Sandy – Can’t You Make A Dog Leg To The Right? 1

What does this photo look like to you?  The 9th hole on your local golf course?  A middle aged woman’s left arm?  What it looks like to me is a long week ahead.  We’d been forewarned for days and yet I made my first trip to the store(s) Saturday around noon.  Smarter, more experienced folks went days before and basically bought out all the items on my shopping list.  You see, I’ve missed the last four years of “the biggest storms ever seen” on the east coast of the United States.  And I just thought there was a huge CNN effect going on – you know, the doom and gloom over exaggeration of any news item ever.  The updates in the past days reminded me of the hours after the earthquake and tsunami in March, 2011 when we kept hearing terms like “countdown to the the meltdown” whenever we would put on the US television.  But as I’ve been watching the storm move north, and the various news reporters providing live coverage from their various cities I think this time we might be in for a little bit of trouble.  The thought of spending a day let alone 7-10 in my small home with two teenage daughters and no internet or television makes me shiver.  The power is fully on as I write this and they are starting to get edgy already.  No showers, no flushing toilets, no hot coffee – meals of tuna (mayo less because of course that will have gone bad days before), canned chili and soup will not make for a happy family.  And that’s assuming nothing happens to our windows, trees or flying outdoor furniture – despite all the preparations.  I haven’t been in a home thats lost power in so long I can’t remember what its like.  I hope I am not newly acquainted with the situation.

The Hot Clock 1

Time is ticking on my biological clock.  Not the one that has to do with diapers and sore nipples.  I’m talking about my hot clock.  At 47, its only a matter of time before I look in the mirror and see a friendly face that sort of resembles me in an oh so luke warm sort of way.  I’m not talking about beauty because I do believe people are beautiful from the inside out and age has nothing to do with that.  I’m talking down and dirty, sweaty heat.  And not the kind that has the word flash after it.  When I lived in Japan I barely looked in the mirror.  Well, that’s not really true but lets go with it for the purpose of this  blog entry.  Living in a metropolitan area of 35 million people where about 98% are Japanese gives you quite a license to, as they say, let yourself go.  In the four years I lived there I can honestly say I can’t remember any man on the street ever looking at me twice – unless you count the guy who pleasured himself on the beach and gave me quite a surprise.  And it’s not like the reason you get your hair colored or you go to the gym is so that you will get acknowledged on the street by a construction worker.  But trust me, if you lived in a society where no one was watching, well then, things start to unravel a little.  And a lot of that had to do with access.  I never found a place in Tokyo where they really knew how to give a good gaigin (foreign) haircut – or blonde highlights, or a facial where they actually did more then rub cream on your face – the Japanese aren’t fond of extraction.  And of course there were plenty of places to work out and exercise but there were even more places to eat really really good food.  And given the choice, I will always choose good food.  Always.  So, I came home with a bad dye job, 20 extra pounds, skin that had been ignored, and countless other things that I’m too shy to mention.  But there are no more excuses.  People are watching.  Mirrors don’t lie.  Time is running out…

Re-entry Was A Bitch But Now I Think I’m Warming Up To Her 3

So, its been almost 2 months to the day since I last wrote a blog entry.  Not the best idea if you want people to follow you.  But when I started the blog it was to write about musings on life in Japan by a 40 something American woman.  Well, that’s not how I can describe myself anymore but life is all about change and change brings lots of things to write about so I’m not going to be stuck on my original terms.  Like many of my friends, this past June I left Japan after several years and returned to my “home”.  Well, sort of.  We moved to a different house in a neighboring town and the girls started school somewhere they have never gone before.  Hayden went off to college leaving our house severely uneven in terms of estrogen and testosterone (poor Tom) and things are just…different.  I feel like I am playing house.  Its similar to the feeling I had when I first got married and I was a new wife.  Living in a small apartment in the middle of a large city forces you out into the streets and here in Rye, I feel tethered to my home.  Everything revolves around your house in the suburbs.  Cleaning it, decorating it, maintaining it, sweeping the leaves, tending the garden – its a lot of time and effort so I guess there is good reason we spend a lot of time here.  I’m also finding it harder to be spontaneous.  Things are more programmed here – time more allocated, kids more dependent.  I feel I have lost some of myself moving back home.  And not all my friends came home.  Many of them are still living my life back in Japan and I get to watch it daily on fb.  Not easy.  But on the flipside – there are so many good things about being back in New York again: pillsbury ready pie crusts, credit card machines in nyc taxis, 900 television channels, backyards, garbage pails on every corner, restaurants that deliver, shoe stores with sizes bigger than 6, real bagels, New York Times home delivery and of course family and old friends.  I’m determined to start some new projects and finish some old ones. It’s certainly not a bad thing to take stock of one’s life at 47 and decide what and who really make them happy.  And then start making decisions based on that inventory.  So regardless of whether you moved back from Japan recently or if you’ve lived in the same small town for decades – life is too short to do things that really don’t make you happy.  It’s a huge cliche but when I moved back to Japan in August of 2008 I went with a carpe diem sort of attitude.  And I intend to do the same here.

 

What Will Your New Life Look Like? 2

*this entry is dedicated to all my friends who are on the move…

What will your new life look like?

Will you live in a city? A home with a backyard?  Will you hear the waves crash while you eat dinner?  What will you do after the kids go to school?  Play tennis?  Go to a new job?  Clean your house?  Do laundry?  Play cards?  Will you drive your children to school or will they walk or take a bus or a train or a bike?  Will you go out every Friday and Saturday night or will you stay home and have dinner with your kids?  Or order in?  Or cook for friends?  Will you still dance?  And sing?  Will you travel domestically or use a passport?  Will you join a book club or just read magazines instead?  Will you ever use your bike as a means of transportation or just on a beautiful summer day?  Will you return to Japan next year?  Or will life get too busy?  Will you look through your photos and wonder if life will ever be as fun or will you just get on with your day?  Will you have three course lunches?  With a glass of wine?  Will you travel on trains?  When you hear the Japanese anthem will you be moved?  When you see the white flag with the red sun will you smile?  At 5pm will you wait to hear the bell?  Will you go out of your way for a Japanese meal just to practice your unused words?  Will you still use a rice cooker when you make dinner?  Will you Skype?  Will you go to the doctor more?  Will you still walk to where you are going?  Will you still be curious?

Carpe Diem 2

I wanted to write a poem about leaving Japan but poetry just isn’t my thing.  So I sort of stole a poem.  A pretty famous one too.  Here’s my version of “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas.

DO NOT GO GENTLY ON THAT LAST FLIGHT

Do not go gently on that last flight

While we drink our champagne in business class, rave at the end of our expat days

Rage, rage against the dying of our package.

Those wise men at their end know going home is right,

because damn it’s hard to make those equity budget numbers

Do not go gently on that last flight.

Good friends, the survivors – wave goodbye, crying “who will plan our next day trip out of Tokyo?”

Rage, rage against the dying of our package.

The wild man in the booth who gave the play by play on Friday nights

will no longer scream “and another ASIJ First Down!”

Do not go gently on that last flight.

Member Services staff reduced by 25% due to lack of Jardine-san’s requests

Rage, rage against the dying of our package.

And you, our best friends – we’ll miss you the most.

No doubt – Tokyo is an amazing city, but its the people we’ve shared it with that have made it unsurpassable.

Do not go gently on that last flight.

Rage, rage against the dying of our package.

***

A few people have commented that I’ve made the most of my time in Asia and someone recently asked for a list.  So here are the highlights…the places outside the ordinary Tokyo spots.

47 Ronin at Sengakuji, Amanpulo, Atsugi, Bali, Bangkok, Beijing, Belly Dancing, Bhutan, Cambodia, Disney Land, Disney Sea, DMZ, Enoshima Island, Fuji, Ghibli, Gora Kadan, Grandma’s Harajuku, Guam, Hakone, Hakuba, Hawaii, Hiroshima, Hong Kong, Ise Shrine, Kamakura, Karuzaka, Kawagoe, Kinnick, Kiso Valley, Kyoto, Mashiko, Mikimoto Pearl Island, Misawa, Miyajima Island, Mt. Mitake, Mt. Takao, Nagatoro, Narita, New Zealand, Nikko, Niseko, Nokogiriyama, Nozawa Onsen, Odaiba, Odawara, Okinawa, Ome, Onjuku, Phuket, Sapporo, Sawara, Seoul, Setsubon, Seven Lucky Gods, Shanghai, Shibamata, Shimoda, Shimokitazawa, Shirakawago, Suwara, Sydney, Takayama, USS George Washington, Vietnam, Warabi Naked Festival, Yokota, Yokusuka, Yudawara, Zama, Zao.

Seoul Sisters 2

 Last year, our plans for a girls trip to Seoul to celebrate an important birthday were quashed due to the 9.0 earthquake that rocked Japan.  This time around we were adamant – we weren’t going to let a little thing like a North Korean missile launch stop us from our 72 hours of fun.  We left Tokyo early Monday morning for a very brief 2 hour flight (how come more people don’t go to Seoul?) where we met up with Mona, our long lost friend who took off to “grayer” pastures (Hong Kong) last June.  Our adventure began with a walk from the hotel (Lotte – totally great spot – especially our “Ladies Floor” rooms) to Namdaemun Market for a quick look around and lunch.  We did our due diligence and looked to see which hole in the wall had the most customers and sat down to a delicious lunch of bibimbap (a hot stone bowl filled with rice, veggies and other assorted yumminess), dumplings and fried rice with a fried egg on top.  And lots of kimchi – deliciously spicy fermented vegetables – something we would see at EVERY meal.  And of course, beer.  It was so good, we ate everything.  We were the only foreigners in the place and the proprietress watched us as we ate everything.   It became obvious very early on that this trip was going to be about two things – food and more food.
Monday Night – 6pm:  We met up with our guide Daniel Gray – from O’Ngo Foods – a cooking school that gives food tours.  We walked from the school through narrow alley ways as he pointed out some interesting buildings and talked about the neighborhood that we were walking in (Insadong) until we came to a small little shack with several oil drum bbqs set up.  Our first stop was for Garmaeggisal – a special cut of pork located near the pig’s diaphragm.  It’s grilled over hot coals with mushrooms and then eaten in a lettuce leaf that’s been smeared with various pastes and toppings – including very spicy green chills and korean garlic cloves. While eating, we learned a new drinking game (Titanic) and learned that in Korea there aren’t as many rules about how you eat your food as there are in Japan – basically anything goes.  After having eaten everything in front of us, it was time for a walk…to the next restaurant.
Our next destination was down another back alleyway in a typical korean home called a Hanok.  The star of this eating show was actually a drink;  Bbongip Makgeolli – Korean rice wine.  It’s served cold in a metal tea pot and poured into metal bowls.  It resembles watered down skim milk.  It was quite tasty and easy to drink and of course it was accompanied by some more food.  Huge triangles of fluffy ricotta like tofu arrived with a delicious soy dipping sauce.  We also ate different types of pickled roots – including ginseng.  This is when we learned the next drinking game; 007.
After polishing off everything there, we walked some more and took a dessert break.   Kkultarae is a dessert made from honey and cornstarch that is pulled and stretched into thousands of gossamer strands and then wrapped around different nut fillings.  The dessert I could take or leave however the guys that make the dessert must be seen to be believed: http://inews6.americanobserver.net/articles/seoul-street-food
We were running short on time, so we hopped a bus to our next destination – Andong Jjimdak – steamed chicken of Andong.  A huge steaming platter of chicken parts, vegetables, potatoes and sweet potato noodles in a thick brown sauce arrived at the table.  We moaned at the size of the platter – not sure how we would possibly get it all down.  But bit by bit, bowl by bowl, we started to make a dent.  I didn’t realize how good a sweet potato noodle could taste.  And to finish it off, the waitress dumped a bowl of crunchy well done rice into the remains and mixed and chopped it all up and we of course had to try that as well.  Our last drinking game of the night – the mighty metal twist off cap from the rice wine – flick it and it stays on, you are safe, flick it and it flies, well then you have to drink.
Our final destination was a night market to eat Bindaetteok – mung bean pancakes.  Walking through the market around 9 at night, outdoor stalls where old women stood in the middle cooking for patrons seated on makeshift stools made me feel like I was in an Anthony Bourdain No Reservations show.  I loved it!  The mung bean pancakes were greasy and hot and salty and tasted a lot like a latke – a Jewish potato pancake.  But they were not easy to get down due to the amount of food we had already consumed. The beer helped.
Saying goodbye to Daniel temporarily – we would meet again on Wednesday, we jumped in taxis and went to The Dragon Hill Spa where Korean ladies in black bras and panties were waiting to scrub our bodies raw.  Yes, raw.  Dark chunks of skin begin to emerge beside you on the plastic bed.  You try hard to ignore just how dead the skin on your body was, when the lady grabs a handful of it and shoves it in your face saying something indecipherable but you’re pretty sure its something like “wow, you are one dirty girl”.
Freshly scrubbed with slicked back pony tails, we stumbled into a taxi and somehow found our way home.  It was late, we were full and we were clean.
Tuesday Morning:  The alarm went off way too early but our 7:10 departure from the hotel for the DMZ was calling us.  Down in the van, dressed in the proper outfits (no worn jeans, no sandals, no shorts, no training pants, no sleeveless shirts and no leather pants) we were on our way to North Korea.  After the long list of rules were read aloud, we arrived at the main building for a 20 minute “briefing”.  Basically, what happened in the past 100 years or so to bring us where we are today.  It was quite informative.  Outside, we boarded a military bus which would take us the rest of the way to the border.  We pulled up at a very large concrete building that was very cold and very empty inside. We exited the building on the back side and came face to face with another large building that looked pretty much like the one we were just in, and four bunkers – 2 baby blue and 2 metallic.  The large building on the other side was the North Korean’s equivalent of the building we just came through.  Between the two blue buildings was a cement slab which separated the North from the South.  The guide said that anyone can cross it but once on the other side, there was no coming back.  We entered one of the blue bunkers and inside were several conference tables – with one in the very middle of the room horizontally – with three microphones installed down the line.  This was the actual border between the two countries and you could trace the same line outside with the concrete slab.  On the other side of the conference table was North Korea and the door out.  We were allowed to walk to the other side, stand with the guards and take pictures.  It was creepy!  We were told that when meetings are held between the two countries, representatives approach the table from both sides through their doors.  And interestingly, the North Koreans also give tours just in the opposite direction.
Once outside again we stood and stared at the large North Korean building and the two soldiers who stood and stared at us – through binoculars.  We were pretty sure our tall blond friend Katherine was causing quite a stir.
The tour included a few more hot spots like the propaganda village where North Koreans continually play messages about how they are lucky to live in Paradise, the site where  two marines were beheaded in an axe fight, the area where a defector from North Korea ran away and the Freedom Bridge where prisoners were exchanged.  Lunch was at a nearby bulgogi restaurant which was not good but we weren’t expecting much (the only bad meal of the trip).
Back in town, we made a stop at Insadong for shopping.
Dinner that night was at a place that Daniel our foody recommended.  It was called Jungsik and the chef also has a place on Harrison Street in Tribeca.  We had to choose 5 different plates from a tasting menu.  The food was amazing.  I started with a crunch salad of seaweed and quail egg, followed by a pasta dish with clams, garlic and jalepeno and then pork belly and then duck and for dessert strawberry ice cream.  The amuse bouche included a bite sized burger and the dessert after the dessert had small jellies shaped like Korean masks.  I’ll definitely give it a try when I’m back in NY.
Still to come…massages at the all girl Spa Lei.
We thought we had reservations for a one hour massage at 10:45pm but when we arrived it wasn’t quite as clear as we thought it would be.  Luckily, Efrot was able to communicate with the woman in Japanese and we secured sports massages at 11:20 which gave us about 30 minutes to walk around and check out the place.  Think Roman baths with all woman.  Everywhere you looked there were women of all shapes, sizes and ages, sprawled about – nude with interesting towel placements.  There was a room where you could get a hip bath – which we weren’t sure what that was and it wasn’t made much clearer when the large older woman started smacking herself between the legs to try and explain.  Later on we would find out that the treatment involved sitting on a stool naked with an open hole where wormwood steam would emerge in order to detox the uterus.  We passed on that one.
There was another area that was made of bricks and resembled an American Indian sweat lodge.  We went inside for about a second before having to run out to try and catch our breath.  A large room with tatami had many ladies sprawled about while they watched a Korean soap opera.  Libby decided to join them.  We left her there for awhile until our treatments were ready to begin.  She said it was fine, because her show was over anyway.  Boy do I wish I had a camera to catch a photo of the ginger laying about with all the Koreans.  Its something I’ll laugh about again and again.
The massages were in one room with mattresses on the floor.  Bright lights, another soap on the TV, each of us laying side by side.  Even though there was no oil and there was a sheet on top of us, it was the hardest massage I have ever received.  My feet were flipping and my hands fluttering, the pain was intense.  But I felt really really good afterwards.  Another late night taxi home.
Wednesday morning:  we woke to pouring rain. This put a bit of a damper on our last day in Seoul as we had secured a van and Daniel to show us around and we planned on walking through neighborhoods, stopping and shopping and of course eating.
We started the day with a return to Namdaemon market for a few last minute purchases we hadn’t made on Monday.  From there we drove to Samcheon Dong – the Hanok area with old traditional Korean homes.  Several of the homes were rented to artisans – we visited a knot house – literally a place where women sat all day and made knots out of silk rope.  These decorative pieces were hung from their traditional style dress – Hanbok.  They were gorgeous but outrageously expensive.
It had been about two hours since last we ate so we stopped to eat again.  This time at another  favorite spot of Daniel’s called BooksCooks.  It was housed in a traditional Korean home but it had been modernized and the inner courtyard was covered over.  The place was totally cool and the scones and brownies, delicious.  I chose the Omija tea – which tasted like cranberries.  Amazing.
From tea we went to Gahoedong and attempted to walk around but the rain was forcing inside to…eat!
Lunch was at a galbi jjim restaurant – very spicy braised short ribs.  This dish is seriously hot and they serve you various things along with the beef to eat when your mouth is on fire.  But its so good you just keep eating it.  We also had many different kinds of fried pancakes with vegetables, pork, oysters and zucchini.  And of course Kimchee – it goes without saying that this appeared at EVERY meal in various forms.
After one more shopping pit stop, our time had run out.  We drove to the airport, said goodbye to our friend Mona and boarded the very short 2 hour flight home.
I’m not sure why this city isn’t on everyone’s bucket list – it has so much to offer and if you live in Tokyo its ridiculously close –
It’s always good to leave something behind…it gives you a reason to return.

What A Long Strange Year It’s Been 1

* This blog entry only talks about the past year (post earthquake) in terms of living in Tokyo – the situation up North continues on and the year that’s been lived up there is beyond comparison to anything lived in Tokyo.

**The photo is from the lobby of the hotel in Bali when we first arrived.  Sophie, Hayden & Annie.

March 14th is my youngest daughter’s birthday and significant to me in and of itself.  Unfortunately, it will also always be remembered for the day we ran out of Japan.  It’s been a year to the day that we threw random clothes into our suitcase, called a taxi, sat in hours of traffic and made it out to Narita for flights we had no tickets for.  48 hours after the 9.0 earthquake, the earth was still shaking with aftershocks, the nuclear power plant had blown and the air was literally thick with the unknown.  We hadn’t left our apartment for two

days, worried about the unseen radiation in the skies.  School was cancelled indefinitely.  Tom had to stay behind to work and all I knew was that I had to get the f*ck out of dodge.  We left early for spring break and headed for Bali.  The name alone oozed calm.  And it was the perfect place for us to wait out the storm.  It was a strange “vacation”.  Surreal at times as I’d look out over the incredibly beautiful rice paddies that were completely still and silent and think about what was going on back home.  But after 10 days, we got the all clear (the schools were going to open) and we returned.  What we returned to was a very different world then the one we left.  The first thing that hit us was that someone had turned out all the lights.  Tokyo, usually a city lit up like a pin ball machine was pretty much in the dark.  And it wasn’t just the Tokyo Tower that was black – it was every store, school, club, post office, bank.  So it became normal to live in this sort of dimly lit world.  And then there was the water situation.  We were told not to drink tap water and so your days became focused on finding water.  Riding your bike around town stopping at every vending machine to purchase your 2 bottle allowance.  Taking rides out to Costco hoping they got in a new shipment.  It was THE topic of conversation.  Friends were praised for their forethought on getting an office water cooler installed before they returned back to Japan.  The heat was basically turned off as well.  And for a country that heats every toilet seat including the ones in train stations and on mountain tops that was a huge sacrifice.  And

then there was the hunt for food.  If you weren’t spending your days finding water, you were studying maps at the grocery store.  In Japanese supermarkets, they were selling Fukushima vegetables to support the farmers and the people of Japan were buying them and throwing them in the garbage.  But of course, I couldn’t read the signs telling me where the food  was from.  National, the supermarket of choice for foreigners became ground zero.  They were smart and posted large maps of Japan that were color coded and numbered and each fresh food item in the store had a corresponding number.  Geography lessons during food preparation. Cooking for your family had never been so challenging.  There were the absolute no-no’s.  Strawberries, mushrooms, spinach.  No longer options as these were deemed more toxic than other foods.  And then there was the situation with dining out.  Could you trust the food being prepared in restaurants?  And the judgment from your fellow diners about the fact that you just ordered fish and spinach – how could you?  Those must be filled with radiation!  People were literally looking at what you were choosing to eat and making judgement calls.  And for a city as safe as Tokyo, we started to think twice about letting our kids “hang” out in Shibuya or Omotesando.  We wanted them close by and in the house.  And people started to leave, sometimes without even telling anyone.  Just packed up and shipped out.  And friends who had left during the earthquake never returned.  And so you sort of started to question your own decision to stay.  There was a bit of an us vs. them mentality.  A friend overheard two men speaking at the gym about the “selfish” husbands that made their families return to Tokyo – it made us angry and defensive.  And then summer vacation came and as always the moms left town with the kids and the dads stayed behind.  And they suffered through a very hot summer where the office thermometers were set at a steamy 29 degrees (84F) but they were allowed to wear “cool biz” outfits to work.   And then September came and we returned happily home.  Still, signs of the nuclear situation remained.  The lights were still dim, the air conditioning on low.  But then in September, the limitations were removed and life in Tokyo seemed to get back to normal.  There were no more vegetables from Fukushima to sell (although they are still selling the beef in my supermarket but at least the sign was in English) and the lights went back on as did the heat.  The aftershocks continued but less so and there are only 2 nuclear plants up and running in the entire country so the chances of anything happening to another plant is very low.  They continue to try to get the situation at Daiichi under control but its not in the news every day.  There are many people leaving Japan this summer for good but there are always people leaving – that is the nature of expats.  So its been a strange year – one I won’t ever forget.  And deep down there is a little bit of me that hopes that my decision to stay in Japan this year won’t come back to haunt us later on.

There’s Snow Place Like Niseko 1

Bucket list item #7 – Ski the famed powdered runs of Niseko – the sister city of St. Moritz.

Since our arrival in Japan in 2008, after leaving our little ski house in the Catskill mountains, we’d heard of the famed Niseko ski resort in Hokkaido.  But with Nagano a train ride away and the thought of the flight and the 2+ hour bus ride after the flight, Niseko just seemed like a place that people went to who lived outside of Japan.  Why go to all the hassle when you can just jump on a train at Tokyo Station and in a short amount of time ski the Japanese Alps – it was good enough for the Olympics – it was good enough for me.

So several times each winter we happily skied in Hakuba – but there was always something missing.  Hakuba is a place that lives in the past.  If you set the clock back to the 80’s, you can easily see yourself hanging out in the lodge wearing a purple Head ski jacket, chewbaca furry after ski boots and rocking a brand new perm.

But not much has changed since those bubble days – not a lot of new construction or new carpet for that matter. Not so Niseko.

Niseko is brand spanking new (except for maybe the Hilton).  I walked the streets and looked at one more fabulous building then the next.  Our condo was beyond gorgeous and totally cool.  Not even this era – maybe even a little of the ski chalet of the future.  And after living in a society for four years as a complete outsider, it suddenly felt very much like home.  How strange to actually be in Japan, using yen to purchase things and only speak English all day long.  Everyone I came  in contact with from the physical therapist to the bar tender to the waitress and the ski rental guy spoke my mother tongue.  Communicating in the same language –  brilliant!

There were actual fireplaces – of course they were in architectural glass boxes  – no wood burning fires here (except outside of one bar in a big metal drum).  The apres ski options were plentiful – bars and restaurants abound.  I had a beautiful lunch slope side at the Vale Bar and Grill with 14 of my closest friends, dined at Abu Cha 2, a funky itzakaya walking distance to the chairlift – and spent a magical evening inside The Barn – a French fusion restaurant lit beautifully from within watching the snow fall out the enormous glass wall.

I only skied two out of the four days for various reasons too boring to write about so I certainly wasn’t all over the multi-area mountain, but the famed powered runs were just so-so.  There was a ton of powder in the trees – after the first run through those, I made sure where not to return, but on the main slopes themselves, not too much.  But I heard people speaking about the not-so-great conditions.  To be honest, after skiing for 40 years mainly on the east coast of America, I’m not much of a powder fan.  Give me ice and a few rocks and I’m golden.

Tom and I were thrilled to check this big item off our bucket list and to do it with 50+ friends was even better.  For those five days we felt like we owned Niseko and it had been there waiting for us this whole time.

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.