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Kyoto: the third largest city in Japan and in many ways, its cultural heart. The city was the capital of the country for centuries – from 794 to 1868 – and much of what we associate with traditional Japanese culture developed in this area. Included in this is religion. Kyoto is the site of over a thousand temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto). Learn more about Kyoto here. 

We like it. There’s a ton to see, but even so it’s more manageable than Tokyo, and once again, I’m grateful that circumstances changed and brought us here (but remember, my original, original itinerary included Kyoto or Osaka anyway….)

The plan for the day, such as it was, was to attempt to see temples everyone was interested in: that would include some that are famous for their visuals, some for their architectural features and some that people know about because of Pokemon. 

So yeah, we’ll start with the Pokemon one, which was the furthest out, chosen so we’d go out and then work our way back in closer. I used a lot of this itinerary to help us get from one place to the next. Never fear – this particular temple – Kinkaku-ji – is well known and hugely popular for other reasons, too – mostly because, well, it features that stunning gold leaf exterior.

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(How did we get around? On buses and trains – the public transportation here is excellent)

Then on the bus over to the Ginkaku-ji temple, which is nicknamed “silver” although it doesn’t feature any – they think it was so named to contrast it with the Gold pavilion – silver being built by the grandson of Gold’s. Both were originally built as villas for aristocrats, then turned into temples.

 

Then a long walk down what is called the “Philosopher’s Path” – so named because of a 20th century Kyoto University philosophy professor who took walks on the path as a way of clearing his head. The path is paved, it’s on a hillside next to a stream in a residential area and lined in places with shops, but it’s still peaceful. I find that I didn’t take any actual photos of walking on the path, so sorry. Also, you can take side trails off the path to visit more temples or shrines, all more peaceful and focused that the tourist and pilgrim-heavy big temples and shrines that anyone who sneers at the tat surrounding Lourdes really should visit.

 

But…there’s a collection of cats in residence, too:

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We then took a bus to Kiyomizu-dera, which was probably the most interesting – from a cultural perspective. It’s a huge, colorful, gorgeous set of buildings, thronged – thronged with visitors, many in kimonos (I will right about this later, but wearing a kimono out and about in Kyoto is a thing. It’s not an unusual or exotic sight. Many are rented for the day, but not all.) It was unfortunate that the famed huge porch on stilts was essentially covered for renovations, but we still were able to see and absorb some of the impact of the setting.

 

One feature of this temple is a three-springed fountain coming from a mountain. People line up to drink from the spring: choosing one of the streams for longevity, one for success in school, or one for success in love. To drink from all three would be considered greedy. I couldn’t tell if the springs were actually identified as being specifically associated with each wish, but in watching the dozens of school children take their drink, it was clear that they all picked one particular stream..so I’m guessing that was for success in school?

Finally – last major temple of the day, not on that itinerary list, but on the way to somewhere else, so why not – Yasaka. There we watched people offer prayers and ring bells:

 

Two missing pieces from the day, although we’ve got three more days in the area, so plenty of time to get to them: the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famed for the long line of brilliant tori gates, and Choin-in Temple, a center (if not the center) of Pure Land Buddhism. At the beginning of the day, I had tried to work Choin-in in – but could not figure out where it was and how to work it into that 1-day itinerary – only to discover that it’s right next to the Yasaka shrine – and closed by the time we arrived. Oh! Well at least now I know – for both of them – both are located pretty close to the main train line that runs near our apartment, so at least now it will be quick to get to them – no standing in shaded doorways with GoogleMaps pointing this way and that, squinting at bus line numbers.

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On leaving Yasaka, we were right in the midst of one of the main “downtown” areas (maybe the? I don’t know) of the city – and it was great. Busy, but not frantic, full of interesting shops and the usual huge Japanese department stores and food halls. It was a good two hours, laying the groundwork for a return – at least a couple of times – again, it’s not close, miles-wise to our apartment, but super easy on the train.

 

 

Oh, and yes – a real live geisha sighting. It took me a second to get what was happening, since all I saw at first were kimonos, and they’re everywhere. It was in the evening, a bit before nine, as we were about to cross the bridge downtown to get to the Gion station. There were several solid black shiny cars stopped along the side of the street, with a bit of a bustle happening, and folks gathered taking photos. When I finally clicked into observation mode, I saw one geisha get into each of the cars, along with one or two older men dressed in business suits and an older woman, not made up and not in full dress kimono, but still in traditional garb. I am wondering if she was some sort of supervisor/chaperone, and who we saw were not full geishas, but geishas-in-training, called maiko. 

You can sort of see that pure white face in the back seat of the car:

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Today…Thursday…Nara.

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Tuesday morning, first order of business was finishing the laundry that I’d begun Monday night.

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Our hotel had a laundry, which was great news, and the instruction panel on the machine was even decipherable, which was good, too, and it automatically dispensed detergent, which was fantastic.

But it was also a combined washer-dryer which, in my experience is never good news.

I was right. The first cycle was two hours. At the end of that, the load was still pretty damp, which didn’t surprise me – so I added another half hour of drying. By this time, it was midnight, I dozed off (in the room!) waiting, got back down to to the laundry at 12:45, found negligible progress, gave up for the night, took the load back to the room, draped the clothes around where I could, and went back to sleep. When I returned to the laundry in the morning to give it one more 30 minute run (which finished it off, at last) I encountered the same heavily tatooed Australian woman I’d shared the space with the night before. “Twelve hours later….” I commented.

Next order of business, pack up and figure out this train business.

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There are any number of ways to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, including buses, regular trains and budget flights, but of course we wanted to do the Shinkansen, or bullet train. Round trips tickets are not cheap, but I saved a bit of money by purchased a “tour” through a site called JapanICan – details here. Cheaper, but of course, there’s a cost to everything, and the cost here is another layer of complication. So the steps were:

  • Check out of hotel, go to Oshiage Station, and from there go to Tokyo Station.
  • At Tokyo Station, find the tour office, present passports, printed e-voucher and “tour application” – after a few minutes, received both sets of tickets, plus a voucher for a day of free public transportation use in Kyoto.
  • Go find a train!
  • These trains run many times during the hour. These vouchers are for unreserved seats, so you basically just find a train that’s about to leave, find one of the cars with unreserved seats (one of the first three cars), line up,  wait for the super-charged train cleaners to finish their work and get on board.
  • Apart from the confusion of finding the tour office, it was a very simple process. The seats are comfortable, the train is very clean. Snacks are offered for sale, but we didn’t buy anything. No wi-fi on this particular train.
  • The advantage of using this voucher is that you could use it on any of the three bullet train lines, including the fastest, the Nazomi  – which is not possible if you use the JR Rail Pass, a popular choice with international travelers. So Nazomi it was, on a clean, on-time train, getting us to Kyoto in a little more than two hours.

You can see some landscape on the way, but a great deal of the journey is between barriers and some even underground, so it’s not incredible scenic. What sticks out to me from the space between the cities? Rice paddies and batting cages. Everywhere.

We got to Kyoto around two and couldn’t get into the apartment until 3, so we parked our luggage in storage lockers, grabbed some McDonalds and set out to see some of the area around the station.

First, on the McDonald’s:  No shame! I mean – I don’t eat it, just because I don’t have any interest, but it’s quick, reliable fuel for others who hadn’t eaten much all day. Secondly – it’s fascinating to eat at American fast food chains overseas. One son reported that the chicken nuggets are actual chicken parts, not the American reconstituted chicken sludge. Other son got a ginger-pork burger, which had a good ginger bite to it.

We had a brief conversation with an older couple from Florida – drawn to us because of son’s Gator gear on his body – who’d been in the country for their son’s wedding on one of the smaller, scenic islands. They’d been in the country for ten days. I asked if they had any tips. The woman shrugged, studied her french fry and said, “The island was pretty.”

I guess someone was ready to go home….

The Kyoto station is very impressive, with a rooftop observation deck.

 

There’s a large department store that’s part of the station. Here is a thousand dollar school bag for you. J flipped the tag and discovered why – Kate Spade.

 

Then out – we looked at the Kyoto Tower from the outside (can’t avoid it! It’s retro and funky, but you have to pay to ascend and we’d just taken in the views for free) then headed to a couple of the thousand temples that are in this area.

There are two Honganji temple complexes, about six blocks apart, not far from the station. They are temples for sects of Pure Land Buddhism..

(If you were in Kyoto yesterday and saw two teenaged boys nursing cokes with a middle-aged woman trudging behind them droning about the Four Noble Truths and bodhisattva and such – why didn’t you say hello?)

 

It was a far more peaceful scene than the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, but it was also late in the day. These are enormous, gorgeous wooden structures, and yes, you must take off your shoes to enter – they provide plastic bags to carry about your shoes if you wish. Don’t forget to check out the rope made of hair:

 

Before we reached the station, we had an ice cream break – rolled ice cream, which is not, of course, unique to Japan – we have a couple in Birmingham now, and the newest one has a Japanese theme, though – so is it a trend that started here? I don’t know.

 

All I know is that sitting there in front of Starbucks watching them eat their ice cream, I didn’t feel as if I were in a foreign country at all. There, in Kyoto, which is, they say, the most Japanese of all the major Japanese cities, I felt as if I could have been anywhere, img_20180626_171649including Birmingham, Alabama. I think it is not only because, well, I was sitting in front of Starbucks, but because the ratio of tourists to locals here is higher – or lower? Not a math person, but what I’m trying to say is that there are fewer inhabitants than Tokyo and a lot of tourists, so looking out at a crowd around the station, the demographics don’t seem much different – except for the miniscule number of black faces – than they’d be in New York or Chicago. What makes it even more so is the commonality of culture now – everyone has a phone, everyone dresses the same and I swear, even Japanese teens walk with the same exact gait as American teens.

Then back to the station, get luggage, get taxi and then make the trek to the apartment – which is not in the center of Kyoto, took about twenty minutes by car to reach, but is also a block from a train station, so I think (hope) getting around should be efficient.

I’ll do a post on the house later, once I get more photos. Just know that it’s utterly charming – a traditional Japanese house with tatami mats, sliding doors, and sleeping mats. No daily housekeeping, but more space – everything’s a tradeoff, I tell you.

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Dinner was great. As they were resting, I did my usual reconnaissance walk, and within seconds found our dinner spot – a yakitori place right around the corner. Yakitori is grilled meat on skewers – bar food, basically. But it was enough for us, and a great experience – the place was tiny, smokey (grilling smoke) and full of locals.

 

The staff was very friendly and in a sweet gesture, after I paid the bill, the waiter said, “A present” – and handed me this teeny-tiny lucky cat.

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Tokyo, from the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – a free alternative to seeing the city from above. It’s 45 floors up on a floor that has an almost 360 degree view, a gift shop and cafe.

As we were walking around taking in the views, I could sense a much older gentleman in a volunteer vest watching us. For several minutes, he didn’t take his eyes off us while we talked and took photos. At last he ventured forward and asked if we had any questions. No, not really. Even so, did we have a few minutes for him to point out some features? Ten – twenty – thirty? Well, if you insist – ten. Sure, we have ten minutes. I don’t know if the volunteers are observed in their work and have an interaction quota – but he did seem (politely) insistent.

And it turns out – as these things always do – to be fruitful. I learned that a great deal of the land I was looking at had held nothing but a water filtration system until 1971, when the area began being developed. He showed us photos from his notebook, and it certainly was different. He pointed out the construction for the 2020 Olympics stadium and other sites. (In case you are wondering, it wasn’t rainy on Monday, but it was still far too hazy to see Mount Fuji)

And then he had a question for us.

He pointed to a building constructed of three towers in a row, staggered in height. He said that one housed the Tokyo Hyatt, and then flipped to a page in his book with photos of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson – it was the locus of a lot of the filming of Lost in Translation of course. Then he said, “I have a question. Some people say that each of the towers represent either the past, present, or future. Which do you think is the future?” My oldest son answered, “The tallest.” I honestly didn’t care or have an opinion, but just said, “Sure. The tallest.” As did my younger son.

“Ah, just like Americans – always thinking the future is great in size. The right answer is – no one knows which tower represents the future, because no one knows the future!”

Well, that’s very Zen of you, Old Volunteer Guide Fellow. And also…true.

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Monday:

Another kind of weird, unfocused day, because Tokyo is doing that to me. I do think that if we were, indeed going to be in Tokyo for the whole trip (as originally planned), I’d have more focus. But as it is, with Monday being our last full day in a vast city of 30 million people…it’s hard to figure out what to do except, “Experience more Tokyo in general and without a plan and hope for the best.”

When we travel and are not in a place with free breakfast and are within walking distance of shops, my usual practice is to wake up earlier than everyone else (which happens anyway) and then walk out, see morning city life and grab milk and pastries somewhere.

View from our hotel – the Richmond Premiere right next to the Oshiage Station. It was a fantastic location. A little far from popular areas like Shinjuku, but honestly – that’s fine. It wasn’t crazy, and there was plenty to do, see and eat nearby. 

Well…life here in Tokyo doesn’t get rolling until later in the morning, I discovered. Oh, things are open, but not many. We are right across from the Tokyo SkyTree which has a great mall with a fantastic food court – including a bakery. I headed over there first, a bit before nine, and found the shops all blocked off, not to open until ten. Okay – there’s a large grocery store next to the hotel  with two levels – the top being a Whole Foods-type place with lots of prepared foods, organic goods and a bakery, and then a large regular grocery store in the basement. Head to the bakery! Well, it didn’t open until nine – so I waited for a few minutes, went in  – and saw all the bakers working hard, yes…but not a thing put out in the cases yet. Nothing. I stood around for a few minutes, and they didn’t seem to be at an “almost there” point – so I gave up, went downstairs, got a bunch of prepackaged donuts and such, found some milk and went back up to the room.

After everyone was “nourished” we went to the train and traveled way across town (at least a 30 minute ride) to the Shinjuku area, the first destination being the Tokyo Municipal Government Building observatory – described in this post.

That done, it was time to wander – I had a couple of destinations, one of which we found, the other of which eluded us. Shinjuku is certainly busy and crowded, but it was nothing like Shibuyu, and so not as much of a hassle to walk around in – although the difference being today is that it was very, very hot. The hottest it been – which doesn’t bother me, but does some others in our party.

My takeaway from that hour or so in Shinjuku was this:

There are, it seems to me, two cities in Tokyo – one above ground and other below. What’s above ground is what you’d expect – crowded, jostling, with rather mysterious doorways leading off into the unknown. Just a little gritty, but not American-city gritty, because this is Japan. Underground there’s another country, extending for (it seems) kilometers around every major train station are dozens and dozens of shops and eateries – you find similar things in many major cities, but it’s more striking here in Tokyo because of the contrast. Underground, the shops are well-lit, spacious and it’s very clear what’s what and how to get in and out and get around. You might have this idea, going to Tokyo, that you’re going to eat in some little satori or ramen place in a cute neighborhood, but what I’m finding here is that to find a place where I feel comfortable, since I don’t speak but three words of Japanese and don’t really understand the cuisine very well at all – is a challenge above ground, and okay – this place in the underground mall looks good, so we’ll go here. It’s the same stuff, the same style (most Japanese restaurants specialize in one kind of dish – ramen, satori, udon, etc) and perhaps more expensive, but darn it – guess what – all the customers are Japanese down here, too – so why not?

Selling out? Probably. But People Get Hungry, so here we are!

In our wanderings we did see the exterior of the famed Robot Restaurant/Cafe, which is insane – I didn’t take photos, but it’s a gaudy, ridiculous-looking place on a side street, where it costs 80 bucks just to get in and see the “show” with food being extra. Oh – and Godzilla!

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Our food was tonkatsu, a traditional way of preparing pork cutlets. It was very good, although I have now discovered something…

I don’t like matcha tea. The first tea we had here, I took a sip and was put off by what I would describe as a smokey taste. Weird, I thought. Then I had it again at this restaurant (it’s just served automatically) and figured out that’s what it was – matcha – and well, I don’t think I like it!

The meals are provoking interesting conversations about the differences in cuisine and what that reveals about culture: for example, a cuisine that emphasizes presenting the diner with elements of the meal – either cooked or uncooked – and leaving up to her how to season and finish it.

After that, we ended up at Sunshine City, yet one more large shopping and entertainment area which features an anime-themed amusement park, some other amusement park (didn’t go), a Pokemon store (waited outside) and then an aquarium on the rooftop, which turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.

It’s not huge, but it’s substantial, with two sections – a larger one indoors and a few outdoor exhibits. Most of the exhibits focus on creatures you’d find around Japan. At 4:00 on a Monday afternoon, the place was crowded – with hardly any children. A few toddlers, perhaps, but everyone else was an adult…although….

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We judge an aquarium (or zoo) in part on the question, “Did I see something I’d never seen before?” The answer here was yes. 

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It’s called a sunfish, it’s huge and weird looking, and my zoologist son is pretty sure it’s illegal to keep them in captivity in the US. Also – mudskippers. That got him psyched.

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We were there for the sea lion (seal?) show and while of course it was in Japanese, it was pretty evident to me that the content was more substantial than it’s been in similar shows I’ve seen in the US. With the added bonus of these little pads that were distributed to the audience to prevent direct contact with the ground, and perhaps a quarter-centimeter of padding. So thanks!

There were also some gorgeous pink pelicans – but the photos didn’t turn out for some reason and I don’t have time to try to fix them, so just know – there were giant pink pelicans.

We trekked back to our part of town – as we approached the station, we were a little afraid because it was rush hour, the crowds were heavy, and have you seen the videos of subway attendants pushing, shoving and packing people in the train cars? Sure, it would be interesting to experience, but still a little weird. No worries, though – maybe not many people actually live in the direction of our hotel, because the ride back was relaxed and uncrowded.

After a break, we headed over to the Skytree, where Someone had noticed conveyer-belt sushi – a definite goal of this trip. We had to wait for a while – but waiting for restaurants in Japan is so orderly, it’s almost entertaining. You don’t mill about with buzzers, glaring at parties who seem to be unfairly favored – no, there are seats. You sit on the seats outside the restaurant, and as parties are called up – you move your own seat up.

There was an English menu, but no one spoke English, which was fine. What you miss out on in these situations, though, is understanding what people are saying in random moments – so in this sushi restaurant (perhaps in all? I don’t know) new diners are greeted with shouts from the staff (it reminded me of “Welcome to Moe’s!”) and then when customers leave, there’s more shouting. At one point, a chef brought out a tray of freshly prepared plates from the same fish, at which point, a staff member made a speech of some sort and everyone applauded.

So – the sushi? Here’s the thing – I’ve never eaten sushi before in my life – no desire to – but I was determined I would do it here. That means I have no basis on which to judge it – I will say that it tasted absolutely fresh and clean. I suppose that is the goal? My take on sushi (I think I had tuna, salmon and a couple of kinds of white fish): eh. I suppose I sort of understand why people like it, and it does have a certain appeal – I am guessing the appeal lies precisely in that simplicity of flavor – but to me, the experience was basically of a big chunk of flesh. Sorry I can be more sophisticated than that! We all like what we like – I appreciate simplicity and straightforward taste when it comes to fruits and vegetables, but otherwise, I tend to go for layers of flavor that are the result of the cooking process – why I’m such a soup fan, for example.

But – been there, done that! We will probably do it again here. I want to go to one of those places – there are ramen restaurants like this too – where you punch in what you want on a machine in the front and then hand over the printout.

So then…back to the room, to prepare for…Kyoto!

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After a couple of full days here in Tokyo, I’m going to say that I’m very, very glad this AirBnB thing blew up, forcing me to change plans. It certainly wouldn’t have been terrible to have been here the entire time – what with day trips outside the city and so on –  but at this point, I’m going to be glad to get to a location that’s a little more – focused, I guess.

Not that Kyoto is small. No way. But Tokyo is not only massive, both geographically and in terms of population, but it’s…widely dispersed, composed of discrete areas, without a clear center of distinct history and geography (think Chicago’s Michigan Avenue area, for example, for contrast).

(Why? Because – well, frequent earthquakes and fires and, most recently, what the US did to the city during World War II: destroyed most of it in firebombing raids. So there’s not a lot of historical architecture here and the place reflects a history of continual rebuilding.)

It’s amazing, but it’s also a challenge to figure out what to do and where to go for a day – unless you yourself have a clear focus as in, “I’m going to explore anime related things” or “I’m going to find coo fashion.”

But that’s okay for us, because for me, travel is not so much about seeing landmarks anymore as it is in even in a limited way experiencing a different culture and immersing myself and my kids in the very different ways people outside of our bubble live their lives. I am very much content with wandering. It’s a metaphor for my life, so it makes sense that I’m comfortable with it as a travel style. As I keep saying over and over – it’s all new to me – there’s nothing here I’ve seen before – so what does it matter if I see X and not Y today? I’ll experience and learn something new, no matter what, and from that tediously spiritual perspective I tend to have – whatever I experience is what I’m supposed to experience. Don’t plan – prepare. Prepare to encounter life, people, God – whatever – in every moment, where ever you end up.

That said, I think I’m going to be relieved to get to Kyoto, which has a more distinct tourist travel pattern.

Oh, I’m also glad the AirBnB thing fell apart for Tokyo because having been here for all of two days, I can see now that the location of that apartment would not have been optimal. The hotel we’re in is right next to a train station, which is so valuable, I hope I never forget this lesson – how wonderful it is at the end of a long day of walking to emerge from the depths of your last subway journey and look straight at your hotel, knowing that there’s a freshly-made room just waiting for you up seven floors…

So okay—thanks Japanese government. Good deal.

If I’m going to take anything away from this trip, it’s going to be about this Japanese culture of politeness. It’s given me a lot to think about – but I need to experience more of it. I’ll just say that it’s refreshing but also creepy. It clearly sets firm parameters for social interactions, which makes things very clear and easy to navigate. It’s also nice to not live in fear of the seething rage of store cashiers, as one does in Italy – you can give a Japanese cashier any denomination of cash and they won’t blink at whatever amount of change they have to give back to you – unlike in some parts of Europe where they might outright refuse your transaction if it requires them to give up too much change.

But you still walk away thinking…what is this extreme politeness and external cheer blanketing?  And considering the dark and even perverted shadows of Japanese culture, it’s not an unreasonable train of thought.

So to recap:

Our first full day was Saturday. We wandered around the Akasuka district, briefly described here. I was feeling rough by the end of the day – just really tired (and I’m never tired) with a bit of vertigo. I ended up just giving up and going to sleep around nine.

Sunday was better, although I still had some of the vertigo (from the flight, I’m assuming. I’m typing this Monday morning (my time) and seem to be feeling fine now.) The plan for the day, such as it was, was Mass, followed by a request trip way down to some sort of Toyota showcase/attraction that’s located on Tokyo Bay. And go from there. Highlights, interspersed with photos.

  • Mass was at this church, less than a mile from our hotel. I had first planned to walk there, but it was drizzly and by the time we’d discussed what to do, it was really too late to start walking, so we caught a cab – a cab with back doors that opened and shut automatically! I showed the cab driver our destination on the phone, and as he pulled over he said, “Catolica – Catolica?” This is the place!
  • It’s a small church, with mostly older women in the congregation, with a few families. A very, very friendly and welcoming congregation. Of course we are easy to spot as visitors, and right as we walked in the door, a woman asked us if we needed English language materials. They are set up for visitors! The Mass booklet had the Mass parts in four columns: in Japanese pictograph, Japanese in Roman letters, English and Tagalog (they have a substantial Filipino demographic, I guess?). It made it very easy to follow along the Japanese, which was interesting. Everyone sang – there was a young man with a great voice who served as a cantor on the Responsorial Psalm – and there was even one familiar tune – Eat this Bread – not my favorite, but interesting to hear it.
  • I normally can’t stand “let’s welcome our visitors” – but you know what? At the end of Mass in a small congregation, it’s just fine. There were us, some folks from Argentina and some from Costa Rica. They had coffee after Mass, to which we were welcomed, and there had a good conversation with an American, language educator and Tokyo resident for twenty-five years, who had some very helpful tips for us.
  • Go to Mass all the time, go to Mass when you’re traveling – you are always home, in a way.

From that point, we had to take a bus down to this Toyota MegaWeb place. Which took a while, but again, was interesting – we’d been doing trains, so it was time to learn the bus. What I hadn’t realized was that the Toyota facility was part of a large shopping and entertainment district called Odaiba, built on man made islands originally constructed centuries ago for defensive purposes. It was pretty crazy, and we didn’t see half what we could have – the intensity of Japanese shopping and entertainment culture is overwhelming – but:

  • My son enjoyed the Toyota place, which included concept cars and a history garage, but was disappointed because the area where you can ride various vehicles was closed. On a Sunday. Go figure.
  • I know Michael Jackson is popular in various parts of the world, but I guess “Michael Jackson dancing” is a hobby of sorts in Japan? There was some sort of event featuring groups with participants of all ages – from 5-year olds to those probably in their 60’s – doing routines. (v video on Instagram)
  • Okay – one whole area of this Venus Fort shopping mall was devoted to pet goods. Which means that it was overrun with customers with their pets – scads of little dogs, each dressed up, most in carriages, shopping for…more pet clothes? We did peak in one shop selling $4k dogs, too.
  • Now, I would go on a rant about the collapsing Japanese demographic and what irony for these couples to be pushing their carriage with their three stupid expensive fluffy dogs with bows on their heads and jackets on their little bodies while they should have had kids but – I will say that Tokyo is not at all like New York City, where you can walk for blocks without seeing an actual child. There are lots of children, it’s a very child-friendly culture, and I’ve seen many, many family groups with more than one child – some even with three. So perhaps the tide is turning, slowly?
  • We did lunch a Lotteria – a Japanese fast food chain. When eating in a foreign country, I’m not all about the “eat only locally sourced traditional recipes created in secret kitchens in hidden alleyways.” I mean – these are Japanese chains, filled with Japanese families – if I’m going to see how this works, why not? The food was fine – the interesting point being that a meal (or “set” as they call it here) includes not only your sandwich, drink and fries, but a fried chicken piece as well.
  • Gundam – these robots are incredibly popular. There’s a “Gundam Base” store in the Diverse City Mall – the biggest theme store of any I’ve ever seen. I’m still not sure what this is – a show? A building system? Both? Shrugs. But the store was packed and out in front of the mall was a huge Gundam – world renowned – that, we read, “transforms” several times a day. We would not have headed there specifically to see that, but it was happening right around the time we arrived, so why not? Let’s jut say…it was underwhelming. Basically, the two horns on top of the head move to form one. Or vice versa – I can’t remember. It was funny, because there were a lot of people gathered around to watch, and the Is that all there is to it? was palpable – in any language.
  • As is the case everywhere, it seems, there is an arcade – a huge arcade, thunderingly loud, pulsing, bright, crowded. And what’s super-popular here are claw machines. Dozens of them in every arcade, from smaller ones where you grab trinkets to those featuring big plush toys, to….everything else.

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  • After a bit of exploring of the mall and a detour over to a massive auto supply store called Autobacs, we got back on the train and headed to Shibuyu – one of the more well-known neighborhoods of Tokyo. You might have heard of the famed “Shibuyu crossing” – a very busy crossing where, at light changes, thousands of people cross the road at once. Just look up photos and videos for a bird’s eye view. We crossed a couple of times, and it was something to be part of a crowd that big moving energetically in one direction. We didn’t get a bird’s eye view, though, which we’d hoped to – they say to do so from the Starbucks on one corner, but it was clear that Starbucks has worked it so you have to purchase something on the first floor in order to access the stairs to the second, where you can see – and there was a line, so it wasn’t worth it to us.
  • Took a photo at the famed Hachiko statue:

This Akita dog came to Shibuya Station everyday to meet his master, a professor, returning from work. After the professor died in 1925, Hachikō continued to come to the station daily until his own death nearly 10 years later. The story became legend and a small statue was erected in the dog’s memory in front of Shibuya Station. 

We walked around a bit, went to a few stores – I had wanted to check out Tokyu Hands, but was under – or perhaps over- whelmed, and ended up just wanting to move on – and then the massive food court in the basement of the Tokyu department store right next to the station. These Tokyo department store food areas are turning out to be one of my favorite aspects of the city. The variety and quality of goods is just so fascinating. And yes, we saw some of the famed stupidly expensive Japanese produce. Do people actually buy $100 melons? Do they?

 

(Currency conversion tip – to convert yen to USD, basically cut off two zeros. That will get you close enough. See what I mean?”

Shibuyu is grittier and more chaotic than what we’ve been experiencing in Tokyo – and more tourist-oriented – so it ended up not holding much interest for me. Back on the train, and back to our own Tokyo Skytree area, which is busy, too, but not as chaotic.

Spent some time in the mall across the way – Pokemon, nanoblocks, and various interesting Japanese goods, expensive and cheap – and then dinner.

Excellent!

 

It was a different sort of travel day, but one dedicated to satisfying one traveler’s interest (in car-related things), figuring out more of the city and see local families doing their local Sunday thing…

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Well, that didn’t last long.

I saw the mama Robin sitting on the nest Saturday morning…went out Sunday morning, saw no robins about, so I took advantage of the moment and stuck my phone up there to get a shot.

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Oh.

Well, whatever got up there did a clean job of it – there were no shells about, nothing amiss.

And, it seems, they might have nabbed at least one of the parents, too. For over the past weeks, every time we’ve ventured out there, one or both of the parents have perched nearby, letting us know we were in their territory and, if we refused to obey their warnings, swooping down in our direction.

This morning? Silence and not a robin in sight. Plenty of mockingbirds, as per usual, but this robin couple either was so demoralized that they gave up and move on, or…well.

I have absolutely no right to be sad about this considering a) I am not a vegetarian and b) one of the day’s tasks was going to purchase a rat for Rocky. And Rocky don’t play with warmed-up dead rats.

But I’m still sad.

****

So, here’s an article about my Loyola books! The inspiration is the new one – The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols – but the interview covered my thinking behind all of the volumes in the series, as well.

I’m not sure if you can actually read it without subscribing…but you can sure try!

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All right then: Japan. There, hope revives.

Brief recap: For some reason, we are going to Japan for our big summer trip. Leaving soon. Rented an AirBnB for Tokyo, legal issues mandated a change. (More here and here.)  So we’re splitting the trip between Tokyo and Kyoto. I have no idea what we’re doing except wandering around and eating.

Of all of the zillions of videos out there about 10 BEST THINGS TO DO IN SOME NEIGHBORHOOD OF TOKYO THAT ENDS IN A VOWEL AS THEY ALL DO! I’ve settled, for some reason, on those produced by one Paolo de Guzman, aka Tokyo Zebra. His personality is quirky, but not annoying, he’s kind of fun and – most helpful of all – his videos feature maps, which he also has on his website.

I’ve been reading guidebooks and discussion forums for weeks, but the city hardly made sense at all until I started watching these videos. So thanks to Paolo, I finally sort of have a plan – for Day 1.

And beyond that?

Are you kidding? Me? Plan??! 

Check out Instagram for updates…soonish….

 

 

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My mother grew up in Maine. Born in New Hampshire, but grew up in Maine.  The aunt and uncle who raised her lived there (in Sanford, in case there are any small-world moments waiting to happen out there) and for all of my childhood, a month every summer was spent in that lovely little spot of southern Maine.

My best friend there was named Lesa. (spelling is correct, btw). She lived across the field lying between my great-uncle’s house and her family’s, and was the only girl in a family of about 6 or 7 boys – that is until her little sister was born when she was around 13, I think. Very French-Canadian family, her grandparents barely spoke English. Being an only child, I was always mildly stunned after being with them for a while, alternately taken aback and entranced by the energy, the earthiness, and things that were so odd to me – like making a whole meal out of nothing but ears and ears of fresh corn.

Her oldest brother was probably about ten years older than she was (and she was a year older than I). He was a pretty dashing guy, although if you’d asked me at the time, I would have confessed that I thought he had a rather strange name.

“Nobbit,” they called him.

Nobbit graduated from college. Nobbit was a ski instructor in the winters. Nobbit was coming home.

Nobbit?

What kind of name was that, I wondered..for years.

Until one day, as an adult, I happened upon…

St. Norbert.

Well, theyah ya go.

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