Category: Travel

Waking from a Dream

I am finally home from this last trip, and getting myself acclimated to normal life. A few friends have commented to me that they cannot imagine what’s it like to travel like I do, so I thought I would try to give you a glimpse.

Imagine falling asleep knowing that you will dream for two weeks. Once in that dream, you find yourself in new, exotic locations where you’ve never been before. You meet characters with whom you spend every moment interacting. Like in a dream, things happen that don’t make complete sense. You leave your bed unmade, and come back and it’s made. You’re eat at restaurants for every meal, even though such activities are economically unfeasible. You wear expensive suits and drive expensive cars, tip porters for carrying your bags and bartenders for mixing your drinks.

Your “real life” friends no longer exist, but are replaced with new and interesting friends. These friends are from exotic places like Washington and Tokyo and London and Cambridge. They have strange accents and interesting stories. You talk with them about computers and lobster and saunas and Scotch. Like Alice in Wonderland, you find jenever labeled “drink me” that makes you twenty feet tall and pâté labeled “eat me” that shrinks you to nothing. You share your discoveries with your new friends, and their excitement fuels and motivates you to discover even more.

All the friends in your dream are dreaming as well, of course. They claim to have their own waking worlds with families and mortgages and water bills, but those worlds are so far away. Occasionally during the dream, we remember the people from the waking world, but most of the time, we enjoying the dream together, waiting for that next experience around the corner.

But, with each day in our dream, we know that will soon wake up. We look forward to the waking with a very real conflict. We miss the waking world, with the real people we love and cherish, and we know that each moment dreaming is a moment away from them. Yet, our friends in our dream world have become just as real, and we know that when we wake up, everything will be gone except for the memories. No friends, no food, no fast cars.

So, on the last night before the flight takes us back to the world of reality, we desperately look for ways to hold on to the dreams. We promise we’ll find ways to keep in touch, and we make those promises honestly. However, all dreams fade quickly upon awakening, and we quickly forget the promises we made.

This is probably for the best.

Travel and the Absence of Intimacy

I’m wrapping up a two week stint in The Hague, Netherlands, and I’ve been thinking through why this trip seems to be a lot more difficult for my psyche than most of my other trips. The coworkers that I’ve been traveling with have been fantastic, and there has been no shortage of funny discussions, mostly regarding random contrasts between U.S. and European culture (and British culture, which is entirely its own thing.)

I am starting to appreciate, though, how much intimacy in relationships and conversation is so vitally important in maintaining my own personal sanity, and how much it’s missing in my daily conversations. When I say “intimate”, I don’t mean romantic or sexual, although clearly those components would be part of certain intimate conversations, but in this case, I mean the act of conversation with trust established and our guard down.

I am very blessed to have family and friends where intimacy is so engrained as to be invisible. I have a wife, brothers, and men in the church who taken on various roles in my life, willing to listen to my rants and weaknesses, and able to share their own with me. I’ve become so familiar with that blessing that I don’t realize how necessary it is until I’m removed from it.

When I am removed during business travel, relationships that on the surface seem similar after a while seem dull and colorless. The temptation appears to polish the dull relationships by fomenting intimate relationships with coworkers, and thus the danger presents itself. I realize I’m starving, and fear becoming ravenous. In order to protect myself, I force myself to distance myself, and start counting the days until I’m able to fly home.

I think this is why alcohol has become so intrinsic to business travel. Alcohol allows us an excuse to form temporary intimate relationships with coworkers or other local acquaintances without having a basis of trust. For the cost of a few dollars, we can consume a magic elixir that temporarily removes the established social mores that define our normal daily relationships. For that short period of time, we can fulfill the need that we have to share ourselves openly, and to experience others doing the same. We begin to emotionally undress ourselves and enjoy seeing others do the same. Of course, the magic wears off in the morning, and there is always the awkwardness of putting our masks (and clothes) back on. We deal with the physical sickness, but secretly reminisce and look forward to the next time.

There’s no substitution for good relationships, and when you have them, there are like a good, satisfying pantry, always able to provide strengthening meals. It can sometimes be difficult to appreciate the blessing while in the midst of it, but the absence is painfully obvious when it’s gone.

Check Out “Beyond My Front Door”

Anwar is a good friend of mine, and probably my best travel partner. When my family was considering moving to Japan, he took time out of his schedule to trek all the way to northern Japan to meet up with my landlord. I’m sure he had an ulterior motive, since his addiction to world travel is clearly evident from the first time you meet him.

On that trip, after taking care of the boring logistics, he and I set out by train with just a rail pass and the faintest semblance of a plan. Our travels reached a surreal peak when we found ourselves on a two hour ferry from Aomori to Hakodate enjoying the sights of the fishing boats on Mutsu Bay.

Through trips to Tokyo, Japan, Bendigo, Australia, and London, England, we’ve always found our common passion for travel and food would lead us on the best adventures, and I always enjoyed them immensely.

He’s taken a leave of absence from the company, off on what seems to be his best adventure yet, and I’m looking forward to seeing his updates. Check out his page, Beyond My Front Door.

The Smoking Car

So, this train isn’t the idyllic means of transportation I was envisioning. Somehow, I must have missed the phrase “smoking car” on my ticket, and the Japanese don’t go half-way with their smoking.

In addition, I have a suspicion that their air condition is broken or non-existant, which is highly unusual. You can be riding a packed Tokyo subway in 90 degree weather and feel pretty comfortable with the air conditioner blowing on you. But I can’t feel any draft, and the humidity is making my skin pretty disgusting.

I don’t know if it’s really cloudy, or if there is a new moon out tonight, but it’s really dark outside the train windows. It’s about 3am and I see occasional lights on the horizon, and of course, the bright lights from each of the train stations we pass through, but other than that, it’s all darkness. If the humidity is any indication, though, I think it’s really cloudy out. But, yeah… it’s dark.

Anwar has the top bunk in the sleeping car, thank God. I had the ticket for the top bunk, but it would have been an original mix of comedy and tragedy if I tried to get up there. My claustrophobia would have kicked it, and bad things would have happened. As it is, I’m on the bottom bunk, and I actually got about 5 hours of sleep on the train, in addition to the 5 or 6 hours I got on the plane. I should be pretty rested when we finally do arrive in Hirosaki around 9am.

The only food we had since getting off the plane was a decent salmon and cream cheese bagel at the train station. Starting to get a little hungry again, and I know I won’t be getting any food for at least six more hours.

No place to plug in the laptop, and still no wireless connection, so I’m stucking playing with the DS. I’m kicking myself for not picking up Zelda before I left.

Back in Japan and Heading North

We’ve arrived in Tokyo with no problems. Anwar was scheduled to fly in two and half hours before me, but his flight was delayed, so he was only an hour before. We got our big bags shipped to our respective hotels and I got my cell phone so everything seemed to be going smoothly.

We almost has a major disaster. When we came through customs, we flashed our brand new CAC cards which identifies us as being “military” folks, and falling under the SOFA rules. So, when we got to the train station at Narita, we went to get our train passes and the woman took our passports to verify that we were “tourists”. Well, I didn’t know, but people who are in the country under SOFA are not considered tourists, so we weren’t eligible for the train passes.

Anwar and I groaned to each other, but the woman, with even being asked, said “I’ll validate your tickets this time, but technically, I’m not supposed to.” Disaster averted because of one extremely cool person.

We took a subway over to Ueno, and now we’re getting ready to take an overnight train to Hirosaki. I don’t have any internet connectivity yet as I’m writing this post/email, so I don’t know if the Ghents have written back to me. I might try giving them a call tonight, or tomorrow morning when we arrive in Hirosaki. Once we arrive, it’s a quick train hop to Goshogawara.

Real quick comment on movies on the plane:

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull –> Disappointing.
Prince Caspian –> Also disappointing, but I can’t put my finger on why.
The Baker –> Only saw the first half, but it seemed interesting. I like black comedies, though.

Why We’re Expatriating

Paul asked why I was looking for a job in Japan. I think a response is worth a separate post.

My job has taken me to Japan quite a few times (I think my passport has 14 Japan entry stamps in it). Prior to taking this job five years ago, I had rarely left Pennsylvania, and had only once left the United States when we had driven through Canada when I was a kid (I slept the whole way).

My travel to Japan, and other parts of the world, has left with a real exposure to the huge differences in culture between the United States, Australia, England, and Japan. Since then, I wanted to make sure that my kids have an awareness of the different cultures around the world.

When Sarah and I made the decision to homeschool the kids, we both agreed that we wanted to make the most of the kids’ time at home with the family. Not being tethered to a school means that the family can travel with me, and we can move to different locations around the world and have hands-on exposure to the world around us.

Here’s my incomplete list of pros and cons for moving to Japan:

Pros:

  • I did received a promotion to a senior staff position at Lockheed Martin. This usually requires a lot more experience than I have, and I’m excited to be “ahead” in my career.
  • My company significantly reimburses us for different costs, which will allow us to save more money.
  • Japan is a major country that is little known to the rest of the world. There is a lot of potential for outreach to a normally inaccessible culture.
  • Despite the fact that over 128 million people speak Japanese, it’s one of the more little known languages amongst non-Japanese. One reason is that Japanese is a hard language to learn, but when my children learn the language, they’ll find that their skills as native English speakers with an understanding of Japanese will be potentially very beneficial to their careers.

Cons:

  • Being away from my family is going to be hard. Despite Vonage, email, webcams, and other technologies, we won’t be able to just hang out like we do now. Plane tickets to Japan are not cheap either, but hopefully, our families will be able to come visit and have an experience they wouldn’t have otherwise
  • While the weather is just as cold as it is in SE Pennsylvania, they get a lot of snow. They average 35 feet per year. That’s a lot.
  • It’s not Tokyo. In Tokyo, you can eat at a different restaurant for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for a lifetime and never hit the same place twice. The area is pretty rural and poor, so we’ll be traveling by car and when we go out to dinner, we’ll probably hit the same few places.

I’m sure there are more, and I might edit this post in the future to add other reasons. But that should be start.

The Family is Moving to Japan

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Ron Paul mania has died down, we’re members of a new church where there’s a little more peace and quiet, and my month long trip to Australia happened to be to one of the more boring parts of the world.

For the last year or so, I’ve been browsing the Lockheed Martin job boards to see if there were any cool overseas positions. A couple months ago, I saw a position for a systems administrator in a small, remote village in Northern Japan called Shariki (even the Wikipedia page is extremely sparse). I applied for the position, and was rejected for the position, since knowledge of the program was required. I was disappointed, but life goes on.

A couple months ago, I got a email out of the blue asking me if I was interested in interviewing for an overseas position in Japan. The person who sent the email had a subject line that had the name of the program I had interviewed for earlier. I called the guy back and we chatted for a while. A few minutes into the conversation, I realized that I wasn’t interviewing for a systems administrator position, but for an Information Systems Security Officer (ISSO) position at the same site in Shariki. The interview went well, and a week later, I was told they were putting together an offer for me.

After talking to Sarah and my family, we decided to accept the offer.

The position will be for at least one year, but probably more like 2-3 years in Shariki. We’ll probably be living in a larger town further south called Goshogawara. I haven’t been up to the area, but I’m planning on heading up there next month after an upgrade in Tokyo next month.

The next few months are going to be pretty hectic, but I plan on doing a better job of keeping up with blog during the overseas travel. The Aomori area of Japan has some of the more remote and pristine areas of the country, and we’re really looking forward to some rural living over there.

Taste of Sumo

20002320For those of you who have never seen a sumo match, load up your bittorrent client (I use Azureus) and download this torrent.

This is the final day of the sumo tournament going on right now that I attended last week. The video is two hours long, and is just the Makuuchi division (the 40 highest ranked wrestlers). The final day was a bit of an exhibition, since Hakuho won the tournament yesterday. The only question for today was whether he would finish the tournament undefeated. With this win, and his win at the last tournament in March, he is expected to be promoted to become the 69th Yokozuna.

One match is not going to make a fan out of you… I’ve been following the current Yokozuna, Asashoryu, since he became Yokozuna around the time I started traveling to Japan a few years ago. As tournaments happen and careers progress, it gets really addicting to follow both.

Miwaza’s Photos

IMGP2648Our friend Miwaza from Mitaka Evangelical Church took some beautiful photos of the kids… mostly Leah, but she’s the most photogenic, so nobody complains. My wife is jealous of her camera, but it’s clear she has a good eye for composition.

You can check out Miwaza’s blog, and some of her other photography work up on Flickr.

BTW, this photo is the food on the prep table at church, getting ready to feed all the church goers. They have a team of people who prepare all the servings on the table, and carry them out to everyone all through the house where they meet.

Different in Japan – An Evolving List

  • Shoes are removed at the front door
  • Windshield wipers both go in the same direction
  • Electric operated shower toilets – plugs into the wall, complete with button panel on the side of the toilet and on the wall. (Statistically, how many people get electrocuted on their shower toilets each year? Inquiring minds want to know…)
  • Japanese style toilets – on the floor – are really common (and not fun IMHO… have used them while 7 months pregnant before!) … but if you look hard in enough in public restrooms, there’s often a western-style toilet way in the back stall.
  • Everything is recycled – even fast food restaurants and subway trashcans have recycling slots (Or, at the bare minimum, “Combustible” and “Non-Combustible” (burnable/not burnable) (So easy to do – why don’t we have this in America?)
  • Vending machines everywhere, for all sorts of items; Hot and Cold beverages from the same machine
  • Driving on the left side – or all over the road and squeezing into little spaces to go around parked vehicles, as there is NO shoulder – also, drivers get really close to people, strollers, etc., and other cars – while traveling pretty fast. I’ll never get used to this!
  • Hot washcloths served just before dinner to wash hands
  • Washer/dryer in one machine (When installed, like the shower toilets, these too are sprinkled with dust from fairies wearing firemen hats – again, can we say “electrocution hazard?” )
  • Many women don’t wear makeup – even business women
  • Women wear stelleto heels like they’re sneakers, and there are shoe repair places at just about every subway stop!
  • I haven’t noticed many low-cut shirts (it’s noticeable when you’re used to western style clothes… don’t realize how normal it is to see cleavage in the US – but I have seen a lot of really short skirts… with knee-high boots, of course)
  • Cost is 2-3x for things compared to the US
  • Diapers are tri-folded in the bags vs. folded in half
  • Scrub first then bathe
  • Auto-fill tub from the kitchen
  • Hot water managed from the kitchen – on demand
  • All the cereal here seems to be some form of muesli or cornflakes
  • Peanut butter is hard to find – and costs about $5 for a tiny jar
  • Shrines and temples everywhere – Americans have to stretch their imaginations to understand the word “idol” or “false god” – not here!
  • Walk on the left side
  • The first day of spring is a holiday
  • Stores have several floors – Elevators in grocery stores help get your and your cart from one floor to the next! Some stores, you pay per floor, others you pay at the end. You have to keep your eyes peeled for a register, just in case it’s a floor with a cashier!
  • Shopping carts are interesting – it’s a cart with a hole for a handy-basket. You fill the basket and then bag at a separate counter after paying.
  • I see more people paying with cash vs. credit/debit cards
  • Little hidden beauty – like pretty man-hole covers on the streets and sidewalks
  • All the shops have flower arrangements out front – little mini gardens
  • Toilets are in a separate room from the bath – so there’s the toilet room and the bathroom. If you tell someone you have to use the bathroom, it’s confusing. That means you have to take a bath. You say, “I need to use the toilet”.
  • To count, you fold your fingers down instead of extend them. I held up four fingers to get four ginger ales and got one drink – only one finger was folded down.
  • People here are night-owls! I love it! A friend from Mitaka Evangelical Church called at like 10pm the other night. We were up, of course! Nothing’s open until 10am around here and church doesn’t start till 10:30am. Boo early birds!
  • The average family has 1.3 children – not only do we stick out because we look different, Tom and I have quite the entourage.
  • Milk is unpasteurized – very creamy in flavor, no matter what percentage of milkfat
  • People believe in spirits of the dead – hence the number of shrines – yet they’re not obviously not afraid of them – manifested in the fact that graveyards, while solemn and quiet, and seen as “spooky” in the US, are a place for picnics, drinking parties, cherry blossom viewing, and events here. There are even food vendors and streets going right through them.
  • Tōkyō Pictures in Google Earth

    I took some time yesterday to geo-reference some of our photos in Google Earth, so you can see where in Tōkyō some of the pictures were taken. Google Earth now runs in Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, and it’s free, so you have no excuse to not use it.

    Once you install Google Earth, the link above will automatically open in Google Earth, and you’ll be able to see click on the different photo icons to see where we’ve been.

    Leftover Sushi Fried Rice Recipe

    Last night, my hunter-gatherer brought home several pieces of sushi. The sushi came packaged with pickled ginger and wasabi paste.

    We all love sushi, however the children are lagged and fell asleep at the dinner table before we even prayed. The result? Lots of leftovers.

    Not wanting to eat old sushi for lunch today, I turned it into fried rice. Here’s what I did:

    Leftover Sushi Fried Rice Recipe

    Leftover sushi
    Wasabi paste
    Cooking oil
    Pickled ginger
    Soy sauce

    Separate the sushi into bowls: fish, rice & nori seaweed

    Chop up the fish.

    In a frying pan, heat the oil. Empty the pickled ginger into the pan and sauté.

    Add the chopped fish to the pan and cook thoroughly.

    Add a little more oil to the pan, if needed, and then add the rice. You will need to chop up the clumps, as sushi rice is quite sticky.

    Remove from the heat, stir in the wasabi paste.

    Drizzle with soy sauce.

    Oishii!

    Family Trip to Japan

    HokusaiLooks like my last trip to Japan is going to be a big one. I took a job offer on a different program, so I won’t be working the international programs for much longer. Our big upgrade that’s been going on for the last few months is reaching its climax with a three week upgrade that starts this weekend.

    Since it doesn’t look like we’ll be relocating any time soon, I’ve decided to use my airline miles to purchase tickets for the whole family to come out. Instead of staying in a hotel, I got a lease on a pretty big (for Tōkyō standards) two bedroom apartment at the Oakwood Residence Akasaka, which is right across the street from where some of my coworkers are staying, and right down the street from the rest of them.

    It’s been a pretty hectic week getting ready, and trying to figure out what we need for a three week trip to Japan. I’m finding that my last few years of travel has only partly prepared me for this sort of adventure. I’m interesting to find out whether the attraction that I have to the country is based on leaving my kids behind when I go. Hopefully, the country will be just as exciting with my family as it is without them.

    Please keep us in your prayers, as this trip has potential for great excitement and learning, but also for anger and frustration. Our photo album for the trip has been created, and can be found at http://www.glamdring.org/gallery/f/japan2007. There’s nothing in it yet, but keep watching our blog for updates.

    A Waking Dream

    Japan has started to become a recurring dream to me. I fall asleep, and feel like I wake up at 4am (like I did this morning). I take a shuttle down to the airport, jump on a couple airplanes, and end up in this fantasy world. I eat weird food, put on a thousand dollar outfit, brief generals and dignitaries, enhance multi-million dollar computer systems, and fly home.

    Because of the time change and the foreignness of the whole situation, I never quite get acclimated, and I do feel like I’m moving around in a dream state.

    This trip is supposed to be short, and I’ll be home in a week. Still, it’s time away from the family and it’s getting harder, not easier.