Sunday, August 30, 2009

Two weeks

That's it. We have two weeks left in Japan, and that's all forever. I can't believe it! I mean, things are moving forward nicely, and we feel as prepared as can be expected to make this move happen. Today I've cleaned out the pantry and put together a big box of slightly used dry goods to give away to my friends, cleaned the microwave, and taken all the magnets off the refrigerator. Josh cleaned out the car and I'm on my way to show it to a potential buyer - having that sold will be a big relief. And on Monday I'll cancel our internet service, so there may be a few days when we're incommunicado. I'm anxiously awaiting Nadine's return from Canada so we can spend some time together in that last week!

There's so much left to do, and so much that I know will remain undone when we get onto that flight next month. It's surreal.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tomodachi dinner

Remember our neighbors? Well, while Josh and I had our doozy of a year, they were having one of their own. Between health problems and their youngest daughter's wedding, we didn't see a lot of each other.

But all that is behind us now, so a couple weeks ago they invited us over for a seafood barbecue in the backyard. It's like every time we go over there, the food and drinks get better and more plentiful. My camera died as soon as we sat down, but Chikako and Toshio were kind enough to take care of documentation. It doesn't do justice to the food, though.

There was a romaine salad with mozzarella, skinned blanched tomatoes, basil and rings of the tenderest squid I've ever tasted. There were noodles fried with tiny scallops, and fresh cucumbers with miso dressing. And then the grilling started.

Have you ever had shellfish on the grill? I hadn't. I mean, I'm from Maine, so I've had clambakes and lobster on the beach. But the Tsukadas grilled soy-marinated slices of squid, whole prawns, scallops still in their beautiful pink and white shells. And then there were the drinks! Japanese beer that somehow stayed cold, and dry white wine and coffee later. We talked and laughed, and toasted our friendship. Josh and I revealed that we were leaving, and the four of us made plans for a farewell dinner in Tokyo in September.

We were so lucky to live across the street from our dear friends the Tsukadas. We'll miss them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How do you stay sharp?

Josh and I are still googly-eyed over the new sashimi knife we bought in Kyoto. And Melanie's comment reminded me how hard it was to find someone to sharpen her knives in Monterey, California.

See, when I was visiting Mel and Tony (and Nason and Fredo) last July, I cooked dinner once or twice. Their knives needed to see a whetstone, and I don't know how to work one, so I thought I'd get them sharpened as a gift. Monterey's pretty big, no? Especially when you include Marina, Carmel - basically a thirty mile radius! I searched the Web, asked at Williams-Sonoma and the farmer's market, and called around, and I couldn't find a single place that still offers knife sharpening by hand.

Mel finally found a place with an electronic pullthrough setup, but it chewed up the blades. Josh and I got our kitchen knives sharpened by hand in Japan for about $20 each, but in the States it seems like it's a dying art.

SO. Dull knives are dangerous, and we've all got to eat. What do you do?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kyoto weekend, part 2

Our train back to Yokosuka left at 2:00 Sunday afternoon, so we got up early to walk around sans backpacks for a while. We found some much-needed espresso and breakfast at a Tully's Coffee, of all things, and then walked to the famous Nishiki Food Market.


I'd seen it listed just that way on a tourist map, and our museum buddies from the night before mentioned a famous and ancient family knife shop there. We finished breakfast before eight o'clock, and arrived at Nishiki around then to discover:...that it didn't open until 9:00. We walked all the way through the market, listening to the friendly morning greetings among shopkeepers and marveling at the care they gave their little corners of the market. We saw old women scrubbing drainage grates with stiff brooms, young men washing the concrete floors with soap and water, and everyone sprucing up the storefronts for a busy day of business.

Nine o'clock rolled around in due time, and we took in the sights of the market. The tamago (sweet omelette) stand was one of my favorites - I've only ever seen it served cold or at room temperature, but this was the fresh stuff, still steaming from the pan.I snagged a pic of the chefs, too:
We saw lots of fresh, cooked, and pickled produce too, including "monkey bananas," each about the size of their neighboring figs.
And yes, oh yes, there was fish, in various stages of life (or lack thereof). From still swimming in a tank,to swimming in a big plastic bag,
to lots of raw fish and some whole ones already roasted on a stick.
Let me assure you that we did not indulge in that particular snack.

Finally, we came to the knife shop: Aritsugu. An English language brochure informed us that this family has been making knives in Kyoto since the sixteenth century - the SIXTEENTH CENTURY, I mean. More than four hundred years of expertise go in to making dozens of kinds of Japanese knives, from highly specialized eel knives to excellent quality everyday santoku.

We fell in love with this place. And after long conversations with each other and an English-speaking clerk named Minami-san, trials of half a dozen different knives, and a ten minute walk to 7-11 for yen cash, we ended up with a real prize to commemorate our time in Japan. And here it is:It's a handmade sashimi knife with an eight inch blade, and if you look closely you can see the fresh engraving, closest to the tip of the blade - that's our name, Sullins, in katakana. The staff gave us a deal on this heirloom-quality knife, then sharpened it and showed us how to sharpen it at home. videoMinami-san threw in a furoshiki square and wrapped the whole thing beautifully for the ride back to the States. We're thrilled!

So, after that little adventure we had to rush back to the hotel to check out, and once that was done we were STARVING again. See yesterday's post - after walking around aimlessly for another hour or so we ended up right back at Kerala for an Indian feast. The train ride back to Yokosuka was uneventful, except for a crazy person on the local from Yokohama who kept telling me about his $400 shirt and the sexy girls who hang around the American Navy base...and the 200mph bullet train speed, of course.

Kyoto is a beautiful city, and I'm glad we went, even just for twenty-four hours. We'll never forget it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Kyoto weekend, part 1

Have I mentioned we're moving next month? Next month, which is approaching very, very quickly, we are packing up and moving back across the Pacific Ocean, never to return to Japan. Most of our time is spent getting ready, in one way or another, but there are a couple of Japan's greatest hits that I really wanted to catch before we get on that plane. This weekend we hit two of them: the Bullet Train and the ancient city of Kyoto.Photo is from JR website - click to visit.

The train is one of those things everybody knows about Japan - a national network of superexpress trains that reach almost 200 miles per hour. Our ride from Shin-Yokohama station to Kyoto was about two and a half hours, and frankly less impressive than I was hoping. I mean, regular trains are pretty fast, but Shinkansen tracks are set further from trees and landscapes, so it's hard to tell how much faster you're going. I guess that's where the real miracle lies - the superexpress gets us 230 miles in 150 minutes, and it doesn't even feel rushed.

As usual, I fell asleep on the train and Josh studied for whatever test is next. Once we arrived, I played Ferdinand Magellan (also as usual) and Josh walked three paces behind me and followed the ponytail until we reached our hotel. Hotel Okura was lovely, although charging paying guests thirty dollars apiece to use the POOL is ABSURD, in any culture.*

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Once we checked in we were starving, and my guidebook pointed us to an excellent Indian restaurant, Kerala (or in Japanese, Kerara). Check out Josh's "I'm too hungry to pose for a picture" face:and note the Tandoori chicken on his fingers. The food was incredible.

From there we hopped back on the subway and visited the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, which has the largest concentration of Torii gates anywhere in Japan. That's where the photo at the top is from, and these too:Inari is the god of rice in the Shinto tradition, and is represented by a fox, often holding rice or a key (to the rice granary) in its mouth.The Torii gates were incredible. Each one is sponsored by a local business looking for luck with the gods, and there are thousands of them. We took a long walk through the gates, which have the added benefit of blocking the murderous Kansai heat and humidity.



Josh and I both love visiting shrines and temples, and Kyoto has many of the most famous ones in Japan. But our trip to Kyoto was only about twenty-four hours long, so this was our only religious visit. We made sure to buy some inarizushi though, since it's a regional specialty and one of our favorites. It's a little packet of sweet fried tofu skin (aburaage) stuffed with rice. We even got to see the proprietor of a little restaurant make it for us, and it was delicious.Once we were back in Kyoto proper we walked around the old neighborhood of Gion for a while, hoping to catch a glimpse of geisha, but in the end just wore ourselves out in the heat. After the long train ride, the long walk, and all that humidity, we were ready for a nice relaxing dip in the pool, but you already know how that turned out. So instead we got dressed up and headed to dinner early.

Believe me, I know how this sounds, but you're going to have to trust me: we had the best Irish food I've ever eaten in Kyoto, Japan.

I know.

I know! But my friend of a friend Will, who lives in Kyoto, recommended we visit McLoughlin's Irish Pub for dinner. He raved about their chef, and since Josh doesn't like Japanese food we decided to give it a shot. The place did not disappoint.

We were a little surprised, I must admit, to arrive at 6:30 and find the place barely open. When do Japanese people eat dinner on Friday night?! But we got to meet the chef and manager, who was in fact Irish, because he was sitting at the bar when we walked in. And we had the full attention of the staff, which is always nice - we each had a beer and I sipped a shot of Bushmills while enjoying the eighth-floor view of Kyoto. Then came the food.
Josh had been craving a burger, and this one came with a homemade sesame bun and hand-cut fries AND onion rings, and it was delicious. And once again, I was enticed by delicious pork sausages.
My first ever bangers and mashed! OH MY GOD, Internet, they were soso good. The sausages are also house-made, and delicious. We were so happy.

Unfortunately, over an hour after we arrived, there were still no other patrons in the place. Our waiter let us know that there wasn't any music that night, so we decided to move on. Will will be disappointed to hear that we went to another Irish pub, right next door to our hotel, called The Hill of Tara. We were skeptical, I'll admit, and glad we'd already eaten when we saw this sign on the door:
Mmmmm, ye olde traditional Irish crab entrails! JUST LIKE HOME. I have no idea whether that's actually eaten in Ireland, but no thanks for me.

Still, they had beer and whiskey, and live music starting at 9:00pm, so we grabbed a couple seats at the bar and ordered another couple Kilkenneys. And you'll never guess who we met. I mean, is it unusual to run into a couple staff members of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, while at an Irish pub in Kyoto? Is that not normal?

The four of us talked and drank and shared Japan and New York stories for a couple hours, while they ordered non-entrail dinners. I gave them a couple ideas for their day in Tokyo this week, and they told us about the Samaurai weapons and armor show that will hit the Met in October - they were in Japan working on the official book to be released for that collection. HOW COOL. By the time we were ready to settle up and head in for the night, we didn't even care that the music sounded like an easy-listening cut of an Irish Spring commercial, or that we hadn't seen any geisha or visited the Golden Pavilion.

Our train on Sunday left at 2:00pm, and we had a lot of fun before then. More on that soon - just as soon as I can get a Japanese version of Danny Boy out of my head. "...from gren to gren, and down the mountainside..."

*No, we didn't pay for the pool. We just walked down there in our bathing suits and complimentary bathrobes, got denied, and walked back. But we hope the Japanese people who were disgusted to see us so undressed in public might at least have thought we were rich enough to be able to swim there.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Splash!

On Thursday I had an outing - and got some love from a beluga whale. Kelsey's mom was in town, so the three of us met up for lunch and a train ride to Yokohama Sea Paradise, aka Hakkeijima. It's like mini-Sea World, only forty five minutes from home. We elected to skip the roller coasters and just commune with creatures - beginning with the oh-so-natural Marine Mammal Show. Somehow my photos of dolphins, waluruses, sea lions and seals didn't come out, but the belugas were born to be photographed.Gorgeous just doing what they do, aren't they? But of course there were tricks:


...and I was so jealous of those trainers, to be able to work so closely with the whales. Don't think the downside of all this was lost on me though, particularly in Japan. I've heard the Fresh Air interview iwth the creators of the movie The Cove, which exposes a small rural village in Japan where dolphins are cruelly corralled, tested for showbiz capabilities, and slaughtered if they're not chosen for a water park somewhere.

At Sea Paradise the pens the whales and dolphins waited in were very small, and the polar bears were so skinny, hot, and depressed that Kelsey and I both got teary-eyed. Japanese people still eat whales. The big predators are always what gets me - dolphins and whales, lions and wolves, bears...these animals don't belong in captivity, certainly not by themselves and cramped into small cages behind glass.

Still, I think places like Sea Paradise have an important role to play in reminding us why we love sea life, why we take care of the oceans and don't zip jet skis through the manatee habitats. The walkthrough 'aqua museum' featured bunches of animals that I really don't mind seeing behind glass.Run away! Run away!
What's up, Ray?
Look at those teeth!*Sorry about the quality of this photo, but I had to post it. On the left there is Kelsey, a normal-sized human being. To the right is a GIANT FREAKING CRAB. And I just accidentally wrote "crap" instead of crab, because crap is what I'd do if I ever saw one of these coming at me. Good God.

Last but not least was the dolphin building, where we saw a few dolphins in passing but bonded with another beluga. Before this trainer came out, the whale was diving down and playing with us. I wish I'd had my camera out when it first dived, because I swear I had my hand on the glass, and the whale swam down and nudged its head against the glass, just where my hand was. Then came the theatrics:
video

Yet another bittersweet moment, watching this gorgeous beluga blow bubbles and play with us through the glass. I don't ever need to go back to Hakkeijima, and I kind of wish I could've researched more about the treatment of their animals before I paid to go in. But the day was lovely, the animals were gorgeous, and I'm adding my name to the petition to stop the dolphin slaughter. And, um, no whale meat for me, thanks.

*I know sharks are big predators too, but somehow I'm okay with them being locked up.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

At least I'm a BUSY jerk

It's been four days! Where have I BEEN?!

Sorry about that. But I have been keeping busy in the meantime. Starting with an incredible seafood barbecue at our neighbors' house on Sunday, followed by a massive hangover, a new friend who came bearing books and conversation, a tatami mite infestation - EW! and a butt ton of moving preparations, it has been a busy blogging hiatus.

It's all going well, though. A friend helped me buy bug bombs so the mites are gone, and let me tell you - vacuuming after a bug bomb is the most disgusting thing I've ever seen. And I've seen some pretty disgusting things. All done now. And the appointments are made for rental appliance pickups, utility shutoffs, packers and movers and inspections. Josh and I leave for Kyoto this weekend, and today I've got a field trip with Kelsey.

So I'm sorry for being absent, dear readers. I'll put new batteries in the camera today, and try to make up for it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Kara? OK!

Yes, there has been more karaoke. I'm indebted to Dani, the flutist in the band, who responded to the news that I'd only done karaoke once in Japan with an invitation to go last night. So we went! Josh couldn't make it because of his schoolwork, but karaoke isn't really his thing anyway.

I was NOT informed, sadly, until much too late that the vocalist from the band would be joining us. Yes. Spencer, the professional singer from the Navy Band came along to SING KARAOKE with me. Folks, it was a bloodbath.Okay, I may have been exaggerating the tensions for effect. We had such a great time! Ninety minutes flew by, as we passed the mics back and forth for pop songs and a little Disney. Can you tell, though, that Dani hears Spencer sing every day at work?Hee hee! We all got a kind of amnesia about which songs to sing, but she was smart enough to check her iPod.I hope I can remember in the next few weeks to soak up as many nights like this as I can - as much Japanese karaoke, sushi, ramen, shopping, and of course dates with all the friends we'll have to leave behind. If badly impersonating Prince is part of the deal, so much the better.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Next?

Well, I was roughly woken by another earthquake this morning, but given that it's the third this week, it hardly seems worth mentioning.

Eight in the morning, shaken awake by THE PLANET. But no need to dwell on it.

The third earthquake this week.

ANYWAY. Life is crazy around here. I've made two new friends this week, naturally, since we're leaving within a month. On Tuesday, I drove out to Hayama and met Laura, who followed a couple months after her husband so their doggies could pass inspection. We had real Neapolitan pizza at "Napori Cantina," ha ha, and took a little tour of More's City mall. We have a LOT more shopping and touring to do before I head off, of course, if there are only enough hours in the day. My other new buddy is Tony, a new guy in the band. We had a Starbucks run and bonded over David Sedaris. Saying goodbye to Japan is not going to be easy!

That said, the process moves along. We've got a date for our stuff to be packed and shipped, and a tentative flight date too. There are checklists on the table and a calendar on my desktop with meetings, appointments, and inspections all laid out. We're looking at Craigslist and talking to mortgage brokers, and I'm shopping around for a job and a couple used cars.

OH, and have I mentioned how much I miss Nadine?! If you're reading this, madame, I MISS YOU and PLEASE HURRY HOME. This place is not the same without you.

Tomorrow it's yoga and the post office and the next steps in this crazy journey. Advice on making Navy moves easier would be welcome. Oh, and does anybody want to buy our car?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Earthquake, redux

Another one, people - woke me up at 5:00am this time. So it's earthquake, typhoon, earthquake, tsunami warning, more typhoon. SIGH...who's up for a night of movies and cocoa? And maybe hugging my teddy bear. I'm tired of this upheaval!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Portrait of an evening

Tonight I made kind of a fancy dinner, worked pretty hard on it, in fact. And it came out well! Josh and I had just finished our plates and he was headed for seconds, while I was on the couch.

Then an earthquake hit.

Don't worry, it was small and everyone (and everything) is fine, just a tremor. But it was by far the biggest one I've felt in Japan, or in my life. It went something like this.

Josh: "Are you sure you don't want seconds?"
Emily: "Yep, I'm good for the mo- is that an earthquake?"
J: "What?"
E: "OHMYGOD ITS AN EARTHQUAKE!" (shouted while running downstairs and crouching in a doorway).

The whole thing lasted maybe a minute, which feels really, really long when THE DAMN PLANET IS SHAKING. (Turns out it was a 3.0 here). I'm from the east coast, folks. Send me a hurricane warning, and I know what to do. Ice storm? No problem. Blizzard? I'm good. But earthquakes? Seizures en terra? Those don't work for me.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Fuji

There's a Navy superstition that if you're stationed in Japan and don't climb Mt. Fuji, you're destined to return. So last weekend Josh (who isn't so much a fan of Japan) took off with his buddy Mack (Kelsey's husband) to conquer the Goddess of Japan.And they succeeded! Mack's pictures came out much better than Josh's so go check out his recounting of the adventure. And don't worry, Kelsey and I were fine - we exerted ourselves with knitting and pizza-making while the boys climbed the mountain.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Bubbly

Champagne was always in the Sullins Japan Plan. It was the plan, actually: we expected that early in 2009 we'd be toasting the arrival of Baby Sullins, and maybe even a little sibling before we left in 2011. Quit my job, move to Japan, have babies.

It didn't really work out that way.

Which is not to say we haven't had things to celebrate while we were here. There have been festivals, bike rides, trips home, and incredible food. Josh had laser eye surgery and climbed Mt. Fuji without glasses. I've made dear friends, and even said goodbye to a few. I've loved Japan, and hated the pregnancy losses that ticked away at our time here.

So it was with mixed emotions that Josh and I toasted champagne this evening, as we celebrated the news that we'll be transferred back to the United States sometime next month. We are so delighted to be heading to Washington state, where we'll be able to see specialists who can help us sort out these miscarriages. We look forward to being close to our friends and family again - and 'close' covers a lot more territory once you've lived across an ocean. We're both ready for medical answers, for Whole Foods and sweet potatoes.

But as for me, I'm not quite ready to say goodbye to my Japanese home. I was prepared for three years' time - time to learn more of the language, the cooking, the culture. Time to see Kyoto and Nikko, and maybe even Bali or Thailand. I'd planned to do all those things with a little one slung on my hip, and as it turns out it's that last part that matters most.

So we're off, probably in mid-September, to a new chance on the Kitsap peninsula. I've got a lot of cleaning, organizing, and sushi-eating to do, not to mention time to spend with the friends I've got left in Yokosuka. For tonight we'll toast one more glass of bubbles, and dream of ten tiny fingers and ten little toes.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Scattered

I have been all over the place lately. In a good way, mostly: I've spent whole days puttering around the house, knitting and cooking and doing whatever struck my fancy. Sunday, a drizzly grey beast of a weekend day which my dear husband spent conquering the goddess of Japan, I shopped and cooked and knitted and talked and ate all day with Kelsey. More about that over at her pad. And then today I went to Nadine's house for a couple hours, to watch Justine and help Nadine get her house ready for her month-long vacation home to Canada. That's right, after Beth left in July and I was gone for a month, now another close friend is leaving for a month too.

My scattered brain found some company at lunch today. What a lunch it was too! Nadine took Shiho (another band spouse and friend of ours) and me to Cafe Marine near her house. Oh heavens was the food delicious...and words wouldn't do it justice.A closer look?
TINY BABY SARDINES! A BIG BOWL OF WHOLE FISH (on rice) WITH RAW EGG FOR LUNCH!

I'm going to pause for a moment to allow my maternal grandmother to catch her breath, or possibly stop laughing. Okay Grammy? No agave nectar this time, at least!

Okay then. I'm not sure whether this technically counts, but it looked like chirashizushi - that's scattered sushi - but it was unusual and delicious and, along with the afternoon's company, a real treat.
The kids provided top-notch entertainment. I was so inspired by lunch that I decided to scatter dinner too, and make my first real attempt at chirashizushi at home. I bought tuna, salmon, and prepared omelet (tamago) plus an avocado and little confetti of nori. Julienned cucumber from Nadine's landlord's garden was cold and delicious, and brown sushi rice was the foundation. I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out.
Josh isn't a fan of the nori. But the food was pretty good, and the presentation will do for a couple of gaijin. With any luck, the food will stay scattered even when my mind sorts itself out.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen


My favorite part about Sequim, Washington - Josh's hometown - is the lavender. Anyone who has ever spent any real time in Washington will know that Sequim, on the Olympic Peninsula, west of Seattle, is famous for lavender farms and for its annual Lavender Festival. This year, for the first time, our visit coincided with the festival and I got to go.

The festival fell on the weekend just after Josh's eye surgery, so he had to spend his days like this:Don't feel too bad for him though; Josh and his family embrace the Cranky Local philosophy of festivals and lavender itself, and eschew participation on principle. Lucky for me, Irish and Steve like plants, festivals, and good live music, so they drove up to Sequim to come along for the day.There they are, Irish modeling the new hat Steve bought her! Behind them are a few of the dozens of varieties of lavender that grow all around Sequim, soaking up the mild temperatures and little rain. We got lucky with the gorgeous sunny day, and the buses to the lavender farms were good for an air-conditioned break. There were a dozen farms on the tour, but once you've seen a couple fields of lavender, you're pretty much set. So we took a leisurely walk through the impressive street fair, where Irish got her hat and we all got some local spice mixes and hazelnut snacks.

I wish I'd snapped more photos of the street fair; it was lovely. There were hundreds of vendors, and everything smelled amazing. There was even a dogsitting arena with private, shaded kennels where folks could leave Bruiser while they visited the farms. Early in the day we stopped for a snack to build our strength. And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where you get to see a semi-obscene picture of me eating an enormous all-beef Polish hot dog. Oh yeah, baby - hot dogs are one of those rare meaty concoctions I actually craved during my vegetarian years. On a hot day in Washington D.C., or walking through downtown Bath, Maine, I'd occasionally catch a whiff from a hot dog stand and just swoon. This was my first indulgence since embracing omnivoritude once again, and it did not disappoint. Mmm!

The rest of the day was much more wholesome, I assure you. I wish Josh could have been there to enjoy the food, the sights, the smells, but he recovered well while we tied up traffic with the rest of the tourists downtown. There aren't too many things Washington state has in common with Provence, but this one made my day.