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Thursday, April 24

How I Made My Brother Stink Like Garlic

Whenever we have friends and family visiting us, we try hard to cater the visit to exactly what they might like to see and do here in Japan. This means that we often repeat places we’ve been more than a few times before. This isn’t actually a bad thing, particularly when we are talking food and my ever ravenous stomach, which constantly craves my local favorites. It isn’t even bad to go back to the same tourist spots over and over again. For me, it is all about making the visit as special and memorable as possible for the particular person visiting.

My brother just left a few days ago. His visit was short, which I really fretted over considering my energy level of late is more diminished than it used to be. I still wanted him to see everything, but not kill myself in the process of getting everywhere in the small stretch of time allotted for his visit. Fortunately for Kimono Bro and myself, there is plenty of history in the area immediately around my Japanese hometown.

After picking him up at the airport and making the hour and a half ride home, it was dinner time. Knowing that those 24 hours of travel are a damn-near killer to even the most seasoned travelers (of which my brother is not yet part of said group), we kept it very local with lots of time spent trying to keep him moving of his own volition for the first time in the stretch of a long day. So we walked all around our little beachside town, meandering in and out of the side streets to give him a taste of life here until we reached one of our favorite dinner spots, Matchpoint Curry Bar. Why not throw my kid brother headlong into Japanese food with some of the best curry around and a side dish of raw tuna and avocado salad? For someone who is not found of curries in general, he polished off his dish neatly and even made sure to take the last bite of raw fish, another unique addition to his American palate. And let’s not forget that we ordered him a nice cold sake to wash it all down with, followed by his first Sapporo. When he agreed that it was a pleasant start to his trip, we figured we could really let loose on novel tastes during the next few days of his visit. But for this first night, he was noticeable exhausted, so after a short stop for another local beer at a tiny closet-sized bar, we brought him home to tuck him in for a good night’s rest.

By the morning, he was revived and raring to go. Again, we stayed relatively local, which is pretty easy when historic Kamakura is only one train stop away. Kimono Bro is a history buff like myself, so he is only too eager to let me pass along all my useless Japanese history knowledge jangling around in my brain to him. The warm day gave us a great time to make the walk up to the Hachiman Shrine via the Komachi-dori shopping street (where we stopped and tried bites of food from the many vendors offering samples of everything from pickled vegetables, osambe crackers and other various unrecognizables) and then back down on the paralleling main street. After staring at plastic food case after case, we choose a tonkatsu restaurant where we could both polish off one of the set meals, an easy feat for a pregnant lady and her ever hungry brother. Filled with all the regular Japanese meal usuals like miso soup, rice, pickles (of which my brother still doesn’t agree that they should be called pickles), complimented by the hot towel, we headed back to the train station to go see the ever popular Daibutsu, or Big Buddha. It doesn’t matter how many times I go there, I’m still impressed. And every time I pay the 20 yen and go inside to rub his belly. My brother used this as a perfect opportunity to try to figure out how they made such an impressive sculpture cast in 1252. His mind is always ticking and trying to figure those things out, while mine has always been so intent on just marveling in the beauty of what is in front of me. Of course, no trip to the Big Buddha can be made without a stop for sweet potato ice cream, of which I like to get it mixed with green tea ice cream… a taste that my brother feels I must have acquired in my time living here, because of his belief in its inedibility.

After this long morning and afternoon of exploring, we headed back to the house to grab the car and go meet KH for a small tour of Yokosuka base and the city, and the evening’s planned grub at our favorite yakitori stand. I insisted at dinner that Kimono Bro drink all the chu-hi that I normally would and he was only too obliging. Filled with yakiniku, quail eggs and whatever else we added to the plethora of yakitori we ordered, the lateness made us call it a night and prepared for another day of exploration.

Now, you see, my brother is not much of a traveler. He has a wife and two beautiful kids and that keeps him pretty busy with working and keeping bread on their table. They take their yearly vacations, but never has he had the chance to travel out of the country like this. And the credit should be duly passed here, that it was indeed his wife who pushed him the hardest (even manipulating him a bit) to stop him from being a husband, dad and provider for a few days and take the opportunity laid out in front of him. Pretty much everyone in our family and his wife’s family were willing to pitch in a buck or some babysitting time if only he would book the flight. I must admit that, when he did (only five days before leaving, I might add… my family is so opposite me on planning fixations), I was simultaneously shocked and thrilled. In all the time that we have lived here, I have tried not to push anyone towards making the trip. It was our choice to move here, and I never want people to feel obligated to visit… no matter what the level of the relationship is. My dad has no plans to ever come back to this side of the world (after a tour that took him to several places on this side of the world in the 60s) and I completely respect his decision, because it is his to make. Only in the privacy of my own home and with my husband have I ever stated that I would be sad if my brother didn’t come. He truly has a love of history and the world around him as much as I do, which is the only reason I felt it so important that he make the trip. Now was I ever going to tell him that? Hell no! But that fact that he finally came and I got to share this with him gave me pure glee. It was made even better by how much he truly loved every single minute of it, even remarking how he would stay if it wasn’t for a family at home. It wouldn’t surprise me if he actually made a future plan to return. But that’s way in the future.

I digress… back to his second day. My plan was to get him to the Pacific Ocean where he could put a hand or toe in (too chilly to immerse yourself at this time of year). Zushi beach would be the obvious choice, but he had already seen that. So I decided to make a trip to a place I had yet to visit, Enoshima Island. The only thing I didn’t realize about Enoshima was that it isn’t really a driving island, but entirely a walking one. That would have been fine on any other day, but we actually had more planned for the afternoon, which didn’t allot us with the time to hike over the mountain in the middle of Enoshima to see the other side. I couldn’t let that be an end to his touching the ocean, so we did find a place where we could walk down to the rocky shoreline. Here we stood looking for a good hour just staring at the sea creatures clinging to and inbetween the rocks. He got to put his hand in, while we stood debating the depth of the water there. What we had gauged at about 7 feet was proven incredibly wrong when four Japanese men and women can trundling down the stairs in scuba gear, shimmied up to the edge and then one by one jumped into the dark water, which completely submerged them. Sure they weren’t the tallest Japanese people, but that water had to have been much deeper depth than previously guessed for them to be swallowed in as they were. After watching them disappear into the depths, we walked along the walled coastline down to where fishermen lined the ending pier and giant birds swirled eerily low to our heads. Along the walkway, there was an odd sign that showed foot reflexology, followed by a path of miscellaneous sized stones and logs just beyond. Of course we could read nothing on the sign, but it was all too tempting not to take off our shoes and walk it. I made it not more than a few feet, but biting back the pain, Kimono Bro actually made it down the whole walkway. Triumphantly, he reshoed his now bruised and sore feet as we laughed our way through the first half of the day.

The next stop of the day was to Toys ‘R Us in Yokohama where he planned on checking out the oddities found there and buying a few things for his kids. I’ve been to this store many times, but the toys just never get more normal and more laughter ensued as we made our way up and down the aisles. What was particularly amusing were the children’s kitchen knives, plastered with Disney characters, that we found. Could I have only recorded our conversations about our observations, we would have had the next big Cosby comedy act in our possession.

It was getting late, so we made our way back to the house to meet up with KH for dinner. Keeping it local, we visited the Chinese-Japanese restaurant down the street that we frequent about once a week. It was time for Kimono Bro to sample so true Japanese ramen. We gave him our top two picks – garlic or mushroom, but really pushed him towards the second. The first has actually been denied further contact EVER with KH’s digestive system. There is so much garlic in this dish, that the person who dares order it will smell like garlic stank for the next three days. This is no exaggeration. Another friend went to the same place to try this lovely dish and his wife has also considered it a forever denied dish. Guess which one my darling brother opted for. As he placed the order, the waiter actually laughed at him before telling him he wouldn’t be kissing his wife for three days. KB laughed back and said she was halfway around the world. Of course, the laugh would be on him when he woke up the next morning, opened the door and that old garlic whoosh went flying though house to haunt him for the rest of the day. He would find himself brushing his teeth the next morning for triple the usual time, only for the garlic taste left in his mouth to get worse with every swipe of the brush. His heart would speed up over the next days due to its supreme squeaky cleanness.

Despite the stink that he carried home from dinner that night, he still had a perfect second day in Japan. And there still was a whole Tokyo weekend left in front of him.

Sunday, April 13

Lady of Leisure

Kimono Hubby is rather frantic these days if I look like I am overtaxing myself. It really very sweet! It means I get the couch every night to prop up my feet. I get whatever food I want… and I never have to make it for fear that I may puke in it. I get excused when he comes home and asks what I have done for the day and the singular thing was to take a long walk. If I do schedule a full day for myself of work and errands, I end up having to calm his fears that I am overdoing it. It is truly touching how he has been taking extra special care of me.

The only problem with this extra care is that it has rubbed off to my friends. I’m not saying that I want to go out and climb Fuji-san tomorrow, but if I want to head to Tokyo and walk a few miles exploring, I should get a lot less worry than I do from friends and KH.

Then there are moments with friends like Thursday where I can truly appreciate that extra special care I am receiving. Two of my dearest friends here in Japan scheduled a lunch. The place… the Kannonzaki Keikyu Hotel’s formal restaurant Le Beau Rivage, which specializes in southern French dishes with a seasonal Japanese spin. Like many of the best restaurants in Japan, it is a seafood restaurant. I’m playing by the pregnancy rules and avoiding all fish except for that very tiny bite or two here and there. You know, mercury and all. My Japanese friend who planned the place, also showed me true love when she specially took care of my meal. She called ahead to ask the chef to create a non-seafood meal for me, to which he politely refused. My friend refused to leave it at that and find another place that would almost certainly never afford us an equally stunning view of the ocean and every city within a 60 mile radius. Instead, she got in her car and drove down to speak to the chef personally. Heaven only knows how she did it, but she convinced this chef to adjust his menu and make an entirely special meal… only for me… that day.

Instead of the planned seafood salad, the chef came up with seasonal, exotic vegetables that would compliment the flavors of the handmade vinaigrette dressing. A second course revealed a rich and creamy potato soup. Instead of the fish and squid third course, he came up with constructing local chicken drizzled in a rich and nutty flavored miso sauce on top of rice flavored in a paste made from more crushed seasonal vegetables. The fourth course and what is surely served in heaven was a perfect slice of the Japanese delicacy, kobe beef in a red wine sauce on top of the vegetable famous here in the Miura peninsula, a radish of exquisite taste. A last dish of desserts yielded fresh fruits in a raspberry glaze, mango custard, the fudgiest chocolate cake imaginable and homemade strawberry sherbert. I could barely walk when I got up from the table, and that was hours later as we had sat there lost in our usual, easy conversation.

It’s moments like these that again remind me of the kindness with which our Japanese friends and hosts show us. They continue to go above and beyond the expected… and continue to remind me of how to be a better person… and why I love every minute of my time here.

Wednesday, April 9


For those of you doubters about the effects of Japan’s infamous fertility festival, two years of going will indeed work. Granted, make sure you rub a few of the phallic statues and say a good, long pray or two in the religion of your choice. As of today, I am nine weeks and one day along and counting on a new addition at the beginning of November. I hesitated to mention this before, but today I got my first solid confirmation that all is going as planned. The ultrasound gave Kimono Hubby and I a great shot of the Kimono Critter, complete with a nice, strong whoosh, whooshing heartbeat. While the midwife doubts it, we swear KC threw us the first gang sign with his/her little nubs for arms. Perhaps she is right… but it was confirmed that the wee one wiggled.

While my antics about Japan had recently slowed in light of this tiny (and heaven-sent!) development (and thanks to a few extra moments spent with a god of the porcelain variety… not due to the consumption of adult beverages… I’m not that kind of future mom), fear not. I’m already picking up speed again and getting back out there. My little brother is coming to Japan soon and I intend to do it up right with him! Or at least take him everywhere that he can do it up right and I will just drag along behind him trying not to whine too much about the interruption to my afternoon nap times.

Sunday, April 6

Revisiting the Kanamara Matsuri (the Festival of the Steel Phallus)

If you recall last year, I went to a place where it is all about fertility, and more dramatically, the penis. (Click here for last year’s valuable history lesson.) This place is a very unique spot in Japan, known for its yearly festival when the cherry blossoms are blooming above and the wind blows pretty pink petals down to rest on top of the huge pink penis on top of the mikoshi as it was carried out of the torii gate and down the street in front of the famous Shinto shrine.

This year’s trip to the festival was a lot different from my trip last year. First, if you hadn’t heard the news, a Navy sailor admitted to committing the murder of a Japanese taxi driver a few weeks ago. The fact of this occurrence makes for a rather shaken political relationship between our Japanese hosts and we Americans living here. The fact that one man can so badly damage the ties between Japanese and American is a shame. While many Japanese know that this is an anomaly and we are not all crazed killers, there are still so many Japanese that do not personally know an American and are left to make their own judgments off of what they are told from the press about us. Since I had moved to Japan, I always have tried to play by their roles. Their country – their way of life. I’m reserved and quiet when I ought to be, show respect to them in the same way they show it to me, and generally try to be a model of behavior so that the Japanese around me can see how much I appreciate them for their acceptance of me and my place within their culture. Which is why it is so hard when things like this happen, things that shatter the trust built by the rest of us gaijin in Japan.

What’s done is done. All we can home for now is that we will all move forward together, and let this incident be a reminder to each foreigner that any inappropriate, and especially criminal, behavior hurts not only themselves, but everyone else living on this island.

Because of this latest incident and the subsequent confession, the Yokosuka base was put on a lockdown status. Now, I don’t live on base, but that doesn’t mean this doesn’t affect me. For reasons I can’t discuss over the internet, it actually has a lot to do with me, so I am left to play by the rules of the lockdown. These rules are meant for Americans associated with the Yokosuka base to take on a period of reflection regarding the recent events. There’s a lot I can say about this, both good and bad, but I do agree on the necessity of something like this being put into place. In my agreement with reflection, it probably is not good faith that I write about this incident at the same time that I show you pictures of such tomfoolery. I do hope you can overlook that little fact.

However, one rule from the reflection period that makes the Steel Phallus Festival quite difficult to fully enjoy is the “no drinking” rule. This rule alone did the most damage to the day’s shenanigans. Because frankly, hanging out with phallic images swimming along every eye line, is just a bit uncomfortable. The group we were with this year is a more reserved group to start with, made only more ill at ease without even the possibility of a drink to lighten their mood. So there was no hanging off the big wooden penis this year. There was no sitting on the wee penis this year. There was one incident of touching, but the rest of the day was left to observe those who were still imbibing on the available fun juice.

What is worse than not fully participating is missing the main event, when the huge pink penis mikoshi is floated out of the gate… and I did just that. My stomach would not give me a break in its constant begging for food, so I was in the weiner line and missed the whole damn thing. Nonetheless, I still think I got my yearly dose of fertility while roaming the grounds of the shrine.

Wednesday, April 2

Ikebana by Six

One of the things I love best about Ikebana is that there really is something in it for everyone to love. Of course, my understanding of Ikebana when I first moved to Japan was so very limited… much more than I ever realized. I lumped all Japanese floral design into the same category – it was all just Ikebana. Now that I have spent the past year and a half learning about it, I realize just how mistaken I was.

Sure, Ikebana is all Japanese floral design. However, there are hundreds of schools – old and new, traditional and modern, simple and elaborate, calming and disconcerting. Both schools I have studied are somewhere in between traditional and modern, a happy medium. I have been to numerous exhibits performed by varied schools, but typically an exhibit details only that specific school. So for our March program at Ikebana International to be a collaboration of six different schools and their demonstrators was a real treat for everyone who came. The schools represented were Ikenobu, Chikusen-Ryu, Sogetsu-Ryu, Ohara-Ryu, Kozan-Ryu (one of my fellow students!), Ko-Ryu and Danish Style thanks to the Danish Ambassador’s Wife’s contribution.

Held at the Kamakura Prince Hotel in a ballroom that glowed from the reflection off the overlooking ocean, the venue couldn’t have been more well-suited in beauty to compliment this floral art form. The six demonstrators were all students chosen from our own chapter. These ladies deserve a lot of appreciation, because I for one would certainly never have the nerve to get up in front of 90+ women and demonstrate what I know about Ikebana. I turn red clear up to my ears just in my tiny classroom… and that is with only five students and a sensei!

Creating two arrangements, the first was done with all demonstrators using similar materials to help those unfamiliar with the schools truly see the differences between the others. The second arrangement was done using materials of the demonstrator’s choice. The result, the room with a view was filled with a magnificent art of Japan.

To complete the day, one of my closest friends here in Japan who is moving away in the next few weeks also performed her own art form for the group. Her name is Elena, and she is an established singer and songwriter from Russia, with her first album, “Stay With Me,” having been released in 2003. And I am not saying this just because she is a dear friend, but her singing is truly beautiful.

I almost skipped the event because I just wasn’t feeling up to putting on a good face that day, but I’m so glad I ended up going. It brought a little of the sunshine back into my life.