Archive for the ‘Tokyo’ Category

Anyone who has ever stared down a blank page and blinked first knows how devastating writer’s block can be. I’ve read several articles

on the causes of it, but the best reason I’ve heard to date is actually the simplest to cure – the cause of writer’s block is a lack of fresh ideas, and the best source of new ideas that I know of is travel.

My favorite place to stay in Trieste

You don’t have to travel to the ends of the earth either to be inspired. A jaunt across town to a new neighborhood is just as inspiring as jetting off to Japan, and a lot more economical for those of us on a budget.

Let’s take a look at all of the potential ways local and long distance travel can inspire us.

First and foremost, it’s all about the place. First impressions can be quite powerful when you’re visiting a place for the very first time. For frequent travelers like me, who have been so many places, the challenge is to see a familiar place with fresh eyes. Armed with a seek-and-you-shall-find attitude, I’m always amazed at how many new things I can discover.

The most fascinating thing to write about is people and the cast of characters that make up the place you’re visiting. You can write about their physical appearances, perhaps so very different from your own. You can capture their mannerisms and customs, or you can dig a little deeper and find the commonalities. One of my favorite things to do is recreate conversations with the colloquialisms of unconstrained everyday conversation. It makes us feel like we’re eavesdropping.

Another thing you can do is take us on a tour of some of your favorite places and tell us why they’re your favorites. For example I’m a WWII history buff, and on almost every visit I make to London, I always go to the British War Museum. I become a time traveler. I can feel the sense of urgency, the life and death struggle of nations as the fate of democracy hangs in the balance.

Why not make up stories about your favorite places. I’m often fascinated as I walk the winding back streets and alleyways of old cities like Venice or Barcelona for example. I try to imagine the everyday life of the inhabitants of these ancient dwellings. What happens behind closed shutters, on bougainvillea-covered balconies or in local shops? I look at the laundry hanging on the balconies and try to guess, from the articles of clothing, who lives in that household. What they do for a living?

If it’s a gondolier, does he sing because he is happy? Is it a bank president having an affair with his secretary behind his wife’s back? Or is he madly in love with his wife and rushes home each night to plant a kiss on the back of her neck? Are the children bored with their over stimulated digital lives? Do they still play outdoors? Is a woman sick and dying behind shuttered window? Does she still have a burden of regret weighing heavily on her soul, pinning her to this earth like an insect in one of those shadow boxes. What was the regret and what could she have done differently?

Local culture, cuisine and customs also yield a rich harvest of stories, observations and ideas. Engage all your senses: taste, touch, hear, see and smell what the place and its people have to offer. Participate. Go out of your comfort zone and learn something new, something indigenous to the place. Mush a dog sled in Alaska, dance Flamenco in Barcelona or dive the Great Barrier Reef. Or be a tourist in your own city.

And, finally, never leave the house or hotel without a notepad and pen because Inspiration can strike at any time, curing your writer’s block in an instant.

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I often find myself in new places for business and because I’m in and out of a city quite quickly, I don’t always have much time to spare. However, when I do get some downtime, whether I’m traveling for work or pleasure, I always do a bit of research before I set out to explore. I like to arrive in a place that I know a little something about, and I’m not talking about its tourist attractions. I’m talking about its soul, its character(s) and its culture.

There’s nothing more thrilling than the flash of recognition you get when you see or visit a place that has some significance  because you’ve read about it in a novel or seen it in a movie. There is a familiarity that arises from knowing a place’s “back story”. If you have that, you’re no longer visiting a stranger; you’re visiting a friend.

Let me give you a few examples of books and movies that can help you learn the back-story of specific places as well things you can do when you get there to enhance your experience.


Barcelona – The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlo Ruiz Zafón. The novel includes hand drawn maps that trace the characters’ steps through plot twists and turns so you can follow in their footsteps.

India – A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. This sweeping epic does a great job of breaking down the early formative politics of the country. Reading it will give you a better appreciation and understanding of today’s India.

Montreal – Forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs sets many of her thrillers in Montreal. I sometimes half expect to bump into her character, Temperance Brennan in one of the many settings she describes.


Rome – Roman Holiday. Follow Audrey Hepburn as she hops on the back of a Vespa with Gregory Peck to see the sights in Rome. Fall in love with both the city and the guy.

Paris / France – French Kiss. Follow Megan Ryan and Kevin Kline from Paris and Province to the Cote d’Azur in this delightful little comedy.

New York – When Harry Met Sally. For me this is the best way to live vicariously in New York.

Having read a book or seen a movie about a place gives significance to the sights in the places you visit. It makes the experience that much richer. But you can also enhance your experience once you are there.

Here are five fun things you can do.

1)    Take a class in a “native” subject. Take tango lessons in Buenos Aires, cooking classes in Bologna and an Ikebana class in Tokyo.

My attempt at Ikebana

2)    Attend a cultural event. Attend the local symphony, a dance performance or a concert given by local talent in a club or a restaurant.

3)    Take a tour. It’s a quick way to get an overview of a place, after which you can pick and choose your favorite spots to go back to and savor on your own.

4)    Treat yourself. Travel can be stressful process at the best of times: standing in long check-in lines, losing your luggage or just getting oriented. Book a massage, facial, or a wash and blow dry at a local hair salon. It lends an air of “normalcy” to a place, and it makes you feel better no matter what situation you’re facing.

5)    Sample the local cuisine. Always make it a point to try one local dish, whether it’s pizza in Naples, poutine in Montreal or antelope in Africa.

Finally as a way to relive the experience once you return home, bring back a music CD of an artist or group that you heard while visiting a place. If the music isn’t live, but piped in through a sound system in restaurant or played on the radio in a taxi, go ahead and ask the waiter or taxi driver about the singer or group. They are happy to tell you about the music to promote their country’s talent.

Once home, you can become an armchair traveler and let the music transport you back in time and place to experience those magical moments again and again.

What the teacher did

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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/




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…



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.


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