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GP6Apr05: My Spring Break

“My Spring Break.”  Back in those prehistoric days, when an education was important, many of us had to write a short essay each week, the simplest way headmasters and principals knew of turning small minds into acceptable writers.  Of course, it was not uncommon for us to scribble a recap of what we did over the Christmas holidays or during Easter break, somehow grinding out the 500 words that Mr. Duggan demanded as his weekly due.   

A one-time teacher, brave Will Fitzhugh of Sudbury (www.tcr.org/tcr) has given over his life to his belief  that a well-wrought essay will teach a high school youngster many lessons in life not available elsewhere.  We discovered him on a Fourth of July history excursion in the Boston area where the first shots of the Revolution were fired.  His Concord Review is a distinguished scholarly journal for high school and prep school historians that enjoys great cachet in schools across about America, even if it lacks the cash the educational establishment ladles out to lesser projects.  Lately there has been a limp initiative from some of the Ivy League colleges to launch an essay program for youngsters, but Will got there first with something far better, the Ivies offering too little too late.  Our Spring Break essays, past or present, would never measure up to his demands.  Nor, for that matter, could any of us pose as energetic twenty-something adventurers. 

New York, New York.  This year a posse of us flew into New York by the back door (MacArthur Airport in Islip), avoiding that inevitable 2-hour delay at LaGuardia, the consequence of late March thunderstorms and fog.  Moreover, our chariot driver Abe had us in Manhattan 75 minutes later, negotiating a Long Island Expressway that is perpetually under construction.  Just like Kermit the Frog (See The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984), we were ready for the City’s over-sized entertainments. 

The best outings were escapes from New York inside New York.  One day we retreated for several hours into an old club—it’s just a bit short of a hundred years—to take a dip in its plunge (i.e., small swimming pool) and extinguish unneeded thoughts during long sits in the steam room and sauna.  We could enjoy these facilities in solitary splendor, since nobody quite hangs out in decorous clubs anymore, preferring instead 6 a.m. jaunts to their hyper health spas.  Before our restful swim, we had taken a long lunch in a dining room many floors up where we could look around the city, accepting with good humor the very average, over-priced New American Cuisine which has replaced the steaks, and hamburgers, and tongue sandwiches that used to make a club a club.  Old haunts such as these are now being turned into two-star, newby, smoke-free hotels where men now are permitted to take off their jackets, but there are still enough pictures of yeoman athletes and former presidents to foster ample nostalgia. 

The best evening was at the Danube, a remove or two from both the Hudson and East Rivers. David Bouley, owner and chef, has long provided some of New York’s better food at his downtown locations.  (See www.bouleyrestaurants.com.)  If anything, we liked this better than his original Bouley, maybe because we found a few more surprises on the menu (vaguely Austrian but not without sashimi should you want it), possibly because we were taken with the grand décor which marvelously fills the gap opened by the disappearance of beautiful hotel dining in New York, and certainly because the space is so ample that you are not bumping elbows with other diners.  It invites one to linger.  Here, even the ladies had desserts, escaping, if only for a couple of hours, the health strictures of the obesity directorate.  Bouley, who plans to open a cooking school and other things in Tribeca, is avoiding the temptation of spreading himself too thin, like other superchefs such as Emeril Legasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.  (See www.curbed.com/archives/2004/12/14/david_bouleys_plan_to_rule_

What you find is that the best enjoyments in New York transport you away from urban compulsions, whether an olden-time club or a marvelously wrought restaurant.  Ever since John Carpenter’s 1981 motion picture Escape from New York, we have known that New York is a little bit like roach hotels, easy to get into and impossible to escape.  The irony of a vacation in New York City, even for the horde of Europeans pouring into town now that the dollar is so cheap, is that you’re there to escape New York—in Central Park, at Radio City Music Hall, up the Statue of Liberty.  It’s no accident that a colleague, who is much into walking, suggested a vast stroll around the corridors of the Metropolitan Art Museum, instead of a meander on the streets of Manhattan.  Both New York City and New York State look to be brands in decline at the moment. 

This is particularly true in the age of Bloomberg.  This androgynous mayor (half Democrat/half Republican) is, by all accounts, managing the city well, with crime continuing to decline, municipal finances a bit more in order, and financial services employment bouncing back.  Coming out of a data-terminal business, he is a cerebral, smoke-free manager, not a charismatic leader like many of his predecessors.  He could run the joint just as well from Mount Kisco, and nobody would miss him.  The human touch is lacking.  The City, then, is on remote control at the moment—running well, but far from vibrant, perhaps bloodless, suddenly faceless.  So you wander underground through the Food Court at Grand Central or other indoor treats (we liked the Central Market here), and pass by the Easter Parade, a threadbare remnant of a more civic minded age when Jimmy Walker brought some laughs to New York and songs were composed in the parade’s honor. 

The Dream Vacation.  If not New York, where?  What might be idyllic?  There are a 1,000 places across the States.  Perhaps a round of gardens, now that Spring has sprung.  See www.forbes.com/2001/05/25/0525home.html.  Or a bevy of beautiful places such as the Golden Gate, or Kauai, or Sedona, or even Death Valley where the wildflowers were glorious this year (http://travel2.nytimes.com/mem/travel/article-page.html?res=9A00E5D
C103DF937A35750C0A9639C8B63; www.usaweekend.com/03_issues/030518/
030518springtravel.html).  Or Carmel-by-the-Sea, which some claim to be America’s most beautiful town, but in which the retired residents are so bored that they insist on no home mail delivery so that they can meet up with their neighbors for little meaningless snippets of conversation at the post office (www.cyburbia.org/forums/showthread.php?t=9728).  If it’s to be America for vacation, however, we suspect it should be near photographer Gary Gladstone’s odd-named places where you know you will not bump into relentless cell phone users.  See his Passing Gas: And Other Towns on the American Highway

Yoshino Trees.  Yoshino is the variety of cherry tree most dominant in Washington’s wonderful blossoming each Springtime.  It appears to have been sighted around Tokyo in 1872, but nobody quite knows its origins.  Certainly the cherries are our capital’s finest ornament, though an ambitious replanting campaign will someday complement them with wonderful, stately elms.  As well, Yoshino is the name of the cryptomeria we most admire, cryptomeria yoshino, a beautiful Evergreen which grows heartily in several climes and provides greenery throughout all the seasons.  (See www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/
consumer/factsheets/trees-new/cultivars/crytom-jap-yoshino.html.)  While the cherry does not seem to have had its origins in Yoshino, a town of the same name in Japan’s Nara Prefecture, both trees remind us that it would be an ideal spot for a Spring vacation (www.takase.com/Washi/HiroyukiFukunishi.htm). 

The adjacent temple city of Nara figures prominently in modern Japan’s formative stages.  It was here that Japan’s first permanent capital was established, whereas formerly it floated from locale to locale at the whim of the rulers.  In the eighth century the royal court built here a capital modeled after Chang’an in China.  In this spiritual center, the native Shintoism and Buddhism were successfully blended together.  Even after the capital moved on to Kyoto, the Buddhist temples here still held powerful sway in Japanese affairs.  The city is a key source for goldfish, much sought after in Japan, and of several craft instruments used in tea ceremonies and calligraphy.  

Far Enough from New York.  Nearby to Nara are Yoshino Mountain and the Yoshino River (www.reggie.net/album.php?albid=725).  Here, atop the mountain, one could create an enduring Spring memory.  Andrew Russell, in Japan for several years during the late 90s to teach English in several high schools, writes of his hikes on Yoshino in glowing detail (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/AndrewRussell/sanjyo.htm). It’s a mix of physical endurance, natural splendor, and spiritual journey.  For instance, Russell remembers for us one scary ritual along the trail: 

More awaited us a little further up the hill.  As we approached a small hut we heard from behind a lot of shouting.  This is where the pilgrims are hung by their ankles over a precipice to look down below at hundreds of meters of shear cliff face and confess their sins.  Today it was the turn of the same newspaper reporter to confess—and he’d been screaming for quite a while before being hoisted back up looking somewhat relieved.  Peter, this his second visit to Sanjyo-ga-take advised that anyone can “enjoy” this experience so I went forward to take the rope round my shoulders, lie down and hang over the cliff.  The priest shouts a few things in Japanese—to which I'd been told to reply “Hai ... Hai ... Hai” (Yes ... Yes ... Yes) as my ankles were shaken forcing me further out to examine the cliff face and the beauty of the forest below.  I may have confessed to all manner of sins—the Japanese I couldn't understand—but it was well worth it for the thrill, the view and the relief.  Despite knowing that I was not going to be dropped the head rush was strong and effective. 

The Ironic Japanese.  As you read Russell’s journal, you sense that a certain bonhomie joins together all the wayfarers at Yoshino, whatever their nationality.  A rather studied contrast to New York City which is inhabited by millions who have agreed not to speak the same emotional language.  Of course, the spirit of kinship atop the mountain is rather ironic, given the fact that the Japanese nation has never been particularly welcoming. 

We know of foreign nationals who have resided in Japan so long that they have lost all connection with their home countries.  But they avow that they are never truly admitted into Japanese society, finding themselves to be stateless people.  Nobody feels this more than the 400,000 or so Zainichi (not counting the million more who took up Japanese citizenship eventually), the descendants of Koreans who came to Japan for work or were forcibly brought there by their Japanese conquerors between 1910 and 1945.  There are still many accounts of how they are treated even today like outcasts—two million invisible people. (See, for example, “Born to be a Foreigner in Her Motherland,” New York Times, April 2, 2005, p. A4.) 

Of a sudden, the Japanese Government has a “Japan Welcomes You” campaign.  (See www.japanwelcomesyou.com/web/splash/splash.html?CFID=37926&CFTOKEN
=45669860.)  It is a funded plan to vastly swell its tourist trade during this decade (www.mlit.go.jp/english/white-paper/mlit03/p2c2.pdf).  Prime Minister Koizumi, in TV and print ads, and in a personal magazine from his website, is inviting in both tourists and investors.  (See www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/m-magazine/index.html, www.kantei.go.jp/foreign
/index-e.html and www.asiamedia.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=8790.)  As well, the powers that be in Japan now are installing Westerners at the helm of some of their most important corporations, with Carlos Ghosn doing a miracle turnaround at Nissan and Sir Howard Stringer elected to bring alignment and renewed momentum to Sony.  General Motors, and several other laggard monoliths in America, could use the same treatment. 

The global firestorm that is sweeping through all the economies of the world is finally opening more doors in Japan, overcoming this country’s genetic insularity.  The land of the Rising Sun has begun to understand the Global Imperative, just in time to catch a piece of America’s consuming interest in all things Asian.  America is beginning to turn its eyes away from Europe.

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