I can count on my right hand the number of times I’ve left 0 tip. Last night was one of those times.
The worst part about climbing Mt. Fuji doesn’t hit you until a day or two later. I hadn’t planned for this and it cost me half a day of my time in Japan and my day-trip to Kyoto. I had forgotten that after hiking up a 4km mountain for 8 hours and 2 hours back down at pretty quick pace would be a workout. And like all workouts the muscle soreness hits you 1-2 days later. Lets just say I couldn’t get out of bed because my thighs and calves were that tight and sore.
Thankfully another Japanese tradition came to my rescue. After hoisting myself out of bed and getting some ramen to nourish my body I visited the local Onsen. It turned out to be just around the block from my Airbnb and one of the most highly rated in Tokyo. For those who don’t know, an Onsen is a Japanese public bath house that is filled with natural hot springs.
Harking back to an era when most Japanese didn’t have baths in their house, an onsen was a communal facility for cleaning and bonding. At first it was a little weird for my western upbringing but pretty quickly I let the hot springs do their magic and I relaxed, opened up my mind, and embraced the concept. You see, an Onsen is separated male & female and done completely in the nude.
You start your onsen with a pre-rinse and then a shower where you clean up and get the grime of Tokyo off of your skin. You then can alternate between one of many baths including a Jet bath, a sea salt bath, a carbonated bath, a cold bath (freezing cold!) and a lie-down bath. There is also a sauna and steam room.
Now alternating between each of these baths, in the nude, can be a bit strange at first but you quickly realize that the experience is about letting your guards down and relaxing in a safe environment not often afforded in traditional Japanese culture. When you and your family were at constant war with other tribes and clans in feudal Japan there was a need for constant vigilance and alertness. For the samurai class, the onsen was one of the few places that they could relax and thus bond with their companions whom they trusted ont he battlefield.
Those same mentalities and attitudes continue today and it was an experience I was glad to have not only for the uniqueness of the tradition, but also because my muscles needed a break. I’m still sore today and am worried about being stuck at 35,000 ft’ for 12 hours this evening where I might have to get up and stretch frequently. However, I know that if I hadn’t have been able to spend 2 hours at the onsen I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the rest of Japan.
Tokyo is insane. Space is a luxury and so is time to breathe.
After recovering from hiking Mt. Fuji by taking a long nap I walked through the city taking it all in. My senses were overloaded as just about everywhere I went resembled a Times Square display of lights, sounds, smells, and experience.
Around dinner-time I stopped into a fantastic respite from the city to grab a bite to eat in a Tempura bar. Here the chefs had a mastery and dedication to their craft that was astounding. They would take tiger prawns from the tank, kill them, shell them, and then batter and fry them up with a precision that fascinated me. Sitting at the bar I had a front-row seat to the entire spectacle and it was interesting to see the ritualistic approach to their job that they took.
These chefs treated their work like a karate master treats his practice or a flower arranger treats their arrangements. With focused practice that recognizes the fact that too much is just as bad as too little and thus perfection in every action is required. It would not surprise me if tempura had a school or Ryu in Japan with traditions passed down from master to student that formalized the methods behind each action. Its the same mentality that has driven Ichiro to 3,000 hits in the MLB and it is amazing to watch in person.
Some things like this are unique and representative of the spirit of the Japanese people. Some things are universal no matter what language you speak and where you are. After dinner I wanted to test this, so I went to a gay bar.
Gay bars are universal. I’ve now been in one in 8 countries and even in Japan they have the same types of people, the same focus, and the same easy-going nature that lets you introduce yourself to someone, hear their story, and start to make friendships. It also always has that sage old queen ready to dish out life advice whether you ask for it or not. Last night his name was Phil and after chatting for a bit I learned that he had grown up in Australia and now managed a tour company here in Tokyo. He told me what to go see in Tokyo and what to avoid and as universal truths go he led myself and a gaggle of gays down the road to a drag karaoke night which felt like I was back in DC with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington.
I have barely stopped moving since landing in Tokyo because it is such a busy city and I have so little time to experience it. But I’m finding that in its own unique way, you can find the time to breathe and escape the city just by stepping through a door. I don’t think this is unique to Japan but something that I can find in my daily life wherever my life take me.
Ghibli studio’s Princess Mononoke was my first exposure to Japan. I saw it at a sleepover with a neighborhood friend after playing some video games and I was fascinated. After that the Pokemon craze took over my school with the card game first and the game-boy game second (Squirtle for life). I would watch Digimon on Saturday mornings, play countless versions of Megaman, and eventually sneak episodes of Power Rangers which I was banned from watching for some reason.
However, it wasn’t until high school that the real Japan took ahold of me. After fencing for a couple of years, my coach realized that I was treating fencing like a game and not with the honor and dedication it deserved. I think he also saw that it would be worth building up more arm strength as well. To solve these issues he started training me in Bushindo, the Way of the Warrior and specifically in Kenjitsu, the Way of the sword (Katana).
I was given a handful of books to read including Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai by Dave Lowry which details his training in Kenjitsu growing up in the mid-west while also telling the story of the Shin-Kage Ryu style of Kenjitsu. Shin-Kage survived as one of the most prestigious Ryu’s because the masters of the school were the personal teachers of the Tokugawa Shoganate for many generations.
I started my training with a Bokken, an oak practice Katana working to learn the forms, or kata, that formed the base of my practice sessions. I was gifted a Katana upon completion of my basic training and from there my lessons used a live (read: edged) sword. At this point my fascination with Japan was fierce and I studied a lot about it. But then I moved away from that coach, couldn’t find a teacher nearby, and stopped my practice in the Way.
Two years later, after being kicked out of BYU I was looking at clases to take at the University of Utah and I took introduction to Japanese for a couple of semesters. I then discovered that if I dropped my language and took two statistics courses I could graduate a year earlier and so again my love of Japan took a backseat.
In the past couple of years I have been distracted from Japan by a dozen things here and there, but 9 months ago, while reading a book on stoicism the lessons I’d learned at 15 started coming back to me. You see Stoicism and the Zen philosophy behind the Samurai are not that dissimilar. I picked up Autumn Lightening off the shelf and re-read it in an afternoon. The history of Japan flooded my memories again and I started finding connections to my life that I needed just then.
Since that moment I have read a half-dozen books on Stoicism, a few books on Stoicism, and 2 of the 3 original great texts of Samurai tradition. Katsujinken – The Life-Giving Sword by Yagyu Muenori the 3rd member of the Shin-Kage Ryu to serve the Tokugawa Shoganate in the 1600’s and Go-Rin-No-Sho – The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi the greatest Samurai to ever live.
This morning I landed in Japan and am on a train into Tokyo at the moment. As I see the country-side transition into city-scape I can’t help but feel the seemingly conflicting images of Japan. The Modern technological Japan that is reserved and economically driven complete with a Prime Minister who just donned a Mario outfit in Rio; and the Ancient, focused, disciplined, and deeply philosophical Japan of old. While they may seem conflicting I am certain that if I look closely enough I will see the influences and even practices in the daily lives I observe.
But to start off this journey, I’ll be headed to the root of wisdom in Japan – Mt. Fuji – where I hope to trod the paths of the ancients and pay my respect to the Japanese spirit that has absolutely had its own influences on my life.
The worst human beings in an airport can be found herded into a single location. Not the security queues, or the ticket counter, or the 10am pub crew, or the Duty Free salespeople. Its the passengers in the premium club lounges.
Here you have an amazing set-up. Free wifi, comfy chairs, space to breathe instead of squished together shoulder-to-shoulder, free food, coffee, & drinks, free newspapers and news stations, and some of the best staff in the airport. But heaven forbid it takes 30 extra seconds to check-in or they have temporarily run out of orange juice, or heaven forbid someone asks if they can store your baggage in their holding area and all hell breaks lose.
You have people with a “don’t you know who I am” attitude being treated just the same as other people in the lounge. “How DARE you … don’t you know who I am? … I’m flying business class/million miler status/1k/diamond” or whatever BS rewards level they measure their self-worth by.
I saw it this morning at the Barcelona airport with all 3 guests in front of me and a pair of guests right behind me. The greatest offenders were the pair of elderly ladies on business class flights back to the US who reminded me so much of Netflix’s Grace & Frankie. They were affronted when they didn’t need to use their Amex Centurion pass because their business class tickets already granted them access.
When a member of the staff tried to make it better by offering to store her luggage in their secure room so she wouldn’t have to haul it the 25 ft to the lounge chairs one of them blew up. I was close enough to hear a few choice words hurled at the staff. While I didn’t hear these words, it wouldn’t have been out of character for this woman to hurl a solid “Why can’t you just speak English properly” to punctuate her ranting.
As I sit here writing this I see her in a comfortable leather lounge chair, with a cafe con leche, some Iberico Ham and Manchego cheese, and a mimosa … pouting – literally sad and upset at the world.
While I have been full of judgement this morning I should take a step back and ask myself “Maybe she has had a hard trip and just wants to go home. Maybe she recently lost someone. Maybe she is sick or injured. Maybe … Maybe … Maybe.” There could be reasons she could use to justify her actions but it held up a mirror to me and my behavior.
I’ve been that person before, its a long day, a long flight a head of me or behind me, and I just want someone to take care of me. I’ve lashed out inappropriately or just been internally frustrated at the situation. Lord knows it happened a lot in dealing with the bureaucracy at Oxford where my rant came out in the form of “Don’t they teach LOGIC at this University!?!” in trying to get something accomplished. (note: they don’t, they only ask if there is precedent so they are covered if it goes topside)
I don’t know if it is Spain’s relaxed vibe, if it was Costa Rica’s “Pura Vida” motto, if it is the fact of writing these post each day and staying in touch with myself through them, or if it is something else. But I’ve found myself more and more approaching people who normally have to deal with entitled people like myself all day and instead of getting frustrated I get to know them.
I ask sincerely how they are doing, how long they have been working today and how long they have left. I joke that perhaps they need another coffee or offer encouragement that 2 more hours can go by quickly. I smile, I try to see them as a human and in return they see me as a human as well. Immediately I stand out and am remembered in a good way and they take care of me better than if I were just a jerk.
On flights I’ve seen this when I offer a small bag of mini-chocolates for the crew along with a sincere thanks for a job that may often seem thankless. While it started out as an attempt to get free perks, it has grown into a small and simple way to be a better person. On the last flight I did that one of the flight attendants caught me on my way back from the bathroom and remarked how – when she looked me up in the system – she was surprised to see that I was a Platinum medallion. She commented how she has almost never seen that basic human kindness from a medallion member.
Why is it that those who have so much take so much for granted? I enjoy flying because it is a way to remind myself about the humanity around me and a chance to practice empathy for those around me. They are calling my flight so I’ll post this now and I hope to get something out tomorrow before the Jet Lag kicks in.
“And if you look up you can see a gargoyle shaped like a unicorn” – After living in Oxford, hearing a British accent saying those words wouldn’t have struck me as odd, but I heard them as I wandered around the gothic quarter of Barcelona … in English … with a British accent.
I stopped in my tracks and looked around before catching a glimpse of a tour guide leading a group of about 25-30 tourists on a walking tour of the city. I didn’t have a ticket, I wasn’t a part of any of the sub-groups that made up this tour, but instantly I felt myself joining up with them. I trusted that I wouldn’t get lost and would learn more if I stuck with them versus travelled alone.
The guide was part of a company (New Europe Tours) that have tour guides who give free, engaging walking tours of cities for free and they are paid on tips. The company also sells other tours like a Tapas taste of Spain tour that do cost money but this one was free. So I joined up and got to explore the gothic quarter, learn about the unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, how that led to the rise of the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
We went to the Jewish quarter and saw the 5 street section of Barcelona where Jews were forced to live in with a curfew of 10pm. with 10-20% of the city being Jewish this became a cramped part of town so much that the buildings lean inward as they get taller so they can accommodate more space.
We learned about some of the traditions of Catalan and about the various differences between Spain and Catalan before taking a break at a bar the tour company had a deal with. At that point I had to peel off and head to the Sagrada Familia but I went up to the guide and tipped him well for the tour I’d snuck onto because it was well worth it. I highly recommend doing these tours in whatever city you visit for the first time.
Later at the Sagrata Familia I was walking through, hearing Spanish everywhere I went when all of a sudden I heard “David? Is that you?” – Now naturally David is a common name and whenever its said I perk up. I turned around and saw my friend from the MBA who was travelling with us. We had come to the church separately but found each other. Later in the day this happened again at a restaurant.
I often find myself waking through London with headphones in – especially on the noisy tube trains – but I think I’m cutting off one of my sense whenever I do that. Headphones block out the world and isolate you from others more effectively than almost anything else. Had I been walking with my headphones I’d have missed out on a fun tour, a meal with a friends, and a meet-up in a gorgeous church. So while I may use headphones occasionally I’m glad that today I wasn’t and that I have this reminder to be present and see what happens.
Answering the question “Where are you from?” is never easy for me. My family moved around a lot growing up and along the way I learned some critical life skills.
My ability to meet new people and form solid connections even if only for a moment comes (in part) from all the moves we made. But the more important skill I’ve learned is how to pack up my life and ship out.
With all the moves my family made we got pretty good at moving-truck Tetris. At rearranging things to make them fit with no gaps – be it in the car (stuffing with lose towels and other odds & ends) or in a suitcase itself (why leave shoes empty when you can stuff sucks inside them).
This skill has become so engrained in me that yesterday when I found out that my lease ended not on the 31st of the month, but 4 days before – while I’m en route from Tokyo to Montreal – My only concern was where to store my stuff. I knew that given 3-4 hours tops I could clean out my home, pack everything up tight, and be ready to move it somewhere.
I found that place to store my stuff this morning and as a result came home from a long day of work, made some dinner and unpacked the suitcase ‘d already made up for my upcoming trip. Before I had the luxury of using whatever suitcase I wanted. Now I had to maximize space on both my trip and my move.
Now, inside this small backpack, is everything I need for the beaches of Barcelona with a classmate’s last trip before his wedding; the humid climate of Japan including cold-weather gear, a sleeping bag, and hiking shoes for Mt. Fuji; and Montreal bachelor-party attire. All inside this – albeit overstuffed – backpack.
The rest of my belongings, from art, to books, to clothes, to tech, to fencing gear, to chocolate chips, to 9 suits/blazers all are in 1 carry-on roller, 1 school backpack, 1 laptop bag, 1 fencing bag, 1 duffel, and 1 backpacking backpack and 3 garment bags. All packed up in under 3 hours. It would have been done sooner had my big giant roller-bag not broken both zippers needed to close it as I was finishing up causing me to repack everything without that bag.
The only things not packed, are my clothes for tomorrow and Friday, and the laptop I’m writing this blog post on. It may not be as important a skill as cooking or making a perfect powerpoint deck, but it is a critical life skill that I’ve been taught again and again and again.
Sometimes you work a 14-hr day. You get in by 7.30 and get started and by noon you have to pivot and get something completely different ready for a client meeting the next morning. So you grab a conference room, a bottle of water, and plenty of paper and get to work building something from nothing.
Ego goes out the window and you defer to the account lead’s vision as you divide and conquer a 20-page presentation. You bond, joke, and get closer as a team. The fire alarm goes off cutting off precious time you could have been working together. You learn that the guy sitting next to you grew up 2-doors down from your adoptive Jewish mother in DC. You bond some more.
You eat a few meals together, yell at each other out of frustration a bit, and at the end of the day have a solid presentation that is 90% ready. Its 10:30 pm and you are exhausted. You order up an Uber and pull out your notebook to capture a few hundred words to the blog you’ve committed to writing each day. And then your Uber Driver hears that you are American and launches into an amazing celebration of America because of something Joe Biden said to the Iraqi PM about how they (both old men) were going to live to see a free Kurdistan.
He then goes into depth about the 30-yr war that has been raging in Syrian Kurdish lands and how the Kurds have established 3 free and democratic cantons (similar to the Swiss). He talks about how they have been fighting ISIS who controls the land between two cantons. He talks about his cousins who used to live in the Mountains and were given the slur “Mountain Turks” but who now reject that and proudly call themselves Kurds.
He talks about secret deals with Erdogan and Merkel to keep Kurs out of the EU press or else Turkey will release more refugees into the EU. He says “Kurdistan is coming, its a region that doesn’t care about your religion. Where voting is based not on ethnicity but on living there.” He is energized with the pride he feels in his nation and the captive audience he has writing down his every word. He says:
“I eat my pork, I drink my beer, I have my fun 😉 and I don’t HAVE to go to Church.”
He tells me that every family of Kurds in Eastern Turkey has had a loved-one murdered or raped just because of their ethnicity. That this 30 years of violence has WOKE the rising generation who go meet up with resistance fighters as they are fueled by the hatred caused by these murders. – Yes he used the phrase #StayWoke.
He then tells me about the women of Syrian Kurdistan. The YPJ forces. The female battle units who are trained snipers who just this week helped liberate Manbji in northern Syria from ISIS control. One female solider said “It was complicated for us to save civilians from the area, but we did it. Terrorists are now fleeing. We will go after them no matter where they are heading to.” … We will go after them no matter where they are heading to. These are empowered women who, everywhere they go are leaving a trail of women who will #StayWoke behind them.
Women who have seen and survived ISIS and been liberated by other women who, by example show them that they can be strong and don’t have to take it any more. Women who sign up by the hundreds because they “take strength from YPJ fighters when we see them in the battle field.” The women who just this week burned their burqua and men who shaved their beards
The energy and passion and fight for his homeland reminded me of the Israeli women I met when I was in Tel Aviv. My college mate’s cousin who embodied the term sabra or tsabar. The Cactus that will stand there passively, but when attacked naturally fights back hard and tough and aggressive.
Its fitting then that when I looked up the Syrian Kurdish region one of the first articles I saw was about diplomatic channels opening up with the only other secular, democratic nation in the region, Israel.
I guess that sometimes you work a 14-hr day, think its over and then discover an entirely new and amazing story about an inspiring culture from a man so excited to share it. I could have shut down and asked him to instead turn up the radio. Instead I listened, took notes, gained a different perspective on the world and realized I’d been hardly working today.
My internal mindset is a poor reflection of reality, particularly when it comes to myself. This creates a constant need for perspective that is reinforced every time someone calls me an extrovert.
Because to me, they guy who writes 500 words a day, who keeps his nose in a book, enjoys building spreadsheets to track my goals, who grew up with like 1 friend at a time and who literally played dungeons & dragons is a textbook introvert. But my friends and colleagues see a very different view.
They see David, first to raise his hand and ask (or answer) a question. David, ready to dive into a networking event and meet new people. David, unafraid to get called up onstage and draw/dance/sing etc at an event. David who tries to be everywhere and ends up being double or triple booked. They see a very outgoing and extroverted David.
What people don’t know is that I ask or answer a question because I want to understand even more. That I network well because I forced myself to go to events and not to leave until I got 1 person’s card … and then 2, and then 5. That I get up on stage in an attempt to not be called out for being the awkward wallflower. That I double-book myself so I can keep things surface level because *whoops, got to run*.
That being said, the more and more I experience other people and thing about my extroversion I find that my close friends are right. I am extroverted. I see it in the fact that I got up early and stood outside a polling place for 12 hours – literally talking to strangers about voting for my guy. That I went to rallies and made my voice heard. That I protested on the steps of the Supreme Court and went on camera for doing so. The fact that I do all this and as I do it more and more, gain energy from it.
Today I spent most of the day at a customer’s store approaching strangers and asking them to talk for a few minutes, asked them questions, got a feel for their experience, took notes and then moved on to ask someone else. Was I nervous in approaching people? Yes, who isn’t somewhat afraid of approaching the unknown. Did it paralyze me? Hell no. Did it energize me? Yes & No. In the moment I was energized. I was ready to go so much that during the lunch break I made friends with Kristos the Greek running the sandwich shop down the street to the point that if I worked there I could start becoming a loyal customer with a “usual” order in about a week. But when it was over, when we got on the train back to London and I stopped engaging with people I crashed hard.
But even now, 4 hours later, after time to level-out I find my base-level energy as being higher than it normally is. While I may have felt crashed (and mentally I was) when I did a mock interview tonight, the interviewer commented on my personality and emotiveness as a core reason why I would get the job (putting my mental farts aside).
Even writing this entry I feel empowered enough to hold off eating dinner and focus on this task. I guess what I’m saying is that my mental picture of myself doesn’t reflect reality. And it isn’t because the world doesn’t see why I do things, its because I don’t see what the world sees. The more I can see the truth instead of my own insecurities, the closer I can get to reality.