Shanghai: Ni Hao WOW! 1

48 hours to “do” Shanghai.  It was an aggressive plan.  But it’s all we had.  It’s not like I’m a spontaneous person to begin with; I do love planning and organizing a trip down to the last minute but usually there is wiggle room – a back up suggestion in case something doesn’t work out.  2 days doesn’t leave any wiggle room.  It was a short flight from Haneda to Hongqiao, about 2 hours and 15 minutes and when we mowed our way through customs, I started to frantically search out our tour guide.  The hotel assured me she’d be waiting to whisk us off to our first destination: lunch.  But it was China, and well, there was no one waiting.  People shouted at us from the various counters:  “you want taxi?” “what hotel?” “where you go?” “where you GO PEOPLE?” After a few nasty looks and a snippy response from me they moved on to other freshly minted tourists.  Next came the tricky part.  You just never know if your iphone is going to work when you travel to a new country in Asia.  And if it does work, what freaking number do you dial?  It’s not like I bring a list of country codes with me.  I scrambled through all my printed emails trying to find a valid number for the hotel.  Miraculously I found one, Tom punched in the numbers and someone answered at the Westin Bund.  After a few minutes of speaking very clearly and fairly loud, the hotel reported back that the tour guide and driver were at the other terminal and would pick us up in about 20 minutes (make a mental note of that 20 minutes, it comes in to the story later on).  Tom hung up and said not to worry, they were at the other terminal and would be here shortly.  20 minutes later, Linda appeared breathless and apologetic, begging us not to say a word to the hotel or complain in any way as it would be disastrous for her.  Admittedly, I’d spent the past 20 minutes thinking of all the bad things I was going to say about this tour guide to the hotel concierge but when she actually arrived begging me not to I assured her that I wouldn’t say anything.  “So, I’m sure the concierge told you where we want to go today,” I asked Linda as we were driving out of the airport.  I had custom tailored the afternoon with the concierge over the past few days.  “No, he said nothing about it.” Hmmm… the concierge told her nothing about it.  OK.  Thankfully I had all my printed emails which I usually bring with me for proof when people fuck up so I whipped them out and handed them over.  “It’s all there.  You can read through it.”  Our first stop was Ding Tai Fung in Xin Tian Di.  A dumpling shop that in 1993 the New York Times rated it one of the top ten restaurants in the world.  And it’s a dumpling shop.  But it’s heaven at the end of your chopsticks.  We learned the proper way to eat soup dumplings, flip them over, bite a hole and let the soup ooze out on to your spoon.  Plop the dumpling in your mouth and slurp up the soup.  Amazing.  And as the dumplings cooled, we were biting holes and slurping right from the dumpling in one fell swoop.  We became dumpling experts.  I don’t think the bill was more than $100 for five of us and we left feeling like stuffed dumplings ourselves.  Xin Tian Di is part of what was once considered the French Concession.  It has been restored and gentrified but it’s a cool combination of east meets west.  I had to keep reminding myself that we were in China.  It could have been in downtown NYC.  We had time to walk up and down the main strip and then Linda had us back in the car to get to the next stop on the Shanghai Express; Taikang Road Art Center.  This colony of artists twists and turns with galleries and studios in narrow, pedestrian only alleys, ripe with the day’s laundry strung up over your head.  We peeked into as many as we could with Linda pulling us forward as though we were running a marathon.  I so wanted to stay and wander, get lost in those alleys.  But we had to keep moving.  The last place on our list for the day was the fabric market, better known as The South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market.  This place is not for the reticent.  It’s truly overwhelming.  Four floors of various sized booths with fabric and materials, samples of clothes, people trying to get you into their booths.  It’s not as bad as the silk market in Beijing but at least there, the items are already made.  The only choice you make is your size and your price.  Not so here.  Our destination was a suit maker for Tom.  We followed Linda through the market in search of a reputable seamstress her colleague had mentioned.  I was gray on the whole thing but tagged along behind.  She brought us to one of the bigger booths that actually had clients being measured.  Definitely a good sign.  Tom jumped right in, looked through books of pages torn right out of GQ and Esquire and found the style of suit he liked.  Next, he paged through book upon book of suit fabric choosing three that he liked.  He wanted three but weren’t sure what they would charge him. He asked for cuffs and real buttons on the sleeves.  They measured him and quoted him 700 yuan per suit (about $100).  We knew you are supposed to bargain, but seriously, how could we?  We explained our time constraint.  It was 4pm on Friday afternoon and the suits would need to be delivered to the Westin hotel by 10am Sunday morning.  Sure, no problem.  The clerk followed us to the handy ATM machine in the building where we turned over the 2100 yuan and told them we’d see them Sunday.  A leap of faith but not a huge one.  It was time to get back in the car and make our way to the hotel to check in.  The Westin was an excellent choice as it is literally three blocks from the Bund which reminded me of La Croisette in Cannes.  Ok, maybe it’s been a long time since I’ve been in Cannes but again, I had to ask myself, was I in Communist China?  Friday night we had reservations at M on the Bund, a five minute walk from the hotel.  The view from our table was stellar.  Here is a photo we took from the deck: If you’ve been to Hong Kong, you might think it’s very similar.  I would agree.  I love cities that are split in two with a river running through it.  If only NYC had paid more attention to Jersey City.  That’s another blog.  After dinner we cruised along the Bund – lots of people taking photos of Sophie and Annie.  That was strange but there really weren’t a lot of foreigners.  We walked down to Nanjing road and became part of the sea of people until the heat, the smell and the sweat got to us.  We quickly turned and walked back to the hotel.  In Shanghai, it’s important to look both ways before crossing.  Red lights are a suggestion and most two wheeled vehicles (scooters included) blow right through them.  Tom did his best impression of traffic cop the entire time we were there.  One woman even ran over his foot with her scooter.  She was not intimidated by him in the least.  Saturday morning came quickly and we were meeting our friend D’anna who relocated from Tokyo to Shanghai a year before for breakfast in the hotel lobby.  We chatted non-stop over breakfast, bringing each other up to speed with our lives.  We were off to the Expo for the day and she suggested we make a brief stop at the Underground.  Intrigued, we gladly followed her lead which introduced us to Mr. Ju (probably the wrong spelling) D’anna’s driver.  Her husband’s company doesn’t let them drive in China.  Must be the red light thing.  The underground is literally underground (it connects to the subway) and is a huge market that is a combination of knock offs and custom made clothing shops.  D’anna (or Shanghai Tai Tai as the sales girls liked to call her) knew her way around that place like it was her kid’s elementary school.  She brought us to her watch guy, her luggage guy, her ski jacket guy… and proceeded to negotiate like Henry Kissinger.  My girls were in awe.  An hour later we had a good-sized pile of treasures in our new duffle bag and we were off to the Expo.  Mr. Ju dropped us off and we said goodbye to D’anna.  The World Expo.  A once in a five year opportunity.  In China no less.  I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  I read the articles about the 5 hour lines, the public peeing in those lines, the heat, the crowds.  I knew what to expect and we went anyway.  My plan was to look around, go into the American pavilion (I heard you could cut the lines with a passport), visit some of the themed pavilions, have lunch at the french restaurant, buy a few souvenirs and then leave.  Not one of those things happened.  Well, we looked around.  That was about it.  And we took some photos but after awhile the girls were in such a foul mood it wasn’t worth taking pictures.  It was hot (about 92) muggy and the second largest crowd to date (that would be 520,000 people).  We didn’t even see the US pavilion let alone go inside.  We wandered aimlessly, walking around the 5 hour lines, staring at the people in them.  Who would stand in line for 5 hours for a 10 minute presentation?  And what if you picked the wrong one!  After three hours of spinning our wheels we left.  We had an idea to return to the area we had lunch in yesterday but we couldn’t remember the name in Chinese and when we dialed the hotel phone number (redialed it actually from Tom’s iphone) it said the number was out of service.  We had no choice but to return to base and get more info.  We dropped our bag and grabbed the name of a restaurant near by.  It was past 2 and we were starving.  The woman at the door asked if we had a reservation.  We told her no, but the Westin sent us.  She said they didn’t have any western food.  We said, no the Westin.  She said no, she didn’t have any western food.  We gave up and got in the elevator.  Surprisingly on the 4th floor of the building there was a gorgeous empty (why did we need a reservation?) restaurant with people waiting to serve us.  We had another fantastic chinese lunch and wondered how we would ever be able to eat dinner at 7:30.  Back at the hotel, the girls rested in their room, Tom watched TV and I snuck out for a massage at the hotel spa.  Somehow we managed to make our 7:30 at Jean Georges.  I was still incredibly full but it was Jean Georges and I was excited to eat his food.  Again the place was gorgeous, the view amazing but the food was just ma ma hu hu (i learned this is the way to say so so).  The next morning, our last before flying out at 2pm, we were planning on visiting Yu Yuan Garden but Sophie woke up not feeling well – what is the equivalent to Delhi Belly in Shanghai?  Anyway, we spent the morning in bed.  The suits were delivered at 9:50 a.m. and they looked like suits!  The airport arranged for a car service back to the airport.  As we approached the terminal, I mentioned the airline we were on which he completely ignored.  He pulled over the first chance he got and opened the door.  Looking around I didn’t see any specific airlines, only a departure door which we entered and looked for our flight.  It was strictly domestic Chinese flights.  The nice lady at the counter told us we were at the wrong terminal and that the free shuttle bus was downstairs and to the right.  The bus was packed – standing room only and it stunk.  I couldn’t actually say what it was that it smelled like but probably just too many hot bodies in an unventilated area.  After the first ten minutes I started to worry that we were on the wrong bus.  What airport had two terminals ten minutes apart?  And then I remembered the piece of information from the beginning of this long and winded story – the terminals were literally 20 minutes apart.  I was seething thinking of the many bad things I was going to say to the concierge about the terrible service but of course once we arrived, I forgot all about it and checked my bags and went through immigration.  Shanghai; been there done that.

A Time To Say Goodbye Reply

It’s June. The first month of summer.  The month of my birthday.  It’s the time of year when school work and obligations come to an end and summer camp and freedom begins.  A time I used to highlight in bright yellow and count the days until May ended.  But it’s June in Tokyo and that means saying goodbye.  And goodbye.  And goodbye.  The expat life certainly has it’s perks but you pay for them in June when firms re-shuffle their employee rosters and many of your friends get sent somewhere else.  And you spend a good deal of time saying goodbye.  I have a friend who can’t count how many Sayonara parties she’s been to since she moved to Tokyo – it could very well be in the hundreds.  Ok, she has lived here for 18 years but come on.  She’s had to say goodbye to people she cared about (otherwise she wouldn’t be on the guest list) HUNDREDS of times.  It leaves a mark.  And this year, I have the added “pleasure” of saying goodbye to my oldest child as he graduates from high school.  I know I am one of many around the world who are experiencing this very normal rite of passage but on top of all the other separations, its making it difficult to drive in the car and listen to the radio.  Any song has the potential to spark impromptu tears. Mata ne – until we meet again…

You’re Still The One 3

In my high school yearbook (Lawrence High School, Class of 1983) under goals it says “To be the president of something” and “To be married successfully”.  So far, i’m one for two.  Tom and I left the kids in Tokyo and spent an exquisite week in Amanpulo, an Aman resort on the small island of Palawan in the Philippines to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary.  20 years is big time.  When you strip away the drama of living, the babies, the homework, the finances, the jobs, the jealousy, the homes – all the noise of your everyday life you are lucky if you still find your best friend that you agreed to spend the rest of your life with all those years ago.  I haven’t had many opportunities to spend time with Tom in a vacuum.  We’ve had a lot going on since we met.  But this past week, in one of the most magnificent places in the world, we had just that.  Just the two of us, a white sand beach, a turquoise ocean and not much else.  We talked, we told stories, we laughed, we held hands.  We found out that the core is still intact.  We’re still having fun, and he’s still the one.

Okinawa: Japanese Paradise or The Land of Barbed Wire? Reply

The weekend began with the aquarium debate.  Would we or should we drive a round trip total of 4 -5 hours to see the world’s 2nd largest aquarium?  I was torn.  How do you visit a place and not go to it’s #1 tourist attraction?  Tom was on the opposite side of the equation.  How do you spend 5 out of a possible 48 hours of a weekend away in a car?  He won.  We didn’t see any sharks or whales behind glass although when we came out of the baggage claim we did find a man inside a large fish tank cleaning the glass.  This was the closest we came to an aquarium.  We landed in Okinawa on a Friday evening, following Tom and Hayden who had left Tokyo on Thursday afternoon with their baseball team to take part in “Spring Fling” a 5 school baseball tournament held yearly at Camp Foster.  As I boarded the plane and changed my FB status to alert the media to our imminent departure for Okinawa, a good friend wrote a little message warning me of the sea snakes.  What sea snakes?  I typed frantically back into my iphone.  It was at that moment that the nice stewardess reminded me to turn off all cell phones as we were about to take off.  I spent the next two hours wondering what they were.  I didn’t have to wait long to find out.  When I turned the phone back on in the gate, I had a long description of sea snakes and even a link to wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_snakes).  Turns out they are pretty lethal buggers and they are all over Okinawa.  Putting that out of my mind for the moment, Tom and I began the quest to find our rental car.  The idea of Hertz Gold service is non-existent in Japan.  Walking up to a garage and finding your name on an electronic billboard and the keys in your car – HA!  Not happening in Okinawa.  Each rental car company has a small flag posted outside the airport and you have to go one by one reading the signs (most of which are in Japanese) to find the small ma and pa shop you happened to rent from.  You stand in front of the flag and wait until someone drives by and decides you are their customer and they pick you up on their bus and drive you fifteen minutes away to their small shop.  They speak no English; your Japanese is ridiculously bad.  You sign sign sign and nod your head.  Once in the car, I showed the name of our hotel to the clerk and he used the Japanese navigation to enter the address.  He had to come back out again to show us how to make the navigation begin.  He must have thought we were so stupid!  Couldn’t we just read the Kanji for Start?  Somehow, Tom managed to interpret the road signs and direct me where to turn.  We called one of the coaches and found that the boys had just begun a night game as we got in the car and so somehow we managed to find our way to Camp Foster.  Thinking back on it, there had to be some divine intervention guiding our car.  We arrived somewhere into the second inning, saw the boys play (and lose) and enjoyed Taco Bell under the lights.  Fast food on the military bases is a treat.  Japan is littered with McDonalds but that’s about it.  The game ended rather quickly and we got back into the car to drive to our hotel to check in.  Within two minutes of starting the car, Tom managed to delete the hotel from the navi and we were in the dark so to speak.  After several u-turns, much frustration and a few laughs, we found our hotel.  Pulling up to the Tokyo Dai-Ichi Grand Mer Resort it was obvious that it was not so grand and the Mer part was way in the distance if you could see past all the concrete.  However, there were actually four beds in the room which was unbelievable.  I had requested extra beds for the girls but you just never know what you’re going to get.  We left the girls in PJ’s watching a movie and Tom and I went in search of the advertised Sheesha Lounge.  What we found was a sign in front of the bar that said it was closed for a private party and we were invited to have our drinks in the rooftop lounge.  We followed the sign, through the kitchen to a dirty concrete roof with a few outdoor plastic tables and chairs.  I was in need of a cocktail and at that point I didn’t care.  Within a half hour, they said the private party was over and we could enter the lounge.  It was a funny sort of place.  The walls were covered in Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts.  There was an electronic dart board, signs that read “We Welcome The Military” and there was lots of smoke.  Just not from any hookah.  Actually I never even saw a hookah (real or otherwise) which just made the place even more authentic.  In Japan, Western-like establishments are named for all sorts of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with the actual place.  On the bar was a large glass jar filled with a light brown liquid and yes, you guessed it, sea snakes.  The unique beverage is called Kubasake  (snake sake) and can be enjoyed almost everywhere you go.  You can even take home a glass container yourself for a mere $600.  Tom was actually considering the small jar for $300.  It would have made quite the mantle piece.  The patrons were mostly military and the servers native Okinawans.  They look different than mainland Japanese – more like islanders.  Loaded with maps and tourist pamphlets Tom and I came up with a plan to incorporate two baseball games, some beach time, history and some shopping into the remaining 36 hours.  The next morning we were at the breakfast buffet by 7:30 am, with beach towels and sun screen filling our plates with fish, miso soup and rice.  Let’s just say what Americans eat for breakfast and what Japanese eat for breakfast are “different”.  We were staying in Central Okinawa which is where all the U.S. bases are located.  In Okinawa there are approximately 27,000 personnel, including 15,000 Marines, contingents from the Navy, Army and Air Force, and their 22,000 family members and you see them everywhere.  It’s pretty strange to go from Tokyo where foreigners are a small minority to Okinawa where you see Americans with short hair cuts everywhere.  Here are a few of the names of the bases:  Camp Shields, Camp Lester, Camp Foster, Camp Kinser, Camp Schwab and of course the all important Futenma Air Force Base (the current battle royale between Obama and Hatoyama).  Not to mention the barbed wire.  The central area of Okinawa is covered in it.  Every wall, building, golf course in site.  All protected.  I have heard Okinawa is beautiful – i’m thinking its in the Northern part of the island – close to the Aquarium we decided not to visit.  After getting in an hour or so of beach time (no sea snakes were spotted although we were only allowed to swim in a very small area that had netting), we entered the base and watched the first game of the day.  ASIJ won their first game of the tournament 17-0 and it was also their first win since they were first invited to Okinawa three years before.  By the time the game was over, it was 85 degrees, and we were frying in the stands.  We left the boys to have lunch in the food court with their teammates and we went in search of a fun place for lunch.  We found it at Seaside Jet City Burgers.  A shack a block from the beach that had delicious burgers and an even better atmosphere.  Were we really in Japan?  It didn’t feel like it.  Driving by the beach, listening to AFN (Armed Forces Network) on the radio, reading signs in English it was surreal.  After lunch we even went shopping in stores that had our sizes!!!  We returned to the base ready to watch the second game in the double header and found that Thomas had visited the base barber and was sporting a new mohawk.  The afternoon game went something like the morning competition and our boys were triumphant again, this time beating Seoul 17-4.  Dusk fell at the moment of victory and the speakers around the base rang out taps announcing colors.  The coach for Camp Foster yelled “Colors” and everyone turned and faced the flag.  This is the time that the flag is lowered for the night.  I was told that no matter where you are on a base  during colors you must stop and face the flag.  Even vehicles must stop.  It was a proud moment.  The moms and dads of the players from the host base threw a bbq that night inviting all teams, parents and coaches for dinner.  The buffet line was overflowing with good old American food – things you couldn’t find within a thousand miles of Tokyo.  Waldorf salad, creamed corn, pasta salad, baked beans, cupcakes, cookies, coleslaw, real hot dogs, RC cola, root beer floats, american beef hamburgers…the list went on and on.   We ate more than we should have and said good night to the boys and made our way back to the hotel.  It was a long day, the girls watched more baseball than you can ask of 11 and 12 year old girls so when we walked into the lobby and saw tables set up for manicures and pottery painting (at 9:30 pm) the girls pulled up chairs and had a ball.  We checked out first thing in the morning, skipped the breakfast in the hotel and set out to find something decent.  Tom spotted a billboard advertising The Rose Garden for Sunday Brunch and magically fifteen minutes into our drive we happened upon it.  It was the most amazing breakfast we have had since we moved to Japan.  Steak and eggs, eggs benedict, french toast, crispy bacon, huge portions.  The works.  We ate and ate and ate.  Fat and happy, we left and made our way to the capital of Okinawa, Naha in search of the “historical” part of our trip.  Tom and I wanted to visit the last headquarters of the Japanese Naval Forces during the battle of Okinawa in World War II.  In the final days of World War II a Japanese Naval Admiral and 4000 of his men committed suicide rather than surrender to the advancing US Forces. Descending the stairs of this cave thirty meters down into the bowels of the earth is a haunting experience. The girls refused to get out the car.  They couldn’t understand why we wanted to go in the first place.  The last stop on our 48 hour journey was Kokusai Dori, a shopping street born immediately after the end of World War II.  It started with people selling out of tents and has morphed into a “miracle mile” of cafes, boutiques, surplus from the military bases, loads of glass jars of kubasake, various sizes of sanshin (the ukelele of Okinawa) sugar cane, every time of spice, tea, fruit, vegetables, fish (fresh, dried and fried).  The street was alive with people.  We didn’t know where to look first.  Tom even made a new friend. After a great day, we made our way back to the rental car shop (this time it really was divine inspiration that helped us find it), handed in the keys, boarded the bus and caught the afternoon flight home.  The boys had arrived before us and we ended the day at our favorite Mexican restaurant, La Jolla where you can usually find us eating dinner on Sunday nights.  Was this only 48 hours?  Seems impossible!

A Great Day To Be An American 1

Team USA with Ex-Prime Minister Taro Aso and US Ambassador John Roos

The day began with gale force winds at 4am, waking myself and my family.  As I burrowed my way into Tom’s chest, fearful that the windows of my 18th floor apartment would blow in, I questioned the gods who once again would keep my in-laws from watching their grandsons play a football game together in Japan.  In October, 2009, they flew to Tokyo to watch them play only to have the game cancelled due to swine flu.  Another opportunity presented itself when the All-Stars from the Kanto Plains Football League were invited to take on the U-19 Japanese Football team in a friendship match strangely named the Camillia Bowl.  Back they flew to Tokyo, this time bringing Tom’s sister Nancy as well.  The day before the game was sunny and 70 degrees and the boys had their final practice at the Atsugi Naval Facility.  The team was comprised of all-star players from the American School in Japan,  Zama, Kinnick and Yokosuka (the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force facilities based around Tokyo).  The boys had practiced only four Saturdays prior to taking on the Japanese.  At 5am, the winds died down and the sun came out.  The game would be played after all.  The stadium was in Kawasaki, about 1/2 hour outside of Tokyo.  The boys left earlier by train and we followed later in a mini-bus, rented for the occasion.  We got there a bit early and were able to take over the stands at the 50 yard line.  We brought our family flag with us, the one that was flown at the capital building in Providence Rhode Island and we hung it with pride in front of the stands.  Exactly at 2pm, the anthems of both countries were sung.  Afterwards, the ex Prime Minister of Japan Taro Aso, the US Ambassador of Japan, John Roos, and Admiral Kevin Donegan from Yokosuka came onto the field for the coin toss.  Thomas was the head captain and joined the dignitaries on the field.  Japan won the toss and elected to receive.  After the end of the first drive, Japan failed to score and it was Team USA’s ball.  Hayden stepped onto the field as the starting QB and it felt as thought I stepped onto the field with him.  He bent down behind the center, called the cadence and my heart beat wildly.   Things were moving in slow motion.  The ball snapped and it was in Hayden’s hands and then time sped up. It wasn’t long before we had scored the first touchdown and then the points began to rack up on the US side.  In the first quarter Hayden threw the ball to his big brother Thomas for a touchdown.  The US fans were screaming; many of which had Jardine on the back of their sweatshirts.  Deep into the third quarter the Ambassador came down out of the VIP booth and we got to chat about the game and the boys and how well they were doing.  He asked if maybe they could tone it down a bit – it was getting a bit uncomfortable in the booth!  And then the prime minister handed down a box of frosted Costco donuts for the Jardine boys.  We sat in the stadium surrounded by the parents of the players, the moms and dads who were in the armed services, proudly wearing their son’s team jerseys, screaming every time they made a great play.  When the game ended, it was 61 -0 and Thomas went onto the field to accept the team trophy from the Prime Minister.  Thankfully he remembered to bow when receiving it.  And Hayden was on the field too, accepting the award for Best Offensive Player of the game.  We packed up our blankets, sweatshirts and empty beer cans and ran onto the field for photos with the boys.  Thomas was asked for his first autograph!  Midway through the game, my mother in-law whispered to me that it was the most important game of her life (and as a coach’s wife, she’s seen her fair share of games).  It was a great day to be an American and an even better day to be a Jardine.

Naked Festival 2

If you read in your daily newspaper that somewhere in a small town about an hour from where you lived, grown men and babies would come together in a mud pit from 1-3pm on a Tuesday afternoon in February to worship the soil for the upcoming planting season, would you say you were too busy to go?  Would the PTA meeting take precedent?  Taking the dog to the vet?  I think not.  I blocked out the day on my calendar and set about finding a friend to come with me.  I wanted to go, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to a “Naked” festival without proper back up.  But everyone was busy.  And probably not as intrigued as I was.  No problem, I would pack a few snacks, bring my new Nikon and go it alone.  But then Libby called, back from the states the night before and she said she had a million excuses not to go but that I should pick her up at 11.  The drive was easy and as we approached the main part of town, we kept our eyes peeled for naked men.  We didn’t really have the exact location and were hoping for some local input.  We heard fireworks going off at the shrine so we knew we were close but eventually Libby had to go into the Koban (police station) to get directions.  She was back in a flash with a map and sure enough, we came to the parking lot next to the mud pit where a few hundred people were surrounding it.  We made our way to the front and claimed our spots.  Looking around, we quickly realized we were the only foreign women in the crowd.  Thank god for the back up.  The crowds continued to grow, surrounding the olympic sized swimming pool mud pit.  A few minutes before 1pm, the school children arrived in their matching yellow hats.  They crawled through the legs of the spectators making their way to the front which later on would provide for some excellent entertainment.  At exactly 1pm, more fireworks went off at the shrine above us, and the procession began.  Men dressed solely in a white loin cloth (fundoshi) and white tabi (the split toe socks) with a pink or red bandana around their heads, brought forth small children, from infants to toddlers, to be “baptized” in the mud.  Each baby reacted differently to the face painting.  Some slept right through it.  Some wailed, kicking their arms and feet, desperate to be out of the arms of the strange men and away from the laughing crowds.  The men ranged in age from early adulthood to grandfather, some skinny and pale, others bronze and buff.  The procession continued as the men would come and go, getting new babies to paint.  Most of the men had difficulty holding the children and at times looked close to dropping them.  A few of the men were seasoned professionals, quietly whispering in the ears of their charges, and delicately painting kanji characters on their foreheads.  These well behaved children would be shown around to the crowd, the men proud of their ability to keep the babies happy.  On the way out of the mud pit, babies in tow, the men would walk close to the school children in the crowds and kick the mud off their feet and on to the happy faces of the children.  It became a game, who could kick the most mud and which kid in the crowd would be covered in it.  The baby pageant went on for an hour and when the point came when you had just about had enough of screaming babies, the fireworks went off signaling the end of the first part of the festival.  The noise level of the crowd increased.  They knew what was coming next.  The men came running down the path and jumped into the mud pit.  They broke off into four “teams” and the smallest of each team climbed onto the shoulders of the largest.  The four sets of chicken fighters came to the inner circle and started the match.  Within a few seconds they were all in the mud, throwing it at each other, wrestling in the dark water and basically having the most fun they’ve had all year.  After ten minutes in the cold wet mud, the men would run out and come into the crowds, painting the faces of the people lining the crowds with the wet earth.  The school children ended up with most of it but the adults were not off limits.  Pretty soon the crowds started to look like participants.  The pure white loin cloths and tabi socks were now black, the men covered in thick mud, ran back through the crowds and up to the shrine on the hill where a bonfire awaited them.  They drank hot sake and ate bean filled pastries to get back their strength.  This run to the mud pit, chicken fight dance and bonfire ceremony continued for the rest of the hour.  Libby and I followed them up to the shrine on their second go round and were painted by several of the men.  Once our faces had mud, the crowds of photographers turned to us and started clicking away.  As the only non-Japanese spectators, we quickly became a good photo op.  Up at the bonfire, the men shared their sake with us and were happy to pose for a few close ups, flexing their bi-ceps and showing off their mud covered bodies.  By 3pm, Libby and I were back in the car, our faces covered in mud, our camera disks full of great photos.  After buying onigiri and tea in the 7-11 and cleaning up in the bathroom, we spent the rest of the ride home wondering if we had just witnessed the origin of the Japanese obsession with cleanliness.

Superbowl Monday? 2

Last year’s Superbowl was forgotten like an item on a to do list only to be remembered a day later with a gasp and regret.  This year, I wanted to make sure I was a part of the festivities.  My friend Libby and I signed up for the Superbowl Breakfast at the Tokyo American Club and arrived around 7:45 am to find a male dominated (90-10 ratio) suit wearing sweaty banquet room with multiple flat screen TVs and a breakfast buffet.  The coverage was loud and in Japanese and we started to doubt our decision to attend.  However, a TAC employee got on the microphone and in an even louder voice told the crowd that magically, after the coin toss, the coverage would switch to English.  We relaxed.  There were long tables set up with screens on either side so that you sat across from someone at the table but they were looking behind your head at their TV and you were looking behind them at your TV.  It was an awkward set-up.  The game began and the play by play was in English however the names of the players were spelled out in katakana which looked pretty funny.  When it was time for the first commercial, we were hit with the bad news.  We would not be a part of the viewing audience.  The coverage switched back to Japanese and we got to watch the players milling around the sidelines waiting for the commercials to end.  Very very disappointing.  But thankfully the game was so exciting that it made up for the loss of entertainment.  At half-time three raffle prizes were called out – I was the “lucky” winner of a corporate apartment for two nights and 2 tickets to the cotton club.  The breakfast was whisked away and in its place at 10am were hot dogs, chips and salsa and mini rueben sandwiches.  Since I had just flown in the night before from New York and the jet lag was just kicking in, I was thrilled with the multiple categories of food being served.  I don’t think Libby felt the same way.  When the game ended, the men were quick to exit, to make it back to work before lunch time.  Libby and I went to the card room to play bridge.  It was the first superbowl where i made it to the end without a short nap, or falling asleep completely.  Of course that had something to do with  the lack of alcohol and the time the game was played.  It wasn’t the best way to see the game, but I was glad I was a part of it this year.

Keeping The Gods Happy 2

It was a crisp Saturday in January when Tom and I joined a few other expatriates on a miles long journey through Yanaka, an old section of Tokyo.  Temple book in hand and coins in our pockets we walked to each of the seven temples to pray and make offerings.  There was Hotei, the fat and happy god of abundance and good health.  Jurojin, the god of longevity.  Fukurokuju, the god of happiness, wealth and longevity ( three for the price of one; we spent some extra time here).  Bishamonten, the god of warriors (we weren’t quite sure what we were praying for here, but he was part of the seven so we went along with it).  Benzaiten, the goddess of knowledge, art and beauty.  Writing this now, I have to admit I didn’t realize he was a she.  They kind of all looked the same.  Daikokuten, the god of weath, commerce and trade.  We noticed an especially large crowd at this temple.  People were really praying hard.  And then lastly, Ebisu, which I thought was the name of the subway stop after my house but happens to be the god of fishers and merchants.  I initially thought we would go as a family (well, at least a mini version of our family) but Sophie and Annie spent the prior 48 hours BEGGING not to go.  They explained in great detail how the two things they hated the most were temples and walking.  Good thing I acquiesced.  There was not much more to it than that.  But after the three hour journey, I was completely out of spare change, my temple book had seven new stamps and Tom had a sun burn.  We marveled at the fact that we could spend most of the day on a long walk without our kids, almost without interruption (we did receive a cell phone call from Annie but it was at the tail end of the trip) and enjoy ourselves.  It was a great start to the New Year and who knows, it might just have brought us some extra added luck!

New Zealand…sweet as. 1

Important facts about New Zealand: It was the last land mass to be inhabited by humans.  The first settlers were called Maori and they arrived approximately 800 A.D. from various parts of Polynesia.  They named the country Aotearoa which translates to ‘The Land of The Long White Cloud’ which in my opinion was a perfect name as I never once saw a day without long white clouds.  The maori are still a big part of the country today and their traditions are woven throughout the country and culture.  The first European explorers came in 1642 but it was in 1769 when Captain James Cook arrived and “re-discovered” and mapped the islands.  It is apx the size of Great Britian yet has a diverse landscape including rainforest, glaciers, fiords, lakes, rivers, oceans, volcano, mountains… All activities revolve around the outdoors and throw in some type of thrilling twist or turn.  If you can dream up a way to scare the pants off of someone, rest assured it already exists in New Zealand.  Human Population apx 4.5 million.  Cow population apx 4.5 million.  Sheep apx 45 million.  The country is split into two islands (north and south) the north has about 3.5 million people, the south about a million.  The north is warmer than the south and the south island is about a 2 hour flight to Antarctica.  It leads the world in time zones as it is 12 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.  The country’s national icon is the Kiwi bird which is the strangest looking bird you’ve ever seen.  It has no arms or wings and it has a ridiculously long pointy beak.  The national sports are rugby and cricket.  Due to their location in the southern hemisphere their summer is during December – February and their winter is June – August.  However, it is not unlikely to experience four seasons in one day and if you ask a Kiwi what the weather will be like the next day, you’ll most likely here Fine.  They call flip flops jandals, a Bro is short for brother but used by men to address other men, the Bush means a forest, Choice means cool, sweet as means cool, no problem.  I fell in love with the country and the people of New Zealand.  Each person we had the opportunity to meet was relaxed, unworried, unrushed and quite knowledgeable about their country on a whole and the role they played in our journey.  I can understand why New Zealand was the last country to be discovered and still today, not many people travel there.  It is FAR from everywhere, except Australia.  And this is a good thing.  It was summer vacation in NZ and Christmas and there were very few times when we saw a crowd.  We were constantly asked where we were from because I think they are just so happy that people come so far to visit their home.  We felt welcomed and taken care of every day of our two week adventure.

Our vacation began in Coromandel which is on the North Island a few hours drive from Auckland.  This is an area where kiwis go on holiday.  It is known for its misty rainforests and pristine beaches, the perfect place to relax and unwind.  Our side by side tree houses were perched high up in the mountain surrounded by bush.  We started out the first day with a guided tour through flora and fauna with a stop at a natural hot sand beach.  Tom was worried that the kids would be bored and annoyed, but our guide Doug (Kiwi Dundee) made every leaf interesting, every tree exciting, every joke he told funny and every scary dark abandoned gold mine, even scarier.  It was pure magic.  After our introduction to the bush, we drove to the Auckland area for a tree top adventure.  About a half hour outside the “big” city, we arrived in a forest of very tall trees that had varying degrees of obstacle courses woven through the tree tops.  We were schooled in carabiners and safety ropes and after a ten minute how to, we were left on our own to scale trees ridiculously high.  There were pulleys and zip lines, steps, hops and jumps, spider webs and tree surfing.  It was mostly fun but sometimes scary.  The kids had a blast.  We spent the night in Auckland and had a beautiful dinner on the harbor in Auckland, the city of sails.  The following day we set off in our mini-van (our home away from home for the next two weeks) and drove to Waitomo which is known for caving adventures and glow worms. Our guides Chris, Elliot and Jimmy quickly explained the ins and outs of abseiling (which basically means to rope down).  We abseiled down a crack in the earth 330 feet to a roaring rapid cave filled with large boulders.  Once down, we walked through the cave (from the light into the dark) with our head lamps climbing up over and through large boulders, looking at glow worms that lit up the top of the cave.  At one point we stopped and our guides “played” with eel in the running river.  The eel actually played back.  At the end of our journey, we climbed a ladder 10 stories high to exit the cave (that part was not mentioned in the guide book).  It was a fabulous adventure.  From Waitomo we drove to Rotorua where we spent three days inhaling sulfur fumes.  Rotorua is steeped in Moari tradition and is practically one big volcanic town.  Wherever you go, things are erupting.  We saw a geyser go off, walked among really foul smelling sulfur pools and took a helicopter (my first!) to White Island, New Zealand’s only active marine volcano.  It took about 1/2 hour to fly out to the island and then you land on it.  The island is uninhabited and looks like something out of The Land of the Lost.  There are so many things erupting and spitting and steaming, they give you gas masks so you can breath.  Our guide told us the last time the volcano fully erupted was in 2000 so if things started to get active we should run for higher ground (not like that would help any).  It was really creepy walking around the island.  There used to be a small mining village on the island but it was wiped out during an eruption and you can see the remnants of the mining operation.  I was relieved when we got back on the helicopter but it was a unique experience.  We couldn’t imagine letting people visit something like that back in the U.S.  Too much liability.  Actually that statement applied to pretty much everything we did while in New Zealand.  While in Rotorua, Annie bungy jumped holding onto Thomas Jr. (she is 10) and we learned to fly (well, not really but we were blown into the air by a jet engine.)  We also fed farm animals, watched sheep sheering, experienced Maori culture and ate a traditional Hangi meal and rode the gondola and luge.  On Christmas morning after a champagne breakfast we went to the airport to fly to Christchurch.  There were about 10 people at the airport.  And no security.  And you could bring on all the wine you bought.  It was like the good old days.  An hour and half later the turbo prop plane landed in Christchurch.  After popping open christmas crackers and eating one of the worst meals of our trip we fell into bed, preparing for the next day’s adventure; swimming with Hector Dolphins.  Hector Dolphins are rare and only exist in New Zealand.  They are small and very playful.  Our boat trip took us about 30 minutes into the ocean, in a protective cove and when we spotted the dolphins, we hopped off the boat and let them swim around us.  We weren’t allowed to touch them or hang on, we just floated in our wetsuits and they swam around us.  It was a lovely, spontaneous activity.  They actually wanted to come and investigate us rather than the other way around.  Our guide told us it was our job to entertain them otherwise they would get bored and move on.  Too funny!  We left Christchurch the following day for a 4.5 hour train journey from the east coast of the south island to the west coast.  The train passes through rain forest and the southern alps and had an open air car attached on the front end.  It is billed as one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world and it lived up to it.  Tom Sr spent most of the ride in the outdoor car, i had my side of the train to myself and the four kids shut the curtains as the glare was interfering with their watching dvds on their computer.

We arrived in Greymouth and got in our car and drove down to Franz Josef Glacier.  The town was small and reminded us of Windham, NY.  Basically the reason you were there was to climb the glacier which we did the next day.  Geared up with special coats, boots and crampons we started the long journey up the glacier.  The walk from the parking lot to the actual ice took about 45 minutes over large and small rocks.  When we finally arrived, it looked much taller and scarier than it appeared when we first started walking.  Our group was led by our guide Steve, a total bro with dreadlocks and a large ice pick.  He carefully made the journey up the glacier “safer” because I never really felt safe but it was an adventure that I am glad I had.  The kids thought it was a lot of work to climb a lot of ice but Tom and I loved it.  The next day we left Franz Josef and drove 6 hours down the south island to our final destination Queenstown.  The drive took us through the rainforest, up mountains, around curves, through valleys bypassing sheep, goats, cows, and reindeer.  We passed Fox Glacier and saw lakes so blue they looked fake.  Tom and I got out every chance we could to take photos and ooh and aah at the scenery.  The kids all stayed in the car.  They couldn’t believe we wanted to make a 6 hour drive even longer.  The resort we were booked into was called Millbrook and it was surrounded by the most beautiful golf course and snow covered mountains.  We had our own three bedroom house that had lavendar bushes growing everywhere.  The kids and i got in the habit of pulling off the leaves and rubbing them on our hands.  The smell was incredible.  Over the course of the next four days in queenstown, the three guys bungy jumped at AJ Hacket’s original Kawarau bridge, the family scared ourselves to death on the shotover jet boat, we took the gondola and raced each other on the luge, ate fergburgers (the best ever), played golf, ate lunch at amisfield winery, shopped, brought in the new year and spent new years day on the coach watching the college football bowl games on ESPN.  We loved New Zealand.  You should go. It’s sweet as…

Santa Is Alive and Well in the Land of Buddha Reply

It’s the Christmas season and it’s impossible to turn around in Tokyo without bumping into another Santa Claus or holiday light display.  The Japanese, the most famous consumers on Earth, embrace this holiday like no one else.  They don’t pretend that it’s a religious holiday.  Not for a minute.  Tis the season to SHOP.  And boy do they ever.  We kicked off the holiday celebration with Annie’s Tokyo stage debut in Mrs. Bob Cratchitt’s Wild Christmas Binge.  The theater group is the longest English language theater group in Japan (having been around for over 100 years).  This season’s choice of play was a parody on A Christmas Carol and it was definitely a twisted version of the Dickens classic.  Annie spent the last two months at rehearsals Friday – Monday, racking up hours upon hours in the theater.  By the end, I have to admit she’d about had it.  The play was actually a bit anti-climatic for her.  But, she stuck with it and I was very happy to see the end result.  She was terrific.  Absolutely NO stage fright which was amazing to me.  A few days later Thomas Jr. turned 18.  That is a very small statement that had a very big impact.  I spent the day in a state of amazement.  It was like winning a gold medal.  I successfully raised my first child to adulthood.  Woohoo!  It was a big relief that lasted for about a day and then the college applications beckoned.  However, for that one day, we celebrated together by eating teppanyaki in Tom’s favorite restaurant and gorging on a big fat chocolate cake that the American Club made for him.  It had buttercream frosting and tasted like a real cake you would find in a bakery back home (this is a big deal – good desserts are very hard to find in Japan).  We ate every bit of it.  I hosted an “Office Ladies (OL)” holiday party for my girlfriends, bringing a holiday favorite from back home to Japan.  There were 12 of us at my dining room table and we ate, drank and laughed from noon until the last guests left around 10 at night.  It was a real treat.  This past weekend, the last Saturday night before everyone takes off for places far and farther, my friends and I dressed in our best 80’s garb and danced until dawn (well, 11:45) inside a hip clothing store in Tokyo Midtown.  The sounds of Michael, Madonna, Wham and Donna Summer brought us back to our earlier days and we hardly left the dance floor (except to refill our glasses with Veuve – the only thing they had to drink besides water).  The end of this week brings us  to the deadline for Thomas’ college application and Tom, Thomas and I have been spending a good deal of time going over all of them with an eagle eye.  No matter where he gets in, I’m sure he’ll be happy.  How could he not, 9 out of the 10 schools are in Southern California.  On Friday evening, we leave for the Land of the Long White Cloud (New Zealand); a trip many months in the planning.  I am trying not to have too many expectations but it’s hard not to.  Everyone whose been, raves about it.  I will keep my expectations to myself but I am very excited.  I wish all my friends and family near and far the very best that the holiday season can bring and please know that you are all in our hearts and our thoughts.  We miss you.  See you in 2010.