Category Archives: Travel

The Sweetest Cup

green tea gift

I just spent 3 weeks in Japan, traveling around Honshu, the largest island. My last evening was spent in Tokyo, with my mom. We were exhausted, having tried our damnedest to fit it all in, even while resting.

I could tell you about the middle-aged woman we met in Kamikochi, who was there with her husband and parents. She turned out to be a librarian, and she had her iPhone wrapped in a fuzzy bunny that she would pull out every time her husband asked her a question. I could tell you about the young woman in Nara who waited on us in an Italian restaurant and didn’t know any English, but her desire to serve us overwhelmed all fears of exposing her bad language skills.

There was the elderly gentleman who conferred with us on our journey out of Koya-san who had lived in Texas for 5 years, and the young people who worked in the ryokan we stayed at in Kyoto. And the monk with the scar on his scalp at the temple where we stayed in Koya-san whose entire body was an apology.

But this story is for this cup of tea.

One thing seasoned travelers know and understand is that you have to make choices all day long, about everything. About the things that you’ve automated in your daily life at home, like where to find your next meal and what to eat for breakfast and lunch and dinner. This may sound like a treat, but trust me, after 22 days of this, I start to wish I had a refrigerator with some leftovers I could just pull out.

Given that we didn’t have it in us to try something new, we returned to a delightful yakitori restaurant above the Daimaru department store at Tokyo Station. This gave us the chance to catch another sunset behind the train station. You might see why we were tempted to return:

Night falls in Tokyo

Sadly, the restaurant did not have a view. But the staff more than made up for it. When we returned to the restaurant, there was a group of men sitting on a bench outside the entrance. We had seen many lines with seats, so we assumed there was a wait and sat at the end of the bench. We knew it wouldn’t be long before we were seated, based on previous experience. Soon enough, the group was seated and the host/maitre d’ saw us. His face lit up with recognition and he motioned that we should wait a minute. Next thing we knew, he was ushering us in to sit at the bar.

We ordered our food and I, in my broken Japanese, told him we would like rice (gohan?), water (o-meezu) and a beer (biru?). He pulled out the all-Japanese menu and opened it to what I can only assume was the list of beers. My eyes glazed over as I looked at the lines of Japanese characters. I knew that the text read top to bottom, but beyond that I was clueless. He stood behind us, patiently, until I took a stab in the dark and said, “Sapporo?”

He pointed to something on the menu, which I could only guess was “Sapporo” and I said, “Hai! Yes.” I told him I wanted a small one. Having given him the sufficient information, he disappeared and I sank into my chair, elated to have completed the transaction. He returned shortly with my beer and a small bowl, filled with something lumpy and covered in a whitish sauce. He told me it was a pickle, and he stood behind my chair waiting for me to try it. I inspected the bowl and willed my stomach not to churn. It seemed to contain some chunks of chicken, and I considered that maybe they were cured, like ceviche. I didn’t know of any Japanese cuisine that cooked meat that way. I screwed up my courage and stabbed my chopsticks in and plucked out one of the blobs, which threatened to slid out of my tentative grip. I got it in my mouth first and sank my teeth in, relieved to discover it had been cooked. It was cooked! Hallelujah! The maitre d’ stood behind us, waiting to see what I thought.

“Pickle?” I said to him.
“Pickle,” he said, smiling.
I hoped my smile covered my confusion, the lack of vinegar or any acidic tang in my mouth. “Good,” I said, smiling at him. He turned and left.

He returned later with two small bowls piled high with bright pink pickles. The shiso I had taken a picture of the previous visit, and he had stood behind me applauding softly:

red shiso pickle

Except this time there was three times as much. Shiso has a strong perfume and a mild cinnamon flavor, the texture like a cucumber. I knew there was no way I could eat that much of it, no matter how delicious. I hope he wasn’t offended. My mom and I enjoyed our meal, the chicken grilled with leeks, the eggplant, the shishito peppers, and the mushroom stems in butter sauce. Not to mention the giant piles of shiso pickles. Our bodies sated, we rested in our seats, savoring our final evening in Tokyo, the city whirling outside while we relaxed. And then this third gift came to the table, warm and bright.

I wrapped my fingers around the warm ceramic bowl and lifted it to my nose, inhaling the sweet and mildly bitter aroma of the tea. By this point in our travels, we had drunk many cups of tea – from the iced tea offered us in steaming Kyoto to the many pots we brewed in our various lodgings. And this was the best cup of tea. From a technical standpoint, it was perfect – the perfect temperature, perfectly steeped. It was more sweet than bitter, warm but not scalding, grassy without being pungent.

It was made all the sweeter for being our reward, for connecting with people, for having made the effort and being met, for being seen as a fellow human, another traveler on the road. May all your cups of tea be a sweet reminder of our universal connection.

Share Button

52 Photos : Seasonal color / gold

As many of you know, I was in Japan for three weeks. This week’s prompt: seasonal color / gold could have been fulfilled by a few pictures I took of the maples just starting to turn. Instead, I wanted to stretch a little beyond the obvious. This image was taken on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. I love the contrast of the warm metal against the monochromatic paint.

gold and monochrome

A few of the runners up:

fall leaves

fall color

orange pagoda, green hills

Share Button


The prompt for 52 Photos Project this week is STRIPES! Most of the images below are from my travels, but a couple are from my own city.

Pillow cover in Chiang Dao, Thailand, the city of stars:
hilltribe keychain

Swiftsure, boat on South Lake Union, Seattle

Rubber Ducky not open for visitors, Seattle
rainbow ducky

Incense Coil, Temple, Hoi An, Vietnam
incense coil

Bueno feste, Venezia, Italy
happy holiday

Licorice stripes, Venezia, Italy

Share Button

It was 20 years ago today …

Space Needle plus mountains

Okay, it might not have ACTUALLY been this date, but it was 20 years ago that I was preparing to graduate from Oberlin College. I had decided in my senior year that I wanted to move to Seattle, based on having spent a single day in this fine city. But other than that, I had done nothing. I had no job, no place to stay, and knew virtually no one. Not only that, but I didn’t even have a way to get there. I had a plane ticket to return to Florida.

A few days before graduation, a friend of mine approached me. She said, “I’m driving out to Seattle to play in a steel drum band for the summer. We have room in the car. Do you want to come?”

I thought about it for a moment and consulted with my parents, who were there for the graduation. My dad said, “You can always come back home, if it doesn’t work out.”

I said, “Dad, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I’d rather go slime fish in Alaska than move back to Florida.” We all laughed, I packed up a duffle bag and hopped in the car to drive West.

I met people who helped me, I found a place to live, I managed to get some work and I met the love of my life. I’ve made so many friends and have always always always since the day I moved here felt that this is where I belong.

Share Button

Sniffing butts

buddha's manicure

An interesting phenomenon occurs while abroad when two travelers meet. When I am at home and meet someone new, there is a set list of questions that occur. It’s the equivalent of two dogs meeting, sniffing one another’s asses and trying to figure out who’s the alpha. Almost immediately after learning someone’s name, the very next question that’s asked is about employment, because that is how people are valued in our culture. Rarely does the conversation turn to asking what you enjoy, and if it does, there’s a sheepishness about it, as if pursuing what you enjoy is frivolous and a waste of one’s time.

Outside the country, however, you learn where people are from, how long they are traveling, and most interesting to me, where they’ve been. You swap notes and compare experiences, share little things you’ve learned along the way that might lubricate the other person’s trip. Where a sort of competitiveness arises in the US, when I was abroad I found nothing but a sense of co-operation and willingness to help.

I’m trying to imagine having this sort of exchange with someone new here in the US. Even if we didn’t literally talk about travel, what if when we met, we could share what we’ve learned from where we’ve been and learn from others about what they’ve learned from where they’ve been? How might that shape our identity on both the individual level as well as community and even national level?

I have found one exception to this: the community of writers with which I am becoming engaged. We share what we’ve learned with one another, encourage each other and urge one another on. It’s my desire to have this in every aspect of my life.

Share Button

From the Panama Canal to Angkor Wat

leaving the locks

For those of you who know me, you know I am an avid podcast listener. Most of the podcasts I listen to are story oriented, but a few lean toward education. I just learned about the podcast Stuff You Should Know, and they did an episode on How the Panama Canal Works.

Among other things, I learned that a river was dammed up to create a lake to get boats over the continental divide. There was fantastic discussion about the impact of disease (i.e. Yellow Fever) and how knowledge changed over time so workers were getting killed by industrial disaster instead of disease. Don’t ask me why I’m saying this in such a chipper manner, because of course I think killing people in the name of building something like this is horrifying.

My favorite thing about the episode, however, was toward the end, when they mentioned how vessels are charged by weight to go through the locks. I was wondering if they knew about a certain human who swam the locks, and lo and behold, they did! They mentioned Richard Halliburton’s traverse.

I don’t expect many of you to recognize Halliburton’s name, but growing up his name was said with a sort of awe. He was the first adventure travel writer and we read about his exploits in his Book of Marvels and discussed them with my father many times. As a matter of fact, his writing impelled my father to drag our sorry asses many places around the globe. Two years ago, I finally got to return the favor when my father met me in Cambodia to explore the ruins of Angkor Wat.

Share Button

Pack your bags

waiting at the border

Two years ago I traveled in SE Asia for just under three months. The topic of what to bring comes up often enough that I thought I’d write a post about it, if only for my easy reference in the future.

I was nudged to write this by a friend who asked: If you could only bring three things with you on a trip, what would they be? My quick, flip answer was: money, a camera and a toothbrush. But writing this just now, I replaced toothbrush with shoes. Oh, how fickle a packer I am! When I was preparing to go on my trip, a friend sent me an extensive packing list. The picture above shows me with my luggage: a medium-sized internal frame backpack as well as a small daypack on the ground, plus my moneybag and camera around my shoulder. And you should know I am a towering five feet one inches tall, so that should give you some idea of the size of my pack. I think it weighed about 15 pounds when I left the US. I did end up buying another tote halfway through my trip to carry all the things I ended up buying (pounds of pepper in Kampot!). If I had to do it over again, I would have left the books behind and probably tried to just load them all on an e-reader. Books are HEAVY!

Here is her list, complete with notes:

Share Button

The Weirdest Place

coal-powered iron

Last night a friend asked me what was the weirdest place I’d ever been. I had to pause, and then laugh, because the first answer that popped into my mind was Budapest and second was a Christian Values Conference I attended as a teenager (twice!). I have traveled on four continents: North America, Europe, South America and Asia and visited many places. Yet I feel that there is still so much of the world I haven’t seen. Back to my friend’s question, I started to interrogate what “weird” meant. What is it that makes something strange? Is it merely because it is unfamiliar and out of sync with my own experience of the world? In almost every setting, I recognize myself as the one that is weird, out of place.

I visited Oaxaca, Mexico in 2005, where I saw expansive straw platters heaped with roasted crickets called chapulinas. It seemed weird to me, but I was the odd-woman out; the people around me were delighted by this local treat. Contrast that with my breakdown over schnitzel in Budapest in 1992 and one might draw the conclusion that I am most certainly a strange creature.

I take my cues from the environment and surroundings. The first time I went to France I was 19. We stopped at a rest stop to use the bathroom, but I came up short when I walked in and found a squat toilet. Whatever urges I had that brought me in came to a screeching halt and I decided I could wait until I found a “proper” toilet. Fast-forward 20 years and I mastered these same squat toilets while traveling throughout SE Asia with nary a second-thought. And while the roasted and grilled bugs for sale at the night market still gave me the willies, I recognized that it is only in “the West” that we consider this abundant source of cheap protein inedible.

Does algae growing on snow qualify as weird? Because I’ve seen that in some of the places I’ve hiked. How about little chameleons and anoles hanging out on window screens? We grew up with them decorating our house in SW Florida. I think most Americans would consider that weird. We were Jewish in a sea of Christians, weirdos without a television or air conditioning. And on top of that, I was an identical twin in a time when we were considered oddities.

Which brings me back to the Christian Values Conference. It was a week-long camp/retreat for high school students, held in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. My sister and I weren’t the only Jewish kids to attend, but we were among the few. Since the ratio was pretty much the same as our high school, it didn’t feel that strange. Or rather, once again, I was the strange one. As far as camps go, I think it probably sounds more exotic than it was. The kids were all friendly and sweet. I loved the boys from Alabama and Georgia with their gorgeous southern drawls. We were divided into groups of 10 and for the week, this was our “family.” The second year I attended, the organizers wanted to include proper Bible study into the session. When my “family” found out I was Jewish, they unanimously decided to skip the Bible study out of respect for me (although I had a sneaking suspicion that most of them didn’t like it and used me as a convenient excuse, which was fine by me)! We all got along fantastically and I had a blast. There was singing in the morning and evenings, and when they would sing about Jesus, I would just hum or skip saying “Jesus”.

In my interrogation of weird places, it comes down to me. I am the common factor of strangeness. I am the stranger, the strange one, visiting strangeness until it becomes familiar.

Share Button