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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.