Sayonara, Land of the Rising Sun

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As our plane climbed into the clouds, I couldn’t help but look back one last time at my beloved Japan and think about what I’ve gained and what I have left behind. My heart leapt and a tear rolled down my cheek as I was treated to one last view when  our plane circled Mt Fuji. In the shadow of this majestic mountain, my second family…my second home…and the ashes of my precious Kate, remain. My hope is that Kate’s ashes will provide the nourishment for a cherry blossom tree somewhere, to provide even more beautiful, spectacular blossoms to adorn my second home and be enjoyed by my second family. There is no doubt that today I left part of my heart-and part of my soul-in Japan.

My gains are too numerous to recount. I am told that Japanese people rarely speak the words “I love you.” But I have learned that they DO say “I love you”—many times and in many ways…with their hearts and with their actions. And for all those “I love yous” I received in the past 3 years…I say to you “I love you too!” For ALL of our friends we have met in Japan, Japanese and American, know that you have touched my life – so deeply and so profoundly, I leave you with the words of this unknown author…

“There is a secret that only real friends know and it is this.
All the mountains, valleys and oceans in the world
cannot separate hearts that are as one.”

I am so thankful that I have been able to record at least some of my experiences here. Thank you dear Megan for naming this blog and convincing me to do it. As we return to the United States to begin a new adventure, I close the “Grits in Tokyo” chapter of my life. However, stay tuned for the next chapter, “Grits in the Rockies” (thank you Suzanne for suggesting this name). Megan, will you help me set it up?????? 🙂

With love and gratitude…until we meet again,
“Grits”

An Unexpected Love…

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I didn’t plan on falling in love – I didn’t even want to fall in love – It just happened.  Like many love stories it was a result of spending time together… Japan and I… seeing the beauty of a country so foreign, meeting people who, although they really didn’t know me, demonstrated little acts of thoughtfulness, big acts of compassion and caring, shared laughter…and more.  People who welcomed us with open arms, helped us get settled, celebrated birthdays, showed their caring and concern when I had a health scare, gave us an automobile, helped me get a job at a Japanese preschool, took us on picnics, sat with me while I grieved the death of my dog, helped me share Japan with my children, grandchildren, aunt, uncle and cousin…and more.  I love my own, but never thought I could love another country…but it happened and I fell in love with Japan  – the culture, traditions and the people I have met here.

And now I’m facing the time that I knew would come, but nevertheless, dreaded.  It’s time to leave.  It is not that I don’t want to return to my country, my family, my friends…I do…but this adventure has been like none I have ever experienced, and probably won’t ever again.  Living in Japan has opened my eyes, my heart and my mind in a way that never could have happened in the safe, security of “home.”  Memories and friendships were made here that are like no other, because of Japan.

We have only a few weeks before we depart.  As I begin the chaotic process of moving overseas – this time back home- I pack with me memories of the people, the love, the experiences and adventures of the past 3+ years.  I have learned to be thankful in a whole new way.  And while I know there will be tears shed when we leave, I will leave a piece of my heart in my beloved Japan and always look back on these years with gratitude of the highest measure.

Happy Hina Matsuri!

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FullSizeRenderElaborately dressed dolls, said to represent the Emperor and Empress and passed down from generation to generation, set on intricately decorated shelves in the homes of Japanese girls to celebrate Girls Day (Hina Matsuri), March 3.  The holiday is celebrated by families to wish each female child  in the family a life of  health and happiness.  

 Many Hina Matsuri displays feature not only Emperor and Empress dolls, but dolls representing the Imperial Court.  A full display of these dolls have the Emperor and Empress displayed on the highest shelf, with 3 maids-in-waiting (Sannin Kanjo) on the second shelf, 5 court musicians (Gonin Bayashi) complete with musical instruments on the third shelf and can continue on for several more shelves.  These dolls are individually made, some with childlike faces and features and some with a more sophisticated look (see  Hina Matsuri displays).   

Regardless, these dolls are typically very expensive and not for play.  Rather, they are taken out of storage and displayed each year from mid February until March 4, the day after the Hina Matsuri festival.  Legend has it that the display must be taken down, or there will be a delay -maybe forever- in the marriage of the girl or girls in the family!

 Boys are not forgotten in Japan…Boys Day  is May 5!

Fish exfoliation in Chinatown

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The mystery of the Little Girl with Red Shoes solved, day 2 was to be a busy one.  We first set out on foot to Chinatown, which is the largest Chinatown in Japan.  I know, Chinatown in Japan?? In 1859, Yokohama was one of the first Japanese ports to be opened to foreign trade.  Many Chinese chefs, tailors, barbers restauranteurs and other merchants settled in Yokohama.  The narrow streets are lined with various kinds of shops – food, antiques, tea, vegetables, fortune tellers, kitchen utensils and ornaments of all kinds.  Chinatown has ten ornate gates, four at entrances to Chinatown and the remaining are inside of Chinatown itself.

 

Choyo Gate

Choyo Gate

Our first stop was popular shop, where you can immerse your feet in a fish-filled pool of water and let the fish nibble the dry skin off your feet!  My husband was a little reluctant, but eventually, a good sport.  I had imagined some scenic outdoor venue with a rock-sided pool, so I was a little disappointed when we arrived at the second floor location with benches along the edge of a 4’ x 6’ concrete pool. The tiny little tiny fish, Garra Ruffa (scientific name), have no teeth, no stomach and love to eat old skin cells.  Legend has it that Cleopatra liked these tiny little skin eaters. Dipping my feet in the water, fish immediately swarmed my feet, and wow did it tickle.  I had to remove my feet a couple of times before I got used to the tickling sensation.  Our 20-minute session expired, we dried off our feet.  Honestly, I didn’t feel much of a difference…at least not what I expected. I was glad that I had the experience, but probably won’t do it a second time.

fish

fish

IMG_0578Off we went to further explore Chinatown.  The streets were beginning to get crowded as the noon hour drew near.  The smell of noodles, spices, broths and other lunchtime fare was permeating the air.  Lines formed outside of some shops. Buns stuffed with meat, vegetables or sweet bean paste (some in the shape of pandas, pigs and other animals) were on display outside some shops as was the traditional plastic replicas of various food and drink items.

decorative buns

decorative buns

We continued to explore, winding through the maze of Chinatown streets, and found ourselves in front of an intricately decorated shrine, with colorful dragons above the gate and positioned on each corner of the shrine itself. Constructed in 1873 by Chinese residents, it is dedicated to the Chinese god of good business and prosperity. Kantei-byo shrine, has served as the center of life for Chinese people who immigrated to Japan, and is located in the very center of Chinatown. After taking a few minutes to explore the shrine, we were off to find a good ramen shop.

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The Story: The Little Girl with Red Shoes

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IMG_0723The first night in Yokohama I couldn’t sleep and so I made good use of my time by finding the story of the little girl with red shoes. First let me share the lyrics of a Japanese song about this little girl.  The title is “Akai Kutsu no Onna no Ko,” which means  “The Girl in Red Shoes:” Continue reading

The Little Girl with Red Shoes…and the City that Loved Her

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Charms, jewelry, key rings, cookie/candy wrappers, souvenirs of all kinds – and even sidewalk tiles – are adorned with red shoes and/or  the little girl with the red shoes.  The Japanese city by the bay, Yokohama, loves this little girl whose tragic story is memorialized in many ways throughout the city.

We traveled to Yokohama by train on a beautiful, warmer-than-average January morning for a quick 3 day visit to celebrate my birthday.  The sky was sunny, the air fresh as we walked a few blocks to the Hotel New Grand perched grandly across from Yamashita Park on beautiful Yokohama Bay.  The hotel, originally called The Grand Hotel was founded in 1873 but destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.  The Grand Hotel was formally known as “the symbol of Yokohama.”  In 1927 The Hotel New Grand was reopened and is indeed grand in every respect.  We located the hotel and apparently entered the older portion of the hotel and were initially confused.  There appeared to be no registration desk, but we did see a most grand, authentic, straight out of the 1920’s, staircase.  I immediately had visions of royalty, movie stars and brides looking over their shoulders as they stood halfway up the staircase, with the trains of their dresses perfectly draping over the carpeted step, posing for an all-important picture. General Douglas McArthur stayed in this hotel frequently and had his own suite.  I am not sure, but I think one can still stay in his suite, if not concerned about price!

Two huge bronze lanterns hung over the staircase from an ornate art-deco ceiling.  At the top of the stairs, over two stately old elevators, hung a beautiful red silk tapestry called “Tennyo Sogaku no Zu” (Pictures of the Angels’ Band).  To the left of the elevators was the original old mahogany registration desk.  Standing in the open area right of the elevators, were enormous, majestic mahogany pillars forming a hallway of sorts, I felt transported transported back in time.  I am not sure I have ever seen a room so stunning…oh if walls could talk! And although we took lots of pictures, I had to take a moment to treasure the magnificence of this room and try to make sure I would remember what pictures just couldn’t capture.

Yokohama Marine Tower

Yokohama Marine Tower

But, we were not staying in McArthur’s suite, nor were we staying in the beautiful older section of the hotel.  So, we made our way to the connecting “tower” building and found the bellhop.  We dropped our backpacks off and set out for the Yokohama Marine Tower.  Originally built as a lighthouse in 1961, it was said to be the tallest lighthouse in the world.  Sadly, the 106 meter high lighthouse closed in 2006, presumably because of electronic navigation.  However, the lighthouse was refurbished and re-opened in 2009 serving as a 94 meter observation deck.  While I have certainly been in/on higher observation decks (Tokyo Skytree being the highest), the trip up to the top in the glass elevator was a little unsettling.  Human nature, or maybe it was just me, but I found myself stepping off the elevator rather tentatively as if I might fall off the edge!  The view was magnificent with a terrific view of the bay and the surrounding city.  Although on a clear day, one can apparently see Mt. Fuji, this particular day wasn’t clear enough.  I was a little disappointed, but then again, I have a pretty fantastic view of Fuji from my house – so no complaints!  On the way down we stopped at several gift shops, saw many “red shoe” souvenirs and noted several restaurants housed in the tower.

Yokohama

Yokohama

It was still not 2 pm, and we couldn’t resist the lure of the serenity of Yamashita waterfrontpark.  Mostly green space, the park was sprinkled with beds of brightly colored winter-blooming flowers, statues and an ornate gazebo with a wonderful multicolored tile ceiling.   Bordering the bay was a wide walkway where people enjoyed walking, jogging or just sitting on a park bench watching the ships pass.

 

Yamashita Park

Yamashita Park

IMG_0456We couldn’t help notice the huge ship, the Hikawa Maru, docked right in front of our hotel.  I was looking forward to taking a tour of the huge passenger ship which was on our agenda for day 2.  We snapped a few photos and proceeded down the waterfront walkway.  We saw several statues, one of them being the Little Girl with Red Shoes.  We made a note to come back another day for a picture.  We made it to the south end of the park which connects with the Rinkosen Promenade, which we later discovered leads to the Red Brick Warehouse and the Minato Mirai areas. After a quick stop at the “conbini” (convenience store), we turned back and headed north, this time along a sidewalk toward our hotel.

Red Shoe tile

Red Shoe tile

In less than 50 steps on the sidewalk, I found a decorative sidewalk tile (very common in Japan), adorned with the red shoes!  I was really intrigued.  I had heard bits and pieces of the story, but resolved to learn more because “red shoes” were everywhere.  As we proceeded down the street we noticed various other painted tiles…seagulls, sailing ships, a lighthouse and Japanese geta (traditional thong-like shoes most often worn with kimono).  You have to love a country that makes their sidewalks a work of art. In fact, it is common in many cities to see decorative manhole covers depicting something special about the area.

Toda Peace Memorial Hall

Toda Peace Memorial Hall

A little further down the tree-lined street, I was drawn to an interesting old building with concrete columns and an archway bordering its blue door.  In front of the building was a historical marker-type commemorative plaque.  The Toda Peace Memorial Hall, we learned, was built in 1922 and previously known as English House #7.  The building is of western architecture and was probably characteristic of the area which was Yokohama’s foreign residential area.  It is the only foreign trading house that was not destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923).  The building was named after Josei Toda who, in 1922, issued his “declaration for abolition of atomic and hydrogen bombs.” Amen, Mr. Toda.

IMG_0476Less than 5 minutes later, we arrived at our hotel, entering this time through the main entrance in the newer “tower” portion of the hotel.  We were greeted by welcoming faces, smiles and bowing – deep bowing – another thing that makes the Hotel New Grand indisputably, grand!  Quickly and efficiently we were checked in and on our way to our room, with the bellhop and our backpacks. Riding up in the elevator, the bellhop pointed out the key, which had our room number in reverse order.  Our room number was 903, but etched in the key was 309.  This was not a mistake, he explained, but I didn’t quite understand his explanation.  We arrived in our tiny, but well-appointed room with a king sized bed, which is not common in Japan.  The most amazing thing was that we had a corner room with 2 different views of the bay and part of the city.  A huge Ferris wheel was visible outside our south-facing window with a full bay view from the west window.  We unpacked, relaxed and planned the rest of our day.

Yokohama is famous for its unique local ramen offerings (not the kind you buy in the grocery store) and we wanted to sample some of the local fare.  What a better place to start than the Cup Noodles Museum where we heard you can design your own ramen cup and even develop your own ramen recipe.  Our first task was to find the bus stop for the “Little Red Bus” which was a free bus, mostly for tourists, with a limited but “touristy” route.  After finding the bus stop our wait was relatively short and we boarded the bus – a bus decorated with flowers and beach balls to celebrate the New Year!  The bus took us most of the way, stopping at the Red Brick Warehouse, which is an old warehouse which has been converted into many upscale shops and restaurants. Hurrying to make the museum on time, we didn’t explore the Red Brick Warehouse, but did notice that a temporary ice skating rink alongside.  We skipped that, too.

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Cosmos Clock

Approaching the museum, we saw the gigantic Ferris wheel that was visible from our room.  Called the Cosmos Clock because it has a huge digital clock in the middle of the Ferris wheel. Each of the 60 gondolas are illuminated to tick off every second. In fact this Ferris wheel holds the Guiness World Record for being the tallest Ferris wheel with a clock.

We entered the museum, excited about the opportunity to design and create our own cups and ramen, as well as learn a little bit.  Unfortunately, it was too late in the day to participate in the hands-on experiences.  We were given headphones and a little device to translate the Japanese presentations/information into English.  The father of instant ramen, Momofuku Ando, was a struggling, not-quite making-it kind of guy until he developed Chicken Ramen, which debuted in 1958.  When businessmen tried to copy his ramen, quality suffered.  Ando was so concerned about the copycats delivering in inferior product to the public, that he stepped in and helped the competition.  I was impressed.  It reminded me that Japan seems to be an “us,” rather than an “I” culture.  Know any countries that could benefit from these kinds of values?

Throughout his life, Ando encouraged children to strive toward their dreams, think creatively, play and have fun.  He went on to develop CupNoodles in 1971 and in 2005, achieved his goal to create ramen that could be eaten in space.  Finally, we made our way to the Noodles Bazaar, which features noodles from 8 different parts of the world – areas that Ando visited when he was researching the origin of ramen. I sampled the Malaysian noodle, Laksa, and my husband chose Thailand’s TomYum Goong Noodles, both scrumptious.

IMG_0486It was dusk when we exited the museum and the Ferris Wheels lights were on and we were able to see the seconds ticking away via the Gondolas.  It was such a pretty evening, we walked back to our hotel via the Rinkosen Promenade, enjoying the bay breezes and the twinkling harbor lights.  Looking forward to day 2 and learning about those little red shoes!