No curve was too sharp for them and their bicycle. No puddle was deep enough to stop them. -- Friends by Helme Hein

28 February, 2009

Spring is Sprung

Ume (plum) blossoms have started to bloom all around town. Their smell is so sweet! Sakura (cherry blossom) hysteria begins in April or so.

We went exploring on Saturday and found a little old farm house just close to the apartment in Futako Tamagawa. This loom made woven sandals years and years ago.

The farm house with shoji paper windows and doors and thatched roof.

Tatami matting and warm coals for cooking.

The farmhouse had put out their collection of dolls for Hinamatsuri. This is the day reserved for prayers for young girls growth and happiness. Families set out dolls and rice crackers as offerings on displays like this. The superstition follows that if mothers don't put the dolls away immediately at the end Hinamatsuri, their daughters will never get married. My girls today were utterly convinced my mom forgot to put the dolls away....they are a little too mouthy, these 7 year olds.

The top tier of the shelf is reserved for the emperor and empress. There are usually 3, 5, or 7 shelves in a display which are lucky numbers in Japan.

Beautiful bamboo thicket

27 February, 2009

Disney Spa

Ingrid has allergies and wears this get up commuting from home to school on the train to protect herself from the pollen. I think she looks like Michael Jackson. Funny thing is, no one in Japan thinks its all that strange.

About 2 months ago we celebrated our friend Ingrid's birthday with a girls night out (James excluded for obvious reasons). For her birthday gift, we promised her a day at the spa, treated by Laura, Jesse and Charity. Last night we finally took her out to LaQua, a 3 story spa/onsen complex near Tokyo Dome. Surrounding Tokyo Dome are skyscrapers and a theme park filled with roaring roller coasters, ferris wheels and Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurants, while inside, LaQua is it's own tranquil theme park of massages, baths, saunas, steam rooms and facials. To enter, you pay 2,500 Yen to receive an electronic wrist bracelet that gives you unlimited access to the spas, steam rooms and relaxation rooms. Your wrist bracelet opens your locker and is the mode of currency in the spa complex. You are then given a bag containing your choice of 3 different ugly polyester type comfy outfits for your lounging pleasure. The dressing and locker rooms are the size of a school gym and contain vending machines that supply you with everything from water to underwear to nylons, all with the swipe of your bracelet. After booking massages (choices range from Hawaiian to Swedish to Thai to Balinesian to Aromatherapy), we swiped our bracelet again for a snack before being rubbed down. My massage wasn't all that great (her arms were scrawnier than mine), but it was relaxing. Then we hit the onsen. This place blew me away. There must have been over 50 shower stalls leading into the 5 pools, sauna, steam room, cold bath and foot bath. It's strange to be confidently walking around naked with 100s of other women....the pools were hot and relaxing and incredibly serene considering the city mayhem surrounding us. The sauna had a huge screen tv with 20 naked Japanese women watching reruns of 80s pop music tryouts a la Star Search. The outside pool was just perfect for lounging and not overheating.

I was so relaxed and at peace after all the warm water that I managed to slather conditioner all over my face instead of facewash. Unfortunately, we were woken out of our blissful state when a spa staff member came over, grabbed our wrist bracelets and told us that we had 30 minutes to get out. Turns out, someone had turned Laura in for having tattoos. We saw the signs prohibiting body art, but we chose to play dumb gaijin....apparently they've seen that trick in the past. Laura's 2 small tattoos are discreet and not much bigger than a quarter--it's amazing how threatened someone can feel by another's choice to ink themselves. She's lived in Japan for almost 10 years and never had an issue in an onsen. So, we left with giggles at feeling like we had been picked up by the police in high school prank calling or something ridiculous like that.

The other crazy part of this place is the football stadium sized room equipped with 100s of lazyboys and personal sized TVs. The spa is open from 11:00 a.m to 9:00 a.m., so if you are in the neighborhood and happen to miss last train, you can pay less than 30 bucks to sit in warm waters and then sleep in a lazy boy until the trains start running again. Only in Japan. Love it.

23 February, 2009

4 Day Weekend in Nagano & Shiga Kogen

Shinkansen! The bullet train sped us off to Nagano at 175 miles per hour for a four day weekend of snowboarding and monkey viewing. Here's the train schedule at Tokyo Station on the day we left. Shinkansen is something of a national legend in Japan. I've seen children flying loaves of french bread around declaring "Shinkansen!!" and the images are often found on lunchboxes and kids clothes.

Our train on the left (not the double deckers)

This nice man took a liking to James. He's an origami teacher who pulled out a few folded animals from his pockets for us gaijin. He introduced us to the mythical Japanese kappa and gave Naoko a crane. On the whole, people were extremely kind to us when we left Tokyo. People said hello, welcomed us, asked us about the US. There are fewer gaijin outside of Tokyo and in the city people just put their head down and go about their business. Naoko mentioned that she was surprised by how much attention we got.

The Jigokudani Yaen-Koen monkey park was by far the highlight of our trip (James would say it was the fresh pow-pow). Better known as the monkey onsen, over 200 monkeys frolic in the snowy Japanese woods and bathe in the warm water in this park near Shiga Kogen ski resorts. You could tell the park keepers love these monkeys because nothing was for sale and it cost only 500 Yen to enter. The monkeys ran all around and weren't afraid of all the paparazzi cameras.

Momma and baby way up in the tree

Getting a good soak on. I wish I could have pet them, they were so fuzzy and cute.

This is what I looked like in the onsen after 3 days of snowboarding. sleepy and warm

This is #2. He was just chillin, letting people take a picture with him. He must be at least 25 years old. There's a monkey "pecking order" that appoints one monkey to be the leader.

Jump in monkey, it's cold out there!
After our park visit we found a tiny soba noodle shop for hot noodles with mountain mushrooms and Nagano microbrews (the best beer I've had since leaving the NW).

Outside our hotel with Kat and Naoko.
And the reason we went to Shiga Kogen was to snowboard. I learned how to snowplow down a steep hill and fall gracefully, head over heels, many, many times. I'll give it another shot, but my aching body is telling me I'm getting old. My sore arms, legs and neck loved the hotel onsen. An onsen is a natural hotspring. They are all over this volcanic island and the Japanese love to bathe in them. The funny thing about onsen for westerners is that onsen require nude bathing. The baths are usually separated into male and female baths, although you can find a few coed. To enter an onsen you must first strip down and scrub yourself clean for what seems like an eternity (I just make sure the Japanese women who come in with me leave before me, then I go). A little strange at first to take a big bath with your co-workers, but it becomes somewhat normal very quickly. Tattoos are strictly forbidden in most onsen because they are typically a sign of the yakuza (Japanese gangsters).

At least 6 inches of fresh powder fell our last night there. It made falling on my butt all day much more cushiony.

08 February, 2009

Chinese New Year in Yokohama

A few sights and sounds from the Emperor's dance and parade in Yokohama's Chinatown.
Steaming buns in Chinatown.

This guy came right up to us, then tapped his fan to his face and his face covering turned blue. Don't know how he did it.

The guy on the left is throwing firecrackers into the crate.

Japanese "paparazzi" crowding around a blonde gaijin family. They were good sports about it.

05 February, 2009

Welcome Baby Ryan!

Ryan Vincent Robert Lowe

proud big sis Avery!

Baby Ryan was born February 3rd to my brother, Dirck, and his wife, Jill. He was a healthy 7 pounds and gave no trouble to his mommy. Ryan is the first boy born in our family in a long line of many, many girls and I know he's a welcome addition!

Doctor's Visit

Runny noses and grubby little fingers got the best of me last week. I missed a week of school and had no voice for 4 days. I visited the doctor to get 6 different medications (I'm not sure if any of them worked) and a chance to wear a face mask for real. I love the organization of this medication printout: 2 pictures of each drug and directions written in Japanese and English. Makes so much more sense than the little labels on the bottles.

03 February, 2009

The Fattest Rolls I've Ever Seen

James and I had a delicious traditional Setsubun dinner tonight. We imagine this is how every Japanese family celebrates the Setsubun holiday to mark the first day of Spring on the Japanese calendar.

We learned (by eavesdropping in on the girls Japanese class at school) that we need to throw beans at the devil. So, I bought a devil mask, a mistletoe, and a bag of dried soybeans (mame). We turned on James's shortwave radio and happened to find a Japanese/English lesson that repeated the directions of Setsubun over and and over and over. Our Japanese is no better now, but our English sure is getting worse.

The first direction we followed was to find out who the oldest person in the house was. That's James. He had to eat 33 beans (of course, I only had to eat 23). We threw the rest out the door and into the corners of the house while chanting Oni wa soto! (Demons, get out!) and Fuku wa uchi! (Good luck, come in!). I threw a few at the devil (James) and then we sat down to eat the biggest, fattest sushi rolls I've ever seen. Each roll must have weighed 5 kilos and when I got them after school I was elbowed by a few moms in the most easy going, yet forceful way possible, who wanted to make sure they got their own Setsubun rolls. James was disappointed there was no football on the TV for this holiday and I know I'll be picking up beans off my floor for weeks.

Of course, there are always websites that give more knowledgeable and accurate descriptions of non-gaijinized Setsubun.

Oni wa soto!

A table set for Setsubun

Hard to tell, but each one must be the circumference of a smushed can of tennis balls. Notice the ogre enjoying his fat roll?