Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Driving Test and the House on the Hill

January 17, 2006

Now that the "Indoc" class is over (and we both have the "official certificates" to prove it!) we're allowed to get our Japanese driver's licenses. So at 9am, we joined our classmates again at the Fleet and Family Services Center for a two-hour cram class in Japanese driving rules. Neither of us was really into it, as we'd both managed to catch a nasty cold. FH was especially sick, so he went back to the Navy Lodge, but I sat through the class (he leaves shortly on the ship, but I really do have to be able to drive before he leaves). Our instructor's English was a little hard to understand through her very heavy accent, but she obviously took her job very, very, very seriously. She told us a few horror stories, and the point of each seemed to be that she blamed herself for passing the lawbreaker, and that somehow, each offense was ultimately her fault! She assured us that she rarely passed even half of the class the first time around, as she did not want all those deaths on her conscience if we were bad drivers. Needless to say, I was glad I'd studied the driver's manual and the color sheet of Japanese road signs.

After an hour lecture, we were to sit through two short films before the written test. I expected something along the lines of the "Blood on the Highway" films we were shown in Driver's Ed back in high school, but instead, these films reflected what was important in the Japanese culture. Both were American English films, filmed in Japan, but the main point of the films was not "you might get hurt or die." Instead, the moral of the story was that if you don't drive responsibly, you will bring intense embarrassment to yourself, your family and your country--a very Japanese attitude that embarrassment is worse than maiming and disfigurement!

I aced the written test (thank goodness for studying!) and was told to return at 1:10pm for the driving test. Our Fearful Leader watched me buckle in, check my mirrors, and start the car. She immediately made a note, then reached across my chest to turn on the headlights (not required, but essential in her mind, I guess!) I was as nervous as I was the first time I took my driving test, repeating my "remember this" list in my head. "Remember to stay on the LEFT side of the road. Remember that the turn signal is the wiper switch and the wiper switch is the turn signal. Remember that the triangle sign means STOP here, not yield. Remember to watch for pedestrians. Remember that the stop line in front of the crosswalk at an intersection only means stop if there are pedestrians present or a triangular sign. Etc." Didn't help that Fearful Leader kept making little gasps and notes, even when I was driving slowly down the center of the lane (no, not the center of the road!) The final part of the test involved reversing the car into a very narrow perpendicular parking space ("Remember to tap your horn before reversing!") The whole class was standing in front of the Safety Building, watching....and I've never been a big fan of reversing. After cracking my right elbow against the window (automatically turning my body to look over my right shoulder dontcha know...) I got turned around the right way, arm across the back of Fearless Leader's seat, blew the horn, and began to back up. No, too wide. Forward and try again. Wait, is the nose of the car going to hit that parked car? I'm crooked. Try again. Curseword. Ooops...does she know that word? Curseword, yes she does.

I didn't pass.

The only consolation for me was that only about 6 people out of a class of 14 passed the first time around, and I was told to come back on Friday to try again. I got my "learner's permit" for "on-base only" driving and the admonition to practice backing up. Although that sounds a little tough to do, it wasn't such an obstacle as you might think...because we bought a car! Yes, we are the proud owners of a very narrow, beat-up little Mitsubishi "beater" for the grand total of $750. We still have hoops to jump through, such as the base-required insurance, Japanese Compulsory Insurance, the compulsory and expensive inspection and emissions test, and the city requires a parking registration of about $40 per year that proves every car owner in the city has a legal place to park his or her car. But we now have transportation and that's a happy thing. I will still ask the housing folks for some assistance figuring out the bus routes, as I am a firm believer and supporter of public transportation. I'll send a photo of our little beat-up baby soon!

That afternoon, I went back to the housing office to look at more houses as fast as possible, since we had to make the decision about whether or not to take base housing by noon on Wednesday. I'm not sure I mentioned how we meet the agents. The housing office sets up the meeting, and the prospective renter goes out the back gate of the base and waits on the street corner. A car pulls up with a smiling face, and off you go. Too many people were being taken to the wrong house, so now each person is given a car color and a license plate number, to ensure we will see the house we expect to be shown! I was grateful, as I had a realtor pull up, open the door, and gesture for me to get in--but it certainly wasn't a beige car with license plate 10-83! The agent tried to insist, and I was relieved when a young couple came running up, aplogizing for being late, and jumped into her car. My agent showed up a couple of minutes later. Who knows though...maybe I would've liked looking at the first house, too!

House #3 was a bust. Suffice to say it was a pretty drive, but a hovel of a house. Brilliant photographer though! The agent seemed apologetic from the moment he picked me up, and I think he knew it was a rat trap and was embarrassed to be wasting his time and my own. Very nice man though.

Time for House #4. The real estate agent was the first woman agent we'd had, and I enjoyed her beaming smile and the mariachi music she had bouncing through the car when she picked me up. Ms. Agent drove up a winding road, past a shiny chrome-trimmed supermarket and a "sushi-go-round" which she pointed out with enthusiasm to me on the way out and again on the way back. Seems Americans are well known for liking the "sushi-go-round" restaurants, where the chefs prepare lots of different little plates of sushi, and send them out to the customers on a conveyor belt, or little boats travelling around a canal, or on toy train cars on a circular track. The customers pick up anything that comes by and strikes their fancy. The meal cost is figured out at the end by counting the little plates each diner has stacked beside him or her. The plates are color coded, with white ones being only 100 yen (about a dollar).

We climbed and climbed (anything worthwhile in Japan...) passing lots of little shops and folks out walking the steep streets. The narrow lanes made me gulp, especially when we passed a city bus by a hair, but Ms. Agent knew what she was doing. Then we turned onto the steepest, narrowest street I've ever been on. I was sitting in the back seat, and my view through the windshield was basically straight down--like cresting the top of the big hill on the rollercoaster in that hanging second before you plunge down and down and down. We didn't. Plunge, that is, but only due to the great brakes on her excellent little car! I think she heard me whimper, because she turned around and beamed at me. "Two way!" she exclaimed happily. Yep, she meant that this road, so narrow I wasn't sure we'd keep both side mirrors, was a TWO WAY street! We stopped at a stop sign (miraculously, I thought!) and went another 25 yards before she suddenly pulled the car into a little opening between a stone wall and a house, and we were on level ground again.

House #4--the House on the Hill--has a little yard and a little fence, and a couple of happy trees (one very Japanese, with each branch its own "level") and two camellia bushes in flower. It sits very, very close to its neighbors (as all city houses do) but due to the slope, one side of the house looks out and over the roofs, and there is even a little slice of harbor view. It's a great mix of contemporary comfort and Japanese traditional style. The entryway is small but airy, as it's open all the way up the staircase to the second floor, with the little hall railing forming a tiny second floor gallery. There is an altar space and carved main beam in a tatami room at the front of the house. There is a large, open living/dining room which leads right into the large (!) kitchen, all of which have nice wooden floors. There's a tatami room at the back of the house as well, and both that room and the living/dining room have sliding glass doors leading into the fenced and secluded yard.

The bath room is traditional, with the shower head and spigot separate from the short, deep soaking tub. Both toilets (both downstairs) have the electric seat warmers, and both washbasin mirrors are heated so they won't fog up. Upstairs there is one tatami room, as well as two rooms with hardwood floors--one of which has a balcony from which one can see that harbor view. There's even a little tiny room specifically for holding a wardrobe, as closet space is rather non-existent in most Japanese homes. At 1316 square feet, it's not as big as Dream House or House #2, but the House on the Hill has plenty of space, some traditional Japanese elements, and it's in great shape. Ms. Agent performed an intricate 37-point road turn in the narrow, one-lane driveway (shared with the house behind) and stuck her nose out into the two-way luge run that thinks it is a residential street. I thought I might have to pedal, but her workmanlike little Japanese box car chugged its way back up that hill, and I sighed with intense relief as the truck pointed down the hill in our direction turned away at the stop sign mid-slope. Heading back down the twisty roads to the base, I realized that the two lane thoroughfares were MUCH wider than I'd thought on the way up! I knew I'd have to come back to this house with FH, to see what he thought. It's not as traditional or as wonderful as Dream House, but it's a ten-minute commute, and there is a bus stop two blocks away (if you have rock-climbing equipment). It doesn't have the shrine and the teeny fish pond and the lantern of House #2, but it's nowhere near as shabby, and it's not facing an industrial area. We'll see.

Tune in tomorrow to hear more about The House on the Hill, House #5, the decision about base housing, and much more!

First Anniversary

January 16, 2006

Two more houses to see, we hope, but not until tomorrow. We'll have to make our decision tomorrow night. We've also got our driving class and test tomorrow morning...wish us luck! We spend yesterday, January 15 (our first anniversary!) watching movies, taking turns on the computer, generally relaxing indoors while the skies drizzled outside, and discussing housing options. I'm enjoying FH's gift to me--a beautiful, locally-made vase filled with ruffly and aromatic sweet pea flowers and a single ivory rose. I think he enjoyed the steak dinner I made for him in our little kitchenette in the Lodge. Neither of us can believe it's been a year...and we're both very proud of having spent the past 45 days together, 24/7, still loving and happy!

Enjoy the MLK holiday, those of you who get the day off. More house adventures soon...and driving adventures as well!

House #2

Saturday, January 14, 2006

It's another dreary, rainy day--a good time to look at a house, when sunshine won't make up for deficiencies, and we can see the place at its worst. We got smart and took a cab to the back gate this time, to meet the new real estate agent. The car was a brand new miniature station wagon, and our host was a thin, elegant, mustachioed gentleman in a suit and tie. His English was limited, but certainly better than our Japanese! He bowed solemnly, and drove off smoothly--a far cry from the insanity of the day before! The drive was relatively short this time, about fifteen minutes through narrow city streets. We drove over a bridge stretched across a man-made canal, squeezed into a narrow lane beside a big, industrial warehouse, and there it was...House #2. As we pulled up, the clouds parted and the sun came out. An omen?

The house itself is perched on a sharp little hill, with a small ledge of garden all the way around, dropping away to the street level 10 to 20 feet below. There is a little shed for garden tools in the front, perched over the "garage", which is basically a narrow cave burrowed into the hill. The plantings, though crowded, are camellia, daffodils, azaleas and various other little flowering trees and shrubs, with lichen-covered rocks here and there, a stone lantern, and a lovely, very tiny fish pond.

The view from the front door of the house is of the warehouse and industrial area, but over the warehouse can be seen other houses perched on hills and the sides of ravines, and the misty mountains over everything. Our real estate agent assured us that the workers at the warehouse only made a little noise, and the noise was confined to the 9 to 5 hours. On the other three sides of the house, on different levels of ground, are neighboring houses, and the canal. Though FH thought the canal was for sewage (!) it's actually for rainwater during the rainy season and is very clean. (In the city, structures seem temporary and flimsy and run down--but the Japanese are extremely germ conscious, and although something may look like it's falling down, it's always very clean.)

There is no sidewalk, or a straight residential street the way we think of a neighborhood street...instead, the twisty little alley runs beside the warehouse and between houses almost randomly. The houses don't face the path, but instead seem to face wherever they might fit best on the uneven terrain. One house might show a profile to the street, another its back door and laundry line. I wonder how anyone can find an address, especially delivery people! At the corner of the warehouse, in a direct line with the front door of House #2, is a small shrine with greenery and tangerines in front of the small, rough stone pillar with carved and gilded kanji. Our real estate agent explained it was a shrine to the mountain god. (FH thought he said "mountain goat" at first, and was confused as to why there would be a shrine to a mountain goat in the middle of the city!)

The decorative gate at the street level opens to a steep, short flight of stairs to the front door of the house, and the front gate, the lock and the knob of the door are as ornate as the house is austere. It's a boxy house, and has a flat roof instead of the tile roofs of most of its neighbors, and the sliding glass window/doors everywhere except at the very front. Though it is not as "traditional" as the Dream House, there are still uniquely Japanese elements. The foyer is ceramic tiled, with a large cupboard for guest's shoes, and slippers laid out for guest use. There are stairs to mount from the entry to the rest of the house (anything worthwhile in Japan...) The center room is a big tatami room, and the altar and carved main beam are in this room, along with shoji screens on three sides. The rest of the house is relatively open (again, about 1,700 square feet) and despite some elements I consider sort of shabby (colored translucent contact paper on several glass doors and windows for privacy, instead of curtains or blinds), the house could be filled with color and light and made very comfortable for us both. There is a charming little balcony, and the traditional Japanese bath is very nice, with a deep (though short) tub. The toilet has a heated seat (yippee!!), which seems very common in Japan, and I'm sure it's welcome in these cold houses!

There's a brick fireplace in the living room, which is surprising. I think there must have been a gas line there at one point, but it's been sealed, so now the only choices would be vent-free gas logs (do they even have those in Japan?) or a Flamenco logset. A small satellite dish is already installed, and we are certain we could get decent Internet access (a necessity for us both). There is room for all our needs, from separate computer work spaces to a guestroom (or two!) And the kitchen has plenty of room for the government-provided full-sized fridge, stove, washer and dryer.

Though this house is not as romantic and wonderful as the Dream House, it is large, with a reasonable commute...and it's within walking distance to the bus line. We wouldn't have the views and the mysticism of the mountains and rice paddies, but being IN a neighborhood, with the shops a short walk away, would lead to a much better chance of community involvement as well as making Japanese friends. When we make friends on the base, House #2 is about halfway between Main Base and Hario, and we'd be more likely to have our invitations accepted by other Navy folks than we would if we lived 40 minutes from Main Base and over an hour from Hario. And if I give English classes, I'll be more likely to have students willing to come to my house!

The real estate agent for this house made me feel much more comfortable than the first agent. He took out a pad and a pen, and solemnly followed me from room to room and around the entire outside of the house, making notes as I pointed out questions to him (a grate leading to the crawl space had fallen out, an old, disconnected water heater sat rusting against one wall of the house in the back, etc.) He also let us know that the landlord would mow and weed the whole property once, when we moved in, then it would be our responsibility for the garden upkeep. We were welcome to use the little shed and the gardening tools inside. I love the thought of digging in the soil and planting things while watching the neighborhood around me, smiling and nodding to passersby.

As we left the house, the clouds rolled back in and the rain began again. We had sunshine and blue skies ONLY while we were looking at the house, funny enough! Our gentlemanly real estate agent delivered us to the back gate with a minimum of fuss and a genteel bow. We walked back to the Navy Lodge, discussing the three options we have so far (Main Base townhouse, Dream House and House #2). As much as we both want the romance of Dream House, practicality really sort of puts it out of the running. If only it was closer, or the road not quite so steep! I think Main Base is drab, but can live with it if necessary. FH's not thrilled with House #2--I think because of the warehouse and the unfair comparisons to Dream House. Perhaps if we'd never seen Dream House, we'd both be happy with House #2. Who knows?

The Dream House

January 13, 2006

Housing is...interesting, to say the least when one is stationed overseas. (Warning: relatively involved description of "How Navy Housing Works" follows, so if you want, you can skip down to paragraph #6.)

Usually, there is a waiting list for base housing, so families are given up to sixty days in the Navy Lodge (we moved to the lodge last Monday) to find housing in a cho (neighborhood) or get offered base housing. We pay for our stay in the lodge and are reimbursed every ten days for both the lodging fee and a per diem towards food. Some folks have up to a two-year wait for base housing, so they have no choice but to move into a cho. If you move to a cho and then housing becomes available, the Navy will pay both for your move to the cho and for your subsequent move to base housing.

HOWEVER...if the space to which you are entitled is available on base, you get two offers. The first offer is usually at the Hario base, in the apartment tower. This is nice enough, but it's linoleum-floored, cinderblock-walled rabbit-warren housing, and it's a 35-minute commute to the main base. If you turn down your first offer, you can be more specific for your second offer (a townhouse instead of the apartment tower, Main Base instead of Hario, etc.) But, if you turn down your first offer and move to the cho, and your second offer becomes available, the military will not move you from the cho to base's at your own expense.

We signed up for housing on Tuesday...and got our first offer that afternoon! We were given 24 hours to accept or decline our first offer. I was panicked, as I really did want to see what was in the community before making any decisions or burning any bridges. So I went to talk to the housing counselors. Melissa is officially our counselor, and she is very new. As a result, she's a real stickler for following the rule book to the letter (and I don't really blame her.) Luckily for me, Roland was the only counselor available to talk to me, and he's an old hand. Instead of making me wait for Melissa, he decided to talk to me. I blurted out everthing, about wanting to look at the neighborhoods but not wanting to give up base housing in case the neighborhoods were not what I wanted and I need a place with Internet access and are the bugs really as big as some people have told me if I live in the cho and we have two appointments to look at houses, but can't go until Friday and Saturday due to our mandatory class....

When I finally took a breath, he said "Let me see..." He got up and retrieved a three ring binder, then leaned back in his chair, slowly flipping through the binder and occasionally glancing over it at me. It was REALLY hard to sit still--not talking or fidgeting--but I did it. After five minutes (felt like a week), Roland leaned forward, put the binder down and said "here's what I can do..." Basically, he told me our second offer was ready to go, and once he made the offer, we'd have 24 hours to decide...then no more chances to live on base. But he was willing to work with me, and give us our second offer on Tuesday so we could see the houses on Friday and Saturday, and then two more on Tuesday if we play our cards right, before having to give him our decision. He then told me I could choose which offer we get on Tuesday....a townhouse in Hario (something coveted) or a townhouse on Main Base (REALLY coveted and very rare). He even gave me a key so we could walk over to the Main Base housing and look at the town house he will offer us on Tuesday. Basically he was treating me like a pretty high-ranking officer's wife, and I found out later he does not work with the enlisted men and their families (but he does know FH is an E-6). He even gave me a copy of the floorplan for both townhouses, to help us decide.

The Main Base housing has some good points--it is within an easy walk of FH's ship, the gym, the commissary, medical, etc. The appliances are all installed and all full-sized (American). It's clean and freshly painted, with nice blinds and hardwood floors. There is a LOT of storage, including a little storage shed, and there is a postage-stamp back yard, in which I could grow a couple of tomato plants and a marigold, as long as they all get along. But it's blank and boring and the views are pretty drab and depressing. I'm sure I could fill the house with color and light though, and make it a nice, if small, nest, and there is a lot to be said for the walking commute (we could wait to get a car, and I could explore the area via train and bus) and being within an American community. But we want to live IN the Japanese community here rather than just BESIDE it.

So on Friday afternoon, we had our first appointment with a real estate agent. We walked to the base's back gate to meet him (about a mile and a half), and of course the skies opened up on us halfway there, and I'd forgotten my umbrella. We made our dripping way into the agent's little box car. He bowed from the driver's seat, handed me a box of tissues, and off we went like a rattle-trap rocket. After a few attempts at conversation, we realized our agent spoke absolutely NO English. It was better than a rollercoaster at first, being flung from side to side through the crazy traffic as he shouted in Japanese into his cell phone, driving with one hand and both feet. All I could think was "Isn't there a horror movie that starts just like this?" Eventually though, the traffic thinned out as we drove into the country and up into the mountains. I was craning my neck from the back seat, trying to see where the road cut through the mountains, when suddenly we did just that--cut right THROUGH the mountains, plunging into a tunnel that went on long enough to seriously worry me.

When we popped out the other side, we were in another world. The rain stopped, and mist clung in shreds to the mountains. Rice paddy terraces stepped their way up hilllsides, a paler, brighter green than the surrounding landscape despite their winter hibernation. Farmer's houses with dark, tiled roofs sat like not-so-little islands centered in the expanding ripples of the paddies. We drove and drove...cut through the outskirts of a tiny village, and with a sudden twist of the steering wheel, plunged to the left over a boulder-strewn stream and up the steepest, narrowest winding road I have ever been on in my life. We clung to the handles in the car, waiting for the inevitable plunge to our deaths when the little car made a last hairpin turn to the right and pulled into a parking space beside a house.

Let me rephrase that. We pulled in beside THE house.

This house was like something out of Shogun. It was quintessentially Japanese, from the little entrance gate and archway to the carefully sculpted, OLD trees, to the shoji screens and tatami mats...and it was over 1,700 square feet. The entranceway tiles were ceramic, not linoleum, and except for the kitchen, the floors were either hardwood or tatami. The altar alcove and accompanying hand-carved main beam (usually the most expensive part of a Japanese house) seemed imbued with ancient spirits, and the sliding rice paper shoji screens seemed to whisper words like "geisha" and "arigato". The house clung to the mountain, backed up against a towering, silent pine forest. The views of the mistneighboring mountains and the valley were barely framed by trees, and otherwise unimpeded. A beautifully twisted orange tree and a lemon tree, both heavy with fruit, stand at the foot of the steep driveway, and from there, the land just falls away beneath a thick carpet of green to the valley floor, far below.

A little background: tatami rooms are rooms that are floored in tatami mats, which are 3 x 6' each, and about 3" deep. They are covered in straw, and make the floor give beneath your feet, beneath your knees and behind while sitting or kneeling, and beneath your futon. The room sizes are not given in square feet, but rather by how many tatami mats will fill the floor space. So, a six tatami room would be 9 x 12'. No rooms are designated as "bedrooms" since every morning, futons are folded in half and put into very large cupboards just for that purpose in every room, converting the room one sleeps in to a living area.

The bathroom was entirely Japanese--a completely tiled room in which one sits on a stool OUTSIDE the tub and uses a bucket (or in this case a modern, hand-held shower sprayer) to wash and rinse the body and hair. Once the bather is entirely clean, he or she steps into the large, very deep tub embedded with the rim near the floor level, to soak and relax. Often the water is heated only in the tub, and is circulated to heat it after the tub is drawn. Soap is never, ever used in a Japanese bath, and one only gets into the tub when one is as clean as possible, since every member of the family may soak in the hot water, one after another. The toilet and wash basin are in separate rooms--and hot water isn't always an option for the wash basin, so we have to make sure and ask!

There is no central heating--instead, there are kerosene or propane heaters in a couple of rooms, and occasionally air conditioning units. (The military will provide us with two more heating/air conditioning units wherever we move.) The whole house is on stilts, and every room has sliding windows/doors, floor to ceiling, directly to the outside--regardless of whether there is a step or just a six-foot drop! We've been told this is so ghosts and bad spirits can flow on through instead of being trapped, but with the hot and humid summers, it's probably also to encourage every stray breeze. Winters are chilly in these non-insulated houses. One tradition sounds pretty wonderful to me though. In the winter time, a heat lamp (used to be a coal brazier in years gone by) is placed under a low table, and a quilt is thrown over the table. The whole family sits on the floor around the table with the quilt tucked around their waist, their legs and lower body cozy in the warmth beneath the table.

FH turned to me after we'd explored the house and were standing looking at the view, and said "This is a house we could really WRITE in." I agreed wholeheartedly. We don't know what sort of Internet service we could get, but we both covet that house, the views, the romance, the pine forest, the lemon tree, the mist and the rice paddies--the lifestyle that house whispered to us both.

Why haven't we moved in already? What are the drawbacks? Well, the slightest bit of ice or snow, or even really heavy typhoon weather would trap us, and the Navy doesn't look kindly on sailors who call in to say they can't get to work. The commute, as lovely as it is, would be a minimum of 40 minutes, longer in rush hour--and if I want the car for the day, I would have to drive him to the base and drive back twice a day. If FH is out on his ship for months at a time, I would be quite isolated, and the chance of getting to know the neighbors is small, as they are so scattered. There is a train station, and so that's a possibility, but again, we'd have to drive down the mountain to get to the station, and though it doesn't snow or ice up often, it does happen.

Actually, finding out about the train station was kind of funny. I was trying to ask our agent where the nearest station was. With no common language, I drew some pretty horrible pictures of trains and train tracks. He was totally lost and I think FH was mortified by my drawing and my charades. Then the agent's face lit up and he whipped out his cell phone. After speaking in Japanese, he handed me the phone with a bow. On the other interpreter! After much back and forth (I explained to the interpreter, she explained to him, he answered her, she told me what he said, etc.) he understood, and promised to point out the train station on the way back. I think he did--at least that's how I interpreted his rapid Japanese and frantic arm flailing as we went careering past a ramshackle building beside the train tracks on our way home. I think the station was beyond the shack though, as he also said several times "Shopping! Shopping!" as he flailed, and we've been told the train stations often have several shops and a grocery store.

So...we know we will be offered a highly-desirable but grim townhouse on the Main Base on Tuesday. We've seen our dream house--if only it was closer. Tomorrow, we get to see another house, not so special, but not so far away. Unfortunately, after these two houses, we can't see any more until the housing office reopens on Tuesday and they schedule us for more house viewings. We hope to see at least four before we have to decide on Wednesday morning.

I took my camera with me on the house visit, but forgot the &#$% SD card, so was unable to take any pictures to send you. My apologies! Stay tuned for the story of house number two!

Tea Man & Tofu Grandma

January 13, 2006

What a day! Today was our last day of the Intercultural Relations classes. The first two days were boring, full of mundane details about the Navy base, but the last two days were wonderful! Eriko, our teacher/guide was hysterically funny, playing for laughs whenever possible. She's also an extremely bright woman and a fount of information. Obviously, there is only so much that can be crammed into two days, but Eriko managed to give us at least a paper-thin foundation in Japanese history, Sasebo history, the four kinds of writing (katagana, hiragana, kanji and romanji), basic phrases (and how and when to use them), instruction about Japanese beliefs (Shintoism and Buddhism, religion versus superstition), a brief bit about the area's festivals and holidays, and some cultural ideosyncracies.

For example, the Japanese word "no" (iie or "EE-ay") is only used when one is being flattered--the flatteree says "no, no, I am unworthy of your flattery." Otherwise, the Japanese rarely say "no". Instead, they will cross their arms, suck air in through their teeth, scratch their head as if thinking very hard, and say "hmmm...difficult." That means NO, but is much more polite--they are implying that of course they would go to such trouble for you, but it would be very difficult. The person making the request is expected to then say "oh, I didn't mean it" or "nevermind" or "I wouldn't dream of asking that" and not force the other to openly verbalize a refusal. They can also say (usually to strangers) "no, you can't come in" or "no, I can't help you" non-verbally, with either crossed fingers held in front (as if warding off a vampire) or crossed arms held in an X in front of the face (pretty obviously saying "NO!) There were several other gestures--the circled thumb and forefinger we use for "OK" is used here (hand held with the knuckles pointing down) to mean "money". Instead, you signal "OK" by putting both arms in a circle overhead, sort of like first position ballet arms, and nodding one's head vigorously. (Yes, that one is more of a long-distance signal, such as across a soccer field.)

Shrine guard dogIn any case, today was our "field trip." Eriko rounded us up and loaded us onto a big white bus, and out we went. First stop, a Shinto shrine--the gate, or "torii" a huge, recognizeable landmark sprouting on a busy street corner. You probably know the's sort of like a capital H with a second crossbar on the top, extending past the verticals. At either side of the torii stand two guard dogs, one with mouth open, the other with mouth closed. Usually these are dogs, but occasionally they are foxes, or Korean lions. Unfortunately, they all look like the same kind of animal to me! They're huge stone sculptures, each as big as a large Mastiff or larger, and Eriko made a point of showing us the perfect stone ball rolling loose inside the mouth of the open-mouthed dog. It had been carved from the stone within the cage of the teeth, not put in later, she wanted us to understand, so we'd understand the great skill of the sculptor.

Front of shrineIt turns out that the Japanese believe that anything worthwhile is worth climbing to up the steps we went. (When you come to visit, bring comfortable shoes for walking and climbing!) There were monuments to either side of the very wide stairs, and lots of trees and bushes. It was hard to believe we'd left the bustling city street just four steps behind us. At the top of the steps was another torii, and a long path through a serene park, ending at the shrine. (I've attached some photos of the guard dog at the entrance, and the shrine at the top--kind of grim, as it was raining, but honestly, it's much prettier than it looks!) The shrine was decorated with fluttering tassels of paper, and guarded by two colorful banners with dogs painted on them. These were not guardians like the ones at the entrance...instead, these were to represent the fact that 2006 is the Year of the Dog. Beside each banner were HUGE arrows made of bamboo. There were similar, much smaller arrows for sale, and we were told these were used at the entrance of homes to spear evil spirits trying to enter the house. At the end of the year, the arrows are ceremoniously burned (I guess along with their spitted spirits) and new arrows are purchased.

Purifying mouths and hands

Before we approached the temple, we were directed to a small shelter with a big stone trough and several long bamboo ladles. We were each to take the ladles in our left hands, and pour the cold, clear well water over our right hands, then the reverse, then ladle water into our cupped right hands, swish the mouth out to rinse it, spit in the gutter of the trough, then rinse the right hand again. After we were "purified," Eriko took us to the shrine entrance. Whoever wanted to make a wish or ask the spirits for help could do so. First, you throw a small denomination coin (5 yen) into a big wooden box with wooden bars across the top. Then you ring one of the bells (like single gigantic brass jingle bells at the top of thick ropes), bow twice, clap your hands twice (to get the gods' attention), make a silent wish or request, then bow again to say thanks. If you have a big request, you can purchase a wooden plaque for 500 yen upon which to write your request, and hang it at the shrine for the gods to read. We saw several students come to the shrine with their requests--exam time is coming up, and the new school year starts in April.

Several of us bought good luck charms from one of the shrine maidens..a young girl in a white kimono who assists the priests of the shrine. Though none of us did it, visitors can also purchase a fortune for the coming year...if it is bad news, you tie it to something there at the shrine to leave the bad luck there...but good fortunes you take with you! We didn't visit a Buddhist temple, because Eriko said Buddhism was only about death, dying, and ancestors. The Japanese mix both sets of beliefs, and turn to the shrines for help with exams, business, etc. New babies are blessed at the shrines, and marriages are usually performed at the shrine (see the photo with the intricate wedding kimono--such kimono are usually rented instead of bought, as they begin at $10,000 and go up from there!) Once we were aware of their existence, we saw little shrines everywhere we went, each dedicated to a particular river god or mountain god, with greenery and often oranges placed on the altars. There is no "bible" or specific set of written rules for Shintoism, and most Japanese mix Shintoism and Buddhism. There is also no "day of worship" or "sabbath day" as there is with Christianity and Judaism. The Japanese seem quite casual about their beliefs, and Eriko told us several times that the Japanese are not religious people at all, but are extremely superstitious.

After we left the shrine, we went to the Sea Pearl Resort, with the pier and aquarium and boat tours to the "99 Islands" available (really there are 208, depending on the tides, but it's more poetic the other way, I guess!) Fearless Husband and I hope to take one of the relatively inexpensive boat tours. (If you've seen the opening 30 seconds of "The Last Samurai", you've seen the 99 Islands--they're really lovely.) We passed one of the area's famous hot springs, and were given info on how to enjoy these particularly Japanese "baths". We drove past the train station (huge, with lots of shopping in the building, including a great big grocery store--this seems true of most of the train stations in the area) and the bus station, and Eriko's teaching again showed its value as most of us were able to recognize the three kanji for Sasebo and the two for Nagasaki. I thought it would be very difficult to learn the various symbols, but it's surprising how many kanji we can already pick out on street signs. LOTS more to learn though!

The tour took us to Hario Base, which is where the majority of the Navy families live. There is a larger commisary on Hario, but it's about 35 minutes from the main base. The view from Hario is of Huis Ten Bosch, a Dutch amusement park (!!!) and it was odd to see the European rooftops and the big bell tower against the misty Japanese mountains.

On the way home, we stopped at Jusco, a huge Japanese department store. First stop for us all--the food court. With the help of Eriko and a special translator provided by the department store, we all ordered and ate. I enjoyed a bowl of the donburi, which was sliced pork on hot, sticky, short-grain rice, with a raw egg broken on it. The egg was softly cooked by the hot rice, and one is supposed to mix the whole thing together with hashi (chopsticks) before eating it. It was not slimy, as you might expect, but instead was delicious. FH got a bowl of spicy ramen, which he slurped happily, and an order of four octopus balls--no one can say he's not adventurous!! The octopus balls were not exactly what either of us expected. They were golden, fried-looking balls, about the size of golf balls. But instead of being the texture of conch fritters (which I think we both expected), they were very soft and runny inside, and tasted strongly of egg custard. The piece of octopus was a little chewy nugget in the middle, bright magenta and delicious, but the custardy texture was really not FH's style. He manfully swallowed the one he'd bitten into, and I got the rest. We'll both do our best to try lots of new things, so we can guide our guests when they visit! (3/31/06 note: we discovered that the octopus balls SHOULD have been more solid like hush puppies! We were so early that perhaps the deep fryers weren't up to temperature--and what we were served was quite undercooked. So I will definitely try octopus balls again!)

FH went off to explore the electronics, books and toy selections (of course) and I wandered through the store's three floors of clothing, electronics, toys, groceries, appliances, dishes, etc. EVERYTHING was available! The displays of dolls for the upcoming Doll Festival were really fantastic. I meant to take some photos, but forgot! I will get a photo or two though, I promise...maybe of a set-up in a Japanese friend's home!

I explored the grocery floor wide-eyed, trying to guess what was inside each brightly-wrapped package. Near the entrance to the grocery section, several "booths" were set up by independent entrepreneurs. The first was a table spread with beautiful sealed packets of tea, and a man behind the table revererently offering tiny cups of strong, freshly-brewed tea. He spoke almost no English, but eventually I understood (he showed me photos) that he and his wife grew this tea themselves, picked it, packaged it and sold it--and it was organic (which was very important to was the only English word he knew.) I bought a bright red packet of tea leaves (more for the experience than for the tea!) and he was pleased. He followed me around the corner to the next little booth, and either told the tiny, gray-haired proprietress that I was a nice girl, or that I was a sucker American--I don't know which! She insisted that I try her wares, which were three different kinds of tofu with a sesame sauce--one savory, one sort of bland and one a dessert. Both she and Tea Man seemed astonished and pleased that I liked tofu, and were delighted when I bought a little container of the dessert tofu (about a dollar's worth).

Tofu Grandma then grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the next table, which was also hers. There were wide baskets like bowls, filled with something sort of silvery, like wood shavings. She peered up into my face as if judging me, then grabbed a little pinch of the silvery shavings, grabbed my right hand with her free hand, and placed a little pile into my palm. Turns out the silvery shavings were dried, whole fish (eyes, tail and all), kind of like fish jerky, I guess. I ate them, because I didn't want to be rude or gauche. They weren't bad actually, sort of chewy, and I could not differentiate bones or anything squishy. Tofu Grandma and Tea Man were goggle-eyed--the gaijin didn't squeal, and actually ate the fish jerky! So Tofu Grandma decided I just HAD to try another handful of the fish, this time marinated in some sort of sweet soy sauce. Luckily, they hadn't rehydrated much, and I liked the saucy fish better than plain. Meanwhile, Tea Man rummaged in what I assume was his own lunch bag, and brought out a container of something golden brown and wrinkly--maybe preserved monkey ears or something. Who knew?

He thrust them at me, taking one himself and chewing, making "yum yum" noises to encourage me. Turned out to be sliced, salted and pickled daikon radish, with a really surprising, squeaky crunch. Beaming, both Tea Man and Tofu Grandma hauled me around the corner to their buddy...the pickle maker! Pickle Chief was a HUGE man, like a Japanese version of an old-fashioned butcher in his navy blue apron and round cap--and he knew several words of English. He was thrilled to get to practice them on someone, and Tofu Grandma and Tea Man left me there, both beaming at a job well done, I guess! Pickle Chief proudly began to try and name each of his preserved wares in English--each vegetable/seaweed/fish was salted or vinegared or both, and it was all very colorful and pretty in the various barrels--including cream-colored garlic cloves pickled with something bright magenta. I bought some of the salted daikon, both because I liked the crunch and because I could see Tea Man sort of hovering in the background, glancing over to see what was going on. I also bought some white bulbs that looked like small onions--Pickle Chief called them Japanese shallots. I finished my purchases, having spent about five dollars total at the three booths and gotten to try several distinctly Japanese treats...and all three proprietors came around their tables to bow to me and thank me sincerely. I bowed back clumsily, delighted with the whole thing, the air ringing with "domo arigato gozaimasu," sort of like those cartoon chipmunks--"thank you!" "Oh no, thank YOU!" "No, really, it was my pleasure--thank YOU!" Luckily, I didn't crack skulls with anyone.

After a much-too-short Jusco visit, we headed home through the rain, past shiny car dealerships, flashy pachinko gambling parlors, rickety houses clinging to hillsides, twisty alleys filled with rusted railings and laundry, and sign after incomprehensible sign. What an experience! FH and I had about two hours to recoup before going on the first of our house hunting expeditions.

Exploring Sasebo

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Yesterday, FH and I walked up and down the Arcade, a mile-long open-air market with a roof. There were beauty shops, a slot machine hall, 100 yen stores (dollar stores, basically) and stores with packets of totally unidentifiable stuff. Fancy restaurants, luggage shops and uber-hip salons sat cheek by jowl with incredibly narrow furniture stores, funky noodle houses, incredible pastry shops, and, of course, a Starbucks! (It is so disconcerting to see a McDonald's or KFC menu in Japanese!) Mosasics are laid into the pavement periodically, and the little side streets often hold interesting shops (such as the manicure salon that's been recommended to me called "Beauty and the Beast"!)

There are little food stalls with things like roasted ears of corn, squid-on-a-stick, and fancy and improbably-colored ice cream confections. We bought six local tangerines from a shrivelled old man who squatted behind a sheet of plywood propped on cinderblocks. His wares were displayed on the plywood--some bags of daikon radish, pretty pyramids of tangerines in bowls, little net bags of kumquats, what looked like daikon radish rubbed with some sort of spicy marinade in a bag, and some carrots. I wanted four tangerines, but he said "Six! Six!" and kept bowing and smiling. So, I bought six for 200 yen (about $1.80) and they were soooo sweet and good! He bowed, I bowed, he bowed lower, I bowed again...etc. It was pretty funny...and his sheet of plywood was set into an alcove right beside a fancy chrome and glass department store. I also bought two bowls, so we can have cereal and stuff in the hotel room. A man's rice bowl is supposed to be larger than a woman's, so I bought two striped bowls, each with two plump cranes painted in the center of the bottom--but one is larger and the other smaller. So much for women's lib! But since there is no food delivery here, it's nice to be able to have fruit and cereal and such in the hotel room, rather than eating out every meal. The bowls I bought were loose, but the sets all have three or five bowls, never four...because of the Japanese need for beauty and asymmetry. Four bowls would just not be aesthetically pleasing, I guess! The number four seems to be avoided in most ways possible. FH just told me that the number four is the number of death in the Japanese culture. He says the word for the number four is the same for the word for Death (shi) and is unlucky the way we think of the number 13. Wow!

There was also a doll shop, which made me yearn to spend big bucks on stuff for our nieces. Here in Japan, every little girl has a set of incredibly beautiful, intricate dolls. They're VERY expensive, and for display, not playing with. Each set has a very elaborate prince and princess, in wedding finery, with all sorts of little accessories (miniature furniture, carriages, shoes, musical instruments, bows and arrows, flowers, bowls, etc.--it all made me think of all the little whatnots for the American Girl dolls!) Then there are three ladies-in-waiting, five musicians, three guardsmen and two footmen. The dolls are displayed for weeks leading up to the Girls (or Doll) Festival on March 3 (the third day of the third month), but can't be left up too long, or the little girl might grow up to be an old maid! I lusted after the gorgeous dolls--umm, for the nieces, of course!

We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant, which was really wonderful. The restaurants here all have incredibly realistic rubber or plastic models of the dishes they serve displayed in the front window or the front display case--and the food you order looks JUST like the models (the photo is not the Chinese's the rubber food at a Japanese-Greek place that cracked me up! Click on the photo for a larger version, and check out the raw egg on top of several dishes!) The Chinese place had so many different dishes that they only had a few models--the rest were pictured in the menu beside each listing. We shared some incredible gyoza (dumplings) and each had a different kind of noodles and broth. FH enjoyed his roast pork with a dark, clear broth, and I had Champon, which is a local specialty with a slightly milky, thin broth, cabbage, shrimp, fish cake (much better than the fake crab meat in the US, but a disconcerting hot pink and white instead of red and white), and very tender squid. I loved it! And even though Japan is rather expensive, the whole meal set us back about $20 (no tips are given or expected).

FH is still fighting with the chopsticks, but is getting better. I'm grateful to my Chinese friends with the circus for teaching me to use chopsticks well. However, FH is happier than I am with the method of eating is considered polite to chopstick some into your mouth, then audibly slurp the tail ends up from the bowl! You can use your chopsticks to help stuff in the dangling ends, if you want (I watched a tiny, impeccably dressed old lady do just that!) Though diners are given a damp towel at the beginning of the meal to wipe one's hands, no napkin is provided, which was sort of disasterous for me, especially with the slurping. More than once, I thwacked myself in the nose with a flailing slurped noodle
, and had to wipe away the soup droplets with my wrist! My shirt has a date with some Spray'n'Wash. I think I will start carrying a handkerchief. We haven't tried the hotel restaurant yet, but maybe tomorrow. It's a beautifully presented buffet of organic, vegetarian dishes. I'm thrilled, FH is not particularly excited about it, though.

The Japanese are not particularly pleased with Americans, since Sasebo is a fleet town and that means lots of young drunken sailors. (And on another military base in Japan, a US soldier recently confessed to robbing and beating to death a 52-year-old woman, which has understandably led to some strong anti-American sentiment.) However, when I've nodded and smiled and bowed, and tried my few words of Japanese, they could not be nicer to me! Conrad is very polite with everyone, and they warm up to him quickly and he knows more Japanese phrases than I do. Konichi wa is "good day". Ohayo gozaimasu is "good morning". Domo arrigato is "thank you very much" (sometimes they just say "domo"). Sumi masen is "excuse me" and gomenasai is "so sorry" (I use these two a LOT).

I had hoped to quickly learn some Japanese written symbols, but have since discovered that the Japanese use four different forms of writing--on the same sign sometimes! Romanji is the Roman alphabet we use, and is used for English words and some phonetic spelling of Japanese words. Hiragana are symbols used for Japanese words and ONLY for Japanese words...never foreign words or foreign names. There are five vowel symbols that are coupled with each of ten consonant symbols--and five of those consonants can be changed to a new sound by the addition of two little marks that look like quotation marks. Then you have Katakana, which is set up similarly to Hiragana--but the symbols are different, and they are used only for foreign words and names. Then of course, there are the hundreds and hundreds of Japanese Kanji symbols, each for a different word (they come from the Chinese characters). So one sign could have all four sets of characters! I don't think I'll be reading and writing in Japanese anytime soon!

Today, we walked across the Albuquerque Bridge and through Nimitz Park to the base, and explored. It's a very small base, but pleasant. FH got his haircut (it was past time!) and while I waited, I struck up a conversation with a woman who's been here for over a year. Got some good housing and car info from her, but she's wary of the Japanese and has no desire to live among them. Oh well...I do! She said we could get a car pretty cheaply--for about $1500. It does look as if we will have to get a car, as the public transportation leaves something to be desired. The roads are VERY narrow, and the drivers are kind of crazy, but if I get one of the little boxes on wheels everyone seems to drive, and I can remember to stay on the left side of the road, I should be fine. (Ha...aren't you glad you don't have to share a road with me??) The expensive part will be the inspection fees, the Japanese compulsory insurance, and general insurance. One reason cars are so cheap here is that the Japanese rarely drive cars that are more than 6 years old, because the inspections/insurance/repairs become prohibitively expensive. It even costs a good amount to take off the plates and "junk" the car!

We found the small base library, staffed by a super-friendly Japanese woman, and stocked up on reading material (hurray!) I also bought one of those collapsible frames with wheels, so I can shop and then drag my booty home with me. We tested it today, as we loaded it up with new shoes for me, groceries from the commissary, and our library books before heading home--much more stuff than either of us would've wanted to carry. Tomorrow I can use it to wheel our laundry to the base, which is a good thing! Until we have a car, I figure having the rolling cart will keep me from taking a taxi--we need to save our pennies, and I need the excercise. It's weird...everything in the town is priced in yen, of course, but on the base, we can only use US currency. So we'll both have to carry both kinds of money, which is a little frustrating.

Tomorrow, FH finishes his official check-in, and we'll go to the housing folks to start that process. From what we've been told, we can get on the base housing waiting list (which we will do for "just in case") but then we can go to a special room where every day at noon, new rental listings are posted. We choose three or four listings, and make a phone call--and a real estate agent will show up in about fifteen minutes to drive us to the properties and show us around. I can't WAIT to get a place of our own! The neighborhoods are called chos, and each has a leader, kind of like a block captain, to make sure everyone follows the neighborhood rules. Some chos won't allow Americans to rent a place in them, and others are for Americans only. I am hoping to find a cho that is at least part Japanese, and really hoping for at least a little square of dirt so I can plant something. We'll see! Once we get settled, I want to go on several of the tours that the base offers--they sound like fun, and they go all over Japan.

More soon (gotta tell you about bathing here!), but probably not for at least a few days. I've attached a new photo--this one of Sasebo Harbor. Again, not a fantastic photo, but you can see the water and the mountains and a couple of ships.

We're HERE!

January 6th, 2006

Not all of you may be interested in the minutiae of my life, but hey, here it is for anyone who wants to know!

We're here in Japan FINALLY...arrived late last night (it's Friday morning now for us ,though it is still Thursday night for you!) The flights were long, but generally good. We flew from Charlotte to San Diego on Tuesday, then left Wednesday morning from San Diego for about 20 hours of travel (three flights, two 2-hour layovers). The business class looked very comfortable as we walked past it, but the first class was amazing--almost like miniature hotel rooms! No wonder it's about seven thousand dollars for a first class ticket!! Of course, we were in economy, but it's nice to dream! :)

Customs was very easy, as was immigration. The trip from Osaka to Fukuoka was interesting, as we had a huge plane that was only about 1/3 full, and it only cost $10 each to upgrade to first class, which was GREAT after a 12 hour flight in economy, with little kids kicking our seats the whole way! :) It was only an hour and 15 minute flight, but the seat was so comfortable, I got my only sleep for the whole trip.

When we got on the plane, I was disconcerted to see a group of about fifty Japanese school girls get on the plane, each in kilt, sailor top, knee socks and satin jacket declaring "Marching B
and" in English. They were all about 13 or 14 years old and I figured it would be a very noisy flight. I was wrong! They talked and giggled, but very quietly and were so well behaved! I think there was only one adult (maybe two) with them, but the girls were astonishingly orderly as they split into groups at baggage claim--some getting baggage for everyone, some getting band instruments from a special door and the rest lining up two by two for the bathroom. I tried to imagine a similar group of American kids behaving like that, but failed entirely.

Today, Fearless Husband (FH) has gone to the base with his sponsor, and do the stuff he has to do to check in. Then they will come back for me and we'll go to the commissary and to medical and the pharmacy, etc. Next week (I think) we will take a week long orientation course that begins with a few phrases in Japanese and finishes with a field trip into the town. Most everyone here understands some English, though many are hesitant to speak it. I'd say about 60% of the people speak English, which is nice, as I speak only about three words of Japanese! The class is supposed to be intense, but very good for helping with the cultural gap.

From what we've been told, the ship leaves next Frid
ay, but they will let FH stay here to house-hunt with me for a week or so longer, then will fly him to Guam or somewhere to meet the ship. He should be out for a few weeks, then come back for a couple of days, then head out until June (!!) But we'll have most of the summer together. Then they go back out for October and November, getting back in time for Thanksgiving. Then they have a short cruise, then have a few weeks here at the base for Christmas--they call the breaks "Christmas stand-down" and "summer stand-down". He'll have to muster every day, but will be home at night and on weekends during the stand-down times, except for when he is on leave.

We're in a Holiday Inn right now, but hope to be in the Navy Lodge, with kitchenette and reliable Internet service, by the 16th, if not before. In the meantime, it's fascinating to be in this little room with the fancy electric toilet (!!) and the high-tech bedside table that controls the clock, alarm, radio, heat and A/C. It's small, but very nice, with complementary slippers, since they expect you to take off your shoes when you enter a room.

Getting in last night was sort of surreal. We were both so tired. The Navy sent a van for us, and the two guys soon had us loaded up and flying down the expressways. Tolls are everywhere, and the unfamiliarly shaped and colored traffic signs in Japanese were disconcerting (as was the fact that we were driving on the other side of the road!) We stopped at a rest area which was spectacularly clean and very pretty--and deserted. It was all brightly-lit vending machines with bright, clean graphics, offering things from ice cream to beer to flash-frozen, flash-re-heated steaming hot foods. Everything is very clean, with no trash or cigarette butts anywhere, and everyone pays attention to the differently marked trash cans for recycling. It was hard to take it all in. This morning I think I will walk down by the river to the Albuquerque bridge (that's Sasebo's sister city) and just look around. There is the longest shopping mall in Japan (over a mile long, sort of a roof-covered pedestrian mall/market) that begins about two blocks away, and has all sorts of market stalls and restaurants, and I might go explore there, too.

I opened our curtains in the hotel room this morning, and the view is of a slice of the harbor, with lumpy mountains all around. It's all so...Japanese! I took a picture through the window and it's not very good as it makes things look industrial, but I am going to attach it anyway. The camera wants to focus on the safety wire in the glass and not on the stuff outside the window. You can see the harbor to the left, and the river at the bottom. The Albuquerque Bridge is the arch at the left. Unfortunately, the rest of the view is of commercial rooftops, but many of them have nice tiles. The sun is shining, but grey clouds and mist have piled up in the harbor and are headed this way. The mist seems appropriate for Japan. I will take better pictures, of course, and send them to those who want to see them, but I wanted to share my first daylight view of Japan!

More soon for those who are interested, but I wanted to go ahead and touch base. Take care of yourselves, and happy new year!

p.s.--I first view of daylight Japan was actually as we flew in yesterday evening just before sunset. I could see Tokyo as a splash of lights below us not much different from any American city from the air--until I saw the unmistakeable purple and blue and white form of Mount Fuji jutting up through the clouds. It's HUGE and beautiful, and let me know I was indeed in Japan!