Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Red Eye to Honolulu

I've done this flight so many times, coming home from the far east, too many times to want to count..the departure from Asia late at night, the waking up in a contorted position at what is the dead of night where I am coming from. The stale taste in my mouth, complete grogginess and shock as I lift the window shade to let in the brilliant, such shockingly brilliant, early morning sunlight of home.

I've escaped the frigid cold of Seoul for a week to go home and spend some time with family. T had some work meetings here and at the last minute I decided to tag along, in part to thaw my digits, but really to see my family, Grandma in particular.

I've been thinking of her a lot recently. Perhaps in part because a blogging friend has just become a Grandma I have been considering what it means to be a Grandma, and to be a grandchild as well. The connection that grows not diminshes as years go by. The understanding that we have less time ahead of us as we have behind us. My Grandma, like everyone else's, is special. She is now 94 and still living stubbornly alone in the same house she has always lived in. My place of comfort, as long as she is there to inhabit it.

We went straight there from the airport, the standard drive over the H-3 highway that is anything but standard. How many times have I shot out of the Windward side of the H-3 tunnel, like the Millineum Falcon out of the Death Star (if you are emotionally connected to Kaneohe and have been gone for a long time you'll understand that this anology does not come from left field). As was customary, it was gray and raining as we left the high mountains of the Leeward Side and all light and blue on the Kaneohe side.

And then those Ko'olaus...the mountain range that is one of my first memories as a child, the backbone of the island that has become part of mine as well.

I intended to take more photos when I got to Grandma's house but as soon as we got there I was enveloped in its warm security and forgot about my iPhone completely (how often does THAT happen?). She made us laugh by calling T her "big fellow" - he is 6'1" and she is maybe 4'9". She fed us and we both fell fast asleep. We are in Waikiki now (blah) where T has an early evening meeting. Tomorrow when he leaves for his day of meetings I'll go back to the airport, pick up a rental car and spend the next two days with her. We have a bunch of mundane things planned, but I can't wait.

I leave you with the view of Waikiki Beach...a very famous view that I find just okay, prefering the crowing roosters and barking dogs of her old, working class neighborhood.

As we say here, "latahs" (see you later).

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
Location:Honolulu, HI

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Japan: Exploring the Old City of Kyoto (part 2)

H here. Day two of our Kyoto trip started out with such promise (how is that for obvious foreshadowing...). We had plans for a full day of sightseeing and unlike the previous day, we were going to have to get outside of Kyoto proper in order to see everything. We got an early start and headed first to the Nijo Castle (Nijo-jo) in the center of the city. What an awesome place. It was built in 1603 as a residence of the great Tokugawa Ieyasu, a shogun (warlord) par excellence. Coming to power after one of the most famous military confrontations in Japanese history, the Battle of Sekigahara (where it is rumored Miyamoto Musashi, our boy's namesake fought), he founded the Tokugawa shogunate (dynasty).

This dude's digs.

We were unfortunately unable to take photos inside the castle itself, so we cannot share with you the opulent wall paintings, mainly in gold, of animals and plant life. What we can tell you however is that this was one paranoid warlord. Not only did the moat and outer castle walls seem impenetrable, but the castle itself was guarded against ninja intruders (really, the real kind!) by the clever feature of what are called nightingale floors. Somehow, they managed to construct the wooden floorboards with springs embedded beneath them. To this day, whenever someone walks over them, they chirp and squeak, just like birds. Before I caught on to what it was, I wondered where the birds were and how many of them there must be to make the sound so deafening. I am not exaggerating, as the halls filled up with ambulatory visitors, the sound became so loud we had to raise our voices to hear each other, even though we were side by side. And of course I was making it worse by rocking back and forth and jumping up and down like a six-year old on a playground so that my own personal nightingales would chirp all the louder.

The grounds of Nijo Castle were glorious. They are not known to be the most beautiful gardens in Kyoto, but perhaps because we had missed the fall foliage season and all the hardwood trees were bare for the winter, the other gardens didn't hold a candle to this evergreen-dominated park.

Moat and castle walls.

The main castle complex with the nightingale floors.

Exterior woodwork detail.


I am so glad we didn't bomb it.

After the castle we walked over to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, set in an elongated park in the middle of the city (think Central Park in NYC). It was ok. It had started to rain and all the buildings and palaces themselves were closed to all except those who had made reservations to visit. We had not as we are not particularly palace people. The grounds were nice, dotted with groves of fruit trees and small shrines and there was a big fireplace in the cafeteria, but since we had other things to see that day, we didn't linger.

 After the disappointment the day before of the Silver Pavilion that wasn't, I had decided that I wanted to make the trek to the far north western edges of the Kyoto area to the Golden Pavilion that was in fact golden, Kinkaku-ji. After a longish bus ride we arrived at yet another park and garden surrounding a pavilion that was indeed golden in its splendor.

It was lovely and I was satisfied.

Pine tree in training at Kinkaku-ji.

We had another long bus ride to our next destination and so we decided to eat lunch at one of the numerous restaurants that lined the streets leading to the pavilion. And that is when it happened.

Let me pause for a second, leaving you no doubt hanging in suspense, to tell you something about myself that if you have been reading this blog for any length of time you will no doubt already realize. I love food. I don't love food for the normal reasons of nourishment and sustenance. It is not simply fuel to me like it is to my brother, pity for him. For me, food is a part of my culture, my identity, my personality. I cook not because I have to, or because I can, but because it is who I am to create and share with others.  My maternal grandfather, great-grandfather and great-uncle were cooks. I have inherited their gifts. My earliest memories were of food, mostly at Grandpa Sakamoto's house. He was a complex man, a US Army veteran of two wars. He expressed his affection for the people he loved not in the traditional way, but by feeding them.

Me being fed by my Grandpa Sakamoto.

From a very early age, he created in me a sense of food as love and connection, the mechanism for transmitting culture, identity and family values, the core of one's personality. This is illustrated by the fact that a large number of photos of me as a child center around food.

The all important lesson of how to eat rice with chopsticks.

Eating barbeque with my cousin.

And so I grew up food centric, way before it was trendy to be a "foodie."

I take this sense of the gastronomical on the road with me when we travel. As such, much domestic US travel depresses me because the food options in between point A and B are without fail mass-produced combinations of chemicals, preservatives and flavor enhancers loaded with fats, sugars and sodium. It is places like Asia where I can truly enjoy traveling to eat. So when we passed a moderately priced buffet that specialized in the local foods of Kyoto, I was sold.

It really was a lovely spread, centered around fresh vegetables. My favorite was a simple, custard-like tofu dish dressed with a clear sauce.

I had about four bowls of this tofu, including one for dessert.

In other words I ate too much. I ate till I was stuffed and then some. And somewhere along the way, I ate a tiny bug that made me very, very sick.

Here is me in the act of getting food poisoning. I am leaning over because T wanted to take the picture of the two ladies (mother and daughter) in traditional kimonos. At least I got to enjoy the meal while it happened. Later, I wouldn't be saying too many nice things about it.

To continue. We ate and ate and then rode the bus to the far western extremity of the Kyoto area, to a place along the Hozu-gawa river called Arishiyama. The main attraction there was a bamboo grove that is supposed to be otherworldly. I suppose it might have been if we had been the only people there. We weren't. But it was still very lovely.

Overlooking the Hozu-gawa River. T wants me to mention an interesting incident that occurred while we were at the overlook. After nearly two days of grumbling in frustration about not being able to understand a single word people of my own origin were saying and having to pantomime all requests, I was finally able to understand a conversation. Only it wasn't meant for my ears. Also present at the overlook was a group of Chinese tourists, a young couple with an older couple. The young woman wanted a group photo and suggested they ask us to take it. The young man said something to the effect of, you mean you are going to ask those foreigners to take our photo? Ah, how I love stealth eavesdropping. I turned around and said in Chinese with a big smile on my face, "I'd love to take your photo, but aren't we all foreigners in this country?" The young man was mortified, rest of his group was delighted. Later to make things up to us, he offered to take our photo. We obliged - the photo turned out junk.

We took a long walk into the countryside, weaving past numerous temples, quaint homes, lovely gardens, and small roadside shrines.

Again, those bibs...

The hut of a famous haiku poet and hermit, Mukai Kyorai. How is that for an awesome thatched roof?

Another thatched roof in Arishiyama.

As the winter afternoon deepened, we noticed the crowds growing particularly thick. Soon we were hardly walking at all, just being moved around by the mass of people. That evening, it turned out, was the start of a huge winter festival, marked by a light show in the bamboo grove and more lights on the river itself. Already beginning to feel a little bit not like myself (i.e., the calls from the vendors in the road and river-side food stalls interested me not one bit), we opted to make the long ride back to the center of Kyoto. When the bus deposited us at Kyoto Station, I was tired and grumpy. By the time I got back to the ryokan, downright nauseated. Two hours later, unmemorable.

Day three of our Kyoto trip is easy. I hauled myself off my futon on the floor, threw up, ran down the hall to the shared bathroom, laid down again. Over and over. Terry sat on the floor, vocalizing about his desire for a proper chair, reading a book and making faces that alternated between sympathetic and grossed out. He did go to the pharmacy with our ryokan owners to get medications, discussed taking me to the hospital and finally went off to the local convenience store to get that ubiquitous Japanese version of Gatorade, Pocari Sweat. At my insistence, in the afternoon he went out by himself to explore the neighborhood around our guesthouse. I was just grateful that we had packed our first two days as full as we did. Our itinerary for the third day was a trip to the Nishiki Food Market (NO thanks) and a train ride to a village outside Kyoto where you can walk over a valley wall into another village. I was sorry we missed those two places as I had read there was a very good knife shop in the food market, and I fit the Asian stereotype about loving scary sharp knives (in the kitchen of course), but frankly none of that was happening.

For dinner and then for breakfast the next morning our guesthouse hosts made me okayo, rice porridge with ume (pickled plum - one of my favorite foods). Normally an ume this side would have sent me over the moon, as it was I could barely finish it.

In commemoration of my most singular trip to Kyoto, I leave you with some Japanese toilet graphics. Most toilets in Japan are squatters. I suppose westerners more used to the bowl variety might find them puzzling. Therefore instructions are often supplied. I find them amusing.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Japan: Exploring the Old City of Kyoto (part 1)

The two of us headed over to Kyoto, Japan recently to celebrate T's birthday and our wedding anniversary (#7!).  Neither of us have done much traveling in Japan outside of a few visits to Tokyo and Okinawa, even though H is of Japanese heritage.  While we are here in Korea, we thought we would rectify the dearth of visits, and Kyoto was near the top of our list of places to go.  It is after all probably the top place to visit in all of Japan if you want a taste of Japanese history, culture, and architecture at a glance.

Kyoto is an old city having celebrated its 1200-year anniversary of its founding back in 1994 and is one of the few major metropolitan areas to escape the wrath of American bombing in World War Two. We are fortunate that it did.  The city is full of old temples and shrines, beautiful gardens, formidable castles of the shoguns, mysterious imperial palaces, quaint and interesting shops, fantastic restaurants, and since the city is surrounded on three sides by mountains, a plethora of trails.

We stayed in a small ryokan, a traditional Japanese-style bed and breakfast, which the owners have run for 40+ years.  While sleeping on a futon was a bit of a challenge for a person used to beds like T and the lack of a bathroom and shower in the room was a minor inconvenience, the large Japanese-style breakfast was amazing and the mother and daughter hosts were welcoming and helpful.

Breakfast ryokan-style.

Beds ryokan-style.

Our first stop was the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shinto shrine, which was one of the most visually interesting of the many shrines we viewed.  It sits at the base of a mountain and thousands of red torii (shrine gates) line the paths stretching up the slopes to the rear of the complex.  Dozens of stone foxes adorn the shrine.  They are considered the messengers of Inari, the god of cereals, and the key seen in their mouths is for the rice granary.  According to Japanese folklore, the fox is a mysterious figure capable of possessing humans, usually entering under the fingernails.  The grounds are also home to dozens of graveyards and individual shrines.  Since it was only a few blocks from our ryokan, we made two visits here, one our first night and the other on the last day.

If anyone can explain the meaning of the red bibs to H, she would be grateful.

Strings of tsuru, folded origami cranes, line the shrine walls and also give H the heebie-jeebies. For those who don't know the story, Japanese tradition (especially that of Hawaii's Japanese) requires brides to fold 1001 cranes and for the finished work to be displayed at the wedding. This is to reassure family and friends that the bride has sufficient perseverance, diligence and patience to make the marriage successful. The groom of course has nothing to prove. Instead of the traditional ropes of cranes, H decided to scatter them across our wedding and reception site (T's parents home place).

His Mom picked cranes out of her flower beds for months after.

Our next major stop was Kyomizu-Dera, a Buddhist temple sitting on a commanding position above the city.  The temple was first established in 798, although the current structures date from the 1600s.  Lonely Planet calls it Kyoto's "spiritual heart and soul."  We would agree that it is an impressive structure, with lovely buildings, fascinating architecture, beautiful grounds, and great view, but the crowds took some of the spiritual nature of the visit away.   The street leading up the temple was packed with tourists, small shops, and restaurants.  The grounds too were loaded with tourists like us, plus tons of giddy Japanese teenagers there to buy a prayer plaque to assure success in romance and others sipping from the Otowa-no-taki spring where the waters are supposed to bestow health and long life.

Random rabbit dude at Kiyomizu-Dera.  Made T think of the character Hazel from Richard Adam's classic Watership Down.

From Kiyomizu-Dera, we walked the streets along the base of the Higashiyama (Eastern Mountains), taking in the sites, including young ladies dressed in traditional clothing, monuments to fallen soldiers and the guardian of their cemetery, rickshaws pulled by young men (boy, were those guys impressive!), massive temples, secluded "urban" gardens, burial sites for long-dead emperors, and ancient moss-covered trees.

H in heaven at a store devoted to her personal good luck charm, Totoro.

A real tsuru in a random pond in a random garden.

Oni (ogres) dot the rooftops.

Some Emperor's resting place.

For lunch we stopped at a bento (boxed lunch) hole in the wall. It was the first time H has had a bento made to order and it was delicious.

 The final temple stop was the grand Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion). Although the grounds were indeed lovely, H was crestfallen when she realized that the Silver Pavilion isn't silver at all. In a way, it like much of the trip for her ... realizing how little she understands about her own culture.

Our first day in Kyoto ended with an evening spent in Gion, the entertainment district of the city.  Lonely Planet describes it as a bit drab during the day, but it was certainly a lively place at night, well-lit and full of people.  Indeed, many of the restaurants were full, but we managed to find a couple of nice places along some of the numerous alleyways to enjoy a drink and a sampling of the local cuisine.

Our last stop was to an Izakaya restaurant. Similar to tapas bars, these are places where alcohol is the primary draw and food comes in appetizer portions. While the food was good, what really got us interested was the replacement of wait staff with small touch screen menus that transmitted our orders wirelessly. We probably ordered more than we needed to because it was so fun touching the screen and watching the food appear.

The Gion Kabuki Theater.