Friday, May 31, 2013

Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and Wat Arun in Bangkok

Shortly after I posted last night, we headed to the train station and boarded our train.  The sleeper car was packed with people wedged between bunk beds with blue drawn curtains.  We showed the conductor our ticket and he pointed the direction we should go then quickly grabbed the ticket back, again.  He pointed to the date: it was for the following day.  This was not our car, not our train.  We headed back to the ticket office and managed to change our ticket for another train, a non-sleeper that took less time.  

So we arrived in Bangkok this morning t 6:15am after 7 hours of creatively trying to sleep.  We sat in the train station and waited for our friend before getting a pastry and heading to see some of the sights of Bangkok.  First the Great Palace, sparkling in the sun, then Wat Pho with the reclining Buddha. After that we grabbed lunch in an air conditioned restaurant on the pier with wifi and fish and chips before walking through the flower market and taking the ferry across the watr, headed for Wat Arun.  On the way we walked through little alleys of homes, peaking into their everyday lives as people slept on tiny beds or the tiled floors of their livingrooms in the afternoon heat, the tv on and various snacks outside their doors for sale to any tourist that might be passing.  Lots to see in this city.  And we are ready to enjoy our hotel room tonight.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Stop in Chumphon (on the way to Bangkok)

Fnally found some Internet in a small restaurant suited to tourists.  With a little less than an hour remaining before we leave for the train station, we've found a cozy place that not only connects us with the rest of the world and calms us with reggae music, but also provides the opportunity to practice Thai boxing.


Hard to know what to do in these situations, but it's convenient that Thailand has evolved to the constant influx of western tourists that we need never worry that someone will hold our hand to the next destination.  Off the boat and there's a bus.  Off the bus and there's someone shoving a flier in our hands with directions to Internet while we undoubtedly need to wait the 5 hours or so along with the other tourists for our train to Bangkok.  They know our needs and are here to serve us and earn from us.  And when they aren't, there's always (always) a 7-11.

On the way to our 7-11 pit-stop for water, gum, peanut M&Ms, and strange Thai candies, we saw lots of street vendors and stopped to get a delicious fried banana crepe sort of dessert drizzled with condensed milk and sugar.  It was worth the 20 baht (~75 cents) to watch him expertly chopped the banana and work the dough.

Chumphon is a place on the way to another.  Everyone is moving somewhere, or drinking until they do.  The motorbikes are like fireflies at dusk.

In a short while we will board the train and arrive in Bangkok around 6:30 tomorrow morning.  Who knows what will await us on the other end, but I'm sure in one way or another we'll be ushered to a host of opportunities suited to our needs and curiosities. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Last Night in Koh Tao

Tonight is our last night in Koh Tao.  We've made a lot of short term friends, not least of all the gecko in our hut that chirps at us as he builds a nest in the rafters.  He's making a mess with all the shredded straw, but I'll still miss his early morning wake-up calls.

Also our dive instructor, Andy, who helped me learn to stay underwater without floating away, to adjust my mask properly, and to say, "I'm shit drunk," and "I don't have a drunk cat," in Thai.  Well, sort of.  I'm still learning all these skills, but I'm one step closer, thanks to him.  And one step closer to more fully appreciating the aquatic world, to relaxing while diving and enjoying the beauty of the fish and coral as my concerns about breathing, depth control, ear pressure equalization, and leaky mask fade into the background of automatic skills.  Before our last dive,he excused himself to the side of the boat where he enjoyed a hit.  Quite a lifestyle, to stare at the beauty of the underwater world.

But also I've come into contact with many anonymous friends.  The people who serve us curries on our veranda overlooking paradise; the truck driver who has impressively mastered the tumultuous rocky ride to our resort; the man who drove after me to deliver bottled water I thought I had absentmindedly left near the shop where I'd purchased it; the workers on the boat who hold our tanks before we step out into the water, take our fins as we climb the ladder, and chop pineapple for our break between dives;  the girl who serves us breakfast in the cafe across from the dive school.  How many people do they see come to their little island?  How many people do they serve?  For us, the cost of paradise is unvelievably cheap.  So little for what we experience, what we see, eat.  And for their service.  How does one fill the gap between what is paid and what is received for that payment?  It doesn't seem commensurate in my view of the world.  But neither is tipping appropriate in theirs.  A smile is an easily rendered item, doled out by many before and after a complaint, before and after an additional requested service.   Perhaps to stack the plates, to at least say "Thank you," in awkward Thai, to ask for less.  To ask for less.  Paradise is so easy here.  Perhaps it is too easy.  

Tomorrow we will catch our last pick-up truck shuttle to the dive school where we will chill in Koh Tao manner for a few hours before getting a lift to the pier to catch a ferry back to the mainland.  We'll then catch an overnight train to Bangkok and check out the city a bit before checking-in to the hotel.  

It's been amazing to realize that this experience exists in the world.  Such an interesting culture of international transience embedded in the constancy of the some of the richest people of planet earth's beauty.  Such a strange blending of wealths, disparate as language, universal as appreciation.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rickety Boats and Learning New Things

Every dive becomes a bit easier.  It's really fun to learn the new challenges of something, a whole new set of variables I'd never thought possible to experience in my brain and body.  The weight of water and how that affects the ears, the disorientation of the water, the ability to breathe underwater (!) and to actually swim with fishes that aren't afraid in the same way as land animals.  And to deal with gravity and pressure in a new way, learning to use my breathe to swim at a certain level, not float too high or hit the bottom.  It's a full body steering system that is completely new to me.  There are some frustrating and amusing complications, like always get stuck at the surface and having Andy translate his colorful personality into hand gestures at me for not following his instructions.  It's one thing to learn it, and then it's another to actually learn.  After playing the cello for over 20 years, I appreciate relearning how to learn things at a beginner stage.  All the humility it brings, reminders of self-patience and patience with one's teachers.  Are these things different?

On the way back from our dive, we loaded all our bags into a small wood boat that we use to get to the dive boat.  It's old, looks somewhat rickety, and has a single motor attached to a long pole which one of the Thai assistants controls, hand-rolled cigarette hanging between his lips.  Apart from watching this graceful feat, our journey is generally only marked by the beauty of the ocean and rocky cliffs.  But today we experienced a little more chop, and our heavily-laden boat fell within the large waves.  Water tossed onboard, and then more, and it was hard to tell if we were getting lower or the waves getting higher around us.  Our little Thai friend was yelling something at one of the experienced divers who was engaging in the sysiphean task of ladling water overboard, and then one of the instructors came over and managed to get a small pump working.  The water was over our ankles and the beach was within sight.  But would we make it?

Of course.  Because that's the way stories end.  Of course everyone could swim, so there was a general amusement at the possibility that the boat could actually sink.  And if the diving bags and boat fell to the bottom, it would make an excellent treasure for some adventurous divers to quickly recover.  

Tomorrow is the last day of the training.  Hopefully I'll get more comfortable with the descents and take more and more pleasure at meeting the little friends that have been waiting for me below the surface for so long.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

First Day of Diving

From Ko Tao I can see the lightning of a thunderstorm in the clouds above Thailand.  But the stars above Ko Tao are incredible clear tonight.  

Earlier today I had my first diving experience.  It was awkward and amazing.  Incredible to breathe underwater, to swim with fish, to play with a Christmas tree coral by snapping and making the creatures jump back inside.  And strange to be floating and sinking uncontrollably, suddenly at the surface, suddenly in the sand, trying to remember to equalize my poor ears.  There are a lot of things to learn and apply very quickly.  Our instructor Andy is a well-seasoned diver.  He said he started diving in 1981 in the British army to build and destroy bridges.  And he has dived all over the world-Artic to Antartic to Lake Erie and filled in chalk quarries.  And who knows what else.  The years of sun and cigarette smoking make it hard to judge his age, but he's a colorful person who's lived in Thailand for 9 years (7 in Ko Tao), unafraid of expressive profanity, and seemingly few reservations in bawdy humor.  The diving school was a bit surprised when we appeared today, and it seems that Andy was recruited at the last minute to teach us.  He'd been planning to have a fun dive, and hadn't prepared himself with a cappuccino or cigarette supply for the day.  But I think he remedied both things.

And now I have a fair amount of reading to do in my dive book, listening to strange noises coming from birds and lizards in the forest around us, watching the storm far away spark over Thailand.   

Arrival in Ko Tao

My experience of Thailand is a land filled with people offering lots of unsolicited services, help and advice.  At times it's suspicious as when a woman intercepted us last night at the train station to sell us tickets for our ferry here and give us walking directions to our hotel.  The tickets she gave us had a date from 2011 and we ended up walking around abandoned streets looking for our hotel in the middle of the night.  But as it turns out, her directions were spot on; and as she promised, a shuttle arrived at our hotel in the morning, which took us to a bus, which took us to a pier, and onto a boat we went, with questionable tickets.  We still wonder if it was our money or the ferry company's that she took.  But to us she was an angel, even if a proprietary one.  And we made it.

Once here, we found ourselves in a paradise.  As we tried to arrange the pick-up at the pier for our hotel, we swatted motorcycle taxi drivers like flies.  They came at us from all directions, battling our untrusting foreignness and distractibility with loud insistence.  Once our pick-up truck arrived, we hopped in the back and went for a rocky roller coaster ride through dirt roads of Ko Tao to get to our resort of Baan Talay.  Our hut is on the side of a small lush mountain overlooking a cove in the sea.  There isn't really any way to get anywhere other than the roller coaster pick-up truck which comes a few times a day, so we lounge in the common area, eating massuman curry and listening to reggae music.  Way to take it easy.  

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bangkok to Chumphon

What a day.  Walking around Bangkok in the morning, a delayed train down to the south, some late night empty street walking looking for a hotel and finally, a luxury shower, one of the most cathartic I've experienced.  There are showers after good workouts, showers after a long time in the cold, and showers after walking around Bangkok's Chinatown, train station and 10 hours on an open air Thai train.  The catharsis of showers.

Thailand is beautiful and exotic.  In Chinatown we saw little shops and street venders, smelled incredible spices and teas-basil, ginseng, tiger balm- before hitching a ride on one of the little taxis that zips through the streets.  At the train station we found our train and boarded but for some reason had to unboard while they took it away and then brought it back.  We left an hour late and arrived two hours late in Chumphon.  Along the way we saw the beautiful Thai country and peeked at the food that vendors brought on board at every stop.  They were neverending!  Fruits, meats, rice meals, soups sold through the open windows of the train-things that are complete mysteries to me.  When we arrived a woman gave us unsolicited directions to walk to the hotel.  Well, we're here safely, even if there was a period of doubt.  An adventure, but we're clean.

Arrival to Bangkok's Convenient Resort

I'm a touch closer to today today than I was this morning.  I've arrived in Bangkok and am currently resting in the Convenient Resort near the airport, awaiting my brother's arrival.  It seems a thunderstorm has come first, a tropical sound I don't often hear in my part of Japan.  This is certainly a new place, less organized, a little more haphazard and open-windowed than my familiar Asian home.  And I feel the trust game again;  a new unfamiliar script, new unfamiliar phonemes, new ways of greeting that I drop as they are thrown to me, hands in a prayer position of welcome while I move into the matter of business.  The people I've encountered are well-worn from tourists like me, a well-packed path that many have trodden before.  Like me, the people before me have not greeted fully, perhaps because of wearied trust, because of tired, because of lack of familiarity, because they are "on the way" to something else.

Being in this new place has reminded me again of the diversity in this world, and yet how close it all is.  Arriving in Bangkok, I saw flights departing for places even further west into Asia:  in India, Nepal.  What's there?  These people are different and the same.  I want to see their countries, the origins of their differently colored passports.  I want to collect them all.   And here I am, in a place far cheaper, far more sparse, than dear Japan.  It is a place where people are far more friendly, but seem less trustworthy.  An immediate smile in exchange for sincerity of action.  Maybe I'm just a little nervous about my brother's late night arrival to this Convenient Resort.  Thailand, be good to him.  I want to believe that the water is safe to drink and that people are all well meaning.  At some point, all water is clean, but who is in control of where it goes from there?  Good to be looking out.

This hotel may be case in point.  Slightly different versions of a purported reality.  We were well aware of this possibility, but were seeking convenience to accommodate David's very late flight arrival.  The first picture is from the web images.  The others are my own.  I appreciate that despite the stark economy of the shower toilet bathroom, there are still happy blowfish stickers on the wall.  And that I have a view from a small balcony (shall we say, "veranda?" I think we shall) which is always starting the year anew.


And now the rain has come.  I've turned off the air and opened the door to hear the sheets pour down, one of many pleasures in life.  This sound.  This smell.  This overgrown green in a new world that is the same one in which I've lived my whole life.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wakuwaku End

Today was a Wakuwaku first and last.  It is the first day of our concert program which we will repeat another 38 times next year, and it is the last of the Wakuwakus for the 2012-2013 season.  It is the last of the last for a number of people in the orchestra to whom we will say goodbye next year.  We're losing quite a few members and it will certainly change the character of the orchestra.  It seems that we might be getting more Japanese members, which has me thinking about upping my Japanese study a notch.

During rehearsals for this Wakuwaku, we were told that this year we should try to curtail the instrument demonstrations a bit, or at least keep them around a minute long.  It was a sad thing to hear.   According to audience surveys, this is the favorite part of the concert.  The orchestra members feel similarly, and it's almost a blow to hear such a thing requested.  Based on our performance today, I wonder how much it will be regarded.  Little seems to have changed.

Tomorrow I leave for Thailand.  I'll be going with a friend and then meeting my brother.  We'll head down south to do a diving course and check out Bankok for a couple of days at the end of the trip.  I think there is only one overnight train, so hopefully I'll be able to keep posting.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Minna no Nihongo no Owari

Closer and closer I'm closing in on the final pages of Minna no Nihongo (Everyone's Japanese), my first Japanese textbook.  I'm not sure what happens after this.  Maybe a fairy comes to me in my sleep and I wake up speaking Japanese.  I'm just afraid I won't understand her instructions on how to get there.  I'm on the brink of knowing–but it's a very large brink, and maybe filled with crocodiles (friendly ones, though).

I really enjoy studying Japanese.  I don't understand it, or speak it, but I enjoy the act of studying it and experiencing it.  And Minna no Nihongo has also taught me a lot about Japanese culture.  I'm not sure how reliable it is–textbooks can be a bit misleading as to the way a living language and culture actually work.  (I remember a non-native English speaker's disappointment when she learned that we don't really say, "It's raining cats and dogs."  It's not that we don't , but, really we don't.  Unfortunately.)

But here are a few that stood out to me from the text.  Different ideas, or things unique to Japan.

"Air conditioning isn't good for the body." "Because you have a fever, please do not take a bath." "Dieting is bad for the body."  "When my wife is sick, I stay home from work."

"Even if it's raining, I'll do the laundry."  (To anyone living in Japan, these are completely related.  Others may may wonder at the washing valor.)

I think I still have a very long way to go.....

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Stop by the River

The surface of the water was sympathetically moving with the wind against the current.

Sometimes when I sit outside, I remember a time in high school, when emotions were a certain way.  When we walked barefoot in the rain and thought nothing of it, when words were other things and the wind carried the clouds from one hour to another.

I've played the Ravel quartet in high school art rooms, public libraries, mountain-top huts, and soon a Japanese basement restaurant.  So many places, so many people.  Once again, the same in a different way.

Monday, May 20, 2013

String Quartet

I hope that in this life I can flesh out this deep-seated love in me.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

May 19th

There are certain days where random things seem to accumulate and May 19th is one of them.  Various people have various happenings on this day, various things of various significance.  A friend's audition, another friend's significant other comes to Japan, a birthday party in Grantchester meadows, some baseball tickets come on sale for the Ham Fighters vs the Hawks at Tokyo Dome.  All this scheduled to take place on May 19th, before any talk of a 6am Tae Kwon Do Skype, or a surprise two-hour lesson from Kaneko-san.  May 19th.  It's quite a day.

Also on May 19th I remembered a casual question asked to me while I was in California:  when you're in Japan, what do you miss most about America?  The answer I gave was peanut butter.  The answer I should have given was garbage cans.  But the truth is that I don't really miss either of these, and I don't know.  But I like to think about it now and again.  This morning I couldn't think of anything (other than people, memories, personal connections) that I miss.  There is nothing about America that I need in Japan, nothing that seems to be missing.

However, on May 19th, I also thought of an answer of something that I miss, not because I'm in need of it, but because it simply isn't here, or at least not in my experience:  light conversation at the check-out.  Something like the following:  "Oh I love this color!"  "Really?  It's my daughter's favorite color!  I'm giving this to her for her graduation."  "Really?  What is she's graduating from?"  "Oh, she just finished her bachelors in civil engineering.  We're all very excited.  We've got the whole family in town from Alaska and New York and we're going to have a barbeque tonight."  And so on...  Just doesn't seem to happen here.  Or maybe it does.  But in my gaikokujin world, the cashiers are always very well trained with a head bow, a careful sorting of the goods being purchased, placement of the money on the register with a verbal confirmation of the amount, followed by a careful and explicit counting of the change returned and another head bow of thanks.  In Madison, I think it was as much the policy at the local credit union to ask clients about their plans for the the day as it is not to do such a thing here.

And with this comes another distinction perhaps, in the cultural response to the inevitable difficulties of life.  That in America there is a mutual leavening, an extroverted concern to take care of one another, to make sure that even strangers are feeling ok, even happy.  This in contrast to Japan's respect for privacy, a feeling that each knows what is best and has the ability to find the strength within to take care of themselves, an internal patience for the challenges that one experiences.

Do I miss it?   I notice that it isn't there and that it changes the way life feels.  And I deeply respect the value of living in both ways.  How many other ways are there to live?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Give it Up

How do I know I'm progressing without the feeling of resistance?  What if I were to swim in a frictionless sort of vacuum?  What is up, what is down?  Am I going anywhere?  Does it matter?  

It's scary to release the feeling of holding.  Where am I, how can I establish some sense of direction, some sort of gravity to guide me?  Who am I if I let go?  Who is my inner teacher, with what voice do they lead?  

Perhaps there is a way of life, an implicit acceptance that fills the air here, that seems to flow without force.  I think maybe I feel it, and that it seeps into me without thoughts to catch and scrutinize.  It must be the same in any place in which we grow up, in which we live.  We start to breathe a texture and hue.  It becomes imprinted upon us, without our knowing.   

By what measure, what indicator, can I guide myself in this new water?  Do I need to?   And yet so difficult to relinquish such a thing.

Friday, May 17, 2013


There is a magic dust that settles over and into Japan.  It falls into the interstices of time and space, unstoppable, inevitable.  It finds a home in the cilia of my lungs, barely opened, in the saccades of my eyes, hardly seen.  It nestles into the silence between sound, the invisible star.  Something more real than perception.

What crevice can go untouched?  How slowly can one breathe?  What lives between one heart beat and the next?  (and the next, and the next, and the next.....)

When I leave here, what will I take with me?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Letter To Yasufumi Tanaka

From a nearly a month ago, dictated by a 92-year-old woman to the hand of her daughter, placed in my care, the address refined by a Japanese friend, a letter to Yasufumi Tanaka made it into his hands, nearly two generations after their meeting.   Aunt Ruth had met his father in the 1970s and had retained a business card for his electronic company.  When she met me during my trip to California last month, she thought to see if she could reconnect with him by giving me a letter to mail once I returned to Japan.

And now Yasufumi leads the company.  He has two sons, a daughter and four grandchildren.  Both his sons work in the company.  It seems so incredible to me, how much has changed, how time has moved forward; and yet it seems that nothing has changed.  The players have new positions.  Father, son, and grandson, filling different roles as time unfolds them.  Housed by the same company in a new location.  And a connection from years ago that seems to bridge the transition.  I'm not sure why this feels so large and small all at once.  Something about the progress of time moving forward, and a new feeling for what the word "progress."  What does "progress" mean in terms of a life, or the passage of one life to another?  I'm not sure, but I feel lucky to have been caught in the crossfire of this trans-Pacific, generational exchange.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


This morning I went with David and Eun Jung to catch the bus to Osaka International Airport.  The train was filled with people.  Eun Jung was seated on the other side from us, and David and I sat next to one another, loosing sight of her as more and more people stood between us.  Here we were in Japan, years after going down stairs in recycling bins, toe pinching wars, choreography to Disney soundtracks, questionable cooking, playing with fire again and again, and countless other shared experiences and mischief.

He flicked the train ticket between his fingers.  It said Takarazuka and the time of purchase, 9:48.  I wondered how we came to be here, and if we would ever come to this place again.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Day of Rest

It amazes me how comfortable I can feel with family.  Surely there must be little pockets within us, each carved out by the people that we've known in our lives.  Some, over time, have a deeper space, some opened a space quite large very quickly.  What is the nature of these spaces that only a certain person can fill?  Keys and locks, fingerprints that become more and more defined.  Each with a unique shape, an individual texture, molded by time and impression.  Who is creating a space within me right now, carving out a new pocket of which I'm not even aware, because they currently fill it?  And then gone and then to breathe into it once again.  This act of inhale and exhale that connects one life and one place to another as we fill ourselves with one another, openings and closings, finding and losing and finding again, returning home and venturing out to make a new ones.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Nara with David and Eun Jung

It's amazing how much having visitors can open my eyes again.  Today we went to Nara, a place I last visited with thousands of others on New Year's.  The sky was clear, the deer were hungry, and we walked among the trees.

political campaigning 

Feed the deer.....

aggressively hungry

Nigatsudo Hall
Hand washing

live green leaves as water spouts

behind Nigatsudo 

just hangin' out, bein' a deer, sellin' some omiyagis

Kasuga Temple

Under the vines at Kasuga Temple

emptying the pray money

bowing for a cracker

with Nara's mascot, Sento-kun