The Japanese Blues

A different kind of shrine

A different kind of shrine

Our last night in Kyoto, Kyle and I perused our neighborhood for a date night local. I’d had my eye on a tiny Tapas bar but we were turned away at the door. This has happened a few times in our three weeks here…a claim that there’s no room for us when clearly there is. We weren’t offended by it — while disappointing, we understood a proprietors desire to hold some places in Kyoto gaijin-free.

Trying again, we were enthusiastically welcomed into a small sashimi restaurant where my mouth wrestled with a hunk of octopus far too big and chewy to conquer. And Kyle’s Iowa blood craved steak and potatoes in a way that raw fish would never satisfy so we simply accepted that our last Kyoto meal would lack substance but was good company.

Leaving, we noticed a discreet alleyway across from us, with a carved ice block of Jack Daniels (steadily melting) and peered in. And this is how we stumbled across a Japanese blues bar.

Gear Bar...wish I had taken the photo at night!

Gear Bar…wish I had taken the photo at night!

The bar, Gear, was so small that as patrons arrived for the show, additional stools were brought out, and people shifted mere centimeters to make room. With twenty people jammed into the slowly smoke filling space, we waited for the show. My money was on the bartender picking up a guitar — with his fedora, wild black hair and craggy face, he looked to be a Japanese Keith Richards. We spoke with the perplexingly mixed clientele squeezed in around us, learning small facts despite the language barrier.

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Two young women took the stage wearing shift dresses, pearls and pumps. We were confused. Opening act or bank tellers? Then they opened their mouths. Deep throaty classic blues…Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters…coming to us in part English, part Japanese. Head bobbing gold.

The Blues Sisters played two sets and three ovations and we squinted through the smoke, smiled at our seat mates, moved to the music and were grateful for serendipity.

The Blues Sisters

The Blues Sisters

At the end of the show, our neighbors shook hands with us and the Blues Sisters graciously thanked us with multiple “arigatou gazaimasu” and head bows as we purchased their CD. We spilled from the tiny space into the night on a high.

This was our first time in Japan that we felt entry underneath the cloak of a private culture…a cloak we’d sewed from our own stereotypes, for sure, but difficult to truly see beneath without individual interactions. Here’s to more serendipitous moments for all!

“I’d love to hear that sweet Memphis song
and that good old funky rock n roll
oh when I need some healing
the only thing I turn to
all that makes me happy is the BLUES”

Buddy Guy – All That Makes Me Happy Is The Blues

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Natural Disasters & The Oblivious Tourist

Our 1st week in Japan, we sat sipping coffee when the cafe began to sway. Kyle and I looked at each other. We have quite an earthquake history between us — Seattle, Northridge, Mexico City. He said, “It’s an earthquake.” I said, “Nah, the metro tracks are right there, it’s a train.”

He was right.

There was no panic in the cafe. Japan, sitting on the pacific ring of fire, sees over 1,500 earthquakes a year and judging by the calm with coffee, the country’s citizens are used to them.

We felt one more earthquake before leaving Tokyo. A day at the Museum of Emerging Science confirmed both. We packed up, headed to Kyoto and…walked into a typhoon.

Kyoto Typhoon (photo by Nobora Tomura)

Kyoto Typhoon (photo by Nobora Tomura)

As tourists, reality is often suspended. There’s the vacation protection bubble myth, that bodily harm couldn’t possibly happen in paradise. So the zipline company doesn’t provide helmets, so what? So the taxi has no seat belts, big deal!

Despite a sleepless night listening to house shuddering wind and rain. Despite my cellphone, now on Japanese wifi, shrieking hourly with emergency warnings (ok, in my defense, the alerts were in kanji, Japanese characters), I wasn’t concerned. When Kyle told me the next morning that he attributed the cellphone noise to neighbors ringing our doorbell trying to alert us, I at least wasn’t alone in my moronic choice of sleep over emergency response.

At some point, we actually read the news and were mortified to learn that over 250,000 people were evacuated not 15 minutes from us. But it was really this morning, when we made our way to Arashiyama, on the NE outskirts of Kyoto, that we realized we’d missed reality.

Our Photos 36 hours Post Typhoon

Our Photos 36 hours Post Typhoon

The Katsura River flooded, nearly submerging the historic Togetsukyo Bridge, and damaging the shops, restaurants and inns along the river. It’s slightly embarrassing now to admit that we had come to Arashiyama as giddy tourists to see the monkey park. Instead we saw a raging river, piles of debris, and flooded businesses with groups of people working hard to clean and recover.

Now a profound ending would be to say that we too jumped in, rolled up our sleeves and helped. We didn’t. We talked about it, assessed the situation (the press and military were on site) and determined we’d be a distraction vs a help.

Instead, we climbed small roads high above the river and visited a Buddhist temple, Otagi Nenbutsuji. There we were surrounded with 1200 rakan, stone statues representing Buddhist disciples. While built in the 8th century, the temple was hit with a…yes…typhoon in 1950 and had to be rebuilt. The rakans were thus carved in 1980s and 1990s by amateur artists. The temple brochure reads that “…the carvings have amusing or contented expressions that warm the hearts of visitors.” And that’s exactly what they did.

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Here in our suspended reality, we’d come face to face with a surreal location that had been destroyed by natural disaster and rebuilt with calm and steady resolve. As we peered into the faces of each rakan, smiling at some, laughing aloud at others, it was clear to me what an exceptional culture we were experiencing.

So imagine our surprise when we saw among the many faces, the one person in our extended family who epitomizes calm, steady philosophical resolve, who is hard working and driven by “we” vs “me.”  And who certainly would have recognized a natural disaster just a wee bit quicker than we did.

Papa Greenley

Papa Greenley

 

 

The Tokyo Files

Just a quick list of what we did, where we stayed, yadda, yadda, yadda. Admittedly, I’m not nuts about itinerary recaps or maybe I’m just Trip Advisored out, but its helpful to others and boy do we owe paying it forward.

Sleep
We booked a small apartment on flipkey: http://www.flipkey.com/tokyo-condo-rentals/p226889/ This was not fancy by any stretch but adequate and good set up for a small family with 2 bedrooms & a small pullout couch. Plus a portable wifi, which is a saving grace when you think you know how to get where you’re going but really don’t! The apartment was 3 metro stops to Shibuya and we liked being in a quiet neighborhood vs the craziness of the tourist destinations.

Sights
Day 1: Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, Arcade Fun

Meiji Shrine Prayer Tablets

Meiji Shrine Prayer Tablets

Day 2: Museum of Emerging Technology & Science — wow, this is an impressive museum…great interactive learning for tweens and teens

Asimo Robot Demonstration

Asimo Robot Demonstration

Museum of Emerging Science

Museum of Emerging Science

Day 3: Chill day…went to see the lights of Shibuya at night

Shibuya

Shibuya

Day 4: Kamakura (see previous post)

Day 5: We took a tour with Backstreet Guides, http://www.thebackstreetguides.com, to be able to see more then we could manage on our own. It was a splurge but worth it. Our guide, Rei, was wonderful. We visited the Tsukiji fish market, Sensoji temple, Nakamise dori shopping street, the Sky Tree, Akihabara (electronics district and home of the bizarro maid cafes), and the old district of Yanaka. Along the way we sampled sushi (highlight!), went on a rickshaw ride and had a traditional soba noodle lunch.

Fish Market Sushi

Fish Market Sushi

Electronics District

Electronics District

Day 6: The boys caught up with football (go Seahawks!) while the girls checked out Shibuya 109,  9-stories of stores dedicated to the fashionable young lady (I stood out…and not in a good way…in my frumpy ex-officio outfit).

Shibuya 109 Purchase

Shibuya 109 Purchase

Day 7: Bullet train to Kyoto

Tips
Wifi / SIM Card: It’s best to arrange this at the airport when you arrive. I didn’t realize that and so we didn’t! Fortunately, I found http://www.Japan-wireless.com online — they deliver SIM cards and wireless routers for rental directly to your hotel. At the end of your trip, you pop the router into a prepaid envelope. Voila! So far its working great.

Tokyo was a great transition week. There were highs and lows as we adjusted but on the whole the city felt easy to navigate. We have many positive first impressions of the culture and the people — there’s a level of service, graciousness and respect that is rare in the U.S. That said, there is also an undercurrent of something else hard to put a finger on…perhaps a steadiness that lacks joy. It’s too soon for us to really comment and even when when we do, it will be from a meager five week perspective. We are simply grateful to be here.

Now it’s onward to Kyoto where homeschooling begins…a whole new adventure!

Temples & Tweens

Hokokuji Bamboo Forest

Hokokuji Bamboo Forest

Imagine a tall, dense bamboo forest. The stalks reach far up into the sky, creating calm shade and a light green glow. You’re walking on a stone path, feeling meditative with each step as the breeze softly rustles the bamboo leaves together. You come to a peaceful open hut serving green tea and think “what a wonderful spot to sit and reflect.”

And then behind you, a tired, cranky voice says, “It all looks the same, can we go now?”

We were so looking forward to a day in Kamakura. The small city, an hour south of Tokyo, was briefly the seat of the military government under shogun Minamoto Yoritomo starting in 1185, and dozens of temples were built during his rule.

With the heat and humidity we’d been experiencing, we curated the must see list of temples down to four. Stocked with water bottles and our Loews cooling towels, we were off!  (A side note about our cooling towels: we look like Boy Scout rejects in them, but the useful comfort they provide makes the embarrassment worthwhile.)

From the get go, the kids were having a rough day. School started back home this week and both kids were feeling sad at not being a part of it.  We know we’ve asked a lot of them (although as Julia likes to point out, we didn’t ask).  We had taken the prior day off from sightseeing to give them chill time so we put tween hormonal bad moods aside and dived into the day.

Great Buddha at Kotokuin Temple

Great Buddha at Kotokuin Temple

 

Hasedera Temple

Hasedera Temple

Shujenji Temple

Shujenji Temple

The bamboo forest was our 2nd to last stop and I was really looking forward to it. Seattle friends had described the tranquility of sitting in the forest having tea and I was hoping to experience a similarly zen moment. But with the bickering and whining increasing with each step into the stone paved forest, this was not to be.

We knew we’d have rough days. Earlier in the week, each family member came up with a “calming routine,” something we could do individually to relax when the world or our little family was driving us crazy. This was an effort to have all of us self-cope vs snapping at each other in times of stress. My calming routine was a series of arm stretches and yawns — I did a lot of them that day.

Tsurygaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Tsurygaoka Hachimangu Shrine

After a terse exchange between the kids, Kyle took Sean in another direction and I gave Julia space. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement and could see her practicing her calming routine, a series of yoga moves, over and over. And in that moment, the context of the day was changed for me. I saw that my kids were learning.

We’ve officially been on our adventure a week now and in that week Sean and Julia have converted currency, purchased subway tickets, identified routes, learned basic phrases, and walked into stores and made purchases on their own. I’m really proud of them. But at the end of the day, if all they learn on this trip is how to cope in a healthy way when life gets difficult, that’s called success.

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Our 1st Night Out (aka Clumsy Navigation)

Tuesday night, feeling the weight of the time difference from our Monday evening arrival, we decided to meander through our quiet Tokyo neighborhood, Setagaya, for a cozy, local restaurant.

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I am called by these small spaces, rich wood throughout, white cloth with Japanese lettering hanging from the doors, red paper lights moving softly in the hot, humid breeze.    We found just that and entered.  I had ramen on the brain.  The menus came, completely in Japanese lettering.  We are…um…in Japan, after all.

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The question was how to order?  1st approach, does anyone speak English?  No.  2nd approach, saying “ramen”…the chef shook his head and we believe looked slightly offended.  3rd approach, quickly translating “bring us the chefs recommendations” on my iPhone using Jibbigo.  Alas, no wifi.

I was getting dubious looks from my family, who I led into this pickle, and the server and chef stood there, looking at me, awaiting an order.  Then I remembered a few plate pictures at the entry way, motioned to the server to follow me and desperately pointed to four items. At one, the chef, who had joined us on the sidewalk, put his hand on his chest and said something that sounded much to me like “liver.”  I made a new pick.

When I returned to the table, Kyle asked “what did you order?”   I reported proudly that I’d ordered fish, dumplings, tofu, and a vegetable cake.  When the dishes came, I discovered I was 1 for 4.

We received the fish, yes, but we also feasted on panko encrusted chicken, an omelette, and a patty of, how should I put it, innards.  We devoured three of the dishes and nibbled and poked at the fourth.

The atmosphere was wonderful, the server and chef so gracious.  The kids impressed me with their willingness to eat unidentifiable foods.  This to me frames up exactly why I wanted to travel…to allow our family unit to truly soak in cultural experiences and manage through them, however clumsily.