Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Japan/USA - Day 14 - Back to Reality

     I am limping pretty obviously on my right ankle today.  We had just settled down for bed when the doorbell rang.  Neither Katsuo nor Keiko was home, so we figured it was a neighbor.  I threw on some clothes but, when I went to answer the door, forgot there was a step down and literally fell out the door into the startled faces of our new friends at the restaurant 2 blocks down and around the corner.
     We'd gone there for dinner and given the 3 girls some Disney Pez candy we'd brought along.  They tracked us down to give us a pretty gift box of towels.  Japanese really are ninjas!  (I did the same thing againb- fell down the step when I went back to check that the door was locked, but we won't talk about that, because who would be so stupid as to sprain her ankle twice in the same way, and on the same day?)  Anyway, when I fell out the door on top of them and was so obviously startled they kindly left the gift and a note.  I'll send them a thank you note since I never did thank them properly.
Keiko very kindly returned home from Tokyo early this morning, fixed us breakfast, then had to head out to work again.  She has about a 2 hour commute each way to work, so has had to take a small apartment in Tokyo to sleep some nights.  It was good to see her again.  Later, Katsuo returned from his night shift and was anxious to see to our comfort- rather than ready to crash in his futon as I would have been.  (Really, staying with Keiko and Katsuo has been like staying with your mother's sister's family, whom you've always heard about, but never met. They treat us exactly as I would treat distant relations coming to meet us for the first time.) They even have acquired some of the Ramune in glass bottles that James craved for us to take home!
       So now we have James' blistered feet and my turned ankle.  We really are the walking wounded!  I wanted to see the Tokyo LDS Temple, but it turns out it's just too far away for us to make it there and back in time to catch the 3:00 bus for the airport.  Obviously concerned with my limp, Katsuo tried to convince me to stay in and rest, but no way was I wasting my last day.  Katsuo found some ice packs in the freezer and I stuffed them in my sock.  Then I limped to the convenience store to buy the Japanese  equivalent of Vetrap.  With my ankle nicely supported and numbed, I was ready for one last adventure.
     James wanted to go back to Akihabara, so we headed that way on the train, but ended up getting off at Ueno because we were afraid, by the time we got there, it would already be time to leave.  We happily perused an outside shopping area that seemed more frequented by the locals than by tourists- lots of clothing and produce, rather than touristy knick knacks.
     We had an interesting lunch from a local street vendor - he had 2 spires of roasted turkey and beef, which he sliced paper thin, put in a pita-looking shell, and covered with cabbage and some sort of sweet chili sauce - really good and not an octopus in sight!
     We had a little snag when our train back was taken out of service.  (I don't know if this was routine, or due to the earthquake yesterday.  We never felt anything on the Shinkansen, but I told James when we switched trains that there must have been one since there were earthquake kits stacked up in small hills along the tracks and railway workers in orange vests.  Keiko later confirmed that there had been a small one.)
     Anyway, James went to the information desk and found us another train that got us back just in time for our bus.  Katsuo kindly met us at the station with all our baggage (he hasn't wanted me to have to limp back that far) that he brought by taxi. (How nice is that!)  We said our goodbyes and climbed on our bus, wistful to be at the end of our fascinating adventure.
Pineapple on a stick in Ueno.

Beef and chicken with cabbage on pita bread.  Yum!

The street shop- slicing roast beef and chicken from the towers of meat you see.

James at the airport gloating about the new Pokemon game that won't be available in the US for months.

Keiko said, "Japan is all about not crossing the line."  She noticed the casual way James and I exchange food and taste off of each others' plates.  "In Japan," she said, "We would never do this."  "My food, is my food. Your food, is your food."  She talked about how food is served in small dishes-never touching.  Even in a buffet, there are divided plates like we use for children, so each dish does not touch another.  She showed us the laundry separator bags she uses because even men's and women's clothing must not be washed together.  The woman fixes food for her husband, and she eats separately.  Even married couples sleep apart.  The line between man and woman, husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, all these are set by society and not to be crossed.  I wonder how much this will change as successive generations of girls challenge their role in society?  Certainly, we come away with much love and appreciation for this lovely country and her kind citizens.  We have been treated only with the greatest respect and courtesy by all we have met.

     The flight home was crowded, so James and I didn't have that empty seat between us, and the service was much poorer than our flight to Japan.  I think this was due to whatever medical emergency they had on board taking up staff.  Three times they called, first for a doctor, then for any medical personnel.  (I did get up after the second call and tell them where I was if they were desperate enough for a veterinarian, but they must have eventually found someone who treats human animals.)
     I was worried the emergency was the Indian child in the row across from us, who was coughing like he had TB, and who spent most of the ride in the back lavatory where they were calling for help, but the family and child disembarked with us after the paramedics had taken the medical case off via an emergency exit, so it must have been someone else.  Always so nice to breathe recirculated airplane air next to what sounds like a terminal (no pun intended) cough.
     So, the plane was delayed for a while as they off-loaded the emergency case, then we were taken off the plane outside the terminal and bused to a large building with signs saying "Sterile Area."  Just as I was thinking, "Great, the kid had some sort of Avian Influenza and we're all going to be quarantined," the crew started handing out passes for people with short layovers (that was us!) to go through customs first.
     We buzzed through the line, picked up our luggage, made it through another line, rechecked our luggage, and made it to our flight with a half hour to spare.  You could tell instantly when we were back on an American air carrier - they threw our pretzels at us and filled our drink order in classic American "don't bug me" style.  Sigh.  I'm going to miss that part of Japan a lot!  Right on cue, in the LAX terminal, James starts sneezing again.  I took all those allergy pills with me and he didn't need a one!  Now, American allergens recognized and under assault, James' eosinophils are back in business.  Rats.
     James slept most of both flights, but I am feeling seriously jet-lagged.  Rob kept all the birds alive (Good Job Rob!) and it looks like the guys made an actual effort to clean the house up a little.  Yay!
     Craig met me at the airport with a salad - true, it was a pre-made one from Albertsons, and the croutons were mush but, hey it didn't have any kelp in it, so that makes it a real salad.   I'm so tired, I don't think I'll even hear the fireworks tonight.  Happy Birthday, America,  it's good to be home.

Cynthia Smith, DVM

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Japan - Day 13

     Today is primarily a travel day.  We need to take the shinkansen to Shin Osaka, then transfer to Tokyo. We now have 3 small suitcases, having bought one more for the souvenirs we are accumulating.
     We are awakened by a thunderclap like Thor's hammer striking right beside our beds.  James says the lightning was impressive too, but I was facing away from the window and missed it. The thunder was sufficient to wake me though!  I get up and play on the computer for a while until James gets up around 7.  We pack everything carefully and are out of the door by 8:00.
      Our ryokan proprietress asks us to wait while she takes a picture, then prints a copy for us.  Juggling suitcases, backpacks, and umbrellas, we head out into the steaming rain for the tram. Oh my gosh!  It is PACKED with people, a few get off, more get on - goodness knows how, bodies are crammed against all the windows and there are people standing in every available space.  There is absolutely no way we are going to make it on there with 3 suitcases, 2 backpacks, and our American sized-selves.  We wait for the next one- which is just the same.  Several uncrowded trams pass, but none are going the right way.  We hide in a doorway to shelter from the rain, after the 3rd packed tram, I decide it is hopeless.
     We head back to our ryokan, knock on the door, and ask our erstwhile hostess to call a taxi.  She does and we chat in our very limited Japanese and her very limited English while we wait for 15 minutes or so.  It is so hot and damp in her entryway- hard to believe so early in the morning.  She gives us a couple of fans from the travel agency and they help a lot!  No wonder fans are so popular here!  When we leave, she has us keep the fans.
     I worry about how much the taxi will cost.  The tram ride here was over 30 minutes, and that was early in the afternoon in light traffic.  Now we see tram after tram backed up along the road.  The taxi arrives and the driver is fearless! He whizzes in and out of traffic and between trams and buses like a motorcycle driver.  (I am getting used to driving on the left side of the road and no longer think, "I'm going to die!!!" every time we come around a corner to face a car on the right.)  He gets us to the train station in record time and the fare is only $1600 yen, or about $20.  It was soooo worth it!
     Now we've seen rush hour in Japan.  It's not a pretty picture!  I'll take LA any day.  At least you're alone in your car fuming at the delay instead of crammed into a heaving souffle of humanity! Most of the rest of the day was spent on various trains.  We didn't get back to Keiko and Katsuo's until about 7 pm.  Ugh.  We visited with Katsuo for a while, then he went off to work the night shift and we went back to dinner at the little restaurant around the corner we've grown to like so well.  James ordered the shrimp ramen this time, but it came with 5 large squid tentacles.  He chickened out and didn't eat them.  (The cook looked a bit miffed but I think we were forgiven when we gave the grand daughters their Pez candy.)
     Tomorrow our flight leaves at 7:30 pm, but we don't have as much time for sightseeing as we'd thought. We can't take the train until 10 (rush hour again) and need to catch the bus for the airport at 3.  We'll see what we can fit into those 5 hours.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Japan - Day 12 - Hiroshima

    It was hard dragging James out of his futon this morning!  All that travel yesterday really took it out of him, I guess.  I played around on the computer until 10ish, then couldn't stand it any more and dragged him out. We set out on foot for the Peace Park, which was only a 10 minute walk away.  Already it was warm and muggy and we both felt hot and sticky right away.  James was feeling kind of miserable by the time we reached the park, but it was really a pretty good time to go.  The buses filled with tourists didn't start arriving until between 11 and 12.  We knew this visit would be an emotional one.
    A few years ago, we visited Pearl Harbor and stood on Sacred Ground, knowing that James' Great Grandfather was one of the few survivors when his ship (USS California) was bombed.  We tried to imagine the terror and pain of ordinary people being attacked without warning.  Now, on the other side of the hemisphere, we see the horrors inflicted on other innocent people by the same war.
     There are statues all over the park, many festooned with obviously recent chains of paper cranes, a tribute to Sadako Sasaki, a girl who died of leukemia after being exposed to radiation at the age of 2.  She believed that, if she folded 1000 paper cranes, her wish to live would come true. Her wish was not granted, but, since then, the crane has become the symbol of a wish for peace.
     We see the statues and the A-Bomb Dome - all that is left of the building over which the bomb exploded.  (To my surprise, James knows a lot about all this.  His class just recently watched a movie about Hiroshima in school.)  Then we go into the museum.
     There are documents about the creation of the atomic bomb and the decisions leading up to its use.  We are told that the Japanese were ready to surrender, but were negotiating through the Soviet Union to get more favorable terms for Japan.  The US, feeling that this would give the Soviets more power, pushed through the use of the weapon both to deny the Soviets this victory and also to justify the 2 billion dollars spent building the bomb.  This may be so, politicians being what they are, but, if it is, it is a far cry from what Americans believed at the time.  I remember my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Hasley, discussing the decision to use the bomb with his students.  He said that the Japanese, while beaten, were too proud to surrender and that the US felt the only way to end the war would be an invasion of Japan, with soldiers fighting house to house and many lives - both American and Japanese - lost.  He said his older brother was being trained to be one of those soldiers who would be part of the invasion fleet.  He ended by saying that the use of the bomb was a terrible thing, but his family and many others were grateful for their sons that were spared.
     We see many exhibits of clothing - tattered and blood-stained-from victims - many of which were children.  Also melted glass, a tricycle, a piece of roofing, shadows left on pavement from humans who were vaporized. A very moving exhibit has one walk through what feels like the dome itself and shows victims in the throes of death.  I take no pictures here.  There are many volunteers to explain the exhibits - almost as many as there are visitors in some rooms.  Most are older and speak very good English.  I wonder if some were personally acquainted with any of the survivors.  Everyone speaks in whispers.  Many visitors dab at the corners of their eyes.  It is a solemn experience.
Paper cranes adorn the feet of many statues- it rains frequently here, so you can tell many of these are very recent.

The flame looking lengthwise down the Peace Park.  It is supposed to burn until there are no longer any nuclear weapons left on the earth.

Memorial to all the children whose lives were lost.

Beautiful artwork of paper cranes, protected behind glass.

There are so many of these lovely tributes.

Across the river from the A-Bomb Dome

The Dome

Many documents are of great interest.

Letters of protest for every nuclear test ever conducted line walls and pillars.

     James is not feeling well and I think he is getting dehydrated.  He glugs down a bottle of water from a vending machine in seconds so I make him go easy on the next ones.  There are almost no drinking fountains and, if you ask for a cup of water with your meal, they usually give you a tiny dixie cup.  Even the kitchen in the ryokan in which we are staying requests that you leave 100 yen for every water bottle you fill.  I am not used to water being such a precious commodity.
     We start looking for a place to have lunch.  We head for a tall department store that is not far from the Peace Park.  I am afraid James will collapse if I don't get him into some air conditioning soon.  The store is interesting, with many floors devoted to different items.  James finds a book store to enjoy and then gets some CDs from Japanese artists that he has trouble finding online.  I look at the many styles for women - many of which I've seen girls and women wearing everywhere.  Wouldn't this be a fun place to shop if I were 16 and still had a figure!  Styles are far more varied here than we would ever see on a downtown street in, say, Seattle.  There are girls in short, poofy dresses with many petticoats, right next to girls who wouldn't be out of place at the Renaissance Faire, next to girls in long or short diaphanous fabric that look ready for the prom, next to girls wearing traditional business attire, next to quirky girls mixing it up - combat boots with that floating evening gown, pants, skirts - long or very short, the ubiquitous school uniforms, heels so high they make the wearer look ridiculously unbalanced next to sensible casual tennies.
     What I don't see (and don't miss!) are tattoos or piercings.  Gradually, I realize that I feel distinctly frumpy.  Not because I'm middle aged, or overweight, or wearing travel clothes and shoes - all these things are present here and there in other women.  No, it is because I am the ONLY woman I see not wearing makeup.  Every female here - from what looks like age 11 to 101, is wearing foundation and lipstick at the every least, and most have tasteful eye makeup as well.  Every other female on the tram or in a restroom is powdering her nose and looking in a mirror. (Keiko told us that it would in fact be considered disrespectful for a woman to show up at work without makeup.)  From what I see here, no woman even goes out the door without her makeup on.  Maybe that is part of why the Japanese women look so young here, (Keiko, who is nearing 40, looks barely 25) the sun never gets a chance to ravage their skin because it's always covered up!
     We find that the basement floor of the store is devoted to food.  There is a supermarket with nice produce and a number of restaurants.  We find James a shrimp burger (the boy could live on shrimp) and I have a Japanese style hamburger - very good - with tomato and onions and a toasted bakery roll.  (Real food at last!)  James is perking up now, but I know he'll wilt again when I take him outside.  We have seen Miyajima and the Peace Park, we have no other firm plans for the day. I remember how Mom used to take us to the movies when the heat became unbearable in San Diego.  We ask around, and get directions to a theatre a short tram ride away where "The Amazing Spiderman" opened this weekend.  I am looking forward to popcorn - hoping it's not curry flavored.
     The theatre is actually on the 8th floor of a department store.  We pay 2000 yen - or about $25 for our tickets - not much more than the theatre in the US these days.  We are shown a seating chart and choose our seats like at a play.  Alas, there is no popcorn, just a little cafe selling small iced drinks for 300 yen and tiny bags of nuts and other goodies.  We still have time, so James decides to investigate the bottom of this department store.  Sure enough, it also has food, so he gets a couple of egg rolls and a piece of strawberry cake and a 3 liter bottle of water and this becomes our theatre fare.  (He finishes that whole bottle of water during the movie- definitely dehydrated!)
     We're only here for the AC, but I really like the movie - quite different from the version with Toby Maguire.  Afterward, we do a bit more shopping.  It turns out that we've bought so many souvenirs that we actually need another small suitcase. We head back to our small room.  Tomorrow we need to get an early start - it's all the way back to Tokyo where we started out to finish out our trip.
James loves the shrimp burger

Avocados are not bad at all at about $1.40

But how'd you like to pay $11 for a cantelope?  And I saw some premium melons for 70-90 dollars!

Where were fashions like this when I was 16 and had a figure?

Now, this, I could wear to the Renaissance Faire- if I were a size 4...

At the theatre for The Amazing Spiderman

 Classy theater!
Love those cushy seats!

This salad (100g) cost me about $8.  Alas- most of what I took to be lettuce is kelp, and the "feta cheese" is tofu.  I miss the Olive Garden!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Japan - Day 11 - Hiroshima

     This was a day of extremes - the first half of the day being exhausting, the second half quite delightful.  We slept in later than we meant to at B and B Juno, probably because the pouring rain always seems to make me want to stay in bed.  After breakfast with Sybilla, we headed out into the rain with all our gear, only to have my suitcase handle break!  Fortunately, Sybilla had Gorilla tape on hand for a quick repair, but I'm thinking this trip may be the last for my beloved cow suitcase- especially sad since you can't get them anymore and I receive compliments on it wherever I go. Alas.
Want to know what a minute on the bullet train is like?

       We have definitely purchased too much stuff, and had to add a bag of souvenirs to our 2 suitcases and backpacks.  This was actually quite a lot to lug, in the pouring rain, to the bus stop, on the crowded bus to Kyoto Station, down all the long stairs (not an escalator in sight- though a kind Samaritan woman about my age unexpectedly grabbed the handle and helped me down the last half of the stairs. That sort of sudden kindness is not uncommon here at all.) The we had to catch train #1 to Shin Osaka, train #2 to Hiroshima, and then ride an INCREDIBLY crowded tram to our ryokan in 91 degree humid heat.  We were about ready to expire when we finally got here!
     Ryokan Sansui is kind of a budget ryokan for the business traveler.  It was the highest rated of 3 that I found in Hiroshima - it is mostly fairly pricey hotels here.  The proprietress speaks a little English and her stairwell is decorated with photos of all her guests.  Our room is TINY - just big enough for our 2 futons and not much else.  I thought it was a bed and breakfast, but my receipt says breakfast is not included. That's OK, as I don't ever want to see miso soup and pickles on my breakfast table ever again.  After James turned on the air conditioner and we both rested for a bit, we checked the tide schedules.  It turns out that the high tide on Miyajima Island was at 9 pm tonight- better than the times for tomorrow, so that became our plan for the day.
     By the time we left the ryokan at 5:30 pm it was down to 81 degrees.  The tram was also less crowded and we were both able to sit.  The ferry to Mihajima is covered by our rail passes and, by the time we reached the sea, it had cooled down enough to be nice and balmy with a lovely breeze.  The jellyfish in the water floating around the ferry look identical to their cousins on the other side of the Pacific floating near the Vashon ferry. I had hoped to see the tame deer on Miyajima, but thought we'd have to hike a bit to see them.  Nope, they were right there wandering around fearlessly when we got off the ferry and started to walk toward the famous Torii gate.
     I had a few biscuits left in my purse from breakfast, so I had lots of friends very quickly.  I loved the feel of the beautiful antlers of the males - so soft - and we saw a doe with twins calling to her fawns - she made a squeaky sound and the fawns answered.  I took some video and hope the sounds were picked up.  She clearly told them, "Stay there, Mama's busy."  "But Mommmmmm, we're hungryyyyyy," they whined.  "Do what I say!"  She insisted, but later relented and let them come down to nurse.  So cute, and very tiny.
     After a spectacular sunset and pictures of the shrine, we went to dinner at a Japanese bar.  It had low tables but chairs on the floor so you could sit with your legs hanging down under the bar - very comfortable and I enjoyed my chicken teriyaki.
     As we walked back to the ferry, it began to sprinkle and we saw 4-5 deer gathered together in doorways, comfortably out of the rain.  There is a cage around the restrooms to keep the deer out or I imagine you'd have to fight them for the warm seats.  James was mugged by one deer who came up behind him and stole his map.  We'll need to get another tomorrow.
     The tram home at 9ish was less crowded.  There seem to be children everywhere you look in Japan and, thus far, I've not seen one parent yell or seem to be angry at a child.  Children are very indulged and a child who cries or has a bit of a tantrum is cosseted and comforted.  I see everyone watching the children on the tram with fond smiles.  I think it's a pretty good system actually.  By the time they're a little older, the kids have figured out that cosseting is for babies and they scorn to be catered to and strive to be independent. I wouldn't mind seeing a bit more of those attitudes at the Walmart back home...
     Now we're back, showered and ready for sleep, in our tiny room.  The only trouble is that the proprietress has gone to bed and I can't find the hair dryer.  Oh well, damp hair for me, I guess!
I am getting TIRED of Japanese food.  I need a pepperoni pizza, and a salad.

Our business ryokan in Hiroshima.

Very small room, but the futons are pretty comfortable.

On the ferry to Miyajima

By the Torii gate

Feed the deer, tuppence a bag....

This is my favorite video.  I love hearing the doe talking with her fawns.  Turn the sound up.

Fawn nursing

The spectacular sunset

The gate is very beautiful at night with a high tide.

Deer resting in the doorways at night

Link to: Ryokan Sansui

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Japan - Day 10 - Osaka

     This is my big day.  We get to go to the Osaka aquarium to see the only whale shark in captivity.  I've been looking forward to this for 2 years, since I first heard about it.  Sybilla fixes us yogurt and granola for breakfast and we head off on bus 17 for Kyoto Station.  It's a little confusing there.  The previous clerk had given us tickets for Shin Osaka, not Osaka - which is close but not the same.
     We use our rail passes to ride the Express Train to Osaka, then take another train to Bentencho  (James loves the name - minus the cho it is the name of a favorite kids' cartoon he used to watch.) Then we need to buy tickets for the subway to Osakako, where the aquarium is.  James is miffed as this subway is not sub at all, but merely another above-ground train.
     Tickets for the aquarium and a ride on the world's largest ferris wheel are 26,000 each - steep, but, hey, we've travelled halfway around the world to see this, right?  First we walk through an aquarium tunnel where the fish and sharks - all small ones, surround you.  James and I are especially impressed by the hammerhead sharks, which we've never seen outside of books and movies.  The aquarium is very nice, it spirals down so first you see the animals from above, then lower and lower.  We see otters -- very playful today, penguins (soooo cute- and they looked very happy with their ice cube snow falling from above) a wide variety of seals and sea lions and 4 pretty dolphins that seemed pretty confined to me.
     Then we see the big show tank - truly marvelous - sharks, huge rays, fish swirling in their ever changing parabolic patterns.  I sit and watch them, mesmerized, for a long time. If this is the tank for these fish, I think, what must the whale shark tank be like?  We follow the signs, and - BOOM - we are at the entrance again.  A guide shows me a small card that says something on the order of, "Sorry, we moved the whale shark to the something-or-other prefecture because of the water quality.  Please come back another time."  Great, I'll just zip back to Osaka in a few months.  Sigh.
     It starts to rain and becomes very misty.  We have lunch and shop around hoping it will let up but no such luck, so we go on our ferris wheel ride anyway.  We see a lot of mist.
     We do have the famous Osakan pancakes for lunch.  James says his is OK but my meat is very tough. Clearly, this cow never heard classical music, or had a massage in her life!
     On our way back, James spies a sign for the Osaka Pokemon center.  These are supposed to be areas for Pokemon maniacs to get together, and I think he expected them to be on every street corner.  This one is on the 13th floor of the Osaka Station Mall.  It is huge, colorful, loud and filled with Pokemon stuff for sale and teenagers battling each other on their Nintendos.  The big excitement is some new video game that won't be out in the States for months, Black & White version 2, apparently.  Large signs proclaim that these games will not work on the American DS.  Poor American Pokemon freaks will just have to wait a little longer for their fix.
    We both think it's funny that what's playing at the mall is the same song that's all the rage back home: "Call Me Maybe."  We also smile just a little at the people wearing surgical masks on the street and in the restaurants.  Some of them have to pull their masks down to insert their cigarette....
     Osaka on a Saturday night is a very crowded place.  Kyoto is better, but only just.  We are both tired when we finally get back to the B and B and decide, who needs dinner, anyway?  Tomorrow, Hiroshima.

Turn the sound down on this video at the aquarium

The Osaka aquarium

A ferry ticket was purchased with our aquarium ticket, so we go.

This would be great- IF it weren't raining and you could see anything...

The shark is a lie...

James visits Benten(cho)

There's a Pokemon Center on Floor 13?

Hell is very loud with cute yellow ears.

James likes Hell.