We’re Back From Japan!

Christina and I got back from Japan this past Wednesday after two weeks of nonstop adventure. We flew out of Chicago and landed in a sweltering Tokyo on August 23rd. The subsequent days were filled with tours, hikes, feasts, laughs, and jet lag wake-up calls at 2 am. Japan is a magnificent country and the people are straight out of some 1950’s “Pleasantville” show. Interacting with a Japanese stranger is like a boyfriend interacting with his girlfriend’s parents for the first time – there is a lot of bowing, attentiveness, respect, and reiteration of the word “sorry.” Suffice it to say, Japan is the most well-mannered, clean, and sophisticated country you are likely to visit in your life. Even the toilets try to be helpful with soothing music and a squirt of water for that hard-to-reach dingleberry. Added to the wonderful people we met, the food in Japan raised our trip to a whole different tier of pleasure: there was ramen, udon, okonomiyaki, teppanyaki, shabushabu, takoyaki, yakisoba, yakitori, and a whole host of interesting concoctions that are nicely displayed at this link.

Most of our daily activities included some sort of tour which highlighted the history of Japan. The Japanese mostly believe in both Shintoism and Buddhism. Shintoism is the native religion of Japan which believes in nature as a source of divinity – think of Native American religions – while Japanese Buddhism is an amalgamation of Shintoism, Chinese beliefs, and Indian Beliefs (click here for more on Buddhism). We visited a myriad of shrines which were hundreds of years old and learned some of the customs of worship. There are usually steps of purification at shrines and one must either cleanse with water or take off footwear before entering a sacred space. This is why the Japanese commonly take their shoes off before entering the home or a public space like a restaurant. The tours were great and I was able to juxtapose each experience with a previous book that I read on the subject. The highlight of the trip for me was climbing Mt. Fuji which took Christina and I over 11 hours to complete. This was the highest mountain I have ever climbed and the air at the top caused both of us to have altitude sickness. We had to take a lot of breaks and eat a lot of snacks but in the end the view was worth all the hardship. The trip as a whole was simultaneously amazing and exhausting; by the end I missed America, my culture, cheeseburgers, my bed, my family, my friends, and my chihuahua. Below are some of the best pictures we took.

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Tokyo Fish Market

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Squid on a Stick

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Tokyo Station

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Bike Tour in Tokyo

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Meiji Shrine

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Buddhist Temple

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Multi Level Pagoda

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Famous Shibuya Crossing

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Climbing Mt. Fuji

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Climbing Up

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Near the top of Mt. Fuji

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The Crater of Mt. Fuji

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Christina getting turned into a Geisha

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Christina walking Kyoto as a Geisha

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Buddhist Garden

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Golden Temple in Kyoto

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Hiroshima Specialty

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Hiroshima Castle

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Deer at Miyajima Island

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My Favorite Shinto Shrine

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A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

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View from Tokyo Tower on Last Day

An American Geisha

In one month Christina and I will be in the land of the rising sun – Japan. We will be visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Mt. Fuji, Hiroshima, Osaka, and Yakahana; all of this in 15 memorable and most likely exhausting days. Several city tours are scheduledalong with days for relaxation and days for cultural experiences. One of the most quintessential components of Japanese culture is the Geisha. When we are in Kyoto – the cultural center of Japan – Christina is going to get to experience what it is like to dress up like a geisha. She will get to pick out a kimono and wear the traditional white makeup and black wig. I almost even signed up for the “samurai” experiencebut thought $150 was overkill to hold a sword and wear a robe.

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It’s funny to see pictures of white tourists dressed as geishas – it’s like a culturally insensitive Halloween party. Even though it looks odd for a white woman to be a geisha, there was actually an American woman who entered this veiled world back in the 1970’s. Liza Dalby was the only foreigner ever to become a geisha, and she details her experience in the Nonfiction/Memoir-Geisha. Dalby became a geisha as an anthropologist researcher; she wanted to accurately understand and dispel the myths associated with this secretive world. If you ever go to Japanread this book because the world of a geisha is a microcosm of Japanese culture.

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The first geishas appeared in the 18th century and were actually male entertainers. Eventually, men were replaced by women and by the beginning of the 19th century, the job of a geisha was seen as a female occupation. Geishas were revered in society as fashion forward and socially influential, like we see celebrities today. The role of a geisha was to entertain male patrons through witty conversation, dancing, singing, and instrument playing. The white makeup that a geisha wears initially accentuated their expressions and performances in dimly lit rooms before the advent of electricity. As time went on, the geishas maintained their makeup and kimonos because their traditional look was a sacred treasure to a nostalgic Japan. Before WWII, it was common for rural families to sell their daughters to geisha houses. These young girls would apprentice for several years before mastering all the artistic skills of the profession.

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With modernization, this practice stopped and the geisha of today join the business in their 20’s – the artistic requirements are not as strenuous due to changing tastes of clientele. The geisha’s job is to provide men (sometimes women) with a relaxing atmosphere where they can laugh, discuss, and enjoy picturesque entertainments. Japanese culture is very different from western culture in respects to the role of the wife. Wives in Japan are seen as modest mothers who are masters of the house – interactions with husbands are usually more serious and formal. The role of the geisha is to provide the other side of femininity – gracefulness, joking, and innocent flirtation. Geisha are not prostitutes and rarely have sex with their patrons. Of course, geishas can have sex with their clients, but it would be like visiting a bar expecting to have sex with a bartender.

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Geishas usually live together in a tea house which is led by a “mother.” The mother is a retired geisha who trains, mentors, and organizes the various patron requests. The profession of a geisha can be lucrative and long lived for women in Japan – geishas can work for decades if they choose. Many Americans see the career of a geisha as demeaning towards women. In reality being a geisha in Japan allows women the rare opportunity to run their affairs and escape the restrictions associated with raising a family – when they interact with men they are respected to a much higher degree compared to other service jobs. Geishas are revered as talented artists, stewards of culture, and educated conversationalists.

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There is no equivalent occupation in America. An American style geisha would probably be a well-educated woman who lived in a sorority house and entertained (maybe with a fiddle) while wearing high quality “wild west” garb. Making comparisons is impossible, but it allows one to understand the true idiosyncrasies of the profession. While in Japan I want to see a geisha, and hopefully, we will witness some walking in the streets of Kyoto; it costs $450 per person as a tourist to be entertained by a geisha. I’ll just try to sneak a dance with Christina after her transformation 🙂

The Upside of Down

What makes America great? Is it the people? The beautiful landscape? The election process? I think a lot of citizens define the greatness of America through her economic and military prowess. Over the past 10 years there has been a lot of news about America’s dominance fading in the world. I hear things like, “China owns half of our country!” “Their is a new Cold War with Russia!””There are going to be taco stands at every corner!” “All of our jobs are being shipped overseas!” I never really looked into these claims before so I wanted to read a book about the true economic status of the developed world compared to the developing. I picked up The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West by Charles Kenny. Kenny was previously a senior economist at the World Bank and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and writes for Bloomberg Businessweek and Foreign Policy magazines. To put it simply, this guy knows his stuff.

First off, China is definitely going to surpass the United States economy very soon – some economists argue that is has already happened. The math is simple: China has 1.3 billion people and the United States has roughly 350 million people. That is a billion more workers and consumers with an ever widening middle class that is ready to spend.

“…by 2030 the world will have four major economic players. China will be the heavyweight, with a share of global GDP around 24 percent (measured at purchasing power parity). Next will be India, the European Union and the United States – each with 10 to 12 percent of the global output. Brazil, Indonesia, and Japan will each control a little more than 3 percent of global GDP.”

Should this fact worry the United States? Not at all. It is great news. For one, the average Chinese or Indian will one day be able to buy more products from the United States. With more money flowing into America, there will be more jobs created and more services needed. Second, countries with large economies love trade agreements – allowing them to easily import and export. This increases alliances and decreases the risks of wars. Thirdly, with greater partnerships with other countries, the United States can reduce military spending and focus more on improving quality of life measures for her citizens (health care, infrastructure, worker benefits, etc.).

Now what about all the worries of immigration and jobs being taken by the “rest” of the world.

“…US offshoring may have been responsible for a 1.6 percent decline in manufacturing jobs over the period 1997 to 2007, but the impact on long-term productivity may actually increase employment (which may also be better paid). The idea is that firms save money by offshoring, which, by allowing them to sell more for less, increases both their own revenues and the revenues of those that purchase the goods they sell. As a result, they can hire more people, or their shareholders have more money to buy goods and services from other Americans.”

Yes, America has lost jobs overseas but the economy as a whole has benefited immensely from affordable goods and greater domestic purchasing power – the result being a net increase in job creation. So what about jobs at home being taken by immigrants? The United States attracts some of the best and brightest students from around the world. Our universities, with the help of foreign students, foster innovation that continues to make America a leader in patents and technology. Immigrants are vital to our growing economy, because as earlier explained, the number of people in a country is one of the biggest factors in economic health. With an aging population and a decreasing birth rate, the United States should be happy to take all the skilled labor she can get. What about the “illegal” immigrants? Shouldn’t we build a wall? It was found that immigrants from Mexico do not take jobs from Americans but rather help create new jobs (click here for clear example). By paying less for labor, businesses have more money for investments, purchases, and new job creation. Furthermore, between 2009-2014 there was net loss of Mexicans leaving the United States. This is due to an improving Mexican economy and better family reunification programs. It was found that increased border control actually increased the number of illegal immigrants in the country; due to the fact that it was harder for Mexicans to reenter their country.

All of this points to the need for more investment and economic teamwork throughout the world. We should not become a isolated country that is afraid of immigrants or the success of other countries. We need to remember that immigrants founded this country and that the rise of the rest is good for the west. If you liked this article please a related post, The World is Flat.

 

The Last Samurai

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My wife and I are planning a trip to Japan for August 2017. It is a celebratory occasion because that month will mark my wife’s completion of her doctoral program to be a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Christina is working her butt off to finish this degree and I personally feel a lot of the stress that emanates from her little body. School by itself is terrible, but to make matters worse she is studying, working, and interning at the same time. I thought that I wanted to go back to school to study History or Religion but I have come to my senses and just want to keep writing my blog posts. To prepare for my trip, I wanted to read more about Japanese History-leading me to read The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori.

Saigō Takamori was born in 1828 to a Japan that was on the cusp of national change. Japan was divided into classes of status that essentially preordained a person’s role in life. One of those classes included samurai, which in Japanese translates to, “those who serve in close attendance to the nobility.” Samurai only made up about 10% of the Japanese population and were trained in military skills for the protection of their clan or lord. Many samurai lived on menial stipends and practiced farming to make ends meet. Think of Samurai as the Army Reserves-loyal fighters who could be called to service at anytime. During most of Saigō’s lifetime, Japan was divided between domains that were somewhat autonomous-samurai did not fight for the “nation” of Japan but rather the lord of their domain. A similar situation can be seen in the US during the Civil War-Robert E Lee fought for his “domain” of Virginia over that of the “nation” of the United States. Samurai were taught to have the utmost virtue in obeying their lord and it was common practice to use ritual suicide if they were wounded/defeated in battle or if they were disobedient in their service.

Saigō, during his adult life, was used by his Lord to ascertain political information in the modern day city of Tokyo. This job led Saigō to make many important connections and would subsequently get him exiled two times because of political fallout related to his Lord. While in exile, Saigō’s popularity in Japan soared and on his return he was one of the most well known individual’s in the country due to his resiliency, virtue in service, and overall strength. Saigō was influential in helping Japan convert a divided island of domains into a united modernized country. Japan had to change their political system because western countries, like America, were much stronger militarily and Japan felt threatened by the tides of modernization crashing upon its shores. The Meiji Restoration in 1868 brought back imperial rule and drastically changed Japan’s feudal system to a modern-western system. Saigō, inadvertently, helped promote the eventually death of the samurai class and all classes for that matter. After the Meiji Restoration, all people were citizens of a “united” Japan and could move up the ranks of society based on their personal successes. In 1877, Saigō led a rebellion against the central government because of oppressive military policies against his domain. This was one of the last stands of a samurai class that was “technically” no more. In the end, Saigō was killed but was turned into a national hero because of his moral acumen against corruption, his unfaltering leadership, and his status as Japan’s “Last Samurai.”

 

 

 

The Asthmatic Boy who Became the Unstoppable Man Part 2

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Theodore Roosevelt is by far my favorite president. He lived an extraordinary life that in many ways transformed the world we live in today. Do you like National Parks? Thank Teddy. Do you like Wall Street regulations? Thank Teddy. Do you like food that is safe to eat? Thank Teddy. Do you like Teddy Bears? Thank Teddy. His accomplishments while in office were extensive and to completely understand his political mastery you should read Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. I honestly did not know much about Teddy’s political accomplishments before reading this book. In high school, we were taught that he carried a big stick and was a imperialistic bully. That caricature is quite inaccurate and not even close to his level-headed-fair demeanor in domestic and foreign affairs.

William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 which transferred the head office to Vice President Roosevelt. The funny thing was, none of the big business men wanted Roosevelt to be president and that is why he was given the worthless position of Vice President. They were afraid that he couldn’t be bought and that their extensive monopolies would be attacked. Roosevelt was not anti-industry but rather respected the need to give laborers more rights to maintain social order and the need to prevent monopolies from controlling prices. During his two terms, Teddy negotiated the end of a major coal strike, brought 40 anti-trust suits to court, broke up the biggest monopoly in the world-Standard Oil, negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, won the biggest popular vote landslide in 1904, established 5 national parks, purchased the land for the Panama Canal, proclaimed 18 national monuments, protected 150 National Forests, pushed Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act, hosted the first black man for dinner in the White House, defended the Monroe Doctrine in Venezuala, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was able to accomplish all these things because he knew how work the media and befriend almost anyone he met. The “big stick bully” is not how he carried himself; when it came to decision making he took his time and always thought about every outcome with the highest degree of civility.

I really admire Teddy not only for his political accomplishments but his life outside the office. He was immune to discomfort and would be outdoors whenever possible-regardless of the conditions. Nature was his first love and he traveled throughout the US during his two terms hunting, camping, exploring, and vigorously exercising. Along with his love of the outdoors, he was an avid reader who could sit for hours immersed in books of all subjects. He could out smart, out hike, and out eat almost any man he encountered. Teddy’s life is an inspiration for my own life and sadly I am no where close to his manliness levels. I watch a lot of TV, I don’t like to go out in the rain, I need a noise-maker to sleep, I waste time online, and I hike with a walking stick to fend off small dogs. I strive to be more adventurous, more erudite, and more compromising like Teddy and I know it will take me a lifetime. My biggest obstacle to being more like my favorite president is TV; my goal is to watch less so that I can read more and spend  more time outdoors. Small steps must be taken to stand on the great shoulders of Theodore Roosevelt.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
-Theodore Roosevelt