November 30, 2013

For a few weeks more...heat

We’re on the verge of December as I write this and yet I am still thinking about summer. Gord Downie said it best: “we live to survive our paradoxes.” Mine is that I was reared in northern climes but have morphed into a creature that thrives on the great gales of energy unleashed amid hot, muggy summer temperatures. In that spirit, here are a few anecdotes from the Hot Zone, the peak heat of August. The soundtrack for this time is the sonic euphoria induced by listening to Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” or the entire Steve Miller Greatest Hits album. The flavor is watermelon and cucumber salad washed down with judicious amounts of light American beer.

Summer trip to Hiroshima
It’s the family, stupid. After the night ramble down the 800 kilometers of expressway between Yokohama and Hiroshima, I was ready to revel in vacationland. So…Carp/Tigers baseball with a bud; 10th wedding anniversary with my beautiful and indulgent wife; BBQ and pool fun for the kiddies to escape the oppressive heat (at least 38-39 degrees Celsius every day); and, finally, a spell camping at the beach on the Japan Sea coast. From my journal: “Morning at the beach in Hamada: 1) really terrific swimming 2) Elena happy 3) Marina produces a tape-measure-worthy turd.” Awesome!

Doolittle in Doigehama
Somehow the schedules aligned where many old buddies (who have also stayed on in Japan) all managed to further align our vacation schedules for a couple of days off as husbands and fathers. The only ground rules are no wives and no kids. We met at the same camp spot we scorched a few years ago. Basically, we exorcised the resident employment demons through revelry with a tempo like a Pixies song —loud/quiet, quiet/loud— dependent on iPad technology and catnaps, punctuated by yet-more BBQ, Costco muffins, fireworks, and random romps into the ocean to cool off and rehydrate. It was two days of outstanding fun. As our middle-aged batteries wore down, quiet snoring in the afternoon sun was the order of the day.

Before I knew it, I was driving the family vehicle back to Yokohama with my friend James riding shotgun, sans family, which had wisely opted to stay with Naomi’s kin for a few more days. I guzzled coffee in quantities that should have stopped my heart in order to remain conscious as I captained the blue ship homeward. We arrived back in the Kanto region in one piece. Before I knew it, I was on a plane, then in the desert of Southern California at a work event, cranking out the words and frequenting Denny’s “for my health.”
At this point, the pace was relentless and I kicked in the afterburners, fueled by Bud Light and the manic elation prompted by seeing the Dodgers and the Red Sox play. The rest is a blur not unlike the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey: “My God—it’s full of stars.”

I jumped a plane eastward and barged in on my parental units for a visit that, to them, likely seemed more like a 28-hour hostage crisis. Then back to Japan via a flight schedule that was more complicated than dollhouse assembly instructions on Christmas Eve after a few fingers of Jameson’s.

And thus I found myself back at home in Yokohama at about 0600 on the first Sunday in September, with the two Rising Daughters groggily starting their day, my brain still somewhere over the Pacific, and the local temperature climbing quickly toward the high 30s with a hootenanny level of humidity to boot. I would…have it no other way. The Rising Family, fully intact once again, christened September with a dip in the local public pool, a dispensing of gifts, and a feast at Red Lobster to celebrate our XO’s birthday.
The flavor of August was a blend of sweat, watermelon and jet lag. It was the best month of this year, hands-down. Yet, September had its own charms…

November 10, 2013

Trick Then St. Nick?

The religious aspects of Christmas are understandably perplexing to a majority of Japanese people given their secular inclination and lack of Christian traditions. Yet the nation has fully embraced the trappings of good old St. Nick, and Christmas is a feast for the eyes and stomach here. Halloween is a different story. 
Sure, people dress up in costumes around the days leading up to October 31. Shopping areas and English language schools are replete with scary-slash-fun images in orange and black. But I am convinced most Japanese folks still do not understand the historical origins of Halloween, and they just enjoy the chance to buy candy and dress up in odd outfits because of costume play’s cultural acceptance here. It is rare to see anyone carving pumpkins or kids going door-to-door to trick or treat. Nobody wants to dole out candy or ask for it—that’s just not customary yet. And that's fair, because a thin understanding of a Western holiday should not prevent people from having fun. Thus, Japan’s version of Halloween is consistent with the nation’s ability to appropriate foreign ideas and tweak them to make it acceptable locally.
What has struck me, though, is the quick turnaround from the Halloween marketing blitz straight into the Christmas marketing carpet bombing. 
One weekend the Rising Daughters were getting pumpkins and spooky pink cats painted and their cheeks at our local shopping mall. Then, the following (first) weekend in November, we were strolling through the same mall being force-fed Jingle Bells by Bing Crosby and visually assaulted by tinsel!
With no American Thanksgiving acting as a commercial/holiday buffer, we launched straight into Christmas.
As William Shatner said: “I can’t get behind that.” But I am becoming a Rising Curmudgeon™.


November 5, 2013

A fistful of summer

I began the summer by taking a plunge in a coffee bath. I feel like I have not slept soundly since. This hot spring contained a respectable amount of real coffee, and that is the right caffeinated metaphor for the summer just passed. As we have now reached the definitive end to the warm months of 2013, let’s take a look back, shall we?

Naomi had found out about this spa, called Yunessun, near Hakone, a popular weekend getaway spot south of Tokyo. It has over 25 different-themed hot spring baths, including a waterfall, aromatic (citrus), Japanese sake, green tea, and the aforementioned coffee spa. They had me at the word “coffee.”
Courtesy of
The kids dove into the blue popsicle-colored spa (I had to keep M. from trying to lap up the water) while I reveled in the wine spa. Naomi had to prevent me from testing the wine spa water. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree...
Visiting Yunessun spa was a unique way to kick off our summer fun and travels.

July was about all about fighter jets, flea markets and a fishing hole.
We found a new park near the Atsugi Naval Air Facility that has a kickass jungle gym, so the Rising Daughters could run amok. Located at the end of the main runway, we had the occasional booming flyover of F-18s either landing or taking off.
On weekends when we had no specific plans, we usually went off to one of many flea markets in and around the Yokohama area. Love them bargain hunts. Around that time, we also found a fishing hold right in the middle of the city which Elena, in particular, has taken a shine to.
 Later, in July, when temperatures began to rise to the sweltering zone, we escaped the heat in the neighborhood’s annual Obon holiday festival, held in the evening, so the girls could dress up in their summer yukata to parade around the festival grounds.
This summer ritual has become a favorite of mine. Elena created a unique lantern at school that was selected to help decorate the festival ground's lights, and she went on stage for her public awa yoshikono traditional song/dance debut.
It was terrific to see her dance around on stage, and Marina was having fun mimicking big sis’s movements.
On the way home, the very intoxicated (and usually very quiet) local barber called me over from across the street and plunked a cold beer into my mitt. I received the blurry but well-meaning picture of this merriment the next time we went in for haircuts. This type of gesture makes our neighborhood nice to live in. Bring on the heat, I said!