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Friday, June 13

A Bit of Everything

There has been so much I have wanted to say and as usual, no time to write about it. So this post will be a bit of a mix of things. Forgive its randomness.


I haven’t said much about the baby here because I am still deathly afraid of jinxing things. So far, so good. I’m doing wonderfully. This second trimester stuff is pretty great. Tons of energy, only rare nausea when I catch a strange whiff in the air, and best of all, I finally am starting to look pregnant for real and even got to feel the baby move for the first time last week. It hasn’t happened since, but that isn’t rare when they are yet as small as this critter is. And I don’t have to call him a critter anymore… he is indeed a he. He’s doing wonderfully and was quite active for us during the most recent ultrasound. With my “advanced maternal age” (man, I gag every time I think of this phrase which has been attached to me), we were encouraged to do some of the extra tests to ensure everything was alright. Not that we would have done anything even if we had gotten a serious prognosis. As it is, everything came back negative. This doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be any problems discovered later on, but it does give us the first step towards relief of mind. Now we only have a lifetime left to worry about every other thing that could possibly go wrong. EDIT: Just for Michele, I added this picture. I'm looking a bit exhausted, but it isn't a bad shot of the growing girth.


In other baby related news, after much frustration, I think we may have ordered some baby furniture today. Sure… this is sooo easy back in the states. Here… not so much. I have spent countless hours (and I’m not even exaggerating this time) on the phone with American base suppliers both here in Japan and back in the states, as well as driving back and forth to the base trying to get someone to order what I wanted, which has proved confusing and impossible. As of today, I may have shed my last tear. I think I finally figured out how to order it and if all goes well, the process will be complete later this evening. Of course, I now have 4-6 months to wait for my things to arrive. If you have run any tiny calculations in your head, that time falls on my due date or two months past. Wish me luck! At least I have a crib from a friend. As for rest, I will just lay towels on the floor and change the poor kid since the military customer service people certainly couldn’t care less to speed up the process. If you are wondering why I didn’t just go with Japanese furniture, than you obviously haven’t seen it. Not only is it typically on the extreme contemporary size, it is also on the small size. With hauling a kid around, the last thing you need to add to the already strained back is to lean over constantly to get things out of the drawers or to change him. So ordering from the states was pretty much the only option.


School is officially over. I couldn’t be happier not to be subbing for the next two and a half months. I was really done towards the end. What will I do with all my free time? Well, everything I haven’t done in the past few months. More culture, more travel, more fun! Oh and more cleaning. Dag this house is dirty.


This also has become the moment of every year when I am officially sick of Japan. It really has nothing to do with my life here and EVERYthing to do with the fact that it rains pretty much every day. When the sun does come out, it is warm and beautiful. But mostly it is damp and cold and I can’t stand carrying an umbrella out the door with me any more. Not to mention, this time brings indoors these big, brown, jumping spiders. I made my first kill today. Now, usually I catch a bug and set it free outside, but I just can’t do this with spiders. Too many damn legs! And these brown ones are fast. I hosed this one down with Raid while trying hard not to breathe in the chemical vapors. Then, just to be safe and sure, I stomped him with KH’s shoe. I wouldn’t want to get guts on my pretty shoes.


My neighbor has taken even more of an interest in my Japanese cultural advancement lately. In late July, she got us tickets to a traditional tea ceremony in northern Tokyo. I was another nasty, wet and cold day out. She was wonderfully concerned about my health traveling so far in such conditions, so she made extra preparations for our trip. Her husband drove us to the train station and later picked us up from there. She bought green car tickets on the train there and back and didn’t let me pay for a thing. She also paid for a cab to get us to and from the event at Edogawaheisei Garden “Genshinan” in Edogawa Gyosen Park to the Nishikasai train station in Tokyo. This was my second full tea ceremony, as I have done some smaller ones along the way. Sitting Japanese style on the floor was a bit more challenging in light of recent belly growth, but I managed to remain in the correct position… at least while we were presented and passed the tea to and from our neighbors.

This event was actually established as a 15th anniversary tea gathering for the group called Urasenke International. They are similar to the group I belong to, Ikebana International, in that they were created to share their cultural experience, the tea ceremony, with foreigners like myself. I had been given a paper on taboos of tea ceremony, so I did try to behave suitably and show the good side of Americans. The rules say to dress moderately and avoid colors that disturb the calm in the tea room (I wore the last black dress in my closet that fit over my belly… well, when hiked up a little higher than it normally sits), remove all accessories to prevent damages to the tea utensils (I removed my wedding rings, watches and bracelet prior to entering the room), not wear perfume so as not to spoil the delicate scent of incense in the room (perfume free!), not get lipstick on the tea bowl (like the other Japanese ladies, I removed it inconspicuously before returning the tea bowl to its position).

I should really talk about the way a tea ceremony is done, because there are a lot of rules about the ceremony itself. As usual, I was pretty nervous to do this because I really would hate to make some faux pas that would give Americans a bad name. Thankfully, the Japanese hosts were as gracious as they usually are and do give the gaijin in the room a bit more leeway. But here are the directions on how to do a tea ceremony, as printed from the form they gave me prior to the event: :When a bowl of tea is placed in front of you, bow to the person serving you. Place the tea bowl between you and the next guest and say “Osakini” (Excuse me for going before you). Place the tea bowl in front of you. Bow and say “Thank you for the tea.” Then, place the tea bowl with your right hand on your left palm and bow slightly in appreciation. Turn the tea bowl clockwise twice to avoid the front in humility. After drinking the tea, wipe the part you drank from with your fingers (wipe the fingers with the kaishi) and turn the tea bowl counterclockwise twice. Return the tea bowl outside the tatami edging.” So that is all of it! And I did not have this paper in the room with me. See why I get nervous? So many rules to follow!

For this tea ceremony experience, there was an extra tea from the one I was used to. At the last one, we apparently only had the sweet with a thin tea, called usucha. At this tea, we went to a second room and had a thick tea, called koicha. The rules for this tea are a bit different. With the first, you drink the entire bowl by yourself. With this one, you share it with three people, so you must be sure not to drink too much and not too little. Again, I made it through with limited mistakes… as far as I am aware anyway. After both tea services, there was a bento lunch served, which was delicious as usual, but unfortunately very heavy on the raw sushi. I must admit I was a bit hungry upon getting home later that afternoon. The baby just cannot live on four pieces of vegetable sushi and a few sweets with tea for a meal.

The generosity of my host and the tea ceremony were not the only beautiful experiences of the day. The building which it was held in had the traditional glass viewing room which overlooked the meticulously manicured gardens and pond. Koi swam past the window, becoming the brightest spot in the dreary day. By the time we were leaving, the rain stopped long enough to let us walk around the gardens for a bit and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. While it was quite a hike to get to the place and I was more than a bit grumpy about going so early in the morning when we had guests I had to leave behind at home and it was raining (again), I am so glad I took the trip.


Like I said, my neighbor has been very friendly lately. I should tell you that, while her English is pretty good, our conversations can get a bit lagging because we run out of words due to the language barrier. That doesn’t stop her from pressing on and inviting me to other events, like the pottery and lacquerware viewing this past weekend. A friend of hers collects items and shows them for a few days once a year. So I was invited to take a look at these pieces… known for being so splendorous in their simplicity. The host even borrows so pieces of which you may buy if you like. While I would have loved to, the prices were a little high for me. Plus, I hadn’t totally understood what I was coming for, so I didn’t have an exorbitant amount of cash on me. Probably a good thing. Still, it was nice to not only see the beautiful collection she had, but also to see her exquisite Japanese style home. I always love a peak into places of residence. When given those opportunities, I rarely pass them up.


Ikebana International ended yesterday for the 2007-2008 season. Our last program was a mix of things – a demonstration be chapter members (of which I nervously participated), installation of next year’s board (of which I am doing again for some crazy reason) and also a performance by a more modern Biwa player than the last I heard a couple of years ago. For me, the best part of the day came when I finished my arrangement, stamped with my sensei’s approval, and then went off to check out my friend’s artistic expressions with flowers. One close friend used a large vase and a small vase and wrapped the plant from one into the other, forming a circle. She later explained that it was a mother and child and the circle of love between them. See why I eat this stuff up? Beautiful! I happened to be sitting at the table with the Biwa player himself, a rather young guy who was very open to the many questions he received. Despite it being yet another horribly rainy day, it turned out to be a pretty bright day while inside at this particularly well done good bye affair.


Speaking of goodbyes, I must be saying one myself for a few weeks. I am traveling with a lot of here and there going on and for once… I just do not feel so obligated to rush to the computer for email checks and blog updates. All will just have to wait until I return. It’s time to unplug and unwind for a bit with my family and friends. Until then, please be well and happy! See you in July!

Wednesday, June 4

Take Me Out To The Ball Game

When we first arrived here in Japan, I had a pretty long “to do” list. These days, that list grows ever shorter as I am crossing the few remaining things off rather quickly.

Of course, it comes as no surprise to anyone reading back home in the states that baseball is a big thing in Japan. With just about ever major league team sporting at least one Japanese player in their lineup, you would have to live with your head in the sand to not have noticed this little fact. When we visit the states, one of the biggest requests from Japanese friends of gifts to return with, are jerseys from these American teams with their favorite Japanese player sewn onto the back. We do try to accommodate without breaking the bank. Now here is the funny thing about those jerseys… I just can’t see a Japanese person ever wearing one. For real! I think they basically are hung on a wall somewhere and never sported out in public as we Americans so casually do with all of our favorite players and sports. In fact, it is just plain rare (or, I should say, not at all) that I have ever seen anyone wearing something that signifies they even have a favorite team. My only guess on this is that, it not only isn’t the style to wear such casual clothing, but it also might be considered impolite to force your opinions of whose the best team onto those around you. This is only a guess, but I would venture to say I am close on this. These are the same people who keep covers on their books so that the titles might not offend those they are packed armpit to armpit with on the train. I digress.

So we went to a game! Something that I really wanted to do while living here. If you recall a long time ago, we had been to the Tokyo Dome for a Billy Joel concert. This is the place where the Yomiuri Giants (essentially the Tokyo Giants) play their home games. While I really wanted to attend a game, I didn’t relish sitting in those seats again. I was not disappointed in my agony as I squeezed my ever widening birthing hips into the seat. Not until we were walking past the vendors selling kitsch outside did I even know that the opposing team was the Hiroshima Carp. Not a very intimidating name if you ask me, but their fans darn well were! Before the game even started, an entire section filled with red and white wearing Carp fans began waving three huge flags over the heads of their people. They chanted and they sang their followers into a frenzy… and this didn’t stop for more than a few minutes at any point in the game. In comparison, the home team fans (who also had a large section of orange, white and black wearing fans) seemed relatively absent from the game. They weren’t, but there were drown out by the cheers of the opposing team. As I just mentioned the fan regalia, I will also point out here that this is the one and only time I have ever seen people actually wearing team gear in public here in Japan. It was so… out of place. Even at a game. Strange for someone to say who would be more than willing to paint her face black and gold and don a spiky matching wig for her beloved Steelers. I must admit that I missed most of the start of the game, because I was so enthralled by the everlasting bunny Carp fans. At first, I enjoyed their enthusiasm, but it actually got old at one point and I really just wanted them to quiet down and let me concentrate on the game.

Ah the game… not quite like back home. First, the Tokyo Dome is inside. I don’t like watching games inside. You are supposed to be out there… in the elements. If it rains, you rush for cover or you stand singing the rain delay songs belted out over the loudspeakers with the rest of the drunken obnoxious fans. But, alas, that is only in America from what I can tell. Here, we made our cheers politely from our seats, without trying to start a fight with the opposing fans. We banged plastic bats together over and over, until the beating sounds were a bleating on our brains.

We had skipped dinner so as to indulge in ball game snacks… hamburgers and hotdogs with hush puppy style things… not even close to back home. I swear they use real meat here. Blech. I kid. There is also a variety of curry dishes, ramen bowls and bento boxes for the typical Japanese game fare. Wishing for a cold beer, but knowing it wasn’t a possibility, I tried to get a box of grape juice that sat in a case directly behind the counter lady. She simply refused to let me buy it with her hands forming that adamant “X.” I still have no idea why, but eventually caved and bought a water that she was willing to sell.

After the first few innings, my interest in the actual game waned. Not being a fan of either team makes it very hard to stay focused on what is going on. Plus, there weren’t that many great plays in the middle innings for the Giants, who if I was going to rout for anyone, it would have been them. Instead, I turned my fascination to the beer girls. There must have been about ten of them in each section at any given time. They walked up and down the steep stairs carrying a keg on their back and calling out their brands as they went. We noted that the best looking girls were carrying the best brands. There must be some sort of hierarchy at work there. Not that any of the girls were unattractive, because even those tasked with the job of carrying the ice cream were quite pretty. When someone did wave them over, the beer girl would race up to them, bend down onto her knees and pour the beer from her kegged back. This was really one of the greatest things to watch at the game… at least for me. I was fascinated by how strong their legs must be after a season of hill running and getting on their knees to simply serve a beer to the one or two people that would flag them down every half hour. Oh, and there were cheerleaders to watch. For baseball. Just. Plain. Weird. I am digging the Giants mascot though! He’s a cute little guy… although I have no idea what he is. Bear? Dog? Gopher?

This was a school night and the dome is about a two and a half hour train trip from home, so we didn’t stay until the end of the game. We got enough of a sense of it though, by the 7th inning. Our friends stayed an inning longer to find out that the Giants had pretty much cinched the game by then, which the paper confirmed the next day.

While there was little music like we are used to hearing during a game, and the cheers certainly can’t be understood as they are in a foreign language, Japanese baseball is trying to be as close to American as it can be. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. But it was a great thing to see. For a one time deal anyway.

Sunday, June 1

Flowers and Music at Engakuji Temple

One of my favorite areas, close by to home, to tour around is Kita Kamakura. Kamakura has so many temples and shrines, of which I still haven’t seen the half of. So when Ikebana International planned its May program for the Engakuji Temple, I was thrilled. Engakuji is a famous Zen temple built in 1282 and located in a scenic cedar grove. Well, actually, it is a collection of many buildings of which I do not have all the history on, but I do know that it is one of the most famous temples in the Kamakura area.

The day of the program was a gorgeous day, almost hot when the sun was shining directly on you. By the time I rushed from the train station to the temple, I had broken out into a little sweat. At the entrance stood a few of the Japanese ladies from my group, directing foot traffic to the correct building for the day’s event. Even with their directions, I initially got turned around, eventually finding the right temple hidden behind another and in a lush, little garden. Inside the temple was even better. With all tatami rooms, shoes were left at the door. Walls and ceilings were decorated simply and elegantly in a carved and light-colored Japanese wood. The altar of the temple stood in the center of the room with cut-outs in the wall displaying gorgeously carved wooden Buddhas… the table in front with two large, painted lotus carvings. Shoji screens covered every wall, but when slipped to the side, revealed the stunning gardens surrounding the temple. For those seeking peace and a zen-like existence, I truly understand how these temples articulate that way of life to anyone lucky enough to sit in one of these rooms.

But peace was not to be mine on this busy day… at least not until much later. Lately, many of the American women from my group have been traveling and not available to attend the programs. This is always fine, but it does lead others to pick up and handle their positions in the absence. On this occasion, I had my usual duties in greeting and collecting money at the entrance and then I also would be in charge of the introduction speech. Now there are few things in this world that I honestly do not have the guts for… and public speaking ranks number one on that short list. Thankfully, I didn’t have to right the speech… it was written for me… but I did have to correct it into logical English and then correctly pronounce the points left with Japanese names and places. For the hour before the program, in between my greetings, I read and reread those names over and over until I could get them out as smooth as was possible. For that hour, I fretted so much that I ended up giving myself a migraine as the program was just beginning. That pain and not being able to take anything for it did not help my anxiety at getting up in front of 100 ladies. With only one stumble and probably a bit of rushing, I made it through and literally collapsed into a chair that my sensei had gratefully saved for me next to her.

Mrs. Shibuya Sensho, the Iemoto of Chikusen Ryu School, began her Ikebana presentation that culminated in five different arrangements. Typically when I have seen a demonstration, the demonstrator only creates two or three pieces, so this was a huge treat for those that know little about the school, like myself. Chikusen Ryu is interested in placing the flowers very naturally, without much staging, as if they would appear exactly that way when viewed in a field. One would think this ‘natural placement’ idea would be pretty easy, but I can assure you that it is much harder than it sounds. Of course, Sensho sensei made it look effortless, but later I tried to recreate one at home (thanks to my own sensei winning the raffle and receiving one of the arrangements flowers… which she kindly gave to me) and I can assure you that it didn’t go half as smoothly as what I had seen. In the end, it looked similar, but just not quite there. Guess it takes a Chikusen expert.

While Sensho sensei arranged, we were treated to listening to a new type of instrument, well to my inexperienced ears… the Koto. A woman named Abe Utashhiro, sat in traditional Japanese style in front of a long wooden instrument with strings, and plucked out a pleasing sound for the crowd. The combination of sights and sound in the room made for one of the most satisfying artistically cultural experiences I have had in Japan yet… and that is saying so very much as I feel I have seen quite a lot.

Once the Ikebana and Koto performances were over, bento lunches were served to the room as we prepared an abbreviated Japanese tea for interested attendees. Sadly, bento boxes are a bit hard for me these days as I really can’t always tell what I am eating and therefore have to avoid a good bit of it. If I am being honest though, this doesn’t bother me too much because I really think some of the food in these bento boxes is much too strange for my tastebuds anyway.

As the program winded down and guests began to leave, it seemed like a good time for me to stroll out into the temple grounds. While getting a much better look around, I hopefully planned on gaining some of the peace that initially eluded me, allowing me to liberate my brain from the migraine grip. Indeed my strolls did succeed. I ended up spending way more hours than I had planned just promenading the grounds of Engakuji, literally wasting away my day without being aware of doing so. Not that there is anything wrong with this kind of thing happening, but it is rare that I get so lost in my enjoyment that it would indeed go down that way. For once, I truly didn’t mind.