Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Hakone Open-Air Museum: Public Art Tickles My Fancy

A cable car was a welcome relief after we dangled from a steel cable all the way up the mountain and halfway down the back side. The colorful maple leaves were a bonus, a feast for the eyes, and I was not about to complain that we were about a week too late to see them in their full splendor.

The cable car line ends where the Hakone Tozan Train begins so we hopped aboard and rode it to the next station which is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Hakone Open-Air Museum, definitely one of Japan's best kept secrets.

Now I'll shut up and show you some of the wonderful statues we saw while strolling around the vast park setting.
Yes, the "hair" is living plants.

Inside, I learned a LOT about Picasso.

We had fun watching the 12-and-under crowd exploring this two-story high maze. It's a lot like the mazes at McDonald's playgrounds but bigger and cleaner. And I know what I'm talking about because I spent one of the worst quarter hours of my life chasing a four-year old through a McDonald's maze back in the day.

More statues tomorrow while I try to get a grip on the pictures I took at Matsuzaki's house today.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A November Weekend in Hakone: Fabulous Views and Black Eggs

Saturday afternoon we circuited Hakone by ferry, foot, ropeway, foot, cable car, foot, train, and taxi. Along the way we caught some splendid views of Mount Fuji and inhaled some noxious fumes on a smoldering volcano.

We hopped off the ropeway in Owakudani because our guidebook insisted we should eat the black eggs cooked in the open sulfur pits. One of us took the guidebook seriously.

When it came time to crack open the first of his five black eggs on an old wooden table littered with broken egg shells, the Ancient Mariner experienced a brief "public health" moment but curiosity and hunger trumped that Johns Hopkins degree in the blink of an eye.

He pronounced the eggs "delicious". I took his word for it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A November Weekend in Hakone: Getting There was Half the Fun

We were travel rookies the first time we visited Hakone, four summers ago. With only 24 hours at our disposal, we booked a room within walking distance of the train station and never saw Mt. Fuji or Lake Ashi. These days we are more adventurous so the Ancient Mariner booked us at a lakeside hotel for two nights.

We didn't worry about how we'd get there until we woke up in Tokyo on Friday morning. A nice lady at Shinjuku station sold us three-day passes good for trains, cable cars, ropeways, and buses. We shelled out an extra $10 each for reserved seats on a "Romance Car" which would get us to Hakone thirty minutes faster (90 minutes versus two hours).

We rode a bus from Hakone-Yumoto station to Motohakone-ko, a four-block village on the south end of the lake. The bus that serves the lake's eastern shore, including our hotel and the aquarium at Hakone-en, had already stopped running for the day. We crossed the village twice searching in vain for a taxi. One of us was balancing the Tokyo shopping bags on top of his squeaky rolling suitcase. The other one of us was smugly toting her entire travel wardrobe and some of his in a small backpack.

"Maybe we should just start walking before the sun goes down and it gets even colder."

"Wait! What's that? Is that a ferry?"

So we caught the last ferry of the day to the aquarium next to our hotel.

View of Mt. Fuji from Ashinko Ferry

We had our pick of seats so opted for the front row. He perked up when the ferry rounded the bend and Mt. Fuji loomed into view.

View of Prince Hotel from Ashinko Ferry

The Prince Hotel was a bit fancier and more remote than we expected but the room was one of the largest we've seen in Japan. Those are double beds and there's a walk-out balcony, mini-bar, and CD player.

I'm glad we didn't have to walk the last leg even if it would have made a better story.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving from Tokyo!

The fact that you are taking the time to read my blog now and then is one of the many things for which I am truly grateful this Thanksgiving Day.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fox Faces, Bananas, and a Godzilla-size Dahlia

The salt-laden typhoon winds don't seem to have stopped the Gingko trees from changing color this year so maybe there's hope for the Maples yet.

There were quite a few rose varieties blooming and most carried a heady fragrance. We buried our noses in the velvety blossoms, inhaled deeply, and then raced along the path to the next group of bushes.

In the glass conservatory we spotted bananas after the bougainvillea but before the water lotuses.

According to Shinagawa-san, this citrus is called "Fox Face"

Fox Face or Cow Face? You be the judge.

We also some incredibly tall clumps of sunflowers and dahlias.

Japan has changed me into something of a Nature Girl. I wonder how the Norfolk City Planning Department will feel about me transforming my flat side yard into a miniature version of the Japanese Alps.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Pleasant Surprise at Ofuna Botanical Garden

We visited Ofuna Botanical Garden this morning in hopes of seeing some Maple trees in their autumn glory. That didn't happen. Most of the Maple leaves haven't changed color yet and there's some question whether they will do so at all this year since the trees were blasted with salt water for hours on end during a typhoon earlier this fall.

But, as usual, there was lots to see at Ofuna Botanical Garden besides Maples, including a -- be still my heart -- Chrysanthemum Exhibition. And here I was feeling sorry for myself just a few days back about missing the annual chrysanthemum frenzy.

This was my fifth visit to the garden in the six months since Ishii-san first introduced me to its pleasures, and I don't think it will be my last. There is always something new and different in bloom. If I can find a willing co-pilot, I'd like to drive there next time so I can load up the car with a few dozen of the lovely plants in the nursery section.  Who cares that I won't be able to take the plants back to the U.S. next summer?  Why would you think the plants will still be alive then?  You are giving me more credit than is due.

Awesome single-stemmed purple Chrysanthemum

Hisayo, Kayoko, and Tae kindly posed for me to give you an idea of the height of some of these plants.  Artistic was with us but abhors having her photo taken.  I feel much the same so I do my best to honor her wishes even though she's really attractive and I know her mother would appreciate a little glimpse now and then.
This frail magenta mum with a yellow center was my personal favorite.

Of course I snapped a hundred or more pictures of Chrysanthemums within fifteen minutes of arriving at the garden. You would think I was planning to publish a gardening book or something.

These droopy lavender pompoms captured my attention as well. If Hisayo hadn't chatted about these flowers with a man who happened to be standing nearby, I would have thought these prize-winning blooms were bred to droop. But, no, they are simply past their prime.

Tomorrow before the Ancient Mariner throws me over his shoulder and drags me up to Tokyo I'll try to share some of the other interesting things we saw at the botanical garden.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Oh, Fudge! Time to Get Productive

Longtime readers might remember the calamitous Christmas of 2009 when the local Commissary failed to stock Hershey's baking cocoa, a main ingredient of the only holiday treat I know how to make.

Fudge fans near and far came to the rescue that holiday season. Cans of cocoa were airlifted across the Pacific and one rather pricy can was plucked from the shelf of a Japanese grocery store. When it came time to shove the Christmas tree back in the closet and stow the fudge supplies on the topmost cupboard shelf, there were ten unopened cans of cocoa remaining. Last year I must have been particularly unproductive because nine dusty cans greeted me when I opened that cupboard this morning.

I checked the expiration dates: January 2012.

Here's hoping everyone on my list wants fudge for Christmas. I won't be able to tear myself away from the stove long enough to shop on-line or, heaven forbid, cruise a shopping mall.

The 2009 Cocoa Shortage is not to be confused with The Holiday Butter Shortage of 2007 or, my personal favorite, The No Fireworks Fourth of July just past when the responsible party forgot to place the order in their haste to evacuate after the earthquake/tsunami of March 11. Rather than simply saying "We forgot" or "We ran out of money evacuating all of you", the base "leadership" (snide quotes intended) spent the better part of June and early July issuing pious statements along the lines of "Out of respect for our host nation which has suffered a devastating tragedy, we will not be exploding fireworks over Tokyo Bay on July 4." Meanwhile, local municipalities up and down the Miura Peninsula were doing their best to lift citizens' spirits by carrying on with their annual fireworks extravaganzas. Did the people who run this base think we wouldn't notice? Duh.

Honesty is always the best policy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Seoul Mate

The Seventh Fleet returned from its summer deployment at the end of August but the Ancient Mariner hasn't had much of a chance to enjoy his last autumn in Japan. His presence has been required/desired/requested at conferences hither and yon just about every other week since early September. This week it's Seoul, South Korea. The week after next he'll celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary in Northern Virginia while I do some last minute holiday shopping at the Tokyo Prince Hotel where the embassies converge annually under the auspices of Ikebana International to sell crafty items (and Cuban cigars).

With all this dashing about, we've decided to skip the traditional Thanksgiving dinner this year and spend four days tasting Japan instead. We have the rest of our lives to stuff turkeys and mash potatoes but only seven more months to get our fill of Japan. And he'll probably be deployed for a chunk of that time.

Garden at Imperial Villa in Nikko, November 2011

We're going to Tokyo for two nights and then on to Hakone where we hope to glimpse some fall foliage and commune with nature when our Kindle batteries run out of juice.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

My Kind of Town, Hayama Is

It was a dark and rainy night. The fickle wind deposited the Ancient Mariner's jaunty cap on a thorny hedge and bent the ribs of my favorite umbrella. We were soaked by the time we reached the shelter of the Mercure Hotel where the Otsukas were waiting to whisk us, Big Bird, and her husband, let's call him Mr. Chipper, to the Otsukas' favorite Chinese restaurant in Hayama, a small seaside town on the other side of the Miura Peninsula. The five minutes I had devoted to styling my hair would have been better spent reading or knitting.

The Imperial Family maintains a villa in Hayama, something you already know if you are a fan of Sujata Massey's Rei Shimura mysteries.  The Chinese restaurant, owned by the family of Admiral Otsuka's longtime best friend, used to have a private room where the Emperor and his family dined when they were in town but these days the restaurant delivers to the villa.  Big Bird and I think the Oakleaf Club lunch bunch ought to experience the excellent cuisine and scenic views the restaurant offers.

Jellyfish was one of the appetizers.  I ate it.

Chinese Sake
We watched a waiter ladle a drink the color of whisky from a vat on a rolling cart into a small glass pitcher which he placed on our table with a bowl of ice. The Ancient Mariner and I shared a glass. Goodnight, Peevish!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ah So Moments

There is a cluster of gift shops and food concessions near the elevator that takes you to the base of Kegon Falls. Ouiser, who had visited Kegon Falls several months ago, mentioned fish sticks as we were strolling in that direction. "What an odd thing for her to remember" flashed across my mind in the seconds remaining before we reached the market area.  Is there anything more mundane than fish sticks?  Why would I want to buy one?  Who over the age of eleven would want to eat one?

Oh! Or better yet Ah so!  Here's a food-on-a-stick we didn't spot at the Minnesota State Fair.

The youngest member of my family owns a hat like the man is wearing in the picture. That hat is one of the more frivolous purchases we've made in the past several years. I've rarely bought a hat that I didn't later regret. Maybe this one will be the exception. Maybe he can cover it in plastic and wear it as an umbrella.

There was a calendar conflict today that I spent way too much time resolving. The JAW ladies gathered at Tadodai House at the same time the Shonan ladies made holiday decorations out of broken blue-and-white pottery at the community center. I decided to attend the latter, a smaller group where absences are more noticed, but woke up sneezing and coughing. The little boy next door is sick today also and stayed home from school. We sat next to each other in the flu shot clinic the day before yesterday. Ah so. I sent my regrets to the Shonan ladies, felt sorry for myself for a few minutes, then spent the morning knitting Christmas gifts for unsuspecting relatives.

I had expected to be sharing a picture of a pottery wreath today. Fish sticks are probably more interesting. Things always have a way of turning out for the better.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What? Me Worry?

My only encounter with showy chrysanthemums this fall was a small display near Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. Did someone remember to drag the newcomers to the chrysanthemum exhibit in Yokohama while I was off exploring other parts of Japan? I have to stop worrying about things like this and savor each remaining day in the months left before the Ancient Mariner retires and we leave Japan.

He's downright gleeful about retiring, in case you wondered. He says things like "Next week I'm going to Seoul for the last time" and then does a little tap dance. When I discovered our property manager had executed a 15-month lease on our house without checking with us, I thought he would hit the roof. Where are we supposed to live until the tenants move out on August 31? "We'll spend the summer driving around the United States, visiting relatives." Maybe I should change his name to Alfred E. Neuman. What? Me worry?

I, on the other hand, cringe when I even think the word "last" let alone say it out loud. I am not the least bit gleeful about taking my last trip to the kitchen or fabric district in Tokyo or glimpsing the jizo statues at Hase-dera for the last time. The thought of saying goodbye to my Japanese friends has my stomach in knots. Some things are better left unsaid.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Crowing About Fruit

The path to self-forgiveness is paved with persimmons.

This is probably news to you. It certainly surprised me.

A mere 24 hours after the mushroom incident at Mineko's house, while I was still suffering overwhelming guilt resulting from my boorish-to-put-it-mildly behavior, Shinagawa-san invited me to taste a persimmon. How could I possibly decline and still face myself in the mirror every morning? (Of course, some might question why I would even want to look in a mirror but there's nothing like counting wrinkles to keep one's brain active when crossword puzzles are in short supply.  Just another little pearl of wisdom with my compliments.)

The mothers in my midwest neighborhood didn't serve their families persimmons in the mid-twentieth century.  In fact, until I did a little fruit research for today's post, I wasn't even sure persimmons pre-dated my birth but now I know that they are native to the Eastern United States and were named by the Algonquians.

Until yesterday, persimmons were as alien to me as parsnips, kumquats, kiwi fruit, and pomegranates.  It's possible parsnips have snuck down my throat my hiding in a stew if they are the vegetable that looks something like a potato.  The first time I saw broccoli I was freshman in college.  I liked it and have been eating it ever since.

A persimmon looks like a tomato so I wasn't all that surprised to learn that they are both classified as "true berries", although I have no idea what that means. A persimmon tastes like a pear, at least that's what my taste buds insist. The texture reminds me of a pear as well.

In short, I've decided I like persimmons. I like them a whole lot more than I will ever like mushrooms. Had I lost my faith in God, the taste of persimmons would make me a born-again believer. He rewarded me for trying a new food far more than I deserved.

In Japan, persimmons are called kaki and people grow them in their backyards.  Oysters and fences are also called kaki so I probably will never work up the nerve to order persimmons in a restaurant.

Now that I have atoned for my sin, I am going to haul out the sewing machine and finish that scarf the American way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"English Conversation is Fun!"

That's what Takuya told his mother, Yumiko, shortly before we parted ways in Yokohama last week. Yumiko, Artistic, and I got off the train to visit the quilt show while Takuya continued on to his college in Tokyo.

Yumiko told us that Takuya had never chatted with a native English speaker before our twenty-five minute train ride from Yokosuka to Yokohama. Since I was one of the two native English speakers in question, and unquestionably the chattiest, forgive me if I seem unduly tickled over introducing a 26-year old man-boy to the joys of witty repartee.

Yumiko and Takuya on Yokosukachuo platform

Takuya probably took me for something of a dimwit but I don't mind that as long as he enjoyed our conversation. Here are a few highlights.

On the train platform
Peevish: What do you study at college?
Takuya: Electric ... machines.
P: Oh, like computers?
T: Yes.
P: And toasters?
T: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Somewhere around Kamiooka
P:  I want to be in a flash mob on a Japanese train.  Do you know "flash mob"?
T: (quizzical look and head shake) Flash mob?
P: YouTube?
T: YouTube!
P: Everyone sings and dances. Amsterdam?
T: Train station?
P: Yes!
T: Airport?
P: Yes! What song could we get everyone to sing? Jingle Bells?
T: Do-Re-Mi!
P: Sound of Music?

We hummed a few bars.

But you probably already assumed that.

This flash mob idea is rapidly gathering momentum. Artistic Explorer is not keen on the idea, so I am going to have to trick her into the train on the appointed day. The video just won't be the same without her.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Making a Kimono Scarf, Wherein Peevish Nearly Reprises the George H. W. Bush Vomiting Incident

Just when I was starting to envision a cushy post-Japan career as an overpaid State Department consultant, offering humble pearls of wisdom on international relations, reality arrived in the shape of a mushroom. Alas, it wasn't the cookie variety with a chocolate cap. It also wasn't a shiitake, but more on that later.

We went to Mineko's house today to transform kimono remnants into scarves.  The scarf at left is an example of the style I made. I can't show you mine because I still have three more seams to sew. By hand, so it might take me a few months.

Here's another example. We used black kimono fabric for the body of the scarf and then added swatches of colorful fabric. Artistic and Fearless were more ambitious.  (This is nothing new.)  Their scarves have about two dozen colorful squares running lengthwise.

Mineko folds furoshiki
Mineko treated us to a tea ceremony in the tatami room on the second floor of her house before we got started on those scarves. She had arranged four cushions on the floor and one stool. She invited me to sit on the stool. I was more relieved than embarrassed since kneeling on one of those cushions for longer than thirty seconds is sheer agony.

Artistic and Fearless assembling their masterpieces
While Misa and Yuko helped us with our scarves, Mineko bustled around her kitchen preparing an elaborate and educational lunch. This is when I learned that there are at least seven varieties of mushroom in Japan besides shiitake.

A bit of backstory: Mineko and I somehow touched on the topic of food preferences during last week's trip to Nikko. When I mentioned that Artistic is a vegetarian and that Fearless and I dislike mushrooms, Mineko asked, "Shiitake?" I assumed she meant "including Shiitake?" and said yes.

It seemed like a fairly reasonable assumption so I was surprised to open the foil packet on my plate and find a chunk of salmon covered with slender pale mushrooms. I surreptitiously scraped them off and hid them inside the re-folded foil while ignoring the silent laughter of Artistic to my immediate right and avoiding eye contact with Fearless across the table. Just when I was starting to congratulate myself on dodging a bullet, Mineko let loose a Gatling gun volley in the form of what looked like a macaroni-and-cheese casserole but, upon cutting, turned out to be a tofu-onion-mushroom medley topped with melted cheese. 

She served me three sizable squares of the casserole. I made quick work of the cheese and not so quick work of about half a square. When Mineko pointed out that I had not finished my casserole, the dish she had gone to such pains to make, I cast a desperate glance around the table and saw that Misa was the only other guest who had not licked her plate clean. Misa has undergone abdominal surgery and has the appetite of a sparrow. She also has about fifteen years on me, but I was willing to claim kindred elderhood to escape finishing my casserole. "Your appetite shrinks when you get older. Look at Misa's plate."

Yes, I am seriously ashamed of myself. That's why I'm not plugging in my sewing machine to finish my kimono scarf. Stitching by hand is my self-imposed penance for bad behavior.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Wrapping up the Quilt Show

And then there's 3D quilting.

A Christmas tree near the center of the exhibit hall was decorated with quilted moose ornaments like this one:

A half dozen women clustered around a quilt that seemed to depict an aerial view of traditional Japanese umbrellas. None of us could figure out how the quilter achieved what I can't help but refer to as "the nipple effect".

A small portion of exhibit space is devoted to quilted bags and clothing. A part of me says this is so much more fun than a bed cover that only a few people will ever see, but another part of me says that my children will have me committed if I start waltzing around in patchwork skirts. Then the first part reminds me that we live in different towns and they might never find out.

The dress on the left almost makes me want to go to another Navy Ball

Once I master circles -- and I've already invested in a compass -- a pattern like the one above will make good use of my random fabric stash.

A girl can always dream.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Yokohama Quilt Show: Through a Magnifying Glass

American readers might be surprised to hear that roughly ninety-seven percent of the quilts accepted for display at the Yokohama Quilt Festival were stitched by hand.

This boggles my mind.

Today I'm sharing photographs of three of those hand-stitched quilts together with close-ups to give you an idea of the exquisite artistry involved.

If this one isn't called "Rally 'Round the Flag", it should be.
An Elfish USA?
One of three quilts created by Russian children in memory of tsunami victims

I'm pretty sure they had help from their mothers

According to Artistic, compasses are particularly difficult
"Start of Things in Yokohama" highlights the city's history

Someone spent a lot of time embroidering historical artifacts

The creativity of these people fascinates me. How hard is it to sew a straight line? Stay tuned and you'll soon find out.


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