Saturday, March 29, 2008

off to Thailand today...

Will post when we get back. Have a great week!

Friday, March 28, 2008

me and my monsters

it's Friday, and now they are everywhere

C says the cherry blossoms "are the most beautiful thing in Japan, maybe the world." Here he is with his brother in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, where we picnicked today with our new friends Fumika and her son Josh.

Wednesday in Ueno Park

The boys can't take their eyes off the beauty that surrounds them...
This was our first official viewing of the cherry blossoms. They're not out in full force yet, but the park is still drawing a crowd. People are picnicking under the trees, sitting on blue tarps on top of pavement, I suppose so they can be close to the low hanging branches. There are food stalls selling yakitori (chicken on a stick), enormous ears of corn (on a stick) and Doraemon-shaped cakes. We had intended to go to the zoo but got sidetracked down a path that ran around a lake, then stopped inside this small shrine, which had guard dogs.
By the time we found the zoo entrance it was too late to go in (oops). Luckily the boys were happy to just chase each other around some more before we headed home.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

the 'hood turns pink

We thought we were going to miss most of the action but right here in the 'hood there is a stretch of cherry blossoms running along Meiji-Dori across from our very own Shibuya-bashi bus stop. Even our own octopus playground has 'em!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

taking a break, part II

on Tuesday after dropping the kids I walked from Daikanyama, where I take a yoga class, to the Shirokanedai area of Minato-ku, to visit the grounds of the Institute for Nature Study, a collection of preserved habitats (marsh, forest, pond) in the middle of the city. It's very pretty, and the trails are quiet, except for the black crows (kyaa! kyaa!).
After that I walked over to Happo-en, a smaller, neatly-manicured, absolutely beautiful garden attached to a cafe and reception hall. The cherry blossoms have only just started coming out... I'm told that they will be out in full force by next week, when we are in Thailand (bad timing for us!). Here's a glimpse of what I'm told will erupt all over town in just a few days:

On the way to Happo-en, I took a brief, accidental detour into the Japanese garden behind the Sheraton hotel, where I saw two cool Buddha statues.
The boys, who are off school this week, were at Eriko's "holiday camp," which on Tuesday consisted of a field trip to one of the city's aquariums, and then an hour and a half of soccer at the "Think Park arena" in Osaki. (Tomorrow they go bowling in Odaiba.)

At Happo-en, I ended up chatting with this Japanese woman you can see sitting quietly by the pond in the photo above. We were leaving the garden at the same time and just started talking. She said she worked at a restaurant so I think the kimono is her uniform. We exchanged mobile phone numbers and agreed to meet up so she could practice her English and I could practice my Japanese.

Click here to view more of my pics on Flickr...

the hotel, and onsen!

For last weekend's ski trip to Yuzawa we stayed at the Naspa New Otani, which is next door to the ski school and about 200 yards to the nearest chairlift. We opted for a Japanese-style room: tatami mats on the floor, sliding screens in front of the windows, low table with legless chairs, and extra robes and slippers to wear to the onsen downstairs.

In the onsen, or hot springs bath, you check your modesty at the door. No bathing suits or even towels are allowed, though you can carry a "humility towel," a small hand towel to hold against yourself while you make your way to the shower and then across the stone deck and into the water. I noticed that some people wrap their hair in the small towel while they soak; others rest it folded on top of their heads. I left mine in the locker room. I guess I am humility-challenged.

So the onsen itself Very hot. Not bubbling like a jacuzzi, just a shallow, clear, hot bath. At this particular place you could soak in the large stone one inside or a smaller stone one outside. I preferred to be outside, where the air was cold and you could really see steam coming off the water, and it wasn't quite so hot, and you could see a bit of the snowbanks and a tiny glimpse of mountain scenery. But I couldn't take it for more than 10 minutes. As I sat there, wondering, as I often do, how did I get here? (with that Talking Heads song playing in my head) I could feel myself fading. Later I noticed my pores were so wide open it looked like someone had taken a black ballpoint pen (and a pot of rouge) to my cheeks.

It did make me feel good all over though. They say the water is mineral rich and so has healing powers; it definitely feels restorative. The reason Japan has so many onsen (3,000, according to one Japan Times article I read) is because of the volcanoes. The country is 75 percent mountainous, and many of its peaks are volcanic; most of the springs are heated groundwater near those volcanoes. Some derive their heat from something else, though: the decay of naturally radioactive elements going on inside the Earth's mantle (Word of the Day: geothermal). Going to the onsen has always been a big part of Japanese life, a bonding ritual to be enjoyed with family and friends; I saw lots of little girls in the hotel onsen with their mothers. There's a Japanese expression, hadaka no tsukiai, or "naked companionship." True friendship means getting naked and going to the onsen together. It's where you can relax and take a break from the formality and social restraint. That's not to say that it's party time in the onsen; everybody was still pretty quiet and reserved sitting there in the bath. I suppose it's difficult to chat while you're boiling yourself.

Anyway, after the onsen (the boys went to the boys' one, I went to the ladies'), we went to dinner, to the family-style buffet, which had big signs directing you to "Japanese Food" (sushi, grilled crab legs, tempura mushrooms, miso soup, udon noodles, pickled daikon, a savory egg custard) on one side and "Western Food" (broiled fish florentine, chicken, steak, pasta, salad bar) on the other. The boys made multiple trips to the ice cream case. While we were eating, somebody came into our room to roll out and make our beds, turning it into a scene from a tween-age slumber party. The beds were actually quite comfortable and of course the kids dug it.On Sunday morning we had a little Easter egg hunt. I put tiny cookies and 10-yen coins in our plastic eggs and T hid most of them inside slippers and snowboots. Here the boys are looking over the bounty and discussing what they are going to do with the 300-plus yen they've just scored.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Mickey takes our picture

March 22, 2008
Naspa Ski Garden
Yuzawa-Machi, Niigata

Sunday, March 23, 2008

more skiing

It's official: the boys know how to ski. It's amazing how quickly they picked it up. They can now get down the mountain without incident, as long as they stick to the beginner slopes. (I mean, they still take an occasional tumble, but there's no drama; they're pretty good about getting up and moving on.)

It was our second trip this weekend, and this time we went to Naspa Ski Garden, which is in the mountains of Yuzawa Town, Niigata Prefecture, only 80 minutes by bullet train from Tokyo station (like Penn Station) and so only about two hours door to door. The place is geared toward families with young children, with lots of bunny trails and no snowboarders (!). The boys had lessons with Mickey, a 20-year-old from New Zealand who's been skiing since he was three. The boys loved him. Here he is, the guy in the goggles. We caught up with them when it was time to break for lunch.
Mickey told the boys to "punch the way you want to turn!" and so they would throw a slow right or left hook to steer themselves this way and that. Mickey also told the boys to lean on the outside leg, which also helped. He showed them how to straighten themselves out and get up after a fall, and how to "skate" to get moving on flat terrain. They can get on and off a chairlift, do little jumps, and spray snow on your skis as they come to a stop next to you. Here are a couple more clips I shot (somewhat awkwardly) with my camera phone (it's no steady-cam, I'm afraid. In fact it's a miracle I didn't ski into a tree while doing this...). D, who turns six in a couple of months, is the one in the orange jacket. C, who's about 7 and a half now, is in blue with red snow pants.

2 of T's ski clips

These are better than mine, and short! In this first one, C takes a few jumps, and you can hear one of the bad J-pop tunes that Naspa had playing out on the slopes (you know it's bad when Seal is the highlight).

In this one you can hear the instructor, Mickey, instructing...

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Suited up and ready to go

D had a bit of an issue with the goggles...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Happy Easter

spring fashion

Nihongo o hanashimasu ka. Hai, sukoshi...

This is Eriko. She is trying to teach me how to speak Japanese. I go to her studio in Jingumae for class every Monday morning after dropping the kids off at school.

My performance during our lessons doesn't always live up to her standards. Probably because I hardly ever do the homework...

Occasionally, though, I do say something right and then she is so proud.
Eriko has two boys too (they are also at the British school and are the same ages as mine), so I understand her need to let loose once in a while. Here she is dancing on a table at Bar 57 in Roppongi at 1 a.m. the night of the cocktail party at the British Embassy.

springtime in the city

Potted plants really help make up for the serious lack of private green space in this cramped city, and as I noted in an earlier post, they are usually very well tended and respected by others. Here are some good examples of what I've been seeing lately outside the homes, hair salons and shops on the narrow streets of Jingumae, in Shibuya-ku. (The first shot is a repeat of this one posted two weeks ago, but there's been progress!)

This one is actually the outside of a little shop called the Plant Factory in Hiroo, down the road from our apartment. I assumed you could buy plants at the Plant Factory, but now I'm not so sure. When I walk by it's just this guy sitting at his desk, writing, surrounded by plants inside and out. Must learn some more Japanese so I can go in and inquire.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Later that day... (Saturday, con't)

After Great Burger we wandered back up Cat Street toward Kiddy Land, browsing along the way. Do you think this guy knew I was really only interested in taking his picture?

Kiddy Land is practically a landmark on Omotesando Street, probably the best place to buy useless junk for your kids and other people who like kid stuff. They have a few toys but it's mainly collectibles, gifts and personal accessories, trinkets, charms and other doodads, everything from Hello Kitty to child-size, candy-colored headphones to these Aokubi Daikon stickers. There are some Pokemon arcade games on the lower level that my boys are obsessed with playing, mainly because you can earn Poke-chips, casino-style chips with characters printed on them that my boys treasure almost as much as their Tooth Tunes musical toothbrushes. On Saturday D acquired a miniature plush Doraemon that he keeps in his pocket and occasionally uses to get his "fuzz on" (by rubbing it on his upper lip). C picked out a cool drawing kit.

I cut out early because we were having house plants delivered and spotted these struggling musicians on my way to the Harajuku station.

P.S. When I arrived home, five minutes before the scheduled delivery time, I found the deliveryman asleep behind the wheel of his van parked outside the front entrance. Our on-site property manager woke him up by pushing down on the hood until the vehicle was rocking up and down (which I guess was kinder than if he had rapped his knuckles on the windshield). When the delivery guy opened his eyes and saw me he seemed a bit startled and embarrassed, and there was much apologizing and bowing back and forth.

Harajuku on a Saturday afternoon

After the birthday party we headed to Harajuku for some reason and ventured into this well-known jam-packed shopping street, Takeshita Dori ( this video isn't mine but if you're curious...). The plan was to eventually make it to Great Burger in Jingumae (slogan: "Hamburger is My Life").
We encounter many fashionable young people along the way:

D makes his own fashion statement in a Park Slope Day Camp T-shirt. C, with Stitch goody-bag in hand, is sporting his Singapore souvenir shirt, the one he picked out himself, with a dragon holding a ying-yang ball:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

birthday party in the park

On Saturday we went to Meiji Jingu Gaien, a.k.a. the 100 yen park (because it costs 100 yen to get in) for a party for three boys in C's class. Siblings were welcome, so we all went. One of the birthday boys' grandmother made the cake, a complicated confection with a meringue topping and layers of raspberry, almond and dark chocolate. Just looking at the thing inspires D to do his happy cake dance...
After most people had gone, we lingered in the park for a bit. 
Here C and his classmate Miuka examine the contents of their goody bags: pencils, erasers, plastic toys, the usual stuff. The bags were made of fabric, with Disney themes: Stitch for the boys, Minnie Mouse for the girls.