Monday, September 22, 2008

New beginnings

If you didn't notice, I changed my profile picture to reveal my new haircut. Monisha chopped off quite a bit and while I am still getting used to it, it is a great feeling to be liberated from long hair.  I don't think I've had hair this short since elementary school.  This is the back of my head - over there to the right.  

We also tried to darken my color a bit but it didn't go as dark as we had hoped.  It was quite ridiculous trying to explain the hair color we were after to the lovely salesperson in the drugstore.  So now I get to experiment with things like spray on hair wax.  

So this is just a general announcement and an excuse to post something. All is well, otherwise.  Tomorrow is a public holiday (to honor the dead) so Rich has a day off. We'll be heading out to do some old-fashioned sight-seeing and shopping.  

One of these days I should keep you all updated on Max's speech.  He is making sentences now which is a lot of fun and coming up with the most amazing vocabulary.  I think this is due to all the reading we have done with him and his experience at school.  

Some recent expressions "I did it!",  "Mommy press it!" (as in the button on the elevator). "Mac fell down" (he calls himself Mac now).  "I found it!"  He knows the words for almost every animal and lots of insects and is very interested in bulldozers, diggers, cement trucks, and dumptrucks.  There is a fair amount of construction going on in our area so we are frequently passing building sites and heavy machinery.  He knows a lot of verbs and prepositions now and within another month, I think will be really speaking fluidly.

He likes reviewing the alphabet in his many ABC books and is connecting letters to words now. E is for elephant, a is for armor (yes, armor).  

We watch a lot of Curious George and the other day he pointed to his arm and said "bone".  So we discussed some of the bones in our bodies.  Yes, he has learned that we have bones from Curious George.  He's pretty darn curious, himself.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Weekend in Nikko

Been meaning to write about our outing last weekend to Nikko. Only two hours by train from Tokyo, Nikko felt worlds away from the city life and the crowded skyline of Tokyo.  I, for once, took initiative to make a get away plan for the weekend.  Rich suggested Nikko and I mentioned this to my friend Fumie and lo and behold she was game for coming with us. Not only would we enjoy a weekend in the serene mountains, but we'd be with friends and have Japanese guides as well! I hadn't counted on that.

Rich, Max and I took a train from Tokyo on Saturday morning and Fumie, her husband Seiji and daughter Tamano picked us up at the Nikko train station.  (They had driven.) Then began our adventure as we piled into their SUV and quickly - thanks to Fumie's investigation - found a yuba restaurant.  Max went insane in the tatami room, running around like crazy while we tried to enjoy our meal. (Why didn't I take a picture???) Probably because when I wasn't stuffing my face I was running after Max.  

So yuba is a thin, delicate "skin" which is skimmed off fresh soymilk.  Then it is often dried and rolled into various shapes, served with different sauces, put in soups, etc.  It had a remarkably fresh, creamy taste - mild and a bit chewy.  But best of all, I had a lovely lunch where I could eat everything served, including an amazing soy "gratin" that tasted like cheese and a divine soymilk pudding.  Here is one photo of yuba I pulled from the internet.  It is a common food of vegetarian buddhist monks and is prized for its high protein content.

After lunch We toured the Toshugu Shrine complex but got rained out of seeing all the buildings.  Then it was off to check into our hotel. We got settled and then Seiji made some phone calls and found a special onsen (hot springs) that we could go to.  We packed up and headed to the most lovely and tranquil setting - private cottages with sliding doors leading to a cedar lined tub and a circular stone tub both fed by hot springs. It was incredibly relaxing and Max even got into the hot water. Thoroughly rested we retreated to the hotel for dinner and were in bed by 9:30!

The next day after breakfast at the hotel, we began the climb (400 meters via a series of 48 switchbacks) up to Lake Chuzenji which was formed by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago.  The lake was stunning and we all got into a swan boat and pedaled around for a bit.

We finished off the sightseeing with a view of the Kegon waterfall, which drops nearly 100 meters and followed that up with lunch in a local Soba restaurant.  Then after a heading back down the mountain, we parted ways with our lovely hosts and caught the next train back to Tokyo. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Stop whining already

Now that I got those gripes down on virtual paper for all to see, I'm ready, I think to move on. Not much is happening.  We are easing into a routine that includes three mornings a week at pre-school for Max and one morning where we go to a swimming lesson and have lunch out afterwards with his little pals and their mums.  I'll be having Japanese lessons twice a week for an hour.  

Rich and I have found out that you really do have to plan WAY in advance to travel in Japan. We got stuck trying to get lodging in Kyoto the second week of October. Literally the whole city appears to be booked.  We are now worried about planning our winter/New Year's holiday. We may end up in Yokahama if we don't move quickly.  (That is like living in Manhattan and going on vacation in Jersey City.)  Ok, not exactly, Yokohama is a city in of itself.  Baltimore maybe? Ok, this comparison is going nowhere...

I've caught up with most of my friends at this point and it does feel good to be back in our apartment.  The plants, of course, died while we were away.  (Rich forgot to find homes for them.)  I guess it's a good thing we didn't get a fish. 

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mt. Fuji Expedition

Please enjoy this (long) guest blog entry from Rich.

Sunrise from Fuji-san

On the evening of Sunday, July 27th eight coworkers met at Shinjuku station to begin their trip up Mount Fuji (Fuji-san). After paying 40,000 JPY for eight bus tickets (in cash, of course, because it is Japan), the organizer (me) doled out the tickets and off we went. It took about an hour to pass the expanse of Tokyo and its suburbs and reach the country side. About an hour after that we arrived at the Fifth Station (altitude 2,300 meters) of Fuji-san,. It was about 19:00. We only had to make it to the summit (3,776 meters) in time for sunrise around 4:30 the next morning.

The group dispersed to buy whatever beverages, food or other sundry items we might need to round out the large backpacks we already had. Everyone but me bought a pine hiking stick to get stamped at each of the stations on the way up. I used my Leki collapsible trekking poles, instead, to propel me up the mountain. The weather forecast was for rain, but while the sky was crystal clear over and near us, we could see bolts of lightning in the distance.

At 19:35, off we went. Our ascent actually began on a wide, gentle downward sloping path. As organizer, I apparently was tagged the hiking expert (maybe it was the Leki poles) and after about a half mile of a gentle pace heading downward, Raghu suggested I slow down to pace ourselves for the long night ahead of us. We were going so slow I think gravity was what was actually moving us forward. Despite his suggestion, we proceeded. We encountered people coming the other way, trudging along very slowly, and not exactly keeping a straight line; some looked like they had just emerged from a battle. We commented on this, laughed a bit, and came to a large sign in Japanese that pointed the way up a narrow trail. Finally, up Fuji-san and not down!

It was now dark and a few people turned on their headlamps, but you could otherwise see with the half moon’s light. Hiking towards the Sixth Station was not too difficult. The trail was hard packed dirt and we were wondering where were all the people that are famous for clogging the trail on summer nights. We generally stuck together, but a few of us were already at a slower pace and a few minutes behind us. The sixth station was pretty much a concrete building where you could buy drinks or ramen, and pay 500 JPY to get your stick stamped with a hot iron showing some symbol of the milestone. About five minutes after the core group got there, Ivan, Mike and Raghu arrived. We waited a bit more and then all headed up to station seven. More people and organized groups were around us now, and we had our first bottleneck as we continued.

We encountered our first steep part of the trail and after another 70 minutes or so we met at the Seventh Station. Six of us, that is. Ivan and Raghu got separated from us and were moving more slowly. We heard they were just behind us, but we did not see them at the station. We would not hear from them again until Tuesday morning back at the office.
Kawaguchiko town

We continued to see lightning in the distance, the lights of a town at the foot of the mountain and occasional shooting stars. More stamps on the hiking poles, the purchase of increasingly expensive water and Pocari Sweat (kind of like Gatorade but with a less enticing name) and increasing crowds. There were lots of organized groups of 20 – 30 people, many consisting of what looked like retirees. I think many started early in the day and took a very slow pace up. Or they had already spent a night on the mountain. The tour guides had baton light sticks that would flash red or green. If one stared at them too long you risked a seizure. We timed our rests at the stations so that we would leave just before the big groups set off. We were warned of their impending departure by the organized movements of the groups and the guide screaming instructions in a microphone. Not exactly a tranquil mountain environment, but all part of the Fuji-san experience. It was probably around 22:00.

Onward and upward! Looking for breaks in the groups in front of us to squeeze through and gain some additional time. Mike was moving well ahead of us at this point but the six of us made it past the many, many huts at station eight (where station eight exactly was I don’t know, but for more 500JPY stamps the team could prove they had passed through it). Erik and Dean were now pulling up to the rear and soon we stopped at the Fuji-san Hotel, a.k.a, Station Nine. Last stop before the summit! It was 00:30 (and now my birthday!) and we had plenty of time to rest before heading to the top. The trail map said it was only about 80 minutes and so far we had advanced faster than the guidance on the map. We paid 1000 JPY each to rest in a bunk room where we ate ramen, played cards and Erik got the phone numbers of a group of young American English teachers.

While resting we saw lots of people passing by the clouded windows. We had made a half baked plan with the team that we would wait at Station Nine for everyone in case we got separated, and then go to the top together. After 90 minutes of waiting Raghu and Ivan were nowhere to be seen. Around 0215 we repacked our gear and headed out the door and turned the corner around the hut.
Summit photographers, with a line
of climbers in the background.

Then we stopped. Peering up the mountain we saw a jammed line extending from where we stood all the way to the summit. Climbers’ headlamps illuminated the zigzagging path. They were not moving. It looked like a Christmas tree. Oh no!!!! How long could it take to ascend the last 400 vertical meters? We had two hours until sunrise and the map said we needed 80 minutes from where we stood. The map had not failed us yet.

The next hour and 45 minutes was spent taking a couple of steps.....then waiting for up to a half minute to take a couple more.....We weren’t moving and since we were at a higher altitude it got colder. The wind picked up. Now there were fewer clothes in my back pack and more on me. My fancy watch said it was about 7 degrees Celsius (I am in Japan now so I am sticking with the more advanced Metric system if you haven’t picked up on that already). So not to bad, but chilly when you are standing ina line with 5,000 people. Kind of like buying tickets to a concert. We stuck together for a bit, but as gaps appeared in the crowd before us we started to take them. First Mike went ahead. Then me. I wouldn’t see any of my comrades until the top.

The sky began to lighten and you could see the Buddhist gate through which you finally walked to reach the top. But progress was still realllllly slow. The climbing trail was hardened lava and the trail was cut through it. Now, there was really no way to cut past the people ahead of me except when I came to the switchbacks. So I dutifully cut the corners where I could, thinking I was saving myself precious minutes to reach the top in time. And everyone looked the same in hiking gear so I don’t think (hope?) I was pegged as a rude gaijin cutting corners.

I realized I would not make it to the top by sunrise at this pace. So I rationalized that the surface on the side of the trail was not much different that the trail itself, except it was hard glassy rock with sharp edges, and I could see no fragile alpine plants to damage. So I climbed over the edge of the trail and scrambled up the side on all fours the rest of the way up, easily 100 meters up. At least I was not the only person doing it – there were a few Japanese too. After much panting and much more sweating since I was finally moving. It felt like I was hiking. Despite a painful headache due to the exertion through the thin air I made it to the top around 0425. Over two hours since we left the Fuji-san Hotel. The sun was not up yet but the sky was still getting clearer.
The author, sitting on a pile
of sharp rocks

The top was packed with people sitting along the slopes with cameras on tripods at the ready. The wind was steady and I found a slope that would protect me from the gusts. I cleared away glassy rocks that hurt to sit on and set up with my camera. By chance Mike found me and around 0440 the sun peeked out over the horizon and everyone began taking lots of pictures. We then found James and checked out the crater and headed to the hut for more ramen and hung out for about an hour. Eventually the other three guys joined us and we began our descent around 0700, along a different trail. We looked forward to a casual trip back down after 10 1/2 hours up.

Rich, James, Erik, Thomas,
Dean and Mike at the summit
The descent was brutal. We could see down the slope of the mountain to the base and in front of us was a switchbacked trail that must have had 30 bends to it. The trail surface here was different, deep sand and ash and many spots of deep gravel. The combination of using a different set of muscles to prevent ourselves from falling and massive blisters forming on both feet made it miserable. I inhaled lots of dust. Rocks got into my shoes. I slipped and started to feel how tired I was which made it more difficult. I had been awake for nearly 24 hours. At the end of the switchbacks we all gathered again and came to consensus that this part sucked. We cursed the mountain. And in a cruel twist when we got to the bottom of the switchbacks there was still another 4K of trail heading straight back to Station Five. We reached the point where the descending trail merged with the gentle sloping trail where we began our trek. Now I understood the looks on the other people the night before at the beginning of our climb. I subsequently learned the best way to descend is to essentially run down the mountain as quickly as you can without killing yourself or do some sort of ski / slide combination.

Despite the 7 hours up and 2 hours down Fuji-san was a great experience. For those of you who visit us I will provide directions to the bus station, gear for your trip, access to the hot tub at our apartment and cold beer afterward. But I will not likely go with you as I must comply with the Japanese adage: “One who never climbs Mount Fuji is a fool, and one who climbs twice is twice the fool”.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The novelty has worn off

With school starting for Max this week and Rich back into the swing of things at work, life is returning to normal. And that's just it. Normal.

The novelty of the first six months is gone. The excitement of the surroundings, the vast expanse of lights and sprawl that is Tokyo, the fascinating language and mysterious culture, my growing international community of friends, and general climate of discovery are all old hat.

What I am left with is a growing list of pet peeves.
- The sirens are driving me crazy
- My kitchen is way too small and I don't have enough equipment to really cook
- I'm tired of not being able to read food labels
- I miss my family
- I miss readily available vegetarian food
- I miss the independence of driving
- I am so over Roppongi nightlife
- It's HOT