Monday, February 18, 2008

Into The Wild: more than a movie

Recently, I discovered a critically-acclaimed film, based on an equally acclaimed book. Into The Wild is directed by Sean Penn and features Emile Hirsch playing the lead role of Chris McCandless, a Dean's List graduating student with tons of potential, coming from a well-to-do family. Unhappy with the criteria of living that his parents place on him and his sister, including an overwhelming importance placed on "things", Chris decides to leave, and leave it all behind him. When I say leave it all, I kid you not. Anywho, I shall not spoil any of the movie, but I highly recommend it. For those of you that know me well enough, I love sharing things I enjoyed and making recommendations to friends and family. I wouldn't go so far as to rave about a film in my blog, but this one warrants such praise.

The cinematography, acting, story, music (including original songs performed by Eddie Veder,) are all phenomenally put together. It is based on a true story, and one that isn't a far cry from other adventure stories we have read or witnessed on-screen in past years. I suppose what sets Into the Wild apart is its explicit philosophy. It is unapologetically anti-establishment and really sheds light (and darkness) on what it means to take a step back, away from the things that we imbue with meaning that was never there, and value instead the relationships formed with others who have done the same. To step back even further, away from social interaction, and be one with nature, is an adventure within itself.

Although I didn't begin packing my camping gear and non-perishable food supplies when I finished the movie, I did buy the book. The movie was an eye-opener for what exists when you strip away the superficial exterior that we have so often become accustomed to in our daily lives.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Shit, We Did!!

Yes They Can!!!

The Beauty of Solo Trips

After more than half a year in Japan, it donned on me that the only time I really spent alone was at home. At work, I was among colleagues and students, and if I went out by myself, it was often only to run errands or buy groceries.

I figured it was high time for a solo trip. Day-trips are great for traveling alone. They encompass all the fascination and reflection that make solo trips great, but are safe from the loneliness that often inevitably sets in when taking multi-day trips alone. I decided to go back to Kanazawa, a nearby favourite city of many Toyamites.

The trip was more than I could have ever fathomed. I found myself walking far greater distances than I ever did while traveling in groups, now able to trespass the small streets and hidden gems that can only be discovered by foot. In addition to visiting my usual favourite spot, the Kenrokuen Gardens and Kanazawa Castle grounds (which were unbelievably beautiful and full of life for midwinter), I also took a considerable hike over to the West-end of the city to check out the Higashi Chaya District. I'm so thankful that I made the big detour.

The Higashi Chaya District is a perfectly preserved Edo-period series of streets, lined with shops, tea houses, restaurants and private homes. During the Edo period and even today, it is popular as being a big Geisha and Maiko district. A couple of geisha parlours have been preserved in their original conditions, and I was lucky enough to tour one of them. It was amazingly intricate for what looked on the exterior like a small, simple place. The rooms were all in perfect condition. Before leaving, I decided to take them up on the offer to have green tea and fresh sweets. This small decision led me to what became a moment of spiritual transcendence. The tea room was a long, dimly-lit room with cushions and placemats facing out over a narrow, small, but beautifully-lit garden. The leafless tree branches glowed of a deep blue, contrasting marvelously with the lighting inside the tearoom. The faint sound of a Japanese flute and mandolin could be heard in the background. A large bowl of frothy matcha and an elegantly crafted bean sweet were served (often served alongside green tea to counter the bitterness). When I finished the tea, I remained in the room up until the place closed. I didn't want to leave. I was immediately thrown into a state of relaxation and found it hard to do anything but sit and meditate there. I could have stared out at the garden longer than at any feature film.

I suppose many people romanticize Japan as having this Zen philosophy that manifests itself in most of what they do. I guess I sort of did. Despite experiencing many relaxing and uplifting moments here (most notably the 6am monk prayer chants atop Mount Koya), there was something about this simple tea room and garden, and something about being all by myself, that really made it something I had imagined but never yet experienced.

I capped off the evening with a stop at this small but very cool French restaurant and bar in the Geisha district. The food was authentic and amazingly prepared. I will definitely be returning. I reflected on my afternoon while making the long trek back to Kanazawa Station, also a sight worth mentioning. The station entrance is a massive and intricate chrome atrium. At the mouth of the entrance stands the largest tori gate I have ever seen, made of enormous pieces of wood, weaving in and out of one another, looking like a tori gate version of a Trojan horse. I had only ever driven into Kanazawa with friends, so totally missed seeing the station in my former trips to the city.

All in all, it was a very memorable trip, even though I do not have anyone to share the memories with. Sure, I took photos and bought a couple of souvenirs, but the most important thing I took back with me to Toyama was the memory of an experience so personal and so unique. I look forward to more solo trips in the near future.

Soba Matsuri in Toga

(I suppose it's been ages since I last made a post, and I vowed not to leave it so long, so I checked into Betty Ford and now I'm a new man, one that can stick to his blog posting.)

The Toga Soba Matsuri (the Toga Village Buckwheat Noodle Festival) was a lot more fun than it sounds. After a treaturous trip up windy, narrow roads with no barriers, covered in snow and ice, we finally arrived in Toga last Saturday, a small village of about 800 people up in the Toyama alps. Every year they come together with prefectural and regional support to celebrate the Winter with grand snow sculptures, traditional dance, dragging a tribally-clad man around on a log, and fireworks set to music, lights and dancing at the end of the night.

The festival is also a time to warm up with hot soba, one of the three main noodle soups in Japan, made of buckwheat, served in a soup base with veggies and tempura. Many soba merchants also take advantage of the festival to sell fresh noodles for home-cooking.

OK, I suppose it sounds a little lame, but it was actually tons of fun. What was most impressive was how a small mountain-top village of only 800 could pull it off. After the fireworks, we set out along the exiting roads, bordered by walls of snow with small, carved out caverns every few meters which were candle-lit, offering a really relaxing sight until we left the village... and then feared for our lives once more on the ride home.