I’m still here!

It’s been a busy January! I swear, work has a way of majorly crimping my style.

But before I launch into my much abbreviated Japan sightseeing, I need to recommend Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It makes me want to go on a huge Steven Sondheim kick. The only exposure I have previous to this is “Into the Woods.” The movie is awesome. I’m usually not much of a Tim Burton fan- his stuff usually makes me feel a little wan. But the cinematography is awesome, Johnny Depp is wonderful and Helena Bonham Carter holds her own. There were a couple of unexpected elements that I feel I totally should have seen. I probably would have if I weren’t so enthralled with the movie as it progressed.

So, I got special liberty last Wednesday and went skiing with MWR. It was up in Nagano Prefecture and called Shiga-Kogen. A friend sold me her seat after she had an unexpected TDY come up. It was AWESOME!! I definitely need to make skiing a higher priority. Zipping down the hill, taking a few (small) moguls- I loved it. A few friends of mine from the ship were there so I had skiing buddies all day, which was also quite nice.

AND, I am going to a sumo tournament on 10 Feb. I tried to get tickets to the one going on right now in Tokyo but no luck. Sold out! To console myself, I checked out Harajuku, which on a Sunday is the place to be. I saw Harajuku girls, greasers dancing to music, and some folk musicians.

I will definitely have more to write in a few weeks when 2 friends from college and my sister and brother come out to visit. That time will be crazy! I can’t wait!

Kamakura

I love being on leave! These past two weeks have definitely been an awesome breather from work and even more importantly, really allowed me the opportunity to see more of Japan. I remember how bummed I was in late Sept/early Oct when I was still living on the ship and facing another underway period. I never thought I’d get the chance to see what I wanted to see. And even though I knew that was a wee melodramatic even at that time, it’s definitely gratifying to have so many fun and interesting experiences outside of work.

On Friday, I went to Kamakura, the capital of Japan from 1180 to 1333 under shogun rule. It’s about halfway between Yokohama and Yokosuka on the JR Yokosuka line. I took the train to JR Kamakura station. Then, I switched to the Enoden line. The Enoden line was billed as a little put-put trolley in Frommer’s. I’d say it was a little faster than that, but it definitely seemed to pass through people’s back yards. I admired some of the landscaping- lots of moss, artfully placed rocks, even a pond or two. And then I realized I missed my stop.

After a little backtracking, which wasn’t much since I only had to go back one stop but the trick was to do it like I meant it all along because I’m smooth like that.

Eventually, I made it to the Hase-Dera temple. There, a gilded camphor carving of the 11-headed Kannon is enshrined. There’s an involved story on how the statue washed up upon the shores all the way from Nara. It had previously washed up somewhere else, but had given the place all sorts of trouble. When it washed up in Kamakura though, it was emitting light. That’s a sign!

The statue is amazing. It sits in a recessed alcove approximately 9 m high. The statue is slightly larger than the entrance, which gives the effect of something barely contained. It is really impressive. Monumentality doesn’t often affect me, but I was definitely a bit awestruck here.

The rest of the grounds were beautiful. There were two “subshrines” that were also really neat. The first was the shrine to Jizo-do, “Happy” Jizo. The shrine is surrounded by hundreds of miniature Jizo statues, neatly arranged in rows, some with little hats or knitted items. Statues are available for purchase and are bought in remembrance of aborted, miscarried, or stillborn children. It’s kind of sad, especially so because while I was there, there were three women who were definitely there for reasons other than being tourists and getting a great shot. It was kind of awkward because I felt like I was intruding just by being there. There’s really very little privacy at an outdoor shrine. I couldn’t tell if other people who wandered through felt the same way or if I was just being oversensitive.

The other neat shrine was actually in a cave and dedicated to Benzaiten, goddess of the sea. She’s the only female god among the seven lucky gods of Japan (it starts to become murky-to me- where certain gods fall and what certain lists are referring to in terms of Buddhism, Shinto, or both/other). The cave was a lot of fun to scramble through and the little alcoves inside were really neat.

Next, I went to Daibutsu, also known as the Big Buddha. While it used to be enclosed in a structure, it is now exposed to the elements after the wooden temple was washed away by a tidal wave a few hundred years ago. I also got to go inside the statue for Y20! That was very cool. I felt like I was getting a cheating shortcut to Boddishatva land- alas, no sudden enlightenment. It’s ok, I got a couple photos instead.

I took a bus back to Kamakura station and spent the next two hours popping into little shops along Komachi-dori street and trying to find Tsurugaoka temple. I kept missing it and ending up at the third (out of 5) most important Shinto temples (twice!). I’m not very good at figuring out where to turn right, unfortunately. The walk was nice, but by the time I got to the temple, I had some mixed feelings towards it. A service was going on so I got to hear some chants and drums. I think, though, I need to go back another time to explore the grounds because I just wasn’t feeling it by that point.

Overall, though, Kamakura was awesome. I will definitely be going back!

This is lavender, kicking you in the face!

Today, I have had two cups of the most delicious white tea, lavender flavored. This is very aggressive lavender. Picture a surprisingly delicate flower grabbing you by the shoulders, giving you a good shake, and shouting, “You will re-LAX!” It makes for quite a delectable, albeit slightly aggressive, cup.

This, btw, is probably the most productive thing I’ve done all day. It was a full-blown pajama day today, under the dubious guise of fending off a non-existent head cold. Hey, I was sneezed on four days ago. It makes total sense!

Yesterday, was much more chock-a-block with activities. I went on a Tokyo venture; specifically, to the Tsukijii Fish Market and Asakusa, an old Edo-type of place. [Frommer’s Fast Fact! Edo was renamed Tokyo by Emperor Meiji in 1868 after moving the capital from Kyoto to Edo/Tokyo.]

This fish market is listed as a “must-see” in the guidebook. Mmmm, I would have to disagree. It was cool and I loved the various ways of transport such as rickshaw carts and standing golf-carts steered with barrel, hatch-like steering wheels. But, it was definitely a very busy market where there was business to be done. And the business was not catering to tourists. I think part of the problem was I didn’t have anyone to wander around with, all slack-jawed and awestruck. This is definitely heightened by the fact that until 3 days ago, I had the best travel buddy ever! Although I like going to places by myself, I also like seeing things with other people, especially when I feel VERY conspicuous.

So, overall, a place to see but not high on my own TTD (Tokyo To Do) list. I would vote for Pike’s Market in Seattle as a place to visit, tourist-style.

The day improved with the Hama Rikyu garden and the Sumida River cruise. The garden is organized around Tokyo’s only tide-fed ponds, complete with sluice gates. The meadows and landscaping are pretty. I can’t wait to go back when all the flowers are in bloom! Another neat thing about the park is that it used to be used by the imperial family in the Edo era for leisure purposes, to include duck hunting. They hunted ducks with nets, after luring them close to duck blinds by dispersing grain. In November 1935, a little grave was built to appease the spirits of all the dead ducks. I thought it was cute, a little “Ooops, sorry about that. No hard feelings?”

The river cruise was great. It was 40 minutes long. We went under 13 bridges, all with a unique design. I looked up a few times to admire the undersides in tribute to one of Jon’s friends who’s a civil engineer and says that’s his favorite part of the bridge. I tend to admire rudimentary aesthetics, but I was trying to think a little differently. I also took a little catnap. The sunlight through the glass roof required it!

Asakusa had a really nice, understated vibe to it, “Yup, historical sight. Check.” Even Nakamise-dori, full of souvenir stands, was actually a lot of fun rather than completely tacky and out of place. The sights to see include the Kaminarimon gate, the Sensoji temple complex (dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy), and the little Chingodo shrine (dedicated to the guardian against fires). The Chingodo shrine had its statue covered in little crocheted red New Year’s hats, which I think is hilarious. I think I will start to dress up my religious statues. Once I get some.

After looking around Senjoji temple, which was entirely destroyed in the WWII bombings with the exception of the Asakusa-jinya shrine near the back of the complex, I walked to the Kappabashi Dori. Here, there are a lot of shops focussing on the needs of professional kitchens- the equipment, furniture, appliances. Best of all, there are little shops focusing on the all-important plastic food. Which is not cheap! It’s handmade to look especially delicious. Many restaurants in Japan have little plastic food display cases on the sidewalks outside their restaurants. I didn’t realize they probably shell out about $1000 (equiv) for a medium sized display case! (Oh, the things that impress me.)

Ok, back to my lazy day, now evening. Tomorrow, I’m going to head to Kamakura to see the big sitting Buddha.

New Toy!

Last night, I went out to dinner with Sue. It was so much fun to get together and dinner was delicious. We went to a Thai place in Yokosuka, which was delicious. Of course, no shrimp since Sue dying at the dinner table is no one’s idea of a good time. But! What was going on during dinner MAY have been even cooler. Sue (so gracious!) shared one of her downloads to her Leopard and iWorks 08! Yay, yay, yay! Right now, I’m playing with some of the programs although the aesthetics of the thing completely won me over from the get go.

I am really starting to develop an unhealthy attachment to my Mac. Not in the sense of becoming an annoying, proselytizing Mac-type but in the sense that I really like the programs. So much so, I was thinking, “Hmmmm, should I buy an iPhone when I get back to the States so everything can sync up, be beautiful, and keep me organized despite my best efforts to the contrary?” ARGH, I have been totally sucked in! Too bad I hate ATT. Why can’t the States be cool like other countries and make Mac compromise in order to comply with anti-trust/monopoly laws and all that silly stuff that came out of the 1890s Gilded Age, etc. Sheesh, Tammany Hall days are so over, US!

Trip roundup!

New Year’s in Tokyo was awesome! Jon and I went to the Mori Arts Center/Tokyo City View in Roppongi Hills. There was a party hosted by Mild Seven, which means I got to see my first cigarette girls! I almost wished I smoked. (Just.Kidding.). It was a very cool scene, as noted by Jon, “Everyone’s dressed like Ed.” Now don’t get me wrong, we were dressed nicely but Ed-level cool? I did not inherit that style gene.

So, Jon and I rang in the New Year’s overlooking Tokyo with house music in the background (thank you, Captain Funk!). Then we went back to the Grand Hyatt, which was decadent. I love nice hotels! Luxury and I get along quite nicely when we happen to meet!

The next day, we chilled out. Everything was closed on New Year’s. It’s a big family day, which dates back to the tradition from a few generations ago that everyone would advance a year in age on New Year’s. So, it was a big family birthday party every 1 Jan! I think that is so cool, although it would be hard for me to justify my month long fiesta if everyone else had the same special day. (Please note that the month long fiesta is in my head alone. Very few, if any, people go along with my brilliant! idea to celebrate my birthday all April long).

On the 2nd, Jon and I went to Yokosuka to work out and grab dinner with a few friends from the ship. It was awesome, although the group definitely seems like the set-up for an elaborate joke- “ A vegetarian, a shell-fish allergic, a picky eater, a protein loving carnivore, and a starving post-exerciser go out to dinner. No one can read the menu and assorted guidebooks employ phonetic sounds misunderstood by many…”

On the 3rd, Jon and I went to Hakone. We went to the Hakone Open Air Museum, which had the most beautiful scenery and grounds used as the most beautiful showcase for many works of modern sculpture. Then we went to the Mikawaya ryokan for a traditional inn experience, to include dinner and breakfast kaiseki feasts and soaks in the public baths that were VERY hot. It’s a workout to sit in water that hot!

But the highlight was definitely the food! It was so awesome to have a kaiseki feast after reading so much about it. There were definitely some missteps like making the tea myself. Jon kept telling me that I was ruining an elaborate ceremony and maybe I was, but I wanted some tea! And I used the little set they had left in the room anyway. I was so confused! So much so that I used a rice bowl for soy sauce in the morning. Embarrassing! Really, it was. But our kaiseki waitress was so cute and didn’t laugh when she was in the room.

On the 4th, we left the ryokan and went to Tokyo where we went to the National Art Museum, which was great. The second floor had a chronological display of important art genres and craftsmanship eras in Japanese history from the 5th century on. I really like those types of displays. I know it’s not the cool and trendy way to display things in a modern museum curator world, but the linear progression makes it easy to observe trends over time and understand the material in an established framework. While I like to interpret, I also like to get a sense of an overarching organization.