Archive for April, 2008

April 30th 2008
Tune In Tokyo

Posted under Japan

After traipsing across Japan at a feverish pace, we reached Tokyo, our final destination, with a desperate need to relax and reorganize. We had done so much so quickly that I hadn’t had a chance to process it all much less write about it and the experiences were fast becoming faded memories. We had been invited by our expat friends and former Fort Worth neighbors, Seph and Trish Jensen, to stay with them in Tokyo and we were very excited to see them and meet their sweet little baby Kate Hana for the first time. Trish had mentioned in prior emails that Kate sleeps twelve hours every night and is a really good baby during the day. I’m sure that she said it to put our minds at ease because, as a parent, you never know how your childless (I hate that word but we are, in fact) friends will react to your little one. We were not worried in the least, of course. Trish had emailed some pictures of Kate at Easter, in which she looked like a Madame Alexander doll, and on that same day, the Youngs re-entered the insane world of “not not trying”.

So we found our way to the Jensens’ place on the 27th floor of a beautiful high-rise in the trendy Roppongi area of downtown Tokyo. We arrived around 6pm on Sunday night and Seph had just walked in from work so we did the round of hugs and then digested the surrealism of meeting again in Tokyo. Kate was already down for the count so we settled in and caught up over champagne and a home-cooked beef tenderloin dinner. This proved to be the manner in which the Jensens would spoil us rotten with their generous hospitality for the entirety of our Tokyo stay.

With nothing on our agenda but relaxation and visiting, we slept late almost every morning, lingered over coffee, played with Kate, went to lunch, and basked in the spa-like comforts of the cozy flat in the evenings. You may be wondering how an enclosed area with a six-month-old baby could be described as spa-like. The explanation is simple: Trish wasn’t exaggerating – Kate really is an angel! She smiled and played all day and then went down for the night around 5:30 and we didn’t hear a peep from her until morning. Seph and Trish are very calm and natural parents, which certainly seems to reflect in Kate’s personality. Tokyo was a huge, modern city with skyscrapers galore, flashy neon, a lot of stressed-looking businessmen chain-smoking and running for trains, more vending machines per square mile than anywhere else in the world (more than 400,000 in total), and every type of retail and restaurant offering imaginable (except for Trish’s beloved Target) – but all of this combined was not nearly as interesting as our little bald, blue-eyed hostess. Even Aaron’s baby fever spiked to a new level.

One night, the four of us went out for a night on the town sans baby. We stopped into a traditional Japanese restaurant called Inakaya (Seph’s pick) and were told that we could be accommodated in about an hour. We walked down the street to a small Irish pub for a round of beers and had worked up a healthy appetite by the time we returned to Inakaya for dinner. We were seated along one side of the single enormous table that encompassed the entire dining area. Three very spirited and vocal chefs kneeled in the middle of the table behind a grill and griddle. We ordered some Japanese beer and Seph ordered dinner for all of us – beef, chicken, prawns, mixed sashimi, snapper, assorted mushrooms and vegetables. While we enjoyed our drinks, the various courses began to arrive, served one at a time on long wooden paddles maneuvered by the chefs.

The jumbo prawns were skewered live and placed over hot coals, their little legs wriggling furiously as they fought their fate. This bothered my conscience tremendously but I tried not to think about it, letting the beer and conversation divert my attention. When the prawns were delivered – one large one per person – Aaron dutifully removed the exoskeleton while I looked the other way. When he was finished, the prawn looked just like the ones I used to buy at Costco, only bigger and juicier. It was by far the best damn prawn that I’ve ever tasted in my life! The sashimi medley was also unbelievable. I’ve been eating sushi for more than ten years; I’ve had all kinds of sushi, sashimi and rolls but I must admit that I didn’t know just how good raw fish could taste until this meal.

Somewhere in the midst of skewered meats and luscious fishes, the premium cold sake started flowing, followed by Seph’s recommended Shochu – a Japanese distilled spirit, which was surprisingly smooth and delicious, considering its thirty percent alcohol content. The big table stayed full throughout the evening and an air of giddy indulgence seemed to circulate the room. Inakaya was an inconspicuous, intimate place tucked away on a quiet side street but it was clearly a hidden gem. As we neared the end of our meal around 10:00, people were still piling in. We finished our experience with a round of green tea ice cream and then laughed all the way home.

My persistent hangover precluded me from leaving the flat the next day but everyone else seemed to be functioning semi-normally. I didn’t mind – I needed an “office day” anyway. With our Tokyo visit nearing its end, we had not done much in the way of sightseeing, our laziness exacerbated by the kind of comforts we used to call home – sparkling clean bathroom, big screen T.V., wireless internet, washer/dryer, couches that you can sink into and, most importantly, the most fabulous toilet that my discriminating derriere has ever encountered. Trish, having read some of my earlier potty commentary, mentioned that Japanese toilets have “all the bells and whistles”. I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant until we arrived in Japan.

The Japanese take a lot of pride in their toilets, a characteristic that I find most admirable. You begin by sitting down on a startlingly lovely heated seat. After doing your thing, you select from a range of functions on a small control panel attached to the toilet. Functions such as a deodorizer, three levels of warm, gentle bidet with adjustable water pressure and a dryer maximize the ease and enjoyment of an otherwise unpleasant necessity. Ladies and gentlemen, I was in Heaven! I have never enjoyed the experience of powdering my nose so much in my life! How this utterly brilliant invention has not made it into every home in America, the most luxury-consuming society on Earth, remains a total mystery to me. I wholeheartedly urge everyone reading this (and tell all of your friends) to find a way to import a Japanese toilet and install it in your home as soon as possible. Your life will never be the same again.

So we skimmed the Tokyo chapter of our guide book in search of any last-minute tourist stops. Aaron decided that he wanted to see the Tsukiji (pronounced “skid’ jee”) Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world, and specifically its famed tuna auction. After a little (okay, a lot) moaning and groaning about having to wake up at 5am, I managed to rise to the occasion and we scooted out the door before our first cup of coffee – always a risky move. A few trains later, we finally found Tsukiji and made our way to the back warehouse where the tuna auction was just finishing its final round for the day. Hundreds of giant tuna were laid out in rows across the entire floor of the warehouse. Men in coveralls and tall rubber fishing boots walked between rows, inspecting the fish and looking busy and important for the tourists who watched excitedly from the viewing area.

The auction round seemed very informal. Sample slices from each fish on the auction block were placed on top of a stack of cardboard boxes with a number written in permanent marker on each stack. The auctioneer stood on a small raised platform in a circle of bidders and launched the bidding process with his rhythmic auction chant. We watched as the last round concluded and then ventured into the main area of the market, packed tightly with stall after stall selling every type of raw fish imaginable. In the alleyways between the rows of stalls, men driving motorized flatbed carts frantically navigated through the crowd. We had to stay alert in order to avoid becoming road kill for the carts speeding through the market with reckless abandon as the carts seemed to have the right of way in all circumstances. We wandered up and down several rows of stalls and then headed out of the market. The raw fish odors were nauseating on an empty stomach and a dizzying display of fish corpses seemed to dominate the view in every direction. I’d had enough.

As we were leaving, we came upon a small five-stool sushi bar on the sidewalk and Aaron decided that, to complete his tuna auction experience, he should eat some tuna sashimi for breakfast. In my state of fish fume nausea, I couldn’t think of anything more revolting to put into my mouth but I sat down with him and sipped some hot miso soup while he ate. It was the most I could stomach before 8am.

Back at the flat, Seph and Trish were busy getting ready to depart on a three-week trip back to the “United States of Awesomeness”, as Trish now calls it, later that afternoon. Miss Kate was not a happy camper, which suggested that Trish’s earlier worry that she might start teething right before their eleven-hour flight might become an unfortunate reality. We managed to calm the little fusser down and, among the four of us, delivered the Jensens’ family-size luggage load down to the airport bus pickup. We said hurried goodbyes and then they were gone in a flash.

Our flight wasn’t until the following evening so we headed back to the flat. At Seph and Trish’s suggestion, we ordered Pizza Hut and vegged in front of the television. Aaron even managed to sit still through an entire movie (Juno), although I’m sure that he was multi-tasking in some way, probably with the laptop or a magazine in his lap. I don’t question it anymore as long as his little side projects don’t disrupt the movie. It was a wonderfully quiet, relaxing evening and we felt a pang of nostalgia for our big, comfortable former house in Texas. I was a great house and we still puzzle over how easy it was to let it go. At this point, we feel so comfortable in the simplest accommodation that we hardly think of our former lifestyle until we get a taste of it again.

The next day, we took a late morning train to the Shibuya area and stopped into a Starbucks which looked over the Shibuya Crossing – a famous intersection where pedestrians in all directions get a simultaneous green light and flood into the street before disappearing toward their respective destinations. It is an impressive sight, especially from the second floor vantage point of the Starbucks. I must say that I am continually impressed by Starbucks ability to occupy the most prime real estate locations in the most patronized areas. They are well-positioned around the world. You don’t usually have to seek out a Starbucks; if there is one, it tends to magically appear like a lighthouse in the storm. God bless Starbucks and McDonalds too! While I remain generally a fan of “the underdog”, I literally light up when I discover one or the other global oasis in a new city because I know that I have found a home base. I may not even stop in but I take comfort in knowing it’s there.

Tokyo was a perfect end to our two-week sprint through Japan. We were both surprised to find Japan among our favorite destinations thus far. We proudly crammed about a month’s worth of experiences into our short visit and have no regrets for there is so much to see. Despite the language barrier, we found the Japanese people to be warm, welcoming and eager to approach us with an offer of help if we appeared lost, which was fairly often. We loved the mix of old and new: beautiful Japanese gardens and historic buildings hidden within modern cities with modern amenities; chic designer fashion mixed with women, young and old, in traditional kimono. In Asia’s most Westernized country, there is a kaleidoscope of rich culture that we’ve only begun to explore. Whether we were staking out geisha, visiting centuries-old castles, hiking through the mountains or sampling the local cuisine, we were continually thrilled and fascinated by everything that is Japan.

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April 26th 2008
One Night in a Ryokan

Posted under Japan

During a train ride to Nara, we had sat with a middle-aged American couple who were part of a larger tour group. As we engaged in a friendly exchange of Japan travel stories, they recommended a trip to the Nakasendo Highway – an old post road linking Kyoto with Tokyo along which many historic post towns had been restored to their original two hundred year old appearance. Eager for a taste of rural Japan, we made some quick alterations to our itinerary to fit it in.

The journey from Kyoto to the old post town of Tsumago, in the midst of the Kiso Valley, required four trains and a bus ride but was surprisingly painless nonetheless. The alpine mountains were a refreshing change of scenery. The bus dropped us off a stone’s throw away from Hanaya Ryokan – the traditional Japanese wooden home-turned-guesthouse where we would spend the night. The owner greeted us inside as we removed our shoes in the foyer and placed them on a shelf. I slipped into a pair of the slippers provided but the largest ones were too small for Aaron’s American size elevens so he slid around in his socks on the polished wood floors. We were shown to our room on the second floor – it was modest-sized with tatami mats on the floor and a low table in the center of the room with two square cushions. Tea service for two was ready and waiting and we were instructed to take tea and settle in. Dinner would be served at six o’clock.

After our tea, we went out to check out the town. The main trading area of Tsumago was a scenic twenty-minute walk from the ryokan, along a winding gravel path. The traditional wooden buildings had been beautifully restored and converted into small cafes, guesthouses and specialty shops. The afternoon was sunny and warm, which positively impacted Aaron’s shopping stamina as I flitted from one shop to another. In place of lunch, we sampled the offerings at a few of the snack shops, including chestnut softserve ice cream, sticky buns filled with sweet red bean paste, and matcha (powdered green tea) served with a delightful chestnut cookie. With a sack full of treasures in hand, we walked back to the ryokan. The owner suggested that we take a bath to relax before dinner. We slipped into the yukatas (lightweight Japanese robes) that were hanging in the closet of our room and ventured downstairs into our respective bathrooms. The women’s bathroom had a regular shower as well as a deep wooden Japanese bathtub. I lifted one of the wooden planks covering the tub to get a faceful of steam from the hot water. I showered first and then attempted to step into the bath but the water was so unbearably hot that I only made it up to one knee before giving up. Aaron’s bathroom had a much larger tub and he claimed to have had a relaxing dip. Perhaps the Japanese think that, because women have a naturally higher pain tolerance than men, they find scalding bathwater relaxing. More likely, I just needed to add a bit of cold water from the tap.

Our yukatas also came with a heaver waist-length overcoat, which we wore down to the dining room at six o’clock sharp. A long inner wall of the dining room was made entirely of sliding screens which opened in several places to reveal four low tables each with an elegant array of authentic Japanese dishes. We took our seats, wide-eyed and giddy, at our table-for-two. There was a Japanese couple, also in their robes, at the table on one side of us, a Spanish couple on the other side and a table of six Italians at the far end, none of whom seemed to have gotten the robe memo. Their loss – dinner in your pjs is the bomb!

Among the many individual dishes were salmon sashimi, cold soba (buckwheat) noodles, shabu-shabu (thin slices of raw beef and vegetables cooked tableside in a pot of light broth over charcoals), a delicious sticky rice ball on a stick doused in a rich satay sauce, and, of course, miso soup. We ordered a carafe of hot sake and savored our elaborate meal. During the meal, we noticed that the Japanese couple had been served their salmon Izakaya-style – the head and tail of the fish placed on opposite ends of the platter with the body skinned and cut into bite-size pieces between its extremities. Aaron was disappointed that we didn’t get the truly authentic experience but I must admit my relief at the discovery. I have been a sushi-lover for years but, for whatever reason, I have a mental block about eating something while its lifeless eyes stare back at me. That’s just creepy! We concluded the meal with a steaming pot of green tea, thanked our hosts and retired to our room.

We slid the table against the wall and pulled the bedding out of the closet. We laid the Japanese futons, side-by-side, and topped them with the fluffy featherbeds. We spread the soft cotton sheets and warm blankets and crawled into one of the most Heavenly beds that I have ever experienced. Even the pillows were sublime. Had it been logistically plausible, I would have lobbied to splurge on one more night in the ryokan, just to sleep in the bed again. We slept like angels and woke early the next morning.

Breakfast was served in the dining room promptly at 7:30. The traditional Japanese breakfast included a bowl of sticky rice, a cold, spongy, block-shaped egg cake soaked in a sweet vinegary syrup, and a small, whole fish braised in a thick brown sauce. After the previous night’s dinner, I was not especially hungry but I gave everything a try…except for the fish, of course. It laid on a square white plate, lonely except for a rosemary garnish, its little dead eye staring at me as I ate. I’ve always been a carnivore. While I understand that all animals, including humans, have a place in the food chain, I often fight a sense of guilt over killing a living thing so that I can eat it. I attempt to trick the guilt by only eating meat or fish in a form that does not resemble the living animal. It has worked well enough thus far to keep me carnivorous but I am continually put off by bones, legs, heads or tails on my plate with a few odd exceptions. I don’t mind, though. My discriminating palate has proven to be one of the many idiosyncrasies that make me the weird little person that I am.

Aaron ate the whole fish, head first, both to shock me and to prove that he could keep it down. He’s a braver soul than I. I just stared in disbelief as he bit the head off, then the body, then the tail and swallowed each piece quickly before his mind could communicate to his gag reflex what he was eating. Of all the foreigners at breakfast, Aaron was the only one who ate the fish head, a fact that he took great pride in announcing. After breakfast, we packed our bags and stored them at the ryokan while we walked the old post road to the neighboring town of Magome. The twisting, gravel road wound through thick alpine forest. It was another beautiful spring day and we marveled at the abundance of cherry blossoms, roses and daffodils in brilliant bloom. The 7.8 kilometer hike is almost entirely uphill from Tsumago (elevation 420m) to Magome Pass (elevation 801m) before descending the final stretch into the town of Magome (elevation 600m). About fifteen minutes into the walk, Aaron remembered a sign that we had seen in the Tsumago tourist office, warning that bears have occasionally been spotted along the hiking trail. The sign said that the bears can be dangerous if startled and recommended renting a bell from the office to “announce” your presence on the path so as to deter the bears. Of course, we had forgotten all about the bear bells so we sang loud, off-key marching songs along the way instead. If there were any bears in the area that day, my hideous singing voice undoubtedly sent them running with their paws over their ears.

We reached Magome in about 90 minutes, traversing a mountain pass along the way – it was quite a workout. Magome was a pretty town with a steep cobblestone street running through the middle. The shops were much like the ones in Tsumago so we checked out a few and then sat down on a streetside bench with a couple of chestnut softserve cones and watched the crowds walk by. Most of the tourists in the Kiso Valley were Asian and middle-aged. The ryokans are relatively pricey (but well worth it!) , which deters the younger backpackers. The old post town experience is a more spa-like and cultural experience. The ryokan ambience is quiet and peaceful. The Kiso Valley is a cultural treasure where families live and work in lovely historic communities with breathtaking mountain views. They plant spring flowers and cultivate small gardens behind their beautiful wooden homes. While the restored buildings in the old post towns now have modern amenities such as electricity, running water and motor cars in the drive, the overwhelming feeling while walking the streets is one of stepping back in time.

As the generations of humanity have advanced further into the age of technology, efficiency and mass production, I often mourn the loss of personal artistry in modern products. While I certainly appreciate contemporary comforts, particularly those relating to la toilette, I have always had an affinity for old things. I used to hear people, mostly of my grandparents’ generation, say things like “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to”, usually referring to the inferior quality or durability of modern products but I think the expression also applies to artistry. The beautiful intricacies of historic buildings and finery throughout the world are often lost on the modern versions. I wonder what future generations will make of our skyscrapers and master-planned, cookie-cutter suburban communities.

I truly enjoyed our walk through the past and I am thankful that someone thought that these quaint post towns were worthy of preservation. The little old towns were an enlightening and refreshing contrast to the bustling metropolises that we have so far experienced in Japan. We took a bus from Magome back to Tsumago to collect our bags and continue our journey. We smiled amusedly as the little old Japanese grandfather from the ryokan drove us through town in his Lexus at breakneck speeds and nearly skidded into the train station parking lot.

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April 25th 2008

Posted under Japan

On our final morning in Kyoto, we humped our packs for twenty minutes through the pouring rain to the train station for our connection. The three-hour journey to Hiroshima was once again made easy by our shinkansen (bullet train). The world-famous trains traverse the country; regularly cruising at speeds in excess of 150 km/hr, making riding the train faster and easier than flying. We’ve taken them all over Japan – they are definitely the best way to get around.

We arrived just before lunch, giving us the afternoon and evening to explore Hiroshima. Our hostel was in the middle of downtown, within walking distance of all that we wanted to see. Our first stop was Peace Memorial Park, a sprawling oasis in the middle of the city, built as a post-war gathering place to comfort the victims of the atomic bombing and to pray for world peace. The park contains numerous memorials including the Cenotaph for the A-bomb victims (housing a list of all known victims), the Flame of Peace (which will only be extinguished once the last nuclear weapon on earth is destroyed) and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. We wandered around the park, filled with tour groups snapping pictures, suited workers on lunch breaks, and others just enjoying the sunny Friday afternoon.

Adjacent to the park is the Children’s Peace Monument, inspired by Sadako Sasaki, a ten year old girl who survived the bombing at the age of two, but later developed leukemia caused by post-bomb radiation. She decided to fold 1,000 paper cranes, a Japanese custom through which a wish will come true, believing that it could help her overcome the disease. She died before reaching her goal but her classmates finished folding the rest, sparking national interest in her story. Each year thousands of students around Japan remember Sadako’s story and fold paper cranes which are sent to Hiroshima and placed in this monument.

We continued across the river to the A-bomb dome, a symbol of the devastation inflicted upon Hiroshima. On August 6, 1945 at 8:15am the world’s first atomic bomb exploded approximately 600 meters above the city, almost directly overhead the Industrial Promotion Hall. The heat rays and blast burned and crushed nearly all buildings within a two kilometer radius of the hypocenter. Though the city was completely destroyed, a single recognizable landmark remained. The dome of the Hall. Today, the dome and skeleton structure of the Hall remain and have been fortified to perpetually appear exactly as they did more than sixty years ago. In the now-thriving metropolis of Hiroshima, the ruins are a stark reminder of her tragic past.

Retracing our steps, we made our way to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, or A-bomb museum. The two-story building contains pictures, video, scale models, and government documents narrating the events leading up to and after the atomic bombing. An estimated 140,000 people perished, including Japanese civilians, Korean forced laborers, and POWs as a result of the bombing. Some died instantaneously from the blast, others suffered for days or weeks before finally succumbing to their wounds, while still others died months or years later from the effects of residual radiation released during the nuclear reaction. The museum contained many tragic stories and first-person accounts of the pain inflicted on that August day so many years ago and, as Americans, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of guilt for the actions of our government. So we look for justifications, reasons to explain the horror of Hiroshima. Why did the United States drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? The simplified, two-part answer provided was uninspiring. First, the U.S. bombed Hiroshima in a final effort to end the war with a weakened Japan while limiting the Soviet Union’s world influence. The second reason was to justify the tremendous development costs of the Manhattan project which developed the atomic bomb. As we studied the surprisingly unbiased exhibits of the museum, learning more than any textbook or website could teach, it became more apparent to us that there is no justifiable reason to use nuclear weapons. But more than that, it reinforced the idiocy of war, nuclear or otherwise. It was an emotionally intense three hours that left us desperate for a distraction, something lighthearted and fun.

Introduced in Japan in 1873 and played continuously even during WWII, the sport of baseball is hugely popular. Although we’re both half-hearted baseball fans in the States, we’re always eager to attend live sporting events, especially in other parts of the world. The Hiroshima Carp play in a downtown stadium right across the street from the A-bomb dome and they were hosting Japan’s most celebrated team, the Tokyo Giants. The night had grown considerably colder so we bundled up, bought a couple of cheap tickets and made our way to the outfield bleachers. Arriving on time, but still missing the first pitch (the Japanese are annoyingly punctual sometimes), we found our general admission section and looked for a couple of seats. Amid thousands of Carp fans we admired the amazing spectacle created by red-and-white (Carp colors) plastic noise makers. A makeshift band casually assembled behind the crowd belted out tune after tune, while the enthusiastic crowd chimed in on queue. There were four or five drums, a few horns, two guys waving huge team flags, and a conductor orchestrating it all. The fans formed a sea of red and white; many donned the pinstriped jersey of their favorite player. We ordered two draught beers from a passing vendor with a keg strapped to his back and began furiously cheering for the mighty Carp.

Despite being dressed like a couple of backpackers, unable to speak the language, and clearly foreign, we felt right at home. This was baseball, America’s game, why wouldn’t we? After a couple of innings, we decided to brave the food court. We’d seen plenty of noodles and rice and fish walk by so we knew what to expect. After some deliberation, we settled on a “French Dog” (corn dog), some chicken tenders, and French fries. Not exactly traditional Japanese fare. We immediately regretted not ordering noodles, but the menus were all in Japanese and it just seemed like too much work. With the home team down by four runs, we stayed until the bottom of the sixth inning when we lost our waning motivation as the Carp squandered a chance to score with the bases loaded and no outs. Chilled to the bone, we decided to call it a night. Walking back to the hostel, I recalled the comment of a British guy in our hostel. He said that it was interesting how symbols of America’s two greatest influences on Japan are right across the street from one another, the A-bomb dome and Hiroshima’s baseball stadium. For better or worse, I guess it’s true.

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April 25th 2008
Kobe & Himeji

Posted under Japan

By noon, I had turned from a geisha back into a pumpkin and, despite the incessant drizzle, we stayed the course of all-day adventures. The trains have made it easy to zip around Japan and, since it was lunchtime anyway, we decided to fit in a little side trip to Kobe (pronounced “ko’ bay”) to indulge in some Kobe beef – a regional variety of Japanese beef known for its heavy marbling and decadent flavor. After three years of d.i.n.k. (dual income, no kids) life in Texas, Aaron and I have consumed our fair share of premium quality steaks. While I assumed the hype Kobe beef was not unfounded, I kept my expectations out of the clouds nonetheless.

Aaron had selected the highly recommended Wakkoku restaurant below the Crown Plaza Kobe hotel. We were seated at a teppan table inside the dimly-lit dining room. The surrounding tables were full of businessmen, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes while their chef prepared their meal on the large iron griddle.

We ordered some wine and a set meal of several courses, which seemed to appear at random as our chef began our meal preparation in a dazzling display of showmanship. The two steaks were presented raw alongside another plate of raw vegetables. The steaks were thin and pristinely cut to display the fatty marbling. The chef began by sautéing thin slices of garlic as well as some mushrooms and sliced peppers. He spooned small mounds of coarse ground pepper and salt onto each of our plates along with the vegetables. He then seared a portion of each of our steaks and served us each three small sizzling pieces.

Let me just preface the following description by saying that, no matter how deliciously accurate is my account, you cannot truly understand the intensity of its magnificence unless you try it yourself. I picked up the first piece of steak with my chopsticks, dipped it gently into the salt and pepper, and slowly, ceremoniously slipped it between my lips. It was tender, salty and intensely flavorful with a divine richness that made it melt in my mouth. I glanced over at Aaron who had the same warm, euphoric smile that I felt stretching across my face. Each subsequent bite incited the same sensation of pure savory pleasure and regal indulgence. The remainder of the steak was prepared gradually over the course of the meal so that each piece was slightly sizzling from the griddle. Even the fat trimmings were utilized to add a salty richness to the fresh vegetables sautéed as accompaniments. We savored every bite of the Heavenly beef and have rarely left a dinner table more satisfied.

Having gotten the experience that we had come for – a culinary experience that exceeded our “Big Texas” expectations – we took the elevator up to the Crown Plaza’s Sky Bar to take in the skyscraper perspective of downtown Kobe and then hopped back onto the train to get on with our day.

Our next and final stop was Himeji Castle in the city of…you guessed it – Himeji. Having lingered long over our Kobe lunch, the late afternoon was upon us. The castle was open until 5pm but the last admission was allowed at 4:00. The train spit us out at 3:45 about a kilometer from the castle, giving us exactly fifteen minutes to find the right station exit and sprint to the castle entrance. Painfully out of running shape and weighted down by rain jackets and our decadent Kobe feast, we made a mad dash up Otemae-dori in the rain. With burning lungs and heaving breath, we arrived at the outer perimeter of the grounds. We had the elevated castle in our sights but the ticket counter was still a good three hundred meters away. We had slowed our pace from all-out sprint to weary jog but when we heard the five-minute warning over the loudspeaker, we summoned our deepest reserves of energy and made a break for the gate. As we began the final one hundred meter uphill stretch, two male gatekeepers were standing with stopwatches, good-naturedly cheering us on until, at last, we steamed through the gate with mere seconds to spare, arms raised in triumph like the famous scene in the Rocky movies.

Built high up on a stone foundation, Himeji Castle is an impressive display of power and defensive ingenuity. The wooden structure is insulated by moats and high stone walls. Its fortifications include strategically placed openings for shooting arrows and guns or pouring boiling water onto unwelcome visitors. The interior of the castle is composed of heavy, dark-stained wood which held the dampness of the rainy day. From the sixth storey landing, a lord could look out over his vast lands in all directions. I could almost smell and feel the feudal history in the dark walls and heavy wooden beams; these walls held the restless spirit of battle. Himeji Castle was one of the most magnificent Japanese buildings that we have seen and one of the few castles that remain in their original wooden form. Although it took me an hour to fully recover from our race against the clock, the thrill of the chase enhanced the entire experience. In hindsight, I think that it was fate’s way of reminding us that it is important to maintain a good level of fitness. Many years ago, I wrote a short poem which has since served as a sort of credo:

Live boldly and ferociously
With constant forward momentum
A mad dash to the finish
Unstoppable until death

While the vigor of my credo may prove to wane with age, I was thankful for the not-so-subtle reminder today that my chances of madly dashing anywhere are greatly reduced with a belly full of steak.


April 24th 2008
Memoirs of a Geisha-for-a-day

Posted under Japan

On the streets of Kyoto, I had stumbled upon an advertisement for Maica – a shop in which geisha-giddy schoolgirls and tourists can pay to be dressed up in full geisha costume. After days of hinting around that I was crazy about the idea, I finally called the shop to make an appointment. The girl who answered the phone spoke little English but I managed to make an appointment for the following morning.

It was a gray, rainy day in Kyoto as we made our way to Maica for my 10am appointment. There was not a waiting room for Aaron to sit so he took the umbrella and disappeared into the rain. Meanwhile, I selected the maiko (apprentice geisha) costume instead of the true geisha costume because the kimono and accessories were more colorful and ornate. I was directed to the second floor to change into a thin, pink robe and a pair of tabi socks. Then my transformation began. I sat on a low stool while a young woman applied my makeup. I’ve never been able to tolerate foundation on my face – even sunscreen feels too greasy – so I was surprised to find the creamy whitening base cool and soft. My makeup artist took her time; she had a soft touch and smiled sweetly, making the experience feel like a true pampering.

With a pretty painted face, I moved into the wig room. There were two wig options: the recommended half-wig incorporated your real hair into a hairpiece for a more natural effect; I opted for the full wig, which fit like a helmet with a built-in widow’s peak. The wig was heavy and a little tight but, by this time, I was too mesmerized by the transformation to be bothered by it.

I had pre-selected my kimono and it was waiting for me in the dressing room when I arrived. In a whirlwind of fluttering hands, I stood motionless as the numerous (I didn’t count but there were at least ten) pieces of the kimono ensemble were assembled around me. It felt like a many-faceted chastity belt. The assembly happened so quickly that I didn’t realize how tightly some of the ropes were wrapped around my torso. I mentioned to the woman dressing me that it was a little tight and her heavily accented, matter-of-fact response was “Kimono is tight.” I was out of my element, surrounded by Japanese speakers, and was perhaps too intimidated to push the issue so I tried to focus on expanding my constricted lungs upward rather than outward. That’s probably not physically possible but the thought of it seemed to quell the panic attack that was rising inside me.

The excitement at seeing the completed transformation for the first time in the mirror definitely distracted me. I just stared at myself in utter disbelief. The first thing I noticed is just how dissimilar are my facial features from Asian features. Admittedly, I made a pretty hideous geisha – Aaron noted my likeness to Eddie Munster (in a loving way, of course) – but in a costume as elaborate, bright and beautiful as a geisha’s, you feel simply exquisite.

I walked down to the first floor to pose for the professional photo and then to be admired by my adoring husband. After the brief photo session, the photographer informed the receptionist that I was ready to receive Aaron but returned with the deflating news that he had not yet returned. Suddenly, I remembered how tight my kimono was, which reignited the panic. What to do? I had just spent the equivalent of two nights accommodation on this frivolous girly pleasure. I certainly wasn’t going to rip it off before Aaron got to see me. I inhaled the deepest constricted breath that I could muster and sat down on a bench in the receiving room, trying to remain calm, for what seemed like some of the longest minutes of my adult life. It was worth it. When Aaron returned, he dutifully fawned over me and played Hollywood photographer, posing me in different lights and angles and perfecting my little fantasy. On a sunny day, you can pay extra to stroll or ride a rickshaw on the city streets in costume. I would have loved that but my indoor photo session was great fun.

While Aaron settled my bill, I went back upstairs to disrobe and wash the makeup off my face. The girls in the dressing room had me stripped down to my little pink robe in about 2.5 seconds – the makeup was another matter entirely. After about twenty minutes of rubbing myself raw with a soapy towel, I finally emerged downstairs looking disheveled but passable.

Little girls love to play “dress-up”. I don’t think that we ever lose that desire as women – we simply have fewer opportunities to play “make-believe”. After my geisha experience I was giddy for the rest of the day. It was a fun excuse to laugh, get pampered and be silly. What adult couldn’t use a little more of that?


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