Tuesday, January 4, 2011


dreams of inhaling
Japan, a child at each hand,
come true on this day

On the morning we left for Japan, I woke 5 minutes before alarm, whipped out this haiku, and punctuated it with a big ol' smile. JAPAN! Instead of the usual journaling I ask (force) the girls to do when we travel, I encouraged (forced) them to write haiku of their own to reflect on trip. I will share a few from our week. Let the madness/vacation begin! 

Day 1, flew 6+ hours from Bangkok to Tokyo and took airport express train another hour to Tokyo station where we had noodles for dinner & hotel rooms for night, at closest hotel to station to minimize gear lugging. Thailand & Japan are in the same neighborhood, but it's a big neighborhood.

First meal... Udon

Udon maker & server... Japanese have a terrific knack for making complete strangers feel like long lost cousins, found. Girls left with gift doggy bags of snacks & desserts for the road/rails.

Day 2, left Tokyo early for shinkansen (bullet) to Nagano.

In a smokey cafe at breakfast (for all that they've mastered, Japan has yet to nail the 'no smoking in public places' thing) a businessman whipped out a crane he made from paper napkin. Not a word or a smile, just the gift. Riley beamed. Little acts of kindness overflow from this place.

I walk Tokyo streets
coats, mittens, scarves, hats galore
I wait to see snow

Rob's haiku would go something like this...

Curse, these blasted boards,
boots, goggles, etc.
What were we thinking???

today we board trains,
shinkansen - it will be fun
it will be quite fast
                                       - Ry

Our train reached top speed of 260kph, or about 160mph. Quite fast, and smooth. Japan's train system, from bullets on down to the old codgers, is amazing. 1 hour 25 min from Tokyo to Nagano (kinda like a mountainous GR to Chicago).

Snow country. A little light on the snow, but no complaining. Crisp air was a gift! 

Lunched on gyoza & ramen in Nagano before catching local train to our mountain town.

All the way from Tokyo to the mountains, Rob dreamt aloud of the nap to be had when we arrived at our hotel.

He forgot that when planning way back in April, I chose a traditional ryokan (guesthouse) instead of the Marriott... our room was dressed for tea upon arrival, not napping. The great vacation dilemma, culture vs. convenience.

Views from our room softened his sleepy pain.

As did onsen. In the Ring of Fire, Japan is blessed with glorious hotsprings that bubble from seismically active mountains.  Some springs bubble freely in the hills, while others are tapped & piped to ryokans and public baths common to the area. Our ryokan had 5 onsen in 3 differing styles: indoor & outdoor ones for each men & women, and then one family style. The men's & women's flip-flopped everyday at midnight, so we experienced them all, our favorite being one in the outdoors. Open 24 hours a day, and all-natural (no chlorine, yay!).  All-natural extends to users as well, meaning no bathing suits. Suits taint the pure waters, traditional belief maintains. As do cameras, so not many pics of onsen, sorry... you'll have to take our word for how fabulous they are, or better yet, come enjoy yourself! 

Our girls arrived ready to onsen, but were close to tears when they learned of the requisite attire. "I am NOT going in the onsen," they moaned. "Let's go check it out," I encouraged.  We got into the ladies changing room, nobody there. They were interested, but not budging. So I seized the moment, tidily put my clothes in basket provided, and walked out to the onsen.  Little girls followed not 30 seconds later, and will now tell you that onsen was one of their very favorite things about Japan.

snow on young eyelash
melts with her trepidations
entering onsen   

wooden stool, rich soaps
white towel rests aside stone
water, steam, fog smiles

I title this one, "Lather, Rinse, Repeat 5x Daily," for that is exactly what the girls did.  Wake up, "May I onsen before breakfast?" Return from chilly hills, "I'm heading to onsen." After dinner, "Onsen anyone?" One of my proudest moments early in this trip was stepping into onsen to find Allie already talking with a couple Japanese women. Chatty, polite and even using some of her basic Japanese from school, all while sitting there al fresca. Sort of a Japanese Red Tent experience, I saw in new light the great possibility this girl has.  

FYI... in a traditional Japanese bath, always wash/shampoo/rinse outside the bath at the stool provided, then use bath to soak your already clean body. When I lived in Japan, I was invited to a friend's summer home in a teeny, mountain village. The village had a public bath, a lot like pictures above, only larger. Her family was only one in village with its own bath, they were very proud. Mayuka & I came back from a walk our first night, and the bath was piping hot & ready for me, their guest, to use first. I knew enough to wash outside tub, then soak. Got out when finished, pulled the plug, and cleaned up my things for next person. Well, it turns out you're not supposed to pull the plug, for it takes a good hour+ to fill a tiny tub with hot water when you're in a mountain village that doesn't have onsen. If you put clean body in tub, then everyone can share, right?  Oooops.   

After onsen, dinner was served downstairs.  We booked an all-inclusive plan that included breakfast & dinner. We did this when snowboarding Austria, and it was so very worthwhile, not having to think about what or where to eat after exhausting days snowboarding. Plus, a great way to experience local foods perhaps not otherwise encountered. Some may not consider this a plus, I suppose. Here, Rob & I each had a little trunk of tree with woodland mushrooms growing from it that we plucked and grilled in front of us. Delish. Other delights included sashimi, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki, donburi, a little taste of Kobe beef (amazing), and fish in all forms.

Kind of surprised the girls took so well to Japan, as they still will not go near fish or seafood, but Japan has noodles galore!

I am still a Hoover.

Kids meal boxes for girls all week

While we dined, staff put away tea table and pulled out futons from our closet. Incredibly cozy, but kind of rough on our backs we noticed next morning. Exact bedding I had my year in Japan.

18 years have passed
futon's still inviting, warm,
like I never left

Japan is quite cold
Mt. Fuji is asleep now
Snow falls as I rest.

Morning of Day 3, drove 20 minutes further into mountains and found our first snow in almost 2 years. Stayed below treeline the whole week, our highest days at 7500 ft.

Happy guy

Happy family

Thus, happy Momma

Till Allie hurt her wing. First day, just after lunch, getting back out... fell on wrist...done for day. Rob rode the afternoon. Thought we may have to check out Japanese healthcare, but gave it the evening, and by morning seemed OK. She took next 2 days off boarding, and cautiously came back out on our 4th mountain day. Meanwhile, to the onsen to nurse her hurts.  Our town, Yudananka Onsen, welcomed injured samurai warriors a thousand years ago, as it is believed the waters have special healing elements. 

After dinner, ryokan put on a sweet, little cultural show for guests.  We were the only Westerners during our stay. This guy was awesome on drum, gorgeous sound.

"Now who wants to play a duet with me?  How about you, sir, in the striped pajamas? Let's see if America's got talent." I'm translating his motions... the artist didn't really speak English.

FYI... in ryokans, guests are given robes & slippers to wear about the property, to dinner, to onsen. Many guests wore them that night, and others were in PJs as well.  Rob fit in, and played, fine.

He did get a little showed up by the debonair Japanese movie star. This guy is a famous portrayer of samurai warriors in Japanese film. The ryokan owner seemed to be well connected, as he was also friends with the Ambassador to Thailand, amongst others.

Playing shamisen guitar... excellent.

The New Year's Lion Dance

With the movie star... still gotta find out just who he was. Hotel insisted we get our picture with him.

This fan has 3 origami birds folded into it... a single piece of paper. 

Day 4 in Japan  (second on hill), awoke to fantastic snowstorm.  Hotel had contacts on top of a bigger mountain not yet running lifts, so we (and a Singaporean family whose kids had never seen snow) were able to hire a snowcat to bring us to top. 

The Singaporean family, travelling with their very cute Grandfather.  He had a little glass that he kept filling with sake... at 9am.

Rob & I were the only hard core riders and we were dropped off 1/2 way up mountain where lifts ran... we rode for morning, just the two of us & our snowstorm.

Snowcat driver

Meanwhile, girls went to top of hill for sledding & hanging at lodge with the Singaporeans.

Ry, probably telling jokes in her British accent. New Zealander tour guide from hotel in the mix.



I ride a snowcat
I am greeted by huskies
Wish my arm was healed.

Snowcat came back for Rob & me after our morning out, we lunched at top with kids, then made fantastic first tracks from tippy top to bottom on unopened runs. Glorious day. Haven't been able to ride just the two of us much in past decade. 

Uno and Jenga are our games of choice for impromptu hotel lobby tournaments among nations.   

Lovely sunset view.

Lovely sukiyaki for dinner.

Riley's photo artistry of the fruited art.

Japanese apples
sweet, tart, unexplainable
very cold, long walk

Haiku Great Issa enjoyed spending time in our town 200 years ago... haiku is everywhere here. Apologies for our simplistic attempts.

I can't read much of it, but I still appreciate artistry in the characters.

Day 5, woke to no new snow, and Al's wrist was still sore, so went searching for snow monkeys. Brought the hotel owner's daughter, Ailee, with us.


Couldn't get this one to look at me.  Didn't want to press too much, as we were warned not to make eye contact, it can make them go berzerk. They would be peacefully co-existing with each other, then one would do something to tick off another, and we were reminded that these are wild animals in nature... and kind of closely related to humans.

Mostly they just lounged like a bunch of old men in a hot tub. Hot springs naturally pool around pockets of riverbed. This variety of monkey has taken to the hot waters, and people come to gawk.

onsen and monkeys
monkeys bathing greedily
as the cold wind howls

We were so cold at this point, we just wanted to jump in with them or pick one up to cuddle.

Back at hotel, the owner took girls Japanese grocery shopping with her in the afternoon (another nice perk that doesn't usually happen at the Marriott). Rob worked, I tidied, re-packed and wrote. 

Allie's getting tall. We're within days of her passing me.

Good Morning Day 6! Rode first lifts up and last lifts down just before dark. No new snow, but a fine day.

Al rode too, but was nervous. At least she got back up on her horse before our season ended for another year.

Substance just wasn't there, but the girl has style.

Slaloming around ski school students.

Ry did some nice skill building this day. Woe is us, ha, but it is kind of a drag to visit magnificent alps/mountains while girls are just learning to ride... and then when they're up & really cruising, we'll probably be back home in Michigan with Bittersweet & Crystal & our good memories. Guess that'll be time to drown sorrows in the American ranges.  

Ry was a maniac, didn't want to stop. There really isn't another sport that excites her in this way.

fine snow day on hill
smiles, no tears, cold chill, warm glow, 
worth every effort

I believe this to be his thoughts at that moment.

Around town & outside ryokans, onsen founts are nice for warming hands on brisk walks

Day 7, trains back to Tokyo.  Ry sat next to perhaps the oldest living person in Japan. She was beautiful to watch and I wonder what her eyes have seen.

Cold tooth smile... by end of our week, girls were excited for McD's

Shinjuku station, TOKYO!

Don't they look dapper in handknit scarves? Thanks, Aunt Lisa.

Ry got a new watchband for her Hello Kitty

Okonomiyaki (meat & veggie pancake) has a special place in our hearts, girls not so impressed.

Busy Shibuya

Hachiko, the dog who faithfully waited years at Shibuya station for his master that never came home... Riley loves this story 

Patiently waiting for our hardworking master

Love the trains & big city buzz

Quick glimpse of a sumo wrestler walking through Tokyo station... they always dress in robes & sandals, to save on tailoring?

Girls had fun all week with Japanese toilets... here, a quick peek

Any kind of seat raising/lowering, rinse, flush you may desire... and of course heat

Water shooting across the room... you really should only push the special buttons if sitting on the thing or you may get a face full

Heated toilet seats
grace winter's tush in Japan.
Not Michigan. Why?

I ask again, why? They are one of the most pleasant of winter inventions. Years ago when my landlord installed one in my little Japanese toilet room, I thought they'd be coming soon to cold weather states all over America. Still waiting. 

Day 8 in Yokohama, my old stomping grounds. Rob is actually more familiar with this area now, as it's changed a lot since I lived there & it's where he has come for work numerous times over the years.

Didn't take many pictures, just savored moments and gorgeous, 55 degree day. We hoped to see Fuji from this ferris wheel, but twas a smidge too hazy in that direction.  On a clear day, Fuji rings like a bell to the Yokohama Bay and I saw Fuji often from my campus in college.

When planning trip earlier in year, we asked girls if they'd rather do Tokyo Disney or have an extra day snowboarding. I love it that they picked snow. They still found coaster rides at a little park on the Bay.

Typical ladies stall in Tokyo, decked out with all the heating & washing controls & emergency call button, as well as baby seat to eliminate juggling. Nerd that I am is easily intrigued with how efficient & well thought out this land can be.

Went from hot summer to winter and back to autumn in a week's time.

Chinatown. I used to walk through here by myself every Sunday after church, envious of the little families that had each other. This day was a reminder... keep those hopes & dreams alive!

Awaiting Noel.

Day 9, heading home for Christmas in Michigan. 

And to all, a good flight.