Sunday, May 25, 2014

野球 Baseball

 The view from our seats.

Last Sunday, little dude and I took the subway down to Tokyo Dome for the Yomiuri Giants - Hiroshima Carp game. I don't really have a baseball loyalty in Japan, and there are five teams in the expanded Tokyo metro area, so I picked the Giants as they are generally a winning team. No luck. Although the Giants are doing generally well this year, my lifelong streak of picking losing baseball teams (see also: Chicago Cubs, KC Royals) followed us to a 10-3 final score. At least my KU Jayhawks win in NCAA hoops, and my Green Bay Packers can represent in the NFL, so all is not lost in sports.


 This wasn't my first Japanese baseball game (Joe and I attended a Yokohama Baystars game years ago), but it was my first sporting event in a dome. While it was nice to not have to worry about sunburn, it was a bit stuffy inside, and I missed the ambiance of the outdoors.

 Sushi concessions. 

The concessions were fairly diverse- from sushi and bentos to hot dogs and hamburgers. There were beer vendors, but also those selling whiskey and plum wine. Taking after his grandpa, little dude attempted to eat his weight in churros. I enjoyed a pretzel.

 Let's go Giants!

Rirakuma towel, noisemaker, and tickets.

Cheering for your team in Japan is definitely a specialized, intense activity. The Carp had full bands and a routine with small plastic bats that all of their fans knew and did in unison. The Giants have a towel swinging thing when they score- which little dude was sooooo excited to participate in. We bought a towel on our way in to be able to partake, and he did so. With gusto. So much so that he hit the girl sitting next to him with the towel (she took it in stride, thankfully), and nearly fell out of his seat, making friends with the girls in front of us. 

 Giants fans doing the towel dance.

Going to a baseball game was a great way to celebrate the start of summer, a fun way to experience something different in Tokyo, and it was fun to teach little man about the game. Thankfully he is still trying to understand the basics, so my limited knowledge of the rules still holds sway. We'll see how long that holds true for....

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A day in green

Waiting for the train. Green boots, green jacket, lime green umbrella.
Wednesday here was one of those days of heavy rains that happens only when living close to the ocean. Hard, driving, downpour rain for hours on end. I love rainy days, as they are the perfect excuse to stay in with a good book, or drink a warm beverage, and I always get the best sleep during a rainstorm. Throughout the day green was a reoccurring theme, appropriate for these early summer days.
The floor at Uguisudani Station- nightengales, which the station is named after.
The view from my office window, particularly verdant on a rainy day.
Green tea and green tea coated chocolates for an afternoon snack.
The green stripe of the Yamanotesen on my way home. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Let's Go Bowling!

 Is there anything greater than tacky bowling shoes?

The past 24 hours around here haven't been the greatest. I suddenly came down with a pretty severe stomach bug yesterday afternoon, and it was a tough evening and morning for me. We had to cancel plans with a friend today, and spent most of the day around the house. The weather was beautiful though, so we went to explore a new park in the late afternoon hours when I was starting to feel better, only to have the park keeper come and lock up the gates early. Tears from little dude ensued (it was a pretty neat park). I thought I could remedy this with a round of taiko at the arcade, but we arrived at the arcade with just enough time to see all the fun games, and to be informed that kids under 18 have to leave at 6. No tears, but I mumble of "bummer" and a pretty long face. So, what to do with so much frustration? Go bowling.
Push a button for your size, shoes spit out the bottom. Return to the box at the left.
Bowling alleys- the same the world over.

The bowling alley in Oji was just like every other bowling alley I've been to. Ever. Anywhere. We did bumper bowling, and they had these neat ramps for kiddos- a bonus as without these his technique is to set the ball down and then push it, which results in the ball barely making it to the pins. This was little dude's second bowling experience, and he was soooo excited every time we took a turn. I, admittedly, am a terrible bowler. My score today was 88 (with bumpers, people) as compared to the four-year old's 66. But, I still thoroughly enjoy a trip to the bowling alley, mostly because I think of The Big Lebowski the entire time I'm there.
Getting our Lebowski on.
Anticipation. Will it be a strike?

I leave you with the Jesus scene from Lebowski. Really, the first minute and a half are the best. I think I need a White Russian.....

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Preschool Matsuri 保育園祭り

 Signage at the school.

Today was matsturi, or festival day, at little man's preschool. The kids brought their parents along for the day, and we all participated in a traditional matsuri, which was great fun. The kids all dressed in happi, a type of festival jacket, and tied tenugui, a long narrow cotton cloth, around their heads.

 Teachers helping get costumed.

The festival included a variety of vendors in the school yard and interior, including snacks and sweets, small toys, grilled meat, sushi, juice, all the expected things. And alcohol. Open container is perfectly legal here in Japan, and so seeing beer and sake at a regular matsuri, usually held at a shrine or public park, is totally normal, but at a public preschool at noon on a Thursday I was a bit surprised. It obviously didn't phase anyone else though, and the stall seemingly did quite a good business. It was also great fun to sit around and drink a few beers with the other class moms while the kids ran around in the afternoon. 


 Getting ready for the main event.

The primary activity of the matsuri was to parade around the portable (Shinto) shrine that is housed at the school. The principal and some of the smaller kids led with bell-topped staffs, our class came in the middle by pulling the taiko drum float, which we also played, and then the bigger kids carried the shrine at the end. Some of the baby and toddler parents followed with kiddos walking or being carried.

 Here we go!

 Blocking traffic with the taiko float.

 Pulling the float through the streets.

When we arrived at the local Shrine, some of the priests met the kids, and there were a variety of announcements and things said back and forth.

 At the Shrine.

 More parading. I think we went about a mile in total.

 Little dude taking his turn with the taiko, the highlight of his day.

 The portable shrine.

Back at the school, we spent the afternoon hanging out in the schoolyard and interior, eating the bento lunches and snacks that were part of the day, playing games such as bingo, and singing karaoke, which included two times through the Japanese version of Let It Go from Frozen, from which there is no escape. Most of the vendor booths were staffed by retired folks from the neighborhood, many of whom took their turn at karaoke.


One last close up look at the portable shrine. The detail and construction is completely amazing.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Roses バラ

This week it seems that roses are blooming everywhere in Kita-ku. The streetcar even has a specially decorated rose car for the season. These are just a few of those that we pass on our way to little man's school. The scent is lovely, but in many places outdone by the concurrently blooming jasmine flowers. Mostly it is their visual qualities that make the roses so appealing, and that they are particularly abundant in the volcanic soil and humid climate of Tokyo.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Nagano and Matsumoto 長野と松本

E7 pulling into the station.

As the last hurrah of Golden Week, little dude and I took an overnight trip up to the mountains of Nagano and Matsumoto. We had a fantastic time exploring a new place- Joe and I visited Nagano Prefecture a few times for ski trips (see here and here), but this was my first visit to Nagano City. We started off our adventure on the new E7 Shinkansen- so fancy and such a luxurious way to travel. After dropping our belongings at our hotel near Nagano Station, we set off for Zenkoji.

The green streets of Nagano.

The gate of Zenkoji.

Guardian at the gate of Zenkoji.

The commercial street on the approach to the temple.

Traveling with little dude means ice cream. All tourist spots in Japan offer the local flavor of soft serve, and he is a pro at spotting these spots. While his four-year old palette goes for chocolate every time, I tend to try the local specialty- which in the case of Nagano is soba- which I swirled with green tea. Mind you, this is at 10:30 a.m., but travel has it's sacrifices, ne?

Soba-matcha swirl.
Kiddos coming from a temple festival.
In front of the temple.
Rokujizo near the temple gate.
Zenkoji main hall- about 300 years old. The temple has a 1,400 year history.

For as many temples as I've visited in Japan, Zenkoji stood out for the active religious activities going on during our visit. It is still an active pilgrimage site, and most of the visitors on the day we went were not tourists, but religious practitioners. Many temples in Japan lean more towards the historic/tourist site vibe, so it was a nice change of pace to see something different. We also visited on a festival day, wherein people were pouring sweet tea on the Buddha, and participating in other religious activities.
Pouring tea on the Buddha.
Scrambling up the steep steps to the main hall.

Our visit included waiting in the huge tatami area of the main hall for a chance to walk through the pitch-black tunnel that goes beneath the main image of the temple. Although the image is hidden from view, it is supposedly the oldest in Japan. The journey through the tunnel was pretty terrifying for little dude, who had me carry him and gripped me the entire time, something like ten minutes walking by feeling a wall and frequently bumping into the people in front of us. And when I say pitch-black, I mean completely black. At the end of the tunnel we found a key attached to the wall. By finding the key, we supposedly found the key to salvation. Also, while waiting we "made wishes," or said prayers, at the small altars in the main hall. As non-religious people I find it more in line with our lifestyle to teach little man respect for religion, but not belief in it, so we make wishes instead of saying prayers. In any case, he told me his wish was for giraffe toys and cookies. Pretty awesome wishes. 

 Rirakuma prayer plaques at Zenkoji. Not sure why Rirakuma, but it's pretty cool.
Temple scenery.

As we left the temple, we came across a soba restaurant with noodles being made in the window. Little dude isn't so into soba (he had rice), but the novelty of the noodle-making convinced him that we should eat at this place. And so we did.
Nagano soba making. 
Nagano soba eating. 

We also happened upon a flower festival on the main street of Nagano City- huge designs were created on the sidewalks with flower petals and plants of all varieties.
Random, but very beautiful.

I was also happy that we passed the spot where the Nagano Olympic torch was lit back in 1998. As a winter sports fan, this was so cool! Also, we were able to ski some of the Olympic downhill ski runs on a prior trip, so this was a nice way to round out my Nagano sports geekiness. 

Hanging around Nagano Station chasing pigeons.

After our morning around town, we spent the afternoon out in the mountains near Yudanaka visiting the onsen (hot spring) monkeys! So cool! We took the train up to Yudanaka, and then a taxi out to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, where we hiked about twenty minutes to see the monkeys.

Sakura blooming on the mountainside. 
Monkeys!!!! I think this pic is amazing and really deserves a caption contest.
There seems to be a mutual understanding going on here.

Although winter is the most popular time to visit the monkeys, it was still pretty neat to see them in the warmer weather. A few of them jumped into the hot springs to play or soak, and we enjoyed watching and interacting with them for quite a while.

Who is watching and who is being watched?

Little dude *loved* the monkeys. Until this moment. When his excitement overcame him and despite all my best warnings, he started jumping up and down and laughing with excitement. The monkey on the bridge did not like that and started to come towards him, screeching. Oh man did it scare little dude! For the rest of our time he bit his lips so as to not expose his teeth, and there were a few times that I thought he would burst from trying to contain his excitement at being in the natural monkey habitat. He also used the word habitat about 50 times, so thanks to the programming at the KC Zoo for that bit of education!

Showdown on the bridge.

Geyser on the hike back. 
Hiking! As much as I love Tokyo, it was great to smell the pine forest and breathe the fresh mountain air.
Back near the parking lot where our taxi awaited us. I can honestly say this was the first time in my life I took a taxi to go hiking.

Back at Yudanaka we indulged in a small foot onsen while waiting for the train to Nagano. After a long day of walking and hiking it was the greatest of luxuries.

Countryside scenery from the windows of the Nagano Dentetsu.

We arrived back in Nagano pretty late, so we got a take-out dinner to eat in our room. I was super excited to try oyaki, a dumpling made of flour and stuffed with veggies which is a Nagano specialty. I was not disappointed! 

Day two of our trip began with a very cool train ride from Nagano to Matsumoto via the Resort Hybrid Furusato, a two-car specialty touring train with fantastic views.
Leaving Nagano.

The hour and a half train ride was mostly spent looking out the front window, where we could see the drivers, the beautiful countryside scenery, and the tracks ahead. For a small child who eats, sleeps, and breathes trains this was a ton of fun. I thought it was pretty cool too.

Looking out a side window.
Train fandom milestone achieved. 
The train stopped for a few minutes so passengers could get out and enjoy the view.
Snow capped mountains as we approached Matsumoto.

We arrived mid-morning in Matsumoto and stashed our luggage at the station before heading out to explore the town.
Koinobori along the river in town.
Taking time to throw stones in the river. 

We had a fantastic curry lunch at this little spot.
Matsumoto scenery. 
More Matsumoto.
...and some more....
Liqour shop!

The main reason for visiting Matsumoto was to see the four hundred year old castle.
Snow capped mountains and a castle. So cool!
Inside the gates.
The approach.

I don't think little dude really had a great conception of what "castle" meant, so he wasn't super enthused to go, but once we got there everything changed. He learned about samurai (which are a bit like the characters of his beloved t.v. show Kamen Rider Gaimu) and ninjas, and all things 16th century. Plus, the super steep staircases were fun to climb up.
Castle explorations.
Contemplating shooting arrows out the tiny windows.
Pretending to be a samurai.
Yelling out the castle windows.
The view from the top.

Yep, we met a dude in samurai armor. It was life-altering.

These angled walls have floors that lift out so hot oil and burning stones could be dropped on potential intruders. Yikes.
Pretty flowers to distract from tactical defense systems.
Learning about swords from a guy dressed as a ninja. This is history education in action, people!
The view of the castle from the adjacent local history museum.
At the end of the day, a small commercial street where we got.... wait for it.... ice cream! I actually got a taiyaki, but little dude had ice cream.

After dinner near Matsumoto Station we headed back to Tokyo tired and with a little bit of sun on our cheeks. Both Nagano and Matsumoto were great cities, and perfect places for us to do a little learning, a little relaxing, and a good deal of exploring.