Friday, May 30, 2008

Dylan is 6!

My kid celebrated a birthday today. Instead of throwing him a party, we're taking him to Tokyo Disney Sea ("Where Adventure and Imagination Set Sail") on Wednesday, to avoid the weekend crowds. Apparently the Disney theme parks here are quite popular with local 20- and 30-somethings who don't have children. Stay tuned for a full report. This photo was taken at D's classmate Jerald's birthday party a couple weeks ago. Each child who turned up at the shindig received a Master Pokemon Ball as a game prize (at this age, everybody's a winner!). Conor informs me that the Master Ball is an important tool for Pokemon trainers, because it helps them catch -- and train -- Pokemon, a.k.a. Pocket Monsters, creatures with names like Piplop and Pokia and Apom. (I feel lucky that as the mother of two boys and no girls, I am spared all talk of Hannah Montana, but could this be worse?)

This kid does not want to stay in the picture

The chocolate cone my kid ate at the Sweden Soft Cream shop in Shibuya last night made him giddy with glee. Asking him to pose for yet another photo (this time with Anita, our friend visiting from New York) was an instant buzzkill. I must have some sort of magical mother's touch...

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Girls' weekend in Kyoto! (May 24-25)

As we walk out of the train station, Astro Boy is there to welcome us...That there is the Kyoto Tower (or is it the Seattle Space Needle?).
Anita and I stayed at a hostel called K's House, totally comfortable and clean.Red bean really dominates the snack food scene here. I mean, I realize this sorta-sweet stuff is popular all around Japan, but it seemed to be everywhere: inside green gluten balls, dipped in batter, sandwiched between two thin crunchy cookies, etc. We passed this lady making square red bean cakes on a grill on our way to Ginkaku-ji, our first tourist stop.
The approach to Ginkaku-ji was impressive, with the wide path of paving stones and the immense hedge.

Quite a build up. But when we finally get there, we learn that the main temple (the 'Silver Pavilion') is completely hidden under scaffolding (!). But OK, minor setback, it's all good, I'm still happy because I'm on a girls' weekend sans kids and nothing is going to bring me down. And anyway the grounds are lovely, with tall pines and a pond, and this little brook, with tree roots visible among the moss:
There was also this Zen garden featuring a Ginshadan, a bed of very small rocks meticulously groomed to represent water (the way it's raked indicates the direction of the current).
After we left Ginkaku-ji we walked down the "Path of Philosophy," a meandering trail that runs alongside a brook, through a quiet, mostly residential area. It was raining, but like Scotland, it would have been so much drearier if it wasn't so green. There were some small cafes and craft shops selling pottery or paper (I bought some postcard-size woodblock prints at one artist's shop) and some smaller shrines, like this one guarded by two lions...a monkey:
and a rat:
We had soba noodle soup with fried tofu for lunch at a place outside Nanzen-ji, a Zen temple and headquarters of the Rinzai sect. This is the San-mon, the main entrance gate, built in the early 1600s. There were loads of Japanese school children visiting that day.
Inside we climbed a flight of very steep steps, wet shoes in plastic bags, to get to the second-story balcony and look at the view.
Then we followed Lonely Planet's instructions on how to get to a place "overlooked by most visitors" (we're hardcore, even in bad weather). We started at the red-brick aqueduct by the subtemple of Nanzen-in...
...then hiked up a trail that took us up into the hills and to Oku-no-in, a lovely shrine-temple by a small waterfall.
Anita just reminded me that the best part was discovering all the smaller shrines along the way, the altars with small bud vases and a few candles and tiny piles of yen coins stuck into rocky crevices and among the tree roots. And up at the top of the path there was a wee shrine tucked inside a small cave. I made my way up onto a flat rock just below the cave, a spot where I could stand and look out over it all (and take the photo above), and, feeling all zen, managed to do a tree pose without toppling over.

As we turned around to head back down to the main road, we passed a man, a woman (you can see her praying in the photo above) and a kid on their way to the top, and then noticed that they had lit a candle or two at each shrine, and as it was approaching dusk, suddenly everything looked even prettier. It was the coolest thing we did that day.

This is one of the cleansing stations we passed on the way up (you're supposed to rinse your hands and mouth to purify them before praying).The cleansing station at Kiyomizu-dera, a major tourist stop we hit next, was much fancier.

I do not have good shots of the main hall, with its huge veranda, or of the crowd of Japanese tourists in matching yellow rain ponchos, taking turns drinking the sacred, purifying water piped in from a nearby waterfall called Otowa-no-taki. But here's one of Anita's shots of one of the pagodas there.
That night we went out to dinner and had yuba salad -- a soft delicately-flavored tofu, which Kyoto is known for, with greens and radish and other raw veggies in ginger-soy vinaigrette. We also had a fragrant vegetable soup and some salmon sashimi garnished with plum blossoms.

On Sunday morning, the skies were overcast but it wasn't raining (hooray!) so we took a 10-minute ride on the local train to Inari, home of the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha, a cluster of shrines on the slopes of Mt. Inari. Thousands of torii (temple gates) mark the approach.In ancient times, Japanese farmers believed the fox to be a messenger for the god of harvests, or so I read, and many shrines in these parts are dedicated to the fox deity (called Inari, just like the town). There are stone fox statues all over the place. Some are small and covered in moss; others seem brand new and sport red bibs and are holding scrolls (like the one above, left). Here's two more shots of the gates (that's me in black with the big bag).
I stuck my camera out between two gates to get this shot from outside the passageway:
We then took to a walking path that runs beyond the temple grounds and through a bamboo forest.And beyond that, more shrines and temples and statues, like this one below, a Myo-o guide whose fearsome look is meant to frighten non-believers into accepting the teachings of Buddhism.
(An evil eye from this guy is definitely making me reconsider my Catholic upbringing. I can joke like this because my parents don't read my blog. They don't even pretend to read it. Becoming expert video-Skypers is enough for them I guess...) Anyway, I just loved this mossy one:
We returned to Kyoto and went straight to the Gion district, on the eastern bank of the Kamogawa river, distinctive (in some better preserved parts at least) for its narrow streets and old wooden teahouses draped with bamboo curtains. We strolled down Shirakawa Minami-dori, which is singled out by Lonely Planet as "arguably the most beautiful street in all of Asia, especially in the evening and during cherry-blossom season." Our timing was obviously way off (though I could see the potential).
It's around this area that you're supposed to be able to spot geisha as they head to their evening appointments, serving tea and otherwise entertaining men, or maiko, younger women who are in training. But that Sunday afternoon it was almost deserted. We did see one kimono-ed lady...

Expensive hair accessories are part of the uniform:
Anita asked a cute traffic cop for directions. We weren't really lost...For lunch we ducked into a random place and ended up, entirely by accident, having shrimp okonomiyaki. Anita thought she ordered a shrimp rice bowl -- she pointed to the plastic sample in the window -- but we didn't complain when the guy poured the batter onto the grill and we could see how tasty it would be. We ate at the counter next to a couple of old guys who were smoking and drinking and eating and trying to talk to us, even though I kept saying, "Gomen nasai, wakarimasen." (I'm sorry, I don't understand you.)

The owner/cooks happily posed for me:
There's our pancake, at an early stage; in the foreground you can see my neighbor's beer, ashtray and small dish of a sort of beef stew (which I had them serve to me as well).Now, sauce:
Seasoned, sectioned and ready to eat!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

SNL rips on the Japanese

This Digital Short is funny but kinda made me squirm; watch and judge for yourself. (I have to say, Kristen Wiig is spot-on as "Pamo-san"...)

few more Kamakura pics

Anita spearheaded our trip to Kamakura and as luck would have it, no rain! There she is with the entrance gate to Engaku-ji, a Zen temple, behind her.

A couple of the gate's wood carvings:
Engaku-ji is keeper of a very Big Bell, cast in 1301
A great day for a hike...
Statue of Minamoto no Yoritomo, warrior and Kamakura Shogun, 1192-1199
After hiking for about, oh, two hours or so, we finally made it to the Daibutsu
(a.k.a. Great Buddha, Amita-Buddha, god of salvation...)
The Great Buddha and Me. (A love story.)
These next shots were taken at Hasa-dera, a temple known for its Jizo statues. There are thousands of them clustered around, on ledges, up stairwells, etc. Jizo is the Japanese version of a bodhisattva who is believed to be a guardian of children (and usually depicted as a Buddist monk). Each statue represents a baby who has died, so it's a pretty sobering sight.
The statues do look kind of happy though, don't they?
Here's a particularly jolly one...
Someone knitted a little hoodie for this one in the front row over here:
We stopped for a drink before boarding the train back to Tokyo...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

day trip to Kamakura

Here we are standing in front of Amita-Buddha, a.k.a. Daibutsu, the second-largest Buddha statue in Japan. It used to live inside a temple, but that structure was swept away by a tsunami in 1498, so it's been an outdoor attraction ever since. It was cast in bronze in 1252, so that makes it (hmmm...) 756 years old.

We took the train to Kita-Kamakura, about an hour southwest of Tokyo, and from there hiked for about two hours to reach this point, stopping at several other sights along the way...which I will have to write about some other day...

Monday, May 26, 2008

'Kotooshu makes history'

"Bulgaria's gentle giant becomes the first European to capture an Emperor's Cup," The Asahi Shimbun reported today. (Link to AP story here.) Kotooshu (below right, facing the camera) finished 14-1. I snapped the shot below on Friday, right before he lost his first and only bout of the tournament, or "summer basho". When he was pushed out of the ring, the audience let out hoots of surprise, and several people threw their seat cushions (kinda like college graduates tossing their mortarboards).

Sunday, May 25, 2008

dinner Friday night

After sumo we headed to Sushi Zanmai in Tsukiji, a stone's throw from the fish market. A casual place, well-lit and noisy, and huge (three floors), with laminated picture menus in both English and Japanese. The chefs greet you with a loud bellow as you walk in, and the wait staff motions for you to take off your shoes and stow them in a locker. The low tables have space below where you can put your legs so you don't have to kneel.

As it was a Friday night, the joint was packed with salarymen, eating and drinking and smoking. Terry had five kinds of tuna (lean, medium fatty, fatty, broiled and minced), Anita had sea urchin, I had my usual salmon plus a pickled plum-and-cucumber hand roll, and some other stuff.

When we ordered grapefruit sours, they brought glasses of shochu and soda but had us juice our own fruit right there at the table...Terry ordered round two: more bluefin tuna, more salmon, some flounder and mackerel...