Monday, May 31, 2010

They'll Always Have Tokyo

Matt took Jeanine to the prom Saturday night. This is for the three of you who haven't already seen 25 prom pictures on Mike's Facebook page.

Faithful readers will recognize the suit as one of the costumes Matt wore in last month's musical. The nice director loaned it to him for the prom so we squandered the tuxedo rental money on a room at the Shiba Park Hotel and taxi rides to the New Sanno Hotel where the prom was held.

"Be prepared to stand in front of the water fountain in the New Sanno courtyard," Matt warned Jeanine. "My mom gets extra flaky whenever a plume of water is combined with lights that change color. Cascades Falls is the major landmark in her hometown. I think it might be the only landmark in her hometown . . .".

The kids lined up around the courtyard and then marched into the ballroom like Hollywood stars at a World Premiere.

"Oh, look! Isn't that Penelope Cruz and Matthew Broderick?"

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Boys Are Back in Town (Version 2)

The Kinnick High boys took second place and our girls took first at the Far East track meeting in Okinawa. Matt earned a second place medal in the 4 x 800 relay and came in fourth in the individual 800.

The kid has come a long way since second grade when that misguided PE teacher would not let him compete in one single event at the regional sports day. I'm so proud of Matt for persevering.

He returned from Okinawa Wednesday night and the USS Blue Ridge pulled up to the pier Thursday morning so we are a family once again, for six or seven weeks at least. Now it's off to Tokyo for senior prom.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Look What the Tide Brought In

El (parodied at left) collects glass fishing floats.

It looks to me like she has cornered the market although I hear there are still a few caught in a current somewhere in the North Pacific Ocean.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Conversations in Nippon, Shi: Alone Again, Naturally

Where'd the man go?

Back to the ship, muttering something about Operation Terminal Fury. This must be when everyone on the USS Blue Ridge dances to a tune called "Hawaii Time" and then they frown in unison and throw all their computers in the Pacific Ocean.

That sounds fun! Did the boy go with him?

No. The boy qualified for the Far East track meet so he flew to Okinawa yesterday morning. He gets to miss three days of school plus the Senior-Parent Appreciation Dinner and the Scholarship Assembly.

So poor Peevish has to go the dinner and assembly all by herself?

Oh, she'll be too busy cleaning our litter box and negotiating a senior dues refund to squeeze those events into her schedule.

Don't be so catty. It's unbecoming.

Say! Why don't you grab that ball of yarn to distract her so I can stick my head through that magic loop thing and pull the socks off the knitting needles?

Great idea. Maybe then she'll quit with the counting and get back to reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn so we can find out what happens to Francie Nolan.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sack of No Something Street?

Today's photo credit belongs to Weather Explorer.

She has an eye for interesting street signs whereas I tend to fixate on deciphering the traffic signals when I'm approaching an intersection like this one. This is what makes her a good navigator and me a reasonably passable international driver. Knock on wood.

The red light on top says "Do not even think about driving through this intersection" and the green arrow on the bottom says ". . . unless, of course, you wish to turn right, in which case you should make it snappy."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dyed Again: Yuzen-zome with the Shonan Ladies

Last week it was shibori in my back yard, this week it was yuzen-zome high on a hill above Kamakura. No, I am not pursuing a graduate degree in textile dyeing. I'm just a girl who likes to have fun.

Izumi and Reiko took the Shonan Ladies to Mr. Haruki's charming studio a few doors down from Rin Rin Chinese restaurant. Mr. Haruki designs and paints fabric that is stitched into one-of-a-kind $40,000 kimono. He spends three years on each of his creations so this is not a terribly lucrative craft but Haruki-san does not seem to regret his career choice. On the contrary, he struck me as a walking advertisement for one of the most thought-provoking books I've read this year, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. How much more satisfying it must be to shepherd a project from idea to finished product than to be a replaceable-every-two-years cog in the U.S. military machine.

Each kimono panel features Haruki's original drawings. He brought out a box of drawings used on previous kimono and let each of us select one as a memento of our visit. Some favored sketches of bamboo, plum branches, camellias, onions, and peonies but I chose irises to remind me of both my day at Haruki's studio and my day with Maeve and Jen at Shomyo-ji. Efficiently sentimental, if I do say so myself.

After Haruki completes his drawings and sketches them on a paper pattern, he paints them on silk panels coated with a paste of mashed soy beans that heightens the effect of the dye. There's really no way to ignore the amazing versatility of soy beans in this part of the world.

Upstairs, Meagan tried on a kimono-in-process and we met the adorable Mrs. Haruki who was sporting a jaunty beige beret and a handknit checkerboard vest similar to her husband's. Between Haruki's white hair - a rare sight in Japan - and that beret, I nearly drowned in a tsunami of nostalgia. If you're wondering why, please contact my prematurely grey brother and the third of his adoring goddaughters. I'm much too choked up right now to attempt an explanation.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Everything Seems Possible After a Day with the Ikebana Ladies

Reiko and Sheryl wanted to attend the May Ikebana program. Curling my lip slightly to indicate mild distaste, I tried to warn them off. "It's a flower arranging demonstration this month."

They were undeterred so I force-marched them a half mile down Kamakura Beach under drizzling clouds to the Prince Hotel. "I would have been happy to drive," Sheryl muttered as she splashed through puddles in her whimsical rainboots.

The demonstration was surprisingly remarkable. Unlike the five other flower-arranging demonstrations I've witnessed since 2007, this one piqued my interest. And interest, as you might recall, is the first step in the direction of a hobby or career.

Was it that Mika Tsujii is a woman while her five predecessors were men? Did the presence of the elderly parents in the audience strike a primal chord that made me more receptive to the daughter's work?

Did her cool poise and utter lack of flamboyance appeal to me?

Or was it Tsujii's simple, efficient, and refreshingly rapid approach to sticking stems in containers that made me think - for a minute at least - that I, too, might be able to slap together a reasonably cohesive centerpiece in less than four hours? This could be something worth trying if I don't have to forsake my beloved books, puzzles, knitting, and the monotonous yet essential cycle of meal preparation, laundry, and housecleaning.

Or maybe it was simply that Tsujii favored hydrangeas, some of the nicest, plumpest, space-fillingest flowers in all of God's creation.

I think it was a combination of all those things but I'm awarding extra points to her parents' presence. Call me nostalgic and sentimental for that's what I am.

Reiko and the Americans toted bundles of hydrangeas home from Kamakura. Reiko carried her flowers by their stems while everyone else seemed to be acting out girlhood fantasies co-starring Bert Parks. This is a cultural difference I will ponder while Reiko and her husband are wandering around Izumo next week on a much anticipated vacation.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Shomyoji through Maeve's Eyes

The cherry trees were in bloom the first time I visited Shomyo-ji. Was it only last month? The days seem to fly by faster and faster as Matt's graduation approaches.

In May stately yellow irises frame the pond. They nod regally in the light breeze.

The cherry blossom crowds have vanished, leaving mostly artists and elderly types who sit on benches under shade trees gazing serenely at the peaceful vista. They break out in smiles when the enchanting American toddler scuffles across the gravel, celebrating her release from the confines of that stroller.

Maeve and her mother climb to the crest of the bridge. To a two-year old, this must feel like climbing Mt. Everest, or at least Mt. Fuji.

What do you see, Maeve? A giant carp? Someone is not willing to share her honey lemon donut hole with that big fish. Next time we will bring bread. Will there be a next time? Maeve is moving to Norfolk next month. Tidewater residents should be on the lookout for a tiny blonde wearing an Anpanman backpack.

Is it just my imagination or has the turtle population doubled since April? Someone pops another honey lemon donut hole in her mouth while pondering the reproductive habits of scaly creatures.

She finds humans considerably more fascinating than turtles, carp, and ducks. She ratchets the zoom feature to sneak a photo of this interesting foursome from across the pond but three of them are not fooled. They must have a late tee time today.

Enough nature for one day. How about some ramen and gyoza? Okay, but there doesn't seem to be any gyoza sauce on the table. Wait a second! What are the three ingredients Reiko uses to make her own gyoza sauce? Soy sauce, vinegar, and rayou. What's rayou? Some sort of chili-infused oil which I'm betting is in that bottle on the left. Dribble, dribble, drizzle, dip. Mmmmmmm.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dyed and Gone to Yokosuka

A Shibori workshop came to my house today and I have a purple tie-dyed scarf to show for it. Or I will as soon as I finish swishing all the excess dye from the scarf and hang it to dry.

Creative Explorer was a Shibori artist at the Hermitage Museum near our Norfolk house before she moved to Japan last summer. Now she takes a Shibori class in Tokyo every month. When we were looking for ways to repay the Japanese quilters for taking us to the fabric store and money-washing shrine in Kamakura, Creative offered to share her expertise with us. Weather Explorer and I thought that was a great idea. (Weather Explorer and I are both praying to be struck by a bolt of expertise-in-something lightning before it is our turn to plan an activity for Hiroko, Hisayo, and Kayoko.)

Before we got our hands dirty, Creative Explorer showed us some examples of her incredible work. The flowers and leaves on one quilt (above) were fashioned from her children's handprints. You can see I was not exaggerating when I gave her that nickname.

We ran thread across our scarves in the places Creative had marked with colorful pins, gathered the stitches, and wrapped the thread around the fabric as tightly as we could. You want to wrap the thread tightly so the fabric in that area will resist the dye. I mention this to prove I was paying attention.
After we posed with our virgin bundles, Creative soaked the scarves in soda ash to make the fabric more receptive to dye and then she mixed eight or nine batches of dye in various shades of purple, blue, and green.

We applied the dye of our choice with sponge brushes, rolled the scarves in plastic sheets so they looked like sausages, squeezed out the excess dye, and let our projects rest while we ate lunch. Creative, however, did not get to eat lunch because I forgot she is a vegetarian until I was placing the fruity chicken curry salad in front of her. I will not sleep until I come up with a way to atone for this faux pas.

The Japanese quilters were thrilled to learn a traditional Japanese craft from a passionate young American artist. They want to return the favor by taking us to Kamakura next month to see the hydrangeas in bloom. Weather Explorer will be in New York then so Kate might have to fill in for her. This will require an appropriate nickname. Junior Explorer? Ignoring-her-thesis Explorer? This has all the earmarks of a contest.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

They're Back! Part One *

Her heart started racing the second the e-mail popped up on her screen. "They're back!"

She typed a quick acknowledgement - "I LOVE you!" - before clicking send, grabbing her car keys, and scampering out the door. It was a dark and rainy night and she hadn't paused to grab an umbrella but she didn't care. They're back!

Flashing her ID card, she entered the brightly lit building. She squared her shoulders and took off at a trot for the far corner of the cavernous room just as music erupted from the loudspeakers overhead.

It's getting near dawn,
When lights close their tired eyes.
I'll soon be with you my love,
To give you my dawn surprise.
I'll be with you darling soon,
I'll be with you when the stars start falling.

Cream. "Sunshine of Your Love," 1968, Sophomore and Junior dances. Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker. Forty-two years evaporated like ground fog on a sunny morning and she was back in her groove.

I've been waiting so long (right hip thrust)
To be where I'm going (left hip thrust)
In the sunshine of your love. (spin, shimmy, butt wiggle)

Life does not get more perfect than this.

Swinging her shoulders and dipping her knees every time Ginger's hands slapped those tom-toms, she danced across the room. She almost didn't see them but then her eyes lit up. They had changed slightly since she last laid eyes on them nearly three months ago, but it was definitely them. Hallelujah!

Carefully timing her movements to correspond with the drum beat, she tossed four boxes of Pillsbury Pie Crusts into her cart.

I've been waiting so long (one)
I've been waiting so long (two)
I've been waiting so long (three)
To be where I'm going (four)
In the sunshine of your love.

A song from her college days came on as she pushed her cart toward the checkout line. "Lola". She has a routine for that one too.

* Today's post was made possible through the generosity of the Jen O'Connor Foundation for Food Shortage Research. I really do love her.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

On Why I Deserved to Attend the 34th Tokyo Hobby Show

Do you have lots of interests but few hobbies?

Interest: a state of curiosity about something; something that evokes this mental state
Hobby: an activity or interest pursued at one's leisure for enjoyment

The operative word here is pursuit. Devoting time and energy to an interest transforms that interest into a hobby.

Last Thursday I decided I could legitimately move knitting from the interest to the hobby column in my life ledger since I've spent a heck of a lot of time learning the basics over the past few months. This was excellent timing on my part. The Tokyo Hobby Show at Big Sight, a cavernous convention center in Odaiba, opened Friday. Having a pertinent hobby lent a patina of credibility to my attendance. Or at least I like to pretend so.

Scarf #2, that white ribbed number pictured above, is a done deal (or will be once I weave in those dangles where two skeins of yarn connect). Now I'm working on a blue scarf in a checkerboard pattern for my sister Suzi. I've reverted to calling her Susan for the duration of this project because the pattern changes every five stitches and I've discovered it's easy to keep track of those changes by chanting "S-U-S-A-N" when knitting and "S-Y-K-E-S" when purling. The end stitches merit a perky "Marion," her middle name and our grandmother's first name. Knitting this scarf has a slightly holy aura, like saying a rosary.

Yesterday I finished knitting my first pair of socks. My teachers decided I would knit the second sock on a circular needle, two needles attached to each other by a plastic cord. Hmpf. Teacher Tara then decided to go into labor. This is her in the hospital elevator, cheerfully answering my pesky questions until the midwife arrived.

Then Teacher Megan and Teacher Cari took off for China with The Other Kathy. They are pictured here knitting on The Great Wall. That left Teacher Betty, the only one of the bunch who can be talked into fixing my mistakes for me rather than showing me how to fix the mistakes myself. So "I" made fairly rapid progress on that sock until Betty and Lulu grabbed their backpacks and hopped a plane to Singapore just when the harsh taskmistresses climbed down off The Great Wall and picked up their whips.

Tara, meanwhile, returned to the knitting circle with darling Logan and a dozen skeins of yarn she dyed herself - between contractions no doubt - using natural materials like onions and other vegetables. They just keep raising that bar higher and higher.

In any event, I spent Friday wandering around the Tokyo Hobby Show with that second sock stuffed in my bag in case I was asked to prove I have a hobby. I spent 480 yen (about $5) on a pair of metal needles since I'm still in the experimental phase of knitting, testing the various tools to see which work best for me. The cashier tucked a set of complimentary circular needles in my bag to thank me for my purchase and that tickled me immensely since I'm pretty sure the circular needles cost more than the metal ones I bought.

Here's the thing: I enjoy knitting socks. If you send me a tracing of one of your feet, I will try to whip* up a pair for you.

*whip = 2-3 months

Saturday, May 8, 2010

(Almost) Too Cute to Eat

Reiko ushered me into a wonderful bakery in Kurihama after we hiked through Flower World. I was fixing dinner that night for a family with a new baby, so I decided to get the Hello Kitty and Pikachu buns for the older siblings. Not that I ever need an excuse to buy baked goods . . .

Matt polished off Totoro before I could dream up a way to ship it to Totoro's fans in Norfolk or Peoria. The baker makes cartoon character buns in every size imaginable. I'm searching for an excuse to order a 10" x 12" Totoro. Matt doesn't seem very enthused about a Totoro graduation party so maybe we'll have to plan a special homecoming celebration for the Ancient Mariner.

Yet the bakery was not the day's culinary highlight. That prize goes to the noodle shop in the Kurihama station where Reiko treated me to slurpy ramen, the freshest gyoza that's ever danced across my taste buds before melting in the back of my mouth, and a mango dessert with a pleasant texture somewhere between jello and pudding.

Between slurps, I quizzed Reiko on gyoza sauce. This was a self-serving conversation since the three miniscule sauce packets the department store clerk tucks into my box of gyoza in the department store basement do not begin to cover my 18 dumplings.

Reiko makes her own sauce from three ingredients: soy sauce, vinegar, and rayou. Rayou is a Chinese oil infused with chili peppers. Subsequently I learned that Dr. T dips his gyoza in a homemade sauce concocted from soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil.

I'll try making my own sauce soon but not before we polish off the bottled gyoza sauce Reiko found for us in a grocery store. The bottled sauce combines Reiko's recipe with Dr. T's. Yum.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Exploring Recycled Kimono and Obis

Twice a year, in the spring and fall, the community center near Yokohama station hosts a recycled kimono sale. Used kimono and obis are dirt cheap, and old kimono deemed unfit for resale are cut into strips and sold as fabric for craft projects.

If you want to get the attention of a certain category of Navy spouse, just stand in the center of a commissary parking lot and yell, "Kimono! Obi! Fabric!" Add "Dirt cheap!" and they'll follow you anywhere. Like a herd of stampeding buffalo so be sure to stay on your toes.

The sale begins at 10:00 am but we were standing in line by 8:45 to get entry numbers. Only the first 100 customers are allowed to enter the sale room when the doors open. As the sale progresses, smaller groups are admitted every fifteen minutes.

After landing numbers in the upper twenties, we had time for coffee before reassembling in our original order. We were as giddy as a troop of Girl Scouts on their first trip to Disney World.

Katie demonstrated the various properties of her Amazing Tote Bag for the ladies behind her while I showed a pair of sneaky ladies who were trying to edge in ahead of me the quickest route to the back of the line. They were trying to pull the old "I will chat with my good friend who is standing in front of you and then just slip through the door behind her" trick but I made my point by tapping on a shoulder and flicking my thumb toward the back of the room. If they had not immediately scurried back to their proper places in line, I was prepared to try my throat-slitting pantomime.

My role in this expedition was simply to get my companions to the community center and show them the ropes once we arrived. I was certainly not interested in buying any kimono or obis - I still haven't figured out what to do with the stuff I bought two years ago - but standing around watching other people fondle textiles is not my idea of fun so before long I was pawing through fabric scraps and stuffing the more delectable finds into my trash bag.

Still, I left Yokohama only $18 poorer and that's certainly less than any of my pals can say.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Flying Carp! It's Boys' Day!

Children's Day has been a Japanese national holiday since 1948 but for more than a thousand years the Japanese have celebrated Tango no Sekku, the Boys' Festival or Feast of the Banners. The government changed the name of the holiday to Kodomo no Hi but May 5 is still Boys' Day for most of my Japanese friends.

Carp-shaped koinobori flags have been blowing in the breeze throughout Japan for the past several weeks. There's one the size of an infant whale in our backyard. I swear it's doubled in size since we bought it in Okinawa three years ago. If you think suspending it from that tree limb was easy, you have obviously never seen me throw a softball.

Matt and I are munching on brownies and lemon cheesecake today in lieu of the traditional Boys' Day treats, kashiwa-mochi (mochi rice cakes filled with red bean jam and wrapped in oak leaves) and chimaki (a sweet rice paste wrapped in an iris or bamboo leaf).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Inhaling Wisteria and Yakisoba

Go bury your nose in the nearest wisteria even if it means climbing a barbed wire fence and facing down a Doberman. Assuming you survive the Doberman, you will thank me for this advice. (And if you don't survive the Doberman, I'll be consoled knowing that thoughts of me were among your last.)
Today's adventure took us to the village of Koshigaya, about 90 minutes and just one train transfer north of Yokosuka. Hisaizu-jinja Shrine was our specific destination and we had no trouble finding it. We just followed the trail of wisteria along the canal bank. Sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff. Aaaaaah.
Like many bridges in this country, the bridge we took across the canal was a work of art. Many manhole covers are works of art too. The people who work on neighborhood revitalization at the Department of Housing and Urban Development ought to try to sneak more whimsy into public projects in our country . . .

While we're wending our way to Hisaizu-jinja, I'll share some snippets from my guidebook, "A Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo" by Sumiko Enbutsu.

In 1837, nearly 200 years ago, a rice farmer named Kawanabe Kunizo moved a 50-year old wisteria by boat from a village 20 kilometers away and planted it at Hisaizu-jinja shrine to express his gratitude to a famous scholar, Hirata Atsutane, who shared his extensive knowledge about classical literature with area farmers on his frequent visits to the shrine.

The shrine itself, which sits within a sacred forest of pine and cypress, is believed to have been founded in the 12th century.

Kawanabe planted his wisteria on the edge of a pond. We'll stroll to the other side of the pond in a minute to get a panoramic view.

Let's see what the trunk of an almost 250-year old wisteria looks like. Pretty much what I expected. How about you?
Oh, the view from across the pond is quite lovely. The only problem is I can't smell the wisteria from over here. Sniff, sniff. The scent is too delicate to carry this far. Sniff, sniff. I am starting to look like a Mississippi bloodhound tracking an escaped convict through a swamp.
Check out the miniature shrine on the tiny island in the middle of the pond. Egad! Shades of Shomyo-ji, there are at least two dozen turtles piled up on the left side of that island. I think I'll admire the festive lanterns instead and follow them to the food stalls along the path to the shrine. The food stalls and lanterns only appear when the wisteria is blooming. This is my lucky day!
Look at that enormous lantern! How can I give my readers an idea of the size of that thing? Oh, good, that lady is trying to get her two little dogs to pose in front of the lantern. Now you can see that it's definitely larger than your average lantern.

This is where I was going to insert the obligatory group picture but my pants look really stupid with my shoes so you'll just have to use your imagination.

Time for lunch. Would anyone care for a fishstick? I thought not. For the first time in my life, I tried yakisoba. Remember how Goldilocks tasted Baby Bear's porridge and she ate it all up? That was me and the yakisoba. Then we couldn't help but notice Jane moaning as she nibbled on a pancake shaped like a hockey puck so we all got one of those for dessert. They were piping hot, filled with custard, and really did taste like pancakes.

My only regret is that I talked myself out of tucking my knitting into my bag when I set out this morning. The trains weren't nearly as crowded as we were warned to expect by the official Navy Know-It-All(s) so I could have added an inch or two to my sock-in-progress. And Mary Beth could have borrowed one of my needles to poke the drunk who sprawled next to her between Tokyo and Koshigaya.


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