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Wednesday, December 20

This Christmas I Bring To Thee...

Japanese germs! It's 3 am here in Japan and I am up and moving in the general direction of the airport for my impending flight back to the states. In a testament to the fact that it was way too early for life, even the lazy, good-for-nothing sun has refused to rise with me.

Yesterday, the head cold that has had its grip on me for over two weeks and was steadily improving decided to up and try to kill me. He has almost been successful. Those who check my bags today should realize how precarious their position is if they try to take away any of the assortment of drugs I am carrying to the states. Nyquil capsules are like crack to me and I will sincerly thwart any efforts to remove them from my persons. Can't wait to see everyone back home. Also really begging the person that keeps punching me in the face to give me about a fifteen hour break starting...


See my woes? Too sore and tired to even make complete sentence.

Will write again. Soon. Okay, maybe sporadically at best.

Until then, enjoy your holiday time with your family and friends! I know I will.

Tuesday, December 19

Strolling the Streets of Yokohama’s Chinatown

Way back in the late years of the 1800s when Japan first opened its ports to foreign trade, an area of residences close to the Yokohama ports called Chinatown (Yokohama Chukagai) was among the first to spring up. Many Chinese importers settled in the area in those early days and while many have since left the area leaving behind mostly a small population of Cantonese, the area today is still home to over 500 shops and restaurants that epitomize the imported culture.

Most people have spent time in a Chinatown somewhere in the world. Myself in both DC and in New York. But this Chinatown paled those in comparison in every fashion. The streets are narrow like most of Japan but the colors are what first stand out. Bold reds, greens, yellows, blues and gold are splashed on buildings pervading each intricately carved wall. Yokohama’s Chinatown is the largest in Japan and one of the largest that can be found anywhere in the world which was proven as we meandered up and down street after street, never passing the same place twice. There are four main gates, all dedicated to Chinese gods, that stand decorated in the same fashion as the buildings that signify entering and leaving this area.

At the center of Chinatown is a temple that, if even possible, was even more crammed with the colors and carvings of the area. The name of the temple is Kanteibyo and it was built in those early years by the Chinese who lived there and dedicated to their god of business and prosperity. Looks like it worked well.

At 8 pm on Sunday evening, the area was bustling with people and every restaurant’s golden light enveloped the many people waiting to get a table for the evening. Japanese language, which is heavily influenced by characters from the Chinese language, covers the menus and tells the reader of the possibility of Cantonese, Szechwan, Beijing and Shanghai delicacies at the more than 200 restaurants that are packed behind those gates. Of course, the menus to us were nothing but jibber and we thankfully had the recommendation of a friend to aid our choice for the evening.

In usual Japanese fashion, this restaurant had menus with pictures which we choose a shrimp appetizer from and then KH with a dish that would either be chicken, pork or duck and me a seafood type noodle dish. As you have probably guessed, I am not a picky eater and am pretty willing to try just about anything. Kimono Hubby, well, he can be a bit of a picky eater with regards to meats. It must be cooked and it must be cooked very dead. And no fattiness. Wouldn’t you know that his dish turned out to be duck… and in its usual way, very fatty and greasy. My noodle dish I honestly thought wouldn’t be so far out there. While the touches of octopus rings were different, I do like octopus and didn’t have a problem with this. I did however have a problem with the legs filled with suckers that I later dug out. Looking back, I would have to say that this was probably better than the whole duck you could purchase on a plate for 8,400 yen at many establishments.

Back home, like everyone who lives with too easily delivered foods, often had Chinese. It has never been a favorite food of mine but I need variety. After our meal in Chinatown, I hate to admit it, but I have for the first time come upon a cuisine that I could seriously do without ever eating again. It isn’t like General Tso’s back home, kids. And neither KH nor I cared for any of it.

Not ones to miss out on an experience though, we still plan on going to China next year. However, I will be searching for hotels that serve Western foods so we can eat there every day and not starve. I joke. Sort of.

It was a lovely way to spend a Sunday evening and I even debated purchasing one of the battery operated pandas that sang strange Christmas carols that found their market in just about every store in Chinatown. I refrained. We spent our money instead on roasted chestnuts that could be found peddled every few steps. A much better choice… and help for the hunger that still had its grips on us.

Monday, December 18

How Well He Knows Me

I know it isn’t Christmas yet but with traveling for the holidays, we here in the Kimono household enjoyed an early Christmas this past weekend. As always, we spoiled one another more with the fact that we truly listen to the wants and needs of the other rather than spoiling by blowing our monthly budget. I would never want to be spoiled any other way.

I am also one of the easiest people ever to shop for and this Christmas season should be no exception. Not only did I make a list that anyone can get to and even filled it with too many suggestions of the things I am wishing for, but it really is as simple as buying me any lovely book that will get me jumping up and down and squealing for joy.

In his tradition of knowing me the very best, Kimono Hubby presented me three books to add to my collection for reading this upcoming year: The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings: Marx, Marat, Paine, Mao Tse-Tung, Ghandi and Others, Moby Dick and Living Buddha, Living Christ. Just imagine what the people at thought when they were fulfilling that order. My head is spinning and I seriously don’t know which one to start with! Even though I still have class reading to do, I just can’t stand the thought of waiting until semester’s end… a whole month from now… before diving into one of these pretties.

My second squealer this year was the most gorgeous strand of Mikimoto pearls (some of the very best in Japan!). Typical for KH, he didn’t even wait until our early ‘Christmas’ day came and gave me those before a Christmas party last week. I spent the day afterwards reworking my party outfit around those pearls and I like to think it paid off.

What have your loved ones spoiled you with this season? Did anyone else have Christmas come early this year?

We fly back to the states in a few days and the excitement has finally truly hit me. I’m still dreading that flight. But most importantly, I can’t wait to be back home for the holidays with our family and friends.

Time to go read now!

Wednesday, December 13

I Want My MTV

This has been a busy week but with little to share that would be construed as interesting other than to my self. There is a week long break from school starting next week but most midterms and papers were due this week, keeping me in the throes of American history. Many evenings were spent alone as Kimono Hubby had various events that kept him at work late into the evening, leaving me with ample time at night to nurse my swollen cerebellum back into condition for the next day’s work.

As American’s we are truly fond of our televisions. Don’t try to deny it. We all know that we say we don’t watch much but when you are bored, where is the first place you go to? The television. I often take a book with me, but I also will spend many wasted hours in front of the boob tube. Perhaps not as many as my husband, but if you want to spend time with him, you can bet it will be with the rays of the flat screen illuminating both of our cheeks.

Television in Japan isn’t like television at home. While I generally sing the praises of life here, it is time to be honest about just how much television sucks in this advanced country. To give you some background, Kimono Hubby is an addict. Because of this, we have the big TV with a cable program from the provider J:Com that gives us as many channels as you can get outside of the two “HBO-like” channels which we couldn’t justify the cost. A total of 67 channels with absolutely nothing on. On Tuesday night, prime time between 8:00 pm until about 9:15 pm, I wrote down exactly what was on for you. There are different tiers here for programs which I can’t explain but just is, so I have broken this list down by the tiers and also indicate at the start what can be viewed in English. A handful of Japanese shows can be turned into English with the push of a button but this really only gives you about five more programs and they really shouldn’t even have bothered. Those channels that you can get in English will have Japanese subtitles on the screen which you may be able to turn off but we have never figured out how.

C210 – Japanese – Local News (It would be ever so helpful if this were in English. We would never know if that killer typhoon is on its way unless we happened upon the news from the base.)
C211 – English – CNN
C212 – Japanese – News Program
C213 – Japanese – NIKKEI CNBC
C220 – Japanese – MTV (I’ve only ever seen videos and no programs like The Real World.)
C221 – Japanese – Another video and music channel.
C222 – Japanese – Yet another video channel (And actually a pretty song on.)
C223 – English – The fourth music and video channel (playing some life concert of an old 70’s group that still thinks they are cool and people want to hear them play.)
C230 – Japanese – Gymnastics
C231 – Japanese – ESPN playing a Baseball game
C232 – Japanese – Soccer
C233 – English – Basketball game (Mavericks vs. ?)
C235 – Japanese – Golf (Good Lord, even the people here are tortured with golf on TV?)
C236 – English – Tennis
C237 – English – Golf Network (Again?!?)
C240 – English – Some 70s movie complete with tweed and large butterfly collars
C241 – Japanese – A schedule for some channel of which is not clear
C242 – Japanese – Some 70s program that, due to its age, promises to be quite hilarious
C243 – Japanese – An old black and white movie
C250 – English – Super Drama Channel which has an old West Wing on at this time
C251 – English – One of the early Friends episodes
C252 – German – AXN which each night plays a movie of varying languages
C253 – Japanese – My favorite Proactive commercial which replaces Jessica Simpson with a prettier Japanese girl
C254 – Japanese – A modern soap opera-esque movie. I watch this channel a lot even though I have no idea what it going on. I make up my own dialog.
C255 – Japanese – One of the greatest, and numerous, Samurai movie channels
C256 – Japanese – Another Samurai movie channel
C260 – English – Disney Channel playing Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
C261 – English – Toon Disney playing a Chipmunks cartoon
C262 – English – Cartoon Network showing the Powerpuff Girls
C263 – Japanese – Animax (Shows anime that would be excellent if a single show as in English)
C264 – Japanese – More anime
C265 – English – Discovery Channel (Tonight’s program is on… IKEA?!)
C266 – English – Discovery HD (A show about African wildlife)
C267 – Japanese – History Channel (This is often in English except, of course, like tonight when it is playing a program I would really like to watch about Japanese history)
C268 – English – National Geographic (All about cargo ships)
C269 – English – Animal Planet (Playing the only program on J:Com that I really like, a show about ASPCA agents in New York City locking up people who hurt their puppy dogs
C270 – Japanese – Another old black and white movie
C271 – Japanese – More cartoons
C273 – Japanese – It appears as if it is an educational program about Pachinko
C274 – Japanese – Reality TV Channel which often puts English words over the Japanese making it almost impossible to understand
C275 – English – FoxLife showing tonight old episodes of the North Shore
C276 – Japanese – Looks like a regular Japanese sitcom
C280 – Japanese – Game Show meant only for smart kids
C281 – English – A show all about cuts of beef – wow.
C282 – Japanese – never figured out what this was all about
C286 – Japanese – Home shopping network-like programming
C289 – Japanese – More home shopping
C499 – Japanese – J:Com commercials
C500 – Japanese – Movie channel preview channel advertising Mr. & Mrs. Smith
C501 – Japanese – More preview channels, this one King Kong
C511 – Japanese – And more preview channels, Spanglish here

011 – Japanese – Local News
012 – Japanese – PBS?
013 – Japanese – More PBS?
014 – Japanese – Food show
015 - ?? our television obviously knew I can’t understand Japanese and refused to allow me to go any further in these channels
018 – the television up and died for fifteen minutes when I tried to go here

BS101 – Japanese – American football game probably from a year or so ago
BS102 – English – Some 70s British Movie
BS103 – Japanese – More PBS?
BS141 – Japanese – A regular sitcom?
BS151 – Japanese – An infomercial about car graphics
BS161 – Japanese – Old movie, blah
BS171 – English – Some really bad movie about Neve Campbell as a dancer
BS181 – Japanese – While playing Rod Stewart’s “When I See You Tonight,” you can watch trains heading across the English countryside. I have no idea what this is about.
BS700 – Japanese – and the same as BS 103
BS701 – Japanese – same as yet another channel
BS744 – Japanese – same-o

So that’s what J:Com provides to us. If you made it through the list, you will note that any sitcom is from at least several years ago. While some of the programming on the Discovery-like channels looks good, it is! The first time around. These channels are notorious for replaying their programs. Often! Why, God, why?! The good thing about J:Com is that the commercials are few and far between. Some channels will not even play a commercial until the last fifteen minutes of the hour, when the program is over. No interruptions every other act to drive the viewer crazy.

So that we could actually get some American news, we do also have AFN, the Armed Forces Network which is all in English! While I will not sing their praises either, it is at least something. There are commercial breaks like back home but the commercials are all about being good to your family housing neighbor and lots of military and American history. I love the commercials on this broadcasting actually. We do not see product commercials or previews for anything beyond the programs that AFN has on which kind of makes us live in a huge vacuum of late. The downside is that there isn’t much on here either. Again, no new programming as of yet. We usually are watching the season that we just finished watching at home. There are ten channels and this is what you get on Tuesday night at 9:00 pm:

1 – Sports – Last week’s Monday Night Football game
2 – Guiding Light – ack!
3 – Boston Legal
4 – Supernatural – great! If you hadn’t watched it before you left home already.
5 – News Channel – the today show is on and it is live. When Al goes to the local weather, all we here is him cracking stupid jokes to the crowd.
6 – The Best Damn Sports Show Ever – that’s what it is called. I have no idea what it is nor do I care.
7 – AFN Program Guide
8 – Army Newswatch – all military news
9 – Family Channel playing the oft shown Even Stevens
10 – Movie Channel featuring The Preacher’s Wife

Sadly, this does not get much better on other nights. I know what you are thinking, what are you doing in front of the television when there is still so much out there to see and experience? Well… sometimes, you just want to plop your big butt on the couch and stay there. Just buy some DVDs from first or you will be sorely disappointed.

Tuesday, December 12

Celebrate Good Times

While out on Saturday night having a little celebratory dinner (it looks as if the condo has rented – yea!), there was another party at the bar enjoying their own celebration. This one for a Japanese girl’s birthday. They brought in a round, layered cake with these long, gorgeous candles on top. With the lights in the room dimmed for them, they began to sing… “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you…” Does anyone notice besides me that they are singing this in English? Is there no Japanese birthday song or do they really think our version is truly the hit?

In other news, I just spent the past eight hours in front of my computer doing a midterm, writing a seven page paper on the relationship between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin and responding to this week’s online conferences regarding Wilson and his half-cocked notions of diplomacy. My brain is fried and, frankly, I am starting to lose any sort of coherence. While I go celebrate the end of a long but successful day of class work with a big glass of Shiraz that will surely elevate the medicinal levels I have forced down today thanks to the snottiness of yesterday’s kindergartners and 2nd graders, please return to your regularly scheduled programming. Thank you and good day.

Friday, December 8

Takayama in the Winter, Pt. 2

The room on Sunday morning was very dark which surprised me considering the ivory colored paper walls. We heard the shoji doors slide open and an audible but polite “Ohayo gozaimasu” could be heard from our hostess. Groaning the same good morning greeting back, we arose from the warmth of our futons. It was 6:50 am and we had ten minutes to round ourselves into clothes, through on some makeup and make our way downstairs to the breakfast table.

Considering the short time, there wasn’t an opportunity for a shower which I can honestly say I didn’t care anyway. The shower at the ryokan is the same type that we have at home with your shower and bathtub in one convenient room. However, there was one huge deviation in this one… it was meant to be used by multiple people at the same time. Not since high school days of skinny dipping have I felt free enough to bare it all to the world and I wasn’t about to restart now. For the first time in my life, it really only took me ten minutes to get ready.

When I slid open the shoji doors to head downstairs for breakfast, to my instant delight I saw that it had started snowing sometime in the night. The fall in Takayama just one day before had ushered in the winter of today and the wooden balcony lay dusted with the first light layer of snow for the season. As if the day before didn’t already have its share of magic to present to us, this was the moment that the trip became surreal. Like I really had transported to another peaceful time and place.

With the largest grin on my face, I bounded down the stairs in my slippers to the room where breakfast was being served. At first I couldn’t figure out my way in because the doors look more like walls. I could hear the voices of my companions through the papered screens but had no idea that I would have to deal with a secret entrance. Around the corner and into another hallway, I found the door and slid through into the room full of smells of warmed foods that waited there for me. Ah, the breakfast of champions. It was a typical Japanese breakfast and not a single thing that one would expect on the breakfast table. Several dishes were already placed for consumption which included two types of Japanese pickles and a dish of some other indefinite Japanese vegetable. I’m ravenous and while I like the food I have experienced thus far, this was not going to cut it for a cold morning when I needed hardcore nourishment. The next few dishes were served… rice, miso soup and the specialty in Takayama, Hida Miso which is a fermented soy bean paste served on a magnolia leaf which you place over your own personal little hibachi like grill until the miso sizzles on top of the leaf. Then you mix the miso into your rice and chow down. So very good. Still not breakfast what I call breakfast but it would have to suffice. Poached eggs were served individually to each of us and it the closet you get to breakfast foods. Of course, you also pour soy sauce on it so I don’t know how breakfasty that still makes it. And green tea, of course! Those blessed hostesses of ours realized the amount of gaijin in the room and served tiny cups of coffee as well. It wasn’t my usual morning Diet Coke but it would do the deed for that day.

All filled up on the delicious weirdness, we donned our warm coats and boots and headed back out on the street. The first stop was one of the two morning markets that are held daily in the city. Vendors lined the street next to the river and sold various vegetables and snacks which they were more than happy to have you take a taste of but never forced you to buy afterwards. There are also goods such as the famous, elaborate wood carvings done from a single piece of wood called Ichii Ittobori, in most cases made from cedar or yew, and other bits of local souvenirs such as the sarubobo doll which mean “baby monkey” in literal translation. The dolls are given to babies and small children to protect them from evil and the city had presented us with our own little dolls the night before at dinner.

Throughout our time in the market, I was looking for that perfect gift to bring home to Kimono Hubby. When one of us goes away, there is always a little something brought back to us… usually something that symbolizes where we were. My object in this case was to find the perfect wood carving for him and I perused many stands and gift shops until I stumbled across the place I would find my purchase.

To walk in to this store, one found themselves in the midst of hundreds of wood carvings of various sizes and subjects lining the walls. I fell in love with just about everything but just bringing home a little, carved woodland creature wasn’t going to cut it. Then I passed a carving of a smiling old man with an amazingly elongated head. It amused me greatly but not knowing what it represented, I kept looking. Coming back to it a second time though, one of my companions who speaks excellent Japanese asked the man behind the counter. He explained that it was an old Japanese deity by the name of Fuku Rokuju who represented wisdom and education. Of course, I was sold. It took us a few moments, but we began to come to the realization that the man behind the counter may be more than just a shop keeper and indeed could be the artist himself. We asked and he obliged us with a confirmation and even agreed to carve his name, Suzuki Ichiei, into the back of the carving for me and my husband’s name onto the bottom. My gift complete, he wrapped it in full Japanese style with paper covered in the faces of warriors, including the meaning of the carvings, his business card and the name of the deity so we could do more research at a later time. Talk about customer service… there could be a lot learned from the shop owners in Takayama.

Next on our agenda for the day was the famous temple, Hida Kokubun-ji. Beautiful in its architecture, and unfortunately the gray skies of the day did not lend to the best pictures to show you. At this stop, a friend explained the proper way to pray at a temple and to acquire your fortune. Of course it was in Japanese, but my friend read what he could and essentially told me I was in for good fortune. I said a silent prayer as we walked away that it had something to do with our condo back in DC but so far no such luck.

To the next shrine, because you can never get enough shrines and temples in Japan… or at least I can’t, we climbed the steps up to the Hida Takayama Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine… a sincere mouthful. The view the top of the stairs at this beautiful wooden shrine was breathtaking and encompassed the city and glimpsed of the mountains only capped with snow for the first time a few hours ago. Along with the shrine, there is a museum that has a miniature replica of the city Nikko. While I haven’t been to this city yet, the replica has me fascinated and we subsequently are planning a trip in the near future.

Takayama is famous for two of the most beautiful festivals a year, one in the fall and one in the spring. During these festivals, massive, gilded wood yatai (floats) that date back to the 17th century are pushed or carried through the streets of the city. Several of the yatai are on display at the Takayama Yatai Kaikan (Festival Float Exhibition Hall). You would not believe the size and elaboration on these floats and I find it entirely difficult to express. In reading the plates describing the floats, this tidbit should give you an idea… to replace one of these yatai today would cost approximately $2.5 billion. This was no small flower-covered, prom float they are wheeling and dealing here.

Thus we find ourselves at the end of our Takayama tour. The next stop is the Green Hotel with yet another very Japanese meal (I’m dying for my own home cooking at this point) and a discussion about how we found the city. As I stated in the first part, there were no cons. This place is perfect and unspoiled and exactly where I want to take family if friends who have the time on their visit. And that’s exactly what we all told the city… absolutely nothing to complain about!

The return trip home was by bus instead of shinkansen which we later found out was for budget reasons even though we were told it was so we could experience both ways. Honestly, the bus ride was better for me than the train… less confusing, no transferring at stations I am not used to and the view was even better than the train. As the bus climbed into the mountains, the newly fallen snow clung to trees and mountain sides and it felt like it had been months since I passed through that same way instead of just the morning before. There were only a few moments as I looked out in front of the bus and realized that the streets were entirely coated in a thick, icy snow that I felt rather unsafe. This particularly hit me as we wound down a snake like path and over a bridge that towered high above a precipice at a speed I honestly felt was way to fast for the conditions. Everyone assured me that the bus was plenty heavy for it not to slid and topple over the edge of the bridge but it did little for the knots that had found residence in my stomach. The worst part of the trip home was heading through numerous dark tunnels in the many mountains where an oncoming car would slow almost to a stop to make room for both vehicles to pass through at once. Moments like those took my breath away.

Arriving at the train stop in my hometown felt glorious after the whirlwind two day adventure. Even nicer was having Kimono Hubby waiting in the car right outside the station entrance to pick me up so I didn’t have to walk home at the late hour, even though the walk is only ten minutes long. It was a great trip, but I was so very glad to be home. Because that is exactly what my home in Japan is finally becoming to me.

*The pictures were finally all uploaded today. Please see the Flickr link when you get a chance!

Thursday, December 7

High-School Sized Hats I Have Worn These Weeks

The Spanish hat. The US History hat. The Shop hat. The Japanese hat. And the Algebra hat. None of them fit me very well beyond the History hat but I did what I could. One of the students even told her regular teacher that my class was fun. That was Algebra and he wanted to know what I had done. Perhaps it was when I tripped on a chair and fell on top of a poor freshman boy while walking with my face stuck in a book trying desperately to figure out a logical answer to so-called scholarly nonsense I have long left behind because it couldn't possibly be the lesson I gave.

Next week I try on an Elementary hat for the first time. God help me.

Wednesday, December 6

Takayama in the Fall, Pt. 1

The Shinkansen (bullet train) pulled out of Tokyo and headed northwest to the city of Takayama nestled in the Japanese Alps early on Saturday morning. My friend Russia had gotten an invite to be a foreign monitor for the city and she brought me along as the American representative. There were twelve of us representing the countries of Russia, Poland, Tasmania, Spain, China, Japan and the U.S. After spending only two days with these people, I wanted to box them up and tie pretty ribbons around them to bring them home with me. They were that wonderful to be around.

Our monitoring job was a pretty sweet deal… to go to this beautiful city for a weekend, eat different foods that the city is famous for, stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese style hotel), walk around and take in all the sites and then complain about what we didn’t like. It’s a pretty tough life I lead. I should also mention that I only had to pay a mere 5,000 yen (roughly $43 dollars) for this trip that would have cost me more like 50,000 yen on my own (not including souvenirs). The best part… there wasn’t a darn thing to complain about. It was perfect!

After winding through the country with visions of rice patties, tea fields, giant bamboo forests and turquoise blue river waters, passing through old, traditional towns, the Shinkansen arrived in Takayama. It was just after noon making us very eager to throw our bags into some corner and head out in search of nourishment. We got our chance and were escorted to THE place to go in Takayama for sobu (noodles that Japan is famous for) topped with tempura (thickly battered veggies or fish). This dish was excellent and not a single taste of the grease that one usually associates with products covered in batter back in the U.S. Green tea was of course served and was the cause for our first serious giggling. On the table was some type of spice in a jar with a metal top and holes punched in it. Sitting with Russia and I was a Japanese girl who spoke English but there were spots of difficulty. She explained that the spice was to put in the tea and subsequently, Russia unscrewed the lid and tried to shake some in. The spice comes tumbling out into her green tea and we think all is fine. Our Japanese companion take the jar and the lid, pours a tiny bit of spice into the lid and shakes it through the holes into her tea, about a quarter of what Russia had in hers. Ok, perhaps we need more direction next time but we just played it off with the blond and foreign cards and hoped no one else noticed despite our hysterics.

Once our legs were firmly cramped from sitting on our shins throughout the meal and our bellies were significantly stuffed with hot noodles, we re-acclimated ourselves to our shoes that waited for us by the door and headed out for explorations.

Up and down the streets we trailed until I was quite certain I would never find my way back. We passed the Old Private Houses which are made of the wood and have darkened almost to a blackened shade with the years. If you have seen the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, you would swear you transferred into the movie when standing in this area. In newer neighborhoods, the streets are lined with souvenir and craft shops but of an unexpected quality. Certainly there is always kitche to be bought but there is less here than one would expect in a tourist destination. That’s kind of the thing with Takayama though. It is a tourist destination but it is more of just a well-preserved town. The store owners certainly want you to make a purchase, but you never feel pressured or hurried or inclined to do so unless you really indeed want something. On these shop filled streets, a little bit of home could be found in the handful of Christmas wreathes and lights that hung on light poles along with Santa colorings cheerfully hung for several blocks. It was the first instance where the Christmas decorations I have seen in Japan were subdued to more of the twinkling white variety and not brightly spattering and blinking out various garish shades of color.

The next stop on our tour was a place called Hida Folk Village in the outer reaches of the city. As we arrived, rain had just began to fall steadily onto trees covered in their impressive fall foliage. The village provided us with bright yellow umbrellas so that we could traipse casually through the village without getting a soaking. The buildings of Hida Folk Village were moved to their home on the hill in an effort to show a traditional mountain farming village and their thatched, sloped roofs which offer protection from the heavy snows that accumulate on them made for some of the best pictures. It was mentioned while walking around that the average Japanese person takes a half an hour to tour the village while the average American takes two and a half hours. I could have stayed for four and a half.

The rain was still steadily coming down as we prepared to leave the village and the ‘villagers’ were kind enough to allow us to take the umbrellas to our next stop… to learn a Takayama craft. My ensemble chose sambe crackers. At a clay oven, you sit with gloved hands and place what looks like a Catholic wafer into the prongs of a metal device. Then flipping over and over, higher and lower, the cracker made of rice will bubble up double size and be ready to eat upon a quick cooling period. Never before have I been so awful at something that involved cooking. I even made a turkey! And yet I couldn’t flip this stupid little cracker correctly. After about seven, I had either undercooked or smoked them into something few dared to eat. These were supposed to be something you could take home as a souvenir and it would have been nice to bring them back to Kimono Hubby who I had left behind. Unfortunately, I like him too much to try to find him the mess I made.

It was time to move on and see what I had been anxiously waiting for… the ryokan. Wandering back through the narrow streets as darkness was settling over the city, we passed through an impossibly narrow passage between two buildings and arrived into an alley sized road in front of our home for a night. It was everything I was expecting on the outside. A building covered in the same dark wood that covered structures throughout the city with typical Japanese windows. Inside, it was a whole other world to behold. We left our shoes at the concrete entryway and stepped up into the building. To the left were several small chairs focused around a kerosene heater, the perfect place to warm up after a chilly day in the mountains. A glass case provided the backdrop for the room and was filled with various sculpture and souvenirs, both old and new. On one side even hung a clipped koala collection that the owner was very proud to show me. Not what I typically collect as I would prefer the antique sculpture but to each his own. The next room was for tea and a small Japanese table and chairs sat waiting for you to kneel on. Then into the hallway and up the stairs to our room. At the top of the narrow and steep staircase were two shoji screened doors laid open to reveal another table for tea. It was indicated for us to go in so we removed our slipped before stepping into three tatami mat floored rooms of which we were to stay for the night. The shoji doors were closed behind us as we giggled our way around the room, wondering where our futon beds were. With the exception of the table and chairs, the three rooms were completely empty! The walls of the rooms, all shoji paper screened doors that would leave nothing to the imagination, felt like there was really nothing that lay between us and the world. A very unsettling feeling. After poking around, I even discovered that a back wall closet was not a closet at all and actually was a staircase. There are no locks on the doors so it would take nothing but a gentle slide of the doors in the middle of the night to do us both in. Again – unsettling.

Moments later, our hostess of the ryokan returned with green tea to be served. We gathered around our table for tea and to share more incredulity with one another. We were definitely in for the whole experience tonight.

Tea time was quick as we had to change and head out for dinner at a famous beef restaurant. Takayama is known for their beef stock as it is of a level almost like Kobe without all of the cow rubbing. The front of the restaurant was an upscale butcher shop and stairs behind it took you to several rooms upstairs, one of which was reserved for out party that night. More show removing before we entered the room and after a day of walking and kneeling, I was incredibly happy to see that the tables while Japanese were the ones where the floor was built down in and you could almost sit normally. The extra special bonus? The floor under the table was heated and my tricky toes were thrilled for the remainder of the night.

Meals are never on a small scale here and this was no exception. To start, Japanese pickles, some fatty beef and pineapple mixture (for being such a pineapple lover, I have to admit that this just turned my stomach) and eggs were on the table. The server brought a plate of thinly sliced Hida beef and a huge platter of vegetables including four types of mushrooms (we all know I won’t eat that fungus… the whole squeaky teeth thing… I shiver even thinking about it now), leeks, cabbage and some other leafy thing. At each of the four tables in the room was one Japanese person from the city and at least one person to interpret what they were saying. Our table host prepared the beef and the vegetables into the heated pan on the middle of the table, added in a soy mix and sizzled away. Each person took an egg, cracked it open into a bowl and beat it with their chopsticks. When the cooked mix was ready, you took the beef and vegetables, dipped it into the raw egg so it cooked the egg ever so slightly onto it. While initially grossed out at the idea of raw egg, this could not have tasted better! Other dishes included some type of salad (nothing like the American lettuce variety), rice (surprise), tofu in three varieties and miso soup (another surprise). I know there were other things but I either just no longer recall or I have tuned them out for my own stomach’s sake.

The meal was excellent. The Asahi was continually poured and I even learned how to be proper about drinks at a Japanese table… when someone serves you, pick up your glass with both hands and hold it slightly tilted for the pourer. Once they are done, take the bottle from them and now fill their glass. Yet another instance where this polite and proper act would be overdoing it back home but it just feels so natural here.

Filled with too much food again, it was time to move to the next spot for the evening and imbibe like adults should. Garnering umbrellas as the rain continued to come down, we arrived at a quiet bar where the only seats offered surrounded the tiny bar. With Russia on one side and an the principal of the organization on the other, I proceeded to do my best with conversing with this new gentleman. My Japanese being so poor and his English not the strongest either, we did our best. What we discovered… you don’t need to speak the same language if you share the same interests. We talked about history both American and Japanese and about music including everything from Benny Goodman to Frank Sinatra. We even sang several songs to one another which led him to wanting to take us to a karaoke bar. Downing our drinks, we went back out into the wet night only to discover that the wait for karaoke would take us past curfew.

Yes, curfew. Ryokans are a family owned business and they lock their house up at 11 sharp for the evening. With no more songs in us, we wandered back to our ryokan and our room. This time we discovered our futons laid out and smothered in thick woolen blanket and a second layer of down fill. Eager for rest after a long and wonderfully filled day, I rushed to the bathroom, changed into my toilet slippers before using the facilities, changed back out of the toilet slippers into my other slippers, rounded the corner to the second room to wash my face and hurried back to my awaiting mat on a floor.

All the lights off and all tucked in, we lay giggling a bit more about the day and the experiences. Only the first day and we couldn’t imagine there would be more! Oh, but there was.

As it was that night, so it is this night… time for bed. The rest of the story will have to wait for another day.

* There are no pictures in this entry but rest assured that I took more than necessary. Please see my Flickr page. It will take me a long time to upload all but you seriously do not want to miss them.

Sunday, December 3

I’m In A New York State Of Mind

Billy Joel made me cry. Again. And I am well aware of how much of a dork that makes me sound like and do prefer that you don’t point it out as well.

I have seen Billy in concert many, many times. Back in his younger (and drunker) days in Philadelphia, I watched him climb up the velvet curtains on the side of the stage surrounding his baby grand and swing on those curtains like he was filled with monkey blood. Quite certainly, I didn’t cry at that show because I would have been excessively drunk on $6 beers. This being the kind of drunk that leads you to establish a chorus line with your friends and belt out lyrics, even when you don’t entirely remember the song. The last time I saw Billy was in DC not long before we left. His last song was Goodnight Saigon which he sang to a varied group of soldiers, some on crutches, some in wheelchairs and even one with a patch over his right eye. Anyone that didn’t cry was seriously a heartless American who doesn’t care about or grasp the significance of the sacrifices our men and women in the military make for us. Last Thursday night at the Tokyo Dome, Billy didn’t swing on the curtains. He didn’t sing about American soldiers to the dome filled with the dark heads of thousands of Japanese. What he did sing about… those places I call home and even to this day still fight the urge to quickly pack up what I can here and go running back to.

Thankfully, New York State of Mind and Allentown were early in his soiree and I was able to move past those thoughts and ‘get a grip’ enough to enjoy the show.

After settling into the tiniest seat I have ever endured, knees digging into the row of chairs in front of me and my butt thankfully fitting almost comfortably thanks to losing some pounds since I moved here and living on rice and raw fish, I took my first opportunity to look around. First I looked at Kimono Hubby who was struggling to squeeze himself and his winter layers into the tiny seat and smothered a laugh or run the risk of being left behind in the massive crowds later that would head back to the train. Secondly, I looked at the people. To the end of our row on the right there was a man who I can only assume was enjoying my former concert going state… seriously smashed and doing his best to sing loudly to the crowd around him. I did notice that prior to the concert beginning, he did stop the woman carrying a beer keg on her back at least twice for fine refreshments. This was about it for the men or women there, many in business suits and the work day’s ties still on the men, who did little more than quietly clap through the hour and a half that Billy sang. In our jeans and sweaters and singing along to each song, we felt more than slightly out of place. It seems supreme acts of politeness even stretch to the concert realm.

There were a handful of exceptions. There was one man in the crowd to our left who stood throughout the entire show in his faded white T-shirt dancing and wildly waving his arms. At first we thought he was just really excited about the concert but after the first forty-five minutes and not one other person had stood up, we began to think that perhaps he was challenged.

The next to last song was It’s Still Rock-N-Roll, apparently the biggest crowd pleasing song, and I counted 22 people that stood up to sing and dance along. Two were gaijin (foreigners) and one was still the crazy man. We didn’t stand ourselves for two reasons. One, I didn’t want to be that kind of gaijin. And two, Kimono Hubby was stuck in his seat for the duration.

Do you know the parts of the concert where the singer or band stop singing and let the crowd do the work? Billy did this and it was the quietest group singing I have ever heard. Quieter than when you are made to sing in the strict Christian church of your youth and you have no recollection, nor do you even care, how the Jesus song goes.

There was also the incident where Billy brought out a backstage guy to sing a song and he told the crowd to listen to the words about religion and this lighting man proceeded to belt out Highway To Hell. I am absolutely certain that half of the people there had never heard this song and possibly even know nothing of hell. I knew it, of course. What girl that grew up in the eighties and hung out with the wrong kind of crowd didn’t know that song?

The concert was fantastic as Billy Joel always is. I do wonder, however, how many people there know only the popular songs by sound and honestly don’t know what all of the words mean. Or know about the places Billy sings about. This is a room full of thousands of native Japanese speakers. While many have a wonderful grasp of the English language, how much was lost in translation to the rest? Did we annoy them by singing along? Were we supposed to be quiet as mice and only clap like everyone else or where they doing that because they didn’t know the words? Next concert, I think I will ask those sitting around me every question that came to mind. But perhaps not the miserable-looking Japanese woman and the ecstatic-looking gaijin behind us who left before the concert was even over.

One thing I know for sure… Billy is still the best.

Oh! And this will be broadcast in January. Look for me! I may be one of the total of two blondes there!

Wednesday, November 29

Ikebana Arrangement #13

Yesterday was to be my last Ikebana class for the next month. I trimmed a flower too short to make this arrangement universally appealing but I indeed finally mastered the Horizontal style.

Moribana Horizontal – Arrangement #13

For the next few weeks before I hop a plane back to the states to get in some quality family time, it is all about reading, writing and arithmetic. The latter only in the case when I am teaching it thankfully. I have been substituting more days than I care to recently due to the fact that I will never, ever learn to say that simple word ‘no’. Because all I can say are affirming statements, I am forced to squeeze in evening hours with the my seven own school books in the evening hours.

Being honestly with you though… the problem isn’t really even that fact that I am so busy. The problem is how I deal with things in my own high-strung, slightly neurotic, antithesis of a procrastinating way. I insist on finishing all reading assignments the week before they are due to be discussed. I insist on handing in all papers at least one week prior to the due date. And I insist on being the first to respond in all conferences so it looks like everyone that answers similarly to me afterwards has just blatantly copied off of me. It makes me feel smart but also be so very stupid. I know most of you recall how I said I was going for this zen kind of life where I spent my time of the virtual tide of happy, peaceful cohesion with the world at large. I haven’t given up on that goal but I think the goal gave up on me and I have only fallen deeper into a pattern of doing it now, now, NOW! No matter. New Year’s is fast approaching and those resolutions that I vowed for this past year will be wiped clean off my slate and I will be able to once again start on those very same goals I didn’t accomplish last year. If you’re the betting kind, tell me… will I do it next year?

As I am going away for the weekend, it is time for me to continue with the reading due two weeks from now. You know… uhhh… just in case… uhhh… next week I don’t have the time.

Tuesday, November 28

All These Things That I've Done

Japanese festivals are held in the fall and spring and are a good opportunity to experience a lot of culture all at one time and place. Fumie told me of one such festival this past weekend and Sunday found me with even more experience under that ever widening belt of encounters.

Upon entering, we went straight to the Ikebana section where another friend was showing the Ikenobu style of Ikebana. Of course we took a lesson! It never hurts to experience every school when there is an opportunity. I personally loved this as it was very much a free style, and indeed what it was called even.

Leaving there, we strolled by the origami table for a glance but I had other missions in my mind. Japanese Tea Ceremony. Prior to entering the tatami room, we removed our shoes and quietly entered the room to a few spots in the corner. Sitting Japanese style with our legs tucked underneath us, it only took five minutes before my toes were entirely numbed. Sweets are served prior to tea by a woman who sits directly in front of you. There is a ceremonial way of doing everything, even eating this artfully painted cookie filled with green, gooey goodness that she has placed in front of you. The cookie is placed on a position in between you and the woman but not on the mat you are sitting. You bow to the woman who serves and they bow back and then you move the cookie towards you and then slowly proceed to pick it up and eat it. It is served on a napkin and you do not place the napkin back on the mat but instead in a pocket or the folds of a kimono.

Then tea is made and served to you. Same procedure for placement and bowing but when it is set down, the nice side of the cup will be facing you. You pick it up, turn it two times so that the nice side is now facing out and then using both hands to hold the tea, you drink. The container is less like a tea cup and more like a bowl but that could have just been the location with which we were at. The tea itself is a grassy green shade and thick from the ground tea leaves. Placing the cup carefully down, they collect them and move to the next step.

A woman will again seat herself in front of you, this time with a container in her hands filled with scent. I completely forget what she said but it could be a few different things. I think this one was sandalwood. Cupping your hands in a very particular manner to capture the scent, you bend your head to smell from each side of you nose and then once from the whole nose. The scent is meant to calm you.

And then you are done!

We took an extra step and went to another room to learn how to prepare the tea. Pretty simple but of course done with reverence, you put the hot water in the cup, add the tea leaves and then use the wooden brush in a quick flicking motion back and forth to the front and back of the cup to mix it. You have to mix it some time to get the tea leaves to dissolve. Of course, a sweet before you drink it which in this case was a little cookie shaped like a dove and yet another napkin in my pocket (later was actually beneficial when I couldn’t find TP but that is totally not noteworthy to share) and then you drink your self-made cup of tea. You drink it quickly or the tea leaves start to separate again. Or perhaps it was just that I didn’t flick hard enough to start.

Filled with green tea and cookies, we headed to our next destination and the exact thing I have been waiting to do since I arrived… Kimono dressing! Yes, Kimono Karen can finally fully assume that title.

I knew this was quite a procedure but I have an even more profound respect for this beautiful costume now. It took two women tugging and pulling about fifteen minutes to get the under layers and kimono on me. This part included straps that I didn’t quite understand what they were for and towels tied high above my waist to make a clean, straight line followed by the kimono itself. Then another fifteen minutes for the various pieces of the obi to be placed on me. The obi is the gold part high on my waist and it is the piece that makes the kimono. These ladies fluffed and tugged and tucked and pulled until I was cinched within an inch of my breathing well being. Once this is all done, I had to sit for another ten minutes while they did my hair. Of course, you can’t bend anymore so I sat entirely straight with perhaps the best posture I have ever exhibited in my life! I should wear this thing every day. The final picture… I think it came out pretty well. I’m no Japanese empress as I only wore three layers (well, two and one that was made to look like a third) and the empress wears up to twelve, but I think I did pretty well. Most importantly, I really experienced the part I was waiting for during my time living here. There is only one other time in my life that I have honestly felt so pretty and that was on my wedding day. If I could wear a kimono every day just to boost my self-image, I totally would. Of course I would need to hire a staff to dress me which I am guessing would be out of the question with Kimono Hubby.

I pranced around for some time while Fumie snapped pictures and I really never wanted to take it off. Alas, it was getting late so I reluctantly let them peel off the layers of my new self, back to regular breathing, boring little me.

But, the day was not to be completed yet! There was one more thing I wanted to try. Japanese Shodo… a form of calligraphy. Out of three words to learn, I choose the word “tomo,” or friend if you want the plain English of it. They help you through the first and second and then let you practice on a third and then give you an art board with which Japanese Shodo artists use to paint their art on. This white board is tipped in gold and as elegantly as I could, I wrote tomo down in Japanese character. For a first attempt, it wasn’t actually bad. The last step was a paper wall calendar that you again write your word on. Who knows, someone may get lucky and earn this little gem as a Christmas present! Who wants to get lucky?
There were so many other events at the festival and other things to try. The afternoon was dwindling down and it was time to go home, however, and leave the rest for another day and another festival. I grinned the whole way home and pronounced upon entering through the door that this may have been my very best day yet here in this foreign home of mine.

Sunday, November 26

Holiday Times In The Land Of The Rising Sun

Clearly indicating that we have finally crossed into the fall season, the trees have begun to change color. Back home, this is the first indication of fall holidays and the quickly approaching Christmas season. With the leaves just now changing here and only in the subtlest of golden ways, nothing compared to the prism of colors in the Northeast region that I call home, I feel like I am behind in my holiday spirit.

Halloween came and went with barely a notice. It was still shorts and T-shirts weather during the day hours and did nothing for my imagination of ghosts and ghouls that hide in dark, damp and cold places.

Thanksgiving was yet another flash holiday. The week prior, you could already find the 7-11 down the street with the tackiest array of flashing lights on and off of an overwhelmed Christmas tree. We did our best to keep the thanks flowing in our humble abode.

The weekend saw me completing my grocery list for the big meal. My very first turkey. What an experience. Mom had given me all the directions for the turkey preparation and cooking and also the recipe to make her special stuffing (a family recipe). My other Mom (KH’s) gave me the recipe for her special stuffing (another family recipe). I made pumpkin pie two days before. I cut up three loaves of bread the night before and arose early to get things underway on the big day. Following tiny torn sheets of paper that I had written the recipes on, I cleaned the turkey, prepared the stuffings and mangled the bird pan to make it fit in my small oven. Time for the stuffing of the bird and, consequently, wretching. I am one who loves to cook but this is by far the most horrible thing I have ever had to prepare. I can handle cooking poultry if it doesn’t look like its original form. As fast as I could go, I squeezed what I could into the cavity and then practically threw the whole damn thing in the oven. Then I had to take a fifteen minute break to wash my hands, clean under my nails, wash my hands again, rinse, lather, repeat.

For the next five hours, I prepared the rest of the dishes, straightened the house and waited for our guests to arrive. One all-American Detroit man and his date, a lovely and wonderful Japanese girl. Upon their arrival, I reminded both again that this was a first attempt and therefore I was not responsible for any delays, disgusts or subsequent illnesses. The turkey came late to the party but when he finally did join us, he was looking and tasting mighty fine. Of course, that is until an inexperienced Kimono Hubby took what we only guessed was the carving knife to him.

With the pristine white table cloth completely covered in dishes, it was time to sit down and give up that thanks and enjoy.

One thing your momma never told you about making this meal… you will spend all day preparing it and then the minute it is ready, you don’t want to eat a damn thing. It’s entirely wrong to do to a woman but that is exactly what happened. I filled up on red wine and cranberry sauce instead, and only the cranberry sauce because I didn’t make it and only spent time pouring it from a can. (Thank you, Ocean Spray!)

Honestly, it was a lovely meal and everyone seemed to enjoy their second plate fulls. We played some Trivial Pursuit just like we were back home and my whole family was sitting around the table trying yet again to prove they are the smartest of them all.

When our guests were completely full of meal and pie, we kicked them out the door into the rain and told them to walk it off on their way to the train. Not really. What really happened was that KH drove them down to the station and I collapsed onto the floor in a heap of exhaustion vowing never to try that again. (I’ll be home next year, Moms, so get them cooking fingers ready!)

Other than our guest for the day, it seems that the Japanese really care nothing for our Thanksgiving holiday… but they do love to tacky up Christmas!

We did not bring any of our decorations with us. They sadly are housed in storage somewhere in northern Virginia. The only and only piece I cared about was the tree. I was bound and determined to have one here. We had gone to Daiei (mall chain here in Japan) last weekend and found ourselves the perfect specimen. Only 3,900 Yen (about $32 bucks at the exchange rate that day) and it came with all its own fixin’s. At the counter to pay, the woman opened the box to show us inside and we honestly laughed out loud to see lights, tinsel, red ornaments, gold pinecones and one very large plastic “Merry Christmas” just waiting inside for us. They certainly don’t sell them like that back home! Japan is one very strange place, in case I haven’t mentioned it before.

The day after Thanksgiving, we spent the evening putting up our plastic tree. We had a handful of ornaments we bought at a bazaar a few months ago to add to the array. Behold the glory that is the Kimono Christmas Tree! (For ornament close-ups, check out the Flickr link on the sidebar.)

We placed it on a box to make it look a wee bigger. I really think they make them that short because most Japanese people barely even reach that height and I just don’t think they care for the whole ladder to put the star on top idea. Or maybe it is just that short because we bought the cheapest one instead of the one that cost 6,900 Yen and was a full foot taller. That tree didn’t come with guts though so it only got two big tongues stuck out at it as we walked away with the wee one.

This tree would be the entire extent of our decorating. Well, unless you qualify the candle that I just bought that has some snowflakes on it and looks rather wintery.

So, it may not even look like Halloween outside but Christmas has warmed our hearts inside.

Really though, despite the plane trip, I cannot wait to arrive back at home for the holidays and take in all the spirit that embodies our hometowns. Mom and Dads – get those home fires burning because it is only a few short weeks away!

Oh, and one more thing… would it be too much to ask for a White Christmas? Just checking.

Wednesday, November 22

On a Cold and Dreary Day, Yabusame Promises to Warm Your Heart

Sunday was cold. And wet. The pouring down kind of wet. What better thing could there be to do on a day like that than to head to the beach! Zushi City had advertised a costume parade and Yabusame event that peaked Kimono Hubby’s interest. Starting at the Kamegaoka Shrine in Zushi, men, women and children dressed in period samurai clothes and parade through the streets to the beach, culminating in the Yabusame. I keep saying that word and you are probably wondering what I am talking about. So let me explain.

Yabusame is a traditional martial art form which basically is a mounted archery. A man on a horse at full gallop will charge down the beach and draw and shoot three consecutive arrows at three consecutive targets. The first time they do this, the object is just to hit the target in the center. The second time was so that they could split a block of wood. The third… I don’t know. My fingers had honestly entered stage one of frostbite from the icy rain and brawny winds and we just couldn’t hold out any longer.

The announcement we had read had given a rain date and we honestly drove down to the beach expecting to find it empty. We had purposefully skipped the starting point of the parade because surely there wouldn’t even BE a parade in this rain. The Japanese however are tougher than I. We found them huddled under a few tents on the beach serving warm miso and more wieners on sticks and lining the roped edges where the event would happen. The horses were walked in great circles to keep them warm and ready for their bolt. The men in their flimsy costume… well, I felt for them but they seemed unflinching to the elements that barraged them. The most amazing scene of all for the day had absolutely nothing to do with the event. There in the background, gliding over the small ocean waves, were about thirty windsurfers. I completely understand that wetsuits offer quite a bit of warmth and protection. But there is no way on this sweet earth that those men’s hands were not frozen to their poles. Japanese windsurfers are hardcore!

The rain did unfortunately delay the event unawares to us. We stood in the crowd giving glaring looks to the handful of people who stood next to the targets. When three men stood to give speeches, Kimono Hubby and I were not the only people to completely ignore what they were saying (like we would have understood anyway) and grumble under our breaths for them to just get it started already. One Japanese man kept tapping KH in the shoulder, laughing and telling him “look! No listen!” which I couldn’t help to smile when KH responded and the man laughed one of those laughs that said “I have no idea what you just said.” We get those laughs a lot.

When the time had come for the start, it first took a long, slow walk up and down the beach of the small samurai parade. If only they could have read minds and heard the crowd urging them to hasten the pace.

Of course, there was no warning when the start did happen. Perhaps someone had announced something in Japanese on the loud speaker but we had long since tuned that noise out. And of course the horses are going at a speed where just grabbing a camera and snapping a shot is absolutely not possible. I did my best none-the-less and only came up with a few shots like this. Needless to say, I am definitely no action photographer. No worries about the three small boys that sit next to the target. From what I hear, these archers do not miss which is absolutely amazing given the speed of the event.

There were extended intervals between horses. With only three horses running, they would leisurely all line up and walk back down the beach to the starting point. This would be where we drew the line with waiting and made a mad dash to the car.

I heard whispers from another English speaking group (turns out they were Tasmanian) there that these events happen in the spring and fall at beaches around the Zushi area. We will just wait to catch one when the weather returns to above 13 degrees.

No – I still have no idea what that translates to – other than cold.

Monday, November 20

Add Muslim Model To The Long List Of Jobs I’ve Held

Our Ikebana International Ensemble was invited to the Algerian Embassy last week for a bit of Muslim culture, food and tea ceremony. Everything seemed to be going according to plan when the day took a quick digression... and then this…

Once lunch was served (with Algerian wine which may be a factor in my agreement to this) and we had filled ourselves from a spread of 15 or so dishes, including a dessert table and treats that left our fingers smothered in sticky goodness, the Algerian Ambassador’s wife asked us if she could get a few volunteers for the fashion show that was to take place next. With my lovely model friend at my side, almost waving my hand into the air for me, I found myself in a situation where a man was trying to pry my dessert plate out of my fingers while another pushed me towards a back door leading deeper into the Embassy. I managed to shove one more large, gooey piece of pastry into my mouth before they got me into the elevator.

Ten had volunteered with about half being Japanese and the other half American, or in my friend’s case, Russian. We were ushered into a bedroom on an upper floor where a rolling bar held many glittering costumes. Some dripped with beading and gold threading and some were adorned with bright colors from all over the spectrum. We were told to choose and quickly change. My first concern was fitting into anything which need not have been a worry. There were several costumes with a flowing style to them. As women were grabbing for the glittering gowns, I said… Humph. I like orange. Perhaps next time I will be slightly more concerned with my style of dress? Then again… probably not. Two layers later and I am wearing an orange burka that would even have made Claudia Schiffer look like the Great Pumpkin. It took my friend three different outfits before she settled on a cream colored silk pants set with an embroidered top. Sometimes it pays to be choosier.

Then the orange sash-y piece that I am swirling into the air… just what does one do with it? An Algerian girl approaches me and starts tying it around my head pulling little wisps of my hair out to frame my face. I am a full two feet taller than this girl and she has to wrap and rewrap it, with me finally getting down on my knees so she can wrap it properly.

So there I was in all my orange-y glory. An overripe piece of fruit in a room with women dressed in the queen’s clothes. And I’m their maid.

I do kid. The outfit I wore was a very traditional style of dress perhaps not for the rich of Muslim society but many women have worn and do currently wear. And I wore it well. Back downstairs and one by one we entered the room and did some twirls down the little pathway. I twirled only to make myself look wider in pictures, because isn’t that what every girl wants? To look as big as possible in a picture that will last and last and be out there for the entire world to see because she placed it on the internet? I totally wish somebody would have taken a shot of my butt.

My dear friend was the very first and we all sadly paled in comparison after her expert poses and catwalk stances. She used to do this stuff for a living! I call a foal! One my trip down the aisle, I didn’t understand it as it was said in Japanese and only later revealed by the Ambassador’s wife that the description of me was… that I looked like an angel. Oh, that’s what everyone tells me, I quipped back! I received many praises though after the show, when we were asked to sit and have tea in a traditional setting which reminded me much of a harem.

I can tell you one thing about a burka. It’s hot. Seriously… how do women in the desert wear this? While the fabric is quite breathable, multiple layers of it do nothing for a breeze. And then wrap my head and neck tightly and yet more fabric? At least you are allowed to have your face uncovered. Just imagine that catwalk if I had been wearing the sheet in front of my face.

Here I came the whole way to Japan only to learn more about Muslim culture, religion and life than I have ever known before. This country… these experiences… it all just keeps surprising me.

Friday, November 17

There Just Has To Be Something Fundamentally Wrong With Me

While driving home from some errands this afternoon, a mature Japanese man on a bike wearing faded jeans that could quite easily be describes as floods pulled up on his motorbike in front of me. As I took in his profile, the thought came to mind that he looked really hot in those Wranglers. Seriously. The man was in his early 50s wearing floods and I found him attractive? Please send help! And wine!

Teaser: I have a good story to share from yesterday’s Ikebana International meeting. Unfortunately, I also have two papers that aren’t writing themselves and 384 pages of history text that won’t read themselves either, all of which need to be done before Sunday night so the story will have to wait for a day or so. In the meantime, anyone want to guess what new profession I found myself partaking in at the meeting? And I was a hit at it too!

Wednesday, November 15

Ikebana Arrangement #12

Today was a rather strange day for class. One person had returned after being out of the country for some time. Two new students had started and sensei had her hands full getting every one in their rightful place in study. Considering the materials, it was not entirely possible to make a good horizontal arrangement. Which left me with a choice for what I wanted to do with the materials. I went with Moribana Upright, the first style I had ever learned and it has been months since then that I had created one.

Moribana Upright - Arrangement #12

Tuesday, November 14

And So It Began With One Unexpected Ring

Yesterday morning the phone rang to reveal that the secretary was planning the following weeks substitute schedule. She asked me if I was available on Wednesday because I teacher is planning a longer Thanksgiving holiday. While I was planning to cook myself that day, I accepted because it would be my first day of subbing and the subject… World History! Perfect for me. I asked her what time calls come if someone calls out for a day but she explained that it rarely happens that they call in the morning but it would be around 6. A.M., I ask? All was set for the following week and I hung up with full knowledge that I had a little over a week before I needed to panic.

This morning the phone rang at 6:15 and I kicked Kimono Hubby in the back, mumbled something about getting that because it was surely for him. He was back upstairs in a matter of seconds with an evil grin on his face and the announcement, “It’s the school.”

Down the stairs and to the phone, in my cheeriest morning voice I answer. "You need me today? A day after you said this doesn’t happen? Yes, yes, I’ll be there."

Face washed, teeth brushed, half ironed clothes on and I am on my way. Only once I am behind the wheel does that moment of panic happen. I break the law and pick up my cell phone to call home to engage in the freak out.

Calm again, I finish my breakfast of champions, a Nutty Bar and Diet Coke, as I pull into the parking lot. In the office I hear for the first time that I am teaching freshmen Physics. I do everything I can to squelch the laughter that boils up. Me… Physics. Ha. Haha.

Typically one has more time to prepare when you know you are going to be subbing, especially in a subject you frankly hated when you were in school and now barely recall. I get exactly one tiny minute in the classroom reading the material before the students pour in.

So introductions went well – check. Roster – check check. Lesson plan – Newton’s Law of Motion and Centripetal Force. Again a bit of laughter threatens to materialize. For an hour and a half, I struggle through the lecture with activities, reading and the worst… they asked questions. My own nervousness probably prevented the best of answers but I gave it all I could. However, the blank looks of a few faces probably is a clear indicator that I didn’t quite succeed. Or maybe just that teenagers have learned to sleep with their eyes open.

Class two is a free period which sends me back to the office and gives me a chance to regroup and study the material.

My favorite period followed – lunch. Which I may add that I was quite successful at least in that task.

Back to another class and this time, I swear I nailed it. The nervousness was (mostly) gone and I knew exactly what I was trying to say and said so (mostly) that they understood.

Last class was partly an assembly which we had to group up and walk to only to regroup and head back to class. How am I supposed to regroup 15 students that I only had met for five minutes before we left the classroom? Interesting but they all managed to get back to that last period in my room for seminar.

Best line of the day was from a rather precocious, headstrong girl who when asked if I could help her with something on her assignment asked me if I could help make her interested in Physics. No, I cannot. But I did get her to finish the assignment which she fought at the beginning to do.

All classes challenged me but I didn’t let them get away with it which was probably my number one fear in working with high school kids. Two boys switched names on the role call and I called them by the wrong name for an entire class. I don’t necessarily care as long as they were both indeed there and were doing their work.

I even got to give them homework. That is one powerful feeling, my friends. I almost told them to write a 2-3 page paper on the US Sedition Act of 1918 and whether it limited civil liberties or not. Somehow I knew I would get caught on that though.

Today was a day of ripping off Band-aids and I think I did pretty well. I have two classes scheduled in the next two weeks, the first being World History and the second Japanese. Pray they don’t ask me to speak it! What do I know about it? I’m just a pseudo teacher.

Monday, November 13

Finding Zen at the Hokokuji Temple

Like church after church in Greece that I took pictures of on our honeymoon, I just cannot get enough of the temples and shrines that dot the landscape here in Japan.

This past weekend the goal was to find yet another temple - the Hokokuji Temple located in Kamakura.

Nestled in a bamboo forest, the Hokokuji Temple is a Zen temple that originated in the year 1334 and commemorates the grandfather of the Ashikaga shoguns. Shoguns were high ranking military equivalent to a general of the army and held great power in Japan for centuries. It seems hard to imagine that this temple was built to commemorate a man that established one of many military dictatorships through bloody struggles or that any temple would be built to honor such a principle. But during the period of the shogun, Zen and Buddhism had a growing number of followers and so people of the shogun period saw that this leader, this shogun, epitomized the Zen way of life: a life of humility, labor, service, gratitude and meditation.

And Zen meditation is not necessarily a solitary pursuit. Zen temples such as Hokokuji are places where meticulous daily practice is emphasized and practicing with others is encouraged because it helps the individual avoid the traps of ego.

Laid out behind the temple, the grounds allow you to walk through almost 2,000 Moso-bamboos, the largest of the bamboo species, which is where the founding priest’s own retreat used to be found. The area alone inspires peace and mindfulness to me and I didn’t even have the opportunity to enter the temple.

Hidden in the bamboo forest is a small building offering warm tea in the cool, late afternoon and a chance to reflect on the gardens and the quiet that surround you. More of that same Zen meditation. Every inch of the grounds brings the visitor back to that initial purpose.

Bordering the temple grounds on one side is a cliff in which yagura (caves) are seen. These yagura are the tombs and ashes of several Ashikagas and are found and reflected on over a stone garden typical of a Zen temple. The temple built there also serves to console the souls of the departed family who often died in tragic circumstances.

I did discover that this temple holds a zazen (Zen meditation) every Sunday morning and I am tempted to go. Visiting these places in Japan is just like it was in Greece with Kimono Hubby… short and sweet. His interest ends once he has seen it and feels no need to stand around waxing philosophic for hours like I wish to. Zazen would definitely have to be experienced on my own. Hence, it looks as if I will have to conquer yet another of my fears of going it along for that future Sunday morning visit. Until then, I will say my own prayers that meditation is more like a universal language and doesn’t require the written or spoken word. Some day soon, I’m certain to be there…

Thursday, November 9

To Teach Or Not To Teach

Now just what would someone like me who just started a full course load at the beginning of this very week, who goes to an Ikebana class once a week, who has signed up as a Red Cross volunteer even if they don’t call her enough, who has been so happy to have her evenings free to make a good dinner every night for her and her husband to sit down to and talk about their days, who has been making new friends and spending time with them, who has been accepting every invite that sounds even remotely cultural… what would this person do with her so-called free time? She would accept a job. A teaching one at that. If you have your children in base schooling, I suggest you pull them out for private study as soon as possible. Because this person who makes absolutely no sense to anyone, particularly to herself, will be their substitute one of these days.

The application process had actually been completed some time ago. This all did not come about because I have unfulfilled dreams of being a teacher. That may be the one profession I have feared more than any in my life. I’m struggling with managing my own life and really shouldn’t be responsible for helping to warp younger minds, even if for only a hours of one day. It was really more of a matter of both a vague interest and a small need that I accepted the position today. You see, DC decided to create a glut of condos on the market and not one of you has decided yet to rent our pretty little gem. And those bank people are just truly unhelpful and actually expect you to pay them this dirty thing called mortgage every month. If we are to continue enjoying the lifestyle of the rich and the famous like we have become accustomed to, it was time for me to step up to the plate and do my fair share.

This isn’t a bad thing. It will look nice on a resume and fill a three year black hole that potential employers were bound to raise an eye at. It’s only parttime and I get to choose which days I say yea or nay to. It’s very close to my house. Close enough that I could walk to it but far enough away that walking would kill that exercise bird with just one stone. I will meet more people and hopefully make them like me and want to call me friend. And one of my favorites… I get to try an occupation on for size that I never would have tried any other way. If the lessons are boring? Not my fault. I didn’t write the lesson plan. Wouldn’t you say this is all very win-win?
I start next week. No date set yet but they will call me. That gives me three whole days left to plan an outfit better than the one I wore for the start of online classes this week. I’m pretty sure mismatched PJs and the unbrushed hair/teeth combo are not going to be acceptable teacher looks.

Wednesday, November 8

Ikebana Arrangement #11

There isn't anything very interesting to tell today. I went to class. I struggled. I did the very best I could. Honestly, I have not quite mastered this horizontal business yet. Still trying though. After I finished, I played choo-choo with a little Japanese girl whose mommy is in the class. Most fun I had all week.

Horizontal Style - Arrangement #11

Tuesday, November 7

The Yen Stuff Adds Up

Bolstered by the success of my earlier expedition in the week, I decided it would be a good time to attempt a second mission to the big city last Thursday. This time to the 100 Yen Shop I have heard such wonderful things about. Five glorious stories of products that roughly cost one American dollar. Those who show similar problems with reckless abandonment in shopping as I do would probably refer to this place as heaven.

It wasn’t located far from where I had been the other day, just a bit deeper into a busier section of Tokyo called Machida. I knew this mega Dollar Store I was looking for lay somewhere close to another store I have been wanting to try called Tokyu Hands so my hopes were that I would see at least one without difficulty. I really need to stop expecting so much. After staring confusedly at the split in the road in front of me, I sighed and rolled down my window to ask a man on a motorbike waiting for the light with me. He pointed me in the exact direction I was not leaning towards. Left I went.

Only another block down and I found a large sign for Tokyu Hands exclaiming that I had made it. Parking was to be located at that store and not the 100 Yen Shop. I drove up and down that street looking for a way into a parking lot for the building, maneuvering down numerous tiny side streets. Determined to find that lot, I refused to get off the street even though I received several quizzical looks. I was more than willing to smile pretty tell the police that I am just some dumb American who didn’t know that I was driving down the sidewalk and am pretty sure I could have gotten out of an arrest using that poor of a line.

When it became obvious that no lot would be found, I ended up circling the area looking for any place to jam my box car into. Around one corner, a giant green “P” illustrated the way. Upon entering, I grabbed my ticket which meant I was totally going to get raked over the coals for parking there. This didn’t matter – I was just pleased to have survived the drive and be safely out of the car. Down the elevator and onto the street and of course I am not on the side I came in on or even recognize. My fabulous sense of direction *cough* kicked in and I went left to find myself right around the corner from the main street and Tokyu Hands. I made my way there and looked at the signs hanging on all the corners. Not a single one indicates 100 Yen. I walk up a block. Nothing. Back down two blocks. Nothing. No worries… I’ll just ask a young Japanese girl in her school girl uniform complete with tall socks glued to her knees to help.

Using my most perfect Japanese (okay, the word for 100 Yen is only one word, but even that requires great effort on my part) I tell her what I am looking for. She immediately started rambling back in Japanese the directions. My blank look and furrowed brow must have caused her concern because she motions for me to follow, leading me up a flight of stairs and says the word “green” while she points. Ahhh… so the green sign written only in Japanese on the second level, not even street level, is where I find the 100 Yen Shop? Now why couldn’t I figure that out?

Thrilled to be inside, I spent two hours taking escalator up and steps down, back up and back down I went until my basket became too heavy for me to carry. I had everything from wrapping paper to toys to incense. That place seriously did have everything! And I was determined to get it all into my basket.

I had set out that morning with about 7,000 yen. I spent 800 on the toll there and had 800 reserved in my pocket to get home. Parking was going to cost but I wasn’t sure how much. I counted my items and thought that I would still have about 1,500 yen for the parking, probably a little more than I even needed.

At the registers, the cashier rang me up and ooops! I possibly am a candidate for remedial math. I handed over 5,000 yen and she gave me 630 back. Trying not to panic but I was quite sure I couldn’t make her understand a squeal of “Take some of this shit back!!”

There is something I am not sure I mentioned about Japan. Our American ATM cards do not work in Japanese machines. In fact, few places even accept credit cards as a form of payment unless you are at a larger, more established store. I was pretty sure that I had screwed up and would have to live in my car in a parking garage in Machida because I didn’t have enough cash to get myself out and then still pay the toll home.

Only running to cut off that costly minute or two could help me now. And so I did. I ran to the foot of the elevators and straight to the ticket machine. I said a quick prayer to God to get me home without having to call and fess up to Kimono Hubby how incredibly stupid I was for not carrying more cash on me, the exact thing I had been chided about only a week before… and I stuck the ticket into the feeder.

“600” in bright green glowed back at me.

Thank you heavens and God and bunnies and rainbows! With the equivalent of 25 cents left in my pocket, I drove myself directly home and did not pass Go.

And I will never be so stupid again. The End.

Monday, November 6

Knock, Knock, Knocking On Our Chamber Door

If you recall, when we first moved we had visitors from the Jehovah’s Witness establishment. Well… they’re still coming.

The second time, Kimono Hubby answered the door, chatted with them for a few minutes but only at the door. We know that to invite them in would mean long hours of discussion. We just don’t have that kind of time, what with all of our television schedule planned out for the day.

A group returned this weekend. I was upstairs studying and heard the door bell. Calling down to KH to make sure he was answering the door, no response was returned. I called again slightly louder only to find him crawling up the steps. Near the top he whispers to me, “It’s your Jehovah’s friends again.” He declined to answer the door.

Not to be dissuaded by our heartlessness, when KH checked the door later, he found two new magazines and a book for our reading enjoyment. On them was a post it note:

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Kimono,

I’m T. K., one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

(something unreadable that looks like Hertoith)

I brought the magazines and a new book entitled “What Does the Bible Really Teach?” just for your reference.

Will visit again in a few weeks.

Let’s be honest, I am not now or ever going to be a Jehovah’s Witness. However, I do particularly like reading the magazines and now I have a book too!

So a question - do I tell them not to come around anymore because there is just no possibility that I will ever convert? Or do I continue to smile and take the materials and read for my own knowledge and glean what I would like from the spiritual publications? What kind of prayer does one say to ensure not going to the dark side because of a fondness for accepting literature on religion, particularly when it is associated with the word ‘free?’

Oh, Lord. Please have mercy on me.

Thursday, November 2

The Exact Present You Never Knew You Wanted

The mailing system to Japan is a pretty fickle one. Often packages come weeks after they are suspected to have been lost or stolen and I am already being sent a replacement for whatever it was that I had ordered. Knowing how contrary the system is, I spent this morning wrapping Christmas presents so they could be sent out this week to the States in an effort for them to possibly arrive in time. It’s worth a shot.

While in the midst of wrapping, I came across some Japanese incense I had purchased for a friend which I later changed my mind about and purchased something different instead. When I had made the purchase, there was a small collection of incense in this one area of the store. In that corner I found these tiny decorative tubes, about the length of incense but as I couldn’t open them due to a seal, I asked the cashier if they were indeed incense. She said yes and I paid 600 yen and moved on.

Today I pulled the tube out and decided that this would be a little gift to myself since the original person is already being treated to something similar but nicer. I opened the tube to smell its contents, only to find… toothpicks. A tiny pretty tube of eight little toothpicks. Looks like once again, a cashier didn’t understand a single word I had said and just smiled and nodded to get me to leave. Quickly.

Anyone want six buck worth of toothpicks for Christmas? I’ll leave them in the pretty, little tube. AND I’ll even mail them today so I’m sure you will get in time for next Christmas.