Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Lovely and amazing: Why I'm loving Kyoto even more than Tokyo

One day after my arrival in Kyoto, I was still trying to figure out why I was increasingly more appreciative of its considerable charms than I was of Tokyo's. Then en route to the Philosopher's Path on foot, it hit me: It's a nature thing.

Tokyo is cooler, hipper and more happening. It's the epitome of urban excitement, possibly even on par with New York City. But having OD'd on cool, hip, and happening in the Big Apple in the '90s and in Buenos Aires and Bangkok this century, I no longer place as high a premium on those qualities. Perhaps that's why I can prefer Melbourne over Sydney or Jerusalem over Tel Aviv or Woolloomooloo and Potts Point in Sydney over Newtown. It's not all about the urban hustle...or being on trend.

Concrete jungles wear me out after a while. I know there's nature in Tokyo, having witnessed it firsthand. But every major city has parks, trees, and more rural outskirts...sometimes a river even runs through it. Nature in Tokyo, though, feels almost incidental to city life. It's there if you look for it, but it's so far removed from the pulse, from the figurative heart of Tokyo.

In Kyoto, nature is built into the city. Whether walking along the Kamo River or strolling down the Philosopher's Path (billed as one of Japan's 100 greatest roads) at the foot of the mountains that frame Kyoto, the urban experience is a natural one, too. 

And that's the thing about Kyoto. I'm getting the urban experience that I live for (I will always be a city boy at heart, a true urbanite), but I'm getting something more, something I haven't really gotten in many of the Asian metropolises that I've visited. I'm also getting natural beauty, much of it breath-taking.

Kyoto is beautiful in a way Tokyo isn't. And at this point in my life, when it comes to location location location, aesthetics will trump vibe every time.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

12 random first impressions of Japan: From Tokyo to Kyoto

1. Tokyo is exactly what I'd always imagined it to be: colorful and glowing, refined yet a bit tacky, expensive (in its presentation, not its prices, which are a lot more reasonable than I expected), with an undercurrent of grit and seediness (especially in the part of Shinjuki where I went out last night). It's organized chaos, a bundle of contradictions, which is a quality I can certainly relate to. Oh, and Lost in Translation didn't lie: There's a distinct aura of alone-with-everybody melancholy. That's something else Tokyo and I have in common. No wonder we get along so well.

2. I don't think I've ever experienced such a high-tech society. The toilets are a highlight, which is not a comment one writes every day...if ever. They're toilets and bidets rolled into one -- and with a dryer function! The ones in hotel rooms even have a control for warming the seat. If I ever build a house from scratch, I'm definitely designing the bathroom Japanese style -- with one major change: higher sinks. They're so low, I'm worried I'll leave Japan with a permanent stoop.

3. Tanzania and Cambodia may now have competition for the cutest babies on the planet. And the thing about Japanese babies is that they grow up into such well-behaved children. Two days ago I was watching a group of boys in their early teens who were playing a video game on the train, If we had been in New York, they probably would have been shouting over each other and annoying the hell out of me. In Sydney, they definitely would have been jabbing each other and going "mate" this and "mate' that. But these kids were so calm and respectful of each other and of their fellow passengers, engaged in their game and interacting with each other but doing so at a volume that disturbed no one and drew no attention from anyone besides the middle-aged guy sitting across from them.

4. Equally impressive: the food. I've always enjoyed Japanese cuisine, but there's so much more to it than sushi and teriyaki. Someone said I'll never have a bad meal in Japan, and so far he's right. Even those packaged 7-11 sandwiches are yummy. And who ever thought up of baking avocado, cheese and shrimp in one pot deserves a Nobel Prize.

5. I've never seen such phone obsession as in Tokyo. Taking the long escalator down as I exited the Shinjuku-sanchome train station last night around 9pm, I noticed that practically everyone going up had their eyes glued to their phone. But most of them didn't seem to be texting, so what were they doing? Two nights ago I sat next to a girl on the train who spent a good five minutes looking at herself in a mirror app. Could that be what they're all doing?!

6. Japanese women have me rethinking my sexuality. OK, not really, but watching them cross the street with such dainty precision and perfectly applied make-up, I'm convinced that if I was straight, I'd probably go crazy here. Whenever they're in groups of three or more, they create the same effect as a group of female flight attendants and pharmaceutical reps...but without the optical illusion that Barney once pointed out on How I Met Your Mother. He said if you get a bunch of slightly above average-looking flight attendants or pharmaceutical reps together, individual 7s become a collective 10. Even solo, though, these flawlessly coiffed and manicured Japanese women are stunning.

7. Japanese people have gotten so many things down to a cultural science -- from how you should take off your shoes when you enter a home to how not to blow your nose in public -- that you'd think they'd come up with a system for walking on the sidewalk. They drive to the left, so why don't they walk that way, too?

8. I'm not leaving Japan without a kimono. Last night the hottest guy at Dragon was wearing one. Sadly, when I threw myself at him and offered to take it off his, um, hands, he declined.

9. I've seen more Western tourists in one afternoon and early evening in Kyoto than I saw in three nights and two days in Tokyo, which strikes me as a bit odd. Perhaps I wasn't paying enough attention, or it was a good call to stay away from the Roppongi area, which I heard is full of embassies and expats. Or maybe it's this: In considerably more densely populated Tokyo, the Western faces blend into the crowd more. Whatever the reason, Kyoto doesn't appear to be underrated at all. I don't know why everyone else is here, but I came because of a song by The Cure that I've loved since the '80s.

10. Speaking of expats, I was quite surprised by how many Brazilians I encountered in Tokyo. What brought them there? I have no idea. Note to self: Remember to ask Yohan, the singer from the Brazilian town you've never heard of who made you dance to Destiny's Child at Dragon, if you see him again when you get back to Tokyo.

11. Speaking of the music at Dragon, is no place in the world safe from Taylor Swift on the soundtrack? Oy vey. Thankfully, the Sapporo beer, the tequila shots, and, well, Yohan were enough to distract me from that spectacularly bad remix of "Shake It Off."

12. My friend Dov described Kyoto as the Detroit of Japan, but it's much too clean and upscale for that. I'd put it this way: If Japan were Italy, Kyoto would be Bologna. What it lacks in energy, it makes up for with calmness and elegance. And after last night at Dragon, which pretty much depleted my energy, I appreciate calmness and elegance more than usual. I'm looking forward to bonding with Kyoto over the next two days.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

My year of living un-dangerously...Tokyo, here I come!

Some world traveler I've turned out to be.

It just dawned on me that I've spent nearly a year doing something I haven't done since 1993: I've stayed put. Right before Japan Airlines flight 772 from Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport to Tokyo's Narita Airport departs at 8.15 Thursday morning, I will have spent almost exactly 10 consecutive months in the same country without a single international departure.

That's something I haven't done since 1993 when I flew to Bermuda with a group of my People magazine colleagues on a posh private plane with a full bar (and a bartender who made a killer Bloody Mary!). It was the first time I'd ever traveled outside of the United States, and it launched an adult life spent regularly jetting off into the far-off unknown.

When I returned to New York after several days, I promised myself I'd never again spend an entire calendar year in one country. I vowed to visit at least one new country every year, and it's a promise I've managed to keep. In fact, by the time Japan Airlines flight 771 returns from Tokyo to Sydney on August 30, I will have crossed another city/country off my travel bucket list for the third consecutive calendar year, having already done Tel Aviv, Cape Town and Tanzania.

The last nine years, in particular, have been filled with frequent travel, partly because my travel bug wouldn't have it any other way, and partly because visa requirements limited the amount of time I could stay in any given expat stomping ground without at least one international departure.

With my arrival in Sydney last October 22, I knew everything was about to change. For one, I'd be working a full-time 9-to-5 gig for the first time since 2006. Second, the company that hired me also sponsored me, which meant no more taking flight from my expat stomping ground every 90 days unless I wanted to.

I never expected to last 10 months. There have been four trips to Melbourne, one to Adelaide and one to the Blue Mountains, but I haven't once stepped foot outside of Australia since arriving here from South Africa. I wonder if that has something to do with how underwhelmed I've been with Sydney and, by extension, Australia, despite the fact that I spent years being obsessed with all things Aussie before officially living here.

Maybe it's like moving into your boyfriend's studio apartment and never seeing other people. How could you not get sick of each other when you never get away from each other? How could I fully appreciate Sydney when I'd never given myself the opportunity to miss it?

Everyone tells me to give it time...Sydney is a city that rewards patience. I've tried to be patient, and in some ways, it's paid off. I've settled into my job to the point that I actually enjoy both the gig and my colleagues. And one month ago, I moved into a dream apartment in the building I've wanted to live in since a couple of months after my arrival. Life is good, but Sydney isn't home. Maybe it never will be.

I haven't given up hope, though. I may never find my Sydney "family" or a make a new friend whom I don't work with or go on a fourth date here, but I'm excited to see where my trip to Japan takes me mentally. The best holidays are the ones you don't want to end that also somehow make you appreciate where you live more.

If I've already maxed out my appreciation for Sydney, I'm prepared to live with that. Now that the world traveler is on the verge of making a comeback, I know this arranged marriage can be saved. Just because I don't have to leave every three months doesn't mean I can't. Goodbye, Sydney. Hello, world. Boy have I missed you!

Monday, August 10, 2015

How did I miss the sad news of the passing of country great Lynn Anderson?

Divorce is a terrible thing...and not just because it's claimed the Hollywood unions of Ben Affleck + Jennifer Garner and Gwen Stefani + Gavin Rossdale as well as, if those often-repeated statistics are correct, half of all marriages.

The divorce announcement by Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert and all the follow-up headlines (This just in: Miranda is drinking to get over Blake...which actually succeeded in making her more interesting than I ever found her to be) have overshadowed the most important country-music story of the year.

Lynn Anderson, the '70s country great best known for the crossover hit "(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden" and, by extension, Kon Kan's 1989 reboot "I Beg Your Pardon," died from a heart attack at age 67 on July 30. That was nearly two weeks ago, and I just found out today. I blame Blake and Miranda from keeping me in the dark for so long. Yes, I hate divorce.

Had it not been for the passing of American sports great Frank Gifford at age 84 on Sunday, I might still not know that Anderson is no longer with us. After reading an article this morning on Gifford's death on TMZ, I spotted a link to an Anderson obit in a list of related stories.

Though Lynn Anderson had absolutely nothing to do with Frank Gifford, and I doubt that she was ever interviewed by Gifford's widow Kathie Lee, there is something of a loose link there. Both were giants in their chosen field, only Anderson's peak popularity period was decidedly more compact than Gifford's.

But boy, what a peak. Among '70s female country singers in the early '70s, she was probably fourth behind Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn, and just ahead of  Donna Fargo. In fact, she was the first major female country star to score a crossover smash when "Rose Garden, her 1970 country No. 1, went all the way to No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100, a height to which neither Wynette nor Lynn would ever ascend. 

By the latter part of the decade when Crystal Gayle, Anne Murray and Barbara Mandrell had emerged as country contenders, Anderson's popularity was waning. Before her death, she was probably mostly regarded as a relic of the '70s or -- worse! -- a one-hit wonder because even most country fans probably couldn't name any of her songs aside from her signature one.

I can't argue with the '70s angle, but her list of hits extends well beyond the one for which she's best known. "Rose Garden" aside, Anderson scored four other No. 1 country hits and 13 other Top 10s between 1967 and 1983. Not so bad for a one-hit wonder, right?

Here are five Lynn Anderson hits other than "Rose Garden" that should be required listening for every country fan who thinks Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert splitting up is more important news than Anderson's passing.

"How Can I Unlove You" (No. 1, 1970)

"Fool Me" (No. 4, 1973)

"He Turns It Into Love Again" (No. 13, 1974)

"You're My Man" (No. 1, 1971)

"Isn't It Always Love" (No. 10, 1979)