Posted by: leospurr | March 8, 2009

Odds and Ends – Again

It’s been several weeks, it seems since my Okinawa trip.  Since then??  Mom went back to California – so sad to see her leave, we really had a great trip with her.  We got in a Yokohama trip, a place where she caught a boat back in the early 1950s, to start her new life in the United States.  My sister, Margaret, was just a baby at the time – what a lifetime of memories.  I may be able to get mom out here one more time before the end of my school year. 

We also were able to make it to Ooedo Onsen http://www.ooedoonsen.jp/english/  – pretty much a tourist trap, complete with tons of knick knacks to buy, food, beer, sake, and even some entertainment.   They had great onsen pools, though, and an outside community foot bath area.  Chris won me a 20% discount on beer by beating the shop owner at a game of rock, paper, scissors – that’s my boy!

Our biggest news is that the medical system in Okinawa decided that they cannot support us.  Therefore, I cannot be stationed there, and we are now heading back to Washington, DC this summer.  I was bummed for about 12 hours.  Fortunately, several of my friends are in the DC area, and they’ve all reminded me why I miss them so much.  So, I’m really excited, and have been madly searching real estate and school websites to find a place to rent.  Also, on my monthly shopping trip to Yokota Air Base today, I bought a car.  The military has great offers, and the car will meet me in VA when I get there in July.  So far, it’s a kiwi green Ford Escape Hybrid SUV.  I can change up until I actually pick up the car.  Ever since owning a Prius, I’ll have a hard time getting anything OTHER than a “green” car.

Now knowing that we probably won’t have a chance to live in Japan again, I feel even more pressure to experience as much of Japan as possible.  The boys and I took a bullet train trip to Niigata prefecture to spend some time in the snow at Gala Yuzawa ski resort http://www.galaresort.jp/winter/english/  This is the place to go, if you feel like a day trip from Tokyo.  Great runs for skiing, and a kids play area for sledding, snowball fights, and snowman building.  The bullet train literally stops right at the resort.  You exit the train, and can rent all your gear right there.  A quick gondola ride takes you to the bottom of the slopes.  After a day of skiing, it’s back to the main building, where you can enjoy a great spa (which we did), grab a bite to eat, do some souvenir shopping, and catch your train back home.  It’s hard to find someplace more convenient.

This week, the boys and I are taking a trip with the other “foreign” officers from school to Kyoto and Hiroshima.  I’ll have more pictures from that adventure, and promise to get them posted soon.  I also get to look forward to my cousin, Catherine, visiting next weekend!

Ja Mata!

Posted by: leospurr | February 21, 2009

Clash of Civilizations on Okinawa

Traditional Okinawan kimono

Traditional Okinawan kimono

This last week we had a research trip to the tropical island of Okinawa – southwest of Japan’s Kyuushu Island.  While it was snowing in places just an hour’s drive from Tokyo, we had balmy and fragrant filled days and nights in Okinawa.  As a potential future workplace for me, I was highly attuned to anything and everything that Okinawa might offer my family.  I was not disappointed, and have a new excitement and motivation for being stationed there.  Since this was a defense-related research trip, we were able to see a side of Okinawa that most civilians never see. 

The disposition and number of military forces on Okinawa remains a political and emotional hotpoint for several ethnic Okinawans.  With a rich, prideful, and peaceful history of it’s own, Okinawans feel the burden of being stategically located in the crosshairs of East Asian security concerns.  Economically depressed Okinawa is on one hand dependent upon the financial support of U.S. military bases and Japanese central government defense subsidies, and on the other hand resentful of this dependency, loss of land, and other burdens sometimes associated with hosting young, testosterone-primed young men far from home.   Our flight in a CH-47 helo around the island, brought home the point in full color. 

Futenma Air Base takes up a lot of space!

Futenma Air Base takes up a lot of space!

Our bases take up a LOT of land on this tiny island.  It doesn’t help that the northern part of the island is completely mountainous, and mountains would literally have to be moved to develop this area for either defense or economic purposes.   A bilateral agreement is pushing for the realignment of some 8000 Marines and their families to relocate to Guam by 2014.  For this to happen, some other changes on Okinawa must occur, namely the relocation of Futenma Air Base to another location on the island.  As local and national administrations on both sides come and go, this agreement continues to be met with opposition.  Suffice to say, permission has yet to be given, and ground has yet to be broken on building this new air facility.  The “Okinawa Problem” is going to be around for awhile.

It was not all work, however.  We had a 1/2 day tour in our schedule and got to visit the Peace Park, as well as Shurijo Castle grounds.   I spent nearly two hours in the museum at Peace Park, so much time that I missed the other parts of the park, but it was worth it.  It was an engrossing walk through the history of Okinawa and I learned a lot.  Most everything is translated into English, but I still recommend taking one of the free audio guided tours. 

Main hall of Shurijo Castle - political and ceremonial center

Main hall of Shurijo Castle - political and ceremonial center

Shurijo Castle was beautiful, and you are able to get a sense of life in the Ryuukyu Kingdom (Okinawa’s former name during the 1600s before being subsumed by Japan).  It was, however, much like every other castle grounds you visit in China.  I’m hoping to find a castle that incorporates a museum aspect as well.

In Tokyo, there are frequent ads trying to get “mainlanders” to visit Okinawa.  Tourism is a huge part of Okinawa’s economy.  As such several swanky resorts, and an entire street (aptly named International Street) dedicated to souvenir shopping can be found.  Okinawan ramen, yummy chinsukou cookies, and habushu – Okinawan snake-included liquor are a few of the Okinawan delicacies you can buy.  As a final thought, we stayed in a business hotel called Roco Inn Okinawa, in the capital city of Naha.  It was a bit seedy, and during my not terribly early morning runs (7 am) I saw lots of drunk folks stumbling out of bars and in to taxi cabs.  The previous night was probably a lot of fun for them.  Take that for what’s it’s worth.  Oh, and the weather is so warm in Okinawa, that the cherry blossoms bloomed two weeks before we arrived – it’s only February!  Spring is just around the corner and Okinawa is in the lead…

Grown up version of "worm in the tequila"

Grown up version of "worm in the tequila"

Posted by: leospurr | February 11, 2009

Sapporo Winter Festival 2009

sapporo-jan-09-019I started this blog two days ago! Life just continues to mow me over with its unforgiving sense of time and space!! Mom arrived on Sunday just a few hours after we landed from our Sapporo trip. So glad to have her here to share this adventure with us. I pray that I’m as healthy and adventurous as she is at 80! She hit the ground running and I continue to be so grateful that I’m her daughter. I still have so much to learn from her.

Ok, on to Sapporo…If there’s anything we’ve done thus far since being in Japan that deserves a hearty, “WOW!!”, it’s the Sapporo Winter Festival! This year was the 60th anniversary of the festival that started back in 1950 (don’t ask me about the math) when 6 high school students built snow statues in Odori Park, which now hosts the bulk of the snow sculptures. In 1955 the Japanese Self Defense forces became involved and began building the massive snow sculptures that the festival is now famous for. International competitions began in 1974, and in 2009, the Weinbergs finally visited. Since a picture paints a thousand words, I’ll just leave you with some teasers of YOUR next winter vacation. I do have to post  a few links: one to “OK Parking”  http://ok-p.co.jp/   a  relatively cheap and easy off-site parking lot near Haneda airport. It was only 4800 yen for 2 nights and 3 days of parking – much cheaper than the three of us catching the limo bus, or parking at the airport.  Also a plug for the hotel we stayed at: Cross Hotel http://www.crosshotel.com/eng_sapporo/   It had a public indoor and outdoor bath on the top floor, buffet breakfast included, easy access to the winter festival, fabulous staff, awesome rooms, and the most amazing outside ice bar where they served hot toddies in the late afternoon to passersby.  We also had dinner at the best idea for a family restaurant I’ve ever encountered.  I fully expect that if any of you start this restaurant that you’ll give me a part of the proceeds for giving you this idea…Are you familiar with the “iSpy” series of books, video games, etc?  Imagine a restaurant with the same theme!  On the 3rd floor of the Sapporo TV tower (very similar in shape, but smaller than Tokyo TV tower) my favorite restaurant exists.  http://www.tv-tower.co.jp/en/index.html  I can’t find a link to the restaurant and I didn’t take any pictures, because the boys and I were so enthralled with our game of iSpy while we waited for our food. It was kind of a “pirate” themed iSpy with all kinds of random things hanging and hiding.  Be prepared, the food wasn’t anything to blog about, but good enough and worth revisiting only because the atmosphere was so engaging.  All in all our too brief trip had us truly living in a winter wonderland! 

Baileys and milk for me, cocoa for the boys, please!

Baileys and milk for me, cocoa for the boys, please!

Fish and crab, suspended in disbelief

Fish and crab, suspended in icy disbelief

Daggone near life size snow replica of Hammamatsu castle

Daggone near life size snow replica of Hammamatsu castle

The other "major" piece - Korea's Namdaemun

The other "major" piece - Korea's Namdaemun

Posted by: leospurr | February 5, 2009

Stay tuned

All right – your patience will be rewarded! Come back on Monday and I hope to be able to share with you the results of our weekend trip to Sapporo to take part in the 2009 Winter Festival!

Other than that, things have been running quite smoothly in our little village. Work has been great, I continue to hone my brain cells on both the Japanese language, and the political and current event topics. I’m even trying to convince the monitors to let me work in a political/military (pol-mil) position after this rather than my “normal” job. Our nanny, Almira, is a God-send. She even cooks! I’ve been getting home around 7pm every night, and come home to a healthy and tasty meal, with the boys having already been fed! The boys are doing well in their respective “schools” and are getting along with each other fabulously. David just performed a little hip-hop dance for me, I recognized a little “cabbage patch” move in there – too funny.

My mom comes out for a visit starting this Sunday, the day we return from Sapporo! I’m so looking forward to sharing this experience with her. She’s a great overseas travel buddy, especially since she speaks fluent Japanese, has no problem eating at street-corner stalls, and is still super genki even as she approaches 80!

See you all in a few days!

Ja Mata!

Posted by: leospurr | January 28, 2009

late-jan-09-002Can it be that I’ve lost my steam and passion for this blog? Or is it just that I’ve really become accustomed to Japanese life, so much so that everything seems routine to me still? Only time will tell. I will admit however to spending WAY too much time on Facebook chit chatting with old and new friends alike. So, to catch those of you up who are not reading my Facebook reports, here’s another installment of just random stuff that is happening in the Weinberg Village…
My school is going great. I really love it. We’re finishing up our 2nd quarter, and I’m becoming more and more a part of each team and group I work with. I’m making some great contacts and friends, still not learning any great Japanese karaoke songs, but honing my skills on Madonna and Harry Connick, Jr. My mind still drifts, however, and I found myself in a seminar discussing Japan’s options in developing a deep strike capability and/or becoming a nuclear nation. Sounds fun, no? I was really enjoying most of the discussion, but found that my mind continued to wander to when I would be able to get my nails done again. Sigh, I’m really trying…
My mind wanders to other more semi-productive things, as well. Sometimes, I write stories or articles in my head and often take notes. This bad habit has paid off recently, and my very first published article is coming out on Friday in a weekly local English magazine! I even get paid 10,000 yen! It should be online as well at http://www.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/recent/lastword.asp You’ll recognize the content from an old blog post. Shout out to Mandy who had one of her articles published right before Christmas – thus my inspiration for even submitting an article.
Our Manny, Joe, went back home to the states this week. Thus, our new nanny, Almira, started up full time. Her first day on the job? She organized all of the boys’ clothing drawers – I’m talking dark and light colors, long and short sleeve shirts separated and re-folded, socks and underwear are all someplace where I can find them! I come home daily to little organizational suprises – underneath the sinks, my closet, boys’ toys. The boys are fed and happy by the time I come home. I hope the honeymoon lasts!
Chris loves his school and is making new friends. David’s tutor, Mr. Bill, does great stuff with him in addition to academics – I come home to new projects all of the time – and they have weekly field trips. This week, they are visiting the aquarium in Shinagawa.
We went to Tokyo Disney last weekend. It was the perfect day to go – cold, yet sunny, and not a ton of people. We only had to wait 10-20 minutes at the longest for any ride. We were all happy to have a bit of fluffy, happy, Disney Americana around us. We’ll go back for more!
late-jan-09-037Chris and I commute to his school by bus and train every morning, and we have taken to wearing health masks while on crowded trains. There’s enough people around coughing and hacking, that wearing these masks just seems the polite and healthy thing to do. I really appreciate this custom. I also do it, because I have to ride a VERY crowded train back to work after dropping Chris off at school, and I don’t like smelling other peoples’ breath! There are enough people eating a lot of garlic and drinking booze the night before, that my little mask gives me enough filter that I don’t have to inhale the toxins coming out of my neighbors pores.
There’s also a thing with gargling here. Our work bathroom, Chris’ school, all have bottles of some kind of iodine mixture that people add to their water glasses, and go to town gargling the stuff. I’m assuming it’s to kill cold viruses and bacteria, but it’s the grossest thing to hear and see. The men’s sink is actually outside of the toilet area, kind of in the open. So EVERY morning I pass by and witness 3-5 men, heads thrown back, mouths wide open, amber colored bubbles popping, and a cacophany of gurgling and gargling. It’s enough to make me heave, but I kindly refrain.
Told you this would be random. Guess there’s still enough going on that I find room to comment. Upcoming adventures? Trip to the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force base in Yokosuka. Our BIG (and expensive) trip to Sapporo to take part in the Winter Festival. My mom is coming to visit for 3 weeks – I’ll be travelling to Okinawa with school for one of those weeks. Latest word on my next duty station is that it will be in Okinawa – I hope so – boys in the same school and living on base where they can have lots of other kids to play with!

Posted by: leospurr | January 17, 2009

Fat-Man Sandwich Please

sumo-january-027

According to Japanese legend, the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match.  The supremacy of the Japanese people on the islands of Japan was established when the god, Takemikazuchi, won a sumo bout with the leader of a rival trible.   True or not, sumo is an ancient sport dating back some 1500 years.  Many of the traditions, discipline, and intrigue still surround the sport today.  Japan is the only country where there is professional sumo, and several foreigners (we got to watch the Estonian and Bulgarian wrestle each other) come here to live, eat, and drink this sport.  And I do mean EAT!  These guys are HUGE.  We had the privilege of watching a match that pitted the heaviest sumo wrestler working today, against a guy half his size.  It wasn’t a very long bout.  But, really NONE of the bouts are very long.  The actual time that the wrestlers (called rishiki) are pitted against each other can last a quite awhile.  Much of their time, however, is spent in ceremonial rituals of rinsing their mouth with water, wiping their face and bodies down with a cloth, slapping their massive bodies, flapping their arms, lifting their legs, throwing salt into the ring  – all to prepare themselves mentally and spiritually for the match.  Then, there’s the “cold warfare” that ensues, and is limited to only 4 minutes, but can seem like forever.  Lots of glaring, self-slapping, and general tension, and then SLAM!!  Loads of muscle and lard bash into each other, and in only a few seconds a victor is determined either by being pushed out of the ring, or by any body part other than the bottom of the feet touching the inside of the ring.  The glaring matches get the audience into a frenzy, and I found myself just as intrigued and cheering in anticipation of when the next bodily earthquake would occur.  The video below is of the LONGEST actual bout of the night. 

There are six Grand Sumo Tournaments a year – three in Tokyo at the “Sumo Stadium” in January, May, and September.  We were hosted by an association of former Japanese Self-Defense Officers, so we didn’t have to pay for the tickets.  Apparently, ring side seats during the tournament season go for about $8k!!  I would like ringside seats someday, but am pretty sure I’d have to develop a relationship with the yakuza to do so!

Posted by: leospurr | January 16, 2009

Thank you for your Patience

Yes, yes, I know – I’ve been very delinquent in keeping up.  Classes started up last week, and the boys came home this past weekend!  Chris started a new school, and David is now being homeschooled.  I’ve been breaking in a new nanny, and Joseph, our beloved “manny” is going back to the states in one more week.  I have two presentations to give this upcoming week.  I still have no love-life, but continue to fight with the ex, who by the way is getting remarried this fall!  It’s a lot for one little person to absorb.  So, in lieu of interesting, witty, and insightful commentary, I’m just going to post a bunch of pictures as a testament to the last couple of weeks!  Enjoy my life in pictures…

Skiing with Oguro Sensei

Skiing with Oguro Sensei

New Years party with my research team

New Years party with my research team

David's 10th Birthday!!

David's 10th Birthday!!

Chris at new school, with teacher TJ

Chris at new school, with teacher TJ


Visiting the Japanese Space Center

Visiting the Japanese Space Center

Posted by: leospurr | January 2, 2009

Holmes Says, “Happy New Year”

new-years-greetings-038

Emperor Akihito and the Imperial Family

Called the “People’s Visit to the Palace for the New Year Greeting”, several thousand people travel to the Imperial Palace grounds every year on January 2nd to see the Japanese Emperor and his Imperial Family in their 4- minute appearance and 30-second speech.  The only other day of the year when the public is allowed on these hallowed grounds is for the Emperor’s birthday, December 23rd.  I have been looking forward to this day since last year when I was sorely disappointed that I wasn’t allowed to cross the moat to actually see the palace.  There are several scheduled appearances throughout the day until about 1:30pm.  I made it to the first “viewing” at 10:10, and though the actual appearance was short and anti-climatic, the whole experience was, of course, very Japanese.  Thousands of people obediently listened to the police officers guiding us through the various queues, received Japanese flags for waving, waved their flags, quieted down for the speech, and then quietly filed out of the palace grounds.  There were a few whoops and hollers, but I swear they were all from foreigners.  There was absolutely no pushing, no yelling, no stress, just calm, cool, and collected obedience.  It’s a bit unsettling sometimes, but it certainly feeds my need for order and timeliness.  I usually avoid crowds because I get a bit paranoid about being trampled.  In Japan, I can do crowds.  I need to try a rock concert next!new-years-greetings-042

In today’s message Emperor Akihito voiced concern about the growing impact of the global financial crisis on the nation’s economy.  Apparently, it is pretty rare for him to comment on the economy, or pretty much anything else that may be politically charged.   The role of Japan’s emperor has been reduced to a ceremonial one after Emperor Hirohito renounced his divinity and his status as the military commander in chief following Japan’s defeat in World War II.  All I can say is that they were all looking superbly regal and gave great waves!

snaking our way to the Palace

snaking our way to the Palace

Posted by: leospurr | January 1, 2009

Praying in the New Year!!

new-years-2009-025It is a Japanese custom to celebrate the new year by visiting a shrine (Shinto faith) or temple (Buddhist faith) to put forth your prayers for the upcoming year.  I’ve been taking care of some friends’ cats at their fabulous 39th floor swanky apartment, which as fate would have it, is only a 10-minute walk from the famous Zojoji Temple.  Right behind the Zojoji Temple is Tokyo’s famous observation tower which I blogged about in “Tower Envy” ( https://leospurr.wordpress.com/2008/08/16/tower-envy/ ) The main hall of Zojoji Temple was built in 1393, then relocated to it’s current location in 1598, burned down by WWII air raids in 1945, and rebuilt in 1974.  I’ve never really been a student of history, but find the rich, complex history of this country intoxicating!

new-years-2009-042I met a friend and his wife at the temple gate around 10pm, and we got to take in the full spectrum of New Year’s preparations.  There was taiko (drumming), mochi (rice cake) making, Buddhist prayers, and tons of food and drink.  We missed out on something that I was really looking forward to, though – writing our New Year’s prayers on a “wishing card”, and attaching it to a balloon that would be released at midnight.  By the time we figured out where we were supposed to get the “wishing cards”, they had run out.  No wishing card, no balloon.  Bummer!  Not to fear, I paid a few hundred yen at various locations, and put forth my prayers and requests for 2009.  I so charmed a kind older Japanese man that he taught me how to properly pray in Buddhist fashion, waved a prayer branch over me, and gave my friends and I free sake!  Ok, maybe that was his job, and my charm had nothing to do with it 🙂

I’m glad we arrived a few hours early, because we had the perfect spot in front of the temple with the image of Tokyo Tower in the background.  In what seemed like only minutes, the entire place was packed with a sea of people.  I felt like a human sardine packed into the metro train during rush hour.  True to the tradition, we counted down to midnight, Tokyo Tower lit up with 2009 shining brightly.  A host of what looked like airborne jelly fish were released with all the hopes, prayers, and requests for the new year attached.  It was a beautiful sight, and my own prayers were sent up as I envisioned a year for my family filled with friends, love, understanding, and serenity! 

new-years-2009-052

Blessings and good cheer to you all!  Happy 2009!

Posted by: leospurr | December 29, 2008

Commodore Perry Wouldn’t Recognize the Place

Landmark Tower

Landmark Tower

A bit jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, I met friends at the Port of Yokohama on a beautiful weekend afternoon.  So close, and yet unvisited by me, I was thrilled to finally set foot in the historical base of foreign trade in Japan.  Commodore Perry arrived just south of Yokohama in 1853 with a fleet of warships demanding that Japan open up several ports for commerce.  A series of geo-political decisions finally dictated the opening of Yokohama in 1859.  The place hasn’t looked back since.  This once-sleepy fishing village became one of Japan’s most international cities.  

Our first stop was the Landmark Tower – the tallest building in all of Japan.  On the 69th floor is an observation tower that can be reached in just 40 seconds via the world’s second fastest elevator (first fastest in Taipei).  Blessed with great weather, even Mt. Fuji was visible.yokohama-014

Times have changed, and Yokohama doesn’t hold the distinction of being the most international Japanese city any longer, but it still boasts one of the world’s largest Chinatowns!  I’ve been to Chinatowns in LA, SF, DC, and Portland, and probably a few throughout SE Asia that I’ve forgotten about.  THIS one has them all beat – hands down!  The actual land area is HUGE, the food was fabulous and plentiful, it is impeccably clean, and so incredibly lively!  Ok, sure the weather was absolutely perfect, and it WAS a Saturday afternoon – but there was just something else electrifying about the place!  A stroll through Yamashita Park, followed by a shabu shabu dinner in Roppongi, and I was briefly distracted from my sadness over the boys still being in CA with their dad.  They will be home in a couple of weeks, and you can be sure that one of our first trips will be to Yokohama for the Chinese New Year!

yokohama-051

Chinese Temple to gods of business and prosperity

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