Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Nice Header, Though

This is a temporary solution to what Peevish hopes will be a temporary technical problem.  Thank you for your forbearance.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Edo-Tokyo Museum

Our budding urban planner suggested we visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum and spend a morning gazing at dioramas, scale models, cutaway rooms, and hundreds of artifacts collected since the city of Edo (now Tokyo) was first conceived by Tokugawa Ieyasu 450 years ago.  What a great idea!

The museum is housed in a building modeled after ancient Japanese elevated grain storage houses.  I know this because I splurged on the English version of the museum guide just before we exited the museum four hours later.

Sashimono Woodworker
From the ticket booth on the third floor plaza, a vast open space, we rode an escalator directly to the permanent exhibition area on the sixth floor.  The exhibits continue on the fifth floor and the other floors are devoted to storage, restaurants, a gift shop, and library.

Kate lugs water from the river in the Edo era
Matt zips around Tokyo during the Meiji Era

The scale models alone are worth a return trip, but I'm going to spend some time studying that guide first.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Takashimaya! Shinjuku! Kudasai!

We spent Suzi's last three nights in Japan at the New Sanno Hotel in Tokyo.  "How did you manage to reserve two rooms for three consecutive nights?" I asked the Ancient Mariner in amazement.  "I'm not quite sure," he confessed, "but I suspect all those room-hogging Department of Defense teachers are too busy packing for their taxpayer-funded summer hiatus to visit Tokyo this week."  After almost twenty years, I think my sarcasm might be rubbing off on him.

Mike and Matt plotted a trip to the electronic district Tuesday morning and called it "quality bonding time before Matt leaves for college."  I had other plans for Suzi and Kate. 

Nice use of rotting branch
"My friend Hiroko has invited us to meet her in Shinjuku to see an Ikebana exhibit with some other friends."

The Sykes sisters have spent a combined total of seven minutes arranging flowers in our nearly 113 (!) years on earth but we are always open to new experiences, especially those involving lunch.  Kate, of course, would not dream of missing the rare opportunity to see her godmother and mother navigate a cultural event.  So off we went.  In a taxicab, no less, which made the morning that much more special.  "Takashimaya!  Shinjuku!  Kudasai!" she bade the driver.  "Donder!  Blitzen!  Rudolph!" they giggled to themselves.

Scary vine strangling a banana leaf
The last time I counted -- about five minutes ago -- there were ten Ikebana schools, each professing a different approach or philosophy.  Sogetsu Ikebana, which Hiroko is studying, is based on the belief that anyone can practice the way of flowers anywhere, and with almost anything.   

A campfire perhaps 
The Sogetsu School preaches accessibility.  They believe Ikebana ought to be inclusive and global and not an exclusive aspect of Japanese culture enjoyed by a limited number of people.

(Frankly, I was quite enamored by the use of twigs and branches.  I see it might be possible to spend a lot less money on clear plastic yard bags and a lot less time bagging my neighbor's intrusive vines when I get back to Norfolk.)

Individual, imaginative, and extremely patient
Sogetsu recognizes that every person is unique.  Students are encouraged to be individual and imaginative.
Suzi and I invested in several portable plastic vases that can double as wine or beer coolers.  You'll just have to imagine this until I catch up with my chronology.
The exhibit was held at the Takashimaya Department Store which is about three thousand times bigger than the NYC version on Fifth Avenue.  Like many large Japanese department stores, Takashimaya rents floor space to other retailers and restaurants.  Some of us were excited to see an entire floor of Yuzawaya fabrics, yarns, and other craft supplies.  The others were relieved to see the line at the cash register was too long to allow the fanatics to shop without rudely postponing lunch.
Hiroko presented beautiful fans in lovely fan cases to Suzi and Kate during lunch.  The thoughtfulness of my Japanese friends continues to astound and humble me.
Hisayo snapped pictures of us near the Yuzawaya entrance.  I look terrible in one and Kate looks pretty awful in the other.  I would not post either one but Suzi is rarely photographed and Hisayo captured her essence wonderfully.  Which to post?  What's a mother to do?
In the interest of international diplomacy, Peevish blinks at the same time as Yoko and Hiroko.

Back:  Peevish, Suzi, Valerie
Front:  Yoko, Kate, Hiroko
  Next:  Edo Museum at Last!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sameness, Sadness, and a "Celebrity Sighting"

We instituted Weekly Restaurant Night when the kids were young.  The plan called for rotating the responsibility for choosing a restaurant between the five of us, in order from youngest to oldest, but we pulled Matt out of the rotation five minutes into Week Six when he nominated the same restaurant he'd picked the first week:  McDonald's.  He was four at the time.  We assumed he'd develop more catholic tastes, at least in restaurants, as he grew older.
Silly us.

Fourteen years later, we asked Matt where he wanted to eat after his graduation ceremony.  He picked his favorite yakiniku (Korean BBQ) restaurant, Chaya, and we reserved a semi-private roomlet with two tables.

Fourteen years plus two days later, we asked Matt how he wished to celebrate his 18th birthday.  He wanted to invite his girlfriend to join us for dinner at -- sure enough -- his favorite yakiniku (Korean BBQ) restaurant, Chaya, and we got there early enough to snag that same semi-private roomlet.  Katie graduated to the grownup table to accommodate Jeanine.

Figuring they'd eaten enough Korean BBQ to last a decade, we took James and Emily to Sunday Brunch at the Officers' Club on base their last morning in Japan.  We dawdled to postpone the inevitable gut-wrenching departure.  Sunday Brunch is a great venue for dawdling but eventually we had to buckle ourselves into that rental van and wend our way to the airport. 

Emily's plane left first (long story) and we had a little time to take a few more pictures before James made his solitary trek through that family-severing metal detector.

We were feeling weepy.  Narita Airport knows all about weepy and has positioned smile-inducing signage throughout the departure area.

Unfortunately, you cannot read the sign behind them.  It says something about no samurai and no swords allowed on aircraft.  (I hid that shirt from Matt for six months.  Too bad I didn't hide it for seven . . .).

Why are we crying?  Matt and I will see James again in August.  We're going to spend a weekend in Dallas when I escort Matt to college in Virginia.  Still . . .

Mike will be deployed in August.  He does not know when he will next see James.

"Maybe a non-fat latte will help you feel better," I suggested, pushing him into the airport Starbucks. 

"Food is not a cure for melancholy," he lectured me as he waited morosely for his drink and I inhaled a box of mushroom-shaped cookies.

 Doesn't he look like Jack Benny when he is sad?  I think it's the thing he does with his arms.

Next:  Suzi and Kate in Tokyo 

Yebisu Beer Museum: An Excruciatingly Detailed Account

"Where to next, Mother Dearest?"

"The Yebisu Beer Museum, Eldest Son.  We'll ride the subway to the Ebisu station, stow our bags and backpacks in one of the convenient lockers, find a place to eat lunch, then ride a series of moving sidewalks through the station to get to the museum."

Those moving sidewalks took us to an exit south of the station, across the street from an enormous plaza flanked by new buildings that framed a view of what looked to be a French palace.  We saw a Sapporo beer hall off to our right but forced ourselves to turn left toward a bakery which we also managed to ignore.  The museum was hidden behind the Mikoshi department store, down a brick ramp.

The beer museum opened quite recently -- within the past couple of years -- and is remarkably posh.  I had the distinct impression those Yebisu people feel downright reverential about their product, and rightly so.  It's my favorite Japanese beer.

Presenting myself at the sleek information desk, I requested four tickets for the next guided tour.  The nice lady explained that the tour is conducted in Japanese only.  I told her we didn't mind.  Our motivation, as you have already surmised, was the two glasses each of Yebisu beer the guide would pour for us at the end of the tour.  The tour fee was 500 Yen, roughly $5.40, while two Japanese beers at our hotel would set us back about $15.  My mother, as she was fond of reminding us at regular intervals, did not raise any dummies (the grammatical error was her idea of a joke).

Clutching their tickets, the four Americans joined three Japanese tourists in the spacious waiting area.  Our guide, clad in a crisp uniform of course, met us there and escorted us around the corner into a small gallery.  She dimmed the lights.  We plastered appropriately reverential expressions on our faces (really, I cannot say enough good things about Emily - her instincts could not have been better if she'd been raised by my mother). 

The guide went through her spiel, inching us ve-e-e-ry slowly from one artifact to the next.  My heart skipped a beat when I spotted English subtitles on some of the exhibits.  I was trying to edge over close enough to read them without disrupting the tour when the guide, screwing up her courage I'm sure, elected to play to the majority of her audience by practicing her English.  She pointed to a portrait of Yebisu's distinguished founder and posed a question.  Oh, no!  Not the dreaded audience participation moment, the bane of a shy and/or half-deaf person's existence! 

"Is she talking to me?"  "Yes, yeah, yup," whispered the cowardly liars in their version of unison.  Drat.  "She wants to know which American president that man resembles."  Double drat.  So much for reading the English subtitles but I suppose that gives me a good excuse to make another trip to the museum for a self-guided tour.  (The correct answer was George Bush.  I thought the man looked like George Washington.)

Despair not.  I picked up a few kernels of information by enlarging some of the photographs I snapped in the exhibit gallery.  The cost of a beer in 1904, for example was 20 sen, ten times the cost of a bowl of soba noodles (note how eloquently this information is underscored visually).  Beer was something the common people could merely "gaze at longingly in shop windows" until the economic boom of the 1960s.  And here's something of potential minor interest to my brother Dave but no one else:  in 1994 the theme music from "The Third Man" was used in a successful ad campaign and henceforce became famous in Japan as the "Yebisu Song."

On to our reward:  the tasting room.  The beer that flowed out of that red tap over Emily's right shoulder was especially noteworthy but, alas, is only available on tap.  I know this because I asked which in and of itself ought to tell most of you how good that beer tasted.

We learned how to pour a proper beer with a creamy foam head extending at least an inch above the glass, exactly the opposite of how I was taught to pour a beer during my brief barmaid career at Lizard's Bar and Grill in East Lansing, Michigan.

We learned that the lacy patterns a Yebisu beer leaves inside a glass are cause for reflection and admiration.

One of us paced himself by photographing his beer between every sip/gulp.

One of us, pictured here with the Yebisu mascot, did not pace herself and learned that she should never again wear a sleeveless top or that particular shade of pink.

Next:  Adios to the Texans!

Tokyo Tower

Overheard in Roppongi on June 9:

"Hey, Mom!  What's this orange metal thing that looks like the Eiffel Tower?"

"It's Tokyo Tower, a television antenna erected in 1958.  The tower is over 1,000 feet high and has two observation decks, the Grand Observation Platform at 492 feet and the Special Observation Platform at 820 feet."

"I think you memorized this brochure.  Can we go up?  Puh-lease?"

"Well, okay.  Get in line behind those three dozen Japanese schoolchildren and try to control your excitement.  You are an unofficial ambassador of the United States while you are in Japan.  One of those elevators over there will take us up to the first platform."

"The kids sure look cute in their school uniforms."

"Yes, they do, but those girls are not children.  They are elevator operators."

"And they do a great job.  That was one smooth ri--Wow!  Tokyo sure is big.  It stretches all the way to the horizon in every direction.  Emily and I want to check out the view from the Special Observation Platform."

"Go ahead.  Aunt Suzi and I will stay here and play with this map display.  It's fun to see how the city has grown and changed from the Edo Era to the Meiji Era to today."


"Suzi!  Come over here and check out this floor window.  Don't stand too close!"

"Why not?  That big Sumo guy just walked right across the floor window over there."

"Eek!  He's doing it again just to scare us."

"What a joker.  Ha, ha.  I sure could use a beer to calm my heart rate back down."

"Me, too.  Let's tour a beer museum after I use the restroom."

"I'm not a rocket scientist, but I am going to assume one of these two buttons makes the toilet flush."

"Yes, but which one?  And what happens if you push the wrong button?  We are 492 feet in the air."

"Gee, you really did memorize that broch--Ha!  I think I might have figured out what happens if you push the wrong button.  The sign over the sink says "This isn't good to drink.'"

"Well, I'm pretty thirsty but I think I'll hold out for a beer."

Next:  Yebisu Beer Museum

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Tokyo Marathon: June Version

We managed to reserve hotel rooms for only one night - the never-popular Tuesday - while James and Emily were here, so we had a lot of ground to cover in two days.  So many factors had to be considered: Kate was due to arrive Wednesday afternoon, Suzi had visited Tokyo in October 2007 so we wanted to add some new sights to the mix, and Matt had graduation rehearsals scheduled both days.  Major Broadway productions have been staged in less time than the Kinnick High School Commencement Ceremony . . .

So.  Meiji Shrine was our first stop.  We shooed the Texans toward the torii gate for the obligatory photograph, but Emily insisted on posing in the foreground.  The middle-aged sisters raised their eyebrows in unison and whispered, "She's quite smart."  This is an accolade they rarely confer on anyone not related to them by blood.

Good Lord, she even has him washing his hands!
Inside the shrine we happened upon a Shinto wedding, always a treat.  "Look!  She's marrying a foreigner.  She's wearing a hood to hide the horns all women are expected to reveal once they are married."
The Ancient Mariner wisely resisted the impulse to share his thoughts on this topic.

Emily wanted her picture taken with the shrine entrance in the background.  Everyone whipped out a camera. 

"Is that a Nikon, Birkenstock Lady?"

James takes his best shot

"Step aside and let the master show you how it's done."

Sumimasen, allow me to demonstrate the proper way to take a photograph.

After a quick dash through Harajuku followed by one of my infamous shortcuts down a labyrinth of narrow lanes and alleys leading to a dead end, we found our way back to the train station.  Mike went back to Yokosuka to chaperone Matt and the rest of us headed across town to Sensoji Temple and the Five-Story Pagoda in Asakusa.  James called Emily a brown-noser when she bought a change purse like mine in one of the little shops but she forgave him when he agreed to pose in the cartoon Mikoshi Parade.

Over our usual Teppanyaki dinner back at the hotel, we hammered out plans for the morrow and hammered down sake while Emily opted to sample shochu, which apparently has much in common with Kentucky moonshine.  After a couple of sips, she followed the waitress's recommendation and mixed the shochu with grapefruit juice.  That did not seem to do the trick so I guess I'll stick with sake and beer.  Good to know, right?

Pre-Shochu Portrait
Next:  Tokyo Tower and Yebisu Brewery

Gorging in Kamakura: Hydrangea and Waffles

No longer able to use graduation rehearsal as an excuse for not hanging out with his family, Matt had an idea.  "Hey!  Let's all climb into that rental van with Mom behind the wheel and head on over to Kamakura.  We can check out her waffle restaurant and, gosh, I haven't visited the Daibutsu or Hasedera since the last time we had company."

"What's a Die-boot-sue?" James wondered after inhaling a half dozen waffles in assorted flavors.

"A great big statue of Buddha," Matt explained in his new 'we're all high school graduates now' tone of voice.

"Is this it?"  asked James.  "It doesn't seem all that big to me."

"No, that's a monk begging for alms.  We need to take a short ride to Hase on an electric train to see the Daibutsu."

"There's seven of us but only six Pasmo cards.  We'll have to buy one paper ticket.  Let's give it to the last person who reached Japan."

"Um, you guys go on ahead.  I'll catch up with you," advised the jet-lagged sister ten minutes later as she rummaged through the contents of her purse in the Hase station.  She had to find that paper ticket to exit the station.

She found it!

Everyone who visits us gets dragged to Hase to see the Great Buddha statue.  This is the first time we've seen anyone trying to line up a "Kissing Buddha" photograph.  Seeing an old thing through new eyes is refreshing.

On to Hasedera!  That's another routine stop on our Kamakura tour.

You've all seen a zillion photographs of my favorite temple, Hasedera, but this is the first time we've managed to visit Hasedera in June when the famous hydrangea are in bloom.  We were there about a week before the flowers peaked and that is no cause for complaint.  We marched straight up the hill (almost literally, come to think of it) and were soon surrounded by every shade of blue, pink, and white hydrangea imaginable.  A week later temple visitors stood in line for up to an hour to partake of this remarkable experience.

Imagine how this hillside looked a week later!

Emily at Hasedera

We have the same picture of her in a field of Texas bluebonnets taken 26 years ago.

There are a half dozen or so hydrangea bushes in our yard in Norfolk. I wonder how they are faring in my absence. Can I squeeze in a hundred more when we move back to Virginia? Will the Ancient Mariner be feeling up to making a mountain out of a molehill?

Emily and the fashion plates
Next:  Tokyo with Aunt Suzi and the Texans

The Fog Lifts

Whoosh!  Is that the Summer of 2010 flashing by?

The Ancient Mariner was home long enough to see his youngest son graduate, turn 18, climb Mt. Fuji, and learn to ride a bike. Now he is back on the Seven Seas, scanning the horizon for a tiny island that Dr. T and I have as yet been unable to locate in an atlas.

James and Emily took to Japan like armadillos to Texas asphalt. We ate our way up, down, and across the Miura Peninsula while Matt endured umpteen graduation rehearsals. Between meals we checked out a few shrines, temples, and the Yebisu Brewery. (With two Japanese brewery tours under her belt, Suzi is already talking about making a third trip to Japan next spring so we can hit the Asahi headquarters in Tokyo and Sapporo in Hokkaido. We're such a cultured family.)

Speaking of Suzi, Matt's devoted aunt brought the Best Graduation Gift Ever from all the cousins, uncles, and aunts:  a scrapbook holding letters and photographs of two Flat Stanleys and their pal Flat Arthur cavorting with Matt's cousins, uncles, and aunts. We all had quite a chuckle seeing Flat Stanley riding with the Border Patrol in Arizona, visiting Grandpa's favorite watering hole in Michigan, bouncing on a trampoline with Will, being devoured by David and Erin's dog, and painting an appropriately pious expression on his face when Uncle Tom and Aunt Betsy took him to church in Miami.  (Clever families are so much more fun than cultured ones.  One assumes.)

While Emily, James, and Suzi were recovering from jet lag, Kate was on bridesmaid duty in New Hampshire. She got to Japan in time to see her little brother meander to the podium at the Yokosuka Arts Theatre to introduce his class salutatorians.

 The slightly biased family members (plus Emily, a refreshingly agreeable young lady) agreed that the introduction was delivered with more poise and better diction than any other address that evening.  You can trust us on this as we're a rather critical -- whoops, I mean discerning -- audience.

Next:  Family Day in Kamakura


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