Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Singapore: Days 1-3

Hello from Singapore!

The internet connection is not good enough to let me put pics in here, but they are all here.

We are staying at Redwood West, a 'serviced apartment.' It has 2 bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, dining room...it's so awesome and makes so much sense. The kids have their own room and we can make cheap meals instead of always eating out. The place is really nice. It has a gym, a pool, a business center, etc. The hot water is a little unreliable and the jet tub is shallower than what I'm used to now, but it's a jet tub, so who cares. The fact that I can't get it really hot is of no consequence, really, because it is HOT here.

Jeff had a run in the morning, and discovered what was around the neighborhood. One of the highlights is the Haw Par Villa, an odd cement sculpture theme park that has the most bizarre exhibit I've ever seen: The Ten Courts of Hell. M was too disturbed by it to look at the whole thing, because it depicts punishments of those who commit various sins. D had no problem with it. I don't know which kid to worry about more.

After we visited that, we walked to the wharf area, where they unload the ships and have the Wholesale Market. Giant piles of dried goods, mostly fish and shrimp, and a fruit section, where the pineapples and watermelons were abundant. They also had some exotic things, like custard apples and dragonfruits from Vietnam, but we couldn't try any, because they only sold by the case. I think they don't see many white tourists there, but we thought it was cool.

It was about lunchtime, so we wandered until we found a hawker food center, which is an open air food court of sorts, full of exotic fast food for the locals on their lunch hour. Pretty chaotic and full of assorted delights like smoked duck and fried chicken feet. I had some sweet and crunchy fried chicken with mystery greens and jasmine rice. On the side were spicy and fishy-salty condiments.

We took the bus up to Orchard Road (the buses are crazy. The drivers have no idea what their routes are and the fares are different depending in where you are going. Sometimes they charge for the kids and sometimes they don't. You have to flag them down and you must have exact change. Made me appreciate the bus system in Japan. However, they are large, air-conditioned, and sometimes double-decker. The upper floor has a video screen on which they show informative short cultural programs and ads). Orchard Road is like any tourist market area in the world, with loads of cheap trinkets and clothes and accessories. M found some YuGiOh cards, I found some clothes, and a tripod for my camera from a funny local guy. You have to haggle even in the proper stores.

We had a brief stop for DQ and coffee in a shop that had cool mist wafting over the patrons. Refreshing.

More shopping and the kids were just done. We bussed it back to the neighborhood and had dinner at a restaurant across the street from the hotel. D barely ate any of the fried shrimp he ordered and M had a freakout about his piping hot lasagna. We had some satay and a mango-prawn salad. It began to rain as soon as we got back. I was hoping for a good T-storm, but just hearing the rain and wind was lovely. Some Animal Planet on TV and bed.

A pretty busy first day. The kids complained a lot about the heat, the food, etc., and wanted to visit every 7-11 they saw (they are everywhere). I was enthralled by all the amazing flora. They sure have pretty trees and flowers here.

Day 2

The day started with a trip to the pool. Then we were hungry (the free breakfast is only M-F), so we had a quick bite of apples, dried mango, and pumpkin seeds to fortify ourselves for the trip to town. We decided to head to the Raffles Hotel and its Long Bar: the legendary colonial bar where the Singapore Sling was invented. The bar was lovely, but the Singapore Slings were awful. They were obviously made from a mix and I didn't dare ask Jeff how much they were when he paid the bill (he had serious sticker-shock). They did have a great sampler tower (satay skewers, papadum, sugarcane shrimp, samosas, springrolls) and the kids enjoyed the peanuts, because you were allowed, nay, supposed to throw the shells on the floor.

We went to the Raffles City mall across the street, where they had a big bookstore (rows and shelves of books in English! Heaven!) and a BK so we could put some 'real' food in the kids' stomachs. Then we had to figure out the train thing, so we could get to the Night Safari. We found the station without too much trouble, but buying the tickets was kind of confusing, because you buy a plastic card and have to pay a dollar deposit on it that you get back after the trip. We wanted to buy a pass, which is also good on the buses and would save hassle asking the fare amount every time we got on, but we decided it wasn't worth it, because there was a deposit, a first-time purchasing fee, and they didn't have reduced fares for kids. It may be worth it for residents (must be, because everyone has one), but not for visitors. In any case, we got to the proper station, according to the brochure, but we had a hard time finding the right bus stop.

We were getting very hot & sweaty & frustrated by now, especially the kids. As the Night Safari didn't open for a little while anyway, we thought it would be a good idea to eat dinner where we were. We found another hawker center, which was even more chaotic than the other one. M ordered some more duck on noodles, and hated it from the first bite, so I had t eat it instead. I had to admit that he was right this time: the duck slices had bones and the whole dish was rather oily. But it was food. The kids, M especially, were SO whiny by this time that I wanted to strangle a little neck or two. Luckily, Jeff came back with two huge cold Tiger beers along with his dinner (a brightly-colored and very spicy mutton steak dish from the Muslim stall. I feared what it would do to him later, but he emerged unscathed). The kids had some microwaved hot dogs from 7-11 and apple juice with 'crunchy aloe chunks.' D & I had a little adventure looking for a bathroom. It was hard to find one, as the only logical place I could find was a Mos Burger, but the door said Do Not Use. We wandered around some more, as D grew a little frantic, til we found a nasty washroom tucked between some stores. Sadly, we didn't realize til after that there was a tissue vending machine outside (10 cents for a foot and half of TP), and D said the men were gross because they peed all over the floor. But the important thing was that we found one.

So eventually we got to the Night Safari. Unfortunately no flash photography was permitted (understandably), but it was full of wonderful night noises. There were squealing boars, flying foxes (HUGE bats), fishing cats, begging wolves (the tram-drivers would throw them food as they drove by) and the CUTEST mewing pack of small-clawed otters. There was a cool Creatures of the Night show, with a hilarious pop-eyed Indian woman as emcee. They had a serval that did leaping tricks, a trained owl that flew over our heads, a gigantic snake, and a pack of otters that sorted recycling into the proper barrels.

We took a taxi back, which was a great move. It was only $15 S, and the kids passed out within 5 minutes. I did the same almost as soon as we got back to the apartment.

Day 3

The day dawned, literally, with a great storm. Lots of lightning and a couple of good thunderclaps. The kids were a little scared at first, but then they happily laid in their beds with the curtains open, watching the light show.

We decided to keep it low-key, because if there was another day full of snarling and whining, there are 2 kids who might not make it out of Singapore.

We went to the pool and to a nearby mall called Vivo City. I did some shopping and the boys saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Movies are cheap here.

Of course there are six gazillion photos here.

Next: Sentosa Island.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Open Air Folk House Museum

Yesterday was a National Holiday: the Spring Equinox. I'm so glad that's a national holiday here. I think it's a wonderful thing to celebrate. We did our celebrating outside, as was fitting. We met Helen and Martine at Mukogaoka-yuen station, dodged the crazy old Japanese man who wanted to buy the friendship of my boys and only succeeded in totally creeping them out, and walked to the Open Air Folk House Museum.

They took old houses from all over Japan and relocated them here, putting them in little 'villages' by origin. All wattle-and-daub type buildings, with roofs of sticks or straw-bundles, wonderful wooden floors, and very informative signage (in Japanese and English, which surprised me). The kids were not as bored as I expected them to be, maybe because they got to do a lot of running around in and out of houses, and they got to collect half a dozen stamps at various locations. I took WAY too many pictures. Here's a bitty sample.



Of course, many more pictures can be found here. Also check out Martine's blog, because she takes way better photos than I do. She took a slew of pics, too, and I'm sure she'll post them soon.

Next post will be from Singapore, or after we return.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sunday in the Park with Toru

Pretty chill weekend. The boys each had friends over, so we had 5 kids in the house. Contrary to what you may think, this was actually calmer than having just our 2. There was a huge buffer between our kids, so no fighting to deal with. M & his New Best Friend Kumi mostly hung out with each other, and D had Jun and his little brother Min-Hyuk to play with. I laid around on the couch and Jeff made a movie from the Hokkaido footage. Pretty cool.

Sunday, we went to Mitsuike Park (which I think Jeff has finally learned how to pronounce). Since Toru lives really near there, we gave him a call and he met us there with Kyotoro. We found a nice sunny spot on a hill and drank a beer and had a combini picnic while the kids ran around and went on the rolly-slide a couple million times.

D's strawberry sandwich to go with his strawberries

strawberry-Pocky monster

This rather phallic building is on the way back home

Monday apparently went well at school. Kumi & M, tired of all the crap they were getting from the Mean Girls and of dealing with it themselves, got the teacher involved. The girls got a talking-to, and M discovered why his gf had stopped talking to him. Some incident with our friend Hannah from months ago and before their 'relationship' started. Girls. After assuring Nina that he did not in fact love Kumi (tho she is always coming over), M was forgiven. I'm not sure what their status is, however, as M is spending all his time with Kumi. I don't understand how these things work. Keeping friendship and romance separate, I guess. Lots of people do that. Not me, I married my best friend. But anyway, things seemed to have calmed down, a detente has been achieved, and M & Kumi are happily BFF. She gets along well with D, too.

I captured the girls on the playground doing one of those hand-clapping song game things, in Japanese. Even they don't know what they're saying entirely. I have to put a link to it, as Blogger suddenly won't let me imbed video anymore.

Here are some of the year's first cherry blossoms. We had a warm spell, so it was predicted they would come early this year, but then it got cold again, so they changed the forecast back. In any case, I hope they don't bloom and disappear while we are in Singapore. Sadly, I only had my phone to take pictures with. I'll get some better ones when I have my real camera with me.

And here's a picture of our new car! Which is still sitting on the lot because Jeff can't take it home until he has all this paperwork done that proves he has someplace to park it. The police actually come out and measure the parking space! Good thing we were forced to accept the parking when we signed our lease.

Tomorrow is a National Holiday of some sort, and the kids & I are going to a park that has lots of old houses in it, with Helen and Martine (a photographer friend of Helen's).

Oh, and here's more pictures from the party, courtesy of Chris.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Seeing GOD in Shinjuku

I unexpectedly went out with Macky last night, a Thursday, a school night. Shell Rockets were playing at a small bar in Shinjuku and Jeff couldn't go out for work reasons. As I hadn't seen a band other than Mooney at the BC in months, and I hadn't really been out with Macky much, I said what the heck.

It was a small bar, very cool, in Shinjuku ni-chome (i.e., "Gay Town"). There were only a dozen or so people there, but the Shell Rockets were great. Tsuyoshi and his wife Azusa are the best-looking rock couple in Japan, I have decided. Tsuyoshi always has a fun hat and sunglasses on, and Azusa always wears a beret and some vintage-style dress. So cute.

The other band was just OK. The singer, who apparently stole Aki from Sachiya, looks a bit like a mad blond monkey. I don't get it. The bass-player was good, tho, and I noted that it's OK for men in Japan to have butterflies and flowers in their tattoos.

In any case, we left before the second band finished and went to King Biscuit.

King Biscuit is a small, very dark bar with a blues soundtrack, where I had the pleasure of meeting the manager-bartender, a master blues-harpist called Hiroki. After he showed me his homemade harmonica-holster and played a tune for us (a patron paid him to play), Macky told me I could call him HiroKING.

Yeah, damn straight. I guessed correctly that he was unmarried, and speculated that any woman would feel inferior after seeing how he made love to that harp. A wife would always play second, uh, fiddle.

After a couple whiskey-sodas, we wandered back downstairs and ran into Tsuyoshi and Azusa. Tsuyoshi said he wants to have a band with me and Jeff. OK by us.

Hiroki came out on the balcony and reverse-serenaded us, and this time, I had the camera set to video. Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHYlJVLG7fM

Jay called, and we drove around for awhile looking for him. Macky kept asking him, "OK, what are you seeing?" We eventually found him in the company of his girlfriend Geri (sp?) and two kind RAB-looking girls from Canada, Sara and her sister Melissa (Jay had met them online and desperately wanted to be saved from them). This was Melissa's last night and somehow we convinced Macky to take us to a karaoke-box place (tho he insisted karaoke was totally uncool and he would never do it. But he later confessed he caved because he had never done it with gaijin and was used to all the bad J-pop that is usually done). It was a bizarre and funny experience. Pretty decent English song collection, and they kept the grapefruit sours coming. Jay didn't like me for the moment (?) because my first song was an Aztec Camera song and he said singer Roddy Frame was the only musician he had ever heckled. It was last year and he made him cry. Anyway, now I can say I've done the karaoke thing properly, like out of Lost in Translation.

After this, Macky put them all in a cab and gave the driver vague directions to the smallest bar in Tokyo (he was driving the little pickup, which only has 2 seats and the dozens of cops in Tokyo wouldn't tolerate back-riders). Jay was convinced that we were ditching them. We did lose them for a while, because we couldn't find where the cab had dropped them off and Macky's phone was dead due to non-payment. We did eventually think of calling him from my phone and we found them at last, after more "what are you seeing?"

The smallest bar in Tokyo really is. There's a bar that seats about 8, and the wall is directly behind the stools. The walls slide, because in order to go from one end of the bar to the other, you have to literally slide the wall open, go outside, and slide the wall the other way to get in. Once inside, you slide it shut again. The bar is very cool, tho, and I liked the bartender-mgr Ebi-chan (funny name, ebi means shrimp). The bar has been featured in an article on rock and roll drinking and dining establishments in the premier issue of Rolling Stone Japan, just out this month. The picture if the bar in the magazine makes it look a lot bigger than it is.

I was ready to go after one beer, as it was nearing 4 am and Sara was next to me, telling me her life story, with all the details about her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend, her divorced parents, her 46-yr-old roommate who is lying about her age to her fiancee, etc.

Ugh, I got home at 5 am, and had to somehow get up at 7 to get the kids off to school. Then I went directly back to bed. Gotta rest up so I can meet the folks at the BC tonight.

The boys' friend Kumi came over after school. She is one of my favorite kids at Horizon. She has joined the ranks of people being picked on by a small group of veteran 4th-grade girls. Apparently so have I, though I have been nothing but nice to them. They say I "smell." They actually ran away from me as I was approaching their bus stop on the way to pick up the boys at school. When I got to school, I found M comforting Kumi, who was crying because those girls were being mean to her. They had been mean to both my boys, too, on various occasions. One of those girls was, a few weeks ago, M's "girlfriend," but she had stopped talking to him apparently because of some rumor started by the school bully. I do believe that little girls are among the cruellest creatures on earth. So I took the three of them to a combini and bought them treats. Sometimes I forget how hard it is to be a kid. I want to wring the little necks of those girls, or at least give them a good telling off. But I probably won't, because that kind of response only tends to make matters worse for the kids being picked on. I hope they feel guilty some day. I do, from the one time Debbie and I ganged up on Monica for one day, for no reason, and made her cry. I bet she doesn't even remember that, but I do.

Oh, yeah, and the seeing GOD thing:

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Party pics link

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Party Time

We decided it was time to host another party. Though Jeff doesn't want to call them 'parties,' but 'dinners,' since they revolve around food. However, since they seem to revolve equally around alcohol, I don't see anything wrong with calling them parties. Whatever.

We had some of the usual suspects show, plus some unexpected faces, like Suzan (the photographer/Blue Corn fixture), Chris (whom Jeff met at Japan Orientation), Sakai (candlemaker extraordinaire), Ojiji (not sure where he came from), Hiroko (replacing Tai-chan as Macky's personal assistant?), and Abbey (and his Dingo, or Shiba Inu or whatever). Judging from the amount of people passed out on the floor at various points in the evening, it was a success. Apparently some of the 'sleeping' were attacked with markers, but I was already in bed. I can't believe no one took pictures of that.

We did have lovely food. I tried out chicken-stuffed mushroom caps (yum) and Southeast Asian Imperial Rolls (lemme tell you, rice paper is hard to work with when totally sober, yet alone halfway through the evening, which was necessary because I had to wait for Suzan to show up with the carrots that Jeff spaced), and I put out Valerie's Hot-Sweet Peppers over cream cheese. Macky made a bunch of nabe pot stuff, like shabu shabu and some other yummy soup-stuff. (I have so much leftover food in my fridge that I have to get really creative this week to get rid of it all. I have no idea what to do with all that cabbage. The 16 different kinds of mushrooms are going to be soup today.) I think I also figured out why the massive amounts of rice Jeff always has me make never gets eaten: I read that rice isn't generally eaten with alcohol, since the traditional alcohol of choice, sake, is made from rice and is thus considered a substitute for it. Figures the Japanese would consider alcohol a food group.

There were a bunch of bizarre photos taken (this is what happens when you are not in control of your camera), but Flickr is being uncooperative at the moment. I'll post a link later. In the meantime, here's Macky playing air-guitar on a gobo, or burdock root.

In other news, Jeff may be buying a car today, for those trips that the bus-and-train transportation option makes inconvenient, and for weekend/summer roadtrips. So let's see, I'm a housewife who volunteers at the kids' library, my kids play soccer after school, and we're getting a minivan. But, whatever, I'm still in Japan.

About a week and half 'til we go to Singapore!