Archive for August, 2009

Cross dressers in Hakone

Cross dressers and me in Hakone

I’ve been writing Frommer’s Japan and Frommer’s Tokyo for more than 20 years, slugging along without much pay, let alone recognition (and with the ever-constant knowledge that the publisher can summarily dismiss me for any or no reason). So I was more than just a little overwhelmed at a ceremony held in my honor in Tokyo last month, ushering me in as a YOKOSO! Japan Ambassador. Presented at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, the honorary title  recognizes my achievements in introducing Japan to foreign tourists. Of the 49 individuals who have been appointed ambassadors over the last two years, I’m the only recipient living in the United States.

Reasons for the appointment: Not only was I the first female solo author to write a guide to Japan, but I am also the longest-reigning author of a guide to the country. As I commented at the ceremony, “Boy, does that make me feel old!” And when the handful of Japanese men from the tourism department added that I probably know Japan better than they do, I smiled demurely. How the hell could I not, unless they’ve inspected thousands of hotel rooms from Kyushu to Hokkaido, perused too many menus to count, and seen almost every major attraction in the country, not to mention gay bars, public baths, and wacky shrines and museums that honor everything from the penis to Godzilla?

I almost cried when they handed me my plaque, because all I could think about was: “If they only knew.” If they only knew that I was paid $7,000 for that first Japan edition back in the mid-1980s, forcing me to use all my savings for the year of traveling and writing that the guide required. If only they knew how many times I’d been turned away at the door, from alienphobes who did not want foreigners dining at their restaurants or sleeping on their futon. Only I knew how the Japan and Tokyo guides, which now span a total of 900 pages and take almost one year to update, keep me in poverty because I have little time to do anything else and have to pay all my expenses from the total $34,000 Frommer’s now pays me for my efforts.

But would I trade it? Not on your life; it’s been a glorious ride. I never planned to write a guide book on Japan, but like most of life’s best opportunities, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and was free to take on the challenge. Although I still prefer the unknown over the known, adventure over lux, my responsibilities as a single mom hold my wild child in check. Not to say that my two teenage sons and I don’t have adventures–last summer we spent a month in Peru living on $100 a day, and the summer before we hauled our pop-up tent trailer to Florida; on both trips we lived on the spur of the moment, without any prior reservations and free to go where whim took us.

My YOKOSO! Japan Ambassador plaque sits on my desk, a reminder not only of what I’ve accomplished but also of what’s possible.You don’t have to have money to enjoy the good life; you just have to recognize what makes life good.


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Every artist should see this talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on writing.

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Solo on the run

It’s 10 p.m. in downtown Anchorage, and I’m sitting on the deck of the Snow Goose perched above the sound, mountains all around, with docks and  shipping containers and massive round tanks for oil below, looking almost dainty. I wanted to see the sunset over the mountain across the sound. It’s a clear night with just a few clouds so  the pinks and oranges  have some texture and (to quote HGTV) “really pop.” But the sunset takes its own sweet time around here…. And then when it does set it doesn’t actually get dark right away, more like blue sky that gets softer and more dusky and takes  another hour to fade. At 11 p.m., it’s still light enough to see everything. People start hikes and bike rides at 8 p.m.

“It’s really setting early now,” I hear a  tattooed kid in a flannel shirt and woodsman beard at the next table say. “Was, like 12. Light until 1 or so. Up again at 3. Good party weather.”

It’s First Friday, and, like half the artsy cities in the lower 48, Anchorage has a gallery walk. Fifteen or so galleries, and a lot of hanger-on pseudo-art shops (stuffed with processed in China artifacts that are supposed to appeal to tourists) stay open as well. In fact, just about everything is open. Street vendors sell reindeer sausage smothered in sizzling onions on a bun, musicians set up guitar and drums on the corner. Locals and tourists mingle. I see several things that I covet if I had that kind of money to burn: pottery the silent green of a deep forest, delicately woven scarfs the color of tundra. I keep them in mimd for the end of the tourist season and hope they have sales.

This is my First Friday night here too, alone, without hefty weekend lists of chores and deadlines, in about  6 months.  I feel that I should do something, something productive, worthwhile, memorable. Make “use” of the “free time.” But it isn’t really free. I earned it. I paid for it. I should have a receipt for all the work I did… 45 hours of work  earns a certain number of hours that are discretionary. Something to make if official. A pay-check in time. A system where I can redeem my earned hours.

But even so, I have no discretionary-use skills. I missed that class on how to make best use of your down time. I get anxious and putz and start cleaning  (or writing a blog) or making lists of everything I need to do once I get back to work. It is, once I say it that clearly, kinda pathetic. A girl needs to know how to slow down and smell the musk ox.  (Hey, I’m in Alaska.)

So, that’s the goal… stay solo… stop running. No agenda. No lists. Feels weird already.

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