Thursday, April 30, 2009

Big City Noise

One thing has struck me about Tokyo.  It's absence of big city noise. Sure, we hear normal traffic and construction sounds, but very little else. No one blasts their stereo from their car, few people beep their horns and the buildings under construction are sheltered by elaborate walls and canvases which minimize the sounds. I've been told that there are officials who monitor the noise levels at construction sites to ensure they do not cause a great disturbance. When you ride the subway, no one holds loud conversations and absolutely no one talks on their cell phones.   

Now we happen to be living by a fire station, so we do hear a fair number of sirens throughout the day, but aside from that it is really quite peaceful for a city with a population that exceeds 12 million. Then again, perhaps the sheer size of the population explains the value the Japanese seem to place on minimizing the big city sounds. All I can say is thank goodness they do.

There's a first time for everything

I was walking down the street, cooling down from my 6 mile run around the Imperial Palace when the most unexpected thing happened.  A local asked ME for directions!  As she clung to her map, at first I thought she was talking to the lady walking next to me.  But no, she had me in mind.  The miracle was that I actually was able to help her.  OK, so she was just looking for the FedEx Kinkos, but still, I was pretty proud of myself.  In retrospect, we figure that since the area I was walking in was Embassy Row, she probably figured I was connected to one of the embassies and would be a safe bet.

Of course, there are plenty of things to keep me humble.  Like that faux pas of actually running IN the Imperial palace entrance area.  Come to find out, that is a big no no, only run AROUND the palace walls.  Silly Gaijin.  Oh, and I still can only say about five things in Japanese:  hello, goodbye, thank you, thank you very much and excuse me.  Still, progress is being made.  I think.      

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Some Tokyo Images

Some Close Ups

Fun at Ueno Park Zoo

It is "Golden Week" in Japan, a series of national holidays that pretty much means nearly everyone is off work for the better part of a week.  We got to join in the fun and went to Ueno Park Zoo.  It was very crowded, but fortunately, there were plenty of places to escape to a little bit of peace and beauty.  The zoo has old fashioned (translation, small) enclosures for the animals, so we felt pretty sorry for them, but the grounds were absolutely beautiful.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tokyo Disneyland, Take Two

Colin had a weekday off and we decided to venture out again so that he could experience Disneyland with the kids.  Once again, the kids really just wanted to go on the "It's a Small World" ride.  So we did, four times to be exact.  

Now, I have a bit of history with this particular ride.  When I was 16, some friends and I went to Disneyland (California version). At 16, I was quite disdainful of the "kiddie rides" so I was less than thrilled when my friends insisted we go on "It's a Small World."  The song drove me nuts and I wasn't looking forward to it.  So what should happen but the ride broke down.  Twenty to thirty minutes (it felt more like two hours) of hearing that song, over and over again.  It was the last time I ventured on that ride.  That is, until last week's first Disneyland trip.  Wouldn't you know that the kids would like this ride the best.  Of course, seeing it through their eyes is quite a different experience than my 16 year old perspective.  As we are riding in the boat Keenan's eyes are as big as saucers.  They have have dubbed it the "Happy Ride" and never seem to tire of the song or the scenery, wish I could say the same.  Still, their unbridled enthusiasm made it easy for to grant their requests for multiple rides.   

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lost in Japan (literally)

I have to preface this post by stating that I'm still sleep deprived and suffering from a dose of culture shock.  Hopefully, I can express some coherent thoughts, but don't count on it.

I have been to Tokyo before this trip, but never with kids.  That difference alone changes my perspective.  Japan is a beautiful country with friendly people.  Few people speak English, or at least, they don't want to admit that they do.  To date, the people we have met have been unfailingly gracious and helpful.  They seem to forgive us for our ignorance of Japanese customs and smile at our rudimentary attempts to speak the phrases and words we have managed to teach ourselves but mangle when we open our mouths.  In spite of the tolerance shown, I have to admit I feel like a royal schmuck a good portion of the day.

The subway system is like nothing I have ever encountered.  Now I have traveled my fair share of the world and have navigated the Metro and the Tube with ease.  Not so the Tokyo train system.  To start, it is ENORMOUS and intimidating.  I knew I was in trouble when I saw locals consulting the map with furrowed brows and asking the train officials for help.  The system is so vast that it doesn't fit on two subway maps, let alone one.  Thankfully, we were able to purchase Suica cards which allows us to put money on it from which the ticket machines automatically deduct the correct fare.  These cards took out one element of confusion because trying to calculate our fares was mind boggling. We would both be hovering over a fare calculator, scratching our heads, with a vacant stare, looking around desperately for someone to help us.  So our Suica cards have been our best friends in Japan.  

It becomes really entertaining when you see me trying to handle changing subway lines with a stroller and two toddlers in tow.  Many of the subways have only stairs and some lines are deep, deep, down underground.  Thankfully Sophia has been very good about sticking close to my side and holding my hand and the endless stairs (while carrying Keenan and stroller) ensure I don't have to worry too much about whether I got my run in that morning.

Yesterday, I was walking back from the grocery store, and as I was looking around at the local shops, it hit me.   I was a stranger in a strange land.  I had the feeling of excitement that comes with conquering the very little things like figuring out how to properly give the clerk cash (believe me, there is an art form to it), or using the washing machine with instructions strictly in Japanese, or figuring out what all those buttons on the toilet do (if you can believe, there are about ten of them).The excitement was tempered with a feeling of isolation and not being connected to the world that was going on around me.  Which brings me to my next point. Being a minority.

By our appearance alone, we stick out like sore thumbs, no surprise there.  But we are also cradling two Asian children and the looks of curiosity and disbelief can be a little unsettling at times.  I can't blame anyone for being bewildered and most people are too polite to give us gaping stares.  For the most part, it is much more subtle than that, but you can feel it all the same.  The most disconcerting experience happened in a nearby playground.  A Japanese woman started to follow us around and eventually went up to a groundskeeper (not so subtly pointing us out). We got the feeling she thought we might have stolen some kids and it made me grateful I had all of our passports tucked into my money pouch, lest we get questioned by the local police.  Whatever the groundskeeper said to her, seemed to ease her mind, but she continued to watch us intently as we took our leave.   

The kids have had no problems meeting the local children. There is some confusion when Keenan asks (as he does nearly every time), "what's your name?"  But nothing was funnier than the time he posed that question to the Mother of a little girl (whom he was playing in the sandbox with).  Her response was "You" (not sure how it would be written in Japanese).  Keenan looked befuddled and said, "no, what's HER name?"  The mother obviously spoke some English because she laughed and told him a longer version of the girl's name (which did not sound so much like 'You').  It was an Abbot and Costello moment to be sure.  At any rate, playing and having fun seem to be universal and aside from Keenan tending to run other kids over (he just doesn't look where he is going), they have been getting on just fine.  

We took the kids to Disneyland. It was their first time there. Colin had to work, so it was just me, Colin's Mom, and the kids. We had a great time.  The kids were on their best behavior and the Teacups, the Carousel and the It's a Small World ride were huge hits.  Pirates of the Caribbean was well liked by Keenan but was met with lots of tears and screams from Sophia. Suffice to say, we won't be taking her back on that ride anytime soon. 

Yesterday, we took the kids to a working farm that is also an enormous playground for kids. They got to feed the cows and the sheep and eat ice cream made from the milk the farm cows produced.  They climbed, slid and ran.  I have never seen slides as big.  They were called roller slides.  Indeed, you sat on rollers and rolled your way down the very long slide.  Most didn't go very fast, but the kids seemed to love them anyway.

Unfortunately, the kids have both hit a rough patch and their mercurial moods have made for some challenging days.  Sophia will be sweet as apple pie one moment, and defiant and mouthy the next.  Keenan swings between easy going and super sized temper tantrums when something doesn't go his way.  Oh, and he doesn't listen.... I mean, ever!  I recognize that the kids have been through a lot of upheaval in the past six weeks and they are dealing with their own anxiety about being in an unfamiliar place.  They have been thrilled to see Colin and say they do not want to go back home.  So I imagine that with a little time, things will work themselves out and everyone will settle down.  Of course, just when that happens, it will probably be time to go home. One of life's little ironies.

In the meantime, I'm taking it all in, figuring out how to get from point A to point B.  We'll surely get there, wherever there is. After all, isn't the name of this blog "From Here to There?",  At the moment, I'm approaching my life a little like I do the subway.  Figure out where I want to go, come up with a plan, revise that plan when I miss my stop, go the wrong direction or get on the wrong line all together and eventually, arriving where I need to be.

This is an exciting adventure that I didn't have in my play book, of course, few things in life are what we intend.  But it has been my experience that the detours I have taken often prove to be more interesting than the course I had intended. Such is life. 

Tokyo Adventures

So far, we've made trips to Disneyland, a working farm, and the Children's Castle (lots of musical instruments to play, things to climb and places to do artwork).  It has kept us busy and tired.  With such a drastic time zone change, the tired part has played an important role in getting and keeping the kids asleep.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Photos for Daddy.....

Colin has been in Japan for over three weeks now. The kids have never been apart from him for longer than 10 days, so they are missing him something fierce. We'll be joining him soon and hope to spend a month in Japan. The kids are already packing and can't wait to see their Daddy. In the meantime, I figured Daddy would like to see some new photos of his two favorite people. We love you and miss you!

Fashion Week

Finally, the Easter dress (that was huge last year), fits just right. Today Sophia's class had their Easter Egg Hunt, so she wanted to dress up. And since we will likely be traveling to Japan over Easter, I figured it was a good as time as any.