Travel’s Serendipitous Surprises

Often (sometimes multiple times a day) something unexpected and special takes me by surprise when traveling through Japan. Out of curiosity, I’d gone to Jizo Dori mainly to check out the “Harajuku for grandmothers” and “aka pantsu.”

Both were much as I’d expected. An avenue dotted with stooped people wearing bucket hats and stores festooned with bright red granny panties. More polyester than seen since Fortrel made its mid-20th century debut, as well as the “same” offerings of “famous” local specialties found everywhere else.

Before catching my train on the JR Yamanote line, I’d perused a map to see whether there was anything else worth checking out near Jizo Dori. I noticed a garden called Rikugien was a short walk from Komagome Station. Once recharged by a tasty tempura lunch I wandered over. Click here to read what I found.

To celebrate five years of blogging, this post links to previous content from The Way of Words.Your comments are always appreciated.

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An Unforgettable Christmas

That year snow began falling during the Christmas Eve service. Afterwards, groups of men worked to shove each car through the nearly 12 inches of heavy white stuff. Fortunately a snow plow had passed along the Island Highway while we were inside church, and carloads filled with excitement-crazed children made their way home without too much difficulty at the end of the service.

In our house, presents waited until morning. I awakened around 6 o’clock when I heard the furnace turn on and our mother moving about as she stuffed the giant turkey. Then the oven door opened and closed. I lifted the corner of my bedroom curtain to reveal a gray white coverlet over the still-dark world.  During the night another 12 inches had fallen.

I slid deeper under my covers knowing we would have to wait until 8 before being allowed downstairs. No point in getting worked up. I knew the drill. Dad would read from the Bible and pray before one of us would be selected to hand out the presents. Only after they were distributed were we allowed to open them–one at a time. No mad ripping chaos allowed in our house. Might as well settle in and stay toasty.

After a short time I overheard the phone call telling Dad that church was cancelled on account of the snow. Hooray! This year we would have all morning to play with our presents.

Then a loud thunk as a transformer blew. The power was out. I heard my mother shriek, “The turkey!” Always pragmatic and unflappable and with phone lines still operational, Dad called Grandma. She was the lone hold-out in the family who had not given up her faithful oil stove for electric. Could we cook our turkey and eat at her place instead of ours? Of course.

Dad loaded the turkey and anything else requiring an operational stove into a large box. He strapped it to the toboggan, and set off on the half-mile walk to Grandma’s place.

With the furnace also out, on Dad’s return we didn’t dawdle over breakfast or focus long on our new toys. We took one thing to play with, bundled up and walked over to Grandma’s where the oil stove soon warmed our skinny, numb bodies. After a while our cousins came too as there was no power at their place either. Fourteen of us crammed into her 500 square-foot kitchen and living room.

We opened Grandma’s presents—always a new pair of hand-knit slippers. We played games. We sang. We ate. And ate. The turkey. All the trimmings. Tarts and pies. Mountains of nuts. Piles of Japanese oranges. Rosebuds and hard candy. No one counted a calorie or cautioned anyone to stop. We simply refilled the bowls when they ran low.

As the afternoon’s moody skies deepened into night, Grandpa lit the kerosene lanterns. We carried on in their glow and the warmth of the old oil stove. Thankfully, my cousins and siblings—7 rowdy boys—bolted to the attic for a good part of the time. The men sat in the living room and talked.

We women washed and dried the dishes. Afterwards we sat down to chat and relax around the table. Was anyone still hungry? No. We ached and groaned and insisted we couldn’t eat another thing.  Before long my aunt reached for the nutcracker. I popped a couple of rosebuds as I peeled another orange. Soon another pile of nutshells grew as we chucked them into the center of the table. We looked at each other, laughed and shook our heads. Tomorrow we would be sensible again.

After the power came back on we reluctantly made our way home to our own frigid houses. Except for two dolls at age 4 and 9 and at 6 my letter to Santa Claus which was read over the radio, I remember few specifics of the happy haze of childhood Christmases.  However, this charmed day remains indelible.

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Ho! Ho! Ho! & Happy Humbug!

Greater Victoria, my new home-city, goes all out during the Christmas season. The Legislature Buildings, Government House, Empress Hotel, Butchart Gardens, as well as numerous local establishments light up. Carolers wander the downtown streets and musicians perform in various plazas.  One evening a huge fleet of transport trucks lights up and roars through the city in an amazing show; another sees a flotilla of brightly lit boats in a sail past.

Indoors, venues feature elegant garlands, wreaths, trees, and offer craft fairs, delectable food and entertainment. It’s a city of constant concerts and theatrical shows which are conveniently listed in glossy holiday guides.

I always decorate early (First Advent) and take down late (Epiphany). My tree is up, and the crèche displayed on the sill of a leaded glass window that very conveniently has a rosette over the manger.

My new tree in my 6.5 x 10′ living room.

In addition to my own vast collection of Christmas carols, offerings from the CBC’s classical Christmas stream play constantly.

As the days get gloomier, it’s gratifying to defy the night with light and song. (The northern ancients knew what they were about when they created Yule, the Saturnalia and other similar festivals. Thank heaven the church had the sense to steal from them when they saw austerity and penance weren’t working!)

This year I’ve added a 90-minute horse-drawn carriage ride beside the sea, through Beacon Hill Park and into downtown to my personal celebrations. If I bring the bubbly Victoria Carriage Tours supplies the ice-bucket, the glasses and warm blankets.

Since no one was interested in joining me, I will go solo. More bubbly for me! I reject the notion that Christmas is for children or not worth celebrating if you live alone. No matter what time of year, I’ve never let that stop me from creating beauty, comfort and joy. Bring on the Ho! Ho! Ho! And even the Happy Humbug!

Disclosure: Part of this content previously appeared in a comments thread.

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Not so Hot: Trying to Stay Warm under the Kotatsu

Kotatsu photo credit to Pinterest


What’s not to love about Japan? Plenty. Like any other nation and culture it has flaws and problems galore.  Even though I don’t have blinkers on, my purpose in writing about my journeys and adventures in Japan is not to criticize but chronicle my experience.

I admit it: There are selective omissions in what I write. Occasionally however, I disclose what I don’t get, what I can’t appreciate and why.

One of those things I don’t appreciate but is dearly beloved by every Japanese person I’ve met is the kotatsu. Click here to read why not.

To celebrate five years of blogging, this post links to previous content from The Way of Words.Your comments are always appreciated.

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Alone and Homeless in Tokyo

Even though I had no language skills and in spite of an acute sense of terror, I plunged into Tokyo with bravado, determined to find my way around and make a success of my solo, 33-day adventure in Japan.

Ameyoko by Ghost of Kuji. Creative Commons Licence.

Ameyoko by Ghost of Kuji. Creative Commons Licence.

Unable to communicate in my usual manner, I was alone in my head all the time. (Sometimes that was a more terrifying place than the city.) I vividly recall feeling alien, and adrift—as if I were an insignificant insect who belonged nowhere crawling along the city’s sidewalks.

Click here to read more about my first morning in Tokyo.

To celebrate five years of blogging, this post links to previous content from The Way of Words.Your comments are always appreciated.

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Why Japan?

People often ask me: Why Japan? What’s so special about Japan that I return again and again?

Miyajima Torii

Miyajima Torii

The best answer I have for that is one given by a Japanese woman born in Saudi Arabia whom I met while visiting Kanazawa.  Though she is well traveled and a “global” woman in every sense, her magnetic connection is Spain. When I asked why Spain, she answered: How do you explain falling in love?

Exactly. The fact is you can’t. Words don’t touch the ineffable rapture and euphoria. The 12th century waka poet and Buddhist priest more commonly known as Saigyo wrote: I don’t know what resides here, but tears fall in appreciation for it. なにごとのおはしますかは知らねども かたじけなさに涙こぼるる Click here to read more of what captivates me.

To celebrate five years of blogging, this post links to previous content from The Way of Words.Your comments are always appreciated.

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A Word for Leonard Cohen


Photo used in accordance with Restrictions on Use of Materials. © 2012 Channel Zero Inc. All rights reserved.


There’s a blaze of light
In every word…

From “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen


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Tourist or Traveler: Which are You?

A great deal of self-identity and judgment from others is related to what we do. Travel is no exception.  Suddenly, we belong to that tribe which embarks and disembarks along with us. Like them, we drag suitcases or packs around on one form of transport after another.

Photo Credit to AP/Nam Y. Huh, File

Photo Credit to AP/Nam Y. Huh, File

We wait in lines to get documents stamped or buy tickets, search for places to eat and sleep, attend meetings or visit local sites. Then, we do it all again at the next venue.

So what are we now? Are we tourists or travelers? Does the distinction matter? What do you think? Click to read more.

To celebrate five years of blogging, this post links to previous content from The Way of Words.

Your comments are always appreciated.

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Happy Anniversary: Five years at the Way of Words

Oh! What hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travelers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. … Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travelers.

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Everyman © 1996, p 116.

Still from the six-episode 1995 BBC drama Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Andrew Davies

Still from the six-episode 1995 BBC drama Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Andrew Davies

Always good for a rim-shot when it comes to social critique and as relevant today as then, Jane Austen understood all too well that travel stories must lack reserve. According to her, the trick is to be less intolerable and vague in the telling.

As I now look back on 5 years of vignettes focused on my journeys through Japan and various other digressions along the way, I hope that my stories might indeed be less insupportable and steer clear of generality. (What glorious words—used much less in the 21st century than in the 18th and 19th. Sadly, and with great disservice to a venerable language, modern proponents of plain language are not fond of words that stray into syllable counts which number higher than three. But I digress.)

Starting next week, to celebrate this significant anniversary (some 215 blog posts) I will sift through the archive and reprise some of my favourites .

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Nai tokoro: the not state or place

As I turned the calendar to a new month a few days ago, it occurred to me that had anyone told me five months back that I would move to Victoria before the year was out; I would have considered it a joke of the day. April Fool! Continue reading

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