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.

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