Adulting in Japan

Agh. Did I just say adulting? Incorporating popcorn verbs that were once clever into everyday language is a natural side effect of living in California. That being said, there were no better titles for this blog post, and if the shoe fits… well, you know.

I came back from the Pacific Ocean island nation about one week ago. I would tell you for how long we were there for but I’ve decided that the length of a trip is no longer relevant. Since time is subjective and arbitrary, I think it’s fair to talk about take-aways and highlights instead of limiting impressions with day counts.
During the trip, I got to finish Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, a great read coincidentally full of Japanese references. I did most of my reading when traveling from one prefecture to another which we did mostly by train, but we also took a couple of domestic flights.

Japanese trains are a marvel of efficiency. Bigger, better and stronger than any other train system I have seen. From the subway, which takes you everywhere in cities like Kyoto and Tokyo, to the bullet trains that feel more like modern aircrafts than the vintage, clunky peasant-friendly machines that I often picture. Traveling in Japan is a luxurious experience that welcomes all the Japanese and the foreign alike, the lawyers and the bookies, teenage girls wearing school uniforms and retired geishas. Trains, like almost everything else is Japan, are incredibly clean. If it took me 3 days to get over the jet-lag coming back, it took me no time to get used to the garbage-free sidewalks and the bright-green velvet fabric covering the seats of the local trains. Mmm… so smooth to the touch.

There were times when we played cards, CRIBBAGE to be exact. Cribbage is a great game for two people. It requires skill but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. I felt that way about Chinese poker, too, when I was traveling in Serbia, but Chinese Poker is best when played with three people. My favorite game of Cribbage was the one we played during the train ride from Kyoto to Takayama. I liked it not only because I won, but also because the game was often interrupted by striking multi-colored foliage of lusty, pine-like trees. These forests are fed by milky water descending from the snowy Alps that border many traditional farming villages in the mountainous Gifu Prefecture.

Needless to say, Takayama was a highlight and not only because of the scenery but also because of the 17 course dinner that we had while we were there. It is true what they say about Japanese hospitality! And it was worth it to spend some money to wear a traditional yukata, soak in a communal bath and have a good night’s rest in a Ryokan after eating a spread that was a feast of textures, colors and delicacy.

Speaking of highlights, how ’bout Okinawa? My favorite prefecture in Japan, for now. We got to know Naha’s labyrinth-like covered market and we had the best pork belly that anybody can dream of. We also went to Aka, a very small island in the Kerama Islands with a population of about 300 people.

Aka had one corner-store, two very simple restaurants and some of the most beautiful beaches that I have ever seen. Beaches with warm water from the Pacific Ocean that is turquoise when you look at it from the white sand but perfectly clear when you snorkel in it. We got to see a moray eel that was HUGE and gets bigger every time that I tell the story, but seriously guys, it was at least 8 feet long to begin with. Kawai, the fisherwoman who co-owns the guesthouse where we stayed, said that we were very lucky.

And luck brings me back to the title of this post. What a fortune it is to be an adult. I like it a lot, actually! I like knowing that I’m being silly, I like appreciating the meal that comes from the grocery store and also the meal that is served at a fancy spot. I like being an adult that buys souvenirs for friends and family because sometimes it’s more fun to give, especially when you know that you are incredibly lucky.

Because of all the research and planning that was involved in planning this trip, something not typical for most of my travels, I had a chance to enjoy the journey even before it began. What a surprise it was to see the benefits of being organized and still be flexible and open to spontaneous opportunities. It was refreshing to do less and see more… and it was so fun to travel with someone willing to look for ice-cream in Kabukichō, Tokyo’s red light district.

So, take-aways? There are many, but I would say that none of them are as unique to me as the feeling of being an adult while traveling overseas. I’ve gone to some places before and with every journey, I’ve discovered something new about myself. In Japan, my best days ended with me being curled up in a traditional Japanese futon, falling asleep well before midnight and waking up to the rising sun, happy and with mild back pain… because maybe that’s part of it and you know? It’s fine, back pain can be easily managed with yoga.

PS: Thank you Nicholas Lacampagne for the edit and for the beautiful photos.

Tiles in Spain

Tiles are popular in Venezuela. This is at least partially due to our Spanish influences, but possibly it is also because tiles are cool to the touch and keeping cool is a priority in countries with warm weather.

One of my first encounters with Spanish tiles was in La Casa de la Señora Lucy. La Señora Lucy was Catalana an she was not only my mother’s closest friend but she was also my brother’s godmother. Back in the day and still today, being a godmother is a title of great importance in Venezuela. In the year 1952, Lucy moved from Barcelona to the same apartment building where my mother, grandmother and uncle lived. She lived with her husband and two children in an apartment that was heavily tiled.

A couple of months ago, we scored direct flights from Oakland to Barcelona for less than $400 (thank you Scott!). It was one of those deals that you can’t overthink, so we scheduled a 10 day trip to visit our Spanish friends.

First, we went to Bilboa. I didn’t know that Basque country had such a different cultural identity than the rest of Spain! So much so, that our basque friend corrected me when I referred to the Spanish language as “Español” instead of calling it “Castellano“. There were no Spanish tiles in Basque Country, but there were sturdy farm houses traditionally built with rocks and clay. We spent a couple of days admiring the cohesiveness of the architecture, off-roading in the mountains and eating croissants & coffee for 2 euros instead of the 12 dollars that we would have paid for them at home.

We arrived in Córdoba at six in the morning and it was already almost 80 degrees. Despite the heat, the Andalusia region was incredibly beautiful. Visiting La Mezquita was one of the highlights of the trip. This amazing tourist attraction was definitely worth the 10 euros that we tried to avoid paying when we followed our friend’s advice and pretended to be locals with free admission tickets. Besides the architecture, the cool thing about La Mezquita is its eclectic combination of Muslim and Catholic styles.

In the year 784 Muslin Rulers ordered the construction of a Great Mosque in the place of a Christian basilica, then a few things happened and about 500 years later, Córdoba returned to Christian ruling and the building was converted into a Roman church (thanks to wikipedia for validating my memory). I loved walking around the aesthetically pleasing results of this cultural stew, drinking beers in order to survive the heat.

Spanish culture is very different from one region to another. Córdoba, for example is heavily influenced by the Arab world. You can see the arabic impact even in the metallic tones and glazed finish of their tiles. The tiles that we saw in restaurants and homes in Barcelona (Catalunya region), usually didn’t have the oxidized metals that give tiles that luster touch in Córdoba.

Aziz Ansari might think that there is nothing more boring than tiles. I was too, surprised by my fascination by them specially after watching Pino’s boring tile-talk (#tiletalk) in Episode 9 of Master of None. But what makes Spanish tiles interesting is not the quality of their finish or the vibrancy of their colors, but the diversity of their origin.

From the dry basque cider that only certified servers are allowed to pour at a bar, to the marvelous tiles in park Güell in Barcelona, in Spain you can experience exciting results of cultural multiplicity.

Disclaimer! The first photo is from Portugal, not Spain 🙂 All other photos were taken by either Nicholas Lacampagne, a passerby or by me.