Sunday, June 25, 2017

Why Shouldn't You Go Hiking with a Strained Oblique?

I'll give you one reason.

I’d been itching to get out and climb Mt. Hachibuse for weeks. Then suddenly the day came. The sun was rising bright in the sparkling sky; immediate responsibilities, both parental and professional, were nil; the car keys were just sitting there.

My wife yelled in my general direction as I was pulling out of the driveway; something about one of the kids and a piano lesson. “One of my kids takes piano lessons?” I mused as I sped along Route 63, winding along the foot of the mountain range that culminates in this curious, non-descript peak I was rushing toward.

Honestly, I don’t know why I wanted to climb Hachibuse-yama. Of all the countless mountains around here it is nowhere near the highest. It is nothing you could call dramatic. There’s a road that takes you within a half mile of the top. Hachibuse means ‘prostrating bowl’ for Pete’s sake.

If I'm careful what could possibly go wrong?
If you decide to hike the short trail (built for those of us with a wife who needs the car later) you'll find it meanders through the woods until, halfway up the mountain, it spits you out onto the road. As if suddenly aware that it wasn’t supposed to be playing in the street, the trail quickly dips back into the woods. Then as if it were one of my kids it forgets it isn’t supposed to be playing in the street and runs out onto the pavement once again. At this point the trail turns into a squirrel in a panic, running into and out of and into and out of traffic’s way until it finally dies like road kill at the blacktop’s edge.

From there it’s a twenty-minute walk along the rocky shoulder, up to the parking lot where the smart people start walking.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Flipping Backward, Flipping Forward...Flipping Forget It


Last seen in Hamburg...
Let’s be real here. How much crazy, zany fun can actually be had flying from Japan to New Jersey and back? Enough for one blog post? Two, maybe, if the kids or the wife or the person in the next seat really goes off the deep end? Three if everyone goes long?

Besides one record-setting vomit exhibition there was little on either of our flights that would strike the passive passenger. BUT… to the ultra-observant there was enough for five blog posts. Yes, I am that perceptive.

I would have stopped at four, but United Airlines had to, on December 29th, put a copy of the January issue of Hemispheres, their in-flight magazine, in the seat pocket in front of me for my thirteen-hour journey back to Japan. Why can’t they just quit it with the fodder? Don’t they understand I can’t keep my derisive mouth shut?

In other words, this is all United’s fault.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Buds, Socks & Violence

In-Flight Sensorial Entertainment

The best thing to ever happen to an overseas flight.
I like flying. I always have. Despite the occasional and inevitable stresses, the idea-come-to-life of getting into a metal tube, taking off into the air and landing somewhere usually far away and sometimes worlds apart has never failed to stir something visceral and pleasing in me.

This morning, however, has been something else altogether. (If you read my last post you know what I’m talking about.) So as I sit restlessly in my seat in the waiting area outside Dulles Airport’s Gate 29, waiting for United Flight 803 to Tokyo to begin boarding, I look over at my family with the kind of pride that can only come from the fact that I haven’t strangled anyone today.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

How NOT to Plan Your Flight Overseas

Yet Another Air Travel Tragicomedy 

 ACT ONE 

December 29, 2016 – 3:30am  I’ve been curled up on the floor since quarter to two, in the makeshift futon my mom always puts out for my family when we visit. It’s comfortable. It’s warm. It’s not helping my pre-flight insomnia.

I can never sleep the night before flying overseas. It used to be excitement that kept me awake – a single guy, off to explore yet another foreign land, no responsibilities except for himself and even that was debatable. It’s different now. Now I fly with four other people, meaning five airplane tickets, meaning boo-koo bucks meaning I have to find the cheapest flight out there. Which leads the to unenviable prospect of another low-priced, high-tension Chinese airline experience.
 
The Plan: Limo from home (A) to Newark Airport (B). Fly to Raleigh-Durham (C). Fly to Washington Dulles (D). Fly to Tokyo-Narita. Total flight time: 17 hours. Total layover time: About 4 seconds. This should be interesting.

I’m excited to get back to Japan. I always am. But tonight it’s that unenviable potential for disaster that’s keeping me awake.

And this time I can’t even blame China.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Back-Flipping My Way Overseas - Part1

Tokyo to New Jersey

"Dating Service here I come!"

Being left-handed in the United States doesn't come with a whole lot of perks. You can't play shortstop. The spatulas are backwards. You have to learn the guitar upside down. And damn those half desktops in college! My left arm muscles are still quivering, and I didn't even take many notes.

In Japan, however, being a leftie is like having a famous parent; everyone likes you for it even though you had nothing to do with it. Rare is the dinner party where someone doesn’t comment on my left-handedness as if it were some kind of achievement. "You are left-handed! Ooh, GREAT!" Their admiration is so genuinely contrived you'd think I was doing something truly amazing. Like using chopsticks, or eating raw fish.

"Yes, hidari-kiki," I say, raising their laughter to authenticity level and eliciting cries of "Joh-zu! Great Japanese! Jooooh-zu!"

Then I tell them I text with my right hand and they go completely bananas.

Hidari-kiki is the general term for left-handedness, though some will use the term ‘southpaw’. It was funny to hear it the first few times – ‘sow-sue-po-a’ they say – but then the novelty wore off and I figured I should start contributing to the conversation.

“Do you know where the term southpaw comes from?” I’d ask.

Baseball might be Japan’s national pastime, but understanding its terms is not.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Smooth as Japanese Silk

Our Too-Easy Flight Out of Tokyo

Breaking my will and my bank in one shot.
Every year, right around Thanksgiving, my wife buys me beer and offers to do the dishes. She’ll do
one or the other from time to time, for reasons I’m supposed to understand but I don’t so I keep my mouth shut. (After twelve years of marriage I keep my mouth shut a lot.)

When she brings home beer and does the dishes, however, I know exactly what’s happening.

“So…” she says over the sound of splashing water and my belching. “Who is going to your mom’s for Christmas this year?”

This is a fair question when you consider my five sisters and their families can show up at mom’s in any of 519 combinations. But who is actually going to my mom’s is never the point. What my wife is really saying is Let’s go to your mom’s for Christmas this year!

Which, with three kids, costs about $5.0019.

But I’m good with flying home for the holidays. Christmas in Japan is weird. Not so much for the Christmas trees decked out like rainbows up and down Ekimae Street, or all the Hello Kitty Santas in the shop windows, or the fact that all of it will have disappeared by daybreak on December 26th; all of that is fine, and gives the people here something to talk about besides the weather and the flu. But the prevailing sense in the lead-up to Christmas is that no one here really knows what the hell is going on. Kind of like thousands of girls going to a Madonna concert with their underwear on the outside.

This year my sisters and their families, in whichever combination, would be descending on my mom’s place for our annual family ruck-up on the weekend before Christmas. December 17th. Less than three weeks away.

I glance back over at the calendar and burp again.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Short Post About Short Kids

and snacks on a pile of ancient dirt.

We could have just sat at the kitchen table and had cocoa. But the crisp blue sky was too much to ignore. So I bundled up the kids and tossed them in the car for the quick ride to Kobo-yama.

It's usually just a few minutes' walk from the creek where we park and through the tree-covered slopes up to the top of this oversized hill. On this day it took a bit longer with all the snow that still prevails on the northern side but for the kids, who already have little sense of time, how long it takes is irrelevant. Only the fun factor matters. At least until the frostbite sets in.

We'd been here before, in the spring, when the west-facing half of the hill becomes a pink and white blanket of cherry blossoms. Then too I'd tried to impress my kids with the fact that the top of this big hill is actually a burial mound dating back to the 3rd Century. They didn't care then, and they didn't care now - particularly my daughter, who thinks anything that happened anytime in her four years of existence was 'yesterday'. That none of us will be here in another century is equally unimpressive.

And that's cool.

I'm just happy they like it out here enough to forget all about the kitchen table.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Chinese Fire Drill Part II: Back to Japan

How to Transit Through Beijing Airport in 48 Simple Steps


Newark (NJ) Airport – China Air check-in counter
January 12th - 10:00am

“Your flight is going to be delayed,” said the man with the cheap jacket and the airline tie. I'm surprised he knew I was there. He'd spent the last ten minutes ignoring both me and the check-in girl trying to process my family’s five tickets, eight passports and ten 50-pound pieces of luggage.

“They’re late getting in from Beijing,” he told me. He looked proud of himself for having the knowledge.

I stared at him, this man whose apparent lot in life made mine seem more tolerable.

If we took off late we'd be landing late. We'd miss our connection to Tokyo. My kids would go bananas waiting around Beijing Airport for however many hours.

The beer on our flight would be free, but they'd only let me have so many.

Okay, Mr. Tie. “How late?”

He glanced past my shoulder, at something or someone behind me. “About ninety minutes,” he said. “But don’t worry, the pilot will make up the time in the air on the way back to Beijing.”

Whoa. On the way back to Beijing? You mean the pilot? The plane? Both??

There were no good answers for this. A plane that keeps going back and forth between Beijing and Newark? Some Chinese airlines still use planes from when there were ashtrays in the armrests - and no auto-pilot for the guy flying us back and forth either.

I was going to need my wife to order a bunch of beers for me.
 

Welcome.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Chinese Fire Drill - Part I

Japan to the USA via Beijing

What's the difference between China and Kanye West?

Kanye has grown fantastically wealthy by dressing flashy and unabashedly promoting a shitty product. He likens his escapades to "the highest form of contribution to society" while attacking others and then pleading not guilty. He says to Kim "your ass is mine". He's "a proud non-reader of books" and considers the drive to go and find someone to screw "valuable".

China on the other hand never said "your ass is mine" to Kim. They only said it to Tibet.

I'd sworn before that I would never again fly with a Chinese airline. But once again they offered the cheapest fares, and when you're buying five tickets to the other side of the globe and back you can't afford to be too picky (unless you're Kanye West, who can afford two tickets for Kim's ass and three for him and his ego on any airline he wants).

The China Air flight we found also went from Haneda to Newark, a geographical and logistical bonus for the trains across both Tokyo and New York City that we wouldn't have to take. But the kicker was the overnight layover in Beijing. Call me a masochist for getting excited about the journey taking an additional twelve hours, but as far as I'm concerned injecting a mini-vacation into your trip, even if it's just one night, is a satisfying extra.

Unless of course you're dealing with a shitty product.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Guest Post - 'Overnight Delivery in Vietnam'

With my good-intentioned bus master and friend. (You owe me, girl!)
My clearest memories of Vietnam revolve not around the famous sights and the guidebook-prescribed places but the unexpected, unpredictable moments of during and in between. Hoi An was wonderful, but it was the old woman with the leprous hands who peeled my mango for me that I can't forget, as much as I'd like to. Our trip to the hills up north was nice, but the brick that came flying and crashing through the window of our berth on the overnight train as we slept kind of heads the highlight reel.

Even on that boat tour around Vietnam's crown jewel of Ha Long Bay, the indescribable scenery, the captivating karsts take a back seat in the caravan of memories in my head. The grumbling, almost resentful attitude of the people working on the boat; the overload of French Fries at every meal; my gastrointestinal bout with some expired pineapple juice I drank; these are what stick in my mind, for better or for worse.

After a month it seemed Vietnam was entirely incapable of providing a dull moment. I couldn't even take a bus without having another memorable moment pounded into me. One bus ride in particular is the subject of 'Overnight Delivery in Vietnam', a recent guest post written exclusively for Manouk Bob's travel-inspired BunchOfBackpackers site.

Manouk has a lot of good stuff going on over at BunchOfBackpackers, so take a few moments to poke around. And check out 'Where These Roads Went', the travelogue that shows you in fantastic detail how not to travel through Cambodia. (Print version coming soon, for those of you who prefer paper to plug-in.)

p.s. - every detail of the story is true, even the part about the flying mangosteen.

Travel on!

Kevin