Site Updates

For those who are interested, I’ve posted the narrative of my Japan trip in .pdf format, as well as the latest version of the Never Enough excerpt, which includes the first four chapters in their entirety. Warning: may not be suitable for minors.

I’ve also rearranged the photos from the Japan trip at my Picasa galleries. I intend to go through at some point and provide better captions, but for right now the captions only state which day each picture was taken.

Japan Trip: Days Eleven and Twelve

Day Eleven – Return to Nikko, Family New Year’s Celebration, and Hot Springs (again)

We got up early the next morning to head up to Nikko again, apparently because Oto-san hated the idea that I wouldn’t get pictures of the first shogun’s shrine and tomb. Only Yuuka and I went with him. On the drive out, we did our best to discuss our philosophies of creative writing. He, too, is a writer and story-teller, but he’s always kept his writings to himself and his family because he can’t stand criticism. Yuuka grew weary of translating and told us that we needed to learn each other’s languages. Soon we made it to Nikko, and Oto-san dropped us off halfway into town so we could go take the tour ourselves. Apparently it would be too difficult for him to find parking nearby, so he would babysit the car while we wandered. I was beginning to grow tired of tourism and complained to Yuuka, who told me to stop whining. I managed to get over it and we snapped some more good pictures. We went into a special chamber that has a painted dragon on the ceiling. They call it the singing dragon because of the way sounds echo in the room. The tour guide demonstrated with a loud clap, which translated into a high-pitched hum that rolled around in the air above our heads. Unfortunately, once we went inside a lot of the temples and shrines that we visited (not just that day, but in many places), we weren’t allowed to take pictures. Without everyone taking pictures, it’s a little easier to soak up the beauty, history, and culture. And I’m sure it helps the postcard industry.

We made our way up a whole lot of stone steps through the woods to the tomb of the first shogun. They told us, at the top, how many steps there were, but I’ve since forgotten. When we’d finished wandering around the property, we made our way back through the town (stopping for a few more pictures of the beautiful old bridge), to meet Oto-san near the train station. The day was colder than most of the days since we’d been there, probably somewhere between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold weather seemed to accentuate Nikko’s beauty, with the winter sky above the surrounding mountains, some of which were rocky and snow-covered, others were clear and softened with trees. When we reached Oto-san, we climbed back into the car to drive down to Obaa-chan’s for New Year’s dinner with the extended family. The drive was nice. I napped off and on while Oto-san spoke with Yuuka. She became irritated with him once or twice, telling him to stop talking. It had nothing to do with the subject matter; she simply wanted to nap as I was but couldn’t as long as he kept bugging her. It was cute. Finally, we reached our destination.

We stepped into Obaa-chan’s household sometime around 2:30, though the rest of the family sat down to eat around 1 or so. They didn’t seem to think it was a big deal. It was my first time to meet a lot of the extended family. One of these family members was Yuuka’s cousin (or second cousin or something) Eriko, who recently married. Her husband had studied some English to travel to the US on business. He and I were able to chat some, however choppy the conversation was. The rest of the family seemed to be either hesitant to acknowledge me (or the fact that I am white and American) or were all too eager to do so. One of Yuuka’s great uncles (by marriage) was a little tipsy, so he really got a kick out of conversation with me. He cracked himself up. Yuuka reluctantly interpreted for him from time to time, other times he simply smiled at me and laughed. His son-in-law, the one who’d traveled to the US, occasionally interpreted for us. And then later I had a chance to converse with Yuuka’s young cousin (six or seven years old) in English about such topics as his name, his age, and his grade level. He spoke well.

Nearly everyone watched closely (while trying to be inconspicuous) when I picked up my chopsticks. They seemed nearly disappointed, as had everyone else I met in the course of my stay, when they were forced to compliment me, “You use chopsticks very well.” What good is a meal with a white boy if you can’t laugh at his efforts to use chopsticks? The best part of the meal was the sashimi. It was outstanding. We ate a variety of traditional New Year’s food, but I don’t really know what most of it was. It tasted okay. We had some more of the dessert that we’d eaten at Okaa-san’s friend’s home. We sat around and talked for a while, and then drank tea and said good-bye to part of the family. It wasn’t much longer before it was time for dinner. They ordered in—trays of sushi. I happened to catch a glimpse of the bill. It was the equivalent of more than $200. My goodness! My family has potlucks for twice as many people and probably spend half that. The sushi was, of course, fantastic. I enjoyed all of my chances for respite from conversation as they conversed in Japanese. Less talking requires less work.

When we were finally done with dinner and conversation, we all pitched in to clear the tables and get the dishes into the kitchen. We returned the walls to their original places, dividing the room in which we’d eat into two rooms. We experienced sufficient confusion in the process as we tried to make sure each sliding wall panel ended up in the proper spot. Once we’d put the house back together, we began to say our good-byes to the extended family. Satoki drove an aunt and uncle home, but the rest of us headed over to the hot springs to see if they were still open. I said “doozo yoorishku” (it was nice meeting you) and “sayonara” to Obaa-chan and Yuuka’s uncle. I told them I look forward to seeing them again.

We arrived at the hot springs a little less than an hour before closing, so we would be able to get a nice little bath before going home. The prospect of the public bath was slightly less intimidating because it was my second time, but slightly more intimidating because I was now with my future father-in-law. So the net change was negligible, I guess. Hey, if I’ve done nude modeling, I can do this. I’d complained to Yuuka that if her father and I went to the hot springs together, it would be awkward because I could imagine him trying to talk to me and struggling to find the words. It turned out to be rather nice having a friendly native guide—I was able to take better advantage of the amenities this time around. The only pool I checked out the first time was the hottest, and I mistakenly believed that the water in the spa and jet tub would be just as hot. This time, we started in the spa, and I was the one who tried to force conversation, not him. It wasn’t too bad, though. The spa wasn’t quite as hot as the main tub, and there was also a cold-water bath to cool off quickly between dips. After some time in the main tub, we checked out the outside bath. The temperature under the waning moon was something like 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and we climbed quickly into the tub that kept us nice and warm. Steam rose from the pool under the night sky, and we sat together in comfortable silence. Would’ve made a good picture, he said, with the moonlight and the steam. I agreed. We relaxed for a few minutes and then got ready to finish the night off with a visit to the sauna. As they always do, the sauna astounded me with its heat. I don’t think we managed to last five minutes before I was overwhelmed by the heat. I found it interesting to walk into the sauna with damp skin, because my skin remained moist the entire time, but gradually shifted from pool water to sweat. After the sauna, I had to rinse off with a nice cool shower. We were dressed by nine o’clock—closing time—and we waited in the lobby for another ten minutes or so for the women to walk out. Of course, he said, they always take much longer than he does. We snapped some pictures with the New Year’s decorations and the ice sculpture out front before heading back home.

Back at the house, Yuuka and I found our first engagement gift, a lovely bouquet of flowers from Okaa-san’s best friend and her husband. For the end of the night, Oto-san and I enjoyed VG together for the last time while we all watched the final slideshow together. Then they all surprised me with gifts to take home: books and candy. I was overwhelmed by the kindness. Before going to bed I packed up all of my things to be ready to go to the airport the next day.

Day Twelve – The Flight Home

At breakfast the next morning, Oto-san did as he usually does for occasions of some sort of importance: he read me something he’d written about my visit. He recapped the trip’s events, including the surprise questions for him, his wife, and his daughter. He praised me for my full, cheerful, and enthusiastic participation in everything they offered, such as wearing the Santa suit and visiting the hot springs. It was a touching speech. Even before his speech, I’d considered trying to think of something nice to read or say to the family about my stay, but I hadn’t prepared anything in advance, so I had to wing it. I told them how I’d been afraid to make the trip because I expected them to judge me for everything I did wrong. I told them that from the moment I arrived, I felt welcomed and appreciated. I thanked them all for making it a wonderful and entertaining visit. We enjoyed breakfast and then got together out front for some final pictures together. Satoki remained at home while the rest of us made our way to the airport.

Once at the airport, Yuuka, Hiroka, and Okaa-san waited while I checked in and Oto-san parked the car. I had to pay extra because my bag was overweight, just like I had on the trip out. I’d hoped that unloading my Christmas gifts would help, but no luck. Yuuka and Hiroka told me that they never have to pay for overweight bags, and not because their bags aren’t overweight. Sucks to be a guy, I guess. We had enough time to go sit in an airport café and eat some ice cream together before I would need to make my way through security. We didn’t talk a whole lot at the final meal together; I think we’d used up all our words and were only prolonging the inevitable good-byes. When we finished the ice cream they accompanied me to the security area. But we ran across some more New Year’s decorations and couldn’t resist getting a few more pictures together.

Then we approached the security area. I hadn’t expected to feel so emotional. In the course of this short visit with each other, I’d become rather attached to these people. I explained to Oto-san that I really do share his corny sense of humor, and I wasn’t just laughing to be nice. I told Hiroka that I liked the way she talked (there’s some musical or rhythmic quality to her voice and enunciation that I really enjoy), but then I told her that it might just be because I don’t know what she’s saying. Finally, I thanked Okaa-san for working from morning to night, always with a bright smile, to make sure that I wanted for nothing and enjoyed my stay. She told Yuuka there was no need to translate, that she understood what I’d said. I hugged everyone and then gave Yuuka a big kiss. I thanked her for everything and told her that I love her. Then I went through security while they stood and watched. Once on the other side, I waved. They waved back. I walked over to the left to find the stairs down to the gates, and they chased me to the glass partitions that separated us, where they waved frantically, with wide smiles, to say good-bye. I continued down the stairs and left my new family behind.

The flight was disorienting. After so much time with quite, gentle people, I was back with Americans. A young Japanese girl sat next to me on the plane, and she was nice and friendly, but the folks right in front of me weren’t so enjoyable. They had a young child, probably three years old, and he made noise throughout the entire flight. They were grossly obese and did whatever they could to avoid giving the kid the attention he wanted, while doing nothing to make him be quiet. The flight left Tokyo at 5pm and landed in LA at 9am the same day. On the FlyAway bus from the airport to Van Nuys, the bus driver took his job way too seriously and made most of the passengers uncomfortable by overloading the bus and driving too fast. The young man sitting directly behind me spoke loudly about his political views which were marked by arrogance and vast assumptions and generalizations about what people know and want. (sounds familiar, right?) I was too exhausted to take the city bus, so I caught a cab back home. It cost $36, but I didn’t care. I crashed, eager to learn about the real meaning of jet-lag.

Japan Visit: Days Nine and Ten

Day Nine—Tokyo and Asking the Tough Questions

I woke up early the next day, a full twenty minutes before Okaa-san had planned to wake me up. I tried to roll over and fall back asleep, but anticipating my rapidly approaching request, I was unable to do it. I retrieved the piece of paper containing my translated statement and request, and I headed downstairs. Okaa-san and Oto-san were both awake already. “Ohayo,” we said—good morning. I couldn’t think of anything to say or do in the meantime, so I just sat down and unfolded the paper, ready to dive right in. After I got a few sentences in, Oto-san motioned to Okaa-san to stop with her chores and come sit down. He could sense the gravity of the situation. She sat, and I continued on. I opened by thanking them for their gracious hospitality and mentioned that I could think of no better place to visit on my first trip abroad than Japan. Then I said that I wanted to ask them an important question. “What question?” Okaa-san interrupted in English. I continued to read, still in Japanese, never knowing precisely what I was saying at any given moment. But the way the script went, I explained that getting involved with Yuuka had been an unexpected, but rather pleasant, surprise. Her energy, drive, and sense of humor were wonderful and brightened my days. She challenges me at every turn to be the best person I can be, even when that meant encouraging me to take a job more than a thousand miles away. Her smile and laugh warm my heart even across all that distance. I love her, and I want to spend my life with her. If we have children together, I will do everything I can to raise them to honor their background and heritage, and with a sense of respect and compassion for life in all forms. I will do everything I can to comfort Yuuka and let her know that she is loved. If you will accept me, I will embrace your family as my own, with love and respect. Can I ask your daughter to marry me?

I couldn’t recall exactly how I’d phrased the question, and I hadn’t considered the possibility that maybe they would want to discuss things before giving me an answer. Nevertheless, if I would’ve had serious concerns about whether or not they would be receptive to this, I wouldn’t have bothered reading it. I would’ve waited until I left Japan and then engaged Yuuka in a discussion about our future together. But I didn’t have to do that. Her parents seemed to like me, so I asked them. When I finished reading, I looked up from the sheet nervously. Her mom blinked and her dad sat silent for a moment. The moment was brief. Then he said, “Yes.” The conversation after that remains a bit of a blur. I thanked them, and Okaa-san complimented my reading. I explained that my sister-in-law had translated for me, and they both said, “ahh.” I did my best to explain that I planned to go up in Tokyo Tower to pop the question, and that I would video-record the proposal. They liked the idea, especially her dad. I showed them the engagement ring and they seemed to like it. I still don’t know for sure whether or not the Japanese typically give engagement rings. I got in the shower to get ready to go to Tokyo. When I finished with the shower, Satoki had woken up and come downstairs. I asked if he knew about my plans and he said yes. Oto-san asked if he could photocopy my request. His positive energy about this was reassuring. I ate some breakfast and Yuuka eventually came downstairs, not long before it was time to go. We had to rush out to catch the train.

The train ride was just like the other days. We rode in silence, drinking our hot canned coffee from the vending machine as we rolled southward to Tokyo. Eventually we reached our stop and emerged from the underground train station into one of the older portions of the city, the part that was once Edo, if I recall correctly. We visited a couple old shrines and temples but spent more time wandering along the street-side marketplace with all sorts of touristy knick-knack shops, suppliers of GU10 led bulbs and food stands. I found a nice, traditional Japanese-style housecoat for Mom, but that was about it. I was very tempted to buy myself a samurai sword, but Yuuka gave that idea the ax. When we finished there, we hopped another train to head across town to Tokyo Tower.

We walked to the tower from the train station, and it was a nice walk. We walked past a few neat buildings and shops. Knowing what a big city Tokyo is from aerial pictures and skyline shots, I was surprised that I didn’t see more skyscrapers. In downtown Chicago and New York, it feels like you have to look straight up if you want to see the sky because the tall buildings are everywhere. I haven’t really spent any time to speak of in downtown LA, but the tall buildings there are understandably fewer, with the earthquakes. There are earthquakes in Japan too, but I still felt like I’d seen a lot more skyscrapers in pictures than I was seeing wandering through the town. I was also surprised to find that Tokyo Tower is more like the Eiffel Tower than the Sears Tower. It’s Tokyo; I expected ultra-modern, sleek businesslike skyscraper. Instead I had to settle for a French-looking thing. This meant that the observation deck wasn’t nearly as high as I’d hoped. Oh well, it would have to do. We walked past another old shrine, and then a nice little garden with a path through the trees, right at the base of the tower. I took a couple pictures of Yuuka standing at the edge of the garden. The sunlight passed through the tops of the trees beautifully above and behind her.

And, of course, I hadn’t anticipated the place would be crawling with tourists. The lobby was packed with people. We waited in line patiently and eventually managed to cram ourselves into an elevator with too many other people. The observation deck was vaguely reminiscent of the one in the Sears Tower, with the exception that it was more circular (as opposed to rectangular). If I was pressured to guess, I would say that there were probably windows facing in twelve directions. I forgot to bring the nice set of binoculars that a friend lent me. I was amazed to see how many tall buildings there were outside all of a sudden. Apparently the way the city was arranged, the tall buildings were spread out enough that they weren’t quite as visible from ground level. To look from the observation deck, however, I could see buildings crowding the landscape for miles in every direction. At the edge of the horizon, I could see mountains. In the distance, hidden in the haze, I could see Fuji-san, ever so faintly, towering over all the other mountains. I took a couple pictures, but it takes an attentive eye to notice him. People crowded around most of the windows and I couldn’t find any decent places to set up the camera to take video. I didn’t want to ask someone to take our picture because I wouldn’t have been able to explain to them that I intended to make a movie, not just a still photo. I began to reconsider my plans to ask her at the top of Tokyo Tower.

In the brochure, I saw that they had a café in the lower half of the observation deck. The look of the café from the picture conjured an image of a restaurant with waiters where we could get a table next to a window. Unfortunately, café meant that we would have to order at the counter and sit at little tables that were too close to each other. The café was set in an inner section of the observation deck on a raised level. We could see out the windows, but there were still people wandering around by the windows. The café even had a smoking section. I was getting the distinct impression that I didn’t want to propose in this place, with all of the people, noise, and the smell of stale smoke. For the hell of it, I experimented with placing my camera on a chair next to us to see if I could even prop it up to take a decent video, and it wasn’t working. This place was definitely out. I thought of the little garden at the base of the tower. That would be free of people and maybe I’d find a nice spot to set the camera.

We were barely twenty yards into the garden when I saw some sort of stone shrine (not shrine like an official Shinto place of worship, but more like a lowercase sort of shrine). There was a good spot, albeit low, to set up the camera. I put it in position and turned on the video. We had to squat down to make sure we were in the picture, which meant that I was already almost on my knee. The ground wasn’t suitable for me to really take a knee, so I settled for the fact that I was close to the ground. Sure, she was too, but that’s okay.

I told her that I hadn’t set the camera to take a time-delay picture, like I’d planned. She laughed, and then I said that it was taking a video. I think she started to piece it together by this point. Most of what I meant to say, the words, ideas and phrases that I’d written out and then rewrote that morning, went out of my head. I started off the way I meant to start off, by telling her that I’d considered cancelling our first date because I was afraid she was out of my league, and that when I got to know her I found out for sure that she really was out of my league. I told her I’d gotten scared on the plane and felt like cancelling the trip. I told her that she’s beautiful and that being with her has been wonderful. The other things that I wanted to say—that thinking of her, looking at her picture, or hearing her voice on the phone brings me joy, that I love her and want to spend my life with her—had gone out of my head. I told her that I’d asked her parents for, and they granted me, permission to ask her to marry me. I took the ring out of my coat pocket and showed it to her. She looked closely at it. “It’s pretty,” she said. She looked up at me, smiling. She wanted to draw it out and make me sweat. “Yes,” she said. Yay! I kissed her. Try on the ring, I said. It fit! Not perfectly, but well enough. She likes it!

From there, we headed across town, arm in arm, to the Emperor’s garden, a set of walled-in woods surrounded by city. Once we arrived, we learned that it was, like so many other things, closed for the holidays. We took pictures of the gate, along with many of the buildings that we could see (we still couldn’t see nearly as many from the ground as we’d seen from the tower). We pondered a trip to Shinkansen or…some other place that started with S, but ultimately decided to head back home.

Once back at the house, we joined Hiroka and Satoki in preparing soba—Japanese buckwheat noodles—from scratch. This was another adventure. We took buckwheat flour (and I think another ingredient or two, but I don’t know), added water a little bit at a time, and mixed it vigorously by hand, trying hard to ensure even distribution of the water through the flour. This was, much like the mochi, more difficult than it looked. My forearms and fingers were still sore from the day before, and here I was trying to make the perfect buckwheat dough. Once we’d added all the water, we kneaded the dough to strive for consistency, and then made a ball that was supposed to be free of bubbles. We rolled the dough as flat and thin as possible, and also tried to perform some strange techniques for making the round dough square (without simply slicing off the edges). I got a little frustrated with this process, too, as I was getting flour on my clothes and my dough wasn’t making a good square. I was tired. But Hiroka helped me out and the soba turned out okay. We folded our dough up into a nice little rectangle and then sliced it extra thin. It turned out to be quite nice. Okaa-san and Oto-san worked together meanwhile to put together other parts of our dinner. Soon we were all able to sit down together and enjoy another gas station dinner. We cooked up some nice soba soup, a traditional New Year’s meal. Before our meal, Yuuka announced our good news to her family, and they cheered and congratulated us. We ate, drank, and were merry.

Day Ten—Yuuka’s Birthday, A Trip to Nikko, and the Hot Springs (again)

Being that it was Yuuka’s birthday, we let her sleep in. We all slept in a little bit, but Yuuka more than the rest of us. Her dad set up a ton of pictures, some roses, and happy birthday signs on the table, and we got ready so that when she came down the stairs we could surprise her by singing happy birthday. I set up the camera to capture the moment on video. She came down, surprised and happy, and we sang. She opened her present, a nice new coat her parents had picked up for her. She already had her birthday gift from me on her ring finger. We ate a traditional New Year’s meal of fish-related things (I’m still not quite sure what all of it was) before getting ready to take our trip to Nikko.

The historic sites at Nikko included (as usual) temples and shrines. Apparently this was the location of the first shogun’s shrine and tomb. They’d moved the shrine hundreds of miles from its former location, up into the mountains near Nantai-san. There was a beautiful old-style red and gold bridge over the mountain stream. We found a parking spot and walked up to the temple. The shogun’s tomb and shrine were closed for the night, so we wouldn’t be able to visit that. We walked past a bunch of vendors on our way up to the temple. One old woman was being pushed toward the temple in her wheelchair by a young man who seemed to probably be her nephew or grandson. It got complicated when he approached the stairs. Along with three other strapping young lads, we lifted her chair and carried her swiftly up the steps. Good karma. Then we made our way up to the front, where we put in our five yen (also karma) pieces and prayed.

After the temple, we went to a nearby shrine (not the shogun’s, but a different one). We bought fortunes and read them, and apparently mine was really good. Yuuka still hasn’t told me what it meant, but she told me that it was all really good stuff. Hiroka’s wasn’t as good, so she tied it to a string. Apparently if you tie the bad fortune to the string, you will get a better one the next time you visit. Glad I don’t have to worry about that! We saw a wedding tree—two trees that grew up very close to each other. Apparently that was good luck for us, too. We had our picture taken next to it.

We bought some meat on sticks from some of the vendors, who were like the Japanese equivalent of carnies, only less backwoods. We also bought some sweet little sandwich pastry things, and the vendor at that stand threw in some extras for us, probably because it was late in the day, close to closing time. We snacked on our chicken as we made the long trek back home.

Yuuka and I joined her mom to go visit her two friends, the cake shop employees, and deliver gifts of some of the soba we made. We didn’t step into the first house, but before we left Okaa-san mentioned that Yuuka and I were engaged. We were congratulated. At the second home, we were invited in for tea and dessert. I don’t have the slightest clue what the dessert was, but it was rather tasty. It was almost like Jell-o, but more solid and with a more subtle (less kool-aid-like) flavor. The woman was Okaa-san’s best friend from college, with whom she’d gone to London years ago. Her husband reminded me of an actor I’ve seen in foreign films, but it seems like the one I’m thinking of was French, Spanish, or Mexican. He was friendly and personable. He was a man’s man. When we were ready to leave, Yuuka told them that we were engaged. They congratulated us heartily, and when we left, they said that they hope to see us again soon. I told them that I’m looking forward to my next visit, that maybe we would be neighbors sometimes soon. They said they’d like that.

We returned home to eat our little sandwich pastry things. Apparently Oto-san had started in on them early. They were his favorite. We laughed as they told stories about how he always ate his share of goodies like that fast, and then moped around while others savored theirs. I can relate. We drank tea and went to bed, looking ahead to the last full day of the visit.

Japan Visit: Days Seven and Eight

Day Seven – Odawara Castle, Kamakura (Part Two), and Dinner in Tokyo

Though we made plans to try to get up earlier the following day, we woke around the same time and rushed out of the house to catch our same train. The train ride was quite similar to the previous day’s ride, the only exception being that we stayed on a bit longer to reach Odawara. We hoped to get a good shot of Fuji-san on the way to Odawara, as it was a bit closer. Unfortunately, the train route passes through a number of mountain ranges reaching from inland to the sea. Each time we passed through a tunnel in hopes of finding a better view on the other side, we came out in another valley, headed toward another range. There was still hope, though. Once in Odawara, we would be able to go to the attic in the castle, which was on a hill, and probably have a great view.

We got off the train in Odawara and began our walk across town to the castle. Sitting on an elevated stone foundation, the castle really was quite majestic. We passed a number of disappointed-looking Japanese tourists on our walk up the hill. Soon we found out why. The castle was closed for New Year’s Eve. We could still wander the courtyard and take pictures of the castle, but we couldn’t take the indoor tour. We milled around the courtyard and looked at some of the animals on display. I guess it goes without saying that if you have a castle on a hill, you need an elephant, a few different kinds of monkeys, and a few peacocks. All part of owning a castle, you know? The elephant was nearly sixty years old and probably stopped being bothered by tourists taking pictures decades ago. The monkeys basically ignored the picture-taking, too. One of the bigger monkeys was more interested in messing with the little guys in the next cage. The cage for the smaller monkeys had a makeshift fiberglass cover that seemed to be there to keep the bigger guys from reaching in their cage. That barely stopped the rowdier of the two big monkeys, whose long arms could reach out of his own cage so he could try to pull the fiberglass off. I’m not entirely sure, but I think maybe the little guys were taunting him with noises. It was amusing to watch until I began to think about how sad it must be to live in a cage.

We took some pictures of each other in the vicinity of the castle and looked from the top of the steps to the entrance to see if we could get a glimpse of Fuji-san. No dice. We decided to hop back on the train and head a few stops farther south to see if we could see. We got off the train at the stop and wandered around the station, but still nothing. Disappointed, we got back on the train to head over to Kamakura. We had to go north to the fifth or sixth stop, change trains, and then head back south, but this time more to the east than Odawara. Once we changed trains and were headed to Kamakura, we found that we would be luckier than we’d expected. This route provided us with a clearer view of Fuji-san, so we took pictures frantically from the train, trying to snap as many decent shots as we could without telephone-line/train-station/homes-and-buildings interference.

When we finally reached Kamakura, we did a fast-forward replay of the previous day’s tour and snapped as many pictures as possible. We were on a tighter timeline, reaching the city later in the day and having plans to meet people in Tokyo later. The difference in the sun’s position in the sky made for worse lighting in the pictures at the big Buddha, but we still got a few good ones. We skipped the shrine that had been our first stop the day before and stuck to the Buddha and the temple. At the temple by the ocean, we found a cat who seemed to have wandered onto the property from nowhere in particular to soak up the attention, so we accommodated. Soon we were on the train and headed back to Tokyo, but the connecting trains didn’t come as early as we’d hoped, so we were late.

The central train station in Tokyo is, as any rational person would expect, huge. The Friday evening crowds complicated our search for our hosts, but Yuuka got her on the phone and we wandered around until we found a woman talking on the phone. She greeted us warmly and we made our way to her car. We zipped across town on streets that would’ve been busier in the US, given the city’s population, and arrived at our destination: a Chinese restaurant. Yes, that’s right; we ate Chinese food in Japan twice in as many days. But it was again quite tasty, nothing like most American Chinese food. There were about a dozen of us eating together, and the waitresses just kept bringing out huge dishes that we all shared. Surprisingly enough, it was a smoking restaurant. Smoke seems so much more oppressive after growing very accustomed to living smoke-free. The only times I’m exposed to smoke anymore is outdoors, and I have the opportunity to stand at a comfortable distance. Sitting in close proximity to smokers in a restaurant with no moving air while I’m eating is much less pleasant than I remember it being back when I was a smoker. And we used to smoke like we really meant it! But while I was surprised by the smoke, it didn’t bother me a great deal. More than anything else, I suppose, I worried that it would upset Yuuka’s asthma. She seemed to remain in good spirits and we enjoyed nice translation conversation over dinner. In a pleasant turn of events, one of the people who met us in Tokyo was a white, English-speaking expatriate from Guam, which is, as I told him, “kind of like America.” He told me about feeling like a second-class citizen growing up in Guam (different color passport and no representation in Congress) and about how nice it is living in Japan. He met and married a Japanese woman some seven years prior to my visit.

After dinner, we went to a meeting attended by more people than the room could hold. I listened with Yuuka as an interpreter and even spoke up to share. She interpreted for me, and by all accounts did a good job with on-the-spot interpretation to such a large group. Talking a sentence or two at a time was somewhat disjointed, but I think the point got across: I was happy to be there.

When the meeting was over, we returned to the train station and headed back to Yuuka’s place. We were worn out from another long day on the trains. When I hooked up the camera to download the day’s photos, I took extra special care not to erase them until I was absolutely sure that they were on the computer. I didn’t use the file-download utility on Picasa; I opened folders manually and copied from one to another. I went through the day’s pictures, deleted some and cropped others, and then prepared the slideshow for the family. The number of pictures remaining: 187—the same number that had vanished the day before. Strange.

Day Eight – Making Mochi and an Anniversary Dinner

We planned to wake up earlier the next morning, but it didn’t work out as planned. We were supposed to join the Uncle and Grandma at the farm to make mochi from scratch. I’d only eaten mochi once or twice before coming to Japan, usually in the form most popular among Americans—mochi balls filled with ice cream. I’d eaten more mochi in Japan than I had in my entire life beforehand, and we ate it with sweet red beans or a nutty/sugary powder that’s sweet but not too sweet (like the red beans). Mochi is actually rice that has been compacted into a doughy form. That’s it. Rice. But I think it might come from a stickier, slightly sweeter rice than usual. I’m not entirely sure. But they take the rice and cook it over a fire, and instead of being combined with water like regular rice, it’s only combined with steam. But I didn’t know any of that when I got up. I came downstairs and ate some breakfast with everyone. Okaa-san told me that it is okay to eat eggs that aren’t completely cooked. I felt like an idiot, because I’d mentioned something to Yuuka the day before about by scrambled eggs being very, very runny. And it wasn’t like they were raw or anything. It was more like a steak cooked medium or medium rare—done on the outside with a little bit of undone on the inside. Yuuka had obviously mentioned something to her mom about my comment. Now this woman who had been waiting on me hand and foot since the moment I arrived got the impression that I’d been bitching about her cooking behind her back. Great move.

After breakfast, Hiroka came through with some postcards, which apparently she had received or was preparing to send out. She and Yuuka started talking, but it quickly degenerated into an argument, the two of them yelling at each other, speaking the fastest Japanese I’d ever heard. Everyone else went about their business, watching with stunned silence and interest. Finally they stopped arguing and Hiroka went upstairs. At least once during the exchange I expected I might see one of them bitch-slap the other. But it didn’t happen. After everyone had mellowed out a bit, Yuuka, Satoki, Oto-san and I went to the farm to make some mochi. Yuuka apologized to me on the way for the fight. I think she worried that she’d spoiled the day for me or made me feel completely awkward or something. In truth, I was impressed that they had gotten so far into the vacation without some hint of typical family tensions. The fight only confirmed that her family is made up of humans, albeit outrageously healthy and well-adjusted humans. Yuuka and I discussed the difficulties that face people in their early twenties and how that sometimes makes it tough to deal with them. And the situation is complicated by the fact that Yuuka wants to come home and solve the family’s problems in a brief holiday visit. Sure, they don’t have lots of problems, and the ones they have are relatively minor, but still.

It wasn’t much later that I began to experience my own bit of tension from the visit. It must’ve been the day for that sort of thing. I got to meet Obaa-chan (grandmother) and the great aunts, but our focus was the mochi. When we first arrived, Oto-san jumped in and made the first batch. The job of the mochi-maker is to take a big wooden mallet and grind and pound the rice until it becomes one big mass of sticky dough. The process looked fairly simple from watching Oto-san. Satoki followed and seemed to do a fairly decent job, himself. Oto-san gave him a hard time, saying that the sound made by the mallet when he brought it down on the rice wasn’t quite right. It should’ve been a “thump” sound, but instead it was more like a “squish.” The critique seemed like typical “Dad telling artistic son to be more masculine” stuff. I’m not a tough guy by any stretch of the concept, but I’m also a little stronger than people usually expect me to be, I think. I began to feel a little bad for Satoki, thinking that I was going to show him up with my mochi skills.

Then my turn came. The beginning part of the process is the complicated part. It’s a lot of pushing and grinding of the rice, not pounding. I gave it a good ol’ college try, and quickly found myself growing tired. I felt like I was doing okay, though. Oto-san and Yuuka exchanged a few words, and soon she told me to let him take over for a second, to finish “the hard part.” I passed him the mallet and felt like saying “screw it, do it yourself. I didn’t want to make and damned mochi anyway!” Here was the weak, overweight American who couldn’t make mochi to save his life. How cute, he’s making an effort. But he’s gonna screw this stuff up, so I better step in and rescue him. I suppressed my irritation and watched as he mashed the rice. Then the time came to swat the rice with the mallet and he passed it back. After a few swings, Oto-san gave me a couple of pointers on how to hold the mallet. I grew more frustrated and reluctantly took his pointers, which didn’t seem to help a great deal. I swung hard and pounded the rice as best I could. Finally I finished. My hands and forearms were weak and sore from gripping the mallet. We took a break to eat some lunch. Mochi. Some with a miso-like soup, some with red beans, and some with powder. It was all great. But my hands had a hard time working the chopsticks because they were so tired from gripping the mallet. I did my best to keep the evidence of my weakened, shaky fingers hidden.

Not long after lunch, we got back into making some more mochi. Yuuka’s uncle did a batch. They told me how many batches he’d done himself in the last couple of days, and I was astounded. I don’t even recall now, but I think it was at least a dozen. Making mochi was a family tradition for this time of year, and they made mochi for each household in the family, as well as a bunch to give away to people outside the family. They make less each year, as Obaa-chan grows older and the family becomes more extended. She’s in her mid-seventies and is still the matriarch. She runs the farm and the family with more energy than a lot of thirty year-olds have. She’s the only one in Yuuka’s lifetime who has done the tough job of manipulating the mochi in the barrel between swats of the mallet—another very demanding role in the process of making mochi. I watched carefully as Yuuka’s uncle manipulated the mochi, taking note of the way he stood and the way he held his arms. Seeing him the first time, I never would’ve guessed that he was strong. He seemed like a soft, slightly pudgy sort of guy. He is short and has a bit of a beer gut. But to watch him go to work on that mochi, I realized that I was horribly wrong. He was incredibly powerful, working the rice like soft play-doh, making it look easy.

The very last batch was a little more than a half batch, and they told me that I could have another shot at it if I wanted. Of course I did! My pride was on the line. I watched Oto-san do a batch too, and again watched carefully. He didn’t do it with quite the ease that the Uncle did, but he’s also thin as a rail. He still did it much more easily than I did. When my turn came again, I put all of my effort into doing it right. I used my body, not my arms. I put my weight into it. They were things that I had to do in order to understand what it really meant. The words themselves didn’t have a lot of meaning to me. They’d told me before the first time, but it was only after I’d paid very close attention to the old pros—guys who’d done this every year for decades—that I really began to grasp the concept. They raved at the sharp improvement in my skill, but I felt like maybe it was a lot easier not doing a full batch. Maybe they were just trying to soothe my bruised ego. Either way, I did a better job. The mochi turned out nice. Oto-san told me that when I swing the mallet, it makes a “thump,” not a “squish.” It’s a good sound, the “thump.” They let me have that last batch of mochi to bring home with me. I didn’t think I’d know how to prepare it, and I wondered whether or not they sell the red beans or special powder in the Asian markets in LA. I’m sure they do, but when I flew back to LA, I left the mochi in the freezer in Japan. When we wrapped up our mochi-making experience, we returned home to chill out for a little bit.

Not long after we returned to the house, we headed out to the steak house to celebrate the parents’ November anniversary, their thirtieth. The kids, including me, all split the bill. Yuuka explained to them that I wanted to take part in making the dinner happen to show my gratitude for their generous hospitality. I didn’t really bring a lot of money, considering how long I was staying and how much stuff we were doing. Sure, we saved quite a bit of money by eating most of our meals “in,” but still the trip was going exceedingly well for me. If I’d been spending the typical allotted per diem for the trip, I would’ve been out of money days ago. Instead, I ordered a bigger steak than anyone else at the table and didn’t feel bad because I knew I was paying my way, for at least one night. The steak only amounted to about $40-$50, and that included all the fixings, as well. Even a glass of tomato juice, which they served on the rocks. Tasty.

Apparently this particular restaurant was renowned nationwide for their sauce, a thick concoction of onions, garlic, and who-knows-what-else. Everyone, including the waitress, warned me to hold up a napkin between myself and the skillet when they set our meals on the table. The waitresses then scooped hefty spoonfuls of the sauce onto the sizzling skillets, where it boiled and spit and produced smoke that hovered around us. It smelled great. We dove in. The steak was tender and delicious. The distinctive flavor of the sauce, though, made it difficult to judge the quality of the steak against the best steak I ever ate stateside. I paid $60 in LA in April for a steak and mashed potatoes and nothing else, but the steak was a mood-altering experience. The flavor was unlike any other steak I’ve ever eaten. I didn’t regret spending that much on it. This Japanese steak was different. The steak was high quality, but I wasn’t just eating the steak, I was eating the sauce (which was also very good). All in all, I’d have to say it was an equally great experience.

As usual, we ended the night with a slideshow around the dining room table. It was another nice day. I had an opportunity to use the computer before bed to get online and send an email, which was a very rare event during my stay. Her parents use the internet rarely enough that they are content to use a charge-by-the-minute dial-up connection. I jumped on quickly and sent a note to the payroll person at work to let her know that I’d forgotten to turn in a time card but still wanted to get paid. By the time I finished on the computer, everyone had gone to bed except for me and Okaa-san. Before going to bed myself, I asked her if I could talk to her and her husband the next morning, alone. “Yes,” she said. “Is everything okay? Is there something you need?” I’m okay…I just want to talk to you and your husband. Privately. Yuuka and I had planned to get up at 7:45 to prepare for our trip into Tokyo, so Okaa-san agreed to wake me up at 7:30.