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Wednesday, May 21

Japanese Peculiarities #4

So it is the rainy season here in Japan. Or one of the two anyway. So please somebody tell me… why oh why, on the days when it is pouring the hardest, do you still have to plaster your face up against the glass doors of any Japanese establishment to get them to begin their automatic opening? And let me add that we are talking about the world’s slowest automatic doors. It isn’t even just on the rainy days, though those do make it even more maddening, but pretty much every day that I run into this little occurrence. At the pace that the average person moves when in stride, be it at the conbini, a restaurant or otherwise, it simply is inconvenient and annoying to have to stop that pace, and always midstep, at every door just to wait for the entrance to begin its opening slide. I would just like to know… why.

Sunday, May 18

They’re Not Wanted

Heading home from work on Friday, I had the pleasure of opening my windows and letting the warm breeze blow throw the car. The weather has been positively perfect since the typhoon finally blew off the coast of our Japanese shores last week. I had the radio on to sing along to my favorite songs, very low of course so as not to disturb any other drivers or passerbys. In the midst of a particularly good song, I heard another song start to play over top of it. Thinking it must be something with my radio, I began adjusting things, only to find the other song getting louder. It took me a few moments to realize that it was yet another van with big speakers on its roof blaring out something in every direction. Typically, these vans are piercing the air with advertisements for their wears or political propaganda. But this van was much different. It wasn’t the sing-songy style of advertising, but indeed an actual song. Something not unlike a very old Japanese show tune from, say, the 1950s. I turned down my radio to listen to the strangeness of this music as the next song began to play, also being the same odd, old-fashioned style of music. There was no chance to listen to my own tunes anymore, so I kept the radio off as I followed the van several kilometers down the street.

Tired of the music, but still interested in the van itself for its unusualness, I began to take other notes on it. It was then that I realized what the graphics were that were taped to the back of the van. Now I can’t read Japanese, but I did recognize the ship with a nuclear symbol smacked onto the middle of the graphic. The only words in English were “Yes or No.”

A little background here… for those that don’t know, the United States is sending a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to Japan to replace the aircraft carrier currently deployed here, a conventional diesel-powered ship. One who knows anything about history knows this is quite a big deal here in the Land of the Rising Sun. There are many who don’t want it… for obvious reasons… and others who are tolerating it. I can’t figure out which one the van in front of me was… but it was saying something. Something with very bad music.

Friday, May 16

Four to Life

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of that day when I would wear the big white princess dress and float down the aisle to the man I love. It is not a very different dream from so many little girls. But careless words sliced deep wounds into my heart and I spent years quietly wondering who would ever want to marry someone as ugly as me. Who would ever look past my crooked eye teeth, scrawny figure and dishwater hair?

By the time I reached the upper years of high school, I began to realize that I was growing into my own. I wasn’t the gangly thing I used to be and a figure magically began to grow out of those years of teenage angst. I had been known to annoy more than the occasional soul, who got caught up in my constant chatter, but also began to see that there were those that listened… and with interest. For once, the boys were taking notice.

There are those that move gracefully through these years, without ever a glimpse of their pain and fretting shown to the world around them. We all knew these girls. They seemed perfect in both beauty and spirit from day one of kindergarten; and yet, they still got better and better with every passing year. There never seemed to be a question that someone would love them for what was both inside and outside. I just never felt the same sureness.

Those newfound looks and glances… I took them. I reveled in them. To know that I finally had the power to turn boy’s heads was exhilarating. Yet, those years of pain were not so easily swept away. I used the new attention and threw is back unmercifully to each boy that showed interest. All the cruelty that had been showed to be, I returned in triplets as I strung one after the other along and then tossed them aside just when I knew they were hooked and would have no idea why. And I never explained it. Why should I? No one ever explained why I was taunted by name after name that today still seers me deep inside.

You may think I am malicious and spiteful at this point in the story. Perhaps I was. But I honestly didn’t know that I was or why I did the things I did. They were done without my full awareness and reason in those early years of attention.

My twenties were a decade of decadence as I mastered this careless usage. I knew more and more of what I was doing as the time passed, but I felt no reason to stop it or to change. No longer were those early stings still smarting as they once had, but there just seemed no reason for another way. Life was good. I did what anyone in their twenties is expected to do… work hard and play harder. There were times where I fell in love. There were times where it took me everything I had to fight that inner demon not to throw a good thing away. There were other times when I stopped listening to that inner voice and just let love rule. For a spell. But it always ended, and often by my own hand.

At 29, life just didn’t seem like it could get any better. I lived in DC, had an entourage of friends to call on any given night, had a great job I loved and the freedom to live the way I wanted to.

It was on one of those many wild nights at 29 where I met a guy… and he changed my life in an instant. I felt drawn to everything about him. It would take me another few months to really know for sure that I wasn’t going to run, that I wasn’t going to ruin a good thing, and that I wasn’t going to hurt him with my own long broken heart. It was only a month before he mentioned proposing. It was only six months before he did. It was only a moment for me to know that he had healed those old wounds, with only his presence in my life.

We married four years ago. For years, lasting over a decade and a half, I would have never considered marrying and even turned down a proposal along the way. I never thought that I would see the day where I looked like a princess and went floating down the aisle to the man I love. Now I can’t imagine that there was ever another course.

Like every couple, we’ve seen our ups and downs, but we’ve always landed on the ups. We’ve traveled to four new countries, several new states and cities, lived in new places, bought our first home, loved our first pet together… all the dreams I always thought I would do on my own because I didn’t want the companion, nor did I need one. The fear was that they would mar my happy and singular way.

Now four years later, not for one moment have I been given anything less than my dreams. They are sometimes handed to me in big ways. But most importantly are the ones that are handed to me daily… in the tiniest of ways.

As we sat at dinner last night overlooking the Pacific Ocean from our island far from home, we talked about the next four years and much further beyond, a long life we are building together. I still can’t believe my life turned out this way. I still can’t believe that someone as wonderful and loving as my husband was not only able to heal me, but to bring me an even greater life than I had dreamed on my own.

Thank you, love. For every one of the past 1,460 days together. And for every one of them left in our future. Our bright and beautiful future.

Tuesday, May 13

Continuing Kozan

Every other Friday, I do everything I can to get to my Ikebana class in the Kozan school. It has been an adjustment to the rules I previously learned in the Kofu school, but I am really enjoying the new school. It is all about natural arrangements and feeling the gentleness of wind as it touches nature. At the end of each class, Takenouchi Sensei has tea and a Japanese sweet of some sort to refresh us after our hard work. I’m always encouraged to take a second sweet… for the baby… and of course I never refuse. That would be rude! Plus… what dummy would refuse extra sweets?

I really have been relishing the experience of this class, because it is truly run for the Japanese and not for a group of international students. I feel like I’m getting the hard core and utterly true cultural experience, as well as picking up on a skill I hope to nurture for the rest of my life. These Fridays are quiet days for me where I have little to worry about and really can take my time breathing in my life in Japan. There really hasn’t been much to write about these days, so I just kind of skip over them. But I do love every minute of them and thought it was time to share a little of what I have been working on. So below are a few of my latest arrangements.

Plus, if you are really interested in seeing more of what the school is about, I suggest you take a look at Takenouchi sensei’s blog. Can you believe my sensei has a blog? The first time she told me about it, I seriously rushed home to look it up! Lo and behold, there was one of my recent designs on the top of the page along with my name. Certainly, I am no expert in the Kozan school of Ikebana that would rank having my work displayed like this, there for all the world to peruse, but it is quite fun to see it there along with my other, much more experienced co-student’s work. I feel like such a rock star. You know… if the Ikebana community was made up of rock stars, and not middle aged Japanese ladies who have never thrown out a curse word in their lives.

Friday, May 9

Summa Cum Laude

The reason behind my brother’s visit was that he was to be the family rep for the big day… my actual graduation ceremony. And a fine rep he was. He and Kimono Hubby sat on the aisle towards the back and made it their goal to be the first to applaud each person for their accomplishment. Now, you must understand that separate, my husband and my brother can be quite mischievous. Together, they are downright trouble. Certainly clapping each degree recipient was a very good thing; and I am glad that they were so into it. Yet, what I can’t get past is that they tried hard to push up the clapping with each person… clapping loud enough and quickly enough to be the leaders in every single round of applause. With a little over a hundred graduating this day, that is a lot of applause. And they got their kicks out of this! Big kicks! Together, these two can seriously amuse. Themselves especially.

But in all seriousness, it was wonderful having my brother attend this special day with my husband. The truth is that I never wanted to go to the ceremony and had every intention of skipping it. Then both my mom and husband began pushing for me to go. Mom was making plans to come to Japan for it with my brother. And KH, well he never went to his own ceremony, so I still don’t get why he was gearing so hard for me to go to mine. In the end, I obviously caved because it seemed important to both of them.

Then for the months leading up to it, I dreaded it constantly and tried hard not to think about it. When my grandfather was placed in Hospice and then passed away not long after, it just didn’t seem the time for my mom and brother to fly over for this. In the end, he decided to make the trip anyway while mom stayed behind to help his wife and kids in his absence. It all worked out quite nicely! Although, I still had the stage walk to deal with.

So it was a good night. I walked the plank. I didn’t trip. They handed me that fake degree. I shook hands with the President of University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Susan C. Aldridge, Vice Commander of the 5th Air Force and Deputy Commander of the 13th Air Force Major General Larry D. James and several others. Oh, yeah… and I graduated Summa Cum Laude.

Not bad for just shy of a decade’s work.

Wednesday, May 7

How I Fulfilled My Brother’s Only Japanese Wish

Ever since my mom’s visit here last summer, my brother has hung on to one particular picture that she took while in Japan. It was a shot of the local fish market just down the street from our house. Obviously that place was easy to show him since we walk past it every time we walk to the train station. But he had his sights set on something bigger… Tsukiji Fish Market.

Set in central Tokyo, Tsukiji is one of the largest fish markets in the world. Now, Kimono Hubby and I have had this place on our ‘must visit’ list since we first moved here, but little will ever motivate me to get up as early as one would need from Zushi so as to arrive at a good time... which would be any time after 5:00 am, but before 8:00 am when the market closes for the day. But as we were in Tokyo for the weekend, it was the perfect opportunity for us to cross something off our list and to fulfill my brother’s only Japanese sight wish.

Being only a few stops away when staying at the New Sanno, we left a little before 6:00 am on Saturday morning. Traveling in the city at this time is quite a sight in itself, as my brother got to see. On the walk to the train station, we passed multiple people on their way home from festivities the night prior… some noticeably still drunk and others noticeably hungover. At the train station, we came across more than a few Japanese business men, all still in the complete suit they wore the day before, but now it was stuck to the floors of the subway tunnels. Most when finding themselves in this situation used their briefcase as a pillow, although one poor guy simply laid his face down on the cold, dirty tile as he slept it off. What does all this have to do with Tsukiji, you ask? Well… nothing. But it was damn funny.

Moving on, so leaving the station we walked out only to find ourselves in a very unknown part of the city. Fortunately, there was a map in front of us, which we hoped would direct us enough to find this massive fish market. As we stood debating, some Australian guy came over to us to ask if we were looking for the fish market. If so, we need only turn the corner and there it lay. His tip before we sauntered off? “Keep your head up!” Before we ever came under the cover of the first warehouse roof, we knew what he meant. Little motorized truck carts powered every which direction. If you weren’t paying attention for the slightest second, you were quite likely to lose a toe or worse. Our Australian friend had allotted us a very kind tip.

Of course, we have no idea which way to go so we just kept going back deeper into the maze of trucks and fish. Alleyways, which were barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side in, saw these truck carts forcing their way down them, shoving people out of the way as they went. The market is a place of serious business and they do ask you to stay out of the way and not touch anything. We did as they asked, but it was almost impossible when people and trucks were coming at you from every direction.

We meandered aimlessly for a few hours watching them carve massive frozen and fresh tunas, which would surely be sold that day in hundreds of local sushi shops and restaurants. My personal favorite was to view the fish that lay in pools of blood. Oh, and the octopus that lay in pools of ink. Yum. Even just writing this now, I can’t help but feel like that heavy fish aroma has just permeated right back into my nostrils to stay there for the rest of today.

Unfortunately, tourists can no longer go early for the tuna auctions as one too many used to get in the way. That surely would have been a sight to see. Nonetheless, if you want to see local action while you are here, Tsukiji is the place to see.

Sunday, May 4

How I Led My Brother Deeply Astray in a Foreign City

The Friday that my brother spent with me here in Japan dawned cold, gray, rainy and regrettably quite windy. This didn’t bode well for the plans I had made that day, a boat tour through old and new Tokyo followed by an afternoon of meandering in Asakusa. It boded even less well because for the first time ever, I was going to drive us to Tokyo to the place we would be staying, the New Sanno Hotel, a hotel created for American military visiting Japan. We had a lot of luggage to haul to the hotel, plus this is the one place in Tokyo that you can park for free, so it only made sense to for once drive it instead of train it. The wind and rain outside of my windows that morning said something altogether different about driving. After a moment’s deliberation, we deemed the best course to wait out the roughest part of the storm clouds and then proceed northward.

Despite the morning’s delay, we were still on track to get all the planned activities in for the day. That is until I drove us through Tokyo on the Shuto B Expressway, landing us smack into the worst traffic I have ever encountered in Japan. While puttering across bridges in the rain and wind was nerve-wracking enough, I also couldn’t help feeling like I was completely disappointing my brother who likes to keep on the move… a course he was certainly not taking at less than 10 km/hour. As we neared our exit, we kept our eyes peeled for the ramp. This was where we would encounter problem number two for the day. I read the directions wrong, which led me to completely miss our exit. Back home, this was never much of a problem. You just got off the highway at the next exit and turned yourself around. Well, sure… at home, but we were maneuvering through a foreign country, which simply doesn’t work like that. We had already lost an hour and a half sitting in traffic and now we would spend another hour and a half trying to figure out how to get back on the Shuto B going south. The next exit was miles away, but we took it as our only hope getting well northward in the city limits, only to find ourselves crossing the longest ramp ever that took us, not only further away from the highway than a lost soul would ever wish for, but also over a river and through a completely foreign part of the city. The path we had chosen had only further muddled the way back. Not losing faith (or at least appearing not to, so as not to panic or frustrate my already antsy brother), we swung onto another ramp only to find ourselves deeper into the city. Knowing it was a lost cause, I chose to stop at a gas station and do my best to explain where I was going. Needing a huge landmark, I asked how to get to the city of Yokohama, which is south and the way we would need to go. It took two Japanese gas station attendants several moments of discussion in the pouring rain before one turned back to me and started announcing the directions… of course in total Japanese. Now my directional Japanese is pretty good… when someone is going slow and giving me time to let it sink in. With this guy, I had to memorize what he was saying as fast as I could. I got two turns down before he lost me. Surprisingly, he got us on the right starting path, only to find ourselves still lost after the two directions away. Giving up on attempts to get back to the highway after several failures, we guessed a bit, shimmied the Japa-Capa straight through the city and seemed to feel like we were getting warmer as names again looked familiar. I felt we could only be around the corner, when I decided that to take those last few blocks and pay a cab to follow him there. Pulling up behind one, I explained in broken Japanese where I wanted to go and how I would follow. He refused. Flatly. And I think he even laughed as I splashed my way back to the car. Before laughing, he did give me a little insight about crossing the Rainbow Bridge, which we managed to get to. This bridge is the exact bridge you need to cross to get to the hotel. Only one problem… we were on the lower level and the exits are completely not the same as the level above us. As we drove through the city on the other end, I thought I would try the cab thing again. I mean, it seems to work so well in Amazing Race! I didn’t see why it shouldn’t work for me. Finally, the next cab I stopped took pity on me and led me the rest of the way. Were we close? Hell no! That cab cost me 1,900 yen! It it was worth every damn penny.

Exhausted, wet and seriously hungry, it was only moments after checking in and changing clothes that we left that car behind and peddled the way God intended through the streets… on foot! The rain kept coming down, not helping our already bleak moods. What else didn’t help is being shut out of two restaurants that told us they were closed. It appears they close in between lunch and dinner. Grr. Feeling less than eager to walk our now puddle splashed selves much further, we choose the first restaurant that appeared open and willing to give us something to eat. Of course, this was a restaurant with no plastic food, no English menu and nary a picture to help us along the way. In the end, we called the waitress, pointed to two meals and figured if one had raw egg on it, that would be my brothers. (The Kimono Critter is obviously anti-raw at this stage.) We ended up with a beef plate of sorts with raw egg on it and a spicy tomato sauce on top of rice. Not the best meal I have ever had in Japan, but to our eager palates, anything was worthy. We walked a bit further, but the day had really been lost in the mornings troubles, so we called it to head back and wait for Kimono Hubby’s arrival to the hotel via train. In the meantime, I entertained Kimono Bro at the hotel bar, for it was the best I could do to make up for the lost day.

Still shaking off the earlier frustration of the day, I was more than wary of the evening reservations I had made. I had first read about the place from a fellow Japan blogger, and had since heard from many others that it was worth a visit… Ninja in Akasaka. I wasn’t willing to risk anymore transportation adventures in the rain, so we opted for a cab to get us there. It dropped us off in front of the Akasaka Tokyu Hotel, of which the restaurant was supposed to be under. Now, Ninja is another one of those crazy places where not only do the staff dress up and perform crazy skits for us, but the restaurant is completely decorated to follow the theme. So to make the entrance easy to find would simply be pointless for a place where Ninjas chill. After several missteps, we finally entered a completely darkened closet where a hostess called for our ninja. If the entrance was dark, it was nothing compared to the narrow meandering hallways our ninja led us through to get to the secret ninja training camp where we would be enjoying our meal. To finally arrive at our table, they pointed to the name of it written on the wall, surely to help those of us who would be needing a bathroom every five minutes, but would quite likely never see their table of friends again. The stealth entrance was enough to immediately lighten our trios dour moods from the long day. We sat down only to laugh nervously about what they were going to come up with next. Our ninja (read: waiter) presented the menu on a scroll, which provided six our seven course options. The prices were high, as we expected, but I kindly asked the waiter if they were for the trio or per person. The answer was something like ‘all,’ so we moved forward with choosing the 10,000 yen option. After receiving the order, the ninja asked if we had any allergies so I mentioned my aversion to raw seafood these days, but assured him that KH or KB would be more than willing to eat what I couldn’t. And stealthily, he was off. Drinks were served, KB trying a warm sake this time, which he will probably never do again, but the moods continued to warm with that sake.

Not only is the atmosphere crazy here, but so is the food. I guess you could consider it kaiseki (top of the line Japanese food). Some of the courses were quite normal, like Japanese tempura, but then there were others… like the box that came out with fumes of dry ice spilling out its sides. Only the guys received this dish, as they were to reach inside the mist and pull out the dish… a hollowed egg that had been refilled with fish bits in jelly. They were to break it open over some greens and chow down. Fortunately, this was where my course first differed and I instead received duck. This would have been fabulous, except for one tiny thing. It was only seared on the edges, which meant it was largely a dish of raw duck. Again, raw anything is just not meant for a fetus. Still, I give the chef kudos for sticking with my ‘no fish’ mention. The next course was just as odd… a shotglass of weeds and foam, which were mixed together and then slugged down. Not particularly tasty, but surprisingly not the first time I have been served this oddity. I have had it at another kaiseki restaurant. Neither time now can I say I cared for this. Another dish or two that was relatively normal for an upscale Japanese restaurant and then we were served what the ninja called ice candy… literally lemon and rosemary frozen into an ice cube and eaten. Good. Weird. Moving on… Japanese beef with our choosing of wasabi sauce… a highlight for the night of oddities. Next a plate of sushi, Kimono Bro’s first true sushi while in Japan. Big slices of raw fish on even bigger mouthfuls of rice than he had ever seen. With his first bite, he tried to actually take only half, which we opted to tell him then that, yes, you do shove the whole thing into your mouth at once. My sushi was a true surprise and a relative delight with all vegetables piled on top of the rice. A nice twist for someone who misses sushi and was willing to get anything close. And finally desert… one a cream cheese frog which was more cream cheese than anything else, one a bowl of white cream which we never figured out what it was but we did get a huge laugh over its strange consistency and taste, and a pretzel shaped bonsai tree with green tea powder to form the leaves, all sitting on top of chocolate and ice cream. If the meal had left us in peals of laughter, dessert surely did. While we were scrutinizing these odd dishes, a ninja magician appeared. That’s when things started getting really weird. His tricks were good, his English was quite good and his jokes were truly the best. He actually seemed to mock us for being idiots for not figuring out one of the tricks. Were we offended? Hell, no! We laughed harder!

It had been several hours of eating, drinking and laughing, with the bad day truly put behind all of us. KB ran off to the bathroom first and we asked for the check. When we opened it, there was a bit of a shock. Now, my dear brother still does not know the truth about this bill, but he surely will now. From reading several websites, it appeared that the cost would be about 5,000 yen or $50 per person, which is what we had told my brother and what he had budgeted for. Remember that price from the beginning… 10,000 yen? That wasn’t for all of us… that was indeed per person. Add the drinks and our bill totaled just shy of 40,000 yen. Here would be where KH would surely smack me upside the head for the first time ever. At least yell at me a little. And yet he didn’t say one. damn. word. It probably would have been different if we had chosen the 30,000 yen per person option. When KB returned to the table and asked the cost, we both quietly said 5,000. Kimono Bro returned with ‘surely it cost more than that… here’s 6,000.’ My truly kind brother. Know you do not owe us any more, but we do hope you liked the place. We did. And it was worth every penny of the $400 to share it with you. Just rest assured that if you are planning on visiting us in the future and would like to try this place again… you are on your own. (EDIT: New research has shown that there appears to be an alacarte menu, which was probably how others came up with their price. But when that wasn't offered, we assumed there was no other menu. Note to self: ASK next time, dumbass.)

As we exited the restaurant into the wet night, we offered hitting a bar or two in the area. Both KH and I were more than thrilled when Kimono Bro said that the hotel bar would be sufficient. It’s damn cheap there… which was about all we could afford after dinner.