Monday, June 30, 2008

Day 13 (Tuesday, June 10/Tuesday, June 10)

We rose Tuesday morning, knowing it was our last day of the trip. It was to be a long day. We would fly domestic from Osaka to one of Tokyo’s two airports. Then we would take an hour-long bus trip to Tokyo’s other airport. From there, we would catch a flight to LAX. It may seem strange to do it this way, but the only flight that flew direct to the Tokyo airport from the airport we wanted to use in Osaka left early that Tuesday morning. By flying and the taking the bus, we could spend more time with Mo’s aunt and uncle.

Accustomed to American airports, I commented that we needed to be there one to two hours ahead of time. Mo’s uncle, who was driving us to the airport, said that 10-15 minutes was sufficient. When we got to the airport, I saw he was right. With a bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo taking just over three hours vs. a plane ride of one hour (not including tarmac time), Japanese airlines compete with bullet trains by getting people through security quickly. There were about six screeners handling minimal traffic. We said our final goodbyes to Uncle Masao and headed towards our plane.

The flight was short. The bus ride across town the same, except for when our boys saw Mickey Mouse and asked if we could stop and go to Tokyo Disneyland. With about three hours until we would board, we checked in and grabbed lunch. Christopher really liked the restaurant we found, telling Mo, “Mommy, I want to come back here when we come back to Japan.”

We boarded our flight later than afternoon. The flight time would be nine hours, 20 minutes, over an hour less than the flight to Japan (owing to the jet streams). We were delayed an hour or so due to engine trouble, but got away eventually. Whereas we had flown to Japan in daylight, we would fly through the night to get home. When we arrived in Los Angeles, we had crossed the International Date Line. It was Tuesday morning all over again.

As planned, I was going to catch a flight to Atlanta while Mo and the boys were going to stay in L.A. with her parents for a week. We spent a few more hours together in LAX. I then caught my flight home. When I walked in my door, it was just before 1:00 a.m. Wednesday morning. I called Mo to let her know I was home and began, once more, adjusting to jet lag.

Day 12 (Monday, June 9)

Our last full day in Japan had but one objective: shopping. We had come to Japan bearing gifts. We would go home the same way. We had tried to acquire things along the way, but Monday was our last chance. I had made a list in my journal of people for whom we wanted to acquire something.

In addition, we told Mo’s aunt and uncle we would bring home dinner. So we went to a large department store. Most major department stores have groceries on their first floor. Some stores have a number of food stalls, selling ready-to-eat hot food. We picked up what we needed and headed out.

Before we headed home, Christopher needed to go to the bathroom. We were at the train station. I stopped an employee and asked where one was. After I heard the directions, Christopher asked me, “Daddy, did she say down the stairs and to the left?” I was floored. Had he picked up that much already in two weeks? Mo, however, thought the woman probably made hand signals that Christopher interpreted. She may be right.

We did realize one mistake. For 2-3 days, we had started culling our photos, even deleting some of them that we didn't like. We should have brought a second memory stick for the camera.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Day 11 (Sunday, June 8)

I like history. One of my more annoying habits is that I bring up historical trivia and weave it into conversations when I can. When I lived in Japan, I studied Japanese history. This proved one thing: I could be annoying in two languages.

Day 11 would be a day for history. On this day, the four of us and Cousin Mina went to Himeji to see Himeji Castle. Himeji was just under an hour's ride by express train from Osaka. (It's only 15 minutes by bullet train.) However, we still had one day left on our Japan Rail Pass, so at least it was free.

Those of you reading may not have heard of Himeji, but you’ve probably seen it. Himeji was featured in the movies The Last Samurai and You Only Live Twice. Its claim to fame, though, is the castle. The number of castles in Japan is more than a hundred. Most of them, as I wrote a couple of days ago, have been destroyed and rebuilt. Only seven, I think, remain. Himeji Castle is one of those and considered the best or the original ones. The castle is also referred to as the "white heron castle," as it is believed to resemble a white heron in flight.

Walking around the outside steps up to the castle entrance.

My boys loved the castle, particularly the old-style armors on display.

Of course, Christopher, the ninja wannabe, found something he particularly liked.
My wife, her cousin, and I enjoyed the castle as well. We all walked to the top to see the view. The steps were steep, and I had difficulty climbing them. The overhangs were low and I was amazed I didn’t hit my head on something going up. On the top floor of the castle was a shrine. The boys got in line, remembered what the old man had taught them two days ago in Tokyo, and made the appropriate gestures. An old woman noted their actions and nodded at me, as if to compliment me on my parenting skills.

Here we are enjoying treats afterwards.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Day 10 (Saturday, June 7)

For two of my four years in Japan, I lived near an ice rink. I used to go there often for exercise, even taking lessons to learn how to skate better. At the rink, I met a family named Karata. The Karatas had two little girls who were excellent figure skaters. After getting to know the family, the Mom and Dad hired me to teach the girls English. I agreed, visiting the Karatas every Sunday evening for one hour of tutoring followed by the something I really wanted…a home-cooked meal. I ate there every week for over a year until I moved. I felt like the most special of guests. The grandmother, while shopping one day, even bought me a pair of slippers for their house when she found a pair my size.

On this day, my family and I got together with the Karatas for lunch. The Karatas fixed my favorite meal, sukiyaki. We visited for several hours. Unfortunately, only three of the five family members could make it. The dad was out on business and couldn’t get back. Also, the two little girls are all grown up now and the older one lives several hundred miles away. Still, it was good that I got to see at least three of them. Things seem to have come full circle. At 11, Andrew is now between the ages the two little girls were when I first met the family. Hard to believe. Below is a picture of Andrew and the younger daughter, Hiromi.
After leaving the Karatas, we went to downtown Osaka and the shopping district of Namba.
We spent most of the evening at what can only be described as retro-land, a carnival like building where the interior was meant to represent Osaka’s past. There were dozens of takoyaki (octopus dumplings) stands inside. We dressed up in clothes from Japan in the 20s.
The boys played lots of games.
It was fun, but it made Mo feel old. All the candy for sale was stuff she liked when she was a kid.

Chiba Lotte Marines update

After a hiatus of several days, the Chiba Lotte Marines re-open play Saturday night (Saturday morning Atlanta time) against the Seibu Lions. Click here or on the sports link in the column to the right. (Daytime pictre taken by us while we were there. Fireworks picture borrowed from the Marines web site.)

Day 9 (Friday, June 6)

I lived in Japan for four years and, while there, I watched a lot of Japanese baseball. Three years after leaving, I went to Japan for a week on business. When I returned home, my wife asked, “What’s the first thing you noticed when you got there?” I thought briefly and uttered, “O’Malley was traded from the Hanshin Tigers to the Yakult Swallows.” When I arrived this time, the first thing I noticed was that Japanese baseball has adopted interleague play.

It’s no surprise then that my boys love baseball, too. We’ve been to a number of Braves game since moving to Atlanta and saw minor league games when we lived in Portland. In Japan, we watched a few games on TV. Therefore, when we planned our day in Tokyo, we included a trip to a Japanese baseball stadium, as several of the teams play in Tokyo or one of the neighboring prefectures.

Our tour guide for Friday was my friend, Dave. Dave, 18 years in Japan, had spent his last 10 years in Chiba Prefecture, the longest he’s ever lived anywhere. Chiba lies just east of Tokyo and Dave knows it well. He suggested visiting Chiba Lotte Stadium, home of the Chiba Lotte Marines, and then Chiba Castle.

Before leaving, however, Dave and I walked with the boys to a nearby shrine in order to check it out. We told Christopher the shrine would be a good place to find ninja ghosts and he met us at the door. The place we were going wasn’t a large shrine, visible blocks away like most we had seen. Instead, it was small and, like many shrines in Japan, set within the neighborhood and known only to locals.

This main part of the shrine appeared to be as big as a one-room house.

There was also a group of mini-shrines to the left.

When we arrived, we saw an old man offering prayers. He taught us the proper way to pay respects at a shrine: donate a coin, ring the bell to call the spirits, bow twice, clap twice, bow again and make a wish. The boys went through the motions at the large shrine, and then turned to look at the smaller ones.

The last of the smaller shrines proved to have a story behind it. Next to it was a ceramic snake, apparently representing the spirit of one of the wives of Takeda Shingen, a famous warrior from Japanese history.

We tried to learn more, but neither Dave’s Japanese nor mine was up to it. It left us with a mystery that I’m still researching. Takeda Shingen had no connection to the Tokyo area, so finding something like this was akin to going to Massachusetts and finding a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Upon our return to my friend’s place, we headed to Chiba Lotte Stadium. We figured we could see whatever museum the stadium offered and buy some team items in the gift shop. However, upon arrival, we were surprised to find the place closed, with only a few employees walking around. We stopped one to see what was up, as well as to find a possible open bathroom.

It turned out that we stopped a high-level executive, Mr. Toshio Tatematsu. Dave talked with him briefly, telling him that my family and I had come from the U.S. to see the stadium. We got a personal tour, visiting the press box, the press area, the umpire’s room, the bullpen, and the visitor’s locker room. The biggest thing, though, was that we got to go out on the field. The bases were covered, as the field was undergoing maintenance. However, Andrew and Christopher got to do what no kid in Japan has ever done, run the bases at Chiba Lotte Stadium.

Yoshi and Naomi asked if Boon could run the bases as well, but were politely refused. The Marines allow only one dog on the field, the one that brings the balls to the umpire. Below is a picture of Mr. Tatematsu.
We got to sit in the visitor's dugout as well.

After the tour was over, Mr. Tatematsu gave each of my boys a team hat and flag. Christopher rarely let go of his flag after that. Andrew wore his team hat everywhere. We owe Mr. Tatematsu a thank-you gift for his kindness and need to send one soon. We will always be grateful for what he did for us that morning.

From there, we headed to Chiba Castle, one of the many castles that dot the Japanese landscape. Like most castles in Japan, the original was destroyed through fires, feuding, or bombing, and the current was one was rebuilt as a local museum. Chiba Castle was rebuilt in the 1960s. Five years ago, workers dug under the castles and put in rails to make the castle earthquake proof.

Near the castle is a jazz bar called Musician Paradise Jam. Its owner, Masakazu Noguchi, is a well-known Japanese musician. After the great earthquake in the mid-90s that wrecked the Kobe area, Mr. Noguchi organized a series on concerts to raise money to help. The bar is a favorite hangout of Dave’s and his pictures (Dave’s also an artist) hang here when not on exhibit.
Eventually, it was time to go. We said our goodbyes, went to Tokyo station, bought some boxed meals for dinner, and caught a bullet train back to Osaka. Sitting in front of us on the way back were three Americans, exchange students from Gainesville State College. Like my boys, they were having a great time in Japan and had their heads buried in their video games once on the train. While eating dinner, Mo spilled soy sauce on her pants and Christopher spilled orange juice on his shirt. I had to laugh. Earlier that day, at lunch, I spilled honey mustard on my shirt. Andrew followed, spilling ketchup on his shirt. At that time, Mo made a snide comment about not being able to take us anywhere.

Yes, I reminded her of it.
Yoshi's wife, Naomi, also blogged about the day. Please check it out here.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

How To Improve Soccer

For those of you not into soccer, there is a huge soccer tournament going on in Europe: Euro 2008. Today, Russia faces Spain with the winner to face Germany in the finals. My son, Andrew, enjoys it, and roots for Team Italy. Unfortunately, the Italians have bowed out already.

I've tried watching soccer, but I have trouble getting into it. It just seems to go back and forth without a lot getting accomplished, often ending in a low scoring tie, even zero-zero. And then they go into those sudden death kicks when the game can't be settled in regulation.

What really gets me, though, is the fact that a game can have its lone score created by a referee. When you get to international level, games seem to be decided by a difference of one point.,,and that one point is many times a penalty kick. Ref makes a call, good or bad, a team receives a penalty kick, and that is the difference in the game. Sometimes, it's the only score. And soccer doesn't distinguish between goals scored during the game and goals scored on penalty kicks.

In my opinion, soccer could improve itself and make games more exciting if it could adopt one change: goals scored during action should count for two points, not one. Leave the penalty kicks at one. However, if you have goals counting two, it leaves open the possibility of a game changing score at the end.

And for goals scored from 30 yards or more out, those should count for three points. I remember when USA played Germany in the quarterfinals. America lost 1-0. Germany had a great goalkeeper. However, there was one point during the game where he stopped a score, then walked about ten yards out and tossed the ball another 30 yards down the field. American scorer Alex Lalas (I think that was his name) intercepted the throw at about 35-40 yards and made an accurate kick back towards the German goal. The German goalie looked scared, rushing back to deflect the kick. He barely made it, knocking away what would have been an embarrassing and devastating goal.

What are your thoughts? I think these are good ideas. I suggested these once to a former British co-worker of mine, a soccer fanatic that takes time off to watch tournaments like these, and was told what I could do with my suggestions.

Day 8 (Thursday, June 5)

Thursday was the longest leg of our journey back to Osaka. Our destination that evening was Tokyo. We would catch an express train to Hachinohe, going back through the underwater tunnel, and then catch a bullet train to Tokyo.

First, however, a little sightseeing in Hakodate. This city, on the southern edge of the island of Hokkaido, has a famous morning market, stocking all kinds of seafood and stretching out several blocks. We split up, with Mo and her Mom looking around by themselves and the boys and I looking for what trouble we could find.

Christopher and Andrew went from store to store, particularly fascinated by the seafood that was still alive. (They were most into other food, though. Christopher ate ice cream, while Andrew chowed down on fresh corn on the cob.)

One store had a pool filled with squid. Christopher got close to watch the storekeeper pull out one for sale and nearly got squirted on. Other stores had live king crabs and octopi. The boys got us close as they could, wanting to study and asking questions about where everything came from (crabs-Russia, octopi –around Japan, squid – across the street in the bay). We could have stayed longer, but had a train to board.

We stopped at a convenience store and I bought the boys some box lunches, then we met Mo and her Mom at the station to catch the train. The trip was long, but we done the most important thing the night before, re-charged the DS and the Gameboy at the hotel.

We arrived in Tokyo just after 5:00 and said goodbye to Mo’s Mom, who was continuing on to Osaka while we spent the night with friends of mine: Yoshi, his wife Naomi, and Dave. Yoshi, Dave, and I were in the same grad school class at Wake Forest in the late 80s. Yoshi and Naomi were already married at that time. When we graduated, Yoshi and Naomi returned to Japan, while Dave and I moved to Japan to take jobs. I returned to the U.S. after four years. Dave eventually started his own business, which he still runs.

The plan was to meet Yoshi at Tokyo Station and go with him to his place, meeting Dave along the way. We set the meeting place as the Maronouchi Exit, but realized there were three when we got there. While calling Yoshi’s cell to work things out, the unexpected happened: our cell phone went dead. I began looking for a pay phone, while my wife made snarky comments about what happens when you let men plan things. Things were made difficult by our inability to find a pay phone. However, like in the U.S., pay phones are disappearing due to cell phones. Eventually, however, we located one and arranged a new meeting place.

We met Dave and headed out to Yoshi’s place where Naomi was cooking dinner. We ate, played with Yoshi and Naomi’s dog, Boon, and talked until late. We also made plans for the following day. Below is a picture of my boys playing with Dave.

Naomi also has a blog, called Boon’s blog, after their dog. What she wrote about our visit can be found by clicking here. It is in Japanese. Any picture of Yoshi and Naomi has a dog's face superimposed. The blog also includes a picture from my wedding (where Yoshi was a groomsman), a picture when Andrew was 18 months, and our most recent trip. My boys still talk about the dog.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Day 7 (Wednesday, June 4)

Day 7 promised a little bit of everything: tourism and travel. Our plan was to spend the morning in Otaru, a city on the Sea of Japan that is a short train ride from Sapporo. Otaru is famous many things: seafood, historic buildings, music boxes, and glass. The city is a magnet for tourists. Many of the sights have signs in five languages.

Upon arrival, we headed downtown, stopping first at the Otaru Music Box Museum. The lower floor was a shop filled with various intricate and fascinating music boxes, many made with glass and quite expensive. My first thought: I have two young boys that love to get on each other’s nerves and often go at each other, regardless of location. I did what any parent would do: I told them, “Stay close and DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING.” The second floor was where the museum was located and contained much more space. The boys loved all of the designs.

The picture below is at the entrance of the museum on the 2nd floor.

The museum has a steam clock in front of it. Click here to see it.

From there, we walked around the city. We passed by a local chocolate shop, with an employee on the street offering samples of green tea chocolate. (And, no, the employees weren’t yelling at people “try sample” like you see in a mall food court.) I liked the chocolate, but it was a definite thumbs down for the boys. A shop down the street was offering wine tasting with wine so sweet I could have mixed it with espresso and ice and made a frappaccino out of it. After that, the boys and I watched artisans at a local glass shop, K’s Blowing, do its work, while my wife and her Mom shopped inside. The boys watched the glass blowers, totally enthralled. The shop offers kids a chance to make glass themselves. Unfortunately, a school class had taken over the shop for the near foreseeable future, so the boys would have been unable to get in for a while.

The big hit of Otaru, though, was lunch. We ate at a sushi restaurant. Our boys experience with sushi consists primarily of the Thai Diner at Discover Mills Mall. So, we ordered them miso soup and rice. However, Andrew noted that the cucumbers looked good, while Christopher looked at what was on Mo’s Mom’s plate and wanted to try it. Leave it to my boys to discover sushi in an expensive restaurant and start begging for seconds.

Even now, Christopher asks for tuna, calling it “the pinkfish.”

After Otaru, we headed south. Our trip to Hokkaido was an all-day affair. The return would be split over three days. Our first stop would be Hakodate and a traditional Japanese hotel with a hot spring. It was the boys’ first time to visit such a place. I took them to the hot bath after dinner that night. They didn’t adjust to it that evening, but then requested another hot bath the following morning and did fine. Below the boys are dressed in the hotel robe, ready to go to the hot bath.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Day 6 (Tuesday, June 3)

How We Spent Our First Full Day in Hokkaido
For Day 6, we planned an all-day tour through the central part of Hokkaido. The main part of tour was a visit to Asahiyama Zoo. This Zoo is one of the most famous in Japan and is known for its attempts to recreate the animals’ original habitats. This Zoo differs from the Atlanta Zoo in that it has animals from colder climates, possibly due to the latitude. (Atlanta weather, even the humidity, is similar to Osaka, the city we had left on Monday morning.)

When we arrived at the zoo, we headed towards the animals my boys wanted to see first: penguins and polar bears. When we lived in Portland, my boys saw these animals often at the Portland Zoo. They were their favorites, so they jumped at the chance to see them again. We got to the penguins first. The boys watched raptly, as some obviously not so camera shy penguins stood and posed.

We headed to the polar bears next, but the seals were on the way so we stopped by. After that, we went to the polar bears, staying there until I looked at my wife and noted ironically, “Penguins. Seals. Polar bears. We’re going up the food chain. It’s making me hungry.”

From the zoo, we headed to a local viewpoint to gaze at a mountain range. One of the things that differentiates Hokkaido from the rest of Japan is its wide-open spaces, giving it a feel similar to the U.S. Roadsides stands were nearby, offering food and bathroom break. I was taken with the scenery. My boys were taken with the food at the stands and couldn’t care less.

From there, we went to a popular Japanese resort and headed back. We’d been touring nearly 11 hours.

Nighttime found us taking a walk in downtown Sapporo, one of favorite Japanese cities. We ate at a Genghis Khan-style eatery, a popular restaurant style where the patrons prepare barbecued lamb at their table. After that, I made a stop at The Fruitscake Factory, a local dessert chain. (Yes, the place is ripping off the name, but their stuff is delicious. If you click on the link, click on the third strawberry in the column on the right hand side to see the menu.)

With the boys tired, we headed back to our hotel. Andrew went off with Mo’s Mom. Christopher went with us to our room. I helped Christopher get a bath and then he went to sleep. And there, in our first quiet moment of the day, my wife looked at me, kissed me, and said, “Happy 13th Anniversary, Honey.”

The trip to Japan had been our present to each other.

Monday, June 23, 2008

It's A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood...

Especially if your neighborhood is Turner Field.

Yesterday, my and I took our kids to watch the Braves and the Mariners. The Braves won 8-3, behind Mark Texeira's three HR outburst. My kids are Braves fans, so they cheered nearly every moment.

However, my younger son ended up slightly disappointed. He is a fan of Ichiro and wanted to see him "do something," but the Braves pitchers kept him off the base. With the score 8-0 at the top of the ninth and it being Sunday afternoon (i.e. Kids run the bases at Turner Field), we left in the top of the 9th to get in what was already a long line, stretching from the lower level entrance to the field to the top of the upper deck ramp.

Somewhere in that 9th inning, Ichiro got on base due to a Gotay error. He reached second on catcher indifference and scored on a single by Willie Bloomquist. My son was sorry he missed it, but did have a blast running the bases.

I had fun as well. It was my second Braves - Mariners game, as I lived in Portland when the Braves visited Seattle and I caught one of the games that weekend. It was only one of the three game series that the Braves won. Hampton threw eight great innings of three-hit, one run ball and the Braves won 8-1. (I saw the Braves play a year later in LA against the Dodgers. Hampton pitched again, meaning that I probably saw his most recent two pitching performances.)

In other news, the Chiba Lotte Marines are off until Friday, when they will play the Seibu Lions.

Day 5 (Monday, June 2)

A word about Japan Rail Passes
If visiting Japan, one of the things you need to plan on getting is a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. Trains run everywhere in Japan and the JR system runs across the country. (There are a number of smaller railways and subways available, but those run within cities or between two nearby cities.) The pass is only available to non-residents. You pay for the ticket in the U.S. and exchange it for a pass after you reach Japan. (Yes, a plane would be quicker, but this was an opportunity to show our kids how big Japan is. For more details on the Japan Rail Pass, click here.)

Monday promised to be the day of the train. Mo, the boys, Mo’s Mom, and I were traveling, by train, to the northern island of Hokkaido. Our objective was Sapporo, the island’s largest city. (Please click here to be taken to a map.) We would have to catch four trains to make the journey.

One of our concerns was how the boys would handle it. They both love trains, especially Christopher. However, it was going to be a long day. They had their books, their toys, and, most importantly, their Gameboy and DS. Still, we didn't know how they would do on what would be a nearly a 15-hour journey. The length of time, though, was only part of it. We had another concern: food. We had brought some rolls and stuff with us to eat on the first leg of the trip. However, our layover times would be between 12-40 minutes. We had to buy lunch, dinner, snacks, and drinks, etc., prior to each train ride. We could buy food on the bullet train and other express trains we were taking; however, it was like buying food on a domestic airline flight, available but expensive. In addition, we had to find stuff the boys would like. In the train stations, we could buy various box lunches and these box lunches would be fine for the adults. Finding stuff for the kids, even for kids like ours who eat Japanese food all the time, was a concern.

After a short, early-morning subway ride, we caught a bullet train in Osaka at a little after 7:00 a.m. The train's destination was Tokyo. Below is a picture.

After a three-hour train ride, we had a 40-minute layover in Tokyo. This gave us sufficient time to acquire some nice box lunches and board our next train. The boys loved posing for pictures with the sleek trains in the background.

From Tokyo, we caught another bullet train to the northernmost destination of Hachinohe, on the northern part of Japan’s main island. This took another three hours. We had about 12 minutes here, buying snacks quickly on the platform before boarding the next train. We easily found juices and water for them to drink. Soft drinks were also available, but we didn't want the kids drinking too much of those.

The next train was an express to Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido. It would take just under three and half hours. (See map below.)

Looking at the map, you will see that part of the train ride is through water. The two islands are connected by the Seikan Tunnel , currently the longest underwater tunnel in the world. The total tunnel length is over 33 miles with nearly 15 miles under water. My boys were looking forward to this trip as they like tunnel, (particularly the noise made when a train passes through). However, the noise grated on them after so many miles and they were just glad to be out of it. The better part of the train ride is the scenic view of the Japanese coastline along the Pacific Ocean. My wife and I did our best to show them the views. They liked it, but preferred the mountain views on the other side of the train as the mountains were touching the clouds.

In Hakodate, we caught out last train, a three-and-half hour one, to the city of Sapporo. With it being after 5:00 and knowing we wouldn't arrive at our destination for several more hours, we knew the boys would get hungry again. Unfortunately, this station offered the least appetizing food menus, due to the lateness of the workday. We did find stuff the boys wanted and headed out. It was around 9:30 p.m. when we finally reached Sapporo. Luckily, our hotel was next door to the station as we were beat.

By the way, the boys did great!!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Day 4 (Sunday, June 1)

Sunday morning found us washing our clothes. Though in Japan for two weeks, we carried enough clothes for only 5-6 days with the expectation that we would wash them. On Monday morning, we would leave for Hokkaido (Japan’s northern island) and then Tokyo, not returning until Friday evening. We planned to take only one suitcase for the four of us to make our travel easier. After washing the clothes, we hung them outside to dry, hoping for a good hot day.

The plan for the day was to split up. Mo, her Mom, and her uncle were going visit the cemetery and spruce up the graves of ancestors. As for the boys and I, we, with the help of Cousin Mina, were headed to a park north of Osaka and then out shopping for toys. The boys had each received a present of ¥5,000 from their great uncle and were looking to spend it.

The park was a long distance from the station, but we had visited the slide on our last trip to Japan and knew it was worth it. We carried cardboard to sit on as the slide hurts your rear. On the way, Mina noted a large black bird and asked, in Japanese, what kind it was. “That’s a raven, Cousin Mina,” Andrew responded in English. I paused at Andrew’s response. Had he understood the Japanese? Andrew had shown flashes of understanding Japanese before and I thought this was one of those times. It’s also possible that Mina pointed at the bird and Andrew just responded. Still, it made me happy.

I have pictures below. The boys went down several times. I only went down twice, ripping the cardboard each time due to my weight. Though parents often come down with their kids, the slide wasn’t designed for anyone my size.

After the slide, we headed back to the train station area to get some lunch. There was a food court at the station and we let the boys choose. As expected, the chose McDonald’s, opting for a Japanese-style happy meal.
We checked out a local electronics store close by, seeing what kind of toys they had, then headed out to another toy store Mina knew about. It turned out to be Toys-R-Us. Mo and I had only request of the boys: they were not to get anything in Japan that could be bought in the U.S. However, Christopher fell in love with a remote-control motorcycle and I let him get it anywhere. Andrew wanted to buy a game for his DS. However, the store couldn’t promise that a Japanese version of a game would work in an American DS and couldn’t accept it back if it didn’t. Eventually, we took Andrew to a store for used DS games so he could find something he could try out. Thank goodness it worked.
We returned home and packed. We tried to go to bed early as the next day, we would board an early bullet train bound for Tokyo. There, we would change trains, the first of three changes in a near 15-hour journey on our way to the northern island of Hokkaido and our final destination: Sapporo.
Got a little change in my pocket going jing-a-ling-a-ling
One of the things I had to relearn in my visit to Japan was dealing with Japanese money. I am somewhat conservative when it comes to spending money. However, I do have a different mindset about coins and bills and the way I spend them. In Japan, the mindset has to readjust. For the sake of discussion, assume $1.00 = ¥100. (The “¥” symbol refers to yen. The rate was around ¥105 to $1.00 while we were there.) Japanese currency has six coins: ¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥50, ¥100, and ¥500, and three bills: ¥1,000, ¥5,000, and ¥10,000. The four smaller coins are similar to a penny, nickel, dime, and a half-dollar. (Japanese currency has no quarter equivalent. Also, the ¥5 and ¥50 coins have holes in the middle.) The three bills are equivalent to the $10, $50, and $100 bills.
The problem is the two larger coins: ¥100 and ¥500. If you have the same mindset as I do, you might view coins as having minimal value. However, these two coins are the equivalent of $1.00 and $5.00. It’s hard to think of them that way, especially when they are weighing down your pocket, but you do.
What are your thoughts? Have you had similar experiences? Do you have the same coin vs. bill mindset that I do? Please let me know.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Latest Marines Score

The Marines lost sometime later today to the Chunichi Dragons, 6-1. I say late today as it's 9:00 a.m. in Atlanta, but 10:00 p.m today in Nagoya (where the Dragons play). Combined with last night's Braves loss of 10-2 to the Mariners, my kids will not be happy when they wake up this morning. However, I expect that to abate soon.

Trip to Japan

If anyone is interested, I am blogging about my trip to Japan at the website I maintain for Atlanta Parent. Pleas click here to be taken there. Thanks.

Day 3 (Saturday, May 31)

In my wife's opinion, this is the extent of my French
It is said regarding jet lag that you’re tired the first day, you hit a wall the second day, and you start adjusting by third day. For us, Day 3 was a day with friends and family…and we still spent part of it zonked out.

When the boys rose that Saturday morning, maybe ten seconds elapsed before they turned on the computer games, something that they spent the better part of the morning playing. Of course, I had to count myself among the boys because I spent a good amount of time that morning playing as well. Lunch arrived, after which Mo and Naoko asked the scary question, “Can the two of you handle the kids?” We assured them that we could as they disappeared for a couple of hours to walk around the neighborhood. As for Naoki, the boys, and I, as the French would say, Wii wii wii.

The boys, Daiki, and a kid from the neighborhood enjoying themselves. They eventually went outside and played in the empty lot next door. The kid came over as he wanted to meet foreigners. He brought two extra Wii sticks with him.

A picture of the family

We returned to Osaka that evening and went out for dinner with not only the family we were staying with many of the relatives in the area. I particularly remember Mo’s grandmother’s cousin, a spry 88-year old woman who looks like she’ll be around many years to come. The food was great, especially the seafood.

A family shot is below. There was more than one taken, but we had trouble getting all the kids to look forward at the same time. This one seemed to have the best light. Mo's uncle is second from the left. Her aunt is standing behind him.

After dinner, we returned to Mo’s uncle’s place. I made sure Christopher got a bath and got ready for bed. Andrew took a shower and got himself dressed. Once again, we counted ourselves lucky that Mo’s relatives had the space to put us up and I fixed the futons so the boys could hit the sack. Though sleeping on the floor may not seem like much fun, futons are quite comfortable. (They can also be folded up for easy storage in a closet.) We had five of them laid out next to each other, one for each of us. The boys went to sleep and we eventually did, too.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Day 2 (Friday, May 30)

With our sleep patterns totally screwed up, my wife and I both woke several times during the night. Eventually, however, we rose for our first full day in Japan. The plan was to relax that morning at Mo’s uncle’s place, spend the day touring Kyoto, and then return to Osaka that evening to visit with a childhood friend of Mo’s. We also had two important errands to run: exchanging money and picking up the train tickets we would need for travel later in our vacation.

We were a little slow getting away that morning and it was almost noon before we reached Kyoto. The city is extremely close to Osaka and the two of them, along with the city of Kobe, form essentially a single metropolitan area. Kyoto is one of my favorite cities in Japan due to its history. Founded in the 8th century, Kyoto is a former capital of Japan. It is an historical treasure, well known for its temples and shrines, and is of such importance that the Allies purposely chose not to bomb it during WWII.

We stepped out of the train station and focused first on finding a place to change money. Mo’s Mom noticed a large post office nearby and we headed there. That may sound strange, but the Japanese postal system offers financial services (though many smaller post offices do no have these services available). The line was long, but we changed our traveler’s checks (the preferred option, as exchange rates are better than cash).

Welcome to China
From the post office, we headed to Kiyomizudera, or as it’s translated, the "Clean (or Pure) Water Temple." Like Kyoto, this temple has been around since the 8th century, though most of the current buildings were constructed in the 17th century. Kiyomizudera is one of the most famous temples in Japan and known for its three running springs, which people drink from, praying for health and good fortune. You can drive to the entrance, though it is slow going due to the crowds. Most people walk up the long hill to the entrance, taking time to peruse the shops lining the street.

Arriving at the temple, our sons noted the some of the buildings had a bright orange color. “China!” the boys called out, pointing at some of the buildings which, to them, resembled some of the temples they’d seen in the previews for the movie Kung Fu Panda. We assured them we hadn't change countries in the middle of the night.

Outside the entrance:

A picture of myself and the boys. The main hall of the temple is to the right and the city of Kyoto is in the background.

A couple of places to get water. In the second picture, it is pouring into a pool and I’m standing behind the boys, making sure they don’t fall in.

Long shot view of the temple grounds. This doesn't capture everything.

After visiting the temple, we headed through the many shops. Coming to Japan, Christopher hoped he would meet a ninja. This store made him happy.

For more information on Kiyomizudera, please click here.
We left the temple area and walked back towards the station. On the way, we saw another well known Kyoto tourist location: Yasaka Shrine. A picture of Mo and the boys is below.
Computer Games – The Universal Translator
As it drew towards evening, we headed back to Osaka. Our plans were to get changed and head over to visit Mo’s friend’s, Naoko, where we would spend the night. Unfortunately, Christopher zonked out and became impossible to wake up. Knowing he and Andrew were both still worn out from their trip, we let them sleep as long as we could, calling to let our friends know the situation and that we were running late. Eventually, though, we had to get them up and get going. Christopher slept on the train ride over, but eventually woke up after we arrived. (Mo claims I was zonked out along with them and has said she will produce witnesses, if necessary.)

Mo and Naoko have known each other since the two were in kindergarten. Naoko and her husband, Naoki, have two boys: Daiki (age 9) and Shigeki (infant). We visited them on our last trip to Japan and they had visited us when we lived in Portland. We worried whether the boys would be able to play together, but it was needless. Andrew and Christopher brought their DS and Gameboy. Daiki had a DS and a Wii.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Day 1 (Wednesday, May 28/Thursday, May 29)

Hi, everybody, I hope you enjoy what I am about to do. My family and I recently went to Japan for two weeks. We were there for several reasons: to visit my wife’s family, to help our kids understand what it means to be Japanese, to spend time with friends of mine from school and from my years in Japan, and to have some good Japanese food. I am going to attempt to provide an interesting re-cap of the trip. Not every day will have pictures. (Trust me, you wouldn’t want to see my ugly face after I hadn’t shaved or showered for a day.) However, most days will. Please drop me a line and let me know what you think.

We rose at 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning for a 7:30 a.m. flight. Our logic was an hour to get ready and an hour to drive to the airport, putting us at Hartsfield two hours before our flight. We didn’t need the hour prep time, as my wife, a master planner, had everything ready to go. (Yes, my wonderful wife planned everything.) We had looked forward to this trip since our last visit in 2004. However, we had made the conscious decision to return to Japan only about a year ago.

Our trip was to be on two airlines: Delta to LAX and then a six-hour layover before taking Japan Airlines (JAL) to Tokyo and on to Osaka. There were several reasons for this, but cost and convenience were biggest factors. My wife’s parents live in Los Angeles and Mo’s mother was coming with us for part of the trip. The layover gave us time with them. Also, on the way back, Mo and the kids would stay in L.A. for an extra week while I headed home to Atlanta and went back to work. The long layover ensured that I wouldn’t miss my flight home on Delta.

After the short visit in LAX, we boarded our JAL flight. (That second flight surprised Christopher. He thought we were already in Japan when we landed at LAX and did not want to get back on a plane.) The flight to Narita (the larger of Tokyo’s two airports) was just over 10-and-a-half hours. After take-off, we settled in to watch the in-flight movies on the personal screens in front of our seats. I first selected “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a movie I wanted to see for its historic value. However, when I turned it to the proper channel, the first thing I noticed was some half-naked, surgically enhanced women and a nude Tom Hanks, all playing around in a jacuzzi. It was then I remembered that U.S.-based carriers edit films for content and to fit the screen. Japanese carriers only edit to fit the screen. I switched and watched “The Gameplan,” with the kids, as Christopher was excitedly repeating the name of the film’s star: Duane “The Rock” Johnson. I watched Charlie Wilson’s War later while the kids slept. Though daylight continued outside the plane, inside the lights were dimmed to simulate night as most of the cabin slept. Somewhere, we crossed the International Date Line.

When we finally landed in Narita, it was Thursday afternoon. Customs went quickly. They took Mo’s and my picture and fingerprints, but opted not to take the boys. That evening, we caught a one-hour flight from Tokyo to Osaka. At Osaka, we were met by Mo’s Uncle Masao, who drove me and the baggage to his residence. Mo, her Mom, and the boys took a cab. Mo's aunt was waiting at home. Her cousin, Mina, arrived home later that evening.

After arrival, Mo unpacked and pulled out some of the gifts she brought her aunt and uncle. Mo had spent months searching for gifts and one of our suitcases contained almost nothing but these items. One of the items Mo picked for her uncle was a special Café du Monde brand coffee, based on the famous New Orleans eatery. Mo had never seen it before and, when she found it at Whole Foods, thought it perfect for her coffee-drinking uncle. However, Mo didn’t count on Mister Donuts. The donut chain, with many locations across Japan, offers a beignets menu. To complement this, the chain was importing Café du Monde coffee. It was more available in Japan than in the U.S. Mo laughed in disbelief when she found out.

Everybody talked for a while, but we finally hit the sack and tried to put ourselves on the current time zone. It had been about 28-30 hours, since we left our house in Buford.