Monday, April 19, 2010

Hama-rikyu Garden

Another opportunity to head to Tokyo and experience a part of Japan's culture was offered to me, and of course I jumped at the chance. Ikebana International, Kamakura Chapter, had a program in Tokyo that sounded enticing ... a tour of a garden, a boat ride, a luncheon with a Geisha and a tour of an area of Tokyo I had still not had a chance to visit, Asakusa. No brainer ... I signed myself up.

Driving around the Tokyo area is always a risky endeavor ... especially if you're on a time frame. Sadly for our group, the bus hit bad traffic and our tour of Hama-rikyu Garden (in the pouring down rain) was a speedy one. But I am thankful our break away group hustled through the gardens and I was able to get off a few good pics and make a note that I'd love to come back and sit in the tea house and enjoy the view and the wisteria that was just beginning to bud. It's a beautiful contrast, the garden which dates back 300 years, with the sky scrapers surrounding the garden. From the garden you can board a sightseeing boat which takes you up the Sumida river to Asakusa. We arrived and were whisked off by our tour bus to the luncheon where we were entertained by a Geisha and a Kaiseki-Bento lunch at Kusatsu-tei.

Kaiseki has it's origins in the Zen Buddhist traditions and is a meal of courses consisting of a number of small dishes. I first learned about this culinary art form when I read "Untangling My Chopsticks," where they author spent a year in Kyoto learning about Tea Kaiseki. Most kaiseki restaurants are very expensive because each dish takes time and skill to prepare. It is a multi-course meal on par with western haute cuisine. This culinary art form balances taste, texture, appearance and the colors of the food. Dishes are beautifully arranged and garnished, many times with real leaves and flowers. I loved how when we arrived the tables were already lined with our kaiseki-bento boxes and as I opened them there is this "ahhh factor" - like opening a present.

While we were enjoying our delicious lunch, we were entertained by a Geisha. Geisha are traditional, female Japanese entertainers whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music and dance (not as many westerners think sophisticated call girls). She performed three traditional dances for us, spoke to us in fluent English (I was told that she spent 1st-5th grade in Bethesda, MD when her father was the chef for the Japanese Embassy), and then had us compete in some drinking games. For us, our drinks consisted of tea, but I can certainly see how these games would become quite animated with some sake. The first one was Konpira Fune Fune - a traditional Geisha drinking game. With our group the music started off slow and then would speed up with the contestants having to increase their speed to keep up with the rhythm of the music. It was great fun to watch. I found this video clip from YouTube so you can see the game:

The second game was Goshi Hiori (sp?) - I could not find any information on the web so I may have the incorrect spelling, but this is where 2 teams of 5 people compete against each other in a race to move small stones from one plate to another with a pair of chopsticks. One of my Japanese friends (who also happens to be one of my students) was sitting next to me and tried the first round to get me to go up and play the game - but still not confident of my chopstick skills I declined, saying maybe next year when I've had more practice. However, on the second round of the game Yuriko was much more insistent and I agreed, reluctantly, I was sure I would be the one to make our team lose. Do you remember a previous entry on how much the Japanese ladies love to play games? And even more to win? I did not want to be the reason our team lost. So flanking me with one Japanese lady in front (to give me a lead) and one behind (to catch up) I gave it my best shot - and shockingly I held my own (I think more than shocking me I surprised the heck out of my fellow team mates). Our team went on to win. It was great fun and all I could think of was I have to find these little stones for Mitchell - who uses his chopsticks at every opportunity and probably has the best chopstick skills in the Cleary household.

Sadly, I had to get back to Yokosuka and so my time in Asakusa on Nakamise-dori (the shopping street) was nothing more than a cut through on the way to the metro. But there were many cool little shops and like the garden above, I plan to come back.

Till next time, sayonara.

For more on Kaiseki go to:

Saturday, April 17, 2010


After an interesting but definitely not relaxing trip to Thailand over the Christmas Break, Jeff was looking for some much need R&R and suggested Saipan for Spring Break. “There’s beautiful beaches and World War II history” … just perfect I thought to myself, maybe I could go get a Pedi while he takes the kids on the war tour?

With a work schedule to dance around we were only able to get away for 5 days – but they were five wonderful days, filled with lots of water sports and some much needed rest. Jeff’s one request was to make sure his “levels” didn’t get too low and to keep the Margaritas coming on a 90 minute cycle. I think we were able to meet his request … he was the most relaxed I’ve seen him in years.

PIC – Pacific Island Club
Our family has never stayed at an all inclusive resort so this was a new experience for us. It worked out perfect – they kids all did what they wanted and I basically said “I’ll be right here, under this umbrella, if you need me this is where you’ll find me.” Off they went. Snorkeling, windsurfing, paddleboarding, rockclimbing, tennis lessons, archery – enough to keep them busy for a few days. The lagoon off of the western side of Saipan is huge – over 20 square miles – with coral and beautiful fish to see, lots of time in the water.

The question came up almost as soon as we started talking about going to Saipan – how exactly is it connected to the U.S. – good question I said, but truthfully I had no idea. Hoping that when we arrived I would be enlightened I only got a bit more confused – seeing CNMI around the island – we all learned this stands for Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, there are 14 islands but Saipan has 90% of the population. They became a commonwealth and entered into a political union with the U.S. in 1978, they are a democracy with an elected governor and a U.S. House of Representative (who can vote in committee but not on the house floor – I am not sure what good that does). The defense and foreign affairs are the responsibility of the U.S. Saipan is about the size of Washington, DC – 13 miles long and 6 miles wide. It is the furthest point from the west coast of the United States to be protected under the U.S. flag and is as far from the west coast as Washington, DC is to Cairo, Egypt.

On our last day in Saipan we rented a car and traveled the island hitting some of the high points (and trying hard not to be so shocked at the extremely depressed economy that was evident everywhere we looked). Our first stop was at the CNMI Museum of History and Culture. Clearly not as well funded as the NPS American Memorial Park, it was still quite interesting and is housed in the former quarters of a Japanese Hospital. There we learned that Saipan has been ruled by the Spanish (who brought God in the form of the Catholic church), then Germany (who brought business), then Japan (who brought agriculture and over 30,000 immigrants – Koreans and Okinawans who worked the sugar cane fields) and then the U.S. which brought democracy … and a whole boatload of other problems. There was also an interesting a quite poignant exhibit from the seniors of the local high school– they digitally documented Saipan through their eyes. Through their images you could see their hope for the future, the dismay at the present, and the very clear understanding that this beautiful island is at a fork in the road (as one photo depicted) … which path will they take? For more on the history of the island go to

Our next stop was the NPS American Memorial Park, which was very well done and incredibly interesting … yes, even if it was mostly about the war. One of the pieces of history that I just couldn’t really wrap my head around was why there were so many Japanese casualties during the 3-week Battle of Saipan. Nearly all of the 30,000 Japanese defenders were killed, less than 1000 remained alive at the battle’s end. And over 10,000 civilians committed suicide in the last days of the battle. Why? I found the answers although I’m not sure my western brain can quite grasp it – one of the interviews I read in the museum was from a Japanese POW who said that as a soldier they were never told or trained in what to do if you became a POW (vs. the U.S. service members who follow the Code of the U.S. Fighting Force, based on concepts and traditions that date back to the American Revolutionary War). Fighting to the death was expected and would bring honor to the soldiers family. Emperor Hirohito, sent out an imperial order encouraging the civilians of Saipan to commit suicide, the order promised civilians who died there an equal spiritual status in the afterlife with those of soldiers perishing in combat. Over 10,000 civilians committed suicide in the last days of the battle some jumping from Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff, many with their children in their arms. For more about the museum and/or the history of Saipan go to or

After going through the museum we headed out to the northern tip of the island to see Banzai Cliffs, Suicide Cliffs and whatever other war sites popped up along the way. The cliffs are stunning and quite the popular spot with the Japanese that were there by the busloads. Mitchell and Walker were even corralled into having their photo taken with some of the Japanese. We also stopped at the Grotto, a naturally formed area popular for diving. As I was waiting for everyone to come back a native Saipanese taxi driver came over and we started to chat – I asked him about the economy and he said it’s bad, very bad. When I arrived home I did my research and found out that the problems there are many, the garment industry which used to have numerous factories including Gap, Lord and Taylor, Levi Strauss, and WalMart by 2009 had all closed up shop – due in large part to immigration violations that permitted questionable work permits with little oversite to the working conditions. The last statistics I could find were from over a decade ago, at that time the unemployment rate was 14% and the poverty was at 35% - that’s before all the garment factories closed. With that the crime rate has increased and thus tourism has declined.

The island is beautiful with its turquoise waters and huge lagoon. The PIC was fun and interesting. The cliental was Japanese, Korean, Russian and American military families. It made for interesting buffets with a variety of international foods to try at each meal. And there will probably always be the memory for Mitchell who played a nearly 3 hour chess game against some Russian kids about his age – they couldn’t speak English and he couldn’t speak Russian but the game of chess crossed the language barrier (in the end he lost but I’m darn proud of him for holding out that long).

We’ll have great memories from our trip and I think we all learned a lot, more than just about the battle or enjoying the beach activities, but also about cultural differences that impact decisions and choices. We saw beautiful fish that we’d only seen in books or on Discovery Channel and I’ll always remember hearing Wrenn through her snorkel going “OOOOOHHH, OOOOOHHHH” as she saw some beautiful fish go by.

Till next time, sayonara.

First day there my camera battery died and I realized I had left the charger at home ... lesson learned. That will probably be one of the first things I pack next trip as well as ordering an additional battery pack for my camera. Except for the flower photos, the rest were taken by Jeff on his little pocket camera. I realized just how much I missed my DSLR and won't make that mistake again.


Shomoyo-ji Yokohama

The grounds of the Shomyoji Temple are of the Jodo (Pure Land) style garden. There is a large pond, called a Ajiike Pond, in the middle with two bridges - one arched and one flat - over the pond. This garden was originally styled by Shoitsue, a monk of the Kamakura period who specialized in garden design. It was restored in 1978, following maps and drawings and is today one of the few 12th century design gardens in Japan.

The JAW group I belong to visited this garden during Cherry Blossom season. The grounds are beautiful and lucky for me the temple is only about a 20 minute train ride from Yokosuka. With more area to explore than we had time for, I made yet another mental note to add this place to my ever growing list of places to return to ...

Till next time, sayonara.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


The Saturday weather forecast was for clear skies. The Saturday Sakura Zensen (cherry blossom front) was excellent. It was a perfect day to grab the camera, bribe my two sons with the promise of "the best waffles you'll have in Japan" and head to Kamakura.

We arrived early hoping to beat the crowds but it appears others had the same idea. We took a walk down Wakamiya-oji Street that leads to the Hachimangu Shrine. I do not know how "Wakamiya" translates but in my mind it should be "Cherry Blossom Avenue." The walking path in the middle of the street is lined with cherry trees - they were all out in their full glory.

The photos from that day are from the Hachimangu Shrine, the hiking course that leads from the Genjiyama Park to the Kotokuin Temple (Great Buddha) and of the Great Buddha temple grounds. Along the hiking course there is a great place to stop and take pictures of Kamakura which lies below, looking out towards Yuigahama Beach and Sagami Bay.

I recently purchased a great little book called "An English Guide to Kamakura's Temples and Shrines." It now stays in my camera bag and travels with me whenever I head to Kamakura. While sitting at the Kotokuin Temple and enjoying the cherry blossoms, I pulled the guide book out to see what I could learn about the Big Buddha. From the book "... built in 1252, it is a Japanese National Treasure. The stud-like cured hair consists of 656 pieces. The spot in the middle of his forehead is called a Byakugo and is where the light which shines on the entire world emanates."

It was a great day, loved being out in Kamakura, loved even more having the rare chance to spend time with just Mitchell and Walker. With the teenager parenting phase upon me, I realize these moments will be few and far between. I treasure each moment I can get.

Till next time, sayonara.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sankeien Garden

Last Saturday, Jeff and I actually had a date. First one since I arrived 8 months ago. Clearly we need to do a better job of getting out more – without family in tow. Months and months ago I had said I wanted to go to Sankeien Garden in Yokohama. But it was hot then and Jeff suggested we wait until the fall. Fall came and went … and he had to periodically listen to me whine about still not having gone to the garden. Once I find out about a garden I’m like a dog and a bone – I simply will not let it go until I’ve had my chance to see it. We had a window on Saturday, no call, kids were busy with various activities, weather was good and the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom. He was stuck – with no real good excuse as to why we couldn’t go visit the garden. Time was also ticking – the cherry blossoms don’t hang around for long.

A train ride to Yokohama station and a 40 minute bus ride to the garden and we finally arrived. Immediately we ran into a problem – you can NEVER bring enough Yen with you when you travel in Japan – this time it wasn’t that we hadn’t brought enough but that our Yen was too much. The machines wouldn’t take a bill of that high of denomination. Thankfully, helpful Japanese were right there to break the bill into a smaller amount and help Jeff purchase the tickets from the machine (see photo of Jeff receiving assistance).

Sankeien Garden is a traditional Japanese-style garden located in Yokohama. Designed and built by Tomitaro Hara, a silk trader, the garden opened in 1906. Almost all of the buildings are historically significant structures and were bought by Hara and relocated to the grounds of Sankeien. The garden was badly damaged during World War II’s Great Yokohama Bombing, requiring 5 years of restoration.

The gardens are lovely, strolling paths, historical structures – it was easy to forget that we were in the middle of the second largest city in Japan. We were lucky to view the cherry blossoms, although they weren’t in full bloom yet – but I jumped right in with the rest of the Japanese, pointing my camera at Sakura (cherry blossoms) and clicking away. Still, there was so much to see, more visits are in my future. Two of my favorite structures were the Three-storied Pagoda and the Old Yanohara House.

Three-storied Pagoda of Old Tomyoji
Originally constructed in Kyoto in 1457 and relocated to the garden in 1914 it is the oldest pagoda in the Kanto region. Surveys indicate that this pagoda was built during the Muromachi period (1333-1573) because of its style. This structure also seemed to really impress Jeff, when he read about how old it was he was relatively speechless (being a PG blog I can't repeat what he said) - but he pointed out that while our country had native Americans living in teepees (not all together true but I get his point) and Columbus hadn't even crossed the Atlantic yet, the Japanese were creating structures like this.

Gassyo Zukuri Old Yanohara House
This house was built around 1750 as the residence of a village headman. The miscanthus-thatched roof is named Gassho (handjoining) style because its construction is made by stacking large logs in a way that resembles clasped hands. It was moved to the garden in 1960 from Gifu Prefecture.

Till next time, sayonara.

Zeniarai Benten Ugafuku Jinja

Money Washing Temple

Recently I was invited to go on an outing in Kamakura, the itinerary was a hike, followed by lunch and then a visit to Swany’s a local fabric/sewing store. Fresh air and exercise, good food and fabric – what more could a gal want? Sounded like a perfect day to me!

We started the day by walking/hiking to the Genjiyama Park. This park is up on a hill above Kamakura, cherry trees surround the park but they still weren’t out yet – but note to self, a return trip is a must-do to see them in bloom. On the way we passed by an old traditional Japanese style home, a beautifully sculpted cypress tree in front of someone’s home, a honey store (yum) – I constantly feel like a kid here in Japan – everything is new and different. A honey store? But not just any honey store, one that also has a really cool window display for those of us who are constantly searching out visual stimulation, I’ll be back.

After taking a break at the park we headed to the Zeniarai Benten Ugafuky Jinja temple. This temple was founded in 1185 and is one of the most popular spots in Kamakura. It is believed that if you spend the money that has been washed in the spring’s water, it will increase many times and come back to you.

With my damp Yen in my wallet, and the hope that my money will multiply – and we were headed to a fabric store later? Well, we know that wasn’t going to be in my wallet for long.

Hisayo, our leader, found a perfect cafĂ© for the 6 of us to stop and have lunch. It was lovely – we were the only customers, 3 Americans and 3 Japanese ladies. The number three in Japan is a fortuitous number and I felt more than lucky to be sitting there having a wonderful lunch, great conversation and lots of laughter. Very good for the soul.

With recharged batteries we headed to Swany’s. This place is oh so cool. It reminds me of a smaller version of G Street Fabrics in DC. This could be bad … very bad. Not only does it have beautiful Japanese fabrics, but loads of fabulous purses on display (with all of the unique handles and finishing details), beading supplies AND they are only a few blocks from where I teach my English Conversation classes on Mondays. All Jeff is probably thinking is thank God she left the Ferrari (a.k.a. Bernina sewing machine) in storage … how much damage can she do in a fabric store when she can’t sew? Mmmm …

It was a great day and I thank our Japanese friends for sharing the day with us – one filled with great memories. Till next time, sayonara.

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