I took a short trip to Japan with the whole family recently; it was the first time for my children. They had their ups and downs, but overall I think it was a positive experience for them. The day we left one of them got sick and it seemed for a few hours that the whole trip was in jeopardy of being canceled. But a quick trip to the ER and some medicine in hand and we were back on schedule.
The plane flight was long, but the Airbus A300 we took across the Pacific had small monitors for each passenger to choose from among a large selection of movies and other media. After arriving in Tokyo we stayed at a nice hotel before taking the Shinkansen north to my wife's hometown. (I can't say enough good things about taking the bullet train. I'm hopeful that America develops its own high speed rail network.) The majority of the 18 days we were in Japan were spent with my wife's parents. They were awesome hosts and the food was great. I must have consumed every lifeform that naturally occurs in the ocean, usually raw, and often within hours after it was harvested. For the kids the number one food was natto. It's very good and may be worth trying to make ourselves as it is practically impossible to buy locally.
The previous two times I had visited was during the middle of winter, but this time it was harvest season in Japan and the rice fields were golden! Many of them had a harvesting machine sitting out near them, some were harvested while others were not. It was also typhoon season. But while we were there the weather was either sunny or overcast, but generally warm and pleasant. I can count at least three barbecues I ate at. The meat on the BBQ is always seafood - squid, scallops, oysters, tunicates ("hoya"), fish - with the exception of pork for yakitori, and beef tongue. Also on the barbie is a variety of veggies, like corn, kabocha squash, eggplant, and peppers. I have to mention the fresh fruit I ate. The grapes are incomparable to any I have ever eaten in America. Very soft and silky texture and a perfumey taste. Some are almost the size of small oranges! I had some of the best peaches (momo) and pears I'd ever eaten as well when we drove through Fukushima, which is known for its delicious fruit. The ever present vending machines provided new experiences too. I discovered I love grape juice with chunks of aloe vera in it, conveniently sold in a small aluminum can by minute maid.
We played at the beach, and visited two public aquariums and a zoo. I saw a pineapple sea cucumber, but no giant isopod. I had the very pleasant experience of having my hand nibbled on by dozens of "Doctor Fish" (Garra rufa). I took notice of the local wildlife. Spiders were everywhere, some were very large and their webs could span meters. The sheer numbers of them were amazing. I also saw a dead snake and praying mantis, several frog species, tadpoles, and other invertebrates. Pomegranate trees bearing fruit were a common sight. Though unremarkable to most people, I took notice (and photos) of these smaller wonders. At one Shinto shrine we visited (Shiogama Jinja) there was a flock of pigeons. We bought some food to feed them and as I held it the birds landed on my hand, arms, and shoulders and ate directly from my hand. As beautiful as the shrine I had just walked through was, this experience of complete trust and docility shown to me by the birds made it all pale in comparison. Occasionally, at the sight or sound of something the birds would startle and the whole flock flew off, circle round in the air, then return to seek more food. I could feel a gust of wind from the combined flapping of so many wings. The kids loved chasing the pigeons. But this is not to say that Shiogama Jinja and other shrines (like Takekoma Jinja) and Buddhist temples were not breathtaking in their own right. Walking on the grounds one is constantly aware of the great age of the place evident in the sculptures, buildings, stairs, and especially the giant and weathered trees.
While walking to the post office once we stopped at a daycare that allowed other children to visit and play. The kids there approached me, and asked "nanijin?", or "what nationality are you?" and they wanted to know the English translation to simple Japanese words. These little kids aged two to four swarmed around me and the high pitch and volume of their combined voices made their individual requests nearly impossible for me to understand. Rarely ever have I been honored with so much eager attention.
We took the ferry to Hokkaido and stayed there two nights to visit extended family. The first day the kids went butterfly (chocho) catching. The family in Hokkaido is warm, funny, and knows how to have a good time. There were nine little kids there all under the age of five (including mine among them), so one night we set off fireworks and sparklers. Another day we went to a hot springs, and another we made soba noodles from scratch. (In years past we made mochi from scratch.) There was even a karate demonstration with participation by the kids encouraged. What a beautiful setting they live at too - the equivalent of an American farm or homestead. We drove to the top of a high grassy hill where wild grapes grew and a warm breeze blew, and took in the view of the surrounding area. It was a happy reunion. There are countless horse farms in the area. We often walked to a nearby farm and called "Po po po po!" and the horses came to greet us for a soft pet and some offered grass. They are healthy and fast. A friend there showed me some beetles (kabutomushi) he caught that are almost the size my palm. My avid interest in wildlife is well known.
My wife celebrated her birthday with a shopping spree, great dinner, and fruit covered cake. We bought a fancy rice cooker that senses the moisture content and cooks under pressure. (I think it is nearly an equal to my laptop in computing power and may even be self-aware.) I must mention the automobiles in Japan, and the most noticeable among them are the "Kei" cars and trucks. These are the smallest vehicles; I think they are so cool looking. At one of numerous stops we made at the convenience stores that dot the landscape I saw a Suzuki "Twin". This is the smallest Kei car I saw. Of course, I snapped a picture. On the way to another hot springs we stayed overnight at, we stopped at Shiroishi castle. Massive timber construction, huge boulder foundation, very cool. On the way back we visited a park filled with traditional old style Japanese buildings. Many of them had thatched roofs supported by lashed poles used as rafters. My desire has been to emulate these methods and so I took careful notice of the details. The location among the trees and bamboo stands was very beautiful.
My wife saw old and new friends, and the kids played with their cousins whom they met for the first time. During breaks between activities, I studied Japanese. I am trying unorthodox methods to improve my language skill, approaching from as many angles as possible. I think reading some manga like Yotsuba-to! by Kiyohiko Azuma, or maybe Doraemon, Chibi Mariko-chan, Sazae-san, Otoko Oidon, or Omusubi Kororin might be useful. At least so I've heard. When I came back home I learned how to hack the DVD player to see Hayao Miyazaki anime since it doesn't support DVDs from Japan. Tonight the choice between watching Nausicaa or Mononoke Hime was difficult.
On the flight back across the Pacific I watched "My Sister's Keeper" and reflected that I sometimes don't see reality, maybe because it isn't always pretty, but it is the only reality we have. I guess what I'm saying is that I often catch myself trying to operate "up here" on some detached cerebral level, when I need to operate "down here" where dissatisfaction is a common part of life. Is that what the phrase "keeping it real" means? Self reflection was another pleasure I enjoyed while on vacation. I fondly recall a conversation with my father in law that began when he asked me the ultimately unanswerable question "What is most important to you?" Whatever that answer may be, he sought to convey it through art, to stimulate the experience of this in the people who behold his art. The last 18 days provided me with many good experiences I will reflect on for a long time.