Feeling Japan, “Fast Relax” and “Human”



Tokyo, Japan; November 2015

Why am I so content? Is it the tiny serving of much needed caffeine I had earlier from the “Fast Relax” coffee station at Circle K? Might it be the mild scented incense I watched float and curl up to the heavens at Tokyo’s cherry red accented Senso-ji Temple? Perhaps it’s my fortune from the revered temple, which maintains that, in addition to basically succeeding at every thing I attempt in the near future, I also, “will gradually become famous and peaceful.” Or is it the surprisingly soothing, heated toilet seat at McDonalds?

It could be that I’m on a silent, spotless Tokyo metro heading to a Shinto temple set among ginkgo trees dotted with their gradually goldening split-fan shaped leaves and then on to the ultra hyper Harajuku neighborhood for some shopping, which is another type of worship for me.


No one talks on the metro car — not even my sister, Suzanne, and I.  There is only white noise — the humming of subway sounds and the soothing voice of the conductor. Not able to understand, I only halfway tune into his calm Japanese instructions, yet I appreciate his soft, reassuring tone. Between coming and going, the commuters — students, businesspeople, working moms, shoppers and elderly riders — doze, read anime books and text away on their smartphones.

After the metro arrives at our desired stop, Suz and I quickly exit the subterranean hub. Back up in topside Tokyo, it’s busy, buzzing with energy from people, vehicles and hundreds competing neon lights. To clarify, I’m content but now exhilarated from this electric pace.


It’s this same driven pace that inspired the creation of the Shinkansen, the bullet train, in addition to elevators that can rocket you from the Tokyo Skytree’s fourth floor up to floor 350 at a rate of 600 meters per minute. (Total transport time is about 50 seconds). Even sushi restaurants feature conveyor belts revolving at a consistent clip to move the constant parade of plates featuring various raw and tempura-battered fish selections.

Yet the pace in Japan also slows to the rhythm of an onsen’s gurgling hot springs; the traditional, symbolic stages of a tea ceremony; the meditative bow to a statue of Buddha; and the simulated tranquil trickling waterfall sounds coming from the console of, again, a McDonald’s toilet.

bowing to buddha

The reason for this dual personality pace seems simple. It’s just Japan. That’s why I’m both exhilarated and content. I’m feeling “Japan.”* Indeed. In my estimation, Japan is a state of mind or even a state of being.

Really, Japan is “Fast Relax.”


I love stopping at Tourist Information Offices — especially to find uniquely written English brochures.

Actually, the Land of the Rising Sun, itself, suggests this seemingly contradictory way of life — in English. And it’s not just the Circle K coffee station proclaiming Fast Relax. English language travel publications and signs found at train stations, hotels, grocery stores, convenient stores, visitor centers, shopping malls and museums, present the Fast Relax theme in the text of brochures, leaflets, advertisements, posters and banners.

Japanese copywriters, who tout the message of Fast with facts about high-speed trains and elevators along with innovative industries, heavily embellish their text with high-energy, enthusiastic exclamation points. However, the writers also highlight the idea of Relax by characterizing Japan as a place of  tradition and serenity by using descriptions and phrases that include “tranquil”, “break”, “satisfying”, “sincere care”, “pleasant”, “nostalgic”, “old time”, “time traveled”, “nurtured” and “enjoy a breather.”

It’s worth saying again: Japan is “Fast Relax.”

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Travel Ahh… Temple “Tufts,” “Curls” and Pagoda Points

kyoto pagodas at night

Kyoto, Japan 

Asia (Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia) 

One of the reasons I love Asia so much is because of the architecture — particularly when talking about temples and pagodas. Part of it is the atmosphere created by the devoted, everyday individuals and families who come to worship. I appreciate the sense of calm that pervades along with the burning incense, circling and wafting up to the temple ceilings and then on up to the skies. But also, I really love the tufts, curls and points of the building edges, sides and roofs. I’m sure there are probably more technical terms for these elements of the designs, but the soft, almost dreamy, connotations of “tufts” and “curls” seem quite fitting.

Vietnam (Cham Island, Hoi An)

Indonesia (Bali)

Japan (Kyoto, Osaka)

Vietnam (Hoi An)

Vietnam (Hue) 

Vietnam (Hanoi)

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Memoirs of a Gaijin (Gringo) Geisha

Here we go!

Here we go!

Kyoto, Japan; November 2015

While Mariko carefully wove the delicate Kanzashi, a Japanese silver hairpin — this one featuring dangling fabric cherry blossoms — into my voluminous, smooth black wig, I tried to ignore the itch on my nose. I didn’t want to smear the thick white makeup she had applied 45 minutes earlier. My eyes also stung slightly from the heavy black eyeliner, but again, the discomfort was worth disregarding so as to avoid messing up Mariko’s work. She next pulled tightly on the green and gold silk obi, securing the long wide fabric sash around my waist. I looked down at my feet in the split-toe ultra bright white socks as the edges of my pink satin lined, purple floral kimono skimmed the floor. Finally, Mariko stepped away and smiled. My transformation was complete. Pursing my red heart-shaped lined lips, I finally turned to look into the full-length mirror. I was a dead ringer — for a drag queen. 

LIFe cover

lonely-planet-Japan-14th-edition (3)

I was going for geisha. Exceptional artists, entertainers, conversationalists, musicians, dancers, titans of tea ceremonies, as well as occasional tolerant minders of drunken businessmen, geishas are the face of Japan — at least the Japan from a foreigner’s perspective. In the US, it has been this way for decades — at least since Japan re-entered the American imagination after World War II. For example, an illustration of a maiko (an apprentice geisha) bowling on a 1964 cover of LIFE magazine enticed readers to examine the feature story touting “restless excitement and a wealth of paradoxes set the mood of modern Japan.”

Geishas have always fascinated me, long before Arthur Golden wrote his famous Memoirs of a Geisha. Consequently, when my sister, Suzanne, and I planned a trip to Japan, I discovered through a Google search — AYA, a full-service photography and makeup studio in Kyoto that conducts complete Geisha Glamour shots — even for gaijins (gringos). I made reservations for the makeover event before we even booked lodging in Kyoto.

Living the Dream.

My grandma's handiwork.

My grandma’s handiwork.


Scan 152The dream of looking like one of the ultimate symbols of Asian beauty, I’m fairly certain, traces back to my early childhood. On a trip to San Francisco in 1969, my parents purchased a gorgeous swath of turquoise Chinese silk fabric embroidered with cherry blossoms. My grandmother, Evis, a talented seamstress, whipped it into a robe that could easily double for a frock straight from the Ming Dynasty designer collection. Apparently, I often toddled around the house as if I came off a kiddie Cantonese catwalk.

For Halloween, when I was two, I wore a red Asian jacket with black trim and a black silk tie that looked like martial arts movie attire — either that or it resembled something that Hugh Hefner would have lounged around in at his Playboy Mansion. It came with a little beret that had a long black braid attached. On top of my blonde, curly hair, the beret looked odd, like it had undergone a severe unraveling in just one particular spot. Wanting to have long dark locks, I often resorted to disguising my hair more completely with a dark brown terry cloth bath towel since it was the closest thing we had to a black wig.

Scan 150

Although my outfits were really more Chinese themed than Japanese, I was groomed, practically since infancy, to appreciate East Asian apparel in general. And naturally, since Suz was the younger sibling, she inherited all the hand-me-downs.

Ultimately, however, there was something I found extra special about the Japanese kimono, which centuries ago evolved from Chinese fashion. An illustration of a family dressed in kimonos, featured in the “clothing” spread of the 1979 World Book Encyclopedia collection that my parents had bought, captivated me. Their colorful floral garments seemed not only comfortable and free flowing but also time honored.

Also, that year, during a family trip to San Francisco’s Japantown, Suz and I saw stunning Japanese geisha dolls at every gift shop in the area. The dolls were usually displayed in a glass case along with mini bonsai trees. The precisely constructed kimonos on each doll offered a reflection of the Land of the Rising Sun and outshone, by far, even the glitter of our beloved Disco Barbie’s roller skating ensemble. Essentially, I concluded the ultimate way to wear a kimono would be to assume the identity of a geisha.

Back to the Maiko Moment — 2015.

Mariko and I — peace out — Batman!

Mariko and I — peace out — Batman!

Ready for the invisible box.

Ready for the invisible box.

Doubts of becoming a graceful geisha, however, surfaced for me early during the makeover. After pulling my hair back tight and fitting it in a hairnet, Mariko applied the standard white makeup to my face, neck and shoulders. While the white, creamy coverage felt smooth, cool and luxurious when Mariko brushed it on my skin, the look it created could easily get me a gig in Central Park as a mime. All I needed was a striped shirt, suspenders, black beret and an invisible box. Or if the market for mimes was flooded, I could definitely fill in as a Joker stunt double for Jack Nicholson if “Batman 17” was in the works.

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Travel Ahhh….Lanterns

red lanterns against green building in saigon

Saigon, May 2014: I loved the contrast with the ascending red lanterns and the green and white buildings.

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2014. 

Lanterns make me happy and I’m not sure exactly why. They are hopeful and often remind me of long-held traditions, but also new beginnings. Perhaps that is because they are so prevalent in Asian New Year’s celebrations. They also provide a pop of happy color. The best place to see lanterns has to be Hoi An, Vietnam. At night, lanterns are friendly night lights. In the daytime, they add an Asian aesthetic to the mustard yellow colonial French architecture.  Below is a collection of lantern photos.

Yellow lanterns match the mustard colored architecture in Hoi An.

Yellow lanterns match the mustard colored architecture in Hoi An.

Hoi An, Vietnam, 2014.

Lanterns and lotus flowers, too?! Can't get much better.

Lanterns and lotus flowers, too?! Can’t get much better.

Hoi An, Vietnam, 2014.

Turning in for the night.

Turning in for the night.

Hoi An, Vietnam, 2014.

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Signs of the Times: SCARY stuff at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

Hey everybody, I’m sorry I’ve been absent from Travel Oops and neglectful of the WordPress community. In May, I traveled to Vietnam to get more material and mishaps (definitely that was a given — just trying to cross the street in Saigon was comedy.) At any rate, to jump back in, I’m sharing some gems from the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. By the way, although I was only in the airport on a layover, I’m sure Taiwan is a lovely place to visit.

Sign at arrival gate at the Taipei Airport.

Sign at arrival gate at the Taipei Airport.


Taipei, Taiwan, May 2014. It’s not like I travel with cocaine in my colon, but there is something VERY disconcerting about the above drug trafficking sign nevertheless.

Then there are the escape contraptions. These signs were not comforting, especially since the day before my friend Debbie and I arrived in Taiwan, a massive stabbing spree had taken place in the Taipei metro. I’m curious as to whether these escape routes have been tested.

Is this an escape laundry chute? Are your travel frocks that stinky??

Is this an escape laundry chute? Are your travel frocks that stinky??

The Escape Sling is definitely intriguing. I wonder what the punishment is for inadvertently using it. Actually, I don’t want to know…..

Escape Sling


Travel Oops: Leaving my beach bag at the Market Lady’s stall in Bali

© R. Stacker (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonasphoto/)

© R. Stacker

Sanur, Bali, 2010.

After taking another tasty, turmericy bite of Nasi Goreng, Indonesia’s version of fried rice, and sipping a semi warm Bintang, I look up and see her. The Market Lady—she is standing, waiting just at the sandy edge of the beach restaurant where we are eating in Sanur, Bali. As I make eye contact, she smiles and waves. Waving back, I look down at my rice.

“Kurt, the Market Lady is staring at us.” I tell my husband, since, from his plastic patio seat, his back is to her. “She’s following us.”

“Well, you told her we’d come back to her store.”

© Kermitz1 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/kermitz/9035768437/)

© Kermitz1

He is right. Earlier in the day, on our way to play in the Indian Ocean, we walked through a marketplace near the beach in Sanur. Despite the lack of customers, it was full of stalls with proprietors selling items, including wind chimes, kites, scarves, batik sarongs, bags, T-shirts, jewelry, straw hats and beach mats. Most of the shopkeepers were middle-aged women.

Sweating, Kurt and I trundled through with our kids, Eddie and Kasey, and lugged all our beach gear as one of the women approached us and gestured toward her store. She wore a turban-like head wrap, button down blue shirt, a gold and black batik printed sarong, as well as faded red plastic flip flops.

© Cameron Adams (https://www.flickr.com/photos/themaninblue/4542887953/)

© Cameron Adams

“Come, I have beautiful things to show you. I will make you a good price,” she announced. Limp tendrils of hair, which had escaped the wrap, stuck to her forehead; her temples glistened. When she smiled, her eyes crinkled and she exuded calm, which wasn’t surprising, really, since the entire island of Bali seemed to project that particular personality trait.

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Signs of the Times: “Leave your fancy footwear behind — oh, and your feet, too.”

© Sue Browne 2013

© Sue Browne 2013

Yangon, Myanmar. I love this sign, and it’s actually pretty famous in terms of funny mistranslations from around the world. Good family friends visited Burma earlier this year and took this photo. I’ve since seen it in Lonely Planet’s Signspotting and other blogs. I think it goes particularly well with the photo below.

© Stephanie Glaser 2013

© Stephanie Glaser 2013

McDonald’s, Colorado Springs, CO, USA. This completely cracked me up. I can’t imagine running in heels after toddlers in the first place. In fact, I only started wearing wedge sandals and heels occasionally when with my kids about one year ago (and only on completely sturdy surfaces.) Being a geeky English teacher, I also noticed that an unnecessary apostrophe appears with Moms. The poor apostrophe — it’s so misused. However, that’s a different post.  

Travel Oops: Interrupting the Rapture — Roosters in Bali

© Stephanie Glaser 2010

© Stephanie Glaser 2010

While your chi may be in balance, your senses go ballistic in Bali. After all, you’ve got the sweet smell of incense and plumerias wafting while wooden chimes clonk together in the humid, tropical breeze.

© Stephanie Glaser

© Stephanie Glaser

And then, overworking your retina, Technicolor greens of jungle vegetation, rice paddies and terraces pop. Meanwhile, soothing golds of National Geographic sunsets and ornate costumes calm down the pupil palpitations.

You may experience the wet brush bristles that a Hindu priest gently dabs on your skin before he places rice grains on your forehead to deliver a blessing. At the end of the day, with a semi-warm Bintang, swallow down all of those sensory details along with the lingering taste of turmeric and chili peppers from Nasi Goreng, Indonesia’s national dish.

© Muhammad Mahdi Karim

© Muhammad Mahdi Karim

It’s enough to keep you completely zenned out for life. However, a specific sound on the Island of the Gods easily shatters that inner peace and jars your senses into consciousness. A rooster. At 4 a.m. Every morning. On the dot. (Aren’t they supposed to wait until sunrise?)

For centuries, roosters have strutted their stuff as part of the scene in Southeast Asia, where they were originally domesticated. In fact, today, these cocks are like scooters in Southeast Asia — persistent, aggressive often competing and always demanding attention. In Bali, cockfights are sacred and have always been part of “Tabuh Rah,” an important Balinese Hindu ritual.

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The Travel Ahh…Roads and Streets

© Stephanie Glaser 2010

© Stephanie Glaser 2010

Roads and streets are definitely symbolic when it comes to travel. Just listen to Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” or read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Of course, when you are stuck in traffic during a commute, the road is the last place where you want to be. But, when you’re traveling, roads and streets always lead somewhere new or unexpected. Sometimes it’s not always the destination, but what you see on the way that is so striking. (The photo above was taken along a remote road on Kangaroo Island, Australia.

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Gimme Shelter — In a Balinese Elephant Cave

© Stephanie Glaser

Kurt and I with Eddie and Kasey © Stephanie Glaser

Goa Gajah or the “Elephant Cave” is a beautiful ancient Hindu complex near Ubud, Bali (what isn’t beautiful in Bali?) The entrance is a bit intimidating since it looks like a dragon’s mouth.  A place to worship, the Inside of the cave is rather small and at one corner stands a small statue of the Hindu deity, Ganesha, who has an elephant head. Photography is not permitted, and visitors and worshippers, alike, must cover their legs (except children and this was good since it was so hot and humid, the cave was somewhat stifling!)

A bathing temple with fountains is also part of the lovely grounds. Another open air building stands nearby in the peaceful and serene setting. It is believed the spiritual complex was built around the 11th century as a sanctuary for Hindu priests.

© Stephanie Glaser

The bathing temple © Stephanie Glaser 2010

© Stephanie Glaser

Eddie and Kurt check out the grounds © Stephanie Glaser