Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas Cookies

I will confess that in recent years baking Christmas Cookies has been low on my "to do" list during the holidays. I definitely do not need the calories and figure my children are no worse for the wear with all the other holiday fare to partake. Don't start feeling too sorry for them though ... I make Seasoned Oyster Crackers which are like crack on Ranch Dressing. Once you start eating these little "innocents" you need to get into a 12 step program to get off. They are addicting. And I make Peppermint Bark which I dread the thought of how many miles I would have to run to work off those sweet little delights. But this year the powers that be at the Commissary here decided to no longer carry my favored brand of Oyster Crackers and well, the Sunshine brand of Krispy Oyster Crackers they do carry, it's just not the same. Even our daughter Wrenn said "I don't like those other Oyster Crackers." So I decided to reevaluate this year. Cookies seemed more in the realm of "doable" and the Commissary still has unsalted butter! So cookies it is. But where are all those cookies going? Not on my ever-expanding hips. Victims? I have two English Conversation classes on Mondays and one on Tuesdays. The traditional Japanese ovens are notoriously small, not big enough for one cookie sheet much less two and so I decided to suck it up and make Christmas Cookies for my students with my sou-chef Wrenn right by my side. All the boys (adult and adolescent) were at other commitments this afternoon, and so I took advantage of some "quiet time" and Wrenn and I cranked out 8 dozen cookies. I do not recall the last time I baked so many cookies – and I can't get them out the door fast enough, my waist line is expanding just looking at them.

It was fun and it reminded me of crazier but somehow calmer times. When the kids were younger, more enthusiastic over the holiday season. Now it's a tough crowd ... this weekend I tried to get the clan to watch "Polar Express" one of my favorites but was met with much resistance. "We've seen that like 100 times." I'm thinking your point is? I saw "Rudolph" and "Frosty" and "The Grinch" like 100 times. It's Christmas, that's what you're supposed to do. Instead I cave and say: "O.K. fine, you pick the movie." How about "It's a Wonderful Life?" I hear. Really? Now I think that I have seen 100 times. At least.

I'll keep plugging. Each day is a part of a tradition – old and new. Traditions to share and traditions to hoard. This year I am grateful that our daughter decided it's not too uncool to help with the cookies ... and there's nothing quite like the smell of sugar cookies in the oven to get you in the holiday spirit and be well, inspired.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Happy Christmas

Spending the Christmas season in another country certainly gives you a different perspective. There is a shopping mall close to the base that has a gigantic holiday banner hanging out front that says "Happy Christmas." The first time I saw it last year it cracked me up ... they almost got it, and with so many Americans around you have to wonder why the marketing people didn't just stop and ask someone – did this translate correctly? I tried to explain to some of my Japanese students that in the U.S. we wish each other a "Merry Christmas" and a "Happy New Year." I haven't seen a sign yet that says "Merry New Year" but I'm on the lookout.

The holiday celebration here is not a religious one. With the population of Japan overwhelmingly Buddhist, the Christmas celebration has nothing whatsoever to do with "Christ's Mass."There are no Angels, no Creche scenes, no Baby Jesus in a manger ... just lots of Santas, reindeer and snowmen (interesting aside – Japanese snowmen are made from one large and one small ball vs. U.S. with three. You can imagine where my husbands comment went with that piece of info ... "so what you're saying is, Japanese snowmen have two balls." Some people never grow up.).

It is refreshing to see another country's take on a decidedly western celebration. Not all the stores are decked out like they would be back home but some stores that are decorated do have Christmas songs playing. And there's not all the hustle-bustle in the shopping areas like you would have back home – and that's definitely a plus side. I have an addiction to tenugui, a rectangular cloth that has a pattern/scene on them. Each time I drop into my favorite tenugui store in Kamakura I like to see if they have anything new out. It appears that with the change of seasons, the tenugui change also – from Cherry Blossoms, to Lotus Blooms, to Chrysanthemums, to Maple Leaves. The last time I stopped in I was pleased to see the tenugui with Santa on his sleigh, swooping down over Fuji-san and I thought perfect! I couldn't wait to get it home and put it up and be reminded each time I walk through the door to celebrate "Happy Christmas" and be ... inspired.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas Decor – Handicap or Minimalist?

One of the disadvantages of moving every two to three years is that with each Christmas season you realize what worked in one home doesn't in the next (there are advantages too ... check in tomorrow for my thoughts about that one). The icicle lights that worked on the base house in Camp Lejeune, were added to so we would have enough for our home in Maryland. But we would have had to hire a cherry-picker to safely get them on our next home in Norfolk – although Jeff did attempt it the first year we were there and I just about had a coronary as I saw him dangling on a neighbors ladder – 4 years of med school, 3 years of residency, 3 years of fellowship ... all flashing before my eyes. One word – grounded.

Window candles? Looked charming in the house we rented in Bethesda, translated great to our first home in Norfolk, looked fine in the house we rented in Jacksonville, NC – and then it ended. Thus the purchase of the icicle lights. The lit wreath? Worked great in one home – the electrical hook up was close; the next home now we needed two wreaths for balance ... and so it goes. The inside is pretty much the same – what works one place doesn't in the next. Add to the decorating handicap the fact that with our limited weight allowance and Jeff repeatedly telling me we would have no storage, I brought very little in the holiday decorating dept.

In the spirit of Asian influence this years theme would appear to be minimalist Holiday decorating. The tree is up and decorated, some of our more prized Christmas decorations made the cut to travel overseas and are out ... and yet, still the house seems to lack a festive spirit.

We do not have "window treatments" per se in this house. The government housing office supplies us with vertical blinds at the sliding glass door (yuck) and miniblinds at the windows (double yuck). I'm too cheap to go out and buy curtains for the windows downstairs knowing this is temporary quarters, and with the sewing machine in storage there's no "whipping up" some inexpensive curtains. So my focus turned to the windows ... big blank canvases ...

I decide to get creative and I got the idea to purchase an ensemble box of Christmas ornaments from the Exchange and hang them from the window curtain hooks that are permanently installed ... just waiting for someone more motivated that I am to put some curtains up. Yesterday I took fishing line and strung up the ornaments hanging them from the ceiling – in varied heights and random color arrangements of course – and I have to admit ... it helped, a lot. This house will not win any Martha Stewart Home for the Holiday's Awards but with the Christmas music playing, the Balsam and Cedar candle lit and the decorations out this is our home for the holidays and I'm inspired.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Where are you Christmas?

Each day a little bit more goes up and comes out. This year my big motivation for having the house decorated before the 24th (no, I'm not kidding, sometimes it does come down to that) is that I'm having four Japanese ladies to our humble home on Wednesday – there's nothing like a deadline to get me motivated. So the tree is up, the lights are on ... if only we can carve a moment out of a crazy work schedule for our children to decorate the tree. With the exception of only a handful of ornaments, all we brought with us to Japan are the children's ornaments, so it falls to them to decorate the tree. One is methodical in his approach to placing the ornaments on the tree, the other can't seem to get through the task fast enough and has heavily edited what he wants to put on the tree, the last child is careful – looks at each of her ornaments with care and gathers information – "who gave this to me?" "where did this ornament come from?" Jeff jokes and says "if you mom goes before me you know I'll just be making all this up for you."

The Christmas music is playing and we enjoy a piece of gingerbread post tree trimming while Faith Hill sings "Where are you Christmas?"

Good question. In a vain attempt to get a photo out of my three children that we just might be able to send out this year, not only an hour before we were out on the edge of the base in some obscure place that I'd picked hoping that I would have three cooperative subjects. The light was fading, and with way too much teenager attitude permeating the air the few photos I was able to get looked anything but jolly. Sigh. "Where are you Christmas?"I wondered as I walked back to the car seething, one successful photo – that's all I wanted not feeling very much in the Christmas spirit.

Back at home the mood shifts, the spirit of Christmas softly filters through the air ... I'll take what I can get at this point. It's not exactly a tree trimming party with Eggnog and lots of laughter but it works for us. I'll keep plugging along, knowing that each of these moments is a potential memory in the making, and that it requires balance, a lot of balance. Recognizing this fact does for the moment anyways, leave me inspired.

Friday, December 3, 2010


It's that crazy time of year again ... the holiday season is upon us. I love the Christmas season and dread it at the same time. Un-boxing decorations is like seeing old friends that you haven't run into in a long time. For me, many of our decorations mark a passage of time – Santa tree topper, purchased in Alameda, California a few days after Jeff had just come in off of a 7 month deployment and it was our first Christmas together. German creche - my parents brought back from a trip to Germany – I double/triple wrap it up each year, afraid with another move it will be reduced to pieces. The Snow Man that our family friend, Miss Judy, gave to our children and Wrenn declared with delight this year when I pulled it out "oh, I love that decoration – it's my favorite." The holiday songs have been playing while each day I try to carve out a tiny bit of time to purge/organize/tidy up so that this year will finally be the year that I can relax and enjoy the season. But there's that little voice in the back of my head that's my reality check ... she knows it's good goal but it may be a lofty goal.

Already the craziness has begun. On base if you don't purchase something when you see it, you can pretty much be sure it won't be there when you go back – like the Eggnog I went to go buy this week, they had tons of it before we left town, now the shelves are empty. We were out of town for Thanksgiving when the Christmas trees went on sale – no longer a family event, with Jeff out of town for a meeting and two teenage boys who looked aghast at me when I asked if they wanted to go help pick out the tree ... the task this year fell to Wrenn and I. I'm not too sure she was all that into it either, but I think she took pity on me and came along. As we stood there in the plaza area in front of the Navy Exchange and selected our tree from the reject pile (because if you don't get one Thanksgiving weekend you're basically looking at everyone else's rejects), Jingle Bell Rock came on the loud speakers and blasted out over the plaza, the mood picked up with the beat of the song. The smell of fresh cut pine trees in the air and suddenly it started to feel like the holiday season.

We picked up our tree, each taking an end and lugged it to our car and the dread of keeping up with the season, the stress of having the house "just so," the cookies made (that my kids want but my slow metabolizing body screams "just don't do it!"), the presents wrapped and the hope that maybe this year will be the year we finally send out holiday cards (after a 7 year hiatus don't hold your breath folks) started to evaporate. I started to believe, believe that it's not about the "keeping up" ... the season is more about being present, being aware that it's the little things that make the season special. The memories, the traditions – I doubt our children can tell us what they got for Christmas 2 years ago – but I know they can remember making Peppermint Bark or Oyster Crackers and delivering them to our neighbors. Now that's inspiring.

From now until Christmas I am taking photos of our holiday traditions and the ways we celebrate the season. It's my holiday countdown, my Advent Calendar of sorts, and oh yes – a good way for me to practice taking more photos. I hope you can check back in and be inspired.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Momiji – Autumn Leaves

Hakone Cablecar
The leaves are changing here ... the Ginko's are turning from a grass green to a luscious banana yellow, the maples are making their shift towards a brilliant crimson red. Fall is my favorite season, the crisp air, the gorgeous blue skys, the vivid colors of the leaves. 
On Veterans Day we took advantage of no school and no work and headed to Hakone to view the Fall foliage. We took the cablecar up the mountain and then the ropeway across and down to the lake. We could see Mt. Fuji in the distance and the changing leaves dotted the landscape. It was a beautiful Fall day – just over a year since the last time we made it to Hakone. Like the leaves changing, marking another season passing by, we all tried to take in the day - not knowing yet what the Navy has in store for us. Each day here is a gift.
Shift to yesterday. Three Tuesdays a month I drive about 20 minutes to Zushi for an English Conversation Class. My students are wonderful. All are retired although some still do a bit of consulting and it is a nice mix - 12 students, split evenly between male and female. The second half of the lesson each student has an opportunity to speak - this could be a prepared essay or something off the top of their heads. I never know what I'm going to hear. Sometimes it's hysterically funny when my English ears cannot quite make the leap to a Japanese word - like when one of my students was speaking about Sumo. I asked him to repeat it several times - still not understanding, the entire class trying to help me out, I finally said spell it for me. Well, duh ... I cracked up and said in English we pronounce it "sue-mo" but apparently in Japanese it's pronounced "smo." They amaze me by their worldliness – I swear they know more about what's going on in the United States than I do, and they remind me that I need to expand my horizons - every day. Sometimes though the gifts I receive from them are more simple - maybe they do not realize it, but everything they share with me, is a moment, a piece of knowledge that enriches my life. And so, yesterday I received a special gift from my students in Zushi. Saita-san, quiet, elegant, a former English teacher (yes, that intimidates me) shared with me that her 10-year-old granddaughter came to her house for a visit and asked her to teach her the Japanese song, Momiji. This is a traditional Japanese song about the Fall that most Japanese children learn at an early age. Saita-san took the time to translate the words from Japanese to English for me so that I would understand the song and then as I'm writing this down there is A LOT of discussion back and forth in Japanese and suddenly Saita-san in a clear alto begins to sing, and the others join in acapella, a beautiful mixture of male and female voices singing me a song from their childhood. It was simple, it was impromptu, it was poignant and it was such a gift. I will treasure that moment long after I've returned to the U.S. Last night, after finding the link below, I was sitting in the living room and I could hear my own children playing this song over and over again. It was a beautiful moment, a moment I realized that because Saita-san had shared something personal, my children were learning yet another aspect of Japanese culture, it was inspiring.

Sunset on the mountains, the fall trees aglow,
Brilliant shades of autumn - crimson red, tan, yellow.
Maple leaves and ivy adorning the tall pine trees
Weave a beautiful pattern here at the foot of the mountains.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Shinjuku Gyoen Chrysanthemum Exhibition

Another beautiful Fall day, another chance to get outside those gates. Our destination this time? Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo. This garden is located in the central part of Tokyo and was opened as an imperial garden in 1906. From 1906 until 1947 this garden was for the Imperial Family's use only. The garden was destroyed during World War II and was transferred for pubic use and reopened in 1949. The garden has three areas the English Landscape Garden, the French Formal Garden and the Japanese Traditional Garden. First stop – the Chrysanthemum Exhibition being held in the Japanese Traditional Garden.

I love, love, love gardens and since moving to Japan I've really enjoyed learning about the "Japanese Way" of garden design. I've taken oodles of pictures, pictures of lanterns, garden paths, bamboo fences, trees that have been amputated, I mean severely pruned. It is such a different way of garden design from what I learned as a Master Gardener and I'm fascinated. Most of the time, I take my photos, I take some notes, but rarely do they have any descriptions in English - the most I can hope for is I'll go home and try to find out more information the web.

Not so in Shinjuku Gyoen - much to my delight they had at each exhibition bed a description in English on the type of chrysanthemum we were viewing and any historical significance. A BIG thank you to the Japanese official that thought this was worth the time and effort - my garden experience was all the richer because of these signs. Here's what I learned that day ...

Kengai bed
The Kengai style is a cascade style where small-flowered chrysanthemums are trained to look like wild chrysanthemums flowering over a cliff.

Ise, Choji and Saga-giku bed
Three different varieties were on display in this bed; the Ise variety has crinkled and drooping petals, the Choji has anemone-like flowers and the Saga variety has thing straight petals. The Ise and Saga varieties are trained to make a form of broom (seen in the Saga picture). The Choji variety is trained to have one flower in the center and is surrounded by six flowers (Ichiroku-zukuri).

Ozukuri bed
This bed blew me away ... look closely at the photo taken from the bottom looking up, there is a single stem that this dome of blooms comes from! It takes a year for one root division to produce the hundreds of flowers that are known as the "thousand bloom" style. Through careful pinching and training this single stem grows into this beautiful flowering dome.

Edo-giku bed
This classical medium flowered chrysanthemum was developed during the 18th and 19th centuries. The particular characteristic associated with this variety is that the flower petals change as the flower opens. Each cultivar is trained to produce 27 flowers.

Ichimonji and Kudamono-giku bed
The Ichimonji variety has a single large flowered head. The Kudamono (spider) variety has thin and straight tubular petals. The two varieties were planted in the Tazuna-ue (horse bridle) style, because the pattern resembles the horse bridle used for Shinto ceremonies. 


Higo-giku bed
Strict rules for the culture and display of the Higo variety, established by the Hideshima school were followed in this chrysanthemum bed. Historically, this classical single flowered variety was grown by samuari as part of their discipline.

Ogiku (large flowered chrysanthemum)

Ogiku bed
Ogiku (large-flowered chrysanthemum) is characterized by its incurved petals forming a puffy flowerhead. The flowers are arranged in the traditional Tazuna-ue style, diagonal stripes of yellow, white and red which is traditional to Shinjuku Gyoen.

Seven different Chrysanthemum beds, seven different ways to be inspired. I like chrysanthemums, they are another signal that the beastly hot days of summer are over and cooler weather and beautiful Fall days are here to stay – but I absolutely, totally stink at taking care of them. I try, each year I buy them with the hope that this will be the year that they maintain their garden store beauty and stay all full of blossoms, each year I realize I don't have the patience to deadhead off all the spent flowers, remember to water them everyday during the dry days of Fall. They require too much attention. My chrysanthemums fade and wither until I sigh and pull them to be replaced by easy care pansies. But seeing these beautiful varieties I'm rethinking this lack of attention - as the daylight hours dwindle I realize this is the time I need to be outside. I need to do something as simple as taking off the spent flowers, this simple meditative act will reward me with more than just a beautiful plant it will give me the chance to be inspired"now where did I put those garden shears?..."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dueling Teahouses - Hokoku-Ji vs. Jomyo-Ji

Sunday was a lovely Fall day, mid 60’s, clouds moving in and out, low humidity … like the leaves on the trees around here, this weather will not last. I offered to take my crew to Kamakura and introduce them to two different Japanese Teahouses, each located within the grounds of their respective temples. Child no. 3 was more than game and didn’t hesitate to say yes, while child no. 1 and 2 took a whole lot more convincing. After promising this would not be an all day affair, they would still have time to come home and chill out in front of technology (truly a major counterbalance to the Zen-like experience they were about to have), my sons decided to come along.

Ground rules: “do not ask me how much longer, do not tell me you don’t like this and for the love of God – please make sure you finish all the matcha.”

I love taking my children places and sharing experiences with them, I know my opportunities, with “2teensandatween,” are becoming few and far between. Some times, when all the hormones (their’s and mine) are in alignment the experience is oooohh, soooo sweet. Others … well let’s just say that the thought has crossed my mind on why some species eat their young. Just like when they were toddlers and I had to set ground rules more for safety than anything else, “don’t leave Mommy, don’t talk to strangers” now the ground rules have more to do with attitude and expectations. You cop an adolescent attitude with me, you no longer meet my expectations.

So with ground rules established, more than enough Yen in my pocket (or so I think) we head out to Kamakura to the Hokoku-ji Temple a.k.a. Bamboo Temple. More than a few times I hear “that’s not fair, you’re getting to see all the cool places in Japan and we’re stuck here on base going to school.” Hokoku-ji is one of those “cool places” … this temple is part of the Rinzai-Shu Buddhist sect and has a lovely bamboo garden and a teahouse where you can sit and enjoy a small waterfall while listening to the bamboo leaves rustle in the wind. This is our first destination in comparing two different styles of Japanese teahouses and I cannot claim originality – this idea came from my friend Kim who shared these two temples with me last Spring.

My children had not experience matcha – a powdered green tea that is whisked briskly until frothy, using a bamboo tea whisk called a chasen. The tea can be bitter and is served with a sweet. In this teahouse it is served with two small sugar pats that have been molded into seasonal shapes. In the Spring when I visited the teahouse the sugar pats were bamboo leaves and a bird. This season it was a beautiful chrysanthemum blossom and an oak leaf. There were three ladies working in the teahouse and one asked if we knew what to do and so I’m sure embarrassing my offspring beyond measure I said “I’ve been here before but please would you explain to my children?” She was very gracious and showed them the tea that is used is powdered (vs. tea bag) and hot water is added to individual teacups and then whisked. You are supposed to place the pat of sugar on your tongue while sipping the tea. We each sat down to enjoy our tea while viewing the bamboo garden and have a quiet moment.

Our next stop was Jomyo-Ji also of the Rinzai-Shu Buddhist sect but the approach to their garden and teahouse is very different. The Kisen-an, tea ceremony house, looks out on a Zen style Japanese rock garden, Karezansui. This style of garden is known as dry-landscape and they are an abstract way to use stones, gravel and moss to represent mountains, boats, islands, seas – the gardens are used for meditation. In this teahouse you may purchase a wagashi, a traditional Japanese treat that has a filling, in this case red bean paste. Like the sugar pats in Hokoku-Ji, the wagashi also change with the season. Everyone was game to try, so while we slipped off our shoes and padded across the tatami mats our hostess disappeared to prepare our tea and treat.

It’s funny how things start to come together and my experience this time around was so much richer, not only because I was sharing it with my children but also because of the knowledge I’ve gained while living here in Japan. In the early Spring, Bossy, Weather, Novice Explorer’s and I (named Artist Explorer by Bossy) all experienced listening to a suikinkutsu, Japanese water chimes, when we stumbled on one in a garden outside of Tokyo. Only because a Japanese lady took a moment out of her day to share and show us what the suikinkutsu was … we could have easily passed it by and never experienced the delightful sound. If you go to the link there is a recording you can listen too

Now it was my turn to share, the teahouse at Jomyo-JI also has a suikinkutsu and each of my children took a turn listening and having a Japanese moment. In a Zen garden in Japan listening to water chimes … for nothing other than the pure joy of the experience. Sounds sort of Zen to me …

While waiting to be served, I pointed out that there was a tea alcove with a hanging scroll and a chabana arrangement. And so, the lesson continued … I told them how the vase was simple, the arrangement was also simple and that the flowers would be “just picked from the field” flowers. This I learned from the sensei who gave the lecture at the Ikebana International Kamakura’s October program.

When the tea was served, in a very basic way I was able to explain and point out some of the differences between Hokoku-Ji and Jomyo-Ji – how the hostess rotates the cup and when it’s placed in front of you, she will give you a seated bow and you return the bow. You are supposed to view the teacup before picking it up and cradle it with both hands while sipping the tea. This is really basic folks, but it was enough to get two 15 year old boys and my 12 year old daughter started – sort of like going to a formal dinner and knowing which fork you’re supposed to pick up first. Thanks to Yuko who invited me into her home for a tea ceremony lesson, I was able to pass along the bare bones to my children.

Authority on Japanese teahouses I am definitely not … but what occurred to me at the end of the day was that getting outside those gates has taught me things and changed my perspective in ways I hadn’t realized. My experience this time around was so much richer for the knowledge I’d gained … from the stranger who taught us how to listen, to the friend who showed me the way to two teahouses, to the Japanese friend who opened her home to a Westerner and let her experience a part of this country’s culture, to the organization I belong to that helped me become more aware – that’s not just any flower vase sitting there in the tea alcove. All this I would have missed if I’d stayed home. All this I would not have been able to share with my children.

Will they care? I’m not sure … in the moment maybe they were just remembering not to ask how much longer, or to make sure they finish all the tea (even though I know it took an effort for 2 of them). My hope is that one day they will care, it will be an experience they look back on and remember that because they decided to also get outside those gates (even though technology was awfully tempting) they had a chance to experience a part of Japanese culture. For me, that’s inspiring.

From Yokosuka take the JR to Kamakura. Exit the train station on the bus terminal side. You can take a 20 minute walk or take any bus from bus stop no. 5. Exit the bus at the Jomyo-ji bus stop. The two temples are about 3 blocks away from each other. I would recommend walking back to the station – on the day we were there, the traffic was so bad going into Kamakura that we actually beat the bus we would have gotten on. You can use your Suica card on the bus. It’s that easy!

Helpful Guidebook:
I cannot recommend this book highly enough: An English Guide to Kamakura’s Temples and Shrines. It is available in the bookstore on the main street in Kamakura – If you walk out of the train station, past the buses and continue straight – you will see the bookstore on the other side of the street.

Hokou-Ji Temple entrance fee is 200 yen. You pay for the tea at the entrance to the temple an additional 300 yen.
Jomyo-Ji Temple entrance fee is 100 yen. If you would like to have tea with the wagashi this is an additional 800 yen – you pay at the teahouse. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sankeien Garden Chrysanthemum Exhibition

It is Chrysanthemum season here in Japan. There are exhibitions at different gardens and shrines and I'm fortunate enough to live within an easy train ride to Sankeien Garden outside of Yokohama. November 3rd is Culture Day, a National holiday here in Japan where the nation celebrates their artists and scholars - through parades, exhibitions and awards. It was also the day a group of us decided to explore beyond the gates and experience another part of Japan.

Bossy Explorer had the inside scoop on how to get from Negishi train station to the gardens back entrance. Jeff and I had traveled to the gardens during Cherry Blossom season but had followed the Base directions of taking the train to Yokohama and then the city bus to the gardens. I'm pretty sure we could have walked there faster than the bus ... it was not something I wanted to repeat with a dozen or so American ladies and so when Bossy Explorer said "my Japanese friend Reiko took me in the back way" I was game to try the "Japanese Way" ... which of course involved quite a bit of walking. Why didn't I have my step counter on that day? I think I might just have hit the elusive 10,000 mark.

It was a glorious Fall day. THIS is what I'd been waiting for. A slight nip in the air, enough to start out with a light sweater and then shed it later, low humidity and a crystal blue sky. A perfect day for being outside. Thank goodness Bossy Explorer was in the lead, because there are no signs directing you from the Negishi train station to Sankeien. I don't think I would have found this on my own. There is a decided benefit to going with someone who has been places before here in Japan - you get to discover things you might otherwise have missed. As our group approached the back entrance to the garden Weather Explorer and I noticed that there were a couple of festival tents set up on our left and "What's this? Pottery?!" Val (a.k.a Weather Explorer) and I immediately veer off to the left to see just what all the fuss was about. Because none of us are fluent in Japanese I am guessing that this was a student show with some very reasonably priced pottery for sale. I have totally fallen in love with Japanese pottery ... I'm like an addict, I can't get enough. So when I saw the pretty black/blue/white vase that reminded me of Mashiko style pottery I snatched that baby right up before anyone else could put their fingers on it. For Y800 (if 1:1 that would be $8) I could not resist and I didn't even care that I'd be lugging it through the garden for the rest of the day. There was also an exhibition of the students work and with an enthusiastic wave from one of the students she gave us a sheet, explained that we were to vote on our favorite three entries. My favorite from the day was the photo with the 3 white vases (of course).

Purchases made we were off to find the Chrysanthemum Exhibition. There were a number of exhibition tents set up throughout the garden and the photos in the slide show were my favorites. These mums are huge – some the size of a dinner plate. The care and nurturing it must have taken to get them to this stage, after what was what some say the worst summer on record here, is inspiring. We meandered our way through the garden looking at the different displays, I was particularly taken with the bonzai tents. These tiny, miniaturized versions of chrysanthemums, shaped not into jurassic sized mums but delicately sculpted art forms were delightful to behold. The photo with the vermillion bridge and pond is a recreation of Sankeien Gardens. Bossy Explorer stated the display was not to the level that she saw last year, but without anything to compare it to, I was duly impressed.

Living here in Japan, I've received many gifts ... one of them is the reminder that time here is finite. It would have been easy to stay home last week and take care of laundry, errands, the day-to-day stuff of a family. But all of that can wait. I have places to see, a culture to experience, and each day here is a gentle nudge that time is short – I will not have these chances again. The Chrysanthemum Exhibition only comes around once a year ... there is no putting it off and waiting till next time. That was the gift, don't wait, grab these experiences while you can both here and when you eventually get back to the U.S. – be more present and live in the moment and for me that's inspiring.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Recycled Kimono Sale

Twice a year in Yokohama there is a Recycled Kimono Sale, where Kimono's, Obi's and all sorts of things that would accompany wearing a traditional Japanese Kimono are on sale. This event has been on my calendar for months and I eagerly awaited the opportunity to immerse myself in a room full of Kimono's at bargain basement prices.

This outing was a combined trip for two of the spouse groups here on base, add to the "Friends and Family" invitation and we had a group of 20 U.S. women standing in line an hour before the sale was to start. We'd gotten the skinny ... get there early as the sale is fast and furious. The deal is you arrive early, get a numbered ticket and then await your admission time. If you get there early enough you can be in the first group of 100 and have the opportunity to get first dibs on the items for sale. This was our goal.

Managing a large number of females, drooling for the opportunity to get their hands on Kimonos and Obi's is not for the faint of heart. Our friendly yet firm "handler" was the Japanese gentleman seen in the photo. I felt for him, really I did. He must have started out his day thinking "o.k. it'll be a busy day but we're organized, I can handle this" ... I think he was in a state of shock when our group waltzed in. He tried his best to organize us 4 abreast. That's 5 rows of excited, noisy American ladies chatting away. And while we're all military spouses and know how to follow directions/rules, we're not the active duty members ... we weren't standing in formation as the Japanese ladies surrounding us were. Numerous times he came down off of his perch to try and straighten us up and in the end I think gave up. We were a respectful but rather unruly bunch. There's one thing that is apparent here in Japan, everywhere you go ... bus stops, train platforms, Kimono sales ... they like order. Everyone lines up in an orderly fashion, patiently waiting their turn. No pushing to get through the train door (they save the pushing for the professional people pushers), no group surrounding the bus door – everyone is in line and waiting their turn. Quietly.

The rope went down and the first group was admitted and it was a free-for-all. There were beautiful Kimonos and Obi's everywhere. Some for as little as 500 Yen (in better days that would be $5), some more expensive (I think the most I paid for a Kimono was roughly $20). It was frenzied fun, if you even thought you might want it you'd better put it in your bag because someone else was apt to snatch from right under your nose. I have no idea what I'll do with my purchases (5 Kimono's, 12 Obi's) but the ideas were running rampant. Purses. Art Quilts. Really, I don't know. What I do know is that I came away feeling like I'd won the lottery, excited by my finds. I reorganized our linen closet to make room for my purchases and as I stepped back to look at the beautiful Obi's all stacked up I thought yet again how very lucky I am to have this experience of living in Japan and to come away with another chance to be ... inspired.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Chabana - Tea Flowers

Recently, I had another opportunity to get outside those gates and experience a part of Japanese culture. I am a member of Ikebana International and the October program was held in KitaKamakura at the Engaku-ji Temple. For those of you who follow my blog this was the temple our family went to in August to see the archery demonstration.

This event afforded me yet another chance to experience the life of a temple beyond the sightseeing areas and to learn about Chabana, a simple free-style form of flower arranging used for the Japanese tea ceremony. Temples and flowers? Count me in!

My friends and I thought we were being ooohhhh, soooo, smart by driving there - but as usual it was another reminder on why the Japanese take the trains ... everywhere. We got stuck in traffic, for no readily apparent reason other than too many people trying to get into Kamakura at the same time. We arrived right as the program was about to start – which is not a good thing in Japan. You don't just "scoot in" at the last minute here. If the program says it will start at 10:30 (and believe me it will – their adherence to schedule is uber efficient), everyone is checked in and seated by 10.  For someone who is always trying to cram in one more thing before an appointment or arrival time – if my "deadline" is 10:30, in the States I'd be walking through the door at 10:29 and 59 seconds – Japan has forced me to let go of that bad habit. But traffic is an unpredictable variable here, we should have known better. Our friend, Bossy Explorer, meets us at the gate and says the program is about to start and they've had the largest turn out ... ever. With name tags picked up, shoes off and socks on, we round the corner to the large tatami mat room to see it is packed, really packed, and the only "seats" available are the cushions on the floor in front. My back, neck, knees and hips give a groan and a crack as they desperately try to find a way to be comfortable. I am truly in awe of the Japanese ladies who fold their legs up under themselves and appear to sit quite comfortably for hours. I was like a little kid, shifting one way, then another as various limbs proceeded to fall asleep and my neck and back felt like someone had stretched them in an odd way. Comfort aside, there was a distinct benefit to all this ... we were basically front and center – I could get in some photos unobstructed and could hear the soft spoken Chabana sensei.

So what is Chabana or tea flowers? It is the simple yet artful arrangement of flowers for the Japanese tea ceremony. The flowers are arranged in their natural state, meaning they are not fussed with, no wiring, no tape, no kenzan (frog) - once they are placed in their vase you leave them alone. The flowers are only used for the tea ceremony and once the ceremony is over they are discarded. The flowers or greenery matches the season – "it is as it was in the fields" and they are supposed to match the atmosphere, the tranquility of the tea ceremony. Nothing flashy here folks, no speciality flowers. The Chabana master explained a bit about the tea ceremony and how it is like a theatre performance. Act I you are served a thick green tea and a small meal. There is a traditional hanging scroll in the tea alcove with perhaps a poem about the season. There is a break and then Act II begins where the scroll is changed and the tea flowers are brought out and placed in the alcove with the scroll. We learned about the importance of odd numbers - you would have 3 or 5 different types of flowers/foliage for good balance; in the warm seasons you would use a bamboo basket for it's lightness and movement of air; in the cold season a simple vase of unglazed pottery or bronze. The flowers should have different size, shape and colors. The leaves on the flowers should have different patterns. If you are going to place a single flower in the vase, like a camelia, there should be an odd number of leaves on the stem. The flowers are lightly arranged in your hand and then placed in the vase. A gentle spray of water over the arrangement gives the impression of early morning dew.

It was a miserable day, pouring down rain, but with all the attendees the tatami room had become stuffy during the lecture and they had opened the sliding doors to let in some air. Our group found our lunch boxes with our names on them (note the pretty box in the photo), opened them up and enjoyed a boxed lunch, Japanese style, while taking in the view of the small garden at our feet and the Engaku-ji grounds beyond.

Aside from shifting constantly, trying in vain to find a comfortable place on the floor, I enjoyed the program. I continue to be amazed at the "Japanese Way" – this interconnectedness of patience, tranquility, the attention to detail, the quest for essence. I'm trying to take it all in, I'm trying to lose some of my Western ways and focus on the lessons I'm learning while here ... like patience. The traffic (patience), the sitting on the floor (patience and tranquility), the flower arrangement (essence) ... all these lessons ... now that's inspiring.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply

Friends and family wonder what base life is like, how is it different from living in a small town or neighborhood. In many ways I suppose it is not so different – you cannot as the expression goes “swing a cat without bumping into someone you know.” Commissary (i.e. grocery store), Exchange (i.e. company store), gym, post office, bowling alley, Main Street (i.e. fast-food-Nation), movie theatre – all of these you are pretty much guaranteed to run into someone you know. It is a bit like living in a fish bowl. It’s something I’m still trying to get used to – I sort of liked my anonymity of living in the civilian world. Here that’s a bit more difficult to pull off, especially as a wife of a pediatrician. If you have kidos here on base you probably know him, and there’s the trickle down effect. “Ooooooooooohhhhhh your Dr. Cleary’s wife!” mmmm, well yes. I not complaining really, I’m glad he is so well liked. But it is an adjustment transitioning from the civilian world to the military lifestyle.

There are something’s though that are very unique to living on base – and I’m reminded of this each time I go to the movie theatre (we stand for the National Anthem before the movie begins) or in the early morning when Jeff and I are out on our own PT and the different commands are out drilling. There is nothing quite like listening to a group of military members jog by chanting their cadence at 5:30 in the morning to get you to pick up your pace. This is one in particular that makes me crack up, especially when it’s delivered with the deep resonant voice that sounds like James Earl Jones is out there calling it out:

My Grandma

Left Left Lefty right-o left
Left Left keep it in step

When my grand mama was 91
She did PT just for fun

When my grand mama was 92
She did PT better than you

When my grand mama was 93
She did PT better than me

Hoo-rah grand mama
Whatcha doin grand mama

She loves to double time
She does it all the time

Left Left Lefty right-o left right
Left Left keep it in step now

We also have morning colors here on base each morning at 8 a.m. – there is nothing quite like a daily reminder that you are an American as watching everything around you come to a complete halt as pedestrians and joggers stop, active duty members salute, cars all stop and pause to pay respect to the raising of our flag while the National Anthem is being played throughout the base. Since we are also here in Japan, the Japanese flag is raised following the U.S. while their National Anthem is played. There is the bugle call of “Carry On” and then it’s business as usual … everyone picks up where they left off and move on. In the evening, if I’m lucky enough to have the doors or windows open I can hear the sound of “Retreat” being played at sunset as they retire the colors for the night. I don’t know that I ever really considered myself an extreme patriot – don’t get me wrong, I love my country even for all it’s difficulties, and I’d defend it to the end – but I don’t think I realized just how deeply American I am until I moved here to Japan and lived on base. I love hearing morning and evening colors – it stirs my soul. It’s a way to remind me daily that we are a military family and we have made many sacrifices (12 moves, 5 school systems, loss of friends, missing family events are just a few things that come to mind) and yes, it’s worth it.

So yesterday morning as Jeff and I were out for our morning dog walk, we were out much later than usual and morning colors sounded. We stopped, as did the jogger going past, paused and faced towards the flag (THE base flag that we are supposed to turn to face is on Command Hill – we can’t actually see it but you know which way to face). It was 9/11. I couldn’t help reflect just how much my country has changed in the last 9 years. For my generation 9/11 is the Pearl Harbor equivalent. And then as my thoughts tend to do, they kept streaming … and I thought if I’m standing here in Japan facing towards the U.S. and the Japanese flag, paying them both respect, then I have hope. I remembered that we have a sign dated 1918 from Boston that says “Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply” (just to remind my husband that he needs to keep it real) – things change, people change, prejudices can be overcome. My family and I watch with astonishment and horror at the divisiveness that has seeped into our country, how those with fear and prejudice have spread an infection in the name of God and country. I’m looking for an antibiotic. Yesterday and everyday I get to have a booster shot – I get to listen to our National Anthem and take pride and have hope. That thing’s will change, that people can change, that personal prejudices will fine a cure. I have to go now, colors are about to sound and I need my daily dose of inspiration.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Enabler vs. Supportive Friend

In the Spring I went to the Tokyo Hobby Show and had my fill of interesting eye-candy. Some things spoke to me more than others, but the one thing I thought was really interesting were some multicolored purses I saw at a booth – the hoards of Japanese ladies surrounding the booth would be my big clue that something very cool was there that I had to see. With very little English, and even less Japanese (on my part) I was able to purchase the supplies that came with an instruction sheet ... that was of course in Japanese. I seem to be accumulating multiple sewing projects, and it would appear that for our time here in Japan I have acquired a taste for Japanese handbags. I have collected numerous patterns, which are all naturally in Japanese. I keep buying, and stuffing the patterns in my craft drawer (please note the word drawer, not room, not closet, but drawer - in a years time I have gone from a studio space to a drawer!) with the hope that one day I would be able to pull them out and spend hours sewing away, making really chic bags out of Japanese obis (the beautiful sashes they wear around their kimonos).

So I have two problems. The first is that I cannot read Japanese. The second is that I do not have my sewing machine (a.k.a my "Ferrari" - Jeff's name for my Bernina, which has to do with how much it cost not how fast I sew, although I can make it go pretty darn fast thank you very much). Not one to let a couple of obstacles like language barriers and lack of essential machines to get in my way of accomplishing a project I figured it would all work itself out ...

First problem solved. I have a neighbor friend, Etsuko, who is Japanese and happened to fall in love with a guy in the Navy and now follows her husband all over the world too. Lucky her, for the first time since they've been married she got to come home to Japan. Lucky me, I asked if she would mind looking at the directions and help walk me through the process and she said yes. As she started looking over the instructions she commented "wow" and I of course wanting to be clued in and asked "what?" It turns out the "fabric" I bought isn't really fabric but tatami matt webbing that's used to cover the edges of the tatami matts. O.K. I think, now that's cool. I'm going to make a purse out of tatami matt webbing. Love it!

Second problem, well sometimes you need your friends to support you in your endeavors - by either standing firm and saying "no" ... like as in "no, you don't need that Mocha Frapp if you plan to fit back into the clothes you arrived here with" or they could be an enabler and respond like my friend Val did with a "sure you can borrow my sewing machine, even though you put yours in storage for 3 years so that you could explore life beyond the machine." Thank you Val for being an Enabler! I had so much fun creating this bag, mmmm, well o.k. I'm sure sewing to most of you wouldn't be on your "fun" list but maybe creating would be ... and so for the first time in quite a while I created something out of flat pieces of webbing and even though I'm sure some of my "winging it" with the instructions wouldn't pass with the Japanese ladies I wiggled my way through to see what they were all looking at, it worked for me and I was ... inspired.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Normally, automobiles really don't do much for me, they are a necessity, a tool to get me from one place to another. Just show me where the gas goes, hand me the keys and I'm good. It's just a car. Vintage cars however are a completely different story. My dad loves old cars and for as long as I can remember he has stopped at every vintage car show we happened to pass by, if a vintage car is in a parking lot he will amble over to it - drawn to it like a moth to light. He knows the details ... make, year, etc. And if the owner is around, it will be at least another 10 to 15 minutes before we're on our way - he gathers all the info. Perhaps it was this exposure to vintage cars from a young age that I learned to appreciate their beauty. And I had my dreams, when I was younger I really wanted a 1965 Ford Mustang Convertible ... in red of course. On the weekends my dad and I would stop and look at the cars for sale in the parking lot of a local store and I'd dream ... but it wasn't meant to be. Too much money, not very practical for driving back and forth to college in ... it sure was fun to look though.

This past weekend was Friendship Day here on base. The gates are open and after standing in hours long lines to get through security the Japanese are welcomed on base to various festivities. A couple of ships are open to tour, there are music performances, many organizations selling various kinds of American food - pizza is a HUGE hit here (I actually see the Japanese walking out with luggage carts with 10+ pizza boxes strapped to the luggage carrier with bungee cords - and I wonder why? The pizza I've had out in town beats what we have here on base). I avoided the crowds, it was a beastly hot and humid day, and hunkered down inside our air conditioned townhouse until 4:30 ... when I grabbed my camera, hoped that the afternoon light would be my friend and I headed to the auto show portion of Friendship Day. There I figured I had photo ops galore to continue practicing my photography skills (and I use that term loosely).

There were all kinds of cars there, many newer souped up cars and low-riders (hadn't seen those since we lived in San Diego) but those did not interest me, I passed them with hardly a glance my focus was on something a couple of rows over ... like that moth to the light, there was a 1965 Black Ford Mustang, beautifully restored. There were also some other really cool older cars that I wished I'd had my dad next to me telling me about them - an old yellow pick up truck, a beautiful British sports car. All were great opportunities for me to practice my photography, I learned a lot that day about lighting and reflection, angles and focus. I still have such a long ways to go, but each time I'm out I learn a little bit more. And, I realized I really loved taking pictures of these vintage cars – they are beautiful, and the care their owners have taken to maintain their beauty for others to enjoy is well ... inspiring.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Indigo dye

One of the spouses here on base amazes me ... she has a newborn and a toddler, she just finished up her masters degree and she has a home business, making and selling the cutest little kimono tops - American style.

In addition to all of the above she is also an avid knitter and has been experimenting with natural dyes. I am in awe of her and I wonder ... did I have that much energy 20 years ago (she's much younger than me)? Does she even sleep? When she mentioned that she would be interested in having an informal dye workshop I immediately piped up and said I wanted in. I ordered my supplies from Dharma but even with guidance managed to leave out a few necessary ingredients ... luckily for me Tara had extra's to share.

The first session involved various natural dyes like madder (the orange/rust color), cochineal (pink color), lak and some others. It was all just one big experiment to me so I ordered some ready to dye yarn and had at it ... the hank in the slide show with rust, shows one where I dyed two ends but I felt like it still needed something else. Same with the cochineal. And so we decided to have round two and agreed to meet a few weeks later to experiment with Indigo.

I have been very interested in learning about indigo dyeing with my passion for all things Shibori. Indigo is the traditional dye used for shibori work here in Japan. I have seen the in-ground ancient dye pots in Mashiko, saw a demonstration at the Tokyo International Quilt show and of course immerse my work in it every month in my Shibori class but I do not know how to make the dye. I have used chemical dyes for a number of years but the natural indigo dye process seemed intimidating to me and I just had not worked up the courage to try this out on my own. So with Tara's guiding hands we ordered indigo from Dharma, I sacrificed my blender (I hated the thing anyways ... I don't care what Jeff said Consumer Reports rated it, it was the worst blender ever - perhaps good enough for chopping up indigo into tiny little pieces but nothing else), and we dyed away. The kids came home from school and between the fermenting indigo smell and the wet wool smell just about gagged on the farm smell that permeated our house – an aroma somewhere between a compost pile mixed in with a bunch of wet wool. "Eeewwww, what is that smell?!" as they covered their mouths and noses upon walking into the house. Not that they were probably too surprised, since I'm pretty darn sure they think they have a wacked-out mom anyways, with art projects always around ("Wait! Don't throw that out, it's not trash it's for an idea I have."), my "Darth Vadar" particle mask that I used to wear when mixing chemical dyes, and now hanks of damp wool hanging in our laundry room (think wet dog times 100).

Oh, but it was so worth it ... the experiment worked and I can't wait to order more Indigo and have another round – when there's no humidity, I can open all the doors and windows, and go crazy dyeing away. I have no idea what I will knit with these yarns, and since I am probably the world's slowest knitter anyways it will be years before I see the results. But I was inspired. Inspired by a much younger mom to try new things and to not be afraid to make mistakes (oops, we let the madder dye bath boil – that's o.k. look the color is a lovely burnt orange) and inspired to share. I got so much more out of these two dye days having shared the experience with others. Try new things, make mistakes, share with others ... now that's inspiring.

Friday, July 9, 2010

50 Years

Today is my parents 50th wedding anniversary. I have no idea what their dreams for their future together were when they exchanged vows on July 9th 1960. I can only imagine some of their vision has played out as they expected but I'm guessing most of it has not. I also suspect though that looking back, as only two people can that have shared a half a century together, that they would agree that it has been a good ride, not always a smooth ride, there were certainly some potholes thrown in there but all in all it's been a good trip.

They raised two daughters that I hope have brought them more joy than heartache – although I would guess that during the teenage years there were many times they wondered just what the hell they had gotten themselves into. Now they get to sit back and reap the benefits of surviving the turbulent teenage years and wallow in the joy of having 5 grandchildren that adore Nana and Granddaddy.

They had several dogs – Boots, Penny, Gwen – and one more thrown in there that was so short lived I can't even remember it's name. Remarkable to me when I think that my mom did not grow up with pets, but my dad being a country boy grew up around more animals than he probably would care to remember. A good example of how two different backgrounds can come together to form their own vision of what their home would be. Even though I know at times having dogs was way more hassle than it was worth, my parents gave me a gift of having a family pet that I now carry on with my own family.

They lived commitment and support when my dad lost his job and my mom turned her talents into a successful business. They lived together and worked together – with my independent Navy spouse ways I cannot fathom how their marriage survived that! They survived countless trips up and down I-85 from Richmond to Atlanta as my mom dealt with aging parents and my dad logged in miles and miles behind the wheel getting her there. They know all the places to stop, the mileage/time goals and when to leave Atlanta to time it just right to miss rush hour traffic around Greenville/Charlotte/Raleigh-Durham.

They've had some great trips starting off small when my sister and I were younger – Myrtle Beach with my grandparents and always the traveling bar. I think that thing got cracked open before the suitcases, Whiskey Sours and Manhattans on the rocks. Let the vacation begin! Later, with my sister and I married and off on our own lives, there were trips to Europe and of course the many vacations to St. Augustine Beach where my mom fulfilled one of her dreams by owning a place at the beach. Sharing that dream with us, with our own vacations shared and spent there. So many great memories.

Twenty-six years ago, just before I got married I had a family friend tell me that "being married will be the toughest job you've ever had. The kids grow up and move away, the family dog dies ... but if you want to stay married you're going to have to work at it, every-single-day." Your words of wisdom were spot on Mr. Harris, and I've thought of them often – today more than any day. Today I look at my parents and see their marriage as more than just words exchanged in a ceremony, I see it as hope for the future together, when you don't know what the future is but you know you're in it together. Secure in the knowledge that their lives together are so much richer because they stuck it out – staying together when things are good is easy, it's when life throws you the lemons that you learn how to make the lemonade – tart and sweet southern style. 

We are half a world away, the Navy in it's infinite wisdom has parked us in Japan for the time being, and like many military families based overseas we cannot always be where our hearts want to be. I wish our family could be in Atlanta on this special day, to give my mom and dad a hug and a kiss in person, to thank them for all they've done – for not just saying their wedding vows fifty years ago but for living them as well. I can think of nothing more inspiring.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Teaching an old dog new tricks

For the past two days I have traveled up to Tokyo for a photography workshop class. It has been incredibly frustrating and rewarding at the same time. I am an amateur photographer, on the beginning side of that category. When we moved last year and I went through my major purge/organize mode I realized that I had really stopped taking photos. Jeff had taken many at the kids sporting events but with reluctant family members I no longer had the camera out to capture those precious moments of childhood. Coming to Japan has changed all of that, I hardly ever leave the house without my camera and the days I do I kick myself because of the missed photo op. But my camera skills are rusty. I had become a complacent photographer leaving the camera mode on "auto" for the first 6 months we were here but being continuously frustrated with my results. I took the baby step of graduating to "vari-modes" where I helped the camera determine if I was shooting a landscape or a portrait or action. Better, but still not fabulous. I signed up for an online photography workshop which kick started me into trying to take some portraits of my unwilling children and attempted to take the final step into Manual Mode where I set up everything. I used to do this, my old SLR was all me – I had to determine aperture, shutter speed even considering the film I was using. But that information had atrophied in my brain with the introduction of digital photography, I was letting the camera think for me and it wasn't working. What I really needed was Photography 101 and found a 3-day photography class/seminar being held in Tokyo with hands on instruction. It has been great. I have had to relearn my camera and also come to realize that Jeff and I are using a Matchbox VW Bug to try and get great shots while the others in the class are driving Ferrari's. But that's o.k. with me for now, until I can get the shots I want out of this camera there's no point in forking out the big bucks (and I've had a reminder in just how expensive this hobby is) for a high powered model.

Yesterday in the sweltering heat and humidity of rainy season in Tokyo our group took a fieldtrip to the the Harajyuku area. I fiddled with settings, got shooed away from unwilling shopkeepers who I guess get tired of all the tourists taking photographs and not buying anything. It started to rain and I pulled out my umbrella, waiting for the rain to pass. While I was standing there looking at the cool Keith Harringesque artwork on the construction fence I decided to use some of the knowledge relearned and put it to use. I got the shot above - my best of the day. A few weeks ago it could have ended with a photo just like this and I'd wonder what was missing. Yesterday, a match was lit and rekindled some of what I learned in the photography class I took at RISD 20 years ago. An afternoon spent in the mushi-atsui (steaming hot humidity) was well worth it. I realized I can relearn lost information and as with most things in life it just takes a boatload of practice and getting out there to get what you want. Now that's inspiring.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Happy Rainy Season

It's here ... the rainy season has begun. The dehumidifiers are running around the clock, the umbrellas are by the front door, in the car and in my teaching bag. We have moisture absorbers in the closets to prevent our clothes from molding. I've purchased handkerchiefs that all Japanese seem to carry – to pat away the perspiration that seems to flow non-stop from my pores. I've tried to purchase some cool Japanese clothes – that's cool as in staying cool, not hip, as in fashion cool (although with any luck I managed that one too) – that will help me wade through this season of thick air and frequent rain showers.

The Japanese, as with so many things since arriving here, have given me a different perspective on this season. Normally back home (i.e. the Southern U.S.) I would whine incessantly about being hot, count the days to Fall and hunker down in my air conditioned home. Here in Japan, I am surrounded by those who have survived the rainy season since the moment they were born. They cope with brightly colored umbrellas, fashionable raincoats, mod rainboots, bags that are waterproof – they are well equipped. I try to discreetly peek at fellow passengers while riding the trains, wondering how they mange to pull it all off - they look pulled together, ready for the day rain or shine and they are not perspiring. How is that possible?

The rainy season, tsuyu (meaning plum rain) officially began on June 12th and is predicted to end July 27th. It is thought that the season is called plum rain because it coincides with the ripening of plums but whatever the name I have noticed one thing – it does not deter the Japanese from getting out there and continuing to enjoy life and nature. Maybe it's because like the rice that depends on the rain for it's growth, the Japanese realize that to stay inside because it's raining or may rain is to miss out on what life has to offer. Last week when I opted to leave the camera at home due to the rain only to have it lift and it turned into a beautiful afternoon (albeit a hot and humid one), I missed out. My opportunity to see the hydrangeas was lost, because I was thinking like an American, "oh it's raining ... I'll wait for another day." I won't make that mistake again. I'll take my Americanized version of "Happy Rainy Style" and get out there and see what I've been missing. That's inspiring.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Noro Inspiration

Here on base there are communities within communities. Sort of like a food chain. For example, there's the YOSC (Yokosuka Officers Spouses Club) that includes all officer spouses (if you opt to join) that are attached to the base. Each command has their own organization, like the Oakleaf Club, which includes all officer spouses attached to the Medical Services - whether at the hospital or on a ship. And then each ship has their organization - divided of course by officer and enlisted. I belong to YOSC and the Oakleaf Club and I've benefitted from these memberships - when you move to a new area, especially overseas, it is a good way to jump in and get connected fast. But I am probably not the best example of a dutiful military spouse – Jeff has at times over the years referred to me as the anti-spouse (thanks dear). I don't really know who's who in the military hierarchy, when someone tells me what their husband does I try real hard to pay attention but if there's a military acronym involved I immediately start to glaze over. Perhaps it's because I'm more interested in who they are, what they like to do ... not who their husband is/or works for (hopefully, this honest declaration won't get me shunned here on base). Perhaps it is also because even though I am married to Jeff, and I am proud of all he's accomplished I usually try to keep it underwraps who I'm married to. It's a small base, with many, many kids ... if you have a child here, chances are they've seen my husband at some point. "Ooooooooh, you're Dr. Cleary's wife!" .... mmmmm, well yes. As one person said to me recently after declaring the previous statement "oh, I'm sorry - you probably get that a lot here don't you?" Sometimes, Jeff and I joke and say I'm just "the wife" when referring to me in a conversation – no name, just "wife" – like an afterthought.

There is however a group here where all is equal, there is no rank, no who's who ... it's not enlisted nor officer – we are just a group of women who come together with a common interest. Knitting is the great equalizer. Each week the Knitwits (Yokosuka Knitting Group), comes together to share knitting knowledge, projects, encouragement (as you have to rip out hours of knitting), inspiration and of course laughs. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me, I knew how to knit when I arrived here but my knitting experience to that point had been mostly me starting projects and then shipping them off to my mom to finish when I hit a point and I realized I was out of my league. My mom is an amazing knitter, she has made our children some beautiful sweaters and the cutest darn hats ... all have been carefully packed away in my cedar chest to pass along to the next generation. She has offered me encouragement, guidance with my projects – and the hope that one day I too could knit as well as she does. Here in Japan, I have had the chance with each project to continue to learn and try new techniques ("look mom!" I said on Skype holding up a swatch of knitting so she could see half way around the world, "I learned how to make a cable!") and my mom has been replaced by my Japanese knitting sensei who is kind and patient and I swear can knit a 100 stitches to my every one – she's fast.

At one of our meetings a couple months back one of the ladies brought some Noro knitting yarn and mentioned that wouldn't it be great if we could take a field trip to the Noro knitting factory? We have a wonderful knitting shop just off base that helped to coordinate Noro coming to us. The company does not give tours of their facility but they agreed to send a company representative to come and talk to us about the process and their yarns. We met at Sakuma-sans family home (her grandparents built it, a traditional Japanese styled home, nearly 100 years ago) and spent an afternoon learning about the process, looking at the samples and the beautiful yarns, and of course eating some great food. I walked away with two projects and a lot of inspiration. I am still a beginner and I am a slow knitter. These two projects may just take me until the end of our time here to finish (sensei says with a twinkle in her eyes "start now, maybe you will finish before you leave"), but no matter - I came away with projects that I will learn more techniques, a chance to become familiar with the only knitting yarn produced in Japan, and of course a lot of inspiration.