Saturday, March 27, 2010

Home is where the Navy sends you

For months my mom has asked, nudged, requested pictures of where we live. “For all I know you could live in a box” she says, to which I laughed and said “mom, we do live in a box.”

When you move from this …

Charm, character, some place where you want to put down roots and dig in and stay.

To this …

“the hood,” “the cell block,” “the projects,” these are all various references I’ve heard since moving here to our government housing.

From over 3000 square feet, space, breathing room, privacy.

To 1800 square feet and living the cozy life.

I will have to admit that I have been less than enthusiastic about doing more than maybe put up a few pictures. Miniblinds? Ick. I hate those things – dust collectors as one of my friends calls them. I’ve taken them down and wrapped them up in previous houses and made window treatments (or my mom has made window treatments). Here though – I just look at the blinds, shrug my shoulders and think, “whatever.”

The “yard” and front flowerbed have gone ignored for months and it seems to have unsettled my family more than just a little. When we lived in Maryland I went through months of training to become a Master Gardener. I put my knowledge to work and dug up our backyard and landscaped it – and it was a HUGE backyard. I pulled out everything from the front and relandscaped that too. When we moved to Virginia I started all over although thankfully this yard was teeny, tiny compared to Maryland. I love looking at plants, would rather spend weeks in the yard doing hard labor than spend an hour cleaning in the house. But here, when the family has asked – so what are you planning to plant? I’ve replied “nothing.” Jeff even went so far as to say I was freaking him out a bit “but you’ve always planted things, every place we’ve moved.” So true. I’ve left my trail from Rhode Island, to Virginia, to Maryland, to Virginia, to North Carolina, to Maryland and back to Virginia again. I’ve left behind gorgeous rosemary, lavender that makes me smile just by touching the leaves and smelling the lingering scent. The lambs ears that our boys loved to sit in when they were toddlers just to feel the softness of the leaves. The mint beds that our first faithful canine used to love to lay in (and I didn’t mind it either since it made her smell nice). The cosmos and zinnias that my daughter and I would plant and she named them the “happy flowers.”

But here, well I’ve had no vision. No motivation. Perhaps though, it’s the feeling of spring in the air, but I’m starting to get that itch to get out there and plant a few things. Wrenn was even able to sway me to stop by a garden store and buy some plants for our front bed. She planted them all and did a fine job too. Guess all those hours and hours she spent with me in the yard has paid off. And pulling up in front of our box, with plants there to greet me has made a difference … the box now has started to feel more like home.

Maybe home is not where the Navy sends you but where you dig in and plant some roots. I’m off to the plant store … till next time, sayonara.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Kappabashi Kitchen District

On a cold and blustery day in March, five explorer's set out from Yokosuka and headed to the Kappabashi Kitchen District in Tokyo. I had done my research, had my print out in hand, made my list to try and keep me focused on what I was looking for - had even found an excellent review for a coffee house, Kappabashi Coffee, at the half way point of Kappabashi-Dori. I had a goal (well many goals ... my list was a bit long), I had motivation - caffeine. I was set.

It's hard to miss the entrance to the district with the large chef up on top of the building (see slide show photo). And immediately, you are enticed with stacks of dishes spilling out onto the sidewalk from a well positioned store, artfully arranged it would appear to distract you from your list and get you to part with your precious Yen. I made a few mental notes and promised myself I would save enough space in my bag and yen in my pocket to stop back by on our way to the metro station. Why load up at the beginning?

There are so many cool things here, even beyond the great dishes at Target prices. There are the shops that sell the plastic food models that many of the restaurants have on display in front of their shops. They are so cool, and if they weren't so blasted expensive I would have picked up a few items.

The bamboo shops were neat with all kinds of cool hors d'oeuvre picks - and I thought about how much my mom and sister would love that place. Which in a round about way brings me to why I was so desperate to get to the kitchen district this month - in the rain, sleet and snow. Once a month I get together with a fabulous group of Japanese ladies for English Conversation. Each month they take turns hosting the meeting at their homes. It has been great fun for me, and they pull out all the stops. I think each one has graduated from some sort of "Art of Entertaining" University - I say this in jest, but they are all gracious, welcoming and they certainly know how to put out a spread. I should know how to too ... my mom seems to pull together dinner parties with ease, my sister has clearly inherited this skill and throws impressive parties - but for all my alleged creativity in some arenas I feel it always falls short in the entertainment/hostess section. So already, I'm starting to sweat it out a bit, I'm thinking of what to serve and OMG! What to serve it on! On the advice of a friend who lived here in Japan I brought very little in the way of dishes and serving platters. We are talking bare bones. She said "pack light and go back heavy." So I surveyed our kitchen shelves and realized, aside from the lone salad bowl I had brought (that we got as a wedding present more than a quarter of a century ago and has a couple of chips in it) my kitchen was in a sad state for entertaining. Thus the long list.

The list did help me stay focused, but along with the recessive entertainment gene from my mom I have a much more dominant gene from my dad - growing up if he said as he was walking out the door "I'm headed to the hardware store" we all knew that it would be hours before we saw him - if we were lucky. Kitchen stores are my equivalent to my dad's hardware store - I love them. I love all the gadgets, all the cool kitchen tools, and maybe there's the flicker of hope in there that if I get this "whisk or pan or dish or strainer or ..." I'll be able to whip up a fabulous meal and entertain like my mom and sister. There's always hope.

I had a blast and my fellow explorer's were patient with me. Next time though I think I'll be dragging along my husband with the promise of an awesome cup of coffee at Kappabashi Coffee (which tasted particularly good on a cold day) and a knife store, Kamata, to end all knife stores as well as the Union Coffee Factory that has more coffee gadgets than I would know what to do with - but Jeff, who loves a good cuppa joe, would be more than happy to try and figure out. Besides, I'll need that extra set of hands ...

Till next time, sayonara.

What is that golden frog? It is a Kappa, the mischievous frog-like sprite from Japanese legend. The Kappabashi street has adopted it as its mascot.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Olympic Addict Withdrawal

I do not watch much tv. In fact, since we arrived here in Japan I’ve hardly watched tv at all because I have a handicap – they’re called remote controls. When Jeff called me from work the morning of the Super Bowl to program the DVR I just started laughing – and said “you’ve got to be kidding, I don’t even know how to turn on the tv.” After patiently trying to guide me over the phone on which button to press … “first pick up the remote with the red button, now pick up the remote with the blue button …” – it didn’t end well. I had to call my neighbor and have her program it for me.

Once every 4 years I become a total couch potato and plant myself in front of the tv for 14 glorious days and absorb the Olympics. I cannot, it seems, get enough of watching these athletes give it their all and work for something the rest of us can only dream about. What is it that draws me to this event like the addict who needs their next fix? My daughter and I laughed over the fact that normally I have the attention span of a gnat when I watch tv but when it comes to the Olympics I am completely and utterly glued to the screen. We decided that the Olympics are the perfect sports venue for people with ADD. Bored with one sport? Well no worries, in about 17 minutes a new one will be on (NBC even tells you that in a little window at the bottom of the screen). I can rarely sit through a televised football or lacrosse game – even though I actually enjoy watching both of these sports. But when it comes to the Olympics I’ve watched it all – yes, even the curling. And I question why? What is it that makes me rearrange my schedule so that I can have the luxury of watching marathon coverage? What is it that finally got me past the avoidance of using multiple remote controls? Yes, much to Jeff’s utter astonishment, I now know how to not only turn the tv on but also program the DVR AND delete programs to make room for more Olympics. Amazing what you can do when you want something …

For me I believe it is the numerous virtues that these athletes display that for 14 days kept me coming back for more. Who could fail to be inspired by Bode Miller overcoming the disappointment of the Torino Olympics to win three medals, Lindsey Vonn pushing through her pain, J.R. Celski who only 5 months ago suffered a severe injury to his left leg in a crash, Evan Lysacek’s incredible work ethic that shows nice guys can win, Johnny Spillane ends an 86 year American drought and Steve Holcomb getting past his degenerative eye disease to steer the Night Train to an Olympic gold. I could go on and on … they inspire me with their perseverance, determination, courage to face fears or disappointments and the willingness to start a journey with only a dream.

But there was one athlete that I loved watching the most – I have come to love his sport and the way he carries himself in interviews – Apolo Ohno. His story is interesting to me, he’s been up and been down and yet he’s found a way to keep coming back and giving it his all on the ice. In one interview I saw when talking about coming back after taking time off and coming back even stronger than before Apolo Ohno said (and I paraphrase here because my DVR deleted this segment) “You have to ask yourself at the end of the day – did I do my best today? Did I give it my all?”

And so, I’ve had a thought percolating for months – an idea to create a blog that for 1000 days I will make an entry about something that inspires me or something creative I’m working on. This is a bit scary for me - a 1000 days doing something totally optional is well, quite a commitment. But what I realized watching these athletes is that, it's all scary - putting yourself out there, making a commitment and not knowing where something may lead. But what you may lose by not following through on an idea or a dream could be even bigger. And so, follow me if you will - inspiration could be a beautiful flower I saw that day or a quote I read or musings or art … I do not know where it will lead because it is a journey with no destination and no purpose other than for 1000 days to seek out and be inspired - all I know is that at the end of my day, I want to be able to look back and say that whatever I pursued for that day I did give it my all. Visit

Till next time, sayonara.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ikegami Baien – Plum Viewing

“Would you like to …” – before our faithful leader (a.k.a. “bossy explorer”) can get the words out of her mouth she should already know my answer. If it’s outside the gates my response will automatically be “I’d love to.” And so, on a beautiful day with the smell of Spring in the air, four explorer’s headed off in search of beauty and inspiration in the form of Ume (Japanese plum blossoms).

I am of course familiar with the beautiful Japanese Cherry Trees. In celebration of our move to Japan, we planted a cherry tree in our front yard in Norfolk hoping it will keep a quiet vigil over our home until our return. But I was not familiar with Ume, the Plum Tree. Walking around Kamakura in early February a heady fragrance led me to a winter treat – when all else is bare, this tree blooms and gives us hope of Spring. Having teased me with the simple beauty of a bright pink five petaled flower I was then on a quest to find more places to see these harbingers of Spring.

Ikegami Baien
Ikegami Baien is located south of Tokyo and before World War II was on the edge of Tokyo Bay (after the war there was a movement towards land reclamation for factories and homes). The plum garden contains nearly 400 plum trees and before reaching the garden you could smell the fragrance wafting over the garden walls. There are two tea houses on the grounds and a wonderful area with what I will call Japanese water-chimes. With my fellow explorer’s off looking at blossoms, I stop to take a picture of a lovely area with water and bamboo – not realizing that as with many things here in Japan, all is not as it appears. A Japanese lady motions for me to come closer and holding a long bamboo tube to her ear she slowly pours some water from the bamboo ladle into what looks like at a quick glance to be a water drain. But this is no ordinary drain – when the water cascades down it hits something on it’s journey and causes a delightful sound, like the sound of wind chimes. Handing the bamboo tube to me, I give it a try and the delight it gave me must have been evident on my face – she laughed and moved on as I sat there like a little kid pouring the water down the minature sized well. I could have sat there for hours pouring the water and receiving the gift of water chimes. I will be on a quest now (add it to my ever expanding list) to find out how to create one of these in my garden when I return home. With a little bit of research I did find out that in a Japanese garden, water is a key element, the sight and sound of it is there to remind us of the passage of time.


The next stop on our adventure was to the compound of Daibo Hongyo-ji. This is where our adventure really began. As you may have noticed, I am entranced by the beauty of the Japanese architecture and the attention to detail I have seen at the temples and shrines. I was clicking away, zooming in on another architectural detail, when a Japanese Oba-san approached me (Oba-san is a name for grandmother), motioning me to follow her. I simply could not resist, she had a twinkle in her eye and even though she was quite a bit shorter than me I could barely keep up with her. At the entrance to a temple annex, I removed my shoes and followed her into a building … my three friends trailing along behind me. She guided me around to the back of the building and as I turned the corner I saw before me a lovely Japanese garden. There were chairs to sit in to relax and meditate. It was peaceful, serene and I could stayed there for much longer. My pictures do not nearly do this place justice.

After the garden Oba-san guided us up through a cemetery area and to the Honmon-ji temple. This is a major Buddhist temple, the original was built in the 13th century (all but a few of the buildings were destroyed by American bombs in April 1945). The stone stairway leading up to this temple was built at the beginning of the 17th century – there are 96 steps, inspired by a passage from the Lotus Sutra. The main hall is an impressive structure and guided by Oba-san we entered the main hall to the sounds of chanting, the smell of incense in the air and the deep resonant sound coming from a wooden bell.

Oba-san wanted to make sure we saw one more building that day and motioning for us to keep following her she led us to the five-story wooden tower which is a nationally-designated important treasure, was erected in 1607 and is the largest and oldest in the Kanto region. At the end of our visit to the five story tower, Oba-san bade us sayonara and walked away. I was touched – here a complete stranger had offered 4 Gaijin a gift of her time – even through the language barrier, she shared with us what clearly brings her joy. She seemed to delight in watching our expressions as we stopped to look and take photos of the temple grounds and buildings. I wish I had gotten her name, I wish I knew more than my pathetic dozen words of Japanese so I could have had a conversation with her. But Oba-san gave me a great gift that day, I left with a smile on my face and much joy in my heart. I hope she felt the same.

Till next time, sayonara.

Check out Kathy’s blog (“bossy explorer”) for her take on the day:

Monday, March 1, 2010

Hokkaido Historical Village and Lake Shikotsuko

Our last day in Sapporo was filled with what else, but more activities involving snow. The kids still not having reached their fill of snowballs, headed out with Jeff for an early morning round of Snowball Mania. Barely back in time to gather up the bags before the 11 o’clock checkout time, we stashed our gear with the rest of the tour group and headed back out in search of another adventure before our tours 3 pm hotel departure time.

Looks can be deceiving – Caution Map not to Scale
I have a couple of really good guidebooks to Japan and one of them recommended a visit to the Historical Village of Hokkaido. Jeff and I pulled out the brochure provided by the concierge and thought “well this looks easy – it’s right across from the train station.” Having had some previous experience with maps not to scale (see Mashiko to Nikko blog entry) we really should have known better.

Oh yeah … we blend.
With 4 out of the 5 Cleary family members taller than the average Japanese, most of us with blonde hair and blue eyes, it’s not exactly like we blend in here in Japan. There is no doubt that we are Gaijin, and some times this can be a good thing. Like for instance when you get off a train and you stand there looking at a map, trying to orient yourself and you realize you have no idea which way you are supposed to go …

I know you all have read this before, but it is worth repeating once again – the Japanese will go out of their way to be helpful. Above and beyond the duty helpful. It’s like they all take a course in “Helping Clueless Gaijin: 101.” So with the five Clearys standing around, the wind whipping outside the station blowing in yet more snow, we are approached by a Japanese gentleman who speaks English – he guides us to the underpass and we are on our way – or so it seemed. But not 10 yards out into the blustery weather we quickly realize that this museum is not “directly across from the station” as the map seemed to indicate. In fact it’s nowhere to be seen. A dad pulling his son on a sleigh was headed in our direction, so putting on my best voice I say “sumimasen” and point to the map. I have no idea what they must have thought of us, but looking back now the thought must have crossed their minds that we are some crazy foreigners. He pointed off in the direction of a tall tower – that certainly didn’t look like it was very close. Jeff and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and pressed on with the tower as our beacon … while the snow balls were whizzing by – thank goodness it appears that our kids are happy just to be in snow – it doesn’t matter that their parents are dragging them on a snow hike to a place they now question is worth the effort and have a useless map in hand to get them there.

We discover the major road, cross it and continue up a hill until we nearly reach the top and realize that, well, we really have no idea where we’re supposed to go. It’s still snowing, we can see the tower but from where we’re standing it’s not evident where the historical village is. Seeing two girls who look to be college aged, I yet again call out “sumimasen” and show them the map. There is much discussion flying back and forth and they point us off in a direction – as we start to trudge away in the snow yet another Japanese gentleman stops in his car and in impeccable English asks us if he can help, even apologizing profusely that he cannot fit all of us in his car and drive us there! Hello dear readers – please read that last sentence again and ask yourself when was the last time you stopped your car in the U.S. to ask complete strangers if they needed help and then even contemplated giving them a ride?! I love Japan! (Of course the crime rate in Japan is very low, and they do have gun control here – that probably has a bit to do with it.)

After about 15 more minutes of walking through the snow we reached the Historical Village of Hokkaido and I have to say I thought it was pretty darn neat. It is sort of like a Japanese version of Williamsburg. There are around 60 structures from the mid 19th to early 20th century that show what a pioneer’s life was like in Hokkaido. The huge bonus for me was that during the winter they have a horse drawn sleigh that will take you down the main part of the village – this is something I have always wanted to do and I only wish the ride could have been longer, or I could have been like the kids with the roller coaster and immediately gotten off to run around and get back in line. It was great fun, covered with blankets and the bells on the horse jingling along – and the quiet. You know how when it snows, everything becomes more quiet, like the snow has laid a quiet blanket over everything, this was what it was like and it was lovely. Jeff and I broke apart as a member of our party needed to find the facilities, and so while I waited in the visitors center, I walked into a room where there were several people making monoprints – this very sweet ancient Japanese man made a print for both Wrenn and myself, “gift for you.” I found out later that he is 98 years old and comes to the Historical Village every Sunday and makes these prints. I love them, they are so graphic and the image he is holding is the famous clock tower in Sapporo.

The village is very English friendly, brochures are available in English that tell you about each structure, inside there are docents that will tell you about their building. Wrenn and I stepped inside the Sake Brewery and were please to discover the interpreter there was fluent in English. We could have spent much more time at the village, but our adventure in getting there had eaten up quite a bit of time. And so we headed out, hoping that this summer we could head back up to Hokkaido and visit here again. Our trip back into Sapporo was much easier – if only we had known, there is a bus that takes you straight to the train station! For more information on the Historical Village of Hokkaido visit

Chitose-Lake Shikotsuko Ice Festival
The last stop on our Snow Festival adventure was to visit the Chitose-Lake Shikotsuko Ice Festival. There was some doubt as to whether we would be able to go since it had snowed and we were headed into the mountains but luck was with us and we arrived just as it was getting dark. Huge ice sculptures are formed at this venue by jetting the water from Lake Shikotsu with sprinklers and they are large enough to walk into. They reminded me of an ice version of a “dribble sand castle” – where you take the soupy sand and let it run down your fingers, adding layer upon layer until you get the look you want. It was pretty, although quite a trek through the mountains from Sapporo – it is supposed to only be about an hour but with all the snow it was slow driving and it took our bus nearly 2 hours to get there. The best part though was probably the awesome grilled scallops on a skewer I had from a vendor, along with the warmed sake (see the photo of Jeff). If you’ve never had warm sake, you haven’t lived. It hits the spot, warming you up all the way down to your freezing cold toes and was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip.

Till next time, sayonara.

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