MSP Reading Time: Talking Volumes talks Welcome to Night Vale

[Cross post with my BookLikes book blog, ReadingRainstorm]

Minnesota Public Radio’s nearly twenty season old program, Talking Volumes, always has some fascinating, inspiring conversations with some of the best authors working today. As the autumn begins, new shows begin to appear, marking the perfect time to grab some new books and listen to the authors expand upon their writing. Hosted by Kerri Miller with the help of the Loft Literary Center, I always like to attend at least one of them a year.

Back in 2013, I attended the thought-provoking conversation with everyone’s favorite Canadian speculative fiction rock star Margaret Atwood, getting a couple of my books signed. It was very interesting to listen to her thoughts on the use of science in literature, and writing about the apocalypse, which seems to have become a bit of a theme for me.

On Sunday, I attended the equally thought-provoking show with Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, creators of the super popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale and the new tie in novel, at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Perfect for the coming Halloween festivities, I’ve been listening to Cranor and Fink’s creepy, witty, inexplicable stories, utterly mystified by its popularity. The two writers’ voices mesh so seamlessly into one stylish, eerie whole, aided by the pitch perfect announcing of voice actor Cecil and the atmospheric music of Disparition.  How did something so weird, so admittedly inaccessible, become such a big thing? It was very informative to listen to Kerri Miller chat with the two writers about their philosophies and craft, especially in the portions where she disagreed with them. These were some of the questions I had with the show too, and I am very curious to see how it all translates into a novel.

It was an intriguingly appropriate venue to discuss the meanings of Night Vale and how the authors create such a memorable, intricate, and bizarre, every myth is true setting. After all, Night Vale is a radio drama in the form of a podcast, detailing the community news, eccentric personalities, tongue in cheek commercials, and musical interludes. Seems familiar, eh?  I have a deep interest in fictional towns, so this parallel made for some cool discussions.

In fact, the podcast has often been described to me as Garrison Keillor meets H.P. Lovecraft, or the Prairie Home Companion crossed with the X-files. This is, as Kerri Miller pointed out, we were sitting in “the house that Lake Wobegon built.” The show started off with a trivia contest, asking audience members questions of whether something happened in Night Vale or Lake Wobegon, which again hinted at the parallels between these two imaginary communities and the weird relationships they have with the “real world.”

I am captivated, obsessed with this theme that both radio dramas share, the fictional town or community set in our world, but just a little bit outside of our normal, everyday experiences. In some ways, they are able to express the feelings of place, and of region even better than an actual location. Fink, for instance, spoke about how he sees “the places often pretty clearly, the place is important, I feel, the setting” and mentions using the hometown library he remembered growing up, a weird, inexplicable place” as the real world inspiration for Night Vale’s own “unknowable” library and its dangers.

Throughout my attempts to dabble in fiction, I have always found myself captivated, obsessed with some of the ideas explored in Welcome to Night Vale and found myself drawn into these elements specifically. One thing that Night Vale seems to specialize in is a juxtaposition between the mundane world that we all live in, and the weirder, stranger world that exists just outside our understandings. Things are weird in Night Vale, and the people accept this.

Meanwhile, the music highlighting the show, original songs by Aby Wolf, were a great compliment to the eerie, beautiful atmosphere of Night Vale and is definitely worth checking out by itself. After all, one of my favorite aspects of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast is being exposed to new, local music scenes.

I’m looking forward to reading the book!

You can listen to Sunday’s show here right now, and keep an eye on the future scheduled shows as well!

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We Have a State Photo?

The colored version, the kind that hung in my grandparent’s dining room, painted over by Eric Enstrom’s daughter Rhoda Nyberg

So, MNopedia, that great resource for Minnesota history online, has just posted my second article, and only today it was reposted by MinnPost as well, so I’m pretty well chuffed! This was an interesting (that well worn Minnesota term) topic for me to research. Watching the response the article online so far has been interesting too, so I’m posting a little bit of a personal reflection behind my research, stuff a tad too subjective for a peer reviewed article.

I first wrote on Grace, Minnesota’s official state photograph, for a class in Mythology in American History, and much mythology surrounds this “painting” after the ninety or so years it has existed. A quick and informative look at how myths operate in modern American culture can be seen in this episode of PBS’ Idea Channel. As a total agnostic coming from a Lutheran background, I had a distinct mixture of feelings as I delved into the history behind Grace. As I researched, I discovered that the story behind it, while ostensibly simple, was filled with rumors, hearsay, and myths. Like many, I associated the picture with relatives, in my case, my grandparents. Like many, it seems, I had taken the image to be an oil painting, rather than the skilled photograph it is. What does it say about us that this is Minnesota’s official photographic representation of who we are as a state?

It was, for years, a fixture at my grandparents place. The picture hung in a place of prominence on the dining room wall of their tiny, musty house in Winona, Minnesota. As the bluffs loomed over the Mississippi, the dingy old picture to us loomed over our grandparent’s lives. Like the squeaky guest beds and lefse for breakfast, the painting was emblematic of our visits to them; their favorite picture exemplified everything we understood about my grandparents. It was an extension of their personalities and a favorite topic of conversation for Grandma. Grandpa had less to say about it, but, then, he had less to say about everything. Still, it had to have meant something to him, as he had the final say in everything around the house. He had no doubt hung the painting there himself soon after moving into the old house. It remained in the same place for decades, beginning sometime in the sixties, it is certain, until my grandfather passed away in 2005. My Grandmother took it with her to her new apartment, where it again took prominence in the decor, hung above the dining table. It remains there today, slightly faded, a little the worse for the wear with scattered water damage from some unremembered spill but still a centerpiece in the room. Where did it come from?

The year was 1918. The United States of America had finally entered the Great War, what would only later, after yet another war, be called World War I. Even in the middle of the isolated northern forest the events occurring in the killing fields of Europe were striking close to home. In the village of Bovey, Minnesota, a mining town in the heart of the Iron Range far to the north of Winona, a Swedish born photographer name Eric Enstrom attempted to capture a picture for the time and end up creating an image of the Minnesota experience. Charles Wilden, an elderly, homeless man peddling shoe scrapers stopped by one day trying to sell his wares. Something about the weathered, bearded Swede trying to sell him orthopedic devices inspired the small town photographer, and he asked Wilden to sit for him with a few props. The resulting photo, which Enstrom later called “Grace,” captured the sentiments of the region. Something about it seemed to speak to the Midwestern soul. At least, this is the story as told be Enstrom himself, as other reports list the photo as not having been taken until 1920, two years after the end of the Great War. Still, the connection worked.

Enstrom, and his daughter, Rhoda Nyberg, painted over the original photograph to give it the classic look of an oil painting, which only increased its popularity. By 1926, Wilden had sold his image to Enstrom for the grand total of five dollars. Enstrom, in turn, sold the photograph to Augsburg Publishing House, the largest Lutheran publisher in the world, who printed hundreds of thousands of copies over the years. The photo is now in the public domain, but Augsburg, among other printers, continue to sell it. The eventual fate of the homeless Wilden remains, in this story, unknown.

During my childhood, I associated the picture with my grandparents alone, having little reason to think it existed outside of their lives. However, I began to see the same picture elsewhere; an old Lutheran church in Iowa, a small town restaurant in Wisconsin, the bookstore of a small religious college in Minnesota. Describing it to friends and acquaintances throughout Minnesota, it seemed that many people could recall that the same picture hung in the homes of many of their own parents and grandparents as well. What was it about this picture that seemed to appeal to several generations of Midwesterner?

It all came to a head in 2002, when the Minnesota State Legislature, under Governor Jesse Ventura himself, established Grace as the state’s official photograph. Like our state drink (milk) and our state muffin (blueberry), we would now have a state photo to represent us, and it was a photo of an old white man praying. I was surprised to find very little controversy regarding the choice, in spite of the overt Christian religious nature of the photograph, and a legislator said it was a simply a picture of an “elderly person showing his feelings.” I must admit, I am not entirely comfortable with the message this sends. It is obvious, after looking through the many comments in the social media accounts of the article, that for many Minnesotans, it remains an important part of their lives, a meaning that goes beyond the societal into the personal; they see their own families and their own history in this image. For many, including myself, the guy in the picture represents nothing less than their own relatives. Some, in fact, had the childhood impression that he actually was related to them or to someone close to them, a grandfather or a family friends’ uncle. 

Like all photographs, this one was setup to convey a specific feeling  The “Grace” picture was carefully crafted by Eric Enstrom to put forward a very specific type of feeling; a spirit of religious faith, thankfulness, and humbleness that many European immigrants to Minnesota wanted to present of themselves. Enstrom said “this man did not have much in the way of earthly goods, but he has more than most people because he has a thankful heart.” The rumors that surround Wilden himself, though, paint a different picture; that of a shiftless alcoholic, a womanizing petty criminal known for breaking up families from Moorhead to St. Paul. Perhaps an older version of the man with whom my great grandmother was supposed to have run away. Not exactly what you would call a “holy” man, but in fact homeless man who signed his very image away for the paltry sum of five bucks. Interesting how such a conflicted figure, a man known for such cruelty, living his life in poverty with substance abuse issues, has become so many people’s vision of Minnesotan faith. Now, he’s everyone’s grandpa.    

Honestly, I cannot say I ever liked the picture. While I wouldn’t have been able to express this during childhood, it always struck me as being rather depressing. On the other hand, it fascinated me, and it had an almost Medieval effect upon my mood. That old guy just sitting there alone at his table, eating what was no doubt stale bread and gruel, it was certainly lonely. Even in my church going days, such fervent prayer as evoked by this man was alien to me. What does it say about the culture of the state that this is now our official photograph, the official representative of our place and its people? We’re white, obviously, but also old. We’re devout and Protestant (I wonder if the picture has the same impact among Catholics that it does among Lutherans). We’re not fancy. In other words, humble. Even the few possessions we own, we give thanks for, because it could always get worse, you know.

Expedition into the Haunted Basement 2!

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Signing wavers before entering the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement. Wavers? Oh yes…

Last night, on a grim, rainy evening, myself and a few other brave souls again delved into the horrors hiding underneath the normally placid facade of Northeast Minneapolis.   

In order to prepare and fortify ourselves, we met up for a few beers at the Bulldog NE before making the short trek to the Soap Factory, where we were set to once again descend into the depths of madness and experience the Haunted Basement.

After braving the the Soap Factory’s acclaimed artistic haunted house last year, I was eager to try it again. Every year is different, so you really do not know what to expect as you are lead down the stairs into the pitch blackness of the maze. I will not say any more, as you should experience the Basement for yourselves. One word of advice, though. If you are interested in going, choose a night and a time and purchase tickets well ahead of time; like, weeks ahead of time. They sell out quickly, and seem only to be getting more and more popular. There are still a few tickets left, though and it is well worth it!

As we waited to enter the maze, the ambiance and mood was enhanced by the hilariously gross, grotesque taxidermied animal sculptures, and the mysterious bangs and shouts began to filter up from below. The exploration would soon begin.

As I mentioned last year, I, myself, tend to be rather squeamish and easily disturbed, but I have found the Haunted Basement to be an awesome, overwhelming ordeal to go through. In my experiences these couple of years, the horror is not one of gruesome, violent scenes but rather psychological. After you get all psyched up by the reputation and ambiance, you are then confronted by a whirling, confusing labyrinth of situations.

I think the true terror of the Haunted Basement, and what the designers are going for, is an attack on the typical Minnesotan cultural tendency against confrontation and the physical closeness of strangers. They do not respect space or boundaries, social or physical. The actors will touch you. They will get up in your grill. Cramped, disorientating environs and odd smells will accost you as you stumble through , unnerving and eerie scene to the next, never knowing what to expect.

You will hear, and experience, screams, shrieks, and bouts of uncontrollable, uncomfortable laughter. This is what many of us Minnesotans dread; close, unpredictable encounters with strangers who invade your personal bubble and demand things of you you are not sure how to give. They are not logical and they don’t play by the rules of daily life. Some visitors freeze up, some grin weirdly, some try to take things in stride, and some simply cannot take this assault on their senses and cry “uncle,” escaping back to the light and fresh air of the surface. Some relish the opportunity to push their boundaries through forced interactions. In any case, it is an experience I would recommend!

A Diversion to Door County

 

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Lake Michigan shoreline, Peninsula State Park

Last weekend, I accompanied my family on our traditional local weekend getaway my parents have been doing since the early ‘70s; the annual trip across state lines to Door County, Wisconsin. It may just be my own nostalgia for camping trips, hikes, and campfire stories of childhood, but I would still recommend the region to Twin Citians looking for a local weekend adventure, especially during the fall. Why let the Chicagoans have all the fun, right?

Door County is that little peninsula that sticks out into Lake Michigan from the eastern side of Wisconsin. From St. Paul, it takes about five hours to get there. Usually, we leave at four in the morning and arrive in time for breakfast. It is a quaint, rustic type of place, with rocky shorelines, thick deciduous forests (particularly dramatic with the changing leaves), along with plenty of farms and orchards offering a nice selection of produce. For the most part, we’ve stayed in the campsites at Peninsula State Park, a thickly wooded and hilly park tucked into the center of the region, making it a convenient place to access most of the fun stuff in the county. Plus, it has some nice hiking trails up bluff ridges and down to the rugged Lake Michigan coastlines. It’s probably the best deal of places to stay around, but make sure to make reservations early.

For those of us who do not have our own boat, a car is probably the most convenient way to traverse the peninsula, though there are plenty of scenic bike routes as well, and I’ve been wanting to try that out sometime as well. Numerous places offer bike and kayak rentals, and I’ve even seen a few of the towns offer free bike “borrowing” at the community centers. Pretty fun!

Along the county’s shorelines are a variety of little villages and hamlets, formerly farming and fishing communities, now each with their own little restaurants and shops. It’s pretty touristy, even if by October the large crowds of summer have begun to thin out a bit (I guess I wouldn’t really know, I’ve never been there in the summer). Still, there are plenty of high end shops offering works of art, camping supplies, clothes, and various trinkets- though there are bargains to be found as well. In some places, there’s a definite funky, DIY ambiance in the county that I really enjoy.

Here are a few of my favorite spots, aside from the celebrated tourist institutions of the peninsula, your Al Johnson’s and fish boils, say.

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Hands on Art Studio silo

For the last few years, one of the highlights of the trip is the Hands On Art Studio, also known as the “Art Barn,” in particular the Adult Night on Friday Evenings. A variety of studios housed on a working farm in the interior of the peninsula, the various artists allow visitors to try their hands at making a variety of DIY projects, including fused glass, mosaics, painting, and metal work. Very fun to come home with your own piece of art, especially the fused glass. It’s good to come with some ideas, of course, so start coming up with a plan before you go. Of course, being Wisconsin, there’s a nice variety of beers available to spur the creative process.

After letting your creative juices go, you may be hungry. There’s certainly no shortage of places to eat around the county, but my favorite is probably Czarnuszka Soup Bar in Ephraim. A tiny little storefront, Czarnuszka offers just hardy, Eastern European style soups, three or four varieties a day from a constantly changing menu. Including both vegetarian and non-vegetarian items, my favorite has to be the Bohemian Potato Soup, a constant. A bowl of soup, a roll, and maybe a drink is a great lunch, and extremely affordable too. Bring cash, though. Also, a bowl of soup is a great lunch as well, as it will satisfy you but allow you to save room for the other things you know you’ll be eating later in the day.  

Things like Sweetie Pies, which, admittedly, we stop at more than is probably healthy. But hey, we don’t eat pies everyday! This may be a bit more touristy, but it must be mentioned. When you find yourself in Door County, you will probably find yourself wanting pie. This is especially true in the fall. This place has the best selection and the best quality, I feel. If you want your rhubarb pie uncontaminated with other fruits, go here. There is also pumpkin, pecan, and a variety of other fruits and mixtures as well, including a delectable caramel apple.

The Door County Brewing Company seems like a lively and interesting place to try various microbrews. Went here for the first time last year, and it was a very nice craftbrewery. They specialize in Belgian style ales as befitting the culture of the Belgian immigrants who moved into the area, so there is a lot of interesting saisons and farmhouse ales. My favorite, of course, was Bare Bottom Madness, a Pale Ale brewed with oats. I like hoppy beers and I like oats, so together they were great! I’d recommend checking them out, having a flight, and picking up a growler for the next gathering.

Autumn foliage at the Ridges Sanctuary

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Autumn foliage at the Ridges Sanctuary

If you don’t have time to go on an all day hike up to the top of the bluffs at Peninsula State Park, but you would still like a little walk through nature, a visit to the Ridges Sanctuary, Wisconsin’s oldest land trust, founded in 1937. Some lovely walking trails, meandering through the thick conifer forest, among marshy swales created over a few millennia by Lake Michigan, make for some very nice nature walks, and you can be done in an hour or so. If you want, you can also walk down the the Lake Michigan shoreline and look at the zebra mussels! 

Looking forward to my next visit already, and who knows, maybe next time I’ll experience it during the summer (or the winter, that would be interesting as well!)

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Sunset over Green Bay, Door County, Wisconsin

 

A Zine Exploring the Hidden Sides of the Twin Cities: Searching for Contributions

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Shock a Piece of History

There are a lot of stories out there, stories that reflect our lives in this place that we live, stories that illuminate things we didn’t even know were there. Everyone knows secrets hidden below the everyday, in a city we all think we know. I’ve kind of been yearning to put a few of them together into a little self-published zine and I was wondering if anyone would like to collaborate?

I’m planning to put together a collection of stories that would explore the strange, quirky, wonderful, and just plain obscure aspects of life in the Twin Cities. Anyone interested in contributing stories, poems, art, fiction, non-fiction, anything exploring or capturing some of the stranger feelings and ideas of what it means to live in the Twin Cities would be greatly appreciated. Whether, eerie, beautiful, or just weird, I’d like to show some of the mysteries and lesser known things hidden under the surface of the metro.

I’m just doing this for fun and I’m definitely open to suggestions about distributing, creating, or producing the end project. There could definitely be multiple issues if enough material comes in, but I’m aiming to get one done by the end of the year. So, as of now, a (flexible) deadline of December 31st for volume one. If there is anyone else you think might be interested, let them know too. Feedback, criticisms, and questions are highly encouraged, too. Email any contributions, questions, etcetera,  to burk0277@gmail.com. Thanks!

Club Book at Stillwater Public Library: Emily St. John Mandel

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Front entrance of the Stillwater Public Library, on a chilly Monday night in October

Monday, I attended one of the Twin Cities many author events, listening to the Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel discuss her book Station Eleven at the Stillwater Public Library, in the Washington County Library System. I do not often make it out this far east, sadly, so I had not yet been to this impressive library building before. A beautiful, impressive Carnegie Library building updated to serve the modern world, I would love the chance to explore the stacks and resources at my leisure in the future. Hosted by Club Book, one of the many free literary events hosted by local library systems, courtesy of the Legacy Amendment! Check out those writers coming up in the next few weeks!

The evening was a grey and chilly one, the historic town nestled into the St. Croix river valley under hazy clouds and quickly changing autumn leaves. Perfect for the approach of Halloween and a discussion of the end of the world. As I wrote recently in my book blog, I have been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic literature lately and Station Eleven was by far my favorite, and one which generates a lot of discussion, as I discussed here. When I heard that Emily St. John Mandel herself would be in Stillwater to talk about it, I was there! Listening to her discuss her writing process and reasons behind writing about this topic was inspiring. Why are people so interested in stories of the end of the world? Some of the theories Mandel has heard include the continued reality of economic inequality, divorce, or a longing for redemption. For us impermament beings, perhaps, it just feels like this “fraught world we lie in always seems like its ending.”

She chose to write of the world after the Georgian Flu and the end of the modern world in order to reflect upon her sense of awe at this world we live in, one in which we can talk to people on the other side of the globe instantaneously and travel there in a matter of hours. For a lot of people, myself included, much of this world seems so precarious, yet of course we always take it for granted the internet will still be working in the morning. As Mandel said, “every season brings a new wave of absolutely disastrous narrative.” It appears that, just last week, some weirdoes were predicting that last Thursday would be, for real, judgement day. I just saw a new article discussing which American cities would be totally underwater in a century or so. Whatever your background or belief system, it seems that the end of the world is a perennial interest of many of us; I know that I find myself pondering what the coming years will bring.

In Station Eleven, the cause of the collapse of the age of electricity is the Georgian Flu, a virulent epidemic that kills an estimated 99% of the population. Mendel said she chose an epidemic due to the apolitical, timeless nature of the threat- unlike a nuclear war, the political climate will not become dated. Plagues and epidemics are among the scariest threats, like earthquakes, it is not a matter of if, but when. People might dress themselves as the walking dead and drink a lot, as in the upcoming Zombie Pub Crawl this weekend, but the fear remains- not of zombies, but of germs.  

One of the things that I liked most about Station Eleven is its realism, but also its hope, whatever comes, humans will survive, and more than survive. The novel’s arc words, “Survival is insufficient,” reflect this, as the members of the Traveling Symphony continue to travel the Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare. As a librarian, this is always the crux of my thoughts; how will we keep up, preserve, the cultural, artistic, and scientific achievements of this and earlier ages? Throughout Station Eleven, aside from the works of Shakespeare, one of the leading remains of our world that reminded was the small press graphic novel of Miranda, which was read and absorbed by surviving generations in very different ways. I am sure that, in coming centuries, this confluence of the St. Croix, Minnesota, and Mississippi Rivers will continue to remain a hub of human activity, and I hope that we can make it better and continue, not just to survive, but to thrive. 

Before I left, of course, I had to purchase another of Emily St. John Mandel’s novels, which I look forward to reading soon!

Here are a novels that depict a post-apocalyptic world in the former Twin Cities; check them out at any of our local libraries! Let me know if you discover any others!

River Rats, Caroline Stevermer, 1992– a young adult novel set after a nuclear war, following a group of young traveling musicians as they travel up and down the Mississippi. The silent and empty ruins of Minneapolis and St. Paul are among the most haunting portions of the novel.

Bone Dance, Emma Bull, 1991 – An interesting cyber punk, post-apocalyptic urban fantasy (how often do you see one of those, especially in Minnesota?), Bone Dance doesn’t go right out a say it is set about a century after a nuclear war devastated North America, but there are plenty of hints to show where it is, including a climatic scene in the remains of the IDS Tower.

Minnesota Cold, Cynthia Kraack, 2009– This interesting novel depicts Minnesota after an another nuclear event, as an orderly but tyrannical rogue state, which I can describe only as North Korea as run by Target. It is interesting that I can still recognize aspects of the state in the author’s descriptions.

Cifiscape Vol. 1, The Twin Cities– This intriguing anthology of local speculative fiction has a post-apocalyptic bent. Most of the short stories and comics collected here depict the Twin Cities after some kind of collapse or dystopia. The cover image, from Ken Avidor’s Bicyclopolis is one of the most atmospheric images of an apocalyptic Twin Cities I’ve seen.

Oktoberfest at the Black Forest Inn

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Black Forest Inn

It is good to be back in Minnesota for my favorite time of year. The leaves are starting to turn, pumpkins, apples, and other fall produce are at the markets, and it’s beginning to cool off. Many fun things are planned for the next few weeks!

Here in the Midwest, there is a strong German influence and a variety of German cultural and culinary institutions can be found in Minnesota. Like much of the rest of the Northern US, people descended from German immigrants are the largest European ethnic group in Minnesota. In late September and early October, several communities across the state offer Oktoberfest celebrations, playing tribute to the great funfest in Munich. Of course, the major component of Oktoberfest is beer, and we certainly have some of that!

A few places in the Twin Cities have Oktoberfest events as well, and this year I checked out the venerable Black Forest Inn’s Oktoberfest on Eat Street, i.e. Nicollet for the first time. I stopped in with some friends last Thursday for the Weisenheimer Night, one of the themed nights the restaurant offered, each with its own activities and vibe. It seems to play host to many literary and music events, and I will definitely keep my eye on their calendar. To be honest, I was too busy chatting, drinking German oktoberfest beers, eating hearty German fare, and listening to the jaunty tones of the accordions to hear the jokes, but that was fine, it was a fun time in any case. I must confess, German food is not my favorite in general, much too heavy on the meats and gravies, but as comfort food it can hit the spot on a chilly autumn night. It reminded me of my own trip to Germany a few years back.

A few vegetarian offerings were on the menu as well, such as a delicious autumn squash dish, counting the desserts, of course. If there is one thing I can get behind, it’s a German dessert. The beer, following quite freely thanks to the happy hour Octoberfest prices, was good, as well. I will definitely return next year, especially if they have the haunted Black Forest Night.

A Journey to Japan… and back

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A rainy night in Tokyo’s city center.

 

It feels strange, but one week ago I was in Tokyo, shopping at the Tsukiji Fish Market, visiting museums, and riding the train. I spent the better part of the month of September in Japan, and it felt like a really long time to be gone. I actually felt like I started forgetting what it was to go to work, commute across the Twin Cities, and live my do general errands. Now, being back, the last week has gone by in a flash. Maybe time does not always fly when you’re having fun, because I definitely had an awesome trip. My sister and I spent our days exploring, never knowing what each day would bring. We’d visit interesting spots, like the Meguro Parasitological Museum and Jigokudani (Hell Valley). We spent time in Tokyo, one of the world’s largest, densest cities, as well as in small, rural towns, like Tono, in Iwate Prefecture. We hiked in the mountains of the least populated island, Hokkaido, and visited the first city opened up to the west after the arrival of Commodore Perry, Yokohama. Everywhere we went, we saw something new, in addition to some more familiar things.

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Shibuya

Of course, three weeks is too short a time to really get to gain much experience into such a huge, complicated country as Japan but in the end, I dragged home a lot more than a bunch of interesting snack foods and souvenirs.

Visiting another country, another city, grants new insights into your own. Could two cities more different than Tokyo and Minneapolis exist? One is one of the world’s megalopolises, a great port city, capital of a dynamic and ancient world power. The other is a minor regional hub in a landlocked region of a large continent. We don’t have the international fame and fashion of Tokyo, it’s multiplicity of neighborhoods, its importance in history. I can still hold high opinions of the Twin Cities place in the global community, though.

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Jigokudani (Hell Valley), a volcanically active hot spring zone in Shikotsu-Toya National Park, Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido

Despite these obvious differences, though, I was surprised by some unexpected commonalities. In spite of institutions going back centuries, such as Sensoji and the Imperial Palace, much of Tokyo is very new, even newer than much architecture in Minneapolis or, in particular, St. Paul. Due to natural disasters and the ravages of war, much of the city is less than fifty years old, and this is definitely evident as we toured. Also, the sheer size of the metropolis is astounding too. Even on a rainy, cloudy day that hid much, the scope of the city was incredible viewed from the top of Tokyo Tower, every side a sea of high rises as far as the eye can see. 

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Sensoji, in Asakusa District, Tokyo, from the roof of Amuse Museum.

We ate a lot of delicious food- everywhere you looked, something looked good. We couldn’t eat them all, but we tried our best with what could fit in our stomachs. Some of those delicious regional specialties of ramen, such as Sapporo’s Miso Ramen and Hakodate’s Shio Ramen. Cheap tempura, all manner of fried goodness, all of those wonderful Japanese pickles for breakfast. Give me a Japanese breakfast of miso soup, sashimi, and pickles over a huge pile of starchy, syrupy pancakes any day.Tokyo’s great okonomiyaki dives, and, of course, sushi. I couldn’t pass that up! Do the places around here measure up? Hmmm.. maybe, we’ll get to that in a later article.

Could there be a certain similarity between the polite, non-confruntational cultures of Japan and the Upper Midwest?

I was thankful that I was with my sister, as she studied Japanese in college and could get through a minor conversation or struggle her way through a non-English menu if the need arose (and it did, numerous times). I would have been entirely lost. In fact, I did get that, numerous times. Well, never really lost, but on occasion not exactly sure which way to go next.

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Metropolitan Teian Art Museum, Tokyo

I was struck by how lush and verdant the city was, even among the acres of paved concrete in areas like Shibuya and Akihabara, there were many luxuriant trees and little green spaces. It was also a lot flatter than I had imagined; while hills certainly existed, Tokyo seemed no hillier in general than the Twin Cities, which are known for being extremely level.

Odd, that the dirty dishwater reek of the late summer gutters are exactly the same as Minneapolis’.

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While visiting Japan’s fourth largest city, Sapporo, the capital of the the prefecture of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. We arrived on a rainy morning, I noted that the temperature was exactly the same here as it was back in Minneapolis at the time. This northern city, with its wide streets, parks, and chilly temperatures, felt much more like home. Visiting the Hokkaido Museum, in particular, reminded me of home. In fact, it had been described to me by a fellow Minnesotan as the “Wisconsin of Japan,” with its popular crops of corn, dairy, and delicious summer melons (the trademark nightly yield of delicious squid notwithstanding). Not unlike Minnesota, Hokkaido is a colonized region, with the mainland Japanese “pioneers” arriving in the late nineteenth century to homestead, bringing their farming, mining, and industry to the frontier. Hmm, seems familiar. Of course, for thousands of years Hokkaido was home to another group of people, the Ainu, who faced war, disease, and, ultimately, forced integration into the population and the attempted erasure of their ancient culture. The exhibits in the Hokkaido Museum in Sapporo, showing off the place of modern Ainu in their native land, had a definite similarity to our own history museums, eager to display native stories while also trying to aggrandize our immigrant history as well. Hokkaido Museum devoted much time to the “settlers” and their agriculture, mining, industry, all based on forcing Ainu from traditional lands, and I was reminded of our own “pioneer” past, my own immigrant ancestors building farmland in the former nations of the Dakota and the Ojibwe at the exact same time Hokkaido was being absorbed into the greater Japan.

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On a more positive note, not unlike the Upper Midwest, Hokkaido is also known as the capital of craft brewing in Japan, and I definitely took advantage of this. After a long day of hiking through the autumn forests and lakes of the north island, some beer was a great treat. It was at this time I began to miss home…

More than anything else, as I devoted each day to tracking down more cool stuff to do, I realized that, really, I didn’t have to be in Japan to do this. I could continue my adventures daily in my own region, and in fact, wasn’t that why I was keeping a blog in the first place. As much as I love traveling the world (and already, I am planning for my next overseas trip), keeping a curisity and eagerness to explore even in daily life is something to treasure. In taking these weeks off to devote exclusively to exploring another world city, it made me think of all of the stuff that’s still hidden in my own home. 

I felt that I saw a lot more, visited more places, had more experience. Probably, I visited more places than the average Tokyoite does in a year. It made me think of all of the things I’ve yet to experience in Minnesota, and the local region, and made me eager to get out there and see what they are like. Why just explore on vacation? Why not explore every day, visit the things that visitors to your own city visit but which you haven’t been to, or haven’t been to in years? There are still a lot of things to learn about my hometown, I can treat everyday as its own “staycation” without spending money for plane tickets and taking time off of work. Keep watching MSP Adventure Time to see what other adventures I can have in the Twin Cities.

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Tokyo is Yours, near Yoyogi JR Station.

In any case, I’m glad to be back, I felt I was missing out on my favorite time of year, and it’s looking like there’s going to be some pretty fun things happening throughout October this year!

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Daibutsu, in Kamakura