Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions
A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

Goodbye, Lenin

I watched Goodbye, Lenin tonight, which is a clever German movie that creates a virtuous Rip van Winkle and uses the fall of the Berlin Wall as the revolution the heroine, Katrin Saß, sleeps through. Of course, the twist is that she falls into a coma after a heart attack and the doctor doesn't want to risk shocking her with the news; it could be a sitcom plot if it was written for a laugh track. Unlike the Rip van Winkle story, it's no parable about drinking too much... It is a German movie.

I really haven't gone out to the cinema to see many movies in the last six months or so, so this was a pleasant diversion. My memories of East German architecture circa 1992 and 1994 all came back to me. I thought it was a clever idea, and it was pleasant to see a "lost time" plot this advanced that didn't have to resort to gimmicks like time machines or cryogenics. OK, I guess a coma is a bit of a gimmick, too.

Another thing I haven't done anytime recently is visit the Seven Gables cinema in the University District. It's a pleasantly old-school cinema with interior details you just don't find in corporate megaplexes. I feel rewarded... This place has been so close to closing permanently several times over the last few years or so, but it really deserves an audience.

Waking up is hard to do

My jetlag seemed to affect me in the opposite way today… I had fallen asleep well before 10pm last night and I first awoke at 3:30 am; I was able to get back to sleep but didn’t return to consciousness until almost 9am. I was a bit surprised when I looked at my clock the second time.

I spent the next hour or so trying to finalize a bank transfer that had complications. This is all money intended to pay for the ceramics I bought in Japan on this trip.

Unlike the other days so far, I didn't end up at work until 10:30 or so... Usually I had been arriving sometime around 9 or so, since I've been getting out of bed at what I would normally consider unpleasantly early.

Hanami: Cherry blossom viewing

Everything seemed to move in slow motion today, except my watch.

I got out of my hotel around 10:30, about 30 minutes after the official checkout time. Today the plan was to go meet some of Hiromi’s friends for a slightly premature hanami (cherry blossom viewing) in a park at Nakayama (Yokohama). I think we arrived about an hour and a half after our intended time, and we started preparing sandwiches to take with us to the park.

My contribution was roasting some red peppers and eggplant, then making roasted pepper, cheese and lettuce sandwiches, and some sandwiches made with briefly marinated eggplant and cheese. We arrived at the park around 2pm and snacked on various things, drank some aged 1988 Japanese sake (18% alcohol, caramel-like color, brandy-like flavor). Some drank “off time” beer, a recently introduced brand which has had its alcohol reduced by 40% compared to typical Japanese beer, or “happo-shu” which is a cheap beer-like drink produced in such a way that it once evaded various beer-related taxes.

The cherry blossoms in this park were probably at about 30% of their peak, but the weather was pleasant, and, as I experienced, the flowers are only an incidental aspect of the hanami experience.

After a couple of hours we cleaned up, and I gave a piggy-back ride to Sanae’s little girl Kyouka on the walk back to their home. We moved rather slowly, but Hiromi did some research to find hotel accommodations for tonight and tomorrow night; I’m going to Mashiko on a buying trip tomorrow and planned to stay overnight either in Utsunomiya or Mashiko. I also needed something for Sunday night close to Shimbashi or Toranomon, so that complicated things too. I should have figured all this stuff out on my own, but I really appreciate receiving help.

Actually we had planned to head off to Utsunomiya by car around 6 pm today, but we didn’t even get to the car until 10pm, so it’s going to be a long night, especially for Hiromi, who’s driving.

OK, time to do some real work

I tried to sort through piles of brochures and business cards today and I sent out a few follow-up inquiries to some companies that I have the most interest in. I think I got far less done than I should have, but it was at least an acceptable start. I have piles of companies to contact in order to establish an initial relationship.

For dinner, I picked up some “u no hana”, also known as “okara” and mixed with some onions, water, oil, and an egg to prepare a kind of okara burger/croquette type thing with some expensive brie and I also made a little salad with an improvised Japanese-ish dressing. One of the things I probably should have figured out a week ago is where the nearest grocery store is, as I keep on doing my vegetable and grocery shopping at Odakyu and Keio department stores, which is far from the most cost-effective solution to my dinner requirements.

Late at night, I realized a friend of mine who stayed in Seattle was on MSN Messenger, so I invited her join another friend of mine with whom I had already made plans. The three of us knew each other in Seattle, and in spite of relative proximity, they haven’t seen each other for about a year.

Buried alive

I don't think you can say you've truly confronted your own mortality until you've been buried alive in volcanically heated sand.

When Hiromi and I discussed our plans for this trip to Japan, I mentioned I'd like to go to an onsen in Kagoshima, but I am fairly certain I never suggested that we should go to the beach and have some late-middle-aged sadists bury us.

Vacations don't always go the way you envisioned them, of course. Yet, it's important not to close your mind to possibilities outside of the realm of your narrow experience. And, I'd say partly thanks to the limitations of my Japanese ability, I barely understood what I was in for, so I only experienced a surmountable bit of trepidation.

We were at Ibusuki, Kagoshima. Sane people take an airplane here, but after years of building my Japan itineraries one to three weeks in roughly the same place, interrupted by one or two short side trips, Hiromi and I elected to get a rail pass and see Japan like we're tourists. We took a 6-7 hour train ride from Tokyo to Fukuoka last Thursday, where we focused primarily on eating and sleeping (Fukuoka has other things to recommend it, but is a fine location for both purposes), before continuing on to our potential demise several hours further south.

We arrived at Hotel Shusuien Friday night at 6:30. This particular ryokan has consistently won awards naming its food the best in Japan (18 years running) from a ryokan-focused magazine, which we only knew a few days after Hiromi chose it. More on that later; I'll I show off what we ate in a subsequent post.

The staff suggested we try out the sand baths, and offered to start our dinner at an unusually late 8 pm. Most ryokan are nearly ready turn in for the night by this time, so we were pleased with the option. Hiromi looked forward to a quick sunamushi bath.

I didn't quite understand what was going on, but I did learn that most people can only stand 10-15 minutes of whatever we were about to do, and that if we couldn't endure it, we should shake our hips a bit. She demonstrated.

If you've never seen a 70 year-old Japanese obaachan demonstrate shaking her hips in a ryokan uniform-style kimono, it's a gesture which implants itself disturbingly deep in your psyche.

So on to the burial.

We had changed into the hotel's yukata, so we were presented with zouri and were shuttled by car a short stretch away.

On arrival, we presented a coupon from our hotel, and were provided with another yukata, into which we were advised to change. We followed signs that led us out to the beach, where we discovered a number of people already in the mummified state.

Staffed by two 60-something interrers bearing wide shovels, the sand baths occupy a long strip of land 30 meters or so from the water. Each bath is wide enough to support about 4 persons abreast, and 2 lengthwise.

The female attendant briefly explained to Hiromi how to position herself. My height and clumsiness presented a few logistical challenges, so the male attendant spent a bit more time guiding me into just the right position. They dig out a spot roughly based on the size of their typical customers, but with a little finesse, it works for everyone.

Once positioned, we are quickly buried. The attendants alternately dig, then drop hot sand over us. Dressed in simple yukata, head partially covered by a small towel, we are fully clothed, but somehow more vulnerable than we would be in a regular onsen or sentou.

After about 60 seconds underneath a pile of hot sand, you feel piercing heat on your naked extremities, the hands and feet. The rest of your body notices little more than the weight of the sand covering you, save for a hint of steam. After two or three minutes, you start to become incredibly conscious of your heartbeat. Every thump of your heart pushes the sand an inch higher, and yet it hasn't moved at all.

Your breathing necessarily slows as some kind of survival mechanism, even though the first impulse is to breathe more heavily. The ribcage actually does move; if you look at the person next to you, you will see that the sand rises and crests rhythmically.

After five minutes or so, your face becomes covered in sweat, and deeply red. Perhaps you feel the urge to shake your hips.

Seven or eight minutes into the burial, you cease to fight the improbability of your circumstances, and you are strangely relaxed.

And yet, after 10-12 minutes, you feel a slight discomfort again, and your toes and fingers want to find their way to the surface. You shake your hips, just as the obaachan instructed.

First, your toes emerge, and the ocean breeze against newly exposed skin makes the heat bearable again. Then, your hands are free, and you gain just a bit more energy.

But, barring some irrational competitive urge, you will last no more than 15 minutes. Any more would be too close to cheating death. You find a way to rise out from the sand, somewhat zombie-like at first, until you realize that you are still a mortal entity and that yes, in spite of your yukata, the sand has indeed made its way into every crevice of your body imaginable.

You retire to the shower, where you spend more effort than customarily needed to wash yourself, and take a brief dip in the onsen bath before returning to the ryokan for dinner.

You feel inexplicably refreshed.

You are still alive, and you have an extravagant dinner awaiting you.

Technorati Tags: sunamushi,Kagoshima,Ibusuki,Japan,onsen,travel,sand baths

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