Thursday, October 19, 2006

Japan (III) -- Women only

This is it. I’m on my way to the airport, My week in Japan is over. I am looking forward to sleeping into my own bed “tonight” (after a 20 hours travel).
My suitcase is loaded with Japanese "stuff" ranging from food to small souvenirs. The train from Machida to Shinjuku is crowded with commuters. I see one express train come and the rush to get in it that follows. It is impossible to fathom. I see a blond woman filming the scene. There is no way I am getting on a train as crowded as this and I use an old Parisian trick: going to the end of a train to avoid all the people who cram into the middle cars to be nearest to their exit. As I arrive at the end of the track, the announced train is a semi-express, another safe bet to avoid crowding. Sure enough when the train arrives, there is enough room and I board. It is only after two or three stops that I realize that something is strange: I am surrounded by women. There is no one man in sight. Not a single one. I immediately start formulating hypothesis on why it should be so. My first guess is that most of the women in this train have come to the same conclusion as I did: it’s better to board a semi-express than an express, losing a bit of time in the process but wining space and peace of mind. Knowing the sexism of the Japanese society, I also suspect that this way, the woman are trying to avoid being “pinched” in the anonymity of a crowded train. I’ve experienced this and know first hand how disturbing this can be.
I’m there formulating all these hypothesis when I notice a large green sign on one of the window of the train car. The sign says “Woman Only” and explain that between the hour of 7:30 to 9:30 in the morning the first (or last) car of each train en-route to downtown Tokyo is reserved for women. This is true for express and semi-express trains.
A woman only car! This is such a brilliant idea. No problem of rush hour “encounters”, no hassle. If only they could implement this in Paris! So there is some good in some imposed rules after all. The imposed rest at the swimming pool bothered me but it is coming from the same philosophy of the society that triggers this rule about women-only cars that I find so appealing.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Japan (II) -- Swimming Pool (III)

I decided to go for a swim. Nothing unusual except that I am in Japan and my knowledge of the language is rather limited. What I know is that somewhere near the “Sagamiono” stop station (one stop away from where I am staying) there is a public swimming pool. I got the information from a Japanese colleague who forwarded me a website address in Japanese. All I can understand on that website is the picture of a nice pool. I go down to ask the front desk. I am not staying in a hotel but in a “weekly appartment building”. They do not catter to tourists (which is a good thing as there are hardly any tourist here in Machida) but to Japanese travelers, renting studio appartment at a cheaper rate than an hotel. The front desk woman does not speak a word of English, nor French.
I try the few words I know in Japanese. She tells me to wait. About 10 minutes later, she is back with a printout from the web, showing a private health club that seems to be nearby. The price is outrageous. Something like $30 for an entrance pass valid twice. I decide to go exploring the Sagamiono station.

Once there, my first stop is a private health club that I saw marked on the orientation map at the train station. About 10 minutes of exploring walk, I end up in a lounge with soothing music and massage chairs. Everything around me looks like in the US. The big “Whey Protein” containers for sales with pictures of diformed people looking proud of themselves, the TV above the counters, the TVs above the treadmills that I can see in a corner of the next room. After a very short discussion “No pool. Members only”, I am sent to the other side of the train station, the other side of the tracks to look for another private club “Live” where, I am told, I can find a pool.
I get there to find that “Yes pool. but sorry: members only”. Fortunately, not only a young staff member speaks English perfectly, he is eager to practice and after sending his colleague to print out the directions to the public pool, he keeps asking me if there is anything else I want to know. I ask him about Japan, how he came to speak English so perfectly (a very rare occurance here) and after bowing and enough “arigato goisamasoo-ing” (about 5 on my count), I’m on my way to the bus station where, armed with the printout of the directions, it is easy to board the correct public bus for the pool.
We pass an American base on the way. I see houses with a lot of green around, signs to keep out, and a large wire fence around.

The pool is all I expected a Japanese pool to be: clean, clean and clean. The entrance fee is about 3$ but the charge is only valid for 2 hours. Any additional time has to be paid for. I don’t plan on staying that long. Just wanted to shake off the long flight in and relax in prevision of an heavy week of work.

There are lockers available (1$) and private stools to change (never seen in the US) and then I am in water. The deepest end is about 5 foot deep and lap swimming is done by changing lane on the back and forth. There is one line to swim one way and another line to swim back. Efficient way to minimize the number of lanes reserved for lap swimming. I am the only westerner in a pool.Most of the people came in with kids (it is Sunday after all) and there is a large number of older people (there is what looks like a communal restaurant for old people at the entrance of the pool). So I swim back and forth, bowing in the water with a “dozo” to allow someone to pass me (I am not a fast, nor a good swimmer). I am starting to relax fully when I hear a witsle. I ignore it thinking it is directed to one of the kids playing in the nearby lane but as I am readying to swim back, a woman taps on my shoulder. She is about 60 with a very kind face and a soft smile. “Rest now” she says. I look at her, uncertain of what she means. “Rest now. No swim”. I look around. Everybody is getting out of the pool. It is rest time for everybody. Every hour, from 10-off to the full hour, everyone and the pool take a 10 mn break. It does not matter that one just arrives and does not need to rest. It’s mandatory rest time. I look at people standing around the pool and some who are walking toward a small room on the side. Japan is a smoking country. Smoke is everywhere so my first thought is that this is the smoking room but then it just does not make sense. Even in Japan, people just don’t swim and smoke. So I have a closer look and realize that it’s a sauna. Nice dry heat. People sitting in silence, enjoying this imposed rest time.
I slowly gets the heat enters my body, completely relaxed now. A nice break indeed.
Still I cannot get over the irritation to have it imposed on me by some rules. I am all for taking breaks when swimming, I just don’t see why it should be imposed by the pool rules and be the same for everyone.
I laught at the thought of such rule in the US or in France and again realize how lucky I am to live there rather than here.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Japan (I) -- The first time

This was my first time. 6:35 AM in the morning. I was awake because of the jetlag, standing in this small hotel room in my PJs and it happened. The hotel moved. As if it were a paper construction. The potential strength of that earthquake was palpable. Like the touch of a giant who has decided not to hurt you but whose "caress" still sends you across the room.
My first reflex is to grab my pants and get dressed. I don't want to stay in my PJs. Don't want to linger in bed. I want to be entirely dressed in case it happens again. Then I look for my passport and green card and decide to carry them at all time. I won't let them in my hotel room as I usually do. I can't risk it.

I check the net and the monitoring of earthquakes and sure enough, I find it: a 5.3 magnitude quake off the coast of Japan. Nothing really but enough to make me think that I don't want to die here, that I want to be back home as quickly as possible, surrounded by friends and familiar faces. I've checked. There has been no earthquake recorded in Washington DC for the past 100 years.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

San Francisco (III) -- No to Napa

Just don't go. It's a waste of time and waste of money.
We decided to take a day off from the conference and bike Napa (well part of Napa at least).
Our first stop is "Sterling" which greets us with a large parking lot filled with SUVs and limos. That's enough to make me suspicious but the worst is the $20 fee to take a cable car to access the wine tasting area. $20 to "taste" wine? When did this happen? This is like paying a contractor for an estimate. You should not. Estimates are part of their cost for doing business. Tasting wine is the same thing. This should be part of the cost of doing business. If the wine is good, we buy a bottle and everyone is happy. We decide to pass on the $20 wine tasting experience.
The place next door ("Twomey") is much more low key (still $5 for a tasting but the wine is excellent) but the first impression is the one that stays for the whole day. It is a rip off. Wine places are selling "chocolate Riesling", "wine coasters", napkins. Each place looks more like a supermarket than a winery. I still buy a couple of bottles. One is for a friend that was pissed at me (and my entire fault). I ask the guy at the counter a wine to restore a damaged friendship. No wine is too good. I hope this would do the trick. The other bottle is for the concierge at the hotel who got us the rental car. We could not find one and he saved our Saturday. Later, when I give him the bottle he laughed at my description of the places and tells me that next time he'll give me the list of places that I should visit. That there are still nice, low key places in Napa. They're just a bit more hidden than the big names on the tourist circuit. There will be no next time. Napa once is one too many...

Friday, October 06, 2006

San Francisco (II) -- Don't shoot the pianist

The hotel I am staying in is a posh hotel right off Chinatown, at the top of a steep hill.
There is a piano in the lobby and at certain times during the day, the piano is playing. By itself. The keys are going up and down as if an invisible player was sitting there. Nobody to shoot at.
This proves irresistible for a kid about 4 year old who has jumped on the seat in front of the piano and is trying to follow along the song and the keys going up and down. He is really "following along" although the sound produced does not improve the music that much. His mother is sitting nearby, letting him enjoy a big, new toy.
This is when a woman employed by the hotel comes to the kid. It is very clear that she would like nothing better than grab him and put him somewhere as far as possible from the piano, but she can't and she is trying to bring him to stop in a falsely smooth voice. The voice, most adults use when they speak to children, as if speaking to an inferior intellect. Slowly, smoothly and higher pitched voice that they would to adults.
"Do you want some milk?" I hear her say. "Maybe some cookies?" she adds as it is clear that the milk won't do the trick. The child is unflappable. He just loves that piano and no milk and cookies are going to make him leave it. The voice gets a bit higher in pitch. "Look! I have some toys over there!" The kid is still pounding on the keyboard. The woman turns to the mother and with a very low and severe voice tells her that kids are not allowed near the instrument. I'm not sure if the milk, cookies and toys are still part of the deal.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

San Francisco (I) -- Swimming Pool (II)

I am in San Francisco for a meeting. I arrive early to set everything up and discover that the room is occupied until 5 PM so I decide to go for a swim in the local pool. Not a long walk from here, just a lots of hills. This is San Francisco after all.
I have my first surprise arriving there: it's free. Apparently it's free on Tuesdays. Or maybe it's free only today. In any case, I'm in without having paid a dime and the pool is OK, if not incredibly cold. The water is a least 5 degrees colder than my local pool. I can swim for 20 minutes and still feel the water fresh on my body. As I am nearing my usual kilometer swim, I am seized by crippling cramps. I decide to stop and head back in. The place is quite dirty and not really welcoming so I get dressed to go back to my hotel for a hot shower. A woman enters the dressing room. She was the one sharing the lane with me. She smiles and asks me how I am and I realize she saw me struggling out of the pool with my cramps. I explains that my right calf was killing me. She listens and then with a smile tells me "too bad I didn't know it was cramps. The remedy for cramps is very simple." She points to somewhere between her mouth and her nose and she continues "all you have to do is push somewhere there". "You have to find the correct point though. But it's somewhere here". She is pushing here and there, tracking an invisible "mustache" with her finger while explaining the principle of this point and its importance in acupuncture.
I love California.