Monday, May 28, 2007

Japan is funny

Lots of family time this long weekend. On Saturday, we went to the Yokosuka base, where they were having a furniture sale. We'd been wanting to pick up some cool furniture while we were here, and the prices were quite reasonable. We finally decided on these lovely pieces:

It's actually one of those step cabinets ("very popular with Americans"), but we decided it looked better un-stepped here. Finally, I could get all those liquor bottles off the kitchen counter!

A place for our DVDs, etc. Note the other cool purchase, the leopard footstool. The man who sold it to me showed me the "secret" compartment under the lid, where I could "hide a million dollars." We decided to put the remotes in there instead.

We followed up our shopping spree with a visit to the base's Taco Bell and bowling alley. I like the bowling alley on base; they have bumpers. For the kids And their aim-deficient mom. Yes, I admit it: I suck at bowling and I like bumpers.

Sunday, we went to the other nearby base, Negishi (it was the site of an old racetrack, see above). Why would we want to spend another day in Little America? you might ask. Simple reason:

The difference in the cost of going to see Pirates of the Caribbean: World's End on the base and Spiderman 3 at World Porters in Yokohama the other week was about $50. No kidding. The theater, though small, had totally decent sound. The movie was awesome, too. Keira Knightley looked so awesome as The Pirate King (don't ask, go see it) that she almost rivaled Captain Jack Sparrow in terms of fun-to-look-at. But not quite. This is Johnny Depp we're talking about.

We followed this by a trip to the pool, in which I didn't swim because I forgot my suit, and M almost but didn't take his swim test. The changing room had this great machine I didn't get to use that extracts water from your bathing suit. That might've been more fun that actually swimming.

Despite our previous experience with it, we decided to have dinner at the All Hands Mess. Worst. Dinner. Ever. It reminded me of all those M*A*S*H episodes in which the cook tried to get creative with powdered eggs and Spam. I had the soggiest tempura in the world. Jeff's bad steak was accompanied by 'mushrooms sauteed in garlic' that tasted like the can they came in. M didn't finish his dry chicken soft taco. D gobbled up his tiny personal cheese pizza, probably because he likes food that doesn't taste like anything. Or maybe he wanted to finish quickly so he could put his goofy teeth back in.

After dinner, we went to the six-lane Bowling Center, where Jeff and I had a rousing game of table tennis (I'm just learning, but already improving) and the family failed to come close to beating the Family Score established yesterday. We sucked. But I love watching the kids' techniques. D hurls the ball from him with such force that when it drops, I can almost see the hole in the floor.

From the parking lot, we noticed a building feature that belied the usually-strict Navy safety regulations:

Watch that first step, it's a lulu!

Monday, Memorial Day, was a holiday for Jeff, but not for the kids, so we had one of those rare just-the-two-of-us days. We did some shopping in and around Yokohama Station. In Yodobashi Camera, a technology megaplex, I learned that the season is now Early Summer. This will be followed by The Rainy Season, and then the Ridiculously Hot and Sticky Season.

We also had an experience of extreme Japanese politeness: Jeff, when paying for DVD cases with cash, accidentally let a one yen (penny) fall into the tray. Rather than just give it back, the clerk added it to the paid amount and gave it back as change.

Vowing to not have as crappy a lunch as the previous dinner, Jeff used his food-dar and steered us to the Oriental Cafe, a reggae-themed place with outside seating. The menu was entirely in Japanese, with no pictures! but with our limited skills with kana, we managed to order pasta and risotto. I am happy to say that both were delicious.

Being near Tokyu Hands, we thought it would be fun to try and track down a girl of our acquaintance called Yamato. We did not find her (even though we tried asking a clerk if she was working, despite the fact that we knew neither her last name or what floor she worked on), but we did find some fine examples of Japanese technological ingenuity, such as The Banana Guard:

The Beer Smoother, which improves the pour from can to glass:

and the T-qualiser, a T-shirt with built in graphic equalizer that responds to the sounds around you. How fun would that be at a dance club?

We also discovered that Tokyu Hands is now carrying antique furniture. I guess it's consignment from another shop. We found a gorgeous Nouveau piece that wasn't too much and is perfect for the bedroom. Bonus well spent. Our house feels much warmer and homier with the new additions and less blank whiteness.

Next, Jeff took me to 2 places he'd been dying to show me. First was a coffee shop that would make any Seattleite jittery with delight: Cafe Tonya. Everything to do with coffee you can think of, they have.

I don't know why the beans are that color; perhaps they are as-yet unroasted? We didn't buy any coffee to take home, as it was prohibitively pricey, but we got a cup to go (which is hard to find outside of Star*ucks), which was only 100 yen!

Next was a shop that sold antique swords, knives, and their fittings. They were sadly unavailable for us, as they cost thousands of dollars and cannot be taken out of the country when we go back to the US, but they were nice to drool over. And maybe we'll splurge on our way out and start a collection of antique tsubas, which are really cool and would look neat displayed.

I just liked this sign:

It was a great extended weekend with lots of family-time. Tonight, I shall balance out all that family-ness at the Blue Corn. I haven't been out on a while.

As a bonus, here is the "3-a-day" song from the dairy section of the Fuji supermarket where I shop. I hear this several times a week, and find myself humming it at odd moments.

Maybe next time, if you're lucky, I'll post the "Sakana" song from the fish section. That one gets in your head like you wouldn't believe.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Clams, mice, cats

On Friday, I went on a clam-digging field trip with the 2nd and 4th grade classes. I had never been clam-digging before, so I didn't know what to expect. Holy crap, there were a lot of people there.

We got a ton of clams.

Some random kid, unconnected with us, dropped a skeleton on the ground at our feet. We were speculating that it might have been an eel. I really wanted to take it home and give it to Jeff for his birthday, but the kid wanted it back.

I was full of great ideas for how to prepare our hundred small and three large clams. I put 'em in salt water, I shucked 'em all, and cooked 'em up in chowder and fried some with butter and garlic to serve on top of spaghetti. Sadly, the chowder was too clammy to be palatable, and the spaghetti ended up with sand in it. A lot of work for little reward. See more pictures of the clam beach, including M and friends getting buried, here.

Sunday, after a late-night whist championship with Helen, we went to a BBQ/Field Day event at a park with the school. It took us awhile to find the location of the events, but the one game I did see was the greatest idea ever. All the kids had to run around in a circle until they couldn't run anymore. The last kids standing were the winners. This game should be required for every event that includes children.

The park also included a petting zoo. Of the mice, chicken, baby chick, and guinea pig variety. I decided I hate these places, because all these small animals are being handled, rather roughly, by hundreds of small children. After trying to explain to one tiny girl how to hold a mouse without squeezing the life out of it, I finally rescued the rodent from her tiny clutches and it 'accidentally' crawled into my backpack and came home with me. Her name is Ruby. This isn't the exact mouse, but they all look pretty much the same. She is, hopefully, much happier and safer at my house, and I have something mammalian to play with at last. Yes, stealing is wrong, but saving a life is good. Right?

Monday was a random day off for the kids. Supposedly it was the observance of the school's anniversary. Whatever. In any case, Jeff had also taken a day off to recuperate from his trip. We went to Sankeien Gardens, where we had tried to go with Josh (it was closing that day). We took Kumi along, and Janie came with Hana and baby Owen.

Sankeien Garden was built by Tomitaro Hara (1868-1939), a silk trader most widely known by his pseudonym, Sankei Hara. He originally developed this garden as his private residence, but then opened it for public viewing on May 1, 1906. This authentic Japanese garden extends over 18 hectares and incorporates the natural terrains of undulating hills, glens, streams and ponds. The wooden structures, some of which were relocated from Japan's ancient capital cities of Kyoto and Kamakura, blend beautifully and harmoniously with flowers, trees and other natural landscapes. Moreover each season accentuates the buildings and the natural environment with a different hue to create a scene unique to its own.

You could go inside one of the houses, a cool 2-story structure.

There was a cool pagoda, too.

There were numerous little cafes and teahouses on the grounds. We had a snack here. There were cats all over the park, and this particular liked to hang out and beg for food. I discovered that it liked ramen. I fed it some noodles, and then gave it the rest of my broth, which it lapped up in spite of the spices. Then it bit D, maybe because he didn't have any food.

The kids.

The grownups. Mostly.

The kids fed the koi a bunch of old bread purchased on site. We saw many turtles, too.

See more pictures of this gorgeous place here.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Things that go Beep.

As I was filling my bathtub this morning and checking my email, something in the house started beeping. As I walked through the place, trying to locate the origin of the sound, I ran the list of possibilities through my mind:

  • The fridge that beeps if you leave it ajar
  • The microwave/convection/oven/toaster that beeps when it's done
  • The rice-cooker that beeps when it's done
  • The washer-dryer that beeps when it's done
  • The kids' alarm clock that they may have improperly set
  • An alarm clock that Jeff left behind and set (improperly) for the middle of the night for a US eastcoast teleconference
  • A car backing up outside
  • The smoke detector that goes off for steam
  • One of the many electronic devices laying around (GameBoys, computers, MushKing Tomagatchi, etc.)
But it was none of those things. It was the hot-water-controlling panel in the kitchen. The bathtub was overflowing and the hot water had overloaded again, but this happens all the time. It's OK if the tub overflows, since the whole room is a shower. The flashing error message and hot-water dysfunction is something I've learned to live with (though I have complained to the manager a few times and they are aware of it). I don't know why it was beeping and I don't know why it was the kitchen panel and not the bathroom panel (they are connected). I will never understand the damned thing. I know I can control the water temperature. Sometimes. When it doesn't freak out and stop heating the water. I also know I can heat up the water once I have filled it with cold water when it does freak out. Which is most of the time. But there are like 8 buttons on the thing that I think could be really cool if there was a manual and I could read kanji. Like automatic shut-off when it's full. Some sort of auto-fill on a timer. Things that would enable me to walk away and do other things instead of coming back to check on it every five minutes so I can turn the hot water back on when it shuts off and blinks "E06" at me.


However, the accidental configuration of my breakfast on the plate this morning did make me smile.

And for those of you who think Japan is expensive, I say Nonsense! You can get a whole box of cherries for a mere (approximately) $56 US!

I've read about people who will buy a box of perfect cherries or strawberries as a gift for someone and then eat cheap noodles all week to compensate for the expenditure. I guess it's no weirder than buying a dozen long-stemmed roses that are going to be dead in under a week. At least you can eat the fruit, right? And just for fun, how about a $20 watermelon?

We eat lots of bananas. Sigh.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Izu Road Trip

By Friday morning, Helen, Amy, and I were on our way to the Izu Peninsula in a rental car. Our road trip officially began with a stop at the combini on the next block, so we could get a beer. Our destination was just past Shimoda, the supposed landing site of The Black Ships (Admiral Perry's fleet that re-opened Japan to the West in 1853. Although I have read conflicting literature on where they actually landed, some say other places, but Shimoda plays it up for tourism).

Amy, who had gotten her international driver's license before she left England, did all the driving (thank you, Amy!). It was really a lovely drive, too, once we got away from the city. Lots of hilly green stuff, kind of reminded me of driving in the foothill of the Cascades. And then Fuji!

We stopped at Gotemba Premium Outlets on the way, which at first seemed to be like other outlet malls I had been to in the States, but it was much bigger and had Mt Fuji in the background. I got the dress of my dreams at French Connection (which I had only know by its infamous initials fcuk). I wouldn't normally have spent so much on a dress, but it was GORGEOUS and half-off. I HAD to, Jeff, if you're reading this, you'll understand when you see it. (Jeff is currently in Virginia for work).

After we had some cheap lunch at the food court (I will always prefer Japanese food courts. For little more than the price of a greasy piece of Sbarro's pizza, I can get a bowl of udon with tempura), we finished the trip. It got really windy (as in wiggly, not blustery)-- ridiculously so as we screwed down the Spiral Bridge, Amy's least-favorite part of the drive.

(I did not take this picture, by the way)

We got into the Ohama beach area around dinner time. Helen had stayed at a guest house a couple years ago and we were going to try that one, banking that there would be rooms. It was the week after Golden Week, after all. Turns out we were the only guests in the place, so we got not only a room, but a whole house to ourselves.

Okay, it's not entirely true that we were the only guests. The was an alarmingly-large spider in our room also.

The environs of the house were cute little farms growing all sorts of known and mysterious vegetables.

We had small dinner at The Paradise Cafe, which is owned by Kenny, a good friend of Mooney's and also a blues-guitar player.

There had been a border dispute with the new owners of the hotel next door, so the whole place was moved over about a meter! The newly re-opened bar has all brand new, good-smelling wood and a vaguely Hawaiian theme (Kenny's wife is Hawaiian). My only complaint was the reggae music. At least it was Bob Marley, which is about the only reggae I can tolerate (stemming from a good memory of making a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner with Karla in San Francisco). I think we heard the same CD 80 times over the course of the weekend, possibly because the CD player was in a really inaccessible location and too hard to change. Anyway, we drank, and met Dave (London) and Todd (Australia). We wove our way back to the guest house and fell asleep on our futons to the sound of frogs.

In the morning, as we were getting ready to go out and hit the beach, the nice lady who ran the place gave us some large, heavy citrus fruits that grow in the trees outside (I forget what they are called). Six of them actually. We had no way to eat them, as they had really thick rinds and we had no knife, but we figured they made excellent beach-mat weights. We had some beans and toast at Paradise Cafe (an English student favorite, I was told. Never had it before. Not bad.)

The beach was nearly deserted, maybe because it was a less-popular one (apparently nearby Shirahata is where all The Kids hang out), so it was quite peaceful. We did some exploring of the crazy volcanic-looking rock-formations, the mini-islands marooned in the sand, and the cave that is popular for after-dark parties. Other than that, we laid around, snacked and played cards at the cafe across the road (I learned to play whist, which is a game I've always read about in Jane Austen-type novels. It's just like euchre), played with bubbles, waded in the water (the Brits called it 'going for a paddle'), watched the surfers wait eternally for a decent wave, and generally lazed about. After standing in the surf for a while, mesmerized by the water, I noticed my legs were used to the cold of it. Actually, I think they had gone numb, because I realized how cold it really was when I gave in to temptation to play in the waves. I think I spent maybe five goose-bumpy minutes in the water and got a lot of sand in my underwear (less said, the better), but I considered it worth it.

When we headed back to the house for showers, Martine sent Helen a message that she was on her way down, but realized that she had left her overnight bag, with her best friend/security blanket (i.e., her camera) in it, on one of the trains. (it turned out okay, don't worry - she contacted the right people immediately, and got to pick it up when she headed back the next day.) We picked her up in Shimoda and drove back to where we were staying. We had an amazing dinner at Restaurant Marley (I had sauteed scallops in a basil sauce, yummy local veggies, pumpkin cream soup, and a crusty baguette). Five stars. It's name has nothing to do with Bob, by the way, but it was an odd coincidence.

Back to the Paradise Cafe. Amy was exhausted and allergy-ridden, so she left early. Then Martine left. Helen and I were going to have just one more while we played whist, but our game had attracted a stray American woman called Lisa, and then her Irish friend Dave, who insisted we had to play some sort of game for money. It ended up being hearts, and we three losers had to buy Dave a drink. He was very Irish. Very cool, too. He has 3 young kids and told me to call him if I ever came down with my family (hey, Jeff, what are we doing the weekend of June 9th?). Anyway, we ended up leaving at 3 or so.

In the morning, we poked around getting up and had a small breakfast back at Marley (yummy yogurt with honey and a prune in it. Sounds weird, but it was good). Martine and I said hello/goodbye to the beach for a minute (much windier and full of happier surfers) while Helen and Amy checked out and packed up the car with our stuff (thanks, guys!)

We headed into Shimoda to use the Post Office ATM (I was low on cash) and look around for a minute.

We then drove onwards to Ito for lunch. We were bribed into a place with free (very small) beers and got this bubbling dry-iced fruit tray as a free service:

I had some great sushi, as one would expect from a sea-side town. Not cheap, but quite nice. I can't believe I ever ate Safeway sushi.

I came home to a clean, empty house, and Mother's Day flowers on the table. The kids were at a bbq (Jeff had dropped the boys off with Kumi's mom so he could get on a plane and I could taken my time getting back). It was a great homecoming. Thanks Helen (planning and guiding), Amy (driving), Jeff (lots of reasons), and Kumi's mom for a great trip and a nice homecoming.

As always, more pictures can be found here.

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