December 25, 2015

Fleeting Season’s Greeting

Christmas Day here on this side of the world. Merry Christmas to all our friends and family.

My girls start early every day. Especially Christmas Day.

Elena had a half-day at school, so we waited to open our gifts. Marina and I spent the morning outside playing a zany “chase game” with her variable rules, and basking in the sun. It was unseasonably warm, which was most welcome.

Elena made it home in record time. No loitering. We had a great Skype call with Canada Grampa, then ripped into the gifts. But Lady E. and M. showed great patience and laughed a lot between the punches.
Not much more to say except we are grateful for the day.
Peace, joy and a Joyeux Noel to all.

December 24, 2015

PR or not to PR, that WAS the question

Last week I became a permanent resident of Japan. I received the official approval notice via a 5” by 8” card in the mail. The card said go to the local immigration office to be become a more firmly rooted foreign resident of good ‘ol Nippon. So I did.
I applied for this new residency status last September after I found out that it confers more legal rights in family matters, reduces the visa renewal rigmarole, and makes it easier to get credit from banks. The paperwork for this wasn’t much more arduous than the visa forms I have filled out so far to renew my current visa. To qualify, I had the requisite ten-plus years of residency; no run-ins with the law more questionable than a traffic ticket for driving down a one-way street; and I pay my taxes. So why did it take me this long to do it?

Permanent resident status (PR, or eijuken in Japanese) does NOT mean I am becoming a Japanese citizen. On the other hand, it is official government acknowledgement that I am not considered to be in Japan temporarily. A certain mental limbo has plagued me for years and heretofore prevented me from taking the psychological leap from temporary guest worker/spouse of a Japanese national status to something more stable.

Now I am one of about 677,000 permanent residents here. That’s part of the 2.12 million foreigners in Japan among the total population of 127 million (in 2014).

Many of my peers raised eyebrows in the past when I explained my reluctance to commit to the permanency implied by PR status. Obviously, I was OK with living, working and raising kids in Japan given my many years in country. Nevertheless, I could tell they perceived this unwillingness to commit to the PR option as somehow looking a gift horse in the mouth. A wee bit of Hamlet syndrome. Or just plain irrational. Fact is I couldn’t commit to the “permanency” of the idea. It contained a ring of finality that I couldn’t admit. Having kids and responsibilities eventually changed my thinking. The illusion of autonomy and liberty was overcome by reality. After all, I am lucky and grateful to have a terrific wife and kids, and a good job and livelihood.

We continue to witness massive refugee migrations due to the civil war in Syria and in other troubled regions around the world. Millions of people are giving up everything they have for a chance to live and work in safe, peaceful and prosperous countries such as Japan. 

So rational choice trumped my years of trivial soul searching. Hamlet has left the building…maybe.

November 30, 2015

Rearviewmirror: Autumn recap

To paraphrase Papa Hemingway, I always expect to be slightly sad in the fall. Leaves drop from the trees and the brisk late afternoon air bites harder. Having swallowed my witches’ elixir of denial, though, the Rising Family rages against this cooler weather. That means I force them to prolong the warmth as long as possible. With that in mind, indulge me in visual recap of the fall’s activities.

We were determined to get just…one…more…camping trip in. Frequented a camping spot in Chiba prefecture for the second year, and again it was nearly deserted. Rained the first day which dampened our enthusiasm, but we caught some rays on the bookend Sunday as revenge. Here’s the Norman Rockwell family pose before the showers started.

Late October was Marina’s school sports day. I still enjoy watching the first-year kids wander around in amazement as generations of family members snap photos of it all. Marina and her second-year brethren are tranquil veterans of the sports day spectacles. Still fun to watch kindergarden kidz go through their paces.
Lady E. hung out with her old classmate. Too cool for me already, she does her best Sean Penn versus the paparazzi.
Capped off the month with the girls doing their own ad hoc “Hallowe’en dance,” which was followed by an in-house trick or treat.

Busy dads “MP” and I got a weekend away for some long-anticipated scuba diving in Kushimoto, Wakayama prefecture. Topside, the sea surface was cold and angry; at 50 feet under, warm and languid. It was essentially a 48-hour beer commercial.

This is just us goofing around at a Cocos restaurant stop. Fine dining! 

Next stop…Christmas
I caved in this year and consented to setting up the Christmas tree earlier than I ever have before. Here’s a teaser shot.

November 23, 2015

More on M: wacky, wily, and wiser

Now that she’s got five more years under her belt, we decided to revisit Marina for a catch-up conversation on life and love, the war between the sexes, and the color pink. These days she prefers to go by “M.”, like James Bond’s boss. Watch her careen into a room wearing a pale pink long-sleeve pullover with Flower Girls! emblazoned in aqua and yellow on the front, and you can see why she commands attention. To start the interview, she bounded to her seat and chirped: “fire away.” Needless to say, she seems far more mature than our previous rendezvous and explains how the past few years forced her to grow up.
What's been your most fearless move so far?
I dropped from monkey bars at a jungle gym with my eyes closed. Elena was preening because she had navigated the jungle gym monkey bars two at a time. Time for me to step up my game, I thought. So I just went for it, but I got stuck midway through; my upper body strength isn’t as much as an eight-year-old. I am just hanging there, but I refused to ask for my dad’s help. I just let go of the bars and it was a hard-ass landing. Didn’t cry, though. Wouldn’t give them the pleasure of that.
Embarrassing habits?
I have a squirrel-like tendency to hide my prized possessions and forget where they are. Occasionally I pick my nose and eat it.

What are three things that make you unlike any other kid at your school?
I know how to use a knife and fork. I sort of know the meaning of recent Disney movie songs. And I have eaten Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli—imported food, my’ caviar.

Who are you wearing these days?
Princess Purikyua apparel. I’m also into denim skirts of late, and partial to short-sleeves since summer even up to now although we’re on the cusp of winter. My beliefs and consumer choices show I am actually a child of summer.

What's your favorite ice cream/comfort food?
Love those Cocos restaurant desserts with strawberries. Mikan oranges. Bananas. And man oh man those cranberry bagels for breakfast. Mixed veggies? Blech. Carrots and broccoli? Double blech.

Who is more fun to play with, boys or girls?
Boys are gross. I learned that the first couple of weeks at school. Girls are simpler to deal with. Boys always organize too much and it takes the fun out of having fun. Plus, they only have to wear pants (not skirts). They have it easier, so I don’t like them. And I think it's important for girls to hang with other girls and learn from each other. It’s still a boys’ world.
Are you more of a guys' girl or a girls' girl?
Look, I don’t apologize for my love of hairbands and clips, Hello Kitty and Doraemon, or that I like pink, blue and orange—in that order. Colors aren’t political unless we make ‘em that way. This whole boy-versus-girl thing is so 20th Century power struggle-y. Get over it.

What's your average day like?
Get on the school bus. We have to do a morning run as soon as we get off the bus, unless it’s raining. It’s like the military.
Then we all throat-gargle with water and visit the toilet to wash our hands. Then make stuff out of paper, paint, or sing songs. Sometimes we make origami; I don’t like that, but tow the line. School lunches (only once a week) are OK but there are too many healthy foods like vegetables. I use my cute bit to negotiate lots of sweets out of dad on weekends.

What are you reading lately?
Barbie: What Shall I be?, Nickelodeon Story Time Collection, anything involving SpongeBob Squarepants. Truth be told, my dad reads ‘em all to me, but he is my favorite audioplayer.

Favorite quip about modern life?
Stop and smell the orange juice.
Tell use a joke (true story)
Setup is that Elena asks Marina the following quiz:
Q: (Elena) What goes up your leg but goes down your bum?
A: (Marina) Jellyfish!  Ouch.
The real answer was “playground slide.”
We didn’t get the joke either but that is the essence of M.: she’s adorable but is taking her own path, and in that way it means the joke is on us.

October 24, 2015

A note on the Jays and baseball

The Kansas City Royals are going to the World Series after defeating the Blue Jays 4-3 on Friday (Central time). The time zone difference between local Eastern time and Japan meant I was dual tasking, as usual, to view the game’s progress in real time. In this case, it was a Saturday morning and we were watching Lady M’s kindergarten sports day events under autumn blue skies, 28 degrees. I periodically checked the score with ESPN Gamecast on the sly. Felt disappointed when the Jays fell after a memorable game 6, ending their season. It was a phenomenal final game to the ALCS. The Jays had an exciting run since the All-star break. KC was just a bit better and they deserved to win. But man oh man the journey was terrific—what an entertaining season.

Munenori Kawasaki, who personifies the 'likeability' of the 2015 Blue Jays team. Photo courtesy of Huffington Post
On the Blue Jays
In fall 1992, I was in Kingston, Ontario, and like so many wanted to get a ticket to the ALCS and then the World Series. I settled for the games broadcast on CTV instead. In 1993, I was in Halifax, watching many games on a big screen TV, nursing a Keith’s and cursing the Phillies. Fast forward 22 years, I sip my ice coffee and catch the game highlights on my PC at home. The 2015 Blue Jays were simply great fun to watch and track, right from the beginning of the season. Now that their season has ended it’s time to just appreciate it all. I enjoyed the spectacle and the drama, even half a planet away, and without seeing a single full game. I lived on Baseball Tonight highlights and whatever I could find on YouTube. It’s enough. Thus endeth my mash note to the Blue Jays.

Baseball propels me through the summer months. It’s background noise to camping, mornings watching ESPN Gamecast (and remembering the glory days of endless free time and NBC’s Game of the Week with Bob Costas), and shooting the breeze with a few other fans at the office. It adds a texture to the summer days that I have come to greatly appreciate and savor. When commuting I listen to the BlueJaysTalk podcast hosted by Mike Wilner. It keeps me in touch with regular folks in Canada, with their opening “How’s it going, Mike?” remarks, his sometimes-terse reply, other callers’ oddball rants, polite cracks, and general musings on the games. I could go through the finer elements that keep my interest: the rookie/veteran player stories; pitching; double plays and all the intricate mechanics of the game—even the business element. The link to long, drawn out afternoons and summer breezes has hooked me since my mid-teens, and as a non-player to boot. Read W.P. Kinsella and you’ll see why. It’s really the artists' take on the game– Roger Angell, George Will, Roger Kahn, hell even Ron Luciano (umpire)--and their writing that hooked me. Ken Burns’ PBS series on the game visually burnished the attractions of the game, too. So I guess you can say that as a Canuck hockey is in my heart, but baseball seems to have occupied my head.

2015: Lucky Charm
I enjoy watching Japanese pro baseball games and this season I attended the most games ever. I saw five Nippon Pro Baseball (NPB) games in three different stadiums this year. Of the five games I saw, the team I was rooting for won four, so my attending enabled an 80% win ratio! This statistic doesn’t make me Bill James, but it did make me a lucky charm this year.
See you in February…
Courtesy of John Lehmann/Globe & Mail

October 14, 2015

Hoist up the main sail

Summer vacation chronicle, continued
15AUG: Tepid canned coffee primed me at daybreak to do my Dad duties. We had a Brady -Bunch-at-the-Beach kind of morning, with five kids having a heckuva time frolicking in the aqua stuff. I hydrated enough to remain alert and keep our offspring from floating away on my watch. Eventually, it was time for the families to go our separate ways. I recall scorching hot sand as I packed our camping gear with the help of the satanically-perky-but-altruistic Anderson McSleeman. Bless you, Sir. I slammed down the rear hatch to the car, then keeled over head-first into the adjacent dune. This led to the Barber of Seville soundtrack with Bugs Bunny cartoon flashbacks in my head. Resurfaced into the world, injected myself into the passenger seat; Naomi wisely took command of our vessel and expertly steered us to…Destination: Shimonoseki.

This was Marina’s first visit to Shimonoseki. The Rising Family™ last came here in 2009 as the financial crisis had forced our summer vacation plans to shrivel in proportion to the world economy. But what a neat seafaring town! The Shimonoseki Tower was our landmark as I stubbornly turned off the car’s navigation system, preferring to drive around “old school.” Finally, we parked next to the econo-hotel, tried to check in 15 minutes early in the 40-degree heat, but alas Japanese love of the rules cuts both ways. The teeth-sucking and body language of the desk clerk said get back in your car, suckas! So we did.

After checking in – at the right time! -- we stupidly decided to walk to the Kamon Wharf area in the stifling heat. We made it halfway. I experienced sweatlodge-like visions framed around a red post office box, so we boarded the city bus. Despite the heat, local seafood was first on the 'to do' checklist. My family is 50 percent Japanese (1 adult, and 2 half-pint half-kids), so we will eat anything moving that comes from the sea. Therefore, seaport Shimonoseki = seafood Shangri La. Capped the day with a cityscape view at dusk.  
Next day: no family vacation is complete without a visit to an aquarium. This was, in fact, our second aquarium visit of the trip. This city’s aquarium hosts various specimens of fugu, the venerated Japanese blowfish, and many of its cousins from around the globe. The Japanese variety is poisonous, but people still want to eat it. I don’t get it. If I want visions and writhing in pain, I’ll watch a Maple Leafs game.
Anyway, we <♥heart> Shimonoseki. Later that afternoon we left town with life-extending air conditioner at full blast during the return to Hiroshima. By that point our car stank of the beach on our clothes and in our luggage, decaying crustaceans, and stale junk food embedded under the front seats. I quote the girls: “yummy good seafood.”

This your brain on aquarium

Back in the Hiroshima countryside, I recognize that I am not good at “doing nothing, staying still” per mom-in-law's wish. It spatters rain over the course of a few days. That’s when I think about journal entries. Really, that’s all there is for me to do there because the internet reception removes the temptation of the Matrix—3G only in this area. Server access taunts a lot, but never delivers real connectivity.  Used to constant motion, I find it hard to adjust to “n-o-t-h-i-n-g-n-e-s-s.”
Again I chose light pulp over literature. I held my nose and read David Wells’ “Perfect I’m Not.” Thought provoking, it’s not. Yankee butt-sniffing, it is, but again such frivolity is what summer vacations are for. I read, quaffed a few cold ones with Naomi’s dad and watch Hiroshima Carp baseball games—a true luxury I do not have when in Yokohama. The Carp remain my favorite Japanese pro ball team, the Cubs of the Nippon pro leagues. 
Next: solo road trip to A.M.’s place in middle Kyushu. His homestead made me feel like I was in Canada! Nova Scotia, to be exact. In sum: BBQ and red wine in a tub, corn chips, trash talk, just havin’ a few and catching up. I get a case of WiFi envy. 
So…the Return to Yokohama beckoned. First off, hyper-happy morning drive from Kyushu to Hiroshima fueled by the Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits. Then morphed into darker passages, a la L.A. Woman by The Doors. I promised Naomi to get a few hours’ sleep to REM it out for the longer stretch northward. I woke up refreshed, but the tension was high—a burgeoning sense of dread not from the drive that awaited me, but that Vacation was nearing its end. I’d just had a great sand- and heat-blasted time and didn’t want it to end.
Road-dueling again with heavy trucks in the dead of night, especially after Nagoya/just after Yokkaichi but before the Tomei expressway splits into two parts. They like to box us in, puerile protagonists of power that they are. Big rigs = villains! The Tomei expressway was split into “old” and “new” sections to reduce toxic testosterone more than traffic congestion. The SleepDep training I got from National Grocers nightshifts and the Navy days of my youth pays off at times like this. I am proudly, resolutely glued to the helm. Inevitably, the 9th hour at the wheel brought on fatigue. In the dark of the real night, somewhere near Hamamatsu, I channeled John Lithgow in that plane-ride-from-hell portion of 1982’s Twilight Zone movie.

We pulled into the driveway at 0430 in the morning.
I sent “We’re alive” post-drive emails to concerned parents and friends next morning. We were indeed alive, but the main event of the summer was over. Cue somber music.

Courtesy of 2014 PEANUTS Worldwide LLC

September 30, 2015

Prisoner of summer

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I am captive to warm winds and sunny skies. So I won’t rail against the fact that summer is over, preferring instead to bask in the remaining warmth of my memories. How’s that for a tangled preamble? Here comes the vacation download, stream-of-consciousness narrative mode.

Leaving Yokohama in the dank, dark evening, just as planned, Patton-style, nimbly swooping around the phalanx of 18-wheelers and evading the zippy hyperactive German sedans stealthily zooming onto my six. I deke into the slow lane for the sake of the kids, otherwise it would be ‘Go Time’ with these Teutonic tin cans. Driving…fresh, calm chill of the air conditioner blowing against my brow fuels my enthusiasm for Everything. It is summer vacation time, baby! And feeling, as I did, that something awesome was about to happen. And it was.

Needless to say, the nouveau Third Army, a.k.a. the Rising Family™, made it to Hiroshima intact. The new car’s debut performance on the long haul was outstanding. She can now be called a Trusty Steed. But getting out of the car at 0630 after roughly 11 hours at the helm felt like Arizona cactus needles being rammed into my buttocks because my legs and derriere were long asleep before my brain.

So what do my children want to do once we are functional again and it is 35 to 40 degrees outside (95 to 104 degrees for you Imperial types)? Duh…wade in the river, of course. Thus, we went playing in the local river (Otagawa) that Naomi frolicked in as a kid, with Ojichan and Obachan (grandpa and grandma), trying to catch little brown fish. Gives our kids some experience with the real countryside.
Many hours also spent catching frogs in the rice fields and imprisoning them in teal-colored plastic pail, which I dubbed Stalag 17.

Other random shots:
- Had a morning run with Marina, our first together, maybe 600 meters tops, to go see a pack of wild kittens. Honest.
- Visiting the Peace Memorial Park in downtown Hiroshima was, in actuality, more time spent picking up scores of dead cicada carcasses off the park grounds and tree trunks than spent touring the museum.
- Fireworks at home; and fireworks “on board.’ Long-time stalwart bud S.M. wonderfully offered to host us on his family’s boat to watch the world-class Miyajima fireworks on Aug. 11. Deck chairs and feasting on the stern, later on, all passengers on the bow viewing the fireworks.
Cordite smell on the water. Our kids could meet his kids again after several years. Kid-wise, felt like the Paris Peace talks during Vietnamization. But us erstwhile adults reveled in the absolutely Kickass Fireworks Display and the easy camaraderie of many years of friendship.
We march on, camping was next. At Hamada – camping day #1. My main accomplishment was reading The Descendants here. Popcorn reading, and, no, I don’t think I am anywhere near being George Clooney. Let’s stay real here, for crying out loud. Beach time = nice, slow time.
Rained for a day but kids watched kagura at a local mall instead. Kagura is a Shinto religion theatrical dance with rituals associated with the agricultural calendar; think deep South blues songs derived from oral history, but with dancing snakes that impart morality lessons about being a good citizen. Imagine an Asian Elvis spinning songs with booming drums and cymbals, but with history that pre-dates the birth of Christ. That’s living tradition.

Hamada day#2 at the beach was pristine blue skies and warm water. Beach Boys songs capture the essence perfectly.
Next day we drove on Route 191 all the way to the northeast corner of Yamaguchi Prefecture. Came to Tsunoshima and made the mistake of deciding to visit the information counter because “we have time.” That’s like choosing Betamax over VHS, Blackberry over iPhone, monumentally SuperBad choice. Bumper-to-bumper traffic jam from the entrance all the way to the restaurants. Throngs of people, no restaurant was open. We were stuck in the Tsunoshima area for over two hours. It wasn’t pleasant. Bad atmosphere in the car resulted, too. I was so road-raged and helpless that I swear I saw a gaggle of tropical birds straight out of Disney’s “Rio” forming a team circle and winking at me, as though I belonged with them.
Finally we arrived at the autocamp site about 2030, set up the tent for the girls. Sweaty and tired, all I wanted to do was swim the defeat off my body and have a beverage.  So I hooked up with fellow JET alumni Anderson McSleeman (not his real name). We had made plans to rendezvous at this campsite. We enjoyed a few cocktails; he smartly pulled the plug later that night when I thought I could actually play the ukulele. I’m told that the next morning was great family time with A.M. and his family on the beach, but I underwent virtual brain surgery and cannot recall one second of what we did.

Next day, next stop: Shimonoseki!

August 27, 2015

More Summer Scenes

“It all depends on your perspective.”
Our in-laws sent a bunch of home-grown veggies to us in the mail. This potato sat on our kitchen sink counter for a few days. After a few days I had the temerity to ask Naomi “who sent us the potato shaped like an ass?”

It’s a heart, a***ole, and it’s from my mom,” she replied.
I guess I failed those Rorschach tests in elementary school, too.

Lady E’s imagination is alarming at times
Elena spent some time on an art project at school just before the summer holidays began.
This is a pen holder. It shows just enough lunatic genius that I feel I must share it with the world. When she proudly presented it to me as a gift – because I really do like her chaotic use of color – the first thing that came to mind was paraphrasing an old Stephen King novel: that girl, at times, “is crazier than a shithouse rat.” But they say the same thing about many artists. I like her unbridled, enthusiastic art.

I bought a little propane gas BBQ (the grill is about 40 cm x 30 cm) with the cute name “California Patio BBQ.” Its size is scaled to match our modest front yard. And believe me, we are lucky to have this much space in cramped Yokohama/Tokyo! I did a little Rube Goldberg tinkering and affixed the gas grill on top of our old charcoal BBQ underbody. And it does very nicely, adding just a bit more flavor to our summer evenings.

Some views on summer festivals from E. and M.

August 22, 2015

Multiple Matsuri Madness Part II

Geriatric Dancing Terminator
Remember the cheesy David Lee Roth EP from the 1980s called “Crazy from the Heat”? It’s a perfect metaphor symbolizing our leisure time of late, namely uncomplicated frivolity in the silly season.

For example, a side story from the previous “Part I” post. I’ll title this the “Geriatric Dancing Terminator.” Here’s what happened. The group of kids that went onstage just prior to Naomi and E. & M's group got a surprise bonus: they ended up dancing with a very, very intoxicated older gent wearing...err…non-traditional summer festival clothing.
When the group of kids and moms filed on to the stage, the drums and music begins, and the Geriatric Dancing Terminator shambles up the steps…then furtively begins to sway around the stage, feeling the music take hold, feeling the funk, when the power of the drumbeat takes over and the animal rhythms kick in. This guy was Rock and Roll. He was in touch with his inner Hendrix, just letting his Freak Flag fly. Because was older – clearly a respected member of the community – nobody said anything nor gently interfered, and he kept on channeling Stanley Kubrick. So he did his unique Ramble On. When the music was over, the dancers descended the wooden staircase, and a craggy, satisfied smile appeared on his face.

I saw my own future. Sometimes you gotta say “WTF.”

Goldfish & Life & Death
The following weekend meant visiting another nearby neighborhood’s summer festival. This particular matsuri is held at a community center with a small adjacent creek deliberately filled with goldfish for the kids to catch and take home. It amounts to organized mass murder of the fish.

As they have done over the past three summers, the Rising Daughters tirelessly hunted down and captured a squad of goldfish and some squiggly-brown-thingies that we dutifully took home in plastic bags to acclimate to our small aquarium. As has happened the past three summers, by late evening the fish started dying off and sinking to the bottom or floating to the top of the water. The difference this year was E. and M. started to grasp the pattern: bring home goldfish, put in mini-aquarium = they all die. So we are now forcing the girls to bury the departed fish in our humble front yard so they grasp the finality of their choice to bring the hapless fish home. It’s all part of our Parental Master Plan, imparting lessons on choices we make, life and death. Heavy shit, I know. Alas, that broad plan is not working all that well, but the stop of the annual fish massacre is a start. I still think Marina has a streak of Robespierre in her.
The next day, there were a few survivors from the original 15 fish. Before we left to visit longtime friend JK and old friends from Canada, the McK's, who were visiting him in Japan, we convinced E. and M. to let the remaining fish go free. The girls agreed, and we let them go in the creek where they were originally captured.
So there may be some budding “actions have consequences” and a sprig of “development of a conscience” happening in the Rising Daughters after all.