Chernobyl Night

In Chernobyl, the last thing you want to be doing is hiding from the authorities in the dark.

And yet I somehow found myself doing just that, begging my heart to stop beating, wondering if this was some sort of awesome spy movie.

I sure didn’t feel awesome.

Earlier that evening, I stood by the bed pulling things out of my backpack. We were going for a stroll in town and some divine foresight was nudging me to bring just my camera and to leave my wallet and bag in the room. I threw the strap over my head, stuffed a few hryvnia in my pocket and joined my friends outside.

Traveling lightly has its virtues.

Chernobyl-town is one of those rare grownup places with an actual curfew. Whether it was for safety or because the military doesn’t want to waste electricity (or manpower), I don’t know. We weren’t supposed to be out, so we strode through the night, flashlights off until we were well away from the occupied part of town.

In such silence is an element of unease.

I’d been feeling it so much recently, that wretched combination of guilt and sadness…

The moon battled with the clouds, revealing dark, mud-filled holes in a road that was sometimes little more than a deer path. The forest reached high on both sides hiding who-knows-what, wild animals and a few stunted houses.

Finally, Arek switched on his diving lamp as we turned down another nameless road. He seemed to have a specific place in mind, but he didn’t say a word until we reached a row of bigger buildings. With my eyes finally adjusting to the dark, I could see the world painted in silver and blue like a child’s illustration, complete with insanely tangled trees and regular square shapes.

These houses were vacuous holes in the moonlight. The first one we entered had been abandoned for at least twenty years and vandalized long before any of us had ever considered coming to the Ukraine. Sweeping the flashlight across the foyer I could see the house was a fair size by American standards, which seemed odd considering the modest accommodations you see elsewhere in the Zone. There were four doorways, each leading away from the hall.

I realized then that this was not a single home, but a collection of tiny apartments.

There was nothing left here but for the occasional torn poster I could not read. Like everywhere else in the Zone, there’s a distinct edge of shock seeing the level of disrespect shown to the old life; The brick walls had actually been forcefully ruptured, as if some trigger-happy treasure hunter came through with a sledgehammer.

But you’d be hard-pressed to believe that someone living in these closets would have had much worth looting.

The familiar feeling started rising in my gut. I’d been feeling it so much recently, that wretched combination of guilt and sadness for a life that never had a choice and was swept clean away. No more. I followed the guys back outside.

Suddenly, beyond the trees was a flash of a light and the unmistakeable crunch of boots. I froze. Panicking, I watched my companions scatter in different directions. The moon was behind a cloud so I could barely see the trees we had just walked through, but I took an educated guess and dove behind what I hoped was the largest one. Traitorous branches cracked under my clumsy feet, drowning everything out for a heart-stopping second.

I was a rabbit cornered by the fox.

Everything was a little wet and a lot cold. There I crouched, ducking my chin as far as I could into my chest and turning my face away from the noise. Moonlight on my skin would be as bright as lamplight and I could take no chances.

What would happen to a foreigner caught breaking the law in a unstable nuclear zone? The possibilities flash behind my eyelids, none of them good. I’d had some experience with this type of fear on the train just days before, but that was a cakewalk compared to this. On the train I was breaking no law, my conscience was clean.

But here I was defying curfew on a military base holding a big honkin’ camera, dressed in black with no ID. Convenient, eh?

I was a rabbit cornered by the fox. I knew he was there, just around the corner and my last hope was to be ignored. Oh to be ignored! This was no child’s game of hide-and-seek. This was the real thing, and being tracked by the law was not at all romantic to an otherwise model citizen like me. My heart was so loud I knew they could hear me, and I had an absurd moment of perfect literary clarity. Time seemed to slow.

The footsteps grew closer… closer… I would not open my eyes and risk my face in even the dimmest moonlight to see what was there. They came too close, just across the way. I don’t pray, but I prayed that the wild tangle of trees and underbrush concealed any hint of my existence. The woods are huge — Surely my outline is no different than that of the other boulders on the earth!

My heart, pounding ever faster, demanded oxygen and I fought against drawing breath in one, loud, explosive gasp. The gravel stopped crunching less than ten feet away, precisely on the other side of my tree. He was listening, my fox, listening to the air.

How does he know? How did he know?!? My temples felt about to burst. Do I know enough Ukrainian to understand “Come out, now”? Is that in the phrasebook I didn’t bring?

Instead he said:

” …. Hey, guys?”

It was Matt.

With that, I retrieved my dignity, air and my gear and we continued on our way.

I would wait for a later time, a much later day to think about how I had missed the retreat of the original patrol… and how the hell my companion had figured out where to find me.

Ten Months Dreaming

Edited to add: SmugMug has let me post about how this was made.

I will never lose the impression Chernobyl has made on me, although this may be the last time I create something from that place. This one was particularly meaningful because each clip brought back memories, motions and snippets of conversation.

This project was so long in the making, I cannot quite reach back to think about how the idea began. Ten months dreaming, four days shooting, three weeks editing.

All distilled into three and a half little minutes.

I hope that those of you who weren’t there find this one as enjoyable as it is to those who were.

From the Notebook: On Hungary

Friends, Americans, travelers: Do not buy dust masks in Budapest.
You won’t find them. You can ask a half dozen people who live in the city, who work in the shopping district, who call themselves concierge at your four-star hotel, but they will not know.

You will, however, be truly, utterly and wholly convinced that you can trust them, that you do not need to worry and that you’ll be in good hands. After all, they are all telling you the same things: Once you get on the right train and go to the correct area, you’ll see the hardware store clear as day.

So you make plans to “go shopping” and look up the location of the #17 tram. You find it, but no one is able to tell you where to buy tickets because their mastery of English extends to: “Ticket?”

Nonetheless, you’re resourceful so you’ll get there, and in one piece. And jittery because in order to get information about said ticket booth, you had to duck into the nearest cafe and down an extra espresso.

Hey, the espresso is strong, dark and handsome, just like the waiter.

You can get all the way uptown where the city fades into mundane suburbia. Stores are open… but are they? It’s sometimes hard to tell.

No one really seems to care about making potential customers feel welcome, but that’s OK. You’re still looking for that dust mask, even have a snapshot of one loaded up on your iPhone. I mean, what is the Hungarian word for “P100 dust mask, usually worn when painting or exploring radioactive hospitals,” anyway?

So no one in the shopping district can point you to (a) a hardware store that is (b) open. They can, however, point you over to a children’s clothing shop and a snowboard boutique.

(Where does one go snowboarding in Budapest?)

Well, whatever. Maybe it’s time to just find some lunch. A sandwich might stave off the creeping sense of betrayal you start to feel at the locals’ deception.

The espresso is strong, dark and handsome, just like the waiter.

Now there’s no place to eat that seems appealing since you’re so far away from the main part of the city. But lo! Slide through a crack in the walls and suddenly you’re in the middle of a bustling outdoor market. In a land of cigarettes, spiderwebs and rat poop suddenly you’re in an ingenious tent-shaded courtyard overflowing with fruit, vegetables and flowers. The oddity of this surprise is a bit befuddling, but a couple of apples for a few forint will soothe the sting, and the palate.

The apple seller is tall and a real looker. Literally. He’s possibly the biggest flirt in the entire town and he takes every opportunity to catch my eye and smile. I have to hide behind the corner to eat my fruit. Hmm, time to close the notebook.

Hungarians are always full of surprises.

See? You never found those dust masks.

Keleti Pu Train Budapest

From the Notebook: On Trains

From 7,000 miles away, European trains are romantic. It’s adventure: A giant steel wyrm uncoiling under the moonlight, snaking between the wild mountains of eastern Ukraine. Folklore and myth lurk in the shadows of the forests, all while the passengers lay swaddled and asleep in their gently-swaying carriages.

It was not at all like that.

Keleti station in Budapest could be a lovely building. For me, it was ominous and dark, a place I only ever saw after nightfall. The dim orange lights are unflattering, adding a squalid miasma to a gothic building already muddled in smoke.

Our train rolled in at Track 6 a half hour before scheduled. It looked like a ghost train, square and old with antique white letters peeling off the sides in Russian, German and French. We had found the polar opposite of DB. There is absolutely nothing high-tech about this train.

No one got off, but suddenly everyone was trying to get on.

Outside, it’s a full moon over Hungary. It only just touches the open plains, illuminating large patches of marshy water and the regular, highly polished rails in the tracks beside us. A few strings of orange lights blink in the distance but they look far away and lack promise. It’s rural and wild out there, a place of vast unknown.

Inside, it’s hot and still. I can feel heat radiating from the pipes under the window, probably welcome in a Moscow winter but unwelcome as I sweat in my tank top. Instead, I press my bare arms against the cold metal sill and ignore the warmth at my feet.

The train creaks and thumps and clanks and sways through Hungary, a country stained blue by the moon. I can’t sleep; Every light from a passing station, every bump and screech jolts me awake. We’re going fast, though, so fast I wonder why this trip takes over a day to complete.

Finally a conductor opens our door to say, “Customs.” He disappears as we sit up, leaving us to infer that he wasn’t checking, just warning. Indeed within minutes the train stops again, slowing past a man with a flashlight.. checking for stowaways, perhaps. This stop is much longer. People are walking outside in the dark, blending with reflections in the glass. Under and around we feel thumps and bangs and hear orders shouted out. I do not know if they are searching the train or readying it for the new gauge of track. I do feel like a rabbit being hunted even though I have nothing to hide.

This is how to develop a cheerless country.

The border guard appears at our door, a very stern, slender man in uniform with deep eyes and impressive cheekbones. Wordlessly he asks for our passports. He wears some sort of box hanging from a shoulder strap and he is able to simply press my passport to a rectangular indentation in the side, which reads it. He’s an expert at rapidly paging through the visa stamps and finally adds one of his own. The seal looks like many of the others from Europe but has an “H” in the stars and a locomotive in the corner.

The thumping under the train has stopped and I wonder what’s next. It’s so quiet here now, no sounds from the other passengers.

Another stop shortly over the river. Chop (Чоп) is an ominous name for a town, indicative of what is to come. As I press my cupped hands to the window I see several people in military garb emerge from the station. They boarded the train and have, I presume, entered separate cars. The first man absconded with our passports, which sets my nerves ringing.

Through the outside door comes the insistent blip of a sonar or radar machine. I am so tired but the tension chokes me. I feel closer to understanding what it’s like to be in hiding, pursued by authorities beyond our control. Without understanding a word, I feel guilty and afraid. This is how to develop a cheerless country.

It looks and sounds like we are being eaten by an enormous mechanical dragon.

A rough, heavy old man blocks the light coming through the door and questions us in rudimentary English why we are here. I’m a prisoner, cornered in my cell with no place to go. He makes us fold away the beds and open our bags, but to my relief it’s only a cursory inspection. He leaves and I am left feeling violated.

Meanwhile our train is banging, clanging and shifting. We lurch four feet in one direction and then the other. In the dark I can just make out four-legged cranes rolling on the tracks and arching above us like steampunk spiders. It looks and sounds like we are being eaten by an enormous mechanical dragon, a feeling amplified by the obscurity of the situation.

I’m fighting a pounding headache aggravated by smoke and we still don’t have our passports. With the discomfort and worry, it’s impossible to sleep. As if to add insult to injury, our neighbor is snoring.

Time crawled slowly through the rocking, clanking, jolting, shunting (how many adjectives can you have for a Soviet train?). Border guards came to return our passports with as much warmth and consideration as before, and it was almost worth the scare. What a great stamp!

With that I lay down. Even with two layers of padding the lower bunk is very hard; if not aggravating one bruise, it created another. The train stopped many more times in the night, sometimes rousing me to a slightly more conscious state but I remember little but black shadows and white snow. The Carpathian Mountains. When I sat up again the clouds were stained pink with sunrise, and the hills were green and low. Best of all the full moon still hung in the air between the hilltops, ready to float away.

When the train turned a corner, it was a surprise to see how long it was — suddenly the act of moving the train to new wheels was much more impressive and real. Curiously, our car which was formerly the last in line was now the first. Somehow they have turned our world inside-out and upside-down! The idea of having so many people on this journey is unreal, as we are so isolated in our compartment.

The neighboring room contains a young mother with straight, dark hair and a little girl who must be 4 years old. I know her gender not by her haircut or clothing, but from the doll she clutches to her chest. She cries when her mother leaves to use the bathroom but otherwise is all laughs and incomprehensible jabber through the thin walls. But she is shy and the suspicious, guarded expression under her bangs belies her young age. I think there must be two girls next door: the one I see and the one I hear.

She is the last child I would see for a week. Once we reach Київ we disembark into a world of old men, vodka and rust.

Road. Traveled.

So many hundreds of miles asking to be crossed. The feeling of trepidation, uncertainty, and nervousness about the empty, dry, hot spaces of the American west. I never imagined a journey could be like this, and I’m more sad than I can say about those days passing by so fast. Morning, day and night, another sunrise, another sunset. No matter where I woke up, it was always the same, yet not the same at all. I knew I was not alone, and that nothing worrying me on this vulnerable trek could puncture the good humor that pervaded our little bubble.

“We go side by side
Laugh until it’s right”

Starting in the nearly perfect urban center of the San Francisco Bay Area, we saddled up our beast with the humorous start of “Oh what the hell, why not?” The G6 was ours, our charger for the week. A snap decision that worked out very well for us! We were able to fit everything in there (with some trouble): 20 pounds of tea and cookies, gold bars, alligator feet, and even a couple of cameras.

We have so many stories to tell, if anyone will listen. We started seriously, enjoying the sights, tastes, and sounds of Mountain View and San Francisco. So many people to see and meet, and so many hours of waking time. If someone was to tell me that I would be crawling on all fours over salt-soaked rotten planks 50 feet over a craggy island in the middle of the Bay around midnight, I never would have believed it.

Once again I savored the pungent odor of cypress and eucalyptus sodden in the night air. I can’t breathe enough when I am there. No matter how tired I am and how confused I feel, my lungs rejoice knowing that these trees are near. We saw the lights of the Bay Bridge and downtown, flew over some of the steepest streets downtown and even tried to shoot the city lights before they flicked off. The evening’s catch was quite poor, but how often do you get a chance quite like this?

1,280 miles to go…

After the gray windiness of San Francisco, we headed south through the flatlands of the Californian farms. Now growing: Asparagus! Iceberg lettuce! Spinach! Funny, they all looked like soybeans to me.

We were squeezed down the road with mountains to the left, mountains to the right (but which is which, I’ll never know!) There were clouds crowning the peaks on both, but our path was straight and clear. We stopped in Mexico… er, I mean Soledad, a little too hasty for the universe to catch up with us, and made a left turn a bit prematurely.

Miles and miles of yellow grass and blue sky. In the desert of the west we played prince and princess to the most garish fairytale castle in the country. We drank smoothies and kissed elephant knees, wandered through the streets of San Luis Obispo and sipped whisky in a red leather room.

845 miles to go…

The inland road was exciting at first, then slowly grew more monotonous as the same yellow hills appeared beyond the clouds. Suddenly the world was only three colors: gold and green and blue, and the pinwheel of the road never displaced them. The oil derricks nodded, “Yessssss, go on…” among the scrub brush and the dust. We sped through the hills and through the cotton fields and the tiny towns so scarce with people but, strangely enough, always with a Subway, or a Chevron, or a Wendy’s.

In Mojave, the air vibrated with excitement and aeronautical anticipation. Maybe it was hunger or a hundred windmills on the horizon, but the modest blip on our map held secrets under each and every crack. I didn’t see them, even staring through the greasy booth dividers at Mike’s Roadside Cafe but the sunny smiles of the people here rivaled the good nature I felt within.

534 miles to go…

As the sweet light once again touched the tawny tips of the waving grass, we found a treasure trove of glittery mirages in the desert. Las Vegas! And as the half moon rose above the oasis of light, I thought about home and how mystical this land seems when you are 2,500 miles away.

All too soon, we stared the finish line in the face. Only one more big, bright, beautiful sunny day. One more afternoon of chasing land butts and smurfing bugs on the windscreen. And one pit stop on the red-paved asphalt, searching for waterfalls and fake snow and bumbleberry pies. And then suddenly there was cold, and darkness, and sand and whirlwinds and people and —


Now that it’s all over and I’m home again, I wake up with a jolt in the morning, realizing that I have nowhere that I need to be. No strange and thrilling new place awaits to be seen around the bend of the black ribbon highway. The shock of realizing that I no longer have 8 AM breakfast dates and that I know every road here fills me with the depression that I feel so often after conceding to my wanderlust. I am dazed inside where I once was filled with excitement.

We should have made a left turn at Albuquerque.

I know I will be on the road again. My life is so strongly pulled in that direction and I know myself well enough to never ignore desires that strong. And I’ll put the purse in the dryer for you.

“Pull on the borders to lighten the load
Tell all the passengers
we’re going home”

Chicago Skyline

Algor Rhythm

I’ve always loved the winter, I said. This was a naive certainty that was never tested, a promise made in the youthful life in a temperate climate. Bring snow, always more. Snow harder, deeper, more…!!

Love is meaningless if it is not tested.

I have always been smitten by the fragmented history of Chicago. A city that, to me, always shines at night with the glorious glowing lights of the Art Deco period, women in beads and flowers and fur while the men dash along the sidewalks holding the brims of their hats as the wind whips their coats. Everything seems slightly faster than usual like the flicker of an old movie reel. While the city has aged and perhaps quelled in pace, the romance is still there buried just under the shiny newness of corporate neon signs and franchised banners. The old Chicago leans from the tops of the highrises in gaudy architectural ornaments, exquisite scrolling stonework and florid swirls of iron beneath lamps and clocks. The cherubic angels supporting rooftop arches peer down with tired eyes at me as I huddle in the wind below.

This was deception, slow murder and an unforgivable tryst.

Underneath the smokescreen of old romance, the cold waits for me like a patient incubus. Distracted and starry-eyed I stepped out like a lamb from the safe, warm haven of the indoors. Our first meeting found me pinned under the powerful fingers that closed over my own in an icy, hot grip I couldn’t shake and could never forget, not even as I hustled back indoors for hot tea and a thaw. The cold is so beautiful and so untouchable that I knew I must venture out into the unheated abandonments, walk down by the pier, all to get that shot. I could resist him because I am stronger than that. The sweet warmth of coffeeshops and pubs helped me think with clarity. The challenge of the impossibility was more tantalizing than the warnings uttered to my deaf ears.

I can do it, I’ll do it, I said.

Being outside is a different story, the darkened bedroom of child’s nightmare. He waits for me in gelid silence while I step outside the door. Camera, batteries, myself in three layers, fleece, parka, and two-layered gloves. Hat, scarf, natch. This shouldn’t be hard.

But a single brush with his presence and I am left gripping my hand warmers thinking I have lifelines in my pockets. I gasp and squeeze them, feeling the weak butterfly kiss of feeling back in my fingertips. He pauses, then gently takes my hand in his, infusing my essence with his own until I ache with the fullness. He is graceful but measured and I can never feel him moving around me. My resistance falters under his noiseless, penetrating gaze. Like a blush I become clumsy and languid but the heat within me dies before it can reach my skin.

I put my camera down in surrender and wrap my arms around myself while falling into a corner. The very most I can do is pretend to hide from his pervasive search. He waits to comfort me, unobtrusive and watching for a lowering of my defenses to strike. Shivering and shaking, closing my eyes in defeat and he is there, covering me and taking me into his arms. I can feel him everywhere at once, everywhere and nowhere, inside and out. At my neck, in my bones, teasing my chin and lips and inside my mouth and the palms of my hands and the backs of my knees. Gently nipping, numbing, burning, the pain a delicate line between discomfort and reassurance. I want more, if only to dull whatever feeling that is left.

Befuddled and mesmerized my mind struggles to make sense of the situation. Is he an angel or a demon? Not that it really matters. What’s done is done. This isn’t love. This was deception, slow murder and an unforgivable tryst. Am I done? Is it over?


As I once more walk the streets of home in an unseasonably warm winter, I still shiver when the tepid breeze tousles my hair. A mere echo of the cold that I once knew, but I can’t forget him. Sadistic, forceful, cunning and beautiful, he lingers in me still.

Deep Impact

My whole life I have been different. Not unique, but different. Children at school or at summer camp would chase me around making funny noises, asking me how I could see through my tiny little squinty eyes, asking why I was “Chinese.” It never seemed strange that Asians were so rare, especially where I grew up, within sight of New York City. It was just something I never understood but learned to accept, and I learned to brace myself for it in every new social situation.

As I grew older I was far from “different.” Asians were nearly the majority in my classes but I still never felt like I fit in with them. It didn’t really matter, however, because I didn’t fit in with anyone. As the years passed I just became Myself. It didn’t matter that I was a little yellower than the next guy, or that my hair would never curl no matter what anyone did to it, or that none of the makeup tricks my friends taught me ever worked for my lack of eyelids. I was different still, but for once it was OK, because different = desirable.

(It would piss me off, however, when I’d go out for the night in DC and get approached by military guys who told me they love Asians because they spent ___ years stationed in Korea. Whatever, dude. Great opening line.)

I had an identity crisis that I never even knew existed.

Going to Japan was a slow-creeping, subtle, life-changing experience. For the first time in almost 3 decades, no one was looking at me. I fit in! Their hair was the same texture and were styled in awesome ways I had never seen before! Their makeup made sense! I wasn’t the shortest person in the room! I was finally the bee girl amongst all the new bee people in the bee world. I loved being truly anonymous, no longer relegated to be “That oriental one.” For once, I was normal and common and just a part of the backdrop. I could be anyone and I was anyone.

This revelation had many other effects, too. The homeless, for example, were much more tragic because they looked like me. Little grandmas hunched and pulling heavy bags were my grandmas. Every face with lines and a tired expression seemed an ominous prophecy of my future. I kept thinking I saw my mother, my father, even my sister in the city crowds. My uncle was a cab driver in Shimbashi. I swear.

Even though I am not Japanese and these are not truly my people, this was closer to home than I have ever been. Please excuse the pun.

What does this have to do with our side trip to the temples and bamboo groves of Arashiyama? Very, very little.

Arashiyama, outside of Kyoto.

Tokyo, Japan

I have finally sorted through my shots from Tokyo and have managed to get a few processed and uploaded. They’re not what I had expected or wanted to come back with, but they’re what I’ve got.
Since getting back a lot of people have asked me “So how was it?” And my standard response was “It’s grey. And concrete.” This is the truth, and it was one of the first things I noticed about Tokyo. In a way it was very disappointing because great photos come out of Japan to be displayed in tour guides all over the world, and they depict it as a crazy Asian version of New York: bright neon signs, happy faces, highlighted hair, whizzing taillights. Sure the lights are bright but the smog in the air mutes the glow. Everyone is dressed to the nines and looks like they stepped out of a catalog of business attire fashion. The taillights are almost exclusively taxicabs because – pshaw! – only the insanely rich would drive their own car in Tokyo. I wanted to find the stuff about Japan that was not written about and not plunked down in a Top Ten list somewhere about technology breakthroughs or weird cultural laws. Going to Japan, what did I know about Japan?

1. They’re the second (or close?) most expensive city on the planet
2. The salarymen are robots
3. Squat toilets
4. The old mixes right next to the new
5. Tokyo fashion is a name unto itself

That’s about it. So we went, sat on a plane next to some cheerful dude headed to Manila for his birthday and collectively developed sore rumps. Our flight attendant was loud and obnoxious and reminded me of Camryn Manheim’s character in Romy & Michelle’s HS Reunion (ugh, sorry). I was optimistic and spend the hours unable to sleep paging through the guidebooks and phrase books.

When you travel overseas you always forget what it’s like at the other end when you hit customs or immigration or whatever they call it. I blame jet lag. I have a bunch of stamps in my passport but I don’t recall a single incident of acquiring any of them – which is quite a shame, really. Since I first got my passport as a child I always wanted to be one of those people who had the back portion filled with stamps from all kinds of exotic places. I haven’t quite failed, per se, but I’m far from that goal. Waiting in line with a bunch of rumpled, sleepy travelers (who you’d think you’d get to know better after sitting for 12 hours in a confined space) I looked at them and was unable to recall those moments from the last ten years. Come January I’m due a brand new passport but at least I’m not sentimental about losing something I can’t even remember.

Thankfully there were Americans waiting for us on arrival. Derin and his immediate family were there at Narita to greet us and lead us to our hotel and sushi. So started a crazy week that was full of the unexpected. In many ways they are absolutely correct about Japan being a country of juxtaposition, although it was not in the ways that I had previously expected. The people are both forbidding and friendly, I was supersaturated and bored, the weather blew hot and cold. Moreover, I could never decide if the culture was as timely and scheduled as the rail system or laid back and free-flowing as the artists in Harajuku. We experienced all of the above and more, and even now, weeks later, I cannot make up my mind about the people of Tokyo. Did I enjoy myself? I think so. I was pushing myself very hard to get the bollocks to attempt street photography and I think that I have to just bow out and admit that it’s not something I will ever truly enjoy. Spending my days hunting for people and expressions caused many other opportunities to slip by. But that’s all in the Tokyo experience, I guess! Things do move too fast (particularly during the work week) and if you blink you’ll miss it. We fed off each other, the rush hour frenzy and my anxiety. In a sick, strange way maybe it was meant to be.

The city is as quiet as any American suburb. Each night I was astounded at how silent the people are despite their cramped quarters and heavy concentration. It’s like the city is holding its breath for some great moment or a big secret. It was this that made me sure that I was not in some kind of warped New York – because it’s too! darned! quiet! If it looks like a duck it must sound like a duck, right? Even the loudest, drunkest businessman yelling jovially to his friends made a very small noise in the big space that was the city. I cannot understand what rabbit hole I fell into but I could not make heads or tails of how or why basic physics suddenly seemed so different.

Shopping is taken to another level in Tokyo. I have been to New York, London, Paris and LA and only city that I have ever visited that made my wallet hurt was Tokyo. Upscale, brand-name boutiques in Ginza notwithstanding, you can find anything from rooms for 2-hour “rest” periods to whisky bars to boot stores to high fashion, even the world’s best cream puffs. All from under the comfort of your favorite metro train overpass – artificial thunder in a climate that is too metropolitan to support natural weather patterns. Being the hub of businessmen and women, train station shopping centers are bigger than malls at home (and I’m from Jersey) and cater to people who must shop on the run. A whole microcosm economy has sprouted to support the salarymen who live for their daily commute: vending machine meals, complete with alcoholic beverages and served counterside once your turn in your ticket. It’s never longer than a 30-second wait and the cheery optimism of your “server” is dished right alongside your food, whether you want it or not! I discovered that it’s generally not wanted – at least callously ignored. Most of these places are standing room only.

  • Tokyo made me feel small in its size and complexity, a tiny ant crawling on a pavement as big as the universe
  • … but it made me feel huge alongside the slender, perfect women who are so beautiful, stylish and petite
  • The people made me feel welcome when the most haughty-looking teenager gave me a bow and an “Arigato gozaimas!” when I relinquished my seat on the train for her shopping bags
  • … and yet I felt like a nobody when crowds of suit-clad businessmen plowed through me on the street corner
  • I loved the culture for their politeness and decorum
  • … but resented their unspoken rules for my confusion on how to behave in public

Conclusions? I have no conclusions. If Tokyo were closer I might consider going back, but I have never traveled so far from home and it is not something even I could do without careful consideration. Already my memories are fading and for once I didn’t take as many photos as I would have liked. Part of me wonders if I really did refrain fr
om ordering natto just so I could have the excuse of “Well, I didn’t get natto the last time, so….”

Far East, Far Out!

A once-in-a-lifetime experience. That is what a wedding should be. And it was, I think, for all of us. Not just for Derin and Sachiko.

How often does one get to be up close and personal to a Shinto wedding ceremony? In all my days I think I have “met” just one. And we’ve never actually met!

At the time I was overwhelmed, jetlagged, hot (Japan likes things 70 degrees and warmer, probably due to the average 3% body fat of all of its citizens), scared, frustrated, and any number of other emotions that come with being a stranger in a strange land. Things were also happening so fast! We were on the grounds of Meiji shrine and almost the entire family had already purified themselves in the water before I had even thought to take my camera out of the bag and begin shooting.

I’ll spare all the gory details because while the ceremony was different, it was also very similar to wedding ceremonies around the world. Derin looked dapper and Sachiko was beautiful. They stood in front of everyone (actually, between everyone) and officials officiated. Bells were shaken, sake was drunk, leaves were twisted, heads were bowed. For the record, the sake was delicious and nestled very nicely in our empty stomachs. Afterwards we gathered in the shrine’s big photo studio and somehow the Japanese attendees and he American guests were able to reach a perfect understanding without knowing a word of the others’ language. Photographers and their practices of blinding their subjects and taking a million shots when everyone wants to go get some food is, apparently, completely universal. Additionally, a good photographer will always make you laugh, regardless of if s/he speaks your language!

I am absolutely certain that photographers everywhere think the same thought at some point of their life: “Dude, shooting this group is like herding cats.”

The photos that were taken pre-reception were as crazy and bright and full of cheerful smiles and family pride as any church wedding I had seen. We just laughed more at our shared efforts to speak English, or Japanese. Dinner was a seemingly endless flow of Japanese haute cuisine. I was stuffed and content and in the company of some of my oldest friends — people I had known in some very troubling times of my life and almost never thought I’d see again. And how funny to think that some of them live an hour away from me and it took going to Tokyo to see them again, after 10 years!

We met new friends and had a glorious adventure walking through the rain in Shibuya afterwards. I was left happy, warm, and fuzzy and that weekend bonded over strange pickled delicacies and new libations at the izakayas. Befriending individuals from such different backgrounds is nourishing for the mind and soul: for example I have now gotten to know someone who must be the first individual that I have ever known in any sort of capacity who has never been to the United States. Realizing this was very odd for me and made me sad for our wars and the condition of politics today. He is not different from anyone I have befriended in the US, which is (in a way) even odder and sadder. It makes me feel very tired and almost…. trippy. How strange life is, and how different it can be for each and every one of us! While some people think I am well-traveled, I am nothing compared to so many people on this planet. Sometimes I feel so intelligent and sometimes I feel so dumb because I am fluent in only one language and have only lived in one country my entire life.

I’m not sure what the take-home message was, except that I am supremely grateful to my friends for getting married and allowing me to experience all of these things and meet such people. I know that this was not their intent but thank you anyway. And a million heartfelt congratulations.

Gallery of the day

Chotto matte!

This trip is drawing to a close. I have lost track of everything going on and have given up taking notes on things that happen through the course of the day because there is just too much going on. I’ve started relying on my photos to tell the story rather than anything I can say. In the next few weeks I’m sure I’ll have better tales to tell but I’ve still not fully adjusted to the time difference and have been in a constant state of grumpy exhaustion.

Plus, the weather has been horrible. I’ve never seen a fully clear day, which in a way was fine with me because it meant I never missed a spectacular sunrise. I know that I’m on an island but I never saw any natural bodies of water until this afternoon out the window of the shinkansen. So much for the famous ocean-borne rising sun.

I’m so very ready to go home. Unfortunately, I’ve been ready to go home two days after I got here. The people in this country are wonderful and friendly and are my near-perfect ideal of politeness, dignity, and decorum but I feel no attachment to the land or this way of life. Despite this I’ve seen an amazing amount of unique, quality goods – so much that I have been moved to shopping. “Shopping” is a word I most often use with disdain so it amuses me that I’ve been doing it so voraciously here. I’m going home with significantly more stuff than I brought (though fortunately not enough to make customs raise any brows.)

Hopefully when I get back I’ll settle quickly back into Ye Olde Life. I miss my home, my puppy, my bed, my car, my computer. Most of all I miss not waking up in the morning fearing another day of blank stares when I try to order a scone for breakfast! And then biting into it knowing fully what to expect: blueberry or cranberry-orange perhaps, but not potato salad or hot dog bits.

Modeling my new mittens… er, I mean muttons in Yoyogi Park.😀


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