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June 17, 2007

A Study in Contrasts

Torii Ice Cream City

We've said it before, like everyone else, and we'll say it again: Japan is a land of contrasts. And we're doing our best to show my parents the full range. On this day, we managed to go from quiet contemplation to loud overstimulation in the space of just 24 hours. The torii gate above marks the entrance to the magnificent grounds of the Meiji shrine, so quiet despite the of bustle of Harajuku and Omote-sando lurking just outside. Later, we all visited a new "food theme park" which epitomizes a favorite Japanese entertainment style of overload, hitting you with lights, noise, tastes, movement, and ubiquitous kawaii (overly cute) characters.

Tokyo at night

Family Karaoke night City Lights

During our visit with L's parents, we tried to expose them to Tokyo's best sites each day. However, some of the most exciting things to see and do in Tokyo occur when the lights come up after dark. No family trip to Japan would be complete without a trip to a karaoke parlor, and we had a fun time singing our hearts out in the Ikebukuro neighborhood. Later, we made our way through the narrow alleyway containing about two dozen small restaurants selling "yakitori" chicken skewers on our way to the the crazy bright lights of Shinjuku. I think I've made this comparison before, but it's like Times Square, except that in Japan it's not just restricted to one plaza -- the expanse of neon and television screens goes as far as the eye can see in all directions. Together, these comprise a unique Japanese experience, and we had a fun time sharing it with L's parents.

June 10, 2007

River of flowers

Us with irises L with irises

Imagine a river of flowers as far as the eye can see. Nestled within a forest of tall trees, the splashes of blue, purple, and white irises meander around corners like a river. Just a few minutes walk from one of the busiest train stations in Japan (and from our apartment), we discovered the irises in full bloom, and they were gorgeous! I love irises, and L got me a bunch of my favorite colored ones when I passed my qualifying exam at Berkeley (blue irises with little pockets of gold along each petal, which happen to be the school colors :-).

We were really lucky to catch the irises in full bloom during our visit with L's parents. We walked back and forth along the banks of the iris river, appreciating the view from a variety of angles and trying to snap the perfect photo.

Click on "Read More" below to read about how we discovered this special location.

Japanese train stations often have posters of pretty places that you can visit, and the destinations and posters change with each season. They make it really easy to identify the most spectacular places to visit, except for the minor problem that we can't read them well enough to figure out where each poster represents! This time, the poster came with a small bar code. Japanese cell phones all have bar code readers, so you just point your phone's camera at the poster and it opens up a web page on the phone's browser. Ever forward thinking, L suggested that I snap the bar code and save it for later.

After some investigation, we figured out that the garden is tucked away inside Meiji shrine, just a few minutes from our house. The web site indicated that there were 1923 flowers open today. We checked back again the next day to find that 400 new blossoms had popped, bringing the total up over 2300!

The irises sit flooded in a shallow river bed that is fed by a crystal clear spring just upstream from the irises. Emperor Meiji's wife originally planted the iris garden over 100 years ago, so it has a rich history of entertaining royal and common audiences alike. This whole area was bombed out during the war, so we're not entirely sure which parts are original and which parts are reconstructions, but either way we enjoyed visiting the iris garden with L's parents.

Volkswagen Bug sized fish sold to highest bidder

L and Dad with Tuna Auctioneer

"You might not want to waste your jet lag," is the advice given by several of our guidebooks. That is the Japanese way of saying, "you should definitely wake up at 4 am and take a taxi across the city to see more dead fish than you could possibly imagine." The very first morning after L's parents arrived, we hit the streets at the crack of dawn (long before the trains begin to operate in the morning) to see the Tsukiji fish market.

While the market stays open until about noon, the star attraction is the tuna auction which begins before 5 am. Licensed auction buyers inspect row after row of frozen tuna shipped in from all around the world, and some of which are the size of a small auto. A modest sized 200 kg tuna can make 10,000 slices of sushi and cost at least $5,000, but the buyers can only sample a tiny section of the fish near its tail. They go around with flashlights and rods, poking at the small section trying to divine the quality of the overall fish.

As they quietly performed their inspections, we tried to figure out what they were looking for and how the auction worked. Each fish had a number painted on it, and we figured that they must register their bid at some central location for this silent auction. "They surely don't raise paddles to bid on each fish, right?" I remember hearing one of us remark. Moments later, they proved us dramatically wrong when bells started ringing and everyone gathered around a man standing on a small wooden platform. He began reading out numbers in what sounded like as much of a song as an auction. L's mom described it as an artistic performance. As each fish's number was sung out, people would raise their hand discretely to bid on the fish. A few moments later, things quieted down again and the winning bidders began to cart the fish off to other places in the market where they would be cut.

After a while, we followed the fish through the narrow aisles of the market, passing by live eels squirming about in a tank, lobsters moving in boxes where they were displayed beside fake lemons, styrofoam cartons overflowing with stacks of different fish types, and dozens of things that we can only assume are some sort of bizarre sea creature considered fit for human consumption in this part of the world.

While the fish were exciting, we also really enjoyed watching the people that worked in the market. We admired the auction buyers with their pensive faces as they intensely considered the quality of the fish, the auctioneer with his enthusiasm and amazing vocal talent, the old women in the market breaking open the shellfish, and the other market workers swarming about on motorized carts as they did their daily business of feeding this fish hungry nation.

Take a look at some of the more interesting see creatures in our photo album by clicking here.

We have a few short movies: preparing fish for the auction, the auction in progress, slicing up one of the big tuna, and crabs in a bag (the squeeking is the crab claws against the styrofoam box).

June 8, 2007

Make a wish!

Happy Birthday L Make a wish

When L blew out the candles on her birthday cake this year, one of her wishes might have been to share this moment with her family. Wish granted! L's parents flew half way across the world and made it in time to share her birthday dinner. After a journey that began at 4 am in Phoenix and ended about a day later, I was impressed that they stayed awake long enough for the cake. They are staying with us in our apartment and we'll be posting more stories about their trip in the next few days.

Working in Paradise

Fun view Us at Hanauma Bay

We're back home after a fun trip to Hawaii. Despite the fact that we spent a week in the archetypical island paradise, it wasn't actually as fun for us. L attended the conference all day and then came home to do work on her presentation and another deadline each night (and usually into the wee hours of the morning). All work and no play. I got to spend some time at the beach during the day, but in our small hotel room, I didn't end up sleeping until L was done working. That left me less ambitious for exploring the island.

Once the conference ended, we did have a chance to decompress and enjoy our time in paradise. In addition to our visit to Pearl Harbor (see separate entry), we went on a sailboat cruise with some of L's colleagues to watch the sunset and look at the stars. I had my binoculars ready for whales and dolphins. We were treated to a few flying fish (which were pretty neat as they skirted across the surface of the water), but the whales and dolphins must have been asleep for the night. We did get to enjoy plenty of views of the "Southern Cross," which is one of the constellations visible from the bottom half of the world (throughout the southern hemisphere, but as far north as Hawaii) -- a special treat for a group of astronomers.

During the weekend after the conference, we stayed with our friends, the Martel family. Steve is a professor at the University of Hawaii and we've camped with them in the Sierras while we did research together. We had a great time hearing about their recent trip to New Zealand and their upcoming plans to return. They live in a valley a few minutes away from Waikiki but in an entirely different world. It's surrounded by dramatically steep sides that are overflowing with jungle vegetation. When we first arrived in the soft evening light, we realized that we really were in paradise!

The Martels took us to Hanauma Bay to snorkel, which Steve describes as "like swimming in a giant aquarium." There, my former office mate from grad school and his wife were able to join us. Even though the tide was super low, we were still able to see dozens of different kinds of fish. Highlights included the Hawaii state fish (Humuhumunukunukuapua'a), squid-like cuddlefish, a 5 foot long coronet fish, and a graceful sea turtle. L said that she heard the turtle chomping on the coral before she saw it and thought, "Oh my, that was a big noise. I wonder who made that?!" She turned around and there was the turtle about 5 feet away. It floated at the surface to take a few breaths and give us an opportunity to snap a few photos. Then, it sank down to the bottom and magically disappeared -- it crawled into a cave that we would never have known about if we hadn't seen something disappear into it.

Just like the turtle, our time in Hawaii disappeared much too quickly. You can take a look at a few of our photos by clicking here. Photos from our underwater camera will be developed soon.

Tora! Tora! Tora!

Looking back to the USS Arrizona memorial and USS Missouri Some parts of the ship are still above water

Next stop on our US-Japan exchange was... Pearl Harbor. In addition to the powerful emotions conjured up by visiting the USS Arizona, which still leaks oil to this day, we approached this site from a slightly different perspective. The beginning of WWII was a crucial event for both countries, and we've been fascinated with how each portrays the same events. We've seen two museums in Japan that focus on the war, and we wanted to go to Pearl Harbor to see how it compared.

The first thing to notice is language. In Japan, the war museum has about 80% of the signs bilingual in Japanese/English -- even though we were just about the only westerners in the whole busy museum. Despite the fact that a large percentage of tourists in Hawaii are Japanese, none of the signs at Pearl Harbor had any Japanese. The site does, however, provide a good audio guide in half a dozen languages (including Japanese).

Museums on both sides of the Pacific seem to have similar stories about the events leading up to the war, though both sides seem claim that the actions of the other side compelled them to go to war (while everybody agrees Japan made the first strike at Pearl Harbor, there is some insinuation in the Japanese museums that they were backed so far into a corner that they had no choice but to go to war).

Another similarity is that both sides focus on the awful destruction that their people faced -- Pearl Harbor's victims enshrined on shore and on the USS Arizona memorial, and Japan's civilian losses during US bomber campaigns. Neither side seems to dwell on the destruction that its own campaigns caused (for example, the Japanese museum talks about the "wonderful success" at Pearl Harbor, while the fire bombing of Tokyo did not receive even a scant mention at Pearl Harbor's museum). While it is important to honor the memory of brave soldiers who did as they were told to protect their country's way of life, these places are more than just somber places for remembrance. War memorials on both sides of the Pacific try to educate their people about the events and to illustrate the horrors of war. And both sides accomplish this in part by vilifying the other side.

Incidentally, we recommend a movie produced by a joint US/Japan team called "Tora! Tora! Tora!" from 1970. The word means "tiger" and it was the code word sent back by Japanese pilots to their leaders to indicate that they had achieved the element of surprise. While I don't know enough about the history to confirm the movie's accuracy, its dramatization was consistent with the facts we learned at museums on both sides.