Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The calm before the chaos

Just a quick update, no pictures. We are about to be invaded by the Chorba-Balabans: Eric, Anuska, Olivia (5 and a half), and Ashley (Eric's teenage punkrock niece). Some of our favorite people. I am SO EXCITED.

For those of you in Japan, this is also going to be The Beautiful Mothers Japan Tour 2007. Please come see them play! It's an experience you won't soon forget, I promise.

7.29 Shimizu @ JAM JAM JAM w/Shell Rockets
8.2 Shinjuku @ CLUB DOCTOR w/Abbey the Dingo
8.4 Shibuya @ RUIDO 2K w/ the Bodies
8.5 Yokohama @ CLUB LIZARD Buzz Attitude #67 w/Howling Guitar and Mustang Jerx

Monday, July 16, 2007

Alright, everybody just calm down

First of all, the typhoon missed us, and I didn't even know about the earthquake until someone told me (the tsunami warning was called off). So obviously, we are fine.

There, now I can tell you about my trip.

Traveling alone is weird. Going entire days without really speaking to anyone, and not really sharing the sights you see is honestly a little boring at times. It has its advantages, tho, like not worrying about anyone else's agenda or pace, but I was glad when the weekend rolled around and Helen joined me.

Kobe Part

Monday, Tuesday, and part of Wednesday, I was in Kobe. Kobe is compared to Yokohama because it is kind of like an extension of the megalopolis of Osaka, much the way Yokohama, tho called the Second Largest City in Japan, is really just years away from being totally absorbed into the Tokyo-Yokohama megalopolis (an aside: I discovered on this trip that other cultures, such as the Japanese, also like to claim superlatives for things to make them attractive to tourists, just like in an American roadtrip where you can see the World's Largest Wheel of Cheese or Biggest Ferris Wheel in the Southwest or whatever. You'll see these things popping up). Dammit, every time I think I'm going to make a brief-and-to-the-point post, I go rambling off into Tangentland.

Anyway, also like Yokohama, Kobe is a port city. On my rainy wanderings I found Chinatown (One of the Three Largest in Japan)

and Harborland. The latter contained Merikan Park (names after Americans), which in turn contained the Kobe Earthquake Memorial and the Maritime Museum.

With the price of admission to the museum also came with admission to Kawasaki Good Times World. I had no idea what this was -- I thought maybe it was a mini theme park that was connected to the museum so that parents would have something to bribe their kids with so they would behave in the museum. But no! It was a museum devoted to the history and products of the Kawasaki companies.

Boring, right? Actually, it was pretty fascinating. It was started way back in the late 1800s by a guy who got mad that his business failed because his Japanese cargo ship sank. He turned to western-style engineering and started building modern ships. Then the company did trains, planes, bridges, cranes, and other heavy stuff. Did you know Kawasaki invented the Shinkansen (bullet train) and the jet-ski? I had always just associated Kawasaki with motorcycles, I had no idea they were behind so much stuff. They've also done pioneering work in robotics and built the machine that dug half the Channel Tunnel between England and France (finishing ahead of schedule). Amazing!

Rubik's cube!

And yeah, they had the motorcycles, too. A whole big room of 'em. I'm on the Biggest.

See lots more pictures of Chinatown and Harborland stuff here.

The next day, I had some hours to kill before I hopped the train to the next place, so I hit that other similar-to-Yokohama area, the foreign settlement. And just like in Yokohama, it is up in the hills (Helen tells me that foreigners like to build up in the hills to escape the heat). It seemed a little more thematic in Kobe, with all the houses clearly marked as Ijin-kan (Foreign People's House). I went to Uroko-no-Ie (Fish Scale House) the Rhine House ( a corruption of 'Line House' which is a description of the siding, not the origin of the inhabitants), and had the Strongest Lager Beer in the World at the Austria House (14% alcohol, syrupy, and totally undrinkable, by the way. I managed maybe a third of the bottle).

Rhine House

More pictures of Ijin-kanland here.

Nara Part (Horyuji Temple and National Museum)

I took the train to Oji, where I checked into the loveliest of guest houses Yougendo. It's run by a British guy and his Japanese wife and it's the most wonderful place. Reasonable price, good location, amazing service, beautiful house, home-cooked breakfast, and they'll drink with you in their bar of sorts. Chris and Shu want you to come stay with them.

After I got up in the morning and took my sweet time getting motivated, I headed to Hyoruji Temple, site of the World's Oldest Wooden Structure, built in the 7th or 8th century (couldn't figure out which bit was the oldest). It was on the way to Nara city.

I had told Helen that I would save the deer and Big Buddha bits of Nara Park for when she got there, but I figured I could go to the National Museum, which was just inside of Nara Park. Sadly, the newer part of the museum, with the painting and stuff, was closed in preparation for a new exhibit, but the original building was open. I got quite a few pictures clicked off before I was told I couldn't do that (though I didn't see any signs and they are usually fairly redundant about them).

Also, just hanging around outside the museum were dozens of deer.

It's kinda odd to see that when you are used to seeing them run away in terror of humans.

More pictures of Hyoruji Temple and (forbidden ones of) The National Museum of Nara.

I was going to go to Tennoji to meet Helen for dinner (she was working at Kansai airport), but when I got to the Nara JR station (after wandering far away from the closer Nara Kintetsu station, from where I couldn't figure out how to get to Tennoji), I found out that the trains had stopped running due to some accident or other (later determined to have been caused by one suicide and one crane-carrying truck running into a train bridge and killing the electricity for 12 hours). Helen and a phone-charger from the combini saved me from my panic at being possibly stuck in Nara for an undetermined period of time by directing me back to the Kintetsu line and on to Namba (an Osaka neighborhood), where we ate in an izakaya. My grapefruit sour came with a large bottle of flavoring syrup instead of the usual grapefruit and juicer, but whatever.

When I made it back to Oji, just as I was getting off the train (a long ride), I got an email from Jamie, a friend of Chris' whom I had met at Bar Yougendo the previous night, and my early night turned into a late night at a tiny local bar with gigantic chu-his and a funny collection of locals.

After a yummy and hangover-curing bowl of rice porridge, I slept most of the day until it was time to meet Helen at the station. We ate at an inexpensive but good izakaya across from the minshuku (guesthouse) and wandered around little Oji til we found a small karaoke bar. Hm, less said about that, the better. OK, one word, for Helen: "Fame!"

Next day, in the pouring rain, we went to go see the Largest Indoor Buddha Statue at Todaiji Temple and to feed the deer. The deer traveled in ravenous packs. I had too much fun watching Helen get attacked by the deer to feed them myself (they ate her map, too).

The Daibutsu was indeed massive, and he had some big friends, too.

Some perspective

We did the stick-shaky thing for good luck (you buy a chance to shake a box full of chopsticks until one comes out, marked with a number. They pull a fortune out of a corresponding door). Helen didn't like her fortune, so she bought a new one, and it ended up being the top of the good fortune scale. Mine was the second from the top, which is good luck and has room to go up. I'm pretty happy about that.

More pics of our rainy adventures, including Helen getting mauled by deer, here.

We went back, dried off, and had some (many) drinks with Chris and Shu. On the way home, we stopped to stock up on booze and snacks in case the typhoon hit and kept us indoors, but just when it was supposed to touch down in full force, it stopped raining altogether.

Sunday, we had a lot of time in which to make our way back to Yokohama, so we mulled over breakfast where we could get off the train on the way. We decided on Nagoya. The station was packed because of weather-related train delays (apparently a river had swollen high enough that the trains had to wait for the level to go down before they could cross it).

This is a "fashion and health" place, which is apparently a euphemism for a place men go when they need a quick, uh, health-restorative procedure (gotta keep this clean, who knows who reads this blog):

In Nagoya, where it was hot and windy, they have a castle, Nagoya Jo (which is also used as a pun for "Nagoya girl," a particular kind of materialistic, spoiled fashionista).

The original building burned down awhile ago, as almost everything in Japan seems to, and the restored ferro-concrete building has educational exhibits and historical artifacts. It also has many versions of the famous gold dolphin-like sea creature that originally graced the roof.

Just before hopping back on the train, we ate in the station. I tried the Nagoya specialty, miso-tonkatsu, and Helen had a bowl of 7 lucky udon that was twice the size of her head.

Nagoya pics here.

By the time we got to Tsunashima and the Blue Corn for Ebara Matsuri (Ebara is a young bluesman who has a big blues night once a year, with all his friends, like Toshi and Sachiko and Katz), I was sooo sleepy. I couldn't even drink (it had been 6 days in a row) and I left right after the music, but it was worth staying for the show. Bar staff Takeshi (bass) and Mo-chan (vocals) both performed, too.

Now I am wrapping this up in my very damp bedroom. We don't have A/C in here, and it feels like a rainforest. Our bed is soggy and our clothes are getting moldy. I have to go and buy a bunch of moisture-sucking packs (like those silicon "DO NOT EAT" packs you find in shoeboxes and the like) until we can find a dehumidifier.

Posts may be sporadic from here, as Anuska and Eric (and Olivia and Ashley) get here next week (SO excited!!!), and we will be very busy. I'll try to keep up when I can.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Displays of Masculinity

This is me updating from Kobe. I got here today, but I haven't done much other than successfully find my hotel, eat some yummy real Chinese-style ramen (so they said) made with sesame paste, and locate some tiny bottles of liquor at SOGO. So far, so good.

The Toyoko Inn Sannomiya No. 1 is very clean, functional, and kinda funny. The desk chick gave me a Ladies Only toiletry kit, containing a refreshing mask, a hairband, and nail polish remover. There is a lovely plastic plaque on the desk advertising 30 or 60 minute massages for 3,000 and 6,000 yen, respectively. Hm. And, like most Japanese inns, a yukata is provided for your in-room lounging comfort. Obviously very traditional. In mental institutions. Buttons?

Anyway, I'm staying in tonight, enjoying a Campari and Suntory Premium Soda (whatever, it's soda water) and updating from the week/end so I can clear my camera's memory for, hopefully, a lot of good pics of this trip. If it stops raining. Which would be great.

Addressing this blog's topic, I'd like to start with this guy.

He's called Tanuki, and is a 'raccoon dog,' not a badger, as I thought. I asked Helen once what these guys were, because you see the statues a lot in front yards and in noodle shops. She told me they were for bringing good luck and prosperity, mainly because of their gigantic testicles. I hadn't even noticed the things, honestly, but sure enough, yup, there they are. And they are based on the anatomy of the real animals, apparently.

Onto those other Kings of Macho display, the US Navy. We got our Fourth of July celebration on the base, taking Kumi with us for the experience. As it was pouring and we had time to kill because they closed all the kids' activities right when we finished eating (stupid), we went bowling. Kumi must be a good luck charm, because we left our previous family high score in the dust (no, we didn't even count Kumi's score in the family total). D crushed. TWO strikes, and I don't think he was even using the bumpers.

Jeff would like you to notice his cool shoe and ball combo

Anyway, the fireworks. They said they were going to happen Rain or Shine, and they meant it. They are the US MILITARY.

It was actually rather impressive, made doubly so by the downpour.

Kumi thought it was the best thing she'd ever seen. I'm thinking it was because all the Americans whoopin' and hollerin' in a very un-Japanese way, and she got to scream her head off in excitement, too.

Saturday was Martine's I'm Leaving to Explore Exotic Places for Six Weeks/Tanabata (some Chinese 7/7 Star Festival) BBQ. I met Aya, Lala's adorable baby girl. D wasn't feeling well, but everyone loved the kids, who being very entertaining rather than just spastic for once. Saw Darrin and Tim and Huey (Hughie?) again, and met some new people. Lovely, lovely people.

Here's Darrin with a very masculine grill-full of meat.

Eventually, it got too late for partying at Martine's, so we repaired to the park to continue. It was full of people. Teenagers, mostly. We shot off our own fireworks.

Soon after, Jeff and the boys left, and I convinced Dave and Helen (who was necessary to the plan) to go to Harajuku. An ex-student of Helen's let her know of her boyfriend's party at The Sunshine Studio Cafe there. When Helen had forwarded me the list of band names that would be playing all night (Modest Mouse, Carissa's Weird, Kinski, Elliot Smith, on and on) I said it sounded like Seattle music. It was like a KEXP playlist. Then she sent me the flier that said it was Seattle Night. I guarantee I was the only Seattlite for miles. The ex-student was very nice, and her bf, and the rest was mostly drunk young boys taking turns playing along with (butchering) the Seattle music.

We did get two rounds of drinks bought for us, but perhaps it was one round too many for Helen, who could not be convinced that 7000 yen was too much to pay for a taxi home. She reeeeally wanted her bed. So Dave and I stuffed her in a cab and managed to locate Garageland in Shibuya (no mean feat, as we were both born without a sense of direction). They said they were closing at 4:30, but we didn't get kicked out til first train.

Somehow I managed to get out the next day and go see my first kick-boxing match. The Very Brazilian Johnny was fighting, and Michael and Shingo often go to support him. Johnny won (yay!), and some of the other fights were pretty exciting to watch, too. A few of them got called because of bleeding eye injuries. The Thais in the audience were the most fun. I will definitely go again. It made me breathe heavily.

We went to an izakaya after, and tho I hadn't planned on staying out past say, late dinner-time, the boys started drinking, and well, I got home at 11 something, but whatever. D woke up at 4:30, ostensibly from a nightmare and an earache. I was worried that he had a dreaded ear infection, but Jeff, privately, told me he believed it was psychological because he was nervous about going to day camp this morning on the base, with a bunch of strangers and in a different group than his brother. I lay next to him in my bed and told him about some great friends I had made at summer camp, people I stayed friends with for years (have lost touch with them since, Robin Steeley, are you out there?) . Sure enough, in about an hour, no more earache and a cheerful spirit.

So, as you may have guessed, I haven't had much sleep in the past few days. I doubt I'll be up much longer.

This is just a cool random rain-and-dirt created pattern I saw the other day. I think they look like dresses.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Surving the First Week of Summer

Yup, the kids are out of school. Obviously, I survived the first week of dealing with them 24/7, and I get a break for 3 weeks. Then the Chorba-Balaban Invasion.

There was a lot of laying around and video game playing, because I knew that's what they wanted to do most. After a couple days of that, tho, we had to get out of the house before things got violent. We went swimming at Negishi base on Thursday(?), but only for an hour. The real highlight of the trip was the park right next to the base. It had all sorts of open space (read: running-around room), and we bought a ball (since lost to overzealous high-kicking) and some bubbles. The boys most enjoyed the pair of little dogs that lapped up all the attention they could give them (one of them, the male, got a little overzealous in his attentions to M, and my child learned about 'humping').

At the weekend, I got a much-deserved night out at the BC, and Helen and I played a marathon whist match (I won). We also donned silly hats, because, well, they were there.

I also discovered that the sun rises REALLY FREAKIN EARLY in Japan. It was like 4:30 am when I left, but the sun had been up for awhile and it was full daylight for my taxi ride home.

I managed to wake up and not feel like sh*t, so the family went to Asukayama Koen, which we had learned about via Robin and an article she had read about it. Really cool park. You get to ride a trolley to it, and the first thing we saw was a drum troupe practicing.

It has a great fountain, in which the kids resisted thoroughly soaking themselves for about 5 minutes.

After they had completely soaked themselves, they discovered the rest of the park, which is kids' paradise. All sorts of cool stuff to play on.

See more photos of the parks here. The fountain pics are especially fun.

When we finally decided it was time to go, we got trapped by Oji station because there was a cheap footwear place and M needed new shoes (he eats them monthly, I swear). M & D both walked out of there with the brightest, whitest, most space-age looking shoes I have ever seen AND a coupon for the arcade across the way. It was a deafening, seizure-inducing, and bizarre place. The theme of the decor was "funky," displaying the latest Japanese craze for afros.

The kids ended up sitting like slot-machine junkies at the 'medals' game, in which you put in your fake coins and try to get more fake coins to fall off the sliding thing and into your tray so you can keep putting more fake coins in. For HOURS.

When we finally got back to Namamugi station over an hour later, everyone was really hungry and excited to eat at the new Freshness Burger that opened this weekend. Sadly, they hadn't anticipated the crowds and were sold out of everything, so we left, disappointed, for the boring ol' supaa. Jeff made some yummy beef n onions, tho, so it worked out OK.

This week I will be obsessively planning for my trip next week, because I will be all by myself and will have no Japanese-speaking (or English-speaking, as far as that goes) crutch to lean on.

I leave you with some advice I got from a T-shirt by the cheap footwear place.