Thursday, December 30, 2010

What I Talk About When I Talk with Dr. T: The Holiday Version

Most of my friends who teach conversational English in Japan work from some sort of lesson plan.  My approach tends toward extemporaneous because (a) I am lazy and (b) my students, Ishii and Dr. T, are quite advanced.  Ishii is so advanced, in fact, that she is now able to follow most of my digressions.  With Dr. T, it depends on the topic.

You might be wondering how one chooses a topic for a conversational English lesson.  This one tends to pluck topics out of thin air or off facebook, which is just another way of saying thin air when you think about it.  (And thinking about it is what I mean by 'digression'.)  I also favor 'stream-of-consciousness' and that was true long before I started reading James Joyce's epic novel.

Facebook was the source of this week's conversational gambit with Dr. T.  Just before I left the house to meet with Dr. T in his office at Yokohama City University Hospital, daughter Kate sent me a link to a New York Times article about Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa, one of the three highest rated gardens in Japan.  I was so intrigued that I tucked my Japan guidebook into my bag with the intention of researching the garden and Kanazawa during my train ride.  (Digression:  my hard-cover copy of Ulysses is much too bulky to lug around in my purse, elsewise I would have finished that project weeks ago.)

One can cover a lot of ground literally and figuratively during a twenty-minute train ride.  By the time I tapped on Dr. T's door, hung my coat on the fancy padded hanger, and took my first alternate sips of cold green tea and an apple-grape-mango juice, I had learned that Kenrokuen covers 25 acres and took about 150 years to complete.  "I am thinking about visiting Kanazawa," I announced.  And we were off to the races.

He told me about the Maeda clan, beginning with Maeda Toshiie, who was granted Kanazawa as a reward for service during a period of civil wars that rocked Japan 400 years ago.  A thriving castle town grew up around the castle Toshiie built and the clan ruled over Kanazawa for the next 300 years.  The Maedas were the second-most powerful family in Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate.  They controlled the largest domain in the country, amassed wealth (land and rice), and encouraged development of the arts: Kutani pottery, Yuzen silk dyeing, lacquerware, and Noh theater.

Kanazawa was the second-largest city, after Kyoto, to escape bombing during World War II so some of the old city is intact today and there is lots to see there besides the garden.  There's Seisonkaku Villa, built in 1863 by the 13th Maeda lord as a retirement home for his mother, and the Nagamachi Samurai District, a few residential streets remaining from the days when Lord Maeda had as many as 8,000 samurai retainers, each of whom had retainers of his own.  The Higashi Chaya District is one of three old entertainment quarters where 50 geisha practice their trade and one can get a peek inside the geisha world at Shima Geisha World, a quasi-museum cum tearoom.

When Dr. T mentioned Myoryuji Temple I knew I'd have to spend more than a day and half exploring Kanazawa.  Commonly referred to as Ninja-dera (Temple of the Secret Agents), this temple has hidden stairways, secret chambers, trick doors, and tunnels.  The Maedas built it for family prayers in 1643 and, to comply with Edo Period height restrictions, it looks just two stories high from the outside but inside four stories are obvious and three more stories are concealed.  This is something I simply must see even if it means phoning ahead for a reservation.   

Apparently the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum for Traditional Products and Crafts is the best place to learn about the handcrafted items for which Kanazawa is famous including bright Kutani pottery with five-color overglaze patterns, handpainted Yuzen silk, and nearly all of Japan's gold leaf.  Kanko Bussankan offers one-stop shopping for these products as well as a restaurant, but I think it would be more fun to go straight to the source.  Kaga Yuzen Dento Sangyo Kaikan, for instance, is a Yuzen cloth museum and shop where one can ask to see a 20-minute video describing (in English) the techniques of dyeing cloth and the role it played in Kanazawa history.  This is right up Artistic Explorer's alley and just wait until I tell her about the Kutani Kosengama (pottery kiln) where one can take a 15-minute tour to see the entire process of producing handmade Kutani ware, including the kilns and the painting.

That's probably as much sightseeing as one can possibly cram into a three-day weekend, but if there's time left over this one would vote for skipping watching Sakuda's artisans pound gold until it's as thin as paper in favor of visiting Shamisen no Fukushima, the only remaining shop making the three-stringed shamisen instruments geisha strum to entertain their customers, where one can have a half-hour lesson in English and cup of tea for about $4 and/or go upstairs to see how the instruments are made.  Apparently the sound box is covered with cat and dog skin.  Cat skin is more expensive.  This is yet another example of digression).

Dr. T says I will like the food in Kanazawa.  The local specialties are seafood, freshwater fish, duck, and mountain vegetables.  "What are mountain vegetables?"  Mushrooms.  This reminds me of something I've recently read about radioactive Chernobyl mushrooms - Where did I read that?  Not in Ulysses, for darn sure.  Something British.  Dry wit.  Ah, Alexander McCall Smith's Corduroy Mansions.  Of course.  - and suddenly we have veered away from Kanazawa into literature.

In the next hour we covered the following topics, not necessarily in this order and some more thoroughly than others, delivered in the style of James Joyce which I hope to eschew within the next 36 hours upon completion of what some have called the best book of the Twentieth Century:  Tolstoy, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Dostoevsky, Bakunin, Trotsky, Karl Marx vice Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, back to Karl Marx and satire, my theory on The Communist Manifesto as satire and the subsequent irony known as Communism, his theory that the seeds of communism sprang up in several different places more or less simultaneously and therefore could not be entirely blamed on a general misinterpretation of Karl Marx, Charles Dickens, a fictional account of Charles Dickens' wife my Japanese book club will read this spring, what the Japanese book club ladies had to say about Shinju, an excruciatingly detailed biography of University of Michigan graduate and author Laura Joh Rowlands which was fresh in my mind since I had shared it with the book club ladies the previous week preforatory to our Shinju discussion, John Steinbeck, Yukio Mishima at length (why Dr. T thinks I ought to read The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, why I disliked The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea,  my abandonment of The Sea of Fertility tetralogy after not being able to comprehend more than a tenth of Spring Snow [vol. 1], his admission that he read the entire tetralogy at the age of 20 but did not comprehend any more than I, a foreigner, at age circa 54, and Mishima's dramatic suicide by seppuku after he and several followers barricaded themselves in Ichigaya, the 'Pentagon of Japan', and soldiers jeered his impassioned call for a military coup d'etat), the specific details of ritual suicide (we indulge in major grimacing at this point), speaking of knives why I enjoyed - I can't remember her first name but know she employs a masculine spelling to gain wider readership - Kirino's Out so much more than other modern Japanese mysteries like Yoshida's Villain - at this point he darts over to his desk to research Kirino while I continue to ramble - although, come to think of it, so far I'm enjoying a Japanese mystery I started reading the other night, Now You're One of Us, by someone whose name I can't recall, I think Asa but that doesn't strike me as a Japanese sort of name, Kirino's first name turns out to be Natsue and she used a different pen name for the thirty or so popular romance novels she wrote before venturing into the mystery genre, Kirino was born in 1951 as was Dr. T, he prints out her biography and a list of published works for me and I spot two words in English - Out and In - which leads me to suspect Kirino wrote a sequel to Out so I hope there's a English translator hard at work on my and my sister's behalf, then he mentions the Tony Awards show he saw on television the other night, a 14- or maybe 16-year old boy from Canada who received two awards, I share my dismay at not being able to find a Billy Elliott DVD at the Navy Exchange, monthly e-mails I receive from, Bon Jovi's performance on the aforementioned awards program, the difference between the Tony awards and the Grammy awards now that I realize we are talking about two different things, our preferences for watching movies - in a theater or at home - and how they have changed over the years, purchasing DVDs vice renting them, amusing anecdote about the time the Blockbuster clerk told me to stop apologizing for my tardy return of rental movies as the store staff fondly referred to Krentz family late fees as their 'Christmas bonus,' the cost of movie rentals in Japan (about $2.50 for two days), how NetFlix works, a painstakingly detailed plot synopsis of Inception compliments of back-to-back viewings pre- and post-Matt's arrival in Japan, the actor Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai, speaking of Matt here's a ten-pound bag of Japanese snacks for the college student, our mutual distaste for scandals, Johnny Depp, John Cusack, Edward Norton, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, speaking of our mutual distaste for scandals I am going to have to put my Helena Bonham-Carter/Kenneth Branagh antipathy on the back burner for two or so hours in order to see The King's Speech which is getting really great reviews and is about Queen Elizabeth's father who it turns out was a stutterer - blank expression, my impromptu take on stuttering, immediate look of comprehension, mental note to partner with him the next time someone suggests a game of Charades - and confronted his speech impediment when - speaking once again of our mutual distaste for scandals - his brother abdicated the throne to wed the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare in Love, Edward and Wallis in France, Edward and Wallis erroneously placed in Russia which I let slide in order to talk about Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush which makes him think of another actor with a British accent, Gladiator, perhaps Robin Hood, he means Russell Crowe and I am compelled to confide that as much as I enjoyed Crowe's performance in Gladiator I absolutely could not see Robin Hood because by then Russell had joined the ranks of the spurned along with Helena and Kenneth (we overcome our mutual distaste for scandals long enough for me to bring him up to date), which, of course, took us to Meg Ryan, Dennis Quaid, alcoholism, Randy Quaid, botched plastic surgery, Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock movies, a year-by-year review of Clint Eastwood's acting and directing career, my college roommate's experience as an extra in Gran Torino, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, obesity, Robert DeNiro, my sketchy memory of a Rolling Stone interview with with same wherein same showed no trace of a personality or mental activity, telephone call reminding Dr. T that he must move some of his staff to another hospital, review and mutual admiration of a colorful grid Dr. T has created to make sense of this puzzle, our mutual concern that staff members who have taken up residence near the hospital where they are currently employed will be upset when he tells them of the commute they will be facing with in the new year, "Happy New Year!" I chirp which makes us both giggle guiltily although there is no reason in the world I should feel the tiniest shred of guilt about the dislocation of the Yokohama medical establishment except I do due to Crippling Empathy Syndrome, the minimal progress he is making on readying his house for the new year, a suggestion that he hire someone to clean for him in light of his wife's invalid status, a quick draining of the fruit juice and green tea, a polite acceptance of payment that I hope to hide from Matt-the-Yen-squanderer, and a fond farewell until next week.

What will we talk about next week?  Certainly not a two-hour plot synopsis of Ulysses since my understanding of the 'plot' Joyce offers in the first 702 pages can be summed up in less than two minutes.  Lucky Dr. T.  Lucky you.              

Made in Japan

A few weeks ago Ishii taught me how to transform one of my craft kits into a Christmas gift for the Ancient Mariner. This was not half as difficult as I anticipated, mainly because Ishii subscribes to the finger method of smearing glue over the surface to be covered. My fingers are much easier to control than a brush.

She demonstrated her technique by constructing a box and covering it with washi paper. This is a New Year's gift for her mother.  I envy her her mother and her father, octagenarians both.  I enjoy hearing about their preparations and plans for the new year. 

Those inverted arches look tricky.  Good thing the kit I bought is less complicated.

Opening my kit, I am surprised to find enough supplies to make three boxes. Since we've already posted all our U.S.-bound gifts, the Ancient Mariner will be getting an abundance of boxes this year.

First I construct the boxes by folding the cardboard along the perforations. So far, so good. Then I smear slow-drying glue along each surface and apply black paper. Thanks to the slow-drying glue, I have time to correct most of my mistakes before carefully centering little squares of embossed paper along the sides and tops of the boxes.

This is what they looked like before I wiped off all the excess glue and tied a black bead through the top of each box. Then I filled them with sweets for my Sweetie.

My sister-in-law Cathy also received a homemade gift this year, an orange muffler in a pattern I've dubbed 'Belgian waffle' since one of her grandfathers emigrated to the United States from Belgium. She's half Irish but it will take me a few decades before I master four-leaf clovers.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Vignette

Some of my favorite photographs flank a chocolate-filled croissant

Merry Christmas! If the road rises up to meet you, I hope it's not because you put too much rum in your egg nog.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Observation of a Designated Driver

Preparing tortilla soup, a winter salad with homemade lemon poppyseed dressing, and cheesecakes (peppermint and white chocolate raspberry) for thirty Shonan ladies and transporting all that food and kitchen paraphernalia across base last Friday morning left me almost too pooped to participate in our semi-annual dinner outing with the Japanese Navy medical admirals in Yokohama that night. But we had expanded our guest list to include the new U.S. Naval Hospital Commanding Officer and his wife, a genuinely nice couple, so I took a ten-minute nap and ran a brush through my bob while the Ancient Mariner raced to the Navy Exchange in search of gift bags to be filled with odds and ends from our closets, cupboards, and liquor cabinet.

I'm glad I rallied. We spent a lovely evening with our old and new friends at a Chinese restaurant on the 28th floor of Yokohama's Sky Building and then squeezed into a train car crammed with Japanese party animals for the return trip to Yokosuka. The train was so crowded that people who might normally be characterized as falling down drunk could not possibly fall down. I think I was the only member of our party who noticed this . . .

Tsugino Shingo WO Hidari ni Magatte Kudasai!

My imagination has prepared me for more experiences than I can possibly cram into one lifetime. If I'm ever handed an Oscar, for instance, that brilliant acceptance speech delivered with the utmost humility will not be quite as extemporaneous as non-relatives in the audience might think. Ditto for the Nobel Peace Prize, Grammy, Emmy, and Congressional Medal of Honor.

Yet I was completely unprepared for my assignment at the Ikebana holiday program held at the New Sanno Hotel in Tokyo this month.  They asked me to don a Santa Claus hat and stand on a busy street corner across from two subway exits in the world's most populous city, holding a placard bearing the words 'Ikebana International' in both English and Japanese.  Fortunately the three to seven people most likely to be mortified by this sight currently reside on the other side of the planet. 

Had I known about the hat in advance, I could have set the alarm for twenty minutes later and foresworn the hair ritual.  This miffed me enough to insist on a speaking role.  "I ought to tell them to turn left at the next major intersection.  How do I say 'Please turn left at the next light' in Japanese?"  Bi-lingual Midori-san grabbed a notepad and wrote it out for me.  In Japanese.  "Um, sumimasen, but I can't read these little squiggles."  She re-wrote my line in romaji (Roman letters) - Tsugino shingo wo hidari ni magatte kudasai - and then had me practice reciting it faster and faster until it sounded like this: Tsuginishingo WO hidarinimagattekudasaiA long-suffering bellhop served as my dress rehearsal audience and then I marched a quarter mile to my appointed corner, nodding benevolently to the thirteen hundred rush hour pedestrians I encountered enroute.  Fortunately the three to seven people most likely to be mortified by this sight currently reside on the other side of the planet.  Oops!  I already mentioned that, didn't I?

Every single Japanese member and guest turned left at the next light and arrived at the New Sanno Hotel in time to see and hear the Kinnick High School Show Choir perform.  That was gratifying, certainly, but having mastered this Japanese tongue twister, I am now searching for opportunities to repeat my performance.  With or without the hat.

This one's for Kate

Miles and Andrew flank the Queen Bee
 The Show Choir sang like angels, especially Mimi's son Andrew, a senior, and a miniscule freshman with a pure and powerful voice.  His last name is Davis and his mother named him Miles.  Trust me, music lovers have not heard the last of Miles Davis.

The next time you turn left at a light, I hope you will think of me. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Find My Gingerbread Man: A Holiday Contest

The Americans hosted the final JAW event for 2010, a genteel tea party at Mindy's house overlooking the Navy base and Tokyo Bay.

The party was an oasis in the midst of the usual holiday frenzy overseas military bases cram into the first two weeks of December, before school lets out and nearly a third of the personnel depart for home or exotic vacation destinations. But an anti-holiday party did not mean we completely turned our backs on Christmas. Heavens no. We played Christmas bingo and decorated gingerbread men.

The first person who correctly guesses the cookie I created wins a 60th anniversary Peko-chan Christmas treat box adorned with a combination cell phone charm/finger puppet. Anonymous submissions will not be considered.

Cookie #1
Cookie #2

Cookie #3

Cookie #4

One of the party hostesses, a modern day Grandma Crippen, whipped up 45 reversible bags that were filled with treats and passed out as bingo prizes. Everyone eventually won a bag. I plan to admire mine for a few weeks and then pass it along to one of you as soon as I dream up another contest.

"Guess the year Kathy will finish Ulysses" has strong potential as the clock winds down on 2010.

All I Want for Christmas is a Pair of Boots

Tokyo Prince Hotel
The fashionista crowd here has embraced a new accessory this season: furry boot socks.

One of the Ikebana ladies wore a pair to our holiday board luncheon in early December and since then numerous variations have been spotted on train platforms between Yokohama and Tokyo. They seem to be multiplying as quickly as rabbits.

Yokohama train station

A friend who spends less time on train platforms than I landed landed a pair at the JAW gift exchange. She was puzzled, then a bit dubious, but tried them on, chuckled a bit, and decided she needs to find another pair to accent her black boots.

She modeled the socks at a recent book club session. Alas, the light was dim and I didn't think to enable my camera's flash so you probably can't tell that the furry bracelet is attached to a stirrup worn over socks. The stirrup is adjustable so the bracelet can be worn on the ankle or calf.

I don't think I've owned boots since emigrating from Michigan in 1980 but there's a gap in my closet just large enough to accommodate a pair or two. Last Saturday night I was launched my pitch to Santa as we were standing on a train platform in Yokohama.

"Ho, ho, ho!" he interrupted. "When I made my list and checked it twice, you landed at the top of the Naughty column. You might want to scale down your expectations. Try thinking outside the boot box."

And laying a finger aside of his nose, he winked in the direction of a girl standing a few meters further along the platform.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Holiday Tour of Yamate

The spirit of Christmas is alive and well on a bluff overlooking Yokohama. The City of Yokohama offers free admission to seven Western-style houses in the Yamate neighborhood and every December those houses are decked out for the holidays.

Yamate is where foreigners lived when the port first opened in the mid-19th Century. The houses we saw this week are less than 100 years old since the neighborhood was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but they are quite interesting and worth a visit any time of year.

Val and Rita in the garden behind the Diplomat's House
A nice Japanese businessman pointed us in the right direction when we exited the train at Ishikawa-cho station. Our first stop was the Diplomat's House. We had a hard time tearing ourselves away from the garden which offered a splendid view of Mt. Fuji, meaning we fortuitously picked an incredibly clear day for our walk.

Bluff 18 Ban-Kan

Bluff 18 Bank-Kan was where the Catholic priests lived.  The holiday decor in this house made lavish use of white feathers and alcohol (see left).  Go figure. 

We had to exchange our shoes for slippers to enter most of the houses. Note to self: wear slip-on shoes next time.

234 Ban-Kan, a duplex, featured decorations from Poland

The Foreign Cemetery is at the top of the hill. The Catholics were buried over to the side, reminding me a bit of St. John's Cemetery in my hometown.

While I was resisting the temptation to examine several hundred tombstones, my companions disappeared around a bend in the road. There's really no accounting for priorities. Most of my siblings would have spent more time wandering through the cemetery than the houses.

Now where did those ladies go? Are they ordering waffles inside The Best Cheesecake restaurant? Alas, no. Between the restaurant and the cemetery, I have two great reasons to return to Yamate.

This picture might have been taken in the Ehrismann Residence. A common thread in the house tour was the lavish holiday table settings.

After our tour ended at the British House near the top of French Hill, we descended several hundred steep steps to Motomachi Street where we paused for a late lunch at an Italian restaurant.

Several ladies succumbed to the upscale shops on Motomachi Street - yet another reason to return to Yamate - but I hopped on the subway with the others. I was hoping to initiate one of those Flash Mob song-and-dance numbers on the train but Artistic Explorer immediately put the kibosh on that plan. Next time I'll make darn sure she rides in a different train car.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Fair-ly Royal Day in Tokyo

Guilt can be a powerful motivator. A few weeks ago I was feeling guilty about not being able to travel to Mt. Takao with some of the other Ikebana ladies to make arrangements for the field trip we've planned for this coming spring. I had already promised to take some people to Asakusabashi that day. Then I had to say no to a practice session for another upcoming Ikebana program because I had a JAW commitment. So when they called for volunteers to man a fundraising booth at the annual Ikebana International Fair in Tokyo and my calendar was open, my guilty conscience pulled a string and my hand immediately responded.  Weather Explorer raised her hand too.  Have I ever mentioned that she's Catholic too?

"What have we gotten ourselves into now?" "I haven't a clue other than we have to be awake by 5:30 am to get to Shiba Park on time."  Good Lord.

The Russian ladies
The Fair covered two ballrooms on the second floor of the Tokyo Prince Hotel. The first room was filled with enormous flower arrangements and the second room, even larger, was crammed with tables assigned to dozens of embassies. Those embassy booths were a pleasant surprise. Our Kamakura chapter shared table space with Ikebana International. They sold t-shirts and we sold American Christmas products (our wide wired ribbon was quite the crowd pleaser).

The Peruvian emissaries.  I'm pretty sure one was a local hire.
Thanks to an overbundance of Kamakura Ikebana volunteers, Weather Explorer and I only had to cover our booth for one hour. That gave us 2.45 hours to shop and 15 minutes to check out the flower arrangements.

Peru was next to Saudi Arabia
The embassies sold a variety of goods. Cuba had cigars, Belgium was pushing waffle cookies, some African countries offered food I had no desire to taste, and Jordan and Russia both had ornaments simply begging to adorn my Christmas tree.

The Ikebana International Fair might be the best kept secret in Tokyo.  Not any more, of course, because I'm not good at keeping secrets (and rather abhor them, truth be known).

Next year I think I'll postpone much of my Christmas shopping until the first week of December.
American Christmas products delight Princess Takamado
Princess Takamado, the Honorary President of Ikebana International, opened the Fair. She and her entourage visited each table and made a few purchases. Princess Takamado struck me as a very classy lady. Her father is a Japanese industrialist who was transferred to England when she was a child. She is fluent in English and a 1975 graduate of Cambridge University.

She has three daughters born between 1986 and 1990. Her husband, Prince Takamado, passed away in 2002 from a heart attack while playing squash at the Canadian Embassy. Oddly, the Canadian Embassy was also where she first met her husband.

I didn't spot a Canada booth at the Fair but I'm not drawing any conclusions. I also didn't see the United States. Why not? Seriously, why not?

This is how I look when I get up at 5:30 am. 
The coat check girls
The Tokyo Prince Hotel has a coat retrieval system worth mentioning.  When I handed my numbered plastic disc to the clerk who waved at me, she handed me a rectangular plastic tag decorated with a big P.  The P matched the 'name' badge she wore on her vest.  Two seconds she zipped back out of the closet with my coat which was folded neatly inside out and sheathed in a clear plastic bag.  We exchanged the P tag for the coat.

An overly elaborate system?  Perhaps.  But who can argue with speedy, efficient service?  The Tokyo Prince Hotel sure knows how to make a girl feel like a (slightly guilty) princess.

Kasuga Taisha: A Grand Shrine

The last place we visited in Nara was Kasuga Taisha. The Fujiwara family established this Shinto grand shrine in 768. I'm growing rather fond of those Fujiwaras.  Strolling around the grounds of Kasuga Taisha was the highlight of my day.

The approach to the shrine is long and lovely. The path rolls slowly upward through heavily wooded grounds peppered with ancient stone lanterns. I read somewhere that there are 3,000 bronze and stone lanterns here and that they look quite spectacular the two times each year when they are all lit.  Maybe we can return in early February or mid-August for that experience.

Ambling up the path, we passed several dozen children stepping, standing, and sliding in unison. Each child was holding a wooden sword or pike except a boy in the very front who was carrying a bundle of arrows. A man barked out orders and several other adults on the sidelines seemed to be coaching the children.

Alas, although I mastered the routine by the third iteration, no one invited me to join the formation.  I was hoping to get to carry the arrows.

Some of the bronze lanterns reminded me of the lanterns in my childhood church, but I think we just called them light fixtures, as in, "Kathy, stop staring at the light fixtures and get back to your rosary." Anyway, they made me feel a little homesick and maybe that's why Kasuga Taisha was the highlight of my day. Homesick is not a bad feeling in my world.

And then there were the five men glued to the steps smack dab in front of the main shrine building while I waited patiently and then not so patiently to line up my shot. Egad, it's my brothers and my brother-in-law planning a golf outing or beer run.

Here's a shot of some of the stone lanterns I mentioned. I have about 150 similar pictures but this is the only one that isn't blurry. Real and imaginary deer sightings turned me a bit flinchy.

Mr. Keeper exits the quaint circa 768 restroom and declares it is time to head back to Osaka to sample the local cuisine, Okonomiyaki. Regrettably, my camera battery went into a coma before we reached the restaurant and Mr. Keeper left his in our hotel room. You'll just have to imagine us seated at a counter watching in amazement as the cook concocted and monitored nine different varieties of what looked like omelets on the grill in front of us.

Someone a few seats down from us ordered yakisoba, a noodle dish which the cook deposited sans plate directly on the heated section of counter in front of the customer. There is no way on earth I could have maneuvered those slippery noodles off the stainless steel countertop and into my mouth with a fork let alone a pair of chopsticks!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Largest Wooden Structure in the World

Todaiji Temple is Nara's top tourist attraction, mainly because of its Daibutsu (Great Buddha), the largest bronze statue of Buddha in Japan.  The Daibutsu resides in the Daibutsuden.  You can see the Daibutsuden in the above picture.  It's the building that looks like a samurai's helmet, the one with horns on its roof.

Here is what the Daibutsuden looks like from inside the compound. This building dates from 1709.  Although it is only two-thirds the size of the original structure erected in the mid-700s, it is still the largest wooden structure in the world.  Emperor Shomu, who commissioned Todaiji Temple, wanted it to serve as the headquarters of all Buddhist temples in Japan.

We wanted to see the bronze Great Buddha and everything else inside the Daibutsuden so we scrounged up 500 yen each for the privilege.  "This is a lot cheaper than a taxi ride to Kinki Amibari," Mr. Keeper noted.

According to our guidebook, the Great Buddha, or Buddha Vairocana, is more than 50 feet tall and is made of 437 tons of bronze, 286 pounds of pure gold, 165 pounds of mercury, and 7 tons of vegetable wax.  That's a lot of bronze.  So much bronze, in fact, that completion of this statue in 751 left Japan nearly bankrupt.

This statue sits next to the Buddha. Please note the size of the wooden pillars. There is a hole in a pillar behind the Buddha which is said to be the size of Buddha's nostril. Legend has it that whoever manages to crawl through that opening will achieve enlightenment. Neither of us had a chance of squeezing through that hole but we had fun watching toddlers and infants attain instant wisdom.

These are two of the dozens of recently-enlightened little boys we met in Nara. One of us hopes Buddha happened to suggest they spend the rest of their childhoods running interference between wild deer and middle-aged gaijin women.

"What are you doing now, Ninja Lady?"

"I'm peeking through a stone lantern, making sure the coast is clear of deer before we head over to Kasuga Grand Shrine."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Oh Deer: A Pictorial Essay

Next on our agenda was the Todaiji Temple and Daibutsu, Japan's largest bronze Buddha. We crossed a deer minefield to get there.

Well, hello there Bambi.

Beware of deer.  They bite, butt, kick, and knock down old ladies.

Hurry up and take the picture!  I think he's spotted me.  So much for the Ninja outfit.

I'll stand watch while you break into the vending machine.
Tip:  When crossing a deer minefield, attach yourself to the most boisterous group of small children you can find. They will distract the deer while you dash to the next group of youngsters along your route.

Domo arigato to a special toddler who ran interference for me. I hope that deer didn't hurt you too much when he knocked you over.  I swear I would have turned around to dust you off and get you back on your feet if your parents hadn't dashed over so promptly.  My children will back me up on this. 

The Fujiwara Clan and Kofukuji Temple

The town mascot, a pudgy little guy sporting deer antlers, greeted us at the Kintetsu station. We skipped off in search of temples, shrines, and cell phone charms to add to our burgeoning collection. One of us was on the lookout for a restaurant. The other was panning the horizon for deer.

Banners lining the streets reminded us that we were visiting Nara during its 1300th anniversary. I'm sure there's an interesting explanation for that dragon motif but my computer's search engine has decided I'm Japanese so you'll just have to let your imagination lead you to your own conclusion(s).

Our first stop was Kofukuji Temple, established by the Fujiwara clan in 710, the same year Nara became Japan's first permanent capital.

The Fujiwara family is rather interesting. According to Dr. T, the family descended from a man named Chin who came from China bearing all sorts of knowledge, seeds, and Buddhism. Wikipedia says Emperor Tenjin bestowed the name on the Nakatomi family shortly after 645 to express appreciation for Kamatari Nakatomi's role in enacting major reforms.

However they got their name, the Fujiwaras thrived as the power behind the throne for centuries. They did this by marrying off their daughters to members of the imperial family and then getting themselves named regents for underage emperors. Michinaga Fujiwara (966-1027) was the father of six empresses or imperial consorts, the grandfather of three emperors, and the grandfather of seven more imperial consorts. It's not hard to imagine Michinaga dancing a little jig every time the midwife announced, "It's a girl!"

Kofukuji's five-story pagoda is the second tallest pagoda in Japan. The pagoda has burned down five times since it was first built in 730. The current pagoda was erected in 1426, about half a century before Columbus 'discovered' America, and is an exact replica of the original.

During the 74 years the capital remained in Nara, Japan's arts, crafts, religion, and literature were born, mainly through importation from China. The Chinese influence in this octagonal building is as appealing to me as Dr. T's tale of Chin, the Chinese emigrant.

The only thing resembling a deer we've seen so far is that pudgy mascot in the train station. Knock on antlers.


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