Tuesday, June 26, 2007

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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