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April 6, 2006 – Farewell to my parents

Today was my parents’ last day in Japan. Even though their hotel was within throwing distance of Numazu station, The Penpal’s father had insisted on driving us to Mishima station to save us bringing large suitcases on the short train ride from Numazu to Mishima.

My parents said their goodbyes to The Penpal’s parents, and then to their future daughter in law. My mother and The Penpal’s mother had become good friends in the short time together, despite their language barrier. The Penpal’s father actually looked a bit emotional when we walked into the station. I’m very happy that the families get along so well! There’s a long way to go before The Penpal and I get married, and it’s nice to have the support of two families who seem to like each other.

We took the shinkansen from Mishima to Tokyo, ate an early dinner at the station, and then took the Narita Express to the airport. On the train ride, my parents gave me a handful of unspent yen as a gift. It also saved them changing it back into dollars when they got home. I got them checked in at the airport, and watched them go down the escalator into the international departure area. It had been a fun visit and I was sad to see them go. I was also unsure when I was going to see them again as I was considering whether I wanted to leave Japan at the end of the year or stay longer.

On the way home I stopped in Akihabara and used the money from my parents to buy myself and Ipod Nano to replace my broken down and obsolete portable CD player. Thanks mom and dad!

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April 5, 2006 – Pottery Lessons and free upgrades

My parents, The Penpal, and her parents spent the night at the beautiful Hanabusa ryokan in Izu Nagaoka. Izu is filled with ryokans, but one of the reasons we chose Hanabusa over the others was that they offer pottery classes. After a delicious breakfast we went to the pottery classroom to learn from the resident pottery master.

There is a long history of pottery in Japan. I had been to a pottery class with The Penpal a few years ago with a sad looking teacup to show for it. I was looking forward to getting a second chance to test my skills as a potter.

Pottery class!

Pottery class!

The pottery area was in a large room with long tables surrounded by shelves with cups, plates, and vases in various states of completion. Our families were the only ones in the pottery room, so we got the full attention of the master, who was a friendly, energetic older gentleman. The Penpal translated as he guided us through pounding, rolling, spinning, and shaping our cups.

Thanks to the expert instruction and hands on assistance, we all did reasonably well. My mom’s cup actually turned out fantastic, and mine was far less terrible than my attempt two years earlier. We all finished our cups, and the master promised to glaze and fire them, then ship them to The Penpal’s house.

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My parents absolutely loved their time at Hanabusa! It was a far different experience than simply staying at a hotel somewhere. Getting to stay at the ryokan with The Penpal and her family made everything even better; they were just as excited to share their culture with us as we were to learn about it.

After checking out, we drove around Izu in the rain before returning to Numazu. The Penpal’s family dropped us off at the hotel for the last time, where we learned that my parents had been given a free upgrade to a suite as a thank you for spending so many nights at the hotel.

If you need a hotel in Numazu, stay at Hotel Miwa located conveniently close to the north side of Numazu station! It’s convenient, reasonably priced, and the service is fantastic!

We said goodbye to the Penpal’s family, and my parents started getting themselves ready to return to Canada. I can’t believe their visit is almost over!

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April 4, 2006 part 2 – No bathing suits in the onsen!?

My parents, The Penpal, and her parents were all spending a night at a ryokan in Izu. One of the big attractions for a ryokan is a giant, beautifully landscaped onsen (hot spring). After an amazing dinner, my parents were excited for their first onsen experience.

We returned to our rooms and changed into the yukatas that were provided. A yukata works like a standard bathrobe, but it’s less casual. I had worn a yukata before, my mom figured hers out without any issues, but my dad couldn’t quite get the hang of things. His yukata kept coming open and exposing his chest.

The Penpal and her family, now wearing their yukatas, came into our room to have tea and talk about the hot springs. They all sat on one side of the table, sitting with legs carefully folded, yukatas perfectly fastened, looking very dignified. My dad was not quite able to get comfortable on the floor cushions, and his yukata kept opening. He was inadvertently rocking a greasy, 70’s disco guy look. My mom and I couldn’t stop laughing, especially with the Penpal’s family looking so proper on the other side of the table.

Onsens are segregated by sex – the plan was for the women and the men to separate and enjoy a nice soak in incredibly hot water. During our discussion we learned that my mom was developing an allergic reaction to the fish she ate at dinner, The Penpal had fallen to the communists, and The Penpal’s mother didn’t want to go by herself. The women decided to hang out in the room.

The men were still good to go, and as we gathered our towels my dad asked when he should put on his bathing suit. Apparently he thought I was joking when I told him that no clothing was allowed in the onsen. When he realized I was serious, he decided to have another beer before we left.

With my dad before our first onsen experience

With my dad before our first onsen experience

In Japan, going to the onsen with family is a normal part of the culture. As a Canadian, I can’t think of too many things I’d like to do less than getting naked with my father and future father in law. I had another beer too.

The Penpal made sure to carefully explain the procedure for using the onsen in English in case I had translation problems with her father. It seemed simple enough: get naked, wash carefully with the shower, rinse off all soap, get into the water. We got into the change room, and after one more assurance that we really did have to remove ALL clothes, we all sat down on the little buckets in front of the shower station and proceeded to clean up for our bath. After a few minutes of showering, scrubbing, and doing our best to make sure we weren’t going to get yelled at by anyone, we got up and walked to the onsen.

To say the water was “hot” would be doing a disservice to the word hot. I now understand how it feels to be soup.

The Penpal’s father, used to sitting in incredibly hot water, easily adjusted to the temperature. My dad and I quickly turned lobster red, and there was a point I thought one (or both) of us would have a heart attack. After getting used to being slowly cooked, we actually enjoyed the experience. The onsen was beautiful and relaxing.

I probably lasted less than 10 minutes, apologizing to my dad for leaving him without a translator. He stayed in for a few more minutes before getting out. The Penpal’s father stayed a few minutes beyond that, but I’m sure he could have been in there for at least another half hour, seemingly impervious to the heat.

Overall it was an interesting experience, and I had a fantastic sleep afterwards. If you can stand the heat, a nice soak in the onsen would be a great way to end a day.

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April 4, 2006 part 1 – Family Ryokan experience

Today was the start of two days of family togetherness in Izu. The Penpal and her family were taking my parents and I to a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Izu Peninsula.

I met my family at the hotel, and we were picked up in our two car convoy by The Penpal’s parents. Once again the men were in my future father in-law’s car with me translating, and the women were in The Penpal’s car with her translating. Their car was smaller but had a much better translator.

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We hit a few sightseeing spots in Izu to show off the beauty of the mountainous peninsula before heading to our destination – Yado Ryokan Hanabusa in Izu Nagaoka. The “yado” is for pottery – one of the features of our inn was traditional pottery lessons; we’re doing that tomorrow.

Pottery Ryokan Hanabusa

Pottery Ryokan Hanabusa

The landscaping around Hanabusa was beautiful, with cherry blossoms, rocks, and those beautifully crooked old trees that seem to be everywhere in Japan.

Each family got their own room complete with sliding wooden doors, tatami floors, low tables and cushions, and a fantastic view of mountains and trees out the window. My parents enjoyed the traditional decor, but were also happy that the room came with a modern, non-threatening bathroom.

After unloading our luggage, we went to the dining room for one of the most amazing dining experiences of my life. The food was kaiseki ryori, which involved a lot of fancy, small dishes that looked more like art than food. We weren’t really sure what we were eating most of the time, but everything was delicious. My mom specifically asked about a soup containing tender, flavourful white fish. The Penpal informed her that she was enjoying fugu, the poisonous blowfish that was made famous by Homer Simpson.

fugu_-_blowfish

The only food that wasn’t to everyone’s liking was uni, raw sea urchin. Uni is one of those foods that people either love or hate, with no middle ground. My dad bravely took half of a bite into the meat that had the same colour and texture as something you might cough up when you have a bad cold, said “no way”, and offered the rest to me. I ate it, and then got to eat almost everyone else’s uni as well, which was fine by me.

Other than the uni, everybody loved all the food they ate. We moved from the dining room to the lobby to chat for a bit. There was a piano in the lobby, so we all convinced The Penpal to play a song for us. She played Moonlight Sonata beautifully which attracted a small crowd of other guests. After a few songs she tried to leave the piano, but the guests and hotel staff wouldn’t let her until she had played some more. Yes, my future wife is awesome!

We could have ended the day at this point and considered it a success, but we still hadn’t tried Hanabusa’s onsen yet. My dad didn’t yet understand what I was getting him into…

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April 3, 2006 part 2 – Fuji Viewing

Screen capture showing Mt. Fuji and Gotenba Premium Outlet (Google Maps)

Screen capture showing Mt. Fuji and Gotenba Premium Outlet (Google Maps)

After doing some shopping and wandering in Numazu in the morning, my parents and I were trying to decide what to do in the afternoon. On my parents first trip to Japan, my mom frequently complained that she had never gotten a chance to see Mt. Fuji. This trip she had much better luck, with almost daily views of the famous mountain from Numazu and Mishima. Since she was still excited about Japan’s most famous landmark, I decided to take my parents to the Gotemba Premium Outlet.

We took Gotemba line from Numazu station, which is one of the most scenic train rides I have been on in Japan. The train goes through smaller towns, mountains, valleys, Gotemba station, and eventually connects to Kozu where you can switch to the Tokaido main line. If you are trying to get from Shizuoka to Tokyo and have some extra time, take the detour on Gotemba line and have your camera ready!

I had been to the outlet before, but usually as a part of a trip to the nearby all you can eat restaurant. The stores at the outlet are interesting, but for me the highlight is the sunning view of Mt. Fuji.

outlet-fuji-1

My parents on the bridge between the East and West zones of Gotemba Premium Outlet while the sun sets behind Mt. Fuji

We finished our day by stuffing ourselves silly at Gotemba Kogen Beer’s infamous all you can eat, all you can drink buffet. If you leave hungry and sober, you really did something wrong. It was a good way to end another fun day of my parents’ visit, and another day that made me forget that I would eventually have to go back to work in the near future.

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April 3, 2006 part 1 – Ring shopping with my mom

Today was scheduled to be a day off so we could get a break from the non-stop sightseeing and activity. However, a break from sightseeing didn’t mean that we were going to sit around; we decided to explore Numazu a bit.

I picked up my parents at their hotel, and we walked to the Nakamise shopping area, which is where my school is located. Nakamise is an area covering 4 x 2 city blocks, with a ceiling over the main center street. It’s like an indoor mall without actually being fully indoor. The area features a variety of restaurants and stores. My parents enjoyed looking around and picking up a few souvenirs for friends and family back home.

One of the stores in Nakamise is a jewelry shop. I had proposed to The Penpal in February suddenly, without getting a ring in advance. We had agreed that we would take some time and get a ring together, but so far we hadn’t done any shopping. My mom got excited about the idea of helping her son look for engagement rings. My dad was less excited, so he decided to get a coffee and explore the nearby bookstore.

The jewelry store looked just like any jewelry store in Canada – lots of glass display cases with nicely dressed smiling staff ready to show off the expensive, shiny contents. We were approached right away by one of the staff (thanks Japanese customer service), and I managed to explain that I was looking for an engagement ring, despite not really knowing either of those words. The clerk asked a few questions and showed us some of the rings that were in my price range.

Browsing the rings was an enlightening experience; I learned that I knew almost nothing about rings or jewelry and didn’t have the vocabulary needed to ask good questions. I did get an idea of the huge variety of rings available, but knew that any serious shopping would have to involve The Penpal.

My mom and I thanked the clerk for her help, and she gave us a full 90 degree bow when we left. Customers are already treated respectfully in Japanese stores, but I had never been on the receiving end of a 90 degree bow before. I’m guessing its more common in high end retail.

My mom couldn’t stop talking about how happy she was that we got to look at rings together. I’ve had a lot of fun adventures involving my dad on this trip, but this was something special that my mom and I could share.

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April 2, 2006 – Kabuki in Ginza

Kabukiza

Today my parents, The Penpal (my fiancee) and I went to Tokyo for some sightseeing. This was the first time that my parents got a chance to spend some time with their future daughter in law without her parents around.

The plan for the day was to attend a Kabuki play at the famous Kabukiza theater in Ginza. We drove together to Mishima station, and then took the shinkansen to Tokyo, followed by a quick subway ride to Ginza station. Ginza is one of the richest areas of Tokyo, featuring Japan’s oldest department store, Mitukoshi, along with all kinds of other high end retail that we couldn’t afford.

Kabukiza is a Kabuki theatre which was originally built in 1889. The building has been destroyed, rebuilt, and upgraded several times since then. The design stands out among the tall steel and concrete buildings of the area. Tickets to see full plays are expensive, but there is a 1000 yen ticket that allows people to view one act of a play from the upper upper level. We got this along with headphones that played an English translation of the dialogue.

Kabuki dates back to the 1600s. At the same time William Shakespeare was writing famous plays in England, Japan was developing their own unique style of performance. Like original Shakespeare, Kabuki is performed entirely by men. It is famous for its colourful, energetic performances, which provides a stark contrast to the more traditional (and in my opinion extremely boring) Noh.

Coincidentally, the play that we got to watch was the story of the siege of Osaka Castle. We had just been to Osaka castle a few days earlier, so we knew a bit about the story. This allowed us to focus on the stage. The first scene we watched included fighting, action, and an insane fall down a giant flight of stairs on stage. The second act had a lot more talking as the characters were hiding in the castle wondering what would happen after the battle. I personally preferred the first scene, but it was nice to get some variety during my first Kabuki experience.

The most surprising part of my Kabuki experience was that the crowd would shout at the performers. Apparently this is a tradition where you yell out the name of the acting family of certain key actors. Usually Japanese crowds are known for being quiet and reserved, so it was quite interesting to hear the shouting.

After Kabuki we wandered around Ginza for a bit, then returned to Tokyo station. Before we returned to Mishima, we browsed the large selection of restaurants available at the station. We ended up at a kaiten sushi restaurant.

The first time my parents came to Japan, I took my dad for kaiten sushi while my mom and sister went for McDonalds. This time my mom was feeling more adventurous. Usually she prefers rolls and avoids raw fish, but thanks to The Penpal’s reassurance and advice, my mom tried some fatty tuna nigiri sushi and loved it! My parents also enjoyed the incredibly hot green tea that was available at our table.

We took the shinkansen back to Mishima while talking about plans for our upcoming stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). The adventure continues!

(Author’s note) Apparently Kabukiza has been rebuilt yet again to comply with modern building codes

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