Looking Back at Japan Wistfully

We spent our last two nights in Japan in the sleepy alps town of Tsumago along the Nakasendo, the pathway that connected Tokyo to Kyoto in the Edo period.

We stayed at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Sleep was on thin futons on tatami mats, bathrooms were shared, and food was sensational. We’d been looking for this meal during our five weeks in Japan and were over the moon to experience it as our grand sayonara to the country.

Tsumago

Tsumago

To spend the last few days hiking from one small village to another, evenings strolling in traditional robes through the quiet cobblestone streets before sitting down to an amazing spread of new foods (baby wasps…really!) was the perfect way to reflect on our time in Japan.

Now five weeks is truly not enough time to understand a culture so private. These are my novice impressions.

Gracious
We’ve been out of Japan for two weeks and I’m still bowing. It’s embarrassing to the children. The respectful bowing, the singing chant of “irashaimase” (welcome) when you walk into a store, the multiple “arigatou gazaimasu” (thank you very much) after making a purchase will ring in my ears for years to come. It’s easy to leave it at that…a simple retail interaction however we have so many examples of people going out of their way to help us. We were chased down twice when the kids left a travel bag behind. When we perplexingly looked at a subway map people stopped to offer help. And our guesthouse hosts went above and beyond to share the culture with us.

Details
We were struck by the level of attention to detail around us. If you purchase a baked good, it is wrapped in a small plastic bag, taped, put into a larger bag and taped again. An apple resting in a styrofoam cozy, on a plastic tray, wrapped in plastic. The ritual of detail could also be agonizing…both for the environment and for an American used to a speedy transaction.

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Order
We were struck in our Tokyo neighborhood of Setagaya how bicycles were left out by the dozens, unlocked. We watched children as young as six making their way to and from school on their own…on the subway…in Tokyo! Unimaginable to most Americans…whether it be for safety or helicopter parenting. However, in Japan, the level of order provides a safe environment for both unattended bicycles and more importantly, unattended children.

Quirky
Plush stuffed animals sitting in the cabs of construction trucks. Maid cafes where girls in get ups speak in over the top high voices while fetching you coffee and calling you “master.” There seemed to be many contradictions — tough but cute, modest but sexy.

The most perplexing of all was Tanuki. We saw sculptures of Tanuki everywhere in the country and we were a little shocked by this fox like creature whose private parts are proudly on display. We finally learned that Tanuki is thought to bring good fortune and is a welcoming icon in front of businesses.

Tanuki

Tanuki, a Modest Version

As we started our 2nd week in gritty, topsy-turvy Luang Prabang, Laos, Julia wistfully said “I miss Japan.” And I agree. I felt a peace and balance there that I believe is unique to the land of the rising sun.

Kyle-san

Kyle-san

Sleep

Fuijito Royakan, in Tsumago, is a special place. The owners are on site, involved in every detail. While the rooms are simple, the property is beautiful and the food is simply the best. It was quite pricey, this was our planned last hurrah in Japan and worth every penny.

Eat

The ryokan provides a large breakfast and a very large dinner. We skipped lunch to save ourselves for the dinner. The menu for one of the evenings is noted below. Incredible.

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Do

Besides chilling with tea and a good book, a trek from Tsumago to Magome is in order. It’s an easy 8k hike one way though picturesque countryside. Bears are said to live in the woods and there are bells to ring along the way. You can chose to round trip it or take a taxi or bus one way. We took a taxi to Magome and then hiked back to avoid the mostly uphill trek in the opposite direction. We owned the path that day and cherish that quiet meander.

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The Takayama Files

Takayama is a small city in the Japanese Alps and taking the train into the mountains felt like coming home. As Seattlites, we are mountain and water people and climbing up the alps next to a rushing river…we knew we were going to a special place.

There’s little in Takayama and that was perfect for us. The town was small enough for the kids to tool around on their own…either watching the koi in the river that flows through the town center or purchasing green tea ice cream in the Sanmachi historical district.

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Sleep
We stayed at Hida Takayama Tomaru Guesthouse. The owner, Shingo, set up a bunk bed room as a family room. With six bunk beds in the room and only four of us, the space felt luxurious. Seriously. The guesthouse was small and quiet and we’d recommend it. Shingo and his wife have a lovely two year old son and it was nice to interact with a toddler. The location of the guesthouse was perfect…2 mins from the train station and walking distance to all attractions.

Sights
With five nights in Takayama, we actually did very little but wander and roam and rest. We wore our fleeces for the first time in the trip, which felt worth while since they likely won’t see light again until December in Germany.

  • Kamikoche: I’m glad we experienced Kamikoche, a national park 90 minutes from Takayama. Now, let the record show that I am a hiking snob. I expect a challenging incline vs a pleasant path, and a good hike to me is one completed without seeing another soul. What’s cool about Japan is the love for the outdoors, particularly among the senior set. What’s not cool about Japan is most outdoor places will have hordes of seniors with walking sticks, backpacks and bear bells blocking the path in front of you. Now, granted, we were not in remote parts of Japan, so I’m sure there’s my kind of hiking heaven somewhere. Kamikoche was a very nice long walk in a beautiful setting (and at least this national park was open!).
  • Higashiyama Temple Walk: I believe there are 15 temples along the temple walk. The path is set up on a hill from the town and the views of the mountains beyond are quite lovely. I first did the temple walk as an early morning run and was the only person in sight…perfect. However I did not run there again as I felt some might be offended by my Japanese purchased size-large-but-still-too-tight-running-shorts in a place of worship. Later in the week, the family did an evening walk — it was lovely. Wish I had taken time to meditate there.
  • Library: The Takayama library has a few shelves of English books. The kids hit pay dirt with a series of Peanuts cartoon books and I learned about the art of Furoshiki, Japanese present wrapping.
  • Cycling Tour: We took a fun bike tour with Hida Satoyama Cycling through the neighboring town of Furukawa, learning about rice and buckwheat fields, fisheries and cattle along the way. I highly recommend this tour company. Our tour guide was originally from Tokyo, working himself to the bone, when he up and quit and moved to the country. He had recently purchased an old traditional home with the intent of restoring it. His enthusiasm and love for his adopted town and the architecture and environment in it was catching.
  • Morning Markets: There are two small but sweet morning markets in Takayama…walking distance from each other. The kids enjoyed strolling through them in the morning on the way to visit the koi.

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Eat

By now we’d been in Japan four weeks so I think you’d forgive us for eating tacos and hamburgers in Takayma. In fact the two highest rated restaurants on TripAdvisor for the town are Chapala and Center for Hamburger. Chapala was over rated but that didn’t stop us from going…twice. Center for Hamburger was the best burger I’d had in a long time and I don’t know why we didn’t go twice!

Once we met our American needs, we turned to the traditional food of Hida Takayama, beef. We had a delicious grilled beef dinner (my apologies to my mother and any other vegetarians). But the best meal was Kyle and my happy hour. The kids were wandering on their own, and Kyle and I had a sake tasting and then sampled simple and delicious Hida beef skewers from each street stand we encountered. As we sat perched by the river with our happy hour faire, Japanese tourists took pictures of us, exotic birds that we were.

We truly loved Takayama and if we were settling in longer in Japan, we’d plant our roots there.

The Kanazawa Files

Kanazawa is a small city on the west coast of Japan. It was spared from bombing in WWII and its architecture remains intact. Small, captivating canals meander through the walkable city. After navigating Tokyo and Kyoto, it was nice to be in a small, manageable city.

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Sleep

The highlight of our trip was our stay at Pongyi Guesthouse. Read about it here and you’ll see why: https://greenleycoffeebreak.com/2013/10/02/can-a-44-year-old-stay-in-a-youth-hostel/

Sights

Our Favorite Activities in Kanazawa:

  • Oyama Shrine: While not spectacular, we loved the humbleness of this shrine. It is set in a slightly overgrown garden and so approachable. We had found that some well manicured gardens in Japan are to admire from afar, e.g. an inviting bridge that you are not allowed to cross. But the Oyama Shrine garden allowed for a game of frisbee and uno as we sat and watched the koi swim by. The shrine is known for its stained glass, rare in Japanese shines.
  • Kanazawa Castle: The Castle is a woodworkers dream. Recently rebuilt and completely empty except for…wood! Multiple displays regarding the joinery and building method. Needless to say, Kyle was in heaven.
  • Children’s Library: Yes, really! This was a lovely space to knock out homeschooling….bright and light with many corners to dig into math and writing.
  • Kenrouken Garden: Called one of the three best gardens in Japan, Kenrouken was sprawling and beautiful. We saw it following the shrine and castle so the garden didn’t get the full meandering attention from us that it required. A gorgeous must see.
  • Ninjadera: This is a shogun house that has many “ninja” features including trap doors and false walls. We all enjoyed it very much…feels much more historical than Hollywood. The tour must be reserved in advance and is in Japanese. There is a comprehensive English guide to use during the tour. Young or restless kids are not allowed…we sedated ours before entering (kidding…we just got lucky, they were well behaved that day!).
  • 21st Century Art Museum: HIGHLIGHT. I was blown away by this museum. It’s known for a swimming pool exhibit in which people standing under the pool appear to be in the pool water. But there was so much more! I was entranced by the In-Habit Project exhibit by Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan. Thousands of reused cardboard boxes built into a sprawling community meant to represent a floating village off the coast of Borneo.
  • Nagamachi: Beautiful traditional home in the Samurai district with the sweetest garden. We encountered a group of touring Japanese men who clearly had a bit too much to drink. One asked Sean to sit and participate in a team ceremony. I watched like a hawk while Sean sat cross legged, sipping his tea and conversing quite comfortably.
  • Confectionary: On our last day in Kanazawa, we sat with a friend from our guesthouse and dozens of middle aged Japanese ladies learning how to make rice based confections from a master chef. It’s such an art form, its hard to imagine even eating these beauties. Our resulting product however…
  • Omicho Market: I loved this market…it was 99% authentic…vegetables and seafood. The largest snow crabs I’ve ever seen, so many fresh vegetables (I ate more salads in Kanazawa than anywhere else). The kids and I had our first taste of a nashi there, a yummy fruit reminiscent of a pear-apple, or as Sean named it, a papple.
  • Woodworking: Kyle spent time in Kanazawa in local woodworking shops, seeing the local methods, perusing the tools and making future contacts. He had a few serendipitous moments that will certainly influence his work back home.

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Eat

Sushi, Sashimi, Sake…oh my! The freshest seafood and an increasing understanding of sake led to some yummy meals in Kanzawa and some failures…pointing to a picture of a fish netted me a fish head. We also tried out first conveyor belt sushi restaurant, which was tastier and more economical than U.S. versions.

But our best meal with the one we made and ate side by side with our hosts at Pongyi Guesthouse…sagayaki and the best of company.

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The Kyoto Files

We leave Japan for Cambodia in three days. Our five plus weeks here have flown and we’ve found our family travel rhythm.

Before a philosophical post on what Japan has meant to us, we owe you a trip report for Kyoto, Kanazawa, Takayama and Tsumago. So I am in catch up mode…first, Kyoto. Again, this is simply a quick list of what we did, where we stayed, yadda, yadda, yadda…vs well worded writing.

Sleep

This was one of two decadent stays in Japan…we booked a traditional Machiya home for two weeks. We felt lucky to live in this historic alleyway, hearing the coming and goings of neighbors (we sure know they heard us!). A real treasure and one of our favorite accommodations in Japan.

http://www.maeniiya.com/

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Sights

Kyoto was much larger than we anticipated and while we were there for a full two weeks, there’s far too much to see if we were to stick to our homeschool schedule. So here’s what we made time for, highs and lows:

All Time Favorite Day: Arashiyama

I did an earlier post on this so I won’t go into detail here however we so loved this small town bordering Kyoto…quiet unique temples, bamboo forests and an entertaining monkey park…what else do you need?

Temples

There are over 2,000 temples and shrines in Kyoto (Temples are Buddhist, Shrines are Shinto). Here were our favorites:

  • Kiyomizudura Temple: This decadent temple comes with a pagoda, walking paths, and a fancy-pants water purification fountain. While extremely busy with tourists, it was stunning and the neighborhood it sits in also beautiful.
  • Fushimi Inari Shrine: Over 1,000 orange Torii gates follow a meandering walking path up into the mountains. Stunning. Calming. Sacred.
  • Sanjusangendo Temple: The hall of this temple houses 1,000 life-sized armed Kannon statues. It is an amazing sight to behold. The detail in each Kannon is unique. You are not allowed to take pictures inside the hall so the photo below is swiped from google images.
  • Heian Shrine: We really appreciated the large garden attached to this shrine. We meandered for over a hour, taking time to feed the koi and snapping turtles in the most picturesque place.
  • Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple: Our 2nd most favorite temple…it had hundreds of stone statues amid bamboo trees and was heavenly quiet and sweet.
  • Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple: Our favorite!  Thousands of Buddhist disciple statues carved in stone hugging a hillside. Serious, humorous, loving…every face imaginable. Think of complete solitude and hours to explore every face before you.  Such joy.

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Cultural Experiences

  • International Manga Museum: While most exhibits are in Japanese, there is a collection of English Manga and a great space to read, which gave the kids hours of entertainment.
  • Nijo Castle: Beautiful grounds, intricate details and a moat…what else does one need? The photos below are of Nijo…loved this place!
  • Sake Museum: Kyle spent an afternoon learning the nuances of Japan’s adult beverage.  The tour came with samples…of course.
  • Harvest Moon Festival: We were lucky to be in Kyoto during the harvest moon (mid-September).  A handful of temples held evening celebrations with traditional music, dance and food. We partook in all of the above!
  • Handicraft Center: I highly recommend this place if you have kids or enjoy learning local art. They offer approx. eight handicrafts for a nominal fee.  Kyle and I tried our hand at wood block art, Sean made a paper toy top and Julia made a glass necklace…very fun afternoon!
  • Kimono Fashion Show: Ok, my family thought this was cheesy but I loved the Textile Center’s kimono fashion show.  It runs multiple times a day.  I had a smile in my face the whole time but admittedly I am fabric obsessed.

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Eat 

We struggled a bit with food in Kyoto. With a kitchen, we thought we’d be cooking more but our trips to the grocery store were comical and fruitless. We’d find online a restaurant we’d want to try, take multiple buses to get there and be turned away at the door (we are so uncool). Nevertheless, we had two standout food experiences in Kyoto:

  • Ipuddo Ramen: In the Nishiki market..let me just say this…any restaurant who provides patrons with their own garlic press is A-OK in my book.
  • Tsukihi: This central Kyoto restaurant was in our neighborhood and we stumbled in on a date night. No one spoke English but they were very welcoming. I managed to communicate that our server should chose on our behalf.  Right choice!  In hindsight, we figured out that the restaurant specialized in farm fresh food.  We were sorely lacking vegetables in our Japanese diet thus far and we spent the evening moaning in delight at the taste of fresh vegetables and fish.  Highly recommended!
Ippudo's Ramen

Ippudo’s Ramen

Tsukihi Perfection

Tsukihi Perfection

What I was Supposed to Love that I Didn’t

  • Gion: Oh, Gion, what have we done to you? You were supposed to be a picturesque, quaint vision of old Kyoto with the stolen sight of a geisha here and there. But I could hardly see you through the hordes of  tourists — we’re sorry to have contributed to your chaos.
  • Nishiki Market: When a shopkeeper has to post signs in English asking one to NOT take photos of unique vegetables or fish, the magic is gone. Another sweet spot overrun by tourists (and yes, I’m aware of the irony here).

Tips

Activity Bookings: Kyoto is a popular tourism city. We found we should have booked activities well in advance. For example, we wanted to take a cooking class and they were all reserved. Also, many sites require a phone call reservation, which can be difficult if you don’t speak Japanese…planning that well in advance assures both room and support.

Volunteer Tours: There are a handful of organizations that provide complimentary tours in Kyoto. We used Samaritan Students, which are local university students, and it was a highlight of our trip. This is a must. It’s so easy as a traveler to superficially interact with the locals. Tours like this allow for deeper conversation which was very rewarding. It is normal to pay for transportation, temple fees and lunch for the guide.

Run to the Border: Kyoto was surprisingly big and the center was very commercialized. The Kyoto you hear about…quaint, green, calm is found at the edges of the town…Arashiyama in the northwest, Kibune in the north, Fushimi in the south, and so on.

Stay tuned for trip reports on Kanazawa, Tsumago and our absolute favorite place in Japan thus far, Takayama (it’s even fun to say)!

An Eleven Year Old’s Guilt

What do you say to your child when you ask her what her primary feeling was after a visit to Hiroshima and she looks at you with tears in her eyes and says, “Guilt.”

Born 57 years after atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and an eleven year old carries the guilt of an act that killed approximately 140,000 people.

This tricycle was initially buried with the three year old child riding it when the bomb dropped.

This tricycle was initially buried with the three year old child riding it when the bomb dropped.

War strategy is chilling.  I won’t stand on a pulpit and declare it unnecessary.  But we all know the cost of black and white conversation is invariably not military assets, but civilians.

Hiroshima Before

Hiroshima Before

And after...

And after…

The Memorial Peace Museum was remarkably balanced in its representation of Japan’s war history, the events that led up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent response of the United States.  Reading Stephen Walker’s “Shockwave” prior to our visit enlightened us to the complexity and, frankly, deceit, between allies with the bomb not only being a method to stop the war but a message to an ever strengthening Stalin about American power.

Churchill, Truman, Stalin

Churchill, Truman, Stalin

Certainly the vividly graphic review of the day the bomb was dropped and the subsequent impact was terrifying.  But this was expected.  Honestly, I was most struck by the hundreds of letters of protest since written by Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s mayors to the heads of state of the United States, Russia, China, UK and France whenever those countries have performed a nuclear test.  You’d think as someone who grew up with atom bomb drills in school (who were they kidding?) and attended no nukes protests, I would be a bit more in tune with the state of nuclear weaponry today.  I hadn’t expected to see letters from this calendar year to President Barack Obama…there were four.

Atom Bomb Dome

Atom Bomb Dome

I led the kids to the museum shop, purchased origami paper and we sat side by side as I showed them how to fold a peace crane.  I explained that war is complex, that there are actually rules about how countries can fight a war, but that in the heat of fear and emotion and death, rules are oft forgotten (and perhaps absurd).

We discussed the concept of nuclear deterrence, the controversy of U.S.-led drone strikes, Syria’s chemical weapons…and whether there can be fair and just wars.  We did not come to a conclusion but we agreed that what happened in Hiroshima and Nagosaki should never happen again.

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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

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.