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Friday, January 23

Playing Adult Dress Up

Saturday morning dawned bright and warm. This was a blessing to be discovered, as the day was going to be filled with activity for Ikebana International. It was the day of our most special program of the year and I was going to be a very busy girl. Our chapter had organized for the day a very traditional Japanese New Year’s celebration of Mochitsuki. There would be opportunities for the many gaijin who were coming to try mochi pounding for themselves (pounding rice into a traditional sweet snack) and to listen to huge taiko drums pounding out notes that tell old stories while dragons swirled in front of them. It was going to be a full day for the Kamakura chapter.

I arrived at the private house and gardens behind the Great Buddha early in the morning to be transformed. The chapter had chosen me to be dressed and decorated in traditional kimono fashion, which meant at least an extra hour of getting ready once I got to the house. I had never been past the main room where events are held, so it was an honor to be escorted through this amazing and lovely Japanese house. It took all I had not to gawk at everything around me or to peak into rooms that I passed. I’m one of those people who loves to drive down streets and peak into open windows… usually an impossible task in Japan where high walls and security doors block out any voyeuristic possibilities. The kimono dressing sensei and her team were already set up in a room towards the back of the house. The quickly rushed me to sit down on two fluffy floor pillows in front of a mirror, where two of the three went straight to work. One painted my face in heavy pinks and reds while the other curled and teased my hair into the beginning stages of an updo. The hair dresser tucked bits of soft and fluffy brown plastic that looked almost like a brillo pad into the sides, pinning my hair over it to really give it oomph. When she had it all up in place, she added Japanese ribbons and gold and sparkly jewels that dangled over my forehead. It all felt very much like I was some sort of geisha being prepared for the evenings consorts. Once the hair and makeup were down, I was made to strip down as the started adding layer upon layer of kimono to me. In ancient days, the more layers you wore meant the higher your status in society. All those layers were hundreds of pounds though. Today’s dressing using light layers and even some that would be called dickeys (what a seriously awful name) in American culture. Our chapter president and the sensei had already chosen a pink kimono for me to wear, which was laid out and pressed waiting to be draped and tied onto me. In my mind, kimono is for the skinny Japanese woman. Not some tall, chunky American woman who may have lost all of her baby weight, but the body certainly hasn’t recovered its previous shape. But sensei squeezed and pulled and tucked and tied until I was ready to be presented. I was shocked at the reception that awaited me out of the room.

Our president had asked me to be at the door to greet everyone as they came in. I spent the next thirty minutes hearing how I looked beautiful, most fervently from the Japanese who understand the work behind kimono… compliments ranging from “you look like a doll” to “you look like Madame Butterfly.” I blushed madly the entire time, shy about all the compliments, but really felt wonderful thanks to their words. Often times someone would stop and ask if they could take a picture of me or with me. I happily obliged with cheeks sore from all the smiling. After a spell, another one of our members who is actually Taiwanese came out to join me in kimono as well. Her husband had also donned the traditional costume of the samurai, but he would stick more to the sidelines throughout the day.

Once everyone was settled into their seats, the program began. As I said, it was a big day. We had special guests like the Maria Cuna, the Ambassadors Wife from Mozambique, and her friend, another Ambassadors Wife, but I sadly forget where from, as well as several past I.I. presidents from various other chapters. As they were seated in the front row, the glass wall that faced across the garden was opened where the taiko drum group were all ready to go. The group’s name is Fugaku Taiko and I learned some very interesting information about them that day thanks to the research of our Programs person. She revealed that some members of the group are professionally trained therapists while others have a disability. Fugaku Taiko had toured the United States earlier in 2008 doing performances and conducting a series of workshops promoting taiko drumming as a form of therapy for disabilities such as Down Syndrome and Autism. The incredibly enthusiastic way they all played, it was hard to think that they have even more impressive lives outside of taiko drumming. Every song was played with such intensity and energy as they pounded in perfect sync on a series of different drums. Adding to one song was the famous dragon dance where two members hidden into coiled dragons swirled and twirled around themselves and each other.

As they completed their act, the next part of the program, a man with boundless energy and stand-up comic humor came onto the scene. He and several others dragged out the hollowed wooden “bowl” where mochi waited to be pounded into the perfect sweet. One man kept time with his own tiny drum while the others clapped and chanted, teaching the crowd the correct words to be said when each pound was made. When the lesson was over, our master mochi maker asked for volunteers. At first, people were a bit shy, but it didn’t take long before young and old alike were hopping down into the garden to take a few swings. When one wee thing of a girl climbed down to try, they handed her one of the smallest hammers to be found. I can’t see how a hammer like that would even make a dent, but it was so sweet watching her swing this thing that was perfectly sized for a tot over her head and onto the mochi. I thought I was hidden in the back well enough, but our president found me. She insisted that I go out and try. Only one problem, as I had been in the back, I hadn’t totally seen how you are to specifically do this. When the mochi maker told me I would go first and the gentleman across from me second, I really just decided to literally wing that hammer and hope for the best. I was quite glad when the master finally called for us to stop, although in his humorous way, he had made us pound extra long compared to the previous efforts.

As mochi pounding came to a close, it was time for our bento box lunch, a mikan (something from the orange family) and oocha tea, followed of course by the freshly pounded mochi… one bite rolled in crushed peanuts and the other bite covered in sweet red bean paste. I ate as quickly as I could while hidden in the back, where I could actually sit without worrying that my inner kimono layers were showing or that someone would see me making weird mouth shapes to get bites in without messing up my glossed lips. As soon as I was done, it was back to work. While others continued eating and chatting, sensei took me up front for an obi tying demonstration. The obi is the piece that wraps the waist and apparently there are many ways to tie it artfully. I had started the day with a modern tie decorated by fluffy feathers peaking out the top and ended the day with a more traditional knotted bow, chosen only after she had shown the audience about five other ways to tie it as well. My job was only to stand there and try not to fall forward or backward as she tugged away.

As things were winding down, many guests took their opportunity to go out and try pounding out a correct tune on the taiko drums. While the drums didn’t look hard, the hand movements did, so I again avoided being pulled out for that.

Our group is all about sharing culture and getting the word out about the group and our activities only can add to the sharing. Therefore the president had made sure that the Japanese media was on hand for the day. Two papers sent journalists, the Kanagawa Shinbun and the Asahi, the major paper in Japan. Both of these papers had seen my husband on their front page several months ago. While I didn’t make the front page, I did end up in both Sunday editions. I’m sure the conbini store girl thought it very odd when I asked her which papers were which, then bought four of each. Why would an American who can’t even read the title of the paper buy so many of them? Because we Americans are just crazy like that, that’s why.

(And here... I have no idea what is up with the font. I've tried over and over to fix it, and it just won't cooperate. I'm too irate to continue trying. Deal.)

Other board members on both the Japanese and the American side had wondered why I hadn’t brought my little boy and husband along. The program was a special one meant for families. When they saw me in kimono early that morning, they even tried desperately to get me to call him and tell him to come in. But it was nice to spend a whole day out not worrying about a pipsqueak who would need a bottle every two hours. Plus, I would have a heart attack if my beautiful boy spit up on sensei’s gorgeous kimono. Changed back into my own clothes, it was time to head home. Tried from standing all day and walking in the strange but proper way, there was no place I was looking forward to than the arms of those waiting at home.

Thursday, January 8

101 Lifetime Goals

I’m not really a New Year’s resolutions kind of person. I prefer to make it a lifelong path to improving, experiencing and growing in all aspects of life. As I mentioned my friend recently, I too want to make myself accountable for getting all 101 lifetime goals accomplished. Some I do every year. Some need improvement. Some need their one time experiencing. Some are simply done. Those are separated out already. But here it all is! Let me know if you care to join me in a few! Or simply feel free to encourage.

101 Lifetime Goals
1) Visit all continents… except Antarctica (three down, three to go)
2) Visit all 50 states (25 down, 25 to go)
3) Continually try new things and not let fear or busy-ness stop that
4) Learn Japanese and Spanish more fluently
5) Read at least 30 new books each year, if possible from best classics’ lists only
6) Watch all of the best classic movies from Tinseltown
7) Let go of materialistic needs
8) Come up with a viable plan to help someone in dire need each year (abuse victims, genocide victims, etc)
9) Learn to control my anger from being my first response
10) Conquer an at-home pad thai recipe
11) Exercise at least four times a week
12) Learn upright styles of Ikebana
13) Return to creating art forms
14) Learn Japanese ink painting (sumi-e)
15) Let go of silly regrets and let the past be the past
16) Eat healthier on a daily basis
17) Learn to dress like a Gilmore girl
18) Drink more water
19) Save more money
20) Pay off all credit card debt
21) Skydive
22) Learn to swim without my fears
23) Practice and master yoga
24) Learn to knit more than a scarf
25) Learn to sew
26) Make my own skirts
27) Find my dream home with: a large porch/dark wooden floors/a library where you need a ladder to reach the top shelves/stained glass windows/a big kitchen
28) Finish cross-stitching Christmas stockings for Jeff’s family
29) Grow my own garden of flowers and vegetables
30) Locate all the flea markets and second hand goods stores wherever I live
31) Make sure Greg feels my love every day
32) Vacation or go camping with my extended family every year
33) Teach my kids to appreciate nature
34) Teach my kids to find their inner creativity and imagination
35) Maintain a size 12
36) Read the entire Bible
37) Learn to play an instrument at a proficient level
38) Get my husband and kids to join me in some type of charity work
39) Learn how to can food (applesauce, peaches) with my mom
40) Learn how to make wine with my mom
41) Learn how to quilt with my grandma
42) Drive an environment friendly car
43) Go hot-air ballooning
44) Take flying lessons
45) Own a bed and breakfast or a florist shop
46) Go whale watching and actually see a whale to prove their existence
47) Go on an African safari with Jen
48) Partake in La Tomatina while touring Spain
49) See the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona while touring Spain
50) Tour Vietnam and Cambodia and honor those who suffered or died there
51) Visit Australia and New Zealand for snorkeling
52) Visit the DMZ in South Korea
53) Travel to Russia
54) Scour Italy, particularly Tuscany, Florence and Vienna
55) Visit spiritual sites in India and walk along the banks of the Ganges
56) See the Great Pyramids in Egypt
57) Travel to Jerusalem to see the Wailing Wall
58) Hike Machu Picchu
59) Go camping and hiking in Patagonia
60) Visit Germany for Oktoberfest and to visit WWII sites
61) See the beautiful architecture in Switzerland and Austria
62) Tour Ireland
63) Buy a hammock for my own backyard
64) Own a beachfront cottage
65) Travel to Cuba with Jen
66) Develop a serious and regular meditation practice
67) Create an unshared nook in my home where I can nurture my inner spirit
68) Drive a scooter
69) Go bungee jumping
70) Buy a Harley
71) Zip line through a rain forest
72) Learn to take the perfect picture by learning everything about my camera
73) Learn all the words to REM’s “It’s the End of the World”
74) Witness a true miracle

Completed Goals
1) Life in a foreign country
2) Marry the love of my life
3) Finish my bachelor’s degree
4) Get a tattoo
5) Witness a birth
6) Go white water rafting
7) Go to a nude beach
8) Ride an elephant
9) Pet a tiger
10) Swim with dolphins
11) Hike the Great Wall of China
12) Go to a bull fight in Mexico City
13) Visit a Greek island
14) Visit the Parthenon
15) Drive down historic Route 66
16) Sit on the edge of the Grand Canyon
17) Party and gamble in Las Vegas
18) Go skinny dipping
19) Own a home
20) Pack everything and move far away from home for a fresh start
21) Pay a visit to the White House
22) Learn how to arrange flowers artistically
23) Go on a cruise
24) Experience Hawaii
25) Hold a tarantula with my bare hands
26) Have children
27) Re-up my CPR certification

Tuesday, January 6

Japanese Peculiarities #7

Today’s strangeness comes direct to you from the confines of my very own house. I’ve talked a little about this item when we first moved into our home over two and a half years ago, but it was only last week that I finally figured it out. The Japanese toilet.

When we moved in, our Japanese realtor provided us with a paper that had all sorts of Japanese kanji, hiragana and katakana characters that we would find around the house – on the washing machine, the dryer, the water temperature controls in the kitchen and shower, the microwave and the toilet. While it has been helpful in doing our laundry correctly, it doesn’t necessarily cover the others so well. With twelve buttons on our microwave, I still only know how to use the automatic start and automatic stop button. Sad, but I digress.

The Japanese people are truly inventive when it comes to the toilets. There are two things KH and I will be putting in our own American house someday: the large open shower room with the deep bath for lengthy soaking and the beloved toilet. The second is better than the first. If you remember pictures before, today’s home toilets are Western style and not Japanese squat-over-it-until-you-are-weak-in-the-knees style. Let me tell you all about what this little lovely can do.
It’s a sink, which the water turns on automatically after you flush. Helpful when there is no other sink in this tiny room. It’s a bidet. And not the European kind where you kind of have to squat over it. You need only sit there and push one of three buttons (depending on what area of your bum needs refreshing) to get the exact spray you are wishing for. When I was still pregnant, I must hope this is not too much information and admit that it was a godsend when you can no longer reach as you used to. There is also a button that makes water or flushing sounds so that no one will hear you as you go about your business. But the best parts are the temperature gauges. There is a temperature gauge for the bidet stream of water and for the toilet seat itself. The thing is… up until last week, we didn’t know how to turn these two things on.

When winter finally arrives here in Japan, the houses very quickly turn frigid and very dry. Heat is not central style like we are used to back home. You have to turn the individual room heaters on and then give it a half an hour until it warms up. You can’t run them tirelessly either unless you are a damn near millionaire in today’s economy. And you can be assured that there is never a wall heater in your tiny bathroom. The only thing to save you on that midnight pit-stop is the warmth of what awaits your backside. So to discover how to turn it on was a glorious occasion in the Kimono household. And it all happened by happy accident. I was sitting there with not much to do and started fiddling with the buttons that I still hadn’t figured out did what. I still can’t be sure I know exactly what I did to make it work, but there is heat! No longer will glacial seat or that frosty jet stream make us clench down in horror again. Really… you have no idea how high my level of excitement over this discovery really is.

Of course, I am worrying a bit about what happens come summer when those humid 100 degree days return. Mweh. I’ll worry about it then and simply enjoy now.

Saturday, January 3


And so we begin another year in the Land of the Rising Sun. First, to back track a little… Christmas was wonderful. Weird outside of our front door as usual, but wonderful. Kimono Hubby actually managed to spring more than a day or two off and his blackberry finally wasn’t the bane of our headaches during his time at home! During one such period of down time, we packed up and headed to Tokyo for a night. Boy oh boy… traveling with an infant requires some planning, doesn’t it? It was a wonderful trip though filled with shopping in Roppongi, lunch at our favorite Indian restaurant Moti’s and even a happy accident where we came across a German Christmas celebration that had been installed in the center of Roppongi Hills complete with Hefeweizen beer, apple pancakes, nutcrackers and handblown glass Christmas ornaments. A little taste of home… err… if we were from Germany. But it was more American Christmas than anything we had had yet!

On Christmas Eve, we made our trek into downtown Zushi to hit up our favorite curry bar and restaurant, Matchpoint, for our new traditional dinner of sashimi and curry. Our families had made sure that we had a good Christmas day by loading us up with gifts. We would receive one to two boxes at KH’s office every day; just enough to drive the administration people in his office quite crazy as they would stuff their tiny postal room with our bulky boxes. On Christmas morning, the Kimono Pipsqueak was covered in his gifts, leaving only his poor little head sticking out so he could gulp in some fresh air. He had little interest for the chaos, but we had a blast sticking things up into his face while he got freaky wide-eyed, more from excessive overstimulation than anything resembling wonder. As usual, Christmas is not a holiday that the Japanese people take off for (remember: most aren’t Christian and the Buddha just doesn’t look good in that big red hat) so everything was business as usual. Not for us though. We stayed huddled in our house with our miniature Japanese Christmas tree blinking away in all its glory.

The big family holiday here is of course New Years. When everything shuts down and the streets go silent as people nestle into their homes with their loved ones to pound some rice. We had a couple of friends over for my family’s tradition… play games that prove you are the smartest person in the room. Our friends aren’t much on Trivial Pursuit though, so I found other oddball trivia games that didn’t tax one’s brain too much. Last year, there was pretty much nothing to watch on TV except the Japanese New Year’s game show program that they watch every year. It really isn’t that funny to us when we don’t speak their language fluently. The Armed Forces Network did decide to treat overseas American citizens with a specially-made-for-us New Years Eve program that was to run in correct time around the world. Ahh… the best of intentions. At 10 pm, right in the middle of an excellent Jason Mraz performance, the satellite signal was lost and never returned. This left us with… pretty much nothing to count down the new year with except our friend’s atomic watch. The champagne was poured and so began our quiet countdown to the year 2009. I really wanted to go outside and bang some pots and pans or shoot off a shotgun just to show our Japanese neighbors how things are done, but I was discouraged by all. Party poopers.

The next days were yet quietly spent at home. New Years Day – I made the traditional Pennsylvanian good luck pork and sauerkraut. Then the next day we were in the mood for some good ramen. We bundled up, Kimono Pipsqueak in 18 layers of clothes, and headed down town on foot. It took us only making it one block before we realized the fault in our logic – this is Japan’s biggest holiday of the year. Everything was still very, very closed. Leaving me to come up with a dinner plan and fast. Thank God for the inventor of spaghetti and Ragu.

And here we are in 2009. Wow. I feel old. Okay, not really at all. I feel pretty darn vibrant for my 35 years! Life is good. Sure, there are a few things I could work on to make it better. A few New Year’s resolutions, like… lose another 15 pounds since all the pregnancy weight is gone, stay healthy and out of the doctor’s offices for at least one whole month, finally hang the clothes on the floor of my closet up… but mostly, I am just going to enjoy more of the same good life I have been living with a loving husband and a beautiful new son. I am actually working on updating my ‘100 Things to do before I die’ list and will be posting that in the next week or so. A dear friend put her list of 16 on her blog as inspiration to get ‘er done, so why not put my whole stinking list on mine so someone can give me a good kick in the rear to keep at it. (Note that we match up on one very particular travel-related one and I say I’m all for 2010, my friend!)

For now, I’m off to enjoy another sunshine-y 50 degree day. Here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and truly blessed New Year!