Unexpecting the Expected
Clearly seeing monkeys, sea horses, and rabbits for the first time in 50 years
Monkeys! Heck yeah! My favorite. They’re at the top of the agenda at the zoo. I’m kind of like a monkey myself. I love bananas, I can be a little mischievous when released in the wild, and I like hopping around from place to place. When the rest of you are ready to move on and see the elephants, giraffes, and Yurtle the Turtle, I want to stay with the primates. Entice me with the prospect of heading to a park dedicated to seeing monkeys, and I’m going to be about as excited as I would have been back in grade school if you had told me we were going to see The Monkees.
Reading about the highly rated park the night before was enough to light the spark. Then came the stoke. Like a tall stack of dry kindling bursting into a towering inferno, my initial thoughts smoldered around at first and then flashed into a full-blown fiery fantasy. We’re going to the Monkey Park. Oh yeeeeaaaahhhh. But first, I gotta drop the phone and focus on my hand.
I’d long learned that the best way to beat my friend, Lightpack Lars, at a card game was to either to keep pouring drinks or to distract him with other things. You gotta do that with card counters. Another strategy I’d used was to introduce him the most complicated card game I know, Hollywood Canasta, to throw him off the scent. The epic card game that often lasts 3 to 4 hours and played with 4 decks of cards at once surely would do it. My brother-in-law, Todd, had been the reigning champion of the game and was crowned the long standing “Canasta Masta” by all those in our Hollywood Canasta circle. It was to Lars that Todd had to eventually sheepishly relinquish the title.
Clearly the drinks down the hall from the vending machine weren’t working. Yes, I said vending machine. In Japan, it’s that easy folks. The array of cheap things you can buy from the bank of vending machines all over the country rivaled what you might find at your local 7-11 (more on both vending machines and convenience stores in a future post), not the least of which were tall frosty cans of Sapporo and Asahi. Anyone lurking around the corner to ID us as we grab a cold one? Surely the old man noises of getting up from the chair were just as telling as the crows feet to serve as substitute. But alas, with years of holding his own, Lars would not be taken down by a few bargain brewskis.
Pictures I pulled up from Google Maps of the Beppu monkey park weren’t working either. Yes, he was excited about seeing the animals too, but Lars had probably figured out a way to have the gangs of mental monkeys that were populating his head to help him keep track of all the numbers that were being dropped on the table. My Ace in the Hole must’ve been stolen by one ‘em too. They’re like that. Hold onto your cell phones tightly! Your food too. We had gathered as much a few days earlier at another park up north in Kyoto as we learned through the wonders of the Google Translation app something about not feeding the monkeys.
So the next morning, as we dispensed an exuberant “arigato gozaimasu” with our admission tickets to the greeter at the front door of the large building in front of us, we eagerly passed through the pearly gates into the heavenly realm of scratchy armpits, long tails, and piercing screeches. After carefully watching our step for fear of slipping on banana peels, we pulled our eyes up off the floor. Hold on a second. Wait a minute…Penguins? Dolphins?!? Starfish?!?!? Sea Horses?!?!?!? Come on!!! At least show me a couple Sea Monkeys!
After a fleeting moment of wanting to throw some poop around, grab a few cell phones and throw them in the sting ray pool, and baring my teeth and screeching at all the happy children around us, like any good upset monkey might do, I settled into the realization that there would be no monkey park that day. Unbeknownst to us, we had just walked into the best aquarium on the planet, one that would change my life… “Oh here he goes,” you say. “He’s one of those people. Just like all those annoying Instagramers that show us a picture of Nirvana that you too could see if only you could be so lucky and have tried a little harder. I can’t believe you’ve never seen it - you’re sooooo deprived.” No, instead, I’m just an annoying travel blogger who’s going to tell you about a Nirvana that we discovered that we never saw coming simply because we never saw it coming, not because it was inherently great.
Put simply, this aquarium was probably no better than any one you’ve been to. I’m not even sure I’d recommend taking time to go see this particular one if you were heading to Beppu. But for me, what made it one of the most awesome places that I’ve ever been to was that my head was in a completely different place when we entered the front doors. I was expecting a monkey park. I got an aquarium.
I had spent hours anticipating how great that monkey park was going to be and how it would surely be a highlight of our entire trip. There’d be all kinds, big and small. They’d surround you and ask if you wanted free guided tours given by no other than their expert selves. Perfect pictures would be had for everyone. Free bananas everywhere! None of them green and none of them rotten! Teams of orangutans would clamber behind us gathering up all the discarded peels so as not to trip up the next group of late-coming stragglers behind us. Oh, wait a minute, we were going to have the park to ourselves too! Free T-shirts!! Monkey themed merchandise at every turn, sold by monkeys themselves!!! Talk about things coming to a “screeching” halt.
Like a stingray pool flash-draining through cracked glass caused by flying cell phones, my head quickly emptied out of all its hope and dreams as we entered those doors. Major reset. Blank canvas. Open mind. Call it what you will, but I had no lingering thoughts other than a slow and hesitant “OK……” But let me tell you. Those seals, sea lions, otters, and dolphins were nothing like I’d ever seen before, though I had seen dozens of them throughout my life. Did they always have those whiskers? Since when did they learn to dart around so quickly? Have they always been this cute? Just how is it that there are so many different types of jellyfish? Look at the spots on that bright orange and green fish! Whales?!? Cool!! It was like being that young kid again and seeing things for the very first time. The world was full of wonder again.
And so it was that the principal tenants of the No Stakes Rambling (NSR) approach that I had adopted and love practicing so much these days were further reinforced, as described in more detail in my blog post by the same title. Whenever possible, I avoid making reservations and try to keep from making set plans so that I can keep the agenda open and chase random rabbits that dart across my path.
All those waypoints that we fill our itineraries with, whether back at home or while on the road, mostly work against us by filling our heads with lofty expectations, false hopes, and unrealistic daydreams. The internet is filled with lists like “The Top 10 Things You Need to See in Your Lifetime.” Yes, I too have spent an inordinate amount of time and effort to fill Google Maps with things I’d like to see all around the world, but it takes a monumental effort to resist the temptation to string these all together into a long necklace that unwieldy dangles from your neck, gets tangled up in your money belt, and trips you up as you stumble over built up expectations as you walk along an overpacked itinerary at or between your destinations.
Instead, I’ve found these pins to be helpful in airlifting us out of rabbitless fields where we might find ourselves stumbling, mumbling, and bumbling “I don’t know. What do you want to do?” Waypoints should be idea generators, or better yet, used to get you to the right neighborhoods in town where rabbits are known to breed and multiply. Should we chase this one or that one? No time to decide! Quick!! That one!!! Go!!!!
No longer do I obsess about heading to an amazing spot that I just have got to go see come hell or high water. It’s likely to be crammed with Instagramers checking their phones to make sure that their picture, too, rivals any of the ones that they saw the night before, just as they saw as they were marching off to the next nearest 4.7 rated sight with a 4.8 rated restaurant on the way that their favorite top influencer raved about that feeds the best fusion Kobe beef-falafel-bison tacos on the planet to the happiest people on earth that are lucky enough to have gathered there to squeeze out onto the back deck to see the most gorgeous sunset they’ve ever seen in all of their collective lifetimes combined as glimpsed between the tall guy with the big hair and the big dude with the cowboy hat. “It’s going to be the best ever!!!”
No, I prefer that quiet, chill spot three streets over and four across where that random rabbit stops beneath an unrated banana smoothie fruit stand on the edge of a quiet park with large picnic tables perfect for another game of Hollywood Canasta so we can sit down, relax, and play while we watch the locals walk their monkey terriers down empty paths towards their cell phone free friends waiting on the park bench in front of the fountain. I might just be so inclined to mark the spot down on Google Maps as one of my favorites if one of those locals waved hello, stopped by and watched us play for a while, or better yet, even asked if they could learn how to play. In all absolute certainty, I’d surely mark it down on my map if there was a vending machine selling cold ones nearby in case we are there longer than “expected” and I need to shake any card counters off my tail. But I wouldn’t dare share that pin with the rest of the world.
So, give it a shot. Put away your phones. Maybe even keep them back at home base. Jump over the back fence and go for a random aimless stroll. Chase that rabbit darting down the side alley. The rewards you find may be richer than any of those you had hoped and dreamed for. If not, give it another try in another place on another day at another time. You won’t be able to strike it rich every time, but when you do, you can run to the bank with more rewarding valuable memories than you had ever “expected” to reap.