"Our most ancient metaphor says life is a journey. Memoir is travel writing, then, notes taken along the way, telling how things looked and what thoughts occurred. . . .This is the traveler who goes on foot, living the journey, taking on mountains, enduring deserts, marveling at the lush green places...as a pilgrim, seeking, wondering." -Patricia Hampl

August 30, 2009

I No Naka No Kawazu Taikai O Shirazu

{Translation: A frog who stays in a well doesn't know about the great sea. Meaning: Get out and explore!}


Heath was off for his second and final presentation to the Daymon/Mondai team in Osaka, and once again, for the last time in Japan, Devi and I had the day to ourselves. We'd both slept poorly but the runny nose and wet cough had subsided enough that I thought a few hours in the mugginess of the day might do her sinuses some good. The hotel concierge had given me a map of Osaka with a highlighted route to see many small temples on the way to "the big temple." She warned that it was a 30-minute walk there, and advised that I took the shorter, less circuitous, less scenic route (10 minutes); but what adventure would there be without a circuitous route? Off we went, stroller, diaper bag, map, yen, iPhone.

This was a weird walk. It took about twenty minutes just to get to the right street with the temples, but these were interspersed with car and moped dealers, auto parts shops, and minimarts. So it was temple, Hondas, temple temple Mitsubishi, temple, auto repair shop, minimart, temple, and so on for about a mile. And I took pictures at each temple; every time I thought that this one couldn't be very different than the last ten or so I'd seen, there was just something surprising or beautiful past the gate, like a pomegranate tree, or a huge lantern hanging from the eaves of a small shrine, or a small buddha with an apron or bib on (maybe there was a festival we missed?). I rounded the corner, finally, that was to lead to The Big Temple, when I noticed an incredible, gold pagoda behind an enormous stone wall. I almost passed it--it was getting really hot and I just wanted to reach our destination and call it a day. But the thought of missing something cool got the best of me--and I thought it nothing more than a good place to change and feed Devi. At least I could rest my feet for a few minutes and then we'd be off.

So I was ecstatic, upon reaching the front gate, to find this: Wow. And these, the doors to the gate:

Upon entering, we found a couple of small, glass-walled houses with vending machines and small tables for picnickers, an information center, a huge koi fish pond, a welcoming haiku, and then the central temples. I washed my hands in the purification water, and doused Devi's blankie, cooled off her legs and arms and forehead, and, taking her out of the stroller, met an entourage of grandmas just foaming at the mouth to take her off my hands while I took off my shoes to enter the temple. So of course, I let them.

And then, in the temple, it hit me: this is not a tourist site. This is Temple. Like, We need to go to Temple today, I've got to pray for my neighbor with the goiter. I sat down on one in a row of tiny chairs at the back wall, where a number of women were waiting to be called up by the monks for their turn. I didn't want to overstep my tourist bounds, and I did ask before taking this video, but couldn't really understand what anyone was saying--so it looked something like this: videoAnd of course, one of the grandmas waiting her turn asked to hold Devi, so naturally... video

I'd folded my hands at other temples, not in prayer to any deity, but to say silent thanks for getting my family to Japan in one piece and staving off disasters, and to say prayers for our family. After all, the prayers that count most in Judaism are silent and meditative, and really, it doesn't matter where one does them. But here, I felt uncomfortable praying; maybe because there was a prescribed way to do it. So I carried my gratitude and prayers around with me as I toted Devi over to the smoky incense, where there was another, smaller shrine where people congrated to give alms and pray. There were no other Westerners, no other babies, not much talking. It was a truly tranquil spot. I decided to take Ms. Devi over to the little refreshment hut to have her lunch, and here, the grandmas caught up with us.

And what happened next defies language, but I'm going to recount what happened, and hopefully the words will come.

Devi, content in her stroller, my one hand on the bottle in her tiny mouth and my other hand mixing her oatmeal and squash, three diminutive, elderly women perched at the next table. The woman who'd held Devi in the temple bowed her head to me, a sign of greeting, and I bowed my head back. She opened a small basket and doled out her lunch to the other two women seated, and they talked--I wish I knew about what. It was an animated discussion, and before I knew it, Grandma was coming toward me with a small, plastic cup of a gelatinous, greyish stuff with what looked like bean paste in the middle, and a small wooden knife atop it. I nodded again, smiling, trying to say 'no, it's alright, you don't have to do that,' as best I could. She nodded and nodded back, backing towards her chair and sitting, and so went back to her lunch. But before I had a moment to inspect the cup, there she was again, now cutting up the gelatin, and spearing a piece of it with the little knife, stuck a piece in my mouth. RIGHT IN MY MOUTH, people. I was pleasantly stunned. Mama! She said. Mama, mama! I think she was trying to tell me that mamas need to eat too, and honestly, I had planned on finding a nice noodle shop on our way home that afternoon, but this Grandma had decided it was Mama's lunchtime now, and she wasn't taking no for an answer. In went another piece, then another. Then she left me for a few minutes to eat her own lunch. Devi had a funny, bewildered sort of look on her face, like, Um, who's supposed to be feeding who here? Her bottle done, it was on to the oatmeal and squash.

Back Grandma came, this time, with a sweet bun/sweet bean paste, right into my mouth. Oh, thank you! I said, my mouth full, bowing my head emphatically. Grandma nodded and laughed, her friends laughed. Laughed, and then went right back to eating and talking, maybe about the weather or about their plans for the week, or their neighbors. Devi's lunch finished, it was time to find a place to change her, so with many more bows, I was off to find a shady spot. I went to the Grandma to tap her hand, but wound up hugging her instead. And she hugged me back.

But there was really nowhere to go--even the quiet, contemplative, shady spots were not private enough, and rather than defiling a spot I wasn't sure was sacred or not, asked the woman at the information desk where I might go to change the baby. I made the international signs for baby--cradling my arms--and pointed to Devi--and then put my fingers over my nose, stinks!. She nodded and got on the phone. Putting the receiver down, she smiled at me, and then got up, left her perch, and took the stroller from me. It's okay! I implored, I can push it! But she insisted, and strolled Devi all the way over to a private house that must have been where the monks live, because it was way off the beaten path. She opened the thick wooden door and pointed to a row of slippers; I took off my shoes again, put on a pair, and she led Devi and I over to a private contemplation room, maybe it was a chanting room--a sliding rice paper door, three paper walls around us, tatami mats on the floor and a single pillow. With a nod and a low bow, she slid the rice paper door closed, and there we were: just Dev and I, a quiet, cool room. Devi was more interested in eating the slippers than having her diaper changed, and really, laying down on the tatami was very inviting. videoBut not wanting to overstay our welcome, we were all changed and ready to move on.

Back at the information station, I asked, restrooms? (Is there a proper international sign for this?) And the same information lady led us over to the public restroom--and then waved me inside while--no joke--she stayed with Devi in the stroller, making funny faces at each other. In love with humanity, we were off to the Big Temple.

Which, to be honest, was okay. At that point, nothing could have compared to our most recent experience. It was now midday, the heat of the day oppressive, Devi had fallen asleep in her stroller, and I thought it best to just walk through the temple grounds and follow the map back to the hotel.

I did find a great little noodle shop, for the record. Turns out that one has to get a little ticket before directly ordering, so you pay a machine rather than a person. But once I figured that out, I got my little bowl of soba and watched Devi snooze away, audibly snoring, clinging to her soggy blanket. We spent the rest of the afternoon, cooling off and resting and getting clean, ready to join Heath and Yagi-san for dinner, our last in Japan.

Osaka: the Big Schlep


On our way from Tokyo to Osaka via Shinkansen (bullet train) on Thursday, Devi shocked us by quickly sucking down and then immediately throwing up an entire bottle of milk--luckily, all of it went on me, and none of it on the baby, Heath, or his quiet but friendly colleague Yagi-san, who was to accompany us through the remainder of the trip. More fortuitously, we'd opted to ship our large pieces of luggage from Tokyo to our hotel in Osaka. Heath must have taken the above photo with my iPhone while I was cleaning off baby vomit in the bathroom (p.s., these snacks are amazing--if you see them in the States, buy them). I cannot imagine the rest of this leg of the trip if we hadn't; for once we were off the shinkansen, Devi clung to me in the Ergo while I schlepped my backpack, Heath schlepped his briefcase/backpack and big green bag on the stroller, and poor Yagi-san offered to sacrifice his manhood and carry our diaper bag (plus his own luggage). I think we must have changed subway trains four or five times. Up escalators, down escalators, up elevators, stairs, escalators, platform to platform. Somewhere between trains, on one of the escalators, the stroller tipped, and one of our bags fell on Yagi. Had Heath and I let ourselves laugh aloud, we would have totally stripped Yagi of any remaining pride he had, so we tried our best not to and saved it for the hotel. Oh, we were totally wiped out by the time we got there--but true to Yagi's schedule, within an hour we were bound for dinner with more colleagues. The meal turned out to be one of those "what am I eating now?" affairs, where the men who we'd met for dinner just kept ordering to find the boundaries of our culinary comfort zone. They kept ordering sake and beer, too, so by the time we all got home, too tired to unpack again, we all went right to sleep.

But Devi's sniffles were unrelenting again. She woke up around 3:30 a.m. (again, as she had each night), and we were up until about 5. Dizzy with sleeplessness, muscles sore and tired, and still needing to make Devi's food for the day, I contemplated that these were the moments we'd all anticipated would be the hardest traveling with a baby: schelpping and sleeplessness. But we had one more full day of sightseeing ahead, and the weather was promising. I forced myself back to sleep for another hour.

August 29, 2009

Sento-of-a-Baby

devandmoteahouse Wednesday, Devi's and my second day solo in Japan, was one of those days where, in twenty or so years, I'll turn to our daughter and tell her what we did when she was seven months old, and she'll have no recollection of how absolutely downright freaking cool it was. Devi slept late again, and since her nose has started leaking a little, I thought it best to just let her snooze. When she finally roused, it was past lunchtime and I was starving. Here's the menu at the Korean BBQ: It all looks pretty much like the same ingredients in different forms, so with a little help from my server, I went with the "#2 most famous in all Makuhari!"--which turned out to look like this:. It was spicy, filling, totally delicious, and I slurped and people-watched as Devi gnawed on her new favorite food, Japanese baby rice crackers that Naoko had nudged us to try a few days earlier. Our lunch over, we sauntered over to the Japanese garden, as I'd promised Devi the day before. And as we entered, this time, we saw a small entourage of people following these newleyweds, having their wedding portraits done here. What timing! Devi's feet went nuts--her "happy feet" dance--and the bridge and groom took a moment from their portraiture to gawk at the little gaijin. And on we trotted, taking in the grasses and stone paths, the bridges and ponds and koi, the meticulously-manicured spaces, around to the public tea house. Perfect! Although this day wasn't nearly as hot as it had been, I was parched and ready for a respite from the sun (Devi had been shielded by the stroller, but felt a little warm too). I opened the rice paper door to find... no one. Until two women--one in Western clothing and the other in a traditional kimono--greeted us, accomodated the stroller, and seated me at one of the very narrow benches. Peace...tranquility...the Japanese garden outside to look upon, some air conditioning to relish, and my sweet little girl at my side. What more could I hope for? And the rice paper door opened once again. In walked about 20 folks from New Delhi. No joke. What's a tea ceremony without a little company? It took all of ten seconds before one of the young women on the tour saw Ms. Devi, immediately rushed over, and started asking me questions about her. How old? First time abroad? First child? And what's your sweet daughter's name? I told her. Devi? DEVI? A roar of delight among the Hindustanis, having no idea that our intention was to shorten the name Devorah (coincedentally, Devi, in Hindi, means 'goddess'). Well, that's all she wrote. Tea, shmee, these tourists were all over Devi like dragonflies on...I don't know what dragonflies like. Lots of photos and questions later, Kimono lady got a little bothered, so everyone took their seats.
video (You can hear Devi munching on and loving up her rice cracker here.) Mine was a cold cup of green tea, and so refreshing. I tried to make it last as long as I could without rudely sucking on the ice cube. So with the lees of the tea left hovering around the ice cube, it was time to head back to the hotel to give Devi her lunch and a proper nap. Neither of us had any idea what the rest of the day had in store... A long line of impatient women with cameras lined the walkway to the door of Hotel New Otani, so naturally, my curiosity was piqued. I wasn't about to hang around to find out, so proceeded inside when I heard the shrieks of delight behind me.
videoThe Fukuakowa Softbank Hawks were apparently our superstar coinhabitants. There's not a hunky Johnny Damon among them, but I could see why a fan might get a little hot and bothered (so can you--watch the video, above). On our way through the lobby, I asked Guest Services about tickets to the night's game (the stadium a mere ten minute walk away) and oh-- are there any sentos around I might visit? Heath had told me about sentos, public bathhouses for relaxation, that are gender-separated and very traditional. Naturally I wanted to visit one, and the concierge was all too happy to print out oodles of information about the two that exist in Chiba prefecture. I wanted the more authentic experience (which was a little cheaper, too), so took the literature on the smaller sento upstairs and read it while Devi took her short afternoon nap. Before long, Dev and Mo were on their way to a sento by way of taxi. Now: two important things about the sento. First, if you're shy when you're naked, don't go. And second, if you don't like women gawking at you because why the hell would a white girl and her baby show up at this very local sento, stay home. I had no idea what I was doing. And next to no one spoke English. It works like this: you take off your clothes, put them in a locker, shower off in a little area where there are plastic tubs to sit on and make sure you're scrupulously clean before heading to the bath. But this is where it gets interesting, because holding a (clothed) baby while trying to squat on a plastic tub and lathering up with one hand is a real challenge, nevermind while you're getting funny looks from the locals. I have no pictures to contribute here, because a.) I had no pockets and b.) do I really need a picture of this? Dev rested on one hip then the other while I washed each side of my body, and then through the glass doors to the outdoor sento.

OK: this is cool, and worth the trip. First stop was the stone beds, where you rest your neck over this curved thing and hot water comes out and runs down under and around your body. I was able to find a safe spot for Devi next to me (she sat on my towel), but the water was only just warmish, so I let her splash her toes around a little. Now I started to make friends. Kawaii, kawaii! The women whispered. The wind felt cool around me and the trickling water, the sound of the small waterfalls from the other pools, was nothing short of exhilarating. I tried out the second pool, but holding Devi over it was too taxing--there was a third, hotter, mineral pool, and a rather large platform where Devi happily napped on my towel while I soaked. A couple of older women tried to make polite conversation, but when it became obvious that I had no idea what they were saying (I think one tried to convince me to bring the baby in the water), they gave up and just let me sit in quiet. I couldn't close my eyes--I wanted to keep an eye on the babe--but it was relaxing just the same.

Back in the locker room, the woman who spoke broken English asked if she could hold Devi. I took this video because I didn't think Heath would believe that I'd made it to a sento by myself, and made a friend to boot: video. This kind woman, who spoke broken English, offered to hold and rock Devi while I changed into my clothes. She also took about 400 pictures of Devi with her phone, because I think she was so shocked that this little blonde girl turned up at the sento.

Heath called while we were in the taxi on our way back--there was extra room at dinner with the working guys, and would we like to join them? Sashimi and Kirin and sake and various unidentifiable foods, good company, a long day. Japan rocks. And for the record, I have eaten octopus. Twice.

August 27, 2009

In Praise of Japanese Restrooms



In a foreign country, matters of the {ahem} bathroom kind are most delicate and important. This is no different when traveling abroad with babies, of course. So there are some things I need to share about Japanese public restrooms because I love them so.

Let's start with something my mother is going to hate reading about: toilets. These aren't the gross things you're used to finding t.p. all over and are a little moist-looking enough to want to grab seat covers for. These are automated, welcoming contraptions. Some ask you to adjust the temperature on the seat, and then there are all sorts of buttons for "bidet" and "shower." I'll have to upload a photo of one of them later, but imagine finding a button on the toilet with musical notes on it--this one was adjacent the McDonald's we'd stopped at to feed Devi on our first day in Tokyo. I pressed it, and it was a rather long flushing sound. So I asked Heath about it. He told me that the Japanese are rather private about their bathroom noises, so people use it to conceal embarrassing sounds. Wow.

I won't go on about the wonderful toilets anymore, because I know my mom is writhing in her seat right now. But let's discuss the rooms set aside for mothers and children.

In some places there are actual children's restrooms: tiny potties, tiny sinks, everything at just the right height. But for infants, there are rooms like these: To the left, a bottle purifier, and to the right, a cushioned changing station with little plastic baggies to dispose of used diapers. Awesome. Every public changing table I've found here is cushioned--and I've yet to see such things back home. But I digress. Here's what the purifier looks like up close: (I didn't try it--I was afraid of burning something or someone.) Also in this room are two private nursing areas where not only can you close the little partition, but oh, there's a little table for you in case you don't want to put your bag or something on the floor. This is brilliant, and would have saved Devi and I some moments in her early life where I'd had to nurse her in the backseat of my car in the parking lot at Wegman's. This is just so evolved.

The respect for women and children here is overt, I think. Makes me want to write to MomsRising.org to begin a petition for cozy baby rooms everywhere.

Nora's First Birthday!


It's 4:30 in the morning here, and I've been up with sniffly Devi in the bathroom, running the shower and letting the steam break up some of her phlegminess (sorry). She's fed and changed, and everyone's back to sleep except for me, so I'd like to take this opportunity to celebrate my not-so-newest niece, who turned one on August 19. My brother had correctly noticed that I'd not blogged Nora's birth, which was, of course, momentous for our family, so here's a little bit about Nora. This little girl is a beauty. She has a most infectious smile and loves to laugh, is curious and loves to play, and I think she understands everything we say to her. She's the kind of baby you want to nuzzle until your nose is numb. We celebrated her first birthday the night before we left for Japan, and since I have this handy, I'll share it now. video(If the handiwork on the cake looks familiar, you're right--it's my handiwork; I made Nora's get messy cake as I had for Logan's first birthday.) Happy First Birthday, Nora Brandeis! And many, many, many more from your Auntie Momo, Uncle Heath, and cousin Devi!!!

Shabu, Shabu...

Off Heath went, on Tuesday morning, to his first round of store visits, a precursor to his training at the Aeon account, so Devi and I were on our own in Makuhari. I'd not planned very much for our day together, since the previous six months of mommying has altered my planning gene into something of a wait-and-see-what-happens. Good thing, too, because our little girl needed to sleep in until noon. A late start. We headed over to the local mini-mart so that I could pick up one of the mung-bean buns I'd been eyeing since our arrival, not one to make a ceremony of breakfast with merely an afternoon ahead. Some loitering around the local outlet mall proved interesting: I found a Champion clothing store, the wares of which touted Rochester, NY (some t-shirts called our hometown "home of the champions," which I suppose is appropriate given that the factory is located there). It was weird--here we are in Makuhari, suburb of Tokyo, looking at a store-full of cute shirts from Rochester? It was a good reminder to make use of the day and get to our sightseeing. I really wanted to get to the "Makuhari Beach," which, according to the signpost near our hotel, was just around the corner. Not far from the shopping center, I'd seen a sign for "Japanese Garden," and not expecting to find much, thought it'd be a good place to feed the baby, if nothing else. I was thrilled that my predictions were completely wrong. This place was large, serene, an aesthetic antithetical to the concrete buildings surrounding it. First we came upon a little koi pond, and so we lingered for a little. I promised Devi we'd return the next day; it was my intention to make it to the shore, especially since slathering Dev in 60+ SPF and making sure I had a least two of her hats with me. On we went in search of the beach. A fifteen-minute walk and asking strangers directions three times later, we found the dunes. I kicked off my sneaks, took Devi out of the stroller, and headed up and over the small grassy hill to find the great North Pacific.



It turned out not to be the sandy kind of beach, but a peaceful spot to collect some shells, hang out, tiptoe up to the shoreline and flirt with the water. Devi loved it. It smelled fishy and seaweedy, the sort of sea air you expect in a place where you eat fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tremendous. Hot. We found some beautiful little shells and headed back to change for dinner with Heath and his colleagues.
videoShabu shabu is what you call cooking your own dinner--you just happen to be paying to do it (Bill Murray, in Lost in Translation, says, What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food? Heath and I observed that shabu shabu, as is most other dining experiences in Japan, is a process. You don't just get your food all at once and dig in, spearing and sawing and gobbling away. You get small dishes, one or two at a time, and you may happen to be cooking your veggies and meats in a pot on the electrically-heated part of a table with one pair of sticks while the other pair rest gently on a dish of rice that you'll add to your shabu shabu in a second or two. Cooking at one's own table: this is good. It's all about patience (when you're really hungry) and sharing, making sure everyone has an equal portion of the plates so that when you're not cooking or eating or talking or drinking your ice cold Kirin beer (oh, yum), no one has to strategize how to get the last piece of this or that. It's all very civilized and actually very very fun. Why don't we do this at home? Oh--maybe because our waitresses would go absolutely nuts bringing small segments of a meal to one table twenty or so times?

Our shabu shabu over, we were a little drunk and quite full. Devi had falled asleep on the tatami-type seating, so we snuggled her into the stroller and back to the hotel. Time to rest up for our adventures to come...

August 24, 2009

Where Zen Met Frustration: Kamakura

(photo source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5d/Kamakura_Budda_Daibutsu_front_1885.jpg--my own is captive in Heath's camera, no connection cable, grrrr.)

I'm sitting here at 10 a.m. blogging while Devi takes her much-needed morning nap, in case you're wondering why all of this writing suddenly popped up. Heath's officially working today, and was whisked off at 9 to his first series of meetings and store visits. When the baby wakes up, we're going to head over to the beach and nearby mall to see what's what. But for now, I'll write while I can!

So, Kamakura. It's intense. There are over 70 Zen, Buddhist, and Shinto temples. The narrow streets are teeming with tiny shops that offer everything from kitschy kitties to sacred figurines to all sorts of Japanese weapons, clothing, green tea ice cream, you name it. People make pilgrimages to this spot to bask in the peace of the temples, the sheer awe of the structures beyond the gates and tranquil gardens within. There are five main temples popular with tourists, and we'd planned our day around all five. In my imagination, I'd fathomed a day of temples, maybe we'd get to five, maybe we'd get to ten, or more.

We saw three of them. It's traveling with a teething baby, people. Can't be helped. But if getting to Wegmans with Devi in a day is a big accomplishment at home, I suppose I have to be a little proud that we even made it all the way to Kamakura from Tokyo (three trains=50 minutes and two busy stations), to three temples, and a very cool soba noodle restaurant.

Except there was no Zen in Kamakura for us, save for a few moments when Devi fell asleep in the Ergo or happily flirted with strangers. I practice honest writing here, so I have to say that while I'd looked forward to this particular day of our trip more than any other, it was the one (so far) that was fraught with frustrating moments. The heat doesn't help matters, as I've said before, and so a hot, teething baby, her short-tempered and hot mama, and her hot and exasperated daddy were just not happy campers here and there. The first temple we visited, the Zen temple Engaku-Ji, was absolutely breathtaking. A vast site that houses several buildings, built in 1282, with stone paths and a pond where we saw many colorful dragonflies, it was almost exactly what I'd imagined such a place would look like. As we climbed the steps to the temple (where you toss in the coin and fold hands in silence), Devi let out a yelp followed by a cry that echoed so loudly that I'm sure even the most even-keeled monk raised an eyebrow. So no wish-prayer for us--we found a little stone stairway adjacent a beautiful garden where we could give Devi some water-juice and cool her off. Many moments like these later, Heath and I weren't communicating in complete sentences anymore.

And it seemed that every time we ascended the stairs to a temple, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Devi just could not find her happy place. Other tourists looked amusedly at us. Who would bring a baby to such a place? Um, well, we did. We did see other strollers, but there were toddlers in them--toddlers who could communicate their needs in words or sign-language. In general, there were not many kids here at all, mainly because there are so many stairs and hilly areas at these temples. But on we trekked.

The Lonely Planet suggested a soba noodle restaurant near the Kamakura train station, which we found. We were the only Westerners in the place, and by the time we sat down, Devi was fed, changed, and happy. Heath has a picture of our waitress (kawaii, kawaii!), one of many of Devi's new Japanese grandmas who love to play with and pinch and make funny faces at her, so I'll throw that in later. It was an awesome lunch: Heath learned the hard way how not to pour the soy sauce onto the noodles, but to dip the noodles in the sauce--his little mess in the bento box made the girls at the next table giggle and they gave us a short tutorial on how to eat the noodles properly. By the way, slurping is totally acceptable. And I enjoy doing it without judgment.

After lunch, the Daibutsu temple, where the second-largest statue of Buddha in Japan lives. It is just beautiful. The tranquil face, the hands resting in the lap, palms upward, fingers touching, the blue sky and lush, forested hills beyond. Devi had fallen asleep again and we just walked around the statue in awe. A man was lighting the incense inside an ancient metal cage, and its smoky pungency, the just being there, and Devi's soft snoring--eased the tension we'd been carrying around.

By the time we'd reached Hase Kannon temple, we were able to remedy all of Devi's needs in a timely manner, but the troubleshooting is a tall order when you're in unfamiliar territory. Here, we loitered by another beautiful pond (lilies, dragonflies, stones, running water, true peace), saw the imposing figures in the temples--one 11-headed buddha sheathed in gold seemed to be 20 feet high), saw hundreds of mini-buddhas, took in the smell of the incense and even ventured through a tiny cave that led to some catacombs where we literally had to bend and duck to get through), and rested at the picnic benches that overlooked the fishermans' rooftops and the sea. By the day's end, Heath and I were not only pros at figuring out exactly what she needed/when she needed it, but solved our own communication issues. By that time, though, the sun had started to set, the oppressive heat had abated, and we were finding how to talk to each other again without the tension that split-second decision making and trying to quiet an unhappy baby--in such a quiet, sacred place--can create.

Walking down Kamachi Dori, a funky little street of shops by Kamakura station, my day's frustration finally released in some tears, and while the curious shopkeepers closed up their wares, Heath and I found our zen again, embracing--with our sleeping baby between us.

Meiji Shrine with a side of French Cuisine: Day Two in Tokyo

Saturday night, after a very long day of walking and hot hot heat, we camped out at the Matsumotos' apartment in Kawasaki; Michio, Naoko, their adorable, six-year-old daughter Riko live in a very compact unit in this Tokyo suburb where the streets are windy and not many people speak English. The best part of our short stay was the traditional bath at the end of the day: Naoko usually prepares the hot tub for her husband, who soaks first, and then she, and then young Riko last. The tub is automated, so you press a button or two and it fills up at just the right temperature. Michio explained that you basically clean off in the adjacent shower first so that the tub remains clean for the next person. Well, you know how I feel about germs--luckily, I was the first of five of us to use it. And ohhhhh, after a long day of hot hot heat and sore this and that, the tub was the perfect pre-bedtime activity (although Heath and Michio finished a bottle of Sake while Devi and I slept).

Sunday, after breakfast (I'll insert a video here later of my trying a "traditional" breakfast in a Western-style restaurant), we all subwayed over to Shibuya/Harajuku area to visit the Meiji Shrine, the Shinto homage to Emperor and Empress Meiji. It was my first true introduction to Shinto, a practice wherein actual people (ancestors or important folks) are deified. Naoko and Michio taught us the veneration process when we neared the actual shrine, which involves more clapping and bowing than I expected (Buddhists merely touch palms to pray). At this place of worship, as at the other temples we'd see later, there was a metal box in which to place your monetary offering. So you toss in your coin, bow, clap clap, pray, wish, and bow twice more. For another additional coin or two, you can write down a wish or prayer and hang it up--I'm not sure what's done with these, but there were hundreds of them at the shrine, and I made certain to contribute our gratitude and wishes.

As we left the shrine and made way through Harajuku, home to the cupie doll-meets-vamp punk Harajuku girls, Devi, who'd been carried mainly by her doting hosts, was becoming the center of attention. It seemed every other person in the incredibly crowded Takeshita Dori (kind of a trafficless alleyway of funky shops where the Harajuku girls and crossdressers like to congregate) was totally taken with our little blondie. Ah, kawaii, kawaii! Cute, cute! Naoko proudly paraded her little blue-eyed, American friend down Takeshita, stopping to let admirers pinch and fawn all over our baby. That we didn't get separated is a mere miracle. This was one crowded, colorful, crazy place, narrow, frenetic, loud, shoulder-to-shoulder. And at its end, we headed over to the more upscale Omote-Sando district to window shop at Louis Vuitton and the like. This was the more refreshing walk, as the shops had their doors open and the air conditioning wafting out onto the sidewalk, so that as we passed them, we got little breezes of chilled air. It's the little things, I guess, that keep a weary, baby-toting traveler moving.

We parted with the Matsumotos, hoping to see them again as our daughters grow up. Michio and Heath are pretty much brothers from other mothers, and I think it was a tough parting for each of them.

We cleaned ourselves up at our hotel and headed back into the city for a dinner which a couple of Heath's Daymon colleagues had set up at Restaurant Tamaki. All we knew is that we'd need three train transfers and a taxi to get to this small, out of the way, French-Japanese restaurant, and that we'd be supping in a private room: and had no idea what to expect beyond that.

Well, nine courses, a bottle of wine, and a glass of champagne later, we were sated and a little drunk. Devi slept in the Ergo throughout the entire train/cab rides and meal, so it was quite a romantic evening. We toasted our anniversary and our sheer joy of being able to enjoy an experience such as this one together. Sort of like a really amazing date, where your eyes dance more and more with each clink of the glass. Except that I was wearing our baby, so had to eat very carefully over her (with chopsticks, of course). The food? Oh, man. Japanese-inspired French cuisine. Think about that for a minute. Here are the courses:

1 Soybean soup
2 Japanese whitefish (kisu) with white asparagus tips
3 steamed veggies with lemon
4 eggplant/zucchini frites with gazpacho dip
5 corn mousse and gelled chicken consumme
6 ginko nuts upon panko-crusted japanese fish and potato croquette
7 sea bass with tomato, butter, and white wine reduction
8 kobe beef (the softest, most mouth-melty, butter meat ever) with pumpkin puree
9 dessert: chocolate with ice milk, creme brulee, fig tarte


Holy tasty--definitely one of the top three meals Heath and I have ever shared together (if not the very top). Our server was a young man who barely spoke English. I think he must have drawn the short straw, because the pressure of conversing in English with two Americans whose meal is being paid for by a Japanese executive in America was enough to make him quiver while he poured our wine. We tried to make him comfortable with some light questions, but Are you training to be a chef yourself? produced small beads of sweat on his temples, so we backed off and smiled and bowed a lot. The master chef presented himself after the meal through the sliding door of our private dining room: again, lots of bowing and smiling and rubbing our tummies. An absolutely unforgettable meal. Which is why last night's bad, unfilling, overpriced Japanese pizza (it was late, we were hungry, it was there)was such an ironic culinary experience compared to the night's previous--but we'll savor that night for a long, long time. Domo arigato gozaimas, Hanjo-san and Kunio-san!

August 23, 2009

Yukata Me Up: Day One in Tokyo (or, Fish Tales)

I'm going to say right up front here that I'm still a little laggy and not sure where these posts are going to go, since I haven't had much time to think about them nor will have much time to edit. So you've been warned. Oh--and I forgot to bring my camera charger, so you're not going to see any fun photos here until I get back home. And oh--here and there I'm going to bring up the fact that traveling in a non Roman-lanugage-speaking, hot-as-hell, fast-paced city of 12.2 million people with a baby is not easy, but not impossible, and if you're not interested in that stuff, skip over it and just get to the itinerary.

Our very first venture out into Tokyo proper was to the Tsukiji Fish Market, a place where our Lonely Planet guide mentioned this would not be a good place to take walking children. Our kid doesn't walk! A longish introduction to how to navigate the many levels of the Tokyo subway by escalator, stairs, and elevator, muggy heat, and avenues, we found ourselves looking at a sign that told us that "strollers are not friendly to this market," so back down the many stairs to a locker that, thankfully, our unfriendly stroller fit into. Devi snuggled herself into the Ergo (worth every penny, by the way), and suddenly we were in the midst of a frenzied, frenetic fish market: little platform trucks zoomed past this way and that, and if we weren't careful enough not to get run over, we might have stepped into some fish muck or onto the person ahead of us--because let's get one thing clear right now, blog readers. This city is freaking crowded. There are people everywhere, and if you're not surrounded by at least 100 other people at any given time, you're probably in the wrong city.
Before long we were in a maze of fish. Vendors and buyers (the hardcore ones are easily spotted by their knee-high rainboots) on neighboring platforms sell and buy their wares wholesale to the restauranteurs and locals who insist on preparing nothing but fresh. Fresh everything fish. Name your poison. Squid tentacles? Got 'em. An 100-pound piece of tuna? Sure. Eel guts? Yep. Devi squealed and laughed as we passed hundreds of containers and open fridges full of every kind of fish you could imagine. Heath and I, at turns, were both amazed and revolted--but the whole thing was really cool, especially considering that this place is a staple of the Tokyo fish scene. And what better way to initiate our culinary experience than a stop at a roadside sushi vendor, where the fine vendors (all women at this particular one) cooed and smiled at Devi, trying their hardest to amuse her while we sucked down our tuna and salmon sashimi, miso, and oolong tea. But Devi wasn't having it. She was hot, and we were eating, and she was not. And therefore, she was not laughing.

After a much-needed heat break at a McDonalds (where we could feed and change Devster), we met our friend (and Heath's old colleague) Ken Kimera and his new wife to catch up and have some lunch. Devi completely melted down. It was our first day in town, her sleep schedule was off, and there was little we could do to console her. By this time, we'd gotten our stroller out of the locker, so we could lay her down for a nap, but she couldn't quite reconcile that we were trying soba noodles without her, and it just wasn't fair. Thankfully, eventually, sleep took hold of her, I could think straight, and for a few minutes, we had a normal conversation with two other adults, only one of whom spoke English. And thankfully, Ken and his new wife whose name I've forgotten but who once studied to be a geisha (I'm not kidding--she even covered her mouth when she laughed) had a good sense of humor about the whole infant crying in a public place thing.

Our fun and exhausting lunch over, a little frazzled and very jet-lagged, we hopped over to Asakusa to see what some refer to as "Old Tokyo"; home to a large Buddhist temple and backstreets filled with vendors of all kinds: paper fans, yukata and kimono, Japanese chatchkes, and a fun new find, kakigoori, which is shaved ice with flavors to choose from (we tried 'melon'), which was especially delish on such a muggy day. Visitors are welcome to tie small paper fortunes around strings as wishes, so I buckled and did it. Devi came back to herself as we walked around, cooing her heart out. I wished we'd had more time there--so much to explore, so much to do...did I mention that it was so, so, so hot?

We soon boarded a river bus that took us to Hamarikyu Gardens, one of the most lovely and well-kept parks I've ever seen. Here, too, I could have loitered and lingered, especially since Devi was sound asleep and the hustle-bustle of the city had totally disappeared, replaced with singing birds and wind through the trees, the sound of our footsteps on the pebble path. But it was getting on time to meet Michio, Heath's old friend from their Simon School days at the U of R, who was going to host us that evening. I'm going to sum up the rest of the evening here because it is getting late: walk, walk, walk, hot, hot, hot, walk, holy crazy alleyways walking in hot hot heat, great fireworks to honor summer, walk walk walk to sushi restuarant, walk walk hot walk to Michio's family's apartment. Hot bath, everyone slept, and the following day was much, much more comfortable for all. Later I'll post about our time at Meiji shrine with Michio, Naoko, and Riko--but for now, everyone's snoring but me, and it's my time too.

August 21, 2009

We're Here, We're Tired, We're Going to Sleep Now

Ohio gozaimatsu! We have no idea what time it really is back home, but it's 9:30 p.m. here and we're wiped. Devi managed the 13-hour plane ride like the champ we know she is: she slept a lot, played with us some, hung out and amused herself (as well as the doting passengers around her). As usual, our company on the plane ride peppers the flavor of the trip, and on our way here we sat next to an octogenarian who'd been stationed in Okinawa during WWII--and he was going back to visit some memories, he said. I haven't been able to read or talk much about Japan without someone mentioning The War, and so now know not to order brown rice (as opposed to white) because it connotes wartime poverty.

Heath, Dev, and I have already ventured out into Makuhari (outside of Tokyo, where we're staying) and had ourselves a proper Japanese dinner: tuna and salmon sushi plates with spiced cucumber and an order of edamame on the side, with some cold sake to wash it down--at a Japanese sports restaurant. Finding the nearby ice-cream shop closed, we went into a convenience store and found ourselves some icy treats: mine, ice cream "buns" that look like eggs, and Heath's, the literal equivalent of a waffle cone (ice cream between two waffle-looking flat cones). Dev, of course, watched our chopsticks with keen interest. Her teething has not abated yet this evening.

Will check in when possible. For now...

I must close my eyes! xox.

August 17, 2009

Getting Japanimated



There's a memorable scene in Lost in Translation when Bob Harris, played by the inimitable Bill Murray, is waiting for Charlotte (Scarlett Johanson) in a Japanese hospital waiting area; an elderly man is animatedly explaining something that Bob cannot understand (because he does not speak Japanese, despite his being an iconic and widely-embraced persona there). For a time, he is simply repeating the sounds the man is making to signal an understanding, and then mock-translating them aloud, conversationally, to amuse himself. It defies explanation, I suppose, because that's part of the point of the film: language is only a vehicle to something deeper that connects one thing, like a person, to another.

I forsee many of those kinds of moments in Japan. (I vividly remember such a moment in India, which if you missed it, can read all about here.)
They're frustrating as hell, and yet they're what traveling abroad is all about. Consider that Tokyo, according to Heath, is a much bigger, cleaner, and more high-tech version of Manhattan, so we'll have access to just about anything we want or need as long as we can find out how to get at or to it. But there's the rub. We're told that some people speak English, many do not, but that we ought to know that we'll encounter lots of folks who will want to touch and take photographs of our very cute, blonde, and blue-eyed baby.

I'm psyched about the mutual fascination we're about to face, literally. There will be an exoticism unlike anything I've ever known, apart from the three-course lunch I once enjoyed at Tokyo House on East Henrietta Road. I am ready to meet the Japan of my dreams: rice paper lanterns and flashing neon buildings; sweet, old, Japanese ladies who will want to touch Devi and funky, punky Harajuku girls who strut and dance because they want to be fascinating to someone else. I cannot wait to taste green tea soba noodles and smell the inside of a buddhist or shinto temple. I cannot wait to hear the minor-key arpeggio of live, traditional, Japanese music, slip into a yukata at the end of a long day, maybe even splash around in a sento. Predictably, I'll offer up my travel incantation to Forster and Whitman, who remind me to connect and truly lose myself: in the experience, in the beauty of Japan, in moments that defy translation. Kampai!