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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!