Hugh and the Two (brothers that is) 4

the brothers on the sideline

the brothers on the sideline

A few weeks ago, Sophie had come across an ad for the premiere of X-Men Zero, Wolverine in the Stars and Stripes newspaper I picked up at the US Embassy.  “Can we go, Mom?” she asked.  We’ll see I told her.  A few days later, “Can we go Mom?  I really want to go, please,” she asked again.  We’ll see I said.  The day before the event, I started to google to find out when it would take place.  I knew all the movie premieres were at Roppongi Hills but I wasn’t sure when it started and where exactly they were held.  I couldn’t find a single mention on google.  Strange.  I decided my last ditch effort would be to post something on Facebook.  “Anyone know when the X-Men premiere starts tonight at Roppongi Hills?”  Within a half hour, my best friend from High School, Jenny sent me a message telling me that her friend was Hugh’s hair stylist and that she just spoke to him this morning in Tokyo and that he was with Hugh going to the premiere.  Would I like her to call him back and get us on the guest list?  YES PLEASE!  Within a few hours, our names were on the guest list and I couldn’t wait for the girls to come home from school so I could tell them that not only were we going to the premiere, we were actually going to get to see Hugh and watch the movie.  You can imagine the jumping that ensued.  They scrambled to finish their homework so they could figure out what they were going to wear.  At 5pm, we left the apartment and went up to Roppongi Hills to check it out.  After a few Japanese moments (enough said) they found the person who knew we were supposed to be there and we were in possession of 4 20th Century Fox Staff Stickers and were personally escorted to a fabulous spot on the red carpet.  We watched Hugh ride in on the Harley from the movie and then laughed as he tried to speak Japanese and then Annie got to talk to him!  We had brought our DVD copy of Australia and a big fat red sharpie and as he came down the red carpet Tom yelled Hugh really loudly.  He turned around and saw Annie waiting with the DVD and he asked her where she was from and if she was on vacation or if she lived in Japan.  She was pretty cool and answered all his questions.  After the red carpet, we went into the theater and got to see the movie which we all really liked.  It was a magical night.  On the subject of magical nights, we had another one last night.  It was the season opener for ASIJ Varsity Football.  Hayden was starting as QB and Thomas was playing both ways, tight end and defensive end.  Even though they have both played football since 4th grade, they’ve NEVER been on the same team.  But now that Thomas repeated junior year and Hayden is playing up, they are together for the first time.  And to add to the excitement, Tom Sr was announcing.  On Thursday afternoon, the coach said that no one had volunteered to announce and they were in desperate need for someone to do it.  Tom usually films the games but stepped up to announce.  Picture it; Saturday night, 5pm, both of the boys playing together, Tom announcing, full moon.  Had to have been one of the best nights of Tom Sr’s life.  And Hayden’s.  And maybe even Tom Jr’s.  When the game was over, the brothers connected for two TD passes and Hayden ran in one of his own.  We won 42-16.  Tom had a blast working the mike.  One of the touchdowns Thomas made, was one handed and ended up breaking a finger. It was our first experience in the Emergency Room in Tokyo and we had heard horror stories about finding an ER that would take you and would have the right doctor and one that spoke English.  I called the American Club and they pointed us in the right direction:  Go to the Red Cross Hospital and look for the red ramp right.  Huh???  The red ramp right.  Its the only area of the hospital that is open.  Hmmm… we drove around the hospital in search of this mysterious clue.  And then we found it.  A small flashing red lamp light.  Father and son spent the remainder of the night in the hospital while Hayden went out to celebrate.  Magic.

Tokyo – Sophomore Year 2

After 10 weeks in America, we returned for year two in Tokyo.  We are happy to report that we have a new addition to the family.  No, I’m not pregnant and we didn’t get a dog.  Thomas Jr. made a last minute decision to spend his senior year in Japan instead of returning to Exeter.  It will complete the circle that began when he went to kindergarten in Tokyo in 1996.  Funny how things work out.  Needless to say, there were some adjustments that had to be made.  First on the list: decide where he would live.  We have a nice size apartment but it was really chosen with three kids in mind.  In July, with Tom Sr. in the U.S. we had a family discussion with housing options as the topic and no one had any interest in either sharing or giving up their current rooms.  Tom told Thomas he’d have to sleep in the storage room.  Thomas Jr. reminded his father that he was 6’3″ tall.  Tom assured him that he would renovate the “room” into something really cool and very cave-like; warm and cozy.  Thomas wasn’t buying it.  However, it did peek Sophie’s interest.  She started questioning him about what he was going to do.  And he started making some promises.  Big ones.  The dinner concluded, the discussion over and Sophie agreed to move from her very nice bedroom with a deck and sliding glass doors overlooking Tokyo into a storage closet with no windows and no ventilation.  Tom returned to Tokyo after his two week home leave and started the building “negotiations”.  First, he spoke with the building management about getting Thomas a studio apartment in our building.  They gave him the listing sheets of all the apartments that were for rent.  Everything was too expensive except for something listed as “Maid Quarters” for $500 per month.  “Can you tell me about these maid quarters?”  Tom asked.  The woman from the management company started to laugh.  “That is only for women.  Not for men.”  Tom told her (with his tongue very far in his cheek) that he was going to report her to the ministry for discrimination.  Hmmmm… I believe if there were one of these, the lines would be very long.   Anyway, the maids room was not an option.  So he approached it from another angle.  He asked the management to remove all the shelves from the closet and to create new larger deeper shelves.  They said they would come upstairs and take a look.  After 5 people came, listened to Tom’s request, sucked their teeth, said “eh to ne” a few times, they said they would get back to him.  A week later, architectural plans were delivered to Tom.  This is no exaggeration.  And the proposed cost to build the new shelves (which Tom was going to put a mattress on was $2500.00.  Tom said Thank you, but no.  He ended up having the shelves built at a home depot like store (Tokyu Hands) and they made two tables that push together to form a platform.  A full size mattress sits on top.  Throughout all the deliberations, the management was very very curious about what Tom was doing in our apartment.  They kept making him promise that nothing heavy would be put on the shelves.  Tom would just nod his head and agree.  Nothing heavy.  Somehow, in a matter of a few short weeks, he was able to turn a very ugly storage closet into a pretty cool, cozy room for Sophie complete with flat screen TV, dressing table, mirrored closet and framed Twilight Book covers from around the world.  Our 4 bedroom apartment became a 4.5 bedroom apartment almost over night.  Adjustment #1 complete.  Now, if we could only solve the problem of feeding a family of 6 (two of them 6’3 hungry football players) for less than $1000.00 a week, we would be all set!

A

There May Be Something To The “Wa” Reply

n1456860015_364408_1989060The Japanese concept of Wa (group harmony) was in full force this past Saturday when the ASIJ JV Baseball team played against the Japanese (a team that played in the Little League World Series two years ago).  An hour prior to the beginning of the game, I was sitting in my car in the school parking lot, reading the paper and drinking a cup of coffee when a pack of kids came flying in onen510997523_2599808_6397267 after another on their bikes, dressed in starch white uniforms.  They ran out to the field and started a warm-up like I’ve never seen before.  Unfortunately, I had given the camera to Tom who was with the girls at their school’s sports day so it went unrecorded.  They formed lines and were fed badminton birdies as they practiced their hitting, one after another.  Next they took the field, yelling and screaming with every move.  As the game began, the differences between the two teams were quickly apparent. When the Japanese made an error in the field, their coach smacked them on the head.  They loved the bunt and used it effectively every inning.  There was never a quiet moment when they were in the field.  Constantly whooping and screaming, driving their teammates to a frenzy.  They ended up winning the first game.  Twenty minutes later, the second game of the double header began.  Somehow they had lost some momentum.  It was quite possible that they relaxed after the win.  Or it could have been that Hayden finally got to play and his defense was stellar (yes, I am a proud mom).  Hayden had been benched in the first game until the 6th inning due to us being 5 minutes late to the game (traffic on the Chuo Expressway).  When the Japanese lost to ASIJ in the second game the team received quite a talking to from the coach.  And then, as we were walking away from the field heading for home, they ran back out and started doing drills again.  Their day was from from over.  It’s been a strange season for Hayden – nothing like what he was used to back home.  But, I’m pretty certain, he’s learned a thing or two…

It’s Been an Isogashi Kind of Spring (BUSY) 2

 

Annie singing Karaoke at 11pm in Shibuya

Annie singing Karaoke at 11pm in Shibuya

Last weekend, Tokyo International School held it’s Charity Concert.  The annual event takes place at a theater the school rents and all of the students in the school get to perform.  Tickets aren’t sold  – there are donation boxes as you enter and everyone stuffs the box on the way in.  The money raised goes to a different charity each year; this year it was for orphanages in Japan.  Annie’s grade performed a rap “I’m Young and Positive” and Sophie’s grade performed an African Drum Dance.  Both of these can be seen on the photo site.  The show was the most entertaining of any school show i’ve ever seen (multiply 4 x a lot)… very creative and energetic.  It was a pleasure to watch.  As soon as Sophie performed, I dashed off in a cab to the next event, The 60th Anniversary of the Women’s Group at the Tokyo American Club.  This was a black tie/red dress formal event held at Happo En a formal Japanese Garden.  They had Geisha and sake barrel breaking (a tradition) along with Japanese dance and music and a 12 piece orchestra.  It was a gorgeous evening and I was happy to be a part of it (I put together a keepsake journal reliving the last 60 years…) and I wrote a poem that was read at the event.  That was pretty cool.  The following weekend, Julie our babysitter from Amagansett and Purchase came for a visit with her friend Megan.  As it was my third set of visitors, I felt I had the itinerary down pat.  I even threw in a few places that I hadn’t been to.  We had a non-stop, action packed week that included conveyor belt sushi, singing elvis’, monkeys, dogs in every shape and size, a korean scrub, a shrine sale, boutique browsing, karaoke, the New York Grill, an onsen theme park, walking across the rainbow bridge, little edo, boating in the imperial palace moat, the fish market, tasting food in department store food halls, eating under the train tracks, tea at the peninsula hotel, lying out at the American Club pool, love hotel hill, watching pizza being made, foot massages, 100 yen shops and beach volleyball.  I’m pretty sure it’s a trip they won’t soon forget.  And I don’t think I’ve heard Sophie laugh that much EVER… Tom was in Hong Kong and New York for most of it so it was an ALL GIRLS WEEK.  Hayden was around but he tried very hard to make himself invisible!  It is May and we are in final countdown mode.  Only a handful of weeks and we will be stateside…

Tasty Tokyo Reply

 

Savoy Pizza in Azabu Juban

Savoy Pizza in Azabu Juban

 

The pickle and dried fish course at Kamiya in Roppongi

The pickle and dried fish course at Kamiya in Roppongi

Foodies around the world know that Tokyo has more Michelin rated restaurants than any other city, but you don’t have to eat high-end to experience the euphoria of sublime food.  $10 and the knowledge of where to go, can bring you pretty close to food heaven.  My father and step-mother visited last week and I chose the places we ate with care.  There was a different place for lunch and dinner and the price and cuisine ranged from under $10 per person to over $100.  We started off the culinary journey with a trip to our local ramen shop.  This is a place that Tom scouted out before I arrived here with the kids.  You slide open the wooden doors, duck under the linen noren curtains and place your 1000 yen note into the vending machine.  Each item on the menu is shown with a photo, a price and the brief description in Japanese.  You make your selection, a coupon pops out along with your change.  You hand the coupon to the man at the counter, sit down at one of the 10 small tables and wait for your bowl of steaming noodles to arrive.  I always choose the ten ten men (which I’m not even sure is the name) but its a bowl of ramen noodles with a peanut flavored spicy broth served with ground pork and fresh spinach.  You eat the noodles with chopsticks and you drink the soup with a big Japanese soup spoon.  And I never forget to order a plate of the fresh gyoza dumplings that I dip into a mixture of soy sauce, white vinegar and spicy hot oil.  Wash it all down with an Asahi or Sapporo Beer and it’s one of the best things around for less than $10.  Sophie has been raving about a pizza place that she went to with a friend’s family and I have tried several times to locate it, to no avail.  But with my parents in tow, we forged ahead, found Savoy Pizzza in Azabu Juban and ate our way through 10 pizzas in less than 1 hour with only 7 people.  The menu was pretty straightforward:  pizza margherita or pizza marinara.  We ordered 8 margarita and were offered two special pizzas that were not on the small menu (margarita with fresh cherry tomatoes).  Each pizza was made in front of us by the young Japanese pizza guy and then he threw a handful of rock salt into the brick oven which sizzled on impact and in went each pie.  Within moments, it was bubbling and oozing and plopped down in front of us.  The restaurant is more of a bar with exactly 9 seats.  We were told we could come for dinner at 6:30 but had to be gone by 7:30.  We ate fast and frantically and were very happy on our way out. Bill for 7 people with a bottle of red wine and several sodas, about $200.  A favorite Japanese cooking style is Teppanyaki.  A very westernized version is Benihana.  In Tokyo, places like Benihana are an insult to Teppanyaki restaurants.  In Tokyo, these dining establishments can charge between $100 and $200 per person and sometimes more.  Obviously, this is not an option for a large hungry family so I asked my friend Donna who has raised 6 kids here where she takes her kids for teppanyaki.  She recommend Panic Cafe.  Panic Cafe is located close to Azabu Juban.  It is located down a long staircase in the basement of an office building.  It also has a counter that seats about 10 with two tables.  Most of the food is cooked in front of you at the grill, but without the fanfare and drama of the typical Benihana.  They have perfected  a dish that is popular in Tokyo called Taco Rice.  The dish consists of rice, beans, meat, cheese, tomatoes and LOVE and when they serve it to you at Panic Cafe, you think you have eaten manna.  My father said it was one of the best things he ate in Tokyo.   Another lunch time found us at Rice Terrace in Nishi Azabu.  A small two storied shuttered house tucked away behind the traffic of the main street.  The red and green curry lunch set is one of my favorites and they serve it with soup, salad and a dessert of rice pudding with coconut milk and sweet potato.  Add a beer and the total for lunch is about $10 per person.  Sushi Sushi Sushi.  You can’t get it any fresher or more authentic.  We ate sushi three times while my dad and stepmother were here: the first time was around 10:45 a.m. after visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market, we stopped in for a tuna lunch set which included all kinds of different grades of tuna in all types of forms (sashimi, sushi, hand rolls…) There are a few famous spots for eating at the fish market but I’m never standing in a line for an hour for lunch and its pretty hard to go wrong anywhere you eat in Tsukiji.  Price for lunch with beer around $12.  The second place we ate sushi was at our favorite kaiten sushi restaurant (or conveyor belt sushi).  On the main strip in Omotesando, there is a little sushi-go-round with about 20 stools and you sit and watch the small plates of sushi come around and your pick up the plates you want to eat.  At the end of the meal, they count the plates and the colors of the plates (the colors designate the price) and you are presented with the bill.  Hayden can eat about 14 plates himself.  At the end of the meal, we had at least 40 plates and the bill was $85 for 7 people – less than $10 per person.  The last sushi meal made up for that one in terms of price!  The night before my dad and step-mother left, we went to Fukuzushi, a sushi restaurant in Roppongi.  We had a combination of raw and cooked food – several orders of cooked yellowtail collar (my step-mother’s favorite) and at least 4 orders of softshell crab along with sushi rolls and sashimi.  The bill that night was over $600 for 7 people.  The food was great but I’m not sure I will be taking the kids there again!  One night we went to Kamiya for dinner.  A small restaurant that seats 10 people upstairs at a communal table and 10 people downstairs in the basement at a counter.  The menu includes several courses and changes each week.  It is presented, hand-written in a book for you to look at.  Since it is all in Japanese, we smiled and gave the book back and told them to just go ahead.  The meal started with a seaweed and raw egg shooter and continued with course after course of sashimi, pickles, dried fish, fried shrimp summer rolls, beef, fish ball soup and probably a few other courses I can’t remember.  The meal ended with a small dish of cherry blossom ice cream.  Most of us tried everything, some dishes were unbelievably good and others more on the interesting side.  Each course is served in a unique piece of hand made pottery and the service is unique.  The restaurant is owned and run by all women, a unique experience in Tokyo.  Dinner costs about $80 per person.  A very nice price for the level of service and the quality of the food.  One day, while visiting the Tokyo-Edo Museum, which happens to be located in the area where the sumo stadium is and the wrestlers live and train, we stopped in for lunch at a restaurant that has served sumo wrestlers chanko nabe for over 100 years.  Chanko Nabe is a big pot with broth and vegetables into which very thin strips of beef are added.  As they quickly cook, you pull them out with chopsticks and spoon some soup and vegetables into your bowl and eat them together.  When the meat has been eaten, they throw in some thick udon noodles to cook with the vegetables and soup.  Its very good, especially on a chilly spring day in March.  A week in Tokyo would not be complete without a tempura meal.  I have never been a fan of tempura.  To me, Tempura was what you ordered in a Japanese restaurant if you didn’t eat sushi.  But in Japan, it is an art form.   Each piece is made individually, in front of you and served one at a time.  The ingredients used vary depending upon what is fresh but when we were there included shrimp, small white fish, eggplant, edamame, mushrooms, asparagus, to name a few.  You are given several dipping options.  One is a bowl of broth at room temperature that you add freshly grated daikon (radish) to.  This cools the tempura and makes it ready to eat.  The other is a good old dish of salt – nothing is better than a fried shrimp dipped in salt!  And freshly squeezed lemon juice which combined with the salt is the perfect addition to the seafood tempura.  We went to Tensei, the only Michelin starred restaurant on the itinerary.  Lunch is a bargain as they serve you the same multi-course meal as they do at dinner except they charge about half at lunch (about $50 per person).  Worth every yen.  Most of the restaurants we went to were Japanese which makes sense as most visitors really want to eat Japanese food when they are only here for a short time.  But I can assure you that you can eat almost any kind of food in this city and most of it is off the charts…When my dad and step-mother left, I went right on a diet.  Visitors can be fattening!

A Day To Appreciate The Little Things… 1

dsc03456Captain Mark, one of the soldiers from Camp Zama that we hosted for Thanksgiving, invited our family to The New Sanno Hotel for Brunch today to thank us for including him for the holiday dinner.  The New Sanno happens to be down the block from our apartment building and is a hotel owned and run by the US government and you can only go inside if you are active duty personnel or their guests.   We had to be escorted into the building by Mark and he had to flash his military ID wherever we went.  The brunch was in a huge dining hall that reminded me of the dining rooms in the old Concord Hotel in the Catskills.  It was a huge all you can eat and drink buffet with every American speciality you could think of (except pancakes for some strange reason).  The girls enjoyed mac and cheese and fruit loop treats among other assorted goodies they haven’t had in 6 months.  They peppered Mark with questions about being a soldier and he answered all of them.  We learned that the hotel cost $42 per night and that if he wanted to fly home to America he could get a “hop” on a military plane at the base for $25 – however you can only fly standby… What struck Tom and I were the size of the people at the brunch.  We usually feel like the largest fattest people wherever we go but today, we were average size, and SKINNY!!!  After brunch, Mark took us for a tour of the hotel. It was fun to see all the added features of a hotel built and run for the armed services.  There was a NY deli, a store where you could buy clothes from the states in US sizes, a magazine and book shop with magazines in normal US dollar prices (Mark was nice and bought me a current selection), a snack shop where you could buy Ben and Jerrys pints and pop tarts, an ATM machine that spit out US Dollars and an Americanized Japanese restaurant (think Benihana).  They also had a casino with slot machines, a sports bar with ESPN and AFN on the televisions and a nice pool and gym facility.  Walking home from the hotel, full on eggs benedict, a shopping bag full of magazines and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the day.  After a few hours at home, the girls got dressed in their new outfits (purchased the day before at the closest thing to a US mall I’ve found in Tokyo – Lalaport) and we were off to their first music recital.  It was run by the music company that gives them lessons and they had been practicing their pieces for the past two months.  Annie just started playing violin when we arrived in Japan and Sophie has continued her lessons that she started in the Fall of ’07 in New York.  There was no prior rehearsal and we weren’t sure what to expect from the other musicians.  The program included 24 different “acts” including piano, violin, guitar and flute.  The age of the musicians ranged from around 6 to adult.  One of the first to play was a boy with Down Syndrome who was around 6 years old.  He played his piano piece beautifully.  He was so patient with the song, never rushing any notes and his mother recorded it from the audience wiping away the tears as he played.  It was really beautiful.  There were two more musicians who were disabled, it seemed like they had Asperger’s Syndrome.  They both played beautifully.  There was quite a range of talent, from  close to beginner (like Annie) to off the charts amazing – there was a 12 year old boy violinist that was insane.  The concert lasted over two hours and all of the little children sat through it without hardly moving.  It was very impressive.  By the end, the girls were absolutely spent but it was an afternoon of smiles and pride.  


Back in the Blog 1

dsc03189Apologies for the two week lag in creating a new entry.  I can blame it on being busy but it was really the opposite.  Not much was going on to blog about.  Last week I started my first online course for my masters via Skype which was a very very interesting experience.  There are eight students and one professor and everyone sits in their own space wherever that may be and logs on to a skype conference.  You can’t see anyone, but you can hear them breathing.  Actually, during a part of the class that we had to do a writing exercise, I muted my computer so it would be quiet and after I wrote my piece I was reading it out loud to myself (or at least I thought it was just myself).  Turns out when you hit mute on your computer, you only mute the other people!  I got a little Skype message from one my classmates telling me he heard everything I was reading to myself.  That was a little embarrassing and will never happen again.  If you are wondering what this crazy picture to the left of the blog is, well, I have to say, I’m not so sure myself.  The girls and I were at Tokyo Hands shopping and while I was looking for something, the girls decided to try out some of the zany Japanese products.  Sophie put it on (while it was deflated) and started using the hand pump until she came running to find me and told me she couldn’t breath and would I find a way to remove it from her neck.  This past weekend, we went with a group from the Tokyo American Club to the Sapporo Snow Festival.  You might remember that Tom and I took the boys to this the last time we were in Tokyo.  There are some funny photos from that trip – us with the 30 Japanese fisherman on the weekend tour.  This time it was a bit different.  However, the snow festival was a bit disappointing.  The American Club goes a week early trying to beat the crowds and the prices and usually the sculptures are almost entirely completed.  But this year it was far from being finished.  Another by-product of the bad economy?  Who knows.  We did however get asked to help work on a sculpture which was fun.  Tom immediately found the chain saw.  What a surprise.  There was a world competition ski jump going on at the old olympic site and we were able to see a jump or two before they shut it down for high wind.  The jumpers were staying at the same hotel so it was fun to see them walking around in their ski team uniforms (especially the Polish Ski Team – Tom wanted that jacket so bad).  We had an action packed weekend that included an indoor water park, a Genghis Khan BBQ at the Asahi Beer Hall, a visit to the Sapporo Olympic Museum, lunch in Ramen Alley, a visit to the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival and Skiing at Kokusai Mountain (all in 72 hours)!  Today was Setsubon, the festival that celebrates the end of winter and the beginning of spring.  I’m sure that it doesn’t seem possible in New York, Wisconsin or Exeter, New Hampshire, but today was a beautiful sunny 50 degrees and it felt just like spring was on it’s way.  Sophie is off with her school for a 4 day ski trip to Nagano.  Tokyo International School has some serious field trips… sayonara.

Skiing in Japan – Easy as Ichi Ni San 1

 

Thursday Morning, Nozawa Onsen

Thursday Morning, Nozawa Onsen

Back in August, when we first arrived in Tokyo, I asked a friend who had lived here for 8 years where she liked to ski.  Her favorites were Nozawa Onsen and Happo One, both in the Nagano area.  She warned that I needed to book the trip asap as the places to stay tended to fill up quickly.  She recommended some websites and after some research, I made my decision and booked a 4 night stay at Kawaichiya Ryokan.  I emailed the Japanese inn and asked for accomodations for 3 children and 2 adults and I was told there were two rooms left, both with private toilet and sink.  We would have to bathe in the public bath downstairs.  I was also quoted a room rate that included breakfast and dinner.  Knowing that ryokans were similiar to B&B’s in America, and that you couldn’t get a rate without the breakfast, I went ahead and booked the 4 nights bundled with the meals.  I was told that a deposit was not necessary, as they “trusted” me.  A week before our departure, I called the number the American Club gave me for a luggage delivery service, and they showed up at our apartment two days before we were due to leave and collected the 5 HUGE bags filled with ski equipment and clothing for 5 people.  They assured me that my bags would be at the hotel before I arrived and that they would return to collect them the day that we left and that the bags would be delivered back home to us the following day.  For this service I was charged the equivalent of $150.  On Wednesday, each of us carrying a small backpack, met Tom at Tokyo Station around 4:30 (he was at work) and we boarded the Shinkansen Bullet train.  We had reserved seats and had bought o-bento boxes to eat dinner on the train.  The train to Nagano took 1.5 hours and arrived at the exact moment it was expected to.  In Nagano, we changed to a small two car local train that took us slowly North to Nozawa Onsen.  The train took one hour and we arrived at the local station after 8pm, took a 10 minute taxi ride and arrived at our ryokan.  Kono, the man I had been communicating with via email was waiting for us and explained the layout of the town, handed over the lift tickets (more on those later) that we had ordered and had our bags brought up to our rooms.  They were exactly as I had expected them. Here is a photo of the kids room:

dsc03086of course, the photo was taken on Day 2 when they had a chance to make it their own.  We were woken up the next morning around 7am when a little japanese old lady used her key in our door and barged into our room saying “breakfast” “breakfast”… Tom and I had to laugh knowing she was barging into the kids room next!  We got dressed in our ski clothes and headed downstairs for breakfast.  There were individual tables set on the tatami floor with pillows to sit on.  The table was filled with plates – maybe 6 or 7 for each person and after carefully looking over everything we were served, decided the only thing we would consider eating was the white rice and the miso soup (and that even had large things floating in it).  We pushed around the food a bit and made a quick exit.  Our next stop was the ski rental shop (past the one traffic light in the town) and somehow managed to rent equipment.  There is a little video of the experience on the photo site.  We then carried our equipment through the town and up a very steep road to where the steps began.  After going up the many steps we arrived at the “Yu Road”.  This was a combination of a moving walkway and an escalator that was probably installed for the 1998 Olympics – the biathlon was held at Nozawa Onsen.  As soon as the “road” ended you were on the snow and next to the ticket booth.  We put our gear on, stored our after ski boots and took the gondola up.  The lift tickets were small plastic squares the size of a matchbook that you put into your ski jacket pocket around waist high.  The ticket scanners were not human.  You passed through a gate that scanned your body for the pass and the bar would lift up when it found it. At first Annie had the “ticket” in a pocket that was lower than the scanner and she would hop up and down until it found her ticket, but then Tom told her to move it to her chest pocket and it worked like a charm.  The resort had over 20 lifts (most of them covered quads which were amazing) and two gondola.  At first, we thought there were more lifts than trails, but after finding our way around we realized that the mountain was much bigger then we had originally thought.  And the day… it was absolutely gorgeous.  Somewhere in the mid-30’s with the sun shining, no wind.  Just the most perfect day to be alive and skiing.  And there was no one else there.  Maybe a few Australians here and there on summer holidays but that was it.  We found this great little italian restaurant halfway up the mountain that served a list of different spaghetti, a good enough house wine and strong cappuccino.  We skied all day until the runs were about to stop and were able to find ski and boot lockers that cost us about $2 a person per night.  The place felt a little like a ghost town.  It looked like it had been built up during the height of the bubble when everyone had cash and supposedly the lift lines could reach a kilometer in length, and then when the economy faded, so did the resort.  Nothing had been updated since and there were very few visitors.  But that was just fine.  They were still grooming the trails every night so it was more fresh corduroy for us!  We spent the late afternoon and early evening testing out the various onsen in town.  The town is famous for its 12 public onsen and the town was built around them.  They are literally large wooden enclosures split in half (men on one side, women on the other) that have the hottest water i’ve ever put my body in, being fed by natural hot springs under the earth.  There is an important bathing ritual that must take place before you can enter an onsen.  Squating naked next to a water spigot, you must totally cleanse your body and hair.  And when you are squeaky clean, you can then get into the bath (naked of course), with the rest of the village.  It does take some getting used to but it is a big part of the Japanese culture and after living here for 5 months, we’ve done it many times before.  After a long day of skiing, there is nothing better.  And you don’t even notice the cold when you put your yukata (cotton bath robe) back on and walk through the town with wet hair.  dsc03130Back at the ryokan, it was 6pm and time for dinner.  We were a bit hesitant to see what would be served, but I promised the kids that if it was inedible, we would go out for dinner after.  When we arrived at our table, we were not surprised to see the profusion of plates.  The old lady came out to explain what everything was.  The first dish she pointed to had raw meat on it.  She smiled and said “Hawwwse  Sashimi”  and then she did a little impersonation of a horse.  Tom asked in Japanese if she meant Uma?  And she smiled and said “yes, uma”.  It was confirmed, the main special dish of the night was raw horse meat.  There was also a small plate of tempura, white rice and an udon (a small stew) that was bubbling over a flame with various vegetables and sliced duck.  Tom and Sophie actually tried the Uma:

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and then the laughing started and a major case of the giggles followed and then Hayden tried a small whole fish and started gagging and that was the end of the “dinner”.  We quickly located a place that made pizza in town, ate again and then made a reservation for Saturday night too.  Tom tried to explain to the person at the desk that we no longer were going to need breakfast or dinner again.  But the next morning, at 7am, our friendly maid opened the door again to tell us to come to breakfast.  And then when we didn’t come, they called us.  And we tried to explain that we said no more meals but it never sunk in.  The woman tried to get us to come to breakfast the entire time we were there.  All in all, we were in Nozawa for four days, we skied for two of the days, Tom Sr. snowshoed through chest high powder on the third day and we took an early train home on the fourth.  We went in several different onsen, bought fun souvenirs, played many many games of Apples to Apples (a very fun family board game) and made some really interesting memories….

We have two more ski trips planned – at the end of this month we visit Sapporo in Hokkaido for the annual Yuri Matsuri (Snow Festival) and then over the February break we go to Happo One in Nagano for five days.  We are all looking forward to more fun skiing…

Thanksgiving Tokyo Style 1

dsc02131The last time we lived in Tokyo, Thanksgiving was the hardest holiday for me to celebrate away from home.  I worked then, didn’t have the day off, and to the rest of Japan it was just another day of the week.  All I could think about was what everyone was doing at home.  I pictured my family getting up early to cook and watching the parade while drinking hot chocolate.  There were never any issues, everyone always got along and no one drank too much and said things no one really wanted to hear.   Basically, everyone was together and happy back home in the states and my small family and I were alone and miserable.  This time around, I started planning early hoping that the amount of effort put in would pay off in the end.   The first people I invited were Kyoko and Michael and their daughter Kyla – friends of ours from the last time we lived here.  Next on the list were Isa and Cliff, friends of my Mom and Mark (and now our friends).  And then i couldn’t figure out who to invite next.  So the list kind of stayed that way for at least a month.  Then, while researching an article I am writing about the 60th Anniversary of the Tokyo American Club Womens’ Group, I came across an article written in the 1970’s about American families living in Tokyo, hosting US soldiers stationed at the nearby base for Thanksgiving Dinner.  The light went on.  I would invite soldiers.  I called the President’s office at the club and inquired about the program.  “Oh yes, I remember, we used to do that a long time ago.  That was when there was a big USO presence in Tokyo but they really don’t exist anymore.  That program hasn’t been in place for years.”  Ok, a slight drawback but I was determined to find some soldiers who would enjoy my Thanksgiving Dinner.  Next, I decided to send an email to the Athletic Director of Hayden’s School (The American School in Japan).  Hayden had played football against 5 different bases and I thought he would have a few contacts.  I received the following email response “this is very generous of you. I have copied this e-mail to two colleagues at Yokota air base and Zama army base. I hope they can get back to you with any contact person at their base.”  I waited patiently but heard nothing.  And then, at least three weeks after I started my search, I received a phone call from the Tokyo American Club President’s secretary.  She excitedly explained that they had a call that day from a soldier from Camp Zama asking us if we still did the program where they connected American families with active duty soldiers to share Thanksgiving Dinner.  And that is how I came to find Captain Mark Gross and Sergeant-Major Rick Gonzales.  And as soon as they were added to the invite list, others kept coming until there were 18 of us (12 adults and 6 children).  And our table was full of all our American favorite foods and we laughed and drank and got to know each other better.  Hayden commented on how Captain Gross liked to take out his maps to show everyone where he was stationed and we got to hear the story about how he was wounded last year in Iraq in the neck by bullet fragments (we even got to see the scar)!  Tom made a beautiful toast before we ate about how no matter how anyone at the table feels about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have to support our troops who are fighting for our freedom and the freedom of others.  And how even though we are far from our friends and family, they are far away and in harms way.  One thing I noticed at the end of the evening was how we had 18 people for dinner and there were no issues!  And it wasn’t a fantasy either!!!  

What’s Behind Door Number One? 1

sakaLast year, Tokyo had more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in the world.  As a self-defined foodie you would think i won the lottery moving here.  Actually, its more of a frustrating situation then you would think.  In New York, if you want to go to a fabulous restaurant, you usually have to wake up early and dial furiously one month before the night you want to eat out.  And with any luck, you manage a booking some time during that night (it might be the 5:30 seating but at least you get the reservation).  And when you arrive at the restaurant, you are presented with a detailed menu and a waiter who is just dying to tell you all about the food you are so fortunate enough to be allowed the opportunity to eat.  And then the bill comes and you contemplate if it was actually worth the effort/price, etc… This procedure is pretty standard.  In Tokyo, its not that easy.  There are a few “expat” restaurants around our house that everyone goes to and the menus are in english and there are people who work at those restaurants that speak some english.  Its not uncommon to bump into people we know, even though we’ve only lived here for three months.  Saturday night, we had plans with our friends Libby and Doug to go out for dinner. Libby was pretty busy the week before as she had guests in from the U.S. and i told her i would find a place and make a reservation.   I wanted to break out of the mold and go to a “real” japanese restaurant.  Every day that I walk in Tokyo i pass another restaurant that has a small door that you need to bend to enter.  Usually there are noren (linen curtains) in front of the door and the name of the restaurant is in japanese (usually a mix of kanji and hirogana).  They only seat a handful of people.  My mind starts to fantasize about all the fabulous food that is being served there but only for the people in the know (e.g. the people that can read and speak Japanese).  I just don’t want to think that i am skimming the surface of good food in Tokyo.  I want to eat where the real people eat.  So i started doing some research, reading old Metropolis issues (the english weekly magazine) and looking on the internet and i came up with a small restaurant that wasn’t too far away that was Japanese/French.  I thought the combination would help the transition from a gaijin restaurant to a Japanese.  If it considered itself French in some way, the menu might actually have some French words which would help us figure out what was on the menu.  I couldn’t actually make the reservation myself as that would require the ability to speak Japanese so i asked member services (my new best friends) at the Tokyo American Club to make them for me.  They called me back later that day to say that we had a reservation for 4 at 8pm at HINOTOHITSUJI SAKA.  I emailed LIbby and told her that i made the reservation and we were all set.  Saturday night came and we took a quick cab ride over to the restaurant and it was exactly how i pictured it… down a small dark street, lit from within with a small door that Tom had to bend (and Doug who is 6’4) to get inside.  I was actually very proud of myself at that point.  When i stood upright and surveyed the very brightly lit, very small restaurant that was EMPTY, the pride started to melt into something closer to remorse.  We were welcomed by an older woman and a younger man (who could have been her son).  He quickly brought us menus that were completely in Japanese.  And not the Japanese that Tom can read (hirogana and katakana) but most of it had kanji characters.  One particular one did stand out for Tom – the character that represents a Horse.  We asked for Eigo menus (english) and he quickly shook his head NO.  After some hemming, hawing and teeth sucking, he told us there were three choices.  Horse, Pork or Beef Cheek.  He left us to decide and we all laughed at how it would be pork for 4.  The meal began with a small dish of some type of green grass in salt water.  Crunchy but very earthy tasting.  The next course was shredded radish with shimiji mushrooms served cold.  This course was followed by a clear broth with what looked like gefilte fish floating in it.  It turned out to be very similar to gefilte fish but it was pressed crab.  After the soup, we were served a chicken sausage with shredded cabbage that was actually quite good.  Next up was the pork that was served with root vegetables and a semi-sweet glaze that was also very good.  After the main course, we were served cold soba noodles that you dipped in cold soy broth and when you were finished, you poured hot water into the left over broth and drank it like soup.  At this point, we were hoping there were no more courses but out came the dessert.  It looked very much like coffee ice cream on top of brownie chunks in a custard sauce.  Tom took a big bite and as Doug spooned some into his mouth, Tom warned him not to do it and at the very same moment what Doug put in, Doug took out.  Turns out the brownie chunks were chunks of some sort of hard jelly and the coffee ice cream was tea flavored.  Watching Doug take a big bite excited for the chocolate/coffee dessert and then watching him spit it out, i just couldn’t contain myself and i started laughing so hard that real tears spilled out of my eyes and at that point i just couldn’t stop laughing.  of course all night i had to take the brunt of all their jokes (how from now on libby was going to choose the restaurants, and where exactly had i read about the place).  We were there for over two hours and not another soul walked in the door.  When the bill came, it was close to $200 per couple.  Considering the amount of courses we had, it wasn’t really that expensive (for Tokyo).  But I don’t think i’ll be going back.  Even though it wasn’t the meal I envisioned, i’m not giving up on my exploration of the little doors with the Japanese curtains…