Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Flying to Japan

Originally uploaded by brianthedrummer

I know I've already blogged this, but I was revisiting photos today and found this one that looked a lot better after I retouched it. On our way to Japan we flew over Northern Canada, Alaska, Russia and on down to Japan. The first set of photos I took were in the Canada area. This photo is somewhere in the middle of the flight, so most likely over the Alaska area. The last set of photos that actually have some pine trees in them are most likely from the Russia area.

this one in particular stood out.

Monday, March 30, 2009


My grandmama never (or hardly) cursed, so you often found her saying, "Oh Fiddlesticks!" when she was frustrated. This post however, is not about disappointment at all: it's about fiddlehead ferns.

Brian and I were in YouMe Town (essentially an upscale Walmart- food, clothes, everything) and spotted this fern heads wrapped in plastic and styrofoam. After asking a friend the next day, we discovered they were fiddlehead ferns, or zenmai/warabi (it depends on which fern it's from... but I can't read labels yet so I don't know which I saw). After a bit of research I learned they're a sought after delicacy that's criticized for being possibly carcinogenic. My opinion is that 7 little fiddleheads just once can't be worse than standing next to a smoker for a few minutes.

The next day, we hiked Princess Yama (mountain) and saw billions of 'em!! I became obsessed. I MUST eat some. A few pretty ones came home with me as samples to check online to make sure they were the edible kind.

Sadly, I couldn't figure out if they were or not, so I went back to the grocery store to find more. YouMe town was out (the season is like sakura, only a couple of weeks), Aruk was out, but BIG had some. Success!!

Emeril came to my rescue with this easy recipe that only needed garlic, butter, salt and parmesan cheese. I added my own pretty little beech mushrooms (which was way cheaper than button mushrooms in Japan). The fiddleheads tasted like an earthier, easier to digest version of asparagus. Really good with the butter.... mmmm.... I only wish I had more. This was supposed to be eatten with some brown rice, but we couldn't figure out how to get the rice cooker to work. Haha.

*Left column: unidentified fiddleheads on the mountain.
*Right column: fiddleheads from the store

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Rurikoji - 5 Story Pagoda

New photos from our latest trip to the 5-story pagoda, more details soon!

We hiked up Princess Mountain this morning and are headed out to a Hanami party soon (see Mia's post below)!

Why the obsession with Sakura?

Sakura = Cherry Blossoms

The other day I was standing in a forest of dark green pines trees and grey tombstones markers, when suddenly, like an eruption of light from the ground, I spotted a sakura tree. It was all alone and beaming, revelling in its escape from monotony.

This breathtaking display of fierce beauty only lasts a couple weeks each spring. This spring, we were lucky enough to arrive on the day the first buds began to open and we have been watching all week as the sakura continue to open all over Yamaguchi. This evening, we will be sharing in a time honored tradition around these parts; we will be attending a hanami party (flower-watching party). We will head down to the river with friends and acquaintances to barbeque some food... essentially to eat, drink and be merry while admiring the sakura in near full bloom.

There are many theories as to why everyone is so obsessed with this little flower. After all, we have them in the U.S. but they are not as much of a national obsession there as they are here. Sure, Sakura are heralds of springtime, but so are daffodils.

The Japanese sakura season only lasts two weeks. These little flowers bloom and put on a stunning show all over Japan for two weeks, only to die in less days shortly after. Some Japanese say it's as if their sole purpose is to show us how to live: in a flash of beauty that knows its own mortality. Even their death, a snow of white petals in the tiniest gust of wind, feels spiritual.

In Japan, the samurai would meditate on the sakura. Samurai were fierce warriors, originally hired by Buddhist temples to defend the temple from other rival temples. However, they were aggressors too. Ironically, the greatest tenant of Buddhism is to not kill, which the samurai frequently did. So, they would meditate on the sakura, this tiny flower which died so willingly, and use its life both as a guide for their spiritual life and as a way to escape from the horror and violence of their physical life.

I think one of the biggest differences I've found between America and everywhere else in the world is the way we view death. Americans shun the idea, except for New Orleans. We hide behind medications, Botox, corpses with makeup, cemented caskets, and the list goes on. The Chinese remember and honor their dead every day through offerings and prayers. Ghanaians have huge dance parties in the street when someone in the village dies. And the Japanese worship sakura.

Brian's Note:
Washington D.C. has its own interested history with Japan's cherry blossoms. From Wikipedia: "The National Cherry Blossom Festival is a spring celebration in Washington, D.C. commemorating the March 27, 1912, gift of Japanese cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington. Mayor Ozaki donated the trees in an effort to enhance the growing friendship between the United States and Japan and also celebrate the continued close relationship between the two nations." - full Wikipedia article

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dojyo Munzen and Ichi No Saka Gawa

In our continuing "1st week in Japan" series of posts...

One of the other places that we visited our first day was the shopping arcade (Dojyo Munzen) and Ichi No Saka Gawa (Gawa = River). The arcade is rather like a street mall; it's a fancy sidewalk 'street' with shops opening directly onto the walkway - walking and bikes only during the day, but open to cars at night - reminded me a lot of similar streets in Europe, Honduras, and New York.

The arcade is down the street from our main AEG school building, and I have to walk through it to get to some of my classes during the week. Most of Mia's classes are held at the AEG building, but most of my classes are held at community centers in the area. So, I have a bit more travelling to do throughout the week, but for the most part I can get to these other places by foot, bike or car.

After wandering in and out of shops on the arcade, the four of us (Joe, Liz, Mia, Myself) took a stroll to Ichi No Saka River. It was probably in the upper 50s or lower 60s (F) temperature-wise, so quite comfortable, but with a bit of a nip in the air around the water. The cherry trees along the water were beginning to show their buds opening, just like we saw at the 5-story pagoda. Beautiful. We've been back to this particular river walk a few times since our first visit since it's not far from our school, and is one of the most beautiful sights in Yamaguchi especially around this current cherry blossom (Sakura) time.

[while Joe and Liz had a going away lunch with some of their students, Mia and I went back to the big indoor mall in the arcade to warm up since it was getting colder outside, and also to see what we could find in the mall. Similar to America, all of the items in the mall were much more expensive than you would find at non-mall stores and we had no intention of buying anything there. I soon found myself succumbing to my jetlag, feeling extremely tired and rather thirsty. Fortunately, we found a seating area with a water fountain in the bottom level and I nearly fell asleep waiting for Joe and Liz to rejoin us and drive us back to the apartment.]

Yesterday Mia and I went back to the river to see the cherry blossoms again, since this week and next week are the best weeks to see the cherry blossoms. Apparently, it's not always a sunny day when the cherry blossoms are open, so we've been blessed this year with very sunny (if a bit chilly - 40s and 50s) weather during cherry blossom week.

Here are some of the pictures of the arcade and the river walk area

Coming soon: first week of sitting in on English classes, driving in Japan, more cherry blossoms, and more!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mouth of the Mountain

We had some fun making our superhero alter-egos at http://www.cpbintegrated.com/theherofactory/

Anyway, fun fact: Yama = "Mountain" and Guchi = "Mouth" so Yamaguchi is the mouth of the mountain. Fact of the day, eat it up!

Our first night we ended up falling asleep at 6:30pm (local) for a 90-minute nap, but didn't set the alarm on our little ipod dock thingy correctly and woke up at 12:30am... shoot. We were hoping to be awake when Joe and Liz arrived back from their weekend trip to see volcanoes and such. We went back to bed since we figured they were already in bed.

Woke up again at 4am feeling completely rested. I woke up and walked/jogged around the neighborhood. It was mostly walking though since it was still pitch black, but I noticed a really nice crescent moon and star, went back inside to grab my camera and headed back outside to shoot some photos of it. The 'best' shot:

By the time I was done a little after 5am, the sun was coming up and I was feeling very awake. Mia had done the smart thing and stayed in bed, getting the extra sleep she would need to last through the coming day. I took the opportunity to make some major progress on "This is Your Brain on Music" by Daniel J. Levitin, highly recommended!

When we all finally got going later on in the morning, we headed out to grab lunch with Takako and two of the other teachers at the English language school (America Eikaiwa Gakuin). We had Indian food, of all things, for the second straight meal as it turned out (since Joe and Liz had left us some food for our arrival that included fried dough with curry veggies in the middle and two curry noodle ramen-type cups).

After lunch we headed out to the 5-story wooden pagoda that is one of the major sight-seeing places in Yamaguchi. With the cherry blossoms opening, the sun shining, and a slight breeze, it was an extremely nice experience.

Pictures of the trip to the 5-story wooden pagoda

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sumimasen, wokarimasen!!!

"Excuse me, I don't understand."

This has been the most useful phrase we've learned in Japan so far. Yamaguchi City (Yamaguchi-shi) in the Yamaguchi Prefecture (Yamaguchi-ken) is thought of as "rural" or inaka, so several people have taken English in school, but don't speak it very well. Brian and I are learning Japanese as fast as we can, but hey, we still major novices.

Yesterday we did a small tour of the town and went to the Arcade, or open air shopping mall. We're often greeted with Sumimasen! which in this case means, "Excuse me, may I help you?" It can also mean, "I'm sorry," "Excuse me," "Pardon," etc etc. If you ever come to Japan, learn this word!!!

We're currently doing books on tape with the Pimsleur method, which so far has actually been really really helpful. We'll also start taking Japanese lessons (at $1 a pop!) a couple times a week, and I can't wait.

The most frustrating experience so far has been buying train tickets and finding the right platform. Brian has already raved about the Shinkansen (bullet trains), and riding it was amazing, but oooooh-weeeeee, trying to figure out where to go took us about 45 minutes. We got inside the station and found the automatic ticket machines, but none of them had fares for Shin-Yamaguchi. We finally realized the automated machines only sold tickets for the equivalent of a CTA train. Shinkansen tickets were sold in a little office nearby. So we lugged all our bags over there and stood around waiting before we realized we had to take a ticket. 7 minutes later I was standing at the counter, sweating with nervousness and embarassment, stupidly saying, "Shin-Yamaguchi" over and over. We didn't have enough Yen, and had to pay with a credit card (the Shinkansen from Osaka to Yamaguchi costs about $115), but finally had our tickets.

Next, we maneuvered our way through the busy busy station. We knew how to read Yamaguchi (Yama-mountain + guchi-mouth [of the]= 山口), but the only other thing we could read on our ticket was the number 21. We figured this was the platform (there at 25 platforms in that station I think), and hauled our stuff over there. Luckily there were escalators!
Hmm..... after 10 minutes of standing around, we decided we needed help. All the employees of the train wear full uniforms that resemble cops, but with nice white gloves and hats. Too bad we didn't get any pictures of them. Anyway, I walked up to one guy, said, "Sumimasen!" and proceeded to point to my ticket. He pointed to the next track over and said "Twenty," pointing down and then up again, indicating we needed to go down and up to the next platform (or else magically fly across the seriously electric tracks).

We hauled our stuff down the escalators, and up a couple flights of stairs and finally make it to the other platform, and are greeted with a friendly sign in both Japanese and English that tells us we're in the right place. Woo-hoo! From there on out, it was a piece of cake.

Monday, March 23, 2009

We have landed

Pictures added!

We have landed. We have landed several times in fact. More details to come, but her are the basics:

(Chicago - Minneapolis - Tokyo - Osaka)

Minneapolis to Tokyo was on a two-level 747-400 (huge plane). I got some unique photos of Northern Canada/Alaska/Russia (?) from the plane that turned out well since it was daylight during the entire flight.

(Osaka - Hotel)

We were exhausted by the time we got here, but fortunately it didn't take a lot of time to get our bags and get through customs.

(Osaka Station Hotel)

It was tiny, but we liked it. My first experience with a bidet, not bad! :) Pictures of the tiny bathroom and tiny room soon! We had a nice little breakfast at the hotel as well (Mia had the Japanese breakfast, I had the "Western" breakfast).

Shinkansen! Super Express Train
(Osaka Station Hotel - Shin-Yamaguchi)

This was a dream come true for me even though it was 'only a train ride.' I remember reading about the Japanese high-speed trains when I was in high school. Man, these trains are amazing. Really, really smooth. Really, really on-time. Really expensive, but really clean and comfortable as well. They look cool as well.

Takako (from our school) picked us up in her red Ford Mustang (the only one in town) and took us to our apartment where we set up our Futon beds and promptly fell asleep for several hours, waking up at 12:30am (oops!)

We met the couple that we're replacing this morning. Joe and Liz are really nice and I'm sure will be teaching us a lot before they head back home.

We're heading out to have lunch with them and Takako in a few minutes so I'll post more later.

We're here, we're safe, all is well!
Take care!

We posted pictures and descriptions on facebook, this is the public link

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Move

Mia managed to snap some pictures during the move, so here goes:

Shannon and I were clearly working very hard.

Our "master pile" of boxes. Pretty much everything gathered here since we needed to move the big furniture first. Yep, that means we had to get that chaise out of the corner before long.

Apparently, we had a dangerously fast-growing population of outer space dust bunnies invading out under-bed area. Fortunately, we discovered the colony in time to neutralize the threat. We have an anti-outer space dust bunnies broom, dust bunny pan, but (ironically) no vacuum. har har.
The kitchen was mostly a newspaper disaster zone.

The budgie (parakeet) hung out next to the plants the whole time, freaked out about all the strange people and events occurring in her general vicinity. She has returned to the extremely competent care of Mia's parents.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

7.5' x 10' x 11'

When it comes down to it, *most* of the things that we own can actually fit into a 7.5' x 10' x 11' (W x D x H) storage unit. We chose The Lockup for ours since they offered a free moving truck (first 30 miles were free anyway) and 2nd/6th months free, had carpeting, and all the standard things - climate control, 24 hour security, convenient location, easy+secure access - not to mention competitive prices.

Most of our furniture was modular enough to take apart and move in manageable pieces: IKEA bed, 2 large dressers with removable drawers/mirror, our huge+heavy but modular solid wood dining table w/6 chairs. We left my giant IKEA desk together so that we could stack boxes under and on it. We have the most wonderful parents in the world for helping us move our stuff (year after year in my case). Plus, they get to have our couches and artwork gracing the spaces in their basement during our time away.

A very special thanks to Shannon Reddy (of the Bob+Kathy Reddy family variety, them's good stock...). Above mentioned artwork includes a Bob Reddy (Progress Gallery, Evanston) original, whose work I *strongly* recommend you discover... quick, go! Even if only for the flashlight museum, which is also cool! Anyway... Shannon, returning the 'helping out with the move' favor and then some. Thanks for sticking around for The Dark Crystal, always nice to revisit a classic with friends/see one with Mia that she hasn't seen yet.

okay. sleep. Study Tuesday. GRE Wednesday. Ack! still need to paint our place back to neutral generic not-quite-white blah.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Farewell Dinners

What a crazy couple days.

Yesterday Uncle Jim & Dick drove down from Wisconsin to have a going away dinner with us. The four of us shared several extremely tasty dishes at Tapas Barcelona. TB is one of our favorite restaurants in Evanston - it was where Mia and I had our very first date and where we officially got engaged! Very nice to get a chance to spend some time with them before we leave.

Tonight we continued the theme and had dinner with David (in town for the weekend, don't miss him!) and Lindsay tonight at Thai Sookdee (prettyyyyy & tasteeee!) Awesome to see you guys before we "sayonara"!

Otherwise, the move preparation is coming along nicely. During the course of the past few days we've utilized Craigslist to the max - sold a desk, a bike, a food processor, a bookshelf, a lamp, gave away boots, and a bagless vacuum. We took a bunch of clothes and shoes over to Crossroads Trading Co. and sold a handful to them for cold hard cash (store credit doesn't make much sense when you're leaving the
country). We still have a 6400 BTU window A/C unit and a Weber Smokey Joe grill up on Craigslist waiting for a taker. (eh? hint hint) We finished boxing everything except for cleaning supplies today - clothes, kichen stuff, decorations, bathroom stuff. Suitcases are mostly packed and will be coming with us to our parents tonight along with a bunch of their books and stuff that somehow found their way into our place.

Tomorrow is The Move Day. We arrive in the morning with the complementary (first 30 miles anyway) moving truck (complete with moving blankets, etc.) courtesy of The Lockup . Ends up being cheaper than our favorite vendor: Budget Truck of Evanston using the FASTB coupon code (25% off!). Then we take a walk up the street to donate all the clothes and stuff to our local Salvation Army (Kedzie/Chicago). We're also donating a boatload of our leftover paint cans to the Evanston Arts Camp, with which we hope some kids will have fun painting theater sets this summer. Mia's beloved budgie goes to her parents. We split the plants between her parents, my parents and Mia's friend Amy. My parents get the couches and some artwork in their basement for a while, and the rest gets stuffed into the storage unit. :)

In the mean time, here's a picture I took sometime last summer that, in a way, expresses the journey on which we are about to embark... what do you think?


For those of you (family) who never had a chance to see our place fully decorated, here goes:

The Living Room was always the most interesting room
(front, left, back)

Unfortunately, that's about all the pics we have of the place all put together.

We move tomorrow, so today we're busy boxing everything up and taking apart furniture.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Japan - Mouse Banana

After "OMG!?" and "WHEN!?!" and "WHAT?!?" ...  the single most common question that we get when we tell people we're going to Japan is: Where?  As in: "Wow that's so cool!  So, like, where in Japan are you going to be?"   Then we hold up our hand to represent the main "big" island of Japan and say "Imagine my hand represents the main island of Japan.  We're going to Yamaguchi, which is here!" and point at the lower "southwest" corner.  

I find this woefully inadequate, in part because the proportions of Japan are nothing like the proportions of my hand, and in part because my hand is not a series of tectonically active islands.  Proportionally, Japan is actually more like a banana that has been left half devoured by hungry mice who were frightened away after attacking viciously on all sides... mostly I think this came to me because the picture below depicts Japan in yellow... and because in a previous apartment kitchen of mine, I actually woke up to discover a banana that had been partially devoured by mice, although at the time I didn't immediately think: Japan!

Japan - Mouse Banana (I really hope this isn't some sort of insult in Japanese)

To recap...
Wikipedia is my crutch: