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Tuesday, December 7

A Long Overdue Goodbye to Japan

As anyone who read this blog on a regular basis in the past, you have probably already figured out that the big, sad move day has long come and gone.  I sit here now physically settled in to our new home back in the United States, but far from mentally settled.  Even with almost six months behind me on this side of the Earth, it still feels like we should be getting on a plane and heading home to Japan any moment.  Obviously, I know this isn't going to happen.  I know we are here.  For good.  Or whatever that means when a job really maintains the control of your physical locale.

Why haven't I written sooner?  What can I say.  I guess I just can't find the right words to say goodbye.  Not to Japan or to this blog.  Even my mother has been insisting that I get on the computer and say a few words.  A few or many.  We'll see how this plays out.  I've written this post a hundred times in my head.  Let's see what I can do with a keyboard finally.

So Washington, DC it is!  Our nation's capitol!  And, oh, how I haven't missed it.  I know my issues have a lot to do with culture shock.  Everything here is... well... thoroughly different from where we spent the last four years of our lives.  These years, mind you, are where we spent the majority of our time as a couple.  Where we built our life.  Where we had our first child.  Practically our entire joint history is wrapped up in a country that we don't actually belong to.  But then it also feels like we don't belong here either, even as true born and bred Americans.  Again, culture shock.  It took me ten months when I moved to Japan to accept where I was and to actually enjoy (and love) being there.  I guess I can only assume that it will take just as long to fall back in love with DC.  But who are we kidding.  It is highly unlikely that there will be any love flowing to DC from me, but I am hoping for sincere acceptance.  For now I am just going to hold out hope that we get our next assignment and I get to move again before I develop any relatively solid positive or negative feelings for the current locale.  Is that wrong of me?  Maybe.  But as I have said since we found out it was going to be DC, it is what it is.  Moving on.

This post isn't about how I feel about DC anyway.  I honestly haven't even really had the time to think much about my new locale anyway.  MUCH has been going on.  Oh so very much.  Between shuffling around hotels, a lot of remodeling in our condo, buying cars and phones, unpacking from three separate shipments, address changes, catching up with old friends, and we found out the biggest news that we are expecting baby number two, who has time to fret?  Ultimately, it's a very good thing for that last reason that we are back here in DC, where the doctors are amazing and can get me through whatever might come.  But it still doesn't stop me from missing our beloved Japan.

With all of this going on, I do surprisingly find plenty of time to mourn the many things I miss about living in Japan.  And I miss oh-so-many things!  The good and bad.  Although, if I made a pros and cons list about living in Japan, the pros continue to outweigh the cons when it comes to what's in my heart, but not so much in my head any more.  Gotta be practical, right?  Much of my family and friends have found this little revelation of where my heart lies to be rather... mystifying, I guess.  But they never lived in Japan and many of them have never even lived out of the country.  They never had a chance to experience an opportunity like that... to embrace it for everything it was worth.  A chance to fall head over heals with a country so very different from the one they call home.

My incessant reflecting and reminiscing makes my head spin sometimes.  All those little memories will forever and lovingly stay in my mind, but they sometimes drive me crazy as they refuse to acquiesce to my new/old home.  It's hard, pretty much impossible, not to compare our life now to what it was just a few short months ago.  Therefore, it is hard, pretty much impossible, not to be frustrated at some of the changes we have endured, particularly financially.  Again, it is what it is, but it doesn't make me any less frustrated or heartsick at times when I think of my lovely life in Japan.

But this post again is not totally or truly about lamenting.  It is about celebrating.  It is about reflecting.  It is about the things I miss most about my past home.  Things like how there are no more massive shower rooms with extra controls for every kind of temperature and functionality.  There are no more heated toilet seats and bidet stream, found in every single bathroom (even the public ones).  Speaking of those bathrooms, there are no more spray seat cleaners in every stall.  It's back to hovering for me.  Tricky as the belly grows ever bigger.

There is no more big, lovely house to live in. No more quiet and perfectly safe neighborhood outside our front door.  Our first week in our new/old home found a murder/suicide right across the street.  We have no more yard to play in, filled year round with flowering trees and bushes that I swooned over.  No longer can we walk down the street to our favorite neighborhood restaurant where we always were treated to something extra special (and free!) with every meal.  Kimono Peanut is no longer swept into their arms and hugged, loved and shown off to everyone on the block, while we sat at our table knowing he was perfectly safe out of our sight for a few minutes.  No longer do I have a neighbor who cooked for me when I was sick, took me places I would never find on my own, taught me so much about culture, cooking and the Japanese way of life, and loved me and protected me like a second mother would do.  The beach is no longer a fifteen minute walk from my front door where I made weekly combing trips for shells, sea glass and sea pottery after a friend turned me on to it.

No longer are there ever patient and overly polite drivers on the road.  It's back to obscene gestures, yelling and honking.  When I use a turn signal here, it is virtually ignored.  I miss how that signal was an instant sign for people to politely move out of the current lane and let you safely into the highway.

I miss my Ikebana classes with my amazing sensei and seriously and impressively talented classmates.  I miss that the winter temperatures there average 40 and that isn't until February, whereas here it is already hitting the 20s, forcing me into early hibernation.  I will miss the gorgeous cherry blossom season where it seems the entire world turns pink for a month in Japan.  This year, there will be no more hanami parties, which find massive crowds gathered everywhere you look on those giant blue tarps.  No strangers will hand me a sakura chu-hi I pass by them, just so I can raise a glass with them and toast the glory of that pink world that surrounds us. 

No longer will I be able to buy sake in juice boxes or individual glass jars at any corner conbini.  There is no more easily accessible shochu with which one can make those glorious chu-hi's.  No more chu-hi stands, where fun and trouble always waited.  We can't wander down the street outside our front door and ponder over whether dinner should be yakitori, yakiniku, shabu-shabu, okonomiyaki, tonkatsu, corn/potato/mayo pizza, or one of the myriad of other Japanese dishes I don't know what I will do without.  We order from a boring, English menu now as we no longer have to guess what the presented plastic food or the picture is supposed to be.  The novelty of eating out all seems rather dulled in the light of past adventures, if you ask me.  I rather liked pointing randomly at whatever writing looks like the most fun for a serving of the perfect mystery dinner.  We can even wear our shoes to enter a restaurant now, or a home, for that matter which just seems so... unsanitary.  And I really miss the plethora of corner crepe stands, where ingredients like a tuna salad, hot dog and corn mix were just as popular as the fruit and cream variety of ingredients.  No longer can I take a short walk to any corner to raid the waiting vending machines that always had the widest selection either hot or cold beverages, depending on the season and your fingertip needs. Who will make my mochi cakes and rice sweets and where in the world will I find azuki bean sweets?

There are those things that I didn't think I would miss because I had deemed them bad when I lived in Japan, and yet now they don't seem to be even half as abominable as I once made them out to be.  The 14-hour flight to see family and friends in the states seemed a pain at the time and yet it is not so daunting anymore.  On winter mornings in our house, we could see our breath in the air as it took some time before the different ways of heating a house in Japan warmed even a square foot up.  This week, I've already come to discover that our first floor seems almost as cold in the mornings until the sun does its job and streams in the windows to help the central heating.  This summer, we didn't deal with massive summer spiders, cockroaches and tiny fruitfly-like things in our house.  Instead it was stink bugs.  I think I will take back, at least, the spiders and cockroaches which were much easier to play the catch and release game.  Sure, we had daily earthquakes in Japan and often the subsequent tsunami warnings, but it really was something we grew so accustomed to that it didn't bother us nor did we seem to even notice towards the later years.  We no longer have typhoons, but they are essentially the same thing as hurricanes so we haven't gained or lost a thing here, have we?

In all my reflecting, there is really only one thing that I don't miss at all.  not even a little bit.  My beautiful, but pain-inducing, all white kitchen.  Sure, it was overly dazzling with it's white tile counters and white marble floors, but it was a royal pain in the ass to clean and even worse to cook in.  The sinks were much too low for a taller American like myself.  Sure they were built for Americans, but they need to add yet another inch or two for my own stature.  I hear from my old neighbor and friend that the American living there now is much shorter than me, so I am sure she finds it perfectly fine.  But if this little glitch is all I can come up with for what I don't miss and didn't like about Japan, I would say my last four years there were one huge success.

So how do you then say goodbye to a place that seemingly, or at least to me, had only one flaw?  How do you move on with life in another city, another country, another hemisphere?  How do I find the gumption to leave that beloved past in the past?  I'm not sure.  But I will find out.

For now, though, all I can commit to is a perfunctory, halfhearted goodbye to Japan and my time spent pouring out my heart and mind in an online discourse to that country which I won't soon, or perhaps ever, see again.

Thank you Japan for everything you have given me.  I am truly honored to have spent time getting to know you and love you.

Thank you all for reading and the occasions where you wrote to me.  I am truly honored for your support and for the thoughts you have shared.

All that is left to say is... sayounara. Mata jiki ni ome ni kakaritai to omoimasu.

Monday, June 28

One Night In Tokyo

I like vampires.  I like Alice in Wonderland.  I like beer.  So what could be a better to celebrate my time here in Japan than a night in Tokyo with some dear friends at a few bars which are highly accommodating to these personalized likes?  When it's time for celebrating, there is nothing like a good theme bar to make it a fun night.

We had our sights set on two spots in the Ginza area of Tokyo, the Vampire Cafe and the Alice in Wonderland Cafe.  I spent my day trying to reach someone at both locations who spoke English and could make my reservations.  Of course, I had zero luck with this and only ended up annoying some people on the far end of the telephone line, but I was not to be deterred.  I don't often beg for help from Japanese friends, but in this case I did.  Of course, I only begged for help on one place, so that was all the help I got.  But it did land us with a 9:00 pm reservation with the vamps.

Setting out at 6:00, we just hoped that the earlier hour would get our small group in with Lewis Carroll's funny friends.  Armed with maps (in Japanese kanji), we got off at the Ginza stop and meandered the streets  looking for our first destination.  A few kind souls did stop and help us after I gave them my sad, pitifully lost face allowing us to finally take the elevator up to the tiny, well guarded entrance to the Wonderland Cafe.  Sadly, all the effort was for nothing.  A kind sir with his top hat, lapels and gold pocket watch could only share that they were completely full with reservations.  Bah.  Still, I was not to be turned away so quickly.  Perhaps I wouldn't be dining and drinking down the rabbit hole that evening, but I was damn well sure that I would at least take a stroll in this strange world.  Fortunately, our kind door rabbit was obliging, allowing us a quick peak around a room full of waitresses in blue and white pinafores, giant tea cups to sit in, and the many well-coiffed "Eat Me" treats that grace their strange menu.  But this would have to be all we saw before we crawled back out of the rabbit hole.  It's a shame too, because thanks to my English-to-Japanese translation book, I had learned to say "I take mushrooms occasionally."  It's not that I do take mushrooms other than the garden variety kind (and even those I am squeamish about), but if the book provides the line, then it surely wants someone to say it, right?  Ah well.

Back into the night air, we decided that in the available time prior to our later reservation, we would head back a block to the Sapporo Lion Beer Hall, which just so happens to be the oldest of such places in Japan, built in 1934.  That means it survived the World War II bombings in Tokyo.  This fact isn't so surprising once you step inside of this brick and mortar strong house and see the immense, Industrial-Gothic styled tiled columns strategically placed along the outskirts of the room.  To the far end from the entrance is the most massive marble bar these eyes have ever seen with a glass tile mosiac showing the scantily clad harvesting crops and writhing in ecstasy.  I read that in earlier, more modest days, these figures were covered with paper to preserve the patron's integrity.  In these modernly promiscuous days, no one even blinks at the sight.  I did take pictures of all this, but they are sadly trapped on my camera, which is refusing to communicate with the computer I am currently using.  Alas.  I will hopefully add them one day in the near future. 

The food here.  Ahh... so good.  Beer and pub food in all its glory.  Beef and potato croquettes and soft pretzels piled high on a stick are of my highest suggestion.  There are a few German beers, but we mostly stuck with the namesake of the Ebisu Lion.  Perhaps a beer hall was not the original theme plan of the night, but it proved to be more than satisfactory to our evening's activities.

As we did have one solid reservation, we paid our tab and headed back out into the ritzy streets of Ginza to find another bar surely hidden in some obscure corner of the neighborhood.  We had a map.  In Japanese.  And we tried placing it into some sort of respect to the other two locations we had previously found, but it took us only moments to realize that with varying scales, we were just going to have to wing it from the single map provided by the destination.  Once we figured out which tiny side street the map was showing, we just started walking.  Only once did we stop and a man pointed us onward in the direction we had been heading.  Either we were getting better at reading the maps or this place was easier to find, because it wasn't long before we were in the correct elevator.

When exiting the elevator, an evil laugh from the darkness made us all jump.  Turns out those cheesy Halloween props can still support their original purpose of the quick thrill.  Thick velvet drapes line all the walls, obscuring whatever was beyond the entryway and, later, whatever was occurring in those private booths.  The floor glowed with red platelets until you pass into a main room where tables rest directly over coffins long coated in dripped red wax from the candelabras placed upon them.  Skulls and spiderwebs graced corners here and there.  Little Lolita waitresses in black and white french maid outfits scurried to the several hidden tables while Baroque music made the vibe a little more classic than cheesy Goth.  (The one picture here is courtesy of dear friend and fellow vampire bar lover Davida, who, unlike myself, can make her camera and computer talk to each other.)

My purpose was solely to drink some blood.  Not the real stuff, mind you, because EW.  But that menu was sure to have something that looked enough like it to satisfy my sick curiousity.  The care is mainly a ritzy eating establishment, but since we had already partaken in several courses prior, we stuck with ordering dessert.  A chocolate creme cake with bat wings and red glazing spilled around it was perfectly adorable while the chocolate and berry dessert pizza was so-so good to me.  The drinks were still where my mind was at.

First drink.  Some creamy type juice, made lychee, mixed with a lot of I-don't-know and a shot of a thick red berry juice served on the side which you poured in.  It was tasty.  Especially for not knowing what we were drinking.  For the steep cost, there was surely alcohol in it, but our taste buds must be withered from our years of adult beverages because we didn't taste or feel a thing.  For the second shot, we went with a clearer red cocktail with lots of crushed ice and tiny rose petals on top.  Again, we have no idea what we were drinking.  I guess there was alcohol.  Again, the price would make one assume.  But the flavor was so beyond odd for a drink, that it took me a bit to finish it off.  If I had to nail down a flavor, I would say it was like drinking your grandma's antique rose perfume water.  I guess vampire are big on the luxe and the roses, but I'm doubting any self-respecting vampire would drink the red beauties.  Of course, I made a further mistake by ordering the thick red-looking shot on the side... something that turned out to be like an intense bloody mary.  Please do me a favor and never mix your roses and tomatoes together.  It's just wrong.  And your stomach will fault you for your stupidity at some point in the hours later.

While it wasn't one of the Tokyo theme bars I totally fell in love with, I'm always up for enjoying some strangeness.  If this hadn't been a goodbye to Japan night, I would totally go back again.  Perhaps many years in the future.

Neither me nor my friends relish the idea of sleeping in the train station for the night, so we made sure to catch the next-to-last train back to Zushi.  You always plan for the next-to-last which gives you that tiny cushion in case you miss it.  Many a business man has made the mistake of thinking they can make it from the bar to that last train and, after missing it, end up lying in wait for the 5:00 am train on the cold, dirty tile of some subway station using their briefcase as a makeshift pillow.  I hated to think of my pretty Coach bag being put into such an incommodious position.  Especially when my Serta Memory Foam pillow waited at home for me.  Damn, I'm getting old.

Friday, June 25

Combing Hayama Beach

By far one of my favorite goofing off activities in Japan has come to be beach combing on Hayama Beach.  This is a pretty recent pastime too.  It all started a few months ago when I finally got a chance to see some jewelry art that a friend here creates.  She had told me years ago that she worked with sea pottery and I think I did a general head nodding as if I had a clue as to what she was referring.  I didn't.  Not until I saw her beautiful display.  For someone that is fascinated with blue and white Japanese pottery (I have quite the collection) as well as by those perfectly rounded and buffed pieces of blue and green sea glass you are occasionally lucky enough to find on any foreign shore, the discovery of a sea pottery in the same earthy, rubbed state is enough of a combination to make my head perpetually swoon. 

Add this love of mine with my child's love to constantly be out of doors and you have a natural winner of a day.

It's not that I taught him to pick out these pottery pieces in the midst of thousands of bits of shells and rocks, but he, in all his toddler eagerness to help, is all too happy to sort through the jumble under our feet.  He uncannily knows what I am looking for.  While he may not get me the prized blue and white pottery pieces that I look for, he does pick out quite a handful of gorgeous all-white pieces for me to sort through.  I'm not saying my kid is a genius, but for someone that goes into a hourly state of near ecstasy when he finds a good rock, I'd say this is an impressive eye for sorting good shards from the rest of the litter for a wee one.

The legend of this pottery, found everywhere and everyday on Hayama Beach and parts of Kamakura beaches, is that sea vessels long ago ship wrecked in the area found their pottery sunken with them. The pieces have taken hundred of years rolling along the depths until they have washed up, perfectly weather, on today's sandy shores.  It's a good story, but I'm not sure I am a believer.  I'm thinking maybe the housewives who accidentally break a piece of china here or there, take it down to the cliffs and toss it over just so they don't have to do yet another sorted bag in that week's recyclables.  I kid.  Kind of.  Whatever the reason for its appearance, I'm just so very glad it does.  And so is Peanut.

Thursday, June 24

Misty Mornings Spent at Kamakurayama's Rai Tei

In the essence of our continuing goodbyes, our neighbor planned one more magnificent outing for us to share together.  Hidden in the mountains around the city of Kamakura is a place called Rai Tei.  On this misty, warm June morning, it was the perfect place for spending time reflecting on Japan and the many friendships we have made here.
A little history of this place with the majestic views of  Kamakurayama begins with its establishment in 1928 as part of a Japanese resort cottage subdivision, but in 1969, the owner converted it into a soba (buckwheat noodle) and traditional cuisine restaurant.  The main building was actually constructed during the Edo period and relocated to its current site as a residence for a wealthy farming family from nearby Yokohama city.  The entrance gate, San-mon, was erected in 1642 formerly at the Juen-zan Koshou-ji Temple in the Kamakura area, but when the temple was relocated to a different prefecture in 1931, the gate was erected here at Rai Tei.  

While the building and gate are extraordinary, it is the gardens here that I am in awe of.  A circuit-style garden covering approximately 50,000 square meters has views of everything from Buddha sculptures to 5-storied pagodas to nature in all its incredible glory.  On a clear day, Mt. Fuji will even make her surreal appearance over the mountains' treetops.  Of course, our drizzly day would not allow for that kind of long-distance view, but I was contented enough by simply basking in the cool breezes of the bamboo groves.  

Our friend held the hand of Kimono Peanut as he happily, despite it being somewhat laborious for his shorter legs, climbed up and down the moss-covered rock paths.  He remained his usual cheerful self, that lives to be out-of-doors every moment he possibly can, and waved hello to every single passerby, even when one small group forced him so far off the narrow pathway that he slide down a steep, wet incline into the tall grasses and mud of forest around him.  Not a tear did he shed, as he dusted off and continued dragging our friend onward.

Also eager to try the food after our little hike, we found a table next to the window where we could peer out into garden and beyond into the misty mountains.  We took off our shoes and sat down on the tatami mat in front of the low table, a table which turned out to be several hundred years old.  While it has surely stood the test of time, I was extra cautious to keep my wee boy, known for his awesome pounding skills, a bit further back from it than I normally would.  Soba is generally one of KP's favorite meals, but sadly on this day, he couldn't sit still long enough to eat for the life of him.  We each had a plate of soba and tempura, but I am sorry to report that I didn't spend much time tasting what I was eating and instead wolfed it down in my best effort possible to get KP out of there before the neighboring tables or the establishment threw him out.  He was all too thrilled when we put his shoes back on him and left him run out the door and back into the gardens.  If it hadn't been for a heavier rain coming down, we would have tried to spend more time meandering, but as it was, we decided to head back before we were all drenched.

As we headed home, all I could think about was how much I wish we could have visitors, particularly my mom, in Japan one more time.  Because this is the kind of place that my Japanese dreams are made of.

Friday, June 11

Roving About Enoshima Island

If there is one thing the guide books miss telling you about Enoshima Island, it is that it is one helluva hike.  This is the exact sticking point that, even if I had known, I wouldn't have shared with Kimono Hubby.  Since the arrival of the Peanut and his ever growing size, he tends to avoid all day long outings in Japan that require him to carry said heavy burden up and down numerous flights of stairs.  He still likes to throw the Korean infiltration tunnel in my face whenever their is a discussion about hiking with KP at our sides.  But I wanted to visit all of Enoshima Island instead of the glimpses along the edge that I had previously partaken.

So a-hiking we all went. 

Starting off the stroller managed to go from the parking lot, up the tiny stretch of the main street and was sadly left behind at the foot of (God bless!) an escalator!  It took us up the fist stretch where we strolled around a temple and watched people do figure eights in and out of a circle.  I'm sure it has something to do with luck or health, but I didn't look it up.  We took in the view and then headed for the next stretch of escalators.  There were to be two more and we would be to the lighthouse on the top of the island.

Arriving at this level, we saw the botanical gardens' entrance in front of us, but being more interested in the lighthouse that looked as if it was somewhere in the distance behind the garden, we passed by it.  Only then did we discover that the next stairwell went down, down, down.  And then around.  Great vistas surrounding us, but on this hot and humid June day, we didn't quite care to stop and look at this point except perhaps to take a moment and catch our breath.  Our mission was solidly the lighthouse and the rest be damned.

After several more flights up and down, we realized that the lighthouse was either a figment of our imagination or just very far behind us.  We could only assume that the entrance had to have been inside the botanical garden.  Looking back at all those stairs up and down, up and down behind us though, there was no way we were going back.  Onward, we went.

But just where were we going?  We had consulted the map, but honestly not very closely.  If we had, we might have seen that there really was no wrap-around pathway on the island.  Those stairs up and down that we had been climbing, we would be climbing them again in our near future.

Where we did eventually end up was the very far end of the island.  I know the island is only 4 kilometers long, but when it is up and down and all around, that adds a whole lot of clicks to the total calculation.

The sad part of the walk on this particular day is that the big draw for dragging your cookies the whole way over to this far side of the island is to get this majestic, uninhibited view of Mt. Fuji.  Guess what?  Like 80% of the other days in Japan, it was too hazy to see Fuji-san.  For as large as the mountain is, she really does know how to hide herself away from the public eye.

As if all this tramping and climbing hadn't reminded KH enough about that tough day back in Korea, we came to the very end of the pathway which lead into two ancient caves.  Two caves of which you needed to bend down very low and not burn your dangling hair or the babe in your arms with the only source of light you had, a tiny candle, which was handed to you on the way in.  When it got to the hardcore ducking, KH and KP stayed behind while I continued deeper into the mountain.  I will add here that the signs about earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis as you walk along the rocky outposts in this area did make me a little more nervous as I was deep inside of this cavernous mountain.  A tip: If you take the hike in yourself, try not to think about this fact whilst meandering in the mountains deep, dark core.

Once out of the caves, we consulted with another map and began to come to grips with the fact that the reverse walk was going to be just as bad.  Our footwear choice for the day, flip-flops, was also bemoaned as we began the trek back.  And yet again, my breakfast of champions, my daily Diet Coke, was not enough to get me through this.  We aimed to, at least, get ourselves past the entrance to the botanical gardens before pausing for lunch, but at the peaks of one of the stairwells, Kimono Peanut began to dilly dally his walking efforts and perform his tired stance (the one where he stands on his head), we realized we would have to stop sooner rather than later.  The choices along this route were excellent had it been just the two adults.  Lost of fresh seafood shown in the ever-present plastic displays, but this would not work for a ever-more-picky toddler.  When we passed a soba and tempura place that overlooked the ocean, we jumped at the chance to get our kid some plain noodles.  It also helped that the place was not yet crowded so if he did have a meltdown, there were a whole lot less witnesses to it.  Meltdown, he did.  Eat, he did not.  The quickly eaten meal provided just enough energy for us to carry KP up and down and around those last stairwells.  Remember the escalators coming up?  How helpful they were in spurts?  Well, there ain't nothing like that going down except for the volition in your own two legs.  When we finally got back to the stroller, the sun, the heat and the sweat was quickly ending our day.  We never did stop at the lighthouse on the way back.  The first issue was that we still weren't sure how to get into it, but the second was that it looked like it was another 500 stairs to the top, and there wasn't a chance in hell I was going to convince either of the boys with me that we should climb to the top just to take in the view.

We had also read that one of the shrines on the island held one of the few naked sculptures in Japan.  She apparently is a shrine for praying for success in entertainment and many actors and actresses visit her for help in their own fame and fortune.  We visited each of the shrines, but I somehow missed her too.  Oh well.  I didn't plan on being in the entertainment industry anyway.  I'm not sure that either KH or KP would agree, but just the vast island roving we had done was enough to satisfy me.

Shopping in the bottom, main street area looked like fun, but with only a few weeks left here, I am realizing that there is really nothing left in which I really want to buy.  We snacked on what looked like some unassuming potato balls and rice cakes, only to realize that the island's specialty of those tiny white/silver fish with the big black eye on the end were the main ingredient.  You couldn't taste them really, but just seeing that black eye floating in the middle of the creamy cheese substance in the middle of the ball was a bit too much for me.  The flat cake-like thing was surprisingly even worse, more so because of the gummy texture than even teh black eyes staring up at you.

Also cooking in front of several locations were chefs hard at work on conch, clams, oysters and squid on the grill.  Kimono Hubby had learned his lesson on the conch a few weeks ago at the Marine Park, but he felt that the clams might be a safe bet.  He was wrong.  Again, he bought two thinking I would be having one, again after I had already told him I was set on getting apple-mango ice cream, so he ended up eating both big, chewy clams.  As I watched him, I swirled down an Enoshima beer, the perfect top off on this hot day.  Insisting that he had to remove the clam taste from his mouth, KH backtracked to get himself an ice cream cone.

We meandered the outskirts of the island a bit more, gazing out at the sea to watch the myriad of boats on the horizon.  A line of cars had snaked itself onto the island and now sat in the hot sun waiting for one of the limited parking spots to open up.  They probably sat there with the typical serene Japanese patience, but I felt guilty watching the line never grow any shorter.  On top of that, it was way past someone's naptime and he was showing signs of physical wear, so we headed back to our car and made our way off the island.  Of course, driving down Route 134 on a summer day is a test in patience all by itself.  It took us over an hour to get back, a second reminder of how glad we were that we headed to the island super early that morning.

And let me tell you, those guide books won't tell you about that traffic either.

Thursday, June 10

Japanese Peculiarities #11

If there is one thing I know about, it is junk mail.  I truly say this in the most loving way.  Prior to my charades in Japan, I spent many, many hours, days and years creating it.  Of course, the much nicer name is 'direct mail'.

This isn't one of those careers that you choose.  It chooses you.  If you are lucky enough, like I was, you fall in love with it.  No joke, but I used to look forward to checking my mailbox to see if there were any cool letters and ideas in there that I could replicate, or better, one-up, for my clients. As you can imagine, this made me extremely curious to see what would show up in my Japanese mailbox.  Would I be able to use any of these new finds from my foreign box and translate them into something grand in that past/future career? 

There answer has been a resounding no.  I have spent four years checking through the stacks in my mailbox here and there ain't nothing half as cool as what we created at my old agency.

First of all, unless it is a bill or a statement, they rarely bother with envelopes.  This makes perfect sense in a culture where sorting trash for its particular recycling day is a huge issue.  Why give more to throw out when the goal is ultimately less to throw out.  The problem is that one of the coolest parts was the envelope.  There is so much that can be done with an envelope!  I know I am sounding like a huge dork here, but I am dead serious.  In direct mail, if the envelope isn't cool and appealing for the appointed audience, then you fail from the get go.  They never open it and you never get your message across.  In Japan, with no envelope and a writing of which the average American like myself can't read, you are left with nothing more than a chaotic-looking flier.  On top of that, they are rarely even folded like a real letter is.  Although, I won't complain on this note as I would just have to unfold them to put them into the tied recycling pile.

And that below is exactly what I pull out of my mailbox on a daily basis.  A big old mess that I leaf through and then throw directly into the recycling bin.  I dare one of my previous coworkers to make something out of this week's worth display.  Please do let me know if you find something... and I promise to steal the idea from you too.

Wednesday, June 9

Last Ikebana Class

I haven't talked much about any Ikebana that I have created lately mostly because I have only been creating it at home.  Without proper sensei supervision, I don't want to call it Ikebana and show it to the world.  Lately, the art form has been strictly something for me to enjoy, in my own, limited spare time, more than trying to master the craft. 

However, Ikebana is one of the things in my life here in Japan that had to give a proper goodbye to.  Last week, I emailed the best English speaker in the class and asked her if I could stop by for a visit.  Not wanting to disturb the class and knowing that I would have to bring Kimono Peanut with me as class is on a Friday afternoon and all the other supervising grown-ups are working, I promised I would keep it short, all the while keeping up a quiet hope that they would ask me to stay.  Of course, they did.  The Japanese are overwhelming welcoming, if you ask me.  The responding email was filled with friendly insistence that I stay for a final class with the Peanut and then join everyone for a farewell luncheon.  

I was so excited about the day that I ended up being forty-five minutes early.  Anyone who knows me, knows that early is not my thing.  I was nervous about having my curious toddler in a room full of pretty flowers to rip apart, but he was amazingly well behaved after only one small meltdown, when I insisted we stop playing outside and come in for class.  Sensei took his meltdown as an opportunity to take him out herself and downstairs to the flower shop below where she purchases the flowers and show him off a little.  It warms my heart to see my friends here, these friends that I may not always be able to communicate properly to, but they always show how much loving kindness they have in their hearts for not only me, but my own.  Once they were done their little stroll, KP was then perfectly content to play with his cars and a new toy one of my fellow students had brought for him.  I was able to complete my arrangement in no time, even while keeping a keen eye on the whereabouts of my busy, little man.

Takenouchi-sensei just has that magic touch.  She liked what I did, but with a few tiny adjustments and she seemed to bring the whole thing completely alive, as if you happened upon it on a walk by a quiet lake.  This is exactly what the Kozan school is about and it is no wonder she is a master of it.  She does this with everyone's work, even when I think they are so amazingly accomplished that they couldn't possibly be improved upon.  I have learned so very much from her.
Once class wrapped up, we gathered our wrapped flowers to recreate our work at home and then headed over to Kamakura Pasta.  I've been there only once before, long before there was a KP, and I do love it.  What I didn't know was that it had a glass room on the far end filled with toys so that adults can eat and kids can play.  Just another way that my friends and classmates are so thoughtful, to chose a restaurant like thoroughly with the two of us in mind. 

Ahead of time, I had prepared a little speech in the best Japanese I could muster.  It may not have been perfect, but I know that each and every one of my friends understood.  The tears (mine, but they quickly joined in) came in only my second sentence, but I continued so that they would know how much I value what they have taught me, not just about flowers, but about bonding with those from an entirely different culture, who speak an entirely different language.  It has been one of the most wonderful experiences in my time here.  It wasn't just about the art form, as it was when I first started studying.  In the end, it is much more about the value of true and treasured friendship.  I am thoroughly grateful for every moment I spent with them.

Tuesday, June 8

The Goddess of Mercy

The "Goddess of Mercy of the White Robe" stands prominently on a mountain in Ofuna.  You can't miss her from anywhere in the area, whether you are on a train or on foot.  And yet, if my favorite exploring friend had not been with me when KP and I went to seek her out, I'm not sure if I would have figured out how to get to her.

The path at the foot of the mountain stands hidden behind an unsuspecting neighborhood.  At the entrance is merely a small wooden sign with some Japanese writing on it, of which I obviously cannot read.  My friend said it took her and her mother several laps around the area to figure it out.  And then the climb begins.  Oh my, the climb.  It is steep.  Viciously steep.  And pushing a 30 pound Peanut and his gear up it, well let's just say it wasn't easy.  As we hiked and forced the stroller up the bumpy path, I was grateful that my friend had insisted we pause for lunch prior to the jaunt up.  If we hadn't stuffed ourselves at Goemon (delicious Japanese pasta place, if you are interested), then I am pretty sure my breakfast of Diet Coke would not have been enough for the march.  I surely would have collapsed halfway up and the Peanut would have rolled right over me and back on down the hill.

When we arrived at the top, I was thrilled to see this beautiful statue up close and in person.  Kimono Peanut just liked running up, down and around the circular pathway that surrounds her.

Why is this place so important?  A little history lesson:  The Goddess at Ofuna Kannon-ji was instituted "in general defense of the Fatherland" by Kentaro Kaneko and traditional nationalist Mitsuru Touyama who had been a part in the drafting of the Imperial Constitution (according to info provided at the site).  Building began in 1929, with the Goddess meant to be praying for world peace, but in 1934 when only the outline was completed, war broke out in the Pacific and the place was left to nature's devices for the next twenty years.  In 1954, a newly created society took up the work on construction and completed the project in 1960. 

The site contains stones from ground zero in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, commemorating the souls of those who died in the tragedy of those atomic attacks.  Most visitors to the temple do so regularly for spiritual purposes, but it is said that foreigners seek her out for comfort during their strives with homesickness.  She is meant to carry prayers for peace for those of her home country and those who only call Japan their home for a set amount of time.

I can understand this purpose.  The mountain she sits on is serene, tranquil and offers refuge from the busy city that lies at her feet.  I can see praying for personal peace, as well as peace for the world at large in this obsequious setting.  But I can also hope that it doesn't take a statue to remind us to all to do the same no matter where we are standing.

Monday, May 24

Weekend Times, Family Times

Weekends are all about family time.  Which, if you knew me back in the day, is actually quite funny because you would never expect me to be married, let alone start breeding a family.  And now... I wouldn't change it for the world.  Many told me that my younger and crazier self didn't know what she was missing.  I say to them, that you're right.  I probably didn't, but going through those days has only made me appreciate these days even more.  So now when the weekend rolls around, I'm no longer sitting at happy hour and trying to figure out what random fun I can compromise myself in.  I am instead planning random fun for my boys, the loves of my life.

Two recent outings proved noteworthy in their odd, little Japanese way.  Both of them seemed to be accessible by car, which has proved easier than hauling Kimono Peanut and his infinite gear up and down the numerous stairwells we find in the smaller train stations.  Of course, it is never as simple as it seems.

Not knowing what foods and supplies would be available at Aburatsubo Marine Park, we stopped at the neighborhood 7-11 to get pre-cooked meals, pickled radishes and various snacks in preparation for a picnic lunch.  Loaded up, we started off on the route that our handy dandy directions instructed.  According to them, it looked like we basically passed Yokosuka Naval Base, made a total of three easy turns and we would arrive there at the tip of the Miura peninsula, where the park was to be perched on the rocky cliffs above the ocean.  If this was true, the trip should have taken us no more than an hour with traffic.  In all the time I have been here, I do not rely heavily on directions provided by the base because they are usually and sadly quite mistaken.  This would be no exception.

Two hours into the trip, following our own good senses through the last hour and a half, we arrived at the park.  Fortunately, we had left our house early and the park wasn't too full yet on what would surely be a busy day with the gorgeous weather we were having.  After two trips back to the car because I seemed to have left my organizational skills at home for the day, we were finally past the main entrance.

The first thing to be done... play with sea cucumbers!  A rocky pool had been built in front of the entrance to the main aquarium and held starfish and sea cucumbers so young and old hands alike to pick one up and play with it.  And what do sea cucumbers feel like?  Big, squishy boogers.  I wished wholeheartedly that I had not had that experience.  The boys didn't seem to mind.  Boys and gross stuff.  They go hand-in-hand, right?

Inside, the aquarium was quite well done!  Not as large as Sea Paradise in Yokohama, but there was a nice size shark tank, plenty of sting rays, tanks that held fish who swam upside down or straight up and down, and even crabs that could surely rival my own weight with their massiveness.  One of KP's favorite words and favorite things to see is 'fish'.  We tried to expand the words to include the varietal names, but over his repeated 'FISH!' shrieks of joy, I doubt he heard a thing we were saying.

That surely could made his day all on its own, but this was a large park and there was much more to do.  Apparently shows are the big thing in Japan.  Seriously.  Maybe I haven't been to enough parks, but it just feels like there are an awful lots of 'shows' at parks in Japan.

In the middle of the park stood a huge stage.  An announcement when we were in the aquarium had sent most of the inside crowd running outside to the stage area, so we had followed.  After standing there for ten minutes, without a seat in sight available, we decided to bag it and head over to a large circular tank nearby that a few were still peering into.  Dolphins skimmed their way round and round in the tank.  Of course, Kimono Peanut just saw more 'FISH!'.

As we stared in, something finally began to happen on stage!  Lo, the show was starting!  While I am not sure what we expected to see, I don't think it was the anime in life appearing before our eyes.  I know they are hugely popular characters who now stood before us, but I honestly couldn't identify them.  (Perhaps Heather can help me here?)  Whoever they were... KP loved them and their big heads and big eyes topped with bright pink and blue hair.  This is the story I got... the pink-haired is attacked by a man waving a fan at her.  She falls down, goes boom.  Fan man and his friend the Pirate laugh at her crumpled mass.  But, lo, see yonder!  It is the blue-haired girl arriving on the horizon!  Blue and pink flying, they kick the butts of the Fan Man and Mr. Pirate!  The end.

Honestly, it was well choreographed, but honestly not something I would chose to stand idly watching if it weren't for my wee one being so enthralled.  We did drag him away as the numerous bows were beginning to go and get a good seat in the big arena for the marine animal show.

Front row!  And praying we wouldn't get wet.  We pried into KP whatever food he would pause to take in while he waited impatiently for the show to start.  Perhaps the wonderful Sea Paradise show had me a bit spoiled, but this was a bit lacking.  It didn't even get the Japanese audience laughing.

A sea lion began the show by playing some tunes on the piano.  Impressive actually.  Then a person dressed as a penguin priest came out, said some things, meandered away for the dolphins to do their thing in the big tank, which is always cool to see.  They did the noses to balls, waving, 'talking', hoop jumping and the typical marine show stuff.  Some real penguins made their appearance, but they really only waddled onto and right off the stage. 

The lights changed behind the stage to show the image of a stained glass window behind what now appeared to be an altar.  The penguin priest returns followed by sea lions and their escorts, who turn out to be their wedding attendants!  The penguin priest marries the sea lions.  They kiss.  The end.  But no!  It's time for the reception!  The sea lion comes back to play the piano and his friend joins him to be the DJ.  He actually squeaks a record or two.  THEN, the end.  No, I am not making this stuff up.

Through most of the show, KP had been clapping and hopping up and down, but the excitement just overcame him.  He was asleep even before the kiss, collapsed in the arms of his daddy.  We took the opportunity to have a nice romantic picnic lunch on the cliff overlooking the ocean and Mount Fuji, without our darling angel fighting us to run off in whatever direction the fun lay in next.

A stand was selling fresh conch and calamari.  So fresh, in fact, it felt like you might be enjoying the taste of a recent exhibit.  Of course, we have eaten these things many times so KH was all for grabbing some to nibble on.  Now, I will eat a lot of things.  But that conch... as tasty as it looked... e-gad, it was horrible.  Even more horrific was when you pulled the entire thing out of the shell, you really didn't know what the black stuff was that you were eating.  I'll admit.  I couldn't do it.  KH tried a few more bites than I did, but in the end, even he could not endure.  When no one was looking, we tossed those bad boys.  I did remind my husband that all I asked for was ice cream and that next time, perhaps, he can listen.  But that taste wouldn't go away, so the ice cream came sooner than anticipated.  Thank the good Lord.

Crowds were bringing the noise level up so it wasn't long before KP was roused.  We had already checked out the petting zoo while he was sleeping only to find a dog, gerbils, rabbits and some mice... all of which you had to pay 300 yen for.  He can pet a dog at the neighbor's house for free.  We passed by it long before he knew he had even missed it.

There were many coin-operated rides there, so we chose a Keikyu train to toss our first 100 yen into.  Sitting behind the wheel, pushing buttons and levers, he loved every moment of his first ride, after he got over the shock of the movement happening underneath him.  We put him on several more rides before we finally dragged him away, with much lighter pockets.  There were also these totally cool large furry animals that you sat on and steered, but KP was more interested in watching others ride them than he was in trying it for himself. 

Strangeness aside, we had a great day together.  KP saw 'FISH'!  So we rock as parents.  That day anyway.

Our second outing didn't turn out so well, but it has only recently come to pass that it wasn't the place as much as KP had been sick and we didn't know it.  A short, but scary hospital stay only days after our trip to Kurihama Flower World explained why he seemed to collapse in tears during every other step at the park.

Fortunately, getting there didn't seem to be as difficult as the trip before, with only a few surprises in the directions.  We again got their earlier than the crowds, but hadn't stopped at the conbini as we had found at the marine park that there were some food stands.  Of course, Kurihama Flower World didn't have as many as we would have thought for its size, but it didn't matter because we didn't stay that long due to the state of the Peanut baby.

One never knows what to expect when you come to these places.  We were more than a little surprised that all that seemed to stretch out in front of us was a poppy garden.  An impressive poppy garden, don't get me wrong.  But a poppy garden.  Now, I love flowers more than most, but even I was expecting... more?  A road on the side of the garden seemed to tell us that there was more to be seen... farther than the eye could see from our vantage and perhaps as farther than our feet would take us up the steep hills beyond the garden.  After a few meanderings around the front part of the poppy garden, a train started making its way down the hill.  A line formed at the front, causing us to gravitate in that direction in the hopes it would get us to the big beyond.

When the train pulled up and we hopped on, this usually would be another experience that the Peanut would love, but no, not on this day.  His screams, twists and kicks had all of the Japanese in front of us turning to view us from the corner of their eyes.  The kids were a bit more obvious as they just turned around and stared at us.  Yes, we were that American family.  Gah.  Thankfully, the train began its ascent.  At the first stop, the train conductor must have asked who wanted to get off here and most with kids raised their hands.  We just wanted to get away from the stares, so we got off too.

There we found ourselves facing a gigantic Godzilla!  If you crawled up into his belly, you could slide down the big slide out of his tail.  This stopped the tears for a bit as KP loves a good slide.  If it had been a bit wider, we would have attempted too, but the last thing we wanted to do was get stuck in a slide and glean ourselves more looks from the locals.

Behind Godzilla was a wonderful creation of ropes, ladders and slides all situated on the perfect gradual hill.  Only one unfortunate thing... it was a wee bit advanced for an 18-month old.  We did a few slides at the foot of it that seemed a bit more his speed, but when KP came down on his face and landed into a mud puddle, tears running down his cheeks, we decided to just steer clear of the rest of it.  So we tried the more age appropriate slides and structures off to one quiet side.  One other toddler crawled in and out, up and down with the Peanut.  But, alas, even this was not enough to stop the tears.  We coaxed him with snacks and toys, but nothing seemed to be working.  We made the choice to catch the next train down.  I'm uncertain what was at the top of the mountain where the train next went.  A short debate about going to see what was over the rising hill was quickly ended when KP just completely lost it.  We didn't even wait for the train, but instead started the long walk back down the hill.

Halfway down, we came upon an ice cream shop that overlooked the poppy garden.  Green tea ice cream quelled his frustrations for a few minutes, but it wasn't long before we again began our escape descent.

At the entrance of the park, a makeshift stage now had several cultural song and dance acts occurring on it.  We watched a Hawaiian and traditional Japanese dance, but not wanting to press our luck much further, we made our way back to the car.

If we had time before our move back, I would love to try this place again.  It had everything you could want for a sun and fun filled afternoon.  As our time in Japan is now drawing quickly to an end, I don't foresee a second trip in our future.  We shall see though!  I remain optimistic about getting everything that I want to do squeezed in during these final days!  If it were up to KP, he would chose an afternoon feeding the koi at the nearby stream and then playtime in the park nearby.  Why are we adults to eager to plan these big elaborate days of fun when kids find the simple things in their everyday world almost more fun than those same big events?

We tried our first big outing since his hospitalization this past weekend.  Close friends joined us for a trip to Yokohama for dinner at Garlic Jo's in Minato Mirai where we all ate delicious balls of broiled garlic called 'Vampire Killers' that surely kept everyone at a distance for the rest of the night.  Then we took a ride on the world's third largest Ferris Wheel, Cosmo Clock 21, where KP has proved that he has no fear of heights.  The girls left the boys behind for a quick spin on the Vanishing Roller Coaster.  And then off to watch the live acts being performed in front of Queens Square over ice cream parfaits and coffee.

Our time here is indeed fading.  Our weekends our dwindling.  We love our family time, but the next weeks simply must be filled with lots of friend time too.  I don't care what we do.  I just want to show those that I love here just how much I will miss them.

Monday, May 3

Checking Off Another Dream: Time With a Geisha

One thing I had desperately wanted to do when I first moved to Japan was to hang out with a geisha.  Little did I know that this task would be more than a little difficult to accomplish.  Literature told me that there weren't many left around, but what it didn't tell me is how hard it is to get yourself to an event with one of the few that do still work in their unique cultural field.  When the Kamakura chapter of Ikebana International announced their April program would include a visit with a geisha, I told Kimono Hubby that come hell or high water, I would be going to the program that day.  He's a good guy.  He made it happen.  Even in the midst of an extremely busy week at work, he took the entire day off so I could catch the early bus to Tokyo with the other ladies.

A little rain did not dampen a single spirit that climbed onto the chartered tour bus that morning.  Little did I know at that early hour, but most Japanese women have never seen or been around a geisha either.  We all chatted away as we passed around basket after basket of baked goods to satisfy our stomachs until we arrived in the Asakusa part of Tokyo where we would have lunch.

Gardens are the thing to do here in Japan.  Particularly in Japan and during the spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the hanami party is the thing to do.  But this spring has been the rainiest and coldest I have known in my four years here.  I have lamented over this many a day these past months as my kid stands with his face smashed into our glass doors wailing 'side, side,' his special way of telling me we need to go outside.  We've spent most days standing side-by-side at the window and staring longingly at the rain-soaked blossoms and budding trees wondering when it will end.  The ladies of I.I. have watched the rain come down with the same sadness in their hearts that the Peanut and I endure.

What made our collectively rain-drenched blade even sharper was the fact that the rain caused our travels to Tokyo to be slowed so much that we were late to arrive at our first spot, the Edo Period Hamarikyu Onshi Garden.  This did not stop several brave gaijin women from taking a quick stroll around the very damp and yet still very beautiful garden, one of the largest traditional gardens in Tokyo which had originally been laid in the 17th century for the 4th Tokugawa Shogun (feudal lord) and later used by the Shogan as a hunting ground.  The garden even served a spell as being a Detached Palace for the Imperial Family during the Meiji Restoration, but after World War II, the family gave the park to the City of Tokyo and opened it to the public.  Inside the garden, we found a serenity completely unlike the bustling city area of Odaiba  and the Shiodome that lie just across the moat of Tokyo Bay sea water surrounding the quiet garden.  Strolling the grounds we found numerous cherry, plum and quince trees, a 300 year-old pine tree, and rock paths that led to the garden’s tidal pond with a teahouse perched at its center.  If time had not been under such an extreme crunch, I would have loved to have stopped there for some matcha and sweets.

As it was, the Japanese ladies were already huddled up under the awning at the park's front where we caught a quick cruise on the Sumida River.  The cruise took us under a dozen historic bridges, each one being unique and architecturally appealing in some way.  The cruise is also generally a great way to see the old and new buildings of Tokyo and lines of cherry trees along the banks, but the rain was causing problems yet again as it darkened the windows of the boat with too many splatters to see clearly through.  The cruise is famous for being the place to being during the Tokyo Bay Fireworks Festival held in August, but we will be long gone before then to catch that view.  when the cruise ended, we were pulled up onto the banks, just across from one of the most eye catching buildings in Tokyo, the Asahi Beer Building.  It is meant to resemble a glass of beer, but I can't help but to think it more resembles a big old sperm.  Sorry, Japan friends for this observation.  Moving on.

We now found ourselves in the heart of Asakusa, where we would be having lunch at the long-established Asakusa Tanbo Kusatsutei.  It was here that the day really began to fulfill some of the dreams I long entertained of what my time in Japan would be like.  We began with the first of our seasonal kaiseki lunch, an elegant wooden bento box that held various vegetables and fish cooked in traditional Japanese fashion.  A second course brought my favorite, sashimi.  A third, some type of crab in a ball placed in a clear broth.  A thin slice of daikon disguised itself on top of the ball making the dish look like a jellyfish floated inside.  A fourth course, the expected miso soup.  And finally a fifth course of sweets and fruits.  Each course fought hard to be more exquisite than the one that had come before it.

It was during this superb gluttony that our highlighted guest made her entrance.  Norie is a local geisha, fourth generation in her family, and has long lived in Asakusa previously with her family and now at her established Okiya.  She came to us well educated, speaking several languages, which thankfully included a perfect grasp of the tricky English language.  She and her accompaniment, another traditional geisha, who specifically plays shamisen (a type of Japanese string instrument) and therefore does not wear the white make-up, started with a short introductory speech before proceeding into their first song and dance performance.  Of course, the singing was not done in English, but whatever she said was certainly quite funny as several times there were titters and more amidst our Japanese ladies.  Norie did a second short dance number and then sat down as well to play a taiko drum while singing, which sounds more like chanting to my untrained ear, along with the shamisen player.

After these performances, she paused a bit to stroll around the room and chat with several of us.  Of course, we had about sixty women in our crowd so I wasn't counting on getting too much alone time with her... but I was hoping beyond hope I was wrong.  Thank you God, I was!  She actually sat with my two American friends and I for several minutes and let me barrage her with question after question.  Just from this brief conversation, I would say she is quite sharp and surely is the life of the party she is supposed to be after a few drinks are in her evening customers. 

After she moved on from us, I couldn't help but stare at her as she floated around the room.  I simply loved when she would get lost in telling a story to a group.  Without knowing it, every inch of her was completely animated and into the story and the ladies that swarmed around her leaned in even closer, hanging onto every witty word of whatever secret story she was sharing with them.  It was simply marvelous to see!  Damn.  Now I sound like I am turning into some little old lady, but I swear I loved it that much.

Norie made her way back up to the stage for the next part of our afternoon.  The fun was not over as she pulled out a low, traditional table on which she would be teaching us the traditional Japanese drinking games of goishi hiroi and konpira fune fune.  When she asked for volunteers, in the usual way the Japanese women hesitated.  Of course, they would never volunteer until they were overly encouraged to do so, even if they were surely dying to run up there in the first place as I know I was.  My friend fortunately is like me and did not want to miss an opportunity as such.  We jumped at the chance and pulled our other friend who was at her first I.I. program visiting along with us.

Somehow, the proper number of volunteers were acquired.  Norie asked for five on each side as she placed us into teams.  She told us the first and last person would have it the hardest.  She had demonstrated what we were to be doing and it seemed easy enough, but that was until you tried it.  When it was your turn, you rushed up and kneeled at the table in the proper Japanese sitting fashion, tie on a scarf around your neck, pick up the chopsticks and begin transferring these rounded, wooden 'coins' from the bowl they were in to the empty one beside it.  If you dropped one in the process, the person standing in turn behind you was to rush over, pick it up and put it back in the bowl to try again.  Shamisen music plays in the background which only adds to the intensity you feel as you try to rush your chips to the appropriate bowl.  Gaijin stood at the front of the line on both teams and while we are all pretty confident in our chopstick eating skills, this was much harder than we anticipated.  My friend managed to get through it without showing an ounce of the frustration she had to be feeling over being the first, the guinea pig, as we took in what she was doing and prepared ourselves to do the same, but faster.  I was third and I don't like to brag, but I was damn good.  Unfortunately our team lost, despite the two Japanese ringers we had at the end of our team who made up a world of time for our slow gaijin start.  All in good spirits though as we laughed our way back to our table and to watch another group try their hand at it.  I can imagine that playing this in the evening hours and with a lot of sake being pushed on the losers, that this game gets progressively harder and progressively funnier. 

The second game, konpira fune fune, I desperately wanted to take part in, but I thought it would be greedy to volunteer so eagerly again when there were so many other people there to try their hand.  Of course, my Japanese friends encouraged me, but I maintained my polite no-no-I-couldn't attitude.  My friend did go and try for a second round at a game.  She and I get along well as we both try to fully take advantage of every opportunity our lives have given us, so she didn't hesitate when encouraged to go again.

For this game, it's head-to-head as you do a tap and grab dance with a bowl in the middle of the table.  When the bowl is not on the table (as you have 'stolen' it) and your opponent doesn't make a fist instead of a flat palm, you win.  The ever present shamisen music plays faster and faster increasing the pace of the game.  Again, drunk, this would be increasingly difficult to say the least.  As it was, my friend won both rounds and won herself a tenugi (a decorative towel used for a variety of things) with little drunken businessmen playing games and drinking sake imprinted onto it.  Darn.  When I saw what she won, I wish I had pushed up there, but who is to say I wouldn't have sucked at the game.  Laughter filled the air as everyone took a turn at besting their opponent with one of my fellow Ikebana students falling in a pile of laughter as she was bested twice by a friend.

When the games ended, Norie took more time moving around the room and talking to everyone she could get to.  One of the older groups of ladies had bought several tokkuri (ceramic serving flasks) of sake and were doing their best to get Norie to down several choko (small drinking glasses that look like shot glasses).  Watching them enjoy meeting her was probably the highlight of my experience with a geisha.  They were just in hysterics from her stories and what could be better than watching friends have the time of their lives?

As that portion of the afternoon closed and we made our decent to reclaim our shoes (removed in traditional fashion as we had entered the restaurant and stepped onto the tatami mats), the laughter  continued as members strolled out onto the street for a little sightseeing and shopping in the honored Senso-ji Temple area of Asakusa.  I got a second opportunity to chat with Norie for a few more moments as we were leaving and made sure to tell her that she had made it a great afternoon... one my dreams were made of. She was so sweet to tell me that she then wishes she had spent even more time talking to me.  Trust me, Norie, I am so happy with the time we spent.

We had an hour of free time before we had to meet back at the bus.  On Nakamise-dori, I purchased some Chinese zodiac animal figurines that matched each of our birthdates.  They have little bells in them and my friend gave me the idea to make them into Christmas ornaments.  Considering I haven't really bought any in years (Japan is, as stated stated before, not so big on the holiday in the regular Christian way of celebrating), these will hold a lot of meaning to me and will be treasured for years to come.

We got some sweets and continued our aimless meandering for a bit more and then gathered back at the meeting point.

I can't believe I actually got to meet a geisha.  I kind of figured that if anyone did, it would be KH at one of the many events he attends in the city.  I feel like I finally one-upped him in this respect.  If you know the circle he runs in, you know how difficult that is.  I treasure of lot of days and memories of Japan, but this one will be one of the best.  God bless these amazing opportunities.

Monday, April 26

Kimonos in Korea

Our last big Asian hurrah has come and gone as we checked off own more country-we-hoped-to-visit while living on this side of the world, South Korea.  I know, I know.  Why South Korea?  It really isn't your typical vacation destination.  But ever since we found out that we were going to be living in Asia, I've had it in my head that I need to visit the same foreign lands that my father walked on many years ago.  I'm not entirely sure why this inclination, but I think it has something to do with the fact that my dad is a bit hard to get to know.  I feel like if I trail in his footsteps in whatever way I can, I might glean a more thorough picture of why he is the person he is today.

This isn't to say that my dad isn't the best.  He really is.  He's just... well... for those that know him, would you say... different?  Intelligent.  Knowledgeable.  Tender, but he only shows that to little ones.  Physically strong.  Mentally sharp.  But he is also opinionated.  Stubborn.  Reserved in many ways.  Abrasive (and this amuses him).  And quite prone to eventually removing himself entirely from society at large.  The stories I do get out of him tend to come when we have had a few drinks. 

My brother probably would not agree on all of these parts of him as they have a very different relationship than what I share with him.  My brother is an awful lot like him in many ways.  He's always been the smart, calculating one.  I'm not saying I'm a brainless twit or not at all like my dad.  My mother would say I am all him.  I just think my brother is more how my dad is today and I'm a bit more like the wilder, younger side of my dad that had the intelligence to have reservations in his head, but (back then) very rarely let them dictate what he did in life.  Which is why we went to Korea.  Or at least why I went.  Korea was part of those wilder, younger days and that meant I felt a need to take part in the experience.  Minus perhaps all the booze and broads that my dad surely made part of his experience.

Besides all this, there was also the culture!  Another culture to spend a few days interacting with.  Try it on for size.  That's the stuff my dreams are made of.

The trip was only a few days long.  There wasn't much of a plan before we got there except a few pages in a tattered guide folded down for possible things to see and do.  We cashed in some United vouchers that we had each received from our last flight home from the states... the one that leaked fuel all over the runway and threatened to blow us into smithereens if we had actually tried to go wheels-up.  We used some of the insane number of credit card points we have amassed from previous travel to stay practically free at the Grand Ambassador Hotel Associated with Pullman (formerly a Sofitel so very cushy-cushy).  Budgeting for just a couple of hundred pocket cash, we did the entire trip for under a $1000.  For a place we had only dreamed of visiting, we managed to do it and do it in style.

Before we had left Japan, I had made several calls to hook us up on a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) tour the day after we arrived, which looked to be the warmest and driest of days that we were planning on being there.  After some difficulty finding an English-speaking person (many spoke English, but didn't really speak it, if you know what I mean), I managed to book a tour.  When our guide picked us up that morning, we weren't really sure what the tour included, but after speaking with her for a few moments, it was quickly realized that we weren't doing exactly what we had hoped for.  We wanted to go to Panmunjom.  We wanted to stand in the room where the North and the South have had both epic and small talks to resolve military, economic and political problems.  We wanted Kimono Peanut to give a friendly gesture to the North Koreans.  We kid.  We joked about it, but we know the seriousness of this area and would not have jeopardized ourselves or the sanctity of the area.  We actually were more worried that he would simply wave in his typical uber propitious ways and unintentionally cause an international incident.  I was prepared to hold his arms at his sides.  Turns out we had nothing to worry about.  We weren't going there.  Nor was anyone else on our tour.  We would have tried to do a different tour to get us to Panmunjom, but we found out at the same time that there was an age limit.  Unless one of us was prepared to sit at the hotel and let the other go, neither of us were going to make it to that room.  During this current trip at least.

Instead our guide, a slight woman, but who had a forceful way about her ushered us onto a small bus with rather Chinese-looking red and gold fringed curtains in the windows that would take us out of the city.  As what seemed like an afterthought during a rather dull talk about how the area around the DMZ was very fertile ground for growing the Korean prized ginseng, our guide threw out the quite interesting fact that the barbed wire rings that separated the side-by-side river and highway were placed there to stop the North Koreans from coming near the shores and throwing mortar.  Apparently, we were traveling the road that separated North and South by only the river.  Sure, the DMZ was there too, but I guess in the past, this had not stopped the North from trying to start something on many occasions.  If you follow the news on this side of the world, this would not entirely surprise you.  In fact, just the other week, it looks like a South Korean ship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.  And then there was a few months ago, when the North was shooting missiles over Japan, landing them in the water just beyond my own home.  I guess I should worry more, but coming from Washington, DC, it feels like I always seem to live somewhere that likes to keep a target painted squarely on its back.

We stopped and checked in just outside of the entrance to the DMZ.  Here at Imjingak park, we were given a speech about following the rules.  Don't go where you aren't supposed to.  Don't take photos where she said not to.  Don't dilly-dally.  And many others.  The last one, she wasn't kidding about, but more on that later.  We wandered the grounds there for a bit where you could see the Freedom Bridge which spans the Imjin River.  12,773 prisoners of war crossed this bridge after the Korean War and today, it is as close as some Koreans will ever get to their relatives still living in the North.  Today, a rusted train with over 1,000 bullet holes sits stranded on the DMZ line where it was forever halted from the gunfire it endured.  The same winding strands of barbed wire stretch the entire area, ensuring that you get only limited photograph-able views of the bridge as it is yet the first of many things we saw but couldn't properly immortalize for our own records.  Knowing our guides propensity to push for extreme timeliness, we figured we best get to the meeting point sooner rather than later.  She was already eagerly awaiting us. 

From here, we climbed onto a larger bus.  Only certain buses are authorized to enter the DMZ.  At the checkpoint, we relinquished our passports to be checked by the heavily armed guard that boarded the bus.  Talk about squelching the fun in a tour.  They take security very seriously.  I kept my eyes down and my camera away as the rule was not to photograph on or from the bus.

Crossing into the DMZ, there really isn't much around.  If the ground is so fertile, I certainly wasn't seeing it.  It was of course April, which is still quite chilly in Korea.  But you know how you see pictures of the North and it looks pretty barren?  Well, so does the DMZ.  Of course, now I wonder why I ever thought the terrain would automatically change as I crossed that magical line.

When the bus stopped, we were in front of the entrance to the 3rd Tunnel.  I could go into a whole history lesson here about how the DMZ is the last front to the Cold War, but I will refrain.  There are surely only a few that read this that are honestly interested in hearing a history lesson from me.  I will have to say this - the North did have plans to invade the South through these tunnels that there were digging.  The 3rd Tunnel was discovered in 1978.  It is the largest one found to date (the 4th was found in 1990) and would have allowed an army of 30,000 fully armed North Koreans to pass through within an hour.  It is believed that there are other tunnels undiscovered.  Imagine if they had managed to invade through these tunnels.  Shocking.

As we were stuffing backpacks into lockers at the entrance, our guide told us we could take cameras.  Of course, when I tried to snap a picture as we were entering the tunnel, I was immediately stopped and shoved backwards with wild fluctuations being made toward my camera.  Our guide was already throwing hats at her group to prepare us to enter the tunnel, so getting her attention was difficult.  I was worried that I would be left behind before I even got started so I took it upon myself to yell for her.  She came back, talking quickly in Korean, trying to convince them to let me take it but to no avail.  I returned to my locker, under a close eye or I would have slipped it back into my pocket and had to rush over and throw a helmet on as the group was already beginning a near sprint down into the tunnel.  Bitterness in my throat at being thwarted when everyone else in my group was carrying a camera, I honestly didn't have much time to think about it or even possibly use it as we headed down at a breakneck pace.  We had befriended some Australians on our tour and we all four made jokes about how our guide would be getting a severe lesson if she expected us to haul our cookies back up out of the tunnel later at the same pace.

It was steep; it was deep.  Kimono Hubby carried KP as my clumsiness would have probably caused me to roll downhill with the baby.  When we got to the bottom and the actual tunnel, we had to bend over so our heads did not hit the very low ceiling.  This wasn't so bad, except we were carrying a 30 pound kid in our arms.  Bend over like that with a sack of potatoes in your arms and go for a mile long run and see just how much fun you can have.  I already have back problems and this little jaunt wasn't helping.  We constantly heard the knock of hats of the ceiling or felt it when we smacked our own.  On the walls, the North had smeared coal in an effort to explain the reason for the tunnels being that they were mining coal.  I give them a 90% for the effort of this little white lie.  When we finally get to the end, I am given no more than seconds to glimpse what is there.  More barbed wire spirals block the way into North Korea.  I'm sure there was a guard or two there too, but I never got the time or close enough to actually see this.  Sure, the guide pushed me forward to see, but pulled me back just as quickly.  And yes, she did plan for us to go up at the same pace.

I can't even begin to explain how hard it was to get back up out of that tunnel.  I think our only motivation was to get to the end and smack that woman upside the head.  The Australians hung back and offered to help, but they were a little bit on the older side.  The last thing we needed was for them to drop of a heart attack.  Again the thought of sparking an international incident flashed in our minds.  No, instead we trudged along and threw each other bitter glances every so often.

Red faced, out of breath and with near broken backs, we got back to the top entrance, where lo and behold there was group after group snapping a picture of the exact same thing I tried to photograph on the way in.  I guess it is fine if you take a picture after (and probably in) as long as they don't see you go in with the camera.  Or maybe you just can't have the name Karen.  Gah.  To spite them, I simply refused to take a picture.  Take that, crazy rule people!

We were rushed back to the bus, drove for a moment, and rushed off the bus again, this time to take in the view of North Korea from the northernmost observatory, Dora.  Telescopes line the wall that allow you to see Propaganda Village, the North Korea flag sailing high, and other small glimpses into North Korea like the second largest city Gaeseong and surrounding farmland for a few won.  There is a line painted in yellow that tells you it is at that point that you can no longer take photographs.  Of course, the line is so far back from the high wall that you could never possibly get a picture of North Korea from there.  A new group of South Korean soldiers were doing some sort of introduction to their new mission and lined much of the wall, looking excitedly upon their futures.  We were there only minutes to take everything in before we were rushed back to the bus.

Moving again, this time we stop at Dorasan Station.  Please forgive me, but this station amused me.  It has huge historical significance as being the possible railroad connection between South Korea and Pyongyang and potentially beyond.  This ultra modern station lies completely empty, hopefully waiting for the time when the Korea's reunite.  I know this is awful to think and even more to say, but I can't imagine that this station won't be a dinosaur when/if that time ever comes and worse, it would likely be under control of the North.  I pray that I am wrong and I love its symbolic nature, but it just seems like a pretty unrealistic goal.  South Korea also feels like this station could be the start of a trans Euro-Asian railroad.  Seriously?  Who wants to ride a train that freaking far?  Take a plane already. 

President George Bush previously visited this station.  I don't love or hate what he did with his presidency, time has yet to tell if it was a good one or not, but I did love the slightly dumbfounded look on his face in the pictures from that epic visit.  One has to wonder what his thoughts were as he walked off Marine One into the middle of nowhere to celebrate a station that will likely never be used for more than the tourist destination it is today.

Rushing.  Back to the bus.  Stopped.  Again.  Last minute DMZ tourist gifts.  I grab South Korean candy, North Korean beer and a book on the Korean DMZ.  Rush back to the bus.  Cross back out of the DMZ.  Get off bus.  Get back on smaller, weird-curtained bus.  Head back to city.  Driver takes a wrong exit and instead of going forward, he kicks it into reverse and backs out onto the highway.  More heart failure on our part.  In the city, we stop again, this time at an amethyst museum.  For those that have read my past travel blogs, you know that this means it is just a way to get tourists to buy jewelry they never intended to.  This time, we refuse to get off the bus.  So do the Australians.  I know this perturbed them, but we all had had enough of the up and down crap for the day.  When everyone else reboards, we finally make our way back to the hotel.

As for the tour, I'm glad I went.  But I would never, ever do it again.  The end.

We were starved, especially the Peanut.  The concierge we got at this time of the day happened to be the only one who didn't speak very good English so getting a restaurant out of him that was kid friendly was more than a little difficult.  We knew there was an Outback nearby, so I must admit that this is where we ended up.  I know, I know.  But when you are starved, you go to what is quick and what you know.  It was delicious too, although way more Australian than American.  Australian beef is so much more game-y than American.  And the funny part, they served kimchi with it all.  It was our first acknowledgment that they really do serve kimchi with every meal.

After dinner, we realized we were in a very busy part of the city, although which part we didn't know.  We were still a bit turned around on directions yet.  After some scouting, it came to pass that we were in Myeong-dong, an area full of trendy shops, bars and cafes and ripe with street vendors.  When something looked tasty, we were sure to try it.  Exhaustion took us before we tried too much however, so we headed back to the hotel to put KP to bed and to do our own little North versus South beer testing.  I hate to say this, but the North won hands down.  If Hite was the beer my dad drank all those years ago, I can't figure out for the life of me how he came to stomach them. 

What else did we do during our time there?  Well, we shopped a lot.  We ate a lot.  We walked the city a lot.  We tried all of the main areas and all the most important restaurant and street foods.  At what is supposed to be the more traditional area, Namdaemun, we found an open-air market with hundreds of vendors carrying ginseng tea, ginseng whiskey (that I swear looks like something out of a Harry Potter book), red pepper, fish byproducts, kitchen gear and then stands upon stands carrying the exact same upper label knock-offs.  But the bad part... none of them were good knock-offs, nor were they anything I would actually want!  I was so disappointed at this.  I had heard such great things about shopping in Korea.  People make day trips for this place!  And yet, all we left with was some knock-off socks. 

The food in this area was very authentic.  Vendors like tiny alleys and sold various steaming dishes that they cooked outside, in front of the 'restaurant's' seating area.  It was all delicious, even if we had no idea what we were ordering.  I came to love these green or yellow things that looked like pancakes but actually had something like cinnamon jelly inside.  I did not eat any squid on a stick, although it was everywhere and in every other person's hand.  Squid is a popular dish in Korea as indicated by the abundance of it on the streets and pictured on every sign.

At the Dongdaemun shopping area, we walked in and out of all the famous shopping malls, stuffed full of vendors and people.  It's not like a mall back home at all.  It's more like a hundred tiny shops selling the same thing, but set in such a way that each floor is its own crowded maze for you to make it out of.  There were no traditional goods, so we honestly bought nothing.  Although, we made our most important find here - hot dogs that are dipped in batter like a corn dog, but then also dipped in french fries before being cooked all together.  These things would be a hit at fairs back home.  I'm thinking this may be a future career maker for me.

We did one other historical tour in the city, visiting first Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine and then the palace area of Changgyeonggung.  Jongmyo enshrines the spirit tablets of Joseon Dynasty kings and queens.  It was largely empty, which gave us the chance to walk unhindered on the same stone paths that the royalty of Korean past had walked.  Those some stone paths... they are killer on a kid in a stroller though.  Jongmyo is connected by a footbridge to the palace area so you can visit both for about a $1.  On the palace grounds we walked around the homes of previous kings, queens and concubines, originally built in 1418 but burned during the Japanese invasion in 1592 and rebuilt in 1616.  Neither of these places was what I would expect when it comes to something being created for royalty, but I think other country's elaborate ways have irrevocably altered the image in my head of what a palace is.  What I did find said is that the Japanese during their colonial rule of Korea, turned the palace and its grounds into a zoo.  It took years of restoration in the 1980s for the Koreans to reclaim their palace's former state.  Nonetheless, both of these places are listed on UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage list and that made them important for us to see.

After we left the palace grounds, we took a rough map and headed off in the direction of the Syngman Rhee Memorial Museum, his former residence Ihwajang.  It is located in the off-Broadway area of Seoul.  The map didn't make it looks as difficult as it turned out to be finding it.  After a few stops and starts and a few kind strangers pausing to help us even as we asked in a language they didn't understand, we finally made it up a steep hill on a winding street.  Only, the museum isn't open at one would consider museum hours.  We managed only to get to the gates, ponder for a few minutes why the first president would keep his home in this crowded area, before we gave up and turned around to head back down the hill.

For our last night, we again chose Korean barbecue.  But instead of the fancy joints we had previously gone to, we did the real deal - one of those restaurants we found everywhere that had clear plastic acting as an awning, red plastic stools that surrounded a metal table with a whole in the middle for where the hot coals would go.  It was as delicious as all the fancy places and at half the price and double the kimchi.  If we weren't considered kimchi addicts before, we could definitely be considered one now.

Korea was good.  I'm glad for this last little adventure.

My dad was never in Seoul.  His part in the war and his place in Korea was further south.  Maybe I didn't do the same things he did.  Maybe I didn't see the same things he did.  But for the fact I went to the place where he lived and breathed and learned, I may not know him any better, but it somehow makes me feel closer to him.  He'd probably only insert some smart ass comment here.  Have at it, Dad.  Have at it.