Traveling around the world is fun, but then coming home again after a long trip is awesome.
I know I shouldn’t get so sentimental about this, but there is something simply wonderful about the familiar little things, even the annoying things. The temperamental coffee maker and its arcane rituals, the newspaper that arrives with a bang at my door every morning at 5am, the faucet in the shower that keeps falling off, the light in the entryway that still doesn’t work (I’ve tried).
And of course there’s that one side of the toaster in the kitchen that either doesn’t toast or else burns the bread to a crisp. I’ve never been able to find a pattern — it seems to operate from a random number generator. God I love it!
We each have our little daily patterns, the groove of seemingly meaningless physical details that help us properly orient ourselves for the day to come. There is something about the physicality of these things — their connection to our body in space and time — that creates a powerful bond.
I’m sure we will eventually create amazing places with augmented reality, limitless landscapes and virtual environments limited only by the imagination. Brave new worlds in which the toast comes out perfectly every time.
But I wouldn’t trade that toaster in the kitchen for anything.
I did a thorough internet search — or at least I think it was a thorough internet search — and I discovered that there are no ryokans in New York City.
I am surprised by this. The Big Apple generally never misses an opportunity, and yet it somehow is not exploiting this potential gold mine. Imagine the harried businessperson whose day is filled with meetings, appointments, things to do and people to meet. What could be better than the knowledge that one could retreat into a perfect oasis, a refuge of zen-like calm, casting off the shackles of modernity, for at least an evening, and partake of a timeless sense of peace?
I wonder whether some enterprising hotelier, upon reading this, will think “Aha!, that’s just the thing!”
After all, when I told a friend that I went to a Ninja themed restaurant here in Tokyo, she pointed out to me that there is also a Nina themed restaurant in New York City.
If our fair city can manage a Ninja themed restaurant, the least it could do is provide at least one ryokan for the weary traveler.
Whenever I come to Japan I stay at a traditional Ryokan. For anyone who has ever doubted the power of Feng shui, just stay a night in one of these places. The traditional tatame mats, beautiful proportions, simple yet elegant arrangement of the furniture and bedding, quiet artwork upon the wall and lovely natural muted color palette all conspire to create an extraordinarily tranquil experience.
And every morning, in a private room with traditional Japanese music softly playing, they serve me a feast of six dishes, accompanied by fresh steamed rice and green tea brewed at the table. Everything is arranged upon the table just so — soups made with three kinds of mushroom, all varieties of tofu, fresh greens and spinach, sour plum and miso, sliced apples, carrot tempura, exotic sprouts, natto, seaweed salad, all sorts of dipping sauces, delicate spices and, on occasion, just a touch of fiery wasabe. Every breakfast is different, and each one is perfection.
When I go back home, I wish I could take the Ryokan with me.
This weekend my hosts took me to Hama-rikyu Gardens. This tranquil and exquisitely verdant refuge in the middle of Tokyo is where the Emperor used to relax with family, and on occasion entertain foreign dignitaries.
One of the activities highlighted in our visit was the duck hunt. In order to easily trap wild ducks, the Emperor’s minions would train a duck to land on command in a specially built trench. When the local wild ducks saw the trained duck there, they would assume it was safe to land. At that point the Emperor would entertain the foreign dignitaries by having his servants throw a net over the unsuspecting ducks, trapping them. Mission accomplished.
I found this entire enterprise to be oddly unsporting. As I watched and listened, I kept wondering whether one of the trained ducks ever rebelled. I suddenly flashed on Star Wars, as I pictured the Emperor’s plans being foiled by a lone renegade duck, casting off his training and leading the other ducks skyward to safety. In my mind I could almost hear one of the Emperor’s minion’s saying, in a deep basso voice, “The Force is strong in this duck”.
As I walked around Hama-rikyu, I could see many ducks in peaceful repose, sunning themselves or floating serenely in the lovely ponds scattered about the gardens. They were now perfectly safe, their natural enemy the Emperor having long since been vanquished by the unforgiving winds of political change.
The ducks win.
After an amazing gourmet lunch at Hachinoki, prepared in the traditional Shojin Ryori style, we went to see the great Buddha in Kamakura. Looking up in awe at this immense seated figure, rising over 13.4 meters in the air, I found myself thinking “if he moves, I’m leaving.”
And then it occurred to me — what if all the giant religious statues around the world came to life, and they weren’t friendly? What if all the statues of Krishna in Mumbai and Kolkata alit off their pedestals, reconnoitered in Nagpur and headed north to take New Delhi?
What if the great Buddha in Nara suddenly stood up, busted through the roof of the Todai-ji temple, and began striding with menace toward Osaka? What if Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro became Cristo Predator, charging down the slopes of Corcovado to storm across the favelas and lay waste to the beach hotels?
I had this image of all the great religious icons of the world joining forces, teaming up to form an unstoppable army, in relentless and singleminded pursuit of a common enemy — us.
I soon came to my senses, as I watched tourists line up to pay two bucks a pop for the privilege of climbing inside the hollow bronze statue and peering out his torso. I realized the assault upon our race by marauding religious statues wasn’t likely to happen any time soon. Humankind would be safe after all.
Oh well, I thought wistfully, it would have been nice to see our great religious figures finally coming together for a common cause.
Today I flew from Hong Kong to Tokyo. The contrast between the two cultures is startling. In some ways the two places seem to be diametric opposites. I have not yet fully processed the difference, but I have a theory.
The essential energy of Hong Kong seems to come from an inner noisiness, a hustle and bustle, a jostling for space. In Japan there seems to be something entirely different at work — an underlying aesthetic that permeates all things. It is in the architecture, the furniture, the shop displays, the way people carry themselves.
This aesthetic appears to come from a place of calm, of symmetry. The quiet space within and around everything really matters here, so much so that people just take this space for granted — and perhaps they do not even notice it, so much does it suffuse everything.
After the churning energy of Hong Kong — which I liked very much, by the way — I am now looking forward to spending some time in a culture where everything is done with a sense of ceremony.
Walking along the street in Hong Kong today I saw some old ladies — the kind with those wonderful lined and weathered faces, lived in faces, as though they had been through hard times and had gained immeasurable wisdom in return.
One thing it is useful to note at this point is that Hong Kong differs from the rest of the People’s Republic of China in many ways, not least of which is the lingering cultural influence of its time as a British colony. And that means, among other things, that they celebrate Christmas here big time.
Which might help to explain why all those old women, with their magnificently expressive faces and sad haunted eyes, were wearing little red elf caps, each cap topped by a fluffy white pom pom.
Somebody who’d heard that I was in Hong Kong sent me an email referring to it as “the New York of Asia”. I must say, having wandered the streets here a bit these last few days, that it’s a very good description.
The thing that has always struck me about New York, and one way that it manifests its remarkable energy, is the feeling that nothing is wasted. Any available little space or opportunity gets immediately used. If a store closes, another one appears almost instantly to take its place.
Hong Kong has exactly that feeling. Millions of people, each an agent following their own agenda, end up forming a buzz of constant action, of movement and striving, that collectively creates a magnificent symphony of industrious activity.
It almost feels like being home. 🙂
I’ve noticed that lingering jet lag makes for very vivid dreams.
During a fitful on-and-off sleep, I dreamt I was making my way late at night, in a strange city, looking for the entrance to where I was staying, when suddenly the two random people walking by were no longer random. They were there to rob me. At first they said “just give us something, and you can go”, but soon their demands escalated, and the threat of violence became palpable.
I was genuinely frightened, and realized I had no idea how far this could go. I saw a group of people coming down the alley, and I shouted for help, only to realize that they too were part of the gang. At this point my survival instincts kicked in. I began to talk about why I was here, and of the presentation I was preparing to give in two days. Looking into the nearest faces for some spark of engagement, I described our computer graphics community, and tried to convey our excitement at what we do.
My little ramble had an effect — not on them, but on me. Hearing myself talk about my real life hopes and passions must have jostled something in my mind, for it suddenly occurred to me that I was in a dream. At which point I simply shifted over to another dream, now perfectly calm and ready for whatever might come next.
I wonder now whether this dream was just my mind’s way of helping me prepare for my upcoming presentation.
My usual habit when giving talks at conferences is just to plug in my little notebook computer, talk about this and that, and show some software demos. But this time, working with an awesome group of people at NYU, I’m planning a far riskier talk that involves a live video feed.
Which means an actual high quality video camera. Which means a mixer box, a dedicated computer, portable lights, assorted tripods, some custom rigged hardware, and more varieties of cable, connector and power cord than you can shake a stick at.
The moment you level up from “look at this crappy image that came out of my computer” to the real deal, everything changes. Terms like HDMI, DVI and Thunderbolt suddenly become relevant. Your hardware entourage shifts from a little laptop bag slung over your shoulder to a fully loaded field-ready backpack bulging with enough secret compartments to impress Lucretia Borgia. In international airports, you find yourself spending quality time with airport security officers.
But the most interesting part is that gradual feeling of getting to know your cables. The first time you try to put together one of these systems, power cords and connectors seem like the enemy. But soon these quirky little bits of hardware become old friends, touchstones even. The often subtle differences between them, and how they fit together, become the way you navigate, the story you tell yourself about how the whole system works.
It’s like that moment, if you’ve ever learned to play the guitar, when you realized you could pick up a six string and your fingers just knew what to do. It feels good.