I Get By with a Little Help from My Friend

The Situation

By the 7th week since my last haircut, I am badly in need of one. It only gets worse as the days go on.
What to do when you’re in a foreign country? I’ve had a few hair cutting experiences abroad that weren’t bad, but they weren’t great either. With short hair I am well aware that not bad can take a turn to disastrous with just a few ill placed hand movements.

Japanese hair is heavy, thick and straight. Mine is fine and curly. That alone could be confusing to a hair stylist unfamiliar with the hair of a caucasian woman. How to communicate what you want? A possible problem as well.

With this in mind, I still felt confident when I asked my stylish Japanese friend if he could recommend anyone to cut my hair. He didn’t hesitate and within a day he had made an appointment for me. He insisted on coming with me and I didn’t argue. We met him at a train station about 15 minutes away. He led us through the small town for another 15 minutes until we arrived at a very small shop where the stylist was waiting by the door for us to arrive.

The Process

She smiled and laughed nervously. I smiled and laughed just a little nervously. My friend laughed loudly and my husband laughed as well. This round of laughter continued for several minutes until I took my seat in her chair.  Then, it was time to get down to business.

I used a hand gesture to show her how much hair to cut off. She seemed unsure. I showed her again with my hand, an approximation of a half an inch.

She began to cut with focus. I relaxed as I saw she was a pro. At some point when I thought she was done, I think she asked my friend if she had cut enough. He indicated that she should cut it shorter. Somehow my opinion didn’t seem to matter, because I wasn’t questioned.

She kept cutting. I looked at my husband’s face and saw a look of concern. Too late now to stop her, it all had to be shorter by this time.  One thing I’ve learned, it WILL grow.

My hair was cut dry, then shampooed followed by the best head massage I’ve ever had. I let her blow dry my hair out of curiosity to see what she’d do. I liked it.  My husband’s face still registered concern. My hair was VERY short! My friend was smiling. I smiled too and at last my stylist smiled too.  We both high fived.

The Outcome

It’s a great haircut. Next time I’m in Kyoto, I’ll definitely go back to her.  Maybe with a tape measure.

As far as I can tell, no one pays more attention to detail than the Japanese. The cut is precise and slick. Yes shorter than usual, but in two weeks it will be just about perfect. In the meantime, no hats, and the truth is, I’m liking it!

RIP, My Friend Betsy


Several years ago I joined a tour group to see a part of Japan that’s relatively hard to get to as a foreigner.  I’d requested a single room when I traveled because I’d learned from taking other tours I needed “time off” from the rest of the group when the day was done.

At our second stop I was told by the group leader there were no single rooms in the inn we were staying, so they teamed me up with another woman, Betsy Raymond, who was a solitary traveler too.  Little did either of us know that by the end of the trip we’d become fast friends.  Betsy was the only person I’d met who seemed as crazy or maybe crazier than I am about Japan.  She’d traveled to Japan for years, taught herself to read and speak Japanese quite well, and had discovered places in Japan I’d never heard of.  Her enthusiasm for the country equaled or surpassed mine.  Her knowledge of the country definitely surpassed mine.  I was impressed by her intellect and warmed by her humor.  She also was a bit subversive which fit me perfectly.  She was definitely eccentric, which I respected and lived life on her own terms.

I quickly discovered that when Betsy traveled, she was ready for any eventuality. Whatever a traveler might need on the road, Betsy had thought of and brought along. Be it a nail file, drugs, scissors, etc., she packed stuff I’d never dream of carrying with me.  It was as if she’d been asked to supply Noah’s ark with one of everything that was needed for daily life.

Betsy was also a whiz on computers.  A few times when we’d be given single rooms at new destinations, Betsy would cheerfully respond to my calls for help to get online. She also was a fount of valuable information about photography and cameras.  She’d attempt to share her wealth of knowledge with me, but I’d quickly get overwhelmed by the technical information she had at her fingertips.  She never lost patience with my slowness.

We quickly discovered that we both found the same things funny.  One morning we were told to gather outside the inn before sunrise before walking together to attend a morning service at a nearby temple.  Everyone in our tour was there except for Betsy.  I’d left our room before she was ready.  What’s taking Betsy so long? The group started growing impatient in the morning chill. Before long, I heard a voice call out loudly and accusingly from an upstairs room, “Dianne Vapnek, are you wearing my shoes?”

Knowing that I was capable of doing something like that, I quickly looked down at my feet and just as quickly realized that the shoes I’d slipped into in the morning darkness were not mine.  Betsy had to spend about 10 minutes looking for her shoes before she realized that I must have put them on. In the morning,  both pairs were neatly lined up outside our room as required in Japanese tatami rooms.  We both wore the same size, both shoes were black slip- ons and at 5:30 AM, that was enough for me.

She and I broke out laughing immediately.  Our hilarity increased when the other group members just looked in disgust at us both.  In the evenings, we’d chat long into the night sharing and laughing at the day’s adventures and misadventures.

Betsy was also a hilarious drunk.  We both hit the sake pretty hard one night at dinner, and by the meals’ end she had me doubled over laughing at her antics which were way beyond what is generally considered appropriate female behavior in Japan.  But we were both past the point of no return.  We spent far too much time amusing each other, but of course, that just made it funnier.

Sadly, I learned yesterday that my dear travel partner died a few days ago.  Several months earlier she informed me rather matter of factly that she’d just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  She was methodical about planning her care and had decided to be treated by a Japanese doctor who believed he might have a better way of treatment for her deadly cancer.  I’d been told she was in hospice.  As I was making plans to visit her, I learned it was too late.

In addition to being the best travel companion a woman could have, Betsy was an accomplished book artist.  She rescued animals.  By herself.  She waited in local parks after Easter to capture the Easter bunnies who’d been released into the wild and provide them with a home.   She’d found dozens of bunnies who lived a happy life in a house with her, occupying a vacant upstairs bedroom.

A cat followed her down the street in Japan several years ago and she decided that she was meant to take it home, i.e. back to CA.  An almost impossible task, but she did it.  She stayed several weeks longer than she’d planned to get approval for this action because she wouldn’t take no for an answer and finally boarded the plane with the cat.  She still suffered from guilt because the cat died soon after she’d transported it.  She still felt responsible for its death.

This year, more friends of mine are falling off the wheel of life, or riding it precariously.

I will miss Betsy.  I just learned she wanted no words spoken at her internment.  She did things her own way until the very end.  Thank you Bets for being such a dear friend in the short time we had together.  Thank you for doing your best to help those who have no voice.  Thanks for laughs and most of all thanks for loaning me your shoes.


Bali Hai Redux

Do you know the song Bali -Hai from the musical South Pacific?  I loved every musical I saw growing up and knew the lyrics to all of them.  When I first saw the Florida Keys in 1958, I immediately began to sing Bali-Hai.  Not a perfect fit for the occasion, but close enough to satisfy my attraction at that young age to exotica and my innate knowledge that there’s a song for almost every occasion.

I lived in Florida from 1958-1968.  Whenever possible, I tried to talk anyone I knew with wheels to drive to the Keys with me.  In those years, it was a relatively isolated piece of heaven, made more unworldly by its two-lane road, known as the Overseas Highway, of over 100 miles, improbably linking a string of small islands together until finally arriving at the southernmost end; the eccentric and slightly bad-assed city of Key West.  The shimmering Atlantic Ocean spread out on one side of the highway, the Gulf of Mexico on the other. The colors of the waters surrounding the Keys are an alluring piece of eye candy; ranging from shades of aquamarine to turquoise.  Key West itself is more of an outpost of the Bahamas than a conventional city in the USA.

If you timed your trip just right and the weather cooperated, you could watch the remarkable sunset unfold as the water reflected the giant shifting clouds.


We left Florida behind us decades ago, ultimately moving to the West Coast.  Thoughts of the Keys dimmed with the years.

This past week we had a chance to revisit the Keys.  I’d heard that the ambience had changed dramatically because of over- development and an excess of tourism.   I approached my reacquaintance, not unlike the way one feels when catching up with an old boy or girlfriend.  Will the thrill be gone?  Will there be any attraction?  Will we have anything still in common other than our ancient history?

At first, my response was lukewarm.  Nice-to-see-you-again kind of thing.   Now that I live in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the watery surroundings didn’t seem as thrilling to me as they had 55 years ago. It seemed too flat a landscape, I missed the mountains. The glorious highway over the ocean now carried much more traffic.  It used to be a road we had almost to ourselves, now it was interrupted with ugly billboards advertising sandals for sale,  too many places selling seashells from distant dying ocean reefs, dive bars, and RV parks.  I began to think the love affair was over.  I didn’t feel any sense of a pilot light ignition.

But after a few days, I found my internal rhythm slowing down. I let go of my expectations.  I began to take in the natural beauty of the region again, noting that once off the main highway, life was about as casual, pleasant and relaxed as it could possibly be.  This time around there are mojitos to enjoy.  Getting up with the sunrise seemed suddenly(somewhat) effortless.  Key lime pie is readily available as is fresh fish in abundance. Who knew that Joe’s stone crabs came mostly from the Keys? Continue reading “Bali Hai Redux”

Blissed out

Being here produces an almost constant high for me.  It’s allowed me to appreciate the drizzly days and foggy nights happening recently in Kyoto as being as beautiful and welcome as the sunny bright days. It’s admiring the magnificence of a huge polished wood counter when out for dinner at a neighborhood restaurant and the elegant perfection of an old machiya.

It’s the almost constant delight taken in Japanese design and the surprises waiting for me each time I leave my building.

diorama made from silk cocoons.
antique case in front of shop holding bonsai

It’s feeling completely at one with my surroundings, of releasing into the moment.  It’s visiting with friends and being grateful for their enrichment of my life. It’s going to a big Ikenobo display, feeling a bit underwhelmed, then suddenly concentrating on a small piece of the arrangement and watching the small miracles of a single flower come into focus. Continue reading “Blissed out”

Must be Seen (again and again)

You are familiar with the statement, “Must be seen to be believed.” In the case of cherry blossom season, this is not an exaggeration.  It is truly a take – your – breath – away experience to be ingested and savored.

The attachment the Japanese and I have to Sakura cannot be overemphasized.  Weeks before the blossoms appear, forecasts appear, predicting when and where cherry blossom season will begin and spread across this island nation. The color pink appears in hankies and scarfs, cakes, drinks and candies.  Artificial branches of pink cherry blossoms are hung in shopping arcades.  Increasing numbers of kimono-wearing women appear on the street, adding to the sense of anticipation and sense of occasion.

You would be forgiven if you thought that it’s all overblown, or if you’ve seen it one time, you do not need to see it again.  You’d only think that if you had never truly experienced it.


Sakura holds a unique place in the hearts and minds of the Japanese people.  Much has been written about the centuries – long attraction of the blossoms to the Japanese.  Now, 21st c. publicity and travel opportunities have contributed to an influx of tourists from many lands, poised to descend on the most famous places in Japan to view sakura.  At times, in certain places, the crowds of people with camera phones become almost comical, if it weren’t so annoying.  The masses of people can easily distract me from the magnificence of the trees in bloom.

Yesterday, as the blooms intensified across Kyoto, we sought to view the flowers in a quieter location.  I wanted to be sure my family saw what all the fuss was about before they headed for Tokyo.  At the suggestion of a Japanese friend, we took our family inside the gates of the former Imperial Palace. Continue reading “Must be Seen (again and again)”