Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Fascinating Japan

It's been 26 years since I was last in Japan. During junior year of college I spent the month of January studying economics with a group of 15 students from St. Olaf.

My memories of that time aren't that sharp. I remember living with a lovely host family in Tokyo for 3 weeks. I remember drinking alcohol for the first time (!) at age 20 when my host father offered me sake and beer. I remember the vast cultural differences that weren't due to financial reasons. I remember feeling like a prairie dog because Tokyo is a big city undercut by a vast network of subways. When traveling around the city I'd ride the subway. Then I'd explore above ground in a small area around the subway stop. Next I'd go back underground and then pop up somewhere else, never really understanding how the areas were connected. I remember visiting Hiroshima.

Our student group also visited Osaka where we toured an automobile factory and learned about some of the legendary Japanese quality control processes, like Kaizen, that later made their way around the world.

Since that experience I've been curious about the rest of Japan -- historic Kyoto, the Japanese countryside, the mountains and the skiing, the distant northern island of Hokkaido.

Fortunately, my buddy Mike scoped out the skiing last year and raved about the daily powder dumps up at Niseko on Hokkaido. So we arranged to meet.

Skiing in Niseko, Japan

Skiing in northern Japan lived up to all the hype for me. They average almost 600" of snow per year, twice that of the popular areas in Colorado, and more even than my beloved Alta. For a powder junkie like me that's just what I was looking for. Alas, in the winter of '16-17 the American West has been getting hammered but it's been a relatively low snow year in Japan. 

But Ullr was shining on me. In the previous weeks they'd actually had rain at Niseko, but Mike and I received back-to-back days of 6-8" and then followed with a third bluebird day.
Ullr, the Norse God of Skiing

Bluebird JaPow with Volcano
The in-bounds area doesn't have a whole lot of expert terrain, but the vast powder more than makes up for it. Tree skiing JaPow is the strength here and I would gladly return. There's a nice, and booming, town at the base of the Grand Hirafu ski area (one of 4 ski areas that neighbor each other ringing halfway around the big mountain). Lots of Australians ski here.


The other supreme pleasure of Japan so far has been the food. After spending 14 months eating the mostly simple cuisine of Latin America, my tongue and taste buds are thrilled for a change of pace. Tortillas and chicken have given way to noodles and sashimi and yakitori.

In Sapporo we visited the Sapporo brewery. Here's Mike enjoying the local delicacy Jingisukan (named after Genghis Khan). This food wasn't that great, actually, but the photo is pretty good. It was grill-your-own meat and vegetables. But grill-your-own? At a restaurant? I thought that's what I pay the professional chefs for.
Ullr eats Genghis Kahn
Yakatori is a Japanese delight similar to the Spanish tradition of tapas -- small plates that you order a bunch of and share with friends. The two sticks on the left of this platter are kimchi meatballs on a stick and were phenomenal. Yakatori tends to be fried meat (beef, chicken, gizzards, livers, etc) but can also include such delights as asparagus wrapped in bacon and spicy mushrooms.
Yaktori, kind of like tapas
 Behind the counter at a couple yakatori places...

The tab for the evening appears to be unhappy. Not sure why that is. Perhaps it didn't like the way I manhandled my chopsticks.
Check, please
The pork in this ramen dish in the town of Otaru, Japan was the best thing I'd eaten in months. As the Japanese would say, oishii!
Ramen with pork that will blow your mind
Visiting the fish market is always fun.

Fresh Fish
And it was at the fish market in Hakodate, Japan on the southern coast of Hokkaido that I finally understand why television food traveler Anthony Bourdain raves about uni, or sea urchin. I'd had it twice before in the USA as sushi and didn't really care for it. I tried it as sushi a couple days prior to this here experience and it was better than in America. But this fourth and most simply prepared experience was the one that will keep me singing its praises forevermore. Those yellow pieces of meat are attached to the shell by a little nubbin, kind of like how an oyster is attached. When in Hokkaido, you must try the uni.
Uni, or sea urchin

Drinking in Japan

Drinking is a big part of the Japanese culture. Many employees work long hours and after work go out drinking with their coworkers. They drink to get drunk. Because Japan has such a formal and polite outer shell of a culture, it is after work when people are allowed to let their hair down and say what they think. 

So in the spirit of multi-culturism, Mike and I decided we should try out a few of these drinking establishments.

The options are plenty, whether they be in a hopping main drag in Tokyo...

Or in a warren of small joints that only have room for 6-8 customers...
Mike looking for a drink

 Or a joint on the snowy streets of Sapporo.

And if you know me at all, you know I couldn't pass up a chance to drink at a place called Bar Boozer in Hakodate.
Mike patiently awaiting the opening of Bar Boozer

We returned later that night...

and were slightly surprised when it turned out to be a nice whiskey bar. So we helped ourselves to some from the Nikka distillery that we toured when up on Hokkaido.

We also had a few great encounters with bars that spin vinyl records. This was the first one, I think, in Otaru or Sapporo. The sign outside said Jazz Bar so we went in thinking there would be live jazz music. An interesting thing about Japanese restaurants and bars is that they make it almost impossible to see inside from the outside. The Japanese are very shy and private about their vices -- booze and sex. There were plenty of times when I opened a door to a place that seemed interesting, only to be turned away because they didn't serve foreigners (true: if you don't speak Japanese some restaurant owners just don't want to deal with you) or because it just wasn't our style. There was no live music here, but a great soundsystem and a hep cat owner spinning jazz vinyl.

Our most fun night (and most hungover morning) came at this place: Soul Bar Jody. It was in the basement of a building and surrounded by some of the weirder sex-type clubs they have in Japan.
This is in the city of Morioka, Japan. We walk in and instantly see a Prince record proudly displayed on the counter. Good sign. There's just the proprietor sitting behing the bar having a smoke and nobody else in the small room that could maybe hold 20 people tightly.

The gentleman owner spoke pretty decent English so we asked if he could play some Prince for us, seeing as we were from Prince's home town and all. He did and we ordered whiskey and beer. He had lots of photos on the walls of the bar and some of them were former professional wrestlers. I remembered that AWA wrestling, the professional outfit out of Minneapolis in the 1980s, had a connection with Japan. We started talking pro wrestling and soul music and then he put a VHS tape into his VCR and up on the screen popped the AWA's champion Nick Bockwinkel wrestling in Japan around 1984 or so. Awesome!

Do you remember Mad Dog Vachon? Because the Japanese sure do:
Mad Dog Vachon
More beer and whiskey flowed. Cigarettes were bummed and still no one else entered the bar. We had been there for a few hours listening to great records and watching old wrestling videos with this fifty-something Japanese gentleman.

So much fun.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Travel Cuba Photo Dump and More Stories

In my prior post I talked about some of the fascinating parts of visiting communist Cuba today. These first two photos help to illustrate. I only saw one clothing store while visiting 4 different cities, and this is it. A used clothing store in Villa Clara.
Clothing (used) store in Villa Clara, Cuba
Similarly, here is Debora checking out the goods at one local store that is representative of many. Look closely to see the selection of deodorant, nail polish and cigarettes.
Debora window shopping

One of Cuba's most famous residents was Ernest Hemingway. He lived on some land on the outskirts of Havana from 1939-1960 and his house is still just as he left it. Here I am toasting to him with a daiquiri at the famous La Floridita bar. His most famous Cuban quote is: my mojito at La Bodeguita, my daiquiri at La Floridita. This bar was the only place I visited that served severely overpriced drinks.
Drinking daiquiris with Hemingway at the famous La Floridita bar
Debora and I also visited Hemingway's house. It's full of hunting trophies and hundreds of books, a cozy place on a nice sized chunk of land with a pool and tennis court. Apparently Hemingway supplied Fidel with some guns to aid the revolution. The vintage taxi we took out to his house needed a little engine adjustment en route. Many of these old cars have newer Hyundai engines in them, and the exteriors and interiors are near spotless.
Our vintage taxi to Hemingway's house needed tweaking halfway there
It seems that many of the vintage cars are driven by the son or grandson of the original owner. A Cuban can make way more money driving a taxi for tourists than being a doctor or engineer, which are paid a flat government wage.

There were lots of horses, too. Many locals outside of Havana use a horse and buggy setup to get into town. Here's a picture of me on the way to go swimming in a cave outside of Vinales, the most scenic portion of our trip.
Horseback ride to go cave swimming in Valle de Vinales

This was from a different horseback tour ride to a waterfall outside of Trinidad, Cuba. 
Cowboy Kirk
But if you know me, you know that I prefer to ride a steel horse. This first photo is in Valle de Vinales, a couple hours west of Havana. This is where they grow the best tobacco. The mountain in the back is called a mogote. So beautiful.
Hills in background are called "mogotes"
 And this photo is riding to the beach near Trinidad.
Bicycling the gorgeous countryside near Trinidad, Cuba on way to the beach
Speaking of tobacco, this gentleman is a campesino. He's a farmer of tobacco and his family has been doing it for generations. 90% of his tobacco is sold to the government (at a friendly price) who produces the Cuban brand names that you see for sale around the world. 10% he keeps and sells to tourists like me. He says that the government uses chemicals in the fermentation process, but that he does not.
Kirk with a campesino who has been growing tobacco and making cigars his whole life

Drinkin' rum and smokin' stogies, Cuba style
The few cigars I smoked in Cuba left no lingering aftertaste the morning after, as I've experienced in the past on the few occasions I've smoked a cigar in the States. I also drank more local rum than I planned to one night with zero negative effects the next day. Quality matters.

Care for some light reading material? All the new books that I saw for sale were government propaganda. There are some used booksellsers out on the streets, however, if you're looking for something a little less Communist.
Light reading material. All propaganda.
In 1959 Che Guevara led a team of revolutionaries that used a bulldozer to tear up track and derail a train at this spot in Villa Clara. The resulting battle effectively won the revolution for Fidel. Today the place is a monument and Villa Clara has many Che monuments.
Site of blown-up train that won the Revolution for Fidel in 1959
Fun band in Villa Clara playing in a bar beneath the image of Che. There is also a big mausoleum to Che with statues and gardens and stuff. A tourist can walk through the mausoleum and see where Che is entombed. Since Che died young (assassinated by the CIA in Bolivia in 1967) he was held up as a martyr by Fidel. Fidel just died a few months ago and his ashes are in a much more modest gigantic boulder near his birth place in Santiago de Cuba.
Local bar and band

Baseball! The nastional pastime of Cuba. And it was playoff season when I was there. The stands filled up by gametime with maybe 5,000 people. The stadium was beautiful, if a little old and rough around the edges. Reminded me of a AAA ballpark in the USA. Usually all sporting events and concerts are free in Cuba (Communism for the win!), but this playoff tilt cost $.04 (not a typo).
Ham sandwiches for sale before national playoff baseball game

Lots of great music, too. Bands like this were common in the tourist town of Trinidad. I enjoyed listening and gave them $1.
Typical Cuban street musicians

Here is Debora relaxing at dawn in the main square of Trinidad, a really beautiful city.
Debora relaxes at sunrise in lovely Trinidad, Cuba

Need your bicycle fixed? This is the place in Vinales.
Bicycle repair in Vinales, Cuba
Debora and I spent our last night at this hotel in Vinales. The views here are spectacular and we had a great time riding bicycles and horses back through the mogotes and tobacco farms.
Hotel pool looking over Valle de Vinales
I think that's it for Cuba. I had the pleasure of spending 3 days in San Diego, CA USA with my sister and aunts and now I'm writing this from Sapporo, Japan. Crazy to be in Japan after 14 months in Latin America.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Travel to Cuba: Initial Reflections

Everyone has an image of Cuba in their head: Old cars and crumbling architecture, cigars and rum, Fidel and Che.

After two weeks in Cuba the thing that is sticking with me most is the reality of Communism. It seems like a good theory -- everyone is equal, free education and health care, dominant international sports teams. 

But what happens when human nature is introduced? Curiosity, ego, jealousy, greed.

And what happens when tourists from other wealthier nations are introduced? Taxi drivers that make 10x what a doctor makes. Your big house (built during the prior regime) is bigger than mine and can be sub-divided into 4 rentable rooms while I only have 1 room to rent (and hence 1/4 the desirable external income as you).

If you can believe the government-reported statistics, Cuba scores very high in literacy rate and life expectancy. Little boys are playing stickball in the streets without fear. Crime is very low. Illegal drugs are...ahem...difficult to find.

It seems to me that Communism can only work well in a nation where all it's citizens are enlightened beings. Where no person desires any more than any other person.

My taxi ride from the airport to Old Havana cost $30, almost what a Cuban M.D. makes in a month. That's why virtually every man who has access to a family automobile purchased before the 1959 revolution has a degree in engineering but is a taxi driver.

It was quite fascinating to witness and begin to understand. Perhaps Communism wasn't as dangerous of a threat to Democracy as Americans thought in the years after WWII. China and Vietnam are doing fairly well, but their Communism is blended with a strong dose of Capitalism.

Pondering Communism in the gorgeous Cuban countryside
I spent a wonderful 15 days in Cuba and recommend the experience.  It is important to understand, though, that a visitor is seen as a revenue source to many Cubans. And can you blame them? We can't all be perfect Communists.

The mountainous countryside is beautifully peppered with tobacco and sugarcane plantations. West of Havana is the prime tobacco country and the mountains (here called mogotes) are drool-worthy.
Tobacco farms and mogotes beyond the hotel pool in Valle Vinales
Many European and Canadian tourists stay at huge resorts on the north coast east of Havana. With the proper frame of mind, you will find Cuba to be a wonderful travel destination. Perhaps you could even stay away from the colorful locals behind the safe walls of a Trump Resort one day soon.

Other Observations

  • Travel in Cuba was significantly more expensive for me than in Mexico, mostly due to the high transportation costs. A mojito cost $3 at most bars and a good entree cost about double that.
  • The only billboards we saw were government propaganda. Lots of pro-Fidel imagery just a couple months after he died.
  • The horse-drawn buggy is still alive and well in rural Cuba
  • 90% of the tobacco is sold by the farmers at a low price to the Cuban government who is responsible for the world-famous brands like Cohiba, Romeo and Juliet, Montecristo. 10% the farmers keep for themselves and sell to tourists.
  • Virtually all the stores and restaurants you see are government run. The restaurant business is becoming more privatized, though.
  • There are 6 television stations in Cuba, all run by the government. The only satellite dishes are seen at hotels. By contrast, in the poorest slums of Brazil and in rural Morocco, one sees many satellite dishes atop private homes.
  • All sporting events and concerts are free to attend, but there was a price for the playoff baseball game I went to: $.05 (that is not a typo).
  • On TV propaganda I saw a lot of buddy time between Fidel and Hugo Chavez, former ruler of Venezuela. But saw no propaganda of Fidel with Putin or any other Russian or Chinese leaders.
I'll share more about Cuba in another post.

Friday, December 23, 2016

2016: Year of Personal Growth

You know how businesses like to say that if they aren't growing they're dying?

I think it's the same with people. For me, I need to consistently be experiencing and learning and growing, otherwise I feel like I'm dying. Because what is the point of life if we aren't able to somehow get better at it and enjoy it more as we mature? Nobody wants to be the person who peaked in high school.

Chilean Plains & Mountains
Beginning in late 2015 I made a significant life decision to give up the normal world of job, mortgage, bills, stress. I wanted to learn more about myself and more about humanity in order to grow into the loving, understanding person that I want to be. The normal world of busyness and bills often leaves little room for personal understanding and growth.

In 2015 I overcame my fears and set out on a new path. The fears were many. Fear of failure. Fear of running out of money. Fear of Mexican drug lords and Colombian cartels. Fear of malaria and zika. Fear of not being in control. Fear of the unknown. 

It turns out that fears are mostly poorly informed ideas bouncing around in our brains. As a result, it was a rewarding decision for me.

Magellan Strait

Looking Back at 2016

2016 was an amazing year for me. It was full of thrilling and eye-opening new experiences, often involving new friends. See the archives of this blog for stories. It was also an odd year that I lived differently than any other year in my life, and different from the lives of virtually everyone I have ever known.

It began for me in El Chalten, Argentina in the shadow of glorious Mt. FitzRoy. Patagonia was always a place that existed only in my dreams, but there I was, hiking among her peaks and gushing with gratitude.

2016 was spent entirely on the road, traveling through South America and making my way up to Mexico. I mostly stayed at hostels, sharing rooms with friendly strangers for about 10 US dollars per night. I mostly ate out, something I had hoped to avoid and a place where I hope to improve in 2017. And I mostly had a wonderful time that I hope to continue until I get tired of it.

Here are the goals I set one year ago, with a note on each about my progress.
  1. Finish writing book and accompanying support website/marketing and begin making money. STILL IN PROGRESS. My business idea has evolved a bit so this is still in progress. I did successfully launch a website with some information on it that has been downloaded by 30 people so far. But I'm still a ways away from making money. Need to crack down more on this in Asia in 2017.
  2. Extended bicycle trip in Latin America DONE! I spent a few weeks cycling north through Chilean Patagonia in 2016. Touring on a bicycle is an excellent way to give a person a new perspective on the world. Every hill is a mountain. Every breeze is friend or foe. Streams are like family and mountains like gods. And all food is the best food ever.
  3. Have an Ayahuasca experience in Peru DONE! Ayahuasca is an ancient plant medicine that the local tribes have used for dozens of generations. It is a hallucinogenic that is used in healing because it pulls our inner self and inner demons out of the depths and forces us to reconcile with them. And as a hallucinogen, it also opens up doors to everything we don't yet understand about the universe. I enjoyed the experience and wrote about it here.
  4. Attend a yoga or meditation retreat DONE! The 10-day vipassana silent meditation retreat was intense and difficult and frustrating and wonderful and mind-expanding. Nothing is better for personal growth than meditation, and I got a massive dose of it here. So beneficial to be able to see that ideas in our head are nothing, actually, until we act on them. Therefore we can simply notice negative thoughts when they arise and let them go away without being acted upon. Powerful stuff. I don't get angry or frustrated anymore, except an occasional snap when alcohol weakens my awareness.
  5. Keep improving my self IN PROGRESS. This goal will always be "in progress". 
In 2016 I did a good job with my goals around inner growth and personal development. I did okay with my business goal. But what's alarmingly clear to me as I sit here with more fat around my belly than one year ago, is that I did not focus enough on my physical health.
Albatross soaring over Galapagos Islands

7 Billion Realities

I think the concept I'm most happy about understanding in 2016 is that there are 7 billion different realities on the planet, one for each person. For what is reality, but a brain's perception of the world through all of it's built-in lenses and filters. Our life experiences create our unique collection of lenses and filters. Hence, the world is seen differently by each of us. That's how smart people can differ so much on political views, for instance. Fortunately, there are a lot of overlaps in the different realities. These overlaps allow us to have mostly functioning nations, laws and fantasy football leagues.

The super cool thing about 7 billion different, but overlapping, realities is that reality lives within each of us. That means that we control (our) reality and therefore have the ability to change (our) reality. A most excellent truth.

This understanding has helped me stress out less when other people's views of the world differ from my own.

That's it for now. I'm sitting in the super cool city of Guanajuato, Mexico. A buddy from Montana is flying down to join me for Christmas weekend. Life is good.

I wish you all the best in 2017 and beyond.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Photo Dump from Colombia, Panama, Mexico

Just getting caught up here with some photos to share. I'll begin with the most recent.

I'm writing this from Piste, Mexico which is just a 20 minute walk from the legendary Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. I was there yesterday morning and sat enthralled with the architecture. To wit...

Sunrise over Chichen Itza
The architecture is exquisite
Chichen Itza

Note the serpent head at the bottom of the stairs.
Serpent stairs

It was really hot so nice to get into the shade.
From the shade

There were a lot more buildings than the main temple, but that one is in the best shape. These ruins are all over the Yucatan and Guatemala and there are many that are still just big mounds of earth. When they were found they were all overgrown with trees and grass and dirt and didn't look like much. Archaeologists had to put many of the stones back together to achieve the original look.

This wall of skulls at the sacrificial platform may have scared the bejeesus out of rival tribes, but, alas, it didn't deter the Spanish and their horses, swords and smallpox.
Wall of skulls

Back to Ecuador. This church is built over a deep river canyon in a small town right on the border of Ecuador and Colombia. I took a couple hour detour from a 28-hour bus ride to go check it out. Not pictured is the super cheesy LED light show they lit up the church with at dusk -- purples and greens and oranges and blues. It was really tacky.

Hanging out in the World's Craziest Hammock in Minca, Colombia. Nice view.

Now on to Panama. This is the sailboat I was on for 5 days with a dozen other people. We sailed from Cartagena, Colombia to Panama through the San Blas Islands. Really beautiful trip and I only got seasick once.
Sailing to Panama from Colombia
One cannot drive a vehicle from Colombia to Panama because of the Darien Gap -- a gigantic area of jungle and swamp that is essentially impenetrable by all except for drug runners and geurillas.

Here's Panama City at low tide.
Panama City at low tide

The bicycle I used for 3 days in Tulum, Mexico. Pink and rusty and the chain came off every time I went over a speed bump. But so fun to ride a bike!!
Bicycle in Tulum, Mexico

My campsite the past 3 nights within walking distance of Chichen Itza. Cost me $2.50/night at a sweet, vintage hotel. This place felt like in the '60s it probably hosted Sinatra and Dean Martin. These days it's mostly empty and could use some love. Now everyone is bussing in 2 hours from Cancun for day tours of the ruins.
Vintage Piramide Inn in Piste, Mexico.

 Hasta luego.