Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Jeff left a couple days ago for the States. He's not going anywhere that would make me jealous, though, out of consideration for me. Just work stuff. So, I'm here alone with the kids. We'll see in next week's post how I'm weathering it.

One major challenge I'll be facing is the garbage. Gomi, or garbage, in Yokohama is a serious business. We have to separate everything into plastic, paper, PET bottles, household (burnable) garbage, and "small metal objects." Everything goes into small, neatly-tied bundles, and is taken up to the locked garbage shed. This is D's job, to take it up. Unfortuantely, we've lost the key. Sometimes, the door to the shed is left unlocked, which is why we didn't notice that the key was missing for a little while. But then they started locking it again. Just call the landlord for a new one, right? All our dealings are supposed to go through the real estate agent. No one in that office speaks English. I think it's going to have to be Macky to the rescue again.

Thanksgiving was nice. We took the train to the Yokosuka base and had dinner with Bill & Keiko and another couple. Their place was nice, full of cool oriental furniture and art and a million rugs (to cover the fact that base apartments have linoleum floors - who thought that was a good idea???). WAY too much food, which we were sent home with. It was a little weird to eat all that western food, all the tradiitonal stuff - including that weird green-bean cassrole and fruit salad with coconut and marshmallows.

Our small (but awesome) fridge was stuffed with leftovers.

Friday, Jeff took the day off, while the kids were at school. We went to Harajuku again, but went the opposite direction, to the famous Meiji Shrine. It was a beautiful, sunny day, with a bit of nip in the air.

This is the giant torii gate at the entrance.

Biggest mums I've ever seen:

More pretty flowers. I think they are wired together.

Wall o' sake casks. They are involved in offerings, I believe. Or monk parties.

This is where you rinse your hands and mouth of evil before you enter the shrine gounds proper.

This is the tree that is the reason we tell our kids broccoli looks like trees.

I don't know why there were piles of vegetables in the square. Maybe a market, which they have at shrines sometimes. Anyway, they were packing up, and it was great to see the cooperation as they passed the produce from hand to hand, fire-brigade style.

For 500 yen, you can write a wish on one of these tablets, and the monks will petition the gods on your behalf in their morning prayers.

Just to remind you that these beautiful grounds are indeed in the middle of Tokyo.

After school, we got the kids and headed for Wilson & Miki's place in Zushi. It was around rush hour, so one of the trains we took was packed. I don't know if you've heard about rush-hour trains in Japan. Passengers will keep pushing in until the doors can close. They call it being packed like sushi, instead of sardines, as we might say. Jeff and I thought it reminiscent of a mosh pit. The kids were squealing with glee? fear? Some people do this every day. Anyway, we took a lot of trains and buses to get to Wilson's. We kinda messed up the last one. We are used to the pay-at-the-front kind. On this one, you embarked from the back. I didn't realize until halfway through the trip that we were supposed to take a ticket when we got on, so the driver, when we paid at the front, would know where we started. I remembered screwing this up in Kamakura a few years ago. And the trip was a lot longer than we had anticipated, and we weren't really sure where we were going. We were relieved to finally get there. The whole trip, door to door, took us 2 1/2 hours.

When I walked in the door and said Hi! to a bunch of strangers, I was met with blank stares. Uh-oh, I thought. This is going to be a weird party. Once Wilson walked in a few minutes later and introduced me to a bunch of people, everyone was friendly. One wife was reaaaaaally friendly, having gone through a bottle of wine before we got there. She wanted to wrestle. I decided not to take the bait. Too easy.

The rest of the evening was drinking a lot of wine with a bunch of Navy guys, talking the way Navy guys talk. It was pretty fun, actually. Once most of the guests had departed and the babysitter was left in charge, Jeff, Wilson, Miki, Frank, and I wove our way to the karaoke bar down the street. I remember sake, a singing more songs than I ever had before. It was mostly just us and one young Japanese guy. I think I sang a duet with him. Wilson sang the most, and mostly in Japanese. Impressive.

Saturday was mostly just making our way home and D on a playdate with a kid from school. Apparently they went to a park. I was sleeping.

We were all supposed to go to Macky's Buzz Attitude 5th Anniversary Saturday night, but the kids had been up past midnight, so I opted to stay home with them. Jeff needed a night out, anyway.

Sunday morning, we were picked up by Takaki for an interesting day. We had been told it was a river barbeque/car show/flea market. We were very confused when, after a long ride, we pulled into a freeway rest stop (lemme tell you, they know how to do rest stops here. It's more like a mall food court and gift shop). There were a bunch of Chevy Blazers parked in one area of the parking lot, some people milling around, and a guy with a megaphone. The scene was just as strange as the Paul Rusch Festival, which was like Little Kentucky in Japan. This was like being in Tacoma or rural Cleveland. All the Blazers were sold to their owners by one man, called "Tony," and it was his gig. Kind of an Appreciation Day, like Robin's yearly barbeque for her clients. But in rest stop? With cars flying by every minute? What? No, turns out it's like a rave: you have to know the right convenience store to approach to ask for directions to the party itself. The guy with the megaphone was Tony, and he was giving directions.

After much traffic and wrong turns, we managed to get to the spot. It was by a river in Atsugi, just a blank spot down a hill, covered with smooth river rocks. You need a Blazer to get down there, as Takaki soon discovered.

Luckily, there were all those Blazers around, with tow-gear.

I'm not sure why, but this buy walked out into the river on chairs-as-stilts. It was kinda neat to see.

Another example of teamwork: everyone fanning the flames with those plastic fans they hand out in train stations. They have ads on them. Very useful in the summer, too.

I was underwhelmed at first by the Costco hot dogs and sausages, but then the good stuff came out later. Best crab I've ever tasted.

This was the "flea market." A few clothes and shoes, and truck-related products.

A unique BBQ activity: rock balancing. Very Zen.

It drew a crowd.

M got into it, too.

Someone was selling carved rocks. M insisted we buy one, "to remember the day." Just like his dad. One of the white ones is now in our bathroom. M also has a new rock collection (he threw out the dead bug collection to make room in the display box. Reminded me of my brother's rock collection when he was a kid). We also have a bag of big rocks outside the front door, so M can practice rock balancing.

The pottywagon. The girls were occasionally ferried to a nearby portapotty, as there were no trees or shrubbery around, and any underbrush was covered with spiky burrs that stuck to everything.

Tony, the man in charge. He invited us to a more intimate BBQ later.

An odd and interesting weekend it was. And now, some random pics.

Another great example of the animation of everything. This one is prevalent on the trains. I call them the meat mascots. Check out their ears.

Saw this in the CREATE store. It's like Walgreen's. I think they are photo albums.

They tore down a block of apartments near our complex. The walls here are indeed made of plywood, I think.

A really small car

Karla arrives in a couple weeks! And then Val and her student, Katie. I'm so excited!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ueno Zoo Weekend

It's just starting get a little chilly. I'd been drilling the locals for what the winters are like here. Some people say 'oh, it's freezing!' and others say 'it's not too cold and almost never snows.' I have gathered that it depends on where you lived before. Like, if you ask someone in Seattle what winters are like there and they came from California, they'll say that they are freezing and depressing. Having grown up in Cleveland, however, the winters in Seattle do not seem so bad. From what I've seen so far this fall, it is going to be milder than Seattle. The leaves have just begun to change, and I've seen many trees that still have fruits and flowers.

In fact, I am sitting by my open patio door right now, and I'm not freezing. What makes people complain about the cold in Japan, I think, is because the houses have horrible insulation and lack central heating. Kerosene space heaters are popular. People buy electric rugs and these coffee tables with heaters under them. You put a comforter under the top of them and keep your legs toasty.

I don't think we will need one, however. When it gets a bit nippy at night, we run our installed heater in the living room and dining room and shut the door. Perfectly toasty. There are heaters installed upstairs, too, so the kids won't freeze at night. (Not that they really ever get cold; the amount of energy coursing through their little bodies could heat a small country.) The only room lacking a heater is our bedroom, but we have our lovely down comforter. We'll see how high our electric bill is next month and if it's worth pursuing more Japanese options.

I got a few emails from the States and Canada asking me if we survived the big earthquake. Truth be told, I didn't even know we'd had one until Val asked me and I googled it. It was a big one, up north in the Pacific, and there was general momentary panic as the state-of-the-art tsunami warning system went off (I talked to a woman living on the base in Yokosuka and her family was awoken by the loudspeakers squawking "seek higher ground!" They checked on the armed forces TV and radio stations, but there was nothing, so they went back to sleep. Apparently, though, many people bugged out and took hotel rooms in higher ground). In any event, the fears were groundless, as the biggest wave recorded was 40cm or so.

On Thursday, as part of Jeff's Japan Orientation class assignment, he took the afternoon off work for a "field trip." He was to learn to use the trains and busses and go somewhere. This assignment was rather too late for Jeff, as he had pretty much figured out the system awhile ago, but he decided to use the time to visit the other nearby base in Negishi, where I joined him. Pretty unexciting, as most military bases are, but it is situated near an old racecourse, which looked pretty cool.

Also, they had a library full of books and movies in English, and that made me very happy. We rented the original Shogun miniseries, which I was excited about. I remember seeing it when it first aired in 1980, shocked at the beheading scene and Richard Chamberlain being urinated on. One just didn't see such things on television. At least at age 9. I also rented Lost in Translation, which is still great and even funnier now that I live here.

Also, as a result of the orientation classes, he was permitted to get his Japanese driver's license, which he has successfully done. I'm scared of the first trip or two.

Over the weekend, we decided to celebrate our 3-monthiversary by going to Tokyo for the weekend, specifically Ueno Park and staying at the New Sanno.

Ueno Park. We ate our station-bought bento boxes here before we went to the zoo.

The Ueno Zoo is cool. It was very reasonably priced, at 600 yen per adult and kids under 12 FREE. The first exhibit was the Giant Panda. This was exciting, because we have tried to see pandas at 2 different zoos (Thailand and San Diego), and were thwarted by pandas being on vacation in China or resting periods or whatever. Jeff was especially excited because he had wanted to see a real, live panda since he was a kid writing reports on them. The legendary polite queue of visitors who took their pictures and moved on so the next group could do so was nowhere in evidence as the people flocked en masse to the window to catch a glimpse and a photo. Luckily there are digital cameras you can hold over the heads of the spectators and click off as many shots as you like.

Here is a lovely five-tiered pagoda in the park

As for the rest of the exhibits, they were a real treat. I don't know how many times I've come away from a zoo visit disappointed, because the animals were sleeping in a nook somewhere, hiding behind a tree, or far away across a huge, safe trench. Not this zoo. The only thing separating you from the animals is a fence or a couple inches of glass, and they are right there in front of you.

This guy was so obliging. He walked back and forth in front of the window so everyone could see him, played with his wives, and rolled around on his back like a giant kitten. Jeff started to get the feeling that the animals were trained to be photogenic.

Lions' lunch. I haven't seen this so much in evidence before. The kids were slightly appalled. Whose bone is that?

Anyway, I took a lot of pictures, and the more animals we saw, the more Jeff became convinced that the animals were actors. It became almost comical as a gorilla would walk over to one window and pose, then walk over to the other window and sit down and pose again, making sure everyone could get a good shot.

Our own little primates

Biggest elephants I'd ever seen!

M comparing the size of his brain to that of the pacyderms'

Picturesque crane. I may paint this one.

Jeff's favorite bird: Cock-o-the-Rock. It looked to me like a giant cheese puff to which someone had glued googly-eyes.

Regal Emperor Penguins

Cool, fierce-looking bird

Baboon on Monkey Island. I had fun watching them for awhile. They looked like they were having such a good time chasing each other and swinging around with ease. I saw one jump up and down on the suspension bridge, just like a kid.

I forget what these monkeys are called, but they were cute.

Mom and baby capybaras. I've always thought they resembled giant guinea pigs.



More penguins

M&D donated a few yen to the penguin cause.

Partridge, sans Family.

Polar bears! The kids were convinced they were robots, from the way they repeated the same head swings and mouth-openings as they paced back and forth.

One small way this zoo didn't measure up to others I've known: the peacocks are caged instead of roaming around the park. Didn't hear their usual creepy cries, either. I'm not sure if that's preferable or not.

Seal love. Actually, I think they were fighting. Same thing.

A highlight for me. A very photogenic tiger, once I got the flash off and it sat still for me. So pretty.

Sadly, since we had gotten such a late start, the park closed at 5 with half of the zoo still unexplored. D panicked when I explained that the music they were playing through the speakers meant that the zoo was shutting for the day, especially when Auld Lang Sine, Japan's official closing-time song (don't ask me why) began. D was convinced that if we didn't hurry, we'd be locked in and have to spend the night there. Due to the inexpensiveness of the zoo and the myriad features of the park (including an art museum that was having a Dali exhibit), we decided that we would come back the next day, too, instead of going to Harajuku to see the denizens dressed up in their costumes. (I have to do this sometime.)

It was a short subway trip to the New Sanno Hotel. The Sanno is a hotel for military personnel, and it's quite nice. It has a wonderful and inexpensive gift shop, an mini exchange, a 'general store,' a few restaurants, and, most importantly, a pool.

There were other American kids there, which I think M&D really enjoyed. They haven't spoken to another American kid since we've been here, I don't think. I think this is really starting to get to D, who is craving some real conversation with a native English speaker. I have heard that their school may be getting a pack of 4 American brothers soon, though. I hope so, for their sake.

Another feature of the Sanno is their sumptuous Sunday brunch. Jeff was told that they serve pretty much everything you can think of, and I have to say that the statement was accurate. The dreamlike haze of the photos is due to my crappy ketai (cellphone) camera, but I thought it appropriate.

Those shiny bits on the kiwi were not just refelections; they were silver sparkles!

The boys especially enjoyed the dessert table. Shocker.

Unfortunately, Sunday was a very rainy day, so we bagged the plans to go back to Ueno. But there are sufficient reasons for a return trip in the near future. I'm thinking that it would be a fun diversion while Jeff is out of town (for almost 2 weeks, ugh. Stay tuned for insane babbling in the next couple posts).

One last note: I finally sang karaoke in Japan last night. We had our final Japanese class of this session, and they threw us a party in which they stuffed us full of sushi. All the volunteer teachers were there, we took pictures, and presents were given to those with perfect attendance (not me, I skipped for Halloween). They were there things you hang on your door from Dec 31 - Jan 7 - the bad luck week at the end of the year. It's supposed to protect your house, I guess.

Anyway, after, Jason actually took me up on my beer suggestion. Alex had laundry to do (lame), and I was happy that J wasn't going to be weird about going out with just me, a married woman and a mom of his students. He took me to a tiny bar near Horizon and we had a couple beers and listened to the middle aged men sing Japanese love songs. I knew it wouldn't be long until the little karaoke song-selecting machine was urged on me, the novel gaijin woman. They couldn't figure out how to find Patsy Cline (is she standard karoke fare in Japan like she is in the US?), so I settled for Kim Carnes' Bette Davis Eyes before it got too drawn out. Not my finest performance, but I got the obligatory claps and Jason still wants to perform at the Blue Corn with me, so it couldn't have been too bad.

Speaking of the Blue Corn, I'll be there tonight, since Helen actually has the day off tomorrow, and this will be my last night out for awhile. Jeff leaves Monday. We are having Thanksgiving tomorrow at the Frenches', and on Friday at the Steigers' (this is an overnighter). And here I thought that Thanksgiving would be a non-event here. Just like Halloween, I am surprised.