Vienna, Austria: 1989
I am cruising around my school in Vienna’s 1st precinct, where the Vienna Opera House, St.
Stephen’s Cathedral and other historic buildings and monuments are located. It is Spring and the
city is full of people reveling in the end of a cold and gray winter.
A bus stops and a huge group of Japanese tourists flows onto the sidewalk. A Japanese guide in
a colorful hat leads the group toward the inner city. In fact, everyone in the group wears the same
colorful hat, and the lady herds them like sheep. I wonder why the tourists don’t just roam around
and explore the city on their own.
Tokyo, Japan: 2009
I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. Now that I’m here, I have no clue where
I really am, where I am going, or what any of the road signs actually mean.
I cannot order food without help. I understand the Japanese tourists in my
homeland 20 years ago.
Fortunately, I do not need a hat. As planned, my good friend Maro-san
comes to the rescue, and he proves to be a worthy guide for me and my
photographer wife Julia. I have no need to fret. My only job is to enjoy the
ride, and I do.
Our first stop is the seashore north of Tokyo. Famous for its role in Japanese
surfing culture, Chiba is an endless stretch of beaches peppered with tiny
houses and shops. During winter months, offshore winds create beautiful
beach breaks. In summertime, typhoon storms feed the surf. Regardless of
conditions, people in Chiba live to surf. I love that part of this culture. When
Japanese are into something, they are into it heart and soul.
We have some good sessions at various spots in the Chiba area. Surfers
at most beaches offer no negative vibe at all, possibly because we observe
universal protocol by keeping out of their way, paddling to places far from
the pack. The best part turns out to be meeting Narita-san from Hokkaido,
partially paralyzed but loving the ocean nonetheless. We take him out on a
standup board and he catches waves lying down. Awesome.
After a night in Tokyo, we head for legendary Mount Fuji and Lake
Motosuko, known for its mirror image of Fuji on clear mornings. Drab
weather gives us only a brief blink of the mountain, but we make the most of
the day, grabbing our boards and cruising on glass. The low clouds and thin
rain deliver a silence and tranquility that seem rare in today’s world.
We barbeque on the beach and spend the night in one of the little cabins
that dot the lakeshore. Awakening early, we savor one more standup session,
including some fishing off our boards. Then we’re off for Tokyo again,
taking the scenic route along the Shonan coast with its Kamakura and Shuzi
beaches. To a certain extent, the culture of this area resembles what we found
in Chiba. Surfing, windsurfing and standup paddling are all very popular,
and the beaches are easily accessible by car or train from southern Tokyo.
Regrettably, a brisk onshore wind denies our chances to ride the sizable
Ah, Japan. Land of contrasts. Into the heart of the city we go. Julia had
been looking forward to it the whole time — the lights, the action, the famous
high fashion districts of Shibuya and Harajuku. Unloading our gear at the
hotel, we head out with Tokyo-born and raised Maro-san, who glides easily
through the busy streets. We are less agile, and again I think of the guide
in her colorful hat. Leaving the main drag, we weave through side streets
framed with little restaurants and end up having dinner at a kushiyaki eatery
with absolutely exquisite beef served in a variety of Japanese styles. The
notorious fugu (blowfish) is also on the menu, but we take a pass. One wrong
cut while cleaning this delicacy releases poisons that can do some major harm.
I’m sure it was alright, but…
The bed in our hotel room on the 18th floor feels marvelous after our trip
and the excitement of downtown. I am sleeping soundly when Julia wakes
me up in the middle of the night, asking what’s going on. It takes me a minute
to figure it out. The whole building is shaking. I hear creaking sounds and open the curtains and can see that we are actually swaying. We open our door, expecting to find everybody running out of their rooms, but the hallway is empty. The hotel rumbless and groans for a while longer, then the movement slows and everything returns to normal. I peer through the window again
to check for signs of alarm, people running around or anything out of the ordinary, but still there is nothing. Everyone seems to be used to this — a 6.6 magnitude earthquake, as we learn the next morning.
Julia finally achieves nirvana in the fashion district, where all the top international labels vie for our time and yen. What really draws our attention are the styles in the Harajuku district, where young people dress confidently in outfits beyond the imagination of a shorts- and t-shirt-wearing Maui resident.
On our way to the airport I experience another flashback thinking about us taking so, so many pictures of everything we saw, to keep our impressions permanent and to be able to share them… exactly like the Japanese tourists in Vienna.