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My trip to Tokyo was ill-timed for attending a milonga but not for taking a tango class.  This time, instead of a private lesson, I took a group class at the Tropicana bar/club located in the Roppongi Hills area in the Minato district of Tokyo.  It’s a high-rise, über-urban community that allows residents and visitors alike to shop, work, live and play all in one compact area. It is also where East meets West. According to my Japanese friends, the district is populated with the highest concentration of “foreigners” in Tokyo.

Walking along its crowded streets I wonder if I’m in Minato or Midtown Manhattan.  English is definitely the lingua franca here but it’s peppered with accents as colorful as the neon signs that bathe the streets in an eerie kind of sci-fi glow.  Roppongi Hills pulses to a world beat all its own so it’s the perfect place for bars and clubs.

It’s also the world beat of tango that brings me here. Tango, like Roppongi, is a small world. Connecting is easy when you have something like dance or foreignness in common.  Often times it’s six degrees of separation — sometimes, as in the tango world, it’s even less. In my case it was three degrees.

I made the first connection through Arlene Toth’s London Tango blog” http://londontango.wordpress.com/ and an introduction to Alberto Paz in New Orleans.   Alberto, http://www.planet-tango.com/, put me in touch with Yaeko, one of his former students here in Tokyo.  And Yaeko was kind enough to organize a group lesson for me in Tokyo.

We never did make that lesson – we both got lost in transportation, each of us waiting for the other at different exits of the metro one night.  I was so disappointed because I had really wanted the experience of a Japanese group lesson – just like in the movie Shall We Dance.  Dejected, I returned to my hotel.

What turned out to be bad timing for a dance lesson turned out to be good timing for friendship.  Undeterred by the mix-up, Yaeko called and invited me to dinner instead. We may have been too late to dance but we weren’t too late to eat.  That night we talked tango for three hours.  When I asked Yaeko why she danced tango, she gave me an answer that only milongeuros and milongeuras would fully understand.  “I didn’t choose tango,” she said.  “Tango chose me.”

Afraid that her passion would become all-consuming, she took some time off to study the violin.  I can understand that. Some times I question my own sanity when I find myself dancing salsa four or five nights a week.  Once or twice my friends who don’t dance have mentioned the word “intervention” in connection to my passion.

And so I too stop for a while and fill my evenings with more practical pursuits like yoga, or Pilates or cooking lessons. That is until I realize they are a poor substitute for the one thing that truly makes me happy – dance.

Over dinner Yaeko suggested an opportunity for another lesson with Luis Castro and Claudia Mendoza, who are guest instructors at the Club Tropicana.  The next night, we made sure to pick an easy meeting point and we connected with time to spare.  I joined Yaeko and her friends in a small group lesson, which turned out to be more like a master class.

Milonga was the dance we practiced that night, and the intricacy of the footwork discouraged me. I realized I had a long way to go.  I also realized that to reach this level I would have to put in some time and get serious instead of playing at it one lesson at a time.    Up till then I was learning tango with some waltz thrown in. Milonga was fast, fun and frustrating, and I would have been totally discouraged if it hadn’t been for Luis, Claudia and my fellow students encouraging me. Even the more advanced students had to work at some of the steps. We were in it together.  By the end of the evening I had managed to pick up a step or two and I felt more comfortable.

Afterward we celebrated our progress at a nearby restaurant. As an outsider I was amazed at how at ease I felt among this group of strangers. It was only for a couple of hours, but it felt like we’d been meeting there for years.

I suspect that this is due in part to how the tango world functions.  Dance is like owning a passport that grants you access to an amazing country.  And participating in tango is like visiting family. I had really thought that I missed my chance when I missed the first lesson but in truth, I couldn’t have planned things better.  The lesson at the Tropicana was a last minute suggestion. And so I’ve added a fifth lesson to my dance is life list.

Lesson #5: Dance is like life. Some things you just can’t plan…sometimes you just have to improvise. https://cafegirlchronicles.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/dance-is-life/

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www.castroymendoza.com

http://jantango.wordpress.com/about/

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/Oktay Ortakcioglu

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Shinto ShrineNot only do the two major religions — Buddhism and Shinto — coexist peacefully in Japan but they also overlap in a practical sort of way that is uniquely Japanese. While the other world religions are literally and metaphorically battling it out for supremacy, “My god is bigger than your god,”  the Japanese make no such distinctions.  God and deities exist only to help people overcome hardships here on earth, or ease their way into heaven.

Often these religions share the same space. So it’s not unusual to find a Shinto Shrine within the courtyard of a Buddhist temple. And since I began my visit in a temple, the difference between the two religions was explained it to me in typical Zen fashion – very simply.  The two religions divide themselves neatly along two lines: Life and Death.

Shinto, an animist religion, deals with life: the celebration of the New Year, marriage, special prayers for children at the ages of three, five and seven, a coming-of-age ceremony at twenty, special prayers for family issues, and prayers for success in business or studies. Deities are found mostly in nature, and sometimes as past emperors or empresses. Buddhism assists the dead as they move into the next life and comforts the living.

The standard practice when visiting a temple or shrine is to purify one’s self prior to petitioning the Buddha or the deities residing there.  Ritual purification occurs in two ways depending on where you are. When visiting shrines, usually the act of passing under three torrii (gates) and walking along the gravel path to the haiden (hall of worship) is enough to purify one’s self before arriving at the honden (main hall) where the kami (gods) reside.

There is also purification through water (chözuya) at both temples and shrines.  The traditional way is to take a ladle and fill it with water from a tap.  Pour the water over the left hand, and then transfer the ladle to pour the water over the right hand.  Next, pour water into a cupped hand, purify your mouth and spit it out. The last step is to let water run down the ladle handle to purify it.  In all cases, make sure the water is spilled on the ground next to, and not back into the basin, so as not to contaminate it.

The act of praying is just as simple.  In the temple, you toss a coin into a box in front of the altar, put your hands together, offer your prayer and then back away. Prayers in a shrine are offered in a similar fashion.  You toss a coin in the box, clap twice to let the deity know you’re there, put your hands together, offer a prayer and then bow once.

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/Jimbo_Cymru

Temples and shrines sell omikuji, fortunes written on slips of paper.  Fortunes are dispensed in a random fashion via a special box containing numbered sticks.  Since I was there, I thought I would try my luck and so I shook the box and not one but two sticks popped out.  Great, now I’d have to choose.  Was I choosing the right one?

I closed my eyes drew one stick and gave it to the attendant.  She gave me a slip of paper with my fortune on it. So far so good, I thought.  There are four kinds of fortunes dai-kichi (big luck), kichi (luck) sho-kichi (small luck) and kyo (bad luck). In essence, the best is kichi. It means that things are not only good but they are going to get better.

Sho-kichi, the fortune I pulled, made the young attendant wince. “Oh, mmm,” was all she said.  Such a grave expression on such a young face made me nervous.   And then seeing my anxious expression, she gave me a small smile.  “It’s okay,” she explained. “Bad luck now but good luck later.”   She explained that things were bound to get better soon if I acted in a disciplined manner and was conscious of my actions.  “Better soon,” she said. .

Hmmm.  This fortune could only refer to my love life of course and it corroborated what Shelly the Seer saw in New Orleans when I pulled the Nine of Cups.  There was something big in the offing; I just had to be patient and pay attention.  https://cafegirlchronicles.wordpress.com/2009/11/27/date-with-destiny/

The little attendant instructed me to fold the paper and tie it to a nearby tree thereby letting the wind disperse the bad luck.  My little paper slip joined hundreds of others who would share similar fates or worse: kyo (bad luck).  Good fortunes are meant to be tucked into a wallet for safekeeping.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about this latest stroke of fortune – and then I thought about Shelly.  “You play the hand you’re dealt” or, in this case, the stick you draw.  So be it, I thought….fonce as my French friends would say. (Push ahead!)

As I was contemplating the little tree, I didn’t feel the small hand tapping my shoulder until it became much more insistent. I was surprised to find the little attendant standing behind me smiling.  She pointed in the direction of a small pavilion – there was a wedding – “For you.  Very lucky.”  I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. Its significance was not lost on me: perhaps this was a new beginning for me too.

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/anzeletti

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The Japanese transit system is quite an experience. The trip to and from any destination can be quite short – even a long distance trip seems to pass quickly – because of the efficiency of the trains and metro systems themselves.  It’s point A to point B travel at its best.

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/Dansin

The only challenging and time consuming part of any trip is exiting a station through the right door.  In some of the larger stations, a labyrinth of passageways on a number of levels makes it necessary to stop and ask for directions every several meters or so. One ascends or descends to the various levels depending on where you want to go. It’s rather Dante-esque with several levels of shops to tempt you – a shopper’s paradise if you’re up for it and hell if you’re tired or in a hurry.

Moving crowds in the Tokyo transit system are like a human undertow and if you’re not careful you can end up someplace else other than your intended destination. This trip, I was with my friend Masako, so I let her do all of the navigating while I did all of the looking. More than once I felt a polite tug on my elbow as she changed directions trying to find the closest exit to my hotel.  She stopped often and glanced anxiously in my direction, worried that I’d get swept away in a crowd never to be seen or heard from again. She was my own personal life preserver, keeping me afloat in a roiling sea of people.

After a long day of sightseeing we had promised ourselves a couple of beers back at my hotel, and happy hour was upon us. I could see that Masako had a one track mind – the hotel bar or bust. The only sight she wanted to see was the bottom of a frosted mug and a bottle of Kirin.  And I was right there with her. We were both parched and a little hungry.

Despite her best efforts, we had missed the exit and decided to go above ground to get our bearings. We used the neon-lit buildings to vector our way back to my hotel.  Her vector points were Nakau, Uniqlo, and Takashimaya, while mine were McDonalds, KFC and a Pepsi logo atop one of the many business towers in the area. They may have been different names but the end result was the same.

We made it back to the hotel before it started to rain.  It was the perfect end to a perfect day spent in one of the most amazing cities in the world. That I was able to spend it in the company of a friend was a bonus. Masako and I ended on a high note back in the bar – that note of course being Kampai!  or Cheers!   Different words but…

 

Kampai!

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/skodonnell

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Good heavens, an upgrade!

After a year of steady business travel in economy class and logging tens of thousands of miles, I did it! I am flying to Tokyo in business class an occurrence so rare that it ranks right up there with a World Series win by the Cleveland Indians or the appearance of Haley’s Comet.

Upgrade certificates along with the cheery self-congratulatory notes that always accompany them spill out of a file folder on my desk.  “Dear Valued Frequent Flyer” the letter always reads. The Vice-President of customer loyalty is pleased to provide you with two (worthless) upgrade certificates to be used on your next flight.  Ha!

They’re worthless because any affordable airline ticket that I reserve also falls within a “class of fare” that falls outside of the usual upgrade certificate classification.  In other words, if I can only afford to fly class X, Y or Z, you can bet that all of the upgrades are only good for A, B, or C  class — a much more expensive fare.  So I usually find myself in the class called S.O.L. What’s the point I wonder?  Instead of feeling valued I feel insulted.

When I booked the trip to Tokyo I was astounded to learn that the fare was actually eligible for an upgrade.  And not just any upgrade, but one of those super duper, intergalactic, cosmically star-dusted upgrades of which the airline had parsimoniously given me two.  I had been saving them up in the hope I wouldn’t have to use them on a short haul flight to somewhere close like London. But Tokyo, a13 1/3 hours flight was just the ticket!

And so I am writing this post from a pod, which will shortly convert into a bed, in the business class section of a new 777 jet.  The pod’s futuristic design, in a shape that defies description, is lit by ghostly blue running lights and a pictogram LCD panel. It’s my own personal command and control center.

Pink (yes pink) overhead lighting gives the cabin a surreal atmosphere – a sort of cosmic café, if you will.  I feel like I’m hitchhiking across the Galaxy instead of crossing the Pacific.  A male voice comes across the intercom with an announcement. I half expect the pilot to announce that we are now shifting into hyperspace.  Instead, it’s just the purser announcing lunch. Hyperspace, I muse – now that would be an upgrade!

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/Oktay Ortakcioglu

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Thanks to all of you tangueros and tangueras who were kind enough to provide contacts to instructors and milongas in Tokyo.  If any of my other fellow dancers have suggestions on milongas or salsa clubs – I’ll happily take them as I don’t leave until Thursday.

In the meantime, I am going to treat myself to an all-Tokyo film fest this weekend, which will include:

Lost in Translation – As I will soon be Lost in Tokyo.

Blade Runner (The Director’s cut) – I’m told Ridley Scott’s futuristic film noir evokes the sights and sounds of present day Tokyo and the Shinjuku area where I will be staying.

Shall We Dance?  The original Japanese version of this film really hits home for many of us.  If it says anything about human nature, it’s that it’s never too late to rediscover who you are – especially if you happen to find yourself in Tokyo.

Enjoy!

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We North Americans live in a throwaway society.  We discard clothes, hardly used electronics, toys, games, recreational equipment and, sadly, sometimes relationships or friendships without really thinking much about it.  A lot of our conversations are peppered with throwaway lines:  “How are you?” we ask, without truly listening to the response.

Sometimes we complain for the sake of complaining because we have nothing worthwhile to say.  Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do we.  We are busy filling our personal vacuum with things, and the silence with inane chatter.  This is not an indictment; it’s who we are, and I am as guilty as anyone.  In fact, it was a simple throwaway line that led me to my latest adventure in Amsterdam.

I was meeting a friend for lunch.  It was a cold, damp, rainy Sunday. Miranda and I met at the restaurant and dined on hot soup and a hearty casserole.  The restaurant had a fireplace, so it was nice and cozy.  She stared at me intently, “So, how are you?”

Miranda is a short, sprightly woman with close-cropped blond hair.  She reminds me of the little Dutch girl you see as one half of the souvenir salt and pepper shakers you find at Schipohl Airport.  She’s married to Clare, a well-known abstract artist popular with the avant-garde crowd.

In an effort to get the conversation started, and by way of warming up because we hadn’t seen each other for a few months, I started by talking about my travels leading up to Amsterdam.  I basically gave her a litany of standard complaints:  my back hurt, my bones ached, the samples weighed a ton, and I was tired. Nothing serious; I was really just making conversation-lite.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Europeans during my ten plus years of doing business with them, it’s that they listen — really listen. They don’t make conversation; they have conversations.  If they ask you how you are, they wait for your answer and respond appropriately.

As Miranda listened intently I could see her brow furrow in concentration. You could tell she had taken my remarks seriously.   She smiled, leaned back and said she had just the thing to fix me up.  As a marathon runner, she had access to the best in massage therapists, acupuncturists, kinesiologists, and of course saunas.  “Sauna — I think that’s just the thing for you,” she said.

“But I’m not dressed for Sauna, I have nothing with me,” I said.

“It’s okay,” she laughed. “You don’t dress for sauna. You undress.  Besides, it’s a very posh place, beautiful art deco style, and they supply all that you need. All you have to do is show up.” She glanced at her watch. “We have just enough time to get you there before it closes. It’s very popular on Sundays, to help people get ready for the work week ahead.”

Well, why not, I thought.  My muscles were wound as tightly as springs.

Miranda drove me over to the sauna and waited for me while I checked availability. The lobby was lavish, with its gold leaf, dark wood, and leaded windows.   It looked like the perfect place to decompress.  I was in luck: they had two keys left, which meant two spots. The keys are linked to lockers where you can store your stuff.

I ran out to the car and told Miranda I was “good to go.” She wished me a pleasant time and left for a training run.  I stood on the doorstep and waved goodbye. I immediately started to feel pounds lighter.

The receptionist couldn’t have been nicer or more accommodating.  I paid a small fee for the two hours remaining, and she handed me a pile of soft, fluffy white towels and my locker key.  Her English was very good, and I commented on the fact. “Ah,” she said. “We get lots of tourists here.”  She pointed me in the direction of the locker room, which was down the stairs and to the right.

I was so looking forward to a nice relaxing afternoon and a little pampering that I didn’t really notice the occupants of the locker room until I was well inside.  There were at least a dozen men in various states of undress, some completely naked.  I thought I had made a wrong turn somewhere, so I carefully sidled out of the room, without anyone noticing me, and went back to the receptionist.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I think I made a mistake.   Where was the locker room again?”

Her eyes twinkled. “Why, you just came from it,” she said.  She watched my face carefully as I calculated my next move.  I could bugger off and lie like hell about my experience the next time I saw Miranda.  Problem was I didn’t see enough of the place to lie convincingly, and I’m also a very bad liar. Or I could go through with it.  After all, Miranda had said that it was very popular and if she went there, well …

Oh, what the heck, I thought. No one knows me in Amsterdam, and the best part is going to be when I told this story to my squeamish, fellow mid-westerners who would be aghast. Hell. The shock factor alone would be worth it, I thought.  I’d get a lot of mileage out of this tale.

So I grabbed my towels and marched back to the locker room and proceeded to ignore everyone in the room, who were all busy ignoring me.  Once I was out of my clothes, I positioned my towels strategically so that I could make it to the sauna. It was a juggling act of hilarious proportions, as I adjusted one towel and dropped another.   I considered wrapping a towel around me but that would be a dead give away to the locals. Spot the American!  I wasn’t going to give them that satisfaction.  I am as uninhibited as the next guy, or so I thought.

Of course, one does not make a mad dash to the security of a sauna; there is a whole ritual to the process.  The first is a shower.  This particular shower facility was ornate, with bottle-blue tiles, aquamarine glass listellos, gold-plated taps, and showerheads that could put a cloud to shame.  There were twelve showerheads in all, and the best news was that I found myself completely alone.

I hung my towel on a nearby hook and was about to turn on the tap when a man entered the shower room.  Given the fact that I was in the spot closest to the door, you would think that common decency would lead this man to take the shower in the farthest corner of the room.  But nooooooo. Apparently, it’s common courtesy to take the place next to the occupant and strike up a friendly conversation.

At this point, I would like to mention that statistically the Dutch are the tallest people in Europe.  I can attest to this from personal experience as many of the people I have met tower over me. Although when you stand about 5’2” in your stocking feet, this is not difficult.

This gentleman was no exception.  In fact, given our respective heights (I came up to his waist), and he being naked and all — well, let’s just say that it gave new meaning to the phrase “seeing eye to eye.”  Still, we carried on a polite conversation and parted company, me to the sauna and he to the footbaths.

Any thoughts I had about discreetly draping a towel over me in the sauna went out the window when I entered it and noticed that the denizens reclined lazily on their towels

It was an interesting mix of people: a young couple from Australia, a few locals, and me. We talked about life, family, travel, and our respective cultural differences.  I could have been having this conversation anywhere — in the close confines of a train compartment or in a cozy corner of the local pub. The most interesting thing about it was that, rather than feeling exposed, I felt like I had nothing to hide — or nothing to hide behind: neither polite conversation nor a towel.

This conversation among strangers may not have been deep but it was real.  I noticed that it was more comfortable to listen than to look. And so, for once, I concentrated on what was being said.  I had learned a good lesson that day: if you don’t say what you mean, you could end up naked in a sauna in Amsterdam one day.  And if the truth be told, that isn’t such a bad thing.

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/deklofenak

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Tokyo Time

I booked this trip on a whim. The seat sale was so good I couldn’t pass it up.  Of course it is the off, off season but I live in Canada so how cold can it be?

As I don’t normally get on a plane unless I’m paid to (or there’s a dance lesson involved) my friends are intrigued and a bit worried by my new found “wings”.  As for me, there’s really no logical explanation. When I tell them I had a yen for sushi, they all groan in unison.  And now they’re really worried.

So I have decided I am just going to show up and see what happens.

Sayonara.

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/penfold

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