A day in the city

Chip is wondering why Mama is walking away and leaving him with this strange man.

Way before Chip-chan busted his leg, we had a tour to Tokyo planned for this weekend. Not about to let a little challenge to mobility get us down, I crossed my fingers and off we went. In the past week Chip has become much more resigned to life in his stroller, so I think that he actually enjoyed getting wheeled around Tokyo. There are probably few cities on the planet better for just taking it all in, after all.

Our day started at the Meiji shrine in Shibuya. The shrine was built in 1920 to honor the spirits of the Meiji emperor, the one who opened and modernized Japan in the 19th century. The shrine is set in a dense urban forest, and is open and understated. I think it is the most peaceful big shrine I’ve been to in Japan. It being a beautiful last Saturday of summer, there were lots of weddings going on, too.

A shinto wedding. I really like the bride's ensemble, but I love the men in morning suits.

Chip always doffs his hat while touring religious sites. Really he just hates wearing a hat.

Next up was Tokyo Tower built in 1958 and over 1,000 feet tall. The main purpose of the tower is to broadcast radio and TV signals, but it also is a tourist attraction. Shops and restaurants are located in “Foot Town” the appetizingly-named lower floors of the building. We had a nice lunch in Foot Town. It was a clear day and so there were expansive views of Tokyo and beyond from the observation tower. The city just keeps on going and going…

The view from below. Godzilla free.

Our last stop of the day was the Asakusa district of Toyko. I had been wanting to see “A-sock-sa,” which I had been pronouncing “A-sa-koo-sa,” because it is supposed to be a neat little slice of old Tokyo. I wasn’t disappointed. The center of the district is anchored by the giant Senso-ji temple. The temple site is the oldest in Tokyo. The temple itself, and much of Asakusa, was fire-bombed to nothing during WWII, and the temple has just recently been renovated. The ancient-looking structure is actually made of concrete and steel and its new roof tiles are titanium, which should last about a million years.

The new Senso-ji temple.

View from the temple courtyard.

The Nintenmon gate to the shrine, one of the oldest structures in Tokyo. And Chip. The gate was built in 1618 and somehow survived earthquakes and bombing.

From the gate to the temple hangs a huge lantern, and the street leading up to the temple has been a shopping area since the 18th century. It was crowded and charming, and full of street food. Chip and I couldn’t resist fried noodles with octopus (the octopus was a surprise) and peach soft serve.

The main gate and the lantern.

The main gate is at the right, and in the center is Tokyo Tower's new competition. The Tokyo "Sky Tree" will be Japan's tallest building when it's finished, and will take over broadcasting digital signals.

I think this was my favorite part of Tokyo I’ve seen so far. It just seemed to have everything. It was very crowded and touristy, but here and there I still saw older ladies in aprons taking their dogs for an evening walk and neighborhood people buying fresh pears from the backs of trucks. Best of all, Chip saw a monkey. There was a baboon in a pair of shorts performing outside of a shrine. Chip pointed and started making his monkey noise, which is a recent development. (For some reason, the monkey is the only animal he wants to vocalize…)

We also saw real, live sumo wrestlers. Asakusa is near the stadium where the annual fall tournament is being held and we saw two just waiting to cross the street, like anyone else. They were wearing their cotton kimonos and had their hair pulled up in topknots and no one else seemed to be paying them any attention. What does a sumo wrestler go out for on a Saturday afternoon? Noodles and soft serve?

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(Really) Little Pink Houses

This is a really neat story about “micro-houses” in Japan. Silly me, I had thought all the houses in Japan were micro-houses! I certainly feel that way as I hunch over the sink in my galley kitchen and wash my dishes at thigh-level, or try to make do with only closets for storage space (did I mention we don’t have a garage/attic/basement/shed/crawlspace).

Actually, these make my 900 sq. ft. look palatial but, also, not very cool. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a paper lantern?

Hot Springs and Hydrangea

I have never been so clean in my life. That’s because during Mama’s visit we went to an onsen, a hot spring, in a nearby lovely mountainous area called Hakone. There I took three baths in twenty-four hours, a new record.

The Hakone-Tozan railroad heads back down the hill from Gora.

Mama, Chip, and I took several trains to a little mountain town called Gora, nestled in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. The most fun train was the Hakone-Tozan railway, whose bright red cars slowly but surely chug up an 8% grade with several switchbacks. We stayed at a beautiful place called the Tokinoyu Setsugetsuka which was a combination of a traditional Japanese ryokan and modern inn.

Chip inspects room 210 to see if it's baby proof. Once the tea set is out of reach, Japanese rooms usually are.

Open-air balcony bath!

In addition to our in-room bath, the inn had gorgeous public baths. After donning my yukata (a cotton robe that everyone gets upon checking into an onsen and is encouraged to wear at all times), and my geta (wooden sandals, approximately two sizes too small for my big American feet), I was ready to go experience my first Japanese bath.

Chip was upset that they do not make yukata in his size.

You might have guessed, but the yukatas (and everything else) come off in an onsen. Everyone is Daihatsu Naked. This is one thing to conceptualize and another thing to do. Much hemming and hawing went with the discarding of the yukata; it probably would have been better to treat it like a band-aid and just rip it right off without much thought. At any rate, the cocoon was finally shed and this butterfly jumped into the baths (after the mandatory pre-bath shower, of course). Okay, not so much jumped in as went in tentatively and super self-conciously because that water was really really hot.

The baths themselves were lovely. There were indoor baths with stone and tile floors and walls and an open-timbered Japanese roof, and outdoor baths with rocks strategically placed for sitting and a bamboo screen overhead so the birds can’t see. (You can understand why I couldn’t take pictures…)

I had the outdoor bath all to myself until an older Japanese lady wearing nothing but a shower cap joined me and started to speak to me like I knew Japanese. Not sure whether to make eye contact, I just nodded and smiled and repeated three of the approximately ten Japanese words I know. “Hot! Yes! Much hot! Yes!” I couldn’t stand the heat for more than about 5 minutes so I got out, intensely aware of the jiggling as I bowed awkwardly and apologetically explained to my new friend, “Bye bye! Much hot!”

Inside, I found the less hot, pleasantly warm, and cool pools, all of which I enjoyed much more. After the baths one goes to these little sit-down shower stalls and washes with all kinds of strange products (Green tea peeling gel!) and rinses off with a bamboo bucket. After that one can return to the safe embrace of the yukata and sit at a little vanity and use even more fun Japanese beauty products like “cream which cleans the horny layer of the foot,” and Japanese make-up which made me look like a kabuki understudy.

Dinner was another experience. Mama and Chip and I sat down to seven courses, most of which involved using open flame to cook at the table, which is an awesome idea with a one-year-old. The courses that didn’t use open flame involved raw fish or unidentifiable jellied things, which Mama was a great sport about. I’m not sure what I ate, but the two-hour meal was lovely. My favorite part was the plum sake.

After another round of baths on the balcony, overlooking the mountains and the first stars I’ve seen since moving to Japan, Mama and I slept beautifully on our futons. Breakfast was another experience: fish, rice, miso soup, salad, green tea, and grapefruit vinegar juice all of which, inexplicably, tasted really good at 7:00 am. Number of open flames needed on the table for breakfast: two.

Guess what we ate for lunch when we got home from the onsen: McDonalds!

Gora itself was a nice little mountain town that reminded me a bit of an Asian Estes Park. Mama sat with Chip while I explored early in the morning, and I was charmed to see all of the sewer grates steaming from the hot springs and hear rushing water wherever I went. What I thought was a small forest fire on the hills above me turned out to be a waterfall obscured by the steam it was producing.

Steep street in Gora.

It was a lovely trip. All of Mama’s visit was. Completely accidentally, she came at peak hydrangea time which is quite the spectacle. Who knew Japan had hydrangea? Apparently they’re native. They’re all over Hayama and were planted on the mountainsides above Hakone. When we visited the Hasedera Temple at Kamakura last week with Mama we found it breathtakingly awash in the giant blossoms.

Hydrangea Heaven

Miss you Mama. Thanks for coming!

Candy is dandy but liquor is a quicker way to spend a lot of yen

Just yesterday someone was telling me how they have started to collect Kit Kats here in Japan, because they come in all sorts of crazy flavors. So imagine my delight when I heard an NPR story today (American NPR–I can listen online) about all the different Kit Kat flavors in Japan! You can listen/read here. The story also talks about the ubiquity of the convenience store in Japan, something I have really enjoyed. My favorite thing to do at the convenience store is to go pay my utility bills (just bring them to the cashier, any day, anytime, and they scan them and I pay) and then bring home a delicious bento box lunch. (The only thing I have failed at doing in a convenience store so far is buying baseball tickets. The little machine that dispensed them definitely didn’t speak English.) Well now, I will bring home Kit Kats as well.

In fact, I couldn’t wait for my next utility bill. Chip and I hurried down to the mysteriously named “Lawson’s Station” convenience store on the corner, and scoped out the Kit Kat selection. Banana! Green tea! Strawberry! Mini! Since I am a fan of the fake banana flavor, I went with that. While I was there, I also found…orange M&Ms!

Two servings of fruit.

Verdict? Not bad. I might not buy it again, but I don’t think that’s the point.

The banana, peeled.

And all for only 120 yen. For some reason, the Green Tea Kit Kat was 126 yen.

Speaking of yen, last Saturday night Rob and I went to Yokohama for a proper date. Chip we just left in the house–Japan is that safe. No, really we took him to the base day care’s “Saturday Night Out” session, which is a fantastic thing. Anyway, Rob wanted to get drinks at a bar at the top of Japan’s tallest (for now) building, the Landmark Tower. To get to the top, we rode the world’s second-fastest elevator. It goes so fast that it made my ears pop.

I ordered a scotch and the waitress asked if I wanted single or double. “Single,” I replied, not wanting to be extravagant, and so I was treated to maybe a half of an ounce of liquor pooled at the bottom of several flawlessly clear ice cubes. Rob? He ordered the “Guavacation” which, I’m sure you can imagine, had a flower and fruit stuck in it and was redolent of sunscreen. The view was the best part, overlooking a twinkling carpet of lights rolled out all the way to Tokyo. I took a picture with my phone, so you kind of get the idea:

Guess how much two drinks at this lovely establishment cost us? Really, guess. (Mama can’t, because I already told her.) To whoever guesses most closely I will send the craziest flavor of Kit Kat I can find (or a gluten-free alternative). Mama, I will send you a Kit Kat anyway because I know you like them. Contest ends Friday morning, Japan time. No purchase necessary.

Waiting by the Phone

On Saturday I started down the slippery slope towards something I thought that I would never do: exploit my child. The Navy base sponsors a modeling fair a couple of times a year so that the Tokyo talent agencies can recruit 1.) cute American children for their Combi catalogs, and 2.) large American adults for comedic roles in commercials and sitcoms (I’m sure they’re laughing with us). Since I am not putting my degrees to good use here, I thought the maybe I could dabble in talent management and start Chip a career instead. Like E from Entourage, only with my son instead of my childhood friend, and the Duet instead of the Maserati. Chip, being the extraordinarily well-documented child that he is, did great in front of the cameras and now we just wait for Tokyo to call. For some reason, one of the people from a talent agency who looked over Chip’s little stats sheet (72 cm, 9 kilos, brown hair, blue eyes, 6 teeth) kept giggling at the name Chip. Now I am nervous about what his name means in Japan.

Million-yen baby. (That's only about $10,000)

With Rob home, more of the house got unpacked, and looks a lot better. Let me take you on a tour:

Dozo! Please to leave your shoes.

On your left, the galley kitchen.

Here is the Dining Room and Office

And here is the living room. Rob organized the books.

Chip would like to show you his room:

Of all the things to chew on, I choose the diaper pail.

Hello ladies. Welcome to the crib.

I won’t show you my room because it’s a mess. And as a final blow from Ikea, they neglected to include a key component of Rob’s dresser, so it is still unattractively unassembled at the side of the room.

Yesterday I got my first haircut in Japan, which was a mistake. I went to a lady on base and asked for a trim. I came out looking a lot like a J-Pop star, with the accompanying bouffant-y layers. All that’s missing are auburn highlights.

Approximation of my hair cut.

I’m not coming home until it grows out.

This One’s Going Out to Fungus

This is for my little bro, whom I miss terribly, and who is studying wind energy at Oklahoma State. Go Cowboys.

Urban turbine. (In Oklahoma, that rhymes...)

I’m not sure what this turbine is powering in Yokohama. Probably a pachinko parlor.

Could you come study abroad?

love,

Sissy

Pictures as Promised

Good old Rob–got the pictures uploaded! Here is a sampling of out most recent endeavors:

Our house is on the right--it's difficult to photograph.

Just because--Chip at the Navy Lodge

Small cute thing in my arms: Chip. Small cute thing next to me:The Duet!

Mt. Fuji from Morito Beach, near our house.

On the right, Mr. Fuji. On the left, the sun.

Japanese ladies, boot-scooting their little hearts out at the "Spring Festa" on base.

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