A Day To Appreciate The Little Things… 1

dsc03456Captain Mark, one of the soldiers from Camp Zama that we hosted for Thanksgiving, invited our family to The New Sanno Hotel for Brunch today to thank us for including him for the holiday dinner.  The New Sanno happens to be down the block from our apartment building and is a hotel owned and run by the US government and you can only go inside if you are active duty personnel or their guests.   We had to be escorted into the building by Mark and he had to flash his military ID wherever we went.  The brunch was in a huge dining hall that reminded me of the dining rooms in the old Concord Hotel in the Catskills.  It was a huge all you can eat and drink buffet with every American speciality you could think of (except pancakes for some strange reason).  The girls enjoyed mac and cheese and fruit loop treats among other assorted goodies they haven’t had in 6 months.  They peppered Mark with questions about being a soldier and he answered all of them.  We learned that the hotel cost $42 per night and that if he wanted to fly home to America he could get a “hop” on a military plane at the base for $25 – however you can only fly standby… What struck Tom and I were the size of the people at the brunch.  We usually feel like the largest fattest people wherever we go but today, we were average size, and SKINNY!!!  After brunch, Mark took us for a tour of the hotel. It was fun to see all the added features of a hotel built and run for the armed services.  There was a NY deli, a store where you could buy clothes from the states in US sizes, a magazine and book shop with magazines in normal US dollar prices (Mark was nice and bought me a current selection), a snack shop where you could buy Ben and Jerrys pints and pop tarts, an ATM machine that spit out US Dollars and an Americanized Japanese restaurant (think Benihana).  They also had a casino with slot machines, a sports bar with ESPN and AFN on the televisions and a nice pool and gym facility.  Walking home from the hotel, full on eggs benedict, a shopping bag full of magazines and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the day.  After a few hours at home, the girls got dressed in their new outfits (purchased the day before at the closest thing to a US mall I’ve found in Tokyo – Lalaport) and we were off to their first music recital.  It was run by the music company that gives them lessons and they had been practicing their pieces for the past two months.  Annie just started playing violin when we arrived in Japan and Sophie has continued her lessons that she started in the Fall of ’07 in New York.  There was no prior rehearsal and we weren’t sure what to expect from the other musicians.  The program included 24 different “acts” including piano, violin, guitar and flute.  The age of the musicians ranged from around 6 to adult.  One of the first to play was a boy with Down Syndrome who was around 6 years old.  He played his piano piece beautifully.  He was so patient with the song, never rushing any notes and his mother recorded it from the audience wiping away the tears as he played.  It was really beautiful.  There were two more musicians who were disabled, it seemed like they had Asperger’s Syndrome.  They both played beautifully.  There was quite a range of talent, from  close to beginner (like Annie) to off the charts amazing – there was a 12 year old boy violinist that was insane.  The concert lasted over two hours and all of the little children sat through it without hardly moving.  It was very impressive.  By the end, the girls were absolutely spent but it was an afternoon of smiles and pride.  


Back in the Blog 1

dsc03189Apologies for the two week lag in creating a new entry.  I can blame it on being busy but it was really the opposite.  Not much was going on to blog about.  Last week I started my first online course for my masters via Skype which was a very very interesting experience.  There are eight students and one professor and everyone sits in their own space wherever that may be and logs on to a skype conference.  You can’t see anyone, but you can hear them breathing.  Actually, during a part of the class that we had to do a writing exercise, I muted my computer so it would be quiet and after I wrote my piece I was reading it out loud to myself (or at least I thought it was just myself).  Turns out when you hit mute on your computer, you only mute the other people!  I got a little Skype message from one my classmates telling me he heard everything I was reading to myself.  That was a little embarrassing and will never happen again.  If you are wondering what this crazy picture to the left of the blog is, well, I have to say, I’m not so sure myself.  The girls and I were at Tokyo Hands shopping and while I was looking for something, the girls decided to try out some of the zany Japanese products.  Sophie put it on (while it was deflated) and started using the hand pump until she came running to find me and told me she couldn’t breath and would I find a way to remove it from her neck.  This past weekend, we went with a group from the Tokyo American Club to the Sapporo Snow Festival.  You might remember that Tom and I took the boys to this the last time we were in Tokyo.  There are some funny photos from that trip – us with the 30 Japanese fisherman on the weekend tour.  This time it was a bit different.  However, the snow festival was a bit disappointing.  The American Club goes a week early trying to beat the crowds and the prices and usually the sculptures are almost entirely completed.  But this year it was far from being finished.  Another by-product of the bad economy?  Who knows.  We did however get asked to help work on a sculpture which was fun.  Tom immediately found the chain saw.  What a surprise.  There was a world competition ski jump going on at the old olympic site and we were able to see a jump or two before they shut it down for high wind.  The jumpers were staying at the same hotel so it was fun to see them walking around in their ski team uniforms (especially the Polish Ski Team – Tom wanted that jacket so bad).  We had an action packed weekend that included an indoor water park, a Genghis Khan BBQ at the Asahi Beer Hall, a visit to the Sapporo Olympic Museum, lunch in Ramen Alley, a visit to the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival and Skiing at Kokusai Mountain (all in 72 hours)!  Today was Setsubon, the festival that celebrates the end of winter and the beginning of spring.  I’m sure that it doesn’t seem possible in New York, Wisconsin or Exeter, New Hampshire, but today was a beautiful sunny 50 degrees and it felt just like spring was on it’s way.  Sophie is off with her school for a 4 day ski trip to Nagano.  Tokyo International School has some serious field trips… sayonara.

Kimono On The Catwalk Reply

dsc03176It was Sunday, the day I usually download the photos I’ve taken and sit down to write my week-end blog.  When I put the chip from my camera into the computer, it told me I had no photos.  The honeymoon was over.  I was now officially living in Japan and life had become so normal that there was nothing I had taken a photo of.  I could have taken pictures of the girls at their first basketball practice on Saturday morning, but that was something that could have happened anywhere.  I could have taken some shots of us enjoying our weekly ritual of eating Mexican food in our local favorite spot on Sunday night, but again, that was something that we could have done at home.  So there I was with an empty camera and nothing to write about in my blog either.  So, I continued reading Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral which I am thoroughly enjoying and then went to bed.  I am happy to report that I woke up on Monday and started the day by getting ready for a Kimono fashion show where I was lucky enough to be one of the models.  The last fashion show I agreed to partake in was one of the famous Colonel’s at Coveleigh where the clothes are a joke and no one bothers to watch the show.  At that event, I was nervous, had a few too many glasses of champagne before the show started and forgot that I was only wearing a thong under my pantyhose when I twirled my trench coat.  Thankfully, it was an audience of women and we all had a good laugh.  However, after that event, I swore never again.  I was done with the runway.  But in a weak moment last November, a new friend who ran the monthly programs at the American Club asked if I would model.  I was all about putting myself out there, meeting friends, saying yes to everything and anything and so I agreed.  I put it completely out of my mind until the email arrived a few days ago telling me where and when to show up with hair down and no makeup.  I cringed a little on the inside.  But when I woke up this morning I was actually excited and I was looking forward to at least the dressing up part.  The head of the Kimono company, Jane Yamano did a very quick walk through on the stage and then we spent the next two hours in a room with 15 women (models and dressers, which they call sensei) and it was laughs, giggles and smiles all morning.  I was amazed to see how they pad you and wrap you until you have no shape whatsoever.  There were so many layers I tried to take pictures of all of them but I think I was annoying the women who were working on me.  At one point they pulled so hard I felt like a sausage.  Not that you look thin, because you have about 5 different layers on.  When the ladies were finished I really felt transformed.  It was the most feminine I’ve felt showing the least amount of skin.  Walking back stage to the show, I really started to get nervous.  I had tabi socks on my feet (the split toe sock) and then the japanese high heeled slipper and I was not very stable walking on them.  I was worried about climbing on and off the stage without falling.  When I turned the corner and hit the lights it was a little terrifying.  I realize now that I must not smile that often because after 15 minutes of continued smiling my face started to do very strange things.  I felt like I was losing control of my cheek muscles.  I can only imagine what those pictures at the end are going to look like.  Clearly I was in some sort of pain.  But when it was over, and we left the stage, I really was glad that I was a part of it and that I had put myself out there and said YES.  And I had my photos and blog entry for the week!  Maybe the honeymoon isn’t over yet…

He Says She Says 1

It’s been five months since we moved to Tokyo and there is definitely a difference of opinion among the children about living here.  Sophie has completely embraced the experience and loves everything Japanese and Hayden kind of falls on the other side of the spectrum with Annie smack in the middle.  A quick list of why they LOVE/DON’T LOVE Living in Japan:

SOPHIE LOVES JAPAN BECAUSE:green tea,onsen,nori,onigiri,the language,Japanese Drama on TV, tatami, futon,fashion,people,apartment living,taking your shoes off,the trains, living in a city, living close to friends.dsc030902

HAYDEN DOESN’T LOVE JAPAN BECAUSE:school is hard,can’t speak the language,sushi’s not that great,uncomfortable beds,doorways too small, hit head a lot,kids are annoying,sports stink,food is bad,have to watch TV on my computer with slow load times,can’t just turn on the TV,no longer a sports fan because I can’t watch my teams, christmas is wierd, hate living in a city, bus ride to school is too long…dsc02381

Skiing in Japan – Easy as Ichi Ni San 1

 

Thursday Morning, Nozawa Onsen

Thursday Morning, Nozawa Onsen

Back in August, when we first arrived in Tokyo, I asked a friend who had lived here for 8 years where she liked to ski.  Her favorites were Nozawa Onsen and Happo One, both in the Nagano area.  She warned that I needed to book the trip asap as the places to stay tended to fill up quickly.  She recommended some websites and after some research, I made my decision and booked a 4 night stay at Kawaichiya Ryokan.  I emailed the Japanese inn and asked for accomodations for 3 children and 2 adults and I was told there were two rooms left, both with private toilet and sink.  We would have to bathe in the public bath downstairs.  I was also quoted a room rate that included breakfast and dinner.  Knowing that ryokans were similiar to B&B’s in America, and that you couldn’t get a rate without the breakfast, I went ahead and booked the 4 nights bundled with the meals.  I was told that a deposit was not necessary, as they “trusted” me.  A week before our departure, I called the number the American Club gave me for a luggage delivery service, and they showed up at our apartment two days before we were due to leave and collected the 5 HUGE bags filled with ski equipment and clothing for 5 people.  They assured me that my bags would be at the hotel before I arrived and that they would return to collect them the day that we left and that the bags would be delivered back home to us the following day.  For this service I was charged the equivalent of $150.  On Wednesday, each of us carrying a small backpack, met Tom at Tokyo Station around 4:30 (he was at work) and we boarded the Shinkansen Bullet train.  We had reserved seats and had bought o-bento boxes to eat dinner on the train.  The train to Nagano took 1.5 hours and arrived at the exact moment it was expected to.  In Nagano, we changed to a small two car local train that took us slowly North to Nozawa Onsen.  The train took one hour and we arrived at the local station after 8pm, took a 10 minute taxi ride and arrived at our ryokan.  Kono, the man I had been communicating with via email was waiting for us and explained the layout of the town, handed over the lift tickets (more on those later) that we had ordered and had our bags brought up to our rooms.  They were exactly as I had expected them. Here is a photo of the kids room:

dsc03086of course, the photo was taken on Day 2 when they had a chance to make it their own.  We were woken up the next morning around 7am when a little japanese old lady used her key in our door and barged into our room saying “breakfast” “breakfast”… Tom and I had to laugh knowing she was barging into the kids room next!  We got dressed in our ski clothes and headed downstairs for breakfast.  There were individual tables set on the tatami floor with pillows to sit on.  The table was filled with plates – maybe 6 or 7 for each person and after carefully looking over everything we were served, decided the only thing we would consider eating was the white rice and the miso soup (and that even had large things floating in it).  We pushed around the food a bit and made a quick exit.  Our next stop was the ski rental shop (past the one traffic light in the town) and somehow managed to rent equipment.  There is a little video of the experience on the photo site.  We then carried our equipment through the town and up a very steep road to where the steps began.  After going up the many steps we arrived at the “Yu Road”.  This was a combination of a moving walkway and an escalator that was probably installed for the 1998 Olympics – the biathlon was held at Nozawa Onsen.  As soon as the “road” ended you were on the snow and next to the ticket booth.  We put our gear on, stored our after ski boots and took the gondola up.  The lift tickets were small plastic squares the size of a matchbook that you put into your ski jacket pocket around waist high.  The ticket scanners were not human.  You passed through a gate that scanned your body for the pass and the bar would lift up when it found it. At first Annie had the “ticket” in a pocket that was lower than the scanner and she would hop up and down until it found her ticket, but then Tom told her to move it to her chest pocket and it worked like a charm.  The resort had over 20 lifts (most of them covered quads which were amazing) and two gondola.  At first, we thought there were more lifts than trails, but after finding our way around we realized that the mountain was much bigger then we had originally thought.  And the day… it was absolutely gorgeous.  Somewhere in the mid-30’s with the sun shining, no wind.  Just the most perfect day to be alive and skiing.  And there was no one else there.  Maybe a few Australians here and there on summer holidays but that was it.  We found this great little italian restaurant halfway up the mountain that served a list of different spaghetti, a good enough house wine and strong cappuccino.  We skied all day until the runs were about to stop and were able to find ski and boot lockers that cost us about $2 a person per night.  The place felt a little like a ghost town.  It looked like it had been built up during the height of the bubble when everyone had cash and supposedly the lift lines could reach a kilometer in length, and then when the economy faded, so did the resort.  Nothing had been updated since and there were very few visitors.  But that was just fine.  They were still grooming the trails every night so it was more fresh corduroy for us!  We spent the late afternoon and early evening testing out the various onsen in town.  The town is famous for its 12 public onsen and the town was built around them.  They are literally large wooden enclosures split in half (men on one side, women on the other) that have the hottest water i’ve ever put my body in, being fed by natural hot springs under the earth.  There is an important bathing ritual that must take place before you can enter an onsen.  Squating naked next to a water spigot, you must totally cleanse your body and hair.  And when you are squeaky clean, you can then get into the bath (naked of course), with the rest of the village.  It does take some getting used to but it is a big part of the Japanese culture and after living here for 5 months, we’ve done it many times before.  After a long day of skiing, there is nothing better.  And you don’t even notice the cold when you put your yukata (cotton bath robe) back on and walk through the town with wet hair.  dsc03130Back at the ryokan, it was 6pm and time for dinner.  We were a bit hesitant to see what would be served, but I promised the kids that if it was inedible, we would go out for dinner after.  When we arrived at our table, we were not surprised to see the profusion of plates.  The old lady came out to explain what everything was.  The first dish she pointed to had raw meat on it.  She smiled and said “Hawwwse  Sashimi”  and then she did a little impersonation of a horse.  Tom asked in Japanese if she meant Uma?  And she smiled and said “yes, uma”.  It was confirmed, the main special dish of the night was raw horse meat.  There was also a small plate of tempura, white rice and an udon (a small stew) that was bubbling over a flame with various vegetables and sliced duck.  Tom and Sophie actually tried the Uma:

dsc03092

and then the laughing started and a major case of the giggles followed and then Hayden tried a small whole fish and started gagging and that was the end of the “dinner”.  We quickly located a place that made pizza in town, ate again and then made a reservation for Saturday night too.  Tom tried to explain to the person at the desk that we no longer were going to need breakfast or dinner again.  But the next morning, at 7am, our friendly maid opened the door again to tell us to come to breakfast.  And then when we didn’t come, they called us.  And we tried to explain that we said no more meals but it never sunk in.  The woman tried to get us to come to breakfast the entire time we were there.  All in all, we were in Nozawa for four days, we skied for two of the days, Tom Sr. snowshoed through chest high powder on the third day and we took an early train home on the fourth.  We went in several different onsen, bought fun souvenirs, played many many games of Apples to Apples (a very fun family board game) and made some really interesting memories….

We have two more ski trips planned – at the end of this month we visit Sapporo in Hokkaido for the annual Yuri Matsuri (Snow Festival) and then over the February break we go to Happo One in Nagano for five days.  We are all looking forward to more fun skiing…

One Night in Bangkok…this is a long blog entry 5

dsc02640You know the song, “One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble, or the world’s your oyster”… anyway, my experience in Bangkok has to be defined in terms of “within the Mandarin Oriental Hotel walls and everywhere else.  Kyoko, my long time friend in Tokyo suggested we spend some time over the winter break with them at the Bangkok Oriental Hotel.  They have been going there for years and it is one of their absolute favorite spots in Asia.  I made plans in June when we knew we were definitely coming to Japan.  The vacation began at 7am on Christmas Day when we left for Narita Airport.  We had told the kids that the flight was 7.5 hours and that we were sitting in economy.  When we boarded the plan, our row (28) just happened to be in Economy First which is the same seat and space as business but not business class service.  I have no idea how that happened, neither does Tom, so we just chalked it up to a Christmas miracle.  Everyone was in a terrific mood and we all arrived in Bangkok well rested after watching many movies.  The hotel van was ready for us on arrival and we were given drinks and cold towels in the van for the 1 hour ride into the city.  At the hotel, we were greeted by name and given beautiful flowers and taken immediately upstairs to our rooms.  We were invited to a hotel Christmas party that was a lovely cocktail party with delicious food and Thai carolers which sang all the traditional songs with a very thick Thai accent.  Later, we met up with the Waitzes (Kyoko, Michael and Kayla) for a Thai dinner outside on the river at the hotel.  The Oriental owns property on both sides of the river and they have wooden junk boats that take you back and forth between the two different locations.  It seems like it would be a pain, but its really beautiful.  The ride across only takes 5 minutes and the boats run all the time.  The life on the river is a big part of Bangkok so you get to see it first hand.  We ordered what seemed like a dozen dishes and one was spicier and more delicious then the next.  I absolutely love Thai food so I was in heaven.  The girls tried everything but for the most part it was all too spicy for them.  They did eat satay and pad thai and lots of jasmine rice.  At dinner, Michael explained that in order for us to get 6 beds at the pool the next day, we would have to get down there at 6:30.  Yes, that was 6:30 am.  He said there were about 60 beds and several hundred guests.  Since it was our only day to lie at the pool, we decided we had to make the effort.  Tom and I met Michael down at the pool at 6:30, in the DARK but we were able to get the beds.  When we woke the kids up several hours later for breakfast they were very happy that we did.  The day actually turned out great and we were happy we made the commitment.  That night, we went on a dinner cruise that was run by the hotel in a beautiful wooden junk boat.  Each family had their own table and there were only 30 people on the boat.  We went up and down the river, and saw many of the temples and palaces lit up at night that we were going to actually visit the next day.  We returned to the hotel around 10 and I wanted to go to the famous night market in Patpong.  It was not for children and Sophie and Annie decided to stay behind with Thomas but Hayden wanted to go with us.  The concierge told us where to take the taxi to and told us to make sure the meter was on.  We arrived with no problem and as soon as we were out of the door, we were besieged with offers to take us to various kinds of sex shows (they even had little pamphlets to show us what we would see).  Brushing them off, we started to look at what was for sale.  Basically, everything.  There were Ed Hardy T-Shirts and Tiffany jewelry (with the blue boxes and ribbons too) and Prada this and Gucci that and every movie that is out in the states right now.  It was a complete overload to the senses.  And while we were walking by the vendors, behind us were bar after bar with girls scantily dressed urging us to come inside.  Hayden’s eyes were out of his head and his mouth hung open.  He didn’t know where to look first.  After the initial shock wore off (well, subsided) he got down to shopping and he came away with two pairs of real boxing gloves that he can’t wait to use.  I hate to bargain and the Baht to Dollar conversion was so difficult I never really knew how much things were anyway.  When we decided to leave, we tried to find a taxi who would put the meter on – to no avail.  No one would take us.  Finally, we had to negotiate a price home but when we arrived, we realized the price was only $3!  The city is so crowded and there is so much traffic and very few traffic signals.  They even use motorcycles as taxis.  You can see women riding side saddle on the back of a motor bike and the driver has a special vest on designating him as a taxi.  We arrived back at the hotel and Hayden just kept shaking his head.  He said it was the best part of any vacation he ever took.  Saturday morning, we were picked up at the hotel by Song, our tour guide with our own river boat.  We got on board and the first stop was Wat Arun – Temple of the Dawn.  The temple was built for worshipers to pray on the outside and no one is allowed to enter the temple.  I never even saw a way to get in.  We learned that 95% of Thai people practice Buddhism and it is the second largest Buddhist country (by percentage of population) second to Sri Lanka.  We then took an amazing journey down a canal off the river and were able to peek inside the lives of Thais that live on the river.  Floating merchants came along side our boat offering fruit, dolls, soup, noodles, all kinds of crazy things… we fed the catfish and they went crazy, and we visited the King’s Barge Museum where they keep his royal boats.  We then got out of the boat and went on land to visit the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha and the Lying Down Buddha.  Before anarchy broke out in the family, we stopped for lunch and I promised no more site seeing.  We stopped at a street market where the kids bargained for new DVDs, t-shirts, beach coverups, etc… there was a guy selling fake ids too.  We didn’t stop at his booth.  We got back to the hotel earlier than expected and camped out on the Waitze’s pool beds.  Then both families got in 3 cabs and went on an adventure to a restaurant in Bangkok that I had read about.  It felt like you were eating in someone’s home.  The food was good but not any better than we had at the hotel.  The next day, we checked out and took an 11am flight to Phuket.  The flight was 1 hour and the hotel was only 15 minutes from the airport.  We arrived, were greeted with flower leis and a welcome drink and then when everyone was very happy they made us talk to the timeshare desk where they gave us “gifts” and “invited” us to cocktail parties and offered us “free” rounds of golf.  Thats when things got a little ugly.  I basically told them that they had some nerve trying to sell us a timeshare when we had just arrived at their hotel to spend 5 days in one of their villas that we were paying a lot of money for.  Lets just say the kids were VERY embarrassed and couldn’t believe how mean I could be.  They were sure there was going to be a big black X next to our name everywhere at the hotel.  When the dust had settled, they took us to our “villa” which really was just a 2 bedroom apartment with a living room and a kitchen but it worked out perfectly for our family.  Everyone had a place to hang out.  The JW Marriot in Phuket is huge and takes awhile to figure out where everything is but once you do it is really a fabulous place for families to vacation.  They have 3 pools, an amazing kids club that the girls were at all week, a circus camp, beach massages for $12/hour, thai boxing classes, bike rentals, tennis, a 24 hour gym, 8 restaurants, etc…. and its right on the most beautiful EMPTY beach.  The hotel is on the opposite side of where all the action is so no one goes there unless they are staying at the hotel.  Our first full day, we hired a speed boat with a tour guide and we traveled around the islands of Phuket.  This is where the Tsunami hit at Christmas in 2004 but you would never know it.  Everything has been rebuilt and is new and fabulous but the thought of that big wave is always with you.  I found myself thinking about it a lot that day.  At one point we were swimming in the water at Phi Phi Don, one of the islands where many people died and its just frightening to think of what happened.  No matter where I was that week in Phuket, I thought about that wave.  I did swim in the ocean at the hotel once with Hayden and Tom Sr. but for most of the week, there was a red flag and no swimming was allowed.  As opposed to other flagged beaches I’ve been to where people disregard the flags, everyone heeded the warning.  The next day we went elephant trekking in the jungle with Siam Safari.  We drove 45 minutes on the highway to the base camp and then we got into 4 wheel safari vehicles for the ride up the mountain and into the jungle.  Within moments of our arrival at camp, elephants with their Mahouts (the elephant trainers) came walking out of the jungle to greet us.  Our guide Ko briefly introduced us to the animals and explained that the Mahouts came from Myanmar with their elephants and they have been together for the life of the elephant.  They are a team.  The Mahouts live in hut dwellings at the camp which were very rustic.  We climbed onto the elephants in twos (the boys, the girls and Tom and I) and walked through the jungle for 1/2 hour.  There was a magnificent view of the harbor at one point and the big Buddha on top of the mountain.  When we got back to camp, we fed the elephants large baskets of watermelon, pineapple, bananas and corn.  The day continued with a baby elephant show, a demonstration of trained monkeys who climb trees to retrieve coconuts, riding a water buffalo, removing rubber from a rubber (or lubber) tree, making curry (tom jr had to show off and ate an entire Thai chili and then had flames shooting out of his mouth).  He also felt the need to climb the coconut tree after the monkey did it.  There is a video of this on my photo site.  We came out of the jungle back to base camp and were driven down to the harbor where we boarded a wooden boat and had another dinner cruise.  Only this time, it was a lot less posh.  It was a curry buffet with two drink tickets.  Tom Jr and Hayden enjoyed getting beer with their tickets.  The drinking age in Thailand is 18 and Thomas and Hayden towered over everyone on the island so I am sure they thought they were at least 18.  As I watched them drink, I realized they were a little too comfortable with a beer in their hands…. hmmm think they have done that before.  A man with one leg got down on his artificial knee and proposed to his girlfriend.  That was interesting.  We went on a bit of a joy ride on the way home (not our joy) and arrived back pretty late.  The next day was New Years Eve and we spent it at the pool.  That night Tom and I and the boys went to “The Mystique of Thailand” a dinner on the beach with fireworks and strange entertainment and the girls went to the kids disco party.  Both were over at the same time (12:30) so we met up at the end, watched some fireworks and went to bed.  The last day (New Years Day) we spent by the pool recovering from the late night before.   And Thomas Sophie and Annie all had a beach massage which Thomas and Annie thought was weird and Sophie loved.  At 6pm, we left for the airport, took the 1 hour flight back to Bangkok and then a 5 1/2 hour over night flight to Tokyo.  No Christmas magic this time, we were definitely in Economy.  Right before we boarded I realized I forgot my Ambien and I had a mini freak out.  Tom left the lounge and returned 5 minutes later with prescription sleeping pills.  How did he do it, I asked????  Hey, it’s Thailand, you can get whatever you want.  So, it was lights out for me, and I woke up 30 minutes before we landed at Narita.  I loved Thailand and would be thrilled to have the opportunity to return.  Any takers???

Bullet Trains: Futuristic Method of Transportation? Try and buy a ticket. 2

500When Tom and I arrived in Tokyo in August, we were told to book our ski trips immediately because the hotels sell out fast.  I went online, found a few places to try out and emailed the inns to make a reservation.  I was able to get the rooms I wanted and the staff at the Inns told me to email them with our train arrival information when we bought the tickets.  “Can’t I buy the tickets now? I asked.  No, they all told me.  You must wait one month before the day of departure and go to your local JR station train office and buy your tickets then.  The “one month before we go” day was approaching and it just happened to fall on a Sunday.  Tom and I went down to the station together and left some extra time just in case there was a line (lines are a big thing in Japan).  We arrived around 9:45 in the morning and even though we were told the office wouldn’t open until 10, the doors were open and we went inside and approached the woman at the counter.  We explained that we wanted to buy tickets from Tokyo to Nagano and then switch to the train for Nozawa Onsen and that we wanted reserved tickets for 3 adults and 2 children and she started typing in all the information.  When she was finished typing, she looked at the date of departure we requested and the time on the clock and she told us (in very broken English) that she can only sell us the tickets at 10:00 a.m. 1 month prior to departure so we would have to wait a few minutes until 10.  That was fine, as there were no other customers in line, and so Tom and I stood at the counter looking at her and she waited at her terminal looking at us.  At 9:59 a.m. her supervisor stepped over and pulled his sleeve back to look at his watch.  With seconds to go, they both looked at the clock on the wall and started counting down:  Ju, Ku, Hatchi, Nana…. until they got to zero.  She then turned back to us and told us how much the tickets would cost and we finished processing the order.  And then when we asked for the round trip on January 11, she kindly informed us that we would need to return to the ticket office on Thursday to purchase the return trip!

A sudden peculiar interest in Thai politics 1

phiphi1The picture above is of Phi Phi island in Phuket.  Up until a few months ago, all I knew about Thailand was that there was a terrible tsunami there several Christmas’ ago, Leonardo DiCaprio filmed “The Beach” on Phi Phi Island, Bankgok was known for being a city where anyone could purchase anything (or anyone) AND it was the destination of our first full (with Thomas) family vacation in Asia, this Christmas.   Up until six weeks ago, I was very excited about spending three nights in Bangkok and going up and down the river and visiting floating markets and Buddhas lying down, eating amazing Thai food and getting several good massages.  And then flying to Phuket and spending time with baby elephants and actually going to Phi Phi Island…But about 6 weeks ago, I started to notice that almost daily, I would find an article in the Japan Times and the Herald Tribune about political unrest in Bangkok.  And as I started noticing them, and reading them with more attention, they started getting a little scary.  And then the riots began and the bombs and then a few weeks ago, the take over of the airports in Bangkok by the opposition party.  I have to admit, I started to feel bad for MYSELF!  How could the Thai people do this during the high season!  Couldn’t they have their political coup after the New Year???  The control freak in me started to take over and I started learning all I could about the two sides of the struggle, interviewing any Thai I would come across.  I just happened to be signed up for a Thai curry cooking class and I spent a good deal of the four hour class peppering Kitty (the curry chef) with my questions.  She was worried too about what was going on but she told me that the King was going to speak the following day (December 4th) because it was the night before his birthday and he always spoke on his birthday.  She assured me he would say something that would heal the people and things would improve rapidly.  The next morning, I opened my newspapers and looked anxiously for the review of the Thai King’s speech.  Buried on page 3, there was a small paragraph in both newspapers saying that for the first time in the history of the King’s Birthday Speeches, he failed to make one!  His throat was bothering him and he wasn’t feeling well enough to speak (he is 81 but come on people, this seemed like a delay tactic to me!)  I even emailed Chef Kitty to see what she thought about it.  “Yes, very bad.  First time in history.  Might be more problems coming.  Ok, have happy Christmas!  The positive news is that the international airport did re-open last week and all the foreigners who were stuck there for weeks are slowly getting to leave…just in time for people like me and my family to arrive!

P.S. obviously, if things are iffy, we will cancel our trip!  Not to worry!!!

Thanksgiving Tokyo Style 1

dsc02131The last time we lived in Tokyo, Thanksgiving was the hardest holiday for me to celebrate away from home.  I worked then, didn’t have the day off, and to the rest of Japan it was just another day of the week.  All I could think about was what everyone was doing at home.  I pictured my family getting up early to cook and watching the parade while drinking hot chocolate.  There were never any issues, everyone always got along and no one drank too much and said things no one really wanted to hear.   Basically, everyone was together and happy back home in the states and my small family and I were alone and miserable.  This time around, I started planning early hoping that the amount of effort put in would pay off in the end.   The first people I invited were Kyoko and Michael and their daughter Kyla – friends of ours from the last time we lived here.  Next on the list were Isa and Cliff, friends of my Mom and Mark (and now our friends).  And then i couldn’t figure out who to invite next.  So the list kind of stayed that way for at least a month.  Then, while researching an article I am writing about the 60th Anniversary of the Tokyo American Club Womens’ Group, I came across an article written in the 1970’s about American families living in Tokyo, hosting US soldiers stationed at the nearby base for Thanksgiving Dinner.  The light went on.  I would invite soldiers.  I called the President’s office at the club and inquired about the program.  “Oh yes, I remember, we used to do that a long time ago.  That was when there was a big USO presence in Tokyo but they really don’t exist anymore.  That program hasn’t been in place for years.”  Ok, a slight drawback but I was determined to find some soldiers who would enjoy my Thanksgiving Dinner.  Next, I decided to send an email to the Athletic Director of Hayden’s School (The American School in Japan).  Hayden had played football against 5 different bases and I thought he would have a few contacts.  I received the following email response “this is very generous of you. I have copied this e-mail to two colleagues at Yokota air base and Zama army base. I hope they can get back to you with any contact person at their base.”  I waited patiently but heard nothing.  And then, at least three weeks after I started my search, I received a phone call from the Tokyo American Club President’s secretary.  She excitedly explained that they had a call that day from a soldier from Camp Zama asking us if we still did the program where they connected American families with active duty soldiers to share Thanksgiving Dinner.  And that is how I came to find Captain Mark Gross and Sergeant-Major Rick Gonzales.  And as soon as they were added to the invite list, others kept coming until there were 18 of us (12 adults and 6 children).  And our table was full of all our American favorite foods and we laughed and drank and got to know each other better.  Hayden commented on how Captain Gross liked to take out his maps to show everyone where he was stationed and we got to hear the story about how he was wounded last year in Iraq in the neck by bullet fragments (we even got to see the scar)!  Tom made a beautiful toast before we ate about how no matter how anyone at the table feels about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have to support our troops who are fighting for our freedom and the freedom of others.  And how even though we are far from our friends and family, they are far away and in harms way.  One thing I noticed at the end of the evening was how we had 18 people for dinner and there were no issues!  And it wasn’t a fantasy either!!!  

Down Under in Under Four Days Reply

dsc021153The kids and I joined Tom on a business trip to Sydney this past weekend.  We took the red eye from Tokyo Friday night and arrived in Sydney at 7:30 Saturday morning.  After reading three different guide books and consulting with James, the concierge at the Four Seasons, i had jam packed the three full days and nights we had available with a little bit of everything there was to see and do in Sydney.  When we arrived on Saturday morning, it wasn’t quite the summer day i was expecting, but we still grabbed our towels and suits and took the high speed jet cat across the harbor to Manly Beach.  We spent the day sunning ourselves (but not swimming – too cold), eating a beautiful lunch right on the beach (annie had a delicious lobster) and i started my 72 hours of tasting australian, new zealand and tasmanian wines.  We left the beach and shopped the Corso, a long path connecting the ocean to the bay filled with surf shops and other assorted Australiana… That night, the temperature dropped significantly and our dinner outside with a view of the opera house was rushed (not just because we were frozen but the food was almost inedible (Waterfront Restaurant in Campbell’s Cove).  We turned in Saturday night with plans of waking early to cab it to Bronte Beach for breakfast and then take the 1.5 hour hike along the coastline to Bondi Beach for a lunch reservation at Icebergs.  When we woke up Sunday morning it was raining and freezing.  Hayden was the only one with long pants so the plans changed quickly and we were off to the department stores in search of warmer clothing.  Tom took Hayden and I went off with the girls and we met back again for lunch.  We had a lovely italian lunch at Darling Harbor and then went to the Sydney Aquarium to see the Great White Sharks and then the Wildlife World to see Kangaroos and Koala Bears.  The girls got to climb into the Koala Bear habitat and have their picture taken with one, and they were allowed to pet it too.  That was a big hit.  We left Darling Harbor and jumped in a water taxi back that brought us to the harbor steps across the street from the hotel.  Sunday night we had dinner at Aria, directly across from the Opera House.  When we arrived, we found the finals of the Australia Idol (the equivalent of American Idol) taking place outside the Opera House on the steps.  Our table faced the live televised event and we were able to see the fireworks and actual fire being shot out of the stage.  It was a pretty cool sight.  On Monday, Tom had to go to work!  I took the girls to Starbucks and then to the Australian Wine Export Center to ship a case of goodies home and Hayden stayed in the room to watch Sunday night football (on Monday morning) and we waited for Tom to finish his apt.  He was back in an hour, changed into a suit and we were off Bondi Beach (the weather had improved tremendously).  We had lunch in Bondi, shopped for cool t-shirts and walked around the boardwalk and then we all crashed on the beach.  We had the taxi pick us back up so Tom could make his afternoon apts.  He got back in plenty of time to put his suit back on and visit some clients!  I took the kids for a last dash of shopping – the AUD/US exchange rate was very favorable for us (for once!)  Tom arrived back in time for our last dinner out (Rockpool) which was an unbelievable meal.  Everyone ate everything.  Then it was home to pack for our 7am pick up and a 9:30 am flight.  Tom had a business class ticket that he let the kids split three ways.  Sophie started it off and she had lunch, then Annie took over and had ice cream and Hayden finished up with a snack and ice cream.  We arrived home at 7pm, tired and happy with lots of fun souvenirs… dsc02115dsc021151dsc021152