Sunday, March 26, 2017

Japan 2017 Day 19: Last Full Day in Japan

We begin again with Starbucks & French pastries- why not?

Our plan for today was to meet our friend, Kae-san, for lunch at Takashimaya. It was raining pretty steadily & colder, today. We headed over the bridge to Takashimaya a bit early so we could do the last of our gift-shopping for folks at home. We met Kae at 11:00 & went to our favorite soba restaurant on the 13th floor.

Kae was introduced to us on our second trip to Japan, 8 years ago, by our friend & second Japanese teacher Shizuka. Kae is a veterinarian & did a fellowship year in Michigan a couple years ago. She visited Shizuka & her husband Jon in Rochester for New Years that year, and came to our house to celebrate. I was so glad we could see her again this trip!

I had nabe with mochi for lunch, one of my favorites!!

It was so much fun to catch up with Kae! We showed her photos of Brendan &, like many friends this trip, she was amazed by how grown-up he looks now :)

After our yummy lunch & fun reunion, we said good-bye to Kae (see you when we come back!!!) & went back to the hotel to drop our shopping off. We decided to visit an art museum not far away that Charlie & Brendan had visited 2 years ago, the Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art. It is on the 42nd floor of an office building a few block from the west side of Shinjuku Station, & it's main claim to fame is Van Gogh's Sunflowers.

I mentioned it was rainy today, right? The intersections looked like umbrella cities as folks waited for the walk lights.

Charlie found the museum without any problem & after about 20 minutes walking in the rain, it was nice to go inside. Our ears popped in the elevator on the way to the 42nd floor. The view was pretty nifty, though.

We were lucky to find not only Van Gogh's Sunflowers, but an annual exhibit of new artists called Face 2017. They gave out voting slips with your tickets and asked you to vote for your favorite. They also allowed you to take photo of this exhibition! Our fave painting's name translates as "Broken Heart":

Another one I liked is called "Ahiru", which means "Duck":

The Sunflowers were also very much worth seeing. Our walk in the rain paid-off :)

On our way back we noticed they were having a blood drive outside Shinjuku Station (in the rain...). Meet Kenketsu-chan, the Japanese Red Cross' mascot:

On the way home we thought we'd look for a cake shop to have a snack, but everyone else in Shinjuku had the same idea, so they all were mobbed. Our fallback position was to go to San Marco (a cafe & pastry chain) for chocolate croissant (very yummy) & pick up another matcha soy latte (because it's warm & delicious!).

Charlie noticed a cute message on the label of my latte:

We rested for the rest of the afternoon, then headed out for dinner a little before 6:00. It was still pouring outside, but there's an Italian restaurant in the building that our hotel is in (like the art museum, our hotel is at the top of an office building, & the lobby is on the 20th floor) that we like to visit. So we avoided the rain & had some delish salad, interesting focaccia (no toppings, but fluffy & good), & pizza. I got a photo of the first two, but was too focused on eating to get the pizza :)

It was nice to enjoy a lovely meal & chat about our adventures here. I am really going to miss everyone here! It's so hard to only see you every two years! But I'm going home to my kid, and I can't wait to see him.

Tomorrow we'll leave the hotel around 11:00 am to take the limousine bus to Haneda airport (first time to fly from there). It will be a loooooong day. We'll get back 13 of the 14 hours we lost crossing the International Date Line on the way here (don't know if I'll ever get the Daylight Savings Time hour back...) & have a long layover in Minneapolis/St. Paul. If all goes well, we'll get home around midnight Monday. Wish us luck!!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Japan 2017 Day 18: Sakura!!

Today began with the lovely French pastries we bought yesterday. Well, to be honest, it started with a trip to the nearby Starbucks for beverages to drink with the lovely pastries :)

They were so good!! We FaceTimed with Brendan over breakfast too. He's still looking & sounding great after more than 2 weeks without us, which is wonderful!

Today's plan was to meet Momo & her family at a subway stop near the Yasukuni Jinja, eat lunch together, then look for sakura trees. Momo's directions were great & even the labyrinth that is Shinjuku Station couldn't keep us from finding our way to the right place. There was a young woman on the subway beautifully dressed in kimono & hakama. Once we got to the appointed station, there were men with bullhorns directing the many people pouring out of the same station. Most of the young women in the crowd were also wearing kimono & hakama! The men were all in suits & ties. I heard the words for "university" from the bullhorn guys, & putting the timing together (the end of March is graduation time), realized that this must be graduation day for one of the big universities. When we left the station, this was the scene:

Hundreds & hundreds of people streaming into a park where, Momo told us later, the Budokan is. She confirmed that this was the day for Nihon University's graduation, & they do it by department, hence the constant stream of people in & out of the Budokan area. It was quite a sight!

Momo & her family live outside Tokyo, so they drove up & parked at her mom's apartment in Tokyo, then took the subway to meet us. It was great to see Momo's husband Hiroshi again! He'd been at a conference for work last weekend when we were in Nikko.

We went to a nearby family restaurant for lunch. After a short wait, we got settled at our table & ordered. I had a seafood gratin over rice, Charlie had omuraise (omelet rolled around rice, beef, & veggies in a sauce), & Mai-chan had Mai-chan food :)

Momo told us that Nozomu-kun had graduated from a 1-year nursery school this morning (he starts at another one in April) but Hiroko planned to join us after lunch. What a nice surprise! After lunch we went out in search for sakura... but not before a reading break (I had bought a comic for Aoi-chan when we were in Matsuyama & she was quite pleased to read about her favorite cartoon characters :)

Hiroko & Nozomu-kun we waiting for us when we finished lunch. The Yasukuni Jinja was right up the street & according to the Japanese weather service, the sakura were blooming there. As it turns out, there's a very old tree at the shrine that determines whether or not the sakura are officially blooming yet in Tokyo. Here it is:

Just the edges have started, but some of the smaller trees were farther along.

We walked around the shrine for a bit, and while Mai-chan fell asleep, Aoi-chan & Nozomu-kun found many opportunities to play.

 Our next destination was a nearby section of moat around the Emperor's palace. In about a week this area will be completely in bloom. The boaters seemed to be having fun anyway :)

We walked for quite a while around the edge of the moat, & when Momo saw a manju seller, she bought some delicious red bean paste buns for us to share.

The moat ended at a busy street, & we continued around to walk to another station that would get us all back to Shinjuku. The dads took turns carrying kids as necessary :)

We even walked past the British Embassy on our way to the station. Then we all boarded a subway. Momo & family, & Charlie & I, changed to another one, & we said goodbye to Hiroko & Nozomu-kun.

While on the train, Mai woke up & Aoi started to fall asleep.

Then we had to say goodbye to them too. I was glad to be wearing a mask right then, because I was getting teary & my nose started to run. Two more years before I can see them in Japan again :(  Momo & I will Skype soon, which is great, but not the same.

Charlie & I found our way back to the hotel & had a rest before going back out in search of dinner. We walked around the restaurant floors at Takashimaya, but it was Saturday night & very busy. Most restaurants had lines. So we went to the basement & got korroke for dinner (mine was shrimp korroke in a sandwich).

Momo had bought some lovely anko sweets on the walk & gave them to us when we said goodbye. We enjoyed some of them with dinner.

Tomorrow we will meet our friend Kae for lunch in Shinjuku. We haven't seen her in over a year, so it'll be so fun to connect again. Only two more nights in Japan! I always have such mixed feelings about this! I am getting ready to be home again, but there are so many people here I'll miss terribly, not to mention places & food &... you get the picture :)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Japan 2017 Day 17: Back to Tokyo (by train, of course)

Charlie, Marian, & I got an early start today because we had a 9:15 train to catch, the first on the way from Matsuyama to Tokyo. We had the lovely buffet at the hotel for the last time.

I have been particularly enjoying the fresh tofu (top left bowl) every morning. Topped with a little grated ginger, sliced green onions, & soy sauce, it's delicious!

We asked the front desk to call a taxi for 3 people & luggage for 8:30 (I was hoping for another Prius V, called an Alpha here), and after 2 calls it was arranged. Ironically, the taxi that arrived was one of the tiny ones. Basically, when you hail a cab from the taxi stand in front of a train station, for example, you get the next one in line. It doesn't matter if your luggage is too big or you have too many people, you get the next in line. Probably all part of a sense of fairness. It kind of backfires in these situations though. Luckily the guy had a bungee cord & was able to sort of lower the trunk cover over the luggage. Charlie sat in front & there was just enough room for Marion & me in back. Ten minutes later, we were at Matsuyama Station.

Marian & I looked around for ekiben (train station lunch). We found some nifty ones in cute punk wrappers, named for the female lead, Madonna, in Sosuke Natsume's famous novel "Bocchan", which takes place in Matsuyama. Charlie had purchased fuwa-fuwa (fluffy) white bread sandwiches & snacks at the supermarket yesterday. The train was the Shiokaze ("salt wind") limited express again, & you can see it at the top. We spent the next 3 hours on this train, and it was very pleasant to chat about our adventures together. I had purchased a fuwa-fuwa sandwich snack yesterday too:

The package says "Cafe au Lait Cream". How could I resist? It was pretty good too.

Around 12:30 we got to Okayama & changed to the Hikari Shinkansen, bound for Shinagawa & Tokyo. Our destination was Shinagawa (right before Tokyo) because we could then pick up the Yamanote Line for Shinjuku Station & our hotel. Marian was going to take one more train from Shinjuku to get to her home in Shibuya.

Once we got settled, we dug into our lunches.

So much yum!

After lunch Marian let me piggyback on her phone internet connection to write yesterday's blog post. For some stupid reason my photos from yesterday didn't load from my phone to the laptop. I spent last evening (post-sake) & part of this morning (with a train deadline) trying to get something to upload them- iCloud, email- but nothing was working. When I booted my laptop after lunch, most of the iCloud photos were there, so I was able to make & post Day 16. Thanks so much Marian!!!

Then we chatted & rested for the remaining hours (a total of 4 on the Hikari) to Shinagawa.

Reaching there at 4:30 added some excitement that we could have lived without. It was nearing rush hour, & the trains were filling up. Like, sardines filling-up. We didn't try to mash ourselves, luggage, backpacks, etc. into the first train that came, & Marian led us to a farther down line for a car on the next train, on the chance that it might be less crowded upon arrival. That was a good tactic, although there was a scramble for seats. I made a beeline for the seats reserved for folks with physical challenges, which was full of non-challenged folks, & just said "sumimasen" loudly until somebody stood up & gave me their seat. I thanked them profusely. I have tried only once to ride the train standing up & it nearly ended in disaster, so I take advantage of the gimp seats. Charlie & Marian stood nearby (a veritable wall of luggage) for the 20 minutes to Shinjuku.

Then we debarked quickly (only way to do it on these trains), found a relatively calm spot, & hugged goodbye. We are so glad Marian joined us for the Matsuyama part of the trip. What a blast!!

Our hotel was just across the street, and as we lugged the luggage, Charlie & I realized that it's been 14 days since we left Tokyo. Kind of amazing...

After checking-in to the hotel we went back out in search of dinner and breakfast yummies. The french bakery down the way was very popular this close to dinner, so we stopped in & got amazing things- which you will see tomorrow :) Then we walked along the west side of Shinjuku Station to the Keio department store, and took the elevator to the restaurant floor at the top. We found a tofu cuisine restaurant we'd visited before with Marian, & although there were no English menus, we managed to find the perfect dinners. I had a favorite of mine, kaki fry (panko-fried oysters) with various lovely side dishes, including yuba sashimi, just like in Nikko!

Charlie had beef on rice with a side cauldron of tofu simmering in soy milk (the paper on the left was over the heat- not sure how they did that... :)

After this loveliness we walked to the conbini to buy beverages, then walked home. We've been resting this evening, & Charlie researched some of our route for tomorrow, when we'll meet Momo, Hiroshi, & the kids for some sakura-flower viewing. Can't wait!!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Japan 2017 Day 16: We meet an amazing artist!

Today we had the breakfast buffet again because, why mess with a good thing?

Yuka planned to take the day off & had given us some options for things to do. Among them was to visit the wood block printing ("hanga" in Japanese) studio of the son of her friend Ishimura-san. She said that, Yoshi-kun, the artist, is not much older than Brendan & also on the autism spectrum, so she thought we might be interested in meeting him. We were very interested, so she picked us up at the hotel at 10:00 am and were were off to Niihama, about 1 1/2 hours away north of Matsuyama.

It was fun to really catch up with Yuka while we drove. She took us by Ehime Medical University, where her husband (a cardiologist) works. She is a pediatric neurologist & among her patient population are children with autism. We talked about the differences in acceptance as well as treatment of autism between Japan & the US. Because Japan is very much focused on the well-being of the group (as opposed to the individual) people with special needs tend to fall through the cracks. Although we have a way to go in the US, we tend to have more in place (depends on where you live, of course) for kids with special needs. We agreed that we are fortunate to have had so many resources for Brendan as he's grown up.

When we got to the Ishimura's home we were greeted by father & son, & then welcomed into Yoshi-kun's workshop. Right from the first, we were amazed by the gorgeousness of his block prints.

After chatting for a short while & looking around, we got into cars & went to lunch with them at a local hotel.

Yoshi-kun is 23 years old and one of his high school teachers discovered his talent for wood block printing. She has continued to work with him since graduation, and his artwork had won art competitions in Japan and Paris. Over lunch we spoke to his dad, with Yuka & Marian interpreting, about the challenges of raising a child with autism, and he agrees with Yuka that the US has far more resources for autistic people and their families. Yoshi-kun's mother passed away from cancer a few years ago, and although he still has his dad & grandmother, his family hopes that his artwork will sustain & support him as he gets older.

After lunch we went back to the Ishimura's home to see more of Yoshi-kun's work. We also got to see him working. Part of the work is actually carving his designs into the wood, and the other part is choosing the colors the bring the black-inked wood cuts to life. His dad said that Yoshi-kun makes many colour combos & discards many before settling on the one he things is right. 
Marian, Charlie & I were very taken by the prints. We asked Yuka to ask his father if we could buy prints. They were glad to sell us some already framed & then send them to us Fed Ex. We were so happy!! We chose a print with ajisai- hydrangea in English- that also has "Tsuyu no hana ajisai" in the print. It means "rainy season no hydrangea" because that's the season when they bloom.

After saying our goodbyes, we headed back to Matsuyama to have dinner at Yuka's home, just outside town. On the way we stopped at the supermarket to buy dinner food (and we hit a couple stores to see if we could find some things we'd been looking for here, too :).

Yuka and her husband, Jun, both did medical fellowships in Rochester and returned to Japan about 10 years ago. They decided to build a house behind her grandmother's house, where she'd had a large garden. This allowed them to care for her grandmother, who lived to be over 100 years old.

We all worked together to put together a dinner of rice, soup, salad, steamed veggies, & tempura. Charlie got to use a cool (old) tool to grate daikon radish:

And then we made tempura right at the table:

I'm going to do that when I get home! So much more fun than standing around forever frying stuff & keeping it warm in the oven! So civilized & pleasant (and delicious!). The meal was also interspersed with various local sakes, which were awesome! We are interested in sake, but have no clue & never find the good stuff at home. Charlie made sure I took photos of various bottles & labels so we can do some research when we get back.

After a lovely evening, we pitched-into clean up & then Yuka called a taxi to take us in to town, as she had work the next day. We promised to come back to Matsuyama. After such an amazing day, you couldn't keep me away!