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.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ninja training in Koka Ninja Village

I woke up at 6:30 and spent 20 minutes killing time, resting in bed before getting up to perform my morning ablutions. At 7:30, while Andrea was doing hers I woke the kids. Dragging Ari out of bed was a huge challenge. Two late nights in a row really got to him.

We headed out to the station, bought some food for the journey, and boarded the train to Kooka to see the ninja village and museum. The pecan raisin bread that I ate on the train would give Zingerman's a run for its money.

An hour and a half and two trains we arrived in a deserted station in Kooka, which is in the Japanese countryside. There is a free shuttle from the station to the ninja village. We saw a bus, it wasn't going to the ninja museum. A van came, but it was picking up for the Bayer plant. Another bus came, also not headed in our direction. The driver, got out, found a phone book and called the ninjas who came right over to pick us up. On the ride over I got to hear Andrea tell me for the forty-ninth time about how I had picked the wrong ninja museum and we should have gone to the one in Ueno, which was far more touristy and hence would have more reliable and easy to find transportation. I tried to argue that off the beaten path is often where the best experience occur and was told that people beat paths to places worth going to. Having been told back in the states to just make the decisions and plan our trip, I got snippy.

The village was great fun for the kids. They saw ninja houses with traps, secret doors, collapsing ceilings, and escaped tunnels. The fireplace even concealed a tunnel that you got into by rolling the fire out of the way and then back into place.

The kids and I did ninja training - climbing walls, rocks, and ledges, and throwing shuriken. Andrea vetoed the walking on water, as she saw another ninja trainee almost completely loose it and fall into a murky pond that could almost be described as a very wet field of mud under a foot of standing water.

At the end we all got a ninja diploma, even Andrea who had refused to participate because she was not dressed for the occasion. As if! I wasn't wearing my ninja outfit.

We stopped at the gift shop and I was accused of being unfeeling, after refusing to allow my kids to buy real swords and shuriken. However, they did get key chains and we bought a couple of cold drinks. Andrea pointed to one and asked if it was green tea. I translated for her and the answer came back "No, it's wasabi lemonade" I had to have it. To my surprise, everyone liked it. The wasabi flavor was subtle. They also had curry lemonade - if I see them again I'm trying that next. Joshua had an original flavor.

Joshua's bottle was shaped differently from mine. it had a narrowing in the middle, with a glass marble that rolled around in the top. Mine was more conventionally shaped, but still had a marble.

Exhausted from my arduous ninja training I fell asleep on the train back to Kyoto. When we got back we found a quick, traditional Japanese restaurant for lunch. Joshua got mad at us because (1) we would not let him order items not on the menu (2) we would not let him give specific instruction for the chef, (3) we would not let him eat with his hands, (4) we would not let him suck noodles in a three foot long arc supported only by his chopsticks (5) we would not let him order rice after a meal of noodles with a few cucumber sushi (6) we would not order a third cucumber sushi for him and Ari, (7) we would not let him have a large ice cream sundae for desert from lunch, (8) we would not allow him to proclaim in a loud voice that his table manners were as good as those of the man at the next table (who'd helped us order, using English fluently), (9) we would not buy him a chocolate baguette after lunch, (I could go on, but I'll leave it at that). With each complaint he got more whiney and combative. I pointed out that I'd learned Japanese, taken him to Japan, and spent the morning at a ninja village. Nothing helped until he realized that we were serious about no privileges until his attitude improved.

Once Joshua apologized, we had time to hit the 100 Yen shop in Kyoto tower and a large bookstore with an English section. One of the books was on wabi sabi (enjoying the beauty of imperfection), something I am working hard at, but not doing as well as I'd hope. It's a hard skill to learn with a wife as close to perfect as mine.

After shopping we walked back to the hotel. I stopped on the way at the post office ATM to replenish our cash. Andrea was shocked at the rate at which we'd blown through the money we just got. Don't tell my wife, but I was a bit shocked too.

Once we were well rested we bathed the kids, dealt with Joshua's forty-fifth tantrum du-jour and headed out to meet Charlie for dinner. We ate at a sort of vegetarian restaurant. I ordered a salad and smoked salmon. The salad on its own would have been enough for dinner. Charlie walked us to the subway station and saw us off. Tomorrow, on to Himeji castle with Kumiko and Yoshi.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Manga museum, Kyoto

The day began, as usual, with a search for compromise on food. After the ordeal, the kids had toast and Andrea and I had eggs, both hard boiled and scrambled. Then we went to buy tickets for the train to the Kooka ninja village and museum. Andrea was so distressed that the JR tickets and tours agent had never heard of what should be a major tourist attraction and the late hour that we decided to buy the tickets for tomorrow and get an earlier start.

Plan B was the Manga museum. The kids enjoyed it, but Andrea and I were mostly bored silly. Even the kids had a hard time, since so much was in Japanese, but Joshua slowed down and really looked at the art for a while. However, much of the value of the museum rests in its enormous collection of Manga and since none of us read Japanese we were done in a few hours.

Then we headed off to the Nishiki market. Blocks and blocks of interesting shops with cool Japanese foods (and crafts) many of which you could freely sample. We all loved the fresh grilled rice crackers (a bit chewy, unlike any we'd ever had) We all got sticks with little rice crackers with different flavorings sprinkled on. Andrea got tako yaki (balls of dough with octopus). I got roasted sweet potato with honey butter and a fish shaped bean bun. The kids got candy, but we made them eat yogurt and fruit too.

After Nishiki we headed for Gion on foot, but we never made it. We came to a huge shopping arcade and spent hours there. I got a couple of desperately needed T-shirts (I packed too many hot long sleeved things and not enough comfy clothes). One says "stubborn father" in Kanji if I believe their translation. I wanted Andrea to buy one that said "fearful wife" to go with it, but she refused.

At 4:30 we headed home because we were going to meet Kumiko at our hotel and go to dinner. When we got back to Kyoto station, about forty five minutes later we called her cell and it turned out she was in the station too, making her way toward the shuttle to our hotel. We met at the shuttle stop and returned to the hotel together. The kids were so excited to see her, they talked a mile a minute.

We went back to the station - Kumiko wanted kaiten zushi, but the sushi place had no edamame and we didn't think Joshua would eat well enough. So we looked for alternatives for dinner and in the end we ate at a Japanese place calledてり力. We had a bit of a wait for a table. Yoshi joined us just after we were seated. Kumiko had described the restaurant as Japanese tapas, and it was an apt description. We left the ordering to Kumiko - no english menu here (not even the restaurant name on in romanji on the sign) and I wouldn't have had a clue if there were. She started with beer (even I had a glass) and moved on to what seemed like an endless stream of dishes. Some I was familiar with (edamame and tamago) but most I had never seen or heard of before. Among the more than ten dishes that were new to me that was an incredible daikon radish and tuna flakes salad and the best mushrooms that either Andrea or I had ever eaten. We simultaneously asked for another round of the mushrooms once the first plate was empty.

It was fabulous to see Kumiko and Yoshi again after so long. We toasted Japan, had great conversation, fabulous food, good laughs; this trip just keeps getting better. The kids were well enough behaved, except for a little over-exuberant toasting that resulted in a broken glass.

After dinner we went to one of the thousands of fancy cake places for desert. Andrea and I had a cake made from crepes layered with caramel and frosting.Ari insisted he wanted softo kuremu from McDonalds instead, so he got desert once the rest of us finished and we headed back to the hotel to get the kids to bed. We're going to the Ninja vilage early tomorrow and to Himeji with Kumiko and Yoshi on Saturday.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Nijo Castle and a Japanese Bath

After an exhausting day we were actually in bed by 10PM. Each hotel seems to have a firmer mattress. Andrea's been unhappy with the hard mattresses for the whole trip, but I've been reveling in the comfort. This one was finally too firm even for me. I woke up in the middle of the night; I'd rolled onto my arm and sleeping on it was so painful that I thought I'd loose the arm. When the pain receded I went back to sleep.

In the morning I woke up with a pain under my right scapulae, the mirror image of the one that has bedeviled me on the left. It's hurt all day like a shogun's spear had been inserted there and was being twisted at random intervals.

This hotel's toilets are similar to those in the previous two but have a extra button on the control panel. I stumbled into the bathroom, sat on the seat, and got the nerve to try the button on this hotel's toilet. A warmed air dryer fired right up. Since many public Japanese bathrooms have neither paper towel nor a hand drier near the sink I found this addition just a bit amusing.

Andrea asked the concierge about the Nintendo museum, but was told it had closed a couple of years ago. I bought some Internet time and looked up locations of ATMs that are actually on our bank's network. Turns out there's one in every post office in Japan. We went off to find the post office, eating breakfast along the way in a hotel lobby. Once we had money again, we bought subway cards and hopped on a train to Nijo Castle. The castle has "nightingale floors" that squeak with even the lightest step so that intruders can not sneak up on the shogun.

Then we headed for the Manga museum. Unfortunately, it turned out to be closed on Wednesday, so we headed back for lunch. We had spaghetti and salad and the kids got a parfait.

After lunch Andrea stayed in town for acupressure massage while I returned to the hotel to upload photos and write up the first half of day nine. I have tons of video, but never enough time to edit and post it. Getting this and a few snaps up are all I can do for now. The kids read and watched part of Star Wars: Clone Wars.

When Andrea returned we called Charles who asked if we were up for the full experience - a Japanese bathhouse followed by dinner. I'm going to try to describe it well but I know my prose won't do it justice. It'll have to do - Andrea refused to video it.

We took the subway north to Kitaoji station, found the L.L. Bean (10 feet above ground level, just as he'd said) and called Charles from our cell. He came and collected us and we went to the bathhouse which was set in a quiet residential side street. We took our shoes off outside the building and put them in lockers whose keys were pieces of wood with notches carved into them. We then went into a large locker room, got undressed and went into the baths. The room with the baths was large maybe 20 by 30 feet. There were three tubs, two small ones near the entrance and a huge one near the back. The huge one had water flowing out of it that ran across the floor, draining at the sides of the room. Along the side walls were rows of shower heads about 2 and half feet high. Following Charlie's instructions, first we each got a thick rubber mat from a cart, knelt in front of a shower head, and thoroughly washed. The kids were initially hesitant to get their heads wet but Charles insisted that they do it right. Then into the baths. The two small tubs were deep. One was dark blue with really cold water, the other was yellow with water that was dyed green and was sort of hot. I skipped those initially. The one in back was really hot - hotter than any hot tub I'd ever been in. I went in there. The tub had room for 20 people but only had 3 or 4 at a time. At the back of the tub was a salt water fish tank set into the wall. I admired the tank for a while and then worked on coaxing the kids into the tub. Joshua would only try the cold. Ari was braver.

One corner of the tub had a three sided area that looked like a comfortable place to sit. I headed over and Charles warned me - be careful. I was close and said "It doesn't seem that much hotter here." He told me it was electrical. I carefully eased my way in and sure enough it sent pulses of electricity through the water and through me about twice a second. Ari tired the electrical area too. He said it was cool and made his leg feel weak. Eventually we got out, washed again and headed for the lockers.

After we'd dried off, Joshua decided he didn't want to totally miss out after all. Charles was still inside, so I let him go back in and he tried the hot bath.

Andrea called over from the girls side. I had paid for her on the way in, so they were not letting her pay and she was upset. The boys and I met Andrea outside while Charles shaved. Andrea said that the women on her side had taken her under their wings and showed her how to do things. They wouldn't let her near the electrical area, but she got to try the sauna briefly (I didn't because it meant being where I couldn't see the kids).

We headed upstairs for dinner. The hostess greeted us by name (Charles had forewarned them) and led us to a nice reserved table. We ate a Japanese salad that was unlike any I'd ever had. Andrea had vegetables over rice and Charles and I had tempura (I know I'm boring). The kids had soba and miso (not that it was on the menu).

We went back to Charles's house for cake and conversation. The place was beautiful: tatami mats, shoji, and an enclosed garden in front. It had a nice open feel to it.

The kids needed to get to bed, so Charles walked us to the station around 9:30. What an experience! A fabulous day on a fabulous trip.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


I woke up around 6:00 and got on the computer to wait for the family to wake up. I read the times and wept at the 3% decline in the market. We'd made up half of the loss from our peak, but between the market decline this week and our trip to Japan -- Well, let's just say that college is probably highly over-rated.

Off to Vie De France for breakfast, where Andrea finally got the courage to try the calzone and I tried the soy milk with smoked salmon sandwich. I also bought an apple square, yum! The kids ate carmel rolls, doughnuts, and other less than healthy choices.

After breakfast we headed back to the hotel where we packed up, checked out and caught a cab for Tokyo station. I had downloaded the timetable for Nozomi (the fastest bullet train type) the night before and found that they left Tokyo as frequently as three minutes apart, though at less popular times there were gaps of up to 20 minutes between departures. I figured getting a ticket for a reserved seat would not be a problem. When we got to the station however, the next train was about to leave, the train after did not have four reserved seats together and was followed by a twenty minute gap, so we settled on the third train, meaning over a half hour wait. The helpful ticket agent explained how to get to the platform, what car to get on, and which seats to sit in.

Four hundred dollars later we were on our way. Andrea was shocked at how expensive the tickets were. I defended JR, pointing out that the Taxi ride through central Tokyo, which was not 1/0 as fast or 1/10 as far was forty bucks. She told me to shut-up, but somehow she phrased it politely.

While we waited for the Nozomi, Joshua asked three Japan Rail guards for directions to the bathroom. They let him past the gates without a ticket, guided him to the bathroom, patiently waited outside, and escorted him back with a smile. We went into a food shop and bought a great vegetarian bento that Andrea and I split on the train.

I'm writing this as we rocket along on the train - clean, fast, comfortable, on-time. The train has electrical outlets and wi-fi. America could learn a lot from the Japanese.

In Kyoto there was a convenient, free shuttle bus from the train station to the hotel every 15 minutes. Our room is way larger and more elegant than the one in Tokyo and a lot less expensive. Internet is not free, however, and so we're planning on every other day access.

Once we got settled we headed out to walk around the Gion neighborhood. First we stopped for a snack at a french bakery: Ari and I had garlic bread, Joshua had a cheese danish, and Andrea braved the green bean bread (which turned out to be sweet, not savoury -- accepted on its own terms it was nice). Based on the shopping mall under the main train station and the Gion neighborhood, Kyoto seems more upscale, far more touristy than Tokyo, and far less crowded. We were out of Yen so we stopped at the first ATM we saw and tried to get cash. No luck - the machine spat back a message saying the card was expired or not valid. I called Schwab, they told me that the machine wasn't on their network and suggested that I find one that is. I must have looked at half a dozen ATMs and had no luck finding one that my Schwab Bank card would work on.

We sampled pickles of all shapes and sizes - the local speciality. My cousin Charlie came to meet us for dinner at an Indian restaurant. Joshua told Charles how awesome and fast the Shinkansen was. Charles told Joshua that there building a maglev that will go twice as fast. Americans, especially on the right, love to thump their chest about how America is the greatest, but since we're not willing to invest in infrastructure and education the world is rapidly surpassing us. Japan's economy was stagnant for over a decade, but the place is still hopping and vibrant. The kids behaved like poorly behaved kids. After dinner I pulled out my credit card to pay and the waiter said "Sorry, we only accept cash." Charlie bailed us out. We went back to the hotel, put the kids to bed, finished writing this, and started watching a DVD.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A relaxed day in Tokyo

I woke up early again and got on the net while everyone slept. I briefly visited the Second Life art gallery of a guy from Nagoya that I'd met. I caught up on e-mail.

When the family joined me in the world of the conscious we headed out for breakfast at the French Pastry shop. I got an egg and onion something (tons of mayo, sort of gross) that I split with Andrea and a cinnamon roll.

Yesterday morning, when we were in a tearing rush to get out I found that (1) I had no more short sleeve shirts and it's darn hot here and (2) that my glasses were covered with grease. So, I put on a long sleeved shirt and went into the bathroom and tried to clean my glasses. The screw that held my left lens in popped out and despite spending ten minutes when I should have been helping Andrea with the kids trying to fix it I couldn't. So, I spent yesterday without my glasses and today after breakfast we headed to "Super Megane" to get them fixed.

We got there a little early and waited until they opened at 10:00. As soon as the doors opened I gained a ton of goodwill by saying "Sumimasen, watashi no megane o shuurishimasuka?" (Excuse me can you fix my glasses?) The woman that was helping me answered in English, fixed and cleaned the glasses, and refused payment.

While she fixed my glasses the other workers stood at attention outside the shop, chanted a welcome to the day, and then bowed to the world. I wish I'd been rude enough to film it.

Speaking of photographs: The Japanese love to take them, but many places prohibit them. I can understand and respect the bhudaist temples' prohibitions, but Ghibli museum (of which you can buy postcards and books), a manga shop, or the window of shop on Takeshita Dori? A shop owner came out and put her hand in front of my video camera as I walked by filming and pointed to a sign that said no pictures of the storefront. Give me a break.

But once again I digress from the day's activities. We went to Nihonbashi and Marunochi. We saw the Tokyo International Forum and Mitsukosh (a fancier big "depaato" - departmant store) than the one's near us. Then back to Shinjuku for lunch - we ate at a place that specialized in chicken. I had a chicken burger with soft boiled egg, which was the tastiest dish I've had to date on this trip.

I went to the bathroom in the depaato that housed the chicken place and it was, well different. Imagine a bathroom about the size of a smallish walk in closet. Next to the door is a sink, next to the sink is a urinal, and at the back a stall. All of that I can imagine in America. What that bathroom had, that no similar bathroom in America would is a clear round window, about 14 inches in diameter, in the door at eye level.

After lunch we went back to the hotel, dumped the kids in front of a computer, and left to find a coin laundry. We walked blocks through pouring rain. While doing our clothes we met another American, Eric from San Francisco. Andrea went to buy fruit and supervise kids as I sat and tended the laundry. I noticed that while Eric and I stayed and watched our clothes spin, the Japanese patrons would come, start a load and leave again. I've also noticed that bicycles, which are everywhere are seldom locked and if they are they're locked with a flimsy chain, not kryptonite locks. I've also noticed that the fancy hotels have locking umbrella stands but there's often a pile of umbrellas left by patrons at the entrance to the local AM PM.

We headed out for an evening stroll around the Ameyoko market, We should have waited to buy fruit there - much cheaper than the fruit Andrea bought, which was in turn cheaper than the fruit in the fancy department store areas. Still expensive by American standards though, as all fresh produce seems to be. We also managed to get the cool Japanese Q-tips (only 120, which I know I'll soon regret) and by visiting another 8 story toy store we finally found Zachary a present from Japan.

Dinner was at a kaiten-zushi restaurant again, where Joshua charmed with his Japanese but ate little. There I finally used a toilet where when you flush clean water flows through a sink above the toilet tank, so the water with which you wash your hands fills the toilet's tank for the next flush. Dessert was Haagen Daz and chocolate bars.

While it might not have been the most interesting day it was till a blast. I told Andrea that I thought this was the coolest, most exciting trip I've ever taken. I can say that even though I'm someone who's travelled a reasonable amount and done some really exciting things from scuba diving to sailing for weeks at a time, and living with natives in many countries.

Tomorrow we're off to Kyoto. We'll see Charlie and then on to Osaka where we will see Kumiko and Yoshi.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Touring Niko Park and Kegon Falls

I woke up, wide awake, at 4:30 AM and tried unsuccessfully to get back to sleep for forty minutes before giving up. I guess I should have taken the melatonin that Andrea's been pushing -- I just never remember.

I got videos onto my computer and although I couldn't edit video in the time I had, I posted some photos of day 5 on Facebook.

Andrea woke up at 6:45 and we started to get ready .

We'd signed up for another tour with Sunrise Tours, this one of Nikko national park and Kegon Falls. After quickly dressing, we woke the kids and headed out because we were on a tight schedule; the bus pick up at the Keio Plaza hotel was at 8:00AM. The breakfast place we had planned to eat at was closed but we stop at one of the ubiquitous, well stocked konbinis (convenience store, this is the land that invented 7-11) and picked up breakfast. The rest of the family had junk food but I had an egg sandwich (complete with what I hope was Thousand Island dressing) and a pumpkin pie (which looked like a cross between a bear claw and a croissant but was spongey and filled with a sweetened squash puree).

The bus ride was long, about 3 hours with one break in the middle and I was uncaffeinated. This state of affairs resulted in my having a great deal of difficulty remaining conscious. Fortunately every five minutes or so our guide made an announcement either about something that happened in the Edo period (roughly from 1600AD to the end of the American civil war) or about what was available at the gift shops we'd visit.

Joshua asked for the water bottle. I warned him not to drink too much, gave him the bottle, closely supervised the amount he drank and took the bottle back. I told Andrea that I was concerned; he has a small bladder and when he get well hydrated he desperately needs to go every five minutes. We'd already had a couple of bad experiences with him repeatedly desperate to go in Tokyo and the bus had no bathroom. "I'm more worried about Ari getting dehydrated," she replied. "He sometimes goes half a day without drinking." I tried to argue but got smacked down by her superior self confidence. I seethed quietly and told her that the next time she expressed concern about something I'd point out that I was more concerned about global warming than the issue at hand.

Andrea gave me a father's day card from her, which contained a promise that for father's day I could be right the whole day. We'll starting from after our tiff about Joshua's drinking, she explained.

We first visited a Bhudist temple and a Shinto shrine. Beautiful enourmous golden Bhuda statues, and the famous three monkey carving that is the origin of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." One room had 100 dragons, each different painted on the ceiling. The shrines were spread out, like a college campus, set in beautiful evergreen forest with hills and valleys amid architectural wonders like ornate carved wooden five story pagodas. Though it resembled the Redwood forests in California, it was more airy and open, the shapes were different. All in all, it looked more like a Hayao Miyazake movie than any forest I'd ever seen. I tried to take some pictures of the family in the beautiful settings but they would not hold still.

The kids were insufferable, talking over the guide, opening and closing their umbrellas or twirling them to shower others with drops of water. I commanded, I explained, I threatened loss of privileges, I threatened to take away the umbrellas and let them get wet, I temporarily confiscated the umbrellas to show I meant it. They finally calmed down.

We paused at a gift shop and the kids were entranced with a sword. "No" I said. I looked around a bit more when "thwack" something hit my ankle hard. I looked down and saw a folded umbrella swinging toward my ankle for a second swipe, another umbrella in hot pursuit of the first. The kids, denied real swords were making do with what they had. I felt a thwack, still a bit too stunned to move. They swung the umbrellas back the other way, and the fact that they were about to hit another tourist jolted me into action. I grabbed the umbrellas just before they could thwack the innocent man in the side.

Back on the bus to Nikko for lunch. Lunch was tempura and a variety of other traditional Japanese dishes, many of which I'd never had before. Everything was delicious. Joshua and Ari wouldn't try everything, but they tried a few new foods and ate well enough.

Then we went to a lake. On the way we passed monkeys, but the bus barely slowed, lest we get off schedule. I've come to realize that Sunrise tours is all about being able to go through a checklist of things to do in Japan and say "yes, I did that". We stopped in a parking lot, took pictures in front of the lake, and got back on the bus to head to Kegon Falls. The falls were completely obscured by thick fog but the gift shops were nice, not that we bought anything.

We returned to the bus for the three hours back to the city. We got to watch a video promoting Sunrise Tours, with a beautiful shot of the falls. We all clapped.

At the halfway stop we purchased drinks. Joshua and Ari split half a liter of lemon flavored water. This time I did not make a big deal of it, figuring that I should allow Andrea to be right. When we were about half an hour away from Tokyo Joshua began to need to pee. He got more and more desperate, agitated, clearly in distress as time passed. Then we started having delays; three traffic accidents that we passed and a backed up toll booth. I was upset. Toward the end I was really afraid Joshua would wet himself (he was asking for permission to go into the empty water battle), but he made it.

Since we didn't get off the bus until almost 8:00, dinner was tempura and udon in one of the subway stations. Ari hardly ate - he didn't like the broth. I fed him cashews and dried cherries back in the room afterwords. We sent the kids off to bed around 8:30. I don't think I've ever been more exhausted, but I took a melatonin and didn't wake until 5:30.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ghibli Musuem, Mitaka

Finally a good night's sleep. I was up for maybe an hour, but that's no biggie. I'm very much enjoying Japan. The beds are so comfortable that the knot that I've had under my left scapula nearly every day for years seems completely healed. Service is fabulous everywhere. I watched in awe as a car was welcomed into a station by a bowing attendant, who then carefully washed each window as he filled the tank. But I digress, so back to what we're doing on our trip.

To try and make Andrea feel better about the food, we headed for B &B New York Style Bagels for breakfast. I had the Green Tea and White Chocolate bagel with cream cheese. Andrea said that if you don't think of it as a bagel, "just clear the concept of bagel from your mind," and just accept it on it's own terms then it is fine. After breakfast we shopped in a little food shop, buying dried fruit and lots of different kinds of rice crackers.

Then we head for the studio Ghibli museum. The place was amazingly well done. The architecture was fabulous and detailed: wood, stained glass with figures from their movies, colorful murals and frescoes, large airy rooms, endless detail, thousands of objects on display, each clearly thought out carefully. The elevator was straight out of Howl's Moving Castle. The kids, already Miyazaki fans, loved it. Photographs were not allowed, but I snuck a few.

After Ghibli we ate at the Mitaka station and headed back to the hotel for a well deserved rest. Once refreshed, we headed out again for a walk in harajuku. Metropolitan Tokyo has 36 million inhabitants and based on the crowding I am sure that at least 80% of them decided to take a walk in Harajuku this evening. We walked down takeshita dori - the center of Japan's otaku culture. So much young, hip, aching to be cool in one place, with each denizen a center of his or her own universe, it's a wonder it doesn't collapse under it's own weight into a black hole.

To warm the kids' hearts we visited Kidie Land: eight large floors of toys. I expected it to be stocked similarly to a toys R us and was pleasantly surprised at how much it was a real Japanese experience. Sure there were some Legos and the Transformers were just like the ones in a U. S. toy store, but most of the toys were genuine Japan. Much of it was stuff American kids (and adults) just wouldn't get. My particular favorite -- edamame (edible soy beans served in their pods) toys including keychains, stuffed edamame, towels, and something that was solar powered but neither Andrea nor I could figure out what it actually did.

We ate dinner at a kaiten-zushi restaurant: sushi is placed on conveyor belts and sent around to all of the tables. You pick the sushi off as it comes by. Different priced sushi is placed on different colored plates. At the end of the meal the staff counts plates to calculate your bill. The sushi chefs work in the middle and take special orders. They got a kick out of the gaijin (foreign) kid loudly ordering "more octopus, hold the wasabi, for my brother please" in his unaccented Japanese.

We escaped for under $40 and went off for crepes - there seem to be almost as many crepe shops here as there are French Patisseries, though IMNSHO Creperie De Hampstead is in no danger of losing it's position as the best in the world. Finally we took the express back to Shinjuku, which Andrea found out is the busiest train station in the world, and walked the two blocks back to the hotel.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pottery Making in Japan

I woke up at about 3:30 when Andrea thwacked me in the face with the quilt. Couldn't get back to sleep, so I checked e-mail and read on the kindle. At 5:00 Andrea woke briefly and asked me to come back to bed. I lay in bed for 5 minutes and heard the kids wake up in the room next to ours. Their volume quickly increased to an unacceptable level, so I went next door to keep them quiet.

When Andrea finally arose around 7:00 I had the kids dressed and ready to go. I'd spent the last couple of hours researching things to do on Wikitravel and quieting the boys. "Ari, for the fifth time stop kicking the wall there. Mom's head is just on the other side of that wall."

Off we went on the search for breakfast. The hotel lobby buffet was $15 for an adult and half for children. We thought we could do better. Fifteen minutes later we returned for the buffet. Once again Ari and I had fish, fruit, and rice, I added an egg, coffee. Andrea ate cereal, fruit, and yogurt. Joshua ate lots of buttered bread but tried a little miso.

Getting around Tokyo is complicated by the fact that there are competing subway systems, a separate rail system (or two), and competing bus lines. While there are maps that show either the JR trains or the major subway lines together, there is not a system map with both the JR trains and the subway, probably because it would become illegible and so complex.

We can sometimes walk. Andrea complained bitterly about the fact that most streets have no street signs and most of the streets on the map are also unnamed. I very smugly realized that the streets that are un-named on the map are the same as the ones that are unsigned in real life. They are not wasting our time by putting up signage on a street that we will never be able to find on the map. I very wisely kept this epiphany to myself.

To ease the task of getting around we went to get the kids a Pasmo card. Andrea and I have a Suica card, which came with our Nartia Express ticket. Although the Suica card is issued by Japan Rail, it works on JR, the competing subway systems, and most buses. Even with a Pasmo or Suica there are some issues. For example when transferring between systems to be charged the transfer price instead of the two trip price you need to leave one system through an orange colored gate. The first sign explaining this fact was difficult for me to understand. It read "The asukusa line transfer. Use an orange color ticket gate. Asakusa line becomes the transfer to go out to the ground. It participates from the A6 exit and it blooms below." Suica's unfortunately don't come in a child version and children ride at half price. Pasmo, however, is available in a kid's fare version, with a passport for proof of age. Now we don't have to buy them a ticket each time and we avoid having to try to figure out the correct fare for each trip and repeating the problem of buying a JR ticket for a subway line trip.

Once the kids had their Pasmos, Andrea and Ari were off to a pottery making course and Joshua and I visited Roppongi and Roppongi Hills. We bought postcards, and fun stuff from the 100 Yen store, where some things cost more than 100 Yen. We went to a bookstore and I almost bought a book on navigating the Tokyo subway system for Andrea, just to show her that I empathized with her frustration. They had two in English, but in my heart I knew she'd never read either one so in the end I left them. I also almost bought myself some Japanese study materials, but in my heart I know that my lack of fluency is not from a shortage of books, CDs, or flashcards, but from insufficient time spent studying the ones I already own.

We all met at the Shiba Park Hotel to find lunch. Andrea wanted a Panerra, Joshua wanted pasta, I would have been happy with any of the hundreds of restaurants, take away stalls, or especially the van selling Indian curries out the back all of which were nearby. I'll leave it at that because Andrea and I just had blow out argument about the effect her dismay over the food here is having on Joshua (apparently I'm just a total jerk with unreasonable expectations of my wife).

We ended up eating at Miami Garden, an Italian restaurant. I ordered spaghetti with tomato sauce and vegetables by pointing at the menu. I received spaghetti with a cheese sauce and clams, which was the next item down from the one I'd pointed to. As a culinary adventure it was almost as good as my mother in law's rakott kaposta. After lunch Andrea went to the bathroom and came back with the toilet find of the day. This toilet had a 10 button remote control, complete with a little LCD screen. I wen to try, but the buttons were, unfortunately, only labeled in Japanese and I did not experiment.

After lunch we went on a cruise up the river to asakusa. I ordered some ice creams on the dock - "ichi meron (one melon) and ni banira (two vanilla)". I received two strawberries before Joshua corrected my error. You see in Japanese if you are counting "one, two, three" is "ichi ni san" but if you are counting tall round things it is "ippon, nihon, sanbon" if you are counting people it's "hitori, futari, sannin", and if you are counting small furry animals it's "hiki, piki, biki". There are lots more counters, for people, for assorted objects, for square flat objects, for small round objects, etc. but I won't go over them all here. When I was learning Japanese I sort of glossed over the counting systems, figuring that the ordinal numbers would be understood. Now I know better - the "ichi" I used, which means one, was so out of context to the vendor that he assumed I was trying to say ichigo, which is the word for strawberry. Time to REALLY learn to count.

The cruise was a chance to rest - and rejuvenate before we went to Akihabara - a mecca of electronics and manga and anime. We went into a store with eight floors of just manga, that would make the largest Barnes & Nobles I've ever been in look small and it was just one of many. They prohibited photography, but Andrea snuck one shot inside. It won't do the place justice.

After Akihabara we headed to Shinjuku (near our hotel) for the nightly debate on dinner. There must be a thousand restaurants within a 5 block radius, many in food courts in the major department stores that are attached to the station . We ended up eating Thai - everyone ate well.

A couple of random notes on Japan:

The q-tips in our hotel are ribbed and made of black cotton. I love the ribbed q-tips. What a great concept.

There are french Patisseries everywhere. Go figure.

A few more choice phrase from the phrase book: Health -- "I don't want a blood transfusion", "Please use a new syringe", and my favorite from this section "I have my own syringe"

I tease my mother in law because I love her -- rakott kaposta may not be my favorite but she makes a mean chicken perkolt.

Friday, July 10, 2009

My Children Really Enjoy Drumming

We woke up around 7:00 and all was well. The kids had been awake and quietly reading since 6:30 - Yeah kids! It seems that putting my foot down at the souvenir shop and denying them the stuffed frog because of their less than ideal behavior had made an impression.

We went for breakfast at the Italian cafe. The kids had apple and chocolate croissants, Andrea had a bean bun, and I had a melon bun and an egg salad sandwich. In Joshua's eagerness to get at his half of one of the two sweet croissants he knocked his milk over -- most went into his lap but the Japanese woman sitting next to him on the bench was not immune. My Japanese studies proved useful; all twenty ways to beg apology that I have learned came in handy today. On the one hand we will never eat at that lovely cafe again; On the other I understand the concept of losing face much better now.

After breakfast we came back to the hotel to get Joshua new pants. The family gave me part two of my fathers day present (I asked for five things -- two down three to go) a Flip HD.

We then set off for Asakusa. Ari was tired so I carried him piggy back for a while. We wandered around a part of Tokyo not for the tourists: pachinko parlors and even a strip joint, along with a nice looking crepe stand, some omiyage (souvenir) shops, and even an Indian restaurant. Andrea whispered to me that it was tawdry. I whispered to her that we should ditch the kids and go to the strip joint. We ended up keeping the kids and going back to the Indian place for lunch. The buffet was reasonably priced (about $9/adult and $6/kid). The food was excellent but the chicken dish was way spicy. I had two helpings.

After lunch we were off to out drumming course. We walked the fifteen or twenty blocks to the meeting point quickly because we were running late. We started at the drum museum and the kids were having a blast, but I was hit with a case Hirohito's revenge. I thought that I would die. Sweat was rolling down my face. I managed not to puke, but I visited the bathroom in the drum museum three times in 30 minutes. I very much regretted that extra helping of spicy tandoori chicken.

On the way from the drum museum to the drum studio we passed one of the plentiful public toilets. After hastily conferring with Andrea I dropped out of the tour. I used the Japanese style (squatting) toilet and headed slowly back to the hotel. Don't tell my wife, but I wasn't even tempted to return to the strip joint.

You can not imagine how much I appreciate the fact that Tokyo has lots of clean public restrooms, even in the subways. I retraced my steps, since I had no map, having left the drumming abruptly. I was a little lost when I got out of the subway at a different exit a few blocks from where we entered in the morning. Eventually I figured it out by spotting a sign for a department store that I knew was near us. At the hotel, I showered, once again noticing that, just like our last hotel, a large area in the center of the mirror is heated (I swear I am not usually so fascinated by bathrooms) and sat down to read FaceBook. I played a few games of Scramble for Jodi (she was too busy paying bills to do it herself) and read the Times.

The family returned, Andrea tired and bitter about the difficulty of the subway system. The fact that the kids stopped behaving as soon as the enforcer left didn't help. We used wikitravel to find places to eat and headed off for the top three floors of MyLord depatment store, which are full of food shops. When we got there the kids decided that there was nothing that they could eat, without giving the chef instructions on which ingredients to leave out. After some time, Andrea picked a restaurant based largely on the fact that they had an English menu.

Allow me to digress here to explain how little difference the availability of a menu in english makes. I ordered something described as simply "chicken with pineapple". I got chicken nuggets, rice, raw leafy green vegetables (some of which I could identify), guacamole, and corn chip crumbs, all covered with a fried egg. Upon hearing the sad news that they were out of minestrone, Joshua almost lost it. Andrea ordered him spaghetti with clams and ate the clams for him.

Neither kid wanted to eat dinner, but Andrea had the foresight to choose a restaurant with fabulous deserts. We explained that desert was contingent on eating the nutritious portion of the meal with minimal fuss. The restaurant had ice cream sundaes so big and elaborate that one had 2 slices of cake which would have each sufficed as a desert in some restaurants on their own, Pokki sticks, an ice cream cone, a lit sparkler, and a cherry on top all as the GARNISH. The kids split a simpler sundae (only one slice of cake in the garnish) while Andrea and I split a crepe with tiramisu and ice cream.

After dinner Andrea used the bathroom and came out wondering why in addition to the usual shower, bidet, and stop buttons there was a flushing sound button complete with a volume control. My theory is for drowning out un-lady like sounds. Anyone have a better explanation?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The second day travelling with kids in Japan.

When Andrea and Joshua finally join the land of the conscious, we head down for a hotel breakfast. There is only a buffet. Ari and I have fabulous grilled fish, rice, pickles, and other Japanese delicacies for breakfast. Joshua eats croissant and pastry. Andrea has a few Japanese things, but mostly eats a western breakfast. We all have fruit.

The coffee and Japanese brown tea take the edge off my pounding headache but I still feel like I've spent a late night playing on the computer with Kathy -- only instead of Andrea swearing she'll never stay online that late again she's telling me how impossible the airlines are.

We've missed our 9AM tour of Tokyo and Andrea reschedules to the afternoon while the kids and I pack up. Off to the airport to buy train tickets and head to Shinjuku to our hotel. There are more combinations and permutations of train tickets than there are stars in the sky. Two information and two ticket windows later I have a Suica card and Narita Express ticket, having considered a bus, a shared ride, a Japan Rail pass, the Skyliner and the Metro pass.

We find the platform, find our car, and board at 9:48 - headed for Tokyo and then Shinjuku. Andrea opens the subway map, laughs out loud at the complexity, and just closes it again. Joshua is aghast at the negligence we're displaying by not really knowing how to get from one hotel to another. Andrea argues with him for a while, explaining that New York, London, and Budapest are different because we'd been there before. Finally she plays the "that's what makes it an adventure card" but he's not buying it. If he spoke more Japanese he'd be calling child protective services.

We made it to the hotel, upgraded one of the rooms to a queen bed. The hotel room is still tiny. For an extra $23 a night our queen room offers enough room for two people to walk past each other, but no desk, closet, or place to hang clothes (unless you count the shower curtain, which has 2 plastic hangars on it).

I go to the bathroom - I love bathrooms in Japan they are always an adventure - before we head off to find a quick lunch before our afternoon tour. We've seen bathrooms that have both western style and Japanese style toilets (Andrea described it as looking like a urinal ripped of the wall and inset into the floor so you can squat over it). This hotel had a hand dryer that is sort of like the Dyson air-blade but whose interior is constantly bathed in UV light to keep it sterile, lest you get a nasty germ from touching heated air.

For lunch Joshua had croissants, Ari had a really really small piece of baguette with a Japanese spread, I had something that looked like a cross between an open-faced grilled cheese and a pirate's eye, and Andrea had something that looked like a mini pizza (It wasn't. It had pork in it. She hated it). We ate standing up and ran off to the tour.

First stop on our tour was Tokyo tower. We went up half way (the total height is 333 meters) to the observation deck. The next stop was the "outer garden of the imperial palace" which is more accurately described as a parking lot from which you may gaze across the moat at the wall around the imperial palace. The palace itself is only open two days a year (December 23, the emperor's birthday and January 2, New Years). They get a million visitors on a day that they are open.

Final stop on out tour was Tokyo's largest Bhudist temple. Awesome. I had to stop Joshua from playing a game where he ran circles around the sacred fountain used for purification before going into the temple with one of the special cups on a stick used in the ceremony, trying to catch water from every dragon's mouth in the fountain in as little time as he could. Unfortunately I didn't manage to catch him before he'd run into someone who was using the fountain in a more appropriate manner.

Then, off to Ginza to window shop and to dinner. Andrea was fit to be tied after lunch - and was not going to a place where the staff could not explain what was in the food. We talked to the staff at 3 restaurants before one finally had a waiter, who hearing Andrea's questions said, "We have an English menu." Bingo! Andrea had a salmon rice bowl, I had the beef rice bowl. Ari tried both then ordered one like mine. Joshua had rice and edamame.

Half way through the meal the woman at the next table told Joshua in Japanese "In Japan we don't do that." It took me a second to figure out that he had put his chopsticks in the rice sticking straight up while he ate his edamame. In Japan that looks like incense sticking up to mourn the dead and is a big no no. I explained to Joshua while the woman's dining companion calmed her down. I was so busy with Joshua I don't know if I ever apologized to the lady that took offense. I kept a hawk's eye on him the rest of the meal and only had to remind him once.

Ari had a great deal of difficulty with chopsticks. After an inquiry the waiter was able to find a fork, but no knife. I was proud of the Japanese phrases we could spout out. When the waiter inquired if everything was OK though, Joshua standing up, making large circular motions with his palm over his belly, and declaring in a loud voice "Oishi desu" (It's delicious) had a few of the staff doubled over in laughter.

Desert was sofuto kurimu (Soft Ice Cream) for me and Joshua and Ichigo Keiki (Strawberry cake) for Ari. Next time I get the cake.

We headed back to the hotel for an exhausted early night. Andrea saw an Italian place she'd like to try for breakfast. I replied that we shouldn't come to Japan to eat Italian food to which she said "There's no way I'm having fish and rice for breakfast." I told her that I thought it was the best meal we'd had all day. I slept well, though up for an hour around 4:00. I wrote this as soon as I woke up. Today we're off to an Itallian breakfast and drumming.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Getting to Japan

12:30 PM Michigan Time

Only 24 hours to go - I log onto Northwest's website to print boarding passes. I can't get four seats together, so I take two rows of two. The program doesn't allow me to specify a Vegetarian meal for Joshua, so I call. "Sorry, you just missed it," the lady cheerily replies, "We need 24 hours notice."

6:30 AM Michigan Time - 7:30PM Japan Time

Both kids are so excited that they are already awake and waiting form me. I wake up and get cracking. I have the kids fed and dressed and coffee made when Andrea wakes up. I take a quick shower while she eats. I'm ahead of my schedule for getting to the airport on time, which I thought out with the kind of military precision with which my mother-in-law plans things like having leftovers for dinner two Thursday's from now.

I come downstairs to kiss her goodbye, but she's already gone. I pack up Andrea's car and am off to Panera for victuals, lest we starve in the benevolent hands of the airlines. As soon as I start the car I see the fuel gauge on empty, despite the fact that Andrea, when asked a day earlier, assured me that the tank was full. So much for precision timing.

I get gas and lunch for all of us, because although the airline expect us to check in at 10:30 for a 12:30 flight the first meal that they plan to provide is dinner. I get 2 Fuji apple chicken salads, four bagels, and 2 ounces of cream cheese, wondering if I'll get it through security. Taking the big gamble I leave the dressing on the side.

On the drive to the airport Andrea complains (again) that we'll arrive at 2:30 in the afternoon, check into the hotel near the airport for the the first night and have nothing to do. My assurances that we'll be a little late, that it will take time to get through customs and immigration, and check into the hotel seem to make as much of an impression as they've made the first five times we've discussed this.

12:30 AM / 1:30PM

Having successfully smuggled salad dressing that was not in a ziplock through security, we're on the plane. About half an hour after scheduled departure the captain informs us that we'll need to go around an ash cloud from a volcanic eruption in the middle of the Pacific. We'll be landing in Seattle to refuel. An hour later it turns out Seattle's main runway is closed for maintenance and the alternate is too small so we'll be refueling in San Francisco. Oops, too much fuel on board to land in San Francisco so we'll need to drain and rebalance it. We take off at 3:30.

During the flight I was hoping to study just a little more Japanese. Pimsleur is just too difficult so I amuse myself with my Japanese phrasebook. Clearly the authors had a sense of humor. Here are some examples (with the section that the phrase is from first):
Hairdressing -- Please use a new blade, Shave it all off, and I should have never let you near me!
Meeting people -- I'm unemployed and I've been made redundant
Romance -- Leave me alone please, Go Away!, You're a pain in the neck!, You're annoying, Piss off!, Fat chance!, Stop it!, Do you have a condom? I won't do it without protection, Don't worry I'll do it myself, You're just using me for sex, I don't think it's working out, I never want to see you again...
My favorite phrase in the book, of course, is "rat infested", though I haven't had a chance to use it in Japan yet.

9:30 AM Michigan / 10:30 PM Japan

We've made it through customs. With a seven hour delay, Andrea is no longer complaining about all the time we'll have to kill at the airport hotel. Now she is upset that we don't understand enough about Japan to be certain that we're in the right place to get the bus to our hotel, what time its coming, whether we need to phone the hotel first, and so many other little questions. Getting to the hotel is an ordeal, because it takes us twenty minutes to figure out that we just missed the bus and the next is not for forty minutes, but by midnight we're there. Andrea let me know, really really know, how disappointed she is that we didn't just take a taxi. I've now been up 30 hours, less a small nap on the airplane. I've planned to be good and sleepy so that I can sleep and get onto Japanese time.

11 AM / Midnight

Preparing for bed and I hear screams and howls of laughter from the next room. Andrea calls my name. I rush in to find that Ari, unfamiliar with Japanese toilets has presses the "clean my bottom" button while trying to flush. Water is shooting up from the heated seat in a huge arc, spraying the ceiling. I press stop and explain toilets to my wife and kids.

The kids are giddy, laughing, keeping each other and us awake. We separate them, Ari sleeping in one room with me and Joshua in the adjoining one with Andrea. Ari begins to cry because he can't sleep so far away from Joshua. I calm him down and we're asleep.

12:42 PM Michigan / 1:42 AM Japan

I wake up with a splitting headache, probably because of caffeine withdraw - it's been a day and a half. Take Tylenol, melatonin and eventually manage to get back to sleep.

4:19 AM Japan time

The rented Japanese cell phone starts getting kanji text messages. We're up, Ari can't get back to sleep so we're off on day 2!


This blog is based on the diary I kept while on a trip to Japan with my wife Andrea and oldest two children (Joshua and Ari). We traveled from June 15 to July 1, 2009. I am going to fix typos and add a few links but otherwise leave the entries unedited. The original target audience was family and friends (They have already seen all of the posts.) so there is a lot of interpersonal dynamics and a bit of teasing in the posts.