Home Stretch

Just a few more hours.  Four months seemed like an eternity when we began and feels like a flickering of an eyelash now.  It has not dimmed our enthusiasm.  We will be happy to be home among our family, our friends and our colleagues, but we will also truly miss much of what we will leave behind.

We are therefore on the lookout for a better Japanese word than シャーデンフロイデ (sha-den-fu-ro-i-de – thanks, Google Translate) to describe our feelings.

Some measured reflections are certainly in order but our overwhelming feeling about our time in Japan has been joy.  Joy at the beauty and diversity of our surroundings, wherever we have been, whether in our remarkable Aoyama neighborhood with its constant new discoveries or the many places we have visited in Tokyo and beyond; joy at how safe we have felt, whether in crowded trains, the amazing 渋谷スクランブル (Shibuya Scramble, or su-ku-ran-be-ru) or narrow streets at night; joy at the dozens of tiny pleasures, such as the daily performance of the crossing guard at the Cerulean Tower Hotel or the cheerful greetings we receive in every shop, restaurant and train station we frequent; and joy at the reaction of our visitors to this remarkable country.

We came to Japan for several reasons, but one of the most important has been to improve our Japanese language skills.  We have surely accomplished this but we have come to appreciate what a gigantic task this is and how much we still have to learn to acquire an acceptable level of competence. We intend to keep going.

School finished for Michael two weeks ago – true to form, for the last two days (since the outing to the beer museum), the teachers have kept plugging away with a pretty intense preview of next semester’s grammar, but on the last day, even they are throwing a party in which we will learn . . . Japanese dancing – the coal miners’ dance from Kyushu, known all over Japan.  And then, a sort of speed dating session with another class at which we had to introduce ourselves, over and over again, to people we didn’t know.

We have spoken more than once about feeling safe.  We won’t pretend that Japan is a society without crime, violent or petty, but walking around just about anywhere, we have never once felt that sense of threat or insecurity that characterizes living in Los Angeles, even in the comparatively safe neighborhood where we live.  And the contrast has been reinforced by the events in Orlando and Dallas, where the U.S. epidemic of gun violence has been met with continuing widespread denial and the abject failure of our government to respond adequately – we refuse even to let the Center for Disease Control study the problem.  Japan, on the other hand, is a country where gun deaths and violence have essentially been eliminated – as discussed in an a 2012 article in the Atlantic magazine.

How much still awaits us on future visits – a sumo wrestling tournament, a Kabuki performance, visits to places far and near, such as Hokkaido to the north, Kyushu to the far west, Osaka, Nara, Nagoya, Sendai, Chiba, the Isu Peninsula to name a few.  And how much we have done – so many museums, temples, parks and gardens, train rides long (to Hiroshima, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Kamakura and Yokohama) and short (we truly are masters of Tokyo transit), baseball and soccer games, shopping and eating out and long walks everywhere.  Fiona has visited over 30 museums, several more than once, and Michael has been to a great many of them; the list of other things we have done is also lengthy. It’s been a full and fulfilling four months, as I hope this blog has conveyed.

We must say a few words about the Oakwood Apartments, our home for the past four months.  The apartment itself was well-equipped, quiet and spacious (a real luxury in space-starved Japan) and the spare room ideal for guests – both comfortable and small enough not to encourage people to stay for too long!    We were very well-looked after by the housekeeping staff, who cleaned the apartment twice a week (whether it needed it or not) and also fixed whatever minor items needed attention, with a lightning response time.  But above all, we were lucky to be helped by the front desk, staffed from 7 am to 10 pm and often beyond by five charming and efficient ladies – Aya (亜矢), Ayaka (綾香), Izumi (依泉), Keiko (恵子) and Miki (実希).

A few more blog posts to come – we must catch up on our day in Yokohama, visits to the Tokyo Skytree and also to the Tomoe Soroban Company (the abacus company), and our farewell party.  We know we will be consumed by Los Angeles and our “regular” lives as soon as we come home, so this is a marker to remind us.  We’ll also add some more photos.

At Peace in Hiroshima

Hiroshima is not the first destination of most visitors to Japan.  The city itself is mostly, but as you will see not entirely, an unrelenting medley of not especially appealing buildings.  These were mostly erected in the 1950s and 60s as the city recovered from the atomic devastation of August 6, 1945 (8:15 am local time, as the stopped watch of a man on his way to work reminds us when you visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum).  But its place in history is assured by that tragic event and the Museum, the park in which it resides and, at the other end of the park, the poignant remains of what is now know as the Atomic Bomb Dome.

We spent a couple of days in Hiroshima with Toby, Kyle and Griffen.  It was not our first visit to the city – we had first been there in 2010 – and we were glad to be there again. Because it turns out that there is indeed more to Hiroshima than the bomb.  Certainly, the Museum is unsparing in its depiction of the horrors of atomic warfare.  Yet, unlike the presenters of the Yushukan War Memorial Museum in Tokyo, whose revisionist view of the war is controversial among Japanese and rejected almost everywhere else, it offers no judgments on the war or what led to the American decision, for good or ill, to drop the bomb.  At least at the peace museum, you will not see the kind of detailed discussion of that decision that you can find elsewhere, starting with the Wikipedia entry about the debate.  Instead, the focus is on the devastation, the loss of life and limb and the deep desire that atomic weapons be expunged from the earth.  Is that enough?  For that, we refer you to David Karlin’s blog posting after he visited Hiroshima earlier this year and Michael’s response.

Beyond the Museum and the Park, the city itself offers almost no reminders of what happened.  A subtle note in the one pager about the history of the glorious 17th century Shukkeien Garden notes that the garden was destroyed by the bomb but reconstructed.  The nearby Hiroshima Castle and its fascinating museum were also entirely reconstructed based on the original plans but again, no emphasis is placed on the destruction of the original.

Shukkeien Gardens – with wedding photographs being taken in the background

In part, we think, this is due to the fact that Japan has endured so much destruction over the course of history.  Wars, of course, until the Tokugawa shogunate brought two and a half centuries of peace starting at the beginning of the 17th century.  But also fires, which plagued Japan, a country where most of the buildings were made of wood.  And the earthquakes, less frequent, but ubiquitous and tremendously devastating.

Now, however, Hiroshima stands as a peaceful bastion of modernity and 45 minutes away by various means is the glorious island of Miyajima.  Famous for its floating torii (the red orange gate you see at the top of this page), it is home to the beautiful Itsukushima shrine, where we ran across a low-key marriage blessing, and a nearby stage where the Noh plays were performed beginning in the late 16th century.  It is also home to a large number of peaceful but quite human-acclimated deer, whose lives alternate between lounging and scrounging.

Food in Hiroshima, as everywhere in Japan, is wonderful and varied.  We had, for example, a truly delicious meal at a riverside Italian restaurant.  However, the local dish, par excellence, is okonomiyaki, which unlike, say, bouillabaisse, has stayed true to its roots as inexpensive left over food.  Okonomiyaki, which in restaurants is usually served on a teppanyaki (hot plate – think Benihana), is essentially a pancake with shredded cabbage and anything else that happens to be in the kitchen, often topped with a delicious plum sauce.  Oysters are a particularly popular ingredient in Hiroshima but as you can see, spring onions, pork, and lots of other things can make it in.  And vast as the pancakes may seem, somehow the leftovers were pretty scarce.

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The takeout version (or should we say, the home delivery by scooter version) is just as good (here at the home of Michael’s university classmate David Paul and his wife Yumi). Fiona likes to take these picture pre-devouring but you will have to take our word that not much was left after we got done.


The Japanese for I’m full is お腹いっぱい (onaka ippai).  Indeed . . .

Day in Arashiyama, Kyoto

We left at 6am, took the subway to the JR line to the Shinkansen and whoosh, were in Kyoto by 9:50am for breakfast with Toby, Kyle and Griffen. Their last two days included many temples, shrines, castle, market…….so we headed out to the beautiful area on the west side of Kyoto which Laura and Isak introduced us to in the spring. Weather forecast was good but soon, though it remained very warm, it started to pour and we Californians loved it! The bamboo forest smelled glorious, and the colors were intense. We looked from the top of the mountain down into a deep river gorge, there are forests on all sides, and a temple across the valley. Toby summed up our profound sense of the place:  Japanese art does not come from the imagination of the artists but really from appreciation of the actual landscape.


We visited the little shop where Isak fell in love with the handmade papers, and Kyle did some wedding shopping! On to the ceramic shop in drenching rain and again we experienced the incredible kindness and generosity of the Japanese people. Not only did the owner bring us each a magnificent umbrella, but also towels to dry our hair. Toby poses in exactly the same place as Isak…..

And tea

And lunch

The Togetsukyo Bridge was not a disappointment, looking just like it does in the Edo period woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige (dating from 1830-40). (The mountains seem to be in a slightly different place though!). Beautiful, beautiful.



Parading through Kanazawa

(Before we start: please let us know if you have any problems with all these photos in the blogs. Does it take too long for them to download?)


Last weekend we took a trip to Kanazawa with our friends Sam and Brit Knowlton, from Austin, Texas. It is 2 1/2 hours on the new Shinkansen, in an area previously not easily accessible because of the mountain ranges. We arrived on a special weekend (ha! that is why hotel rooms were so hard to book): the parade for the Hyakumangoku Matsuri (百万石祭, meaning the festival of a million jewels) celebrating Lord Maeda’s arrival at the castle in 1583. Over 2,000 residents in full costume re-enact this historic event. We hope that this slideshow gives some idea of the excitement. We were at the castle when the parade arrived:  samurai, court ladies, cheerleaders, marching bands, boy scouts, taiko drums, ninjas, dragon dancers and acrobats……

We couldn’t help comparing this with events in the States. There were dozens of polite Event Staff, no metal detectors, no bag checks, and the few police were mostly involved in keeping Lord Maeda safe from his adoring fans – he was represented by a very popular Kabuki actor. There was no trash around, no yelling, or pushing, no fences or barriers. The only official warning  was prohibiting drones and selfie sticks, which can cause nuisance to the visitors!

Kenrokuen Garden is glorious, deservedly designated a ‘Cultural Property and National Site of Special Scenic Beauty’. It is a traditional strolling garden with ponds, waterfalls, paths, plants designed to reflect the seasons, every angle giving a different view, using  “borrowed” landscapes, and celebrating the Japanese love of nature. Look at how much care is taken to prop up the ancient trees.

Lunch, of course, and green tea ice cream with gold flakes. Kanazawa is where gold was mined, and gold leaf was made. The Gold leaf Museum gives a wonderful display of this process.

There is no main entrance to the glass, oval shaped 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art – art should be approached from all sides, any angle.


And who recognizes this installation? (with Fiona doing the docent thing!)


(Answer available if you email us). Other exhibitions include Erlich’s Swimming Pool, 2004 and an imagined Land of Xijingman. Here is Michael in its immigration hall where you need to smile, dance and have a good attitude to enter.

More snacks. Cucumber on sticks and KitKat sake. Covers all food groups.

We wandered around the Edo period area, Higashi Kuruwa. Lovely lattice windowed shops and homes and here  is a restored, 2 storey tea house which was delightful

Time to go home, below see Michael in our hotel room with his wall-to-wall wingspan: we need some more space!


Ending with a view of spectacular Kanazawa station architecture, the waterfall clock (accurate) and a station official who receives the exiting passengers’ neatly bagged-up trash.

And home on the Shinkansen . . .rice fields seen from train at high speed.


Welcome Home: おかえりなさい

Our flying visit home is over and where did Saturday go? We left LAX on Saturday afternoon – flew 12 hours and landed on Sunday evening. We felt a strange and reassuring sense of familiarity as we flew into Narita airport early in the evening on Sunday, you can see all the rice fields from the plane window and a vague outline of Fuji-san in the distance. Back in our apartment, and time to sleep. Not much in the fridge but we made coffee and okonomiyaki for breakfast, with bonito and nori topping.

We are excited to be back and have 6 more weeks to spend here in this endlessly fascinating country. Naganuma School starts again for Michael, another 4 weeks of classes. And Fiona is off to do what docents do: see at least one museum a day! Explore Tokyo and try out all that Japanese grammar on the city. More to follow!




We miss you already, Laura and Isak.

Bye bye at Gaiemmae Station! We are thrilled that you had so many wonderful adventures in Japan. Here are a few of the things we enjoyed together.