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The Mansion

There is a secret society of music enthusiasts in Bellingham. They host raves in national parks, they call them renegades. In order to join them, you must be invited to a private Facebook page. When I joined the group they were excited about a new, more permanent location.

The Mansion sits at the end of a long gravel drive past two other properties. It is unmarked except for the 20 plus cars that surround it. At first it is hidden by large douglas firs, but soon you can make out the blue siding and wooden deck. Today the stone pizza oven in the shed is fired up and the line into the house is stretching into the yard. The fairy lights on the deck are glowing purple, illuminating the body paint of the guests. A woman in thigh high boots and a leotard is burning a bundle of sage, she blesses me before I walk through the door and remove my shoes.

I am offered a tour by a man in a jesters hat. I follow the clown to the right and into the master bedroom. There are large bay windows on either side and short white carpet. There is little furniter inside the room, just a couch, a master bed, and a sex swing. “You’re welcome to sleep here,” the jester says. I picture him snoring in my ear, I ask to see the kitchen.

The kitchen, as at any party, is the most crowded place. There is a group at a low table drawing stickers and sipping tea. They are wearing crocheted shirts or no shirts at all and bell bottom pants with swirling patterns. Any of them could tell you which of your chakras was slipping out of place at the moment. On the kitchen counter is a vat of vegan chilly, a water cooler, and trays of “meditation chocolate.” All for sale by the owner.

From the kitchen I walk into the main event, the living room had been cleared to make room for a DJ booth. On the opposite wall a woman is painting a large eagle flying into the sun. The glass doors have started to sweat with condensation. I watch a man with a fushigi as he entertains the crowd in the living room. He suspends the glass ball effortlessly, floating it from hand to hand, only breaking his flow to laugh or say hello. The crowd around him parts and a man who looked like the painting of Jesus that hung in my highschool classroom emerged. He made his way to the raised DJ booth.

“Hello everyone, my name is Luke and I own Mysterium,” he says, “We’re happy to have you here.”

A woman with dreadlocks cheers in the back waving a fan. 

“My uncle gave me this house, and he also gave me this flute,” he says holding up a wooden pipe. “As I play it for you I’d like for all of you to come into the living room and sit down so we can begin the cacao ceremony.”

Sixy plus people file themselves into the living room making a show of being accommodating and courteous as they try sandwich themselves cross legged on the carpet. The air grows thick and muggy. A woman in her 40’s with dark hair enters  from the kitchen carrying a tray of paper dixie cups passing them to the crowd. “Janet has just returned from Guatemala,” Luke says, “She is excited to lead us in a sacred cacao ceremony so we can set our intentions for the night.” 

I receive a cup of the cacao, it is thick and viscous it smells heavenly. “Please wait to drink it until I give permission,” Luke says to the crowd. “I’ll now invite my wife Vivian to share some thoughts.”

Vivian is beautiful, short, tan, curvy, it is always easier to listen to beautiful people. She is wearing a bra and pantie set made of rawhide fringe flowing down to her wrists, making her look like the mural across from her. “I hope everyone is ready for an evening of intentional connectedness,” she says, “As we stated before this is an alcohol free zone because we want to be sure you are able to get consent from people you might want to move with.” The master of cacao ceremonies stumbles on a foot and nearly loses her tray. 

Vivian continues, “As a way of practicing non-verbal consent techniques Luke and I will demonstrate some poses from his monkey movement workshop while the rest of you get your cacao.”

The couple stands facing each other and raising their palms head height. They start mirroring each other’s movements wiping in circles. Their palms hovering an inch from each other’s  as the circles widen, they are bending their backs and testing their balance. Luke pushes his palms forward and Vivian arches her back in a perfect bridge. She tries to reciprocate and he loses his balance. Laughing, “Alright folks, there will be a class tonight on more monkey movement techniques but for now let’s get started with the cacao ceremony.”

Janet, master of cacao ceremonies, once again comes from the kitchen this time with a healing gong. “This is stolen land,” she says, “Let’s acknowledge our ancestors in this moment.” The room falls silent and the man next to me starts practicing his savasana breath.

 “Now I would like you all to think of an intention for the night. Could it be to embody love?” she says, the man next to me inhales. “To spread light?” exhale. “To know a truer self?” inhale. “To find something greater than self?” forceful exhale. 

“Let’s all now lift our cups to the the heavens and enjoy this moment of reflection together,” she says, “You may partake.”

The once silent room fills with the sound of sixty people swallowing a thick liquid. The gulps are unbearable, my friend who had enjoyed one of the meditation chocolates, looks around and leaves the room. 

When it was all said and done the person next to me invites me to see the stargazing loft of the roof. The upstairs bedrooms had been turned into comforting respites for guests who might feel overwhelmed. There is an art room lit only with black lights and filled with original paintings and those classic velvet posters. The room next door has cedar paneled walls and a collection of body pillows. There is a sign up sheet for massages, there is no sign up sheet for the “cuddle puddle.” 

As we climb the second staircase, I hear giggling. “What a childish laugh that person has,”I think to myself. Turning the corner, I see a woman in her late 20s with a toddler. They are making faces at each other.I join in the fun making my eyes large and sticking out my tongue. I hear the giggle again and think about  how odd it is for a child to have invited themselves to this party. 

Behind the girls is a ladder that leads to a trap door. The door opens into a small loft with an entire wall propped open to let in the night sky. There are no other properties visible from the lookout, only tall firs. It is peaceful and the air is cooler than downstairs. From my perch I start to hear the low grumble of a four four bass and it is time to head back down.

On the dance floor people are breaking their bodies to beat. The hi hat drops out and the dancers squat to the ground legs wide, moving their arms at their sides. The music picks up and they jumpin the air, kicking their legs and flexing their feet. Hands contort into claws and howls follow every track. The dance floor turns into a single pulsing energy, a circle getting tighter, spinning faster. I too am twisting my body into new grotesque shapes, I am too hot. 

Outside there are two campfires. I opt for the further one because I can hear a fiddle playing in that direction. I sit down and watch the embers. The fiddle player is what you expect, a man in his 50s or 60s with a long white beard. The man next to me is a capricorn, but he doesn’t think he really relates to his sun sign, he is more of a gemini, his moon sign. The gemini on my left agrees that moon signs are constantly overlooked. I look at the stars, having little interest in astrology and wonder what other parties are happening in other small towns.

At 4 a.m. Luke gathers us all back into the living room for a time of reflection and thanksgiving. His flute playing is slower and more melancholy. My body aches from dancing. I wander into the master bedroom and find a couch. I am unable to sleep, my head is pounding and when I close my eyes I see a frenzy of static. I settle for putting a blanket over my eyes instead. From my dark cave I can hear the moans of the couple next to me and, I swear on my life, a didgeridoo being played. 

My loopy brain was touched by the openness and genuine compassion of the people in the house. Each one stranger than the next, each one kinder than the next. I feel the sun rising and remove my blanket to watch, a beautiful curtain on a strange and wondrous night. 

Months later I hear Vivian and Luke are selling the Mansion. She is  moving to Seattle to sell crystals, he is moving to Portland to teach monkey movement. They are having a final garage sale to raise money for the ride. I attend the garage sale more to thank them than to buy anything. 

When I get out of my car there is a man selling crystals and agate he had harvested in Mount Vernon. He takes out a tin lid with a goopy, ear wax looking substance. “Would you like a dab?” he asks. I look at the trailer behind him, picturing him over a bunsen burner. “I’m good thanks.”

I watched him take a long drag, “There’s never gonna be another place like this, is there?”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” I said. 

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Hakone Express Tour (Travel Writing Example)

DSC_0174Hakone is probably the only place where you can see an active volcano and ride in a pirate ship on the same day. Located about 2 hours from Yokohama Station, Hakone served as a midway point between Kyoto and Edo on the Tokaido line during the Edo period. The city has kept some of its traditional feel with its cobblestone roads and traditional onsens.

My group set out early in the morning to make sure we fit in all we could before the last ferry. From the YNU Gumyoji dorm, the easiest route is to take the blue line to Totsuka (06) and hop on a JR at that station. Once arrived in Hakone, we purchased a Hakone Freepass. For 4,000 yen, you can get access to all of the buses, boats, and cable cars in Hakone, many businesses also offer discounts with the pass. Even if you only spend one day in the city, the freepass is worth the money.

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To start our exploring we rode Japan’s oldest railway system, the Hakone Tozan Line, up the base of the mountain. The train takes leisurely switch backs up the mountain giving you plenty of time to take photos of the leaves. If you’re looking for the best photo ops, visit in November when the leaves are turning.  

The area surrounding the trains last stop is full quaint old style buildings, views of the mountain are available in most alleys. After checking out a few omiyage shops, we headed to Gora Park a few blocks from the station. I could easily spend a whole day walking in the park and the best part is that admission is included with the Hakone Freepass.

DSC_0160Once we had all the photos we needed, we headed back to the station to take a rail ride to the base of the ropeway. As there is only one way to get to the top, expect to wait at least 15 minutes for your chance to ride.

My whole life I have been afraid of heights, like crying on roller coasters afraid of heights, so I was a little apprehensive about the next leg of the journey. The Hakone Ropeway features spectacular views of the mountain and the active Owakudani or “Great Boiling Valley.” The entire cabin of the ropeway car is glass so there are plenty of opportunities for spectacular photos. Although I expected to be terrified, the car was slow and stable enough for me to relax, but if you have issues with heights it might be a good idea to let your friends take photos for you.

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At the summit, you can try the famous black eggs that get their color from being boiled in the mountains volcanic water. Unless you absolutely love eggs, it might be best to spend your 500 yen in one of the ramen shops or food stalls in the area. Smelling the sulfury air coming from Owakudani will give you the same effect as eating one of the expensive eggs.DSC_0195

There is a beautiful small shrine at the top of the railway as well as a great look out point to take in the valley. A had a nice chat with some locals also visiting from Yokohama while taking in the view.

If you’re only spending one day in Hakone, 2 hours is probably the most you want to spend at the top of the ropeway. The ride down to Ashi-no-ko lake is a little longer than the ride up and offers views of the changing leaves. My group was lucky to have no wait time at this station.

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Have your camera ready for your voyage across the Ashi no ko Lake in a ferry boat that has been decorated to look like a pirate ship. The ride takes about 30 minutes and is one of the best spots to capture photos of the fall leaves. If you’re feeling truly adventurous, you take pose with a plaster pirate at the helm of the ship.

Once the ferry docks, you are only a 15 minute walk from the famous Hakone Shrine. Follow a path along the waterfront and look for a red bridge in the wooded area across from where the ferry docks. If you feel lost, just start looking for other tourists, you’re all going to the same place.

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The photo above is the view of the shrine, most people don’t see until they arrive and realize they’ll have to wait 30 minutes to take their photo. I’d love to post a photo of the nice view, but I actually waited in line so long that it was dark by the time I got to take photos. Everyone in line was really polite, they would run to the photo spot as quickly as they could. It’s definitely worth the stop, just allow yourself some time before sunset.

After your final photo op, enjoy the sunset over the lake as you wait for your bus back to the main Hakone station. Most of the bus drivers speak english and will be help you find the fastest route back.

On the subway ride home you can look through all of your photos and argue about which cloud storage service is the best for RAW files.