The Poison City

“Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”


An interesting article appeared in The Smithsonian Magazine some weeks ago, titled Step Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Garden (If You Dare). Said garden is part of the Alnwick Garden complex in Alnwick, Northumberland, England. The Poison Garden, a clever guise of a name to fool children into learning, contains some of the world’s most toxic, and surprisingly common, killers of the wild. Out of the 100 plus plants in the garden, I noticed a fair number are in walking distance of my apartment here in Japan. Although certainly not as compelling as the Alnwick Garden, I’ll take you along on my recent foray for foul flora of Koriyama city.

lily of the valley ose park Lily of the Valley
This plant seems to have been around for a spell, as several sources suggest its origins lie in the tale of St. Leonard’s bloody battle with a dragon or perhaps even the jaded tears of Eve herself. It is also, as a favored garden plant, found throughout Koriyama and especially near the entrance to kid-friendly Ose Park, which lies roughly 10 km west of the city center. The dainty-looking plant received much attention when it appeared in a near fatality–inducing cameo in Breaking Bad. As several of the other baddies noted here, Convallaria majalis has its kinder side, too: it’s been reported to ameliorate cardiovascular problems.

Brugmansia 2Brugmansia & Datura
Canest thou hear the fifth angel that heralds the fallen star? If you can, you’ve just ingested Brugmansia – angel’s trumpet – for Heaven knows what reason. Brugmansia has a sweet, inviting scent, but the beauty is dangerous unless you’re a moth. I happened upon it in the vague boundary of a Fall afternoon and evening. A light breeze wafted their powerful fragrance from over two blocks away. Like a mirror image of Brugmansia’s pendulous flowers, the species of Datura are also poisonous, particular the seeds and flowers.


You are taking a leisurely autumnal stroll, stopping beneath a thick canopy of gnarled wood to marvel at the many slender dried pods hanging and softly rustling in the wind. Without warning, one of them fires a brown seed the size of a nickel down your throat, and you are dead.

The air battle occurring overhead is a result of dehiscence, in which a seed pod dehydrates and, in this case, shrivels and tightens, ready for the slightest impact to spring the trap and fling its seeds as far as possible. The idea here is that the seeds will not fall directly below the parent plant, thus receiving no sunlight and potentially hogging the soil nutrients used by the parent.

Ludicrous situation above notwithstanding, the seeds of Wisteria are especially poisonous. In addition to its toxic nature, the beautiful twiner is also notorious for strangling plants and ruining new patios and sidewalks.

Mother of ThousandsBryophyllum daigremontianum
On one of the first warm days of Spring, Koriyamans began to bring out their hardier succulents from indoor hibernation. On my morning run, I did a double-take as an elderly woman slid open her screen door and shuffled out with a truly monstrous plant. Upon closer inspection during my run-by the following day, however, I appreciated how beautifully complex Bryophyllum daigremontianum, also known as Mother of Thousands or Mexican Hat Plant, truly is. Also, it is fun to say “bulbiliferous spurs”, which is how Wikipedia describes the plant’s unusual leaf margins. According to NSW Department of Primary Industries, “toxins are present in all parts of the plant; however, flowers are five times more poisonous than the leaves and stems.”

Mentha arvensisOthers I’ve possibly sighted but not confirmed include Omphalotus olearius, Entoloma rhodopolium, and Hedera rhombea. While a few of the plants mentioned in this post can sometimes be mistaken for other, more benign relatives (a perfect example being Giant Hogweed vs. Cow Parsnip, the former of which can cause severe burns), one to look out for is Mentha pulegium.

Pennyroyal, as it’s more commonly known, can very easily be mistaken for wild mint, or Mentha arvensis. Based on an unfortunate previous mishap, I can strongly advise any forager to confirm absolutely, without a doubt, the plant being picked. Plants, after all, are trying to kill us all.


Washed-Up Alien Balls Make Washed-Up News Headlines

“Scientists were baffled…

“…visitors from outer space or earthlings?

“Many are thinking: extraterrestrial.


Every horrid, ad-cluttered website and bimbo anchor−led morning news show broadcasted and rebroadcasted the same tired lines after many small, green balls floated on to the shores of a Sydney beach last weekend.

This is despite the fact that said baffled scientists and viewers alike had seemingly put an end to the matter, explaining that the balls were most likely a rare type of living green algae.

The attractive, lush green balls hardly need the Martian-origin hype. They are nearly perfectly circular, the strange and beautiful result of a process called aegagropilious. It is thought that the free-living algae form with the rolling motion of the waves.

I had my own first encounter with Aegagropila linnaei—or a marimo ball (毬藻), as they are called in Japan—at the office. Two small, soft orbs submerged in water inside an adorable glass container. My boss told me she hadn’t watered them in over two years since receiving them as a gift from a student.

Marimo balls (one cut in half) at the office

Marimo balls (one cut in half) at the office

After doing some basic research on the Japanese moss ball (although this name is misleading, as marimo is unrelated to moss), I got permission to cut one in half to allow the dormant chloroplasts to form two new balls. In situ, marimo ingeniously receive light on all sides as a result of aegagropilious. Ex situ, and to summarize, the balls failed to reform out of neglect, which I blame solely on uncooperative coworkers.

Although marimo can be seen on the shelf in malls and larger supermarkets here in Koriyama, the algae ball has been a protected species for nearly a century, and there have been reports of their disappearance from an Icelandic lake, perhaps due to pollution. Unfortunate news for such a natural wonder.

Long Live That What is Dying

A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.

—Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow


Koriyama is tumbling headlong into Fall. There’s been a perceptible, dooming chill in the air, and a few trees have switched on their brights in response. The W word was even mentioned recently.

Winter is Coming Forecast

But before everything freezes over and life goes to pot, the autumnal months mean rice harvesting time, and maybe a hopeful one for farmers in the Fukushima prefecture. In August, the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (ZEN-NOH) announced that rice exports from Sukagawa – less than 15 km from Koriyama and some 80 km from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant – would resume.

The mere 300-kg shipment, which officials assured had passed the government safety standard of 100 becquerels per kilogram, was sent to Singapore. Some English-language Singaporean websites reported that the shipment sold out within a couple of days.

Rice fields on the outskirts of Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture, Japan

Rice fields on the outskirts of Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture, Japan

All seems very promising, but there is still a host of problems to be dealt with for other farmers in the prefecture. In the months following the earthquake and subsequent nuclear plant disaster, rice producers sought to tackle the radiation problem by simply scraping off the top layer of soil, a practice still being carried out today in many of Koriyama’s playgrounds. One student spent his holiday doing the same for his parents’ garden.

Other methods, including using the mineral zeolite to absorb radioactive cesium and increasing tilling depth to release/remove contaminated soils, have met with some success, yet not on a large or significant scale. Compound these obstacles with the level of trust I’ve perceived from local Koriyamans, the good news slightly loses its edge.

What is promising, though, is the recent work being done on gene transplantation, in which researches have used a carbon-fixing enzyme to speed up photosynthesis in the tobacco plant. An implication of this work could be increasing crop yields worldwide and particularly in India, which has recently had its own issues in rice cultivation.

Salem, MA bookstore (2010)

Salem, MA bookstore (2010)

That being said, it will be years before these schemes start to germinate. For now, I’m content to spend my final days in the sun sipping hot spiced wine and cider and taking in an old Steve Reeve’s movie. Hallowe’en is upon us.

Flying, Flattering Furniture

Be excessively nice to each other.

Stephen Fry


Which is a stronger motivating tactic, fear or love?

I can recall several teachers, mostly in middle school, who were excellent purveyors of fear-fed encouragement. One was prone to throwing desks in her terrifying fits of frustration. Another teacher – a math genius who apparently couldn’t fathom why a student lacked the gift of telling when one train travelling 295 mph would pass the other if the other train was actually a hyena who had just received an accidental pap smear and was late for a meeting in Chicago – would employ the brilliant tactic of asking why said student couldn’t understand math.

One train is heading east at 295 mph, the other at 200 mph, the one from Chicago, the other from New York, the former trav--DERRRRRP

One train is heading east at 295 mph, the other at 200 mph, the one from Chicago, the other from New York, the former trav–DERRRRRP

For me, teachers are either remembered for being inspirational or terrifying, and the latter type has been pretty successful at convincing me to forgo Zelda and trudge through the painful slop that is Shakespearean literature.

Shakespeare English

That being said and as much as I have admired such wrath-incurring, desk-propelling tyrants, I find that the positive always outvalues the negative.

I find it’s the same in fueling a run with anger and fear versus one with positive thoughts and happiness.

An oldie, but a goodie, from my earlier blog

An oldie, but a goodie, from my earlier blog

As an English teacher, I strive to put my students at ease, elicit any efforts no matter if the answers are wrong or right, and genuinely praise them when those answers happen to be right. With some, I’m simply happy that they’ve chosen to speak. After all, I do work for an English conversation school.

On the other hand, as a person in general, I’m not exactly bursting with sweetness. Coworkers, friends, roommates – forgive me.

In the classroom, though, I’m a confetti-filled, carousing (and another hyphened, three-word c word my British coworker often enjoys saying) crowd pleaser, albeit no sycophant. While I admittedly enjoy taking my teaching tactics from Quite Interesting (bless you, Mr. Fry), I’ve often tried to style my teaching after a few of my more positive former teachers both in high school and at university.

Madame H., as I’ll call her, was my first true language teacher. Nearly every week of my freshman year of high school, the tiny French classroom of six students (the remaining entire grade having enrolled in Spanish) smelled of crêpes, cheeses, and whatever French treat Madame had us prepare that day.

french farts

Friday classes smelled of elderberries

While I was happy my best friend also decided to take the class, Madame was the main reason I chose to continue learning the language; she made every class fun and interactive, yet she expected much from our studies and therefore commanded our respect.

I had similar teachers in other subjects before and after Madame. Despite my poor math skills, I surprised myself after doing quite decently in AP Physics, thanks to an enthusiastic and persistent instructor. My poor piano teacher, probably the most persistent and patient of them all, was a constant purveyor of encouragement, even when she knew I hadn’t practiced much since our last lesson.

There are many studies on the effects of positive and negative, stick or carrot, methods of teaching, but, as those studies and my own experiences have attested, the carrot seems to be the healthier choice. Though, as an easily flattered egoist, I’d prefer the crêpe.

May Backpost: Lowered Ears

“No one likes it, apart from blind people, and I’m sure even they can sense it’s profound ugliness as it passes by.”
― Richard Curtis, on bad haircuts

This week, I had my haircut. Hardly exciting, I realize, but not only is it refreshing to have huge clumps of dry hair hacked away and no longer be confused for Phil Spector, but it’s also a fun way to explore the town and test my Japanese skills. By fun, of course, I mean the kind of “fun” you have when you fall off a cliff in New Jersey and have to gimp walk the four-hour trail back to Manhattan. Even so, today, I wasn’t followed through the woods at dusk by four smiling men in hoods.

Wait. Except that one. He’s okay.

Wait. Except that one. He’s okay.

The traffic along the main streets made the air thick and nauseating in the heat, but I figured my best bet for a decent salon or barber’s – maybe even with staff that spoke some blessed English – wouldn’t be in the backstreets far from the city center. After nearly an hour of aimless walking, I considered pulling out a map, hoping some locals might help a stupid tourist find the station and, subsequently, a decent, cheap, English-friendly place for a haircut nearby.

Also, could you tell me where the nearest 7-11 is? Oh, we’re standing in one? Thanks so much.

Also, could you tell me where the nearest 7-11 is? Oh, we’re standing in one? Thanks so much.

I’m both miserly and careless with money, depending on the day or how much coffee or vodka I’ve had at the moment. When it comes to haircuts, though, I don’t feel it necessary to spend upwards of $30 or $40 on a haircut, particularly when I’ve not much hair to cut in the first place, I’m generally not fussed when it comes to a particular desired hairstyle, and I could save that money towards gifts to be sent home to friends and family*.

*I project this will happen sometime in November. Good feelings about November.

Passing blue-white-red pole after pole with “menus” of fixed prices – the cheapest one of which advertised a trim for $35 – I happened upon a blue-and-green pole in front of a slender building. I immediately and boldly went inside after deliberating for 20 minutes around the corner. Two women in their 40s stopped mid-chat to appraise me, the one taking me in as one would a dim puppy, while the other, the barber, eyed my wild, wind-blown hair dubiously.

The Japanese I poo-pooed so gracefully came out something like this:

“Yes. Cut. Man. Hair. Good. Good? That’s fine. Yes?”

In all honesty, I might’ve told the women I was going to cut them, but after saying “yes” a few more times, I was shown to a chair.

One thing remains true about getting my haircut, no matter the country, and that’s the unwillingness of the hairdresser to leave the bloody length as is in the front. On one occasion in the States, a hair cutter (I refuse to call her a stylist of any sort) insisted she cut some of the length in the front; I held out, and when she had finished, she stood back and said with obvious revelation, “Wow, that actually looks really good!”

Maybe a little particular about my hair.

Maybe a little particular about my hair.

Unfortunately this time, not much conversation was had, but I watched my butcher hack cautiously, as she paused every few minutes, furrowing her brow when she observed the unbridled gaijin tufts winging out over my gaijin ears.

“Lots of,” I imitated Sloth from The Goonies. “Cut. Lots.” In time, the poor woman made a few minute snips in the back to signal the end of the haircut and commenced a tossle-and-brush-down procedure that felt a little more punishing than necessary.

After I had received my change, the woman pointed at the paper yen and then my pocket. I panicked, thinking I was supposed to tip, and was put off guard even more when she asked if I had my mother’s or father’s hair. My escape was a mad blur of more monosyllabic beginner’s Japanese.

“Yes. That’s fine. Yes. Thanks.”

foreign language

I went to the park for a bit of reading and for locals to gape at me as they passed – my favorite pasttime – and started to wonder when I stopped trying. No longer studying Japanese, nor doing much in the way of botany and plant physiology – simply stagnating and waiting to scramble at the last minute when it comes time for my next move.

My mother will begin her new job this summer, a change she seems quite excited about (including the financial aspect, heyo!), and I’m immensely proud of her. Of course, when I say “proud”, I do mean that but also jealous. Some may say this is a startling mindset for a son to be jealous of his parent, but what I would give to have her drive, and who are you to say so?

You think you know.

You think you know.

I make no resolutions here, nor do I generally make resolutions ever; it sets the bar far too high. So far, I’ve ran a marathon, met a few decent folks, and managed to use the word “poo-pooed” in a blog post. Aside from that, I’ve a long way to go if I want 2014 to be the banner year I imagined it would be.

Monstrous Botanical Beauties of Fiction

“and I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott fight a triffid that spits poison and kills.”

Science Fiction, Double Feature – The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Kudzu is beautiful. It spreads out for acres and spills over trees like waterfalls of green. Along the Tohoku Expressway from Koriyama to Tokyo, it blankets vast areas and isolated copses, giving the lower-lying areas on either side of the road the appearance of an incredible undulating green sea and the occasional monster of a large tree rising from its swells.


Yet, like many plants in Fukushima prefecture, it is beautiful but deadly. Whereas the Lily of the Valleys that grace every Spring garden in and around Koriyama are poisonous from their roots to their deceivingly adorable bell flowers, the kudzu sends its roots down deep, sometimes to a depth of 12 feet; once established, it climbs, spreads, and smothers everything around it.

In July this year, the journal New Phytologist published The myriad surprises of unwanted guests: invasive plants and dynamic soil carbon pools, a study which reported that kudzu also detrimentally releases sequestered carbon from the soil.


Sinister as such plants are in the real world, some movies and literary works brilliantly amplify plants’ more inimical attributes. For instance, although they had no intention other than to root and grow at an extraordinary pace, the bean stalk vines in the 2013 film Jack the Giant Slayer wreaked havoc as they twisted and then twined upward to giant territory. Whereas kudzu chokes out competitors by blocking sunlight, wisteria similarly wraps its woody vines around and strangles the life out of anything it attaches to. As gorgeous as its pendulous racemes are, it’s damaged a number of sidewalks and fences throughout Koriyama.

Bees swarm under a pergola laden with recently bloomed Wisteria in Ose Park

Bees swarm under a pergola laden with recently bloomed Wisteria in Ose Park

Fans of the more aggressive, hands/leaves-on flora would enjoy the 1962 film The Day of the Triffids (much like older zombie films, people can’t seem to react fast enough when there’s a Triffid a football field away moving at the breakneck speed of 4 mph) and its impressive 2009 BBC series remake, starring comedian Eddie Izzard as the swaggering, opportunistic villain. Most might draw similarities between the films’ killer carnivorous plants and the much less-threatening and -mobile pitcher plants.

A pitcher plant at the Shinjuku Botanical Garden

A pitcher plant at the Shinjuku Botanical Garden

However, the Triffids might have more in common with such plants as the nasty Manchineel and the Giant Hogweed, the latter capable of causing permanent scars and blindness upon contact.

Possibly the most well-known meat-digester is the voracious Manhattanite Aubrey II, the killer plant from outerspace in the 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors. As inspiration for the film, Earth’s Venus Fly Trap’s mechanisms and evolution are not unimpressive (for example, two hairs must be triggered in order for the trap to close, as to avoid false alarms and thus wasting precious energy), but it will be a while until they begin singing let alone achieving world domination.

Lovely, deadly Lily of the Valley in Ose Park, Koriyama

Lovely, deadly Lily of the Valley in Ose Park, Koriyama

Minus the singing, spider plants in Hothouse, a sci-fi novel by Brian Aldiss, have taken advantage of the author’s unimaginable plot in which the Earth has stopped rotating. Other notable monster botanicals include the fixations of Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter series (wisteria-like devil’s snare, Whomping Willow, puffapod, Mimbulus mimbletonia, and folklore-inspired mandrakes). J.K. Rowling’s honking daffodils even have a striking similarity to the overlarge, sneezing flowers in the 1991 film Hook, starring the late Robin Williams (recently Hulu’s top film of the week).

A lovely kudzu flower along the Abukuma River in Koriyama

A lovely kudzu flower along the Abukuma River in Koriyama

Finally, in a fantastic article published in Garden Design, Anna Laurent shed light on the subtle (and not-so-subtle) botanical references in Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games series. Not just sci-fi and plant lovers but anyone can enjoy these fictional works and gain more of an appreciation for the phylum beneath our feet. And while Rocky Horror Picture Show features no such monstrous botanicals beauties, it’s a crime not to watch it nonetheless.

Summer Slump

The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.

Sir Conan Doyle submitted these words to The Strand over 90 years ago, a famous and well-respected author going nuts over some photographs that might’ve otherwise been immediately dismissed by even the slightest of skeptics in his time.

A year before her death, even Frances Griffiths – who as a child staged clever photographs of winged gnomes and fairies with her sister – said she couldn’t understand “why [brilliant men like Conan Doyle] were taken in – they wanted to be taken in.”

During a more innocent time in my life, I too was taken in, not by fairies but by stories of Santa, Easter Bunny, God, Satan, the Boogie Man, and Cher. I trusted adults when they told me that the clashes of thunder could either be the angels bowling or an all-out war between Heaven and Hell. I always prayed to God to have his bowling leagues scheduled on the same day as my baseball games.

Around that time in my childhood, I did a good deal of exploring the woods behind my house and looking for forest imps and holes leading to a parallel universe or otherwise imagining that the puddles in my driveway led to some kind of shadow world and that crossing through a cornfield would enable me to time travel.

I didn't "technically" have a lot of girlfriends back then. Or, technically, friends.

I didn’t “technically” have a lot of girlfriends back then. Or, technically, friends.

As they have for me, these sort of fancies have served many needs throughout human history: religious – Eve hid her illegitimates from God so he hid them from her, thus creating the hidden people; cultural –those same creatures came back to rectify a city ban against dancing; political – to save elven habitats, Finnish citizens stalled or called into question road development and building construction; epidemic – bewildered and scared, Western Europeans dug up and stabbed or burned their recently departed as to halt vampiric attacks; geographical – rock formations and avalanches in Norway, some which took out churches, were attributed to dim-witted, Christian-hating mountain trolls.

But childhood is over, science is unmasking all the mystery, and whatever beauty is left is being overtaken by an ever-expanding gray sheet of concrete. Four lots in my neighborhood—each with its own small biome of yomogi, Robert Geranium (aka Stinky Bob), tiger lilies, mint, and purpletop vervain—have recently been paved over, two for parking spillover and the others for two new apartment buildings.

Here's an unimpressive picture to prove my dull point.

Here’s an unimpressive picture to prove my dull point.

So where does one who subsisted on the fruits of imagination find inspiration and relief?


No, no. Movies. While Marvel and DC Comics have crapped out some particularly heinous loads like Spider Man and Watchmen, mysterious superheroes and villains with newfound powers and a sense of purpose never seem to fail to attract quite a crowd along with the box office millions. Then there are Miyazaki’s animated films, which highlight nature’s fragile beauty and its mysteriousness as well as its power; the latter quality of nature is especially exploited in two favorite reads of mine, Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids.

Travelling has also not been altogether disappointing, although one tends not to experience any real trolls in the mountains of Norway, angry dead sailor ghosts in Japan, ravenous child-munching old women in Hungary, or secret sub-pyramid catacombs in Egypt.

Miyazaki Quote

Even then, I’m glad I was taken in from an early age. The wonderment may have faded a bit, and not every venture seems as promising and bright as the aforementioned tales of dork-walks-into-woods-pretends-he’s-in-Lord-of-the-Rings, but every once in a while, there’s a little bit of spark to be found in music, an adventure gone wrong to be told as a humorous story later, and a really beautiful shared moment impossible to be captured by an iPhone.

But I really do wish we had just one dragon.

Looking out over Fukushima city from Mt. Shinobu. Ruined a few minutes after by my R2D2 scream.

Looking out over Fukushima city from Mt. Shinobu. Ruined a few minutes after by my R2D2 scream.


My tomato plant grows only in moonlight.

My tomato plant grows only in moonlight.

This week, the plates got saucy and treated the Japanese coast to a six-point-eighter, all maps pulsing a three-ringed bullseye in the Pacific Ocean to the immediate right of Fukushima prefecture. I woke up that morning not from the shaking but about four minutes before from a nightmare I still haven’t forgotten and from an absurdly bright and far-too-early 4-a.m. sunrise.

In my first pottery class, I decided to style my bowl after the Campanula flower.

In my first pottery class, I decided to style my bowl after the Campanula flower.

The previous week, I lost my internet connection once again, this time for reasons beyond my logic and still unresolved for all my fist-shaking. This meant more reading, more outside recreation, and more plants. At this point, my windowsill resembles some sort of mad scientist desperately trying to save the world’s rarest specimens but who has lost his government funding due to shoddy record keeping and a basic labeling system; I doubt there are any rarities among my collection, but it can certainly be said that everything — whatever it might be — is very much alive, thriving, flowering, twining, fruiting, and all -ings botanical.

I was kindly asked by the magnanimous staff at the Shinjuku Botanical Garden to stay on the path and stop looking for seeds. It's like Willy Wonka's Factory in there!

I was kindly asked by the magnanimous staff at the Shinjuku Botanical Garden to stay on the path and stop looking for seeds. It’s like Willy Wonka’s Factory in there!

I’ve read a few Murakami novels, studied several chapters of my new Botany book, and even put together what might be called music with the fantastic FruityLoops Studio program. I’ve even been putting in some serious time studying Japanese, getting closer and closer to finding out exactly what it is that’s so constantly humorous to the people here. Of course, I’ve reckoned already that, on the whole, Japanese people are just simply…happier.

My all-time favorite, the Ice Plant.

My all-time favorite, the Ice Plant.

I’ve always felt that disconnect, though, with the people around me. Happiness, laughter, and frivolity do not come to me easily. As was (historically inaccurately) with the Queen, I am generally not amused. And, despite, in my mind, being on par with the word “moist”, I have to agree with my family as being described as a “worrywart”. The Word Detective also has me here, explaining its foul etymology as such: “a person who annoys others by worrying loudly and constantly over nearly everything.” Have you by chance heard of my gluten allergy or money problems?

Lotus flowers dominating the pond at Ueno Park, Tokyo. Not pictured: Crack addicts behind me.

Lotus flowers dominating the pond at Ueno Park, Tokyo. Not pictured: Crack addicts behind me.

These things being said and fretted over, however, I have the suspicion that my students have been gradually and surreptitiously grafting some of their inexplicable good nature and origin-indiscernable happiness onto my dark and oft on-the-verge-of-snarky humor. I find myself lately either blissfully going about my day or, in the worst cases, joshing around with my colleagues and students alike even after having had no coffee on a Saturday morning (if I stay another year, I will lobby for 9 a.m. McDonald’s openings).

My $1 Japanese lanterns make for great plant pictures

My $1 Japanese lanterns make for great plant pictures

I don’t know what my future is or might be here in Koriyama, Japan, but (I hope) even an earthquake would not shake loose the connections I’ve made here over the few months since I’ve arrived. Budapest was another lifetime compared with this six-month stint; my students were fewer, my friends doubly so. I knew I would be leaving Hungary even after having received a hard-won visa and before going through a regrettably tumultuous time with someone who I thought would be with me for years of travelling to come.

Every day my plants be hustlin'. This Morning Glory was overtaken by my new goya (bitter melon) plant. The weeks-long battle was riveting.

Every day my plants be hustlin’. This Morning Glory was overtaken by my new goya (bitter melon) plant. The weeks-long battle was riveting.

The severance from that person, a breakup that occurred years before that, and the ever-widening gap between my hometown friends and me have been trying. Yet, in the only way I know how to cheesily end a blog post, I think — or at least I’ve convinced myself of my own bull — that my plants, Japan, my company and coworkers, have instilled in me a good deal of patience. Sure, I still have jealousy, regret, laziness, and the other deadly sins to worry about, but, for now, I’m very simply happy.



The Rock That Sprouted Leaves

Sweat poured down my face and back as I galumphed my way down from the train station to the harbor. In the distance, I could see several mammoth ships moored alongside the barely visible narrow docks and framed by a cerulean and gold-inlaid sky; had I not been so late for my ferry, I would’ve enjoyed the picture-perfect scene. I think she would’ve, too.

It was August, and I had decided to make my getaway from Hungary and check off a few other countries on my list of places to visit. While I could hardly believe that I went to Cairo and lived in Budapest – two cities I dreamt of going to since I was a child – my heart skipped at the thought of my last leg of this journey. The mountains to be climbed.

But first, back to that wasted picture-perfect scene. I had just arrived in Hirtshals, Denmark, after having taken two wrong trains, all the while toting a 60-kg rucksack and a shoulder bag containing an unwieldy, eight-pound computer.  A ship – I couldn’t tell which one – blew its horn.

Suddenly an awkward teenager again, running alongside her as we hurried to catch our departing cruise ship in the Caribbean years ago. Crew members, lined up on either side of the plank, glaring at us as we boarded.

The ships seemed close enough, albeit for the circuitous maze of docks, none of which seemed to be a direct route and seemed to shift places when I looked away. I stumped my way to a large rectangular building raised on four pillars above the water in the middle of the harbor and which looked like some menacing Bond villain ocean stronghold. After checking my ticket, a kind servicewoman pointed to my ship – which looked miles away now – and told me I’d have to take a taxi if I wanted to board on time.

Taxis. New York City. My fist and last years living there. The driver who, after a misunderstanding over my confusion with a credit card scanner and his would-be tip, sat outside my apartment screaming all sorts of obscenities I dare not repeat here. The cabbie who, on the way to my interview for the job I would actually get in a few months’ time despite being 20 minutes late, zigzagged block by block down the grid of Manhattan until I had had enough of his meter-pumping scheme. She would’ve said something sooner.

There were more incidents, none of which more enjoyable than the other, but needless to say, I tipped my driver well as we pulled up before my ferry and tusind tak’d (“a thousand thanks” in Danish) him generously. Relieved, I dumped my burdens in my tiny, single-bed cabin and set to exploring the ship.

The next morning, I dragged myself from the edge of the toilet, put on my weights, and blearily swayed down the corridor and out of the hellship that some day I’m sure will ferry souls over the Styx after the current one retires. Stavanger, Norway was smaller than I expected, more of a Scottish highland village with no discernible downtown, just a few diesel stations and some cute houses embedded in the lush hillside.

It was also not Stavanger.

A long and trying trip not-to-be to Dobogókő, Hungary. A late start, as it was still twilight at dawn. Missed Dobogókő by mere half a kilometer. Unawares, continued on, mounting hill after hill, only to be frustrated by a view of more hills rolling on endless in the distance. Rain. Sleet. Snow. Nine straight hours without stopping, the rollercoaster of emotions in my head mimicking the tireless ups and downs of the Hungarian landscape, until finally reaching the Danube River and serendipitously sitting down on a curbside as a bus pulled up, its electronic marquee reading “Budapest”. Did she ever live inside her head, too? I never asked.

Traveling alone – and generally being alone – can give peace of mind, offers rewards for challenges overcome by one’s own merit, and creates opportunities that might otherwise not come around with another person in tow. On the other hand, being inside your own head for such a long time can bring on a mild sort of madness, exactly what I experienced as I had hiked north in Hungary and as I trekked the 17-km trek that lie between that lonely little Norwegian town and my intended port of arrival. I’m afraid to know her personal hardships.

The last leg of my journey that summer was not Norway; of course, it was third after Cairo and Budapest, only just beating out Japan and New Zealand. I was coming home in time to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday. Selfishly, I was also coming home to see my mother.

The Pittsburgh Airport. A security checkpoint that separated the goers from the stayers. My mother crying, and my heart breaking.

I didn’t cry until halfway through my flight between Chicago and Tokyo. The madness came on gradually, as I was by myself once again, left to battle with the frayed wires of memories, ambition, and aimlessness that have always plagued my every thought and action.

Buttermilk Falls.
A Ph.D. graduation ceremony.
A surrealistic European visit.
Piano lessons. An emergency appendix removal. A personally embarrassing and yet unhesitatingly granted birthday wish. An acceptance of what I was. A reacceptance of what I am.

It’s difficult to travel when there’s someone in your life who is the essential comfort of home, who is home. When they spotted my mother in my hometown of Blairsville, Pennsylvania, my friends would remark how she “tore out of the parking lot” or would refer to her as Bonn-I: a strong woman who didn’t like the “e”, so simply got rid of it. A woman who told you you’d be eating her dust as she sped past you on the highway at age 90.

Unfortunately, she is the exact opposite of me. For a long time, I thought otherwise, but the unmovable gave rise to the ever restless, and I’m still mucking my way through the meandering stream to reach the river of life. Or something less overdramat- and metaphor-ic.

Still, although my memories of them are disjointed, I have too much for which to thank my mother. In the end, I hope she knows that mountains are not so important and that everything I do is either because of her or for her.


Happy Mother’s Day!