Posted by: leospurr | July 13, 2009

My Head in the Clouds

Yep, with just a few more days left in the Land of the Rising Sun, I finally got to watch a sunrise from Mt. Fuji!  As with most of my adventures in Japan, this climb has only left me with a burning desire to do it again.  I must give a shout out to my fabulous colleagues who have treated me like a princess this year.  Most every whim and desire of mine has become a personal challenge for someone in the class.  This time, we had a group of 12 people (including 4 kids!) meet up to with me to share in this adventure. 

The mountain is divided up into several altitude “stations”.  There are tens of tour groups that take visitors to the 5th station of Mt. Fuji.  Just do an internet search, and you’ll be innundated with the choices.  Our tour started at Shinjuku train station with a 3hr  bus ride to Mt. Fuji’s 5th station (2300m) where we bought our walking sticks, had lunch, and prepped for a noon climb start time.  About 5 hours later, we reached the 8th station (3200m).  Several people fell victim to altitude sickness, and fortunately they sell aerosol-like cans of oxygen at most every rest station.  I’m not sure if its really altitude sickness, or dehydration.  I didn’t really see people drinking very much water, but the sound of people sucking on those oxygen cans was deafening!  Think of hundreds of asthmatics gasping for their inhalers and you get the idea.  Strangely or psychologically, I did feel a bit light- headed around 2500m, but took several deep breaths, drank a ton of water and didn’t feel a thing the rest of the trip.  The first five hours was fairly easy going.  The pace was slow enough (due to hundreds of people being on the trail) that if you are in decent shape it is quite enjoyable.  The particular trail that we took (Yoshida trail – there are four others around the mountain) is cut in a zigzag pattern so that you are not climbing straight up.  Along the way, there are mountain huts that sell food, water, and sleeping nooks.  Make that, sleeping crannies.  At our mountain hut, four grown people were assigned to the space of a double bed.  It was quite hilarious, cramped, a bit stinky, but all part of the experience.  After a five-hour hike, our dinner of curry rice with hamburger patty was the best meal I’ve had in ages.   Just a note of caution, the huts are all very spartan.  There is no running water, the potties are co-ed (takes a bit of practice to not sheepishly stare at men in their full glory at the urinals) and cost about a dollar per use – make sure to bring lots of yen coins.

Our guide for the first part of the hike recommended we leave at 2am in order to reach the summit for the 4:30am sunrise – the ultimate goal.  Yeah, right.  The guide neglected to factor in that we’d be going for the ultimate goal along with several thousand other goal setters.  Imagine trying to get through a turnstyle at Harajuku station on a Sunday afternoon.  Yes, it was that bad.   So, what really should have taken maybe 1.5 hours, took nearly 4 hours!  Add to that it was COLD!  There was still snow on the ground, a biting wind, and barely any body movement.  Fortunately I borrowed a friend’s fluffy coat who had climbed Fuji last year and knew the deal.  Although we missed the sunrise at the summit, we were on the east side of the mountain, so still had a fabulous view of the new day dawning.  Sunrise be damned, we trucked it up to the summit, climbing more aggressively – i.e. started passing people outside of the prescribed marked trail.  Probably a bit rude, but we had a bus to catch back down at the 5th station! 

Due to time contraints, we only spent about 30mins at the summit, then began our 4-hr descent.  The trail going down is separate from the trail going up, and much more slippery.  Suspend your beliefs one more time and imagine skiing down a huge mountain, but without skiis, and no snow – just glass-like shards of volcanic rock and pumice.   I fell several times coming down, and my surgery-scarred knees took a beating.  Thank God for “glucosamine chondroitin”.  I don’t feel a thing today (day after the climb).

I have read and heard stories of people doing this hike with flip-flops, old tennis shoes, and wearing nothing but shorts and a windbreaker.  FOOLS-all of them!!  I didn’t see any flip-flops, but saw several climbers in tennis shoes.   They were the ones sitting alongside the trail dumping volcanic rock out of their shoes every 10meters.  I also saw RUNNERS!  Daggone miracles of nature were running up (and down) the trail.  Granted I didn’t actually see any of them at the summit, but they were pretty impressive at the lower altitudes, regardless.

We had a couple of hours at a nearby onsen after finishing the hike, and all enjoyed refreshing beers and great camaraderie.  This has been an amazing year for the boys and I.  As I type this, the movers are here packing up my worldly belongings.  The end of our adventures in Japan is near, but the memories will never die away.  Particularly, the memory of my first hike up Mt. Fuji will always stay with me – even after I do it again.  There is a saying in Japan, “He who climbs Mt. Fuji once is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool.”   Call me a fool, then.  Someday I hope to bring David and Chris back when they get older to let them have a shot at this fabulous experience!

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Posted by: leospurr | June 29, 2009

G’Day Mate

A bit of a late post, but an experience that I wanted to share and remember. As part of the War College curriculum, our class had programmed overseas trips to either China, Thailand/Vietnam, or Australia. Because I had never been there, and frankly because they speak English, Australia was my first choice!

I first had to get my head around the fact that the southern hemisphere has opposite seasons from the northern hemisphere. So, as we boarded the plane during the muggy heat of Tokyo’s June, I looked forward to wearing sweaters, jackets, and long-sleeved shirts for the beginning of Australia’s winter season. Our first stop was Canberra, the capital of Australia, and hub of their government. Our first day was thankfully spent in tourist mode as we adjusted to our very long red-eye flight.  From the top of Mt. Ainslie, we had spectacular morning views of Anzac Parade (a ceremonial avenue with memorial sites honoring fallen Australian and New Zealand soldiers) and the Federal Parliament House.  We spent a few hours at the Australian War Museum learning about the rise of Australia’s military from a British Crown colony to one of the world’s premier fighting forces, and certainly one of America’s most loyal allies. 

The next day and a half was jam packed with briefings and visits to the Ministry of Defence, Australian Strategic Policy Institute,  Australian Centre for Strategic Studies (our delegation’s equivalent institute), the Asia-Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence, and Joint Operations Command (near Queanbeyan and Bungendore – gotta love these names).  There’s not much I can really say about Canberra.  I appreciated the vast openness of the land.  It was a little slow, however, for me to give any real effusively enthusiastic recommendation.  I did get to try some kangaroo meat and Victoria Bitter beer, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I can say, however, that being a relatively small (in population) country definitely has its advantages in government.  I was so impressed with the message of a whole of government approach that permeated most every organization we visited.  Whether military or civilian sector, there is a genuine attempt to have a balanced and integrated approach to governing, defending, and projecting democracy.  They freely admit that it doesn’t always work, but at least it is in the consciousness of every government agency.  Kudos to Prime Minister Rudd’s leadership on that one!  I only wish that elements throughout the U.S. government would have such a consciousness.

We spent the remaining three days in Sydney.  Now THAT is a city that I could fall in love with.  Just enough city splash to make it exciting, but not crazy busy like Tokyo or Seoul.  The Victorian architecture gives a certain old European charm, that is balanced by such views as the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.  We didn’t have nearly enough freetime, so Sydney is now on my list of places to visit again soon.  Although Canberra is the government hub of action, there are quite a few military defence headquarters located near Sydney.  We hit aspects of them all – Royal Autralian Air Force, Royal Austrailian Army, and a special visit to the Royal Australian Naval Heritage Centre.  The Naval Heritage Centre was particularly moving because our delegation held a quiet ceremony to honor the Australian victims who died during a battle in Sydney Harbor during WWII.  A few Japanese Imperial Navy midget submarines infiltrated the harbor and attempted to sink allied warships.  Three of the submarines were destroyed by the crewmembers rather than be captured by the Allies, and remains of the submarines are displayed in various museums around Australia.

I was able to get in a few runs, but no run has been more rewarding than a sunrise run across the Sydney Harbor Bridge, pausing every once in awhile to try and capture the perfect Opera House shot.  So thankful for the fabulous experience of it all!

Posted by: leospurr | June 20, 2009

The Sands of Iwo Jima

The smell of sulfur doesn’t really hit you until you reach the top of Mt. Surbachi.  While mopping the sweat pouring off my face and noticing the blisters forming on my feet from the scorching heat and slippery gravel road, I tried to imagine the misery my forefathers endured during one of the bloodiest battles of WWII during Feb-Mar 1945.  Of course, I was only carrying a backpack with a lunch, and not enough water. I didn’t have tens of pounds of ammunition, weapons, nor provisions. I didn’t have anyone shooting at me, and I was fairly certain I would see my family again by night’s end. You see, this week, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the tiny island of Iwo Jima – about a three hour C-12 flight from Tokyo.  

You’ve heard stories of Iwo Jima, you’ve seen the movies.  Neither the stories nor the movies compare to actually walking that hallowed ground, and settling your mind to sense the stories that each grain of volcanic ash sand has to tell.  The Japanese know this island as “Iwo To”, a still active volcano.  Rather than try to put into words the emotions that ran through me, I will simply post some pictures.  I will leave you, however, with something that continued to overwhelm me during my few hours on a very small portion of the island – “death would have been a welcome reprieve from the daily hell these courageous young men (on both sides of the gun barrel) must have been living.” 

I have a couple of other more uplifting posts to catch up with – my mom has been here for two weeks, I spent a week on a research trip to Australia, the boys have had their last week of school, I’m in escrow on a home in Burke, VA, we visited a phenomenol onsen in Hakone, and we have just one more week left together in Japan. I cannot believe it has flown by so quickly. Thank you for taking this ride with us! I’m not quite done, and will get to a few other posts before officially closing out Leospurr!

Posted by: leospurr | May 23, 2009

Horsemeat Diplomacy

Sorry to have been so silent!  The 4th quarter of school has not been the freewheeling time that I had been led to believe!  We have all of these pop up scenario driven exercises which require full attendance.   I’m glad that we didn’t hit the roads during Golden Week – some of my colleagues spent 30 hours on the road – for trips that normally only take 8 hours!  I did get to play a round of golf, and much to my surprise did not come in VERY last – just second to last.  We went to a golf course about an hour away, and it was some of the prettiest scenery I’ve seen yet in Japan, hands down!  The boys are doing great, and I’ll blog about one of the most amazing science museums we’ve ever been to in another blog.

Final research group on a mission!

Final research group on a mission!

Today’s blog, however, is dedicated to Mr. Ed.  Here’s a shout out to Ericson Sensei who introduced us to the concept of eating raw horsemeat in Japan.  Amidst all of our requisite, “ick” and “gross” comments, I had it in my head that I wanted to give it a try.  So, I’ve been in Japan for nearly 10 months, and FINALLY ate a cousin of Trigger.  If you are faint of heart or stomach, do not continue reading.  For those of you closely following the adventures of  “Samuress Weinberg”, hang on!

slurp!

slurp!

The courses began with a couple of seafood type dishes that I never really got the good translation of but resembled some kind of eyeball (I’m hoping it was just a baby octopus head) and slimy white worms (I THINK this was very very moist squid).  The main attraction was smoked and peppered horse TONGUE!  Ok, bring it on.  I’ve never even eaten beef tongue.  But, my group made this plan especially for me, and they were so excited to see if I liked everything.  So, I dove in, tongue-to-tongue with a beast that used to be much larger than me.  It was tasty, and the texture was fine.  As long as I don’t think too much about it, I’m ok.  The hardest part was over, I ate probably one of the most difficult things first.

pretty isn't it??

pretty isn't it??

Next came the raw slices, basashi, that I had been waiting for – thinly sliced and very lean – shoulder, rump, rib meat, and underneath the mane.  There was raw heart (had to just push through that one, too), and probably the most interesting – grilled aorta cooked with green onions and garlic – a bit too chewy, but great flavor.  There was also a fresh green salad with horsemeat bacon, and we ended with a shabu shabu of horsemeat fillet.  Essentially into a large pot of boiling broth filled with various veggies, you cook your own slice of horsemeat.  I felt like I was in the “Bubba Gump” of horsemeat.  How many different ways can one REALLY eat a horse?  Several, it appears.  Once the meat was gone, the waitress brought us thick udon noodles to put into the soup pot for the final course.  All the while, the drinks and conversation were free flowing.  I don’t think I’ve mentioned the concept of nomihodai and tabehodai – essentially its all you can drink and/or all you can eat.  You usually get 2 hours for a set price, and order what you want from the menu.  So, for the abovementioned experience, it only cost about $30 each!  I’ll defnitely miss this about Tokyo.

No American horses were harmed in the course of this posting – these were reportedly horses from Canada and Northern Japan.   Next on the list?  Blowfish and whale meat, stay tuned!

Posted by: leospurr | May 3, 2009

And so the Gold starts flowing…

54 stories to go

54 stories to go

This upcoming week in Japan marks the long-awaited for “Golden Week”.  It is technically three days of holidays – running from May 3-5. This year starts on Sunday with Constitution Memorial Day, followed by Green Day, then Children’s Day on Tuesday.  However, because one of the holidays falls on the weekend, an extra freebie holiday is applied to Wednesday, furikae kyujitsu!  Are you keeping up?  Regardless, most companies will be closed the entire week, and my school is no exception!  Classmates and friends are taking trips throughout Japan, as well as overseas.  Putting my well-honed analytical skills to use (and because I’m cheap), I’ve decided to stay put in Tokyo, because everyone else will be leaving Tokyo, and we’ll have the whole city to ourselves! 

Serious work requires uber concentration

Serious work requires uber concentration

We started our stayput adventures today with a visit to one of Tokyo’s tallest skyscapers – the Mori tower at Roppongi Hills http://www.roppongihills.com/en/  I see this monstrosity of architecture almost daily, and have heard of it’s fanstastic views from its observation deck.  The true inspiration was from a poster I saw in the subways that advertised a special “Kids Sky Park” open just for Golden Week .  It seemed like a fun way to spend a few hours.  We were there for SIX hours, and the boys didn’t want to leave when I finally persuaded them it was time to head back home.  During non-holiday periods, the 52nd floor hosts Tokyo City View with a 360 degree observation deck to see Tokyo.   For the remainder of the week, the 52nd floor will be overrun with kids of all ages, dragging their parents through all of the totally fun play areas.  The play areas were constructed by a Japanese importer of European toys called BorneLund.  I am now their biggest fan!   http://www.bornelund.co.jp/    David was glued to a cool building fort area where he literally worked for hours with a wrench and bolts.  Chris spent most of his time in the rolling bubble ball.  It was great physical and mental work for the boys.   There was also a station where the boys could color their own carp balloon, write their wishes for the year, and then release them from the helo deck on the roof of the building.  David was more interested in his building mission, so Chris and I colored balloons.  Chris wrote, “I want Super Mario Sunshine (for real!)”  His punctuation and spelling were impeccable – who could deny the kid his only wish for the year??  We released the balloons from the helo port, and with dismay watched the balloons actually DESCEND from the top of the building – I think they landed near the Emperor’s private residence.  Hope he pulls through with that Super Mario Sunshine wish!

mori-bldg-026

Rolling bubble ball!!

Carp balloons in flight

Carp balloons in flight

With the kids fully engaged, I got to see the latest exhibition at the Mori Art Museum http://www.mori.art.museum/english/contents/kaleidoscopic/index.html  without interruption, and pretended to be inspired and awed by the 12 hanging disco balls that were reflecting light in a darkened room, and the y-shaped circle of lightbulbs flashing on and off.  I’ve frankly been more mesmerized and inspired by watching flashing Christmas tree lights, but hey, that’s just my lack of modern art appreciation.    The one piece that I really wanted to see, I mean interact with – a huge rolling silver pinball machine-like ball that you had to move out of the way so as not get hit while you appreciated all the reflections of light and customers – was “out of order”.  Someone must not have gotten out of the way fast enough.

Posted by: leospurr | April 29, 2009

Light at the End of the Tunnel

I love everything about trains!

I love everything about trains!

I’m not happy about it, but I can smell the end of our time in Japan.  I turned in the first draft of my thesis this week – a huge mental load off of my mind, but it is only making me realize how close to the end we are.  If you’re interested, my paper is entitled, “Multi-National Information Sharing During Disaster Relief Operations”.  It’s actually a very narrow topic, but it became more and more interesting to me, and I’m hoping to kind of stay somewhat involved in this topic.  There’s a lot of improvement to be made in this arena.  Who knows? Perhaps it will translate into a new career after the Marine Corps!

Cosplay gals ready for fun!

Cosplay gals ready for fun!

Although, I’ve been busy with my research, we’ve still managed to get in a few extracurricular activities.  The Tokyo weather has been fabulous.  There is a Japanese saying, 三寒四温 san kan shi on, which directly translates to “3 cold 4 hot” and refers to the transitioning between winter to spring.  And dang it all, if it isn’t spot on!  This pattern has been ongoing for a few weeks, and I think we’re on the verge of straight warm/hot weather.  Two weekends ago, we got together with some friends for a trip to Yoyogi Park – home of the Meiji Shrine which I blogged about when we first arrived in Japan.  Missing were the bands and Elvis impersonators, guess they start a bit later in the season.  But ever present were the cosplay folks, dressed in their Sunday best.   What I love most about this park, is that everyone is so THEMSELVES!  There are people randomly dancing, groups singing or playing sports, cheerleaders practicing, actors rehearsing , bums sleeping – without restraint, without shy gestures.  It’s just a fun place to let loose, enjoy the weather, and take in the sights around you, or participate in your own form of whatever pleases you!  David found the air intake to the local trainline, and came to me with a dirty happy face.  Chris figured out how to play baseball with a few sticks.  My friends and I soaked up some much needed sun picnic’d Japanese style – with a lot of sake.  

april-2009-tokyo-013

Beer and tunes, that's all I need

Also, just so you know, I have two of the luckiest children on this earth.  No, not because they are blessed with me as their mother, but because we frequently WIN stuff when we enter raffles.  Now, we haven’t ever won a house, car, or a ton of money, but we’ll usually win SOMETHING at a function raffle – gift baskets, car washes, massages, sweaters, etc.   Last weekend was no exception – this time we won the GRAND prize – a one night’s stay at the Westin Hotel Tokyo – breakfast included!  But prior to winning the Grand prize, the boys won us (ok, won me) three cool bags filled with goodies (I’m sending one to my mom for Mother’s Day), and several chocolate cake mixes :-)!  I swear, before I had these boys, I NEVER won anything. 

One final shout out – today was 昭和の日 showa no hi, a national holiday celebrating the birthday of the former Emperor who reigned 1926-1989.  What better way to celebrate than to drag the boys to Edo Tokyo museum?  (A commercial break for your Japanese history lesson, the Edo period ran from 1603-1868, followed by the Meiji era 1869-1912, then the Taisho period 1912-1926.)  Put this on your list of museums when you visit Tokyo http://www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp/english/information/index.html  The boys especially loved the many dioramas depicting Japanese life back in the old days!  Although this is the “Edo” museum, it actually depicts Japanese life through the end of WWII (which occurred during the Showa period).  I am particularly fascinated with the Meiji period of Japanese history.  This was the time when Japan’s leaders chose to combine Western advances with traditional Eastern values.  The museum does a great job of showing the huge influence of Western architecture, clothing, and high society.  Sadly most of the Western influenced architecture of the early 19th century was destroyed during the devastating earthquake of 1923.  So as not to turn this into a boring history lesson, suffice to say we enjoyed our day, and the boys are at this moment completely involved with the current period of legos and nintendo.

Posted by: leospurr | April 18, 2009

Moving into Spring

Even the shrimp is raw...

Even the shrimp is raw...

Most of you have heard my complaint of Japanese sushi.  It’s beautifully presented, and always fresh, but dang, it sure is boring.  A friend from college was in town a few weeks ago.  This having been her first time to Japan, and also being a sushi lover, she wanted to actually eat sushi IN JAPAN.  Well, I think she realizes now that she is an American sushi lover.  We found a recommended shop near where she was staying, and after ordering WAY too much food, we made our way through the admittedly yummy tuna, but struggled with the rest.  Finally succumbing to egregiously rude behavior, I asked the waiter to take our raw shrimp to the kitchen and cook it.  It would have gone to waste had we not done so.  I did find one spot in Azabujuban that has a fusion style sushi restaurant http://www.eok.jp/restaurants-bars/casual-dining/sushi/rainbow-roll-sushi/.  It was pretty good, but I’m still looking forward to sushi back in the states!

Chef David prepping the duck

Chef David prepping Easter duckie

The cherry blossoms have dropped, to be replaced by lovely spring green leaves everywhere.  The past several mornings as Chris and I make the commute to his school, we pass by several people out in front of their homes and shops sweeping up the fallen flower blossoms.  It’s been such a nice transition to the warmer weather, and it’s been nice saying, “good morning” to our neighbors whom we haven’t seen for several months.  One gentleman in particular makes a special effort to see us in the mornings.  He always greets us in the most grandfatherly sweet way.  I hope to learn his name someday before we leave.

Life has been productively busy.  I’ve been making headway on my thesis – about 1/2 done.  No more papers or presentations for awhile, so I can theoretically focus.  We’ve got a great routine with the nanny and the boys’ various schooling.  We had friends over for Easter dinner, which consisted of the only meats available at the commissary the Friday before Easter – London Broil and Duck!  It was a hit, and there were no leftovers.  We even mangaged an easter egg hunt in our tiny back yard for nine kids.  One of my favorite senseis from DLI was passing through Tokyo with his family, so some of us were able to get together for breakfast.  That same day, about 40 members from the Australian Defence College came to visit my department.  We had great discussions during a joint symposium, and then even better interational diplomacy talks over great food and A LOT of sake for dinner.  At least I’ve got folks to visit when I head to Australia in June.  

banana and strawberry sandwich - who knew?

banana and strawberry sandwich - who knew?

Per our normal routine, our weekends usually include some type of outing via train.  David is the driving force behind these outings, and per his orders, they usually include several train transfers.  If he had his way, we would spend the entire day just travelling around on the train system.  Tonight’s adventure was to the Mitsukoshi Department store near Ginza http://www.mitsukoshi.co.jp/store/fcs/english/1210/index.html.  YOWZA!!  I’m not much of a shopper, usually because the kiddos are with me, and I prefer to save my money.  But, DANG!!  I could really go crazy here – well without the kiddos in tow, and with a wealthy husband’s credit card!  Hermes, Cartier, Tiffany, Louis Vitton – all in one place!  I had forgotten how fun department stores in Asia can be.  Fully stocked grocery stores are in the basement level, another basement level includes all kind of packaged food from sweets to wine, and the rooftop has a place where the kids can run around and get inexpensive food and snacks.  In the summer, some of these rooftops even have amusement parks.

Amidst all this great culture, I’m acknowledging our eventual move back to the states.  I almost put an offer in on a house in Annandale.  It was a great deal, but after some serious thought – it was too big, on too much land, in too nice of a neighborhood.  I’m looking for something a bit more proletarian (ok, had to look that up to make sure I wasn’t mixing it up with bourgeois or bohemian)  That’s it for another couple of weeks, I’m sure.  I mentioned to a friend that I’ve grown too accustom to things Japanese already.  I’m taking things for granted, but want to keep a fresh eye, so that I don’t miss anything!

Ja mata!

Posted by: leospurr | April 5, 2009

Oh Hanami!

お花見は                 o hanami wa
心をこめて               kokoro o komete
来年来れる?           rai nen ko re ru?

sakura in full bloom

sakura in full bloom

My very own Haiku created just for hanami.  Ok, what’s hanami?  General translation is “flower viewing”.  I learned this word, and was taught the concept before arriving in Japan, but didn’t really get what the big deal was.  “Ok, so people go and look at flowers.  Uh, yeah, great.”  I lived in DC for several years and have seen the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin.  I lived in Korea and took ridiculous road trips down to Chinhae for their own over-commercialized cherry blossom festivals.  So, why would I get excited about looking at cherry blossoms in Japan??  Well, the answer is because every watered down tradition I’ve been exposed to previously pales in comparison to how the Japanese celebrate these occasions! 

Every media outlet – weather bureaus, newspapers, radio stations, etc. – announce the sakurazensen, the cherry blossom front, on a daily basis starting in January.  The warmer southern parts of the country experience the bloom of flowers earlier, and the colder northern parts are later.   The tradition of hanami is said to have started during the Nara period (710-794), and then focused on the ume (plum blossom) which bloom a few weeks earlier than the cherry blossoms.  The tradition of enjoying the sakura (cherry blossom) started in the Heian period (793-1185) when Confucianism and Chinese influences were at their height.  People still have parties to celebrate the plum blossoms, but none as great as the celebrations for the cherry blossoms. 

Meguro River

Meguro River

Today was literally about the peak of the blooms in and around Tokyo.  In order to not miss a bloom, I started going to hanami parties last weekend.   With various groups of friends, I’ve been to Ueno Park, Yasukuni Shrine, and my own neighborhood Meguro river.  Each location has been filled with hundreds, probably thousands depending on the location, of families, friends, co-workers, all looking to stroll along the tree lined walks.  After the general appreciation of the spring blossoms, the real appreciation takes place – of food and drink!  People spread out blankets, plastic sheets, cardboard, newspapers, and sit down under the presence of the trees and imbibe, imbibe, imbibe!  People are nearly sitting elbow to elbow, and it really is a lot of fun.  Everyone is happy, cheerful, and friendly.  Pictures are being snapped at the rapid rate, and you just can’t help getting into the festivities.  Some locations, the Yasukuni Shrine for instance, also put up food and drink stands.  Our party at Yasukuni was actually catered, and yummy dishes and drinks just kept coming out for 3 hours straight!

crowds enjoying hanami in Ueno Park

crowds enjoying hanami in Ueno Park

So, my new ambition is to bring back with me to the States a greater appreciation for several Japanese traditions, and to introduce my stateside gaijin friends to all the wonders of these rich traditions.  Thankfully, I’ll be in the DC area for the foreseeable future, and am already planning next year’s hanami party!  Mark your calendars now…

apr-hanami-004

My very own tree lined run route!

Posted by: leospurr | March 21, 2009

The City of Temples…

Ah- Kyoto!  Ever since one of my high school friends spent a summer in Kyoto back in 1984, I’ve been wanting to visit!  The experience did not fail to disappoint, and I’m planning to return on my own this summer for a few more days.  Kyoto served as the capital of Japan for nearly 11 centuries until 1868.  It now ranks as Japan’s 7th largest city, and is nicknamed the city of temples because of its some 2000 temples and shrines.  Due to it’s historical and cultural relevance, Kyoto was dropped from the list of potential bombing targets during WWII, and retains a pre-war beauty with its ancient temples, shrines, palaces, and gardens still intact.  One of the things I appreciated most was the grid-like layout of the city.  Unlike Tokyo’s confusing, complicated, and sneaky layout, Kyoto’s ancient city planning was very straightforward.  The reasoning is that warlords in Tokyo had to be more concerned about potential invaders into the city, and therefore didn’t want to make the streets so easily navigated.  As often as I get lost while driving in Tokyo, I can confirm that they succeeded.  

Japan's longest wooden structure

Japan's longest wooden structure

Sanjusangendo (三十三間堂)was first on our target list – it is a Buddhist temple that literally houses 1001 lifesize, gold-leaf covered cypress statues of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon.  Pictures were not allowed inside, and I doubt they would do justice to the enormity of presence that these statues portray.  In front of the deities, as befits any proper deity, stand twenty-eight guardian deities.  The guardians are much more ferocious looking and seem to be  succeeding at their job of protecting the goddesses.  As my Indian classmate confirmed, the guardians have their origin in ancient India, and he was feeling quite at home.  The hall housing these treasures is Japan’s longest wooden structure, and the current structure has remained intact since 1266.

The Golden Pavilion Temple

The Golden Pavilion Temple

Our next stop was kinkaku rokuon ji (金閣鹿苑寺), or more often referred to simply as kinkakuji (golden pavilion temple).   It was pouring rain at the time, and I am thoroughly glad for it!  If I had been there on my own, I probably would have found some nice shopping area to visit, and foregone walking around the garden.  But since it was part of the tour, we couldn’t skip it and visiting an ancient garden during the rain is absolutely spectacular.   Of course, the crowds are minimal, and the mist in the air, the sound of rain-swollen waters, the smell of wet moss is just an entirely different experience.  The Golden Temple was originally built in 1397 as the retirement home of Yoshimitsu, the 3rd Shogun of Ashikaga.  It is a 3-storied pagoda-shaped laquered building, with the top two floors gilded in gold leaf.  To see a golden building in the middle of a pond reflecting its grandeur is a sight to be seen.  The original building was burned and rebuilt a few times due to domestic wars and at least one disgruntled monk.  It was most recently rebuilt in 1955, and given a thicker coating of gold in 1987.  Thank goodness the Japanese economy was good back then!

Feel like jumping??

Feel like jumping??

Our final visit on this way too brief trip was at kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) which means “clear water temple”, and takes its name from the waterfall on the complex.  The temple dates back to 798,  with present buildings built in 1633.  Not one nail is used in its construction!  This temple is referred to in a Japanese proverb – “to jump off the stage at kiyomizu” essentially means “to take the plunge” and refers to a practice during the Edo period where people would literally jump off the stage, and if they survived the 13m plunge, their greatest desires would come true.  Apparently some 85% of those “recorded” jumpers survived.  Not sure of their greatest desires success rate, however.  The practice has been banned, thankfully!  The waterfall’s waters also have therapeutic properties, reportedly.  Our tour guide told us that the three streams of water from which you can drink will give you health, love, and academic success.  You cannot be greedy and take all three.  “Ok, boys, which one do you want to drink from?”  We all chose love.  After a brief sip, Chris proclaimed that he felt better already (I didn’t know he was feeling poorly before), and he was full of love.  For the next 15 minutes the boys were hugging, laughing and promising to play with each other peacefully.  Yeah, that lasted pretty much until we got back on the bus when Chris then proclaimed, “I should have drank more of the water,” and the fight over the Nintendo ensued.  Regardless, a little more research on my part afterwards, and the waters are supposedly for wisdom, health, and longevity.  Love comes into the picture at another temple on the complex that we didn’t even know about!  I’ll get back there this summer!

Drinking therapeutic waters!

Drinking therapeutic waters!

Posted by: leospurr | March 16, 2009

Important reminders….

a-bomb dome - enough said

a-bomb dome - enough said

The boys and I are back home from an awesome, but quick cultural trip down to Hiroshima and Kyoto.  I’ll split our trip into two blogs – first up – Hiroshima! 

You probably know Hiroshima as one of the targets of the Atomic bomb (the other target was Nagasaki) that eventually ended the Pacific campaign of World War II.  As you can imagine, it is an emotional topic for all involved, and a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Museum had me holding back tears at every corner.  War is often an uncontrolled necessity, and it always carries horrors with it.  Not having been born, nor even a twinkle in my father’s eye in 1945, this was a valuable tactical and visual experience for me, and I hope, the boys.  Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) were just two of several targets.  Hiroshima became the primary target for August 6th, 1945 because there was no cloud cover.  Think of that, the weather determined the death of over 144,000 people.  Of course, if it hadn’t been Hiroshima, it would have been another Japanese military industrial complex city.  In a Shakespearean sort of tragic way, the primary target, a t-shaped bridge, was left undamaged, while the majority of the city was completely obliterated.  A reminder of the horrors of war remains standing just across the river from the Peace Museum.  The genbaku (A-bomb) dome was the prefectural exhibition hall, completed in 1915.   After the war, it was intended to be demolished with the ruins of the city, but the fact that it was mostly intact delayed the demolition plans.  Several years of debate and controversy ended with it becoming a memorial to the bombing.  I am thankful that it remains.  It would be too easy to gloss over the sorrowful history if it had been demolished and replaced by a slick apartment building.  I have left Hiroshima, but it will never leave me.

Otorii gate in the background

Otorii gate in the background

Not all our time in Hiroshima was somber, however.  A 40-min bus ride outside of town followed by a 10-min ferry ride, and we arrived at Miyajima, an island that is home to the Itsukushima shrine, and Otorii Gate classified as one of Japan’s Three Views (Amanohashidate and Matsushima Bay are the other two).  This present gate has been rebuilt eight times since 1168, most recently in 1875.  It is built out in the sea (we were there during low tide) because the island itself was considered a god.  There are also “wild” deer aplenty on the island.  Wild in that they are not kept in a cage, but suspiciously tame.  Chris was hanging out, hugging, petting, and generally being buds with several of them.  I had to check him for ticks afterwards.  Beware, they eat paper and clothing.  One got a hold of a folder and took a big chomp out of our itinerary. 

Hiroshima is known for kaki (oysters), okonomiyaki (noodles, veggies, meat fried up in a crepe and egg pancake), and momiji monju (sweet bean paste in maple leaf shaped sponge cake).  And yes, we ate all kinds of variations and flavors of each.  Of them all, I’m still craving the oysters.  Big, fat, and so yummy!

Chris with his Samurai face

Chris with his Samurai face

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