Monday, November 30, 2009

Anniversay to Hell and Back

Honestly it only occurred to me two days before our 10th Wedding Anniversary that spending it in Hell was a little ironic.

We went to Beppu, the hot springs resort town nearby. The idea was to stay in a really nice ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, with a gorgeous bath and superb dinner, then spend the next day touring around Beppu before taking the kids to the monkey mountain the next day, since they'd never been there before.

And touring around Beppu generally means visiting the 'Hells' or thermal areas, with a geyser, bubbling mud, shooting, hissing steam, and 100degree plus boiling pools. There are eight of them, each with its own theme and special attraction. (More below)

We got a recommendation for a nice hotel from a friend of Kanji's. The room was basic, but the bath overlooking the ocean was brilliant. There were two outdoor baths, a salt bath a hot spring bath, both just metres away from the sea.

The dinner was superb, I might have to devote a different blog entry to just the food we ate! Just what I wanted, a very special, multi-course Japanese feast. The girls got a very elaborate bento each, and Erica ate off our plates. They laid out a plastic chair and baby cutlery for her, and even brought her blocks to play with! I love that even really fancy Japanese restaurants are kid-friendly!

The next morning we had an equally special breakfast, then headed back to our room to change - the whole time we were in the hotel, we wore hotel-provided yukatas (cotton summer kimono) only they were not the usual bland hotel design - they had a room with a selection of pretty, patterned ones like you wear to festivals.

Back in our room, the kids played and danced to the iPod and K and I laid back on the futons and rested. Hey, the kids said, I know we're going to Hell today, but this is Heaven! And it was. Just us and a six-mat tatami room and we were in Heaven. The above is a photo of the happy family, in pretty yukatas, after only about twenty attempts to get the self-timer to work!

Earlier, before breakfast, we were up in time to watch the rise over the ocean. The hotel gave us the exact time so we could be sure to catch it. It would have been gorgeous, if not for the thick cloud cover. We finally glimpsed the disk of the sun at breakfast.

Totally superfluous shot of running naked baby - isn't she cute? And very hard to catch on camera!!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Skating Sucks

Except for one single turn around the circuit when I glided with the wind in the smooth invigorating coolness.

Apart from that very brief interlude I had a dreadful day.

Usually I enjoy my outings with the kids. I think I was extra tired today, I certainly had very little tolerance for stares and stupid comments. I wanted to pack it all in, stay home, and fiddle about with various computer job I have to do while ignoring the mess in the kitchen.

First, lots of stares. That always happens when you leave the confines of the big city and head into the hills. The skating rink is in a small village, where, despite my going skating every year, no-one seems to have seen a foreigner before. I'm usually very good with kids staring, I just start to talk to them, and having someone talk to them in normal Japanese and ask them the usual questions (what school do you go to? What grade are you in?) puts them immediately in the position of answering politely like they know they are supposed to do and treating me like an other adult who asks them the same boring questions! But today, I just wanted to poke my tongue out at them. I only just managed to restrain myself.

Worse, one of them asked Amy if she was a gaijin (foreigner). Amy looked at her like she was an alien and just said NO, and we skated off.

Then the staff annoyed me. I always forget to buy the boot hire tickets at the vending machine, no problem there. The guy even came out to help me press the right button for chair hire (see photo). I dutifully took my two tickets back to the counter, only to be told I had to put on my skates first THEN come back with the ticket to get the chair. God knows why, it's MUCH harder to walk to the rink gate holding the chair while on skates than it is to do it with your shoes on! That didn't annoy me too much as the guy who told me I had to do this had this kind of half-laughing look on his face like he KNEW how ridiculous a request it was! But this is Japan, and you gotta follow the rules.

I finally got my skates on, got the chair and got Erica loaded into it and took off. Just as I was half way round the circuit, I noticed that Erica didn't have her gloves on and stopped to put them on her. At that precise moment another staff member approached me and told me to put gloves on. I look up at him, rather dumbfounded as that was quite obviously exactly what I was doing, and anyway, why was HE telling me to put gloves on?? 'I'm already putting them on' I said, and he continued to stand there.

I was getting annoyed, so I did something I don't usually do and confronted him,

"What is your problem?"

"Mother too..."

he said, clearly conflicted between his fear of me, fear of communicating, and fear of not doing his job properly and policing gloves on the rink. Well, tell me how I am supposed to slip woolen mittens on a baby's hands with gloves on? Hello? Do we have a brain in there? NOT TO MENTION surely as an adult I have the right to decide whether, and when I will wear gloves. OF COURSE I want to wear them - landing on ice is damn cold and hurts bare hands, I know that, I don't need you to tell me, so SHUT UP AND GO AWAY! I just forgot for ten bloody seconds!!!

Okay I didn't say any of that but you can see why I was getting mightily pissed off. Not wanting him to 'win' I took out my camera to take a photo of Erica, another thing I clearly could not do with gloves on. He finally went away.

A few more turns around the rink and another staff member approached me. Not the same one, I had obviously scared him off speaking to any foreigner ever for the rest of his life. THIS one came bearing a gift, a little wee pair of skate boots for Erica. 'Just to wear' he assured me - she could stay seated on the chair, but obviously someone, somewhere, had devised the rule that all people, even those on a chair, had to be wearing skates.

I was confused, but this is Japan, you gotta follow the rules. So back I go to dit down and struggle getting them on her wee feet. Of course she had no interest in sitting down on her chair once they were on, so quite inadvertently she ended up having her first go at skating! At least they didn't charge me for them, but it made my job a whole lot harder having to support her all the time - I'm not all that great a skater myself!

She wouldn't sit down, but she was happy to hang on to the back of the chair and get dragged along! Lena taking a tumble

Rules, rules, rules. One of the things I hate about Japanese society is the rules. Sometimes I feel like fun itself is outlawed, in case someone is hurt or there is a 'problem'. It's never clear what that problem might be.

That's the problem of course - Japanese like to do things by the book, so they can be sure they are doing the exact right thing, because to do it differently would be wrong and would show you to be arrogant and careless. So they are terrified of unspecified possible problems that would put them in the position of having to deal with a situation without a script. Hence the need to have clear rules about everything.

Knowing the reason for the rule is not necessary. Westerners need to understand the reason a rule exists, then they will follow it. They need to agree to the rule and approve of it. If they don't, they won't follow it. Japanese have no such need. Following the rules of a certain situation or establishment is par for the course. Even if they secretly disagree or think a rule is stupid, they still eagerly and energetically follow it, no-one would want to stand out from the pack and be seen as stupidly and arrogantly insisting on special treatment for oneself.

Exceptions such as speeding on the expressway or illegal parking are explained by the fact that EVERYONE does it, so the person doing it doesn't feel like they are leaving the safety of the pack.

When I want the freedom to follow a rule or not, I don't consider it selfish of me because I would extend that same freedom to everyone. Of course, no Japanese would join me in my bid for freedom.

The desire to move with the group is a powerful motivator. Often when I DO question the reason for a rule in Japan, I'm told that 'everyone has to do it'. This functions on two different levels - as a justification and as a warning. Both 'It's okay, it's not anything about you, it's just the rule' and 'watch out - if you don't toe the line you'll stand out and be embarrassed!'. I KNOW that if I'd asked why I had to wear gloves, I'd have been told 'everyone has to wear gloves'. That that just prompts me to ask once again 'But WHYYYYY' like a two-year old!

'The Way' also feeds into this. There is ONE way things are done in Japan. This is true of the arts, driving, writing a letter, anything really. There's ONE way things are done, and you had better find out what that way is and do it, or you'll be in danger of, yes, sticking out of the crowd looking stupid and arrogant again. Westerners of course, think that there's several 'ways' for different situations and types of people, none of which are necessarily superior, so questioning a certain method doesn't imply that you think it's wrong or stupid. However it can have that nuance in Japan, like you have no respect for whoever it is who created the rule (and surely they are experts and know more than you).

I realize this isn't true all the time that other people will think you are stupid and arrogant when you decide to do something different. Often they are fine with it, even silently cheering you on, but they fear what other's might think of themslves if they stick out from the crowd. Add in a dollop of Respect for Authority - better people than humble old you have set their minds to thinking about this, who are you to question them?

I don't know if being here so long and really understanding why makes it any better either. Newcomers exist a bubble of lovely positivity, surrounded by polite and helpful Japanese people. It's only with time and better language skills that you begin to realize how much of a lie it is, and realize what people are really thinking, all the internal cultural dynamics going on under the surface.

Phew. You can see why this kind of situation can really bother me. On a good day I can laugh it off as another mad 'Only in Japan' moment, but like I said, I was tired and couldn't be bothered with the crap.

But back to the skating, honestly this wasn't meant to become a rant!

I finally had enough of trying to coordinate two kids, one very slippery toddler and my goddam gloves and called it a day. Amy and Lena wanted to continue, and since I'd promised I let them go and took Erica for a walk around the complex. The rink is part of a community recreation centre. There's a cafe, indoor seating, a museum, a theater and a library. I found a small playroom upstairs near the library, and a ball!

And I encountered my final annoyance for the day, a girl outside the theater who approached me with the brochure of the movie she was promoting, 'Birth of Buddha', in very broken English. Other foreign residents in Japan will vouch for how annoying it can be to spoken to in very bad, broken English. I agree that it's totally unreasonable to feel annoyed, as they are only trying to be helpful and wouldn't it be nice if people in other countries made such efforts to communicate with foreigners? But it IS nevertheless very annoying! I pointed out the toddler toddling along beside me, and pointed out that it was quite impossible for me to watch a movie. 'Oh she can't see a movie' she answered, happily switching to Japanese.

Erica had already started to move on. The young woman then asked me where I am from. This is another immensely annoying question, which I also agree is unreasonable to get annoyed at because it is so innocent. I usually try to pretend I'm in a play and I'm acting and this is the FIRST time I've had this conversation, not the 1000th, and act like I'm really interested in answering it....

...but not today. Today I gave the answer 'Nakatsu'. Now I know fully darn well that she meant 'Which country', but the fact it, I consider 'Nakatsu' or 'Takajo-machi' to be a more appropriate answer anyway, in many circumstances. Answering with your country pegs you as a tourist visiting. Answering with your town or suburb implies you are just here for the same reasons as everyone else - come to skate, not to 'visit Japan'. I really think Japanese people need to start thinking of foreigners as people who are living here, for various reasons and not just tourists or cultural ambassadors on exchange.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Huis ten Bosch, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Spot those three little fairies in the garden?

The Kids - they had a marvellous time!

Left to Right: Koushi, Lena, Maia, Koushi's Mum, Maia's Mum, Amy and Erica.


The Bike - On Day Two we hired bikes to get around. Me with my big family, we had to hire a four-person bike - then the other two kids just had to get on (there were two baby seats in the middle, just big enough for the Lena or Koushi), so the other two mums just hired single bikes. Honestly we had SO MUCH FUN going up the hills and down, pedaling like mad, fighting over the brakes (Amy and I) and chasing the horse carriages every time we saw them - we'd yell 'basha basha basha' (horse-carriage) and pedal like crazy trying to catch up to the horses. Or just yell 'woooOOOOOO' when we went anywhere - even Erica. We gently crashed a few times, but best of all, we didn't get wet in the rain, except for after we left it parked while we viewed an attraction - then the water would course off the canopy onto one leg each!

The Bungalow

We all LOVED our accommodation. This 'bungalow' was more like a whole house, with separate bath and toilet downstairs, a huge living room with a fold-out closet kitchen, and upstairs two separate rooms with their own basins and another separate toilet. We all decided we want to move there. Out the living room door was a balcony onto the canal, where we could feed the carp and swans.

I think our unit was the fourth from the right on the island in the centre.

Cheese and Chocolate
Huis ten Bosch is justifiably famous for its REAL cheese and delicious chocolate. I was in gastronomic heaven!

Girls in the chocolate cafe - a cafe selling a variety of hot choclate drinks and chocolate themed desserts. Amy got a chocolate parfait, I got chocolate crepes and Lena got a chocolate tart. Maia got ice cream.

I bought these exact chocolates - saving them for Christmas so I can't tell you how good they were yet...

Grand Odyssey

This fun attraction was basically a CG movie - starring US! Before going in, we had our faces scanned, then 'we' appeared as characters in the movie! Below are the Amy and Lena characters.

Horizon Adventure Plus
Watching a whole town in Holland flood from the safety of your seat. Bizarre, curious, amazing, a little scary!

Mirror Maze
The kids probably loved this more than anything at the park. They went through about six times, and still begged for more! They are still telling the story of how Lena thought she had found Maia and went towards her - only to crash into a mirror!

(cheat - this photo is actually of a carnival mirror in the Teddy Bear museum - of course no photos were allowed in the actual attraction)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Bad and the Ugly...


Restaurant Prices - At least double the prices outside the park! I ordered lightly, including only two meals for lunch for first day - here's our $10 hamburger:

Rain Can't be helped, and really it wasn't so bad in the morning at least, when we were under the bike canopy. Except for after we'd left it for half an hour or so to go see an attraction, then the rain would puddle on the top and come cascading down the edges as we moved, wetting us a half leg each!

Restaurant Queues Shocking! We originally decided to eat at 5pm to avoid the queues, but at that time, we were right outside an attraction and decided to go in instead...a decision much to be regretted later on, when we were informed that the waiting time for our preferred restaurant was over 90 minutes.

We juggled a few other options, and K's Mum rushed off to check wait times while me and M's Mum took the kids up the tower. Waiting in line (again) for the tower elevator:

We settled on the cheaper Italian place (which was very much worth the wait!) but still had about a 40 minute wait. During which the kids had LOADS of fun!

They sat still all at the same time for approximately three seconds. This photo is a miracle.

Distances The park really is a village, and you have to walk a LONG way to get anywhere! While the attractions, restaurants and shops have their own areas, we always seemed to be half a mile away from wherever we wanted to be!

Feet I even wore my sensible shoes! But there was just SO much walking, I got sore feet anyway. Amy and Lena wore their boots - very comfortable soft suede ones, but not very waterproof, so they ended Sunday with damp feet that were so smelly I wouldn't let them take their boots off in the car!


Blood Erica's. And all my fault. Just before lunch on Sunday. She had held her umbrella from the bus stop to the restaurant. She fought to keep hold of it, while I was cold and wet and wanting to get inside as soon as possible. With no inclination to be patient with her, I just yanked. And three of the fingers on her right hand got cut on the lip where half of the pole slips into the other half (of a collapsible umbrella). She wailed, and only stopped when I managed to get bandaids on all three tiny fingers and cease the blood flow.

No Tunes Honestly, I nearly cried. After listening to the four Lazytown (kid's show) songs I uploaded that morning three times over, with the battery cutting out after we heard them, I stopped in Hita and bought a portable speaker so I could use the lighter connection for power. After spending 3000 on that and another 1000 on batteries for it, I got on the expressway and realized....that those four songs were all I had. Somehow I had lost ALL my songs while trying to upload the podcasts. Goddam it I HATE HATE HATE iPod 'syncing'. Whoever invented the new iTunes management style should be shot. At least that's what I thought as I embarked on five hours of driving with NO songs.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Absolutely Fabulous Weekend

..with wine, women, song (hummed), chocolate, nudity, sex (mimed), ninjas, 70% off book sales, Chinese, Italian and Japanese cuisine, a castle, gingerbread lattes and a samurai(me).

Which just about wraps up the AFWJ mini-convention week.

Vicky knows what I am talking about. Christine, Kristin, I wish you could have made it, it really was worth it! Angela, Heather, it's kind of like the Board Meeting weekend, only with no work to do. Jo, Katy, get off your bums and join already, don't tell me you're too busy, just join, INK the convention and mini-convention dates into your calendar and say NO to anyone else who tries to book you that weekend.

I arrived nice and early on Saturday morning after a mammoth car-karaoke session all the way down the highway from Nakatsu. I found the hotel with only one extra trip around the block, parked and hopped on a tram. I didn't know Oonagh was on the same tram until we jumped off! We met Victoria, who showed us the location of the bookstore - and yet another 70% sale, the first one I've had the luck to encounter. It seems all the English book sections in bookstores in Japan are down-sizing, and getting rid of their general books sections. It's happened to three places in Oita, and two in Kitakyushu that I know of, and even Maruzen and Kinokuniya in Fukuoka have smaller English books sections than before.

I got some of the those large format, gorgeous colorful picture books I love so much, including a total mystery book, wrapped in cellophane, with unmarked black covers, no dust jacket, no title card or anything! Since everything was so cheap, and I am a certifiable book nut, I bought it!

Lunch was Chinese at the New Otani. We met Michelle, Tamah and Denise in the lobby, and soon Kathleen and Melody caught up with us too. A local member, Karen, and her sweet daughter Leena also joined us for lunch. We had a few wines for lunch but it was mostly high spirits providing the charged, energetic atmosphere. Everyone was so pleased to be getting away from home and families and work and commitments for a weekend away! We had a private banqueting room which was just exquisite, making us all feel very spoiled.

After lunch I headed back to the irresistible 70% sale after lunch, this time with Michelle and Kathleen in tow. Kathleen did the Gap while I gathered some kids books this time around. Then Kathleen dragged us to Starbucks, where I tried the famous gingerbread latte - it was truly divine, and went so well with the chocolate marshmallow bar I also could not resist.

Sadly we were not back in time for Susie's yoga session. I also missed Denise's lecture on a new English teaching system, as I was changing, grabbing chilled wine from my hotel room fridge, then rushing down in the elevator to the car to check that Kanji hadn't left his keys and jacket in it. He found them at home just as I was rushing back upstairs phoning him to tell him I didn't have them!

I also missed the champagne toast and group photo, but not the actual champagne, thank goodness, which was flowing nicely. Dinner was at 6 in the hotel dining room, but we were put in a separate tatami room. Sashimi, tempura, soba, nabe and little bits and extras plus beer. I hardly notice the food though as we soon launched into a game of charades.

Victoria's version of charades is light on rules, heavy on innuendo, and void of scoring, perfectly suiting a bunch of not-terribly-competitive women who just want to laugh watching their friends try to act out words like 'brothel' 'dekichatta kekkon' 'James Bond' or 'impotence'

We finally got chucked out of the dining room and re-convened in the onsen. At national conventions the onsen is always full of Kyushu gals, so at Kyushu mini-cons, we ALL end up in there, extending the party, minus the charades, thank god.

We finished up the night back in the tatami room (we hired an extra room just to party in), where we attempted a skype conference with some other club members, and played loads of party and drinking games, as well as just chatting and of course, imbibing copious amounts of chocolate and wine.

I can't remember what time I got back to my room, I think it was fairly early. I was feeling pretty energetic still, so I decided to fulfill one of my goals for the weekend, which was to have a foot-bath. Then I browsed through my new books while listening to songs on my iPod. I opened the 'mystery book' - it was about space, and just as I was getting disappointed that it was from the European Space Agency and not NASA, the 3D specs fell out and I discovered the fantastic 3-D photos of Mars. So there I sat, feet scrubbed clean and sipping the only non-alcoholic, non-caffeine drink I could find in the hotel machines - strawberry milk - going 'Wow' at each new page and succumbing to the temptation to reach out and touch the pictures just in case they really did have bumps and pits.

Breakfast was the usual Japanese business hotel fare, so I brought down my own milk! There's always tea, but finding actual real milk is often a challenge. Seemed easier to just bring my own rather than sending the staff on a wild goose chase that just might end up in my being presented with a tiny packet of creamer. We all met up again at breakfast, and made our plans for the day, then split up into the shopping team and the castle team.

Kumamoto has one of the best castles in Japan. There are officially Three Best (there's always three best of anything in Japan), the others being Himeji and ...(someone fill that gap please). Typically it was built in 1960-something, hardly any actual castles have survived. This one had miles of genuine walls, and one surviving old turret which was wonderful, with it's low doorways, wood polished with age and new tatami rooms. We had to remove our shoes to enter, which was a bit of a challenge in my high-heel knee-high boots (yes, I was having another shoe-fetish moment).

Next we moved around to the main castle, where there were people posing for photographs in samurai and ninja outfits. We stopped to take photographs of them and with them before touring inside the castle. It was exactly like Osaka castle and Nakatsu castle inside - with each floor displaying museum items and the stairs winding up to the top. Unlike Nakatsu, you can't go out onto the balcony at the top floor. But the view of the city and surrounding mountains was spectacular.

As we left, the people with real TV cameras invited us to pose with the ninjas again, and handed out shirikens (lethal spiked spinning disks) for us to pretend to throw. Then someone handed me a sword, woo hoo! Only it was stuck in the scabbard, damn. No accidental beheadings allowed. Then the guy rushed over with a jacket and a samurai helmet to put on me! It was so heavy it gave me a headache, but I kept it on for loads of photos. Here's one that shows how well high-heel sex-kitten boots go with swords and samurai helmets:

We met up with the shopping contingent, who had also been charged with the job of finding us a restaurant for lunch. They aimed for Indian, but could only find Italian - my favorite Cappricosa. On way back I stopped at a shop to buy a scarf and got left behind...Michelle waited for me, so we snuck back to Starbucks for seconds of that wonderful gingerbread latte.

After meeting up with the rest back at the hotel, we said our goodbyes, and four of us went to an onsen. I love to finish up a long, tiring weekend with a nice hot soak. Victoria booked a long massage, and I drove of with Susie and Michelle, dropping Susie off in Kurume and Michelle at Nakatsu station.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Halloween Party

The eerie scene in the genkan...

Kanade just came over to play but got a BIG fright! She just called out of the blue that morning and we said YES! Come over and play (tee hee hee).

Two little witches and Jasmine.

Kanade would not put on a costume, though we had loads to spare, and some very pretty ones too.

All the kids together in one frame, not exactly certainly is a challenge getting that many toddlers to sit still at once, especially when they were still feeling a little shy.

Amy and Lena, scary witches!

Erica doing god knows what with a stick and a slinky. Tommy the Pumpkin.

Snow White Sasha and Spiderman Hiro

Nao, and her costume. Never the twain did meet (that's her intrepid Dad under the Ladybu get-up)

Cupcakes! We had a cake-decorating session. Clockwise from left, an eyeball, a spider (No, not a witch), a witch (no, not a ghost) and a hand emerging from a grave in front. That was my favorite - the dirt is made out of chocolate icing and damp brown sugar!

Hiro getting into the green. All the kids decorating.

Amy and Lena are old hands at the cake decorating business. Sasha and Tommy skipped the cakes and icing and tucked straight into the lollies.

A rare photo of Nao and Erica NOT fighting. Nao took to the decorating business like a duck to water. I'm predicting she's going to be saying 'cake-ya-san ni naritai' at her kindy graduation. ("I want to have a cake shop"). Here are her masterpieces. She didn't mind that the icing fell off with the weight of the jelly beans, she just added more! Now that's my kind of cake!


We made spooky-face pies. Amy and Lena pose with their creations.

Left, Devil's eggs. To be skulled like shots. On the right, witch's broomsticks, made out of pasty, to use as dippers.

Left, a cauldron and brew (pumpkin and cheese fondue dip) and on the right, blood, pus and bogies for refreshments.