Kyoto felt right from the moment we arrived. The scale was right. The atmosphere was right. The attitude was right. I wish we’d bailed on Tokyo sooner and come down here.
We took a Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo, an experience that was surprisingly ordinary. I’ve never taken the “regular” train in Japan, so perhaps the bullet trains are a major step up from those. But for all the hoopla you hear about them, they were nothing special. Frankly, the Flytoget airport train in Oslo is far more stylish.
But back to Kyoto itself.
Our friend Roberta, who is affiliated with Daishisha University in Kyoto, cautioned us against staying downtown near the train station. Too crowded, too congested, too commercial.
We tried to book ourselves into a ryokan, the traditional Japanese inns where you sleep on tatami mats. But . . . well, it just got too complicated. And too cold. We kept reading that the experience is a great one – when the weather is warm.
So since neither one of us is particularly thrilled by chilly hotel rooms, we ignored everything Roberta recommended and took the easy way out; we stayed in the Granvia Hotel, a massive place connected to the JR Kyoto train station.
There were plenty of people downtown. But because most of them were locals, they actually knew what they were doing and where they were going. If we’d been there mid-summer, surrounded by a crush of tourists, I’m sure it would have been maddening. But as it was, we lucked out. We loved the location.
It was central and we were able to catch buses 50 feet from the door. And most of all, the place was bristling with energy. The train station complex seems to be the center of things in modern-day Kyoto. There’s a massive theater in it – it was playing “Beauty and the Beast” when we were there – scores of shop, a department store, restaurants of every sort. It was just gigantic, the equivalent of two or three large city blocks. Best of all, it’s an architectural gem. You don’t have to be doing anything when you go there. It’s good enough to stand there and gawk.
It was a great start.
So much for stereotypes
We went for a walk the night we arrived. It was freezing outside – literally – so the temptation was to leap into the first restaurant we saw. But we’re patient travelers. We resisted. We wanted something that was classy but lively.
Finally, we saw it; the atmosphere inside was festive – bright red walls decorated with funky graphics and tables filled with groups of cheery friends. The mood was infectious. And best of all, they had an English menu and a server who was willing to work with us. Too late, we discovered that this restaurant had no Japanese food. It specialized in Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese. The signs were all in Japanese, so who knew?
The meal was great, though; fried pork dumplings, prawns & veggies with spinach, mushroom and tomatoes. And as an added benefit, the menu was filled with fractured English – “fravored fried frog,” “steamed dumprings” and the like. Ah well, stereotypes come from somewhere, I guess.
The real revelation that night, though, was just how hip a town Kyoto is.
Here’s an occasion where those stereotypes crumble in the face of reality. As I’ve already admitted a couple of times, I had always imagined Kyoto to be this gentle place, a quiet city hopelessly ensnared by its regal past.
Honestly, I was delighted when we stumbled onto Kawaramachi Dori (Kawaramachi Street), an area filled with clubs and restaurants and noisy young people and nifty shops and pachinko parlors and . . . well, all the elements of a dynamic, flourishing downtown.
As cold as it was – and it really was miserable – we kept walking and walking and walking. I felt like a small-town teenager visiting New York City for the first time. Everything was so alluring, so fascinating. Instead of a precious little city, I found a vivacious, seductive place.
On Being Kyoto
I don’t know exactly what it is that makes Kyoto feel so different than Tokyo.
Because of its wartime experience – it was mostly spared allied bombings – it has a richer architectural mix than Tokyo. But the feeling goes much deeper than having old buildings.
Kyoto is a city that is comfortable in its own skin.
Tokyo feels like it is still trying to prove something to the world. It’s like the overambitious neighbor, the guy who’s got to have the Lexus and the newest Mac and the Armani suits to show us who he is.
Kyoto, on the other hand, is more like the lifelong friend who can slip on jeans and a T-shirt and look great, the friend you haven’t seen for years but are able to slip back into easy conversation with right away. Kyoto is a confident city, a city that knows what it is and, more important, likes what it is.
Lest you think I have some sort of grudge against Kyoto’s temples, I want you to know that I did visit three of them; Nanzen-ji, Ginkaku-ji and Kinkaku-ji, the home of the famed Golden Pavilion.
They’re remarkable buildings. And, because they all charge a few dollars to get in and peek around, they’re well-maintained.
Interestingly, the temple visits were the only time I felt the same sort of shallowness that I did in Tokyo.
It’s not that the temples aren’t impressive. It’s just that there is no sense of reverence about them. As architectural objects, they’re wondrous. But I felt little warmth there, little that was particularly spiritual. It was like visiting one of those villages at Disney’s Epcot Center. They look right. But they feel empty.
Interestingly, the feeling changed as soon as we left the temples themselves. The Philosophers’ Walk, the tree-lined path that we walked between Nanzen-ji and Ginkaku-ji, was peaceful and lovely and . . . well, had much of the emotional impact that I’d hoped to experience in the temples.
By far the worst temple experience was at the Golden Pavilion, immortalized in Yukio Mishima’s “Temple of the Golden Pavilion.” Popularity is part of the problem there. Despite the frigid temperatures, the place was so crowded that they had small armies of cops on hand just to direct traffic. I hate to think what it must be like in the summer.
But what really disappointed me the most was the gift shop. It was so tacky. I know, I know – even the finest of the fine art museums have gift shops. Well, some of them are tacky, too.
Here, they were peddling every conceivable souvenir with pictures of the Pavilion engraved, painted or printed on it. There were wallets (¥2000) and lighters (¥500), posters (¥500), mugs (two for ¥1400) and magnets (¥300). You could even get cookies baked in the shape of the Pavilion for ¥500 a pop.
Sorry. I’ve been to Niagara Falls. I don’t need to come to a renowned temple to find something cheesy.
Kurama Hot Spring (Kurama Onsen)
Roberta said we just had to go to the hot springs at Kurama.
It’s not a simple jaunt. It took about 90 minutes. First you take a city train to the ‘burbs. Then you hop a creaky little train that goes up into the mountains. Once you get to the end of the line, it’s a 10-minute walk - or 2-minute van ride if you’re one of the first off the train - to reach the Kurama Onsen.
Angela and I were both a little intimidated by the prospect of the hot spring. It wasn’t the nudity that was the problem. It was the rules. Like so much else in Japan, visiting a hot spring is a highly codified undertaking.
We’d read oodles about how you must wash thoroughly before entering the pool, about how the washing is to be done seated, not standing, about how it is a cardinal sin to have any soap left on you when you enter the pool.
I thought this was supposed to be relaxing. By the time we paid our ¥1000 and went to our pools – men and women bathe separately – I was totally stressed.
I was relieved to see lockers inside the tiny changing room. Lockers with locks. Not that I didn’t trust people here, but my backpack was filled with money and my camera and my note pads.
I ran over the rules in my head. And then I began.
1.) Strip. Hey, this is easy, I thought. So far, so good.
2.) Wash. OK, this is where it got difficult. Not the washing. But I couldn’t find the washing area. I wandered back and forth through the locker room, into the toilet area, then outside to the pool, trying to look as if wandering in the frigid mountain air was a normal precursor to washing myself. Finally, I saw four tiny stools no more than 18 inches tall hiding behind a corrugated plastic divider. Thank god. I plopped down as gracefully as I could, grabbed a little green washing plastic pan like the other guys were using and turned on the water.
Holy shit!!! The water was about 40°F. It was freezing. I thought this was supposed to be a hot spring. I madly twiddled the controls to find the hot water. After 30 seconds or so of agony, the water finally grew tepid. It never did get hot. I soaped and scrubbed, soaped and scrubbed. And then I rinsed. And rinsed and rinsed and rinsed, the no-soap rule weighing heavily on my mind.
3.) Finally, I was ready. I walked outside. Very weird. It’s been 30 years or so since I’ve strolled around outside naked. And despite the anxiety of preparing for the hot springs experience, the serenity of the surroundings finally started to relax me.
There were about 15 men sitting in the steaming pool, lolling against the sides, looking at the snow-covered mountains and contemplating the heat of the water.
I found an unoccupied stretch of wall, stepped in and sat down.
I’m not a person who’s given to relaxation for relaxation’s sake. I mean, I use conditioner and skin creams and take care of myself like that. But this? Well, if I lived in Kyoto, I could see myself visiting this place often. There are no distractions other than the clouds and the occasional bird sailing through the sky. Like most American men, I don’t take the time to pamper my body and soul in this way. I wonder why.
This is the second time on the trip that I’ve taken the time to be good to myself like this. The first was the Liquidrom in Berlin, particularly the enormous thermal bath in the center of the building.
Like that experience, this is exquisitely soothing and restorative.
Suddenly, my reverie was interrupted by a slapping sound off to the left. In the far end of the pool, a short, stocky guy had stood up and was smacking his belly repeatedly. Occasionally, he’d give the tummy a rest and whack his butt a little. No one else seemed to notice. But I couldn’t take my eyes off him. It was like the opening scene of some weird porn movie.
Before I knew it, it was time to go. Angela and I had agreed to meet in 45 minutes. And I was pretty sure I was already late. I wish we had known how wonderful this was going to be. We could have stayed longer.
I returned to my locker, opened it up and opened the small, plastic-wrapped towel I had brought along from the hotel.
Surprise. It wasn’t a towel at all. Rather, it was a dishtowel-sized piece of woven plastic. It’s the sort of thing that would be great for scrubbing a dirty frying pan.
Trying not to look too nonplussed by my situation, I sidled to the overhead heater and stood as close as I could without looking like I was hogging it. And then I started flicking away at the water on my skin with my scratchy plastic thing.
Ten minutes later, I was dry. Damp, really. But what the plastic lacked as a drying implement, it made up for as a stimulant. My skin now had a wonderfully rosy glow. Or maybe it was scratched.
Angela was waiting for me when I walked out.
“What a screw-up,” I said. “My towel?”
Angie smirked and said nothing, just opened up her coat to reveal a slightly moist blouse that, like my shirt, was sticking to her skin.
“I know,” she said. “Perfect.”
The Ishigaki Café
Once again, it was late and cold and we were searching for a decent restaurant.
But as we walked past University of Kyoto, the scene was too fascinating to pass up. There, on top of an enormous stone wall, a group of students was camped out in a makeshift café they had created atop a flimsy aluminum scaffolding.
As soon as we stopped, they waved to us, gesturing us to come up and join them. I’d seen this thing earlier from the bus and wasn’t sure what it was. Angela paused for a second and that’s all it took for me to make my way to the rickety ladder they had propped against the wall.
“Welcome to the 24-hour Starbucks,” said Takanori Oishi, a friend of one of the organizers and the only one who felt entirely confident in his English.
For more than 50 years, he told us, this wall has been a place where students could hang posters promoting events, airing grievances or sharing any sort of information they chose to. About a month ago, though, the university administration had announced it would knock down the wall to make a new entrance to the campus.
In the way of administrations around the world, there had been no consultation with the students, no consideration about what the wall meant to them, no thought about what it had been used for besides separating the campus from the outside world.
They made an announcement and that was that.
So this bunch decided to take action. For the past three weeks, students from more than 20 campus organizations had been manning what they call the Ishigaki (Stone Wall) Café, serving tea and coffee and telling their story to anyone who dared to climb the spindly scaffolding, squat on the floor and join them.
The scene was reminiscent of student demonstration sites back in the 1960s; messy, crowded, confused, but brimming with enthusiasm and commitment.
Takahiro Suzuki, the young man who was the leader of the moment, made us some wonderfully strong drip coffee – much stronger than the curiously watered-down brew at the local Starbucks, incidentally – offered us pastries and told us why the wall was so important to them.
Japan may be at the center of the electronics revolution. But information, it seems, still flows mostly through formal channels. The wall was once place where the line of information was free and direct.
Suzuki and his friends were determined to keep it that way.
I haven’t learned the outcome of their protest, which began two months ago. When I find out, I’ll let you know.
I’ve never been to Japan before. In fact, before this trip, I’ve studiously avoided it. Not sure why, exactly. There were just always others places that interested me more.
So when I got there, I arrived with a lifetime of preconceptions stored up. Misconceptions, too.
I was sure I’d adore Tokyo. I expected to find an energetic and quirky city filled with fascinating design. And Kyoto? I expected something quiet and serene, temple-filled and a tad precious.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Right off the bat, there was something that bugged me about Tokyo. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I left there, but I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. I think that’s why I’ve put off writing about it. But a couple of days ago, it dawned on me.
Tokyo reminds me of the formal living room that no one is allowed to use except when there’s company. You know what I mean? It’s bright and clean and just the way the terminally anal woman of the house wants it. But it’s not really a very interesting room. Inevitably, it’s devoid of character. It’s emotionally detached from the rest of the house.
I know someone’s going to tell me that I’m culturally insensitive, that it’s just an aspect of Japanese culture. And if it weren’t the visit to Kyoto, I might agree. Kyoto is an entirely different animal.
Kyoto does feel more soothing than Tokyo. But it has its wonderfully sassy side, too. It’s a city with more night clubs than temples. It has neon and gigantic pachinko parlors. And yes, it does have temples.
But what really sets Kyoto apart is that it is comfy in its own skin. It is what it is. Tokyo, on the other hand, feels like the younger sibling who is always trying to prove something. It’s an economic powerhouse. But somehow it still longs for the adoration and respect that people have for places like Paris and New York.
The moment I arrived, it was as if I was visiting an old friend. And Tokyo? Well, it was like having dinner with a business associate. One who you have to buddy up to, but if truth were known, you’d rather be sitting at home in front of the fireplace.
Don’t get me wrong. There are grand things in Tokyo. The Park Hyatt Hotel is easily the finest hotel I have ever stayed in. But unless you have someone to provide you with an entrée into the city, or unless you have enough time to get under its skin, Tokyo can be a pretty cold place.
You know that bowing thing you see Japanese people do in movies? It’s usually played for gags when it’s on the screen. But it’s for real. Every personal interaction, from thanking sales clerks to asking directions from cops or saying good-bye to friends, ends with a bow.
It made me laugh at first. Seems that every buffoonish comedian has mocked it at one time or another; Chevy Chase, Jim Carrey, Jerry Lewis.
But bowing grew on me. It’s a sign of respect, a show of deference. It’s a show of civility in a world painfully lacking in it.
It’s important to do it correctly, though. The key, I found, is not trying to do it on the run. You have to stop and plant your feet and – snap – bend briefly at the waist. The motion should be crisp. To try to do it while you’re moving may be more efficient. But the point is to show that you value the person you’ve been speaking with.
Besides, when you do it on the move, it’s easy to twist your back. Or your knee. Or just fall flat on your ass, as I came very close to doing in the hotel lobby one morning.
Nowhere did they bow as much as they did at the Park Hyatt.
Everyone did it. The doormen. (There was a door woman, too – the first and only one I’ve ever seen.) The hosts at the restaurant. The people at the reception desk. I’m not kidding, you couldn’t get to your room without bowing a dozen times. I did it so much I felt I could skip the gym while I was there. And that’s a shame, because the gym at the Park Hyatt is as spectacular as everything else there.
I know I’m not done with the trip yet, but at this point, Tokyo’s Park Hyatt is easily the finest hotel I have stayed in. Very simply, they do everything right here. And they do it in a quintessentially tasteful way.
Years ago, if you wanted your shoes shined when you were staying in a hotel, you left them outside your door at night and they would be there, perfectly shined, when you got up in the morning. The Park Hyatt still does that. Some hotels have those little machines where you can stick your shoe in and get it buffed up. This is classier. And it’s a better shine. The Park Hyatt understands that. Other hotels don’t get it.
Angela came to visit me while I was in Japan. When we arrived in our room, the enormous flat-screen plasma TV was filled with an idyllic country scene with snow gently falling as an equally soothing soundtrack accompanied it.
I don’t want to read too much into all of this. But after a while, I was convinced that a room and a bed were only incidental to what the Park Hyatt is selling. What it’s really selling is serenity. They provide the means for achieving it; the rooms, the views, the food, the extraordinary service. It’s up to you what you do with them.
Physically, the Park Hyatt is an amazing place. The lobby is on the 41st floor, with rooms filling most of the next 10 floors. Then it’s topped off with a 52nd floor restaurant. Obviously, the views are spectacular. But it’s not the altitude that makes this place great. It’s the way it operates.
“Subtle” is the operative word with everything they do. The rooms are spacious – quite something in a city famed for its space shortage. The interior design is handsome and understated, filled with muted grays and beiges and surfaces that were vaguely reminiscent of high-grade bamboo. Even the gym –yes, I visited it – with its 15-foot floor-to-ceiling windows has a sense of serenity to it. No throbbing music to urge you to sweat more. This whole place is about inner peace.
First thing in the morning, I pushed a little button next to the bed and the curtains opened to reveal Mt. Fuji. Very, very cool.
One last thing. I’m sure you remember the movie “Lost in Translation.” Well, that was the Park Hyatt. In the story, Bill Murray was in Tokyo to make commercials for an alcoholic beverage which shall remain unnamed.
So, high on the priority list for Angela and me was to go to the Peak Lounge, which played a central part in the movie, and re-christen it with Chivas Regal.
Consider it done.
The Peak belongs to us now. Located on the 41st floor, the Peak is dark and moody and sprinkled with little pools of light. Angela and I sat next to one of the massive windows, looked out on a city that seems to go forever and sipped 12-year-old Chivas. I get goose-bumps just writing about it. Very romantic. Easily one of the best moments of the trip.
One oddity, though. The bar lists a happy hour special. All you can drink for two hours; 4800 Yen for men, 4000 Yen for women.
Our greatest misfortune was that the subway station we had to deal with most often was Shinjuku. It’s a sprawling place, a crossroads for subways, elevated trains, airport trains and a few long-distance trains.
It also has scores of stores in it, as well as a mini-mall larger than many small downtowns. It’s so big, you’d think they would put a map in there – you know, like shopping centers do. But you would be wrong.
At Shinjuku, you’re on your own. You’re expected to know where to go.
The signs for the trains are no better. It’s worse than poorly marked, actually. It’s inconsistently marked. There were several times when I’d find two signs a few feet apart that gave conflicting information. You know – one sign said to go straight ahead, while another said to turn left. Maddening. Frustrating. Where’s that famed Japanese organization?
When I kvetched about my Shinjuku experience to my friend Roberta, who has taught American studies in Kyoto on and off for years, she wrote back that “Shinjuku is insane! If you can navigate that, you can do ANYTHING. I've wept in that station not being able to find the exit I wanted.”
Skip the Ginza. Everyone talks about all the fabulous lights there? Forget it. Times Square has more dazzling lights. So does Vegas. So do Shanghai and 20 other cities around the world. And the legendary shopping that’s supposed to be so spectacular? Sorry – you can find half that stuff in high-end shopping districts in any big country in the world.
Give me Harajuku or Shibuya any day.
Harajuku is where teens and savvy twentysomethings go to shop. The streets are lined with shops selling the outrageous clothes, kitschy accessories and every possible item you can imagine with Hello Kitty printed on it. We picked up a tissue box cover shaped like an enormous pair of lips. You actually pull the tissues through the bright red lips.
Sundays are best, we’re told – we weren’t there then – because many of the streets are closed to auto traffic and the kids can run wild. Costume play – dressing up as cartoon characters - is big on Sundays, as are street performers and well . . . just about anything else.
Shibuya, actually, was more to my liking. This must be where the concept of one-stop shopping was born.
The Loft store is a must-see, with everything from its ground-floor cards, toys and art supplies departments to the home goods somewhere up above.
But just down the street is my favorite; Tokyu Hands. I mean, you’ve got to love a store that makes rooms for hardware, wedding supplies, motorcycle parts, clothes and still has room left over for an eraser festival.
Yep. An eraser festival. There were hundreds of them. Shaped like everything you can possibly imagine, from various types of sushi to hot dogs to fire engines to milk cartons. Gotta love it.
One afternoon, we wandered away from the train station, away from the skyscrapers and into a little neighborhood we’d seen from our hotel room. I couldn’t tell you the name of the area. All I can tell you is that it was normal.
You know, normal in the sense that you felt people really lived there. It’s not where they came to play or party. It’s not where they came for special dinners. Rather, it’s where they do their grocery shopping. It’s where they pick up their prescriptions and buy their produce. It’s where their kids go to school.
It was the one time that Tokyo felt like a vaguely human place.
Our goal had been to find a little cemetery tucked amidst all the houses. We never found it, but we did find a very different view of Japanese life than we had seen before.
It was an enormous relief.
I just watched a cloud float by the plane window. It’s a giant, fluffy thing, pinkish gold in the light of the setting sun.
I paid attention in science class. I know it’s just moisture. I know it has no physical substance. And yet, as I look at it out there next, I can’t help but think of it as an enormous puffball of something – a giant cotton ball, maybe – that I could just step out onto and roll around like in some wonderful dream.
Sure, there would be gravity. But only in a cartoonish sort of way. I’d bound across it like a little kid playing on an enormous mattress.
I don’t know if anyone else on the plane is as infatuated with that cloud as much as I am. I hope I’m not the only one. It’s really magnificent.
It’s moments like this that I’m really glad that I haven’t given myself over completely to logic. There’s so much in life that is ruled by pragmatism, by reason, by common sense. And those are all important, I admit. But I’m not willing to give everything over to them. I’m not willing to be practical all the time. Not if it would mean that I couldn’t stop and relish in the extraordinary beauty of something like this outside my window.
Quote me all the science you want, but to me, that towering cumulus cloud will remain a colorful wisp of cotton hanging high in the sky.
What a relief. They’re not all beautiful here. Nor are they all well-dressed or particularly stylish. It’s true that the city has more than its share of posh shops where you drop a load of money in remarkably little time. But so do St. Louis and Portland and Detroit. Nothing extraordinary on that front.
Walk around a bit and you’ll quickly realize that porteños, as people here are called – people of the port – are much as they are anywhere else in the world. The only real outward differences are that woman’s clothes are much, much tighter and much more inclined to show lots of cleavage. I'm constantly averting my eyes.
A few other observations:
- I haven’t had a bad coffee yet. Not in the hotel, not in high-class restaurants, not in little cafés. That’s a far cry from the States or much of the rest of the world, where finding a good cup of coffee - even in the finest restaurants - is an iffy proposition.
- You’ve heard about the madness of football (soccer) fans in this part of the world? It’s all true. Went to a game between Boca Juniors – the team Diego Maradona made famous – and Sporting Cristal, from Peru. I’ve been to operas that had less singing. For 90 minutes, these fans sang and danced and chanted. Physically, it was like an advanced aerobics class. None of the hooliganism you so often hear about with British football fans. For one thing, there's no alcohol sold in the stadium. No, these folks were passionate and inexhaustible all on their own. I can honestly say I’ve never experienced anything like it back in the U.S.
- Driving lanes are strictly a theory here. Avenue 9 de Julio, measuring 140 meters (459 feet) from side to side, is purportedly the widest avenue in the world. Depending on whose measure you believe, it has 12, 14 or 16 lanes. If you count the number of vehicles squeezed across the avenue at any give time, it’s likely to be closer to 20.
I was just speculating.
There’s this Swedish musician whose music I admire. His name is Johan Hedin. He plays a medieval instrument called the nyckelharpa, but he usually plays decidedly un-medieval stuff on it.
Well, it turns out that he has a concert in Stockholm on March 13. So – and here’s where the speculation came in – what if I had enough travel money left in mid-March to haul off to Stockholm for two days to see him?
I mentioned this to Joe Moscone, the New York PR guy who is overseeing this trip for Chivas Regal.
Well, before I knew it, we were talking about a couple of other tweaks to the trip, too.
By the time we got done, the trip had grown a week and I had added four more destinations.
There is a downside. I’ll have to skip Mexico City. And I’ll shrink the U.S. road trip slightly to end it in Santa Fe instead of Houston. But the additions are wonderful ones. Man, I could do this forever.
Here’s what the last four weeks of the trip look like now.
Feb. 28-March 4 – Buenos Aires.
March 5-8 – Parma, Italy – I’ll attend a short cooking course at the Academia Barilla and learn a lot more about Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar.
March 9-10 – Scotland, to visit various Chivas sites.
March 11 – London, where I’ll attend Whisky Live.
March 12-14 – Stockholm, to hear Johan Hedin.
March 15 – Fly to Seattle
March 16 – Begin the U.S. road trip.
March 28 (or 29) – Fly home to Detroit.
From the moment I got here, New Zealand has trotted out one oddity after another.
But today was the strangest. I was sitting in a SuperShuttle van, making the 20km trip from the airport to my downtown hotel.
It was a beautiful day; 78° F (26° C), clear skies, low humidity. So I opened the window and leaned my head forward so I could feel the breeze. It was perfect. It was so green and I could hear the cicadas, so I just closed my eyes and tried to put everything else out of my mind.
A minute later, I opened my eyes and in the next lane, there was a little black and white dog sticking his head out the rear window of a silver BMW doing just the same thing I was.
Then, as if I had been transported into a scene from some oddball Hollywood flick, the dog turned his head and looked at me.
It wasn't a doggie look. It was a slow and deliberate look. He really seemed to be focusing on me, considering what he saw and pondering what the heck this human was doing leaning his head out the car window.
It didn't last long. Just a couple of seconds. But it was eerie as hell. And then, just as suddenly as it began, it was over. The dog turned his face back to the wind and went back to being a dog.
Walking back to the Queenstown House last night after pizza and beer at Winnie Bago’s restaurant, I suddenly went into a panic.
I had been going through my itinerary in my mind and something didn’t add up.
A.) I knew it was Saturday night.
B.) I knew I was leaving for Auckland the next day.
C.) I knew the day after that – Monday – I would leave for Buenos Aires.
That’s where everything fell apart. I knew I was supposed to be in Buenos Aires on Monday afternoon.
Disaster. Somehow, I had screwed up.
I had fretted about this since I began this trip, fretted that I would lose track of time, forget what day it was, miss a flight and throw off the schedule that Pam – my travel agent – and I had cobbled together so meticulously.
Crap. How could this happen?
Of course, I hadn’t screwed up. Everything was fine. I was supposed to leave on Monday afternoon. And I was scheduled to arrive Monday afternoon.
Sounds like a riddle. But the answer to all of this is the International Date Line, which roughly follows the 180th meridian.
Traveling around the world in an easterly direction, I have gradually lost a day. I lost an hour as I traveled from Oslo to Berlin. I lost a few more when I went from Morocco to India. And from Perth to Sydney. Before you I knew it, I'd misplaced an entire day.
Now, when I cross the International Dateline sometime early Monday evening, I'll get that day back.
I leave Auckland at 5:10 Monday afternoon and then, after traveling 17 hours - including a three-hour layover in Santiago, Chile - I arrive in Buenos Aires five minutes later, at 5:15 p.m. Monday.
It’s freezing up here. Not that I didn’t expect it. It’s January and it’s Leh, a town 3484 meters – 11,430 feet – up in the Himalayas. Cold is what you get here. But I expected I would find some respite from it in my hotel.
Not so. I don’t mean to be rude about it. My hotel is proud to offer heating in the winter. Not every hotel in Leh can do that.
But this is one of those lost-in-translation sort of things. “Heat” to me is the ability to wander to the thermostat – in a T-shirt and shorts, if I feel like it – and crank up the temp to 74° F on a really chilly day. That is heat.
In my room here at the Lasermo Hotel, I have a space heater. And I’m thankful for it. It’s the only thing that prevents my room from being as cold as it is outside, where temperatures sink to 5° F at night.
But this is not a room where I can push up the heat and lounge around on top of the covers. In fact, it isn’t even a room where I can comfortably disrobe. Ever.
The warmest the room has gotten is 57° F. For those of you who are Celsiusly inclined, that’s roughly 14° C. Chilly, by anyone’s standards. And the bathroom? Unheated, except for the tiny bit of warm air that sneaks in from the bedroom. That means it never makes it much above 43° F (6° C).
As a result, the bathroom is not a place where I linger a lot. It’s not like I have a lot to do in there, anyway. You see, there’s no running water. So warm showers are out. Every morning, though, a guy who looks curiously like Keanu Reeves delivers a bucket of warm water to my room. And you know what? I’m really delighted when it arrives.
I wash with it. And I shave.
But as soon as Keanu leaves, the first thing I do is sink my hands as deep as possible into the bucket. Warmth. Bliss.
For other water-related needs – you know, flushing and things of that sort - there is an empty bucket and a 50-gallon barrel of chilly water. Cold water, actually. Very cold water.
Meals are generally included at the Lasermo. As soon as you arrive in the dining room, Keanu – he works there, too – moves a space heater into place about three feet from where you’re sitting and then fires it up.
Once again, it’s not the sort of enveloping heat that I’m accustomed to at home. This is more like sitting too close to a fireplace, except that there’s no crackle and no lovely wood scent. Also, I never remove my puffy down parka. It simply doesn’t get warm enough. But once again, Keanu has made me a very happy guy.
Leh is famed for its monasteries. Since the takeover of Tibet by the Chinese, in fact, it has become the center of Tibetan Buddhism. There are scores of monasteries in the region. And while I did visit several of them, the main reason I went to Leh was for the ice hockey.
Two or three years ago, I heard a story on the Canadian Broadcasting Company about a group of Canadian diplomats who had traveled from New Delhi to participate in an ice hockey tournament in Leh. The diplomats won their game, but were overwhelmed by the lack of oxygen.
I was fascinated. I had never thought of India as a hotbed of ice hockey. And it turns out I was right – it’s not.. But up here in the Ladekh Valley, where Leh is located, they’ve played it for more than 30 years.
My timing was perfect. I arrived in Leh the weekend of the Indian National Ice Hockey Championship. I missed the qualifying matches – I was visiting monasteries – but the two games I did see were inspiring.
It wasn’t because the hockey was so fabulous, though the men’s final was mighty entertaining. No, I was inspired because everything about it was so damned spirited; the players, the crowd, even the halftime show performed by a small army of local figure skaters .
Hockey in the Ladekh Valley lacks the glitz of North American hockey.
There’s no buzzer, just something that sounds like an old-fashioned alarm clock. No Zamboni, either. Instead, they’ve got a few guys with brooms and shovels. And the day of the final, they were very busy guys. It was snowing. Heavily. So much so that you couldn’t see the blue lines. Or any lines, for that matter. There are no sideboards in Ladekhi hockey, either. Just little bumpers at ice level to keep the puck from sliding off the ice.
The women’s championship was significant because it was the country’s first. But the hockey itself? Rudimentary. The women have a long way to go.
The men’s game, on the other hand, was very solid. They know how to skate, they know how to pass, they understand strategy and they have some fine goalkeeping, especially the Army red team.
Tashi Namgail is a short and stocky guy. If you don’t know hockey well, it seems that those would be important qualities for a goalie. You know – if you’re big, you can block the net.
But the fact is, agility and flexibility are even more important. You’ve got to be able to move with incredible speed to reach the puck when someone shoots it your way.
Tashi has all of that.
As the temperature dropped – it was 20° F at game time – and the snow got deeper, he got tougher. It was really a dazzling show he put on, lurching and pouncing, spinning and leaping. His net was impenetrable.
By the time the game was over, it was Army Red 2 and J&K Blue (Jammu & Kashmir, Leh’s state) 0.
One more hockey note. The crowd.
The seating is pretty modest. The fact that there is any seating at all is somewhat surprising. The ice rink is actually the town reservoir, a place that doesn’t normally call for much in the way of seating. The army donated some risers for the occasion.
The lucky people – the connected people – sat in the risers. But most of the crowd of 3,000 or so stood three or four deep around the edges of the reservoir retaining wall. The agile ones climbed trees and perched on limbs.
I’d forgotten what real hockey was like. No luxury boxes. No beer vendors. These people came to see hockey. Not pre-game hoopla. Not fights. In fact, they’d be appalled if a brawl broke out. They were here for the love of the game. It was exhilarating to be part of it.
I don’t know if I'll ever go back to the NHL.
I must be the only Baby Boomer who didn’t dabble with Buddhism or Tibetan culture when I was in college. So when I set off with Paldan and Lobzang (guide and driver, respectively) for our first monastery visits, I didn’t know what to expect.
I mean, I’d seen plenty of pictures of them - great hulking buildings clinging to mountainsides. But inside? I had no idea if we were visiting places where there were hundreds of monks wandering around or if they were more like museums. Or . . . well, I just didn’t know.
I visited three monasteries in and around Leh. There were similarities; weather-beaten buildings, lots of prayer wheels, colorful, but faded interiors, towering buddhas. What was most striking, though, was how few monks were on hand. One, maybe two at each place. It was eerie, as if we were wandering around enormous ghost towns.
My favorite was at Lamayuru. It’s not that I came to understand Buddhism any better while I was there. But Lamayuru is much farther away – 126 km (78 mi.) - than the others. It took us nearly three hours to get there. But distance was a good thing in this case. At some monasteries, there was a sense that we were just the umpteenth load of wealthy foreigners to pull up that day. Not at Lamayuru. Here, the interest seemed mutual.
Also, the longer driving time meant that we had to mix it up with the mountains in a very different way. In Leh, you’re at the bottom of a valley, forever looking up at the peaks.
To get to Lamayuru, you’ve really got to negotiate some of those mountains. For the first 70 km or so, the road is pretty decent. Two lanes, no potholes. The Ladakh Valley is a major military site – the Chinese and Pakistani borders are not far away, remember – so its roads are babied.
Then we got off the main highway. Two lanes became one-and-a-half. Sealed pavement became gravel. And instead of being down in a valley, we were driving on a teeny road that had been carved out of the mountainside.
Precarious, exhilarating and more than a little frightening.
Normally, when you arrive at a monastery, you are met by one of the monks. Here, though, we were met by a novice. A tiny novice with bright red cheeks named Tundup Yeshe. Tundup doesn't remember how old he is. His best friend is 11, and he thinks they may be about the same age.
I must admit that there is part of me that thinks an 11-year-old novice is incredibly odd. But Tundup quickly proved that he’s as much a kid as he is a religious figure. He just couldn’t get enough of my digital camera. He had to see the photos as soon as I took them. And he was totally rapt when Paldan, a very well-studied Buddhist, stepped into the role of teacher.
I worry about all these monasteries, though. They are so underpopulated and the buildings are in such tough shape. It's hard to imagine how they'll survive. Perhaps they'll end up just one more impressive set of ruins on the sides of these equally impressive mountains.
Paldan mentioned butter tea a couple of days ago.
Basically, it’s a concoction of tea and butter. Salted butter.
“People from the outside usually don’t like it,” he said. “They think it tastes like soup.”
But good guide that he is, Paldan made sure I had a chance to try it. My last day in Leh, he and his mother whipped up a batch that he brought to town in a thermos.
Paldan poured me a cup and I sipped.
He was right. It’s salty. And a little fatty. To my taste buds, it had nothing at all to do with tea.
Paldan didn’t say a word, but he knew.
I was polite and had two cups. He was polite and just smiled.
What a good guide he is; informed, intelligent, enthusiastic, encouraging. And best of all, he let me indulge myself and explore. Even when I insisted on having butter tea.
Tundup Dorjey, the man who arranged my outings in Leh, recommended that I turn off the space heater at night. He didn’t say why, but there was no way I was going to shut off my only source of heat at night.
As I lay in bed that first night, though, I started thinking of all those stories you hear every winter about people who suffocate because of malfunctioning space heaters in poorly ventilated rooms.
I turned on the light. Well, I tried to turn on the light. This is when I discovered that the Lasermo shuts off the electricity at 10:30 every night. So I got out my tiny flashlight. It’s one of those little thumbnail-sized things that you squeeze. But it was enough for me to scout around the room to see how well ventilated it was.
There was a little grate in the ceiling that led to somewhere. And every time the wind gusted, the curtains blew a bit. So I figured that if the cold air could come in, then it seemed logical that anything bad from the space heater could get out, right?
But I smelled something. I didn’t think it was propane. Wait, does propane smell or not? Don’t they add something to propane so you can smell it when it’s leaking? I know they do with the gas you use at home. So . . . well, I couldn’t figure out what the hell to do. I was up and down for hours.
At a certain point it dawned on me that the smell was diesel fumes. Much of the city had lost power earlier in the evening. Turns out it’s a regular occurrence. So regular that most businesses have generators. Diesel generators. That’s what I had been smelling.
For what it's worth, I've just posted more than 80 new photos in the Shanghai gallery. Enjoy.
Two leaves and a bud. That’s the tea grower’s mantra. Two leaves and a bud.
Those are the all-important parts of the tea plant that pluckers are after. Eight hours a day, they make their way up and down the long and hilly rows of waist-high tea plants, snapping off that little snippet of greenery at the very top of the plant. Every plant – and there are hundreds of millions of them here - must be plucked every 7-8 days. Do it too early and the bud is underdeveloped and the tea is bitter. Wait too long and the tenderness that gives tea it singularly crisp taste is gone.
Raising tea is incredibly labor-intensive. Expensive, too. In Sri Lanka alone, there are 800,000-900,000 pluckers. Decades ago, pluckers’ salaries accounted for 30 percent of the cost of manufacturing tea. Today, that figure is about 80 percent.
Growers have tried to come up with machines to do the job. But no one has yet found one that has the judgment and dexterity of the human plucker. Machines are just too tough on the plants. They shave off the top. Some African countries use them. But the plants there are of a lesser quality. This is Sri Lanka, after all, home of the legendary and much sought-after Ceylon tea. Machines simply won’t do.
I went to Sri Lanka to learn how to make the perfect cup of tea.
Hard to say if I succeeded.
I mean, I had some pretty fabulous tea while I was there. And I learned an enormous amount about how to grow and process the stuff. But the fact is, I could make a pretty damned good cup of tea before I went to Sri Lanka. And while I can probably make a slightly better one now, what I really learned is that I have only scratched the surface of all there is to know about tea.
Tea wears so many different faces. It can be green, yellow, reddish-brown, black and probably several other colors I’m unaware of. You can make it out of nearly anything; flowers, roots, leaves, buds. You name it, and if you dry it and steep it in water that’s just off the boil, you’ll end up with something that qualifies as tea.
Tea can be robust. It can be restorative. It can be soothing. It can be as aggressive as espresso. It can be as delicate as a spring blossom. It can be filled with caffeine or entirely devoid of it.
Man, this was hopeless. There’s no way I was going to develop a comprehensive understanding of tea in just three days.
Fortunately, I did pick up a few things.
Only a small part of it actually has to do with tea, though. Much of it has to do with the wonderful family I stayed with.
First, let me tell you how I met them. When I decided I’d go to Sri Lanka, I contacted the makers of Dilmah Tea. It’s a brand I first encountered in Australia a few years ago. It’s not available in the States, so now I order it via the Internet. I’ve come to understand that Dilmah is a big company. But there has always been something very personal about buying tea from them.
Every order arrives with a handwritten thank-you note. And on one occasion, when I inquired about what Dilmah mugs looked like, a guy emailed me to say that he’d take digital photos and send them to me. Two days later, he did just that. Remarkable.
So when it came time to cobble together an itinerary for this trip, I thought why not pop in on those nice people at Dilmah?
I sent off an email and a few days later, I got a reply from Dilhan Fernando. He and his brother would love to have me as their guest. (A bit of trivia here. Dilmah’s founder, Merrill J. Fernando, got the company’s name by combining the names of his sons, Dilhan and Malik.)
Besides hosting me in Colombo and showing me their facility there, they arranged for me to stay in the home of the manager of the Great Western Tea Estate, one of the mountain plantations from which they buy their tea.
Finally, after four hours of riding through the jungles of central Sri Lanka, I was about to arrive at the Great Western Tea Estate. It’s one of the legends of Ceylonese tea-growing. Some of the estate’s tea plants have been producing for close to 100 years. I expected to meet a grizzled, middle-aged farm professional, a guy only a couple of notches up the evolutionary ladder from the tough-as-nails plantation owners who ran these farms in the days before Sri Lankan independence.
Nishantha Abeysinghe is just 36. And to tell the truth, he could pass for several years younger. Quick to smile, quick to laugh, he’s the kind of guy you like the moment you meet him. And while he can talk yield-per-hectare with the best of them, he is a man who appreciates this land’s extraordinary beauty as much as he does its profitability.
Don’t get me wrong. He has his eye securely on the bottom line. There’s a reason that a guy this young is running such a big operation. (The estate covers 1650 hectares.) But he knows that tea production is more than a manufacturing process. It’s a collaborative work of art involving hundreds and hundreds of people.
We walked through the factory together. There are gauges and clocks and scales everywhere. But moving tea from the plant to the cup involves more than managing machines. You have to cradle the leaves in your hands, roll them between your fingers, hold them to your nose to make sure the pungent scent of the slightly fermented leaf is just right. There are mechanical indicators that can measure the moistness of the leaves, but none that is quite so exacting as a professional who has an intimacy and understanding of his leaves.
I remember feeling the same way when I visited a commercial bread bakery in Kharkiv, Ukraine in 1989. The man who ran the place had an almost mystical relationship with the breads that his staff made. Bread-baking wasn’t just a matter of output or recipes. To him, it was akin to alchemy.
It’s the same way with Nishantha. He loves this tea. When I left their house, he gave me a small parcel of it that had been made while I was there. The dollar value was modest. But coming from Nishantha and his family, it was quite precious.
Nishantha is married to Aditha, a novelist and former lecturer in the Kelaniya University English Department. She is a small, quiet woman. When I first met her, in fact, she spoke so little that I thought she just didn’t have much facility with English. Then., I read her writing. So much for that first perception of her. It was a newspaper story about Nishantha. And the writing was poetic and informative and wonderfully descriptive – the sort of things you read too seldom in newspapers.
But what was most intriguing to me about Aditha is what I can only describe as her impishness. It’s not so much the way she acts, but that she always has a look on her face like she is up to something. Nothing bad, mind you. It's just that you're sure she has something fascinating going on in her mind. And I always wanted to know what it was.
Because it was a long weekend – a Full Moon holiday fell on Monday – much of Aditha’s family had come up from Colombo for the weekend. And they turned out to be a marvelous group; generous, inquisitive and slightly eccentric. Here’s the rest of the cast of characters:
- Daya Dissanayake, Aditha’s father, a novelist/businessman visiting from Colombo. He’s come for the long Full Moon holiday weekend. You can read his first novel online at www.saadhu.com.
- Raditha Dissanayake, Daya’s son (and Aditha’s brother), a computer wiz from Colombo. Without him I would never have figured out how to connect to the Internet.
- Madhavi Boralessa, Raditha’s wife.
- Radinka Dissanayake, Madhavi and Raditha’s child; playful, adorable and deservedly the center of attention.
I loved our conversations. They were always intelligent and probing and challenging. We talked about novels. We talked about politics – like virtually everyone I’ve met on this trip, they don’t understand how we reelected George Bush. We talked about families. We talked about the history of Sri Lanka.
History is Daya’s special passion. He never said it, but I think he feels the rest of the world doesn’t understand Sri Lanka the way it should. And he’s probably right. This is an ancient country, a country with a dazzling and varied history. And yet, I fear that the only thing most of us in the west know about it is that it was one of the countries hardest hit by the Boxing Day tsunami. Most people probably couldn’t even tell you where it is. Sad.
Nishantha made sure I saw how the estate worked. This isn’t just a place where people come to work. They live here, too. More than 1100 workers and their families. So there’s a school and a community center and a dispensary. It’s like a small town. And Nishantha is the mayor.
Not everything about my visit was comfortable.
Being raised in the United States, I have an egalitarian streak. So I’m a little uneasy about the idea of servants and staff.
I had a car with a driver here. When we stopped at Kitulgala, a gracious old hotel/restaurant near which they made much of “Bridge on the River Kwai,” my driver – Upali - disappeared. He was having tea, too. But he wouldn’t dream of sitting with me. It just isn’t done. He sat in a special area for drivers. So there I was, sitting and drinking tea on my own in the main dining room while Upali sat alone and drinking his tea 50 meters away. It was just too strange.
Similarly, at Nishantha’s They have a butler, an appu, as he is called. At whatever time I would choose each morning, there would be a rap on my door and a second later, appu would come marching in, flip on the light and leave me a tray with a pot of tea and a cup. The first morning, it was a total shock. Thank god I was clothed. In my everyone-is-equal sort of way, I tried to be chummy with him. He smiled at me, but it was an indulgent smile, the sort of smile he might give someone who is quite mad. Once again, what I was suggesting just wasn’t done.
Another big hurdle I overcame was eating with my hands.
Back in Mali, Sam and his family ate with their hands. But I was a little shy about it. It was messy and I wasn’t sure how I would clean up. And besides, they kept bringing me a spoon, so I used it.
But by Sri Lanka, I was ready. They had finger bowls, so that took care of the messy part. But also, I felt at ease here. I felt comfortable. I could make a mistake and no one would think the worse of me. I felt like I was with family.