Even though I've still got things to write about from last summer and fall (Thanksgiving, meeting various porcelain artists, the Yosakoi festival, a parade I happened upon one day, etc.), I want to give you a glimpse into more recent events, as they are (of course) fresher in my mind. But trust me, I'm keeping notes, so eventually you will hear about it all.
On March 19, my friend (and mentor and ex-employer and author-for-whom-I-design-books) MM came to Japan to visit. His plan was to spend three weeks in this beautiful country, with the first nine or ten days spent based in Sasebo, visiting me. Due to a miscommunication (and a stomach bug) on my end of things, we didn't meet up until the 21st, when I took the train to Fukuoka to escort him back to Sasebo. The train trip was pleasant, as always, as we rode alongside the incredibly green rice paddies and through long tunnels cut through the abrupt and shaggy mountains. Luckily, MM is as adventurous as I am, so when he said he could probably eat something just before we boarded our train (standing in obedient lines--no clustering or shoving here!), I jumped out of the line to purchase a bento lunch at the little food kiosk there on the train platform. I had no idea what specifically was in that particular bento, but I was reasonably sure it would have something from the standard range of rice and pickles, with perhaps shreds of omelette (tamago) or bits of mushroom or pieces of fish. I think it was a great introduction to Japanese life for MM , as we shared the mushroom-studded rice and bits of Japanese pickle (no fork, of course, only chopsticks), and watched the countryside slide by.
That evening, we headed out to Fearless Husband's favorite curry restaurant, Coco Ichibanya (it was FH's last night at home for a while). I'd worried at first that it was a little too "chain-restaurant-with-plastic-booths" for a guest, but decided that MM would have plenty of chances in Japan to go to fancier restaurants, and this was the sort of place that Japanese families frequent on a regular basis...this was the REAL Japan. FH got his usual level 6 or 7 (I don't remember which...either one will blow away mere mortals with powerful heat!) and I got my tamer-but-still-spicy level 3. I think MM got the level 2, and even that was a little much for him! (Note to self: start visitors out with a level 0 or 1, unless you KNOW they're chili-heads!) However, despite the heat, it was a fun evening, talking and laughing and catching up, and showing MM various little things about Japanese life. For example...I hang onto the o-shibori (wet cloth) we're given at the start of a meal, because there usually aren't napkins -- and if there are, they tend to be not-very-absorbent little scraps of tissue -- and I always, ALWAYS need something to wipe my face/hands/shirt/table with...the waiter seats you and gives you menus, but does not come back to the table to bug you ("Ya'll ready to order yet?? *heavy sigh*) until you push a little button to ring a bell...curry in Japan is a saucy, messy dish, and simply can't be eaten with chopsticks, so large spoons are provided, and it's expected that you will use them (much to MM and FH's relief!)
The next morning, I took FH to the ship and said my goodbyes (*sniffle*) and headed back to the house. MM and I had breakfast, and ended up sitting on the kitchen floor (I know...weird!) and yakking away for a couple of hours, catching up on several years of adventures for each of us. Finally, we got our acts together, and headed out the door. We went to Kashimae Pier to enjoy the spectacular weather -- cool breezes, blue skies and bright sunshine. After woodfired pizzas at Pinocchio's (sounds Italian, but with the various mushrooms and seafood, they were very Japanese-influenced Italian!) we strolled the docks, and MM (of course) ended up discovering some really spectacular architecture sort of hidden away, almost as if the architect had designed the building for his own pleasure. We decided to take the hour-long Kujukushima (literally 99 Islands) cruise around the 208 or so little islands in the harbor. I took a late-afternoon cruise on my own last fall, and it was really beautiful...but it was hazy, and the sun was setting, sending long shadows into the various hollows. This cruise was quite different, with the bright sun, flags snapping in the wind, intensely turquoise water and wind and wave-scoured rocks. We speculated on the various kinds of aquaculture around us (found out later it's almost all oyster farming), and pointed out particularly Japanese-looking twisted pines and interesting wind-scuplted embankments to each other. The first time I took the cruise, the recorded announcements were in Japanese and Australian-accented English. I guess that day there were more English-speakers on board than just me...this time, with MM, we seemed to be the only non-Asians on board, but there were many Chinese tourists, and a tour group from Taiwan. So, the announcements were in Japanese and Chinese...no English at all. Oh well! However, I knew from prior experience that the captions on the illustrated map of the islands were almost identical to the announcements, so we weren't missing much -- and it was interesting to realize that I can now REALLY tell the difference between spoken Japanese, spoken Chinese and spoken Korean. They all used to sound alike to my American ears, but now they're as different as German and French!
After the cruise, we wanderered a little more, and MM suggested the aquarium and shipping museum. As much as I love aquariums, for some reason, I'd never felt particularly drawn to this one. But our cruise tickets entitled us to a reduced admission, so off we went. The place was near empty, but in this land of virtually no unemployment, there were two employees at the ticket desk, and two more to bow and welcome us into the museum itself. I was pleasantly surprised at both the shipping museum and at the aquarium. Both were quite small, but both were really beautifully designed, with a great deal of fascinating information. Though most of the signs were not in English, there were little green boxes on pedestals scattered throughout the shipping museum. One picked up the single padded earphone and held it to one's ear, and hit the appropriate button on the box (English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean) to hear a recorded spiel about that particular exhibit. There were astonishingly beautiful wooden models and cros-sections of ships and hulls, a scale-model of a Japanese merchant ship that one can walk through, a reproduction of a portion of a Viking longboat (along with a very funny horn-hatted Viking mannequin with a bushy red moustache), a dugout canoe, a timeline of the various boat types through the ages and how each developed (dugouts, reed/rush canoes, etc.) and more. It was really fascinating!
The aquarium was very small, but equally wonderful. The first exhibit I came to was a large table covered in shallow plastic pans, with two plump, grinning grandmother-types with head kerchiefs and rubber gloves. It looked like a temporary craft area for kids, but it was an oyster table, and for 500 yen (about $4) one could purchase an oyster with a cultivated pearl inside, open it then and there with the provided tools, and take home an opalescent shell half and a real (cultured) pearl in pink, black, gold or white (the color was the main "surprise" as each oyster was guaranteed to have a pearl). MM had gone on ahead, so I succumbed to touristy, childlike temptation and plopped into a folding chair, handing over my 500 yen. The two old ladies gave me a glove for my left hand (that was a Charlie Chaplin moment, as the two tried to put the glove on my hand FOR me, at the same time, stuffing my fingers every which way and snapping the latex against my wrist, arguing in Japanese!) Then I was handed an oyster -- very different from the tough, lumpy, granite-colored oysters I'm used to. This one was bronze-colored, with a tear-drop rounded, delicate shell, flanged on one side where the hinge was. I inserted the oyster knife, and tried to follow the pantomime of my two helpers as they contradicted each other, lectured me in smiling Japanese and eventually grabbed my hands to "guide" me in forcing the hinge apart. I sat back for the ride, letting them manipulate the oyster, the knife, and both of my hands. Satisfied that I'd done it right (with their help), they handed me a long pair of tweezers. MM came up at that point, to find me gleefully digging for the pearl, the two ladies laughing at my efforts. Finally, out popped a perfect, luminous white pearl -- really surprising me as it suddenly surfaced in the grey mucous of the oyster like the moon rising from a swamp. The ladies gasped with surprise and pleasure, and I beamed happily. Whether it was real or, as I strongly suspect, part of their act, they seemed to imply that MY pearl was one of the BEST pearls, and I was supremely lucky. They took it from me, wiped it clean, tucked it in a tiny cellophane bag with a clean (not splintered by three sets of hands) irridescent oyster-shell half, tied the top prettily with a piece of gold ribbon, and ceremoniously presented me with my treasure. Silly? Sure. But I had so much fun!
Off to the next exhibit we went. I was enjoying the brightly lit tanks of colorful saltwater fish set into the fake rock walls of the darkened "cave tunnel" hallway, when I gasped in shock and surprise. Right beside a waist-high exhibit of vivid tropical fish was a tank that reached to the floor level...and my toes were about an inch of glass away from a huge tangle of vicious-looking moray eels in semi-darkness. Wow...THAT was a powerful juxtaposition! Their tangled bodies were each quite a bit thicker than my arm, and their jutting jaws seemed full of malicious intent. I couldn't tear my eyes away from them for a long time....the way their tank seemed to be a long, rock-walled tunnel from ceiling to floor really added to the feeling of secretive and powerful danger. Then movement caught my eye, and I was immediately drawn to the next exhibit...a huge tank taller than my head with a thick "arm" that jutted out into the room. Recorded gull cries and waves echoed as I stood, fascinated, first staring into a school of silvery fish moving flashing and moving like one sparkling creature instead of hundreds of tiny individuals...then absolutely captivated by several HUGE sea turtles swimming majestically by me, only a couple of inches away from my outstretched fingers. I could've stood there and stared all day. There were other exhibits, of course...glowing, tiny jellyfish pulsing with slow grace to move their impossible, transparent bodies...tanks of pufferfish and luminescent lionfish...a large "touch pool" of urchins and crabs and whelks...tank after tank of astonishingly-colored live corals and aenemones. I'll definitely be going back!
Afterwards, we wandered through the touristy shops in the "cruise terminal", looking over the various items that are specifically "Sasebonian", such as biwa (loquat) pies and jellies, and various bottles of sake and shochu. We bought a little biwa pie for dessert later, and a bottle of shochu, and headed home. Our supposedly "slow paced day of relaxation" was surprisingly tiring for us both! We shared some shochu at home, along with a quick dinner of kielbasa/cabbage/onion/apple, and then were both more than ready to sleep!
Next up: our trip to Huis Ten Bosch!
A trio of videos (I have sharper versions, so let me know if you want me to send you the higher resolution versions):
A Silvery School