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It was a beautiful day as I waited for Jim at the Portland International Airport. So beautiful that I waited outside under the covered approach lanes, instead of inside PDX.

In July I got to meet a friend in person that I have known for years online. Just over two years ago, I spotted a profile photo that I loved, on a dating website. It was of a man with red hair and beard, holding the outstretched paw of a statue of a red dancing bear. The man appeared to be dancing with the bear. Jim, who lives in Minnesota, agreed that we are not a good match for dating, but I couldn’t resist writing to him to tell him how much I loved that photo.

We’ve been writing to each other ever since. We’ve shared our dating woes and successes, our complaints about work, photos from our travels, stupid jokes we found online. We do not see eye to eye on everything, but we do recognize in each other that there is a person somewhere in the world with the same drive to be good to others, to have adventures, to poke irreverent fun at sacred things, and challenge the status quo.

Jim was about to take an Alaskan cruise with his family and they would be leaving from Seattle, two hours north of me. So he flew in to Portland early, and I hosted him until it was time to drive him to Seattle. On one day we explored Portland and on the other we went on a road trip.

One of the stunning views of the Pacific Ocean from Highway 101.

We stopped at Tillamook Country Smoker to buy jerky snacks and pepperoni sticks. Then we stopped at the Tillamook Creamery for ice cream.

For the road trip we went directly to the coast, because – duh, he’s from Minnesota. We left my house for Astoria, then turned south along the coast highway. We stopped for overlooks and we stopped for a train! An honest to goodness steam train parked in Rockaway Beach, Oregon. We snapped photos and asked questions and found out it’s the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad, a tourist train that runs a 5-mile route between there and Garibaldi, the next town south.

A restored steam train in Rockaway Beach, Oregon.

The conductor takes a break.

The grate is real wood.

The other side. (You know you wanted to see the other side.)

Our goal that day was tidepooling, and I got so many photos that I’ll include them in a separate post, but at at the tidepooling location was the eye-catching Yaquina Head lighthouse that we explored when we were done pestering sea creatures in the tide pools. The lighthouse has a white 1000 watt bulb in its first order Fresnel lens, and the light pattern is 2 seconds on, 2 seconds off, 2 seconds on, 14 seconds off.

I thought I was being very clever: catching the sunlight through the Fresnel lens.

The evening weather was clearly more lovely than it was in the morning, making the tower glow.

View of Yaquina Head Lighthouse as we walked from the parking lot.

Look how happy I get when I see a lighthouse!

Upon leaving Yaquina Head we drove due East, inland, until we reached Interstate 5 and turned north, which took us home for the night.

Our day in Portland was mostly occupied with a tour of the Pittock Mansion. I’ve talked about it before. This is a beautiful old mansion on a hill overlooking the city of Portland that has been turned into a museum. I love this place so much that I go there about once a year.

The outside of the Pittock Mansion.

View from the second floor balcony.

Furnishings in the curved hallway.

Henry Pittock was born in 1834 in England but raised in the United States. He and his wife Georgiana came to Portland at a time when many news publications had been started and it was a competitive business. He worked as a typesetter for The Oregonian but the business was not thriving, and he eventually was offered ownership of the paper in lieu of back pay. Pittock kept the paper alive, and then some. Today, The Oregonian is the largest newspaper in Oregon and the oldest newspaper on the West Coast.

The success of the paper allowed Henry and Georgiana to build a remarkable home when they had reached their later years. The couple was able to occupy the residence in 1914, and sadly died four years later. Family lived there until 1958, when it was put up for sale. It sat empty, got damaged in a storm, and then slowly fell into disrepair until the community rallied and brought it back to life in 1965 as part of the Portland Parks and Recreation system.

Great efforts have been made to fill the house with original furnishings when possible, such as this photo of a Mansion party.

When people in the community discover they are in possession of a piece of Pittock furniture, they will sometimes donate it to the museum.

I really love this kitchen made to look as though it’s in use. I would recommend a remodel to open it up though. Talk about a galley kitchen.

I get a kick out of the bathrooms here. They are truly wonderful.

What the heck do you suppose this was for? Sitting in, I guess. My feet would get cold. I think in this curved tower room I would prefer a tub.

The medicine cabinet is stocked with period items.

Look at the crazy old pipes for this tub and shower.

Array of pipes in the shower.

A direct line to every room.

This is the dumbwaiter, and buttons for each of the four levels of the home.

After we were done wandering all over the house into every room we were allowed to enter, and that includes the basement, we then walked around the grounds. The old coach house is now the admission and gift shop, and the groundskeepers home has been restored and is open for touring as well. From this magnificent estate on a hill, we gazed out across the city of Portland at the peak of Mt. Hood rising as she does.

View of the valley from the Pittock Mansion.

I then turned the tables on Jim and enlisted his help with my own project. I needed to rent a car because my Jeep was scheduled for some repairs. I don’t often have a second driver in my home, but Jim’s visit was perfect timing. Before we went to the rental office, however, we had time for one more important stop: VooDoo Doughnuts.

The logo for VooDoo Doughnuts, a Portland original that has now spread across the country. A friend of mine posted this summer from VooDoo Doughnuts at Disneyworld in Florida!

The inside of the shop is so wild that you can stay entertained while you wait in line. There is always a line.

We then picked up a rental car, and each drove one of the vehicles to the repair shop. I dropped off the Jeep and Jim drove us both up to Seattle as it got dark. We found his hotel and said goodbye after two super fun days together.

Who am I to turn down a willing Valentine on Valentine’s Day?

I like what I did with yesterday’s theme: boiled it down to two highlights. Today I’ll do the same. While the day was long and filled with adventure, the two things we will remember the most are running after a train (and the 30 minute stop at a tiny town) and camel affection at the zoo.

The Circle Train in Yangon gets its name because the tracks circle the city, with a few little branches of tracks leading off from the circle. You can get on and off at any point, but if you choose to remain for the entire loop, it’s a three-hour journey. The draw of the train is that it is old (character!) and that you get a good look at the area. It costs a whopping 15 cents. We knew our hostel friends, S and A (the two guys who recommended Chinatown yesterday) were planning to ride the train today so we asked them at breakfast, and they graciously welcomed us along.

We found the train station without too much trouble, and settled down to wait for the right train. Rickety old trains passed through every few minutes. One of the local people waiting asked if we were taking the circle train and we said yes. As one train approached, the same person stood up to board the train and told us, while pointing, “circle train!” indicating that we should board it as well.

“This is it?” we asked, not sure if we had waited long enough for the right one. “Oh yes,” we were assured. We asked a couple of others, and got enthusiastic nods and smiles.

Ok, here’s one thing I’ve learned in Myanmar so far: the people nod and smile and say yes even when they have no idea what you’re talking about. So, the train slows down and the four of us get up, a little hesitantly. We asked a few more people “Circle train?” “Yes, yes,” we were assured. Someone spotted some Western-looking tourists getting off the train, and asked them. English was not their first language, but it seemed like they understood the question because they also smiled and nodded and said “yes!” So we came to the consensus that it was the correct train as the train was pulling away from the stop.

Obviously the next thing to do was start running!

Margaret and I had the best shoes. Holding our backpack and camera and water bottles to keep them from bouncing away, we ran and leapt onto the high steps. Friendly hands already on board reached down and pulled us up and into the train. I was SO grateful! With joy at having made it, we glanced down the car to find our companions. S had made it, but outside the train, we saw A still running, in his flip-flops, beside the train. He had tossed his water bottle on board, and ran to catch up with the doorway. He, too, had to leap toward the arms outstretched, and was pulled on board as the train continued gathering speed.

“In retrospect,” says A later, “That was probably not a smart thing to do. But I never ran to catch a moving train before!” He grinned and we all grinned, agreeing that it was a first for all of us, and that it was the best adventure of the day already, and only 9 am.

Every train stop was lined on both sides with vendors like these.

Commerce at another train stop.

This young man (his mother sits there at the side) begged his mother for money to buy me a treat.

This effervescent hoodlum jumped off the train each time it slowed for a stop. The train would pass him, and then when it began to move again, he would jump back on, then come back to our car.

A scene from the train

While on the train, I was having a great time. Like yesterday, we were treated like celebrities, with many people smiling and saying “Hello! Hi!” and waving at us. Aside from that, the scenery was a constant delight. The places we saw were often dirty, smelly, structurally unstable, and I loved it all. Trash everywhere, napping dogs, flies buzzing, multicolored fabrics on men and women. Vendors on the train walked through selling avocados, strawberries, fried potatoes, bottled water, eggs, sliced mango with a kind of chili powder. Smiles and smiles. I can’t help myself. I don’t know where I got this vibe on this particular trip, but I am happy and relaxed and everything I see makes my smile wider.

One boy took a shine to me beginning before boarding the train. He continued to stare once on the train. We shared a few moments during the trip, while watching things happen on and off the train, though we couldn’t communicate much without a language between us. He ran over to his mother at one point and begged some money off her. He then went to a woman creating meals from the goods piled on a great tray, balanced on her head, that she had carried into our car. She prepared a dish for him and he brought it directly to me. I have been reluctant to eat the food on the street here, sticking mainly with fresh fruits and vegetables. I am not judging the food, I am only worried that if I eat too locally, I’ll get sick. I was torn. The boy held the dish up to me and I wouldn’t take it. I could see the disappointment in his eyes and I felt so bad. I really wanted to taste it. Heck, I wanted to eat it all up. But I’ve been sick in another country and I wasn’t willing to take the risk. So, I took one bite. It was *delicious!* Sort of a savory salad type dish with crunchy garbanzos on it. I handed it back to the boy and he sadly began to eat it himself.

The next adventure was an hour later, when we realized the train had not curved around the circle, but continued due north. Not knowing what to do, we jumped off the train at a stop that turned out to be someplace called Industrial Zone, almost to Shwepyitha. It’s a tiny little community with dirt streets and simple homes and businesses. After talking with the person at the train station, S informed us that the train we left would go all the way to the end of the track, then come directly back, and it would be the next train to come through. We would just pick it up again and head back to Yangon!

None of us wanted to go the full 3 hours on the train in any case, so this actually worked out perfectly. We had a 30 minute break from the train, so we wandered the industrial zone town. The towns people treated us very well. When I went to purchase a cucumber from a woman at one shop, she wouldn’t let me pay. At one spot we watched boys playing some kind of sport with a hard ball bounced off their bare feet and heads, played roughly like volleyball. Our walk was shady and pleasant, and we had a chance to chat about each others’ lives.

Train station where we disembarked

S, A, and Margaret walking from the train station into town.

Dirt streets of the town.

Friendly smiles when they see we are foreigners.

A young man returns the ball with a head shot.

We got back on the train without having to chase it this time, and rode the hour back to Yangon. From there, we parted ways with A and S, who had been a whole lot of fun and the perfect partners for chasing a train.

The main Yangon train station was close to the Shangri-La hotel, so we went back there and sat in the air conditioning and had lunch and some refreshing Myanmar beer. Then we walked to the zoo. Conscious that we may get pagoda’d out by the end of this trip, we have already been scanning the maps for things other than pagodas to see.

The beak on this bird was tremendous.

We decided this one looked prehistoric.

Margaret and the deer check each other out.

The zoo, like the rest of the town, was rather run down and had piles of trash in all the unused areas. But it was a pretty good zoo for all that, if you can overlook the fact that it’s a zoo, and the animals mostly lived on dirt and concrete. We were lucky and it was feeding time for many of the animals. I saw more animal activity than I’m used to seeing at zoos. They had a nice variety of big and small critters, and I appreciated that most of them were from the region.

Beautiful hippos, up close and personal.

White Tiger eating chicken for lunch.

Visitors fed the elephants.

I just loved this camel.

The sun began to drop in the sky and it was time to head back to the hostel. We were totally exhausted and conversation was quiet as we made our way home. We made bus plans for the following day’s pagoda trip, and dropped to sleep.

My apologies. The writerly in me has gone to sleep. The engine sputtered and coughed and sighed then went quiet in the middle of July and I was only halfway done with telling you all about my Oklahoma trip!! I don’t know what’s going on. I’ll just wait it out because there is no doubt the engine will chug back to life. In the meantime: How lucky are we?! I wrote a post in the Spring that I never published. You can have it now.

On a May visit to Seattle, my brother and his girlfriend took me to see the Ballard Locks for the first time. The official name is the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, but so far I have not heard anyone call it that. Rather, the locals have named the locks for the Seattle neighborhood where they are found, and it’s the title of my post.

Completed in 1917, the locks link the Puget Sound with Lake Union and Lake Washington. Parking is a bear, but we finally found a spot, and made our way to the locks. Unexpectedly, visitors pass through the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden. I would have been happy to spend more time exploring, but that particular day was too cold and rainy to encourage garden exploration.

Gardens tend to be lovely in the rain as well as in the sunshine.

Past the gardens, and an information center that includes a souvenir shop, we reached the water. There are two parallel channels for boats to travel through. The first one we came to was rather large, capable of containing a large ship, or many small boats. It was not in use, so we crossed the catwalk to the second and much narrower channel. I was distracted on the way by the lovely old concrete architecture.

An office building for staff, I assume. I instantly had visions of Monty Python. Sorry. Can’t help myself.

It was a delight to discover that watching boats go through locks is interesting to a bunch of other people. Many tourists and locals stood out there in the rain, watching the process. There were also cyclists waiting for the gates to open up, since apparently it’s part of a bicycle route to cross the locks.

Looking West toward the Sound, a small boat moves ahead into the lock. You can see several others waiting their turn.

People watch with surprising enthusiasm as the boat enters the lock. A second boat is allowed to join the first.

The first boat heads all the way in, and ties off. Note how deeply they sit.

The gates close.

Two boats in together, as the water level rises.

…and before you can say Bob’s your uncle, the boats are eye level and ready to move into the lake.

We watched the process of moving boats through twice. The locks can elevate a vessel 26 feet from the level of Puget Sound at a very low tide to the level of freshwater Salmon Bay, in 10–15 minutes. It’s fast enough to be entertaining, and crowds grew more dense the longer we stood there. Finally we had seen enough and we walked across the spillway dam to the other side of the water. There is a fish ladder there I would have like to see, but it was temporarily closed. The trip was not in vain, though, because I was captivated by some artwork on the other side.

These spirals, clearly reminiscent of waves, were lit with tiny blue lights. I’ll bet it’s wonderful at night.

On the way back to the locks, we saw a train crossing the bridge. From the look of the cars, this one could be carrying oil.

When we reached the locks again, so many boats had stacked up, waiting to go through, that the large lock had been opened, and they brought in everyone who was waiting. That time, there were about 8 boats in the lock. It took longer to fill, and we tired of waiting and left.

US Army Corps of Engineers manages the locks.

In Ballard we also spent time at the Farmer’s Market and visited an apothecary. I recommend the Ballard neighborhood to any Seattle visitors. And do walk out to see the locks. It’s free, and surprisingly interesting.

You do this too, I’m sure: plan what you’ll do with your lottery winnings. My fantasy includes the traditional dream of taking care of my family, paying off everybody’s debts, setting aside college money for the kids, getting a new car, etc. And then we get to the good stuff, the plans that say a little more about who I am. Anyone who has played the game of Lottery Fantasy with me has heard me describe the old train depot in New Meadows, Idaho.

I moved to New Meadows in 1980, when I was 10 years old. The little town in a high mountain valley was the biggest population center I had ever lived in. My parents preferred to live away from people, so the sign reading “Population: 576” was thrilling to me.

Most of you won’t remember what it felt like to see the lights of a city at night for the first time. For most of you, that memory is too far back to recall it, but I was a 5th-grader that first time. I do recall. I stood in the center of the highway (because there was no traffic) and felt my heart stop at the magic of lights at night.

Our only lit street was where Highway 95 passed through the business center. At the time it hosted Shaver’s Grocery Store, the Post Office, two gas stations plus Freeman’s which was more bait&tackle shop than gas station, three bars, a drugstore/doctor’s office, LeFay’s barbershop and ice cream, Myrt’s Cafe, a second hand store, and a bank. It seemed humongous.

Beyond the “city center” was a park. And beyond the park was the depot.

It’s the grandest building in the entire valley, and when I lived there, it was mostly abandoned. For a time there was a library on one side of the main floor, and I had the opportunity to walk through the front door and beneath the high ceilings. My best friend and I were such frequent visitors that once the librarian held a brand new children’s book for us, so that we could be the first to write our names on the check out list inside the cover.

One of the boys I met that first year wanted to show off and told me he could get inside. Soon enough, yep, we had squished through a broken window and got inside the dusty and dark space filled with forgotten rubbish and spiders. I was scared of getting in trouble and climbed right back out. Now though, looking back, I wish I had explored the whole building, so that I could compare the before and after.

Over the years the building fell into greater disrepair and the library was closed and the front door barred for good. The broken window was sealed so that children couldn’t climb inside.

The grand and beautiful brick train depot is the main character in the story of when the city of Meadows was too far away from the train tracks, so the city of New Meadows then sprung up beside the depot. When I moved there the trains were no longer running, but the tracks were still there. I’d pack a lunch and grab a couple of friends and walk the tracks for hours in the baking sun. We’d fish off the trestle bridges, swim in muddy cow creeks, and gather mussels and eat them, after they had been cooked in an old Folgers can filled with river water over a fire.

Eventually the tracks were pulled up. Somehow it wasn’t as romantic to walk along the cleared lines. And I was getting older and less romantic anyway.

So my dream all this time has been to restore that place. One of my high school teachers forwarded this video to me. He and his wife have remained in touch after I graduated and left town. I am truly delighted to see what’s been done with the old beauty of a train depot, and I have fingers crossed that the Idaho Heritage Trust can gain enough financial support to address all their needs. I am delighted to see other familiar faces in the video, and shots of that little town of New Meadows in the Heartland of Idaho, that I remember so fondly.

Though I can help now with a smaller donation, the fantasy of what I’ll do with my lottery winnings remains. I’ll pitch in to help polish that tiny town when I’m disgustingly rich. In the video, a couple other historic buildings are mentioned. I remember them, and they need care too. It will be magnificent one day.

Oh! I almost forgot. This is from my teacher:

IF YOU FEEL YOU COULD HELP US IN ANY WAY GET ON BOARD. Our address is P.O. Box 352, New Meadows, ID 83654  Our web site is    Thanks, Morris

A lush valley of rice fields surrounded by browning bamboo forests

In 17 weeks I have not hit every tourist attraction, but one thing I have seen more than the average visitor sees, is scene after scene after scene of Japanese countryside, cities and towns. This post is dedicated to the indisputable beauty of the country of Japan. I am going to take this opportunity to display only train-related images. I took all these shots. Please click any photo for a larger version.

Glimpse of the sea as the Shinkansen passes north between the islands of Kyushu and Honshu

Murals at the Shin-Iwakuni station

Rice fields and green hills

Rocky cliffs exposed

Since June I have been riding trains in this country. The small ones I call the “clickety clack” trains. And then there are express trains. There are subways. There is the deservedly world-famous Shinkansen! I’ve been on all of them. Sometimes I’m crammed in and forced to stand; sometimes I’m practically alone; sometimes I find myself on the wrong one! Often I am the only non-Japanese person around.

From the new shin side of Tokyo Station, viewing the old Marunouchi side. The red building you see is Tokyo Station as it was constructed in 1914.


Every train is a potential adventure, and many trips turn out to be an actual adventure. All trains provide a seat and a window. I provide the camera.

Because they are my medium of travel, my portal to another world, the trains themselves fascinate me. The tracks that carry them. The stations where they stop.

I hope the trains and tracks and stations are not boring to you. They hold such electricity for me when I look at them; I simply can’t help myself but take more photos. My external hard drive here in my room is bursting at the seams with train photos.

Station stop for the Iwakuni Shinkansen station.

I know the routes so well that once I realized I was on the wrong train because I heard the announcement in Japanese for the next stop of Tokuyama, and realized I was heading south instead of north. I know the sights so well that I noticed a photo incorrectly placed in my digital folder for Misawa. It was a photo of Hakata station, which is not on the way to Misawa.

I know there are more pines in the north of Honshu, not only because I have seen them, but I can smell them up there. There are more tunnels for the tracks in the south. From the train in southern Kyushu, I can spot fields growing grains other than rice. There are more snow-capped peaks in the north.

With a quick glance, I can see easily that this is Hakata Station

So that’s it for today. Just photos. I’ve been spending the weekend catching up on very late blog posts, and publishing them with the correct dates, so if you’re interested, you can scroll back the last few months and find some new gems tucked in there.

I love this photo. Little sweetheart tired girl, waiting with the bags while her mom is taking care of something. It’s rare to see a child alone, but this is an example of how SAFE Japan is, even if a child must be alone for a few minutes.

An example of a clickety-clack train from up in Aomori Prefecture. When I ride this one, it’s typically two cars long, has no announcements, and no signs in English.

Express train for Huis Ten Bosh theme park on Kyushu. These trains are smooth and pretty fast, like a step between clickety-clack and shinkansen.

Nose of the shinkansen glides in slick like the head of a snake. These trains are thrilling to watch as well as ride. Cameras always come out when one shows up. The ride is smooth as silk, quiet, luxurious, and perfectly precisely on time. Like…to the second…

…except on September 17, 2012. These are the signs at Hakata station during Typhoon Sanba. The only time I have ever seen the shinkansen late. It apparently takes a typhoon to put a glitch in the schedule.

Tokyo station at night. Yes, most Japanese men do typically wear white shirts and black pants.


Seats inside the express train to Sasebo. Roomy, but not as nice as the shin.

Spring fields and a tractor preparing the soil for the year’s crops. In most of Japan, the season only allows one harvest of rice.

You can barely see the rice plants, set by hand, and now flooded to begin the growing season. Notice the houses set a few feet up on retaining walls, to keep the foundations dry.

A little later in the season, this is in northern Honshu, as you can see snow on the mountains. Rice is coming up in rows.

One field harvested; the others still maturing.

Wheat fields on Kyushu

Industrial center at Tokuyama seaport.

People waiting for the train at Yokogawa Station, south of Hiroshima

Beautiful Gothic style cathedral

yellow door

Ships and islands visible in the Seto Inland Sea

Going through Sendai made me just a little nervous so soon after the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Gazing out across the tracks.

Very typical view of densely populated valleys swelling into the foothills when the space becomes needed.

Maybe it looks boring to you, but I love this view from Hiroshima station! There is a cacophony here, even when I stand still and silent. Look at the men waiting at this small local station – it’s a peaceful scene in reality. But to me: this sight is ferociously loud.

Gorgeous Hozu Gorge through which the Sagano Romantic Train passes. You can see the river rafters bottom left.

The next morning I went for a run before breakfast, and then joined the group on the bus. Our first stop was at the Kameoka Tram Station, set in a picturesque canyon. I watched with envy while a few groups put in some rubber rafts for a river trip. Nice choice on a hot summer day. It wasn’t until we all climbed aboard the train that I realized what a tourist attraction we were about to experience.

Tourists take turns standing by the engine of the train for photos.

Soon the “Romantic Train” was clacking along, detonating the horn, and to my delight: heading directly into the stunning river canyon I had been eyeing from a distance. (Yes, I admit, much of the time here I do not know what’s going on until it’s underway. I just cheerily hand over my yen and see what happens.) It is a beautiful old-style train, with wooden seats inside and open-air viewing. It was only a 25 minute ride along the Hozu River, but we were treated to non-stop scenic beauty. This was probably the most beautiful part of Japan I will see all summer.

With an entertainer on the train.

I took some fabulous photos (and a video) of the river tumbling through the jungly canyon, while the conductor told us stories and sang songs in Japanese. We saw picturesque bridges spanning the canyon, and fishermen down below. I asked to have my photo taken with an entertainer as he moved through our train car. We made a brief stop at Hozukyo Tram Station, where people can explore a nature trail or have a picnic in the gorge.

At Hozukyo Station. Nothing says Japan like a row of overweight raccoons in sombreros. Yes, I am assured that they are raccoons drinking sake.

Soon we were in the tourist village of Arashiyama. I immediately set off in the opposite direction of everyone else, as I am wont to do, and followed streets through the sweltering thick air, till I unexpectedly came upon some unusual architecture. At the far, far end of whatever road I was on, there were a few houses, a restaurant, and a small shrine with thatched roofs. It is a distinct and fascinating construction style. Some of the roofs were old enough to have grown moss, and some looked brand new. The newest one was most curious to me, because it means the skill to make those roofs has been maintained.

On my way back, I admired some tiny white sculpted figures in a glass case along a narrow street. As I stood beside the case, I noticed a steep, narrow stone stairway that zig-zagged up the steep slope and curled around out of sight. I followed it up. At the top of the stairs was a beautiful little garden tucked into the side of the hill, with an equally beautiful little shop opening onto the garden. I was too broke to consider shopping because this morning I thought I had a 10,000 yen note, but it turned out to be a 1,000 yen note (all those zeros). I still wanted to look, so I stepped in, and was greeted with questions, and I explained “America-jin des”(I’m American). The two women’s eyes grew wide and they began chattering excitedly and called for another person, and when he arrived, he spoke English with me.

Shop filled with cocoon sculptures, and a rare English-speaking shop keeper.

All three of them pointed out things in the shop to me, explained that the little white things were cocoons from a caterpillar from somewhere in Japan. The sculptures were made from taking slices of the pure white cocoons and gluing them into animal shapes. They showed me photos of the artist himself. They brought me green tea, and “sweets,” and basically fawned over me every second. The man brought a pad of paper and was translating things into roman characters, so I could pronounce them with him. I didn’t really want to buy any of the little white cocoon things, but they were making such a special time for me, I was compelled to. So I explained that I collect dragons, and they helped me choose one. My dragon is mounted on a board that has calligraphy stating a wish for good luck in the future. My hosts proudly told me that the man who creates the sculptures also does the calligraphy.

Captivating bamboo forest

Before I left the shop, my hosts had insisted that I must visit the Zen Buddhist Tenryu-ji (sky dragon temple). It was fully my intent to concede. However, on the walk back down the hill, I attempted to visit three different temples, and all charged a fee. A small fee, yes, but I had just spent my lunch money on a dragon cocoon. I intended to find Tenryu-ji, but I was losing hope for being able to enter.

Returning to the river and the train and the tourists, I stumbled upon a remarkable bamboo forest. These trees were far more mature than in the forest I walked through in Hawaii last August, likely because this area has been volcano-free for a longer period of time. I found no sign of undergrowth or midstory growth or any other kind of plant besides the bamboo trees. The forest scene is compelling. In the midst of the forest, I met Greg, another solo traveler who was even happier than me to find an English-speaker. I gratefully

detail on a porchlight at a home in Arashiyama

accepted his company. It does get tiring on the brain to not understand the language spoken around me for an extended time.

Unlike me, Greg was not on a tour, but really by himself, catching some of the sights while visiting his daughter in college in Tokyo. Greg even paid for my tour through Tenryu-ji so we could extend our English-speaking time. Bonus! He had just returned from a couple of days as a guest at a monastery, and was much more comfortable with the ritual of exchanging shoes for complimentary slippers when we entered the temple to explore inside.

At the pond in front of Tenryu-ji

With mere minutes to spare, we excited the temple and hurried to the Totgetsu-kyo Bridge to meet the rest of the group and get on the bus. I get very caught up in exploring and tend to lose track of time.

Back at the hotel, I dropped my gear and went downstairs to catch the hotel shuttle downtown again. On the shuttle, I discovered that three women from the Iwakuni group were heading to get geisha photos done. They invited me to join them, so I decided to do it, and thus check off one more item from my Japan To-Do List.  Once we found the photo place, we asked if, rather than doing photos for 3 women, they could include a fourth. They made room for me, and I had such a fun time.

One of the very few photos in which the photographer let me get away with no teeth. I tried to argue, “But geishas don’t have big smiles.” The man would have nothing of it. He would not let up till I flashed a giant grin. Ah well.

The women and men who keep the place running are friendly, professional, and quick! They had us up and choosing kimonos right away. Then we stripped down to our undies, and put on thin flimsy gowns, folding the left flap over the right, and tying with a single strand. They gave us these funky white polyester socks to wear, with a sleeve for the big toe like mittens, and silver tabs that fit into slots to fasten them.  We sat in front of mirrors and in twenty minutes had the full white geisha faces and necks, black liner around the eyes, and deep red lipstick. Then back to the fitting room and 15 minutes later we were all buried in layers of heavy brocaded fabric, cinched tight till we could barely breathe.

Look at those sandals!!

Amidst multiple cautionary admonishments not to touch anything, not anything, they dropped pre-sculpted wigs onto our heads. “Do not touch face. Do not touch wig. No, no. Lips –here the woman speaking to me pointed to her mouth and pressed her lips together– no, no, no!” Then we were off to the photography rooms with charismatic photographers who said, “Beautiful photo! Very nice! Smile big. Bigger. Show teeth.” Snap! Snap! And that too, was quick. All four of us were finished in another 45 minutes.

The photographers went off to process our photos, and we ladies were led to a room full of sinks where we got some quick instructions for how to clean our faces, and instructions for where to discard our headbands, washcloths, robes, and socks. By the time we returned to the front lobby, two and a half hours had passed from the time of our arrival, and our CDs with all our photos were waiting for us. It was a little expensive, $120 approximately, but totally worth it! The photos are awesome and it was a completely professional and enjoyable experience from beginning to end.

a quartet of colorful geishas

Waiting for my train to Hachinohe at track 21 in Tokyo station.

I hadn’t even time to settle into Iwakuni when it was time to hit the road again. Or, should I say, hit the rails, because I traveled by train. The Shinkansen is called the bullet train for good reason. It’s FAST! I envisioned spending my day leaned back in a comfortable seat, gazing out the window and watching the Japanese countryside roll by.

Instead, I had to restrict my time gazing out. Things whipped by so quickly, in and out of tunnels (bright! black! bright! black!), view blocked by buildings, then wide open for miles, then blocked by a fence, then a short view to a hill, etc., that it was easy to get a headache while my brain tried to make sense of the quickly changing scenes and my eyes tried to adjust to the constantly shifting depths of vision.

Security guard plays a little air guitar to pass the time

Though I am primarily based at the Marine base at Iwakuni, in the southern part of the mainland of Japan, I am also responsible for providing VA benefits information to the Navy base at Sasebo (south of Iwakuni) and to the Air Force base at Misawa. I am currently in Misawa, which is at the very northernmost tip of the mainland. It took me two taxis and four trains to get here!

Students waving to me when they spotted my camera

Inside the Iwakuni train station

Need a travel brochure?

It was a long day of traveling, and I was wise to put my supplies for a whole week into a small carry-on suitcase. No one told me to do this, but my instincts were good. Though I must wear the same pair of pumps with every outfit at work this week, and the same pair of jeans for all my leisure time, it was worth it to be able to easily drag that small piece of luggage all over the country instead of trying to manhandle a regular-sized suitcase on and off trains and up and down stairs all day.

Rice fields in all the flat areas, and houses tucked against the bases of thousands of lush, green hills

Looking directly at the sun from my room on base is not a problem in the haze.

Though I stepped into the first taxi at 6am, it was already fully bright out. It starts getting light in Japan at about 4:30am. I say “bright” not “sunny” on purpose. It hasn’t been truly sunny since I arrived, because it’s so humid here. Like east coast summers, the sky is white, and even if there were clouds, I would not be able to discern them because it’s so thick with airborne moisture.

I have learned a little trick about giving gifts to Japanese people: keep things on me at all times and look for opportunities to hand them out. My taxi driver wouldn’t accept a tip (I was warned ahead of time not to insult anyone by offering a tip), so instead I brought an extra pastry and gave him one. He brightened up so much, with a huge smile, I have to believe I maneuvered through that particular custom appropriately. On my second train of the day, I sat next to a woman who set to work applying makeup as soon as she sat down. She had bags and bangles, rhinestones on her cell phone, and the most incredible sculptured roses on her fingernails. So, I pulled out a fashion magazine (I never read those myself, but I bought a bunch to bring here.) and flipped through it for awhile, then gave it to her. It was funny watching her puzzle out the front of the magazine, which in western publications is with the binding to the left, and open pages from the right. Not like Japanese magazines, which have the binding on the right, and you open pages from the left (in our minds that would be starting at the back).

A typical valley scene from the windows of the train

From end to end, Japan is mountainous and green, with rivers galore. Beautiful, beautiful country in every direction. The cities are more congested than I prefer, with things smashed together and stacked up high, and signs and fences, railings and wires criss-crossing all through and over and in front of the buildings. A cacophony of objects in a city becomes too much white noise for me and it’s tiring to look at.

So, I mostly took photos of the countryside. That is, when we weren’t going through a bunch of tunnels. John Henry would have met his end if he was building a railroad in Japan, I think, even if he wasn’t trying to race a machine.

View from the Tokyo train station

I also took photos at train stations because they fascinate me. Partially, because Tara and I just went to see Ocean Waves at a Studio Ghibli festival in Portland, and the train features in the movie. And also because I had a little anxiety at each train station, worrying about getting onto the proper train (I made no mistakes due to the reliable kindness of strangers). Train stations here are filled with things that are new and mysterious. There are little glassed-in cubes where people are allowed to smoke. In an open-air train station! Ha! There are vending machines with coffee in cans and milk tea and peach juice and lime water. There are sushi and noodle shacks on the platforms. Some people are dressed in $2000 suits and some are in flip-flops and capris and floppy hats.

Smoking hut, filled to capacity

My last train of the day was not the Shinkansen, and the ticket was an easy 550 JPY (about $7). It was a cute little two-car train, that goes clackity-clack, clackity-clack, and stops at every single station, like the train in Spirited Away. I had to watch out the windows carefully for station signs, to know when to get off, since everything on board was in Japanese. Then, I stood at the door like an idiot, waiting for it to open for me, before learning that I must touch a button to make the doors open. Ha!

Up north, I was able to see snow on the distant peaks

My sponsors from the base picked me up, helped me get checked into billeting, and then invited me out with a group of women to a ramen noodle house for dinner. By this time, mind you, I was hungry enough to eat my napkin while waiting. All those train stations had food but I was too concerned with making my connection to get in line and buy any. My huge bowl of ramen was incredibly delicious and I knew my Tara girl would be jealous! I took home the leftovers.


Elisia and me at the airport before her return home to Massachusetts.

My dear friend Elisia, who lives in Leominster (40 miles from Boston), was able to come to Portland for the weekend, to meet with a group of women all working with a local life coach. Elisia flexed her plans to include a short stay with Tara and me.

Tara followed us all around Mt. Tabor one afternoon, taking many butt shots.

It was delicious to see her again, after years apart. Lissy and I met in 2004 because we saw each other every day on the train. We both got on at the same time in the mornings at the end of the Fitchburg Line of the Massacusetts Bay Transit Authority commuter train, and shared an hour and 10 minute ride. We also left the train at the same Brandeis/Roberts stop in Waltham. Me, up the hill to school. She across the road to work. We returned to the train at the same time every evening to share the ride home.

Getting dolled up in the living room cuz the bathroom was full.

There’s something about seeing people every single day, day in and day out, that makes them less strangers. In fact, I was so intrigued by the idea that I based my entire Master’s Thesis on data collected about relationships on commuter rail trains.

Lissy is quoted in the thesis. Our relationship went from strangers, to acquaintances, to friends, as we began speaking to each other more and more often in the safety borne of familiarity. The relationship moved off the train and began a life of its own. I got to meet her enthusiastic and funny husband, and later, their first child. And later…their second! I cried my heart out to her during a breakup. On a trip back East after I had moved to Oregon, I was in the area when I realized it was almost time for the train. I asked my friend to drive me to the Brandeis/Roberts train station, and went running down the tracks to meet Elisia as she walked to the platform to wait for the train.

What a view! (No, I’m not referring to the butts.)

I can’t explain the magic of friends. I don’t open up to girlfriends easily. I am an extremely friendly person so you’d never guess this about me, but I remain very tightly guarded against sharing my deepest feelings with others. But Lissy got through, and for that I am so grateful to her. There is an insecure 7th grader inside of me that is delighted and relieved when I spend time with a girlfriend who loves me as much as I love her back.

How adorable is this?


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