Saturday, April 5, 2008

expensive fruit

You can buy everyday fruit like we do in the States, or you can have the perfect designer melon or apple, it will cost you though. These photos were taken in some of the local supermarkets. Most of the markets I visited had these high end fruits.

Some of the fruit of is imported but I think most of it is grown locally in greenhouses. The high-end cantaloupes that I saw ranged from $30-65 each. In appearance, they were perfect in every way. The stem and vine of each cantaloupe was carefully wrapped in paper. Fumiko says that each melon has a date written on the label indicating the optimum day on which it should be eaten.

Rounding out the selection are some $7 apples, a $14 mango, some $6 kiwis and a $15 basket of clone-like strawberries.


Monday, March 31, 2008

Stateside

Hello All,

I arrived back in California at 9:15 AM on Sunday, March 30. It was nice to return to sunny weather and good friends. I rode BART and Amtrak up to Sacramento where Brian Eisenbarth and his kids picked me up at the train station and delivered me to my apartment - thanks Brian! After a quick unpacking, shower and shave, my friends Bruce and Johnny ( thanks guys!) picked me up and we drove up to Orangevale for Steve Bird's 40th birthday party - happy birthday Steve! His wife, family and friends put on quite an event with live music, horseshoes and kegged beer. By the time I finally got to bed at 8:00 PM I had been up for 28 hours - a new personal best!


Well, thank you everyone for viewing my blog and for your support and comments. I read each comment even if I did not reply to all of them; I discovered that I cannot reply directly to anonymous comments. There were many great experiences over the past two weeks that I did not find time to write about. I plan to do that in the next few weeks and to post another online photo album so keep checking back if you are interested. Thanks again!

- Henry

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Osaka and Kyoto

On Friday, March 28 we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka where Fumiko was to meet the next day with a group of medical school professors interested in collaborating on some facial yoga research.

Saturday: Her meeting went very well, with a lot of interest from the professors and some research possibility. Later that day she gave a demonstration for Goodsman, the company that makes her face massage products. That evening she was a dinner guest of the professors. In all, I think she was busy for twelve hours straight.

While Fumiko worked I was on my own. I took the Shinkansen for a 20 minute ride over to Kyoto, the ancient capitol of Japan (794-1868). Shrines and temples are spread throughout the city but, at Kyoto Station and the blocks right around it, they aren't apparent. The station construction occasioned the 12ooth anniversary of the capitol foundation. With massive steel and glass architecture, it is a sharp contrast to the ancient temples and shrines of the city.


I arrived in Kyoto sometime around 9:00 AM. The station was buzzing with tourists (mostly Japanese) and buses and taxis coming and going. Outside the weather was cool with high clouds, a low overcast shading and just the slightest misting of rain in the air. As had been the case recently, I was working on a sleep deficit. I wished the ride from Osaka to Kyoto had been longer, I could have slept in the nice reclining seat in the heated train. I wasn't quite ready to get going but I figured a strong cup of coffee would fix that. I found one in a Starbucks-like place outside the station and a couple blocks from the giant Kyoto Tower.


I briefly thought of starting my day at the tower in order to gain a nice overview of what I was about to dive into. I didn't, but Kyoto Tower would be my friend later that day.

Googling had led me to decide on renting a bicycle. That turned out to be a good call as Kyoto is far too sprawling to cover on foot. The bicycle rental place http://www.kctp.net/en/rental/index.html was just a few minutes walk from Kyoto Station. A line of maybe 10 Japanese and gaijin tourists where there ahead of me. All of the $10 and $13 city bikes had been rented so I went for the next best option which was a mountain bike with road tires. At $15, it was just fine. I had an English language Kyoto tourist map from the info booth outside of the station. The bike rental agent drew on it a route and circled half a dozen temples and shrines. I was off.

There aren't any bike lanes on the roads of Kyoto. The streets are narrow and busy with cars, trucks, pedestrians and cyclists. As in Tokyo, it is permissible to ride on the sidewalks. A lot of people do. I rode both street and sidewalk. The slightly to very crowded conditions energized the day. Getting around though, involved a combination of offensive and defensive moves on bicycle and foot, the sum of which was tiring in the end.

I toured several shrines and temples and an art museum. In between, I ate lunch and drank beer under the cherry blossoms in Maruyama Park. Around 5:00 PM, as I weaved uphill through packed downhill tourist migration in the narrow streets lined with tourist shops below the Kiyomizu Temple I started feeling a tinge of alarm/claustrophobia. Suddenly I didn't so much care about reaching the temple as I did about getting out of there. It would be getting dark in an hour, I was miles away from the station, the day was winding down and I had hardly done any of the gift shopping I had left to do. This was my last best opportunity.

I thought I would find some cool souvenirs around the temples or shrines but they were mostly of mediocre quality and appeal. Kyoto Station had shops. Lots of them, including a 10 story department store. The Kiyomizu Temple and the many other sights would have to wait for another trip. I was headed back to turn in my bike, buy some souvenirs, and get some food and drink.

I worked back downhill with a mass of others, the way gradually widening and the crowd thinning until I broke through and shot across the street to my bicycle. Now I was riding down the steep hill I had climbed on my way in. Only this time I was moving in the direction of traffic. Traffic wasn't moving very much. To the left of the snaking line of downhill buses and cars was a sidewalk packed with people moving in both directions. An 8" high curb ran between the road and the sidewalk which was slightly recessed from the road. I coasted down in a 16-30" wide gap between the traffic and the curb. Because the cars were for the most part not moving, the risk seemed acceptable. Sometimes I would dismount and walk my bike through the crowded sidewalk. A couple of other times the uphill lane was clear as I rode it down past dozens of vehicles. Over the next half mile I probably shaved 10 minutes off of the descent compared to what the car drivers were experiencing. The main road at the bottom of the hill was moving better but still quite congested. I just kept going in what I thought was the right direction.


The Katsura River bounds the west edge of Kyoto running northwest to southeast. Running north to south through the middle of Kyoto is the Kamo River. Kyoto Station sits between the two. I had been upslope of it all day. Because of that I knew the general direction back to Kyoto Station but was not certain just how far in each direction it was until I caught a glimpse of Kyoto Tower downhill and just barely below the skyline. It would guide me safely back to the train station, no map needed. I rode the 3-4 miles back down to the station. There I completed my gift shopping and bought some beer for the Shinkansen. You can buy food and beverage on the train or you can bring your own. I bought some and brought it with me.

Later I met Fumiko and we rode back to Tokyo arriving late. It was a full experience. For more Kyoto pics look for a link to my next online photo album coming soon (and more posts).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Cherry Blossoms

This is just a quickie post before our way-delayed departure for Osaka because I was up until 3:45 this morning blogging. Fortunately the onsen is open until 11 PM.

UPDATE: I didn't get the post off before we left. Also, because of the late start we missed the onsen and all of the other carefully made plans Fumiko had for Friday. I was in the doghouse for awhile but I think I'm in the clear now. Here is the cherry blossom post.

The cherry blossoms are in full bloom around Tokyo. They have been opening a little more each day starting last weekend. Yesterday they were noticeable almost everywhere I went. The Japanese people love the cherry blossoms. They have festivals and all sorts of special foods and rituals for this time of the year. The blossoms are only on the trees for a week and if it rains they are gone. For that reason people have parties under the trees and drink beer and sake. They are essentially celebrating the immediateness of life. The cherry blossoms are a metaphor for our short lives and how we should appreciate each moment. So, live in the moment! Here are some of the cherry blossoms:


video

Thursday in Tokyo

Today I had no big plans. But, when you are on vacation in Tokyo you can't help but to have some adventure.

This afternoon Fumiko and I rode the trains from Sengawa over to Omotesando, a popular area next to Shibuya and Harajuku that has a lot of high end stores and a fair number of tourists as well. I was going to buy some souvenirs at the Oriental Bazaar while she taught two facial yoga classes. Then we were to rendezvous up at a coffee shop and head out to meet Fumiko's brother Nobu, if he was available, or her friend JJ, for a drink.

When we arrived at Omotesando we discovered that the Oriental Bazaar is closed on Thursdays. I had to keep myself occupied for three hours. I decided to walk over to Shibuya and roam around. Shibuya is full of trendy clothing boutiques for the twenty-something set. I read that it has more hair salons per square meter than anywhere else in the world. I noticed quite a few. Since I wasn't shopping for that crowd I didn't buy anything, but I did spot this cool motor scooter:



I have seen a number of these limousine-like lowriders around Tokyo but nothing even remotely like them back in the states. There are also a huge number of different folding bicycles around here. Some of them have suspensions and some are very high quality and lightweight and look like they could ride as fast as a full size road bike. I want one!

Eventually I walked back over to Omotesando to meet Fumiko and her agent, Mutsuko. I got to the Farmer Coffee shop a little early and ordered a cup of coffee. Apparently it was 'a very special cup of coffee made using a unique and slow acting filter that was developed in America in 1948'...or something like that. At least that was the marketing that they used to rationalize the $7 they charge for it. Ok, it did come in a nice little carafe with a small crystal of cream and some designer sugarlumps. Starbucks was right next door; I wonder what they charge...?

I was nursing the last 20 cents worth of my coffee and wondering if I was going to be required to buy something else when Fumiko and her agent showed up. They ordered some drinks and we all sat and talked for another 20 minutes. Mutsuko was very gentle and easygoing but apparently she drives a hard bargain and is a shrewd negotiator. She certainly seems to keep Fumiko in work.

After we left the cafe and said goodbye to Mutsuko, Fumiko called Nobu and learned that he was under the weather. Since we couldn't meet with him we decided to head over to Shibuya for some Indian curry. The restaurant was down a flight of stairs below a street packed with twenty-somethings roaming the boutiques and coffee shops. We had a curry buffet for 10 bucks each. It was quite good. As we left the restaurant I had to snap a photo of the place across the street:

Next up we called JJ and decided to meet her for a drink in Rappongi. JJ is a good friend of Fumiko's. She is Korean, a citizen on the Netherlands and is now working in Tokyo but hopes to move to California and become a ceramicist - anyone have a connection for her? We met at a very fancy place in Midtown Tokyo, which is quite cosmopolitan, unlike Midtown Sacramento. Afterwards we walked outside to look at the cherry blossoms. They have started to bloom in the last 4-5 days. Today was supposed to be the peak here in Tokyo. It is hard to get a good photo of them because the white seems to just fade into the surroundings. They are in bloom all over Tokyo though and it is beautiful. I feel really lucky to have caught the bloom since it apparently only lasts for a week
After we left JJ we were going to head home but decided to go to Shinjuku Tower on the way. We had talked about it the other day and Fumiko had said how great the city view is from the 45th floor observation deck. I can attest to that! It is amazing to walk around the observation room and look out the windows at Tokyo in every direction, lit up as far as I could see. Tokyo has 12 million inhabitants (plus and additional 2.5 million in the daytime) and I would guess that wherever you look from Shinjuku Tower there are a million people within the scope of your view.
After taking in the views we had a drink at the bar. What a great place for a drink. You look across the bar and see nothing but city lights. Across the way we could see people dining on the top floors of another high rise. You could probably spend a lifetime trying to visit all of the cool restaurants and bars with a view in Tokyo.


The drink menu had some interesting choices such as the "vioret fizz" or the "Sharley Temple". We settled on a cherry blossom martini for Fumiko (it's in season) and a 17 year old Suntory Hibiki whiskey for me (thanks for the tip El and Kevin). Fumiko's drink had real cherry blossoms on top while mine had a single large ice cube that looked like it was carved from a glacier. Of course they were expensive but it was a special moment in a special place and that made it seem like a bargain to me.

After we left Shinjuku Tower we got onto a train in Shinjuku Station that already looked full to me when we squeezed in next to the door. Over the next three minutes about twenty more people would pack themselves in through that same opening leaving us in the middle of the car compressed from all directions by a mass of humanity. When we pulled into Sengawa and walked out of the station, the cherry tree that had been slowly opening up a little more each day was now in full bloom. Here are some photos of the same tree taken on Saturday and today.

Ok, there is much else to write about including Easter Sunday when I went to Catholic mass in Rappongi, visited a Buddhist temple in Harajuku, checked out the gothic lolitas in Yoyogi Park and caught the Boston Red Sox - Yomiuri Giants game at the Tokyo Dome all on the same day. However, it is way too late tonight, I mean this morning. Tomorrow we are off to Osaka with a stop along the way to visit an onsen (hot spring) by the sea.

Oyasumi!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My old apartment

Before heading back to Tokyo from Yokosuka there was one more place I wanted to see. During my last year and a half in the Navy I had rented a small apartment in Hemi, a little town within walking distance of Yokosuka. I had sort of "inherited" the rights to the apartment from my buddy, Jake Keller, when he departed Japan. The building itself was hardly more than a rusty frame covered in thin boards, sheet metal and glass. However, it was my little haven from the berthing compartment on the ship that I shared with 70 other guys. A place where I could escape the constant albatross of military regulation aboard the ship; wearing a uniform, saluting officers, eating meals during specified hours, lights out at 10 PM, etc. The apartment was where I could hang out, cook meals, drink beer, and socialize with friends. I had to find this place because I knew it would return some fond memories. But did it even still exist? Had the town changed enough that I would still recognize the little side street it was on? Was my memory up to the task after 24 years? I needed to find out...

I walked back to Yokosuka Station, crossed the tracks and headed in what I thought was the right direction. About five minutes later I came to a main intersection. I looked across the street and saw a sign for Hemi Station. I was going in the right direction. When I got up to the train overpass and looked down the alley to my left, there was Hemi Station with it's rows of bicycles parked out front and a tunnel-like entrance leading from the street level up to the platform. How many times I had taken the short ride from Shiori Station in the middle of Yokosuka (the closest of the three train stations in Yokosuka to the navy base) over to Hemi hauling a case of Budweiser or a sack of clean laundry. The station looked unchanged except, sad to say, the beer vending machines were no longer there. I started feeling pretty sentimental. Now I really wanted to find the apartment.



Hemi is in a narrow valley between two hills. The main street occupies the bottom of the valley with shops and homes lining either side. Narrow streets not much wider than a sidewalk lead off of the main street to smaller parallel streets lined with homes. Staircases and narrow spur streets run up the hills leading to more homes. I would estimate that the whole town occupies a space not more than an 1/8 mile in width. As I continued past the station and up the hill on the main street through town I could see that some of the homes were newer and, if it was possible, the street seemed a little wider than before.

I couldn't remember how far the apartment was from the train station although I did recall that we used to ride my little folding bicycle down to the beer machines late at night, and that the round trip was not more than 10 minutes or so. We kept a jar of change on hand for the beer machines and usually flipped a coin to see who would make the run. You could buy cans of beer that ranged in volume from 200 ml up to two liters, and bottles of Suntory Whiskey too.

Walking up the hill I took one of the little alley-like streets that paralleled the east side of the main street. I hoped that I would spot some familiar landmark that would lead me to the apartment. After a few blocks the side street lead back out to the main road. I walked further up the hill and found another side street. I followed that almost to it's end when I came across a smaller street coming down off of the hill and into the side street. I looked up the little spur road and suddenly sensed that this was the place. A road construction truck was parked on the smaller road that I wanted to walk up and a surveyors tripod was set up, but other than that I could not see any sign of actual work having started.

The construction traffic control guy had just lit a cigarette and sat down for a break. The space that I wanted to pass through between him and the truck was not more than four feet wide. As I moved towards him, the traffic guy stood up with his red baton in hand, blocking my passage, and said something to me that I couldn't understand but took to meant "what is your business here?" Just beyond him I could see an old yellow sign that read "Mitsuboshi Apartments". That had to be the place. I looked at him and said "Mitsuboshi Apartments" as I gestured up the hill. His face relaxed as he said "Hai, Mitsuboshi Apartments" and motioned towards the sign indicating that I was free to proceed. I walked another 40 feet to the sign, looked to my right, and suddenly there was my old apartment building.

I had forgotten the name and when I saw the apartment sign it looked familiar but now there was no doubt. In front of the building was a dirt lot, empty except for the weeds growing in it. The building itself looked like it had not seen any maintenance in years. The back wall was a faded gray metal siding with patches of rust scattered across it. The windows on two of the four lower units were covered by storm shutters even though it was now a beautiful spring day. Was it even occupied I wondered?
When I lived there all of the apartments were occupied by Americans; the only gaijins in the neighborhood that I could tell. I paid $210 a month in rent to Mr. Morita at his office in town. All utilities were included. Morita-san made it clear to my friend and neighbor, Curtis Troutt, that he we needed to use kerosene heaters in the wintertime. Curtis had been using an electric heater for his first month and apparently had run up quite a bill on Mr. Morita's dime. Eventually Curtis would move next door and become my roomate.

I walked around to the front of the building with it's narrow walkway that faced into a concrete hillside. The gutters were full of leaves and a pile of old fire extinguishers sat on the ground. The front of the building looked even more worn and rusty than the backside. I was pretty sure now that it had to be uninhabited. The electric meters were on the wall next to the center of the building so I took a look and saw that none of them were turning; the building was empty.
I walked over to the front door over apartment 1C. It was my old place. No one was around. No one was watching. I put my hand on the door knob and turned it. The door opened....ok, enough with the mystery writer stuff. I should say though, that at this point I was definitely reliving old memories and, yes, the door really did open. Inside the place was an orderly sort of a wreck. It just looked run down and dilapidated. A sign was posted on the bathroom door in Kanji. I took a photo and Fumiko translated it for me later that night. It said that the water was being shut off on January 17, 2007 so please do not use the toilet after that date. So, the place had been empty for over a year and it looked like it. The sliding door between the front and back rooms had broken panes of glass in it. A drop cloth covered the floor in the backroom where I used to sleep. the windows were covered in dirt. I forgot to check the kitchen ceiling to see if there was any pasta was still stuck to it from when we used to test for doneness; damn, I probably would've cried had I found a piece. I started to think back on all of the good times Curtis and I had there. The building was uninsulated and in the winter it would get so cold in there that you could see your breath. The first night back from being away on a cruise we would flip a coin to see who was going to get up in the morning, light the kerosene heater and fill the bath tub with water. There was no hot water feed for the bath tub, it had to be filled with cold water and then an electric recirculating heater would warm the water. It usually took 45 minutes before it was hot enough. To bath you would crouch next to the tub and dip water out with a bucket, wetting yourself, soaping down and then rinsing. Afterwards you could get in the tub and soak up the warmth. There was no time wasted getting clean when the air temp was 40F.

We had to report to work at 7:30 each morning on the Blue Ridge. That meant getting up before 6:00 to light the heater and start the bath, quickly getting back into bed until it was ready. Then we would walk to the train station, ride into Yokosuka and catch a cab from there over into the base and over to the ship. It sounds like a lot of extra work when the guys on the ship just had to roll out of their bunks, get dressed and walk up a couple floors to be report for muster. I wouldn't have traded those mornings for anything though. Wow, ok, that was nice little trip down memory lane for me. I'll bet it bored the heck out of you - hah! To make up for it I will throw in a little bonus post tonight, even though it's already, ohh 2AM!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Yokosuka revisited


On Tuesday, March 25 I rode the trains from Tokyo down to Yokosuka where the US 7th Fleet is headquartered, 75 minute trip that I had made many times when I was stationed on the USS Blue Ridge in Yokosuka from December 1981 to July 1984. For most sailors a weekend in Yokosuka revolved around spending time on the Honch - a strip of bars and tourist shops outside of the naval base, hanging out on the ship watching movies, going to the NCO club, bowling, etc. A weekend in Tokyo, on the other hand, was full of new possibilities. There was the excitement of the big city with its many cultural attractions, endless shopping, world class nightlife and, of course, unlimited opportunities to meet girls. As much as I prefer Tokyo to Yokuska, I felt I had to go back for a visit to see what kind of memories would resurface.

Arriving in Yokosuka Station the surroundings looked much the same as they did twenty five years ago. The old tunnel entrance by the passenger platform was still covered in moss and the dark grime of train grease and brake dust. The long narrow passenger platform with back-to-back benches running down the center facing each of the two tracks, and the stationmaster's office with its window opening to the turnstiles all seemed familiar. However, gone were the banks of vending machines that sold everything from coffee and sodas to beer and adult magazines, all replaced by a little convenience store. Outside the walkway lead down to a beautiful new waterfront park that stretched from the train station for a quarter mile towards the naval base to a huge new shopping complex complete with with a 8 screen movie theater.



Since I wasn't go to be able to go onto the base I decided to get right down to business and check out the Honch. I cut across the street and entered from the west end. The changes were apparent right away. The strip of buildings along the north side of the first block that were once little one story bars and shops had been replaced by modern apartment buildings, some of them 12 stories or more. The other side of the narrow street though looked virtually unchanged except that the bars and shops had different names. Popeye's was the only bar name that I thought I remembered.



It was early afternoon and I only saw a handful of squids (sailors) roaming around. The bars weren't open yet so I'm guessing that later that evening it was business as usual. I walked the half-mile or so through the Honch and continued up the main street of town to the Yokosuka-Chou train station. I have to say I was a little disappointed that the whole experience was a little underwhelming. I had hoped to be flooded with memories awakened by a familiar sight here or there. Maybe a little deja vu. It didn't happen. However, I was saving the best for last, and iI would not be disappointed......
I turned around and headed back towards Yokosuka Station, stopping along the way for a bowl of noodles and a beer. Afterwards, as I walked along the waterfront I stopped to watch as a couple dozen silvery fish leaped randomly along the waterfront. They were silvery and about 12-16' long. It made me think of casting a fly and how I didn't fish once while I was in the Navy. Well, I had seen enough of Yokosuka but before I headed back to Tokyo I had one more stop to make. To be continued...