November 9, 2016
What a day! I am speechless and sad about the result of the US election, and it might not be the ideal day to publish my blog post about travelling. But on the other hand, life has to go on and I decided not at all to be impressed by racist, demeaning or bullying behaviour. The contrary, I think we do need to focus even more on respect and care for each other, diversity, freedom, generosity and creativity. Instead of being a paralysed observer I wish to stand strong and to double my efforts to teach my children how to live a fearless life in love and respect. I believe that fear is our worst enemy. People who dare, don’t vote for people like Trump.
I’ll tell you what freedom is to me.
So here is my blog post:
Every time we move to a new country we do the same: in the beginning we explore a lot, we do sightseeing, explore the different neighbourhoods, find restaurants we like and places for the children to play. After a few months, we stop exploring and sightseeing, we return to the same restaurants and the same parks. Our list of places to visit slowly grows over time, but we postpone the trips as the opportunities for visiting seem to be plenty in the future. And then comes the day we have to move and we realise how much of the country we did not see.
Even though we have been trying very hard not to fall into the same pattern in Japan, the list of places I wanted to see and did not go to remains quite long.
We will soon have to move on, even though we do not know exactly where and when. So in the coming months every opportunity to travel will be used to tick off places on the list.
Two weeks ago we went to Beijing, China. It was a really nice experience, much nicer than I expected it to be. Maybe it is helpful to travel somewhere with very low expectations and then be surprised about how wonderful it is. I had heard so many stories about the pollution, the rudeness of people, the dirty toilets, the bad quality of fruits and vegetables (or rather their overload on pesticides and fertilisers), that for a very long time I was quite reluctant to travel to China. But on the other hand I was also curious to go. And being at such a short distance to China made the trip easy and affordable. We found that pollution is indeed very bad. We were lucky that it rained on our second day. It meant visiting the Forbidden City in the pouring rain and being completely drenched at the end of the day, but the rain cleared the air and we had perfect blue skies on the following two days when visiting the Great Wall and the Beijing Art district. On our last day, day 3 after the rain, the sky was grey again and visibility was extremely low.
Rudeness is of course relative and as in Japan people are hardly ever rude in any way, we are very spoilt. With regards to the Chinese, I would like to replace rudeness by directness. Because what we experienced in the positive and negative was a very direct verbal or non-verbal communication. In the positive sense that meant that people would help us to find the right bus stop by pointing or almost pushing us to where we needed to go or that they were ready to say that they cannot help us or that something is simply not possible or available. In Japan people avoid saying “no” in your face and they are always trying to help or find someone to help which can sometimes take some time or create awkward situations, because in the end you feel like they have gone miles out of their way even though a simple “no” would have been perfectly fine and you would have moved on to the next person to ask for help. I found the Chinese way quite refreshing. Less refreshing was the directness in them staring at us. In Beijing there seem to be much less foreigners than in Tokyo. In many places we were the only ones. And among the few foreigners there were hardly any kids. So our three blond children were an attraction and we are on so many pictures now, we lost count. I also thought that most of the people who took our pictures are only-children due to the one-child policy, so seeing siblings might have been even more interesting to them. Even the children started feeling ill at ease because everybody was staring at us all the time. They also got to the point where they refused to pose for pictures with Chinese families.
Regarding the toilets, we did indeed find a few dirty toilets, but most of the time they were perfectly fine. We just had to get used to the fact that most had no toilet paper and that the toilet paper is thrown into bins and not flushed, which causes a bit more smell.
We ate excellent food most of the time, but of course we have no idea how high our intake of chemicals was during our stay.
Right after our return from Beijing and one day of work, I went on a two day hiking trip to Kamikochi with Ditte and Laura. Kamikochi is a natural park in the northern Japanese Alps. You can only access the park by bus. The bus goes through a tunnel and once you get out on the other side, you feel like being in a different world. The changing autumn leaves, the clear blue sky, the higher rocky mountains and volcanos and the lower tree-covered mountains form an incredibly beautiful scenery. On the first day we walked along the river in the valley, on the second day we woke up to fresh snow on the mountain peaks and had to learn that one of the hikes we wanted to do up on one of the volcanos had just been closed the day before as the season is coming to an end. So we went up the last open hike up to reach the hut on 2170 metres which was just about to be closed down for winter. Apart from the great company and the delicious food in our Ryokan, I really enjoyed this hike as it cleared my mind and I found answers to a lot of questions that have been bothering me for quite a while.
It’s a bit difficult to get there as it is quite a ride by train or car, but it is absolutely worth going. It is one of the most beautiful places I have been to in Japan.
After a half-day break for the parent-teacher conferences at the boys’ school, I left with them in the afternoon to go to Naoshima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea in the south of Honshu. We made the first part of the trip in the afternoon, then spent the night in a hotel in Okayama and continued the next morning to Naoshima where we spent the whole day wandering around the island and visiting the different art projects and museums. In the evening Mark and Lilo arrived, because Lilo did not want to miss her last Japan day at school so they left Tokyo on the Friday at noon.
In the mid 80’s Naoshima turned from a fishing island into an art centre for modern art. This development clearly saved the island and many young people from moving away to find jobs in the bigger cities. It attracts over 400,000 visitors per year who come to see the many art projects, exhibitions and museums. In addition you have nice beaches and a beautiful landscape with a great view on the Inland Sea which looks like a bigger, more expansive version of Halong Bay. Unfortunately many islands are much more industrialised so that the beautiful views are sometimes spoiled by cranes, big machinery, power poles, etc.
A great place to go for a long weekend, but if you would like to stay on the island, you have to book quite in advance.
We already know very well that Leonard really likes to talk – or should I better say, give speeches. We have seen people (strangers) on the beach in France trying to get away from him after a while, but he just kept on talking or walking next to them while giving them some insights on the life of crabs or similar.
On our day trip to the Great Wall, we shared our lunch table with a man from New York who was travelling with his mother. I do not think that Leonard took more than a bite of his lunch as he explained Pokemon Go to this guy and summarised some of his favourite Netflix series. He was talking non-stop.
In Naoshima we met two ladies at a coffee place and he decided to sit with them – Linus followed him after a while – and to chat with them. I was quite thankful for this time-out, but I could not really stop listening to his conversation. He is amazing, I love how he is able to share his passion for the things he is interested in. And as he is friendly, even polite, and attentive he easily finds his audience.
It reminded me of an evening with my cousin Martin in Mallorca in May 2014. We were out for dinner together and Leonard sat next to Martin. He started every sentence with “Martin, ….”. It was not possible to have any other conversation going on for longer than about 2 minutes. After about 1 1/2 hours my cousin said to me that he had never ever heard his name as often as this evening.