It seems like I’ve posted less during my break from school than I did during the semester. What’s that about? Well, I guess I have been busy, for having been on break. I was back in Illinois for about a week and a half, but my mobility during this trip was a bit more limited than usual. This wasn’t all bad. I still managed to make it up to the Quad Cities for an evening, and spend a little bit of time with each of my siblings. Because I stayed most nights in Paxton, I got to hang out with Bob quite a bit, which was quite enjoyable. I even took him on a ride one morning, when we borrowed a truck from one of our uncles to go pick up some of my belongings that were still in Urbana.
So it snowed quite a bit while I was back, and stayed pretty cold, but we borrowed the truck to go to Urbana on the second of two relatively clear days. The road conditions were pretty good on Route 45 that day, and we cruised along at or near the speed limit most of the way. Just a mile or two south of Thomasboro, however, we suddenly found ourselves sliding out of control on a patch of ice. I had only enough time to let off the accelerator, hoping to regain traction soon, before we drifted into the left lane at an odd angle. We regained our traction at that bad angle, and the truck’s light back end and high center of gravity sent us back-over-front, first into the ditch, and then into the opposite side of the divided highway.
It all happened too fast for us to do much other than brace ourselves for impact, and the only thought going through my head was, “this is going to cause a lot of damage.” I’m still not entirely clear whether the damage I was anticipating was bodily or property. The truck slid to a stop on its passenger side, facing the opposite direction in the lane farthest from where we’d started. Bob and I checked with each other to make sure we were each okay, and as far as we could tell at the moment, we were. In order to get out, we had to climb out through the cab’s broken rear window, as we weren’t going to be able to open either door. I waited for Bob to climb out first, as I was suspended above him by my seatbelt and had to wait until he got out to be able to release my seat belt and find my way out of the car.
To look at pictures of the vehicle after the fact, I have to wonder how we made it out without any major injury. Some of the folks who stopped to help us after the accident mentioned something about me having blood on my forehead as I climbed out, so I worried about whether I’d sustained a blow to the head during the accident. With my previous experience of being ignorant as to the state of my own physical well-being due to a concussion, I suspected it would be best to get checked out at the hospital. I had some soreness in my left shoulder where the seatbelt had forcefully restrained me, but after the EMTs gave me a good once over, they verified that I didn’t seem to have any major injury. At the ER, they x-rayed my shoulder to make sure, and they said that I shouldn’t worry about a CAT scan unless I experienced any post-concussion symptoms in the next 48 hours or so.
So now that I’m back in LA, some folks are calling me “Crash.” I think it might stick. Last week was the two-year anniversary of my motorcycle accident, followed shortly by the twelve-year anniversary of my decision to stop using drugs for recreational purposes. Incidentally, four years ago on MLK day I was pulled over on Route 45 (just a few miles south of where the latest accident took place), where I was given a ticket for speeding and informed that my license was suspended for parking tickets. This driving stuff is hard work.
On Thursday, I’ll get back into the classroom for the final course of my MA degree, a fiction workshop class. That and my thesis work will be how I spend just about all of my free time for the next four months, and then you should all be able to start calling me Master Crash. Meanwhile, back in the Midwest, Bob is on his way to St. Louis for the night, and tomorrow morning he’ll fly to San Diego to get started on his USMC career. Maybe it will work out so that we can attend each other’s graduations in May? We’ll see.
In the last month, I have missed celebrating the birthdays of my brother, my mother, and two of my sisters. To make up for it, last weekend I had the great privilege of going up to Northern California to celebrate Angelo’s 4th birthday – we had a blast. Per tradition, we went to the zoo during my visit. We celebrated Labor Day with the true working person’s pastime (and also that of the Dude): bowling. Be sure to visit the web album for some video of Angelo opening his birthday present from grandma.
Since I’ve been back in LA, I’ve been getting back into the swing of grad student life. This semester, currently slated to be my second-to-last in the grad program, part of what the grad student life entails is writing my thesis proposal. Who knew that so much research was needed to basically say “I want to write a 90-page novella”? The good news is that it’s really forcing me to think about what I’m doing with this piece.
Anyway, I suppose that’s about all I have to say for the moment. Stay tuned for more exciting news.
I’m back in Illinois for Memorial Day weekend, seeing family and trying to get some much-needed relaxation coming off a mind-numbing semester. Yuka and I have managed to enjoy each other’s company a bit, and we even got each other some nice bracelets, for the hell of it. Just today I got my grades back, a B+ for each class, putting my semester GPA at 3.30, and my cumulative GPA at 3.55. It’s definitely nice to know that some of the stress I’ve put myself through over the last few months has paid off nicely.
Being back in late May has been a very different experience from my usual November/February visits. I’d forgotten how green, and how humid, the Midwest can be. I got to spend an afternoon lounging around the patio at Espresso Royale with Wes, which was great. Today I went down to Springfield and spent a few hours hanging out with my brother Bob, which was also very nice, and then drove to Peoria where I’ll meet up with Esti. It was a little strange driving through downtown Peoria and then into the vicinity of the Bradley University campus, as it brings back some memories of the two years I spent here going to school, nearly a decade ago now. Funny how much things can change, and how much they stay the same.
Tonight I’ll make an obligatory appearance at a campout that’s taking place just outside of C-U, tomorrow I’ll hang with Yuka and some friends who have also moved on from the U of I, Monday I’ll hang with the McCabe clan for Memorial Day, and Tuesday I’ll be back on my way to the land of endless pavement. Life is good.
So Yuka called me this morning, and she’s back in the States now. She called me from … LAX. She’s a short drive away from me and we aren’t going to see each other before she flies out shortly after noon to DFW. That sucks.
But in honor of her return, here’s my mochi video. Enjoy!
Our plans for ringing in the 2009 New Year were pretty simple and traditional: a nice family meal of homemade soba and more ***** (sukiyaki, a dish eaten nabe-style). My experience making the soba this time went much better than it did two years ago. Avoiding lumps while mixing the water into the buckwheat, and then rolling it out smoothly to avoid lumps and holes prior to cutting the noodles, both require a bit of patience and skill. I may not have been more skilled than I was two years ago, but I think I was a little more patient this time, so the result was quite favorable. My future sister-in-law, Hiroka, is a schoolteacher (Sensei) by trade, so she’s well practiced in patience with learners (Sei) like me and Coku, the exchange student from Vietnam who’s been living with Yuka’s family for the last couple months. We made some nice soba and got cooking on apartments in amsterdam, eating the sukiyaki, which this time included some nice Australian beef provided by Yuka’s uncle, and lots of wonderful vegetables and tofu. As per custom, each of us had our own little dish of dipping “sauce”, consisting of one raw egg, lightly beaten, with optional soy sauce. By the time for the countdown drew near, we were all pretty well full and content. Oto-san isn’t all that concerned with seeing in the New Year, and he went to bed not much past 11:30 or so. We sat around lazily, joking and laughing, and when the time came we counted down the seconds ’til the New Year arrived, bringing Yuka’s birthday along with it.
I had a couple gifts for her that I’d picked up back in the States before I left, but in addition I’d had some help from Oto-san. When he’d been out on errands earlier in the day, he stopped off and picked up a nice bouquet for Yuka. When he returned home, he asked me to come out to the car, where he showed me the bouquet and told me that once midnight struck, I should come out to the car and get the flowers for her, and give them to her as a gift from me. So just before we all reconvened at the table to play some more games, I asked Hiroka if I could borrow her car keys and went out for the bouquet. Yuka was quite surprised and happy, and put the flowers in a nice vase. She also opened one of her birthday gifts from me, not long before we all decided to turn in for the night, so we would be able to get up at a decent hour to head over to Obaa-chan’s home to ring in the New Year with the extended family.
We woke up early the next morning and sat down together for a nice osechi breakfast (h/t: Moye for the link). After eating, we all got ourselves good and ready, then took the half-hour drive down the road (over the hill, through the woods, and all that) to Grandma’s house. When we arrived, we got busy helping out, getting the house ready, setting up tables for all the friends and family members who were arriving in small waves. The crowd consisted of many of the same faces I dined with for New Year’s two years ago. We had some more osechi, along with a few big trays of delicious assorted sashimi, and basically spent the day eating, talking, and laughing together. After many hours and many good laughs, most of us were pretty well worn out. We headed back home for the evening, where we had to finish packing all of our gear for the ski trip to Inawashiro, where Oto-san grew up. I was able to borrow a complete ski suit from Yuka’s aunt, and was very happily oblivious the entire time on the slopes about how silly I looked. No one else minded, why should I?
We were on the road by 6 AM on the second of January, ready to pick up cousins Taihei and Yui, who would join us on the slopes. I managed to catch a few extra Zs on the road, and we were able to hit the slopes probably by 11 AM or so. I hadn’t been on skis since I was a teenager, probably well before I ever drank any alcohol or smoked cigarettes… so at least 15 years ago, I suppose. We took a little practice run down the bunny slope and I was surprised at how comfortable I felt on the skis. I had one small wipe-out, but just fine about it. Next we went down a slightly more challenging slope, to the left off of the main lift, which also worked out fairly well. I didn’t crash this time, but I started to notice that I was skiing much faster than pretty much everyone else on the slopes. Oh well, so long as I didn’t plow over anyone, things should be alright. On our next trip down, we went to the right off the lift, and I quickly found out that it was a much steeper slope than the other path. As I’d done before, I basically went full speed ahead, and it didn’t take me long at all to completely lose control and go tumbling down the hill. I went down pretty hard, losing my skis and my poles, and felt a pain in my knee somewhere during the fall. Whether I was hit with a ski or just bent my leg the wrong way, I don’t know. But I knew that my knew wasn’t feeling too hot, and I hoped it was just a bruise. I managed eventually to get down to the bottom of the hill, firmly resolving not to go to the right off the ski lift again any time soon. Yuka’s brothers, and even her little cousins, are pretty skilled skiers. With a little coaching from her brother, Yuka was catching back on pretty quickly, too. As her brother tried to give me pointers when I was struggling down that steep slope, he even went as far as to say, “See that little kid over there? Do it the way he’s doing it…”
After a couple more times down the easier slope, Coku and I were ready to take a lunch break and give the others a chance to ski the slopes they wanted, without us holding them up. We joined up with Okaa-san in the lounge at the foot of the hill and dug into some nice hot curry, and were later joined by some of the others as they came down to eat too. We then got back on the slopes, and Coku and I kept to the novice hill for the rest of the afternoon. The slopes closed at four, but I think that they reopened later for night skiing. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’d had about enough skiing for the day, and was ready to lay down for a while!
As for our accommodations for the evening, we had called ahead to a nearby pension, and the owners hadn’t planned on being open, due to the New Year’s holiday. When they learned that there were ten of us in the group, however, they agreed to put us up for the night. We drove around the small town until we found the place, where we were met with friendly greetings and invited to hang up all of our snow gear in a special little room that had a heater going, so it would all be dry come morning. We found our way to the four bedrooms we would be sharing, very traditional Japanese style accommodations, tatami mat floors and thin sliding doors of paper and wood. We carried in our bags, drank some tea, and played cards for a bit before going down for our dinner.
By the time dinner was over, my banged-up knee and my cramped foot were really screaming. Luckily the bathing room had an onsen-quality hot bath that I was able to soak in for a while, hoping to draw out some of the pain. Instead, I think it just brought up my blood pressure. I hoped a night of rest would take care of me, as I didn’t want to try to back down from skiing the next day and be a total party pooper, but I was growing concerned that I might not feel up to it. By morning, my aches and pains hadn’t worn off much but I had found some renewed gusto, and we got out there for another good day on the slopes. Toward the end of the day, my knee was beginning to make it difficult to make the best use of my right leg in my skiing maneuvers. I was glad to have come out though, and my technique was certainly improving. On my last time up the ski lift, with Yui as my companion, I happened to notice about halfway up the hill that there was a stocking cap on the ground directly below the lift.
“Is that Coku’s hat?” I asked Yui. “Coku no booshi desu ka?” Before she had much chance to respond, I saw a skinny young man trudging down the hill to the right of the lift, with no hat and only one ski. The other ski was probably about ten yards ahead of him. “Coku,” we shouted. He looked up and waved, nearly falling in the process. As we got to the top of the hill, Yui indicated that we were going to have to go down the right side, to help Coku. Having neither the Japanese skills nor the desire to try to explain to a pre-teen girl that I was scared to go down that slope again, I went ahead and broke right when we got off the lift, and worked hard to employ all the best of what I’d learned over our two days on the slopes. Still, I was going way too fast, and managed to crash part of the way down to where Coku had been. At least I was doing a little better than the day before, and had made it further before the crash. I got my skis back on and took off again, and before long I was tumbling down the hill again, this time leaving one of my skis a dozen yards behind me or so. Yui snagged in on her way, and dropped it off by me before sliding on over to Coku, who was only a few yards further down the hill, and way off to the right side. Yui helped him while struggled to get my skis back on. I was having too much trouble, and my knee was hurting bad enough that I worried I just plain didn’t have the strength in my right leg to snap the boot into place on the ski. After fumbling around with it for a while, I finally gave in and decided to walk down to the part of the hill that could be called a landing if it were a set of stairs. I got my skis back on and made it the rest of the way down the hill, just in time to find Coku and Yui so we could go meet the others at the rendezvous spot.
The ride home was nice, but I only managed sleep very briefly on the way. Okaa-san was driving the first leg of the trip, and she’s not what you would call a speed demon. At one point I gradually woke up from napping and happened to glance at the speedometer, and was shocked to see that she was only driving 40. That’s km/h, mind you. Apparently Hiroka noticed at the same time, as she tapped her mom on the shoulder and pointed at the speedometer, which seemed to help a bit. I paid attention for the next fifteen or twenty minutes and saw that she mostly kept it between 50 and 60 km/h, on a few select occasions breaking 60, but most of the time hovering just above 50. Before long, we pulled off the highway for a bathroom break, and when we got back on the road, Hiroka took the wheel. Not more than a few kilometers back on the road, though, we ran into some bumper-to-bumper traffic. Soon the folks from the other vehicle called us from a pay phone (between the ten people in two cars, there was only one cell phone) to ask where we were. They’d left us in the dust long ago. They told us where to get off to meet them, so we could take the back roads the rest of the way and avoid the traffic.
We dropped Yui and Taihei off at their home, along with my ridiculously masculine snowsuit, and then went out for Chinese food as my last meal with the whole family. There was some confusion and frustration about what was on the menu and how we were splitting the dishes (family style versus individual orders), but all worked out in the end. The food was very tasty, and Masaki graciously offered to get the bill. We returned home, unpacked our gear, and drank some tea together. I gathered my belongings and got everything packed, glad to brought less on this trip than my last.
I slept well and woke up refreshed, even if I was still a bit sore from skiing. After a quick shower and breakfast, we said some good-byes and took some group pictures out in front of the house. We only took one carload to the airport, Yuka and I along with her parents. It was a quiet three-hour drive, with Tsukaba-san approaching gradually on our left side then retreating behind us to our right. I even managed to spot Fuji-san on the horizon, so incredibly faint that one had to concentrate to avoid losing him. We arrived at Narita and I checked in, learning that my flight was delayed by an hour. That bought us a bit more time to have a nice lunch together in one of the airport restaurants, followed by some casual shopping in the overpriced duty-free and souvenir shops. When the time came for me to pass through the security checkpoint, we took a few more pictures together, and then exchanged our good-byes. Much like last time I left, Oto-san’s embrace when he hugged me good-bye spoke volumes that we may never have the language to share with one another. Yuka and I kissed good-bye, and after going through the metal detectors, they followed me down the corridor, separated from me be a glass partition, and waved enthusiastically as I descended the stairs to the departure gates. One more trip to Japan down, and hopefully many more to come.
As the plane climbed toward cruising altitude, I looked out the window, back at the place I was leaving. The winter sunset painted the sky red, and after the plane leaned to the right and then straightened back out, I saw Fuji-san resting proudly on the horizon.Now at the end i have to say that the best trip i had in Japan was a short cruise i took with Groove Cruise. Mata atodei, Fuji-san. I’ll see you again soon.
We started off our week bright and early, catching a 6:30 train into Tokyo for Yuka’s Monday-morning Visa appointment at the US Embassy. I felt like telling her about online application for an Amazon.com Visa, which gives you a decision in roughly 30 seconds, but I refrained. On the train ride into the city, we happened to spot Fuji-san for the first time this trip, looking majestic as always. When we got off the train, we found a nice little coffee shop around the corner from the embassy to have some coffee and breakfast, and I stayed there and read while she went to the appointment, which ended up taking about two and a half hours-more than two hours, fifteen minutes in a waiting room, and barely ten minutes of interview, at best. Once that was over, we made our leisurely way through town, passing through a shrine and by a couple temples on the way to Tokyo Tower. We didn’t go up to the observation deck this time; even if we had wanted to, the tourist crowd was too thick for comfort. Instead, we walked through the little park nearby where I asked her to marry me nearly two years ago. We found the same spot, and I hit a knee, took her hand in mine, and asked if she still wanted to marry me. “Hmm. I guess,” she said with a laugh. Works for me.
We hopped on another train, which took us out to the Tokyo Bay area. Apparently the little islands in the bay were built on landfills, so the mall we spent our afternoon wandering through was basically sitting on a huge pile of trash. We ate a late lunch at a nice little Indian place in that mall, then went and took each other’s pictures with the scaled-down Statue of Liberty on the waterfront. We both agreed that Tokyo’s version of Lady Liberty looks a little more bloated than the original back in NYC. We chalked it up to typical Japanese perceptions of Americans. More than once on this visit, I’ve heard the term “American-sized” used to refer to oversized products. I wish I could take these people to Costco; that store would probably blow their minds!
We stuck around long enough to see Tokyo Tower get all lit up as part of its 50-year anniversary celebration, followed shortly by the lighting up of the bridge over the bay in rainbow colors. The view was great, but the only pictures we got were taken with my cell phone, as Yuka’s camera battery seems to have reached its end, and I left the charger for my camera in LA. Oh well.
As soon as we walked back into her house, (conveniently very close to the train station), we were told that Yuka’s uncle wanted to take us out for sushi, so we should hop back on the train up to Utsunomiya. We turned right around and got back on the train, and were soon retrieved from the station by her uncle (father of the young man who works in the ramen shop we visited the other evening), who took us to the best sushi shop in Utsunomiya (possibly the whole prefecture?) for dinner. We sat at the sushi bar and had the chef just roll out all of the day’s recommended items, which ended up keeping us eating for a good hour or so. Only a few pieces came that I wasn’t sure I would be able to stomach, and all but one of those were actually pretty good. The one piece, though, really made me work hard against my gag reflex, and I nearly lost that battle. It was a slimy white fish eggs sort of piece that was just too much. Aside from that, it was all very delicious sashimi, including the (avert your eyes, PETA-friendly friends) kujira-whale. It was an excellent and probably very expensive meal that her uncle seemed very happy to treat us to. He and the owner of the place, who is also the head sushi chef and an avid surfer, are apparently pretty good friends.
All in all, it was a very nice day. Today we took it easy, going back to Utsunomiya to help prepare Obaa-chan’s house for a nice family New Year’s celebration. Yuka and I had lunch with an Utsunomiya friend I first met at the conference I came to in LA two and a half years ago. He had been in LA again in April and joined me and some other friends for some decent ramen, as authentic as you can get in LA (pretty authentic), and told me to call when I come to Japan. It was a nice lunch with pleasant conversation.
After an afternoon nap followed by a thorough deep-cleaning of Obaa-chan’s home, Yuka’s other uncle took us all out for burgers, Japanese style. As the family’s heir apparent, he shares the house we cleaned with Obaa-chan, and seemed thrilled that the handful of us had pitched in to get the job done. The burgers were fantastic-Aussie beef-and we ran the waitress to death with requests for refills on drinks and rice. She would’ve really earned her tip, in my opinion, if only tipping was practiced here. Another excellent meal in great company, and now we’re home to get some rest, so we can get right back into it tomorrow.
After a flight that halfway through felt endless, but by the end felt as thought it had gone quickly (I know, I don’t get it either), I arrived at Narita airport Friday evening
Once I arrived at the airport and made my way through customs, which was fairly quick and easy, I walked out to the arrival area but didn’t see any familiar faces. I exchanged my dollars for much fewer yen than I would’ve liked, walked through the arrival area again to see if I’d missed Yuka and her family, and then found a seat to watch the doors. After nearly two hours of waiting, I spent the $5 it cost to use the airport wi-fi to find my future sister-in-law’s phone number, but wasn’t able to reach her. I sat a while longer before I finally decided to walk to the other arrival wing of the airport, just in case. Surely enough, at about the same time I had started walking from my wing to the other, Yuka began walking from that wing to the one I was in. We met halfway, and after a warm hello embrace she explained that she’d assumed I was flying American Airlines as that was what we’d both used last time, and what she always uses. She finally called her brother and had him look up my itinerary in her email, which was when she learned that I was on Northwest. She apologized for making me wait, but I told her it was okay, because I had nothing else that I needed to be doing.
I rode with Yuka and her mother and brother back to their house, roughly three hours from the airport. I was warmly received at the house by her father and other brother, and we all joined in preparing some homemade gyoza, which we ate with some very nice *****, followed by a tasty strawberry cake made by Yuka.
The following morning, we headed over to the home of Yuka’s Obaa-chan (grandmother), the aged-but-sturdy matriarch of the family farm. We participated in the annual family tradition of mochi-making, which is a tough job but was much easier for me this year. After growing frustrated quickly in my first efforts two years ago, I paid careful attention to my future father- and uncle-in-laws’ techniques, which proved to be quite effective when I put them into practice on my second batch during that visit. Like riding a bike, the mochi-skills came right back to me, which proved to be very impressive to Obaa-chan and the great aunts. We ate some of our freshly-made mochi with delicious vegetable soup, and then with sweet red beans, as we sat around talking for a while. I occasionally threw out a relevant statement or phrase in Japanese, further impressing the family. I’m eager for the time when I’ll be able to keep up in the whole of conversation, rather than simply catching bits and pieces.
When leaving the farm, we (the whole immediate family less my future sister-in-law) bowled a couple of games there in Utsunomiya, followed by a fantastic dinner at the ramen shop where one of the young cousins who made mochi with us was working the dinner shift. The ramen I ate was simply amazing.
We finished the day by returning home, as the onsen (hot springs) we’d hoped to visit was too busy, and the one closer to home was already closed for the evening. Back in the home, we played some card games until nearly 2 in the morning, with lots of laughing, yelling, and fun. The future sister-in-law, Hiroka, came downstairs at some point obviously annoyed at our noise. She made herself some udon without speaking/responding to anyone, though she did feed one of her thick udon noodles to the little kitty, maybe six months old, who scarfed it down greedily.
Today we’re taking it easy. Oto-san, Yuka, and I went to an onsen about 65 kilometers from home for a nice relaxing dip in the hot springs water. As we Oto-san and I got into the hot pool of water, another man asked if I was Yakuza. Oto-san was like, “Nani? Do shite?” (What? Why?”) The man pointed at the tattoo on my shoulder. I wish he would’ve told the man “not anymore”, but instead I think he just explained that tattoos are more common in the US. My intact pinkies would’ve given me away, anyway.
Tomorrow, Yuka and I will go down to Tokyo where she’ll have her appointment for renewing her student visa, and then we’ll probably shop and perhaps I’ll try to catch a meeting.
Japan is simply amazing; I’m having a blast. I’ll post more later.