and café.

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Happo-en is famous locally (and Shirokane is a very popular district for this sort of thing) for weddings.  They also have gardens and a restaurant.

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Here is a French patisserie.

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A place that sells monuments and grave markers

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Ubiquitous vending machines (found every 100 meters or so in Tokyo)

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And finally, the subway. 

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There are a few minor embassies on this road as well, such as Eritrea.  Just beyond the subway is a small grocery store, where last night I went in search of ingredients for a BLT.  They had lettuce.  Four leafs of lettuce, wrapped in cellophane, cost $5.40.  Not worth it!!  Tokyo is incredibly expensive.  Extrapolate from the cost of lettuce to get my drift.  1800 yen ($23) is a reasonable lunch.  5000 yen ($64) is an average dinner.  You can understand why most of my meals have been take-away from convenience stores.  Movies cost ~$25, a beer ~$15.

This is the crossroads near my office. 

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This guy, to the best of my knowledge, is more or less “Crazy Yoshi, who sells the cheapest shirts in Tokyo!!”

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And here is the building where I work.

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It takes me 40 minutes, door to door, to commute to work.  I usually arrive around 8am, and almost no one is here yet.  Most people arrive around 9 or 9:30 and stay late.  Everyone here is very friendly and welcoming, but it took most of the staff a couple of weeks to feel comfortable around me.  And now I am winding down my visit! 

I am looking forward to my own bed, my collie, my pals, my car, pending autumn weather, and buying all the ingredients for a meal for the price of a few leafs of lettuce.  Underappreciated benefit of this month in Tokyo?  No bombardment with nasty political campaign ads.  Still, I call that a small price to pay for an affordable BLT.  And isn’t that America in a nutshell?

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I See No Evil

Sunday I joined an organized tour to the mountain town of Nikko and the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Shrines and Temples of Nikko”.  We headed north from Tokyo for ~ 90 miles to the Tochigi Prefecture.  There is a saying in Japanese “Never say ‘kekko’ until you’ve seen ‘Nikko’”; ‘kekko’ meaning beautiful/magnificent. 

Approximately 15 temples and shrines wind up the side of a mountain, amid a forest of cedar.  I am not talking about the small, functional, plain neighborhood shrines you see everywhere.  I am talking about enormous, elaborate, exquisitely carved, monumental shrines, temples, and gates.  Bright vermillion-colored, multi level structures rising among the cedars. 

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The carvings and paintings on these temples are detailed and thrilling.  Here are a few detailed carvings.  My favorite depicted elephants, though it is obvious the artist never actually saw an elephant. 

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One of the carvings is particularly famous.  Do you recognize this?

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And here is one of the guardians of the shrine.

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These shrines date back to the year 766.  The newest shrine is the tomb of a famous Japanese shogun named Tokugawa Ievasu, built in the mid 17th century.  The temple Rinno-ji is currently undergoing restoration.  We could not see the exterior, but we were able to tour the interior and see their giant Buddhist gods, somehow made spookier in the dim lights and construction surrounding them.  As we climbed the large stone steps to the temple, a monk began tolling the hour on its enormous bell.  Despite being a major tourist attraction, all Japanese temples and shrines are consecrated, working sacred sites.  The monk wasn’t putting on a show for us tourists.  A monk rings the bell every hour, whether we are there or not.

 

As I followed the path through the woods down the mountainside, I was passed by a group of around 8 monks in garments that looked like they stepped out of a historical re-enactment, including one woman!  I was mesmerized by their appearance, but didn’t think it would be respectful to take their picture.  Later, I asked my guide if she knew who they were.  She told me they were probably mountain-worshipping monks.  When I returned home, I learned they are called Shugendō – a sect that blends pre-Buddhist Shinto mountain worship called Kannabi Shinkō  (the idea that mountains are the home of the dead), shamanistic beliefs, animism, ascetic practices, Chinese Yin-Yang mysticism and Taoist magic, and the rituals and spells of Tantric Buddhism in the hope of achieving magical skills, medical powers, and long life. In short, they are mountain priests.  The primary god for the Shugendō is En no Gyōja.  Legend says he is accompanied by two demons, a male demon named Sekigan (Red Eyes) and the demon’s wife Kōkō (Yellow Eyes).  Ozunu gave them four verses in praise of Buddha – verses that have the power to grant salvation and to raise up an enlightened heart. By regularly reciting the verses, the two demons were able to become humans. Once this happened, the demons changed their names. Red Eyes was named Zenki (Front Demon) and Yellow Eyes was named Goki (Behind Demon).  I don’t know about you, but if I am a reformed demon and I get to change my name, I drop “demon”. 

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I read on Wikipedia that this sect stresses physical endurance as the path to enlightenment. Practitioners perform seclusion, fasting, meditation, magical spells (?!?!), recite sutras, and engage in feats of endurance such as standing/sitting under cold mountain waterfalls or in snow.  Here is a photo I found:  my Shugendō looked exactly like this.

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Here is the amazing thing…Japan is the sort of place where you run into Shugendō in traditional robes on your way down a mountain.  Just as the woman who sold me fabric for my friend Elizabeth wore a spider-web yukata, and ancient shrines and temples are everywhere you look.  On Friday, some colleagues took me for lunch to a local tempura restaurant, probably hundreds of years old and absolutely routine.  They are probably using the same cooking pots that have been used for 100 years.

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Japan has managed to preserve wooden shrines for over one thousand years, and weave floors of straw that withstand centuries of footsteps. Doors of paper that never seem to tear, and perfectly balanced gardens to soothe your mind and charm your senses.  When I travel, I usually feel some melancholy for the old ways.  Historic sites are museums in most of the world, but in Japan, more often than not they are still a large part of local life.  Truly living history.

The grounds between shrines on the mountainside in Nikko are sprinkled with large stone and iron lanterns.  I do not know if they are still lit, but I imagine the ethereal quality they create, lighting up the woods and shrines, casting eerie shadows.  I close my eyes and imagine what that looks like, and I think I can understand the Shugendō – how impossible it would be not to feel the power of the mountain.  How it could make one fall to her knees in worship.

Posted in Culture shock, Shrines, Temples | Tagged | 4 Comments

Hemispheric Spillover

Back a pretty long time ago now, when I was a college undergraduate in behavioral neuroscience, I used to run all sorts of experiments on my fellow students to learn about the workings of the human brain.  No drilling – don’t worry!  Also, no fun drugs.  My college advisor was interested in the function of the corpus collosum – the fingers of neurons that hold together the hemispheres of our brains and send messages back and forth.  She asked me to design an experiment to test something she called hemispheric spillover.  I had people rest their hands over the edge of a table, then dropped fishing weights off the tip of one of their fingers on one hand.  I had them close their eyes and try to lift the weighted finger.  What I observed was the same finger on the opposite hand also rising when it’s counterpart was struggling with the action.  Why am I telling you this?  You should see how my left hand contorts when I struggle with chopsticks with my right!  And I’m pretty good with them, now.  So much, in fact, that when my waitress this evening offered me my choice between a fork and chopsticks, I chose chopsticks.  Showing off?  Hardly.

Since I was a little girl, teaching me manners was very important to my mom and my grandpa.  I remember my mom taking me to the Martinique (the fanciest restaurant near our neighborhood) and teaching me which fork was for what.  The last gift I ever received from my grandpa before he died was a book on manners for young girls.  I was raised in a solidly working class neighborhood.  We didn’t travel much, and were more likely to have food fights than linen napkins at dinner (lucky me!).  Yet, as I grew up I always felt comfortable in all social situations because my mom taught me etiquette.  THIS is why I had to choose the chopsticks tonight! 

On my first day in Japan, my colleague took me to lunch in a traditional soba noodle and tempura house.  He explained that I pour the sweetened soy sauce in with the finely sliced onions and wasabi, and dunk the noodles in the sauce to eat them. 

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I studied chopstick etiquette before I arrived.  You think I am crazy?  There are many rules!!  Never stand them up in your rice (that represents death), never pass anything to another person directly (death again).  When you are finished with your meal, slip them back into the paper they came in.  Never mix sauce or food with your rice, unless it is served this way.  Don’t scoop rice (that’s the Chinese way).  Anyway, I understand how to eat rice, meat, and vegetables with my chopsticks without insulting anyone.  I have NO idea what the rules are for forks!!  So, thanks to my mom and my grandpa, there I was, bravely eating dinner with my chopsticks. 

As I walked home from dinner, I was thinking I should probably get a rice maker when I get back home.  I am getting pretty used to eating sticky rice with every meal (and miso soup, pickled something, and green tea).  Looks like I am experiencing a completely different type of hemispheric (Eastern/Western) spillover!

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