When I asked the dealer to take a photo he said “Do you want the big bow?” and I was like “Yes please sir I would very much like the big bow!”
It is a Nissan LEAF, a fully electric vehicle. This is our first electric vehicle. In fact, it is our first vehicle. We held off on owning a vehicle for a very long time, but the only place we could find to rent is quite a ways out of town so we thought it was time. There is a lot more involved in the decision, but today I am here to tell you a different story, a tale of woe. Cue ominous (and foreshadowing!) thunderclap…
Okay, what follows is a rant full of wild generalizations about Canadian “culture.” While on the one hand all I really want to do is vent about how terrible our experience was moving back to Canada (under both emergency and pandemic conditions), I also think the experience uncovered a fundamental truth about how society works in Canada, especially when compared to a place like Japan.
Now that the preamble is done, let me further digress with a preface. 😉 On the exact same day we left Japan, Thersa Matsuura of Uncanny Japan (an excellent podcast, highly recommended) also left Japan for a few weeks in the US. Upon returning to Japan she had this to say:
Observation: The stay in the States was absolute heaven. Well, except for some serious incompetency by the clinic who did our final PCR test (to be done within a 72-hour window before our flight, they got my time wrong and wouldn’t correct it). I was flabbergasted at how (in general) no one will take responsibility for anything or apologize when a mistake is made, even if its on behalf of the company/institution/store. It made me re-appreciate how (for the most) part people here take pride in their work, try to help, keep things tidy, and don’t bad mouth you or their jobs so other people can hear. I’m still shaking over that.
(To read the full post check out her Patreon, and give the podcast a listen!)
Yes, yes, and yes! I can agree with all of that. And I would like to make an observation of my own: one thing that I think drives at the heart of all this is planning — or lack thereof.
In our move to Canada we were failed by pretty much every system and process in place. It was laughable. (Skip the next section if you don’t want to hear all the gory and frustrating details)
(This is the first of a video series driving around Ikijima. I will be uploading more vids as I edit them.)
Iki is just a small island, only 17km long and 14km wide. Many of the attractions are outdoors, so when people visit, I would often take them on driving tours like this. On a beautiful day it is a pleasure to drive. And when it isn’t too windy, it is a great cycling destination, as there aren’t too many steep hills.
Today’s trip is from the port at the southeastern corner of Iki to the island’s famous model Yayoi village. Come along with me for the drive. Feel free to put on your own tunes while you watch in 4K and enjoy the beautiful May scenery of Ikijima.
Our first summer spent on Iki in 2020 was a bit hectic. We had just arrived in May: new community, new house, new school, new life. We didn’t know the roads, weather, where the good beaches were, the best times to swim — we didn’t know anything about island life. So we were very much looking forward to spending summer 2021, after a year of settling in, revelling in the summer riches the island of Ikijima has to offer.
In my previous post on adventure travel I listed a number of adventure writers that have inspired me over the years. You may have noticed that they were almost exclusively men. The reason is because I wanted to do a separate post specifically highlighting women voices in the genre. (The reason I mentioned Gertrude Bell in the last post is because I think if you ever mention T.E. Lawrence you are obliged to bring her name up!)
To recap from that last post: a “culture high” is that rush you feel in a culture shock situation, the risk involved as you are doubting your instincts about what to do next in an unfamiliar social context. It is sort of like the disoriented exhilaration you feel on a rollercoaster. Let me give you an example: for North Americans I think industrialized nations like Japan are particularly sly at springing these situations on you, firstly because it is so safe here that you are not in constant fear for your survival, secondly because “on the outside” it looks a lot like the West, so one can be easy to be lulled into certain expectations. Countries that look very different from where you grew up will likely have you on edge, making you more observant and cautious. The point of this example is to illustrate cultural relativity. Depending on where you are from, you can get that culture rush in a different manner. Therefore, reading women’s accounts of exploring a different country/culture as a man delivers a sort of double culture shock for me.
It was 1993, the beginning of the Clinton years. The Wall had come down and Yeltsin had gone up onto the tank. No longer impeded by a curtain of iron, there were now fifteen new “FSU” states strung along the old Silk Road joining China and Europe. It seemed more open than any time in recent memory. So two buddies from Queens New York took a chance. Inspired by The Travels of Marco Polo, the famous 13th century travelogue, Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell spent the next two years going 25,000 miles overland in an attempt to retrace the steps of Marco Polo from Venice to China and back. Their adventure is covered in the 2008 documentary In the Footsteps of Marco Polo. I watched this documentary last weekend on the recommendation of an old friend (who I actually travelled to Chinese Turkestan with many years ago) and had a wide grin on my face the whole time. I thought to myself, “I would love to do this!”
Not everyone would have that reaction. Adventure travel inherently involves some sort of danger or risk — it requires the traveller to step outside of her comfort zone. Whether climbing remote mountains, or paddling jungle rivers, adventure travel is about striving for a rush. I am not really the physical type, so I don’t chase the “climber’s high.” Rather, my particular fascination is with other cultures. There is something exciting about being in an unfamiliar surroundings where even the most basic daily problems are a challenge to solve. I realized I get a rush from the feelings of culture shock. Rather than the extreme mountaineer’s “climber’s high” I crave a “culture high.”
The two main characters of In the Footsteps are total characters who do some crazy things and meet some very crazy people along the way. The show is a whirlwind of locales, but I felt gratified to recognize a few things I have seen with my own eyes: the animal market in Kashgar, the Taj hotel in Mumbai, the prodigious peaks of the Pamir plateau, and anti-US demonstrations in Iran.
The Arashiyama bamboo grove is one of those must-go places when you visit. Located in the west of the city, at the foot of Mount Arashiyama, it is a major tourist area offering all the amenities you would expect of a trip to the “ancient” capital (including Rilakkuma pancakes!). Likely the most photographed sight in the district is that path through the bamboo forest. Many people even pay $30+ for the privilege to be pulled through the grove on a rickshaw!
I was stunned after a few days living on the remote island of Ikijima to learn that farmers hate bamboo. It grows very quickly and is difficult to remove — an invasive species that can ruin a field. I had no idea. Back in Kyoto people write poetry about the stuff!
Another local guy here on the island is married to a woman originally from Kyoto. She used to work in a high-end department store selling fancy watches. He told me about the first time he went to Kyoto to visit her family. They took him around the city to see the sights, and finally to Arashiyama. He was shocked when they walked him through that bamboo grove, wistful and yet proud in that Kyoto manner. He was flabbergasted that they were so pleased with their highly manicured weeds.
The urban-rural divide defines our modern era. Bridging this is one of the reasons we moved to Iki in the first place. Living here is like simultaneously living in Japan’s past and future — a real eye-opener that I am still processing. Some of the lessons I have learned on Iki, and many more besides, are found in a new book from Camphor Press: Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan. I had the opportunity to read the book and write a review for Writers in Kyoto that you can check out here. I share a few more lessons from remote island-living in that piece. Check it out, and if you are interested, get the book!
Today is our 1 Year Anniversary of moving to the remote island of Ikijima. (More on Why Iki here →)
We have enjoyed clear blue water, white sand beaches, stunning sunrises, windy days, typhoons, unexpected snow, cancelled flights and boats, new friends, tough days at Japanese school, trips to the mainland, and much more.
Just north of the hypocenter where the atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki is a commemorative park honouring victims of mass destruction. Walkways wend through trimmed lawns dotted with sculptures gifted from nations around the world in a mournful solidarity. The piece that caps the display is of a powerful man, one hand pointing up at the threat of the bomb while the other is stretched out in tranquil peace. He sits in a partially meditative pose, but with one leg up, ready to leap into action to help humanity. This ten meter tall statue was created by Kitamura Seibo, a renowned artist, at the age of 70.
Seibo is a curious figure and prolific artist who lived until the age of 102. You can see him spryly climbing up the statue and his fantastic moustache in this short NHK profile on him. I have seen his pieces in Nagasaki City but also in Shimabara City including some temples and Shimabara Castle.
I wrote a review of the recently published English translation of Nakamura Tetsu’s book Providence Was with Us: How a Japanese Doctor Turned the Afghan Desert Green. You can read the review on BooksOnAsia.net here, but I just wanted to say a few more things on a more personal note about this book.
I knew about Dr Nakamura peripherally since he is just such a famous person in Japan. I could recognize his face (and his pakol) and knew that he was building canals in Afghanistan. I had no idea how much more he did there and in Pakistan until I read Providence Was with Us. The book really touched me. I drove across Kyushu to see his memorial before I wrote the book review.
Dr Nakamura is a hero here in Japan, and also in Afghanistan — maybe moreso there. He has very admirable qualities, which come across readily in the book. But the thing that struck me the most is how much he thought about his impact on the world, and strategically made choices to increase that impact. He started out as a psychologist, but by listening carefully to needs on the ground he transitioned to a medical doctor, and finally to a civil engineer, staying up late into the night studying books on well-digging, irrigation, and canal design.
During my (what seems bi-annual at this point) mid-life crises (yes, plural) I grapple with the question of impact, too. We probably all do. Nakamura is special because he was able to analyze and actually execute on it, making a massive impact. In this he is an example for use all. The interesting thing, is he was able to do it by keeping things simple and focusing on the needs around him.
In reading more about Nakamura’s life, probably the biggest lesson I drew was to listen. Quit trying to run around and “be useful.” Often you just end up a nuisance. Stay still and listen carefully. I suppose that is why it is called a “calling.”