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First, business: The Absence of War is now available on Kindle again. I had pulled it because I entered in a competition which, not surprisingly, I did not win, so here it is again for you – lending is enabled, so if you like it, you can pass it on. And while you’re at it, check out Son #2’s new book, coming in a week or so: Crystal Embers.  Preview here. 

All right, now for travel things. Monday, we traveled from Caceres to Guadalupe, the site of the famed Royal Monastery of Guadalupe. History:

There is a legend of the origins of the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legend says that St. Luke was the person who created the statue in the first century AD. When he died in Asia Minor, he was buried with the statue. In the 4th century, his remains were transferred to Constantinople in the 4th century. In 590 Gregorio Magno was elected Pope and he had a devotion to this Virgin and exhibited the statue in his chapel. One day the Pope was having a solemn procession with the Virgin in Rome and asked the Virgin to intercede to stop an epidemic in the city. An angel appeared to the Pope and the epidemic stopped.

Pope Gregorio Magno sent the statue to Seville to St. Leandro, who was the archbishop of the city, through his brother Isidoro, who was in Rome. During the boat trip, a sudden storm overtook the boat, but Isidoro prayed to the Virgin and the storm stopped suddenly. The Virgin was enthroned in Seville in the principal church at that time until the Moorish invasion in 714. Many priests in Seville fled the city during the invasion and went north with the statue of the Virgin and other reliquaries of the saints. They hid the statue near the river in Guadalupe.

At the end of the 13th century, a cow herder called Gil Cordero had a vision from the Virgin Mary beside the river. She indicated to him where her statue could be found. She told him to tell the priests where the statue was and for them to build a church in that place. The priests of Caceres then build a hermitage in that place and dedicated it to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Pilgrimages started to the hermitage and later in 1389 the monks of the Order of St. Jeronimo arrived and took over the hermitage. Many of the Spanish kings, especially the Catholic Kings, favored the monastery and many additions were made to it and many treasures were given to it too. The Catholic Kings made a pilgrimage to the monastery after their conquest of Granada.

The statue of the Virgin has been examined by experts several times. The statue was carved in cedar and polychromed at the end of the 12th century. Its style is Romanesque and today her image looks black, from the passage of time. The Virgin is seated and has the Child Jesus in her arms. The image measures 59 cm. Today the Virgin is venerated and on Sept.8 there is a celebration on her feast day. After Santiago de Compostela, the number of pilgrimages to Guadalupe is the most numerous in Spain.

On July 29, 1496, Columbus brought two Indians named Cristobal and Pedro to the monastery to have them baptized, when he met the Catholic Kings here. This was the first baptism of Indians from America. They returned to Mexico and many hermitages and churches in the Americas were dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Columbus named one of the islands he discovered Guadalupe, after the Virgin. Today there is a great devotion to this Virgin in all of the Americas and around the world, especially in Mexico.

Images of the baptism are everywhere and the font that was used is the center of a fountain in front of the monastery.

I was a little surprised by how the monastery was situated. The place has a mini-Lourdes-like vibe, not surprising, if you read the note above about its long-time popularity as a pilgrimage site. So it’s not exactly a peaceful place, with the monastery being literally right up against the little town – the steps a couple hundred feet from the plaza-side cafes. It’s kind of strange, but because the town structures around the monastery retain their medieval look (except, you know, for the Mahou ads and such), it fits.

There are two aspects to visiting the monastery complex: Visiting the monastery itself, which requires participation in a tour, and then visiting the basilica, which is of course, open. The tours just kind of…happen, it seems to me. Enough people gather, and they start a tour. So, thinking that we might do this tour on Tuesday, we showed up Monday around 4:30, having checked in our cute little hostel (2 rooms for $70 total), and people were sitting around in the gathering area, so..you know…why not?

The tour is in Spanish, and takes you in the cloister, adjoining rooms which have been made into museum rooms of choir books and religious artifacts, the magnificent sacristy which features paintings by Zubaran, and then the upper…chapel, I guess. A layman takes you through most of the tour, and then in that upper chapel, a Franciscan takes over. We were, I gathered, about to see Guadalupe herself. He talked for a while, then opened another door – there was a panel with all sorts of painted images on it which he turned…and there she was! He lead a Hail Mary in front of it, then offered us a disk attached to the statue with a rope for us to venerate. Most in the group did, some held back. There was a pregnant woman in the group to whom he gave the privilege of turning the statue back the other way. (When you go in the basilica, the statue is up high from your vantage point – so where you’ve been on the tour is up behind it.)

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At one point one of my sons asked me, “What is he saying?” of the lay tour guide and I quickly explained that he was telling us we were in the former refectory and this is where the tables where and up there was the niche in which the reader stood during meals. He stared at me and said, “But you don’t speak Spanish.” “But I speak Catholic,” I said – and continued explaining that if I know the context of the speech and if I’m familiar with the topic, I can follow the general gist of what someone is saying in French, Spanish or Italian. Context is everything, though. So here, once I picked up the word for refectory, I was set.

The tour was a little rushed, but I guess you could also say it was efficient, right? The basilica was…a basilica. There was not much distinctive about it, so I’m glad we got all that done when we arrived – the advantages of the late-living Spanish lifestyle!

No photos were allowed in the monastery, but you can easily find images of that online.

Monday evening, we wandered, took in views, and prepped for the next stage. Tuesday morning, we got up and I thought we might do some walks around Guadalupe, but as we drove out, I couldn’t figure out stopping points or parking places or trail beginnings, so we just sped on. It would be an hour and a half to the next stop, so might as well….

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How to raise children like the saints:

Pray for their deaths, leave them in the care of others and join a monastery, leave THEM in a monastery..

and so on. 

Today (May 22) is the memorial of St. Rita, known for many things, among them, her clear-eyed view of her children’s lives, earthly and eternal:

Rita Lotti was born near Cascia in Italy in the fourteenth century, the only child of her parents, Antonio and Amata. Her parents were official peacemakers in a turbulent environment of feuding families.


At an early age Rita felt called to religious life; however, her parents arranged for her to be married to Paolo Mancini. Rita accepted this as God’s will for her, and the newlyweds were soon blessed with two sons.


One day while on his way home, Paolo was killed. Rita’s grief was compounded with the fear that her two sons would seek to avenge their father’s death, as was the custom of the time. She began praying and fasting that God would not allow this to happen. Both sons soon fell ill and died, which Rita saw as an answer to her prayers.

From The Church’s Most Powerful Novenas. 

Whether or not your faith can take you that far at the moment, it’s worth pondering, worth allowing your self-understanding as a parent  – or simply a person who is connected to others – to be jolted, challenged and questioned.

It’s worth pondering on what we really believe and what we really want and hope for others and what we really think would be the worst and best things that could ever happen to them.

Raising children to be fulfilled in this world, happy with who they are in this world, and helpful to others in this world is good of us, but it’s also very 21st century First World of us. Parental bonds naturally bring deep desires to protect our children from any kind of harm or suffering, and of course it makes sense to have our parental goal be that vision of thriving, successful adults. Who still call, of course.

But if we’re parenting like the saints, we’re nudged to consider different definitions and frameworks and paradigms. We’re sometimes even confronted with examples of what we’d today call bad – terrible – parenting.

That is not to say that we look to saints because all of their decisions were good ones. They weren’t and we don’t. It is also true that there is nothing much easier than using religion as a tool to manipulate others and escape responsibility. I’m really involved in church and God clearly has a mission for me that requires all my time there  can often be more simply translated as I’d rather not be around my family, thanks. 

But if we’re serious about the Catholic thing, we do look to patterns, and the pattern we see is that when the saints think about other people, they’re concerned, first and foremost, with the state of their souls.

Now, we’d argue that  – we are too! Because we can quickly direct our purported concern with “souls” into that “self-fulfillment” door that rules the present day. That is: your deepest desires, as you understand them at this moment, must come from God – because they’re so deep and you can’t imagine being yourself without them. So this is what God wants. What you want. And that’s: fulfillment, happiness and feeling okay about what you’re doing here and now. What more can we want for ourselves, for our children?

St. Rita offers….another paradigm.

And so does S. Marie de l’Incarnation – the great mystic and missionary to New France, died in 1672, canonized in 2014. 

Last year, I read From Mother to Son: The Selected Letters of Marie de l’Incarnation to Claude Martin.  It seems appropriate to talk about this fascinating relationship on the memorial of St. Rita.

Marie was widowed at the age of twenty, left with a young son. She spent years – not only working in a family business and supporting her son – but discerning. It was a discernment that led to her, at the age of 32, when her son was 11 – into joining the Ursulines, and, a few years later, heading to Canada, where she would live, minister, and eventually die, never having seen her son with her physical eyes again.

(She was beatified in 1980 and canonized in 2014) 

So yes, she left her son with relatives so she could join a cloistered convent then sail across the sea.

The argument is made that viewed in historical context, this decision is not as strange as it seems to us today. Families tended to be more extended, parents died a lot, one-fourth of all marriages in France during this period were second marriages, children were sent off to school, sent to live in better circumstances with better-off relations and so on.

All of this is true, but we also know from Marie’s story that her son did not cheerfully accept either of her decisions – he ran away and turned up at the convent gate, and so on.

But, as it does, life went on, and in the end, Claude entered religious life himself as a Benedictine, and he and his mother exchanged letters for decades – and he eventually worked hard to collect her writings and present them to the world as the fruit of the mind of a saintly woman. From one of her letters to him:

You were abandoned by your mother and your relatives. Hasn’t this abandonment been useful to you? When I left you, you were not yet twelve years old and I did so only with strange agonies known to God alone. I had to obey his divine will, which wanted things to happen thus, making me hope that he would take care of you. I steeled my heart to prevail over what had delayed my entry into holy religion a whole ten years. Still, I had to be convinced of the necessity of delivering this blow by Reverend Father Dom Raymond and by ways I can’t set forth on this paper, though I would tell you in person. I foresaw the abandonment of our relatives, which gave me a thousand crosses, together with the human weakness that made me fear your ruin. 

When I passed through Paris, it would have been easy for me to place you. The Queen, Madame the Duchess d’Aiguillon and Madame the Countesss Brienne, who did me the honor of looking upon me with favor and who have again honored me with their commands this year, by their letters, wouldn’t have refused me anything I desired for you. I thanked Madame the Duchess d’Aiguillon for the good that she wanted to do for you, but the thought that came to me then was that if you were advanced in the world, your soul would be in danger of ruin.  What’s more, the thoughts that had formerly occupied my mind, in wanting only spiritual poverty for your inheritance and for mine, made me resolve to leave you a second time in the hands of the Mother of goodness, trusting that since I was going to give my life for the service of her beloved Son, she would take care of you….I have never loved you but in the poverty of Jesus Christ in which all treasures are found….

More thoughts here.

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I won’t do a reading/watching/listening digest today – how about a trip digest instead?Or perhaps a museum digest, for that is what this amounts to, I think.

This past weekend, we headed up Kansas City way for my older son to take a second look img_20181006_140933at Benedictine. We attended a Raven Day last fall when he was a junior, but now as a senior, he’s been accepted there for next year (as well as three other schools) and we thought it would be good for him to experience it as a seriously potential student – spend the night in a dorm, and so on.

I was originally going to drive up, as we did last year, but then I thought…why? It’s a solid 11-hour drive from here, which is comparable to what I used to do when my daughter attended William and Mary, and I didn’t mind doing it last fall – we saw Sights along the way and back , but for this three day weekend, I decided…nope. We’re flying.

(I lived in Lawrence for five years of my childhood – so this was a familiar sight.)

So, in and out of Birmingham with pretty reasonable fares. We left early Saturday morning, arrived in Kansas City about 1, rented a car and made our way down to, first, the College Basketball Experience for people to stretch their legs, then to a barbecue place for people to watch the Gators, and then to our hotel down in the Country Club district, which is this quite lovely early 20th century faux Spanish/Italianate shopping area. I’d booked this hotel, envisioning an evening of wandering around, but rain interfered with that plan – so there was some walking, but not much and it was wet.

(Note: the College Basketball experience is not worth the money. I guess if you are local and are having a birthday party, it might be, but not for a visitor – there just wasn’t enough to do.)

Sunday morning, youngest son and I went to Mass at the closest church (older son would be going with students in the evening), which just happened to be an FSSP parish. It was very interesting – a small church and packed for the 9 am low Mass (one of three Sunday Masses celebrated there) We didn’t hang around, but the people we encountered were friendly and welcoming and, yes, normal, in case you’re wondering. A majority of the women wore veils, but when I say “majority” I mean over half – by no means all. But veils are becoming an increasingly common sight at my own Cathedral parish, so that’s no big deal to our eyes at this point. Since it was low Mass, there was no music, of course. The church is beautiful and charming, but wow, it’s small and they could definitely use a larger facility.

img_20181007_123746Next stop, after checking out of the hotel, was at Winstead’s Steakburgers for a solid breakfast, then right up the road to the absolutely wonderful Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. What a treasure – with free admission, to boot. (Parking in the garage costs $10….)

I was very impressed with the collection, and we probably only took in a third of it (I’m thinking we’ll be back in the area regularly over the next five years, so…no pressure). I’ve put images of some of my favorites below with a bit of commentary.  You should be able to click on every image and get a larger one.

I didn’t know this about Rouault – that he had been apprenticed as a stained glass artist. You can see it.

I was moved by the descriptive note on this Manet. It prompted me to consider, once more, all the poor excuses I make….

On the far left, the work of a local artist, Wilbur Niewald, whose work I loved. It’s interesting that his work has become more representational over the decades – this is an early work called Facade I.  On the right is a fabulous lectern support – description in the middle. The fellow is struggle with the serpent, bracing himself, his clunky feet pointed inward.

On the far left, with note next to it, is an aquamanile – a water vessel used for ceremonial purposes, either secular or religious. Then a gorgeous terra cotta Madonna and Child (and others) from Tuscany. I didn’t take a photo of it, but the explanatory note was very good, explaining the symbolism of the various fruits on the border and even the frogs that are scattered in the group (a symbol of resurrection). On the far right, a small Bosch that was part of an exhibit about the layers in paintings. 

A wonderful and pretty large Asian collection. Enlarge that top left photo and see why I found it so enchanting – it flows with gentle, steady energy, and the figure embodies quiet joy. To the right up there is detail of a Jain chapel, then we have an amazingly thin jade disc with dragons and a wild Chinese funerary figure.

Also from China was the amazing statue I highlighted yesterday – from the 6th century: “Central Asian Caravan Woman Rousing her Camel While Nursing.” The best.

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Finally, these two John Singer Sargents – the top one, at least, is a study – not sure about the bottom. Both are completely absorbing.

All right then…

Then to the excellent and quite interesting museum dedicated to what’s been salvaged from the sunken Arabia steamboat. From the museum’s website:

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is a unique Kansas City attraction: a time capsule of life on the American frontier in the mid-nineteenth century.  It is not your typical museum.  Visitors have the one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience the everyday objects that made life possible for pioneers in the 1800s.  It is the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.

The Steamboat Arabia was one of many casualties of the perilous Missouri River.  The Mighty Missouri, as it was often called, is the longest river in the United States and has claimed nearly 400 other steamboats over its 2,500 mile course.  In September 1856, the Arabia was carrying over 200 tons of cargo intended for general stores and homes in 16 mid-western frontier towns.  The steamer was still fully loaded when it hit a tree snag and sank just 6 miles west of Kansas City.  Due to erosion, the Missouri River changed course over time, and the Arabia was buried underground for over a century – along with all of its precious cargo. Lying 45-feet deep beneath a Kansas cornfield, the Arabia’s payload was protected from light and oxygen and was thus remarkably well preserved.

Using a metal detector and old maps to guide the search, an amateur archaeologist began the search for the lost steamer.   Located a half-mile from the present river’s course, 5 men and their families would begin the adventure of a lifetime … recovering the Steamboat Arabia.  What they found will astound you.

Being a private museum, it’s not free, but it’s worth every penny of admission. Begin with the tour – it’s very helpful and engaging to have a human being set the event and objects in context. It’s just amazing to be able to walk amid this array of quite ordinary objects, clean and looking as if they could be put to use right now.

(By the way, no human beings died in the accident. The only life lost was a mule.)

We then made our way up to Atchison, with a stop to watch some Vikings football and eat. Once in Atchison, I dropped my older son off on campus, and my younger son and I were able to visit with one of my former students, from ages past, who happens to be married to a Benedictine faculty member – delightful.

Since I’d been to the event last year, I didn’t feel the need to go through it again, so after checking in with the older one on Monday morning, younger son and I headed up to St. Joseph, Missouri. We might have done some nature in one of the local state parks, but it had been raining so much over the past two days and still looked a little threatening, so I thought – I really img_20181008_115443don’t want to tramp around in the mud and wet leaves and perhaps get rained on again – so St. Joseph it was.

What a delightful surprise. A surprise, but not surprising, because every time I travel, even five miles from home, I encounter something new to me, some corner of human life that’s intriguing, a chance to learn about more ways in which human beings do things differently – and are so deeply the same.

This time it was the Patee House Museum – a HUGE local history museum in building originally constructed as a hotel, but over the years used as a women’s college (three different times), headquarters for the Pony Express, the Union Army and, for most of the 20th century, a shirt factory.

It’s now filled – and I mean filled with artifacts from St. Joseph’s history. Much of the downstairs has been divided and fashioned to be like period shops and businesses, other rooms (the ballroom, bathroom, ladies’ parlor and so one) furnished to look as they would have in the hotel’s heyday. There’s a train engine in the former courtyard. Exhibits cover topics like the Pony Express (headquartered here during its short history) and the Buffalo Soldiers. There’s a carousel. And cars. And Walter Cronkite’s father’s dental office equipment. And a piece of rope from the horrible final lynching that happened in the town – in 1933. And just… a lot of stuff.

Well worth the $6 admission.

Next to the Pattee House is the house where Jesse James lived and was shot by the Ford brothers. It’s been moved here from its original location, but it’s also filled with interesting memorabilia from the period and from the exhumation and DNA confirmation that the body was actually Jesse James’. Made me want to read Ron Hansen’s book, which I never have.

Then it was time to head back to Atchison, where we stopped by the river – in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, who rested there on July 4, 1804 and, as the placard said, “ate some corn.”  The head of the music department had kindly responded to my query about M having some practice time, and so we headed up the hill, found the department and he spent an hour getting to play on a nice Steinway baby grand  – very much appreciated!

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I’ve been asked about the famed Japanese toilets, so here goes – our limited experience:

  • I don’t know if it expresses some deep-seated cultural priority or is just for the tourists’ sake, but after we disembarked from the plane at Narita Airport in Tokyo, the first thing we saw as we made our way to customs was dozens of ads for toilets – from the Toto company, specifically. They lined the walkway to customs. Priorities!
  • Every toilet we encountered was just a bit different, but they all included the same basic features: the ability to flush varied volumes of water, bidet features – and I use plural there because they included more than one, contoured for the differences in male and female anatomy, and seat warmers. Some included a sound feature – that is, the ability to generate sounds (like nature or even music) to cover up…er…sounds. For all I know, they all included this feature, but I just couldn’t interpret the buttons.
  • So here’s  a tour. This was the toilet in our first hotel room in Tokyo (the Richmond Premiere Oshiage).

 

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The two buttons on the top row are for flushing – the one on the right for less volume, the one on the left for more.

The three buttons below that are for the bidet function, the one on the far right being for women.

And that’s all I can tell you. I’m guessing the buttons on the far right are for temperature regulation of both the seat and the water and maybe pressure. But I didn’t fool with them…I didn’t want to break it!

  • This is the toilet from our Kyoto house. I had to grab a screen shot from a video. It seems to me that the electronic bidet stuff is an add-on to an older toilet here. You can see the buttons on the left side – those are all bidet (you can buy that kind of accessory here, fyi). The tank reminds me of an old-fashioned high tank. You might be able to see that there’s an external faucet – when you flush, the water comes out there and fills the tank – something that greatly confused some of us at first, who thought it was some sort of extra sink. You can see the flusher below it, and it controls the volume of water  – push it to the right, you get less, to the left you get more, and the longer you hold it, the more water you get coming through.

 

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I tragically did not take a photo of the bathroom at our last hotel, but here’s one more from a different place.

The Toto company has a “gallery” of their machines at the Narita Airport. I had thought it was like a showroom where you walk around and see amazing space-age toilets, but it’s actually a restroom to use – men go left, women go right – with separate cubby/rooms. There were only two free when I went, and both the toilets were the same. So here you go:

First, check out the nifty little toddler seat for you to set your kid in so he or she won’t wander while you’re occupied. (There was a changing table, too). I have  video  – of me pointing to the buttons, freak!  – that I’ll put on Instagram in a minute. Okay, here’s that post. 

One more: this was in one of the train stations – Gion-Shijo in Kyoto. It was a “Kid’s Toilet” – like our family restrooms, but more kid-sized, with a stall for privacy.

So there you go – a not-exactly exhaustive look at Japanese toilets. I will say that after experiencing this…we must seem absolutely barbaric in our personal habits…and perhaps we are!

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Friday was going to be a challenge because of the threat of rain. I had been watching the forecasts all week, and both Friday and Saturday looked to be potentially rainy – although I didn’t know what that meant here. Because, you see, in Florida, for example, “rain and thunderstorms” can mean nothing more than something blowing through for fifteen minutes in the late afternoon.

We decided to risk it, packed up our umbrellas (clear because most umbrellas sold and used here are clear plastic) and set out on a little less than one hour journey to the northwest area of Kyoto called Arashiyama. It’s known for a few things – having some older, preserved streets, some interesting shrines and temples (shocking!) and….monkeys.

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Yes, monkeys. We moved from deer yesterday to monkeys today.

The Iwatayama Monkey Park is at the end of a pretty strenuous twenty minute hike up a hill on the river. I was a little concerned because – trying to be culturally sensitive here – Japanese animal facilities are often not run with the same mindset as those you’d find in the United States. Read reviews of Japanese zoos, and what you generally find is post after post expressing shock and dismay at the small cages and lack of stimulation and natural environment.

But this was just fine. As far as I could see the monkeys are free – but they hang around because, you know, people are handing out food all day – and seem content and cared for by staff.

So, ethics stress behind us, let’s enjoy some monkeys!

 

You can purchase apples and peanuts to feed them in a rest house – and that’s the only place you’re allowed to feed them – and the monkeys seem to know it, because outside that area, they don’t approach humans and basically ignore them. You’re warned only not to touch them and not to look them in the eye – they apparently sense that as aggression.

It was very interesting to watch them, and we were lucky because this is spring and spring means babies.

They had interesting behavior around the water. A monkey would sit there and splash with its feet and hands, make all kind of weird gestures, poke its head in, and then just sit back, maybe do it again, and then maybe jump in for a swim eventually. It was like they were getting used to the water, just as we might do.

After that, we went down to the very busy touristy street leading to the river, and headed to the famed Bamboo forest – which was…nice. I mean, it’s pretty in person, but not as haunting as it is in photographs because, of course, you’re there with dozens of your closest friends.

The walk became far more peaceful when we went off on another path, headed to the one temple I thought we’d try to hit – the Otagi-Nenbutsu-ji Temple. It was a lovely walk on paths/streets (because a few cars passed us) that wound up through neighborhoods that were part residential, part historically preserved, and some restaurants. The Temple itself is on a hillside and this is the attraction: 

In 1955, the temple’s fortunes began to change when a new head priest was appointed. His name was Kocho Nishimura and he began the long process of renovating the temple. Kocho Nishimura was not only a priest but an accomplished sculptor of Buddhist statues. He hit on the idea of having visitors carve their own statues for the temple under his guidance. These “rakan” statues, which represent Buddha’s disciples, were all added to the temple between 1981 and 1991, but look much older as they are now fairly covered with moss. Because each statue was carved by a different person, each one is completely unique, and many have humorous expressions or whimsical poses.

 

We caught a bus back into town, did some shopping, got caught in a torrential downpour, had ice cream and beer, then got a train back to our apartment.

 

Right: “Kimono Forest” at the Randen tram station. 

Dinner was a challenge. We are in a part of town that has a rich, interesting history, and is certainly busy enough, but it is not non-Japanese tourist oriented. There are loads of restaurants, but few have English menus and while I can tell the basics about a restaurant from the photographs they have posted and some awkward conversation, the details escape me. So while the boys rested, I wandered around, poking my head into various restaurants, asking for menus, trying to figure out what they had. The problem was – I could, for example, see that this restaurant was a chicken restaurant featuring yakiniku – chicken that you grill yourself tableside. Great. But I would have no idea which chicken part we’re ordering or what comes with it or how much would make sense to order. The online translating apps are not very helpful to me here, perhaps because I don’t know how to use them efficiently, but mostly because in any given moment, I need to know a lot in a short amount of time.

So you know what we did?

img_20180629_203351I discovered, right across the street and around the corner, a Tanzanian restaurant. The sign out front said the chef and proprieter was also an English teacher. We’re in.  And do you know what? It was delightful. The food was excellent – one boy had a chicken pilau, I had a fantastic stew, the other had fried chicken and fried and we all had samosas. And it was such a pleasure and relief to speak English, easily to someone besides my kids. Even after a little more than week – you forget how relaxing it is not to feel lost in translation, constantly.  So thank you, R.M. Asili Cafe and Dining! 

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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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Perhaps you recall this year’s Baby Robin drama…

It began when I noticed a nest being constructed between a downspout and an eave.

 

Soon, the robins had laid their eggs, and just a couple of weeks ago,  they hatched.

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We watched them the best we could – we of course didn’t want to disturb them, but even if we did, the parents were vigilant guards, perching on nearby branches and wires whenever we came near, squawking repeatedly and even swooping down towards us if it all became too much.

A week and a half ago, we checked on the babies on Sunday evening, and saw their little heads.

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Monday morning:

Carnage:

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What made it even sadder was that the parents were still around, perched, chirping, squawking and swooping. You have to wonder – what did they “think” – if anything?

I thought that was the end of it. I left the nest on the ground for the moment, intending to take it up later. Before I could do anything with it, the yard guys came and just put it back up atop the downspout.

Nice, I thought. But why?

The next day, I noticed that the parents were flying around with grass in their beaks – they were rebuilding the nest.

And now, a few days later – look at that.

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They’re trying again. I had no idea that would happen.We will probably be in Japan  by the time they hatch – but depending on when that is (they say 12-14 days) – we might be back for part of the infancy, although my daughter will certainly be here and can keep us posted.

I just hope the hawk has moved on to other parts of the neighborhood….

(Six years ago, in our previous house, we had a fantastic view of the entire process, as robins built a nest on a window ledge. Here’s a post summarizing what we were privileged to witness.)

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