Wednesday, April 30, 2008

and what's a spring fair without a bouncy castle?

T shot this video with his cell phone. That's C in the red and white shirt. D is the one in blue throwing punches.

It's moments like these when friends, family and random strangers will turn to me, smile, and say something like, "Your boys are real boys, huh!"

Spring Fair at the British School in Tokyo

The live musical entertainment for the day included these ladies on koto, which is played kind of like a harp, and another three on shamisen, a fretless three-stringed lute. (The Grand Hyatt donated a hotel stay as a raffle prize...which explains the banner...)

dining out

It was raining last Saturday evening as we left for Gonpachi's in Nishi Azabu, where we ate lots of tasty grilled meats and vegetables. Quentin Tarantino wanted to film a scene for Kill Bill there, but his request was turned down, so he had a set built to look just like it.

Pokemon Center!

I asked the kids what they were thinking when their Dad took this picture outside the Pokemon Center. I told them I needed help writing a caption. D said, "I am thinking, 'Pikachu'." C said, "I'm just thinking, 'wall'."

Monday, April 28, 2008

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

After walking through this beautiful place, we hit the basement level of Takashimaya, where there's a Kinokuniya grocery store and other food shops. We bought some special ham from a guy in a big chef's hat. Then we made our way to the 8th floor of the big Tokyu Hands department store next door, where the stationery is, and my mom and I bought some lovely paper products (my Dad, meanwhile, was utterly mystified as to why anyone would go to such trouble and expense for nice paper products). Next stop: lunch at the kaiten sushi place on Omotesando Street, where the food rolls past on a conveyor belt. We had salmon and eel sushi, fatty tuna rolls, octopus salad, sweet sticky rice wrapped in tofu, a wedge of melon and then some mango and papaya for dessert. Only $30 for the three of us (sorry, Pat). Yum!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

it ain't itsy bitsy

Roppongi Hills, all gussied up for spring...

I read that there are seven bronze casts of Maman, a 30-ft.-high sculpture of a spider carrying a sac of marble eggs by French-born American artist Louise Bourgeois (who apparently had some issues with her mother...). The one pictured above belongs to Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, and is the focal point of the big plaza in front of the Mori Tower, the main building in this mega-complex of offices, shops, restaurants and apartments. Wikipedia says the others are at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Seoul's Samsung Museum of Modern Art, in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, and in Havana, Cuba. A steel version is on loan to London's Tate Modern.

The other day, while the kids were in school and T was at work, I took my parents to Roppongi to see the spider and the city view from the tower's 52nd floor. It was too hazy to see Mt. Fuji, but it was fun to locate various buildings we knew, like the Ebisu Prime Square Tower, which is of minor note (office building with restaurants and shops, well-landscaped public plaza area), but basically marks the spot where we live. Later we went to the Modigliani exhibit at The National Art Center and had some great salmon pate at the French restaurant there, which you can see in the picture below (that's the view from inside). It's a pretty cool building. 

the art of advertising

The other day we stopped to watch this painter decorate a wall for Pink Dragon, Cream Soda and Miracle Woman, a cluster of hipster clothing stores on Cat Street, around the corner from the British School.
Cast of characters:

Friday, April 25, 2008

you want me to EAT this?

The boys are pretty deft with the chopsticks now, but they are still suspicious of most of what we put in front of them. Here we are at a tempura restaurant on the 13th floor of Takashimaya, and that there is a hunk of fried shrimp.

they're baaack

In case you were parents made it home safe and sound...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Has anyone seen these people?

My parents left for Kyoto on Tuesday -- I put them in a cab bound for Tokyo station and I haven't heard from them since! Am I supposed to have dinner ready when they arrive tonight? Who knows! My dad won't answer his rented cell phone. I hope they are OK.

They are a cute couple, aren't they?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mom and Dad, day 2

On Sunday we visited the Meiji Shrine, pausing to gawk at the Harajuku girls and assorted other costumed individuals (known as Cos-play-zoku, or Costume Play Gang) who hang out on and around the bridge that takes you over the JR train tracks and into Yoyogi Park. The examples pictured here are quite tame compared to some others I've seen, but you get the idea.

My husband and child seemed unfazed by the scene.

Now, onto the Meiji Shrine. Apparently this was a serious visit, so we had to take a serious look at the park map before walking through the main gate. (Why does everybody look so grim?)

Check out the guy with the doggie bag...

There were two weddings going on outside the shrine while we were there. (Getting married here is like getting married at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan; it's doable, as long as you don't mind the tourists in the audience.) We saw one bride being prepped, which included a complicated and ornate hairdo with big sweeps and a high bun and combs. Then we observed a wedding procession, the bride and groom with family trailing behind, Shinto priest leading the way and another official person holding a red parasol over the couple. It was quite something.
The little children looked especially cute in their traditional formal wear.

We had brunch at Fujimamas, a restaurant just off Omotesando Street that's popular with ex-pats for the location and the Western-inspired menu printed in English (the Eggs Benedict with crab cakes killed). After that we went to Kiddyland, the toy and novelty store that my boys love almost as much as Disney World, all because of the bizarre Pokemon arcade games you can play downstairs. As usual, the place was packed and noisy and crazy with shoppers snapping up cell phone charms, robotic bugs, Nintendo DS games, purses shaped like Japanese manga characters and other kitsch. I then took my parents to Oriental Bazaar, a souvenir shop on the same street; my parents bought some lacquered trays and bowls for family back home.

Next we walked through Jingumae, admiring the little shops and houses with their carefully tended flowerpots, and caught the bus home from Shibuya station. And now, only now, is the sun out!

Here's a shot of the four of us outside Fujimamas. D's new thing is to be as grumpy as possible, whenever possible.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

my mom and dad are here

I think I nearly killed them with today's sight-seeing itinerary. We took the train to Asakusa to see the Sensoji Temple, which is part of a whole area that includes several smaller shrines, various halls, gates and gardens, and a five-story pagoda. The Chingodo shrine features a pair of "raccoon dogs" serving as guardians of a nearby temple.  We strolled along the narrow shopping streets, and my mom bought a hand-painted tenugui, a partial reproduction of The Red Plum by Japanese artist Korin Ogata (the painting was was made into an Edo Period stamp, issued in 1969. We ate at a tempura place. Then we walked to the Tokyo Metro to catch the Ginza line to Shimbashi, where we then walked to the Hamarikyu Onshi Teien (huge garden), which is absolutely beautiful, even on an overcast, chilly, windy day like today. We walked around those grounds for a while, admiring the enormous peonies and carefully tended pines, the crabapple trees and the tea house on the pond, and the view of Tokyo Bay and Rainbow Bridge.

Mom in the Peony Garden
D in the Peony Garden
C having just plucked something out of the flower field (I told him to stick to dandelions after that)

It started sprinkling rain, but we still had to walk some more, out of the garden and in the direction of Hamamatsucho, where the Pokemon store is (and where we had promised to take the boys). But we had walked enough, and so my parents and I grabbed a cab for home, leaving T and the boys to make their way over to the House of Pikachu by themselves. They are still out, the apartment is still (oh, blissful silence is mine!) as my parents are sacked out in the guest room. I am to wake them at 6pm otherwise they won't sleep tonight! And we have hired a sitter so we can go out to dinner. But where to go....?

Friday, April 18, 2008

after-school snack

I love this picture. 
We take the bus home and it leaves from Shibuya station, where you can buy all kinds of snacks (you can do your grocery shopping there too- it's the Tokyu Food Show!). 
The other day, around 3:30 pm, we were headed for the 06 when we walked past the cream puff shop, and, I thought, why not. Tokyoites don't eat on sidewalks and street corners, but I let my boys do it because it only takes them about 12 seconds to consume most items. And anyway, these two salarymen didn't seem to mind.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Trip report

We had a great time in Thailand. Everybody is super friendly -- too friendly, maybe, if you ask the kids, who were routinely greeted with big smiles, outreached hands and "Hey, Boy!" which kinda freaked them out. The food is terrific, and everything is cheap, cheap, cheap. Bottled water: 10 baht, or about 35 cents. Bag of fresh mango slices: 65 cents. Riverboat fare: $1.50 for family of four. Ice cold can of beer: $1.75. You get the idea.

Bangkok, where we spent the first three days, is exotic, chaotic and congested, certainly colorful and pretty in parts but dingy in others, and after three months in Tokyo, which is just packed with people of course but is relatively calm and orderly and just so clean, the contrast was startling. Bangkok's outdoor markets and side-of-the-road restaurants -- giant woks and grills and stock pots of food dished out to customers at card tables on the sidewalk -- give it that block-party vibe. The noisy streets are full of tuk-tuks zipping around trucks, motorcycles carrying entire families (young kids ride up front, between the handlebars) and vendors with pushcarts.

Before we started with the serious sight-seeing, we stopped at the amulet market outside Wat Maharat (where monks come from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to train at the university there). We had fun buying several of the small carved pieces, which show various images of Buddha. You're supposed to carry these little charms around with you to help ward off evil spirits and bad fortune. There was also a guy there selling dentures.

We did not get up early enough to go see the monks make their morning rounds gathering alms, but we had a few sightings here and there. For the record, I did not rush these monks (below) to get their picture, like the Western tourists in Laos who appear in this disturbing photo that ran in yesterday's Herald Trib. I was very discreet about stealing their souls with my new Nikon D60.
The coolest thing we saw that first day, though, I thought, was Wat Pho, with its giant reclining Buddha.
Check out this big bad boy, all gilded in gold leaf and with an intricate mother-of-pearl inlay on the soles of the feet: We made a donation to get a pile of wishing coins, which the kids dutifully dropped, one by one, into the collection pots that line the temple wall.

We also visited Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, a much smaller statue carved out of jade that sits way up high on top of a gold pedestal. No shoes allowed inside, of course, and you're supposed to keep your bare feet tucked under you or pointed away from the Buddha to show respect. You can't take pictures, and you must also have shoulders covered. Some tourists carried sheer wraps to throw on over their tank tops, which is what I wished I had done (instead I had to wear this cotton sweater in 90-plus degree heat).
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is only the centerpiece of a huge compound dotted with lots of smaller shrines and golden spires, brightly-colored mosaics, guardian devils and other statues.
Below, D snaps a photo. He is pretty good with the point-and-shoot.
Many murals adorn the walls outside the main hall, scenes from the story Ramakian (Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana). Here's the nutshell version: Young Couple banished to forest; Evil King kidnaps bride; Hero teams up with clever Monkey King to launch rescue mission; much trickery and many battles ensue. Good Guy gets Girl back, Bad Guy ends up dead.

Also on site is the Grand Palace, which was the official royal residence until about 100 years ago when new digs were built across town. Squint and you can see T and the boys stealing some shade under one of the perfectly-manicured trees.Next we took a quick boat ride across the river to Wat Arun, featuring this "towering phallic-shaped stupa" (guide book's words). Here's T with our 5-year-old on the first landing. They made it all the way to the top (about 15 ft. from the tippity top).
A pleasant way to get from wat to wat is to take the tourist boat up and down the Mae Nam Chao Phraya ("River of Kings"). It's a busy waterway, with lots of freight boats (we saw a load of Pepsi go by) and long-tail boats chartered by tourists. Along the banks you see five-star hotels next to dilapidated stilt houses, pretty waterfront restaurants next to rundown commercial docks.

On land, you can always find fresh fruit.
Here's one fruit and vegetable market down the street from our hotel, the D'MA, which was pleasant enough with a pool and big breakfast buffet, but was sort of far from the SkyTrain.
This shop sold dried fish and some other things I couldn't identify...
Two women making flower garlands.

Making our way back to the hotel after a day of sight-seeing...

One morning we visited Jim Thompson's house (a native New Yorker, writer and architect who settled in Bangkok after WWII and helped revive the Thai silk trade while building an amazing authentic Thai home and filling it with priceless antiques). While we waited for our tour to start, the friendly guides showed the boys how to make tiny origami dinosaurs.
Our tour guide (below) and D discuss this kitten taking a nap under some leaves. Much cuter than some of the mangy dogs we spotted snoozing on sidewalks and under stairwells in other parts of town.

One night we went out to eat at a seafood restaurant down the street from our hotel. The wait staff doted on our boys, who played games on a Nintendo DS between courses (whatever keeps them in their seats, right?).
We saw these guys on our way in.
These might be them.

Before we left Bangkok I took the boys to the Dusit Palace Park, where the royals live. The most interesting thing to see there was the small photo museum, which displays many snapshots taken by HM King Bhumibol himself, mostly of his wife and children when they were young. It is the king's 62nd year on the throne, and he's currently the longest-serving monarch in the world, according to our guide book. There are pictures of him everywhere, like this one outside a hotel in Phuket (not ours, we were dropping off a German couple who accompanied us on our elephant trek, which I'll come back to later on in this post).

The security guys guarding one of the Dusit gates were friendly but not as effusively so as most other Thais we encountered here, I'm sure because they were on duty.

After Bangkok we went to Phuket, a popular island in the south, for four days. We stayed at a place near Karon beach, on the Andaman Sea. The area is popular with European tourists, particularly Scandinavians.
The water was warm, the surf calm. T does a handstand to impress the boys.

It was hot, so very hot, so we stayed in the shade as much as possible. We paid about $15 to rent two lounge chairs and an umbrella for the day. Here C relaxes with a Doraemon book; that's one of the beach attendants walking in the background.

Our hotel, the Pacific Club, was a bit of a walk from the beach, but it had a nice pool with a view. And the place was cheap, only $80 a night, including breakfast!

On our second day we went to Kata, which is the next town over, and had lunch at a place called Mom Tri's, situated up high on a hill overlooking the beach. We splurged on overpriced hamburgers, grilled fish and fancy sorbet and yet still only spent about $75 for the four of us. The place is also a boutique hotel with pretty, shaded pools.
After lunch we hiked down that hill to the beach and tried not to fry ourselves. The boys befriended two 19-year-old Dutch surfer-dudes.

On the third day we took a sight-seeing tour of Phang Nga Bay by long-tailed boat, like this one pictured below.

We cruised past a Muslim fishing village (where we would stop later on in the day) and then transferred into inflatable canoes where a guide paddled us out to some sea caves at a spot called Tum Talu.The zinc oxide-laced sunscreen that we slathered onto the boys' faces often got trapped in their eyebrows.
The tour also included a stop at James Bond Island, which is really two islands, both of which appear in the movie "The Man With the Golden Gun" (Roger Moore, 1974). We docked at Koh Khao Phing Kan (Scaramanga's base camp) and from where we could view Koh Tapu, the island-cliff that is the familiar backdrop for the final showdown between Christopher Lee and Roger Moore, and where Lee's character kept his "weapon of mass destruction."

The main island shore is crowded with souvenir stands, all selling pretty much the same stuff you see everywhere else in Thailand: shell necklaces, sarongs, beaded elephant bags...(after a while you start to wonder if everything is made in the same factory in China). There were cool caves not a hundred yards from where the merchants, mainly women, were hawking these wares, some more aggressively than others ("Madame, you looking? Madame!")

For the boys, the highlight of the day was probably the stopover on "monkey island," where we explored yet another cave (this one had bats) and fed the cheeky primates who were running loose all over the place.We spent our last day in Thailand at the Island Safari Camp northwest of Phuket Town, on an "eco-nature-tour." These can take all day but we picked the short program: 45 minutes of elephant trekking followed by a 30-min "young elephant show" (they dance, balance on their hind legs, shoot hoops, etc.).

This next shot shows where you get on. D is psyched. Guides dressed in blue are less enthusiastic. I think they've done this before.

When tourists are on board, they get to sit on a little wooden seat while the guides sit on the back of the elephant's head, bare feet planted behind the ears. They carry a wooden pole with a blunt metal hook on the end, with which they use to tug at the elephant's face and ears to get their attention, or get them moving, or steer them, I wasn't sure. It made me a little uncomfortable but the elephants didn't seem to mind. Their skin is extremely thick and tough. But I did wonder how the animals were treated after the tourists have all gone home.

The safari staff will sell you bunches of bananas to feed the elephants during the slow stroll around the grounds. They use their trunk fingers to gently grasp the fruit.

Hey kid, you sure you don't have anymore?

Later, during the show, C volunteered to act as goalkeeper, and managed to block one shot (it bounced off his thigh) but not a second. Here you can see the soccer ball he was able to deflect (it's next to the guy in blue, outside the goal post).
On the next shot, she scored:

I volunteered for a massage. They had me lie face down on a mat and then one of the elephants stood next to me, lifted one leg, and lightly tapped me on the back with the bottom of her foot. Then she nuzzled by neck with the end of her trunk. It felt moist and gritty.

T agreed to participate in the final act. Here ladyboy-emcee, Kim, is explaining what he is going to have to do. But it's too late to back out...

Once T was on his back, Kim placed some bananas inside T's shorts for the elephant to fish out. Just to prolong the humiliation... here are the photos!
The elephant keeps one foot resting gently on T's chest while she fishes around. He can't escape even if he wanted to.
It's over. He slowly rises to his feet, a broken man.

The journey home took about 20 hours. We had a 1-hr. cab ride to the Phuket airport, then our flight was delayed. It's a 1.5-hr flight from Phuket to Bangkok, and then we had a 3-hr. layover there. It's 7 hours in the air to Tokyo, then it takes about an hour on the Narita Express train to get to Tokyo station. From there, we took a cab home. Somehow the boys figured out a way to deal...

The kid is really asleep!