Beer and Blondies, The Dinner of Champions

I’m on the Shinkansen with the boy, headed for a ski weekend in Niigata prefecture with my friend Caroline and her family. It’s my third visit to Bears House, a lovely hotel right on the slopes of Ishiuchi Maruyama ski resort. So by now I have the drill down of getting there: local train to Tokyo station, arriving early enough (about 40 minutes) to buy a bento dinner for the 75 minute Shinkansen bullet train ride.

I think you all know where this is going.

So I met Caroline on the platform of our local station, Yamate. We expected a 50 minute, no transfer ride to Tokyo Station. About halfway there the train stopped right after the first car entered Kamata station.

We sat there for about ten minutes with periodic announcements in Japanese. After a bit people started getting up and heading toward the front of the train to get off, and we followed. When I saw that one car made it into the station, I assumed the worst: that someone jumped in front of the train. Unfortunately this is a fairly common occurrence in Japan. But when I didn’t see a white fabric barrier erected at the front of the train I figured it was something else. The JR East status website quickly listed “unidentifiable noise” as the cause of the delay. If it were a jumper then the status would reference personal injury.

The plan was to get off the train and somehow magically make it to Tokyo Station in time for our Shinkansen.

And on the platform in Kamata Station, our guardian angel appeared: Katayama-San, the neighbor of our drum teacher, Marcos. Katayama-san and I have exchanged friendly waves and genial small talk and appeared together in music recitals for three years. Caroline’s family also takes lessons from Marcos, so Katayama-San knew all of us.

Because the universe had my back today, Katayama-san was taking a group of boys to the same ski resort, and riding on the same Shinkansen. He and Caroline were even in the same car.

On the Yamanote line to Tokyo Station. It wasn’t even crowded at this point.

So he said, “Follow me!”. And we did. We sprinted about a kilometer from one station to another and hopped on a Keikyu train, then got off at Shinagawa and stuffed onto an overcapacity, rush hour Yamanote train, where there may or may not have been train pushers at work based on the crush that climbed aboard at every station.

We arrived at Tokyo Station with six minutes to make it on the train. We ran from one platform to the next and made it with two minutes to spare.

We absolutely would not have made it without Katayama-san’s help. Given the train delays we could use our tickets for the next Shinkansen, but we would likely end up standing the whole way.

With the whole 40-minutes-to-buy-bento-dinner thing out the window, I settled in with the snacks I packed: beer and blondies.

When I went back to deliver beer and blondies to Katayama-san and Caroline and her crew, I found Caroline dispensing her dinner/snacks in a method familiar to every parent of more than one child: counting out potato chips/crisps one by one to each of her three children.

We arrive at Echigo Yuzawa in 30 minutes. I really, really hope the bento stands are still selling dinner when we arrive.

Christmas in Hawaii, The Lava Edition: The Big Island

After a fantastic five days on Kauai, we hopped on a one-hour flight to the Big Island of Hawaii. We started in Kona, the city on the perpetually-sunny western coast famous for its coffee, sunsets, and Ironman competition.


Mark’s youngest brother Marshall moved to Hawaii this summer from Washington state. Though he now lives in Hilo on the Big Island’s rainy eastern coast, he lived in Kona for several years. He drove over to meet us, and we enjoyed a sunset visit to one of his favorite surfing beaches.


The next day we headed out to a nearby exotic animal rescue, Three Ring Ranch. The caretaker Ann Goody told us about her resident zebra, monkeys, birds, turtles, bison, and other animals. While she spoke she noticed cues from one of the monkeys, then declared that the monkey chose Marshall as his special friend. So Marshall followed Ann’s instructions, greeting the monkey with the appropriate lack of eye contact, handshake, and so on. She said that the monkey will remember Marshall as one of his chosen friends even if he waits a few years to visit again.


After a great weekend in Kona, we drove across the island to Hilo.

In December 2016 we visited Hawaii and rented a house in Vacationland, a community of (surprise!) mostly vacation homes. When Kilauea erupted and the lava started flowing in May of 2018, I quickly learned that Vacationland lay in Lava Zone 1 as designated by the U.S. Geological Survey, making it the most vulnerable area to lava-related annihilation. Unfortunately the lava flowed exactly as USGS predicted, wiping out hundreds of homes. I was surprised to hear that most of those homes had no homeowners’ insurance because the risk of lava damage was so high.

The following map shows the extent of the lava flow, as well as points along our visit. The location of our 2016 rental house is marked with a yellow star.

Yellow star: the location of rental house where we stayed in 2016; Blue star: the road we drove in on and accessed the lava; Green star: the road to the lighthouse at Cape Kumukahi

We drove as far as we could down Government Beach Access Road, just to the right of the bright blue star in the photo above. The road ended abruptly at a wall of lava, so we parked and joined our fellow lava tourists already on the rocks. We followed a slightly crushed-down path marked by shells and coral left behind by previous visitors.

Driving toward the lava flow on Government Beach Access Road
The end of the road, marked on the map with a blue star


As soon as we climbed up the lava, I swallowed hard and blinked back tears. It was impossible to forget the hundreds of houses entombed under this unfathomable blanket of rock. The house where we celebrated Christmas, the legendary Champagne Pond and Kapoho Tide Pools where we snorkeled. All of it just gone.



Following Hawaiian custom, earlier hikers marked the trail with light-colored shells or coral


I can’t even begin to explain the power and sheer vastness of the lava field before us. The lava radiated heat as we walked across it. At first I assumed the black surface simply absorbed the sun’s heat, but then I started passing blasts of warm air from below. A physical geographer who worked with the evacuation told us that the lava would stay hot for at least two years.

IMG_0943 2So remember that map above? Go ahead, scroll up. We parked at the blue star, then climbed across the tiniest little corner of the lava field to the road to Cape Kumukahi, immediately under the green star. We scrambled for a solid 15-20 minutes each way across that tiny corner of the lava field. I can’t even comprehend just how much hardened lava came from the Kilauea eruption, and how little of it we could see from our vantage point.



Along the road to Cape Kumukahi Light, marked on the map further above with a green star

Steam vents in the distance perked away.


We headed back to the car and drove around to the southern edge of the lava field for our next stop. Along the way we drove over metal plates on the road just outside Leilani Estates, another subdivision affected by the lava flow. Before the lava started flowing in May 2018, cracks and steam in the road appeared right before fissures in Leilani Estates opened up. Road crews quickly patched up the cracks with those metal plates, and steam vents still bubble away along the side of the road even now. Crazy.

Near Leilani Estates, driving past roadside steam vents percolating away

While the road outside Leilani Estates “only” cracked, other roads were completely covered by lava. As soon as the lava cooled enough for road crews to get out there, the crews poured asphalt on the lava and reopened the road. We drove over those new roads on our way to our next stop, Isaac Hale Park.


We arrived at Isaac Hale Park, a state park that both survived the lava flow and experience some incredible changes. The park’s boat ramp used to lead to open water, as boat ramps do. The lava flow cut off the boat ramp from the ocean, so now that ramp leads to a pool of water completely isolated from the ocean. Signs warn swimmers to stay out of the water because the lack of ocean access means that the stagnant water harbors high bacteria counts. People splashed away anyway. Ew.

The boat used to lead to the ocean, but the new wall of lava created a germy swimming hole instead

In addition to a new, bacteria-filled swimming hole, the lava created a new black sand beach.


After enjoying the rather aggressive surf there, we headed out for another, older black sand beach, Kehena. Marshall warned us in advance of its clothing-optional reputation. Hence the from-a-distance or thisclose photos that follow. Because, you know. Nekkid people.

IMG_0959IMG_0961IMG_0962IMG_0963Our last night, Marshall took us to a famous weekly night market in Kalapana called Uncle Robert’s. With food, crafts for sale, and music, it reminded me of a Hawaiian mashup of an Asian street/night market and a weekend street market in the US. The weekly market takes place every Wednesday, and it’s the social focal point for the eastern half of the Big Island. Most people within an hour’s drive come several times per month.


And that’s a wrap on Hawaii 2018!

Christmas in Hawaii: Kauai

In 2016 we went to Hawaii and really loved our time there. Traveling to Hawaii is much easier from Japan than from Washington DC, so we decided to visit Hawaii again before leaving Japan. Mark’s youngest brother Marshall moved to Hawaii this year, so that made our decision easy.

We started on the island of Kauai, where we enjoyed a visit to Waimea Canyon…


….the ubiquitous chickens, whose population exploded with the destruction of Kauai’s chicken enclosures after Hurricane Iniki in 1992 …..


….a stop at the National Tropical Botanical Garden…..


A ziplining tour with Koloa Ziplines….

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….and our favorite, a helicopter ride over Waimea Canyon, the waterfall from the Jurassic Park movies, and the utterly breathtaking Napali coast.


After five days of beautiful Kauai, we moved on to the Big Island–stay tuned for that report!