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Tuesday, December 25

Christmas Lost and Found

Today is Christmas. Where did the time go?? Where did the day go?? Why does Christmas come faster with each passing year?

My past weeks were spent trying to find some Christmas spirit. I tried really hard. It’s not that Japan doesn’t show some Christmas spirit, it’s just that what is here… is just all… wrong. It’s way more commercialized than it is back home, which is surprising when I think about how commercialized it is back home and somebody topped that here. My second thing with Christmas here is that it is all done rather spottily. A decoration here or there. A “merry Christmas” called out every so often. Businesses are open as usual and the people follow suit. Everything is just… off. Please know that I am not complaining. And I’m not blaming anyone either. The Japanese are culture that embraces Buddhism and Shintoism. Why should they celebrate a Christian holiday the way we do? The problem lies only within me.

Last year, we flew home. This year, we didn’t. It is my first year ever away from one side of the family or the other for the holidays. There are a lot of reasons for this. All of them good, logicial reasons. But it doesn’t change my past weeks of sadness when I think about not being with family and close friends on a day meant for such. There really is no place like home for the holidays.

So this is why I have been struggling with finding my Christmas spirit. KH keeps reminding me of my own motto to always stay positive, which is why I spent many days in the past week going through the motions that usually get a person ‘in the mood.’ I baked over sixteen dozen cookies that I shared with work colleagues and Japanese friends alike. I blared Christmas music and sang along at the top of my lungs, trying to have the wind in my lungs fill the sad space in my heart (it also helps to remind my neighbors why they have never changed their first impression of me as some sort of lunatic). I spent days shopping, wrapping and then shipping my packages tied pp with string. Cards were sent and received. The house has been decorated. All the while, I was still lacking warmth from those actions that usually provide me with that special traditional sense of the Christmas spirit.

A package arrived from home last week that got me as close as it could to filling my heart. Mom always knows just the right words to say and the right thing to send to make every just… better.

Karen – This little guy is brining you lots of hugs from me. When Christmas gets to you because you won’t be home, just hug him and know that I gave him a lot of hugs for you. I love you, Mom

The note came with Petey the Peng-bird; and he is full of stuffed Christmas cheer that will warm your heart. (Did you know about my love affair with the peng-bird?… I couldn’t say penguin as a child… either because I was too dumb or more likely just too stubborn.) The duck has been given a needed break and instead I drag Petey around the house like some child with a comforting, old blanket.

So Christmas comes today, backed with all the dread that I had associated with it for months. For weeks, I teared up just thinking about it. But you know what? There were no tears today. Christmas just wasn’t so bad like I expected a holiday away from home would be. Sure it didn’t look like home, smell like home, feel like home or have the love of a large family around me. While those things weren’t present in reality, they were all present in my heart. For each second of this day.

When I woke up today, I wasn’t expecting there would be too much Christmas-y ‘special’ to come from the day. I simply couldn’t have been more wrong. For every moment of today, that something special has been here. It was in the phone calls to home. It was in first attempt to make the dinner menu my in-laws enjoy for Christmas. It was in the mass of lovingly chosen gifts we ripped through before breakfast. Most of all, it was in the day of quiet hominess that my heart felt… halfway around the world from everything I had believed was what made it Christmas. For all of my weeks of searching, Christmas was here all along… always inside of me… thanks to the love I’ve known through so many wonderful years.

If you are far from home this Christmas and feeling down, or even just feeling those general holiday blues hiding the spirit from you today… may you too find that Christmas is always with you, like an old blanket, a new peng-bird or just the necessary smidge of insight into your own heart. May you know the love that comes from those things and always remember the cherished moments in life that put the ‘special’ into your holidays. May you know a wonderful Christmas… wherever you are.

Monday, December 17

Ikebana International’s Fair 2007 for Charity

The thing I like so much about Ikebana International is the ‘international’ part of it. Last Monday, I caught a train with friends towards Tokyo for the I.I. Fair 2007 for Charity presented by the Tokyo Founding Chapter. A ridiculous amount of tickets had been sold this year… over 3,000. Do you realize this means that over 3,000 people were coming to this thing... on a Monday afternoon?? The line to get in snaked around several empty ballrooms on the floor it was being held in the Tokyo Prince Hotel. When the doors opened for the event, tables in the huge ballroom bazaar, as well as the Ikebana exhibition tables, were instantly flooded with people. We even tried to be smart and start at the back of the room working forward, but many had the same idea too.

Basically there were a hundred of so tables set up with just about any kind of food, clothing and decoration one could imagine. In the world. You see, while I can’t recall how many Embassies participated, every corner of the earth was represented in some fashion. Typically at the end of the table, you could find a sign telling you which country the table was presented by. A few, I actually had to ask where that country was. This is the whole ‘international’ part that I enjoy so much. I had coffee from Saudi Arabia thanks to the wife of the Ambassador from Algeria (whom I met last year when I tried the burka fashion popular in northern Africa) who was roaming the room with her Saudi friend. First you eat a sweet dried prune and then drink this coffee that has a wonderful aroma, thanks to the smell from the spices involved. The taste is even better. Then I had a snack of some sort from India, a lunch set from Thailand, topped off with Japanese tea ceremony and sweets. The Denmark embassy provided entertainment in the form of a gorgeous opera singer, which prompted the arrival of Japanese Princess Takamado, whose bodyguards politely cleared a path as she made it through the throngs of people to her front and center seat. This is the second time that she has passed directly in front of me… at arms length… and the second time I have forgotten to take a picture. This time, though, I have a good reason. My hands were filled with purchases (including one gorgeous beaded necklace from the Congo) and the one coveted generic cola I found in the joint, courtesy of some African nation I now forget the name of. No way was I putting that caffeine aside. I would have tossed the purchases down, but not the cola. Not for anything.

Seriously, where else can you become so immersed in such a multitude of cultures than you can with Ikebana International? Okay, sure there are plenty of organizations that are all about improving diplomatic relations, but known that I know of are so accessible to common folk like myself. The most wonderful part is how friendly everyone is. We didn’t go steps without stopping to chat with someone, known or unknown until then. At the tea ceremony, a Japanese woman made a special effort to come sit next to me, only to share her sweets with me because, as she said, she thought I was pretty. A wonderful compliment even if her familiarity with American women has got to be slim to consider myself in such a category.

As we were leaving for the fifth or sixth time (we kept running into more people that wanted to talk and would lead us each time further away from the door), I did take note that with all of the world’s nations represented, there was one that was not… the United States! Perhaps this harkens back to what I’ve said before… we’re just a bit too much of everything that we wouldn’t know what to put on our table beyond… say… everything? And chocolate chip cookies, of course.

Sunday, December 9

Early Christmas Outings in Japan

Here I sit, post surgery, post recovery and just about as antsy as one would expect after all that sitting. Since Friday, it has been go-go-go around here. The first thing I wanted to do was to get out and enjoy “Christmas” in Japan. Statistically, it is something like 1% of the Japanese are Christian, which means that Christmas celebrations aren’t quite what they are back in the U.S.

First, it isn’t a national holiday. People do the work as usual thing. Christmas being on a Tuesday this year… well, it just seems strange to be celebrating with the eating, drinking and spreading the merry when everyone else is so hard at work. While it may not be a religious celebration here… it is a celebration nonetheless as it has been turned into a commercial spectacle. Christmas lights have been hanging on houses and in stores since Halloween. The Japanese are very appreciative of their seasons, so while they don’t step on falls toes, they do tend to yank that crap down and replace it with a gore of lights even before the commercial institution that exists back home has done. Driving around in the evenings here will regale you with lights of every color (purple and pink seem to be favorites) and blinking speed strung in some of the most *ahem* creative fashions one can imagine. I kid, but it is quite festive despite it being nothing like back home. Or should I say… in all honesty, it has all pretty much grown on me.

On Saturday, KH had an extra day of work, so I chose to spend my time getting out to enjoy the beauty of Japanese Christmas and do some shopping in Kamakura. Lo and behold, did this town surprise me! Perhaps it was because it was daytime and the more garish colors do not stand out, but the Christmas that was strewn about was actually quite tasteful and pretty! The temperature was perfect for outdoor shopping… in the cool low 50s, only dropping to the upper 30s after the sun set around 4:30. The streets and shops were filled with weekend patrons. The shop shelves were filled with the ever popular Santa image and even more so with the Japanese new year decoration, as that holiday is much more important to the culture. By the way, this coming year is the year of the mouse… which I only discovered after asking a shop owner what many stuffed, porcelain, wooden, straw, the list goes on, and on, and on, crazy-looking mice were for.



The cold weather daiyaki (kind of a grilled pancake with anko (red bean paste) inside) vendors were out in force. And a new ice cream vendor, Marble, has opened next to the train station. I made this my last stop of the day to get a chocolate cream with orange sauce, which turned out to be something like orange peel in a jellied state, topped with a signature wafer.

Arms filled with bags, mind filled with decorating ideas, I headed back home to put the Christmas touches on our home.

Happy Japanese holiday season, all! And don’t forget that Emperor Akihito’s Birthday is coming up on December 23rd which is indeed a national holiday!

Saturday, November 24

Delayed Announcement: Tokyo International Film Festival 2007

You have no idea how much I wanted to get out of doors this weekend and do something… see something! I had plans, people! Big ones! Well, here is the thing. Remember Tommy? Remember how I thought he was gone thanks to a mountain hike in Kauai? Turns out that he never left and has actually been severely stuck in one spot for – oh, say – two and a half months. And another and – he has spawn. Yes, there is a Tommy, Jr. right behind him. Needless to say, the pain and discomfort are finally getting to me so badly that I can’t stand to be in my own skin. The last thing I feel like doing is heading out of doors where people besides my husband would see me squeezing my legs together in pain or even grabbing myself inappropriately every few steps. There is an end in sight. I’ve tried to do this on my own, but my docs both here and back home have encouraged me to opt towards the surgery route. It’s just a minor procedure… go in, go under, remove, go home. Then I should be back to normal soon. Whoopee. I can’t wait.

On to much more fun subjects… like the Tokyo International Film Festival! Did I tell you? I went! So what if it was last month just prior to Halloween and I didn’t mention it before?! I’m telling you now! And it was awesome.

A dear friend here took the day off of her crazy intense job and got us tickets to see two viewings at the Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills theater – Peeping Tom and Enlightenment Guaranteed. Although I am taking a class on how to be a movie critic this semester, I am not actually a critic nor will I ever likely be. So I am not going to try to delve into this film, except to say that the first, Peeping Tom, was a Japanese suspense/horror movie, which I thoroughly liked despite being left slightly confused as the credits rolled. The director did a teach-in for the movie, where he tells you about the movie and opens the floor up to questions. This is actually quite a funny concept for Japan… opening the floor to questions… because the Japanese are quite unlikely to voluntarily raise their hand and ask a question. They really only would ask a question if they were asked directly to ask a question. So you can guess that the question and answer portion of the program was a bit quiet. There was an English interpreter for this part, but I was much too busy gobbling up the greatest invention ever… caramel popcorn! We had bought some when we came in for the flick. Back in the states, you get extra fattening butter on your popcorn. Here – they squeege gobs of gooey caramel into you bucket! Way better if you ask me! I ate so much my poor friend had to push my hand away from the bucket just to get some for herself. (Hint for next time, my friend… get your own! That stuff is just too damn good to be willingly shared.)

There was a break between the first and second films so we headed out into Roppongi for some lunch. Like I needed more food after my bucket o’ goodness, but I did manage a healthier soup, sandwich and jasmine tea. For Erleuchtung Garantiert (Enlightenment Guaranteed), sadly there was no popcorn as there was to be a particularly excellent dinner at an Indonesian restaurant, Bali CafĂ© Putri, nearby that had outdoor tables providing a view of Tokyo and its shining red and white tower (Try the Arak Beras!! I have no idea what it is, but it is soooo good). The movie… one of the best I have seen in a very long time! It is actually a German film about two brothers and their trip to Tokyo. If you liked Lost in Translation, this is better! Laughing is acceptable at a Japanese theater, but the guffaws that were coming out of me were not. I had to suppress myself several times. From a foreigner’s perspective, it is more than a little amusing. While I don’t have a Japanese person who saw the film to ask, I think that some of the scenes were a bit uncomfortable for them. This is just one of those matters where varying cultures can view one tiny incident in so many differently significant ways. These poor German dudes… I get it! If you are into foreign movies, make it a must see.

A day of frivolity come and gone, it was wonderful to spend so many hours traipsing around such a hip and trendy district of Tokyo. As we headed back to the train, I stopped to take a picture of the shadow cast by a giant spider statue in the middle of the area. While it may have not been a tribute to American Halloween traditions, it certainly felt like a nod to them… meant purely as the icing on that fabulous, fall day.

Wednesday, November 21

It is any coincidence that AFN (Armed Forces Network) television here in Japan has started running a new commercial about the Asian Bird Flu only this past week? You know… the week leading up to Thanksgiving and all of a sudden… BAM… you’re fearing for your life thanks to commercials about an Asian pandemic? I think not.


Does this mean that I no longer have to make the bird today?

Tuesday, November 20

A Time for Thanks… and for Awareness

Obviously, enjoying American holidays in a foreign land has its frustrations. But it also has its moments of inspiration. I don’t get to sit at the big old family table back home, but I get to have friends join me at my table. I don’t get either mom to make the turkey for me, but I get to appreciate the hard work that they both have always gone through to make the stupid bird. I don’t get the warmth of being surrounded by the familiar and the loved, but I get to seek inside myself for the familiar and the loved coming from the foreignness that surrounds me.

For this Thanksgiving holiday, I think it is time to assert my awareness of what I am thankful for as provided by my Japanese hosts:

1. Reverential bowing. As a person who doesn’t like to be touched much unless you know me pretty well, this is the most wonderful greeting I can imagine because respect is so very chock-full in every inch you give to the other person. This tradition has been so embraced that I actually bowed when I met someone new in the states on the last visit. They didn’t quite get it, but did get quite the giggle about my personal evolution.

2. Drinks to quench any type of thirst, both the physical and the mental. On every corner, there is a vending machine. I have tried more drinks than I ever could have imagined were available on one island country. You can even buy alcoholic goodnesses like chu-hi, sake and beer in many of the vending machines. My goal is to try everything before I leave although some clear favorites have me skipping new samplings lately for the old.

3. Food worthy of the Gods… or Buddha. Despite both KH and myself having some small issues with increasing blood pressure because of the high sodium content in Japanese food, it is just heavenly. Where else in the world can you get a better bowl of hot ramen? Sure the Chinese invented it, but the Japanese perfected it. Not to mention my other favorites… bento boxes, yakiniku, yakitori, soba, udon, gyoza, shabu-shabu, okonomiyaki, oyakodon, katsudon, tonkatsu, tempura, sushi, sashimi, corn/mayo/potato pizza, seafood pizza, miso, tofu, natto, sweet red bean paste, those little baby water lily buds, Japanese jello, mochi… I think I could go on and on here for days.

4. Simplicity and elegance in the ideals of beauty. When I first arrived here, it often seemed that they way people decorated was stark. The buildings are square, unadorned boxes that I used to think lacked character. Inside, to my untrained eye, whole rooms would appear vacant and impractically unused, as they remained entirely empty but for a painting on a far wall. Now I see the beauty in the uncomplicated and empty spaces. Color and objects are used so quietly and sparingly. You will not find intrusions into your life, at least not by any garish aesthetics.

5. Acceptance. When you live in a foreign country, particularly one that has a dark past with the United States, you wonder if you will really feel accepted. In my time here, I have felt nothing but acceptance with kind and warm receptions greeting me everywhere I go. Only once has someone moved away from me on a train, an older gentleman who moved a few seats away. Not being able to know what he was thinking when he did so, I can’t even confirm that it was because there was an American next to him that he moved. In all other instances, I have found that the Japanese people are happy to talk to me if they can and will often even seek me out like the man who wanted to sing the Star Spangled Banner on the streets of Kamakura with my family.

6. An undeniable and utterly beautiful culture. In everything to see and experience here in Japan, it is infused with an ancient culture of which I can only dream to totally understand before we leave here. West influences may be changing things, but there are so many that hold dear to the traditions of their past. Many people spend much of the month of August visiting the graves of their ancestors. Many still know the art of kimono and wear it with pride. These things may have seen adaptations in the past years, but they are inherently Japanese in their core. It is in the distinct subtleties of changes that Japan shows their love for a celebrated history and their wish to grow with the modern world. Yet, they remain instinctively, and in my humble opinion, blessedly Japanese.

Wherever you are from, if you have the time I would love to know… what are you thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday?

Friday, November 16

For those who ever mocked the Japa Capa

I filled up the Capa’s gas tank for the first time today since Saturday, October 13th. The total to fill it? $24.18. For those of you who are counting… that is 35 days of driving pleasure on one tank of gas that cost a mere two thirds of what I would spend in one week when I was in DC. Take that, my mocking American friends, driving American gas-guzzling hogs. I shall never again return to the land of the guzzler. I’ve been spoiled forever by my funny-looking, but very cheaply run, Japanese automobile.

Saturday, November 10

Japanese Peculiarities #2

Jobs in Japan take on some interesting forms. I have often wondered if there is such a low unemployment rate here because people are sometimes given such ridiculously small jobs just to keep them out of unemployment lines. Are there even unemployment lines here? I honestly have no idea, but I have never seen one or heard about them.

The greatest thing I notice about these jobs, that foreigners see as tedious, redundant or even a bit meaningless, is that the man or woman doing them always takes such great pride in it. For everything they do, big and small, it is down with such care and awareness. Perhaps this is all a testament to the fact that Japanese society is so conforming and therefore so cohesive. Every person does their share and every person reaps the rewards. But sometimes what is so odd to me is still the job they are doing or often how they are doing it.

There is the ever present traffic director working either on some street corner, or directing traffic around a construction site or even the traffic guy that directs people out of the department store parking lot. You will find them wearing their ever present, pristine white gloves as they point you to and fro. Is it really necessary to have a traffic director at the entrance and exit of every department store? If you can’t handle getting out of the parking lot, perhaps you shouldn’t be driving. There was the guy last week hanging from the power lines right off of my balcony for several hours. Everything he needed for the hours that he hung there were in a basket in front of him. If you were this man, wouldn’t you get tired of hanging there and instead just crawl back down the ladder to get the next tool, actually using the excuse as a guise for rest and a cigarette break? There are the people that drive around at all hours with their loudspeakers on top of their trucks spewing out political or sales garble or whatever it is they want me to understand but can’t. Is spreading this information really so necessary and influential to the buyer or constituent that they need to start at 7 in the morning and work until sometimes 9 at night driving slow up and down each street so you are sure to hear the message for a good twenty minutes?

And then there was my favorite job last week. On the main route through Zushi, a crew was resurfacing the road. Typically when they are doing road work, there is also a white gloved man pointing you around the site. This time, when a man was actually necessary, there was no one. Instead there was a man with a canister and a tube shooting out some sort of flammable gas. Do you know those temporary strips they put down before they paint the road? This guy was burning them off with his little tube. This seems perfectly acceptable right? The problem was… he was doing so less than two feet from my tailpipe! As the light had changed, I had made my way past the intersection to a stop. This man rushes out behind me and starts shooting the flammable substance directly behind my car. If he was feeling tired, he could have sat down on the read bumper while he worked. The hell? Is this safe?!? I watched flaming pieces of material floating around in the breeze behind my car and couldn’t help but worry about the next time I step on the gas. Would it be enough to ignite my car and consequently myself on fire too? The man was wearing protective gear, but I wasn’t and my car that also shoots out flammable gas sure as hell wasn’t.

Remember the guy last year with the open flame in the back of his truck as he drove down the road? And remember the guy lighting a cigarette as he drove down the road on his scooter? I seriously think someone needs to reconsider using open flames on the roads here.

Sunday, November 4

Katsu's

Taking a break from studying for finals next week, we headed out for dinner with some friends last night to Katsu’s Restaurant and Bar here in Zushi. Arriving there, we were told there were no English menus and without pictures or plastic food to point at, we were left to the mercy of the one waitress with a good grasp of the English language. (Later, this waitress even went on to express her wonder and question how so many gaijin had even heard about this place that was off the beaten path for the usual foreign explorer. She was thrilled to hear that our Japanese realtor had pimped them out.)

“On our menu…,” she started to run down the list, “we have fish. We have risotto. We have pizza. We have pasta.”

With that glowing recommendation, we ordered the fish, the risotto, the pizza and the pasta.

Any other specifics we left to the choice of the waitress and her favorites.

The fish turned out to be a red snapper sashimi salad. The pizza was the traditional Japanese pizza with sauce and mozzarella on crust that resembles a wafer. The risotto was a rich and creamy gorgonzola. The pasta was a linguini with red clam sauce. And a second fish dish came to our table, grilled to perfection with Enoki mushrooms and a tasty glaze adding to the fresh flavor. All of which were portioned for the four of us to share and all were truly excellent.

Topped with several Asahi beers, we finished our meal and braced ourselves. You see… ordering like this means you have no idea what the final bill will be. At 18000 Yen (about $80 a couple), this was a pricey meal. Totally worth it, but not a place we will be eating at so casually in the future.

Saturday, October 27

Adachi Kagei School… An Evolution in Ikebana and in Art

My dear cousin called me out on being a slacking blogger. So hear I am. Guilted into getting back in the habit of writing. She was right that I have been spending my time doing papers. So technically, I have been writing up a storm. If you are interested in reading about the expression of Buddhism in Beat Generation prose or the relationship between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt which led to the start of the Cold War, I can happily oblige you with thousands of written words. Or perhaps the cup of tea you are more interested in is the artistic influence of the Arabs that resonates in Spain today. Or what about how art has evolved away from standard picture plane locked forms into something that resembles more theater-like representations and how many still revolt against much of modern art even being art. See… I have plenty of words to share, but I but just the brief explanation damn near put you to sleep.

Frankly, by the end of these past days of substituting and spouting off nonsense to my own professors, I have nothing to share in the creative writing department. I’m reduced to monosyllabic incantations like “wine” or “beer” where you are lucky if I even bother with adding that second silly word, “please.”

It has been fun in busy in the past weeks though, despite my lack of words to describe such. I survived my first Ikebana International event. This wasn’t the first for the chapter, but I was off gallivanting in Kauai for the first.

October’s event was an Ikebana demonstration of the Adachi Kagei School. There is a bit of sadness and happiness in the tale of this school. Adachi sensei is not the first sensei for the school. She was adopted by the first sensei and took up the art of the school under her adopted mother. In 2006, her mother passed away and she succeeded the name. That’s the sad part.

The happy part is how people feel about the new sensei, the daughter. She is very young, which pleases the Japanese greatly. You see, the Japanese culture is modernizing quickly and it is losing much of the beauty of its ancient culture as young people are not interested in continuing these ancient skills through their own education of them. This isn’t a blanket statement of the whole of young Japan, but it is sadly the case in a large way. I have been told that some young Japanese are even not learning how to use chopsticks and instead only know how to eat with Western silverware. I feel this may be a stretch, but it emphasizes the concerns that the elder Japanese population has about losing their beautiful legacy to culture.

Coming from the melting pot of the United States, I can appreciate their concerns. In America, we are such a new and mixed culture in comparison to this island nation that was isolated (voluntarily, but nonetheless) for so long. We, as Americans, encompass so many different cultures, that to actually express American culture is to honestly be accepting of just about any thing from any culture. And perhaps to add some of our famous boldness to it. Let’s be honest… we like it splashy. American culture simply does not have the simplistic beauty of one emphasis that many other nations have. Japan has such untouched beauty and such particular expressions in culture, it would be a shame for them to lose that as time continues to pass.

As for Adachi sensei, the Japanese women in our group are thrilled to see someone so young expressing this ancient art.

On the other hand, she is making some changes.

Like all art, Adachi sensei is evolving her mother’s Ikebana into something a bit more modern and innovative. The scale is getting larger. The expression is changing to more Western free-flowing styles. The current Adachi sensei studied environmental sciences in school. She now uses her Ikebana expression to show the beauty of nature in the hopes that the younger generation will appreciate the natural elements more and therefore work to protect them for future generations. It’s a beautiful message, but it is not where the school originated.

The Adachi Kagei school of the past was focused, like many older Ikebana schools, on the spiritual expression found in nature. Adachi Kagei uses specific materials of pine and bamboo with some other plant to form this expression. Water is also an important part of the art. Water gives live to everything in nature. Water therefore plays an important role in the creation of Ikebana in this school. Understanding nature in its relationship to space is a crucial element when creating Ikebana. Natural materials and non man-made materials used to be the only things found in this school, but the current sensei is changing this. In one of her creations at the event, she used wire and fishing string to help show the beauty of space. The whole concept of space alone is a newer experiment in the whole of the art world. Adachi-sensei is moving forward with this evolution in art.

For this demonstration, she actually created the stage around her as an Ikebana artistic expression. This creation was a massively scaled expression which she then created several smaller designs. It was as if she was emphasizing not only the Ikebana, but also her relationship to it on the stage and therefore expressing her place in nature.

Now perhaps you are thinking I am way out there. It could be that the art class I am currently taking is affecting me more than I know… trying to determine what is art in this world. Lately, I have really been trying to see the evolutions of the idea of ‘what art is’ every where I go. The possibilities grow every time I turn around. Adachi sensei simply helped me to further open my eyes to more possibilities. And she gave me a fresh perspective on the traditional beauty and how it is merging with modern expressions in Ikebana.

So here I find myself now happy and sad. I’m happy that art can evolve in such creative ways and happy to be able to experience that evolution. And yet I am sad because I wonder if Japan and its rich heritage are indeed losing its audience and its traditional roots… only to eventually disappear forever.

Tuesday, October 9

Oktoberfest-ivities in Yokohama

Who can say no to hops and foam? Certainly not I. When some friends mentioned that there was an Oktoberfest in Yokohama this past weekend, I immediately went into fret mode on how to get my midterms done and still have the time to go get my drink on. As the afternoon slipped away on Saturday, and I came to the answer my last essay question, my well-involved answers slipped away with the lowering sun as I rushed to finish. As a friend diagnosed, I have serious senioritis. I just couldn’t care less how good that last answer was in the face of the festivities that lie dead ahead.

We were on the train by 4 and at the Red Brick Warehouse in Yokohama by 5, where taps flowed freely with German goodness. Of course, attending an Oktoberfest in Japan is not quite the same as anywhere else. And why should it be? I have come to enjoy the idiosyncrasies of the culture here. In other instances, the manipulation of American holidays is enough to give me a genial laugh, but this was the first instance that I got to see another culture twist into a Japanese amalgamation.

Like any good Oktoberfest, there was music! Okay, the first group was a Japanese gospel group of which we stood there and tried to figure out if they were singing in Japanese, German or English. Only by moving to the front of the stage did we determine that it was Engrish (the union of the Japanese and English languages… and not always so good… but the effort is appreciated). Of course, the language wasn’t the only thing that threw us off with this group. Shouldn’t there be German singers? Or at least German singing?

Not to disappoint our Fest experience, the second group was indeed those drunken stomping Germans. I tried to take a picture of this, but honestly I was having my own sobriety issues and couldn’t hold the camera too straight at this point. Perhaps it was the chorus line that I joined to dance around the room, clanking glasses and gulping down mouthfuls with every other step, that caused my pictures to suffer the shambles.

Besides beer, music and dancing, there was also sausage! One cannot leave out the sausage when there is a hearty hefeweizen in hand! Of course, one also cannot tell you if that sausage was a form of brat or what. They were quite good, although small in stature for the typically substantial German sausage. There was sauerkraut on the side. Please do not get me wrong… I love Japan and the food here… but these people no nothing of a good sauerkraut. Bland, bland, bland. I actually had to make pork and sauerkraut at home the very next day, just to remove the tasteless from my memory. But the intention was good.

All the components of a good Oktoberfest were represented… with that Japanese spin that has made my experience here so much more. After stopping for late night munchies (the sausages totally didn’t cut it), we made the very last train home. By the next day, we would all be given a firm reminder of why we don’t drink the good stuff too often.

Sunday, October 7

Japanese Peculiarities #1

Well, this isn’t really the first peculiarity I have noted while living here in Japan, but this is the first time it occurred to me to reveal and document these instances in any sort of order. Am quite slow at times.

Anyway. So the story goes…

On Friday, I was sitting in front of my computer from sun up to sun down. Late morning came and the doorbell rang. Not expecting anyone to stop by, this was quite a surprise. Fortunately, my sister-in-law recently sent a webcam as birthday gift, which ensures that I now sit in front of the computer adequately clothed and even now consistently bra’d. On this day, this was a help indeed.

Skipping speaking into the intercom as I noted that my guests were Japanese and I hardly felt like a conversation in broken English on said device, I went straight to open the door. After confirming who I was, the man and woman introduced themselves as being from the water company. Several months ago, we had paid the same bill twice in one month. We had been sent a notice a while back telling us to have someone who speaks Japanese call their office to fix the problem. This project was given to KH, who of course let it slide to the bottom of his pile at work. Thank goodness in Japan, they realize that my husband may just never take care of it. These two had come to pay me. At my front door. Pulling out the exact yen… down to the penny yen and handing it over to my hot little hands.

Now that kind of service, my dear friends, is something you ain’t never gonna’ see in America.

Sunday, September 30

Aloha and mahalo, paradise and friends.

NOTE: Pictures have been added with more on the Flickr link. You have been spared any of me in a bathing suit. I just don't think your ready for that jelly.

We’ve been back from paradise for just shy of a week now. I’ve started to write about it many different times, but never seemed to come up with the best way to start. Plus, writing about it means that it is truly over, which is truly heartbreaking.

So Kauai. Well… at a picnic area on the top of a mountain that we stopped at during out first day’s hike, I collapsed onto a picnic table to stare up and find these words written on the covering’s ceiling… “If you love Kauai, tell your friends to go to Maui.” I really wish I could send everyone I know to another island and selfishly leave Kauai all to myself and to the small 16,000 tourists it has visiting on a daily basis. But sadly, I cannot be that selfish to you.

Kauai is perfection. Should you ever have the chance to visit, I encourage it wholeheartedly.

Of course, I have never been to any of the other islands so my opinion should mean very little to you. Yet somehow, I just know that there couldn’t be much beyond the perfection of this island in any of the others. Certainly not in the islands that have become commercialized and filled with high rises. At least for me, anyway. My love for this island, I truly do not know how to express. The crazy thing is… I would have never seen it if it wasn’t for friends back home.

When I left DC, a friend told me that Japan might be a stretch to get to, but she and her husband had always planned on a Hawaii vacation. She mentioned meeting there… halfway for the both of us. Not willing to ever turn down a good time with friends, we began planning not long after I arrived here in Japan, starting with research on which island to choose. Kauai had a little bit of everything we were looking for on paper, and we realized so much more even as we flew in to the sight of sandy beaches, turquoise waters and majestic mountains with their tips obscured in dark and misty clouds.

We all arrived in the late morning, picked up the rental car we would cover in salt and sand both inside and out, and headed straight to Costco to load up our condo with breakfasts, lunches and snacks. No sooner was the car unpacked and we were in bathing suits and headed out for our first hours of beach time.

Now Kauai is a larger island than I expected. I had read about the diversity that is seen in weather and climate from the different sides of the island, but I was not prepared for how drastic the differences were. We had chosen Poipu Beach on the south side of the island… and ranked as some of the best beaches in the world. From the lanai of our condo, we could watch the ocean just at the end of the street. In only a minute, we were walking along the shore line, a mix of lava rock and sandy stretches known for varied activities. Directly in front of our condo, we watched our first endangered monk seal playing in between the crevices carved out by ancient lava flow. The first stretch was known for boogie boarding. We waded in, aware of the signs warning of strong currents. The husbands showed the guts and headed out into the bigger waves. The wives took it slowly, and eased themselves in up to their wastes before deciding another beach would be better for them.

The next beach over is known for snorkeling. As it was our first day, we were unprepared for these types of beaches. Barefoot, we wandered out while the sharp coral under our feet threatened to prick holes into our soles, the current only aiding the coral and making it difficult to wade in. Still we persevered and enjoyed the best temperature of water I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying.

The day had been planned to take it easy, which included a nice meal out, so we headed back to the condo to unpack and get ready. Keoki’s is located on the south side and is known for its Hawaiian style and fresh fish dishes. With tiki torches keeping the room aglow, we managed to choose among fish names that many of us had never heard before. I went with the ona. For someone who isn’t a huge fish eater… this thing was heaven. Topped with frozen Mai Thais where the dark rum swirled on top of the juice below, the night and the restaurant was the perfect start.

On our second day, we had scheduled a helicopter tour and then an afternoon hike. First, if any of you do know our traveling companions from back home, then you surely know how well-planned this trip was. Even I the queen of strategic (read: excessive) planning cannot compare to the master that was with us on this trip. While I tried to help where I could, this woman single handedly made this trip perfect and amazing. Which brought us to Jack Harter Helicopters, the company we discovered had crashed the least in recent years. Yes, the helicopter thing was not the safest, but I was not missing a chance to see the magnitude of beauty on this island from the air. After a brief demonstration on where to find the barf bag (right in front of you… just in case), up we went. Seriously, don’t make me try to explain the magnitude of the beauty that can be seen from the air. I just can’t. Again… isolated stretches of sandy beaches, mountains that looked like they were trying to cut the sky with their sharp peaks, cliffs that fell into the sea, valleys filled with both green and others with red from the clay that covers the island, a canyon that rivals ye old Grand one and crystal clear waters that ended in white froth along the shore. My camera… it was overwhelmed. There was simply no way to capture this on film. Like Nike will tell you, just do it.

Back on solid ground, we headed towards the east side for our first hike. Lunch was eaten at the foot of Nounou Mountain, also known as the Sleeping Giant. Why? Because it looks like a sleeping giant. According to our book, The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook, local folklore says that if the island was to be invaded, Kauai’s people would light fires behind the giant in order to illuminate his profile at night. Then the invaders would think that there were some “really big dudes” and would therefore rethink the invasion. Tidbits. Anyway.

Up the mountain we went. You may have figured it out before, but I had a kidney stone just prior to our trip. My friend Tommy. Well, Tommy went to Kauai with me. It was on this mountain that he and I would take our stand against one another. The hike included a 1,000 feet elevation gain. I should have been more daunted at this thought than I was at first. It took only the first half hour to make me realize what I had done to myself. As we made our way up this trail that often saw cliffs right off to one or the other edge, I felt sure I would break down from the pain. I slowed the whole entourage down repeatedly as I tried to talk the pain in my side down. Even now, I am so thoroughly grateful that no one seemed upset for my miserable pace. I assured them repeatedly that I was fine to be left alone on the trail so they could hike to the top and I could sit and cry in peace. At three quarters of a mile in, they kept me going, telling me I was halfway there. Between spurts of Tommy bites and moments of hyperventilation, I somehow got through the 1 ½ mile uphill battle to get to the top. I think my own silent prayers helped. The reward was yet another chance to take in more glorious views of the island. And half-melted trail mix. Yum. The way down was almost as unpleasant as the hike up. Every dig step I took as I made my way down, Tommy jarred into my side, causing me to suck in more than my share of dirt. On the trip up and back, I carried my coveted bottle of Percocet, but not once did I partake until I made it back to the condo. I wanted to! God, how I wanted to. But I feared falling off the side of the cliff as my dopiness would increase triple-fold. I just kept the thought of the drugs in my mind as we made one stop on the way home, to take in the Wailua Falls, made famous for being in the opening scene of Fantasy Island. There is a hiking trail down to the falls, but I was not prepared for swimming there or more hiking, so we all choose to just enjoy the beauty and then head back to base central.

The first thing I did, take one of those glorious pills and wash it down with an Amstel Light (not doctor recommended). We got cleaned up and headed to enjoy the amazing view from the bar at the Grand Hyatt, a magnificent open air hotel near our condo. More girly frozen drinks with umbrellas and fruit, snack food for dinner on the lanai, the sun setting in background, and another day gloriously spent.

By morning, Tommy had left my side. The doctors say exercise helps pass these things. Guess they weren’t kidding. Although, next time I will be scaling back a bit on the whole sum of the exercise. I do, however, feel that frozen concoctions were key to promoting resistance to and passage of pals like Tommy.

Our third day came on Monday with excursions planned for the north shores of the island. We started off early with our first spot being Hanalei Bay where a walk along miles of pristine beaches in near solitude awaited us. To get to this end of the island, we spent some time on winding northern roads through thick and luscious green scenes. On this part of the island, we ran into Kauai’s famous one lane bridges… numerous one lane bridges. Etiquette on the island has all vehicles from one side going at once, which can lead to a bit of a back up on the other side. But knowing the laidback spirit of the island, no one is in a rush to get anywhere so it doesn’t seem to matter much that you may be waiting. We were keeping our eye out as we drove around the northern shores. This is where you are likely to bump into Pierce Brosnan, Bette Midler and other celebrities. Unfortunately, tree-cutting Bette and friends were no where to be found.

This north side is the rainy and cooler side of the island, a direct opposite to our hotter and drier southern side. At Hanalei Bay, we made our way along the water that is anchored by towering mountains to the west and a river to the east. Sprinkles of rain fell on us, but it was the kind of rain we welcomed as we walked in the warm sun. This beach is well known for surfing, but the seas were calm that day leaving many to find waves elsewhere around the island. After absorbing the area, we were off to the next stop, Paradise Beach Hut… known for being one of the best shaved ice places on the island. Shaved ice being a specialty in Kauai. And no kidding was this place the best! We checked out one of the other top spots, but this one blew it away. This ain’t your Ocean City, MD shaved ice, kids. It was like eating soft snow with the good kind of coloring to it.

Filled of ice, we headed even further north on the road. Actually as far as one can go… to Ke’e Beach that marks the beginning of the Na Pali coastline, an area that can only be gotten to by hiking, boating or jumping out of a helicopter (not recommended). By far, this place was my favorite beach on the island. We came prepared for this place, complete with water shoes and snorkeling gear and we were so glad we did! Ke’e is a lagoon where the water just happened to be calm enough for perfect snorkeling and swimming conditions, despite the SIX signs that warned beach patrons about seriously disturbing water conditions at this area. Complete with our pink noodles (the girls only, of course) and snorkeling gear, we hit the water and honestly could have stayed at this location, and in this water, all day. I tried to capture the magnitude of the mountains that embraced the side of the lagoon, but it was simply impossible. That image will have to remain only in my mind.

But there were still other plans for the day, so after lunch, we packed up our stuff and headed to a beach in one of our guidebooks that promised swimming in secret lava pools. The book mentions a short walk to the beach, but what it didn’t mention about that walk is that it is down a crazy steep incline, not suitable for the Reef flip-flops I was wearing, that I immediately dreaded regarding the hike back up. Nonetheless, we were determined to get to this beach despite the trek that loomed in front of us. We couldn’t be happier that we did. After a few missteps on the sharp lava rock and a small climb up those same dreadful mineral masses, we passed by the pools, but did come upon a waterfall that cut down the mountain side and ended in another lava pool. Not missing our chance, we all took our turns in the waterfall, slipping across the lava that has grown slick with algae over the years. We did trek back to the secret lava pools, but the consensus was that the tide was a bit low making the pools a smidge lower than we imagined, so we skipped entering them and instead headed back to the killer incline and the car.

A bit exhausted from sun and surf, we decided to come up with a place for dinner that we could get to as we made the long trip back to the south side. Kalapaki Beach Hut turned out to be the perfect place. Again, with help from our handy guidebooks, we located the best burger joint on the island. Even better, we could all eat in our bathing suits. At this place, no one said a word that I was only wearing a towel as I had not bothered to done a beach cover-up before heading up to place my order. My kind of place after a long day. It was evening by the time we got back to the condo, so beers and Mai Thais at our place were the order for the night, which we enjoyed until we could no longer keep our eyes open.

I’m not sure if you are getting this, but this was one active vacation. By the end of each night, I was ready for bed by 10 at the latest. Certainly not the wild and crazy party animal I used to be, but the sun, the surf and the activity took its toll. I was only too happy to be the lame one and head to bed first. Besides… there was always the next day to get mind and body ready for!

Our fourth day, Tuesday, began before the sun came up. We drove a few miles north to catch a sailing tour along the Na Pali coastline (sorry... no pictures can be put online as I was using a disposable water camera and have been too lazy to take it in, get it developed and get a CD). The catamaran held about 30 people, four crew members and a captain. Due to the early hour, breakfast muffins and breads were provided, a welcoming start to the 7 ½ hour tour. As we sped along the coastline, we came upon several schools of spinner dolphins who heard the sound of the boat and came directly over to it to check us out. The crew explained how the dolphins really like people, which they proved by having a few of the babies that were traveling with them perform of few of the spins they are famous for. It was amazing to see the number of dolphins all around the boat… at least twenty in the first school… and close enough to pet if we could have reached over the railing.

By late morning, we had traveled past the Na Pali coast and had arrived eighteen miles off the Kauai coast at Nihau Island, known as the forbidden island. No one is allowed to come ashore except for those that actually live there and work on the cattle and sheep ranches. As far as I can understand, trying to get permission to come ashore is seriously difficult. If I recall correctly, only about 250 people live on this tiny island. The island is privately owned, deliberately cut off from the outside world and therefore kept much in the same way that it was twenty years ago. This means no electricity and no plumbing. The population of this island is dwindling due to old age and a younger generation who has often left in search of better opportunities. It was a fascinating story, but a life I can’t imagine.

Just off the shores of Nihau, we reached Lehua Island, the tip of a sunken volcanic crater that is known as a good spot for open water snorkeling. I have to admit that I had some reservation with this idea. Who hasn’t heard of the sharks in Hawaii? The crew assured us that all was safe, despite admitting that they had seen a rather large tiger shark quite recently in this same area. This wasn’t the only time I had sharks on the brain. Every time I went into the water in Kauai, it occurred to me that this might be the end. The problem… the weekend before, I had watched Jaws on AFN. Bad move right before you head off to an island. Especially if you are someone like me who can own some crazy when she wants to. The whole idea of snorkeling in open water where I would have to be a darn strong swimmer to get back to the boat and safe myself, did give me a few extra heart beats that day. But not one to chicken out, I donned flippers and snorkel and headed for the back of the boat.

Thankfully the crew had… NOODLES! As my friend and I had been quite attached to our noodles, and had suffered some comments from the husbands, it was nice to get reassurance like this that we were indeed not the only ones in love with the noodle. Many were hoping into the water with noodle in hand. Even a man or two!

Me and my noodle… well we had an awfully good time. There were no sharks. Not as many fish as we had seen in other places, but just the depth of the area and the slight fear of open water were enough to make me thrilled with the location. Kimono Hubby was lucky enough to be in the area when another endangered monk seal swam past him.

Once we had all had enough of the water, we boarded the boat and the real service began. Lunch and all you can drink! Sitting on the sunny front of the catamaran as we floated off the coast of Lehua, it seemed like the trip couldn’t get better. Oh how wrong I can often be.

We had been warned about the trip back. The water is rough, they say. People will get sick, they say, even those that have never been bothered by seasickness before. We had taken our preventative Dramamine in the morning, but it had surely worn off by this time. People were removed from the front of the boat as well as the front of the inside cabin. Too many past complaints about people flying into the ceiling or something. We opted for a spot standing along the side of the boat, while most people choose to sit in the very back seats where the impact of the waves is supposed to be much less. However, you also can’t see what is coming OR the horizon for when you are starting to feel ill. Beers in one hand and the other hand firmly planted on the railing, we got one last warning not to bend our knees with the waves or when we straighten our legs back out, the boat won’t be there. Interesting thought, and I did try this a few times when I was almost certain I wouldn’t be thrown overboard. Within the first minute, we knew we were in for one hell of a ride. For the next two hours, the boat would often find itself below the level of the approaching wave, fly up over it, only to crash down on the other side. Completely. Awesome. Not so, said the people sitting in the back as the spent their time puking into buckets while the crew kept throwing it overboard. For the entire trip back, we stood there ordering more beers, which the most excellent crew would happily and quickly get to us. Only the people who were not enjoying the ride as much seemed a tad peeved about our high times. One lady even called out to that there must be some alcoholics up front. Not so, said us! We were just getting our money’s worth. One very important tip to keep in mind however, should you feel you are of the stock that can handle this… if you are going to drink all that beer, make sure you have an iron clad bladder. The last thing the crew said before taking off was that bathrooms should be avoided unless you like blue toilet water stains on your clothes. I can’t imagine trying to sit in there with waves like the ones we were enjoying. Ew. I did struggle towards the end for need of a bathroom. The husbands, well they said screw it with my own darling husband being the first to enter the head. He came out without a streak of blue on him. I’m so proud.

Towards the time that we got close to the docks, the rain started to pour down and sting us with salt-filled pellets. Only then did I finally give in and head inside for a seat for the rest of the trip back. While it is hard to say what activity I like best about Kauai, this one might have been it. Although my body was sure to feel the toll of this exercise the next day. Beat from the day, we headed back to clean up and then go locally for dinner at Pizzetta in the tiny town of Koloa. A heavenly place that was enough to fill us up before we called it a day.

Wednesday would be another physical day. Waking up, we find that our event planner had found out that there were spots available for us to take a 10:00 kayaking tour up the Wailua River (again the pictures are trapped in a disposable camera... and I haven't gotten any more motivated to do something about it than I was as I wrote about this before). Never having kayaked in my life, again I felt some nervousness, but not enough to keep me away. In two person kayaks, husband and wife had to get it together and stop arguing to get the kayak to go in one continuous straight line. No easy task if you have ever met the Kimono family. For I am a control freak and stubborn and he is much the same. The tour up the river was filled with zigs this way and zags that way. Upon reaching the place where we would dock the kayaks and begin the hike, our guide was kind enough to mock and yet compliment us… “Never have I seen a kayak go in zig-zags up the river that fast.” Yes, people… there was a lot of effort behind it, but seriously little coordination. It didn’t help that we were bumped twice by other beginners who knocked us into the trees along the shore of the river.

At the hiking point, we put gear on our backs and made our way to the other side of the river and up onto the shore. Soaked from waist down… just perfect when you are starting a long hike. The trail that we were taking ends up at a waterfall that you can only get to by kayaking… and then hiking. It wove itself through an hibiscus woodland and then a mango forest, where one rather large branch threatened to take out a member of our small entourage as it cracked off and came flying down, only to land directly in the middle of our group. The shock worn off, we moved on to begin the climb down the rocks into the waterfall area where we could enjoy lunch and the water. The icy water, that is! This water was by far the coldest we experienced on the entire island! I made my way into the waterfall for a quick snapshot, but quickly made my way back to the shore.

Our lunch gone, we began to make the hike back to the kayaks. The guide was one of the best so far, entertaining us with his life story of how he wakes at “o’dark 10” and then enjoys an easy kayak trip (to him!) and hike, enjoys a mango lunch by a waterfall, heads back and calls it a day by 2:30 or 3. This man’s gig was enough to make me consider a life like this. Of course, I need to work on my kayaking skills, but this isn’t impossible, I say.

Now the one thing the guide had said as we started off was that the kayaking should be pretty easy with no current either way. Liar! Heading back, we caught a head wind that made our arms burn from the immense effort of keeping us moving forward instead of backward. By the time we made it back to the docks, I swear my arms had jellified.

But the day was not over! We packed back into the car and headed out to Lydgate State Park, boasted as the best place on the island to learn snorkeling thanks to the boulder enclosed pond that keeps the fish in and the ocean’s force out. Never have I ever snorkeled amongst such a diverse offering of fish. Again, let me admit a little something without feeling too ashamed. The idea of fish in the water really freaks me the hell out. I often didn’t put the snorkel mask on immediately so I could get myself accustomed to the water. Yet, that was often difficult when Kimono Hubby would shout out, "you should see that huge fish right next to you!” Thanks, sweetie. Way to help me stay calm. When I did finally don the mask, the situation was slightly worsened. While I couldn’t believe the sights under the water, I also couldn’t stand the thought that I would be standing in the middle of a school of 50 or so fish. Thanks to the guidebooks, my friend had read about taking a bag with bread in it and a hole in one end to feed the fish. The frenzy that this created seriously caused some heebie-jeebies when used near my own persons, but caused great amusement when a piece or two was thrown next to KH. Evil woman.

I must give credit to my husband for these water parts of our trip. As skittish as I am in the water, he impressed me repeatedly by holding my hand while I was in fishy full areas that freaked me out and even helped me swim through currents that a good swimmer would have laughed off, but I on the other hand felt sure would tow me out to sea, never to be seen again. I have taken vacations with others, but never has someone shown such patience with me. Just having him by my side when I started to get nervous, was enough to instantly calm me down. It was just one of those moments where I was reminded of how lucky I got in this life lottery.

The day had been another long, hard and fun one. With leftovers from Pizzetta waiting at the condo, we made a short stop only to get a Puka dog, a recommendation from our kayaking guide, and quite good despite the disgustingness of the name and the sound of the ingredients… veggie dog or bratwurst topped with chili-garlic-mayo sauce in hot, medium or mild and finally with your choice of fruity sauce topping. I went with pineapple. Gross. But good.

This quieter night allotted the perfect time for us to go and take in the sunset at the best spot on the island, Spouting Horn Beach Park. For me, these were the most peaceful moments I spent on the island, sitting on the lava rocks, drinking a few beers and watching the sun the sky ablaze. Spouting Horn itself is nothing to scoff at either. This is a blowhole formed from a small lava shelf. The waves thrust water into an opening, causing the water to shoot into the air from the blowhole. The whole scene in this area is something out of a travel magazine for Kauai. Perfect, like so many other places on the island.

By the time Thursday rolled around, we decided to take it a bit easier with more touring, but from the ease of our rental car's windows. Heading northwest, we drove up the winding road towards the tops of Waimea Canyon, a Grand Canyon of a smaller, but not less impressive, size. Stopping at all of the best lookouts per our handy guidebook, we got yet another good grasp of the diversity of the island. The temperatures continually dropped as we made our way up and the vegetation turned from dry clay to green trees to pine forests. At the top, there were extraordinary views of the other side of the Na Pali coastline. I know we saw a lot of this, but you just can’t get over the amazingness of it, no matter how many times you see it and from how many different angles.

There is a lodge towards the top known for their chili and cornbread. Considering we had spent the week eating sandwiches, grapes and trail mix for lunch, this was a welcome change for us all.

We were debating hiking the clay trail from this vista into the Alaka’i Swamp, but realized quickly that we did not have the trail gear necessary for this trip. Plus, the lady at the lodge who is supposed to provide help about the trails in the area, when asked about this one said… “it’s a swamp.” Not the glowing recommendation we were expecting. So all factors together, we skipped it and went to plan B. Another trail into nowhere to reach a beach. Seriously, the guidebooks we had showed us some pretty obscured places.

The road to this beach area gave directions like turn right on the first dirt road (a dirt road that was so rough and bumpy that at 10 mph, we were laughing hysterically as our seatbelts threatened to break loose, which would most definitely mean we would be flung from the car. Thank goodness we picked the SUV option that had suspension which could somewhat handle the bumps and dips, each placed less than a foot apart from the next. Should I have still been hanging out with Tommy, he surely would have been shaken out at this point of the trip. The next direction was to turn left at the monkey pod tree. And yet, there was no description of a monkey pod tree. How many people seriously know what a monkey pod tree looks like and therefore know when they saw one to turn at it? We guessed. We guessed right. And we arrived at another beach where the total number of patrons on the several miles long stretch equaled six, and that’s counting the tiny baby a couple had with them. There are obviously no facilities here, so next to the prickliest tree I have ever encountered, we slipped into our suits under the exposure of the great outdoors. Why not? It wasn’t like there was anyone around to see us. We girls did hold a towel up, although we were mocked by the husbands for the ludicrousy of doing so in such solitude.

The mistake we made here was not to put on sunscreen before we trekked across the extremely hot, sandy stretch. And this is sand that I have never encountered before. Your whole foot sinks down into it with each step you take. Flip-flops meant that the tops of you feet would be burnt by the burning hot and previously undisturbed sand. After struggling across the beach, we put our things down and crawled into the pool known as Queen’s Bath. This is a pool that fills with water at high tide and is left to warm during the day as the tide is out. It was seriously like bath water. To then step out and get into the water on the other side where the ocean waves broke along the shoreline was a bit of a shock because of the temperature difference.

Done with the hot sun and killer sand, we all trekked back to the car and head towards our last stop for the day… the second try at shaved ice, this time at a place called Joe’s Shack or something like that. Like I said, good… but not as good as Paradise.

This night was the latest I was up all week, thanks to reservations we were lucky to get at one of the best restaurants on the island, Beach House Restaurant. Placed along the waters of the Poipu beaches, we again opted for island fish dishes under the light of tiki torches, while we listened to the ocean waves crashing on the lava shoreline. Starting with the Kauai asparagus salad, topped with Kamuela tomatoes, red onions, goat cheese and a sherry vinaigrette and then ending with the macadamia nut crusted mahi-mahi with a citrus sauce... what could be more Hawaiian or more heavenly? Stuffed and happy, we called it a night.

Friday was to be our last day in paradise and I was really struggling with that. I wanted to be someone like many of our guides, who had come to the island on vacation and just never left. I tried numerous times to convince KH of this too. He was swayed, but obviously not into complete concurrence. Despite my sadness, the last day was still there to be enjoyed.

We had traveled so much that we really hadn’t spent much time on the side of the island we were staying on. So we went back to the snorkeling beach we had been on the first day to fully explore the area. The day was really a quiet one, with everyone seemingly lost in their own thoughts. A quiet day on the beach, hanging out on the condo’s lanai and then we had booked a beachside luau for the evening at the Sheraton just down the street. The luau was beautiful. The food was excellent. We even watched a man eat fire. Twice. And that was even after his arm caught on fire. But it still seemed that we all remained in our quiet, reflective states. For myself, I was just truly sad to see it end. While I may have seemed like I was joking about leaving it all behind and just staying on the island, there was a part of me who was honestly willing to do that very thing.

But early the next morning, end it did. Before the sun came up, we were headed towards the airport and we all would head back to opposite ends of the earth.

Aloha and mahalo, paradise and friends. We had such a wonderful time.