Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Twelve days in Japan - Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka

This winter, four of us - my brother, his wife, Prashanth and I - traveled to Japan for a two-week vacation. This was our second vacation together (the first was Germany in winter 2017). These two folks live in Sydney and naturally want to escape the December weather. And somehow, they've managed to sweet-talk me and Prashanth, both lovers of tropical weather, twice, into these super wintry holidays. We travel well together though - we're all an equal-ish mix of curiosity, laziness and affability.

If anyone tells you that a vacation to Japan is going to be unlike anything you’ve done before, believe them. We got back 8 weeks ago and we find ourselves constantly looking for Japanese food and culture in Bombay, like recovering junkies looking for the next fix. Short summary - yes it blew our minds, yes it was cold, no there were no cherry blossoms, yes the highlight of our trip was indeed the food, and yes we're dying to go again. In no particular order, here’s a list of things I loved in each city.

We stayed in two rather different neighborhoods over the 5 days that we were in Tokyo. Shinjuku north is the mad vibrant sort of place that I imagined all of Japan to be, so I’m glad we saw this before seeing other, slower but equally powerful places. The second neighbourhood we experienced was the Asakusa where we stayed at the Hotel Denchi. This is a quieter, residential sort of neighbourhood, with nice parks and shrines and museums. Here are my recommendations for Tokyo:

  • 9 hours Shinjuku north: If you’ve never stayed in a capsule hotel before, do yourself a favour and do it soon! Unless you're acutely claustrophobic, the space should not be concern: they’re not like MRI machines, which is how I imagined them – more like 5x the size of an MRI machine. I had three nights of amazing sleep in the capsule. There are a few minor inconveniences – you need to check in and out of your capsule every day, but they give you a roomy locker to keep all your stuff, and there are literally hundreds of coffee shops and restaurants next door.
  • The Onsen at Spa La Qua: We spent two afternoons (4 hours plus) here out of a 5-day trip. Need I say more?
  • Harajuku street: Very interesting neighborhood to walk around in – fantastic coffee, dozens of local designers to look at or buy from, stores with beautiful snacks and desserts, cafes where you can spend time with hedgehogs, cats or owls. We rolled our eyes at the weirdness of it all, then caved in an spent a lovely 30 minutes with some very sleepy hedgehogs. The famous Shibuya crossing is closeby, as is the Meiji shrine.
  • Meiji Shrine: High on all tourist lists, and with good reason.
  • Bar crawl with Alejandro (this is an airbnb experience) who took us on a very memorable walk around the izakayas on harmonica street.
  • Stationery stores: The city is a heaven for stationery lovers. We went to so many but Inkstand by Kakimori is perhaps my favourite. I've come back a person who now writes with fountain pens.
Top three food recommendations for Tokyo: Ramen at Zundo-ya in Shinjuku, Katsu curry at any of the CoCo Ichibanyas and burgers at Blacows.

Arriving in Kyoto after spending a few days in Tokyo feels like stepping back in time. It’s quieter, slower and has unbelievably picturesque streets that you can walk around in for hours, even in winter. I can understand how popular it is for cherry blossom enthusiasts – every street corner looks instagrammable. We stayed in Kyoto Inn Gion and I strongly recommend both the hotel and the neighborhood. If I live in this city for 10 years, I will not get tired of walking around. I recommend walking in the many interesting neighborhoods –Shirakawa, Pontocho, Nishiki market, Shijo dori  – over multiple days, at different times of the day,  because they look lovely in so many ways, especially the Shirakawa street. Shijo dori street has multiple dessert stores which have some truly exciting mochi-type sweet snacks which I recommend trying. We also participated in a tea ceremony which I enjoyed a lot. Another highlight of Kyoto was the music performance we watched at the Kyoto Muse. This city is famous for the breathtakingly beautiful shrines in the middle of massive gardens. The most popular ones are Fushimi Inari - made famous for the gazillion pictures of orange pillars on Instagram and Arashiyama - the one with the massive green bamboo trees, you’ve seen the pictures, you know what I’m talking about. We went to Fushimi Inari and I have to be honest, I did not enjoy it. The crowd was too overwhelming. But when we walked across the street from our hotel to the Yasaka shrine, which is not on any top 10 list, we experienced such perfect beauty and the silence that I will remember for a long time.

Top three food recommendations for Kyoto: Katsu curry at Kara-Kusa curry, Omurice at Fu-ka Ginkakuji, and Okominyaki absolutely anywhere.

They call it the foodies’ city, and they’re right. More than one person said to us that it’s impossible to have a disappointing meal in Osaka, so don’t bother to look at reviews. (I think this might be true for all of Japan. Apart from the one bento box I picked up at Osaka train station for the Osaka-Tokyo trip, every single meal in Japan is a lovely memory. Food just looks more beautiful and tastes more exciting in Japan). My recommendations for Osaka:
  • Morning meditation at the Osaka castle - Airbnb experience with Kuniatsu
  • Experience hidden Namba – Airbnb experience with Richard, an American ex-hotelier, who has lived in Japan for over 30 years, and just knows that he was a Japanese samurai in a past life. We rang the new year with this dude and a bunch of very, very friendly strangers
  • Onsen at Spa world – yes, onsen again. Onsens are definitely among my top 3 Japanese experiences.

Sunday, 23 December: Arrived in Tokyo
23 – 25 December to: Tokyo (2 days, 3 nights)
Wednesday, 26 December: Train to Kyoto (about 5 hours)
26-29 December: Kyoto (4 days, 4 nights)
Sunday 30 December: Train to Osaka (about 15 minutes)
30 December 2018 to 01 January 2019: Osaka (3 days, 3 nights)
Wednesday, 2 Jan 2019: Train to Tokyo
2-5 January: Tokyo again (3 days, 3 nights)
Saturday, 5 January: Flight back to Bombay

Saturday, February 23, 2019

At Nayakhanga (day 4 of the Langtang trail)

What does anything matter
If every once in a while
I can come to this place
Even if it is in my own head - travel cheap and easy 

Breathe in this pine scented air
Watch the sun set over snowed mountains
Hear yak bells and singing rivers 
Feel the mental batteries reboot

Really, what does the chaos in the real world matter
When I know that this place exists
that I and this mountain live on the same planet
that we can meet each other again
and listen to Nepali songs together
songs that I don't understand and yet somehow understand

Friday, February 22, 2019

I think I may have understood what procrastination is all about (thank you Dr Oakley!)

I used to love writing. I wrote about the mountains I climbed, imagining scores of people using my blog to plan their own treks. I wrote about my disastrous dates (names removed), imagining people reading and chuckling. It was mostly friends and family who read and loved my blog - they said they did and I chose to believe them. Every once in a while, a stranger would pop in here and leave a flattering comment that would leave me glowing for weeks.

At some point, I became aware that I was an only an average sort of writer, not brilliant. It wasn't a sudden realization, brought on by any specific criticism, but it came insidiously and took away all the crazy joy I used to get out of a very loved routine – keyboard clacking, throwing a bunch of random thoughts down on a document, rereading a dozen times, hitting publish, nagging folks to read and enjoying the attention. It just stopped being fun. My frequency of posting on my blog is a very telling graph:

The number of posts I wrote from 2007 to 2018

My brother, who thinks a lot about how powerful the act of creating is and how much it makes us who we want to become, continued to gently remind me to write, and always said “Great!” whenever I said I would write soon. He also continued to renew the subscription on my domain, year on year, without ever saying anything about it. 

I wanted to write. In May 2018, a friend and I went on a gorgeous trek in Nepal, and even as I was climbing those breathtakingly beautiful trails, I was thinking – this will break my writer’s block for sure. I know I will want to write about this. We got back on the 2nd of June, and I started to write about the Langtang trail in July. I wrote a few words, put a few pictures in. And stopped. Every night, I would put this on my to-do list – “Finish Langtang post”. Every morning I would see that entry, and this is it what would happen:
  • 7 AM: I’ll start my day with, that should inspire me to write
  • 8.30 AM: Let me make some fresh coffee and start writing
  • 9 AM: I’ll tidy up my work desk first, then write about Langtang before I open my work 
  • 9.30 AM: Let me quickly check email to see if something important has come in that might need a response from me
  • 7 PM: I’m exhausted. I’ll scroll through Facebook and Instagram for a bit, that’ll help me unwind and then I’ll write
  • 8 PM: I don’t feel like writing, it’s been such a long day. I’ll have dinner and put Langtang on my to-do list for tomorrow.
And so it went for 3 weeks. And then I decided to stop thinking about Langtang because it was too painful. I decided I don’t really need to write, I have a pretty fulfilling life as it is.

And then, two weeks ago, I started a course called “Learning How to Learn” (LHTL) - often cited as the most popular among all MOOCs. I have a tendency to be hyperbolic, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this course has probably changed my life. And within this course, the lesson on Procrastination which I want to summarise here, so that I can remember it. 

Everyone I know procrastinates. We acknowledge it, with shame, sheepishness, sometimes even a weird sort of pride. As I went through the course, the mechanics of procrastination started to make sense. I see patterns in my life and something is starting to shift in my brain. It also helps that thanks to Simon Sinek, I got intensely interested in neurochemicals, so the procrastination circuit, as explained in LHTL, makes even more sense. This is what the circuit looks like, with some examples from my life:

The procrastination circuit [source: my notes from Learning How to Learn]

So here are the top four things I’ve learned from the LHTL’s section on procrastination:
  1. Will power is a limited resource. Using it can deplete it, so it needs to be used strategically. You only need to apply it at point X – between Cue and Habit – and learning to identify the cues is the way to streamline the use of your will power
  2. Discomfort is your friend. When you’re trying to manage procrastination, the discomfort you feel when you do not follow your usual cue>habit cycle will be significant. Every time, multiple times. But knowing this discomfort, acknowledging it, being okay with it, not trying to push it away is the best gift you can give yourself. This discomfort is building new brain circuits and so it is your friend (Vipassana flashback!)
  3. Failing is okay, as long as it is with awareness. Anytime you try to break the cue>habit, one of two things will happen. You will either not perform the habit that the cue wants you to do – let’s call this success. Or you will follow your usual pattern and perform the habit – let’s call that failure. Success builds new habit circuits, so that over time and repetition, the discomfort of the new habit will lessen. Failure will increase your understanding of your self and your patterns so that next time you try to break the cue>habit pattern, this understanding will make the process slightly, infinitesimally, easier. So both outcomes are okay, but you need to be aware of what is going on.
  4. Celebrate when you’re successful. Reward yourself. Sometimes the reward is the just the feeling that OMG, I did it! Savour that feeling. The way I’m feeling right now because I finished this piece.

Final takeaway: just start. Choose a random self-experiment of breaking one procrastination habit. My experiment – I will write something every day. It will be uncomfortable, but I will do it.

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