Japan-tastic

As I sit here, speeding through Tokyo on the bullet train (or shinkansen), I gobble an egg salad sandwich, as simple as it sounds, bought at a ubiquitous FamilyMart  convenience store. I have no idea why the abundant convenience stores here — be it 7-Eleven or Lawson — make such famously tasty little sandwiches, so humble and dainty even the crust is removed. America, lick and learn. 

Day Five in electrifying Tokyo, I’m now on the train to this jovially mad city’s near polar opposite, ancient, placid Kyoto, a major urban center flavored with temples, shrines, gardens and the fading tradition of the rosy-cheeked geisha. I envision relative quietude, and mounds of soba noodles and many yakitori skewers. (For now, I’ve had my fill of sushi, though more is assured later. In fact, once in Kyoto, I was quick to mark a conveyor-belt sushi joint next to my hotel.)

Tokyo, as American kids would say, is lit. And lit (well, lighted, blindingly) it is, vibrating with a friendly freneticism, thrumming with courteous, controlled chaos. It lacks New York’s pavement-pounding determinism and San Francisco’s self-satisfied beauty and bohemianism. Order reigns and rules are followed — you’ll never see a jaywalker and there is absolutely no litter, not even a stray cigarette butt, bizarre for a city totally bereft of sidewalk garbage bins — but it’s not the slightest iota oppressive or authoritarian.

Far from it. This is a city filled with laughter, a robust nightlife (several nightlifes, as the many neighborhoods, from Roppongi to Shibuya, boast their own partying personalities) and a staggering overall kindness and politesse. The locals are approachable and often approaching, just to see where you’re from or if you need anything, and also to practice their English. They are unfailingly accommodating and vigorously helpful. People don’t yell, don’t argue in public, hoot or holler. Truly, the only vocal noise to break the sound barrier I’ve experienced is laughter.  

Now, a couple days later in Kyoto, I find, unsurprisingly, the same congeniality and penchant to oblige, but in a far more compact if still bustling setting. As with Turkey, it’s the people who make the deepest impression here. I’ve been pegged a misanthrope (who me?), a bit inaccurately, but whatever. People just make me nervous. I blame my own ample timidity, baseless anxieties, feeble fears that rattle the mind and inflame the stomach. The point is I find the people here wonderful, even wondrous, comforting; cool, models of affable composure to be emulated.  

There’s lots to write about this trip — the food, the drink, the stores, the temples, the shrines, all that electric overkill — but I’m vacating, so I’ll let pictures do the blabbing.

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Tokyo visions

So I return to Japan in late October, my first time in several years, and the anticipation is giving me fits of insomnia. The capital, Tokyo, is one of my favorite and most indelible cities, part of a troika that includes Paris and Istanbul. I was skipping through some photos from past trips — people and places inside and outside of that teeming, gleaming metropolis: pagodas and Harajuku Girls; whale meat and cherry blossoms; lakes and a big, cool silver orb that, in its own odd way, sums up the reliable surreality of Tokyo.

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(Yes, I’m afraid this is a whale feast.)

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Killer whales, killer times: San Diego part II

It’s astonishing how pleasant and doable the weather was yesterday in Coronado, San Diego, what with hair-flustering breezes and temps hardly nicking 70. It’s nuts. I mad-love it, especially considering the 100-ish hell-wave I’ll be facing back on the East Coast. That’s nuts, too, but in a whole other way, the kind that makes you cussy and crazed. 

Weather’s the worst. It’s almost never perfect. Climatic sweet spots are as slippery as quicksilver. But these days are pretty swell. I can wear pants. I can wear shorts. I can slip on a light jacket. Or not. Actually, it could be a dash cooler — mid-to-low-60s would be Edenic — but I’m being positive. Sunshiny, if you will. 

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So. San Diego. I haven’t been here since a wild weekend at my brother’s dorm at San Diego State University, where he went for one semester before beating it the hell to Cal Berkeley. Yes, of course he took the 17-year-old me to Tijuana, and, natch, what happens in Tijuana stays in Tijuana. So quit asking. (Frankly, I don’t remember a thing.)

Now, with six other family members, I’m on vacation at a place I would never choose on my own. But majority rules. We did the vaunted San Diego Zoo, a lush green compound where the exhibited animals play a mean game of hide and seek with gullible human visitors craving a glimpse of (and desperate selfies with) those cuddly koalas. Peek-a-boo at the zoo. No one wins.

The other major attraction here is, of course, splashy, clamorous SeaWorld, where yowling seal barks and the wet slap of bellyflops by multi-ton orcas fill the salty air. 

Along with human screams.

That’s because the ocean park has perforce reduced its vulgar killer whale and dolphin shows after cries of demonstrable animal cruelty and have filled the entertainment void with, what else, rollercoasters and marine-themed thrill rides. 

Like the Tentacle Twirl, Tidal Twister, and the fearsome Electric Eel, the “tallest, fastest” rollercoaster in all of — hang on — greater San Diego. It’s a bit like saying a place has the best, zestiest tacos in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s all comically relative.

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The Electric Eel rollercoaster — a shocking surprise.

But my sarcasm falls flat because the Electric Eel is a stellar coaster. We rode it today, and each herk, jerk, corkscrew, twist, twirl, drop and fling came out of nowhere. Usually you sort of know the layout of a rollercoaster, how many loops it has and such. The Eel was sheer breathtaking surprise, fast, furious fun.

Waddling, nose-diving penguin colonies; bulbous ivory beluga whales; tubby, slothish walruses; greedy, hand-fed manta rays; bullet-like harbor seals; the inevitable killer whale show, which is now solely an educational experience without dopey trainers standing on the animals’ backs like they’re water skiing. Thanks to foot fatigue, missing on our expedition were dolphins, otters, polar bears, sharks and the almost mythical narwhal, the so-called unicorn of the sea that I would like to ride around the Arctic.

Like yesterday, the weather held today at a tolerable 72 degrees, which still staggers. (And still left me sunburned.) This SoCal trip winds down tonight with tacos and tequila at the poolside cantina, called fittingly enough The Cantina.

This was an accomplishment. I survived all the trappings of a semi-swanky beach resort, swaying palm trees, children splashing (and shrieking) in swimming pools, grown men in flip-flops and tank tops, quaint downtowns, extravagantly famous theme parks filled with captive creatures and $10 beers. I spent time with family and realized its uncanny resemblance to the macaque. I pet a dog at a restaurant that growled at me fiercely. I splurged on too many beverages. I didn’t go to the beach. I didn’t fish. I ate scallops. I didn’t eat ice cream. I had a blast.

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Nephew Nick, pondering the rays and fishies at SeaWorld.

The story behind my blog photo

People have asked me if the photograph above this blog is is a screen-shot from Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” as it resembles a scene from that classic 1959 film. It is not.
It is Alfred Eisenstaedt‘s amazing picture of kids at a Parisian puppet show, “Saint George and the Dragon,” at an outdoor theater in 1963.
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Time magazine recently wrote about this enchanting photo:

Capturing the thrill, the shock, the shared triumph-over-evil that the children feel at the very moment when St. George slays the mythical beast, Eisenstaedt’s picture feels as fresh as when it was made, more than 50 years ago.

Here, the picture tells us, is an innocence that can remind even the most jaded of what it was once like to believe, to really believe, in the stories that unfold before our eyes onstage, or onscreen.

The master photographer himself said of this very picture:

“It took a long time to get the angle I liked. But the best picture is the one I took at the climax of the action. It carries all the excitement of the children screaming, The dragon is slain! Very often this sort of thing is only a momentary vision. My brain does not register, only my eyes and finger react. Click.”

Black hole bust

I can’t tell you how underwhelmed I am by the newly released photo of an honest to god galactic black hole — the first-ever snapshot of one of these largely invisible yet still whoa-awesome mega-vacuums.  

“It’s like the universe had a royal baby: That’s how excited everyone is for this first glimpse of a black hole,” writes Slate.

My interest in royal progeny or anything about the Royal Family is several notches below my interest in macramé and pulling weeds, so right there we have a faulty analogy.  

I like stars and planets, the sun and galaxies and Chewbacca, but I’m a solar system sourpuss on this one. I don’t frown upon astronomers finally clicking a picture of a black hole — “an abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it” — it’s just not emotional rocket fuel. It elicits a cosmic shrug. I was expecting explosions and ecstasy.

“The image is based on data from radio telescopes all over the world,” Slate says, “so it’s not technically even a picture of a black hole. It’s really confusing that everyone’s acting like we have a picture of one. This is actually a composite that shows the shadow of a black hole.” 

Here is the image, released today by astronomers:

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“A composite that shows the shadow of a black hole”? Maybe you can see why there’s disappointment amid the jazzed gawping. Not only is it not an actual black hole, but the photo really isn’t so hot. Blurry, amorphous, rather dull. Like a toddler accidentally took a picture of a lightbulb with his mom’s lame Android phone.

Some liken it to an orange donut, the bagel emoji, or a SpaghettiO — a junk-food fest. Others, like the New York Times, wax poetic, declaring the black hole, “55 million light-years away from Earth, resembling the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the implacable power of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.”

Deep. And quite lovely.

But really now, this is a black hole:

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This is the black hole of our dreams and nightmares, the yawning, all-devouring abyss of a crappy 1979 Disney fantasy titled, aptly, “The Black Hole,” the cosmos’ most grandiosely epic sucker-upper, a whirling, phosphorescent monster maw, God’s unblinking eye, or the fiery, furious, inflexibly unforgiving gateway to Hell. It is glorious and mad, beautiful on a mind-altering scale, a spinning top dancing on the lip of the great beyond.

But it is also just a NASA illustration, a dazzling graphic vibrating with the curiosity and imagination of good speculative sci-fi. No one knows what a black hole really looks like, even after the new fuzzy photo. I’d love to see a crisp, clear portrait of one of those galactic phenomena that sucks up everything in its path. Alas, today’s picture just sucks.

View of the day, wistfully

IMG_1286.jpgMy laptop, a tall drink and a fairy tale vista — about all I need in my travels.

This was the perch on the rooftop terrace of my Istanbul hotel in November. I went up there a lot for the trusty Wi-Fi; cool fall breezes; Efes Pilsener, the cheap local brew that hits the spot despite its unflagging mediocrity; and, of course, the pristine views of the fabled Blue Mosque and yawning Bosphorus strait. 

At night the mosque lights up like a jeweled crown. The water shimmers. I sip my drink and tip-tap on the keyboard, writing nothing of consequence, most of it rot. Istanbul is paradisiacal, keenly removed from normal life, so transporting you sigh with an operatic flutter. It’s Paris of the East, a storybook nirvana.

I miss the mosques, the street food (döner kebabs, simits, etc.), unduly charming people, sweet stray dogs and cats, and ancient rococo scenery. It is where I want to be, right now.

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Blue Mosque, November 2018

Hounding the dogs of Istanbul

She ambled into the cafe smiling, her rump gently shaking this way and that, tail shyly wagging. The cafe owner, a radiant globe-trotter named Nazan who’s lived in Istanbul for years, joyfully greeted the large brown mutt, patting her head and cooing her name. The dog then plopped onto the wood floor and rolled on her back, legs skyward. She remained in this posture for a good half hour. She looked ridiculous. And adorable.

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The pup, whose name is Garip, is one in a gaggle of dogs and cats Nazan feeds and takes care of. Garip is a stray, part of thousands that live in the by turns picturesque and grungy streets of Istanbul, a massive, hilly metropolis bulging with 16 million people — the world’s fourth largest city and the biggest city in Europe. 

That means a lot of stray dogs, whose numbers rival the city’s seething stray cat population (lovingly profiled in the documentary “Kedi,” which I wrote about HERE). It’s a zoo out there, an amicable, well-behaved cosmos of bewhiskered street urchins that are mostly pampered by locals or, at worst, casually ignored. 

Animus towards the animals isn’t evident. I was in Istanbul for nine days this month and kept a close eye on the roving dogs and cats. The critters are almost universally plump and well-fed by caring, compassionate locals attuned to the spiritual sustenance of communing with intelligent four-legged creatures that reciprocate the love. 

There they are, zonked out, on their sides or curled in balls, in the middle of plazas amid the bustle and noise of swarming tour groups that step over them. They loiter outside of restaurants, reliable fonts of food, and snarf up the dog kibble people put out for them on schedule. Nimbly dodging cars, some move in small packs but most ramble their neighborhoods as lone wolves, occasionally pausing to sniff one of their hairy cohorts’ rear-ends before tramping off down cobblestone paths.

The dogs calmly stroll around for snacks and strokes, but are rarely beggy. They don’t cadge, they don’t hector. They scarcely bark. Rather they befriend and endear. If you approach them, they nuzzle up to you, tail fanning, like any dog worth its canine credentials, yet leave you alone when you pull away (unless you call them to follow you, as I often did). Their independence is admirable, even noble.  

As the homeless can attest, street life’s a bitch. Hunger remains an imperative and untended wounds agonizingly fester. I met a dog with a ghastly slash around its throat and another with an oozing cut on its back leg that left a bright streak of blood down its fluffy cream tail, looking like a giant paint brush dipped in red paint. Many stray dogs are registered by the city, signaled by a tag on their ear that means they’ve been fixed and vaccinated. I think that’s swell.

At the cafe, the marvelous Mitara Cafe & Gallery, Nazan visibly adores her furry charges, her courteous quadruped pals. She speaks to them, strokes them, invites them in for a bite and respite from the heat or cold. When I handed her a tip for my lunch, Nazan assured me it would go to food and medical care for the animals. That was all right by me.

A motley gallery of some new Istanbul friends:

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