Saturday, February 28, 2009

Yee Haw.

The South and West of the U.S. come to Tokyo.

On Friday night, we joined some other international school teachers in playing for an art show opening in a downtown club. The five of us had a blast playing a mix of bluegrass, folk, and even an interactive version of When the Saints Go Marching In (cooler than it sounds). Who knew that a couple songs played with guitar, banjo, and a wooden box drum could bring the house down?

This link isn't working very well (and so far our performance isn't on there), but here's the telecast of the various bands that played that night: Pink Cow Performance. First, you'll see Brad playing drums with a larger teacher band and another smaller group. Then, a professional Celtic duo stopped by after returning from a tour in Memphis. Our group, called the Tuques (Canadian word for a stocking cap, which we all wore) followed them.

We've already had a night of bull-riding in a cowboy-themed restaurant, so this new bluegrass kick wasn't as much of a surprise, but there's no way we could have expected any of these things when moving to Japan.

And finally, we'll be flying to Oklahoma City and Texas in about six hours with our school's top choir, the Varsity Ensemble. They'll be singing at the ASCD conference in OK, and then we drive to Baylor University in Waco for some workshops and performances. It should be a great week back home in the U.S. of A. Maybe we'll bring back a couple of cowboy hats for our next performance.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Brad Needs a Helmet

Brad needs a helmet.

Everyone who knows me (Brad) knows that I am clumsy and accident-proned. I have broken many limbs (including one that landed me in a body cast when I was about two years old), gotten plenty of stitches, and most recently got carried off a mountain in Colorado by a dozen firefighters when I dislocated my kneecap while hiking. For my rained-out bachelor party, my brothers were planning on taking me to an amusement park, fully decked out in pink elbow, wrist and knee guards, and a bright pink helmet. My Argentine host family called me "Torpe" instead of my name. Torpe is roughly translated, "Clutz extraordinaire."

Now, combine my historic clumsiness with one unfortunate aspect of Japanese building construction and you have a recipe for some serious pain for Bradley-san. Since moving to Japan, I have literally hit my head at least 50 times.

Entering/exiting the train.

Stumbling to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Walking into our house.

Getting out of the shower.

Making copies at school.

Entering Rachael's classroom.

It seems that wherever I go, my head only clears doorways by mere inches, or in many other cases, it doesn't clear and I end up with an egg on my head. Who knows how much damage I've caused to my poor skull since moving here, but it has certainly been frustrating at times.

Worst of all is that you think I'd learn from my mistakes. The main reason I haven't, or actually can't, is that I'm working on my posture thanks to some strong advice from our chiropractor in Minnesota. Either I sacrifice my posture by crouching over when I walk around our apartment or pass through a doorway, or I stand up straight and crack my head on a doorway or low ceiling.

This is one Catch-22 I was not expecting this year.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Kamakura, Japan- Day 2

We woke up to the sound of rain, cozy on the tatami floor of our room at the Hotel New Kamakura. Normally we love the sound of rain, but we had a big day planned of temple viewing, hiking, and taking photos with my new camera, so we were both a bit disappointed that it might all be rained out. Fortunately, after a nice breakfast in the town square and a short shopping trip to buy two new umbrellas, the rain slowed and eventually stopped.

Rather than start our tour near the hotel and move out, we took the train one stop to the north, and spent the rest of our day working our way back to town. We started at the Engakuji temple, followed by Tokeiji and Jochiji. At each temple, we felt immediately transported to another world. Pink and white plum blossoms were blooming, giving a fresh vibe to the ancient and almost alien buildings. To say that we were in awe would totally understate the sense of smallness we felt standing in the midst of these temples. The buildings have stood for nearly a thousand years, and many thousands of devoted worshipers have surely visited them.

After touring a few temples (full slideshow below), we found our way to the “Daibutsu hiking course,” a hike through the hills and forests of Kamakura to the steps of the Daibutsu. Though muddy from the rain earlier in the day, the hike was fantastic, and we veered off at the end to a very special temple since we had already visited the Daibutsu.

This temple, called Hasedera, is particularly special because it is a pilgrimage spot for many mothers and fathers who have lost children due to complications at birth, illness, or abortion. Each visitor to the temple can dedicate a small figurine to a lost child. Before Rachael and Rebecca were born, her parents lost two daughters that were born prematurely. This in mind, Rachael wrote the names of Marie and Christine on two figurines and placed them among the hundreds of others in the cave.

To finish off our grand tour of Kamakura, we walked a few more blocks past the Hasedera temple to the coast right in time for the sunset. The waves were frequent and high; so many people were out surfing in the cold water and doing some sort of activity involving surfboards and paddles. From the beach, we walked to a nearby train station and rode a few stops back to the center of town. We ended the night with a new restaurant experience. At “Horetaro,” we cooked our own Japanese pancakes and noodles on a grill at our table. Rather than using plain batter, guests order ingredients like beef, wasabi, squid, shrimp, etc., and they are mixed in with the batter. Once they are done cooking, the pancakes are topped with all sorts of sauces and spices. We were stuffed to the brim when we left, so a visit to the local ice cream shop for some orange sherbet was definitely needed to settle our stomachs.

All in all, the sounds of Kamakura were peaceful and lively, the sights were awe-inspiring, and the food was some of the best we’ve had yet in Japan. We would go back in a heartbeat, especially now that we know such a treasure is just a short train ride from our home in Tokyo.


Kamakura, Japan

Kamakura, Japan- Day 1

This past week, we had two days off from school and decided to use them to get out of Tokyo and see another part of Japan. We looked at possibilities for day trips: Kyoto, better in cherry blossom season; Nikko, lots of history and good location; Hakone, great views of Mt. Fuji; and Kamakura, over 60 temples and a very large Buddha.

Needless to say, we went for the giant Buddha.

On Thursday morning we packed a couple outfits, grabbed the camera bag and left for the station. The commute, navigated by Rachael and her iPhone, was surprisingly easy, and only required one transfer between our home station and our final destination. We arrived in Kamakura around 11am, and went straight to the hotel. Since it was in plain view from the train platform, we found it easily, paid for the room (up front and in cash), and left our bags to go exploring.

The only problem was that we didn’t really have a solid plan for what we wanted to explore yet. So, we walked to the main square in town and ran into a very nice gentleman who handed us a tourist map. We’re still puzzled as to how he knew we were tourists. Could it have been the shiny new camera around Brad’s neck, the Obama '08 hat, or the fact that we were wandering aimlessly with puzzled stares on our faces? He highlighted some common stops on the map and we recognized a few of the interesting sights we had read about before making the trip. Then, we stopped in a cafĂ© for a couple of lattes and a tasty version of a pig in a blanket (the blanket being a delicious French pastry).

Since the weather was nice and we knew we wanted to see the giant Buddha, called the Daibutsu (die-boot-suh), we set off in the general direction of the temple that houses the huge statue. The next 30 minutes were a mixture of looking for signs, rechecking the map, asking a couple locals for directions, and taking random photos of the quaint little town in which we found ourselves.

As we walked around, the lively but quiet, small town feel was very familiar to both of us. We couldn’t pin it down at first, but both knew it didn’t remind us of a location in the States. Later, we decided it felt very similar to the beach town in Argentina where we got engaged, Mar del Plata. People were more laid back, and we continually laughed as schoolchildren and adults alike laughed loudly with their friends. In Tokyo, kids talk to one another, but there was just something much more relaxed and free about the way people interacted here. It’s hard to describe in words, but we both sensed a real difference between Kamakura public life and the Tokyo culture we’re now accustomed to.

Back to our journey.

After a half hour walk, we arrived at the Daibutsu. Being Thursday it was relatively empty, so we were able to truly take in the majestic yet austere beauty of this massive bronze sculpture. The entire temple area was meticulously clean, symmetrical and peaceful. We walked around, took several photos, and even were able to go inside the hollow sculpture through an underground staircase. We hope you can get a sense of the temple and structure through the photos in the slideshow below.

The Daibutsu has a long and interesting history, but here’s the Cliff’s-notes version:
The "Great Buddha" of Kamakura is a bronze statue of Amida Buddha, and is now located outside on the grounds of the Kotokuin Temple. It is the second largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan, and is over 13 meters (43 ft) tall. It was cast in 1252 and was formerly housed inside a large temple hall before the building was washed away by a tsunami tidal wave in the end of the 15th century.

Once we had thoroughly explored the Daibutsu and surrounding grounds, we set off once again for the hotel. Navigating the walk home was much easier, and we took note of restaurants and shopping areas to revisit later on. Please read Rachael’s “food blog” about the rice balls and purple potato products that we enjoyed on the way home, but suffice it to say that purple sweet potato ice cream and purple sweet potato chips are deeeeelicious.

By the time we arrived at the hotel, we were both so exhausted that we pulled out a few layers of futon from the closet and laid down for a few minutes. We ended up sleeping for two hours and apparently needed the R & R after both having been sick and putting in a lot of extra hours at work and church lately.

Since it was late enough for dinner, we ventured over towards the town square again and found a great restaurant above the train station. The food was richly flavored and beautifully presented. Again, see Rachael’s blog about Kamakura food here: TokyoTerrace.

With full stomachs and tired legs, we retired to the hotel and spent our first night sleeping on tatami mats. In case you’re curious, it was wonderful, and we recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who ever has the opportunity. And that was just our first day…


Kamakura, Japan

Monday, February 16, 2009

Valentine's Day

On Saturday, Brad and I celebrated our 4th Valentine's Day together. The weather was ridiculously warm (60 degrees), so we spent much of the day on our bikes. Brad surprised me with a beautiful blue bike for Valentine's Day, so I was especially excited to ride around!

We started out by biking to the grocery store and picking up ingredients for our delicious Valentine's Day dinner. Then, we came home and did some chores (sadly enough, we consider this incredibly valuable and somewhat exciting). After we finished cleaning, we took our bicycles down to the Tama River to enjoy some more of the sunshine. We saw people out with their dogs, watched some baseball games and enjoyed some fresh air.

When we got home from our bike ride, the sun was just setting. We made some guacamole, poured a couple glasses of white wine, and sat on our roof top balcony to watch the sun set behind Mt. Fuji.

Once the sun went down, we began making dinner together. The night ended with some Wii competition (which I won, just for the record).

While I don't think that Valentine's Day is the most important holiday, especially since it has turned into a largely consumer driven holiday, I think it is a good reason for us to stop and remember the people we love, romantically or otherwise. With all of the terrible things going on in this world, the last thing I want to do is take those I care about for granted. Life is too short.

That's my two cents for today.

Sending love to you all,

Rachael and Brad

Check out our slide show by clicking on the photo below:

Valentine's 09

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fun with our new camera

After years of hoping, waiting, and saving, along with some helpful contributions from our family, we finally bought a nice digital SLR camera. Throughout the weekend, we used it to capture some of the sights around our neighborhood here in Tokyo.

There are photos from a massive park that lines the Tamagawa river, about a half mile from our home. People were outside on Saturday afternoon, as the temperature was at its warmest yet this year (around 60 degrees), riding bikes, playing baseball, soccer, and tennis, and spending time with friends and family. The rest of the photos are from a nearby restaurant, where we met some of our teacher friends for a few bites on Sunday night.

This weekend was a welcomed break from the cold, dreary clouds of the past weeks, and from both of us coughing day and night from our colds. I'm sure we'll have plenty more photos coming next week, after our visit to Kamakura (see below).

Canon Fun

Friday, February 13, 2009

Functional Japanese? Really?

After months of studying sessions, listening to people on the subway and at school, and working with my wonderful tutor, Shingo-san, I just booked a hotel reservation completely in Japanese.


For our upcoming two-day break, we wanted to travel to a nearby town called Kamakura, but found a total dearth of hotels available with online booking, especially the more traditional style of Japanese hotel/inn called a "ryokan." So, we did a little research and found some great reviews of a certain ryokan there, and got their phone number.

Imagine if you were to just call up a small hotel in China to make a reservation...what would you say? How on earth would you express that you needed a room for two for two nights, give them your name and phone number, and confirm the total cost, all without using English? I felt a little more prepared calling a Japanese hotel than I would in Chinese one, but I was still a little nervous.

During the call, random lessons from the past few months popped into my head, and phrases just spilled out in response to his questions. "Yes, two people." "No, next Thursday, not Tuesday." "15,000 yen? Sounds great." "A Japanese style room, not a Western-style one." "Yes, please."

The call ended with the hilarious string of goodbyes common to phone calls here. In English, I think it goes something like this: "Thank you (with honor). Excuse me. Thank you. Good bye. Bye."

I wish we had more opportunities to use this amazing new language we're learning, but we just don't have many Japanese friends and haven't done much travel in Japan, so this was a first for me. Who knows, maybe we'll come back to the States actually being able to converse and express actual thoughts and feelings in Japanese. Until then...kiotsukete and arigato gozaimasu for reading. (Take care and thanks for reading)

(We'll see that giant buddha in Kamakura next week)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Happy Birthday Maaa

It's Brad's "Maaaaa's" birthday today, so here's a little video we made for her. The Obama mask is a HUGE hit here in Japan, and we stumbled on it after reading about the fad in a Reuters article. The Sarah Palin mask is...let's just say...very authentic.

Happy Birthday Maaa!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Shabu Shabu

About a week ago, Brad and I decided it was time that we did our very own Shabu Shabu. Shabu shabu is done by basically boiling broth (made with sea weed, for example) in a big pot called a nabe. The nabe is set on top of a free standing burner that heats the broth. Once the broth is hot enough, vegetables like mushrooms, cabbage, leeks, etc, are added to the broth. You can also drop in pieces of tofu, dumplings and various meats and fish. The broth cooks the meat rather quickly, so you just "swish" the meat in the broth until it is cooked through. Shabu shabu basically means 'swish swish' in Japanese.

When you take the vegetables and meat out of the broth with your chop sticks, it is dipped in some kind of sauce. There are various kinds of sauces, but our favorite sauce to make is the one pictured below. Our friend Justyna introduced it to us as a sauce that is made at the Chinese New Year. You take an egg (yes, raw) and beat it lightly in a bowl. Add to the egg some ginger, garlic, ground sesame seeds, red pepper flakes, soy sauce...anything you want...and you get a delicious, custom made dipping sauce. Overall, this meal is incredibly flavorful, healthy and easy to make.

So, here are some photos of our shabu shabu! It was so good and comforting on a cold night.