Tuesday, August 7, 2018

High School Reunion
5. Glory Days

In movies, high school reunions are in the school gym or somewhere else on campus. Does anyone really do that? Ours was across town at an expensive hotel on Nicollet Mall, across the street from the Mary Tyler Moore statue. We were in a large event space, maybe too large. I don't know how many people they expected to show up. Our graduating class was somewhere around 600. This room could have held half that. Of course, you're never going to get a 50% attendance rate at a reunion. We had somewhere around 16%, which is supposed to be pretty good.

I never really knew the people on the reunion committee. I think I had a class with one of them in 10th or 11th grade. They were in the student council/school paper/yearbook circle. I was in the performing arts circle. I don't know why the two didn't touch, but when I went to school, they were miles apart. Either way, the committee did a pretty good job. I was expecting tacky paper decorations and some corny theme, but the space looked elegant. Rather than a punch bowl on a folding table, there were a few bartenders serving every kind of drink imaginable. In one of the more terrible Superman movies, someone brings too much potato salad to their reunion. Ours had professional catering and complicated little bite sized snacks. It was more like a debutante ball than suburban high school reunion. But no one dressed for a ball. We were all more casual than our surroundings, made more impressive by the nighttime views of downtown from the 50th floor.

A lot of assumptions were shattered that night. It used to be that people went to reunions to see how much everyone changed. Is she fat now? Is he bald? Who got married and/or divorced? Facebook has changed all of that. Many, if not most, of the people there were in communication with each other online. Facebook friends already saw all the recent pictures of aging, relationship comings and goings, families and jobs. The entire reunion was organized on Facebook, and in a private group, no less. I could not even look at it because I don't have a Facebook account. My initial reaction was that had they used other media, maybe more people would have known about it. If I hadn't been told about it outside of social media, I would have never known. Surely, I can't be the only person who doesn't use the Facebook. But the turnout was pretty high. Contacting everyone by e-mail and phone would have been far more work, and maybe fewer people would have shown up.

Another thing I expected was for everyone to segregate themselves into their old high school cliques. That's what you do in high school. Our entire school had around 2,000 students. Nobody knew that many people. We all decide what clique we should be in and generally stick to those people. At the reunion, we all mingled with old friends, of course, but it looked like everyone was grouping themselves around their Facebook friends. A good example was Chelsea. She would have never spent any time with the science nerds in high school, but at the reunion, her best friend was someone we all expected to grow up and cure cancer or discover some new element.

Like a lot of high school ambitions, that one went nowhere. Most Likely to Cure Cancer now works in a cubicle at some office job. She was never actually voted Most Likely to Cure Cancer. I don't think we had that category. But we all assumed she would become a scientist. Just like we all assumed the quarterback of the football team would join the NFL or that diva who always got the best parts in almost every single play, even though I was always the better choice, would become an actor. Neither did. The quarterback played football in college but then went into business administration. The diva works in a hotel.

Students at our school were always expected to succeed. We had that Most Likely to Succeed category in our yearbook, which is pretty stupid when you think about it. All schools should expect every student to succeed, and ours did, more or less. We were always on every list of top schools in the country. The debate team was ranked in the top 20 in my senior year. Our theater group performed on Broadway. The marching band won field competitions every year I was there. The list of state championships for the athletic teams is ridiculously long. 95% of graduates go to college. The national average is currently 65.9%. I looked it up because I figured 95% had to be pretty high.

That kind of pressure can burn out a teenager. Some of our biggest stars just kind of faded away. But more than a few did what everyone expected of them. There were a lot of MBAs at that reunion. Several are getting started in politics and law. A few are professional hockey players. At least one swimmer and one tennis player competed in the Olympics. One of my old friends in the marching band performs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Others are with the Minnesota Orchestra and New York Pops. But it's not all high brow. One of our trumpet players is in the acid reggae band, Dick Cheney. That might not be the best name for a band. If you do a Google search, they're not the first thing to show up.

Speaking of yearbooks, some people actually brought theirs. For all the things Facebook has changed, it seems yearbooks are immune. I'm sure there are plenty of old pictures scanned and uploaded to that private Facebook group, but physical copies were passed around that night for people to sign and reminisce. I signed a lot of yearbooks in high school. My policy was always to write a little something for anyone who asked, whether I liked them or not, or even knew them. When you're an adult, “Have a cool summer” doesn't work anymore.

I don't remember the last time I saw any of my yearbooks. I don't even know where they are or if they still exist. Having never looked at them since high school, it was nice to flip through the pages one last time. The reunion was definitely the best place for that.

Since I was one of the few people not connected online, I had the old style reunion experience where everyone didn't know what I was up to lately. I could pretend to be as rich and successful as I wanted. Only three things stood in my way. I wasn't painfully insecure in high school, so I don't need to show them. I don't like lying if I can avoid it. If it's a life or death situation, a lie might be the most moral thing to do. But deception for personal gain, even something as inconsequential as a high school reunion, is unethical. What really kept me out of fantasyland, however, was that a few people knew what I had been doing since graduation.

Anyone who knew me in school knew that I always wanted to be a dancer. So that was the inevitable first question. Am I a famous ballerina now? Do I travel all over the world dancing in the great concert halls? Have I met Baryshnikov? No, kind of but not really, and no.

I'm not built to be a ballerina. I know the moves and understand the music, but my body was designed for lyrical, jazz, tap and various folk dances. I have performed in a few different countries, but not at the most famous venues with the world's greatest dancers. I've never met Baryshnikov, but I'm ready, willing and able. All he has to do is call.

The other questions were just as predictable. No, I'm not married, or divorced. No children. I don't own a house, or even a car. Maybe I should have invented a fantasy life.

But there is something about my life that Americans tend to find fascinating. Far more people asked me about Hong Kong than about dancing. I don't even think about it, really. Seven million other people live here, and when you add China, that number gets a lot higher. It's not so exotic to a huge chunk of humans. Besides, everyone lives somewhere. When you go to high school in Minnesota, most of your classmates stay in the Midwest. A few move to the East Coast. I'm the only one who left the country for any amount of time, at least at the reunion. So I got a small taste of minor celebrity. Not for doing something I've always loved, but for packing my bags and going away.

One person who was not at all impressed by my life in Hong Kong was my former boyfriend. We started dating in high school and broke up four years after we moved to China together. He never really liked Hong Kong and doesn't see it as exotic. To him, it was always crowded, noisy and full of unattractive women. Seeing him at the reunion was inevitable. We were in the same graduating class, and his mother told me he would be there. She also told me that he was married, so meeting his wife was no big surprise. She seemed nice enough, and exactly like the kind of woman he should be with, which is very different from me. The older I get, the more I wonder what I was thinking. In high school, everyone told me we were incompatible, but when you're in high school, you don't listen. The great thing about eventually coming to my senses is that I felt no jealousy whatsoever when I met his wife. They looked like a happy couple and I am genuinely happy for them. Had I ever married him, we would both be miserable.

My biggest expectation for the reunion was to catch up with old friends. We did, or at least those of us who showed up did. And it was easier than I thought it would be. We all picked up where we left off and probably could have stayed there if not for how far away I live. I suppose I could join Facebook and be “friends” with them, but I don't define friendship as clicking the like button on someone's picture.

On the opposite end, I was surprised by how easy it was to get along with old enemies. I didn't really have any enemies in high school, but there was one girl who didn't like me after a lot of drama went down. She definitely picked a side and it wasn't mine. As teenagers, she thought I was an evil demon sent to lead all the self-righteous into temptation. She actively did whatever she could to destroy my reputation with both students and teachers. Fortunately, my friends thought she was a nutjob and my teachers cared more about grades than gossip. As adults, I was prepared to simply avoid her if she showed up. But when she came to talk to me, she said she admired how I went off into the wide world of adventure. She thought it was brave to move to another country and pursue my dreams. I told her she could easily do the same, anyone can, but she seemed convinced that her unhappy domestic life was her cross to bear. I let that competition go a long time ago, but apparently I won without ever knowing it.

The reunion committee planned a few activities for that weekend – a baseball game, picnic in the park, three legged race type of things – but some of us decided to do our own thing. Most of them live within two hundred miles of each other. I was the one who was going to be out of the picture for a long time when the weekend was over. That made me popular again. I didn't go to my high school reunion as a rich and famous ballerina, but the people who liked me wanted to spend more time with me while they could. That's success.

The great thing about nostalgia is that everyone remembers the good parts and forgets or glosses over the bad. When you're in school, you want to get out, either to college or start your career or just get out of there. A large chunk of high school is pure tedium. Considering the age range, I'm sure we all went through a lot of emotional and hormonal turbulence. But at the reunion, no one talked about staring at the classroom clock and willing it to move faster. We all talked about the good parts and even some of the embarrassing parts, if we could laugh about them now.

High school is one of the strangest things we all get to experience. It dominates every aspect of our lives for a few years. It might be the last place you can effortlessly make best friends. It's where you learn to be who you are, discover boys or girls or both, break away from your parents and, in many ways, it determines how far you will go for the rest of your life. The best part is that when it's over, it's over forever. You never have to go back. But you can if you want to.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

High School Reunion
4. News From Lake Wobegon

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning. She had the entire day off since it was Saturday. It was also reunion day, so she had a lot of plans for us.

After breakfast, that I made because we both agreed I was a much better cook, we hit the town hard. Summer Saturday mornings mean a trip to the Mill City Farmers Market at the Guthrie Theater. Chelsea is surrounded by fresh produce all the time, and can go to the farmers market any Saturday, but this was the only day for me. Where I live, there's nothing like it. We have plenty of produce markets all year long, but it's like comparing homemade tagliatelle with canned spaghettios. One of those life ironies is that I make 90% of my meals with ingredients that are nowhere near this fresh while Chelsea has produce picked from the farm that morning, but mostly eats out. The farmers market also had cooking lessons, but we didn't have enough time.

The thunderstorms and ominous clouds of Friday were gone. This was a typical sunny and hot day. Chelsea and more than a few others complained about the humidity, but it felt pretty mild to me. And it wasn't especially hot. This Saturday was also the opening of the beer festival, international food truck rally and the tequila & taco festival. There were plenty of arts and crafts fairs, movies in the park and block parties. Things really started going after I left. The city does more than enough to keep people active and engaged. Summer isn't such a bad time to go to Minneapolis. Then there's the Minnesota state fair. Our state fair is a great state fair, but I missed it. I was too early.

There were a million live performances that night, but that was also reunion time. I would have loved spending the evening at the Cowles Center, Orpheum or State Theatre, but I flew halfway around the world for the reunion, not to see a show.

Chelsea didn't want to spend the afternoon running around some lakes or doing anything particularly energetic. She was looking forward to being wide awake at the reunion. So we went to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Not only does it require no exertion, but it is indoors and air conditioned. We have museums in Hong Kong, but nothing like this. I have nothing against Chinese art, but it doesn't move me the way Rembrandt, van Gogh, Manet, Gauguin, Matisse and Goya can. Ironically, MIA brags that they have one of the largest Asian art collections in the United States.

Chelsea's house is only a few miles from the museum, so we had enough time to go back and get ready before heading out.

Friday, July 27, 2018

High School Reunion
3. You Can't Go Home Again

Minneapolis is 13 hours behind Hong Kong, during daylight saving time. So 6:00 in Hong Kong is 17:00 the previous day in Minneapolis. I assumed it would take me a day or two to adjust. When I woke up at dawn on Friday morning, it was dinner time in Hong Kong. I don't normally wake up at dinner time, but I have been known to get up at or before the crack of dawn. It looked like I was adjusting immediately. That seemed strange, considering the long day I just had.

Chelsea was just as surprised as I was, and quickly took advantage of the situation. She had to work that day and assumed I would mostly sleep, but if I could take her to work, I could use her car. Bringing all those Chinese documents turned out to be a good thing. Minneapolis has a pretty good transport network, but it's not nearly as expansive as Hong Kong's. The metro goes nowhere near her neighborhood. A car would be useful, if only I could remember to drive on the right side.

There was an entire city and a lifetime of memories to see. I knew where my first stop had to be. I went to my high school boyfriend's house. That might seem like a strange choice, but his mother was like a mother to me, and I knew he would not be there. I lived in their house at the end of high school and they practically adopted me, which made dating their son a little weird. That's a pretty long story. I probably wrote about it in a book somewhere.*

We had a great morning together. We've kept in touch, so she knew all about everything I've been doing and I knew about what her children were up to. I used to be close to her daughter, but I haven't seen her since she was a teenager. She's 23 now and has a job, a boyfriend and lives in Boston. Unfortunately, I would not get to see her on this trip. I would see her brother, my ex boyfriend, but not this morning. It was just the parents and me. That was the closest thing to a family reunion I was going to get. I had other places to go and we knew we would see each other again that weekend.

I drove around the old neighborhood. I was in town for a high school reunion, so I think I was supposed to. It's in the by laws. I thought I would drive past my parents' house, just out of curiosity or something else, but I never did. I braced myself for some big cinematic emotional moment, but in the end, I was more indifferent than anything else. I had places to go and that house was out of the way. This might have been the perfect day for driving through childhood. It was a hot summer day, but cloudy. It always looked like it was going to rain. There was a little bit of thunder here and there, which made the soundtrack more dramatic, but it never actually rained. It was also Friday the 13th.

I drove past the old high school. That's required. I should call it the new high school. There was a major $125 million renovation after I left. Today's school looks nothing like where I went. Memory lane was effectively a detour. I'm sure the current students won't fully appreciate it, but it looks so much better now.

The neighborhood cultural attractions are golf, shopping and outdoor recreation. I don't play golf and I'm not a member of any of the clubs. Mall of America is a sight to behold, but I live in a city that is essentially a giant shopping mall. Malls don't impress me. What I really wanted to see were the falls.

When I was growing up, it seemed perfectly normal to me that we had waterfalls in the middle of the city. Now, I can appreciate how unusual that is. Minnehaha Park is a wonderful place to walk around or ride a bike. It's maybe a fifth the size of New York's Central Park, but it has everything you need in a park – hiking trails, picnic grounds, athletic fields, historic buildings, ancient geological sites, Minnehaha Falls and the Mississippi River. If size is your thing, Wirth Park is pretty much as big as Central Park and there are hundreds of others, mostly near or around natural lakes. Some national park agency keeps ranking Minneapolis the best park system in the country, for what it's worth.

All that parking around in the middle of July made me hot and tired. As it turned out, I was staying in a house with a swimming pool. One of the great things about Minneapolis, or any small big city, is that outside of a few pockets downtown, you can drive around on a Friday afternoon without ever hitting any traffic. The ten mile drive to Chelsea's house took about 20 minutes. Driving the ten miles from the Kennedy Town MTR station in Hong Kong to the Chai Wan station could easily take an hour or more. That's why they built the MTR.

The swimming pool at Chelsea's house was big enough for a family, and I had it all to myself. Chelsea would be at work for several more hours. The neighbor houses were a respectable distance away and bordered by fences, bushes and trees. The nearest surveillance cameras were probably at the small shopping center two miles away. None of the professionals who maintained the pool and lawn were expected until the next week. Discounting any NSA satellites that might be pointed at the suburbs of Minneapolis, I had about as much privacy as I was ever going to get. With all the clouds, even satellites would not be an issue. The constant overcast might not be swimming weather to most people, but I liked it since I go from lily white to beet red in minutes. So I did the only logical thing I could do. I got as naked as a dolphin and spent a short eternity in the clean, clear water.

By the time Chelsea came home from work, I was dead to the world in her comfortable guest bedroom. The funny thing about adjusting immediately to the time difference was that I did not. As soon as I was out of the pool, showered and dried, I went out like a politician's moral outrage when the cameras turn off. Chelsea had planned to take me out that night and meet some of the old gang again, but when she found me asleep, she let me be. I wanted to go out, but I couldn't blame her for not waking me up. I would see all of those people at the reunion anyway.


* Living With Livia
The international … seller
Available at all the best bookstores

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

High School Reunion
2. Old Friends

I don't know if you're supposed to stay at your parents' house when you go back for a high school reunion, but that was never an option for me. “My room” was most likely converted into something else a long time ago.

My original plan was to stay at one of the high rise hotels downtown. The closer to Nicollet, the better. Then I got an offer I could refuse, but chose not to. An old friend from high school offered to put me up in her house. Something about being in Minneapolis made a house more attractive than a hotel. Looking out a high window and seeing all the other tall buildings, walking out onto a busy shopping street is something I can do every day in Hong Kong. But an honest to goodness detached, single dwelling house with a porch and yard in a neighborhood with wide streets and other houses is something you just don't see around here. That's the way I grew up, so it was only fitting for a visit to my hometown.

When I say she was a high school friend, that's an exaggeration. We were not especially close. We had a few classes together and waved in passing, but we never shared our darkest insecurities over tater tots or pasties. We started talking again when this whole reunion thing came up, and when I mentioned some of the downtown hotels I was looking at, her Minnesota immediately kicked in and she offered me her house. For a second, I was surprised. That's not the sort of thing we do in Hong Kong. But then my Minnesota kicked in and I realized I would have done the same.

As it turns out, she has a very nice house. It's nowhere near downtown, but it has a porch and yard and sits on a wide suburban street full of houses that don't all look the same. Best of all, it has a swimming pool. My apartment building in Hong Kong has a pool, but public pools in China are disgusting. This was a private pool that is professionally maintained. If her lawn is any indication, I'd say professionals come out to her house on a regular basis. As soon as I saw the pool, I was glad this reunion was in summer instead of winter.

Chelsea is obviously doing well for herself. She lives alone in a house large enough for a family, waiting for Miss Right to come along and help her fill it. She's perfectly content to live 15 miles from where we went to high school. She told me she couldn't imagine living outside of Hennepin County. Even St Paul would be a stretch for her. At the same time, she wanted to hear all about my life on the other side of the world.

When she picked me up from the airport, she offered to take me out for a night on the town. It was dinner time and downtown Minneapolis has more options than outlanders ever imagine. But I had just spent the last 23 hours at airports and on planes. I wanted to see some of the old sights, but I could wait. We stayed in that night. Chelsea warned me that she was a bad cook and that's when I decided to tell her that it didn't matter.

I never introduce myself to people with, “Hello. I'm Hailey and I have no sense of taste.” But it seems to come up more often than I'd prefer. When you share a meal with someone, whether at a restaurant or homemade, they almost always want to know what you think. I'm not going to lie and say something is good, especially after I've been told the cook does a bad job. I think I've reached the point where I know I'm just going to have to tell pretty much everyone sooner or later.

The problem with telling someone you can't taste anything is that they ask why. Every single time. No one just accepts it and moves on. Then I have to explain that I technically have a sense of taste but have no sense of smell and the two are like salt and pepper. This inevitably leads to a longer conversation. Sometimes I wish Tom Hanks would star in a movie about someone without a sense of smell. Then most people would understand the basics, or at least whatever is explained in the movie. It might not be the most exciting movie to watch, or even very accurate, but at least it would be easier for me. Then again, less than 0.002% of people with autism are anything like Rain Man.

The best part about spending the last 23 hours at airports and on planes is that it provides a convenient excuse to avoid long conversations. After describing how senseless I am, I played the exhausted card to get out of explaining why. It would have been rude for Chelsea to push any further at that point, so she made us dinner and I went to sleep.

Friday, July 20, 2018

High School Reunion
1. The Great Suburban Showdown

Flying east on a plane
Drinking all that free champagne
I guess I saw this coming down the line
And I know it should be fun
But I think I should've packed my gun
Got that old suburban showdown in my mind

Sit around with the folks
Tell the same old tired jokes
Bored to death on Sunday afternoon
Mom and Dad, me and you
And the outdoor barbecue
Think I'm gonna hide out in my room

I've been gone for a while
Made some changes in my style
And they say you can't go home anymore
Well the streets all look the same
And I'll have to play the game
We'll all sit around in the kitchen chairs
With the TV on with the neighbors there

Out in the yard
Where my Daddy worked so hard
He never lets the crab grass grow too high
Oh, the place hasn't changed
And that's why I'm gonna feel so strange
But I'll have to face the music by and by

I've been gone for a while
Made some changes in my style
And they say you can't go home anymore
Well the streets all look the same
And I'll have to play the game
We'll all sit around in the kitchen chairs
With the TV on with the neighbors there

We'll drive into town
When this big bird touches down
I'm only coming home to say goodbye
Then I'm gone with the wind
And I won't be seen again
Till that great suburban showdown in the sky


© 1974 Billy Joel/UMPG


I was thinking about that Billy Joel song a lot before I left for Minnesota. The details are different in my situation, but the spirit is the same.

I flew east, but flying west would have only been a couple thousand more miles. There was no free champagne. I think they only do that in first class, and first class from Hong Kong to Minneapolis is beyond my budget. But I splurged a little and flew business class on the Hong Kong to Chicago leg. My last flight before this trip was on a private plane, so 15 hours in economy would have been unbearable. I flew the Chicago to Minneapolis leg in economy because it's only an hour and a half, and since it was on an American airline, the business class price was absurd.

Naturally, dealing with two different flight classes on the same trip made it more complicated than it should have been. Ordinarily, I probably would have flown on Delta from Tokyo to Minneapolis. MSP is one of Delta's largest hubs and they have flights spreading out all over the place, just not to Hong Kong. But Delta's business class rate was too high. Cathay Pacific was far more reasonable, but a different airline handled the Chicago-Minneapolis leg. I'm the one who wanted to do things a little differently, so I guess all the unnecessary complications were my fault. I need to learn how to just do what the giant corporations tell me to do.

I didn't pack a gun on the flight, obviously, but I did bring my international driver's license, just in case the opportunity to borrow someone's car presented itself, and my Hong Kong driver's license, because in some jurisdictions, the international license is only valid with your local license. On the flight from Hong Kong to Chicago, no one cared what kind of documents I had with me, as long as I had my passport. At O'Hare, they searched my bags like it was going out of style. All the Chinese must have confused them.

My Hong Kong driver's license looks like a library card. It would be ridiculously easy to counterfeit. Since we have a separate ID card, no one uses their driver's license as ID, so all that matters are that the names and numbers match. My international driver's license looks harder to fake, but it has a lot of Chinese writing, as well as English. My Hong Kong ID is more high tech, and probably difficult to counterfeit, but it also has Chinese writing all over the place. The reason that confused the undertrained TSA agents in Chicago was because I do not look the least bit Chinese. Telling them that I live in China meant nothing. The first agent asked me if I was there on business. Apparently, that is the only way an American would ever live in China. The fact that I was taking a domestic flight from Chicago to Minneapolis probably did not help. Maybe it would have been easier with the international terminal TSA agents. I only dealt with them on the flight home, and they were not at all confused that I was going to China. They probably assumed it was for business. Of course, it would have been easier if they simply kept their dirty mitts out of my purse, but you know how dangerous ID cards are. Planes are hijacked every day with pieces of laminated paper, right?

I suppose I should be happy that I was not strip searched or got to do one of those fancy full body cavity searches. “Better safe than sorry”, Americans say to rationalize their loss of liberty. But it's not safer. Getting x-rayed six ways to Sunday does not make you safe. Throwing away your $1 bottle of water so you can buy a $10 bottle of water inside the airport is not about safety. Four ounces of shampoo is not more dangerous than 3.4 ounces. Taking off your shoes does not make you safe. Profiling little old ladies so you can pretend you don't profile certain ethnic groups does absolutely nothing to make anyone safe. Making mothers drink bottled breast milk to prove it's not a super spy potion is not better safe than sorry. It's stupid.

Since moving to Hong Kong, I've flown to a few countries in Europe, East Asia, Canada, Israel, Mainland China and the United States. None of those flights presented any particular security challenge. Even the flights into the United States went relatively smoothly, probably because they all left from Hong Kong. It was always the airports within the United States that caused the most trouble. Wasn't the Roman Empire unusually paranoid right before they fell?

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Dating Underwater
9. Serenity Now

I woke up early in the morning after sleeping more soundly than I have in a long time. A small inn in the mountains on an island is nothing like my apartment in the middle of Hong Kong. The last time I went out of town was Beijing, and I did not sleep well on that trip at all.

Hisoka was already in Tokyo for his big meeting. The plane that got me to Hiroshima was going back to Hong Kong in the afternoon. If I wanted to leave later or spend another night, I would have to book a commercial flight. I thought about finding a hotel in Hiroshima and spending some time there, but I have not had a real job since September. A free flight home was probably a good idea.

Miyajima was just as deserted in the early morning as it was at night, but far sunnier. The hotel gave me a ride into the village and I wandered around what looked like a ghost town. Itsukushima Shrine was practically resting on the water at high tide the day before. The reflection off the water made the torii look like it was floating. In the early morning low tide, the shrine sat on solid ground. The torii was in mud and tiny puddles.

Having already seen the village, I went in the only direction I could go without a boat. I walked uphill until the street became a path. It only took a few minutes for the village to dissolve into woods. As I walked up a gradual incline, the stream near my path casually ran downhill. The woods were completely deserted, except for a few deer who were neither impressed nor offended by my presence.

The quiet was amazing. The island was asleep. Even the birds were not awake yet. I heard very few in the early morning hours when they usually make the most noise. The deer were awake, but they make so little noise, they can sneak up on you without warning.

Every time the path crossed one stream or another, there was a small wooden bridge with red railings. The paths went from pavement to dirt to stone steps, but each bridge was built with pride and purpose. The temples and shrines were small enough to blink and miss. I only noticed a few because they had bright red torii out front. Even when the shrines were camouflaged by the woods, the torii stood out.

With no tourists in sight, I felt like I was experiencing the island the way it was meant to be. I was a tourist, but I was not part of a group, making noise, throwing trash on the ground or complaining that my surroundings were not like home. Miyajima is a sacred island, and in the peaceful early morning hours, I could see why. I wanted nothing more than to stay there all day, but when the ferries starting arriving, there would be backpackers and selfie sticks. Sooner or later, a Chinese tour group would arrive. I love a lot of things about Chinese culture, but Chinese tour groups are anything but silent and serene. My private holy site could not remain private for long. I also had a plane to catch if I wanted to go home for free.

Getting from Hong Kong to Miyajima would have been difficult without Hisoka, mostly because I did absolutely no research before I left. Getting back was easy. The hotel happily drove me to the Miyajima pier. The ferry to Hiroshima was straightforward. Getting a taxi at the Hiroshima pier was effortless. There were more than enough waiting around. It was a long taxi ride without anyone to talk to, since the driver did not speak English, but I had music.

Checking in at the airport was a little complicated. I was taking a private flight and everything inside the airport was designed for commercial flights. After asking a few people at information booths, with varying degrees of information, I found myself where I needed to be. They were expecting me. Getting on the plane in Hiroshima was just as easy as it had been in Hong Kong, even without a dozen Japanese businessmen.

The flight was empty. I'm pretty sure that every flight I have ever taken out of Hong Kong was fully booked. I can't remember the last time I was on a plane with several empty seats. This was definitely the first time I was the only passenger. I'm sure the service is always first class on a private flight, but when the entire crew only has one passenger, they pay attention to you.

When I asked the purser why they did not simply cancel the flight, she explained that the plane had to go back to Hong Kong. That flight was going to happen whether I was there or not. Had I stayed in Hiroshima and taken a commercial flight back, the private plane would have flown empty. At least the crew could have relaxed. With me there, they had very little to do, but they were all on the clock.

Back at home, I had time to contemplate the strangest first date I have ever had. I want a second date, and I know Hisoka does too, since we have spoken on the phone, but I really don't think he has enough free time to date anyone. I can't go to Tokyo every time I want to see him and he can't come to Hong Kong just to see me. The private plane is not his personal property. Using it to shuttle us back and forth is not going to be an option.

And if we do have a second date, it will be hard to top the first one. He would have to take me to Bora Bora or somewhere ridiculously amazing. We will be lucky if he can find the time for dinner and a walk in the park. But whatever happens, we'll always have Miyajima.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Dating Underwater
8. Midnight Serenity

By the time we got out of the hot springs and were properly dressed, Hisoka had missed the last ferry back to Hiroshima. He never planned on spending the night and only booked one room. We had a good time talking naked in the water, but I was not about to let him sleep in my room. It was not that I couldn't trust him. There was nothing aggressive about him and I didn't doubt for a second that I could easily take him in a shouting match. The problem that night was that I could not trust myself. Hisoka was a kind and sincere man who happened to look really good naked. Had we slept in the same room, he would have considered it inappropriate as a gentleman to suggest any indiscretions against my honor. But I might have jumped him.

As it turned out, he was never going to take the ferry and had no intention of spending the night. He took a private boat back to Hiroshima. He had a big meeting in Tokyo the next morning and wanted to sleep at home rather than commute across the country. That sounded reasonable to me.

My night was more relaxing. After Hisoka left, I spent the evening at the hotel. There would have been no point in going back to the village. Even the bars were closed by then. I thought about reading a book and going to sleep early, but my mind kept wandering back to the mineral water. We have heated swimming pools, hot tubs and all kinds of spas in Hong Kong, but no natural hot springs.

The women's shower/locker room was empty and I wondered if anyone would be in the pools. Showering off all the minerals from last time, it crossed my mind that the hot springs might not be open all night. This was an island where everything closed early. Had I been in the United States, it might have suddenly occurred to me that I was naked and alone in a part of the building that was deserted and might be closed. In my country, that is either a red flag or the beginning of a horror movie. But this was Japan. Getting Marion Craned in the shower is not the Japanese way.

When I walked out of the locker room, none of the doors were locked. Nothing prevented me from going to any of the hot springs. Had it all been closed, the shower most likely would have also been closed. Instead of a handful of senior citizens relaxing in the water, there was a single young man. He was in the hottest pool, far enough away from where I wanted to be, but he was probably my age. This might not have been a red flag, but it definitely looked like the beginning of a pornographic movie. And we were in Japan. Japanese porn can get pretty weird.

Fortunately, he was not a half man/half octopus and he did not even acknowledge my presence. He was busy cooking in his pot and might not have even seen me through the steam. After I dropped my towel and sat on my rock, I forgot he was even there.

The hot springs were always nice, but at night when there was almost no one there, it was more peaceful. Other than the simmering water and a light breeze rustling the trees, there was a silence that was as relaxing as the pool. I could see why the Japanese invented zazen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Dating Underwater
7. Like Cocoon, But Everyone's Naked

Miyajima mostly shuts down at night. The restaurants and bars stay open after dark, but even they close early by city standards. Most people only take day trips to the island, most likely since Hiroshima is so close. The last ferry leaves well before midnight.

Hisoka had a dinner reservation waiting for us at the hotel before we got back. It was another Japanese meal, but more elaborate than what I had for lunch. In the village, I had rice and soup. At the hotel, they brought us entirely too much food. There was more rice and soup, of course, and noodles, pickled vegetables, steamed vegetables, intricately plated salads, seaweed as a dish and as seasoning. Unlike the standard steamed white rice that comes with every Chinese meal, this rice was larger and cooked with some type of green herb.

My impression was that this was probably the most authentic Japanese meal I have ever had. I've been to Tokyo, but there is a lot of foreign influence in the capital, and it's harder to avoid the tourist food. Miyajima does not seem the least bit interested in trying to be anything other than purely Japanese. There are plenty of tourists during the day, but most of them looked Japanese. Unfortunately, I could not taste any of the food I had on the island. Most of the time, having a numbed sense of taste is relatively easy to ignore. Going to a new place, especially one as genuine as Miyajima, gets a little depressing at meal times.

After dinner, which neither of us were ever going to come close to finishing, Hisoka wanted to try out the hot springs. I had no objection to that. It was great in the morning. It should be just as great at night. My only issue, which I never bothered to articulate, was that we were supposed to be on a date. The most time we spent together was on the mountain and in the taxi ride from the airport. Mt Misen was exceptionally beautiful, but not particularly romantic. To me, romance is not gasping for breath and almost collapsing from exhaustion. Well, maybe under different circumstances, but not hiking up a mountain. We had a nice dinner, but now we were going off to separate hot springs. I think people should at least be in the same room on a date.

Before heading to our segregated locker rooms, Hisoka asked me if I had any tattoos. That seemed like a strange question at the time, but this hot spring, as well as many others throughout Japan, did not allow anyone with tattoos inside. It is a rule that has several different explanations, but no one bothered to ask me the first time I went in. Not that it mattered. I have never liked tattoos and have no intention of ever getting one.

The women's shower/locker room was more crowded than it had been earlier, but not crowded enough for me to get self-conscious. I knew the routine and followed all of the proper etiquette. Just like every other woman who walked out of the locker room, I had a towel wrapped around my body. The indoor pool was just as empty as before. I think it might only be popular when it's raining.

The big surprise for me was in the outdoor pools. I saw Hisoka and a few other men as well as all of the women who walked out of the locker room. The other women went to whichever pools they preferred, dropped their towels and climbed in. I'm almost certain that they saw all of the men already there. In fact, more than a few women talked to some of the men.

I stood in front of my favorite pool, gripping my towel where the edges overlapped. Even if a typhoon suddenly struck the island, that towel was not coming off. When Hisoka saw me through the steam, he waved to get my attention. He motioned for me to come to his pool, but I had a few problems with that. It looked like all of the men were naked, although you never really know what's under water. Either way, I was naked under my towel. And if the dress code was not bad enough, he was in the rice cooker pool.

When he stood up in his pool, I had a decision to make. Do I look away or do I stare? I was curious, of course, but this was not the appropriate place to ogle men. Or perhaps it was the perfect place. There was steam rising from each pool, more from the hottest one. The hot springs had steam in the morning, but it was colder at night, and more difficult to see people through the mist.

It never mattered since he expertly positioned his tiny washcloth in front of himself as he stepped out of the pool. That was when I noticed that all of the men had tiny washcloths either near them on the edge of the hot springs or on their heads like white barets. I watched a woman get out of one pool, wrap her towel on, walk to another pool and drop the towel before climbing in. Under the water, everyone was naked as sin. The second anyone got out of the water, modesty prevailed and they covered their shame with whichever size towel they had.

Hisoka was covered, barely, when he walked toward me. He asked if I wanted to use a different pool. He assumed that my hesitation was solely about the temperature. I asked him why the men were not on the men's side, wherever that was. He laughed a little and explained that unlike most hot springs in Japan's larger cities, these springs were not segregated. The showers were and everyone covered themselves outside of the water, more or less, because that was the only decent and civilized thing to do. But the springs themselves were unisex.

I thought the men's hot springs were somewhere else and that I was on the women's side earlier in the day. Looking back, that was a stupid assumption. The hotel grounds would have to be considerable to have twice as many hot springs. With a mountain on one side and the road on the other, there was nowhere to put anything else.

Hisoka saw nothing unusual about our environment, but he recognized that I am American. My ancestors were such religious extremists that they thought Catholicism was too liberal. He suggested we leave the hot springs altogether, but I told him that was crazy. The reason we came to Miyajima, the reason I flew to Japan, was for the hot springs. I loved it earlier in the day when I was alone with the old woman. I reasoned that I should love it again, even if there were other people around.

Something that really helped was how old everyone was. Had the hot springs been full of 20-something men/boys, I can almost guarantee I would have gone back to the locker room to get dressed. As it was, Hisoka looked like the youngest man there and I was likely the youngest woman. I'm actually a pretty terrible judge of Japanese ages, but most of the people in the water that night were hovering around retirement. If I had to guess everyone's age, I might have been off by a dozen years plus or minus, but not 40.

When I told Hisoka that I liked my bearably hot pool, he turned around and walked toward it. Apparently, the rule about covering yourself with towels only applies to the front. I watched his naked butt as he stepped into the hot water. Resting his washcloth on his head, he sat down and faced me.

I don't have a lot of rules about dating, but one of them has to be that my date can never see me naked on the first date. I don't know if that should happen on the 52nd date or the 104th, but definitely not the first. Any naturist can tell you that nudity has nothing to do with sex, but in my experience, getting naked on a date almost always has something to do with sex.

Maybe there was something in the air that night. Maybe it was my spontaneous trip to Japan. Maybe it was Hisoka's firm butt. Maybe it was the fact that we were surrounded by older people, none of whom would have looked too kindly on any youthful shenanigans. Whatever it was, I dropped my towel in front of my date, and several older people who may or may not have even known I was there, most of whom could probably not even see me through all the steam.

Hisoka smiled and watched me step into the pool. He might have watched a little too long. At least I was polite enough to look away when he got in, as far as he knows. As soon as I was in the water, I sat on a smooth rock and he asked me about my day on Miyajima. We talked about the island as though we were not naked and surrounded by other naked people. With mostly shoulders and heads poking out of the water, it was hard to notice fashion choices.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Dating Underwater
6. Three Views of Japan

Miyajima is a tiny island, about 2 miles wide and 6 miles long. Most of the island is wooded mountains surrounded by small beaches. The village at the pier probably looks just like it did during the Edo period – only with electricity and paved roads.

Rather than the scenery, most people go to the island for the temples. They are everywhere, from a large Shinto shrine that sits directly on the water at high tide to tiny boxes perched up in the middle of the forest. When my ride from the hotel dropped me off downtown, I walked through the village for a few minutes before I wandered along the shore and met a few deer. They wanted some food, but so did I. They were as friendly as cartoon deer that never have to worry about hunters, but they were hungry, so they moved on to other people as soon as they realized I was not going to feed them.

Walking along the shore, I noticed the Itsukushima Shrine torii jetting out of the water. It was hard to miss. It was painted red and stood out with the blue water and sky behind it. There were also dozens of people taking pictures. Around the corner from the torii was Itsukushima Shrine itself, an impressive building and unlike any Shinto shrine I had ever seen. Instead of a tall, dark building, it was spread out flat and painted the same vermilion red as the torii. Red is the common color for torii, but every Shinto shrine I had ever seen was brown/black.

The Itsukushima Shrine is so important to Miyajima that the island's name is actually Itsukushima. Everyone just calls it Miyajima. Even the signs from the Hiroshima pier said that the ferry went to Miyajima. As far as I could tell, the only time anyone ever used the word Itsukushima was in reference to the shrine and/or torii. The locals call the island Miyajima, so that's what I call it.

I wanted to go inside the shrine, but it was large and I was hungry. At the other end of the village, there was a row of restaurants. Not surprisingly, they all served Japanese food. Miyajima has a lot going for it, but one of the things I liked best was that there was not a single McDonald's, Starbucks or anything even remotely resembling a corporate chain store. The tourist shops in the village were owned by the people inside and the restaurants were all local. Maybe the Shinto and Buddhist buildings were part of a larger organization, but this was an independent town. Even the hotels were independent. There is no Hilton on Miyajima. The only trace of the corporate world I saw were the drinks in the public vending machines. Miyajima is Japan, so there are vending machines all over the place.

After lunch, I spent entirely too much time in the shrine. I knew when Hisoka was coming back to Miyajima, but I did not know what his plans were. If he wanted to show me the holy sites, he was too late. From Itsukushima, I went to Senjokaku and the Five Story Pagoda, Daiganji, Kiyomori and several smaller Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

I was back at the hotel by the time Hisoka arrived. I probably could have met him at the pier, but he was not expecting me there and I would have had a hard time spotting him in a sea of unfamiliar Japanese faces. It never made any difference, since his plans were as far away from the village as you can get and still be on the island.

Hisoka thought I would appreciate the views from Mt Misen, the highest point on the island, and he was right. The ropeway to the top is actually two separate cable car lines, but unless you have all day and a case or two of water, you might not want to hike it. The view from the top of the ropeway is spectacular, and it's not even the top of the mountain. There is still another half mile hike and 300 feet up.

From the station, you can easily see dozens of islands in the Seto Inland Sea and large chunks of Shikoku and Honshu, with obstructed views of Hiroshima. You can also really appreciate how long and high the cable cars ride. It's not ideal for people with acrophobia.

There are several temples along the hike to the top, which provide welcome spots to rest and plenty of places to buy water. Mt Misen is a sacred mountain overlooking a sacred island, so anyone interested in Buddhism will have plenty to experience. It's also the best spot outside of the main village to have a few dozen deer nudge your hands for food.

The last temple on the way up is pretty small. Beyond that, you walk under, through and over some big rocks. The views from the peak are unbelievable. According to Japan, Itsukushima's torii is one of the “Three Views of Japan”. The torii is nice, and looks good with the water backdrop, but from the top of Mt Misen, you have a 360 degree view of everything you would expect from an island surrounded by other islands. The Seto Inland Sea is stretched out in almost every direction and Hiroshima is plain as day. Had I known anything about the city, I probably would have recognized several buildings. You can also look down on most of Miyajima.

Mt Misen is the kind of natural environment where I could easily spend the entire day, if the last cable car did not head down at dusk. Quite reasonably, they do not want too many people up there after dark. Hiking back down at night is an equal combination of dangerous and stupid. I'm sure the deer also want some private time. There are a lot of them. They have to come from somewhere.


I took pictures, of course, but my crappy cellphone camera does not do this place justice. These are pictures from other people, whom I can't credit because I don't have any names/agencies. Their equipment was much better than mine, but these images are still a pale imitation of how it looks in person.




Saturday, June 16, 2018

Dating Underwater
5. Onsen Onna

Hisoka checked me into the hotel, which was convenient since no one spoke English and I know less than a dozen phrases in Japanese. He would not be staying. In fact, he had to turn around and take the ferry back to Hiroshima for a big meeting. He only went on the roller coaster van ride to escort me to the hot springs. He would come back a few hours later and we could have a proper first date. In the meantime, I could enjoy the hot springs, go back into town or just wander around the island.

Hisoka was taking the same tiny van back to the pier, so I could have easily gone with him and explored downtown Miyajima, but that sounded like going in circles to me. I was at a nice looking hotel that was supposed to have some great hot springs. I felt like I should probably give them a chance.

This particular hotel was built around the water. That was its biggest selling point. It was also small enough that it could stay booked without catering to foreign tourists. There were no English signs anywhere, and even though I saw the name of the hotel written in Japanese several times, I have no idea what it is.

My room was a combination of traditional ryokan and modern convenience. Everything was wooden, or at least wood colored, but there was also a modern bed and flat screen TV. While most hotel rooms have a white robe, this one had a floral yukata. This place was not trying to look authentically Japanese. It was authentically Japanese.

After Hisoka left, I figured I might as well check out the hot springs. At the back of the hotel were several rooms, one of which was the shower/locker room for women. Men had their own room a respectable distance away. The women's room had a red sign and the men's room was blue. Apparently, everyone in Japan knows that red is for women and blue is for men. I never knew that, but the signs also had the Japanese words for male and female, which are identical to the Chinese words. At least in writing. The pronunciation is completely different. Some of the first Chinese I ever learned was male (男) – a stick figure trying to balance a giant head, and female (女) – a stick figure dancing. Most Chinese words do not work out that well.

What I know about the myriad of Japanese rules and customs can fit on a leaflet. Fortunately, there was an old woman in the 女 locker room. She did not speak English, but we communicated through the international language of gestures and hand signals. Some facial expressions are universal.

I knew that public showers were not rare in Japan, so I was not entirely shocked when the old woman took off her clothes and placed them, gently folded, into a cubbyhole. She motioned toward the showers before she sat down on a tiny stool and hosed herself off. I followed, being careful not to stare at her while making sure that I did whatever she did.

The stools were short, as were the shower heads. I thought it would be difficult for older people to squat and shower, but she did it all effortlessly. She used the bucket without splashing any water, even though we were the only two people there. When finished, she cleaned the bucket, stool and shower wall. Other than everything being wet, there was no evidence that anyone was ever there. I suddenly realized why this system would never work in China.

Clean enough to go in the mineral water, the old woman wrapped a towel around her body and I did the same before following her outdoors. There were a few different hot springs of varying temperatures, both indoors and outdoors. The old woman pointed to each and said something, which I assumed had to do with water temperatures. She might have also tried to warn me not to put my face in the water, but I have been to the Dead Sea. I know that the last place you want those minerals is in your eyes.

The old woman tied her hair up before choosing a pool. Women, and men, are not supposed to let their hair enter the water. Most women, and some men, simply put their hair up. I still have short hair, so it was not going to be a problem for me. The old woman then walked to her choice, took off her towel and sat naked in the water.

I dipped a toe into each pool. The one indoors was more warm than hot. The room looked nice, with wood everywhere and a wall full of paned picture windows that showed the natural scenery outdoors, but the pools outdoors looked better.

The old woman's pool was the smallest and unbearably hot. I have cooked food at lower temperatures. She was obviously used to it. I went with the largest pool, which was hot enough to call itself a hot spring, but not hot enough to sear my flesh. Unlike a swimming pool, the hot spring had large rocks on the floor, as well as rocks along the border into the grass and stone paths. Swimming would have been difficult, but sitting on the rocks was easy. They were all smooth and at just the right height to remain mostly submerged in the water.

It was hard to tell how much of my surroundings were natural and how much was built by the hotel. Beyond the grass and paths were trees that quickly veered uphill. Other than whatever animals lived in the woods, the hot springs were protected from prying eyes. Not even the rooms in the hotel faced the water.

When the term idyllic setting was invented, they were thinking about places like this. I could have stayed there all day. But you can't cook in a hot spring for too long. When the old woman left her pool, she said goodbye to me and disappeared into the locker room. I don't know what the etiquette is for loitering in geothermal pools, so I decided it was time to go. The old woman wore her towel from the pool to the locker room, so I did too. There was no one else there, but when in doubt, do what the old ladies do. One of the few things I know about Japanese onsen is that you are not supposed to shower after the hot spring. You want to keep the minerals on your skin as long as possible.

Rested and simmered, I was ready to eat. The hotel had plenty of food, but I wanted to see what was available in town. Getting a ride was pretty easy. When you are the only foreigner at an inn in the mountains, there are really only so many places you want to go.