Tuesday, April 24, 2007

International Children's Day at HJIS

Last week was pretty much a wasted one. The kids and I took turns getting sick, and Jeff was entertaining some visitors on the base all week, so we didn't see much of him. Our plans to go to the Yokohama Jug Band Festival (one of the 2 such festivals internationally, the other being in Sweden, or so I'm told) due to illness, and because M had to go to school on Saturday afternoon for rehearsal. I wasn't going to have him go, but them I found out he was one of only 6 kids doing this Turkish dance and he had missed Friday's rehearsal because he was home sick. By Saturday evening, I was stir-crazy, Jeff was exhausted, and the kids were crabby from the stupid week we'd had.


Sunday was the International Children's Day celebration at the kids' school. There was lots of good international food there. I brought homemade chili, which I was happy to see disappear (I even got asked for the recipe!), and I almost burned a hole in my cheek with the Thai pepper I accidentally ate (ever have one of those tiny peppers they call "mouse turd"? They are the hottest little things in the world).

There was a performance by the kids, and a guy from New Zealand taught the females and males traditional Maori dances.

Have you noticed half the kids' eyes are glowing? Like Jason Curry is conducting a robot-alien-zombie choir. I don't know what kind of mind-control they are using on our kids.

M in his Turkish costume. The irony.

Here's a medley of the international songs the kids performed, including a Bob Marley song, a Frere Jacques round, "We Will Rock You", a Turkish song, and the aforementioned Turkish dance (the whole Turkish element of the school still weirds me out a little):

The best part was seeing all the kids in their traditional costumes.

Determined to get out of the house more, especially since Jeff has to fly to Hawaii for a couple days to conduct an interview, I met Helen at the BC. It was a pretty dead night, so Takeshi let us DJ with our iPods. That was pretty fun. Monday was crappy, but everything seems to be back to normal today, so here's hoping the rest of the week is more pleasant than the last one.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Robin, Dan, and Hannah 2

Well, our guests left yesterday. It was great to have them; they were wonderful guests. Very helpful around the house, laid back. We did some exploring and lots of just hanging out, catching up on Seattle stuff. A very family-like visit.

Saturday ended up being a really nice day, so we took advantage of our new car and headed to Enoshima, which is a sea-side town off of Fujisawa city, and near Kamakura. Jeff's barber told him about it. It took us longer to get there than anticipated due to traffic, etc., and we got a late start, so we didn't get to see the tourist features (shrines, caves, and stuff you can read about here, if you want), but it turned into just a nice day at the beach. The waves were big and close to shore, so there were many windsurfers and regular surfers to watch, and the kids had a great time playing.

I think this sign was just meant to keep visitors aware of their trash, because it wasn't a nasty beach or anything. I thought it was really funny.

We stuck around the beach til the sun started to go down, and then walked across the bridge to the islet itself. There is an amazing view of Fuji-san on a clear day (which it was), which made Enoshima popular with ukiyo-e artists like Hosuge and Hokusai. I took about 60 pictures of it, but here are 2:

In the little town, there was a street lined with seafood restaurants and beachy-trinket shops filled with dried pufferfish and beer mugs made out of dried squid. Odd. We decided on a restaurant, where my dinner included a local specialty turbo shell, or sazae, which I had been wanting to try ever since I saw the TBM boys do it on the some-day-released DVD of their last Japan tour). Mostly, it was a chewy cross between a snail and a clam, until I got to the Prussian-blue end pieces, which tasted like nothing I'd ever tasted before, and hope never to taste again (we made Dan try it, too, and there is a great sequence of pictures documenting this on flickr). Thankfully, I finally got rid of the taste with some lovely sakura-flavored soft cream at the bottom of the street.

The last full day of the visit, Jeff wanted to show off his beloved Yokohama. There was a whole list of possible things to do, but we decided on Nogeyama Zoo, which is free! The highlights for me were the condors, the red panda (which looks like someone sewed together at least three different stuffed animals, really cute), the very photogenic peacocks (including a white one!), and of course, the amazing petting zoo. It wasn't like any petting zoo I've ever experienced. Usually it's a few sheep and goats wandering around in their own feces, but this was really cool. Hordes of children freely playing with mice, chicks, roosters, and guinea pigs. They provided little quilted pads you could put on your lap. Almost totally unsupervised. D bonded with a rooster. I decided we need to get some mice.

After, we went back to Yokohama station and took the Sea Bass to Yamashita Park, where we had a after-dark picnic with stuff we picked up on the Sogo food floor (where our guests were a little overwhelmed by the choices and the crowds). The boat ride was really nice, a good way to relax and see the Yokohama skyline from a different perspective. We ate across the street from the Hotel New Grand, which Jeff explained was where MacArthur lived during the American Occupation, as it was one of the few places we hadn't leveled with the thousands of bombs we dropped on the city.

After dinner, Jeff took the kids to dessert at a place that had humongous parfaits (he also learned of this from his barber), and I took Dan and Robin our for a quiet drink. I wanted to go to the bar on top of the Sheraton, but they had live music and a large cover. We tried the regular, less-cool bar downstairs, but they were full and we were rather rudely turned away. I'm not so happy with the Sheraton. That was our home for the first 10 days we lived here, and now that we aren't staying there, I felt very unwelcome. Anyway, we went over to the CIAL building and found a place to have a couple beers.

All in all, a great visit with good friends. See more pictures of Enoshima and the zoo here.

This coming weekend should be fun (especially for Jeff, who is working late hours this week). There is a Jug Band Festival in Yokohama on Saturday, and an International Children's Festival at the kids' school on Sunday. M tells me he has been practicing a Turkish song and dance this week. The flier for the festival asked that we wear clothing representing our countries. What do you suppose that clothing would be for us? It's funny how Americans don't have a native costume. It's not like we can dress up in buckskins and feathers. Maybe some combination of gangsta and cowboy?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Robin, Dan, and Hannah Visit Japan

Robin, Dan, and Hannah, our third set of visitors, have come to spend the week with us. Dan was here before, years ago, with the Navy, but it's a first time for Robin and Hannah. They are being very adventurous with the food, which for gourmandizer Robin is par for the course, but is impressive for a 9-year-old. With our new car, which we can finally drive, we went to the ramen shop that Jeff has been itching to go to since we started buying the car.

We went to the Meiji Shrine the other day. This is my fourth time, I think, but it's always different. I've been there in the late summer, fall, and winter, and the trees were different each time. Now I got to see in the first greening of spring, and it was lovely.

Oddly, there was a lot of sweeping going on, as traditionally-dressed people with brooms chased the falling leaves that were falling like it was uh, fall. I theorized that it was due to the very mild winter, which maybe didn't knock all the leaves off the trees with serious winds and/or snow. So, now as the new leaves are coming in, they are pushing off the old, like an adult tooth pushes out a baby tooth. I can't think if why else the leaves were all falling, unless it's a Japanese seasonal peculiarity. Anyway, I didn't try to pair the visit with a shop-n-stroll around Harajuku's Takeshita-dori this time, so there was a more leisurely pace that allowed us to see more than just the main shrine. For instance, I didn't now there was a set of gardens enclosing an azalea garden, an iris garden (not in bloom yet), a well, and Empress Shoken's favorite fishing spot (she was the wife of Emperor Meiji, in whose honor the Meiji Shrine was built). We also saw the treasure museum, which I hadn't had time to see before. After all that walking (and them still dealing with the jet-lag that was taking way longer to go away than they had imagined), we had a lovely sit-lie down by the water. Nice spot.

The next day, Dan took a trip down memory lane and wandered about Yokosuka before meeting up with Jeff. Hannah went to school with the boys. Now when her friends ask her what she did over Spring Break, she can say "went to school." Robin and I went to Chinatown, which I'd been wanting to do since I missed Chinese New Year there due to illness. The riotously-colored and carved Chinese shrines there were a nice counterpoint to the zen, natural-wood at Meiji Shrine the day before. We ate some really great soft ice cream (apricot and mango) and walked around, looking at the amazing shrines, snapping pictures, looking at all the interesting food. We successfully ordered a lunch that was like a dim-sum sampler and too big for me to finish. I did eat the almond-milk-pudding dessert, of course.

We found an organic honey store and Robin told me about Manuka honey, which is a NZ product that apparently has all sorts of anti-bacterial and antibiotic properties. They had a shelf of it, but it was expensive. I know where to find it now if I need it. They also had a tasting bar. We were offered a tiny spoonful of taste of one, and I asked, recklessly, "can we try them all?" There were 10, I think, and we did try them all. I didn't realize that honey could come in so many flavors! I ended up buying a jar of honey was flavored with some kind of fruit, but tastes like jasmine. As we were walking back to the train station, I got an allergy attack and felt a bit crazy. I believe I was having a honey overdose.

See some more pictures of Meiji in spring and Chinatown here.

That night, Robin and I had girl-talk over apricot wine while Jeff was giving Dan the rockstar tour of Yokohama and Tokyo.

Our guests took the train to Kyoto for the night, to stay in a ryokan and see some traditional Japan. When they get back, I am taking them to, where else, the Blue Corn, to meet Helen and perhaps Martine.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Sakura to Kuruma

No hanami (cherry-blossom-viewing party) this year, at least not so far, but I did take a bunch of pictures of the sakura in the neighborhood.

These kids are fishing for crayfish with bits of squid as bait. I don't know what they do with them once they catch them; eat them or look at them, I don't know.

There's some more springy neighborhood photos here.

Also, we have a car!

Sadly, we can't drive it yet. You can't take a car home until you have proof that you have somewhere to park it. You have to go to the police station and they have to come out and look at, and measure, your parking space. That took awhile to take care of: we were in Singapore for a week, and Macky was in charge of getting that paperwork taken care of. He's a busy DJ-man. So that finally got taken care of, and Jeff got the car home and into the space, but it has temporary tags.

They're really obvious. You aren't supposed to drive it much, like just to the place where you get real license plates. So, no picking up Dan, Robin, and Hannah from the airport tomorrow, because Jeff can't do it the tag thing 'til Monday. This country is KING when it comes to paperwork and waiting-time. But we have it, and it's quite roomy. Easily seat 4 adults and 3 kids. Yes, yes, we have a minivan.

The Tomazic-Kohrmanns (Kohrmen?) are coming tomorrow! Hannah will be our first child visitor (Katie's 16, that's not the same thing), so we'll see how that goes. Hopefully she will be followed by more (you know who you are, parents).

Happy First (belated) Birthday to my nephew Nathan. Haven't heard much about him lately, and I need some recent pictures, Scott!

As a bonus, here's some pics of girls with really big hair.

Many adventures (the good kind) next time, I'm sure.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Singapore Summary

We're back from Singapore! I just couldn't bring myself to do daily updates, as we were exhausting ourselves. The kids especially. We had to learn to take it easier, because we learned that they can't move at the Jeff-and-Sandi-Abroad pace. I think both of us came really close to strangling them after all the complaining and whining and snarling, so we took a day to really chill out at the apartment and tried not to pack too much into one day. When they are a little older, it will be easier to travel with them. We sincerely hope.

Anyway, we did Sentosa Island, which is a whole island of adventure. There was Butterfly Park, which was a tropical paradise of flowers and lush greenery, waterfalls, and of course, lots of photogenic butterflies. Then there was Insect Kingdom, which D of course loved. Then we took a refreshing break at the beach while waiting for the show at Dolphin Lagoon. M was sad because he thought had been picked for an up-close encounter, but it turned out that the guy behind him was picked (should've chosen the kid rather than the adult in my opinion, but what can you do). Then Underwater World, which was really cool for the stingray petting pool (they are surprisingly slimy and sharks are surprisingly squishy-feeling) and the massive tunnel-shaped aquarium. Lastly was the multi-media show, that had cheesy songs but cool pyrotechnics and lasers and projections with water-spray. Never saw anything like it. All the Sentosa Island pics are here.

We also did some downtown stuff, like The Fountain of Wealth at Suntec City, and some ridiculous mini-Akihabara-like mall stuffed with electronics. Kids hated that, despite the fact that we got them each a DS game and a charger that we could use in Singapore (hadn't planned on the voltage difference). We went to Little India for dinner, after being waylaid by a tailor whose wife tried to convince me to buy a topaz pendant. We managed to walk away and not spend a thousand bucks. Sadly, we wasted a lot of time there and had little time to explore the area. As it was mostly shopping, I'm sure the kids weren't sad about it. Dinner was OK, at a place that was excited to have 'barefoot dining.' Coming from Japan, this wasn't much of a novelty, and the kids didn't each much due to the spiciness, but the chef-owner was super nice. Pics of this day can be found here. After that was a long drawn-out march in search of a bus and/or taxi to get us home that crabbed everyone out and is best forgotten. Because of this crab-factor though, we did really nothing the next day but watch TV and play video games or whatever. We did go to a Thai restaurant for dinner. It was OK. Personally, outside of Thailand, I think the best Thai food can be found in Seattle.

The next day was, in my opinion, our best day. We woke up slowly and then took a taxi to Bukit Tamah Nature Reserve, which is a large rain forest with many trails. We took the easy ones, obviously. We were hoping for monkey and lemur sightings, but what we got was a massive thunderstorm. Luckily, we were near a shelter when it started and we got to wait it out there. It was a doozy, too. Right over top of us. The heaviest rain I have ever experienced, to the point of turning the trail into a small river. I was worried for minute that we would have be rescued by a ranger or something. The thunder was so dramatic that it reduced poor D to tears, as he huddled into us in fear. He got over it eventually, as the storm lessened in intensity at last and we were bale to continue our hike. It is an amazingly beautiful place. I was in awe of the trees, twisty root formations, and crazy climbing vines. The chirping squirrels came out when the rain stopped and man, they were loud. M and I thought at first that somebody was running a chainsaw around the bend, but finally we saw a helpful sign about the squirrels. We also some some colorful birds. We were disappointed not to have spotted any monkeys (I was certain that the crowds of loud schoolkids were as much responsible for their scarcity as the rain), but that was soon to be remedied.

We walked out of the park into a residential area. We were just walking down the sidewalk when the monkeys started appearing. On the sidewalk. I was so excited that I started snapping pictures like crazy, but then they got closer, and closer, and CLOSER. They came right up to us. The kids were in absolute ecstasy and M started taking a ton of pictures, too. I had to stop M from getting any closer to a mom nursing a baby, because he was convinced that she had smiled at him. I had to explain that teeth-baring does not necessarily mean smiling in monkey body-language. I couldn't believe this close encounter, then I saw the huge billboard that said STOP FEEDING THE MONKEYS. I guess they figured they'd get more action outside the park.

When we finally dragged the kids away before they could cross the monkeys' personal boundaries, we stopped for a snack at this wonderful little confectionery in a strip-mall of ethnic eateries. I had seen a show on the bus about the recent popularity of Portuguese egg-tarts and this guy had them in a case. That led to the zebra cakes, cream puffs, and dozen assorted fruit-flavored mini-muffins for tomorrow's breakfast. We got a ton of stuff, and it was really cheap (shh, a woman cautioned us. Not so loud, or he'll increase the prices!) We also got one durian-creme pastry to try, because we just had to (do you know about durians? if not, read about them here. There were actually some taxis that had No Durian stickers on the window). It was really rather uh, nasty, but Jeff admitted that he could see how they could become an acquired taste. I probably won't acquire it. The kids were brave, but they probably won't acquire the taste, either.

That night, we got a sitter (really nice lady named Rose. She is the head-housekeeper where we were staying.) and went out to Clark Quay (pronounced 'key'). We had a drink at the poor-man's bar section of Clinic, which is a fun club that serves nasty sweet Girls' Night Out-type drinks on syringes and IV-drip bags. We got ordinary drinks. Then we crashed a private function at a Moroccan bar that had great decor. We ended up at The Forbidden City (after its private party had ended). That place was cooool. Big place, great ambiance (spacey lights, huge fishtanks), groovy music, good drinks (I forget whats it's called, but it has red wine, 7-up, lime, and mint), and some live drumming. As Jeff and I started getting into the music, we asked if they had a dance floor. We were told 'you're on it.' So we started dancing first, and soon were joined by others. Unfortunately, the DJ eventually fell into that monotonous-beat not-interesting crap that the dance floors of the world have fallen prey to in the past decade (kids these days), so we took off after awhile. But it was amazing while it lasted and we finally got to dance after far too long. We ran into a Dutch guy we had met on the bus the other night (small world) and we almost went into Clinic with him, but the cover was too high and the music not dissimilar enough to what we had just left, so we decided to bail on Clark Quay. After a long ATM and taxi search, we got back to our neighborhood and went for a nightcap at the loud karaoke bar we had been overhearing all week. We were told they were closing in ten minutes, so I got my beer and Jeff got nothing (this was a good thing by this point, trust me). Somehow, we were adopted by the remaining patrons and ended up staying significantly longer. We had a couple drinks poured for us (brandy and sweet green tea, kinda weird) and talked to Fiona, Edwin 'Scissorhands,' and Kelvin, all Malay locals with very western names.

Pics of our greatest day here.

The next day, we slept in a bit (obviously), packed up our stuff, and went to the Singapore Zoo
for our last day. It's a beautiful zoo. We had yet another rainstorm to deal with, but we passed the time watching the pygmy hippos swim, and it cooled the day off nicely. I think the hippos and the white tigers were the highlights.

We had this grand plan of going to the Changi airport around dinner time at whiling away our time with the famous 24-hour amenities like free movies, X-Box games, shopping, massaging nap-chairs, etc. (our flight was at 6am, so we'd have to be there at 4am anyway, so there was little point in paying for a hotel room). Unfortunately, all that stuff was on the other side of immigration and we couldn't check in because the NWA office was closed or some such BS, so we had HOURS to kill on the uninteresting side of the airport. We had to do something, so we took a cab to Mustafa Center, a 24-hour shopping mall in Little India. What a madhouse. Indians cramming the narrow aisles of bargain electronics, saris and other assorted clothes, and all kinds of random stuff. I could've stayed longer, it was kind of fun and the fabrics were divine, but D had fallen asleep on the stairs, so we had to go. We found the 'Viewing Mall' at the airport, which was a hall with dim lighting and soft music, and had a nap on the cold floor.

I slept almost the whole flight home, which is almost unheard-of for me. I think I'm getting the hang of this traveling thing at last.

Singapore is a weird and wonderful cultural mix of Indian, Chinese, and Malay, with western tourists all over, especially Australians. The official language is English, but it's more accurately Singlish, with a heavy accent and its own almost dialectical differences. We had a hard time with the lingo at times, but we managed. It's easier than Japanese, anyway. The people seemed rather abrupt at first, and kind of smart-assed at times, but we warmed to them at the end. Our most recent experience is with the most polite people in the world, so we weren't quite used to the rest of the world's chaos. It was good to take a bath in our wonderfully-deep-and-hot tub when we got home, tho, I must say.

Here's some pics that I couldn't previously post of the first couple days.

If you haven't already, go take a look at the rest of the pictures. I took about 6 million, but what can I say, it was an interesting and beautiful island.