Thursday, July 24, 2014

Help Test My Latest Project and Learn Japanese

I have created a website to help English speakers learn Japanese. It is interactive and employs proven techniques to speed learning and aid in retention. Check it out and help me beta test it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Trip to Greece

If you liked reading about my trip to Japan, read about my next trip. Greece 2013

Friday, July 24, 2009

Heading Home

Since I had looked for, but failed to locate earplugs, I started reading once enough sunlight was shining through the shoji to see by. Joshua woke first, and I took him for another Japanese style bath. Andrea woke and bathed a bit later. At 8:30 we woke Ari.

Joshua was still feeling under the weather and felt a little hot, so Andrea gave him a Tylenol. Andrea and I went to get takeout for breakfast while the kids lounged on their futons allowing Joshua's Tylenol some time to kick in. Starbucks muffins for us, conbini food for the kids. They picked at the food and wished they'd gotten the muffins. We packed up, ordered a cab, downloaded books to the kindle for Joshua. Ari, when confronted with the fact that the umbrellas which he so eagerly toted from Osaka did not fit in any of the suitcases, gladly donated them to the ryokan.

Ordering the cab was difficult. Large cabs that could accommodate our luggage were scarce. Since we hadn't reserved a day or two in advance we couldn't get one. I suggested that two of us go directly to the station when we were done with lunch while the other two headed back to the hotel to get the cab - plenty of room in the back seat for luggage then.

Andrea asked if she could charge her iPhone in the hotel office. It had started losing charge in about 6 hours as soon as we upgraded to 3.0 (dumb move), We headed out, late as usual, for kodomo no shiro.

We stopped at Starbucks on the way to get the kids muffins, just like mama and daddy had eaten for breakfast. The trip took forever because we didn't have good directions. I tried to download them in Osaka, but Andrea lost her patience and so I had parts of station names (the names were partly obscured by bubbles on google maps). The lady at the ryokan's front desk was too long winded to ask (having her help book the cab was a 40 minute affair), and so off we went sort of guessing as to directions. We got close and while Andrea and Joshua went to the toilet I finally figured out how the nameless streets work. Each neighborhood has a name. Within the neighborhood there are numbered areas, within the areas numbered blocks, within the blocks numbered houses. So, kodomo no shiro with its address of Jungmae 5-53-1 was in neighborhood Jungmae, area 5, block 53, number 1. Not that our map had the area numbers or the block numbers; I figured this all out on a map that was posted near the subway entrance. We took a long walk.

The place was clearly aimed at kids younger and with longer attention spans than ours, though it was large enough that ours could find amusement. As Andrea and I sat, bored, we baegan discussing the logistics of the afternoon - we needed an hour to get back to the hotel and we needed time to get lunch. We realized that we'd need to dine someplace that took a credit card because we were down to about 1,000 Yen in cash and we'd need that to get subway tickets for the kids. Then it hit me -- most cabs don't take cash -- time to find another ATM where our card worked.

Andrea balked -- between Ari falling apart and all the little challenges of Japan life was a bit too hard and stressful. I thought quickly and volunteered to leave her our remaining cash, go to the ATM with one kid, return to the hotel get the cab and meet her at the station. She could lunch on the credit card, go to the station and have time to spare. Easy peasy. Both kids wanted to stay with the momster, and I'd move faster alone. I headed off. Finding an ATM wasn't so bad. I asked for directions, which I didn't understand but I headed in the direction the person seemed to point. When I felt I must have gone too far I asked again. The nice man pointed from where I'd come and this time I understood him - he said to go back 100 meters and make a right. Thank you Pimsleur Japanese IIB lesson 17! I turned around, counted 120 paces and turned right. BINGO - yuubinkyoku.

10,000 Yen richer I decided that I was doing great. I went to the Japanese branch of Gerbaud -- a famous Hungarian bakery. Andrea loves and misses dobos torta. Occasionally, I'll get her some when I drive through Ohio for work. I've been known to go hours out of the way to get her one as a sort of gesture of love. So, in Japan I went into the world's finest Hungarian patiserie and spent an exorbitant amount of money on dobos torta for Joshua and Andrea and a strawberry pastry for Ari.

When you buy prepared food to go in Japan they ask how far you are planning to take it and put in little ice packs to keep it cool for your journey. Once the question got asked in English phrased as "How much times you go here?" Andrea replied "This is our first time in Japan." Confronted with a puzzled look, Andrea held up a finger. One time?" the person from whom we'd just purchased a cream puff asked. Yes, one time, Andrea answered. She proceeded to put ice packs in with the cream puff as it dawned on us how wrong we'd been. This time, I understood the question and replied that I was taking it to America on an airplane. I wonder how much ice she put in.

I headed back to the ryokan, downloaded one more book for Joshua, changed my Facebook status, and asked the nice lady at reception where Andrea's charging iPhone was. She had no idea; it was not the same woman that was there in the morning. We searched. We tried calling Andrea on the rented cell, but got no answer. Eventually I gave up.

The cab arrived, I piled in the suitcases and we got to the station without incident. The cab dropped me at the Marounochi line north exit, where we had agreed to meet. I paid the driver and stood by my pile of six large suitcases and one small bag of Hungarian pastry and waited. When Andrea had not arrived after a few minutes I began moving the suitcases in a few feet at a time, cycling through all six. I made it maybe 20 feet toward the elevator when Andrea and the kids arrived. Her cell was in her purse - she'd decided not to charge it after all.

We took the Narita Express, but bought a ticket on a train that departed in seven minutes, rather than 37. That meant a mad dash through the train station to make it onto the train. Ari's craziness, which just wouldn't let up, didn't help. I think he's missing home, though he won't admit it. On the train I bought a 500 Yen sushi bento box (small but tasty), a coffee, and split a small bottle of water with Andrea. It was the first thing I had to eat or drink since the muffin seven hours earlier. Once we'd checked in we bought candy with our leftover change. Ari got 'n cream Mentos, Andrea and Joshua got chocolate covered mushroom shaped cookies, and I got green tea Kit Kat. I can hardly wait to try it.

At security they made a fuss over Joshua's carry on. I thought "don't you have anythign better to do. He's 10 years old and hardly looks the part of a terrorist." Turns out he packed the real shuriken (throwing star) he bought for his friend Juan in his carry on. They found it and Joshua donated to the Japanese police force rather than check his entire carry on bag.

The airplane is it's usual mess - the overhead bin above my seat is taped shut with red tape that reads "unserviceable do not use". The tape is so old most of the lettering has rubbed or faded away. We departed an hour and forty minutes late. America is only 12 hours away. This was the best vacation I've ever had, but I'm ready to be home.

Corrections and Errata:

It turns out you still walk to the left in Osaka, it is only the escalators that reverse.

I know that I made a bunch of spelling errors in place names - I will go back and fix them one fine day. A lot of this stuff had to be written quickly and little thought or editing went into it.

I have more pictures and video which I will post soon.

I have seen a number of additional toilet features in Japan. One of my favorites had labels in English that included "flushing sound" which Andrea had already tried and "powerful deodorizer" -- I didn't try it. The Japanese are very hygiene conscious. For example, our hotel in Osaka had a spray bottle at the entrance labeled "antiseptic alcohol, feel free to use" and many people wear surgical face masks on the street, which makes it odd that there is often no soap and even more often no towels or air dryer in Japanese restrooms.

The Japanese people were kind, patient, and with a few exceptions bent over backward to help the confused gaijin and overlooked our many faux pas.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nozomi back to Tokyo and a Night in a Ryokan

We checked out of our hotel in Osaka and splurged on a cab to the Shin-Osaka, from which the shinkansen leaves. We were hoping to save some money by taking a slower train back to Tokyo, but the choices were to take a slower shinkansen for between $5 and $7 less a ticket or to cut way back to a local train. Even the local train were not much cheaper, until you got down to a route that took over nine hours and required changing trains six times. So, I figured we might as well take the Nozomi again.

Ari insisted on taking the two cheap plastic umbrellas we'd bought, though they didn't fit in the suitcases. He managed to trip two hapless Japanese commuters with them.

Once we arrived in Tokyo we called the ryokan. They told us to take the marounochi subway line to the stop nearest them and call again for directions. We exited through the ticket gates, found the marunouchi line, but couldn't find a ticket machine. Andrea asked a helpful ticket agent, that the ticket machine was on the other side of the ticket gate. How do we get to the ticket machine to buy the tickets? He helpfully let Andrea through as we stood by our 6 large suitcases.

Andrea returned because there was no price posted at the ticket machine for where we wanted to go. The helpful agent told us that it was 160 Yen for the kids (we had recharged our suica cards so didn't need tickets) and let her in again.

She bought the tickets and returned. We tried to go through the gates - they beeped and closed. Turns out we were on the inside of the exit of the Japan Rail Marounuchi line, to get the subway, we'd need different tickets, The helpful agent refunded our 160 Yen and let us out.

We started following the signs toward the subway. The next obstacle was a very long set of stairs. Andrea looked at the stairs. She looked at the suitcases. "No way," she said "I'm not hauling the suitcases down there." I volunteered to take them down one at a time.

"We're taking a cab," Andrea declared. We went to the cab line. The driver looked at our six large suitcases. He looked at his cab, He spoke rapidly in Japanese that I did not understand, but I could tell he was using the negative conjugation of the verbs. After determining that no cabbie was taking us, I hauled the suitcases down the stairs, one at a time.

Ari lost it. He just fell apart. "Joshua always gets his way. I hate the subway. I want to take a cab..."

We found the subway ticket machine, got on the subway and headed for M 011. Once we arrived we called the ryokan, got walking directions, and started on our way. I felt like my arms were going to fall off by the half way point of our 15 minute walk. I would have complained, but Andrea was doing enough for the both of us. Ari hadn't stopped with the constant whine of complaint and was insisting on weaving back and forth across the sidewalk, heedless of who he cut off or the bicycles whizzing past. The walk took forever, the last third of it winding through unmarked residential side streets. We finally got to the ryokan, later than expected, checked in and explored.

Our lodgings were beautiful, the hallway floors were black stone with wooden insets or polished hardwood. Walls were soji screens and carved wood. A central court had an immaculately groomed garden with beautiful trees and a large koi pond. A stone bridge traversed the pond and Ari enjoyed walking back and forth, across the bridge.

The baths were japanese style, showers that you used first and hot tub for afterward. There was a mens', womans', a single stall for those that wanted privacy and family one that locked. There were separate slippers for the hall, the garden, and the toilets. Shoes were left at the entrance.

Andrea was anxious to get to kodomo no shiiro, but we went out to look for lunch first. After lunch Joshua had some residual symptoms from being sick and we decided that we'd go back to our room and take it easy. I took the kids for a Japanese style bath. After a rest, we dined at a Malaysian, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese restaurant. They were tickled that Andrea asked to make sure that the Nasi Goreng was not pork, explained that she did not eat pork. They assumed we were Muslim, like them.

After dinner we returned to our rooms to find the futons made up and the room hot and humid. The air conditioner was flaky. Three separate people tried and failed to fix it. It seemed to work intermittently, but not enough to cool the room. When it cycled on it sounded like a helicopter coming in for a landing. The walls were literally paper thin and we were next to the communal toilet. I slept poorly - seems that beauty, as always, had a price

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Umeda Sky Garden

Today we took it relatively easy. In the morning we went to the Umeda Sky Garden, an observation deck that spans two buildings 173 meters up. You rode a glass elevator and then took a long escalator up, which was cool. Andrea said we wouldn't go if they charged for it because it was raining and visibility was poor. Then she changed her mind and decided to go all the way to the top, despite the clouds and pouring rain. I have to admit that she was right. The view was still spectacular. We sat on the 40th floor in front of floor to ceiling windows drinking coffee, espresso, and cocoa.

The kids also loved the room with benches that interacted with the colored lighting (complete with sound effects). Andrea refused to get a lock with our names engraved to leave chained to a fence in the lover's garden near the top. I thought it was romantic. She thought it was an empty gesture.

At the gift shop, Andrea vetoed the idea of trying either octopus or chili and garlic soda, which I thought would be worth trying. I am such a pushover!

Afterward we went to lunch at a nice Indian restaurant. The kids got a kick out of talking to the chefs as they showed them how they made naan in a real tandoor. We then tried to shop for souvenirs without any luck. We tired ourselves out, came back to the hotel and ate takeout. This time I picked poorly.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A sick child in Kita-Senri, Japan

We woke up and breakfasted in the usual manner. This morning instead of Ari refusing to get out of bed, refusing to get dressed, and then lying down and saying I'm sleepy every two minutes it was Joshua who did it. I thought that they were really good at tag teaming me, but didn't pay much attention.

We found the entrance to the right subway line, found the ticket machine, figured out the correct fare to Kita-Senri for us (450 Yen each) and the kids (230 Yen each), put the money in the machine, selected subway, 2 adults, ticket, and got price choices that topped out at 380 Yen. Off to find a ticket taker, who brought us back to the machine and showed us that we needed to hit the Sakaisuji-Hankyu Line button too. We headed off to see Kumiko.

Our plan was to meet her and go to a park. The 91.4 degree heat (a new record for June 28) and 78% humidity was brutal, but I figured with enough fluids we'd be OK. Joshua was still acting sleepy, but I paid little mind until halfway through the trip when he suddenly, violently vomited all over the floor in front of him. The Japanese people around us handed us paper towels and alerted the conductor at the next stop. Surely God was avenging my twenty five years of teasing my wife and mother-in-law. Poor Joshua just got caught in the middle.

About ten stops later we were at Kita-Senri, the end of the line. As the train came to a stop there were three railway employees waiting on the platform, exactly where the door nearest us would end up, with mops and cleaning supplies in hand.

We decided to go to Kumiko's apartment instead of the park to let Joshua rest. He fell fast asleep. Andrea sat and read while Kumiko and I took Ari to the library and a department store. This suburban store was far less fancy than the ones we'd seen in the cities. Fruit was less expensive and Kumiko, I think having heard our complaints about the lack of fruit and veggies, bought tons (watermelon, kiwi, peaches, and pineapple). I let Ari play some arcade games (yes, there was an arcade in the department store).

Kumiko, Ari and I returned home and ate a meal of paella, onigiri, cucumber, carrot, corn, potato croquettes, fruit, and desert. At the end of the meal we said the traditional Japanese thank you for a meal "gochisosamadeshita" (It was an honorable feast) and truly meant it.

Joshua woke up and puked a few more times. We returned to the hotel, Joshua vomiting along the way. He's not yet holding down liquids, so I refuse to make plans for tomorrow. We've spent a lot of the day cleaning him up and I just want to take it easy. After one more easy day, hopefully everyone will be up for a special treat I've planned for the kids, and our final night, at a ryokan.

Since we had downtime in the evening we did some laundry so that I'd have short sleeve shirts and because when packing at the last hotel we managed to put most of the kids clean clothes in the dirty laundry bag. We ate take out in our spacious hotel room. Ari had been asking for the golden arches twelve times a day and just like in the states I can't bring myself to do it, so I got Japanese food for the adults, and Mos Burger (a sort of Japanese version of McDonalds) for Ari.

As my trip comes to a close I'd like to thank some of those that made it possible: Eva and Gyuri who watched Zachary and kept him happy and safe, Christina who took him to Tennessee so he'd get a vacation too, my wife who put up with my mangled attempts to plan and execute a vacation in a foreign language and culture, and my kids who may not have been perfect angels, but behaved well enough that with a little "wabi sabi" their stubborn father could make it through the trip mostly smiling.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Visiting Himeji Castle

We packed up, ate breakfast in the room, and checked out. This time we were in a hurry to meet Kumiko and Yoshi so we screwed up and left Pickles the Frog, a souvenir from Kiddie Land in Ari's bedding (I think). Since Pickles cost $8 I fear getting him sent on to our new hotel will cost more than his original price. Not sure what to do about that one.

As we waited for the bus to the station Joshua saw a bunch of kids on the "People to People" ambassadors program. He clearly yearned to participate.

We got to the train station, lugging the six heavy suitcases, bought a ticket to Osaka and we were off. We got to the hotel late, dropped our bags, met Yoshi and Kumiko and headed to Himeji Castle. Kumiko packed us a lunch of onigiri (various fillings in triangular shaped sushi rice), tamago, and chicken, that we ate on the train.

The city of Himej was itself quite beautiful. Broad tree lined avenues with ample space for bicycles and pedestrians on both sides of the street. There was even a bronze sculpture to enjoy every block or so. Ample space is something we really appreciate now that we've seen Japan. Tokyo and Osaka are both so densely populated that it awes us, though we've lived in Manhattan. Subway stations are immense, and easily twice as crowded as those in New York or London. They melt into subterranean levels of shops and restaurants that extend two or three levels under the city.

Keeping our relatively country bumpkin kids safe in this environment is not always easy. Bicycles tear through the crowds on the sidewalks while Ari stares at his feet and tries to step only on cracks in the sidewalk. The kids stop in front of turnstiles, swing from both rails on the escalator, and come tearing around blind corners. They're not just a hazard to themselves; more than once I've pulled Ari out of the path of a blind person over the last week.

To try to keep them safe, I've been drumming into their head "hidari" (left) because the Japanese walk on the left and stand on the left on escalators (the right is for those in a rush). Japan, however, is a land of contradictions. Even the electrical current changes it is 50 Hz in the East and 60 in the west (or vice versa). So, we get to Osaka and it turns out that unlike Tokyo and Kyoto the rule here is stand to the right and walk on the left on the escalators.

Anyway, the castle was immense. The central building, sitting on a hill, is six stories high and towers over the whole town. The weather was hazy, so I didn't get great photos. It was also about a hundred and humid, so I got an earful from Andrea. Ari had a blast running up and down stairs, climbing walls, and exhorting the grown-ups to move faster. Joshua enjoyed the castle, in a slightly less boisterous manner.

Afterwards, Joshua decided he wanted to buy a sword in a local souvenir shop. I said "No way. We have a no weapons rules." Andrea said, "I'm inclined to let him." If ever there was a kid who was a walking advertisement for why you should not buy your child a realistic toy weapon with which someone might get hurt it's Joshua; an impulsive kid, that fights with his brothers. Even if he doesn't swing it at one of them in a fit of rage one day or play too exuberantly with it, it's only a matter of time till it breaks as he uses this decorative object to "hack at trees with Juan" or Zachary gets at it when it is left out. I backed down and really hope I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Behind the souvenir shop we ran into a group of Japanese girls Joshua's age. He had a great time chatting with them; Andrea and I agreed that a month with Japanese kids would really do the trick in terms of getting him to a level where he could communicate. They were cute, sharing their shaved ice with him, talking, and laughing. It was a pleasure to watch.

For dinner we had soba topped with buckwheat that you ground at your own table with mortar and pestle, skewers of grilled things, and tempura. We bought fruit from the clearance rack in a department store. Department store fruit is amazingly expensive. Tonight I saw a nice cantaloupe for $40 - I wouldn't throw it in my cart at Meijer for $4. Ari begged for a perfect looking $7 peach. We got the very ripe bananas and a few misshapen plums at a somewhat less ridiculous price, because it's really hard to get fruits and veggies here any other way.