Archive for the ‘Featured’ Category

The Onsen at the End of the Earth

Ryokan windows (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The onsen smelled of wood smoke and wet, salty heat. Our shoes we’d taken off inside the door, and they’d been quickly, quietly whisked away before we even realized they were gone. We let them go without much thought, mesmerized by the heavy stillness and dusky smoke. A man in a striped yukata walked past, skin shiny and red, a towel slung around his shoulders.

Hoshi Onsen sits in the midst of mountainous Gunma prefecture about two hours to the north of Tokyo. We’d been almost too cavalier with the directions, not realizing how lucky we were to have caught an earlier Tokyo-bound Shinkansen out of Kyoto until we were standing at an empty end-of-the-line bus stop in the middle of a sleepy mountain town where the Kanji-only schedule informed us that the next bus to Hoshi was the last bus of the day. It was 3:00 p.m.

To reach Hoshi, you take a Shinkansen north to the Jomo-Kogen station, a long and lonely building with just a few tracks, even fewer travelers, the ubiquitous convenience store, and a tiny, fluorescent-lit shop selling bowls of unadorned, yet excellent udon soup (which I know, because we ate some on the way out). From Jomo-Kogen, you catch an old white 30-seater bus that takes you up winding mountain roads, past small hamlets and mostly dense, dark trees, and then a wide slate-colored lake with a row of fluttering fish flags strung majestically across it from end to end. Half an hour gets you to the end of the line at Sarugakyo, and from there, you take an even smaller bus twenty minutes to the last stop on its line: Hoshi.

Hoshi Onsen (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Ferns in Minakami (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Tempura vegetables (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Broth with foraged greens (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Wildflowers (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Trees in full bloom (Eat Me. Drink Me.) The Hoshi grounds (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Somehow, we’d expected something more modern and gleaming, since our online search back in Berlin for an onsen near Tokyo had been limited to tattoo-friendly establishments. » Continue reading this post...

Burned

Fire and ash (photo credit Daniel Stifler)

When I moved to Berlin, I moved here with a suitcase. Like Noah, I brought two of each: two sweaters, two pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, two shirts. On my first night in my new home, I neatly folded each item on the cleared-off top of a bookshelf and realized I’d never had so few things.

But things have a way of multiplying. It didn’t take long before I purchased a t-shirt here, was gifted a hand-me-down jacket there, went home for Christmas and brought back a few more pieces of jewelry. Eight years and three increasingly larger living spaces later, and I was complaining about the overflowing closet filled with clothes I don’t wear, my inability to get rid of things because it might just be useful someday, and the lack of storage space for all the stuff I have.

Had. For all the stuff I had. Because it turns out the most effective way to clean out your closet is to set it on fire.

Just about three weeks ago, our apartment caught fire. That thing that makes you grumble about overly cautious airline regulations happened in our bedroom, on our desk. The batteries in a pair of wireless headphones exploded, setting fire to the curtains, setting fire to the closet, sending noxious black smoke billowing out the balcony door. The neighbors called the fire department, they ran to get me at the office where I work downstairs, and I didn’t see the burn, but from what I heard, it was a surreal show from street-level: orange flames licking the ceiling, the manicured balcony plants blowing greenly in the breeze.

Mirror (Eat Me. Drink Me.)Mirror (Eat Me. Drink Me.) Burned journals (Eat Me. Drink Me.) Slightly burned books (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I have been through all the stages of grief. As they clunked out of the building in their heavy gear, a fireman pressed a sheet of guidelines into my hand and said some things that in my shock I don’t recall. » Continue reading this post...

Another Year, Another Berlinale:
Quark Beignets

Quark Beignets (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Yes, yes, yes, February feels like a distant dream of long-ago coats and scarves, fur-lined gloves and wind so cold it creaks inside the wet, warm inside of your cheeks. But for the most part, none of the films I saw at this year’s Berlinale will be out for another twelve months anyway, so this post is mostly just as relevant as it might have been when it was maybe a little more relevant.

What was it about this year’s Berlinale that made us drop like flies? Every single one of us was sick by the end. I left my last film and went straight to bed for two days, waking in a feverish twilight and wanting the covers, a bowl of popcorn dusted with Old Bay, and the Game of Thrones opening sequence jauntily humming from my laptop speakers. Ugh, art films! it made me want to say and mouth a silent scream. Ugh, to the obscenity-strewn pointlessness of Mid-90s. Ugh, to the questionable metaphors of Flatland. Ugh, to the black-and-white smugness of Elisa y Marcela, which was so bad I had to leave the theater.

Some of our posse were more pleased with their choices, but I felt like I’d mostly picked a bunch of duds. Though there were films I really did enjoy, even now, looking back on it a month later, there wasn’t anything that left a sear in my heart like last year’s Tinta Bruta or Call Me By Your Name from the year before that.

What can I recommend of the twenty films I saw? VICE was excellent, incisive, timely – and terrifying. Systemsprenger, about kids who fall through the system’s cracks, was haunting and heart-wrenching and so well-acted. And Waiting for the Carnival was a beautiful documentary that did an excellent job of withholding judgment on a story that could so easily have been a lecture on the evils of industrialization. » Continue reading this post...

Belgrade In Media Res

Typical Belgrade building (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I have never seen the particular appeal of Soviet architecture. In Berlin, the rundown prewar buildings wilt, but the Communist-era bastions endure with grim and solid fortitude. They are the housing projects on the outskirts of the city with a bad reputation for neo-Nazis, they’re the anonymous gray lengths of Frankfurter Allee or the blocky rows of balconies made of prickled concrete that only ever seem to be decorated with dying red geraniums.

In Belgrade, these buildings of a bygone time are almost whimsical. The ones capping corners curve, leaning in at odd angles. They feature functional-looking, yet utterly superfluous girding or iron-work, and even when they’re geometric, there’s something just slightly off about them – they’re too long or too squat, every apartment has a different set of windows, or there’s a sudden shock of glass in a surprising location. Plenty of these buildings are deserted – many don’t look architecturally sound – and there’s something eerie about the alien-looking metals and alloys butted up against gracefully swirling slabs of concrete that house nothing on the inside.

It was mesmerizing to walk around Belgrade’s crumbling streets and stumble upon these concrete treasures wedged between the small, 19th century Neoclassical buildings in the city center and the newer facades going up all over the place. It seems that all of Belgrade is under construction – whole streets are being ripped out, clusters of girders yawn to the sky wherever you look, and the skyline itself is marred by endless rows of cranes. Nowhere is the divide between this new construction and the old Belgrade more visually striking than along the waterfront, where a bird’s eye view shows the surreal discrepancy.

Old Belgrade/New Belgrade (Eat Me. Drink Me.) Tower building, Belgrade (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Belgrade architecture (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Unfinished concrete structures, Belgrade (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Long and lonely streets, Belgrade (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Daniel and I had just finished a fifteen-mile walk down the Danube – from our hotel near the city center through the Bloks of New Belgrade and nearly all the way to Zemun. » Continue reading this post...