Sunday, July 31, 2016

Traditional summer fun

Here are a few scenes of traditional summer fun. In plain words that means these time-honored Japanese cultural activities have become July rituals for the Rising Family™. And they are fun for all of us. 
(Ed. note: there’s a little something just for me at the end, a time capsule of sorts…)
At Marina’s kindergarden, every year they hold the summer festival for the kids and parents amid the sweltering July humidity. The students put on a cute show of quasi-Obon dancing on a stage pulsing with the bom-bom taiko drums; these toddlers to six-year-olds gamely try to contort their bodies properly to the traditional summer songs. Mostly it’s for parents like me to capture it on video for the ages. They also hoist the omikoshi (portable Shinto shrine) going around the school joyously squeaking “washoi”—which nobody really knows what it means, but it’s a good thing!

Next was the neighborhood Obon summer festival, always a huge hit with our kids and the neighborhood. The community association astutely plans it before the actual Obon holidays in mid-August because so many people from Tokyo and Yokohama are from other parts of Japan, and will probably go home at that time. So it’s well attended in July, and I think a charming public event for people of all ages.

Elena was quite excited. All the students at her school make the lantern shades for the lights that criss-cross the festival grounds, which is held at the biggest local public park. She proudly showed us hers. Also, she is old enough to want hang with her friends. Here she is with her best friend, H.F.
Here is our mini Annie Oakley, M., knocking down two of three dixie cups thanks to her sharpshooting skills.
Full moon…
…and dancing groups of older folks who really know how to do the Obon dances properly.
Finally, this is just for me. The 2016 Blue Jays are in first place for the first time since April. 
Of course I am pulling for them. I have no idea how the season will turn out, but yeah I am hoping they will go to the fall classic. It’s a joy to watch and follow the team, even from half the world away. 
So I am just posting this to show a righteous belief that..they…can..go...all…the..way
Go Jays!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Rising Family hungry for Golden Week fun

East eats West
The wacky Golden Week golly-gee goodness train just kept a’ rolling. We visited one of our favorite parks in the Yokosuka area, Kurihama Flower Park, which features a terrific view of Tokyo Bay. I’ve noted the park before in this blog but what made it different this time was that when we arrived at the play area the Godzilla slide looked more menacing...
Perhaps it was jonesing for a hamburger? “Where’s the beef?” indeed. So our usual walking/tag/hide-and-seek/Tarzan rope drills were augmented by some eye-catching frivolity due to the huge inflatable burger.

Marina now on two wheels
Walking upright and learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels are typical rights of passage for children. In a flashy display of her improving balance and eye-hand coordination, Marina joined the ranks of kids who can ride bikes without training wheels.
Somehow, as with many things in parenting, the bicycle operation regimen felt easier the second time around. I gave Marina a few balance clinics several months ago; she was a gamer then, eager to catch up with other kids and impress her older sis. I laid off on the pressure and got busy so we had a bit of a hiatus. Next thing I know, Marina is zooming around the neighborhood A-OK sans training wheels. Big Sis Elena claims it’s all due to her instructing on technique, but methinks this really is a case of quick learning by peer osmosis. I certainly had very little to do with this new milestone in M’s life. Regardless, she is regularly zipping around the block on her refurbished pink lady bicycle, and we couldn’t be prouder as she takes another step forward. Congratulations Marina!

Two-wheeled rebel
Never to be outdone by her younger, therefore (in her view) always-less-capable sibling, Elena got intrigued by these new skateboards that have appeared on our neighborhood streets.
Similarly, Lady E.’s balance and reaction time have advanced such that she is riding a “wave board” thanks to her friends in the neighborhood who taught her. It’s “street surfing” with the “wave board.” They call it the “bu-ray-bohdo.” It rides on two wheels, each on a pivot so that the board can turn freely. The gyrating force from her legs propels her forward. It’s daunting, and makes me feel old. So good for her—the young generation rises! All hail the latest two-wheeled rebel.

Lady E’s sports day
You can’t help but love Sports Day at schools in Japan. I’ve written about it before so I need not regale you with the details. Suffice it to say that once again Lady E. was a total team player and, as a veteran of these public spectacles, very definitely contributed to the show. Relay runs, dancing, and putting up with the heat and parents pestering her for photos…
She did us proud.

Kamping near Kid’s World @ Mt. Fuji

Recently the Rising Family took off for a camping weekend getaway at the Kodomo no Kuni (Children’s World) amusement area. It’s near the base of Mt. Fuji and is a great way to get outdoors and camp without too much strain. We bookended the weekend with a day visit to the Fuji Safari Park, which was excellent.

The drive through the enclosed safari was very well done – nice balance between access to the animals but keeping their habitat intact. Especially memorable was that the giraffes were not shy: one nibbled on our car roof’s radio antenna while its partner refused to get out of the way. Long-necked tag-team! There was one instance of animal passion, "nature gone wild", which made me crack up...

More outdoors around Canada Day
Jeez, as I write these descriptions I see we are actually quite busy on the weekends in summertime. To wit: on the Canada Day weekend, with a good weather forecast, we were off on another camping foray. This one was to Mother Bokujo Farm in Chiba-ken, across Tokyo Bay. The plan was to spend the day wandering around the farm (petting animals, playing games, watching the sheep-sheering show by a Kiwi sheepherder, which was primo family bonding time) then camping at the adjacent "auto camp", which was cheap, low-frills, lots of space. We did all that.
Next morning, I unfurled the family kite and sent it aloft. Elena and Marina both took a turn. When I was back in charge, the kite decided it had endured enough altitude abuse: the line snapped. Our kite wafted into the azure skies in a bold bid for freedom. It was actually a pretty poignant moment and we all laughed.
Freedom, my friends, is a powerful draw even for inanimate objects.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Snippets and snapshots

Here are a few accounts of some of our milestones over the last couple of months. Sometimes the picture speaks for itself. But I will add a few words anyway for posterity.

Disneyland (late April)
Marina’s birthday; wet weather didn’t dampen spirits. Branding run amok yet it WORKS!
We had a terrific time.

Little Sumos (May)
There is nothing cuter than seeing kindergarten kidz square off in a school-wide sumo tournament.
To (translation is mine) “promote children’s healthy body and to give an opportunity to learn and feel the Japanese mind and culture.”

Golden Week: the annual holidays. We opted for a staycation to avoid the inevitable crowds: home chores, flea markets, shorts trips (Jogashima), and visiting local fishin’ holes. It was just plain good.
2nd game of the year!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Looking Yokohama, but feeling Okinawa

Once upon a time, October 2003 to be specific, my then-girlfriend Naomi and I took a trip to Okinawa. We rented a 150cc scooter in Naha and drove around the entire island. Around the mid-point in our travels, near Uruma city, we left the main island of Okinawa and drove across the Mid-Sea Road which connects to a series of small isles called Henza and Miyagi. The highway is surrounded on both sides by pristine turquoise water and offers captivating views—like a travel commercial. Once you reach these small islands, there are glass-bottom boat rides, snorkeling and diving available, but we just wanted to go to the end of the road to see what was there. I recall that upon arrival, with only open fields and narrow dirt roads, there was nary a soul to be seen, clear blue skies, and just silence. The local crops were rows and rows of tall sugarcane. Dismounting the scooter and strolling around was a memorable experience for me; I still strongly feel to this day the whole ambience was one of utter tranquility and peace. I do want to go back there someday to see if that atmosphere remains.
So, this brings me to my own little version of that serenity near our home in middle of the uber-urban metropolis that is Yokohama. When spring comes I tend to begin jogging again to burn off some of winter’s excess that perpetually remains around my waist. When we moved to our current residence, I came across a stretch of bumpy macadam road devoid of buildings, abutted by fields tilled by weekend hobby farmers, and lined with green shrubbery. I immediately christened it the Okinawa Road because I felt some of that tranquility I so vividly remember from the Okinawa episode I recounted above.
These days finding a moment of calm is an achievement for most people, myself included. Whenever I pass through the Okinawa Road, day or night, most times I have the space to myself and can get some relief from the constant deluge of big city life—the crowds, the concrete, the incessant din. In the peak of summer, heat keeps people indoors, and it’s though the humidity dampens the noise such that the only sound except the quiet hush of cars on the roads far away is the cicadas chirping. Nothing but good comes from a peaceful trot along the road at night with only the verdant hedges, the stars and the city’s glow reflecting on the clouds above keeping you company.
Sometimes I take one of the Rising Daughters with me on a short spin on our 50cc scooter around the neighborhood. They like the speed and motion that is different from a car. Invariably we also go up and down the Okinawa Road. They usually request it; I assume the affection I hold for this innocuous stretch of road is contagious.
Maybe it’s due to being a green oasis at the top of a hill in the middle of the city, maybe it’s the comparative silence, but in the end it’s 500 meters and just a few minutes of respite from urban life. That’s why I adore the Okinawa Road. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


On day #4, I wanted to visit Cape Muroto with Dad before our flight back to the urban jungle. Muroto is an austere windswept point on the southeast tip of Shikoku that I have visited during various motorcycle trips in the past. 

I thought it appropriate that we go because it is a) visually stimulating, and the sea air is invigorating and b) there is a giant white statue of Kukai staring out to sea.

Huge Kobo Daishi statue at Cape Muroto
He sports a stoic expression—sheer white contrasted against the green backdrop of the mountainside. But it’s almost 100kms from Tokushima so we needed to rent a car to do it. I was so disheartened that we didn’t have the time to walk the trail along the coastline all the way there—NOT.
The journey to Cape Muroto struck the right note as a way to cap our temple trek—plus we could ride, not walk. Sold!
Back in Yokohama...
The Rising Granddaughters’ last visit to Canada to see Grampa was in the summer of 2014. We can usually only go during the summer holidays. This time he decided to come visit us, woo-hoo. Once back in Yokohama he spent most of the time with Naomi and the girls because the rugrats were off school for the spring holidays. While I was nursing my sore feet at the office, Grampa had some fun times with the family and did a cherry blossom outing to Yokohama’s Sankeien Garden.

Some photos as a marker of the visit follow.

Spelunking at a local park

Ferris wheel view of Yokohama harbor
Sipping suds & trash talk with J.K. at Yebisu Beer Station (love that name!) to cap a wonderful stay.

Thanks for visiting, Dad!


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Are you experienced, pilgrim? (Part II)

Day 3: Payback
We made a tactical error by not finishing at temple #10 on day 2.  Not being able to start the day’s hike there added a few kilometers to day 3’s tally as payback.  So Dad and I were out of the hotel and back at the gates of temple #9 quite early. Pitter-patter—we had to hoof it.
Dedicated scientist that he is, pop had calculated that a walking speed of about 5 km per hour would be necessary to reach the next temple by a decent time figuring in the distance and available daylight for the day’s expected journey of nearly 30 kms. Thus, we hauled ass across Tokushima city’s comparatively flat terrain and rivers that lie in the valley between its northern hills and the mountains to the south.
We got lost near temple #10, further complicating matters.  I went over to ask an elderly farmer, who was serenely tending his field, for directions, but when he looked up he was so startled to see a Caucasian guy asking for something that I could almost see a giant “WTF!!$?”dialogue bubble form over his head. He probably didn’t expect that when he woke up that morning! After recovering his stoicism, we all chuckled and he pointed out the right way.

Pop and I pressed on. Ate a perfunctory lunch at temple #11 and headed up the steep mountain trail, which was brutal. We were facing up to 600+ meters elevation from the valley floor, quite draining after about 17 kms done crossing the city that morning. Kept on going with the right amount of rest stops and water.
Luckily, the weather cooperated, and we were smart about it: not too fast, not too slow, so confidence levels and morale remained high. Took in some panoramic views of Tokushima’s cityscape but then we turned into the mountain’s guts and climbed toward our goal,  temple #12, Shosanji, and its hilltop shrine.
We saw only a few other hikers on this trail. Some of the people we’d chatted with said our goal to reach #12 that day was a ‘temple too far’ and pushing the envelope of good sense. Yes, it was bullish but we had little choice—our lodging was booked but still many clicks away on the downslope of Shosanji. So we just kept going, laughing sometimes, conversation flagging on the steep parts because we had no extra breath for chitchat, then back to talkative on the flat parts. Looming fatigue.
When sunshine broke through the dense forest foliage,  I’d hear an internal soundtrack in the quiet spells, and occasionally Jimi Hendrix would make an appearance—appropriate given the mystical element to our hike:
Are You Experienced?
Ah! Have you ever been experienced?
Well, I have.
Finally, after the third steep section of the trail that crested the mountain passes, we made it to temple #12. Hallelujah! Dad rang the bell at the shrine, informing Kukai and God that we’d made it. It was the highest point of our trip, the closest we got to the heavens, as it were. Time to rock the Kasbah.
Then we descended down the trail to a traditional Japanese inn about four clicks from the shrine. We arrived, bathed and soaked our tired dogs, then were slightly chastised by innkeeper for not coming to dinner at the appointed time—within 5 minutes of the cowbell rung at 1830! He sported wild Beethoven hair and a manic demeanor, but the dinner was a sumptuous set course of super-healthy Japanese fare.

Day 4: Blisters and Bliss
Despite the path to semi-enlightenment I’d been following, I’ll admit to checking my email and the weather over a canned coffee the next morning. The kooky proprietor popped his head into our room doorway ("hey, let’s go. breakfast.") just after the other guests – also pilgrims from the look of them – obediently went to breakfast. Huh? So we artlessly downed the calories, packed up, and started down the highway toward the next temple.  My feet were not amused by the cumulative punishment delivered the previous days, but we got into the rhythm again quickly. Dad and I followed the route that we'd planned along the highway but only after some 10 kms did I realize I goofed slightly by taking a southern route. ZOINKS. I had been a moderately successful navigator so far during our hike hither and yon but this was a pure misread that added 4 kms to the journey.  But, in so doing, we avoided some major up and down trails. In any case, it was another slog to get to temple 13, but we completed the 20-odd kms in a few hours. Stopped at a 7-11 and cleared the mechanism. Temples 14, 15 and 16 all held their own charms, but for me, it was all starting to blur together. Dad appeared to be moderately less into it, too. Temples became like fine wine: the first one was like a Chateau Lafite 1961, but after a few glasses of other vintages, it all started to taste like a Carlo Rossi jug plonk. The standout feature was this funkadadelic private trucker’s wheels—zowie
Finally, thankfully, we made it to our "final" temple, #17 a.k.a Idoji. It was the last time, so I paid more attention to the rituals expected: first bowing at the temple gate, then washing my hands and mouth with the purified water near the entrance, and Dad’s announcing our arrival to Kukai by ringing the temple's bell. Lingered there a bit longer than the prior four, taking it all in, but it was clear the walking part of trip was over. A pleasant numbness tinged with humility. It’s a cliché, but there was a tangible sense of accomplishment to complete what we had aimed to do. Dad rang one more bell to signal our triumph. I can only imagine what it must feel like to walk the entire pilgrimage to 88 temples. Maybe one day I’ll find out.
This isn't Idoji temple, but is the best Batman and Robin photo of us 
What I learned:
- (Re-learned) that it’s good to occasionally bite off more than you can chew
- Parent-child bonding remains important even when the child is middle-aged!
- Take a good map and guide book on the 88 temple pilgrimage
- Nothing beats one-on-one time with your parents to get better insight into each other’s lives
- Healthy outdoor activity does put things in perspective

I could conclude with a steaming pile of father-son bonding bromides. I won’t.
This ending is simple, Spartan, apt: Dad, you da man.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Think you can make it, pilgrim?

The walking expedition I took with my dad in March began as a random idea. It became a mini-pilgrimage. In retrospect, it was just plain good fun. Here’s the story:

What is the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage?
Shikoku is the smallest of the four main islands of Japan, but is the birthplace of one of the most revered figures in Japanese Buddhism, the monk and teacher Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi). Kukai imported an offshoot form of Buddhism to Japan from China in the 9th century. These days, a 1,200 km/750 mile pilgrimage route circles this mountainous island, connecting 88 separate temples and shrines that have some kind of connection to Kukai. 

The Shikoku Tourism Bureau website captures it better than I can: “This circular pilgrimage route is the most famous pilgrimage in Japan. It was established by disciples [many over a thousand years ago] of…Kukai, who trained at several sacred places in Shikoku, and many believe this route follows his footsteps. This is a journey to find your true self and attain piece of mind.” Each leg of the long journey is a supposed to be a step toward nirvana—encouraging discipline, austerity, enlightenment, and sore feet. Many thousands undertake the pilgrimage every year, on foot, bicycle, car and tour bus. Old-school pilgrims hoofing it take about 45-60 days on foot. Yikes.

I can’t quite recall when the idea of this father-son hike first surfaced. Certainly it was years ago when I was living in Hiroshima, because the prospect of a long trek around parts of Shikoku seemed less remote than it does now amid my super-urban lifestyle in Tokyo/Yokohama. Regardless, Dad said he wanted to try the 88 temple circuit, it was on his bucket list, and I wanted to go myself. So he carved the time out of his busy retired traveler/golfer schedule and came to visit us. Let’s face it, the main draw was seeing the Rising Granddaughters during their spring break, but the part of this visit involving the temple pilgrimage appealed to his spiritual vision quest – it being Lent after all – and that sealed the deal. So we decided we would go as far as we could along the circuit within three or four days. 
Temple #1, Ryozen-ji, viewed from outside. (Courtesy of Google Maps)

Day 1: Challenging
Thus prepped, off we went. “We” means just me and the old man, on a father-son bonding journey. I thought of the word “pilgrim” and what that implied--the spirituality aspect; childhood images of earnest black-hatted pilgrims in colonial North America escaping religious persecution in the New World. A pilgrim, after all, is someone who travels a great distance to fulfill a religious or similarly momentous purpose. Think of the pilgrims who went to the west of North America to colonize/civilize it. That’s some deep resolve. Me being me, the gravitas soon evaporated and I was left with my usual sophomoric take on the pop culture elements the “88 Temple Circuit,” namely:
- the slashfest scenes of O-ren Ishii’s “Crazy 88” kill squad from the Kill Bill movies;
- in the Back to the Future film trilogy, 88 mph is the speed that Doc Brown’s DeLorean must attain in order to travel back in time;
- and John Wayne. Yes—John Wayne. Even middle-aged Gen Xers like me remember the Duke’s prolific use of the word "pilgrim."
The prospect of walking and hiking an estimated 80-100 kms in three or four days with little to no preparation inspired this thought: “Think you can make it, pilgrim?”

Dad being Dad, he pre-planned the route as best he could, we’d bicker over small details via email, then laugh about it in person. He opted to follow the chronological route, by starting in Tokushima at the first temple, Ryozen-ji, and following the directions.
Finally, off we went: flight from Tokyo to Tokushima, deplane and exit the airport, and immediately hop in a cab to the first temple. We arrived and it started drizzling just a bit. Dad forgot his tablet on the airplane. Shrine #12, which we had planned to stay overnight, had stopped accepting overnight guests. In sum, bad juju. We pressed onward.
Impressions of the first three temples were the quiet that envelops you inside the temple grounds after you cross the threshold of the two ogres standing guard in the front entrance. The occasional scent of burning incense or candles, and the soft shuffling sounds of the pilgrims themselves as they walked furtively from one shrine to another inside the temple grounds, and the sharp gong! of the shrine’s bells being rung by the pilgrims . The dedicated ones said their prayers from memory.
We engaged in a conversation with one 75-year-old man who was on his third full pilgrimage, likely his last one he said. It had taken him about three months to walk to all 88 temples. This time, he would go to number 88, then come back in reverse order. Godspeed—literally. On the first day we got used to the rhythm of walking along the asphalt next to the highways and the sometimes-confusing directional markers. We managed to get from Temple #1 to #3, then took the train back to the main train station and our economy hotel.

Day 2: Temples 4-9
It was pretty cool to have Dad all to myself for an extended period for the first time in years. Suddenly, we had all this time to talk about how he was doing, catching up on how our immediate family members were doing that we usually cannot cover in a Skype session. We passed the time and we had a lot of laughs, and a delicious lunch at a run-down but very welcoming B&B. Great weather; warm at about 20 degrees Celsius with clear blue skies. Local people, famed for their hospitality shown to pilgrims, were saying hello and waving all the time. A distinguished-looking older gentleman saw us, pulled over and parked his car, and handed over some ginger-flavored sweet rice candy. And we had plenty of conversations with people on the pilgrimage, most of them Japanese. As we established a walking rhythm we ran into quite a few of the same faces and Dad couldn't help himself, he was competitive about who was ahead of whom. “Pick up the pace, Chris” he’d cajole, half-joking.
We got to Temple #9 and called it a day.