Golden Week Getaway: Part Two

The Sunday morning view from our cabin.

After a very comfortable night’s sleep at the cabin, we woke up Sunday morning to sunshine and the most amazing view of Mt. Fuji imaginable from our living room window. I almost didn’t want to go anywhere just so I could look at it all day, but we were all ready to go by 9:00.

Rabbits and badgers were tied into the ropeway experience, and there was a small rabbit shrine at the top.
Ready to board our gondola! We appreciated that passengers were not stuffed into the car – everyone got a view.
Up we go! I rode with our granddaughter at the front.

Our first activity of the day was the Mt.Fuji Panoramic Ropeway, which goes up to the top of Mt. Tenjō, across the valley from Mt. Fuji. It took us a couple of tries to find a parking spot somewhat near to the entrance as things had already begun to get crowded at 9:00 a.m., but we eventually found one not too far away. Even in spite of all the people the line for the ropeway wasn’t too long, and we were on our way up the mountain after only a short wait.

The view of Mt. Fuji from the top of Mt. Tenjō
Looking out over Lake Kawaguchi, the city of Kawaguchiko, and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

The view from the station at the top was spectacular. Besides the breathtaking view of Mt. Fuji, we could also take in all of the city of Kawaguchiko, Lake Kawaguchi, the Fuji-Q Highlands amusement park, and snow-capped mountains off in the distance. We hiked around the top for a while, took lots of pictures, and thought about hiking up to a torii at the top of the next mountain, but when we saw the sign that the hike would take an additional 40 minutes one way we decided not to go.

When we came back down from the mountain we could not believe the length of the line, almost four times if not longer than it was when we had arrived! Before going to our car we first stopped at the Fujiyama Cookie shop, located at the bottom of the hill, and bought ourselves several flavors of their famous cookies which are shaped like Mt. Fuji (Later in the afternoon when we drove back past the cookie shop, the line was out the door and down the street! We were glad we went early.).

The forest on the way to the Wind Cave entrance was like something out of Harry Potter – we thought we might come across Aragog the spider!
Down we go into the Wind Cave – only 46 steps! The difference in temperature from the top of the stairs to the bottom was quite shocking.
Part of the large ice formation in the cave.

From the ropeway we headed to see two of the Fuji Caves, created when hot air was trapped in lava during the Mt. Fuji eruptions. There are two caves, the Ice Cave and the Wind Cave, but the Ice Cave required a descent of 92 steps and 102 steps on the way up. and there was no way that was going to happen with a toddler and my knees. We instead walked to the Wind Cave which took us through a forest straight out of Harry Potter, with a thick tree canopy and amazing tangle of roots as well as small caves, burrows, and natural tunnels. The cave itself was quite cold and had its own wonderful ice formations along with other features. We had to duck down quite a bit to get to the end of the cave, and saw where the cave had been used in the past as natural refrigerated storage for seeds for reforestation and for silkworm cocoons. By keeping the cocoons in the cold hatching was delayed and allowed farmers and merchants to get two extra cycles for silk making.

Iyashi-no Sato: The Healing Village

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Our last stop of the day was Iyashi-no-Sato, also known as “the healing village.” Located near Lake Saiko, the village stands on the site of a former fishing and farming village that was destroyed by a typhoon in 1966. The village now holds 20 reconstructed thatched-roof farmhouses in the kabuto-zukkuri (samurai helmet) style and serves as an open-air museum where visitors can experience traditional Japanese arts and crafts and local food specialities. Several of the houses contain shops and workshops, while others hold museums, restaurants and gift shops. Walking through the village is like being transported back in time to the early 20th century. Just outside the village there were once again farmers selling fruits and vegetables, and we finally bought a bag of apples.

Our souvenirs for the day: wasabi crackers, sesame sticks, assorted Fujiyama cookies, and locally grown Fuji apples.

Back at the cabin our DIL prepared a wonderful dinner of yakiniku with pork, beef and sausages, noodles, and a variety of vegetables that we grilled at the table and enjoyed with some rice.

These giant gold maneki nekko seemed to say “Welcome . . . and good luck!”
Neither good luck nor lots of money could ever get me to attempt this.

We were up early Monday morning as we had to check out of the cabin by 10:00. Once again the sky had clouded over and obscured Mt. Fuji, making us extra grateful for the beautiful day we had on Sunday. After getting the cabin clean and the car loaded we drove to the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park so our grandson and granddaughter could spend some time at Thomas Land (Thomas the Tank Engine). In spite of the crowds and long lines for rides they had a wonderful time. Brett and I, on the other hand, mostly stood around and tried to stay warm (the temperature dropped to where we thought it might snow) while we gawked at the roller coasters in the main park. There were five of them, two with straight vertical drops, one that shot the cars from a catapult into a giant loop, one that sent riders down a giant couple of waterfalls, and the highest coaster I have ever seen, called Fujiyama, King of the Coasters. I love roller coasters but there was absolutely No. Way. I would have gotten on any one of those.

The Thomas Land section of the Fuji-Q park was more our family’s speed.

I will never be able to thank our son and DIL enough for including us in the weekend getaway. They spoiled us the entire time and picked up the tab for all admissions and meals. What a great time we had!

Golden Week Getaway: Part One

What looks almost like blue sky in the background are actually clouds covering Mt. Fuji from top to bottom.

Well, we did not go to Hakone-Izu National Park for our getaway as I thought when I heard “Mt. Fuji” and “ropeway.” That, I was informed, would have been madness because of the expected crowds that would be visiting this week. Instead, we headed for the Mt. Fuji Five Lakes district, just outside of the city of Kawaguchiko. Because of traffic issues that were expected on Golden Week’s opening day, we spent Friday night at our son’s home, and were all up at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday and on the road by 4:30, arriving at our first stop, the Oshino Hakkai Springs, shortly before 9:00 a.m.

Streams as well as underground tunnels connect the eight springs at Oshino Hakkai.
In the past, the streams were used to power mills in the area.

The Fuji Five Lakes, which wrap around the northern side of Mt. Fuji, were formed following several eruptions of the volcano as were the Oshino Hakkai Springs, which was originally a sixth lake that dried up. The air at the springs was crisp and quite cool when we arrived, but Mt. Fuji was covered in clouds – if you didn’t know better you’d never have known there was a very big volcano sitting just off to the side.

Pure, clean water bubbles up from the bottom of one of the springs. The water is filtered through deep layers of porous lava.

The eight Oshino Hakkai springs are an asset of the Mt. Fuji World Heritage Site, and are lovely, deep pools of extremely clear, pure water. The water said to be the best in Japan, and is revered by locals for its purity – “water of the gods.” When the snow melts on Mt. Fuji it enters the ground and passes through several layers of lava, which is porous. Apparently it takes nearly 80 years for the water to reach the springs which is why they are so clean and pure. The deepest pool, Wakuike, was over 26 feet deep and coins were visible sitting on the bottom (visitors have been asked not to throw coins though as it degrades the water quality). Koi could be seen swimming in layers throughout the pool, and beautiful green water grasses on the bottom waved back and forth. Next to the pool was small waterfall where cold, refreshing water from the spring was available to drink or bottle (we filled a bottle).

A modern Japanese farmhouse in the Oshino Hakkai Springs neighborhood
Because of the cooler temperatures in the Five Lakes area, cherry trees and other plants were still in bloom.

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Surrounding the springs are farmhouses and farmland, and we visited several of the local vendors who were set up near the springs selling locally produced or grown items, including sweets, pickles and local crafts. We ate some grilled dango (balls of mochi basted with sweet soy sauce), grilled kusa mochi, made with local mugwort and filled with sweet bean paste (my favorite mochi, although I’d never had it grilled before), and hot chestnuts right from the roaster (Brett’s favorite). Several farmers had huge Fuji apples for sale – the samples we tried were very sweet – but we decided to wait until later to purchase those. The Five Lakes area is also known for growing wasabi, and I purchased two bags of wasabi senbei (crackers), and one of my favorite Japanese snacks.

The Hannoki Bayashi Shiryokan museum farmhouse
Crossview of the deep thatch on traditional farmhouses – it almost appears to be solid.

Included in the village is a small museum, Hannoki Bayashi Shiryokan, which allowed us to walk around two more of the springs as well as visit an old, traditional farmhouse and outbuildings. The former farm owners were apparently silk manufacturers – silkworms were grown in the attic area of the farmhouse, and then woven into fabric with finished products made at the home. We were able to climb through the entire house and see how the rooms were set up and where work was done – it was fascinating.

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Colorful koinoburi greeted visitors to the aquarium

After leaving the springs we headed over to a nearby small freshwater aquarium. Because of the streams coming off of Mt. Fuji and out of the other surrounding mountains, trout are plentiful in the area as are sturgeon. The kids especially enjoyed spending time here, and we came across several more farmers selling vegetables, apples, and eggs at the side of the parking lot – both my DIL and I were very tempted!

Then it was on to a nearby restaurant for lunch where we enjoyed another area specialty: houtou. These are wide, thick udon noodles served in broth. I ordered noodles with pumpkin, Brett had his with pork, and the lunch sets included pink rice (cooked with red beans), pickles, tofu and some other treats. We left with full, happy stomachs.

Pumpkin houtou set for lunch – I ate every bite.

Rain was coming down as we left the restaurant and Mt. Fuji was still swathed in heavy clouds, so we decided to split up for a while before going to our cabin. Brett and I wanted to visit the Itchiku Kubota Museum just down the road, and our son, DIL and kids needed to do some grocery shopping. The museum was the most beautiful I have ever visited in my life and worthy of a separate post.

The kitchen at the cabin.
The soaking tub was fully programmable – you filled and heated the water (and maintained the heat) from a remote control in the great room.
The cabin was paneled in pine which gave off a lovely, soft aroma throughout the house.

Our cabin for the next two days was wonderful. The house slept 10, and had a great room with a large, extremely well-equipped kitchen; a huge, luxurious soaking bath; a tatami room downstairs for two; and two bedrooms upstairs that slept four each. Both Brett and I said we could have happily lived in that house – it was lovely.

Mt. Fuji emerged from the clouds as the sun began to set.
Grandpa helped K with some after-dinner fireworks.

After getting unpacked and the food put away, we all took a short nap and awoke a couple of hours later to the magnificent sight of Mt. Fuji coming out of the clouds as the sun set – a beautiful ending to a terrific day, and a promise of a beautiful day to come.

Golden Week

Although next Monday is the official start of Golden Week in Japan, because the first holiday falls on a Monday almost everyone’s time off will begin on Saturday. Every year four national holidays occur in the span of one week, and many if not most companies and schools throughout the country close down for the duration. Golden Week is the longest vacation break for most Japanese workers, and along with New Year’s and the Obon festival in August, it’s one of the top three times for vacationing in Japan, with lots of both local and international travel. The name “Golden Week” came about because so many resorts, hotels, inns and travel agencies earned so much income during the week.

Mt. Fuji looms over Hakone National Park. Lots of geothermal activity occurs within the park as well.

Our son said that this might be a good week for us to visit places in Tokyo as the city sort of empties out, so Brett and I are planning to visit the National Museum in Ueno Park, and the nearby Yanaka neighborhood, which was undamaged during the WWII bombings and provides a look at Tokyo pre-war architecture and neighborhood structure. We are also going for a two-day visit to the Hakone-Izu National Park with our son and family this coming Saturday and Sunday; they rented a cabin for us there and we’ll get to visit various sites in the park as well as get an up-close look at Mt. Fuji (If the weather isn’t too bad – sadly the forecast for Saturday is rain and freezing temperatures). On May 5 we will travel to Saitama Prefecture to have lunch with our daughter-in-law’s parents, a much-anticipated event as her mother is an amazing cook (last time we visited she made homemade udon noodles!).

The four official holidays that fall during the coming week are:

  1. April 29: Showa Day (昭和の日 Shōwa no Hi). Showa is probably better known to most of the world as Emperor Hirohito, with his birthday on the 29th a national holiday, beginning in 1927. Following his death in 1989 the holiday’s name was changed to Greenery Day, a day to think about nature and be grateful for one’s blessings. The day was officially changed to Showa Day in 2007.
  2. May 3: Constitution Memorial Day ((憲法記念日 Kenpō Kinenbi). This holiday celebrates the day the postwar constitution of 1947 took effect, and is a day to remember and reflect on Japan’s history. Public buildings such as the Diet (the national capital) are open to the public and public lectures are given about Japan’s role in World War II.
  3. May 4: Greenery Day (みどりの日 Midori no Hi)Previously the holiday was known as Citizen’s Holiday, but in with the April 29th holiday change to Showa Day, Greenery Day was moved to May 4.

    Koinobori fly over a house near our grandson’s school.
  4. May 5: Children’s Day (子供の日Kodomo no Hi). This is probably the most well-know holiday, and is also known as Boy’s Day (girls are celebrated on March 15 with Hina Matsuri). Large carp banners, koinoburi, are flown at residences where there is a son or in large groupings in other places to celebrate the holiday. If flown at a home there is typically a large black carp at the top to represent the father, then a smaller red carp to represent the mother, and finally smaller blue carp for each of the sons. Decorations inside the home may include a display of a samurai riding a carp and/or a samurai helmet, both which indicate strength and vitality.

    Our grandson’s samurai helmet is displayed for a few weeks before Children’s Day.

This year during Golden Week a very special event will occur: the current emperor, Akihito, will abdicate the throne on April 30, the first emperor to do so in over 200 years, and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Emperor Akihito is 85 years old and in frail health, and had come to feel the job was too demanding for him at his advanced age. In Japan, a new era only begins the day after an emperor dies, but in this case the name for the new era, Reiwa (令和時代), was announced early so that calendars, computer software, etc. could be changed in a timely manner. The enthronement, or coronation, of Emperor Naruhito will take place on October 22.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko
Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, Princess Masako

The upcoming change to a new emperor is special for us because we were living in Japan when Emperor Hirohito died, and the Heisei Era (平成時代) began, and now are here again when that era ends and another one begins. Emperor Naruhito will be the 126th emperor of the longest reigning dynasty in the world.

Revisiting the Yasukuni Shrine

The Syagō Hyō, a stone pillar at the entrance engraved with the name of the shrine. 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the shrine, so there are repairs and improvements being done all throughout the grounds.

Last month Brett and I gave up before we got to the main structures at the Yasukuni Shrine (靖國神社). After a day of walking all over downtown Tokyo, by the time we got to the shrine we were worn out, so only walked down the main pathway to the torii gate at the entrance before turning around and heading back to the station to go home.

Immense stone lanterns and temple lions flank the entrance to the Yasukuni Shrine.
The lantern-lined path leads up to the main shrine enclosure and the Yushukan museum. Brett and I made it as far as the torii in the distance on our first visit.

Yesterday we ended up with an unexpected “free” day – the grands’ other grandmother came to watch our granddaughter for the day, who is still home with a cold, and our son was able to pick up our grandson from his school. So, since it was a lovely day, and the Yasukuni Shrine is just a few stops down from our station on the subway line, we decided it would be a good time to revisit the shrine as well as tour the museum there, which we had been told was a must-see, and the most interesting thing at the shrine.

The entrance to the main shrine enclosure.
Verdigris coats the bronze torii at the entrance.
On the doors of the main gate are huge gold chrysanthemums, the Imperial crest.

Yasukuni was founded by the Emperor Meiji in 1869 and commemorates those who died in service to Japan, beginning with the overthrow of the shogunate in 1868. Interestingly, the shrine’s name means “Pacifying the Nation” even though it is dedicated to war dead. Before the war Yasukuni was an official state Shinto shrine, but following the war that relationship was terminated and now it’s an individual religious corporation, maintained and supported through private funds. The names, birth dates, and place of death of nearly 2.5 million men, women, children and even pets are enshrined at Yasukuni, and the shrine also has interred the souls of anyone killed during WWII, including those from other countries.

The main shrine. There was a memorial service going on inside while we were there.
Most shinto shrines are tended by young women (miko), but at Yasukuni the attendants were young men.

Of all those enshrined, 1,068 are war criminals, including fourteen Class A war criminals – those responsible for the planning, preparation and waging of WWII, including General Tojo – which has created controversy over the years, especially from countries who suffered under the Japanese during the war. Originally, the U.S. Occupation Authority (GHQ) planned to raze the shrine and put a dog track in its place, but officials were reminded that honoring war dead is the sacred duty of any country and let the shrine stay. It was during this time that Yasukuni became an independent religious activity.

Performances were going on a stage on the shrine grounds. The woman above sang while accompanied by a shamisen. Chairs were set up under the trees for an audience. Later a man appeared to be presenting a puppet show.

Yasukuni-jinja had a very different feel to it than other shrines we’ve visited, but that just may be because its purpose is very different from other shrines. I don’t believe we have anything similar in the United States, although maybe Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier may come close. Up until 1944, the names of the war dead were read and enshrined at Yasukuni every day, as national heroes with great pomp and ceremony, and citizens were required to listen to the services on the radio.

The first thing you see upon entering the Yushukan museum is a Mitsubishi Zero fighter. They were used during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and were called the “scourge” of the Pacific war because of their speed and capabilities.
This restored engine actually served on the Thai-Burma railroad, which was built for the Japanese by British and American prisoners of war. Thailand returned the engine to Japan for the museum.
The final several rooms we walked through in the museum were filled with boards holding over 10,000 photos of Japanese war dead from the Second World War. It was a very sobering exhibit. Every war has two sides, and these men also served and died for their country.

The last place we visited at the shrine was the Yushukan Museum. We found the museum’s point of view to be interesting, to say the least. We found it a bit disturbing that major periods, such as the Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation of Manchuria in 1931 were referred to only in the context of “incidents.” According to the Nanking exhibit for example, it was only Chinese military members dressed in civilian clothes trying to escape who were “dealt with,” completely avoiding the horrific massacre of the civilian population that took place. There was very little about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and although I didn’t really expect to see much of anything on the topic, there was nothing mentioned anywhere about prisoners of war. In other words, there was nothing in the museum expressing acknowlegement of the death, destruction, and suffering brought on by a war Japan precipitated. Still, in spite of the tone and the small amount of English available in the displays, the museum’s exhibits were interesting and we were both glad we had taken the time to go through it.

Passing back through the main gate to leave the shrine – a few cherry trees were still in bloom at the shrine.
Sitting between the Yasukuni Shrine and the Budokan, on a tall stone base, is the Kudan Hill lighthouse (Jotomyodai), built in 1871 next to the shrine.

I don’t think I could ever get tired of visiting shrines and temples in Japan. From the large and important, to small structures perched on the side of the road, there is something intrinsically fascinating about each one. Yasukuni Shrine serves a very distinctive function in Japan, and along with the museum made for a thought-provoking visit.

Sunday Morning 4/21/2019: Week 9 in Japan

Spring has arrived, and azaleas are in bloom everywhere.

Wishing a Happy Easter to all who celebrate! And, for those celebrating Passover, chag Pesach sameach!

The design on the back is the same, but with the colors reversed.

The grands colored eggs yesterday and had a small egg and candy hunt this morning (we supplied the egg dye and some Japanese Easter-themed KitKats). In a short while we are going to get together with our son and grandson for lunch in the Hiroo neighborhood to celebrate Brett’s 69th birthday, which is today. When we were at Tokyu Hands the other day I bought him a lovely, big, blue and cream pillow cover that says “Hokusai Japan” in beautiful calligraphy. Hokusai is one of Brett’s favorite artists, and is also a play on our family name, so I hope he’ll like it. Plus, it will easily pack into his suitcase when we leave Japan, still a consideration these days.

This week definitely didn’t turn out anything like we hoped for or planned. On Tuesday we were going to head to Shinjuku to check out Bingoya and a couple of other places, but I woke up with a sore throat and feeling deeply tired, with absolutely no energy to do anything or go anywhere. So, we stayed home – Brett picked up our grandson from school on his own while I rested all day. Thankfully I was fine on Wednesday, but we still decided that other than our usual pick-up duties we should stick close to home. Brett went to his shodō lesson on Thursday, and on Friday we were ready to get back out there, but instead we were up early to watch our granddaughter for the day – she has a very bad cold, so couldn’t go to her hoikuen. Yesterday we stayed close to home again and took care of some errands in the neighborhood, did three loads of laundry, and cleaned the apartment. It was a nice week off, and we’re hoping to do the activities and errands we missed this coming week but we may need to watch our granddaughter another couple of days so will work around that if it happens.

Brett and I had a nice day out running errands yesterday, and ended with a coffee and juice break at Starbucks. As is typical for a Saturday, the neighborhood was crazy busy with long lines everywhere, but today will be even more crowded. Oh, and I can’t believe this guy is 69 years old today!

I found some clothes here that fit! For the past few weeks I have had my eye on a lovely full cotton skirt at Muji, and yesterday I finally decided to try it on . . . and it was too big! Actually, the skirt fit but the look of it added another 20-30 pounds on my hips, so . . . nope. I love Muji’s simple clothing – it’s all made from natural fibers and favors a loose, comfortable style – so I poked around while I waited for a dressing room, and ended up buying a lovely black linen sleeveless shift (size L), and a light grey French terry topper (size M/L) that I found on the sale rack. I know that not everything they make would fit me, but it was gratifying to discover that there is at least one place in Japan where I could find some things if I had to.

Edinburgh has been on my bucket list for a long while . . . and we’re going at the end of September!

YaYu will be coming over to England in mid-October to spend a week with us (fall break at Bryn Mawr), so I reserved a stay at an Airbnb in London for the three of us – we’ll spend three days poking around London before heading back to our place in the Cotswolds. Brett and I also picked out dates for our visit to Edinburgh, and I made an Airbnb reservation there – our apartment is just a short walk from Edinburgh castle! I still need to make train reservations for the trip up to Scotland – fellow passengers from England on our Australian train trip recommended we ride up from Kings Cross station in London as that trip has the best scenery – but that task can wait until later in the summer. I also purchased YaYu’s plane ticket to come to Portland in May. She’ll spend 12 days with us before heading over to Japan for the summer.

This morning I am:

  • Reading: I finished We Were the Lucky Ones (a great read), and am now reading Heart: A History, by Sandeep Jauhar. It’s filled with all sorts of interesting information about things like advancements in heart surgery, changes in the treatment of heart disease, and how the heart came to be seen as the core of being human, among other topics.
  • Listening to: We’re enjoying a quiet morning here, just reading and writing with our cups of coffee. I absolutely love mornings like this!
  • Watching: I watched The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix this past week – very creepy and scary at times. I loved it! The backstory of the family dragged on a bit too much for me at times, but the last episode brought it all together. Apparently there’s going to be another season in 2020 – yeah! I’m thinking about watching Beyoncé’s Homecoming tonight.
  • Cooking/baking: Since we’re going out to lunch for his birthday celebration, Brett and I will probably just have leftovers tonight. There’s yakisoba from last night, or we can make quesadillas. I did buy a small orange poundcake at a nearby bakery for his cake, and we’ll have that with ice cream tonight.
  • Happy I accomplished this week: I went through all of the several ziplock bags we carry that hold things like medication, toiletries, etc. and reorganized and downsized those to give us more room in our suitcases. I’m glad to have gotten the Airbnb reservations done for this fall, and have YaYu’s flight to Portland taken care of. Otherwise I don’t think we really accomplished anything.

    We had a delicious lunch with Eriko and her husband Jun and son Joe (I love how he’s showing us his food – 110% boy). The cacio e pepe I ordered was just like I had in Rome.
  • Thinking of good things that happened: We had a fantastic Italian meal with my former student, Eriko, and her family on Sunday afternoon, and got ourselves caught up with what’s been going on with each other. In spite of this not being a stellar week for us in many other ways, the weather has been glorious and quite warm. We’ve even had to open the windows in the apartment a couple of times to cool things off, and have not had to turn on the heater for a few days. While the cherry blossoms have now almost completely disappeared, the dogwoods and azaleas are blooming, so there’s still more beautiful color around. Meiling had her first job interview the other day – she thought she did OK but not great, but was happy that her resume was interesting enough that the company wanted to interview her. However, on Friday she was asked to do a second interview so now we’ve officially crossed our fingers!

    Dogwoods are now in bloom all over!
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: This wasn’t a particularly frugal week, although we didn’t go crazy either. Our daily spending average though is where we want to be ($50.07) so we’re doing OK.
  • Grateful for: I adore spending time with our grandkids, and am so thankful we have been able to have so much time with them. I had a wonderful time raising our own four children, but at the same time I am also thankful that that part of my life is finished. Brett and I live very simply and minimally now, and I am happy not to have to deal with all the accoutrement that comes along with kids (toys, clothing, books, paper, art supplies, and so forth), the food and other childhood issues, and all the scheduling that goes along with having children in the home (school, extra-curricular stuff, etc.). I just don’t have the energy I once did either – I had a good time taking care of our granddaughter on Friday, but even though she was sick she almost wore me out!

    Even when she’s sick she still is full of energy!
  • Japanese word of the week: Chigau 違う. I had always understood this word to mean “wrong,” and I often overhear it in conversation which seemed strange. I’d always thought it meant “you’re wrong” or something similar, but in fact chigau has several meanings, such as “to be different or differ,” “another,” or “something else.” In conversation chigau can mean “that’s not how it is” or “that’s wrong,” with chigau being a softer word than “no” is in English. I’d heard it said that having the word “wrong” equaling “different” was a cultural link to Japan’s homogenous society, so that no one stuck out, but there’s been pushback on that interpretation. Anyway, I feel like I have a better understanding now of chigau and how and why it’s used (not that I’m confident enough to use it properly).

Just three more weeks in Japan to go! Next weekend we’ll be visiting Hakone with our son and family for a two night stay, so I won’t be posting until we get back. Hakone is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, so we’ll get to see Mt. Fuji up close, as well as many other interesting sites in the area like Lake Ashi and the geothermal valley. Hakone is noted for their natural hot springs, and we’re looking forward to taking a couple of good soaks while we’re there (although the water is so hot in places that I once actually burned myself climbing into a tub!).

I hope you all had a good week, had lots of good things happen, and are looking forward to next week!

Japan Miscellany

A few things not big enough for their own post:

My surprisingly delicious matcha bagel had tiny white chocolate chips.
  • The other day at the commissary Brett and I bought a loaf of American-made seven-grain bread. I used some for sandwiches the day before yesterday, and the first comment from both of us was, “Wow – the bread is so sweet!” This was our favorite kind of bread back in the States, and we never noticed it before, but after two months here we have become accustomed to things being a lot less sweet. Yesterday our daughter-in-law brought me a matcha bagel with white chocolate chips. I was a little wary about how it might taste, but the chips offered a tiny bit of sweetness, and otherwise it was a nice chewy, yeasty bagel with a slight matcha flavor – delicious! Besides enjoying foods with little to no sugar, things here also seem to have a lot less fat – our palates are going to have to readjust when we get back to the U.S.
  • Spring has arrived – flowers are blooming everywhere and the cherry blossoms have come and gone – so when it was 70+ degrees yesterday we figured it was time to ditch the jackets and break out the spring clothing. I went without a jacket, Brett put on shorts . . . and boy did we get some looks! Most people seem to still be wearing darker colors I associate with fall and winter along with sweaters, jackets or a coat. I remember once I wore a sleeveless dress here on an especially hot day during Indian summer, and got many stares because I was apparently not dressed appropriately for the fall season. Maybe there is a dress code in Japan, and certain dates when can safely switch one’s clothing from one season to the next, but I have no idea if that’s true or when that is.
  • Above is a page of calligraphy Brett produced last week in his class. Lots of orange corrections from the sensei, but see the small circle-like strokes in a couple of places? Those indicate his brushwork is correct! He studies every day, practicing his kanji and learning both characters and the kana, although the brush he bought last week is too large and causing him problems. One of the things I love about Japan is that while his teacher is considered a master calligrapher, she still studies under her master! The pursuit of perfection is a lifetime goal here, no matter what form of art you pursue.

    I’d like to say I’m sitting in this chair as I type, but actually I’ve slid down to where I’m practically lying flat! 
  • We don’t have a sofa in our apartment, just two big leather armchairs (and one ottoman). They are mostly comfortable, but the leather is slippery so as I read or write in my chair I slowly slip down, ending up almost on my back after a while. Also, I had to put tape on the bottom of the ottoman because it was slipping across the rug and I was ending up in the space between it and the chair (which was annoying but also funny). Lower furniture is just one of those things we have to deal with in Japan, with the chairs nearer to the ground than we are used to, and it can require extra effort (especially in the knees) to get up. Brett usually sits at the dining room table to read and work, but those chairs are low as well. We like our apartment but I have to admit we’re looking forward to having a good old American sofa to stretch out on again.

    Three of our CookDo favorites here: sweet & sour pork, chili shrimp, and stir-fried pork & peppers. The instructions are in pictures on the back so they’re very easy to follow and prepare.
  • It’s been difficult at times coming up with ideas for meals when all we have is a cooktop, a small microwave, a rice cooker, and a small kitchen. We eat American foods occasionally when we can find stuff we like at the commissary (things like bacon or sausage, or Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese or stuffed green peppers), but I mostly use things we find in the supermarkets here. I miss being able to make casseroles or put something into the slow cooker. My favorite product here is CookDo, sauces for making easy and delicious Chinese dishes. I used CookDo back in Hawai’i to make mabo nasu (ground pork with eggplant) and mabo dofu (ground pork with tofu), but we only could afford them when we could find them on sale, and even then it was $3 – $4/package, a real splurge. In Hawai’i a store might have three or four different sauces, but here there are over 30 varieties (!!!) available, and a package costs around $1. The bottom of both of our suitcases will be filled with packages of CookDo when we return to the U.S.
  • There will be giveaways after we return to the U.S. – three of them! I have been having a great time putting things together and hope you’ll be motivated to enter. Stay tuned!
  • Finally, I am currently unable to comment on Blogger. I have made comments using the Name/URL selection on several blogs, but when I hit submit the comment vanishes. I don’t know if it’s a WordPress thing, a Blogger thing, a Japan thing, or a combination of all three.

Living In Japan: The Dream vs. Reality

If we could live here, this would be my dream apartment! The reality is that it’s probably completely unaffordable – traditional Japanese craftsmanship does not come cheap.

Brett and I have often said if there was a visa available for us, we’d move to Tokyo in a heartbeat. It’s is a busy, crowded space, but it’s safe, and every trip out is a learning experience and an adventure. Our two months of living here hasn’t killed the dream, but it has been tempered by a more realistic view of what life here might be like for us. Here are some of the major issues we’ve become aware of, both good and bad:

Basically all I understand on this sign is the picture of the Kirin Beer can . . . and this is one of the less difficult ones to decipher.
  • Language: Through the kindness of strangers, lots of help from our son and daughter-in-law, translation options on many machines, and simple common sense, we’ve been able to navigate through most language issues here, but not being able to read about 95% of any signs, or not being able to communicate in anything but the most rudimentary phrases would definitely be an issue if we lived here. We know our lack of language ability means we miss out on a while lot of what’s going on. We both agree that we would both absolutely have to enroll in language classes right from the start if we were ever to have any chance of a successful life here. I continue to be extremely grateful that I can read hiragana and katakana, and know a few kanji, which has helped us at times through the past eight weeks, but for the most part my slight knowledge Japanese is worthless (and pitiful).
  • Finances: We’ve looked at the ads for apartment rentals, and we could comfortably afford a new, modern one or two bedroom apartment in the area where we are now (Setagaya), so housing wouldn’t be as big an issue as we initially imagined. Of course we’re not paying for utilities at the moment, so have no idea how much those would add to the cost of living here. Our monthly average for groceries and dining out has been around $450, which is also more affordable than we thought it would be, and our ability to shop at the commissaries and at Costco has helped our bottom line. While we would have to be careful with our spending, we have enough income that besides our living expenses here we could still help with YaYu’s college expenses and pay for things like language classes, rail passes and occasional travel around Japan.
  • Transportation: The train system in Tokyo and throughout Japan is a marvel, and is very affordable too, much more so than owning a car. We’ve had no problems getting around the city, and combined with our son or DIL occasionally taking us places in their car and LOTS of walking we get around OK.

    A Stairmaster would be redundant in Tokyo – these subway stairs show how many calories you’re burning (our station adds an additional two flights up and down). The Tokyo Hands store has this on their stairs as well.
  • Health and wellness: It’s a rare day that Brett and I don’t walk at least two miles (that’s the distance of the walk to our son’s and back, for example), but we often walk much more, up to six miles a day, so we are getting lots of exercise. Thankfully I have not suffered even once from bursitis while we have been here which has been a blessing. However, included in all this walking are stairs, lots and lots and lots of stairs. We climb and descend numerous flights of stairs every day, typically 12 at a minimum. Just to go to our son’s home, for example, we have to go down four flights to get to the subway platform at our station, and up three at our son’s station to get to the street (and then reverse it coming home).  All those stairs have done a number on my knees, and combined with Japan’s bitter cold weather and having to get up from low furniture (everything is closer to the ground here) on some days I have experienced quite a bit of pain in my knees, especially climbing the stairs. We use escalators whenever possible, but there is no way to get around eventually having to deal with flights of stairs. I’m not sure we’ve lost any weight while we’ve been here, but other than my knees bothering me, we are in much, much better physical shape than we were when we arrived back in February. As for healthcare, if we lived here we would be eligible for Japan’s wonderful national health system, and we also have our military insurance and could receive treatment at any of the bases.
  • Miscellaneous: 1) I’ve been frustrated not having an oven or a slow cooker in our apartment, but both of those are things we could take care of if we lived here, even if we only got a toaster oven. 2) I have had some real issues with my body image here. I am an average-sized person in the U.S., but when I am surrounded by Japanese women I feel quite huge and clumsy. Also, I’m the rare person around here with gray hair, but Brett says it makes me easy to spot in a crowd ;-). 3) We had forgotten how bitterly cold it gets here in the winter, the kind of cold that gets into your bones and chills you from the inside out. It also gets extremely humid in the summer, worse than it ever was in Hawai’i, which is something else we’d have to deal with as well if we lived here, although most apartments have air conditioning. 4) A big issue for both of us if we lived here would be clothing – it’s difficult if not impossible to find things in our sizes although we could buy clothes (from a very limited selection) at the military exchanges, or order things online from the U.S. and have them shipped here (expensive). 5) Finally, we realize that if we were here we would be even further away from the girls than we were in Hawai’i, but they have all said they’d love it if we could live here full time as it gives them lots of good excuses to visit Japan.

After two months of living in Tokyo the positives of being here still outweigh the negatives, and we would still relish the chance to make a life here if it were possible. However, we’re no longer wearing rose-colored glasses about what our life here would be like – there would be some serious issues we’d have to work around or overcome, some of them not very easy at our ages. It’s still fun to dream though.

Sunday Morning 4/14/2019: Week 8 in Japan

Legend says that if you see Mt. Fuji you will return to Japan. We had amazing, crisp views all morning while we were at Soleil Hill Park, but by the time we left in the early afternoon the view had disappeared behind the clouds.

We have only one month left to go in Japan! When I wrote the date in the title, I realized that in less than 30 days we will be packing our bags once again, and hauling them out to the airport for our flight back to the U.S. on May 14. That’s as much as I’m going to think about leaving for now though because I know it’s going to be very emotional for us parting from our family here, and leaving a place we love so much.

Brett took K for a spin in a go-kart at Soleil Hill park.

This past week was mostly a nice, relaxing one for us: picking up our grandson every day from school, running our regular errands, enjoying the Todoroki Ravine Park, and going out to dinner with our son and family. Yesterday we headed down to Yokosuka to spend some time at the wonderful Soleil Hill family park with our son and family, and then do one last shop at commissary. The park, located in an agricultural area near Yokosuka, had all sorts of fun and interesting activities for the whole family, including go-karts, swan boats, several amazing playgrounds, an amusement park, and a petting zoo (we got to pet a capybara and some kangaroos!). The park was also decked out for spring with beautiful flower beds throughout the park. Getting on base though was easier said than done because it took us nearly two hours to get our son a pass to bring the car on base! Nothing was wrong other than there was a long, long line at the pass gate for some reason. It was dark when we finally left the commissary to come home, but the trip back was easy with no traffic, and we are set with food and supplies.

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We received a surprise windfall this past week – a check for $1250 from Wells Fargo Mortgage. We sold our house five years ago, but apparently Wells Fargo had never given us back the mortgage insurance we had overpaid by several months (we thought we had received it in the settlement). In the load of forwarded mail from Brett’s sister was a check for the overpayment plus the interest earned on the amount over the past five years. The money more than covered our income tax payment this year, and the rest went into savings.

Anyway, this week I am:

  • Reading: I finished Educated (couldn’t put it down), and am now reading We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter, a novel about an extended Jewish family in Poland that somehow managed to survive the Holocaust. It is based on the actual story of the author’s family. I’m still waiting for my books to come off of hold at the library.
  • Listening to: Our little washing machine is going with a small load, but otherwise all is quiet here this morning.
  • Watching: I didn’t watch anything this week – I was too busy reading!
  • Cooking: We’re going out for lunch today with a former student of mine, and having tacos tonight, to finish up some leftover taco filling. We were going to have them last night, but we got home too late from Yokosuka and ended up eating other leftovers.
  • Happy I accomplished this past week: I finally found a birthday present for Brett (his birthday is next weekend). The gift had to be something he would enjoy that would also fit into his suitcase, so it was a bit of a challenge. Brett filed our taxes yesterday evening – we waited until almost the deadline because we have to pay a small amount this year.
  • Looking forward to next week: Brett and I are going to Shinjuku this week to visit Bingo-ya, a store that showcases Japanese folk crafts of all sorts, from pottery to dishes to fabric and more, and also to go out to lunch. We’re going to go back to the Sogo department store as well later in the week, although to one that’s closer to our house than Yokohama. We’re hoping they carry the items we want so we don’t have to make the longer trip.

    Look who stopped by Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house for a while last Wednesday!
  • Thinking of good things that happened: Our visit to the Todoroki Ravine Park on Tuesday was one of the nicest outings I’ve ever enjoyed in Japan. It was a beautiful spot, and the weather was perfect. Brett’s enjoying and doing well in his calligraphy class, and we got him the necessary tools and paper at Tokyu Hands so he can practice at home between classes. On Wednesday evening we went out to dinner at a wonderful noodle restaurant down the street from our house with our son and family (we ate there last week with Meiling and K before they left). I enjoyed what I think is my favorite meal in Japan: katsudon, a breaded pork cutlet cooked in a soy broth with onions and egg, and then served over a bowl of rice. The meal came with a small bowl of handmade udon noodles, tofu, and some tasty pickled vegetables. Our DIL ordered the same meal and had this to say about the food: If this restaurant was near our house I would eat here every day.

    Delicious katsudon
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: We did not spend a whole lot of money this week (well, until we went to the commissary yesterday), and have managed to get our daily spending average down to $48.61 for the month. We’ve also done a good job of eating up all the leftovers so there has been no food waste. I had been watching the J. Jill sales section for some warm pieces to take to (chilly) England this fall, and this past week ordered a sweater, sweatshirt and poncho at 40% off the sale price. The total for all three items was less than $100, including shipping, and like all J. Jill items they will last a long time. All my other clothing is hanging in there, although I will need to get new socks and shoes when we get back to the U.S.

    Some cherry trees were still in full bloom last week . . .
  • Grateful for: While we have greatly enjoyed the cherry blossoms this year, I am also thankful to see green leaves replacing the flowers – spring has arrived (although we had a couple of days of very cold temperatures this past week that made us wonder). The sight of fallen blossoms on the ground is a reminder to fully enjoy and appreciate all that is good and beautiful in life because like all things it will eventually change or pass.
    . . . but many have almost lost all their blossoms and are leafing out.

    Fallen blossoms are a reminder of the impermanence of all things in life, and to appreciate and enjoy the good things while we have them.
  • Japanese word of the week: mingei 民芸, meaning folk arts or art of the people. There is a great appreciation in Japan for the beauty of everyday objects and the arts and crafts of average people, things that are practical and can be used in daily life. Mingei are not “one of a kind” pieces of art but items produced in quantities by hand. They should be inexpensive, simple, practical in design, and are meant to be used and represent the region of Japan they comes from. There is a Museum of Japanese Folkcraft nearby us that I hope to visit before we leave. By the way, the kanji 芸 in mingei is the same as in geisha 芸者, which means person who does art.

We’ve got our fingers crossed that this week will be another relaxing one. We’ve made a casual list of things we want to get before we leave, and places we want to see (like the Museum of Folkcraft and the National Museum of Japan in Ueno Park), but we don’t want to feel rushed. Our time here has been wonderful, and we want it to stay that way right up until we leave.

A melon soda float for spring – the soda really tastes just like melon, and the ice cream from Hokkaido was the richest I’ve ever tasted.

I hope you all had a great week, and that spring has finally arrived wherever you are.

Todoroki Ravine Park

Signs in the sidewalk in Todoroki pointed us to the park. The entrance was just a short walk from Todoroki station in the Setagaya ward.

Tuesday morning, Brett and I set out on a mystery outing. I had read about Todoroki Ravine Park in Super Cheap Tokyo and thought it sounded like a place both Brett and I would like to visit. I kept the destination a surprise from Brett, so when we started out in the morning he had no idea where we were going, and because I’d never been either it was a mystery to me as well. All I knew in advance was how to get there.

At our station change, we spied the top of Mt. Fuji poking up in the background between the buildings.

As I’ve said before, Tokyo often appears to be nothing more than a mass of concrete, but throughout the city there are wonderful parks where one can immerse themselves in nature and forget they’re in a city of over nine million people. Todoroki Ravine Park took that experience to a new level.

Heading down into the valley, the sound of rushing water overtakes city noises.
Looking back at Golf Bridge and its reflection. The bridge was named for a former golf course that spanned the valley in the early 20th century.
Lacy Japanese maples among the spring greenery.

The ravine is the only natural valley in the 23 wards that make up the Tokyo metropolis, cut by the Yazawa river on its way to join the larger Tama River. Unlike most parks in the Tokyo area, the ravine has mostly been left untamed, and it’s filled with giant trees, bamboo and other plants, with the river rushing through the center. As we descended into the park, we noticed the air became cooler and the river drowned out the noise of the city. We were immersed in nothing more than the sounds of nature.

This hand-carved water purification basin marked the entrance to a small temple in the park.
Across the river was another small shrine, Chiego Daishi Mieido. Behind this shrine is the Fudo Waterfall, now very small but formerly used for ascetic training.
Other small shrines sat on the sides of the ravine.

We discovered that there is more to the valley than just natural beauty. Along the way we came across temples and small shrines, and a steep stairway leading up to the site of some ancient tombs (which we skipped). There was also a wonderful traditional tearoom called Setsugetsuka, where visitors can relax and sip green tea from pottery chawan (tea bowls), nibble on traditional sweets, and relax under the shade of a large wagasa (Japanese umbrella). Occasionally along the path were benches for rest and contemplation, and about halfway down the path was a stone seating spot where it looked as if you could dangle your feet in the water.

We did not attempt the five flights of stairs leading up to the ancient tombs.
The Setsugetsuka tea room
The tearoom’s noren (shop curtain). The kanji are characters for “snow moon flower.”

Towards the end of the walking path, we came across a large wooden platform on the left with steps leading up. We were a bit afraid to climb up as we thought it was part of someone’s home, but we saw others go up and it turned out to be a large platform for viewing cherry blossoms, and looking out over the park, and was attached to a lovely small temple, Todoroki Fudoson, said to be in existence for nearly 1,300 years. The temple grounds were filled with lush plantings of colorful spring flowers, and next to the temple we found a small ice cream shop where Brett and I enjoyed some sakura mochi ice cream while we rested and took in the temple.

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At the very end of the valley path was an unassuming wall and gate, the entrance to a more formal Japanese garden. We decided not to enter, but stood outside for a few minutes to look up at a towering grove of bamboo inside and enjoy the sound of the wind blowing through the tops of the trees before turning around to head back to our starting point.

The outer Japanese garden wall
Looking up at the towering bamboo grove

As we had some time before picking up our grandson from school, Brett and I decided to leave “the sublime for the ridiculous” and headed back to the craziness of Shibuya to visit Tokyu Hands for lunch and get Brett some calligraphy tools for practice between classes.

A tea float at Tokyu Hands made the visit to Shibuya worthwhile.

Japan never gets boring, and Todoroki Ravine Park has to be one of Tokyo’s hidden gems, a gorgeous, peaceful green space and relaxing getaway in a the hustle and bustle of an incredibly busy and crowded city.

One of the many little falls along the way in Todoroki Ravine Park – a natural oasis in Tokyo.


Closing Out the Books on March

We had a very good month in March, spending wise. Right until the last day, that is.

February ended with a daily spending average of $56.93, with nearly $200 in spending over our monthly budget amount. We were determined to be more careful in March, and by March 30 we had managed to get our daily average down to $44.39, which included Meiling’s and her boyfriend’s arrival and our getaway to Odawara (our son took care of almost all our expenses there).

And then March 31 happened.

To celebrate our anniversary, and because we had two of our four children together who don’t get to see each other very much, we took everyone out to the Sunday Brunch at the New Sanno Hotel – six adults and one child (there was thankfully no charge for our granddaughter). And, following brunch, we went with Meiling to the Meiji Shrine and down into Harajuku where we treated all of us to crepes. On the way home we stopped in at the grocery store and bought some extra items for Meiling to bring home. Our spending for the one day ended up at $270.96 which brought our March average up to $51.69, and our daily average spend in Japan to $52.35. Ouch.

We are not off to a particularly good start in April either, with our daily spend average right now hovering around $57 (the day at Disneyland didn’t help), but we have the rest of the month to get back on track. I think we can do it because other than Brett’s birthday this month, and Easter, there are no big events coming up, just small outings and trips for groceries for the two of us. We shopped at the discount grocery store this past weekend and saw a considerable difference in the amount we paid, so that will help.

Fingers are once again crossed that we get through this month under our desired average of $50/day.