Japan Trip

On May third Naoko and Zen and I took a trip to Japan together. It was an exciting moment – the last time we had been on a plane together was probably in early 2003 when we had been to New Zealand and a bunch of other places together. Wow. We left early for the airport, had a lovely breakfast there, and climbed on board. Zen was really excited. We took off, then he watched King Kong for the entire trip – he napped, but he proably saw it twice. I read the Economist, Goldman Sachs cover (this is all before Hank Paulson was appointed to be Secretary of the Treasury). Got there, took a bus to Kobe, then a train into Himeji. Got out of the train, then realized that we had left orchids that we had bought for Naoko’s mum on the train. D’oh!!! Were 30 minutes late meeting Naoko’s dad, as we tried to sort out the problem – the train had gone out of service, and was heading for the trainyards to get cleaned and spend the night. Went home, had a great dinner, hung out, went to sleep. The next moring, we went off to pick up the flowers from some rural train station where the trainyards are. Got the flowers, headed back, stopped at one spot where we could see bullet trains whizz by. Got home, surprised Naoko’s mum with the flowers (she was getting a bit suspicious about our trips to the countryside on our first day back). May 5th we went to visit Naoko’s grandmother, and did a lot of cleaning in our boxes – looking for the stuff we wanted to take back to Singapore, throwing out (some of the) stuff that we would probably never use again. May 6th we went off to see friends in the Osaka suburb where we used to live. Went first to Kobe, transferred on the train to get to Nishinomiya. Zen was so happy to be on the JR trains again. Went to Nishinomiya, walked around looking for the Wexford Tavern where I used to drink beer. It had closed, I thought “well, that’s just one of those things”; then walking down the street, I looked at a building – its whole second level was the site of the NEW Wexford Tavern. Seamus had struck it rich! Congratulations, dude!! Waited 45 minutes to meet one friend, ate lunch, drank Chu-hi, then went off to see other friends. Jason and Yukiko with their firstborn, 3 months old, and Matt and Mami with their second born, 2 months old. Amazing. Yoshihiro, their first kid, is older than Zen, but also a Spider-man fan. The kids played and had fun. Jason showed them some Simpsons episodes, it was a fun time. I drank a bunch of Chu-hi, then the pizza came. Fantastic afternoon. May 8th I took Zen to Tegaraiyama, which is a fantastic city park on a hill, with a great cascade staircase, castle architecture, turrets, and a great lookout over the city, not to mention great gardens and greenery. Naoko’s high school friend Wassan works there, so after we had taken our fill of watching bullet trains whizz through Himeji, we went to see Wassan. Thirty years ago, there had once been a monorail that connected Himeji station to Tegaraiyama. The city had bought high quality titanium monorails from Lockheed, which had been sitting for thirty years in storage after seven years of use. Wassan took us into the storage to see the monorails. It was spooky and weird, but really very cool. May 9th we went off on our first of seven days of JR pass rail ridery. For foreign visitors of Japan, and their Japanese immediate family (i.e. Naoko) 7-day train passes can be bought for only US$300. Since transportation is the single most expensive thing, it was a deal we couldn’t resist. So we started riding, and Zen had his first bullet train trip – finally! We rode only for one hour, and we were in Hiroshima. First we went to Miyajima, which is an island very near Hiroshima to the south. Took JR to get there, then the JR ferry over to the island itself, and wandered around admiring the boulevards, the deer, the old buildings, the greenery, the Japanese gates. The high point of Miyajima is the towering red temple gate built out in the bay. At high tide it is flooded at the posts, but at low tide you can walk out. We were there at low tide, so after visiting the temple and checking out the lookout, we also wandered out to see the big thick posts, see the cocklers, and then move back towards the ferry. Ate some lunch, then got into town on a small local line. We had been travelling a lot, and Zen was tired, but he kept on going, and soon we were at the A-bomb dome peace memorial park. The first thing we saw was the ruin of the A-bomb dome, not far from the epicentre of the bomb, and the T-shaped bridge that apparently was the target for the bombardier aboard the Elona Gay. Hiroshima is surprisingly green today, despite having been singed by plutonium. We wandered around the park, saw the thousands of paper cranes that students fold for peace, then went into the museum itself. Lots of tourbuses full of schoolkids – Hiroshima is where nearly every school kid in Japan must come it seems. Zen was cranky, so we sped through, but it was impressive, with a model of 1945 Hiroshima before and after the fateful day. A chart describing nuclear incidents – nuclear near-confrontations as well as a long list of nuclear accidents – were as chilling as the nuclear shadows burned into rocks or atomized lunch boxes and schoolgirl uniforms. Went off in search of an okonomiyaki shop – that took some time, but eventually we did get our grub and beer, then off to the train station and our ride home. Just before we got to Himeji station (Naoko and Zen were sleepin) the skies opened up and it poured rain. May 10th we headed off to Yokohama. We got on the train and arrived 3.5 hours later in Shin Yokohama without incedent. Great scenery, nice seaside spots. Didn’t see Fuji. Nicole picked us up in the van from Negishi station, a five-minute car ride from their home. The first thing Zen said to Evan was “here is a present for you,” and gave him a toy bus, and Evan talked about some new light that he had gotten from the 100 yen shop. He eventually played with the toy bus when they got home, and a few of the wheels went missing. Took the kids to a local park, and Zen and Evan and Lauren walked hand in hand. It was really beautiful. We played on the swings and the see-saw, then went back and ate dinner, and drank some Chu-hi, then the kids went to sleep. Ralph came home later, we hung out, and went to sleep. May 11th, our first full day in Yokohama, we went to Sankeien in the morning before we were supposed to meet a friend at noon. On the way, dropped in on a friend of Ralph and Nicole and the kids, Yoshie, who works as a volunteer guide at Sankeien. She showed us around the garden. It started to rain lightly, we could only see about half of it. Some plum trees growing there have been featured in a famous painging, and I wanted to show Naoko the trees, but there was not enough time, so we walked on home. The rain got harder, and we were feeling pretty tired, but off we went to meet our friend. Junko, we had last seen as backpackers in Turkey ten years ago. In the meantime we had had a baby and moved to Singapore, and she had learned how to be a chef in China. Together we went to Kamakura. Got there, found a nice place to eat ramen, then off we went on the Enoshima railway line (E-no-den), which Zen is already quite familiar with from one of his books, and is apparently famous all over Japan. Rode it along along, got out at a station and went back. The station platforms are very narrow, the train itself feels like it is sneaking through back alleys in the way that the back of buildings comes so close to the passing train walls. Also, some people have to cross the train tracks to get to the stairs leading up to their houses. Some stations didn’t have staff, the driver had to get out and run to the ticket wicket and collect tickets. The train went along the coast at one point. Very nice – coast line with stormy seas and a few surfers. This area has been made famous by the songs of the Southern All-Stars, kind of like Japan’s ’80s answer to the Beach Boys. Went to see the Kamakura big Buddha, a large metallic outdoor Buddha. Although it is smaller than the Nara Buddha, the fact that it is exposed is quite impressive, with the emerald hills providing a backdrop to his beatific stare. Just like in Hiroshima, many visiting schoolchildren were there, and in the light rain saw lots of group photos being taken in front of the big Buddha. Took the train back to town, then went to Yokohama Chinatown, walked around, bought pork buns, went back home by (very crowded) bus, then back to eat with the Hofliches. Zen and the kids ran around naked and had a good old time, but Zen didn’t feel like sleeping over in Evan’s room. He never did any other night either, sleeping in our room always. May 12th was our confused trip to Tokyo. At least the weather was nice, but we didn’t really know where we were going. First we went to Tokyo station, and walked around part of the foreground to the Imperial Palace. The weather was superb, the best yet. We saw a blimp doing advertising for BMW. Went off to Asakusa, a maze of touristic spots, and finally arrived at the Reimon, where all tourists to Tokyo must come. Lots of tourist shops, and Zen attracted to every one that sold toys, in front of a temple, then off we went back to Tokyo to meet with our friend Negishi-san at the Tokyo Tower. The tower was very cool, and we went up up up, saw all of the cool Tokyo buildings, plus the amazing glass floor that had a great view of the city. Negishi-san bought a nice model of the Tokyo Tower for Zen, which was so nice of her. She told us about a doule decker bus tour that we could take from Tokyo station – oh, we’d just been there earlier the same day – so we took a cab there through the traffic. Got there late, but the bus was late so that was fine and we got on with confusion and only a few minutes to spare. The tour was nice – drove us around the Imperial Palace and through the government area, as well as along the Ginza and all the brand houses. I spotted about four branches of the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, a recently merged mega-bank which is now the largest in the world (although it mostly just has Japanese clients). Went back from Tokyo To Shin-Yokohama by bullet train (only one station), then by regular train to Negishi. May have been less crowded – normally, the rush hour trains out of Tokyo in the evening are murder! May 13th, Nicole’s birthday. Selfishly, we left them to do all of their birthday prparations, which included preparing for a barbecue, and embarked on a trip to Sendai. There was nothing in particular that attracted us to Sendai, but none of us had ever been to the part of Japan just north of Tokyo, and the idea of taking a long-distance bullet train to the north was appealing. Unfortunately, just getting to Tokyo station so that we could start on the trip took quite some doing. Got on a super fast train to Sendai, which sped us along past gorgeous rice paddies at blinding speed, fantastic. Got to Sendai, hung out for 45 minutes, saw what might have been snow (!!!) falling from the sky – it was cold – then took another train heading back to Tokyo. The scenery was fantastic – rice paddies, hills, tunnels, villages, old houses, shrines in the middle of nowhere, crops of forest stopping and starting, and small towns, villages, cities, hills, mountains. Got to Tokyo, took a train towards Shin Yokohama. But unfortunately, the train didn’t stop there!! It just kept shooting past, so off we went to Atsumi, or wherever, and we got out, headed back to Shin Yokohama, arriving there over an hour after we would have. Got to the party, just about 5 minutes before everybody left. Heard a bunch of names, then said goodbyes. Oh well. May 14 was the aftermath. We got ready in the morning, did webcam, then climbed into the minivan, got strapped in and took off. Evan sits in the back seat in his chair, and he wanted Zen to sit next to him, but Zen wasn’t keen at all. Weren’t sure if we should try to get Evan’s mind off of it or try to convince Zen to go along with it. Finally, through negotiation we got Zen to agree to sit in the back seat if Naoko was next to him. Fine, off we went. I was in the front seat, so I got reminded of the madness of being a foreigner trying to navigate the Japanese road system, but Ralph did a great job and got us to Kamakura. We drove past the main temple, down the street, got gas, passed a jazz festival on the beach, kept going in the direction of Enoshima. Unfortunately, the road got real crowded and things slowed down to a crawl. Decided to head back to the festival, where the jazz had become hula dancing. The skinny, long-haired Japanese maidens looked great, and I saw male hula dancing for the first time ever then too. We had a lovely picnic lunch there, and drank hot tea. Naoko was waving her cheese bagel around in the air, then – SWOOSH – one of the circling hawks swooshed down and snatched it from her hand! Wow!! She could have been hurt, but luckily she was only pissed off that the yummy bagel was gone forever. Other bagels were dropped accidentally in the sand, or knocked accidentally out of people’s hands, so it wasn’t all the fault of the hawks. Walked along the shore a lot, the kids played witht little Japanese kids, no communication needed, just sand castles. Passed by the professional sand castle makers with their buckets and shovels, then Zen begged me to use a stick to draw a bullet train in the sand, which I did. We went back to the parking lot, but discovered somebody had set up a mini-train track in the gravel parking lot. Cool! The kids had fun riding that (for free), then we went over to an antique bus from 1955 that was parked there. Apparently it belongs to some museum or something in Tokyo. Sat inside that, they started up the engine, then shut it down. Went across the street to a lovely old Enoshima Dentetsu coach sitting there doing nothing, then went to the car and drove off to Enoshima itself. Took a while, and we drove in silence as the kids slept. Got there around 4:30 or so, parked, walked up along the lovely hill, past shops and inns and hot springs and up to the shrine, another shrine, and a gorgeous lookout on some lovely Japanese coast scenery. This is one of those spots from which Mount Fuji should be visible, but this time it wasn’t – the misty May weather meant that it was probably out of view for most of the day every day. Went down the hill, found the car, and drove back, had dinner, chilled out. May 15 was our last day in Yokohama. We woke up, chilled out, got ready, said goodbye to Ralph, then Evan as he went off to school, Zen and Lauren watered the flowers, then we drove off to Negishi station. Zen gave Lauren a lovely kiss, and off we went. Rode rode rode to Osaka, where we got out in Shin Osaka, met Aki, and went to Starbucks for coffee and tea. I wandered around, found a funny spot where there was a Sumitomo Mitsui bank in between two outlets of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ (one had been BoTM, the other had been UFJ, but with the merger they stayed and took on the same branding – yuck!). Went back to Himeji, ate, slept. May 16, our first day not going anywhere for quite some time indeed. Tidied up, hung around, didn’t do much. Rainy day. In the evening, Naoko’s uncle Hayao came over and we ate lovely food and drank sake and other stuff. There was a nice cake for Zen, and we sang “happy birthday to you” to Haruka. I guess it was also a sayonara party for me too. May 17 I left for Singapore, carrying a big suitcase, a case with Oma’s old radio in it (finally can try it out in Singapore, where the voltage is the same as in the former East Germany), and my backpack. Drove in to town, had a tearful goodbye, took the airport shuttle bus, the bus drove very nearby where Naoko’s parents live (full circle for the day), then onto the highway. Read, sleep, drink beer, and a few hours later I was at the airport, checked in, got on the flight, watched three movies – Match Point, Bend It Like Beckham, part of Underworld:Evolution, and half of Rumor Has It. First two were good, the others mere curiosities and kind of crappy actually. Took a cab home, slept. May 18, first day back, not so great but OK. Kind of sleepy.

Most of the next two weeks was kind of hazy, but there were two highlights: I wrote 15,000 words in my novel on the first weekend, and I watched season 4 of the TV series Twenty-four. It was OK. Also, I went to see some live music in Wala Wala pub in Holland Village one Saturday night with my friend Brad. I wasn’t expecting much from the type of cover band that Singapore tends to nurture, but this one was fantatstic – they played very unlikely songs – Doobie Brothers “Listen To The Music,” and a bunch of funky songs, including a cheeky version of “I Will Survive” which was about a girl who gets a guy home and is horrified to find out that his penis is very small (“use toothpick dip dip in chili sauce”). They also played Everescence, Guns ‘n’ Roses “Sweet Child of Mine, and Cranberries “Zombie,” but then did wacky stuff like the whole “Another Brick In The Wall” song with intro, note for note I suppose, but with a sassy female lead singer. Nice, good. They also did a great version of Led Zeppelin “Whole Lotta Love.” I requested Black Sabbath, and then they actually played “War Pigs”! I was surprised to think that anybody in Singapore even cared two bits about that band. I requested AC/DC, and they played “You Shook Me All Night Long” (of course). Great, fun night.

Zen in the airport May 3rd, 2006, on our way to Japan.

Naoko and Zen in the airport going to Japan, May 3, 2006

Zen just before he got into his first bullet train, travelling from Himeji to Hiroshima on May 9th, 2006.

Eating a yummy eel rice lunch in Hiroshima/Miyakojima

the famous gate at Miyakojima shrine. at high tide it gets flooded, but at low tide you can walk out

Somebody came here to get married.

Zen’s checking out the beach deer

Zen and Evan are good buddies.

Zen and Lauren watering the flowers

Family pic at Enoshima temple.

Evan Zen and Lauren in front of an antique bus

Zen Evan Lauren inside an antique bus

Lauren Zen Evan watching TV

Spider-kids flashing gang signs

Holding two heavy boys in my arms

Zen and Lauren are good buddies.

Zen and Lauren chilling out in Sankeien garden in Yokohama.

The Three Bums.

Zen reaching for the sky on Tegaraiyama in Himeji

Great Himeji skyline

Zen and Yoshihiro as Spider-kids, flashing gang signs.

Zen’s so excited, he has to show off his tummy…

Reunion of friends, with Jason, Yukiko, Jotaro, Naoko, Zen, Yoshihiro

Zen and his grandpa

Yummy lunch in Himeji

Zen Haruka Nanaka in Himeji

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