Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tangentially Speaking

I enjoy and find great benefit in listening to podcasts and reading blogs and books. Since quitting my job I've been blessed with time and I'm realizing how valuable time is for personal growth. I understand that virtually nobody reading this has the kind of time that I do for listening to wise people, but I encourage you to give it a shot.

There's an ancient Buddhist saying:
You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you're too busy. Then you should sit for one hour.
photo via 

My New Favorite Podcast

Tangentially Speaking
The host of this podcast, Chris Ryan, is a very wise and well-traveled, philosophical gentleman. Every episode has at least one gem that I take away, often they are Ryan's beautiful (if not entirely accurate) attempts to remember a quote from somebody else. Here are a few of my favorites:
When asked for life advice from a young person he quoted the more broad interpretation (i.e. without the word "God") on a famous St. Augustine quote saying: Love, and do as you please.
He took a Eugene McCarthy quote about politicians and football coaches and applied it to Wall Street investors and corporate America business leaders, saying that the most "successful" of them are good at the money games they play because: they are smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it's important.

I can't remember who to attribute this one to, but it is so true: Anger is what fear and pain look like when they show themselves in public.
There are over 200 Tangentially Speaking episodes and you can browse through the list of guests and start with someone who sounds interesting to you. If you want a place to start, try episode 214 with Wade Davis (author, ethnobotanist, explorer, photographer).

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Japan Wrap-up Photo Dump


I'm not exactly sure how to talk about the rest of my month in Japan so I'll just do another photo dump, sharing the stories behind some of the photos I took.

I spent the past two weeks in the historical and Buddhist heart of Japan: Kyoto, Nara and Koyasan. Kyoto is famous for all the historical temples still standing in the city. Nara is home to a 50' tall bronze Buddha, built in 751, who sits inside what was, until recently, the world's largest wooden building. Koyasan is a small town in the mountains centered around more than 100 temples, some of which allow tourists to stay in them.

Here's the Nara Buddha that was cast in bronze in the year 751. According to Atlas Obscura, the initial construction nearly bankrupted Japan.
Today it is very much a tourist attraction, primarily for groups of school children. Nobody was hanging out and being particularly spiritual when I was there. I was mostly surrounded by 14-year olds taking selfies.

My favorite Buddha was this next one in Kamakura, just about an hour by train south of Tokyo. There was a scenic, wooded 45-minute hike to get to the Buddha. Of course, you all know that getting there is half the fun. It was a gorgeous day and I sat down and meditated for 30 minutes here amongst the visitors. This Buddha is also about 50' tall and bronze.

This next photo is of a women praying before entering a temple in the snowy mountains outside of Kyoto. The morning mountains here were beautifully coated in an overnight snowfall and there were few visitors when I was there. 

Here's another shot from that same temple.


I visited many temples with gorgeous gardens. You've probably seen photos of Japanese zen gardens with the 5 rocks sitting on a big bed of gravel. They didn't get very old to me and I enjoyed visiting many different ones. Here's a nice place for dinner next time the local Lama invites you up to his summer temple.



One of the most famous and popular sites around Kyoto is the Fushimi-Inari Shrine because of the amazing tunnel of these orange gates. I'm not sure there are really 10,000 of them, but there's certainly more than 1,000. Super cool and quite photogenic.
Which way to the Zen Buddhist temple?

Matcha green tea is a special kind of ceremonial green tea that is crafted with love and ritual. Here's a photo from a tea ceremony I attended where, over the course of 10 minutes, this lady prepared one cup of matcha. She said it takes 10-15 years to be a Master of Tea Ceremony, learning all the proper techniques for making different types of matcha for different purposes in different seasons of the year.

The tea is very smooth, thicker than a normal cup of tea. It is often served in exquisite tea rooms, such as this one looking out over a bamboo garden.

In Koyasan I spent 3 nights staying in a Buddhist temple. They had 8 or 10 rooms that they rent out to tourists and we could witness some of their daily monk rituals. My room had a nice view into a wooded area surrounding the meditation hall. It was a wonderful 3 days of peace and quiet, listening and deep thinking for me.

The food was amazing and vegan. Miso soup, rice, tofu served multiple different ways and far more tasty than I'd ever had, assorted tempura and vegetables served in ways I'd never experienced before. If I could eat like this every day I could almost become vegan. Almost.

There is an ancient cemetery in Koyasan and it was fun to walk through. It houses the mausoleum of the Buddhist monk who is called the Father of Japanese Culture because he created the Japanese written language (adapted from Chinese) and started the whole calligraphy craze.

The generous woman at the aforementioned tea ceremony who kindly translated my name, Kirk, into Japanese calligraphy obviously didn't know that I'm unemployed and homeless.
Splendid Success = Unemployed & homeless

Just a couple more things I need to mention. First, Japan has a weird sexual and pseudo-sexual undercurrent. On the surface, all Japanese are very proper, bowing all the time and being super polite. In the workplace they are encouraged to conform and it is seen as bad to stand out. One of the effects of this is these places called Maid Cafes. I had to try one.

You go to this cafe where a bunch of 16-20 year old girls are dressed up as maids. There is an extreme level of cuteness applied to everything. It's like Hello Kitty having tea time with a basket full of puppies.

The food is all cute and colorful, though it doesn't taste particularly good. Shocker. I ordered the salad and the nuclear green sugary beverage. It's hard to see in the picture, but the cheese on the salad is formed to look like little critters. 
Cute pose with love heart

Here's the nice picture card they gave me when I was leaving. The embedded photo is me and the girl/maid/whatever who was my server.
Cute pose #2: fists beneath chin.

The first 30 minutes was quite entertaining. Most of the 20 people in the cafe were eating alone, like me. And it turns out it was on Valentine's Day (I swear I didn't plan it that way, but I realized when I took my place at the end of a 20-minute line to get in). There were definitely some very lonely people who go to this kind of cafe for (completely innocent) companionship. More than one customer was playing a little children's game kind of like Hungry Hungry Hippos with their server/maid.

But after being there for 30 minutes I was ready to roll. It was one of those crazy cultural experiences that was super fun, but only for a short amount of time. I was the only non-Asian customer and it felt a little weird to be glancing into the lives of some very sad souls.

Lastly, I will share with you one more weird Japanese cultural experience. I spent 4 nights in Kyoto staying at one of those pod hotels. You know what I mean, right? It's this Japanese budget hotel option where you're room for the night is not much bigger than the trunk of your car. The place I stayed was brand new, though, and the pods were quite sufficient and cozy. This stock photo of the place I stayed shows the double-decker pods on each side of the hall. Each one is probably 6'6" deep by 4' high and 3' wide or so. There was a tv inside, and a fan, and lights with dimmers.

That's it.
I'm writing this from Shanghai, China where I'm pleased to be crashing with my buddy Mikko for awhile. I may use Shanghai as a home base for much of 2017. My first priority is to turn my business website into version 2.0, likely called Prepared Passing. It'll be an educational site for people who have a parent who is dying.

So I'm gonna crank on that for the next couple months. But I'm also excited to be able to easily visit places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, greater China, Mongolia, India, Nepal, Bhutan and on and on and on.

Asia is big with lots to see and at this point I have no schedule. Gonna stay until I'm ready to move on and do it up right.

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.

Food

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.