Friday, August 17, 2012

Yasukuni - revisited

Ok, so it's hot. As expected. And humid. Also as expected. And our living room aircon is still dead. Not as expected. We had two different guys coming and looking at it and scratching their heads, and finally this morning we got a phone call that a third guy will show up this afternoon. Hopefully, he can fix it. Because living like this is driving me crazy. We are all holed up in the bedroom again and the cats are getting restless. And frankly, I can't blame them. I'm getting restless myself. I think I might go to the laundromat later today.

But that's not what I was going to complain about. I mean, write about.

August 15th came and went and, even though we did plan on visiting Yasukuni that day, we didn't. Why? Because somebody (hint - not me) didn't feel like getting up at an ungodly hour of the morning. He opened one eye, mumbled something along the lines of "jdkasdjaskjd too early lshfkajf sleep flksdjldjf too hot", then rolled over and ignored me.

He did make it up to me later in the day by cleaning the entire house top to bottom and taking me out to dinner. To MY favorite place. One that he doesn't like. Hah! Serves him right. And what did I do on August 15th? Stayed in the bedroom, naturally. With the aircon on, of course. With two cats for company.

And we could have witnessed something like that instead:

or that:

Yes, those are photos from a few years back, but I doubt if much has changed since then.

Instead, I thought today we might revisit Yasukuni on a less crowded day. On April 21st during its annual spring festival - Reitaisai.

The shrine looked suitably springish:

Unfortunately, the season for cherry blossoms was pretty much over by then. Pity. :(

The priests, all nicely lined up, marched to a roped off area to the left of the main shrine building.
There, they did their priestly things:

It was all very brief and very compact. After that, they retreated to the shrine.

And what about the small crowd of people who came to watch the events? They milled around aimlessly and most of them moved to the other side of the shrine where an open-air concert was going on. Mellow acoustic music, peace-themed, of course.

Some paid their respects and then left:

There were quite a few foreigners there that day and they looked visibly disappointed. Not sure what they expected. Riots? Protesters? Demonstrations? Wrong time of the year, folks.

I didn't visit the garden, but I know it's there. And it's quite nice, actually:

The whole place was very quiet and, dare I say it, even boring.

On my way out, I saw this tour bus. How appropriate, I thought:

And then I went to look for a toilet and a Starbucks. I found both right nearby the metro station.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Obon is here

So... Obon is upon us. For those who don't know, obon is a Japanese buddhist ritual to honor the spirits of dead ancestors. But more commonly known here as "summer vacation". Most people are off work and head back to their hometowns to visit their relatives and cemeteries. Sometimes all at once, actually.

 Stores are fully stocked with obon items

I've been off for however many weeks, lost count by now, and still have two more weeks to go. All fully paid. Read and weep ALTs and eikaiwa teachers! Last year I had a six week summer vacation. This year, due to the economic downturn and such, it's only 5 weeks. Bummer... And I'm spending it all in Japan. At my lovely house in lovely Tochigi. Joy, oh joy. But I do plan to pop in to Tokyo this week (August 15th, Yasukuni, of course, and then for some whale meat in Asakusa maybe) and then again on the 23rd (no Yasukuni, no whale meat, only a doctor's appointment, bleh.)

Other than that, it's been a grim and miserable vacation. Now even more so, because just today our living room aircon unit gave up and died. DrT promptly called the service center and was told that, with it being obon now, someone may, or may not, get back to us sometime soon. Or not. Frankly, we didn't expect a call back before next week, but surprise surprise, someone did call just now. And said that a service person would be dispatched to us sometime tomorrow. Whether or not said service person will be able to fix our aircon, that unfortunately, they don't know until they can figure out what is wrong with it. Fair enough. I don't expect to get it fixed this week. Obon, you know...

Right now we're all sitting in the bedroom. Two humans and two cats. And enjoying the cool air, because luckily, this unit works. And I'm nursing my left hand, which got skinned and bruised when a piece of DrT's exercise equipment decided to fall down on me. While I was using it. Well, sort of. Not exercising, just stretching, to be honest. But it did fall. And, in the process I did make a hole in the wall with my knuckles and destroyed a big swath of wallpaper. But the hole looks oh-so-rugged, and none of my fingers are broken, so it's all good. I didn't like this wallpaper anyway. DrT picked it, LOL.

So, what else is new? Not much. We had a lovely lunch with friends today. Steak Gusto. Yay!

Add to that all-you-can-eat salad buffet, bread, soup, curry, fruit, yogurt and shaved ice for dessert. And a drink bar. What can I say? That's where cheap (or poor, like us) and very hungry people go to feed.

And I got a lovely present from the US.

Yay me! There's even a little something for my babies :-)
Now I'm going to finish reading "Snuff" by Terry Pratchett.

Have a lovely evening, everyone!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Day in Chuzenji

Tohaisai came and went and guess what? We pretty much ignored it. Well, kind of. We got as far as Futaara shrine in Chuzenji, and instead of doing the Mt Natai midnight climb (because that's what this Tohaisai thing is), we looked around, stayed for the fireworks and then drove back home.

DrT felt awfully guilty, and me? I was glad, actually. I didn't really feel like climbing Mt Nantai again. But my dear husband even made funny noised about maybe perhaps, if he felt like it, climbing it sometime before August 7th. And guess what? August 7th came and went and he didn't. Meh, you climbed it once, there's no need to do it again... the mountain is still exactly the same as it was two years ago, right? Right.

Posters for the event

So, since we went there and didn't climb the damn mountain, what on earth did we do there? I mostly napped in the car, because it was pleasantly cool. Chilly, in fact. And I was tired.

But before taking a nap, we saw this:

A line of pilgrims being treated to a drink by the shrine maidens.

And this:

Local kids paying their respects at the shrine.

And this:

A very short mikoshi procession.

Then we went for a walk along the lake. It was lovely.

While I was sleeping DrT enjoyed a traditional Japanese dance competition, and I woke up just in time to catch the end of it.

And no, that's not DrT. He didn't dance. He just watched.

I met some parents who obviously knew me very well, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out from where, how and when. They were very friendly though and happy to see me, which I suppose, was a good thing. Especially considering how many people I piss off on a daily basis.

Then we watched the fireworks on the lake:

And then, while everybody and their mother started to get ready for the midnight climb, we climbed into our car. And let me tell you, driving the Irohazaka at night is not something I want to do again anytime soon. Especially not with DrT sitting behind the wheel. In MY car!!!

Here's a short video of the day's activities:

And that was it.
All of it took place on July 31st.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Water Discharge Tunnel Tour

Last Thursday we drove to Kasukabe City to tour the Greater Metropolitan Area water discharge tunnel, or rather - a huge surge tank, which is part of the Tokyo Metro Area flood prevention system. Complicated? Only a little. I'll explain it all later.

Dr T already posted his trip summary on his blog. Now it's my turn.

Before we could take the tour, we had to somehow get to Saitama (that's where Kasukabe City is). And we got there by driving. Even that part of the trip was very exciting for me. My first time in Saitama! Yay! Up until now, the farthest south we had ever driven was to Sano, to the outlet mall. And now, a drive all the way to Saitama! How cool, I thought.

I changed my mind as soon as we left the highway - we got stuck in a massive jam. Dr T, who once upon a time, a century ago, lived in that area for a couple of years, claimed it had always been like that. Endless jams. Endless traffic. Endless hell. I was missing Tochigi already.

We stupidly believed our car navigation system and let ourselves be led right through the center of Kasukabe City. That was when I was not just merely missing Tochigi, but hating Saitama.

The only redeeming feature of that prefecture? Its drivers. They actually stop, flash their lights and let you make a right turn. Happened to us three times in as many minutes. Amazing. And unheard of in Tochigi. Here instead of stopping, flashing the lights and letting you go, it's common to speed up, lean on the steering wheel, honk and scare the living crap out of you. All of that happening while the light is changing from yellow to red, leaving you stuck right in the middle of the intersection like a stupid idiot. That's Tochigi driving for you. No wonder we lead the nation in fatal road accidents. But hey, we gotta be good at something, even if it's vehicular homicide, right? Right.

Finding the drainage pump station is easy. It's clearly marked and judging by the line of taxis delivering other tour participants, it's must be quite well known in the city.

We simply followed the signs.

The tour has to be booked online and you need to be there 30 minutes before the starting time to register yourself, collect your badge and watch a mind bogglingly dumb anime about the whole flood prevention system. Because the whole tour is conducted in Japanese and you need to be able to follow safety/ emergency instructions in Japanese, you either need to understand the language, or be with someone who does. Or simply nod and say "hai" and "eeeeeehhhh!" or "ah soooooo!" to everything the guide says. It works just fine.

You also need to wear sturdy shoes and be able to climb up and down a whole lot of steps, which can be wet and/ or muddy and very slippery.

But before you can do that, you are going to listen to a very informative lecture on how the greater metro area flood prevention system works. If you come early, you can even watch a proper movie. In English. I quite enjoyed that part, actually.

This is the control room:

The whole system consists of 5 intake banks, a huge underground tunnel, a humongous surge tank and a pump station that pumps all this excess water to the Edo river. So, basically, they build a river and a dam underground. When it rains and local rivers overflow, this overflow is collected 50 meters underground, it fills the surge tank and then is spat back to a larger river 6.3 kilometers away.

And this is the pump:

Don't ask me what happens during a major earthquake. I don't want to know.

The fun part is, of course, when you get to visit the surge tank. It does look like an underground temple. Or, as the English language brochure described it - as an underground Parthenon-like structure.

The steps were not as bad as I thought. Yes, they were wet and slippery, but nothing like what I thought it was going to be. It was an easy climb up and down. Or rather - down and up again.

When we were there, the space was occupied by a film crew filming some dreadful live action anime hybrid. They didn't want us to take any photos of them, but their orders were universally ignored by everybody in our group.

And that was it.
The whole tour, from beginning to end, lasts only 90 minutes, of which just 15 are spent underground in the surge tank. And there's no tour on days when it rains and the tank is filled.

When you leave you get a free postcard and you can roam the grounds more or less freely and take photos. I didn't see one guard or a single security person.

All in all, an interesting way to spend a free afternoon. However, I don't recommend this tour for kids - they'll be bored out of their minds, misbehave and only frustrate the guide. And embarrass their parents. And piss off other tour participants. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. There was a bunch of elementary school kids in our group.

More info here (in Japanese).

Friday, August 10, 2012

Tenno Sai 2012 and other things

Been thinking quite a lot whether I should reactive this blog or just let it wither and die. It's read by my students' parents and some of my coworkers (hi guys!) and as such it can no longer be my happy ranting place.

Then what should I do? Hide it from search engines and write about what I want and how I want? Or keep it searchable and continue the way it was before? Or keep it searchable and clean it up and make it very PG-ish and bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, sparkly and happy? Not sure just yet which way it's going to go... But let's give it a try.

A lot has happened since the last update, blah blah blah and all that. Nobody's interested in all the gory details anyway, so I'm going to spare you the blow-by-blow description.

Instead, as we're in the midst of summer, and summer means matsuri time (yes, I'm still a matsuri otaku), let's do what we do best. And that is - take a look at one of our favorite events - TennoSai in Utsunomiya.

Yes, I know, I know... It took place in the middle of July. And now it's the middle of August (well, almost). But if you're as lazy as I am, it takes you some time to upload the footage and make it presentable for a wider audience. And since it's supposed to be PGish, but PGish in Japan and kids here are used to such views, the fundoshi shots stayed, OK?

First, our second favorite thing - the mikoshi race up the steps to Futaara shrine:

Fun, isn't it? I don't remember now what the fastest time was, but damn, some of them were really fast. And only two teams tripped up, one of which I caught on tape.

And second, our most favorite thing - the Bamba dori team with its huge drum carrying it up the steps to the shrine. And never stops drumming. These guys have rock star status in our town.

A bit shaky towards the end but that's what you get when you walk up the steps in the dark while holding a video camera.

So yeah, that was our TennoSai this year.

Have a great weekend everyone! (Though it's supposed to rain here, bummer...)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Happy ume!

I totally forgot that this was the Easter weekend. Probably because there's no Easter here and nobody cares. I don't either, to be honest. But still, it's nice to know what's going on in the big, wide (or is it wild? sometimes while reading the news I do wonder) world.

It's been awfully cold this winter (yeah, "this" because it feels like it's still here) and our electric bill seems to confirm that. Though, supposedly, according to fancy meteorological (or however you spell it) records, last winter had been actually colder. Go figure. All I know is that this time last year stuff was already blooming, and this year - nada. Hey, it's all due to radiation, contamination, nukular bullshitfication, donchaknowit? Or at least that's what the fear-mongers would like you to believe.

Anyway, we went out looking for sakura today and found only ume. Still pretty, but boring.

Oh well, if you don't have what you like, you gotta like what you have.

So what else is new? I had pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. And yes, Dokkyo Medical Center still sucks and still employs mostly incompetent nincompoops who graduated from Dokkyo Medical School (simply because they wouldn't be able to find jobs anywhere else).

One school year ended and a new one has just began. I'm still gainfully employed and still love my job.

The cats are well. My husband is still my husband.

Same old, same old...

And this concludes my "I'm back in the world of the blogging" post. I'll try to be more diligent about writing regularly. Or at least more or less regularly.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My Palau overview

The very fancy and expensive sunblock I brought with me from Japan didn't do a very good job. I got burned. Badly. I ended up running to a local drugstore with imported American stuff and buying a cheap replacement. That seemed a bit more effective.

My plan for Palau was such:

day 1 - rest and look around
day 2 - trip to Rock Islands and Jellyfish lake, snorkel (with a lovely Japanese company - Impac)

day 3 - intro dive with Sam's Tours.

That one didn't work out. Let's just say that Sam's Tours is not a company I can recommend for novice divers. To put it mildly, they're idiots, who wasted my time.

So instead of diving, I rented a car and went to the aquarium and museums and tried local foods and then drove up to Palau Beach Bungalows. The plan was to stay there until Sunday.

That didn't work out either. Let's just say, the place was crawling with bugs and the beach was a garbage dump. I stayed there for one night only and left as soon as I finished breakfast.

day 4 - the plan was to tour the island, and I did just that. I went all the way up north to see stone monoliths, I saw the new capitol building, I saw jungle, and generally despaired at a very shoddy signage (or lack thereof) of major tourist points.
In the evening I returned to Koror and checked into the motel I was staying at previously - DW Motel.

day 5 - snorkeling tour with Impac, this time we snorkeled at major diving points (such as Big Drop Off) and then had lunch at Carp Island Resort. Carp Island Resort is the kind of place I want to stay at if I ever come back to Palau (unlikely).

day 6 - an airplane tour of the islands. Expensive ($140 dollars for 30 minutes), but totally worth it.

day 7 - that is now and right now it's raining like crazy. Not sure what I'll do now. Probably drive up to Palau Pacific Resort and sit on their beach.

My flight leaves at 3AM. Luckily, thanks to my air tour yesterday, I have a coupon for the very fancy VIP lounge at the airport. So at least my waiting time should be more or less pleasant - there's free wi-fi there.

More detailed info coming up soon!

Thursday, January 5, 2012


The flight to Seoul was uneventful and boring. Noteworthy for only one thing – I got to drink my first Diet Coke in over a year. I didn’t even ask for one, because I was certain they wouldn’t have it. But they did.

During that short flight I drank three of them. The ladies in blue silk blouses looked at me with something resembling contempt, but were far too professional to be openly disgusted when each and every time when asked “tea or coffee”, I always answered “ Diet Coke”.

I’m not too fond of the airport in Seoul. Not sure why… Probably due to a combination of factors. The transit area lacks a decent bookshop, there’s no place to buy nice postcards (and I don’t mean the crappy artsy kind), and the shop assistants are of the pushy kind. Or maybe to them I simply looked too poor and pedestrian to be checking out the goods at Givenchys and Marc Jacobses of the duty-free world. Who knows?

The flight to Koror was packed, but the charm of being the only gaijin on board resulted in a quick shuffle, which left me with three seats all to myself. I drank more Diet Coke, ate whatever it was they were serving and went to sleep.

And then it was time to land. 29 degrees Celsius and rainy. The joys of being in the tropics.
Another joy (or not, depending on where you stand) of the tropics is a totally different sense of time. That became very apparent to everyone waiting in line to passport control.

Three lines, three bored faces, three sets of arms moving so slowly that any slower and they’d be going backwards. And who cares that there’s a planeload of tired, sleepy people waiting to the processed? Certainly not the Palau customs officers.

The fat lady that I had the misfortune to be served by, was the slowest of them all. She didn’t give a crap about anything and was doing her own thing. Slowly. Very slowly. Return and onward tickets were checked very carefully, dates of departure entered into the system. The officials seemed to be unable to comprehend the novel idea that they were dealing with one Korean package tour, of mostly retirees, all arriving and departing according to the same schedule. The passport stampers dutifully checked e-tickets of every. single. member. in. that. group.

After a couple of centuries, it was my turn. The fat lady seemed disappointed that I had my e-ticket ready. She seemed disappointed that I spoke English and filled out my immigration form correctly. Having absolutely nothing to be pissed about, she finally stamped my passport and I was free to go.

The DW Motel guy was waiting for me in the arrival area. We collected two more lost (and very dumb, so dumb they made stool samples seem intelligent) Koreans* and off we went.

My room was less filthy than I expected it with just as filthy as I expected it bathroom. But I couldn’t care less. There was a bed (albeit a very uncomfortable one), the sheets were clean, I didn’t spot any bedbugs, the AC was working. I was going to sleep.

* They couldn’t find their own names on a list of people consisting of exactly three entries (of which one was my name).

Monday, January 2, 2012

Please 2012, no funny stuff, OK?

After everything that happened last year (yes, 2011 is "last year" now), I didn't think it could possibly get any worse.
But at least in our household, 2012 started in a way that made me want to roll it up, pack it up and ask for refund. That kind of year I really don't need. And don't want.

As soon as we came home from Rinnoji and wanted to upload photos, Mr T's computer has crashed. As in "RIP" crashed. So instead of going to bed and getting ready for my flight in a few short hours, like a dutiful wife that I am, I stayed up, placed an order for a new laptop and started to process the photos myself. Sadly, while doing that, Firefox went tits up.

Then, the bus for the airport was late. Not by much, but by enough to force Mr to admit that if it came to that, he'd have to drive me to the airport. Or, as he said "you could just stay home". True, I could. But I didn't. The bus eventually showed up.

I had an upset stomach, had to run to the toilet every five minutes and was seriously considering going back home. It was not a fun ride to the airport, trust me.

Once at the airport, the ground shook. Not by much, but by enough to prompt Mr to call me and see if everything was OK. Apparently, the earthquake was strong enough to knock down our standing mirror. The mirror broke and the pieces scratched our almost brand new floor.

And how does that ancient superstition go? That a broken mirror brings seven years of bad luck or somesuch? What about a mirror that breaks on New Year's Day? No, wait! Don't tell me. I don't want to know.

Even though Korean Air sent me a message asking me to be at the airport earlier than the usual 2 hours, the airport was rather empty.

There were New Year's decorations here and there.

And a couple of foreigners standing in front of this display, debated loudly its intended purpose:

to be continued...

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

Even though I have to get on the bus to Narita at 10AM, we still decided to go to Rinnoji last night for our first temple (and shrine) visit of the year. We wrapped ourselves in layers upon layers of clothing, stuffed our pockets with heating pads and off we went.

We started with the ceremonies at Rinnoji, and then planned to see the Toshogu illumination, which was going on from 1 to 3AM. But after seeing the mad line of people waiting to get inside Toshogu, we moved on to Futaara instead.

This is what we saw at Rinnoji:

This was my first time observing Buddhist New Year's ceremonies and it was quite interesting. I'll add photos when I can, which unfortunately is not right now.

Right now I'm jumping in the shower and then packing like a mad woman. I'm going to Palau for a week. Yay me!

PS. A few more photos here:

Prayers before the ceremony.

After the prayers, a bit of ritual archery:

And after a few more sacred procedures, it's time to light the fire: