Bagels and Buddha

July 12, 2009

Today I had the best New York style bagel I’ve ever had in my life. In Japan. Ironic? Yes. Delicious? Indeed! I didn’t think that anything could top my bagel experience this morning. In fact, the bagels were so yummy that we each had two. The kind bagel shop worker must have thought we were crazy, speaking our broken Japanese and going back for more… but then, Joey, Jennie, and I went to visit Kamakura and the 2nd largest Buddha in Japan which was quite amazing. It charged admission, which I found interesting and wondered if it was a bit insulting to any Buddhists coming to visit… AND it also sold Buddha shaped edible souvenirs. I considered purchasing some but then thought better of it. The Buddha is massive – it’s 13.35 meters and you can even go inside (though we did not, we were there too late). The eye of Buddha is about as big as Jennie.We had an unfortunate event on the way home… Jennie got stuck on a train while Joey and I made it out! I tried to pry the doors back with my super strong bare hands, but the train won and I was pushed back into the crowd, while staring horrified at Jennie, wondering if she would make it back alive! Alas, Jennie is a Japanese genius and joined us at the very next stop. I realized how lucky it was that we did not get seperated this past week, though I am easy to pick out of a crowd so Jennie would have the upper hand.

While Joey and I were separated from Jennie, people must have been worried about the two white people on the train alone – and several kind Japanese people tried to speak English to us, asking us if we were ok. We realized how helpful it is to have a local-looking expert with us at all times.

Speaking of cousin Jennie, we had another amazing adventure today that she really tells best – read all about it here….http://web.mac.com/jingsmile/Jings_Random_Adventures/Blog/Entries/2009/7/12_Embarrassing_Situations_in_which_reading_Japanese_would_be_helpful..html

In other news, we also ate amazing sushi this evening, and enjoyed some sake for my ‘last supper’… I am very sad to leave this country tomorrow but also am looking forward to having 2 Mondays (I leave Monday night Japan time and arrive in Honolulu Monday morning local time… I’m a time traveller!), as well as hearing English on a regular basis again. It’s funny how much I took for granted and I wonder if I’ll have a new appreciation for the US after being away for a bit. It’s been fun sharing my vacation stories with you all and hope you’ll come again…Arigatou gozaimas for coming along for the (virtual) ride!

Today was a lovey day spent frolicking through many different parts of Tokyo. We started off by taking the famous bullet train to visit Akihabara. The bullet train is (shocking!) shaped like a bullet, and travels very, very fast… it gets you anywhere in about half the time. The seats were amazing, and I felt like I was in a first class establishment… I highly recommend it. Akihabara was very interesting and was definitely sensory overload – Akihabara is the electronics district of Tokyo – and a place that my father (and possibly brother) would consider heaven. There were rows and rows of vendors selling all sorts of neatly organized chips, wires, and things that I had no earthly clue about. One of the most exciting parts of our Akihabara trip was the kebab (some cultures call it a gyro) stand right at the start of the city. We had a fabulous street-lunch there which gave us fuel for exploring the city.

Once we conquered all things electronic, we moved on to play aboard a river-cruise ship – which is commonly used by locals as a convenient one way transportation from the Hinode Pier to Asakusa, (sort of like TheBoat in Hawaii), but is also becoming a popular tourist attraction due to the pretty scenery and the affordableness of the ride. It was actually beautiful and was a nice opportunity to sit down and enjoy a cold Japanese beer after an afternoon of wandering the city. We landed in Asakusa, which turned out to be a fun little town chock full of fresh mochi, shrines, a few temples, and lots of street vendors. There were so many people that I got separated from my hosts a few times – but luckily for us all, I am very easy to pick out of a Japanese crowd. See for yourself, and play “where’s kate” in the picture below!

We ended the evening with some spicy and delicious Indian curry and naan from a hole in the wall shop, and caught a glimpse of some fireworks yet again. America must be calling me home… which is coming all too soon. As my father so kindly says, “Vacation almost all gone….”

For many years, I have dreamed of having music conveniently playing at key moments in my life – sort of like a sitcom, or a movie perhaps. During a deep conversation with a loved one, some soft music would come on and gradually get louder during important parts; while I’m deep in thought a Sarah Machlan song would play; while running on the beach others would hear a fun fast paced song, like “Life is a highway”. Alas, this is a seemingly impossible dream… but not in Japan. Japan is sort of like a large theme park, in that while walking over random overpasses, at a train/subway station, or even on the street, music is pumped out of (invisible, Harry Potter like?) speakers and into the ears of all who pass by. Some vehicles even have speakers around the exterior, specifically designed to play music for those outside the car as opposed to the inside. I absolutely love this – it’s one of my very favorite things about this fabulous country. Though instead of the music going along with me (as in my dreams), I find myself going along with the music, if that makes sense.

But I digress. Yesterday was my 28th birthday, and I was excited to celebrate it with Jennie exploring the wonders of nightlife in Tokyo. We booked a hostel for the evening, as trains stop running around midnight, and were surprised at how comfortable and lovely our hostel/hotel turned out to be. If you’re ever looking for a place to stay in Shinjuku, the City Hotel N.U.T.S. is a fabulous choice. We ate a delicious light dinner at a very odd cafe, the Christdom Cafe – which had all sorts of icons and cathedral like things in it – the menu was shaped like a bible, and the drinks appeared to be themed. Of course, this was all in Japanese – so Jennie and I chose our drinks based on photos. When our friendly non-english speaking server took our order, she smiled and suppressed a giggle upon my choice of beverage, which was in a round shaped glass and looked mysterious. I knew I was in for a treat if she was amused at my choice. When she brought our beverages, mine was smoking! Literally. It was two glasses in one; the bottom housed dry ice, while the top had a delicious berry flavored martini type beverage. I must have had a curiously delighted look on my face, because she was very specific about communicating to me via Japanese and hand motions NOT to drink the dry ice. I flashed her the ok sign to let her know I understood.. and Jennie and I had a good laugh about what she must have been thinking “I better tell this silly white girl not to drink the smoking liquid somehow…”

Eventually Jennie and I made it out to Roppongi, which I lovingly referred to as “Rospongey”, and is famous for being popular with tourists and having great nightlife. I felt very much out of my element at the sudden abundance of English speaking African (literally, they had cool African accents) ‘recruiters’, whose aim is to walk with foreigners down the street and aggressively try to get them to go to the club/bar that they work for. It was quite interesting, and was a bit intimidating at first – though Jennie and I quickly conquered the shred of fear we felt and had some fun talking with them. We patronized two venues and headed back to Shinjuku where we were staying before the trains stopped running at midnight. Jennie was able to practice her Japanese in caring for a sick (intoxicated) girl in the restroom, which was a very good deed (as she is a friend to all, even those she doesn’t know!), and we even made the last train back to our lovely home for the night.

We still had more Japanese ground to cover, so we decided to stroll through Shinjuku and find a late night snack. We settled on some ramen from a little hole in the wall which was amazing – by far the best I’ve ever had. Ramen is no longer classified as a college food – it’s fine cuisine when made correctly. This completed our evening, and we headed back to our hotel to sleep.

Today, we woke up feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, and already conveniently in Tokyo! We headed to Ginza to see a Kabuki show (traditional Japanese dance/drama, sort of like off-broadway Japanese style), and purchased English translators so we could understand what was going on. The storyline was very Japanese, with a sea-prince offering gifts to a beautiful woman’s father so he could marry her, then detailing her trip to the sea and the events that followed. I won’t give away the ending for all of you who will soon be coming to Japan! But Kabuki theater is well worth seeing, it was a cool experience and was neat to see so many kimino-donning ladies in the audience enjoying high-end bentos while watching the show.

Sadly, I will not be climbing Mt. Fuji tomorrow as originally planned due to weather issues. However, now we get to do something else really exciting that was not planned! On a happy note, in the past 24 hours I have found not one, but two items that I have been looking for. The first is a delicious aloe/white grape drink that I discovered while playing soda-lottery from a Japanese vending machine (they’re everywhere), which I have not been able to find again. I found this same very yummy beverage last night, sort of like a birthday present to me from Japan. The second is quite exciting, as I have been looking for this item for about 4 years… in 2005 while I was in Australia, I enjoyed this outstanding pear-caramel gelato. The texture of this frozen treat was unreal, it perfectly captured pear – texture and all – and the fresh caramel was a delicious addition. Since then, I have been searching high and low for pear gelato or sorbet, at gelato shops, grocery stores, fine food venues everywhere – but have never found it. I’ve even tried making it myself. It was not the same. Today, while trying to decode Japanese to find vanilla ice cream at the grocery store, I did a double take. I saw a frozen Hagen Dazs container with a photo of a pear on it. Could this be the coveted pear sorbet? I swiftly purchased the items and anxiously tasted the pear-pictured treat… and success! Indeed, it is pear sorbet, with the same texture that I had been longing for since 2005. I? Officially love Japan.

The happiest place in Japan, and quite possibly the whole world, is Tokyo Disney Sea. What sounds like a water park is in actuality a hip-hop-happen-in Disney theme park based on areas from Disney movies that are set in or nearby water, such as the Arabian Coast (Aladdin), and Mermaid Lagoon (Little Mermaid).  Tokyo also has a Tokyo Disney in the same resort area, but Jennie and I chose to take the road less traveled and go for the sea version. We were very glad we did.

It was really interesting to be at a Disney resort in a country that does not speak English. All of those instructions and things that you take for granted were suddenly a mystery! What should I do with this big red button on the roller coaster seat? What are they singing in Sinbad’s storybook adventure? Why are 100+ people lined up along a fence for hours? And when did Mickey and Minnie learn Japanese?

Unlike American theme parks, where story/rides have happy endings, Tokyo Disney Sea chose to give it’s patrons a dose of reality. For example – one ride in particular, storm riders, simulates flying into the eye of a wind storm. At the end, it appeared that we were going to ‘make it’, and the sun was setting in the distance… the plane was about to land – when it took a nose dive into the water and ‘crashed’. The ride even misted us with water (‘rain’) to complete the effect. Jennie and I were very amused by this and came up with a variety of scenarios as to why they chose to end the ride in such a fashion. Another interesting tidbit about Tokyo Disney Sea – the shows were incredible. Cousin Jennie and I attended two shows, one called “Big Band Beat”, which consisted of great live music and dancing, and the other called “Mystic Rhythms”, which reminded me of Ulalena on Maui, if anyone’s ever seen that. I was on sensory overload after seeing this show, as the acrobatics were amazing and there was so much going on, I didn’t know where to look.

Jennie and I were also mistaken for supermodels today, as two Japanese boys wanted not for us to take their picture, but to be in a picture with us! We didn’t bother correcting their assumption, but did take several photos with them! I didn’t think the day could get much better after that, but then I started seeing women and children (and a few guys even) exploring the park in kiminos. Are they employees, or ‘cast members’? No, they’re just regular people going to a theme park in traditional Japanese apparel. Yes, we asked to take a picture with two of them… and they loved it!

It was a very happy day, probably the most fun I’ve had thus far in Japan, and was well worth the long train ride. Enjoy the pictures, they will tell the story of our day far better than I can…for now, Oyasuminasai!

Today was filled with new adventures! First, I exercised at the fine fitness facility at a small military base while Jennie had her Japanese lesson. I watched Dr. Phil while exercising and learned about broken families and how to fix them. It was quite enlightening. Then, Jennie and I headed to Machida, which was home to a 5 story 100 yen store! We got a little lost, but Jennie expertly asked for directions (in Japanese!) and we found our way. The store was very exciting, and there was a whole section of my favorite Japanese treat, lottery candy. ‘Lottery’ because there’s no way to tell what it is until you actually eat it. It’s a fun game!

I communicated with many people today, and understood few of them. It’s fun yet dangerous to order food in Japanese, even if it’s just saying hello and ‘this one please’. They seem to think after (expertly) saying these words that I am fluent, and say many things to me, none of which I understand. I usually stare blankly at them, but today Jennie taught me perhaps the most important phrase yet, “I don’t understand”. (Wakarimasen). I was waiting for the train and my escort (Jennie again) was several feet away from me, and an older Japanese man started talking to me. In Japanese.  I simply looked at him and shook my head, said “what?” in English, (I hadn’t yet learned that key wakarimasen phrase), yet he continued to talk to me. It was very odd, and Jennie must have seen my confused expression and came to investigate. She wanted to make sure that he wasn’t harassing me, which he very well could have been. Or, perhaps he was trying to help me, or even simply make conversation. Maybe he was a modeling agent and wanted to make me into a star! I guess we’ll never know.

This evening at dinner I had my biggest Japanese breakthrough. Jennie, Joey and I were ordering dinner, and after ordering one item, I realized that I actually wanted something else – I changed my mind. Normally, in Japan I would just let it go as it is much to difficult to explain this. However, I was able to communicate to the kind server (through a few simple words and actions) that I wanted this delicious avocado chicken appetizer instead of soup – and he appeared to understand! The true test came when they brought out the food – and in fact, it was correct. Victory! It’s amazing where a few key phrases can get you.

Tomorrow Jennie and I are off to Tokyo Disney Sea, (next to Tokyo Disney), which is very exciting and something I’ve been looking forward to since I purchased my plane tickets. Will Mickey and Minnie look the same in Japan? What will the rides be like? Will Donald Duck talk? All these answers and more coming your way tomorrow… stay tuned!

Shrine or temple?

July 6, 2009

Today after running some errands (including eating some very delicious curry), Jennie and I visited Kamakura, which is knee-deep rich in Japanese culture. Kamakura is known best for the second largest Buddha statue in Japan (which we did not see today but will see soon), as well as housing many shrines and temples. I feel a little more educated today about shrines and temples, as with the help of both Jennie and my friend the internet, I now know the difference between them. Shrines are Shinto, Temples are Buddhist. You enter a Shinto shrine through a torii gate, and a Buddha temple obviously houses a statue of Buddha. A shrine was the lucky winner today, and it was beautiful. In fact, Jennie and I spent so much time there, that we only made it to one. There were many interesting cultural traditions practiced there – and none needed (or had) an English language translation. Well, except for the rinsing of the hands, which a kind Japanese man explained to me after witnessing my confused look at the mini buckets/water before the shrine. Interesting aspects of the shrine experience are as follows…

- Similar to the “American” tradition of throwing coins into a wishing well, Japanese shrine visitors appear to enjoy throwing coins into a pond, onto plants growing in the pond. I’m sure they have a name, but I could not discern what they were. Nevertheless, it’s quite pretty, and I’m sure the plants appreciate it.

- There is a souvenir stand by the shrine – though it appears that the souvenirs have deep meaning, in the form of key chains with symbols and forms that provide luck or a blessing for some aspect of your life, such as marriage or money. Unfortunately, the beautifully dressed souvenir stand ladies did not want their picture taken, so I have no documentation. However, perhaps I helped ‘save face’ for Americans everywhere by obeying their wish.

- The shrine has many ‘stands’ if you will, of wooden plates onto which visitors have written what appear to be prayers or intentions, and string them up as an offering. Quite similar to my Catholic tradition of writing down prayers or intentions in a personal book or at church…

- Outside the shrine, there are two vending machines. It was not possible for the Japanese-illiterate eye to tell what they were for, but I was very interested, so I hung around and observed for a bit. A couple came up to the machine and put in some coins, and out came two pieces of paper with lots of Japanese writing on them. The couple seemed very excited/emotional as they read their papers, and then went up to the shrine, folded them in a special way, and tied them onto another stand like structure along with many other papers. I can deduce from these actions that the papers are some sort of fortune or future prediction, and you hang them on the stand either at the top or the bottom perhaps depending on whether or not you want them to come true? It was very interesting, and a part of me wished that I could read Japanese so I could participate in this tradition.

Jennie and I closed out the day by eating at a traditional (pretty much) Japanese restuarant. We didn’t sit on the floor, but we did have our own personal room in which to dine, complete with a paper lantern. We decided to share a large bento meal among the two of us, which I don’t really think was a typical thing to do, but our server probably decided that it would be too complicated to tell us that and just let us do it. The food was delicious, but it was sort of like a puzzle, figuring out what sauce went with what, and are we supposed to eat these noodles dry? Why are they all sticking together? When our server came in to check on us, I think she nearly had a heart attack from trying to hold in her laughter as I have a pile of dry soba noodles sticking out of my mouth and Jennie is trying to navigate other items on our tray. She kindly pointed out that we should put sauce on our noodles, which did help with the stickiness factor.

After dinner we enjoyed some fresh mochi that was dusted in what looked and tasted like sawdust but was still exceedingly delicious. We then headed to the train station where we stood shoulder to shoulder with many other people headed to their homes, and reflected on our very Japanese day.

After mass (in English!) this morning, my cousins and I realized that it was still 4th of July in the US! We decided to continue the celebration by going to a Japanese baseball game. That’s right, kids, you read correctly, a major league baseball game, at a stadium and all. The Yokohama Bay Stars challenged the Hiroshima Carp today, and yours truly was there to witness the amazement.

We walked into the stadium to attempt to purchase tickets for said game. Immediately upon our entry, our senses were overwhelmed by cheerleaders performing, kids practicing batting in a makeshift cage, and teens playing aqua volleyball in a wading pool. See photos! We were able to purchase tickets without too much trouble, though we were sent to a secret side entrance. We entered the stadium, and if you replaced all the Japanese with English, and all the people with a perhaps more diverse crowd, I could have been at (a slightly smaller) Camden Yards Stadium!

One noticeable difference between American baseball and Japanese baseball is how involved the crowd gets. I had a Japan-sized amount of fun this afternoon at the game, and I think that was partly because there is so much spectator participation in Japanese baseball. It’s very clear which part of the stadium is for the home team and the away team, and the crowd actually stands for half the game, for half of each inning while your respective team is up. While standing, we were led in (Japanese) cheers and chants by several enthusiastic chant-leaders, each of which Jennie lovingly referred to as “Captain America”. We caught onto these cheers very quickly, and it was a lot of fun shaking our fists in the air in a coordinated fashion and encouraging each team member as they were up to bat. “Clap clap clap. Clap clap clap. Kattobase, Mataba. (Fist in air) Clap clap clap”. Some team members appeared to even have their own fight song, which children in turn went wild over screaming when their favorite players went up to bat. And the food? The sweet girls walking through the stands were not only selling traditional stadium refreshments such as coca-cola, beer, popcorn, hot dogs, and fries, but you could also purchase mixed drinks (no, I didn’t get one), bentos, rice balls, noodles, and delicious sushi.

All in all, it was a fabulous afternoon and I rediscovered my love for baseball. I think it’s been a good 10 years since I’ve attended a game, and I must say that Japanese games really take the cake when it comes to fun-factor. Well done, Japan. Well done.

Happy 4th of July! I awoke this morning feeling much more like myself, only Japanese! My cousins and I enjoyed a pleasant breakfast of frosted mini wheats and were amused by Jose’s findings on the internet relating to others’ experiences of the toto washlet toilet. The first is a you tube video demonstrating much better than words can, and the second is an Italian blog about the toto translated in Engrish. Check them out -

http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.gojapan.it/page6/page6.html&ei=cKFOSpXOBIiO6AOTvp2KBA&sa=X&oi=translate&resnum=1&ct=result&prev=/search?q=toto+tcf2020+washlet&hl=en&client=safari&rls=en-us

We then headed out to Harajuku, the fashion district of Tokyo. Jennie expertly navigated the bus and subway routes, and before I knew it, I was in the heart of Tokyo, laughing and singing with the locals, practicing my newly learned Japanese phrases! I also spied several fellow foreigners, which made my heart skip with joy. Jennie, Joey, and I dined on mexican food and then enjoyed a light dessert of honey toast! Honey toast is my favorite dessert at Shokudo in Honolulu but the honey toast in Harajuku far surpassed Shokudo. It was amazing, the perfect combination of sweet and salty.

More amazing than the honey toast were the outfits in Harajuku. Everywhere I looked, there were visual treats of crazy shoes, poufy skirts, and flashy tops. See pictures for details! They have not been digitally enhanced. There was also an abundance of people in Harajuku, particularly on the side streets we were perusing. Luckily for Jennie, Joey and I were easy to spot in case she lost us – she just had to look for the tall blondes. We did not have the same luxury with her, however.

Other highlights of the day included riding in a glass elevator at the Audi building, using a Japanese style squat toilet, practicing my Geisha eye-batting, giggling over more Engrish shirts, and the adorable little Japanese lady that wanted to practice her English on me, with a perfectly said “thank you”.

We closed out our Independence Day with sushi and a kirin, and headed back to the abode to watch “Independence Day”. As I relaxed in my chair and picked up my laptop to document the days occurrences, I noticed a single firework lighting up a small portion of the Yokohama sky – perhaps the end to some Japanese festival? Perhaps fellow Americans celebrating their freedom in the way we know best on the 4th of July, by sending explosives into the air and marveling at their delights. Either way, it was nice to have a little taste of America even far away on our holiday. Happy 4th of July!

Konnichiwa!

July 3, 2009

Greetings and salutations, world! This is my first EVER attempt at a blog, and what better place to do it than in fabulous Yokohama, Japan? I am feeling a bit ill still at the moment since my arrival 30 fabulous hours ago, so there’s no time like the present for some good old fashioned blogging!

I flew in on China airlines, which was itself an intriguing experience. Not only was there an exclusive upstairs portion of the plane (my attempts to observe the upstairs-ultra-first-class dwellers were curbed by the friendly engrish-only speaking flight attendant.), but there were also unheard of amenities in the lowly economy class (my dear father lovingly calls economy ‘GUM’ class, for the great unwashed masses) such as toothbrushes, hand sanitizer, and pleasant scented lotion in the restroom facilities. Additionally, the food was non-western which was of course, part of the fun, and somewhat delicious!

The plane landed and I immediately visited the restroom facility. Wait, am I in a spa? A luxury resort? What’s that sweet smell and soothing music? I opened the stall to the toilet and saw an incredible machine staring back at me, complete with volume adjustable music, faux-toilet sounds, a bidet, and a even auto-air freshener. All complete in one toilet. I took a photo of the arm and the explanation. Enjoy!

After my bathroom adventure, I passed through Tokyo’s very efficient immigration system effectively even though I didn’t understand what most of the people were saying. Perhaps that’s why it was so easy? My dear long lost cousin Jennie was waiting for me upon arrival, where I greeted her with a pleasant “HAW”. I would have used a gong to announce my arrival, but alas, my amazon.com package did not arrive in time.

Jennie and I began the long journey back to her home, but before leaving we purchased some delicious Japanese snacks from the convenient convenience mart before the parking garage. Part of the fun of being in Japan is not really knowing what you’re buying or ordering, you sort of look at pictures and guess – yesterday we received peach snacks and potato sticks. Yummy! Of course, Japanese roads are the opposite of American roads, with driving on the left rather than the right, which reminded me of Australia and the fun it was accidentally turning on the windshield wipers rather than the blinkers constantly while driving there. We passed through several tolls, and upon each one I was impressed with Jennie’s unforseen Japanese skills, particularly as she’s only been here about 2 months. We arrived at Jennie and Joey’s home sweet home and I was interested in the car garage. Japan has found many quite effective solutions to having so many people crammed into one space, this parking garage being one of them. You pull into this little ‘elevator’, get out, turn a key, and your car goes to it’s allotted spot. When it’s time to retrieve your vehicle, you simply turn a key, type in a few (Japanese) numbers, and wait for TA DA, your car! It’s amazing! It’s miraculous! It also takes a good 5 minutes. But well worth it, for the space it saves. I would like my place of work to adopt this garage-elevator system.

After putting my things away, we took a quick look around Jennie’s street and the cool Japanese grocery store before it was time to go reunite with Joey. Jennie then almost instantaneously created for us an outstanding dinner of beef stir fry, and I somehow managed to stay up until 9pm.

The sun rises at 4:30am in Japan, which is why they call it the land of the rising sun, I suppose. It’s always fun to wake up to the sun in a new place, even more fun when it’s a new country! I was set to go out and explore, but illness combined with jetlag seemed to hold me back, and we didn’t make it out the door until after 1. Jennie and I wandered the streets and she taught me a few key Japanese phrases such as “sumi-masen” (not actually spelled like that of course, it means ‘excuse me’ for when I run into people which will likely happen often given the number of people in Japan), and “gomen-nasi” (I’m sorry). We explored a park and ate a delicious crepe from a little indoor market. It’s interesting learning how to order when I do not speak Japanese… I hope to improve by the end of the trip. It’s also kind of fun to be the strange foreign person – even though crepe-making girls may laugh at me – I will laugh right with them! Why? Becuase I’m in Japan! And discovery lies behind every door!

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