Samurai, Shogun and Bears, Oh My! 1

DSC05287

On Wednesday, I left the chaotic city of Tokyo in a 10 person passenger van with two guides and 7 other women.  We traveled 4 hours to Narai, an ancient city along the Nakasendo trail which is an 8th century “highway” linking Kyoto to Tokyo.  The highway was used during Japan’s feudal period and was the road through the mountains travelled by feudal lords and their retinues, samurai, merchants, and miscellaneous travelers. Along the route were 69 “post towns”, where weary travelers could rest before continuing on the next leg. Our journey began in Narai where we visited a lacquerware shop and learned about the extremely intricate process involved in making lacquerware.  Then it was on to lunch at a soba shop that has been around for hundreds of years.  Soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour and served either hot or cold.  Very good and very good for you too.  After lunch we had time to walk around the town which almost looked like a movie set of old Japan – except it was the real deal.  There were tons of cute shops selling the wares of local craftsmen – everything was either wood or lacquer.  From there we drove to a comb shop where we saw combs being sawed individually by hand and then we finished the journey that day in Tsumago, another town on the Nakasendo Highway.  Tsumago is known as one of the best preserved post towns.   Cars are prohibited on the main street in the daytime and phone lines and power cables are kept concealed.  You feel as though you have stepped into a time machine and are back in feudal Japan.   Our ryokan was fabulous, the dinner delicious and after being served at least 7 courses, we took a nice walk around the town. Each small house had a lit lantern outside lighting the way along the main street.  We bumped into a few Japanese women also staying in town and they were carrying their own personal paper lanterns which looked incredible walking down the street.  There were 5 women in each room on the tatami sleeping on futons.  We all bathed together in the public bath on the first floor and after a quick apples to apples game it was time for bed.  In the morning, we ate breakfast in our yukata, took some photos in the garden and walked the town during the daylight.  More fabulous shops and quaint restaurants.  We packed our purchases in the van and started our 3 hour walking journey from Tsumago to Magome.  The trip would take us up and over a mountain, along waterfalls and in and out of the main road.  We were told there were bears in the woods but that we were too big a group to probably see one.  About half way up the mountain, we spotted a little Japanese man in a straw conical hat, peeking out of a wooden structure.  As we approached he came out to greet us and asked us in for tea.  We went.  He had a nice size table made out of  rough-hewn wood.  There was an open fire going in the tatami floor with an iron pot hanging above it from the rafters.  We sat and had tea and some small conversation (a few of our group spoke japanese).  It was an unexpected stop that was priceless.  When we got to the top of the mountain, our tour guide Betsy hitchhiked down the mountain to pick up the van to drive to Magome, the town that we would eventually end up in when we came down the mountain.  She was there waiting for us and we had another great lunch in a small noodle shop.  We spent the next hour walking around Magome, another of the 69 post towns along the Nakasendo Highway.  Back in the van, we decided we were hot sweaty and dirty and the group made the decision to pull over at an onsen Betsy knew about in the area.  We ran in, shed our clothes, soaped up and jumped into the outdoor onsen.  It felt amazing.  Clean with wet hair, we pulled over at a convenience store, loaded up with Japanese junk food (they have the best stuff) and I drove the van 4 hours home to Tokyo.  Upon arrival, I grabbed all the treasures I had picked up along the way, said goodbye to my new friends and met Tom and the kids at our neighborhood Mexican restaurant.  I had only been away for 36 hours but I felt like I had travelled back in time…off to Kyoto tomorrow!

There May Be Something To The “Wa” Reply

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

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

 

Annie singing Karaoke at 11pm in Shibuya

Annie singing Karaoke at 11pm in Shibuya

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

A Very American Weekend 1

 

The Statue of Liberty (in Odaiba - Tokyo)

The Statue of Liberty (in Odaiba - Tokyo)

There are some weekends in Japan that are very Japanese.  You see things and do things that you could only see and do if you lived in Tokyo in 2009.  I’ve written about a lot of those weekends in this blog.  This past weekend wasn’t one of those weekends.  It started off with a shared bottle of champagne at our friends, Isa and Cliff’s apartment.  We had never been there before and sitting in their very modern living room with all the creature comforts of home (in all of the sizes you would expect them: think kitchen appliances) you could easily have believed that we were in a Manhattan apartment.  When the bottle was finished we took a cab to a restaurant about 10 minutes away for dinner where the menu was completely in ENGLISH.  I had tuna with MASHED POTATOES and it was absolutely delicious.  The bill came and it was incredibly REASONABLE.  After dinner, we walked home.  On Saturday morning, Tom left early with Hayden for a baseball double header at Hayden’s high school and the girls and I went over to their school for their annual fair.  I ran the American booth where we served grilled hamburgers and Dominos Pizza.  That evening, Tom and I drove to our friends Libby and Doug’s where we sat in their extremely comfortable den, ordered pizza, drank red wine, ate home made apple crisp and watched Anne Hathoway in Rachel Getting Married.  It is now Sunday morning and I just finished making blueberry pancakes and packing a lunch to take to Annie’s little league game.  The only difference between this weekend and the weekend of April 16th, 2008 is that this year I enjoyed and appreciated the routine.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t feel the same way last year… carpe diem.

Sakura Shindigs Reply

dsc04637Each year, around the middle of March, the people of Japan stop what they are doing, put away their troubles and collectively obsess about when the cherry blossom trees will bloom.  The nightly weather reports on TV  include updates on the progress starting from the southern most tip of Japan and moving northward, the newspapers print at least a story a day about them (sometimes two) and almost every daily conversation will include some mention of them.  This year’s prediction for Tokyo was full bloom on Saturday March 28th but due to a cold front the week before, the bloom was delayed by 6 days.  This past Friday, the city of Tokyo started to party and they are just about wrapping it up as I type.  I don’t know the actual number of cherry trees in Tokyo but its difficult to walk one block without seeing one.  For example, we have a huge beautiful blooming tree right in the parking lot of our building.  The big thing to do to celebrate the season is to have an O-Hanami party in a park where there are lots of trees.  You set up your blue tarp (it has to be blue) that you buy at the convenience store, you bring all your friends, lots of beer and food and you basically camp out for hours under the trees until it gets very late and you get very drunk.  Its really an incredible sight to walk through a park at night and see every spot taken with parties.  This year, we were invited to a roof-top o-hanami party at my friend Kyoko’s house.  The roof of her house overlooks the Aoyama Cemetery which is a very famous spot for cherry blossom viewing.  Annie and I went and were treated to delicious japanese treats while spending a beautiful Saturday afternoon with friends.  We were the only Americans there but we were happy to be included.  Later that night, Tom and I celebrated with our friends in the park closest to our house.  We set up camp with yuzodkas (vodka and yuzu juice which is delicious) and some finger food.  It started to drizzle but we were all dressed up for a party that night and we didn’t let it rain on our parade.  After cocktailing, we were off to celebrate our friend Neta and her husband Karl’s 40 year anniversary in Japan (they have both lived here for 20 years).  The theme was 70/80’s or Japanese dress up so we decided to dress up as Harajuku girls.  It was really fun, lots of dancing to the music of the 70s and 80s – lots of laughs.  Happy Spring!

Tasty Tokyo Reply

 

Savoy Pizza in Azabu Juban

Savoy Pizza in Azabu Juban

 

The pickle and dried fish course at Kamiya in Roppongi

The pickle and dried fish course at Kamiya in Roppongi

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

The Land of Confucius is Down Right Confusing Reply

dsc04093Spring Break in Beijing…not your typical destination and yet our diverse group (ages 10 – 69) found it chock full of adventure.  We landed on a Saturday night and were met by Nancy and Mr. Xin (pronounced Sin, we think).  They quickly piled the 7 of us and our bags into the van which we would call home for the next three days and whisked us off to our 5 star chinese hotel.  When the van pulled up to what looked like the equivalent of a U.S. Howard Johnson’s we were all a bit clueless.  This didn’t look anything like the 5 star Grand Hyatt we had been promised.  Ummm, Nancy, we are staying at the Grand Hyatt I said.  “No.  Your itinerary says this your hotel.”  Ummm, Nancy, I don’t care what my itinerary says but this is NOT where we are staying.  Take us to the Grand Hyatt.  She hesitated.  We didn’t move.  She called central headquarters to check.  They were going to call her back.  I insisted that she move the van and drive directly to the Grand Hyatt which she eventually did.  Moments later, we pulled up to a fabulous hotel and were astounded by the size and luxury of our 2 bedroom family suite.  The price per night was so reasonable that if it were Tokyo we would have had one small hotel room with a queen size bed.  In Beijing we had a kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large living room.  The next morning, after a nice hotel buffet breakfast, we met up in the lobby and waited for Nancy.  Unfortunately, Tom and my father had met a little on the early side and had proceeded to discuss the cluelessness and lack of service provided by Nancy the tour guide the night before.  Weren’t they surprised when we joined them and said good morning to Nancy who was standing right next to them the entire time.  Our first stop that day was to the Dirt Market.  This was a place that a friend of mine who had lived in Beijing for several years told me not to miss.  It was held outside in a walled in area with over 1000 vendors selling every type of oriental memorabilia you could imagine.  This is where places like Target and Pier One come to knock off the knock offs.  There are no “real” antiques sold at this market but boy is it fun.  And of course, you have to negotiate.  But its not all junk and we all walked away with interesting keepsakes.  Next on the itinerary was a visit to the Temple Of Heaven, a Taoist temple used by the Emperors of the Ming and Xing Dynasties to pray for things like good harvests and good weather.  Like every other temple I’ve been to in Asia, there was nothing very spiritual about it but more a place to socialize and buy souvenirs.  Within moments of entering the gates and paying the entrance fee, we were offered numerous items to buy (everything from their version of hacky sack to their version of kadima).  The park was packed with middle aged (to old age) Chinese citizens enjoying the nice spring Sunday.  They were ball room dancing, singing opera, playing kadima, playing hacky sack, and most surprisingly, playing cards.  I passed at least 10 or 15 heated card games going on along the temple wall.  From the Temple of Heaven, we were taken to our first “government” lunch.  Even though we had hired a private guide and driver we were required to have lunch at the restaurant of their choosing and everything was paid for in advance.  Each restaurant had a government market selling souvenirs that we had to walk through in order to get to the lunch.  The food was basically the same each day – a large amount of “barely edible” dishes.  Nothing good, but nothing that would make you sick either.  After lunch, we made our way to Tiananmen Square.  The pictures on CNN don’t do this place justice.  It is enormous.  And the red flags are big and bold and flapping in the breeze.  And the portrait of Mao that hangs in the center of the Tiananmen Gate is so big that the wart on his chin is the size of a basketball.  We tried to get some information out of our guide Nancy about the riots but she said they don’t talk about that with visitors.   She did tell us about Mao’s mausoleum on the square where he is entombed in a crystal coffin (this took us a few minutes to figure out what it was she was saying) and the monument to the soldiers that died fighting the Japanese in WWII.  We had to go through metal detectors to go onto the square – which seems ironic, and then we walked through the Tiananmen Gate and came out into the Forbidden City.  Thankfully we had just watched the Last Emperor with the kids so they had some perspective (albeit a Hollywood one) about where we were and why it was important.  It was about this point in the day where my father’s ankle had just about given up (something to do with an injury on the treadmill that morning) and we put him in a wheelchair while Hayden happily wheeled him around.  Of course there were a few places they couldn’t come in to see but this was fine as Hayden said he missed all the boring parts.  The size of the Forbidden City is literally too big to describe.  Its not like any place I’ve ever been to.  And to think it was for one lone Emperor to live in.  How sad.  When we finally finished the tour of the Forbidden City we were all ready for a rest and so we went back to the hotel to spend a few hours at the indoor pool.  I’m adding a photo of the pool here to show you how a). large it was and b.) how luxurious it was and c). how un-communistic it was.  dsc04264(Is that a word?  Uncommunistic?  I spent a lot of time using it this week.)  You could order food, drinks or even have a foot massage while lying by the pool.  Is this the new communism???  That night, we ate at the hotel.  Their restaurant, Made In China is famous for Peking Duck.  We had pre-ordered two of them and we ate every bit plus many other fabulous dishes.  It was a fantastic meal.  Day Two was dedicated to The Great Wall.  The ride out from the city of Beijing took about 90 minutes and we drove through extensive farmland and orchards.  When we arrived at the wall, the path to the gondola up was paved with vendors.  This turned out to be a good thing as it was a little chilly and we needed some gloves and my father bought a cane which came in handy for the remainder of the trip.  The Great Wall of China… how to describe something indescribable.  It boggles the mind.  I highly recommend putting it on the Bucket List.  My dad hates heights but he forced himself up the gondola and walked around a little bit at the top before taking the gondola back down with my stepmother Joanne.  That was a good idea as the rest of us spent about an hour hiking up and down the wall, going through look out posts.  The wall winds with the mountain and takes various forms depending upon the landscape.  There were flat parts and steep parts, cobble stone and rugged areas, flat paths and steps.  It was a breathtaking hour.  All along the route there are Chinese sales men with coolers filled with water beer and soda and the ever present Snickers Bars.  We paid the equivalent of $15 for three drinks and three snickers.  Now that’s true capitalism.  At the end of our hike, we ended up at a toboggan that took us speeding down to the bottom.  Unfortunately Sophie’s toboggan went a little too fast and she crashed and halted traffic for a few minutes.  It was a great morning and even Hayden said it was pretty cool.  Another government lunch and then we were dropped at the Silk Market.  Shopping at Beijing’s famous Silk Street market is the 3rd most popular tourist attraction after the Forbidden City and The Great Wall of China.  This 6 floor building is dedicated to the sale of counterfeit designer luxury brand goods.  But basically, its a very physical experience.  Lots of grabbing, wrenching pushing and prodding.  And this is being done to the customers by the sales people!   The vendors sell just about everything you can imagine:  clothes, electronics, bags, shoes, sporting equipment, cameras, electronic games, sunglasses, the list goes on.  All negotiations are done by calculator even though they all speak English.  Its a bit stressful.  Sophie loved her new Abercrombie and Fitch shirt that she got for $15 but after 1/2 hour of constant haggling she had a look of fear on her face and she wanted to escape.  Again, if this is communism, its a strange brand of it.  Unless you witness what goes on here, you wouldn’t believe it.  Small chinese girls literally bar your way from exiting their booths.  They grab you as you walk by, pulling you into their booths to look at their merchandise.  And there is just so much, it can get very confusing.  We spent about 1.5 hours there and then we left, several bags heavier.  That night we had dinner at a restaurant called Courtyard.  It was located on the moat looking over at the Forbidden City and had the reputation of being one of the best restaurants in Beijing.  Maybe it was the fact that it was a Monday night but the place was empty, the food was just ok and the bill was ridiculously high.  My dad picked the wrong night to pick up the bill.  The next morning was our last and we started at the Summer Palace.  The Summer Palace is only about 30 minutes by car from the Forbidden City but it was the summer house used by the emperors.  And it is quite the summer house.  The Hamptons has nothing on this place.  It goes on for miles, along a lake with boats and several different houses and structures.  Really beautiful.  On to lunch at the third and final bad restaurant and then we went to Lama Temple which is an important Buddhist temple for the Tibetans.  It still has several monks living there and they could be seen walking around the grounds.  Lots of incense burning and Buddhas of all shapes and sizes were on display.  The day ended early and we all decided to return to the Silk Market for one last shopping extravaganza.  My step mother and I both had to buy another suitcase to take it all home.  We were able to fit one last visit to the pool before leaving for the Chinese Acrobat Show.  We had terrific seats right in the middle of the theater close to the stage and were mesmerized for 90 minutes.  This is where Cirque De Soliel must come and recruit.  The sheer talent was so evident because the show lacked all the glam and glitz of similar shows back home.  The stereo system was terrible and the dance moves a bit laughable but the acrobatic talent was genius.  They had a juggler who couldn’t have been taller than Sophie juggling 9 balls at once while tap dancing in a circle.  And the grand finale was at least 7 or 8 girls riding together on top of each other on an old rusty Chinese bicycle.  You just couldn’t believe what they could do with an old bike.  After the show was over, we went to the Red Capital Club for dinner.  This restaurant was dedicated to China’s burgeoning “red capitalists”.  It was hidden in an ancient hutong alleyway  near the courtyard homes of many of China’s past and present leaders. Out front, you know you’ve found the place when you see a vintage Red Flag limo.  The food is called “Zhongnanhai Cuisine” which is the name of the secretive compound of China’s top leadership.  Each dish came with figures carved from vegetables in the shape of Mao, Deng and Zhu Rongji.  We felt like we had stepped back in time to the 1950’s…we loved China and we’ll be back (hopefully!)dsc04275

Thomas Jr. Dives In 2

web_2Thomas surprised us this winter by deciding to return to diving, a sport he competed in when we were members of Coveleigh many years ago.  He was looking for a winter sport and decided to give it a try.  He had a really fabulous season winning some dual meets and placing in the top three in a lot of others.  On Saturday 24 prep schools in the New England Preparatory Swimming and Diving Association competed in the all New England Championships.  This was the league championship.  I got a phone call from Thomas at around 1am Exeter time.  He was talking quietly as they were still on the bus coming home from the competition.  He was anxious to tell us that he came in 9th.  He was expecting somewhere in the teens and so he was very happy with what he was able to achieve.  If we were in America, we would have been there to watch it all as it happened.  These are the times when you realize how far away you really are.  When you know that your child has had a stressful but thrilling day and it happened while you were sleeping.  I so wanted to be there to share it with him.  After a day of rest, he will begin Lacrosse season on Monday.  If you know Thomas, you know that he needs to run around a lot.  The new season of lacrosse will be good for him.  On Friday afternoon, Annie represented her school in the Brain Bowl – 5 international schools competed on their knowledge of 15 Sakura Medal winning books that they had read.  It was an exciting competition and in the end the Tokyo International School went on to win in a tie breaker.  Congrats to Annie and her team.  On Saturday, Tom and I threw a 4th Grade Bingo Social for all the kids that are in Annie’s 4th Grade.  The goal was to get the kids to mix a bit as their class size is small (only about 15) and there are always kids coming and going.  We held it at the school and it was a fun afternoon.  Tom was the bingo caller and made funny comments all afternoon that the moms laughed at but the kids didn’t really get.  Tom took the girls to the equivalent of the Museum of Science and Industry in Tokyo this afternoon and I had the house to myself.  We finished the weekend with chicken burritos at our favorite mexican restaurant around the corner from our apartment, La Jolla.  Doug and Sam Hopkins joined us as Libby was with the college kids in Colorado for the week.  The girls have off tomorrow for parent teacher conferences and Sophie is having a Japanese straight perm.  She hates her curly unruly hair and I have agreed to see if the famous Japanese process can help her.  We’ll see how that goes…

You can go home again 2

dsc03803Last week, I flew back to New York for the first time since I left in August.  It had been over six months and a lot had changed since I left both in my family and at home.  I knew however that the important things, like friends and family would remain unchanged and that I found to be true.  I arrived in New York Wednesday morning after flying 13 hours and immediately started the week after having my first turkey sandwich from a deli in half a year.  To quote my Uncle Roger, “it was the BEST deli sandwich I ever ate”.  I spent the afternoon running from one doctor to the next getting in all the check ups I wasn’t able to have while in Tokyo.  Yes they have doctors here but that’s another story.  Back home to Kathy’s for a quick change, a chat with my nieces and nephews and we were out the door to celebrate Theresa’s birthday.   We went to the new Tarry Lodge in Port Chester and it was packed.  The economy is burning out of control but I found the restaurants and bars in Rye packed to capacity.  I especially liked the truffle pizza with the fried egg on top.  After too many cosomos I was back at Kathy’s sharing my bed with my long lost dog Wesley.  For those of you who don’t know, Kathy and Lenny graciously adopted Wesley into their family when we found out that we couldn’t take him to Japan.  He’s had a rough adjustment period and almost found himself on the street but things have seemed to mellow out.  When I first walked in the door he hyperventilated and then threw up.  I guess he was happy to see me.  We continued to be glued to each other for the rest of the time we had together.  On Thursday it was shopping time.  There are just things I can’t get in Tokyo, for example, clothes that fit Sophie and I, shoes for any of us except Annie, American candy, movies, shampoo, the list goes on.  I went one stop shopping to Target and came away with too much stuff – I had to bring an extra suitcase on the plane (more on that later).  I also went to the new Nordstrom’s Rack in White Plains which I highly recommend.  It’s all the extra inventory from Nordstroms at ridiculous prices.  I scored there as well.  After stopping at Finch’s pharmacy and loading up on drugs, I had lunch at the New Rye Bar and Grill in town with my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Roger.  I was amazed at how big a restaurant they were able to build in the middle of the train station but it is very nice and I had a wonderful turkey burger (again, loading up on turkey products that I can’t get back home).  After lunch, I did some residual shopping on the main street in Rye and was just amazed at what I found.  Everyone had been telling me that the economy was killing the small main street but until I walked down the street, counting empty stores and then going into a few old favorites and finding nothing on the shelves and feeling the desperation of the sales people did I actually believe it.  I felt like the end was near and the salespeople new it and they were just doing what they had to do before it was all over.  It was a very strange feeling.  When I got back to Kathy’s it was time to head out to the White Plains County Court House to watch my niece Spencer testify in her mock trial.  It was a very stressful event, real court room, real judge and she did a fantastic job.  She was so confident, I was really very proud of her.  We then dashed out of there to Lisa McGowan’s for a beautiful dinner party with all my girlfriends.  Lisa as always had set up a great bar in the kitchen with tons of my favorite appetizers and then we sat down for a great meal.  It seriously was like I never left.  The night ended way too late for a “school” night and then I had to leave at 9am the next morning for my flight to Boston.  All I can say about that is that the flying time was 30 minutes and then it took another 30 minutes for the union bag guys to get our backs out of the plane.  Annoying.  I took a cab to Exeter and arrived in the middle of Tom’s diving practice.  The picture here is of the Men’s Varsity Diving Team.  Thomas is in the back.  I remembered how much I hated watching diving the minute I sat down and watched my son start doing inwards.  That board gets way too close to their heads!  I spent most of the weekend learning about the college admissions process at Exeter and eating meals with Thomas.  We actually got to spend one afternoon in bed at my hotel room eating sliders and fries and watching crappy TV together.  That was a highlight.  Exeter is a pressure cooker and I hope that when Thomas is finished “cooking” he will be ready for college.  Saturday night, the weather forecast was for a blizzard the next day up and down the Northeast Corridor.  I knew I had to get out, so I was up at 5, making train reservations and continually watching the weather.  Thankfully there was a break in the action which allowed me to fly back to New York before the storm really started in earnest and I made it to my cousin Wendy’s house for a Sunday family dinner with my aunt and uncle.  As we were getting ready for bed, the snow started again and I was concerned that I wasn’t going to make it out the next morning.  When I woke up, the schools were closed and there was about a foot of snow outside but the street cleaners had cleared the streets and my flight wasn’t listed as delayed so I left on time.  At the airport, sitting in the lounge, I couldn’t believe we were going to take off.  It was a complete white out.  But after being de-iced, we took off about 1 hour late and I made it back to Tokyo for dinner.  Going through customs with my three suitcases that each weighed 50 pounds and a customs form that said I had two unaccompanied pieces of luggage (this means that I get to have two things shipped to me without having customs put a big tax on them) the guard looked at me and said “Hitori de?” which means “Are you alone?”  I think he was astounded with the amount of stuff I was bringing back.  But he let me through.  The kids were happy (probably relieved) to see me.  Tom had done a great job but the mom is the mom.  Thanks to everyone who made my week successful.  You can go home again…

When is 40 centimeters (15 inches) of new snow NOT A GOOD THING??? Reply

dsc03689When you are a 43 year old out of shape woman and you are skiing at Hakuba 47 outside of Nagano and its RAINING.  Today was the second day of a 4 day ski trip our family is on to Hakuba, site of some of the Nagano Winter Olympics (’98) competition.  Yesterday it was relatively sunny and the resort we skied at (Happo One) had received about 10 inches the night before and even though it was still snowing and created white out conditions at times it was a very nice ski day.  We rented fat powder skis and tried our best to “learn” how to ski on snow.  You would think after skiing 6 seasons in a row in Windham New York we would know how to do that.  But, in Windham, at least up until this winter, we skied on packed powder and ice.  Real powder it turns out, is a thigh burning, heart pumping, aerobic feat.  Nothing I was prepared for.  This morning we woke up and found the cars completely covered with the new 15 inches and we were excited about day 2 on powder until we were in the car ride over and the snowflakes started to melt as soon as they hit the windshield.  By the time we made it to the resort, it was full out raining but we endured…for about 1.5 hours.  We went in to dry off, our plan being if we were dry, we could make it through another 1.5 hours until we were thoroughly soaked again.  But, that was not what happened.  When we finally went inside, we peeled off our layers to find that we were completely soaked through (sophie is showing off her wet long underwear in the photo on the left).  So, we called it a day and went back to the hotel, where Matt, the manager of the White Horse – Artic Hotel told us there was a group going off to the onsen.  We changed quickly and went off to the baths.  This was quite a nice onsen with fun creative baths inside and out (see the photos of the girls that I took surreptitiously – no pictures are allowed – on the photo site).  Back at the hotel, Tom and I couldn’t get back to the room quick enough for a nap.  The girls ran off with the kids who live at the hotel – two cute kids that are from New Zealand but whose parents were working at the hotel for the season.  They have been making snow men and playing their DS with them since we arrived.  Speaking of the hotel, our room is fantastic.  For those readers of the blog who remember the last outing in Nozawa Onsen at the Japanese Ryokan (think horse sashimi) we were thrilled to arrive in Hakuba to find that we had our own little apartment half japanese and half western.  We have two tatami rooms that are set up as living rooms complete with a computer (free wireless) a few couches, a small fridge, a few bean bag chairs and a television with the Cartoon Network and then two bedrooms (one with a queen bed and the other with a bunk bed and two additional twin beds).  AND OUR OWN BATHROOM WITH A PRIVATE SHOWER.  We are really in heaven.  Tonight, the hotel has an all you can eat Australian BBQ (did I mention the hotel is owned and run by Australians and New Zealanders) and we are happy to go down to the bar in our slippers and enjoy a fun dinner.  The breakfasts here have been fabulous – no cold tofu and tamago, we actually have had eggs and bacon and toast and they have a huge espresso machine and they make great custom coffees.  We are really spoiled.  Tonight’s forecast calls for an even bigger dump of snow and Tom is planning to go off at 7am with the young australians that work here for a full powder day.  The girls and I will wake up leisurely, have breakfast and then make our way to the slopes.  We are excited because without Dad we can stop and have hot chocolate as many times as we like!!! It seems like we’ve been partying for the last 10 days as we just wrapped up our first experience having visitors in Tokyo.  Last Friday, my cousins Wendy and Eddy arrived with their kids Maisy and Jonah and we had an action packed week of fun in the city and out.  We ate, drank, bathed, sang karaoke, went to museums, hiked a mountain, ate and drank more, went site seeing and basically squeezed as much fun as we possibly could out of  Tokyo in just a few short days.  I have added photos of our time together on the photo site as well.  P.S.  Hayden is with his friends in New York this week and so does not appear in the photos.  I am off to New York on Wednesday of next week for a quickie with my girlfriends in Westchester and then on to Exeter to spend the weekend with Thomas to learn about the college application process at Exeter.  Looking forward to both.  Sayonara!