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A Transportation Paradise Lost

My heart sank: they weren’t there.

Still sweating profusely and gasping for breath, I peeled off my coat and sat down, watching the platform through the train window. One minute left.

Thirty seconds. Nothing.

A high pitched scale chimed over the intercom and a crisp British accent welcomed me to the super-express service to Kyoto. In absolute silence, the bullet train slid out of Tokyo station, three empty seats around me.

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Lets talk for a minute about transpiration in Japan.

At our pre-port meeting, the Japan-expert called it a transportation “paradise.” I don’t want to say they’re lying. I just think that the word “paradise” could use some defining here.

There are things that are actually and truly miraculous about the way Japan runs, things you notice even in a 5 day visit. Bullet trains are astonishing. We slipped through the countryside with less turbulence than a luxury car, going almost two hundred miles an hour. The subways are clean and on time – I heard an apology announced when a train was two minutes late. Streets are impeccable. Even though neither Tokyo nor Kyoto are the shining futuristic metropolises that I think some part of my less imaginative (or more imaginative?) brain believed, you never see trash, nor even much graffiti. Also, and I am just going to repeat this here: you can get cans of hot coffee and tea from vending machines.

A culture that deeply values hospitality also means that the people are kind and polite in a way I have never seen before, and I have been to Canada. The counter agent at the ticket office chased us two blocks because we left a shopping bag behind. A man who gave directions came, 5 minutes later, when he was free, to check that a friend had, indeed, found the post office. We only had one rude encounter and it was with a drunk Brit, which was a relief, frankly. Every country on earth has to have one drunk Brit who aggressively hates you for no reason. Just like every travel story should involve the Australian backpackers you met. (Ours were named Patrick and Sarah. Patrick does a mean karaoke version of Man in the Mirror.)

And there are other things, outside transportation, that definitely feel like paradise: you can order ramen from a vending machine (outside the restaurant, and then you take the ticket and hand it to a man and 2 minutes later a bowl of steaming heaven is in front of you. And if you do this alone after karaoke at 2am on a cold, deserted Tokyo street, you will end up standing at a tiny counter in a brightly lit space next to a rumpled
businessman just leaving the office, slurping ramen in absolute silence as you both read newspapers and you will know, right in that moment, that this will be what you remember as Japan.) There are cat cafes, and now owl cafes, and apparently rabbit cafes. There are crepes everywhere and miraculous street food. There are convenience stores that are, really and truly, convenient: you can pay your bills and taxes, mail your packages, use an ATM, photocopier or computer, get on free wifi, buy umbrellas, pick up coffee and get mysteriously delicious meals all for a few yen.

But paradise? I question paradise.

Here’s a metaphor that does more justice to my particular experience in Japan: Japan is a Michelin three star country, and I am a Beverly Hillbilly who never learned which fork to use.

I have never been so acutely aware of the myriad ways I was offending everyone around me. And I have lived in Austria. Was I talking too loud in the ramen place? (yes) Was I using chop sticks correctly? (no.) Am I meant to dip this in soy sauce? (who knows) Will this ticket work for this train, or did I need to get a different ticket for a different denomination from that orange machine right next to this green machine? (no, and yes) Everywhere I went gates slammed closed with a startling honking noise, cops frantically waved that I was not allowed, waiters looked at me in quiet despair, and I was deeply aware that I was doing it oh, so, very, very wrong.

A ten minute subway ride took us 45 minutes, including getting off and on the same train three times at a single stop. We walked around the entirety of Shibuya station, dragging bags, to discover that we were meant to make a cross-platform transfer. In the crowds that 38 million people cause, you knew that if you lost one another, it was a lost cause. By luck one of the men I travelled with was 6’5” and wore a red hat, but were it not for Greg, I’d probably still be standing, somewhere in the middle of a crowd, wondering where to go next.

————

The bullet train gathered speed, and I decided to move up to Quynh’s seat. I leaned back and looked out the window – in Kyoto I’d find internet, and email them. I’d wait by the Shinkansen gates for them to appear. I realized I didn’t know where our AirBnB was. I realized that these were reserved seats, and probably not transferable. I realized I’d paid for them. This was going to be a long night.

I heard a yelp and looked up. There they were, all three of my travel buddies, pumping their fists in triumph. One had been grabbed by another as he walked the wrong way through Tokyo station, another had had to convince an official to let him through the ticket barriers with no ticket on the basic explanation that he was helpless and hopeless and Western and needed her pity. A conductor held the door, making the train, oh, five seconds late, in order to let them on. The librarian produced convenience store hand rolls from his bag and we settled back, chomping on seaweed, as the train shot through paradise.

It’s not Japan, but it is surely Japanese.

When I was twenty three, my brother, parents and I went to Paris. At the top of Montmatre, in a fit of nostalgia for a visit my whole family had made when I was 12, Nick and I decided to get our portraits drawn.

Nick’s portrait artist was a self-aware scam artist. Not only was he going to cheat you out of money, he had no interest in wasting your time doing so. In about 10 minutes he whipped off a portrait of a 17 year old boy that almost, but not completely, looked nothing like my brother. Who was 28 at time. 

Mine took much longer. He painstaking worked for almost an hour. To this day, I really do believe he might have just done his best. In the end, while the girl portrayed looked nothing like me, he did get, with really startling accuracy, my left ear just right.

I always think about this man, taking an hour to draw a lifelike portrait and getting only an ear, compared to those caricature artists – in ten minutes flat they draw a cartoon head that is obviously, unmistakably you. It doesn’t look like you, exactly. It has none of the photorealism of my left ear. But it couldn’t be of anyone else.

Anyway, all of this is to say that if you’re ever in Japan, you guys should really go see the Robot Burlesque Cabaret.   

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Could I use a vehicle other than the robot cabaret to illustrate the themes I want? Could I, for instance, talk about the really beautiful mix of ancient and modern by telling you about the group of octogenarian ladies doing tai chi in the rain under a highway overpass? Or by talking about the shrine tucked between Louis Vitton and Chanel in the Kobe mall? I mean, sure, I could. But then I wouldn’t get to talk about Robot Cabaret. And I really want to talk about the Robot Cabaret. 

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Our first two days in Japan were among the most overwhelming of my life. Within an hour of getting off the ship, I was standing at the famous Shibuya crossing (you know the one. That one in every documentary where they want to demonstrate modernity and they show a time lapse video of a bunch of Japanese people crossing a road in six directions at once? See! I told you you knew the one) and from there we only stopped moving long enough to slurp, chomp or nap.

Tokyo is a shot of pure adrenaline, and for 36 hours I had been unable to sit still. I dragged myself home from dinner in a high-rise mall at midnight and jumped out of bed at 5am to go see a market. We got lost on subways (more on that later) ate ramen across from strip shops, saw quiet Shinto shrines and bustling Buddhist temples, mucked about in pre-dawn fish markets getting yelled at (repeatedly) by the police, stood on a glass floor 350 meters in the air, had enlightening if at times unsettling experimentations with toilets, slurped oysters for breakfast and noodles for lunch, wandered down dark alleys, bumped into temples and stuffed ourselves into miniature bars with top-hatted bar keeps. I personally found two new foods I hate (mochi and smoked eel sushi with fermented plum sauce) and many, many new foods I love. Finally, in what I still consider to be among my top 3 experiences in Japan, if not life, I discovered that you can get hot cans of coffee from vending machines.

Hot vending machines! Our nation is woefully behind. 

This is all to say that by the time the Robot Burlesque Cabaret at the Robot Restaurant happened, I had sort of run out of steam. If by “run out of steam” you mean, “become exhausted and cranky and started systematically alienating all my friends.” (Really! You should ask them! They tell delightful stories.) But all that was about to change. 

Let me tell you what happens when you get to the robot cabaret:

First, you are greeted by one of the ship’s psychologists running down the street, jump-tackling you, and yelling ROBOTS! Then you notice that somehow, largely by coincidence, about a third of your fellow staff members are here. One is buying drinks for everyone at the convenience store. Another is ambling out of the men’s room, making no note of the fact that he sent you an email at 2am that morning that said “Met a girl in Yokohama and may have a date. Don’t think it will work out. Probably meet you in Tokyo,” as if Tokyo isn’t an urban area of thirty-eight million where you don’t just run into people. But everyone comes to the Robot Cabaret.

You are led into an elevator by men in giant yellow jackets – the elevator is gilded. You will begin to notice that a lot of things are gilded. It lets you out into a room whose decor is inspired almost singularly by slot machines. You notice that the head of student life is drinking something called Ninja Beer while sitting in a giant golden clam shell. Things are no longer really surprising you.

After a few minutes you are called downstairs – the stairs are decorated with black walls and reflective butterflies, because of course they are. Downstairs you are seated and women serve you beer out of jet packs. 

Finally, the show begins.

Let me tell you what I remember of the robot cabaret:

There was a giant panda riding a cow, stampeding into a ring to break up a fight between two robot warlords. A snake hissed steam at a woman in metal hot pants while Ave Maria blasted over a techno beat. There were taiko drummers in rhinestone bikinis and rainbow wigs riding on remote-controlled platforms. An audience member was given boxing gloves and invited to knock out a robot. Two singers rode in atop 12 foot rhinestone merry-go-round horses to the sound of Japanese folk music and then proceeded to belt out Lady Gaga’s Telephone. Anime versions of Shinto goddesses performed a duet on the LCD walls while a mermaid (rhinestone tail, of course) rode a shark across the stage. The stage hands were break-dancers. More beer came out of jet packs.

Was any of this a realistic portrait of Japan? Obviously not. If we had spent an hour trying to get a real portrait of modern Japan, we might have, if we were lucky, gotten a single, well-crafted ear. Instead, at the end of the hour, they took our glow sticks away from us, shot us up four floors in a golden elevator and left us to stumble, dazed and energized, into the neon lights and karaoke bars of Shinjuku, certain that whatever the hell it was we just saw it was, unmistakably, Japanese.

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Hawaii, the home of a box store.

TARGET!

I went to Target yesterday!!

When I was 15 years old I wrote an essay called “Target: The Eighth Wonder of the Modern World.” I am not kidding. It was a warm, deeply felt elegy to mass produced but vaguely stylish home wares, friendly employees and brightly lit aisles. I was asked to read it at the final assembly and everything. It was a pretty great essay.

Also, I went to Hawai’i yesterday.

But lets talk about Target. I got a french press, which is the greatest purchase of my adult life. And that’s including the time I bought an Anthropologie dressing gown, and the Copenhagen magnet that had actual tufts of hair on the vikings, so you know I have pretty high standards. I bought three bags of coffee, and a yoga mat and the biggest jar of peanut butter you have ever seen. It took me ten minutes of stirring to mix it. I bent the knife in the process. 

And I bought a beach towel which came in handy when I swam in the ocean by a grove of coconut palms under a clear blue sky later that afternoon.

The Target was huge, and it was full of people from SAS, mostly the faculty, because we are classy enough to walk from the free Walmart shuttle, past the Walmart, Lowes and Safeway, to get to the tasteful box store. We ran around the aisles, comparing notes (“A yoga mat! I hadn’t even thought of a yoga mat!” “Yes, there is a tea aisle, but it’s not by the coffee. I know, weird!” “You can’t have too much immodium!”) We were all in a terrible rush, see, because after this we were going to be forced to do things that afternoon.

I, myself, was going to have to go stand up paddle boarding down a calm river with schools of fish jumping around me, surrounded by a lush park full of birds with a guide who told me all about King Kamehameha.* Others I know were forced to go zip lining through a tropical botanical garden. Some were made to kayak to tranquil waterfalls and ancient banyan trees at sunset.

The paddle boarding reminds me: I got sunscreen at Target, too, that seemed important. And a latte! My god that latte was good. I did also get immodium, because apparently you can’t have too much, and pepto because the physician’s assistant told me I should. This has made me mildly nervous about the food that’s coming my way, but once a girl has thrown up all over the front seat of one taxi in India, she’s pretty much got “embarrassing food illness” down as a life skill. I bought a pair of sweatpants, too, because elastic waistbands are important on a ship. 

I had to get out of Target quicker than I wanted because I also needed to get some poke – spicy, raw marinaded fish that is a specialty of Hawaii – and a beer and sit in the sun taking in the view of the bay.

Actually, I didn’t get to do that.

I spent too long at Target.

At Target, I saw that the following stereotypes about Hawaii are at least true: people actually says aloha a lot, they do really use the hang loose symbol to start and end conversations (even the immigration agents),** tons of signs are in Japanese as well as English, and everyone hates Honolulu (“There’s no aloha left in Honolulu.” – Actual sentence, proving that it’s not only in moves that aloha is used as a noun, a fact that makes me indescribably happy.) I learned a lot at that Target. 

Target is great. I can definitely see why so many people take vacations there.

Maybe, some day, if I’m really lucky, I’ll get to take my own kids to Target.*** 

*who, in addition to uniting the Hawaiian Islands, was over 7 feet tall, which is an awesome fact I never knew.

**That fact not actually learned at Target.

***I’m being facetious. I didn’t only go to Target. I also went to CVS. 

We’re going around the world on a ship. That seems worth noting.

When I finally got on a plane to Chicago, after four hours sleeping curled at the edge of a friend’s bed, having missed two flights, been rescheduled three times, taken an emergency $70 cab ride, and lost my bag (again), I was exhausted. I sat down, pulled my hood up, and checked my emails one last time before take-off.

There in my inbox was a message I’d flicked past the day before trying to get to confirmation numbers. A few last minute details, from my Dean, about embarkation. And suddenly I was wide awake:

Holy crap, guys. I’m going to sea for four months.

****

I’ve known this was happening for quite a while now. As a possibility since March, when my friend Lauren told me that Semester at Sea was looking for a TA. As a strong likelihood since June, when after taking a cruise with my family to celebrate my grandmother’s 96th birthday, I told the Dean that no, it had not in fact put me off ships entirely. And as a certainty since October, when I finally signed a contract and looked, bewildered, at the list of 13 ports.

But knowing about something and planning for it aren’t the same. Especially if you’re me. 

So I left everything last minute. I paid fees through the nose to get two visas and an extra set of passport pages in two weeks flat. I left inoculations so late that they did five at once, three down one arm, two in the other, with the result that I couldn’t move my arms above 45 degrees for days. I rented a storage unit 15 minutes before appearing with all my things, and then ended up driving the last of my possessions there at eight o’clock at night, in the dark, on my own. Which at least means that my “most likely to get myself murdered” moment of this voyage happened in Virginia. I also, in retrospect, left a startling amount of my possessions just lying around for my roommate to deal with. Sorry Tom.

And as for what I’d be doing once I got to the ship? Well I left thinking about that to that flight to Chicago, when at 7am I remembered with real, true  and startling clarity that I am terrified of the ocean.

****

So here I am, four days into the last voyage of the MV Explorer (Semester at Sea is selling the ship, and are currently in the process of leasing a new one). I feel incredibly lucky. Lucky to be seeing 13 countries, 11 of them new. Lucky to be stuck on a boat with 70 faculty and staff members who are, to a person, intimidatingly accomplished and mostly better at yoga than I am. Lucky to be surrounded by 628 students who, as of yet, have proven themselves to be nothing but engaged, smart, and surprisingly community oriented.  Lucky to be gazing out at miles of relatively calm blue seas. Lucky I haven’t been eaten by a shark, gone down in a terrible ship wreck or fallen overboard. Lucky, most of all, that after the first day they stopped announcing ocean depth at lunch. 

The MV Explorer calls itself a floating campus but it is more like “a place that until very recently was quite obviously a cruise ship.” All of the deck maps etched in glass by the elevators clearly indicate where the casino and shopping arcade are. The casino is now a library. The cigar bar is just a classroom with elegant glass cabinets embedded in the walls and a fireplace. Some classrooms are set up in such a way that if Global Environmental Politics were to devolve into, say, a round-robin of bridge, everyone would be ready.

But I don’t want anyone to think this means it’s pretty.

The ship was built by a Greek cruise line in about 1989 and shares a sense of mellow style and understated color with Bayside High. There’s a lot of turquoise. My carpet has polka dots. Frosted glass everywhere.

The one exception to this is the faculty lounge, which has the dark and swanky palate of a mid-rent cocktail bar in 1980s LA. If it had toilets, I assure you everyone would be doing coke in them, just for accuracy. A real upside of this is that when sitting at the low-backed high bar stools I feel like I might at any moment be mistaken for a high-class hooker. It really adds something to the faculty meetings.

Our students come from something over 400 colleges and universities (they told us, but in addition to planning, listening at orientations is not a strong suit of mine) and 44 countries (again, 44 sounds familiar, but honestly, I could be making it up.) In addition, we have a contingent of Life Long Learners aboard – adults who come on board as partial participants. They’re a congenial group of pleasantly wealthy people; I’ve had two conversations about skiing and one about hotels in Paris. They have very strong feelings about board meetings and the best advice on where to buy liquor.

We haven’t reached our first port yet – that’s Hilo, Hawaii, the day after tomorrow. But so far we’ve completed two cycled of classes (we don’t have weeks, just A days and B days). The students have set up a million clubs. The faculty have had somewhere between ten and a hundred conversations about how bad the coffee is. Everyone has agreed to the importance of peanut butter.

I, myself, have been lucky with seasickness. I did get a bit dizzy and apparently pale (our British Academic Dean, Mark Thomas, aka One of my Favorite Humans Alive, stopped me on the stairs the first night and ordered me to bed for looking “sickly enough to put [him] off dinner.”) but otherwise have gotten off lightly.  Seasickness’s earliest symptom is just extreme sleepiness. But then the medicine that combats it has a primary side effect of causing extreme drowsiness. Never one to turn down free pharmaceuticals, I took the pills they leave sitting out in baskets like mints, and slept 12 hours yesterday, plus however long it was between when I opened my mythologies text and woke up just in time to catch the tail end of dinner. I have also discovered that, because I am my parent’s daughter, wine helps.

****

Hilo is coming soon, and until then we’re all caught in a state of quiet anticipation and anxiety. And for me, sitting in the quiet 80s glamour of the faculty lounge, I am just dripping in smug. The sun is out, I’ve made it through the full day awake, and in two days time, I get to buy real coffee. It’s nothing better than a lucky accident, but somehow, guys, I’m going to sea for four months.