Saturday, June 30, 2007

Japan Day 18- Kyoto...

Today, our last full day in Kyoto, we decided to visit the castle across the street, which we've been looking at the whole time (from our hotel window) we've been here :) We had decided to save it for a rainy day (this is the rainy season in Japan, after all) since it's so close. However, japanese weather reports must be different than ones in the US because yesterday's prediction of 100% chance of rain led to an hour or 2 of drizzle right at the end of the day. Today's prediction of 60% rain led to none at all... I'm not complaining, though :)

We had brekkie at our usual cafe (Brendan wore his new geta for the 1 1/2 block walk :) then came back to the hotel to get ready to walk across the street to Nijo-ji Castle. This castle was built in the early 1600's by one of the first of the Tokugawa shoguns, & features not only impressively large fortifications & rooms, but "nightingale floors". These are floors that squeak musically when you walk on them, so that no-one can sneak around the place unheard. They still work & are really pretty amazing (& sound neat, too). The castle walls include 2 different palaces, one that you can walk through, & some beautiful gardens.

It was a really warm day, although the first breezy one we've had, which was nice. But it was awfully warm to be walking around outside. We made our tour in about an hour, then Brendan & I were too hot & tired to continue. Brendan had found the castle too creepy to go into, so Charlie stayed outside with him while I visited. After we finished looking around the grounds, Brendan & I got a cold drink & walked back across the street to the hotel, while Charlie toured the castle.

When Charlie got back he offered to walk to the "kon-bee" for lunch supplies & Brendan & I took him up on it :) I regained some energy after lunch & really wanted to look around the neighbourhood, so I got the map the concierge had given us when we arrived & headed out on an adventure. We had decided that we wanted some green tea candy to take home with us, so that was my goal... I had my umbrella, in case of rain, but ended up using it to shield myself from the sun, as many, many Kyoto ladies do (I was right in fashion :). It was really nice just to walk around & enjoy Kyoto's bustle. The schoolkids were out by then (they go to school half a day on Saturdays), so there were a lot of them on their way home. There were also loads of people on bicycles & crossing the streets could be rather hazardous if you didn't stay sharp. (Bicyclists may ride at the edges of the sidewalks as well as in the street, & they all cross at the crosswalks with the pedestrians, which made walking around very interesting...) I found an urban mall-ish place & enjoyed looking around. No candy, but a few more gifts to bring home :) On the way home I turned onto a narrow side street instead of following the main road & found the relative quiet very enjoyable. Homes blend seamlessly with businesses on the side streets, & the traditional Kyoto houses (many with shops in front) were interesting & beautiful.

Back at our room, I found that Charlie & Brendan had built a fort with bedding & chairs, & were having a kleenex-ball fight :) Since I hadn't found the candy, Charlie was thinking of going out in a different direction, but then got the idea to go downstairs, to the shopping level of the hotel to look for some. Bingo! It was lovely & cool there, we found just what we were looking for (& a bit more), & we were back in our room in half an hour. Brendan & I decided to watch an InuYasha movie on the laptop, & Charlie started consolidating things & packing his duffel while we watched. I did some re-organising as well, & discovered that we may just get everything home :) (at least, it will probably fit in our duffels) After a walk to the "kon-bee" for dinner (& a discussion of which was better: present-day security systems or nightingale floors?), we ate & watched tv again for a bit. Japanese shows seem to last only 15 minutes, which makes for quite a variety. We caught a programme featuring a quadriplegic poet on NHK educational tv, & an odd comedy called "Man Power". Brendan got himself into jammies around 6:45 & wanted to get into bed, but Charlie tempted him with a game of Uno (no sense in having him up at 4:00 am again from going to bed too early). He finally rolled into bed at 7:15 & was asleep by 7:30.

Tomorrow we catch the shinkansen back to Tokyo for one night, then hop on a plane back to the US on Monday. Brendan told us today he can't believe the trip is almost over. Charlie & I have been marvelling at how easy it's been to navigate Japan & how comfortable we've felt here. We all could easily stay longer, & I don't have the feeling I always get when on vacation, that I just want to go home now! We're tired, but not exhausted, which is pretty amazing. I'm already looking forward to coming back to Japan... :)

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Japan Day 17- Kyoto...

Well, our brreakfast cafe was open again this morning, so we went over about 8:00 (it's just a block away) & had lovely toast & coffee (& a salad for Charlie :) again. Although the weather report said 100% chance of rain, it was still pretty clear out, though hot & muggy, as it's been the whole time. Today was textiles day (yay!) & we decided to start at a place mentioned in the "Old Kyoto" book that specialises in indigo dyeing. We were armed with diversions for Brendan, since looking at textiles is not a favourite activity of his. We also decided to take a taxi there, to save our energy for the walk home.

The name of the shop is Aizen Kobo, "ai" meaning indigo & "kobo" meaning workshop. The Utsuki family, which owns the shop, was a traditional weaving family for over a hundred years, but when the jacquard loom came to Japan their weaving was no longer desired, so the present shop owner's grandfather found his way to indigo dyeing instead, back in the 1920's. The building itself is 130 years old & has been in the family for all that time. When we got there, at around 9:45, the door was locked, but then I spotted a sign that said to press a button, so I did, & a voice came out of a little box (a video link) saying they'd be right down. A man, who spoke fine english, came down & opened up for us. One of the first things he noticed was Charlie's shirt (he was wearing one of the indigo tie-dyed shirts I made) & I explained that I do a bit of indigo dyeing in the US. He was familiar with the chemical-driven process used in the US & was happy to explain the differences between that method & the natural fermentation method that he uses (& is pretty much one of the few people left who do use it). While we were talking, Charlie & I were looking around at the amazing things in the shop- indigo-dyed fabrics & things made from indigo-dyed fabrics- everything from t-shirts to scarves, handkerchiefs & coasters to yarn & sashiko thread. As we chatted more, the owner asked me back into the working area of the house, & we sat at a table on zabuto pillows & talked indigo.

Utsuki-san showed me a book of pictures that described the growing, harvesting, & initial fermentation of indigo (something done in the countryside), which takes a full year. Then we chatted about other dyes & compared notes on different mordanting techniques. It was fascinating, I was aware that Charlie & Brendan were waiting for me (playing Uno :), so I asked if I could look around some more, then got to the serious buying. This felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity, & Charlie joined me in picking out gifts for friends & family, & things for us, of course :) Brendan held his patience as long as possible & was rewarded by the gift of a little beanbag owl made from indigo-dyed fabrics- kawaii! One of my purchases was a couple of bags of scraps of indigo fabrics for sewing projects & I can't wait to get started making something from them (but I will- all of my patterns are at home).

In a way, I'm glad that I didn't read the write-up in the book about Utsuki-san & his shop until I got back to the hotel, or I might have been too intimidated to have a good time chatting with him. He's one of the last people in Kyoto doing this kind of work & is considered a master of the craft. I sat with him (at his invitation!) & chatted about various details of dyeing like a fellow crafts-person, & enjoyed absorbing all of the information he wanted to share. He even gave me a handful of the indigo he uses to dye with on my way out, & took me back to show me the vats. I'm still processing a lot of what he told me, & the many ideas he gave me (some over-dyeing techniques that hadn't occurred to me before...). It was an incredible experience.

From Aizen Kobo we walked a few blocks to the Nishijin Textile Centre, a co-op of many textile producers in the Nishijin (traditonal textile) area of Kyoto. When we got there we saw a taxi parked out front & Charlie decided he'd ask for the driver's card, so we could call him (or another from his company) for the ride home (it was obvious we didn't have the energy to walk). He was having trouble getting though to the driver, so I joined him & was finally able to find the right words in japanese, & he gave me his card. Whew! Not my proudest japanese-moment!

The textile centre was housed in a large building with a large sales area on the second floor, & exhibits & workshop areas in the rest of the building. As we were headed upstairs Brendan decided that he wanted a bathroom, charged over to the information desk, & much to the ladies' there amusement inquired as to the location of the toilet in japanese :) They were quite taken by his braid, too, & followed his progress to the "toi-re" with smiles. Then it was upstairs to a bustling room full of too many things to take in. I took Brendan in hand, since Charlie had amused him at the indigo shop, & let Charlie look at ties in peace while Brendan & I looked at fans. I bought him another,inexpensive one, since the one he'd bought on our first expedition in Kyoto had broken (Brendan is hard on fans- he likes to use them as ninja weapons). Then we found some yukatas (cotton kimono) & were looking through them when Charlie found us again. They were also pretty inexpensive, so we all got yukata. I found some sandals, too, & got some zorii for myself & Brendan found, of all things, a pair of geta (clunky wooden sandals like he'd worn at the ryokan) that fit him & they're coming home with us, too :) By the time they'd wrapped & packaged (careful, artful packaging is a big deal in Japan) all of our purchases Brendan was getting over-stimulated by all of the activity & stuff so we wanted to get him out & be on our way. As I received our packages from the nice lady who'd helped us, I thanked her for taking care of us in japanese, & she went into orbit with excitement. She was so happy that she gave me a gift- a handwoven mat to put under a vase. It was a nice antidote to my difficult exchange with the taxi driver! There was a kimono fashion show going on downstairs, between us & the door, so it wasn't easy to navigate Brendan out of there, but we managed it. Then I went back in to ask the info ladies to call the cab for us, which they kindly did. It was only about 5 minutes before the cab was there & we were back at the hotel before we knew it. Whew! In all of the excitement, Charlie never did buy his tie. Sigh...

Brendan got dressed in his yukata & geta, but when he asked for an obi I realised that we hadn't got any, so he improvised with his new Kamen Rider Den-O belt :) The fan is a nice touch, I think...

Charlie went out to get lunch things at out favourite "kon-bee" (convenience store) & we ate in our room as usual. We had arranged with the concierge yesterday to visit an historic samurai home, with secret hiding places & defensive tricks, that got high marks in all of the guide books. She found an english interpreter for the tour, since it wouldn't have been as good without, & we were to meet him at 1:30 in the lobby. I opted out, since I was feeling tired from the morning, so Charlie & Brendan went out & left me to sew in peace. It was really nice to just sit for a while...

When they got back, about 2 1/2 hours later, it was obvious that the tour hadn't been a success :( Charlie said that it was far too long, the interpreter wasn't the best, & nobody wanted to take the time for questions. Brendan had been very frustrated because he wanted to ask about the things there were seeing... On the way home they tried to buy a hot coffee in a can for him, but got a cold one instead, then they got a bit lost & it took longer to get home (& it started to rain...). After we got Brendan calmed down, I offered to go to the "kon-bee" & get him a hot coffee (plus the dinner stuff), & get the latest Gekiranger episode loading on the laptop, too, so we could watch it when I got back. This helped to refocus him, & I went out with my umbrella in tow (which I needed :). After a snack & Gekirangers, we were all feeling better, & Brendan continued on to play some AQ, I sewed, & Charlie read. It was a mellow afternoon & evening. Charlie got online to check our plane reservations for Monday (still there) & our hotel reservation for our last night in Japan (in Tokyo). Tomorrow we'll finally visit the castle across the street, Nijo-ji, start packing! Hard to believe...

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Japan Day 16- Kyoto...

Another beautiful & interesting day in the Kyoto area! We started the day around 7:00 & headed out to the coffee shop we ate breakfast at yesterday around 8:00. When we got there it was closed :( I noticed the sign on the window had the kanji for "moku youbi" (Thursday) on it, & realised that it must mean it was closed on Thursdays, so we headed over to the convenience store for breakfast food. After a decent (but not as much fun) breakfast in our hotel room, we started our day trip to the town of Uji, a little south of Kyoto. We took the hotel shuttlebus to Kyoto station, then got some more mileage out of our Japan Rail passes by taking the JR train to Uji- just about half an hour away. Brendan has been carrying one of the japanese Kamen Rider Den-O books with him for diversion, so we looked at it again while on the train. When he's been tired I've been reading it to him, but this morning he read it to me :) I helped occasionally, but he's really buffing up his hiragana reading. Yay!

Uji is not only famous for being an important tea-growing region (the emperor drinks Uji tea :), but it has 2 of the oldest shrines in Japan, which we planned to visit along with the tea shops. (I should mention here that before we left Mizumaki Nobuko-san very kindly gave me 2 bags of Yamecha- the tea grown on Kyushu. I have developed a special fondness for Yamecha, which Tomoko has shared with me over the past couple of years, & this was shincha, the newest tea of the year. Yum! Although I can find Uji tea online, Yamecha is much rarer & I have yet to find a place that sells it online, so it'll be good to have some different kinds of Uji tea to enjoy at home & remember all the parts of our visit to Japan :)

Charlie had the very smart idea to take a taxi to our first destination in Uji, the Ujikami Jinja, so that we might save our energy for the walk through town to our other destinations. The Ujikami Jinja is a shinto shrine that dates from the mid-11th century. It is Japan's oldest shrine (like many others, a collection of shrines). It was very peaceful & beautiful, & Brendan really soaked up the atmosphere while he rinsed his mouth & hands at the purifying pools & cast coins into the offering boxes. On the way out we purchased "omamori" (good luck charms) from a very nice miko (shinto shrine maiden). Some of the omamori are based on the chinese zodiac, so we wrote down the birth years of the people we wanted to get omamori for (including us) & she pointed to the animal for our years (Fruits Basket manga fans will know the zodiac as the "jyuunishi"). I'm year of the dog, Charlie's the rabbit, & Brendan's the mouse (or rat- the japanese don't distinguish between them). We wondered why there were a bunch of special omamori with rabbits on them & the miko explained (in japanese) that the shrine's deity is associated with the rabbit (which is also associated with the moon in japanese folklore, since they see a rabbit in the shadows on the moon). Charlie got a special rabbit one, too, since he's year of the rabbit :)

After our visit to Ujikami, we walked down a narrow street along the Ujigawa (Uji River) that was lined on the other side with houses & more, smaller shrines. Right before the Ujigawa bridge was a tea & sweets shop that has been in the same building since 1672! And the family that owns it, the Tsuen family, has been in the tea business for 830 years!! We stopped in, of course, & had some wonderful confections. Brendan had odango- green-tea-flavoured sweet mochi balls on a stick, plus some matcha (powdered green tea) ice cream. Charlie had a parfait that featured green tea & vanilla ice cream, squares of plain (unflavoured) kanten (agar- known as japanese jello, but stiffer), anko (sweetened red bean paste), fruit & a chestnut on top. I had a similar sweet with more kanten & a matcha-based syrup. Yum!!

Here's Brendan outside the Tsuen tea & sweets shop. It was very peaceful & quiet inside, in spite of being a bustling place outside. After that, we walked across the Ujigawa bridge to Omotesando street, where the tea-sellers had their shops, & also the way to the Byodo-in temple, the oldest Buddhist temple & monastery in Japan.

The Byodo-in's main building is the Phoenix Hall, built as a palace, but then turned into a temple. it dates from the Heian period of japanese history, a thousand years ago, & is considered one of the most beautiful places in the world. It really is amazing... Brendan & I are also convinced that the Phoenix Hall was used as the model for a palace in the 2nd InuYasha movie, which made it fun as well :) As we walked over to the Byodo-in, Brendan's calm mood faded & the tics moved in, but we were able to keep him focused on seeing a Buddhist temple & looking for a monk's staff like one of the characters in InuYasha carries, one of his main goals on this trip to Japan. Because the elements are taking a toll on the temple a lot of the artwork (statues & paintings) have been moved to a museum on the grounds, cleverly hidden underground so it doesn't disturb the temple's beauty at all. In one of the display cases was the statue of a bodhisatva with the very monk's staff Brendan had been looking for. He was very happy :) We hit the musem store on the way out for omiyage (omamori for friends at home :) & Brendan found some lavender incense & a little nezumi (mouse) incense burner to go with it.

On our way back down the tea-sellers' street I stopped in a few of the shops to buy some tea & more omiyage (& a small tea pot for home). We were offered some iced green tea at one shop, & while I went in to another on my own (Charlie & Brendan went off to buy some grape soda from a machine- it was a very warm day) I chatted with 4 ladies in another shop (as I bought more tea) & was invited to take some hot ryokucha with them. I am finally understanding the phrase for "where are you from?" & people always are interested when I say "New York", even though we live on the other side of the state from NYC (& there's no way I can say that in japanese :). The other object of great interest at a couple of places was Brendan's braid. I am able to tell them that he's been growing is since he was a baby, & at one place a lady asked me if he was a boy (I didn't tell him that) & was just amazed when I said yes :) Just at the end of the street we found a place selling the famous candy in little obento (the candies are often shaped like fruits & vegetables- these bring back fond memories because aTomoko taught us the japanese names of fruits & veggies using one of these candy boxes). Brendan convinced us to buy some, one to eat here & one for home :) Then it was a 10-minute walk back to the train station, more cold drinks from machines while we waited another 10 minutes for the train, & back to Kyoto.

Our most difficult time of the day was when we got back to Kyoto station. We went with the flow getting off the train & found ourselves on the absolute wrong side of the station. I had memorised the entry door we'd gone through (where we would catch the shuttle back to the hotel), but we couldn't find it on any of the maps :( Brendan got ticcier & ticcier & ended up on the floor while we puzzled over maps. Charlie finally asked a group of policemen, who pointed us in the right direction, & I wrapped my arm around his head so he wouldn't see any tic triggers. I realised at that point that we hadn't actually eaten any lunch- just had those lovely sweets in Uji. We snacked on chips & the rest of our cold drinks while we waited for the shuttlebus. Once back to the hotel it was hard to get any food into Brendan, he was so distracted by tics, but I found that the episode of Kamen Rider Den-O that we'd watched last Sunday was finally up with english subs online & the change of focus got him back to himself. He ate a croissant & then we ran him a bath with lavender oil in it in the big, ofuro-style bathtub, & he had a really nice soak. I went out to the convenience store with a list of dinner requests while he was in the bath, & we had our favourites for dinner. Over dinner we talked about how much we are enjoying Kyoto. Brendan decided that when we come back to Japan, we can visit Nobuko-san for a few days, then spend the rest of the time in Kyoto. Charlie mentioned that we probably won't be able to come back for a couple years at least (it's an expensive trip- although Kyoto isn't as expensive as Tokyo), but he also mentioned that perhaps Brendan will be able to get a job someday using his knowledge of japanese. Brendan followed that thought with the idea of living in Kyoto- but we'd have to visit him often :) I have no problem with that! Brendan decided that he's adding Shinto priest to his list of ideas for jobs when he grows up... The evening was very mellow- Brendan played Dragon Fable for a bit, we tried the tv but there wasn't anything good on, so we played a long game of Uno & tucked Brendan into bed.

Tomorrow is supposed to be rainy, so we're going to take a taxi to Nishijin, the textile centre, to a couple of shops & then maybe walk home (if it doesn't rain too hard). The in the afternoon, the concierge arranged an english-speaking guide for a tour of an old, special castle nearby that has lots of secret rooms & passageways- we thought it would be right up Brendan's alley... :)

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Japan Day 15- Kyoto...

Well, we seem to be getting accustomed (body-clock-wise) to being in this part of the world, because we all slept past 6:00 am today :) We went for breakfast at the coffee shop we discovered yesterday, called the "Colorado Cafe" (in Kyoto, Japan- go fig...). We all had the morning special of coffee or tea & lovely thick slices of toast, baked right there. Charlie added a "healthy salad" to his breakfast- it was coleslaw, really. Brendan had his first cafe latte, to mixed reviews (more bitter than cafe au lait :).

After breakfast we went back to the hotel to figure out the day's plan. Along with our Lonely Planet Kyoto guidebook, we are also using 2 books by Diane Durston, one with walking tours of Kyoto (a gift from our friends, the Scotts- thanks guys!) & one called "Old Kyoto", lent to us by our neighbour (thanks Joe!). We decided to make a short trip (3 stops) on the subway to the Gion district, which is the famous geisha territory in Kyoto. At 10:00-ish in the morning we were not likely to run into any geisha, but there were a lot of historical places to see, including some shinto shrines. Brendan was bothered a bit by tics, but setting kekkais helped, & the thought of visiting shrines motivated him quite a bit, too. He says he feels much better, tic-wise, after visiting a shrine (& he certainly copes better for a while). The subway wasn't busy at all & the signs were in english as well, so it wasn't hard to find our way. I had found some shops to look for in the "Old Kyoto" book, which features places that have been run by the same families for generations.

Our first stop was the Tatsumi Shrine, in Gion, a shrine dedicated to the arts. It sits at the top of the triangle of streets that borders the Gion district & is right next to the historic Shimbashi Bridge. It's very lovely & Brendan payed his first respects of the day there.

From there we walked a few blocks to the Yasaka Jinja, which dates from 1660. On the way over we found a shop selling a favourite omiyage from Kyoto, little candies in miniature obento boxes. They are really cute & the candy is really delicious (not the bland kind we get in the US). We got some to take home as gifts & some for us, of course. They also had fans there, not terribly expensive, & Brendan had been wanting a fan that was more japanese (than the Snoopy one we found at the 7-11 in Tokyo). I decided to get one, too, since it was pretty hot & muggy. (We did some damage at the drinks machines, too, due to the heat).

The Yasaka Jinja is a shinto temple- well, really a whole bunch of shrines. It was amazing. Brendan kept hitting us up for coins to put in the boxes (in denominations with 5 in them, for good luck :) so he could ring the bells & pay his respects. He had a wonderful time walking around there finding all sorts of shrines big & small. Charlie & I enjoyed all of the different, beautiful things to see in & on the shrines.

The lanterns were amazing...

And we were excited to see a miko, a shrine maiden, walking around. A very InuYasha touch!

After our visit to Yasaka we wandered back in the direction of the subway station looking for someplace to eat on the way (it was after noon by now). We headed into a couple of places but Brendan backed-out just as quickly because they were too smoky or smelled of fish. We did find one of the places in the "Old Kyoto" book, that sells things made from antique fabrics, so picked up some omiyage there. The owner put 5 yen coins in each gift before wrapping it, for good luck. We also saw 2 women wearing kimono as we walked back to the subway. Not finding a suitable place to eat, we finally decided to take the subway back & go to the convenience store again for bowl noodles & onigiri to take back to the hotel (& get more for dinner). I am enjoying being in Kyoto so much that I no longer feel deprived by not eating out :) Anyway, the onigiri are really good here- I got a little container of japanese pickles, too, & they were delicious. Charlie has discovered inarizushi- pockets of sweetened, fried tofu stuffed with rice- & he loves them, so he got more of those for his lunch.

We spent the afternoon hanging out in our room. Charlie had read about a small garden near the hotel that dates from 700 AD (!) & we thought we'd take a walk over, but Brendan was pretty ticcy in the afternoon, so I decided to stay with him & Charlie walked over to check it out. I have been doing some hand-sewing while we're in Japan, making some of the omiyage bags designed by Kumiko Sudo (from her book by the same name), so I was content to sit & stitch the afternoon away while Brendan alternated between Adventure Quest & tv for distraction from tics. We put on the NHK educational station at 4:30 & watched through dinner. It was a lot of fun- not just Pythagoras Switch, but other nifty shows (some were pretty goofy & gave Brendan serious giggles, which was neat). One even showed how aburage, what inarizushi is made from, is made! After dinner we played Uno together & Charlie planned tomorrow's trip, based on the weather (it looks to be the only non-rainy day for the rest of our visit). We're hoping to go to Uji, just outside of Kyoto, the tea-growing region. Ryokucha wo kaitai!! (I want to buy green tea!).

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Japan Day 14- Mizumaki to Kyoto...

This morning's excitement was that Brendan, who fell asleep pretty early yesterday (& fully clothed), woke up at around 2:00 am & was wide awake. Charlie had the presence of mind to park him in the spare room with the Kyoto guidebook, which he read for about 2 hours. At 4:00 he called out to us, so I went & got him back to bed & he fell asleep quickly. He slept till almost 7:30, thank goodness!

We had our last yummy breakfast at Nobuko-san's. We will really miss them! And her!! She's an amazing hostess...

We finished packing after breakfast & Nobuko-san brought her car to the front door around 9:30 for the trip to the Mizumaki station. We started saying our goodbyes in the car, in halting japanese, & by the time we were at the station I was in tears. I will really miss Nobuko-san & Tomoko. I felt like I was at home the whole time we visited with them. It was such an amazing experience. Tomoko came all the way to Kokura station with us, a half-hour trip on the train, to help us navigate the station & also help Charlie get our tickets to Kyoto. We'd decided to buy a Japan Rail pass for this part of the trip, because it's less expensive to travel (you can only buy a pass if you're not in Japan at the time of purchase). We had our pass vouchers, but needed to actually get the passes & tickets. Brendan & I parked with all of the luggage (now considerably lighter, but still daunting) on a bench while Tomoko & Charlie went to get the tickets. Brendan was somewhat ticcy, but we read one of the japanese Kamen Rider Den-O books we'd bought in Mizumaki & the time passed very quickly. They weren't gone for very long & things went just fine. The other issue was money- we hadn't counted on it being so difficult to cash traveler's cheques in Mizumaki & were running low. We needed enough for the taxi in Kyoto, to the hotel, & for obento on the train. Tomoko suggested getting drinks at the station, since it's less expensive. We decided we had enough (y)en (the "y" is silent) to make the trip & Charlie had already figured out where to get cheques cashed in Kyoto.

Then it was time to say goodbye to Tomoko, too. I ended up in tears again. When she gets back to our town in August it'll only be for a couple of days, since she's moving to Minnesota to start her doctoral programme. We are going to miss her so much!! We promised to email her when we got to Kyoto. Then we found the platform & waited about 15 minutes (in the company of Buddhist monks carrying omiyage in shopping bags :) for the train. It was a shorter trip than the one from Tokyo- only about 3 hours. We had to change trains about 20 minutes short of Kyoto, but it wasn't very difficult, except for lugging the bags. The time passed quickly & we had yummy obento again. Next thing we knew, we were at Kyoto station. Brendan & I again parked ourselves (on an out-of-the-way stairway this time) to read our book, & Charlie went to cash traveler's cheques. In no time he was back. We found a taxi pretty easily & the hotel was just about 15 minutes away.

Kyoto looked a lot like New York city to us- very urban & busy. Not many signs (except for the occasional temple :) of the much older, historic Kyoto we've read about. At the hotel we were greeted by women in kimono who spoke english, although we peppered our conversation with japanese as much as possible. After checking-in, we were guided to our room by a kimono-clad woman who answered any questions we had (Brendan & I were particularly interested in getting hooked up to the internet :). We settled in for a bit & let Brendan play Dragon Fable for half an hour, then decided to walk around the neighbourhood. We are right across the street from the Nijo-ji Castle, which we plan to visit while we're here. Charlie had found some possible restaurants in our Kyoto guidebook (we have been using the Lonely Planet books, for here & Tokyo, & they've been great), so we asked the concierge on our way out if any were within walking distance. She marked a map for us & also suggested a couple more saishoku (veggie) restaurants for us to try, plus marked the closest convenience store on our map. Good thing, because it started to sprinkle when we got outside, & we decided we didn't want to be outside when it really started to pour (the sky did not look promising), so headed for the convenience store for onigiri & bowl-noodles to bring back to our room for dinner (there is hot water & tea in the room). We found a great place for breakfast, too- a coffee shop with yummy bread & pastries.

We managed to get home without getting soaked & ate dinner sitting on the beds (Brendan had his noodles at the desk). After dinner Charlie got Brendan into the shower, since he hadn't bathed in days uncounted... Then we watched a slapstick comedy show on tv (you didn't really have to understand much japanese to get it...). We turned the tv off around 8:00 & Brendan was asleep very quickly. I have spent the evening posting these last 7 days of travels... Tomorrow- explore Kyoto!

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Japan Day 13- Mizumaki...

We woke early again, about 5:15, & Brendan was ticcing a lot (more of a Tourette’s type of ticcing, rather than anxiety) so we got him on the computer to watch a video, rather than expecting him to fall asleep again. We were up by 6:15, though. Tomoko & her mom were, too. Nobuko-san had had a tough night, up alot with indigestion from all of the rich foods over the weekend :( The plan had been to go to the post office when it opened, to send a box of things home (mostly books we’d either brought & already read or purchased here) & then hit the mall again. We thought that Shin-kun & Dai-chan had had such a good time with Brendan’s den-gasher that we’d asked their father if we could buy them each one. We also planned to get Brendan another Den-O toy, since we can’t get them in the US. Tomoko let us know that her mom wasn’t feeling well & that she was encouraging her to go to the doctor, & we also encouraged her to go, since our plans were flexible. She puttered around a bit (she helps Keiko-san get the boys off to school most mornings) & rested some, & by about 10:00 it was obvious that she wasn't going to the doctor. She decided she was feeling better & wanted to take us to the post office & store. I felt a little funny about putting her out like this, but she did seem to be feeling better. Brendan was still rather ticcy, but also motivated to get stuff for the boys (yeah, & for himself :), so we all piled into the car & headed out. The post office part of the trip would not have been successful without Tomoko, there were so many questions to be asked & answered, but in about half an hour we had bought a box, loaded & sealed it, & sent it on it’s way by boat (air was far too expensive). I sent a prayer or 2 along with it...

On to the mall. We wanted to make it a quick trip, for Nobuko-san’s sake, but it wasn’t to be. First, there were no more den-gashers. Brendan was getting the “henshin” (transformation) belt, so we got 3 of them, think that the boys would like them, too. Then, when we tried to pay by credit card, they wouldn’t take the very same card I used last Friday... after 15 minutes of trying to sort this out, I gave them our other card & it went through without a problem- go fig. We found Nobuko-san where she was sitting patiently & waiting for us, then she said she wanted to buy some food :) So Charlie & Brendan waited for us & I trailed after, interested in seeing the grocery store. I wish we had such cool foods at our local market! So many kinds of mushrooms, fresh edamame still on the stalks, & too many others to mention. Then, home to put batteries in Brendan’s new “henshin” belt & he was one happy camper :)

It really is cool- plays the special tunes for each Den-O transformation, flashes colours, & responds when you swipe the “chiketto” (ticket) by saying various things. We had some lunch next & then Brendan played for a bit while Charlie went for a walk & I made sure (through Tomoko) that Nobuko-san was really feeling well enough to go through with the planned tea ceremony lesson in the afternoon. She was, so I got ready. Charlie & Brendan settled in the spare room with my computer to watch a Marx Brothers movie.

There’s a particular form of tea ceremony that can be done at a western-style table & that’s what she showed me. First, she made tea twice, once for me & once for Tomoko, so I could watch. Then she “talked” me through it twice, once for herself & once again for Tomoko. It was an amazing expperience. We spent the most time on my trying to master a very intricate fold with a wet linen napkin, used to wash the bowl & catch drips. There was a particular hand to use for specific movements (moving utensils around in a graceful manner). There were particular things to say- I wrote them all down afterward. It was pretty neat. I can see why Nobuko-san enjoys cha-no-yu (tea ceremony) so much & why she's studied it & become a certified tea ceremony master.

Afterward, it was time for Nobuko-san to take Shin-kun & Dai-chan to after-school piano lessons. We worked on our thank-you cards, purchased yesterday, with Tomoko & watched some of the Pokemon Ranger movie until they came home. Nobuko-san had very kindly been worried that the hour & a half that they would be with us after lessons, until their parents got home from work, would be too chaotic for Brendan, so we decided that he could retreat to the spare room if needed & they would watch tv in the dining room. We also requested that Brendan have a snack at 6:00 pm (our usual dinner time at home), to help him self-regulate. This worked very well. Brendan was really ticcy when they got home, so I got him to the spare room & set him up with a computer game. We had decided to wait until their parents got home to give them their henshin belts, so Brendan put his away as well. He did very well playing on the computer, & the boys & I watched the Pokemon Ranger movie again. Nobuko-san made Brendan’s dinner early, rather than just making a snack, & that really helped him. He was in a great mood when it was time to give the boys their belts & happily demonstrated his. They were really excited :) In the end, all of the grownups decided that the belts were a much better choice than the den-gasher anyway :) The boys ended up staying & eating with us, in all the excitement, & then their parents came back to get them at around 8:00. We said our final thanks & good-byes to them. They are such wonderful people & it was really neat to get to know & spend time with them. At some point in these procedings, Brendan lay down on his futon & was fast asleep, in spite of all the noise of stereo henshin belts :) We marvelled at his abilty to fall asleep in the midst of chaos...

The we just chatted for a bit & then decided who would shower when (like the japanese, I am an evening showerer, so there was a line-up every night :).
Tomorrow- off on the shinkansen to Kyoto!

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Japan Day 12- Ryokan to Mizumaki...

The first order of business this morning was to be up & ready to watch our favourite shows, Gekiranger & Kamen Rider Den-O, on real-time tv (beginning at 7:30 in the morning). We slept very well & were up, dressed, & ready for our shows in plenty of time. Charlie (not one of those interested in watching tv) had a nice soak in the ofuro instead :) It was a hoot to watch our shows, ads & all, on the nice tv (in a traditional japanese ryokan), surrounded by such natural beauty. Breakfast was served right after our shows, but Brendan began feeling ticcy & didn’t want to leave the room. They kindly offered to send a tray with rice, salad, & fruit, so Brendan & I ate in the room together (they had hot water & tea in the room already). It wasn’t exactly the gourmet meal being served in the dining room, but taking the long view, I was probably better off with a light breakfast :) Unfortunately, the tics were just beginning for the day. I think partly he was just getting worn out, & partly the unpredictability of traveling with another family (& not understanding the language well enough to know what was happening next). We did get packed & in the van in a timely manner, but when he heard that we were headed for the Aso volcano museum he got kind of snarly.

The day was the rainiest yet, & the closer we got to the top of Aso-san (Mt. Aso) the harder it rained & the foggier it got. Had the museum been any higher we wouldn’t have made it, the fog was so dense. As it was, you couldn’t see the museum from the parking lot & just had to follow the lines of cars. It was pretty amazing.

Once inside I was ready for a potty stop & had my first close encounter with a japanese, old-style (traditional-style?) toilet. Whoa. They are long, skinny apparatuses set right into the floor that you basically squat over. My need for a toilet was great enough that I did it, in spite of my arthritic knees. Whoa. (Tomoko told me later that arthritis is not as common in Japan as it is in the US.) The museum was pretty neat, from our standpoint, but Brendan was not in the mood & took a lot of diverting. There was a room with a live camera feed from the crater of Aso-san & he messed with that for a bit, but we finally found a stairway back down to the lobby. He had had a tiny cup of coffee at breakfast at the onsen & loved it, so I told him I’d buy a hot coffee in a can from one of the ubiquitous vending machines. First time we’ve ever had a hot beverage in a can- interesting experience :) We shared it & it was pretty good, but it didn’t keep the tics away for long. We talked & walked until the rest of our group came out (we all made trips to the toilet again- I’m so brave :), then it was back to the van & down Aso-san, heading for a trained monkey show (which Brendan decided he’d stay in the van for). After driving for a bit it was decided that we’d never make the show anyway, so we went on to the next stop, a place known for it’s good omiyage (gifts to bring home) called Aso Farm Land. The rain picked up to nearly monsoon levels & I really marvelled at Kazuhiro-san’s driving ability.

After driving around the parking lot for a bit, he dropped us all off at an entrance & went to park. Aso Farm Land looked like something from Wisconsin that landed in the middle of southern Japan. The area around Aso-san is one of the few dairy farming places in Japan, which is not generally known for it’s dairy products. There was a huge section selling all sorts of interesting dairy-including products, cheese of course, but also candy, mochi (with red beans & cream cheese filling), cakes (lots of samples), cookies, breads- it was pretty amazing. There was a whole building selling local sake, an area with all sorts of organic teas & flavoured vinegars (vinegar is considered very healthy in Japan). Our party divided up between those who were hungry & needed diversion (Brendan, with Charlie in tow) & those who wanted to browse first, then eat (the rest of us). We agreed to meet at a certain time & were off to shop. I felt a little guilty leaving Charlie & Brendan, but they found a pizza restaurant & were gone without looking back :) I trailed after Tomoko & she explained alot of the different products to me. We found an area selling paper products & I found not only origami paper, but some traditional japanese cards. Tomoko suggested that we get one for the class we visited last Thursday & picked out a really magnificent one, a large, stiff rectangle of beautiful paper with gold accents. I also picked out cards for Tomoko’s mom & sister’s family, to thank them for hosting us. Our sub-group met for lunch & went to a “healthy foods” buffet restaurant. You took your shoes off before entering (putting them on shelves) & there was an area with low, traditional tables & one with western-type ones (where we settled). Then I trailed Tomoko around again while she told me what all the foods were in the huge buffet. Yum! We met up with Charlie & Brendan after lunch, & after ice cream for the boys, we went back to the entrance while Kazuhiro-san got the van to pick us up. The it was about 3 hours’ drive back to Mizumaki. At first the rain lulled nearly everyone to sleep, but after a rest-area stop Charlie suggested teaching Shin-kun to play Uno. I was sitting with Brendan, helping him keep it together, & then moved over so he could join in with the Uno game if he wanted. Charlie, Tomoko, & Shin-kun played for a while & then Brendan joined in for a hand. He had a nice time, but wore out quickly. Shin-kun really enjoyed it & by the end of the game he was calling out the colours in english & Charlie was able to call them out in japanese :) The rain stopped by the time we got home, around 6:00, so the boys could run around outside for a bit. Kazuhiro-san went to return the rental van & Keiko-san went out to buy some take-out food, to add to the rice & soup Nobuko-san made. We didn’t eat until after 7:00 pm & unfortunately, no matter how many snacks we fed Brendan, he was headed for meltdown no matter what, most likely due to being off his usual schedule. We got him to the smaller room where our duffel bags were stored, but it was obvious to everyone that he was in distress. Charlie & I took turns eating & staying with him, but the intensity of his anxiety, sometimes sadness & sometimes fury, just wouldn’t calm down. Finally, Tomoko’s sister’s family went home & we half-carried him to bed. He lay in bed moaning & crying for about half an hour, while we kept tabs on him (but left him alone at his request), then, miraculously, he appeared & told us he felt better & wanted to eat. He ate a decent meal (it was after 8:00 by then) & Charlie got him into his jammies, brushed teeth, & he was into bed & asleep almost immediately.

We chatted with Tomoko after that, just kind of calming down ourselves. On one hand, it’s nice that this was the first & only time on our trip that he’s been in such extreme distress. We could understand why he was so dysregulated, too. This sort of weekend is not anything we’d ever attempt at home. On the other hand, it was the only way we’d ever have been able to see so much of Japan, from a family’s point of view. It was a precious experience & more than memorable. So the whole thing had a bittersweetness to it. Tomoko, whose field is family therapy & counseling, was a kind & sympathetic listener :) The main thing was that Brendan was safely in bed. We followed suit.

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Japan Day 11- Onsen to Ryokan...

Brendan was very excited to try the ofuro this morning, so Charlie got him washed off & they both got into the outside tub for a soak.

Breakfast was another feast with many different dishes.

It had become obvious while we were there that the onsen owners had rarely hosted anyone from the US before- they were very curious about us- so Charlie made sure to leave them a postcard & some of the candy we’d brought from home. We got on the road about 9:30 & headed for the town of Yufuin for some shopping & sightseeing. As we drove along the narrow roads I kept finding myself feeling as though I were travelling through the Adirondacks (except with bamboo groves...) & even Yufuin reminded me of a japanese version of Lake Placid. I think that my mind just couldn’t quite wrap itself around the idea that I was half a world away from home & kept finding familiar aspects to a very different place.

Brendan was not interested in shopping, so Charlie & I took shifts staying with him in the van (parked in a central parking area). I shopped for a bit then went back so that Charlie could look around & then walk with everyone to a small, beautiful lake nearby. It was actually kind of nice to rest in the van (Brendan was very happy messing with the den-gasher. Brendan & I walked over to a nearby grocery store at one point & found some “okashi” (snacks), plus I was just curious to see a japanese grocery store :)

After everyone came back from the walk we went to a lovely restaurant for lunch. It was called “Ume Hana” (Plum Flower) & specialised in tofu dishes. Perfect :) Most of us had the small “set” meal, which featured a bunch of different, beautiful, delicious dishes.

We all sat at one long table, tatami-style (on cushions). After lunch we piled back in the van, heading for Aso-san, which has the largest crater of any active volcano in the world. Unfortunately, there were clouds sitting on Aso-san, & although we made it to the visitors’ centre (& gift shop :), there was nothing to see! We couldn’t even see the van from the gift shop!! It was still pretty amazing, to be inside a cloud near the crater of a volcano. We stopped & Charlie got postcards, then we drove back down & headed for the next stop. We stopped by a famous apple bakery on the way & 20 minutes later we found our ryokan (traditional japanese inn). This was a much larger place, with a big staff. They carried in our luggage, asked for our choice of yukata colour, & then sat us all down for tea & sweets while our rooms were prepared. There was a short tour, to show us where the different outdoor hot springs baths were, then we were shown to our rooms. There was time before dinner for a soak, so Brendan went in first (we had an indoor bath in our rooms) & then I followed. We all put on yukata & then rested before dinner.

Brendan lost patience with his yukata before dinner, so he changed to his regular clothes. When we got to dinner we found that the younger boys had also opted for their regular clothes, although the adults were in full yukata (& some wearing hanten jackets over them- but we were pretty warm without them, so left them behind). Dinner was amazing- & comfortable, since the low tables had wells for our feet. We were served a special sai-shoku meal (no grilling, no meat or fish) that was at least 10 courses. Amazing! Our table was next to a window looking out over a beautiful rice field. Brendan lost patience with it all at various points, but his good humour was maintained by a steady stream of bowls of rice & occasional sips of dad’s beer :) & tea. The staff was very friendly & kind. The food was gorgeous & interesting & like nothing we’d ever had. We made it up to the 9th course, then had to go back to our room & get him into bed, so they brought the fruit course to our room. Brendan fell asleep pretty quickly & Charlie had a soak in the bath. The peepers sang us to sleep.

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Japan Day 10- Mizumaki to the Onsen

This morning we didn’t wake up until 6:30! Brendan read until we all got up at 7:00. We had another lovely breakfast. Nobuko-san has very kindly been aware that Charlie doesn’t care for japanese food as much as Brendan & I do, so she’s been making him a different sort of meal for breakfasts. Yesterday he had home-baked bread (Keiko-san has a bread machine), a green salad, & miso soup. Today he had some of the pumpkin soup from last night, a plate with butter & cheese cubes, & there was an assortment of anpan (red bean paste buns) & “kuremu” pan (creme buns) along with more home-baked bread. Brendan had his usual gohan, soup, & edamame, & the rest of us had gohan, soup, and an assortment of fish cake, tamagoyaki, fresh veggies, & pickles, with grated daikon radish. Yum! Nobuko-san served some japanese peach slices, fresh from her garden, afterward (very different from american peaches) & yummy home-made yoghurt with home-made jam. All this with mugi-cha (iced barley tea), fresh-squeezed orange juice, & ryoku-cha (green tea). So many flavours & textures & colours- so amazing!

After breakfast Charlie got Brendan into the shower, & then they put some water into the tub so he could have a soak (kawaii...!). We did some packing for our weekend travels & Brendan finished his Artemis Fowl book. Just before 10:00 we piled into Nobuko-san’s car to head for a morning of shopping at a local mall. There were some things we’d been really wanting to get- things that we can’t find in the US, such as Kamen Rider Den-O paraphenalia, more dvds, & some manga. Fortunately, we found just about everything we wanted! Brendan was in Kamen Rider heaven, but was able to narrow his purchases down to the “Den-gasher” (a transformer-like tool they riders use) & an action figure of his favourite rider form. We also found 2 more pokemon movies in japanese- hooray!!- plus a Pythagoras Switch dvd -hooray! hooray!. I also found the manga I was looking for, with some help from Tomoko. We decided to eat lunch while we were there (I convinced Tomoko & her mom to let me buy them lunch), so Charlie & Brendan found pizza & the rest of us had various sorts of noodles. Yum again. Afterward, Nobuko-san took us for a look at the sea, in the town where Tomoko grew up (Ashiya), & we even drove past the middle school that she & her sister went to. The day was rainy & foggy but we still enjoyed the views of the sea & the big river that leads to it.

Back home again, Brendan played with his den-gasher while finished packing for the weekend trip & rested for a bit. Tomoko had told us that her sister had rented a van for the trip, since caravaning in 2 cars seemed too difficult. We couldn’t believe the size of the van when we saw it. It comfortably held 10 people (there were 9 of us) & all of our luggage! By japanese standards, where small is the norm, this was nearly the size of a city bus :) We all piled in after Dai-chan & Shin-kun got home from school (Keiko-san took the day off & Kazuhiro-san came home early). The first stop for the weekend was an onsen (hot springs spa) in Yufuin (pronounced “yu-hoo-in”). It took about 2 hours to get there, but the amazing scenery made the time fly by. The boys played with Brendan’s den-gasher for most of the trip, & Brendan did a great job of trying to communicate with them. Dai-chan is very “genki” (spirited), something Brendan isn't accustomed to, but he did beautifully. At one point I figured out how to ask Nobuko-san what some feathery trees were called & discovered that they were bamboo (takei)!

The onsen was on an incredibly narrow road & it was touch-&-go getting the van up it & parked. It was a very small, intimate place & we were the only guests that night. It was really beautiful & featured both an indoor & outdoor (private) hot springs bath. The water comes directly from underground volcanic springs, so it was incredibly hot. It was obviously full of minerals, too, because it made you as buoyant as sea water. Brendan & the other boys played with various swords & the den-gasher outside while we all settled into our rooms. Dinner wasn’t until after 7:00, which was pretty late for Brendan. Also, although Tomoko had requested “sai-shoku” (vegetarian) food for us, it wasn’t exactly veggie, so she had me check things out ahead of time & then had them remove anything that might bother Brendan (there was some pretty graphic fish that was moved to the other table, where Tomoko & her family would be sitting). There was a gas grill at the table & we grilled vegetables (there was meat & fish for Tomoko's family, too) right there, then dipped them in sauce & ate them. There was also an amazing assortment of side-dishes prepared many different ways, & all beautiful to look at. Brendan was content with about 3 bowls of rice for dinner, which amazed the owner (he & his wife did the cooking & serving, too). Charlie took him back to our room before the end of the meal, since he was exhausted from the day. I joined them after a bit, & then Charlie & I decided to wash & soak in the outside “ofuro” (hot springs bath). We had to add cold water (from a tap) to make it possible to get in, but once we were used to it it was lovely.

We all slept on futons again, all in a row, just like at Nobuko-san’s. We were able to sleep past 6:00 am again. Hooraay!

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Japan Day 9- Mizumaki

After our first night of sleeping on futons on the floor (surprisingly comfortable), we all woke at the much more civilised hour of 5:30 am (rather than the 4:00 that has been the norm since we got here) & got up for breakfast around 6:00. Charlie & Brendan went for a walk before breakfast. Nobuko-san made us a traditional japanese breakfast of gohan, lovely soup, tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), kamabuko (pressed fish cake- these were made in her hometown by the sea & particularly delicious), grated daikon radish, & pickles. Brendan had his usual edamame & gohan :) She also made us fresh-squeezed natsumikan juice, a citrus fruit that’s very sour (Brendan had lots of sugar syrup in his) & very refreshing. It was wonderful. Today’s plan was to visit the local elementary school (Eburi Sho Gakkou) where Shin-kun & Dai-chan are students & participate in a 4th-grade class- including the english class- for the morning. All japanese elementary school are within walking distance of their homes & school buses are practically unheard of, so we walked over & arrived at the expected time of 9:30. Brendan was really looking forward to meeting more japanese kids, but also just a bit nervous. Tomoko was with us to translate, though, so I reminded him he could ask her for help any time. It was a very warm day, humid, & looked like rain to boot, - good day to be indoors :) We were greeted by the vice-principal, exchanged our shoes for slippers, & then went to the principal’s office for an official greeting & some green tea.

Then the teacher (Nobuoko-sensei) whose class we were visiting came down with a contingent of kids & led us to the class. Elementary school children don’t usually wear uniforms, so the school felt very like home- like Brendan’s own school. There were about 25 kids in the class & they were all very excited & curious to see us. They were having a calligraphy (“shuu-ji”) lesson, with ink & brush, & were all writing the kanji for the word “bug” (“mushi”). They had set up 3 desks for Brendan, Charlie, & me to also practice writing. The teacher showed us all the proper order to make the brush strokes & we got to work. It wasn’t long, though, before most of the kids were up & watching us. They were very generous with their praise :) After that, the vice-principal took us on a tour of the school during the class's next lesson. Brendan was feeling a bit overwhelmed by his popularity (& the heat), so we ended up in the library (where the librarian kindly put on the air conditioning for a bit) & looked a Miyazaki movie picture books while we cooled down & caught out breaths. Then we went back to the classroom for their english lesson, taught by a man from the US (whom we really didn’t get to speak to much, but was very nice). He made the lesson very fun (they had to guess objects by feel, hidden under a sheet, then say what they were in english), then moved on to talking about the japanese holiday of Tanabata, where you make wishes. He had them write the sentence “I want to be a ___” on a piece of paper (the sort you write Tanabata wishes on, then hang on bamboo trees for the wish to come true) & then handed around a chart with pictures of occupations for them to choose & write in english to finish the sentence. Brendan was given a desk & I sat right beside him to help translate. A girl nearby lent him a pencil, & while they were working, all of the kids were surreptitiously chatting to Brendan about Pokemon :) (We had sent, via Tomoko, self-introductions that explained a bit about ourselves. Brendan had mentioned liking Pokemon, Kamen Rider Den-O & Gekirangers, & I mentioned liking origami :) Brendan wrote “I want to be a Pokemon Trainer” on his piece of paper, much to all the kids’ delight. Just sitting at the desk & interacting with a smaller group of kid really helped him re-equilibrate, & he was really ready to participate with the rest of the lesson- which was a rather raucous game supposedly teaching the concepts “left”, “right”, & “straight”.

The kids were paired as car & driver & the driver had to tell the car which way to go, in english. Things became rather mad when the teacher declared one of the cars a “monster car” (funny eyes drawn on a towel & pinned around their eyes), with loads of squealing as kids avoided the monster car. It was a riot. Brendan was right there in the middle of things & had a great time. After english class, we all took chairs & moved to the larger room next door for introductions.

There was a greeting on the blackboard with lots of pictures of pokemon & one of the kids came forward to give a greeting for the whole class. Then all of the kids came up in groups of 5 & introduced themselves individually, telling us their names & favourite foods & activities (& fave pokemon, of course :). Tomoko translated as they went along. Then each group came over to where we were sitting & gave us origami that they’d made! Amazing origami. I tried very hard to admire each one as it came to us, & Brendan kept saying “sugoi!”, which means “awesome!”. Then it was our turn. We shared a book we’d made of Brendan’s life in the US, following him through a whole year, showing friends, holidays, & school. I had a second copy of the book that I walked around with while Brendan read the captions on the photos. Tomoko translated for us. We left one of the books as a gift for the class. Then, it was time for “kyuu-shoku” (lunchtime) & for us to go home. It was difficult to leave. We told them they were awesome & that we appreciated how well they had cared for us. A group followed us down to the pricipal’s office & we made our thanks & goodbyes to him. Then, we said final thanks, gave final handshakes & bows, put up our umbrellas, & walked home.

Brendan was exhausted after our visit, but he made so many friends! These kids were so interested in him & what he liked, & wanted to talk to him very much. Tomoko had explained to us that for many of these kids, we were the first westerners they’d seen. There is one teacher in the school from the US (the english teacher), but they’d probably never seen a kid from the US before. I was so proud of how well Brendan held up under the scrutiny of so many curious kids. He really wanted to communicate with them, too! Interestingly, one kid who attached himself very closely to Brendan was obviously a special needs kid. From what I’ve read & learned from Tomoko, only the most severly disabled kids go to special schools. (In fact, Tomoko’s father was the principal of a school for disabled kids when he was alive.) On the other hand, what happens to kids who have special needs but can physically attend their neighbourhood school can't exactly be called mainstreaming. Most of them go to school & their teachers just cope with them. The boy who followed Brendan around, Kaishi-kun, seemed bright & very with-it, but was also unable to sit for more than 30 seconds, seemed hypotonic to me (just like Brendan), & was usually latched onto his teacher’s side for guidance (when he wasn’t latched onto Brendan :). Unlike the other kids, who were wearing socks & the special slippers worn by schoolchildren, he was barefoot. He also seemed to be wearing vestiges of everything he’d done that day on his clothes- including the ink from the writing lesson :) The other kids in his class took part in trying to keep him in hand, part of the japanese group-functioning in action, & there were quite a few choruses of “Kaishi-kun!!!” when he wandered to where he wasn’t supposed to be. When we got home Brendan mentioned that Kaishi-kun had been a bit different than the rest of the class & I asked Tomoko if he would probably be considered a special-ed kid if he were in the US. She agreed that he would be, & would probably be having other needs, such as fine-motor skills & social skill assistance if he were in the US, but it wasn’t likely to happen in Japan. Sigh.

We didn’t get home until 1:00 & were really ready for lunch. Nobuko-san made us her famous okonomiyaki for lunch- yum!! Okonomiyaki means “as you like it” & is pancakes fried with any filling you like. She made edamame ones for Brendan (of course) & ours had cabbage & seafood. Mmmmm.... oishii!! (Yummy!) After lunch Brendan lay down on his futon & read Artemis Fowl for a couple hours. He was really tired. I revved-up the laptop & downloaded today’s photos & shared our travel photos so far with Tomoko & Nobuko-san. I spent the next couple of hours writing about the the past couple days’ adventures. Brendan, much to my surprise & delight, immersed himself in the Artemis Fowl book for about an hour, until Charlie suggested that they go for a walk (Brendan brought his new katana set to practise with). He had a “tic attack” when they got home, this first since we got too Mizumaki. We set a kekkai & in time he was able to get back to his book. I can’t say enough how impressed I’ve been with his ability to self-regulate since we got here. We’re still pretty jet-lagged, & he’s had occasional anxiety about saying or doing the wrong thing, but he’s basically been happy & involved with what we’re doing.

Brendan read on his futon (contrary to usual custom. Tomoko suggested that we keep the futons available for napping rather than putting them away in the closet for the day) until dinner, then joined us in the dining room. Nabuko-san made a lovely dinner of squash soup, fish, side-veggies, & gohan (Brendan had his usual soup, edamame, & gohan). Brendan had his first difficult meal-moments when he saw the fish. He’d been feeling pretty confident about being near fish being eaten, but he had trouble with seeing the remaining bones & skin, plus the little bit of smell. He was quiet about his distress & managed to stay at the table with us until he was done eating, then quietly went back to his book. I was really proud of him! After we were done eating Charlie gathered up the fish remains & made the table a fish-free zone for Brendan, so he could rejoin us for suica (watermelon), tea, &- Pokemon!. Tomoko had checked the tv listings & found when it would on & we were very excited to see the new Diamond & Pearl series. There are some new characters, although Satoshi (Ash), Takeshi (Brock), &, of course, Pikachu are still there. It was fun to see. After pokemon was Naruto, which Brendan had never seen. He got sleepier & sleepier while watching it, &, after promising us that he’d shower in the morning, Charlie got him into his jammies & he was asleep as soon as he got under the covers.

We stayed up a chatted for a while, then Charlie went to bed & I went to shower & get ready for bed. Tomorrow we are doing some shopping & in the afternoon we leave for our ryokan & onsen weekend!

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Japan Day 8- Tokyo to Mizumaki

Today was probably the toughest day of the trip so far, mostly because we had to haul our own luggage (Brendan said that he now understands where the term “lug” comes from) through Tokyo Station to the proper gate to catch the Nozomi (the fastest of the Shinkansen, or bullet trains). We were up early, as usual, & packing commenced with a short break for breakfast. We had all of the omiyage gifts for Tomoko’s family still, & adding to that some leftover food (that we can probably use in Kyoto) & a fair amount of pokemon paraphenalia, it made packing a very interesting activity. By adding a couple of tote bags to the mix we were able to get it all ready to go. Charlie had asked for a taxi to be sent at 8:50 am & they were prompt, as usual in Japan. We were prompt, too, & said our thanks to the the front desk staff of the apaato. The taxi dropped us off at the nearest entrance to our gate, but it was still quite a hike. Getting into the train station was exactly like riding the metro- you put your ticket into the slot & it’s spit out farther along- so that went with only the minor hitch that the duffel bags really didn’t fit through the gate, so Charlie handed them over to me. Brendan got tired of hauling his quite early on, so he took the laptop bag from me & I took one of Charlie’s small bags & he took 2 duffels- I don’t know how he did it. We were all quite breathless when we got to the waiting area. It was just a 20 minute wait until we could board the train. The seats were very nice, lots & lots of leg room! We were in car 11 of a 16-car train, in a no-smoking compartment. The car was full of businessmen & outside of another mother with a very small child, there were no other women or children in our car. The train left on time at 9:50 am & we were headed south, to the island of Kyushu.

It was about 5 hours on the train but it really didn’t seem that long. We had eaten so early that we were ready to try an “obento” about 10:30. The train “obento” (lunchboxes) are famous- they vary from station to station & region to region & feature foods particularly known in that area of Japan. Ladies pushed carts through the train at intervals, selling beverages & snacks & obento. I asked for a menu & got one that looked like it had a lot of vegetables (from the picture). It was delicious & we consumed it within about 5 minutes. There were rice rolls that Brendan really enjoyed, & he ate some veggies, too. There was a piece of salmon that was just delicious (I was the adventurous one who found that out :). Basically, I ate anything that was unidentifiable & Charlie & Brendan ate the rest. The we settled in for a long ride. Brendan, who usually wants a great deal of diversion, just wanted to read his book (he finished his Droon book a couple of days ago & has moved onto the latest Artemis Fowl). Charlie requested the window seat (he’s usually stuck on the aisle because of his long legs) & really enjoyed the scenery. I dozed for a bit & then began knitting a pair of socks. After the first stop the crowd in our car changed to more of a mix of women (shopping) & non-businessmen male travelers.

About an hour before the end of the ride we shared another delicious obento- completely different from the first. We rode out of the almost relentlessly sunny weather (unusual for this time of year in Japan) & into some rain by the time we got to Kokura Station, where Tomoko was meeting us. It was so good to see her & know we’d be spending the week with she & her mom, & meeting the rest of her family. We took a train, another 30 minutes ride, to the small town of Mizumaki, where her family lives. We had so much baggage that we ended up taking a taxi & having her mom bring her car as well. Actually, the amount of baggage wasn’t so much the issue, but the size of japanese cars was :) They really are considerably smaller than cars in the US, which is probably a good thing for the environment. The drive to Nobuko-san’s house was just another 10 minutes, & then we were there!

Tomoko’s mom’s house is a typical japanese house- one storey with lots of rooms with sliding doors between them. It’s surrounded by a narrow garden with lots of flowers & plants (Nobuko-san is an avid gardener). Somehow we got all of our stuff into the house & our shoes off in the right place (the entrance is raised, with a place to leave your shoes, & you’re supposed to make the transition without touching the upper level with a shoe or the lower with a bare/stockinged foot). Everyone understands that these features are new to us, & are being very understanding about it :) There was a room for us to stow everything & then we were welcomed by Nabuko-san with cold tea in her western-style dining room (with a table & chairs like we have at home). We chatted & then watched tv for a bit until Tomoko’s nephews drifted home to join us. Right before dinner Tomoko & her mom set 2 low tables together in a room adjoining the dining room & got them ready for us all to have dinner, sitting on the floor (on thin pillows) in the traditional manner. (Tomoko was worried at first that we wouldn’t be able to do this, because we’re really not used to sitting on the floor, but we really wanted to try & to be right there with everyone.) There were 9 of us for dinner, when everyone finally got home from work & school. The 3 of us, Tomoko & Nobuko-san, Shin-kin & Dai-chan (Tomoko’s nephews), & her sister Keiko-san & brother-in-law Kazuhiro-san. Brendan was really looking forward to meeting Shin-kun & Dai-chan (7&8 years old). The boys were a bit shy at first, though. Nobuko-san made chirashi-zushi for us as a celebration dinner, with all sorts of side dishes & omisoshiru (miso soup). She made plain gohan (rice) & edamame (fresh, not frozen) for Brendan, having asked me back when she visited us at our home what he likes best. It was so nice to finally meet Keiko-san & Kazuhiro-san & their boys, after hearing about them for so long. We chatted over dinner, Tomoko translating as necessary, & then the 3 boys got restless so we got out the omiyage & gave the boys their gifts. They were quite happy to have american toys :) We brought some easy legos & a remote-contol vehicle for Dai-chan (“chan” indicates the younger of the 2) & 3 bigger legos for Shin-kun (“kun” indicates an older child), which Brendan happily helped him with. We also had a bag of sweets from the best candy shop in town & small toys for each of them, but they’ll probably get to them when the glamour of the bigger toys wear off :) Charlie demonstrated how a kazoo works, to everyone’s amazement & amusement. As we adults finished up our meals we then gave the tie-dyed shirts to everyone, & I had made some shawls & smaller gifts for the ladies, & Charlie had a wooden boat screensaver for Kazehiro-san. Keiko-san gave us some pretty cloths, made locally, & a couple of uchiwa fans (the round-ish kind that don’t fold), which were very useful, since we arrived right at the beginning of the hot/humid/rainy season. There was a rather Christmasy atmosphere for a while :) Then it was time to get the younger boys home (they live right next door) & to bed, since they had school the next day. Brendan had crawled off to another room & was sound asleep, laying on the tatami mat on the floor with his head on a duffel bag. He woke up long enough to change to jammies & for the low tables to be moved & futons set on the floor for all of us. This is another japanese tradition- the multiple uses of rooms. Charlie also got his jammies on & joined Brendan in our room, while I had my first (& I’m happy to say successful) encounter with a japanese shower. (You sit on a little stool & use a hand-held shower nozzle to wash. If you want to soak in the tub, you have to wash first. It was a very warm evening, so I passed on the soak.) By the time I got onto my futon Brendan & Charlie were aleep. Nobuko-san has small air-conditioning units in each room, & with the sliding doors shut the air became quite lovely & cool, just right for sleeping. And so I did!

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Tokyo Day 6...

Well, we did it! This is the Kaminari Gate of the Senso-Ji Temple, the oldest temple in Japan.

We all woke up at the usual hour (snore) & read (Brendan) or dozed (parental units) until about 5:30 am. I was keen to get 2 loads of wash done today in the teeny-tiny washer, so that was my motivation for being up :) I took a walk over to the 7-11 after breakfast to pick up some onigiri rice balls & other stuff for a picnic lunch. Thanks to the ubiquitous beverage vending machines, we didn't have to carry beverages with us. It was very pleasant to greet people I passed with "ohayo goziamus" (good morning :). Brendan seemed to be maintaining his newly-found sense of equlibrium, which was very comforting. He played AQ & watched tv while we waited for the banks to be open, since we wanted to change some traveler's cheques on our way to the day's adventure. Brendan headed out with a bottle of coke, which was still working as a tic-buster. The foreign money exchange person at the bank was obviously from the US, & as we chatted she asked me where we were from... & it turns out she's from our town! We even knew people in common from when we were high school age. Charlie gave her one of the postcards he picked up at a local festival before we left, to give as small gifts to people here. She said it made her very nostalgic. Such a small world!

Today's metro ride was the longest yet- 2 stops on one line & 13 on another- all the way to the end of the Ginza Line to Asakusa. Brendan actually dozed a bit leaning on Charlie's shoulder. We were lucky to have a good map for after the subway ride & only went half a block the wrong way before finding our way to the street leading to the Senso-Ji temple.

This was the street between the main temple gates, full of vendors of all sorts, many selling charms ("omamori"), but also toys & fans & fabric & samurai swords, both fake & real! We explained to Brendan that the first pass. toward the shrine, would be look-only, but that we would buy stuff on the way out. We didn't want him all anxious every time he passed something interesting & we wanted to enjoy our time at the shrine. Charlie had read about the customs in his guidebooks, so we were prepared with coins in the "5" denominations (better luck) to toss in the offering boxes.

Here's Brendan at a purifying well, getting ready to visit the main shrine.

There were lots of little shrines & gardens around, too. Some of the gardens were burial places for famous people. The atmosphere passed from tranquil to festival & back again as we walked around. One of the temples was hundreds of years old & had avoided being destroyed by fire, earthquake, & war. There were a lot of foreign visitors, but far more japanese visitors to the shrine, which one of the guidebooks calls "the spiritual centre of Tokyo". After a while we found some drinks vending machines on a side street & then sat on the edge of one of the parks for our onigiri picnic. It was the warmest day yet & we were pretty tired from wandering around. Although it was crowded, Brendan did very well. There was a lot to keep his mind off tics- many dragons & phoenixes, huge incense burners where you could waft the smoke over yourself for purification, lots of statues & paths. We even caught sight of a Shinto priest, which Brendan thought very cool (very InuYasha :).

Then it was time to hit the street of shops. Brendan was desperate for a plastic samurai sword set & had scoped them out on the way in. I took out my list of people we want to bring gifts home to & started to work. There were a lot of neat, small things made from chirimen fabric- beautiful, crinkle-woven fabric that's uniquely japanese- so I was able to find some very pretty things. It was fun to try to talk to the shopkeepers in japanese, too. Brendan's "tail" (braid) always inspires looks & comments :) The husband of one shopkeeper noticed him rubbing his neck & proceded to give him a back rub! He coped very well with that :) (Charlie was in hysterics, laughing.) One of the things I was very keen to get in Asakusa was a traditional Tokyo treat called "taiyaki" & we found lots of stalls selling it. Taiyaki is fried sweet bread in cute shapes that's filled with anko- red bean paste. Although we were tempted to eat it right there, it's considered rude to eat on the street, so we resisted & waited until we got home. It was a long trip- maybe 40 minutes- but we all held up just fine. I made a pot of green tea & we enjoyed our taiyaki:

The rest of the day was enjoyably quiet. Brendan worked on his samurai sword moves, after getting Charlie to share one of his belts with him so he could wear them "properly". I explained to him that samurai would have worn them stuck through the ties of their hakama (like InuYasha) but western pants (& shorts) aren't built to do that. Charlie took a last walk around the neighbourhood & got pictures of 2 more small shrines that we hadn't had time to visit. We caught Pythagoras Switch & Kim Possible again. After a dinner of edamame, ramen, & microwave pizzas, we started tidying-up & I packed most of Brendan's clothes back in his duffel bag. Tomorrow morning we leave Tokyo for the southern Island of Kyushu, to the town of Mizumaki where Tomoko & her family live. Charlie emailed Tomoko to let her know that we got tickets on the 9:50 am Nozomi, so she'll know when to come get us at the station.

I can hardly believe the Tokyo leg of our trip is nearly over! We'll be back for just one night the day before we fly back to the US, so our sightseeing is pretty much done. Charlie arranged for a taxi to get us tomorrow at 8:45. The 2 loads of laundry are done & are hanging-up to finish drying. Tomoko says (in an email) that her family is ready & waiting to see us. I may not be able to post daily while we're in Mizumaki, but I'll do my best. The day after tomorrow we'll be visiting a japanese elementary school, & then on the weekend we'll be going to a traditional inn (ryokan) & a hot springs resort (onsen) with Tomoko's extended family (mom, sister, brother-in-law, & 2 nephews), which will be quite an adventure. I'll write again as soon as I can!

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Tokyo Day 5...

A funny thing happened on the way to the Senso-ji Shrine...

Well, not quite on the way. :) We all woke up at our usual 4:00 am-ish (big sigh) & so we had resolved to be back from our travels by mid-afternoon so that we could try napping to see if that might help us adjust to the time difference. The idea was to leave the apaato just after 9:00 am (to avoid rush hour), but Brendan fell sound asleep on the sofa just before we were going to leave. Charlie & I have learned that it's best to let Brendan follow his own body's rhythms, so we tiptoed around for a bit, & when it seemed that he was going to sleep for a while, we turned on the tv in the bedroom & found the cheezy samurai show station. (This is a real station- I'd read about it, but watching it was sublime, although I am a sucker for costume dramas :) Brendan slept for nearly 2 hours, so we decided to check out a nearby restaurant that appeared to have "american food" for lunch instead of jumping on the metro. I was psyched- we've been here for nearly a week & I've only eaten in a restaurant once! The tics were pretty well under control on our walk to lunch & they had fries & a milkshake for Brendan (I carry lactaid tablets for both of us :). We enjoyed a leisurely lunch & the waitstaff seemed to enjoy our (particularly Brendan's) attempts to speak to them in japanese.

After lunch we walked back to the apaato &, at first we thought just Charlie would go on the metro to Tokyo station to buy our tickets for the Nozomi (bullet train) for Wednesday's morning's trip to Kyuushu (to stay with Tomoko & her family). But Brendan decided he really wanted to go shopping we we knew there were department stores near the station, so we all headed for the station, Brendan with a cold coke in hand to fend-off tics. He really seemed like a different kid after his nap. More relaxed, happier, & the tics were pretty well under his control. They were there, but he was able to keep them from bothering him by skipping & holding the coke. We took 2 different lines to Tokyo station, which took about 20 minutes. Our only mishap occurred while Charlie (with some minimal linguistic assistance from me) was buying the tickets. Brendan was sitting on a bench behind us when we heard him yell "mazuey!" (which means, literally, "yucchy", but can also mean "this is bad!"). He'd been swinging his coke & then opened it to take a drink... you can guess the rest. I was able to clean it up with just one mini-pack of kleenex & nobody seemed too fussed. They really cut kids a lot of slack here in Japan, which I am appreciating very much! Brendan & I went out after that & let Charlie finish up his transactions.

We got a picture of Tokyo Station, built in the 1920's & only minimally damaged by bombs during the war...

... and Brendan got another manhole cover-ish picture :)

We headed out for a department store but discovered that they had no toy department (Brendan is really keen to look for Kamen Rider Den-O paraphenalia that he's seen advertised after the show. See- this is one of the reasons we don't watch network tv in the US, & normally we're safe from adverts that originate in Japan, but since we're here... & I'm kind of curious myself about them :). Looking at the map, we realised that we were within a couple blocks of the Pokemon Centre, so we headed back there & Brendan was delighted to find a pokeball set he hadn't seen the other day, plus we got a different Deoxys dvd & a couple more plushies :) For me :) :)

We were pretty tired when we got back home, in the late afternoon, so we hit the 7-11 (& finally found some onigiri & sushi there for dinner- yay!) & then went back & vegged in front of the tv until it was time to eat. We flipped between Disney, marvelling at the japanese dubs for familiar shows, & NHK educational tv. It actually was a treasure hunt, since we really were hoping to catch "Pythagoras Switch" on NHK & Kim Possible in japanese. We hit gold!! We saw an advert (during "Riro andu Suteechi") saying that KP would be on at 5:30, & when we switched to NHK at 5:00 we caught Pythagoras Switch!! Both shows were sublime. We took turns shouting out plot developments as we puzzled them out (during KP) & Brendan decided he really liked the character voices better in japanese, even Rufus' :)

After a yummy dinner of 7-11 onigiri & a huge bowl of edamame, Charlie got Brendan into the shower & jammies, & then we played a few rounds of Uno. Then we put NHK back on until Brendan was practically asleep on the sofa. The kids' programming segued into general educational, & a show came on where they seemed to be interviewing a mother... then I caught a word I recognised: "jiheisho". Autism!! I listened more carefully, & indeed, the show was about a family with an autistic child. I couldn't believe it. We've talked to Tomoko about the attitudes toward autism in Japan & she had indicated that Japan is way behind the US & Great Britain in terms of attitude as well as treatments. It makes sense that a culture that depends so much on conformity would have difficulty adjusting to those who do not fit in & that need specialised help. So I was so heartened to see this programme on tv. The tone was respectful, although definitely not upbeat. I heard the words for "terrible" & difficulty" a lot, but the mom being interviewed seemed loving, if sad. There was discussion of the effect on other siblings in the family, & they definitely showed the child, maybe a couple years younger than Brendan, in a school setting. I wished I could have understood more, but Charlie & I were pretty amazed to have caught it at all.

All in all, the best day yet in Japan! I'm hoping this means that we're all getting accustomed to our new environment. We'll try visiting the Senso-ji Shrine today- our last full day in Tokyo!

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