The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and The Kingdom of Cambodia: How We Spent Our Christmas Vacation 7

Jardine family vacations are a challenge to plan.  With two sets of kids (the older boys and the younger girls), a mom who loves visiting temples and markets and a dad who needs to stay out of the sun and likes to rest while on vacation, it’s not always easy to find a happy medium.  And although I do take all of these “requests” into consideration – e.g. ESPN must be available on the television, limited temple visits, scary adventure of some sort must be included, can’t leave until Christmas night and presents have been opened at home – not every event on the itinerary is going to be a crowd pleaser.

This year’s vacation turns out to be our last in Asia during Tom’s work assignment and I am thrilled that we chose Vietnam and Cambodia.  They were always on the short list of places I wanted to see before I moved home but I wasn’t too sure how the rest of the family would  react.  December 25th:  After a big Christmas brunch we set out for the airport and flew direct to Ho Chi Minh City otherwise known as Saigon.  We were met at the airport by our guide, Nam (pretty easy to remember) who brought us to our first of five places we would sleep in 11 days – the Caravelle Hotel.  This hotel had a lot of “history” and was the temporary embassy for several countries as well as headquarters for many of the news agencies during the “American” war.  Since it was Christmas night, the streets were pretty much dead and the traffic quiet – something we would not see again for the rest of the trip.  The next morning we were back in the van early for our trip to the Cu Chi tunnels about 2.5 hours outside of Saigon.  These tunnels were used by the Viet Cong sympathizers living in the south for five years before and during the Vietnam War and they were fascinating to see and experience.  Listening to our guide explain how people lived in these tunnels for years was unfathomable especially after we took our turn walking through them (when I say “we” I mean the rest of my family who are much braver than I).  Here is a photo of Sophie trying to get into one of the tunnel openings:

Nothing like scaring the crap out of your kids on vacation!  After a thought provoking morning Tom and I got a wonderful history lesson from Nam during the long ride back to town.  The list of countries that occupied Vietnam over the last 100 years, the life and times of Ho Chi Minh and how he came to power, the new “hybrid” capitalism they practice in the country with “open” markets, etc… quite amazing.  When we arrived back in town, we had a delicious lunch at Nam Phan, a gorgeous restaurant with an Indochine feel.  Deep fried mud fish crumbs and green mango salad, spring rolls in lettuce leaves with sweet and sour sauce, eggplant with shredded pork and X.O. sauce, fried rice with egg and seafood and steamed banana cake with coconut milk.  After lunch, we got back in the van, did a drive-by of Cholon – the chinatown area, stopped off at the Cantonese Thien Hau Pagoda for a blessing and finished up with 30 minutes of shopping at Ben Thanh market (I could have stayed for hours but when asked by the guide when he should return, I felt the eyes of my sons begging me to say minutes instead of hours).  Back at the hotel for a dip in the pool and then the Temple Club for dinner.  Once we realized the restaurant wasn’t too far from the hotel, we decided to walk home and practiced crossing the street without a guide.  When I say practice it really is something you need to learn and do several times before you get the hang of it.  There are really no rules of the road in Saigon – and there are 9 million people and 6 million motor bikes.  People just go where and when they want to – in all directions.  The way to cross the street is to just step off the curb and walk slowly.  The bikes and cars will go around you.  You have to have faith that there is a force field protecting you and your children and that is the only way you’ll get across the street.  If you wait for an opening, you’ll stand there all night.  Tom got such a kick out the process, he walked into the street and stood there bringing traffic to a halt.  I don’t think people knew what to think of that.  The next morning, another early departure as we had a boat to catch.  It was a two hour drive to Cai Be where we boarded a small junk boat that took us into the larger area of the Mekong River to get on the Bassac – a teak boat with a very asian sort of feel that had 12 cabins and a wonderful staff.  Once on board, we had another delicious lunch of river fish, beef, rice and vegetables on the covered deck and we started our trip down the Mekong.  After lunch we were free to relax on deck or in our rooms and watch the world float by.  It was the first moment of the trip where Tom got his vacation wish – a chance to lie down, read and relax.  Around 4, we left the boat, boarded a small long tail boat that took us to a river village where we got off and walked around learning about the flora and fauna of the Mekong Delta.  We were invited in to a home where we had local fruits and tea and heard Vietnamese fables, folklore and superstitions.  Back on the boat, we had afternoon gin and tonics with homemade potato chips, lots of Bananagram games and then dinner at 8.  The next morning, Tom and I woke up at 5:45 to watch the floating market – the wholesale fruit and vegetable market that comes together on boats at sunrise.  Then a huge breakfast of homemade chocolate croissants, omelets, fruit, bacon, grilled tomatoes and fresh squeezed pineapple juice.  The French definitely made some wonderful contributions to the country of Vietnam, namely great bread, delicious coffee and good solid infrastructure.  We said goodbye to the staff and boarded a smaller boat and went to a larger floating market in Cai Rang.  Some of the salespeople came alongside our boat selling drinks and fruit and we were able to watch the transactions.  Then it was back on land to meet up with Nam again and our drive to Chau Doc.  Along the way we stopped for Ca Phe Sua Ba which is this cool way of dripping espresso into ice and then mixing it with condensed milk.  Delicious on a hot and sticky day.  4 coffees, 3 cokes and the bill was $5.  We estimated the same back in Tokyo would have been around $40.  This is when Nam told us about the very special coffee they sell in Vietnam called weasel coffee.  Supposedly the weasels eat the coffee beans and then digest them which does something interesting to the bean and then the beans are regathered from the weasel poop (cleaned of course) and then ground into coffee.  For the rest of the time in Vietnam Tom kept trying to order weasel coffee wherever we went.  People just looked at him funny.  Once we arrived in Chau Doc, we drove up Sam Mountain (Sam means horseshoe crab in Vietnamese and that is what the mountain is shaped like) and we had the most amazing views of Vietnam and the Cambodian border.  We were only a few miles from the boarder and it was an incredible sight.  Completely flat flooded rice paddies as far as you could see. Chau Doc is basically a town where people go to board the boat that takes you into Cambodia so there is one nice hotel and not much else.  But after we checked in, Tom and I went for a walk along the river and found an incredible food market – probably one of the most interesting I’ve seen in Asia and I was able to take some amazing photos.  Dinner was at the hotel as that was also about the only place in town to eat and we had a very early departure the next day.  There are a few ways to get into Cambodia from Vietnam, by bus, car, plane and boat.  I chose boat thinking it would a nice way to transit and it was a great choice for us.  However the boarder crossing was completely bizarre.  After about 10 minutes on the boat, we pulled over to the side and were told we would be going through the Vietnam exit procedures where we would purchase our Cambodian visas.  This photo shows Annie getting off the boat and stepping precariously over a few boards that had been laid across the water to get to land.  We waited in the office for about 25 minutes until we were told we could get back on the boat.  And we thought we were good to go but no, about 5 minutes later our boat pulled up again to the shore and we got out.  We had to officially enter Cambodia and we sat and waited for another 20 minutes or so while they processed our paperwork again.  Back on board it was full steam ahead for the next four hours until we pulled into Phnom Penh – the city where four rivers converge.  Immediately we noticed more English then we’d seen in the past few days and bigger shinier buildings.  Our guide Tavrun was waiting for us and he brought us to our next hotel, Amanjaya Pancam, a small boutique hotel right in the center of everything.   The rooms were huge and beautiful – the boys actually had the largest hotel room I’ve seen in a long time and they were loving it.  A quick lunch at the hotel and then we were off to see the Killing Fields.  Tom and I watched the movie before we left on the trip and so it was pretty fresh in our minds.  The kids chose not to watch and so were unprepared for what we were going to see.  Actually, its hard to prepare for something like that.  I’m sure its the same with visiting the camps in Germany – its just evil in its purest form and its quite overwhelming.  There is a large Buddhist Stupa filled with the skulls of thousands of those found there and everywhere you look you see grassy holes in the ground where the mass graves were discovered- sometimes thousands of them in a mass grave.

And our guide kept pointing to bits of bone, teeth and cloth on the ground everywhere and at first you think it was left there on purpose but there were so many bodies in so small a space that every time it rains or the river floods (its right next to the river) more remains surface.  Back in town, we made a stop at the Russian market (again with a 30 minute time limit) and then we were treated to a cyclo ride home.  A cyclo is like a rickshaw only the person carrying you is on a bike behind you.  It was one per person and it was a wonderful way to see the city.  The ride lasted about 30 minutes and took us straight to our hotel.  Tom felt so bad for the guy who had to carry him that he gave him what was probably the biggest tip he’s seen in a while.

You can tell from the photo that Hayden was a bit embarrassed to be doing this – he felt it was colonial

but he really didn’t want to ride home in the van alone so he went along with it.  Before dinner we made a pit stop at the FCC (foreign correspondents club) a place with tons of history and it’s palpable as you sit in the  comfortable leather club chairs and drink a fruity concoction.  If those walls could talk you probably wouldn’t move for days.  After dinner we went to the “best” restaurant in Phnom Penh chosen by our travel agent which turned out to be very bad “international” cuisine which was so disappointing.  When you only have a limited amount of meals in a foreign country you don’t want to eat food that is trying so hard to be something that it isn’t. So don’t go to Topaz.  After dinner, we hit the rooftop bar in our hotel for a big plate of french fries and a cold glass of white wine and then off to bed for an early flight to Siem Reap.  Really wish we had another day here to explore.  So much more to see…

Easy 45 minute flight into Siem Reap where we were met by our new guide Mony.  He drove us to our FINAL destination, the Raffles hotel where we would stay for 3 nights.  Yeah – no more moving!  The hotel is old and beautiful and historic – spotted a framed photo of Jackie O while having our welcome drink in the lounge.  The rooms are beautiful with dark wood and ceiling fans.  A quick change and then we were off to the Amansara to meet the Sasanumas for lunch.  Sophie’s good friend Julia Sasanuma from ASIJ was staying there and they were so kind to invite us all for lunch.  It was great fun as they also have 4 children so we had one big lovely table under a pergola outside.  Lunch was delicious and it was fun to hear the kids catching up on what they had seen and done.  Then we were off to see ANGKOR WAT!  This time we took the local tuk tuk (covered benches on motor scooters) that are the equivalent of a taxi in Siem Reap.  The trip there took about 10 minutes and was fun and a bit thrilling in traffic.  Angkor Wat: the 8th wonder of the world, the world’s largest religious building and a breathtakingly magical place.  First we went up in the tethered hot air balloon for a look from above and then we came down and started our journey inside.  We had a few clothing issues to sort out first as they are stricter then in Bali so my sarong over my short skirt idea didn’t fly.  I had to throw on Tom’s extra pair of pants over my skirt (very attractive) and Sophie needed to purchase a pair of EPL pants (our inside family joke about eat pray love wannabes) we finally made it inside the compound.  I was nervous as I thought I’d be in for loads of complaints due to the

a. heat

b. we were in a temple

c. it was the largest temple in the world

But everyone was sort of fine.  We walked around and talked and asked questions and then when it came to climbing the steep steps to go further inside, Hayden Sophie and Annie decided to stay down at the bottom and Tom, Thomas and I went up.  From up above I could see the kids playing with some local kids and so they were happy and occupied.  Hayden had one little boy in particular glued to his knee.  It was pretty sweet.  We tuk tuk’d back to the hotel for a rest and then we were picked back up by them a few hours later to take us to dinner at Cuisine Wat Damnak which was located in a residential neighborhood in a Cambodian house owned by a french couple.  The dinner was typical Khmer food, authentic, a bit different but delicious.  Green jack fruit salad with frog meat, Chhlang fish filet with green tomato relish, braised pork ribs with calamari and purple sweet potato, steamed dark chocolate biscuit pandan leaf custard and toasted cashew nut.  http://www.cuisinewatdamnak.com/-menu.html

December 31st, awoken by a call at 6:30.  It was Sophie mid-vomit.  Hmmmm…

and so it begins, the day I was sort of waiting for during the entire trip.  Southeast Asia, non-potable water, questionable food sourcing = VOMIT.

Sophie couldn’t stop for several hours and then things calmed down for a bit.  Both boys were happy to volunteer to stay behind with Sophie at the hotel so Tom, Annie and I forged ahead with the morning itinerary.  We went to Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia to visit the floating village including a school visit and a monk’s blessing.  It took us about 45 minutes by car and then we got into a water taxi driven by a young teenager who used his bare feet to steer with a rope attached to the motor in the back.  We went on the lake for about 20 minutes until we came to a world completely built on stilts. It truly looked like a scene from the movie Waterworld.  There were pigs and cows in crates, kitchen areas, common rooms, areas for fish drying and

laundry.  It was quite ingenious. From Wikipedia: For most of the year the lake is fairly small, around one meter deep and with an area of 2,700 square km. During the monsoon season, however, the Tonlé Sap river, which connects the lake with the Mekong river, reverses its flow. Water is pushed up from the Mekong into the lake, increasing its area to 16,000 square km and its depth to up to nine meters, flooding nearby fields and forests. O.K. back to me: You can see each house is built with a first floor and then steps up to the main house.  When the river floods in to the lake, the first floor is under water.  There was a small land mass built up high where the monastery was located as well as the schools.  We got off and there were kids running around like crazy.  Most were wearing a school uniform but some were not.  The school kids all followed us into their middle school class and started asking our names and where we came from.  I’m pretty sure that was about the extent of their English but it was enough. Our guide said it cost each family about 15 cents a day to send the kids to school and for most that was too much to pay. We brought with us a bag full of school supplies that Annie went around the class passing out.  They seemed pretty excited even though it was just pencils pads and erasers.

Annie was their age and she towered over them. Tom brought a football and started teaching the boys how to hold it and throw.  At first they were popping it up like a volleyball but after a few quick lessons they got the hang of it.  Then we went next door to the monastery where we had a private blessing by the monks, making sure to not sit on the red ants on the woven mat. Then back in the boat for the return trip home.

We hurried back to the hotel to check on the patient.  She had been sick again and so we

called in the doctor (who only spoke french) but we were able to communicate through an interpreter and he gave her a shot after which she fell fast asleep and I started to freak out about the fact that I just had a strange doctor give my daughter a shot of god knows what in Cambodia.  But after an hour or so she woke up and was feeling better.  The afternoon activity was riding quad bikes in the jungle and so Tom took the rest of the kids and I stayed behind with Sophie and we actually watched EAT PRAY LOVE.  The kids came back a few hours later dirty and exhausted having had the best time.  They were allowed to ride as fast as they wanted through villages and rice paddies and kids kept running out to say hello and meet them.  Annie rode with a guide behind her in the same bike and when they came to a rest he said he was nervous to continue in her quad!  You go girl!  It was New Year’s Eve and the hotel had a compulsory dinner that we were “invited” to and it began across the street from the hotel in the formal gardens for music and cocktails which was very nice.  Sophie stayed behind in the room.  When it was time for dinner we collected her and she limped along trying her best to feel better.  The event was set up outside by the pool which Annie informed me was the biggest pool in Cambodia and on the list of the most beautiful pools in the world.  And it was pretty magnificent.  They lit 1000 candles and floated them in coconut shells.   However about an hour into the event Sophie was done and I took her up to bed.  I stayed with her until she fell asleep and then went back down, not feeling too good myself.  By 11pm my family had had it – they had been sitting at the same spot doing not much of anything since 8pm and they basically called it quits which I was relieved about because in about 30 minutes I too would be throwing up from some special ingredient I ate or drank (not alcohol related at all – it was the first New Year’s in my memory where I felt too ill to drink anything!) We knew it was midnight by the grenade like fireworks going off but at that point I could care less.  2011 went out with a bang.

The next day was our last in Cambodia and so we put on rally caps and went on with the itinerary.  First stop, Bayon Temple and a walk about on elephants. Next stop, Ta Prohm, the famous temple with overgrown trees where Lara Croft was filmed. Our guide had set up a scavenger hunt inside the temple which only Annie wanted to play but she was rewarded with hidden scrolls, small paintings, a cambodian scarf and a buddha head!  Very well done.  Back to the hotel for our only afternoon of rest and sitting by the pool.  We managed to squeeze in a few spa treatments before dinner at the hotel and an early bed time.  We were leaving for Vietnam the next day.

After checking in at Siem Reap we were informed that our visas were not the kind that would allow us re-entry into Vietnam and so our plans for one last afternoon and evening in town with our tour guide Nam before our midnight flight were pretty much ruined.  We ended our trip in an airport lounge that we had to pay $180 to get in but only allowed us to stay for 3 hours, which sent us to the gate 4 hours early.  It was a very boring end to a very rich and wonderful experience and I’m sure the silly ending will soon be forgotten – but the people and the culture of these two intoxicating countries will not.  If you happen to be in this part of the world some day and get the chance, by all means GO!!!

Back to Reality 4

A few days ago, Tom was told that this year would be his last in Tokyo and that it was time to go home.  That discussion was inevitable – we knew we wouldn’t settle down and retire in Japan, it’s just that we didn’t expect it so soon.  But we should have.  We came to Tokyo in 2008 on a 3 year visa and when we leave in June we will have had 4 glorious years living in Tokyo.  They certainly haven’t been all fun and games as all of you know the months after 3/11 were not easy for anyone living here but the experience was one that has changed my life and the lives of everyone in my family.  It’s amazing to me that both my sons will have graduated from the American School in Japan – they will be connected to this place for the rest of their lives.  And the Japanese culture, people and way of life are woven into the fabric of my daughters’ beings.  They are forever changed for having “grown up” here in this safe and culturally rich environment, where they have been given the freedom to explore and adventure on their own.  I’m sad that in a way that sense of independence will have to be tamped down on our return home. You just can’t wander around NYC at the age of 12.  So 2011 comes to a close with reflection on our time in Japan and thoughts of the future in America and with sadness and a sense of loss as well.  We are excited for all our wonderful family and friends we will return to but it also means saying goodbye to the people who have become like family here.  We will take them all back with us, packed in our suitcase, represented in the photos we took, the treasures we purchased, the places we visited and the times we we pulled each other through.  Leaving is like ripping off a bandage but returning is like the wound that suddenly heals when exposed to the right elements.  Here’s to new beginnings in 2012.

Searching For Sea Glass – Discovering A Whole Lot More 2

It was a gorgeous summer day in June.  Bright sun, a cool breeze and my friend Christine and I decided on a whim to drive out of Tokyo to an area in Chiba to hunt for sea glass.  She was in limbo, waiting for the US government to assign her husband his next posting and I was also in my own sort of limbo.  School had ended and our summer holiday had not yet begun.  Three of my four kids were out of Japan. Sophie was attending summer school for long days out in Chofu and I had hours to kill and no good reason to do anything.  Our destination was an area we had been before for hiking called Nokogiriyama (Sawtooth Mountain).  While waiting for our ferry to take us back to Tokyo, we killed some time and found a concrete beach – basically Japan’s coastline that has been concreted over to make safer for tsunamis which was littered with sea glass.  So this was our destination.  We had a navigation number for a 7-11 not far from the mountain’s base and off we went.  We took the aqua-line which is a bridge-tunnel combination that is a total of 14 kilometers long (about 9 miles) the tunnel part being the 4th longest underwater tunnel in the world.  It actually cost 11 billion USD to construct but it cuts about 1.15 minutes from your trip from Tokyo to Chiba – unless of course you sit in the underground tunnel part for 45 minutes in traffic which is what happened to us.  And this was only about 12 weeks post the 3/11 earthquake and we were still having nice-sized aftershocks.  So, it wasn’t the smartest decision of our journey.  Once in Chiba we got lost trying to listen to our navigation while chatting and tried to follow the farm roads winding around rice paddys and long strips of nothingness until two hours later we “arrived at our destination”, the 7-11 we were heading for.  So then what?  It had been over a year since we’d been there and at that time we were with a guide which means we didn’t pay that much attention to what we were doing.  So we parked the car at the train station and started walking in the direction we thought we walked before.  That was unsuccessful.  So we got back in the car and drove north for a few miles seeking and searching for our mystery beach. Nothing.  Turned around and headed in the other direction – back to where we had come from hoping we’d missed something.  It’s like the place didn’t exist.  But we had the bounty of beautiful sea glass to prove that it did so we kept looking.  Taking roads my car had no business going down, we meandered by the coast – sometimes way too close to it – until we found another beach that we hoped would be just as littered with the small pieces of smooth blue and green glass and pottery we found the last time we were in the area.  We reasoned the coast was the coast and if things washed up on one beach nearby then they would most certainly wash up on a beach a few miles away.  We pulled right into the small parking lot – not another car in sight and started beach combing.  Walking onto the sand we were thrilled to find the place to ourselves – the best way to find treasure.  There was one man sitting way back on the cement steps by the parking lot but besides him the beach was deserted.  We walked down to the line in the sand that separates the wet sand from the dry, where most of the debris had collected and started our quest.  At first we walked together showing each other what we found – nothing like the other beach but good enough.  And then, while walking and staring down at the sand, we naturally separated, Christine going in one direction and myself in another.  I walked the beach, searching for treasure, occasionally finding something I thought interesting enough to keep and adding it to my plastic bag inside my purse.  This continued for about a half hour and every now and then, I would look up and see Christine down the beach bending down to pick something up.  The day was gorgeous, the breeze refreshing and the activity relaxing and quite peaceful.  And then, as I plopped another piece of glass in my bag, I found I had company.  It was the man who had been sitting on the cement steps.  He was about my height and seemed friendly enough.  In Japanese, he asked me what I was collecting and I took out my bag and showed him, saying “it’s beautiful, no?” and then in Japanese he said that I was beautiful.  And that was when things got interesting.  I laughed him off and showed him my wedding band and walked away, down towards the water and continued to look for more glass.  Now, if I had been in America, I’m pretty sure Christine and I would have stayed together.  But it was Japan, and my guard was way down.  It’s the safest place on earth, right?  But still, I thought he would just walk away and leave me alone.  That is not what happened.  I felt his presence near me and when I looked up again, he had pulled his pants down and was showing me HIS treasure.  Well, I have to admit this New York girl was NOT PREPARED!  I sort of laughed and screamed at the same time and took off running down the beach to Christine who seemed miles away.  My arms were flailing and I was still screaming when I got close to her.  I must have looked like a maniac because her guard was also down and she didn’t know what was going on.  When I breathlessly explained what happened and how we had to get out of there immediately she asked how big he was and then determined that we could “take him”.  Christine is probably 5’10 and I’m 5’8 and together she thought why leave the beach – she had just found a good spot with nice glass!  I convinced her that we had to make an immediate exit which we did and she grabbed a big stick from the sand and we both had our plastic bags filled with glass and shells as our protectors.  Walking down the deserted road back to our car, there was a small truck idling which we thought might have been the flasher’s but we kept walking determined to get back to the car as soon as possible.  Once we were safely back and buckled in, we burst out laughing.  It was so unexpected it was almost like it hadn’t happened.  But it was a good lesson and one I told my daughter when we returned home.  Japan is the safest place on earth but there are still crazy people everywhere.  From now on, no more solo treasure hunting in Japan for me.

Having a well earned beer after our adventure by the sea!

Sayonara Superfluity (aka I’m Sick of Saying Goodbye) 8

I’ve only seen 5 sayonara seasons in my life but i’m going out on a limb and saying this one has surpassed them all.  For those readers unaware of a sayonara season its usually the last two weeks in May and the first week in June when your days and nights are filled with various parties in honor of friends who will be leaving Japan in June.  It’s one of the few sad components of being an expatriate and living in a transient society – the fact is, for the most part, your friends can be categorized by their visa status, as  in 1-3 years, 3-5 years, etc… Of course there are always the lifers who might have come here on a 1-3 or 3-5 assignment and never left.  And thank god for them because they provide the only real continuity in our ever changing lives.  And even though we hear throughout the year of friends who will be leaving at the end of the school term, those last three weeks are a killer.  It’s like ripping bandages off all day long.  There is the sayonara coffee, the girl’s lunch, the mid-week dinner or pole dancing event (yes, I did write pole dancing) and then there are the big over the top lavish parties on Friday and Saturday nights.  And you might have 3 or 4 in one weekend.  This year, the odds were in your favor that you were saying goodbye to at least 5-10 good friends.  And one friend of mine who has lived here forever counted 76 friends leaving this June.  76!!! I guess the flip side of this is that we get to meet scores of new people and each year the possibility of making a new friend that you will love is pretty high.  But maybe not this coming year.  I’m not sure there will be many new faces to replace those who have left.  If you were comfy in your living room in your home country and your husband came home and said you were moving to Tokyo, would you say “that’s great honey, i’ll pack right now”.  I don’t think so.  The 9.3 earthquake in March might have put the official kibosh on that for awhile.  So, this year, I’m squeezing my friends tight and sending them on their way, but I’m giving some extra special love to those who will remain behind.

PROM:TOKYO 2011 Reply

The American School in Japan high school prom was this weekend – and while I sat in the lobby of the ANA hotel watching the beautiful girls and their elegant dates filter in, I realized that no matter where you are, the Prom is the Prom.  The dresses could have been worn by any girl in any major metropolitan city – the black tuxes standard prom going fare.  The wrist corsages in all their floral glory – maybe smaller than their American city counterparts but still in attendance – the boutonnieres pinned awkwardly to the pocket of their date’s rented tux.  The smiles, giggles, nerves all the same.  The promise of the night to come.  Life for these teenagers is certainly different then when I went to prom – I’m pretty sure some of the invitations were made online using facebook – something only dreamed of in 1980 when I was asked.  But, as much as their lives have been technologically enhanced, important life lessons learned over prom weekend remain the same.

An Unexpected Love of L.A. 1

I admit it.  I never really gave L.A. much thought.  Growing up in New York it was always the other coast.  The one people moved to but weren’t from.  The town where more things were fake then real.  A place to dismiss.  I’d been a few times when I was younger and it never left a real impression on me.  And then, my son Thomas decided it was where he wanted to go to college.  California, and Los Angeles specifically were his dream.  And so last week, during the generously long Japanese National Holiday, Tom and I took the girls to L.A.  I went with an open mind and learned a lesson.

God must have a special place in his heart for Southern California as everything grows taller and greener than any other metropolis I’ve visited.  Maybe its because I live in an incredibly urban concrete city but I was seeing life in Technicolor!  Every lawn was lush and thick, the hundreds of species of trees all different but perfect, side by side.  The people all looked so healthy!  The tan skin, the white teeth, the bright eyes.  The perfect hair.  One more gorgeous then the next.  Everywhere I turned I saw beauty.  And the food!  I don’t think we had a bad meal.  From the corned beef hash with hash browns and eggs at the counter for breakfast to the grilled vegetable salads and the endless iced teas to the red velvet cake and the gnudi with morels and the Diddy Reise ice cream sandwiched between chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies.  Oh my word.

After walking around the UCLA campus Tom and I couldn’t come up with a reason why everyone didn’t choose to go to college in Southern California.

Who doesn’t love a town that revolves around the movie industry!  Romance, adventure, horror, glamour – some of the best nouns around.  I can’t say the same for the finance industry.

Valet Parking!!! I love it.  Just pull up in front of your restaurant of choice and someone will take your car and park it and bring it back when you need it – all for less than $10!

There must have been an American Apparel and a cool hip coffee boutique on every corner.  Need a new tank top or leggings?  A triple grande mocha half caf? At any hour of the day?

And the chance to see real live celebrities at any possible moment.  In five days we saw at least five certifiable stars.  The girls were going nuts.  You never saw such eagle eyed awareness in teenagers before.

And there aren’t many sights that beat the Pacific Coast Highway in either direction.  Just moments from downtown L.A.

So yes, L.A. is not a town to dismiss – quite the opposite.  And thankfully I have one great reason to return – Thomas is only a Freshman!

My EQS* (My Earthquake Story With An Asterisk) 4

When tragedy strikes, we all have our own story to tell.  Growing up my mother often told the story of sitting in her high school class and listening to the announcement over the loudspeaker that President Kennedy had been shot. I was playing 8 track tapes in my basement bedroom when John Lennon was shot. When the first plane flew into the World Trade Center, I was busy trying out for the club tennis team.  And when the 9.0 earthquake shook Japan, I was getting the grey out of my hair at Gold Salon in Azabu Juban, a 15 minute walk from my apartment.  Tom was on the 31st floor of the JP Morgan building, Hayden was in Chemistry class at ASIJ, Sophie and Annie were under their desks at Tokyo International school not far from the Tokyo Tower.  We all have a story to tell.  Unfortunately this one is just beginning and will most likely have many different endings.

Gold Salon is on the 6th floor of a small office building, with the street side wall comprised of a sheet of glass.  My appointment was for 3pm and I was a few minutes early, hoping to get in and out quickly as the girls and I had tickets to see Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  I had on the plastic slicker and was just getting out my kindle when the earthquake hit at 2:46pm.   Earthquakes and tremors are the norm in Tokyo and I was waiting for it to end – usually they only last for a few seconds. But this one continued.  And it grew in intensity.  Shelves came off the walls and hair products went flying.  A glass vase with flowers tipped over, Starbucks coffee cups spilled on end.  The baby in the lap of the woman next to me started screaming.  The six of us in the salon followed Howard the owner, outside to the metal fire escape stairs.  At first I didn’t want to move but quickly realized i’d be alone in the salon if I didn’t.  We flew down those stairs as fast as possible.  I felt bad for the women who had the dye in their hair. The baby continued to scream. I tried calling Tom and Hayden and the girls. Over and over again.  No calls would get through.   Outside on the ground, there were throngs of people just standing there looking up at the glass building wondering what to do.  Traffic was still moving.  I thought everyone had lost their minds.  Things calmed down a bit and we went back up into the building thinking it was over.  The employees started to clean up the mess.  And then the first of the aftershocks hit.  I ripped off the plastic sheet, grabbed my bag, took off my high heels and dashed back down. I ran through the streets knowing I had to make it back to my apartment.  My building was brand new and it was only 4 stories tall.  I knew I would be safest there and my kids would come looking for me if they could.  I ran in my socks, as people in the street  stood there watching me – like I was the crazy one.  They just stood there.  What were they waiting for?  I thought my lungs were going to burst out of my chest I ran so hard.  And I made it home, and into my apartment to find…nothing wrong.  The only things that had fallen were Hayden’s trophies from his shelf.  I turned on the television and started to watch the event unfold.  I texted Tom, I face booked Hayden.  I emailed Tokyo International School.  Pretty quickly I heard from Tom telling me he was all right and made it down 31 flights.  Hayden face booked back to say he had been evacuated to the football field and he was fine.  No word from Sophie or Annie or their school.  I sat on the floor next to my bed and cried.  I cried for my children and my husband and my home.  I cried for the life I loved and thought forever changed.  I knew things would not likely be the same again.  About 15 minutes later the door crashed open and Sophie and Annie came running, screaming for me.  We hugged and cried and the relief was overwhelming.  Not knowing what was coming next, we decided to find our friends in the building and stick together.  A few hours later, Tom made it home – he walked.  It took him awhile.  Hayden’s bus had to take the back roads as they shut the highways down.  He got home 7 hours after the bus left the school.  We spent a shaky weekend catching our breath between aftershocks and trying to make plans.  Should we stay or should we go?  It was a really tough decision but when the schools cancelled class for the week, we decided it was a good time to go.  Tom stayed behind to deal with the opening of the Tokyo Stock Exchange the Monday morning following the quake.  We made our way to Bali a week earlier than we expected.  We are safe and together but we are missing Tom.  And we are sad for our adopted country and we are wondering what comes next in our story.

Hence the asterisk.

Please consider making a donation to one of these organizations which have been deemed most reliable by The American School in Japan: Japan Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, Global Vision, and Global Giving and International Medical Corps.

*Everyone has a story – if you were in Japan during the earthquake please leave yours as a post.

Burn Them At The Stake In An Orderly Fashion 2

Pictures don’t lie.  This is what it appears to be.  A large bonfire with people on top, making a mad dash out of hell.  But it was taken in Japan, in the tiny mountain village of Nozawa Onsen and so really, there was nothing to fear.  The Japanese put on incredible shows during their bizarre festivals and yet you know every aspect has been planned, organized and practiced and the risk of injury has been almost eliminated.  Every January 13th – 15th, the villagers of this tiny town re-enact an ancient ritual.  Sacred trees are felled and dragged into town where the 25 and 42 year old male villagers construct an intricate wooden shrine pavilion seven meters high and eight square meters wide.  This is serious construction business and its done in silence.  It takes two days to build and is completed on the morning of the 15th, the actual festival.  The festival is called the Dosojin Fire Festival and it takes its name from a folk deity believed to ward off danger near the village boarders.  These male and female statues are constructed out of various materials and its hard to walk around the corner without seeing another couple.  

A large group of Tokyo friends with husbands and children made the trek to this snowy destination for a weekend of skiing, fire and fun in the snow.  We stayed at a great ryokan called Sakaya.  I love the way they welcome their guests: 

and right outside the entrance was a foot onsen waiting to warm the feet of frozen skiers.  After a “delicious” dinner of typical japanese delights (fish guts and other assorted body parts) we made our way as a large group down the charming snow covered narrow roads to the festival, about a 10 minute walk from our inn.  Surrounded by spectators (most of which had an Australian accent as this is their summer vacation and many many Australians flock to the Japanese Alps for ski vacations) was this huge ark like structure encircled by the 25 year old men at the base while the 42 year old men sat and stood on the top, occasionally throwing branches at the townspeople below.  There were others bearing torches whose job it was to burn the structure down.  The young men protecting it tried their best to hold them back.  This give and take lasted over an hour until the townspeople broke through the line and set the structure on fire.  But not of course until the 42 year old males made a careful descent down their twig ladder.  I’m sure the sake consumed by all involved helped the fire to burn.  And burn it did.  It was a cold dark night that soon turned the skies light and the spectators warm.  Golden sparks lit the skies like firecrackers on the fourth of july.  

2010: It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Reply

This is a picture of my four children, together and happy.  This is how we ended the year 2010.

Some years go by without much significant happening.  It might even be hard to remember special events.   What did we do for my birthday that year?  Did Hayden’s team make it to the playoffs?  Which company were you working for then?  I’ve had those years as have we all.  The ones that when you are sitting around on New Year’s Eve you wonder where the time went.  How is it possible that another year has passed already.  This was not one of those years.  And when it came time to put the year to bed, for the first time since I was old enough to stay up to midnight, I put myself to bed hours before the big countdown.  I was ready for it to end.  My family and I were in New Zealand when 2010 began, celebrating the New Year a full day before our relatives back in New York would watch the ball drop in Times Square.  We got a head start so to speak.  It turns out we shouldn’t have rushed the new year’s emergence.   Some of the best things happened this year in our family; Thomas got accepted at UCLA, Tom and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary, I wrote an article for CNN International, Thomas and Hayden played in the Japan vs. USA All-Star Football game and won.  But some of the worst things happened too – both of Tom’s parents passed away within three weeks of each other; an unbearable amount of grief for a family at one time.  I will not forget 2010.  But what I have learned  from what we have been through this year is that you carry on.  You do what you need to do to make it through to the next day.  And then the next.  And things get better.  This too shall pass.

Momiji-gari: leaf peeping in Japan 2

ROAD TRIP!!! One car, six girls, bags of snacks, cups of coffee, even a homemade carrot cake – we were on our way to Takayama and Shirakawa-go, a 4+ hour drive from Tokyo to a land of thatched roof houses and magnificent fall foliage.  We had 36 hours to see and do as much as possible and even though the car navi said it would take 5 1/2 hours to get to Takayama, we put the proverbial pedal to the medal and made it in

4 – an hour before our lunch reservation at the hundred year old soba shop.  This gave us time to scope out the town of Takayama, a foothold of the Tokugawa Shogunate; a feudal regime of shoguns.  We visited the Takayama Jinya, an historical asset that was built as a villa originally but then taken over as an administrative office.  It was beautifully restored.  The kitchen, with current appliances would have been right at home in a ski lodge in Aspen.  Here is a photo.

 

 

 

Lunch at the hundred year old soba shop did not disappoint. The bowl was almost too beautiful to eat, but it didn’t stop us from diving in.

 

After lunch, we spent an hour walking up and down the edo style streets, walking in and out of the small shops, buying more snacks and fun Japanese crafts.  The streets were fairly crowded for a Monday and many Japanese were dressed in Kimono.  Around 4pm, we made our way to the ryokan, the Japanese inn where we would spend the night.  Although it was located on a main street, next to a gas station, as soon as you entered through the torii gate, past the iron gas lamps, you left the modern street behind.  Actually, as soon as we pulled in to the parking lot across the street, a man ran towards us as though he was waiting in the window, watching for our arrival.  He grabbed every bag he could possibly manage (even though many of us were taller than him) and led us inside.  We were immediately welcomed and invited to sit by the fire for a welcome cup of tea and Japanese sweets.   Our room had two floors, a living area downstairs with a private deck with our own onsen outside and a sleeping room upstairs.  We cocktailed in our living area, snacking on wasabi rice crackers and vacuum packed chestnuts and played “would you rather” which got pretty survivor-like quickly.  Before dinner, we went in the onsen and soaked in the hot water outside in the pitch dark.  Warm and a bit fuzzy, we dressed in our custom chosen yukata and went to dinner in the inn.  I’ve included a photo down below of our table waiting for us in our private dining room.  Like most ryokan, dinner was completely Japanese and we had fun seeing who would eat what.  The two most adventurous in our group, Katherine and Efrot seemed to have no problem eating almost anything on their plate but the rest of us needed input before taking a stab at some of it.  The main course was Hida beef which we cooked ourselves on hot stones over a grill in the middle of the table.  The five small bits we were all served were delicious and left us wanting more.  And so, when the final course of the main meal was served: beef to be eaten raw, we waited until our server left the room and Libby threw her raw beef on the stone and cooked it too.  We all followed her lead.  After dinner we were invited to the main room of the lodge to do tin art with the sensei.  He had cut beer cans into squares and framed them and showed us how to turn them into something beautiful.  I made a replica of one of the thatched roof houses we would see the next day.  Here is a photo:

After we finished our works of art, we returned to our sleeping room to find 6 futons laid side by side.  We tucked in and fell fast asleep; well the rest of the girls did and after an ambien, I joined them.

Our plan was to wake up early and go to the morning market by the river but when the alarm went off at 7, it was raining and so we went back to bed and decided to skip the market.  We did manage to get back on the road by 10 and we expected a 50 minute drive to Shirakawa-go using the new road and tunnel but 30 minutes later, after driving through one of the longest tunnel i’ve ever been in, we were there.  And the magic began.  Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO world heritage site and as soon as you drive down the road and spot the first of many of these very special houses you immediately know why.  Shirakawa-go has some of the densest snowfall on Earth and it is believed to be the reason why these homes were built with these roofs.  Here are a few of the houses but they are literally scattered everywhere.  We pretty much ran through fields, amazed by each one we would find – there were at least fifty of them spread out in the small village.  Each one unique and yet the same.  Many of them have been turned into small shops and minshuku (inns that are more basic then ryokan).  It started to rain while we were there but we soldiered on, not stopping until we had seen the last house and shopped in the last shop.  We were hungry but there was no room anywhere as the bus loads of Japanese tourists had arrived and so back in the car we went to Takayama for a tasty lunch of more Hida beef cooked on our own individual grills.  After lunch, we quickly got back on the road, knowing it would be a long drive back to Tokyo.  What we hadn’t figured on was SNOW!  An actual blizzard.  We came through the end of a very long tunnel and found ourselves at the top of a snow covered mountain road where the traffic had come to a complete stop.  Two cars had already crashed into the side of the mountain and every other car bus and truck stopped in their tracks while their drivers put chains on their tires.  After years of driving to Windham in the snow on dark Friday nights, I felt confident to serpentine through the parked cars and buses and continue slowly down the mountain.  We drove for about 1/2 hour in the snow and then popped out of another long tunnel into Fall weather.  With a huge sigh of relief, we continued on towards home.  It was only 36 hours but it was plenty.  We came, we saw, we ate a lot of food.