Tag Archives: Shimoda

A Day at the Aquarium

Charlie was not abducted.  He had just gotten bored and decided to wander off while I was looking for an ATM.  It was a coincidence that he’d been walking behind a stranger.  I had wondered if I was being too strict with him—not.

As we waited for the bus to the aquarium, we checked out cars.  Here are some gratuitous photos of adorable compact vehicles I took throughout Japan.

“Why can’t we have cool small cars like this?”  I asked Charlie rhetorically.

This was my favorite name, The Hustler.  This was not in Shimoda, and I was glad because I didn’t want to explain what a hustler was.

This is as good a place as any to insert a photo from the Edo Museum.  This car—I didn’t record its name—was the Volkswagen Beetle of Japan—the one cranked out by the millions that everyone owned in the post-war decades.

The moment we got off the bus, that smell hit us in the face.  If you’ve ever shopped in an Asian market that sells live fish, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  I love eating fish, but the smell, not so much.

I had researched the aquarium ahead of time and was amused that they had a “Dwarf” admission level.

“No offense to you, or to dwarves, but you’re a dwarf today,” I informed Charlie as I paid our combined $29 admission fee.

It was hot and humid and we were tired.  Our first glimpses of the aquarium were not inspiring.  Much of its infrastructure was dilapidated and rusty.  But we would make the best of it.

As in most such places, there were shows that took place around the grounds on a regular schedule.

“C’mon, run!” I yelled at Charlie when I saw the dolphin show would start in five minutes.

He hung his head and dragged his feet.  “I’m hot and tired!” he whined.

“Run anyway!” I shouted over my shoulder, feeling like a bad aunt for the umpteenth time for yelling at him.

I don’t know what the dolphins would say if they could speak, but the show was amazing.

The trainers bribed the dolphins to dive or leap to get fish; the highlight was when one of the trainers stood on a dolphin’s back and rode it like a surf board.

Afterwards, we checked out the non-air conditioned but shaded snack bar.  I had fried mackerel and Charlie ordered syrup-smothered soy balls and a sugary drink.  “That should perk you up,” I said hopefully.

As we ate, a manic penguin trainer blabbered away outside. “What is she saying>?” I asked Charlie.

“I don’t know,” he giggled.  “She’s talking so fast I can’t understand.”

“Probably wants to get it over with so she can get out of the heat,” I reckoned.

If he had had his way, Charlie would have sat in the snack bar all day.  Instead, I led him on a forced march around the rest of the aquarium.

He got to pet a seal and a giant tortoise.  Again, if these poor animals could speak I’m sure it would be to say, “Help, get me out of here!”

There was a magical display of jellyfish and oddities.  That’s Charlie’s head in the way.

As I watched rays swimming in a tank I thought, this isn’t as bad as having their fins cut off and served as delicacies in a restaurant, I guess.

The plaintive bark of a seal had been sounding nonstop since our arrival.  “We have to go see it,” I said, “even though I know it’s gonna make me really sad.”

And there it was, swimming back and forth in a pool no more than three times its body length.

“Oh I can’t stand to look at it!” Charlie said mournfully.  “Why do people do that?  I want to set it free!”

“People like us pay to come here,” I said ruefully.  Charlie was learning some lessons, although not the ones intended by the aquarium.

I forked out $10 to rent a paddle boat.  Charlie was thrilled to be in control, and when dolphins frolicked alongside us we felt a bit better because they seemed to want to be with humans.

Local Color

I’m nearing the end of my Japan narrative.  I returned from Japan in July.  Obviously there’s so much to write about.  Japan’s got it all—natural beauty, great food, art, cultural sites, and Tokyo Disney—in case you’d prefer to feel like you’re in Florida.

I’ve been reflecting on my relationship with my nephew, Charlie, and his little brother.  I love kids.  For many years I believed I would never be a grandmother.  Vince was homeless, missing, incarcerated, or just not a great mating prospect.  Even if he had had a child with someone, I figured he would recreate his own origin story, where he had zero contact with his paternal grandparents after age one.  I’d be painfully cut off.

So when my younger brother had two kids, I was all in.  And when you bond with kids from day one, it’s impossible to un-bond.

Then, to my relief and joy, Vince sobered up, got hitched and is dadding two young girls.  I’m a grandma after all!  They live over an hour away so that’s not easy, but I am a grandma.  And a favorite aunt.  And I work part-time at the YMCA childcare center.  I have an abundance of kids in my life.

I have learned that love is not limited, it is exponential.

A few nights ago I attended a meeting with some other Jewish Community Action volunteers and folks from other organizations with the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.  We were led into a large meeting room which contained two mock prison cells.  This must be where they carry out training for correctional officers.  I knew they weren’t real.  I have never been locked in a prison cell.  But I still felt a pang of panic and repulsion.

I sat with my back to the cells.  For better or worse, there were two women at the meeting who have children in prison, and they kind of commandeered the agenda to make their cases to the commissioner for their children being released.  I totally understood their frustration.  Their calls and letters are never answered.  This was their big chance to talk directly to the guy at the top.  But I am very glad I am no longer in their shoes and am able to do my small part to better the lives of all prisoners, not just my kid.

I think my ability to feel freedom, gratitude, and joy is strong because I have lived so many sad experiences.

After the meeting, I huddled with the two moms and said, “Just be very careful and don’t get yourselves banned.  It’s easy to lose your temper with these people.  I was banned for six months from visiting my son because a correctional officer baited me and I rose to it.” They looked shocked and I could see them trying to calm themselves down.

I also like to encourage everyone to explore their local sites of interest. You don’t have to go to Japan or the UK or Australia to find interesting stuff!

I came across this on one of my late-fall walks.

I had driven past the sign for the Ramsey County Poor Farm hundreds of times.  It closed in 1923.  Nearly 3,000 nameless souls who lived and worked here are buried in mass graves in this potters’ field.

Another exciting field trip was to St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, where I joined my cousin for Thanksgiving.  We drove past my aunt’s house, which was now sold and vacant.  This was the scene at the house next door.

Yes, those are dead deer hanging up outside.  I uttered a loud noise indicating disgust.  My niece asked, “What’s the big deal?  Haven’t you ever seen deer hanging before?”  As a matter of fact I have, at Lynn’s place in Scotland.  For some reason it seems to fit there, in the wilds of the highlands, but looks savage and out of place in suburban St. Croix Falls.

Our next stop was the fish hatchery, where I elicited groans of embarrassment from the nieces by saying too loudly, “The young guy feeding the fish is nice looking.”

Speaking of fish, my next post will follow Charlie and me as we visit Shimoda Aquarium.

Misunderstandings

The day dawned rainy and gloomy.  Charlie and I walked to the sea front to do the top tourist activity in Shimoda, a ride on the Susquehanna, a reproduction of the black ship with which Admiral Matthew Perry “opened” Japan in 1854.

As I’ve written before, Japan closed itself to foreigners for over 200 years.  Perry wouldn’t take no for an answer.  I paid our fares (1200 yen for me; 600 for Charlie).  It was only us and a couple with one kid, so we were spared the selfie-stick crowd.

Charlie couldn’t wait to spend the 2000 yen pocket money his mom had given him.  He bought a bag of seagull food for 100 yen and within 20 seconds it was gone.  I found a seat below, out of the rain, and he joined me.  It was fun to watch the dawn of understanding as I explained what a breakwater was.

“It’ll get a lot choppier once we pass it,” I pointed out.  “Look at those waves.”

Charlie moved to the other side of the cabin and kept yelling over, “Look, Auntie Anne, there’s a mountain/huge wave/another ship!”  The scenery was beautiful.

“Look at the seagulls following us!”

There was commentary, in Japanese.  I knew the ride was supposed to last 20 minutes but hoped they would drag it out longer since it was deadsville for tourists in Shimoda. But no, 20 minutes later we disembarked.

It was 9:30.

I had counted on buying a book that would explain everything about Perry’s expedition but there were none in English in the tiny ticket/gift shop.

“What did they say in the commentary?” I asked Charlie.

“I dunno, I didn’t pay any attention,” he replied.

“Well next time, do,” I ordered.  “How else am I supposed to know what’s going on?”

We walked back toward the train station, to the tourist information desk, to inquire about the second-most-popular tourist attraction in Shimoda, the cable car ride to a mountaintop park.  As we walked, the sun came out and it went from warm to oppressively hot.

“Look there’s steam rising from the sidewalks.  Thank god we’re gonna be up on the mountain for the rest of the day.  It should be cooler up there,” I said.  This was going to be a great way to kill most of the day.  We would have a picnic and go for a hike.  I remembered seeing colored pencils in Charlie’s bag.  We could bring those and try our hand at sketching the views.  I laid out these plans to Charlie and he nodded in satisfaction.

At the information desk, the friendly staff explained to Charlie, who turned and explained to me with great disappointment, that the mountain was closed.

“The mountain?  Don’t they mean the cable car?”

Charlie consulted with the staff in Japanese, then turned to me so they couldn’t see the dubious look on his face.  “They say the mountain is closed for repairs.”  Then we both laughed out loud.  We knew there was no point in trying to get them to explain what it meant.

“Isn’t there another way to get up there?” I asked him to ask.  Maybe we could take a cab to the top, like Lynn and I had done with Mount Wakakusa.

The poor tourist staff shook their heads, looking guilty and helpless.  They were truly sorry that we wouldn’t be able to ascend the broken mountain.  I hoped they wouldn’t commit suicide later.

“Ask them what else they would recommend we do,” I instructed Charlie.  We were encouraged to visit the aquarium.

“Okay,” I said as we walked away, “but first I have to get some cash.”

Charlie rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically.  “Don’t make me walk outside!  It’s so hot and I’m so tired!”

“Ha.  You would have been a barrel of fun on the mountaintop.  Sit right here and don’t move until I get back.  I’ll be gone five minutes.”

It took me 10 minutes, and as I rounded on the station I saw Charlie walking off after a strange man.

CHAR-Leee!  Get Back Here!” I screamed.  Everyone turned to stare at me, shocked.

No one screams in Japan, apparently, even when their kid is being abducted.

Number One Nephew

I felt human again after a hot shower, after two full-on days of traveling.  Then Charlie took a long bath; I didn’t ask him if he scrubbed and rinsed himself beforehand.

While he was soaking, I heaved his impossibly heavy suitcase onto the luggage stand and opened it.  It sprung open and a large stuffed Siroton sprang out.

There must have been a dozen t-shirts, 10 pairs of pants, underpants, socks, jackets, and hats.  Every item was impeccably folded.  You could slide this t-shirt into a #10 envelope and mail it, I thought.  There were a dozen books, mostly manga.  Then there were the allergy medications, anti-itch cream, cough syrup, sunscreen, eye drops, nasal spray, and back-up epi pens.  I kept pulling out more stuff, wondering if there was a secret portal to another world at the bottom of this tiny suitcase.  I would never, never get it all back in.

We walked to the seafront.   Everything was closed, but all a nine-year-old boy needs to stay entertained is rocks and sticks and a body of water.

We rambled the 10 minute walk into the city center.  The rain was whipping fiercely and my umbrella kept flipping inside out.  Charlie had declined an umbrella and insisted he didn’t mind getting soaked.

It being the off season, most places were closed but we had some really fresh and super cheap sushi in a restaurant in the train station.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a 7/11 to buy something for breakfast. I bought smoked salmon, blueberries, and plain yogurt.  Charlie picked out five candy items.

“I let you have a gooey desert at the restaurant,” I said, “so you have to eat a nutritious breakfast.”  He looked crestfallen, slowly put the candy back, and chose a kids’ yogurt that probably contained just as much sugar.

At the checkout, we were instructed to stick our hands into a box and pull out some sort of prize ticket.  The box had photos of a Japanese heavy metal band on it.  I’m not sure if this is the one but it was similar.

Neither of us won.  “What would we have won?” I asked Charlie.

“I think you win candy,” he said mischievously.

This was a struggle during our time together.  I was under strict instructions to limit his sugar and caffeine intake.  I was fine with this in principal but this was his vacation—he’d worked hard in school for the past three weeks and all the touristy places we visited promoted candy, doughnuts, ice cream and all things sweet.  Charlie was compliant when I said no, with only a few minutes of dejection.  For some reason this made me feel guiltier than if he had wheedled, whined, and tried to negotiate.

Keiko had Skyped me, “Charlie says he hates Japan and never wants to come back!  There’s been so much pressure on him here, academically and socially.  I hope he can unwind and have a good time with you so his negative view of Japan isn’t permanent.”

And it wasn’t. We walked into our room just in time to see the sunset through the clearing clouds, and he exclaimed, “I don’t want to leave Japan!  I want to stay here forever!”

Mission accomplished, and it was only Day 1.

Charlie had observed me writing a post on my laptop.

“I really want to write a book,” he told me.  “Can I do it on your computer?”  Of course I said yes, but I hadn’t realized that he doesn’t know how to type and his grammar and punctuation skills aren’t great yet.  I showed him the most important thing, how to save his document.

“Of course my head is full of ideas after a big day like today,” he said.  I turned my head so he couldn’t see me laugh.

I watched Kei Nishikori at Wimbledon on TV.  He’s ranked number four in the world.  I have such fond memories of Wimbledon.

“I want to be the number one writer, baseball player, runner, and a regular dad,” said Charlie.

I read what he’d written so far.

“Wonse upon a time …”

Everybody has to start somewhere.

Water Everywhere

Back in Japan, I met my sister-in-law’s folks at Omiya Station where they handed off my nine-year-old nephew.

Hiromi handed me an envelope “for emergencies.”  Did it contain cash?  One-way tickets back to Tokyo?   An inspirational saying?

At the last moment, Fred pulled out a route map and suggested we take a different route to Shimoda than the one Google recommended; the one that had made me cry in exasperation the night before.  I could almost hear my blood pressure spiking.  Getting lost on my own was stressful enough.  The prospect of getting lost with my nephew was unbearable.

Fred handed me a pack of postcard prints of his paintings, which I tucked into a backpack pocket along with the emergency envelope.

“Bye!” we all waved farewell. “Listen to Anne san!” Fred called after Charlie as we dove through the turnstiles and on toward the platforms.

“Are we gonna take grandpa’s way, or the way we talked about last night?” Charlie asked as he trudged along behind me with his roller bag and gigantic backpack.

“We’re gonna stick with the plan,” I replied.

And we did.  I had a moment of indecision in Yokohama but after a quick consultation with Charlie found the platform for the Super Okidoro train.  It’s not a shinkansen but it’s very nice, with windows that arched over our heads so we got panoramic views.

I was thrilled that Charlie appreciated the scenery.  “Look, Auntie Anne!  The ocean!” he exclaimed.  I had expected him to be jaded, now that he was almost 10.

In a couple hours we reached Shimoda, on the tip of the Izu peninsula.  This had not been mentioned in any tourist books or websites; I was only here because the in-laws recommended it.  From the station, we caught a local bus to our hotel.  It was a bit frantic because we had to have exact change and Charlie was slow getting his together.  Not for the first time, I checked myself from grabbing his money and saying, “Here, let me do it!”

As I wrote previously, our hotel room was a lovely traditional Japanese room.

And fantastic views.

As I’ve also whined about previously, it only had internet in the lobby and near the elevators.

This turned out to be okay because we might have otherwise spent a lot more time in the room, especially since it rained almost the whole time.

We wandered around the hotel to check out the features.  It appeared we were the only guests.

There were male and female onsens and a family one, also with beautiful views.

I would have loved to have partaken but I wasn’t going to leave my nephew alone in a male onsen, and I wasn’t going to bathe naked with my nephew in the family onsen.  It turned out that the hotel charged 2000 yen per person (about $18) to use them, so that wasn’t going to happen anyway.

There was an entire floor of weird Korean saunas.  These were large rooms with wall-to-wall layers of gravel on the floors and wooden benches lining the walls.  The lights were off so I couldn’t take a picture, and I can’t find any photos online so I wonder if I imagined them.

Back in the room, I felt the need for a hot shower.  I ran the water.  And ran it, and ran it … then went down to the lobby to say our room had no hot water.  They explained that it took at least 15 minutes for hot water to reach us on the second floor.

While I waited I puzzled over the crotch-level mirror.  My sister-in-law later enlightened me, “This is for when you are seated on the stool to wash yourself before you get into the tub.”

And the retractable cover over the tub?  That’s so you can keep the water warm for the next person.  It reminds me of the pioneer days in America when the whole family used the same bath water.  Ick.  But in Japan, no one gets into a tub until they’ve scrubbed and rinsed from head to toe.  The tub is not for cleaning, only relaxing.

I still want to go first.

Uniqlo No

Somewhere, waiting for one of the seven trains that took me from Koyasan to Tokyo, I took these photos.  The “trauma” of potentially losing my phone receded the farther I got from the scene, and I started snapping away again.

Why would there be a zone designated “Boarding for women only,” you ask?  Because women are so often groped on trains in Japan that it’s necessary.  Yuk.  I was never groped, probably because I was an obvious tourist.

For some perverse reason I enjoyed taking photos of ugly scenery.  This was the winner.

It was a long, hot day.  I was sweaty and felt grimy and tired.  Something that kept me going was the prospect of shopping at the Uniqlo store in Omiya station, my final destination.  Google showed that there was one; I was thoroughly sick of the four outfits I’d worn over and over for three weeks and looked forward to buying some fresh threads.

Omiya is a part of Tokyo a half hour from the center.  Its population is about 114,000—bigger than many US cities.  Omiya station, like Tokyo and Ueno and other stations, is enormous and filled with hundreds of convenience stores, florists, bakeries, noodle shops, pachinko parlors, clothing boutiques, you name it.

As usual the diagram I had studied on Google bore no relation to reality.  A one-dimensional map cannot show you that there are three stories, skyways, and underground passages.  It didn’t show me that there was an entire mall within the station, and once I stepped inside I was disconnected from the station.  A map also cannot prepare you for the thousands upon thousands of commuters streaming in and out of the station at 5pm.  I felt like a salmon swimming upstream or like that old game Frogger, when I had to dash in a zig zag pattern to get through mobs of people to cross from one side to another.

I searched for a half hour, then concluded that Google had been wrong; there was no Uniqlo.  If there was one, it was not listed on the directory nor did it have an obvious storefront.

Next, I boldly stepped out into the main thoroughfare and headed in what I hoped was the correct direction to find my Air BnB.  I passed a number of “soapland” entities, which is a euphemism for whore houses.  No wonder the Air BnB was so cheap.

The directions had said the place was “5 minutes from Omiya Station,” and by golly, it was.  I spotted the building and at the same time saw a stout lady on the external stairs shouting, “Hello!  No lift!”  I was so glad I’d shipped my suitcase on to Shimoda as I climbed three flights of stairs to meet my hostess, who turned out to be Chinese.  She gave me a huge hug like I was her long-lost daughter and gave me a brisk tour using a combo of Chinglish and Google translate. I followed her as she demonstrated the lights, “Go Out, Off!” she emphasized three times before hugging me again.  I knew I stank so she must have really liked the looks of me.

As in other low-rent Air BnBs in which I have stayed, everything was the cheapest quality possible, including the pilled, polyester bedclothes.  But hey, it only cost $73 a night.

My new mom showed me the Air BnB app and told me, “I need 5 stars review, keep boss happy!” She guffawed and hugged me again, then disappeared.

Now, a shower!  I couldn’t figure out the hot water system and I wasn’t taking a cold shower in a communal bathroom.  I teared up in frustration.  A hot shower would have to wait until after my next Herculean day of travel—tomorrow.

My Japanese family lives in Omiya, which is why I was there.  My etiquette guide explained that foreigners are never invited into Japanese homes because people are ashamed of how small their digs are.  So I didn’t take it personally when Fred suggested, through Skype, that we meet at the station and eat at a nearby restaurant.

I freshened up as well as I could with cold water, then headed out into the night.

You say Shimoda and I say Shimota

Back at the New Tohoku after the day at the seaside, my Restless Legs woke me every 45 minutes.  I finally gave up at 1am and cracked open my book.  Then my brain did a side eye to my phone, sitting on the bedside table.

I try not to look at my phone after 9pm.  “They” say the blue light stimulates your brain and keeps you awake.  But I had posted some photos on Facebook … had anyone Liked them?  I tried to resist, then grabbed the thing and saw who had Liked and commented on my photos, tried to read my book again, went back to Facebook after 10 minutes like an alcoholic who says, “Just one more,” repeat.

Social media is like those pellet dispensers in B.F. Skinner’s psychological experiments.  You know, the one’s where the rat gets a food pellet every time it performs whatever task the researcher is trying to teach it.

I wasn’t being taught a new trick (that I am aware of).  I was succumbing to intermittent reinforcement.  This is where a reward is dispensed intermittently, and it’s the most addictive kind.  On social media, you never know when you’re going to get rewards, or in what form.  When there’s a flood of them, you get a rush, so you try and try to get a repeat.  Ugh.

I gave up on sleep at 4:30am and did some rejiggering of my itinerary.  As I’ve mentioned, I was going to have my nine-year-old nephew, Charlie, for five nights at the end of the trip, and after much research with Keiko we had settled on Hakone as the ideal destination.  Hakone is a resort area about an hour from Tokyo.  It’s got cable cars, a lake with boat tours, and lots of kid stuff to keep an active child busy.

But Keiko had received an alert from the Japan Meteorological Agency about volcanic activity near Hakone.  According to NHK, Japan’s equivalent of the BBC, Hakone’s cable cars were closed, there was danger of landslides, and some local restaurants couldn’t get black eggs—a local delicacy—because certain roads were shut.

We would have to cancel Hakone and find another destination.  We lobbed ideas back and forth on Skype, then she and her dad suggested the Izu Peninsula.  When I saw there was a city at the very southern point called Shimoda, I figured it was a sign, since as I wrote in a previous post I have an ancestor from Shimota in the former Czechoslovakia.  I have built travel plans around flimsier hooks.

I started getting What’s App messages from Lynn, who had landed at Narita.  It took her an hour and 45 minutes to get from her gate to the Skyliner, the airport train which took another hour and 15 minutes to arrive at Ueno.  I could see why Keiko had insisted on flying into Haneda, which is so much closer in to central Tokyo.

I would not make Lynn try to find the hotel on her own.  I walked to the station, then serendipitously decided to wander a bit and discovered there was a separate station with the same name across the street, just for the Skyliner.

To kill time I took photos of panda buns and a posse of school kids.

There were many groups of cute little kids, but I would never take photos of small children.  I figure high schoolers are fair game because they’re posting selfies all the time anyway.

I spotted Lynn and we were off.  I insisted on carrying her suitcase up the 30 stairs.  She fought me but I won, this time.  Lynn always travels with a very small bag—just one step up from a carry on.  But it’s like a black hole—tiny but extremely heavy.

“What the hell have you got in here?” I asked as I huffed up the stairs.

“A very large bottle of whiskey for Vince,” she replied.

Vince, my son who is in recovery.  This is not what it seems.  Lynn’s husband Richard had sourced a very good bottle of whiskey with which Vince would pay the officiant at his wedding in two months’ time.

Speaking of which, here’s another photo: