Friday, March 14, 2008

Home Again

Lisa and I have returned to Florida as of August, 2007. We are Preparing to welcome our first child into the world in August 2008. We are working hard on graduate programs and such. Who knows where we'll end up when we finish that! Thank you t oeveryone who was a loyal reader of the blog. It was a real joy to post to it. We may have some updates on things to come, but for now, this blog is dormant. Feel free to email us if you have questions, requests or comments.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Lisa and I were on TV over the weekend! We entered the Ito Tub Race on July 1st. Every year, the city venerates its river by sending hapless tourists and locals downstream in tubs made from halved sake barrels. Since i arrived in Ito, I have been dying to do this! Well, the day finally arrived on Sunday, and so down the river we went. Little did we know that the Shizuoka news channel was there taping our voyage. They got some footage, and reported on it in their "Around Shizuoka This Weekend" news segment. I ripped the video from their website and I proudly submit it to you for your amusement. FYI, we will be updating this entry with more pictures and footage later, so keep checking back.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Kyoto--The Bryan, John, and Amy Trip, Part 2

Part 1 is here.
After the Tsukiji experience, the five of us boarded a Shinkansen bound for Kyoto. It was a beautiful sunny day and we got some great glimpses of Mt. Fuji on the way there. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Kyoto. It was nice, but the service was more akin to American than Japanese, which made it feel like not such a nice place. We did, however, have some pretty fun poker games in the evenings we stayed there. They had a full grocery store in the basement, so we would go down and buy a few beers, then sit in the lobby playing Texas Holdem all night. Good times!
On our first night there, we went for Indian food in downtown Kyoto. The first thing that struck me about Kyoto was that even though the city grid is laid out more clearly than Tokyo, public transportation left something to be desired. They have a subway/rail system, but it doesn't go to all parts of the city, and the stops can be quite far from each other. So we ended up doing a lot of walking.
The next day, we woke up early and got some shots of the sunrise over Kyoto. This was also the day that a 7.3 Richter earthquake hit near Kanazawa, About 300 Km from Kyoto. We felt the quake in our 6th floor hotel room. It shook us a little, but nothing really moved. Needless to say, we were freaked out since we were on the 6th floor, and the escape stairs in the hotel were a little difficult to navigate. Anyway, we went for breakfast and then decided to get our walk on all over Kyoto. We took a taxi to Kyoto station and began to look for sights. Unfortunately, I led the gang on a bit of a detour due to the fact that I misread the map of the station area. Once we got our bearings back, however, we found many of the historic sights in the city.
Kyoto is the historic capital city where the Emperor lived. Much later, he moved to Tokyo, but many of the castle areas and temples are still intact. One of the first stops on our walking tour was Sanjusan Gendo, where emperor Go-Shirakawa had his retirement villa built in the 12th century. This particular emperor was politically savvy. He retired from his reign, but retained a great deal of political power from behind the scenes at Sanjusan Gendo. Here are a few shots of the temple grounds:

They Didn't let us take photos inside the temple, but the inner area is impressive. There are hundreds of statues of the godd(ess) Kannon and also some statues of other gods and bodhisatvas famous in Japanese Buddhism.
The next stop on our walking tour was Gion, the historic Geisha district of Kyoto. In old times, Geisha were trained in many places, but now, the only major school remaining is in Gion. On our way there, we found some interesting historic sites as well, including this pagoda:
In the foreground are some decorations left over from the Girls' Day Matsuri (festival). They are representative of babies, and adorn the homes of many people around the day of the festival (March 3). The area surrounding this pagoda was chock full of ancient sites. We walked up this street to the pagoda itself and then wound around toward Gion, which took us through a lovely park near a shrine (note: in Japan, Shrines are always Shinto, and Temples are always Buddhist, but Buddhism and Shinto overlap a great deal). We saw a few people making wishes at a Jinja, which I captured on video:

On our way around through the streets, we caught glimpse of our first Maiko. Maiko are apprentice Geisha, and many tourists spend time trying to run them down to take their picture. The Maiko do not deliberately avoid being photographed, but their apprenticeship has them running from class to class and trying to make it to various engagements, so they are often seen hurrying (as quickly as possible in their full kimono) through the streets of Gion. These two were simply enjoying a trip to the temple nearby, and we caught them getting off of a rickshaw:

Later that day, when we arrived in Gion, I chased down another Maiko. I spotted her at the same time as an older Japanese woman, and we both ran after her together. As she rounded a corner, I shouted "Sumimasen!" (excuse me), but the Maiko did not turn around. The Japanese woman looked at me and emphatically motioned for me to call her again (she was too polite to raise her voice, but was happy to have a Gaijin nearby who could be rude for her). So I shouted again and the Maiko turned around. I bowed and asked her "Photo, onegaishimasu?" She looked serenely at me and held up her index finger, nonverbally telling me I was allowed only one photo. So I snapped away, as did the Japanese lady next to me:
That night, John and I went back to Gion and saw a Geisha show that was designed to display the ancient cultural heritage of Japan. There was an exhibition of tea ceremony, in which John volunteered to participate. Here's a shot of him drinking his O-cha (green tea):

Additionally, They had two dance exhibitions and a drama exhibition, along with a traditional puppet show that reenacted an ancient story in Japan about lovers separated by family obligations. The best part, in my opinion, was the Geisha dance itself. It is a marvel in many subtle ways. First, the Geisha's cosmetics and kimono are very detailed and precise. Everything about the Geisha is a deliberate attempt at beauty and serenity. Second, the dance itself involves movements that would cause the average person to fall over or at the very least get twisted up in the robes of the kimono. Here's a clip of the Dance itself:

On our third day in the Kyoto area, we decided to hop on a train and head for Nara, a short half hour ride to the south, where there are more historic temples. Nara is also famous for the deer that roam around looking for hand-outs from the tourists. Many vendors sell little deer biscuits for 150 Yen, and it's fun to watch the deer crowd around when someone starts feeding them:

The temples in Nara have many old statues depicting members of the Shinto pantheon, along with some of the overlapping Bodhisatvahs (non-Buddhist gods who later became Buddhist guides to enlightenment, e.g., Kannon). Here are a few shots from the temple areas of Nara:

The Last day before we went back to Tokyo, we decided to take in the political histroical areas of Kyoto--Nijo Castle (the Shogun's residence) and Kyoto Gosho (the Imperial Palace). The Imperial Palace grounds where huge, but rather unimpressive, as they keep the good stuff locked away. We didn't know that in order to visit said good stuff, you have to make a reservation in advance. So we strolled along the wide pebbled avenues and saw a few of the gardens of Kyoto Gosho before moving on to Nijo Castle. Here's a shot of the three bench warmers at Kyoto Gosho:
It was just beginning to rain, so we borought out our umbrellas. Fortunately, it was only a light drizzle, so the rest of the day wasn't ruined. Nijo Castle was pretty impressive. They had a full exhibit inside that was open to the public. The entire building complex was surrounded by hallways on the outside that had Nightingale Floors. The boards of the floor are made to squeak ever so politely under the slightest weight so that any guards can hear someone approaching their rooms. It's quite a clever design, for security and for the nerves, since the squeaks don't cause you to go mad listening to the hundreds of people walking over them. Rather, they make a pleasant noise that is loud enough to be heard, but soft enough to be ignored. Inside the complex were many displays that demonstrated what life was like for the Shogun and his attendants. After the castles, we decided to take in Kyoto's shopping district. We split up into groups and walked the blocks and blocks of fashion, souvenir, and Japonica shops. I finally managed to find a pair of sneakers that would fit me, and they were only 2900 Yen! I had been shopping all over Japan for size 29s (they use centimeters in Japan for foot sizes, and most Japanese shoe stores only stock up to 27 or 28 cm), so it was a great relief to be successful at last.

On our last day in Kyoto, we decided to check out the North side of Kyoto Station, which we had missed twice due to my confusion with the map. It's one of the largest train stations in Japan, and has an enormous shopping area. We arrived at about 10 am and spent a couple hours wandering the halls until our train arrived, and we headed back to Ito.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Friends in a Strange Land: The Bryan, Amy, and John Visit (part 1)--Ghibli and Tsukiji

Immediately after the Parade in Harajuku, I hopped on the subway and went to Oshiage, where I boarded a Narita Express train. I got to Narita's Terminal 2 just after the gang's flight had arrived, and I waited excitedly for them to come out of immigration. I was holding a sign that said "Varnsen, Pennypacker, and Van deLay." It was the first of many Seinfeld references that would punctuate their stay in Japan. It was about 10:30 pm when we finally made our way back to Asakusa, and dropped off their things at the hostel, where we met back up with Katie. The 5 of us went out to wander the surrounding area for a bit, and settled at a noodle shop for some good eats. One of the things I love most about Japan is the preponderance of hole-in-the-wall eateries that are downright delicious. Ramen is not just a staple food, it's an art form here. Every shop has its own spin on it. This particular shop had noodles in a thick, spicy sauce--OISHIKATA! Everyone was pretty tired from the trip, so we went back to the hostel to sack out.

The next morning, we hopped on the metro for Ueno Park. We stopped at a Pronto coffee shop for breakfast and then wandered around in the park for a bit. Lisa was not scheduled to arrive until Tuesday evening, so we spent two days getting the gang acclimated to Japan and coming off of jet lag. I introduced them to convini food--onigiri, manjyu, and oden. We went to Shibuya, saw Hachiko (left--famous meeting place for folks in Tokyo), and watched a few thousand people cross the street for a while.
On Tuesday, Bryan and Amy decided to take a trip to Tokyo Disney, so John and I wandered down to the Roppongi area to visit Yasukuni Shrine, a controvertial spot in Tokyo, as it houses the remains of Japanese war dead, including the remains of about 1000 convicted war crimnals from WWII. People like the Chinese and Koreans have real problems with the Yasukuni Shrine because most of those war crimes were committed against their citizens, so every time a Japanese politician shows up to pay his respects at Yasukuni Jinja (Former PM, Junichiro Koizumi, was reviled by China for going every year), the Koreans and Chiniese voice their fears and protests that Japan is returning to an autocratic, militaristic style of government. This is because at a Jinja (shrine), the faithful pray for the blessings of the people interred there, and since there are convicted war criminals among the ages of other dead warriors, they believe the Japanese are asking for support, guidance, and blessings from them. It's a difficult situation for the Japanese, as the interrment of soldiers at Yasukuni also entitles their families to pensions from the government, so removal of the criminals would mean a legal wasps' nest, since the families of the dead would have no basis for receiving the pensions they have received since WWII. At any rate, the Shrine itself is a beautiful place, and houses some of the oldest architecture in Japan. John and I wandered around in the shrine, then ate lunch in a park nearby and walked back to the metro to catch a train back to Asakusa.

I hung out with John and Katie for a bit, then went up to Kaminarimon (thunder and lightning gate) to wait for Lisa to come out of the metro station. While I was waiting, I watched the glockenspiel above the tourist information office come to life at 5 pm. Bryan and Amy arrived not long after that, but, to my disappointment, they were not regaled in Disney paraphernalia as I had hoped. They did have a good time, but I was hoping they'd be otaku-ed out. Lisa arrived at about 5:30 pm, and we began to make preparations to return to Roppongi for one of my favorite Japan-dining experiences--Gingis Kan (Genghis Kahn). MMMM! All you can eat (Tabehodai) lamb and mutton, all you can drink (nomihodai) beer--It was awesome. We got pretty snockered and then went bar hopping a bit in Roppongi. We left early enough to catch a train back to the hostel and sacked out for the night. Well, all of us except Bryan, who wandered around Asakusa rousing up more fun. He thought we were supposed to go to Tsukiji fish market the next morning, and tried to wake us at 4:30 am (you have to get up early to see the auction). For this, Bryan received a fair amount of taunting from the rest of us. In actuality, we had planned to go to Mitaka to see the Ghibli Museum at 4 pm that day.
Bryan disappeared for a while, so we left him a note to meet us at the proper station so we could all go to Mitaka. Lisa and I then showed Amy and John around Shinjuku's Skyscraper district. Afterward, we got lost in Shinjuku station (as we always do--the place is HUGE), and were at risk of not being able to meet back up with Bryan, so we left another message for him to meet us at a different place. He wasn't there, so we decided that he would figure it out and went on to Mitaka without him. We did leave a note for him at the station taped to the steps with WInnie-The-Pooh stickers. Upon arrival in Mitaka, we boarded the bus that took us to the museum (they admit you to the museum in time blocks, so you can't miss your slot or you won't be allowed in. That's why we had to leave B behind in the first place.). On the way there, we saw our very own hung-over MacGuyver walking down the road to the museum. It was pretty amazing, and so was the museum. They don't allow photography inside the museum, but at left is a shot of John with the ladies outside next to a statute of a robot seen in Ghibli's "Laputa." We came back home and went to dinner in Asakusa, and hung around there for a bit.
On Thursday morning, we went to Tsukiji fish market. This is a truly remarkable sight in Tokyo. Billions of dollars go through here every year, and the auction process is a testament to the organization and detail-mindedness of the Japanese. When we arrived at 5 am, we were almost run down by the hundreds of transport carts (right) that men drive throughout the enormous complex, moving products from the docks to the shop stalls. The outer areas of tsukiji are the fish markets where literally tons of fresh seafood are sold every day. At left is a shot of some beautiful octopus I saw in one of the shops. Inside the auction area, there were rooms full of flash-frozen tuna, gutted, marked, and waiting to be bought. The various customers were wandering around checking the texture and flavor of the meat. The buyers include seafood shop owners, restauranteurs, and sushi makers (incidentally, some of the best sushi can be found in Tsukiji, since the majority of the fish came off of the boats only a couple hours before it was made).

At about 5:45 am, a series of bells began to ring, annoucing the opening of the auction. This was a chaotic time, as various auctioneers shouted for bids from the crowd of buyers. Surrounding the auctioners were talliers, writing down the names of each buyer and marking each fish as it sold with the name of its buyer. For all the chaos, the process was very fast moving and efficient. Here's some video footage of the auction in progress:

After Tsukiji, we went back to the hostel, packed up our stuff, and then went to Tokyo station to catch our Shinkansen for Kyoto, part 2 of our trip blog.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Top O' the Asa (朝) to Ye!

That's right folks, March 17th is a day celebrated worldwide. Good ol' St. Patrick and his feast day are probably more effective than the UN at bringing nations together in a joyful atmosphere. Tokyo's St. Patrick's Day parade and celebration is no exception to this.

I was in Tokyo early, awaiting the arrival of John, Bryan, and Amy (Lisa was busy with work, and could not make it out to Tokyo until Tuesday). I had checked into the
Sakura Hotel in Asakusa, and I was enjoying the golden dragon festival that was going on there. Here's is a clip of video from the festival:

I met up with Our friends
Katie and Sean at the festival. We waited together for our friend Tom to arrive, and then we hopped on the Tokyo Metro headed for Ueno. At Ueno, we boarded the JR Yamanote Line and rode it around the ring to Harajuku Station. The cos-play girls weren't there, but the neighborhood was bustling with people preparing to watch the St. Patrick's Day Parade. I was completely surprised that Japan would even know what this day is, much less, have a parade to celebrate it. But sure enough, everyone in Harajuku had on green clothing, and lots of people were enjoying pints of Guinness sold by the street vendors. There were a bunch of other JETs there, and we arrived just in time to get a great spot on the parade route. Every Irishman in Japan appeared to be out for the parade, as well as a large number of Japanese fans of all things "Erin."
There were Irish Setter clubs, Irish wolf-hound clubs, Caeli dancers, jiggers, Japanese pipers' clubs, a few guys dressed up as St. Patrick, A few guys dressed up as Irish KISS, an Irish bartender wearing beer-goggles, A creepy older guy in a funny T-shirt, and even some green-clad cheerleaders from Senshu, a local high school. I felt as thought I was in a science fiction story, where the universe is the same, except all the people look different. I felt a sense of familiar comfort mixed with foreign curiosity. The two emotions mingled well together, and I helped them to get along by downing my share of Guinness. We had a wonderful time, and when it was all over, we still had time to walk around the shops of Harajuku looking for a non-existent Nathan's Hot Dog shop (finally, we settled for Wendy's burgers) before I had to hop on the train to go pick up Bryan, Amy, and John. I'll leave you with some video footage of the parade itself.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Quest for the Lost Daimyo Stones (continued)

Trackback here

During the months of February and march, I was working with an archaeologist named Hiro Sugiyama (right: A picture of Akira, Sugiyama, and me next to a cut stone in Usami). Frequent readers of the blog will remember that I was super-excited about this opportunity for me to get paid to walk around in the woods and look for ancient things. Sugiyama and I spent a couple of days each week walking along the beach or in the mountains around Ito, and we found quite a few stones from the Edo period.

So here's the background. Tokugawa Ieyasu became the first Shogun of Japan in 1600. He did so by defeating all opposition to his rule. The Shogun was the political ruler of Japan, while the Emperor stood as the symbol of the nation from his capital in Kyoto. Tokugawa needed to secure his reign as Shogun, which meant that he needed to make the daimyo ("dime-yo"--feudal lords) feel important, but also keep them working hard (spending money) so that they didn't get the chance to rise against him. So he commissioned enormous building projects in Edo. Tokugawa needed stone for the castles and their walls, so he ordered the daimyo to prospect, cut, and send stones for building by ship to Edo (Tokyo).

Sugiyama-san told me that the consensus is that there were something like 25 or 30 daimyo working the area around Ito and Usami. We found evidence in the form of markings on the stones of at least 7 of them. When the work crews found a stone that they wanted to use on the mountain, they would first score it so that they could cut it into manageable pieces. They used hammer and chisel to perforate a dotted line around the circumference of the stone. It looks like this:

Once they were finished with these marks, they would usually hammer tight-fitting wooden planks into the slots, and then soak them with water. Over time, the wood swelled, and eventually split the stone. Each stone was marked with the sign of the daimyo who employed the workers who cut it. There are many different markings, one of which was the mark of a daimyo named Mori. His symbol was the fletched end of an arrow. You can see it faintly here. I mistakenly used the flash, so the symbol is a little hard to make out:

Stones with this symbol were all over the mountains we walked on. Mori-san was very busy in Usami and Ito. Once the stones were cut, they were taken down the mountain and loaded on boats to be taken by ship to Edo. For some reason, a great number of stones were never delivered, and remain on the mountainside. I assume that Sugiyama is researching why this is so. Here's a shot of me clearing vegetation from some of the stones that were left behind. We spent a lot of time uncovering and marking the locations ofthe stones on topographical maps of the region. Here's acouple shots of me clearing the vegetation from a group of several stones on the mountain. You can pretty clearly see the markings on some of these stones. The view from the top of this mountain was pretty spectacular.

Here you can see Usami behind me, and Mount Fuji on the other side of the mountain:

We ended our trips to the woods in early March, as spring was beginning to break, and the stinging caterpillars came out on the trees. Next winter, Sugiyama-san will return to work in the woods of Usami. This turned out to be one of the finer experiences I have had in Japan. I was nostalgic for my years in the Boy Scouts, when I used to go walking in the woods, looking at sights both new and old.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

日本春の桜--Japanese Springtime's Cherry Blossoms

Around the end of March, the entire country of Japan begins to twitterpate. The weathermen start using a strange new map that looks like this:

These pink weather maps are not showing the patterns of the fabled Pepto Bismol showers. They are predictions of when the sakura (cherry blossoms) will be blooming in different parts of Japan. There are many folks in Japan who take vacation time to follow the progression of the sakura from South to North. They call it "Hannami" or flower watching. Luckily for us, the Izu peninsula is a Hanami capital in Japan. Thousands of people come from all over to Ito, Shimoda, Kawazu, and other destinations on our small peninsula just to sit under the trees, drink sake, write haiku, and enjoy the pinkness that surrounds them. It is truly beautiful, as the breezes tend to cause flurries of petals to fall to the ground, as if the countryside were having its own fertility parade.

Many of the sakura in Japan line roads and fields. A beautiful contrast to the pink of the cherry blossoms is the yellow of the rape blossoms. Rape blossoms are a form of canola, and are used as a rotational crop in rice fields.

One of the biggest Sakura Matsuri (cherry blossom festivals) is in Kawazu, on the southern part of the Izu Peninsula. Kawazu has a long avenue lined with sakura, right next to a river. So every year, the festival hawkers, food vendors, musicians, clowns, etc. line up along the avenue to celebrate the breaking of Spring. Japanese people lay out blankets and tarpaulins to sit on. They lie under the trees, take many close-up photos of the blossoms, and enjoy copious quantities of food and drink.
Here are a few shots of flowers from our springtime journeys through the Izu peninsula:
This is the river bank in Minami Izu.
A closeup of the sakura flower.
Lisa loitering under a sakura.
Paul frolicking in the canola.
Here is a video of Minamiizu's fields and flowers. (Note: this is my first attempt at making movies with soundtracks. I am so proud of myself! We had to remove the original soundtrack due to some serious trash-talking that was going on while Lisa was recording:).)

In addition to the sakura being in bloom, late March marks the beginning of a series of festivals culminating in the Golden Week holidays. On March 4th, Girls' Day is celebrated. In the weeks leading up to this festival, people decorate their homes and shrines in beautiful dolls made of paper, cloth, and ceramic. Ito City Hall has a lovely display of these dolls every year:

We took a drive around the Izu peninsula at the beginning of sakura season, and we managed to catch the former Prime Minister of Japan (Koizumi-Sama) outside a shrine in Shuzenji: As we came out of the shrine, we noticed an ebullient crowd of people had gathered, and they were all pointing and taking photos of this man:
Lisa and I had no idea who he was, but we knew that he was important, owing to the crowd and his pimped-out silk suit. We took the camera to some Japanese friends and asked them who he was. They shouted their excitement that we saw Koizumi-san. Apparently, he was a wildly popular PM in his day, and the Japanese call him the "Japanese Richard Gere." Can you spot the resemblance?

At any rate, Springtime is a wonderful time to visit Japan (although it's not as amazing if you haven't seen the other 3 seasons first). Most groups of friends and family go to or host Hanami parties, and there is a peaceful attitude in the air. The way they celebrate the flowers here seems to help illustrate why the Spring is associated with love.