Archive for the ‘Stuff’ Category

Japan 2014, Part 10.

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

The next two nights we spent at Hotel New Akao. A little back-history on my life: in the 1980s my father would take the family to conferences in the Catskills at a resort I adored called The Nevele. Has everyone seen Dirty Dancing? It was exactly like that. The Nevele was a blast from the past. The enormous lobby smelled like cigarettes and chlorine and to this day if I smell that combination I get psyched for a good time. I found some pictures on the web of what it looked like. The building with the tent-like roof is the ice skating rink that had a fire pit adjacent to it. A FIRE PIT, PEOPLE. I’m telling you, 50s and 60s all the way.

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Since the glory days of the Catskills are over, I thought that portion of my life is over. That is, until I got to the Hotel New Akao. It is located in what I would describe at the Japanese Catskills, in Atami, a city on the Hot Sea, so named because of all the hot springs. At night it looks amazing, like Monte Carlo.

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As we pulled in, I realized that main floor of the hotel was on the top of the cliff and all the hotel rooms went down the side to the ocean.

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I found this pic online to better illustrate what I mean.

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These are the hotels on either side.

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Look at that. Does that not scream Mad Men? I was ecstatic. My childhood was being relived in Japan! Check out this entrance hall.

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We took the elevator down to our room (standard ryokan setup, tatami mats, beds on floor, almost identical to the previous room) where we had an amazing view of the ocean crashing on the rocks. Even though it was cold out, The Moomins and I slept with the window ajar so we could hear the sound of the waves.

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The next day we were told that breakfast would be served in the main ballroom. I expected a big room, but nothing like this. A giant curved window facing an enormous rock structure in the ocean! I was so happy.

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This hotel had everything a girl could want.

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I’ll delve more in the retro magic of the hotel later. After breakfast we headed out to a cherry blossom festival in a small town. Even though it’s still winter, there is a breed of cherry blossom that blooms very early and we were going to see it. The place reminded me of a sweet little New England town. Everyone who lived there was participating, either selling something out of their backyard or directing traffic. I loved it.

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It turns out that the festival was in what I called Wasabi-ville. I think that’s where it grows. They have a lot of pride in that. Some of the houses were even painted wasabi green.

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First we met three 1,000-year-old camphor trees. They were like baobabs, they were so big around. If you have seen My Neighbor Totoro, they were like the tree that Totoro lives in. Really really big. That is Kimi-San laying hands on the tree to feel its power.

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One of the trees was so impressive that Shinto believers deified it. It had a little shrine next to it where you could light candles. The story was that it caught on fire one day and all the local birds wanted to save it, so they wet their feathers and flapped on the tree and put out the fire. Now on December 19th the believers don’t eat chicken as a gesture of respect to the firefighter birds. I realize it sounds like I just made that up after eating expired foods, but that is true.

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Then we were introduced to the very first winter-blooming cherry tree in the town. It was a sixty-year-old tree. Before that, they only bloomed wild in the mountains.

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Here’s one growing on the hillside outside of town. How pretty is this landscape? The feathery things are bamboo.

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The town, once they figured out how to cultivate these trees, built a lovely corridor of trees. When they get older, they will arch over beautifully. In the meantime they still look pretty damn good.

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Each one has a number identifying it.

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And since it butts up against people’s backyards, the villagers were out selling homemade goods. There was this woman grilling fish:

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There was a guy drying fish on a bed:

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A guy drying fish on a laundry rack:

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There was a lot of fish.

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But it wasn’t only seafood, oh no! There were these cool black-and-white mushrooms next to these mountain herbs used to make an alternate version of miso:

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And loads of citrus and kumquats for sale everywhere (this was an honesty shop, you put your money in the jar and take a branch):

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One of my favorite moments was seeing a man sorting kumquats while his shiba inu stood guard.

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And this pile of mushrooms with a Mount Fuji doll in it.

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And, of course, cherry blossom and wasabi food items. Almost everything was either pale green or pale pink.

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I drank hot water with salted cherry blossoms in them. And I had mayonnaise with fresh wasabi grated into it, which was eye-opening. And nostril-opening. It was an emotional moment. I was moved to tears. In this picture you can see the baggie of salted cherry blossoms of to the bottom right. And the wasabi mayonnaise is that squeezie bottle on the top shelf. Those are fresh wasabis in the basket at the bottom.

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After wandering around the town for a while, we ambled over to a small central park that had a wooden hut in the middle. Inside was a pool fed by a local hot spring and people were warming their feet in it.

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I wondered how people’s feet dried without towels, but because the air was so crisp and dry it only took about ten minutes. Then they would walk on a small path embedded with pebbles for a foot massage.

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As the sun was setting we went to a plum tree garden. The plum trees also bloom in the winter. It was so pretty. If it sounds like I say that all the time with this trip, it’s because it’s true. The Japanese really care about things being pleasing to the eye.

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All these trees were numbered too.

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I like how on this tree the bark separated from the wood, and the bark was like, “I don’t need you, I’ll grow my own twiglets.”

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After night fell, we went back to the hotel for dinner (also held in the giant ballroom). You could wear your basic cotton kimono any time you were in the hotel, so everyone was wearing one. We had the typical Japanese cuisine, lots of little plates of various foods.

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And then… the entertainment came out. Oh my God. If I didn’t already feel like I was in the Catskills, I sure as hell did now. They were three Mexican performers, and at one point they played “Dancing Queen” by Abba. I turned to The Moomins and said, “So let me get this straight, I’m listening to Mexicans singing a song written by Swedes in English being performed to Americans and Japanese?” I was delighted the whole time except for when they sang that damn Celine Dion Titanic dreary blarg. But aside from that, sheer delight.

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After dinner we took a walk through the hotel. It had a hallway with shops where you could pick up all manner of things like slippers and hand lotion and chocolate:

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And a shelf-stable dead fish in a bag. Every hotel room needs one.

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Or how about a bag of random dried ocean debris? Those are always nice.

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Or this collection of nightmares. I believe this was shelf-stable shrimp ‘n mussels in a bag. NOPE.

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We found lobster chips in a plastic sleeve that had a photo of a lobster printed on it. It was eerily realistic.

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And a room where you could rent a Disney princess evening gown and have your picture taken.

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Down a corridor of fake cherry branches and lanterns was a karaoke room:

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And a bar filled with hammered Japanese men, some of whom were target-shooting because nothing goes more perfectly together like inebriation and firearms. Only good can come of that.

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Off to one side was a small theater filled with elderly Japanese people eating mochi sprinkled with peanuts for some unknown reason. They insisted that The Moomins try some. She found it incredibly difficult to cut with her teeth and it was too big to eat in one bite, so I spent five minutes laughing at her while she gnawed on this thing.

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There was an arcade with this kodo drum game that I saw in a couple places in Japan. I loved the graphics on the top.

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Here a shot I got of someone playing the game out on the street.

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This hotel was famous for its saltwater onsen. They were delightful and if you went to the outside ones during the day you had a great view of the ocean. I never got tired of the onsen.

Finally, this extremely upsetting sign that was all over the hotel of what I can only imagine is sea vulvas on the half-shell. Every time I saw it I wanted to slap some stars over it. I mean, leave something to the imagination, lordy.

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Some smatterings of additional photos.

A window of a kimono store that I salivated in front of for a while (SO BEAUTIFUL):

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A sakura manhole cover:

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One of my favorite photos from this trip of a girl ringing a bell at a temple while the incense burns in the foreground:

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And a long line of people waiting for Engrish steak.

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Japan 2014, Part 8.

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Before we move onto the snow monkeys, I thought you would like to see the guy who guards the track to Nara in the Kyoto Train Station:

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The Kyoto Station is MASSIVE. If you need to take a train from there, leave loads of extra time because it is very very large and convoluted. It has multiple levels and all manner of complexity. From what I hear, the Tokyo Main Station is the same. You will morph into the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. It is an inevitability. Accept it.

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Another interesting thing about Japan: it’s almost completely run on cash. The trains are all cash-based, as are the buses, taxis and a great many restaurants and stores. It seems out of character for a country that is so ahead of the times to not take cards. On top of that, there aren’t many ATMs which is a metric pain in the ass. I think there was one ATM facility in the entire Kyoto Station. Before you go to Japan, head over to your local bank and get money there. As a Chase member I can change money out of my checking account into any currency for no fee. I changed $500.00, but I should have gotten about $1500.00 just to be safe. When you’re paying in cash all the time, the money goes quick.

When I got back to New York, everyone was complaining about the twelvity-seven feet of snow you got here and how I dodged a bullet. Not really. I dodged nothing. I was pummeled by snow. In fact, on our tour we had a different driver than intended because our driver was trapped on the highway for two days. Like, in a bus. And our itinerary included some things that we ended up not being able to do because the roads were closed. Here, look at this picture I took while walking to the snow monkeys:

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I took a picture of The Moomins standing next to the entrance to the park so one could get a sense of the quantity of snow (correct answer: a lot).

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The snow monkeys hang out in one area and we had to walk to get to them. The only way to get to there was through a forest on an icy snow-covered path for a little over a mile. It was character-building, I can tell you. I informed The Moomins that if she fell down the side of the mountain, that is where she would live out the rest of her days because ain’t no one gonna go rescue her. It was steeeeeeep.

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All along the way were informative signs teaching us about these snow-dwellers.

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I couldn’t wait. So exciting!

As we approached the end of the path, we started to smell the hot springs and saw a house off to the side with its own personal steaming spring. I believe the man who lives there checks on the monkeys and feeds them. It was a beautiful place.

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And there at the bottom of the stairs – monkeys. They were much smaller than I had originally thought. Like large house cats.

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I usually am not too keen on primates, but these guys were super-cute. The rules were: don’t make direct eye contact (they consider that a threat), don’t bare your teeth at them (same thing), and don’t touch them. I was astonished at how chill they were. There was a hardcore photography group with their cameras shoved right into the monkey’s faces, and the monkeys didn’t seem to care. I wanted to climb into the hot spring with them so bad, but it was forbidden and would have been an unpleasant and frosty mile-walk back to the vehicle, so I fought my desires to have my hair picked through by an adult macaque.

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The monkeys actually live in the trees most of the time. They looked adorable, like plump puffballs on the branches.

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And occasionally the man who lives in the house nearby would throw out some kind of monkey chow which meant the puffballs would emerge from the trees and hunt through the snow to find the nibbly bits of food. They’re wild animals, but they seem comfortable around people and they don’t depend on people for survival. In order to keep them in the area, the keeper gives them these little snacks to eat. He makes a living from the entrance fees and those fees also help to keep the reserve going, which guarantees the monkeys have a home. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship.

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It was astonishing how close you could get to them and as long as no eye contact was made (they didn’t seem to have a problem with camera lenses) and no teeths were bared everything was copacetic.

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In the short time I was with them they did a whole variety of vocalizations which was the sweetest. I expected them to be all chilly and unhappy when they got out of the hot springs, but they didn’t seem to notice the cold. The monkeys would emerge, looking like drowned rats, and potter around, playing in the snow, until they were dry and puffball-y again. I would have spent all day there if I could have.

At the top edge of the reserve is the place where you get the tickets, and there are vending machines (I miss you so much, vending machines) and some souvenirs you can buy and informative displays on the monkeys and… this.

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What the hell is that? One ear, one horn, the eyes looking in all the directions. It could be a bear. Or a deer. I called it a derr. It was unfortunate.

After the commune with the snow monkeys, we headed off to an absolutely stunning garden complex in Kanazawa. It’s called Kenroku-en and it has been around since the 1620s. I understand that the high season for Japan’s tourist industry is cherry blossom season in the spring and maple leaf season in fall, but I would like to say that going in winter is not to be disregarded as an option. The snow on the plants and the lack of brightly-colored flowers made everything look clean and simple. It made me feel calm and relaxed.

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The most famous feature at Kanazawa’s gardens in the two-legged lantern.

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And the tea house which was built in 1774. We had tea there. We had to kneel on the ground, and the nice tea ladies brought us freshly frothed matcha tea and little red bean cakes. You use the pointed stick to cut your red bean cake into smaller parts so you can soften the bitterness of the green tea by alternating back and forth.

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The best part of the tea house was the view. It was idyllic.

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This was a fountain covered by a thin layer of ice, and that did something to the light to make the coins look like they were glowing from within.

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The trees are important to the people there. In the winter each branch is individually tied to a bamboo pole that has been staked in the ground so the weight of the snow won’t break them off. It really is a labor of love.

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The area of Kanazawa is known for its gold. All the gold leaf that’s on the Golden Pavilion is from Kanazawa. One of the things you could have is gold-flecked ice cream. It seemed wildly extravagant and kind of stupid (“people are starving worldwide but I’m eating precious metals hahahahaha”), so I passed on the opportunity. Someone did get (gold-free) sweet potato ice cream, so I tried a bit of that. Much to my surprise it was excellent. Sweet potatoes have a vanilla-like undertone naturally, so it worked really well.

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The desserts in Japan were interesting. They had all their Japanese-style desserts, like this one, which was a sweet warm red bean soup with rice clouds in them:

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But there was also the influence of European desserts everywhere. A big thing is a trifle-thing they call parfait. Often it would be spelled pafe. And normally they looked like this:

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But I saw one for $500.00 that was impressive. I mean, I saw the plastic version. I went into the restaurant just to stare at it.

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And finally for today, this. Because Japan.

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Japan 2014, Part 7.

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Nara! My whole life I’ve been hearing about Nara. My father was stationed in Okinawa between the Korean and Vietnam wars with the Marines and on one of his leaves he went to Nara. He’s told me many times how there are sacred deer just walking around and you can feed them. How am I not suppose to go commune with sacred deer?. Luckily in the tour I signed up for the first stop was Nara. It’s not just a town with some deer chillin’ outside. There’s a massive temple there as well, the Todaiji Temple.

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Look at the size of the people to get an idea of the size of the building. It’s big. Inside is a Buddha that was built in the 700s, using up almost all of the bronze in Japan at the time. And the building only burned down twice! That’s pretty good for Japan. There were two seven-tiered pagodas on either side also built in the 700s, but due to either earthquake or fire they are gone. If you’re wondering why the Buddha’s face looks fresher than, say, his knee, it’s because his head was starting to sag at one point so in the 1700s they replaced it with a new head. I think they replaced his hands too.

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There were emergency-backup golden Buddhas on either side, similar in appearance to the big central Kannon in Sanjusangendo. And poles made of metal with giant bugs on them. I liked those.

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In the back was the weirdest part. One of the pillars holding up the roof has a hole bored through it. It is the exact size of the nostril of the Buddha statue. You are supposed to shimmy through the hole, and while you’re in there you make a wish. This is a real thing.

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As you walk towards the temple, our guide Kimi-San said not to step on the long metal bar in the gate because it represents Buddha’s shoulder and it’s rude to step on a god’s shoulder. See what I mean about having a guide? I would have never known that without her telling me. There was no sign or anything. I would have stepped on the bar and everyone around me would have seethed and I would have put another nail in the coffin that is the reputation of Americans overseas. Get a guide. For America.

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So, there’s deer. Sacred deer. 1,000 of them, standing there. They are pleasant and on the smaller side, smaller than the deer we have here on the East Coast. They are not, unfortunately, bright in any way. If anyone wants to make an argument that certain herbivores are food, these guys would be a good place to start.

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The deer have hearts on their rumps.

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Most of the time they stare off into the distance until anything vaguely edible happens. These poor ladies were trying to eat some lunch and were getting hassled.

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See how the antlers are trimmed down to nubs? That because for $1.50 you can buy a packet of deer-cookies and the deeries will perk right up, come over to you and commence head-butting you and nipping at your clothing. When Moss went she sent me one of my favorite texts ever. “GOT BIT IN THE ASS BY A SACRED DEER.” The Moomins got a bruise on her thigh from the head-butting. I got shoved into the parking lot. Imagine how much that would hurt with antlers. (Correct answer: a lot). So that’s why their antlers are shaved off.

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I cracked up with the guy above. He was feeding the deer their cookies and one was startin’ stuff with him so he smacked one in the face with the palm of his hand and it didn’t even notice. A equally good text would have been “SMACKED A SACRED DEER IN THE FACE.”

Anyone who knows me knows I have no deep love for children. I don’t hate them, I just don’t need them around me or anything. The exception was Japan. The kids there are so freakin’ cute. I took pictures of some of them. This is so completely out of character for me. It’s like me saying, “Then I solved that crazy-complicated math problem after going rock-climbing.” A bus full of little kids showed up and some of them could not wait to touch the deer. The teacher would talk to them and they would listen, but one of their tiny hands had to be in contact with the deer always. It was so adorable it hurt a little bit.

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After we left Nara we went to the Golden Pavilion. It was built in the late 1300s and made it all the way to 1950 when a mentally-ill monk burned it down in a suicide attempt. Luckily someone found drawings of how the building was put together and in the mid-1950s it was rebuilt exactly the same. It’s called the Golden Pavilion because the top two floors are covered in pure gold leaf. It is also famous for having one of the best gardens in Japan surrounding it. Most of Japan is pretty darn photogenic:

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But the Golden Pavilion takes the cake. It was so perfect with the gardens around it the whole thing looked fake.

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This was the phoenix on the roof.

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There were some statues where you could throw coins and make a wish. I suppose they’re Buddhas. As you can see, they’re carved very loosely and it’s hard to make out precisely who they are. Since there is a Buddhist temple right next to it, I’m going to go with Buddha on this one.

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Off to the side was the temple and the priest’s quarters and a odd-looking pine tree. It’s called the “Land Boat Tree” and it was a wee bonsai long ago that the owner decided to plant. It got bigger and bigger and that bottom branch grew out facing West which, according to Kimi-san, is where Buddha’s “happy place” is (I think she meant heaven or the like).

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The last site we went to on that day was Kiyomizu Temple. I mentioned that I swung by when I was doing the walking tour with The Moomins, but I got the thorough experience this time. It’s a big complex. Most temples aren’t just the one building, there’s ancillary buildings all around them and this was no exception. Almost all the buildings were painted this really vibrant orange.

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And the main building, built in the 1600s, doesn’t have any nails holding it together. It’s all tongue-and-groove or a similar technique and when you appreciate how impressive that is is when you see the complexity of the pillar system holding up the side.

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I found this on Wikipedia:

The popular expression “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge”.This refers to an Edo period tradition that held that, if one were to survive a 13m jump from the stage, one’s wish would be granted. Two hundred thirty-four jumps were recorded in the Edo period and, of those, 85.4% survived.The practice is now prohibited.

Something that was pointed out to me was that to the Japanese, religion is more like a superstition that an organized entity. Both the Buddhist and Shinto religions live side by side in harmony and you can casually switch between the two with no repercussions. There’s a lot of wish-making and the like. It seems very calm and drama-free. I found it soothing.

There were several examples of this relaxed attitude at the Kiyomizu site. One, there was this statue. I was told she was the statue that granted beauty. You rubbed her face and then rubbed your own face and you would be made beautiful.

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Second, there was a long line to drink from one of three cups of water. The one on the left helped with education, the middle with love, and the right with longevity. You could only drink from one.

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And third, there was an shrine dedicated to the God of Love, where there were two stones about fifteen feet apart. You were supposed stand at one stone, close your eyes, and walk to the other stone. If you made it and you were already in a relationship, it was a good relationship. If you made it and you were single, you were going to find love soon. It was recommended not to do this if you were married because most people didn’t make it over to the second stone. AWKWARD.

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The only time I participated in any of these rituals was when I saw this sign:

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And after I smiled at the Engrish you bet I put money in there and prayed for the people hurt in the earthquake. Either my prayers won’t do anything, or they will reach whatever God they’d like me to pray to and it will help.

A couple unrelated bits:

A cute sign on an automatic door.

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A slide built on a mound of dirt. That’s brilliant! If you fall off the slide, you don’t go far and you won’t get hurt. Why don’t we do that?

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An umbrella-locking station.

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Fun cephalopod decals on the ceiling of the public bus.

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And one of the worst attempts to mimic the Yahoo logo ever.

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Next entry – snow monkeys.

Japan 2014, Part 6.

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Fun Japan tidbit: Outside many establishments is a sculpture of a happy smiling bear-type creature. When I got back I mentioned to my friend Moss (who has been to Japan before) that I saw this bear all over the place and I didn’t know his significance. She said, “His name is Tanuki and he brings good fortune and money. Did you notice his balls?” I was like, nooooooo, was I supposed to notice his balls? She said the larger his balls, the more fiscal goodness. I took a photo of one while I was there and when I went back and looked at the shot, indeed he was rockin’ some mega-nards. I was more focused on his man-boobs and that creepy belly button, and in doing so I had completely ignored his whole undercarriage situation.

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So when you go to Japan, be sure to check out the testicles on the bear sculptures outside various businesses. I can’t really believe I just typed that sentence.

I read in my Frommer’s guide book that on the 15th of each month there is a fair in the large temple courtyard of Chion-ji Temple. The Moomins and I happened to be in Kyoto on the fifteenth, so we went. I’m so glad we did go because it wasn’t touristy at all. It was all Japanese people selling things they made to other Japanese people. My only complaint is that it was RAINING. Not raining, RAINING. We got soaked to the skin and I got mud all over my shoes and socks. But The Moomins and I are tough cookies and we didn’t let a torrential downpour prevent us from having a jolly good time. If all these people could drag their wares out and be pleasant and sociable, so could we.

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Look, someone brought their beautiful bonsai trees and plant clippings! I tell you, if I lived there my house would be filled with all manner of plants and trees. It would be like a teeny-tiny arboretum. I got so excited by the plant life.

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I ended spending a healthy chunk of money at this thing. First of all, it was huge. It filled every available inch of space around the temple. Secondly, the prices were completely reasonable. And thirdly, it was all hand-crafts often being sold by the person who made them, which I am a big proponent of. I love meeting the artist. There was an elderly woman selling her temari balls. Everyone remember what a temari ball is? If not, here’s the blog entry I have referencing them.

http://design-newyork.com/blog/2014/01/08/japan-is-going-to-take-all-my-money-and-im-okay-with-it/

So Nice Lady was under a booth made of tarps selling this temari balls and other fabric pieces she had made. I had seen some other balls elsewhere for $84.00 each and figured I’d wait until I found some that were maybe slightly less expensive. She was selling hers for $5.00 and $10.00 and that was an amazing price, so I snapped up four of them. You can see my entire stash of temari balls in this photo I took of all my Japan swag when I got back. The temari balls are on the left.

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Nice Lady was so happy that I bought a whole bunch of her temari balls that she threw in little pincushions nestled in walnut shells are you kidding me that is the cutest thing ever Japan you are trying to kill me.

There was a potter there across from one of the pickle vendors (pickled vegetables are a big damn deal in Japan, they take great pride in it and it’s served at almost every meal) who made delicate little sake cups, and he had a sign I liked.

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True, true. We ended up buying several of his cups. Not because of the sign, they are nice cups, but the sign didn’t hurt.

It the middle of all this was a temple having services. It was a beautiful temple as many of them are, but it had these unique things sitting on pillows. I didn’t know what they were for, but each one was carved differently.

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Later a group of monks or priests came in and chanted in front of a few of these things while banging on them rhythmically. This is one of the problems with traveling on your own in Japan. There are no signs in English and many people don’t speak English, so you miss out on a lot of information. When I was on the tour, any time I had a question like, “Who are those men and why are they hitting those maracas?” I could turn to my guide and she explained it all to me. This was only one of a hundred times I felt like I needed to know more stuff and was at a loss. I don’t really recommend going to Japan all on your lonesome. You can do it, of course, but you’ll miss out. Either hook up with a tour or get a personal guide, a college student or something, to take you around and explain things to you.

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In case you want to go to this fair, some of things being sold that I remember (I’m sure there’s a bunch I’ve forgotten), all handmade: foods, pottery, hair adornments, jewelry, toys, dolls, woodwork, stickers and stationary, furniture, and purses. Here’s a flickr cluster of Chion-Ji pics. Fair ones are near the bottom.

http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/chionji/Recent

While we’re on the topic of temples, one of things I saw was a water dragon at the entrances to most shrines / temples. With cups on sticks in front of them.

buddhist-dragon1 buddhist-dragon2 buddhist-dragon3

I later learned what to do with them. Before you pray to Buddha, you clean and purify yourself. What that means is you pick up a cup of water and pour it into your left hand to clean it, then your right hand, and then you pour water into your left hand, rinse your mouth, and spit into a trough on the side. That way none of you touches the cup and contaminates it for others.

Final thing at the temple fair: a woman, a real in-the-flesh crazy cat lady, brought her cat to the fair. In the pouring rain. Why would you do that? That cat’s expression says it all. I know cats can’t change their facial expression. but humor me this once.

temple-fair9

Lady, you need to sleep with one eye open because that cat is going to kill you in your sleep for sure.

Next entry – Nara and the Golden Pavilion.

Japan 2014, Part 5.

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

One of the things I’ve mentioned to people that I found most different about Japan is the lack of Christianity. It’s there, but it’s sparse and not that noticeable. I grew up in a town of 17,000 people and we had six churches, all with tall steeples, taller than most of the surrounding area. They were visible everywhere. It was fascinating to be someplace where Westernized religion isn’t really a thing at all. The Moomins and I went to heaps of temples and shrines. They are are tucked into every nook and cranny. I got very attached to them.

shrine-swastika

I looked up the swastika thing and I learned a bunch. Thank you internet! I learned that the word “swastika” is Sanskrit for “it is good.” It is used in Buddhism to invoke Lakshmi ( the Vedic goddess of wealth, prosperity and auspiciousness). And it’s called a tetra-gammadion in Greek, which I think is a super-cool name. It was even used as a good-luck symbol in Western cultures until the Nazis had to go SCREW IT UP and now it’s banned in Germany. Butt-weasels, taking a nice symmetrical symbol for happy stuff and ruining it. Back to shrines. The Moomins and I stayed in a hotel right next to the extremely old Sanjo shopping arcade. Here’s one of the storefronts in it.

since1615

See? Old. It was a wonderful covered arcade with an adorable mascot. I think it’s a baby chicken wearing a traditional headdress. Can’t be sure, though.

arcade-chick

In the arcade was a beautiful shrine tucked away between two storefronts. It appears to be the place to leave your thousand folded origami cranes (called senbazuru).

shrine-garbageman crane-shrine1 crane-shrine2

I walked past the shrine one night after some rain. It looked extra-beautiful.

crane-shrine-at-night

Get ready to get really bummed out: do you see those red bibs on the statues in the shrine itself? Later on I finally found out what they meant. In Buddhism after you die you go back to Buddha and heaven. But if you’re a baby or a small child, you do not know the path back to Buddha, so mothers who have lost an infant or child sew these red bibs and put them on statues of Buddha so the child can see their way to salvation. And they’re on so many statues. It’s so sad. Predominantly they’re on a cheerful-looking childlike monk statue named Ojizo-san.

bib1

But really, they’re on anything in a shrine/temple.

bib2 shrine-bronzebull

Look at these ones that are bleached by the sun. That sound was my heart getting a little splintered.

temple-fair2

The shopping arcade was the home of the finest piece of Engrish I saw on my trip.

engrish7

In case you can’t read it, I will type it out for you.

We love city
and the nature and.!
Ciaopanic is
the fashion shop
for city people
who are full of curiosity.

The variety of
attractive stimulations
make our daily
lives happy.

Ciaopanic originates
new “Doki Doki
WakuWaku”
in fashion for people
who live in
an urban city to enjoy
their city lives
and nature around.

There was the pig statue (once again, making the assumption it’s a pig, not quite sure):

pig-statue

And several pachinko parlors. I did not go into a pachinko parlor because I don’t much care for gambling, but I passed many on my trip. Most of them had no name, just an enormous sign that said “Pachinko!!!” or “Slots!!!!”, but some of them did have names, and I wondered what the criteria was for picking those names. There was this one:

pachinko3

“It’s an important part of your diet!!!” and this place which was in the arcade:

pachinko1 pachinko2

This is a good time to talk about “Let’s.” The Japanese use a ton of “Let’s.” “Let’s go to Ota City!” “Let’s fold origami!” I found this stellar example online.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

The Japanese use it a great deal and for some reason it irks me to no end. I found myself saying, “LET’S NOT” through gritted teeth at inanimate signs.

In the arcade was something I thought was super-racist.

bowing-mannequins

“What the hey??? Bowing mannequins??? SERIOUSLY??? Oh, we’re in Japan. You know, where lots of people bow. It’s pertinent to their lives. I should take it down a notch maybe.”

Additional things in the arcade: a dentist’s office with a charming sign.

dentist-office1 dentist-office2

Look, the dentist got flowers with ragged edges, I believe, to resemble teeth! How delightful.

dentist-office3

A variety of nicety shops. The word “niceties” in my family mean little, usually useless things that exist solely for prettying up the place. My grandmother had small handpainted porcelain flowers she kept on her bureau. Perfect example. There are a million nicety shops in Japan everywhere you look, and you have to go into as many as possible because their tiny horse figurine might be different from everybody else’s tiny horse figurine. In the arcade I found one shop selling this little guy. The teruterubouzu (TER-OH-TER-OH-BOE-ZOO). The blue-to-white mound with the two wee froglets under a leaf and a weather ghost.

weather-frogs

Until Snorth said the word about four times to me, I called it a Teterboro. Because I am lazy.

At the intersection of two of the branches of the arcade was one of the greatest things ever. An enormous 3D crabitorium sign.

crabatorium-crab1

I bet you’re saying, “The only thing that could make this better is if it moved.” Well, it did! Merry Christmas, kids! Mommy made an animated gif for you!

animating-crab

In a dedicated covered area was the Nishiki Market, a food market that originally started with one fish seller in 1310, but is now a whole long alley of all kinds of food stalls. It was lovely. Go to Google Image Search, type in “Nishiki Market” and tell me your mouth doesn’t start watering from the sheer variety of textures and colors. It’s good stuff.

I loved the signage.

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There was tiny gray shrimp with different flavors:

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Beautiful desserts:

nishiki-fish-market3

Terrifying whole fish with death-chompers:

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A whole lot of grilled eel:

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All the seaweed a girl could want:

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Flowers:

nishiki-fish-market7

And most importantly, these.

nishiki-fish-market1

The Moomins had one and said it was extremely tasty. First she ate off all the legs and then she popped the head in her mouth and the quail egg flavor happened and it was yummy.

Next, a temple fair in the pouring rain.

Japan 2014, Part 2.

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Ah, the heated toilet seats. I cannot speak highly enough of them. We trekked through a great many cold environments, it being winter and all, and we’d see some outdoor lavatory situation, pop in there for a tinkle and boom! Toasty seat. Invariably I would say, “I live here now. It is warm and I am happy. Move on with your life. This is my home.” In addition, I am accustomed to my toilet flushing and that’s about it. The toilets in Japan do everything short of your taxes. Here was a sign next to one.

toto-toilet-instructions

I could not bring myself to press any of the water-squirty features but I if anyone else has, please tell me if they’re magical or horrifying.

The other thing that I adored were the vending machines. They are everywhere. Seriously. Next to a giant Buddha, in the middle of the forest, in random residential cul-de-sacs. Seriously, everywhere. And they dispense both hot and cold beverages. I started liking certain flavors and looking for machines selling those flavors. I would buy the hot ones and keep them in my pocket warming my belly and then when it cooled a bit I would drink it. They were the greatest. If I lived there and wasn’t unable to drink carbonated beverages (they burn the inside of my mouth, I’ve never had Coke or Pepsi or beer or champagne) I would make a point to try each and every flavor of everything in all the different vending machines and make a spreadsheet of them. Because I am so very cool.

vending-machines1 vending-machines2

The way you know if the beverage is cold or hot is to look where the selection button is, right under the can. Is it blue? Cold. Is it red? Hot. The Moomins and I didn’t know that and one night she was hankerin’ for a beverage and I wasn’t allowing her to drink any more tea because it was after 7:00 p.m. and I didn’t want her to be up all night. We came across a machine that was selling this:

hot-ginger-ale

The Moomins and I didn’t see the red underneath (you can clearly see it there) so we thought the hot meant spicy. No, it was actually hot ginger ale. The Moomins, being the trooper that she is, drank it anyway. And here’s the kicker: she loved it. It was like sparkling ginger tea. She was suffering from a hacking cough the entire time we were there and she said the only thing that helped was this drink. I was on a constant pilgrimage to find some.

Look! Hot corn soup!

vending-machines3

Okay, the Ghibli Museum. Miyazaki is an animator of a variety of films, the most famous of which is either My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. This is Miyazaki’s museum. Snorth had told me about it and I felt like this needed to be checked out. It’s a small museum, so you need to buy tickets well in advance from a registered ticket seller. It’s all on their website. The museum only takes a certain number of people a day, so you need to get tickets no less than a month ahead. We took the JR to Mitaka Station where we got off and was greeted by exquisite ikebana flower arrangements right at the bottom of the escalator.

ikebana1 ikebana2

I was astonished how something like this was right out in the open and not in a glass case or behind bars. Are you familiar with the phrase, “This is why we can’t have nice things”? I think of that all the time in America. In Japan no one stole any of the flowers or wrote “L.M. <3 B.R.” on the paper tablecloth under the arrangement or poured their leftover soda in the vase. I noticed that the Japanese are really into being respectful and following rules. There’s a system and a structure and it is not to be meddled with. More than three times I found myself at a crosswalk and I could see no cars were coming from the left or the right, there were no cars on the road at all. But that crossing light was red and therefore no one crossed. No one moved until that light turned green. When I would go into a shop there would often be a little tray to put your money on when paying. In one store I put the money directly on the counter like an animal because I didn’t see the tray. The shopkeeper moved the money to the tray, then took it and put it in the cash register. Like, placed the money in the tray then immediately picked it up to put it away like if it didn’t stop off in the tray it was not legal tender. And people always reference the Harajuku district of Tokyo. “People dress so wacky there! It’s so edgy and cool!” Well, sort of. It’s only on Sunday between certain hours. It’s a contained individuality. Most everywhere else everyone dressed pretty much the same, often very modestly. I felt like I was surrounded by Asian Orthodox Jews, fashion-wise. I often caught people staring at me, not in a bad way, but in a curious way because I was different. Different is not really encouraged I think. That’s the vibe I got. I could totally be wrong, I was only there for two weeks. But that’s the impression I got. The point of this rambling paragraph is that Japan’s rule system may be constricting to one’s personal flair, but you can have stunning flower arrangements out in the open, so that’s a plus.

Back to Mitaka Station. It was a breath of fresh air. It was filled with gorgeous little food stalls that sold all kinds of beautifully presented snackery in pretty boxes. It was like Christmas. If we hadn’t had the tickets for the Ghibli Museum we might have stayed in the station all day, looking at flowers and eating unknown food items (we ended up getting a dumpling sampler from there on our way back from the museum, it was delicious). The museum is buried in the corner of a park and it’s about a mile from the station. A shuttle bus will take you directly there (I found a pic online of what the bus stop and shuttle looks like):

ghibli-bus-stop 52302905

but since we had just sat for a 12-hour flight the day before and the weather was cool and overcast, we decided to walk. Which was great because we walked past a dog cafe! Oh my God. It’s a place you can bring your canine and have English tea. That’s it. We went in and tea had just finished for about four people, one who had two poodles and one who had a sheltie and the owner had a phalene in her arms. As soon as The Moomins came over, the little phalene struggled to get in The Moomins arms for cuddles. It was heart-meltingly cute.

dog-cafe1 dog-cafe2

We walked along the brook that runs through that part of town and saw snowmen. Japan doesn’t make the kind of snowmen we make. They make little snow spirits and they are waaaaaaay better than the lumpy atrocities one sees on lawns in the area I live in.

snowmen1 snowmen2

What is that, a deer? Love it.

Then we came to the park and in front of us was an odd-looking yellow stucco house with this sign in front of it.

ghibli-museum1

And then there’s a ticket booth manned by a giant plush Totoro.

ghibli-museum2

We went in with our printouts from the registered ticket vendor which at the front door were exchanged for two tickets containing three film frames of a Miyazaki movie. Ours were boring frames (one was a landscape at night, so blue and black and nothing else), but I found a pic on the internet of someone else’s better ones.

DSC_0007-1

Then we walked inside and it is like a teeny tiny personal Disneyland. There’s a mural on the ceiling and gorgeous stained glass windows and fun little architectural details, all of which I would have taken photos of except I was informed that photography inside was prohibited. Okay, I thought, I’m sure they’ll have a pamphlet or a booklet of all the sweetness here that I will buy in the gift shop. The Moomins and I looked at all the exhibitions showing how the animation teams make the movies. There was a fantastic use of strobe lighting in the middle of the downstairs. It was a rotating disc with characters from the films as little sculptures and it spun at just the right speed so when the strobe hit it the sculptures looked like they were flying, skipping rope, etc. It punches you right in the heart. If someone told me they visited the museum and cried, I would in no way be surprised. I found a video of the strobe thing. If you’re planning to visit ever, don’t watch this because you should experience it fresh. If you’re never planning on going, go ahead and watch it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0qYzJUoT7g

Apparently the spinning thing is called a zoetrope. You learn new things every day.

I walked around with a big dumb smile on my face the whole time. There was a little movie theater called the Saturn Theater showing a ten minute Miyazaki movie that was made only for that space, so we stood in line and we saw it. Neither The Moomins nor I speak Japanese but somehow we totally understood it. It was delightful.

After seeing all the exhibitions we finally made it over to the gift shop where I promptly asked if there was something on the stained glass windows / the building itself. I was informed there was not. I was mad, but I continued to be a good rule-follower and not take pictures. Luckily other people broke the rules and I found their pics online.

0332 84086504_a7e18ebea3 84087848_fb00f7a9c7 3010276737_20396526bb_z large

See? Right. And then I couldn’t take it anymore. Rules were meant to be broken. I positioned The Moomins in front of me and managed to get a pic of a metal bat on the top of the elevator tower.

ghibli-museum5

On the second floor there’s an enormous plush catbus that kids can play on with great cutouts of bugs in the wood that surrounds the play area. Took secret pictures of that too.

ghibli-museum6 ghibli-museum7

And then the piece de resistance for me, a small window with the Radish Spirit and No-Face from Spirited Away waving at me. Spirited Away was the reason I went to Japan in the first place. I saw it in 2001 and I was enchanted. The hell I’m not taking a shot of that.

ghibli-museum11

Just as I snapped the shot one of the museum attendants came past me and said, “No picture.” I imagine if I was Japanese I would have been disgusted with myself and possibly committed seppuku for bringing such dishonor on my family, but I truly didn’t care. IF YOU DIDN’T WANT ME TAKING PHOTOS YOU WOULD HAVE MADE A BOOKLET OF THE AWESOME STAINED GLASS WINDOWS MA’AM. I FEEL NO SHAME. BRING IT.

Before I ruined the U.S.’s reputation even further we went outside to the cafe. It was a lovely cafe where we shared a cup of roasted barley tea and I took a photo of the handles of the washbasin. I think it’s the cat from Kiki’s Delivery Service.

ghibli-museum4

There were exhibits outside as well. On the roof there’s a big metal robot from one of Miyazaki’s other films (I have not seen his entire filmography so I don’t get all the references).

ghibli-museum8

And there’s a cube from another Miyazaki film. And some spinny noisemakers that look like fish. But in my opinion my favorite things were the snow sculptures. Near the front door was a stone forest dweller from Spirited Away.

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And on the roof someone had made both the main big Totoro and his two backup smaller Totoros. I (brilliantly, if I must say) decided they should be called snow-toros. Look. Look at the snow-toros.

ghibli-museum9 ghibli-museum10

That was a phenomenal start to my Japanese journey. The next entry will delve into some Tokyo sightseeing.

Superb Owl 2014.

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Wow. Did everyone catch that amazing Super Bowl? Where the guy did the thing, and everyone cheered? That was something else.

Sports Exclamation

Truthfully, I didn’t watch. I came home at 9:30 at night and caught the last ten minutes when the Seahawks had destroyed the Broncos and everyone was just killing time until the pain was over. In case you didn’t watch (and chances are if you read this blog you did not) the final score was 43 to 8, Seahawks. I assumed that there would be two NFL teams playing, not one NFL team and a bunch of homeless people they rounded up from outside Metlife Stadium, but apparently I was wrong. Listening to the announcers try to fill up time in the fourth quarter when the game was clearly won was sad. I’m surprised they didn’t start reading their mail on air. Anyway, hooray or I’m sorry depending on which team you were rooting for and good luck to whoever plays next year that I will pay just the smallest amount of attention possible to.

And concerning the commercials: eh. I saw most of them and I didn’t really care about any of them. Radio Shack was good. Doberhuahua was decent. The Bud Light commercial was great only because Reggie Watts and a llama were in it. Other than that, whatevs. None of them were on par with the Mercedes chicken commercial. That, that was a masterpiece.

Addendum: ARE YOU KIDDING ME.

A few things I like and one thing I do not like.

Friday, January 31st, 2014

Let’s begin with the not-like: I was watching television the other day and I saw a commercial for the truly impressive Grand Prospect Hall. Have you seen this commercial? It is terrific.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JC6AzmXrNbU

First of all, I immediately thought of the “Marble Columns” skit from SNL with Scarlett Johansson (you can watch the whole thing if you want, but her part is at about 1:17). Secondly, you may or may not notice that when the web address is up on the screen, the “s” in the middle is bigger for no reason. I took a photo of my TV in case you can’t watch the video.

font-sadness

…Why? Why is it bigger? Was that a design choice? I don’t understand. It may not bother you at all, but to me it looks like this:

font-failures

And I can’t look away. I guess it’s because I do this for a living and it’s top-of-mind for me. I need to try and let that stuff go. And get invited to a party at the Grand Prospect Hall because that place looks super-fun.

Now, things I like! I saw these while trawling the web for treasures and I thought they were cool.

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Also, there’s this artist named Myriam Dion and she does papercuts with newspapers that are ethereal and delicate and very creative.

dion-1 dion-2 dion-3 dion-6

Kitchen evolution.

Saturday, January 11th, 2014

I’m so happy, my kitchen is gettin’ done! What makes it even better is if there’s one thing I dislike, it’s complicated instructions and manual labor. Neenernator’s honey-booboo and his friend the carpenter are working on it for me, which makes it as close to magic as I’ll ever get. I leave for work, kitchen unfinished. I return home, kitchen more finished. That’s my Harry Potter experience, people. See, look:

kitchen-w-doors1 kitchen-w-doors2

(The blue is a protective coating. The cabinets are actually white.)

I’ve started working on the backsplash design. It’s going to be a mosaic with goldfish. Over the goldfish will be the pattern of the water ripples. The ripples will be silver tile, but when a ripple crosses over a fish, it turns gold. Here’s the rough sketch I came up with for the oven ‘n’ cooktop wall. You can get an idea.

backsplash

I’m not going to fuss with that until the boys finish doing whatever they’re doing, hooking up sinks and putting on door handles. But there’s nothing wrong with getting a head-start.

Addendum 1/23/2014: I’ve worked a bit harder on a look for my backsplash. Now there are drop shadows. The fish are smaller. I think it’s better.

backsplash-v2

New kitchen! *hyperventilates into a bag*

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Oh God, I hate change so much. But Neenernator finally convinced me to redo my ugly kitchen that I’ve been living with for seven years. In case you don’t know, it is an homage to gray Formica. Countertop? Formica. Backsplash? Formica. Each and every cabinet? Gray Formica on the outside, peach Formica on the inside. Neenernator’s boyfriend is a spectacular handyman, so he and his carpenter friend are breaking down everything and replacing it with non-hideous cabinets and appliances. This is the Formica tomb.

kitchen1 kitchen2

(That one wooden door was where I thought about getting new cabinet doors, did one, realized how hard it is to do, and said, “The hell with this.” That was about four years ago. And I left it like that because it reminded me of a rapper’s gold tooth and therefore made me feel like a baller.)

Now my kitchen looks like this:

kitchen-empty1 kitchen-empty2

And after my recent $10,000 trip to Ikea, my kitchen will hopefully look like this (I took pictures of a sample kitchen with the same cabinets and handles):

handles1 handles2

And I’ve only considered crying about four times! Change is not a good thing for me. This is what I hear in my head when I deal with change.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGipUIYfQW0

It’s gonna be fine. Everything is gonna be fine. Deep breaths.