Going to the DMV in the States often takes a certain saint like level of patience and understanding to deal with the lines, paperwork, and sometimes crabby workers. We at least however understand the language.
Navigating the Japanese equivalent of the DMV requires patience and understanding of a different type. What do you do when you don’t understand the language (written or verbal) AND don’t know the process or procedure?
Breathe, Relax, Watch, Wait, Follow.
The last time we registered a newly purchased car in Japan, we were spoiled. For a small fee, the Japanese insurance office at Yokota Air Base does the paperwork shuffle at the Land Transportation Office for you.
Not the case here at Camp Zama, which means we must figure it out on our own. There is something about having to go to an official Japanese city administration building that was intimidating to me. We did have directions at least, and the help of google maps.
We knew we had to start at building D as told to us by the vehicle registration office at Camp Zama and we had a general idea of the overall flow. The Japanese workers spoke enough English and everything seemed very efficient as we went from building D to A.
The clerk at A flipped furiously back and forth between all the pages, then brought out a stamp, stamping four times on one sheet, two more on another. Stamp it, stamp the hell out of it, as long as this means we pass.
He then sends us to building B. Uh oh. The lady at Camp Zama told us we wouldn’t need to go to building B for the car inspection. Now the process we thought we knew had changed. It’s 1125 and they close for lunch at 1145. Will we make it through in time?
We drive around to building B and wait. We aren’t sure if we just drive in to the garage. No one is acknowledging us or waiving us forward. What to do? We finally see a sign with directions, but they aren’t helpful at all.
We’re starting to get anxious.
This is precisely the moment we need to Breathe, Relax, Watch, Wait, Follow.
Conscious breathing helps calm the nervous system down allowing the body to relax. This helps us to be patient and perceptive and watch what is going on around us.
What are the other drivers doing? What are the inspectors doing with their cars? What is happening with the car directly in front of us?
We’re waiting. This is the perfect opportunity to observe and follow the behavior of those in front of us. Perhaps this is a skill that diminishes as we age, but kids do this all the time.
However, as adults, our daily routines don’t change as often. We rarely have to go through or learn anything new. Thus when faced with having to navigate the unfamiliar, we experience increased anxiety.
Training the mind to welcome the unknown would require daily exposure to new activities and surroundings. This generally isn’t practical or ideal as humans desire routines.
But, when you do have to go through the unfamiliar, remember that you have the power of your breath and observation. Breathe, Relax, Watch, Wait, Follow.
We made it through building B, only to go back to A, then to C, back to D, and then finally got license plates to put on the car. Whew. We made it in time. That was just one piece to the car registration puzzle; there were steps before and after the Japanese DMV, but you get the picture.
The other day, the children and I were in an Uber as my husband followed behind in a large SUV with our eight bags, dog crate, and dog.
We were preparing to check in to a hotel the afternoon before the next day’s early morning flight. The day was beautiful, cool, breezy, and I caught a perfect shot in my mind’s eye of my daughter’s face in profile against the backdrop of the D.C. landscape.
I reached for my phone to snap a picture. Just then she turns to me with panic in her eyes, her hand reaching for her mouth. Crap!! Out the window, out the window, I say with much urgency.
She hangs her head out and proceeds to projectile vomit out the side of the Uber. I of course have one solitary napkin and nothing else. The Uber driver is remarkably calm and not flustered as there is no place to pull over on this stretch of the George Washington Parkway. We keep driving. She feels better.
We get to the hotel and my first and only thought is to find cleaning supplies as quickly as possible so I can clean the outside of the Uber which is covered in my daughter’s breakfast.
I rush in and go straight to the front desk. I ask for cleaning supplies stating there’s a mess in the car. They look, but don’t have anything at the front desk.
None anywhere? "Well we could call housekeeping but they aren’t just going to give it to you." WTH, I’m thinking? I don’t want to keep them, just borrow them. "There are paper towels in the bathroom."
Annoyed, I leave, find a supply closet without their help and run out to clean the car. What was the matter with those people? Why weren’t they more helpful?
Well, let’s take a closer look. I had been remarkably calm the entire ride. I’m sure it had something to do with the driver’s amazingly calm attitude. Upon arrival at the hotel though, I felt extremely apologetic and wanted to help as fast as possible so he could get on his way.
I rushed inside, said hi, and without any explanation asked for cleaning supplies. What I chose to communicate in that moment reflected my sense of urgency, however, the people on the receiving end had no other information other than what I presented.
I did not explain that I was a guest checking in and that my daughter had puked in the back of our Uber and I desperately needed cleaning supplies to help the man.
I was so preoccupied that I left out important information they needed to assist me with the sense of urgency I desired from them.
This is critical. We get exactly what we project out to others even if what we project isn’t what we perceive that we are communicating.
I thought I was being kind but displaying urgency. Based on their reactions, they most likely picked up agitation or irritation and mirrored that right back to me.
Studies have shown that humans have mirror neurons that enable us to pick up on other people’s emotional states positive or negative. (note1)
My lack of presence and self-awareness in the moment led me to eventually leave my purse in the bathroom and speak rudely to the woman in the hotel room next to us. I thought she was my son coming out of our room, but still I shouldn’t be talking to him with that tone either.
Woah. I knew I needed to get a grip and breathe right then to stop this cycle of negative projections before it got any worse. Which is exactly what I did, for about 45 seconds to a minute.
That is all it takes some times to get back on track and move through a less than desirable emotional state. Stuff happens when we travel, no doubt about it. How we react to what happens is what makes or breaks the trip.
1. Van Der Kolk, Bessel, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score, Brain, Mind, and Body In The Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 58-59.
The other day, I stepped outside my mom’s home in Northwest Washington D.C. It’s a nice quiet 1940s developed neighborhood with shady streets and well landscaped lawns.
A car was driving by and stopped. A woman about my age got out and approached me. She asked if she could borrow a metal spoon as they had just purchased a tub of ice cream to eat in the park and it was rock solid frozen. The plastic spoons she had were not going to work.
I hesitated as my mind processed that if I give her one of my mother’s spoons, I most likely won’t get it back such is the nature of loaning things to complete strangers. I knew my mom had some mismatched spoons and would likely part with one.
I did find it odd that they were going to eat ice cream in what she called a “park” which is really just a narrow strip of land in between two residential roads and has very dense foliage. There aren’t any benches and tons of mosquitoes and other bugs.
But, feeling generous, I went inside, got the spoon, and gave it to her. She noted the address and promised to return the spoon. I thought nothing more about it and got in my car and drove away.
The next night, my mom remarked that the woman had never returned the spoon and in jest, said that I owed her a spoon. Oh yeah, I remembered. Well I didn’t expect to get the spoon back anyway and truth be told, it was a crappy spoon for scooping frozen hard ice cream.
My family and I had a discussion about the missing spoon and the possibility that it could have been used for drugs came up. Oooohhhhh. Now that thought had honestly never occurred to me.
Here’s what I saw; a woman about my age dressed appropriate for the weather get out of an old boxy looking Cadillac type vehicle and asked for a metal spoon.
Nothing about her triggered any suspicion other than the fact that they were going to eat ice cream in this “park” which isn’t a park. I did not see the driver of the vehicle, ice cream, or where they went after I gave her the spoon.
But now with this alternate scenario, what do I choose to believe? This is where our judgments and stereotypes come in. In the absence of any additional information, I have a choice now.
Do I believe the woman’s story about the ice cream or do I change and go with the drugs?
The best course of action is to just stop thinking about it period. I’d already decided I wasn’t getting the spoon back. But the mind sees puzzle, must solve, puzzle.
The choice is mine. The choice is yours. I can believe the ice cream story and that most likely the spoon was bent beyond recognition (you know what I’m talking about) after her attempts at scooping ice cream and she chose to just drive away rather than return a mangled spoon.
Or I can believe that they used the spoon to cook their drugs or whatever the slang term, in which case I don’t want the spoon back anyway.
Our preconceived and immediate judgments are real. Mindfulness practices help you to become aware of your thoughts thus arming you with the benefit of self-awareness in these types of moments.
We’ve been doing a lot more driving these past few weeks, to D.C. from Carlisle and back again, in and around the D.C. metro area, dealing with traffic and more traffic. I thought back to the first time we lived in the D.C. area almost 20 years ago and how much I’ve changed as a driver since that time.
Road rage was something I allowed myself to experience frequently back then. I remember one incident on the beltway where an aggressive driver came right up on my tail and proceeded to hug my bumper for no apparent reason.
He could have easily maneuvered to the left or right but he chose to purposely stay behind me until I moved out of the lane. I could feel the anger begin to creep up, the rising heat flushing my cheeks, making me sweat, and finally exploding into full blown rage.
The fact that I could see him laughing at me in the rear view mirror did nothing to temper my mood and only enraged me further. I begrudgingly got out of the way and he sped past, giving me the middle finger and mocking me. I was so furious I immediately pulled up behind him and dangerously followed him trying to make him as mad as I was.
At some point during our weaving in and out of traffic, I had a flash of sanity and a “what the hell am I doing” moment. I slowed down and let this crazy man go off continuing to curse him and wish him ill will.
It took me quite some time to calm down. In that moment, I understood how people could lose control in their anger and want to hurt another human being. I felt that.
Not having any mindfulness skills, I learned to cope in another way. As embarrassing as this is to admit, finding our own way is what we often do when we do not know there are other options.
I invented “the eliminator” (or something like that, I forget what I called it). When other drivers irritated me with their erratic and idiotic driving, I would inconspicuously point my hand (in the shape of a gun) at them and magically banish them to another dimension, the stupid dimension. This made me feel better somehow and did prevent future incidents of road rage.
However, wishing ill will on others no matter how silly it seems (with my eliminator) is never the answer. What are we to do then?
First of all, there is no reason to compete with other aggressive drivers unless you are actually in a professional road race. As much as your ego may protest, move over and let the other driver go ahead.
Easy enough, but now what to do about the impending rage that wants to make its way to the surface? If you’re prone to rage, the simplest and quickest thing you can do in the moment is check in with your breath. You’ll often find it to be rapid and shallow.
The breath is something you can control immediately. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, then exhale for six to eight counts and repeat. Just two minutes of this type of breathing will activate your parasympathetic nervous system and calm the body down. The mind will follow if you let it.
You can help your mind along by deliberately changing your mindset. Instead of cursing the aggressive driver and (in my case) sending them to another dimension, wish that he or she would drive safely and make it to his or her destination without harming anyone.
Then start thinking about puppies and kittens or anything that will bring about an attitude of gratitude to move forward from a place of anger, rage, or irritation. These are not emotional states you want to linger in or pass on to someone else.
Driving in traffic is mentally tough to begin with. Use your breath as an ally to get you through challenging situations and to get to your destination safely.
Yet again my family is living out of suitcases. Once I’ve packed them, they become like delicate ecosystems with everything perfectly in its place. If I search for and remove one item, the suitcase requires an entire repack to get everything to fit again.
Hence we wear the same few outfits over and over and I don’t let the kids anywhere near the suitcases. If their little hands get a hold of my precious works of art, ultimate destruction will result.
How do I remain mindful and present amidst what seems like utter chaos? The four of us, the dog, six huge bags, the dog crate, and our carry on bags all crammed into one hotel room. It’s tough.
Chaos and order become relative terms whose definitions change related to place and space. Knowing where I’ve put everything becomes half the battle.
The packing lists the Army used to make us put on the outside of crates and duffles makes a whole lot more sense to me now. I probably should’ve done that. Yet it seems that even though this isn’t our first road show, we’re still operating on a last minute production.
I could be super organized, have a dozen checklists, and work to control every detail of the move. Yet, I have no desire to do that. I’m simply not concerned about being one hundred percent in control. I know total control is never possible and would stress me out anyway.
Things will get done. We do at least have one list. What I can control is my mindset. I choose to enjoy the present moment and the process of moving. I choose to delight in checking off one task and not worrying about the ten others still on the list. I choose to take frequent breaks and remind myself to eat, drink water, meditate, and exercise.
Worrying is a choice, a mindset choice that eventually leads to mental and physical stress. Remember that you have a choice to be mindful about your thoughts and your actions.
So, living out of a suitcase for the time being is just fine with me. Like everything else in life, this too will soon pass.
Truly an amazing place to experience with the senses. Below are some of my favorite photos.
I talk a lot about how travel enables people to come closer together and the tagline on our website is “Find Connection.” So I thought I’d share my own experience this week of how the vacation I am currently on helped me Find Connection.
My cousins and I met up in Key West for the week. The last time we were all in the same place was for a family wedding three years ago. The last time we actually were on vacation together was when we were children. As adults, we have never traveled together for the specific purpose of going on vacation and just hanging out.
So this was a novel, and hopefully the inaugural event of subsequent annual trips. Our excitement at seeing each other was palpable with so much we wanted to say and do. Just being in each other’s presence made the long wait and build up of the trip worth the anticipation and exceeded our expectations.
We began to connect on a level that we hadn’t done together ever before, creating new memories and solidifying bonds of family and friendship.
Could we have done this if we all met up at one of our houses? Perhaps. However, the dynamic of traveling by yourself to a location to meet up with others has a ritualistic quality to it.
As we travel to the airport and get on the plane, or begin the road trip, we start to shed the layers of responsibility and control that we have in our daily lives. The physical relocation means that we become less accessible to our loved ones and the people at work.
The trip allows us to focus on our needs and not theirs. As mothers or caretakers, this can be a difficult transition. But I do believe it is necessary to disengage from our daily lives for a short time.
We need to play and nurture our own inner child. Then we can go back to our families refreshed and restored genuinely missing their beautiful faces.
The same concept holds true with work and our coworkers. When we allow ourselves to take a break and travel somewhere for a vacation, we can give our brains and bodies a rest from the rigors of our job. We can put ourselves and our well-being first which we often neglect for the demands of others and our paycheck.
I do believe annual or semi-annual vacations are important for individuals, couples, and families. Having fun, resting, and relaxing seems to be an art that our American society wants to figure out how to do in an express or fast food way.
There isn’t a fast way to connection and rest. The body and mind need time, and you cannot rush time.
For the past five weeks I’ve been attempting to plan a vacation to celebrate a milestone birthday for my husband. We decided we wanted to go on a river cruise on the Mekong with our whole family.
Two days ago, I finally realized I was trying to plan the wrong trip. How did I come to that conclusion?
Perhaps you’ve heard of athletes, actors, authors, or artists talk about being in the zone or the flow when they are performing their craft. Many people also recognize this “flow” as being in a state of alignment with God, Spirit, the universe, your higher self, or whatever language you choose.
The same concept of alignment applies to everything we do in life including something like planning a vacation.
Let’s look back over the past five weeks. After making the decision to go on the river cruise, somewhere around mid April, it took about another week or two to get online and do some preliminary research on dates and cabin types.
I sent a personal email to a woman I know who works for the company and never heard back from her. I thought that was odd as she’s always very responsive, but perhaps I had sent it to an email she doesn’t check often. I was not motivated enough to send a second email.
Then it was another two weeks before I discussed with family members what I’d learned. A few days later I called the cruise company and asked a few questions, but felt sort of ambivalent.
I next sent a “request for a quote” form in through the website and still never heard back from anyone. Are these people really ignoring me? I’ve always gotten prompt responses before.
But let’s take an even closer look. The whole time I was trying to research and plan, I felt tired and uninspired. Everything seemed so difficult. Not in the flow.
When I compare this with planning previous family vacations to New Zealand and Australia, I remember feeling excited, joyful and that everything was so easy to do - three definite signs of inspiration.
It finally dawned on me that this is not a vacation we are supposed to take. Once I let go of the idea that it had to be a river cruise, I immediately thought of an even better and easier way to celebrate my husband’s birthday. It turns out he had reservations as well about the cruise, but didn’t want to say anything to me.
When planning your trip, pay close attention to how you are feeling during the process. Frustration, fatigue, overwhelm, or boredom are signs that you are not in the flow (alignment) and perhaps this isn’t the right trip. I have hilarious stories of when I’ve ignored those feelings and forced travel, but those are for another time.
Remember this. You always forget something. The catch is to make sure it’s not something important like you’re purse, driver’s license, passport, or medicine.
I have showed up to the ticket counter at the airport, reached for my wallet and realized I had left my ENTIRE purse back home on the couch. The sickening feeling in my gut paralyzed me for several seconds. This was the last flight of the day and I had to get back to Kansas for school the next morning.
The attendant at the counter snapped me out of my stupor by actually checking me in without ID, and saying if I hurried back home, I could still make the flight. Clearly the moons were aligned that night as we headed back to Alexandria from Washington National Airport, then back again, and hit every green light with no traffic.
Once I got back to the airport, there was NO line in security and I had to literally sprint to the gate, but I made it - the last passenger on the plane, sweaty, out of breath, with everyone staring at me.
I’ve left my driver’s license back at home in a brilliant (not) attempt to sanitize my wallet of all items that I wouldn’t need in a foreign country, forgetting that we would be renting a car.
We show up to the rental counter and that’s when I noticed I had deliberately taken it out of my wallet. So my husband, having not followed my instructions to sanitize his wallet, had to do all the driving. I’ve forgotten my bathing suit, book to read, brush, toothbrush, makeup, shoes, headphones, the list is endless.
I finally realized that it is impossible to remember everything I need, especially when I am packing for the entire family. As you may have experienced, kids don’t remember much or plan in advance, but have definite opinions when they notice a favorite item missing. This usually occurs hours after you’ve already left.
Do I make lists? Absolutely I do. But I still always forget something. What I’ve come to understand is that I must prioritize the most important items, the show stoppers, and quit worrying about the rest.
Most likely, I can buy whatever it is there if I need it. However, a passport, wallet, phone, prescription medicine, my son’s phone, or my daughter’s bear, are not easy items to replace.
So I check, check, and recheck those items I’ve determined as critical and sensitive before I leave the house and before driving away. We are actually taught to do sensitive items checks in the military before leaving a location and upon arrival; it just took a while to apply that logic to my personal life.
Then hours or days later, the items I have forgotten make themselves known and it’s no big deal, maybe a slight inconvenience, but not catastrophic.
So the secret is to remember that you will always forget something.
There are of course dozens of more things I love about Japan, but for brevity’s sake, I chose five. Being that we are moving back in less than two months, I thought I’d share a little about what excites me.
1. I LOVE the convenience stores. The food is so much better than what we can get here unless you go to a WaWa. There are many fresh options that are neatly packaged for a quick, healthy, and easy lunch. Normally quick and easy does not equate to healthy, but in Japan it does.
2. They have vending machines everywhere (I’ve seen them in the middle of a country field) and you can get hot coffee or tea in a can. This is a jarring experience when first one picks up the can from the dispenser. It’s quite hot! But so appreciated on a cold, blustery day.
You can also get ice cold coffee or tea and I’ve definitely pressed the wrong button and received the disappointingly cold can on a frigid morning as I’m waiting for the train. Blue = cold; Red = hot, quite simple really, but alas mistakes still happen.
3. Omiyage (oh-me-ya-gay). These are gifts or souvenirs that you buy to give to friends, family, or coworkers when you return from a trip. Generally, you can buy candy, sweet treats or pastries that are beautifully packaged and wrapped and quite tasty.
These shops are everywhere (train stations, airports, rest stops, hotels, etc) so there really is no excuse to not to come back with Omiyage. “Gifto?” the salesperson will ask? Hai, Gifto onegaishimasu.
4. Public spaces are so clean. Though seemingly counter-intuitive because there are NO public trash cans anywhere, there also isn’t any trash laying about. The Japanese pack up their trash and bring it home with them. This took some getting used to and I admit to stashing my trash in a restroom at the first opportunity.
We definitely were unprepared for our dog deciding to unload in the middle of the sidewalk as we walked to the car on the way back from the vet. Ugh?? We thankfully had a plastic bag in the car, but what do we do with it? Yeah, we had to bring it back in the car with us. Not ideal, but hilarious.
5. There are festivals all year long. Every town has its own festival to celebrate whatever tradition or special day happens to be occurring at that time of year. Similar to our own street festivals with food and music, but different in their cultural entertainment with dancing, drums, parades and so much more. I had the pleasure of dancing traditional Tanabata in several parades and festivals (pictured).
I’ve barely scratched the surface and I’m looking forward to learning and seeing more this second time around. If you follow me on Instagram, be sure to look for my posts in late summer.