Archive for the ‘Stuff’ Category


Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Around Halloween a couple years back I went to something called The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze at the Van Cortlandt Manor. I blogged about it. I guess it was a big moneymaker so they decided to have a summer version using a garden theme. They used recyclables and it’s lit predominantly by LEDs so it doesn’t use a great deal of electricity and isn’t too taxing on the environment. It was like a fairyland. I went with Cricket and I loved it. I imagine one might love it even more on LSD or peyote or ketamine, but that’s not how I roll so I enjoyed it unaffected by mind-altering substances.

At the entrance, there’s a blinking swirling rainbow arch.


And then you walk past a giant field of tulips made from old milk jugs. It was immense.

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Followed by an explanation of how trash was used to make almost everything there.


There was a corridor of chest-high mushrooms:

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A trail of ants, trees full of ladybugs:

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And a grove of butterflies.


Butterflies was a big theme. This was a large butterfly made from bubble wrap.


There was a maze with projections of butterflies on the ceiling and Christmas lights with butterflies on them lining the route.

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Some of the things I felt could be worked on for the future. Like this bug kinda all by himself in a corner looking all weird:


And this rabbit that looks substantially more like a viscacha than a lagomorph. Plus they were playing trippy Indian sitar music near it. What that has to do with this bunny, I do not know.


There was a caterpillar cave to walk through:

caterpillar caterpillar-inside

There was a turtle made from a jungle gym:


A ten-foot-tall mushroom that if I had tall enough ceilings I would want at my apartment:


And a kaleidoscope pattern being projected on a wall of a side building. I only took one picture, but it kept morphing, you know, how kaleidoscopes do.


But most would agree the piece-de-resistance (aside from the gigantor field of tulips) would be the praying mantis watching over everything. He guarded a variety of plants like lilies and what I think are dandelions.

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As you near the end, you walk past the main house that had music playing. There were giant flowers on the house that changed colors and blinked in time with the music and vines that “grew”.


The whole thing was awesome and I highly recommend it. If you live in or around Westchester you should make an effort to go. And as with the Jack O’Lantern Blaze, my college classmate Jay Woods was in charge of lighting and once again he did a stellar job. Here’s the website:

Artists that be brangin’ it.

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

First, spam. When I was twelve I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the first time and it had a great effect on me. So when I received this stellar piece of spammery:


All I could think of was this scene from MP and the HG.

Okay, artists that are amazing and have come into my orbit recently. There’s Jeremy Fish’s new work. I’ve blogged about Jeremy Fish before. I love his work so much I made a signed poster he made the centerpiece of my living room wall. Well, I just saw some of his newer work and it’s really great. I love how he is evolving without giving up his signature style.

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And there’s Cody Eich the tattoo artist. I adore his colors and his nature themes. If I could commit to a tattoo design, it would most likely be one like his.

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I went to Hump Tour (which I will now try to explain to you as politely as possible)!

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Head’s up: I’m going to do the best I can to be as socially acceptable as I can, but maybe you shouldn’t read this at work. I don’t know what kind of job you have. Maybe you have the kind of job where you can do whatever the hell you want. I just don’t want to get into trouble if your work would deem this inappropriate. ‘Nuff said. Moving on.

While I was in Japan I would sporadically check my email on computers where the keyboards had some recognizable letters, but mostly not so much with that, so I would vaguely hen-peck my way across the keys in the hopes that I was hitting the right ones. This made checking my email a bit of an uphill battle, so I skimmed them for words like “emergency / flood / fire / catastrophe / no survivors” and as long as none of those popped up I felt pretty good. I saw an email from Snorth that said something along the lines of “You wanna do a thing three months from now with Dan Savage?” I knew that I didn’t have any plans in three months and I like doing things, so I said yes and tried to remember that I made plans for late April. Two weeks before the end of April I finally got around to asking Snorth, “What did I agree to go to in two weeks?” and Snorth said, “Oh, Dan Savage hosts a sex-positive film festival in the Northwest every year since the mid-2000s and for the first time it’s coming to New York and we’re gonna go see it.” It took me a minute but eventually it sunk it. “We’re going to see artsy porn, is that what you’re saying?” And Snorth said, “Yes, you and me and my husband are going to see amateur porn curated by Dan Savage in a theater with other people at 4:00 in the afternoon two Saturdays from now.” “Well, alright then,” I said.

First, who is Dan Savage. He’s probably most well-known for answering questions on a self-help column focusing on sex and romance issues called Savage Love. He is also well-known for starting the It Gets Better Project, where adults, both homosexual and not, film videos where they tell kids it’s not worth killing yourself because of bullying. I have found him to be arrogant at times so I am not a big fan, but Snorth likes him a great deal so she was excited to go see him. The film festival is called Hump Tour, and here’s a small snapshot of what it entails.

Since 2005 the HUMP! Film Festival has challenged ordinary people from all over the Pacific Northwest to become temporary, weekend porn stars-by making their very own five-minute dirty movies for a chance to win big cash prizes! And they did not disappoint! The resulting short films run the gamut of sexual styles: straight, gay, lesbian, transgender… every color in the sexual rainbow… and some we never knew existed. HUMP! films are funny, thought-provoking, sad, artistic, outrageous, and almost overwhelmingly sexy – because they’re real. And they’re real because they were created and performed by sex-positive people, just like YOU. That’s why we’re bringing the very best of HUMP! to your town! See 20 of the hottest HUMP films in action… they’ll make you laugh, squeal, and marvel at the broad (and creative) range of human sexuality. It’s the HUMP! Tour 2014! 

Saturday rolled around and I met Snorth outside The Village East Cinema at about 3:00 (it was general admission and I wanted a good seat). As we rolled in the people taking tickets at the door told us Dan Savage would be answering any questions we might have, so if we did have any questions we should write them on the index cards provided. It occurred to me that I didn’t have any questions before the movies but I bet I would have A WHOLE LOT afterwards. After they took our tickets we got to sit in a big beautiful turn-of-the-century theater covered with Arabic motifs. Then Dan Savage showed up and gave us a talk before the movies commenced. He first answered some of the index card questions, and he gave what I considered some pretty phenomenal answers considering he didn’t have any time to prepare. One question was, “I am a gay man and I have recently begun a relationship with someone new. When I friended him on Facebook I noticed we had about twenty friends in common, all young Asian men. I am a young Asian man. Should I be concerned? Should I break up with him?” Dan Savage said, “There’s nothing wrong your new boyfriend having a preference. Everybody has preferences. If a white man only dates other white men, no one thinks anything of it. Here’s the key – as long as he treats you like a person with thoughts and feelings and opinions and value who happens to be young and Asian, that’s fine. If he treats you like an object, like a fetish trinket, then you should cut him loose.” Another question was, “I am a straight man. My wife just left me for a woman. She wants to keep it a secret from our kids, but I don’t feel like I should have to do that. What would you recommend?” “Ooooh,” Dan said. “People are going to disagree with me on this, but I don’t think you should have to keep that secret. When your wife left you for another woman, making it a possibility that she was a lesbian the whole time and the entire marriage was a sham, she wrote that story. But this is your story too, and you have every right to tell your side. If your children ask, you should tell them the truth. You don’t have to force it on them, but if it comes up, you can say whatever you feel comfortable with.” I thought those were terrific answers to some tough topics and my esteem for Dan Savage went way up.

Then he explained the rules to us. I LOVED the rules. I think people are entitled jerk-faces and these rules were a delicious treat to me, one in particular. I’ll explain. Recently I went to see the Broadway show Pippin with my parents and throughout the entire show a man sitting in front of me would pull out his cellphone and check his texts. The text screen is mostly white, so that light was blasting right into my face every time. I thought about asking him to stop but he looked scary and I didn’t want to start a situation, so me and all the people sitting around me seethed through whole chunks of the show. At Hump Tour it was explained that since these were amateur videos, these people are possibly professionals and didn’t want their jobs jeopardized for performing. “Therefore,” Dan said, “There are people standing at the bottom of the screen watching you the entire time. There are three of my staff scattered throughout the audience, and they will not be watching the movies, they will also be watching you the entire time. If you pull out a cell phone for any reason it will be taken away from you and never returned. If you automatically pull out your phone when it vibrates, turn it completely off so you won’t be tempted.” As he said this I closed my eyes and let it wash over me. Repercussions for poor behavior! So yummy and fantastic! It’s one of the reasons I adore this commercial by the Alamo Drafthouse:

After the rules were covered the retrospective began. I won’t go into the details but I will say that what I expected was exactly what I got. I had anticipated that 95% of the films would make me go, “Well, if that’s what you’re into…” and 5% would make me go “THAT’S NOT A GOOD THING TO BE INTO PLEASE STOP.” I will never be able to listen to the song “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” the same way again. I think I spoke under my breath a few times, once to say, “Sir, do not lick that oil-encrusted car part, that will give you cancer. Sir? Sir? He’s licking it.” Then was also “Wash you hands before you touch that pizza.” What was so surprising to me was how un-titillated I was. If I had to describe the experience, it would be, “White people have too much free time.” And before you judge me, you go see all these films and then try to tell me that we know how to fill the hours of the day productively. All this libidinous exploration makes me tired. I’m glad I went, but I don’t know if I would go again. If you want a more thorough explanation of the films, meet me in person and I will describe them in detail, complete with hand gestures and festive sound effects. In the meantime, the creators of one of the films put their entry up on YouTube. You can watch it and get a sense of Hump Tour.


Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

I did stuff in New York which was good for m’brain! And I only paid for one of them! I don’t know if anyone paid attention or cared, but a few weeks ago was a weekend where New York was slathered in art and art-related activities, the primary branch of which was the Contemporary Art Fair down at the piers. It filled two piers, that’s how much ahhhht there was. I tend to get very angry when I am exposed to contemporary art (see this post to understand why) and it was a $40.00 entrance fee to get in, so I was not going. But then Neenernator called and said she had done the retouching work for this advertisement:


And in addition to getting paid, she received two free tickets and would I like to go with her? I have a policy that when free tickets are presented, I should go because who cares if it sucks? It’s free. This policy has worked out very well for me so I went. Lo and behold, I hated very little of the work shown! It’s a Christmas miracle. I will now discuss the one piece that made me want to slaughter not the artist, he’s just trying to make a buck, but anyone who considered buying it. Death. I wish death upon you, art-purchaser.


It was a paper towel dispenser mounted on a wall. That’s it. It wasn’t bedazzled or nothing. And based on the prices of some the pieces of art around it (more often than not, there was no price tag because gallery owners be pretentious) the towel dispenser was between $7,000 and $20,000. That’s just a guess. Maybe it was a giveaway at $3,500. That’s not the point. The point is EFF YOU.

The thing I liked about the art fair was, for most of it, even if I didn’t like the art I respected the process that went into it. I saw a giant disc painted with tiny gray dots in concentric circles and while I don’t really want that in my house it clearly took a long time to paint all those dots and I commend the artist for investing the time. I would say that was the case for most everything I saw. Here’s some pieces I liked (most of the pictures pulled from the internet and not taken by me BTW):

No surprise here, a large (approximately 4′ x 5′) painting of a plaid squirrel. It was $7,500, but it doesn’t matter because it was sold anyway.


A mobile where the glass in coated with something that reminds me of the 80s. I love how the skylights of the pier, when filtered through, look rainbow-licious. This feeds right into my Lisa Frank desires.


The marble Island of Manhattan. It was AMAZING. There bridges were there, the buildings were there, it was phenomenal.

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The paintings that were used in the brochure Neenernator worked on. They were made by putting oil paints in a frosting bag and then squeezing them all over a canvas. I wanted to lick them but I think that kind of thing is frowned upon (or encouraged, who knows, art people are weird).


There were some Nick Cave costumes. I’ve spoken previously about how much I love Nick Cave’s work, and now I finally had the opportunity to walk right up to them and examine them right up close. That was great.

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These stitched fabric doorknobs.


This figurine. Rock that whale tail, little feller!


This yarn tractor.


And these clouds painted in stages on twelve panes of glass giving the impression of three-dimensionality. This idea I might steal. You should too, it’s a great idea.

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I may go again next year (if Neenernator snags another free ticket, it is not worth $40 to me) and see what there is to see.

The other thing I did recently was see “All The Way,” the play on Broadway about President Johnson starring Bryan Cranston. It was so great IF (I made that if capitalized for a reason) you like historical drama. Did you think the movie Lincoln was gripping and fascinating? You’re going to love “All The Way.” Did you think Lincoln was sooooo dull and tedious? You’re going to not like “All The Way.” I was riveted for several reasons: one, I find history really interesting because it happened, it’s not fiction. Second, my complete lack of American history knowledge worked for me because all the reveals were shocking surprises. Wait, Martin Luther King had extramarital sex?!?? J. Edgar Hoover was gay?!? The South used to be Democratic?!?!! Quelle surprise (pour moi)! I went with my father and since he’s 83 he totally remembers LBJ and he said Bryan Cranston was spot-on. In addition to the show being excellent, the production design (set, lighting, AV) was phenomenal. There were moving set pieces and syncing video and flashing lights that were critical to conveying plot points to the audience, and they were all perfect and tight. It was impeccable. I highly recommend going. Favorite line: “Nothing comes easy. Nothing bad, but also nothing good. When a carpenter builds a barn, if wood could speak, it would be screaming.”

o-ALL-THE-WAY-facebook 85395 ATW Bryan Cranston

Things I have liked recently.

Friday, April 11th, 2014


One star book reviews. I especially appreciated this one because I often hate classical books:

“The evidence is mounting. I am a philistine.”


2. I didn’t ride on it the last time I was there, but there’s a Bug Carousel at The Bronx Zoo! I adore the dung beetle bench. If I ever got married, me and my beau would need to take fancy wedding pictures on the dung beetle bench.

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3. I now want to make see-through stickers and put them on things.



4. I received some spam as I do on a regular basis. I was going to delete it, but before I did I noticed that it was sent from someone who’s name was “Breast Nexus.” Is that not the greatest name from a steamy romance novel? Seriously. I typed “Breast Nexus” into Google and got this:


Wow. Okay. This photoshop then immediately had to be made.


Japan 2014, Part finished.

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Okay. Here’s the company that I took my tour with:

And here’s the itinerary for the winter tour.

Winter Highlights – Snow Monkey & Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival Tour

Helpful tips that I have accrued:

1. Bring a ton of yen. It’s a cash-based country and there are very few ATMs. For my two-week vacation I used about $1000 (10,000 yen). I also bought a whole bunch of stuff so you may use less, but it’s good to have it on hand.

2. Wear slip-on shoes. If you visit places of interest, there is a good chance you will have to take off your shoes. It’s a pain in the kiester to tie and untie them because more often than not there’s no place to sit or anything so you end up doing this awkward hopping dance in an attempt to get the shoe on your foot. Also, try not to have socks with holes in them. Japanese people think that’s impolite.

3. On escalators, hold on to the opposite side than in the U.S. if you’re standing still. They drive on the opposite side of the road, so you hold on to the other side of the escalators.

4. Leave lots of time to get anywhere. The train stations are huge and confusing with multiple floors and an enormous floorplan. You will get lost a great deal. Budget in time for that. Try to grab as many maps as you can wherever you are. They are a lifesaver. Did I mention most streets don’t have names?

5. Schoolchildren will walk up to you and ask you if you can answer some questions. Do not panic. This is a common school assignment. They will ask you about three very basic questions (“Where are you from?”) and more likely than not they will struggle to understand your answer because they are in their first year of English. Then they will ask to take a photo with you. That’s it. No biggie.

6. Sometimes when you ask for directions Japanese people will run away from you. It’s not because you are gross. It’s because even through they understand you and know where you want to go they’re ashamed of their pronunciation of English. They know they get the “R” and “L” thing wrong and they don’t want you to hear them talk. If they don’t run away they may give you directions only using their hands.

7. Try very very hard not to say “no.” You have no idea how difficult this is. It’s like trying to not think about pink elephants. The Japanese think that the word no is super-offensive, so you have to use work-arounds. I saw a girl visibly recoil after The Moomins said no to her. I used “I’m afraid not, but thank you,” while bowing copiously and making an I’m-so-sorry face.

8. Bring a washtowel with you. Many bathrooms don’t have towels or dryers so most everyone has a tea-towel in their purse. (I did what I do in the States which is wipe my hands on my cotton t-shirts, classy 4ever).

9. People don’t eat and walk simultaneously so there are surprisingly few trashcans. If you expect to have trash, bring a small plastic bag with you. There will be garbage cans and recycle bins near large banks of vending machines so you can wait until you get to one. But like on the street? No trashcans.

10. If you order sushi and the waitress says, “Wasabi?” say no. They will slather your sushi with wasabi on the inside so you can’t scrape it out and your head will go up in flames. Learn from my mistakes (I did it twice).

11. Okay, how the subways work in Tokyo. You go down the stairs in your station and you go up to the ticket machines. Above it will be a giant graph. You find the station you are in and the station you wish to go to. Depending on the distance the prices will be 160 yen, 240 yen, etc. You punch the number of tickets you need and the corresponding yen amount for each ticket (the buttons are really simple like Fisher-Price) and little raffle tickets will come out. You go up to the ticket turnstile, shove the raffle ticket in the turnstile and it will pop out after the spinny bit. Save that ticket. Do not throw it away. You will need it to exit at your destination station. There’s a turnstile to get out. You shove the raffle ticket in there and the machine eats it. Then you can leave.

12. If you forget everything else, the three things you mustn’t do under any circumstance is stick your chopsticks upright in your rice, go into an onsen still dirty or with soap on you or have the nasty soles of your shoes touch anything it’s not supposed to touch. Be nice to everyone and speak softly. Everyone knows you’re a big dumb foreigner, they’re going to set their standards low. You’ll be fine. Have fun.

Here’s a great video of mascots dancing. Because Japan.

Addendum: This is cool. Japanese demons that get you while you’re on the (heated) toilet.

Japan 2014, Part 13.

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

It is astonishing how quickly your habits can change over a period of two weeks. Over the two weeks I made a concerted effort to eat what everyone else was eating, like soup with noodles and local vegetables and delicious little slime-covered mushrooms:


And on the last day I didn’t even bother with the eggs and bacon and cereal. On my breakfast plate is hijiki salad, two pickled plums, white rice and those slime-shrooms. Not in the picture but also being consumed: green tea and miso soup. I actually wanted these things over the typically Western dishes. Japan had broken me completely.


Also consumed at the final breakfast, this:


Not bad. A little burn-y due to the vinegar, but not bad.

Anyway, back to the tour. The second-to-last night we were left to our own devices and a few of us decided to go to Shinjuku, the Times Square of Tokyo. Our hotel was relatively close to Shinjuku in a cool area. The Moomins and I had a room overlooking nothing, but the guys across the hall took this photo of their view.


So the younger members of the tour (myself included) headed off to the bright lights of Shinjuku.

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Where there was the most segregated smoking area ever. It was in the middle of the main boulevard. “Go there and smoke! And feel shame in your corral of cancer!”


And a cab with this on it went by. Eeeg. Dear Lord, if that isn’t the uncanny valley I don’t know what is.


The group decided we wanted some sushi and all of us were pretty cool with any kind of sushi, so we found the most packed place we could (usually a sign of goodness) and ordered the $80.00 platter. I’ve never been so extravagant and ordered the big platter so I tried to forget it was being split six ways and felt fancy.


It was fancy. And delicious. The main difference between Japanese sushi and American sushi is the taste. Even basic sushi there tastes better. The tuna has a real flavor, did you know that? I didn’t, not really. It’s quite nice. And the spicy tuna thing, it’s not there. It’s a uniquely American thing, like California rolls. Uni (sea urchin) shows up a bunch more which is upsetting because it tastes like low tide. Luckily the group picked the platter that was uni-free.


I saw on the wall that one of the specials that day was “deep-fried tuna cheek” and I was like, “Hell, that sounds thoroughly weird and possibly amazing. Imma get that.” So I did. And it was nice. Tasty. Not life-altering, but I definitely didn’t regret getting it. The left bowl has salt, the right bowl has mustard.


Shinjuku. It’s a vibrant area with all kinds of activities open late into the evening. I walked past a store with this monster on the outside.


I have no idea what that store purveys. Video games? Bath products? Don’t know, don’t care. I was creeped out and didn’t bother to stick around and investigate.

We went into a toy store that was many floors and I ended up buying a myriad of these intensely weird action figures from some Japanese TV show, a show like Power Rangers. I mean, how could I not? Look at them, they’re so varied.

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We also went to a six-floor bookstore Kinokuniya. I insisted on this because that sentient toilet book had been haunting me and I would come home with regrets if I didn’t make one final effort to find it. This bookstore had a whole floor devoted only to children’s books, so I had high hopes. I navigated through the aisles until I made it to the elevator and went to the top floor. Before I bothered one of the people working there I figured I’d give it my best shot looking on my own. There were many books laying out so I could see the covers (the spines, of course, were undecipherable to me) and I came to the realization that for such a closed-in culture, the Japanese have WAAAAAY too many books on poop. Seriously. These are the poop-related books that were laying face-up. Who knows how many more were stacked so I couldn’t see them. There was this one which had a corresponding set of playing cards:

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There was this one, I assume about all the magical textures and shapes:


This one had the protruding display you see there, the cheeks really come out at you. After leafing through it I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s called “Let’s Learn About the Magic of Dad’s Ass.” Not joking. That’s what the book appeared to be about.


Monster wiping. No clue. Didn’t look through it.


After perusing the best that I could and coming up empty-handed, I went to the checkout girl, got out an envelope and a pen from my purse and said, “Okay, this is what I need. There’s this toilet *drew the toilet* and he’s got a Dali mustache *drew the mustache* and he’s going through the forest *drew the forest*.” For added explanation I made a little skipping gesture while swinging my arms to convey merrily going through a forest. After the shopgirl had stopped laughing at me she called her co-workers over and had them look at my sketch and when they had pulled themselves together she held up her hand telling me to wait while she looked on the computer.


After a few minutes the checkout girl said, “Ah!” and turned her screen towards me. There he was, my gamboling toilet-man! She went to the shelf and lo and behold, there wasn’t just one book about him. There was a sequel as well. I bought both. Here are pictures from the original.

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One last thing from Shinjuku: Look at this spooky entrance to something on the second level. That is off-putting.


One of the final activities on the tour was going to Odaiba, a man-made island with some crazy modern architecture. First we took a boat over with some great signage inside.


When we arrived, I was impressed with the Fuji building directly in front of me.


Has everyone seen all the X-Men movies? Everybody know Cerebro? Doesn’t this look like this contains Cerebro? I think it totally does.

There was this building as well. Fun story behind that one.


According to Kimi-San that yellow thing was supposed to stand upright and look like a flame but it was too heavy so they left it laying on its side. Kimi-San said everyone thought it looked like a turd, so if you ask a taxi driver to take you to “Turd Building,” this is where he will bring you. I’m sure the architect is thrilled about that. I personally think it looks more like a sperm, but whatever.

This is the Rainbow Bridge connected Odaiba with Tokyo. Yes, that is a scale model of the Statue of Liberty left over from 1999, “The French Year of Japan.”


When the bridge was built rainbow lights lit it up and it was very beautiful. It was so beautiful, in fact, that drivers kept looking at the lights and crashing. So the rainbow lights are only turned on for special occasions. Here’s a picture I found of what it looks like lit up.


Also on the last day we went to the Imperial Palace. Outside was a statue of a famous samurai. I liked it because it had great and powerful motion.


And also because little birds had made a nest in the hollows of the horse’s tail.


We visited the Sensoji Temple, one of the only temples I got to see with big ole pagodas. It was a lovely temple, albeit a bit crowded.

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Here are people shaking those containers with the numbers and opening the corresponding drawer to get their fortune. I mentioned how that works earlier.


Off to the side was this statue. The informational plaque didn’t have any English, so when I returned home I looked it up. All I could find out was this sentence.

In Sensoji area, it is built to comfort spirits of mothers and children in Manchuria towards the end of WWII.


I stood respectfully in front of it for a minute or two. I didn’t know what it was for, but the fact that people had covered her with shawls and bibs and a hat made me realize that this was something painful and important to people. Her lips look stained, like people have been kissing her. I felt like it deserved a minute of my time, even if I didn’t know why.

Additional photos:

A fugu restaurant. I did not eat there. I do not care how well you prepare your pufferfish, I don’t need to die in such a lame manner just for a thrill.


This is the sign from the Cattleya Coffeeshop in Gion, Kyoto.


Teeny plants in a wall. The Moomins said in South Africa they’re called “fairy gardens.”


A rickshaw. It’s more of a novelty than a real mode of transportation, but cool to see nonetheless.


A store that only sells seaweed and seaweed products.


A store that only sells sweet potato and sweet potato products.


Some kitties I saw hanging out on a sign in Ginza, one of the fanciest shopping districts.


The exterior of an old established Chinese restaurant in Kyoto. One of the only examples of typical European architecture.

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And outside the hotel near the airport, a pretty garden and some fantastic koi fish.

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That’s it. That was my trip to Japan. It was everything I had hoped for and I cannot wait to go back. In my next entry I’ll link to the itinerary of my tour in case you want to take the same one (I recommend it) and helpful hints that I discovered along the way.

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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


This hotel had everything a girl could want.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


Each one has a number identifying it.


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


There was a guy drying fish on a bed:


A guy drying fish on a laundry rack:


There was a lot of fish.


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:


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):


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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:


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


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


Some smatterings of additional photos.

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


A sakura manhole cover:


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


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:


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:


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).


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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:


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.


And finally for today, this. Because Japan.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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?


An umbrella-locking station.


Fun cephalopod decals on the ceiling of the public bus.


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


Next entry – snow monkeys.