Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas-time in Tokyo

Christina, Amanda, Christina, Carrie and I at the New Sanno 
Christmas was definitely different this year.  This was the first time in 26 years I wasn't able to spend it with my family.  Amy was spending it with Ahkmed in Kandahar, Afghanistan dodging his rockets.  Bryan and Michael were on a ski trip in Colorado with the parents.  And Catherine was back in Chicago.  We were all separated from each other, but luckily I was able to spend Christmas with the little family I've formed in Japan!  Many of you have asked if the Japanese celebrate Christmas, and the answer is, yes.  They LOVE American holidays.  Granted, they pick and choose a lot of our traditions and then add a little taste of their culture into the mix, but in the end, it's still Christmas.  Many even decorate with trees and lights.  And, the best part of it was, they've adapted many of our Christmas carols!
Some girls and I went to the New Sanno (military hotel) in Tokyo for a delicious Christmas lunch buffet complete with Santa and ice sculptures.  The food was catered to the traditional American Christmas menu.  Then we all went to Tokyo Disneyland!  Yay!  I don't care how old you are, everyone has fun at Disney!  Surprisingly Tokyo Disney is EXACTLY the same as Disney in the States.  Well, with the slight exception of millions of Asians running around and most of the signs written in both english and japanese.   The entire theme park was decked out in Christmas decorations!  It was nice because it brought a little taste of home to Japan with all the familiar Christmas carols playing all day.

I hope you all were able to enjoy a lovely Christmas with your family and friends.  And for those of you who were overseas, away from your loved ones, I hope you were able to enjoy yourself a little too!  Stay safe and keep up the good work!  Have a safe and healthy New Year.  Happy 2011!!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tokyo from a different perspective...

Imperial Palace Garden
Imperial Palace

Last weekend, I decided to do a little traveling around Tokyo area with some friends.  This was my first time up in Tokyo and it was a lot different from what I was expecting.  I pictured it to be an extremely busy and over-crowded city with little room to move around in.  To my surprise, Tokyo is full of several parks and gardens similar to Grant Park and Central Park scattered around the city.

We first checked out the Imperial Palace gardens located smack dab in the middle of the city.  The palace itself was rebuilt after getting bombed in WWII.  We couldn't get too close to the place because the emperor and his family still live on the grounds today.  The most famous landmark on the grounds is the Nijubashi Bridge, a double arched stone bridge.  Amanda, Kevin and I enjoyed a little picnic in the park to pass the time.

Imperial Palace
Nijubashi Bridge crossing the moat in front of Imperial Palace

Man painting in Shinjuku-goyen Garden
try and look at his painting... impressive!
Next, we took the subway to Western Tokyo where we visited Shinjuku-gyoen National Garden.  There were a few traditional tea houses and bridges and Japanese gardens here.  The weather was perfect and the lakes gave off a mirror like reflection of the city and trees.  This was definitely my favorite part of the trip.  Trust me, the pictures just doesn't do it justice!

traditional tea house in Shinjuku-goyen Garden

Shinjuku-goyen Garden
one of my favorite pictures of the skyline

San'ai building in Ginza square
On our way home, we had to stop in the Ginza area to have dinner.  This is a widely known busy shopping district that houses one of the busiest intersection and crosswalk in the world.  There's hundreds of people standing on each corner getting ready to cross at the same time.  It was crazy!  A block or two down from the busy intersection is the San'ai Building made up of glass and shines with neon lights at night.

I love that everyone is already getting in the Christmas spirit!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Kamakura and the Great Buddha...

Hachiman-gu Shrine Park
To finish up my area orientation and intercultural relations class this week, we took a field trip to Kamakura, which is a small seaside town of temples and rolling hills.  Kamakura was Japan's capital from 1185-1333 before it moved to Kyoto and currently Tokyo.  It has 19 Shinto shrines and 65 Buddhist temples, but obviously we only saw a few of the more famous ones.

local ramen Ma and Pa shop with our interpreter
Shinto torii gate leading up to the shrine
When we first arrived in Kamakura, we went to this little Ma and Pa Ramen shop which open early especially for us.  This place was so small it could only feed 20 customers at a time.  The entire menu was Japanese, but luckily we had an interpreter with us so he help us order and it was amazingly delicious!  After lunch, we walked around the small, crowded streets and learned about some of the city's history.  We went to Hachiman-gu Shrine which is dedicated to the god of war and was built almost 1000 years ago.  We walked through several Shinto Torii gates on a long road leading up to the shrine.  Apparently, by walking through the gates it's supposed to cleanse each part of your body ending with a water cleansing station so by the time you reach the shrine, you're entire body and soul will be cleansed.  The shrine was situated on the side of a tree covered mountain, making it picturesque with the autumn colors.  There were also a few koi ponds to walk around on the grounds.

"Mmm" statue as a gate keeper of a shinto torii gate
Hachiman-gu Shrine

small shrine on the park grounds

trying to throw up the peace sign
I think my favorite part was when I was people watching.  There was a little girl about 3 or 4 dressed in a kimono (with long sleeves because she's single of course), and random people starting taking pictures of her.  She tried to put up the Japanese picture taking peace sign to mimic a bystander and she accidentally held up 3 fingers instead.  It was so cute I just couldn't help taking a picture!  I loved it!

Great Budda (Daibutsu)

Not too far away was the Great Buddha (Daibutsu).  This towering bronze statue is one of Japan's National treasures.  It was built back in 1252 and has survived through several tidal waves, typhoons and earthquakes.  Its proportions are actually distorted so that it seems balanced to those standing in front of it.  When you think of Japan and a buddha statue, you are probably picturing the Great Buddha.  I was even able to go inside the buddha and rub his belly!  Of course you have to make a wish when you do that also.
tasting green tea ice cream
On the walk back to the train station, we had to stop for some green tea ice cream at a local stand.  This stand just so happened to be the same stand that Obama stopped at the week before on his visit to Kamakura.  How would I know that, you ask?  Well, they had a picture of Obama taped below the plastic ice cream choices.
They have a Big Boy!!!  See dad, we can have a family vacation in Japan!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Japan's not complete without a little irony...

Yokohama ferris wheel
Think about this one for a second... a Brazilian steakhouse, in Chinatown, in Japan.  Weird huh!  Weird, but delicious!

Some girls from the hospital and I went up to Yokohama for the afternoon for sightseeing around the city and dinner for my birthday.  Yokohama was pretty crowded and swarming with police force due to Obama attending the APEC conference.  We've even been seeing a little bit of the heightened security around Yokosuka area this past week.  We went to the top of Landmark Tower and walked around the observatory.  Landmark Tower is the tallest building in Japan at 69 stories and an extremely fast elevator.  Too bad it was a cloudy, overcast day, otherwise I would've been able to see Tokyo and Mt Fuji.  Oh well, it was still really pretty!  It reminded me a lot of the observatory in John Hancock or Sears Tower.  I think I like those better, but it's probably just because I'm a little biased to Chicago.
Landmark Tower with statue

There's some cute parks right along the water in Yokohama that we walked around in.  I love that all the leaves are changing colors right now.  That's definitely something I've missed living in San Diego for the past 3 years.  This Brazilian steakhouse that we went to was amazing; all you can eat and drink for 2 hours.  Of course I definitely took advantage of that!  Overall it was an enjoyable day to get out spend the day with the girls.

Landmark Tower Observatory

Yokohama skyline
out in Yokosuka area

Friday, November 12, 2010

Kirin Beer Village...

Day off for Veteran's Day + semi-easy looking directions + free brewery tour = AWESOME DAY TRIP

Amanda and I were feeling a little daring yesterday and wanted to get out of the Yokosuka area.  I was looking online at different day trips to do when I came across Kirin Beer Village.  Obviously that intrigued me so I looked a little more into it and figured the directions looked easy enough that we hopefully wouldn't get lost using the train for the first time by ourselves.  And plus, having free beer at the end of the trip was just another incentive to figure out Japan's train system!
The first step was trying to make a reservation by phone in Japanese.  I easily figured out that if you say "Konnichiwa" and make a few other random noises, the person on the other obviously knows you can't speak Japanese.  I say "Hai, English" and it's soon followed by a confusing conversation of one word phrases and repeating ourselves over and over.  By the end of the phone call, I still wasn't quite sure if I made a reservation or not, but I thought, "What the heck, let's just go and figure it out there".

When Amanda and I got to the train station we had to get her an electronic train card.  I already had mine from the week before when another girl had an extra one that I just had to add money to.  We weren't sure how to get one for her exactly, so we went up to the ticket counter and showed them my card and held up some money.  Apparently something was lost in translation, so we just shoved all the money under the window and kept pointing at the card and then Amanda.  Guess that worked!  Once we got into the train station, we tried to navigate our way to what we thought was the correct train.  We stood at the track nervously awaiting the train to come, watching all these little Japanese school children using the train system with no problem at all.

YES!  We got on the correct train and surprisingly it was a lot easier to use than I thought!  I'll be a pro at that in no time.  And of course, how much easier could this trip get having the beer village within a very short walk from the train station.  The brewery tour was completely in Japanese with informational pamphlets in english.  But let's be honest here, beer tasting was the common denominator, so it didn't really matter what language the tour was in!  Our tour guide even showed us "how to pour the perfect head".  I also learned Yokohama was the birthplace of Japanese beer brewing.  Thank goodness for Americans importing barley and hops into the country back in the 1870's.  

I have to say that I'm a little biased to Milwaukee brewery tours, especially Lakefront.  But, you can definitely count on me going back to Kirin Beer Village.  Any takers??

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mt Takao...

Biwataki Waterfall
If the first few weeks of living in a new country are supposed be dedicated to trying to find a place to live or just slowly adjusting to your new surrounding, I apparently missed the memo.  I've been here 11 days and I've already discovered the amazing trips the Navy base has to offer.  MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) organizes several trips a month to various locations around Japan and provides transportation which makes traveling fairly easy.
Mt Fuji in the distance
Yesterday, Amanda and I hiked Mt Takao which is located about an hour west of Tokyo in Hachioji City.  There were multiple trails to choose from which we took a densely wooded trail located along a stream with multiple waterfalls on the way up.  At one point we were actually hiking up through a waterfall.  Once we were at the summit, we had a spectacular view of Mt Fuji in the distance.  Looking out at it just made me even more excited and more determined to climb it come summer when the hiking trails are open!
Yakuo-in Temple
On the trip down the mountain, we chose a trail that passed numerous Japanese temples and shrines.  The most prominent of these structures was the Buddhist temple Yakuo-in, which was built back in the eighth century.  Other than small brochure we were given at the beginning of the trip we didn't learn anything in depth about the temples history because all the signs were written in Japanese.  Instead, we had to step back and observe the Japanese people and were able to appreciate the beauty of the ancient architecture.  There was a lot of prayer and spiritual rituals going on around the temples.  There was a spiritual cleansing bath that Amanda and I both washed our hands in.  I wasn't going to drink the water like everyone else was doing because that just seemed a little too weird for me.  Now, do I believe in any of these rituals, probably not, but I figured I might as well immerse myself in the culture as best I can while I'm here.  Even if I don't understand much of the history behind the Japanese temples, it was still pretty amazing to look at combined with nature.

Cleansing bath along the route

We picked a great time to visit Mt Takao.  The weather was perfect and the leaves had started to change into the beautiful autumn colors.  It really made me miss the Midwest and all the seasons it has to offer.  Apparently the rest of Japan also felt the same way, seeing how the mountain was extremely crowded.  I was very impressed to see all the older people and kids out hiking as well.
Although it was crowded, we were able to observe Japan's fashion sense a little more which is at both ends of the spectrum.  It was almost like some people were lost somewhere in the 80s with their bright neon colors and loud patterns.  It was actually somewhat amusing.  A lot of people also had on t-shirts with random English slogans written on them.  It made me wonder if they really know what the t-shirt says or they just wear it because they think it looks cool.  I guess that's just a result of all the American influence on the Japanese culture!

Hello, Japan...

Mikasa Park - behind the hospital right off base
Well, I've been in Yokosuka, Japan a little over a week now and I've already learned a few things.

1.  I look like a tourist, so I might as well embrace it!  I plan on looking like the Asians do in American always snapping pictures.  I keep taking pictures of cool looking signs written in Japanese and what-not.  For all I know, they're probably laughing at me because I'm taking a picture of a "this is only here so an American tourist can take a picture of it" sign.  

Mikasa Park gardens
2.  Japanese food in the States is nothing like Japanese food here!  One of the first days I was here, I went walking out in town and sat down at a Sushi-go-round.  I had one look at it and noticed it wasn't like the sushi I was used to but didn't want to get up and leave right away because I thought it'd be rude.  So instead I tried something that looked the most familiar to me, but don't know how soon I'll be back there.

3.  I don't know Japanese!  The language is made up of a bunch of funny looking drawings and pictures that have absolutely no meaning to me.  I've come to an understanding that I will not learn to read/write the language while I'm out here, so I will stick to just learning to speak a few needed words and phrases to get by.

Chinatown in Yokohama

I'm staying on base until I find a place to live out in town.  The base here is completely different than the States.  People actually want to do things on base and not avoid it like the plague.  I've been out exploring around base to see what Yokosuka has to offer.  I still haven't taken the trains by myself yet, but I'm sure that will come soon.

My first month of work will consist of orientation/transition to both the command and Yokosuka area.  I survived my first typhoon which was actually nothing really to write home about, and Amanda is finally out here, so let the adventure begin!

Yokohama cityscape