Snow Monsters- They`re Real. Zao, Japan.

Every now and again, I claim my maternal right to say the following words,

“I want to go, so you`re all going.”

Spouse is usually more than happy to comply whereas the Offspring will catapult feeble arguments in retaliation to my proclamation followed by flaming insults toward the location of my choosing. This backlash usually fortifies my resolve that some time away would be good for the hostiles.

The location eliciting the firestorm of burning barbs of criticism was Zao, Japan, located in the Yamagata prefecture. (West of the famed Fukushima)

Ed`s Photos Of Japan

The hook attached to my lip was the Snow Monsters- Juhyo in Japanese.

These monstrosities only appear during the month of February due to weather conditions blowing in from the ocean making the snow wet and heavy. This gluey, goopy snow sticks to the trees at the highest elevations enveloping them from top to bottom transforming in to giant snow monsters bowing over to grab skiers flying by.

On Wednesday before our Friday departure, Spouse threw the work card and Offspring #2 claimed pressing social engagements – a dance and a sleep over leaving just Offspring #1 and me. Although the snowboarding was heralded as more cellar than stellar, he would snowboard on a 3% incline and a dusting of snow. Even the looming “threat” of Fukushima couldn`t keep us away. I get more radiation from my super sonic frizz fixing hairdryer.

OS#1 and I arrived at our hotel located at the base of the lift to the Snow Monsters. Based on our reception, Zao is not a frequent haunt of Western tourists.The man at the front desk greeted me as we walked through the door. “Konbawa Ouisar-san!”

It was late so he advised that we go to dinner before viewing the snow monsters. Presented in Japanese style, it was served in one room with all guests eating a set menu.

“Konbawa Ouisar-san” The hotel staff were all greeting by name- on sight. This was to become a pattern wherever we went as news of our Western presence became known. We were famous for a weekend.

The first course arrived-

We were thrilled with our dinner. OS#1 and I had never eaten uni (Sea urchin) out of the shell. Possibly over exuberant, and potentially louder than the other patrons- taking pictures etc., all the other diners turned to watch us “enjoying” our dining experience. They must eat uni out of the shell every night.

As soon as was polite, we charged out to the lift.

During the month of February, a lift takes walkers, skiers and snowboarders up to the Snow Monsters where all are allowed to view during the day and night.

The weather was bad the two nights of our visit which did not provide good picture-taking opportunities. However, I highly recommend this location for a horror movie or desolate winter scene to all of the famous movie producers reading this blog as it is truly one of the spookiest places I`ve ever seen.

Antarctica must be tropical in comparison.

I was not posing for this picture, I was frozen mid stride. OS#1 had to chisel my pants at the knees so I could walk back inside.

The next day was beautiful.

We found this Buddha who had been hidden the night before. When not snow-covered, he sits in lotus position flanked by 4 other Buddhas. The wind has blown his nose to the side of his face.

The exposed part is about 5 feet tall.

The skiing trail through the snow monsters is behind OS#1. The gondola taking skiers and walkers can be seen in the background over the snow monsters.

No matter how many times I threw objects of varying sizes at the tree, it would not dump its snow on OS#1. Very disappointing.

OS#1 kept saying “Mom- you stink!” to which denial is the only appropriate response no matter the situation. We soon discovered the source.

A scenic, yet odiforous onsen. Rumor has it that its strong smell indicates superior healing qualities. Zao is equally famous for the beautiful onsens.

Of all the places I`ve visited in Japan, this is on my Top 5 list. Many of you know that I`ve been whining that my new camera was among the Top 5 worst purchases I`ve made – highlighted by the pictures above. However, a wonderful article accompanied by stunning shots of Zao and the Snow Monsters was written by Lisa Jardine and Hilary Wendel for CNNGo.com- Please get all the details for travel and see the Snow Monsters in all their glory below.

Read “Japan`s Weirdest Snowscape: The Monsters of Zao” Lisa Jardine CNNGo.com Here

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Snow Monkeys- Karmic Cuteness

While the rest of the world celebrates the Year of the Dragon, the Clampitt clan has been in a parallel universe celebrating the Year of the Monkey. Primates, those in addition to the hairless version in my family, have participated in most of our family vacations throughout the past year. Orangutans, lemurs, (are they monkeys? I`m counting them) macaques of various renditions, and dozens of others I can`t name have blessed us with their howling presence. Having never observed a monkey outside a zoo, this led me to evaluate their presence whereby I concluded it`s my fault. I`ve been abusing monkeys for years- karmically speaking- and now the karmic monkeys are on my back.

It started innocently when as a child I swung from one monkey bar to the next.

In the 70`s I learned that people recovering from heroin addiction wore leather monkey fists around their necks.

My favorite watering hole in college was the Brass Monkey.(Roll Tide)

When the Offspring came along I routinely chastised with,

” Stop monkeying around,” and

“Quit with the monkey business.”

I now sit in the lotus position while I pass along sage advice to my sisters such as,

“Well, if they do it at home, they`ll do it everywhere else. Monkey see, Monkey do.”

A foiled plan results in an eruption of, “Well that certainly throws a %&'(&’~ monkey wrench in things.”

After the last anthropoid encounter however, I may have reached the required level of enlightenment to move to the next dilemma in a long list of karmic “to do`s.”

It started with a four-day snowboarding trip to Nagano, Japan, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. It ended with some snowboarding and a snow monkey tour.

Technically snow monkeys are the Japanese Macaque. Unique to cold areas of Japan, other than man, these monkeys are the northern most climate dwelling primates.

The tour started with a 40 minute hike up the mountain in to a National Forest.

Nestled at the top of the mountain is a 200-year-old hotel. Its attraction was the hot spring water piped in to hot tubs set in the snow. Originally, the monkeys used the pipes as heated walking paths. The sighs of ecstatic human bathers soon caught their attention and – monkey see, monkey do- they joined in the revelry. In order for the hotel to remain viable, the monkeys got private baths.

At the ranger station I wondered what type of entertainment was on the agenda.

The monkeys jumped from ground, to the Social Chairman, to the sign as we got closer to the springs area.

Onsens (hot springs) are as relaxing to monkey as man.

Feeding the monkeys is strictly forbidden so they have no interest in the people taking pictures. Including this baby trying to step on a leaf.

Of course there`s always a show off. This one spotted the tall gentleman and decided to prove who was the man of the hour. Size does matter in the wild apparently.

They were just asking to be picked up for a blogging photo op.

We were told that although docile and uncaring of our presence, touching one would bring on the wrath of the entire clan. A boy threw a snow ball at a baby. We then observed the genesis of the phrase “going ape shit” as the baby`s mother “went ape shit” and chased him off the river bank- both screaming and hissing. Offspring #2 and I gave the mother a high five as she ambled by. Throwing snowballs at that kid had crossed my mind several times. Or maybe something else that would splatter upon impact.

On the way back this fellow posed proudly. Racougar hat?

Zenkoji Temple was a part of this tour. Allow me to give you the highlights. The first statue of Buddha to reach Japan is reputed to reside inside the temple. I say reputed since no one`s seen it for 1100 years or so. The receiving priest confirmed it was in fact the Buddha when interred. A copy of the now hidden Buddha was made.The copy is shown once every 4 years. Our timing was off so we saw a picture of the copy.

The Temple also houses the bell that was rung to signal the start of the 1998 Olympics.

Those are the official reasons to visit. Then there`s the unofficial reason.

The tunnel underneath the temple.

Fun was had by all as we descended in to the depths beneath the temple on a quest to turn a key that would allow us to gain entry to Heaven. Really, we all need the insurance. So dark was this hole that the only means of  orientation was by keeping a hand on the wall to the right. I was more concerned about oxygen deprivation as Offspring #2 had a death grip on the hood of my jacket cutting off the air flow through the wind pipe.

The guy directly in front of me pronounced loudly “Someone has her hand on my bum.” (Always good to have an Aussie along for entertainment)

We tried the local delicacy- fried locusts. Although they looked more like crickets to my eye.

Photo by Heidi Sanford

A demonstration to prove the edibility of plague causing insects:

Photo by Heidi Sanford

My peace is made with the monkey.

I hope I`ve not abused the shark.

Tour led by Evergreen Outdoor Center in Hakuba, Japan

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You Can`t Judge A Book By Its Cover- the Kimono

The kimono. Long thought by Western cultures to be an elegant robe, loosely wrapped and cinched with an elaborate belt allowing Japanese men and women to conduct the business of daily living devoid of the discomforts associated with ties and stockings. The kimono  transcends fads such as those producing leggings and minis on a woman too old to know better. I recently discovered this traditional dress worn for centuries is the example of a wolf in sheep`s clothing. Their robe like appearance belies the vice-like constriction which categorizes them as a little known instrument of torture. It is also possible that the kimono could be used as a diet aid since eating is impossible while wearing one. As is breathing.

Recently I attended a traditional New Years Luncheon hosted by a group of Japanese women.  Hidden among the sky scrapers of downtown Tokyo, Happo-en is an oasis of old Japan. The imposing wooden gates mark the entrance in Japanese. A large garden containing 500-year-old Bonsai trees, cascading waterfalls, and cherry blossoms surrounds the building. A picturesque tea house sits beside a lake. I expected powdered Geisha to parade around the perimeter to complete the picture.

Picture by Heidi Sanford

500 Yr Old Bonsai Trees

It seemed appropriate to wear a kimono.

As I investigated renting a kimono, I discovered two unfortunate facts. The first was that renting the kimono along with the other undergarments would cost between $600-1000. As if. And, it takes two to get one in to a kimono. So difficult, in fact, is the tying of this robe that training is required. Huh? So when one of my friends offered a kimono of her mother`s for me to wear I pounced and requested something indestructible and preferably not a family favorite. My own clothes leave a luncheon looking like I sat in a high chair. Wearing a bib over a kimono might appear disrespectful even if I did have its welfare in mind.

As is typical of the Japanese, my friend called having already thought through every detail.

“Ouisar-san, I have dropped off the kimono. Be there at 10:40 to get dressed. I have made all the arrangements. Bring some dish towels.”

I know not to ask. Just do it. There is a good reason for everything.

When I arrived at the Beauty Salon, several of my friends were already getting their hair done. Two tiny ladies ushered me in to a tatami matted room surrounded with mirrors. The kimono appeared to be a small portion of what I was to wear. I had no idea what was to come.

That`s when the man handling started. The two ladies dressing me may have been half my height but prior to being dressers they were sumo wrestlers.

First came the underwear. It is the only part that isn`t painful.

Here I am in my underwear- don`t pass it around the internet.

“Ouisar-san- are those dish towels strapped around your waist?”

Why yes. They are in fact dish towels wrapped around my waist. Their function is to flatten out the buttocks region. A woman in kimono should appear as a perfect cylinder and flat when viewed from the side. (I didn`t require any stuffing for the front as it was already perfectly flat) She also put cotton along my shoulders. Probably to absorb the impact from any falls I might take once fully dressed.

Next came an under kimono.

Sash number two above. She was wrapping them as tightly as she could. I soon lost track of all the sashes. I renamed them “Sashes of sufferance.” The Social Chairman documented the process. Not all sashes are included.

Tight!

I struggled to describe “Too tight” in Japanese.

The evil ladies laughed and pulled harder thinking my ability to talk indicated a failing on their part to get my waist down by 15 inches.

At this point I blew out my stomach to gain room as they pulled. Knowing all the tricks, they smiled sweetly,waited for me to breathe, and pulled tighter. A mother boa constrictor would have been proud if her offspring could accomplish such constriction. They must know something about saddling horses. When they heard ribs cracking, one declared the obi drawn.

All my organs were now either above or below my obi. My lungs and stomach were both fighting for space in my throat. The more discomfort I felt, the happier these ladies became.

And I still had to squeeze in to the shoes.

Also designed to be irritating, the zori sandals and tabi socks are supposed to be three sizes too small. The heel of the foot must overhang the back of the sandal as a marker of proper fit.

Did I mention I was roasting from the inside out? Between the layers, the stuffing, and the tightly bound clothing holding in body heat, I was concerned that my spontaneous combustion might ruin the party.

The kimono and obi I wore were antiques. Many of the kimonos are handed down through the generations. These are stunning works of art as opposed to my mother`s red,white and blue paper dress from the 70`s.

Hair is usually worn up to highlight the back of the neck. The poor woman in the salon attempted to hairspray the hair on my neck away; she didn`t know it only responds to wire clippers and dippity doo.

Antique obi and kimono

Hand embroidery

New Years Toast- The kimono I`m wearing belongs to my friend on the far right

In Japan, if you want something a Japanese friend owns, simply compliment that person on it. Chances are good they`ll feel obligated to give it to you. The Social Chairman learned this lesson during the luncheon. She complimented the hostesses on the choice of sake. Soon the bottles were back out and being passed around. Then one of the uber sophisticated ladies hurried behind the bar to snatch a bottle. And put it in her purse.

My purse wasn`t quite large enough to carry a bottle of sake. However, my kimono was. It was then the ladies showed me the hidden pockets in the kimono. The sleeves are cavernous pockets, large enough for several bottles of sake, the flower arrangements, some desserts, and anything else I may have wanted to filch on my way out.

All dressed and ready to go

A kimono makes every woman beautiful. Elegant. Graceful. It`s no wonder they`ve been worn for centuries.

All photos taken by Heidi Sanford

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What Not to Do While Visiting an Onsen

Several years ago I left my persona as a corporate climber and established myself as a trophy wife. That pesky full length mirror in our shower insists, however, that I am in fact a consolation prize won for participation only. I`m not alone among American women in my discomfort with the naked form. Generations after the Puritans settled America, their influence is still felt.  Or this is the group on which I`ll pin the blame as many other cultures, including the Japanese, don`t suffer from the same aversion to appearing unadorned. At least in a public bath.

The Japanese have been partaking of the daily bath ritual for centuries. It`s most likely the Japanese opposed the black ships sailed by Admiral Perry due to the stench of the sailors. While we were avoiding a good dousing with soap and water due to concern that cleanliness was the first step toward the plague, our Japanese counterparts had perfected the notion of a relaxing immersion both for body and soul.

Ikkeisai Yoshiiku- 17th Century

This was the baggage I carried with me on my first trip to an au naturale onsen.

The site was an outdoor onsen surrounded by gasp inspiring views of the snow-covered mountain landscape beyond. And koi. This would certainly be a welcome ending to a day spent filming Offspring #1 careening down, through and over mountains on a snowboard. Whatever the rabbit can do to the stump (go over, under, through, around, inside, on top) OS#1 can do to the mountain. I am not as facile with a stump and often find myself in a prone position with a nose full of snow. If I could get through my modest tendencies, the hot onsen could breathe movement back in to the joints and muscles in early onset rigamortis.

As is tradition, I put on the yukata for the trip down the elevator. I`d been in the elevator on numerous occasions with yukata wearing individuals, however, it felt to me like walking through the hotel in my pajamas.

I tried to recruit Offspring #2.

“No way. Sitting in a bath tub, naked, with your mom is weird.”

Then Offspring #1 pointed out a significant mistake on my part.

“Mom, the yukata is folded wrong. Left side over right side.” A significant face-saving piece of advice since right over left is reserved for funerals.

I prepared myself for the pajama march through the hotel. I was vaguely aware of the “process” for entering. Strip down, clothes in a basket, carry a small towel in to another area for showering, and finally, jump in the onsen. Getting caught studying the other bathers for guidance could be embarrassing.

I stripped down and put my clothes in the basket.

The other ladies paraded around the room shoulders back and chin faced forward. Like a prepubescent teenager, I slinked to the shower room.

For illustration only. He was not in our onsen. tokyopog.blogspot.com

Here`s where I encountered several issues. First of all, unlike the other bathers, my colossal buckethead loomed large above the partitions. I would have to keep my eyes firmly pointed to the front. Not 100% sure of the proper use of the accoutrements, I took a peek at my neighbor. She was rinsing with the bucket and sitting on the stool while I was sitting on the bucket and missing the stool. Once the stool was located several concerns attacked me at once. How long can viruses and such live on a stool? Is this even more dangerous to one`s health than placing ones cheeks DIRECTLY on the toilet seat? Should I put the towel on the stool and then sit down? I suppose if onsen participation were a health hazard it would have been noticed during the last 10 centuries. I sat. I draped my towel over the partition.

It promptly fell in to my neighbors bath cubby. Unsure if poking my noggin over the top and asking her to toss it back was impolite, I decided to act like nothing had happened. A life skill I use to avoid embarrassment in many situations. Paper towels could be used for drying in a pinch. When I sprayed her with my shower nozzle, on the other hand, I felt an apology was in order. She wordlessly placed my towel on the partition.

After a thorough soap scouring, I was ready for the onsen.

The other women walked casually to the onsen as I streaked past more hunched over than the hunchback of Notre Dame.

I had read somewhere that it was best to fully immerse one`s self in the water versus wading in an inch or two at a time. The author claimed the bather would feel discomfort at the heat for about a minute before becoming accustomed to the hot temperature. I took this approach. The other bathers politely ignored my “hot hot hot” breaking their meditative moods. It`s true that after about a minute the heat is no longer an issue, for the nerve endings in the skin are completely burnt through and no longer function in a sensory capacity. The process enlightened me to the plight of the lobster headed to the pot, the hissing upon hitting the boiling water, the desperate pinchers grasping for an exit, and finally the fiery red color indicating doneness. I too hissed, grasped for an exit, and finally settled in to the bath a violent shade of red previously only seen on my fingernails.

It was then I realized the Japanese ladies` porcelain skin was still porcelain. While I needed a burn unit, they perched languidly on the side wall and gazed nonchalantly at the view.

Neon colored koi slowly circled the pond in front.

The other women sat in two and half feet of water with the white towels on top of their heads. For some unknown reason, towels on the side are a no no which leaves the head as the only resting spot.

I would have liked some sake....

I realized too late that my towel was a bath towel whereas these ladies had hand sized towels. They all pretended not to notice as I wrapped my towel turban style however, curiosity at the foreigner unaware of towel size proved irresistible and on que, all snuck a peek at once.

Nervous laughter from me followed by an involuntary response by the body of turning an even deeper shade of red -which I thought impossible.

I turned to the side and saw an American woman I know. Under normal circumstances, a friendly hello followed by the pleasantries would have been expected. But naked?

“Well HEY- how are you? I notice your boobs are a victim of gravity too! Sweet!” or

“Hey, there`s a mole on your hind side you may not know about. You might want to have that checked.”

I sat for a minute hoping she hadn`t seen me through the steam. Apparently she was also tongue-tied and slowly moved toward the opposite end. Will the image of her in my memory always be of her naked? Will she always carry a naked image of me? Not a pleasant thought.

I made my way to the edge to watch the koi. Then I looked at the view. Then I got bored. It had been 5 minutes.

Maybe I`m not the bathing type. I swam through the 2 feet of water to the exit for the second most painful part of the experience. Walking from the onsen in snow weather to the door. Although watching the steam rising off one`s body is very entertaining to watch.

All total, I spent about 40 minutes getting ready for a 5 minute dip. I`m certainly the minority, however, as onsens are ubiquitous in Japan and everyone, including the foreigners, loves to visit.

And of course the snow monkeys.

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Coming of Age in Japan- Seijin no Hi

I don`t recall the details of my coming of age other than it was welcomed in an intoxicated stupor. Here I remained for several years following just to ensure I was acting like an adult, or the ones in my family anyway. Reaching the legal drinking age of 21 was the sole arbiter of adulthood where I was raised. The Japanese, on the other hand, celebrate coming of age- at 20- with more pomp and circumstance, and primp, to be enjoyed in various venues.

The second Monday of every January is Coming of Age Day, Adult Day, or Seijin no Hi. Fellows, this is an ideal time to visit Japan if your interest leans toward the ladies as all female 20 year old`s don a stunning kimono and totter around town for the Coming of Age ceremonies held in shrines and city halls.

I chose my go-to shrine, Meiji, to see the procession.

Unlike the American version of the kimono made out of polyester with a tie belt and bought at Kmart, these are heavy silk with several layers of varying designs. Cinched by the obi belt wound around the waist several dozen times in order to keep everything tucked tight. The equivalent of bound feet only in a full body version.

These elegant girls made me feel like an elephant trumpeting around the shrine grounds hair, clothing and camera all akimbo.

Does she know a rabid animal is wrapped around her neck attacking its own tail?

Notice the stark white tabi socks with the kimono. I thought Nike tres original when the split toe shoes debuted several years ago. Not so avant-garde as it appeared but I now know the Asian inspired fabric was an homage to the shoes` origins.

I spotted one guy out of the entire crowd. The male kimonos all look similar- if not the same- as the one below. Or that`s what I`m claiming, as he was the only one I saw. I did see a Facebook picture of a friend`s similarly kimono`d son. I`ve seen it twice, therefore, it must be so.

The girls shuffled toward the shrine on the gravel paved entrance assisted by moms and boyfriends. Facing a fire while wearing a kimono would be truly terrifying. Between the socks, the zori sandals and several layers of tightly bound kimono, no one gets anywhere quickly. No wonder the ladies happily shed it once Western clothing was introduced.

These girls are giddy because they are now officially able to wear the adult version of the kimono with shorter sleeves.

Meiji Shrine changed it`s ema (wooden plaques where prayers are written to be hung in the shrine) to reflect the year of the dragon. The old version is at the top of this page. Just thought you might be interested as it strays from my point.

Many chose to celebrate at Disney Tokyo for some odd reason. Mickey and Pluto were definitely not on my invitee list when I turned 21. Miss Piggy? She would have been a good addition.

The Tokyo Times, Kyodo

This is a brilliant marketing ploy by Disney at it gives the crowds something to enjoy while waiting 3 hours per ride.

Next up- a couple more New Year`s traditions.

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Ringing in the Year of the Dragon- Japanese Style

The Year of the Dragon roared in to Japan hailed by a 7.0 earthquake. Somebody`s a drama queen. In spite of that auspicious entry, I think I speak for all Japan residents when I say we are happy to see the fluffy bobbed tail of  2011, the Year of Rabbit, hopping off in to the sunset.

SO- the New Year in Japan.

The Japanese are great adopters of best practices from other cultures including holidays, however, New Year`s feels authentic. Japan rings in the Year of the Dragon ahead of the other Asian countries not following the Gregorian calendar. Unlike our native country, the New Year celebration extends well beyond a midnight toast followed by a television marathon on January 1st.

On January 1, Tokyo rolls up the blinds, turns out the lights, and closes completely until January 3rd as the citizens living in the biggest city in the world celebrate customs started centuries ago. Nothing is open. Last year I contemplated stealing food from the neighbors to last until the grocery stores re-opened. I learned my lesson and stocked 5 days worth of food on Dec. 31st. Flashlights included. New Year`s is absolute in its power to close the city.

Kick started at midnight on Dec 31, thousands of Japanese visit a local shrine to pray for the upcoming year. Last year I realized exaactly how many people live in Japan as we all visited Meiji Shrine. Although cold, I was all toasty mashed in with 8,000 of my human blankets. This year I opted to let TokyoBlingBlog tell the story -See pictures here.

Midnight is marked by the ringing of the temple bell 108 times-one toll for 108 worldly desires. The Buddhists made a more exhaustive list than the mere 10 we Christians recognize.

The Japan TImes, 1/1/12 Kyodo Image

Tori Gate to Meiji Shrine ( The Nose poses for scale)

Decorations particular to the New Year pop up like Dandelions. Kadomatsu park in pairs outside businesses. All have three bamboo rods representing Heaven, Humanity and Earth- each of different lengths and all must touch the ground. Pine, the symbol of long life, along with umi tree sprigs are often included. These become temporary homes to the kami, or spirits, of the harvest who bless the home or business owner with a good harvest.

Many New Year`s decorations also contain Gohei- streamers of color that mark a sacred place or purify negative energy. I wonder how they work on teenagers.

The lobster represents longevity and endurance

A renegade with 4 Bamboo trunks

The kadomatsu are burned at the conclusion of the New Year`s celebration to release the kami. Nothing like smoke to clear out the house.

Last year the Clampitts sampled the traditional New Year`s lunch- osechi ryori. The meal is contained in several boxes each stacked on the other. In the old days, New Year`s was the only time women got a full break from work. Samplings were made over several days by female members of the family and stored. Hence, the contents are dried, pickled or stay fresh for several days without refrigeration.

A particular individual who will go unnamed but is the first of my two Offspring called the meal “O retchy ryori, ” and begged for turkey and dressing this year.

One of the traditional snacks ultimately leading to a Clampitt feeding frenzy is the rice crackers.

The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan in Rice Crackers

A peanut head with rice cracker body. Tastes like crunch soy sauce.

This was billed as a special New Year`s mochi dessert- kyani- with bitter orange topping.

Mochi is made from rice and has a chewy consistency which I prefer to eat surrounding ice cream.  When I finally broke in to the package, it looked, and tasted, like wax. I have several more to crack before I declare an official position on the taste. Hopefully one of my Japanese friends will tell me if these are, in fact, edible.

All the children in Japan – and our nieces and nephews- look forward to these.

Otoshidama

Otoshidama- money envelopes. In Japan, money exchanged for gifts or between people is usually done in an envelope and rarely are bills passed between individuals as it is considered rude. I`ll still take money with or without the envelope. Our nieces and nephews think these are more like cards to be given in a deck. Of course with money in all.

And finally, New Year`s is about “firsts.”

Hatsunode- the first sunrise. Mount Fuji looks like an ant hill during New Year`s as thousands of people climb to the summit to witness the first sunrise of the New Year.

Hatsumode- the first trip to the temple.

Even Hatsu-uri- the first shopping trip of the year. Hatsu-uri is particularly appealing therefore I plan on making it a part of the my New Year ritual.

I hope all of you have a wonderful and Happy New Year.

Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai.

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Yes- I`m a Temple Snob

After living in Japan for over a year, and visiting thousands, if not millions, of temples and shrines, I`ve become a “Temple Snob.” Enticing the Ouisar-san in to a temple visit now requires a hook. Upon further reflection, the temples which reel me in usually fall in to one of several culturally relevant categories: it houses a giant Buddha, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to rabid deer, claims a cave temple on the grounds, or contains in it`s description “oldest xxxxx in the world.” Otherwise I`m not going. Especially if its claim to fame is a Zen Buddhist garden.

One of my favorites, is Byodoin, or Phoenix Hall, in Kyoto. Phoenix Hall boasts three awe-inspiring hooks- it`s a World Heritage Site, appears on the 10 yen coin, and contains a giant Buddha.

Wikipedia Image

Temple Nirvana.

Great spot for entertaining- or maybe the pond floods.

Adding “ancient” to its claims to fame, Phoenix Hall was built in 998 AD in the shape of a – wait for it- phoenix. Phoenix`s of old apparently contained numerous right angles and were shaped in an x versus the modern rendition resembling a rooster. Using one`s imagination and aided with hallucinogenic drugs, one can decipher the phoenix- the main building comprising the body, the two side buildings the wings, and the rear annex the tail.

Left wing, main body and tail

Just in case one missed the shape, numerous examples of the majestic and mythical phoenix squawk from the roof top.

The architect demonstrated his tremendous vision for the future by making the living room large enough for 50 people and a giant Buddha. Lucky for  Fujiwara no Yorimichi who converted the villa to a temple 200 years after it was built. The middle section contains the giant Buddha Amida who gazes benevolently toward the pond. I am curious as to why the architect installed doors allowing Buddha to be seen from outside. Although disconcerting to find a giant Buddha observing one`s moves, his oversight probably keeps the tourists from pilfering plant samples from the garden. Or perhaps it’s just the precursor to the modern-day garage door.

Wikipedia Image

Other celestial bodies line the walls surrounding Amida Buddha. Several carved Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings) play musical instruments or pose reclining on clouds prompting viewers to leave in hot pursuit of an ascension powered by cloud.

Onmark Productions

Observing the local currency is one way of identifying a nation`s hot spots. The Phoenix Hall was first brought to my attention by its presence on the 10 yen coin.

Just a side note- I`d also like to see this from the back side of the American dollar. Must be known as the “Great Seat” if anyone knows of it.

I submit that relics of enlightened beings- fingers, toes, hair, or bodies mysteriously preserved  in glass coffins- such as those we Catholics use as hooks within cathedrals, would be welcomed additions to the temples and shrines.

Those hooks I always pay to see.

Posted in Moving to Japan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

The Office- Every Sunday was Halloween. And then…..

Every family has unique rituals. Our`s is no different- except our rituals might be unusual  compared to others. A long-established ritual for the Clampitts is the weekend trip to Spouse`s office. Spouse catches up on work while the Offspring catch up on homework, or Facebook.

The well established custom begins with the Offspring lining up at the starting gate- the door between the garage and the entry. Once the door opens, they`re off. Racing down the vacant hallways fueled by desire for the candy placed at the secretaries` cubicles. Snorting and pounding their way through 4 floors of free candy, careening around corners and bouncing off each other toward the prize, they eventually return sweaty, exhausted and sugared up.

Lest you think the Offspring are heathens living by their own rules, they were each  allowed only one candy per cubicle.

Every Sunday was Halloween at the office.

And then we moved to Japan.

In our parental quest to maintain some routine in our new home, the start of the school year was ushered in with the inaugural trip to Spouse`s office.

Excited to sample the Japanese confections, the Offspring hit the hallways stampeding. Imagine their dismay-disbelief- to find one lone basket filled with a meager sampling. A pittance versus the usual cornucopia.

Nary a chocolate in sight.

I, undeterred, dove in with gusto. I emerged with a fist full of crackers. Not being picky, I didn`t pay close attention, or any, to the wrapper. I opened it, took a bite, and everyone started howling.

“Mom- you STINK!”  These Offspring have not yet mastered saying nothing if there`s nothing nice to say. In case I didn`t realize the full impact on their delicate senses, a very thorough dramatic scene ensued whereby their feelings were expressed through choking, gagging, and rolling around on the ground.

The smell did illicit fond memories of a bait box left in the Galveston sun all afternoon and my Dad yelling at the wrong culprit. (Always funny) I flipped over the offending cracker to inspect more closely.

Note to self- if there`s a shrimp on the label, not only is it shrimp flavored, it probably contains shrimp. One is even displayed demonstrating it`s authentic flavoring.

Spouse picked nuts. He poured the bag in his hand.

There were a few nuts in the packet.

Spouse looked around the table and dumped the contents in his mouth. We all watched confounded as Spouse ate fish bait. He poured another fist full and started on his email.

It`s now obvious to me why the Japanese are so much leaner than their Western counterparts. Instead of a heaping helping of Doritos with cheese queso, the snack choices are of the dried variety instead of the fried variety.

Posted in Food, Moving to Japan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Wedding Stalkers Anonymous Welcomes Two New Members

Hi, my name is Ouisar-san and I`m a wedding stalker.

I have a fetish for Japanese Shinto weddings. The urge to ambush elated couples during their nuptial celebration stems from experiences as a child. I don`t recall which ones exactly. To clarify, I`m not interested in the Western Style wedding characterized by the white ball gown and tux in which many Japanese also participate on the path toward marriage. No, the blissful couple need only to worry about my presence at their second ceremony- the Shinto rites.

For nosy individuals such as myself, the opportunity to poke my protuberance into the private lives of strangers is too tempting to leave alone.

After a year in Japan, I optimize my chances of stalking success by timing the visits to Meiji Shrine at 11:00 on weekends. I hide in front of the ceremony building in order to capture action shots of the procession.

A Summer Wedding- The Bride is wearing a colored Kimono.

The female miko- shaman or priestess-lead the way while an elated new mother in law assists the bride.


Once the priests join the procession, I`m teetering from the tree limbs to watch unencumbered by the other picture snapping tourists.

Japan is the only place outside of the US Pacific Northwest where it is acceptable to wear socks with sandals. Although I`m not apt to wear the traditional zori, (Traditional sandals always worn with socks) the Priests` clogs are tempting for achieving that long-legged look.
Not all days are created equal if one wants to follow the Japanese tradition. The days marked “Taian” on the calendar are lucky and auspicious for weddings while the “Shakku” days are bad luck- all day. Other days are marked as bad luck in the morning but not the afternoon, good luck part of the day, etc. During a Taian day at Meiji Shrine, the constant number of wedding processions appear to be marching off an assembly line.

After chasing the procession into the shrine, I get a little something to eat in preparation for the next phase.

The family photos.

There`s so much fodder on which to elaborate it`s hard to focus my thoughts- the black formal kimonos, pictures of deceased parents, the solemn faces.
In a mixed marriage, one would assume the non-Asian portion would be lamenting the loss of a relative to the distant country of Japan while the Japanese contingent would be celebrating an institution in serious decline and causing the population to drop. However, as is the habit, the Western half grins as if on a Broadway audition while the Japanese side peers out stoically.

Although I`ve not yet secured an actual invitation to a Shinto wedding, I have managed to participate in unexpected ways. On a recent trip to a small shrine known for its lanterns, the Social Chairman (she knows everyone from Tennessee to Tokyo) and I stumbled across a mark, I mean couple, sitting for a wedding portrait.

The photographer seemed nonplussed by our attentions so we pushed it by moving in closer.

Eventually the photographer had enough. In order to relieve himself of our uninvited attention, he motioned us to join in. The groom was thrilled to extend the photo session.

We didn`t stay long as he was poised to start beating us with the fan clenched in his hand.

Once shooed away, we continued our investigation of the wedding trappings to discover the umbrella. Even the small aspects of the ceremony are interesting much to the dismay of the Japanese watching us take pictures of the umbrella`s underside.

Perhaps Spouse and I should renew our vows at the 20 year mark with a Shinto celebration. I fear his expression will mimic that of the groom with whom we are pictured…

Posted in Moving to Japan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

The Nose Visits Japan- A Guest`s Reaction

Many of you are familiar with my younger sister, the Nose, so nicknamed for her savant type recall of maps, ability to identify geographical landmarks, and unsurpassed skill at navigating around a place with which she has no familiarity. In an unusual turn of sisterly responsibilities, she was able to visit Japan without being encumbered by another sister or two desperately clutching the back of her shirt.

Here are her impressions:

1. What were your favorite aspects of Japan?

Hmm. Well, Ouiser-san was there with a ready-made itinerary, slightly better than marginal command of the Japanese language, spoken apparently with an unintelligible accent (thank God for the offspring), and a purse full of yen when I ran out of cash and couldn`t find an ATM willing to take my card.

I loved Kyoto, Buddhist temples and the crazy monks that run them, tempura, ramen, tiny smiling ancient Japanese men, the cab drivers all wearing suits and white gloves, gaggles of schoolchildren waving and saying “hall- oh!!!! Hall-oh!!” because we were the only Westerners they`d seen, green tea, pottery, the toilets (yes, but not the squat kinds- the ones with the fancy bidet, lights, auto lid lift etc)…

The capabilities of the Japanese Toto toilet are endless...

Japanese design aesthetic.

The Very, Very, Sweet Japanese People.

I’m having a tough time narrowing it down.

2. What was hardest in Japan?

Eating eyeballs and boiled tofu at every meal (almost). Complete inability to order my own latte at Starbucks, the heat and humidity (and the resultant feeling of being the fat, sweaty American tourist). Inability to exchange money or use my ATM card.

3.When did you feel most out-of-place?

Well, look at me. I have red hair, blue eyes, and a large bust. No wonder all the cooks left the kitchen to get a better look at me. Of course, the places Ouiser-san took me may have never seen a non-Asian person before. Or. They may have seen my pallor combined with the sweat stains on my clothes and thought they should call an ambulance.


I also felt out-of-place (frustrated really) feeling helpless, unable to figure out the Tokyo subway system (I am the Nose after all), unable to remember the simplest and most used phrases (please and thank you anyone?) I just hope a sincere smile and hopeless look express the feelings I was unable to express with a diatribe of kanji.

4. When did you feel most at home?

I felt most at home when we were laughing together (oh shit, now I’m crying), drinking coffee, hanging out with my sweet smart niece and nephew, and digging through your closet.

I also felt strangely at home at the Buddhist temples in Kyoto.

Does one bang one`s own head, the head of the rabbit, or the heads of passersby?

5. What were your favorite foods?

The inner noodle ramen shop (Ouisar-san- that is Koh Men ramen in Omotesando across from TGIF`s), sashimi, Sapporo, tempura, cold soba noodles, magic cabbage (how do they make it taste so good??), (Ouisar-san-That would be the monja in the last post) Japanese pickles especially the pink ones alone or with rice, manga (Ouisar-san Umm- manga are cartoon characters, but monja is what we ate )cooked by Andretti-San.

Tantanmen Ramen- Koh Men

6.What is Ouisar-san`s most annoying habit?

Hmmm this will require a few subdivisions as she has many.
A. Her history and cultural lessons delivered while The Nose is trying to pray at a 1500 year old Buddhist Temple. And her assumption that I was not praying at the next 100 or so temples because, well, I already prayed that day, so new lessons came with every temple. Thankfully I learned to let her get all her talking done outside before going in.

I`m really praying...

B. Dragging The Nose on not one but two 4 mile runs through Yoyogi park AND actually expecting conversation at a sub- 10 minute mile pace and 85% humidity.
C. Realizing while raiding Ouiser`s closet that during the past year she has lost two inches off her waist and they were magically deposited on mine— greatly limiting my outfit choices ( Tunics and leggings anyone?? )

7) What advice would you give someone visiting Japan?
A. Stop at the currency exchange booth at the airport and get as much money exchanged as you can afford.
B. When taking random cabs have the address of your destination written in Japanese. Don’t assume that the name of the site said in Japanese (or English) will suffice.
C. At least taste every food placed in front of you. You may think it looks unappetizing or has ingredients that you don’t like but 9 times out of 10 you will be pleasantly surprised. Next to being polite and speaking the language, the best way you can truly show interest and appreciation of another culture is to show an interest in their food. If you don’t like it, smile and keep your mouth shut because someone around you will understand enough English to know you just insulted the cook at their favorite neighborhood noodle shop and that reflects badly not just on you but your host, and your country.
D. If you can’t use chopsticks you better learn before you leave or bring a fork.
E. Carry toilet paper and a handkerchief (see dabbers) with you at all times.

Finally I would like to thank Ouiser-san for taking me on what was truly a trip of a lifetime and thank my sweet hardworking husband for not only paying for it but taking care of three homesick for Mama kids while I was away for 10 days.

Temple of the Golden Pavillion, Kinkaku-Ji, Kyoto, Japan, We still like to dress alike.

 

Much love. The Nose

Posted in Moving to Japan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments