Overlooking a volcano

Meet Yoshi. One of the unfortunate things about visiting a place far away is that there are always things you regret not doing. Below is the best photo of Yoshi I have. Like so many other wonderful people we’ve met in our travels, we didn’t take enough pictures of or with him. Viewed in a positive light, it’s one of the millions of reasons to see these people again.  Notwithstanding there are qualities within this photo I’d never have captured had I known I would forget to take a few more. 

I like the following photo of Yoshi. But before you look at it I want to try and describe the man himself. I understand you never fully know a person, however a some you can learn a lot from someone that is willing to open their doors and let it all hang out so to speak. Sure, in Japan it’s a culturally significant act. If you’re going to be a host, you’re going to be the best damn host there is and that means opening up your life just a little bit.

But people will surprise you when you least expect it. In Japan, the level of hospitality that we experienced, its something that will make you feel like you’ve never felt before. Here in the states we’re all so afraid of letting people in, letting people get close. And the Japanese, in our films and books and history, have this reputation of being stand-offish. There oceans of books about the closed society that is Japan. Some would say the glimmer that Yoshi shared with us was more to show that the Japanese are extraordinary and unique, but I would argue he did it to show us how similar we are and how culturally unique we all are.

There is much to be gained in letting your guard down and opening up your trust. I’m still learning. Hopefully by the time I lay to rest for good, I’ll understand how all this works mostly. Yoshi brought me and I think us both closer towards opening our hearts fully. We spent a little over four days with Yoshi and I grew to respect and love him as a friend and wise soul. It’s not just that he took in complete strangers and hosted them in such a welcoming and open manner, it’s that he did it with pride and caring. Hospitality with no-expectation of anything in return.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal and I don’t think I’d go on about it so much if I felt I could encounter it a little more here in the states. But I remain a skeptic, an un-trusting, fearful, questioning American at heart. But this man let us into his life, his home and showed us the beauty, joy and delight that can be lived in a very unique culture that began hundreds of generations before ours. In turn, he shared with us his respect and value of some of our very own cultural values that are questioned and frowned upon by people within our very own borders and shared with us his delight for the exceptional nature of our own country and that its position in the history of the world isn’t something to be taken lightly or belittled as much as we do.He taught us respect. Respect is not something that is permanent. It’s hard gained and a long and winding road. The potholes are huge sometimes and it could use a good paving. He showed us we could be the pavers or the ones driving over without slowing down. That was in our hands.

Yoshi is man that stands tall at around 5 foot 7. Every move seems deliberate, unsentimental and unwavering. Here he stands in front of a roadside egg vending machine. They aren’t the eggs he usually buys, but something of a novelty that he wanted to share with us. Us being interested in food. The sun in Kyushu is unrelenting at times and Yoshi is always prepared. Khaki safari shorts, cut just above the knee hung loosely over his energetic, seeming, thirty’ish frame. His golf shirt, collars thankfully cuffed where they belong, curled and resting on his tense shoulders, his sunglasses firmly concealing his glimmering eyes. His corporate hat pulled just over his brow, brim slightly curled from moderate wear. Gold bespectacled sunglasses flash the likeliness that the Kyushu day will blast us with its direct sun and dehydrate us with its steamy sea breeze. Skin a tanned hide of restful exertion in the South Japanese sun. Kagoshima like the Florida of his dreams. Snow falls infrequent and for brief moments at best.

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The Jiuzhaigou experience

So we arrived in a big giant puddle in the parking lot of Jiuzhaigou and we had no idea what to expect. By far the best aspect of our visit was Zhuo Ma’s Tibetan homestay. Beyond the park itself, it made the 11 hour bus ride, fighting with hordes of domestic tourists, and my cold toes all worth it. We yet again found this homestay through an article we found on the internet (do you see a pattern here?), and it sounded right up our alley – we wanted to meet people that actually lived there and experience the local culture. We got that and a whole lot more!

Zhuo Ma is one of the most amazing people that I’ve ever met. She left her small village in Jiuzhaigou when she was only seventeen for Beijing without speaking any Chinese. She stayed for a few years, learned Chinese perfectly, came back to Jiuzhaigou and opened an acclaimed Tibetan restaurant with her brother. On top of that, she started the homestay last year and we happened to stumble in on it. With all of these accomplishments you’d think that she wouldn’t have time for anyone, but she is the total opposite – she is so humble, warm and generous. When we arrived, she invited us in, sat us down right next to the big stove and immediately gave us steaming cups of yak butter tea. And kept them filled the entire time we were there! And even though she was hosting a party that weekend, she went out of her way to help arrange our travels and to make us feel at home.

We really did feel like we were part of the family. She and her mother took turns in the kitchen, cooking up enormous and tasty Tibetan meals (yak, preserved vegetables, fresh vegetables, potatoes. Yum!), and we sat together and ate and drank lots of yak butter tea. We watched Losan, Zhuo Ma’s two year old nephew, run around and we’d play with him for a bit. We had friendly exchanges with cousins, relatives and neighbors who dropped by. We also chatted with Zhuo Ma about her life, the goings on in the village and why she wanted to have a homestay. For her, it’s so important to show visitors the other side to Jiuzhaigou. Many people who visit only see a very superficial, packaged version of Tibetan life if they do at all – basically tawdry “ethnic” performances geared to titillate rather than educate. Realizing that Jiuzhaigou was first and foremost a Tibetan area and seeing the economic and social reality for Tibetans colored our experience in a very different way than if we had stayed in a bland hotel in town.

The other advantage to staying with Zhuo Ma was the amazing landscape. We walked on the yak/sheep paths up the mountain and the views were spectacular. When we were high enough, we could see down into the next valley and the snow-capped peaks loomed over us. At night, we’d burrow under the warmest blankets ever to keep out the mountain cold. And when we woke up, we threw open the bedroom window to a view of Tibetan prayer flags, wooden houses, and craggy mountains in the distance.

There was also a flurry of activity happening at the house, which we also enjoyed. It turned out that the weekend party was for Zhuo Ma’s friend Kieran, an Irishman who works for the national park. People were coming from far and wide for the party, so we met all manner of ex-pats. Some were traveling through, others settled in Chengdu, and some were short term researchers in Jiuzhaigou. So we heard about their experiences of living in China and how it can be both rewarding and frustrating at the same time. One guy said he had to be glued to his mobile phone playing solitaire whenever he was a passenger in a car because if he paid attention to the way people drive he’d go insane.

After a few short days, Zhuo Ma gave us big hugs and we set out for a (very) long journey to Shanghai.

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