More Japan Updates

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 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.

Made it to Japan

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.

The Time Is Coming

Citizen watch

In just five short days, I will be getting on a plane and heading to Japan again. Trying to get mentally prepared for this trip keeps bringing me back to two years ago, when I was so new to California and my first “real” job. So much has changed in that time, and yet so many things are very much the same. Trying to finish my year-end letter and get it in the mail before I take off has had me in a reflective sort of mood, bringing up lots of gratitude and sadness. Unfortunately, it leaves me at a sort of loss for words that certainly isn’t helpful to my efforts to finish the letter! Oh well. If it happens, it happens.

My real reason for writing right now is to give everyone (all three of my readers) a head’s up that I should be blogging during my trip this time, if my phone and the Japanese phone carriers work together well. I can select an option with my cell company (T-Mobile) to be able to send email from my phone internationally, so I should be able to blog from my phone. For practice, I’m typing this post out as an email on my phone right now. So, if you’d like to keep tabs on my trip and see how things are going, just check back here between 25 December and 4 January.

Okay, going back to the year-end letter now. Happy Holidays!

(The picture is of a Christmas gift from Yuka – a replacement watch for the I lost in my motorcycle accident.)