I sit here in our room at the Navy Lodge on the Yokosuka Naval Base. It’s Tuesday around 5PM, and the rest of the family is out. Tessa is spending a last day with her Japanese friends from school who came down from Yokohama. Mark and Cy went off to the pool for a swim. Our dog Ruby is due here at the Lodge in about an hour, having spent the last week at the dog sitter’s place.
We fly out tomorrow, returning to the US for good.
The last week has been a blur of closing out errands. Clearing one room for the Do Not Pack items that we will carry with us on the flight. Watching the movers pack up our household, frantically grabbing at items to carry with us. Remembering the odd paperwork, pair of shoes, or other item that got packed (such as our DC house keys) and won’t turn up until the shipment reaches us in late September, at the soonest. Taking the dog for the final round of health checks and sorting her crate, travel documents, and repeatedly reassuring the airline that she has a pointy nose and poses no health risk in flight. Closing out utilities. Selling the nice car and junking the old car. Checking out of the house and returning keys to the landlord. One final gig with both bands. One last visit for Cy to the music store so he can play around with the used bass guitars. Turning off the mobile phones. And tears. So many tears.
We are both excited to return to the US and incredibly sad to leave behind our life in Japan.
We will reach DC and immediately start with the same errands in the other direction. Thankfully we already have our house, complete with kitchenware, furniture, and the trappings of basic life. So at least that part will be easy. Then we go on to the next layer: Turning on new mobile phones. Retrieving one car from storage and re-registering it, then buying another new one. Reconnecting with family and friends. Getting the kids ready for sleepaway camp ten days later. I will try my hardest not to be the When I Was In Japan person so I don’t bore my DC friends too much. But considering that it has been my life for four years, I will definitely be that person.
New opportunities and adventures will start up quickly. Tessa (grade 8) will immediately begin the highly-fraught high school application process. Cy (grade 7) will start attending high school open houses as well. I have a not-quite-a-job-interview in the works. And of course I’ll have to find a new band!
Stone lanterns appear throughout Japan at shrines, beside temples, in private gardens–and in the household goods shipments of expats returning to their home countries. Today Mark and I set out to buy lanterns of our own, hopping in the car and heading about 30 minutes south to a stone lantern shop in nearby Hayama.
We pulled up to the small but very promising shop called Negishi Stone and started browsing.
The proprietors, a father-son duo from the Negishi family, said that they do not make the lanterns on-site. Instead they purchase the lanterns from a wholesaler in Ibaraki prefecture, and the Negishi shop sets up the lanterns outside to allow them to age. The father explained how the shop’s setting nestled in a narrow, wooded valley allows moss and other natural colorings from the local environment to grow on the stones and give them personality. He estimated our lanterns at about five years old.
After about 20 minutes of browsing, Mark and I decided on these two beauties. We look forward to setting these up in our garden in Washington.
Negishi Stone is open by appointment only, so call ahead. The son speaks English but the father does not, so have a Japanese speaker handy when you make the call, just in case.
The shop is easily reached by car. If you plan to arrive by public transit, then mention this when making your appointment and the Negishi family will pick you up at the nearest train station. Your purchases will be shipped to your home.
The shop accepts cash only, so come prepared! The smallest lanterns start at just under 20,000 yen and go up in price from there.
Negishi Stone Co. Ltd.
Last weekend Mark and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary. We farmed out the younger mammals to stay with friends, then headed out for a quick overnight trip with just the two of us. We had originally planned to drive Mark’s convertible to Hakone, a popular resort area only 90 minutes away. But alas, an eruption warning for Mount Hakone convinced us to choose a new destination. So we decided to visit Naoshima, a small island with a worldwide reputation for its collection of art museums and installations.
Naoshima’s story could have reflected the fate of so many rural areas in Japan, which have been hit especially hard by Japan’s aging and shrinking population. Yet Naoshima and several surrounding islands have escaped this fate. As outlined in this excellent piece by NPR, a company called Benesse Holdings–best known for its Berlitz language schools–decided to find a home for its extensive art collection about 30 years ago. Headquartered in Okayama, a sleepy-ish, mid-sized town in Western Japan, Benesse CEO Soichiro Fukutake started looking nearby for a community willing to work with him. He bought a huge tract of land on Naoshima island and hired superstar architect Tadao Ando to design and build his dreams, including several museums, hotels, and smaller art houses. The annual number of visitors today is estimated around 800,000 people–not too bad for an island of 5.5 square miles (14 square km) and a full time population of roughly 3,000 people.
Benesse Art House includes several galleries of contemporary art, and a hotel! The guests of the hotel can visit the galleries after hours, which we enjoyed very much.
We also had the exclusive use of our own private funicular to get from the museum to the cluster of hotel rooms up the hill. I highly recommend traveling by private funicular as much as possible.
Our suite was in the Oval section of the hotel; I found it impossible to pass through the Oval without pulling out my camera and taking yet more photos as the light changed. The views of the Seto Inland Sea changed with the light, and I never grew tired of staring out at the horizon.
In addition to the museums built by Benesse, the villages have gotten in on the art action. Street art, colorful cafes, and lots of English signage made it clear that the island is All In on its art identity.
Perhaps the most famous single artwork on Naoshima is Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin. Situated very near our hotel, I wandered down to it several times and took an absurd number of photos as the light changed.
While I wish our visit were longer, I’m so glad that we had the chance to go. Even if it’s just for one night–do it! There’s nothing else in the world like it.
I love me some Japanese snacks! Kit Kats get all the attention, and people clamor for new or limited edition flavors. There are even Kit Kat boutiques. Personally I’ve never really cared that much for them. Regular Kit Kats are fine, but I actively dislike their most famous Other flavor, Matcha (green tea). I bought a bag once to try them out, and no one in the family liked them at all. We even threw away a mostly uneaten bag. Considering that my children have always attacked any dessert or candy as if it’s their last, that’s saying a lot. It tasted like white “chocolate”–already a bad start–combined with chalky, undissolved matcha (green tea) powder. They’re super popular both in Japan and overseas. Just not in our house.
A representative sampling of assorted Kit Kat flavors at our neighborhood grocery store
But potato chips? Oh boy. Love me some fancy flavored potato chips! Japan does not disappoint. I’m not sure how I went down the road of seeking out strange potato chip flavors, but it’s become a bit of an obsession. My poor friend Maki has been drafted as my lieutenant in the quest. Any time I find a new, strange flavor I send her a photo, a review, and ask her to confirm my understanding/translation of what exactly I’m eating.
Read on for some recent examples.
Let’s start with Pringles, that American favorite.
While finishing up a ladies’ ski weekend and shopping for snacks to eat on the train, I grabbed a green can of Pringles without reading it, assuming that I got sour cream and onion flavor. I did not. Instead, I got Party Chicken Pringles. Which pretty much tastes like the smell of the box from takeaway fried chicken. Not terrible, but not so great either.
To continue chicken-themed Pringles, I present Grilled Chicken Pringles. Tasted sorta like Party Chicken Pringles. Just not exactly.
Next up: Smoked Cheese Pringles. These were actually pretty tasty–they sort of tasted like smoked Provolone, only moreso. I would eat these again.
Maki, my patron saint of Japanese junk food mentioned above, got in on the action with this next gem, Sukiyaki Pringles: “I’m at Haneda. Just found sukiyaki flavor. Kanto region limited.” Exclusivity and Limited Time-ness are hallmarks of odd Japanese food flavors, and Sukiyaki Pringles hits both marks. Sadly we don’t know how they actually taste–because apparently even the patron saint of Japanese junk food has her limits. But it’s safe to say that they were either OK, or really gross.
While stocking up for a hike in the Kamakura hills, I took it too far with Tamago Sando (Egg Sandwich) Pringles. I picked up and set back the can several times, then decided to go for it. How bad can they be, I reasoned? Pretty bad, it turns out. Egg Sandwich Pringles taste like regret.
I saw these in a convenience store and go so excited! Mystery Flavor Pringles!! What could they possibly be? Some kind of chicken, it turned out. More like Grilled Chicken Pringles, and not so much Party Chicken Pringles.
Moving beyond Pringles, here are some other brands and flavors.
Chip Star is Japan’s local/blatant Pringles imitation. They like their chicken flavors as well, as demonstrated by the Consomme Chip Star pictured above. For those of you who haven’t attended culinary school or a dinner party in 1957, consommé is a clarified chicken stock. So basically, we’re back to chicken flavor.
I could read the lemon (レモン）but not the salted part–Maki to the rescue, again! They were mostly salty with a hint of bright citrus notes. So lemony, but not too much. I liked them! Also this is hands down my favorite packaging. Isn’t it beautiful? I didn’t save the container, and I’m seriously considering buying another pack so I can keep the cylinder. Because I am insane. Since Chip Star packs its chips with a plastic bag inside the cylinder, I won’t even have to worry about a greasy container.
Next up we have another iconic Japanese brand, Calbee.
Honestly I’m not sure what to think of Calbee Pizza Potato chips. Are they amazing? Disgusting? A guilty pleasure? All of the above? I can’t quite decide. I keep trying them and wondering what I think. Meanwhile, other people definitely love them, as exhibited by the uproar of the Great Pizza Potato Shortage of 2017, as documented by the truth seekers over at Sora News 24.
Another Calbee flavor, Nori (roasted seaweed) and I think salt, based on Maki’s help with an earlier flavor. Nori is a pretty popular flavor, and most companies offer some variation of it. I would like a little more nori flavor in these, but they’re still quite good.
Calbee’s Edamame and Garlic chips: lots of garlic flavor, and super tasty! A winner.
OK, time for a little confession. I’m not 100% that these are ume (pickled plum chips) since I didn’t confirm the kanji with Maki. But there’s a picture of ume in the upper right corner, so we’ll go with it. I was surprised to see this last week at the grocery store, since I’ve seen ume chips in February/March as the ume trees blossom across Japan. Of course pickled ume are available year round, but ume as a seasonal flavor seems like an early spring thing. Ume are salty and sweet, and absolutely delicious inside an onigiri rice ball. So they make for pretty tasty chips as well.
About a year before leaving DC, seven-year-old Cy started drum lessons at Music On the Hill, our fabulous neighborhood music shop. After a few months of watching Cy tap away on the practice pad and then a starter electronic drum kit, I decided that I needed to get in on the action. I started drum lessons myself, and six months later we moved to Japan.
After arriving in Yokohama, the Google led me to my first music-related break: the lovely and talented Marcos, my drum teacher. Cy and I toiled away, performing in annual recitals with Marcos’s other students.
As loyal martayaki readers may recall, the big break came in 2017, when local band Honmoku Blues Express needed a bongo player for upcoming gigs. Lead singer Tom saw Mark and asked if I knew how to play bongos. “Well she’s a drummer….”, Mark replied. And that’s how I bought bongos and taught myself to play, with guidance from Marcos and YouTube.
A few months later some guitar-playing friends asked me to join them for casual jams, which eventually turned into gigs in the Members’ Bar at our club, Yokohama Country and Athletic Club (YC&AC). After a few months I cajoled the rest of the band into letting me play the drums instead. Gradually we added a bass player, a lead singer, keyboards, and a new name: Mamonaku. Mamonaku is Japanese for up next, and you hear it on train platforms as a train approaches.
A little after that, another band was born: Tempura Crime Scene. Bass player Brad tapped me as the drummer. Most of the TCS band members work for Nissan, so it’s widely known as the Nissan house band.
Our friends come to hear both bands play. But here’s the crazy part: they keep coming back. After a few gigs word got out that there are two more gaijin (foreigner) bands on the Yokohama music scene, and we started getting invitations to play with other bands, and at other venues.
It’s been absurdly fun. I mean, I get to play in a band! How fun is that? It’s a lot of work, but I love it.
The craziest part is that I’m only an OK drummer. Sure, my friends heap praise on all of us after every gig, which is really kind. Because who doesn’t love getting called a rock star? But honestly, I’m not that great. I’m competent, and I can keep a beat pretty well, and I practice a lot. I mean, A LOT. Between Mamonaku and Tempura Crime Scene, I’ve learned around 50 songs in the last year. Singers can find lyrics online, and guitar players can find tabs (chords) from different sites and apps. They still work hard to learn songs, but at least the web gives them a starting point. There aren’t really the same resources for drums; learning a drum part means listening, memorizing, and maybe transcribing some challenging intros or fills. (And in case you were wondering–yes, there is standard drum notation. Though I’ve been known to scribble “pssht on 3” and similar.)
Both bands have varied levels of musical ability. Some of our musicians are phenomenal, and some are pretty OK. I’m toward the pretty OK end. But a band playing together well doesn’t require absolutely phenomenal musicians in every spot. All you need is a baseline of competence, the ability to get along with others, and lots of patience for each others’ mistakes, suggestions, and crappy song ideas. Playing nicely with others is huge, and not just in a band. Think of examples in your own workplace or social circle. It’s easy to think of the brilliant writer who can’t meet a deadline, or the phenomenal soccer player who insists on taking every shot on goal himself instead passing the ball, and so on. Playing in a band is like that.
I learned a lot from Marcos, as I still do from my weekly lessons with him. He gives me exercises to tweak skills that I struggle with, and gives excellent feedback after a gig. I’ve also learned a lot from actually playing gigs. Learning songs at home mostly means playing along to a recording. Playing with other people means that *I* keep the beat, not the recording. If the song is dragging then I try to catch the bass and guitar players’ eye to speed up the tempo. If I make a mistake, I keep going without grimacing. If someone else makes a mistake–maybe missing a cue, or coming in early–the rest of us all follow along.
During a gig I’m constantly listening to myself play, and my inner dialogue runs nonstop. Am I dragging a little behind the beat? Did I get that kick rhythm right? There’s a big fill coming up. High hat control isn’t quite right, so keep it closed. Wow, Clapton drum parts are really tedious. The syncopated high hat rhythm is off, so go back to straight eighth notes. The toms are too flat and I keep hitting the rim; remember to pitch them forward more after the song ends. The ride is too far back; pull it forward between songs. Gah, the singer came in early, adjust! And so on. So for those of you who tell me that I look really serious when I play or that I should smile more–this is why.
So what’s the best part of a successful show? Afterwards, when a fan comes up to me and says, “That was so cool! I want to learn to play drums too!”.
Our next show is coming up on May 11 at Benny’s Place in Motomachi. Come on by!
From there we continued on to the shrines nestled along the Higashiyama mountain range. After strolling through Nanzenji shrine, we continued on to my favorite, Eikando. Eikando draws huge crowds during the peak autumn foliage season, or momiji. The rest of the year it’s a fairly quiet place, which I love.
After pausing for some refreshment of matcha green tea and a red bean paste sweet cookie…
… We continued on to Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion.
After lunch we headed for easily the most crowded spot of our trip so far: Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion.
All day, everywhere, we saw sakura. Cherry blossom fatigue starts to set in with so many trees around, and so many people determined to capture the perfect shot. I know–poor us.
For our last dinner in Kyoto, we enjoyed the varied offerings of an izakaya. On our way to the restaurant, we blended in with the foreigner crowd on foot determined to find an excellent meal. But once we reached the restaurant, we saw nothing but Japanese customers surrounding us–always a good sign, especially in a heavily touristy area such as Gion. We ordered an assortment typical to an izakaya: grilled chicken skewers, assorted vegetables with miso sauce, a soft boiled egg nestled atop potato salad with anchovy, and steak cooked to perfection.
It capped off a lovely day with amazing sites, perfect weather, so much sakura, and the best company.
Tomorrow we board our final Shinkansen: back home to Yokohama.
I can’t believe that it’s only day two of our trip! We’ve seen and done so much already.
This morning we headed out to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Loyal martayaki readers may recall that I visited this museum back in 2016 when Grandpa Don came to visit. The experience was a bit different this time due to a recent renovation–but still utterly gut wrenching.
After the museum we strolled past the Children’s Peace Monument and Genbaku (Atomic Dome). At all three sites the size of the crowds struck me. Here is probably the least fun thing you can do on vacation, looking at photos of brutal death and destruction. Yet people care, and spend their free time learning about such dark times in history. It gives me hope.
Right as we were leaving the museum, my friend Marcos sent me a suggestion to check out a building that his architect grandfather designed. Since the building was only a few minutes walk away, we headed over to see it for ourselves.
Built in 1936, the building originally served as the Hiroshima branch of Bank of Japan; it survived the nuclear blast and now serves as an exhibition space. We enjoyed the photo exhibit on display.
After a quick lunch, we boarded yet another shinkansen, this time bound for Kyoto.
After relaxing in our hotel for a bit, we headed for Kyoto’s busiest tourist site, Fushimi Inari shrine. It’s not only the most visited tourist attraction in Kyoto but also in all of Japan. The late afternoon visit proved to be a wise choice; we experienced fairly uncongested pathways as well as the Golden Hour for photography, right before sunset.
We enjoyed a traditional Izakaya dinner then called it a night, enjoying the sites on our stroll back to the hotel.
We arrived in Himeji and saw tons of people. And sakura (cherry blossoms)! Honestly I had no idea that the castle is surrounded by them, so it was a lovely surprise. A gorgeous Sunday afternoon with sakura in full bloom brought out the masses, but somehow no one seemed to mind. The long lines moved along at a steady pace, and the announced wait time of 60 minutes to enter the Main Keep (main part of the castle) turned out to be about 20 minutes. Our fellow line standers all seemed in good spirits. Call it the magic of the sakura, or simply good manners–but everyone waited patiently, enjoying the beautiful day and incredible scenery.
Standing there, looking at these breathtaking flowers, and this stunning castle–I swallowed a huge lump in my throat. It’s impossible for me to feel anything but pure gratitude that I have this opportunity, and that I shared it with my dad.
After the castle Dad sampled his first bowl of katsudon (pork cutlet with egg over rice) and soba noodles.
Then we returned to the Shinkansen for a quick 60 minute ride, continuing on to Hiroshima.
We arrived late afternoon, checked in to our hotel, and relaxed a bit. Then dinner!
If you mention a visit to Hiroshima, you’ll get very different responses from Western and Japanese friends. The Westerners frown a bit and ask if I went to the Peace Memorial and other sites related to the atomic bombing. Meanwhile Japanese friends light up and enthusiastically ask, did you try any okonomiyaki?!?
So for dinner Dad and I headed to Okonomimura, or okonomiyaki town–really a building with several floors of okonomiyaki stalls. We carefully reviewed the stalls, weighed our options, then judiciously chose one. Kidding! We sat down at the first place with two open stools, then ordered beer and a Deluxe Okonomiyaki.
Well nourished, we retired to our hotel for a solid sleep ahead of Monday’s plan: a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Atomic Bomb Dome.
My favorite aspect of Hong Kong was also the biggest surprise: the amazing street art adorning building all over our neighborhood. We rented a studio on U Lam Terrace in a somewhat pretentious/chic area called PoHo (from nearby Po Hing Fong).
As soon as we started walking we saw amazing murals and street art on every block. It made getting lost in the maze of streets and stairs so much more interesting! I’ll let the photos tell the story.
I arrived in Hong Kong with high expectations of delicious food, and Hong Kong delivered! Our first night we enjoyed an amazing Nepali meal in our neighborhood. Many of Yokohama’s Indian restaurants are actually operated by Nepali nationals, and I wish some of the dishes we had in Hong Kong appeared in Japan more often instead of the parade of mediocre curries.
Our second night we tried French fusion dim sum. We loved the setting and beautiful presentation while appreciating the novel twist on traditional dim sum, but we both agreed that it wasn’t our best meal. Foie gras in a dumpling….not so much.
Another night we grabbed a bite at a restaurant near a street market. We sat at long, communal tables and heeded our neighbors’ recommendations.
For our final night’s meal, we sought out a Michelin recommended hole-in-the-wall. The rather utilitarian ambiance and entirely Chinese clientele foretold a great meal. And it was!
Like many Asian cities, Hong Kong features several street markets, night markets, and “antiques” rows featuring loads of colorful baubles and trinkets to tempt the eye. We wandered and picked up a few treasures.
Our hands-down favorite shop was right in our neighborhood, and I lost count of how many times we popped in. Every surface was covered with both Western and Chinese vintage records, eyeglasses, cameras, toys, and more.