Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Little Milestones

Yesterday (Tuesday) was a small triumph for me here. On the kids' fourth day off in a row (between-semesters break - and they have Thursday off, too, for a teacher's training day. So, school this week on Wednesday and Friday, how stupid is that?), I knew we couldn't handle another day in the house.

2 'active' boys
+ rainy Monday inside
= mom tempted to take up daytime drinking

I noticed that most of their non-uniform pants were either too small or had holes in the knee (M's uniform pants have one, too, but at $40 a pop or whatever, too bad. Don't even get me started on the practicality of small boys having to wear white shirts everyday), so off to Tsurumi to buy pants and some long-sleeve shirts in preparation for the cooling weather. They weren't that excited about buying clothes, as most boys aren't, but I had an ace: a nearby weird pet store we could visit.

My triumph, small as it may seem, was thus: taking the right bus to Tsurumi station, and not only knowing at which store to get said kids' clothes (SEIYU in the station's west exit), but also knowing where, on one of the adjacent streets, to get cash (the ATM at the post office I found last week by figuring out a map posted near the station - most places don't take American ATM cards), where to get American Spirits (a vending machine I noticed on the way to the post office), and where the cool pet store was.

I know this may not seem like much. Perfectly commonplace activities. But for someone who was born without a sense of direction in a land of unlabeled streets at ridiculous angles and a total inability to read any signs (not like in some Latin-based Roman-lettered language where I could at least hazard a guess), it was awesome. Not a single wrong turn or backtrack or uncertainty, and the whole trip, from home and back again, took under 3 hours. The kids were even entertained: they found clothes they liked, at reasonable prices, as well as a set of stickers each from a kiosk on a lower floor (where I actually had to ask for the stickers I wanted), AND got to see the cool pet store.

OK, I know you want to know why the pet store was so cool. It was a stack of cages on the outside, as the interior of the store was dark and tiny and no place for customers. There were the usual critters - bunnies, hamsters, cockatiels, finches, BUT there were a few things that one wouldn't see in an American pet store:


and praririe dogs

some pretty-plumed pheasant thing that refuse to pose properly

D, of course, wants a chipmunk. Too high-strung for me: I bet the instant you tried to hold it, it would bite your finger and zip off to hide behind the fridge. The prairie-dog was cute. Fat rodent, cuter than a guinea pig, if you ask me. I don't know why they don't have those or the chipmunks in the US stores: they exist in the wild there, so why not? I'm still holding out for the hedgehog, which I haven't seen yet.

I did have one more little triumphant moment on my way to Japanese class: I realized that I now had enough hiragana to read arigato gozaimashita and kudasai on the signs on the bus. Now, I may never be able to read the bulk, which is in kanji and maybe beyond my memorization skills at this point, but it was exciting to me. That knowledge, coupled with a really cheesy podcast from Chad in my ears and the discovery that the station vending machines had now switched to vending hot drinks as well (I didn't need the coffee, but it was chilly out and novel) put me in a great mood for class.

Backtrack to the weekend: I had a marvelous and much-needed night out with Helen on Saturday. We met at Hakuraku station (life revolves around the train stations - have you figured that out yet?), where someone had told her about a street fair. We didn't see much at first, probably because we were early, but then Helen ran into a guy she knew was performing. Standing next to him was an older gentleman in a suit, most likely the event organizer, who took us on a tour. All the people and beer and food, as well as most of the assorted music-dance venues were in a hidden alley that ran the block-length. We grabbed a couple paper cups of beer, walked past a troupe of bellydancers standing by to perform, and ended up back where we started, which was a small square between buildings where a band was setting up.

While watching a decent Ray-Charlesesqe band play, I emailed Macky to see if he was aware of this event, because I figured he'd dig it. He replied to ask me if I was there already, and as I was typing my reply, he appeared next to me! Small world. Apparently he was there to get his hair cut. He went to the local combini and bought more beer. I love that you can just drink beer on the street or on the train or whatever. I was told that you can also drink in a car, also, as long as you aren't the driver.

After that band was over, we had a stroll around the alley, where we saw some flamenco dancers and a zydeco band (I'm beginning to realize that the music scene in Japan is pretty international). We came back to the original spot again, in time to meet up with Michael and Shingo, my new favorite people. The band, Mooney and His Lucky Rhythm, was truly outstanding! All New Orleans, old-time hot jazz. Those who know me know that I consider myself a reincarnated flapper (not to be confused with the "slapper" Brit Helen described to me) and cannot stand still when I hear this type of music. As I'd had a couple beers and a few weeks of pent-up energy in me, I danced in the street like a fool, grinning like a maniac.

After, Helen, Michael, Shingo, and I went to the Blue Corn to catch the end of a female folk-singer's act. Sachiko, barefoot, long-skirted, and long-haired, had a lovely voice, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. The rest of the long evening was a blur of red wine (one Pernod) and conversation with my sanity-saviors. Helen, I loved already. Michael, whom I had met once previously, kills me. He's Czech originally, but has lived in various places around the world and with various lovers. He has wonderful stories, sprinkled with language and situations that would be too graphic or crass out of most people's mouths. I don't know if it's the timbre of his voice, the accent, the matter-of-factness, or what, but he just ends up sounding like a charming, wordly gentleman. I had never really hung out with his current long-term partner Shingo before, but I adore him. He's Japanese and speaks very good English and is very easygoing. I allowed him to use my knee to play spoons at the Mooney show (there's this song that everyone knows you're supposed to have spoons ready for - next time I will, too). He drank the Pernod with me.

I don't know why I didn't take any pictures of them. That shall be remedied. Anyway, as Helen was falling asleep on the bar, we noticed it 4-something. There is no last-call in Japan. I got home in a taxi around five a.m.

I woke up to a quiet house and looked at my clock. It was 2-something p.m. I haven't slept that late since I can't remember when. Since my Sunday disappeared, following is a guest blog by Jeff:

Next AM I rose completely fixed... Sandi came home completely broken - I was so proud! So there was this pretty decent typed letter in English (very strange for our mailbox) we got last week about a community sports day at the elementary school nearby. I took the boys. We walked into what's probably as normal as it gets, but completely surreal for me and the kids. It was field day, full of the Japanese neighborhood, of which we knew no one. Me and the kids sat nervously watching the Japanese kids run across the finish line with bags of buns in their teeth, preceeding the lunch lady race. Finally one guy about my age turned and said hello. He was from our apartment complex and had two kids a son 9 and daughter 8. He proposed he will teach me Japanese and I will teach him English. He took me under his wing, making sure I knew how to do the ball toss game, tug of war, three legged race (ni nin san kyaku - "2 people 3 leg"), 200 yard dash, and the relay race - which I had to anchor. The kids did games, too. I won a box of tissues, spagetti, fish flakes, saran wrap, a coffee for my places in the games and a backpack in the raffle at the end of the day. By the time we got home I happily found Sandi with a report "I'm alive, but it hurts." We watched a movie and then I slept, after a strange fight over who had more english speaking friends to engage in deep conversation. In the end, we both agreed it was not enough for either and we would need to add each other to the list. The dessert on the weekend was waking in the middle of the night to recall the dream I just had where a great black blues genius on drums told me I'll play for you stupid white kids, but my real job is making pizza. In the middle of his song he asked (to me I think), "what is it that you do?" On his second song the lyrics said, "how many?" This meant to draw a question that would be an answer, i.e. "how many what" or "how many more" or "how many times." What you asked, you then answered, which told you what concerns you most and maybe what you should do. He was a fucking great drummer and he made some great pizza. I woke up extremely sore. I should have stretched before sprinting.

Thank you Jeff or filling in that missing day.

This weekend, Halloween weekend, is going to be history-makingly fun (I can make up words if I want to - I have a degree). Friday night is our first party, maybe 20 people, tons of food. Saturday is Buzz Attitude. I've got my costume ready.

Wow, and I thought I didn't have much to write this week. Reminds me of MocMoc (R.I.P.) lyrics: "words rolled off my tongue like a rockslide/sentences bounced out of control/I could only watch the destruction..."

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Love to the Schumachers!

Recently, my good friend Anna was diagnosed with breast cancer, the bad kind (as opposed to--?). I am so heartbroken for her and her husband Kevin and their six-month-old baby. What they are going to have to go through. I know there has to be balance in the universe, but why not give it to some selfish and mean and cruel old hag, instead of a young, beautiful, sweet, funny, and thoroughly-lovable new wife and mom? Not fair. But Anna said she likes to think of it as wiping out the odds that anyone else in her group will get it. Anyway, I'm putting a permanent link on this page to the blog Kevin is keeping, as the husband in this awful situation, but here it is, too:

The Long Road Ahead

On a different note of bad news: our external harddrive, which has all our music (so we didn't have to bring a ton of CDs) and digital photos on it, has decided to make all our files 'corrupted and unreadable.' If we can't retrieve that stuff, I will cry.

Also, I'm adding additional photos by Wilson to the "Mountains" post. He has a much better camera. Go see.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I miss kickboxing sometimes

if I could ever, in a million years, be like this guy...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


It was a weekend in the mountains, in Yamanashi, around Mt. Fuji. The kids played hooky on Friday, and the Steigers (Wilson, Miki, 3 yr old Conrad Shushuke and 1 yr old Viktor Ryosuke) picked us up in their mini-van. It was a drive of 2 hours or so to our first stop: Fuji-Q Highlands.

Fuji-Q Highlands is an amusement park, with all the usual stuff. Jeff and I rode the Fujiyama, which apparently was certified as the highest and longest roller coaster in 1997 by Guiness. I hadn't been on a rollercoaster in awhile, and my eyes shut of their own accord on the first - highest hill. It was a little scary, but I figured I wouldn't die.

I screamed my head off, but I much prefered it to the teacups I rode with the kids earlier, which made me queasy. I have this theory about spinning things not being that much fun when you're older: you know how, when you're a kid, you spin around and around until you fall down giggling? Spinning is fun! Then you get really drunk for the first time, and get the spins. Suddenly, spinning is not fun. It is associated with imminent vomiting or passing out. Spinning = pain. I used to ride the Rotor at Geauga Lake seven times in a row when I was a kid. Now, even looking at a ride that goes around and around at any speed makes me sick.

This is a rollercoaster I refused. There are no cars to sit in, they hang you and you twirl around - as if just the hills and loops weren't enough. No thanks.

The kids rode a bunch of little rides, like the swing thing and a mini-coaster, merry-go-round and log rides.

D on the merry-go-round
and the cars

The kids and Wilson on a log ride

Kids on a little coaster. The guy behind them looks a little underwhelmed.

We all rode the Ferris Wheel

and the view was pretty cool from the top.

This was one of the other rollercoasters that I refused to ride. That drop was almost straight down.

I'm also not really into 'ohmygod-the-elevator-cable-just-broke' rides

Jeff and I had some yummy snacks, post rollercoaster.

I had some barbecued squid on a stick. Mm!

Jeff had takoyaki, which is grilled balls of octopus, covered with bonito (a kind of fish) flakes that look like they're dancing around - cool!

After the park, we drove to a restaraunt near Miki's mother's house, where we were staying for the weekend. We had hoto, which is a noodle specialty of the area. Mine had pumpkin in it, and slices of duck. Yum.

M & D liked Miki's mom, because grandmothers spoil children.

They also had a great time playing with the Steiger kids, because they were younger. M especially liked to hold Victor. It was super-cute.

M and Victor

The view from Baba's (obaasan's) yard

We adults drank wine, after drinking what Wilson insists is the best hangover preventative. I don't know what it's called, but it has turmeric in it, comes in a gold bottle, and can be purchased in any combini.

I felt fine the next morning, and the next day when we did the same thing, so it must work. I'll have to look for it Saturday, before I go to the Blue Corn to meet Helen.

The next day, we got up and drive to the Paul Rusch Festival.

A strange phenomenon: to go a very western-style agricultural festival in Japan. But there is a good reason:

Paul Rusch, from Madison County, Ky., arrived in Yokohama in 1925 and influenced many Japanese lives by giving the hope and vision.

In 1936, Rusch planned to make a Utopia in Kiyosato. His idea was to build Seisenryo as a rural agricultural center and completed this task in 1938 making every effort to raise funds from the United States when Japan was fighting against China. In 1941 Seisenryo was closed due to World War II and Rusch was forced to return to the U.S. against his will.

Rusch came back to Japan with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff as he promised and worked hard to build Saint Andre Church to restore the people’s withered minds and give them hope for the future. The church has a unique tatami mat floor adopted from the Japanese lifestyle. Later, he opened an experimental farm at a high altitude on cold land and started a dairy farm. Although his life came to an end at St. Luke hospital in 1979 at the age of 82, Rusch’s belief and faith have been passed down to the members of both Japanese and American Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project Inc.

An American couple we met at the end told us an additional story. Apparently, the people in the area were so hungry that when someone died, it was traditional to rattle a few pieces of rice inside a piece of bamboo, so they would at least hear the sound of food before they died. Paul Rusch was, understandably, very moved by this.

Wilson likes to come to this area just for the view. Sadly, it was overcast that day.

Japanese bluegrass? OK, there was one white guy. It was kinda funny hearing old blugrass standards sung with a Japanese accent.

M being an apprentice blacksmith with Jeff Farmer, from KY. He's been coming to the festival for 9 years or so.

A random clown came up and made D's balloon into this

M enjoying a kodomo beer (kid beer!). Kinda like rootbeer, but not really.

I had some wine-fed beef while watching some bluegrass. It was quite tasty.

Future engineers

We were planning on going to a winery after this, but due to various minor disasters (D's kodomo beer foaming up too much to drink, D losing his blacksmith-made iron snake) and delays, we couldn't have gotten there before it closed.

Plus, it was getting quite chilly, so we looked forward to getting back in the warm minivan, where many of us promptly passed out.

We went back to Baba's and she made us curry. It was the most beautiful color and I said so, which everyone thought was really funny for some reason. The kids had a hard time settling down to sleep that night (I think Wilson and Miki were amazed by the amount of energy a small Davis boy can have - I told them that they were looking at their future), so Miki told my kids about the Yamanashi Vampire. If you opened your eyes, he would get you, but if you kept them closed and went to sleep, he would give you good dreams. She made this up on the spot, and I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it freaked M out further and he said he couldn't sleep. Personally, I think it was all the ice cream and chocolate. I thought it was really funny. I've read about various ghouls and baddies that parents used to scare their kids with to get them to behave (the boogeyman, Baba-Yaga, etc.), but we don't really do that kind of thing anymore, do we? I wonder if it was effective then.

So, on Sunday we went to a winery and wine cellar called Budo no Oka (lit. grape cave). I'm glad we waited, becasue the weather was gorgeous and the views stunning.

For 1000 yen (about 10 bucks), Jeff & I got wine tasting cups and were set loose in the cellar, full of regional wines. Some of the wine tasted like Boone's Farm, but a lot of it was quite drinkable. We stayed mainly in the full-bodied reds section.

It was fun being tipsy that early in the day! We made some friends, too, who seem to have been tasting more than us. One of them pulled me down to the rose section for a taste. Like cooler, and one of the few I spat out into the barrel provided for that purpose.

We bought a few bottle for us, and a few bottles for our neighbors. It is a good idea to go meet your neighbors with gifts, we have been told. We haven't quite gotten around to it yet, but hopefully the bottles of wine and the hoto we bring them will make up for the fact that it's been almost two months.

We were on our way to a waterfall from here, but then Jeff spotted the trojan horse, a main attraction in a huge playground at the base of Mt. Fuji, off the highway, and we had to go. The park cost a little, but it was super-fun for the kids, and had more fantastic views.

The Trojan Horse.

Climbing up to the top was an experience in "wow-they-have-different-safety-standards-for-playgrounds-in-Japan-huh"

Awesome view of Fuji-san (they add -san to show respect for the mountain)

Japan has the best slides!

D & I cartwheeling

Jeff & I playing

The Steigers, tour guides extraordinaires

A quick stop at the motorcycle museum as it was closing:

It was a wonderful weekend, and we've already planned the next one: on-sen in winter. Before that, tho, Wilson has invited us to his place for Thanksgiving. That'll be really nice, because I wasn't sure if we were going to have Thanksgiving this year. Fall is already very different: I'm used to going to the pumpkin patch to pick out our to-be-jack o' laterns, and seeing piles of big pumpkins at the grocery stores. So far, I've seen one very large pumpkin at the festival, and chunks of pumpkin in my hoto. Wilson says you can get them on the Navy base, but Jeff refuses to haul one home on the train.

Anyway, back in the city, I decided to try the adventure of coloring my hair with Japanese dye-in-a-box. I'm used to going down to Sally Beauty Supply and picking the perfect red from the huge selection and mixing it myself. So, understandably, I was a little nervous at the selection I saw in the stores:

Thankfully, at the local Create store, I found a box of not-one-of-twenty-shades-of-black dye. It looked red enough, but it was obviously formulated for a different ethnic-type, so I wasn't sure how it was going to come out. I was impressed by the delivery system: in a comb you squeeze the dye through. Not messy at all; the very neatest dye-job ever, in fact.

Other than that, I assumed the directions were pretty much the same: squeeze this tube into this bottle, apply, wait 30 minutes, rinse out. I crossed my fingers, and happily, my roots are gone and it's fairly red. Not quite as bright as I'd like, but no one else will notice the difference. In fact, no one has. When my hair gets a little longer, I may experiement with some other hair-color products I saw, like bleach-wax. Bleach is, for some reason, only in the men's hair dye section. Is it more acceptable for men to have bleached streaks in their hair?