Our Japanese Baseball Experience

The Dome

Yahoo! Dome Stadium

I am not the most qualified person to write this post, but since my husband is always busy doing his two jobs, I will take a stab at it.

We didn’t have a chance to go to a baseball game last fall, so we really wanted to go this year.  Robert’s birthday was coming up (and he loves baseball) and my niece was coming out for a visit, so I thought this would be the perfect time to go.  The Yahoo! Dome stadium is only a couple of miles away from where we live and Fukuoka’s baseball team is actually pretty darn good.  It just so happened that they became the Pacific League Champions after their previous game.  The boys live and breathe baseball here…way more than in the USA.  They practice ALL the time and for many hours, so we thought the PROS would be amazing to watch.

It was an afternoon game, and we had just come from visiting the fish market.  It was a lovely afternoon, and we had a couple hours to spare so we picked up our tickets and had some lunch before the game.  The “official” English website said we weren’t allowed to bring in food or drinks, but we had extra munchies and brought them in with us anyway.  Within a few minutes of finding our seats, it was obvious that the official “Japanese” website said to ‘Bring in all the food and drinks you can carry’, because they were feasting.

Beer Backpack

The father and son to our right had brought in 50 posters to hold up at various parts of the game.  Young ladies and gents were carrying around kegs of beer to sell beer to the fans.  Everyone came dressed in Hawks shirts (even though very few were actually in the Hawks color yellow.  Most were wearing baby blue or pink…we couldn’t figure that one out.)  They all also carried in  a set of small plastic bats, which they pounded together constantly every time the Hawks were up at bat.

The visiting team was never introduced or recognized.  They had a small cheering section in the back (probably the band that travels with them everywhere they go.)  When the visiting team was at bat, everyone was busy talking and pretty much ignoring what was going on for the most part.  However, when the Hawks were at bat, everyone stood up and followed the cheers of the main cheerleader who was equipped with a megaphone.  They would chant the name of the player up at bat until he either got a hit or an out.   This could have been a completely boring game had there not been the home run and extra runs batted in by the home team.  The English speaking announcer was also annoyingly weird and way too perky.

The balloons

The balloons

Then really strange things started happening.  At the bottom of the sixth, despite a no-hitter, the pitcher was replaced.  Then right before the seventh inning stretch, blue and yellow balloons were being blown up by fans all around us.  The man behind us gave us some balloons to blow up too.  All of these balloons were released at the same time. My niece was very concerned about the spit that was going to be released, but these are special balloons with a protective white mouth piece that prevents such an unsanitary event.  With the Hawks up by 5 and the visiting team looking weak, we expected some people to start leaving… but NO ONE did.  Even at the end of the game, with a guaranteed win….still NO ONE was leaving.  We had to stay, curious as to why.  Well, we got to experience another balloon blow-up and release (mostly white balloons this time), followed by fireworks, and then a ceremonial opening of the dome’s ceiling.  They still weren’t leaving, but we had had enough at this point, so we did.

Hiking Miyajima Island, Plus Hiroshima & The Peace Park

View of Torii Gate

View of the Famous Floating Torii Gate

We finally made it to Hiroshima and Miyajima.   After a series of really wet weekends, the weather could not have been more perfect for our trip and I’d have to say that these two UNESCO World Heritage sites were well worth the year long wait.  Even though they are extremely different, we enjoyed both of them very much and would go back there in a heartbeat.

We knew there would be lots to see and sacrificed sleeping in on a Saturday morning to be out our door by 7am.   Since Miyajima was more difficult to get to, we decided to do that first, which meant buying lots of tickets and making lots of connections (from our subway, to the bullet train, then transferring to a regular train, and finally onto a ferry).  Fortunately everything went smoothly and we were in Miyajima by 10am.  We even managed to figure out the lockers at the train station so we could store our luggage while we explored the island.

Close-up of Doe & Fawn

Doe & Fawn

While we were on the ferry, Robert was busy snapping pictures as I stood anxiously watching the torii gate approach.  After seeing so many pictures of this torii gate, it was hard to believe we were actually here.  The island (Istukushima) is very beautiful…it’s steep and very forested.  The island is still considered sacred and pure in the Shinto religion.  In the past, commoners were not allowed on the island, and all other visitors had to go thru the torii gate before stepping on the island.  There are still some strict rules in place…no cutting down trees, no births and no deaths.  The highest point on the island is Mt Misen which rises up directly behind the torii gate to a height of about 530 meters (1,750 feet).  We had originally planned to take the ropeway up to the top, but Robert said his back was feeling fine, so we decided we would hike it instead.

Robert eating the Maple Leaf

Snacking on Maple Leaves – yum!

Everyone visiting the island had smiles on their face….(you’d think you were at Disneyland).   Tame deer roamed the streets, there were little chariots carrying happy couples around, and lots of quaint little shops.  There were also lots of statues, lanterns, and traditional Edo period Japanese buildings.  We didn’t have a map, so we just followed the crowds and wondered around – looking at everything.  Occasionally we’d see signs, pointing us in the direction of Mt Misen.  We also saw signs telling us not to pet or feed the deer, but the Japanese sign must have said something different because they were doing both constantly.

We visited the pagoda, walked around the “1,000 tatami mat” pavilion (Senjokaku) and explored the back streets of the village.  We found a shop making the little maple shaped cakes (momiji manju), so we stopped and sampled their two flavors and had some tea.  We eventually ended up at the main temple, Daisho, and spent a good hour taking photos and enjoying the scenery.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t very crowded and some leaves were starting to change so we really took our time there.  However, I knew it was getting late and we still had our hike to do, so we continued on our way.

View near top

View from Mt Misen

Our hike up Mt. Misen (Mount Stair-Miser would be a better name) began near the temple.  I don’t know if anyone has ever counted how many stairs there are, but I’d venture to guess there were at least a couple thousand (it took us nearly an hour to climb it).  Some sections were so steep that it was very obvious there had been some recent landslides and extensive repair work had been made.  At times I thought the stairs would never end.  The views just kept getting better and better, so we kept going.  We even had a fantastic view of the torii gate at low tide…all the people walking up to it looked like ants.  The trail followed a stream/waterfall most of the way up.  It was very shady and there were only a handful of other hikers.  Thank goodness it was a cool day because I was extremely thirsty (I didn’t have my water bottle and there were none of those famous vending machines along the way).  The views from the top were spectacular.

YakiKaki !

Grilled Oysters!

I would have loved to hang out there had we had picnic provisions, but since we were both extremely thirsty and hungry, and neither of us can tolerate walking down steep downhills anymore (darn knees!), we decided to take the Ropeway down.   After a 15 minute ride we were back amongst the masses and the vending machines!  The line to go up was incredibly long so we now know never to do that.  Robert was craving some grilled oysters (yakikaki), so we waited about 15 minutes for our delicious appetizer and then moved on to find some anago-buri (eel on rice) for a late lunch.  Again, (true to the Japanese tradition), we waited in another line at the restaurant.  The anago-buri was amazingly delicious (oishii!).  Sunset was approaching, so we figured we should make our way back to the ferry…passing the torii gate one last time, and delaying our departure as long as we could.

We went back to Hiroshima, retrieved our luggage and checked into our hotel.  Fairly exhausted from our long day, we relaxed for a while, shared a beer and opted for a carousel sushi dinner.   We got up early so we could experience the Peace Park with as few visitors as possible.  It ended up being another beautiful day.  We walked along the river to the A-bomb Dome – which is quite impressive indeed.  It seems frozen in time.  Stray cats run around it just like in some dystopian tale.  It’s hard to write about our experience there, as a worthy description of both the Dome and Peace Park cannot be captured in words.  It’s something that must be experienced first-hand.

A-bomb dome View

A-bomb Dome

The visit to Hiroshima completed a full circle for us.  Some 20+ years ago, we visited the museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico – the birthplace of the A-bomb.  I still remember that day vividly.  It was an incredibly weighted experience (just as watching Schindler’s list was).  It rendered both of us speechless and depressed for hours.  It is shocking to realize the kind of destruction man is capable of.  We have since then also visited Nagasaki (the site of the 2nd nuclear bomb dropping), and we live relatively close to where the 2nd bomb was initially intended to be dropped.

As horrible as that part of history was, it’s nowhere near the devastating nuclear capacity we have today.  The recent events in northern Japan is a constant reminder of how dangerous a game we are playing.

At the end of the day, I left Hiroshima feeling hopeful – because I didn’t like the thought of it ending any other way.

Sisters’ Visit: Takeo and Nagasaki

Japanese Dinner

Our Japanese Dinner

We arrived at our Japanese Hotel later than we probably should have for check in.  It was 6pm, but the staff was extremely gracious and they were more than happy to accommodate our request for a 7:30 dinner.  After some tea and treats in the lobby (which are usually served in the room), they showed us to our tatami room where we unpacked and relaxed while having a few drinks.  I’m sure they giggled when they saw that we brought our own pillows (sorry, we are just not fans of those buckwheat pillows).  Since it was already pretty late, we didn’t have time for the onsen, but we put our yakatas on anyway.  It wasn’t long before our dinner server was there loading up our table with TONS of food: soups, appetizers, sushi, sashimi, and all the makings for shabu, shabu.  I ate everything, it was fantastic (especially the shabu, shabu).  I really thought we were done, but then she arrived with grilled fish, fried fish, more soups and sides, and some mixture to help congeal the remaining shabu shabu broth.  As full as we all were, we tried a little bit of everything, but there was no way we could finish it all.  Finally she came by one more time with dessert – a crepe filled with cream, strawberries and kiwi.  There was no way I wasn’t going to eat that though.  YUM!  Immediately after dinner they cleaned everything up and laid out the futons.  We had internet access finally, so we Skyped our families and then went to bed to the sound of rain.

Azalea Heaven

Amazing Azalea Garden

Morning arrived in a blink.  We headed downstairs for breakfast.  It was hard to imagine eating breakfast since it literally felt like I just had dinner.  We were wondering how they can eat so much food and still stay thin.  Our Japanese breakfast consisted of lots of little bite-sized dishes, some rice, egg, nori, fruit and yogurt and a little grill to grill your own fish.   Surprisingly we were able to eat quite a bit.  This place must have the world’s smallest coffee cups…like from a child’s play tea set.

Immediately after breakfast, we headed outside for the garden next to the hotel, since the entry fee was included in the room price.  The rain had finally stopped, but we took our umbrellas with us just in case.  We walked down the hill and through the big entry gate.  I immediately knew I was going to like this place.  I’m sure this place is beautiful in full sun, but with the low clouds and everything still wet it was quite magical.  I kept thinking how beautiful this place would be in the fall too.  In the distance I could see some wisteria as we walked along the edge of the little lake.  We eventually made our way to the crown center of the garden.  At the foot of this granite mountain was something that looked like it came out of a children’s story book….there were hundreds of azalea bushes of every color everywhere – like little mounds of ice cream.  We all felt giddy, totally amazed by the sight in front of us.  We almost got lost in there and we couldn’t stop snapping pictures.  Before exiting we had to pass the wisteria and, though not in full bloom, it was so beautiful and smelled so good I didn’t want to leave.  We all love gardens, and this was one of the loveliest we’ve ever seen.

Dejima

Visiting Dejima

We headed back up to the hill and after a quick photo of all us in front of our hotel, we were on the road to Nagasaki.  It was an interesting drive, because we went through more tunnels than I ever imagined there could be in one place.  At least half the distance to Nagasaki was tunnels…huge, long tunnels.  Even our final approach into downtown was a long tunnel.  After that last tunnel, we literally only had to drive for two kilometers through the city before we reached our hotel.  It was only 11am, and we couldn’t check in until 2pm, but they held onto our bags while we went out to explore the city.  Robert met up with us at the hotel…he got there about 10 minutes before us.  We all hopped on a street car to nearly the last stop on that line and just started walking up and down (and up and down) all the streets.  Our goal was to stop at all the places highlighted on our bare bones map (it’s amazing we found anything).  All the steep hills reminded us a little of San Francisco.

Our first stop was where the first Catholic Church was built in Japan….it’s now a temple.  We ended up walking through several shrines and temples.  We eventually found the main walking street (which was pretty quiet on a Sunday).  It was around here we shopped in a few antique stores and had lunch (steamed eel) at a little local restaurant.  After visiting the Spectacles Bridge, Shianbashi street, and Chinatown, we headed for the wharf area and had some drinks to relax.  A little before 7pm, we had our free taxi ride up to Inasayama for the night view of Nagasaki.  Even though it was a little hazy, it was still an amazing view.

Dontaku Parade Performers

Dontaku Festival Parade

The next morning, Robert left to go back to Fukuoka right after breakfast, and us girls went out to find Oura Church, Glover Gardens, Holland Street, the Western Home sites and, of course, do some more shopping.  While the Japanese seemed really interested in all the ‘western’ stuff, we weren’t (we see this all the time), so we headed back down to the wharf area to check out Dejima.  This turned out to be a really interesting place – about a very important part of Japan’s history.  While just a replica of the island village that once stood in the same exact location, it is extremely well done.  The village itself used to be an island in the harbor, but with all the land reclamation projects it is now in the city along one of the canals.  Much of Japan’s modern history started on that little island, and we all found it quite fascinating.  This is a must visit for anyone interested in Japan opening it’s doors to world commerce.

It was now late afternoon, so we headed back to Fukuoka, and that is were we spent our last day together.  We had dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant, went downtown to do some shopping, ate some more food at the stalls in the park, and watched some of the Dontaku Festival.  Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head for the airport.  🙁   I guess all good things do have to come to an end.

Sisters’ Visit: Mt. Aso and Takachiho Gorge

So cool...

Mt Aso’s Crater

I’m so lucky to have sisters who like to travel.  Every year we try to go somewhere.  This year, after unsuccessfully finding frequent flyer flights to Vietnam, two of my sisters decided to come visit me and see Kyushu.  I was a bit worried about planning everything, because it’s a challenge booking things in Japan if you don’t know the language, so I was hoping everything I planned/reserved was going to work out and that we wouldn’t have too many surprises.  Since it was also the start of Golden Week, I was also nervous about large crowds and traffic.  As it turns out, everything turned out perfectly.  We had another fabulous time and made some more incredible memories.

With on-time flights and an English-GPS equipped rental car, we got off to a good start.  Our first dinner was a special treat at Ippudo for ramen and gyozas.  We all resisted the temptation to stay up late since they had had such a long trip, and we were planning an early morning departure.  We were out the door Thursday morning by 8am after some coffee and breakfast.  I immediately realized I was going to love having an ETC card thus avoiding having to stop and pay at all the toll gates.  The expressway was mostly uncrowded, and we had no problem finding our way to Mt. Aso.  The drive was beautiful once we got out of the suburbs of Kumamoto.  Lots of hills with every shade of green on them, lots of streams and deep river valleys.  It was interesting to watch the vegetation and landscape change as we approached Mt. Aso.  When we got there it was very windy and quite cool.  We took the ropeway up to the viewing area and we got to see down into the crater where it was glowing a florescent green.  We walked around, met a nice German family, and did some shopping and snacking before heading onward.

Falls from another angle

Boat Ride thru Takachiho Gorge

The winding road down lead us into a beautiful valley area which seemed to have a ‘western’ theme to it and views of “hairy” oddly shaped mountains.  We stopped here for a late lunch (udon and soba) and then drove through more canyons before we came upon the town of Takachiho.  Having ‘walked’ the roads here on Google maps, I knew where our Japanese Inn was, so we stopped there straight away and checked in.  They supplied us with some maps and information and off we went.  We walked down the gorge along a steep one lane switchback road to get to the park and boat area.  It was a beautiful area with very few people.  We boarded our rowboat and off we went.  Our fearless, never rowed before, captain managed to make this a fairly humorous boat trip not only for us but for everyone else in the area…it’s a miracle we didn’t get drenched by the waterfall.  I’m sure this was retribution for the rafting trip in Belize that she still gives Jody and me a hard time about.  Nevertheless, she did a great job and we got to see and experience this wonderful place.  The color of the water, the waterfall, the cliffs, the varied rock formations, the vegetation…all made it beautiful and it was great to be a part of it all.

Sharing the Sake

The Kagura Dance Performance

We walked back up to town and checked out Takachiho Shrine where we would watch the Kagura dance later that night.  The size of the cedar trees were simply amazing and I loved the smell of the cedar and pine.  The dance performance was very entertaining, especially the last dance about the ‘Creation of Japan’.  I’d highly recommend this to anyone.  I wish I could have understood the commentator.  He obviously loved telling the story and I could almost figure out what he was saying from his expressions and the small English handout they gave us.  The music was a bit repetitive (almost hypnotic), such that after an hour I was ready to leave (otherwise I might have clobbered someone with that drum).

In the morning, we weren’t in a big hurry to go back to the city, so we drove further up the road to the shrine associated with the dance performances – the place where they supposedly lured the goddess out of her cave so that it would no longer be dark in Japan.  I’m so glad we went there, because it really tied the whole experience together.  The actual shrine is the cave and there are literally thousands of piles of stacked rocks on the way to and in front of this place.  It has a very mystical feeling to it, and we were incredibly lucky to have it all to ourselves.

Just as we were leaving masses of people were arriving.  During this trip, I learned the key to really enjoying Japan’s treasures: do it early in the day, because the Japanese are not morning people.

Road Trips!

Hanging Squid

Hanging Squid

Robert & I decided to rent a car one weekend in April.  The purpose was to get out of the city and see some areas the train doesn’t go to and for me to practice driving on the left side of the road before my sisters arrived.  We picked up our car Friday night and had to park it in a pay lot even though we have a parking spot associated with our townhouse (we don’t have a contract for the parking space so we can’t park there, even though no one else uses it either- seems rather silly to me).  We requested an English GPS, but they didn’t have any available, so we had the Japanese version instead.  It was actually very useful (once you figured out all the buttons), because as long as you know how to use a map, you can still figure out how to get somewhere and where you are.

On Saturday we drove along the coast past Kuratsu to a little town called Yobuko.  We first stopped at their little farmers market to look around, and then further up a dirt road (it was under construction), we happened upon the town which was buzzing with activity.  It was an incredibly charming old fishing town on a cute little harbor, so we just had to stop and check it out.  In the parking lot a couple of older women were passing out maps of the city (rolled up on a pretty scroll) and they pointed out where we needed to go.  This town is known for their squid and the little buggers were hanging everywhere or spinning or being cooked or dried.  We ended up on the street behind the main road which was lined with little stalls of people selling all kinds of squid products, seafood, produce, gifts, pottery, clothes, etc.   We watched sea urchin being opened, picked out of the shell and boiled in it’s shell. I’m not sure if this was a special event or if every Saturday is like this, but it was fun.  We eventually came upon the city shrine and stepped up for the view and the cherry trees, and walked through the town one more time before deciding to leave.

Closeup of Cliff Layers

View of the Coast’s Cliff Layers

We took our time heading back and made several stops to view the beaches and coastline and check out the interesting rock formations caused by the wind and waves.  Some of the rocks along the cliffs reminded me of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland…the pentagonal shaped basalt rocks which were created by volcanic activity.  The rocks here just happened to be sideways rather than up and down.  After visiting the National Park, and the Nijomatsubara Beach, our last few stops were in Itoshima to view the ‘couple rocks’ shrine and get a bite to eat at one of the restaurants.

Dogs at Lunch

Dogs at Lunch

The most interesting thing that occurred while we were at the restaurant was watching two women touting over their three dogs.  It was if they were in their own little world, and no one else was there.  All the dogs were dressed up in ridiculous outfits (one could barely move around normally).  I personally think this falls under ‘cruelty to animals’.  Anyway, they kept propping them up in different chairs and taking pictures of them with different poses and backgrounds.  The eventually sat the dogs on cushions in their own chairs at the table and put ‘biscuits’ on their plates.  The poor boy dog (in a blue jean outfit), jumped down and tried several times to “mark his territory” only to be frustrated that it wasn’t working.  Shortly after that, we unfortunately got the opportunity to watch him get his ‘diaper’ changed.  While all of this was mildly amusing, I hope I never have to witness it again.

View of Shiraito Falls

The beautiful Shiraito Falls

On Sunday we headed up into the mountains to a farmer’s market that one of the teacher’s showed me a few weeks earlier when Robert was in Brussels.  This time, however, I was able to load up on veggies since now I had someone to help me eat the large quantities they sell.  We left there with lots of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, onions, and chives.  The roads up there were much more narrow and curvy than the day before and I’m sure Robert got a few gray hairs from my driving, but afterward, I felt pretty confident about driving around Kyushu by myself.  He eventually had enough of my driving and took over the wheel when the road narrowed to just one lane (shared by both directions).  On the way back we managed to find Shiraito Falls and take a short hike in that area.   I’ve never seen so many hydrangea bushes in one place, I’m sure it is simply gorgeous in June/July when they are blooming.

We ran a few errands before eventually dropping the car off.  It was really fun to do this and I’m glad we did it.  I still prefer train travel (it’s less stressful, and we both can enjoy the views), but cars truly are necessary to get to those places where the trains do not go.

So Ready for a Vacation

One week ago we were informed of the earthquake outside Tokyo.  When I first heard about it I thought they were referring to the 7.2 that occurred two days prior.  When I was informed it was another one and registered 8.9, I still didn’t think anything of it…no one felt it and no one at the school seemed alarmed.  We went out to Happy Hour at the Hard Rock Café and afterward to a friend’s house for some more conversation.  It wasn’t until we got home that we realized the magnitude of what was going on – given the missed Skype calls, emails and posts on Facebook.  We immediately called our parents who could barely talk due to worry and concern.  Even after hearing our voices and assertions that we were OK, it probably wasn’t enough to put them totally at ease.

We watched the videos of the earthquake and the even more destructive tsunami.  It seemed surreal…more like a Hollywood movie.  The casualty numbers were amazingly (and gratefully) very low – given the magnitude of what just happened…a testament to how well prepared the Japanese are – even for something they hadn’t imagined.

We immediately checked the tsunami warning charts, and learned that Fukuoka only had a slightly elevated tide level.  Since we were over 700 miles southwest of the disaster area and on the opposite coast, we were very fortunate to be in one of the safest places in all of Japan.  We actually had a decent night’s sleep.  I recall hearing about the damage at the nuclear plants, but it sounded like it wasn’t too serious and that it could be stabilized.

Saturday was a gloomy day and we were glued to our computers absorbing all the news and information we could.  Sunday was so beautiful we had to get outside and joined some others for a barbeque on the river.  At that point, the extent of what had happened was still sinking in, and it still seemed like they would get the nuclear plant problems under control.  They were still expecting a significant aftershock, so that kept things unpredictable and very unstable.

Arriving at school on Monday set the emotional rollercoaster in motion.  There was a solemn feeling around the school.  Not knowing who at the school knew someone in the affected area.  But beyond that, even if you didn’t know someone, somehow it cut to the heartstrings.  Here it’s about ‘us’, it’s not about ‘me’.  And everyone feels it.

We don’t have a TV, and even if we did we wouldn’t know what they were saying, so our news sources are the same as those in the US.  The local sources were saying stay calm, no reason for alarm, no danger.  Our sources were saying- apocalypse and evacuate.  I imagine it’s somewhere in between and probably closer to the Japanese being more accurate because American news sources are the equivalent to the modern day ‘boy who cried wolf’.  They exaggerate the story so much you can’t believe them.  For some reason, they all want to be actresses and actors instead of news people.   The story is still unfolding, so maybe I shouldn’t be so critical, but if I were in Vegas and making a bet, I think I’d be sitting pretty.

Back to the emotional rollercoaster: I can’t explain how often this week my brain was doing backflips from stress, to panic, to sadness, to helplessness and frustration, to fear and confusion and then back again to relief and some state of calmness.  I was constantly exhausted….mentally and physically.  It was hard to concentrate at work and I was subconsciously always thinking ‘what if’’?  In the back of my mind, Spring Break couldn’t get here soon enough, and I was hoping things would stay stable so we could leave for Thailand.  We are really hoping the situation sorts itself out over the next week, so Japan can get on with it’s rebuilding and recovery.  While we still think everything will be OK and have every intention of returning, we will take with us everything we absolutely need (which isn’t much), just in case we have to extend our vacation.

 

Winter Wrapup

Where has the time gone?  In less than four months we will be done with our first year in Japan.  January and February flew by.  We’ve had lots of little events over the last 8 weeks, so we thought we’d wrap them into a summary post.  I have to admit, after New Zealand, most events almost don’t seem worthy of a post; however, we have had some interesting experiences that we don’t want to forget, and want to share with you.

Chuck Wagon Bar

1) The Country Western Bar Downtown:  It was a night out for the whole school….an “All You Can Eat & Drink” – choice of various types of bar food, whiskey, beer and box wine (ha!) courtesy of the Chairman of the Board of Directors.  He apparently is a big Country Western fan and frequents this place a lot (but he’s obviously not a wine drinker).  This place even had a live band singing various honky tonk songs!  I was actually really surprised such a place existed here…but it does and they do a pretty good job creating the right atmosphere.  It’s not a very big place, but somehow we all managed to fit in….and a few people even “danced”.  I was actually hoping there would be a nice big thick steak and baked potato there, but no such luck.  They had pizza, pasta, salad, sausage, some rice dishes, and various other finger foods instead.  And as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t get use to the Japanese band dressed in cowboy hats and tight blue jeans.  It was almost as entertaining as seeing the Japanese waiters dressed in Mexican attire at El Barracho.  They just shouldn’t do it.  I wish I would have remembered to bring my camera to this event, however, the images in my mind still won’t go away.

Van Gogh Exhibit

Van Gogh Exhibit

2) The Van Gogh Exhibit at the National Museum in Dazaifu:  This was truly a delight to see.  It was so good, we almost went back to see it again.  I’ve been to other exhibits and been disappointed by the number of actual paintings on loan of the featured artist(s) you get to see – and how far away you have to be from them, so I didn’t have high expectations going to this one.  Well….to my (and everyone else’s) surprise, there must have been a hundred of Van Gogh works there AND you could literally get within inches of them.  It was amazing to see all the detail, the depth, and the brush strokes!  The way the paintings were arranged, the progression of his work from his first sketches to his most famous paintings was very apparent.  Occasionally, there would be works from other famous painters that were either from the same era or which influenced his style.  I would have loved to have taken pictures in there, but (even if I was allowed) pictures just can’t capture stuff like that yet.  I also need to mention the number of people that were there…we were nearly packed in there like sardines!  At times it was almost frustrating, but fortunately, they were able to keep the lines moving so that you could eventually see everything.  You were also allowed to go back if you wanted to see something again.  It was like walking through a maze, but it took you by every piece of work.  I suppose the narrow halls would have bothered those individuals who like to study paintings from a distance, but I find his work more enjoyable close up.  The only painting that wasn’t there that we would have really liked to see was Starry Night.  Everyone seemed to have a different favorite.  I’m not sure I could choose just one.  Oddly enough, Van Gogh happens to resemble the person that works in the library with me…the students had a good chuckle with that.  Lucky for him, he knows who to ‘dress up’ as for Halloween next year.

3) The Prom Lunch Fundraisers:  As some of you might know, Robert is in charge of the Junior class who is in charge of funding and planning the Prom.  After some initial frustration (and a temper tantrum) he decided to take it on by doing something he enjoys doing:  cooking!  So he planned 4 lunches at the school in order to raise money.  One time we made Chicken Soup (which went over well with the healthy eaters) and the other three times we made Chili (which was enjoyed by all, including the junk food addicts).  We had to go a little low on the spiciness meter for the children, but that was easily remedied for us adults with some Tabasco sauce.  Anyway, all these lunches meant we’ve been going to Costco every other weekend and loading up on beef, beans, onions, tomatoes, corn, and various spices (I also loaded up on wine & cheese 🙂 ).  We chopped and prepped on Sunday afternoons.  Robert got up early on Mondays to get the stuff cooking…the whole school smelled wonderful!  The last batch was perfection.  There was absolutely nothing left over….no bowls, no spoons, no cheese, no sour cream.  It was awesome.  Makes me want to do it again….alas, they have made enough ¥ now, so chili will not be on any future lunch menus. 🙁

Fukuoka’s Central Fish Market

Fresh Fish

LOTS of Fresh Fish

Rose and I decided to check out the Central Fish Market this morning.  It is only open to the general public one Saturday a month and today was the day.  We wanted to get there early so we could see the “best fish”.  But, I must admit, we really had not put much thought into the idea of actually buying fish.  Seriously, how would we get it home and where would we put it?  We got off the subway at Akasaka station and headed north.  As we made our way along the 3-4 blocks to the market we quickly realized that we did not have all of the required equipment.  People were heading to/from the market pulling along their wheeled luggage.  The bags being pulled by people coming from the market all had the tails of fish sticking out of them…and who knows what else was on the inside.  I suspect that these once used pieces of luggage have become special-purpose fish toting equipment.  Could you really imagine packing one of these bags full of your “finest” clothes after it had been stuffed full with fresh fish?  I don’t think so.

Restaurant on Walk Home

Cool Seafood Restaurant near Fish Market

We made it to the market and just sort of followed the crowd to get to the right building.  It reminded me of the farmer’s market in Georgia that we would go to about once a month as a child. Except, instead of fresh vegetables and fruit (okra and peaches) the market here is focused on fresh seafood (tuna, flounder, crab, shrimp…).  A couple of the vendors at the stalls tried to get us to buy things – although I think they were more focused on entertaining themselves (and us) by making fun of the gaijin who could not speak Japanese – in a fun-loving way.  However, we did get to watch a live lesson on filleting a fish – picture the guy at Costco with the juice machine – it didn’t look too hard, I need to give it a try.

We left the market and continued a LONG walk to Tenjin and then all the way back through Ohori-koen to catch the subway back home.  Also, on our walk to Tenjin from the market, we saw a cool looking seafood restaurant that we definitely have to go back and try when it is open (it was 10am and Rose refused to eat seafood for breakfast).  If you are interested in going, let us know…of course, this is directed at those in Fukuoka.

I would definitely recommend taking a trip to the Central Fish Market if you find yourself in Fukuoka on that one day a month when it is open to us common folk. And don’t forget to bring your suitcase!

Daisaitogomaku “Fire” Festival

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Atago Fire Festival

Robert had some work to catch up on today, so I went with a couple of other teachers to our local shrine (Atago) to see it’s biggest festival.  There is not a lot of information about it in English other than “it is a fire festival during which participants overcome adversities and purify their souls by walking barefoot on burning coals”.   How could you not want to go see that?  We got there early so we could watch the whole ceremony from beginning to end.  It lasted 2 1/2 hours.  There was a young shrine “helper” who spoke some English that explained a few things to us.  We bought some long wooden sticks and wrote our ‘dreams and wishes’ on them.  He informed us that they would eventually be thrown into the bonfire where the ‘prayer’ could make it’s way to heaven.

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Burning of the Prayers

The festival started with chanting and singing, and then a procession of the Shinto priests into the shrine hall for prayer.  They eventually made their way out of the hall, where one priest cut the rope surrounding the ceremonial grounds with his sword so all the priests could enter.  This was followed by a series of priests (in pairs) performing different rituals to prepare for the bonfire.  Arrows were shot in four different directions, axes were swung around the burn pile, and a series of other blessings (both verbal and physical) were performed until the torches were blessed and lit.  The head priest sang from his scroll and the pile was set on fire.  Then the drumming and chanting began.  This went on for about an hour while the fire burned.  The crowd (including me) was allowed to throw the wooden prayers into the fire.   The priests attended to the flames…allowing it to burn, yet keeping it under control with holy water.  The constant rhythm of the drums and chanting was almost hypnotizing.  The priests had large wooden prayers which were thrown in last.  The fire was finally allowed to die down.  The priests then began raking the coals and spreading them out.  Finally, a pathway was created through the center of the hot coals using a large bamboo tree trunk.

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Walking on the Coals

The observers started taking off their socks and shoes. Our shrine ‘helper’ informed us it was OK for us to walk across if we wanted.  The priests and priestesses went across first, then the observers – of all ages.  Maureen decided she was going to walk on the coals.  I thought about crossing it, but I figured my soul doesn’t need any purifying :).  Actually, I would definitely do it next year if Robert is interested in seeing it.  After the last participant finished the walk, we watched the priests put out the rest of the flames.  The day was still young, so I even had time to head out and do some Christmas shopping.

Return to Dazaifu

Walking around Dazaifu

Temple Doors

Last time we were in Dazaifu it was brutally hot….so hot we couldn’t think straight, much less enjoy the area.  In fact, we spent most of the time in the National Museum just to stay cool and sane.  We’ve been wanting to go back for a while and since the weather was perfect and another flea market was taking place, we decided to venture out that way again.

Our first stop was Komyozenji Temple which we didn’t see last time.  It was nice and quiet.  We almost had the whole place to ourselves.  It actually looked and felt like winter had arrived at this temple…even the old floorboards were cold.  And I’m not sure when those monks are suppose to rake their gardens, but the back was covered in leaves with no gravel visible.  We took our time in there trying to soak up all the calm and quiet we could before heading into the bustling flea market.  We both admired the simple, yet beautiful woodwork throughout the building.  Eventually, we made our way back into the crowds and checked out the market merchandise.  There were plenty of choices if you wanted fabric, kimonos, obis or jewelry.  There were a couple of pottery stalls and a few with antiques, but we didn’t see anything we couldn’t live without.

Rice fields

Rice Fields

We decided during lunch to finish our day with a walkabout.  The town has lots of places to see, so we thought we’d knock a few of them out by following the recommended historical walk through town on one of the back roads.  Dazaifu is an incredibly pretty and very relaxing little town.  On our walk, we saw lots of little side roads that lead up into the hillside…beckoning us for a future visit.  We visited a couple of other temples and then spent some time hanging out at the Dazaifu government ruins (which is more of a park) enjoying the wonderful weather and watching families play.  Robert enjoyed listening to a few kids practicing on their trombones.  Amazingly there were still some very colorful fall spots along the base of the hills.  We eventually boarded the SLOW train back to Tenjin and picked up a few more macaroons.  They should last us until maybe Monday. 🙂