March 25, 2009


"Escaping to a warm little island far away from the storm..."

Here is the condensed version of our trip to Shiraishi Island:
Who: the Rising Family.
What: a three-day, two-night trip to Shiraishi Island in the Seto Inland Sea off Okayama prefecture.
Why: it's warm, cheap, accessible-yet-remote, interesting, and populated by friendly locals.
When: the last weekend in February 2009.
Where: (see below.) Only accessible by a 30-minute ferry ride to the island.

The long version:
One benefit of the economic carnage afflicting my industry is that most days I arrive home comparatively early (read: before 1800, no overtime). I also get an extra two days off per month (read: unpaid and compulsory). Looking at this semi-harsh reality in a positive way, and to beat the late February blues, we opted to go for a cheap Friday-Sunday weekend getaway. Our familial fandango was to a small island called Shiraishi, which lies off the coast of Okayama prefecture, not too far from Hiroshima city. It only takes about two hours by freeway to reach Kasaoka, the port where you must board the ferry to Shiraishi.

Since I have an incurable map fetish, I will include these to improve your geographic IQ:
The Chugoku region: try to pronounce some of these places + Google Earth top view of Shiraishi.

The name of the place, "Shiraishi," means "bigass white rock." Well, just "white rock." I first became interested in the island a few years ago, after reading several columns written by Amy Chavez, in the Japan Times. In these columns, she described her life as a foreigner on this small island in a fun and whimsical way, so I wanted to see the place for myself. The other reason we chose to go to Shiraishi is that Okayama prefecture operates a very reasonable hostel, called the Shiraishi Island International Villa. It provides a comfortable place to stay at a very reasonable price of 2,500 yen (about $C30, $US25) per person/night. The villa's design is functional, but has a sparse Japanese chic.
The kitchen is well stocked with utensils and appliances, so you can cook whatever you like. There are only a few restaurants on the island, so we cooked our own feast. The island, we were told, has a population of a little over 600 people.

So what did we do that might interest you?

Once we arrived on the island, it started drizzling a bit. We made a beeline to the villa and were delighted to find that we would be the only guests that night. There is no TV to watch—fine by us . Instead, there is a monster stereo, so we could crank the music and enjoy a tasty family dinner.
Freakishly energetic throughout the day due to her new surroundings, Elena went to sleep earlier than usual, at 2130. Naomi and I could then indulge in a few unhurried drinks.
Very nice.

Wanting to read and enjoy the night's silence, I laid out in front of the kerosene heater in the large living room, which is framed by huge windows on three sides. I practically inhaled New Yorkers and old issues of Kansai Time Out. When it is light out, this room provides a wonderful panoramic view down to the small beach. The villa's design is something I'd like to keep in mind for later in life...or when I win the lottery. Naomi and I both declared our love for the shape and functionality of the building, and the view. It has an intriguing way of incorporating traditional esthetics with modern convenience...East meets West in cement and wood.

The next morning, we went strolling around the inhabited part of the island, near the port. We both enjoyed just meandering through old narrow streets and observing how people live. Elena was perched on my shoulders, so she also had a good view of what was going on. Shiraishi was interesting, a window into an older era of Japan, and island life. It seems most people either fish or garden for a living. The people we spoke with -- many of them older folks -- were very nice to us and it appears that the villa has gotten them used to random gaijins wandering around. It was obvious we were staying at the villa, and, as with most small towns, the overall vibe was that everyone knew everyone, and doors need not be locked at night. The lack of any significant noise or road traffic was refreshing. We could let Lady E. roam around at her leisure.

There aren't any tourist attractions, per se, on Shiraishi save for a secluded Buddhist temple called Kobozan. A group of wild cats zealously guarded it. We fed them what scraps we'd brought with us, and Elena gleefully chased them around.

In the afternoon, we went on a hike, taking the trail that started just behind the villa and snakes up all the way to the top observatory, which afforded a nice northern view of the island.
Eventually, the trail led us back to the temple we'd visited that morning, which must have been a metaphor for something, but I am too shallow to pick up on those things until long after the fact! So we played with the stray cats again. Then we started walking along the only highway which circumnavigates the southern tip of the island. There was some road construction and houses here and there. Once we reached the bottom part of the island, there wasn't much to see except for some massive granite masonry, old dilapidated factories and abandoned houses. We must have hiked several kilometers. Elena fell asleep on my shoulder for the last one-third of the walk. It was great to get copious amounts of fresh air peppered with sea smells and some much-needed exercise.

Naomi and I really enjoyed the time to talk and tease each other. It was a good first foray into hiking and related adventures for 2009. And this is in late February! It was at least 15 degrees that day... in your face, frozen Canuck relatives!

March 3, 2009

The Learning Begins

It’s March third, Girl’s Day in Japan, and also the day after our Rising Daughter began attending preschool activities at a local kindergarten. Meet the newest proto-scholar in Hiroshima:
She’s modeling the latest in mandatory fashion from one of the hottest under-six educational hotspots in the city! Confident in her simple schoolhouse chic, Lady E. is resplendent in this gray/black ensemble masterpiece of efficiency and – yes – elegance. The dress and white shirt entrĂ©e is topped off by the finest of head accessories. It’s clear Mme. Elena will soon be the eye of the hurricane in kindergarten style.

This reporter caught up with the proud parents of this burgeoning fashionista and asked them a few questions to capture how they felt at the onset of their daughter’s schooling.

Q: Obvious question, folks, but how do you feel now that your daughter has started pre-school?
A1: (Mom) Proud, happy, a little wistful. But she’s only going for a few hours every day. She hasn’t gotten engaged or found her own apartment yet.
A2: (Dad) She don’t need none of that fancy book lernin’. She should just get a job.

Q: What’s your daughter’s first educational goal?
A: (In unison) Kidney and bowel control!!

Q: How’s she fitting in with the other kids?
A: Very well. She’s already extorting money from the other tots while they are doing sing-a-longs. And we get our 10% cut. In general, though, we’re told she is pretty well behaved and not bawling too much.

Q: Where do you see her schooling take her into the future?
A: (Mom) Prime Minister of Japan or Canada.
A: (Dad) Ditto on that. Or both? Microsoft shareholder, definitely.

Q: Last question….Young Miss Lady E, how about a few words for your adoring fans around the globe…?
A: (Elena) Mo-mmey! Fu-wa, fu-wa. Ne-ne ikou? Daddy hen-na no. Blue, red, orange.
(Translation: Mother, I need my fluffy comfort blanket. Let’s take a nap? Daddy is strange. Blue, red, orange.)

Back to you in New York, Dan.