Domo Arigato Day (Thanksgiving in Tokyo) Reply

I have a lot to be thankful for.  Thomas Jr. was now living in Tokyo and my immediate family would all be together to share the holiday.  Tom’s job was going very well.  Sophie’s parent teacher conference that week was off the charts and more than I could ever expect.  Annie was about to debut in a Tokyo International Player’s rendition of A Christmas Carol.  Hayden returned from a week in New York, excited about the prospects of boarding school next year and Thomas had completed a few of the 16 essay questions required for his college applications.  We had 25 in total for Thanksgiving Dinner and the weather was gorgeous.  Happy.  Until around 9:30 Thanksgiving morning while cooking in the kitchen,  I had a vision of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade marching to Times Square around 11pm that night (Tokyo time). I’d most likely be asleep.   And I started to lose it.  That damned parade gets me every time.  Why am I so emotional about those latex balloons?  And that sadness led to more sadness, as it does, and I started to think that this was going to be the last Thanksgiving for a few years where I could guarantee that we would all be together.  With the likelihood of us staying in Japan, coupled with Thomas at college somewhere on the west coast of the US and Hayden in boarding school somewhere on the east coast, and Sophie and Annie’s school not having a Thanksgiving holiday, who knew when we’d celebrate this holiday together again.  But the thing with life is that it doesn’t stand still.  There was an apple pie to bake and a turkey to baste and I just didn’t have time to indulge myself.  Swallowing it down, I returned to my tasks.  About a half hour later, Thomas came down and started poking around in the pots and pans, looking for a bowl to lick, making me laugh and it was all forgotten.  The hours raced by, the door bell started ringing and the guests arrived, excited by the prospect of a real American turkey dinner.  And i didn’t disappoint.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Is Thanksgiving Really Two Weeks Away? 2

CIMG1550It’s been way too long since I wrote an entry and I have plenty excuses that I will not bore you with.  I seriously can’t believe Thanksgiving is a week from Thursday.  When we last left off, the girls and I had arrived home from Hawaii and the boys had won their first championship in 26 years.  We didn’t waste any time getting back into the groove after vacation and a few days after getting back I went on an all day hike up and down Mt. Mitake.  It took us a few hours, three trains and a funicular to get to the point on the mountain where we would begin our climb (actually descent).  We spent almost 45 minutes going down at least a thousand root-like steps but were rewarded with a magnificent rock garden path that wound around the mountain for at least another hour.  At the top, there is a beautiful shrine and small ryokans (japanese inns with onsen hot spring baths) that were initially built to house the Japanese who came to the shrine on a religious pilgrimage.  It seemed like a wonderful place to stay but we hiked back down and returned to Tokyo by 7:30 at night.  It was a perfect day.  The girls and I had an opportunity to make our own personal chopsticks out of old baseball bats used by professional players in the Japanese league.  First we were tested on our use of chopsticks (which we were all using incorrectly) and then we cut and sanded our wood and painted our designs.  The ohashi as they are called were taken back to the factory where they will be dipped in lacquer and then returned to us.  I am very excited to carry them around and impress the Japanese when I whip them out when we go for ramen and soba.  Halloween came to Tokyo in a big way in Minato-Ku (the gaigin ghetto and basically the only place to trick or treat) and the girls dressed up and went trick or treating with friends in the neighborhood.  Annie wanted to be an M&M and the costume didn’t exist in Tokyo so I made it from felt with velcro and I sewed the thing myself!  After four kids, it was the first costume I actually made myself.  Pathetic?  Maybe just a little.   Our friends Mona and Gordon threw an over the top Halloween party that caused the police to come twice.  The house was decorated like a movie set and the food was beyond good.  I dressed up as Amy Winehouse and won best costume.  I got a really cute blow up doll as my prize.  For Tom’s birthday I made reservations at the Hyatt Resort in Hakone for a quick overnight.  We left the kids in Tokyo (by themselves!) and took off.  Hakone is a hot springs area where you can see smoke rising around every curve of the mountainous region.  The hotel was what you would envision a Japanese hotel to look like; very zen, very beautiful and very simple (but it was luxurious too).  There was a large fire pit in the lobby with comfy chairs and we got to wear our yukata (robes) with an over yukata (not sure what these are called) in the lobby, at dinner, basically everywhere we went.  It was fabulous.  When we checked in, it was dark and we couldn’t see the view but in the morning we pulled the shades back and the mountains were in our bedroom.  The day was amazing.  We started at the open air museum (the picture above was taken there) and then went to the ropeway which took us to the top of the rim of a volcano where the views of Mt. Fuji and lake Ashi were stunning.  We made the mandatory shrine stop at Hakone Shrine  – there is a beautiful red torii gate in the lake and then had an excellent Italian lunch by the lake.  We made it back in time to have dinner with the kids.  They survived without us and we are going to make sure to do more overnight trips.  They are so invigorating.  The Friday night before the last home football game, my friend Libby and I cooked a ton of food and invited the entire Varsity Football Team over for pasta night.  We went through three huge lasagnas, 6 pounds of ziti, 55 meatballs, 6 garlic breads, 2 huge caesar salads, 60 cupcakes and at least as many oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.  We were able to sit everyone around one big long table and it was a really fun night.  It was nice to finally meet the boys without their helmets on!  After the dinner, Tom referred many many boxing matches (of course Hayden has two sets of gloves he bought in Thailand) and the place got pretty rowdy as you can imagine but no one called the police so that was good.  I’ve been busy leading tours for the American club too.  The first tour I led was to the Mashiko Pottery festival about a 2.5 hour bus trip outside of Tokyo.  There were over 100 potters – totally cool, hip, Japanese women and men who would have been at home in a surf shop if they weren’t potting.  I bought a few treasures and thoroughly enjoyed the day.  The next trip was an overnight to Mikimoto Pearl Island, the wedded rocks and Ise Shrine.  This area is several hours away from Tokyo and is reached via bullet train and local train.  We went to the pearl island where Mikimoto started his cultured pearl business with the amah divers.  These are old women dressed in white linen dresses and hats who dive for pearls and collect them in wooden buckets that float on the water.  Its a pretty crazy thing to watch (check it out on youtube).  We then went to see the Wedded Rocks which are a pair of rocks located by the shore (one is large, the other small) that the Japanese believe represent husband and wife and were the birth of all the islands of Japan.  They are tied together with a thick rope and there is a shrine on land called the Frog Shrine.  We stayed at a Thalasso Therapy resort right on the ocean and had a fabulous french meal.  The next day we had a menu of treatments to choose from, all involving water in some way.  It was so relaxing.  A train ride away in Ise we visited Ise Shrine – the most sacred of all Shinto Shrines in Japan.  Every 20 years, they take down the old shrine and build an identical one right next to it.  People say it is to keep the skill set of the craftsman alive.  We came at a great time as the new one was almost finished and the old one was yet to be destroyed.  It was a lot of see and do in 36 hours but it was fantastic.  Last night I led a yakatabune tour (the japanese junk boat I rented last spring with my friends).  It was a great night – 65 and no wind in Tokyo on November 14th.  You can’t ask for better weather than that.  And then today, to finish off the blog, Tom and I spent the day at Meiji Shrine to watch the 3-5-7 festival.  Each year on this day, the Japanese dress up their children in formal kimono who have turned three, five and seven during the year and bring them to their local shrine to pray for a good life.  Meiji is a very famous shrine and it just happens to be very close to where we live.  We got some great photos and enjoyed another balmy 65 degree fall day.  We’ll be 24 in total for Thanksgiving on the 26th.  I am so happy to have my family all together this year.

Mahalo Hawaii 1

Sophie and Annie with their surfing instructor

Sophie and Annie with their surfing instructor

This is a picture of a Sophie and Annie with Billy, their surfing instructor.  Annie said his hands looked webbed and she was sure he was breathing through gills on the sides of his body.  They spent a morning with him this past week surfing the waters of Waikiki Beach in Honolulu Hawaii.  It was their school’s annual Fall Break, a chance to get away when everyone else in Asia was still in school – namely their brothers who stayed behind with their Dad.  The girls and I left Tokyo, hours after Tom and Hayden won their homecoming football game.  The flight left Saturday night at 9pm and arrived Saturday morning at 9am – yes, we went back in time to start Saturday all over again.  Its tiring living one day twice.  We checked into the Hilton Hawaiian Village which lives up to its name with its 25 restaurants, 5 pools and a ridiculous amount of shopping opportunities.  We spent most of the first day lying on lounges at the beach trying to adapt to the new time zone.  It was the first time ever that I went away with Sophie and Annie with no other adults.  We mapped out our week together, letting them make the decisions about how they wanted to spend their days.  The next day, the girls took their surfing lesson and managed to actually get up a few times.  They really enjoyed their time out in the waves and would definitely do it again.  On Monday, we rented a car and drove across the island to the north side stopping at Kailua, an absolutely beautiful beach that was empty due to the off season and the fact that is was during the week. Back in the car, we spent a little bit of time trying to find the Kamehameha Highway, but once we did we cruised along with the ocean on our left.  We pulled into the parking lot at Sandy Beach marveling at the size and strength of the waves.  As soon as we hit the beach, the lifeguard jumped down off his post, came right up to us and told us not to go into the ocean.  I didn’t need to hear it from him – we were not going anywhere near the water.  We sat and watched as locals body surfed in the biggest waves I’ve ever seen.  Next, we drove up the cliff to stop and watch the blow hole in the coral.  To the right was the beach they filmed the famous rolling in the waves scene in From Here to Eternity.  I tried to explain it to the girls but they had no idea what I was talking about.  Back at the hotel, I showed them the clip on You Tube but they said they never saw it before.  We ended our trip in the parking lot of Diamond Head.  Annie remarked about man’s impact on the land – there was a bathroom facility and a truck selling hot dogs in the middle of the crater.  Something must be sinking in from school! We ate a late lunch at Cheeseburger Waikiki, watching the pre-game Monday Night Football on the multiple flat screens.  It was an amazing cheeseburger.  We went from there to the Ala Moana Mall and spent a few hours shopping and getting manicures and pedicures.  This was a huge treat as these are so expensive in Japan, its not an option for the girls.  We visited friends from Tokyo who were staying at Kahala, a secluded resort outside of Waikiki.  We went to a laua where Annie won a pineapple in the pineapple ring toss.  Annie paddle surfed, mom had a lomi lomi massage, we ate at the New York Deli at least 8 times and then the last day we woke up at 5:45 am to get to the USS Arizona.  This visit was non-negotiable.  The girls were not too thrilled to visit a sunken boat where most of the soldiers went down with the ship but I forced the issue and off we went.  The tour starts out with a 1/2 hour movie explaining the actions that led up to the morning of December 7th.  It’s even more interesting for us due to the fact that we live in Japan.  It’s hard to fathom how it’s only been 60+ years since that day.  We took a public bus back to the hotel (a first for the girls) and after an hour finally arrived back home.  Annie and Sophie agreed that they thought buses, and the people who ride them, were weird.  They have been exposed to so much and yet had never ridden a public bus!  How bizarre.  We eeked out every last minute by the pool and the ocean – the girls swam in the ocean until 6:30 and the sun had set.  We went to a late dinner down the beach at the Shore Bird restaurant, satisfied that we had done everything we set out to do at the beginning of our trip.  We landed at Narita airport at 2:30pm on Friday afternoon, got in our car and floored it to Camp Zama just in time to see Thomas and Hayden play under the lights and win to clinch the Kanto Plains title for the first time in 26 years.  What  a week!!!

Musuko no Omari desu (this is my son Omari) 4

CIMG0621Hayden had an assignment in Health class.  Spend twenty four hours as the surrogate father of an anatomically correct baby that looks amazingly real, weighs about 6.5 pounds and is 21 inches long.  It comes with a diaper and a snuggie, cries at random intervals and needs to be fed, burped and changed.   A computer chip implanted in the baby records all the activity over the course of the 24 hours and Hayden wore a “hospital bracelet” with a matching chip to make sure he was never apart from the baby.  The assignment started out ok until it was time for football practice.  Of course, bringing the $1300 baby onto the field wasn’t an option so he had to find a babysitter.  Did he question the boy who said he would watch his son?  Did he get references?  No.  He took what he could get.  Something went on during practice that he wouldn’t find out about until the next day.  He arrived home with a slightly damp baby as it was raining and he didn’t protect the baby on the walk home.  We were at the dining room table having dinner when he arrived and strategically placed the baby on the table and introduced us to Omari.  His best friend back home is African American and he named his baby after him.  We took turns passing him around the table, trying out our new roles (grandma, aunt, grandfather) and then after dinner gave him back to Hayden and wished him luck.  A few hours later the baby started to cry and after several minutes I went in to see what was up.  Hayden was at his desk, apparently trying to do homework when Omari started to fuss.  He was frustrated because he tried to get him to eat and he wouldn’t stop crying.  Finally, Omari accepted the bottle and you could hear gulping sounds while he drank.  It was actually pretty cute.  When it was time for Hayden to go to sleep, he made up the futon next to him.  Here is a picture of the happy baby.CIMG0624 The next morning when I went to wake Hayden, the baby was out of the covers without his clothes on.  After a lot of prodding, I was finally able to wake Hayden up.  I asked him what happened with Omari and he started moaning about how he was up all night and he wouldn’t take the bottle and then he had to change him.  He said it was a nightmare and that he was exhausted.  I reminded him that he could not miss the bus and that he better not forget Omari either.  Late and rushed, he ran out the door, thankfully with the baby.  About an hour later I received a frantic call from Hayden.  He had missed his school bus and went straight to the subway to get to school.  From our apartment to his school, you need to take 4 different trains, some of which are express trains and you need to get on the local otherwise you will miss the stop.  Hayden hardly ever takes the train to school but he thought he would figure it out along the way.  With Omari in his back pack he got on the first train.  Pretty quickly into the journey, Omari started to fuss.  Hayden ignored him.  People on the train started to look around for the crying baby.  Omari started to really cry.  The baby is programmed to escalate the sound he makes if his needs aren’t met, much like the real thing.  Finally, Hayden digs into his back pack and whips out Omari.  Much to the surprise of his fellow rush hour train riders.  He said the guy sitting across from him actually let out the Japanese equivalent of Yikes!  He started to feed the baby thinking this is what he wanted but the baby kept on crying.  After force feeding him to no avail, he realized he needed a diaper change.  So, right there, in front of all the rush hour commuters, Hayden changed Omari’s diapers.  Of course, all this stress and aggravation took his focus off the need to change trains and Hayden found himself an hour in the wrong direction.  After speaking with me and the school, he managed to get himself back on track and finally made it to the school at 10:30 (2 hours after he should have arrived).  In health class that day, the baby’s computer chip was analyzed and a list of demerits printed out:  didn’t feed the baby four times, 1 abusive moment (thanks to the previous day’s babysitter), etc… and he ended up with a final grade of 71.  For all the time and effort and stress over the past 24 hours he came away with a grade that was just barely passing…and the knowledge that he is never having kids, at least not without a good wife!

It’s All Relative Reply

Gonpachi - all of us together - a rare event

Gonpachi - all of us together - a rare event

My mom and my step-father came to town last week.  It was their first time in Japan.  I mapped out some favorite spots to take them, keeping in mind that they would be spending two days alone in Kyoto.  I eliminated all visits to shrines and temples while we were together in Tokyo which was a nice opportunity to visit some of the less frequented places.  We managed to fit a lot in.  The first full day it rained and I made a few adjustments to the itinerary and we spent the day at the Odaiba Onsen.  My mom didn’t want to go in the baths but we managed to fill most of the day with other Japanese inspired treats (the flesh eating doctor fish, shiatsu massage, foot baths) while the men enjoyed their time in the bath – Thomas Jr. went for the first time too.  I think he liked it.  We had drinks at the Roppongi Hills Club courtesy of our mutual friends Cliff and Isa and ate a very so-so dinner at Two Rooms in Aoyama.  I think that place looks better than it actually is.  We finished the night up at Bauhaus, a small live music club where supposedly three generations of rockers play together – the grandfather is by far the best.  We hit all the hot spots like the neighborhood ramen shop and the conveyor belt sushi restaurant, we even got to go for our weekly fix of La Jolla Mexican on Sunday night.  Lucky for them, they happened to be here during one of the two Grand Sumo tournaments held in Tokyo each year and we went with all the kids to see the opening day.  I think the adults enjoyed it the most.  Hayden is still convinced that sumo wrestlers are not athletes.  They visited both of the kids schools and were there to cheer on the Mustangs in their first Friday Night Lights of the Varsity Football season.  Tom Sr. was in the booth announcing and Hayden threw a touchdown pass to Thomas and won the game.  We spent a day at Tsukiji, the fish market coupled with Ginza and the Mitsukoshi Department Store food halls.  Even though I warned my mom, she tried the gooey omochi ball and spent a good deal of time dislodging it from her mouth and searching for a garbage can (impossible in Tokyo).  While in the area, we met up with Tom for lunch in Marounouchi on his lunch break.  We shopped and ate and walked in Shimokitazawa, a hip urban part of Tokyo where many college students live.  They have the most interesting little stores.  We visited Ningyocho to buy antique kimono and obis – I bought the most fantastic white wedding kimono.  When the box arrived a few days later Tom gave it a strange look.  Then I explained it was going to be hung on a wall.  I think he thought I was going to wear it.  The thing weighs about ten pounds.  After a busy few days, I put my parents on a bullet train to Kyoto where they celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.  They overdosed on temples and shrines and Japanese food and were spent by the time they arrived back in Tokyo.  We ended the week eating pizza at Savoy, going to the top of the Mori tower, shopping at Tokyo Hands, “climbing”  Mt. Takao via the funicular to watch the monkeys pick bugs out of each other and then we ate at Ukai Toriyama – an absolute must restaurant stop with visitors.  On their very last night in Japan, we ate at T.Y. Harbor, outside on the water watching the Yakatabune boats cruise by.  Then it was off to late night Karaoke with the Hopkins and the Halls.  Could it get any better than that?

Hugh and the Two (brothers that is) 4

the brothers on the sideline

the brothers on the sideline

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

Tokyo – Sophomore Year 2

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

A

Making The Most of What Is Left Reply

 

Yakatabune boat and the rainbow bridge

Yakatabune boat and the rainbow bridge

Our freshman year in Tokyo is now behind us and it is time for summer vacation.  Thinking back on the last ten months, I realize that even though it was like moving to the moon, it felt somewhat familiar.  Yes, we had lived here before but the familiar aspects were more reticent of freshman year in high school or college.  You move to a completely new environment, knowing no one, having no idea where you get a cup of coffee or buy notebooks, where the closest movie theater is or how to get downtown the fastest, and then month by month, you meet friends, you branch out, you get lost a few times and then you find your way.  And the people you meet, they are in the same boat as you are.  And so you form friendships that are meaningful in a different way than you may have back home.  You survived and they survived with you.  After the two back to back trips out of the city, I wanted the last week at home to be packed with Tokyo experiences shared by the people I have come to know and love.  Some of whom will not return in the fall.  They are off to another city, another country, another adventure.  A highlight of the last weekend was a Yakatabune boat trip.  These boats, often called junks hold about 40 people.  They cruise up and down the Sumida River which runs through Tokyo and they serve tempura and sashimi and unlimited beer, sake and other assorted beverages.  The guests sit on the tatami floor and eat off the low tables while singing karaoke and marveling at the sights outside the floor to ceiling windows that line the boat.  There are small colored lanterns that hang from the sides of the boat and on any given summer evening you will see loads of them plying up and down the river.  I reserved one on Saturday night and our friends and their friends enjoyed a wonderful evening of laughing and singing and drinking and eating.  We also celebrated Father’s Day last weekend as we won’t be with Tom on the actual day.  The day started off when Tom visited  an onsen, then met us for brunch and then a swim in the pool in our apartment.  At around 5, we left our apartment and walked to a Yakult Swallows professional baseball game.  The stadium is about a mile away and when we arrived the sun was still out but it was breezy and the game was about to start.  We ate gyoza and chicken on a stick, hot dogs on a stick, beef over rice and Baskin Robbins ice cream cones.  There was lots of screaming and umbrella waving in the 7th inning and other assorted strange traditions that we weren’t quite sure of.  But we stayed to the end, even though our team got shut out (you sit on the side of the stadium designated for your team and only cheer when they are at bat).  It was the perfect Father’s Day (missing one kid – who we will reunite with this Friday at 7:30 pm and we are very excited, can you tell?) I haven’t decided whether I will continue this blog in the U.S. over the summer but if I don’t, I’ll be back for Sophomore year!

Onjuku Beach Is The New Ditch Plains 2

They don’t celebrate Memorial Day Weekend in Japan.  But to me, that is the official start to the summer and I was feeling deprived.  In April, there was an article in Metropolis (my new bible on All Things Japan) about where to go to the beach if you were stuck in Tokyo during the hot and humid summer.  

Surfers and their vans

Surfers and their vans

There was a small photo of a nice deck with umbrellas in front of the ocean and the small blurb described it as a hip new beach hotel like the one the company ran in Bali.  I checked out the website which was completely in Japanese but then found a blog that had some nice photos.  I tried to make a reservation but no one at the hotel spoke English.  I asked the American Club concierge to call for me and a day later, I had booked two rooms at the Sayan Terrace in Chiba.  I was told that Onjuku beach was in southern Chiba and it would take us about 2.5 hours by car to get there.  The weather forecast was for rain the entire weekend (torrential at times) but if I had cancelled the day before, I would have been charged 50% of the cost which didn’t sit well.  So, Tom came home early on Friday and we were in the car by 5:30.  The first hour was strictly highway but soon we were off and it wasn’t raining and the sky was still light at 6:30.  The rest of the trip only took about 45 minutes and it was all along the coast.  Our navigation system dropped us in the middle of town and after going in a very large circle we finally found the hotel.  It was 7:30 when we checked in and they were stunned.  I don’t think they thought we were coming because they just stood there staring at us.  And then, they said the magic “choto mate kudasai” basically one minute please and they left the desk and didn’t return for quite some time.  About 30 minutes later, our rooms were ready and they were really lovely.  The kids had a huge room with three beds and a hang out area, a balcony and a large bathroom.  Tom and I had a smaller room but a nicer terrace.  The bathroom was mostly made of plastic.  We went down for dinner and it was very fancy and had many courses (at least five) but at least we didn’t have to sit on the floor and most of the food was pretty good.  After dinner it was back to the kids room for a game of apples to apples.  The next morning was overcast but it wasn’t raining so after breakfast (a strange buffet of pita bread with egg salad, tuna salad, lettuce, tomato, fried potatoes and small sausage) we went for a long walk on the beach.  There were at least two hundred surfers in the rough waves.  The beach was littered with all kinds of interesting things that kept the girls busy while Tom and Hayden threw the football around.  As we were finishing up, the rain began and we got in the car to tour around and look for lunch.  Leaving the ocean, we climbed into a hillier terrain and our car drove through several tunnels that had been dug out of the mountain.  There were rice paddies everywhere and not much else.  The entire place was various shades of green.  Hungry, with an English map in hand, we found the fresh delivery sushi restaurant and had lobster many ways.  Tempura, sashimi, sushi, drowning in miso soup… all delicious.  Each time someone ordered, the man would climb up on a stool and scoop whatever he needed out of a very large tank at the front of the restaurant.  After lunch, we got back in the car and went in search of the bowling alley we had found on the way into town.  We were wearing flip flops and had no socks, not to mention that we have BIG feet but Tom was not fazed. The bowling alley had everything we needed (the shoes came out of a funny vending machine) and we played two games each.  The girls had their own lane with no gutters and Tom, Hayden and I competed against each other.  After the first game, Hayden disgusted with his low score, went off to find the batting cages.  Tom and I continued the competition.  In the first game I beat him 104 to 99 and then he brought his A game and beat me 175 to 129.  After bowling, we returned to the hotel for tea time in the lobby  and the kids went upstairs to hang out.  After another multi-coursed dinner, we played Scategories and Apples to Apples before turning in.  I was awoken very early the next morning by Tom on his way out to swim.  It was a little before 6 and the ocean was already crawling with wet-suited surfers.  I took photos of Tom from the balcony – he was easy to spot as he was the only one without a wet suit.  By seven, the sun had come out and it was getting hot.  The kids woke up and we took our breakfast in a picnic basket out to the deck and ate under the umbrellas.  We enjoyed a nice long morning on the deck until a man from the hotel came out around 12:15 and said “check out time.  check out time jew ni ji (12:00).  We were playing dumb and took our time packing up.  I don’t know what the rush was – there was no one left at the hotel.  But we packed up and got on the road back to Tokyo.  We decided to take the Aqualine which is  a bridge tunnel combination across Tokyo Bay with an overall length of 14 km, it includes a 4.4 km bridge and 9.6 km tunnel underneath the bay—the longest underwater tunnel for cars in the world.  At the bridge-tunnel crossover point, there is an artificial island with a rest area consisting of restaurants, shops and amusement facilities. Air is supplied to the tunnel by a tower in the middle of the tunnel, called the Kaze no Tō (the tower of wind), which uses the bay’s almost-constant winds as a power source.  The road opened in 1997 after 31 years of construction at a cost of 11.2 billion USD.  It was the most surreal experience.  You get on what looks like a normal bridge and you continue on it for quite awhile and then straight ahead you see what looks like a huge cruise ship only its the entrance to the tunnel (the bridge just stops and down you go).  It was out of a sci-fi movie.  Very cool.  And when we came up on the other side, we were only 20 minutes away from our apartment.  The entire trip took 1.5 hours.  Happy Memorial Day.

Swine Flu Closes Kyoto And We Get It All To Ourselves 1

 

Nanzenji Zen Rock Garden

Nanzenji Zen Rock Garden

Here is a picture of something you rarely see in May in Kyoto.  It is the very famous Nanzenji Zen Rock Garden and it is EMPTY.  May is prime time for Japanese school children to visit their World Heritage Sites.  And if it wasn’t for the swine flu outbreak in Japan last week, I would be squeezing into this photo, trying to find a spot to view the rocks.  This unexpected emptiness was not anticipated when I boarded the 2.5 hour bullet train with six of my girlfriends last Monday morning on our way to Kyoto, but it was much appreciated.  We had been planning this brief respite for the past few months, a Sayonara to our friend D’Anna who will be leaving Tokyo this June to move to Shanghai.  We didn’t have much time but we wanted to see and do as much as possible in 36 hours. We based the trip around a stay in one of Alex Kerr’s restored Machiya.  Alex Kerr is an American who spent most of his life in Japan and is now considered an expert in Japanese culture and art.  He is a writer (Dogs and Demons, Lost Japan), art collector and restorer of old Machiya (traditional wooden townhouses that housed merchants and craftsmen).  Staying in a restored Machiya is not for everyone.  It felt like we were living in a Japanese museum.  I wouldn’t necessarily have stayed there with my children (the paper shoji screens alone would have made me too nervous) and the cost would have been prohibitive, however split amongst 7 women it was quite reasonable.  We hired a van with an English speaking driver and tried to fit in a nice assortment of temples, walks, shops, geisha sightings and even a show.  We kicked off the trip with Mimosas on the Shinkansen (bullet train) and we had two rows of seats directly behind one another and the seats on the trains in Japan are swivel-able (if that is a word) and we were able to face each other and chat non-stop for 2.5 hours.  Upon arrival in Kyoto, we were met by our driver and off we went to our first temple.  The walkway leading up to Ginkakuji Temple is made of towering shrubs and is usually very crowded.  It was then that we realized we were alone.  We started to marvel at our luck and then we asked the driver and he explained that as of today, the schools were all closed in Kyoto due to the Swine Flu.  We giggled.  How very fortunate for us!  After a nice visit, we walked the Philosopher’s Path which is a winding course along a small river that goes on for about a mile.  There are small shops and artisans along the way and it was absolutely beautiful.  I can’t say our conversations took on a deeper meaning but it was most enjoyable!DSC05371At the end of the path, our driver was waiting for us, frantically waving his white gloved hands to signal our arrival at the van.  He took us to the restaurant we had reserved for lunch, Okutan, a 300 year old restaurant serving tofu.  Most of what we had to eat that day was good.  Some of it was “different”.  The restaurant was directly outside of the main gate of the next temple on our list, Nanzenji.  We walked along at our leisure and pure enjoyment.  With no crowds, we were free to discover.  When we were completely satisfied that we had seen all there was to see, our driver took us to check in at the machiya.  We were all excited to see where we would be staying, not to mention cocktail time was quickly approaching.  We were met at the machiya office by Cam (not sure that was his exact name but it’s close) and after telling us the rules and regs (this took a long time) and showing us all the details of the house (this also took a long time) he finally left us to it.  Within minutes, we had set up the small table in tatami room with appetizers and the cocktails had been poured.  We toasted ourselves and our choice of “hotel” and walked all around the house getting to know the ins and outs.  There were several bed rooms but we decided to move all the futon into the biggest room and sleep together.  The house was truly amazing.  It was made completely of wood and tatami although the kitchen had been modernized as well as the bathrooms.  There was a nice sized garden at one end of the house with glass doors that opened into the living room.  The staircases were steep and made creaky sounds.  The rooms were dark and the light switches not easy to find.  At one point I went to use the bathroom and freaked myself out a bit.  But overall it was a very unique experience.  We didn’t have that much time to relax before we dressed, hopped in a cab and went to Gion Corner to see a Japanese culture show.  The show was touristy yet efficient.  In 55 minutes, we were shown a tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging), Kyoto Style Dance, Japanese Harp, a comic play, court music and Bunraku (Japanese puppet play).   It was just a taste but it was enough.  After the show, we walked through Gion, over the Kamo River to Pontocho.  Pontocho is a long cobbled alley that runs along the Kamo River.  It is best known for geisha and the tea houses they visit but it also has restaurants and bars that back up to the river.  In the warmer months, the restaurants build decks on stilts on the river and serve meals outside on tatami mats.  It was a Monday night and the weather was not warm but we went and ate outside on the deck anyway.  The waitress gave us each a blanket and the hot sake helped to warm us up.  After dinner, we walked back to our “home” and got into the most comfortable fluffy futon and went to bed.   In the morning, after breakfast at home, we checked out of the machiya and were picked up by the driver in the van.  We started the day at Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion) as it is best seen in the morning with the gold reflected in the water.  It was beautiful and empty and we took our time in the temple grounds.  From there we went to Ryoanji, another zen temple World Heritage Site and then on to Nijo Castle, the Kyoto residence of the Shogunate.  At this point, we were hungry and tired and needed fortification and so we asked the driver to drop us in Sannenzaka, a hilly area in the eastern part of Kyoto with tons of quaint shops and restaurants.  We chose a soba shop (buckwheat noodles) for lunch and it was delicious although several of us could have eaten a whole other bowl…the portions are never very large in Japan.  It was in this area that we saw Geisha, several of them.  They are like rock stars in this country.  The few people that were out in the streets dropped what they were doing and ran to see them (us included).  I felt kind of bad, but it didn’t stop me from taking their pictures and following them.   After lunch and lots of shopping, we made our way to the main street leading up to Kiyomizudera, a Buddhist temple high up in the eastern hills of Kyoto with a waterfall within.  For 200 yen (about $2) they give you a small cup to attach to a long metal stick that you place under the waterfall to catch the water and drink it.  Of course we all did it.  My cup is on my bar next to my other sake cups (I have created a very nice collection of sake cups these past few months).  For another 100 yen, I was able to write my troubles on a special piece of rice paper shaped like a person and plop it into a bucket of water to watch my troubles melt away.  It was fabulous, the water removed the ink from the paper and then the paper just peacefully dissolved.  Very figurative but nice.  With thirty minutes until the last temple on our list was to close, we made our way down the street and hopped in the van to arrive at Sanjusangendo, a Buddhist temple famous for the one thousand life-size statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon.  It was at this very last temple that I finally bought a temple book.  A temple book is supposed to be carried with you at all times in Japan because you never know when you are going to be at a temple. The tradition is to collect a stamp from each temple you visit. These stamps are called Shuin and in addition to the stamp, the priest will usually sign the page in their own calligraphy and date it. The pages in these books fold out like an accordion and have space on each side for a shuin. There is a space in between the pages for a piece of newspaper to keep the ink from bleeding through to the other side. When completed, these books become prized possessions.  I should have bought one at the beginning of the trip but I was preoccupied and the process didn’t sink it.  But I’m not worried, the one thing Japan has an abundance of is temples.  I’m sure my book will fill up soon enough.  Exhausted and spent after the last temple but still with an hour to kill, we had the driver bring us to Kyoto station where we found a bar and ordered 7 nama biru (beer from a stick).  We bought dinner to take on the train and departed Kyoto on the 6:03 bullet train back home.  We were a bit loud, got shushed and then got even louder.  The train pulled into Tokyo at 8:30 pm and we all jumped in cabs and went our separate ways.