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Monday, February 26

Happy Hina Matsuri, Little Pretty Ones!

A surprise invitation came to our door on Saturday afternoon. Our neighbor who had worried last week about problems between us had come to tell us that she had decorated her house for Hina-matsuri (Doll Festival), a Japanese holiday where it people pray for the happiness and healthy growth of their girls, and that she wished us to come see the decorations and have tea with her on Sunday. Around one in the afternoon, with a nicely wrapped box of chocolates to present, we rang her bell and entered the home she shared with her husband. They led us back a hallway on the first floor into a room that was completely empty except for seven shelves resembling a staircase that had been put up and covered in red felt. On each step were hina-ningyo or Japanese dolls, each dressed in traditional royal court costume with the highest step presenting the emperor and empress. Subsequent steps showing their various court members, I presume according to their rank. On the second shelf sat three court ladies, followed by five musicians on the next shelf and then two ministers on the fourth shelf. Three servants housed another shelf and on various steps were offerings of diamond shaped rice cakes and dry rice cake flakes, which are the traditional sweets served on this holiday. Also present were a variety of meal dishes, small furniture that the royal court would use and peach blossomed trees which are also honored on this day. Although I wanted to snap a picture, I refrained for the worry of appearing uncouth. And the fact that Kimono Hubby said I couldn’t.

These dolls are only displayed for one week until the actual holiday date of March 3rd. Immediately after which, they are put away for another year so as not to make the daughter delayed in entering a marriage, so the story goes. Our neighbor’s doll collection was purchased when the family had their daughter and every year it is put up to honor her and other Japanese girls.

We took our time and examined each row, carefully looking at each piece. In Japan, traditions like these are meant to be appreciated and not rushed through like we are oh-so-used-to at home. After some time and thorough explanation, we were led up the stairs to where the living quarters of the home are. In traditional Japanese homes, it is typical to find the living room and kitchen on the upper floors and so it was in our neighbor’s home.

Fortunately, they did not choose to sit in a tatami room because I just wasn’t sure how KH could handle that position. Our hosts opted for the table. Although this is where the break from their tradition ended. Sweets are served before tea and the hostess did so this time. The sweets were similar to that which were found on the shelves downstairs and covered the expected sugar and spice and everything nice. An additional treat were osambe crackers (if you recall, I made them in Takayama) wrapped in seaweed. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love these. Green tea was served last while we sat and talked. I should say that these are our neighbors who do speak English quite well. The problem is that we do not know them very well so the conversation had its moments of strain for that simple reason. They are a retired couple and indicated that their ages were in the 70s for him and the 60s for her but I can tell you that neither looked more than 50. If that is what Japan does for you, I think I’m staying!

We stayed for an hour, not knowing exactly when it was appropriate to take our leave. After many bows at the door of gratitude for including us and for the invitation, we walked the short steps back to our own front door. Not knowing exactly how to respond to the visit, the first thing KH mentioned is how his monster American feet probably stretched their slippers that were kindly offered to us. Then we chatted for a moment over how pretty the dolls were only to find us back at a loss for words.

Japan is a beautiful place and I appreciate their devotion to culture and tradition. But honestly, sometimes it is lost on me. I can say that I am looking forward to the boy’s counterpart festival now! Perhaps they will serve us frogs and snails and puppy dog tails.

Wednesday, February 21

Much Ado About Nothing

Last week was my monthly Ikebana International meeting, this one named “Western Wedding Gowns to Japanese Kimono.” Regrettably, even though I looked forward to this particular meeting for many months, when the day came, I barely had the urge to get myself there from Tokyo where I had been staying with KH. I finally found the motivation and managed to get myself there, but I didn’t end up sitting through much of the meeting for two reasons. I have pretty much zilch to share with you.

First reason was that I had done some serious harm to my lower back while in Tokyo and couldn’t even sit in a chair to watch if I wanted to. The second reason was that my friend Russia was one of the day’s models. Her son was also involved as the ring bearer so I spent most of my time backstage with them during the second part… the part I was really hoping to see… wedding kimonos and Japanese wedding traditions. Skipping most of the first part, the Western wedding gowns and traditions since, you know, like I’m a Westerner and all. This part was purely meant for the Japanese percentage of the room.

The big fun for the day was that through most of this first portion, I did have the opportunity to pretend I was a fancy, professional photographer, hauling around Russia’s big, impressive-looking camera and madly snapping pictures of anything in my path. It became clearly obvious about that exact time why I am not, and never will be, a professional photographer… I killed her big, impressive-looking camera. Halfway through the models, it stopped on me and henceforth only winked its evil, green-eyed, error message every time I attempted to fix it with my frantic button pushing. Which I am sure totally improved the situation. Smart as I am, I also had my tiny digital on me. I originally balked at pulling it out as I couldn’t stand losing that admiring glint from the eyes around the room that Mr. big, impressive-looking camera had been affording me. Pride lost in the end for the pure fact that I wanted at least one damn picture. Well, smart as I am… I never charged my camera so it was dead on the second shot. Pretty much one is all I got.

So this is therefore what you get… I learned nothing about Japanese wedding traditions or garb to share with you. I managed to take this picture of the woman wearing wedding kimono moments before camera number two died. My back hurt like h-e-double-hockey-sticks and I had blisters on my feet because I had forgotten to pack nylons. I called it a day as soon as I ate my lunch, had a piece of wedding cake and slushed down some painkillers with a glass a champagne for the train ride home.

The end.

Monday, February 19

The Beauty of a Caring Gesture

The kindness of the Japanese has not been lost on me. Sunday morning, there came the ding-dong of our doorbell. At our front door stood our neighbor with a huge bouquet of spring flowers picked from her newly blossoming trees. The purpose of her visit, she stated, was to make sure that everything was okay with us and that her family had not offended us in any way. Huh?

It seems that our neighbors had noticed that we had closed the windows on the side of our house that they live on. You see, in Japan, there are these metal doors that pull closed over your windows. Their purpose is, of course, security but also in the case of bad weather and typhoon high winds, the metal doors will protect the glass. We have two large sliding glass doors on their side of our house both with these pull down doors.

As temperatures had plummeted, I had added to the list of usefulness for those doors the fact that they blocked out the persistent cold drafts. Our neighbor could not understand this reason at first and asked me if it was not indeed very dark in my house. I had completely forgotten that to live in a bright house with the whitest of walls, many windows and the sheerest of curtains is a blessing in Japan. Of course, I have taken every step possible to block out that brightness - particularly in the bedrooms. I explained that it was darker, yes, but I was more concerned with the fact that it now stays warmer downstairs. She looked mystified at this reasoning but seemed to warily accept it and held out her offering of blooms.

I find it amazing that our neighbor took the time to come to us and make sure that it all was copasetic between us. In fact, now I am the mystified one. It is a welcome change though from past neighbors who would only turn the music up louder when kindly asked to turn it down. My Japanese neighbor has reminded me just how wonderful and caring these people are. People who live in such closeness that they will go out of their way to make sure those around them are not put out in any way. Just another reminder of all that I can learn from the Japanese lifestyle.

And the beautiful new arrangement created thanks to the bounty of my neighbor’s garden was a nice little plus.

Thursday, February 15

Oh, Yeah… Happy Valentine’s Day… Japanese Style!

Although being here in Japan, the celebration is just not as fun as back in the States. Back home, it is all about sending big bouquets of flowers to your love as well as boxes of delicious chocolates. If you are extra lucky perhaps some fancy trinket of affection. And this is mainly just handed over to the women!

Here in Japan, the story is quite different. In the land of the rising sun, only the women give presents to men. The history is two fold. First, Japanese women had been shy in expressing their love for people in the past. From what I hear, this has changed quite a bit. The second part is that chocolate companies in Japan (producing some of the best chocolate I have ever had, I might add) used the holiday to boost their sales. How very romantic.

Even less romantic is the fact that Japanese women are not only obligated to give a gift to just their love, but also to all male colleagues, friends and even bosses. So a gift for Valentines given by a woman can either be a romantic gesture, a sign of friendship or merely an obligation showing their gratitude for making sure a paycheck is handed to them every other week. Really obliterating the romance of the holiday, aren’t they?

I don’t know about you, but I certainly never want to feel duty-bound to such a trivial holiday. KH and I have never been big on this holiday and usually just enjoyed a nice dinner. Once, the year after we married, he bought me flowers that mimicked my bridal bouquet… a most touching gesture. However, these were black magic roses which cost a fortune any other time of the year. I truly appreciated the thought and the gesture but told him there was no need for that on the days that they quadrupled the prices. Don’t worry… I am not so crass as to tell him that day. It was a few weeks later. And he was grateful.

The gifts given in Japan are generally of the chocolate variety although I hear that they can be more expensive even to the extent of things like IPods. There is one more part to the Japanese Valentine’s... men are supposed to return the gifts to the women on White Day, March 14th. However, a friend here buys the compulsory chocolates every year for her male coworkers and mentioned that she often gets nothing in return. Lazy men.

Well, I did do my part. Unfortunately, Kimono Hubby has been away in Tokyo for a conference since the beginning of the week so I gave him his gift early. I won’t go into it, but I put a ton of thought and romance into it and then spent another hour designing the box and wrapping it up. It wasn’t about expense. It was about showing love like the holiday should. On Valentine’s Day, I joined Kimono Hubby in Tokyo for dinner out at a favorite Indian place of ours. There, I surprised him with one more gift I happened to run across while shopping in the city that very day… Japanese porcelain cufflinks with intricate, green dragons on them. He of course asked why I spent more than usual this year and I knew it was time to fess up. That very day while I was shopping in the trendy parts of the city, I came across a Dooney & Bourke tote that cost more than I have ever spent on one purse. I succumbed… and bought it. I wasn’t being frivolous. I had looked for something like this for years and unfortunately (and fortunately) I found it at a cost that was more than I would normally shell out for an item. As I was handing over the money though, I had one very important thought – “I’m just showing me that I kind of like being me.” I consider it, therefore, an obligatory chocolate to myself. Yum!

Saturday, February 10

Ice, Ice Baby

Now that we are home and all snug back in our warm and big bed, I can say that I appreciated the snow and ice that fell on us during the 58th Sapporo Snow Festival. The day that we arrived, it was a constant mix of icy rain and wet snow. It didn’t stop us from taking in a single thing.

The first stop on our tour of the northern most island of Japan, called Hokkaido, was the city Otaru. Otaru is home of blown glass and music boxes. In the section we toured, the city exuded the antiquity of Japan. We watched glass blowers at work and couldn’t resist the most perfect wine glasses we had ever seen in one of the glass shops that lined the slushy streets. Chocolate is also a big thing in the north and they can certainly deliver. Just one tiny sample sent KH and I rushing for our own box to take home. It never made it home as we finished it off the next night but it was the thought that counts.

The north is known for seafood. You would not believe the size of these sea creatures either. I seriously hid behind KH at several places where live crabs, larger than six of our Maryland crabs strung together, threatened to grab and eat me.

After Otaru, our tour guide brought us to Sapporo to check in to our hotel. We had been warned about the size of the rooms but seriously? Only one person could stand at a time. There were two twin beds and a TV that only played Japanese shows or really, really old black and white American movies. We would turn it on only for background noise. I hear that this was even a good sized room. If we ever get one of those smaller rooms, I think we will have to forego bringing any luggage.

We were only in the room long enough to change clothes and head to the Kirin Beer Garden. This was a wonderful place filled with plates of all you can eat beef, lamb, squid, scallops, shrimp and salmon. Oh, and not to be forgotten, the all you can drink chuhi and beer. We did our job on all accounts. Even doing it so well that our table neighbors continued to up the ante with their own drunken calls for more drinks before we could finish even half of those in front of us. After being almost forced from our seats and onto the streets, we missed making it back to the bus and headed for Susukino instead where the bars and the nightlife were aplenty.

Waking on day two was easier than we had anticipated after our night of fun, much to our happiness. The hotel had a buffet style breakfast which we eagerly headed for only to find that it was not quite what we were expecting. There was also a Japanese style breakfast on another floor which is why we were so thrown off by the buffet. They had scrambled eggs but they were only half cooked. They had bacon but it was just shy of being totally raw. They had bread for toast but it was made with green tea. They had fruit and yogurt but the yogurt will never pass these lips again. They had oatmeal but they mixed it with rice and forgot that sugar existed. For the two days we were there, we pretty much opted for the salad bar that had lettuce, corn, shredded carrots and some tomatoes. We tried some of the other Japanese hot dishes but I just cannot get adventurous when it comes to breakfast foods. We just ate early lunches to counter our grumbling stomachs.

Heading out on day two, we had the whole day free to explore Sapporo and the 58th Snow Festival. What a great and perfect day it was. The snow would fall intermittently on us, sticking to the snow sculptures and making them even more a thing of beauty. We wandered aimlessly for hours taking in the snowy play land that Sapporo had created. We stopped to get some of the crab in a shell at one of the booths and it reminded me of the crabs from back home. Most of the snow sculptures are focused in an area called Odori Park. Twelve blocks of park we strolled to see everything there was to offer. Once we had covered this area, we headed to the second site in Susukino. There we found all of the ice sculptures, some even still in the construction stage. We stopped to warm up and dry off in a Japanese beer hall and filled up on tonkatsu and ramen. Ramen is the choice meal on a cold day. And it totally isn’t your Instant Ramen variety pack that you can buy at Costco back home for three bucks.

At the point that we left our late lunch, I was honestly still frozen solid. I could not get warm no matter how much tea and miso soup I had at lunch. The snow was coming down harder at this point, even falling sideways in the icy cold winds. KH finally broke down and found me a taxi to haul us back to the hotel. Hot cocoa from the tea shop downstairs and a nice catnap finally unfroze my fingers and toes.

Before we had left, a friend at home had put us in touch with a friend she knew in Sapporo. She kindly offered to have dinner with us that night and take us to a good spot back in Susukino. The place was truly amazing, both food and atmosphere. Our new friend made sure to order all of the best things on the menu so we could have a taste of everything. Most of it was pretty straightforward but there was one thing she suggested that KH visibly blanched from… horse. I, of course, do not have any sort of strange commitment to the animal as KH seemed to so I told her to please order it. When it arrived with the plate of raw meat meant to be cooked in the boiling pot on the table, I thought it was to be cooked in there. I asked first and I was so glad I did because it is meant to be eaten raw. Most would have turned away at this point, I think, but not one to shy away from a challenge, I took my first bite. I am not sorry to admit that horse is darn good. Melt in your mouth good even! I’d order it again, but only if KH was not sitting next to me with that look of horror on his face. That was completely spoiling the moment for me.

Filled on a variety of dishes, we headed back out onto the streets to see the ice sculptures at night in all their lit glory. When we started out towards the icy carved street, the snow was coming down on us in pretty little flakes. By the time we reached the end of the street, striding along with our new friend, flakes the size of snow balls were falling from the sky. She even had a special name for this snowball sized snow flakes although I can’t recall it now. I would have my arm up to take pictures and within thirty seconds, I would be covered like someone had rolled me up all snowman like. While beautiful, the cold wet layers that were accumulating on us, quickly wore thin our spirits. Managing to complete the walk down the street, we found the first cab we could at the end and crawled in to melt inside the poor stranger’s cab. Looking back now, I recall there were multiple ice buildings that served alcoholic beverages. I have no idea why it didn’t occur to us then to head there. Perhaps we were drying out from the night before. Nonetheless, our second day ended with beautiful luxurious blankets of snow covering the city outside our hotel window.

Our last day in Sapporo, after another lovely Japanese buffet breakfast (read: more salad for us), we headed to a second site of the Snow Festival called Sato Land. The place is meant for kids but considering I am just a bigger version, it was a definite for us to visit. We actually considered not going for a few moments when the conditions outside began reaching blizzard levels. But hoping for the best, we chanced it and had the best day of it.

Sato Land is all about playing in the snow and ice. There are giant ice slides, snow rafting and a snow maze. Our time was short there so we opted first for the snow maze. Towering walls of ice and snow and plenty of different corners were available to explore. It was just high enough that you couldn’t hear or see anything outside of the maze. The end led you to the top of a snow fortress so you could view all of Sato Land. From there, we did the snow rafting. Totally not safe but a blast. They attach an air raft to a snow mobile and pull you at high speed around an icy track. There is nothing to hold you in to the raft but yourself. Fortunately, our raft didn’t include any kids so the driver was eager to please and gave us some rather hairy turns and spins.

The icy wind on the ride had frozen our cheeks so we went in search of ramen for lunch. Always the best option to warm you up on a cold Japanese day! We were a hit at our table being some of the few gaijin around and even had people asked to take their picture with us. That will never cease to be amusing to me.

All warmed up, we headed back out doors to build our snowman. There is a contest going on and they are trying to make a new record for the number of snowmen in one place. We felt honored to do our part. Of course, this snowman making was unlike anything we have done before. They gave us four bowls of two sizes. What no rolling snow into obtuse shaped balls? One of the staff actually had to teach us how to us the bowls to make a nice, tight little snow man. We made a little sign for him and took him over to join his hundreds of other little friends. It made me cry to say goodbye to our first child that we had made together, leaving him behind in the blustery wind.

Of course, it only took a chocolate and whipped cream covered banana to ease my guilt.

Sadly, there was little left to our trip in Hokkaido. The next steps were only the bus ride to the airport and then the plane ride home. Of course, the snow had kicked again, delaying our flight as a result of the runways being closed. It felt right that it should happen though. A little extra time gazing at the only snow we saw this year definitely didn’t hurt. And neither of us were looking forward to rushing back into reality anyway. We will, however, both admit that returning home to our own big, warm bed to sleep away our wind burnt and chaffed face woes definitely had its pluses.

** There are a few pictures included with the post but most I accidentally deleted before blogging them. Just wasn’t thinking there. However, they are uploaded into the Flickr link of the sidebar. Hundreds of them! Have at it over there.

Sunday, February 4

This Can't Be Legal

Driving down Route 16 on the way to take my last final, I saw this...
Fumbling for my camera, I slowed down and managed to catch a quick shot of this truck before I quickly sped away out of a pure fear from the likely probability of a combustive reaction.

That is indeed an open stove in the back of his truck WITH a lit fire. Completing the picture was the smoke that billowed out of the stove pipe. This guy even thought to have fire wood at the ready to restoke the fire.

But what, pray tell, would you ever need a stove on the back of your truck for? Have the Japanese invented a new fuel source which only takes a lit flame eminating from the back of your truck? Oh, and the only one tiny side effect of putting anyone within 100 kilometers at serious risk? Seriously, how does this Japanese society consider this a safe practice considering the others who are put-put-ing along behind you? If you have an answer, please share. Because I am most certainly baffled at this one.

Saturday, February 3

Setsubun is here!

In other words… Spring is here! At least in Japan anyway. We celebrated today in a traditional Japanese way by participating in one of the Setsubun practices that greatly appealed to me – mamemaki or bean throwing.

First, let me tell you that Setsubun is all about celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring. For Japan, this day is celebrated on February 3rd. On this special day, it is thought to be a time to chase out the devil and bring in good luck for the year. To do this, the male head of the household accepts the role of the devil by donning a Oni’s (devil’s) mask which is meant for the children but we did it in our house because I am a big kid and simply could not resist. The mask I purchased with the bag of the beans for 100 yen (84.7 cents at that day’s exchange rate) at a local mini market. I’m sure you can guess who was not overjoyed with the idea of this mask business but he did it anyway to keep me pleased. Kimono Hubby headed out through each door in the house and I had the pleasure of throwing beans at him while chanting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” which roughly translates to “Devils out! Luck in!” The whole ceremony is symbolic of purifying the house for the year.

The beans are pan-heated soybeans of which you are supposed pick up and to eat the number that correlates to your age plus one… for good luck of course. The beans… meh. But I ate them because I’ll do anything that seems remotely superstitious. Am crazy that way. Kimono Hubby had his share too. All I can say is thank goodness we only have to eat them once a year.

The date of Setsubun is astronomically derived and coincides with the Lunar calendar. This year’s lunar New Year is on February 18th. Historically, the dates are sometimes closer which has leant to the meaning that Setsubun is part of the Lunar New Year. So we technically get two New Year’s in Japan. Setsubun rituals are also performed at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, just as rituals occur at them on the actual New Year’s. They are completely different of course but I think this bean throwing business ridding a home of evil spirits was tons more fun than watching the bell banging to rid one of their egos. It could just be that I got to throw things at Kimono Hubby and he had to stand there and take it like the Devil he is.

Whatever it was, Spring is here and our home is purged of its evil. At least for a day or two.

Friday, February 2

I'm A Survivor

Finals are over. Amen.

After a pep talk from a friend, I am no longer crying about nor stressing over getting the quintessential “A.” It would be sincerely nice, but at this point… if it didn’t happen… oh well. The end.

I did get to do one fun thing this week that I meant to tell you about. I met the Princess of Japan! Okay, I lie. I didn’t meet her but she was indeed in the same room as little ole me. Tuesday, I went to the Ikebana International Tokyo Chapter meeting with a friend. The event included an Ikebana demonstration by Kosen Naruse, Head Master of Chiko School, and Kobai Naruse, Grand Master of Chiko, but the bonus was that royalty indeed shared the room with me. Sadly, I never got close enough to shake her hand or give her a couple of hundred bows. She was ushered into the room after everyone was already in. We were instructed to stand and clap for her. There was no movement toward her table whatsoever. Possibly it was the fear that you would be considered an assassin and taken out in bloody fashion right in the middle of the floral demonstration. Or perhaps I have been reading one too many history books and the Japanese simply don’t like to get drool on the Princess’s pretty dress. She was ushered out of the room in the same fashion that she had entered. There were also about fifteen ambassadors wives there representing the likes of Kuwait, Thailand, Democratic Republic of Congo, Saudi Arabia and many others of which I forget because I forgot to take any notes that day. Anyway, that was my big experience of the week. Whoa.

All the fun starts here though! There is a special little holiday tomorrow which I will refrain from discussing until then, when I can include pictures of a masked man we all know.