28 March, 2007


a few weeks ago, Jill and i took a whirlwind trip along the Southern coast of Japan's main Honshu Island to see the famous town of Hiroshima. while details of that trip will follow in another post, here i'll explain one thing that made it so whirlwind. we finally got to do something i've been wanting to since we got here, to take a ride on a true Japanese institution: the Shinkansen (新幹線). better known to us in the West as a bullet train, Japan is famed for having introduced them in 1964, and is making headlines once again with their new speed record-breaking maglev trains.

as the wikipedia article makes clear, there are several different kinds of trains referred to as shinkansen. i think the 300 series looks the best, and fortunately for me it was the kind we first rode.

literally meaning "new trunk line", shinkansen has brought all of Japan within reach of a very train-oriented people. physical reach, at least, if not economic, because you practically have to sell your soul to get on the thing. not that plenty of people in wealthy Nagoya aren't prepared to do that; the 16-car long things are zooming off both East and West from here every five or 10 minutes. we took a morning ride to the West on the fastest service, the Nozomi (meaning "hope"). it wasn't hard to see why people liked this thing. first, you just walk up and buy a ticket, and that's only the hard part because it involves parting with so much cash. in our case, the 440 Km (273 mile) journey set each of us back ¥12,500, or about $107. then again, it only took a little over two hours, and all that without the hassle of security checks (of any kind) and life vest demos. then when you factor in the insane amount of legroom and the generous recline of the seats, along with the centrality in town of most train stations, you find it beats flying hands down.

maybe it's all those things that have made the shinkansen so popular and have fixed it in the Japanese imagination (the same people who make Hello Kitty dolls also have a whole line of shinkansen characters, kind of like Thomas the Tank Engine). or maybe it's just the view. in a country where getting around generally takes an awfully long time (we spent about 6 hours riding the 150 Km to Kyoto last July), seeing the countryside whipping past at up to 300 Km per hour (180 mph) gives you a whole new appreciation for the size and the sight of the place, and is exhilarating to boot. thanks once again to Jill's camera skills, thejayfather is proud to give you a taste of that feeling, inadequate though it might be. for example, i bet your eyes won't hurt like mine did when seeing this live:

27 March, 2007


sure we go to Western restaurants all the time, and sure we would go to cool places like Kyoto more than once if we had the money, but we don't usually do the cheap and cheerful sites around here a second time. that stance suddenly changed on Saturday when we were invited to go with a group from church to the Little World Museum of Man.

not surprisingly, it was all pretty much the same, the same buildings, the same general emptiness of the park, even the weather was seriously similar (only this time we got drenched on the way home instead of the way there). so if it was all the same, why this post? well, friends, because of the Oriental Circus. and what might that be, you ask? not entirely sure, to tell the truth, but our Japanese compadres had got the word they were at the museum and sped us through much of the park until we found the small amphitheater where these stars of the East were performing their tricks.

one performer terrifying a timid audience member with his whip tricks. what terrified me was his creepy leather costume

the show was so ghetto it made the one we'd seen in Beijing look like a Metropolitan Opera production, but they did have some pretty cool stuff. even the strange whip guy was pretty impressive, confidently slicing paperback-size pages held between a volunteer's hands. the best one, though, which they did save until last, was the highwire act. they ran across it backwards and forwards, did backflips right in the middle, and even carried each other across; but the best part was the true finale:

the pretty impressive tightrope finale of the Oriental Circus, neatly captured by Jill. we're not sure the name is totally accurate, however, given that all the performers looked, well, not very Oriental. we later learned they were from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

23 March, 2007


in my recent post about temples i mentioned that Atsuta Jinguu, the main Shinto shrine here in Nagoya, is also one of the three most revered places in all Japan. so much for that, but what good would thejayfather be if he could only get you into the top three? still pretty good, actually, but i've gone above and beyond the call of duty yet again to bring you the single greatest site in all of (Shinto) Japan: Ise jinguu.

some views of the great shrine, clockwise from top left: the Japanese flag
Hinomaru (circle of the sun) stands out against the spacious and beautiful precincts of the country's holiest sanctuary; the clamor to get a brief glimpse at the shrine itself, even though only emperors and the highest of Shinto priests may go inside; some idea of what that glimpse would look like--was it worth the wait?; and a side view of the main shrine buildings reveals spare but attractive architecture. below, some more of the grounds and surroundings of the shrine, clockwise from top left: a pond with the biggest koi carp i've ever seen, many of whom were actually allowing themselves to be petted; Jill and i take a self-shot in front of some early sakura (cherry blossom) blooms; some less fortunate fish await sale by the rack in the bustling market street adjacent to the shrine; and finally a worthy adversary for me to go head-to-head with was also found on display in the street market.

don't tell me you've never heard of this place, especially after a buildup like that. the important thing is that now you have, and if you read the post about Atsuta, you're already way ahead of the game about understanding this place--they're very similar. however, there are a few things about Ise that deserve special mention. first, i borrow from the guidebook:
Shinto tradition has dictated for centuries that the shrine buildings (about 200 of them) be replaced every 20 years with exact imitations built on adjacent sites according to ancient techniques—no nails, only wooden dowels and interlocking joints. Upon completion of the new buildings, the god of the shrine is ritually transferred to its new home... The present buildings were rebuilt in 1993 (for the 61st time) at a cost exceeding ¥5 billion.

elsewhere I've read that Ise is the place where the spirits of all the emperors are enshrined, and that each new one must come to pay homage to their ancestors. and in case you're a little rusty on your Japanese (or even WWII) history, the Shinto belief was, and may or may not still be, that the emperors are deities in human form (MacArthur made Hirohito renounce his and all future emperors' claims to divinity during a radio address following Japan's surrender to allied forces).

so there's your dose of learning for the day; now on to what we did with the rest of ours. Ise is a little over 100 Km (60 miles) south of Nagoya, and just a little further down the road is the tiny town of Toba, Mie Prefecture. if you have a thing for pearls, you may have heard of this place; if not, you may at least have heard of Mikimoto, the man who figured out how to culture them by sequestering himself on a small island there at the end of the 19th century.

i hope this one is self explanatory.

today Mikimoto Pearl Island is a tourist hotspot, and has a very interesting museum in addition to, obviously, a well-stocked store. but the thing that really gets them here, or at least that got us there, was the pearl diver demonstrations. in several coastal areas of Japan there are crews of women known as Ama who dive the ocean waters in search of pearls and the like. they are trained over about a 10 year period, beginning in their early teens, in order to build up lung capacity and i suppose resistance to the fatiguing effects of the cold water (it was around 10°C, or 50°F the day we were there). i guess they cheat a little at Mikimoto, because you'll notice they're really wearing wetsuits under the traditional clothes, but the short demonstration was nonetheless impressive:

that's not all that was impressive about the miniscule island. a brief tour of the shop after the demo revealed several beautiful jewelry pieces, along with some raw pearls. one fairly odd-shaped, but huge, silver pearl was on the block for a shade over ¥10 million, enough to make your eyes water. but since we're going for number ones, thejayfather brings you the pearl of all pearls (not to say the mother of all pearls, groan), with the mind-blowing number in the picture's foreground representing the actual, serious price of this tiny golden orb:

that's a shade over US$300,000 for a ball whose diameter is about the same as that of your average chapstick.

21 March, 2007


you had to know this one was coming: in the very land of karaoke, it was only a matter of time before thejayfather succumbed to the temptation to raise the art to a new level. after spending so much time practicing Tom Jones at Loma Linda parties, i finally got the chance to beat the natives at their own game.

or something--i'm still a terrible singer, but i do enjoy it so; lucky for me there was a party at the local Shidax karaoke hall last November. unfortunately, the reason for the party was the departure of our good friend Linda, who returned to Canada in December. in her honour, and with gratitude, i present these pictures of our experience:

clockwise from top left: It's Not Unusual for me to torture the mic with a little Tom Jones; our church friends Yui and Aiko break out the J-Pop hits in typically V-for-victorious style; Linda and Jill fight back with some Engrish tunes--probably from the 80s; and finally everyone made up so that we could get a phone-cam picture before we were thrown out on the street for having a good time without sake.


*WARNING: this post may not be appropriate for younger readers.

back on January 11th, i decided that i should treat myself to lunch at one of my favorite places, Yoshinoya. in the states they are called Yoshinoya Beef Bowl or something, and that's just what they serve, a bunch of beef on a bowl of rice. thing is, it's a lot better in Japan, despite being cheap and kind of common. in any case, i had to ride there pretty hard to make the most of my lunchbreak, and i chose to ride through the neighborhoods to avoid the many traffic lights on the way. i'm not really familiar with those areas, and the streets are like rabbit warrens, but i knew the general direction and knew i'd get there.

but on the way i passed a drab fifties-ish woman sitting on a low wall at the confluence of several tiny streets, who called out "irrasshai..." to me, which means welcome. i only slowed a little, thinking she was talking to somebody else, but i soon noticed i was the only other person around. she began jabbering in fast Japanese as soon as i paused, but i told her i didn't understand a word she was saying--"wakarimasen"--and i turned to leave. then the wily old devil tried a new tack, repeating one word in "English" over and over again until i understood: "sekusu, sekusu."

one of the many soaplands in our area, which look decidedly less Vegas-like during the day than they do at night.

the Yakuza, or Japanese Mafia, are said to control much of our local area, and one of their alleged cover businesses is the "soapland", or Turkish bath. of course, bathing is only half the story, and on this day i came face to face with the existence of the other half. there are plenty of soaplands in our area, but i had never been propositioned for one before, nor thankfully have been ever since. it was a little confusing to me, as i hightailed it out of there, that they would have a chain smoking old hag out drumming up business for a clip joint; you'd think they'd want to keep her hidden until the very last minute, and send one of the inside girls out. having only a couple of minutes more before i was tucking into my tasty yakiniku don beef bowl, i didn't have much time to ponder my disturbing experience. there must be a reason why it's done this way, but i am content to stay confused and let you, mature reader, figure it out for yourself.

20 March, 2007


a few of the very many designs used on tombstone markers here in Japan.

religion forms of fairly prominent part of life here in Japan; indeed, there are temples and shrines just about everywhere you look. the main religions are Shinto and Buddhism, both of which have been around for long enough here that there seems to be a high degree of crossover and mutual influence. we've had our fair share of temples and shrines just as any self respecting tourist would have done, but we've also had the time and the resources to wander just a little bit farther off the beaten path to see some real treasures.

among the first things we happened upon were some cemeteries. i guess not cemeteries in the way we typically think of them, because most people here are cremated, but they still seem to erect a lot of headstones. we found a couple of places where these headstones were even placed within buildings, but as you go further out of the city there are real cemeteries. most of the markers are actually small obelisk-looking things, and each seems to have a small symbol engraved on its base, among other things. there are many of these designs, which i can only assume have symbolic meaning, and Jill took pictures of most of them, coming away from one cemetery with almost 80 photographs.

clockwise from top left: tomb markers in a small cemetery east of Nagoya; me standing on about the only patch of grass i've seen in Japan; the mysterious black wood fort; and me riding a huge and gallant steed.

at one small cemetery way out of town, we also found a pretty cool park that seemed to have been dedicated to some kind of great warrior. we weren't able to make out much more than that, but there was some large rock there, upon which this warrior apparently sat to plan out his battles, along with a strange wooden fort and a cool, if enormous wood horse. a very interesting way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

a very pleasant way to spend any afternoon would be at Atsuta Jinguu, one of the three most sacred places in all of Japan, at least to Shinto believers. but what are the beliefs of Shinto, i hear you cry? lucky i picked up a handy pamphlet at "Nagoya's Spiritual Oasis" that may answer that very question:


· According to Shinto, humans are the offspring of the kami; as a result, kami and humans are related by blood. Not only humans, but the native land and nature are also considered the products of kami.
· According to Shinto, this world continues forever, and it is through the cooperation and diligent work of humans that this world can be made a better place.
· According to Shinto, the human spirit lives on after death, receiving the worship of descendents, while watching after and protecting those descendents.
· According to Shinto, what is most important is to live to the fullest here and now. Shinto does not look for eternal value and reward in the afterlife.
· According to Shinto, humans contain both good and evil, but by nurturing the kami mind, namely the mind of compassion and humility, one can improve and exhibit better human qualities.

so i hope that helps, but doesn't it practically beg the question:


Shinto shrines, or jinja, are the places where Japan's indigenous folk deities, called kami, are worshipped. As a religion, Shinto is not based on a founder, dogma, or sacred Scripture. It is unknown when it came to be, although it has been transmitted as an everyday custom, through daily life, a variety of annual observances and rites of passage in the lives of every Japanese. In short, the faith of Shinto is transmitted not through words and doctrines, but through concrete behavior and activities in the everyday lives of the Japanese people.
In particular, Shinto is extremely high significance to "rituals and festivals" or matsuri. Matsuri are observed at the turning points in the life of individuals, and at the changes between the four seasons of the year. Matsuri give the opportunity for the raising of people's spirits in the revitalizing of human nature. Shinto shrines form the location for these matsuri. For the Japanese people Shinto shrines are both restful places filled with a sense of the sacred, and the source of their spiritual vitality. Individuals participate in shrine festivals as members of the local community from infancy to old age. That is why shrines are sometimes called the "spiritual home" of the Japanese. For the Japanese, shrines constitute sacred space.

the shrine itself, like most Shinto structures, is quite austere, and there is little to look at for the lay observer, but the grounds of Atsuta are large and very beautiful. again from the pamphlet: "Atsuta Jinguu was originally founded about 1900 years ago, when the sacred sword Kusanagi-no-tsurugi, one of the Imperial symbols was enshrined." it "has been one of the greatest centers of worship in Japan from ancient times. Visitors to the shrine…now count nine million annually."

some of the cool sites at Atsuta Jinguu, clockwise from top left: Jill with a very helpful guard (he's the one that dug up the pamphlet); me and the sake—what was that doing there? it's not explained in the pamphlet; some kimono'd ladies bring their children to the shrine at what is presumably a "turning point"; and the very mysterious egg-laying tree of Atsuta. too bad that wasn't explained in the pamphlet either. below, the main event, the shrine itself. very intense, i know; just try to contain yourself.

so perhaps more impressive in principle than in fact, but there are some more visually interesting temples in town. among these is Nittaiji—literally, "Japan Thailand Temple". it seems to have been donated to the people of the city by King Bhumibol of Thailand in 1987, and so bears many of the symbols of Thai Buddhism. it's in both excellent repair and frequent use; while we were there we even caught part of a service:

here we catch a clandestine view of a service of undetermined purpose. it sounded cool, anyway. below, some views of Nittaiji, clockwise from top left: the main hall, in which the above service took place; the Thai-style Buddha that forms the centerpiece of that building; an elegant pagoda on the site; and one of the several bibbed statues we believe are ancestor deities that decorated the temple complex.

the last temple worthy of note is also the most colorful, both in actuality and in attitude. according to one online guide, "Osu Kannon Temple is a popular temple in central Nagoya. Originally located in neighboring Gifu Prefecture, the temple was moved to its current site by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1612. The current buildings are (surprise!) 20th century reconstructions." Osu Kannon sits on a pretty large piece of land near the center of the city, and forms the mouth of a usually bustling shopping arcade. it also plays host to a large flea market a couple of times a month. the pamphlet that was available in English was actually about the worst "Engrish" i've ever seen, so it doesn't give many clues as to the real importance of the place, but some of the pictures might help:

clockwise from top left: the vibrant main hall at Osu Kannon; banners adorn the grounds and buildings of the temple complex; neighborhood structures are also colorfully decorated; and one of the many locals enjoying the precinct's available activities.

Buddhism is still a fairly great mystery to me, despite having spent quite a bit of time in heavily Buddhist countries. thing is, i get the distinct feeling that it's also pretty mysterious to its adherents; mystery is no doubt even one of its allures. in any case, it's nice to see an abundance of worship centers, and more still people who are making use of them and doing something about their faith, be that what it may. i leave you with an interesting video, available only thanks to Jill's stealthy camera skills, that shows what i presume to be such faith in action. it is my understanding that the man pictured (who looks for a moment near the end of the clip like he knows he's being filmed) is wafting the incense smoke over his body to ensure good health and vitality. note how he directs the smoke to specific areas of his body, and also how thorough he is with that. so here's to Nagoya and all her religious people:

15 March, 2007


whatever else you can say about mysterious Japan, one thing is for certain: it is a land of festivals. called Matsuri, the Japanese seem to have a festival for everything. during our time here, we've had the chance to see several of them, even participating in some, and in more intimate ways than we could have imagined.

while some of them do seem to have a purpose, the first one we came across was distinctly inscrutable. late on a Sunday afternoon in early August, we were exploring our neighborhood on foot when we saw what looked like a small carnival going on in a local schoolyard. we looked on curiously, but rather than being turned away for being dirty foreigners, the men at the gate eagerly beckoned us in. on two sides of the schoolyard where various stalls, while in the middle was a stage of sorts, with a large Taiko drum and drummers next to it. i thought that some video might be the best way to appreciate these events:

as you can see, most of the women are wearing traditional kimono. this kind of dancing was going on the whole time we were there. below, me and the strange rice-goo balls that I was probably supposed to pay for.

we had a good time and probably stuck around for almost an hour taking pictures and enjoying the atmosphere. the folks there were very hospitable and tried to give us plenty of tea, which we politely declined, and some strange rice balls on a stick that i ate mainly because i was hungry. they did also give us a clue as to what they were all doing there: Jill and I were each handed a small pack of tissues which bore a sticker saying, among all the Japanese characters, PTA. so we assume it was some kind of fundraiser, even though i didn't pay for my rice goo.

just a couple of weeks later was the very important Japanese festival of O-bon. similar to Taiwan's Tomb Sweeping Day, which is held in April, O-bon is a Buddhist festival during which people return to their home towns in order to clean the graves of ancestors. it is celebrated widely and sometimes even wildly. in the Sakae area of Nagoya, the main street was closed down while various revelers formed a long procession along it. here again, some video:

dancers and bands making their way slowly along Hirokoji Dori in Sakae, Nagoya.

just like in Taiwan, the religions here have a tendency to get a bit mixed up, so though O-bon is a Buddhist festival, the celebrants still brought a fair share of Shinto tokens into it. at one point, we saw and followed the first and still the largest O-mikoshi we have seen. an O-mikoshi (really a Mikoshi—O is just an honorific prefix in this case and the case of Bon festival) is basically a portable shrine which is believed to serve as a vehicle for a deity. it is carried around, generally on shoulders, until it is returned to the local shrine. in this case, however, there were also some riders aboard:

later in the year, we had a much more intimate experience with an O-mikoshi at our local, town Fall Festival. on October 8, after returning from the Formula One Grand Prix at Suzuka, we were pretty beat and half sacked out in our house, when we heard strange chanting outside. running to see what was going on, we were suddenly enlightened as to why those lanterns had been hanging on the trees on our street: parading right past our front door was most of our neighborhood, complete with their own O-mikoshi. strangely enough, towards the back of the group was a lady who just happened to be an English teacher at a local high school, who invited us to join the procession.

we followed the group halfway around the neighborhood until they stopped for rest at a parking lot that this lady, Etsuko Ishihara, owned. there we were invited to eat and, later, to assist in carrying around the O-mikoshi. into both of these endeavors we embarked with great delight, the first turning out well, the second more questionably so. have a look at the video, and then i'll tell you all about it:

carrying the O-mikoshi with the Kamejima crew. the characters on the lanterns read, from top to bottom: Kame (turtle) Jima (island) Ni (two) Cho and me. two chome is the specific area of Kamejima in which we live. and yes, that is Jill laughing at me at the end of the clip. below, Jill and I pose with the rest of the neighborhood, O-mikoshi in the background. Etsuko, our translator and very gracious hostess during the festival, is sitting in the front row, second from the left.

i'm still not sure what Wa-shoi means, but we were expected to shout it nonetheless, so i did it dutifully. i'm sure i was given quite an honor to be able to help carry the O-mikoshi, for which I was dressed up in a "happi" coat and headband. it's just that that O-mikoshi was the heaviest thing i've ever encountered in my entire life. seriously. as you can see, it doesn't look that big, and there have to be about 16 guys bearing it up. it is framed in pretty solid wood, though the main housing section is simply a bunch of lanterns and a couple of batteries, so i don't know where all the weight comes from. heavy deity, i suppose. in any case, carrying my share of it on this night and a couple of times the following night, as the festival continued, really did my shoulder in for a good week or so. but that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger, and sometimes seemingly pointless struggles turn out to have a meaning. you may have noticed, in the video, a guy at the O-mikoshi's front, whose only seeming function was to retard its progress and divert it from a straight course. i have no idea what that was all about, but i do know there were times when i was ready to drop that thing right on him. so maybe Japanese things are a little inscrutable to me. even though i still don't really know why Kamejima Ni Chome was having a festival, i do know that we had a good time, and are glad to say we've done these things and had these experiences, and maybe that's what it's all about. it's what I'm going with for now.

12 March, 2007


that's "thebaseball", for those of you who don't speak Japanese. and yes, they are pretty crazy about it over here, but in subtly different ways than folks in the States are. where being a fan at a baseball game is meant to be relaxing and enjoyable in America, the same avocation here carries serious responsibilities, naturally. you must not only know all the chants and songs used to rally your team, but you must sing them at the appropriate time, and in perfect unison with the other fans. likewise, your noise makers must only be banged or shaken in choreographed synchrony with everyone else. i'm not sure what the penalties for failure are, but they must be stiff, because we didn't notice anyone out of line. then again, we are lazy Americans, and probably incapable of such detection anyway.

the bright green astroturf of the famous Nagoya Dome, home to the champion Chunichi Dragons. here, however, they are getting beaten by the Hiroshima Carp in a playoff game. below, they had signs for most of the players when they got up to bat. i'm not making this unison stuff up.

in any case, the game we saw, with our friends Dale and Elise, was a bit of a snoozer, despite being in the playoffs. last year our local team, the Chunichi Dragons pretty much coasted to the national title (the game we saw was on October 5th), but not before being beaten quite handily by the Hiroshima Carp in this division series game. here in Japan, as in Taiwan, teams are often owned by companies, and so take their name. our local team in Taiwan was the Sinon Bulls, named after the Sinon grocery store chain, and the Dragons are owned by the Chunichi Shimbun--the Daily Chunichi newspaper. the big team in Tokyo, arch rival of the Dragons, is the Yomiuri Giants, owned by the Daily Yomiuri paper. i wouldn't have thought there were natural synergies between newspapers and baseball teams, but clearly they see something in it. maybe cheap stories? either way, you may be somewhat familiar with the Dragons as they were the team nominally featured in the 1992 Tom Selleck movie, Mr Baseball.

so it was a fun experience, something you have to do in Japan; after all, it's almost as much a national sport as sumo. the hot dogs are a bit dubious and you're just as likely to find yourself eating soybeans as peanuts, but the game is pretty true and it really is a trip to see and hear an entire stadium perfectly synchronized. it's too bad all that order doesn't persist when the game is over--behold the anarchic sea of head-down, no-eye-contact Japanese salarymen all heading for the subway station:


as usual, it's been a while, but don't they always say better late than never? i'll go with that in order to feel good about bringing you some pictures from Thanksgiving and Christmas last year.

having grown up in Britain, without a specific day of "Thanksgiving", i've never really got into the idea. it's not that i don't like it, just that i don't expect it, so i don't feel like i'm missing anything if i don't get to celebrate it. having low expectations of a day is a pretty good way to do it, i think, because then any festivities seem like a bonus. this was doubly true in Japan, because who expects a turkey over here? there are enough Americans around, however, that a day without a bird would have caused some serious distress in the circles we move in. lucky for them that our friends the Stevensons, who are the Mission Presidents for the Japan Nagoya LDS Mission, decided to have a very comprehensive celebration at their place.

Thanksgiving, clockwise from top left: Jill and i after the stuffing; an inkling of the spread before the feeding; President and Sister Stevenson going the extra mile as hosts to pose with us for a picture; and an enormous plate of sushi brings Japan right into the celebration.

it was a great celebration, with all the traditional dishes and then some. most of the Americans didn't seem to want to taint their authentic experience with any outsider food, so i may have eaten about half of one of those sushi plates by myself; i know i took a good chunk of another one home in a plastic tub.

now a holiday that i did grow up appreciating is Christmas. this was my second Christmas in a foreign-seeming land, after spending it in Samoa a few years ago. here in Japan, the big holiday is the New Year, and Christmas seems to have been imported only to serve the needs of opportunistic marketers (sound familiar?). in any case, we worked our lame jobs (yes, lame: our Christmas "bonus" was a 310 yen box of cookies--that's about $2.70, folks) until the 23rd, and our Korea trip wasn't until the 27th, so we just settled in for a quiet and not very traditional Christmas. nevertheless, there do seem to be some things you can't go without: parties and stockings, to name a couple. fortunately, the wonderful Meito Ward provided the first, and even managed to find a Santa (who, curiously, was white) and a bag of treats for each attendee.

above, clockwise from top left: the Japanese girls love Santa; the feast at the ward Christmas party; thejayfather shows signs of regression, insisting on sitting on Santa's knee at the tender age of 27. Santa was played by our good friend Elder Marlowe; finally the man who prepared most of the grub, Bishop Iwata, a professional chef. in his arms is his daughter Hijiri, who really is just about as cute as can be. below, clockwise from top left: Jill and i sport our new Christmas pajamas while showing off our gift-surrounded Christmas twig. i mean tree; our bling bling watches, gifts from Elder Nelson and his friend DMX in Yonkers, NY; me using our Doraemon (a cartoon character here) stockings in a way they were not likely designed for; and ranch dressing, a godsend for Jill from my dad.

meanwhile, back at the house, Jill decorated with very anatomically awkward Doraemon stockings and a very Japanese (read "small") tree, which we surrounded with the many gifts sent us by friends and family around the world. during this time i was out scouring the local stores for matching pajama pants for the two of us, so we could continue a longstanding Nelson family tradition on Christmas Eve. needless to say, finding something to fit the bill was a lot more difficult that it might have been back at home, but isn't that what the holidays are all about? certainly, over here, we made the best of what we had and it all turned out very nicely, yet again.

10 March, 2007


after spending the day a my very crappy ex-job, i was all ready for a quiet night in with the wife for my recent birthday. at lunchtime she had given me an iPod shuffle, so i was planning to spend the evening loading it up with songs and seeing just how random it was.

but wouldn't you know, that wonderful woman had other plans for me, plans i should have figured out, but didn't even when they were all but happening. when i got home she told me we would be going out to dinner, which i'd half expected, but it seemed odd that we would have to leave at a certain time, as she informed me we would; after all, it's not like we can easily make reservations here. so when the appointed time came, she drove, or rather rode, us into town and turned down a side street i wasn't very familiar with. suddenly the penny dropped and i figured out that she'd found the awesome shabu-shabu restaurant we'd been to our first week here. but we kept on going and turning until we came right back out by the Hard Rock Cafe that we've been to so many times in search of filling, not to say Western, food.

oh well, i thought, shabu-shabu another time. but as i dismounted the bike a Japanese person passing by started talking to me--something that never happens here. except that i suddenly recognized her as our friend Megumi, a professional interpreter. all of a sudden i roused from my work-induced stupor and realized that Jill had set up a party with all of our friends from our so-called English Club--but i still hadn't figured out why.

Jill and i with my free balloons and birthday cake, and below with the English Club and the Hard Rock bear. from left: Kevin and Misty, Megumi, and the Marlowes.

the folks there at Hard Rock were very nice, taking pictures to make me a personalized badge and giving me a March 2007 Hard Rock birthday pin; they even had the whole place sing Happy Birthday to me. but it was something else Jill was after, something she wanted for herself. almost every time we've been there before, the staff get all the birthday boys and girls up on the little stage they have and make them do a special version of "YMCA", as in the video below:

the party having lifted my spirits immensely, i was actually feeling game to try this out when at last it had finally dawned on me that it was the whole reason we were there. unlike me, Jill isn't very into surprises for herself; she told me she wants to do her birthday at the Hard Rock so she can get up on stage, and that she wants an iPod shuffle, too. i'm inclined to make good on the latter request, since she was doubly disappointed that night: we determined we wouldn't still be here on her birthday, and for some reason they didn't even bother with the birthday YMCA. i enjoyed the whole thing anyway, sweetheart, and better luck next year...

09 March, 2007

the38th parallel

it's been a while (as usual), but now that thejayfather is gainfully unemployed again, i have some time to catch up on old posts, starting with our cool trip to Korea. i say cool, but what i really mean is cold--very cold. we left Japan a couple of days after Christmas and landed in Seoul during a cold snap that lasted almost exactly as long as we were there. the highest outdoor temperature we experienced was a numbing -4°C, or about 25°F. good thing we'd bought ourselves warm coats in China.

Jill and I outside the Seoul, Korea Temple. don't let the clothes fool you: it was freezing but she made me take off my hat for the picture. below, we kneel below the Munoas and the Greens after a wonderful Sunday dinner at their apartments.

our first order of business was to find the LDS Temple in Seoul, which we did with alarmingly good timing. we happened to make our way inside just in time for the session that was attended by the two missionary couples from the States who were working there. afterward, they volunteered to show us to church on Sunday and then feed us later. we got a very real sense that no matter where we go in the world there are people in the Church who are otherwise strangers that will be your instant friends. we were treated so well by the Munoas and the Greens and hope that we can pass on their kindnesses someday.

of course, Korea isn't all Sunday dinners and rapid socializing; it is a land split down the middle, rent in twain, divided against itself. to hear our Southern tour guides tell it, this division will not stand, but to see the physical split that runs between North and South--the DMZ, our second big destination--you could be forgiven for thinking it might. the actual border is halfway through the four-Kilometer wide De-militarized Zone, the outskirts of which are so heavily armored it seems a bit of a misnomer, and is kind of a no-man's land. Straddling the border is the village of Panmunjeom, where the UN conducts various negotiations between the sides, and just South of there sits Freedom village, where South Koreans are paid ridiculously high tax-free salaries to grow rice. it is supposed to be very good rice, however.

Jill stands on the South side of the DMZ, where hopeful Koreans have hung their wishes for a peaceful reunification with their poor Northern brothers. below, a view across the Zone shows the North's mighty flagpole and a few of the houses in Gijong, their propaganda village.

on the North's side of the great divide there is a large industrial complex and a huge tract of brand new houses--that are completely uninhabited except for the world's most powerful speakers. while the lights in the houses are turned on and off by remote switches to give the appearance that people live there, the speakers blast propaganda across the DMZ 12 hours a day to remind the poor Freedom Village workers of all they're missing out on by staying in the South. defect to the North, they say, and you can finally get an up close look at the world's tallest flagpole. some 160 meters (525 feet) tall, the flag it flies is an immense 275 Kilos (about 600 lbs), the world's largest, which title the South finally decided to stop challenging for a few years ago.

despite the seeming hostility, there remains a great deal of hope, at least on the South side, for reunification. indeed, the division is between governments, not people, and many on either side have relatives on the other. signs of this hope abound, like a spanking new railway line and station that we visited, and a shiny blacktop highway stretching far into the North which has been slowly opening up cross-border commerce since it was finished. but the omnipresent military police with their blockades and passport checks bring you back to the realities of the current situation. part of our tour was to go down in one of the six "infiltration tunnels" that soldiers from the North have tried to dig over the years, a pretty sobering experience given the number of troops that would have been able to move through there. also, across several of the roads back to Seoul stand what look like very tall bridges to nowhere. the "bridge" tops are around eight feet high and packed with explosives that will be blown if North Korean troops ever do make it across the Zone. the resulting wreckage of concrete that will be strewn across the roads is supposed to slow down an advancing army, giving Seoul up to an extra hour to prepare for its defense.

and Seoul needs to be defended; it's a huge city with about 10 million people in its metropolitan area. we spent our time there wandering among them in the (still freezing cold) markets and down their quite beautiful city canals and walkways, and of course at the obligatory palaces and temples.

Gyeongbokgung Palace views, clockwise from top left: the main gate; period costumed "soldiers" stand guard at the gate; the five-tiered square pagoda housing the National Folk Museum; and the impressive island Gyeonghoeru Pavilion. fortunately for me, i wasn't required to remove my hat for this picture--did i mention it was cold!

the one pictured above is Gyeongbokgung, the imperial palace, which is a vast and a very nice complex. it seems Korean traditional buildings borrow heavily from the design of their Chinese counterparts, but tend to favor green paint to blue. that was the main difference i detected, anyway. still, it was a nice site, well maintained and considerably cheaper than most of the stuff in Japan; plus, they had a bunch of guys dressed up in traditional guard costumes who even marched around a bit every ten minutes or so. they looked very authentic until i realized that what i had taken for a runny nose due to the cold was actually glue to hold on a fake moustache. i guess it doesn't pay to get too close.

anyway, we had a great time in Korea. it was pretty relaxed and a nice break from crappy work here in Japan. and besides, i've never felt so wealthy:

me with our foreign exchange hordes. these are Korean Won 10,000 notes, which are the highest denomination available and are roughly the equivalent of US $10. good thing stuff isn't too expensive here, or you'd really have a fat wallet. below, Jill points the way back home, just a short two-hour flight to Japan.