Nikko: Uphill Preface


This photo is from my second day in Nikko, when it was still light. I’m uploading from my first night as opposed to my first day, because this story overshadowed my afternoon. And because it was so dark, I have no photos to accompany it, save for this one I took later in my journey.

2km according to Airbnb. 3k according to the message I received from my host and a second Google map search.

What my host failed to mention in any of our correspondence is that however many kilometers it is from the Tobu Nikko train station to his rental, 95% of the journey was uphill. Nikko is a mountain town, but I passed my afternoon on a relatively gentle slope, and the town itself seemed more in the basin than on the inclines.

Not so my accommodation, I realized. I passed the rental one of my fellow teachers recommended (sold out), and kept climbing. I passed the rental that I had cancelled (too many negative reviews), and kept climbing. I ran out of sidewalk, and light. I passed inn after inn, pausing for a moment at each opportunity to stand in a light source and check my photo map. And I kept climbing. I had not stretched or prepped in any way for such exercise. My legs eventually stopped feeling the good kind of tired. I could feel it in my quads – 2 miles uphill was a lot to ask after a day of hiking. They are going to hurt tomorrow.

In the darkness, I could still see the occasional silhouettes of the tall trees around me. It made for a moody walk, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the poisonous spiders, leeches, and other dangerous things that I had recently read live in Japan. I tried not to get too close to the trees and bushes, while also not wandering into the road. And then there was the rain, which I had not minded until I was going solidly uphill in the dark with my poncho draped over my bags to keep them dry. By the by – my poncho is my hero, but also the dumbest inanimate thing. It kept sliding to one side, or getting caught under the front wheel without actually draping over the bag itself. Ugh.

Anger kept me going after the halfway point. I was pissed off that there had been no mention of climbing a mountain in the description of the property, nor in the reviews. A pleasant place, the reviews had said. Beautiful location, the reviews had said. I drafted my own Airbnb review, scathing and full of really beautiful but negative vocabulary. I started wishing horrible things upon the owner for his omissions. Eventually, I lost the anger, and I could feel real fatigue eating at my edges. The closer I got to where I thought I was going, the more I felt like I was going to turn into a blubbering mess from sheer exhaustion. Why had I been so stupid as to hike all day and then go to my lodgings? Why had I not planned better for this?

I passed the house altogether at first because the rain hid the faint Christmas lights. I mistook my rental house for another. Luckily, the second house had a loud, sturdy akita who let me know that I was mistaken. As I tried to leave the stairs, an old man came out to the balcony and asked me something in Japanese – my Japanese is still so weak that I mostly guessed at what he could be asking. I must have cut a pretty pathetic figure – my rain poncho was ineffectively tied around my bags, I was wet, my legs were a little trembly, and I spoke atrocious Japanese.

“Pension?” he asks.
“Airbnb,” I reply, but I recognize the word. For some reason it’s on almost all the hotels I’ve seen thus far. They really like using French here apparently. He disappears and his wife (I assume) comes out. She looks at my phone, and the pair start arguing about the address. In desperation, I turn on my phone’s cellular service. I will pay the (probable) $20 in extra fees for one minute of functioning google translate and a working map.

“Is that address near here?” I put into the phone.
“Ok,” the woman says after reading the translation, and takes off walking in the rain. She is still in her house slippers, and the old man follows. I try to stop them, but I don’t have the words, and when I show the man my google translate for “You don’t have to walk with me, sir. Just point.” He nods and keeps walking.

So there we are, one wet, confused American in a red knit hat, and an old Japanese couple dressed like my great uncle Tom and aunt Dorothy (bless them), each under an umbrella. They get me to the gate of my rental around the block, and I bow as low as I possibly can. I can’t tell, but I bet they were relieved I knew the place. We all reached near epic levels of confusion.

They’re going to be even more confused tomorrow when there’s a bouquet of flowers waiting for them. I passed a florist earlier today, and I’ve been wanting to get flowers for someone lately.

Soaking in the tub, drinking very hot ginger tea, I can feel all my swear words dissipate. I was about ready to quit the whole trip, suck up the financial loss and pay to stay at one of the faux “Euro-style” inns I passed somewhere on the unending incline. The sort that charges hundreds of dollars a night. And I know I’ll be peeved in the morning, as there are no combini around here, and I don’t have wifi so I can’t just go online and do some research. But right now, in my comfortable and warming up rental, I’m simply happy to not be climbing anymore. Tomorrow, I know I’ll get a taxi up here, and walking downhill is going to be so much easier.

Good thing too, as I’m planning to hike up the neighboring mountain…

MVPs of the day:

My red knit hat: I bought it 50% off at a 300 yen shop this morning because it was unexpectedly nippy. It kept my head nice and warm, and though I was only dry because of the umbrella, the hat made me feel quite comfortable.
My flashlight: An LED light from my True Dungeon volunteering, this little guy was a light for me when all other lights went out (yeah, it’s my Elendril light)
My legs. God bless my legs, and forgive me for not stretching them. May they not tense up too much overnight. They did such a good job getting 3k up an unplanned mountain.

First Impressions can be Rough

NOTE: This post never got published – WordPress accidentally sent it to drafts. This post is from the beginning of September, and I only just realized it now. This means that references to this post in those earlier posts would not have made any sense. I’m not sure I’m making sense now….Anyway, on to my small initial breakdown!

To be fair, I really did hit all the buttons on the remote.

I tried every one, both with the cable plugged into the television, and with it removed. I moved the tv to a different outlet, just in case. And I fiddled with the back, checking the input options. I know televisions, and this one wasn’t turning on. I don’t mean I was getting static, or a black menu screen. I mean that the power light didn’t even turn on.

So I called the main office. I assured them I checked the circuit breakers. Within twenty minutes my…landlord (perhaps) showed up. I showed him the errant television, now unplugged in the corner. He plugged in the very same cables I did. He hit the same buttons I did on the remote. And the television turned on.

I stood dumbfounded, staring at the screen. He stared at me with what might have been pity. I apologized in English, which I’m not sure he understood. Then I escorted him out, and had a little cry. Nothing major, just a small, “Oh, I’ve been in this country two days on my own and I’ve already made a total ass of myself. I’ve brought shame to the whole of the United States. Stupid television. Stupid buttons. Stupid American.” Three minutes later, sniffling, I cleaned off my face and stood in my room. It didn’t do me much good.

This is my room (the jinxed television is offscreen to my left):


It’s just as cozy and unfurnished as can be. I did get a futon and duvet, which I moved to the “loft” space on day 2. Admittedly I love the loft space, even if the air conditioner doesn’t quite reach it. My pillow might be filled with corn kernels, or dried beans; I haven’t investigated, but it doesn’t cradle my head so much as rebel against it. Right now I’m trying to figure out where I’m supposed to store anything. I have two small closets for clothes, as well as two small closets that I can’t really access without the aid of a provided hook/pole (you can see it by the mirror). I have two small cubby-holes above my microwave/fridge, and one small cabinet above my sink. I have space under my sink, but I won’t be storing food there. I have a good sized shelf in the bathroom, and a large cubby in the loft space (where I put my books and crafty things).

I think that’s what fueled my little crying fit. This is such a stark space. It really makes an impression. I have one table that is to serve as my desk, dining room table, and kitchen prep area. My walls are white and bare. I have no bookcase, no dresser, no oven. I can sit on my floor, or on one of the two hard chairs provided.

I wonder if that’s why they recommended bringing money with us as a cushion before we get paid – so we could buy furnishings. I won’t, as I don’t have the money to do so. But a couch would make this place infinitely better. Hell, a beanbag would at least give it the semblance of a residence.  It’s not the size that bugs me. I’ve lived in small spaces and made them cozy and my own. And I know that Japanese spaces are small in general. If I had to define it, I think it’s just the blankness, and the unfamiliarity. I realize this as I lay on my back on the floor, staring at nothing.

But it’s only been two days, I remind myself. It’s been two days. I’m being unduly hard on both myself and the residence. At least I know that it’s my pattern to do so. I break hard with first impressions, usually skewing towards negative. And then I take a deep breath and make it my own space, my own environment.

One of the rules here is that I’m not to affix anything to the walls via pushpins, tape, nails, etc. So lawyer-trained as I am, I’m putting things up with sticky-tac because it doesn’t stain or leave a mark. I refuse to spend the next five months living in a bare white room.

One step at a time, I shall give my tiny rebel yell. I will make this place my home. I will master the television.


The Perfume Road

My call to Dad drops at the same instant there’s a knock at the door.

Two of the housekeepers stood there, all smiles. I wondered what I did wrong, or what they did if anything. Perhaps they wanted to apologize for waking me up that morning? No, that wasn’t it. They entered the doorway, and one of them started energetically talking and gesturing to my perfume bottle.

My lack of language skills is so painfully…well, painful at this point. I get the impression that the woman is interested in my perfume. It’s my every day wear perfume – Diesel’s Fuel for Life. They stopped selling it in the department stores because apparently I was the only one who liked it. The bottle currently on my nightstand I had saved for a year after buying it in Paris, not knowing when I would be able to get it again. China seemed like a good time to have it with me. And now I have found someone else interested in it as well.

The two of them don’t speak a word of English between them. I break out my translator apps and notebook and proceed to get thoroughly confused. I understand she wants “three” of something – does she want to sample the perfume? No, I get the idea she wants to buy it – she’s gesturing to her pocket. So I write down what I paid for it – $50 USD. This is an undersell, actually. Given the strength of the Euro to the dollar, I probably paid more like $65 for it – well, maybe $60 (the dollar was rebounding a little). I show the number to the woman, and write the amount into RMB – 330. This is a slightly over the mark, because currently the exchange rate is 6.2 RMB to the dollar. I don’t know what it is compared to the Euro (I would look it up later). It all sort of evens out in my head.

After much discussion and more character writing I decide I am getting nowhere. No matter how slowly they speak I can’t respond. I figure out what she’s trying to say, sort of, but I don’t know how to formulate my responses. The words I translate do nothing to facilitate – they only lead to long explanations and laughter. So I say very slowly “1 minute…” and take off for the lobby. Tina is there, thankfully. Tina, who speaks moderately good English and is polite and patient. Tina translates one of the character sentences: “I would like to buy your shampoo.”

Breakthrough. So I trot back upstairs to my room, to the two laughing housekeepers, and write a discounted price down on the paper – 250rmb. It’s roughly $40, and my reasoning is that even though I haven’t used that much of the perfume, it’s still not new and I have used it, so charging full price wouldn’t be fair. I also appreciate that for $40 I could eat out every day for a week if I wanted, or eat lunch at the cafeteria every day for a month. But something is up – the one who wants to buy is still saying “three” something. It’s not 300 – because there’s no way she’d be asking to pay me more than I asked. The other one is trying to help my speaking slowly in different words, but I’ve hit my wall and there’s no going through it.

I do what I’ve been avoiding – I call reception and ask for Tina to come up to my room. I don’t like being an inconvenience, but I can tell when I’m in over my head and need help. Tina arrives like very polite cavalry, and through multiple translations we finally iron things out. The women want three bottles of perfume, and want to know when I can get them. I explain I only have the one, but that I could try to find some more for them if they wanted. Part of my brain is sarcastically asking when I’m planning on flying to Paris in the next couple of weeks. Then more details emerge – one cleaning lady wants a bottle like mine, the Fuel for Life. The other wants to buy my current bottle, and wants me to try and find two more Diesel perfumes which are not Fuel for Life. They both really like the smell.
Forget the Silk and Jade Roads – It’s the Perfume Road which runs through WenJiang…

I offer a couple of solutions to Tina. I can have my family find the perfume and ship it to me. Or I can try to locate it myself. Either way, I will find out the cost and let them know. The one gets serious – it’s her last day. And I am scheduled to check out soon – what happens if I find the perfume but I’m not at the hotel? I respond that even if I check out, I will bring the perfume back with me and drop it off with the other housekeeper, the one who is staying. I find the idea a little laughable – that I would go buy a bunch of perfume and then keep it.

Money in hand, perfume off the table, an outpouring of thanks to Tina, and then it is quiet in my room. Dad has gone to bed – I will have to apologize. And I am now reflective.

What just happened…?

In the hustle and bustle of miscommunication, I have somehow sold a bottle of perfume I’d been holding onto for over a year because it was one of my favorites. I sold my favorite perfume at what was most likely an undervalued price because…

I have no answer to this. That concerns me. Because someone else liked it and I can find more? Because I don’t remember to wear perfume most of the time anyway? Because it was a nice thing to do for a couple of ladies who maybe don’t see Western perfume that often? Because it’s just perfume and just money and really in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter? Because I have a real problem with not being able to say “no” to people, which I have not yet resolved? It’s a little of each, with a lot of that last one.

And now I’m hunting for perfume online? In fact, that’s what I’m doing right now. Let’s see…I bought the perfume at a Sephora. There’s a brand new Sephora in Chengdu! And according to the Chinese Sephora website (which does not have an English translation button, for shame!) the Diesel line of perfume is available. Cost…460rmb. Huh – so those ladies got a steal for my 85% full bottle. If the store in Chengdu carries it, then my little treasure hunt becomes much easier.
Let’s see, as of March 29, 2014:
45.50 Euro = 65 USD
45.50 Euro = 388 RMB
65 USD = 403 RMB
460 RMB = 74 USD = 54 Euro

So perfume is considerably more here in China than back home in the States, and more so than Europe as well. The price of smelling good….

Oh, and if you’re in China and put in, you get taken to and there is no way to get to an English site. If you click on the “International” link down at the bottom you get taken to a host of other Sephora sites, none of them English. The Canadian site links back to the Chinese site. I can find information in Czech, French, Italian, Greek, and a host of other languages, but not English. Thank goodness brand names stay constant.

Do I eat the Head?

Next to my hotel is a collection of restaurants. Bill took Vega (my TA) and me to two of them. So when I decided that I couldn’t just hide in my hotel room and live on the breakfast buffet, I went to one of the two places I knew. I chose it because I remembered the menu had pictures. Baby steps.

I had my sentence all ready “A table for one, please.” (Qĭng gĕi wŏ yī rén de zhuō zĭ.) and I had written it out in characters onto a note card. This was both good and bad. It was good because the hostess did not quite understand me, but when I showed her the card, she smiled and set me at a huge round table. Most restaurants in China are family-style places, and I felt acutely alone at the big table. It was bad because for the rest of the night, the wait staff wrote answers to my questions on the note card, in Chinese characters.

Now, the title of this entry is an example of this. I thought I was ordering roasted duck, or maybe chicken. And I did indeed get a bird, though it was cool and not the parts I expected. I’m pretty sure I was given the half of the bird which contained the ribs and windpipe – like a weird, not quite breast, not really wing, and certainly not thigh part of the bird. And on the plate was half the head of said bird, cooked. I did not want to be rude, but I also did not know if the head was a garnish or a piece to be eaten.
I broke out my phrasebook and my dictionary app, and put together the following sentence:

Wŏ chī tóu ma (Literally: I eat head question mark)

I wrote it down, again because my pronunciation was perhaps not up to snuff. And it was the writing the waitress understood. Then she wrote a very long response in characters, and I had to admit I did not understand. It didn’t matter, as I started working on the pieces of the bird’s head I recognized – the brain, the eyeball. This seemed to please the two waitresses (I was really attended by four women – I think they found me amusing), and so we were all satisfied. I’m glad I ordered chopped vegetables too – there wasn’t enough windpipe to be filling. And soup – but again because they serve all food family style, I couldn’t finish everything. Culturally, I this is a sign of respect (it means that you are satisfied). My Western self was chiding because I couldn’t clean my plate.

Another thing about this – I was not ready for the deference. When I eat back home, sometimes I’m lucky if I get a server’s attention. Here, I was treated like a celebrity. Those four waitresses made sure that my tea was never empty, that I had more than enough of everything. I mean, one woman brought me a Pepsi on a silver platter, even though I did not ask for one (and I didn’t take it – not gonna go over budget). And because I know that a smile and a good attitude can make a difference, we all got along quite well even though I couldn’t understand them and they only understood me if I wrote in characters, or repeated myself several times.

I wonder if that’s what Imperialism feels like – the expectation of such behavior. It caught me off guard – I was a little uncomfortable feeling everyone watch me eat, listen to me mangle the language. Part of me can see the allure, though. Who wouldn’t like soy milk simply procured without having to say anything at all?