Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Last days in Japan, Hibernation & Afterthoughts

Last days 
My last stop in Japan was Fukuoka.  It’s located next to Nagasaki on the northern part of Kyushu.  I didn’t get to see much of Fukuoka except the main city but I was able to spend a lot of time with my host and in the end, that’s all that really mattered. 

I couldn’t wish for a better ending for my first half of the trip.  My stay was with a wonderful Japanese woman, Sumire, her two sons, 12 year old Souma and 2 year old Hikaru, a dog Colin and a cat Ninja.  Writing about Sumire, doesn’t give justice to my feelings towards her.  She is sunlight, strength, wonder, curiosity, mess, cook, mother, friend, teacher, adventure, optimism, smile, laughter, and so much more.  We stayed most days at home. We talked, cooked, taught lessons, chased kids and animals in the garden, bonded, felt connection grow with every passing second. 

Sumire drove me to the airport.  We embraced tightly and couldn’t let go.  She waited until I walked inside before leaving.  We will see each other again.  Soon.  
Hikaru & Colin

Kids hanging out in the garden

Sumire, Hikaru & Colin
Autumn in Fukuoka

Holiday Lights in the city

I left Japan on November 30th.  3 months flew by faster than I could have imagined.  But I have a very comforting thought.  I will be back soon. 
The plan is: hibernate in Taiwan in December (my sister is teaching English in Taichung city) then go to Thailand in January (meeting my two girlfriends from New York there).  And finally in February I will return to Japan.  I still haven’t seen Okinawa, Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Tokyo and so many more  cities and places.  I will be patient.

May be some of you might wonder why my blogs are usually filled with so much enthusiasm and positivity.  Is it possible for a person continuously experience so much luck and wonderment?  But in reality what I encounter are regular places and normal people.  It just I am able to see magic in the most ordinary things and people.  I live every day in wonder.  I appreciate every nod and smile from a stranger, every field and mountain of the nature, every custom and quirk of the culture.  Some might look at a rice field and see grass sticking out of the ground and never give it a second look but I look at it and see stocks swollen with nourishing rice grains swaying gently in the wind and bathing in sunlight glow.  And tomorrow they will feed a young child who has an unsurpassable curiosity for the world.   
Some might look at this child and shudder at her blunt stare towards this person's direction and feel uncomfortable and annoyed.  But I look back and smile, study her just as carefully as she’s studying me and wonder what kind of person she’ll grow up, how much love she receives at home and whether her parents hug her every day and tell her how much they love her and how important she is to them.  Some might see a stranger hiding his curious look and following at distance pace and think he is a stocker with bad intentions.  I will come up to the stranger, start a conversation and find out that fate has brought us together through the most remarkable circumstances to spend an incredible day together and teach each other lessons we needed to learn at that specific point of our lives.   

Never underestimate each day given to you.  Today is the day you will be greeted by your wife with the most loving smile you’ve seen in years because you believed it would happen.  Today is the day you’ll walk outside and the sun will shine so brightly on you, you will close your eyes, turn your face towards this incredible source of warmth, energy and light and think how incredible our universe is and how lucky you are to be alive and feel the sunshine on your face and it will lift you from your deepest sorrows and you will feel the wings growing and remember the dream you had years ago and will become determined to fulfill this dream no matter what.  Because no one else has the power to change your world except you.  “Happiness, health and extravagant abundance are all inside jobs!”

I am living my dream because I always knew I would.  I knew I can from the moment the thought came into my head so many years ago.  It was the most difficult decision I had to make in my life.  Leave a steady job during economic downturn, leave my mother who just saw her two younger children leave for other countries and relied so much on my physical, financial and emotional support.  Leave a steady life of abundant opportunities of warm vacations, good restaurants, great nightlife.  Leave the man who has finally made a journey across the ocean to be with me.  Leave my older brother in his toughest moment of his life: lost business, broken heart and very low spirits and belief in tomorrow.  Leave my Godson who brings me so much joy and leave his mother, my best friend, who has been by my side for 13 years. 

But I made the right decision.  I know, with my heart, my soul, my whole being that this trip was meant to be.  There are a lot more discoveries to come but for now I want to thank every single person who has crossed my path on this journey.  There are hundreds!  Hosts, strangers on the street, drivers who picked me up on the side of a road.  And some shine brightly in my mind.  Yacchi of Sapporo, Toby, Stephanie & John of Higashikawa, Yufuko of Abashiri, Adam of Kushiro, Yukiko of Sapporo, Charlotte of Kazuno, Scott & Masako of Kamo Aosa, Adrian of Sakata, Kevin & Yamato of Fukushima, Ryota of Matsuyama, Bahti of Beppu, Alexa and Sandra of Saiki, Victoria and her children of Takachiho, Prerna of Miyazaki, Keyu of Beijing, Asuka of Nagasaki and Sumire of Fukuoka.  

Thank you for coming into my life.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Since meeting Keyu in Miyazaki, I have traveled through 3 more prefectures.  I visited beautiful Sakurajima, an island with an active volcano in Kagoshima prefecture where I met a mysterious Japanese man who accompanied me around the island without saying a word.  I saw Aso-san, an active volcano with the largest caldera in the world in Kumamoto prefecture where I met an Indonesian young man and a Chinese girl from APU (an International University in Beppu) and with whom I spend a great day at the mountain.  I spend two rainy days in Saga prefecture watching movies on my laptop at my host’s place during the day and eating delicious Indian food at night. 
Me with smoking Sakurajima  

Mt. Aso'  caldera

Finally I arrived to Nagasaki.  I was staying with a young Japanese girl.  She was adorably messy and super beautiful.  She had two obsessions: dinosaurs and Middle-East.  Her room was adorned with dinosaur posters and toys, her bed was decorated with long lianas hanging from the ceiling, her DVD collection contained every dinosaur movie and cartoon ever made.  She has traveled to Pakistan, India, Turkey, Bangladesh and Iran to fulfill her middle-east crave.  We had many stories to share over karaoke and late night dinners.  Unfortunately, Asuka was busy during the days and so I set off to explore the city on my own.
Karaoke with my host Asuka and her friends

My first stop was a park near Asuka’s house.  What I didn’t know at the time I visited that it was the epicenter of the atomic bomb explosion on August 9th, 1945.  The park was simple.  On one side a beautiful statue of a mother with a child and on the other, a strange structure which, from far away, looked like a bunch of bricks. 

I stood in front of the “Mother with a child” statue for a long time.  Getting on my knees, I prayed.  I prayed for peace, I prayed for love, I prayed for victims, I prayed for their families, I prayed for those who inflict pain onto others.  I got up emotionally drained but optimistically happy, wanting to change the world, one person at a time.  I vowed to spread as much love and light as I possibly can.  It is us who make the world the way it is.  And if we can make a choice every single day: to be good, to smile at strangers, to spread the light - the world will reciprocate.

Then slowly I walked over to the brick structure.

Within 5 feet an awful smell hit my nostrils and then a huge wave of a powerful negative energy hit me.  I couldn’t move.  My limbs went completely numb.  I felt death with every fiber of my being.  I do not remember feeling this much horror even at the Holocaust Museum in Israel.  Without realizing what I was doing I turned around and ran.  I ran and ran and ran.  Thoughts scattered, I couldn’t breathe. 

The further I got away, the less I felt the grip of death.  Finally, I couldn’t feel it anymore and slowed down.  I had to recuperate fast.  I didn’t want the negative energy to linger in me.  Turning on the best uplifting song I could find in the iPod, I tried to clear my head.  Remembering the faces, conversations and places I’ve encountered while traveling in Japan, I soon felt better. 

The mood lifted exponentially within the next hour.  Walking by Nagasaki Station, I caught an amazing performance of Okinawan Dance Eisa by a high school group of students.  The beat of taikos (Japanese drums) transported me into the land of rhythm, chanting and freedom.  I no longer remembered the park.  

A few minutes later, a Japanese man in his early 40s approached me and offered to be a guide around the city and in turn he wanted to practice his English.  I spent the whole day with Taizo-san.  He showed me the beautiful hills of Nagasaki which reminded me of Hakodate and San Francisco.  We ate a local specialty, chanpon, while teaching each other our languages.  We discussed history and politics standing on top of a mountain, looking down at the whole city, marveling at how powerful the force of survival is.

Spectacles Bridge

Nagasaki during day

Nagasaki at night


Saturday, November 28, 2009

An “accidental” encounter

I arrived to Miyazaki city late at night and my host met me near the station. She was a 33 year old psychiatrist originally from India and recently living in California. She received a grant to do research in Miyazaki International College and so she came to Japan to teach and research. It was an immense pleasure to stay with Prerna. She is an intellectual with strong opinions on subjects and I felt challenged to talk to her (which is a very good thing).

The weather has been on and off recently but we got lucky that weekend with bright sunshine and warm rays. And so we decided to visit Aoshima town which is popular for its shrine located on a beach. Little did I know that morning that Destiny, in its mysterious and wondrous ways, has already started to arrange a consequential meeting.

The shrine was a completely new encounter for me. I got quiet used to seeing shrines against the background of tall mountains, green forests and busy cities. But the pervasive red Tori looked extraordinary against the backdrop of vast blue sea.

Surfers next to the shrine

Naturally, Prerna and I wanted to take a picture of ourselves and so I asked a guy standing nearby whom I noticed a little while before. He persistently followed us at some distance. I figured he was a Japanese man interested in practicing his English with us (I encounter such people every so often). Since he did not pursued to start a conversation due to his shyness, I decided to take action.

Sumimasen (excuse me) I said to him wanting to ask to take a picture of Prera and me. Oh, I don’t speak Japanese he immediately replied in good English. And this is how I met Keyu.

Keyu is a 26 year old journalist from Beijing. He was in Miyazaki on a conference and since it finished earlier that morning he had two days to explore the area. Somewhat shy, the three of us asked questions and learned about each other. Keyu ended up spending the whole afternoon with us.

The following day Prerna had to go to the university and she gave me a few suggestions what to see while she’s out. Keyu didn’t know anything about the area so he asked to join me. I met with him at 10:30am at the main station and we set off on a two hour bus journey to Nichinan. Learning about each other, our lives, our worlds, travels, likes and dislikes, political and religious views, dreams and aspirations, and much more, we found ourselves bonding tightly with each passing second. Nichinan was beautiful: a magnificent Udo Shrine built in a cave on a cliff of the sea and Easter Island Moai replicas were a site to see. But even more so our friendship was growing. We laughed at each other jokes, told sad stories, spoke of our families and friends, took silly pictures, climbed forbidden forest paths, shared delicious lunch, taught each other our languages, found out the significant meanings of our names, slept on each other shoulders on the way back to Miyazaki, played taiko drums in arcade, ran around the city looking for ramen shops, made plans to meet again, drank beer and cocktails in sad anticipation of departure, held each other in tight embrace at the station late at night because we just couldn’t let go.

That day, I have met a wonderful person who has become a close friend within a few short hours.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


When I arrived on Kyushu Island, my American friend Wendy, same one who introduced me to Toby and Maiko from Hokkaido, told me I must not miss an opportunity to meet Victoria Yoshimura. Victoria is a British lady who married a Japanese Buddhist priest many years ago and became a priest herself. She and her husband run a beautiful temple which has been passed down 17 generations for over 400 years from son to son.


On the day of my arrival I met Victoria’s 3 adorable kids, a 13 year old boy, an 11 year old boy and a 9 year old girl. Now two younger go to an elementary school which has a policy that children must walk to school in order to build character. The path to school is over 3 km long and runs through the mountains. And so Victoria suggested that the next morning I wake up with the kids and walk to school with them. Why on earth would I do that, I aked. You’ll see, was her response. Out the door by 6:30am, Victoria, her kids, a few neighbor’s kids and I set off for school.

The Takachiho town is located in the mountains of Miyazaki prefecture. If I thought hilltops of the north were beautiful, I was terribly mistaken. When the morning mist of the mountains cleared, it revealed the most colorful foliage I have ever seen. From pale yellow and orange to deep red and purple, the sight took my breath away. Towns built in the deep valleys and in the mid-mountains, rivers running through mesmerizing gorges, temples bathing in clouds on mountaintops. I could hardly recall seeing anything so beautiful. The sun began its slow descend from top of the mountains but for the moment, their tips were immersed in its golden glow. Now I knew why Victoria persuaded me to wake up at 6am. Kids’ cheerful laughter, morning’s brilliant sunshine, dog’s distant bark, mountains’ peaceful slumber, every single moment was magical.

Several hours later, Victoria was to join the kids at school. She teaches English in Junior High School which is located in the same building with Elementary School. Luckily, she invited me to come along and I got a chance to sit in her classes and actually participate in the lessons. I was a bit nervous to stand in front of 20 kids and talk to them about my hitchhiking experiences. But the children were so fascinated, they had only admiration to share. In turn, I was cherishing every moment spent with them. Firmly imprinted in my mind are their curious faces when they first saw me standing in front of their classroom, their puzzled features when Victoria asked them questions in English, their concentrated looks when they wrote a test, and their excited expressions when they found out I would stay in school and eat lunch with them.

Victoria's oldest son Reo

Park in front of the school

The school was filled with buzz that day. Apparently, I couldn’t have come to Takachiho at a better time. That afternoon, Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra was coming to school to perform. I was told their regular tickets in Tokyo cost over $200 but they were on a promotional tour around the country and were coming to this small town at exactly the same day I was passing through!

When I was 7 years old, my mom enrolled me in a music school. I learned how to read music, play piano, sing in choir, and recite biographies of famous composers. Music has been a part of my life and me as a whole since before I remember. I truly believe that people cannot exist without music. Any form or genre of it. My whole being trembles at the sound of delicate strings of violins which are ever-present in classical music and my heart beats in rhythm with drums and electric guitar pulse of hard rock. I can go to the “Nutcracker Ballet” and weep the moment the “Waltz of Flowers” begins its beautiful medley and I can get in a car, turn the volume of “30 Seconds to Mars” so loud I would feel it more than hear. My world is always accompanied by music.

I haven’t been to a classical concert in a long while. And so when I heard that I was getting a chance to listen to Tokyo Philharmonic, I was beyond happiness. Teachers, kids (grades 1st through 9th), parents and other guests had gathered in the gym. There were only a few chairs for the elders, the rest of the crowd sat on the floor. Some people brought blankets, some blankets were provided by school. The kids sat in front of the orchestra, Victoria and I kneeled right behind them and the parents sat in the back. The concert was everything I expected and more. Nodding my head with the rhythm of familiar music I was filled with wonderful thoughts and total happiness. But I was soon to find out how small that happiness was in comparison to real “treasure.”

The concert lasted for a few hours. The conductor was quiet entertaining and in-between each piece he introduced members of the orchestra and their instruments in a playful manner. Some older people were seeing violins for the first time in their lives. Overall mood was very fulfilling. I felt the end nearing and was sad I would have to part with the orchestra and its amazing music. Finally the principal of the school stood in front of the orchestra and thanked them for coming to Takachiho to perform and in return the school had something prepared for them. All the students stood up. Soft music started to pour from the orchestra and then the kids started to sing. I felt my heart grow beyond the boundaries of my body . Their voices reached into the deepest part of my soul and gently embraced it with their wondrous magic. This was the best part of my day. In one sweep moment I forgot the magnificent sunrise over the mountains and the beautiful music of the orchestra. The children were standing in front of me and singing. At that moment, I was the happiest person alive.