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Monday, February 25

When you build a Great Wall around you

I did not wind up in a Chinese prison, but I did end up with my second horrendous cold. KH seems to think it started just after our farm visit where we petted all those chickens. I think I never got rid of my first bout of illness and just caught another cold on top of it. I wouldn’t have minded being sick so much if it wasn’t for the fact that I remained nauseous throughout our trip, augmented by the weird and disgusting array of bugs and creature meats considered edible in China.

We arrived in Beijing late in the evening on Thursday. First impressions… it is filled with profuse smog and malodorous fumes. The buildings were strangely and utterly dark for an evening on a work week. Either they must have been more of a fa├žade created to show the world a growing and great China or perhaps the law states that electric isn’t to be wasted in off hours. Either way… this really was a bit odd. Random fireworks pierced the night air for seemingly no particular reason. As we made our way into the city and our hotel about an hour from the airport, our cab driver showed us that he had no idea where he was to drive us. The address written in Chinese apparently meant nothing to him. Without any English skills, and we without any Chinese skills, he kept motioning for us to call the hotel… like we had a cell phone that we could use there or even speak in Chinese once we got through. Why he ever took our patronage is still beyond me. As he circled the area of the city he guessed we might be staying, I thankfully did spot the hotel’s name on a long green awning.

Friday morning we trekked out to the Forbidden City, which turned out to be a bit further than we expected in the icy winter air. Beijing was not blanketed in snow as much of the news had led us to believe all of China was, but frigid temps were securely blanketing the city. Passing by the popular image of Mao hanging on the outer wall of the City, we were shuffled in with a huge Chinese crowd. As much as I stand out in Japan, it was worse in China. The Japanese are notorious for the formulation of a polite stare out of the corner of their eyes; the Chinese would openly gape. One crowd approached us and asked for our picture. Turns out that one by one, they stood in between KH and I, even waving a Chinese flag under their big grins. When those pictures hit the internet, I pray that my country understands that it does indeed have my loyalty. After a quick breakfast made up of some strange muffins and a warm and flat version of Coke, we worked our way deeper into the complex.

Moving through the complex, the immensity of the Forbidden City is fully realized. We had rented English earphone sets that directed you through it, but halfway through the tour, our bodies were weary from the chills and mine from illness. We called an end to it and began the long walk back to the front of the complex. To express what this place is like if hard for me. Historically, it holds so much interest and fascination for me. Visually, I honestly thought it was a bit… underwhelming. The buildings are obviously beautiful with their bold red walls enhanced by elaborate blue, green and gold painting. One of the largest and most widely recognized structures in the complex is getting a facelift so netting obscured everything but its peaks from our view. Yet, so many buildings seemed to need care, either by cleaning or repairing pealing sections of paint. The moat that ran through the center actually had trash frozen into the ice that covered it. For all of the glory of this place, there is much more than can be done to preserve this ancient and amazing locale.

In our touring, we actually ran into people we knew… an oddity if there ever was one in a country as immense and populated as China. On the plane from Tokyo, we had met a couple that was going to China to adopt a son named Micah. Shock registered on both of our faces to see the other couple again in our foreign travels. They were to fill out the paperwork and meet their son in two days time… I pray all went well for them.

Leaving the main gate of the Forbidden City puts you directly across the street from Tiananmen Square. Since this is a major road with perhaps eight lanes, the only way across is to take the exhausting multitude of steps down and up underneath the road. While there isn’t much to see in this square beyond the National Flag and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, its flat starkness would certainly have been remarkable when filled with protestors and tanks in the events of 1989. I must be honest and tell you that the cold and my lethargy had worn me down so much at this point that all I could think about was finding a point along the massive highway where a cab would pick me up and take me toward warmth and a late lunch.

As I have mentioned before, I have come to realize that real Chinese food is just not appealing to my palate. With my recent stomach woes, this was even less likely to change. Every meal of our trip was centered around what smells didn’t make my stomach do flips. Perhaps this was not a good time to travel in a foreign country, but with nonrefundable tickets, you do what you gotta’ do. Lunch… a generic (but good!... and also very orange) Thai restaurant at the mall across from our hotel. After lunch was consumed, the seat underneath me radiated the coldness of my lower cheeks, a clear indication that I had not yet warmed from our earlier explorations. This gave me a perfect excuse to score some nap time and fight off the ills that gripped me. Only later did I find out that what I should have been doing was checking our itinerary. Man, I screwed it up on more than one occasion.

That evening, we were supposed to go to see the Legend of Kung Fu show. The tickets had been purchased prior to the trip, which were now secured in my purse. Only after we got dressed up for the evening did KH come to unhappily discover that I wasn not in possession of tickets but vouchers, with which I was supposed to call 24 hours in advance to secure the real deal. At the desk downstairs, neither the hotel staff (which never once smiled or said thank you in the expected hospitable-hotel way… this wasn’t our only experience with unsmiling, though never rude, service… China does not exactly have hospitality down yet) nor the travel service responsible for getting the tickets could do anything to salvage the night’s plans. All was secured for the next night, but now we were left on our own to formulate a new plan. As it was too early for dinner, we decided to check out the Silk Market.

What I was expecting in this market is certainly not what I got. When I hear the words ‘market,’ I think of vendors lined up in some old warehouse structure. I guess I am way too ‘Pennsyltuckian’ sometimes, because this place shocked me with its seven plus basement floors enclosed in concrete, glass and steel. The minute you enter and begin the walk down one row after another, you are confronted with the few words the Chinese have learned… “pretty lady, you want Armani shirt? You want Coach purse? You want silk robe? You want? You WANT… holy hell… YOU WANT?” At every single booth, they tried to drag you in and then trap you inside in order to make you buy something. There was no ‘just looking’! If you looked, they latched. For those that know me, I do not like to be touched by people I don’t know. So I definitely didn’t care for the many people who clung to my arm, almost hurting me with digging their fingers in, as they tried to keep me trapped in their little store until I caved and bought something. And if this confrontational approach didn’t unnerve me enough, they are expert hagglers… unlike anything I have ever seen in the nations I have past traveled. The rate was about $1 American dollar to 7.20 yuan and I had a terrible time converting this in the quick fashion that was necessary to be a good haggler. While I may seem to make a lot of snap decisions, when it comes to spending money, I do actually fret over cost a lot. In this kind of environment, there was just no ‘mulling it over.’ In the end, there was a lot more I wanted to buy, but I really just couldn’t deal with the stress of it. I’d rather have nothing that put myself through that. What I did want, I begged Kimono Hubby for his help in making the purchase. He turned out to be a pro at this sort of shopping! But he was often frustrated with my inability to bargain or to give him a fair price with which to aim for. The one deal I thought I got… turned out to not be a deal at all. Broken and tired, I just quit shopping. I do believe my health had a lot to do with my downtrodden state. This was one of many instances where I wished I could do more, but the mere effort forced tears into the corners of my eyes.

Trying to get a cab outside, the intrusions of goods being thrust at us continued until we scored a ride to the restaurant we had chosen for trying Beijing’s specialty… the Peking Duck. At a restaurant of elegance and beauty, we waited 45 minutes while they roasted a duck for us and then brought it out to carve at the table. A spinning wheel of condiments was presented and with a little direction from the server, we tried three major parts of the duck… the skin which is dipped in salt or a jelly-like sauce and melts in your mouth like cotton candy, and then two deeper sections which are wrapped into a tortilla-like shell and vegetables and sauces put on top of that. I should also mention that drinks had to be consumed without ice as we were implicitly warned of the dangers of the water in China. We had forgotten at the restaurant earlier and decided the best way to get buy was to down the drink before the ice melted into it, but for all future restaurants, we were extremely cautious. No ice made for some extremely strong cocktails, which often would play unhappily on my fickle stomach. Back to the duck… we had chosen a restaurant where we thought the head would not be served. In the words of the teenager inside of KH, “that is just so damn gross.” What only made him further disturbed was when they cut the head in half and laid it on the plate next to the other duck bits, where I picked up have and proceeded to scoop out the brain with my chopsticks. Don’t ‘eww’ me… it’s supposed to be good luck! The face meet was harder to get at since it stuck to the inside of the skull, but I tried. While this may have you reeling in revolt at me, it was actually one of the more normal things offered for consumption in China.

The next day we awoke early to begin the trip to the Great Wall. Thanks to a few recommendations received before we left Japan, we had already chosen to head to Mutianyu, one of the highest and less populated places to visit the Wall. A driver took us there and back for 700 yuan ($97) and we followed the words of advice of not paying him until he delivered us safely back to our hotel. The drive there took us far out of the city and into a very mountainous section of the area. A cable car got us most of the way up to the Wall and a short walk up a steep incline got us the rest of the way. Going on the weekend like we did risked the fact that we might be sharing the wall with hundreds of other people. We were so lucky to only discover about twenty people touring the area with us, often at such distances that they didn’t show up in pictures. There really isn’t much to do at this point, but hike and marvel… and hike and marvel we did. Like when we stopped to stare out at the lofty mountains and high ridges incensed in every direction and think about how incensed marauders would have felt coming upon this structure while under fire and surely fighting exhaustion. Just hauling ourselves up and down the heights of the wall against icy blasts was enough to wear us down. After taking in as much of the vista as we were willing to walk, we headed back down. Only at the bottom did we discover the toboggan our aforementioned friends had informed us of. Certainly the Chinese have proven that a bit of money-scheming thoughts have crossed their minds with the inclusion of this little product at such a treasure as the Great Wall. For only 40 yuan, you catch another cable car that brings you back up to another peak of the Great Wall, passing over an immense luge below. From the top, you hop on a luge and skid yourself back down the mountain. While you are not supposed to stop because you may hit the person in front of you, I did stop more than once. But for a good reason and it wasn’t crowded behind me… apart from KH. The woman in front of me was seriously frightened and held on to the brake for life (causing me to come within inches of cracking into her backside at one point), totally taking the fun out of it for people like me that wildly ignored the obvious shouts in Chinese of slow down from the lone Chinese man of safety standing along the lengthy luge. When he wasn’t watching, I would stop and let her get far ahead, then push myself going again in a way that ensured I would hit each turn hard enough to slid up to the upper edges of the track. With no safety devices limiting my fun and chicken lady far enough ahead, the luge was all sorts of entertaining.

Wheedling our way through more confrontational vendors (including one old lady that got pretty mad at us when we wouldn’t spend more for a magnet… something about rich American jerks…), we ate at the lone place for doing so – a truly Chinese noodle and dumpling establishment. The interior of the restaurant did little to warm us, but the steaming noodles and mystery meat dumplings did. The ride back to the city was made more pleasant by the sun warming the inside of the car and thoughts of the evening ahead to keep up the excitement.

We had time for dinner before we were to head out again. Still begging away from Chinese, we opted for Sizzler. It was a second choice and not so good. No wonder it isn’t a strong seller in the states. We should have opted for one of the seven KFC’s that were in a one block radius of our hotel. The Chinese really love them some KFC! Those places are literally on every block. I digress… the most remarkable thing about the meal was being handed back a 100 yuan bill. I had tried to use it earlier to buy something at an Olympics store and it had been handed back to me with the same dour look on the cashier’s face as had been there when we first approached her to pay. No explanation why she wouldn’t take the bill, but without any slight movement towards softening in her demeanor, I just put it away without thinking about it. The server at Sizzler was a bit nicer. She at least got out the words ‘not real.’ Do you know what this means? I was trying to use a counterfeit bill in China! If ever a chance to arrest me… there had been two right within an hour of one another. My face flustered red, I hurriedly got another to pay her and then got the hell out of there. Back at the hotel room, we pulled out every bill to inspect them. Sure enough, the watermark was quite different from the others on the vile bill. Do you know where I got that bill? There was only one place this particular bill came from… the ATM at the Silk Market the night before. An ATM gave me counterfeit money, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. Sure I could try to pass it off to someone that may not check it, but I certainly wasn’t going for that third strike. The bank screwed me out of $14 bucks with that bill. And I’m still angry about that bill. Worthless souvenir.

Moving past our cash woes, this night we did get to see the Legend of Kung Fu. An English speaking guide named Mandy picked us up with a driver and took us to the Red Theater, even taking us into the theater and directly to our seats. She was the first and only person who displayed what we except from hospitality services. Should you ever get to Beijing, go see this show! It is a blend of kung fu, acrobatics, music, dance and history… and it is truly beautiful. Our third row seats put us in line with the stage, a great place to be apart from one scene where thick misty clouds rolled off the stage and obscured everything, but the very peak of our heads. Everyone one around us felt the same discomfort as we uncomfortably absorbed in the perfumed mist through both nose and eyes and tried to still see what was going on during the scene in front of us.

Our last day lacked any sort of plan from start to finish. This vacation was unlike any we have ever gone on before in this respect as I usually plan down to the minute detail. But for this, well… I just wasn’t up for doing that. So on our last day, we just went were our thoughts and our feet guided us. A cab took us to the Temple of Heaven, which ended up to be the perfect place for a Sunday in Beijing. The park complex turns into something like a community center where everyone in Beijing comes out for the fun. People lined walkways playing cards, dominoes and Chinese checkers, joining in impromptu songs, playing bizarre musical instruments and kicking hacky sacks (even a many granny-looking types!) Other groups performed various dances, twirled streamers, jumped rope, played badminton and played a synchronized paddle ball game… I think it was called tachi… to music streaming from an old juke box. Every where you went, music and song filled the air with anyone welcome to join in. The scene there was truly heartening with a wonderful feeling of kinship radiating from the crowd. We checked out all the major stops inside the Temple of Heaven grounds and even tried to talk to each other from opposite ends of the Echo Wall. Apparently, one person should be able to talk to another on the opposite side of the long circular wall. As there were so many people, we raised our voices a little higher like everyone else to try to talk to one another. So we would know it was us speaking, we chose words to call out that we would recognize. Before we left, remember how I mentioned that you are not supposed to talk about “Communist China”? To get around this, we called communism gummy bears. And to talk about instances of propaganda, we used the word pancakes. These were the very words we chose to call out. I belted ‘pancake’ out several times, but never heard a response. After some time, we both gave up and met in the middle, only for me to find out that my other half never yelled out his code words. Which makes me look like the lone fool for yelling about breakfast food… hopefully no one understood. Although I did get a few looks.

After leaving the temple grounds, we headed over to the major hutong area in Beijing. Hutongs are the old housing structures that are built with high walls enclosing many homes and a courtyard in the middle. These structures are being torn down at an alarming rate to make way for the many new skyscrapers Beijing has built thanks to the upcoming Olympics and an improved economy. Unfortunately, tearing them down loses some of the beautiful history. This area is one being preserved with many of the places being turned into restaurants and bars. We had a surprisingly wonderful Chinese lunch at one such place and then found another bar that made for a great place to sit on comfy couches and stair out the windows at the people who stared back at us. We filled up on watermelon seeds and drinks while we soaked in yet another foreign country. Fearing we were melting forever into our safe warm haven, it was time to move on. We walked and walked and then walked some more. We passed different sections of hutongs. We passed large streets where we tried one snack that looked like a twisty doughnut, but almost broke our canines out of our surprised mouths. A plan emerged that we were heading towards Wangfujing Street, known for shopping and an intriguing market. It became painfully obvious that it was not as close as once assumed by KH, so a cab was quickly employed before I collapsed on the street. Wangfujing is a very modern street aside from an old market hidden off to its side. There, we found all of the creatures on sticks that we had heard about – snake, locusts (or something like it), scorpions… you could chose your passion. I typically would have been more ballsy, but with my still fickle stomach, I just wasn’t chancing an oddball dinner of the likes. The mall offered many cuisines, including yet another Thai restaurant we were sure to love and also wouldn’t have to worry about what it really was.

China. There was a lot of horn blowing. There was a lot of spitting. There was a lot of smell. But there was also a lot of culture. A lot of beauty. A lot of exoticness. A lot I will hold in my mind of precious memories.

China. I wouldn’t say it was ready for the Olympics, but I would say I was ready for it.

Wednesday, February 13

I Think It Was The Bird Flu

In this space should be some grand story about my latest expeditions in Tokyo. I spent hours and hours on Sunday meticulously packing for a few days of shopping, dining and spa visits in the city followed by a trip to China not long afterwards. Unfortunately, somewhere in the wee hours of Monday, I came down with the flu. Desperate to still go, I did everything I could throughout the day to rid myself of at least the fever, so I could drag my ass through the seven minute walk to the train. I never made it. In the end, it was a sensible decision not to screw with the China trip, which obviously requires way more planning than a few days in a city just north of me.

So for the past three days, I have instead laid in my bed studying Beijing guides that have helped me plan out every detail of the trip ahead, including cramming down tips like… no tipping, no touching, no spitting and no frivolous comments about Communism. The last will by far be the hardest for me, not because of an excessive distaste of the ideology, but more my own curiosity popping out where it isn’t wanted or appreciated. In fact… just to be on the safe side… if you don’t hear from me for a few weeks, perhaps someone could call the American Consulate and have them check the local holding facilities? When I was eighteen and making my singular first trip out of the country, my parents were quite forthcoming to note that if I ended up in a Mexican jail, they would not be coming for me any time soon. Since that was on the same continent, I’m pretty sure the delays for help from them would be a bit greater now, given the distance of halfway around the globe. The nameless, faceless internet may be my only hope. I kid, Mom! I promise to behave!

Since I still cannot sit up straight for more than a handful of minutes, I’m heading back to bed, armed with a bit more research to peruse on where to find the best of the famed Peking Duck… but, you know… the one served without the head.

Sunday, February 10

A Blue and White Weekend

Thanks to a class I had taken in the recent past, I my curiosity for seeing a performance by Blue Man Group was at a peak. Not long after the class came to a close, did I run across an announcement for the group to start performing in a new arena specially built for them in Tokyo. We chose a weekend show where were could simultaneously plan some birthday fun in Tokyo with the friends who were joining us.

Pregaming events began in our friend’s hotel room complete with many of those tiny airline-size bottles of alcohol, purchased from the conbini (convenience store) at the hotel. By the time the taxi dropped the four of us off in front of the theater, we were adequately wound up on both the excitement and the fluids. The new theater is this giant blue box hidden behind some of the more modern buildings in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. As you pass the first buildings, the sheer color and size of the building are the first thing to confront the senses. Inside, flat screens blare colorific scenes and sounds at every turn of the eye. A few more Moscow mules (an immensely popular drink here in Japan found on every drink menu… and one I had never heard of prior to living here), of which we were not allowed to bring in to the theater as we had originally thought (read: we were kicked out because of the concoctions in our hands), and we settled in for one of the best shows I have ever seen.

To me, Blue Man Group is art. To Kimono Hubby, they are comedy. To everyone, they are music. It is with a perfect blend that all three of these things are true. The only person in our foursome that had seen them before stateside was KH. His take is that they are still just as entertaining when seeing them in a foreign language. While I haven’t seen them before, I do not think the message of the art was lost in the Japanese that we didn’t understand. But I do think that perhaps my in depth study of the group gave me a lot of insight that perpetrated my complete understanding. My wish is to see them again sometime in English to know for sure.

After the show, the blue men were hanging out in the lobby to greet the patrons. While heading to the bathroom, we passed one in which our friend spoke to him in English to tell him how good the show was. The way the Blue Man whipped around… we’re pretty sure that he was shocked and happy to hear something he understood. Of course, they don’t talk so we will never know for sure, will we?

As this was a birthday weekend, the fun was not over there. Wandering not too far through Roppongi, we had dinner at a fabulous Indian restaurant, topped with a homemade cake by some other friends that joined us after the show. She had hauled that cake for an hour and a half on the train. That’s one darn good friend! After dinner, the plans were to find a good bar to go to. I realize that in Tokyo, and particularly in the Roppongi area, there are thousands of choices that emulate traditions from all over the globe. Is it okay to admit that I was glad we opted for the Irish pub and then an English pub as the first was just too crowded? Of course, sitting at our table in the English pub, you realize that these global ‘labels’ mean little. We are in a tightly-packed swarm of Japanese people and on either side, our group came to quickly understand the term chain-smoker. For real… at the table crammed against ours to the left, the girls chain smoked their way through a pack in less than an hour. As soon as one was out, they directly lit another. I have never seen anything like it! On the right side, that group wasn’t much better. Our group, having nary a smoker in the midst, to say that we were dying as the smoke rings formed a cloud in the middle of the table that was hard to see through to our friends on the other side was not an exaggeration. It wasn’t long before we called it a night… at least out… and headed back to the hotel bar, where the drinks are cheaper and there was not a single smoker to be found. Of course, we all smelled like two-packers a day by then, so nothing changed much for our breathing until we called it a night to head to a shower.

The next day, we awoke to an oddity in Tokyo… SNOW! And not just a little flurrying! This stuff was coming down and the streets were becoming quite covered. It does snow on occasion in Tokyo and the area we live about an hour south, but it doesn’t happen all that often. If it does, it’s more of the tiny flurries that never actually do anything to the ground except melt on it. We went down to check out of our rooms before we had brunch and then headed home, only to find out as we were checking out that the highways had been closed down. Now, first… we never drive to this hotel or to the city at all for that matter. But my last minute decision the day before had us with a car in Tokyo because I really wanted to see what it looked like in that area of the city… something which is impossible with the underground train network (of which was also closed or slowed in spots because of the snow). Here were are in the city, with no way to get home, but local roads, of which we certainly do not have the vaguest idea how to take and it was apparent that the highways might be shut down for days (they actually were crazily enough… if only people had kept driving on them, they would never have gotten bad. But since there are apparently no plows and people are likely to just stop their car in the middle of the highway and leave it to walk the rest of the way home, the highway commission shut those roads down quickly). The Japanese were quite uncertain what to do because snow is such a novelty to them. You simply hide out at home when it happens. Coming from northeast stateside, this was ridiculous. We actually overheard the desk ladies tell another newly arrived group of tourists, who were asking for directions to see a nice nearby shrine, that is was a horrible day to go see a shrine. Because of the snow! Doesn’t that make it more beautiful?? The recommended the group to stay in and do nothing. Only after the group’s looks turned absolutely bamboozled did the ladies relent and point them in a direction. When we approached them for directions to take the secondary roads to get home, they seemed quite flustered that we were willing to try it. They again relented and gave us directions that got us about five blocks away before we were left on our own for the rest of the ride. We made it. But it was an increasingly hilarious trip home.

As we maneuvered our way south, we passed cars, vans and even buses with chains on their tires. Did I mention that there was no snow on the streets? The sides were no one drove were quite slushy, but as for snow on the roads… we only came across one patch in the entire drive home. Those chains? They actually do the car and the street more damage than they actually helped those that used them. Shovels are also apparently nonexistent in this area. People were scraping the sidewalks with pieces of wood or digging shovels. One lady used a tiny broom no wider than her own hand to sweep the wet snow away. At a gas station, a man used another tiny broom to clean the slush out of the gutters and into the street. Did you get that? From the gutters… into the street. WHY??? The brave souls who had made their way out of their houses refused to walk on the snowy sidewalks. Their presence in the streets, made it like driving through a landmine where you swerve every few feet. Driving like this certainly doubled not only the time, but also the mileage home. Often as we passed, the slush would splash up and soak one of the street walkers. The look of disgust on their faces was priceless! We weren’t aiming to do that, but it sure was funny each and every time it happened. We finally made it home, dropping our friends off along the way. At least one or two families had taken advantage of the freak snow. My favorite being the people who made a prominently boobed snowman up against the wall of their house.

The snow took several days to fade, another shocking thing. Highways were closed until the next mid-morning. And since then, we have had one more weather report that called for snow… of course… it never came. And it hope for the sake of the Japanese, it just doesn’t… at least not until a few buy proper shovels.

Saturday, February 9

Saving Graces

For all the mistakes I made on Friday, it still turned out to be an amazing day. The day’s plan was simple… meet up with a Japanese friend at my local train station where she would drive me to my first Ikebana class in the Kozan-ryu School and then we would all go to lunch afterwards. Simple, right? Well for me, it just never is.

The meeting time had been set for “10 of 10.” Perhaps I have never quite gotten the hang of this “of” stuff, but my interpretation of this was that my friend meant 9:50. In my usual way (as inherited by a perpetually late mother whom I totally blame), I left my house with little time to spare, through no fault but my own. I had spent my morning dilly-dallying around organizing things that I had left sitting out for months. Why did it start bothering me now that I chose this day to do something about it? Who knows except to say that is my way. In my head, I kept telling myself to finish getting ready and then do this little stuff afterwards. But even I can’t make me listen to myself. It takes seven minutes to walk to the train station. Because of my morning piddlying, I had left myself with exactly ten minutes to make a last stop at the bathroom, eat breakfast, get dressed, do my hair AND walk to the train station. Shockingly, I arrived only two minutes late at 9:52, which totally should be a record. Of course, I forgot to mention that I had made the plans so many weeks ago that I was no longer sure which train station I was to meet at… Shin Zushi or Zushi? And if it was Shin Zushi, was it the north side or the south side? And in my haste, I had left my friend’s number at home. After checking both sides of Shin Zushi, I decided to hightail it to Zushi Station further up the street. Now, if this was the spot and I was incorrect in my first stop, then I now was very late, bordering on 10:00. In the Japanese world of punctuality… this is totally not acceptable behavior. I was fretting. While walking, I rang three different people whom I did have numbers for that might have this mutual friend’s number. No one answered. That didn’t stop me from trying a second and third time to those same numbers. Doing anything was better than nothing. When I arrived at the Zushi station, still no friend. All I could think to do was walk back to my original position and hope she might still be waiting there. My panic at an all-time high, I finally managed to reach a friend who was sitting at the airport. She (god only knows how I got so lucky) happened to have the number anyway as she had a business card tucked in her wallet from our friend. As the phone rang for my pick-up, I was preparing all sorts of gommensai’s (sorry’s) in my head for being so unorganized and confused. And what does my friend say when she picks up the phone and without any sort of urgency or perturb? “I’m a minute away now. We’ll be right on time.” Right on time? It was 10:10. Apparently, “10 of 10” meant 10:10 to my friend. Did I get it wrong? Even now, I have no idea.

Thankfully, I had time to compose myself before she pulled up alongside the curb.

Arriving at class, I was not sure what to expect. I had stopped going to my last school mainly because I just didn’t have the time, but also because I have to admit that I avoid the military base for anything other than essential errands. At home, I have arranged for myself here and there, but I really feel that it takes some guidance to know true Ikebana. I have been looking for a sensei in the Ikenobu School without much success, but at last month’s Ikebana International program, I was introduced to this one particular sensei for the ump-teenth time. Now switching Ikebana schools is no small thing. The sensei of the new school will feel like they are stealing students from someone else and will be very hesitant to take that new student on. It is quite hard for a foreigner like myself to express that I just really want to get some skills under my belt and probably will never get the opportunity to become an expert at any school, nonetheless hers. Expert levels come after decades of study and practice. I don’t have decades in Japan. I have a year or two at max. All I want is to get down what I can. Trying not to step on anyone’s cultural toes, this new sensei agreed to teach me. Of course, this was only after she spoke to a few other people to make sure that she was not committing a faux pas in the tightly woven Ikebana world. As the discussion came to a close and sensei made her decision, I came to discover that two other Ikebana International Board members study under this sensei; one was willing to drive me there directly so I wouldn’t get lost in a strange city. Finally, the stars aligned allowing me to revive my Ikebana studies… this time around from the Kozan school.

The sensei speaks English, although not fluently. I didn’t have much knowledge of the school beyond it being a very natural school. The four other students are bustling around organizing the room and supplies and I just try hard not to get in the way, throwing in a helping hand where I think I can. Sensei comes over to get me started with the first placement, but I realize very quickly how different this is from the Kofu School I previously studied. There are no rules, people! No rules?? What am I to do with that? Sensei tells me there is only numbers… 1, 2, and 3 and they go in a triangle. Otherwise, it is all about feeling “wind” and making it natural. Umm…yeah. When it comes to trimming, the only rule provided “smaller.” I really have no idea what to do without rules. I can follow rules. But this freedom thing was killing me. I kept thinking that sensei was going to come over and shake her head and tell me to give up now. But she never did, she slowly repeated the directions and tried to show me without doing it herself. When she would walk away to work with others, I would scan the room for some guidance from other arrangements. After everyone was done, and all looked around at each others’ work while sensei made small adjustments here and there, I came to get the whole “wind” and natural thing. It won’t be easy, but I really think this school is going to be wonderful. The size of the arrangements is much larger than I’m used to, but is quite fun to create something on this larger scale. The freedom of the Kozan School combined with the vibe from the sensei and students, I have found a really good nitch for myself in the Ikebana world.

After the lesson, we were off to lunch. Upon entering the class earlier that day, I realized that I might have misinterpreted the invitation for lunch, which had come from a quick call between two people who speak little of the others language. Looking around the room, I was quite certain that the place we would be going for lunch was fancier than me and my cute jeans ensemble were expecting. I rarely leave the house in jeans here in Japan. Women just don’t dress like that here. It’s a much dressier society than back home and I love that about this place! But yesterday, I was expecting a lesson and then a bite to eat somewhere… not the lesson followed by the five-star seven-course meal I received. Yet another lesson learned the hard way… just wear a damn dress everywhere to safe yourself potential embarrassment, will ya?

Sadly, I didn’t write the name of the restaurant down… something like Kuriomaya… a steak and seafood restaurant around Chigasawa. Passing through the roofed outer entrance, we entered a lush, secluded garden. The automatic shoji screened doors slid open noiselessly to welcome you into an immense reception area where a long glass wall gave you an extraordinary view of the inner garden… a mix of immaculately trimmed pine trees and bushes where waterfalls trickled from all sides into the main pool. In this setting, it surely did not go unnoticed that the gaijin was supporting a casual denim look, but thankfully no one mentioned to magnify the mortification I already felt. I only thank God that it was lunch and not dinner where I surely would have been turned around and escorted back towards the front door.

Upon taking our seats at a table dressed in stunning Japanese lacquerware, the first of increasingly amazing courses was delivered. Each course was more artfully designed than the one before. And this isn’t referring to just the food itself. Every detail was carefully fashioned… the bite-size portions and clever cuts of the food arranged ever so specifically, the gorgeous dishes they were served on and the variety of shapes and sizes, the white paper or box wrappings tied with bright red, white and gold wire ribbons. The enjoyment of the meal was made ever so exceptional because of these details. Now, I was one for enjoying the fanciest of restaurants that cost three figures per person back in DC, but never have I seen anything like this. By far… the best meal I have ever enjoyed. It was so much more than just the food at a restaurant like this that makes the experience one for my own personal history books.

So chalking up my mistakes for the day in my head, there was one more left… not expecting this style of “lunch” (which really… does this even qualify? It should be considered an event, for crying out loud…), I was carrying a total of 5,000 yen (about $50) and was more than a little concerned that this would not be enough to cover my cost. Credit card use in Japan is not a widely employed concept. Although surely an establishment like this uses them, asking them to split my part from the check would be not only require more personal degradation, but it also would be a shameful request for a culture who doesn’t care much for the power or convenience of the plastic. Having no other choice, I was ready to suck it up and go for. As we approached the counter to pay though, yet again I was saved from further shame… the ladies from my class treated me to this wonderful experience. Every ounce of this splendid Friday was owed to my hosts for the day, who could not have made me feel more included and accepted.

And that is further proof why the Japanese people are so lovely a group of people. You simply cannot beat their grace. And I say that with the utmost of fondness followed with a superlative PERIOD.

Thursday, February 7

Shinnai at Daibutsu (Great Buddha) Den

In my continuing attempts to experience all facets of Japanese culture, It was only recently that I got to experience something truly traditional and unique to Japan – Shinnai (pronounced shin-i) Joruri Narrative Song. Explaining this in my own words would be relatively tricky since this was only my first experience of it. Instead, this is what was sent out with the invitation to the gaijin who were obviously clueless as to what this is:

Shinnai is a form of traditional narrative song ("joruri") that was very popular in the Edo Period. Its origin was contemporary with several other well-known traditional musical forms, such as tokiwazu and kiyomoto. In the shinnai genre, one person ("tayu"), accompanied by two shamisen players, narrates the story and speaks the dialogue for all the characters in the story. Tsuruga Wakasanojo, the 11th iemoto of the Tsuruga style of Shinnai, has performed widely both throughout Japan and in many foreign countries, popularizing a new style of Shinnai that is easy to understand.

Now in my own words – Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI is the headmaster of a specific school of Shinnai and a National Living Treasure. What does this mean? Well, it means that he is the “Bearer of Intangible Cultural Property” and is personally vested in making sure that the Shinnai art form is preserved and spread to many so that it will not be lost in future generations… in my mind, a very noble act. Wakasanojo sensei has written and composed many pieces, which he really has performed all over the world.

The performance I saw included a really rare treat – Tsuruga Isefani. This is the given Japanese name of an American (who has lived in Japan since 1984) eight year student of Wakasanojo, and the first non-Japanese since the origin of Shinnai in the 18th century to be given a name for her performances in this story-telling art form. I have met her many times before and call her a friend. This woman is truly gifted in many art forms including painting, of which I have wanted to join her for a class since I first met her over a year ago. Hopefully soon.

The third performer for this day’s performance was Tsuruga Isejiro, a student of Wakasanojo for twenty years and another performer for part of the piece was Tsuruga Isetsuwa, a student for three years. There was definitely some variety in skill levels, with everything blending together beautifully with a very mesmerizing effect.

The stories that are told in Shinnai are often tales of woe about love, including many stories about double suicides, due to the period of origin having an epidemic of lovers’ suicides. At that time, the man who originated and performed the narrative style of song (called bungo bushi back then) has his art form outlawed. The Japanese government had felt that the cause of the suicide epidemic was the notoriety of the incidents as expressed in bungo bushi. Like many governments trying to establish order and control, they placed laws prohibiting the music from being sung or played. So the music would not be lost, the performers gave up their professional names under bungo bushi and adopted new names in a style named after themselves. The first Tsuruga Wakasanojo was one of the followers of bungo bushi who created the Shinnai style. Since then, Shinnai has remained rather unchanged and uninfluenced from other art forms, which makes it so important to preserve for the future.

This performance was held at a private residence at the Great Buddha in a truly beautiful and authentic Japanese tatami room overlooking an immaculately kept garden. While I must admit that I was initially a bit wary of the music, I really enjoyed it in the end. The songs and the way the notes are built using voice tones, accentuated by the stringed shamisen instrument, really draws you in. Being a largely Japanese audience, the lyrics were performed all in Japanese (Wakasanojo has performed in English in the States), but the provided interpretation of the musical story and the way the songs are sung were enough to make anyone feel the emotional depth of the piece. The length of a performance is typically quite long, so only two parts were performed for this audience. Certainly I am no expert at Japanese musical culture, but this one I would definitely give high marks to. And sitting Japanese style (read: legs dying as they were scrunched up tightly underneath me) in a traditional room and listening to traditional music, I again got one of those reminders of why I am so happy to be here in Japan.

Tuesday, February 5

An Expert at Rice Balls, Curry and now adding Nabe to the list

Food in Japan has been at times a very pleasant experience and at other times something from my worst nightmares. Why, just last week Kimono Hubby was served fish head from a 100 pound tuna. Cut off from its huge body, its dead stare gazed open-mouthed up at the ceiling while steam escaped from its lifeless lips. From what was told about the dinner, one man was quite eager to dig in to the eye of the departed catch-of-the-day and happily dined on a large portion of it. This would be one of those nightmares. If I had been there and was offered the delicacy of eye bits, I would have accepted because it is the right and polite thing to do. And then I would have plastered a smile on my face and tried to swallow without chewing, wishing all the while that holding my nose was a simultaneous option.

This is one of those dishes that I just wouldn’t ever attempt to serve in my house. However, there are many other Japanese dishes that I wish I could.

I cook pretty much every night with meals out only occurring maybe once a week. Not only does it save a fortune if I plan my menus well in advance, but it also is a much healthier option. From every country I have been, I have attempted to learn how to make some of the local dishes in my own home. Yet, when it comes to Japanese food, I have had this weird adversity to making anything uniquely Japanese. Perhaps it stems from my nervousness on buying the ingredients at the local market. Most of the vegetables and the meats are not too hard to figure out, but what is hard are the hundreds of bottles that line the aisles with their intimidating kanji characters boldly splashed on the labels. After living here a year and a half, I still can only make these rice ball thing-y's (yes, that is indeed the proper name for them... would I lie to you?) and curry. Both things require little knowledge of what the package says beyond, dump it in and stir. So I was thrilled with an American friend who speaks and reads Japanese invited me over to learn how to make Nabe… a favorite Japanese winter dish.

When I arrived at her house, the ingredients were already all laid out – thinly sliced steak, cabbage, two types of mushrooms, Japanese noodles, some type of root, tofu, onion, and kimchi sauce. Of course, I can’t remember the correct name for these things now, but I can remember what they look like to buy them again and that is the key. Since I am no expert on nabe making, I am not providing specific recipes here. Plus, most of the ingredients would be tough, if not impossible, to find back in the states anyway. But should you visit me here, I promise to make you this dish in my new nabe pot… a graduation gift from my friend! (Bonus... this thing also makes sukiyaki of which my friend also kindly shared the recipe.) And should you compliment me on that meal, I will indeed tell you how very hard it was to make. How I sweated and slaved over the stove for you. And I will hope that you weren’t standing there watching me to know that all I really did was cut up a few veggies, put everything in the nabe pot, place the lid on it and cook it for a few minutes. Because then my exclamations of the grueling work involved in making this dish would just seem silly after you had seen the process.