Travel Journal: Kyoto

Wildly delayed! Whoops

Sunday

The room I booked had a floor and was, thus, a premium cabin. It also included some pyjamas, slippers, and small toiletries. The bed was comfortable enough, and the floor was remarkably quiet. I guess when everyone has the same barrier of a blackout drape, everyone knows that the only polite thing to do is be quiet. For the price I paid, the accommodations were great, the staff were polite, and the water pressure in the showers was astounding.

After waking up and showering, I stopped off at the nearby Cafe Veloce for a quick breakfast and went for a long walk in the area around Nishiki Market, Gion (the Geisha district) and through Yasaka Shrine, Sorin-ji, and Chorakui-ji in Maruyama Park on the east side of Kyoto. Check out the pictures if you want a, well, picture of that, but I was struck by the central pagoda at Yasaka Shrine, the views from Chorakui-ji, and the same temple’s waterfall. It was a fantastic way to start a trip that would involve a whole hell of a lot of temples, shrines, and pagodas. I began my schlep well before the tourists started walking around, and by the time I left Chorakui-ji to go meet Brad and Yumiko, the hordes had descended upon Yasaka. Can’t say I blame em. It’s a beautiful place.

We met up at Nijo-jo, the former seat of Shogunate and Imperial power in Kyoto. It’s a castle in the middle of the city, replete with a moat, white walls, lacquered watch towers, and a central keep. The area inside has the palace structure, the keep, a barracks, and quite a few gardens, which were closed when we were there. I suspect it’s because they don’t want people ripping up the landscaping, which would undoubtedly happen if the public was allowed to run loose around the grounds. As I mentioned, this was the seat of power before the emperor’s locale was shifted to Kyoto and well before the Meiji Restoration brought the government to Tokyo.

FUN FACTS

  • Tokyo’s full city name is Tokyo-to, basically “East Kyoto.” This is not a fun fact to people who really like Tokyo.
  • Kyoto and Tokyo, thus, have kind of a Warsaw – Krakow thing going on

I think a very rough parallel to Nijo-jo would be Edinburgh Castle, but Nijo-jo’s defining characteristic is its understated minimalism that Gothic architecture if incapable of.

OBSERVATIONS

  • Taking shoes off is much easier than vacuuming.
  • Nijo-jo is a good example of historical interpretation centers. Not so much a museum, but it displays its history through dioramas and well-written placards.
  • “Nightingale floors” should come with a trigger warning on account of their incessant squeaking as people walk through the halls of the castle.

After Nijo-ji, we went to lunch at a place called Maeda Coffee, a chain that served food. It was fine, but I knew I wouldn’t really have much that would stick in my mind at chains. Chains are chains the world over, and while not everything is a Wetherspoons-level travesty, you won’t get a lot of memorable meals at an Applebee’s.  After lunch, we went to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple. It’s a gold-foiled temple on the northwest bit of Kyoto. I first knew about it because it was a background on my Macbook. I got to see it at sunset! It was great! The sun hit the temple at the exact right angle to cause a grand reflection in the pond at its base:

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The temple was swarmed by tourists, so I didn’t get a lot of time to sit and gawp at it, which was well enough. The rest of the temple grounds were gorgeous, with landscaping, rock sculptures, and gardens. Plus, an ice cream stand selling matcha soft serve. That was lovely.

If you ever want to go to Kinkaku-ji, I’d recommend going right when it opens, or as it’s about to close. Fewer tourists that way, and you get some great light effects. Regardless, though, it’s a place you should go.

We headed back to central Kyoto in time to see a small protest against the Abe government and get all-you-can-eat meat (yakuniku) at a place whose name escapes me. Kanna, the toddler, was not in favor of sitting and screamed most of the time. But hey, the meat and beer flowed, so all was well. We made plans for Koyasan the next day and parted ways after stuffing ourselves.

Monday

Koyasan is, essentially, a mountain town near a bunch of temples. It’s significant because it was the founding site of Shingon Buddhism, otherwise known as Esoteric Buddhism. Today, people can stay at the temples overnight, enjoy a vegetarian meal and, I assume, see the only stars visible near Osaka. I cannot, though, vouch for that, as we did not stay the night. One day, hopefully. One day.

At 8:40am the next day, we left for Koyasan after some transfers in Osaka. The trains led slowly into the mountains via older, incredibly not-crowded trains. We passed through small towns nestled into the many hills and mountains of that part of Japan, and it reminded me a bit of sub-Alpine Germany and Austria.

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It took three hours of travel, plus a cable car, but after we arrived, we made our way up to Oknoin, the temple dedicated to the founder of Esoteric Buddhism, and one that contains thousands of lanterns. The temple, since visitors are not allowed to photograph it, is, on the exterior, a typical Japanese Buddhist or Shinto temple. It is, though, lent gravity by its position at the far rear of a massive cemetery in the middle of the mountains, where the air is crisp and the atmosphere, aside from the tour guides and children, is peaceful. It is very much still an active temple, and there are large numbers of practitioners who go up the mountain to practice their version of Buddhism. As we walked around, Brad and Yumiko overheard older visitors discussing their relatives who were members of that sect of Buddhism and were thus memorialized in lanterns hanging from the exterior of the temple. I mentioned the parallel to jahrzeit plaques in synagogues.

I mentioned the cemetery earlier. What I didn’t mention is that, at the start of the cemetery, there are graves with corporate logos. As the Japanese do not strike me as a particularly anarchic people – indeed, I know that their governments have been vehemently anti-left wing for the 20th and 21st centuries – I have no idea what these are for. There was one put up by a pest control company in honor of all the termites they killed, which is cheeky, but strikes the Western mind as rather odd in juxtaposition with gravestones that are hundreds of years old. Still not sure what that’s about, and it’s something I should take a look at.

Other than that, we visited a pagoda with a picture of a dog outside. The dog was sick that day, so we did not get to see the dog. I was sad. The pagoda, though, did have a small basement chamber that was meant to evoke the womb. It was completely dark, and visitors are advised to hold handrails so they don’t get lost and, likely, die. The handrail is probably unnecessary because the hall was pretty narrow, but, again, tourists. Yumiko noted that Kanna was probably quiet because she just came from the womb, and it might have felt like home.

Following that, we went to Konpondaito Pagoda and its surrounding temples. The pagoda is the big orange one that people probably recognize:
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All around the area, signs gave the dates of reconstruction of these temples because, as we learned, everything in Japan has burned down at least four times. It’s the hazard of building everything out of wood. One day, we’ll transcend these wooden bonds, but until that day, wood it is.

The whole visit was nice and I’ve added an overnight stay on my bucket list. I’d like to see the night sky from there, and there’s something that appeals to me about spending the night in a temple. Doing so might scratch an itch, or be a way to test the waters about shifting fully over to some variant of Buddhism, though I think Zen would still be the one for me. I still need to make it through Mumonkan, though. Perspectives outside of Dogen would be nice.

After hitting up a slew of Koyasan’s pagodas and temples, we headed back to Osaka. I churned through a significant chunk of Children of Dune and we all rested as best we could, given that we were all standing up on the train back to the city.

Upon arriving in Osaka, we ate ramen at a well-regarded vending machine ramen place. It was pretty solid, though extremely salty, but also fairly affordable. After ramen, we ate takuyaki – fried octopus puffs – and wandered around a place that reminded me of an extraordinarily low-key Fremont Street. I forget the name of the district we were in, but it seemed that all the world had been transformed into pachinko parlors, bars, restaurants, and kitsch shops. Along our route, one guy – a cook for a restaurant, judging by his uniform – stopped me and asked how the Astros were doing. (I was wearing my Astros hat. He was not psychic.) At the start, because I live in Portland, where everyone is trying to sell you something on the street, I thought he was going to have a pitch for something, but nope. He just wanted to talk sports with an American. His brother played football at Nebraska and now lived in Houston. Apparently people in Osaka are well-known for being friendly, while Kyoto has a reserved reputation.

We walked along the neon- and freon-lit streets, hearing accents from all over the world popping into bars, ramen shops, pachinko parlors, and toy stores. Osaka was an extraordinarily lively place in a completely opposite way than Bangkok. The latter almost flaunts wealth by displaying the gaudy shopping malls alongside the deprivation of poverty. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere in Bangkok without being reminded of the extraordinary poverty. Streets are full of rubbish, the rivers are polluted, and everywhere there’s the sense that the people deserve better just by virtue of being human beings. By contrast, Osaka and Kyoto are clean, orderly, and seemingly prosperous. It would, of course, be naive to assume that poverty does not exist in these two cities. Because they exist in a capitalist society, poverty must exist. But there is, here, a sense of order that does not exist in Bangkok. And that is what I mean by the liveliness in Osaka versus that in Bangkok: It is just as human to have the deprivation of Bangkok as it is the glittering lights, scents of takuyaki, and vending machines selling beer and coffee in Osaka. Yin and yang. Kyoto is a more reserved, quiet Osaka. There is plenty of life on its main streets, but just as much, if not more, in the small side streets crowded with restaurants, cafes, izakayas. Kyoto ranges from those main thoroughfares filled with Apple, Adidas, Dolce & Gabana, and the like to the nearly-preserved-in-time narrow streets of Gion. And nowhere is there a hint of trash or disorder. It’s not something I’d think to see in Tokyo, but for a first impression of Japan, it’s not bad.

Of course, walking through Osaka’s shining streets, I was more concerned with taking pictures of the sculptures of fish, crabs, cows, and octopus that served as restaurant signs. The “deep thoughts” only popped up later, the next day, at Astrea coffee on a quiet street in west-central Kyoto.

Tuesday

Began the day at Astrea coffee, a small cafe away from the chains of Karasuma. The cappuccino (which I have now deemed my decadent travel beverage) was good and the barista was friendly. I asked, at one point, where he sourced his beans, but I think that was slightly over the level of his English abilities. The response I got was somewhere between “Yes” and “Corporate.” No biggie – it was tasty, and the cafe was very nice. I kept up with this journal, then headed out to meet up with Brad at Gion to head to the Water Temple (Kiyomizu-dera). It was not, I learned, named that because there were puzzles and you need leaden boots to get through. Instead, it was named that because there is a waterfall nearby that the monks use(d) to perform ablutions. For our purposes, the name was very fitting because it rained in a nearly constant drizzle through the day.

Along the way, we walked through narrow streets that are now home to kitsch shops (which I humbly submit should be referred to as “kitschens”) but, I suppose, were once home to people who hoped to live near the temples of the district and thus catch blessings as they rolled downhill. The shops now sell most of the same thing: Cat plushies, tiny monks, tiny buddhas, chopsticks, matcha-flavored snacks, etc. Their targets are, of course, the tourists going to and coming back from Kiyomizu-dera. It reminded me a bit of the shops around the Malaga and Cordoba cathedrals, but, obviously, Japanese. The color palette was different, the construction was wood, and the whole area felt much more subdued than the vibrant (and hot) southern Spain, but it was nonetheless similar. It thus spoke, in some commercially transcendent way, of the universality of tourism.

After cutting down the hill, we grabbed ramen at a small stall just off the main street adjacent to the torii leading to Yasaka Shrine. The food there was good, cheap, and quick. Aside from Osaka, it had been really, really long since I’d had ramen and I had forgotten how salty it was. I could feel the arteries clogging up and getting ready to rebel, but damn it was good. There is, obviously, a huge gulf between Cup Noodles and shop-made ramen, but this trip really drove home how deep that gap is.

Following the meal, I called Michiko, an old friend of my mom’s side of the family. She’s an older Japanese woman who lives in Yamagata. She was my grandfather’s secretary when the family lived in Japan while he was stationed there in the Air Force, and my mom and she have kept in touch regularly. She’s a very nice woman with surprisingly good English, and she extracted a promise that I’d figure out a way to come visit the next time I came to Japan.

We then went to Sanjusangendo via one of the private lines in Kyoto. Sanjusangendo is a temple with 1,001 statues to Kannon, lined with a few statues of protector deities that migrated from Hinduism to Buddhism. The temple complex is a decent size, with a well, two large gates, and a torii, but the main attraction, obviously is the statues. They were built over the course of a few decades and commissioned by the Shogun. In a way, it’s nice to see that the desire to immortalize oneself by building massive shit is universal: Pyramids, temples, cathedrals, mosques, all come from the desire of people to say “Look how dedicated to this religion I am.” Don’t get me wrong: The statues are extraordinarily impressive, and the craftsmanship is astounding. With that said, I’m not sure what Siddhartha Gautama would have thought about these massive displays given the whole rejection of wealth and extravagance, but that might just be my Zen bias popping up.

On the way out of the temple, I got a request for Nintendo kitsch from my friend Josh. Brad knew a place to go, and we slowly made our way over there. First, though, we stopped at a place called Amazon Coffee, an establishment that was like a coffee counter and a diner instead of a cafe. I dug the hell out of it, from the quiet guy who ran the place to the simple – but still expensive! – coffee. Kyoto, I found, has a lot of these small hidey-holes that have solid fare. You just need to get away from the shopping district – much like every other major city in the world, really.

We walked from Amazon Coffee to Kyoto Station, talking about how work raises our blood pressure, the differences in working with Americans, Japanese, Europeans, and Koreans, and family life. Along the way, I saw a record score/cafe called Davada Record/Cafe. I didn’t manage to make my way there, but it has made the list of places to check out. Looked nice from the outside at the very least. Then we made our way to Kyoto Station’s Yobodashi Camera store. 8 floors of stuff. Just so much stuff. Camera equipment, home appliances, toys, furniture, just a lot of stuff. We’d wind up back there to give Yumiko a chance to feed Kanna, but woof. Stuff. I got Josh his kitsch from a capsule machine and we went to a couple of nearby temples founded by and run by the same sect of Japanese Buddhism (Higashi-Hoganji & Ryakokuzan Hongwan-ji). There was apparently a feud within the sect and part of the sect broke off from the first temple (East) and founded the second temple (West). The temples aren’t identical, but they are very, very similar. The East temple was burned down in various fires four times. Unsure how many times the West temple had burned down, but if the rest of Japan is any indicator, it’s at least four times. Thanks, as always, to Yumiko for the local knowledge.

We walked around a while, chatted with an older tour guide, and then went to the West temple, which we unanimously agreed was worse, pretentious, and derivative. Why? No reason. After that, we went back to Kyoto station for a hell of a long time. There, we walked up to the observation deck after picking up some snacks and having a baffling conversation about a sign on the counter. (NOTE: Kyoto has cheese tarts! Like Lisbon!) From the observation deck, we saw the city and Brad pointed out the Nintendo buildings in town. No word on if the two buildings have a feud.

And finally in the group excursion, we went to a food hall where I had gyoza, shao mai, and a beer; Brad got Meat; and Yumiko got Mexican. Kanna, being an infant, pooped in her diaper. The food and beer hit the spot and after a wander through the subway, we parted ways.

I then went to Jam House Rock Bar! This place was great! It is on the fifth floor of a building on the Western edge of the Gion district, just South of the McDonald’s near the bridge coming from Karasuma. The bar’s space is tiny, with seating for, maybe, fifteen people. A couple tables line the wall across from the bar, which has stools for six people. Above the bar are dozens of records on vinyl and a few CDs. The walls are plastered with posters ranging from Motorhead to Bob Marley, and there’s a TV showing concert videos. When I walked in, it was Zeppelin.

Kyoto – because I don’t think I’ve gotten this point across – is a very expensive city. Well, relative to what I usually like, I guess. If you come from LA, it’s probably cheap, and if you’re coming from Seattle, it’s probably on par. But for me, as a member of kind-of the middle middle class, it’s expensive. Food, clothes, stuff is pricey. Jam House was a nice little oasis from price tags. At this bar, one may find a cocktail that is, essentially, Jack Daniel’s with a splash of Coke for $9 (it’s called “Lemmy”). Their cocktail list has some suggestions, but is mainly a listing of liquor bases with what you can pair it with, and the requisite pricing. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s affordable.

I stayed there for some time, talking with the bartender and sharing our mutual love of Motorhead and Mastodon, and chatted with a lovely Japanese woman whose name I totally forgot to get, because I am an idiot.

Jam House was fantastic. Got a band recommendation from the bartender (SONHOUSE – not the blues musician) and would really like to go back there at some point. They were very friendly people and it went a long way to reinforcing my already strongly-held belief that metalheads and punks are the fucking best. (It is a proven fact that Lemmy and Motorhead have united more people than Christ.) I also introduced everyone in the bar to Tyr, and the bartender seemed into them. We listened to a couple of tracks and then went back to Mastodon, which is more proof that Jam House is the best bar in Kyoto. Being very small and on the 5th floor of a building forces familiarity in a good way.

After a couple of Lemmys, I headed back to the hotel. I planned to hike Mt. Hiei in the morning.

Wednesday

You should know this, because I forgot it, and it bears remembering: Metric to Imperial is a more intricate conversion than multiplying by 2. Thus, the 840m mountain was not 1680 feet, but over 2500 feet. This I did not realize and did not prepare myself for.

I got up early and went to a convenience store to pick up snacks, water, and the tea for the hike up Hiei. Then, I took a bus and a short train ride to Sigamura station to where I thought a trailhead was.

I arrived at the trailhead to find the road heading up to it was closed due to some construction. I tried to communicate with the utility guy via my phone and translation app, but he seemed to not want to put forth the effort and shrugged and sat down. I took that for a pretty strong “Fuck off” signal, and fucked off through a neighborhood, past an Imperial palace, and then started my climb another way.

The first observation I had was that I am way out of shape and am unconditioned for this kind of stuff. The second observation I made was that based on the people passing by me, I need to be more in shape. The third observation I made was that hiking up was a good choice. The trail was empty. The fourth observation was that, partly because of its emptiness, the trail was gorgeous. Right off the bat, you are surrounded by trees and based on one other hiker’s bow and clap to an (ash?) tree, there was some kind of significance to this forest.

From the start of the trail to the top is the aforementioned 840m elevation gain over around 9 kilometers. I don’t know exactly how much of that I walked, given I double backed and wandered around a bit, but it sure as hell felt like a lot. Along the route, one is treated to streams, rivers, brooks, cairns left by hikers, and, of course, views of the unending sprawl of the Kyoto-Osaka metropolitan area. At the top, hordes of tourists who took the cable car and views all around, including the big fuck-off lake to the east. For me, though, the walk up was more important than the top.

Back in undergrad, I read excerpts of Basho’s The Narrow Road of the Interior. Part travel journal, part poetry, it is a work written by a monk as he makes his way across Japan on foot. He was one of those kinds of monks whose practice was active and artistic and the haikus and imagery of the piece, as he embarks across Japan’s fields and mountains on a very long pilgrimage, always struck me as something I wanted to do. This was reinforced recently as I read Werner Herzog’s thoughts about walking places on foot and how he decided to walk the length of Germany’s land border. Perhaps this is why I decided to go up the mountain instead of go to the palace. Some part of me clicked when I saw the peak, as we drove from Kinkaku-ji and I knew that I’d wind up on the trail.

I don’t often feel pulled to go into nature. I didn’t grow up hiking or camping and, despite living in a gorgeous part of the US, rarely go while in Portland. For some reason, though, I’ve felt the need to go in both Hong Kong and Kyoto. Both times have been great, exhausting, and challenging, and I always think that I’ll do it again.

I was amazed at the amount of nature so close to the city. No monkeys spotted, but plenty of green hills, spiders, and birds. I definitely understand why hiking is a big thing in the PNW; I just wish we had a transportation system that made it accessible without the need for cars.

Toward the midpoint of the trail was a rest. There, an older Japanese man was reading a book. I sat down for some water and looked out across city and all around. After some time, I started back up along the way and, after that, the trail got really steep. It was at that point that I realized that my command of the metric system was sorely lacking. Along the way, I ran into an Australian and the Japanese guy with the book at another rest, looked out over the city, and ate some nuts. It was at that point that I made the connection to Basho and thought about how neat it is that, sometimes, life takes you exactly where you wanted to go, even if it took a decade longer than you would have liked.

From that rest point, I hauled further up the trail, considered how it always seemed like there was more mountain, and walked by a ton of windfall. Along the way, there was what looked like a radio rely station. I rested near there or a bit and wondered what would happen if it turned out to be a classified facility. Would they come after me? Would I be disappeared down a hole for the rest of my life? Of course, nothing happened and I continued upward. Eventually, I hit a crossroad of the Kyoto Trail and a former service road. There, a Japanese woman kitted out for a run asked me how far it was down the trail, and I said “Way down.” She laughed and started jogging down the trail.

It was there that I saw the hordes of tourists in cable cars going up to the peak. Based on that and being unable to find a path that was marked up for the peak, I walked for some time in the direction of a couple of temples. Eventually, I walked back and decided to take the cable car back down in time to have lunch with Brad and get some souvenir shopping done.

Brad and I ate fast food on his lunch break and I got some treats for folks. Soon, I headed out my own way and found a coffee shop called Cafe Bibliotec Hello! and decided to hole up there for a while, finish Children of Dune, and write some before wandering around prior to dinner.

The CBH! is a two-storey “book cafe” attached to a bakery. It’s near the Kyoto Imperial Palace – just to the south – and has a remarkably low-key, warm atmosphere. I imagine part of that is because the people who want to hang around books are strange and don’t like talking a lot. That’s me, after all. Whatever the reason, it’s an excellent place to while away an afternoon with a book and a notepad and get some coffee away from Karasuma. The cappuccino was tasty and they gave the option to have cinnamon on it, so I was pleased as punch.

Around 5:30, I left and continued walking around. After going through some craft store and art gallery-laden side streets, I decided to follow the Kyoto palace walls back to Karasuma and meet up with Brad and Yumiko for dinner. It was a long, but pleasant, walk passing through high-income neighborhoods, listening to crickets in the trees around the park over the walls, and marvel that no one was blaring music out of their cars. It was serene, peaceful, and the complete opposite of Bangkok and Osaka.

I met up with Brad and Yumiko to find food in Gion. Eventually, we wound up in an izakaya selling matcha beer. I did not drink the matcha beer, but I did split two bottles of sake with Brad and Yumiko. We ate a bunch (including eel) and I went back to pass out at the hotel before my flight back in the morning.

State of legs: Burnt out.

Travel Journal: Bangkok

I’m going to start keeping a journal of the places I travel. Why? Well, I pack a lot of stuff into these trips, and it would be nice to have a place to go back to remember exactly when I did what. So, with that in mind, here’s the first part of a lengthy bit of travel writing about Bangkok, Kyoto, Osaka, and Koyasan.

Bangkok

The Trip In

We landed late at night at Bangkok Airport, following an obscenely long travel day of PDX – SEA – ICN – BKK. After a couple of beers with a client in the Seoul-Incheon airport, I was hoping for a quick, sleep-filled flight, but it was fairly warm and I was unable to go to sleep easily. Still, all told and aside from the woman who coughed on me for the entirety of the 11 hour flight from Seattle to Seoul, everything was pretty okay.

Movies watched

  1. Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy
  2. The Longest Day
  3. The Dead Don’t Die
  4. Spider-Man: Far From Home
  5. (Part of) The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Ironically, I wanted to sleep through The Dead Don’t Die, but fell asleep during the last movie. It was fine, I was just exhausted. I need to give it another shot. The Dead Don’t Die was dull and seemed more like an exercise for Jim Jarmusch to get his friends together than anything. Just a lot of dull moments following each other with hints of a better script throughout.

Sunday

Woke up early, got breakfast at, possibly, the most excessive breakfast buffet known to man, and went back upstairs to get some work done and listen to the Astros’ last ALCS game over the MLB.com radio. A bit of the way through the 7th, I figured they would do just fine without me and went for a walk with some coworkers. We went through one of the giant malls that you usually find in Southeast Asia, those shining diamonds of tourism and glamour set right next to side streets where the houses are little more than tin lean-tos. Floors of designer gear aimed at wealthy Chinese and Japanese shopping-tourists – not to mention Emirates on vacation. We walked around aimlessly, talking about life, our jobs, leaving our jobs, and reasons for leaving jobs, and, ultimately, wound up at a cafe next to a gas station.

After a brief repose, I met up with another coworker. He and I went for another amble in the heat – I told him about the song “Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen” – and found a small place for lunch. Two pad thais and two sodas for four dollars! The price and the food were good and the restaurant staff were friendly. He and I then went back to the hotel, I did some more work, and then planted in the hotel bar & lounge. In the course of a few hours when we were there, I met a couple from the local Chabad House. They were wandering around hotels looking for Jews who hadn’t done anything for Sukkot. I shook the lulav and etrog and chatted for a bit. The guy – Mendl – invited me out for Simchat Torah the next day. I said that, as I had no other plans, I’d give it a shot.

We went for dinner that night at one of the restaurants at the hotel after missing a connection with a few other people who were going somewhere else. Had mediocre sleep that night; jetlag began to strike.

Monday

Meetings through the day with nothing major to report. That night, though, I wound up going to Simchat Torah at the Chabad House. The people were very friendly once I got through the “Are you really Jewish or are you a terrorist in disguise” screening at the entrance. As normal for Chabad and Simchat Torah, the whiskey and vodka flowed like the Chao Praya. I chatted with a lot of people, including one guy from San Francisco who owns rental properties in Portland and is, thus, the enemy. Lots of ex-pat American Jews in Bangkok, either because of finance or retirement. I drank and ate, then danced with the Torah like it was in a very low-key circle pit. Chabad has turned praying into an endurance sport in this regard, and they are to be commended for it.

Toward the end of the night, I met one guy who tried (and failed) to convince me to buy tefillen. He then offered to just give me some, which was very nice. We arranged to meet on Wednesday, which did not happen due to scheduling problems. Again, a very nice man, but Chabad does not, as a rule, strike me as a schedule-oriented bunch.

Observations

  • The shul was in the bottom floor of what I assume is an apartment building catering to Westerners. I walked by it twice on Sunday, but didn’t notice anything that indicated it was a Jewish center. I assume this is very much intentional, given the rise of racism the world over.
  • Inside, the shul was simple. Some tables and chairs, a heavy bima in the center that was a little larger than a speaker’s platform. The ark was nice, though, and they had two Ashkenazi scrolls and two Sephardic scrolls. Those Sephardic scrolls, I learned, are very heavy. The women were behind a barrier, except for the girls, who ran around the room while the men prayed.
  • At one point, some Bar Mitzvah-aged boys ran around with huge bottles of whiskey.
  • The Chabadniks were shocked that I was not married, and Mendle offered to make me a match. I turned him down because I did not, by any ways, means, or hopes, want to stay in Bangkok a moment longer than I needed to.

All in all, it was a wildly different experience from a Reform service and I definitely see the appeal of joining the community, especially if you have decent Hebrew. The fact that I was practically stumbling back from the hotel – carefree! In Bangkok! – spoke wonders to how they’re able to throw a community together out of – ostensibly – every kind of Jew. It reminded me of Rabbi Zalman in Kent, who traveled around South and Southeast England, connecting Jewish students and holding services for holidays. I wondered how he’s doing, and should really reach out to him and see how things are.

Tuesday

Long day of meetings. We held a members reception at the top floor of the hotel bar, bit nothing following it aside from small-group schmoozing and drinking. Noticed here that most people seemed fairly low energy. Unsure of the reason. Talked with Ania, Oleksandr’s wife, for a bit. She was nice and gave me some pointers for Kyoto. We had a final drink in the hotel bar and called it a night.

Wednesday

Incredibly long and brutal day of meetings capped off by a 30-minute voting session. Following that, had a few rounds at the hotel bar with members, then went out to a small place nearby for pad thai and a huge Chang. I returned to the hotel and slept poorly again, thanks to stress dreams. Included:

  • Carrying Grandolph’s corpse around a village in Eastern Europe, trying and failing to find an appropriate place to bury him. In the dream I called my dad to ask why he wasn’t the one doing this, and he gave me a verbal shrug on the phone.
  • Went to a synagogue where the chair of the org’s certification group was the rabbi. The synagogue’s focus was on worshipping god through physical fitness. Kind of like masculine Christianity, but Jewish. It was a very strange dream.

I woke up at 3am and could not get back to sleep. I knew that I was looking forward to vacation.

Thursday

Relatively laid-back day. Had a lot of work to get through and hoped to be able to do so by the end of the day Friday. Spent most of the day with the Security group. Phil cracked jokes and Alex deemed the group a bunch of imps. I went to dinner with a few members at a nearby Indian restaurant at the Holiday Inn, called Maya. It was pretty good, though a little pricier than I think it should have been. I returned to the hotel with the members and had a round of beer before crashing for the night. Topics of conversation included.:

  • Inclement weather (tornadoes)
  • The size of pint glasses
  • Permission to be nice to Phil as part of higher-tier membership dues.

Went to sleep early and got a full(ish) 7 hours of sleep.

Friday

A half day of meetings led to shirking some duties to go to the Bangkok Aquarium. It was nice, and they seemed to care about the fish. I guess. They weren’t eating them in front of us, which I took to be a good sign. Not sure how you are supposed to tell if fish are comfortable. Do they get more aggressive? Do they go insane? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

After fish-jail, we went to a steak place across the street from the hotel for beers. Ed made it clear that he was “disappointed” that the bar was out of some beer. The server said “Ah” and walked away. I’m sure he has bigger things to worry about. Like if water is going to be potable that day. Or if he’s going to be able to easily afford to eat. You know, minor things like that. The beer they did have was perfectly fine. I got a Tuk Tuk, which was billed as a cream ale. My experience with cream ales is limited, but it tasted fine. Don’t know that I’ll seek it out again, but if I find myself in SE Asia again, I’ll be on the lookout for it.

The beer reminded me of the beer stall in Singapore. Singapore is another place I’d be perfectly fine with never going to again. The beer stall was fine, though.

After the beers, we went back to the hotel lobby bar, and had a few drinks before I left for the airport. I’m not sure when I’ll get to see those guys again, and it was nice to be able to spend a bit of time with em. At least a few of them I’d consider to be friends, and parting with friends, especially when you don’t know when you’ll see each other again, is always bittersweet.

En route to the airport, my driver thought I said no to the highway, which resulted in a winding path through the streets of Bangkok. There were a lot of downtrodden streets along that route. Poverty is hard to acknowledge and accept, especially when you know that a lot of those people share the same dreams as everyone in the world: Stability, prosperity for their life, and – hell – drinkable water on demand.

At the airport, I ran into Oleksandr and Ania. We chatted for a bit, parted ways at our gates, and I caught my flight.

Kyoto by way of Busan, Seoul, and Osaka

Saturday

I left Bangkok late and, as a result, missed my connection. After a very frustrating conversation with Kiwi, I got a refund on my Busan -> KIX flight and booked at the airport with Korean Air. It was more expensive that way, but I have solidly inscribed Kiwi in the Book of Grudges after they told me it would be 2-4 hours before I could talk to another agent about re-booking my flight. I decided to go the route I did because doing so put me on a dependable airline, direct with the airline, and did not throw me into a situation where I might have to take a weird route. My advice if you want to go with Kiwi or another semi-travel agency would be to only do it if you’re travelling domestic. If you’re flying international, give yourself more than enough time for transfers in case something goes slightly wrong, because you’re going to need to go out of your way to go about your day.

Anyway, the bright side of an extended layover in Busan was that I was able to listen to the Astros game at the airport!

I landed in Osaka and got through immigration at 6pm. There, I met up with Brad, took a long bus trip to Kyoto, dropped off my bags at First Cabin – a capsule hotel that charged me $130 for the week! – and went to dinner with him and Yumiko at a nearby Italian place. Apparently, Italian is a big deal in Kyoto. I had a risotto and some kind of white wine that was tasty. Brad and Yumiko’s kid, Kanna, displayed patience that would desert her later in the weekm and was fairly innocuous throughout dinner.

After the meal, I went out for a beer at a nearby place called Marib, went to my hotel, and passed out.

V for Victory

It is no secret that I have a thing for Beethoven. I’ve written about it here and if you’re around me when I’m drunk enough to go on a ramble about music, then chances are that you’ll hear me talk about why Beethoven’s work is so important to me. But in the context of what the US is going through right now, and, really, what the world is going through right now, Beethoven is integral.

Anyone who pays any attention to news from the US and abroad knows that the world has seen a massive upswing in the worst excesses of right-wing politics, from reactionary rhetoric to autocrats encouraging the full-sale slaughter of their own citizens. But more disturbing than their actions is that, at least in the West, these parties are democratically elected. They are a symptom of a great amount of fear, hatred, and misplaced rage the world over, and the causes of that are best left for another post written by someone who hasn’t recently gone on a tear shouting “Punch Nazis wherever you see them.” No, what I’m here to talk about today is a follow-up to a Twitterstorm I threw out a few days ago about Shostakovich. See, that happened before our President, a man with a micropenis—evidenced by his reactionary and egoistic approach to anyone criticizing him or the straw figures he calls his policies—decided to throw a gag order on environmental and recreational federal agencies. After that popped up, I thought some more about Shostakovich, a man who fought back against another oppressive regime in his own way: He made music. And now, with our President deciding that, yes, a list of crimes committed by immigrants is a fantastic way to unify the country and use his executive powers, I think about Beethoven.

Beethoven was a man from the margins who spent his life attempting to become an aristocrat by virtue of his work. His family was not of the upper crust, and he knew that very well. It’s reflected in his relationships with his patrons and his mentors, this mentality that they had no moral right or standing to address him as an inferior, or that he should be content with his station as a mere employee or artistic servant. This carried over into his politics, where, for the day, he was a staunch proponent of individual liberties. He criticized the Austrian court, its secret police, and the foibles of the aristocracy. He supported Napoleon up until the point where Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. His only opera deals with the theme of the unjustly imprisoned and mistreated overcoming their oppressors with the help of a just ruler. In all, Beethoven was, at least nominally, a friend of the common man. His music is filled with these themes, and to write about any of those pieces would provide enough content for an entire series about Beethoven and political resistance. Instead, I’d like to talk briefly about Beethoven’s 5th and World War II.

In short, the Allies realized that they had a propaganda coup with using the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to open their broadcasts. Not only is the music striking, but, in Morse Code, the same short-long pattern translates to “V,” as in “victory.” So, with every broadcast, with every bumbumbum-buh, the Allies would telegraph their hope for victory over the Germans. Of course, what they didn’t really make a note of is the very same bars being the implication of Fate knocking on one’s door. That, naturally, has its own propaganda use, as it’s almost as if Heaven and Earth are willing the Allied forces to victory over the Axis powers. But, that’s a lot less snappy than “V for Victory.”

Of course, Beethoven’s German roots were a little troublesome to some people. Those people, naturally, didn’t really think about that beyond the labels of “German.” On one level, it falls apart because Beethoven didn’t live in Germany, as Germany would not exist for decades. On another, he came from a Flemish family (hence the “van” in his name), and lived and worked in Austria for a significant portion of his life. On yet another level, that concern falls apart when one considers that Beethoven had a certain, significant portion of his brain dedicated to making known his disdain for autocrats, tyrants, and the crushing of the masses by the aristocracy.

But beyond all of those political matters, the underlying theme in all of Beethoven’s work is a sort of universalism that is a unique hybrid of a Protestant environment, Beethoven’s sense of natural wonder and nature-based spiritualism, and the brotherhood of man. The most famous example of this is the Choral portion of his 9th Symphony, which takes and edits (for the better, by all accounts) a poem by Friedrich Schiller. The content of Beethoven’s choral work is a sort of unitarian spiritualist praise of the best qualities of humanity, and, at its core, a call for people to rise above their base natures and embrace one another as brothers (and sisters).

But, as it stands, and as poetic and beautiful and moving as the 9th is, there is nothing quite as punch and attention-grabbing as those opening bars of the 5th. They force you to sit up, focus your attention, and set you up for riding the wave of Fate that is the 5th. Most relevant for today’s political environment, though, is the call to action implicit in those bars. As the dynamic, bombastic music throughout the symphony would suggest, Fate does not favor those who sit idly by. Fate favors those who act.

Perhaps that was in the background of the Allied propagandists’ minds when they decided to use those opening notes in BBC broadcasts across occupied Europe. For whatever reason, though, those opening bars of the Fifth Symphony have found their place in the composer’s work’s theme of triumph over adversity, of resistance to tyranny, and the triumph of individual liberty.

As the United States faces a President who is at the very least someone who is eerily close to several definitions of fascism, we would do well to look back at the inspiration our parents and grandparents took from art like the Fifth Symphony, and the themes that Beethoven espoused in his work. Just as Fate favors the bold and the active, it takes more effort than we’d like to admit to rise above our evolutionary origins of face-ripping, feces-throwing apes and fully embrace each other. It takes a strong will to stand up against the empowered few who seek to dominate the disempowered many.

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