Kanazawa. Japan’s second largest city to escape destruction by the World War 2 air raids. Home to some pretty well-preserved samurai, temple, and pleasure districts. Justin’s destination for his first day trip since moving to Kyoto. And the topic of a 2.5 month late blog post.
On December 3rd ’06, Dean, a previous employer, friend, and ex-resident of Japan was in town for one of this year’s archaeological surveys and for a brief visit with his in-laws. And he invited me to join him. Of course, I obliged.
After glancing over some of my previous posts, I realized that I’ve talked a lot about Dean without even mentioning how we met. The two of us were actually introduced by total chance: when my dad ran into his sister at a party and mentioned that his son was studying in Japan, she recommended that I e-mail her brother who used to live here. When I finally I shot him a message a few months later, it just so happened that he was in need of a programmer who could write a piece of software to produce some 3D fly-through animations of Ground-Penetrating Radar data. Bada-bing, bada-boom. The rest is history.
I’d like to mention that in my mind, Dean has achieved what I’d consider to be an ideal job situation. He spends half his time at home with his family writing updates to his software (on his own schedule) and collecting some pretty generous subscription fees. The other half he spends flying all over the world to lecture at Universities and perform surveys of ancient burial sites with advanced microwave radar equipment. Meaning that after discovering a thousand-year-old Roman coliseum he spends a week at home in LA, then flies to Okinawa to do some calculations at a tropical beachfront resort just before driving across Costa Rica to make sure that an isolated patch of rainforest can be safely excavated. Can you tell that I’m jealous? Just a little bit? 🙂
I should also mention that Dean is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever come across. He’s great fun to be around, always full of positive energy, and truly cares about those around him. He’s the type of person whose mention triggers nothing but smiles among a group of acquaintances. Needless to say, it was great to see him.
Alright, enough with the praising – back to my trip to Kanazawa! After riding the 2-hour express train from Kyoto and killing an hour or so at Starbuck’s (writing up a previous post), I met up with Dean and his buddy Kent. Kent, a retired archaeologist for the US Forest Service, was the first ever subscriber to Dean’s now-booming software. Interesting how one’s life can be so profoundly affected by someone they’ve never even met, wouldn’t you say?
(This sort of applies to me as well…by subscribing to and spreading the word of Dean’s software, Kent ultimately provided me with lots of contract work, several great vacations, and a new friend).
The three of us immediately headed to a nearby hotel to drop off our bags before starting a (planned) day of sightseeing. It was quite amusing to watch Kent, a first-timer in Japan, squirm at the thought of leaving his laptop and suitcase completely unguarded in a hotel lobby, but he eventually gave in as we assured him that “things just don’t get stolen here, you really don’t have anything to worry about.”
(Speaking of which, my 21-speed mountain bike is sitting unlocked outside at this very moment. I don’t even own a lock for it!)
After the hotel we popped in for a quick visit with Dean’s in-laws. Their house was your typical Japanese home – two small floors, a beautiful but tiny garden, wooden construction, and no insulation or central heating. Why a country with bullet trains, talking toilets, and automatic taxi doors can’t figure out how to insulate their homes is truly beyond me – but even my apartment, constructed less four months ago, has walls so thin they would just never pass in the US. A friend recently suggested that Japan’s cheap building construction is due primarily to their distaste for anything old – they build everything knowing that it’ll probably just be torn down and rebuilt 10 years later. Interesting approach…
Anyways, after spending a short time sipping tea and looking at family photos (of a white family…in Japan…with an elderly couple who can’t speak English…weird…) it was finally time to get started with our day. But as the elderly couple stood at the door waiving goodbye I suddenly began to really miss my grandparents. Something about a small, frail old man with a great sense of humor and his energetic wife jumping to bring us all the tea we could drink…just a bit too familiar…
Our first tourist stop in Kanazawa was a lively fish market, complete with $250 king crabs and small family-owned sushi restaurants galore. Except that it was lunchtime, and literally every restaurant had a line running out the door…so it was Italian food for us. No complaints here! 🙂
Sadly, our day’s sightseeing plans were brought to a screeching halt when we stepped outside into an onslaught of torrential rain. So instead of strolling through the beautiful Kenroken Garden and around Kanazawa Castle, we ducked into a nearby house-turned-art-gallery where Dean knew one of the docents. She was out for the day. But this is Japan. After mere moments of friendly chit-chat, the docent on duty, gallery owner, and several artists invited us into the dining room for tea and confectioneries. In the end, our simple attempt to seek a few minutes’ shelter from the rain turned into the most memorable event of the weekend.
I’ve mentioned several times how endlessly interesting I find the polarity of Japan to be – how it can be high-tech yet traditional, packed yet peaceful, etc. And even though it’s one of the most homogeneous societies on Earth, its people provide yet another striking contrast. Unlike in the US where individuality and creativity are key to success, the Japanese respect those who are the same, who fit in, who become yet another smoothly spinning gear of society. In the US we have the expression “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Here, it’s “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
Yet when it comes to hobbies, personal lives, or other off-the-job activities, the Japanese turn more colorful than you can imagine. In fact, chances are that any suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying Salaryman you see roaming the streets today was once pounding the drums in a heavy metal band or zooming around a racetrack in a hard-earned Impreza. They just gave up their hobbies when society said they had to. But not everyone does this. The artist we met at this particular gallery was one such individual; truly one of the most colorful characters I’ve ever met. Just name a social norm in Japan and he broke it.
Aside from the oddman’s random outbursts, our conversation consisted largely of Dean’s various tales of surveying the far corners of the globe. Which reminded me: I had my laptop, I could show them actual 3D images of what he was describing! And when I flipped it on, I was offered a wonderful surprise – the 200 year old gallery I was sitting in had a wireless network, and my mom was online with her webcam. From across the Pacific Ocean we all crammed our heads around my tiny screen and shouted hello.
Technology’s great, ain’t it?
Eventually we decided it was time to head back to our hotel and bowed our goodbyes.
I slept quite well that night. Even though it was just a regular Saturday, I somehow felt like I was back on the road without a care in the world. Not a salaryman, but a student traveler once again.
The next morning Kent departed for the US bright and early, and I met up with Dean for one last goodbye in front of Kanazawa Station before making my way back to Kyoto for the start of a new week.**