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Monday, May 25

Kimonos Down Under: Day Two

Like every day that we awoke in Australia, we could hear varying degrees of rainfall intermingled with the crashing of ocean waves outside our open windows. Our second day would be no different, but we weren’t concerned because our plans were to take ourselves deeper into the rainforest. And what is a rainforest without rain?

As we waited in front of the hotel for the shuttle bus, the rain cleared and it began to look like it would be a brighter day. However, only minutes later, it was pouring heavier than it had all morning. We were happy to see the shuttle bus pull up and drive us to the station for the Kuranda Scenic Railway, where we would take a train that would slowly wind its way around the mountains until we arrived at the village of Kuranda. I can’t imagine the people involved with envisioning and establishing this track. They would have had as tough a time as the Japanese prisoners who were forced to build the tracks from Burma to Thailand! Gorges that needed to be crossed, mountains that needed to be dug through, and wet and dangerous weather conditions that had to be endured certainly didn’t make the job easy; let alone, the simple tools of picks, shovels and dynamite which were used definitely didn’t help make it any easier. One story told on the train was of how robbers managed to pilfer a good deal of money from the train that was heading to Kuranda. They were never caught. Whatever wicked souls came up with that plan had to be pretty darn desperate to drag their asses up into those mountains, if you ask me.

Reaching the top after about an hour and a half, we arrived at Kuranda Station, which has been a tourist destination for over 100 years. Shops, restaurants and tiny zoos and museums all seemed to pay tribute to the traditional locals, the Djabugay people. These aboriginal rainforest people had their artwork displayed everywhere our eyes looked. Australian art is by far understudied in my passion for art, causing me to know very little about it, but I loved that it just didn’t remind me of anything else I have ever seen. You know how in Europe, Asia and Africa, there are traces of influence from so many cultures in art and architecture. In Australia, perhaps you could say that there was so African influence in color and technique, but subject matter was just so different. I know Australia was colonized by the British for many years, but it seems like, at least in this tourist area, Australia seems to have remained… well… Australian. I digress.

The afternoon was ours to do as we pleased. We strolled a few shops, but really were headed straight to the small zoo, Koala Gardens. I’m talking really small, but it had pretty much everything we were hoping to see in Australia when it came to wildlife: wombats, crocodiles, snakes, lizards, wallabies and the beloved koalas. Not only were these animals there to see, but a few were even there to touch! Before passing through one of the gates, KH and I each took handfuls of wallaby food from the hanging bucket. Several wallabies lazily lounged in the grass waiting for the tourists to bring the food to them. A few zealous babes, followed us around hoping we would give them everything in our hands, but we aimed to spread the wealth. With your palm open and the food cradled inside, the wallabies slide their teeth across your palm scooping up the tiny pellets. It seriously tickled. These must not be very aggressive marsupials because I didn’t see a zoo guide in sight. So I’m guessing that few tourists are ever mauled by the wallabies. Before you ask, no, KP was not given the opportunity to feed a wallaby. I’m pretty sure the food would only have made it to his own mouth and I was having none of that. Plus, why be the first people to ever be attacked by wallabies at Koala Gardens? Then we’d be those a-holes who ruined it for everyone else. Gah. No.

You know… I will add here that I really was hoping to see a kangaroo in Australia. They are supposedly like deer back home… they are everywhere! But the only place I ever saw one was dead along the side of the road… again just like deer at home. And in case you were wondering, their feet do not come together when they lie dead on their side either. I digress again.

Next stop was to hold a koala. I just had to do this! They seem so friendly and cute in pictures! But up close, do you know how long and sharp their dagger-like fingernails are? The woman shows you how to hold your arms and then plops the little guy into them. He immediately digs his claws throw your think shirt and into your shoulders and gut. Still cute, though! And lighter than my own little man! The women there took photos with their camera and then ours as well. They asked if we wanted to add our own little guy in with daddy for a family picture. Now daddy, does not have the hawk eyes like mommy. Instantly, Kimono Pip had a fist full of koala hair. I know these little devils have sharp teeth to match their claws, making me instantly nervous. I guess this guy was pretty tame because all the zoo keepers did was to zoom in for a closer shot of KP and his new friend. We switched positions then so KH could also snuggle up a koala. KH managed to come out poop free this time! Unlike his past experience with the baby tiger in Thailand. He was happy for that, but I was a bit bummed.

We spent the rest of the afternoon gorging our stomachs on all the delicious platters (read: like American, not Japanese) of meat and potatoes that Australia had to offer and picking up souvenirs for the family at home. Of course we got ourselves a beautifully painted boomerang which the shop guy flatly refused to let me throw out into the street. Party pooper.

Our trip back was to be by Skyrail Cableway this time. This is where the full realization came upon me that I have become one major chicken since becoming a mom. What has happened to me? I used to be so tough! Afraid of nothing! Now, as we traveled hundreds of feet in the air, dangling over deep, deep rainforest where it was impossible to see the ground below, I could think of nothing but how the steady rain that was now falling would surely make our cable car loose, slipping us off the line above and dropping us into the miles and miles of rainforest below. We actually looked around the abyss for civilization in case this happened… which way do you go? There was absolutely nothing though! I tried hard to keep KP sitting very still in my lap so we didn’t rock the cart even an inch. I also tried hard to remember if I ever saw a “Man vs. the Wild” show on rainforests. If we survived the impact, would we survive the plethora of poisonous critters that lived in the expanse below us? You may be thinking that surely someone in another cart would see us drop, but hot even fifteen minutes into the ride, misty clouds swirled over the mountains and we couldn’t even see the carts in front or behind us. The only way anyone might know we were missing was when the line came in empty at the next rail stop. And then where would they know to look in all that wet and gray? Freak. Ing. Out. I. Was.

Obviously, this anxiety was for nothing as I am clearly alive and writing this today.

Back at the hotel, we changed into nicer, drier outfits and headed out for dinner. It was pretty pointless to go for drier because as soon as we were outside, the rain started again. We chose Chiantti’s Pizzeria for dinner, an Italian place with lots of red checked tables under an awning, which allowed us to sit as close as possible to the ocean across the street. Salads of tomato, red onion and fresh mozzarella, bruschetta, lamb chops with garlic mashed potatoes smothered in a rich and spicy tomato sauce, and an even amazing spicy scallop and pasta dish, all topped with a bottle of South Australian red… we were barely able to walk back to the room and end day two.

Wednesday, May 20

Kimonos Down Under: Day One

Our red eye flight took us from Narita Airport in Tokyo to Cairns over the wee-est of hours. We had figured that to put our six-month-old on a seven-and-a-half hour flight without too much ear pain on other passengers, it might be best to travel during his bedtime. Shockingly, it actually worked. The Kimono Pipsqueak only woke up once, after another baby started belting out their own tune.

Just because the baby was sleeping did not mean that his mama would. I kept a vigil like only a new mother would. Rolling out of the airport and dragging ourselves to a cab at 4:30 in the morning our time, I was a bit bleary, at the very least. When we pulled up in front of the Sea Change Beachfront Apartments located directly in front of Trinity Beach, just north of Cairns, the sun was still yet to make an appearance. I was only too happy to start our first day of vacation by heading straight to the bedroom to crash face down into a fluffy pillow that I wouldn’t mind getting drool on. I wasn’t going to be cleaning it.

Our apartment had all the doors and windows facing the beach open to let the warm breezes into the apartment, so the temperature was perfect in all three bedrooms (yes… three… and not ordered that way by us) and the sunken in living room off the gigantic dining room and kitchen (of which I did not use beyond mixing a bottle for KP… or opening one for myself). The apartment could have held another two families in it. Did I mention that we got this place for free? That’s what you get when you fly so frequently and each dollar spent turns into points, of which you can get a free 5-star hotel with. But upon arrival, I didn’t notice much of this beyond the big king size bed in the master bedroom just waiting for the then collapsing matter that was me.

A good three hour nap and I was refreshed enough to notice that the sun had come up and KP was beating me in the head with his fat little fists begging for his morning chow. After rushing through the morning process, we headed down to formally check-in and to book tours for the upcoming days. The hotel had been great about emailing us before our arrival and giving us ideas of what they thought was the best in the area, most of which we had already decided to do, but they helped with what the best tour companies were. Once they made all the arrangements for us, we headed straight for the beach.

This was a big trip of firsts for our tiny man. The beach was among them. I know, I know… we live in a beach town in Japan, but I have yet to get him down to the actual beach. Bad mommy. But it is the same stinking ocean; just a different spot to enter it.

Now there is something very important about entering the ocean in Australia. You don’t just go to it. Nope! You stay only in the netted areas. You know why? Did you know that most of the world’s poisonous critters live in Australia? Snakes, spiders, jellyfish, sharks… even killer snails which I read about in one of our travel books! We even found a children’s book later in the trip that told a tale about poisonous spiders that live under toilet seats. How the hell do you potty train a kid after that, I’d like to know??

The season for box jellyfish ends at the end of May, but being the middle of May, what wouldn’t be a good idea would be to put our feet into the ocean outside of a netted area. I wouldn’t even walk in the surf or near where it was leaving its debris just in case one was lying along the beach. They are still poisonous even when beached. Australia officials aren’t kidding about this stuff either! One sting could kill you! Apparently vinegar can help. I wondered how the hell to pack that and in the end just plain didn’t, so I was happy to find that they had hollow, metal poles with bottles of vinegar tucked inside. I guess you pour it on and then pray like hell you can get someone in this sleepy beachside town to get you to a hospital in time before you kick it. Again, we just didn’t risk it. We headed straight to the netted area, which was a stone’s throw from our hotel and stuck KP’s feet into the first roaring wave that came toward him. I thought he might cry out, but I am again happy to discover that mama didn’t raise no wimp. He squealed with laughter, which only made us do it again and again. But then, mama was getting very hungry.

With three pairs of sandy feet, we headed further down the beach street in search of breakfast. I guess it was more brunch by this time, but we did come across a very promising place that we had viewed in a guidebook at the hotel… Blue Moon. KH got some platter with special Aussie sausage, beans and toast and tried to order over easy eggs of which the waitress had no idea what they were. They call them dippy where I come from, but I didn’t think that would help him order, so I refrained from opening my own mouth in what was becoming a humorous disaster. The waitress had a deep Aussie accent and used a lot of native words, so we only understood about every third word, even though she was speaking English. After a few jaunts back and forth to the chef trying to expound on the eggs KH wished for, his order was finally set. I figured I better go easy on her and just order the breakfast rhubard trifle. I never had rhubarb before! Stringy. But it was a delicious start to our Aussie cuisine experience.

Then it was off to the market up the road. We asked the waitress for directions before we headed out and she gave us a funny look that we were walking there instead of driving. It was only ten minutes away. No self-respecting Japanese person would ever take a car for a ten minute walk… but an American would! Sadly, we had no car, so we had to remain Japanese for the moment.

We entered the IGA not quite sure what to expect. Everything looked reasonable normal, but it also looked very generic. We did encounter another grocery store later in the trip and discovered that not all grocery stores have such generic labels, but seriously this place looked very, very generic. In the cold section, we discovered just how much Aussie’s love their dogs. They had massive sausage like tubes of dog meat in the cold case, right next to the butter! I mean… seriously freaking massive tubes of meat. With a dog on it. For your dog. For real? If anything should look generic, I would think it would be dog food. This was a major switch. The dogs eat better than the humans. Freaky world. But then this is also the freaky world of Vegemite. Of course, I know the song. Of course, I sang it over and over while there. So of course, I had to try Vegemite. I mean, it’s supposed to be a staple that all Aussie’s grow up on! They eat it like Americans do peanut butter! I purchased the smallest jar I could find and a bag of (generic) English muffins to put it on.

We left the store and headed back to the hotel so I could try my Vegemite. So excited, was I for this true Aussie culinary experience! First (and only, consequently) bite… while I have never eaten crude oil, it is the only thing I can think to describe it as. Salty, brown film… so not for me. The taste would have stuck with me for hours if my husband didn’t suggest heading out to the bar down the street and having a drink while watching the ocean. I think I ran the whole way there.

L’Unico was on the major corner of the intersection where people enter Trinity Beach. We must have sat there for two hours and not seen more than ten or so cars go by. We sat there for so long because the drinks were so damn good! Something… dragon… something. Oh…my. You wouldn't remember their name after a few either! Since having the baby, I am thinking that my tolerance might not have returned. Two of these drinks and I was flying very high. After a few beers, KH joined me with the dragon drink and he too quickly caught up to my enlightened state. And what was KP doing during all of this, you ask? He was there. Sleeping. You will find that many times when things were getting rowdy over the course of the trip, he would find that the perfect opportunity to sleep. So now it was getting on late afternoon and we were getting those munchies you get after a few good cocktails. We thought we would walk up to the little market and buy some beers to take back to our hotel room and grab something to eat later on. We made it to the beer store right around the corner, passed a woman who thought we knew our way around and asked Greg where to get fish and chips around there. He directed her fifteen minutes up the road to where the grocery store was and we had seen a little place. Then, on the way back to the hotel, we never made it past the fried food stand on the opposite corner from L’Unico. The smell was just driving us in our intoxicated delirium straight to it. I went for the calamari and chips while KH got… wait for it… fish and chips. We felt a little bad about misdirecting the woman earlier, but then felt even worse when she walked past us sitting there with our beers and battered bowls of goodness. Oh yes, she noticed us. Oops.

Completely stuffed and, one might say, completely drunk, we waited until the sun set over the water and then let the moonlight direct us back to the hotel. Bringing to a close our first day down under.

Saturday, May 16


Boy oh boy, do I have much to blog about.

I should really get on that.

And stop being such a slacker.

Se here goes with, at the very least, the first bit…

While this may not be very interesting to anyone reading this blog, it is pretty darn interesting to me. And since this forum is essentially my way of documenting my time in Japan, I’m writing about it! On May 3rd, Ikebana International Kamakura Chapter, the cultural organization that I have been a part of for my past three years here, two of which were spent on the Board, has been dedicated as a Friendship Society to the U.S. Naval Base in Yokosuka. What this means is basically that the Japanese and Americans who are part of the organization are forever ‘tied’ to one another. Well, we hope so anyway in that neither side’s leaders will ever go ballistic again and hurt the other and irrevocably sever these ties. What it also means is that we got to have a beautiful cherry tree dedication and stone monument placed on naval base grounds. And we got to have a party! Who doesn’t love a good party?

The day was all about honoring the past history of Japanese and American cultural exchange and looking forward to a continuing friendship for all time. In honor of this, past president’s of the Kamakura Chapter, as well as of Headquarters located in Tokyo, were invited to the celebration. Captain Daniel Weed, the CO of the base also attended the ceremony, giving a touching speech and shoveling the first mounds onto the cherry tree. I shoveled a few in there myself.

And now the baby is awake and crying so there will be no more blogging for today. Maybe tomorrow. Ahhh… who am I kidding? Next week. Or so.

Monday, May 4

I Aimed To Sit For A Day... And Sit I Did

As much as I have enjoyed the sunny and warm weather this past month, it felt appropriate that I awoke last week on Tuesday to the sound of a light rain falling steadily outside. For on that particular day, I was finally getting to do the one thing that I have always wanted to do here in Japan and never thought that I would have the opportunity… zazen meditation.

You see, zazen meditation is almost always done, and therefore taught, in Japanese. At least here in Japan anyway. Japan is still strongly associated with the original Japanese religion, Shinto, and just as strongly, Buddhism. Buddhism did not originate in this country, but it has found strong roots here, particularly Zen Buddhism with its main practice being zazen meditation. Of all the cultural practices I have explored here in this country, I was eager to try a form of meditation that I thought would help me build on practices in which I already partake. I just never thought it would actually happen because it is rare to find a Japanese monk who speaks English well enough to teach foreigners how to do this. I mean… they really do have more important things to be doing with their time… like being on a constant quest to be a spiritually observant monk.

My babysitter for the day actually practices zazen herself, so she guided me on wardrobe choices: dark and comfortable clothes. Nothing constricting because you are going to be sitting for long periods of time in a position that few bodies every willingly put themselves in. I chose my favorite loose fitting olive green cargo pants and a simple black wrap sweater, feeling that I was still presentable in Japanese society, but appropriately modest for the meditation practice.

I arrived early to the Kencho-ji Temple, giving myself enough times to wander the grounds for a bit. Kencho-ji is the oldest Zen training temple in Japan, founded in 1253, and boasts the national treasures of its temple bell protected under a thatched roof. Crossing the two gates, the inner and the outer, the temple grounds then contain the Main Hall, the Lecture Hall, the Chief Priest’s Quarters, many other buildings and several huge Juniper trees that were grown from seeds brought with the founding Chinese priest and are reportedly 730 years old. As the rain poured down around me, I splashed my way from one building to the next taking in my ancient surroundings.

My last stop was the Main Hall, where I removed my shoes at the entrance, checked in and proceeded to the inner part of the shrine. My escorting monk instructed me to enter the room with my left foot first and then pausing to take a deep bow. A few others were already gathered and sitting quietly on the cushions that were lined up on either side of the altar, with two cushions placed in front of the altar for the monks who would be leading the meditation. The cuffs of my pants had gotten completely soaked in my wandering, leaving me with no choice but to sadly sit with them stuck cold and damp to my ankles. But zazen is all about letting your mind free of external thoughts, so I hoped it wouldn’t distract me once we got started.

When everyone was accounted for, about ten foreigners sat around the room. Two monks at the front of the room and four more at the back. Typically zazen lasts for about an hour without any breaks or even slight movement, but knowing that we were inexperienced at such endurance, the monks had broken the session up into three of 15 minutes each. Before starting, he gave us a brief explanation of how to sit. Lotus position or cross-legged is best but difficult for most foreigners. I went with the half lotus for the first session, but stepped up to full lotus for the second two sessions. Spine should be straight; swaying a few times helps until you are centered. Hands are placed on the abdomen with the fingers of your right hand on top of the fingers from the left hand and then placing the thumbs together to create an oval shape. Mouth is closed (no talking obviously as this is entirely silent except for the late portion of chanting) with your tongue placed against the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth. You then breathe quietly through your nose, with the out breath being longer than the in. The last step is to pull in your chin and extend your neck as though the top of your head is pointing at the ceiling, while the shoulders, back and abdomen are relaxed without changing the posture. This is the exact position you will remain in throughout the meditation, which takes less concentration if you put yourself correctly into position from the start. Oh and last thing… eyes are slightly open, cast downward at a 45 degree angle. I thought the positioning was simple, but I owe that to years of yoga practice. Others did not find it as comfortable and no one attempted the lotus except for myself.

A bell is rung and the zazen starts. The scent of incense fills the room. There is no talking, no sound, no movement. You need to tune out the footsteps of the monk passing in front of you, the sound of the rain falling outside and anything else that might distract you. You’re only goal is to bring yourself inward and erase all thoughts from your mind. This quiet thinking is meant to clarify your mind and bring you to the truth of what is your real self, out of the fog of illusion or clouds of ignorance. If your mind wanders, you refocus until it is clear again. “To grasp the wisdom of emancipation while within the dust and suffering through sitting is zazen.” This is taken from How to Practice Zazen, a guidebook the temple gave us at the day’s end. The hardest part is truly clearing your mind and anyone who has ever tried any type of meditation can attest to that. Little things pop in all the time that need to be swept away, but with practice and patience it can be achieved. Will I ever be a person who meditates daily? Doubtful. But will I be a person who knows the technique well enough to do zazen when I’m feeling anxious and stressed? Hopefully. I wish I could say I will do this regularly, but my mama taught me not to lie.

So the monk is walking around the room on the first session just helping people correct their posture or breathing. He never once stopped on me so I think I have it down pretty well. As the session ended, the monks had chosen to do another form of zazen to help us foreigners get the blood moving again. He gave us time to stretch our legs and prepare for the next practice: mindful walking. Without talking again, and with hands placed over our chest, we were instructed to line up and silently walk around the wooden hall. The same mindfulness and emptying of your mind should occur while doing this… terribly hard for a group of foreigners clomping across the creaky, wooden walkway and often distracted by the beauty of the zen garden or the site of the other temples on the grounds. But we tried.

After our ‘lap’, we came back and sat and prepared to meditate again. This second session, the monk added in the board. Can you guess what they do with the board? They hit you with it… that’s right! As he walks around the room and everyone silently meditates, if you want to be hit with the board, you cross your arms over your chest and bow deeply. He will then hit you with the board, twice on each shoulder. Who do you think was the first, and in this session the only, person besides a monk who asked to be hit? Good guess again. I’m a glutton for punishment. Does he hit hard? Yes. Enough to sting for some time after he has moved on. The point of this is that it is to help you back to mindfulness. As I said, zazen is an exercise in endurance for those experienced with it. You get dazed. You get sleepy. But you need to bring yourself back. This is supposed to do it. It worked for me. And I didn’t ask for that again.

The session ended, this time feeling even shorted than the first although it was the same length of time. Each one felt shorter and shorter to me, making me think an hour wouldn’t honestly be that tough for me to handle, even though I am quite green at this meditation. We stood, hands over our chests and walked the planks again. Back into the room for the final session of meditation. For this round, two or three more people asked for the board. I didn’t. Once was enough for now. Plus, I didn’t want to appear cocky when I am supposed to be connecting with my real self and the universe.

The final round of zazen came with chanting. The position stays the same, but this time you are chanting. We used cheat sheets, forcing us to alter our hands to hold it. The chanting is supposed to come from deep inside of you. It goes with the deep breathing you have already been practicing in silence, but there is something very cathartic about it. Only one problem for a novice like myself… there were no breaks on the page… just lines and lines of Japanese chanting. Somewhere around the middle, I lost my focus and lost my place on the page. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find your place again when reading a foreign language? It took me until then very end of the chanting to find the spot and start in again. Next time I will be more focused and not let this happen. I hope.

A hard day’s work of making myself a better person was completed. The monks typically have tea afterwards, so this was the plan for today. We were escorted into an upper tatami room where traditional Japanese tea and sweets was served. As with the meditation, even taking tea is done in mindfulness. Once we were done, the monks did open the room for discussion. Since this was the first time they had done this for foreigners, they were very curious as to our thoughts. Was it broken up acceptably? Was the cost okay? Was their English clear enough? Would we do this again? They asked for us to write some thoughts down. All I can say is that it was absolutely perfect. I felt serene and energized at the same time. I felt like I had learned an important way of how to slow my often crazy mind. The skills I learned that day could be beneficial in many instances of daily life, if only I slow down enough to use them.

The monks informed us that they will be doing this three or four times a year in English at the Kencho-ji Temple and were hoping we would return to do it again. I surely hope to. As I mentioned, my babysitter does this on a weekly basis, but it is done in Japanese. Maybe not just yet, but soon, I think I could join her at her temple.

Leaving Kencho-ji Temple with my gift of incense and the zazen book, I felt charged. I flew for days on a high. Maybe it was the experience… or maybe was it the zazen was already taking effect?